Spending a January weekend in Edinburgh is what I imagine being trapped in Hogwarts at winter would be like: it’s cold, it snows, and there’s windy-wee-passages and cosy shops to get trapped in. Just what Rebecca and I were looking for for a best-friend birthday-mashup weekend!
I’ve never seen anything quite like the old town streets that wind and nestle on the hill. From above, Edinburgh Castle juts proudly over the city atop an outcrop of sheer rock-face, while the rest of the city’s old sandstone houses stretch up over six floors towards the cloudy sky.
out & about
Museums and independent trinket shops are right up my street, and Edinburgh has them aplenty. 10/10 to the National Portrait Gallery, and special mention to The Red Door Gallery, which stocks a fabulous amount of my illustrator idol, Gemma Correll.
I spent a lovely couple of days jumping in and out of Edinburgh’s deliciously heated trinket shops and restaurants — a great excuse for eating my way around the city. Nom nom treats for my belly.
FIRST PLACE The Outsider – Rabbit pie, pureed veg, and mash £7.20
Best find of Ed, ridiculously reasonable lunch prices – yet classy.
NARROW SECOND Henderson’s (Vegan + Veggie) – Stuffed peppers £10.95
Cosy, with piano-tinkling and amazing vegan and veggie food. Yes, please.
DELICOUS 3RD Bread Meats Bread — BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich £7
Absolutely packed on a Sunday night for the best pulled pork I’ve had.
Of course, I visited The Elephant House for a glimpse of the space where J K Rowling dreamt up the fabulous magicalness of Harry Potter. Strangely, but perhaps appropriately, I found Harry Potter’s world in the Loos, where hundreds of devotees had scribbled their love of magic.
On my last night, Rebecca and I made good use of the little pool, steam room, and sauna at Novotel (where the revolving front door refused to co-operate with Rebecca’s feet). It was puuuuuurfect for warming our wee fingers and toes after a chilly weekend.
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.
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!
A walk through the Antique and Pet Markets of Shanghai one is the most peaceful afternoons I’ve had since I’ve arrived in China.
Metro Stop: Laoximen Station
Dongtai Lu, enter from Xizang Lu into Liuhe Lu 东台路, 西藏路和浏河路路口
Perhaps it’s because I’m a literature student, and spend most of my time lost in the world of books published well before my Grandma was even born, but I feel like these open alleys of antiques is somewhere I was just meant to be.
The wide streets on Dong Tai Lu are besieged on both sides by clutter that pours out from small shop fronts and stalls that line the streets, manned by keen eyed old Chinese on their rickety fold out chairs, critically appraising your knowledge of antiques and eye for a bargain (or lack thereof…).
But it’s quiet, which is an absolute blessing if you’ve been to any of the tourist sites in Shanghai – that seem to come with a mandatory “Watch-Bag, Watch-Bag” man peddling his fake wares. Although the authenticity of the actual antiques in the Antiques Market is mostly questionable, it’s certainly a great place to pick up mementos of a trip to China, delve into the deceptively deep alley shopps, or relax with a 10RMB pot of flower tea and feel very hipster.
As my friends and I left to head back towards Laoximen metro station, we cross the road and pop our heads into the closing Pet’s Market for a quick scoot around the closing stalls, thankfully devoid of fellow tourists, as the sun set over Shanghai. If you’ve got time to make the visit, I definitely recommend – but keep in mind shops tend to shut in the Market from around 430PM onwards.
Metro: Laoximen Station
405 Xizang Nan Lu, near Fangbang Zhong Lu
It’s dark, heavy with the smell of animals and even though most of people have left, there’s loud chatter and bustle as the shop and stall keepers pack up their chirruping, barking and snuffling wares for the night. As we make our way round the packed alleyways, it’s with exclamations and croonings – the cages have everything from packed little kittens and multi-coloured birds, to terrapins and turtles and exotic fish in tiny tubs.
As far as animal rights go, I will say that some points did make me a little uneasy, with several kittens and rabbits together in cages slightly too small, and dogs that slept in spaces I’d like to be a but bigger, but it is an honest picture of the attitude towards pets; in the market at least, they’re well kept, but their living standards for the most part, can’t match up to a gardened house in Britain.
It’s a window into the traditional culture surrounding pets in China, and the older generation does make up the majority of the wandering crowds; they take great interest in the crickets – as well as the occasional games of Chinese Chess being played between the narrow stalls.
All in all though, an excellent de-stress from the bustling city.
Without ever leaving it at all
Leaving Taipei is strange. I’m not sure what to make of the move I’m making to Shanghai – controversially thought of as the south capital of China – but making it with my entire family in tow manages to dull any would be panic. Having never lived in a city bigger than Taipei, I’ve no idea what to expect of life in a city sprawled across some 6,340 km², to Taipei’s mere 271.7 km², and that’s to say nothing of Exeter or Belfast.
However, it’s not the first time I’ve set foot in Shanghai: the family transited here at the end of July… for one of the hottest heatwaves that Shanghai has experienced. As we fled the mid-day heat that soared into the high 30s (Celsius), world news was transfixed by a news broadcast of bacon and eggs frying on pavement that was reaching searing temperatures of 60. Some serious hotel air-conditioning, and continental breakfast does much to ease our jet-lag, exhaustion and the shock of the temperature difference, still we brave the mid-day make a regrettably sweaty visit to the magnificent Yu Yuan Gardens (stopping off for a much needed McDonalds Taro Ice-Cream) and at night venture tentatively for an afternoon to Nanjing East Road and nightfall at The Chinese Bund.
Tourist Hoards at The Bund
Nanjing East Road
Peace Hotel at Night
HuangPu River Boats
Huangpu River Boats
Like many a literature student, my only second-hand, preconception of Shanghai comes from reading J. G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun at seventeen: a 1940s city falling into the turmoil of World War II. As I approach The Chinese Bund, and gape at the looming structures of former foreign consulate and business buildings on the PuXi, side it’s the hoards of people, surging towards the black water of the Huang Pu River in the night that are the strongest presence around us. The water reflects the thousands upon thousands of lights that string up the towers on the PuDong bank in the night sky, making me think the “gaudy city”, as Ballard opens his novel, is still living up to it’s claim. It’s hot, sticky and as the throngs press around us, down the entirety of East Nanjing Road to and from the Bund, and rushing with blankly manic gestures towards the opening train doors on the metro (地鐵 – Dìtiě); queuing is a foreign concept, running for a free seat is not.
Yet, the Bund makes a second appearance when we arrive in the Shanghai for the second time, and for a welcome to my home for a year, the family brave the humidity and heat of Nanjing East Road a second time, to see the skyline of the Bund by day. It’s well worth the baking concrete walk and overhead sun. The crowds are considerably less by daylight, and we wander up the banks strip, noting the spirited Chinese flags atop the Pu Xi buildings, and becoming more and more interesting to the local Chinese tourists. The blink of black lenses and unnecessary flashes on the sidewalk slowly turn towards our family of five, as we snap our own family photos, and as the pictures become ridiculously blatant, we make a quick exit off the Bund sidewalk. Nevertheless, I’m glad to be with my family for our first experience of the interesting social practice of photographing foreigners.
I assumed that here in Shanghai, with an estimated population of 23.5 million, my dark hair, dark eyes and vaguely Asian features may have spared me the embarrassment, total invasion of privacy and complete bafflement that comes with having a stranger blatantly take your photo.
So I’ve reached the end of my Taiwan summer for another year, and it’s been an incredible journey across the world and along the island. I’ve really relished the time with my family before I leave for Shanghai and a long year of studying abroad. For my last Taiwan post, here’s a snapshot round-up of all the things I wish I had more hours in the day to write to y’all about…
Food, of course, from the incredible hot-pot dinners, to the weird and wonderful items at the local bakery.
And, as always, it wouldn’t be my blog if I didn’t have photos of flowers, and trees, and general random vegetation.
As I’m about to head of into the city forest of Shanghai for a year’s study at Fudan University, you can keep following my adventures in Asia under the tab Year Abroad on the main home menu! Keep in touch, and don’t be a stranger!
On our way back up to Taipei, and our overnight stop-off in Miaoli county, we take a small detour to walk in the cool hills above the town where there are fat pomelo fruit loaded on the branches in the roadside forests, the screeching of cicadas in the branches overhead, and the sharp bite of zebra-spotted mosquitoes in the air.
Taking a trail that meanders across a ledge on cultivated mountainside, we wander upwards across the farmland, meeting nobody on the rugged path, slightly overgrown by plants sucking up any moisture in the ground and flourishing in the summer heat. I’m in shorts, which is a bad call for traipsing though the long-bladed grass, and, true to my suspicions I am completely covered in mosquito bites as we emerge from the greeny overgrowth onto the hot tarmac road at the end of the trail – much to the bafflement of two brightly vested roadworkers quietly fixing a roadside lamp. We traipse downhill again to meet our silver van parked in the shade of overhanging bamboo, teeth gritted against the swell of mozzie bites, attempting to enjoy the lush scenery.
It’s a nice walk, but it’s the chubby fruit hanging on the roadside that makes it for me. Certainly no plain ol’ apples or oranges round here!
Fold-Up Giant Bikes! Don’t see these much outside Asia
We’ve arrived in Yuanlin, at a great hotel, named with typical Taiwanese bizarreness ‘Kindness Hotel‘: brilliant. And apart from fabulous free ice-cream in the lobby (with which we foreigners are demonstrating our love of free things, let alone ice-cream), strange selection of ‘toast and spreads’ – read strange slabs of soft sponge and a selection of dessicated coconut in sweet butter, tasteless ‘chocolate’ spread and smooth peanut butter (a sin in itself) – there are amazing fold-up bikes for free hire outside the front door. The family are on that like it’s out of fashion; and boy is it. The only time I’ve ever seen these weird looking contraptions-with-wheels was held by a running man two years ago, while heading out from work experience on the horrible on the London tube.
We take the 148 road out of the dusty, but bustling city of Yuanlin out onto the hilltop and park on the deserted roadside to ride up along the small mountain ridge. And up is the right word; in less than five minutes I’m drenched in sweat and puffing as I count eight pushes until I pause in exhaustion, long bypassed by avid cyclists in their lycra, my brothers and the occasional tootling, phut-phutting open truck/bicycles driven by old farmers and field workers in well-worn, ninja-style, anti-sun layers who peer curiously at my red face (for which I blame genetics. But, I could probably be fitter…). Still, however hot and sweaty the escapade is, the tropical plants cultivated in alien rows and styles just off the roadside and their accompanying houses in two stories with an open bottom floor and courtyard are perhaps just as foreign as the bustling cities for the wandering Brit. For all the pain it causes, a cycle in the farmland wilderness above Yuanlin is a wonderful reminder of Taiwan’s sub-tropical delights, rural lifestyle and a different type of lush greenness to Northern Ireland – a different kind of beautiful.
We have two very brief exchanges on the uphill as we pause to drench our heads in water as part of our desperate rehydration ritual. A small farmer lady turns suddenly out of a field as my red-faced family flop off our bikes on the road side and drink water: she stares, we stare. Until my Dad says “Hello!” and “熱 (Rè)” – Hot! She breaks into a wrinkly smile and ambles over to our side, bending nearly double to pull out mysterious weeds and flashing a similarly small, curved reaping knife strapped to her back. We all look at each other, and I’m thinking little old lady could do some serious damage with it. I snap a quick shot as her back is turned, and we continue – up, of course.
It’s hard to find a good view spot when we finally reach a lovely, lovely plateau (THANK YOU, NATURE) but we try a couple of lanes to the left and right of the main road to catch a glimpse of the towns below us – cycling past bemused tour groups who happily call out “Hello”s and “Have a good days”s and are equally bemused, if not more so, when they see us not five minutes later returning up the same route after failing to find a suitable vista. But our next proper exchange is on the death-defying descent to the car, as we stop to admire a huge, and strange fruit at the side of the road. As four five foot nine + foreigners stare at the large vegetable on the roadside, a large straw hat rises slowly from the grasses in the field behind. A wary farmer locks stony eyes; we gawk back. Again, it’s Dad who’s that practised millisecond faster and shouts “Big!” making the traditional spread-arms gesture – eliciting a broad, toothy grin and a thumbs up.
We must be at the top: radio masts galore.
A Baby Pineapple!
Even Littler Baby Pineapple!!!
A wicked looking reaping knife.
Old Farmer and his Pride Vegetable!
Oh, and before I forget, one of the lanes led windily down towards a little pig farm! I’ve never seen one before, and it was a strange moment as I swivelled about looking for the source of the snuffling, before looking down at the sunken, concrete pens by the lane.
They looked frightening together grunting, but maybe even more so when they looked cutely, and humanly, up at us.
I’m not a vegetarian, but I certainly thought about it for a second.
In their pens…
Get your cycle on in Taiwan, it’s really a brilliant way to explore the island no matter where you are!
Anyone else had funny cycling meetings? Oh! – and if you know what any of the names for the weird fruit we saw, let me know!