November 26th: Hot Springs and Love Jenga

After the hike

Me, Rachel, Jeff, Bron, Stefan, Emily, Bruce, Anca, Patrick, Echo and Jane after the hike. Hot springs awaiting…

For those who know me well; do not worry.  What follows is not an account of some kind of spiritual awakening, nor is it an attempt to connect with my inner self (or even my middle self, content and paunch-like as it is).  And as such, If I do ever utter* anything even vaguely akin to “being at one with nature” then I vow to immediately stop the blog, come home to the UK and reconnect with my hidden Scouse self.

On Sunday we returned from another weekend away in the mountains.  This time a mere 4 ½  hour bus journey away, near a place called Anji in North Zhejiang province.  A group of 13 in total; 7 of us (including Bron and I) from a group of local friends sufficiently intrigued by the offer of hot springs atop a mountain, 5 other interested people and Jeff, our guide (a Chinese guy with a French accent  – because he lived in Denmark for 5 years).

So on Sunday lunchtime, instead of lying on the sofa watching DVDs or heading to the local supermarket, we find ourselves outdoors on top of a mountain wearing swimming gear, sitting in a Jasmine infused hot spring with the rest of the group.  We watch the cold mist spreading across the mountain through the bamboo forest (all visible from our hot spring) whilst Echo** starts to sing a traditional Chinese song (about Jasmine, funnily enough).  My brain never normally shuts off, constantly working at 100mph, so this was all a little unusual for me.  Relaxing, peaceful, and so different to anything we’re ever likely to experience in Shanghai.  No need to dress this up as anything else – just a bloody lovely way to spend a Sunday.

Bron and the waterfall

Bron guarding the waterfall

Jumping from hot spring to hot spring (for there were many) was also a great experience – a few seconds of very cold temperatures followed by long spells enjoying the warmth of the hot springs.  We also tried out the water massages, fish-that-nibble-your-feet (well, Bronwen did) and a human jet-wash – plenty of other water-based ways to keep visitors amused.

We’d met up with Jeff and co on Friday evening to begin our bus journey, arriving in the village of LongWang (literally “Dragon King”) just before midnight.  Our lodgings could be considered halfway between a hostel and a 2-star hotel – individual rooms but freezing cold.  Each room had an air-conditioner theoretically capable of blowing out hot air but in actuality only capable of circulating an asthmatically wheezed puff of tepid air at random intervals.

Narrow paths...

The start of the narrow min-canal path

On Saturday we were accompanied by the local mayor on a hike up through the mountains on 1000 year old paths leading from one village to another.  Nothing too strenuous and plenty of time to appreciate the surroundings.  High up in the mountains they’d built an ingenious mini-canal to collect the water and force it into a single point of entry in the village, providing the locals with both electricity and water.  Part of the hike involved walking along the edge of this mini-canal; the walls were about one foot wide, so with a sheer drop one side and water on the other, the hike slowed down significantly.

Before the days of technology, the village of LongWang was famous for paper made from local bamboo.  Far too much detail to go into here, but with the amount of effort required to produce a single sheet of paper (as demonstrated to us) it’s no wonder an industrialised solution was found.

House on a mountain

Our hosts for a cup of tea halfway up a mountain

On Saturday night, our evening of food (served in part by the local mayor), Jenga and cards were accompanied by a mysteriously yellow coloured rice wine, which swiftly became the drinking punishment.  I’m quite happy playing cards but I didn’t know there was a “Love” version of Jenga.  Think of normal Jenga but with forfeits written on each block.  Our version was in Chinese with an English translation underneath; sample forfeit (verbatim) “Make a queer smile”.

So following Sunday’s hike up to the hot spring and several hours of relaxation, we had a slow, reluctant trip back to Shanghai.  Nothing spiritual going on here, but one of the best weekends we’ve had since arriving in China, with a great bunch of people.

On Thursday night we were honoured (nay, privileged) to be invited by Rachel and Andrea to join them at an American (is there any other kind?) Thanksgiving event at the Boxing Cat Brewery.  I have to admit being somewhat trepadicious for fear of being whooped and hollered to death (if Brits are occasionally like Mr Bean, then Americans are occasionally like Dog the Bounty Hunter), but despite Rachel’s attempts to secure the contrary, we ended up on a comparatively quiet floor.  Shedloads of food, free-flowing drinks (including specially brewed “pumpkin ale” which tastes a lot better than it sounds) and a top night all in all.  If China is neutral territory for the Brits and the Yanks, Bron and I were understandably outnumbered on Thursday night.  The first Thanksgiving meal I’ve had since living in the US many years ago; good to experience a little bit (well, a huge amount) of Americana here in Shanghai.  Either that or my first Christmas meal of 2012.

* if one can utter on a blog

**a footnote solely for fans of the Sega Megadrive: Echo, one of the Chinese girls in the group, not Echo the Dolphin.

November 18th: An Art Deco Abattoir


A bus load of people outside Qiandeng

The months of October and November represent hairy cab season in Shanghai.  Farmed in speciality lakes between Shanghai and Suzhou, the crabs draw vast crowds of visitors from neighbouring provinces.  On Saturday, our Marketing Team arranged a coach trip to experience them first hand, along with a visit to a couple of local scenic spots.  I’m aware that with some foods there’s an art to eating them, but this was the most complex thing I’ve ever been faced with; dissecting a rat in biology lessons at school was far simpler.  The crabs don’t come with instructions but require a different technique  for the male and female of the species, and different rules for which bits of the innards can or can’t be eaten.  I gave up after breaking the legs and opening the lid to reveal a mass of different coloured insides.  Bron persisted.  Bron’s hands still smell of crab.

Inside the slaughterhouse

Inside the slaughterhouse

Today we’ve been to see a 1930’s slaughterhouse restored in 2008 as a commercial building.  A vast, open space made entirely of concrete and previously used to herd cows up four floors of ramps to meet a somewhat grisly death.  A common analogy for the building is M. C. Escher’s famous painting of impossible constructs since the stairs and ramps in the building seem to cross and change angle incoherently (although supposedly by design to allow the separation of animals and humans).  Hard to picture what it must have been like.

On Friday of last week I had my first real Chinese telephone conversation following a phone call from our ayi.  Normally when this happens I  just pass the phone to a Chinese colleague and have them translate for me.  This time we were in a supermarket.  I could have passed the phone to a random Chinese person in the shop; not sure it would have helped.  According to Google Translate (after the event), what I actually said was “I am not going to work, so I cannot say to colleagues.”  Close enough I reckon.  Followed by “We go home in 20 minutes”.

She kind of understood.  I think.

Anyway, our ayi has an easy life at the moment.  We’re getting to know a few people locally, and so we’re not as home as much as we should be (or probably need to be at our age).  And so our ayi has very few dishes to clean and almost no vacuuming to be done.   We even moved the sofa cushions around last week to pretend we’d sat on it between her visits.  Although if future weeks are like this one, with Indian, Nepalese, Thai and Cantonese food on the menu, she may have to cope with bigger clothes to iron.

The end of my blogs feel like a perfect opportunity for a rant.  So here goes… I appreciate that 7.30am on a Sunday morning is obviously the optimum time to read a gas meter.  But with both of us in desperate need of sleep, this is not good.  A message to Chinese gas companies that may randomly read blogs (albeit blocked in China) – please let us sleep!  After 9am, please?

11th November: Trees

Teetering on the edge

Nicole and Bron out on a glass platform

Late in the evening, pouring with rain, dark and foggy; I’m grateful we couldn’t see much through the coach window as we gradually ascended towards our Moganshan country house.  I’m not sure how the coach driver could see much either but he got us there somehow.  Moganshan is a mountain (719 metres high) about 200km from Shanghai, and has a national park much beloved (according to our guide) of senior Chinese state officials.  Even when it’s cold, wet and windy it’s a beautiful place.  It has fresh air, rolling hills and a luscious, green landscape: all the things Shanghai doesn’t have.

As part of an Internations group of around 30 people, we arrived late on Friday evening following our 4 hour coach journey to be met with a local cuisine delicacy – beef bourguignon.  Sadly, no local Moganshan beer available; instead a couple of QingDaos and off to bed for a relatively early night in anticipation of the early rise on Saturday.

A wobbly bridge

Bron and Anca on the somewhat wobbly bridge

We’d made the right decision to bring walking boots with us, since what we thought might just be a minor stroll around the local sights turned into a circa 10 mile hike*.  Picking leaves off the tea shrubs/bushes/plants (whatever they’re called) lost its appeal when the guide told us we’d need to pick about 8000 leaves** to make enough for a single decent cuppa.  Lunch in a local restaurant somewhere near the top of the mountain with pre-picked tea was an eminently more sensible idea.

In the Moganshan house

Bron and the gang in the house

We were given an additional tour in the afternoon by a British Bloke living locally: Mark Kitto, author of a book called “China Cuckoo”.  A few insights into the ups and downs of an ambitious, but foreign, entrepreneur trying to do business in China and hitting, well, a few stumbling blocks.

Back to the house in the evening for a home-cooked meal from Shanghai chef Tomer Bar Meir – we’ve yet to visit his restaurant but will probably do so now.  Skye, owner of the most exotic of dance moves, yet again proved his dancing prowess to the amusement/bemusement of all.  An interesting mix of people in this trip, but just seven blokes.  If any single men in Shanghai are reading this – you need to be heading out on a few Internations trips.

With the weather massively improved on Sunday morning, we ignored the urge to stay in bed to sleep off any of the previous night’s excesses to head out for another walk – much shorter this time.   With much better views in the sunshine, I’m glad we did.

As is becoming normal with these Internations trips, we’ve met a great bunch of people that we’ll hopefully meet up with again soon.  Two young British girls were also there (recent graduates, working in Shanghai for their first jobs) and despite their offer to go out clubbing, I graciously declined after pointing out I was nearly twice their age.

All in all an excellent weekend – thanks to Skye and Yael for organising and hosting.  And thanks to Nicole for providing Saturday evening’s late-night entertainment (doubtless unintentional!).

Dodgy decor in Closless

Hannah, Marcel and Bron in Closless

Back in Shanghai; in previous posts I’ve mentioned a cocktail bar near us with about 10 seats in it.  On Tuesday night (following a curry in Tikka, our closest Indian restaurant) we took Marcel and Hannah there, but all the seats were fully occupied.  We’d always been aware there was some kind of small room at the other end of the bar but figured it was a private lounge or something.  It isn’t – we were ushered into the tiny room on Tuesday night to discover the walls were adorned with tasteful (honest!) photos of bums and boobs.  Hannah: “What have you brought us here for?  It’s like a sex room!”.  Admittedly, the blankets available for use by its patrons didn’t help.

On Thursday we received a parcel in the post from Rhian.  Shreddies, biscuits, shower gel and a few other British goodies – a fantastic surprise; thank you Rhian.  We were like kids on Christmas morning.

*Yes, I know some people run 10 miles on a Saturday morning and think nothing of it.  But we’re normal.

**I forget the exact figure.  Probably slightly less than that.

November 4th: Intimate Gigs and Lack of Glamour


This is what I mean by an intimate gig

Whilst the masses trudge off to be Eltoned (Mr John and his weave are appearing here later this month), Bron and I prefer our live music to be somewhat more intimate.  Appearing at a tiny courtyard about a 15 minute walk away in the middle of Saturday afternoon was an Australian lady called Kikuyu, armed with a keyboard and sampler.  A venue free to enter, the organisers were also good enough to hand out free cans of beer.  And organise a free barbecue (the worried Aussie drummer from local band Pairs  insisted we filled our boots due to the masses of meat-on-a-stick that kept appearing).  I love this though – getting to speak to the artist after she’s been on stage (figuratively – see picture), being fed and watered (beered?) with maybe 20 other people.  I don’t get the mass appeal of Elton John and his ilk – Shanghai is full of live music if people are prepared to look beyond what’s being advertised on the interactive screen in the back of  taxis.*

The Vue Bar for Jude's Leaving Do

Elouise, Bron, Me, Jude, Judy, Anny and Ryan in the Vue Bar

Elsewhere over the weekend, Friday night meant a visit to a spicy Hunan restaurant followed by the Vue Bar in the South Bund to say goodbye to Jude as she departs for Canada in a couple of weeks.  The Vue Bar has a great, well, view of the Bund from a different perspective to that with which we’re  familiar, but seems to have a ban on seatbacks.  Backache for all (especially Anny).  Jude joined Bron and I in our favourite local cocktail bar (Closless) to end the night, always a great place to do so being, as it is, 2 minutes away from home.  A youngster with a wise head on her young shoulders – Jude will do well back in Canada but will be missed by all (especially for having the world’s best poker face).

On Saturday night we met up with Jo and a few of her friends for a Greek meal in the Cool Docks area followed by a couple of drinks in the Glamour Bar on The Bund.  I’m not sure the Glamour Bar is really my cup of tea, being distinctly unglamorous as I am, but good to see Jo and Bron fitting in nicely…

We’ve had the Nixons visiting us in Shanghai this week; Chris to solve the world’s (well,’s) future infrastructure challenges, Mrs Chris to fill as many suitcases as possible with gifts to take back to the UK.  Great to see them both – and good to finally introduce Chris to the Shanghai Brewery on Tuesday night, complete with free horror cakes for Halloween (free for the ladies, but woefully neglected by the ladies, so I helped out).

Halloween in Mural Bar

Bron and the girls in the Mural Bar

And speaking of Halloween, Rachel dragged a few of us out on Wednesday night to a Halloween bash in the Mural bar.  Good value for the ladies (£3 to get in and free drinks all night long), not so good for the blokes (£5 to get in including one free drink only).  Plenty of weird outfits, and free horns for the ladies.  A curmudgeonly old git; no dressing up for me.

Akin to a scene from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil**, a few workmen came over on Wednesday to switch our heating on.  In the roof terrace is a strange cubbyhole consisting of pipes, knobs, extension cables, hosepipes and several more pipes.  Activating the heating system would therefore seem to consist of attaching hosepipes to pipes, moving a few dials, draining a little water onto the floor and into other pipes, and repeating the process several times until a consensus of nods is reached.  It is either on or off – no thermostats here.  But we’re apparently fortunate to have heating at all, in which case manually fiddling with radiators when we need a little heat doesn’t feel like too much of a chore.

A workman is here at the moment (Sunday morning) to takeaway the doorbell to fix it.  I’m not sure how we’ll know when he’s bringing it back.

Later today it’s back to the Cool Docks area for an Indian lunch (buffet hopefully) with Chong.  So that should do us nicely for the rest of the day… Sundays are definitely becoming single-meal days…

Pollution, what pollution (from iPhone App).

And not end on a downer, but Autumn can be bloody miserable here.  The decaying, dying leaves seem to beckon down layers of pollution onto Shanghai.  To look out of the window in the daytime is to be confronted by a wall of grey; the dirt of the city normally obscured by sunlight becomes highlighted in the murk.  Maybe we should only go out at night.

*Yes, get me.

**This only a slight exaggeration, honest.

Vue Bar

Me & Jude in the Vue Bar. The very dark Vue Bar.

Club Truelove's Temporary Entrance

Halloween in Shanghai – Club Entrance

Vue Bar

Jude, Judy and Anny in the Vue Bar