Yixing, Schönst Sailing Club and me

So James, the Chinese friend of ours who enabled us to go sailing on Xuanwu Lake in Nanjing, also invited us to be a part of a crew who are entered in a regatta in Qingdao in April (hahaha I began writing this post a wee while ago! Hence why April has now been and gone.). James lives in a country-level city in the Wuxi jurisdiction called Yixing, and he invited us to catch a train from Nanjing to Yixing to meet one of the other crew members, Jun who also lives in this small city with a population of only 1 million. Jun runs Yixing’s only sailing club, Schönst Sailing Club, which is in a beautiful old Chinese style pagoda building perched on the edge of the TianJiu lake. He has plenty of dinghy racing experience and runs summer programs for kids to learn opti sailing, amongst other programs that the sailing club has on offer.

Our first impression of Yixing was nothing but good! James picked us up from the train station, and we marvelled at how pretty the city was as we drove through. We drove past the main entrance to the park area that surrounds the Tianjiu Lake and I had trouble keeping my jaw off the floor. At the main entrance, there is a huge, majestic (probably man made!) rock falls that just blew me away. James took us around to another entrance to the park, which was slightly less impressive but only slightly. He led us through statues, prettily paved wide paths edged in well placed tree’s and sculptures, over a traditionally built stone bridge that made me swoon and to be honest, I wondered where the hell he was taking us!

That first visit to Yixing, we really only saw the area around the sailing club. We saw a little of the city when Jun and James took us to hotpot for lunch. But our view of the city was limited. Not that THAT mattered to me at all. I had already fallen in love with Yixing, even if my love was only limited to the prettiest sailing club I have ever seen and the scenic surroundings. Logic doesn’t factor into my infatuations at all. I tend to listen to my gut instinct and my instinct was IN LOVE!

A few weeks later, we went back. We jumped on an early train from Nanjing, and this time, when we were picked up, I pretty much hung out the window trying to drink in and look at as much of the city as I could as we drove to the sailing club. The buildings aren’t as towering as here in Nanjing, and there are little waterways everywhere you look which, along with some more European style buildings, give the city a softer feeling. Willow tree’s line some of the waterways, and the city in general is much greener than other Chinese cities that we have visited. It feels like there are gardens everywhere, but then that could be my infatuation talking!

The sailing club is quaint and the upper floors are still under renovation. Jun plans to do up the second floor as a training room to instruct adults and kids in the basics and theory of sailing, as well as having some full size opti replica’s for them to practice on. The third floor is a work in progress, as Jun has no idea what to use this room for. I suggested fitting it out as a conference style room that other companies and parties can lease from him on a day or half day basis for team building, social or any other kind of event that people would want to have in a gorgeous old style pagoda with amazing views out over the lake and the surrounding park area. We had a ball sailing with Jun, and taking a few of his business client groups out for a spin!

Needless to say, I am pretty smitten with this city. And from the very first time that we wandered through Yixing with James, I really wanted to take Mum and Dad back there. Jun and James had told us about the sights to see nearby, namely the abundance of natural caves, the bamboo sea, and the incredible tea culture that Yixing is famous for. Turns out that Yixing is dubbed the Pottery Capital of China as the surrounding mountains are the only place where you can find a special type of clay called Zisha. Yixing’s pottery culture can be tracked back to the North Song Dynasty (960-1127 A.D.) and became thriving in the Ming (1368-1683 A.D.) and the Qing (1636-1911 A.D.) dynasties and Zisha clay is very special due to it’s unique cohesive properties and how porous it becomes when fired, making it ideal for teapot making. And such tea pots you can find EVERYWHERE YOU LOOK in Yixing. Wandering down the main street, teapot and pottery shops are everywhere, with beautiful little fat red and brown teapots, some painted, most not and most handmade. Yixing locals pride themselves on the high quality of their handmade teapots. Besides teapots, Yixing also produces many other pottery stuff including cup, bottle, tripod, plate, bowl, etc. Before I came to China, I thought tea was just about a teapot and some tea cups… Boy was I wrong! Being properly set up for tea requires many more utensils, and in Yixing you can buy the whole shabbam!

But my love of Yixing wasn’t anything to do with the tea culture and history. My love for this ‘little’ city is based on the most simple of things in life: water. For a country-level city, it’s access to waterways is impressive. It is partly on the shores of the Taihu (太湖) lake, a large lake of over 2,000 km2 and it is also home to Dongjiu, Xijiu, Tianjiu Dushandang and Gehu lakes. There are countless little waterways and tributaries that run throughout the city, making water transport just as convenient as travelling by road! Mum, Dad, Nick and I had fun just wandering around Yixing, spotting clay products that we liked amongst the masses of clay products, exploring the area surrounding the tea pot museum (hahaha cos we’re too cheap to pay to get in!) and going on a very random adventure with a random man who offered to drive us to find food (now THATS a completely seperate blog post to be written!).

On our last day in Yixing, James offered to drive us up to the Bamboo Sea. So we got up bright and early that Monday morning and had no idea what we were in for. The Bamboo Sea, or Zhuhai as it is known in Chinese, is located in the Huashan mountains which is right on the border of three provinces: Jiangsu, Anhui and Zhejiang. These hilly area’s are also covered in pretty little tea trees,  which produce unique tea leaves for a green tea brand, Yangxian Tea, apparently one of three best green tea brands in China. We drove with James for about an hour from the city centre, through tea fields, past newish little villages set up to optimise on the tourist interest in the many caves and sight seeing attractions that are scattered in the area. You could literally smell the tea leaves in the air, and as we got further away from the city and closer to Zhuhai, the air got fresher and cleaner. More like home for us! Watching out the window, catching glimpses of people drying tea leaves and bamboo root on large shallow round woven baskets was half of the fun for us, and we were still in the car! James’ family is from the area, so he was able to tell us a little about the mountains and caves, about the new settlements that were created to provide food and accommodation for all of the tourists who came to explore the area, and about the many locals who relocated from their homes in nearby villages to make a living here.

At the entrance to Zhuhai, there was an electronic gate and a HUGE wooden archway. Of course there is an archway. This is CHINA!!! From the ticket gate (I think the entrance ticket was about ¥80pp but I can’t be sure because James wouldn’t let us pay!) you walk up a road lined with bamboo and other greenery. What really cracked us up was the ‘rocks’ that were scattered along the roadside that played music… Yup there were man-made rocks that were actually speakers that pumped out pretty Chinese music into the trees. Because you know, birdsong and the natural sounds just aren’t enough! We walked further and I heard another kind of music: water gurgling and running in a nearby steam!!! What’s more, IT WAS CLEAN! Ok so maybe not crystal clean, but remember we have been living in China for eight months so any lake or waterway that isn’t murky, sludgy, greyish browny green or toxic looking is a lot like heaven to us! And this stream was clear. It was running and you could see the rocks through the water. We marvelled at how pretty it was and James proudly reminded us that we were in the mountains so, like, duh! (Ok so maybe he didn’t say it like THAT exactly) And as we walked further we got to a man made lake that actually made me want to dive in. Hahaha now THAT worried James. He thought I would seriously do it and got his Chinese on, reminding me how dangerous it is to swim here, how it might be deep and how it’s not safe like lakes and rivers in New Zealand. Funnily enough, he didn’t use the argument that there are actually fresh water jellyfish in this lake, a fact that we only learned as we were walking back down when I happened to read one of the many signs around the lake. Now THAT is a fool proof deterrent!

I don’t completely blame him for being worried. It was a warmish day and he took us walking up on the far side of the lake so we had to cross a rope bridge to get over to the cable car to take us up into the bamboo. And the rope bridge at it’s lowest point was dipped into the lake. I played in the water like a little kid. My feet, shod in only my Vibrams, were wet and it felt wonderful! I seriously considered laying down on the bridge and getting completely wet… Which of course I expressed verbally. Hence why he was so worried!

A highlight for me was getting to see the old ladies and men harvesting the young bamboo shoots right there on the side of the footpath as we approached the cable car entrance. Some would go into the bamboo, chopping off the young shoots. They would bring big bags  full back and dump them unceremoniously in a pile, where others would be sitting on the ground with knives stripping all the outer leaves away and discarding them, saving the inner shoot which was tender and clean. It smelled very woody and a little tangy, a smell I recognised before I even saw what they were doing. The stripped shoots would be chopped down and spread out on one of the handwoven large shallow baskets that we saw everywhere on our drive up. They would be spread out in a thin layer and dried in the sun, then packaged up and sold. Bamboo shoots/root is a very popular vegetable here in China. I have eaten it before and remembered it being quite fibrous but mild in flavour and very easy to eat, especially the heart where the flesh of the root is the most tender.

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The cable car ride to the top of the point was largely uneventful. It was fascinating to see the sea of bamboo below us, and interesting to learn that none of it is native to the area. It was all planted relatively recently to create a resource/economy for the area. At the top of the cable car ride there was a dirty pond with a few dirty sculptures in it, a musty smelling shop that sold packaged ice creams that was NOT inviting at all, and a small pagoda that you could only climb up to the second level. Luckily the view was incredible. You could see all the little villages, a few cities off in the distance in varying directions and a huge highway that was only partly built, which looked so queer in the middle of all this lush forest. Oh yeah and Nick was drooling over the long windy roads into the hills and dreaming of long boarding down them!

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I think this is one of the longest blog posts I have written to date. Because I really do love this ‘little’ city. The people are so friendly, the city area is very green and the waterways stole my heart the minute I laid eyes on them.

Yixing may not be at the top of the lists for most travellers that come to China. And yet it should be. There are so many things here that I think can give you a much more authentically ‘Chinese’ experience than the hustle and bustle of Shanghai. And of course it has the prettiest little yacht club in the world! Whats not to love?!

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