Sunday, 28 November 2010

Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou

Shanghai is China’s largest city and is without a doubt the most modern – as well as the highest – city either of us has ever seen, with skyscrapers stretching out in all directions from the city centre.

We stayed in the city’s busy commercial district, near the fabulous Bund, a stretch of raised embankment along the Huangpu River lined with grand late eighteenth and early nineteenth century buildings, including old consulates, the original Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) headquarters and art deco hotels. Lifted above the roads and the traffic, the Bund was also the first place in China we’ve been able to go running, so on several mornings we joined the expat joggers and elderly Chinese taiji groups also exercising there, returning in the evening to stroll and admire the city lights.

In contrast to the low level neo-classical and art deco buildings of the Bund, Pudong – on the other side of the river and until recently a stretch of unoccupied marshland – appears through the permanent haze like a futuristic land with glistening sky-scrapers up to 88 floors high, suspended pedestrian walkways and a dazzling neon nocturnal skyline. Yet though undeniably dramatic it was hard to warm to Pudong, which with its high commercial buildings and wide streets but few pedestrians, restaurants, cafes or shops at ground level was hard to engage with.

The old French Concession area provided a quieter, leafier haven offering some respite from the noise and modernity of the rest of the city, and we spent several lovely hours exploring the area, drinking tea in a posh tea shop and enjoying our first non-Chinese meal in over 3 weeks at Pizza Express!

Visiting the People’s Park en route to the fascinating Shanghai History Museum we were struck by the curious sight of fence after fence covered in small pieces of paper clearly offering descriptions of people with height, age and salary all listed. These, we discovered, were signs posted by elderly parents seeking spouses for their children – apparently concerned by the rising marriage age and the skewed demographics where young men massively outnumber young women as a result of the one child policy.

We were also struck in Shanghai, as elsewhere in China, by how many people exercise here, particularly in the morning. It’s common in parks or on wide pavements to see large groups practicing taiji or dancing, or to see people out fast walking, using the public open air gym equipment, or doing more bizarre exercises like walking backwards, clapping their hands, slapping themselves on the legs, arms and chest, making animal noises, or rubbing their backs up against a wall. It’s noticeable though that most of the people exercising are elderly and we wonder whether this has always been the case or whether the practice will die out with the current generation. Interestingly, despite the popularity of doing exercises, our desire to walk and cycle to places as a form of exercise and source of pleasure is met with constant surprise here, walking or cycling seem a last resort and we’re constantly being told that a 15 minute walk is too far and we should take a bus or taxi.

Amazingly, Shanghai, like all of China’s cities, is still growing fast, with the sound and sight of building work constant. This mass of construction is responding to (and perhaps also helping to drive?) the largest mass migration of people in the history of the world, with 300 million people expected to move from rural to urban areas within next 25 years. Unsurprising then that half the concrete used globally last year poured into Chinese cities.

Yet while many of the skyscrapers are undoubtedly impressive, and the high speed trains (which travel up to 350 kilometres per hour) are amazing, much of the construction seems unplanned, chaotic and poor quality. Everywhere we’ve been are half finished buildings, the detritus of abandoned building materials, and a sea of cables and electricity lines, while without green belts or planning controls, expanding and poorly built city suburbs sprawl out for mile after mile in an almost endless urban swathe across much of eastern China. Recent incidents like the collapse of a new Shanghai tower block a few months ago, or last week’s fire in a Shanghai tower which killed 53 and was started by welders and couldn’t be contained by fire-trucks unable to tackle the blaze several stories up highlight the problems of unregulated construction. And sadly – to our eyes at least – the remnants of the old cities are being bulldozed to create room for these new buildings.

The experience of our first few weeks in China has been overwhelmingly urban which though fascinating has also been exhausting, and so in an attempt to see a quieter side of China we headed to Suzhou and Hangzhou. We clearly hadn’t done enough research though as the two “small” towns we picked both turned out to have populations of over 6 million! Yet despite their size, both cities proved enjoyable and relaxing places to spend a few days.

Suzhou is famous primarily for its canals and ornamental gardens and we spent several enjoyable hours wandering the cobbled canal-side lanes in the old town, and those in Tongli, another (smaller) nearby canal town. The ‘classical’ canal-side scenery is also clearly popular with bridal couples, hundreds of whom were having their photographs taken (often standing right next to another couple) by the canals. Interestingly, the photos didn’t seem to ever include the rest of the wedding party – explained by a couple we met in Shanghai who’d just had their wedding photos taken in Suzhou one month before their actual wedding. Also in Tongli we visited the fascinating, if slightly bizarre, sex culture history museum which houses a collection of erotic art and toys dating back to the 15th century: definitely one of the more unusual museums we've been to!

In Hangzhou, we stayed on the edge of the West Lake, which with its old pagodas, willow lined banks and nearby mist shrouded mountains seemed to epitomise the idealised Chinese landscape. Despite the smog that hung over the lake and hills when we were there it was still a beautiful and peaceful setting and we spent as much time as we could on the shores of the lake, and exploring the surrounding tree-covered hills, avoiding the traffic clogged busy roads of the new town.

The hills around Hangzhou are famous in China as a tea growing region, and we spent a very enjoyable day cycling through tea plantations and visiting the National Tea Museum, where we learned a little about tea cultivation – which has been going on in China for over 4000 years – and the role tea’s played in Chinese cultural life. Indeed, tea was once a central topic of classical poetry, literature and song, and one particular poem we enjoyed, written by Lu Tong, dates back to circa 800AD.

Seven bowls of Tea
One bowl of tea soothes the burning throat
Two dispel loneliness and worries
Three spark inspiration and smooth writing
Four cause slight sweating, calming the agitated mind
Five refresh me
Six make me immortal
Seven are more than enough

Trying and enjoying just a handful of the many varieties of green, red, yellow, black and oolong teas grown here has been one of the highlights of our time here in China.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Hong Kong

We liked Hong Kong immediately. Sure parts of it are a bit scruffy and down at heel, and maybe even a little sleazy, but it has a vibrancy and vitality that, for us, Shanghai lacked and which we found both refreshing and invigorating. It’s also the most cosmopolitan place we’ve been so far, and so felt a little bit like London, being surrounded suddenly by so many different languages and cultures again after nearly four months in pretty ethnically homogenous countries.

We stayed in the hectic commercial area just north of Victoria Harbour, opposite Hong Kong island, amongst a sea of high rise blocks where high end luxury fashion and designer goods stores mix with endless jewellers, watch and electronic shops, and chemists, with the street fronts filled with bright neon signs. Our guesthouse was on the 16th floor of a crumbling and labyrinthine “mansion” with the slowest lifts we’ve ever seen. The bottom two or three floors of the building were filled with Indian and Pakistani traders presiding over mobile phone kiosks, cheap food stalls (a very welcome change after a month of Chinese food) and bureaux des changes, while the upper floors housed multiple cheap guesthouses and apartments.

We spent a couple of days doing the usual tourist things: gawping at the incredibly tall high rise buildings – a mix of modern glass and steel and older, scruffier, concrete blocks; taking a ferry across to the island and climbing Victoria Peak for amazing (if hazy)views back across the bay; enjoying the “Symphony of Lights” show – a nightly neon and lazer extravaganza over the harbour; and enjoying good food and happy hours.

Then, in an effort to escape a city for a few days, we headed a few miles north to walk 100km through the Hong Kong countryside. The route – the Maclehose Trail – is named after a former Governor who established Hong Kong’s national parks and did much to reforest the territory after years of deforestation had left it largely barren. As a result, the route was surprisingly green and also road free, and we were amazed to discover that over 70% of the Hong Kong area is rural, though housing only a tiny fraction of the territory’s population.

The trail was both beautiful and varied. Starting in the east of the New Territories, it curled around Sai Kung Peninsula, taking us past several isolated bays with fine white sand and semi-deserted fishing villages, before meandering west along the densely forested ridge restricting the northward sprawl of urban Kowloon. The ridge had formed the front-line of the defence against the Japanese during WWII, and we saw many war relics: pillboxes, caves excavated by Japanese troops and trenches dug by British soldiers, many labelled with names redolent of home: Shaftesbury Avenue, Regent Street and Charing Cross.

The route was also much hillier and tougher than we’d expected, taking us up (and down) over 4500m in hot and humid conditions, so that it took us four full days of hard walking. Amazingly, this weekend, as part of a charity event, teams are setting out to walk the trail in under 48 hours and in January an ultra-marathon is held on the trail with the winning time usually around 12 hours.

Despite its proximity to the city we felt for the most part incredibly far away from it, with no people or buildings in sight and the only sounds those of insects, birds and monkeys. Every so often though we climbed a ridge to find views in one direction of tree covered hills stretching away uninterrupted to the horizon but in the other of high rise towers and busy roads, with the sounds of the city suddenly wafting our way.

Perhaps because we were walking midweek the trail was pretty empty and other than the first and last couple of hours walking we saw almost no one. This was quite a relief as the few walkers we did see all carried radios spewing out Cantopop, disrupting the rural serenity. At night too we camped alone: for three nights at very basic campsites, and the other night – when we failed to reach the campsite we’d been aiming for by nightfall – we pitched our tent at the top of a tall hill, and ate our supper looking out over a surreal view of the neon lights of the city stretching out in three directions below us.

Saturday, 6 November 2010


Beijing was not what we expected. While we’d anticipated being impressed by at least the scale of China‘s capital city, with its 15.6 million strong population and vast size (roughly the size of Belgium), we had assumed it would be chaotic, sprawling, overwhelming and perhaps not particularly enjoyable. Instead we left were in awe not just of its size but of the calm that reigns supreme in Beijing, despite the vast numbers of people, with well ordered traffic (and cars that use their indicators rather than their horns), efficient public transport, clean streets with rubbish and recycling bins everywhere, English language signs (a happy legacy of the Olympics), and bike lanes along all roads that keep cyclists separated from the cars and buses. Transport for London could learn a lot from the city authorities here - particularly from the cycle lanes which are so much better than ours.

We walked and cycled for miles along wide, spotlessly clean boulevards, past huge skyscraper office blocks, fancy hotels, shopping malls and heaving flyovers. With much of the city’s architecture dominated by shiny, new, glass and steel constructions, you could be almost anywhere in the world – it certainly doesn’t feel like a Communist country, or such an ancient city. And yet the city is unmistakably Asian, and with Chinese script on every poster and billboard it’s impossible to forget where you are. And it’s clear that the cult of Mao is still alive and well with images of the former leader everywhere (even every banknote) and hour long queues on the weekday morning we visited his mummified corpse with thousands of Chinese tourists (pilgrims?).

And scratch below the surface only a little and dive off a main street and you quickly find evidence of China’s ancient past, getting lost in the Hutongs, the narrow alleyways of one-storey buildings introduced by Chinggis Khan in the 13th century. They crisscross the city, creating a rabbit warren effect and now house a mix of traditional houses, boutique courtyard hotels (like the lovely one we stayed in), food markets and slightly down at heel cafes and barber shops.

China’s imperial past also intermingles with the new. The magnificent Forbidden City dominates the centre of the city, enclosed behind a huge moat. It was off limits for 500 years until Puyi, the last Emperor was removed in 1924. The huge complex of halls, temples and palaces, raised on marble terraces above great courtyards and opulent gardens, is magnificent, as are their names. Our particular favourites include the Hall of Supreme Harmony, the Palace of Heavenly Purity and the Hall of Mental Cultivation. Even with the inside of the buildings closed to visitors it is easy to imagine the beauty and magnificence of court life during the imperial dynasties, and even with all the crowds to lose yourself in one of smaller courtyards and find yourself almost alone.

We spent two days travelling out of central Beijing, first to the Great Wall, and then cycling to the beautiful and serene Summer Palace on the outskirts of Beijing, and on both trips were struck by the beauty of China – something we hadn’t heard people talk about before. At the Great Wall, we walked a 5 mile section of the wall itself, as it dramatically wriggled along the mountain ridge, rising and falling steeply all the way to the horizon. We were surprised at how intricate the wall itself was, as well as being fantastically strong, and it was made – to our eyes – by its setting, with jagged, empty, tree covered mountains stretching out in all directions as far as we could see, fading to pale blue in the distance.

The Summer Palace was built as an escape for the Emperor and the court during the hot summer months in the city, and is set around a picturesque lake, surrounded by weeping willow trees, huge gardens and pavilions with a mountain backdrop. While less awe inspiring than the Great Wall, it was beautifully serene, and we spent several very happy hours just wandering around the lake.

So although Beijing feels very modern and aspirational, it wasn’t as hectic or chaotic as we’d expected – and to our mind was all the better for that. I’m sure some of our abiding memories of the city will be of strolling around the lakes in Beijing’s beautiful formal garden, watching people practising Tai Chi, taking dance lessons, or simply doing their exercises, or of seeing children and adults sitting by the side of the roads playing cards or watching the world go by. And so, much to our surprise, Beijing has been a gentle and enjoyable as well as a fascinating introduction to China.