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Chinese Chapters

by James Thomas   - Jan 12, 2015

 

“China is a big place,” Charles de Gaulle famously once said, “inhabited by many Chinese” and he certainly wasn’t wrong.  With almost 20% of the world’s population and over 100 cities of over a million residents, it’s a fair bit bigger than the tiny British Isles I came from.

During my years mingling around the Middle Kingdom I’ve been fortunate to scout out many special spots and these are just a handful of them. Starting in Jiangsu - where I spent much of my time teaching English to adorable kids - I visited Changzhou, Hong Kong, Anhui, Zhejiang, Wuxi and Zhenjiang before heading north to do the classic tourist trails of the Great Wall, Tiananmen and the Forbidden City.

 

My first taste of China

The more I learnt about life in Jiangsu’s Changzhou – my first Chinese city – and its approximate five million inhabitants, the more I loved about it. There is a strong sense of community among the locals and an abundance of excessively cute children and dogs roaming the streets at every daylight hour. They play much more freely here than back at home. Now I’m not particularly much of a dog man, but almost every little fluffy thing here makes me grin like a baby looking at a teat. And yes, I said teat.

China feels much safer than back home in the UK. There's very little in the way of crime. Just the other night I was walking along next to a main road, a car was parked up with the lights on, engine running, windows down and nobody inside nor anybody within a few hundred yards at least. Presumably they’d left it there while they popped to a shop or something, in most (or many) parts of the world this car would have been jacked and half way to Outer Mongolia by now.

Most evenings and some mornings in a variety of open spaces (parks and squares) up and down the country, you can find groups of hundreds of people working out to dance routines outside their homes and/or workplaces. While they do their thing in the public squares, children play and more ridiculously cute dogs and puppies run around their feet.

I managed to get to a couple of the best parks in Changzhou city thanks to my housemate who took me on a lovely bromantic walk through Hongmei Park (also known as Red Plum Park). Situated just opposite what is allegedly the tallest wooden pagoda in China - and therefore the world – the grounds cover a mighty 37 hectares.  The park is beautifully landscaped with rivers and waterways flowing between bundles of different plants and flowers. There’s also an elevated walkway so you can get up into the trees without risking a broken limb, but playing ball games on the grass is out of the question here I’m afraid as security blow whistles at the slightest step on the grass.

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Flowers line the path of Hongmei Park’s main entrance

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The Ming Dynasty-designed buildings and rooftops add real authentic character to the park

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Allegedly China’s tallest wooden pagoda (and structure), built on the site of an important local Buddhist shrine.

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Day-trippers out on the boats in the park during a slightly overcast spring day.

 

I was also given a guided tour of one of the other parks, courtesy of budding author-in-the-making Tim Crozier, just after I’d sampled my first ever Dairy Queen (DQ) ice-cream thing. For those not in the know, it’s an American ice-cream parlor of legendary status. When they serve it to you, they tip the whole thing upside down without spilling a drop – proving just how deliciously thick and creamy it is. I was quite impressed.

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From Changzhou to Hong Kong

It just so happened the same day I was flying to Hong Kong from Shanghai, a lovely Londoner friend of mine, Tony, was going to meet his lady flying into China. He’d been cruising around Asia a year or so and his Chinese was definitely way better than mine and I gratefully accepted his invite to travel together.

From Changzhou we got the train towards Shanghai. Within a few minutes our high-speed train was cruising at a steady 297 km per hour (almost 186 mph). The only sign of movement was the ripples within the water bottles on tables but, other than that, it’s as if we’re hardly moving at all. That day I set my very own personal best land speed record, all of which on an all but silent hyper-train.
 

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Changzhou North Railway Station

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Train ticket

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The bullet train

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 Inside of the train

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Wow, 308 km per hour

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Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station

 

The scenery in these parts is filled by unappealing heavy construction, over-powering cranes and half-finished apartment complexes.  They bellow down on older residential dwellings, probably due for demolition in the not-too-distant future… The odd traditional style Chinese roof-top or a huge pagoda on the horizon remind you which continent we’re speeding through.

After arriving in Shanghai we made our way to the airport via two subway changes, the last of which – amazingly enough – was paid for by a young local couple who helped us find the best route there. This definitely wouldn’t happen back in the west. Tony informed me that some believe helping foreigners here is something that brings them prosperity. Well, that’s just another bonus about visiting China.

Heading down to the train, I’m surprised to see a man with an airport-style bomb-detecting scanning machine. More surprisingly the security guard ‘on duty’ was asleep, eyes closed: the lot. Thankfully these people have things so tightly under control regardless, they can relax day-to-day it appears.
 

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 Shanghai Pudong International Airport

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Dragon Air

 

We grabbed a beer at the airport and went off our separate ways, mine was to prop myself up in another bar and wait out the five hours at the airport. Luckily, in this city, Budweiser is readily available…
 

On the plane I sat next to a Shanghai-based Hong Kong dude called Steven.  Trained in aviation and schooled in Oz, and now holding the prestigious position of being my only Hong Kong friend, we gelled instantly.  He drew me a few maps of places I needed to get to once I arrived and even offered to show me the best way to catch the metro to the hostel. What a legend. With his help I purchased an Octopus travel card thing, which enables you to travel by bus, train, tram and probably helicopter anywhere in the islands.

I arrived smoothly at Mong Kok's Sincere House in some dodgy, shabby-looking building. The bed, in fairness, was much more comfortable than mine at home in Changzhou.

 

Hong Kong, I Think I Love You

The following day, having escaped the visa place just after 10 am and with relatively little hassle or agro, I headed out to explore Hong Kong city.

For me this place is ludicrously impressive; never-ending skyscrapers get smothered by little white clouds as helicopters land on nearby rooftops all around. Trying not to get too dazzled by it all, I caught a ferry (for just HK$2, roughly 25 cents) across the harbor. This is an essential way to admire the contrasting financial district’s mighty power with the tranquil calm of Victoria Harbour’s aqua blue waters below.

Everywhere you look here the world’s most high-end brands are firmly planted all around; temptations are provided by Dior, Armani, Rolex, Ralph Lauren and Hugo Boss to name check a few and judging by the array of sports cars zooming around every corner it’s clear the locals certainly have some serious funds.

I spotted a rooftop restaurant with a terrace, called Prince, and - reminding myself it was 5 o’clock somewhere in the world - I ordered a cool San Miguel and sat outside soaking up the sun to await my sushi breakfast.

A quick trip on the metro and I’m heading for them there hills. Travelling in style like never before, this whole city is soooo James Bond-esque. Taking my first ever cable-car ride here, I know this one will be tough to top. All 5.7 km (3.5 miles) of the journey is a heady mix of jaw(s)-dropping beauty and breath-taking scenery, overlooking not one, but two national parks with the South China Sea as an idyllic backdrop for holiday snaps. The whole thing is an incredible feat of engineering and it enables tourists to get a birds-eye view of the most picturesque aspects of this wonderful city for the full 25 minute trip.

When you arrive near the statue of the Big Buddha, you're greeted by a reconstructed traditional-ish Chinese village called Ngong Ping. After walking past the Twelve Divine Generals (linked with certain forms of Buddhism, including Japanese), you find yourself at the foot of the gigantic Big Buddha stairway. After the tiring climb, I claimed my free ice-cream and sat in awe at the foot of the immense statue. I practiced a little meditation in the Big Buddha’s shadow before returning back to the base camp to chill.

Just after sunset I ventured back out for the reportedly over-hyped Symphony of Lights show. I found an exquisitely transparent lounge and restaurant called Aqua, situated on the 29th floor of one of the buildings, just opposite the action centre.

Even before the 8 pm show time, skyscrapers glow up prettier than rainbows. As the show starts lasers sparkle and lights glow, bouncing from building to building. For me, the show wasn’t so wow, but the views in general are all so simply stunning I really didn’t mind.

After a few over-priced beers I discovered that Hong Kong McDonalds sell Sausage & Egg McMuffin meals 24 hours a day! Result!
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Victoria Harbour

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Mid Levels Escalator

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Temple Street Night Market

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Monks at the Po Lin Monastery

 

The Mountains of Yellowness

A couple of mes amis were planning a road trip, or rail-trip rather, to see one of China’s most impressive scenic sights: The Yellow Mountain. Originally called the Black Mountain, it’s named was changed in the eight-hundredth century by Emperor Ming of Tang, after he believed the Yellow Emperor had found enlightenment here.

The World Heritage Site, known locally as Mount Huangshan, is based in Anhui province; it’s approximately 13 hours west of Changzhou by sleeper train. I tagged along and we set off late one night after work... perhaps, we’d find our enlightenment too.

Arriving at the foot of the yellow beast, we took a cable car up to somewhere near Cloud Dispelling Peak (each peak has a similarly thought-provoking title). Naturally, it started to rain.  We get soggy trekking for what seemed like a thousand miles. The steps continued for hours and hours until we were almost 6000ft above sea level. At one point, we narrowly escaped getting washed away as we walked up steps that were rapidly turning into a deadly waterfall. Following a trail of yellow ponchos, we weaved our way up like ants - keeping an eye out for something other than drenched tourists, dense fog and grey granite.

Every now and then we’d catch a glimpse of tantalizing views, teasing us as to what could be seen on a clear day. Mist rolled over the hilltops below us appearing like slow-motion waves crushing over rocks in a stream, and it somehow reminded me that I’m always fascinated about the weather whenever clouds are beneath me.

Eventually, and without a single patch of dry clothing, we found our way to the hostel. After dumping our bags, Sarah and Thierry were about to head out once again to trek a little more. Spotting the stylish lobby bar, I figured it would be best for all concerned if I rested my weary legs, while researching their selection of beer, coffee and newspapers. A writer’s work is never done.

When the other (more-enlightened) explorers returned, we headed for food in the pretty expensive restaurant. Deciding we were going to wake up before daybreak to head up to the mountain top to see the highly acclaimed sunrise, we slopped off to our rooms for an early night.  As we were in a dormitory room at the hostel, we had a bizarre soundtrack of six older gentlemen snoring as if in some kind of orchestra. Luckily I brought my ear plugs so I could join the ensemble without too much trouble.

Waking up around 4.30am, we headed off hoping to experience the Buddha’s Light - a halo-like phenomenon reportedly appearing in your silhouette. Up on the mountain top, it was fairly obvious we weren’t going to see anything. Shrugging it off and not feeling so enlightened, we headed back to catch a few more hours in bed.

I’m glad I went and certainly felt the adventure was time well spent. That said, I was a little disgruntled about the lack of obvious scenery. On the rare occasions I hike for hours and hours uphill, the least I expect is some picturesque photos. Instead, I bought some postcards showing what we should have seen and our search for enlightenment continues...

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 Entrance of Huang Shan

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A sample of the stunning views available from Huangshan with one of the many gorgeous, over-hanging, pine trees.

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Some hiker’s fortunate enough to catch the sunrise and witness the Buddha’s Light
 

The Forbidden City

Despite living in Egypt for six-and-a-half years and travelling through India for months, I somehow managed to avoid both the pyramids and the Taj Mahal. I was determined China was going to be different; I was going to see that wall and palace at any cost.

I headed up to the capital with four funky colleagues and met up with Hastings crew’s Rolley and Nicki at our cozy hostel. It was ideally located just a short walk away from both Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City (situated right opposite each other).

Following the masses, we stumbled into the grounds of the Forbidden City. Once home to powerful emperors, it’s now one of the most visited sites in the world. It has 20,000 square meters of walled buildings previously sealed off for 500 odd years... it’s hard to imagine all the blood, sweat and tears that went into building this historic landmark all those moons ago. The highlight for me was the beautiful imperial gardens area. Elegant and serene, it was a pleasure taking our time milling around the plants, trees and unique buildings on offer.

Outside the palace, the street-sellers were intense. We managed to avoid the on-coming scrum after eventually buying some things we didn’t really want or need – but, it should be noted, at super-cheap prices.

Moseying back towards the main entrance, right opposite Tiananmen Square, again we were touching the place before we were sure we had arrived. I expected something more, I think we all did; it’s not as big as I’d imagined it to have been. I expected to be wowed and it was, disappointingly, much more like an ‘oh’ than a wow.  Unfortunately we missed the daily changing of the flags ceremony they perform at sunrise and sunset. Instead, we dashed off to get fed, and in theory, get an early night.

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Gate to the Forbidden City

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Ticket office on west side

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Ticket for two

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Entrance

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Nine Dragons Wall

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 Corner Tower

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Bird’s eye view from Coal Hill in Jingshan Park

 

The Great Wall

A short time later it was time to conquer the Great Wall.  A group of six of us set out for a slightly older section of the wall (Mitianyu), hoping to avoid the throngs of tourists at the busier hotspots. The views, and the steps, were simply breathtaking.

Whenever I reach a place of immense natural beauty, for me time seems to stop. As I stare out over this never-ending landscape, I consider feelings of something so violent and gentile. Like a docile monster, the wall is something so incredible in grandeur and complex in nature, yet it appears somehow quiet, calm and simple close-up. Thankfully, for today at least, the Great Wall dragon sleeps peacefully.

Coming from Chinese cities that never rest; the silence up on the Great Wall is wonderful. Forrest covered lands spread out in every direction, only ever broken by the windy trail of the wall. In places such as this, I wish I was an artist capable of capturing these moments to last a lifetime.

Never did I imagine we’d all be so wildly impressed by a wall. After we’d hiked up thousands of steps for hours, we rewarded ourselves with a cold beer being sold by a local trader. His sign read: “Last chance to buy drinks for 10 km” and that was enough to make me decide I’d already gone far enough.

Then we had to come down: slowly and painstakingly, step-by-step and each one with a grunt. The five o’clock start with a few hours of ropey sleep was starting to catch up on us. Hiking all day in the summer sun and before drinking a cool beer might not have been the best of moves either.  We were all agreed that the Great Wall’s views were mesmerizing and ones we hope never to forget. The cramped three hour bus ride home to the hostel was, however, just the opposite.

 

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Bus stop sign from Dongzhimen to Mutianyu 

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Entrance

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 Beacon Tower

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Michelle Obama and her daughters on Mutianyu Great Wall

Following in the Footsteps of my Ancestral Drug Dealers

Some of the lads and I decided to explore Zhenjiang, a small city based just outside of Nanjing with a history dating back to around 200 BC.  After a brief, twenty minute and 304 km per hour, train journey (yes, a new personal best land speed record) - we headed straight for Jiansun Park; an ancient site where the Chinese tried to hold off the British during the First Opium War of 1842.

As we crossed the moat protecting the island by ferry this place felt majestic. It is a little odd to think I’m following in the footsteps of my ancestral drug dealers and we have come to the place that was the scene of the First Opium War’s final battle almost 172 years ago to the day.

We stumbled into the mesmerizing grounds with the enormous Yangtze River shimmering silently in the background. Greeted by a handful of Buddhist monks kitted-out in either yellow or grey robes and smiling warmly; they were keen to show us photos of their only visit to the West when they took a trip with Chinese dignitaries to Niagara Falls.

There were gigantic, extravagantly decorated replica statues of deities covered in gold everywhere inside the various old buildings. We followed some bass-heavy gongs and Buddhist chanting and ended up in a tranquil bonsai garden, containing dozens of really old and tiny, beautiful trees.

We then hiked up to the wooden pagoda on the top of the hill – stopping off to admire the cannons they’d aimed at our pesky forefathers – but, unfortunately, the pagoda was already closed for the day. As we continued exploring the other spaces dotted around the island, we found lime and pomegranate trees, strawberries and blueberries growing in the wild with gorgeous butterflies and dragonflies darting between them. In the many pools there were enormous frogs and very cute little turtles swimming around and relaxing in the sunshine.

A great day was had by all, and thankfully we felt no animosity at all regarding our country’s questionable drug dealing past. Still I find it hard to believe us British went to war in order to secure our right to sell opium. What were we thinking? We must have had one hell of a PR person back then. Everyone knows selling drugs abroad is a silly move, but presumably if your government backs you, then it’s OK. Some things I’ll never understand.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (and an Eager Blogger)

A few weeks later our group of 14 set out from Changzhou at 10 am in a convoy of SUVs heading for Zhejiang. One of Jiangsu’s neighboring provinces, famed for being part of the incredible backdrop for the cult-movie: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  

We arrived in a small village in the mountains, shadowed by green hills in every direction. Stopping to get a quick munch on, it poured down suddenly and violently. It was quickly torrential and instantly dampened more than just our spirits.

At the rafting place, we were told to stay put and wait to see if the rains tailed off. It didn’t; but we found a man, who knew a man, who knew a dog – and that little fluffy thing led us to another rafting hotspot just downstream somewhere.

Of course, it was still raining at the new spot and things were looking a little grim. We were about to lose all hope when we got the green-light and boarded our two-man inflatable vessel. As we did, the challenge was set: whoever got to the bottom first, would win bragging rights.
 
The Welsh Wizards raft comprising Tudor and myself were firm favorites with the bookies and rightly so. Although missing out on pole position, we launched off in third place eagerly chasing the competition. Fully equipped with a high-power water-rifle, everyone was completely soaked within minutes. This coupled with the fact after every slope the raft half-filled with water meant one of us was constantly battling to empty the load to ensure we’d sail smoothly towards the finish line. Naturally the two most worthy, and arguably most handsome, contenders won the race – yes, you’ve guessed it: The Welsh Wizards.

Having worked up quite the appetite, we headed back to the river-side hotel to be welcomed with a BBQ on our very own private balcony overlooking the water. With a soundtrack of waterfalls and laughter we ate and drank like we were feasting with Henry VIII. Consuming whisky and beers like the end of the world was nigh, we stayed up larking about in the river and exchange stories till the early hours.

After breakfast and a shower – au naturel style – in the river the following morning, we headed for a beautiful lake half way down a river we’d spotted on our approach to the hotel. As we stopped, we began to appreciate the sheer beauty of the landscape: glorious sunshine scattered over bamboo-clad forested hills, as far as the eye could see and in every direction.

The water was amazing, warm and calm and barely above head-height. Perching on some rocks for some standard YMCA-posed photos, little fish nibbled at our feet giving us a complimentary - and well-earned - pedicure.

We’d spotted a sign that roughly translated read: “Warning five people have already died here! Do not swim in the water!” Ignoring what we presumed must be scaremongering; we paddled about like kids on our first trip to the seaside. After a few blissful hours, some security guards came down and told us to get out and move away as they were about to open the dam upstream. Presumably, the five unfortunate souls didn’t get the same warning.  Perhaps this wasn’t our smartest move.

Getting dressed we began the convoy back to the dirtier city-life of Changzhou, satisfied completely that we’d had an exceptionally special weekend. For me personally, swimming in the lake was the highlight – something I’ve never done before in my life, and something I will always remember as one of my best memories from China.
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Bamboo Sea Park

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Bamboo Sea

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A scene from the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

 

The Road to Wuxi

Setting off at silly o'clock and after a few precious hours sleep, we drove for an hour in a four-car convoy, led by William in a convertible white Porsche Boxster, before reaching our destination.

Zhu Shan Hu is a lakeside resort – on the road from Changzhou to Wuxi, by Lake Tai (Tai Hu) – shadowed by mountains and housing a BBQ area and a hotel with some pretty cool amenities. We found a spot close to the water and made some space for the BBQ (shao kao) action. Swerving any responsibility for the cooking, as per usual, I played soccer with starry-eyed children in the sunshine.

BBQ at Wuxi

BBQ at Wuxi
BBQ hotel

BBQ hotel

 

After the food we headed straight for the paddle boats. Docking up at a secluded island, naturally we set foot on the idyllic little hide-out - completely ignoring the do not enter signs dotted around... a speed boat came racing over and we scurried off to the next available island. This one didn't have any threatening no entry signs so we stopped off for a quick toilet break. After that our four boats linked arms, human arms that is, and we amused ourselves doing simultaneous doughnuts in the water.

 

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Boating at lake Tai


Once we disembarked we went on the hunt for some four-seater bicycles… getting our hands on them we presumed four times the legs would equal four times the power. Not so. These bad boys were heavy and slow and we giggled like school girls trying to go up the slightest slope.
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Bicycle in Wuxi

Feeling pretty wiped out after hours of exercise in the glaring sun, we jumped in the car and stopped randomly at an orange-tree plantation. With an all-you-eat oranges policy inside the place, we filled ourselves with the freshest oranges we'd ever eaten. Walking past a local selling tiny fried sardine-flavored fish we grabbed a few bags to stock up on our Omega 3 too.
 
With a few of the guys opting for a spot of fishing, the rest of played keepy-uppies soccer until nightfall. As the sun fell behind the mountains, turning the sky a mix of purple and red, the Europeans amongst us felt pretty frazzled from the cocktail of excessive sunshine, booze and hours of sweating it out by boat, bike, ball and er, fish. This was another incredible journey, with some incredible people, and another highlight of my time here in China so far.
 

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