At home in Weishan

P1110099Weishan is unexpected. I thought it was going to be another old town preserved for history and culture, kept ‘authentically’ crumbling for visitors to see what an ancient space is like, or worse, disneyfied for tourists. But Weishan is nothing like any of that. It is truly authentic – one of those rare places where life is still very much the same as it has always been for centuries. In the main thoroughfare of the old town, residents go about their day to day – getting a haircut, chatting with old friends, buying hand-made noodles. When people talk about authentic spaces, it could mean authenticity in architectural terms or that a space is well-preserved in keeping with or as close to history as possible. In Weishan, authentic means it is still in use, very much lived in, well kept not because someone decided to preserve a town. It is well kept because it is in use.

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Donkey meat anyone?

It was past one by the time we arrived at Weishan from Donglianhua and we were famished. Our guide brought us to this restaurant. He tried to explain to me what it is we were eating. He kept saying this was a delicacy and I kept giving the I-don’t-get-it look until he said, “It’s like a small horse, you know, those that carry heavy loads around.” And I thought ah, okay maybe he meant some kind of oxen. And we have eaten horsemeat before (sashimi style too!) in Japan so that did not faze me. If it was horse, okay I could deal with it.

Wasn’t until we were seated and I glanced up at the plaque above me on the wall that it dawned on me. Small horse = donkey! I was aghast but it was too late. We had ordered and worse of all, everything – yes EVERYTHING on the menu was donkey meat. We ended up with donkey stew, donkey soup, minced donkey, stir fried donkey. I ate very little that day. All I can say is donkey is gamey. And I kept thinking of Shrek’s sidekick with every bite. So yes, that did not go down well. Plus it was one of the more expensive meals in our trip and infinitely least satisfying.

Luckily the rest of the afternoon exploring Weishan’s pedestrian zone was much happier.

P1110070Weishan’s distinctive landmark of the old town centre is Gongchen tower, first erected in the Ming dynasty. It stood for several hundred years until it was destroyed by fire in 2015. The upper wooden portion has since been rebuilt but the massive stone wall is original. Imagine standing on the walls and looking out across the plains for miles.

Beyond the vermillion walls, are the slate grey roofs of the old town with the main street stretching beyond a kilometre. Flanking this long street are hairdressers, tea houses, antique shops, noodle-makers and more. The buildings here have stood for several hundred years and today, continue to serve the residents of the town.

Shopkeepers here are relaxed and friendly. It was one of the rare times that a shopkeeper genially told me to take my time to look around his shop which sold curios. “Feel free to look around and ask me anything. You don’t have to buy anything if nothing catches your eye,” he reassured me.

P1110094We looked like we were the only tourists around. Most of the people we saw were residents – mothers taking toddlers out for a walk, shopkeepers just shooting the breeze with each other, old grannies perched curbside for a good goss, like so:

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Nothing fancy and a long way from Starbucks, but just as it was in the old days, the men still pack the tea house in search of company and a good game of chess with a nice cup of tea. On the menu: Green tea, osmanthus tea, chrysanthemum tea and others. You could sit here for hours with the right brew and the right company.

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Spotted someone getting a hair cut:

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Not hidden behind glassfronts, here you get your hair cut in full public view.

And with the popularity of lucky couplets for the home, calligraphy shops are still alive and well here:

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Chairman Mao is still popular as a calendar pin-up in 1997.

Weishan was well-known for its hand-made noodles but it was a pity we didn’t get to try any. At least we got to see how they are dried:

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The shops are interesting but follow the narrow corridors to the hidden courtyards for a peek into a different way of life. Some residents convert their courtyard into a makeshift stall and generally have no issues with you walking in, but if you do meet anyone, just ask politely if this is okay. More often than not, they would be okay to let you have a look around. This is one typical courtyard we wandered into:

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And as always I like to look down paths that cut away from the main street to see doorways and entrances like this:

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Like many old towns, Weishan’s new town grew  around the old core. But even the newer parts of town had a pleasant feel. No highrises or crazy traffic, the scale is kept walkable and manageable. Just outside the historic core is the Confucian academy, the town library, a small park and playgound with slides. My kids enjoyed a whooping slide run just before we left.

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At sunset, birdsong floods the air in this little park.

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This lovely relief at the old Confucian academy really lets the imagination take flight.

In another part of the grounds, a pavilion has been taken over by a group of friends absorbed in a card game:

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Weishan just gives me the feeling that it is a community very much at home in its skin. No need to put on a show for tourists, no need to change the way they have lived. Laidback and comfortable, Weishan has put its visitors at ease for hundreds of years and continues to do so today.

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