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.

April 28th: The Tao Tour (Philippines part 2)

The crew and guests on the Tao Phillipines tour

The crew and guests on the Tao Phillipines tour

On the Tao Philippines website, the booking procedure includes an extra step which  asks: ‘Are you sure you want to do this? It’s not for everyone’. Looking back, the last four nights of our holiday at the all-inclusive luxury resort on Lagen island, with its air-conditioned rooms, cocktail bars and large pool, couldn’t have been much more different to the previous four with Romy and crew aboard the Tao Philippines boat.

We met up in Coron: Romy and his six crew members along with 10 guests (2 Brits, 3 Aussies, 2 Dutch, a Swede, a Slovakian and an American; there’s always an American), to board our floating temporary home for the next 5 days.  The plan was a simple one – to travel from Coron on Busuanga Island to El Nido on Palawan, stopping at different locations along the way and sleeping in a different place on each of our 4 nights.  Most of the crew slept onboard whilst the guests stayed in huts on beaches; in mangroves; in small villages, all safely covered by mosquito nets.

On the Tao website it states alcohol can be purchased prior to the trip, and helpfully offers the advice ‘Guests should not drink too much in the sun’.  What it failed to mention was that Romy would, without fail, start each evening with a round or two of his signature cocktail: ‘Sundowner’.  A simple but effective cocktail consisting of rum and pineapple juice, mixed at the simple but effective ratio of 50/50. This is rum (‘rhum’) purchased locally for 90 pesos – around £1.50 for a bottle of rum that would be at least 10 times as much in the UK.

Late night with Bron, Michael, Michelle and Guy

Late night with Bron, Michael, Michelle and Guy

Michelle (American) and the Aussie blokes (Guy and Michael) were never shy of joining Bron and I for a few drinks.  A couple of glorious hours sat in the sea, beer or cocktail in hand, taking in the scenery and contemplating our options for retiring early and moving to where it never gets cold and hunger can be solved with a fishing rod. Or an ability to climb coconut trees.

We snorkeled for hours, both with and against the sea’s current (the latter a little disconcerting for those – me and Bron – without fins, when swimming furiously does little other than to hold position in the sea).  I would try to describe what we saw but my knowledge of coral and its inhabitants is so poor it would be like a dolphin attempting to describe a jungle.  What I will say is that I had no idea life underwater was so colourful – blue starfish, Nemo-type fish and purple coral were amongst the many highlights. Also colourful were the backs of my legs – a little suncream insufficient to cope with the sun when magnified by water onto the most exposed part of my body for an extended period of time. The ladies suffered a different problem: ‘sunburned bottom’ I think being the most polite way of phrasing it.

Tao PhiippinesCoral can be dangerous, especially if stepped on whilst attempting to help push our stranded boat back into this sea.  ‘Make sure you clean out that cut,’ offers Guy helpfully, ‘Coral is a living organism and can grow inside you’.  My coral cut added to the injuries already encountered through many mosquito and other insect bites, cuts from crashing into the boat’s ladder and eventually, copying Bronwen by being attacked by a somewhat territorial fish.  Fortunately, we both managed to avoid the jellyfish.

Bron and I had visions of going hungry whilst out at sea; we needn’t have worried – the boat’s cooks did a fantastic job of keeping us fully fed with huge, fresh meals three times a day interspersed with all manner of snacks.  From freshly caught fish, breakfasts of mango, banana and porridge eaten from a fresh coconut to local fruit and vegetables we’d never previously encountered.   And of courses the banana ketchup, a sauce to accompany any Filipino dish.  On our last night, Romy had arranged a spit roast pig, cooked to perfection by some of the local villagers in our final sleepover location.  Eating crackling straight from the pig wasn’t something I’d tried before…

Romy’s filleting skills were also called into action on a few occasions. Fish is caught whilst the boat is out at sea; fish is killed and prepared by Romy; fish arrives as sashimi 5 minutes later.

Ice FactoryFood and drinks onboard are kept cool by huge chunks of ice, purchased from dedicated ice factories -the sign outside our chosen ice source stated simply: ‘Mall of Ice’.  They had a job vacancy for an ‘Ice man’, but without a decent job description I didn’t bother applying.  Especially after seeing the huge blocks of ice, carried single-handed by Romy.

Sleep was hard to come by – the temperature at night retained most of the heat from the day, and the mosquito nets absorbed most of what little breeze was on offer. The full moon seemed to keep most of the wildlife awake, from cicadas chorusing in union at irregular intervals to geckos chanting their name throughout the night (they do – ‘GEH-ko’ repeated over and over, stopping only when you’ve nearly, but not quite, discovered their hiding spot, thus avoiding strangulation). And the bloody cockerels. Everywhere. And not just at dawn.

For a foreign tourist, life out in the open leads to a ritual of lotions: sun lotion first thing and repeated throughout the day;  insect repellent at dusk in an attempt to keep biting creatures at bay; after-bite cream when it doesn’t work; shower gel at night to wash the whole lot off again.

Our luxurious bed

Our luxurious bed

The evenings were mainly spent eating (with a little drinking) although our penultimate evening ended in the world’s smallest karaoke bar (a little further down the beach from our huts) with the world’s largest selection of songs.  Accompanied by Romy and John (the owner/security guard – a man with 14 children and over 70 grandchildren), Bron, Michael, Michelle and I tried a few classics whilst Guy impressed us all with his Filipino rap song.

Our last meal was preceded by another first for me – a massage on the beach.  Organised by Romy, a few of us partook in the sensational experience of a massage near the sea under cover of palm trees.  Maybe a little too relaxing since it nearly sent us all to sleep.

A fantastic 5 day experience; many thanks to Romy and the crew, and to our fellow guests: Kris, Joanne, Julia, Michelle, Guy, Michael, Jonas and Katarina (who introduced me to starfish-phobia) for keeping us entertained.

April 5th: Sharing Hangzhou With Many, Many People

Rachel and Bron at West Lake

Rachel and Bron at West Lake

Along with what felt like half the population of China – or certainly of Shanghai, Chong, Isaac and Rachel joined me and Bron on a visit to Hangzhou on Thursday, April 4th,  to celebrate our one year anniversary of living in China.  Although the majority of our fellow visitors were probably there to celebrate Qingming Festival (or “Tomb Sweeping Day”), an annual national holiday to commemorate and pay respects to family ancestors.

Shanghai is so vast that even travelling two hours away you can still sense its spreading, all consuming tentacles. All along the sides of the motorways (/tollroads/highways) from Shanghai to Hangzhou there are houses, apartments or construction sights interspersed with huge, industrial looking farms.

P1040855A former capital of China (around a thousand years ago), Hangzhou is another of China’s many scenic spots, and probably the closest such tourist attraction to Shanghai (thus, the crowds).  Its West Lake was given UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2011, so was well worth our efforts to see it, despite fighting for a view.

A fairly cultured day of walking around the lake, climbing to high-up temples and admiring the scenery was of course rounded off with the staple cultural evening experience in China – KTV (karaoke). I think we got through just about every English language song available (those acceptable to human ears that is, so strictly no Celine Dion et al).

Our first, and sadly probably the last, opportunity to take advantage of Rachel’s new job providing a driver as part of her remuneration package. A driver and a seven-seater minivan. Very handy.

February 24th: Going, going…

One man can only leave so many times…

Mr John Burgess, advocate of Guinness and of pool bars everywhere in Shanghai, will shortly be gone, leaving behind him a weeping trail of trading department ladies (and men).  And leaving following the highest number of leaving dos of anyone I’ve ever met.

Bron sings "Superstar"... again...

Bron sings “Superstar”… again…

Wednesday night featured JB leaving do number 87, back in Masse (favourite bar in Shanghai) for a last Wednesday night drubbing at pool (with me the recipient).  On Friday we ventured into a KTV bar for another leaving do with most of the trading team and a few others, featuring such quality karaoke songs as Lionel Richie’s “Hello”.  And, of course, “Pretty Boy”.  The night ended in a small bar called the Wooden Box where Bron and I met Rachel around 1am (after French folk band people had finally given up with their extended Corsa advert).

Rob, Tim, me, Bron and Sarah saying another goodbye to JB

Rob, Tim, me, Bron and Sarah saying another goodbye to JB

Saturday night’s leaving do was in Mr Willis, a fairly posh restaurant (for me, that is, since I ended up wearing a shirt), also joined by the Bradfords and Jo.   This following JB’s last ever trip to Masse for an afternoon of pool and goodbyes to the staff there (in a Cheers sort of way, we can now enter the bar and have a pint poured without asking for it).

Tonight (Sunday) we’re going back out with most of the Argos UK team to say goodbye to both Richard and JB, since Richard also leaves China for good in a couple of weeks.  This is probably (hopefully) JB’s last leaving do, but he doesn’t fly until about 1pm tomorrow so there’s always time.

Today is “Chinese Lantern Day”, marking the end of the Chinese New Year festival (the 15th day of the first lunar month of the Chinese year).  Fireworks are currently going off everywhere – hopefully we’ll see some and not be hit by any on the way to the restaurant.

Chong – sorry to do this to you, but this was one of my favourite text conversations from the last few months (from Friday):

  • “Do you and Bronwen fancy playing badminton on Sunday morning?”
  • “Possibly, but we’re not very fit”
  • “Neither are we so it should be OK”

Shortly followed by:

  • “Do you and Bronwen have bats?”
  • “Good point – no we don’t”
  • “Neither do we.  Should we just go for brunch instead”.

So we met Chong and Isaac for brunch instead early this morning – far better.

Meanwhile, “The band” (we don’t have a name yet) has now reached four members, following the introduction of a bass player and the second visit from a drummer.  8 songs nearly complete, and a couple more on the way…  3 hours of playing guitar this afternoon means my hands are pretty well destroyed but I could get used to this.

So John’s gone… Richard’s gone… Maybe another update on the blog tomorrow…

JB says goodbye to Masse,,,

JB says goodbye to Masse,,,

A tram, in Shanghai.  Not really.

A tram, in Shanghai. Not really.

December 16th: Gothic Karaoke Swimming Pools, Part 2

Bron in Haven... All peaceful before the other guests arrive

Bron in Haven… All peaceful before the other guests arrive

To be fair, all birthday invitations were sent out with a disclaimer: “This could be the best/worst night of your lives”.  I’m hoping in reality it wasn’t that black and white, but I’m certainly leaning towards the former.  So on Friday night, 2 days in advance of my actual birthday, I and 25 other people (colleagues and Shanghai friends) were entertained by a giant karaoke screen and a small swimming pool, featuring a swim-up bar and a shiny metal horse.  So far removed from anything I would ever do in the UK that it had to be done.  In fact, I’m pretty certain that if anyone had invited me to such an event in the UK I’d have steadfastly refused to take part in anything so crass and vulgar.

We had a great night.

The only photo of the night I'm going to upload!

The only photo of the night I’m going to upload!

Earlier in the year, Rachel, Grace, Bron and I had a meal in Haven, a gothic-styled restaurant and had a wander around afterwards.  We discovered the swimming pool at the top of the grand, sweeping staircase.  Discovering it was available for private hire, it seemed the right thing to do to reserve it for a strange birthday party.

With only a few willing to brave the pool at the start, by the end of the night the large majority were in the water.  Even those who had neglected to bring their swimming costumes (nothing dodgy here – the venue offered guests free bath robes, probably not intended to be used in the pool, doubling as impromptu bathing outfits) felt the urge to take a dip.  I think those present would agree that we don’t really need photos of people in swimming attire plastered over the Internet – so I’ve uploaded just one photo from the night from a safe enough distance!

Stefan left a few belongings there and went back on Saturday to collect them.  “That was a wild night last night!” said the staff.  I don’t think I’ll ever have another birthday celebration quite like it.

Welcome to Thames Town...

Welcome to Thames Town…

Today (Sunday) Bron, Stefan and I went out to Thames Town – a bizarre area of English-architecture inspired buildings and housing on the outskirts of Shanghai.  Built in 2006, the town was supposed to attract up to 10,000 residents but instead lies pretty much empty; a ghost town featuring a man-made Thames river and unoccupied fish & chip shops.  Probably the fact that it’s so far out and 3 miles from the nearest Metro has a lot to do with it.  Worth the visit though – yet another one of Shanghai’s many bizarre tourist attractions.

And How can it be 5 degrees one day and 18 degrees the next?  This isn’t normal.  I only do summer (t-shirt) and winter (t-shirt and coat).  This is confusing.

October 21st: Green Tea with Whisky

Everything here is hectic; Shanghai never stops.  The old folks arise at sunrise to do their morning Tai Chi before being gradually interrupted by the commuting masses.  Armies of three patrol during the daytime as grandparents take their single grandchild out and about.  Local restaurants fill to bursting point between 12pm and 1pm as the Chinese, in unison, eat lunch, and again between 6pm and 7pm as the commuters stop off enroute home; Western style restaurants fill-up a little later.  Street vendors appear after 10pm to feed the stragglers and restaurant workers, offering miscellaneous veg and meats on-a-stick.  The bars and clubs close their doors in the early hours as the revellers stagger home in a manner completely discordant to the graceful movements of the Tai Chi masters.

To survive in Shanghai is to be swept along as one of its adopted citizens, going with rather than against the flow.  Never quite understanding but fully accommodating this is a place where everyone seems to do everything at exactly the same time.  Chaos, but somehow organised.  The more we flow with it, the less time we have to miss the UK.

Alex's leaving do

The girls out at Alex’s leaving do: (L to R) Haze, Jude, Bron, Alex, Judy, Lilly, Susan, Anny, Yeats, Yolanda and Kiwi

We’ve had week of mixing with locals and expats; KTV (Karaoke) and whisky with green tea (starts off weirdly; gets better over time) with the HR team on Thursday night to say goodbye to Alex as she ends her 6 week trip to Shanghai.  We discovered it’s impossible to duet with JB since what he may lack in tunefulness is fully compensated by volume (and always entertaining).

On Friday night I joined Bron and her marketing colleagues for a sauna.  OK; technically, this was a meal in a Korean barbecue restaurant where you cook your own food.  But the lack of air con and being positioned directly in front of hot charcoals meant a good compromise between sweating the toxins away whilst ingesting others.

Me and Marcel on the boat...

Not quite “King of the World”

On Saturday Bron and I disappeared out on a boat at a yacht club an hour away from Shanghai with several other ex-pats as part of an Internations trip.  Mid-October and still shorts & t-shirt weather; I could do with the weather staying exactly like this (mid twenties) but sadly it won’t last.  A barbecue to follow the boat trip and a little dancing to Shakira (my “dancing” lasted maybe 10 seconds having steadfastly refused until nearly the end of the song).  And the happiest corner shop owner in the world as a coachload of (mainly) foreigners pulls up outside her shop to purchase a few beers for the journey home.

A cracking Sunday roast (our first in Shanghai) today with JB, Elouise, Ryan and Richard and a few games of pool to round off the weekend.

The routine of chaos begins again tomorrow….