Yunnan

I’ve been to quite a few places in China now, though recently all of my travels have been in Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces (nearest to Shanghai). As I’m not working at the moment, I have quite a bit of time to myself, hence the trips to Cambodia and Hong Kong last month. As of earlier this week I temporarily don’t have a passport as it’s with the Entry-Exit Bureau for processing. They gave me a paper receipt that is taking the place of my passport for the moment, but I can’t leave the country with it as there’s no mechanism for re-entering the country. I don’t carry my passport with me on a daily basis (it’s the law) but I do take it with me whenever I leave Shanghai, as you need it to take a train, fly (even domestically), stay at a hotel etc. Oh yeah and you need it when you go to the doctors or the bank or the post office (sometimes they will accept a picture – mine does, but I’ve heard of branches that are more annoying about it) and I’m sure lots of other situations that I’ve forgotten. Anyway, no passport = no international travel. But receipt + free time = domestic travel. And this time I decided to go to Yunnan.

Yunnan is in the southwest of China, bordering Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. It’s somewhere I’ve wanted to go for ages – for the culture, diversity (it’s actually very ethnically divese, as about 35% people are from ethnic minorities (Chinese ethnic minorities)), countryside, food, etc – but it’s a long way from Shanghai. This time I actually wanted to fly from Pudong Airport, which felt weird and unnatural as I may have mentioned that I hate that place. I had an engagement in Pudong District that morning so it made sense to go straight to the airport. It actually wasn’t horrendous, I didn’t need to take a bus across the tarmac and we left pretty much on time. The only problem was that at the gate I had my bag open and the ridiculously cute baby behind me reached into my bag and pulled out a pair of my pants! Clean ones at least. I managed to get them back off him before his parents looked up from their phones.

We landed in Kunming at sunset and I stood admiring the colour of the sky for a while. Then I took the metro into town and walked to my hotel. At the hotel I pulled the receipt out of the plastic wallet I was keeping it safe in, and encountered two problems: firstly, the hotel staff had absolutely no idea what to do with it and said they couldn’t check me in, and secondly, my train ticket for the morning was not in the wallet anymore. Eventually the hotel allowed me to check in, but I had to go to the train station to buy a new ticket (I would have bought it online and collected it in the morning, but was worried that my “passport” wouldn’t be recognised and I’d miss the train). Ticket in hand, I got a mobike and cycled back to the hotel, missing my turning and cycling across a lot of the city before I wondered why it seemed *so* much further on the way back.

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I slept really badly, no doubt partly due to the spicy potatoes I had for dinner (that and a hot chocolate, don’t say I don’t lead a balanced life) and cycled to the station. Kunming was bustling and the air felt clean and fresh. I definitely had a good impression of the city despite my own best attempts to sabotage the trip. Once on the train I fell asleep, waking up once to shush the woman next to me, and waking up finally as the man next to me was kicking the seat. Finally we arrived in Dali, and I got a bus to Dali old town. This took another hour, not helped by getting stuck behind a truck doing a 100-point turn, but I entertained myself by getting involved in a passive aggressive but silent argument with the woman behind me about opening the window.

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Once in Dali I set out on a wander. I had a guide to Dali’s cafes/bars/restaurants from a friend of a friend and I tried to work out where I was and where a cafe might be. As luck would have it I came to a stop right outside one of the recommendations. A fluffy cat sat contentedly on the bar and later a border collie wearing a collar of shame bounded in. One coffee later, I set out again and went to a small museum of Dai culture (Dai is the ethnic group from Dali), where a group of old people were very enthusiastically playing chinese instruments.

I then headed to my hotel and checked in (no hassle about my passport receipt here). The hotel was very nice and had a great bar area. The room also very excitingly had no glass between the bathroom and bedroom.IMG_20181206_160408

I set off up the road to the Three Pagodas. These are three pagodas and some temples on the edge of town, destroyed a few times (most recently in the Cultural Revolution) but restored nicely. Tourist destinations in China can sometimes be awful: overcrowded, loud, badly restored… but this was great! It helped that the site was very big, and that it was late-ish in the day, but speakers playing buddhist music throughout the site helped to keep a nice peaceful atmosphere too.

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Afterwards I walked back to town and went for a drink before trying to find the restaurant I wanted to go to for dinner. The restaurant had no menu so I asked them to cook me something with vegetables, and it was delicious!

I went back to the bar after dinner and the barmaid told me that the band were just taking a break, so I took a seat at the bar and read a little. The band played loads of indie covers and I smiled at the cute bassist. The barmaid bought me a drink and I ended up staying until 2am. The bassist bought me a plate of chips, so my earlier flirting was not in vain.

The next morning I woke up at my normal time of 7.30 but managed to get back to sleep, waking up a bit later to eat a banana and go back to sleep once more. I finally bounded out of bed at 11.40 and enjoyed the mother of all showers. Once packed up I walked into town and went to a vegetarian buffet at a temple, 5 RMB for all you can eat. I washed it down with a doughnut from a bakery as I’m all about the balance. I then looked for a cafe, and ended up at Craftsman Coffee, caught up on life admin and tried to persuade my friend that it would indeed snow in Shanghai at the weekend. Then I went totally wild shopping, haha.

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Late afternoon, I took the bus back to Dali station and bought myself a fruit platter for the train journey. Said fruit platter exploded in the bag and I had watermelon everywhere. At least the pomelo wasn’t hurt! In Kunming I cycled to where I was staying, a different hotel to before, and didn’t get lost! I thought about going out but settled for hanging out in the bar for a bit.

The next morning I woke up feeling refreshed and hustled out of the door to get a coffee. I found a shortcut down to the lake and watched an old lady feeding the seagulls. Why are there seagulls inland? And why are people encouraging them??

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I had some work to do in the morning, but once that was done I set out on a bike to Daguan Park in the southwest of the city. The park was very nice, with lakes, pavilions, a fairground, old people making music and a million seagulls. It was extremely windy and the clouds scuttled across the sky as if they were being chased.

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I went to the Bird and Flower Market but didn’t see any birds or flowers, nor did I see any pets for sale. I did at one point see a shop selling rabbits and chinchillas but didn’t buy any, even though I’d love a fluffy little friend.From the market I walked to Wenlin Street and had a coffee and crepe at the French Cafe, before queuing for dinner at Heavenly Manna – totally worth it as I ordered a plate of deep-fried cheese!

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The next morning I repeated my coffee-seagulls-work routine.

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I somehow managed to fit everything in my bag (I’d just brought a small rucksack for the trip, but had been buying things as if I had a whole suitcase) and thought about how nice it would be to be able to change my clothes when I got back to Shanghai (the downside of travelling light – and I had to try and think of something positive about going back to Shanghai as it was in fact snowing!). I walked down to the lake and meandered up to Yuantong Temple, Yunnan’s oldest buddhist temple.

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Finally I went back to the lake and to the cafe with the highest ranking on Dianping (kind of like yelp/google reviews) in the area. I ordered a coffee and it turned up as a ball of ice that you had to add milk to. I wasn’t sure what to do at first and didn’t want to fuck it up and be judged by the baristas, but as my friend pointed out, they served a ball of ice as coffee so they have absolutely no grounds in being judgemental.

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I still had a bit of time and had probably had too much coffee, so on the way to the metro I stopped at another cafe where I had a pretty awful sandwich. I used the loo before I left and managed to block it, and did a runner before anyone could get angry with me. As I walked to the metro I laughed to myself thinking about how I’d had such a nice holiday and that was how I repaid the city of Kunming! But the city had the last laugh as that sandwich came back to haunt me at the airport, making a rather hasty escape from my insides. Sorry (to anyone reading this as well as to the province of Yunnan).

TLDR: Yunnan is great, had a brilliant time, travelling without a passport is possible but stressful, drank a lot of great Yunnan coffee, did some hardcore shopping, nearly shit myself at the airport.

Cambodia travels

After more than 18 months living in China, I decided it was about time I visited a bit more of Asia. I’ve visited quite a few places in China, and in East Asia I’ve been to HK, Macao, Taiwan and Japan (my friend pointed out that some people may see this as not having been anywhere other than China…). But I’d never been to Southeast Asia, and after working like a dog throughout summer I finally had some time to myself.

I opened up tabs on my computer: maps of Asia, ctrip flights, wikitravel visa requirements. I faffed about for a while but in the end decided on Cambodia. It then took me ages to actually book the flights, because the thought of booking the wrong date stresses me out so much. I ended up booking my hotels in a rush and booked the wrong date! I felt really stupid.

I really wanted to fly from Hongqiao Airport but it wasn’t possible, so I decided to try to get into the holiday swing of things by taking the Maglev to Pudong Airport. Big mistake, the Maglev was terrifying and I spent the whole journey thinking the train would fall off the tracks, except it wouldn’t even be falling off because it’s not bloody touching the rails. I was relieved to get to Pudong Airport, which was an unfamiliar feeling as I absolutely hate that airport. I’ve made lists of airports I’d rather go to, and London Southend beats Pudong. This time the Starbucks was closed. WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS?! I thought the flight was only 2 hours, I’m not sure why, but anyway, after 4.5 hours I was quite sick of the amount of leg room I had on the budget airline I had optimistically booked.

My first task when I landed was to get a visa to enter the country. I got some $$$ (as in, literally $$$) out of the ATM in the immigration hall, then pushed my way past the hordes of tourists to get a visa application form, then pushed my way past yet more people to hand over my application and passport. I didn’t have a spare photo so I got charged an additional $3, but otherwise the visa cost $30 and took 5 minutes, during which time I trampled yet more tourists like the boor that I am. Living in China has taught me to use my size as weapon, coupled with a dead eyed stare when people complain about it (no one ever says anything, they just passive aggressively squeal – like that’s going to stop me).

Finally through immigration, I got a sim card for my phone and took a tuktuk into town. This got off to a great start as the driver pulled out across six lanes of traffic and started off towards town on the wrong side of the road. About 1km later we swung back across and continued on our way on the correct side, so presumably the experience was designed to make me value my life. At the hotel, he asked for a tip and I laughed at him (see above: living in China kills your soul).

I won’t go into the boring details of trying to sort out my incorrectly booked dates (screw you, ctrip) but the hotel was super nice. My room was huge and calm and pretty, though there was a gravel path to the bathroom with small boulders on it that I inevitably fell over every time I went to the bathroom. Design flaw or user error, I don’t know. I went for a curry at the restaurant next door and then flopped into bed.

The next morning I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before walking over to the Royal Palace. Walking in Phnom Penh is a nightmare, I think I saw two pavements all day. I walked in the road, dodging the motorbikes and cars and wondering what I was doing. It was hot, really hot. Eventually I got to the Royal Palace and it was closed, of course, because it was lunchtime. A couple were having their photos taken outside and a man chased me across a small park to hand me a worried-looking pigeon. I retreated to Sisowath Quay, an embankment along the river with some slightly shaded benches. An icecream later, I felt slightly more ready to take on the city (again) and after lunch, I went back to the Royal Palace. It was pretty cool, very royal, much gold, such shiny.

I set off again for the Genocide Museum, in a school-cum-torture prison-cum-museum. This was where the Khmer Rouge tortured people before sending them off to the Killing Fields, so it wasn’t at all uplifting, but it was extremely thought provoking. I had no idea that the Khmer Rouge had emptied Cambodia’s cities, or that 25% of the overall population died. It felt particularly pertinent given the UN trials of surviving Khmer Rouge officials (abandoned since my trip…).

The next day I was up bright and early on another tuktuk, heading for the airport. I was extremely worried that I didn’t have enough time, but once I’d checked in, I realised that the boarding gate was literally up a flight of stairs and past a shop, so I had enough time to browse the not-that-bad bookshop (until I saw the prices, LOLS!). I was probably the youngest person on the flight, everyone else being retired British people from Cumbria and retired Chinese people from Guangzhou. I sat next to a man who was fascinated that I was reading a book in Chinese and told me that he could read Chinese too. I smiled along with him but given that he was from China I wasn’t really that impressed at his advanced reading skills.

The flight to Siem Reap took a whole 30 minutes, and we landed at the domestic terminal, which is basically a room with a baggage carousel. There’s no bus to take you from the plane to the terminal (which is good as I hate those buses), you just walk across the tarmac. I felt like a hero in a film, or a 1950s movie star. I took a tuktuk into town, and told the driver I wanted to go to the Angkor History Museum. He insisted that we needed to buy a ticket from a ticketseller in town and we had a bit of a row about it. I still don’t know who was right but he’d told me about hordes of chinese tourists at the museum clogging up the ticket office (little did he know that that’s my bread-and-butter) and in the end said hordes did not exist. The museum was pretty cool, lots of statues and buddhas and hindu/buddhist mashup figurines.

Afterwards I went to check out my hotel, a 10 minute walk up the road. 20 minutes later I realised I was lost, but didn’t want all the tuktuk drivers to realise, so I carried on walking until there was something I could pretend to be heading for… then of course I had to walk back past the drivers, who could see straight through my sham. Finally, finally, I found my hotel, and the hotel staff all very sweetly commented on how sweaty I was. My room was spacious and clean, with another gravel installation in the bathroom (only the shower this time). I was meant to be having an online class but my student didn’t show up, so I called my friend and ranted at him about it for a while, before realising that actually, it was a great thing and I should enjoy my freeeeeeeedom. I went to check out the rooftop pool and swam about in the pool, laughing to myself. Later on I changed into slightly less sweaty clothes and went to a fairtrade khmer restaurant, even finding the odd bit of pavement to walk on on the way.

The next morning I spent some quality time washing my (aforementioned sweaty) clothes, before heading out to explore Siem Reap. It’s a small city, based almost entirely on tourism thanks to the proximity of Angkor Wat. I’d read about art gallery, but the whole street was closed for renovations, so I wandered along the river, sipping on iced Khmer coffee and trying to write my diary, before shopping and lunch. While having lunch, it started absolutely chucking down so I sat under a large shelter by the restaurant pool and read a book about Tony Blair (light holiday reading). Later I walked to the ticket office for Angkor Wat… Some facts:

  • The site is about 7km north of town and there is no ticket office on site
  • The ticket office is about 4km out of town, though of course not on the road to Angkor Wat
  • The ticket office is open from 5am-5.30pm
  • You must buy your ticket in person, as they take a photo to go on the ticket
  • You can only buy tickets for that day, unless you go after 5pm, when you can buy tickets for the next day
  • Sunrise is at 5.30am

This all seemed like an overly complicated ticket buying system, and presumably designed so that you have to hire a tuktuk for the day, from 5am. I decided against that and hired a bike instead.

I woke up at 4.30am, got dressed and went down to the reception desk to pick up my bike… only to find no one was there. Eventually a receptionist showed up, and I had to restrain myself from being too impatient about it all, particuarly when he couldn’t find the bike lock key. I really wanted to make sure I was at Angkor Wat in time for sunrise. It would be stupid to go to all this hassle and then miss it. Finally my bike was unlocked and I set off at full pelt up the road. At first there were streetlights, but then there weren’t, and I didn’t have lights, so I had to try to see ahead as far as possible whenever a tuktuk passed (luckily quite often). I was quite glad that I didn’t know about all the stray dogs and monkeys on this road at the time. I ditched the bike by a tree and walked over a pontoon bridge to the main Angkor Wat temple site.

By this point it was edging towards sunrise, and I jostled into position by a lake in front of the temple. And wow, just wow. What an amazing sunrise.

Afterwards I wandered about the temple, checking out the frescoes and looking at the carvings. I wasn’t aware before I got to Siem Reap that the famous Angkor Wat temple is only one of about 20 temples in the Angkor Archaelogical Site, but having a bike meant I could go and explore them at my own pace. The next temple had lots of faces – hundreds of them.

Shortly after this, I got chatting to another cyclist and we decided to look at the rest of the temples together. Some of them were very small and in need of restoration, others were much larger. A few involved very precarious stairs! It was really great to have company, and Christian was the best kind of company – smart, funny and a cyclist to boot!

By about midday it was getting very warm and I was also pretty tired from such an early start, so we cycled back to town (much easier in the daylight) and I went back to my hotel. After some lunch (well, breakfast really) I planned to read by the pool but I fell asleep. In the evening Christian and I went for dinner and beers near Pub Street, which is a street full of bars. I found Pub Street really weird, actually, so many tourists, and while it didn’t feel sketchy, it just highlighted the massive gulf between Cambodians and tourists.

The following morning I flew back to Phnom Penh. I decided against taking a tuktuk into town and followed the signs for the Airport Express. The signage was of a high speed train and I was intrigued, as (terrible experience with the Maglev notwithstanding) I do love a train. I got to a small waiting room and paid my $2 and sat down. Suddenly I heard a terrible noise, the blaring of horns and metallic scraping. I looked out the window, and a small diesel engine was honking its way past the waiting traffic and pulling into the station. I got onto the train – an engine and a single carriage – and after sitting for a while, we started off towards the city. The train track, a single track, ran through some dusty roads and delapidated, temporary-looking housing, at slightly faster than walking pace. It was quite an experience, and took longer than a tuktuk but was possibly more interesting.

I hadn’t really liked Phnom Penh earlier in the week but I was feeling much more relaxed and had spent a lot of time thinking and being by myself, so had a much better experience. I went to a temple on a hill, the Central Market, a river boat along the Mekong at sunset, and finally a huge firework display outside the Royal Palace to mark Cambodian independence day. After all that, I headed back to my hotel and hung out by the pool (where I met a Scouse girl who asked me whether it was true that Chinese men have small penises).

My trip ended with a final tuktuk ride to the airport, which I can’t remember at all, and an entirely uneventful flight, which I slept through, so I can’t write about either but I know happened because I ended up in Hong Kong…

Moscow morning

7am. Moscow. Midday at home and 4am at my other home, the home I’m going back to. Another hour until my connecting flight, a long hour stretching ahead staring at planes taxiing about in the darkness.

No internet because my Chinese SIM only works in China and my UK SIM hasn’t worked for 11 months (although I am hoping that it will work when I land) and you need to enter a phone number to access the wifi. Just me, the darkness outside and the overbright light inside. People keep talking to me in Russian, and I don’t even look that Russian anymore. I don’t think it’s a compliment.

I managed a few short sleeps on the ten hour flight between Shanghai and Moscow, mainly when I was watching films. Aeroflot’s film selection is pretty good but I went for films I’ve seen before – first Interstellar, which made me cry (and then sleep), and The Dark Knight – because I didn’t want to be challenged. I wish planes still showed Glee. I used to love spending 11 hours watching Glee.

During The Dark Knight, in the scene where Harvey Dent has his face half burnt off, a stewardess dropped a jug of coffee on my leg, so we had a surreal moment where I watched someone’s face on fire while my leg steamed itself, a woman dabbing at my leg with a wad of tissues, apologising in Russian. Welcome to Russia, have some third degree burns.

I hate aisle seats, and my hatred was magnified by the couple beside me each getting up four times in the flight. At one point they must have been trying to wake me up and I must have been fighting it because I realised I was saying “nooooo, no more, sit down, I hate you”, to which they paid absolutely no mind and continued their hourly climbs over my reluctant lap.

About halfway through the flight I woke up feeling like I might throw up everywhere – that’ll be chips and a hot chocolate for dinner I suppose – and went to the bathroom. I thought about a short story I’d been working on with one of my writing students, a story about a girl on a flight who suddenly felt awful, went to the bathroom and shed several kilograms, then looked in the mirror and realised she’d gone back in time and spent the rest of the flight in a silent scream. Please no please no. I couldn’t brave looking in the mirror just in case, the story and Interstellar and feeling sick were too much for me and I eventually dragged myself back to my seat, where I for some reason stripped out of most of my clothes and attempted to get as foetal as possible – which is not all that comfortable when you’re in the aisle seat of economy class, you’re half naked and you have a middle aged chinese couple keen to use your sweating body as steeplejump practice.

I packed two days early and spent some time worrying that I’d forgotten something, then realised it was probably remembering to order vegetarian food for the flight. In the end I had a Cornetto and a bread roll. I can’t wait to get to Heathrow and spend my emergency tenner at M&S.

Huangshan

Matt and I wanted to go and see the Terracotta Warriors – but the dates we chose ended up being the same weekend that all the university students go home, and trains from Shanghai to Xi’an were all booked up. I asked a colleague where he recommended we should go and he suggested Huangshan.

Huangshan (literally, “yellow mountain”) is actually a range of mountains, rather than a single mountain. It’s in Anhui province, about 700 km from Shanghai (so not that far, in China terms). We booked tickets for the overnight train from Shanghai railway station, leaving at 8pm and arriving at 7am the next day.

I’d printed out a map of Huangshan and planned for us to walk up the Eastern Steps (about 750m ascent over 7.5km) and then walk down the Western Steps (1000m and 12.5km) the following day. But I didn’t think about this when buying tickets for the bus at Tangkou, and we were dropped at the start of the Western Steps. Oops.The train terminated at Tunxi, now rebranded as Huangshan City. Our cabinmates had disembarked (noisily) at 2am and we fussed about getting ready before stepping out onto the long and old fashioned platform. Outside the station we got some snacks before boarding a minibus to Tangkou, the town at the entrance to the Huangshan scenic area. This took about an hour. Once at Tangkou, we took another bus, to the very foot of the mountains. I think you can walk all the way from Tangkou but it would be a long old way. As we were buying tickets, we got chatting to a Canadian guy who’d spent the last few days up the mountain. He said it was wet and stormy up there but it seemed impossible from where we were.We arrived at Shanghai station with hours to spare (I worry about missing trains) and bought snacks and hung out, before boarding our train. What seemed like a full on argument was taking place in our cabin, though on closer inspection, this was just normal volume Shanghai negotiations about swapping bunks around. We refused to swap as we wanted to be in the same cabin and eventually someone else relented and the main instigator of the shouting, Grandpa, climbed onto his bunk and immediately started snoring. I chatted with the six year-old granddaughter, who kept checking with me that Matt couldn’t speak Chinese, was amazed that I could read English and ate the sauce directly from her packet of instant noodles.

Most of the other tourists took the cable car up to the top but we set off walking.

And walking.

After about 1.5 hours I started feeling a little bit wobbly, as we hadn’t eaten much, and I inhaled a Snickers bar. Matt’s legs were a little sore from the personal training session he’d done at the gym the day before. The views back down were becoming more and more incredible.

It started to rain, and we saw some terrifying monkeys.

Towards the top of the Western Steps it started raining heavily, floods of water that nearly washed my contact lenses out. We made it to a hotel near the top of the cable car, where a lot of people were sheltering. We found a corner of the restaurant where we ignored the stares from the waiting staff and unpacked/repacked our bags, and put them back on underneath our fetching yellow plastic ponchos.

It was still quite a way from here to our hotel, and we were dispirited to see we had another 6km to go. The rain was bad (it got a little lighter), the views were nonexistent thanks to the fog and the crowds of people were both annoying and a little worrying. A lot of people were dressed for much more clement weather, and most people didn’t seem to be aware/care that slipping over could mean falling down the mountain, and probably taking a few people with you. The worst bit was walking up a waterfall, nose to tail with people wearing sandals.

Matt said “this is the worst place we’ve ever been to, there’s no way that either of us could possibly say that we’re enjoying this, because it’s awful.”

When we finally made it to our hotel, we were absolutely soaked. The hotel was a dispiriting building, commissioned by none other than Deng Xiaoping. We checked in and went to see our rooms (separate dorm rooms, as a double room was 1000 RMB) only to find that there were no towels. Back we went to reception and they told me that they didn’t have any towels in the hotel, but I was annoying enough that eventually I got us a towel each.

The rest of the evening was spent pointedly sitting in the cafe area with one purchased snack and lots of snacks bought elsewhere, then going to the restaurant and drinking three pots of tea to make up for the overpriced (and not very good) food. By 9pm we were in bed. My roommates kept staring at me and Matt told a young boy to STFU in the night.

At 4.15am we woke up, got dressed and met up at the hotel reception. The whole point of coming to Huangshan was to see the sunrise, and I’d asked the receptionist where we should go (she’d told me there was only a 20% chance of seeing anything, due to the weather) and done a little online research. We went out into the dark morning. It wasn’t raining. We headed for Lion’s Peak, using my phone as a torch. Very soon we came to a lookout point.

We tried a few lookouts.

Then we settled in for the sunrise.

We were giddy with excitement. Below us was the sea of clouds, it was absolutely phenomenal.

Behind us a cloud came in, rolling over towards the sunrise.

Soon enough, the sunrise was gone.

This was the exact same time that loads of other people showed up, tourists who’d come all the way to Huangshan, and woken up early but not early enough. Suckers. We wandered about a bit more before deciding to pack up and head down the mountain before all the crowds came out.

Our hotel was very near the top of the Eastern Steps so we had a short walk to the steps before heading down, down, down. It started raining, of course, but it was nice to walk with hardly anyone around. It was amazing to look up at one point and see the cable car stretching up into the sky and realise that we’d come all the way down from there.

After about an hour, we started coming across porters carrying up food, laundry, construction materials. I wanted to take a photo but it felt wrong, these men carrying more than my bodyweight on their shoulders, all the way up a mountain. It put into perspective our whinging about the weather.

I’m quite nervous about going down steps, so we didn’t make hugely fast progress, but less than two hours later we were down at the bottom! Lots of tourists were arriving, some of whom didn’t look like they’d make it up in one piece.

We boarded a bus back to Tangkou and Matt promptly fell asleep. Back in Tangkou, things didn’t look right. We had a hotel booked but the town didn’t look anything like the pictures. I slowly realised that where we were staying was the other side of town, not near the bus station – which meant that the bakery I’d been using as encouragement for Matt was also on the other side of town. Matt looked like he might cry so I suggested we go to KFC for breakfast: coffee, chips and custard tarts.

Refreshed, we walked to the main town and went to the bakery. We were able to check into our hotel really early, and after showers (and towels!) we had a big nap. Later we wandered about the town. There was nothing much to see: a small creek with shops and restaurants on either side, a dusty carpark with a bank. We had dinner at a local restaurant (Matt had a Huangshan beer) and we went back to the bakery. It was all incredibly relaxing!

The next morning we continued relaxing, before getting the bus to Tunxi. It was very hot and we set off for Tunxi’s only sight (Old Street) in the baking heat, quickly feeling sticky and sweaty. Luckily there was an underground mall on the way, so we ducked in there and gawped at the endless fake New Balance stores.

Old Street itself was quite sweet, touristy but nice to wander along. We stopped at a cafe, which was perfect timing as almost immediately it started raining. Matt did some work and I listened to cheesy music and did some instagramming.

I decided I ought to check the train time, and rummaged in my bag for the tickets. Immediately I noticed the date on the ticket. They were for yesterday. The blood drained from my face and I showed Matt the tickets. I checked online for the train on the correct date and all the sleepers were sold out, we’d have to sit the whole way back… Then I thought to check the buses (it’s 12 hours by train but only 5 or 6 by bus) and there was one at 16:50. It was 15:53! We paid and legged it to the main road, jumped in a taxi, got to the bus station and a man said he’d flag the 16:20 bus down for us. I was a little sceptical but sure enough, it all came off as planned and we had a long bus journey back to Shanghai.

Transport in China is really cheap. If this had been in the UK, we’d have had to fork out serious money for another train or bus ticket. However 700km back to Shanghai cost us 135 RMB each, and we got dropped off at a slightly better location (to get back to ours) than the train would have done. I still can’t believe that at 15:50 we didn’t know we had a problem, and 45 minutes later we were on a bus back to Shanghai. I really didn’t expect it to work out!

All in all, lessons learnt: check tickets before and don’t go up mountains when it’s absolutely pissing down. But we did have a good time, saw an amazing sunrise and we felt really relaxed at the end of the trip.

Return of the Matt

Matt was away for six weeks but he finally came back. I decided to surprise him by going to the airport to wait for him. Pudong airport is about 35km from central Shanghai, so probably 45km from our house, and it takes 2 hours on the metro. As I set my alarm for 5am, I did contemplate not going… but dragged my sorry arse out of bed and onto the metro.

I arrived at Pudong at 7.30am, and headed to the arrivals hall. Matt’s flight was due to land at 7.50, but I was suddenly really unsure about what that meant – the wheels touching down? the doors opening at the gate? the passengers coming out at arrivals? I wriggled my way into a prime position at the front of arrivals and waited.

It became clear that passengers were coming out of arrivals up to an hour after the posted arrival time (I was peering at the luggage tags on people’s bags, to try to match them up to earlier flights). Finally the British Airways cabin crew came out, unmistakably British (sadly more Lad Bible than top hat and tails).

Now the wait was really on. There was a TV screen above me showing the doorway just after the final security check, and about 15 seconds later, the images on the screen turned into real life people walking out in front of me. I looked between the two, frantically. What would Matt be wearing? What if he came out in a little crowd and I missed him? Should I keep an eye out for his bag, which should be easy to spot as it’s the one I’ve taken around the world?

In the end, it was easy. A blond head came walking down the corridor, first just the top of his head visible and then the checked shirt and orange rucksack. Matt.

I waved and he looked over, nodded and came over for a hug. He told me he’d wondered if I would come but knew it was early so thought it would be too much to expect. He didn’t want to look around too eagerly in case I wasn’t there.

We retraced my footsteps all the way back home and then Matt had a 5 hour nap – a terrible idea as then he was awake all the next night. What a treat to have him home.

Hangzhou minibreak

A couple of weeks ago I finally got my passport back, complete with residence permit. It’s a fairly long process but luckily my school has a visa officer who took care of most of it for me. Technically, you’re meant to have your passport on you at all times, but generally just showing a picture of it will do – although travelling is an exception to this, as you usually need your passport to buy train tickets and definitely need it to stay in a hotel.

To celebrate getting our passports back, and because we felt it was time to get out of Shanghai, my friend Mahalia and I decided to go to Hangzhou for the weekend.

We met at Hongqiao Railway Station about 40 minutes before our train. Hongqiao station is on the western edge of Shanghai and is where most of the high speed trains go to these days. It’s inconvenient for most people, but Matt and I live a few stops away so it’s alright for us! It’s a huge, gleaming place, more like an airport than a train station. Mahalia and I managed to find each other, then went through security and found the departure gate.

We’d been out at a party the night before so we had plenty to catch up on while we waited for our train and the entire journey to Hangzhou. It’s less than an hour, and the speedometer in the carriage said we were going at 300 km/h. It didn’t feel that fast.

At Hangzhou we got on the metro. It was insanely busy, hordes of people and staff with megaphones trying to move people around. The train itself was even worse, we were jammed in with some people with questionable hygiene and everyone was staring at us and saying things like “oh look at the foreigners, they’re on the train, where are they from, maybe they are american” and other inane things like that.

A lot of people got off before us and by the time we got to our stop it was less bone-crushingly crowded. I had a print out from the hostel so followed the slightly vague directions, supplemented with baidu maps.

The hostel was cosy and atmospheric, and our room was spacious and clean. It was on a pedestrian street, backing on to a hill, so was very peaceful.

We wandered out to see Hangzhou. Very close to our hostel was a pedestrian street with stalls and shops selling snacks and tourist gifts. One of the stalls was selling something that I can only describe as smelling like death. We were quite hungry but none of the stalls appealed (crab on a stick, anyone?). By the entrance to the lake front was a restaurant and we went in, although I was a little wary that they’d have nothing veggie. The waitress was quite sweet and kept trying to order for me, but in the end I had broccoli/other veg in garlic with rice, and Mahalia had duck and chips. It was much better than it sounds! Neither of us tried the Hangzhou specialities of fatty pork in syrup or fish in vinegar soup.

Nicely full, we went to see the lake. West Lake is one of the most famous sights in China, and it was beautiful. It was quite a grey day so not as pretty as it could be on a clear day, but it was lovely nonetheless.

We asked how much a boat trip would be and a family suggested we join them – so we did! This was super relaxing. The family (from Shanghai) were friendly but not overbearing and floating around on the lake was very soothing. Other than when we came a little too close to other, much bigger boats, of course…

After an icecream, we continued meandering around the lake.

It started to rain, just a little at first but gradually a little heavier. This meant there were fewer people around, but it also meant we cut our wanderings short and headed back to the hostel.

We had a little nap and then a relaxed dinner, chatting away for hours. After all that walking and talking we were both quite tired and were asleep by 22:30!

The next morning I went for a run. I’d spent some time looking at the map trying to work out a good route but I didn’t want to take my phone or a map with me so in the end I settled for running to the lake, along the water’s edge and then retracing my steps. It was breezy and a little cold when I set out but by the time I got back to the hostel I was very warm!

We had breakfast in the courtyard of the hostel. Mahalia had eggs and oatmeal, and tried to order a hazelnut mocha but was told it wouldn’t be very nice. I had waffles and it came with two forks.

After breakfast we went for a walk up the “mountain” to the rear of our hostel. There were a few interesting buildings, pagodas and the such like, as well as the Hangzhou exhibit from the 2010 Expo. The view from the top of the pagoda was fantastic.

We wound our way back down the hill and mooched about the shops. I bought sweets and Mahalia bought pearls. 

We had a late lunch (made even later by the huge delay in bringing our food out!) and I started my customary worrying about getting the train. As a result we made it to the train station with more than an hour to spare, and had to kill the time by having a matcha frappe latte. We were asked for our passports at security in Hangzhou, which hadn’t happened in Shanghai. The security guards laughed at my picture – thanks guys, yes I look like a murderer.

Hangzhou station is just as impressive as Hongqiao, and I kept referring to both as the airport. The most stressful part of the whole weekend was back at Hongqiao as there were so many people trying to get off the platform and then out of the station and into the metro. Chinese queues are… well, let’s just say they’re not like British queues. Lots of pushing. I try not to think about what would happen if there was an emergency (I guess I’d use my height as an advantage and step over people….).

I got home and I felt so relaxed! Even though it was only one night away, and only an hour away, and to another city, not the countryside, it felt like I’d had a good break away from it all. Very content! Matt gets back next week so I’m going to plan an adventure for us – maybe somewhere nearby or maybe a little further afield.

 

 

Birthday

Yesterday was my birthday. I had a good but slightly odd day! 

I went for a run first thing. We’re really lucky that our local park is about 400 metres away (yes, I wear a GPS watch…) so I go running there. It was really hot and I had some top banter with an elderly couple who told me it was way too hot to be running and suggested a mug a child for their scooter instead.

After showering and drinking a lot of water, I headed to Pudong, the east side of the river. I’ve been to Pudong three times before: the airport, the police headquarters and to have my picture taken by a lady who (it turned out) just took pictures of the sky. Let’s just say I wasn’t massively enamoured with Pudong and I had even jokingly said I’d never cross the river again. 

But I broke that promise with the lure of a free trip up a skyscraper. The Shanghai World Financial Center building is the 2nd tallest building in Shanghai so probably top 10 in China. I think it’s the highest observation deck in China, maybe the world, who knows. The observation deck is on the 100th floor and it normally costs about £20 to visit – but I’d read somewhere a while ago that it’s free on your birthday, so off I went!

It was pretty cool, the lift to the 100th floor took 60 seconds – eek! The views weren’t great as it was a bit of a murky day, but I could still look down to the city centre and see teeny tiny boats (actually container ships!) on the river. I wouldn’t pay £20 for it but for free it’s fun. Plus, my ticket said it was a free birthday ticket so every time my ticket was checked, the attendant wished me happy birthday! Hooray!

After lunch I went to work, where all my colleagues had forgotten about my birthday. I bought some chocolates and put them in the staff room and sent a group message saying help yourselves, then the birthday wishes came flooding in. It felt a bit awkward, but less awkward than people realising later and getting a belated cake… I got one of my classes to sing happy birthday to me although they told me they didn’t believe it was my birthday. Aged 4 and already so sceptical. After work the head of the school had gone out to get a cake for me (she must have felt bad) and we had cake and more singing. 

And then I headed off to my running club social night, where we ate salad and chatted about triathlons and I got a pair of new running socks.

I got myself a present (because it felt weird to have no presents and no cards): a book, some hair clips and some Moomin soap.

I’ve had birthdays away from home before (I was in France for my 11th birthday, Germany for my 14th and Hong Kong for my 26th) but this felt a bit different. Not only was I away from everyone I know from back home, but I don’t know when I’ll next see most of them. And I wasn’t with my good friends here in China. I did feel a bit lonely.

That said, I got some lovely messages and I need to spend some time replying to everyone – I was really touched that so many people got in touch.

Sheshan – Shanghai’s mountain

Last Tuesday it was Qingming, the tomb sweeping festival. I asked my colleagues what I should do with the day but no one had any great ideas – public holidays are insanely busy in China, so a lot of ideas were centred around avoiding too many crowds.

After nearly a month in the city, I wanted to get out of town for the day. As I don’t have my passport back yet, I can’t take the train anywhere – so had a look on the (impressively extensive) metro map to see where I should go.

I settled on Sheshan, Shanghai’s only mountain and a national park – conveniently on line 9. I cycled from our flat to the nearest line 9 station (to avoid changing lines twice) and boarded the first train. It was pretty busy and I stood by the doors. This turned out to be quite fun as about half the journey was above ground and I could see out and into houses and over fields.

About half an hour later, we arrived in Sheshan. From the station I could see the east and west hills, and a rollercoaster between me and the hills. I rented a bike and set out towards the hills.

At first the route seemed very simple – pedal directly towards the hills – but after I passed the sculpture park the road turned around the base of the hills and I had to stop to check I was going the right way. Unlike a lot of people using the cycle lane, I pulled over whenever I needed to stop. It’s amazing how many people don’t!

About 25 minutes later, I arrived at Sheshan and picked up a ticket (free) from the entrance booth. I also picked up a bottle water and an overpriced ice cream, getting in the holiday vibe.

I followed the crowds up a flight of steps and soon came to a little clearing, where there was a 10 storey pagoda. Lots of people were taking photos and I got involved in that. 

From there, I followed another flight of steps to the observatory. I didn’t go in, but admired the view from the lookout point instead before going up some more steps and into the cathedral.

Inside the cathedral a lady was singing ‘Amazing Grace’s in Chinese, which was quite lovely.

I would my way down the hill and crossed the main road to the other hill, which is famous for its bamboo plants. It’s amazing how a hill that’s visible for several miles can be created in a few strides. I guess it shows how flat it is around here!

There was a little pond with some fish, and a cart with candles that you could pray at. I think my favourite thing about all religions is the music and Buddhist chants are up there with my favourites, so I lingered here a while.

By this point it was about 5pm and I had to start thinking about getting back, as I had running club in the evening. I went to find a bike to ride back to the station but couldn’t see any. I opened the app and it told me where two were, but as I started walking towards them, two guys beat me to it. I tried another one but it was broken. I went to the bus stop but all the buses were insanely busy. I ended up walking a little way to find a bike that had been parked at the back of a carpark, next to a filthy creek. 

The bike was standing next to some oil seed rape, which grows in and around the village I grew up in, and flowers in time for my birthday. It felt surreal to see it here but it made me very happy.

I pedalled back to the metro station and boarded a train towards the city, hungry but happy to have seen a slither of countryside.

SIPG vs Urawa Red – my first Chinese football match

Matt arrived in Shanghai on Tuesday, so it seemed fitting that we go to the football on his first full day. This week the Asian Champions League was on, with one of the big Shanghai clubs – SIPG – left in the tournament, and playing at home.

SIPG play at the Shanghai Stadium, and I read that you could just go to the Stadium metro stop and follow the crowds. I was a little apprehensive about it but it was true – we got to the station at about 7.20 and there were lots of people streaming towards the brightly lit stadium. There were a lot of touts milling about but their tickets seemed very expensive so we followed the crowds, looking out for a ticket office.

Once in the grounds, Matt spotted a stall selling shirts, the red shirt of SIPG. He asked me to ask how much they were: 35 RMB. That’s about £4. Matt was incredulous, to the point that I thought they might hike the price up. He bought an XL shirt and we went in search of the ticket office.

 

We couldn’t find the ticket office but we did find more touts, and I haggled with them until we found tickets for the price we wanted. “You can speak Chinese!” one tout said, after I’d been bargaining in Chinese for a few minutes. Yes, very observant.Tickets in hand, we bounded up the steps to the stadium. We were in block 19, on the other side of the stadium, so we started running as the match had already kicked off and we could hear lots of cheers from within. We didn’t want to miss any of the action!

By the time we got to our seats we were very warm, but were pleased to see we hadn’t missed anything. We found our seats, watched by everyone in the stand, and settled in. Within a minute – GOOOOAAAAL! I have no idea who scored but I jumped up and cheered with everyone else.

The stadium was absolutely enormous, with an athletics track encircling the pitch. The pitch also looked like it might have been a sheet of AstroTurf rolled out.

SIPG were clearly dominating the game, even to my non-expert eye. In fact, the Urawa Red players seemed to be falling over a lot.

The Urawa fans were in one little corner of the stadium, and were jumping up and down en masse. However I couldn’t hear their cheers as the SIPG fans were so loud. Lots of renditions of ‘we will rock you’. Lots of flags, drums and whooping (okay, the whooping was me).

By the 80th minute we were a little cold, and the score was 3-1, so we decided to sneak out a little early and beat the rush back to the metro. We found out later that we missed another goal! 

Back at the metro we picked up a pastel de nata (a bit eggy, but deliciously warm) and Matt fell asleep on the ride home.

I’ve now seen 3 football matches in my life: in Reykjavík, Milton Keynes and now Shanghai. I’m pretty happy with that!

Moving day

I don’t enjoy moving house, but I’m currently in the middle of my 15th move since I left home. A few years ago I worked out how much money I’d spent on rent in my life, and it was horrifying. I imagine the amount I’ve spent on moving house is horrendous too, so I’m not going to work it out. Suffice to say, generation rent is not all that much fun.

This move felt more complicated as we had to pack things to take to China, things needed in the UK for work over the next few months and things to put in storage – then of everything else, what to recycle, what to donate to the nearby charity shops and what to throw away.

When we went to bed last night I didn’t think we were going to be ready for the van arriving at 8am, but we did it!

We hired a man with a van as I didn’t fancy doing the driving, and he turned up bang on time and managed to fit our worldy possessions (or what we were planning to store at my parents’ house) in about 1/8 of the van.

As I write, we’re hurtling up the motorway in the rain. Matt is asleep next to me and I’m fighting my fear of motorways in wet weather (I’m screaming silently inside). I’m looking forward to a cup of tea when we arrive.