Author Archives: lievelee

The awe-inspiring landscapes of Tibet

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Our ride eventually arrived at 10 a.m., an hour late.   As our previous driver had been involved in a little collision on the way to our hotel and was delayed by police enquiries, a new vehicle and driver had to be found..

We had a long journey ahead, all the way from Lhasa to Shigatse (284 km), Tibet’s second largest city and another must-see destination on every Tibet itinerary.  Expecting at least a six hour journey, followed by a visit to another monastery before the fall of darkness, time was tight and opportunities to take pictures of the unfolding scenery scarce.  We traversed through agricultural areas, green patches brightened by the yellow blooms of brassica;  the brown hues of barren mountains towering in the distance.  On occasions, we passed small villages.  Streets were lined with houses not only displaying prayer poles, but also Chinese flags…  Nowhere else in China are Chinese flags so ubiquitous as in the Tibetan Autonomous Region.  A display of loyalty to China, or compulsory? A question we never asked our guide; some things are taboo and remain unsaid.  You can never be sure of the eyes…

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Our drive shadowed the course of the Yellow River, named for the colour of the silts that are carried downstream in its flow.  Along its banks, strings of prayer flags flapped in the wind and we briefly made a stop – not at the most scenic part unfortunately – to allow us to take some snaps.  But apart from that, and a short break for lunch, we carried on relentlessly to make sure we reached Shigatse in time before the local police office closed.  As foreign visitors to the town, our presence in the city needed to be officially registered and our permit for Tibet inspected.  Whereas Chinese tourists have free access to Tibet and travel unchecked, foreigners have to obtain prior permission for a visit and their movements are closely monitored.

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As the whole of China adheres to the same time zone, evenings in Tibet remain much lighter for longer compared to the Eastern side of the country.  So although we did not arrive in Shigatse until early evening, we still managed to explore the Tashilhunpo Monastery before the onset of dusk made photography more challenging, or impossible even.  We walked around the ancient buildings, again watching Buddhist locals making kora and wondered about the little heaps of random pebbles piled on the steps, yet another means for worshippers to keep track of the number of times they circled around the stupas.   We were too late to witness the great monk debates or the chance to ask questions about their life; we just watched them wandering down the street towards their homes at the end of the day.

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Our last whole day was reserved for the awe-inspiring landscapes of Tibet: majestic snow topped mountain peaks, enormous Alpine lakes and impressive glaciers.  As we steadily climbed from Shigatse towards the Kharola Pass at an elevation of just over 5000m, spectacular scenery unfolded at each bend in the road.  An emerald green lake, streaked and flecked with brown stripes and patches was festooned with endless strings of gently fluttering prayer flags.   Just like many mountains are considered sacred, lakes are equally revered and prayer flags often hem lakes and rivers as well as brighten up the sides of holy mountains.

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Near the top of the mountain pass, we were enthralled by the spectacular Kharola Glacier.  We did not stop at the most touristy site, but our driver slowed down enough for us to get a few shots, before parking the vehicle just around the corner.  Away from the throng of too many tourists, we hiked up closer to the densely packed snow clinging to the cliff, a massive ice tongue covering the top of the Kharola Mountain.  We huffed and puffed our way up, definitely struggling to catch our breath in the thin air.  At moments like this, I am always pleased to see I am not the only one affected and the younger ones amongst the group also needed plenty of rest breaks to cover maybe one hundred meters in total…  Of course, even at the spots with fewer tourists, local Tibetans did not miss the opportunity to supplement their income with posing for photographs and selling Tibetan prayer flags.

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We ended our list of must-see attractions between Shigatse and Lhasa with the famous Yamdrok Lake.  This enormous freshwater lake is one of four particularly sacred lakes in Tibet and everyone, including the Dalai Lama, makes pilgrimages there.  Along the shores, small towers of rocks possibly tally the number of times devotees walked around the lake.  Not a mean feat as each circumambulation on foot (making a full circle) takes around seven days.  Yamdrok Lake derives its name from its perfect turquoise colour and is surrounded by all-year-round snow capped mountains making it a popular location for wedding photography, as well as attracting numerous tourists and Buddhist devotees.  No wonder that on each outcrop and stretch of usable land near the lake, locals are trying to encourage visitors to have their picture taken with a yak or Tibetan mastiff .  Stalls and tables hem the path to the viewing points and it is hard to resist buying at least some small souvenir from the locals.

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So, I did not go to Everest Base Camp…  A pity.  But maybe on another trip back to Tibet or Nepal… who knows…

Looking for the real Lhasa.

Initially, Lhasa disappointed.  It looked like any Chinese city with modern high-rise buildings, the usual array of shops, wide roads.  The train station was huge, clearly built recently to accommodate the influx of eager visitors to Tibet.  This was Lhasa, Chinese style.  Did we just spent two or three days on a train for this?  We arrived at dusk and our transport to the hotel awaited us…  No need to fret when what we all needed most was sleep, in the comfort of a bed with soft pillows.

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Potala Palace, Lhasa

In the morning, we were treated to a taste of the ‘real’ Tibet, or let’s be honest, the Tibet and Lhasa we expected to see: traditional buildings, Buddhist prayer flags, quaint roads full of touristy trinkets, and of course Tibetan people dressed in their customary attire.  We visited the Potala Palace, the residence of the Dalai Lama until the 14th (and incumbent) Dalai Lama fled to India during the 1959 Tibetan Uprising. The palace is an impressive structure, spanning 400m from East to West and 350m from North to South, and leaning into the ‘Red Hill’.  It contains 1000 rooms and 10,000 shrines over 13 stories and with visitors only allowed to stay inside for just one hour, we only covered a fraction of it.  But still enough time to savour the opulence and grandeur of what was once the winter palace of the Dalai Lama and the seat of the Tibetan government.  No photographs allowed inside though…

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Construction of the current palace started in 1645 on the remains of an earlier fortress.  With walls as thick as 5m at the base and foundations strengthened with added copper to withstand earthquakes, the palace rises a full 300m up from the valley floor and towers over the rest of Lhasa.  However, rapid modernisation and urbanisation is slowly swamping the old Lhasa and in order to strike a balance between progress and preservation, the Chinese government has ruled that buildings must not exceed 21m in height in the area surrounding the palace to safeguard its unique atmosphere.

After a lunch of delicious yak stew and beer (brewed at ‘the roof of the world’) in the Tibetan Lhasa Kitchen, our next stop was the Jokhang Temple, considered the ‘spiritual heart of the city’ and the most sacred temple in Tibet.  The history of the temple was rather lost on all of us.  Sated by stories of the Buddha and totally confused by tales about the past, current and future Dalai Lama, we were engrossed in the riches of the building itself and its surroundings.  And the fact that another relic of the past managed to survive the ‘cultural revolution’ of China, albeit that from 1966 to 1979 Tibetans could no longer worship there and for some time the temple housed a pigsty and slaughterhouse, an army barracks and even a hotel… Eventually the temple was renovated and reconsecrated and is again visited by huge numbers of Tibetan worshippers.

The Johkang temple is located in Barkhor Square, a large square dominated by two enormous incense burners and an imposing prayer flag pole, its dome and staff bulging with blue, white, red, green and yellow cloth.  The five colours represent the five elements (sky and space [blue]; air and wind [white]; fire [red]; water [green]; earth [yellow]) which promote health and harmony when they are in balance.  Prayer flags are not only seen in temples, but most houses and buildings in Tibet feature flag staffs on their roofs.  Contrary to what many people think, prayer flags are not prayers to a god, but the wind brushing them is meant to spread goodwill and compassion to all.

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Every day Tibetans, young and old, congregate at the temple to ‘make kora’.  Kora is both a type of pilgrimage and a type of meditative practice in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.  It typically involves worshippers making a circumambulation (revolution; circling) in a clockwise fashion around a sacred site or object.  Such objects fall into different categories and can be either found in the mystique of nature (such as mountains, or lakes) or in man made structures and buildings (such as temples, monasteries, stupas).  Pilgrims to those sites are seeking religious merit, and the more auspicious the site, the more merit they gain.  Most people walk around, carefully keeping a record of the number of circles on their prayer beads or counting malas.  Some carry their own handheld prayer wheel, whilst others spin the big prayer wheels outside monasteries and temples.  It is believed that touching the prayer wheels equals chanting the Buddhist mantra.  In Tibet it is also common for pilgrims to make kora by making a full-body prostration, which takes a lot of time and effort, but gains the prostrator much more merit, especially when it is performed a favourable number of times.  However, it is not just older people who spend their time walking around the temples, it is surprising to see younger people joining in too.  But as our guide explained, it is the only form of exercise available for many and brings people together…

Barkhor Square is the focal point for worship, as well as a hub of commercial activity with a maze of smaller streets radiating from it.  The ground floors of traditional dwellings have been converted into shops plying tourists with mementos of Tibet: from yak paraphernalia, imitation spinning wheels and healing music bowls to tapestries and thangka paintings. Plenty to choose from and something for all budgets.  Coffee shops offer a pleasant respite from shopping and the sun and benches under the trees and in the shade give shelter to those in need of a rest.  Shopping and making kora can indeed be a taxing pastime..

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Near the mosque, just a few streets away from Barkhor Square, we chanced upon a thriving market in caterpillar fungus.  The curious looking organisms – in winter an animal and in summer a plant – are being harvested on the Himalayan high grounds of Tibet, Nepal and Sikkim (in neighbouring India) at elevations between 4300 and 5000 m.  The fungus is used in Tibetan and also Chinese medicine and has been popular for centuries as a traditional cure for ailments ranging from asthma to impotence.  No wonder that as the Chinese middle class has expanded, so has the demand for the fungus.   The fungus can only be found for a few months each year, from May to August, and has become a major source of income for many Tibetans.   As the prices of the fungus have soared, so has the harvesting of them and environmentalists are warning that the harvest could have a damaging long-term impact on the sensitive environment of the Tibetan Plateau.

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Battling Thin Air on the Way to Tibet.

‘Diamox,’ Maryam maintained, ‘I always take Diamox to prevent altitude sickness. ‘

I laughed it off, I have done altitude before…  A few years ago, in Cusco (Machu Picchu trek in Peru) coca leaf tea was the perfect remedy to battle any symptoms: chew it or brew it.  Who would have thought that the leaves of the cocaine plant had useful medicinal properties after all?  In Nepal, hiking up to the top of Poon Hill, I might have been short of breath at the last stretch, but I certainly did not succumb to spells of dizziness as some of the younger people who collapsed on the one and only bench, head between their legs…  Neither did I realise that my hiking in Yunnan (Southwest China) last October was at heights where altitude sickness can seriously affect you…  We all struggled up that first hill, but then it was a steep incline and after about half an hour any breathlessness had dissipated into thin air…  Altitude sickness was clearly something affecting others, not me, so no need to pop pills.  Anyway,  I would have plenty of time to acclimatise on the three day train journey to Lhasa anyway.

I had eyed the destination for some time: Tibet, Lhasa, Everest Base Camp (EBC), the Himalayas, the mystique of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan monasteries.  Only, the trip in July did not include EBC, but still better to experience some of Tibet than none at all.  And what the trip lacked in Everest views would be more than made up by a spectacular and scenic two-day train journey across China, promising dazzling vistas and an easier ride into the challenges of less oxygen near the roof of the world.

In reality, the two day train journey turned into a three day jaunt, courtesy of ticket touts who bought up all available train tickets to Lhasa in one fell swoop.   In China, train tickets are only released 30 days before the date of travel and by the time I managed to get online to book tickets (10 minutes after release..), there were none left… no hard seats, no hard sleepers, and definitely not the luxurious soft sleepers.   Actually, only two of the other people who were on the same trip had secured a seat: a hard seat for two full days and two full nights…  But instead of offering a refund, our ‘travel agent’ was hopeful that they could sort things out and they would approach their contacts to see if they could get us tickets after all.  Could we just pay them an extra  900 RMB (£90 – £100)…  This money indeed bought us a hard sleeper ticket … from Xining in central China to Lhasa, with absolutely no idea of how to get to the middle of China…  All trains had been sold out, leaving  us just the option of more expensive air travel  or forfeiting all our money…  In the end, reluctant to pay exorbitant flight prices, I kept on looking online and yes, one day a hard sleeper ticket from Shanghai to Xining was available on a different and much slower train, taking two days to reach Xining…  but I had plenty of time, it was the start of the summer holidays.  What was an extra 12 hours on a train…

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‘What’s the food like on these trains?’ I asked Kim, who had just returned from her trip to Tibet, spending a full 24 hours on a train to Lhasa (she flew to central China).  A diet of rice and more rice did not sound appealing, so I took her advice and stocked up on the usual Chinese travel fare:  pot noodles, teabags, lots of unhealthy snacks and some fruit…  Hot water was available for free, so no problem joining the queue on the train to re-hydrate interesting flavoured noodles..  And surely anyone could survive living of such foods for a mere three days.   My bags bulging with ‘culinary delights’, I boarded the train…

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Admittedly, I was pleasantly surprised.  Expecting a hard sleeper to be along the lines of the hard top benches of trains in India, I was impressed with the slightly squishy mattress – definitely softer than the bed in my flat – and enough space to almost sit up on my middle bunk.  On the other hand, bathroom facilities were woefully inadequate from a Western point of view: one squat toilet to be shared between about 60 travellers..  Nowhere to wash or shower…  I settled in, hardly noticing the constant hum of Chinese conversations around me and lost myself in a book…  The kind of peace and quiet I had missed for some time; the perfect space for the ultimate me-time.  Outside, the scenery did little to inspire, an endless monotony of distant brown-ish hills…  At exactly 9.30 pm, the whole train was hushed: lights turned off and everyone obediently quietened down.  I slept blissfully…

I arrived in Xining after 32 hours, glad to stretch my legs and have some real food.  More noodles, but at least they were freshly prepared and did not taste of cardboard.  I met up with the rest of the group who had used various modes of transport to get to Xining before boarding the  next train a few hours later…  Another 22 hours would see us safely in Lhasa, Tibet, at an elevation of 3,656 m, where altitude was likely to have an impact on most of us.  We made ourselves comfortable, it was early evening and soon everyone took to their bunks as we listened to the announcements about our journey ahead.  We could expect some discomfort over breakfast as the train would approach the Tibetan Plateau and even more serious altitude difficulties between 11:00 and 12:00 am the next day when the train would cross the Tanggula Pass (5000 m).  Anyone experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness could rest assured, there was a doctor on board..

At 2.00 am I woke up, head throbbing and engulfed in a wave of nausea.  It wasn’t even breakfast yet…  I made it to the bathroom; no queue as everyone was thankfully asleep…   Altitude sickness??  Surely not, I thought, but the headache lingered for a full day and I just about managed to hold down half an orange and one cup of lukewarm  sugary tea in the next 24 hours.  Altitude sickness hits at its worst at night time,  when breathing becomes shallower and the body takes in less oxygen.   Although none of the others admitted to feeling a little off-colour, headache tablets were gratefully consumed and definitely helped to lift subdued spirits.

Mid-morning the cavalry arrived, dispensing oxygen tubes in anticipation of tackling the Tanggula Pass..  The ‘Sky Train’ or Lhasa Express – as the train is called – comes equipped with two sources of oxygen:  one which is used to pump oxygen into the whole train as it approaches the Tibetan plateau and the other comes via personalised little oxygen outlets near each bunk and along the corridors.  Just attach the oxygen tube, breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth.  I gave it a go, it wasn’t going to do any harm but neither was it the magic wand to quell the symptoms of altitude sickness…

Outside, the landscape had become more fascinating:  snow-capped peaks,  grazing yaks on grassy plains, yellow desolate mountains, construction workers wrapped in furry coats and warm hats.  A barren and inhospitable terrain that proved a challenge during the construction of the railway itself as workers had to contend with low oxygen levels as well as permafrost.  Fencing along the railway offers protection to the local wildlife and tunnels under the railway give them safe passage to cross the line.  Modern China at its best.

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We arrived in Lhasa, glad to get to our hotel for some rest and a good night’s sleep.  I cannot remember when the malaise finally started to disappear, but breakfast – the best breakfast I have seen in any hotel in China – did not look at all appealing…  I managed a little fruit and some yoghurt but passed on the Yak curry and Yak cheese…  I did however have my generous dose of Butter Tea, the Tibetan answer to coca leaf tea… It is not entirely clear how it is supposed to help overcome altitude sickness, or whether Tibetans even use it for that purpose,  but just the thought that it might brighten the mood, stave off the headaches and stimulate some appetite made all of us drink it with great gusto and a big spoonful of added sugar to mask the unexpected salty taste…

Maybe, Maryam was right and to make the most of a short trip to Tibet, Diamox was the answer…  I know for next time.  Everyone in our group was affected to some degree, mainly headaches and nothing too serious.  Would flying into Lhasa have been the better option??  2% of the people that fly directly to Lhasa develop the more serious types of altitude sickness which affect the lungs and brain, and can be deadly if not treated in time… So far, 0% of those who take the train have suffered the same fate..

Visiting the ‘roof of the world’ is certainly testing…

 

 

 

Lessons from the Wildebeest Migration: staying safe on the Chinese roads

‘The difference between Chinese locals and the expats,’ my Chinese friend A explained, ‘is that Chinese locals take the bus and expats prefer their e-bikes.’  If only that were true, the roads in Hangzhou would be so much safer for everyone.

Hangzhou roads are wide, spacious with lots of room for cars, e-bikes, bicycles and pedestrians.  Surely the envy of many European cities battling with legacies pre-dating the advent of anything with a motor: narrow streets, cobbled lanes, dinky alleyways. Cities steeped in history, but lacking practicality in the 21st Century.  China has looked at the West and in its modern cities taken on board the sense of the American grid-system: straight roads, straight corners, easy to navigate flyovers.  The main arteries leading into town have generous lanes for cyclists and e-bike riders, often partitioned by chains or some kind of fencing for added safety.  And there are designated pavements for pedestrians…  With such infrastructure in place, you would expect a safe journey across town no matter what mode of travel you choose…

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Being a true expat by now, I did indeed purchase an e-bike on my return to China in March.   Not entirely sure about any permanent damage to my knee nor to my ability to pedal a pushbike, I thought it better to have some motorised backup available!!  I certainly did not fancy being at the mercy of a fickle bus service, standing in the cold, rain or suffocating summer heat or paying for taxis all the time.

After a few weeks of getting my bearings in the new area of town, using buses (which are actually very reliable) and leg power,  I ventured out on my e-bike.  I am not a natural and did not exactly take to riding an e-bike like a duck to water.  Suffice it to say that I learned the hard way that when going down a ramp on an e-bike, it is infinitely safer to turn off the engine so you do not simultaneously accelerate and apply the brakes…  Twice I hit a wall!! Luckily, I was walking down a ramp next to the bike and could let go..   I came off unscathed, and the bike???  A few more scratches and scrapes, but no real damage… It still works!!  I now avoid ramps…

I rode the e-bike painfully slowly at first, carefully surveying my opponents on the road.  Whereas near my previous flat on the outskirts of Hangzhou, two e-bikes or bicycles  would have made a crowd, near the centre of town there were loads of them…  all occupied by the Chinese…   And although I had sampled Chinese road-user habits before, the experience paled in comparison to dealing with the hordes of e-bikes, cyclists and pedestrians invading the space designated to them…  To complicate matters further, in the last few months the country has been gripped by a bicycle-sharing epidemic. This may well sound like a great initiative, but in China ‘good’ ideas are copied over and over, ad infinitum…  Since my return to China, pavements have been cluttered with an oversupply of bicycles in all shades and hues, and the roads have been heaving with cyclists lacking confidence and speed.

Not feeling too brave on the e-bike, I used to hang back, linger behind the mob, give way to the impatient and more audacious.  I even thought it wise to wait for traffic lights to turn green…  I soon found out that following the throng, disregarding Western notions of road safety, was the much wiser and sensible way to avoid being hit by fellow road users.  A green light certainly does not guarantee a risk-free passage across a junction!!  Whilst e-bikes and bicycles attempt to go straight, cars turning right force their way through, not waiting for a space and coercing isolated E-bikes and bicycles  to weave and dodge around them.  So it makes sense to jump the lights and use those precious seconds to have a head start and as a mass of metal and bodies get out of harm’s way.  Until you reach the other side where cars, e-bikes and bicycles plough in from the right  without so much as a glance to check whether it is safe to do so, no matter the light is green for me and not for them.  It’s a bit like the wildebeest migration: the most likely to end up as crocodile feed are those who head into the river first, or those who lag behind and are no longer protected by the body of the herd…

Even going straight along the cycle path is fraught with danger, especially from riders in slow motion… You may be fooled into thinking that they are the  vigilant ones looking out for other road users… but more likely than not, their eyes will be glued to their phones and their minds immersed in the digital world of Wechat, their ears filled with heated conversations or the latest hits….  They are the ones I approach with extra caution because they are probably totally oblivious of their surroundings or any other traffic.   Add to this that just at the point where it seems possible to overtake those ones who would even fail to beat a snail in a race, a  lonely cyclist or e-biker comes hurtling from the opposite direction, scattering everyone out of his way…

And of course, let’s not forget the pedestrians meandering at leisure between e-bikes and bicycles…  City and road planners certainly had their interests at heart when designing road lay-outs.  Wide pavements sheltered by leafy  trees and with ample room for pushchairs…  Only, in busy areas around metro stations, shopping malls and parks such strips of free space for pedestrians have been turned into dumping grounds for e-bikes and shared bicycles because the planners overlooked or underestimated the need for parking provision…  And careless ‘shared-bicycle’ users discard their wheels just about anywhere they see fit and leave the police to deal with clearing the avalanche of metal. Neither the bicycle users, nor the rental companies are held to account. On the outskirts of Hangzhou, vast swathes of derelict land have been turned into bicycle graveyards as the companies who own them have no interest in claiming them back: the bicycles have been paid for through the deposits from the users… It is probably cheaper to buy new stock than paying any fines.

It seems that in the haste of turning Chinese cities into ‘modern’ metropolises, its citizens have been left behind and attitudes have not kept pace.   Maybe it is a lot easier to change  the infrastructure of a city than the ingrained habits of a population…  China certainly has traffic rules and regulations, but they are invariably ignored by the majority of the Chinese and the traffic police seem powerless to do anything about it.

I still use my e-bike, in emergencies only.  I rather ride a bicycle, at least I can manage the brakes and I get exercise to boot!!  But I feel neither confident nor safe on the roads here and watch every other Chinese road user like a hawk, always expecting the unexpected and hands ready  for an emergency stop…

If only my friend had been right that the Chinese prefer the buses and e-bikes are the reserve of the expat community…

 

 

 

Gouqi, the not-so-abandoned island.

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‘Where are you??’ friends  eagerly enquired after I posted pictures of Gouqi on my Wechat* Moments (see below).  Pristine beaches, the sky and sea dressed in shades of blue to rival the Mediterranean.  Surely this was not China, or anywhere near Shanghai where murky brown waters permanently surround the coast, often smothered by the persistence of the grey haze of polluted air.  The closest beach to Hangzhou is in Ningbo, one hour South by bullet train, but reports from those who’ve seen it are far from glowing: turbid waters; grimy, dirty beaches – not exactly the kind of place to while away a lazy afternoon..

(*For those not in China and therefore unfamiliar with Wechat …  it is the Chinese version of WhatsApp, only a little more versatile and much easier to use than Facebook in China.  No need for a VPN to let friends and family know your whereabouts….)

 

I was on a trip to an ‘abandoned island’, or so the blurb on Travelers Society’s website led me to believe, somewhere to the east of Shanghai.  We were heading for the Shengsi Islands, a scenic area, consisting of hundreds of islands outlying the Hangzhou Bay and boasting multiple quality beaches, rocks, and cliffs.

It was definitely an island, only to be reached after a four hour boat trip from Shanghai’s port,  but abandoned was best taken with a pinch of salt.  As we were making the most of one of China’s few extended ‘holidays’ at the beginning of May (a three-day weekend courtesy of Labour Day on 1st May), long lines of Chinese tourists besieged the ticket booths… We were not the only ones visiting this gem.

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Far from abandoned, Gouqi island clearly was very much alive with people whose livelihood depended on the sea.  Endless lengths of fishing nets trailed along the narrow coastal road, its verges  littered with skeletons of perished fishing boats and other discarded paraphernalia.  Whilst thoughtless drivers careered around sharp bends, women and men – too old to be out on the sea – braved the unrelenting sun to mend the nets, ready to be set out into the sea at night for the morning’s haul.  Suspended from polystyrene buoys, the nets crisscrossed large squares in the coastal waters and, come early morning, smaller fishing boats took to the sea to pull in the catch.

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On Gouqi, seafood is the staple diet and the giant mussel a speciality.  Whilst fresh fish is eaten in abundance, the rest is dried in the sun on huge racks along the quayside.  Even the local snacks are fish-based: anyone for battered and deep-fried fish backbones???  I tried them – well, only one – after a shopkeeper insisted on handing some to us.  Too crunchy for my liking and not sure about the nutritional value, I discreetly let them slide into a dustbin, out of sight.

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We did eventually find the ‘abandoned’ part of the trip on the neighbouring island Shengshan: Houtouwan, a small fishing village nestled in the lap of the rugged hills with the sea at its feet.  Only established in the 1950s, but hemmed in on all sides and with no room for expansion, the village soon outgrew its inhabitants as the fishing industry expanded rapidly in the 1990s.  The now wealthier villagers left in droves and the village was eventually relocated in 2002 to a more desirable and accessible area, leaving the original village to the forces of nature.  The village history at the entrance of the ‘tourist attraction’ did not chronicle how it became a magnet for visitors, but as vines and ivy invaded the deserted, crumbling stone walls and steps, and creepers weaved through doors and windows, the village became like a ghost town, eerie and spooky, coming alive with the change of the seasons and the whims of the weather.  We were there in the midst of spring, on a warm, sunny morning, the greenery not yet fully showing its lushest.

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And of course, no island and beach visit would be complete without spending some time enjoying the sun, the sand and the water…  I dipped in a toe.. but left the swimming to a few braver souls as I certainly did not fancy the goosebumps that would follow complete immersion.  Instead I joined in with beach volleyball, mainly watching the ball go by rather than being any use on the court, although surprisingly some of my serves ended up going over the net!!!  As our night time beach party was gatecrashed by the locals and other Chinese tourists, we beat our retreat and spent the rest of the evening playing 15 man (and woman..) UNO at the hotel…

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These two obviously did not belong to our party…  Only Chinese women go incognito when the sun is out…

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In the early evening we hiked up to the highest peak of the island, near an ancient Buddhist temple, to watch the sun cast its dying, warming glow over the cliffs and the sea.

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And in the early morning, we  rose before the break of dawn.  Wrapped up warmly for the chill, we made our way to the other end of the island to take some spectacular shots of the sun soaring above the East China Sea…  It’s amazing what cameras can do!!

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A place called ‘home’…

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There comes a point when living out of a suitcase takes its toll…  Admittedly, my ‘living out of a suitcase’ may be stretching the truth a little.  I have always had a place to unpack and  call ‘home’.

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In India ‘home’ was the ‘far-too-large-for-one’ ground floor of a huge house nestled amongst the coconut trees.  Did I really need two grand bedrooms with en-suite, two reception rooms and a kitchen large enough to accommodate a handful of staff…  But for all the abundance of space, it lacked suitable, cosy furniture or useful kitchen equipment to make life more comfortable.  The walls remained bare, shelves unadorned.  I made do.  And even then, when at the end of my first year the time came to move location, the floor was scattered with heaps of to-be-abandoned belongings.  India taught me to live frugally, not spend money on unnecessary things because they will not all fit in my suitcase at the end.

During my first year in China, ‘home’ was an apartment on the 10th floor of a modern block of flats: spacious, bright and airy.  More wardrobe space than I could fill!  A kitchen with cupboards, but no equipment… not even something to cook on or in.  I invested in a few bare essentials,  and inherited some along the way.   For a whole year, I managed with one plate, one bowl and four cups – four cups definitely not a luxury as each coffee or tea brew deserves a clean receptacle and life is too short to spend it at the sink doing the washing up….  Not much crockery you think, but still I bought more than most: why dish up food on a plate when you have a bowl or pot …  Dinner parties were strictly ‘bring your own plate and utensils if you do not want to eat with your hands out of the cooking vessel’.. and who needs a glass when you can use a cup or mug??  Does beer not taste better straight from the bottle or can??  I tried to jolly up the place with a few hats and candle holders from Ikea, but the flat never felt like home, just a place for temporary residence… I never intended to stay more than one year.

My second year in China spurred on a change of heart…  maybe there was some merit in making a house into a home, even if I would only be here for a short while.   It didn’t need to cost the earth either and some small purchases could go a long way.  Having moved into a shell of a flat, still being refurbished by a new homeowner/landlord, gave me a little scope: I just might be able to encourage her to add the right comforts and luxuries…  With a little patience, and lots of prodding via my agent, I extracted hot water for the kitchen – definitely not something you should take for granted in a modern Chinese kitchen.  Windows have now been fitted with mosquito screens so I can let in the breeze.  A small electrical heater appeared to fight a losing battle with the damp and cold permeating the flat…  Luckily I have a few months to work on more lasting and effective measures to keep the room temperature up before the start of the cold and damp Chinese winter…

Rather than waiting for the big teacher exodus at the end of June when all things useful and Western can be bought at rock bottom prices from expats parting with China for good, I paired down the essentials of homely living to an oven…  I cannot  profess to ever having been the greatest fan of cauliflower cheese, but there’s something comforting about the version of bubbly cheesy sauce oozing around tender-to-the-bite cauliflower topped with oven-crisped breadcrumbs..  Or proper crunchy pizza; not the floppy, soggy variety reheated in a microwave…  And an oven has the great versatility of toasting bread, baking bread, cakes, and scones; roasting potatoes and decent portions of chicken; grilled asparagus and salmon à la Jamie Oliver…  Living in an affluent city in the shadow of Shanghai means that although not all Western tastes and flavours are catered for, there is access to a reasonable supply of ingredients to ward off the worst of food-homesickness…

When putting nails and tacks in walls is strictly forbidden, lifting the spirits of white and grey surroundings required a bit more inventiveness.  A white, old and smelly cupboard could be transformed into a display cabinet with the help of a borrowed screwdriver to remove doors, and a lick of paint courtesy of B&Q (yes, B&Q!!) around the corner…  I was even able to select my own shade of baby blue, choosing from a colour palette to match Dulux’s own in the UK.  Family snapshots and favourite photographs from my travels printed out at school now smile back at me in cheap and cheerful photo frames from the local Ikea store.  Shawls bought in Thailand last summer add a splash of colour; blankets and cushion covers conceal the dreary brown of the sofa-cum-sofabed… And although I have no intention of stockpiling Chinese mementoes in the coming months, maybe I will just buy a few interesting knick-knacks and spruce up the room with fond memories of the exciting places I visit and friendly people I meet.

At least for the next 8 or 9 months, my apartment will feel a little bit like a home to me…

Playing at being ‘Jane in the Jungle’.

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Finally, the time of procrastination is at an end…  Back in China, almost settled into my new apartment, and knees as operational as they will get: time to don the hiking boots and explore the great outdoors of Hangzhou and beyond!!

Over the past twelve months, I have been on a fair few trips in China, mainly with organisations that cater well for the expat community…  Cash-rich (relatively speaking) and time-poor, weekend trips are often the only option for us, with longer trips reserved for Chinese national holidays or the long summer break when everyone hankers after an opportunity to escape China’s pollution and insanity, as well as Hangzhou’s oppressive heat.

Recently, a new travel group has burst onto the scene, this time based in Hangzhou itself.  Capitalising on a gap in the market for low-cost trips for eager low-budget travellers such as students and English teachers, they offer day trips for the adventurous and hike-loving,  all within easy reach of Hangzhou…  give or take a few hours of sitting in a coach… So my last few weekends have been fairly action-packed on a quest for the hidden gems and thrills of Zhejiang Province.

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Noodle Village

After an early start and a tedious drive battling with holiday traffic in China, we reached the ancient noodle village of Panzhoujia…  If we had expected to take part in the noodle making ceremony, we had arrived in the wrong season.  Tea leaf picking was the more urgent, and clearly more profitable business rather than entertaining hapless tourists with draping over-long noodles over the extended chain of arms…  Of course, we – all twenty of us –  had a little go and carefully stretched one noodle between us before having the pleasure – and it was a pleasure – of eating the famed noodle soup trying to fish out the meters-long noodles…

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The 3-D Village

Chinese people have a knack of spotting business opportunities where we might see none… Derelict and remote buildings nestled against a hillside would hardly attract our attention, but how better to entice the masses than by decorating walls with 3D paintings and calling it the ‘3D Village’…  And when a visit to this place coincides with the spring extravaganza of rapeseed flowers on the hillside terraces, you can be guaranteed of an influx of visitors and a healthy supply of traffic jams..

Authentic Hangzhou

Real adventure can definitely be found in and around Hangzhou with the Hash Harriers – the running/hiking group with a ‘drinking problem’.  Admittedly, I have so far stuck to hiking the trails rather than running, but a slower speed means more chance to take in the often spectacular scenery.  A recent night hike revealed Hangzhou’s West Lake in its nocturnal glory, a blaze of colour reflected in the water.  And of course,  there is more fun to be found off the beaten track, clambering over rocks and sliding down muddy slopes, experiencing some of the few remaining authentic nature areas that escaped a Chinese makeover…   Nothing beats a bit of a ‘Tarzan and Jane’ exploit!!

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Tianmen Mountain challenge… walking the glass plank…

And then there was the challenge of the ‘Coiled Dragon Cliff Walkway’, built along the edges of Tianmen Mountain’s summits, clinging to the sheer vertical cliffs. Part of the cliff-hugging walkway had a makeover last summer and those who dare can now brave a walk over the 100m long tract of crystal clear glass looking all the way down to the bottom of the cliff… It is not for the faint-hearted and requires a bit of stamina as the walkway is only reached after climbing 999 steeps steps.  Not a mean feat on warmer days, but the views of the valley and the surrounding nineteen peaks are awesome and certainly worth the effort.  And the scary looking bridge suspended between two peaks???  Luckily, it looked more flimsy from a distance; it was clearly well-maintained and in good condition to make sure that visitors do not come to a sticky end…  At the end of the climb, we found a delightful little pool, fed by fresh water streaming downhill…  How could anyone resist the temptation of dipping their feet in???

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