Of Socks & Others

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Today something slightly different. Instead of picturesque views and old relics let’s have a look at modern China.

One of my friends teaches Chinese at a French school in Shanghai. She organised a trip for her students and the schedule included a visit in a sock and textile factory, to which I was also invited and gladly went. Sorry for the quality of the photos – the light was weird and the time was scarce.

Socks in their raw state

Socks in their raw state

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sewing on sock borders

sewing on sock borders

A lot of threads are needed

A lot of threads are needed

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tights are put on those little leg-shaped stands to untangle them

tights are put on those little leg-shaped stands to untangle them

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Weirdly enough, I had a feeling like female socks and tights were sorted by women, and the male ones by men.

synthetic threads from which the textiles are made

synthetic threads from which the textiles are made

stinky

stinky

IMG_5026Granted, not a very thrilling piece of photo-journalism, but still – nice to have a chance to see something off the beaten track!

 

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The Yu Clan Village

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It’s been so long I’m a bit embarrassed to suddenly show up again like that. To cut the long story short: I’m back in Poland now, readjusting to low temperatures and dairy. And now let’s just skip the whole awkward where-I-was-and-why-wasn’t-I-posting-I’ve-got-some-cheek-to-just-turn-up-now bit and move, why don’t we – okay?

So one day while I was staying with my dear friends in Pujiang, they decided we should all go on a trip – so we did. We went to a not very faraway little village which claims to be the ancestral place of the Yu family. Here a bit of explanation is in order: in China there’s a fixed number of last names – about 300, I think – and every Chinese person in the world bears one of them. There being quite a large number of Chinese people around, chances of two people called Li being actually related are tiny, but technically speaking each of those names is supposed to come from a specific family in ancient China. So it’s kind of reverse to the West: we have a fixed register of first names, but last names can evolve, change spelling, whatever. In China last names (which of course go first in Chinese!) are sacrosant and untouchable – with first names, anything that your parents fancy goes (and of course traditionally you’d have at least three different first names during your lifetime – but I digress).

The village was tiny, slightly unkempt and deserted, which made it a very nice getaway.

The courtyard of the clan hall inside the village. The platform is for Chinese opera performances.

The inner courtyard. The columns on the right are female and leaning, the ones on the left are male and upright.

 

Carved details of a window. Decorations depended on who was supposed to live in a given room (for example the room of a new bride would have carvings of fertility symbols like peaches).

A square with a lonely stand selling a lot of trinkets from the old times…

…including posters of a young Chairman Mao made to look like a saint and saviour of the people.

But also other stuff.

This piece of architecture, overlooking a passage, supposedly served the purpose of husband-catching. A disposable lady would stand in there and throw a ball or something through the window. The man who picked it up would be her husband. …I dearly hope it’s just an urban (well, rural) legend. Seems like a terrifyingly inefficient way of choosing one’s life partner…

The inside of a (I think the only one) village shop.

Live scientifically – don’t follow cults (by which they probably mean Fa Lun Gong)

Just a maze of little streets

The great thing about this village was that you could actually go and look everywhere, and there were still real people living there.

What can I say. There was just a multitude of cute dogs!

Another temple behind the village

A furnace for burning paper money etc. The character behind it says “dream”.

For a small fee you could have your name carved on a plate like this so people would pray for you. My friends, being artists, decided the calligraphy was not very impressive and they’d like a go too.

The temple door with an image of a guardian deity. The man inside was quite interesting. The second he saw me he forgot all about his carvings and started saying: “Look at her eyes! Look at her nose! What a nose! Have you ever seen such a nose? She’s a foreigner, this one. A foreigner, I tell you! I could see it the second she came in!” How very observant. But my friends tried to convince him that I’m actually a Chinese, only from the Uighur minority. “If you go to Beijing” – they said – “you’ll find her selling kebabs on the street!” He might have believed it. Then he turned a somersault.

The Great Wall

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I know I’ve been neglecting the blog shamelessly, but lately I’ve been feeling like I’m in the throes of the Southern Demon (ie. laziness). No inspiration whatsoever, I spend all my time attending music gigs and doodling. I’ve watched the whole series of “Firefly” (why is there only one season?!) and am halfway through the weird awesomeness that is “Arrested Development”. My only remotely productive activity is drawing naked people in a bar (don’t ask). Figuring it wouldn’t do to force it, I’ve decided to put chronology aside and write a short post about something random – this is why we’re going to jump now from Hangzhou and into the middle of my trip round the Big C. Ladies and gentlemen – the Great Wall of China.

To be honest, I wasn’t too keen on seeing it. As with most big touristy attractions, I was expecting to be disappointed (I’ve no doubt the Wall is amazing if you can actually get to the solitary places, but it wasn’t an option for me). The only reason I went at all is because I knew people would be asking about it (“What? You were in Beijing and you didn’t go to the Great Wall?!”). I’ve decided to cross it off the list once and for all, so the next time I can do something more interesting.

But you know what? I actually enjoyed it a lot. For one thing, getting there is quite convenient. I was planning to see the Ming Dynasty Tombs on the way back, so I decided to go to the most crowded spot, which is Badaling – all you have to do is to get yourself to the Beijing North Station and get a ticket for the massive sum of money which is 6 yuan (there is no separate window for the Great Wall and they only start selling the tickets half an hour before the departure, therefore you’re allowed to jump the queue – really!). Then you wait for the train, which may or may not arrive on time. Then, the minute the start letting people through, don’t be surprised when everyone starts running at full speed. No, the train will wait for you. It’s just that the tickets don’t have seat numbers, and an hour on a spotlessly clean and modern train is such a drudge that you obviously can’t make it through without a chair. Anyway, whether you’re sitting or standing, another big advantage of taking the train is that you can start admiring bits of the Wall during your trip. When you arrive, go forward for some 10 minutes, pass all the touristy stalls and shops and walk to the ticket booths. The bit open for tourists at Badaling is actually quite short: you can decide if you want to go left or right. The right leg is longer, but also more popular. If you choose the left one, it will be shorter, but if you’re lucky, like I was, you’ll actually have the Wall to yourself for a few minutes.

Thou shalt commit no nuisance!

This tower was past the fragment open for tourist. We did consider climbing down there, but we quickly realised there’s always a guard nearby. The reason we knew it was because every time he came closer, a bunch of locals selling walnuts and snacks had to climb over and hide in the bushes, only to return a few minutes later.

Yup, pretty steep.

But quite amazing, despite the cloudy weather and the people.

Love Passageway, or in other words, the entrance for the disabled. That’s on the Beijing-bound railway station. And let me tell you, love doesn’t come anywhere near it. People almost died in the crunch while trying to push their way onto the train. Not kidding. A mother with a baby in her arms? Get out of my way!

All in all, much more entertaining and impressive than I’d have given it credit for, so I can definitely recommend it. Even that most cliché, people-ridden bit that is Badaling, and that’s saying a lot. And yes, the train too. Now forgive me, it’s Monday, naked people in the bar waiting to be drawn.

Grand Canal Treats

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You will remember (or not, more likely) the post I wrote about finding the very charming place which is the Hangzhou Grand Canal and which apparently no one ever mentions.

I’ve made it my business to change this sad state of things and so here’s a quick follow-up.

I think I mentioned, sometime in the early days of the blog, the uncanny ability of Chinese people to just pass out anywhere, anytime.

Looks like Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Or an epidemics.

A small fair at the end of the canal. Here – dried fruits and nuts.

A traditional Chinese sweet snack: sugared fruit: crab apples, hawthorn…

Or in this case – strawberries. Yum!

No decent fair can do without a merry-go-round.

Or cotton candy! Actually it makes me think of All Saints’ Day and November gloom, since when I was little on that occasion they would always sell it in front of the cemetery gate.

A pond must be a new addition, but yeah, sure, why not, it’s a nice touch.

And that’s it for now – but I’m still not done with the subject! There’s the umbrella museum. The traditional Chinese medicine museum. The knives museum. And lots of other stuff. Another time!

Pujiang Peaks

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In my last post I introduced you, my dear Readers*, to the little village of Lizhang, which lies in the Pujiang County. Today I return with some photos from the area (finally! What have you been doing all this time, hmm?! [Haunted look]  I was… erm, busy, yes, very busy. Doing what, pray?! [Looking around with wild eyes in the hope of escape] Erm… Well… Uhm, staying up late… playing board games… Enjoying my newly found Facebook freedom after months of firewall… erm, walking – yes yes, I do a LOT of walking here! Like, to the bar…**). Enjoy!

As you can see, it’s a pretty lovely spot of the Earth up there.

Lizhang lies somewhere down in that valley.

Shao Nu Feng. You could call it Maiden’s Peak in English. Yes, I suppose Lassie Peak is also a very apt translation if you’re from Scotland, but for a lot of us non-Scottish folks there can only be one association: Lassie Come Home.

This was sold on the top of the Lassie Peak. Apparently it’s a traditional local dessert, and they’re very proud of it. It was nice. It was cool. It was refreshing. It was, essentially, sweetened water with bits of bland jelly…

A tiny, deserted shrine on the top. Despite being a Catholic, I like Buddhist shrines for their smell of burning incense and the streaks of colourful molten candles. The ones like here, where hardly anyone comes to pray anymore, exude a sense of nostalgia.

Safety… excuse me, safety what? Ah, right. Safety caution. Obviously you guys care a lot about it, judging by the state of the plate.

Look down at the road up.

This whole area is where my friend grew up. He hiked in these mountains when he was a boy. So now, when they made them into a park, of course there was no way we were going to pay for the entrance. We sneaked up a side path, wandered cluelessly for about an hour, climbing trees and scrambling down sandy slopes, then discovered we were actually trying to find a way up… this rock. …Well, good luck with that.

Love the picture. So descriptive.

Lovely red rocks everywhere.

That’s how it looks from down below. Quite impressive, eh?

So that’s it from Pujiang for now. I might be back later with some photos from around the area, but basically we’re moving on for now. Back to the city, back to the big world. Over and out, Bumming Around is waiting for me!

 

* I know, I have these bouts of vaguely nineteenth-century, Brontesque/Austenesque turns of phrase. Usually it’s under the influence of the great writers of the age, but since this time it’s not, I can only assume I’m internalising it.

**Oh, yes, and it seems like I’m developing a habit of conversing with myself. Unhealthy? I call it a good discussion.

Out Of One Comfort Zone And Into A New One

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So one day a friend of mine asked if I wanted to go and see his family village, to which of course I said yes. The village lies in the Pujiang County, between Hangzhou and Jinhua, and its name is Lizhang, but it also goes by the nickname of “The Village Of Painters And Calligraphers”, because it’s the hometown of a famous Chinese painter, Zhang Shuqian (more about him another time).

It just so happened that my friend’s godmother is married to a man from the Zhang family, himself a well-known Chinese painter – and we were supposed to stay at their house.

Traditional architecture from the Zhejiang area

Sunset over the village

‘Brilliant’, I said, thinking that finally I’ll have my great encounter with The Real China. You can imagine my surprise when almost the first thing I heard after I walked in was “hello” – said in Polish. Then I was politely offered a cup of a traditional Chinese beverage called coffee, straight from the moca…

Turns out, even though Lizhang is a tiny backwater, its inhabitants are quite cosmopolitan, and none more so than the godmother (or Ganma in Chinese), who normally lives in Shanghai and teaches at a French school and is, frankly, one of the coolest people I’ve ever met, full stop.

She was the one that thwarted my expectations of the Full Chinese Immersion Experience by feeding me real French bread with butter, sour creme and honey for breakfast – I can’t say I complained – and whose openness, hospitality and vivaciousness made the house an ever-open hang-out for everyone who felt like popping in.

And they did. The constant stream of guests would start flowing around breakfast, when someone would drop by with a bag of fresh beans (we city folk would get up about 9, but for the local people it was nearly noon by then). Then someone else would come to see Teacher Zhang’s studio. Then there would be a brief break when the whole village was having lunch or napping. Then in the afternoon it would start again, with people coming to have a look at some slabs for rubbing ink, or pen stands, and then everyone would end up sitting in the room till midnight, ceremonially drinking tea, cracking sunflower seeds (that’s a whole skill in which I’m now proficient) or just watching TV.

Wild strawberries. Actually taste like something between European wild strawberries and raspberries, but very good too!

A local restaurants. In many eateries all over China the tables are covered with plastic sheets: the guests can spit out the bones directly onto the table and it can be cleaned without hassle.

The conversation was – unlike what you usually expect in a village – quite sophisticated, covering travel, culture, and most of all traditional art. As I said, the place is nicknamed “The Village Of Painters And Calligraphers” – the reason for this is that most of the inhabitants are one way or another involved in the arts. I don’t think I’ll ever forget a fat elderly and common-looking peasant working away on his field, whom we passed one evening during a walk. ‘Did you see that guy?’, asked my friend. ‘He’s really great at calligraphy.’ There go my prejudices.

There aren’t many houses like this left in China these days. But I just love the stones!

Local flora of Zhejiang

And local fauna of Zhejiang…

All in all, I visited Pujiang twice and now count myself among the lucky friends of Ganma and Teacher Zhang, whom I also visited in their home in Shanghai. More than the village itself (although also interesting), I was fascinated by Ganma as a person: she’s the kind of woman who puts on Buena Vista Social Club and starts dancing in the middle of the room just because she feels like it, makes funny faces and laughs all the time, takes you to another city to a fabric market and insist on buying you half of the things you like, and most importantly, despite her age and inability to speak other languages, is one of the most open-minded and understanding people I know, and she made me feel like I was with my own family.

All in all – I’m sure you see that by now – just treat this post like a paean to that tiny Chinese lady and the home she and her husband created for themselves. I hope I live to be a bit like her!*

Courtyard wall detail

Traditional entrance

knickknacks and mementos

* Also I’ve a series of extremely late nights behind me (so late they were actually mornings) and didn’t have the strength to think this post through very well, so forgive me the chaos…

The Charms Of Grocery Shopping

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Visiting a Chinese market is definitely an interesting experience, if not entirely economically wise. I mean, the prices are not at all cheaper than in your regular supermarket – and despite the sense of righteous and wholesome integrity precipitated by buying groceries from local producers, it must be said that in China buying in supermarkets might actually be the healthier option (as you will see when you go for a walk through farmlands and notice bottles on bottles of empty pesticides). Still, worth a go!

Dried fruits and other things, most of them very likely sweet and salty at the same time; a flavour combination that takes some getting used to.

Goods to be cooked. Have to say, for things that are supposed to be meatballs, sausages etc., they look far too colourful to be trustworthy. Never trust pink comestibles, except for strawberry ice cream (and that not always either)!

Multiple versions of tofu.

Dried fish stuffs to add to a well-balanced meal…

Dried dates – a very popular snack that can be added to porridge and sweet dishes or eaten directly. Some Westerners don’t like them, because they’re kind of puffed up and empty inside, but I had no problems.

I predict a short and gloomy future for this little feller…

A leg of… cow? Pork? Oh, shameful ignorance of today’s supermarket youth. I go with piggy, though.

Pig’s trotters. They don’t scare a Pole like me. We boil them to jelly.

And the fish market. This was black magic for me. I’ve no idea what these creatures are. Give me a trout and I’m happy.

An eel-like creature.

A fishmonger at work.

Choosing the tastiest morsel for dinner.

Bye, Bye, Hangzhou

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It’s official now. I’ve left Hangzhou, I’ve actually left the mainland by now – that chapter is finished and time to move on.

I don’t like putting everything down in lists, New Year’s resolutions etc, but people tend to ask for it, so let me sketch a short overall balance of this year:

University course – very disappointing. Life experience – priceless. Friends made – multiple. Close friends made – some.

What I Will Not Miss:

The noise. Horrible driving. Spitting. Men’s long fingernails. Slouching and exposed paunches (also men’s). Being stared at and talked about as if I was an animal in a zoo. The lack of good bread and dairy.

What I Will Miss:

Dining Chinese style, with everyone taking the food from the same bowls. Old people dancing on the streets in the evenings. Taiziwan Park in spring. Cycling everywhere. University cafeteria with 5 RMB sushi. Random things, like floating turtles (don’t ask). Playing board games with my friends.

Academically speaking, I don’t think it was the most profitable year of my life, but on the plus side, it gave me a lot of time to ponder things. Thanks to the people I’ve met there and on my travels, I am now inspired – and hopefully courageous enough – to make some big decisions which might end up in a radical change of my lifestyle and career (teenage rebellion late by about 10 years). I’m taking the plunge!

So in the spirit of nostalgia, for the last time, here’s a handful of photos from around Hangzhou – and we’re moving on!

Above and below: Hangzhou Dasha, the tallest building in the city and one of its landmarks.

West Lake, looking boundless (well, almost) and restive on a November morning.

Old trees and traditional-style cafes on Beishan Rd.

Sunset over the lake, with the Leifeng Pagoda in the distance.

And a place on a street corner I’ve never figured out. It looks like a Muslim shrine, with three graves inside and people praying there sometimes, but no one was ever able to explain exactly what it is. Still interesting as a reminder that China is much more diverse and complicated than we usually give it credit for, with a lot of minorities and religions mixing together at every step.

The Centre Of Hi

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Can’t believe it’s taken me a year to write about my beloved Hangzhou institution – the HI (Hangzhou International) Centre. It’s a budding organisation affiliated with Zhejiang University which wants to promote Chinese culture amongst foreigners. Every few weeks they organise little lectures about different aspects of China – be it the characters, traditional music, painting, architecture or beliefs, you name it, they provide it. The lecturers are mostly university professors, so real experts. Sometimes they speak in English, sometimes the talk has to be translated. This can occasionally pose a bit of a problem for non-speakers of Chinese: most of the volunteering students are from the English department and their teacher likes to give them a chance to try their hand at interpreting. They are usually too inexperienced and frightened to do it well – but that’s just a minor detail! All in all, they are doing a really good job and you can see they are making a lot of effort to do it well – plus they’ve created a tiny community of regular listeners, thus making it into a social event as well as a cultural one. Which is why I’ve always felt it to be a pity that so few people actually care to show up… So if any of you finds yourself in Hangzhou with nothing to do on a Saturday afternoon, check out their website, go enjoy yourself and say hello from me!

Oh, one more thing: my favourite part was that they always prepared free snacks in the form of cakes and – hooray – coffee (you don’t know what it means to be craving for affordable and drinkable coffee until you’ve lived in China). So there you go: culture is all nice and good, but nothing beats a decent cookie in terms of crowd attractors…

From a presentation about Chinese characters

Lots and lots of old lithographies: some of them are actually stamps taken off huge stone steles the characters on which are claimed to be written by famous calligraphers.

Characters can be written in many widely differing styles and their evolution was/is (still not finished!) a long and complicated process.

From a presentation about Chinese traditional instruments.

This is guzheng – Chinese zither. I recorded some of the performance on my camera but then – go figure – I shrank the file and now it’s useless!

There are many different ways to play the guzheng – about 8 strokes that vary depending on the hand and the way you hold your fingers 

And this is guqin – Chinese lute, the default instrument of a Chinese cultured man. Very similar to guzheng, but smaller and therefore easier to carry around.

Erhu – an instrument that came to China from the nomadic tribes. Because the way of playing it is so different, you actually can’t play the same melodies on erhu as on guzheng and guqin.

Erhu resembles folk violin. The body is traditionally made of python skin.

 

 

The Glorified Suburb

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I’m almost done with my travels. Today around midday (and I was painfully aware of the fact that it was around midday, because I was trudging from the railway station to my flat with the backpack on my back and the only thing protecting me from the scorching glare of the sun was a flimsy and broken umbrella stolen from my flatmate weeks ago) I finally made my way back to Hangzhou. Oh, joy – home! Even though I’ve been evicted from my own room to the couch, I don’t mind it in the least as the new flatmates are as anal about the cleanliness of the common areas as I was (or in fact more).

The trip was great and unforgettable – so many places, people, so much kindness and beautiful memories. But I’m also really tired, since more or less every fourth night was spent on a train (hard seater again and again. This girl doesn’t believe in comfortable travelling…), and the ones in between would be disturbed by broken scooters, water pumps, playing children, cats or at the very least the stifling heat. I’d better use my two nights well, before I hit the final stage of my Mainland travel (Hangzhou – Xiamen) and then move on to Jinmen.

So you’ll have to wait a bit more for the photos from the trip – give me some time to upload and sort them out – and in the meantime enjoy some snaps from the past, while I take a good nap (I wanted to get a coffee on the way home. Imagine the look on my face when I stumbled into my local coffee shop, sweat literally streaming down my body, eyes barely managing to stay open, only to be told that “we’re sorry, but we can’t brew coffee today”. “Whaa… Whaaat?”. I must have seemed to have trouble grasping this concept, as the bartender continued patiently, as if explaining things to someone feeble-minded: “The coffee. Is not. Working. Today”. I was crushed and he must have seen it, because he seemed strangely sincere while apologising: “We’re very very sorry. What a horrible shame. Really sorry”. The bottom line is – I’m sleepy).

Remember when I went to Thames Town, the English village in Shanghai? It’s located at the last station of the line 10 metro. Almost no one lives there. It’s deep province. It’s a place where – as the colourful Polish phrase has it – dogs bark with their behinds.

Or is it?

So this is a quiet, rural suburb, Shanghai-style. I confess I was a bit awe-struck with all this grandeur. Fortunately there’s nothing so grand that a bit of silliness won’t bring it down a notch or two:

Rockerry Falls Toilet. Sounds as impressive as if it was Rockefeller’s own privy.

No climbing, swimming, stepping, no motor or non-motor vehicles – are we supposed to simply glide over the park? Just as long as we don’t litter, of course!