Between Shanghai and neighbouring cities Suzhou and Hangzhou there are a network of ancient water towns built up around the rivers, lakes and canals which characterize this part of China (and earned it the nickname ‘Venice of the East’, after comparisons were drawn with the similarly watery European city).
Water towns are popular with both Chinese and Western tourists and also expats looking to escape the city for the day (although unless you arrive early doors, you will be lucky to escape the crowds).
A few weeks ago I visited Zhūjiā Jiǎo 朱家角. This was my third water town excursion since moving to Shanghai, having visited Zhōuzhuāng 周庄水乡 – one of the oldest and most popular water towns – shortly after I arrived in 2016 (I blogged about this trip at the time) and then Qibao 七宝古镇 last year with a Shanghainese friend (Qibao is one of the only water towns that you can reach by metro so ideal if you don’t have access to a car – it’s North on Line 9).
A couple of pics from Qibao:
Chinese gardens a short walk from the water town.
While the water towns vary in size (Zhouzuang at the larger end of the spectrum, Qibao at the smaller), they are otherwise incredibly similar; two-or-three story whitewashed and wooden-fronted houses line up alongside the waterside, squashed against each other like overcrowded teeth; ground-floor food vendors hawking steaming rice dumplings and glossy meats; sinewy strong men in cone-shaped bamboo hats guiding gondola-style boats through the murky green canals; souvenir shops selling beaded bracelets and pearls.
This uniformity lends to a ‘seen one, seen them all’ mentality, but I’d heard good things about Zhujiajiao from a friend who had visited recently, and with the prospect of a sunny day and nothing else scheduled in the diary, I decided that there are worse things than a little de-ja-vu. The rest of this blog is mainly pictures, as I got some good ones – enjoy!
There is a local saying that “to visit Zhujiajiao water town without seeing the bridges means that you have not really been to Zhujiajiao at all!” (regular blog readers will be familiar with this expression, which also cropped up in Huangshan 黄山 and Zhangjiajie 张家界). Given we only spent a couple of hours there, a good hour of which was spent drinking hot green tea in a little cafe overlooking the water, we didn’t see very many of those 36 bridges… so perhaps I have only seen two ancient water towns after all!
Hello again! I’m back from my unplanned four-month-long break from blog writing, which happened to coincide with the transition into my third and final year in China (28th April marked the 2 year point). I’d love to say that my hiatus is the result of wonderfully exotic travels and cultural experiences – this is partly the case, as I’ve nipped to India, Thailand and UK in this time – but the real story is far less fun: work has been really, really busy. Rubbish excuse, I know.
The superstitious part of me (which I am not sure is real, though I shouldn’t tempt fate) also believes that I jinxed myself by writing a ‘January’ blog with the intention of following the same format each month – clearly a huge mistake! Anyway, “Three Years in Shanghai” suggests a commitment to charting three years in Shanghai, so this is me pulling my finger out and promising to do better hereon-in.
That said, here is a whirlwind recap of the last few months…
FEBRUARY– Welcoming the Year of the Dog
In February the Chinese calendar transitioned from the Year of the Rooster to the Year of the Dog – the 11th animal of the Chinese Zodiac. Some key facts:
Personality traits: The dog’s most powerful characteristic is it’s loyalty. They are also typically honest, good at helping others and offering advice, decisive, determined, playful and fair-minded.
Most compatible with: Rabbit, Tiger, Horse
And least compatible with: Dragons
If you’re really really into this, the Chinese New Year website has an insane amount of detail (career advice based on your zodiac, anyone?)
Part-way through the Chinese NY holiday Matt and I flew to Goa, India to join my beautiful friend’s Hindu wedding ceremony, but in the days preceding our flight we found that we had Shanghai almost to ourselves (see pics below). The French Concession in CNY is eerily quiet, as most foreigners take the national holiday to travel around Asia, and most Chinese travel back to their hometowns to see family. The upshot is that you always get a seat on the metro, but at the same time 90% of your favourite restaurants are shuttered (so if you’ve not been organised and done a food shop then you end up eating peanut-butter on toast… granted, there are worse fates).
The handful of other people who chose to stay in Shanghai – and the flocks of inbound tourists – obviously chose to hang out at Yuyuan Garden, which was a veritable people-mountain-people-sea. Wire sculptures bound with brightly painted silk had been positioned throughout Yuyuan, telling the story of an ancient Chinese fairytale. Red lanterns strung overhead added welcome splashes of colour to an otherwise gloomy grey sky.
March – A few Milestones
Milestone #1: Miki – When I moved to Shanghai and joined my new team at work, there were two people who I bonded with straight away; they made me feel welcome, helped me to settle into Shanghai life (i.e., setting up TaoBao, OFO and DiDi – that’s all you need, right?!), and over the past couple of years they have always, always been there when I needed anything whether inside or outside of the office. Sadly (for me), bright young millenials based in Shanghai rarely stay with a company for long as there are so many amazing career opportunities to explore here; in line with this trend both my friends have moved on to new ventures in the last 12 months. I was really sad to see Miki leave as she always brightened up my day, but at the same time I’m confident she will be a great success.
Milestone #2: Matt: As happens every March, Matt got a year older and we celebrated with great food. This time at LAGO – the new restaurant by two-star Michelin chef Julian Serrano, at the Bellagio Shanghai. The striking tunnel entrance opened up into a glamourous art-deco style restaurant, fitted out in glass and marble and mirrors – the restaurant itself had been designed in the ‘boot’ shape of Italy, and our table looked out over the Huangpu river and Lujiazui.
The menu was Italian tapas designed to be shared – always a good strategy in China – and the food was top notch, especially the vitello tonnato (the veal was coated in charcoal made from bamboo and burned tomato skin, and the tuna which was whipped into an air-light mousse with capers and lemon: incredible). Interestingly the other standout dish was the pizza, which was infused with truffle paste and topped with shaved fresh truffles. Yum.
April – Many Cocktails, and a Splash of Culture
Looking back, I appear to have spent most of April with some kind of alcoholic beverage in hand (Dry Jan feels like a lifetime away!). The photo where I’m holding a soft rabbit was taken in a speakeasy in South Shaanxi called Speak Low, accessed through a corridor hidden behind a vending machine in an otherwise unassuming cafe. The cocktails are similarly presented in a ‘things are not all as they seem’ manner – mine came in a hipflask zipped into the belly of aforementioned rabbit! Gimmicky, yes. Expensive, uhhuh. Worth it, absolutely!
Christian Boltanski – Storage Method
On a sober day, I went to see ‘Storage Method’, a Christian Boltanski exhibition held at the Power Station of Art (PSA)- China’s first state-run contemporary art museum renovated from an old electric plant in the Huangpu District. The exhibition had been recommended to me by Miki, and it didn’t disappoint. The vast industrial space was the perfect backdrop for Boltanski’s expressionist conceptual pieces – mainly photographs, projections, assemblages and installations – which explore disappearance, existence, and the human condition.
The central theme is brought to life as soon as you walk through the front entrance, through a multisensory combination of Boltanski’s heartbeat reverberating through the soundsystem, and a mountain of discarded used clothing evoking the absence of those who have worn them (‘Personnes’, 2010). It continued throughout, for example in ‘The Last Second’ (2014) – a red-LED counter which gives an accurate record of the number of seconds Boltanski has been living since his birth – it will stop at the moment of his death.
I really loved this exhibition; I loved the dark eery close atmosphere in the cool concrete corridors of the PSA; I loved the way that the other visitors seemed to add to, rather than detract from the works, even when they stood in the way taking selfies (often a bugbear with art exhibitions in China); and I loved that some of the pieces made me feel uneasy in the pit of my stomach because they so powerfully probe the subject matter –
“What place does the individual have within the group? In what way are we unique and in what way do we depend on the social conditions imposed on us? Are not our efforts to survive after death in vain? What role do chance and destiny play in a life path?”
May – The Start of the Shanghai Summer
May saw a return trip to the UK, a consequence of which was that the month disappeared in the blink of an eye! It was lovely to see family and friends (the last time I was on home soil was June 2017 – 11 months earlier), and as always it was a bittersweet feeling to return to Shanghai.
And that brings us to June! I couldn’t resist posting the photos below – blue skies are so rare in this city and we’ve been so lucky to have some really nice days recently. I’m fully aware that this is the calm before the storm, and that soon the heavens will open with relentless torrents of rain, followed by soaring heat and almost unbearable humidity. Wish me luck!
If you haven’t already, make sure you read my last blog post before starting this one; it explains the background and context to this trip, plus some great photos of the Yunnan countryside!
Arriving at the JLR Hope School in Zhaotong
After close to two hours of back-seat rodeo, negotiating rocky mountain paths and crawling through flash-flood streams, we arrived at our destination: the JLR Hope School in Zhaotong. Since the 2014 earthquake the region has received funding for improved infrastructure but the Hope School was so deep in the mountains that the final leg of our route there was more off-road than on!
The team of photographers who documented our weekend used a drone to capture the stunning surroundings of the school and the photo below is one of my favourites; Zhaotong is largely agricultural (tobacco is one of the main crops), and the stepped fields transform the landscape into a work of art. The large building in the bottom centre is the school.
Breaking the Ice
Our team-building event took place on a Sunday and the grounds were deserted. The headmaster and the volunteer teachers came out into the rain to greet us, then ushered us into one of the classrooms where they had prepared hot tea and set up some electric heaters (it was a cold, wet day, and there was no central heating).
Prior to our visit I’d helped the mentors and mentees to exchange contact details so they could introduce themselves by phone or WeChat (China’s main social media platform), but this was their first chance to meet in person. To help ease any initial nervousness we had arranged a series of games designed to raise the collective energy, build trust and – importantly – have some fun together. It was great to watch everyone participate so enthusiastically (even those who may ordinarily be a bit shy!).
With the ice broken, we split the mentor-mentee pairs into two teams who then competed against each other in a series of interactive challenges. The stakes were high, as the winning team would receive the best ingredients from which to make their lunch! Over the next few hours they solved problems, hunted for treasure, configured rollercoasters from chopsticks and finally, once the challenge was complete and the ingredients had been won, the two teams threw themselves into the final test – to work together as one team to prepare and cook their meal, from scratch.
The Hope School has a small kitchen where meals are prepared each day for the children and staff. The teachers often pitch in to help the cooks at mealtimes and so are familiar with the recipes and they taught the JLR mentors how to make the local dishes (an insight into their daily life). I’m sure the significance of this activity wasn’t lost on the mentors; we have hundreds of restaurants on our doorstep and the most difficult part of our lunchtime is deciding whether to have sushi, sashimi or grilled salmon. Here, if you don’t gut the fish and scale the fish, you don’t eat the fish.
As you can see from the photo, they all pulled together and succeeded in creating a delicious and well-deserved feast.
Teacher’s Day Ceremony
The following day we returned to the school again. We had planned our visit to coincide with China’s National Teachers Day (Monday 10 September, 2017) and watched as the children lined up in rows in the yard and sang a song to give thanks to their teachers. Teaching is a historically respected vocation in China dating back to Confucious; however, during the Cultural Revolution the pursuit of intellectual growth was repressed and teaching condemned. Teachers’ Day was established and awarded national status in 1985 as a government-led effort to reestablish the status and dignity of the profession, and is an important date in the academic calendar. A few children wearing bright red sashes raised the Chinese national flag of the same colour, and later we presented the mentors with a certificate to recognise and celebrate the commitment they had made to the teachers.
Teacher for a day
Prior to the team-building trip we had tasked our mentors to collaborate with their mentee to design a lesson which they would co-deliver to the Hope School students. They were given free reign on the subject matter, and the lessons ranged from English language to martial arts; this was another great way to give the JLR colleagues a glimpse into the daily life of the graduate teachers.
The photos below were taken during the lessons which our JLR mentors facilitated.
The First Foreigner
During the break-time we had an opportunity to meet the students and play games together. My colleagues told me that I was likely to be the first foreigner that the children had ever met, which was clear from their reaction; they were nervous at first, running up to me in a group and pushing each other forward in my direction before running away squealing and laughing! But it only took one kid to take hold of my hand and after that I was mobbed for the rest of the day…
The Hope School
While the children and mentors were in class I explored the school grounds, which include the main school building, a separate ‘outhouse’ toilet block, the kitchen, the students’ and teachers’ dormitories and the playground, where a new dormitory wing is under construction. Students who live fairly locally can walk to and from the school each day; however, many live further away and they reside at the school full-time during the week.
I wrote previously about the devastating 2014 earthquake; the insult to injury here was that this part of China was already incredibly poor; in 2015 the average disposable income in Zhaotong was only 540 yuan (61 GBP) per month and more than a quarter of inhabitants fell below the poverty line. One consequence of this is that many young people migrate to Southen or Eastern Chinese cities in the hope of finding better paid work, leaving their children to be raised by grandparents or relatives. There are 176 of these so-called “left-behind children” and the Zhaotong Hope School, who see their parents once or twice each year. A recent JLR China crowd-funding initiative has helped to buy telephone watches for each of these children so they can more easily call their parents, and help them to maintain their relationships despite the distance.
The dormitory building was life-changing for many children, enabling them to more regularly attend school (I was told stories of some children who would walk for 3 or four hours across the mountain each morning and evening before the dormitory was built). However, keeping the children in school over the long-term is an additional hurdle; as their families often need them to support with the farming and so pull them out of school early.
As we made to leave the school on our final day I was suddenly seized by a clamour of tiny hands and dragged into a classroom, the children chanting a chorus of “teacher please don’t leave us!”. I’ve never been particularly child-savvy and was completely helpless – they were surprisingly strong!. Luckily one of my colleagues came to the rescue and negotiated my release – on the condition that I sing a song. Mind racing (what do you sing to small Chinese children who maybe know a couple of words of English!) I settled on “heads, shoulders knees and toes”, and got them all to join in, which seemed to go down a treat (phew!). It was a sweet and funny end to the visit.
A lasting impression
This wasn’t my first time in Yunnan – Matt and I spent a weeks’ holiday there in 2016 – but this was my first glimpse of life deep in the countryside, far from the tourist-friendly cities of DaLi and LiJiang. As we made our way back to Shanghai I reflected on the significance of schooling and education in China. Even the most basic education – being able to read and write – can make a monumental difference in a persons relative prosperity and quality of life; the more highly educated the person, the better their chance of boarding the economic juggernaut of modern China and accessing the boundless opportunities available in the big thriving cities.
The Chinese education system is notoriously grueling (google ‘GaoKao’ to get some idea of this), and if you’re not from a privileged background then it takes an admirable amount of grit and application to get a university degree – your golden ticket to a well paid job in a blue chip company. Through conversations with Chinese friends and colleagues we’ve learned that the norm is, having emerged successfully but battle weary from the educational gauntlet, you find yourself at the bottom of a huge ladder (the career ladder), ideally with a respectable company/job. You then need to gather your wits and get climbing as far and as fast as you can to reach your goal of achieving level X by age Y. This makes it all the more remarkable to me that the volunteer teachers have chosen to take an atypical path, to do something decidedly altruistic at just the time when society dictates that they should be climbing that ladder the fastest.
The two days I spent at the Hope School were a great experience for me. For the teachers it will surely be an incredible character-building step, and a powerful foundation for their future careers. The 28-year old headmaster was testament to this; he has a huge amount of responsibility to deal with for someone so young, and moved me with his genuine humility and resilience.
While driving through Zhaotong we witnessed highways being built which will eventually traverse the mountainous prefectures and connect traditionally remote areas (such as Qiaojia 巧家县, where our hotel was located) with cities such as Kunming. This will bring new economic opportunities to the region, but any entrance is also an exit which may entice more people away from these remote regions. It will be interesting to see how the tourism industry develops here over the coming years – the natural beauty of the area is immense – and what impact this will have on the local life. In the meantime I look forward to supporting the JLR-Hope School Dream Mentor programme, and I hope this brings lasting rewards for both mentors and mentees.
Last year I was fortunate enough to be able to work on a pretty special project; to design and launch a mentoring programme which would match eight employees from the company I work at with eight volunteer teachers at an underprivileged school high in the mountains of Yunnan province, South West China.
In general I try to avoid talking about work in this blog (Matt and I agreed from the outset that we wanted to focus on documenting our life in Shanghai and our travels around Asia, rather than giving our view on what it’s like to work here); however, getting to visit the school in Yunnan was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, opening my eyes to a rural community and way of life that the majority foreigners to China (especially expats) will ever get to see, and so I am making an exception.
First a bit of the background…
Corporate Social Responsibility or ‘CSR’ (whereby organisations support social and environmental initiatives as part of their corporate strategy) is commonplace in Western companies, but less so in emerging markets. That said, Chinese companies are starting to get on board with certain types of CSR and Project Hope – one of the better recognised public service projects – is a pioneering example of this. Launched in 1989 by the China Youth Development Foundation (CYDF) and the Communist Youth League (CYL), it’s goal is to seek non-governmental financial support to give children in very poor, typically rural communities the opportunity to go to school and receive an education.
It’s an opportune and important initiative in modern-day China, where the income inequality between the ‘Tier 1’ cities like Shanghai and the interior countryside regions is severe (recent statistics show that the richest 1% of mainland households hold one third of the country’s total wealth, with many having benefited from owning multiple properties during the recent real-estate price inflation). China’s gradual approach to economic reforms post-1978 have enabled unprecedented and prolonged economic growth; however, it’s estimated that more than 30 million children aged 6-14 are unable to attend school or drop-out early to support their parents at home, with over 80% of this number coming from the countryside.
The Jaguar Land Rover Dream Fund
So back to my trip.
For a region already at a significant economic disadvantage, 2014 brought a new and tragic challenge to the people of Yunnan. On 3rd August, a 6.1 magnitude earthquake hit the impoverished Ludian county, claiming 617 lives, injuring over 3000 and damaging or destroying around 80,000 houses. As part of the recovery effort, JLR (my employer) in collaboration with Project Hope, funded a school to be built in Zhaotong – a city close to the epicentre – and in 2016 the ‘Dream Class’ project was launched, placing 8 qualified volunteer teachers at the school.
The volunteer teachers are recent university graduates who sign up for a two-year placement to live, teach and help to care for the children of Zhaotong Hope School. It’s a serious commitment – the school is isolated from Zhaotong city due to the near-inaccessible mountain roads, the environment is unforgiving and the living conditions are basic – so the intention of the ‘Dream Mentor’ programme was to offer the teachers a friendly ear and sounding board; someone they would be able to talk to about their aspirations and dreams for the future, and figure out how to make it happen. With around 2000km separating the Shanghai-based mentors and Zhaoting-based mentees it was essential that at the start of the programme they had an opportunity to meet each other face to face. The solution was to arrange a team-building event at the school, which took place last September.
When I was invited to accompany the mentors to the team-building event, I received words of warning from some colleagues who had visited the school a few months earlier; “the mountain road is so bumpy that my step tracker thought I had walked for miles, even though I didn’t leave the car”, one colleague told me, holding up a screenshot on her phone as proof. But the risk of being considered a fraudulent stepper wasn’t enough to deter me; I was intrigued by the Hope School, a place I had heard so much about but still could hardly imagine.
On a drizzly day in September I flew from Shanghai to Kunming (the capital of Yunnan, which hosts the nearest airport), and from there we boarded a fleet of cars which would take us the rest of the way to the school. Having exited the city, we zipped along quiet highways, cut straight through the mountains.
After a few hours we left the highway and started to climb winding mountainside tracks, passing though ramshackle roadside villages, huge quarries and beautiful lakes. The drizzling rain which had pursued us from the city subsided, revealing a brilliant clear blue sky.
It took around 4 hours in total to reach Zhaotong and it was almost evening when we crawled the last few kilometres towards our hotel, under the casual gaze of locals sat out in front of their homes and the chickens scratching around in the street. Our hotel was the most modern-looking building in sight, and doubled-up as Zhaotong’s KTV (karaoke bar) – open throughout the night, as I found out the hard way!
That evening we crowded around a circular table and ate a feast of typical Yunnanese food, which was spicy, oily and quite delicious – the sticky eggplant (top left) was my favourite. The restaurant itself was a bit of a stretch outside of my comfort-zone; the air was thick with cigarette smoke (smoking indoors is still normal in this part of China) and the ceiling was dotted with hundreds of flies; however, to my surprise my stomach survived without incident!
Early the next morning we set off for our first day at the Hope School – a 90 minute drive away through progressively more difficult mountain terrain. We bumped and bounced in the backseat and by the time we arrived my insides were thoroughly churned!
September is the back end of the rainy season and we knew that the roads would be vulnerable to landslides. At one point, not far from the school, we were forced to double-back on our intended route as the road ahead had become completely blocked but fortunately our drivers – local men and women who are familiar with the mountain – soon found an alternative route. We got some great photos out of it too!
The time and effort it took for us to reach the Hope School gave me a powerful sense of the isolation that the graduate teachers are living in here. Even sat in luxurious cars, it was quite gruelling just being a passenger! While some of the teachers were originally from the countryside, others had grown up and attended universities in Tier 1 and 2 cities, and the disparity between the two environments is monumental. I’ll talk more about this in Part 2, as well as the enduring impression it left on me.
When I started this blog 22 months ago, my intention was to capture and share (hopefully interesting!) stories about our move from the UK to China, our new life in Shanghai and our travels around Asia. Reflecting back, I’ve focused much more on the latter! Our new base has provided a brilliant opportunity to more easily explore South East Asia and we’ve grasped this with both hands, visiting many cities in mainland China and also in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia – I’ve enjoyed sifting through the hundreds of photos after each trip and recording my favourites here. In the beginning our followers were colleagues, friends and family but now we have readers from all around the world!
While we have some amazing trips in the pipeline for 2018 – including Goa, India for Chinese New Year and Japan later this year – I also want to capture more of the normal stuff – what it’s actually like to live as an expat in Shanghai. This is our last full calendar year here, so I’m aiming to write a monthly ‘non-holiday’ post (I smashed Dry January, so in comparison this goal will be a piece of cake… right?!). Without further ado, here are my January diary entries.
We moved offices: Lujiazui to New Bund
On my first working day in China back in April 2016 I caught the metro from Shanghai Library to East Nanjing Road, then changed to Line 2 to cross the Huangpu river to the Lujiazi Business District. I looked up at the Mirae Asset Tower – my new Monday-to-Friday home – gleaming in the April sunshine; it was a world away from where I had worked in Coventry in the UK!
Lujiazui is the central business district of Shanghai, home to iconic and shimmering skyscrapers including the Shanghai Tower (the world’s second tallest building). It’s a cool place to work, with huge malls, luxury hotels and restaurants catering to every kind of appetite and budget. However, it’s ‘business district + tourist hot-spot’ status in such a vibrant and fast-paced city meant that it was also incredibly crowded (Line 2 in rush hour was less than fun!)
View of the Lujiazui skyline from Goodfellas terrace on the Bund
The ‘powers that be’ in government seem to have acknowledged that Lujiazui has reached capacity and in response have begun construction of the “New Bund” – a burgeoning new financial district around 14km south downriver from Lujiazui. Keen for a bit more space and shiny new facilities, we moved into our new office in the New Bund World Trade Centre (next door to the Oriental Sports Centre) on 2nd January. At the moment the view from our workplace is a 360 degree panorama of a construction site so it’s not quite as glamorous as our previous home, but it’s definitely got potential – and more importantly, it’s cut a valuable 10 minutes off my commute! I’m looking forward to watching it grow and change over the next year or so.
View from the new office
View from the new office
Our new office (well, 5 floors of this building)
Outside the Oriental Sports Centre metro station
The Oriental Sports Centre
The New Bund World Trade Centre
Another change this month has been the mass culling of shared bikes from the streets of downtown Shanghai.
When Matt and I moved here in April 2016 we noticed the orange-and-silver Mobikes lined up in neat rows along most streets. These GPS-enabled bikes which you (a) unlock via a smartphone app, (b) use as long as you want, and then (c) leave anywhere, took off in a big way and over the course of 2017 the sector exploded. Multiple new brightly coloured competitors joined the fray at breakneck pace, most notably the canary yellow OFO (my bike of choice).
It’s easy to see why they are so popular; they cost next to nothing (just a small deposit plus a negligible fee-per-use) and Shanghai is as flat as a pancake so there is zero effort involved. Their popularity hasn’t been limited to Shanghai and it’s estimated that there are now 10 million shared bikes on the streets of Chinese cities, operated by more than 30 companies (between them, Mobike and Ofo take up more than 90 percent of the market).
The explosion of this highly convenient facility had it’s down side. Pedestrian walkways in certain areas became clogged with bikes making it difficult for pedestrians, especially near popular tourist spots or near metro stations, and by the back end of last year you could hardly walk down Wulumuqi Lu for the unsightly jumble of bikes cluttering the pavement. We even caught a few examples of some interesting attempts to ‘stack’ bikes.
Over the last month there has been a crackdown following new government regulations which aim to regulate the industry. The photo below is taken from outside our apartment building, where until recently we could easily pick up and drop off bikes. Many upmarket shopping areas or residential areas have banned shared bikes and cordoned off parking areas. It’s been interesting to witness this explosion and counter reaction in such a short space of time, and this January we’ve seen the tipping point when the highly social idea of shared bikes suddenly began to be perceived as anti-social.
You might experience something similar in your home town – see this interesting article from the Guardian newspaper last year
I’m British, so i’m genetically obliged to talk about the the weather. Around October and November last year our colleagues started to predict that this winter would be a particularly harsh one – much colder than last year – and that it would impossible to get warm due to the damp air. What they didn’t predict was the snow! The first snow in Shanghai in around 5 years. It fell for 2 or 3 days and didn’t stick around for long, but that didn’t stop a social media frenzy and snowmen/snowrabbits popping up everywhere!
Snowy Shanghai street
The view from my new office
Snow-bunny (I think) near my apartment
As temperatures drop, people turn up the coal-powered heating in their homes and workplaces causing pollution levels to rise. The naturally overcast winter weather traps the pollution beneath the cloud line, and so China’s major cities become shrouded in a blanket of smog (especially the heavily populated Eastern cities such as Shanghai and Beijing). The government are conscious of this and during times of particularly bad pollution the production in factories is suspended (I have read that that are also investing in clean energy sources, and there is evidence the air quality getting better year-on-year). Even so, on Saturday 20th Jan when the Air Quality Index (AQI) spiked at 216, I took the opportunity to stay indoors and have a duvet day!
Friday 26th January 2018 saw the most eagerly anticipated event on the company calendar: The Annual Party. The theme was ‘A Fantasy Journey’, with fancy-dress strongly encouraged – the result was spectacular!
I opted for Alice, as it saved me having to buy a wig. I’m now quite confident that if the HR gig doesn’t work out, I would go down a treat at Disneyworld (and they have one in Shanghai, Bonus!).
The team performances were seriously impressive – from human shadow-puppets to sumo-wrestlers! There was even a rendition of the ‘pineapple pen’ song (google it).
My favourite restaurant this month: OHA Eatery
I want to try and visit a new place to eat each month. Ideally a brand new restaurant, but failing that, at least somewhere we’ve not eaten before. To say that the food & booze scene in Shanghai is competitive is an understatement. There is so much choice, with new places opening every week, that restaurants have to really bring their A-game; as a result we rarely have a bad meal out. Trends sweep into the city and one current trend is for ‘izakaya’ (informal Japanese pub-style restaurants). One such place – OHA Eatery – opened a short walk from our apartment so we went to check it out.
The space: Small and cosy, with one U-shaped bar-table down the middle. It felt more like someone’s dining room than a commercial restaurant, and the service was in line with this – warm and welcoming but not overly personal.
The food: The menu, printed on a small piece of creamy paper contained a curated selection of Guizhou-inspired dishes (often using ingredients from the Southwestern province). We ordered 5 dishes, and almost licked the plates clean they were so delicious (My favourite was the stuffed baby squid with calamansi lime and soy). Walking out we agreed that we would need to go back soon to try the other half of the menu – always the true test in Shanghai where places can peak early and then lose their edge. That said, I’m looking forward to returning here already – maybe this evening!
Three months after the event – and interrupted by a couple of blogs on our pre-Christmas weekend in Hong Kong – here is the final installment in our Laos-Cambodia trip: Siem Reap and the Angkor Temples…
From the airport we caught a remork (Cambodian tuk-tuk) to our hotel, our luggage piled precariously at our feet, and as our driver sped into the night the smell of smoke mingled with the powerful fragrance of the frangipani trees. The long, wide, straight road from the airport was lined on either side by floodlit luxury hotels, then a few minutes later by a smattering of late-licenced shops and bars. We turned off the main road to take a weaving route through increasingly dark, narrow and gravelly streets, at one point passing through what was clearly the red light district; I gave Matt a sideways look which said “our hotel better not be here!” but to my relief we pressed on towards The Green Corner Residence, a small but beautifully designed hotel tucked away at the end of a secluded cul-de-sac.
With five full days ahead of us in Siem Reap we were in no rush to see the temples on Day 1. Instead, we chilled out by the pool (me) and explored the city centre (Matt). Siem Reap is often referred to as the ‘gateway to the Angkor temples’; a functional base camp in which to to eat and sleep, in close proximity to the Angkor Archaeological Park. It fits this bill perfectly, with lots of great bars, restaurants, coffee shops, massage parlors and a huge day-to-night market. We read about a number of other things to do – from Khmer cooking classes to the Phare Circus – but as this was the last stop on our trip we indulged in a good bit of R&R when we weren’t out ogling temples.
The atmosphere in Siem Reap (once you learn to tune out the persistent solicitation of remork drivers and massage therapists) is very laid back and it seemed we were only ever 3-4 metres away from a frozen margarita which was ideal!
A popular gelato and coffee bar
A central street in Siem Reap
The main mode of transport (usually without helmets)
The Angkor Temples
R&R successfully accomplished, we set off the next day to explore Angkor Archeological Park; the 400 sq km stretch of lush Cambodian forest which contains the remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire- including over 1000 temples. From the 9th to the 15th century each Cambodian ‘god-king’ strove to surpass his predecessor by building a bigger, grander, more symmetrical and increasingly intricately carved place of worship which culminated in the world’s largest religious building: Angkor Wat.
Today the remains range from ruinous piles of moss-covered rubble through to painstakingly well-restored landmarks – thankfully all now safeguarded by UNESCO – and you can choose whether to stick to the well-trodden paths or venture further afield to some of the more remote areas. We hired a remork and driver via our hotel, purchased a 3-day pass* from the ticket office, and explored 9 temples over two visits:
VISIT 1: Banteay Kdei, Ta Promh, Ta Keo, Bayon and Angkor Wat.
VISIT 2: Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som and Pre Rup.
* FYI, there are three types of tickets: a 1 day ($37), 3 day ($62) and 7 day ($72); the latter tickets can be used on non-consecutive days over a fixed period, for example the 3-day pass that we chose can be used over a ten-day period. Peculiarly the ticket office is around half way between Siem Reap centre and the Park so you need to make a stop here first to buy a pass – be prepared to show your passport or ID card, have your photo taken, and pay in cash.
Unsurprisingly there is a wealth of information on the internet about the Angkor temples so it’s not my intention to replicate that here. Instead, I have captured some of my favourite photos from our temple tour, with a few brief captions.
The first temple we visited was Bantaey Kdei, a massive Buddhist monastery built during the reign of Cambodia’s most celebrated king, Jayavarman VII, in the latter part of the 12th century.
Nicknamed the ‘Tomb Raider Temple’ – having provided the backdrop to the 2001 movie – Ta Prohm is one of the most popular temples in the park. Built by Jayavarman VII for his mother, and consecrated in 1186, the temple is an amalgamation of long narrow corridors, courtyards and towers, many now enveloped by the strapping roots of twisting towering trees. The effect is powerful and atmospheric, the sunlight filtering where it can through the canopy of leaves and casting shadows over the mossy stones and earth.
Despite the army of blood-red ants that launched a full-scale attack on my calves if I dared to stand still for a second, I think Ta Prohm was my favourite temple. The devastatingly powerful trees slowly but surely ensnaring the stone buildings in their inexorable and unyielding grip was captivating. I felt tiny stood next to the tree in the photo above!
Bayon (Angkor Thom)
Built in the late 12th- early 13th century, Bayon was the official state temple of Jayavarman VII (the same King who ordered the construction of Banteay Kdei). It is known as the ‘face temple’, due to the unique and extraordinary stone faces built into it’s upper towers.
Angkor Wat was built for king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, and is recognised as the world’s largest religious building. It is also the symbol of Cambodia, appearing on the national flag and is the prime attraction for tourists to the country. We debated whether to get up early to watch the sunrise over the temple (as friends who had visited before us had implored us to do) but when push came to shove we decided in favour of a few extra hours in bed! Heavy grey clouds hung over Angkor Wat as we explored, but luckily didn’t break and so made for some great photos.
Prasat Nean Pean
Prasat Nean Pean is a small island temple which sits at the axis of a cross or lotus pattern of eight pools, thought to have powerful healing properties. When we visited in October the lake were full and the result was spectacular.
Here are a collection of photos from some of the other temples that we visited; Ta Keo, Preah Khan, Ta Som and Pre Rup.
After nine temples we felt like we had seen enough (and it was so hot that I feared I was melting!), so we spent the remainder of our time in Siem Reap trying out the local cuisine in the luxury of air-conditioned restaurants. One of the best places we ate was Pou Restaurant; their menu was a collection of traditional Khmer dishes which had been given a modern and creative twist. I instantly knew what Matt would choose – the Kulen Mountain sausage with pork belly and tree ants; I couldn’t bring myself to try it, but Matt polished off the lot!
Grilled mackerel with tumeric rice and beetroot dressing
Kulen Mountain sausage with pork belly and tree ants
We had a brilliant time in Siem Reap, the temples, the food and the cocktails were first-class. I can even give a glowing review of the Royal Angkor International Hospital where we made an unscheduled visit thanks to a nasty gastroenteritis bug which completely wiped me out, a few hours before we were due to board our flight home! Luckily an IV drip and course of antibiotics brought me back from what felt like deaths door and we made it back to Shanghai – if a little worse for wear…
The vision of Hong Kong in my mind’s eye before our recent visit was quite similar to the Hong Kong that I described in my last blog; soaring skyscrapers of glass and steel amalgamated into an iconic skyline along the harbour, double-decker trams gliding through busy streets, flashing noticeboards competing for attention. However, Hong Kong is a lot more diverse than I realised. It is made up of 3 distinct geographical regions – Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and TheNew Territories – divided by their historical time of acquisition by the UK.
My last blog focused on the areas we visited in Kong Kong Island and Kowloon, but two of the attractions that we wanted to see – the ‘Big Buddah’ and Tai O fishing village – required us to take a day-trip to Lantau Island (see left hand side of the map below), part of The New Territories. Lantau is the largest of Hong Kong’s islands (almost twice the size of HK Island itself), and more than half is covered by mountainous country parkland.
The Hong Kong metro system conveniently links Hong Kong Island to Kowloon and on to Lantau, but to reach the Big Buddah we had to take the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car from the Tung Chung terminal to Ngong Ping village. It’s a popular route (despite arriving early we still spent an hour snaking up and down roped-aisles in the ticket queue*), but once we were up-and-away the panoramic view from the carriage was incredible!
* For a few extra dollars you can get a ‘Crystal’ cabin which is glass bottomed; we bought Crystal tickets for the return journey which turned out to be a good idea since the queue for Crystal on the way up was huge while on the way back it was actually much smaller than for the normal cabins.
Tian Tan Buddah (‘Big Buddah’)
As we neared the end of the cable car journey the silhouette of the Tian Tan Buddha – informally known as the ‘Big Buddha’ – materialized on the horizon, sitting atop a tree-covered hill, surrounded by an endless sea of tree-covered hills. It was a misty morning and the sight was quite magical.
Exiting the cable car terminal we followed the stream of people into Ngong Ping village, and were funneled past a collection of souvenir shops, noodle restaurants, teahouses, a Starbucks and a Subway. The whole village looked incredibly new and reminded me of a ski-resort with it’s single-story wooden-roofed buildings (the bright blue sky and crisp winter air probably helped with the association).
There were a few cows dotted around, and they took on a kind of celebrity status with the tourists…
The Tian Tan Buddha is a seated representation of Lord Gautama (on whose teachings Buddhism was founded) and was unveiled in 1993 to symbolise the harmonious nature between man and nature, people and faith. Cast in bronze he is 26m high (34m if you count the base podium), weighs 250 metric tons and faces North towards mainland China to look over the Chinese people.
His gigantic shape loomed above us as we climbed the steep flight of steps up the hill, getting ever larger as we got higher until he captivated our entire view. At the top we could walk a full circle around the viewing platform beneath the Buddha, and were rewarded by a beautiful view over Ngong Ping village and the remote ‘Po Lin’ Buddhist monastery and temple complex (built in 1924).
Our journey to see the Buddha was long compared the the 20-or-so minutes we spent there, but I would really recommend making the effort; it was a truly hypnotic sight and a meaningful demonstration of the commitment to the Buddhist faith in this area.
Tai O (大澳) Fishing Village
From Ngong Ping we caught the #21 bus to Tao O on Lantau’s west coast, a 15 minute journey in which Lantau island morphed in front of our eyes from alpine-esque ski-resort to Cornish-esque fishing village. Little boats bobbed in the harbour and – in contrast to the pretty chalets in Ngong Ping – the surrounding buildings looked weather-beaten and functional.
We entered the village through a street lined with trestle-tables laden with miscellaneous dried fish and seafood, glistening like crystals in the cold winter sunlight. For a fishing village it didn’t really smell of fish, although I imagine that may change in the summer months! The leaflet we collected with our cable car ticket listed local delicacies as shrimp paste, salted egg yolks and fish, steamed glutinous rice cakes and rice dumplings.
It was approaching lunchtime and we were craving something hot to warm us up, so we ducked into a tiny restaurant (essentially the front room of someone’s house) and ordered steaming bowls of noodle soup with cuttlefish (Matt) and wantons filled with shrimp and pork (me). It was delicious, and really hit the spot.
Our energy topped up, we continued through the village until we reached the ramshackle web of interconnected stilt houses which are home to the Tanka people, a community of around 2,000 fishermen and women who’ve built their houses on stilts above the tidal flats of Lantau Island for generations. Their homes are at once sturdy – with concrete stilts driven deep into the seabed – and incredibly fragile, as evidenced by those which have succumbed to the watery elements.
Apparently Tai O used to be one of the biggest villages on Lantau with 30,000 residents, but the stability of a 9-5 job downtown has drawn most young people away from the traditional fishing lifestyle; the remaining residents now rely on tourism to supplement the income from fishing.
While exploring the labyrinth of stilt houses via the rickety wooden walkways we came across the Three Lanterns Cafe, where a friendly lady informed us of their open-door policy and welcomed us to take a look at the view from the upstairs terrace; here we found three small tables and a great view over the rope-drawn ferry bridge.
We decided to stay for a slice of cheesecake and some jasmine green tea and ended up chatting with the co-owner, a guy from Devon (UK) who it turned out was married to the lady who invited us in. He told us that he spends half his time in the UK and the other half in Tai-O helping to run the cafe, a favourite location for professional and amateur photographers alike who are keen to capture the moment the sun sets above the bridge in the distance.
Once I’d exhausted every photo opportunity in the village we made our way back to the bus stop, but not before we had tasted some of the street-food snacks… delicious!
We had an incredible time in Hong Kong – the lingering Britishness of Hong Kong Island was just what I needed on the run up to Christmas (I’ve since devoured the M&S mince pies that we smuggled back to Shanghai!). I enjoyed the tram ride up Victoria Peak and the view over the city, and I could have spent a whole week wandering around the narrow SoHo streets; however, Tai O village was the highlight of the trip for me. The collection of stilt houses was unlike anything I’ve seen before and – for the moment at least – it still feels authentic. Plus, you can’t beat a good egg waffle!