Well, I’m back in the UK, and back to my final year of University.
Back to the old family home, and a shiny new student house.
For any long-time readers (hi Mum and Dad), you’ll know it’s been a long old year.
But, September rolled around again, and I took the nostalgic flight from Belfast City Airport to the tiny Exeter International. I’m already back studying English and Film here at Exeter, and with plenty of re-homing practice, I’ve set up my little university room in record time. I’m getting to be a pro at living away from home. Still keeping an eye out for some new bits and bobs to brighten up my wee room, it’s looking a tad sparce.
Second Year Throwbacks
My (admittedly mid-essay) desk and bed in second year. Lots of little bits have survived from my second year home… I think a couple of essays down the line and my new room will look just as note-strewn and hectic!
It’s great to be back
I live in a cosy five-girl house, tootle up to campus for the occasional English or Film lecture, and bask in the Forum space when I’m supposed to be reading. It’s nothing as crazy as China was: there are no passive-aggressive dorm wardens, the campus isn’t a death-trap of rickety bikes commandeered by always-late students, it’s distinctly lacking the dull roar of a city of 23million people – nor the snot clogging smog that accompanies it.
Bai & Su Causeways,
National Silk Museum
Dragon Well Tea Village.
After term ended in January I headed to Hangzhou for a long-weekend. It’s a short two and a half hour high-speed train journey from Shanghai, and if you choose your weekends wisely, a great break from the bustle of the big city.
Lakes, greenery and pedestrian and cycle paths that should be the envy of China, Hangzhou made a crisp New Year’s trip that’s definitely one of my China favourites.
I’m a simple creature, proximity to food is high on my list of priorities.
And Hangzhou’s slightly sweet and flavoursome style of dishes are a solid favourite out of my trips so far. If you’re down south, definitely try out these three dishes mains at the very least, Hangzhou did them perfectly: 红烧肉 Slow Stewed Pork, 家常白菜 Home Style Cabbage, 红烧茄子 Stewed Aubergine.
For speciality snacks, head down to QingHeFang St. on the west side of the lake where stalls selling traditional savoury snacks and sweet cakes line the narrow streets.
If you stay away from the traumatising horror of major national holidays in China, even at the weekends, Hangzhou’s lakes and causeways are some of the loveliest.
Besides the gentle (read: wonderfully flat) walk around the lake, it’s also surrounded by a scattering of temples, pagodas and museums well within a walking radius. We managed to cover them pretty extensively over three days, and I wish I had had more time at the Silk Museum. I was taken rather grudgingly, given my sceptical opinion of how interesting a museum of a single fabric could be, but I (equally grudgingly) had to confess I was wrong.
Good choice, Peter.
GREAT PUBLIC TRANSPORT
At risk of being called a criminally uncool, I have to say, having travelled a fair bit along the main tourist routes of China by now, it is with no small amount of gravity that I praise the tourist buses in Hangzhou. All hail efficiency.
With managable timetables and English announcements at every stop, it’s an easy town to move about in. (And the fact that I still managed to lead us half an hour in the wrong direction by the bus is testament only to my poor understanding of North vs. South.)
We headed down to the lakeside to rent a cheap tandem and cycle the lake. Things were certainly a lot safer when I wasn’t steering, but that aside, it was a perfect way to enjoy the sunshine.
Su Causeway North to Hubin Rd. takes around 25mins.
Another plus of good transport is that we weren’t afraid to take some late evening strolls around the lake and watch the lights glow from street lamps and tiny wooden stalls.
Pu An Road Station 普安路 – Zhu Jia Jiao 朱家角: 12¥
35mins-1hr (traffic dependant)
Sights: Ke Zhi Garden,
Qing Dynasty Post Office,
Shen Ming Bridge,
Town God Temple.
This week, with my mum here in Shanghai, we took a half-day trip across the city to the water town Zhu Jia Jiao.
I’ve managed to get by for nine months referring to the town in a nonchalant jumble of Z sounds and a vague hand-wave (with any old tone thrown in for good measure), and this trip involved a full day of avoiding it like the plague, twisting my mouth into unintelligible Chinese when it was only explicitly necessary.
Unsurprisingly, that was fairly often.
It’s a speedy bus journey out of the city on the huge concrete flyovers that head south-west towards Shanghai province’s inland lakes and rivers, and the bouncy journey on China-style suspension is tempered only by the no standing system (I take a seated China-style snooze).
ZhuJiaJiao is a different feel to Suzhou, with its Old Town constrained within a 15min radius of sharp, twisting alleys, packed with noisy sellers and nosier tourists, but in the blazing sun it certainly has its own charm – particularly in its two storey canal-side tea houses and restaurants.
A maze of traditional wooden shutters, whitewashed walls, and dubiously constructed bamboo scaffolding that marked large-scale maintenance of it’s traditional architecture, the Old Town is a strange mix of the locals everyday life, adapted to the hundreds of camera-wielding tourists that march through every day between 9AM-5PM.
After hours, I imagine, is entirely more pleasant.
With a slow-paced wander around the Old Town, Mum and I get a noodle and wonton soup lunch upstairs in a quiet restaurant. I’d suggest checking out what the upstairs of your chosen lunch establishment is like before committing, lest you end up like us, with our windows bizarrely facing over the street and dry, latticed scaffolding instead of the picturesque tourist canal.
By the end of the day, I did reluctantly learn to pronounce ZhuJiaJiao.
You know, that pretty water town place, she says, gesticulating vaguely.
In November, I made a long weekend trip an hour and a half from the Big City to Nanjing along with some girls here at Fudan University.
GIRLS ON TOUR
The great thing about travelling with friends is that, even if things go a bit awry, any unfortunate catastrophe makes a pretty good anecdote when you’re putting your feet up at the end of the day. Come rain, dubiously timetabled buses, or our dodgy foreigner’s Chinese, we managed to power through a with a whirlwind tour of Nanjing.
As a testament to the trip’s success, all six of us girls are still friends.
Not bad, eh?
TOUR TOUR TOUR
Being November, it was drizzly, splashy and rainy for our second trip to the Jiang Su province, having been in Suzhou not long before. We made the best of our two day trip in Nanjing and split our time into a day on the Purple Gold Mountain tourist trail and a day for the City.
紫金山 // Purple Gold Mountain
Sights: Xiaoling Tomb of the Ming Dynasty Sun-Yet Sen Sun-Yet Sen Mausoleum Forest Trails
It’s a long hike from the bottom of the mountain to base of the Sun-Yet Sen Mausoleum where a dizzying set of stairs lead the way to the memorial building, but the road is packed. Nothing like getting overtaken by Chinese grannies on a crisp Autumn stair-master challenge.
Although I may be some six thousand miles from home, something about the cool, clammy air in the mountains, the heavy foliage and falling leaves, walking with my backpack, and speaking English gives me the strongest feeling of home – of drizzling Northern Irish weather and Sunday walks with the family.
Purple Gold Mountain, though, has the most gorgeous yellow trees that line the paths and spray them with delicate, fan-shaped leaves, and now and then, we stumble across some Chinese architecture amongst the trees.
Probably better than your average day Sunday walk. .
南京市 Nanjing City
Sights: Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum
For our day in Nanjing City, the weather takes a turn for the worse and we head to the foreboding structure of the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Museum for the morning. It’s a dense exhibit, and here and there between it’s visceral images and personal accounts, tiny old men and women cry silently as they walk. It’s a harrowing visit, and by the end of it all, we’re a fairly tired bunch.
Can hardly visit Nanjing without seeing this museum.
At night, we take a jaunt around the intersection of Guangzhou Rd. and Shanghai Rd. for some post-touristing drinks, popping into Ellens, the local grimy Helen’s knock-off which is jammed full of local students, and quickly leaving to Brewsell’s pub round the corner for an Expat atmosphered beer (or Amaretto and Coke for me – the first I’ve seen in China).
This fabulously dressed Germanic-looking gentleman sits at the bar, which probably makes my evening.
In amongst our sight-seeing, there are a fair few exciting meals from the strange noodle breakfasts, the traditional lazy Susan lunches and, ashamedly, a desperation-fuelled Starbucks. Of course, my rucksack was constantly crammed with the odd snack to keep me occupied.
(It’s better for everyone if I’m kept well nourished, trust me.)
As for sleeps, we nabbed a clean, six-person dorm, albeit slightly out of the way, in a hostel that featured smack bang in the middle of 1865创意园, a Creative Technology and Design Park.
Having reached a rather impressive milestone of six months in Shanghai, I’ve written, not as much as I would have liked, on nightlife, studying, food and art on my Year Abroad. I thought I’d add to this short list with a topic that’s been in the news at home in Britain (floods!): Shanghai Weather!
If you’re thinking about studying abroad in any country, you might want to take into account the seasonal weather changes as you pack your bags. There’s been an extreme range in temperature while I’ve been in this small coastal area of China, and it really does pay to be prepared.
I arrived in Shanghai during one of the hottest summers on record for this modern metropolis, when the temperatures were soaring in the high 30s, stifling the city with trapped heat. In July, it hit 40ºC on a day where news teams astounded people worldwide with footage of raw meat and eggs literally cooking on the concrete pavements of the city.
This unbearable June-July heat lasted right into early September, where our classes were attended in shorts and T-shirts (at least by us baking Brits), Chinese men walked around bearing some impressive pot bellies, and locals kept a little towel at hand to mop up the sweat (gross, but kind of effective?). Water bottles and light clothing are a must – but make sure you take a cardigan or jacket if you’re planning on taking the metro or popping into restaurants or department stores, the air-con tends to be on the strong side. Yay for tan, but, yeah… sweaty.
“What autumn?” is probably the right question here. Apart from the slow, slow decent of the temperatures from summer months, it’s common to hear from the locals that there is no Autumn in Shanghai. In reality, what arrived was a sudden downpour of rain and a sudden drop in temperature of about 10ºC, I was hoping that these days of chilly, brisk temperatures would last to be Shanghai’s winter, but boy was I wrong… Winter was coming.
TOP TIP: As the cold sets in, invest in one of these tea-flasks that you’ll see the locals walking around clutching. A plastic one can be as cheap as 10¥, and of course, glass versions can reach right up to 150¥. Traditionally, locals drink a lot of hot beverages, including plain hot water and tea, and with the temperature dropping rapidly it’s not hard to see why. Hot water dispensers are something you’ll see around school buildings, cafeterias and even on public trains – and don’t be surprised in restaurants when people ask if you want warm or cold water, they even offer ‘room temperature’ beer… An acquired taste, I think.
Cold. It is cold. Big winter jackets, accessories to cover ever extremity, and yes long-johns, will be things you’ll be wanting for the Shanghai winter. Perhaps hard to pin down exactly what it is about Shanghai’s winters that seem so bitter, but contributing factors definitely include a blistering cold wind, and frequent heavy downpours that last days on end.
Winters are far from mild, and this year even saw a brief flurry of snow in late January. In addition, living below the line drawn in the country which defines which houses get proper indoor heating (radiators, rather than air conditioners that double as heaters) means that inside concrete apartment blocks can be difficult to keep warm. Get your thick duvets and Chinese-style padded PJs on for warmth!
TOP TIP: If your looking to jazz up your bed with something 100% authentic Chinese-style, try buying a 拉舍尔毛毯 – it’s a thick, heavy bed throw that will cost you about 100¥ for a single bed sized cover – and boy are they warm! Only downside is, they come in particularly bold prints… You certainly won’t miss them in store anyway.
Up-date to come, if spring ever arrives that is…. but for now, it’s late February and when it’s not cold and raining, things are looking up with the daily temperature highs creeping slowly towards double digits. According to hearsay, the temperature won’t really start picking up until late April or May, but I’ve got my fingers crossed for earlier.
In December 2013, news of Shanghai weather hit the international news scene again, but this time it wasn’t for record-breaking heat and the novelty of BBQs on the city street, it was for the record-breaking levels of pollution in the city. The 6th of December saw the levels of pollution in the city soaring above the marks of unhealthy, very unhealthy and hazardous, right off the scale itself to what was guessed to be around the high 600s in the AQI (or Air Quality Index). What does this mean?
Well, to put it into context, my hometown of Belfast rarely rises above 30AQI, let alone above 50AQI (which marks the border from ‘Good’ into ‘Moderate’). For those of you in London, you’re looking at between 30s-120s, on a bad day – that’s touching into what’s marked as ‘Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups.’ Paris similarily stays below 100, while New York varies between 30s-150s.
As for the numbers, hold your breath, but from what I understand, they grade the concentration of pollutants in the air made up of readings of PM2.5, PM10, SO2, NO2, O3, and CO particles. For those of you with a better grasp of maths, check out Wiki’s page on Air Quality Index for a breakdown of how readings are taken and final AQI numbers calculated. And for everyone, below is a more simple demonstration of what the difference between around 60AQI and top-of-the-scale 500AQI looks like in real life.
It’s a pretty shocking wake-up call for anyone who’s thinking about what their quality of life will be if they move into a modern city with air quality problems, and it’s not just Shanghai that you should think about. Many cities across China, and the rest of the world (India, Egypt, Middle East, Mexico, to name names outright), are also suffering from industrial levels of pollution, booming population and lack of air quality control. It may not be the first thing you think of when you’re researching places to live, but from here on in, it’s going to be something I do – check the daily pollution where you are → http://aqicn.org/city/shanghai/
There are some precautionary measures you can take if you’re thinking of studying in China in the near future.
1. At the very least, get a PM2.5 Protection Mask 口罩 （Kǒuzhào）as soon as you arrive in China. Don’t wait for government pollution warnings, don’t wait for everyone else to tell you to get one, by that time masks are really hard to buy as they sell out fast. They cost around 40-50¥ in your local convenience store, and come with three disposable filters which can help filter the smallest PM2.5 particles. For more industrial masks, try Taobao (China’s answer to Amazon.com).
2. Download the aqicn.org Air Pollution Index App for your smart phone. It’s free, and means that you’re always able to get an accurate reading for what you’re breathing in so you can make an informed decision as to whether it’s worth going running today…
Short term effects: I’ve noticed are a particular smell when the pollution is bad that seeps into your clothes, and at its worst a sore throat, and sorry for the gross detail, but blow your nose and the snot comes out a particularly strange grey (I did actually end up asking friends about this, and we had laughed about it with a bit of dark humour… no pun intended). Long term effects are fairly detailed, so I’d direct you to Google for those.
That’s all I have to say so far about weather here in Shanghai, but hopefully there’s some detail there that’ll help you prepare for your trip, be it a holiday or long term stay. Feel free to ask questions below, me and the rest of the internet world will do our best to answer them!
This startlingly familiar, and inevitably rhetorical, question is one that often drifts into mind when I find myself splayed and squashed, chest-to-back, in a confused cross between queuing and crowd-mobbing in China. National Holidays, rush hours, and anything Public Transport – the sheer mass of people is terrifying.
I’M IN A MUSEUM
Now I don’t know what comes to mind when you think about heading to a museum, but a small scale battle is probably not the first image, what with with the elbow-vying for the perfect shot, the walking-speed race to reach the exhibit, and the split-second warning of a frantically wiggling flag that leads the dreaded tour guide of locals to descend upon your moment with Picasso.
In a brash, flap of tangled camera straps, and hot jackets, knees and elbows, the Chinese tour descends suddenly with its 120 decibel, robot-like tour guide, and sweeps itself off just as suddenly.
Reminiscent of a drilled march, the pit-stops allow tour groups to furiously snap photos at head-height (and by that, I mean my 5″8 head), with barely a glimpse of the attraction that isn’t through a small 3×4, pixellated viewer screen.
It’s not quite the quiet afternoon I usually have in mind when I leave my room for an exhibition.
YOU THINK IT’S JUST CHINA?
Well, obviously, it’s not.
From concerts, to the barely civilised mob before the rather smug-looking Mona Lisa
Louvre, you gotta love crowds.
It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to take a break and update on my travels here in China, but with the pesky Midterm Exams over I can finally take a look at the rainbow array of photos from my October trip to Suzhou!
With my 79RMB return ticket from Shanghai Hongqiao Station to Suzhou clutched in hand, our group of five make our way though the mid-National Week holiday masses to the train station. Suzhou has been cheerfully sold to me as the ‘Venice of Shanghai’, and to add to my natural scepticism of such Chinese claims, there’s a scuffle of conjecture that it’s actually Shanghai’s other water town, ZhuJiaJiao. A quick (and exasperated) description edit later, we’re back on track: to one of Shanghai’s two Venices…
Snacks and drinks packed in my trusty rucksack and sunglasses at the ready.
The Old area of Suzhou around 石路夜市场 ShiLu Nightmarket and its surrounding canals is a beautiful area of dainty Chinese bridges and street markets that sweep up out of the water in streets that weave alongside cloudy-watered, narrow canals. With it’s white and dark wood traditional buildings, cobbled streets and streams of red paper lanterns – the town Old Town sections are beautiful in the sun.
TRADITION & THE TOWN
As we make our way from the East of Suzhou town through the backstreets to the West, we criss-cross through silent, thin streeted residential areas (stopping for the odd 1.50RMB Green Bean ice lolly sold through a front door) and bustling open squared Pagodas where embarrassed tourists pose in traditional Chinese clothing and awkward couples shuffle in suits for wedding photos.
We watch a man in his late 50s twist blobs of hot coloured sugar into beautifully delicate, edible animal shapes with some lickity spit and dubiously clean hands around the Temple of Mystery (which in itself is not that mysterious, and probably not worth the walk if the Temple is all you want to see…).
Comfortable shoes an absolute must.
Lunch, one of my three favourite times of day, greets us in the form of the famous hundred-year old Zhū hóng miànguǎn 朱鸿面馆 as we battle with the locals stopping off between work shifts, wrinkled and fresh-faced alike who fold over their steaming noodle broth bowls and inhale their juicy lunch. I try the recommended salty pork and noodle soup 香辣排骨面, 14RMB and exact sighs of exasperation as I take pictures of the chilli sauce bowl.
That’s some mean chilli.
In a refreshing, zesty break form Shanghai’s concrete forest, Suzhou markets are packed bursting with colourful flowers, tea-shops and stalls around the Suzhou Watertown Hostel area (苏州浮生四季青年旅舍). Besides a treat for the snap-happy photographer (myself), it’s also a sensory delight for anyone who loves nibbling at sweet street-food snacks (also me) as their speciality steamed desserts, candied fruit and sugar stewed lotus root are light, yummy treats that should keep most children (and easily satisfied twenty-one year olds) happy.
For a bit of formal history, and light culture we stop off at:
Unfortunately, being peak holiday season, what we actually see is thousands of other tourists and energetic, flag-flailing guides, filing wildly and haphazardly in droves along the well-trimmed verges of the Humble Administrator (who certainly had a very big garden indeed). We become a garden highlight as we naively stop for a rest at this pagaoda, and are subjected to the flashes of Chinese tourists from all over the country.
We do however, pose for this little girl who solemnly asks in perfect English if we would mind her mum taking a photo of her with us.
As the sunlight sets over the Humble Administrator’s Bonsai’s we make for the end of our day-trip to Suzhou in a slightly mad dash back to the station after dinner. Taxi after taxi refuses to stop for the boys, who wave desperately at them. As the token Asian, I manage to hail one eventually (supporting our theory that some Taxi drivers are very suspicious of foreigners – actively avoiding picking them up) and we make it in time for our 40min train back home.
Good Bye, Suzhou!
It’s been a great day out, but I’ve got class in the morning.