What I like so much about the French is that they are unapologetic about the past.
Take hunting. Three hundred years ago every French aristocrat hunted, for sport. They glorified hunting. Famous artists painted portraits of them standing over their quarry, puffed with pride and lace cravats. They collected hunting horns and muskets and the heads of their prey, mounted on walls.
That was then. But rather than bow to modern social mores and pretend it was an embarrassing aspect of their history best forgotten, they have built a shrine to hunting and its glorious past in Paris.
It was a rainy day like this when I visited the site of what was once the Shanghai Watch Factory (Shanghai Shoubiao Chang 上海手表厂)
The Shanghai Watch Factory was the very first in China, founded in 1958. Watches became important status symbols, one of the ‘Three Bigs’ (san da jian 三大件) necessary for a groom to bring to a marriage. The evolution of the ‘Three Bigs’ over time is a telling narrative on the startling development of China’s market economy and the sophistication of its consumers. In the 1970s the three desirables were a watch, a sewing machine (or radio), and a bicycle. In the 1980s this became a watch, a television, and a refrigerator, and in the 1990s a television, a refrigerator and a car. By the 2000s a wedding in Shanghai was unlikely to proceed unless the groom could deliver a car, an apartment and a computer.
“Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.” So goes advice for a long life from American writer and nutritionist Adelle Davis (1904-1974).
It’s a guilty pleasure of mine, to dine out often for breakfast, and I always think of Adelle’s quote as I do so, tucking into a steamer basket full of dumplings, or scrambled eggs and hot tea. If it’s a cold day or I’m very hungry, I usually have a bowl of comforting wonton soup at the breakfast shop Fujian Dumpling Soup King on Xiangyang Lu. I like Dumpling Soup King because it has proper tables and chairs and sometimes I just want to sit for breakfast, rather than standing and walking with my food. Can you imagine trying to eat a bowl of wonton soup while walking? Messy.
The other nice thing about Dumpling Soup King is they don’t mind if you bring food from any of the other breakfast shops alongside. Many customers like to eat something with crunch (like youtiao fried dough sticks, or crispy rice squares, or crisp-bottomed shengjianbao dumplings) with their soft, slippery soup.
What I love about Guizhou just as much as its jade rivers, green mountains and beautiful people is the serendipity of the place. Surprising things seem to happen in Guizhou constantly, and if you travel through it for an hour, or better still, a day, you’ll be certain to happen across something extraordinary just by chance.
When travelling I try to stay open to the possibility of a random encounter, even if it means changing my schedule, or missing something else.
I live by one travel rule: When the travel gods throw a crumb in your path, you need to pick it up and follow the trail. Don’t step over the crumb. Don’t ignore it.
These serendipitous experiences have formed some of my richest travel memories, like the time we met Chinese National Geographic photographer Big Mountain (his real name) and accompanied him to a Miao village ancestor’s feast; or the time we visited cave-dwelling paper-makers, and the time I was invited to an impromptu house-warming feast for four hundred people.
So on my visit to Guizhou last month we drove past a group of men huddled by the banks of a green, green river, on our way to Shidong Market.