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'You hear your own heartbeat in ancient lanes at sunset'

AHA! Remember how you often deserted me deliberately in the middle of nowhere in the labyrinth of lanes (xiangzi) on our way home from primary school?"

Mischief glinted in his eyes as he grimaced at the memory.

That little question revived my warm memories of childhood in the early 1970s in our hometown Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province. He was one of my best playmates since we were toddlers. Even today I call him by his toddler nickname: Da Meng Meng (literally "sprout").

By the time we went to primary school, we would band up with other kids, winding our way to and from school through a web of deep lanes that defined the landscape of central Yangzhou, a 2,500-year-old city.

Many are so narrow that there is only space for one or two people to pass at a time; many are called "one-man lanes."

There was a third mate in our band, surnamed Fang, who persuaded me to join his mischievous plot to abandon Da Meng Meng now and then.

Fang and I would turn on our heels, leaving Da Meng Meng high and dry in the narrow lanes at dusk. The boy would then make his way home alone, crying all the way.

Fresh memories of our childish fun in lanes flooded back when the three of us gathered in Yangzhou on January 27 (the second day in China's Lunar New Year of the Ox). It was our first reunion in more than 20 years.

Now Fang and I are newspaper editors -- he in Beijing and I in Shanghai, and Da Meng Meng is a millionaire trader based in Yangzhou.

The three of us were born and grew up together, with other families as well, in an old courtyard house that once belonged to a famous official of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

My family lived in his study. Now the whole complex has been restored and we have to buy tickets to visit our old homes.

As we sat in a teahouse, relishing the timeless charm of those lanes that so mystified us as kids, we agreed on every detail about our various lane games, except on one point: Whose idea was it to ditch Da Meng Meng in the depth of those mysterious lanes, Fang's or mine?

"How could I desert you?" I exclaimed, knowing my own sense of direction has never been too keen. "It would have taken a braver and more clever kid to do that." I gestured toward Fang, who smiled and gazed off with an air of innocence.

"This morning I took a walk in those lanes again, and again I got lost after my three-hour wandering adventure," I protested, trying to convince Da Meng Meng that my compass hadn't improved in 30 years.

"Did I really ditch you?" Fang asked Da Meng Meng, grinning. Fang really didn't seem to remember.

I was sure he did it, but I was afraid I could not be able to defend myself had I not just revisited those lanes that are so well preserved today.

I traveled and trotted the lanes every day, camera in hand, during my week-long stay in Yangzhou for the Spring Festival.

Once, I thought I was heading toward the Grand Canal (a 1,800-kilometer-long river first built in the 5th century BC, linking Beijing in the north and Hangzhou in the south).

I emerged from the maze, however, and found myself in a bustling fair far from the ancient waterway.

There are hundreds of old lanes in an area that sprawls about 5 square kilometers in downtown Yangzhou -- an area that was the main part of Yangzhou in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties. These lanes lead nowhere (or so it seems to a stranger) and everywhere (as the old hands know).

Ancient wisdom

During the Spring Festival, Yangzhou was buffeted by intermittent wintry gales, yet wind hardly penetrated the narrow lanes, as they are usually short and meandering, effectively blocking the wind.

You don't feel the force of the wind as you do when you enter an open plaza or stand in between two skyscrapers.

Strolling around the lanes, you marvel at China's ancient wisdom in architecture. In addition to being wind-proof, the lanes are mostly paved with bricks and stones, that allow the rain to soak into the earth and water the growing moss.

The brick-and-stone roads breathe, while those plastered with asphalt cannot.

Shanghai has thousands of lanes, too, but they're far less intriguing and far newer than Yangzhou's ancient paths.

There's truth in a popular saying about Yangzhou's old lanes: You see them all -- the cultures of the dynasties of Tang (618-907 AD), Song (960-1279), Yuan (1271-1368), Ming and Qing.

There is a little surprise to greet you at almost every turn. Gardens of bamboo and rockery built in the Qing Dynasty seem to pop up as you walk around.

Geyuan Garden is the most famous of them. It was the private home of a wealthy salt merchant who decorated it with rockeries presenting the views of four seasons. The winter rockery is made of snow-white stones.

The China Paper-cut Museum cuts into the lanes, and so do many residences of old merchants and literati who prospered a century ago.

As a Yangzhou native, I left the city for college in Beijing when I was 18, then went on to see the world, mostly big cities like Shanghai, New York and London. Neon lights, skyscrapers and fast cars in those metropolises impressed my young mind.

Home sweet home

Now I often return to home, sweet home, to see my parents and old friends.

Yangzhou's skyline is low and built on a human scale. There are no skyscrapers that "big city men" are proud of. Yangzhou's night is quiet, there are no elevated expressways.

You hear your own heartbeat in ancient lanes at sunset.

Although Hangzhou is one of my favorite cities for its mountains, lakes, trees and tea culture, there's no web of ancient and well-preserved lanes like those in Yangzhou.

In a five-year urban conservation project from 2002 to 2007, Yangzhou renovated many old houses in the lanes with help from Germany.

Project designers wanted to help residents live better by renovating and reinforcing their old, courtyard-style houses, rather than drive them away and rebuild.

Many families now have their own bathrooms and sewer system linkup in houses that are more than a century old.

In 2006, Yangzhou was awarded the UN-Habitat Scroll of Honor for the effective conservation of the old city.

If you tire occasionally of Shanghai's chiseled skyline, anonymous buildings and super-human scale, why not take a breather in Yangzhou, about 300 kilometers away?

Life in the old slow lanes is simple yet rich. Even the names of many lanes have rich historical backgrounds. Many lanes are named after well-known ancient family names, such as those of generals, merchants and even imperial concubines.

After a day's roaming in the lanes, there's no need to worry about sweat. You can find a nearby bathhouse and immerse yourself in warm bath.

There's a saying about the way of life in Yangzhou: In the morning, your skin retains water -- meaning you drink tea; in the evening, your skin is draped in water -- meaning you relax in soothing water.

Few cities in China eclipse Yangzhou in bath culture.

My friend Da Meng Meng still may not know who ditched him in a mischievous childhood game, but he now lives better than whoever abandoned him in at least one aspect -- he can walk those lanes anytime he wants.


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