In the Song Dynasty when nearby Hangzhou was the capital, (approx 1000 AD) the ancient Watertown of Shaoxing became a city renowned for its education, arts and intellectualism.
Here many studied for and sat the civil service entrance examination to become government officials. It was a tough test and many failed. These failures went on to become what was known as ‘Advisors’ who would be employed by individuals or businesses to help assist with things. They were clever and well educated just not good enough for the very top jobs. As an advisor you could specialize in law or finance or even teaching and make a very comfortable living.
There are many watertowns in China but most are just tourist destinations. Shaoxing on the other had is still a thriving community and I was probably the only non Chinese person there!
You could buy any type of preserved meat
We took a trip on one of the long slender traditional black boats that used to distribute goods and people along the network of canals. They were towed using a combination of feet and hands.
Also here was a working Soy Sauce factory which was fascinating. I had literally no idea how it was made. Soy beans and wheat powder are mixed with salty water and stored in these huge containers for 180 days in a sludge form. From there is is pressed and filtered and in some cases stored for a further 180 days!
It was a beautiful bustling old town full of charm and character although it did get a little crowded as people flocked in to enjoy the afternoon sunshine by the water.
In the evening we visited the birthplace of China’s most famous writer (sadly I had never heard of him but his works feature in every Chinese textbook I was told.)
Lu Xun was born and educated in Shaoxing at the end of the 19th century. He wrote many books and articles encouraging national pride among his countrymen who were suffering under Japanese oppression at the time. The language is supposedly exquisite.
Then it was on to the Yue Opera. Done in similar style to the Peking Opera (even down to the long sleeves) this was sung in the local dialect which most people don’t understand (I was not alone) however they did provide sub titles in Mandarin. Shifu gave me a running translation so that I got the gist of the story.
Boy and girl (actually cousins!) love each other and want to marry but are thwarted by his mother who has him sent away to become a government official. He sends his love a letter asking her to wait for 3 years and he will find a way for them to be together. The letter is intercepted by the mother who alters it and the girls thinks he is never coming back so she marries someone else.
On his return the son is devastated and writes her a love poem. She writes one back to him. Based on a true story the poems are part of China’s rich cultural history that has been preserved.
Their assignations all took place in a garden where the opera takes place and we were alike to wander around the beautiful setting after the performance.
On an amusing note, I had some toilet experiences today! The first was an extremely old public toilet in the Watertown. The oldest I have come across here
The second was in the gardens at the opera. It was closing time and they wanted us out so they simply pulled the plug plunging us into total darkness mid flow, leaving us with no electricity and no water! That’s one way to get your message across!!!
The Lunar festival in China lasts for 15 days and finishes today which means that everyone goes back to work tomorrow and hotel prices stop being triple the normal rates. So Shifu, Leping and XiaoMa invited me to join them on a weekend break to Shaoxing, a town located about 3 hours drive south of Shanghai. A last hurrah before we go back to school.
Our first stop was the Orchid Pavilion (although it was the wrong time of year to see any of the actual flowers) which is known as the holy land of Chinese calligraphy and has a calligraphy museum.
I wondered why this place should be so special for calligraphy and discovered an interesting tale. In 303 AD the Shaoxing area was a hotbed of culture and full of the intellectual thinkers of the day. One such was Wang Xi zhi (pronounced Wong she jer) a poet who owned some land around which he build a goose pond. Much of his calligraphy was influenced by the geese who have long, slender, curvaceous necks but who remain proud and upright. He became very renowned for his artistic style.
One day Wang invited some poet friends over for a party which involved drinking games. The games went like this: everyone sat on either side of a winding stream.
A cup of wine was floated down the stream. Whoever it floated to either had to make up a poem on the spot or drink all the wine. As you can imagine everyone got very drunk but that night from the 41 guests 38 amazing poems were produced.
It was decided to bind these poems into an anthology and as host Wang Xi zhi had the responsibility of writing the preface. I mentioned before that he and his guests were plastered but nevertheless he took up his brush and ink and in his cups he penned a piece that was absolutely astoundingly perfect in terms of both words and brush strokes.
No one has been able to better the piece then or since and even he couldn’t replicate it when he sobered up the next morning! It has become known as the best example of Chinese calligraphy ever and Wang Xi Zhi, the master craftsman. I guess the moral is that you can produce great work when you are drunk!
The piece of writing was handed down through several generations of his family until in the Tang Dynasty there were no more heirs and it was gifted to the Emperor (first husband of my namesake Wu zhi tian) who thought it was so amazing that he challenged people to copy it. Then he requested the original be buried with him! It hasn’t been seen since.
It was interesting to learn how generations of calligraphers were taught the art. They used water on slabs of stone to perfect their technique and it took 18 vats of water before they were every permitted near paper and ink!
The museum showed the evolution of chinese characters from the old flowing script to the more boxy, angular style used today. I think that I preferred the softer characters as they seem to have more energy and vitality to them.
The museum was set in beautiful grounds at the foothills of a mountain range. so we enjoyed some walks in the winter sunshine (It was about 1 degree out of the sun)
We had a chance to do some writing ourselves.
Unfortunately during the cultural revolution the stone with the name of the site inscribed on it was damaged
Fortunately the locals at the time realized how precious the stele (stone carving with the preface on) was. So they covered it up with boards. They painted party slogans over them and pretend that there was an outbreak of an infectious disease in the area. That kept the Red Army away and the stone has been preserved.
We each had an opportunity to catch a cup in the stream and say a poem.
I know several but I was told ‘short’ so I recited a bit of Australian doggerel which no one around me could understand anyway!
Apparently this game has been replicated in countries around the world amongst the literati.
Shifu bought us all a HuLu, gourd which represents the Tao with its smooth bell shape. It has a heavy bottom which balances in the earth. It expands like our dantien where our energy circulates then bulges out again to be our heart before sending the qi out to infinity. It is hollow and was used to store medicines to help people. You just hold it in your palm and roll it around, like a stress ball.
After this visit to the symbolic culture of ancient China we moved to our hotel where we were greeted at the door by a service robot who asked if it could help. (we were good)
We were well and truly back in the 21st century! China is a country of surprises sliding seamlessly from deep cultural resonances to state of the art modernity.
The next morning was Sunday 18th December, World Cup final day! I did watch the final in my hotel surrounded by some very enthusiastic Ecuadorian supporters who VERY much wanted the South American team to win; it was Argentina all the way. The celebrations after the penalty shootout finished were loud and long and raucous.
I made my way to Yana Cocha that afternoon. Yana Cocha is an institution that Inigo works for. It is a place which cares for, manages, protects and rehabilitates victims of illegal wildlife trafficking in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Yana Cocha receives animals brought in by staff from the Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment, which have been confiscated from illegal trade, or donated by their “owners”, who had raised them for various periods of time as pets. These animals are first evaluated by specialized and experienced staff to see if they can be returned to their natural habitat, but if not, they are given the best conditions to live, as close to their natural habitat as possible.
Inigo was there to receive me and showed me to my accommodation. My first night was to be in the shared cabins used by the volunteers and as I was the only male volunteer at that time, I had the place to myself.
Inside the cabin were six beds, with one made up for me. For the rest of my stay I would be in a separate cabin normally used by the park’s vet but she was leaving in the morning to return to Spain. Inigo also showed me the toilet/shower block used by the volunteers. Whilst pretty basic it did have hot water…usually!
There is also a communal dining area for the volunteers with Wi-Fi access, the only place in site where it is accessible. Three meals a day are provided Monday to Friday and the volunteers make their own provision for the weekends. They can order food in, go out and eat in the town or they can cook basic items in the kitchen area of the communal area.
I think at this point I should pass on some information about the volunteers. They come from all over the world to spend as much time as they are willing to pay for (approx $180 per week for board & lodging); one week; one month or in some cases three months. This is usually arranged through companies in Europe or the USA that specialise in placing people for this type of activity. Others book directly with the park. Many of the volunteers were backpacking around Central and South America and stopping off here to break their journey and learn about animal conservation. The day to day interactions between the volunteers was conducted mainly in English but outside the park it was Spanish all the way.
Inigo had secured the position of volunteer co-ordinator after spending two weeks as a volunteer earlier in 2022 through Kendal College. He had been working here for four months by the time I arrived. The park is owned by a single family and the day-to-day management is under the control of a lovely chap called Raul, a native of Barcelona who has an academic background in animal conservation. He is also married to one of the park owner’s daughters.
On the Monday morning I found out what is required of the volunteers. A 7.30 am breakfast followed by a run down of the days’ duties. Depending upon how many volunteers there are at any time, they are split into teams; for this week as there were only a few of us, teams of two. Each team is assigned an animal group for the day who they will have to feed, clean out if required and in some cases engage with the animal to prevent loneliness and promote activity. My first day was spent under Inigo’s wing.
I had monkeys and nocturnals. Generally feeding is done twice daily and cleaning once. The work starts in the cutting room where the food is prepared. Each animal in the park has a daily food schedule based on the animal’s age, size or specific needs. In the cutting room we prepared the fruits, seeds, meat etc to each schedule and went out, prepared buckets in hand to meet the animals.
The monkeys round involved squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys and chorongos (better known as woolly monkeys). To get to the squirrel monkeys involved taking a raft over to their island.
The chorongos were wonderfully playful and clambered all over us.
The spider monkeys liked to engage with the volunteers but we had to be very careful when working with them. They are very strong and can be unpredictable so we were not allowed to be in their enclosure with them and had to ensure that they were secure behind a locked gate before we could enter their feeding enclosure. The spider monkeys in the park were a family consisting of two adults and their offspring, a two-year-old and an infant of four months old. The adults had been rescued from a circus where they were ‘trained’ using electric shocks and suffered terribly. Raul had nursed them back to health and with the children arriving things were going well; until the week before my arrival. The male adult became sick and within 24 hours had died. An autopsy showed no signs of attack by another animal; his stomach did not have any undesirable foodstuffs in it (a possibility as visitors sometimes try to feed the animals). It was thought that some form of toxicity was responsible; maybe from a poisonous insect or possibly a poisonous frog. It was a real shock to the staff. The next problem was the female adult. Rosy, was still nursing the infant but the loss of her mate hit her terribly and she would not engage with staff; she would not eat despite everybody’s best efforts. Rosy died of grief the second day I was there. Whilst this second tragedy hit everybody hard our efforts now had to be to take care of Juanita, the two-year-old and Lpecita, the infant. Lpecita was taken into the quarantine area where she could be fed and kept warm overnight. (We may have been on the equator but at night the temperature can sometimes drop to 10 degrees C and babies can die of the cold). Also, Juanita had no experience of caring for an infant and could easily be too rough and hurt Lpecita.
Ayla with Lpecita in the quarantine area.
Each day I experienced interactions with the many animals in the care of Yana Cocha; mammals, birds, carnivores. I think my favourite was Yala, an Andean Fox who was so happy to see the volunteers each day that she became like a puppy, jumping up on our backs, demanding tummy rubs and kisses. Yala was also in need of activity so we would run around her compound letting her chase us so that she did not become too sedentary.
My other favourites were the toucans. Yana Cocha has three, one of them, Tuco, is a real naughty chap who will try to bite you every time you enter his enclosure but he was a real character (fortunately toucan bites do not hurt).
The interactions with the animals were wonderful but we were there to work so at the end of the day the cleaning of cutting room, the chopping boards and feeding buckets had to be done.
It wasn’t all work though, one evening the kids (my term for the volunteers who ranged in age from 19 to 37) decided to go out clubbing in town. The local town, Puyo, was a $3 taxi ride away. If, like us that evening, there needed to be multiple occupancy of the taxi then the Ecuadorian solution was a taxi pickup truck, with 4 people inside and as many as you could fit in the back (not sure this was strictly legal in Ecuador but it’s what happens). The evening skies turned amazing colours.
Puyo is a town with a population of 36,600 and does have its own pub/club area. We started off with shots in a bar called Leprechauns (the most unIrish, Irish bar I’ve ever been to) before getting our groove on in a club called Mambo.
It is many years since my clubbing days and I’m pretty sure I was the only pensioner in there! But it was great fun and to my surprise I was able to get up for the 7.30 breakfast call the next morning.
My final Saturday was Christmas eve and the owners asked if we would like to go to their other site called Tamandua, which was an ecolodge set in 70 hectares of primary Amazon rain forest that was also used as a release site for animals that were deemed suitable for returning to their natural environment. We would travel there in the afternoon and stay overnight and have a Christmas day breakfast there. We would also experience the release of a three toed sloth back into the jungle. Most of the volunteers said yes (it was going to cost $40 each) and we bundled ourselves into another pickup taxi for the hour’s drive to the lodge. We could only get to within 1 km of the lodge by vehicle so we walked the extra distance. The setting was spectacular and the views stunning.
The lodge only has electricity between 6pm and 10pm so after that we had to make do with firelight until the early hours of Christmas morning.
Unlike my fellow travellers I managed to get up early to watch the humming birds visiting the flowers and bushes around the lodge (unfortunately they were too quick for me to get any good photographs of them). After breakfast we assembled for the release. Inigo took us into the jungle a short distance from the lodge and scouted out suitable trees on which to let our sloth go. Finally he was satisfied and we brought the basket to the tree and opened the cage door…our sloth was having none of it! It took nearly a half hour of coaxing and tipping of the basket before it decided to grab hold of the tree trunk, but once it did it was off, up into the canopy like…like someone who had all the time in the world.
All too soon it was Monday morning and I had to say my goodbyes to Inigo and the volunteers. I was full of admiration for these intrepid travellers who with varying degrees of Spanish had been jumping from country to country with confidence and a desire to find out what was over the next horizon. I was also full of admiration for Inigo who had taken on this job 9000km away from home with scant knowledge of Spanish but has thrived. He organises the volunteers’ daily duties, acts as a right hand to Raul and obviously cares very much for the animals in his charge. His understanding of Spanish now is also impressive. I would like to thank him and the rest of the volunteers I worked with for their understanding because despite my thinking that preparing and distributing food to the animals would be fairly easy, it is in fact very physical and early in the week I was exhausted by the end of each day. By my last rounds I found it much easier but I could not have done it without everyone’s support.
On leaving Yana Cocha I once again undertook the 5-hour journey by taxi to Quito. This time in daylight in a car whose brakes worked (thankfully) … but the driver still drove like a man possessed. I had booked an hotel in the Centro Historico area of Quito, the capital of Ecuador and it is regarded as the least altered and best-preserved city centre in the Americas. It started out as a conquistador town called San Francisco de Quito in 1534 with many buildings from this period still there today. The area while being the home to many thousands of locals is very much a tourist destination with many bars, cafes and restaurants to be found. The position gives quite wonderful outlooks.
The city of Quito sits at nearly 3000m above sea level, the second highest capital city in the world. This means that altitude sickness can be an issue for sea level dwellers like me. I did not suffer from any sickness fortunately but even walking up small inclines caused me to get short of breath and when I decided to walk up to the Basilica del Voto Nacional that was on the top of a steep set of streets, my lungs really struggled to catch a breath (I needed a 10 minute sit down before I could continue). A strange experience even for a seasoned traveler like me!
One thing to note from my time here was the security situation. All around the Centro Historico was an enhanced police presence; there seemed to be police officers on every corner. At one point I was approached by a lady from the tourist police who asked where I was from and advised me to stay within this area as it was not safe for tourists if they wandered into adjacent districts.
Was this area safe due to the large police presence, or, was it so unsafe that it needed a large police presence. Maybe both were true. Comically, on my last day I saw some police officers doing filming on the street. I stopped to watch and one of the officers approached me and asked if I would do a piece to camera with them. I of course agreed and three takes later it was in the can. I was told it would be uploaded onto the Policia Nacional Facebook page the next day. It appeared five days later, but my part was cut. Maybe my passing resemblance to Walter White from Breaking Bad had something to do with it.
I spent three nights in Quito and used it to relax, sit in some lovely cafes and watch the world go by. A great ending to an unforgettable experience.
For additional information about Yana Cocha go to:
Lisa has asked me to be a guest contributor so that I can tell the world about my adventures in the Ecuadorian jungle during Christmas 2022.
As a bit of background, I returned back to the UK from Shanghai in the summer of 2022 just as our youngest son, Inigo, took off to Ecuador to take up a position as volunteer co-ordinator at a wildlife conservation park in the Amazon jungle. I invited myself to join him for Christmas! (I did ask his permission). I flew out of Manchester on the 17th Dec via Amsterdam and arrived in Quito, the capital of Ecuador at 4.15 pm.
Inigo had arranged a taxi to pick me up from the airport but there was no one with my name on a board at arrivals. Dang! Once on the airport wifi the taxi driver contacted me, in Spanish, to say he was there but he still did not manage to find the pale, white bearded foreigner standing by the only Christmas tree in arrivals for over twenty minutes! However, we did eventually meet up and he took me to our taxi; a small but seemingly reasonable looking Chevrolet.
My opinion changed rapidly as soon as we began to move and came to our first junction (still in the airport car park!) The brakes screamed as metal on metal tends to! Oh Lord, what have I let myself in for? He drove for about fifteen minutes and then took me into what appeared to be an industrial estate of some kind, pointing to the front of the car and explaining something to me in Spanish, which I do not speak! A few turns later he drove into the forecourt of what looked like a car workshop, leapt out of the car and went deep into conversation with a man who was under the bonnet of another car in the yard. Returning, he gestured to me to get out of the car as the mechanic was going to change the brakes. Phew!
The car was put on a lift and the front wheels removed. Excellent I thought, this will calm my nerves, new brakes. The old pads were removed and the mechanic’s wife sent off to find new ones. A ten-minute wait until she returned but apparently they did not have any of this type in their stock! The worn-out pads were put back on the car. Gulp. My driver shrugged in the way that only Ecuadorians can, got back in the car and off we went again.
The journey should take between four and five hours Inigo told me and we were only thirty minutes into it. By now it was getting dark. On the equator, the days and nights are generally of the same length so sunrise and sunset don’t change much throughout the year. Inigo had told me that Ecuadorian taxi drivers are by nature somewhat reckless in their approach to driving and my driver was no exception. He drove fast; very fast; around corners, overtaking, any gap he thought he could squeeze the Chevrolet into. I know that UK roads are poor with rough surfaces and potholes, but, when Ecuadorian roads have potholes, they can be like mini ravines in the road. All the drivers weave across the road to miss these holes but sometimes they miscalculate; my driver included. Going around some hair pin bends he hit a huge hole in the road; bang, the car lurched to the left and we came to a stop. Driver gets out, goes to the front driver’s side wheel and slams his hand onto the car wing. We have a puncture. There were actually two bangs at the time so I feared we had lost two tyres but fortunately it was just the one. Time to change the wheel. My suitcase out of the boot and spare wheel out. I think at this time I should tell you that the darkness was total. It was pitch dark. Our car had its lights on and hazards too but they seemed inconsequential in the all-consuming blackness; until the lorries came. The road we were on was not a major road; just an ordinary two-way road but still a much used artery for freight and every thirty seconds or so a lorry would come at speed from behind us or towards us around a bend. I felt somewhat exposed holding a phone torch over the driver as he changed the wheel in the middle of the road. I wasn’t sure that I was going to make it to Puyo…
But we did it and got on our way. After another two hours we drove into what looked like a pit stop. A petrol station on one side of the road and a row of small shops and cafes on the other side with lorries and coaches parked up nearby. We drove off the road into a gap between two properties (at this point I honestly thought the driver was taking some sort of back route to avoid a police checkpoint) but he did stop; it was a 24h tyre shop. Explaining our woes to the mechanic, once again the car was lifted up, this time to check that the rear driver’s side tyre hadn’t in fact been damaged by the pothole and to replace the damaged tyre in our boot. We once again had five functioning tyres for our four wheels. Did I mention the brakes weren’t working properly, yes all through this the sound of metal on metal was the background to the journey. Still two and a half hours driving to go!
The rest of the journey was pale by comparison; excessive speeding, overtaking on blind corners, skirting around bits of missing road, all this was now just commonplace. Finally, we approached Puyo, the town where I was to spend the night in a local hotel before joining Inigo:
My driver did not know where the hotel was. He had multiple attempts to punch the address into the Satnav on his phone (whilst still driving of course) but could not find it. He resorted to phoning a friend. A result; he now knew where to go so at about 11pm we pulled off the road into the hotel. Fortunately, I had told them I would be arriving late so there was someone there to meet me. My five-hour trip cost me 100 USD (Ecuador uses US Dollars as its currency) and my relief as I fell into my hotel bed was overwhelming. At this point I realised that my jaw was aching; for the whole trip I had been clenching my jaw and only once I relaxed did I feel the pain!