Thursday, August 2, 2012

New thing #38: Zhujiajiao neighborhood

My co-workers took me to the town of Zhujiajiao, a beautiful, ancient river town and popular tourist spot on the outskirts of Shanghai. It was a great trip and we got to experience a lot of fun things - riding a canal gondola, burning incense in a temple, watching a paper cutting demonstration, releasing tiny fish into the river for luck and strolling through a market full of strange sights and smells. But the thing that made this trip most memorable was when we missed a turn and ended up wandering in a small old neighborhood bordering the river.

We were on our way to take a tour of a historical old post office, but since we couldn't read the Chinese symbols on the signs, we walked right on by. The shops and businesses gave way to a residential area that seemed to be lost in time.
Every few hundred yards an ancient stone bridge arched high over the water. I hiked up to take some photographs from the crest of one bridge, pausing to let a woman pass by. She was returning from the market and was loaded down with three large plastic bags stuffed with goods, a short walking stick and a bright yellow box from the bakery. She was dressed in a straw hat and layers of clothes, inconceivable in the 98-degree heat and humidity, and bright pink sneakers without laces. She marched up and down the narrow stone steps cut into the bridge, around a corner and out of sight in the time it took me to snap a couple pictures.

We passed several people busily going about their chores. A boy, about ten years old and in need of a haircut, was standing on one of the many access steps on the other side of the river, lifting a homemade net out of the water. It was made of a large blue piece of cheesecloth attached to bamboo crosspieces, and tied to a long pole with a shiny ribbon. I think he was catching small fish for the tourists.  A little further along we saw two women sitting on another set of steps. One had slipped off her sandals and was relaxing. Her small gold earrings glinted in the sun, and her hair was held in place with bobby pins. Everything about her was neat and tidy except that both her knees appeared to be scraped. The other woman was rinsing out towels that she had carried down to the water in a big red bowl. She was one of the few women we saw wearing pants, allowing her to squat so low towards the water that her knees were the same height as her shoulders. She wore a wide brimmed straw hat tied under her chin that completely hid her features, and worked quickly and efficiently. Nearby, a third woman in a loose brown blouse was sweeping the sidewalk with an old straw broom. Like most of the people we passed by, they ignored us, perhaps used to Westerners prying into their lives. 

As the river bent away from the neighborhood the streets got narrower and more crooked. Two-story houses with simple furnishings stood with the front door propped open to attract a breeze or a neighbor in the mood for a cup of tea. Cheery paint on the windows almost camouflaged the bars stretched across the openings to prevent unwanted visitors. In one house an old woman sat just inside the faded red doorway. She had fallen asleep in her wide wicker chair while reading, still clutching two or three sheets of white paper in her hand. Several more sheets rested on a low wooden bench in front of her, held in place by a small pink paperweight. A sheer white curtain blocked the rest of the cluttered room from our view as we tiptoed by. We continued on past short, narrow alleys leading back between the houses to paved courtyards choked with grass. Two chairs sat side by side in one alley, facing in opposite directions. An elderly woman seeking respite from the sun occupied the chair closest to us. Her weathered arms and legs led me to believe that she was used to working outside. She was wearing a blouse and skirt in contrasting floral patterns, a typical fashion choice for the area. She appeared to be staring blankly at the wall in front of her as she leaned on her cane. I thought she might also be asleep, but as we passed by she tapped her cane impatiently on the ground between her feet. 

Once we reached the main road we knew we had gone too far. Nearby, two men relaxed at a street side cafe beneath a small iron windowsill that wept rust stains down the whitewashed wall. The older gentleman had a happy gap-toothed grin. He was dressed comfortably in a white undershirt and plain gray shorts, and his feet were bare. His companion had just finished telling a story and was sitting with his hands clasped in front, his quiet demeanor offset by the loud mismatched floral shirt and shorts he wore. They sat in sturdy chairs made of bamboo lashed together with cloth, resting their tea and bok choy on a small table while they shared a laugh. We paused to show them our tourist map, pointing out where we wanted to go. In a short time we had directions back to the marketplace, delivered in the universal language of pantomime and smiles.

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