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.

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 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.

April 8th: Eating Locally, Hong Kong Style (Part 2)

Times Square

Times Square

Hong Kong offers those tourists not willing to go the extra mile a glimpse into Chinese life. But to suggest to the locals that they are identical in behaviour or culture to their mainland neighbours is akin to calling a Scouser a Manc (OK, not quite that bad). The Hongkongese speak Cantonese, not Mandarin; they rarely spit in the streets; they do not incessantly beep their horns. They’re fiercely protective of life as they’ve become accustomed; reluctant to change and suspicious of any attempts to get them to do so. It is a very different experience to mainland China, but does that make it in any way better? I’ll leave that one alone…

Adam, Heather, Bron and Me overlooking the Kowloon skyline

Adam, Heather, Bron and Me overlooking the Kowloon skyline

Our arrival into Hong Kong was less than ideal – a delayed flight resulting in a 1.30am Saturday arrival. Since we’d arrived from Shanghai, home of H7N9, the passengers were greeted by a man aiming a temperature gun at their foreheads. Never mind immigration, I’m convinced a reading above 37c would have resulted in refused permission to proceed beyond the exit of the contraption* leading from the plane to the airport gate. Hong Kong airport has a convenient train to take passengers from remote gates to immigration; this train stops running at 12.30am. So we arrived at the hotel around 3am, tired, grumpy and a little disturbed at the vision of the future Hong Kong offers – where surgical face masks are commonplace and social interaction via facial expressions is limited to interpretation of eye movements and intense study of dancing eyebrows. There’s a joke in there somewhere: a man and a woman both wears surgical masks go on a date…

I would like to know what happens when mask wearers are eating? Or do they never eat in public?

Me, Bron, Danny and Carmen... Happy despite the very dull Liverpool game.

Me, Bron, Danny and Carmen… Happy despite the very dull Liverpool game.

Ours was a somewhat enforced trip, but we took advantage of the opportunity to say goodbye to Heather & Adam and Carmen & Danny. Heather taking us to experience some fine barbecued Hong Kong food on Saturday night followed by a traditional Sunday dim sum; Carmen taking us back to the first restaurant we ever visited in Hong Kong. Very fitting as a first and probably last dinner in Hong Kong.

*I’m sure it has a technical term. “Contraption” probably isn’t it.

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