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Will Hand Made Shoes, Fuxing Lu

As you well know, I am a shoe obsessive, but I have been trying to keep shoes out of this because it’s all about Shanghai, not shoes. But if the two happen to intersect……
I was actually of a mind to keep this place completely secret, because it’s too incredible, but I can’t help telling you about it. On Fuxing Xi Lu is a small, wonderful hand-made shoes shop. If you’re thinking it will be cheap, it’s not, but it’s about one sixth the cost of having made-to-measure shoes done anywhere else in the world. And I know about these things. 
You go in, choose a style, choose the leather for the outside and the inside (Italian or local leathers, according to your taste and your budget).  Then you have an outline of your foot made, and a multitude of measurements taken. 
Now for the hard part. You wait four weeks. Four weeks to make anything in Shanghai is completely unheard of, in a city where new buildings pop up practically overnight and a custom tuxedo can be whipped up in three days. If you’re not too fussy, you can get a cashmere coat made overnight, but the sleeves will probably be held on with sticky tape. So it’s quite reassuring to know that your shoes will take time to make, and will be made properly.
The results you can see for yourself. A perfect pair of oxford brogues, with a bit of whimsy on the toe in the punched detail and the stitching. 

Fuxing Park Pensioner Devils

Whenever I get back to Shanghai after a trip, I like to wander around Fuxing Park and check that all the usual stuff is going on in the ‘hood. Backwards walking, check. Ballroom dancing, check. Inspirational Communist singing, check. There are thousands of activities taking place. Personally, I’m always impressed by the mature-age diablo fiends. You know what a diablo is, don’t you – a brightly coloured dumb-bell shaped plastic thingy, beloved of kids and hippy wannabe circus performers in other parts of the world. But in China, spinning the diablo is a retirement activity. Their primary coloured diablos whizz around them making an extraordinary noise, and they can do all sorts of incredble tricks. But today, as with every day in Shanghai, I saw something I’d never seen before. Masked, multi-diablo masters. A whole bunch of the devils.

So lets start with one diablo…….I’m just warming up

So easy….

Let’s try four at once and see what happens…

Ah!……..what skill! 

I can do four too!
Yes! Four diablos all at once! OK, OK too easy. But eight…….is eight possible??
Uh….no. Chinese Elvis! It didn’t work because you’re not wearing your mask!
Get yourself untangled and make way for the Grand Diablo Master…..despite his age, his arthritis, and not wearing his mask……..
He can do it! Twelve! Twelve spinning diablos!! Applause please!

Not Heaven For Pigs

So that meltingly tender pork with shaved bamboo shoots I ate last night? Turns out that aged salt-preserved pork is the specialty of Xidi and every available outdoor wall is hung with giant meaty pork legs and pig’s heads. Every time you turn a corner you come eye to eye with one. Perhaps it’s called the Pig’s Heaven Inn because pigs who taste this good must surely go to heaven…… 
Now I’ m really not squeamish about what I eat, and although it makes no logical sense whatsoever, I kind of hope I ate the bits from the leg, and not the head. 

The Pig’s Heaven Inn, Xidi

After the long climb down Huang Shan, all 18km of it, we took our wobbling knees off for a quiet rest in Xidi, another ancient Unesco World Heritage Village. Xidi sits in the midst of fields of yellow-flowering rapeseed, orchards of pink-flowering peach and rows and rows of green sprouting vegetables. A stream of fresh water is channelled to run past the front door of all the houses, and following it, we were led by and by to the wonderful Pig’s Heaven Inn. 

As you push open the heavy oak door of this 400-year old house, set in a high white wall topped with black tiles, you enter a quiet light-filled stone courtyard. Stand in the courtyard and look around you – you will see a heavy stone altar holding a small buddha, a high-ceilinged wooden chamber with a square elm table and four stools, positioned to catch the most sunlight, and a high wooden wall hung with calligraphy and ink paintings. High up on each side of the courtyard are the intricately carved lattice shutters lending privacy to the rooms upstairs. 

I climbed the old stairs leading to the upper floor and noticed a small window closed with solid wooden shutters. As I opened them, they revealed the sight of all the Xidi rooftops, and an ancient stone bowl.  

The dinner we ate that night was nothing short of a feast, made with ingredients only from Xidi village and cooked in the house’s large kitchen. There was a whole chicken in aromatic broth (I do mean whole- head, feet, everything), meltingly tender pork slices with shaved winter bamboo shoots, wild herbs, water weeds with chillies, braised tofu with black cloud fungus, and slices of roasted pumpkin with ginger. It was accompanied by a stoneware bottle of the famous local huang jiu – yellow wine.  De-lic-ious.

The Pig’s Heaven Inn
Xidi Village
ph +86 559 5154555

This is one of a series of posts about Huang Shan and its stunning surrounds.  Read about climbing Huang Shan and then coming down Huang Shan and about the local specialty – salt pork – best eaten in the delightful village of Hongcun.

Huang Shan – Coming Down

Huang Shan, like Mogan Shan, is endowed with 4 wonderfulnesses – Oddly shaped pines, Hot Springs, Weird Rocks, and Clouds. The mountains are shrouded in cloud on most days of the year, and today was one of those. Sometimes the clouds nestle just between the mountains, a cloud-like sea with mountain peaks for islands. At other times everything is covered in a dense damp fog that swallows noise and turns hulking rocks into vague threatening shapes, like icebergs rearing up out of ocean mists. 

And so began the long walk down the mountain by the Southern Steps. The first two hours of the six hour walk went up and over several peaks before the inevitable downward path, and I’m sure at points along the way there would have been spectacular views on a clear day, but all I could see was the dense fog and the convincing sensation that three steps from the path would lead me to the edge of a yawning chasm, and certain death. 
But I had good company on the way down, and we probably enjoyed the quiet and mysterious feel of a mountain in cloud just as much as we enjoyed the spectacular views of the previous day. All the way down we passed porters bringing up goods to the kiosks and hotels on the mountain top. They were short and stocky, with a resigned and stoic air, and carried carefully balanced loads on either end of a bamboo pole across their shoulders. Every 20 steps or so they would stop, adjust their 40kg loads, and continue. Never once did I see one look up at the path ahead. Better to just look at your feet and concentrate on a step at a time.

Love Locks, Huang Shan

The ways of showing your love are a little different in China. Forget the flowers, the his-and-hers mobile phone thingies. I’m talking about something really meaningful and permanent, although it will require a bit of effort on your part.
Firstly, take your love to a romantic spot with a really good view, for example, Huang Shan. Next, buy a padlock from one of the mountain padlock vendors, and have it engraved with a poignant and loving message by one of the mountain padlock engravers. You think I’m kidding, don’t you. I thought I might take all my silverware up and get that engraved too, it would probably be quite cheap, say, after the Valentine’s Day rush.
Now, attach your padlock to the chain fence separating you and your lover from the edge of the abyss. Throw away the key, preferably into the abyss and not just on the pathway behind you. 
Now your love will last forever. Promise.
By the way, Mr Cheapskate…….a used bicycle lock will not do and I bet you two broke up soon afterwards. What were you thinking??

Huang Shan, Going Up

There are two ways up Huangshan, you can either walk (steep, long, requires stamina beyond mere mortals) or you can take the cable car. Let me tell you about the cable car, because I would have to pretend I knew something about the walk. 

As I stepped into the cable car’s little green bubble I was very cheered up by the ‘Made in Austria’ sign on the engine wheel. Not to say that ‘Made in China’ is not synonymous with high standards of safety and quality. Just that those Austrians are quite particular and thorough about making things that don’t fall apart. Like cuckoo clocks. And it was a long way up. 
‘It’s not so steep’ I thought, until we reached the summit of the first peak and I looked down into a small valley, then up, up, up to the highest point in the photo between the two summits. A long way in a bubble, and really quite extremely steep, and as we hit the crosswinds and swayed about, a few hundred metres off the ground, I found it very helpful to keep repeating ‘Made in Austria, Made in Austria, Made in Austria’ til my feet were firmly on the ground of the White Goose Ridge Station. Guess I’ll be walking down then.


Hongcun, a tiny rural village near Huang Shan, got forgotten as the rest of China marched purposefully towards modernity and a gleaming capitalist future. Thank heavens – now Unesco has recognised it, and nearby Xidi village, as World Heritage sites.

After arriving in the dark, with just the sliveriest sliver of a moon in the sky, we were led from the road down a narrow alleyway to our guest house, Hongda Tingyuan, set behind a high stone wall. I had no clear idea of my bearings, or of what the village would be like in daylight. At night, it was too dark to see anything at all. 

The early morning revealed a clear sky, and a beautiful and ancient village centred around curved Moon Lake, around whose edges the villagers were washing their clothes, their vegetables, and their hair.

The high-walled village alleyways unwind from two giant central trees – a poplar and a gingko, and lead outwards through a maze of twists and turns to a small rushing river, and fields of vegetables and flowering rapeseed. I could feel Shanghai’s noise and crush falling away.

Huang Shan – the Great Yellow Mountain

As amazing as Shanghai is, sometimes you just need to get out. A long way out, to somewhere where the stars are visible at night and traffic is non-existent. For the last 4 days I’ve been on an odyssey of sorts to a different China – one where life moves more slowly and nature is central.
Six hours south-west of Shanghai, in beautiful Anhui province, lies a range of 74 mountains collectively called Huang Shan (literally Yellow Mountain), but individually named much more poetically –  Celestial Peak, Monkey Watching the Sea, The Immortal Pointing the Way, Monkey Holding a Peach in Both Hands, Rosy Cloud Peak, and Heavenly Dog Watching the Moon.  
The first vision of Huang Shan is from below , where I am filled with the magnificent power of these mountains. Rising vertically and precipitously from skirts of heavily wooded forest, the pale rose granite looms above me, distantly crowned with clusters of windswept pines. 
The mountain top is for tomorrow, though. Tonight, exhausted from the long journey, I will be sleeping heavily nearby in the village of Hongcun.

St Patrick’s Day in Shanghai

Happy St Patrick’s Day to Irishmen everywhere. A surprisingly large number of people with Irish heritage live here in Shanghai and they all turned out for the St Patrick’s Day Parade in Fuxing Park on the weekend. Or maybe they turned out for the stout.  There was lots of green, white and orange and a sea of giant black velvet leprechaun hats, being given out by the Murphy’s Irish Stout crowd. A marching band from the Shanghai Community International School led the way, there was Irish dancing, Irish music, a Chinese-Irish dragon, and 6 Chinese blokes in wolf costumes. I have no idea what that was about.