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

April 14th: Taking in Nanjing

Two things never to attempt in Nanjing on a Saturday night:

  1. Hailing a taxi after 10pm. Never mind the fact that the taxi’s colour indicator is the opposite to that in Shanghai (where green means available for hire); there just aren’t any available taxis.  Even if there were, you’d be fighting with far more savvy locals. Instead, get the number 7 bus.  It worked out perfectly for us (although having Anny to guide us probably helped).
  2. Booking into certain hotels if you’re not Chinese.  Either the hotel staff in our selected branch of Home Inn took an instant dislike to me and Bron or the government’s rule about needing to certify each hotel’s capability for accepting foreign guests is genuine (as was the hotel’s apparent lack of such certification).  I would like to know what tests they have to pass to achieve this status since, for example, if I can’t speak enough Chinese to book a room it isn’t the hotel’s problem and it certainly isn’t the government’s.

Memorial to the Nanjing MassacreOn probably our last outing of this type, we joined Anny’s extended family along with Linda, her husband & daughter for our trip to Nanjing.  Another of China’s former capitals (until as recently as the 1940s), it’s a city of contrasts, from the combined natural and man-made beauty of such sights as Dr Sun Yat-sen’s mausoleum on Mount Zijin to the memorial for the massacre of hundreds of thousands of civilians and disarmed soldiers at the hands of Japanese invaders in December 1937.   The latter explaining many of my former co-workers’ feelings towards Japan (in part caused by a perceived reluctance by the Japanese state to fully acknowledge and apologise for the massacre).

The memorial is incredibly and deliberately evocative, with many written and photographic graphic exhibits revealing the events leading up to, during and after the six-week massacre.  The chilling sight of the proportion of the ‘Pit of ten thousand corpses’ on display, with skeletons upon skeletons, some scattered and some intact, leaves the visitor (well, definitely me) wondering what happens to a fellow human such that they could maim, torture, rape and brutally execute other human beings.  The ‘Forgotten Holocaust’, as it has been called by some historians.

Looking downhill from Dr Sun Yat-sen's Mausoleum

Looking downhill from Dr Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum

The Memorial visit was on Sunday; Saturday’s climb to Dr Sun Yat-sen’s mausoleum was a far more uplifting experience.  Shortly followed by a meal and  a little rice wine with all, and a late night game of Chinese style poker with Anny.  Playing Chinese poker with a Chinese expert when you’re a newcomer to the game is always going to be a bad idea.  And a costly one.

Anny and Linda – you and your families have once again been more than gracious hosts.  We hope to be able to return the favour one day when you visit the UK.  Soon.

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.

March 27th: Underwater Golf

Bron and Rachel under the sea, playing golf.

Bron and Rachel under the sea, playing golf.

It wasn’t really underwater.  It was on a basement floor, below sea level, but not underwater.  Unless everything underwater is always florescent, in which case I’m mistaken.  Rachel’s idea of trying something “a little different” was certainly that – on Wednesday night, over in the New World Centre in Pudong (on the dark side of the river, where we seldom visit), we ventured into a strange world of crazy golf, Chinese style.  We declined the offer of having our own personal scorer, and stumbled through the course with our florescent golf balls and clubs.  A strange experience…. Rachel has these ideas…

The previous night’s strange experience wasn’t of Rachel’s doing.  An attempt to try out a couple of bars on the Bund before heading to the Red Door restaurant sounds innocuous enough, but after being refused entry at the Red Door for our lack of burlesque outfits to walking out of another restaurant for being insulted by the waiter over my choice of beer (amongst over things), it was another strange night.

A few more such nights await before we leave…

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.

March 3rd: Shaoxing

(A little late with this blog entry – been a busy few weeks)


Another of the things I’m going to miss in China: The incredibly friendly way in which a friend’s family can welcome you into their home as if you were a lifelong family friend, despite having met you for the first time 10 minutes ago.

In a typically Chinese way, Bron and I went from a Friday morning expecting to be spending a weekend in Shanghai to Friday afternoon being invited by Linda to join her on a trip to her hometown of Shaoxing, a city in Zhejiang province, just under 3 hours away from Shanghai.   And so we did, joined by Linda’s husband and daughter along with Anny’s family.

Linda’s parents, sister and son welcomed us into their home in a wonderfully warm way, with a feast laid out before us upon our arrival.  I think I’ve mentioned this previously, but it’s worth repeating: whereas I think Indian food in the UK is very similar to that found in India (although inevitably Anglicised to some extent), Chinese food in the UK bears very little resemblance to that I’ve experienced out here.  If you look hard enough, you may find Sweet & Sour Pork on a menu somewhere, but why would you?

IMGP2285Shaoxing and its surrounding towns and villages are in equal measures picturesque, quaint and rooted in history.  As the birthplace of Lu Xun, one of China’s greatest and most revered writers of the 20th century, the city is replete with many artifacts and attractions devoted to his life.

Away from the culture, we stayed in probably the cheapest hotel I’ve ever stayed in (equivalent of £14 per night), but all was fine.  We discovered later Anny’s room had an extra feature: a shower in the middle of the room with floor to ceiling glass walls.

Another excellent weekend away, with a few insights into local life away from the Western influences of Shanghai.  Thanks so much to Linda for the invitation, for your husband for driving us there and back, and for your extended family for making us feel incredible welcome.


Before leaving for Shaoxing, again in another impromptu sort of way, Isaac, Flo and Marcel joined Bron and I on Friday night for a few Shanghai classics (Sailors for Fish and Chips, Handle Bar for draught beer and Closless for cocktails).  A great way to end the working week, cheering us up somewhat given the news we’ll be returning to the UK soon.