Posted by: Richard Marshall | April 18, 2016

I’m back…

I have decided that it time to try to revive my moribund blog. I’m not sure why I fell off using it after China. I think perhaps that it was partly a sense of defeat – one of the ways I rationalized leaving China was that I was going to suck it up and get a job in the Middle East, save loads of money get the hell of out ESL teaching. In the end, however, I didn’t do any of those things but took a job teaching English at the British Council in Penang, Malaysia. It was a safe and easy choice. The British Council is a good school and Penang is a quiet, easy-to-live-in, English-speaking, foreigner friendly-small town. I quickly settled into a comfy routine here but never felt the same sense of adventure or wonder that I did in Vietnam or in China. I’m not quite sure why this is; I’m not sure if Penang is just objectively easier to deal with and less exciting, or if it because I’m just getting older and the adventure of living abroad begins to wane eventually. When all is said and done, I was young and green when I went to Vietnam and living there was incredibly intense and profoundly formative. And as for China, well, it’s a country that’s awe-inspiring on a daily basis…and I was in love.

So Penang has felt pedestrian in comparison, as well as being a personal cop-out and retreat on my part. However, two years after leaving China I really need to stop seeing it in those terms, and catching up on this blog is a way of moving on for me. After all, it’s not as if Malaysia isn’t a very interesting country, and I’ve done a fair bit of other travel too. As always the blog hopefully can be an update for any friends of mine who still read it, as well as a way for me to record some of my experiences and memories for my own sake.

Posted by: Richard Marshall | March 21, 2014

On a Year in China

Me Qibao

Me in the snow at Qibao, Shanghai

I have been in New Zealand for the last two months waiting for my new job to start in Malaysia. I wanted to write an overall retrospective of my time in China, and as I am off again in a week I can’t put it off any longer. I was ready to leave Vietnam after three years; leaving China was a much more difficult decision, and in some ways I’m not at all sure it was the right one. I haven’t been entirely sure what to include, so really what follows is just some of my impressions and experiences from living in Shanghai.

***

Applying for jobs in China, I was determined that I wanted to be in Shanghai. Beijing seemed too cold and polluted and Guangzhou spoke Cantonese, a problem for my good intentions to learn Mandarin. In any case, though, Shanghai seemed very alluring. It’s one of those cities where the name alone gives an incredible sense of romance, and conjures images of decadence, cosmopolitanism, adventure. I was concerned that getting a job there might be difficult. Of course, that was before I was aware that EF would give a job to pretty much any warm body who could speak English. I was offered two jobs, but EF’s recruiters seemed more on the ball than Wall Street’s, so I accepted their offer and flew from Ho Chi Minh City to Shanghai.

It was nice arriving at the same time as a large number of new people. I think my induction group in January 2013 in Shanghai was bigger than the whole teaching staff at the British Council in Penang. The first person I met at the airport was Sam Viens, who became a good friend and we later shared an apartment. We were all put up in a hotel called the Rayfont on Yan’an Road. It was a grey tower block which smelled of cigarettes, damp, and food – a characteristically Chinese hotel. Escort cards were pushed under the door which I later found out was pretty common practice. It was very comfortable though and I think we all developed quite a fondness for the place. Shanghai in January was cold and bleak, though in fact I found that quite exciting after three years of summer in Vietnam. From the gym on the top floor of the Rayfont I could look out over the city with it’s teeming elevated highways, tower blocks swimming in the smog, and areas of surviving row houses and Tudorbethan villas from the 1930s. We explored the area around the hotel looking for food options, and a few evenings after work I ate fried noodles on the street with my fingers so cold I could hardly use my chopsticks.

For all my later problems with the company, I have to acknowledge than one of EF’s great strengths was it’s induction. Everyone was friendly and supportive and they made it easy to navigate the complicated paperwork of working in China. Everyone in the induction group was very nice and we got on very well together. We were taken to some nice restaurants for lunches and a bar at Jingan Temple once the training was over. After a few days training I was taken up to my school in a shopping mall at Da Ning Road and shown the ropes there too. It didn’t take long before I was settled into my teaching routine.

Most of us found apartments in an enormous complex called Brilliant City. I later came to feel that the complex had much less to recommend it than people thought at the time. It was big, there were a number of expats, and was fairly close to downtown. There were very few decent places to eat in the vicinity though, and nowhere to get a drink. Street food quickly lost it’s appeal as the weather got warmer and I became more aware of all the concerns swirling around food safety and hygiene in China. The metro stop, Zhong Tan Road, was only on lines three and four which looped around the city centre. This meant that to get into town you almost always had to transfer to another line. The worst transfer of all was at Shanghai Railway Station, a long walk through a dirty, crowded, dismal underpass. I had to do this every day to get to work and although my commute was by no means the worst it came to be real drag. And although all of us in the induction group remained friends, our social lives began to diverge. There were nights in Shanghai when I had a great time out on the town (and much too much to drink), but at the same time I found decreasing desire to get hammered on Tsingtao beer and trawl Shanghai’s overpriced clubs. This was partly because I had much less free time than I did in Vietnam and hated losing precious days off to lousy hangovers. My closest friends from the group became my flatmate Kiyo, and Sam and Mike who shared a flat in the block next door. This was partly an accident of proximity, but also partly because we were either a bit older than most of the others or had experience living abroad already. I ended up spending much more time with them and seeing the others from the group less often.

I struggled to get settled in my first few months. Although China and Vietnam are of course very different I still didn’t have the same sense of excitement I had had the first time I moved to Asia and that I could see in others who had not worked abroad before. Joining a gym was difficult. They all had inconvenient hours and demanded that people sign up for at least a few months. When I eventually did find one near work it was so unpleasant I eventually just gave up.By the end I was doing almost no exercise at all in China, which was bad for me physically and mentally. I had had great hopes of learning Chinese but foolishly didn’t take advantage of EF’s classes. Instead I tried to study on my own and with the help of my friend and colleague Maggie. Somehow I just couldn’t get any traction – I felt at times like I was getting stupider as I got older. I was also trying to maintain my Vietnamese and keep fit and I simply didn’t have the time. So in the end I basically gave up studying too. Money was tricky in the first few months. EF offered us a loan to cover initial apartment costs but then started taking it out of our first paycheck which was only for 3 weeks so for the first month we were really broke. I had to borrow money from my parents which as well as being shameful was also frustrating; after three years in Vietnam I seemed to have moved sideways at best. Rent was paid every three months which was tough for someone with my lack of financial discipline. After the first three months Kiyo’s mom became sick and he had to leave suddenly just as the rent was due. I had to scramble to find a new roommate and managed to lose my bank card in an ATM, so it was a very stressful couple of weeks. Most of these issues were overcome and in a second year I probably could have found a better place to live and become financially stable – the salary was fine. But I ended up feeling doubt and frustration about my life in China that I couldn’t overcome and eventually got worse later in the year.

***

DSCF5384

Lilong in the French Concession

One of the things that I found most amazing about China was how my preconceived ideas about the place were proved to be really limited or inaccurate. I think my understanding of the country was similar to many people (and indeed, I ended up arguing with other expats as my views began to change). I thought that Mao was a bad man but he had at least brought peace and unity to China and left it a superpower. His successors had abandoned totalitarian social engineering and instead the government had become one of technocrats – a little corrupt to be sure, but achieving economic miracles the depressed West could only dream of. I thought that the Chinese people had happily exchanged freedom for ever growing prosperity. I also believed that whatever else you could say about authoritarian government at least it got things done unlike Western democracies which were mired in partisan deadlock or else suffocating between two centre parties with little or nothing to distinguish them. And I thought that China was an unstoppable juggernaut, the power for the 21st century, an idea fed by everything from newspaper columns to Amy Chua. In fact, almost all of these assumptions turned out to be incorrect.

I hadn’t read much Chinese history with seriousness and still have a lot to learn, but a handful of writers really changed my ideas about Mao Zedong. Jung Chang (Wild Swans, Mao: The Unknown Story), Frank Dikotter (Mao’s Great Famine, The Tragedy of Liberation), Jonathan Fenby ( Modern China: The Fall and Rise of a Great Power, Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the China he Lost) and Yang Jisheng (Tombstone) really brought home to me not just the terrible loss of life of the Mao era but also the irreparable and continuing harm to the fabric of Chinese society and civilization. Mao didn’t leave the country strong; he left it a shambles, ruined by the ten years of anarchy and terror of the Cultural Revolution. Whatever strength and prosperity was achieved by his successors came as a result of rejecting everything he stood for, with the exception of the one-party state maintained by violence. And the greatest tragedy of all is that, in the end, all the heat-breaking death and destruction of Mao Zedong achieved nothing. The country in many ways has come full circle back to 1949. China under Chiang was characterized by authoritarian, corrupt government, pervasive human rights abuses, massive inequality, coastal cities prospering through the combination of foreign capital and cheap labour while the rural hinterland languished in poverty, large scale but patchy infrastructure investment and modernization. In other words, pretty much exactly the same as China today.

With the exception is that the Kuomintang eventually lost their grip on power in Taiwan and became a democratic party, while the communists in China remain determined to hang on to power by any means necessary. Although I knew Vietnam was an authoritarian country I seldom personally saw any evidence of it. This of course reflects the insulation of my life there and my ignorance of the country’s political landscape. But it’s also because China did things Vietnam aspired to do far more effectively. The most obvious example of this was the internet. I was surprised how exasperated I became by the agonizing slowness of Gmail, the uselessness of search engines such as bing, and the huge range of sites I couldn’t access, from YouTube to Facebook to the New York Times. I eventually got a VPN on my laptop but that didn’t help in the endless hours of boring downtime I had at work staring at my computer. In the international media, though, there was of course far more reporting on China than of Vietnam. It was an eventful year: Xi Jingping and Li Keqiang took up the reins as the new leaders of the country and newspapers avidly followed every fitful attempt at reform and the rather more determined crackdown on the media, domestic and foreign. A journalist in the Atlantic pointed out that people should remember that overall most of the news coming out of China is good news, despite the headlines. I agree with that, but the discussions surrounding reform were frustrating. Some important things happened while I was there: the one child policy was effectively ended, the infamous Laogai labour camps were allegedly closed, minor changes were made the awful hukuo, the internal passport that ties China’s people to their home villages and towns and is a source of appalling inequality; and ideas were bruited to make the economy more open. But fundamentally the country remains locked in a backward political system and an economic model rapidly running out of steam, and, ever mindful of the fate of Gorbachev, China’s leaders prefer to delay or halt reform if there is any suggestion of limiting their own power.

The realization that China’s much admired economic model was a long way short of what it’s cracked to be was startling to me. Of course, the first thing to say is that the achievements of China’s thirty-year economic boom are substantial and I don’t doubt that the people of China are much better off as a result. I was excited by the rapid development of Shanghai and my students were mostly reasonably well off, and some of then conspicuously successful. But China remains a middle income country and hundreds of millions remain very poor. I was surprised by the poverty in Shanghai, one of the richest cities in the country. The countryside and the west are much poorer. Life in China of seemed grim in other ways. The country is dirty. Air pollution hung over Shanghai almost every day – clear days were remarkable. Just before I left the city was making international headlines for record-breaking pollution. Despite relentless sweeping litter is everywhere. Shanghai has some beautiful old buildings and some glitzy new skyscrapers, but most of the cityscape is roads and elevated highways choked with traffic, factories, malls and dull, boxy, badly-made buildings. The countryside was also bleak, with air and water pollution, endless construction, factories and dismal concrete towns. I don’t say this as criticism of China or a suggestion that I didn’t like it. It’s just I expected, in my ignorance but also from the narrative of extraordinary economic miracles I had heard, that the world’s second-biggest economy would seem more superficially advanced. The huge economic growth seemed to be a result of dragooning a huge, badly-treated labour force into coastal factories to make cheap goods for export, and a massive, debt-funded construction boom. These had been pursued without much regard to their huge social and environmental costs and in that sense were similar to any other communist social engineering designed to secure the power of the party before the well-being of ordinary people. The political debates going on while I was there focused on the diminishing capacity of this to keep China growing and increasing public awareness of the unacceptably high cost of reckless development.

I often found the building boom particularly distressing to me because of my love for old buildings and neighbourhoods. Shanghai saw almost no development between the 1930s and the 1990s, and as a result large areas of the Romantic, pre-war Shanghai of my imagination were still intact. But development was taking a huge toll on the older areas of the city, often unnecessarily in my view. Beijing, which I never visited but read about, was also paying a terrible price as its medieval courtyard houses were gutted. And much of the country seemed to have almost no physical connection with its past at all – Changsha in Hunan province I thought a particularly dismal example of this. This was a result of war, the ravages of the Cultural Revolution but above all construction since China’s economic takeoff. Of course, I had to look past my Romantic preference for old places and see what was actually best for the people of China. I do believe that lots of construction in China is undertaken without much regard for real need; it amounts to a debt-fueled economic stimulus, keeping the state-owned cement and steel industry in business and a huge labour force employed. The lawlessness of the country leaves ordinary people powerless in the face of corrupt officialdom in the pockets of rich developers. Cities often relied on land sales to fund their budgets making massive development plans especially attractive. And the Chinese themselves are hugely proud of their history and I felt many were increasingly sensitive to it’s disappearance. Often, historical attractions had to be so extensively rebuilt that they had almost no real authenticity. On the other hand, much of the old housing I found so appealing was in deplorable condition. My girlfriend, Emma, was actually quite annoyed with me every time I lamented the destruction of a road of run-down old housing. She pointed out that they were awful places to live, low and dark and lacking proper amenities. After all, it’s not as if I would have wanted to live there. China’s cities are too poor and growing too fast for every old neighbourhood to be renovated or gentrified. However dismal, I did have to recognize that the new tower blocks were simply better places for people to live.

In  any case there was plenty of old Shanghai for me to explore. The Shanghai government was also relatively good at preserving heritage architecture, and as early as the mid-1990s had protected the particularly significant areas such as the Bund. One of favourite activities on my days off was to walk for ages through the historic  districts of the city. I explored the Bund and the two or three streets behind it which were protected and being redeveloped. I wandered around the old French Concession which had huge areas of villas, and walked up Nanjing Road between the Bund and Jiangsu Road, which had been the main axis of the International Settlement, the British-dominated part of the city. Old areas survived in surprising places. Hongkou, the old working class area of the city, had enormous areas of old Hutongs which even I wouldn’t have bothered preserving. It also had a beautiful area of red brick apartments which had been the Jewish quarter in the 1930s, and an area around Hongkou stadium where numerous writers had lived (Lu Xun amongst others) and was accordingly being developed into a cultural and historical quarter. I liked the neoclassical piles along the Bund, but above all I loved the art deco apartment blocks and department stores, and the hutongs, quiet lanes of row houses, a mixture of Chinese and European architecture unique to Shanghai.

Another of my favorite pastimes in Shanghai was learning about the great range and variety of Chinese cuisine. For all China’s rapid development people are passionate about the country’s food. Emma used to tease me about going on about the food, but she was proud of it herself and we had great fun trying out different restaurants. I certainly don’t make any claim to have become expert in Chinese food. But it was a quiet satisfaction and enormous pleasure to me to try out the spicy cuisines of Sichuan and Hunan, the Southeast Asian flavors of Yunnan, the sweet dishes of Shanghai and the Yangtze delta, the noodles and flat breads of the north west, the middle-eastern type dishes of Xinjiang and of course famous dishes like Peking Duck and the dim sum and roast meats of Guangdong and Hong Kong.  I disliked most of the street food, which near my apartment consisted of disgusting greasy noodles and mystery meat grilled on charcoal. But there was a reasonable range of cheap food near my work. We ate lots of wheat noodles with a little lamb and vegetables; spicy Sichuan soup called mala tang for which you selected your own ingredients; watery wonton soup, and xiao long bao, Shanghai’s famous soup dumplings. To really experience the complexity of Chinese cuisine you needed to go to a bigger restaurant. This was also a wonderful way to spend an evening with Emma who knew a great deal about Chinese food. We went to a huge state-owned Peking Duck restaurant where they carved the duck at your table and Emma claimed that service was famously bad because state employees didn’t fear dismissal. We queued for ages at  Hai Di Lau for Sichuan hotpot. My favorite restaurant in Shanghai was a Hunan restaurant that Emma took me to. She herself is from Hunan and said it was as close as she could find to authentic. I didn’t know whether that was true of course, but I loved the spiciness of Hunan food without the mouth-numbing peppercorns of Sichuan cuisine. If I have written too much about the food it’s just that it really was one of the best things about life in China.

Shanghai has the potential to be a truly beautiful and dynamic city. It has lovely tree-lined streets, eclectic architecture, some breath-taking infrastructure and an increasingly vibrant social and cultural scene. I can’t wait to see the city 20 years from now. If development isn’t too unkind and if the country achieves the freedom necessary to unleash the full potential of the people, Shanghai will be absolutely unbelievable, and China will reclaim its rightful place as one of the world’s greatest civilizations. I really hope that is something I get to experience as, when all is said and done, I came to admire and love China very much.

***

DSCF5835

Emma and me in Wuzhen water town

The decision to leave China was a very difficult one. There were things I liked about China and things I found frustrating. The things that annoyed me were the usual litany of expat complaints: pollution, dirt, bad manners in public, spitting, cutting in line etc. Some days I confess I found these things unbearable. But I hope mostly I recognised that China and it’s people shouldn’t be judged by things an expat found annoying, especially as most Chinese people I talked to found them annoying too and insisted they were changing anyway. The real problem for me was my job at EF.

The most positive aspects of my job were my colleagues and my students. I worked with great people and made some good friends. We chatted in the office and moaned together about annoying managers and tiresome schedules. I enjoyed going out for dinner at nearby restaurants, sometimes going out for karaoke, or just sitting in the centre drinking tea. I also liked almost all of my students. I was fortunate to be at an adults’ school and chatting to my students gave me much more insight into the concerns of Shanghai’s middle class than I would have got at a kids’ school. I found discussing life in China, the food, travel, pollution, education, even, though I never initiated these kinds of discussions, politics and history fascinating. And most of my students were friendly, interesting people, eager to learn and always happy just to chat with me.

The teaching, though, was lousy. The majority of the classes were based around PowerPoint presentations. We didn’t have the same students each time but rather taught the same classes which students came to at their convenience. This was great from them, but for the teacher it meant teaching the same class over and over again – sometimes half a dozen times or more in a week. Three months later they all came around again, so by the end of a year I must have taught some classes 30 times. This was exasperating to me, especially as the material was of widely variable quality. It was all very well for new teachers with no experience but for me it became soul-destroyingly boring. The hours were long – we had 4 compulsory office hours with usually nothing to do. Management was poor, in some instances almost unbelievably so. My last manager was amazingly incompetent and under-qualified. The company couldn’t keep anyone who was any good and middle management was embarrassingly obviously people who simply couldn’t cut it elsewhere. EF was a big, for-profit company with high turnover so it was never really going to care less about keeping teachers, but inept and insecure managers always made it worse. The company had a real knack for small, unnecessary decisions that lowered morale – making us work Christmas day for the first time without explanation, apology or gratitude, for example, or short-changing public holidays. Morale was chronically low and unfortunately a number of my friends, at my centre and at others, fed into each other’s negativity in an ever downward spiral.I hated EF violently by the time I left, and although my reasons for unhappiness were legitimate I had also clearly lost perspective and an ability to control my emotional reaction to the place.

EF, though, was clearly a dead end job. I knew I could do better and though I don’t doubt my new job at the British Council will have its issues I am confident it is a much better company to work for. Working at EF I began to have a crisis of confidence about my life, worrying that I would be forever stuck teaching ESL which would leave me forever unfulfilled. The prospect of going back to academia or finding any other career which would satisfy my perception of myself as someone not untalented seemed to be receding ever further away. I tried to make plans to go to Saudi Arabia to try and save money to study again, only to chicken out and chose a reputable employer in a pleasant country. At the time, unfit, not reading much or studying, bored and frustrated at work, in huge foreign city, I became really depressed and confused and filled with a sense of failure and of being trapped without good options. After two restful months in New Zealand I see that I allowed myself to be overwhelmed a bit too much by these feelings and should have been much more careful. Indeed, I am excited by the prospect of living in Penang and working for the BC and have much more faith, now, that the future will take care of itself. And I am confident that professionally-speaking I made the right choice to leave.

But I had to make an agonizing choice to leave because I had a compelling reason to stay: Emma. I don’t really know how to write about Emma or even if I should. I don’t know if you will read this Emma but if you do forgive me for writing about us. I just can’t write about China and not write about you. And if anyone else doesn’t want to read about it (if anyone reads this at all) well, this is my blog and this essay is important to me. And I won’t write much. Emma is the best person I have ever met, I love her very much and have never been happier than when I was with her. I guess that seems a rather bald sentence but to me each of those statements is meant with a profundity I can’t express here. I didn’t even know what those things meant before I met her. And then I left and that may have been the worst make I ever made. At first, I honestly thought I would be years in Shanghai. I left because I thought I would never be able to make anything of myself in Shanghai, which may be true. But I also left because I was afraid, and because I lacked confidence and faith that in the end life works itself out. Emma said I never tried, and the truth of that reproach is horrible. I won’t ever know what would have happened, and right now of course I don’t know what will happen. Maybe in the future we will find a way to be together. I hope so. Maybe we won’t. I don’t know. But the dilemma of my last few months in China and decision I came to was tough, exhausting, and fraught.

***

There’s not much I really want to say in summary but I do want to make it clear that, overall, I view my time in China as having been overwhelmingly positive. It wasn’t always easy, or happy, and I didn’t always do the right thing. But looking back to a year ago I am greatly happier, more mature and richer for the people I met, the things I did and the places I went. I don’t know what I’ll be writing from Malaysia, I don’t know what’s going to happen with my life, but I do know I will always feel immense gratitude and love for China.

DSCF5298

In Cheng Kan, Anhui

20131102203535 (1)

Peking duck with Emma

Posted by: Richard Marshall | January 18, 2014

Hunan: Zhangjiajie and Fenghuang

DSCF5743

Misty Zhangjiajie

I had originally decided to spend my second nine day vacation in China in Beijing. By October though I was tired of huge cities, and my experience of tourism in China made me think that the Forbidden City and the Great Wall would be marred by crowds, noise and litter. So I looked for somewhere I thought would be reasonably quiet and settled on Hunan. I love Hunanese food, my girlfriend was from that province and I wanted to see something of China’s colossal interior. I hate flying, so I boarded a 20 hour train to the town nearest Zhangjiajie national park. The train was fairly comfortable and I only had one other person in my compartment. I felt pretty adventurous sitting in the dining car eating spicy food and drinking Xizang beer while the other passengers stared at me through their cigarette smoke. The countryside slipping by was fascinating but hardly attractive. It was early autumn and they were burning off the rice stalks so a haze hung over the whole country (I only saw blue sky once or twice the whole trip). The towns and villages looked incredibly bleak – unpainted concrete tenements mostly, with clusters of half-built tower blocks. Away from the coast the industry looked dirty and poor – brick and tiles being burned, abandoned Mao-era factories with brick smoke stacks, and hills scarred by quarries. At one point the train passed a massive spirits factory with two smoke-stacks belching white smoke into the air. Most of Hunan seemed crossed with the columns of unfinished elevated highways and rail. Eventually I arrived at Zhangjiajie station, swirling with smoke and traffic snarled up around an enormous building site. A taxi took me to my hotel near the entrance of the park.

My hotel was simple but very nice. It overlooked a stream where I saw several new birds, and a densely forested hillside. On arrival I had a tasty lunch and headed to the park. I was in at the park for 3 and half days and had pretty mixed experiences. The first afternoon I walked up to the cable car station and was taken aback by the crowds. There were monkeys in the park, and although there were many signs asking people not to feed or tease them, most of the local tourists did both of those things. They seemed more astounded by the sight of a monkey than I would be if I had seen a unicorn or a pterodactyl. I made my way past the mob towards the top of one of the mountains. I was greatly distressed by the litter strewn all over the park – bottles, cigarette packets, tissues, fruit peels and plastic bags. The mountains echo so every single idiot in the park had to yell towards the cliffs to hear their voice bounced back at them. As there were thousands of people the whole place was constantly roiling with hubbub. The noise was added to by the tour guides yakking into the microphones while their groups stared at their cellphones and took hundreds of photos.

The great pity of all this was that the park was stunningly beautiful. Huge columns of sandstone rose out of dense forest. Some of the paths ran along the edge of cliffs with sheer drops on one side. The view from the cable car station was amazing. I took the cable car back down and it was tremendous to be above the trees and the cliffs. The trick then was to try get away from the mob, which I was able to do on my second day by going slightly off the beaten track. Just by walking a kilometer or so I found myself completely alone and finally experienced some the peace and quiet which I look to find in mountains. I couldn’t quite get away from the echos which enveloped the whole park, but I did some birding, sat in the sun which briefly showed itself, and relaxed.

DSCF5717

View from the cable car station

DSCF5730

Sky bridge in the park

DSCF5731

View from the bridge

The national park is split into three or four separate and very large areas, so on the third day I headed to a different section of the park. The park has the misfortune of having been James Cameron’s inspiration for planet Pandora in Avatar, so there were lots of pictures of silly blue critters about. The section of the park had some of the most iconic attractions which were absolutely rammed with people. I got on a bus at another entrance which wound up past a lake whose shores were dotted with white plastic bags and bottles. Eventually we were dropped off at a huge elevator which took people up a sheer cliff. Nobody bothered to queue properly so I jostled with the crowd for about half an hour in rising annoyance till the current of people eventually got me to the lift. The lift was remarkable and the view from the top fabulous. There was no where to go but another bus to another attraction, so I rode the buses through the afternoon. Each stop had people selling gross food in disposable containers, almost all of which quickly ended up on the ground. It also started to rain, so everyone bought plastic ponchos and dumped the paper and plastic packaging on the floor. The few people who did put their trash in bins did so to no avail as the semi-tame monkeys tore the bins apart looking for food. Eventually I got to a temple overlooking the park. They had built, unbelievably, a gigantic McDonald’s nearby so empty Big Mac containers joined the other junk everywhere. There were huge crowds yelling and snapping thousands of pictures. The great pity again was the amazing beauty of the view. Mist was swirling in the valley and around the great sandstone pillars, with pines clinging precariously to any patch of loose soil. Chinese magpies were flitting about and a hawk flew overhead. I took in the view as best I could and then fled.

DSCF5739

The elevator in the mist

DSCF5754

View from the temple

My last day I revisited the quiet path and as the sun came out again got a few nice pictures.

DSCF5756

Sunshine

DSCF5759

Cliffs in the sunshine

The next day I took the bus to a small, historic town called Fenghuang. At the bus station guys were taking dumps over squat toilets without troubling to close the door, cellphone in one hand and cigarette in the other. Although I could hardly see my pecker through the cigarette smoke that didn’t stop half the people there craning their necks to check it out. It was vile. The bus passed through more grim, grey countryside. Eventually I was dropped off near the old town where the owner of my hotel came to meet me. For the most part the town was very attractive. I especially liked the old gates and section of the wall, and there were some lovely pagodas. The town also had a great location along a river in a wooded valley. Neglect and the impact of tourism sadly were taking their toll. The town teemed with tour groups. One of the most popular things to was to dress up as a Red Army or KMT soldier or a Shanghai gangster and have a picture taken. The river seemed to have water artificially pumped in – possibly it would have run dry otherwise. Along the river were dozens of KTV bars that were lit up at night and poured hideous noise into the valley till midnight. Unfortunately it was cold, smoggy and I had become slightly ill so I spent a lot of time in bed. The little stores selling evil-smelling snacks – stinky tofu, deep-fried mini crabs on sticks, and oily fried potatoes made me nauseous. It was a pity I was unwell as really the only way to beat the din would be to drink in the bars. If I had been single and could speak a little Chinese I suspect I could have had quite a party, but as it was I shivered in bed and cursed the racket.

DSCF5765

River bank

DSCF5783

Town gate

DSCF5772

Covered bridge

DSCF5770

Riverside houses

DSCF5780

Pagoda

I felt better by the last day and managed to explore the town. I caught a midday bus for the capital of Hunan, Changsha. The bus seemed to take all sorts of detours which people argued about and I of course couldn’t understand, a group of cops felt it was ok to light up inside, and I felt annoyed and lonely. Although travelling in China is adventurous and very interesting I decided next time I went somewhere I’d try not to go alone, or to visit friends or relatives. Changsha itself was dull – massive empty highways, hideous buildings and the usual half-build towers. It could have been any provincial city in China. The hotel had condoms and massage oil laid out and a number you could call for a hooker. The train station was set in a dismal, empty square and the building all the more shoddy and gimcrack for its feeble attempt at grandeur – it had a big clock tower and huge entrance hall meant to be splendid.  I took the fast train back to Shanghai which still took quite a while as the dedicated line for it is still under construction.

I am glad I went to Hunan. I hope if any of my Chinese friends read this they don’t take offence – I know it sucks to have a foreigner criticizing the country. And I’m sure if the weather had been better, if I hadn’t got sick and if I had been with friends my reactions would have been different. I am distressed by noise and by litter, but I am sure that in the future people will be more aware of these things. In Shanghai people already are. I found seeing China’s countryside fascinating, everyone was very nice and friendly, the food was great, and the destinations were spectacular despite the human impact on them. My next trip was to an old town near Shanghai which was beautiful, clean and bathed in autumn sunshine. And I hope I will have opportunities to see more of China in the future.

Posted by: Richard Marshall | December 10, 2013

Xitang

Xitang

Xitang

Shortly after returning from Moganshan my colleague Jake had a couple of days off that coincided with my weekend, so we decided to visit one of the water towns around Shanghai. We caught the bus and drove an hour or so through the usual Yangtze Delta scenery of paddy fields and villages being gradually swallowed by highways, railways, power lines, massive housing development and factories. Xitang itself was also surrounded by tenements, but the owner of our hotel met us and led us to the old town. The old town was fairly typical – lines of oldish looking shops and restaurants along a canal, some stone bridges, and the odd old clan hall or garden turned into a museum. It was very attractive, though other than the museums it was not always easy to tell what was actually old, what was renovated, and what had been completely reconstructed. The strip of bars at one end with their kitsch decoration and flashing neon for example I doubt date back to the Qing Dynasty. Jake and I had a pleasant lunch of poached fish and cold chicken and wandered around the town during the afternoon.

That evening the karaoke bars came to life. I now realize that most Chinese old towns have a strip of bars that make Bui Vien seem peaceful, but it came as something of a shock the first time. I had anticipated having a quiet evening beer by the canal, but the music blasting out of about a dozen bars was appalling. The music was at least live – student bands churning out Chinese hits to a young crowd – and apparently popular. But if one band gets a little louder than the others they all have to crank up their volume to match. Jake and I realized that if we chose a bar and sat down inside at least we’d only be assailed by the cacophony of one band rather than all of them. We chose well. The music was cheerful and it didn’t hurt that the lead singer was an attractive young woman rather than the grungy guys in most of the other bars. We had a few drinks and the band made a few comments in our direction as the only foreigners, and then headed back to our hotel, fortunately far from bar street. The next morning we had coffee by the canal and headed back to Shanghai.

Canal at Xitang

Canal at Xitang

Stone Bridge

Stone Bridge

Garden

Garden

Posted by: Richard Marshall | October 2, 2013

Moganshan

DSCF5634

View of Moganshan

Feeling like a break from the hustle and bustle of Shanghai I headed to Moganshan in Zhejiang for a few days rest in the mountains. Moganshan is not a spectacular tourist attraction but I was hoping to get away from from the crowds, and on weekdays the area was indeed almost deserted. The mountain had been a hill station for Shanghai’s foreigners and local elite in the 1930s; Chiang Kai-Shek and the boss of Shanghai’s gangsters, Du Yuesheng, had villas there. Mao himself had also once rested a night there – the bed he slept in was an attraction I managed to live without seeing. After many years on hard times the place was once again being rediscovered as a weekend getaway for Shanghainese and expats.

I almost didn’t make it as for the third time in China I left my ATM card in the machine. Luckily, I knew which machine the card was in so my friend Emma valiantly called the bank and established when I could retrieve it. I had a fair bit of cash on me but also borrowed some from from Mike, so thanks to Emma and Mike for making the trip possible! After all the messing around I had missed my train, so had to take a later bus to Hangzhou, another to Deqing, and then eventually my hotel sent a minibus to get me to Moganshan. After a stressful day, the hotel was lovely. It was at the bottom of the mountain and the little balcony of my room looked out over vegetable patches and a bamboo covered hillside. It was the beginning of autumn so the hills had just began to lose the green of summer. I had a delicious home-cooked meal at the hotel and a couple of surprisingly good local beers and went to bed.

DSCF5660

View from my hotel

The next day I had to figure out how to get to the top of the mountain so I went to a nearby hotel and rented a mountain bike. I’m not terribly fit at the moment so initially I found riding up steep hillsides tough going. The first road I took was a wrong turn, though the villages I rode through were pretty. Eventually I found the road to the hill station. It was well-built and lined with lovely old plane trees, clearly planted a long time ago. Moganshan is renowned for huge bamboo forests on the hillsides so I could mark the line of the road going up by the rows of trees – sometimes a bit disheartening! Eventually after  couple of hours I found myself at the top of the mountain. There was an interesting mix of buildings. Some of the old concession-era villas were still rundown, but a number had been fixed up into fancy and expensive hotels. The new development wasn’t that bad. I had lunch at a lodge run by a foreigner where I ate a cheeseburger, not quite what I had in mind in rural China but very nice. I left my bike at the lodge and wandered around a little in the bamboo looking at old buildings and trying to imagine the place as it must have been.

DSCF5630

Road up the mountain

DSCF5645

Old villa

DSCF5648

Church

DSCF5646

Bamboo path

The next day I didn’t feel like the bike again so I decided to walk through the bamboo to the top of a nearby ridge. The walk was pleasant but the mosquitoes in the bamboo were ferocious. Eventually I got high enough that they weren’t such a problem and then stuck to the road on the way back. But the view at the top of hazy rural Zhejiang was worth it. I didn’t do a great deal else on my trip. The idea was just to take it easy and I did. I went back to Hangzhou by bus and caught the fast train to Shanghai. The next day I went to the bank and was able to get my card with little fuss and now try to be as diligent as possible not to make that mistake again!

DSCF5653

Bamboo road

DSCF5641

View from the top

Posted by: Richard Marshall | October 1, 2013

Suzhou

DSCF5563

North Pagoda

At the beginning of August I swapped a day off with a colleague and went to Suzhou for a three day break. I was pretty tired on the train as Sam and I had sat drinking Carlsberg at a little corner shop near our apartment. Neither of us go there any longer as the stuff is almost certainly fake and leaves an awful hangover. I got to the station though and the fast train got me there in an amazing 25 minutes – it took longer to queue for a taxi to get me to my hotel. I rested there for a while and then set out for a walk in the old town,

Suzhou is most famous for its classical gardens. There are about half a dozen large and spectacular ones and then tens of smaller ones dotted about. These are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and well protected. It was also famous, once, for being,along with Hangzhou, one of the most beautiful cities in China, so I was eager to see how it had fared in China’s relentless development. In fact, the old town did retain much of its old charm. This is in contrast to Shanghai where the old area of the city is literally in ruins awaiting tower blocks – walking through it is like being on the set of a  World War Two movie. The main roads in the old town in Suzhou are pretty gruesome with the usual awful banks and hotels. But away from that the city has some great advantages. For one thing, the existing network of lanes and streets has been maintained. Also, it was clear that the old buildings that have survived were being upgraded rather than destroyed, and there were lots of new doors, air-conditioning units and burglar bars on the old houses.  Finally, even the newer buildings were subject to height restrictions – Suzhou’s inevitable cluster of skyscrapers is elsewhere – and some attempt had been made to keep the buildings in a similar style. I fact the mixture of architecture made the place even more interesting. In areas where there had been serious conservation efforts, such as around Pingjiang street, there were little plaques with information. Often there would be the remaining two halls of a meeting hall with a grim Maoist tenement or workshop behind, clearly built in the cultural revolution. But the buildings gave an interesting sense of the sweep of China’s twentieth century history.

DSCF5519

Narrow street in the old town

DSCF5522

Very narrow lane

After wandering the old town a while the first garden I stumbled across was the Garden of Cultivation. It is not one of the bigger gardens but that in many ways was to its advantage. The only people there were some elderly people relaxing so it was still possible to have a sense of the garden as a place of peaceful repose, an atmosphere destroyed but the loud, uncouth tour groups in the more famous gardens. It also helped to visit at midday, as the temperature was nearly 40 and that discouraged the crowds.

DSCF5513

Garden of Cultivation

I headed back to the hotel for a brief rest and then decided to head to the eastern part of the old town. A large section of the centre of the town was pedestrianized, but the buildings were mostly hideous and the shops and restaurants were the same as anywhere else in China. The one attraction was the Guan Qian temple, a cluster of Taoist temples in the midst of all the shopping. Further east, though, I arrived at Pingjiang street. This was one of the most attractively restored areas in the city, a lovely street with little coffee shops, restaurants and stores along a canal. Unlike so many old towns in China the surrounding streets were still people’s homes and the area had the feeling of a place that was actually lived in, not just gawped at. This was also evident in that people lingered there over their coffee or xiao long bao, in contrast to Shantang street, of which more later. I wandered towards the moat from Pingjiang street and into the Couple’s Garden Retreat. This is one of the most famous gardens but luckily the heat meant there were very few tour groups and I was able to keep a few steps ahead of them. It was absolutely lovely, especially as it was alongside a tree-lined canal. Leaving the garden I made my way to the moat and a clearly reconstructed section of the city wall. The heat was appalling on the wall but the view over the prosperous new town was attractive. As it was getting late I headed back to Pingjiang street for a couple of beers and some dumplings and then went to bed.

DSCF5526

Guan Qian Temple

DSCF5535

Pingjiang Street

DSCF5537

Pingjiang Street

DSCF5549

Couple’s Garden Retreat

The next day I headed north, first visiting the North Pagoda. Wonderfully, the eight story building is still the tallest in old Suzhou, can be seen from almost anywhere and gave great views of the old town. I then walked to the most famous of Suzhou’s gardens, the Humble Administrator’s Garden. The entrance ran was along an “old” street that was pretty enough but looked mostly rebuilt – it is always very difficult to tell the difference between old, renovated and entirely reconstructed buildings in China.  The garden was huge and stunning, but somewhat marred by all the domestic tourists. The problem isn’t really the number of people but the way they behave; smoking, spitting, yelling into cellphones, dropping litter when there are bins just a few feet away and taking thousands and thousands of photographs – of themselves. The most annoying people are the tour guides who yak endlessly into a microphone to people who seem mostly too engrossed in their mobile phones to be listening at all. All this is especially aggravating in a place designed specifically for cultured minds to take there ease – there are pavilions built to contemplate the moon reflected in a pool of water or the wind shaking the plum blossoms.  Nevertheless, I came, I snapped pictures, I picked up other people’s water bottles, and admired as best I could. The nearby Lion Forest garden was a similar experience.

DSCF5568

Humble Administrator’s Garden

DSCF5574

Pavilion

DSCF5590

Lion Forest Garden

I had a quiet lunch back on Pingjiang street and braced myself for more sightseeing, this time at the Southern end of the old city. I headed down first to the Canglang Pavilion, which was mostly under renovation so I just got to see the arcade by the canal. I then walked to the Master of Nets Garden. This was another of the really famous gardens, but luckily the mid-afternoon heat meant I had it mostly to myself. (It was so hot walking around the city my black t-shirts were encrusted in white salt at the end of the day). I walked along Canglang street, an oldish street lined with not terribly appealing bars, and then into a old, crumbling Mao era tenement complex, another interesting part of the city’s legacy. That evening, although pretty tired, I decided to head to Shantang street. This was a long street of old buildings, a small section of which was done up for tourists. Unlike Pingjiang street it had little life in the tourist area. I sat down for a drink and a meal, but most people shuffled by in the usual tour groups, snapping pictures and dropping litter. The constant flashes going off on the bridge behind where I was sitting started to give me a headache. It was the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s day, so perhaps it is a little less crowded usually. When I returned the next day to take a photo it was a little clearer how pretty the place really is.

DSCF5599

Master of Nets Garden

DSCF5618

Shantang Street

My final day I headed down to the Panmen scenic area, that had a lovely pagoda and garden and the only remaining land-water gate in China. The surrounding area had various housing complexes being built in faux-classical style, but they looked attractive and the park was really lovely. I then took a taxi to Hanshan Temple on the Grand Canal. The temple was noisy and crowded but attractive and there some pretty but probably reconstructed buildings along the canal. The canal itself was very interesting though as it is clearly still a working body of water after all the centuries of its existence – there was a steady traffic of barges laden with sand for construction. As it was still quite early and I was only catching my train late I decided to walk back to the old city. On the way I stopped at my final garden, the Lingering Garden, which was reasonably quite and also surrounded by upmarket looking housing developments. I had a quiet lunch at Shantang street which was more bearable in the day time, and then headed to the station for the quick train trip back to Shanghai.

DSCF5603

Panmen Pagoda

DSCF5606

Land-water gate

DSCF5610

The Grand Canal

DSCF5617

The Lingering Garden

Posted by: Richard Marshall | September 20, 2013

Zhujiajiao

There are a number of water towns in Shanghai or nearby in Zhejiang and Jiangsu. The first of these I’ve visited is Zhujiajiao in Qingpu district, still within the city limits. Mike, Sam, Maggie and I took a day trip out there for lunch – these are just a few pictures to give an impression of the place.

Riverfront

Riverfront

Bridge

Bridge

Canal

Canal

Garden

Garden

Pavilion in the garden

Pavilion in the garden

Me in the canal

Me on the canal

Posted by: Richard Marshall | September 6, 2013

South China Part 2: Macau and Guangzhou

After our time in Hong Kong we took the ferry across the mouth of the Pearl River to Macau. The ferry was impressively fast and the trip was short. We were sitting in the middle of the boat so didn’t get much of a view but did see the Grand Lisboa casino and some of Macau’s really long bridges as the boat pulled into the harbour. It was strange going through yet another border post in the same country, but we got through without much hassle and caught a taxi to our hotel in the historic centre of the city. The hotel was the most expensive and nicest of all the ones we stayed in so we had a short rest before heading out to explore the city. The city had a wonderful European feel to it, with narrow, cobble-stoned streets, apartments with wrought-iron balconies and lots of scooters zipping about. Every now and then there were little squares with small churches and maybe an old merchant house. After walking a little way we came to the Largo do Senado which is the biggest in the town and lined with churches and historic buildings. We had lunch in a little Portuguese restaurant and I ordered “African” chicken in the hope it would be similar to peri-peri chicken. In fact it was in a spicy, tomato-based sauce which was nevertheless delicious. After lunch we walked further into town to find the ruined façade of St Paul’s Cathedral, the iconic symbol of Macau. The façade was indeed impressive and at the bottom of the huge stairs was another square with pleasant Portuguese buildings.  Above the cathedral was the imposing Mount Fort which had pleasant trees and gardens and whose battlements gave great views of the city, with the Grand Lisboa ever dominant.

Largo do Senado

Largo do Senado

St Paul's Cathedral

St Paul’s Cathedral

Fort and casino

Fort and casino

For dinner I was determined to find peri-peri chicken, so we did some research and decided to head to  a restaurant near our hotel and towards the docks, which gave the area a gritty feel very different to the glitz elsewhere in the city. The restaurant was packed and we were lucky to get a table without a reservation. I had a very tasty starter of chicken giblets and then we did indeed have peri-peri chicken which, although it couldn’t live up to my Coimbra in Harare expectations, was very nice. We had dressed up a bit so that we could visit some casinos and took a taxi to the garish Grand Lisboa. It was equally over the top inside, but since I had never been to a casino I found it fascinating. Mike was hoping to be able to try his hand at poker, but all the tables seemed to be baccarat or some or other Chinese card game neither of us knew. We had a cocktail at the bar and watched some (clothed) Eastern European women gyrating against a pole on a stage. It was so horrible I could barely contain my laughter, especially when I turned around and saw the stupefied expressions on the faces of the mainland Chinese tourists standing behind the bar. After the drink we decided to try a few more casinos, including the original 1970 Casino Lisboa which looked like something out of a Roger Moore James Bond movie. Eventually we found a place where they were playing poker but the blinds were too high so Mike shoved some money into a slot machine to demonstrate how bad the odds are. In fact he ended up tripling his money so we spent it on another drink. The next morning we crossed the border yet again and took a bus to Guangzhou.

Our hotel was just one street back from the Guangzhou bund, some of whose buildings were being upgraded as the Guangzhou Civil-Financial street. The most attractive buildings in Guangzhou were the commercial and residential buildings that had arcades built over the pavement, called Qilou. It really reminded me again of Southeast Asia which isn’t surprising since so many cities there were originally heavily influenced or populated by Cantonese immigrants. Given that the weather while we were there alternately boiling hot or pouring with rain the usefulness of the arcades was obvious. As always in China some were being fixed up but one fears for most of them – and I believe Guangzhou is one of the most ruthless demolishers of old buildings in China. For the time being though the street is attractive the embankment along the Pearl river, lined with huge Banyan trees, was beautiful. We walked up to a pedestrian street called Beijing Road but I believe I missed another, more beautiful one elsewhere. That evening Mike and I went to some vaguely dodgy bars by the river and drank Long Island Iced Teas, which gave us a pretty slow start the next day.

When we did get up, we headed to the old concession area on Shamian Island. Perversely the European buildings there are much better looked after than the Chinese old town, but the island was indeed lovely with a variety of European architecture and huge, beautiful trees. The fifth of the island that was French (the British had the rest) felt a bit like Hanoi. The British section had the usual imposing bank and consular buildings. We had lunch and then decided to head to the Canton Tower, which has the world’s highest outdoor observation deck at 488 metres. It was a pricey 488RNB to get up there, but we bit the bullet and it was really worth it – the view was astonishing. The tower faced a colossal new business centre for Guangzhou, which had civic buildings designed by celebrity architects like Zaha Hadid and several 400m skyscrapers. We stayed till evening and then crossed the river to the new business area but most of it was still being built – we had a pizza at an eccentric little restaurant as the mall was still closed. It was late by the time we eventually got back so we just turned in. The next day we went to the Chen Family Academy which was a nineteenth century meeting hall for the Chen clan. It was elaborate and very beautiful. After that we went to the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall for some 1930s Chinese architecture and to see a statue of the great man himself – claimed both by the PRC and the ROC in Taiwan as their political ancestor. By this time we were getting a bit weary of sight-seeing, especially Mike who was ill, so we headed back to the hotel. Mike rested and I headed back to Shamian Island just to soak up the atmosphere. I came across a Thai restaurant that seemed to be busy so we had dinner there. They next day Mike headed to see the doctor and I went to the Mausoleum of the Yue King, who had been buried with numerous artifacts including a full body suit of jade. The jade and bronze objects were fascinating and the museum was a good reminder that Chinese civilization doesn’t necessarily owe all its roots the Yellow River valley. Mike and I headed to the (distant) airport early, which was in the end unnecessary as our flight was delayed. So we got back into Shanghai late and tired and dreading work, especially Mike who had to begin summer school the next day. But it was a great trip and we could look a Shanghai with fresh perspective after seeing some of the rest of the country. I’d certainly like to go back to all of those places if I have the chance.

Shamian Island

Shamian Island

Colonial-era building

Colonial-era building

New Guangzhou business area

New Guangzhou business area

The Canton Tower

The Canton Tower

Chen Clan Academy

Chen Clan Academy

Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall

Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall

Posted by: Richard Marshall | August 28, 2013

South China Part 1: Shenzhen and Hong Kong

After six months in Shanghai I took my first longish trip in China – nine days to Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Macau and Guangzhou. Mike and I decided to fly to Shenzhen and spend a night so that we could get at least a taste of the city at the centre of China’s massive economic growth. In fact, the city itself was little more than a fishing village 30 years ago. We arrived at Shenzhen airport at about midday and took a very long train trip into town where we found our hotel and decided just a walk a bit around town. Shenzhen – like the other cities we went to – felt much more like a Southeast Asian city than Shanghai. It was very hot and humid for the whole nine days and the trees were huge banyans rather than Shanghai’s plane trees. The cities were also much more densely populated than spread-out Shanghai. We really just wandered through a shopping area but the density, humid, stormy weather and abundance of Cantonese food stalls and shops was fascinating. That evening we went in search of one of Shenzhen’s bar areas, which had a number of bars around a big plaza in front of a shopping mall. The bars themselves were quiet as it was early evening on a Monday. The plaza itself, though, was full of life. There were lots of children playing and older people taking exercise and the atmosphere was really pleasant. We also had a view of Shenzhen’s tallest building in the city centre. The next day we headed into Hong Kong, but spent the morning doing some more exploring in Shenzhen, looking at massive housing developments and hideous golden-coloured skyscrapers. At about midday we took the metro to the border, crossed into the New Territories and got on the train to Hong Kong.

IMG_0201 street shopping

Shopping Street

IMG_0248 gold buildings

Golden towers

We had booked all our hotels online with price being our main consideration, and without really paying attention had booked a hotel in the semi-notorious Chungking Mansions. Chungking Mansions is a huge 1950s tower block in downtown Kowloon, once famously a haven for vice – a book about the building is called Ghetto at the Centre of the World.  It is also famous for a mainland Chinese film set partly in the place. It has been cleaned up quite a bit since, but is still remarkable in that it is a centre for South Asian and African traders in Hong Kong and so has a strikingly diverse population, an amazing range of merchandise, and lots of Indian food . It is also home to lots of cheap, pokey little guesthouse, but although the room Mike and I had was small and basic it was perfectly adequate. That afternoon we went to take a look at the skyline across the harbour and to buy our ferry tickets to Macau. We wandered a bit in Kowloon than afternoon and then had a brief rest before heading out again. That evening we had dinner at the night market in Temple Street and headed up to see Mong Kok, the most densely populated area on earth.  The density of the tower blocks and the packed streets were indeed incredible, even overwhelming. Although Hong Kong is a rich city the buildings were often bleak and stark, and stained by humidity and pollution. There was neon everywhere – especially out over the streets, and the buildings were often built out over the sidewalk above the first floor. It was quite unlike Shanghai, and also had amazingly little trace of having been a British colony. It was intense.

IMG_0496 skyline

Hong Kong

IMG_0442 chungking mansions

Chungking Mansions

IMG_0358 mong kok 1

Mong Kok

IMG_0403 Mong Kok 2

Mong Kok

The next day were got up and took the ferry across to Hong Kong Island.  The ferry trip was lovely with views of the skyline and the peak. On the other side we got out and took elevated walkways all the way into Central. Central did have an old British courthouse as well as (according to Mike) a Norman Foster designed HSBC building and the iconic Bank of China building. There were of course plenty of other huge buildings and elevated pedestrian walkways. We then took the tram up to the peak. The weather was a bit cloudy but the peak had amazing views of the city all the same. We stayed a while and then headed back down to catch the subway to North Point just to see a residential area on Hong Kong Island itself. It had the usual tall tower blocks but also lots of very good looking little restaurants and shops.

That evening we dressed up and went to the highest bar in the world on the 118th floor of the International Commerce Centre. 118 floors is really, really high up and the view of the city was amazing. The drinks, though, we rather over-priced so we decided to head back to Hong Kong island to find another rooftop bar. We found one overlooking the courthouse and the HSBC and Bank of China buildings, full of bankers in suits and about to close. So after one drink we headed back to Kowloon and found a bar in a side street where we could drink some Hong Kong Ales.

IMG_0816 me at the peak

Me at the peak

IMG_0800 the peak tram

The Peak Tram

IMG_0952 north point

North Point

The next morning I really wanted to find some good Dim Sum, so after some internet research we headed back to Central and after some wandering around found a really nice restaurant which looked as if the décor hadn’t been renovated since the 1970s. The Dim Sum was delicious. For our last day we decided to go to Lan Tau Island and take the cable car up to see a huge Buddha on the mountain. Unfortunately the cable car was closed for repairs, but in fact the bus trip we took instead was very interesting. It was a more or less sunny day and as the bus wound along the coast we had great views out over the South China Sea. There were some nice looking beaches and oddly old-fashioned little beach towns with cottages and corner shops. The island also had a good network of well-marked trails and picnic sites – an interestingly British legacy. The bus then began heading up the mountain and dropped us off near the Buddha and its adjacent temples. It was lovely to be surrounded by greenery and have a breeze after the intensity of the city, and the Buddha was indeed enormous. Mike wanted to take the bus back through a fishing village, which we did. As so often on the trip I was amazed how Southeast Asian the village felt. It was also odd to be in such a rural area in Hong Kong – I hadn’t realised just how huge the city’s hinterland really was. The bus took us back and then we repeated the long metro ride back to Kowloon. Mike took a few more pictures of the harbour and the skyline and then we had dinner and a few drinks. The next day we took the ferry and headed to Macau.

IMG_1411 lantau

Lantau

IMG_1494 the buddha

The Buddha

IMG_1605 hk

Hong Kong in the evening

Thanks very much to Mike for taking all the great photos – check his blog for more!

Posted by: Richard Marshall | June 21, 2013

Huangshan

Huangshan

Huangshan

My first trip out of Shanghai was to Huangshan, or Yellow Mountain, in Anhui province. Some friends of mine – Mike, Sam, Kent and Rob – and I took the overnight train to Tunxi from Shanghai. The train was pretty comfortable and we had a few beers which helped me sleep but left me a little weary when we finally arrived. From Tunxi we had to catch a minibus to Tangkou at the foot of the mountain where we had a quick breakfast. We then took a bus some way up the mountain to the cable which would take us to the top. The cable car was spectacular. It was a misty day and the clouds swirled around the granite peaks and the pines. It was the very beginning of spring so the first magnolias were beginning to flower too. There were obviously lots of them and in a few weeks there would have been great banks of white flowers, but in early April it was just the occasional splash of white against the mountainside. Once had the top, we had to wander a little along the network of paths before we found our hostel. Everything on the mountain had to be hauled up on foot so food and accommodation was much pricier than down below but it was still worth it to be at the top. I went for a walk on my own in the afternoon but could hardly see anything through the mist. The next morning we all got up early to see the sunrise. As it was still dark and clearly very misty when we got outside I almost went back to bed, but Rob and Kent were enthusiastic so with some reluctance I followed them on sometimes precipitous paths to the highest point on the mountain. At the top a cold wind was howling, but after a while the mist lifted to reveal a wonderful view. I couldn’t believe I had almost missed it. The weather continued to improve and later Mike and I walked the same path I had done the day before, but this time with amazing views of a canyon and the mountains.
Mike is a great photographer and took some awesome photos:

landscape 2

Mountains

mist

Misty mountains

mountain top

The top of the mountain

Mike had return that evening so he, Sam and I headed back down that afternoon. Mike caught the train but Sam and I were staying another day so found a cheap hotel at the foot of the mountain. I was vaguely aware that there were some historic towns in the area but I hadn’t done my homework – I know now that in fact there are two World Heritage Sites – Hongcun and Xidi. Sam and I were unable to find these. We went to the bus station not knowing where to go, got on a random bus on the recommendation of another tourist, and were dropped off at a roadside fuel station which seemed to have no access to the surrounding countryside. Eventually though a security guard let us through a gate in the wall and we started walking through the rapeseed fields to Chengkan. Chengkan turned out be one of the less popular, less extensively restored and less crowded of the old villages in the area, and absolutely charming. It was one of the first warm days I had experienced in China and with the flowering rapeseed in the fields and wisteria in the village it really felt as if spring had come at last. Sam and I wandered through the quiet lanes of the town and even had a rest on the grass by the water. Thank Sam for taking this great photo!

me cheng kan

Cheng Kan

street 1

Street

After a few hours we caught a bus to take us back to Tunxi, and the train. In fact we had to take several buses and I was beginning to get frustrated by the end. But driving through rural Anhui in spring was actually one of the most enjoyable moments of the trip – it was a great contrast to the grey, urban jungle of Shanghai. We had a fairly horrible meal and caught our train back where we still had the rest of the day to recover before heading back to work. The countryside was lovely and it was exciting to finally venture beyond Shanghai.

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »

Categories