August 2nd: Olney

Poor, neglected blog…
Bron and Tim waiting for the rafts to appear

Bron and Tim waiting for the rafts to appear

We’ve been back in the UK for just over 2 months now.  We no longer have to worry about melting in the Shanghai summer, with temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius  (although this particular British summer has somehow managed 30 degrees on a few occasions), crossing the road (pedestrians having right of way here) or cockroaches in the bed.  I do, however, have to worry about over-eating (a British calorific diet contributing to my commensurately expanding waistline in just a few weeks), expensive petrol and access to online shopping.  Despite the plethora of colourful, offer-rich, information-explosive shopping websites in China, being unable to read (and hence, transact) the Chinese sites is a pretty good deterrent to buying things you don’t actually need.

With Isaac and Chong on the beach at Bray

With Isaac and Chong on the beach at Bray

But we miss constantly being challenged with language barriers, we miss the never-ending flow of bizarre but unforgettable random encounters (from hot springs on mountaintops to karaoke swimming pools) and we miss the strange bunch of people that became our short-lived Shanghai family.  With regards to the latter, we’ve realised the world isn’t that small.  Marcel’s 6 week stint in the UK as part of his MBA gave us a great night out in Olney a few weeks ago (always good to introduce UK market town life to a South African), and we’ve been over to Ireland for the second part of Chong and Isaac’s wedding.  A meet-up with Rachel beckons later this year.

It hasn’t take us long to settle back into life here; from weddings and a plethora of beer festivals to the eccentricities of British life demonstrated by the annual Olney raft race (build a raft out of floating stuff, paddle it a few hundred metres down a slow moving river; dodging the over-enthusiastic crowd, some of whom have made it into the river) after the annual Olney rubber duck race.
Our visas expire in March 2014 – maybe there’s one more trip on the cards (got to use the airmiles somehow) before we finally put an end to our Chinese experience.

 

May 22nd: Pudong

In Captain's Hostel near the Bund: Andrea, Rachel, Bron and me.

In Captain’s Hostel near the Bund: Andrea, Rachel, Bron and me.

Bron and Rachel on the Bund

Bron and Rachel on the Bund

In April last year, two fresh-faced, optimistic Brits boarded a plane to Shanghai in anticipation of a three-year move to China.  A little over a year later, we’re heading back in the opposite direction.

A few days after arriving last year, Bron and I headed for a pub quiz in a now-closed pub called the British Bulldog.  It was there that we met Rachel, a fresh-faced, optimistic American, herself having relatively recently arrived in the country.  Very fitting then, that we should spend our last night in China with Rachel; another of our close friends we’ve met over the last year that we will definitely remain in contact with.

Fitting also (because this is about me and Bron) that our last meal in China should be an Indian, cooked for us by Chong and Isaac’s Indian-cooking ayi.  An excellent, home-cooked curry; a shame we were never able to make more use of her culinary skills.

We followed the Indian meal with a last trip to the Bund, meeting up with Andrea and Rachel’s extra-special man friend, Ben.  A few last cocktails on the Bund (one with both baijiu – Chinese Rice Wine – and rum, tasting as bad as it sounds) to end our time in China.

Airport lounges are never the best place for me to write blogs, so I’ll end this one here.  I’ll add a few more once we’re back in the UK, and then, who knows…

China: goodbye [for now]…

May 20th: “I Love You” Day

Dancing with the staff

Dancing with the staff

Being serenaded by dancing staff is fine; being serenaded and then asked to join in with the dancing is less so.  For probably our last meal in a Chinese restaurant, Bron and I met up with Anny in one of the branches of the Haidilao Hot Pot* restaurant chain on Monday evening.  Towards the end of our meal, Anny was approached by one of the waitresses asking if they could perform a dance routine for us.  The explanation was a little tenuous: the Chinese for “I love you” is “Wo ai ni” (pronounced “woah I knee”).  The date for our meal was May 20th, which in Chinese is “Wu er ling”.  Apparently they sound sufficiently similar to warrant declaring it “I love you” day, and hence a strange need to serenade foreigners.  We weren’t complaining though…

Until we were asked to join in that is, performing a dance routine in the middle of a restaurant.  A couple of other Chinese diners joined in to help us, somewhat less embarrassed than us.

Yet again, another memorable night – but dancing in a restaurant is something I won’t be looking to repeat any time soon.

Farewell to Anny...

Farewell to Anny…

A sad farewell to Anny then – a close friend who we will sorely miss.

*A Hot Pot restaurant is one in which diners choose a type of soup (or soups) and then cook raw ingredients in it at the table.  It’s one of my favourite styles of Chinese food – we need more of these in the UK.

May 19th: Barbecue Pits and a Singing Farewell

The chefs at work

The chefs at work

Back home in the UK, a barbecue is normally a back-garden affair, featuring burnt sausages, potato salads and wasps.  In Shanghai, gardens are hard to come by (apart from those living in Pudong), and instead a number of parks have “barbecue pits” allowing friends and family to gather and cook together in the late-spring heat.

So, to end our last weekend in China, on Sunday afternoon we met up with a few of our local friends (ex-colleagues, ex-pats, ex-language teachers) and their families in Gucun Forest Park, out in the northern suburbs of Shanghai.  Hiring a “VIP” barbecue pit seemed the sensible idea given the close proximity of those attempting to cook in the other areas of the park.  An on-site supermarket allows visitors to stock-up on everything required for an elaborate barbecue (from chopsticks and plastic cups through to chicken and liver on a stick).

Our last ever performance

Our last ever performance

Many “last” moments at the moment: playing a short acoustic set with Felix after the barbecue (of our 13 songs, we played the 8 that we could remember most of) for – probably – the last time ever was another of my many highlights of our Chinese experience.  Our audience grew slightly from our group of 30 or so as the staff waited for us to finish the noise and allow them to get in to clear up.  Thanks to all our guests for allowing Felix and I to perform; hopefully some of you enjoyed it!

A fantastic way to end our last weekend – China continues to provide new experiences right until the end.

Tasty tapas, expensive water

Tasty tapas, expensive water

Our barbecue followed a Saturday night meal out in El Patio, a Spanish-themed bar featuring expensive but tasty tapas alongside ridiculously expensive water (nearly £5 per bottle – something we discovered at the end of the meal after drinking 7 bottles).  The night ended in the Shanghai Brewery – time for one last pint of on-premise brewed stout.

 

May 18th: A Wall, A Palace and A Lot Of Walking

We’d heard all manner of horror stories about the manic, chaotic nature of the largest train station in Asia, so set out very early to try and collect the Beijing tickets ordered for us by Anny’s husband, Frank.  Sure enough, we arrived at Shanghai’s Hongqiao Railway Station to find thousands of people milling about, huge queues and limited English signage. So we asked the nice lady at the ‘Enquiries’ desk where we should go – ‘2nd floor, ticket counter 9’ she told us.  We ignored the huge queues at most of the staffed windows of ticket counter 9 and instead walked straight up the window marked ‘Passport holder ticket collection’ where we presented our passports and collected our tickets.  All done in under 10 minutes. What hassle!?

We’re convinced Shanghai’s efficient, reliable and cheap subway system acts as a training ground for travellers to traverse any underground railway across Asia (as we found out in Tokyo). Beijing’s subway system proved equally as reliable, taking us from Beijing South station to Nanluoguxiang (near our hotel) for the pricely sum of 20p each.

Bron outside our hotel

Bron outside our hotel

Call it irony, satire or a deliberate joke; we checked into the ‘Beijing Traditional View Hotel’ and were surprised to be allocated our particular room.  Never mind not having a view, our room didn’t even have a window.  After a little complaining, the friendly hotel staff moved us to one that did.

Walking down Nanluoguxiang

Walking down Nanluoguxiang

We hadn’t realised quite how close our hotel was to one of Beijing’s most popular famous “hutongs” (alleys): Nanluoguxiang: a narrow street filled with tiny shops, bars and restaurants.  After dark the street sellers appear, tempting the passing visitor with temporary tattoos, clothes, bags, plush mallets, Union Jack piggy banks, etc.

The Forbidden CityBron and I have a preference to explore on foot, taking taxis only as a last resort. Google Maps told us the Forbidden City wasn’t too far to the south from our hotel, so we headed out on our walking expedition.  What Google Maps failed to show us was that the only entrance was at the attraction’s south (something we had to discover for ourselves after walking around it for a particularly long time). At the risk of insulting our hosts, the Forbidden City is a very strange attraction, consisting of many elaborately architected buildings, most of which visitors are not permitted to enter.  Not willing to join in with the scrum (nigh on literally in places) to peer through windows nor the fight to establish a line of sight for photography, our visit consisted of simply looking at buildings then walking to another building.  All very impressive, but very underwhelming for Bron and I, normally used to exploring both the inside and the outside of exhibits. Completing our disappointment, we discovered we’d unknowingly been following a one-way path, leading to the exit at the Forbidden City’s north.  Our next chosen destination: Tiananmen Square, directly to the south of the Forbidden City.

Monument to the People's Heroes

Monument to the People’s Heroes

Tiananmen Square has incredible historical and cultural significance (I’ll let you research it, dear reader*, should you not be familiar).  It’s an impressive sight to see in person, even if it does offer little to directly observe for the exhausted tourist whose feet are demanding respite from both the heat (32 degrees) and all the bloody walking.

According to the Fitbit, we walked a total of 29 miles during our three days in Beijing. Fortunately, most of the thick, acrid smog we’d read so much about had dissipated, leaving the sky not too dissimilar to Shanghai on a sunny day. Perhaps we were fortunate, but walking without fear of coating our lungs with a putrid veneer improved our visit immeasurably.

View across the lake in the Summer Palace

View across the lake in the Summer Palace

On our final Beijing day, we took the subway out to the confusingly named Summer Palace (since it’s more of a park, and definitely isn’t a palace). Without a doubt, the most impressive attraction we saw during our brief visit to Beijing,  again on a fairly sunny, warm day.  A massive park, spread over nearly 3 square kilometres, featuring a huge lake (which we explored on a battery powered, super speedy boat), ancient buildings (some of which we were actually allowed to enter) and beautiful scenery.  Our half day there wasn’t nearly enough to explore it all – in fact it’s difficult to do it justice in words; the photos below do a much better job.

Having been used to prices in Shanghai for a year, we were surprised to discover the majority of prices in Beijing were nearly half that of its coastal rival.  In the UK, the opposite is true, with the capital city displaying an air of arrogance that demands additional charges for just about everything, as if the visitor is paying extra for the privilege of simply being allowed to visit London.

A "wild" bit of the Great Wall.. and a confused construction worker

A “wild” bit of the Great Wall.. and a confused construction worker

On Thursday we eventually managed to convince a taxi driver to take us to our next stop – a hotel near the Badaling  section of the Great Wall.  The hotel claimed to offer a private trail to an unrestored section of the wall,  but failed to mention what this meant in reality: a very steep climb up a mountain path and three confused construction workers reluctant to let us explore the wall, pointing out the sheer drops on either side. We ignored them, slid down bits of the wall, climbed other bits but eventually agreed with the construction workers that the fear of death was greater than the joy of exploring the wall without any other tourists present.

 

 

Great Wall - BadalingWe persuaded the hotel staff to take us to the Badaling section of the wall on Friday morning, with our attempt to beat the tourist rush partially successful. We chose to walk up to the wall rather than take a cable car or a ‘sliding car’: an excellent decision since it meant we could wander along a section of the wall in relative isolation.  Reaching the end and heading back in the opposite direction is where we found most of the other tourists.  From orange capped bus tour visitors (most groups seem to have orange hats of varying shape so I’m not completely clear how this helps identify them) to random family groups and a few Westerners, we found them all, seemingly at once. Stamina is the winner here though – persevering down and up the steep slopes, climbing steps higher as high as tables and sliding down slopes thanks only to the all-important handrail, the visitors thinned out dramatically as we reached the opposite end of the accessible Badaling section. We walked along the wall for over 8 miles – a fairly long walk even by our standards, but a walk involving climbing nearly 2,500 steps upwards (again, according to the Fitbit).

The wall, of course, is incredible. We were tired enough after walking it – building it (and restoring it) represents an astounding feat of human engineering, ingenuity and strength.

I’m writing this on the train back to Shanghai from Beijing, currently speeding along at 301 km/h. If only trains in the UK were this efficient…We’ll get back with 4 nights remaining of our short-lived but utterly fantastic Chinese adventure.

 

*Sorry, very Christopher Hitchens-esque.

 

May 12th: Oxygen from Guilin

View of Guilin

View of Guilin

When building a city, planners, designers, urban developers – all must cope with varying topography, marshlands, pockets of gas, rivers, etc.* Those responsible for developing the city of Guilin instead had a unique problem; one instantly visually apparent along some of Guilin’s major streets. Passing by in our taxi, we see hotel, hotel, hotel, huge near-vertical mountain several hundred metres tall, hotel, hotel, slightly bigger vertical mountain, etc.  It’s a slightly bizarre but beautiful  landscape, with vegetation on every exposed mountain surface (those that aren’t completely vertical) resulting in a lush, green backdrop in just about any direction you would care to look. Shanghai attempts to do the same, but replaces green mountains with huge skyscrapers of concrete and glass.

Bron and I have had many adventures or activities that could lazily be described as ‘random’ whilst in China; this trip was always going to be a little strange since we’d had absolutely no visibility of any plans for the weekend other than our outbound and return flights.  We’d joined Anny on a trip to Guilin, coinciding with her 10 year graduation reunion from the city’s university. So Anny’s former classmates had the somewhat incongruous addition of a couple of Brits for most of the weekend.

Bron outside Prince City in Guilin

Bron outside Prince City in Guilin

We landed in Guilin’s airport late on Thursday night (as another contrast with Shanghai, the roads leading from Liangjiang airport into the main city area of Guilin are lined with hedges and trees – from Pudong airport to the main areas of Shanghai they’re lined with little more than concrete and apartment complexes), met by a couple of Anny’s classmates.  What we thought was our hotel stop turned out to be a rice-noodle stop – a delicacy apparently not often found elsewhere in China.  I’ll try and do this process justice – a lady behind a glass window adds rice noodles** into a metal bowl for you.  You choose your meat from a selection of miscellaneous offerings on display; this is added to your bowl.  You then have free reign to add your own vegetables, chillies and finally the steaming hot soup from a huge vat.  Soup which when added to the metal bowl causes the bowl to heat up quickly, causing its owner (well, me) to drop half the contents into the vat of soup in an attempt to avoid third degree finger tip burns.

Colour enhanced by our camera's default "CSI Miama" setting

Colour enhanced by our camera’s default “CSI Miama” setting

One of Anny’s friends had arranged for us to have access to a private driver for the day on Friday, allowing Bron and I to see the sights of Guilin whilst Anny joined her classmates in a visit to their old university (and some of their old lecturers). A true magical mystery tour (but maybe more confusing than magical) with our driver setting off with neither instruction nor indication of where he was heading.  He took us to three of Guilin’s star attractions: To Guilin Princes’ City, a historical site over 600 years old (older than Beijing’s Forbidden City); to the Reed Flute cave which I’m afraid trumps Wookey Hole Caves in Somerset for its sheer size and weirdly shaped growths; and finally, to the Li River Folk Custom Centre.

Suspiciously like Chinese Morris Dancing

Suspiciously like Chinese Morris Dancing

I’m in danger of overusing the word ‘bizarre’; instead I’ll just state that our stop at the Custom Centre probably required a tour guide to fully explain what was going on.  In fact, as Bron and I seemed to be the only people not visiting as part of a larger group, it seems a guide was standard practice.  So, as confused tourists, we watched a lady singing the same 20 second segment of a song at 1 minute intervals; we saw a performance by two ladies with long hair explaining how they wash and style their hair; we saw what looked strangely like Chinese Morris dancers; we missed the cock-fighting show despite the poster claiming we could participate if required.  The highlight was undoubtedly an hour long Chinese cultural performance.  Imagine an American at a pantomime*** and you’ll have some idea how Bron and I felt as the audience participated in mass-singalongs of Chinese folk songs whilst other audience members were hauled onstage to dance or sing along with the main performers. I think I’ve said before that the Chinese always seem to be in a hurry apart from walking along any street.  Whilst the performers were onstage doing their grand finale, the side doors opened to allow the audience members to leave when it had finished.  But nobody waited until it had finished.  Doors open, audience go.  Performers carry on but nobody is watching, instead everyone is making sure they’re not last out.  Like I say, we were Americans at a pantomime.

We met back up with Anny and her classmates for dinner, and of course, KTV (karaoke) with ‘Hey Jude’ being my addition to the evening.

Boat to YangshuoOn Saturday we took the slow boat down the Li river, taking in the spectacular scenery on our 5 hour journey to Yangshuo.  Normally famous for its ‘crystal clear’ waters, our trip followed a few days of heavy rain, leaving the river’s waters a distinctly Shanghai-esque brown colour (but caused by mud, not pollution).  Our route through the valley carved between the mountains gave us views not accessible by any other means of transport – a beautiful, relaxing journey down to Yangshuo.

Any tranquility experienced was immediately dispelled upon our arrival, with Yangshuo proving an extremely popular destination for tourists (far more so than Guilin).  A town seemingly built entirely for tourists, offering a microcosm of Chinese style buildings, shops and restaurants all within walking distance.  For those of us getting a little overfamiliar with Qingdao beer, the ‘London Tavern’ offered a respite with London Pride available on draft.

Dinner with Anny's classmates in Yangshuo

Dinner with Anny’s classmates in Yangshuo

On Saturday evening we joined Anny and her classmates for an evening meal overlooking the river.  Dinner for me consisted of a plethora of Chinese dishes; dinner for the mosquitos consisted of me.

Sunday’s bus journey back to Guilin didn’t offer quite the same picturesque views as our boat trip but did offer about a shorter route to get there. What the Chinese (lazy stereotyping warning) sometimes lack in planning, they more than make up for with spontaneity.  We arrived in Guilin mid-afternoon, back once more at the same hotel we’d originally stayed at, but this time without reservations since we were not staying the night. Bron and I still have no idea why we all met up there once again, but no matter – Anny negotiates an hourly rate for a room; it promptly becomes the defacto storage and meeting point for all.

Spring airlines: I know it’s not only your company that uses the excuse ‘Your flight is delayed due to the late arrival of the inbound aircraft‘, but you do seem to use it more often than other airlines. Unfortunately, it’s an excuse about as valid as claiming ‘This year’s spring has been delayed due to the late arrival of daffodils****’. 4.30am we arrived home on Monday morning. This with the alarm set for 8.30am to get up for our trip to Beijing. Thanks Spring.

This is the last of our trips we’ll make with Anny.  Over the last few months Anny has shown us aspects of Chinese life we’d never have otherwise encountered, taken us to some amazing places and introduced us to family members and friends who have all made us feel incredibly welcome. We will miss this aspect of our time in China more than most others.

*As is evident, I hold no geographic qualifications.

**I did ask how rice noodles are made.  Apparently nobody knows.

***If you’re an American reading this and have no idea what a pantomime is, make it top of your cultural activities list to do next time you’re in the UK near Christmas.

****As in, the former is related to  but does not directly cause nor explain the latter.