May 2015: Two Years Later…

SAM_3664Nearly five years have passed since I first visited Shanghai, a city with an ineffable draw on me.  Following our reluctant departure in 2013 after little more than a year’s residence, we returned as visitors last year with a little trepidation.  With hindsight we needn’t have done so.

No such concerns or worries this year – if it’s too cliched to call it our second home, then let’s just say its a place in which we feel more at home than just about anywhere else. We know the heart of the city well enough to walk for hours without getting lost; we know just about enough Mandarin to placate angry taxi drivers; we know our favourite restaurants and bars; and we know its people: ambitious yet reserved, modern yet traditional,  energetic yet bloody slow when walking.

Jude, me, Rachel, Kim and Bron in front of Shanghai's new skyline

Jude, me, Rachel, Kim and Bron in front of Shanghai’s new skyline

Sandwiching our trip to Vietnam, our time in Shanghai was intentionally more social than cultural.  Whilst many of our ex-pat friends have since moved on, a few stalwarts remain along with most of our Chinese friends.  So we had a deliberately packed agenda of socialising, eating and drinking.

In Shanghai there’s no better “local” than Masse (it’s been a year but Chris, the co-owner can still greet me by name); no better cocktail bar than Closless; no better excuse to smuggle in a little rum purchased in Vietnam than a beach party south of the Bund.

From the night of bizarre Chinese entertainment (face changing magic guy who helped me knock over a beer) to being thoroughly under-dressed in one of Shanghai’s poshest restaurants (my shorts and bright orange t-shirt combo not exactly mixing well with the suits and cocktail dresses adorned by the other clientele) , we loved our brief return.  Last year we celebrated our wedding anniversary sat at the bar on a Virgin Atlantic flight; this year we celebrated eating Sichuanese food with two of our favourite Chinese families.

Thanks to everyone that found the time to meet up with us.
And yes, we’ll be back next year.  How could we not?

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.