I don’t often go to Australia for Christmas. I’ve done so twice in my 9 years in China and both times because I was a bridesmaid in a wedding at the same time. This year I gatecrashed the plans of the people closest to family (outside the real thing). My friends Amanda and Andrew live in Shanghai and a group of their friends have a Christmas tradition to go to Moganshan for a few days and have Christmas together with their children. I sort of invited myself and very much appreciated their grace in letting me do so :)
Moganshan (莫干山) is a mountain resort area in Zhejiang province (not far south of Hangzhou), about 3 hours’ drive from Shanghai. It was first settled by missionary families in the late 1800s as a summer retreat – an escape from the hot and humid weather of Shanghai. Within a few decades wealthy foreigners were building sprawling houses with tennis courts and swimming pools (about 300 expats had summer home there by 1910). Stories of Moganshan at that time invariably include lists of the famous and powerful people of that time who summered there. Now, 20% of the area is owned by the government.
Mark Kitto (author of China Cuckoo, and a lovely guy who signed copies of his book and stopped in to check on us on our last morning) started a trend of foreigners once again escaping the city by travelling to Moganshan. The house we stayed in was one of several his wife renovated and rents out.
Anyway! I flew in to Hangzhou (delayed, as I explained in my last post) and was picked up by a driver who took me straight to the house. Andrew came down to carry my bag and we walked up a steep slope of narrow stone steps beneath stands of tall, drooping bamboo. Bamboo had been the only thing I could make out in the darkness as we climbed the narrow winding road up the mountain.
The house is a restored old home and is charming. The group (12 adults and 9 children, including me) had rented the whole 9 bedroom place. When I came in the Dads were putting kids to bed and the Mums were sitting by the wood-burning stove. My room was just up the narrow wooden staircase. I had my own bathroom and a door to the balcony outside, the view from which was mostly bamboo, and across the hill to more houses – although they were hard to make out.
We spent the next day cooking up a storm ahead of an amazing Christmas Eve dinner. There were as many courses as people – turkey, stuffing, ham, mashed potatoes, carrots, brussel sprouts, green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, spiced pumpkin scones… We were nearly too full for dessert! Of course that didn’t stop me eating one of Amanda’s luscious chocolate-raspberry cheesecakes :)
The next morning was Christmas, and everyone had a stocking hanging along the stairwell. I got Timtams! There were also presents under the tree and it was fun to watch all the kids ripping into them. I spoke to my parents (and grandparents, aunt and uncle – they were all together) as well as each of my sisters and my brother-in-law. They all got to speak to Amanda, too – such a fun family vibe. That evening the adults had secret Santa – another of their traditions. Each wrapped gift had a poem attached, from which the group had to guess who the present was for. I was amazed at how great some of the poems were! I received a cache of Aussie chocolate which I very much appreciated.
It was really nice to be in a “family group” – watching kids with their presents (and watching their “concert”), good food and wine and meeting some nice people. Mostly it was wonderful to spend time with my favourite almost-family family, enjoying their two kids and how much they’ve grown (although since I hadn’t seen their 6 month old daughter since the day after she was born, a little growth was to be expected).
It was a lovely two days, and one of the Shanghai ladies said how she wished we could stay another day. Little did we know then how the next day would shape up! We awoke to snow – it had fallen most of the night and there was a good inch on the ground. It was fun for the kids to play in but wreaked havoc with travel plans. We looked into the price to stay another night, and guessed whether the road conditions would be better or worse later, looking at weather reports and talking to people.
Eventually, one group decided to try going down with the only guy on the mountain in possession of snow chains, and meet their driver at the foot of the mountain (where it was too warm for snow). That worked well, so for the next few hours the same guy drove up and down ferrying everyone down. I was in the last group to go down in the late afternoon.
We got back to Shanghai around 7:30 and I went out to meet with one of my girls who had moved from Beijing a few months ago. We spent a lovely couple of hours chatting – was SO good to see her. The next day Amanda and I went shopping for art supplies and she let me go crazy painting over a black soot stain on the master bedroom wall. On my last day we walked over to the Pearl Market for some shopping before I had to leave to catch my flight back to Beijing. This flight went off without a hitch (other than horrid traffic leaving the airport – it snowed most of the way home) and I had 11 hours at home before leaving for Cambodia – but that’s a story for another post…