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 3rd: Shaoxing

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

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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.

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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.

 

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.