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Entries about history

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)

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)

Vietnam: Week 1

Phu Quoc, The Mekong Delta and Ho Chi Minh City

sunny 30 °C

Arriving in Vietnam was quite a significant turning point in our travels. Until now, our journeys had been meticulously planned and yet here we were, on an island just off the south west coast with only one thing dictating our travels - our return flight to China three weeks later from Hanoi, in the north. Naturally, there was an ounce of drama upon arriving, we had arrived a day early for our accommodation. Luckily, that was easily resolved by an extra night on beautiful Phu Quoc island - you can't really complain - which gave us more time to plan the rest of the trip... well, that was the idea. We spent the next few days indulging in some much needed down time, and delicious seafood and Pho. And did very little planning. Phu Quoc was a surprisingly lively destination, with fairly busy beaches and a bustling night market, even in low season. It was in a quiet beach cafe overlooking the palm fringed beach that I had my first experience with Vietnamese coffee. Initially I thought it was just plain vile, but over the next few weeks, it became a staple part of my diet.

After three beach filled days, it was time to make a decision on where to head to next and we agreed on Can Tho, a city famous for its floating markets. It would be our first real challenge in Vietnam; we booked a ferry to the mainland and then we would have to find transport to get to the city which was about 3.5 hours away. This 'challenge' turned out to be incredibly simple. Upon arriving at the harbour, I noticed a huge banner for the bus company we were hoping to track down. As it happened, you could by tickets right there and there was a free shuttle to the main bus station. Within an hour on the mainland we were already on route to Can Tho. Even better, upon arrival, there was another free shuttle to the front door of our hostel. The whole trip could not have been more straightforward and that initial experience took all the possible stress out of future journeys. We realised then that travelling up Vietnam was going to be great.

Due to our expected late arrival at the hostel in Can Tho, we had already organised a boat trip to the floating market the next morning before we arrived. We had to be up and out by 5am latest and our guide was there on the dot to meet us. It was still dark when we left the hostel and we walked down a pitch black alley, arriving abruptly at the water edge to board our small motor boat. We then set off down the river towards Cai Rang Floating Market, about 6km away. The market is only active early in the morning and it is where people go to buy fruit such as watermelon and pineapple from large boats. There are some smaller sellers with rowing boats full of colourful produce and our little boat did laps of the market so that we could see all the action as the same came up. We stopped to get some (Vietnamese) coffee and Pho for breakfast - it's not everyday you have noodles for breakfast on a river!

When we had seen our fill, our guide took us to a noodle factory near the markets which was fairly interesting, but the most enjoyable part of the tip was leisurely meandering back along the Mekong Delta towards Can Tho. The scenery was beautiful and we passed small settlements with people washing clothes in the river and going about their daily business. It was very relaxing and the perfect temperature. We got back to the hostel around 9am and felt like we had already done a full day! We were leaving Can Tho that same afternoon so after checking out, we went for a stroll around the city. It was nice but wasn't particularly busy and we actually ended up catching an earlier bus to Ho Chi Minh because there really wasn't much else we could do with so little time.

We arrived in HCMC at about 5pm. This time the free shuttle only took us part the way into the city. It didn't seem like too far for us to then walk to the hostel, so we strapped our bags on, stopped for a snickers and then went in search of Backpackers' Street. It was evident as soon as we arrived. The streets were teeming with travellers and there was English everywhere. Arriving at the hostel, there was a tad more drama, they had missed our booking so we were shown to another hotel on a slightly louder road but it was overall OK. We went out to get some food and look around the area local to our hostel. The surrounding streets were called "walking streets" but a more accurate description would have been "stumbling streets" because they were full of bars and drunken westerners, still, it made for an amusing evening stroll.

The next morning we set off in search of a more authentic HCMC. Initially, we were fairly disappointed by the walking route we followed from the Lonely Planet guide book. It was just a lot of walking and not a lot else. However the afternoon picked up when we reached the area surrounding the Reunification Palace. We saw the Notre Dame Cathedral and stumbled across a small book market before ending up at the War Remnants Museum, where we spent a couple of hours reading harrowing accounts of the Vietnam War, looking through graphic photos and learning about the modern history of the country. Although it was an emotional experience, we were really glad to have taken the time to visit the museum.
That evening we went to a roof top bar called 'The View' in the backpacker's district. Although it wasn't in the city centre, the perspective we had due to being a little further out was really cool, and we made it just in time for happy hour!

The next morning, our history lesson from the previous day came into good stead as we took a trip out of the city to visit Cu Chi Tunnels, a network of underground tunnels used by Vietnamese fighters during the war. It was a great trip and we learned about the different kind of traps and avoidance techniques the Vietnamese used against the American forces. We also had the opportunity to go through a section of the tunnels. The length was just 100m - easy, right? Wrong. The tunnels were so small that it was impossible to stand up straight at any given point. They were so narrow that most of the people in our group turned back before the last section as they weren't sure they could get through. We emerged at the end of the 100m stretch breathing heavily and dumbfounded by the exertion it had taken to travel such little distance. Back in HCMC, we went for some lunch before heading to the airport; the day before we had booked a flight up to Hoi An to save us some time. It was time to leave the south and head for Central Vietnam.

Posted by amysblog 04:56 Archived in Vietnam Tagged beaches sea food history market river island asia traveling phu_quoc mekong_delta ho_chi_minh boat_trip war_tunnels Comments (0)

A Weekend Getaway : Nanjing

After a full day on Friday (Chinese lesson at 9am and teaching until 3:40pm, followed by a sprint across the city to the train station to catch a train at 5pm) and a week of misbehaving students (a ‘giving advice’ activity wherein the appropriate response for the issue of “my dog won’t stop barking” was repeatedly and categorically inappropriate), I was relieved to be out of Beijing and very ready to explore a new city in China - Nanjing.

The ‘Nan’ to Beijing’s ‘Bei’, Nanjing translates as “Southern Capital” but this didn’t really give me any idea what to expect. I arrived around 10.30pm and we were staying in an “Inn”, AKA someone’s spare room in a flat situated down a questionable alley, which still didn’t give me any in-cling about the city. And so it was early (10.30am) on Saturday morning that we finally started to discover what Nanjing was all about.

Our first intended stop was the Presidential Palace, but when we got off the subway, the ‘1912 Casual District’ was too enticing to bypass so we had a look around the strange little area first, which was mainly eateries and cafes. Through the decorative windows in the walls between 1912 and the Palace gardens, we caught but a glimpse of the enchanting landscapes we were soon to explore. Luckily for us, Spring has finally sprung in China and it was a warm day, so the gardens were bursting with blossom and it was so relaxing to stroll around and take in the atmosphere. Much like Yu Yuan Gardens in Shanghai, we could see skyscrapers above the garden walls which was kind of surreal but also very cool.

In a bid to see more of the city, we decided to use busses instead of the subway to get around. So we hopped on the 33 to take us to our next destination: Gulou. On the way we went past a bustling park where the blossoms were also in full bloom, and the world and his wife were taking the opportunity for a social-media-worthy photo shoot. The Drum Tower was also set against a backdrop of skyscrapers and the surrounding park was filled with people in traditional dress performing some kind of casual Chinese dancing. I say casual because there really doesn’t seem to be any particular skill or routine behind these park dance sessions, instead they take place purely for enjoyment and entertainment.

After a quick lunch stop we decided to head towards one of Nanjing’s most famous attractions, the Xuanwu Lake. Approaching it, we walked past a small park where people were lying on some particularly luscious grass, which is quite unheard of in Beijing and so we decided to take a break and enjoy the warm weather before following the crowds of people heading towards the lake. The lake has several islands that are joined together by various bridges so we wandered with no real direction through the very scenic park. By chance we found ourselves at Nanjing’s Sakura festival, which was mostly people indulging in more photo-taking underneath the blossoming trees.

In the evening we went to downtown Nanjing. It was getting dark and the skyscrapers were lit up with neon flashing lights. We spotted a House of Fraser - of all things! - and stopped for a bite to eat in a bright square. After dinner we stopped by a famous food street, which was much smaller than what we were expecting, but the queues for some of the stalls were extremely long; you know what they say, it’s quality, not quantity! Making a mental note to stop by for lunch the next day, we jumped on a bus to the Old Town area. It was heaving with people, but in a good way. These old style streets are a bit touristy but they usually offer a great atmosphere and lots of things to look at. There was a river between the two busiest streets with bridges joining them and little boats doing trips up and down it. It was a great end to the day.

Next morning, we were given a ‘traditional natural rice cake’ by our host for breakfast, which was essentially savoury donut sticks with egg, chicken and some onion (?) rolled up in sticky black rice. It wasn’t awful. The pollution wasn’t particularly great so we changed our plans a bit because we were going to head up a mountain to get a good view of the city… I guess we’ll do that next time! Instead we took the opportunity to explore some more of the city, including Golden Egret Park and more of the Old Town. We used bikes to get around which was also a good way of seeing more.

Our final stop was the Old City Wall and Zhonghua Gate, which has an impressive history from both ancient and contemporary times as a major military advantage in battle. It was nice to look over the city that we had spent the last day and a half exploring. Once we had had our fill, we strolled back to the subway, indulged in a milk tea in the sun and then carried on to the station, where we headed back to our respective cities.

Posted by amysblog 05:24 Archived in China Tagged parks culture history lake city china nanjing tefl Comments (0)

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