Beijing, China

My last post was about Xi’an, one of China’s ancient capital cities, this post is about its current one – Beijing. We took our second overnight train of the trip between the cities. The first nocturnal journey had gone smoothly, I am a big fan of killing both the accommodation and traveling birds with one stone. Chengdu to Xi’an was fine, a little emotional at the beginning after saying our goodbyes but I had no complaints about the journey itself. I watched 12 Angry Men in my bunk and it instantly went into my top 5 films of all time – bonus. The Xi’an to Beijing leg wasn’t so great though, I sneezed a lot and didn’t sleep very well at all. By the time we arrived I felt like I had a cold, I was under the weather during the first day in the Chinese capital. Anyway, enough about poor little me…

Beijing is a metropolis, an absolute giant with a population of around 20,000,000. On top of this vast population I’d imagine it’s the most-visited city in China, perhaps along with Shanghai. It is the closest big city to China’s greatest attraction and also has many places of interest within its boundaries. Again, I have to repeat the confession that’s been running through my posts on China – I didn’t actually know much about Beijing or what was there before arriving in China. I doubt many British people could reel off a list of things to see in Beijing, it seems to me that China remains quite mysterious. The first place of interest we visited was Tienanmen Square. This place is permanently busy and you pass through airport security checks to get to it. Most of the tourists were Chinese, the country is so vast that very few of my students in Sichuan had visited the capital. I’m shocked when I hear someone hasn’t made the trip to see London but then England doesn’t compare to China for size. The panorama photo below suggests the square wasn’t very crowded, that’s not how I remember it.

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You can visit several cultural sites from Tienanmen Square including the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was the imperial palace for almost 500 years, this secluded area in the heart of Beijing was the home of the emperors and their people. The likes of you and I weren’t allowed in, hence the name ‘forbidden’. A portrait of Chairman Mao watches over you as you enter, by chance he was on my t-shirt the day we went…

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There were so many rooms to visit but we didn’t have a lot of time to see all we wanted to see in Beijing, to be honest I think we rushed the Forbidden City. Reviews and guidebooks describe it as the most incredible thing to see, it didn’t leave this impression on me. The garden at the end was quite beautiful, that is what sticks in the memory the most. After leaving we crossed the road and climbed the hill in Jingshan park, from its summit you look over the Forbidden City and get a sense of its scale. The rooftops get lost in the heavy Beijing smog.

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Other places of interest around Tienanmen Square include the National Museum of China and, my personal highlight, the Mausoleum of Chairman Mao. The National Museum was informative, it’s a tall order trying to take in China’s enormous history but this is the place to do it. Although I am a history graduate I am only really interested in the 20th century, this is what I was most eager to read about. What happened before that? Well from what I gather there were centuries of fighting between regional warlords and lots of dynasties basically. Boring. Skip forward to Mao.  It seems Mao’s revolution has brought some relative stability to the country, the people are behind their country and its system – whether through genuine belief or fear is a different matter. The People’s Republic of China was born in 1949 and this new state needed a new flag, I thought this exhibit showing the different ideas was very cool. In my opinion some of these are actually better than the one they chose.

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Time for the best part of Tienanmen Square – Mao’s resting place. The mausoleum is only open during the morning so we set an alarm and headed for the square, thinking we’d get in quite quickly. Wrong. People come from all over the country to pay homage to the father of modern China. The queue was already massive by the time we got there, lots of people holding flowers as if they were visiting a loved one’s grave. I think we noticed one other non-Chinese person, apparently getting up early and queuing to see the dead body of a person many consider a tyrant isn’t high on many itineraries – who knew? I had never seen a dead body, why not start with one of the biggest historical figures of the last 100 years? To show respect no photos are allowed, the photo on the left is the queue beforehand and the one on the right is the view of the exit. Mao is guarded by two soldiers and you must keep walking, no stopping to have a get inspection allowed. It was quite a surreal experience.

Away from Tienanmen Square we managed to tick off a few others sights in Beijing, the big one that was missed was the Summer Palace. It was optimistic to see Beijing within a few days, especially as one of those was reserved for the wall. Beihai Park is located just to the side of the Forbidden City, the ex-imperial garden is now a lovely public park. Not so public though, I’m pretty sure it was expensive to enter. We rented a boat on the lake, something I’d recommend doing for some relative peace and quiet in the middle of Beijing.

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The final two places worthy of being mentioned in this post are the Bird’s Nest Stadium and the Temple of Heaven. Modern China and traditional China exemplified. I know from living near to London the impact an Olympic games can have on a city and a country, I think the Chinese probably took it to a whole new level in 2008. The government wanted to impress the world and invested a fortune to put on a show, they needed a stadium worthy of a young Usain Bolt et al – the Bird’s Nest and its iconic design met the mark.

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As I said, we didn’t have all the time in the world to see everything we would have liked to and it was a matter of sacrificing either the Summer Palace or the Temple of Heaven. We opted to go to the Temple of Heaven, it was nearer to our hostel. The Summer Palace will have to wait – I’d like to revisit Beijing in another season, July was too hot. So, the Temple of Heaven has its own complex, it’s a nice park where we saw locals jogging, there were some really nice flower displays as well as benches for taking it all in. All you could want in a park. The temple itself is ornate, intricate and everything we’d come to expect in an important Chinese building.

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Beijing has so much to offer, the fact this post has gone over 1,000 words is proof of that. I haven’t even spoke about the culinary world of China’s capital, we spent 3 evenings in a row trying to hunt down restaurants that served mock duck pancakes – this was my favourite meal before I went vegetarian, my willpower struggled at times. I need to go back there in a cooler season, eat some nice fake duck pancakes and see the Summer Palace. Until then, I won’t be completely satisfied with my Beijing experience!

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Xi’an, China

After yet another prolonged break from writing I’m back to tell you all about Xi’an. This is the next installment of the Chinese adventures, crazy to think it’s already over a year since we left. Xi’an was the first destination on our post-semester tour, we’d finished teaching and had about 3 weeks to see the main sights. I didn’t know much about China before agreeing to work there, I definitely didn’t know Xi’an. It turns out Xi’an is one of China’s old capitals, its oldest in fact. Considering Chinese history goes way back in antiquity that’s quite impressive.

Of course anyone who knows about Xi’an will tell you it’s the home of the famous Terracotta Warriors. It is basically a vast mass of soldiers built(or sculpted?) for the first Emperor of China, 2 or 3 centuries before Jesus was around. Amazingly the soldiers were only discovered in the 1970s, that’s a loooong time underground. Each soldier is unique, the attention to detail is incredible, as is the condition many of them are still in. Looking good at 2300 or so.

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There are three pits that have been uncovered, fortunately we’d read to save the biggest until last so you build up to it. I think if you’d started your tour and gone the other way the last pit would underwhelm. The biggest pit is the one nearest to the entrance if I remember right, remember to resist the temptation and find the smaller 2 before entering! In the big pit you are struck by the scale of this operation, seeing all the soldiers lined up in formation is impressive.

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After seeing the soldiers we needed to refresh and shamefully stopped for a drink and some chips at the McDonald’s on the grounds. Perhaps the fact we’d spent 5 months living in China by this point excuses us to a degree, probably not though. Anyway, moving on… As established by now Xi’an has played a central part in Chinese history and its history is visible from almost anywhere in the city centre thanks to its city defence wall, it’s completely intact. One of the best memories I have from the China trip is cycling a lap around the wall, I would strongly recommend anyone going to Xi’an to make use of the bike rental. The floor is in a good state, it’s a fairly easy cycle and if you get up there at the right time you can see a great sunset over the city below.

China isn’t always the most diverse of places, you’ll notice people looking at you or whispering ‘waiguoren’ (foreigner) as you walk past. The big cities have more non-Chinese people but nowhere near what you would find in a big European city or New York etc. However, Xi’an is home to large Muslim community and it was interesting to see their market stalls – by chance we were there during the month of Ramadan too. I think the men below were making some sort of biscuit.

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In the very centre of the city you’ll find the Bell Tower, it’s probably a bit younger than other attractions in the area. A mere baby at just 633 years of age! We sat on a bench opposite one evening taking everything in, the darker the sky got the better the tower looked. You can enter the tower, I think there was some kind of music performance. Overall I liked Xi’an, it felt historic and the warriors are rightly one of the top things to see on most Chinese travel itineraries.  The centre/west of the country has things to offer, don’t stick to Shanghai and Beijing!

Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, Chengdu

I have read in the newspaper today about two baby pandas, two pandas born in my old home – Chengdu! To be more precise, they were born in the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. Although it could arguably do with a snappier name, the centre is an amazing place. We visited the centre twice and the work they do is incredible. The Giant Panda only lives naturally in Sichuan and a couple of neighbouring provinces, we were literally in the middle of panda territory and to see them up close and personal was an experience I won’t forget in a hurry. We had visited Edinburgh zoo the year before to see them, it was great at the time but the research centre is on a different level. No disrespect to Edinburgh zoo! In Chengdu there are pandas of all ages and sizes, even red pandas which I’d never even heard of before visiting.

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The aim of the centre is to fight the decline of panda numbers and the stats would suggest they’re doing pretty well. According to our good friend Wikipedia, the centre began with a mere 6 pandas which has grown considerably over the years and is still growing. We saw with our own eyes the baby pandas kept safely in their incubators. Long may it continue, I think we can all agree the world needs more pandas.

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Now you have seen one, would it be quite heartless to say that the babies aren’t exactly cute? They do kinda resemble pink rats, let’s be honest. I think the real stars of the show were the ones about toddler age. By then they’ve developed the trade-mark black and white fur. We got there in the morning when they had energy and wanted feeding, to see a panda is a treat but to see a panda with energy is the cherry on top! They were roaming about, fighting over apples and generally being adorable.

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It takes quite a lot for me to call something cute, it’s not a word I use freely – I’m hard to please. However, even miserable serious old me was ‘awwing’ away over these guys. They have been the screensaver on my phone for the past year. Don’t you just want to give one a hug? Well, you can! At the centre you can meet a panda 1-to-1 if you earn more than an English language teacher. I don’t think I need to recommend the centre, if you’re considering going to Chengdu there’s no way you wouldn’t already have this planned in your itinerary but nevertheless – GO GO GO. You’ll not only see these gorgeous creatures but you’ll also be supporting their survival. A cheap admission fee, a worthy cause and the unique chance to see lots of pandas in a natural environment. It’s a no-brainer, here’s to many more pandas in the future.

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Maocai, delicious Chinese food

China is famed for its cuisine, I’d imagine only India and Italy rival it for popularity worldwide. I personally couldn’t choose between the three! Of course, one of the best things about living in China was eating authentic Chinese food – at ridiculously cheap prices. At times it was hard to find things as a vegetarian, there were no menus stating what I could like I’m used to in the UK. We’re spoilt. I would usually reject any food that’s been in contact with meat but I couldn’t live by this rule in China. I’m sure I ate things cooked in meat stock – I picked at noodles that had been ordered with pork (despite me specifically asking the local to pass on my message to the chef for NO meat). Safe to say, it wasn’t always plain sailing…

Sichuan food has a reputation for its spice, they cook with the Sichuan pepper. This ingredient creates a weird numbing sensation. Sichuan food was great, perhaps the most disappointing meal was the hot pot. Everyone asked ‘have you tried the hot pot?’, they’re obviously very proud of it. In my opinion, it’s nothing special, our particular favourite dish was similar but much better – ‘Maocai’. You pick your own ingredients, normally different types of meat as well as vegs – of course I just went for veg and tofu, they had so many types of tofu. The chef then cooks the ingredients together in a big vat and pours on the spicy stock. It is delicious! I’m not sure the photo does it justice but you get an idea.

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We had it a least twice a week, it was becoming an addiction. To feed the cravings we found a restaurant in London that offered Maocai but, sadly,  they couldn’t confirm it was vegetarian. As tempted as I was I couldn’t use the ‘well I’ll starve otherwise!’ excuse this time. London is a bit different to a Chengdu suburb! I had to order another Sichuan dish – Mapo tofu. Also delicious to be fair.

If anyone plans to do a trip to China – don’t just visit Shanghai and Beijing, venture over to the west and try the incredible food from this region. I miss it everyday!

3 WEEKS UNTIL CUBA

The trip to Cuba is happening very shortly, at the moment this is the plan for our 17 days there:

  • Havana
  • Vinales
  • Santa Clara
  • Trinidad
  • Cienfuegos
  • Playa Giron
  • Havana

These are things I absolutely must do:

  • Smoke a cigar while drinking a mojito
  • Ride in a ’50s car
  • Snorkel(scuba dive if I’m feeling brave)
  • Learn about the revolution, see Che’s mausoleum
  • Practice my Spanish with a local or two

If you’ve been to Cuba and can give me any last-minute suggestions or tips – don’t hesitate!

 

Chongqing, China

If someone asked you to name China’s big cities, you’d probably name the ones towards the coasts – Shanghai and Beijing in the east, Hong Kong and Guangzhou in the south. The west of the country is less densely populated but there are two giants that you won’t find anywhere near the sea – Chengdu and Chongqing. Chongqing will be the topic of today. It’s a city I had never heard of before arriving in China. If I remember rightly, Chongqing used to belong to Sichuan province until it became its own area, it’s now one of only four cities directly under the control of the national government. About 30 million people live in the Chongqing area.

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One of the ‘things to see’ in Chongqing is the Liberation Monument, located in the middle of the city’s business and shopping district. The skyscrapers make it look tiny but apparently it was the city’s tallest building back in the day. The monument was originally built to commemorate the Second World War in 1945. This changed a few years later to commemorate another huge event in recent Chinese history – Mao’s revolution. As the photo might indicate, it’s not the most awe-inspiring thing in the world.

The next tourist attraction we visited was the ‘Ciqikou’ old town. The Chinese like to recreate aspects from their long past, we came across a few ancient towns during our time there and they’re pretty much the same thing. You’ll find the ‘typical Chinese’ architecture with market stalls. Chongqing is famous for its spicy hot pot so we bought something containing chili peppers, thinking it would be interesting to try and it looks appetising. We, stupid foreigners, didn’t realise it was meant to be used as a kind of giant stock cube… I started biting into it and a couple of women started laughing at me. It rained while we were walking the streets of the old town so we stopped for a well-presented and expensive tea.

One of the reasons I wanted to visit Chongqing was to see the Yangtze river, it’s one of the longest and most famous rivers in the world and I was expecting to see something quite amazing. In hindsight, it’s just a lot of water so I don’t really know what I was hoping for. The water was brown and the sky was dark (with pollution probably), it wasn’t the image I had in mind. We crossed it on a cable car which showed off the skyline well.

The highlight of the trip happened by pure coincidence. In China we were on a teaching programme and there were about 80 teachers, the majority of us were based in Chengdu but some were sent to Chongqing. While we were walking around on the first night we bumped into some of the others who lived there – remember the size of this city – they invited us to watch a football match. Chengdu doesn’t have a team at the moment so Chongqing were our ‘local’ team – of course I was up for going! I even bought myself a counterfeit replica shirt. Who said it was Asian tourists turning up at our games? It’s European tourists invading Chinese league games! ‘We’ played one of the Shanghai clubs who had an ex-Chelsea player in their side, I think we lost…

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To be honest, I didn’t love Chongqing and I felt lucky we’d been given a place in Chengdu instead. The city seemed vast and industrial, the sky was always grey – even by Chinese standards – the buildings were huge but not beautifully-designed. It almost felt oppressive. I doubt it would be on many itineraries, for good reason. It’s probably one of the few places I wouldn’t go back to in China.

The Giant Buddha, Leshan, China

It’s time to start writing about China. In 2016 I lived in China for almost 6 months, February to July. It was my first experience living in another country, actually… it was my first real experience living independently away from mum and dad. And what an experience it was! All the cliches are about to come out here: China is really like nowhere else I’ve visited – I had photos taken of me because I’m blonde and pale. I’ve never felt like a celebrity before! It was surreal. I urge you to visit the People’s Republic of China, the culture shock might be very real but it’s worth it. The photos do wonders for your ego! In regards to China, so far I’ve only written a post about the Great Wall. How typical. I’m not disparaging it(did I use that word correctly?) but everyone who visits China will visit it – for good reason, it’s amazing, iconic, ancient and so on.  But now I want to talk about something a little less famous, in this post I am going to talk about…
the Giant Buddha of Leshan.

Leshan is a city near to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. We lived in a suburb of Chengdu, probably the biggest city nobody seems to have heard of. 14 million people call Chengdu home! I am looking forward to blogging about my old home, it was my favourite Chinese city. Of course, I’m very impartial! We managed to do a few ‘local’ trips whilst there. (Local includes 10 hour coach journeys, btw). In May we took the high speed train for a little day trip to a local attraction, the bloody big Buddha! He’s been impressing people for over a millennium. Apparently he took 90 years to complete, work finally finished in 803. He’s aged well! I think the detail is pretty incredible when the age is taken into consideration. 1000 years of wear and tear on top of the lack of modern technology. Round of applause for the workers!

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To be honest, if I was visiting Chengdu/Sichuan for only a few days as part of a trip to China, I wouldn’t recommend visiting the Buddha. I am glad I did it but we had the luxury of living there. No doubt about it, he’s impressive and the local grounds and very peaceful. However, there are better things to see and do in this part of China. Unless he holds some sacred significance to you, I wouldn’t call it a must-do. It’s a 7/10 kinda thing. You’ll be able to say you’ve seen the biggest Buddha statute in the world… but I doubt that’s on your bucket list. I’ll end by saying that I strongly urge anyone planning a trip to China to visit Sichuan though, I’ll write more about ‘my’ province soon.

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