Friday, June 25, 2010


Hong Kong isn't quite China, but I couldn't resist touching down on the former British outpost en route to Sydney to visit my niece, Hayley, and her beau, Jay, both whom are doing the obligatory stint for a multinational bank in the former British colony as part of their climb up the career ladder. As expected, Honkers was not as exotically 'foreign' as the China mainland, but it was exciting and vibrant nonetheless. Here follows retrospectively a smorgasbord of experiences, climaxing with our last night together when we decided on five-star dining at a recommended eatery, Hutong. What a disappointing, disastrous idea that proved to be!
Our booking was for 8.30pm, so our ferry ride was perfectly timed to catch the nightly laser light show that sweeps the sky at 8pm. Hong Kong sparkles at night like a jewel and it's exciting to feel part of it. Then we glided up the escalator at One Peking Road and soared to the 28th floor where a retro Chinese ambience awaited us - "hutong" in Chinese refers to the old-style neighbourhoods of days gone by - and floor to ceiling windows letting in Honkers' super glamorous skyline beckoned as we were seated with a ringside view. Aaaaah, sit back, relax, feel like a rock star!

Thursday, June 24, 2010


Well! Hong Kong is more than a money-making haven for Gordon Gekkos from all over the world. Today I jumped on bus 6X to the seaside suburb of Stanley, and 25 minutes later, after a gorgeous cliffside drive where I looked out on islets of green splattered about in placid, silvery water, I arrived in this beachside mecca. Bondi Beach meets Balmoral! And along the way, Repulse Bay, see the photo here, with its skyscraper hotels, iconic Chinese attractions and sandy beach packed with locals whenever the weather permits...

Monday, June 21, 2010


In hot and steamy Honkers now, in a skyscraper eyrie on the 26th floor overlooking the hip and happening Wanchai neighbour-hood just a nudge away from the CBD and right on the tramline which I'm going to ride shortly, taking with me an umbrella for the sun, a Chinese fan, and a bottle of H2O. Shanghai population 20 million, Beijing population 18 million, Hong Kong a mere seven million. Hurrah!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sunday mornings in Beijing are the best

Hello again folks, well here I am again after my dummyspit on arrival in Beijing. What a culture shock! I have since acclimatised, calmed down and grown wiser to Chinese ways and as a result, I was able to have a moving and memorable experience in Bei Hai park, just outside the walls of the Forbidden City, this morning.
Firstly, I am immensely proud that I was able to negotiate appropriately with a taxi driver when he insisted on going "off the meter" and charging me 10 times the going rate. I made it clear that I knew my RMB from my US dollars, as it were, and promptly set off on foot with only a good sense of direction and a few Chinese phrases to guide me. Amazingly, armed with my umbrella for protection from the sun, a bottle of water, and some Lindt chocolate (Westerner breakfasts in my very Chinese hotel are unpalatable, I'm afraid), I walked to Tiananmen Square, paid tribute to Chairman Mao who is buried there, then strolled around the Forbidden City (not inside, but in and around the environs)and then meandered through various willow-fringed parks.
The Forbidden City is surprisingly small in scale, when one considers what I have already seen, and how everything in China is 'macro' rather than 'micro'. I couldn't help but feel desperately sorry for the Last Emperor Pu Yi (refer Bertolucci's masterpiece THE LAST EMPEROR) who was kept prisoner behind these immense wine-red walls from the age of 3 to the age of 24.
I can only pray that he was occasionally escorted out to a Summer or Winter Palace so that he could partially escape the rigidity of court life, the acres and acres of stone pavers, and the complete lack of natural scenery!Who said being an Emperor was any fun huh???

Kites, shuttlecock soccer, ribbon sticks, dancers, flutes and Feng Shui

Upon the advice of locals, I strolled to Bei Hai park behind the Forbidden Palace this sweltering Sunday morning (around 30 deg C at 9am) and the experience lifted my spirits. As I joined the audience surrounding a choir accompanying half a dozen musicians on trumpet and saxophone, I found tears welling in my eyes as locals, old and young, thin and thin, and all as different from one another as Westerners are en masse, I felt this perverse longing to see Centennial Park in Sydney festooned with people like this, with many of them letting it all hang out in one way or another. Plenty of couples come along with their friends, or dance group, switch on their music, and start dancing in pairs for hours under the trees. As usual, I was the only Westerner for miles, and was tapping and clapping along to the point that I was invited to participate. I did, and their dances are relatively easy and straightforward, a kind of gentle rumba meets line dance which I'd be happy to demonstrate in person in due course.
Some of the singing sounds like cats screeching, but usually it is melodious and lovely to listen to, especially if it is accompanied by flute or some other zither-type instrument. As for the people's choir singing along to the "chamber orchestra" of trumpets, that was heavenly and so rousing, I felt profoundly moved. I didn't know what they were singing about. It could have been "Comrades, let us take up arms and conquer those stupid Westerners", but it was far more likely, when one considers how romantically inclined the Chinese are, that they were singing about the eternal path to happiness, the divinity of the gods, and all manner of heavenly things.
You only have to look at what they call their park pavilions to get a clue: place for cloudless thinking/ the palace of eternal rest/ place of stone and water/ etc etc... Taoism is all about man fusing with nature.

It's reflected in the paintings of fishermen, willows, cranes, and contrasts with the idolatry of dragons, phoenixes, lions and giant turtles (who represent longevity).
Why anyone in China would want a long life, I'm not entirely clear, because it doesn't strike me as an easy life. But when you are in Bei Hai, one witnesses only the beautiful, lyrical pleasures of these people who are bowed by centuries of brutal history, Mao's "re-education" and since then, the pursuit of the capitalist dollar.
Chinese are obsessed with Feng Shui, and this obsession in turn is focused on the accumulation of wealth - it is practically atypical for a Chinese person to not boast a jade "pichu" in their home. The "pichu" is the ninth and youngest son of the dragon and he is a strange creature that resembles a kind of lion/horse. His claim to fame is that he has no "exit hole" (to put it politely) which signifies that any wealth that enters his mouth never leaves, but simply accumulates. Now that, apparently, is good Feng Shui!

Thursday, June 17, 2010


Well guys, I have been in China's capital less than 24 hours and already I want out. My cousin Jennifer returned to work and I was left in this godforsaken hotel, where I appear to be the only guest, and at 4am this morning I awoke, hot, and by 5.15 I was dressed and packed and telling them to find me a decent room or else. Getting understood is virtually impossible, I cannot believe I am now typing this in a department store where there is a wireless Apple stand. The young Chinese girl doesn't seem to give a toss, and I'm just bloody grateful, because my iPad is proving USELESS throughout China. Poor Chinese workers are committing suicide at Apple plants in the provinces (let's not even go there), and here am I, hick JB from Sydney, completely freaking out because I am the only Westerner face I have seen in a sea of locals all day.

Tomorrow I am going on a tour for the day to see the Forbidden City and walk the Great Wall. I was going to do it solo, but after what I've been through, no thanks. I'll take a guide's broken English and an airconditioned bus, thanks.

If I ever had any dreams of being an intrepid traveller, these are well and truly shattered. What was I thinking? All I want now is my house, my husband, my dog, my bath, my bed, my TV, my computer, my friends, my life.

Yes, travelling is great, but this is NOT one of those days. I will sign off now because I am spewing. Miraculously, thanks to my cousin's directions, I did find a bookstore that sold English books (my iPad books are all read, egads) so I am going to settle down for an hour or two with David Sedaris at Starbucks. Starbucks has Wifi and I thought I was going to have an iPad breakthrough, but THAT dream was shattered too.

Would I recommend Beijing to you? Ask me on another day....!

Love to all of you from a not-very-happy JB xxx

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Xi’an: Where the Silk Road begins

On our fifth city stop, Jennifer and I have tramped and trudged in dry 33 deg Celcius sun, but our tourist laps are nothing like the conquering emperors of China. The back story behind Xi’an’s terracotta warrior army, for example, is positively alarming. Having conquered a swag of nations and united these under one flag, the Qin ruler (about 2300 B.C.) became consumed with his omnipotence. Obsessed with living and ruling forever, China’s first emperor, swaggering around in the pretty green hills of what is now called Shaanxi province, focused a great deal of his courtiers and medicine men’s attention of finding him an elixir of youth. (Some fixations are common, whatever the era, it would appear.)
While his Taoist advisers subsequently concocted a mercury-laced brew that ultimately brought about a painful, prolonged death, the brutally powerful Emperor rallied some 20,000 of his slaves to build him a mausoleum that, still today, in 2010 AD, takes your breath away in terms of scale and detail. The catacombs cover roughly 50 square kilometres in some of the prettiest Chinese countryside I’ve seen so far, and entombed some 8,000 life-size soldiers (infantry, cavalry and charioteers) fashioned from clay moulds, baked at scorching temperatures and hardened, then painted.
As if all this wasn’t sufficiently back-breaking, the somewhat paranoid Emperor felt compelled to recreate his life above-ground for the afterlife, so that when he finally fell off his perch, he also had killed for good measure, the legions of slaves that had built him his underground Empire. And his piece de resistance? Throwing in, for seductive company, his still-alive concubines. Such scale of self-serving cruelty, to me, is frankly horrifying.
Whether the first or the last, or in-between, China’s emperors all had rollercoaster lives of unprecedented scale. In Xi’an, we also visited the Hot Springs Winter Palace of another Emperor who lived roughly 700 years ago. He fell in love with a concubine so beautiful it was said that flowers were shy to bloom in her presence for fear of being upstaged. The Emperor was so besotted that he was ordered by his generals and advisers to kill his concubine; instead, she fled to Japan where her descendants there still lay claim to imperial lineage. The tragic love of the emperor and his concubine is China’s own ‘Romeo and Juliet’.
And so, in the Chinese way where fable, fairytale and archaeological fact interweave to tell the story of a nation that dates as far back as Rome, Athens and Mesopotamia, thousands of travellers from all over the world hear the stories that have led China to be the superpower hothouse it is today. (Yesterday, Xi’an’s average 10,000 visitors to the First Emperor’s tomb swelled to 20,000, thanks to a three-day dragon boat festival). The heat from the sheer press of human bodies in the largest of the tomb’s sections was stultifying!
There’s a funny story about the discovery, made only as recently as the early 1980s, of the terracotta warriors. The farmer, Mr Wang (pronounced ‘Wung’) who discovered the terracotta warrior remains while building a well, was never compensated for his find, but allowed instead to work at the museum site where his book and autograph rake in yuan for the ruling junta.
In 1998, when Bill Clinton visited Xi’an, Mr Wang was primed with a few English sentences so that he and Clinton could converse. When Mr Wang saw Clinton’s bodyguards, he became overcome with nerves and instead of saying “How do you?” to the US President, he said, “Who are you?”
Clinton laughed and replied, “I am Bill Clinton, President of the United States and (gesticulating to Hilary Clinton next to him) husband of Hilary Clinton.”
And then Clinton said, “And who are you?” and Mr Wang, nonplussed, replied, “Me too.”
Apparently everyone, including the Chinese officials, had a good laugh about this. I’ve often felt that Chinese people are humourless, but that has not been my experience in China. People seem to love a joke, and our latest tour guide, Frank, is no exception. He is bloody hilarious while also a mine of information about contemporary Chinese life.
Tibet? One child policy? Democracy? Elections? Mortgages? Crime, corruption, graft? Frank reminds us that there are always two sides to a coin, and that every political or economic advance has its dark side; hence, while China’s rulers wave the flag of communism and stand on the road of capitalism, the divide between rich and poor, like everywhere else in the world, yawns ever wider.
But enough politics, much as I love it, and let me touch briefly on food, shopping and general vibe. Xi’an is a lovely town with a populace of only 8 million, ha ha, and a Muslim population of about 700,000. (Total Muslims, a mere 70 million). Across the road from our three-star hotel we have a magnificent view of a people’s square, a giant pagoda, and the Muslim Quarter where night markets twinkle every night. Unbelievable bargains are to be had: last night I bought two pairs of shoes for less than a $100. I hope I don’t regret it!
The extent of retail in China is ridiculous: there’s too much of everything, even for 1.3 billion people. Honestly! But I won’t go on and on about it: I hate shopping for things I don’t want or need, and I HATE bargaining with people poorer than me, but I am in the minority in this regard, I suspect.
The food at lunch has been fabulous – the usual banquet with quite a lot of spices, including chilli, which I prefer – but the hotel breakfast yesterday was abominable. I’ve decided to skip breakfast today because there is absolutely no choice: yesterday I had a fried egg on dry white bread coated with jam. Hideous!
We could not make ourselves understood, so we just had to eat what we were given.
So, 11 days in China have passed; and another six before I fly to Hong Kong. Am loving the experience of immersing myself in another world, and recommend it to anyone who needs to break the circuit of their daily life! .

Sunday, June 13, 2010

“Blue ant army” a relic of the past

A favourite Chinese joke is one about George Bush Jnr, the USSR’s Putin and China’s current chairman, Hu Jintao, driving together in a car when they reach a crossroads. The driver of the car turns to the three leaders and asks them in which direction he should go, and Bush Jnr (or “little Bush” as our guide refers to him) says, “Turn right”.
The driver then asks Putin which way he should go, and Putin replies, “Turn right”. Finally, the driver asks Tao which way they should go and Tao replies: “Make a signal to turn left, but turn right.”
The humour in the joke is simply this: in China, the leadership professes to be communist, but it is in fact capitalist.
And after just over a week in China, I get the joke all right. Boy, those Chinese may have been slavishly following Chairman Mao in the 60s and 70s, doing his bidding in their identical suits like a drab sea of blue-grey ants, but when it comes to the tricks of the capitalist trade, they are rapidly catching on and up.
Here we are, for example, in a UNESCO world heritage site called Guilin, a tourist spot renowned for its scenic beauty, and honestly, what can I say? I would not recommend you visit. Sure, the river Li, surrounded by its limestone hills, winds merrily through countryside unspoilt – hallelujah – by smog-belching factories, but everything in this relatively small town (population only half a million, which is tiny by Chinese standards) is geared to tourists.
There’s nothing I dislike more than trekking in nature chased by ethnic people trying to sell me bangles, belts or bags. Drives me nuts!
So here we are, in countryside that allegedly inspired the movie AVATAR, wending our way up the mountains to visit the village of an ethnic minority race, the Zhuang (pronounced Ju-ang), and practically every step of the way, blocking the misty view of the terraced rice paddy fields, there are stalls to lure tourists to open their wallets and hand over a couple of yuan. Prices are heartbreakingly low - $60 for a beautifully wrought gold leaf Laughing Buddha the size of a small dog, for example – but a) do you really want or need it? b) Can you bear to bargain them down another yuan when the prices are already so low? And c) How are you going to lug this home all the way to Australia?
I hate it when my destination turns out to be alarmingly overcommercialised, and alas, this is one of those moments. You can’t see, let alone enjoy the scenery, for want of a vista devoid of a shack offering amulets, embroidery and other bric-a-brac.
By contrast, when I was walking in the Himalayas, the journey felt far more authentic. If you stopped for lunch, the menu was limited to ethnic cuisine, and the décor was primitive at best. Here in China, there are lodgings all along the stone paths wending upwards that boast TV, aircon, internet and WiFi. Whaaaa….t? Unreal!
And this was after flying some 2.5 hours southwest of Shanghai (and south of Beijing), and then driving a further two hours into the hills. Obviously, we haven’t plunged deep enough into the interior… or, alternatively, wild, untamed China barely exists. C’est la vie!
On our way to the Zhuang village, we stopped at another “minority group” village, the Yao, and they put on a concert for us. That was charming and comical as they unwound their very long, black hair and demonstrated their singing, dancing, wooing, embroidering and marrying skills (see photo).
We ended our second day in Guilin with what is rapidly becoming a must-have luxury: a foot AND neck massage. We paid 100 yuan each for one hour (the equivalent of $20) and my cousin Jennifer felt cheated. Apparently, we paid far too much!
Our guide Amy has been a mine of information throughout our stay and amused us with her sayings. “In China, we eat everything with legs except tables and chairs” she says merrily and then adds very seriously: “But we don’t eat water buffalo, or cormorants, because we need both to harvest our food”.
country strong. She remembers, however, the hunger that many, many Chinese experienced during the Cultural Revolution when farmers were so busy studying Mao’s ideology that they failed to harvest sufficient crops to feed the people! “I would come home from school hungry and want to eat, and my mother would tell my sister and I to wait until the evening. Really, there was much suffering…”
By the time Mao’s successor, Deng Xaioping initiated his “Open Door” policy in 1979 and ordered the farmers back to the land, scholars back to school and professors back at university, “we the people had started to wake up,” explains Amy. “But in Chairman Mao’s time everybody slept without worries; today, with Open Door policy, more people are worried about where to live, where to work, about medical insurance, pension, everything. During Cultural Revolution, everything was taken care of for us.”
Hmmm. Yes, well. Can’t say I’ve got any easy solutions, Amy.
The next day, still in Guilin, we had a better day, and were reminded of Nixon’s words when he visited Guilin in 1973: “This is one of the most scenic spots in the world,” he apparently declared, probably being polite, but certainly Jennifer and I are growing accustomed to seeing the beauty of scenery despite mist and rain. Guilin gets rain more than half the year, but we are off next to a city of eight million where temperatures are around 33 deg C and dry. Meanwhile, Jennifer and I took one last happy snap at Elephant Truck Hill (a limestone hill in the shape of an elephant’s trunk) as evidence that we really did visit this 2,300-year-old metropolis.
As we drive to the airport for another flight, we notice that apartment blocks seldom exceed five floors, which is part of this autonomous region’s strategy for keeping Guilin as pretty as possible, and also…. to not block out the limestone hills that surround this valley. Certainly, it makes a big change from most of the cities that boast avenues of apartment blocks 30, 40, 50 storeys high!
So, tomorrow the Terracotta warriors of Xian. Right now, I’m tuning in to Chinese TV to get the latest on World Cup soccer 2010. Go Australia!

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Hi guys! Ni Hao! I have now been on holiday for eight days and I am truly starting to relax. We arrived last night in Guilin after a two-hour local flight from Nanking and are now ensconced in a gorgeous hotel. We find it hard to believe that it’s only three star! All our other hotels have been more than adequate (with the exception of one) but this is GREAT. And we’re here for three nights. Yeeha.
To recap so far: my first three days in Shanghai were packed. I was very impressed with the city which, quite rightly, has been dubbed “the New York of the East”. It’s a seriously sophisticated metropolis that makes for great shopping – I spent far too much money in the space of 36 hours – and it also makes your head hurt. I was, truth be told, relieved to leave.
Bogglingly, Shanghai has developed to this point in the space, really, of only the past couple of hundred years when Westerners made it a trading nexus and systematically went about taming the population with opium. That led to the Boxer Rebellion in the early 1900s, when the common people, to use tourist guide parlance, tried to throw out the foreigners.
Alas, one power-hungry Dowager Empress sided with the Westerners and the rebellion was quelled. It’s taken some time for the new democracy to effectively oust all foreigners and to welcome them again as tourists. Good for the Chinese, I say. They’re incredibly patriotic, and very keen to not be ruled by anyone but themselves. Sovereignty is sanctity, as they say….
Our next stop was Hangzhou (pronounced Hung-jo), population only four million (get outta here) and here we had two days of more pastoral pursuits: incense-infused pagodas, temples and parks, lakeside strolls and river boat outings. Aaaaaah! Weather has been kind to us throughout, with occasional days of light drizzle, nothing that compares to the deluge I believe Sydney is experiencing.
Speaking of the outside world, Jennifer and I plan to follow the World Cup as best we can. Our hotel has BBC television, so we will be watching the opening ceremony tonight along with a gazillion others around the world.
I guess one thing many of you will be wondering is, what is the food like? Well, you are asking the wrong person, because I tend to treat meals as mere fuel stops, but cousin Jennifer, on the other hand, relishes the banquet-style eating. Egads, how do these people stay slim? Mealtimes here are over-the-top: dish after dish after dish! Usually, there’s a plate of duck, some meatballs, spicy chicken, prawns or fish, vegetable dishes, a light soup with seaweed and egg and, finally, rice. We’ve adopted a simple routine of light breakfast, hearty lunch, and almost non-existent dinner (usually yoghurt).
Next stop was Nanjing, north of Hangszhou and west of Shanghai, which was the capital of China for ten dynasties (around the 1300s). This is an enormous, sprawling city with hundreds of corridors of apartment blocks to house the population; strangely enough, the high-rise blocks don’t look too bad, though they are hardly as charming as the more rarely seen traditional houses. Most people in Australia may still live in a house but in China, it is only the extremely wealthy who own a house. Property is bought per square metre in China… and no surprises there. With a population of 1.3 billion - easily 100 times greater than that of Australia – what can one expect?
Nanjing is a city steeped with history and culture and we were boggled by what we learned and saw here. First stop was the mausoleum of the father of the nation, Dr Sun Yat-Sen, who founded the Democratic Party in 1924, and paved the way for self-rule as opposed to centuries of feudal dynasties. Dr Sun studied medicine in Hawaii in the early 1900s, but turned to a career in politics. “It is easy to cure people,” he said. “It is far harder to cure a nation.
Three hundred and ninety-two steps lead to Dr Sun’s burial site, the 392 steps representing the 392 million who lived in China at the time of Dr Sun’s death. My, how has the population exploded since then!
Close by, in the same gigantic park, is another burial site, this one in honour of the Ming Dynasty’s founding Emperor. The two sites are in complete contrast to one another – the former is built to more classical designs and is partly inspired, one senses, by European architecture; the latter, of course, is more traditional, with a high moat wall of enormous stone bricks, and an ornate wooden structure, once painted and decorated and since meticulously restored, housing the Emperor’s remains.
The following day in Nanjing was a highlight: the Nanjing Massacre museum.
My goodness, they document their history well, the Chinese!
This museum records the witness testimonies of hundreds of people who survived the slaughter of 300,000 Chinese civilians in December 1937 when Japan invaded Nanjing. Ironically, this museum reminded me of the Japanese museum in Nagasaki which records the suffering that resulted after the Americans dropped a nuclear bomb on its city in 1945. Both museums pay brilliant testimony to the horrors of war. Strikingly, the Nanjing museum ends on a beautiful, poetic “epilogue” where it asks us all to forgive what happened, but never to forget, in order that it never happen again. Amen to that, I say.
Then, before leaving, we went downtown to Nanjing’s Old Town (think of The Rocks) and visited a famous Confucius temple. I was delighted to learn more about a guy, born 500 BC, who is so often quoted on This guy believed in scholarliness and preached much wisdom about how to live a balanced and harmonious life.
To balance and harmony, I say, and toast you with a Dragon Well green tea! For now, amigos, it’s au revoir as we launch ourselves into another day…

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

This blog site blocked in China

Hello again! I forgot to mention in my last blog that social networking sites like Facebook and blogsites such as this one are verboten in China. I popped down to an Internet café during my first 24 hours in Shanghai, paid 3.5 yuan for an hour, and sat down among all the young dudes playing games on computers, only to discover this.
So my blog is being cut and pasted and then posted on my behalf. Welcome to China!
My newsagent back home said she fled the crowds, the pollution and the “lack of freedom”. I guess it’s this kind of stuff that she’s talking about.
We’ve certainly experienced the crowds for ourselves and they’re legendary, but weirdly manageable; a pall of polluted grey sky is almost omnipresent and yet my sinus problems, thankfully, have almost totally disappeared; while the lack of freedom doesn’t affect foreigners overly, except for the excessive tracking of our movements with passport photocopying wherever we go.
But hey, at least I can read the Sydney Morning Herald on-line. I did briefly in my first 24 hours, but have been relentlessly busy since then sightseeing and what-have-you. Like all holidaymakers the world over, the world you leave behind becomes increasingly irrelevant as the days pass.
Here I am, in a fairly grotty so-called three-star hotel in Nanjing, where Japanese massacred 300,000 Chinese in the early 20th century, and cousin Jennifer and I are having a laugh a minute. We strolled in light rain to the supermarket last night to get our yoghurt (“swan-eye”), wasabe biscuits, bottled water and white rabbit lollies and then bought a whole lot of DVDs for dirt-cheap. I’m rather excited about watching Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor again now that I am in the land of dynasties… these are Qing, Hung, Sang Guo, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, Qing, in that order, spanning a modest 4,500 years. Sometimes as our car weaves through villages, I feel like I’m in Italy, traversing countryside that has seen so much joy, tragedy, hardship, pageantry, harvesting, toil….China, whatever you feel about it, is steeped in centuries of history and that gives voyagers a sense of something Buddhist… you cannot help but sense the insignificance of individual considerations in the broader context of nations fighting ideologies, pestilence, famine, neighbouring warlords
I love the sayings in China and the constant allusions to legends. After Shanghai, we visited a very beautiful city, Hangzhou, (pronounced “Hung-jo”) and visited this magnificent lake about the size of two Centennial Parks. Bordered on three sides by lush greenery and on the fourth by the city skyline, the lake is dotted with islands, pagodas and bridges built hundreds of years ago.
“A lake viewed in sunny weather is beautiful,” our guide informed us. “But a lake viewed in the rain is even more beautiful. And a lake in the snow is the most beautiful of all.” We looked at the lake in soft brilliant sunshine (temperature 26 deg C, humidity about 65) and tried to imagine it, frozen in time, like a delicate watercolour painting, at its most picturesque.
Our guide went on to recount the legend of the golden dragon and jade phoenix who allegedly gave birth to the lake and gifted it to the people of this rich rice-bowl valley west on Shanghai. Chinese citizens often describe things romantically; poets, for example, are revered, and the ability to describe things poetically much admired.

Our two-day visit to Hangzhou was an exquisite contrast to the steroid-infused pace of Shanghai. Here, about two hours west of Shanghai, is a city renowned for its beauty. We took a wooden junk ride on the lake itself and weaved our way around willow-fringed islets, before visiting a disused Buddhist temple, Lingyin, exquisitely restored by the Chinese. In China everything is enormous in scale and this was no different – four giant ‘guardians’, two fierce, two benign, shielded a giant golden Buddha in a temple surrounded by smaller outbuildings. One contained 500 giant bronze statues of various sagi!
The following day we visited a tea plantation in picture-perfect countryside dotted with rows of tea bushes, and learnt about the antioxidant effects of green tea. After a demonstration showing what quality green tea does to rice inside one’s stomach, I’m a convert and funnily enough, since drinking loads of it daily, my stomach has settled. (I was stupid enough, momentarily, to drink a little local H20 and swiftly learned my lesson). I also purchased a canister of Dragon Well green tea, which is reputedly China’s best, enjoyed by emperors, Queen Elizabeth (who visited here) and all the top brass in Beijing.
After Buddhist temples and pagodas and verdant, natural views, we headed for Nanjing down breezy, well-built highways. All the cities have corridors of high-rise apartment blocks for kilometres… the traditional farmer houses are rarer and infinitely more picturesque than the acres of concrete, even if they do occasionally have twirly-wirly Chinese touches.
Shopping? I spent a small fortune in Shanghai, but have now calmed down. Last night I was more interested in plasters at the local chemist for all my aches and pains. Unable to understand each other, I walked away with a box of plasters that I put on my aching left shoulder/neck area (go figure) and the plaster tingled away all night. I am becoming increasingly interested, it must be said, in Chinese medicine – they talk incessantly about the importance of “balance” and “good health”.
To YOUR good health, dear friends and family, until the next time!

Monday, June 7, 2010

OMG, I am Toto in the Land of Oz

Before I left Australia I asked my Chinese newsagent why she left China and she replied, "Too many people, too much pollution, and no freedom." I thought, fair enough, and decided to see for myself.
Then Qantas flew into Phudong airport and I took a train in to Shanghai and boom! OMG, a city on steroids. Twenty-two million people jostle about this sci-fi city and I am agape at the crowds: the sweet young things in tricked-up wardrobes of denim, bows and lace; the elderly, mainly fit and spry, who have seen it all, including Mao's Cultural Revolution; the toddlers, cute as cute can be. One of my favourite phrases already: "Hoong koo-eye" (not the correct spelling, but how you pronounce it) which means "toooooo cute". I always was a sucker for an adorable kid, and China.... well, the country's full of them. Another phrase: "Hoong how" which means "very good". Yesterday, after a one hour body massage to heal my weary bones (OMG, the walking!!!!) I had to tell the massage "teacher" that he wasn't just good, he was "ding ding how" which means THE BEST. He laughed.
Chinese people think I am very funny, and I think they are very sweet. My father would have been in his element here. Coming from an island where European, Chinese and Indian all lived merrily together, each speaking in one tongue, French, the industrious Chinese folk of his town impressed.
And me? After four days so far in China, I'm impressed. Why? you ask. I'll tell you shortly, but let's stick with my newsagent here and discuss the sheer number of the people first.

Shanghai has a lot of people at the best of times; give it a world-first Expo, and you are talking a city agog with excitement. This is a city on show, and let me tell you, it does itself proud: the streets are apparently always clean, but now it's hard to believe that locals spit everywhere because everywhere you look there are nothing but freshly polished buildings lining spotless streets with immaculate public transport:aaaah, Sydney would kill for trains like these whirling in regularly and on time!
Let's talk about personal space for a second: many Europeans are appalled by the lack of it in China, and I've already one or two Caucasians in queues, semi-frozen in distaste, seemingly appalled by the people pushing and shoving to move a queue forward. One British guy admonished a Chinese fellow for standing on his foot: I felt like telling him to get a life and push a bit more himself! In the entrance queues at Expo, one tall Canadian guy, towering over the sea of people, looked like he was going into a fugue. A pal explained that he was having trouble with the pushing and shoving; again, I just wanted to tell the fellow to pull himself together. Honestly, you're in China, pal, and the population runs to billions. What did you expect?
My cousin and I went to Expo which was a brave move considering the show allows up to 700,000 visitors a day and the daily quota is always met; however, the entrance queue only took 40 minutes and we were pleasantly surprised. We had our umbrellas for the sun, just like everyone else [weather has been amazingly fab, by the way: sunny and clear] and jostled and shoved through the pig pens with the best of them. I was careful not to wear perfume after Jenny informed me that they find Westerners' penchant for CK and Gaultier off-putting. Luckily, I haven't smelled any body odour yet. On the contrary, I wish I was as slim, fit and strong as the majority of the population. I guess years of hard work, low wages, fresh food and plenty of walking has its benefits!
You know what? We could learn a lot from the Chinese. No wonder there's an international best seller at the moment, "When China rules the World". When you see what they achieve.... you realise it's quite possible.
The truth is, we only lasted about 4 hours at Expo. It just got too much; queues as long as three hours to get into popular pavilions (China, US, Germany, France, Taiwan, Japan) and one to two hours for the rest.... eeek. We popped into the joint Africa pavilion which was full of wood carvings, traditional huts and the beat of the drum, and enjoyed the coolness and vibe, and managed to get into Chile's pavilion without too much of a fuss... which blew me away. A fellow Vietnamese sightseer had told us it was "cool" and he was right - it was poetic, interactive, creative, fascinating. They had recreated four floors of a high-rise where you could see the family life inside and as you watched you couldn't help thinking that we may all look different, but our needs are the same.... babies crying for attention, mouths to feed, a living to make, housework to complete, birthday milestones to celebrate, sick people to tend.... life is pretty straightforward really, so make it magica! if you can!
Also in the Chile pavilion was this amazing touch phone map of Chile where you just touch a part and someone in that part of Chile appears and, by touching, you can pull in photos from their photo album and learn about their way of life. It was a fantastic way to learn about a country and made me want to get on the next plane to South America.
But after that one truly exciting experience, as the midday sun broiled, we soon lost the energy for queuing under our umbrellas and ducked into a Japanese restaurant overlooking one of the squares and rested. Later, we jumped on a ferry and left the sprawling Expo site, leaving the Chinese folk to visit the countries of the world the only way most of them ever will.
All seven million of Shanghai's permanent residents got free tickets to Expo; they also got a free train travel pass for the family for a month. This was the administration's way of saying thank you to the people for putting up with construction work for years. Since 2005, for example, the subway system has quadrupled in metreage, going from three railway lines to 10! When all the Expo visitors leave, the citizens of this massive city with its art-deco-meets-sci-fi cityscape, will have many urban upgrades to enjoy.
Bye for now, gotta go, have left Shanghai and currently enjoying the more pastoral beauty of a lakeside city, Hangzhou. Until next time...