Algae Park and Three Goats

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You can say about 95% percent of the Changzhou’s public parks have a unique identity. Xianhu Park 仙湖公园 is no different, but this one has a subtly strange and schizophrenic vibe to it.  This place is located in Yaoguan Township 遥观镇 in Wujin, in what used to Changzhou’s eastern Qishuyan district. This is nowhere near Hutang and the parts of Wujin most expats know. Yaoguan is definitely small town China within Changzhou’s city boundaries. I am sometimes out around these parts because of corporate trainings Hohai University organizes with some of the railway companies like CRRC out here. The park itself is split into two by Jianshe Road 建设路.

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Notice the white car? The owner is washing it using buckets of the “canal-pond water.”

 

One half of the park has a lot of brick and stone work, giving the water a canal-like feel without actually feeding into any canals. In this regard, it looks a lot like a man made urban pond.

 

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There are two sets of statues here suggesting industrial themes. Unlike other parks, there are no explanatory plaques or Chinese wisdom idioms attached to give a greater meaning. Perhaps the biggest “this is not urban Changzhou” indicator was this …

 

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There were three goats roaming around and eating everything from the grass and the bushes. Some of these animals had collars and leashes, so it is safe to assume that these are not feral, marauding goats. These were domesticated. Nearby, there was a woman washing something in the “canal-pond” water. I didn’t feel like being nosy about what she was actually washing. So, I didn’t take a picture of her. It is likely safe to assume the goats were hers. If you were to cross Jianshe Road to the park’s other half, you would see this.

 

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There are a lot of walkways, but notice the surface of the oibd. There is a thick, very green algae skin to the water here. By the way, the person with net is not fishing. Typically, a very big algae population like this makes water low in oxygen an not habitable. This person was not fishing out garbage, either.

 

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This person was actually harvesting the algae itself. While that may sound weird to some, algae has a lot of uses like as a farmland fertilizer. There are also chemical compounds that can be extracted and multi-purposed in food production, wastewater treatment, and much more.

Essentially, this is a profoundly local park. Changzhou has places like Qingfeng, Hongmei, and others that are meant for mass public and tourist use, and Xianhu Park is not one of them. I found this place because I was already in Qishuyan on a teaching assignment and just wandering around my ebike.

However, this place is also a positive reminder that what I like to call Real Changzhou; this city is vast and more storied than what some foreigners might think. There is life beyond Xinbei, the city center, and Hutang. I don’t mean that as, “Ooh, this is quaint.” I mean that in this exists, it is here, and it is part of Changzhou.

 

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A New Take on Steak

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When my father came to visit a few weeks ago, he was pretty burnt out on Chinese food. Before stepping off the train in Changzhou, he had spent about three weeks traveling the Middle Kingdom and saw sights like Lhasa, Tibet, the Mekong River, and more. He ate a lot of noodles. He ate a lot of rice. He had his fair share of dumplings, and he told me he had more than enough.

That posed a bit of a problem.  The day he arrived here, he settled into Hohai University’s guest center and asked, “Where are we going for lunch? I am starving.” Given that he was dead set against Chinese food, I was at a quandary. Where would we eat? I figured the two of us would walk over to Wanda Plaza, and the rest would eventually play out. McDonald’s or KFC would have been an a last resort. We ended up on the fourth floor, at a place called Tom’s Steak Cafeteria.

 

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The food was not good at all. In fact, I really hated it; I hide to pick chucks of non-chewable gristle out of my mouth. However, as my dad and I ate and caught up on family news, there was another thought in the back of my head. Places like Tom’s are pretty standard, and dismal, attempts at western cuisine. There are lots of places in China that try to do steak this way: sizzle a thin, very cheap slab of beef on a metal hot plate, crack open an egg, and serve spaghetti with a type of tomato sauce that likely came out of a can.

If an expat has lived in Changzhou for quite awhile, they will know steak places like this were the majority options a few years ago, if you wanted to eat something remotely western. Yes, there are fancy hotel restaurants and places like Jagerwirt that do steak well, but that is more of a fine dining experience and can be rather pricey — especially if you are eating on a university teacher’s salary and not an engineer’s or business person’s. However, times change. There seems to be a new trend going on Changzhou.

 

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Tiny, affordable steak places are popping up in malls like Wanda and Injoy. These places take a profoundly different approach than the standard Chinese steak restaurants. Think of these places as high-end snack bars. They don’t use hot metal plates. The sides of corn kernels and cold, faux-Italian noodles are gone, too. And seriously, good riddance. These places tend to strip away everything in the name of sheer simplicity. It’s actually kind of beautiful, from a culinary minimalist perspective.

 

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You pick your steak from a display case. You have a choice several different types of cuts. They weigh your meat and charge you by the gram. You also specify how red or not-red you want your meat. They cook it on a grill, season it, and serve it to you with a simple salad.

I can’t speak for the other places in this regard. The pictures are from Niuhaha at Xinbei’s Wanda Plaza. So, if a place is going to serve steak with very few embellishments, how was the quality of meat? I mean, the simplicity puts an extra emphasis on the steak itself, because there are no distractions like a pile of corn or a bunch of flavorless noodles? If the meat is bad, then the meal itself will fail miserably.

 

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What I had at Niuhaha was very, very good. They use imported Australian beef. It was cooked well with the right amount of juiciness and the amount of pepper and other seasonings was just about right. Now, is this the same as getting a steak at a place like Monkey King or Chocolate’s? No. Of course not. Don’t be freaking silly. That is steak as fine dining, and I will still go back those places when I want a sit down meal with friends and colleagues or am on a date. This is, as I said earlier, more of a cheaper fast-food approach.

I tried Niuhaha after I took my dad to Pudong International in Shanghai and said goodbye. My father has since returned to America. However, as I was enjoying my steak salad afterwards, something else dawned on me. Across the way, on Wanda’s fourth floor, was Tom’s Steak Cafeteria. It made me think. On my father’s first day of visiting, I had so wished I said, “Hey, Dad! Let’s try that tiny steak place over there!” We would have had a more satisfying meal if I had.

Following City River

The Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal 京杭大运河 Běi háng dà yùnhé is the longest artificial waterway in the world, and it has retained that title for thousands of years. This canal is rich with history, and it passes through Changzhou. Like natural rivers, it has many off shoots and “tributaries.” One of these passes through the city center. As far as I can tell, this section is called 城河 Chéng hé, but I have seen that name used only once and in Chinese on a sign downtown. It literally means “City River,” so I am going to assume that is its name in English. I thought it might be interesting to follow this narrow canal from where it begins to where it ends.

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We start at Yanling Road on the edge of downtown. There is a point where it looks like the canal forks at Dongpo Park. This is deceiving. This part of the park is actually an island and the canal flows around it.

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The fork happens behind the “mainland” part of Dongpo Park. Truth be told, this part is not as picturesque. To the right in the above photo, you can see the curved roof corner of the gatehouse. This, essentially, blocks off City River from the main canal. So, presently, people cannot get boats onto this narrow waterway.

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For a good bit, City River parallels Yanling Road. It passes under this bridge and pavilion — which features a statue of two guys playing Chinese chess.

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It continues on as it passes in front of Hongmei Park and the entrance to Tianning Temple. Then, right before Wenhuagong — where they are building the downtown subway station — it veers away of Yanling.

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To maintain eye contact with the water, I had to leave Yanling and follow Chungui Road. This is basically a street that runs in front of a residential buildings, so there isn’t much to see here.

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City River eventually flows under Heping Road near a big Agricultural Bank of China branch office. I used to wonder why this bridge was here. Basically, it’s much, much older than Heping itself, and the street had to be built over the canal. This bridge faces Qingguo Lane, but that alley is shut off due to it being renovated into a historical district.

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You can tell Qingguo is undergoing massive restoration because, simply put, the houses on the right do not look as run down and dilapidated as they did years ago. It was from this point on I realized why this tiny waterway was dug in the first place.

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The renovation bit can’t be said for the other part of Qingguo that is more residential, but the thought I had remained unchanged. China has a lot of canals. If you think about it, they were a necessity a thousand years ago. Since these are artificial rivers, there really are no tides or currents when compared to something like the Yangtze. It makes traveling by boat in between cities easier than using horses and traveling over land. This is especially important if you are trying to transport cargo from one city to the next. This is why you still see barges using the canals to this very day. Not only are these canals ancient, but they still have a practical use.

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Okay, that explains the practicality of The Grand Canal, but why does City River exist? Qingguo Lane is where a many, many historical figures in Changzhou once lived. The above photo is the part of the canal that runs past Nandajie, Laimeng, and Bar Street. This canal, and the other small ones like it, allowed the citizens of ancient Changzhou easy access to the main body of water. So, eons ago, if you were wealthy and influential, you likely wanted to live near the canal. You would have had quick and easy access to what was, back then, the mass transit system.

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City River ends at what is called, in English, the West Gate. This is near the city boundary wall dating back to the Ming Dynasty. It’s also near the west entrance to Laimeng — the area where there is a lot of restaurants on the second floor. It’s also not that far from Injoy Plaza. This gatehouse also blocks access to this canal. So, in that way, its preserved, and you will likely never actually see a private boat traveling this waterway.

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If this were a bygone era, this is where you would see vessals from City River getting onto the canal proper. If you head west, you would end up in Zhenjiang. East would take you to Wuxi, which like Changzhou, has it’s own network of small canals branching off the main one in its city center. What I have learned, recently, is that if you want to understand the ancient history of a town — whether it’s Zhenjiang, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Wuxi, or even Changzhou, you have to understand why the canals were excavated in the first place. I also realized that if you’re going to go aimlessly wandering looking history and culture, one way is to just follow the path of the canal.