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The Dragon Stairs Market, Qian Dao Hu

Colourful markets are front and centre of the Chinese way of life, and most people won’t buy their daily cooking supplies anywhere else. Supermarkets are plentiful, for sure, but nothing beats a street market or wet market for absolute freshness. Why make a special trip to the supermarket when you can easily get what you need, every day, on the way to or from work?
 In Qian Dao Hu township, the market stretches all the way up and down these imperial carved Dragon Stairs, with wares spread out in baskets, crates, and on tarpaulins.  Today the corn (dark gold, pale gold, and white) eggplants, and lotus root are looking great. 
The Dragon Stairs wind down through the town past loads of kitchenware shops selling steamer baskets, claypots, earthenware bowls and glass pickle jars. I had a ball – and although I would have loved to buy some mushrooms and lotus root, I’m staying in a hotel with nowhere to cook, so instead I bought a tin vegetable peeler, a rugged home-made grater, a 3-tier tin and bamboo steamer, and some serving spoons. Much hilarity all round at what the crazy foreigner might be needing a 1 yuan (16c) vegetable peeler for. 
Peeling vegetables maybe? 

Fish on a Stick!

The best street snack in Qian Dao Hu is the local lake fish, gently salted and spiced, and grilled on a stick to make it easy to eat. No mess, just spit out the bones as you go.

The perfect side dish for fish on a stick is a peeled, hand-held cucumber. The bristly bumps are peeled off to order, and you simply hold it by the unpeeled skinny end, like a giant cucumber popsicle. Fish in one hand, cucumber in the other, bite them in alternating fashion for the perfect lake-side fast food lunch.
After buying this fantastic snack, we inadvertently attracted a crowd. Again. Staring intently, the locals could see that in fact, weiguoren (foreigners) eat fish and cucumbers exactly the same way that they do. Only we’re not very good at spitting out the little bones without getting them stuck on our chins.

A Very Chinese Day Out…On The Lake

Sunshine! Blue skies! Sparkling blue water! Time for a day out on the lake, the whopping big one I can see from my hotel window. There seem to be boats of all sizes shooting all over it, so boat trips must be the thing to do at Qian Dao Hu. We make our way to the wharf to check it out, imagining hiring a little private boat for the day to tootle around a few islands, take a swim in the lake’s clear waters, have a bit of a nature walk, and be home in time for tea. 
Down at the wharf there is a buzzing, noisy carnival atmosphere, with people swarming everywhere and the whole place covered in coloured bunting and Chinese flags. Surprisingly there are no touts and no private operators hedging for business – the entire lake is run by the government, and is open to tourism in a very precribed and rigid fashion. You may take one of two boat trips. Each trip will visit three different isands. You may purchase lunch on the boat.  Full stop.
So we buy tickets to something. A boat trip hopefully. We buy drinks and snacks in case we misunderstood the bit about buying lunch on the boat, and set off down to the jetty. There are hundreds of identical boats in two sizes, and thousands of people in every direction. It’s at this point that it hits us. We are the only foreigners in Qian Dao Hu for as far as the eye can see. It’s a place surprisingly invisible to most non-Chinese tourists, thanks to the fact that it doesn’t make it into Lonely Planet China, Frommer’s, Eyewitness, or any other guide. Tripadvisor – nothing. But clearly every person in China has heard of it, because it looks like most of them are here.

Dozens of people look at our tickets, and helpfully point us to the right boat, which we board in a rush along with about 160 Chinese tourists. Now in Shanghai, foreigners are nothing special. We’re everywhere. But go off the beaten track and you are suddenly a person of intense interest. After about, oh, ten seconds of shyness, there is an all-out bunfight for the seats next to us. The questions begin before we’ve even pulled away from the wharf. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘How old are your children?’ ‘Do they study Chinese?’ ‘What kind of school do they go to?’ ‘Isn’t it expensive?’ ‘How do you like life in China?’
The boat guide stands up and the boat is suddenly filled with her voice amplified to maximum. It’s almost painful. There are lots of lake facts to get through, square metreage, number of islands, that kind of thing, then there is a long discussion about the really important part of the tour – lunch. The menu runs to twenty different hot dishes. I can’t imagine where or how they will make all of this food, because the whole boat seems to be taken up with seating space. Then, as another boat passes close by us, I spy the open-air kitchen on the aft deck of the boat. Nothing more than a few pots, and a gas-fired wok burner. Genius. We order fish, soup, and two vegetable dishes.

Before we eat though, we make our first island stop – San Tan Island. There are already twenty-three boats parked, but we just sound the fog-horn and ram in between two others. No problem! As we leave across the tiny gangplank the guide brands us all with a sticker bearing the boat’s number, just in case. But there is no chance of making off on our own because we stand out too much. Everywhere we step we hear ‘Weiguoren! Weiguoren!’ (Foreigners! Foreigners!) We get herded along with everyone else into electric golf carts to what we assume will be a hill-top view over the water. It’s not. It’s a snake park. (Actually, apparently it’s a Sanke Park, but we get the drift). A sadder Sanke Park I have never seen, and the highlight is a snake oil seller, giving away a free cigarette lighter with every bottle. Then off again to a peacock farm. And then a moth and butterfly house. And a fish museum with eight specimens. All of this inside fifty minutes, then back on the boat. The guide looks very relieved that she hasn’t lost the foreigners along the way.

Now it’s lunchtime! When we re-board the boat our lunch is already laid out. A whole lake-fish cooked with chili and scallions, a seaweed soup, a surprisingly delicious dish of black fungus, and a stir-fried cabbage dish. With rice, it comes to 80 yuan ($13). I’ve just eaten the last mouthful when we pull up at our second stop – Monkey Island. 

There are just a thousand or so people on the tiny island, and all of them are desperate to feed the few hundred monkeys with popcorn or mandarins. The monkeys are sensibly mucking around up in the trees, to avoid being loved to death by the hordes below. We’re allowed 15 minutes before we have to be back on the boat,  just long enough to shuffle along the path and shuffle back again. 
I’m feeling a bit like the monkeys at this stage, because we’re attracting just as much attention amongst the tourists from other boats. Information spreads ahead of us between them, and I can hear they already know where we come from and how much our school fees are. At least they’re not trying to feed us popcorn, but instead continually offer up their children to practice some of that English they’ve been learning at school. The kids, of course, hide behind their parents and say nothing until we’ve walked past, then shout ‘Hello!!’ to our backs.
Our last stop is Meifeng Island, and at last, a view. We take a chairlift to the top of Meifing Peak where the view is absolutely spectacular, and for a few short minutes we escape the crowds and find a quiet path along the peak. The islands spread out below us as the sun starts to dip in the sky. 
Now, for reasons not yet clear to me, whenever there is a tourist spot high on a hill in China, there is always a fast way to get back down. Like The Great Wall, for example – climb up to the majestic wall, consider Chinese history in all its glory, then take a luge back down the hill. Meifing Peak was no exception – they offered China’s Longest Fake Grass Slide. Now there’s a light you shouldn’t hide under a bushel. It was terrifying hurtling down the hill on a plastic bucket, but there you go. We survived.

And then back on the boat for the final leg home. Our fellow passengers look highly pleased with the amount they’ve accomplished in six short hours. Snakes! Peacocks! Moths! Monkeys! Chairlifts and grass slides! It’s been an exhausting and ever-so-Chinese all day adventure. 

Can we have a rest day tomorrow? Please?

Menu Reading for the Illiterate in Qian Dao Hu

October National Day Holiday is five long days of vacation, or for some lucky devils, a whole week off. Last night we travelled to Qian Dao Hu (Thousand Island Lake) about 4 hours drive southwest of Shanghai for a few days’ break. Everyone in China is on holidays, and every holiday destination is going to be packed to the rafters, but we hope by traveling far from Shanghai we might have a little bit of peace and quiet. We’ll have to wait and see.
I was hoping to show you the beauty of the lake, but when we arrive it is shrouded in darkness, so we head straight out to find some dinner. Lake fish is the local specialty, and every restaurant lining the main street has huge lakeside windows filled top to bottom with fish tanks. You could maybe see the lake if it weren’t for the live fish and crustaceans obscuring your view, but for many Chinese people, the sight of food you’re about to eat is the best view of all!
The restaurant we eat at is chosen on the basis that a restaurant tout grabs us as we walk past, when we make the fatal error of a sideways glance into the inside of the restaurant.  For her, that’s all the encouragement she needs to haul us inside by the elbow and plonk at us a table. The waitress hurries over with an order pad, and hands me my worst nightmare – a picture-less menu typed all in Chinese. I could just randomly point and order, but I’ve had several disasters with this method in the past. Realising my inability to read, she leads me over to the best invention for the illiterate – the pictorial menu wall.
The menu wall looks like a kindergarten reading primer with large pictures of various dishes photographed on candy-coloured tablecloths. If you’re still not sure, below the menu is a variety of baskets filled with vegetables and different kinds of shellfish and snails to choose from. I point, she points, we decide on a few dishes.
I wish I could say that this was the best meal of river fish I’d ever eaten, but there are times when the menu wall is the best thing about a restaurant, no matter where in the world you are. No wonder the tout needed to be so persuasive! The food was at best, non-descript, and at worst, poorly cooked and flavourless.  Never mind. There are plenty more restaurants to choose from over the next few days, and we’re bound to have a great meal at one of them. And tomorrow, there’s a lake and a thousand islands to explore.