Shanghai can get pretty frantic with all the skyscrapers and crowds. If you are in need of a quick change of pace, a good choice is the quiet “water town” of Zhujiajiao, about an hour from the city by bus.

The area around Zhujiajiao was settled thousands of years ago, and the town itself has been around for about 1700 years, new in Chinese terms. Formerly a trading center for cloth and rice, it is now a getaway for tourists and locals who come to enjoy the peaceful watery setting.

When we last visited, it was so early in the spring that the bare branches of the canal-side trees were decorated with laundry instead of leaves. I especially liked the blue briefs that brightened up a view of pale sky, green water, white houses and red lanterns hung outside doorways.

The sun was still weak and the locals were well bundled up as they played cards beside the canals or waited for shoppers.

We began with the obligatory boat ride on the placid waters, boarding near the Fangshen Bridge, built in 1571 and restored in 1812.

We glided under a number of the 36 smaller spans as a sturdy woman propelled the the boat with a wooden pole.

The voyage came to an end when we disembarked near the town’s center for a stroll through the Kezhi Garden with its contorted rocks and old buildings now housing new craftsmen demonstrating traditional Chinese arts such as paper cutting, calligraphy and embroidery.

Later, we moved on to the main shopping area filled with tiny shops and a museum with displays about local culture including a kitchen and dining room from an upper-class family and wind-powered rice milling equipment. But lunch time was nearing and pots bubbling away presented some interesting choices.

Instead of dining canal-side, we decided on a restaurant for an opportunity to sit down and get warm. On the way we saw this plump-cheeked child:

Outside the old post office we came to a wonderful mailbox. It says “Letters” in Chinese and English. The box is supported by a writhing dragon with five claws on each leg. The Imperial dragon represents a long-gone phase of Chinese history but despite the current lack of Emperor or Empress to oversee the mail system, the lock on the box looks new. I thought about posting a card to friends saying “I’ll be here for a while.”

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“Hello! Where are you from?

Ah, have you seen Sleepless in Seattle?

Please come with us for the folk dancing. It’s just a little way from here. You’ll really enjoy it when we explain everything.”


We were getting annoyed by the young couple who were clinging to us like overcooked noodles. But they kept on with the questions and the importuning: “Please follow us.”

Finally we walked away. I could see them begin talking to another obviously American couple. Were they trying out a scam or were they just two kids who wanted to earn a little money showing us the sights? Had we been about to be Shanghaied or not? Who knows, but after bushing off the fake designer handbag and DuPont pen for $2.00 crowd we wanted to relax and enjoy more pleasant Shanghai surprises like kites flying in the spring breeze.


We had started our walking tour on the River Promenade across the street from the magnificently-restored buildings of the Bund and across the river from the spectacle of Pudong. Millions of pansies were growing both vertically and horizontally on the river wall and adjoining flower beds. Pink camellias were in bloom.  The sun was shining, the temperature pleasant and the smog quotient was low. Among the monumental buildings erected by colonialists who thought their businesses would endure forever was the famous Peace Hotel, our goal for an evening on the town.


The flashy and sureal neon-lit Tourist Tunnel under the Huangpu River to Pudong zipped us off to a world of new architecture, Ferraris, and French and Italian designer shops.

The ear-popping elevator ride to the 88th floor of the Jin Mao Tower, already dwarfed by taller skyscrapers, allowed for a vertigo view of the city of more than thirteen million and a voyeuristic peek through the well in the center of the observation deck into the atrium of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, on floor 53 far. below. Awe-inspiring but charmless.   



So much more pleasant to spend an afternoon strolling in the Yu Yuan Gardens. On a previous visit the crowds were so thick we couldn’t see anything but this time, early spring when the weeping willows trailing their branches into the water were coming into leaf, we had the gardens nearly to ourselves. The tea house and other buildings with upturned roofs looking like smiles, the dragon wall, rockeries and the koi ponds gave us a taste of the Chinese contemplative life, originally available to the one percent but now waiting for us. How different from the very rich in Pudong.


Shanghai’s expatriate population before World War II has been the stuff of countless novels. We were determined to get a tiny taste by enjoying an evening at the Jazz Bar in the Peace Hotel, built in 1930, now owned by the Fairmont. The splendid lobby with stained glass dome was decorated with silver panels showing old Shanghai. Art-Deco sculptures decorated tables. 

Members of the famous jazz band looked as though they had been around since the 1930s (although their average age is “only” 77) and the music wasn’t the best, but oh how easy it was to imagine half-listening to Cole Porter songs while leaning against the bar. I would be wearing a backless and slinky satin evening gown, sipping a martini and eavesdropping on sinister characters plotting heists, insurrections, opium sales, gun running, and perhaps how to Shanghai a competitor.



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 Instead of the sound of millions of tourist feet pounding the section of the Great Wall closest to Beijing, there were only 160 – that is, those belonging to 79 people and me to the section known as Hangyaguan, two and a half hours from the port of Tianjin.


We stopped for an early lunch in Jixian, a scruffy city and a marked contrast to glitzy Shanghai. Piles of rubble were everywhere, as if the city had been bombed. In reality, it was the mark of land cleared by the Chinese government for high-rise apartments as it prepares to relocate 250 million rural peasants to urban environments (and very uncertain futures). Many citizens rode bicycles but some used odd pedicabs.


The hotel, our lunch venue, may have been grand at one time with elegant chandeliers hanging in the stairways.  My view, as I trudged up the stairs to the ballroom/restaurant, was of fixtures so coated with black grease only a dim light passed through the prisms.  The table was laid with the typical lazy Susan in the middle. Platter after platter arrived at the tables, with rice, the least expensive food, served last to signify that there were enough vegetables, chicken and pork to satisfy everyone beforehand. And, despite the dreary surroundings, the food was excellent.


Meal finished, it was time to leave the flat plain and enter the hills to the 26 miles remaining of the Hangyaguan, Yellow Cliff Pass section, of the Great Wall. On the way, the bus wound through marble and granite hills set with cypress, juniper and pines looking exactly like a scroll painting on silk. We passed several not-at-all picturesque impoverished hamlets where a few shops sold chunks of contorted rocks, so beloved by the Chinese for their gardens. A few people were cooking with charcoal in their walled courtyards, otherwise the settlements seemed nearly deserted. Perhaps the other inhabitants had already been relocated.


Finally, the Great Wall was before us. And great it is – stretching into the distance in either direction from the entrance. Workers were chipping away at worn timbers and crumbling stone on several of the watch towers in an effort to keep a structure, begun in AD 550 and reinforced at various times between 1368 and 1644, from collapsing.  Our energies were concentrated on actually climbing the steep stone steps and paths, incredibly now the site of an annual marathon that attracted some 2000 runners last year. It’s hard to imagine a place where millions died building and rebuilding a structure now being used for tourism and sport.


As I walked on the crenelated ramparts and climbed to the towers I tried to imagine the lives of the soldiers and watchmen and the desperate peasants who died in uncounted numbers building and maintaining the wall. How many in this section alone, and how many on the entire length of the wall, over 4000 miles stretching from the sea to Tibet. In the end the wall was ineffective, breached by the Mongols in the 13thcentury and the Manchu in the 17th.  Only a few sections have been fully restored, the remainder left for time to take its course.


Not being a marathoner, I climbed until I was huffing and puffing before stopping to watch the workers replacing timbers and stones on the towers.

As the late afternoon chill set in it was time to turn back to see the Hundred Generals Stele Forest and Longevity Garden, empty except for a lone Chinese man, and then to eye the selection of trinkets and food set out by locals who numbered about as many as our group.


Besides the usual junk, there were copies of Mao’s Little Red Book and a few posters, local “wine” and dried fruits, especially what looked like sliced crabapples but was probably jujube. The vendors and their chubby-cheeked children were all smiles as the members of our group bought over-priced souvenirs.


Everyone happy, cold and tired, it was time to head out. As we left, I took a last look across the Juhe River to see the other section of the wall rising nearly vertically up the distant hills and into the spring evening mist.   

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