Category Archives: travel

Kyoto: the mystery world of Shinto and Geishas.

 

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Of course, we didn’t uncover the mysteries of a geisha, nor could we even be entirely sure we saw a real one, but we certainly visited Kyoto, the former imperial capital of Japan which is considered the birthplace of the geisha culture.  The peace of Kyoto, famed for its ancient temples, traditional Roykan  Inns and centuries-old craftmanship, offered a welcome reprieve from the futuristic and hedonistic world of Tokyo.

Although our Airbnb accommodation in Kyoto did not pretend to be a ‘traditional Roykan Inn  complete with own “onsen” facilities’, we stayed in an old-style Japanese house just outside the centre of town.  Built at least a couple of centuries ago in an era when people were much shorter, even M and I had to fold ourselves double to make it through the front door.  Our room was located through a set of sliding doors, just off the main corridor.  As in many Asian countries, shoes were not allowed in in-door areas and slippers were provided at the entrance of our sparsely furnished room: a low table with cushions for sitting, a rack for hanging some garments, a chest of drawers and Japanese style bedding…  There was no need for a bed as the tatami matted floor was both pleasing to the eye and pliable to the touch which made sleeping on the soft ‘futon’ quite comfortable.  I am not sure whether we felt we missed out on the ‘onsen’ experience…  somehow, shared bathing in the buff is best enjoyed with the right company, so we happily made do with a normal, shared bathroom at the other end of the house.

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With only two full days in Kyoto, we had to prioritise and choose which tourist attractions to visit.  Taxis in Japan are on the expensive side, so we opted to  make ample use of public transport and Google Maps to navigate the town.  Suffice it to say that even with the help of Google Maps, it was a time consuming exercise and maybe with hindsight we could have covered more if we had been less stingy.  On the other hand…. with so many Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in the vicinity, almost three months on from my Japanese trip, it has all become a blur of red painted posts festooned with red lanterns and guarded by an army of dogs, foxes and lions..

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Japan has two main religions: Shinto and Buddhism.   Whereas Shinto is regarded as the indigenous religion of the Japanese people and is as old as Japan itself, Buddhism reached the island much later.  It was imported in the sixth century as a gift from the friendly nation of the Korean kingdom of Kudara.   After some initial difficulties and conflicts, Shinto and Buddhism have coexisted fairly harmoniously in Japan and most Japanese consider themselves either Buddhist or Shinto or even both.  In any case, religion is not that important in Japanese daily life and most people only visit temples or shrines to mark special occasions and festivals.

Shinto was, and still remains, a mystery to me.  I was made aware of its very existence and initiated in its vague rules and customs by the Swedish bartender of an Irish Pub, ‘The Man in the Moon’,  in Kyoto.  Escaping from the stifling heat, I needed a drink and when ‘Witte Hoegaarden’ was promoted by an Irish Pub, I could not resist.  As I was the one and only customer that afternoon, the ex-sailor who made Kyoto his home, was only too pleased to fill me in on the details of his adopted new religion.

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Without a founding figure, nor any dogmatic guidelines, Shinto is an ‘optimistic faith’ believing that people are intrinsically good and evil is the work of ‘evil spirits’.  Most traditions and rituals therefore focus on warding off the evil spirits through purification, prayers and offerings to the ‘kami’, or Shinto gods.  Kami are sacred spirits embodied by elements important to life: wind, rain, mountains, trees, rivers and fertility and when people die, they are revered by their relatives as ‘ancestral kami’.    Shinto Kami are mostly shifty beings, flitting from one place to another,  and devotees who need their attention are often seen pulling the bells hanging in front of the shrines to alert the Kami and request their presence so prayers can be heard.   Not all shrines need bells, though.  Some shrines have been built in the midst of a forest, or on a mountain top where kami have taken up permanent residence and are always at hand…    However, one thing all shrines have in common are huge torii, vermillion painted entrance gates that mark the transition from the profane into the sacred.

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Of all the shrines in Kyoto, the most famous and interesting one is the Fushimi Inari Pilgrimage Circuit, the backdrop for some scenes in the film ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’.  Thousands of torii, donated by wealthy individuals and companies,  straddle hiking trails leading into the wooded forest of Mount Inari, which at just 233m above sea level is not exactly a challenge… although it involves a fair amount of steps.  The leafy tree canopies provide plenty of welcome shade and halfway up the mountain, at the Yotsutsuji Intersection, any hiking effort is rewarded with views across the city.  Not many visitors venture past this point, so the last stretch to the top is less crowded with more opportunities for photographs of the many dog or fox statues guarding a multitude of smaller shrines.

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Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are mysterious places, especially to the uninitiated, and whereas some of the rituals and traditions can be easily understood, others are definitely baffling.  At the main entrance of most Shinto shrines, a stone washbasin is available for purification, and devotees rinse their hands and mouth before approaching the deity.  Sometimes people gather around large incense burners and waft the purifying smoke over the heads.  Inside the grounds, small stalls attract visitors who buy a talisman to bring good luck or keep evil away.  Lucky charms, protective amulets and wooden plaques magically help students pass exams or sick people recover from illness.  And if fortune telling pieces of paper suggest a stretch of bad luck, the paper is tied to special racks where the flutter of the wind and time can disperse its spell.  But the ritual that perplexed us the most was watching devotees crawling through a hole in one such rack…   Had fate dealt them a particularly bad hand and was this best way to dispel the inevitable???  We did not ask…

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Not only does Kyoto boast a lot of shrines and temples, it is also one of the best places to get a glimpse of the mysterious geisha.  And ‘geishas’ we did see.  Plenty of them, only they probably were not real ones, but just tourists who dressed the part for their brief stay in town and wanted to have the pictures to prove it.  At every shrine and on every street corner, we bumped into ‘geishas’, dressed in colourful kimonos fastened with an obi (a large waistband), cameras or phones poised for selfies.  But rather than teetering around in okobos, the impossibly high platform footwear normally worn by maiko or apprentice geisha, they strutted around in normal flip-flops and certainly did not have the usual geisha make-up on.

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‘Your best bet for seeing the real thing,’ another tourist advised us, ‘is to go to the Gion district, around six or eight in the evening.  That’s when the geishas leave their okiyo (houses) to go to work.’  It sounded like good advice, so we checked our map and set off.  The place was crowded.  Not with geishas, but with tourists all eager to spot one.  And everyone was ready to observe the strict ‘don’t-touch-the geisha’ rule.  After all geishas have their jobs to do and are not a tourist attraction.  At the front of one of the houses, an older woman – most likely the kami-san or mother of the geisha house  – stood quietly surveying what was happening outside.

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Eventually, our patience paid off and a single geisha, dressed for work and lips pursed almost disapprovingly, strode across the street, meekly followed by her assistant maiko.  It is possible we encountered other ‘real’ geishas around that time, but without the tell-tale make-up it was impossible to be sure.

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And these ones, taking photographs of each other mid-day??  They may have been real geishas, fully made up and just indulging in a bit of me-time…  They certainly looked too much the part to be tourists in the act of dressing up.  We did not stop to ask, but were grateful to be able to take our own shots of what may have been two real geishas…

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Nightfall cast a mysterious spell over the geisha districts, both Gion and Pontocho.   Hushed lights warmed the brown hues of the wooden panelling along the traditional geisha houses, often punctuated by white and red lanterns.  Restaurants and bars were busy inside, where the A.C. kept everyone cool.  Outside the tourists melted away, leaving the area peaceful and quiet.  Geishas had reached their destinations and entertained their paying guests in the obliqueness of dimly lit rooms, barely noticeable through obscured windows.

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Our closest encounter with a geisha was in a restaurant, Issen  Yoshoku (Kyoto), the one with just a single dish on the menu executed to perfection and its notoriety as the restaurant featuring the boy with his trousers down…  And if that was not enough to entice customers in, there were plenty of geisha mannequins to keep us company, and a plethora of interesting plaques on the wall to keep us amused…

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Another country, another mountain to climb: Mount Fuji.

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Was I interested in climbing Mount Fuji, my friend M. asked.  When have I ever  turned down such an invitation: travel, hiking, reaching the pinnacle of a mountain?   Not exactly sure of the precise location of Mount Fuji, it certainly sounded exciting enough, so I accepted without hesitation.

Japan had not been one of the ‘must-see’ destinations on my travel itinerary, but my original brief of three years ago – collecting as many stamps in my passport as possible within the next five years – gave me plenty of room for indulging in sudden whims.  Plus, as the Japan trip would follow close on the heels of my Tibetan adventure, the 3776 m altitude of Mount Fuji would be a mere trifle.  My body  would already be very well adjusted to the lack of oxygen at higher altitude moving from the heights of the Tibetan Plateau to the summit of Mount Fuji in a matter of a few days…

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With my return flight from Lhasa to Shanghai booked for early Friday evening, I reckoned I had allowed ample time to catch my flight to Tokyo on Saturday morning…  Unfortunately, whereas the punctuality of trains in China is a feat to be admired, the same does not apply to air travel.  Flight delays are a common, daily occurrence…  and it was no surprise our plane took off late from Lhasa so we missed our connecting flight in Xi’an.  At least our flight was not cancelled; we were lucky.  In the end, I made it back to Shanghai in the small hours and arrived at M.’s  doorstep around 2.30 am.  Just enough time for a quick chat, repack my bags for the next trip, and a very short nap before setting off for the airport again for our 9.00 am flight to Tokyo…

Tokyo did not impress: yet another metropolitan city full of skyscrapers and dazzling lights with just more sushi on offer than other similar places around the world.  At night the brazen neon glare shielded a possibly star-studded sky; it was hard to know with so much light pollution.  Japanese technological brilliance opened a window on a future world flashed with colour and make-belief and heated toilet seats…   The humble toilet was definitely in a league of its own here, with gadgets and devices that pamper, sprinkle and spritz, make flushing noises on demand or provide soothing background music turning something rather uneventful into a totally different experience…  What a contrast to Tibet and Lhasa where we considered ourselves fortunate to be visitors before too much progress and modernisation will inevitably erode its traditions and unique character …. and its ablution facilities with a view to die for.

Nevertheless, Tokyo was clean, contemporary and easy to navigate.  Its metro and train systems were overwhelming at first glance with a spider web of colours crisscrossing the underground map  – not unlike London’s metro system, just on a much grander scale. The vast, enormous stations took some getting used to, but people in Tokyo are friendly and hospitable and English is widely spoken, so there was always help within reach.

And then there was Mount Fuji, of course, the ultimate goal of the trip.  Located about 100 km south-west of Tokyo, on clear days, its iconic shape is often visible in the distance, and in the winter the snow capped peak of the still active volcano forms a magnificent backdrop to the city.  Luckily for us, Mount Fuji last erupted about 300 years ago, and there were certainly no rumblings that might have interfered with our plans…

Tokyo is hot in July, with temperatures soaring well above 30 degrees Celsius.  I had packed accordingly: shorts, strappy tops, floaty dresses and sandals plus indeed a few essentials needed for the climb to the summit of Mount Fuji such as hiking poles, a pair of leggings that I could wear underneath my shorts, an additional thermal layer that I could hide under my fleece…   I had reluctantly accepted M’s offer of a pair of warm gloves and a woolly hat, but refused the padded ski jacket. I felt totally prepared for Mount Fuji and did not want to cram my backpack with unnecessary clobber.  I like to travel light…

I was not in the slightest bit perturbed  when our ‘Mount Fuji Tour’ coach stopped at a hire shop to give everyone the opportunity to stock up on extra clothes to stave off the cold.   ‘Wimps,’ I thought, surely it would not be that bad to live through near zero temperatures for just a couple of hours, or even less.  I had braved the Peruvian Andes near the snow line, I had barely shivered on Poon Hill in the Annapurna Range and had felt quite comfortable in a pair of long trousers and long sleeved t-shirt at 5000m on the Tibetan Plateau…

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After a quick lunch and stocking up on much needed water, chocolatey high energy snacks and other hikers paraphernalia we set off.  Our trek started at the Fifth Station, already at an altitude of 2300 m, and would take roughly six hours…  Six hours???  It did not seem that far…but our two guides were adamant we would reach Ninth Station around 7.00 pm and spend the night there after dinner..

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Not only did the guides make sure we followed the correct path, they also set the pace…  We walked slowly, painstakingly slowly to allow our bodies to gradually adapt to the increasing altitude and avoid anyone falling victim to altitude sickness.  But even if we had been in more of a rush, the sheer number of people on the often narrow track made it impossible to speed up.  We plodded along relentlessly on paths strewn with basalt pebbles, worn smooth over time and reminders of the last eruption of the active volcano we were treading on.  We clambered on all fours over huge rocks, hoisting and pulling ourselves up on ropes at the side.

All the while the temperature kept dropping as huge misty clouds started to envelop us.  Daylight was fading and in shady corners on the mountain, pockets of frosty snow stubbornly  clung to life.  The warmth of my fleece was suddenly very comforting and I definitely felt relieved after having the chance to put on my leggings to cover my bare legs…  Had I maybe been just a tad too optimistic about how cold it might get at the top?

At exactly 7:00 pm, we arrived at our lodgings, a small hostel at the Ninth Station located at 3,580m above sea level and a mere 200m below the summit.  After a quick dinner, we took to our Japanese style dorms: thin mattresses on the floor with an arrangement of duvets to wrap around us, sleeping about 7 in a row…  Washing facilities were a ‘short walk through the fresh air’ away and, admittedly, I was immensely grateful for the heated toilet seats that had seemed such an unnecessary extravagance in the heat of Tokyo.  And, the lodge had a small supply of warm clothes to rent which I gratefully took advantage of; somehow the cold near the top of Mount Fuji felt very bitter and temperatures would definitely dip nearer sunrise.

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After having barely any time to sleep or rest, we started our final climb at 2.00 am: an endless string of bobbing headlamps trailing towards the peak.  There was a real chill in the air and not even the effort of the last push to the top had anyone breaking out in a sweat, regardless of the many layers we were wearing.  At the summit,  tea houses were already in full swing, selling warming drinks and soups to keep us going in anticipation of the appearance of the sun.   We scattered across the top, everyone vying for a little space at the front to catch the best view and take the best photographs of the sun’s dawn reflection in the lake.  We stood only meters away from Mount Fuji’s caldera, the crater left at the top of the volcano after its last violent eruption and we posed next to the sign at Mount Fuji’s summit before retracing our steps downwards, first to the lodge for a well deserved breakfast and then onward, back to Fifth Station where the coach would pick us up.

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If the ascent had been long and arduous because of the altitude, the descent was tricky because of the loose volcanic rock and debris which made the path slippery and treacherous.   Definitely a case of gracefully sliding along and using both walking sticks to avoid too many falls…  We made it in just under four hours, legs wobbling like a jelly…

Would I recommend climbing Mount Fuji??  It rather depends…  If you are looking for photographic thrills, there are much better views of Mount Fuji from the surrounding areas, plus the snow cap in wintertime adds more drama.  However, if you, like me, have a box to tick, then you just grit your teeth and put up with the monotony of staring at red volcanic rock for as long as it takes you to haul yourself up the mountain and back down again…

So where to next??  Base Camp Everest?  Mount Kinnabalu??  We’ll see…  I have another twelve months to decide…

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…

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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The Great Brick Wall of China…

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Michael, my agent, collected me from the airport.  As arranged.  With just a stopover of 90 minutes in Beijing, my suitcase was the first one to appear on the conveyor belt when I reached Hangzhou…

I only made my connecting flight by the skin of my teeth.  Wow, if I thought Heathrow was a large airport, or maybe Hong Kong, it was nothing compared with the scale of Beijing.  To transfer from the arrivals hall to the departure area within the same terminal, I was herded onto a train, which took an agonising fifteen minutes to reach its destination.   This was definitely not the bullet train variety travelling between Chinese cities… Of course, I needed to clear immigration and still run the gauntlet of another security check before boarding the flight to Hangzhou…

I headed for ‘Departures’ on the third floor, looking for the gate number…in vain.  In desperation, I accosted a security employee at his desk next to his computer – the only living soul in view – but his job description did not include  ‘helping stranded passengers finding the necessary information’.   Whilst the minutes were ticking away at breakneck speed, he advised me to check the board on the floor below.  Really, no board on the departures floor itself??? I rushed, I ran, I scaled the escalators…  I grabbed the first person crossing my path; she simply scanned my boarding pass and hey presto, the gate number appeared.  After a mad dash back to the third floor,  I finally reached the gate, the last person to board..  I must make a mental note for the future: allow more time for a transfer through Beijing, even if it bumps up the price of the ticket…

As my return to China had dragged on a bit, finding a new flat was a priority.  Michael had been ‘proactive’ the previous weekend and, after a brief flurry searching the web, sent me some adverts for what he considered suitable living space….  Suffice it to say that our ideas and tastes clearly clashed and I was certainly not going to spend the next twelve months holed up in a box, nor pay exorbitant prices for a lavish two-floor apartment.  Was there no middle ground?

 

 

Deciding to play it safe, I dispensed with Michael’s flat-hunting services and took Amanda with me.  Although Chinese, she is a sensible person with a clear understanding of Western standards of living accommodation… She is a woman after all…  In the end, we agreed on a perfectly sized ground floor flat, nestled in the middle of a quaint Chinese neighbourhood, but within walking distance of life’s necessities, such as Starbucks, McDonalds, CenturyMart (a rather posh, expensive Chinese supermarket chain) and of course, the school where I would be teaching…

There was just one little snag: the flat was clearly still a work in progress: a bathroom without doors, a bed without mattress, no furniture and no heating, and definitely no kitchen…  On the upside: freshly painted walls, brand new sanitary wear in good working order, a separate bedroom, a sofa bed in the living room and the generous offer of two televisions provided by the landlord.

Keen to be absolved of the cost of the hotels (paid for by the agent until suitable accommodation has been found),  Michael hastily arranged a meeting with the estate agent and the landlord for the next day.  He wanted to get the deal signed and sealed as soon as possible.  It did not worry him that he had not seen the property, as long as I was happy, he was happy…  During the two minute conversation we had, I tried to imprint on him that it may still be a few days before the flat was ready for me to move into and he may have to put me up in a hotel a little longer…  ‘OK.  I shall collect your suitcases from the hotel after work and bring them to the flat tonight,’ Michael reassured me.  ‘When Michael???  The flat is not yet ready…’ ‘Tonight, after six!’…

Two of Michael’s answers immediately send all alarm bells ringing: ‘OK’ and ‘I see…’   Both spell disaster as he either has not grasped the message at all (OK – ‘Hmmm, I will need to figure this out later’) or he has realised he does not have a clue about what he is required to do (‘I see’ – he doesn’t see it at all…).  Although he vehemently denies this, Michael is an agent ‘on the side’.  His day job keeps him busy during business hours, so he only has his evenings to deal with any urgent paperwork or other issues for the teacher(s) under his wing…  Needless to say, it explains a lot about all the delays with my visa and currently my residence permit.

I spent my first two nights back in a hotel in downtown Hangzhou, close to the centre, but some distance from my school.  Not very convenient, as my new job requires me to be at school for 8 am.  With the contract for my new flat to be signed in the evening, Michael insisted I checked out of the hotel.  ‘Michael, where will I stay tonight??  Do you have another hotel booked?  The flat is not ready for me to move into…Where do I leave my luggage?’ I urged him. ‘Don’t worry,’ was the the worrying reply. ‘It will be fine..  The hotel will look after your suitcases and I will pick them up tonight before we sign the contract…’ ‘And what shall I do when I finish at school..?  Wander the streets in the cold??’  ‘Go and have some coffee somewhere…Isn’t that what Westerners do??’

With nowhere to go at the end of the school day, one of my new colleagues took pity on me and I stayed in her flat until finally, a few hours later, Michael turned up and we set off to meet the home owner…  ‘Did you pick up my suitcases from the hotel?’ I pressed him… ‘Later,’ he shrugged off my remark. ‘Later, after we have signed the contract.  And then you can move into the flat.’  ‘Michael, I cannot move into the flat!!!  Did you speak to the owner about the mattress and the bathroom door??  I have nothing to cook with!! The heating does not work.  All my things, such as sheets, towels, are stored in YOUR flat…’  Michael insisted that the home owner had confirmed there was a mattress on the bed and the bathroom door had been fixed…  And what about sheets??  ‘No problem,’ he continued, ‘I will take you  shopping and you can buy sheets and towels.’  ‘No way, Michael.  I have sheets, I have towels.  If I have to move into the flat today, YOU will be paying for my shopping… It may be cheaper to find me a hotel for tonight!’

I was not privy to the Chinese wheeling and dealing that ensued during the signing of the contract, but any suggestion of negotiating on the monthly rental fell on deaf ears.  Being clever, I had  clinched ‘free accommodation’ as part of my package as this would save me forking out three months rent, another month’s rent as deposit and the agency fees in one lump sum in advance, plus my accommodation would be paid for in the summer.. .  But the flat was slightly over budget and I had agreed to pay some of my salary towards it.. so Michael did not feel HE would gain anything from achieving a rent reduction… and, as he confided afterwards, ‘Prices go up for foreigners…’   Maybe if he had not paraded me at the signing of the contract, the house owner would have been none the wiser…

By the time all the red fingerprints had been inked on the papers, it was nearing 9 o’clock and Michael was still adamant I should move into the apartment on that day.  ‘Let’s at least check out whether there is a mattress and then, if you  insist, YOU can buy me all the necessities such as sheets, a kettle.…  Why not get me a hotel room for tonight???’  Still jet-lagged, I was so not in the mood for camping without sleeping bag or airbed…

The estate agent handed us the keys and showed us to the house…Nothing had happened since my last viewing the day before…  There was no mattress, no curtains in the bedroom, nor a door for the ‘wet room’.  Paint and builders’ dust covered the floors.    At last seeing sense, Michael relented and reluctantly agreed we should collect my suitcases from the other side of town and look for a hotel nearer my school…  It was almost 10.00 pm.

After a quick dash into town to get my luggage, Michael started searching…  He had spotted a cheap establishment very close to my new apartment.  ‘You stay in the car,’ he said, ‘I shall go and see if they have a room available.’   He returned, tail between his legs… ‘Ah,’ he explained, ‘they are cheap, very cheap, so they don’t allow foreigners..’  We drove to the next hotel, just around the corner in a niche spot opposite the famed GongChenQiao Bridge.  ‘Far too expensive,’ Michael decided after looking at the special rates on offer online; he did not even venture inside.  We set off again, and Michael tried his luck a little further afield, but there was nothing to be found within his budget nor with rooms available…

Running out of options, we returned to the posh hotel.  It was past 11 pm and Michael had a day’s work at the office ahead of him and I needed to be in school by 8 am.  I unloaded my suitcases and accompanied Michael to the reception desk; I was here to stay whatever the cost.   The hotel had indeed rooms available, but this late at night, there was no hope of getting the discounted rate suggested by the internet.  And they certainly did not have any rooms at budget prices…  I have no idea how much Michael paid in the end, but he certainly turned a few shades paler on the mention of the figure.  By then I was beyond caring!!  I smiled and inwardly could not resist the thought, ‘Serves you right for leaving this till the last minute… You only have yourself to blame for not listening…’

My hotel room was wonderful, comfortable and luxurious…  and I only had a few hours to indulge.  I filled the bath to the brim and sat there enjoying the bubbles, leisurely topping up with soothing hot water… because undoubtedly, I would be moving into my new home the next day…   With three months’ rent in her pocket, the landlord would have no excuse not to at least put a mattress on the bed and curtains in the bedroom…

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Breathing life into the heater…

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Which remote control will get the heating going?? New batteries maybe???