A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: amysblog

Camping on the Great Wall

Wohushan Mountain, Gubeikou

sunny 27 °C

I've had another amazing weekend. My Mandarin school organised an overnight camping trip to a remote and non-restored section of the Great Wall. I figured that the trip would be a pretty unique experience but, in fact, it surpassed my expectations by [approx. 13,170] miles! We set off by bus around midday on Saturday and it took about 2 hours to get to the small village of Gubeikou, where we were abandoned by our bus driver on a concrete platform next to a railway line.

And then the adventure began.

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We spent around two hours climbing a very narrow and fairly treacherous path. Although it wasn't too physically taxing, most of the Wall in this area was basically in ruins, which meant that the rubble could be quite unstable and it was easy to lose footing, especially on the steeper sections. To add to the challenge, we were all carrying our camping supplies and food for the evening, as well as plenty of water, so our backpacks were heavy which made us unbalanced.

The weighty bags posed the most difficulty on the steepest parts of the Wall. When I say steep, I mean steep. At one point I was literally rock climbing; people were passing bags up to each other because it was too dangerous for us to climb with the bags on - the Wall was practically vertical. There were times when I was genuinely scared but overall, the climb up was an incredible experience and a great way to get to know the others who were on the trip with us.

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Along the Wall there are several watchtowers, which are all in varying states of disrepair. Each watchtower that we got to had a different and more spectacular view of our mountainous surroundings and we passed some other small hiking groups that had started to settle inside them for the night. As the sun started setting, we decided to stop at a watchtower that had a particularly difficult approach. It felt like such an achievement to have reached our camp! There are many little sections inside the watchtowers, which are two-storey structures, and Will and I managed to find a sheltered alcove, away from some of the more exposed spaces.

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After sunset, the wind was fairly strong and whistling through the crumbling structure, so a large group of us huddled in one of the dusty alcoves and set out sleeping mats to sit on. We sat around eating barbecued food and noodles, drinking and chatting by torchlight. It was so surreal and gradually the wind died down, meaning that the watchtower stayed surprisingly warm throughout the night. I was amazed at what a good sleep I had!

This morning, we got up for sunrise at about 5.50am. At first, it seemed as though it was too cloudy for us to really see anything, but at about 6.15am the sun emerged as a glowing, orange orb above the ruins of the Wall, which we could see stretching along the mountain tops for miles and miles. After packing away we started the hike back down. I was expecting the way down to be easier but we took a different route, which was essentially an overgrown path consisting mainly of loose rocks and boulders. Despite this, we descended surprisingly quickly (without any major casualties!).

At the bottom of the mountain, we carried on walking towards the nearby village where a small guesthouse had produced an incredible meal for us all, consisting of fish, pork, tofu noodles, vegetables and century eggs - an interesting Chinese delicacy). It was the perfect way to finish our rural escapades before heading back to Beijing's bustling streets.

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Thanks to the other happy hikers for sharing some of their photos

Posted by amysblog 04:43 Archived in China Tagged mountains hiking china beijing camping great_wall Comments (0)

Golden Week

Shanghai, Jaiding, Suzhou, Nanxiang

semi-overcast 25 °C

This week was Golden Week, a week in which two Chinese national holidays are celebrated and so I am coming to the end of a week off school. I spent the holiday in Jiading, a northern region of Shanghai where Will lives and works. The week got off to a rather “western” start, during which we visited Decathlon and IKEA to get some flat pack furnishings and a mattress for Will’s flat. (We may or may not have indulged in Swedish meatballs, curried sausage and lamb chops for dinner while we were there…) Our western bubble was popped, however, by the uncomfortable and bumpy ride home in the back of a questionable taxi-van, which smelled strongly of petrol fumes and trundled along Shanghai’s highways at an alarmingly slow rate. Only in China.

The next day we went back to central Shanghai and walked around the area near People’s Park which is very modern with a lot of interesting architecture and we visited the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition which tells the story of Shanghai’s development, with photos and a model of the city which was all lit up. In the evening, we found a bar doing half price mojitos for happy hour and then found ourselves in a heaving shopping street, as many Chinese people also travel during this time. We were looking around a strange shop that sold various food delicacies, including vacuum packed pig heads, when we spotted an exit into a back street that was much quieter and seemed to be full of restaurants. We took the plunge and picked Li Hong’s Restaurant, based on the food we could see people eating inside. Despite some dodgy translations on the menu (Old Vinegar Jellyfish Head, Sixi baked Cardiff, Characteristics of Pork, Halogen Chicken Meat… the list goes on) we ended up with a huge and delicious meal that came to around £13 AND provided lunch for three the next day.

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Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition

Later in the week we did a little bit more exploring and first stop was Jiading Town. Will lives in Jiading and so introduced me to the town’s charming old quarter, which has a pagoda tower, a lively snack street and a pretty canal running through it. We ate a weird but enjoyable ‘spiced chicken drumstick rice roll’ as we took a stroll down the street and then headed towards the newer part of the town which has a busy high street and large shopping mall. We had an amazing dinner at a teppanyaki restaurant where we watched our food being freshly made.

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Jiading Pagoda

We also spent an action packed eight hours in Suzhou, a city which is often described as ‘The Venice of the East’ and is also famous for its gardens. Starting at Tiger Hilll, a historic monument site, whose base is filled with street vendors, food stalls and canals, we then taxi-ed across the city to The Humble Administrator’s Garden, which really was not humble in any way shape or form, but rather one of the most extravagant gardens imaginable… however, it was a beautiful place to walk around. Finally we visited the old pedestrianised shopping and snack streets which run alongside one of Suzhou’s many canals. By this time it was dark and so the streets, bridges and canals were lit up which made the place seem really magical. As we headed back towards the train station, we crossed a road and the atmosphere changed in an instant. Suddenly, the small buildings disappeared and modern multi-storey buildings replaced them; bright UV shop signs filled the space above the street and we could see brands such as Tiffany & Co. on street corners - what a contrast!

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Night time in Suzhou

Finally, we spent an afternoon in Nanxiang, a small ancient town in Jiading Distric, which is supposedly the birthplace of China’s xiaolongbao: steamed, soup-filled dumplings which are very tasty and often very messy. Nanxiang resembled a smaller Suzhou and absolutely packed, however we found Tan Gardens in a peaceful side street which were unexpectedly beautiful. They were much humbler than the Humble Administrator’s (!), but they also had a very different feel, with many restored buildings you could look around. We obviously had to try some xiaolongbao, and decided the best place to do so was the restaurant attached to the xiaolongbao museum. We also tried various other street delicacies as and when we spotted them along the narrow streets, before returning to Jiading Town for dinner and drinks with some of the other teachers in the area.

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Tan Gardens, Nanxiang

Despite the week being fairly slow paced, we did manage to experience a fair amount of Shanghai’s surrounding areas, which I really enjoyed. The break also gave us a chance to think ahead to what we want to do during the long Spring Festival holiday at the beginning of next year, which is exciting. I am kind of looking forward to getting back to school but I’m also apprehensive because between now and Spring Festival there is no more time off… so let’s see what 15 weeks of solid teaching does to me!

Posted by amysblog 20:22 Archived in China Tagged history travel china shanghai suzhou tefl jiading tiger_hill Comments (0)

Beijing Blog

Part 1

10 °C

Over the last few weeks I have begun to live a ‘normal’ life here in the capital. Whilst the temperature has dropped dramatically, I've been braving the cold and to discover some of Beijing's different neighbourhoods. The first thing I’ve realised is that Beijing is HUGE. I’m not sure that there will ever be a point when I can say that I really know this city, but I do feel like I'm getting to know parts of it.

Recent weeks have been especially interesting because of the Communist Party meeting that took place here. Beijing was in near lockdown for just over a week, with increased security everywhere, bars closing early and shops around subway stations shutting to stop crowding…

Despite this, I’ve still managed to have quite a lot of FUN. My most exciting discovery has been that of The Hutongs. The Hutongs are a network of charming pedestrianised streets not far from Tian’anmen Square. Originally dwellings of poorer Beijingers, some of them have now been converted into snack streets and shopping streets where there are many independent coffee shops, bars and craft shops. There’s an amazing atmosphere - day and night - and it’s a great place to wander around.

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Entrance to Wudaoying Hutong

Not far from The Hutongs, stand Beijing’s Bell and Drum towers. I spent a [hungover] afternoon climbing the extremely narrow, extremely steep staircases of these two buildings, whose purpose was city-wide timekeeping before the invention of clocks. There was a lot of information about the old Chinese calendar which was interesting to read, but the highlight was the view of the city from the top. Although it was a bit smoggy, it was the first time I was really able to gain any kind of insight into Beijing as a whole and work out where things were in relation to each other.

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Beijing Bell Tower

I’ve been getting to grips with Chinese culture too. I’ve been taking Mandarin lessons twice a week, and I’m starting to use it - albeit irregularly - in my daily life. I’ve still got a long way to go, especially when it comes to characters, of which I know around twenty out of several thousand... Still, twenty is better than none, right? Put it this way, my students were amazed when I wrote the characters ‘big’, ‘small’, ‘up’, and ‘down’ on the board! I also partook in a two hour long Chinese paper cutting class. My initial reaction was probably the same as yours; how can you cut paper for two hours? The answer is that Chinese paper cutting is addictive, challenging and surprisingly rewarding.

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Some of my creations

Finally, normal life has taken a turn for the better. I’ve managed to find a really nice group of people who are doing the same thing as me, teaching English in schools and universities, which means I have been much busier during the week and have enjoyed having company to sample some of the food that Beijing has to offer outside of my school canteen, including the local curry house(!), Korean BBQ and various noodle joints. I’ve also started using the sharing bikes, which has changed my life. I’m not exaggerating. Being able to cycle has halved my morning commute and meant that I can see the city as I move around it, rather than being underground on the subway the whole time.

Whilst there are still challenges everyday, like restaurants without English menus, not being able to find a bike when you’re in a rush and then there being several at your destination, and general communication, Beijing has so much to offer, and I still have so much more to see.

Posted by amysblog 07:09 Archived in China Tagged travel city china beijing asia mandarin hutongs tefl Comments (0)

A Weekend in Hangzhou

sunny 20 °C

My most recent escape from Beijing was to Hangzhou, a city about an hour south of Shanghai, and the southern climate was a welcome break from Beijing's fast-descending temperatures. The journey was a tad on the long side; it took around 6 hours by train to get there but it was so worth it.

Will and I met at the main station before catching the Metro into the centre. From there it was a short walk to the hostel. Initially the city seemed quiet, understandably as it was nearing 11pm. However, as we turned the corner onto the road our hostel was located on, everything changed. Hefang Street was buzzing. There were crowds of people and hundreds of street vendors selling everything from post cards to Chinese flutes. There were flags bunting draped across the old street. We were so distracted by everything that we forgot we were looking for the hostel and walked right past it. We met Anna and Tessa at the hostel and then headed back out in search for something to eat and drink before bed. There were miniature food courts at regular intervals, so we took the plunge and ordered an aubergine stuffed with noodles and vegetables which was really tasty.

Saturday was reserved for Hangzhou's main attraction, The West Lake (Xi Hu). The lake is huge and luckily for us, it was a beautiful day to see as much of it as we could. After a quick breakfast, the four of us headed towards the lake, unsure of exactly where was the best place to start. We struck gold by finding some beautiful gardens which lead us straight to the lake's shore and gave us the opportunity to take in just how big it was. There are several famous sights to see around the lake, including temples, islands in the middle of it and a narrow strip of bridges that crosses part of it. We took a boat over to "The Moon Reflecting in Three Pools" island, which interestingly has four pools... It was a really beautiful space, full of trees and flowers and with bridges between the pools. We walked all around it and from one side you could see the skyscrapers of Hangzhou's modern district which was a strange contrast to the serenity and nature of the island.

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We spent the whole day exploring different parts of the lake and when we got tired, we stopped in a particularly warm spot for a couple of drinks and watched the sun go down. In the evening, we ate at a restaurant near the lake and then went back to the lake bank to see what it looked like in the dark. It was, of course, beautiful. There was an illuminated building near us that reflected in the still water and in the distance, on the other banks, there were thousands of tiny twinkling lights. To finish off the evening we went to a jazz club for a few drinks.

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Sunday morning, we walked up to Wushan Scenic Spot which is a hill at one side of the lake. At the top there are several temples and a huge pagoda which we climbed up. Unfortunately, it was smoggier so the views weren't as clear as the previous day but we could see roofs of other buildings poking out of the tree tops. I felt miles away from my urban life in Beijing, it was so green. For what remained of the afternoon, we took the time to explore a bit of the old part of the town by daylight. The architecture around the streets was not what I expected at all! Once we moved off Hefang Street, suddenly it all seemed a bit less Chinese, and while it wasn't quite European, there was definitely more European influence than I have seen here.

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Walking back to the train station I realised how much I had enjoyed visiting Hangzhou. The city has such a huge variety of influences and atmospheres. I'm not sure a weekend there is enough to really make the most of everything it has to offer. Hopefully I will have the opportunity to go back one day to see some more of the lake and explore the city more.

Posted by amysblog 21:04 Archived in China Tagged nature landscape history travel lake city china pagoda skyline weekend hangzhou west_lake tefl Comments (0)

Beijing Blog

Part 2

sunny 3 °C

So it’s been a while (almost a month!) since I’ve written about what I’ve been up to and that’s mainly because I’ve been suuuuper busy. Right now it feels a tad strange to be here in China when at home as it seems like the festivities are in full swing. Every time I log into social media I see pictures of people at Christmas Markets and Christmas trees… I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t making me miss home a bit. Here in Beijing there are a few reminders that Christmas is approaching. Some of the bigger malls have lights and trees up and Starbucks is playing Christmas music. But it’s not quite the same.

Despite feeling as though I’m missing out on the run up to Christmas, I’m still having a wonderful time here. This month I’ve been making the most of a couple of extra days off and exploring more of Beijing. Notably, I have finally been to the Forbidden City. I went with my friend Lou on a cold day when the skies were a brilliant blue and made for a magnificent backdrop to the bright red buildings. The Forbidden city is absolutely enormous. Its huge squares stretch on and on further than you can see and it is framed with narrower streets leading into smaller gardens. Although technically, I was standing in the centre of Beijing, it felt extremely far removed from city life; you can count on one hand the number of skyscrapers visible above the huge walls that guard the area. The 2 hour visit surpassed my expectations and I still feel that there is a lot more of Beijing’s Forbidden City to explore.

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Another tourist spot I’ve hit this month is the Summer Palace (yes, I know it’s winter). I visited the Summer Palace with Will and we turned up under the impression that it was a big park and therefore not particularly enthusiastic. That changed more or less as soon as we entered the gates, the clue is in the name I guess, yes it was a park, but there was also a huge lake and several temples and pavilions sprawling across Longetivity Hill. We spent a couple of hours climbing up the rocky hillside until we reached the top where we could see the lake and the full expanse of the ‘park’. It was absolutely crawling with people but the manic-ness, along with a severe lack of health and safety, added to the uniqueness of the Summer Palace and made it a fantastic experience. Visiting the Summer Palace in late autumn was another bonus, because the rich colours of the leaves on the surrounding trees really complemented the vivid colours of the buildings.

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More recently, I visited Beijing’s Olympic Park. The first word that comes to mind to describe the experience is COLD. As we are getting closer to mid-winter, the temperatures here are dropping… fast. It’s barely making it over 5 degrees and the forecast for next week has lows of -8. The bad news? Apparently this isn’t even *that* cold. So yes, visiting the Olympic Park was first and foremost chilly. It was a very cool space to be in, huge (obviously) and The Bird’s Nest is a fairly iconic piece of architecture which is undoubtedly impressive in real life. We were there for sunset, hoping to see the stadium lit up. Disappointingly, that particular evening it was not, which was a shame.

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On the same evening, I FINALLY sampled some Peking Roast Duck and boy oh boy it did *not* disappoint. We went to a restaurant that one of my Chinese friends recommended. There was little English spoken, and whilst my Mandarin is improving, I don’t have the technical duck vocabulary that was required. So after much pointing, gesturing and some broken Chinese, we had ordered an entire duck between two of us. Obviously that was going to be far too much for two people, so we decided to eat what we could and take the rest home. The problem? It was ducking delicious. We ended up eating AN ENTIRE DUCK but I have absolutely no regrets. It was the perfect introduction to the local speciality. It’s fairly similar to what is served in Chinese restaurants in the UK apart from they carve the duck into delicious mouthful-sized slices, rather than shred it and the sauce is slightly different.

So all in all, November in Beijing has been a great month. I also went to Xi’an, which I will write about soon. This weekend I am going to Datong which I am looking forward to. However, temperatures are set to be even lower than they are here, so if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that I’ll definitely be packing my thermals…

Posted by amysblog 05:59 Archived in China Tagged buildings sky landscape history travel lake city china beijing mandarin Comments (0)

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