Sunday, January 9, 2011

Changsha: Just Explore

During my many visits to China, I've found (repeatedly) the best way to learn the true nature of a city and discover it's treasures is to simply explore... I do this by taking a daily walk in the morning or afternoon, and each day I head out in a different direction from my hotel. One day north, the next day east, etc. I'll walk one hour, just following my intuition and letting fate lead me, and then return back to the hotel using different streets. This method never fails to deliver... always bring your camera!

Never more than a few blocks from corporate China are the street markets, sections of old neighborhoods that have evolved into hubs of commerce. I come across these in every Chinese city, always full of activity, always offering perspective into the daily lives of the Chinese people. With fierce loyalty they support their neighborhood market sellers, restaurants, businesses and shops... it keeps the entire local community strong, both economically and spiritually.

Tofu is a specialty of Changsha. During one afternoon walk I came upon school students who were being let out for the day. Outside the school gates were a group of street food vendors, mobbed by hungry kids... and these kids are demanding too, better make it as ordered or next time business goes elsewhere, ha! Parents and grandparents are waiting after school to escort the younger ones home. The older kids go shopping, to restaurants, or to internet cafes (packed on weekends).

Gradually, all over China, older neighborhoods are being transformed into modern shopping and living districts. You can't go anywhere in the city without seeing cranes and scaffolding. It's all very pedestrian oriented, and pure walking streets are growing in popularity with these new development projects too... you'll see tea houses, bars, restaurants, boutiques, salons, antique shops, and yes, Starbucks is appearing here and there (though not in Changsha - yet), along with the Pacific Coffee Company.

What impresses me again and again about China is the active nature of the older generation... retired or not, they love to gather in the public parks morning, afternoon and evening... playing badminton, exercising, dancing, singing, performing music, playing Mahjong or cards, performing stage plays, or just chatting. The Chinese are a very social people, and it's evident in the restaurants too... families, friends or groups of business people gathered around large lazy susans, with dishes galore.

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