My Time in China, 2008

+ I miss China!

I haven't been to China since I left there in November 2008, and I'd love to go back and visit soon to see what massive changes have gone on there since I was last in Shanghai. Here are some of my photos taken from when I lived there in 2008:

Me at Tianmen Square

This was taken around sunset in the lovely city of Nanjing.

The Chinese people were, by and large, so friendly and warm. I love this lady's eccentric hat!

Golden Week 375
We camped near this stunning tea farm near a town called Anji.
View from the steps of Dr Sun Yat-Sen's Mausoleum
View from the steps of Dr Sun Yat-Sen's Mausoleum, Zhonghan National Park.
Chinese man on pavement, holding silver metallic boxes
Chinese man on pavement, holding silver metallic boxes and wearing a big smile!

+ Reflections on my time in China

Living in Shanghai throws its fair share of obstacles at you – what with shrewd landlords pinching every kwai in your pocket, the temptation of McDonald’s home delivery, coping with getting to work in ankle-high rain, it seems the language barrier is the last thing on your mind!  Here is a random collection of my reflections on China (I wrote this ages ago but never got round to publishing the post until now)...

What I was totally unprepared for was the sheer difference in moods in my time in the two countries.  The four months I spent away from the UK coincided with the first stages of the British recession.  Shanghai was buzzing with movement, what with all the construction sites dotted about the city and the daily changes to my local neighbourhood there. Back home in the UK however, I really felt a sense of depression all around the country. Every time you turn on the television there’s bad news about the economy, and everyone on the street looks forlorn with the majority never even raising a smile. A good deal of British people I knew living out in the country kept re-iterating how badly they wanted to stay in China and not go back to the UK. At least in China, there is this unstoppable enthusiasm for life, with even near-centenarians cheerfully strolling the streets with their carrier bags of green vegetables. The Shanghai Expo of 2010 is starting to make its mark on the Shanghai landscape, with the new Cool Docks development having opened by the Bund and new metro stations being carved into the ground.

Of course, I now hear that even China is experiencing a slowing economy, but it was amazing to see heaving crowds of well-to-do Chinese bustling around the newly opened Marks and Spencer’s on Nanjing Xi Lu paying the equivalent of £5 for pasta sauce! Now I’m back home, the newly opened Westfield shopping centre is always just that little bit too empty, and the shops are more often than not struggling for visitors. If I get a chance on my round-the-world trip to visit China again, I would love to see if there is any marked change on its aura since the global downturn has got into full swing. Perhaps the 2010 Expo will be hit by heavily reduced Western businessmen visiting the area. Many people ask me, “so what’s China like?” and it really does defy description. I might mention the hectic lifestyle, the uniqueness of its people, or perhaps the beautiful National gardens and temples.... but there are almost too many ways to sum up China. I usually just say “you have to see it to really believe it”!  The inability to label current-day Shanghai makes it very hard for me to convince my friends just how mind-blowing living there was. One of the strange things for me is that you can go for hours walking around the city and not see another Westerner, and yet this city is allegedly the most Westernised city in China. Sometimes once you leave such a place it is hard to accurately remember all of the minute details that made up your experience there. I came across an e-mail I sent to a friend after I had been living in Shanghai for a couple of months, and below are some of the points I made to try to convey the quirkiness of living in the city!

 + To get proper fruit and veg in Shanghai is a mission, my local Chinese supermarket sells cheap fruit but the majority is mouldy, misshapen and has flies swarming around it. You have to go to the major Western supermarkets such as the one above Jing’An Temple station or Carrefour in Zhongshan Park. To eat basic items such as nice apples or salad, you will probably have to pay twice the price of what you would pay at home.

 + As expected, the Chinese culture has very different notions of what constitutes acceptable public behaviour. One of my friends saw an old guy actually shit on the pavement in broad daylight, and he even had toilet paper with him to clear up after himself!!! In the poor areas behind where my office was most of the locals wash in tubs outside their houses, and little children wee wherever they like because the majority don’t wear nappies but just have detachable panels on their trousers.

+ There’s no denying it, the city is full of rubbish and is pretty smelly. Also, on the touristy sites and on postcards the Bund is always accompanies with a blissful sunset or clear blue sky, but a blue sky in Shanghai is a complete rarity! Most of the time the sky is so muggy you can barely see more than a few skyscrapers in the distance, and I even noticed the impact of the poor air on my own body. I felt unhealthier, although I think part of that was due to my habit of smoking a whole lot more in Shanghai due to the cheapness of cigarettes (less than 50p a packet usually).

+ Public transport is dirt-cheap, but its users have absolutely no common-sense – instead of making way for people leaving the carriage, people stand in the doorway and then pull the most unpleasant face, as if they are shocked that they are getting pushed about! There are dozens of people all struggling to get into the same carriage at once, and it can be quite a violent experience. I remember seeing one mother holding her baby and I felt genuinely worried about their safety due to all the pushing and shoving.

+ There are endless shops in massive shopping malls and yet I found it very hard to find items that I liked. One of my favourite shops out there was called ‘Codes Combine’ which has a American Apparel feel to it and seemed a bit like an upmarket H&M.

 + I miss having a thrice-weekly maid coming to my home and tidying up all the mess I made... not to mention washing dishes and making the bathroom spotless. It’s amazing that for such a little amount of money you can make small changes to your life that make you feel like some extravagant princess! I guess there is not much more I can say to convey the reality of living in Shanghai – you will just have to go there to experience it for yourself :)

+ A weekend in Nanjing (early November)

A train ride lasting little more than two hours takes you from Shanghai into the city of Nanjing. Despite my belated start (got drunk night before and so missed the train that my friends took!) I made it into Nanjing Train Station at around 4pm. I was pleasantly surprised by the serenity of the lake a few metres away from the station. Couples, families and lonesome Chinese men wander around its perimeter, and I was especially lucky to be there when the colours of the sky began to warm before the sun set.

Some of the people I’ve spoken to before my trip, and after, weren’t that taken with the city... I can understand why the nightlife would fail to compare with that of Shanghai’s, but I really appreciated the national parks located just outside the main city centre. Before I discovered that area, I took a walk around the local neighbourhood of my youth hostel. The market was thriving, with bargain stores blockaded with people eager to get silky scarves for less than 30RMB (£3), and rows of pet shops. The pet shops moved me but for all the wrong reasons. The little puppies and rabbits were gorgeous, but the circumstances they were kept in were shocking to me. One crate had a batch of puppies all shivering with cold, and to top it off there was a used chocolate wrapper in the cage that one dog was sniffing at... I was the only person who stuck my arm in to get rid of it, because obviously chocolate can be poisonous to dogs!

Like other Chinese towns and cities I’ve visited, Nanjing had its usual array of street food and temples, and as me and my friends discovered when we went for drinks, there’s even a development similar to XinTandi in Shanghai. Western-style bars and nightclub dominate the 1912 bar street area. The bar we ended up at was in a sumptuous 20s style with velvet seating and one-off pieces such as gramophones and paintings set the atmosphere. Expect oldstyle ambience with live acts and the odd punter turning up in cocktail dresses and suits.

The next morning I left the hostel to see the sight of yet more Chinese locals dancing and exercising on the pavements of the town! The woman on your left is using either a fan or a pingpong paddle to add some drama to her dance!

After a bit of a mix-up with what bus to get, I went through the city walls and onwards through the valleys towards Zhongshan NP. By buying an all-inclusive ticket for 100RMB (about £10) I was able to visit all the sites, which included Plum Blossom Hill, Dr Sun Yat Sen's Mausoleum, the Linggu pagoda, and the Xiaoling Tomb of the Ming Dynasty. Alongside general sightseeing, i was able to use the frequent connecting buses between the sites, and even allowed time to use one of the makeshift cable cars up the mountain (only to be ushered off and left alone in some sparse mountain area!).

+ I stayed at Nanjing Fuzimiao International Hostel which was adequate enough but next time I will remember to bring my own toilet roll! Also, it is in a convenient location but just make sure you memorise all directions to bus-stops etc to ensure you get around the city effectively.

+ I took a train from the main Shanghai train station to Nanjing; I bought it on the day but it is best to book in advance to get better fares.

+ Food can be done quite cheaply here if you are backpacking, but there also many restaurants here who offer all sorts of dishes for very reasonable prices. And of course, the street food is great here!

Below are some pictures of my stay – I would recommend this town to anyone who wants to really see how beautiful China is!

+ October Travels

Thanks to the Chinese National Holiday at the beginning of October, I managed to escape the bustling metropolis for the first time since I arrived at the end of July.

Xi Tang
My first trip involved hopping on a train to the tranquil water-town of Xi tang. For just 13 kuai we took the train to a town called Jia Shan and upon arrival we were besieged by dozens of taxi drivers eager to take us to Xi Tang, about twenty minutes away. To my surprise there was only a handful of lao wai (foreigners) in the whole tourist area!
Xitang We were lucky enough to be treated to a private performance by a group of locals, in one of the various gardens dotted around Xitang, which was a really moving and memorable moment. A few minutes after that they packed up and left, meaning the large tourist group that got there just after us missed out!
The scenery itself was stunning, and we had time for a boat ride as well. The guy who steered us along the canal had actually been doing his job for a decade or so, and from what we could tell by the smile of his face he wouldn't want to be doing anything else! Highlights of the day trip were the gorgeous cuisine we had for lunch; I was introduced to fried pumpkin and it made me wonder why I would ever bother with plain old potatoes again! After sampling some pure cotton candy (it was bright white!) and making our way around the various lanes, we hailed a taxi... it was a glorified bike with an engine attached to it! I really appreciated the tranquility of the area, and it was a bit of a shock to return to energetic Shanghai later that day.

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The next day, it was up early at 5.45am to make sure caught the bus to Anji, a place which is probably most famous for its bamboo forests. After a hap-hazard start to our journey which involved a change of bus in Hangzhou (the place was rammed due to it being golden week), we arrived to this one-of-a-kind town a few hours later. The second we stepped off the bus and sat in the city centre waiting for some other friends, we seemed to perplex every passer-by. After various shouts of 'hello' and some long, uncomfortable stares, we began to make friends with the locals. A young couple helped us find a place to chill out while waiting for our friends, and when we were near the main road a Chinese pilot who often flies to California was so compelled to help he pulled his car over and proceeded to make sure we were OK and knew exactly where we were going. A pit-stop to a Chinese supermarket will forever reside in my mind; there I am trying to decide what flavour Lays crisps to buy and what should happen but a baby shits on the floor?!?! Only in China does this fail to draw attention of anyone but me. The father found it quite funny and laughed about it, and thankfully after a few minutes an attendant cleared the mess up!

Our friends were due to arrive to Anji by motorbike, but one of their bikes broke down on the way. After arriving in town in search of a repair shop, we gradually became the source of great interest by the locals of the town. It never ceases to amaze me how Chinese people never seem to be on their way to anywhere - they ALWAYS have time to just stand around, chat with complete strangers and act like they don't have a care in the world. It makes me realise how at home no-one seems to know how to just stop and stand still anymore!Golden Week 370
The campsite itself was beside a beautiful lake, with only one other group there - and even they were on the other side of the large area, so in effect it was literally us, our campfire, and the stars! My highlight of the trip was meeting a generous, happy-go-lucky tea-farmer named Shammay (?). We stumbled upon her farm and she beckoned us into her hut where she proceeded to offer us food and allowed us to sit at her table. Despite our inability to verbally communicate with her, we had a great time and I kid you not when I say her face never stopped smiling! Me, Kate and Ylva were pretty moved by the experience... She seemed so much happier than so many people who are seemingly 'better off' than her; it made me wonder why so many people bother working in an office environment when it is obviously so much more fulfilling to have a bit of your own land in Anji valleys! Being surrounded by the picturesque countryside and with as many friends as Shammay, it did indeed make me wonder why so many people are depressed with their 9-to-5 lives when they could be as happy as Shammay.
Golden Week 435 Our friends had the great idea of bringing an inflatable mattress camping, and it doubled up as a raft for passing time on the lake in the gorgeous sunshine. It was such a blessing to be in a place like Anji for sunset, with no background noise other than the local wildlife. It was painful to have to leave this place the next day, but as much as I want to profess my love for the nature, I can only cope with being away from electricity, running taps and a toilet for so long! The next morning, one of our new-found friends from Anji picked us up from the campsite and drove us into town where he proceeded to introduce us to some gorgeous Chinese cuisine. All in all, our excursion to Anji played out before me unlike anything I was expecting, and it was the perfect way to recharge your batteries - you can't underestimate how draining it can be living in Shanghai. There is SO much to do here and people work such long hours, before you know it four months have passed by and you haven't actually spent a full day inside your apartment. Anji was the perfect excuse for me to take some time out and appreciate Shanghai for the hustle and bustle that it is!

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North Temple Pagoda, Suzhou

Another weekend, another destination. Suzhou, China, is very close to Shanghai and so is the number-one choice when you want to see something new and the city doesn't seem as appealing as normal! Despite being delayed by 40-50 mins due to gridlock traffic on the way there, we arrived around midday and promptly headed for the Suzhou silk museum and the North Pagoda Temple.
After a few necessary pictures posing alongside Buddha and in front of the pagoda, we made our way up to the top of the spectacular landmark. After what seemed like forever we reached the top observation deck, where we were treated to some blissful views of Suzhou. Of course, it always helps when you have gorgeous weather! The Humble Administrator's Garden was a big highlight of the day for me. With its larger-than-life lily pads and neverending trails to different corners of the area, I would have loved to spend longer there. We wandered alongside on the town's canals and then made our way into the town in time for sunset.

Before I leave Shanghai for the year, I have just two weekends left!! My and my friend Ylva were considering a trip exploring the suburbs, perhaps Zuibaichi Park and the zoo in Chongming district. Consdering metro costs so little and train travel is also such good value, I want to make sure I explore as much of the surrounding area as possible!

+ Shanghai Style

Before I arrived in Shanghai, it struck me that there would probably be a slight difference between Western fashion trends and those in China. These days it is hard to pinpoint geographical distinctions in trends... what people wear in London for example is just as varied as what people wear here in Shanghai. The main difference I have noticed is that people make so much more effort with their appearance here; from their eyebrows to their nails, no expense is spared when it comes to looking good! Here's a rundown of some of my observations while out and about on the streets of Shanghai.

Personal Grooming

+ Manicures are mandatory here - there's a nail salon on every corner of my area with a glittering array of choices. Glitter spangles? Snoopy? 3D ceramic flowers? They will cater for the craziest ideas here, and you it's entirely possible to have enough scope to change your nails every day for the rest of your life! I got some acrylic nails painted a mean black shade this week, for just 80 kuai, but was tempted by the idea of those 3D ceramic flowers just because they are so different! Thankfully my nail artist got preoccupied with her friends' wig (she left me alone for half an hour!) so i cut short our session and made a swift exit!

+ Tattooed Make-Up. I have only just started to notice how so many Chinese women I see every day have shaved their eyebrows off and have tattoos instead. Eyebrow shape plays a surprisingly large role in the harmony of your face, so once you've found the most flattering shape it makes sense to have it permanently!


+ Luxury Brands. There seems to be a massive obsession with brands here in Shanghai. Whether the majority of bags hanging off young women's shoulders here are fake or real remains to be seen though! While it is obviously a clear status symbol, the motto 'money can't buy you taste' holds true from time to time... I have seen so many beautiful outfits ruined by one of those disgusting fake Lousi Vuitton multi-coloured logo bags that Vanessa Feltz used to sport circa-2000!

+ Wearing evening wear during the day. I love how a lot of Shanghainese Fashionistas wear expensive looking silky evening dresses to work, but dress them down with a plain polo-neck jumper and work a layered look with cardigans and gilets. Not only does this increase the potential of your wardrobe, it's an idea that can save you from the boredom of the blouse and black trousers look!

+ Co-ordinating your outfit with your boyfriend's. Another quirky phenomenon I've noticed as I go about my daily business involves couples wearing the same t-shirt to profess their relationship status and bond with each other. This one makes me laugh because it must be pretty funny phoning up your partner to discuss what t-shirt to wear!


+ High-heels, high-heels and more high-heels. Get the picture? Even when I went to Suzhou's Humble Administrator's Garden the other weekend, the majority of Chinese women there sported sky-high heels and still undertook the task of navigating the cobbles and rocky paths. While I tend to shy away from wearing heels during the day because I am lazy, (and because it means leaving for work earlier due to my inability to walk in them!), the Chinese philosophy seems to dictate high-heels are required uniform.