March 17th: Sichuan

In Shanghai, people from all over the world congregate to explore, experience and be entertained by China.  But Shanghai isn’t really China.  It’s like somebody living in London for a year and then claiming they’ve fully experienced life in the United Kingdom.  Shanghai is a cosmopolitan city, easing foreigners into life in China with its mix of local and Western brands, restaurants and shops*.

Shengtian, hidden away in the depths of Sichuan province, is about as far removed from Shanghai as Huyton is from London.  On Friday March 15th, we flew into Yibin City airport with Anny for a weekend of visiting both the natural and man-made beauty of the surrounding area, and also to explore Anny’s home town of Shengtian.

A couple of the random people we met that asked to have their photo taken with us

A couple of the random people we met that asked to have their photo taken with us

I think it would be fair to say the area was not overly familiar with foreign visitors, particularly in Shengtian.  Bronwen and I (well, Bronwen in particular) now feature in many more photographs than originally intended.  Some none-so-subtly taken by people walking past, some taken by people asking for us to pose with them.  All very friendly though – and again, so far removed from life in Shanghai.

The Chinese Way (as Anny puts it) is to make guests feel like royalty and attempt to prevent them spending any money whatsoever.  This is the generosity imbued in the personality of most Chinese people we’ve met; to ensure guests have the best possible time without allowing any such nonsense as sharing the bill, paying an entrance fee or buying a round of drinks.  We stayed at Anny’s sister’s house in Yibin, along with her husband and son (now with the English name of “Tom”).  Hospitable and accommodating, they vacated their bed for us, fed us and watered us.

P1040574On Friday evening we met up with a few of Anny’s school friends who took us to a hot pot restaurant followed by the ubiquitous KTV (karaoke) bar.  Initially bemused at how small the beer glasses were in the restaurant, it didn’t take long to realise I was going to be unable to sip the beer quietly, instead having to down each glassful in a salutation with somebody else around the table.  A great bunch of people, and very touching to see a relaxed and temporarily carefree Anny catch-up with her old friends…

In keeping with the focus on family and friends, Anny had kept in touch with one of her old teachers, whose son volunteered to help drive us around for the weekend.  We had an early-ish start on Saturday for a trip to the “Bamboo Sea of Southern Sichuan”, an area of outstanding natural beauty elevated between 600m and 1000m above sea level.  Being somewhat scared of heights, Anny did well to make it to the top of the pagoda and to later walk around the sheer cliff edges by Xianyu Cave.

With Anny's extended family

With Anny’s extended family

A perplexing amount of relatives were in attendance for a feast on Saturday night at Anny’s grandmother’s house.  As is normal, a huge variety of dishes on offer, most of which I think would go down incredibly well in the UK.  Again, as is normal, we ate far too much, drank far too much (never again will I attempt to match a Chinese person at rice wine drinking, despite my worry about committing some kind of cultural or social faux-pas by refusing) and slept too little.

P1040665Feeling a little groggy on Sunday morning but awoken by an excellent batch of mixed dumplings (I can’t do this justice – dumplings here are not like anything I’ve had in the UK; they even work towards curing hangovers), we set off again to see Anny’s home town.  This time Shengtian was  far busier, with seemingly most of the residents out and about in the warmth.  A beaming Anny took us to a local tea house (equivalent of 10p for a “bottomless” cup of tea) and to a rice wine shop for us to buy a very Chinese souvenir to take home with us.

Anny’s teacher cooked us lunch (8 dishes served up in the amount of time Bronwen and I would probably need just to make rice) before returning to her sister’s house and the reluctant return to Shanghai.  With suitcases and carry-on bags almost entirely full of local food.

Another of my favourite weekends in China (I have several now)**;  we were made to feel welcome by all and great to see China in a more authentic way than is really possible in Shanghai.

*And it’s just that that makes Shanghai such a great city to live in – as long as Westerners don’t kid themselves they’re fully immersed in Chinese culture just by nature of being here.

**I need to cut down on my use of brackets (parentheses).***

***Not funny, I know.

December 2nd: Shanghai Islands

The eggtray decorations (with Isaac, Chong and Bron)

The eggtray decorations (with Isaac, Chong and Bron)

Why pay for expensive paintings or photographs with which to decorate your bar when you could instead affix empty eggshell cartons to the wall.  Or maybe a little polystyrene packaging.  This in keeping with the bar pump “just for show” and the world’s wonkiest darts.  But since this was the only bar available to us on the resort of Sun Island (“The only natural island in Shanghai”) we had little choice.  Until 10pm when they decided to close.

Mao Pagoda - acting as a lighthouse in the river

Mao Pagoda on Sun Island – acting as a lighthouse in the river

Isaac, Chong, me and Bron (thanks, auto-timer on camera)

Isaac, Chong, me and Bron by the Mao Pagoda (thanks, auto-timer on camera)

Sun Island is about an hour to the West of Shanghai, and lies in the middle of Huangpu River.  A retreat sort of place, with golf, go-karting, horse riding, spas, etc, at the visitors’ disposal.  We didn’t know we were going there until lunchtime on Saturday when Chong suggested it as a random thing to do on a Saturday in (near) Shanghai.  So yet more hot springs, a bit of swimming and an adventure challenge called “Find anywhere on the island to have a drink after 10pm”.   Another excellent, relaxing weekend away from central Shanghai (although hailing from Ireland, Isaac understandably took some cheering up after attending the Blarney Stone’s closing party the night before – one of Shanghai’s best “local” type bars is to be replaced with yet another Italian restaurant).

Today (Sunday) I’ve spent a few hours playing guitar whilst a German bloke sang.  One of these encounters that could have been horrendous, ending after a 5 minute creative nadir, but instead ended with a few songs taking shape*.  And since The Rolling Stones are (somehow) still going strong, this means I’m not too old to be in a band.  For the record – if a bloke called Felix suddenly starts releasing songs on iTunes and they sound like compositions I’ve been forcing Bronwen to listen to for the last few years, I hereby declare the songs (but not the lyrics) were composed by me.

Other than the weekend, a fairly quiet week for us.  Although somewhat unfair that Bronwen’s trip out of the office on Wednesday was to a building literally 2 minutes from where we live, whilst my trip on Thursday was to the Argos warehouse in the middle of nowhere until 11pm.  Nowt like a warehouse near midnight.

*Jude – this is what you avoided by escaping back to Canada!

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.

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.