Saturday, 20 February 2010

Back in Beijing for Chinese NYE!

Arrived in Beijing by plane on the evening of my birthday and went straight to look for our hostel. Our hostel was located within the hutongs (a labyrinth of narrow alleyways) behind the ancient Lama temple and is notoriously difficult to find. Eventually got there though after some phone calls and a helpful local. Checked in, dumped our stuff, showered and headed straight out to Sanlitun to meet some friends. Seems like Beijing was the place to be for Chinese New Year as a lot of TTC interns were around. They found out it was my birthday and we all had a big night out on the town. It was great to be back in Beijing and so good to catch up with old friends again. Only bad point about that night was losing my phone somewhere in the course of that night.

Woke up late next day - the 14th - to the sound of firecrackers and some early fireworks. Chinese New Year's Eve. This is the biggest date in the Chinese calendar – a spectacular kick off to the following week long festival. We headed to the frozen Hou Hai lake, another famous bar district, which was apparently the place to be for the most dramatic views of midnight fireworks. We found a bar and waited for the big moment. I didn't really know what to expect from Chinese NYE except that there would probably be a lot of fireworks – apparently to ward off any lurking evil spirits before the next year began. Well just before midnight it all kicked off. It was INSANE! The bar let us go up on their roof to get better views and within minutes the whole sky all around us was filled with fireworks of every type. These weren't just professional displays, but thousands of locals buying their own massive crates of fireworks and setting them off in the street. Even our bar had their own extensive supply. The number of firecrackers being set off in the crowded streets was immense and totally deafening. Almost everyone is lighting and setting off something. And there are no safety precautions, no barriers, no nothing… just packed streets and endless explosions. Apparently there's some vague law that you can't set off fireworks within the third ring road, but if true this is the most abused law in China. But anyway, the main fireworks frenzy lasted about 3 hours till 3 am, but for the next week firecrackers would be continually being set off during the day and fireworks displays still marking every evening. It's amazing to think that this intense, explosive and deafening NYE celebration is being repeated across the country, in every town and city, and throughout the countryside where families are gathered for the festival. I don't know how enough fireworks are produced to supply 1.3 billions people with a weeks worth of explosives. Crazy.

Next couple of days in Beijing gave me some time to visit the Forbidden City, which was beautiful and fascinating. I especially recommend climbing the artificial hill (constructed on the Emperor's orders to improve the Feng Shui of his palace) for amazing view of the Forbidden City and also of a large part of Beijing centre. Also visited Beijing's ancient observatory, which was interesting mainly because it was an ancient castle structure hidden within one of Beijing's most expensive and modern high rise districts. On the last day, just before catching the train back to Changsha, managed to get to Tiananmen Square in time to join the huge morning queues for the Mao memorial hall. After an hour and a half of queuing, security checks, pushing and barging we finally all got into the inner mausoleum and filed slowly past the preserved body of Mao in a glass coffin, with a flag of China draped over his body. The level of preservation was amazing, and so creepy. He looked like a rubbery Madame Tussaudes version of himself. Definitely worth seeing though.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Soldiers and snow in Xi’an

Arrived in Xian and got to our hostel no problems, just had to ignore the usual hassle form taxi drivers who implied it was way to far to walk there (hostel was a 10 minute walk from the airport bus). Saw the Drum and Bell tower in the centre which were ok but not particularly interesting, but an ancient style drum performance was pretty good. Next day we visited what we'd all been waiting for – the terracotta warriors. I think we were perhaps all a little underwhelmed as it's such a hyped up tourist attraction and so famous worldwide. There just weren't as many warriors as I was expecting and standing on the viewing terrace in the main hanger, looking out over the excavated ranks of soldiers, I didn't feel I was facing a vast army - which was what I'd hoped for. The history of the construction of the warriors was fascinating though. Amazing to think that 7,000 workers painstakingly sculpted each of these figures, adding their own individual features and alterations in armour and clothing. Apparently the sculptors worked in pairs and based the face of their warrior on the real face of their partner. However, once the terracotta army was complete every single sculptor was slaughtered so that the Emperor's secret mausoleum and underground necropolis could remain secret. He was crazy apparently.

Next day had a VERY cold cycle round the city walls, which are still completely intact and impressive to see. Then visited the Great Mosque and the Muslim Quarter, which some of the best street food I've had in China! So delicious. Finished the day with the light and water show at the Great Goose Pagoda which was pretty cool - and free.

Next day decided to go to "nearby" Hua Shan, one of China's 5 sacred mountains. I'd already done one in Hunan so was keen to tick off another. Trip shoulda been easy – just a short bus to bus station then an hours bus journey to the mountain from there. But that morning China happened.. as it often does. Bus didn't leave for 3 hours as it was the situation where they wait for the bus to be completely full before leaving. Journey took aaages so arrived at the mountain 6 hours after leaving the hostel. For some reason we didn't get dropped off at the popular bit so made the most of it and climbed up anyway. We seemed to be the only people there so we felt like proper explorers and the scenery was amazing. Started to get concerned about time and the increasingly icy conditions so headed back to try to get a bus home – which basically involved skidding and sliding down the icy path. Found a bus no problem. But then the snow started and got increasingly heavier. Ended up stuckin a snow storm for 2 and a half hours while the driver tried to attach snow chains to the treadless tires and wait for congestion to clear.  5 hours later we got home.

Long lie after very tiring previous day. This was the 11th of Feb - day before my birthday. As we were parting ways with Karen, who was off to Shanghai next day to meet a friend from home, we decided to celebrate my birthday that night in the hostel with a cheap bottle of whisky and some other friends we'd made in the hostel. The other suggested the lethal drinking game ring of fire and we had a lot of fun. At midnight Karen and Helen gave me Shampoo (sorely needed) and a Mahjong set. Thanks again to them! It was a good night and a great way to say goodbye.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Chengdu... Pandaland

After a 29 hour train ride arrived in Chengdu. We'd heard a lot about this place from travellers and Chinese. It's a city famous for its tea house culture, and getting the balance between work and relaxation just right. It's also famous for having the biggest giant panda reserve in the world, and for being near the wide-scale and devastating earthquakes that hit Sichuan province in 2008.

Went to the reserve on the first day and it was awesome. I wasn't a particular fan of pandas before, I liked them and thought they were cute and everything but didn't really get what the big deal was. Now I'm a big fan – they're so cute and good natured. We went at feeding time, which is only time they're active. All they do is eat and sleep. Literally. I love the way they eat though – lying on their back with legs in the air, carefully holding and nibbling their bamboo shoots. Helen and Karen tried to get their pictures taken with a giant panda for 500 yuan. They were debating the expense for ages, but when we tried their decision was made for them as the pandas were sleeping… COS THAT'S ALL THEY DO. Bless them.

The best thing we did in Sichuan though was our trip to Leshan Buddha on the next day. It's a 1200 year old giant seated Buddha carved out of a cliff face, looking out over a river. At 71m this thing is immense and the best thing is you get to really appreciate the scale of it cos you're able to zigzag down a cliff path right next to it. Visited this place with some friends we'd made in the hostel, who'd we'd also seen the pandas with, and we were all blown away. Definitely worth a visit.

The last night in Chengdu was pretty memorable. The hostel (Mix Hostel is a must for anyone planning to visit Chengdu) put on a dumpling party where anyone who wanted could join in and make dumplings and get to know each other a bit. Stayed up really late with the other backpackers we'd gotten to know quite well. We had to catch a plane to Xian at 5.20 the next morning, but at some point someone decided it wasn't worth going to bed and made more sense to stay up drinking and head straight over to the airport in a merry mood. This didn't work out obviously – fell asleep at 2, got less that 2 hours sleep, got a bus to the airport and felt horrible. But we made the flight and are ready for those terracotta warriors!

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Guangzhou again...

Finally managed to collect our visa and then it was back to Guangzhou to continue our travels. Decided to make Chengdu in Sichuan province our next stop. Only problem was booking the train tickets, which had been growing increasingly difficult as Chinese New Year and Spring Festival approached. At this time of year you can only book train tickets for the same day or next day, and only from the station you're departing from. So Karen and I made our way over to East Train Station but really weren't prepared for what we saw. The sheer volume of people queuing was overwhelming. Because the train station building couldn't handle the number of people that had to be processed (each ticket has to be matched an ID card/passport to prevent ticket touting) they'd set up huge temporary holding pens in a vast carpark area outside. There must have been several thousand people waiting in lines out there, sitting on bags surrounded by all their luggage, just waiting to be processed so they could get through to the station waiting rooms to queue again. It was honestly like walking through a refugee camp. Luckily a policeman saw how lost we saw and took us to the ticket office. We couldn't get the 3 hard sleeper tickets we wanted so had to make do with 2 soft sleepers, while Helen had to take a plane to Chengdu to meet us there.

Got to the station next morning, but waited at the metro gate under the station, rather than the holding pens, so it wasn't as bad as we'd expected. After passport and luggage checks, and more queing, we finally got on the train and looked forward to arriving in Chengdu – the relaxed capital of beautiful Sichuan province. P.S. DON'T try to travel close to Spring Festival..

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Guangzhou and Hong Kong

First impressions of Guangzhou was that it was massive, vaguely more westernized than other cities we'd visited, but still pretty rustic and Chinese. The place is also known as Canton and is where apparently most of our Chinese food from the West comes from – haven't found any UK Chinese food in China yet. First day there we checked out Shamian island just across the river from our hostel. The island is tiny and famous for being an enclave for early British and French traders in the 19th century, so is interesting in that most of the buildings are European colonial-style building, including Christian churches and things. Next we explored the huge Qing Ping street market just north of the island, which is apparently one of the biggest markets in China where you can find whatever you want. We'd read in guide books that the meat market was a pretty gruesome and authentic Chinese experience with snakes being skinned alive and kittens crammed in cages. But it all seemed pretty tame after what we'd seen in the meat market by the apartment we'd been living in the past 5 months in Changsha. Definitely worth visiting though – especially the huge number of strange spice stalls that you real feel in your nose as you walk past. Also attempted to find the Buddhist Hualin Temple hidden in the middle of an old run-down housing district of crumbling tenements and shacks in the centre. After walking through narrow alleys past tiny house workshops and stalls we found it – but it was closed by this time :(

Next day it was off to Hong Kong! Something I was really excited about, but Karen's total lack of enthusiasm for the place after being there before made me wary. We managed to get a train straight there from Guangzhou (although if you want to get to HK from mainland apparently going via Shenzhen is the cheapest way) and after several customs and passport checkpoints we arrived. Found our hostel – Cheng King Mansions in Kowloon district – and soon I could understand Karen's dislike for the place. Kowloon area was startlingly like London, not just cos of the double-decker buses, driving on the left, but also buildings, same kind of multi-ethnic make-up, same high prices and the same rudeness. We had to be there to renew our mainland China visas and knew we could still make the most of it.

First night we met up with some TTC people we'd met in Beijing (Jamie and Matt), and Anna who'd been in our Changsha placement. Matt we just met totally randomly on the street! So that was cool. Went to Avenue of Stars – HK's version of Hollywood's Walk of Fame – where we recognised about 4 names, and watched the light show over Hong Kong Island across the water. For dinner did something I'd really been looking forward to and craving – a curry! And it was good.

Next morning got up early, headed to Hong Kong Island to go to the visa centre to put in applications, headed to the tiny and boring Victoria park and then ended up watching Avatar 3D in the cinema - one of the only places to see a full English version. Definitely preferred Hong Kong Island to Kowloon. Felt older, slightly more Chinese, and more how I imagined HK streets to look – crowded with overhanging signs and neon. To me though the whole city kinda feels like London's been compressed down to smaller scale. Shops and restaurants are narrow and crowded together so, with the crowds of people, everywhere feels congested and claustrophobic. The high rises are amazing and beautiful, especially from Victoria peak at night, but don't make the place more livable. Seems to have a real lack of culture too and a bit of a soulless feel… just a finance city I guess.

Joined by our friend Helen the next day, who'd be with us for the rest of our travels. Went to the Art Museum, which I'd really recommend, and the Space Museum, which I wouldn't. Managed to get a free meal too by collecting the room key deposit of Dani, a girl we'd befriended who'd flown home and left her key in our room. So that was cool. Next day visited the Temple of 10,000 buddhas in the New Territories which was my favourite thing we did. New territories were really interesting, more traditional, Chinese and a lot less developed - still quite wooded, but dotted with massive new skyscrapers every now and again. The temple was amazing – apparently there were 12,000 individualised statues of every carnation of Buddha and the monks are continuously making more.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Sanya... the Hawaii of the South East

So got to sunny Sanya without too much difficulty. Although very soon after my last blog we went back to the train station only to find that it was the wrong train station. After a manic taxi ride through miles of rural countryside we finally arrived at the right one, which was the smallest station I've ever been to. Made it on the train though and after a few hours of beautiful tropical scenery we got to the south coast and the channel crossing to Hainan. I expected the train would go through a tunnel, Karen thought we'd cross a bridge to get to the other side. We were both so wrong. The train boarded a ferry which carried us over to Haikou where the train was then unloaded to carry on it's journey. It blew my mind... I had no idea these things existed! So that was cool.

Finally arrived in Sanya and stayed a night in a rather swanky apartment, then next day went into centre to try and find some cheaper accomodation near Dadonghai beach in the Russian district. And it really was a Russian district. Russians everywhere, Russian shops, Russian signs and translations and Russian food. Didn't get much luck finding a hostel as Sanya in heaving with tourists escaping the cold at this time of year, particularly elderly Chinese couples. But one hostel rented out tents and let you use their showers and lockers so we did that. Found a quiet spot on the beach, had a swim and a couple of drinks and then settled down for a good night's sleep. I was pretty comfy, the temperature was perfect, woke up feeling nicely refreshed. I decided to listen to my ipod for a bit so looked round the tent for my bag... but it wasn't there. Jumped outside to see if I'd stupidly left it there. It was outside, a little distance from our tent but definitely not somewhere I'd have left it. Checked my wallet - 500 yuan gone, checked my ipod - gone, checked my phone - still there... clearly way too crappy a model to sell on. So yeah.. really creepy that someone had sneaked into our tent while we were sleeping and taken my bag, but at least I still had all my bank cards and my phone. Could have been a lot worse. Also my ipod is a very old version which was never even introduced to China, so when the theif sees the retro non-colour screen, the clunky menus and the inability to play videos he'll (she'll?) probably think it's a fake.

Stayed in Sanya a couple more days after that, saw some sights including the 4th biggest statue in the world, an coastal temple with an ancient bell garden and a famous beach at Yalong bay. Met up with a Chinese friend who managed to get us some proper beds in a hostel, which was nice. Had a lot of fun in Sanya but it was just too touristy at this time of year, just totally packed, and the public transport system was a nightmare. And came away an ipod down and with 32 very irritating mosquitoe bites on my feet. But definitely glad I made it to the 'Hawaii of China'.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Backpacking begins: Guilin 17th-20th

My new uni job in Changsha doesn't start till March so right now I'm backpacking around south China with a friend for a while, despite having little money. We started in Guilin, which is a beautiful mountainous city with the scenic Li river meandering through it. Perhaps the best day there was when we took a raft trip down river to Yangshuo - a small traditional farming town in the mountains where we rented some bikes to explore a bit of countryside. Also went to the a strange place called the 'Tiger and bear mountain village' where Scott was particulaly keep to go as we'd heard they released a live bull into the tiger pen as a visitor attraction. They'd stopped doing that apparently, but we were subjected to some disturbing performances invloving tigers jumping through fire hoops, walking over people,and one riding a horse, plus bears riding bikes, walking on hind legs with trumpets, and some other equally depressing (but weirdly mesmorising) animal stunts. Guilin is a beautiful place and I'd highly recommend it. The mountain formations are like nothing I've seen before - I uploaded Guilin's depiction on the 20 yuan note to give an idea. Right now I'm in a town right on the south coast waiting for a train to Sanya on Hainan island. This place is crazy. It's just a small town with palm trees everywhere, street sellers, apartment blocks and little else. Asked a taxi driver if he knew a good internet cafe (yep in Chinese) and now I'm here. Can't wait to get to Sanya - it's just a small, chilled tropical town with some awesome white sand beaches. We're kind of near Vietnam now and it shows, so different to central China where I've spent most of my time. We're not really planning where we go much, just goin from city to city, hostel to hostel and wherever sounds good. So glad I came south, so warm here!

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

New Year's and sacred mountains

So for New Year's we got our first three day weekend! We decided to visit the nearby Hengshan mountain, which is one of China's five sacred mountains. Our planned day trip turned out to be far more of an odyssey. I went with 4 of the other interns and I think we were all taken aback by the vast scale and beauty of the place. I was just expecting a little ol' mountain with a couple of ancient temples on it maybe, but this mountain was made up of several ranges with 72 peaks with maybe 100 or more ancient temples, shrines, pools and sites perched on mountainsides and embedded in thick forest. It was massive. When we arrived we found that the last bus home was 4pm so we realised we'd have to stay the night if we wanted to see anything at all. We heard that there was a hotel at the top of the highest peak (1,290m up) so we headed straight for there. We did a lot of walking, took a bus up a bit, then a cable car, then some more walking on ancient stone steps and finally got to the top in time to watch the sun set from a Shaolin temple perched on the peak. 

It was so cold by this point and I wasn't prepared for it - there were still patches of lingering snow towards the top. We found a couple of hotel rooms - 3 beds between 5 cos we didn't have much money with us - and found a little empty restaurant to eat in. After the meal we just sat in our shabby, unheated hotel room, huddled in blankets and drinking lots of beer to try and get a bit of an alcohol jacket. Jeez it was cold. We got maybe a few hours sleep and then at 6 headed to the nearby Sunrise Platform to watch the sunrise above distant mountain ranges. The skies were so clear at that height and watching the sun gradually come up was unbelievable. We spent that day slowly meandering down the mountain and trying to take in as many temples and other sites as we could. A lot of the sacred places were build of an amazing white stone and nestled in the forest they looked straight out of Lord of the Rings or something. Finally we got a rickety bus home and arrived back feeling tired, filthy but pretty good. Definitely a memorable New Year's...

Monday, 28 December 2009

A Christmas Lesson

Christmas craziness with Grade 1. We're playing a variant of egg and spoon race where you have to collect a sweet on a spoon and put it in a stocking... it kind of worked.

Monday, 30 November 2009

November Update

We've had a few weeks of cold weather now, some days of 2-3 degrees celsius, others a bit higher. Bizarrely, with the Hunan climate, some odd days are still 15-20 degrees, but they are getting more rare. Sub zero lows this weekend apparently. I had no idea it would get this cold - I've bought a coat, thick socks and thermal underwear so I should be alright.
Things are still going very well, the hectic hours aren't getting on top of me and I'm finding time for myself when I can. It's actually been particularly hectic recently with family activity days on Saturdays where we 6 interns are assigned to a student and their family for a day out. They are fun and the parents are incredibly generous and keen to please, but they are long days, starting at 9ish and not finishing till 6ish. We start with all the families together while we interns run some games and activities, and then after lunch the families take us out somewhere. Last Saturday we all went to a big aquarium with Grade 5 kids and parents, followed by lunch in the biggest restaurant in the world (I think) -  an unbelievable castle of a place that could seat 5,000 customers and employed about 300 chefs and 400 serving staff! Then my family took me to a Buddhist temple and a great restaurant where stinky tofu was the delicacy (pretty good actually).  These family days would perhaps be a bit less exhausting if the parents spoke decent English, but their English level is usually similar to my Chinese level so we can't get too far!
Apart from this, with the semester coming to an end in about 6 weeks, I've had to think about my next course of action. Basically I've decided to stay a further 6 months in China and am looking into jobs in Universities in Changsha with Soren, another intern and friend. I've applied for one in Changsha already. If I get it I'll be working a much more managable 16 hours a week for a much more generous 5,000 - 6,000 yuan (500 - 600 pounds). Plus I'll be living in the beautiful Yuelu university district right at the foot of the mountain. I'm very excited but it's early days yet - I only sent off my cv and documents recently but received a very favourable reply. I'm not certain I won't get itchy feet and wish I'd gone to a placement in a different city, but I think it's the best course of action I can take. Not really sure I feel confident or brave enough yet to move to a completely new city all alone. I think I would be ready to do that in a year or two but the vast Chinese cities can be a pretty daunting place to get to grips with. If I stay here in Hunan and get better pay with more free time I'll be able to travel to different regions and cities easily during term time, so hopefully my travel needs will be satisfied. Also I have some great friends here, Chinese and English, and I love the city. But yes... still not certain about what to do.