Mark had warned us in Beijing that the Chinese don’t do western food well. That message was brought home to me this morning when I opted for a more Danish-pastry based breakfast than yesterday’s bacon-and-egg-fest. The pastries were really quite bad; tasteless and dry. Coffee was hard to come by and there was Don’t Cry For Me Argentina (Pan Pipes version) playing on repeat. Given the hour, I wondered if this was some version of hell designed for travellers.
Our group seems excellent at timekeeping; we were all packed, fed and waiting by the appointed 08:00 departure hour and we duly boarded our 16-seater mini-coach for the trip to Xitang Water Village. The trip was long and quite bumpy in places, but it was nice to get out into the countryside a bit. At the more leisurely pace of the coach compared to the train, we could see the vegetation was more lush and more foreign here. We saw our first bona fide paddy fields, they were even being worked by a couple of guys in blue tunics and coolie hats. But the landscape was also industrial; we passed several power stations and manufacturing installations.
Anyway, two quite bumpy hours later, we pulled into what seemed like a very large car park for a simple rural settlement. Once we’d passed the entry gate, Peter explained that the area we were in was new, but the village itself had been there since the Ming/Qing period and it did indeed look quite lovely. We were buzzed on arrival by three dragonflies which felt exotic and as we turned a corner and crossed the bridge into the village proper, there was a lovely view of a sole boatman punting his way along the canal between weeping willows. Very picturesque.
Xitang is a truly lovely setting but sadly, while the buildings themselves may be antique, they’ve been thoroughly re-purposed as a twenty-first century tourist trap! On the north side of the canal, every one was a shop selling souvenirs or a food outlet selling snacks and drinks. On the south side, the houses on the riverbank had all been converted to small guesthouses and the guests were lounging on the balconies enjoying the shade in the rapidly-building heat of the day. Most of the boats on the canal were carrying visitors in bright-orange life-preservers on a half-hour circuit.
There is enough character left in the place that it’s an enjoyable few hours to explore, photograph and get some refreshments. There are also a number of random museums to visit, although the purpose of some was lost on me. However the four hours we were due to spend there seemed excessive and by the time we finally boarded our bus back to Shanghai, I was quite exhausted and dehydrated. It didn’t help that we got to the railway station three hours early for our train.
We were departing from Shanghai’s central railway station not Hongqiao, the one on the outskirts where we’d arrived. I’m not an expert on Maoist architecture, but I felt that if he ever built a railway station, this would be it. It was a big grey space. Off the central causeway were large waiting halls, decorated in unrelenting grey marble, but only half full of seats. They each served a number of upcoming trains, so when we arrived the seats were already full of people waiting for earlier trains than ours. We piled our luggage on the open floor towards the back and took turns watching over it while others went in search of refreshment.
When we finally boarded the sleeper train, I was pleasantly surprised. The tour notes had gone to some length to explain the basicness of the Hard Sleeper class we were taking, but it could have been far worse. The compartments were open to the passageway and contained six bunks (as opposed to the four in the Soft Sleeper version, with a lockable door) but that made the carriage extremely social. The passageway had flip-down seats and little half-tables and people made good use of them for eating their instant noodles or chatting to fellow travellers.
Some of our group got up a game of cards, but I was too exhausted by the heat and the walking we’d done, so chose to get an early night.