Category Archives: Shanghai

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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China’s north-south divide of haves and have-nots.

Ever wondered why the children in my classroom wear coats inside when I am teaching??  I did when I first saw photographs and videos taken in Chinese classrooms… This was before I learnt about the Chinese north-south divide of haves and have-nots.

A mention of the north-south divide immediately brings to mind the line that separates the more wealthy from the less wealthy, or the economically developed countries from the less developed areas of the world, the haves from the have-nots.  In China, however, the north-south divide of haves and have-nots takes on a completely different meaning, especially in winter.   It is the great dividing line of being warm or cold in the months when temperatures dip to uncomfortable levels…  And Shanghai and Hangzhou are just on the wrong side of it…

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About sixty years ago, in the time of the Great Leader, a plan was hatched to provide Chinese citizens with free central heating in homes and offices and centralised systems were installed in residential areas, with the assistance from the Soviet Union.  Laudable you may say, and so it would have been if the offer had embraced the whole of the country.   But at those years, China was facing extreme energy shortages and the then Premier, Zhou Enlai, suggested the Qin-Huai line, a well-known geographical demarcation between north and south, as a cut-off point.  Buildings to the north would be provided with free or heavily subsidized central heating for four months each winter; buildings to the south would have no heating facilities whatsoever…  Rather unfortunate for those living below the line, even by just a mile….

I had been told by other Westerners that the cold in Shanghai and Hangzhou is different. Not that anyone could explain why.    Although freezing temperatures are not unheard of, the mercury seldom dips below zero and hovers somewhere between the low single digits and just above ten…  Like a British winter, basically.  But whereas in Britain we move from one nicely warmed room to another toasty area, here the only way to stay warm is to keep moving, moving from one icy place to another even icier place… There is no escape from the clammy penetrating cold sweeping in from the sea.  It flood your entire body and soul right down to the core..

So how to endure a winter here?  People are resourceful and adapt.  Instead of just wrapping up warmly to venture outside into the cold, people wrap up even warmer when entering their arctic homes.  Shoes and trainers are replaced with fur-lined boots and Chinese people wallow all day long in thickly padded pyjamas that make normal movement impossible…  And with an extra coat on top.  And yes, in school windows are thrown wide open to allow the more temperate outside air to circulate and ‘warm up’ the classrooms.  My days at school are spent in a state of permafrost…

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Living in winter pyjamas

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And then wearing long underwear underneath the pyjamas

In the meantime, I bought an extra woolly hat and special leggings and tights with fur on the inside.  Deliciously warm!!!

Luckily, China’s recent economic advancement has allowed for some improvement and newer apartments below the line of haves and have-nots now come with an air-conditioning-cum-heater units.  They are electrical, not very efficient and expensive to run, but at least they take away some of the chill.  For instance, my apartment has one located just next to the huge window, fighting off the biting cold permeating the double glazing.  But whilst the area around my window and bed easily reaches a sultry 25 degrees, the heat does not travel well and never extends to the bathroom at the other end.  Getting out of bed can be a trial and a frosty toilet seat is not exactly inviting; showers have to be kept short (not a lot of hot water in the small tank) and can only be started once the cubicle is misted up with hot steam.  I have been tempted to supplement my heating with a small electrical oil radiator; it’s all the rage… and probably more effective than the huge unit on the wall.  But with China trying to curb its greenhouse gases, maybe adding to them by generating the luxury of heat may well be frowned upon…

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Last winter, us foreign teachers were chastised for putting on the blow heater in our small office.  Why did we not put on our coats, like the rest of the teachers and students???  It was an alien notion to us then and at the point no one had explained the big divide which meant that heating was a luxury only to be enjoyed on very special occasions, such as a whole week of deep frost…

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I certainly no longer make fun of e-bikes fashioned with little blankets at the front to shield hands and body from the icy winds…You would do anything to keep warm…

Maybe  the solution is moving several thousands of miles to the south of the big dividing line…  Hmmm, and I have just signed up for another year in China, in Hangzhou…  I better invest in some more and warmer winter gear.

 

(drawings by Anna Z. and found on her blog post:  http://chinaslostpanda.com/how-to-stay-warm-in-china-without-central-heating/)

Happy Anniversary, says WordPress…

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Netheravon, August 2013

The message took me by surprise.  My second anniversary on WordPress.  Two years of writing blog posts, almost weekly…  I know I have slacked a little lately.  Too busy having experiences, not enough time to keep a record of it all.

I have no idea how many words it amounts to or how many pages it would fill in a book; how much of it is interesting and how often visitors actually read the text or just scan through the photographs.  But it gives me some idea of how I spent those 24 months, where I went and whom I met; the places I grew to love or hate; the people who stole a small piece of my heart..

How many stamps did I collect in my passport? So far I have visited 11 countries. Not all for the first time, but I stayed for longer periods, immersing myself in different cultures, customs and traditions.  Definitely often challenging, but nevertheless the experiences of a life time and I feel I have not even scratched the surface..  Much more to explore on this ever expanding journey, no end yet in sight!

And trawling through the wealth of accumulated photographs I struggle to condense my exploits to just a few highlights.  There have been too many really…  Maybe my adventures had already started in August 2013 when I took the plunge with a skydive, ‘chaperoned’ by my son; or when we as a family hiked Mount Snowdon in Wales (March 2014)…

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Snowden (Wales), March 2014

But my travels really started, way back in May 2014, with a short trip to Florence, accompanied by one of my dearest friends… It is strange how when life turns upside down you get to know your real friends: the ones who support you when things are tough, those whose ears do not grow tired of hearing the same old lament; the ones who do not point out the flaws in your plan but are ready to help you pick up the pieces.  However until I left for India in October 2014, England was my home, the place I returned to after travelling.

So if I look back over the last two years to catalogue my ‘travel around the world’ adventures, I have to start with that journey to Florence.  No better way to put a smile on my face than a close encounter with David, although we only met in a coffee shop being too stingy to fork out for a visit to the real one.

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Florence (Italy), May 2014

In September 2014 my daughter dropped me off at Heathrow  airport,  the starting point of my African adventure and beyond.  ‘Don’t do anything silly or stupid.  Make sure you stay safe.  And keep in touch!!!’, the sage advice of my daughter.  I was the one setting out on the gap year!!! Talking about role reversal…

In Cape Town (South Africa) I scaled the Lion’s Head and tackled Table Mountain.  I watched the sun rise over Dune 45 in Namibia and spied some of the Big Five on the plains of Etosha.  My flight over the Okavanga Delta in Botswana was easily eclipsed by fulfilling a lifetime’s ambition of Grade 5 white water rafting on the mighty Zambezi River, with the roar of the magnificent Victoria Waterfalls in my ears.  I stood eye to eye with fierce black rhinos in Zimbabwe.

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Table Mountain (Cape Town, south Africa), September 2014

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The Lion’s Head (Cape Town, South Africa), September 2014

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Sossusvlei (Namibia), September 2014

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Sossusvlei, Dune 45 (Nambia), September 2014

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Ethosia (Namibia), September 2014

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Exploring the Okavanga Delta by Mokoro (Botswana), September 2014

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Bird’s Eye view of the Okavanga Delta (Botswana), September 2014

 

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Flying over the mighty Victoria Waterfalls (Zimbabwe), September 2014

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Awesome white water rafting on the Zambesi River (Zimbabwe), September 2014

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Facing the rhinos in Zimbabwe, September 2014

In October 2014, Southern India beckoned… I learnt to navigate the Indian traffic chaos, and became adept at opening a coconut without proper tools.  I spent months swaddled in churidars, only to expose my legs near the more tolerant beach towns of Kovalam and Varkala. I kayaked the backwaters of Alleppey and bathed elephants in Periyar.   I have fond memories of exploring the hidden treasures of  Munnar, Kumarakom and Ponmudy with Dr Anne…  I watched the sun rise in Kanyakumari, at the southernmost point of the Indian subcontinent and felt my stomach lurch at the sight of men hanging from flesh hooks to appease the gods and earn more desirable opportunities in the future.  No more idyllic end to my Indian adventure than spending four days luxuriating on the uninhabited islands of Lakshadweep, definitely one of the best kept secrets of Indian tourism.

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Periyar, Kerala (India), December 2014

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Kerala (India) , February 2015

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Kanyakumari, July 2015

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Ponmudi (Kerala, India), October 2015

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Travels with Dr. Anne, (Munnar) , October 2015

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The unspoiled islands of Lakshadweep (India), November 2015

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Exploring the underwater world around Lakshadweep (India), November 2015

My travels in India were briefly interrupted by a little sojourn to the UK and Amsterdam (March 2015).  No adult gap year would be complete without tasting the elsewhere forbidden pleasures of space cakes and smoking a joint.  And yes, sampling cheeses, lots of exotic, colourful cheeses…

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Amsterdam, March 2015

Entitled to a two week break in August and September 2015 I made it to Kathmandu, Nepal, where I  witnessed the devastation wreaked by the April earthquake. I made acquaintance with Sadhus in the sacred Pashupatinath  Temple where Hindus come to cremate relatives who have passed away.   In Pokhara and Poon Hill I had my first (so far…) encounter with the impressive Himalayas and in Chitwan I had the privilege of glimpsing the elusive tiger in the wild…

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Pokhara, Nepal.  September 2015

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Sunrise at Poon Hill, Nepal.  September 2015

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Sunset over the river in Chitwan, September 2015

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The elusive tiger, September 2015

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Making friends in Kathmandu, September 2015

In February 2016, I landed in Hangzhou, a stone’s throw away from Shanghai. The end of the winter, still bitter, when only the colour of clothes and bicycles brightened the grey, dull atmosphere.  In March I joined a group of Chinese students taking selfies in the yellow expanse of rapeseed flowers.  April found me blowing giant bubbles in a massive park.  The rains of May turned Huangshan’s Yellow Mountain into a sea of mist and mystique.  In June I looked down on Shanghai from its Pearl Tower.  In July I cruised the Li River, admiring the mysterious hills and mountains lining its banks.  In September I conquered the Great Wall and in October I explored the wonders of Yunan and Shangri-La…

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Rapeseed flowers in Wuyuan, March 2016

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Giant bubble fun in Hangzhou, April 2016

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Mountains in the mist, Huangzhan, May 2016

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First visit to Shanghai, June 2016

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Mysterious mountains in Yuangsho, July 2016

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The Great Wall of China, September 2016

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Sunrise over Mount Meli, Yunnan, October 2016

In August 2016, I escaped the oppressive heat of the Shanghai summer to briefly visit the UK and have a break in Thailand touching the very beaches made famous by James Bond and Leonardo Di Caprio..

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Bangkok, Thailand.  August 2016

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James Bond Island, Phuket, Thailand.  August 2016

Not a bad list of achievements for two years of travelling ‘Round The World’…  I wonder what will be in store for the next two years..  Where to next???

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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..

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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.

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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.

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