Monthly Archives: June 2016

The dizzying heights of Shanghai.

I am not a lover of cities.  Snow capped mountains and gently undulating hills are my thing, and if I must, I can lie on a beach imbibing  too many scorching sunrays and drowning in the blue expanses of sky and sea.  Skyscraper cities have little appeal for me but living only 100 km from Shanghai -the New York of China as I have been told-, and less than an hour away by bullet train, dictated that I should not give it a miss.

‘You only need a day to see what Shanghai has to offer,’ Lorita explained.  She has been in China a little longer than me and has had plenty of opportunity to explore the touristy parts.  Jeff managed to fill a two-day weekend in November when Shanghai was cloaked in drizzle and gloom but he did not seem in any rush to add to the experience.   Faith, freshly out of uni, all but worshipped the wonders of Shanghai and recommended the Pearl Tower and The Bund as the places to visit.  Blogs I have dipped into raved about Shanghai’s Champagne Brunches..  Having carefully accepted all the friendly advice, all I lacked was some decent company to help me with navigation and map reading and, if I was lucky, with a few words of Chinese to keep me on the right track to find those places worth checking out.  So I approached J, who has lived in China for a number of years and frequents Shanghai on an almost weekly basis, for work mind you, so it is  more an in-out affair although he knows the touristy spots.   An ideal companion for the weekend.


Of course there was no escaping a healthy dose of Chinese culture so we started off with the impressive Jing’an temple, cowering amongst high rise buildings in flourishing downtown Shanghai. Intricately carved timbers and lattices, exquisite marble reliefs, an imposing silver Buddha, and gilded steeples and finials evoked an opulent past. The temple was destroyed by a fire in 1972, but meticulously restored to its former glory and is still an active place of worship.



Next we ventured to the Yuyuan Gardens, a famous classical garden, dating back to the Ming Dynasty and built by a government official as a place of tranquillity for his parents to enjoy in their old age… The six scenic areas are carefully woven into a spectacular garden with so many unexpected turns, nooks and crannies that it would make an excellent paradise for playing hide and seek..


We explored the famed Bund, on the banks of the Huangpu river in central Shanghai,  a waterfront area  lined with historical buildings, tokens of China’s  brushes with Western colonial forces.  We revelled in Shanghai’s skyline  on the other side of the water,  by day and night, with its Oriental Pearl Tower tucked between dizzying skyscrapers.  From the heights of the Pearl Tower’s viewing platform, we watched modern Shanghai unfold, scanning past some of the world’s tallest buildings such as Shanghai Tower (second tallest in the world) and Shanghai World Financial Centre.  We stood in awe, it was amazing!!!

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And then there was the food of course. If nothing else Shanghai is a paradise for foodies with cuisines covering every corner of the world.  We sampled an Italian style sandwich for lunch with proper buffalo mozzarella and Italian ham followed by a delectable panna cotta dessert.  In the evening we deliberated on Greek,  French and Chinese restaurants.  In the end we were won over by the Thai food and savoured a delicious green chicken curry, finger licking luscious prawns and pad Thai rice wraps.


But nothing compared with our luxurious Champagne Brunch on Sunday.  Shamelessly expensive, but eat as much as you like lobster, sushi and seafood , followed by crispy, plum-sauce-oozing Peking Duck pancakes, roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, Indian food, Mexican food, Chinese food,  and a mountain of desserts,  and all washed down with the best  part of a bottle of Taittinger and some Bloody Mary to boot… An excellent way to kill some time.



Dragon Boat Festival without the boats or dragons..


I know what you are expecting.  The name Dragon Boat Festival says it all:  long, narrow boats laboured across lakes and rivers in pursuit of being the first one to cross the finishing line.  And indeed, if I had stayed in Hangzhou with the thousands of other Chinese locals and visitors, those might have  been the images I captured.  But having experienced the throng of the masses during the first of my ‘long holidays’ here, I thought it best to plan an escape and leave the sights of Hangzhou behind.  What chance would I really have stood to make it to the front of the crowd to take the coveted pictures??

As it happened, I found out about a travel organisation which caters for the likes of us, ex-pats: time starved and travel hungry trying to squash seeing China into the meagre weekends at our disposal..  Or being tempted further afield by neighbouring countries with pristine beaches, endless azure seas and skies, exotic  vistas barely touched by tourism.  But with only a short while to the three day break, the more extravagant trips had long been snapped up and I was left to explore Tulou country, an area in the Fujian Province, close to Xiamen, renowned for its unique fort-like circular buildings designed by the Hakka minority as large fortresses and living spaces in one.  Maybe not my favourite destination, but with Western company guaranteed,  it certainly beat the prospect of a swarming Hangzhou …


We left on Thursday, a day almost entirely eaten up by a very, very long train journey.  Although we may only have moved a pin prick on the map of China, it took us 8 hours to reach our destination, or at least the train station where we all met and then transferred onto our bus to carry on our journey, onto the Tulou – part of yet another UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site – where we stayed for the night.  I suppose the prospect of spending the night  in ‘ancient Chinese mud castles’ had its charms.  Luckily rooms had been upgraded with mod cons such as fans and sockets to ensure phones and camera batteries could be charged… and of course satellite dishes to guarantee access to what goes on in the rest of the world.  And there was hot water in the shower…although the wiring probably would not have passed any safety regulations in the western world!

With precious little time to waste, the weekend was crammed with activities.  A quick glance around the Tulou after allocating rooms, and then a delicious dinner was followed by sampling local teas, some more delicate and aromatic than others and the more drinkable and delectable ones definitely extremely expensive.  But it was interesting to watch the tea ceremony and rituals: the washing of the delicate cups carefully held and handled with tweezers; the tea being poured unhurriedly; endless cups of fragrant tea perfumed by just a minuscule amount of tea leaves and flowers used over and over again..

On Saturday we explored the surrounding Tulous, mostly circular buildings dating from between 960 AD to as recent as 1949 and marvelled at the mud and wooden structures and the circular perfection.

We took silly pictures near the pillars erected to commemorate the chiefs of the villages and walked between the Oolong tea terraces to get great views of the valleys.  We hiked in the drizzle, and the rain and downpours, and delighted in locally grown coffee.


On Sunday we made our way to Gulangyu,  an island with a long colonial history, just off Xiamen.  After China lost the first Opium War, sometime in the mid 19th century, 13 countries including Great Britain, France and Japan established consulates, churches, and hospitals and the island is now famous for its classical and romantic European-style architecture.  Not that there was much on show for us…  As so many Chinese places of interest, Gulangyu is vying for the ‘UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE’ accolade, just another one to add to the already long list of sites.  And as the inspection is looming next year, no efforts are spared to spruce up the joint.  Buildings of interest are wrapped in scaffolding, narrow paths and roads are broken up with clouds of dust settling on the street food, and the crowded beach is still littered with debris… Maybe we just came about 12 months too early to revel in the legacies of colonialism.



Sampling the ‘atmosphere’ of Yellow Mountain.


The weather forecast for the weekend sounded grim: drizzle on Friday, rain on Saturday and more rain on Sunday.  Not quite the best prospect for a hike into the mountains!  But as Jeff, my companion for the trip, argued: they are mountains after all, whimsical, just like the weather.  We were not going to be put off by a little bit of uncertainty about whether to stuff our backpacks with protection from the unrelenting sun or from the unrelenting downpours.  Umbrellas and waterproofs bulged our bags;  sunglasses dangled at the front and a wide-brimmed hat  would come in handy whatever the weather would throw at us.  So we bought our bus tickets and off we went on our four hour jaunt to the foot of the Yellow Mountains, one of the most famous and beautiful mountainous areas in China and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990.

Our arrival did not go unnoticed and a posse of hotel employees was on hand to point us in the  ‘right’ direction.  Our smugness at having our accommodation sorted out the night before soon evaporated as the cheap hostel of our choice was a whopping 80 km away.  So after a brief discussion at the hotel reception, we settled for a nice, comfortable twin room at the price of 100 Rmb shared between two.  Definitely less than a taxi fare to the hostel.  Even adding the non-refundable hostel cost to our night, we did not even spend £10 a head for a soft bed and a hot, gushing shower…  Luxury, affordable luxury indeed!!


In our room devoid of a window we were oblivious to the weather antics outside and only at breakfast caught a glimpse of what Noah must have been facing in his Ark… If there is such as thing as sheet rain or curtains of rain, this was it.  I may have missed out on the monsoon experience in India, but this made up for it!!!!  No way was this walking weather.  We dawdled and ate more breakfast.  We made for the shops stocking extra weather- and water-proof gear and settled for the canary lookalike outfits with ‘blue-footed booby’ matching booties.  And waited… and waited for the worst of the storm to ease.

Eventually the biblical deluge slowed into a trickle, and dressing the part, we set off to the bus which would take us to the cable car.  Although I would have been happy to tackle the millions of steps to the top of the mountain, my companion was more keen on exploring the views at the top… He had been before and the sunset and sunrise unfolding over the eerie mountain landscape were definitely the highlight of the trip, he assured me.  Plus we were planning to walk down the mountain on Sunday to take in the scenery on our descent.



We did indeed have a great few hours hiking on Saturday …. and the views of the rugged mountains and protruding rocks with  fanciful  names such as ‘The Immortal Pointing the Way’, ‘The Eighteen Arhats Worshipping At South Sea’ and ‘Ladder on the Clouds’ …  ???  My photographs of the veil of mist draping the landscape are absolutely awesome and breathtaking  …  How did Jeff phrase it?  Atmospheric …  and so it was.  But just here and there the fog lifted gingerly and the drizzle dried up to tease us with a fleeting glance of what was lying beyond the grey murkiness.  And the sunset?  It was probably magnificent, but hidden behind the cloud deck.  We did not even bother to set our alarm for the 5 am sunrise event…

Luckily, the weather was more merciful on Sunday.  As the rain had dulled to a mere dribble, waterproofs could be binned and we followed the throng of Chinese visitors on the steps downwards, bemused at the few people whose idea of visiting Yellow Mountain involved sitting on a chair being carried upwards by wiry, strong men.  On the other hand, it does give an income to some of the less fortunate people…


Most of the locals disappeared once we passed the cable car; they opted for the easier route to the bottom of the mountain.  So we had the paths mostly to ourselves, or shared them with the brave ones hiking up from the foot and with the porters who cart up all the supplies as there is no other way of bringing goods to the hotels for the tourists and hotel staff…

And on the upside… As we missed out on the spectacle of an awesome sunset and sunrise, and actually seeing the impressive rock formation of Mount Huang, we are already plotting our return in October  when all the trees are cloaked in their autumnal shades.  The great thing about Yellow Mountain is that every season has its charms and one visit is never going to be enough…