As planned, today I took it easy, logging 45km between the old watertown of Nanxun and a place on the map marked only as “Taihu Paradise”. If it’s a tour of Taihu, then a stop in paradise is a must. I had a strong suspicion that I would find there the “Moon Hotel”, the brand new Ma Yansong designed Sheraton that not only rocketed around the world via the internet but also graced the cover of City Weekend’s summer travel special this year. And indeed I did. Fitting to be sure. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The road between Qibu and Taihu Paradise is great. New tarmac, hardly any traffic. Six months ago it probably would have been an unpassable wreck, now it’s delightful. First thing I noticed was that the algae problem in the lake is pretty big over here. Much worse than I have seen anywhere else–football fields of yellow and green carpeting the surface of the lake about a half km offshore. From the Google Earth image above you can see a bit of a blotch and I imagine that is what is being picked up.
I saw a few crab farmers and stopped into one and started chatting with the people–very friendly. He raises and harvests the crabs and then sells them to wholesalers who put them in markets from Shanghai to Hong Kong. He was extremely proud of the fact that these were real-deal Taihu crabs. And what makes a real-deal Taihu crab is that it’s raised in real Taihu water without hormones or drugs or disinfectants.
I walked out on his pier and examined a few of the big square pens half submerged in Taihu water with a few crabs scuttering around in the bottom. Outside the pens small fish swam around. “This water is as pure as mineral water!” the crab farmer told me proudly. In Shanghai the crabs retail for RM280/jin (half a kilo). In Hong Kong and Macau, much more.
I asked him about the green-yellow algae, “hai cao”–sea grass–in Chinese. I asked him if it negatively affected his livelihood. To my surprise, he said no. Turns out crabs eat this stuff. Was it affecting the fish? A little bit, he said. Anyway, he didn’t seem concerned about it, even though he admitted it wasn’t nice to look at and the government wasn’t doing anything about it.
I watched him and his team bring in a few basketsfull of crabs, pouring them clacking and clawing into a big plastic tub, then sorting into smaller tubs the males and females. They look quite a lot like the hairy crabs from Yangcheng Lake with that little mat of fur topping the pincers.
I said goodbye and got back on my bike and was wondering how they would taste when suddenly I saw by the side of the road what looked like a restaurant by the lake with a couple of tables on a porch attached to a wooden shack. The tables were full of locals having a ball, drinking and feasting. I crossed the wooden pier and introduced myself and asked if I could eat. They looked a bit surprised, but after a lot of “where are you from-ing” they said sure. I went down to their pier and selected two crabs–a male and a female–and the woman disappeared to cook them up.
There was no space at the tables so they set me up on a boat moored to the pier with my two crabs–now a perfect steaming pink–and a plate of green veggies. I went to town. Man, those things tasted great. Fresh and sweet. My hands were an absolute mess. There’s no artful way of eating a Taihu crab. Some of the other guests came down to watch my progress and laugh at how inept I was at eating them. But they were satisfied because I was satisfied. One of the best meals I’ve had in some time.
As I left, I made a discovery–this was not a restaurant at all. It was another crab harvesting business which had just opened and that just so happened today to be hosting an opening party feast to which all the friends and relatives and local bigwigs had been invited. I was a total party crasher! I laughed about it as I pulled away on my bike–you make a lucky feast and then this random laowai shows up. Good omen or bad?
I pushed down the road at a leisurely pace. Sun illuminating blue skies above me. Hypnotically pedalling. Finally I came to Huzhou and Taihu Paradise. This place is ultra-weird. It’s totally new, very nice, with brand new villa complexes that look like Leave It To freaking Beaver, put Jinqiao/Shunyi to shame. Of course it feels very Stepford Wives. But not even that because Stepford Wives had something that resembled people. There is no one here. It’s empty. The villas, the restaurants, the Sheraton hotel–all of it empty.
The only life I saw were a busload of Chinese tourists and a few desultory couples doing wedding photos. I stopped at the Sheraton to ask about rooms. RMB2,888 I was quoted, jaw hit ground. With service fee that’s like US$500. There’s not a Sheraton in the world that costs that much. Taihu’s paradise feels mafioso to me–classic Chinese style.
The kicker though is the Chinese junks moored off shore. Must be half dozen of them. They present a very striking image from a distance. Get closer and you realize these are just typical local boats fitted with those junk-style sails. Around 6pm everyday the owners of the boats pack down the sails and motor their boats back home. That’s their job.
From ancient to modern. Which one is the illusion?
What I learned today:
1. Don’t make assumptions. In typical liberal fashion–I had been so sure that the algae must be killing the local economy. Not quite that simple.
2. When you cycle long distances, buy riser bars. Or have a bike that is an absolute perfect fit.
3. Taihu crabs taste really really good.
Villas in Huzhou
The Sheraton close up (you can see the fake Chinese junks to the right)
I hope that your day turned sunny and warm and that you got back on-line. Around 8 p.m. for you now; it is 8 a.m. for us. Thinking of you, always.
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