Sunday, 16 December 2018

Shanghai, Day 2 - Silk, Precious Antiquities and "The Venice of the East"

There is nothing quite as luxurious as the soft, slinky, sensuous feel of silk and today we were off to a silk factory to learn about the history and production of this sublime thread. According to Chinese legend silk thread was discovered by accident in the 27th century BC when the Empress, Hsi Ling Shi, (Leizu) was sitting under a mulberry tree sipping tea when a silk cocoon fell into her tea and started to unravel.  She was fascinated by its silky thread so set about  developing a technique for spinning and weaving it into fabric.  Initially reserved for royalty, silk's fame gradually spread through Asia and it wasn't long before demand for silk led to the trade known as The Silk Road - at that time silk was considered to be more precious than gold. Over the centuries silk has become more affordable and accessible  and is now produced in many countries, however, China is still the major producer, cornering nearly two thirds of the market.

The labour intensive job of unraveling the silk
cocoon to remove the worm
Our tour of this modern day silk factory was fascinating and enlightening.  While machinery spins the yarn to make silk fabric,  many parts of the production are manual and labour intensive starting with the removal of the silk worm from it's cocoon, something that can only be done by hand. This requires having your hands in cold water for most of the day summer and winter. It is hard work for low pay so not surprising that no young people want to take on the job.  After watching the whole process of silk production we were invited to help stretch a small square cocoon of silk to the size of a quilt. It took some effort but we got there and were surprised at just how strong silk is.   The factory showroom was an Aladdin's cave of exquisite silk products and many of our group bought items, at very reason prices, at the end of the tour.

Stretching a small silk cocoon to the size of a duvet

Spectacular floral display, People's Square

Before lunch we visited People's Square, central Shanghai,  to admire the spectacular plantings and enjoy the peaceful ambiance of the surrounding park. It is a popular spot for locals to perform Tai Chi or dance but was quiet when we were there in the middle of the day.

The square is the location of the Shanghai Museum, our destination for the afternoon.  Set in a stunning building designed to look like a ding, an ancient Chinese cooking vessel,  the museum, set over four levels, contains a comprehensive collection of Chinese art, ceramics, sculpture, furniture, jade, coins, calligraphy etc.  I love Chinese porcelain so particularly enjoyed that gallery. I was also fascinated by the elaborate, antique furniture in the furniture gallery and the display of traditional costumes from various parts of China.  It is an excellent museum, considered to be one of the best in China, and the perfect place to look at and learn about rare and precious Chinese antiquities.

Exquisite porcelain and national costumes at The Shanghai Museum

Late in the day we drove 50kms out of the city to visit Zhujiajiao, one of Shanghai's ancient water towns.  The village, home to only 300 families, is 1700 years old with many of its buildings dating from the Qing and Ming periods. 

Known as "The Venice of the East" it is a charming place, with weeping willows arching over the ancient trade canals and old houses nestled together along the alleys and canal banks.  It is like walking into one of those romantic paintings of old China. Unfortunately, its beauty has led to a massive influx of tourists, ourselves included!  

"Venice of the East", Zhujiajiao

When we arrived the village was crowded but nevertheless pleasant enough to stroll beside the canals, up and down the narrow alley ways and over some of the village's 36 stone, humped back bridges.  Our group was a pretty adventurous lot so managed to get off the main tourist paths at times and find quiet little corners to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the place. In order to retain its character residents may alter the interior of their homes as much as they like but cannot alter the exterior.  Most of the lower floors of the two storey houses are given over to shops, food stalls and restaurants, selling everything from roasted scorpions and spiders, to more palatable, to my mind anyway, roast pork wrapped in leaves and duck.  As the day turned to dusk the town emptied out until it seemed there was just our group and the villagers left.  It was so peaceful beside the canals  as the sun dipped below the trees and the lanterns gradually come on,  their light shimmering in the water. We had dinner in the village followed by a very dreamy, step-back-in-time, canal side walk through this ancient village and back to our bus.

Zhujiajiao by night

What a great day, with plenty of time to reflect on what we had seen during the bus ride back to the hotel. 

Two more views of Zhujiajiao

Here are some things of note about Shanghai:

*Shanghai is China's most populated city with 25m residents

*The streets are very clean and there is no graffiti anywhere
*Billboards and advertising hoardings are relatively rare
*All the major roads around the city are adorned with colourful baskets of
Apartment buildings trimmed with lights
flowers attached to the safety railings
*Spectacular floral displays around the city are constructed from hundreds of   very small pot  plants
*It's smoggy but not every day
*They love lights, even  apartment buildings are elaborately decorated with lights
* And despite being officially an atheist country there were Christmas decorations  everywhere!

I really enjoyed Shanghai and would happily return at some stage but we were off to our next destination, Xian.

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