The Ox and the Mulberry

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Saturday, July 16, 2005

As Beijing symbolized the large country capitol and imperial control and Pingyao represented the historical county seat and provincial walled city, Xidi and Hongcun are living testament to old, small-town life in China. A couple of hours from the hostel, Hongcun and Xidi are nestled within the foothills of the Yellow Mountains, surrounded by bamboo forests and fields of corn, mulberry, rice, and tea. Up in these hills, the water is clear and the air, though steamy, is clean. On hot, thunderstorm-brewing July day, I headed to Xidi and Hongcun with Daniela Kvassay from Rio, Brazil.

Just after arriving from my 40-hour journey, I met Daniela at the hostel as she waited for a friend to arrive from Shanghai. She left her job after saving money, which is hard to do in Brazil, and began traveling through Southeast Asia. She was fascinated with the Chinese people and culture. While we roamed around the small historical towns, she taught me about her life in Rio, her father the oil painter, and her travels through Asia. We shared similar styles of exploring places: always roaming into the small alleys and looking for the essence of a place, searching for the nooks and crannies--those gems that lie hidden. She was very good at this and found a couple of women working with silkworms, a couple of men preparing lunch, and a man feeding caterpillars. We share the same birth year, month, and almost day, separated by less than 24 hours. Astrologically speaking, this might have something to do with the ease of our roaming.

We began our roaming in Xidi and immediately loved the town. Unspoiled by tourism, brimming with vigor and charm, Xidi and its 300 buildings from the Ming and Qing Dynasties, its streams and waterways, and its fields and gardens, brings your imagination back 400 years. Four hundred years ago, the boys and girls would have played in the streets, the men and women would have tended the silkworms, the mulberry bushes, and the fields, and life would have been much as it is today.

The narrow streets meander and curve with the contours of the land, streams of pure water running through their center, for all to enjoy. The homes are plastered and whitewashed, with grey tile roofs, rectangular windows, and courtyard walls draped in vines and flowers framing fruit trees. Mothers cleaned clothing in the streams, cats rested in doorstops with elder women, and men cut the mulberry leaves. In the nooks and crannies were gardens of mulberries or ornamental stones and reflecting pools. We enjoyed every moment in Xidi.

From there, we found our motor-rickshaw and headed to Hongcun. After running out of gas five feet before the gas station pump, we finally reached Hongcun, an old town shaped like an ox. In the center of the ox is one of its four stomachs--a reflecting pool--surrounded by student artists and ancient plastered buildings. Waterways run through the Hongcun Ox like intestines. A third stomach is on the outskirts of town, with a small arching Chinese bridge and walkway surrounded by lilies crossing it. These "stomachs" created the perfect reflecting pools that captured the changing moments of the town. I began to look at everything in terms of the mirror relection of the stomachs as the late afternoon light warmed the light yellow plastered buildings.

As the sun fell in the sky, we caught the last bus back to Tunxi and reached our hostel in time for dinner, feeling satisfied that, amidst the "Big Same," towns such as Hongcun and Xidi still exist in China.
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