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.


March 31st: The First (Treetop) Barbecue of the Summer

P1040749Back home in the UK, one particular event always indicates the start of summer, and never mind fiddling with the clocks or the wearing of shorts.  Whether early in a March heatwave or late in May’s eventual surrender to warmth, our goodbye to winter is always indicated by the first barbecue of the year.  So this year, as the UK currently clings to winter in an inversely proportional way to how Bron and I are clinging on to life out in China, our first barbecue carried an inevitable Chinese feel.

Our ‘Tree-top Villa’ in the mountainous Moganshan region was just that – one of about 30 villas bordering a narrow valley, positioned high up overlooking the trees. Each with its own barbecue, hot tub and personal (ish) host. Lillian, our host, performed an admirable job, succumbing to the many demands of Isaac, Chong, Bron and I without complaint as we attempted to relax amongst the trees.

SAM_0584‘Naked Retreats’ (please note: not ‘nudist’ retreats) offers its guests the opportunity to spend a few days away from Shanghai’s relentless pressure to ‘Do Something’ by choosing instead to do absolutely nothing, which is pretty much what we did. Shunning the available activities such as bike riding, hiking, archery and incongruously, Land Rover driving, we chose to spend our time popping in and out of the hot tub, ambling around and of course, having our first barbecue of the year.

Three hours from Shanghai, the Naked Retreat resort is a staggeringly effective use of a landscape, making use of nature to provide its guests with a unique, eco-friendly experience.  March has given us a few fantastic weekends, and this one no different (despite losing at majiang to a very sleepy Isaac).

I am curious, though, as to how such a relaxing, effortless weekend can leave us all feeling so tired…

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.

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.

November 18th: An Art Deco Abattoir


A bus load of people outside Qiandeng

The months of October and November represent hairy cab season in Shanghai.  Farmed in speciality lakes between Shanghai and Suzhou, the crabs draw vast crowds of visitors from neighbouring provinces.  On Saturday, our Marketing Team arranged a coach trip to experience them first hand, along with a visit to a couple of local scenic spots.  I’m aware that with some foods there’s an art to eating them, but this was the most complex thing I’ve ever been faced with; dissecting a rat in biology lessons at school was far simpler.  The crabs don’t come with instructions but require a different technique  for the male and female of the species, and different rules for which bits of the innards can or can’t be eaten.  I gave up after breaking the legs and opening the lid to reveal a mass of different coloured insides.  Bron persisted.  Bron’s hands still smell of crab.

Inside the slaughterhouse

Inside the slaughterhouse

Today we’ve been to see a 1930’s slaughterhouse restored in 2008 as a commercial building.  A vast, open space made entirely of concrete and previously used to herd cows up four floors of ramps to meet a somewhat grisly death.  A common analogy for the building is M. C. Escher’s famous painting of impossible constructs since the stairs and ramps in the building seem to cross and change angle incoherently (although supposedly by design to allow the separation of animals and humans).  Hard to picture what it must have been like.

On Friday of last week I had my first real Chinese telephone conversation following a phone call from our ayi.  Normally when this happens I  just pass the phone to a Chinese colleague and have them translate for me.  This time we were in a supermarket.  I could have passed the phone to a random Chinese person in the shop; not sure it would have helped.  According to Google Translate (after the event), what I actually said was “I am not going to work, so I cannot say to colleagues.”  Close enough I reckon.  Followed by “We go home in 20 minutes”.

She kind of understood.  I think.

Anyway, our ayi has an easy life at the moment.  We’re getting to know a few people locally, and so we’re not as home as much as we should be (or probably need to be at our age).  And so our ayi has very few dishes to clean and almost no vacuuming to be done.   We even moved the sofa cushions around last week to pretend we’d sat on it between her visits.  Although if future weeks are like this one, with Indian, Nepalese, Thai and Cantonese food on the menu, she may have to cope with bigger clothes to iron.

The end of my blogs feel like a perfect opportunity for a rant.  So here goes… I appreciate that 7.30am on a Sunday morning is obviously the optimum time to read a gas meter.  But with both of us in desperate need of sleep, this is not good.  A message to Chinese gas companies that may randomly read blogs (albeit blocked in China) – please let us sleep!  After 9am, please?

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.