Shaoxing: China Under Construction

A few hours ride in 35 degree summer heat took me to the hometown of revolutionary writer Lu Xun. On the way, I was struck by the breakneck pace of work happening in every direction; unless, that is, you’re part of the highly socially active elderly crowd.

1. A curious goods transporter stops to see what I’m taking a photo of and agrees to become a subject himself.

2. Chinese uncles speculate as to whether I’m Russian or American.

3. A beautiful sunset over one of Shaoxing’s many small waterways.

4. Schoolchildren pose for a trip photo outside Lu Xun’s memorial mini-village.

5. A mix of old and new architecture at the door to a residential compound.

6. A peaceful morning boat outing in the Lu Village 鲁镇 Scenic Area.

7. Construction workers silhouetted against a duck-egg afternoon sky.

8. A group of women agree to let me photograph them practicing Sword Tai Chi.

9. A man and woman deftly produce traditional breakfast food youtiao (sticks of airy, fried dough).

10. A charismatic boat pusher poses for a photo in Lu Xun old town.

11. A greenery encased rounded bridge links streets in Lu Village.

12. A practiced boat pusher uses his feet to row and hand to steer taking tourists around sunny canals.

Ride Journal

50km southeast of Hangzhou, small city Shaoxing is known as the home of several giants of Chinese history, and for its winding streets of canal-side, southern (“Jiangnan”) style architecture. I packed a change of clothes, water and snacks, and set out on the bike on a sauna-like August afternoon to see what I could see (and eat) there.

Baidu maps took me through Xiaoshan out towards the G104 expressway. Usually I avoid highways, but the road had a broad, smooth bike lane that pretty much drew a straight line to my destination, a worthy trade for unpredictable back roads when I wanted to see the sights.

It was busy at first. Trucks and cars jostled for space in the traffic lanes, while what felt like an army of scooters sped along at about half their speed in the bike lane with me travelling still slower among them. Judging by the number of heads turned disbelievingly in my direction, a foreigner cycling along a main road is even more of a curiosity than a foreigner on the streets of Hangzhou. 

Queued in front of me at the lights of a busy intersection, one scooter rider turned back to look at me several times. I wondered how long it would take before he said something. After four leisurely rubbernecks, he a lit cigarette, leaned back and shouted over the hum of truck engines: “Where are you from?”

Surprised when I replied in Mandarin, he offered me a cigarette (I didn’t take it). “Are there this many cars on the road in your country?” He seemed pleased when I said I didn’t think there were. “No, probably not. There are 1.4 billion people in China.”

I found out he was on his way to work the evening shift at a building site, information whose significance he dismissed with a wave of his hand. He pulled out his phone. “Can I take your picture?” I said yes, and tried not to think about how sweaty and dust-covered I’d look in the photo that he would probably show to his friends or worse, post on his social media. I wish I’d taken one back, of his grinning face craning over his shoulder, but before I had time to pull out my big camera, the lights changed, and he was gone.

The rest of the road struck me as a testament to China’s insatiable capacity for construction. Building site after building site lined the roads, from drills attacking pits of mud to scaffolding-clad skyscrapers, and truck after truck piled with random materials thundering along the tarmac: bricks, timber, blankets, car parts, potted plants, landfill. 

I drew into Shaoxing as the sun started to set, greeted by quiet roads and glimmering rivers. My chosen destination was Keyan (柯岩), on the western outskirts of the city, partly to shorten the cycling distance and partly to stay next to the Lu Village (鲁镇) district, a picturesque destination (according to Dianping) where I hoped I could see some Jiangnan architecture. I and my sore legs rolled our way into a park-like lakeside area. Despite the mild disappointment of recognising a typical mainland Chinese tourist site – billboards declaring how important the site was, ubiquitous plastic barriers, loudspeakers (mercifully out of operation) and an inevitable Starbucks – the place was peaceful, leafy and low-rise. It was also closed. 

I checked into the closest hotel I could find, a fancy lakeside guesthouse, so I could roll out of bed and miss the crowds first thing the next morning.

The next morning brought a baking hot sunrise. Met by closed gates to the park again, I taxi’d into the city centre to another Dianping recommendation, Bai Ma Street (白马路), for breakfast and was not disappointed: it was bursting with 7am life, with stalls touting live seafood, steaming baozi, soy bean drinks and some of the biggest, fluffiest youtiao (油条, fried dough sticks) I’ve ever seen. I opted for iced soy milk and Shaoxing favourite mianbobo (面饽饽), an egg crepe stuffed with youtiao and sauces, before climbing, stuffed, into a short cab to Lu Xun’s old residence.

Lu Xun is the biggest name associated with Shaoxing. A revolutionary author comparable to Tolstoy in his sharp criticism of society and association with political change, Lu Xun was held in high esteem by Communist leader and People’s Republic founder Chairman Mao, and as a result has been diefied in domestic modern history. The large site in Shaoxing dedicated to his memory and works was already busy with visitors at 9am.

The memorial encompasses his ancestral home, former residence and writing study, a temple and museum, spread out along a Jiangnanstyle street trying hard to look historic. I peeked inside the impressive but minimalist courtyard residence, before descending on another local speciality, Black Awning Boats (乌篷船), which are pushed like gondolas through the old town’s narrow canals by surprisingly strong elderly men. Low in the water, everything went quiet, apart from the sound of wood on wood and gentle ripples.

It was starting to push towards noon, so I made my way back to the bike, wringing as much information as I could from my final Shaoxing taxi driver. “Zhou Enlai lived here for a while,” he said, “A lot of artists, and that famous calligrapher. Wang Xizhi.” Maybe the famous local Shaoxing wine was what brought people here, I ventured. Is it good? I thought I caught the driver smile. “Uh…It’s very famous,” he said politely. 

The ride home was hot but speedy. Flopping down exhuasted in my apartment, I felt happy to have seen a little more of the less remarkable.

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