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.

May 6th: Shanghai Spring

After two weeks away, we arrive back in Shanghai to discover spring has most definitely arrived.  The trees once more appear fully dressed, the temperature is consistently above 20 degrees and the outdoor “free flow, all you can eat” Sunday brunches/lunches have re-appeared.  This has an inevitable, detrimental effect on weight.

After Friday night’s necessary curry with Rachel and Andrea (two weeks is the longest I can remember going without one), we met up with Anny and Linda plus families for a little Hunan cuisine on Saturday lunchtime.  Great to see them all, but possibly the last time we’ll meet Linda’s family and Frank.

The ostensibly healthy benefit of spring is that we can get back out and about, walking our way through Shanghai’s infinite collection of tower blocks, shopping malls and Family Marts.  Sadly, about 20 minutes into the stroll on Saturday afternoon with Bron and Rachel, all three of us were coughing away.  Clean Philippine skies replaced with Shanghai air; a shock to the lungs.  We gave up, and took a taxi* to our destination.

Rachel, me, Chong, Isaac, Bron and Ben at Commune Social

Rachel, me, Chong, Isaac, Bron and Ben at Commune Social

What Commune Social lacks in table space (2 hours to wait for a table!), it made up for with bizarre cocktails.  Mine came with dice (showing 7, since you ask) and Bronwen’s came with a note (blank – they hadn’t yet hired the marketing company to fill them in).  Very pricey tapas made for a very expensive Saturday night out, but great to see Isaac and Chong again, and to finally meet Rachel’s “special friend of the boy variety”: Ben.

Bron and Rachel post-buffet

Bron and Rachel post-buffet

Bron, me and Rachel at the Andaz Hotel.  All you can eat buffet... Plus a little more...

Bron, me and Rachel at the Andaz Hotel. All you can eat buffet… Plus a little more…

On Sunday afternoon, Bron, Rachel and I didn’t so much put the world to rights as slowly dissect it and reclaim it as our own.  The staff at the Andaz hotel were gracious and patient hosts to our attempt to take absolute, full value from their “free flow, all you can eat” offer.  We sloped away around 6pm, heading straight for Rachel’s favourite massage place.  We suspect it’s the elasticated shorts the guests are asked to wear that she’s addicted to.  Damn sexy.

The other photos below were taken before our trip to the Philippines – a great night out with a few of Bron’s former marketing team, taking in Sailor’s and The Handle Bar for probably the last time.  And a good opportunity to try out the relocated Blarney Stone for a little taste of Guinness in Shanghai.

*Indeed: we gave up walking due to pollution, so we instead add to the pollution.

Bron, Lucia, Nancy and Valentina in the Handle Bar

Bron, Lucia, Nancy and Valentina in the Handle Bar

Lucia, Nancy, Valentina, me and Bron in Sailors

Lucia, Nancy, Valentina, me and Bron in Sailors

Lucia, Nancy and Bron in the relocated Blarney Stone

Lucia, Nancy and Bron in the relocated Blarney Stone

January 27th: Christmas. Every Day.

“I wish it could be Christmas every day” sang Wizzard back in 1973, and at every Christmas since then.  Here in China, it is.  Every day in the office lifts we’re treated to the same mix of 20-second snippets of Rudolph, Frosty and a few other Christmas songs.  Interspersed with Gangnam Style.  Every day.

Here in the office, and in most of the shops, Christmas decorations persist.  A few trees have disappeared, but Father Christmas is very much still present in shop windows and advertising hoardings.  Since Chinese New Year is only a couple of weeks’ away, the general consensus is the decorations will disappear following the end of festivities.  Last year the Christmas music in the lifts disappeared halfway through April.  Maybe this year they’ll just leave it longer.  365 days of Rudolph and co.   Christmas every day indeed.


I haven’t been to the cinema in years.  Normally quite happy to wait for the download/DVD/Blu-Ray to become available and watch a film at home without the hassle of, well, other people crunching, snorting, sniffing, coughing, slurping, talking their way through a film*.   But, on Tuesday night, we joined JB and co. at an Imax cinema near the office to watch Skyfall.

No messing about in cinemas in China.  Get in, sit down, watch film.  No Pearl & Dean, no trailers, no movie trivia, no “Please turn off your phone messages”.  Comfy seats, jalapeno flavoured popcorn and a far better experience than I was expecting.  A pretty damn good film too.

I’ve heard other people complain about the “ambience” of cinemas being ruined by the constant appearance of small pockets of light as people check their mobile phones.  I deliberately put the phone on silent (not vibrate) and in my pocket, but I have some sympathy – it’s like an itch for 2 hours: “Check me, check me!”.  I resisted.


Some meat, on a street.  I have no idea what most of it is.

Some meat, on a street. I have no idea what most of it is.

Wednesday night saw the sad occasion of my last regular post-language-lesson pool evening with JB, following the news he’ll be returning to the UK  in late Feb.  We’ll miss JB – always up for a pint and a natter, even if he’s pretty useless at pool.

Felix’s attempts to find a drummer for our nascent band meant a trip to a basement studio on Thursday night to try out a few songs with a new drummer.  Felix’s other advertisements for band members have so far resulted in one promise of true love and another of marriage, so a genuine drummer was a rarity.

Although it’s been great to spend a weekend without getting on a plane and heading out of Shanghai, it’s been a hectic one.  Following a relaxing night in De Refter with Bron on Friday night, we spent most of Saturday afternoon playing Mahjong (or Majiang) with Anny and Frank.  Obviously not for money, since I believe Anny would have easily fleeced us.  I think we’re slowly learning the rules, although the number of tiles we’ve yet to involve worries me a bit (adding complexity to an already fairly complex game).

Saturday night meant a trip to Emily’s apartment to help her celebrate Australia Day.  A little bit of Men At Work, a few Australian food delicacies but sadly no Kylie.  Since we’d been up since 6.47am (the exact time when I was woken up by the nearby building work), a 3am Sunday morning finish wasn’t what we’d planned.  A great party though – thanks Emily!

After a little more guitar playing today, we’ve been out wine tasting (in my case, to be social).  To be more descriptive: we met up with some people in a wine shop to help ourselves to the contents of five bottles of wine.   Not really what we were expecting, but then again, this is Shanghai.  Following a Thai meal with Rachel, Bron and Rachel disappeared off for a massage, leaving me to go home to write this blog.

When the local government reading says "Severely polluted", there is no doubt.

When the local government reading says “Severely polluted”, there is no doubt.

On the way back I could see stars in the night sky.  After ridiculously high levels of pollution all week, this meant a literal sigh of relief.  We can breathe again (for the moment).

*I am not in an airport lounge.  Parity has been restored.