China is a gargantuan nation where even the smallest municipalities can have larger populations than many a European or American city.With so much space to cover and so many stories to tell, it's all too easy to just focus on the next big adventure and trying to discover the "real China," but sometimes the real China is what's right in front of you, down the alley where you might head out to buy water and toilet paper every other day, and not on that 12-hour hard seat trip through the jungles of Guangxi.In City Watch we strive to uncover some of these little-known cities with a lot to offer, if only you know where to look. >>>
An unassuming little county level town in Zhejiang, Haining (Hǎiníng Shì, 海宁市) sits 65 kilometers west of Hangzhou and 125 east of Shanghai and with a population of just 640,000, it's small potatoes when it comes to Chinese conurbations. For it's relatively small scale however, Haining leaves a fairly hefty footprint and is best known for two things: its leather industry and wave-watching... it's one of the best spots around to watch the mighty Qiantang River tidal bore.
The history of Haining dates back 6,000 years and the area is credited as the birthplace of the Neolithic Liangzhu culture (liángzhǔ wénhuà, 良 渚文化), known for its advanced agricultural methods, irrigation, rice paddy cultivation and houses built on stilts overhanging the river banks that became widespread throughout Zhejiang and the Yangtze River Delta. Fast-forward a few thousand years to the Western Han Dynasty and Emperor Wu, and Haining became a seat of salt production, utilizing the salt tides that flowed up river from the mouth of the Hangzhou Bay. These same salt tides were to become, and remain to this day, one of the most prominent and unusual features of Haining and its riverside regions, drawing millions of tourist every year to witness the curious phenomenon of the Qiantang River tidal bore, nicknamed "The Silver Dragon."
[pullquote]... waves [can reach] up to nine meters in height on the 18th day of the 8th lunar month (in 2011 this falls on 25 September...[/pullquote]Caused by a combination of gravitational pull and the pressure of the rising tide forcing a surge of water through the narrow bottle neck of the Hangzhou Bay, the Qiantang tidal bore is one of the biggest tidal bores in the world and situated just 2.5 kilometers from the mouth of the Hangzhou Bay, Haining offers some of the most spectacular viewpoints. Though the tidal bore occurs to varying degrees with every high tide, it can reach epic proportions around the time of the Mid-Autumn Festival with waves of up to nine meters in height on the 18th day of the 8th lunar month (in 2011 this falls on 25 September).
For the last 2,000 years folks have been flocking there to witness this peculiar and frankly awe-inspiring sight where the river goes from low to high tide in moments as a single rushing wave sweeps by. Accompanied by a noise said to be like a thousand thundering horses, the Silver Dragon certainly arrives with a roar.
Cashing in on this natural phenomenon, an annual "wave-watching" festival was instituted in Haining in 1994 with the Yanguan Ancient Town (Yánguān Gǔchéng Chéng, 盐官古城城) scenic area along the river tailored to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of spectators.
Since 2008, a team of pro-surfers get in the water to ride the Silver Dragon, an epic ride that can last up to 2 hours and cover about 5 kilometers but to witness this you'll have to head further up river to Hangzhou and the Surfing China Expo. Haining's Yanguan however, is a cool little spot with a number of other attractions to enjoy while you're waiting around for the arrival of the wave, but be sure to make your way to the wave viewing pavilion in good time... it gets BUSY and you may find yourself getting a better view holding your camera up over your head than with your own eyes.
Fun and games in Yanguan
Around the time of the festival Yanguan is buzzing with activity. There are street vendors at every turn hawking popcorn, sweet potatoes and candied haw apples and tooth-breaking honeycomb. Loud music pumps out from small shops and families wander and browse the sideshow stands while some rebellious (and brave) young souls get tattooed in tents that boast pictures of fresh inks surrounded by painfully red flesh. If you're not up for an impromptu tattoo—and we very much advise against it having seen the unhygienic conditions—then you can instead amuse yourself by shooting pellet guns at battered metal targets or launching rings around a random collection of faux-jade objects, each of which could make you the proud owner of a giant stuffed animal.
Wander down the old Ming Dynasty tourist street and sample some of the local hong shao rou, a delicious take on the Zhejiang classic, this is a sticky, sweet chunks of fatty pork braised to melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness. Among the usual souvenirs (fans, hats, chopsticks and paintings etc.) you might also like to pick up another local specialty... a pair of super-sharp, locally-produced well-made, large-handled scissors that you'll see vendors using to cut up everything from meat to candy.
Say hello to the Sea God...
There are a number of interesting historical spots along this strip starting with the Temple of the Sea God at the Great Eastern Gate. Built during the Qing Dynasty in 1731, the temple was dedicated to the Sea God of the Qiantang River and when you see the tidal bore, you'll understand why the town was keen to stay on his good side. This may sound light-hearted but do take note of safety signs as every year, the sea god sweeps away a tourist or two who did not pay attention to the warnings and strayed too close the waters edge.
After you've explored Yanguan and watched the wave, then head into Haining proper and Leather World (Hǎiníng Pígé Chéng, 海宁皮革城) for a spot of serious shopping.
A whole lot o' leather
As China's leading leather producer and exporter of all things leather and fur-related, Haining handles a quarter of the world's leather and fur trade products so you could well have had contact with a little piece of Haining without ever knowing a thing! To put things into context a little, Haining is said to produce a leather wallet every three seconds, a leather sofa set every 48 seconds and a leather coat every 1.3 seconds. That's a whole lot of leather and to get your own piece of the action head to Leather City where over 2,000 businesses sell wallets, purses, bags, clothing and accessories and you can pick yourself up a bargain—just be sure to bargain hard and you'll get prices down by up to 50%
When you're done shopping, pop upstairs to the second floor where you can catch a free leather shadow puppet performance (Pi Ying Shi). A part of Zhejiang province's cultural heritage, the shows are put on by a local troupe and supported by the government to promote the ailing art. In a somewhat surprising twist, Haining's Leather City was even named as a state-level 4A tourist spot which puts it on a par with the Great Wall of China, Huang Shan and Hangzhou's West Lake!