Monday, March 23, 2015

Fish that got away

Just made a very stupid mistake - deleted all the Yangzhou pictures on my camera's memory card without first downloading them! Don't think I can get them back. But it's not the end of the world. I took a few on my cellphone. My friend O took a few on his. Others I recall and can try to set down in, well, words. Indeed, some of them may come out better composed in words than they did as snaps, the lighting perfect, the angles just so, with never too much or too little distortion around the curving edges - and no other photographers' heads ruining the view! So let me try to tell you about Yangzhou 扬州, my experience of whose half-hidden and unglamorous charms may well turn out to be best served by such indirection. The city's most famous site is the 瘦西湖 "Slender West Lake," a vast parkland of gardens and pavilions and bridges over bodies of water of various kinds. (At least one artificial waterfall had mist-ers along a little bridge to ensure rainbows.) I thought it too big, and certainly overpriced at RMB150. The five pavilion bridge (left) which is Yangzhou's icon was nice enough, but I was as taken by the willows luminous in their first flush of flower. (Some had found their way into braided garlands around the heads of little girls.) Themeparky 大明寺 Damingsi nearby was something of a bust, too. (I enjoyed a porcelain Guangdi who had crashed the party of red-golden luohan arrayed around the equally red and new buddhas in the main hall, behind them a papier-mâché-crude vertical spread of the Journey to the West.) Perhaps the netizens who dissed Yangzhou as not even a ghost of its former self, its glorious 2500-year history wiped out to make way for the generic urban sprawl you see throughout China, saw only these places.

But bundled with the tourist traps in a multi-site pass were two lovely smaller gardens within the old square of the city, 个园 Geyuan and 何园 Heyuan, which were totally worth the price of admission. Both boast glorious rockeries - those twisted hole-y grey stone fancies, here rising high into the sky and burrowed with dark pathways and steep little stairs. In Heyuan they are beautifully interlaced with a two-storey system of walkways and light-filled rooms and a few slender palmtrees. I'm afraid I have no pictures of these two - but many of those I took were of the magnolias which seemed like flights of white doves rising skyward, some against intricate grey-tiled roofs, and a few, taken from one of the elevated walkways, down through a spray of blossoms to a pond full of golden carp - those midair schools I really regret losing!

But what was most enjoyable about Yangzhou was more than discovering these sites. It was exploring a town small enough you could get around easily - especially because the city offers free bikes with bike banks conveniently located everywhere (I'd show you one such bank, in cheerful primary colors of red, green and blue, if I could). If retaining little of its ancient splendor, it is still a place whose long life you could feel in low-slung old neighborhoods and bridge-straddled canals connecting all to the biggest of all canals, the 大运河 Grand Canal, which meets the Yangtze here. Just off the tourist-oriented 东关 Dongguan Street, which felt like it could be in any Chinese city recreating heritage in easily consumable forms, we found dark atmospheric alleyways between hutong-like houses (the photo above is O's), deep down one of which was a simple hand-pulled noodle place; neighborhood families, some on motor scooters, passed under the awning between the kitchen and the four rudimentary tables as we savored the true 地道 taste there Friday night. The spread of unrecognizables at 小觉林素食馆 Xiaojuelin, the hoary local vegetarian restaurant where we ate Saturday night (below), also offered more memorable food than the famous Yangzhou fried rice, crab-filled soup dumplings and baozi we had at one of the city's celebrated 茶社 tea houses; the "pork" meatballs were tastier, too!


Taking three days for a place most people visit for at most two, cruising around on the free bikes and following the scent of old Yangzhou, we had a grand time. I leave you with a selfie by the fool who thought he was following - at once intrepidly and ironically - in the footsteps of Marco Polo. (Others asked to take pictures of me - we saw only two other visible 外国人 foreigners the whole weekend, so I was some people's first live specimen; I now wish I'd asked the excited folks who posed me in front of a wax diorama from the distinguished history of Buddhism in Yangzhou at 天宁寺 Tianningsi - 鑑真 Jianzhen (Ganjin) setting off to bring the Dharma to 7th-century Japan - to send me a copy!) I took (and lost) pictures of much of the exhibit in the Marco Polo Memorial Hall, too, where he is fit seamlessly into a narrative of China's age-old cosmopolitan culture and international appeal. Polo claims to have been made governor of Yangzhou in the 1280s, a claim other things I'd read treated with some skepticism since there was no corroborating evidence on the Chinese side. But in this commemorative museum unconstrained by actual artifacts or original documents his claims were presented as true. Who really wants or needs evidence anyway? Because of the Marco Polo connection, I'd brought along Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, whose elegaic caprices of memory and fantasy - poetic fable-cities Marco Polo describes to a Kublai Khan weary of his hard-won actual empire - may have contributed to our enjoyment of Yangzhou, also... along with the poem by Li Bai which sent us there in the first place, and which points toward an unrealized Yangzhou, too.

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