Day 9. Zhangjiagang. Sunday 28th Oct.
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Being a Sunday, there was no solar again today. In fact the next two days were VERY planned as Mike, Ann and I were guests of the Zhangjiagang government. Zhangjiagang is Portland’s sister-city.
Mike was to do official duties while Ann and I were basically shown a good time. But first we met more of the Zhangjiagang government representatives that were to look after us including Bo who has a role of being the personal assistant of people from Portland and Zhangjiagang's other sister-cities. But first, breakfast.
The hotel breakfast room was unsurprisingly huge, opulent, and attended by dozens of staff. It felt like stepping into a Victorian colonial era movie. And yes the food was great. I skipped the range of western choices and had Chinese with chopsticks. I was to learn later that the hotel had 12 restaurants, several commercial kitchens and over 200 private dining rooms.
After breakfast Ann and I joined a large delegation from Zhangjiagang's German sister-city and started our cultural tour. We started with what can only be described as a display town of 10,000 people. The people who somehow get permission to live here have no expenses, got a base salary, could still have a job to earn more income (which is tax free) and were encouraged to live here for generations. Oh and the conditions were pretty amazing, with clean streets & nature-strips, many shops and very good housing. Like I said - a display town which I think was made to show Chinese and the World just what was possible. After that we went to an eco-park which was a sprawling network of little man-made lakes, islands, and canals with different themes and activities in each area. It was all very good and quite well done - but had a feeling to me of being a little "manufactured" which I guess it really was.
I'd never really met Ann before by the way. We stuck together and got along really well. She's good fun.
After the morning tour we went for a lunch banquet. This was back in the hotel in one of the private dining rooms and the food was many, varied, and yes incredibly good. I was enjoying getting used to it!
Mike and the other "officials" then joined us again and we spent the afternoon with another tour - to the city's best secondary college (with kids doing exams on Sunday so as not to disrupt their weekday studies) and then to a large artificial lake that was a city focal point - complete with beaches which had a permanent ban on swimming. 15 German delegates were with us and there was lots of good friendly banter among the Chinese, Germans and us Aussies.
We got back to our hotel for an hours rest before the BIG banquet was to take place - which was a formal dinner before going to Zhangjiagang's annual music concert which was the official reason we were there.
I rested by going for a run through the streets of Zhangjiagang, looking for the side of the city that wasn't part of our tour. And of course I found it in the back-ways and alleys. It was China after all, with the same sights, smells, and (friendly) faces as everywhere else I'd been. After the run and a quick shower I rejoined the delegates and we went to a very large dining room full of hundreds of invited guests. This was the big one!
The food started coming out along with the alcohol and it wasn't long before the first of many many toasts were offered. Ganbei! Once full and just a tiny bit drunk, we boarded a network of buses and headed for the stadium. Even this little journey was an experience. The city had rigged all traffic lights to be green for us, and Police waved cars and pedestrians out of our way. With only a kilometre or so to travel, we were obviously there in no time. It was quite ridiculous – in a good way.
The concert itself was Zhangjiagang's biggest of the year, and a packed out sporting stadium was the venue with near-constant lasers, fireworks and neon lights. The crowd was mostly teenagers which reflected the acts on offer - the concert had shifted away from its traditional cultural and opera roots to having the who's who of the Chinese pop music industry. This was the Big Day Out - Chinese style. Oh and security? Soldiers and police were everywhere. In fact they showed us to our VIP seats and would quickly force any of the tens of thousands of people to sit down if they got too enthusiastic and tried to stand up to cheer.
The first few songs were very formal traditional songs, and if I could interpret one of them that an old woman was belting out I'm sure it would have said something like "Dear China, my loving homeland so strong and skies so blue – your mighty rivers are my lifeblood". But for the most part the music was soft pop, and the Chinese LOVE soft pop. The first hour was a little... uninspiring (to my musical tastes) but once the really big name acts came out and once the soldiers completely lost control of the crowd it was great fun. There was a really cool heavy-beat song that I really enjoyed. The last act was apparently a local Justin Beiber and the kids weren't just standing up, they were jumping on their chairs and screaming their heads off. It was great to see!
The concert closed with the loudest fireworks I've ever heard - and Mike, Ann and I declined the VIP buses and walked back to our Palac - sorry our Hotel, had a beer in the circular restaurant on top of the hotel and headed off to our rooms at midnight.
Day 10. Zhangjiagang. Monday 29th Oct. >>