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January 15, 2020

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‘Travels with My Aunt,’ Chinese-style, in a city of legends

Zhenjiang and Yangzhou in neighboring Jiangsu Province are often called the “twin cities” because they are separated only by a narrow stretch of the Yangtze River. But while Yangzhou has shone as the hometown of many ancient Chinese notables, Zhenjiang has come down the ages as the plain sister.

My whole family recently took a high-speed train to the city to visit an ailing aunt. Despite our fears that it might be the last time we ever saw her, we found her in high spirits and anxious to show us around a city known for its black vinegar production.

It felt like the situation from the award-winning movie “The Farewell.” To fulfill her maybe last wishes to entertain her family, we were happy to comply, though no one brought up the subject of the disease afflicting her. It was just a family reunion trip.

First we went to see the “three hills” in the north of the city: Jinshan, Jiaoshan and Beigushan. My aunt decided to sit out that part of the trip and join us later at Xijindu, a newly renovated old street in Zhenjiang.

At Beigushan, a long hike started. The hill resembles a natural shield between the city and Yangtze River. The journey to the top was not as tiring as I expected. The pathway was well-paved, the slope was gentle and stairways appeared only on occasion.

An hour’s walk led us to a temple called Ganlu.

While the city of Zhenjiang itself remains rather obscure in history, tales related to the hills abound. Almost every Chinese person, for example, knows the story of how Liu Bei met his wife in Ganlu Temple in the ancient novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”

The part-historical, part-legend novel, written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century, is set between the years AD 169 and 280. It’s a sprawling saga of warlords who tried to replace or restore the disintegrating Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220).

According to the novel, warlord Sun Quan tried to lure his enemy Liu Bei to his kingdom Wu under the guise of matchmaking between Liu and his young sister Sun Shangxiang. Sun Quan’s plan was to seize Liu and force him to return the city of Jingzhou to the Wu. Liu was all set up to meet his future wife in Ganlu Temple.

However, Sun’s mother favored Liu and approved the marriage. A filial son, Sun had to also give his consent, and the contrived matchmaking ended up as a real wedding.

Today, there are no relics related to the story. Liu did actually marry Sun’s sister, but they never met at the temple because it was built decades after his death.

The love tale may be fictional, but an iron pagoda near the temple is a genuine piece of antiquity. The four-story pagoda tilts a little. Despite its rust covering and weathered sections, carvings on the surface are still quite clear.

First built in AD 825, the original nine-story pagoda was struck by a tsunami during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), losing its top five stories.

The current base of the pagoda was built about 1,000 years ago. In 1960, when the pagoda was undergoing restoration, an underground crypt was discovered. It contained 11 sarira, or body relics, that were said to be from the Buddha himself.

My family and I headed directly to Jinshan after descending Beigushan. The Jinshan Temple is an iconic place associated with the legend of Madame White Snake, one of my favorite childhood tales.

According to folklore, a young intellectual in the Northern Song Dynasty (AD 960-1127) saved the life of a white snake, which transformed itself into a young woman who wanted to marry him. A monk at Jinshan Temple locked up the young man to try to foil the romance. Madame White Snake flooded the temple with water from West Lake in Hangzhou but was still defeated.

The flood was a turning point and one of the climaxes of the whole legend, which has been immortalized in operas, movies and TV dramas. However, few people know that the temple referred to in the story is in Zhenjiang.

Of course, a white snake turning into a woman and a flood inundating the temple may be figments of imagination, but the 1,700-year-old temple was indeed ruined and rebuilt seven times. The most recent damage occurred in a 1948 fire.

The buildings standing today were built either during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) or in more recent decades, but visitors can still see and appreciate inscription boards, calligraphy works and an ancient spring.

When we reached the top of the hill, the sun had already started to set. Even though the elevation isn’t all that high, the hilltop provided a panoramic view of the Yangtze River. As twilight approached, the tranquil river surface was bathed in gold, and the fiery-red sun seemed to be struggling with the clouds and trying not to drop too quickly below the horizon.

We didn’t have time to get to Jiaoshan, the last of the three hills. We had wanted to see its famous forest of stone steles carved with calligraphy, but that will have to await a return trip.

As planned, we met my aunt at Xijindu, a 1,000-year-old area in the west of Zhenjiang. I had expected it to be like all the recreated old streets in Shanghai watertowns, but I was only half right.

Parts of Xijindu do look like Qibao or Zhujiajiao, but the area has its unique points — a stone pagoda built in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and dedicated to Tibetan Buddhism; a cave worshipping Guanyin, the bodhisattva of compassion; a house once home to a lifeguard organization during the Qing Dynasty; and the former site of a British consulate.

My aunt was very excited about the visit after spending so much time in hospital and at home recuperating. She stopped at a small square in the area to watch a young traditional opera troupe performing on a Chinese-style stage.

“They are not that skilled, but I love it anyway,” she said, singing along with an actress from time to time.

When night fell, lanterns came on and the street started to get busy. We found a noodle house to try guo gai mian, or “pot cover” noodles, a Zhenjiang local specialty. The noodles were very good, but we didn’t quite believe the story that they are cooked with the pot cover partly immersed in the broth. That sounded a bit unsanitary.

We were due to head back to Shanghai the next day, but before we could leave, a big banquet was necessary, befitting a family reunion. Only this time, the “dinner” had to be breakfast.

Early the next morning, we drove across the Runyang Yangtze River Bridge to the city of Yangzhou for breakfast — or what the locals call morning tea — in the old residence of an ancient salt dealer named Lu Shaoxu.

It is recorded that when the country struggled with poverty and huge war reparations during the last years of the Qing Dynasty, the salt dealers in Yangzhou created a cartel to monopolize the country’s salt trade.

Lu’s Residence, built in 1894, is an example of how lucrative the monopoly must have been. When it was first built, it occupied more than 10,000 square meters and comprised nine houses with more than 200 rooms located in a garden. Although some of the houses were destroyed by fire, the residence has now been restored to its original appearance.

Our morning tea banquet was held in one of the rooms where Lu might have entertained guests.

The style of the morning tea was similar to the classic dim sum of Guangdong Province. Pu’er tea was served with plate after plate of snacks. Every dish was a masterpiece of Huaiyang cuisine, one of the eight great cuisines of China.

We especially enjoyed “lion’s head,” or stewed meatballs with crab roe, gan si, or dried tofu strips, and bun of three dices, a steamed bun with stuffing of diced chicken, pork and bamboo shoots.

As everyone chatted, laughed and commented on the food and the setting, my aunt looked on fondly with a smile in her eyes. At the moment, I knew the trip would forever be remembered by all of us.

If you go

It takes less than two hours by high-speed train to travel from Shanghai to Zhenjiang. From the Zhenjiang Railway Station, visitors can take buses to the scenic areas in the city as well as to Yangzhou.


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