Getting a Grip on Shanghai

As all the guide books tell you Shanghai is very different from the other cities in China. Yet it there are some common dominators; the panic on the metro, the designer shops and the awe of ginger.

We took in the Shanghai Museum and the Bund. The former was as you would expect, a homage to China with the built in challenge of finding the oldest artefact. The hands down winner was a 20,000 yr old pot, almost as old as our national treasure Bruce Forsyth.

The highlight was the propaganda poster museum which is situated in the basement of a block of flats in the French concession. The curator being a zealous man very keen to show you the anti truman/churchill posters. He clearly forgot the power of Wham in the 80s and their Foreign Skies tour, Andrew Ridgely’s guitar playing was enough to bring about a coup d’etat.

The bund is the riverfront with a few streets behind. You get the picture postcard view of the city and along the front are many historic buildings, behind are a number of old Shanghai streets. Tourists also took our photo, or I should say KT’s. We think it was the hat she was wearing but some Chinese family have a lovely holiday photo of KT and their son. I think they made a great couple.

Shanghai is pretty special, its huge at 20+ million people for a start, over half of which are classed as migrants. Never ending blocks of apartments fill the sky lines and countless skyscrapers of all shapes and sizes help fuel the Chinese miracle. Having visited Bangkok, Singapore and Kl it all felt a bit familar. More Asian than Singapore, not as hectic as Bangkok, but in many places you felt you could be anywhere in the world. Thats not to say we didn’t like it. The french quarter is tree lined and very pretty and the whole city is architectually full on.

In the end we wondered if all the posters in the museum, talking about beating the USA and Europe and how good the Chinese way is, were really ultimately a failure. Would Mao really have wanted shopping malls full of American and European brands, or god help us all Starbucks.

We retreated to our hotel URBN for free drinks. Shanghai’s first carbon neutral hotel. Every hour 4000 Toyota Prius drivers hold their breath for a minute to offset it. It is a very good boutique hotel and we would definately recommend it. However carbon neutral, maybe for a minute when it was built. Around the corner there is a reasonable and free for guests gym which we visited a couple of times. This too was carbon neutral supposedly. However that was so hot via air con that unless Wales is covered in new trees every other week its not going to offset anything ever.

Vietnam tomorrow, we can’t wait for the real heat.

Trains Trains Trains

First day in shanghai we took an organised tour out to Hang zu. Being a train jeff this was an excellent option. Bullet train there, Bullet back. Shanghai train station (one of them) looks like an airport, the matching airport terminal next to it is smaller than the train station. As with everything new in chinese infrastructure, huge and ultra modern. Now when it comes to transport the buildings, trains, bridges and everything else is very organised and frankly puts us to shame. Less so are the people. Queuing, no. Using every available gate, no. 7 entry gates to put your ticket in, 100 people fighting to use the first 3 and nobody using the other 4. Its an odd competition, everyone turns up way to early for the train/plane/bus or whatever, then there is an almighty scrum to get on. Its as if they are worried it will or life will leave without them. Patience people and take some queuing tips from the masters, oh but can we have your trains.

More legroom than business class plane seats. Toilets cleaned, floors mopped every 15 minutes. Impeccable, cheap (5 pounds for a 75 minute journey), clean and of course on time.
Out bound train was 200kph bullet, nothing special. Back was a newer bullet, 300kph, which has been turned down from 350kph due to an accident last year. Only part of the French tgv goes the same speed, and as our guide gleefully mentioned they are faster than the Japanese ones. To make it more fun they put the speed up in the carriages. All good jeffness.

Ok, so Hang Zu is one nice place, big lake, lovely gardens. Romantic setting for many Chinese. Honeymooners and tour groups compete for the perfect photo. It was refreshing to see lots of trees and plants. They also have a great Buddist temple there which we were shown around. Biggest (of course) in southern china or similar. In the afternoon we visited the tea museum and sampled a variety of green and other teas. All very civilised. The best bit of the day however was the trains.

Some People to watch over me

In 1974 a farmer, Mr Young, digging for water came across an underground vault which became the discovery of the ‘Army of Terracotta Warriors’. On our arrival at the site we were fortunate enough to meet an elderly Mr Young who has been given a job by the government, along with lots of land, apartments and infamy. We duly bought his book and he signed it along with a few others that day, and every other day.

Why the army was built is not exactly certain, either Emperor Qin Shi Huang thought he needed the army to protect him after his death or he thought he could carry on ruling from beyond the grave. The good news at the time unless you were one of the tens of thousands of slaves making the army, was that prior to the terracotta versions the usual way of protecting yourself was to bury alive all your private guards in your tomb. Some people got lucky.

The whole place is still one big archelogical dig site and in the main number 1 pit they think 6000 soldiers are there, only about 2000 are visible. It is a huge, stunning place. Every single soldier and horse is different, and they even can tell which part of China they are from. Pretty much all of the soldiers are rebuilt from broken pieces due to them being damaged by a fire which destroyed the wooden roof by an uprising a thousand or so years ago. The soldiers are arranged in battle formation and in pit 1 they are the foot soldiers and archers, in pit 2 and 3 they are progressively more senior.

The magnitude of the pits can not truly be appreciated unless visited and there are believed to be over 600 pits, and countless tombs most of which are unopened.

After the warriors we visited the mosque in the muslim area of Xi’an which was very interesting least because we were allowed entry. Even more surprising was that it was in the style of a buddist temple. The randomness continues as does Paul’s inner jeff, he was fascinated by the old school joists in the roof that required no nails!

Frozen on the Orient Express

We like trains, and they are always a good way to experience a country. So instead of flying we booked an overnight train from Beijing to Xi’an. The train left from Beijing West station which looks much like a Las Vegas hotel and is enormous, but only 10 platforms. Wierd, but looks impressive. Its a pretty military operation and the staff look all very official and don’t seem to like to smile. There are different classes of train, we travelled on a Z class soft sleeper. Not the fastest but still a non-stop Express. You share with 2 others in bunk beds and each carriage has a shared bathroom. KT had a bottom and I had a top.
The room was small and we shared with 2 ladies that didn’t say much. The train left 30 seconds early at 8.50pm, everyone went to bed pretty much immediately, no party on this train that’s for sure.
It was around this time when we realised how cold it was on the train. On the air con gauge in the corridor it said 0.5 deg. It was freezing. We slept fully clothed with full cold weather gear on. In the middle of the night it warmed up to 9 deg, so the body warmer could be removed, however the onset of frostbite had kicked in and this was a feat in itself.

We emerged the following morning somewhat bedraggled but pleased that it was a lot smoother than an overnight KL to Singapore train experience from a couple of years ago. Pulling into Xi’an station Paul exclaimed, “This is some seriously good train kit they have here.” A very Jeff thing to say.

A little place in the country

Our final day in beijing took us via the metro to the Summer Palace. The metro is a constantly growing beast with modern trains some with the doors on the platform. All very easy except getting on and off. The concept of allowing people off the train first is definately not a Beijing custom. Passengers prepare for the exit ready to bulldoze their way out. Having to change lines a couple of times meant we got some practice in. I am pleased to say we did not let the country down, serious bodychecking was applied. The Chinese are also experts at that too, even the smallest lady can take you out but in a sort of ninja style that you don’t see coming.

We entered via the north gate via Beigongmen station. The guide says you need all day to explore but having entered and seen the way ahead blocked for work we were disappointed. So we went round the hill accidently and at that point you realise how huge it is. The palace itself was built as a summer escape for the imperial court. Many of the great many temples and pavilions have been rebuilt as the French and British troops vandalised it in the opium wars in 1856, then different foreigners burnt it down in 1900. In 1949 they started rebuilding it. Below the hill lies Kunming lake which 100,000 people helped build in the 18c. The lake was completely frozen with a selection of brave or mad people walking across it. The whole place was very pretty and entering from the north gate very steep (again).

We liked the place busy as it was. KT sang Summer Palace to the tune of Summer loving, the chinese stared (which they do everywhere at us), we went home.

Great Wall

Supposedly in Beijing you can let fireworks off in the street for 5 days from the start of the spring festival or New Year. Whatever the rules are friday was the last day. It started by some enormous bang at 7.30am and got progressively madder until the evening. By this point it looked and sounded like shock and awe over bagdad. They were everywhere, it was both thrilling and a tad scary.

During the day we were taken on a 2 hour ride to a much quieter stretch of the great wall. We had not given the Wall as much attention as the Square and Palace. We should have, it was stunning. The section we went to in Jinshanling was way away from the usual bus tours, and for an hour it was just us. So quiet and very cold. There was snow on the ground and the air was crisply clean. Our sore throats disappeared.

The wall started being built in 250BC but most of what we were standing on went back to probably the Ming dynasty 15th century. It must have taken serious effort to build, and as our guide mentioned, is the worlds longest cemetary.

Its seriously steep where we were and portions of it felt like an extended stair master session. We walked and climbed for a couple of hours and then went back down to the local village for lunch. Stewed beef, potatoes, egg dumplings, chinese cabbage. Lovely.

Both of us slept all the way back. Brilliant day.

Tiananmen Pair

Bejiing is really dry, dust everywhere. Static charges when you touch a shop door keep you on your toes. We both have sore throats from the pollution which drinking water only temporarily helps. Perfect then for walking miles which we did today. First stop Tiananmen square which like the next stop the Forbidden Palace required a security scan to get in. The are so many people visiting because of the chinese new year, so how much attention gets paid to an xray screen is anyones guess.
The queues for the tomb were immense, not really our thing but clearly is the done thing. No tanks however but the Great Hall of the people was impressive if a little Russian brutal in design.

From there you go underground to cross the enormous 10 lane empty road between the square and the palace. Ahead the picture of Mao cant be missed as you edge into the concrete gardens before the Palace. Here soldiers clean their boots and one of the many public loos are available. Public Loos are everywhere in the city almost every street, and whilst they are clean they are pretty basic, a hole in the ground, no water. The one in the palace also seemed to have no rules about closing or locking doors. Some things you really dont want to see.

Onwards into the palace. What is impressive other than the buildings themselves is the size of the place. That and the numbers of people viewing. Trying to get a picture of the inside of one of the building was way too hectic. The gardens at the end are interesting, with trees and piles of rock.

From there we went and had lunch in the shopping district, at Ajisen Noodles. As good as the guidebook suggested. We miandered home via a cake shop to pick up a mini birthday cake for Paul. It was lovely.

Fireworks are still going off everywhere from breakfast to night. On our way back from dinner we caught a touching moment between grandfather and grandson lighting and holding fireworks on our street. They prefer the loud variety here and some of them make huge crackling sparks and go on for ages. Shadowly figures on the street are not there to mug you just to make you jump.

The Big Chill

Despite the jetlag and the hypnotic qualities of the Chinese soap opera, we braved the cold weather and went to Nanluouxian (try saying that when you’re drunk). It literally translates into alley and is scattered with shops and a quaint coffee shop which topped up our depleated caffeine levels.

This lead us to the drum tower which was impressive but not as impressive as the loons on the frozen river. We were not convinced that the ice was that thick but this didn’t deter anyone, just as the risk of maiming doesn’t deter people from letting off double hard fire works in crowded streets. It is very popular to let them off in the day so you can’t see them only hear them, frankly we need to work on our Guy Fawkes night.

We went to Da Dong for dinner where apparently the duck is legendary, it is incredibly lean and from the queue very popular. It was very good and all was going well until the end when they bought over some additional dishes; duck soup, fried duck skin and a complementary dessert. Paul tried the soup which evidently answered our questions as to what happened to all the duck fat they drained. This was quite traumatic and has resulted in flashblacks.

Our first day was fun and we paid homage to that old chinese proverb “Get Involved”.

Sunny with a brisk temperature of -15

Our welcoming message from the pilot at 10am this morning arriving in Beijing. Its cold, very cold. The BBC weather forecast did not tell the truth it seems. 9 million people live in the city limits and flying in you can see where. Huge estates of very high-rise flats interspersed by factories and industry. With the haze, smog and chimneys belting out something it felt like a scene from some sci-fi apocalypse movie.

The airport was vast and empty, Chinese new year is definitely a good time to fly. Henry our part-time tour guide picks us up, warns us of the traffic and gives some handy hints. 30 minutes later we arrive at our courtyard hotel pretty central.