Gansu Province

We hadn’t booked anywhere to stay during our time in Gansu. It’s tricky even if you try. Gansu is one of the poorest provinces in China, and in comparison to most other places we’ve been to, the pace of life is slower. The change was welcome, and after leaving the train station we had no problem in stumbling across a hotel. We then scoured the backstreets for a local dinner. Our search led us to a little jiǎozi (饺子, boiled dumpling) shack, where the sole waitress appeared to be the two cooks’ 8-year-old daughter. Mum and dad stuffed and folded fresh ingredients, boiled them up, and daughter bought them over. They were the best jiǎozi I’ve ever had. Kayleigh had a revelatory moment. Much of what we learn about China, we learn through its food. Food is important everywhere in the world, however it seems like in a lot of Western countries the culture surrounding our own particular cuisines has faded, the significance of eating the majority of our meals together as family and friends has lessened, but this is certainly not the case in China. No matter where you go, you will find groups of people huddled around makeshift tables in the street eating and socialising, restaurants always packed with people shoulder-to-shoulder at round tables, almost 100% of the time sharing all dishes.

A good night’s sleep later we were on the bus to Xiahe, in Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Our mission: to witness the Great Prayer Festival in one of the six leading monasteries of Tibetan Buddhism, Labrang Monastery.

There are a bunch of cheap hotels and hostels in Xiahe. We stayed in Labrang International Redrock Youth Hostel for less than £5 a night, and a short walk from the monastery and main road, and with extremely friendly and accommodating staff. Our whole time in Xiahe felt like being in a completely different world from the Eastern China we’d been living in. Most inhabitants are of either Tibetan or Hui Chinese descent. Our ears were treated to the sound of new dialects, our eyes to brightly patterned, silver-adorned clothing, and our noses to the decadent smell of yak-butter tea with fresh fluffy bread.  We visited the monastery numerous times during our stay, taking in its serene and otherworldly atmosphere.

The hostel ran impromptu trips to the nearby Sangke Prairie (桑科草原 Sāngkē cǎoyuán), part of Gannan Grasslands, considered one of the most beautiful scenic areas in China. On the Prairie we were let loose from our small car of travelers a few times along the long, winding, single dirt-track road. We scrambled across hill tops getting battered by the brutal grassland winds – the one tiny village we saw en route had a high mud wall surrounding it for protection against the wind’s ferocity. It didn’t affect the super hardy yaks and sheep roaming the plains, however, even the adorable baby ones. Further up a hillside, nestled into the walls of a huge ravine, was a secret shrine which appeared to commemorate a late Tibetan monk. Some of our group dared to venture deeper into the cave by candlelight, but I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to being inside a cliff face, with bats, in the middle of such a barren part of the world. 

The average altitude of the Sangke Grasslands is over 3000m. This, combined with eating at places which proudly displayed China’s worst health and safety certificate level on a wall plaque, is probably what led to us getting sick during our stay. I made a trip to the local hospital for a healthy dose of both Chinese and Western medicine, the same hospital which just months earlier a monk had self-immolated outside of. The politically restless state in Western China is no doubt why we, as two foreign girls with no guide, were police checked three times within two days.

The whole experience was incredibly eye-opening, showing a great deal more of the diversity to be found in China. Our journey back took an epic 40 hours, 20 hours of which were spent on a sleeper bus – a surprisingly comfy way to get ‘home’ to Ningbo!

Xi’an

Xi’an is China’s ancient capital, and the third most popular tourist destination after Beijing and Shanghai. So it was without hesitation that after Spring Festival’s homestay, I hopped onto the next cheapest flight. A shuttle bus between the airport and the city centre operates from first til last arriving planes, costing just 26 yuan. It dropped me off almost directly outside Bell Tower International Youth Hostel, adjacent Xi’an’s iconic Bell Tower. 

If you ever go to Bell Tower Hostel, try to get a room which faces the Bell Tower (around half the rooms do). I was was stunned by the view outside. A completely silent late-night Xi’an, with the Tower lit up in all it’s glory. The room was comfy and had everything you’d need, lots of space, light, and at least for the first couple nights great wifi. I made use of that to decide on what to do over the next couple days in one of China’s oldest cities. 

I went exploring first thing the next day. My sense of direction, despite having a clearly printed map, failed me entirely when trying to find the Muslim quarter and instead I ended up in the calligraphy area. Which was still really cool! After retracing my steps, and speaking to some Hui Chinese, I was pointed in the right direction. The Muslim quarter offered a side to China I’d not yet experienced. I loved all the new smells of sweets and breads – although not those of raw, bloodied fresh meat carcasses. Queues of people piled out of the most popular restaurants, eagerly awaiting a seat. 

Another unmissable Xi’an tourist attraction is it’s city wall. The day turned as clear as it ever would – Xian, as with most all Chinese metropolis’, is heavily polluted – and hiring a bike cost just a couple of £’s (with a £20 deposit). You are given an 100 minute time limit, which is not that long if you’re wanting to take breaks along the way and admire the scenery a little. Cycling around the wall, despite it being an enclosed area, was not only relaxing but also gave an enormous sense of the freedom and sociability that can be felt in China. It was a really lovely experience, with tourists both Chinese and foreign having a good time admiring Xi’an on their holidays.

The infamous Terracotta Warriors took up next morning’s exploration. The whole morning, including entrance and all travel travel costs, came to just under £7.50. Unless you are desperate for a tour guide, don’t be tricked into the hostel’s £20+ tour deals. They go on for a lot longer, and you can get there by yourself easily enough. Firstly, take a public bus to the train station, for just 1 yuan (10p). Then another public tour bus, the number 5 tour bus, which goes past two stops (Huaqing Hotspring and Qin Shihuang’s Mausoleum) before terminating at the Terracotta Warriors. That bus is only 7 yuan. Then, with a student card, it’s 60 yuan to enter the site. If you’re not a student it’s double the price which I thought was a bit steep… But then it is one of the greatest UNESCO heritage sites in the world. In other words: it’s worth the money. After admiring the immense scale and intricacy of the Terracotta Army, you can learn more about the site in its attached museum. 

The afternoon was spent with Kayleigh, her Xi’an homestay partner Ruiqi, and Ruiqi’s friend Yikou. We went to a hotpot restaurant, visited the starting point of the Silk Road, and stocked up on some supplies before the start of our epic trek into the deep dark depths of Gansu the following day. All in all, Xi’an was an exciting place to spend a few days with a huge array of things to do and places to see. I would highly recommend taking the chance to go!

 

How to get married, China-style

In London you often hear the cliché, “you wait for the bus all day, then two come along at the same time”. Maybe that’s not quite the right analogy, but having never been to a fancy white-dress wedding in my life, last week I attended two. I have been to my mum and step dad’s marriage, but with our family being pretty Atheist, it was in a register office. Although we did put on some smart clothes and had a meal in a fancy restaurant. So, the first big marriage ceremony I watched was for my Chinese dad’s colleague’s daughter. Since he had leant his car to them for the day – wedding processions must have a fleet of all-black cars – we were invited to the ceremony and dinner. The second wedding was a much bigger deal for my Chinese family since it was for a niece. Although elements of the weddings were traditional, much was decidedly non-Asian. I was a little surprised. The big white dresses, groom in a Western suit, bouquets, flower-adorned limousine. Where’s China gone? Well, it wasn’t too far astray. Here are some parts I found particularly peculiar at the niece’s wedding:

  1. It went on for three days. Lunches and dinners were provided by the bride and groom’s families for all those days, which everyone’s obliged to attend.
  2. At these lunches and dinners, the bride and groom stood outside the dining area holding one tray of sweets, peanuts and sunflower seeds, and one tray of cigarettes, respectively. They implored wedding guests to take as many free treats as they liked. I didn’t see them themselves eat throughout the entire wedding.
  3. The bride bowed to her elderly relatives, then gave them a whole boiled egg.
  4. On the journey from the lunch banquet to their new house the bride and groom had to each wear a tacky red mirror round their necks.
  5. The bride and groom’s new house (purchased by the parents’) was visited by everyone and we all complimented their new surroundings. At this point, the bride was sitting in the bedroom looking a bit tired and despondent surrounded by female relatives.
  6. We had to eat a strange bowl of baijiu-drenched, sticky, fermented rice. Afterwards we explored the village where the couple had moved to (right on Fujian lake, the second deepest lake in China, pretty old-school rural life but very scenic).
  7. Over dinner, I was hastily given 10 yuan, £1, by a lady who I think was the bride’s mother.
  8. After dinner we revisited the bride, still on her bed, only now in a sexy red dress. My Chinese family decided that it was suddenly time to climb a mountain, and we gave our congratulations and said our good-byes.
  9. That first day, I think, was the most important. But I can’t tell, because WE DIDN’T SEE THEM GET MARRIED. What the heck?!!?!?! No one explained this part to me.

At the first wedding we were at, I did see the couple get properly married on a stage. But I doubt anyone else did, because the dinner had already begun, so everyone was far too preoccupied gobbling the free banquet and having their own conversations than paying the slightest bit of attention to anything else. In fact many people just left midway through the ceremony, in the true, ‘right, I’m full now, better be off’ Chinese way. For something which both sides of the family spend so much money on, I was a little surprised how casual the guests were. Although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Not many people wore suits other than the groom, or even shirts, mostly just jeans and a not-too-scruffy top. All the teens were in hoodies. It was very relaxed with everyone making jokes, downing baijiu, and generally having a good time!

Dragon Horse Mountain (龙马山)

It doesn’t get more Chinese than dragons, horses, and mountains. It’s not just professional mountaineers who get a kick out of climbing up mountains on a regular basis. Most people here seem to have an innate desire to get climbing as much as their spare time allows, and so it was that on Saturday at 8am, after a night of KTV, we departed for Lóngmǎ Shān 龙马山 (‘Dragon Horse Mountain’). I’ve not done proper climbing before. Most mountains or big hills I’ve ascended have just involved steady walking upwards on a pretty decent path. When we started at the bottom of Longma Shan, there were a lot of steps – challenging, but not much thought or agility required. The steps stopped suddenly after ten minutes walking. I looked up over the red craggy rocks looming up in front of us. The dad laughed at me incredulously as if to say, haha, don’t lǎowài’s climb mountains?! I gave a nervous smile back at the family and scrambled as best I could.

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Being elegant

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Yuxi city

Upon reaching the shāndǐng, mountain peak, we were treated to a fantastic view of Yuxi below, and the fairytale-like countryside landscape surrounding us. Scuttling back down was almost as strenuous as getting up. My simple bowl of mǐxiàn 米线, cold rice noodles, was much appreciated afterwards. We made friends over lunch with a very friendly puppy and cockerel.

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Little dog!!!

Speaking of which, Elena’s friend was laughing confusedly the other day about how English has separate words for both describing a puppy and a small dog. In Chinese, it’s all just xiǎo gǒu 小狗 literally xiǎo meaning little and gǒu meaning dog.

“But”, I said, “surely English is more useful here. What if you had a dog that was just a small-sized adult dog? What do you say? A xiǎo de gǒu? What about a particularly small puppy? A xiǎo de xiǎo gǒu?”

She thought I was being hilarious. “No, obviously you would only ever say xiǎo gǒu”.

Don’t know how to solve that one!

What’s wrong with this picture…

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There’s something a bit funky going on with this Chinese philosopher king, Kǒngzǐ (Confucius)… 😉

See it?

Nothing says ‘wotevs, ideological system’ more than a fag in the country’s most influential dude’s ear.

Love finding the intentionally sneaky naughty bits of society in China.

Life in Yunnan

I’m on a one-month Spring Festival holiday, and am spending it with my Chinese friend Elena and her family in Yunnan Province! Her family live in a city called Yuxi, not a very big or very well-known place. I’ve given it a week to formulate some opinions of the area instead of going head-first into being too judgmental – I love big cities, and being in a smaller one that no one’s heard of had made me a little nervous. In a surprising turn of events this little city is growing on me.

The purpose of this homestay is to better understand life as a family in China. What are the daily routines, how is the time juggled between work and home, how is free-time spent. It obviously helps improve my Chinese, and Elena’s English. Also, it gives me the opportunity to experience living in a random part of China, not on a campus.

My Chinese family

The typical weekday goes like this: Elena’s mum and dad leave for work around 8am, the mum works in a government engineering department, and the dad runs his own engineering firm. (It no shock to discover that Elena’s majoring in Engineering). At 11.30am they both return home for 2 hours, have lunch and take a nap. Whilst the parents are at work, Elena watches programs on her laptop, does some chores around the flat, meets her friends etc – things that most teenagers do. The parents’ working day is done by half 5, and dinner is cooked for 6pm. After dinner, the family love to take an hour or two to walk around the lake a few blocks away, or climb a nearby mountain. The rest of the evening is spent showering, watching TV (mainly the news and Chinese period drama), and chatting on the phone.

They have a lovely, spacious apartment. I learnt that the reason why they have such a luxury pad is because 10 years ago, the dad worked in a government engineering sector, and when you are part of a government firm you tend to get a very nice home for an equally nice price. The interior was designed by the parents. My favourite feature is the fish-tank flooring on which the tea ceremony table is placed upon. I’d never seen anything like that before…!

In terms of leisure-time and hobbies, their life here actually is reminiscent of the family I au-paired for in the south of France. We played tennis with their friends in the mountains, they love to do lots of sports as a family, invite their friends for tea and vice versa, cook a lot of fresh food together everyday. It’s a very healthy lifestyle. Apart from the dad does like to smoke, but it’s no wonder – Yuxi is home to Asia’s largest tobacco company, the Hongta Group. Their brand of cigarettes, ‘Hongtashan’, has been voted China’s most valuable brand for 7 years in a row. He proudly took me and Elena for a walk yesterday evening to a beautiful hilltop park adjacent to Hongta’s headquarters and main factory, where we learned about the history of cigarettes in a museum next to the symbolic hongta 红塔, literally the Red Pagoda.

Here’s some photos of the past couple days, more to come, hopefully some of a cousin’s wedding we’ll be going to this weekend. In the next post I’ll give a more detailed intro to Yuxi city!

Shanghai & Hangzhou 上海和杭州

Shanghai

For New Years Eve I went with a group of international friends to Shanghai’s Bund to watch the fireworks and welcome 2013. The fireworks were pretty underwhelming for a city boasting the largest population in the world, and such a globalised one! But it was super fun nonetheless. 🙂

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Hello Shanghai, hello 2013!

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The Lighthouse 🙂

We were at a bar called ‘The Lighthouse’, where we somehow managed to monopolise the entire roof terrace… The owner and a man dressed as a security guard asked us to leave a thousand times, but we pretended not to know any Chinese (including our Chinese friends…) and in the end they let us stay there. I don’t know why they didn’t want anyone on the beautiful roof terrace!

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Shanghai at it’s finest

In the daytime we did some exploring Shanghai, including window-shopping on Nanjing East Road, and trendy cafe-ing in the French Concession.

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Crazy cat

For the first night we stayed in Captain Youth Hostel, where the front desk lady was awful, and promptly ignored us after having lost our phone reservation booking. That was a big problem. We spoke with a man instead, who managed to find us three beds for the night, and then we had to relocate for New Years Eve. The next place we stayed, City Central International Hostel, was much, much nicer, although not as conveniently located as Captain. It’s next to a metro line, though, so it wasn’t at all a problem. City Hostel’s main draw is the free buffet breakfast included in the uber-cheap nightly price. It’s not a luxury breakfast but it does the job. What’s nice is the friendly atmosphere, and the crazy odd-eyed cat who periodically sprinted the length of the hostel, then attacked my handbag.

 Hangzhou

After my Japanese exam (which went OK – the entire grammar section was exactly the same word-for-word as 2010’s paper, which was a little lazy on the department’s part…), me, Issy and Kayleigh went to Hangzhou. I’d been wanting to visit the city, famous for it’s tea, silk, and picturesque West Lake. Westlake Youth Hostel, the lovely place we stayed for 3 nights, is situated 2 minutes walk from the lakefront. So on our first morning in Hangzhou we strolled down, and I ran a 12km-ish lap around the lake (Kayleigh terrifically ran two, in preparation for her Great Wall Marathon. Go Kayleigh!!!). It was great to see the whole of the lake by foot, although Chinese of all genders and ages quite openly stop, stare, point and laugh (in that order) upon seeing white girls running around.

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Hangzhou-style street food for lunch

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The old street with lots of Hangzhou speciality tea, sweets, umbrellas, scissors, and silk.

The next day we went to explore an old pedestrianised area, He Fang Street 河坊街. Here, there are lots of traditional Hangzhou crafts and foods. We enjoyed some street food and peanut brittle snacks. Hangzhou has one of the strangest street foods I’ve seen so far – an entire chicken, covered in clay, then baked. Kayleigh and Issy had to try it, and apparently it’s delicious. You have to puzzle it apart wearing surgeon-esque plastic gloves.

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Nighttime at the West Lake with Leifeng Pagoda lit up in the background

On our last evening we enjoyed a great dinner at ‘Laopo Jia’ 老婆家, or Grandma’s Kitchen. You must get a ticket before entering, as there is always a huge queue – expect to wait around 30 to 45 minutes to get a table. But there’s good reasons for it being so popular with locals as well as tourists, and these include the fresh flavours of traditional Hangzhou cuisine, and the incredibly cheap prices. After Grandma’s we had one last stroll along the lake in the moonlight. It’s a very romantic city!