Traveling to Wuzhen was a bona fide hero's journey, full of difficulties and perils. Let's break this down:
- THE ORDINARY WORLD: I had been unhappy in my job. The usual: bored, not challenged enough, most definitely not paid enough. I was aching for some adventure, or at least something new to shake my life up.
- THE CALL TO ADVENTURE: The chance to travel to China arises. I was excited to explore my native land, cover at least the coast, at an age when I can appreciate what I find.
- REFUSAL OF THE CALL: My family in Tianjin tried to lay waste to my plans of seeing Shanghai & Singapore. I was shaky in my native tongue, and danger lurked around every dark city corner! Plus, tickets were hard to come by during the Golden Week. Most everything, including hotels, were booked. They succeeded on the Singapore front.
- MEETING WITH THE MENTOR: My older cousin comes up with an altruistic proposal when the cause seemed to be lost. He sacrificed his vacation to welcome me into his home in Wuxi, just a short train ride away from Shanghai, and allowed me to stay with his wife and friend. He knew the southeast coast well, and agreed to escort me around safely. I felt a slight twinge of guilt, but was very grateful and didn't want to give up the opportunity.
- CROSSING THE THRESHOLD: We embark on a 5 hour train ride to Wuxi from Tianjin. At least we had seats.
- TESTS, ALLIES & ENEMIES: My cousin's wife and his roommate were both especially friendly. She could speak a few lines of English, which really helped to fill in the gaps when I drew blanks in Mandarin. They took me to the local festival my first night. The architecture, people, and nightlife dazzled. I learned how to translate Starbucks to Chinese!
- APPROACH/THE ORDEAL: My cousin and his wife suggested a 2-day stay at the Wuzhen Guest House. We took the half-hour train ride into Shanghai, had lunch, then spent a grueling second train ride traveling to I don't even remember where anymore. I also cannot recall the length of the ride, but I do know we stood in that packed compartment for at least 20 stops. We arrived at a nondescript town in shades of gray. For the past 2 days, the skies had been drizzling nonstop. South China had recently been hit with a monsoon. The next 2 days were no better. This had its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage was part of the REWARD, which is coming up. But first, we walked past parallel rows of rusted blue buggies waiting outside of our stop. Drivers walked up to, then trailed after us offering their services. We boarded a bus and luckily we got seats. The streets were flooded with a solid 8 inches of rainwater, yet the driver sped through the wake like it was smooth concrete. He also swerved sharply every few feet to bypass other cars and honked profusely for good measure. I really thought I would meet my end on that public bus. Stepping off eagerly, we were met with more torrential rain. Umbrellas did not alleviate the discomfort. Our shoes and pant legs were sopping wet and we stopped at a small store to purchase slides. It was a good distance walk to the entrance of the hotel's "lobby." My cousin checked in and we proceeded to the back courtyard. The building turned out to be the greeting center of a conglomerate of essentially small B&Bs. The navigation to our place was the enchantment.
- THE REWARD: We took a short trolley ride into the complex maze ahead. It was either that or a rudimentary ferry down a winding dark river. As the sky was still trickling, and we were wet enough already, we opted for dry(er) land. Getting off the trolley, it took us a long time to find our particular building. I contributed in no way as I was looking around in awe at the old Chinese architecture: everything was remarkably preserved. Those shuttered doors, cobblestoned alleyways, the glowing red lanterns strung down the arched stone bridges...the night was magic. I felt as if we had stepped back in time. A temple loomed beyond the main quarters and people roamed leisurely amongst the few shops still open at that time of night. The architecture was still repurposed for modern life and tourism but yet...Wuzhen felt less excavated and more soulful than Wuxi. A different family manned each individual building within the complex. They provided you with home cooked meals morning, noon, and night. We finally found our way after many wrong turns. Our room was beautifully old-fashioned with large mahogany four-poster beds and shuttered windows. The bathroom was modern, for which I was grateful! Our hosts called us downstairs to dinner and laid out multiple delectable dishes of meat and vegetables along with hot soup and steamed rice. After our bellies were laden down with too much of a good thing, we walked late into the night. Sadly, we had to leave the next morning. I took a solitary walk through the premises once again but Wuzhen held a different feeling in the light of day. Hopefully one day I shall return.
Well, I suppose that's not a complete hero's journey: the road back, the resurrection, and the return with the elixir...perhaps not so profound of an experience to call for such things! I do know that Wuzhen has definitely become one of my favorite places on earth. A little slice of paradise that is all the more precious for being part of a vanishing breed.