Time flies when you’re having fun 时间过

While a six month gap between posts doesn’t exactly make the shortlist for blogging tips for dummies, it has been in a whirlwind of visitors from home, moving houses and travelling for actual months on end (never mind actually being employed for, ahem, nearly 50% of the working week) that has catapulted me forwards in time to a much less comfortable chair at a much smaller desk in a very different apartment in a much more central location in a city that feels ever more like home, since so many of my homies (can I say homies?) have been to stay. And what a different six months it has been in many ways from the first achingly over stimulating steps we took on our journey through the portal.

May brought us a change in the weather, the beginnings of a seemingly never ending summer which only now, in the first week of November has shifted startlingly back to a wear-your-hat-and-scarf-in-bed temperature. Skipping China for the bulk of July and August for an extended jaunt around south east Aisa, we were lucky enough to dodge most of the monsoon season and exist in perpetual glorious sunshine – perhaps another excuse for not spending hours on end at the computer. Along with the springtime arrived my Mum, freshly packed and delivered from the UK – our trendsetting first visitor who I think saw almost as much of China in her three weeks here as I had done in the six months prior. Revisiting places that had made me think of her when I’d been there before as well as discovering new ones together, it was an action packed hilarious adventure which I couldn’t have imagined we’d ever have had in any other circumstance. From Shanghai to Xitang to Nanjng to Suzhou & Hangzhou and back again, we stayed in traditional guest houses, art deco hotels, family inns and even an abandoned shopping mall and came back again with the selfie sticks to prove it. With the joy of a fresh perspective on the madness, getting the opportunity to share for real the experience of life out here was something I’ll never forget. Looking back at it now, it plays like some kind of sit-com special episode. And as it turns out, a mother-daughter duo are of particular interest to the thousands of Chinese people who, for no apparent reason, want their photographs with foreigners. We assume we are displayed with pride on mantlepieces nationwide.

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cropped monks Mama B. Little trouble in big China.

 

After tearfully leaving Mama Brown at the departure gate in Pudong airport, I had all of 2 weeks to find us a new a flat (a task I had naively thought would be straightforward enough.. fun perhaps!) I wish my sense of humour had been in tact enough to take good photographs of the long and winding list of unsuitable apartments that I spent day after day attempting to view in the now unpleasantly hot early summer. Being restricted to areas in walking distance of the school buses, we had seen so many insane spaces that we were moments away from accepting a flat without a kitchen when we came to view one last property which turned out to be the right one. Is it without insanity? Of course not, this is China after all; land without planning permission, playground for interior designers rejected by every other corner of the world. Whole companies dedicated to making spaces “ideal for westerners” – badly reimagining Monica’s apartment from F.R.I.E.N.D.S over and over again then presenting them gleefully to us, as if there were no possible way that fake exposed brick walls, stonewashed purple “feature pieces” and light fittings bigger than the ceiling to which they are fitted could displease us. Westerners, westerners, westerners. It was the most categorised I think I’ve ever felt and albeit well meaning, was not a well realised notion of what I must be looking for. So when an agent encouraged us to view this flat in the name of western taste, it was only that we were less than five minutes walk away that we even agreed. This time western meant that the landlord had fully or partially knocked down every single internal wall but two in the previously three bedroom apartment and had, most bizarrely, replaced the wall between the bedroom and the (not en suite) bathroom with a sheet of completely clear glass. After viewing one flat where to step from the kitchen to the living room one must walk through the shower cubicle, this seemed like an relatively unremarkable piece of design so we decided we could live with that and signed a contract there and then. IDEAL.

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looks normal…

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wait for it…

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Pervert tank. DSC00788DSC00774DSC00785DSC00778

More guests from the UK arrived just in time for the one crossover week where we had two apartments in Shanghai, so the last few weeks of the school term before summer flew by in the name of moving and hosting. We got settled in our new digs (Frank, Harry and Rory filling the house with nerf gun bullets à la traditional housewarming) and found the important things nearby (arcade/cheese shop/karaoke booth/escape room game) and tried to pack a 30litre backpack each for our fast approaching two month trip.

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In China couples wear matching clothes to show their undying love for one another. Which made this even more the spectacle… undying love for Star Wars.

Headed to eleven destinations, with a few extras thrown in along the way there is plenty that we saw and did which are deserving of their own blog posts, but in the spirit of catching up here is a montage of the best bits. 1st up HONG KONG:
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VIETNAM > Hanoi, Sapa, Ha long bay, Hoi An, Saigon:
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CAMBODIA > Phnom Pehn, Sen Monorom, Siem Reap:
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THAILAND > Koh Samui:
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Getting back to Shanghai after 46 nights away, we had a few days to remember where we lived before another special delivery from the UK arrived, this time in the form of Morgan Daniels. And what did he bring with him, prey tell? Of course! The worst rain Shanghai has seen in almost a decade. With the worst of it hitting on a weekday when myself and Frank were at work at the school (which incidentally had to close because of serious flooding), Morgan was locked out of the apartment and wandering the streets in the summer clothes I’d told him he only need pack. And while it did stay uncharacteristically grey for the best part of his first week here, we hopped a plane to Beijing for a freakishly pollution free and stunningly clear long weekend at the Great Wall and back in the city. We returned to the same stretch of wall that I’d been to earlier over Chinese new year and found it transformed completely by the summer with perfect visibility. We spent a day and a half out there walking, getting lost and eating and drinking amazing food and cheap beer. Back in Beijing, one week before the military parade where President Xi revealed that he is a car from the waist down, security around Tiananmen square was super high and we were annoyingly but rather aptly not allowed to enter the forbidden city. Still a day spent wandering through Beihai Park and eating dumplings the hutongs was pretty alright. I love Beijing outside of the government heavy centre and was happy to get back there for another weekend and find some new stuff. Its such a different kind of city from Shanghai, It was awesome that Morg got to see that too. Beijing full blog post is on the list. Our flight back to Shanghai, though fine, was tainted somewhat by the not-quite-reassuringly translated announcement right after take off which promised the pilot would “do their best” to get us to our destination safely. To be continued… 

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The Great Wall

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Serious business in Shanghai

You guessed it, we did reach our destination safely. And furthermore, our destination had stopped having shitty weather and become sunny and wonderful again. Perfect for what was left of Morgan’s visit. And low and behold, no sooner had I put him back though the magical terminal gates that produce and then consume people I love when two more arrived.. Anita & Thom

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…and thus we did the whole Shanghai shebang again. Infact we did it having so much fun (/sparkling wine) that these are the only two photographs I have of nearly two weeks. Send me yours Anita and perhaps I will cobble together enough memories to write you guys a paragraph. In all seriousness though, Shanghai is a crazy and interesting city and is also our home for now. Getting to show it to my Mum and then some of my best friends in the world was awesome. So many people who have been out here longer than us say that they’ve never had anyone make the trip so we know how lucky we are to get to bridge the gap between our lives here and there, that when the people I can count on to always be reading and the ones that I’m really writing to, have just that bit more of an idea what I’m ever going on about.

MORE SOON… I promise!

The Great Wall 长城

After a long night bunking with the little old ladies we rolled into Beijing West station at 7am. With only a limited amount of time off and having learned from our past mistakes trying to get to Tongli on local busses, I splurged and booked a private driver to take us the two and a half hours drive north west to the tiny village of Gubeikou. Although getting three busses we could’ve got there for about £8 each, the driver was still cheaper than taxis I’ve taken across London and guaranteed we would at least get to where we were going in time to make the most of our trip. Despite driving like a maniac as soon as we were out of the Beijing traffic, he got us there in one piece, ready to check in to the ‘hostel’ before 10am.

While the Great Wall is obviously a massive tourist attraction, the areas of it most easily reachable from Beijing have been extensively renovated (rebuilding ancient monuments is something the Chinese are very proud of) and become somewhat of a theme park. Photographs of thousands of people trudging like cattle along it on national holidays drove me to research alternative ways to walk the wall – at over 13,000 miles long surely there was another stretch for us, and Gubeikou looked like the perfect destination. About seventy miles of wall away from the Beijing-theme-park part, the Gubeikou Great Wall, part of a longer stretch known as the “wild wall” remains totally in its naturally broken down state, untouched by the renovators and souvenir touts. About 25 miles long it has 14 beacon towers, 143 watch towers and many other military constructions and was an important section strategically protecting the northern gateway to the capital. The village below is still very provincial but the family running the Great Wall Box House hostel have tapped into an emerging market of foreign tourists searching for a more authentic experience. With a section of the wall itself actually backing into their courtyard, you cant get much closer than this place and for a fraction of the price of joining a tour group to go “guided camping” we unknowingly booked the nicest room we’ve stayed in anywhere at all, with dinner thrown in for free.

Having spent another night of cultural faux pas, pyjama-less on the sleeper we were over the moon to have a room ready with a shower let alone an open fireplace and heated toilet. Frank got a shock pressing the other buttons on the toilet, cryptically labelled “oscillating” amongst the Chinese text, actually an aggressively powerful and seemingly unstoppable bidet. Oh how we laughed.

We got breakfast in the kitchen (american waffles, anyone? Home made natural yogurt? This place sure knew their audience) then went to pick a route for the day’s trek. The lady running the place seemed disappointed for us that visibility wasn’t so great that day and tried to persuade us to do the lower walk, but at only 3.5 hours we figured we could do that one easily the next morning before leaving so opted for the bigger 6 hour one. Visibility is hit and miss but you can’t do much about the weather… at least it was dry and sunny. We were directed proudly to a childlike A3 home made watercolour picture – apparently done by a grown man satisfied enough with his creation to put links to his social media pages in the corner. This was the only map and the woman used it to explain where to go to find the route. We both assumed the other was listening properly, photographed the painting for reference, then went on our way…

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It didn’t take us long to get lost, walking for an hour when the turning we were keeping an eye out for should have been just 30 minutes from the hostel. We could see the wall on the mountain towering above us but weren’t getting anywhere near high enough. At a point with nowhere to go but across a railway track we turned back on ourselves after Frank (moments after declaring crossing the tracks totally safe) got honked at by an oncoming train. It was far enough away, but it freaked me out and we both agreed the “map” hadn’t depicted risking life and limb under a train, so started back on ourselves.

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Frank looking really cool

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Frank looking really uncool

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“definitely no trains coming”

Re-passing a rusty old sign which I’d actually stood and photographed on the way up, admiring its last-remnant-of-humanity appearance, we realised it was legible after all and, low and behold, said something to the effect of GREAT WALL OF CHINA THIS WAY. Within 20 minutes we’d made a dramatic ascent and could see our first watchtower up ahead.

Climbing through the window hole inside the structure it felt like the coolest castle field trip ever but minus the national trust signs and safety rails. We took some steep steps up to a skylight style opening and were suddenly on the roof, with the most incredible view of the wall snaking away from us in both directions. It was hard to believe we were totally alone up there. The visibility wasn’t its best (photographs of this area on totally clear days are unreal) but we could still see for miles and being there, there was a scale to it that just doesn’t come across in pictures no matter how clear. Seriously breathtaking.

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We stepped off the roof and onto a path running alongside the wall towards the higher peaks in the distance. Obviously it just goes on and on but the lady from the hostel advised us to go as far as seven watchtowers along where we could then take a slightly different route back.

About a week away from starting to turn green and blossom, the landscape was more sandy and arid looking than I’d expected. The path kept right on the walls edge, with opportunities to clamber up on top of the watchtowers as we passed them – none for miles in as good condition as the first one. It was a year since we’d been walking Hadrian’s wall back home and to be honest this stretch was very similar except on a much more gigantic scale. The path wound down into the valley for a few miles below the wall then suddenly very steeply up the hillside parallel to it. It had been pretty easy going until this point and we set a goal to get to what looked like the top by a certain time.

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The ‘top’ when we got there was another watchtower leading to the most impressive part yet on the horizon – this time, from the roof we could walk on top of the wall to the next two towers in the distance. Each time we hit another one the wall tempted us further on, now super steep ups and downs along the stone fortifications. The distance and incline never looked as far or as drastic as they turned out to be – foreshortened by our viewpoint. Wild wall indeed. Reaching the uppermost tower, the wall beyond snaked off more shallowly. We had hit our half way mark in terms of time to get back to the hostel for the free dinner, so we agreed not to go further but spent a while sitting on the roof eating snacks and soaking up the view. We’d met no one else for whole day, could see no sign of the modern world and hear nothing but the birds and the wind in the trees. From our lookout post we tried to really comprehend it – centuries of history, weathered but still so domineering in the landscape – so many peoples whole lives spent building it.

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easy!DSC06257DSC06243  

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Frank standing completely naturally and unposed.DSC06219

In the name of photo opportunity, I left Frank on the roof and went two towers ahead to try and photograph him up there from far away. We became little worry-doll sized stick figures in each others vision but the hills echoed so loud we could still hear each other shout clearly even two towers apart. I took a picture of him looking down over the edge (look close on the first picture below!) and then watched him in close up through my view finder as he walked to join me. Instead of going back through the valley we stuck on top of the wall which we’d come up parallel to on the way there, so managed to have a different hike in this direction. It was getting more grey and the wind picked up, giving me a few moments of terror but making the most of my long practiced bum-shuffling technique I lived to tell the tale…

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We arrived back with seriously achey feet and legs but ten minutes to spare before dinner. I had my second shower of the day while Frank hung out on the decking with four of the eight or so cats that live there. A grown up litter of raggedy white cats all with one blue and one yellow eye, they were quite something and seemed to be having a very nice life at the hostel. The free dinner was vegetarian and communal for all guests – there turned out to be just four of us that evening – so we had dinner with an Israeli couple about our age who were super nice, then spent the night drinking Great Wall red wine (loved by us, sneered at by others, but really the only label fit for the occasion) by the fire in our room.

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The following day we had a driver booked to pick us up at 1:30pm and take us back to Beijing via another section of Great Wall which I wanted to take Frank to because you can toboggan down the mountain. I also thought it would be interesting after some time on the wild wall to check out the difference in one of the more renovated sections. We got up and had breakfast early enough to do the 3.5 hour “Dragon’s Back” walk in the morning. On lower ground, it turned out to be quite a different hike through a Mordoor looking landscape of rich greens and purples – the higher peaks we had climber the previous day looming in the distance. It had rained overnight and the fresh air smelled amazing – not something we’d associate with any of our other experiences in China so far. The first cherry blossoms were about to come out, which must totally transform the look of the hills. Once again we saw no one the whole time. Easier on the feet and knees than the last walk, we made good time and were back at the hostel by 1:00, so pleased with the choice to come out to Gubeikou.

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So our final stop was at Mutianyu – generally considered to be the less touristy option for people wanting to visit the wall from Beijing, it was still worlds away from our experience in Gubeikou. Our driver dropped us off at the huge entrance gate, insisting on taking a photo of us on both his phone and my camera, (for whose benefit we weren’t quite sure), then went to wait for us in the multi storey car park. We bought tickets to go up the mountain in a ski-slope style chairlift and back down on the infamous toboggan. A ten minute walk past countless souvenir stands and food vendors was the shuttle bus stop where we then had to take a mini bus another 10 minutes uphill to a pizza place blasting 80s pop songs, another SUBWAY sandwich shop and the entrances to the various cable car based options of getting to the top. Despite our snobbery towards the crowds of tour groups and families, we couldn’t pretend not to be overjoyed by the the SUBWAY so ate lunch then joined the chairlift queue.

Manned haphazardly by two guys moving people hurriedly into place then shouting SIT SIT SIT SIT as the chairlift came up behind them full speed, I felt dubious about the pace in which we would have to get off at the other end. Indeed, when our time came, another pair of men shouting OFF OFF OFF OFF manhandled us from the chair in a manner akin to pulling someone out of the way of an oncoming bus. Below us, people screeched past on their toboggans, winding awkwardly down the mountain. Thinking that was the real reason we’d come back this way I felt a bit disappointed that the toboggan didn’t look as white knuckle as people on the internet had made out, but was pleasantly surprised to find myself impressed, once again, by the Great Wall of China. Whaddaya know?

Though having undergone some restoration, the Mutianyu section of the wall is considered some of the best preserved and is in a much more original state than the central Beijing area. After the Gubeikou walks it was like seeing it thrown back in time – the Great Wall that you picture in your head when you think of it. Once you got past the novelty transport, it was actually very beautiful and more hard work to walk than we had anticipated when chowing down on our footlong subs. It was also by no means crawling with tourists (although some pissed off looking girls in high heels were entertaining to pass) and a great place to visit independently of the sections in disrepair. We climbed up to the highest watchtower again, shocked by the crazy gravity defying angles of the brickwork, so steep it was almost vertical. It looked somehow frozen in time – seconds before collapsing completely.

We felt bad leaving the driver waiting any longer so followed the “CHUTE THIS WAY” signs to the toboggan. It turned out our initial disappointment was unfounded as it really was white-knuckle terrifying if you made it go fast enough. Frank made it go fast enough on purpose while I made it go fast enough by accident – unable to remember the apparently simple controls. We hurtled down the hillside, past “AVOID REAR COLLISION” signs and workers whose job it was to sit sporadically by the chute on camping chairs smoking cigarettes and waving “go faster” or “go slower” flags as appropriate. Frank was waiting for me at the end of the chute, super happy we’d made the detour for the ride alone.

A pair of old men in costumes came over, thrusting swords into our hands and doing the tourist-photo routine. Impossible to avoid if you ever want to leave the place, I wondered if they had anything to do with the larger attraction or if they just came here every day to make their money. Either way they were hilarious and we obliged, deciding not to feel annoyed at paying £2 for a photograph we didn’t know we wanted.

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Back at shuttle bus shelter we found our driver waiting for us, probably bored out of his mind. He asked enthusiastically if we had had enough time to “play” – a term in Chinese which doesn’t end with childhood but sounds strange used in English. I felt like a toddler being picked up from a party by my Chinese dad.

With the Great Wall of China thoroughly ticked off the list, our new dad drove us back to Beijing and dropped us off. Pictures from the capital up next.

Xi’an 西安

Working in an international school brings the benefits of a calendar that honours both the holidays of the UK and China, so less than a month after our last adventures we were off again in the names of Easter and the Chinese Qingming (Tomb Sweeping) Festival. With the weather turning from a trailing wet winter to full on sunshine which should last us now until the autumn months we took the opportunity again to travel within China, heading for three big attractions on the must see list – the Terracotta Warriors, the Great Wall and the Yellow Mountains. Although internal flights are cheap, sleeper trains are often cheaper and save the cost of hotels for the nights in transit, so we booked tickets for the 15ish hour ride from Shanghai to Xi’an – capital city of the Shaanxi province in China’s central north west and excavation site of the world famous Terracotta Army, one of the largest pottery figurine groups ever found that were buried 2,500 years ago to protect the first Emperor of China in his afterlife. After missing the relentlessly fully-booked exhibition of them in London’s V&A a few years ago it seemed a fitting tomb-based activity for the Qingming festival, even if we didn’t get to do any sweeping.

Having never gone on a sleeper before I was filled with child like excitement at taking a train with beds on. The tickets come in various categories all with corresponding price tags – hard sleepers with 6 beds to a berth, soft sleepers with 4 beds to a berth or for twice the price of that each train has a couple of VIP berths with just two beds for the rich and/or antisocial among us. If you’re really short on cash you can even book a hard upright seat for 15 hours or pay next to nothing for a “standing” ticket… wether they issue you a worker to make sure you spend the whole time standing or not is anyones guess…
Despite booking 2 lower bunks in a four berth soft sleeper our tickets said actually we had a lower and upper which in hindsight was better as whoever has the top-bunk will sit on the lower until they’re ready to go to sleep. Already sitting in the cabin at 6:45pm when we boarded was a Chinese man in his 20’s who said “hello” to our “Ni hao”‘s and spoke pretty good English. His name was Joe and I chatted to him a bit in Mandarin which he graciously praised  as good, helping me with some pronunciation of certain words. With his English being far superior we all chatted away for an hour or so about our lives and how we were finding China. Xi’an born he had been in Shanghai for a meeting and spoke to our dismay of how much cleaner the air was on the coast, saying the desert landscape as you head towards western China can bring sandstorms which make the air quality even worse. It had been a particularly clear few days in Shanghai so we kept our fingers crossed for a sunny smog-free experience and he recommended some street food in the Muslim Quarter of the city and told us how to find the tourist bus that takes you to the Warriors from the train station. Our fourth cabin-mate was travelling with a friend whose bed was further up the train, so they sat on little fold out chairs in the main corridor buying beers from the food and drink trollies which went past every so often stacked high with pot noodles and mystery jerky.

With a few beers and some home made sandwiches of our own we picnicked another hour away before Frank decided to test the weight capacity of the upper bunks. As he stood up Joe said very seriously “oh you are seven foot tall” and didn’t seem to understand why we laughed. Up in his top bunk Frank fit as perfectly sideways as he did upright in the cabin with his head scraping the door frame – another benefit of the upper bunk being an extended cubby hole space in which you can put your feet if you really do happen to be seven foot tall. Each bed had a little hammock for your stuff, a clothes rail with one coat hanger, electricity socket and personal light. The bed benches were amply wide with a surprisingly luxurious duvet, a relatively thick mattress protector and fitted sheet – as soft as any other bed you’re likely to get in China which are famously hard (something we have come to prefer) and were really pretty comfortable. The built in aeroplane size TV screens at the end of each bed wasn’t working although there was a speaker playing strange and unstoppable easy-listening style musac into the cabin at very low volume right up until I fell asleep around midnight. It had stopped when we woke up but was a strange feature to assume the customer would like. Within five minutes of being horizontal Frank was asleep so I sat spread out reading and wondering quite where I was supposed to look when Joe stood up, closed the cabin door and got fully changed into a set of plaid pyjamas and slippers. I thought this was bizarre but as other passengers shuffled past our door en route to the toilet/washrooms with similar garb I was jealous of how comfortable they looked. Not the most graceful of sleepers I couldn’t quite square myself with sleeping in my pants as I was sure to wake up in a compromising position and terrify poor Joe so when I finally fell asleep I did it fully clothed.

The main lights went off around 10pm so I read under my bunk lamp and listened to the cheers from cabins further up the train where groups of friends were playing cards and drinking, it was a nice atmosphere. I woke around 6.30 am to the sound of small children scuttling up and down the corridor, singing nursery rhymes and peeping into other people’s cabins inquisitively. With the sun rising outside the window I could see that the landscape was distinctly different from Shanghai and the spaces in between the other provinces we had been to which were far closer to home. We rolled into Xi’an Station around 9am well rested and very satisfied with our first time on a sleeper. Joe left the station with us and pointed us in the general direction of the busses to the warriors where we said our goodbyes and headed on our way.

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The Frank n Joe Show. Check out the mess I made of my bed.DSC05263

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Upon finding the correct bus our smugness at arriving early quickly evaporated when we we’re told to join the longest queue I’ve ever seen for anything – a disheartening enough sight at the best of times let alone in a country where the concept of queueing is usually non existent. It had said online that busses leave every 15 minutes but there must have been a lot more of them than that for the queue to go down as quick as it did and to be fair it was the most well behaved queueing we’ve witnessed since we’ve been in here. Within half an hour we were on the bus out to the warriors which remain where they were first discovered by farmers trying to dig a well in 1976. The site is about 50 minutes drive from the main city centre and only cost 70p per person. It was the usual tourist destination routine of parking 10 minutes walk from the entrance which was lined with vendors selling food and souvenirs. The tourist tat was refreshingly different from that on the east coast and we eyed a few things to come back to on the way out as we made our way over to buy tickets.

Once inside the grounds, which were beautifully landscaped with cherry blossom trees in full bloom you walk another 10 minutes or so to the three excavation pits, and a big modern accompanying museum. We went through the museum first – the best we’ve seen in China so far which told the warriors’ incredible story of how they lay undiscovered for thousands of years and showed in great detail how the pieces were made and fitted together with craftsmanship mind bendingly complex for their time in history. Eight basic head moulds were used to produce base heads which were then modified so that every figure’s face was different and distinct. Our favourite section talked about the paint found on them as they were being excavated which cracked and peeled off as soon as they were exposed to the sun. Fragments from various body parts were collected and analysed to figure out how the original pigments were made and replicas of how the warriors would’ve looked when they were buried were displayed in full colour.

A full size solid bronze horse pulled chariot was also on display which must have been of particular significance (quite possibly its financial worth) given the mammoth crowd it had attracted compared to the relatively quiet exhibitions in the rest of the museum. Examples in good condition of one of each of the main different figures was on display including ones I’d never seen images of like acrobats, strongmen, musicians and archers. Going out to the excavation pits it was fascinating to see figures as they had been found, still in the ground in pieces – most of the estimated 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, 520 horses and 150 cavalry remain buried and the site is still in use as a working excavation for part of the year. The aeroplane hanger sized and naturally lit pit which is the biggest of the three had over 2000 of the soldiers in their entirety on display and about as many Chinese tourists fighting through the crowds with their selfie sticks for the perfect photo. It was a truly awesome sight and I thought about how they must have looked in full colour, perfectly formed and in army formation as they were buried. The ultimate atifact-come-to-life story in waiting, we reckon hollywood is missing a trick. At the back of the hanger a section of the pit shows the bodies being jigsaw pieced back together in what looked like a wildly satisfying job. The two other pits tell more detailed stories about specific figures found in smaller quantities. The scale is just unbelievable and we were really glad we made the trip to see them.

On the way out we paid 10RMB for frank to pose picking his nose at the head of the, ahem, definitely genuine army (such a realistic mock up, blink and you’ll miss it in the photos below) then went out in search of the subway sandwich place the internet had promised us was nearby…

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Accidentally matching… how very Chinese of us.DSC05293DSC05334DSC05306 DSC05304DSC05303

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Hallelujah it was real. After the greatest lunch ever we spent another few hours buying tiny bits and pieces and wandering the bigger site of the first Emperor’s mausoleum which is mostly underground and probably home to countless more treasures, but on ground level is beautiful gardens with tonnes of blossom trees. On the way out we passed some enterprising person with a line up of plastic terracotta warriors that you could pose in seaside-style while they took a photo of you with your camera for £1. Frank thought this was an unmissable opportunity and forced me onto the glamorous bit of grey carpet that was gaffa taped to the paving stones. The vendor took their time taking the picture and a small crowd of Chinese tourists who didn’t pay £1 stopped and got themselves some photos of us too… at least we look COOL.

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After a bus ride back to central Xi’an we made our way to our digs for the night, the lavishly named Grand Noble Hotel. It was the eve of our one year wedding anniversary and when I booked the room online, feigning my husbands identity, I wrote as much in the “additional comments” box in the hopes that they might upgrade us to some kind of Grand Noble suite like they do in the movies. Did they listen to our request? In a way, yes.. albeit less spectacular than I’d imagined – a couple of towels rolled up in the shapes of swans on our bed with a single red rose and a heart shaped pink fluffy cushion. We almost couldn’t bring ourselves to move them. Such decadent romance!  Down in the bar we got a couple of grand noble cocktails (another place to add to Frank’s never ending list of establishments in China providing unsatisfactory martinis) and had a grand and noble buffet dinner in their fancy pants restaurant. The food was good and the all you can eat cake feature took us back a year to our sunny wedding day in Hackney when cake was all that was on the menu.

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A few more drinks down we went for a wander to the city’s old bell and drum towers – in ancient times used to mark the opening and closing of the city gates –  they are now, along with the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, Xi’ans most famous landmarks and get lit up beautifully at night. The city was busy as anything – once again we had naively imagined that this would be more provincial in its character but was nothing of the kind.

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Sunday was our anniversary and another sunny day so we walked down to the south entrance of the old city wall. Still fully in tact the wall encircles the old city – now the main centre – in a rectangular stretch of nearly nine miles. The imposing architecture and gladiatorial feel of the huge city gates and squares make a dramatic backdrop for photographs and we saw a number of brides and grooms standing around waiting to take pre-wedding photographs (a cultural phenomenon so prevalent in Shanghai I’ve been saving my pictures up for a fully dedicated blog post) wearing expensive wedding dresses they won’t really be married in. Mountain bikes for hire when you got to the top of the wall offered a cheap and fun way to cover the whole nine miles at a quicker pace and missing our bikes back home we were both keen to do this.

Drama followed as I, in a state of anniversary induced Daisy-Daisy hysteria, thought it would be fun to hire the tandem bike instead of two separate ones. Frank didn’t want to. I sulked until he gave in. We hired the the bloody tandem and of course I immediately HATED it. With some BMX handle bars awkwardly screwed onto the back of the front saddle, sitting on the back you had no control at all and I was sure I would fall off at any moment and smash my head on the unforgiving ancient stonework. Even taking the front seat it felt so unstable that It was like riding my old faithful dragonfly bike through some kind of space vortex. In a bad way. Desperate to go swap the thing for two normal bikes, Frank had by this point come to see learning to ride the tandem as a challenge and didn’t want to give it back. We spent another ten minutes cycling one metre at a time with me screaming and stopping every five seconds before he accepted this wife was not the agile graceful tandem riding kind of wife and agreed to what he’d wanted in the first place.

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Riding the wall was really fun and a great way to see the interesting peripheral parts of the old city. I was happy with my newfound ability to take a photo when riding a bike, a real improvement from my days of navigating routes around London where I only ever needed to turn left, unable to lift my hands from the bars to indicate otherwise. Despite being a big place, Xi’an isnt a skyscraper city – we thought how cool it would be if Shanghai had an old city wall that you could ride around the sklyine. The typical Chinese structures of the old watch towers and gateposts were decorated with a more northern Chinese style of painting which I’d not seen much of in the east coast provinces. With lots of deep blues and Mongolian looking pattern work I really loved this style which we were to see a lot more of in other places in Xi’an and Beijing. More brides, some refreshingly in less westernised wedding dresses were dotted about on the route, taking photos posing on tandems as if it were the easiest thing in the world. We took a pit stop for some tiny Tsingdao beers and some little hat-wearing-man shaped ice lollies which seemed to be being touted everywhere you looked by ladies with wonky home made styrofoam effegies of him on sticks. Making full circle in a little over an hour, we returned our bikes opposite a huge lantern underwater scene probably left over from Chinese new year. With the frames made from bent bamboo and willow covered in some kind of stretch fabric I found them really quite impressive despite their gaudiness and skewed disney character likenesses. With no more wall to see we walked back towards the bell and drum towers to see if they were making any noises soon.

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The bell and drum towers operate as mini museums in the daytime and for a very small fee you can get into both with one ticket – worth it for the views of Xi’an, the painted interiors and, if you visit at the right time of day, musical demonstrations/performances. Outside, traditional replicas of the kinds of drums that would’ve been used to close the city walls (the bells opened them) are in place, while inside a museum of Chinese drums dating back nearly 1000 years is the home of the world’s biggest single skin drum, which must be made from an elephant hide. It was very big. You weren’t allowed to hit it. We timed our visit well so got to watch a 15 minute group performance whose staring member was a teenage girl who was an amaaazing drummer. When the crowd had left I saw her come out from behind the stage, traditional costume gone, wearing a Bart Simpson t shirt. I wanted to go tell her she was great but decided against it for fear of seeming creepy.

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DSC05738DSC05736DSC05730 the very top of the world’s biggest drum..

A stones throw from the drum tower is the entrance to Beiyuanmen street – a famous street food market and the beggining of Xi’an’s muslim quarter, home to 12 mosques and a thriving Chinese muslim community. As the starting point of the ancient Silk road the city attracted settlers from Persia and the Arabic countries, their descendants known now as Hui Chinese are still rooted in the same streets 1,000 years later. It was a very original sight in China, the people in traditional muslim clothes, the men with big beards and the difference in food. Historically Xi’an has a very different cuisine even without the immigrant connection, as harsh landscape and weather meant that rice didn’t grow easily so unlike the rest of the provinces unique foods, here they are not rice based. We saw more bread and potatoes than we had in a long time – pita breads served with thick stews, mouth numbing sichuan peppercorns and chilli covered new potatoes, meat kebabs served on sharpened branches and fried fish on sticks. Huge ribbons of dough we being thrown artfully back and forth over hooks to make noodles and indian looking sweets. Although covered with the bright flags you get used to seeing at all the tourist areas, it was clear that local people were all down here for lunch too, taking advantage of the cheap and endless options and the genuinely pedestrianised road (no mean feat in China!). We bought loads of stuff to try as we walked along – my favourite bought from a couple with a makeshift kitchen on the back of their tricycle serving eggs boiled in tea and huge egg crepes filled with chillis, spring onions and long thin prawn crackers – then sat down near a guy selling pre shaped balloon animals on a stick. We watched a gang  of little boys in Muslim caps playing badminton over the 15 foot archway at the end of the street, repeatedly lodging their shuttlecocks on top never to be returned.

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Seriously stuffed without doing much damage to our budget, we bought a couple of big-as-yer-head size saffron buns to eat later on the off chance we would ever be hungry again. Picking up our bags from the grand noble concierge we reluctantly took the grand noble porters advice to take the local bus back to the train station as there were no taxis in sight. Always an experience, but relatively uneventful we made it back to the station right on time for our second sleeper in three days. Again assigned a top and bottom bunk, we spent our wedding anniversary night sleeping one above the other in a narrow cabin next to some little old Chinese ladies en route to Beijing. Next stop: The Great Wall.

Hangzhou 杭 州

After a pit stop back in Shanghai and armed with the benefit of hindsight we repeated the early morning journey to Asia’s biggest train station and were on board the bullet train to Hangzhou with time to spare. Further away than Suzhou, this was an hour and 20 minute journey in the less swanky non-first class carriage but still more spacious than your average UK carriage at a fraction of the price.
Hangzhou, allegedly described as the “greatest city on earth” by Marco Polo, is the capital city of Zhejiang Province with a population the size of London’s, but its main tourism draw is Xī Hú (meaning West Lake) – a freshwater lake on the east edge of the city and its surrounding mountains that are renowned for their natural beauty. Historically influential to artists and poets it is also the setting for some of China’s most ancient legends such as Madame White Snake, which has apparently existed in oral traditional storytelling long before it was ever written down. The lake used to join the Qiantang River, the Hangzhou section of which is famous in its own right for its annual tidal wave period when the rotation of the earth and the unusual bottleneck shape of Hangzhou bay combine with the particular gravitational pull of the moon causing the tide to come in easily but not to ebb. This creates a wave up to 30 feet high which has come in during mid August for the last 2000 years and has a local festival built around it. You can imagine how superstitions formed around such a freak natural wonder which is only found on such a scale in one other place in the world. We were six months early for the tidal wave though so were mostly looking to get some walking done around West Lake, its surrounding hills and tea plantations.

When telling non-newbies to China that we would be at West Lake for Chinese New Year we were met with consistent replies to the effect of “Holy shit its gonna be so crowded you won’t be able to move” – the standard practice for this national holiday apparently being to get the hell out of China full stop and go to a beach somewhere to drink piña coladas with ladyboys. The tickets and hotel were booked though so we were prepared to take our chances. Arriving on the Wednesday in very pleasant weather we walked a few miles from Hangzhou train station down the historical Hefang Street towards the east edge of the lake. The centre of the “old city”, this road went on and on, lined with pretty buildings, market stalls and tourist shops. At a stall selling a kind of peanut brittle, workers were pounding nuts on a barrel with massive mallets, taking it in turns to hit it and shouting “HOI” with every hit.
Going in for a closer look Frank was offered the mallet and began a pound-off – “HOI”‘s and all – with the other guy, much to the amusement of a small crowd which amassed to take photographs.

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Within an hour we were at the lake, but with nearly a 10 mile circumference we were still a few hours walk from the north east point where we were staying, so after finding a spot for some lunch and a beer we took a leisurely pace to go and drop our bags off. Although slightly overcast it was a beautiful view and we were surprisingly devoid of company for almost the entire walk. Had everyone in China been scared off of coming by their crowd-predicting friends? Other than a few groups of very visible older men in camouflage jackets clustered around bushes on camping chairs taking photos of birds with cartoon-massive, also camouflaged, telescopic lensed cameras and a couple of teenagers who asked to have their photos taken with us (as in Suzhou we were more novel for being westerners than we are in Shanghai) we barely saw anyone. I realised that although we knew Thursday was “the big day” for Chinese New Year, we weren’t sure if said big day was new years eve or new years day. Was it new years eve right now? And if so why was it so dead? We carried on, finding our hotel with relative ease and checking in to the basic but nice enough little room. Rates were higher for the holiday period and staying a night longer than we had in suzhou we opted for the budget place in closest proximity to the otherwise 5 star hotel lined lakeside.

And I bet those 5 star hotel rooms didn’t have the complimentary space-suits (alarmingly designed “fire escape masks”) that we had in ours…

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Such reassuring packaging. Shanghai has been napalm bombed but you will be fine in your denim jacket and space helmet. Just follow the handy “Diretons”

We don’t have Chinese TV in our flat as we’ve never bothered buying an aerial for our television which we just use to watch DVDs and stream stuff to from the laptop, so were happy to check out the channels in the hotel. We started watching China’s main channel CCTV (seriously its called that) which was airing what seemed like a version of Jools Holland’s New Year Hootenanny, though more stylistically reminiscent of Eurovision. Mostly in Chinese but with snippets in English we watched for perhaps too long in confusion/fascination as comedy skits and song and dance routines were interspersed with commentary from the snow-white wholesome pageant looking presenters and short video messages of leaders of other countries (oh hai Prince William!) struggling to say Happy New Year perfectly in Mandarin.

All signals were pointing to it being Chinese New Year’s eve that night so we went out in search of dinner and the inevitable, or so we thought, party. After struggling to find food we wanted to eat in Suzhou, I’d looked up various places within walking distance to where we were staying to avoid the same problems so we left the hotel with the exciting promise of not-shit pizza from the good people of trip advisor.com. The spanner in the works tonight was that not just the pizza place, but every other place on my list was shut. It became clear that Chinese New Years Eve was not like the NYE we know from home but more like Christmas day. We wandered further and further into the city but with no options other than McDonalds had to wander back again. Marco Polo clearly wasn’t here for Chinese New Year… After a brainwave to try one of the lakeside swanky hotels we finally got some overpriced-but-beyond-caring dinner and drinks and walked back up to our Inn with the first of the fireworks displays visible in miniature on the other side of the lake. There was very little activity on the walk back and it certainly didn’t look like there would be a big organised midnight firework display on the lake or anything like that so we bought a cheap bottle of Great Wall red wine from a corner shop and went to bed and watched Interstellar.

Midnight struck right around the time Matt Damon went cray cray and it seemed all of a sudden like everyone, including us, was about to die. Now we’ve lived in China long enough to tune out most firework sounds as nothing more than white noise – daytime, night time, any time of day – something important enough has happened to warrant rocket brocades in the car park… but this was something else. The building seemed to shake, our rational minds knew what was going on but the rest of our brains screamed WAR!!! The Imperial War Museum’s Blitz Experience got nothing on Chinese New Year in China. We got dressed quick (carelessly forgetting our fire escape masks) and went out to watch the world end. After 20 minutes on a little roof terrace conveniently placed between our room and the reception we resigned ourselves to the firework display never ending and went back in to try and watch the end of the film. Somehow we slept…. and for the record the fireworks are still going on now.

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West lake has two causeways running though it which you can walk along with views to either side of you and is best done early in the morning when you’re more likely to have the place to yourselves. We slept in by accident and hoped that 10am might still class as early morning but alas when we got down to the lake the elusive crowds had finally arrived. There are a serious amount of people at any tourist attraction during national holidays, but after walking around the place with no one at all there the day before, the contrast was pretty crazy. That said, there was a nice atmosphere of holiday, with the lake suddenly full of different kinds of boats from tiny little stripy awninged self-peddlers to giant golden dragon boats full of people and the pathways weren’t so packed that you couldn’t move at all. Keeping to the inside we bypassed the first causeway and walked the top arch of the lake where it was less rammed. Passing what must be the most picturesque collection of starbucks-es in the world we bought some corn on the cob for breakfast from a little street food and souvenir stall but declined the opportunity to dress up in traditional clothes and be photographed by the lake, despite photographic evidence of other other westerners doing it.

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We did stop for the next lady who approached us in her boat asking if we wanted a trip to the island in the middle of the lake which is otherwise unreachable. She said she could wait while we went round the island then bring us back to the same spot. The weather seemed perfect for a boat ride and the price was right. Frank had the rest of the wine we hadn’t finished the night before in his bag so we classily swigged from the bottle in the sunshine. When we got to the island whoever was supposed to be there charging us another 20RMB each to do the full walk around wasn’t at work so we had a freebie and took in the views from the centre….and took some menswear magazine style photos of Frank posing. I think they’re pretty successful if there are any agents reading..

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ISLAND PS

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We spent the rest of the day exploring the lake with the help of a fairly inaccurate-distance-wise tourist map, stopping at points to chow down on a sad little picnic we picked up from a corner shop. It had snickers bars though so I can’t complain too much. Having hoped to make it to Longjing Tea village where the famous Longjing green tea grows, we were still miles away at 5pm when it started to get a little colder and darker so we turned back and walked home on a different route. It was a ridiculously scenic place, living up to all its hype and more peaceful than you could imagine considering how close we were really to a big city. Beautiful beautiful day!

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Lots of stuff in town was still closed but a little less than the night before so we found some dinner more easily then headed back to the hotel for an early night and hopefully early start the next day. We did manage to get up on time but the day was grey, overcast and cold with poor visibility on the lake so our plan to walk across the main 3km causeway and then back on ourselves for an hour towards Longjing Tea Village was abandoned pretty quickly for an extended coffee break and a taxi to where we’d left off the day before. Expecting Longjing to be more obviously signposted it didn’t take long after getting out of the car to feel very lost. “Long ” meaning dragon is one of the 30 or so Chinese characters I can recognise easily, as it’s the first part of our local metro station name Longbai, so we attempted to read a Chinese footpath map on a hillside and began walking in the general direction of . An elderly man walking some dogs walked by and I said we were looking for Longjing. He spoke back very quickly as everyone does. We stared blankly at him and I said sorry I don’t understand but thank you. He started talking very fast again and gesturing us to follow him then started away from the obvious path and up the steep rocky hillside so fast we had a hard time keeping up with him. He and the dogs walked with us for another five minutes or so at the top then he stopped and pointed us around a corner shouting “ONE KILOMETER” in English and waving us on our way with a smile. We thanked him, walked 1km and whaddaya know, were on a downwards slope to a giant wooden arch marked 龙井村.

Inside, we walked through a tiny village street lined with what appeared exclusively to be tea houses. Some people called after us “YOU TRY GREEN TEA” but we veered off to walk through some bamboo forest before heading back to choose a tea house. Longjing Tea seems to be widely accepted as the best green tea in China and of all the different ones we’ve tried it is the most fragrant. I think I read that something in the climate of Hangzhou makes it particularly suited to growing the tea plant. Having always liked green tea, moving to china has solidified it as something we drink on a daily basis, even more often than regular English black tea. I wanted to see the plantations because of the look of them – stepped rows of low bushes making a distinctive pattern as they rise up the hillside unlike any landscape I’ve seen before. After stopping for a few glasses (how could we not?) we went to wander through the plantation just before the rain came. And when it came it didn’t stop. Not for the rest of the holiday.

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Walking out of the village past a group of wet and miserable looking european teenagers who were just entering, we were a little unsure how we would even get back to the lake. Now quite a drive away there was no way any cabs would be empty in the rain and walking back would take hours. We found a public bus stop and despite not being sure where it would take us, waited under a bush until it arrived. We were none the wiser getting on board wether it was going in the right direction or not and one stop after we sat down about 2000 other people got on and trapped us. Miraculously we started to recognise stuff out of the window and made an exit when we had a chance, about 20 minutes walk from the hotel. Soaked through by the time we got back we gave up and went to bed for the rest of the day and watched popular turn of the century science fiction action film: The Matrix. It was really f*cking good.

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there’s Frank

Our last day was also rainy and gloomy but we walked the main causeway anyway because its the thing you have to do in Hangzhou. Personally I thought the other things we’d done in Hangzhou beat it hands down but would I have said the same thing on a gorgeous day without the crowds? Maybe not. Our main triumph was finding a street food man (with a missing finger) selling amazing stuffed Paratha  flat breads full of onions, seaweed and mushrooms. They were so good and so cheap that after finishing them we turned around and went back for more. Walking into the city for the afternoon it seemed a totally different place with all the shops suddenly open – big lively high streets and all the usual Apple stores, H&Ms and KFC’s that make children of capitalism like ourselves feel secure. With a few hours to kill and no sign of anything like a pub anywhere to be seen we sat in a Pizza Hut looking at the insane menu, drinking Corona’s and waiting for our train. In honour of his famous 2 for 1 for one pizza eating habits from days gone by and convinced that large never means large in this country Frank ordered two large pizzas and caused quite a stir. Every single member of staff in the place must’ve come up to the table to check they had seriously understood the order. “He says he is very hungry” they said to one another. If only he had managed to eat both of them a new Hangzhou legend may have been born. With one large pizza stuffed into a takeaway box we headed to the station to get the train home.

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The face of my husband while I try to engage in conversation…

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…which he is very proud of!DSC05212DSC05195DSC05197DSC05183DSC05208

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With lots of stuff we didn’t manage to see and with it being so easy to get to from Shanghai I’m sure we’ll be back in Hangzhou for a sunny weekend in the future. It was cool to be in China for Chinese New Year but other than an expensive room rate, an *ahem* culturally compelling five hour TV show and a post-trauamatic-stress-disorder-inducing firework display we didn’t get anything out of being here for the actual main few days that we wouldn’t have gotten from just living here during the build up. Next Chinese New Year I think we’ll take the sunny option and go for the piña coladas and ladyboys.

Suzhou 苏州

With a whole week off for Chinese New Year, we booked tickets on the bullet trains to two cities relatively close by and finally got to see some other places in China. First stop was Suzhou (the place we were on our way to when we realised the passports were missing back in October). Suzhou, pronounced soo-joe, is is a major city in the southeast of Jiangsu Province and on the super speed train from Shanghai Hongqiao railway station was only forty minutes away. Hongqiao is the biggest railway station in the whole of Asia and is spread over four gigantic floors. Surprisingly for a station this size and for Shanghai in fact, there was no English language display or announcement. On good advice I went down there the day before we were travelling to pick up the tickets as you can’t use the self service machines without a Chinese National ID card and the queues for the few ticket windows are long at the best of times, let alone national holidays. After a wild goose chase I eventually found the right window and waited in a line for the best part of an hour – standing, as is customary here, right up the arse of the person in front of me so to not have a million people push in. These were obviously people impatient to catch trains and I knew even before I reached the window that I would be unpopular picking up eight tickets at once. It was a slow process with the ticket office lady having to type in our full names and passport numbers for each leg of the journey and I stood blissfully ignorant to what the people behind me were angrily shouting over my shoulder to her. I’d been lead to beleive I would have to pay a 5RMB fee for every ticket I was picking up that wasn’t leaving from that particular train station but either she forgot to charge me or couldn’t bothered trying to explain so I took the tickets and went. It was time consuming but pretty straightforward once you know where to go – trying to do the same thing when time is against you for a train that same day would be hell. Feeling positive that I’d scoped it out and knew what we were in for, we left the next morning in good time arriving at the station with 25 minutes to spare. Once we got upstairs though we were met with another queue about 100 metres long of holiday goers filing sluggishly though a single bag and body scanning security booth. Four identical scanning/security booths stoop closed alongside it on one of the busiest travel weekends of the Chinese calendar. We turned into the impatient people who had been hissing over my head the day before and anxiously watched the clock tick down. Through with four minutes to spare we were puzzled to see that none of the numbered bays seemed to lead to platforms like you’d expect in a train station anywhere else I’d ever been in the world and either way we were at the number 1 end of the longest departure hall in Aisa and our train was leaving from number 30something. We ran. We found it. We made through another passport activated gate, down another escalator to an underground platform where the trains actually leave from and onto the train in time. Just. When I booked the tickets it was about £1.50 more expensive to go first class so we found our big comfy armchair seats and enjoyed the view from the window.

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“reading”

Suzhou is famous in particular for its UNESCO World Heritage List graded classical gardens, said to be the most perfect examples of this kind of Chinese garden design anywhere in the world. Built over the course of the Northern Song to the late Qing dynasties (11th-19th century) they are, according to UNISCO, “representative of the development of Chinese landscape garden design over more than two thousand years and are the most refined form of garden art.” I’d tried to roughly plan getting around to places we wanted to visit using the suzhou metro and on foot with the help of a little english tourist map pdf I’d downloaded to my ipad, which would have been fine if the metro weren’t shut when we arrived and I didn’t have Chinese addresses written down for taxi drivers. We managed to communicate enough to get driven to the largest of the UNESCO gardens which was also walking distance to our guesthouse. A little market selling food and souvenirs different to the same old stuff you get used to seeing in Shanghai ran along the road outside the garden entrance gate. We took a walk up and down it and were immediately more aware of no one at all speaking English at all. Down an alleyway we found the beautiful Pingjiang Street, a long canalside street which lead a the other end to where we were staying. Full of tat shops, bakeries and postcard shops there was a real holiday feel that made me think of seaside towns back home. One of the more bizarre places we went into was a french themed coffee shop with “european” parlour styling obviously directed by someone who had never been anywhere near Europe. We found some lunch and had a look around before heading back up towards the Humble Administrator’s Garden to see what all the fuss was about.

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Dumpling breakfast. We avoided the unnatural coloursed ones shaped like the animals they’re filled with the meat of…

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something something shi something something de something something something

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Entry to the gardens was 60RMB each and a lady near the ticket stand was handing out stickers trying to sell a promotion where for an extra 20RMB you got to go on a boat ride once you were done with the garden. She chatted to us in English and had us sold for the low price, telling us to meet her back there when we were done. Although I’d read this was the biggest of Suzhou’s garden’s I hadn’t expected it to be so huge – wikipedia now tells me 51,950 m2  – with so many different areas, buildings and aspects to it. Neither of us were expecting to like it anywhere near as much as we did but it was seriously gorgeous. The crazy crowds you expect during national holidays were nowhere to be seen and it was super peaceful. The sun was out and actually creating heat for the first time in forever so it finally felt like spring. Nb. Frank would like to make sure he is credited for all of the following photographs:

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Hobbit holes!

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Windows that frame tiny pictures outside

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rocks in square frames..

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rocks in circular frames…

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rocks to block out the sun

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Chinese children on rocks

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Selfie sticks are entirely serious things here.

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There he is. He didn’t take this one. Check out the kid with the parasol behind him ❤

After a few hours of exploring the garden we came back out and went to find the lady with the boat ticket. She wasn’t there anymore but a man who spoke no English but recognised us by the stickers she’d given us lead us over a bridge and away from the canal where we’d expected to be taking the boat and through a car park to a bus. We said boat in english a few times unhelpfully, I don’t know the word in Chinese and the man nodded, mimed rowing a boat and pointed us onto the bus. We got on much to the dismay of the busload of Chinese tourists staring at us and whispering Wàiguó rén (foreign people!) to each other and sat down in the only space left at the back of the bus. Our confusion turned to regret almost instantly as the bus engine started and the man at the front of the bus stood up with a microphone and started shouting in Chinese over the loudest most tinny speaker system known to man. This is nothing like the volume of your regular guided tour – never before has ear splitting been so fitting a description. At first I tried to listen in and translate bits for Frank and work out where the hell the bus was taking us but to no avail. After twenty minutes of driving far away from the nice little area where our guesthouse was and that I actually had a map of we stopped and were unloaded and put on a really big boat on a much wider stretch of water with much less to see out of the windows. I managed to ask how long the ride was and was told 50 minutes. It was sunny at least and 50 minutes wasn’t too much time out of our day for a boat ride before being dropped back off near the guesthouse – better to just see it through than be lost in the middle of nowhere. As the boat started the guide picked up a new microphone and continued what he had started on the bus in an effort to drain every possible shred of enjoyment we had decided to try and have from the boat ride away from us…

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Frank’s happy face…

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So genuinely happy to discover the windows opened so we could stick our heads out and drown out the sound of the guide.

Getting back on the bus after the boat ride we were in good enough spirits that it had been annoying but something that just happens and not too time consuming. This time the guide walked up and down the aisle with his microphone trying to sell CDs of something (his commentary perhaps so we could relive this bliss over and over again in the comfort of our own home?) and kept saying “next stop” and “three stops” from what I could make out. Just as we twigged that the bus wasn’t taking us back to where we hoped it would, we pulled into the car park of a silk factory and where everyone got off again. Unable to bear walking at snails pace round a museum with the 200 decibel man we cut our losses and decided to try and find our way back by ourselves. Trying to find the exit it was evident that the museum was a merely a tiny front for a multi storey silk pyjama shop. Out on the street we found a bus stop with a street map and a I chatted in broken Chinese to a man who pointed out where we were… faaaaar away from where we needed to be. After fifteen minutes walking and feeling a bit miserable about having our day hijacked by the surprise bullshit tour of Suzhou we were lucky to hail an empty cab and get a ride back to an area we recognised. It was late afternoon by now so we went to find the guesthouse which was thankfully straightforward enough. The Pingjiang Lodge is an old family house with beautiful coutyards which has been converted into a 40 room guesthouse with old world style furniture in all the rooms in the style of the classical mansions of the region. It had mixed reviews online where I found it but looked so cool I was happy to book it an see. With the higher end room the price of your bog standard premiere inn room in the UK it was hardly a huge financial gamble even if it was as tatty as some of the reviews said. We were totally charmed by the place and would stay here again in a heartbeat. I think the bad reviews must have been from people expecting 5 star luxury whereas this place is a little rough around the edges and creaky but hugely more interesting an experience than a clone hotel room in a high rise. And for £70 they offered to arrange a Limousine back to Shanghai… maybe next time.

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Fancy enough bed for ya? I want to buy one of these.DSC04274DSC04272DSC04268

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And a wooden bathtub. So amazing.

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that’s as good as it’s gonna get for a picture of both of us until I get my selfie stick.

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This is a picture of Frank trying to order a club sandwich. “Please can I order a Club Sandwich? a CLUB SANDWICH. no, CLUB……SANDWICH. C L U B…. S A N D W H I C H”

They didn’t have any club sandwiches left so we went out to explore our area by night and find some food. Pinjiang street and central suzhou were all lit up and alive in the dark with even more stuff open than in the daytime. Shutters on one of the windows had opened to reveal a man in a workshop window sculpting models of people while they waited. I wanted one but Frank didn’t want to queue and worried what we might come out like. We wandered up and down and found a lot of street food even weirder than we’d seen in Shanghai – call me unadventurous but I don’t wan’t to eat boiled chicken feet. Eventually we tracked down a nice chilled out place I’d read about online called the bookworm for some beers and burgers. And White Russians. The owner’s identically dressed identical twin daughters sat playing something like music on a stand up piano but we’re too good at hiding to be photographed. Bookshelves lining the walls were full of old library books categorised into sections for you to look at. Sitting in the foreign language section we flicked through a book called Practical English Usage which reaffirmed how insanely difficult English must be to learn, and made us feel proud to at least have that. After a good dinner we went back to the lodge to watch Chinese TV channells and make use of the wooden bathtub.

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With more nice weather the next morning we wandered round the courtyards at the Pingjiang Lodge then took a half hour walk down to the next closest one of the Suzhou gardens – The Master of the Nets. Regarded, apparently, for its mastering the techniques of relative dimension, contrast, foil, sequence and depth, and borrowed scenery, I couldn’t have described so specifically what techniques made it so beautiful but it was clearly a masterpiece of garden design! Way smaller than the one we’d seen the previous day but succinctly using the same ideas it was a gorgeous place to spend the morning wandering around. With less high a profile this one isn’t such a tourist trap and we enjoyed the place pretty much to ourselves.

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When we were done we spent the afternoon walking into Suzhou city centre in general direction of  Taoist temple that we saw on the map but didn’t bother going inside to look around. We skipped the street food lunch on offer of deep fried face huggers on sticks and enjoyed a decadent feast of cheese and pickle sandwiches in the M&S cafe. We were on holiday after all.

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We did go eat at the Pingjiang restaurant opposite our lodge in the evening for dinner which was Chinese food and really good. Newest tactic for ordering least disturbing food is to go for everything that seems to be a vegetable and then get extra noodles.

After finishing we headed back out to search for somewhere close by for a few more beers and the holiday street that had been so busy the night before, for the most part was now totally dead. It was late on a Sunday evening but we kept going, stopping at the table of man who had wheeled a desk out onto the street and was sitting under the light of a lamp painting little pictures with calligraphy brushes onto blank bookmark sized pieces of paper which he was selling for 10RMB (£1) each. Franky spent some time rooting through them and we picked out six that we liked and bought them to put in a frame. His birds reminded me of Ralph Steadman’s. Carrying on up the street and on the verge of giving up and going home, we found a mirage like sign written in English in a narrow doorway saying “IT’S A PUB WALK IN”. We walked in and low and behold it was a pub…or perhaps someones house dressed as a pub. But there were dogs and cats and a lady offering to sell us beers and telling us to find a seat so we took them out into a garden room where the lights were off and a projector was on with the menu screen open for Sleepless in Seattle. Sure that they would kick us out before long we managed to make it play anyway and sat there until 1AM watching the whole movie. It was an unexpected thing to be doing and Sleepless in Seattle isn’t quite the film i remembered it as from being a little girl but with a few more beers from the woman in the “pub” we were happy to be watching anything in English.

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NILES!

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Checking out of the lodge the following morning we had a long day to kill before our train back to Shanghai at 8.30PM. I had shoddy directions on how to ‘easily’ get a bus from Suzhou to Tong-Li, one of the four famous ancient Wu region water towns. Built on ancient canals, It’s called the “Venice of the East” and according to other travellers, well worth a visit. Anxious about making it there and back in a day I dragged Frank hungover and without breakfast to three different bus stations only to be told each time to go back to another one. Certain I was saying it right (and I was!) I expected Tong-Li to be a more obvious place that people would be heading to regularly and for the transport to be more straightforward but people seemed confused when I said we wanted to get there. My tatty directions said it was about a 50 minute drive so we just hailed a cab and asked how much it would cost for him to take us. We haggled and settled at 120RMB (£12) – significantly more than the elusive bus fare of 8RMB each but time was against us and we had exhausted my Chinese skills long ago. Frank somehow went to sleep while I wished I’d sat in the front where there was a seatbelt for the most death defying car ride of my life – as soon as we were out of the city it became 100mph into oncoming traffic of rikshaws, tuktuks, clapped out mini vans filled with 30 people and various wandering farm animals. I’ve no idea what these places between places were except seriously poor and still quite populated. Houses were little roadside shacks, shops we tables under tarpaulins stacked with bottles of water and rubbish was everywhere. In the little shallow rivers or beginnings of canals there was plastic waste mounted up as far as the eye could see and giant clumps of it sat for stretches along the roadside, it was pretty depressing. After a while we joined more main road and eventually the driver stopped and announced we had arrived so we paid up and got out. It wasn’t the obvious opening to a beautiful water town like I’d anticipated – it was a car park with an illegible map. A shop with the only english word we could see anywhere in print “COFFEE” was about thirty metres away so we decided to try and get some food and ask the staff to point us in the right direction. This was definitely the most remote part of China we’d been in yet and people stared at us as we walked down the street feeling possibly, slightly, out of our depth with no real map, no access to the internet and our taxi long gone. Inside the restaurant we were met with the smoke of 1000 cigarettes and a lady greeted us and took us to sit bizarrely in a grotty little room labelled VIP with a small table, two fuchsia pink sofas, some dusty plastic flowers placed haphazardly around and a decoratively dressed window looking back out to the car park. She spoke fast in Chinese and I told her our Chinese wasn’t very good and asked if she spoke English. She didn’t. She continued to speak very fast in Chinese and I struggled to understand. When we asked about Tong-Li and pointed to our little map that was only written in English she nodded and pointed in a direction up the road. I asked in Chinese if we could walk and she nodded again which was the best information going. The menu was a point and guess job but with a super saturated photograph of a pizza and chips on the back page we pointed to that one then she shut us in our VIP box and left us. Our window-display seat proved to be of more entertainment to those outside who continued to stare at us as we sat there for a very long time waiting for the food. When it arrived it we wished we’d just gone pot-luck from the Chinese food mystery menu as it appeared no one had ever ordered a pizza and chips before. The chips had been deep fried to a crisp and the pizza was floating on a plate of oil as the bread broke up on the bottom. We tried to cut it up and rescue it with paper napkins but no such luck. We spent fifteen minutes eating what we could off the top and miserably paid the bill.

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VIP. I really wish I’d taken a photo of the pizza now but at the time it just the most depressing thing in the world…

In hindsight the next part didn’t really last so long, but with no end in sight it felt like forever. We walked in the direction the waitress had pointed only to find a whole lot more nothing, crossed a big dual carriageway into a weird park on a road island where there were photographs on boards at least of the sort of water town scenes I’d seen on the internet. I tried asking people how to get there. One woman backed away from me slowly not speaking at all – I don’t know if I scared her or if she was just doing the backwards walking that old ladies like to do here for exercise but she didn’t want to help either way. Eventually a man I asked engaged in conversation and I managed to understand him as he told us it was a twenty minute was back out onto the main road and down the side. We thanked him and went that way. After twenty minutes and still nothing much to be seen I went into a shop and spoke to a lady who said to carry on for twenty minutes in the same direction and mimed the shape of an arch. I felt more worried than anything, wondering if the people directing us were even understanding me properly and if I was understanding them back. Frank after no breakfast and the worlds worst pizza was pretty miserable about being dragged from pillar to post looking for an imaginary place I had found on the internet so after another twenty five or so minutes of trudging we were over the moon to see what looked like some kind of civilisation and an arch like the last lady had gestured. Sure enough there was a sign with English writing at the bottom saying Tong-Li Historic Water Village, hallelujah! Now 2PM we still had a good amount of time to see the place and try to find the last bus back to suzhou which left at 5.30. We felt better positioned to find it on the way back as there were some signposts and tuk tuk drivers shouting bus as we walked down through the arch. Tong-Li was beautiful and took a boat ride around the canals to see the place and let our bad moods subside, which they did. Walking about we only saw one other westener the whole afternoon and people’s interest in us continued, with people asking to take pictures of us and children coming over to say hello. We found a spot to sit and have a few big cheap Tsingdao beers and people watch for the rest of our time there before making a laughably uncomplicated journey to the bus stop to take us back to Suzhou. Who knows how but three streets of zig zagging lead us back to the car park (and bus station) where the taxi driver had dropped us offin the first place – only entering from the opposite direction. I think if we’d walked the opposite way to start with the whole thing would’ve been more straightforward. Well now we know… DSC04587

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Stone carved meat, anyone?

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that moment when you realise you’re dressed as the front cover of blonde on blonde

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Back at suzhou station with time to spare we spent out last change on pens that look like but bullet trains before boarding our bullet train and going the hell home. Back in Shanghai we realised quite how westernised a city this really is and how easy it is to get by here by comparison. It was a great trip though and some lessons were learned for next time we head out into the unknown. Next stop – Hangzhou…

Fourth Impressions 第四个印象

Looking at my stack of half written blog post drafts, this one is waaaaay overdue. I was going to just post photos of my new (and impressive) collection of giant red and rainbow sequinned fish decorations which apparently signify the start of the new Chinese year… year of the sheep. Perhaps I’ve been ripped off. Anyway there’s time for those, but now let me clear out my draft box and make brain space for a whole new list of alien observations of this crazy city we’ve found ourselves living in.

Internet Censorship:

We’ve been having some issues with our VPN getting blocked over the past two weeks – seemingly irreconcilably in the case of my poor sad little ipad whose sole purpose now is to play Ticket To Ride the virtual board game with me as I cocoon in the corner on public transport. Having not had such continuous problems accessing the uncensored internet until now, It’s become frustratingly apparent that me not being able to use instagram ever again just when I started following @welcometotwinpeaks is only the tip of the sink-the-Titanic size iceburg. Known affectionately as the Great Firewall of China, the ‘real’ internet here is shockingly shitty. During a three day loss of access to our VPN before christmas I was puzzled to discover even my own blog was blocked. The list of popular and useful sites that fall under the umbrella of ‘destroying the order of society’ extend way past Google, Facebook and Youtube while pretty much all of the rest of the internet falls into the block-worthy category of ‘promoting feudal superstitions, sexually suggestive material, gambling, violence or murder’. So what wholesome digital trace of humanity is left? you ask, and I’ll tell you: F*cking Bing.com of all things as the only decently functional search engine to let you navigate the selective news stories that make the cut. For now, on my desktop at least I am back in the land of google where I can do society-destroying things like check my email and watch the great british sewing bee and post pictures of ciabatta on my blog.
If our VPN goes kaputt once and for all I think I’ll cancel our internet completely and see if I can find a fake Encarta 95 CD-ROM.

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pretty much sums it up..

Canine clothing:

While you do see the occasional dog in a dog-coat back home, doggie wardrobes here are next level. I need to start taking more pictures because they deserve a post of their own with the Jane Fonda style leg warmers and headband sets or full on denim dungarees I’ve seen them wearing. The weirdest was a Chihuahua wearing a coat with a real fur collar that matched the coat of the owner, I’m kicking myself for being without a camera for that one. It’s not uncommon to see them with ears and paws dyed in neon shades of pinks and purples or being pushed along in tiny prams like babies. Almost all of these are tiny dogs but you see the odd Kunming Wolfdog in a coat that looks like it was meant for a five year old. With such a large population of strays on the streets and stories of dognapping rife here I wonder quite genuinely if the clothing is an extra statement of ownership rather than just in the name of fashion. No one eats a dog in human clothes. While the extreme vanity-pups seem to be abused by the trends, the majority are obviously well loved pets. I had a moment with this little weirdo a few weeks ago and think they might be my most Chinese photos to date.

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Oh Hi

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…but you’re naked from the waist down.

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um.. how does it poo?

Bellies out: This is definitely an impression left over from the summer months and one that we found very odd when we first got here. Men of all shapes and ages roll their shirts up to their nipples and let their stomachs hang out when the weather is hot. Seemingly only a male practice, we saw the unabashed bellies of business men and grandpa’s alike until November. Countdown to them coming back out is on. Hopefully in time for my Mum’s visit in May!

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fashion faux pas? Apparently not. But why wear a long sleeved shirt in the first place?

The shops never close:

Organised opening hours do not exist. Even in the shops which seem to be extensions of people’s living rooms – they’re always there ready to sell. Going out for milk at 5am, still jetlagged from Christmas and in need of the Weetabix we’d lined our suitcases with on return from the UK, I wasn’t sure if anywhere would be open but low and behold the same woman as always was right there still greeting me and asking if I needed help looking for something in her one-aisle corridor of a corner shop. As I went to pay I was startled to see an unconscious child’s head poking out from under the counter, I can only assume he has a little dog bed under there.

In a similar state of jet lagged insomnia, we went out in search of materials to make an attempt at fixing the record player we’d brought back from the uk but which had cracked under the base of the turntable. After painstakingly picking which of the records to bring with us when we moved here in the first place, we decided last minute against bringing the little portable player that we got as a wedding gift for fear it wouldn’t survive the journey but had a hard time locating an alternative over here which wasn’t a full on faux victorian phonograph, horn and all. With space and weight to spare in our luggage coming back after our return trip, I bubble wrapped an unused turntable tape deck devoid of sentimental value from my parents’ house and hoped for the best. Ta-daaaaa, smashed. Amazingly with a little imagination, some industrial strength Chinese Araldite and a packet of flat kebab skewers we actually got it up and running again, as good as new. Thanks 24hour food ‘n’ glue shop.

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Jet lagged glue sniffers club. Wearing my Vicky Miller costume.

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Finally the records are being played.

Super Noodles:

We could gripe about the food here ’til the cows come home. It’s weird and confusing and experiments often go badly, but bitching about the scarcity of avocados to a fellow expat the other day, she laughed and said there would be things from here we would one day miss too. I thought about it for a bit and realised she was right – fāngbiànmiàn or “convenience noodles” directly translated are a seriously evolved concept here. From healthier and more sophisticated Pot Noodle style just-add-water broth mixes to dried noodles of every width, colour and ingredient base you can imagine to fridges full of fresh egg noodles, the choice is immense and they’re all delicious. At first buying them to substitute spaghetti (Yìdàlì miàn – Itallian noodles) I soon ditched the tomatoes and started serving them with stir fried vegetables and sesame oil. Broccoli, Garlic and Chill noodles with sesame and soy is now a staple evening meal which I’m sure wouldn’t be so cheap and fresh to make as back in the UK as it is here. Certainly the abundance of pumpkin noodles, purple corn noodles, buckwheat noodles, barley noodles and a tonne of other types whose names I can’t read are new to us and embraced, fully replacing any of the pasta we used to eat. Tuna noodle bake is a decadent venture on the weeks when we can actually get some cheese.

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Your average supermarket noodle aisle

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My favourite kind “Protein Birthday Ramen”. I eat them when it’t even my birthday.Cabbage patch flower beds

Skin Bleaching:

Just as women are making themselves look worse all over the west with fake tan, the women here are striving for completely the opposite. Paleness is the standard for beauty here, so much so that if you’re not careful what you pick up in terms of skin products you’ll quite possibly be buying something with a lightening agent. Its shocking and bizarre to see when you’re not used to it – especially as some people go so overboard with it that they look deathly, sickly pale in their faces compared to the complexion of the rest of their bodies. It’s an anciently established concept of beauty that seems to be indulged by all ages and generations and like all body modification practices there are various lengths people go to to achieve what they want, despite concerns for the damage it could be doing. For more immediate and long lasting whitening, some people have laser pigmentation removal surgery. Telling someone they look pale or white here is a compliment. Looking around the subway when the trains are packed like sardines at the efforts girls have gone to to crimp and fry their beautiful poker straight hair into unkempt curls like my natural ones which I formerly spent years straightening I am particularly struck by the madness of it all. Universally we seem to all conform to wanting what we don’t have and failing to see what we do.

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If only it were as simple as having a big metal zip on your face…

Mad Manners:

Blending in with foreign etiquette can be feel like more of a barrier than the language sometimes and certainly has more potential for humiliation than simply being misunderstood. I can only imagine this is a worse scenario for the Chinese outside of China, because here pretty much anything goes. Spitting is completely the norm – big, noisy, pollution filled loogies. People or all ages and sexes spit all over the pavements, into the bins inside stations and malls, out of car windows and sometimes in the stairwells of buildings which also seem to be no rules zones where everyone smokes under no smoking signs and leaves the butts all over the floor. As a westerner it’s pretty gross but we got used to it quickly, so long as the spit doesn’t land too close to your shoes that is. Burping and farting are also done without embarrassment, especially by taxi drivers. Riding along in a car next to a guy you can’t communicate with but who is nonchalantly letting off a string of the noisiest farts you’ve ever heard is a strange experience. If you try to laugh at it the fact its funny doesn’t even register because its just a difference in social acceptability. Still, I can’t help but feel a kind of admiration for the brashness of it and wonder what else any of us could unwittingly do without realising that it might offend or disgust someone from a different culture. In some parts of China it’s rude not to burp at the end of a meal you’ve been served as a signal of appreciation, while in other parts clearing your plate is a sign to the host that you’re not satisfied and want more food. This misunderstanding could go on and on.

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well at least you get some excellent signs as a result. Who got to design the no exploding suitcases icon?

Cabbage patch flower beds:

I have no trivia or explanation for this one, but I like it. All over Shanghai the flowerbeds and boxes are fleshed out white and purple cabbages. In some places I’ve also seen beds of chilli plants. They look strange but great. I want to know if anyone gets to eat them.

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Some cabbage grabbers making a break for it in a get away car.

And now for the bit you’ve all be scrolling down for: the pictures of my Chinese New Year decorations. 

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Frank’s fish

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My Fish. Of course they’re called Matt and Will, holla.

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And a sheep for good measure. Or a goat. Apparently they’re the same animal…. which isn’t true.

Snazzy, no? Unfortunately we ate all the Chinese chocolate coins before I had the chance to photograph them. I’m sure we can eat more. New Years Day is Thursday and the fireworks have already been going off for five days! I’ve been so swept up in the Chinese celebrations I forgot it was pancake day, which I’m pretty pissed off about… but you don’t get a week off work for pancake day I suppose. We are getting out of Shanghai and heading to Hangzhou to see the new new year in by the west lake, after a long just weekend spent in Suzhou and Tongli. Many photos to follow, but for now Xīnnián kuàilè 新年快乐

Counterfeit culture 冒牌文化

Here is a post about one of the most remarkably different aspects of life in China – the fakes. I had heard about the fake markets before we moved over here – assuming that they were shady, unadvertised places off the beaten track where dodgy vendors sold fake rolexes pinned into the lining of their trench coats. The reality couldn’t be more different, with multi storey mega malls unashamedly touting fake versions of everything you can think of. Fake markets are everywhere and even the seemingly smaller ones will unwittingly suck you in for a whole day and spit you out wearing a pair of fake Ray Bans and feeling hopeful about your new magical Nintendo DS cartridge which may or may not have all the games ever created on it. Entering one of these places without a surefire idea of what you’re looking for and how much you want to pay for it (we got good at bargaining quick!) is financial suicide – its bizarre what you can be convinced you’d like a fake version of having never much wanted a real one in the first place.

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Image from alleyesonshanghai.com showing your standard fake market set up. Photographing stuff leads to people thinking you want to buy it or telling you off if you don’t buy it so my photos aren’t so great..

The salespeople lining these commercial labyrinths don’t obviously belong to any one particular shop and watch you like a hawk for any sign of interest while shouting “LADY YOU WANT BAG?” “LADY YOU LIKE CHEAP?” “HELLO LOOK SCARF” “YOU WANT THE U.G.G BOOT” (pronounced you gee gee boot) “YOU LIKE GIFT AND T SHIRT?” – it’s difficult but best to avoid eye contact or else you’ll be dragged into a shop and shown everything for sale one item at a time. I tend to pretend I don’t understand English until I actually want to ask the price of something, which I do in Chinese then explain that I’m not a tourist. Once they name their price the fun begins – the general rule of thumb being to haggle down to 15-20% of the original asking figure. You have to go low to be met in the middle and some persistence really pays off – nine times out of ten if you refuse their lowest price (always somehow just for me! I never fail to inspire such generosity…) and actually go to leave the shop, they will follow you out and give in to the price you wanted. God help you if you refuse at this point, which I did once, because the woman doing the selling had grabbed me quite aggressively by the arm and I didn’t want to buy something from her that I could get for the same price two stalls down. “WHY YOU SO CRAZY?!” she yelled at me as I wandered off. Why she so crazy? Another tactic is to only put the amount you want to spend in cash in one pocket so you can show that that’s “all you have”. It’s a game that didn’t come naturally to us at all when we first moved over. I loved the markets for their eccentricity but wished stuff just had a price label or that I had any idea what it was really worth. There seem to be varying degrees of quality in the fakes from place to place, certain “highest quality” fake designer goods are sold to you with fake versions of the special tags which are meant to distinguish fake goods from real. The lines of authenticity blur and do make you question what it is you’re ever paying for.

The only labelled clothing which I have worn for my entire life and know the real version of well enough to measure the fakes up to are Converse Hi Top trainers, and I can’t fault the fakes. I actually cannot tell the difference and am confused about where the “fakes” come from. At 70 RMB (£7) for a single pair and down to as little as 45RMB each if you buy enough pairs at once I’m fully intending to move home with enough pairs to last me a long time.

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Fake electronics are everywhere, the vendors happily demo the speakers for you (weather you ask them to or not). For £15 you can get some that sound pretty great to me.

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I don’t even get how adobe creative cloud can come on a disc..?

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HEY LADY YOU WANT BAG?

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My fake weakness…

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…and the fake shoe shop of joy.

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Fake toys! They’re cheap but I can’t guarantee they’re not toxic!

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..especially with this guy lurking in there.. any ideas who he’s supposed to be a fake version of??

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Who didn’t always want one of those FBI Female Body Inspector shirts but couldn’t quite justify the price tag? Dreams come true in China. This shop is particularly weird.

I’m unclear on what the trademark laws here can be, if any exist at all, for the fake industry to be what it is. There are in fact some dodgy dealers who approach you in a hush-hush manner near the fake markets and show you a cardboard menu of extremely high end watches and bags which you don’t tend to see on the market stalls. I wonder why what they’re selling can be illegal if none of the rest of it is.. perhaps the rule they’re breaking isn’t to do with copyright infringement at all but not having a license to trade in the market.. As someone who has suffered from having their own work ripped off and mass produced (a Chinese website was brought to our attention selling mass produced versions of my small business’ one off designs, actually using our websites photographs) I would like to say I’m against counterfeit culture in principal. It is however an unavoidable status quo here and f*ck it, when else am I ever going to able to use an Alexander McQueen clutch purse as a pencil case?

Honestly the fakes industry can’t be negatively affecting the designer brand business too much in Shanghai where the huge availability of the fakes provides a whole new level of status to having the real thing. At the richer end of the spectrum it is very much a city of commerce populated by ladies in Louboutin’s carrying Burberry bags (hows that for my effort to name really expensive brands…? I had to google Louboutin) Perhaps people will start hanging laminated receipts from their bags to prove how much they paid for them. Until the fake receipts come in…

Alongside every good fake market is maze of tailors’ stalls whose message is this: bring in a picture – any picture of a red carpet dress, tuxedo, royal wedding dress or outfit from the musical CATS (is that just me?) and we will make it for you! CHEAP! Perfectly executed copies of dresses so-and-so wore to the Oscars in 2013 stand beside copies of Armani suits and classic Audrey Hepburn esque coats. The choice is never ending, with some places more elaborate than others. Getting a full suit made for a man with three shirts costs less than 100 pounds and after getting a specific place recommended from a friend, me and Frank both got winter coats tailor made. The experience of effectively designing it from scratch while surrounded by options to try on, endless fabric swatches and catalogues full of cuttings from designer magazines was somewhat overwhelming. Saying yes to every possible embellishment could easily leave you looking like you’re ready to host The Crystal Maze (Frank was seriously in danger of this…) so we ditched the magazines and made adaptations to some of the simpler styles on offer. At 60 quid each we are super happy with them and the quality of the fabric and construction. Feel free to send us your measurements and a photo of your dream tuxedo.

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Tuxedo-a-go-go

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One for the Alan Partridge wannabes..

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Why don’t I wear these every day?

The fakes extend beyond the markets too, which at first I thought were maybe some law exempt duty free style zones where at least the fact everything was fake was overtly acknowledged. But no, certain shops which really don’t seem like fake shops and have fixed price items also exist. Any slick HMV-looking DVD/Music shop you go into will be fully stocked with very high quality fakes. I’ve seen stand alone fully branded fake shops (theres an Yves Saint Laurent in this shitty mall where a real Yves Saint Laurent would never ever be) and in Kunming, capital city of China’s Yunnan Province, there is a whole fake IKEA which has reproduced all of their furniture and taken all their branding. Also when shopping for “antiques” in Shanghai you don’t have to be too shrewd to notice the repeat items cropping up in every shop, though they are effectively bashed about and rolled in dust for the sake of appearances – credit where it’s due.

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Brand new antiques! Hot off the press! It must be some poor souls full time job to grimey them up.

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Fake Ikea. I may have to take a train over there just to see it.

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Best pictures I can find of our made to order coats..

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I’m obstructing mine with my Baozi street dumplings.

So there you have it. A confusing and enticing omnipresence of forgery. Stay tuned for a foreigners review of the most confusing and enticing place in cyberspace: Taobao.com – China’s answer to Ebay and my newest obsession.