Monday, October 29, 2007

A Day in the Country

Sunday morning I tagged along with C***o and her friends on what I'd been told was going to be simply a trip to a hot springs resort; but I was either insufficiently informed or plans were changed — both often seem to be the case here — because it turned out to be a more more elaborate excursion than I'd anticipated.

Our first stop was Jin Tai Si, a Buddhist temple maybe 10 or 12 miles outside of Zhuhi (or maybe more; my sense of direction failed me all day long, and I've been unable to lay my hands on a map — there seems to be a Chinese cultural antipathy towards using them — to get a sense of my whereabouts).

The temple is a modern recreation of one that had been destroyed; I wasn't told when, but I can only assume it was during the Cultural Revolution. Unlike smaller temples I've been to in the north, which strike me as only existing for the scattering of tourists they attract, this one seems to fulfill a genuine religious purpose; while we were there we witnessed a ceremony with dozens of chanting monks and a large number of visitors participating.

The temple is situated high above a large and scenic reservoir. C***o is flanked by one of her oldest friends, who's teaching at the college in Zhuhai now, and the former student who's been showing us around.

After leaving the temple we drove through the countryside — for how long or in what direction, I have no idea whatsoever — stopping in a small town called Doumen to purchase some fruit.

After driving some more, we stopped in another small town, Lianxi, to stretch our legs. Even though there wasn't anything particularly special about the place, I loved the look of it . . .

. . . especially the homes along the quiet canal that stretched through the town.

I could have spent hours wandering around the town, just shooting simple scenes like this.

We had lunch in a nearby restaurant, chosen so I could sample rustic food. Before the meal, by the way, the custom — especially in rural areas or elsewhere where the sanitation might be even more suspect than usual — is to rinse your chopsticks, bowl, and glassware with the tea that's already on the table; the Chinese have a strong faith in the antiseptic properties of tea. The large blue bowl here is for dumping the germ-laden tea.

Although my presence did draw some interest from the restaurant staff (not from other customers, as we had the place all to ourselves), I wasn't the first laowei they'd ever served: The manager explained that they'd once had a black visitor who remains a source of amazement to this day — He was dark everywhere, she marvelled, except his teeth. So after that, you might say that my own exoticism paled.

The first course was this egg dish (which someone sampled before I could get a pristine shot of it).

It was followed by this bland, starchy vegertable that I've seen frequently (particularly in the dining hall) but can't identify. Do any of my Chinese readers recognize it?

Instead of one large whole fish, we were served a half-dozen smaller ones.

These are river crabs — much harder to come by than the ocean variety, I was told.

These were the first jumbo shrimp that I've been served here — and they tasted every bit as good as they look.

This chicken dish struck me as the most rustic-seeming item: It had the scrawny, stringy texture and intense flavor of fresh-killed poultry, and the dish included every part of the bird, including the feet (well, maybe not the beak — but just because I didn't notice it didn't mean it wasn't there).

After lunch we drove through the countryside some more. I found the rural scenes extraordinary: lush farmlands dotted with small ponds, clusters of tiny homes that look like they date back a century (but some so ramshackle that they didn't look like they'd remain standing another week), and such sights as a massive flock of ducks covering the entire surface of a pond or a huge ox lying in thick black mud to cool itself. At one point we drove down a dirt road where the dust that coated the surrounding trees and plants made the passing scene look like a black-and-white movie.

At the same time, I had to remember that all this was in the environs of Zhuhai, a city that's fast-growing even by China's dizzying standards. We never drove too far before we were confronted with a disheartening sign of how quickly this bucolic scene was likely to change: a cleared patch of former farmland here, a newly built factory there.

If I'd been on my own, I would have been stopping the car every few hundred yards to photograph the sights. The area is such a paradise for a frustrated amateur photographer that I'm hoping someday to hatch a plan wehere I can return to document the region — in detail and at leisure — before it's altogether vanished at the hands of development.

Finally, at close to 4, we arrived at the Ocean Hot Springs Resort. I left my camera in the locker room — I didn't think it was waterproof, and as it turned out, photography was prohibited in the facilities anyway. Too bad, though, because it was a pretty impressive spread. The entrance to the main building, pictured here, only hints at its massive size. Inside, once you purchase your admission in the spacious lobby and pass through the locker rooms, you enter a large multitiered area with numerous mineral-water pools fed by the springs. Off to one side is a hallway with a sauna, steam room, and the Dead Sea Pool, a salt-water bath whose buoyancy lets you float effortlessly.

Outside there's a large pool with a waterfall and grotto that seems patterned after the one at Miami's Fountainbleu Hotel. Nearby are a water slide, a kiddie pool, and a long, narrow pool that's good for swimming abbreviated laps. Past that section lies an assortment of maybe two-dozen small whirlpools, each infused with a different health- or beauty-promoting substance, from Chinese herbs like ginseng to milk, coffee, and red wine (and those who have sampled Chinese wine will agree that this is a far better purpose for it than drinking it). Beyond those are several more small whirlpools that contained the only water that I'd label genuinely hot, like a Japanese ofuro; the others ranged from tepid (the large outdoor pool) to pleasantly warm (the main-building pools).

After taking a dip in each section, we changed from our swimsuits into modified kung-fu outfits and went to a lounge area on the third floor of the main building, where we relaxed on chaises overlooking the outdoor pool and, beyond it, the South China Sea and made a dinner out of the free-with-admission tropical fruit provided to guests.

Once we'd stuffed ourselves we returned to the locker rooms. I'd thought we were going to leave and had even taken a shower when Rongli communicated to me to change back into my swimsuit. We made the circuit of all the pools (except the big outdoor one) again before finally heading for home. We'd stayed at the resort for five hours, which I guess wasn't inordinate considering that it was phenominally expensive by Chinese standards: 168 yuen — over $22! Still, I was surprised that after all that time in the water, my whole body wasn't pruney rather than just my fingers.

Between Saturday's activities in Zhuhai and Sunday's excursion in the country, it was an exhuasting weekend, so I decided to skip my weekly Monday shopping trip to Zhuhai; at any rate, I needed to stay home and write this Thursday's lecture.

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