A Travellerspoint blog

A Cantonese friend could've been useful here...

5. Guangzhou (广州)

After Chaozhou, I rejoined the others in Guangzhou which was a 5 hour bus away. Since they had been in Guangzhou for a few days already, Elinor and Natasha went to Foshan (a previously independent town consumed by the ravenous Guangzhou whose metro now links to it) whilst I had the day to explore on my own. I had heard mainly bad things about this southern industrial conurbation but in actual fact, it was a lot prettier and smog-free (at least when I was there!) that I had expected. We stayed on lovely Shamian Island in a hostel which was very clean but devoid of 'hostel-liness'. Felt more like an old person's home but oh well.

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L: Leafy Shamian Island with its wide boulevards and colonial-era buildings
R: A solitary goldfish in a bag just doesn't compare does it? OH China. How I love thee

January the 20th

The main attraction that I had wanted to see was the impressively titled "Mausoleum of the Nanyue King" (南越王墓) which had been accidentally discovered in 1983 by workers excavating for a shopping plaza. It turned out to be the final resting place for Zhao Mo, the 2nd king of the short-lived Nanyue Kingdom which was finally overthrown by the Han in 111 BC.

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L: Zhao Mo's jade burial suit. Wonder what it'd fetch on eBay?
R: GENIUS

The actual presentation of the archeological site was, for me, one of the best that I've seen relative to other tourist sites in China. You could actual walk down into the stone burial chamber and see close up the structure of the resting site. I couldn't help but wish that this closeness could have been achieved somehow in Xi'an. After this section, the museum continued on in a more normal fashion and showcased hundreds of intricate artifacts including Zhao Mo's burial suit made of thousands of tiny jade tiles. It was really amazing to see and learn about the symbolic importance of jade; a stone which was believed to preserve the body and make one immortal. Indeed it is no wonder that jade is still a symbolic stone for the Chinese today.

I also tried to visit the Whampoa Military Academy (黄埔军校), a place which had trained many of the military elites of both the KMT and the CCP and continues to function as a training base to this day. Alas, I got lost on the enormously extensive tube and ended up getting there at closing time after several tube journeys, a bus and then a boat to this most elusive of islands. DOH. Oh well, I consoled myself with a delicious dinner. Guangzhou may have a (unjustifiably) bad reputation in terms of the built environment but it definitely has a (justifiably) good reputation for food. If you are ever in the area, order yourself a bowl of double steamed milk (双皮奶) - you won't regret it!

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Crowded streets even at night - people kept calling out to me, first in Cantonese and then in Mandarin. They were disappointed both times.

January the 21st

After a day and a half in Guangzhou, Natasha and I were showing our passports to board a short 2 hour train...not to another country but to Hong Kong ("one country, two systems" and all that)!! Whoop whoop!!

Posted by EddieBlock 21.04.2011 07:34 Archived in China Tagged food history city museum sightseeing guangzhou Comments (1)

"Local boy" coming home :P

4. Chaozhou (潮州)

From Yongding, the three of us parted ways for I was to undertake a personal journey of mine. Whilst Natasha and Elinor went ahead to Guangzhou, I took a bus to Chaozhou, my ancestral home where my dialect comes from. Now for years, a lot of people have jokingly said that it was a "made up" language (!) and to be honest, it was only this year that I discovered that there was an actual place called Chaozhou and of course after this revelation, it was a must on my own travel plans.

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I'm here! I'm here!

Although Chaozhou did merit a small entry in the Lonely Planet, it wasn't really the tourist sights that drew me to visit Chaozhou, it was more for the people. Having checked into the cheapest hotel I could find (and realising that bargaining in hotels really isn't the done thing though this didn't stop me shamelessly using the 'Chaozhou boy has come back home' line, in perfect Chaozhou of course :P ), I set about looking for dinner though it was quite late by the time I had arrived in Chaozhou. I walked into a large but deserted restaurant and hesitantly inquired (in mandarin) whether they were still open to which the lady said "EH?" or something to that extent. I then pulled out my slightly-creased trump card and cleared my throat as I mumbled some Chaozhou to which she had a mini face contortion. I tried a second time in Chaozhou and this time, she smiled and ushered me in with a "yip lai yip lai"!

The rest of the family were sitting around eating peanuts and watching TV. Being past serving time, they hadn't expected any more customers so they all gave me curious looks as I walked in and plonked myself on a seat. Buoyed by the fact that yes, my Chaozhou *could* be spoken here and understood, I continued in Chaozhou and explained how I was a Chaozhou 'local boy' who was born in Britain and have now come here to see my ancestral home. This of course gave me bonus points and I was soon chatting to random members of the extended family who kept appearing from nowhere. The uncle in particular was very friendly and kept giving me heart slaps across my back whilst offering various Chaozhou delicacies. They rustled something up for me and although it was good, the company was better despite finding out how much of my Chaozhou I've forgotten through lack of use since coming to China (so much so that I had to say some things in mandarin instead!). Although some of their accents were quite strong, I was pleased to discover that I could understand others and be understood around 80% of the time. I retired to my hotel happy at my first authentic Chaozhou encounter :)

January the 18th

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Various sites around Chaozhou. The first picture on the second row isn't so much a 'site' as a 'sight'...

The next day was spent seeing the sights of Chaozhou though I never passed up any opportunities to eavesdrop on locals! I remember having a permanent grin on my face which must have looked weird whilst I was stalking old grannies to listen to their gossip.

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One of the grannies I stalked. Going through the narrow market alleys of Chaozhou, I couldn't help but smile at all the Chaozhou I could hear being spoken.

Whilst wondering through West Lake Park, I stumbled across a procession where they had cardboard replicas of a car, a computer, a sofa, a microwave oven as well as an assortment of other appliances. I was ready to join this procession for it was lead by a chanting monk (which is always a plus) but I'm glad I didn't as I was to find out that I had gatecrashed a funeral!! I had asked one of the old ladies nearby what they were doing and after giving me a very obvious look up and down (with an expression that blatantly read "how is this tourist doing that?"), she told me the reason! The cardboard furniture was to be burnt along with paper 'heaven money' as they believed that this would ensure that the deceased would be well-prepared for the afterlife. DOH. I quickly walked away and left the ceremony to carry on without the elephant in the room (aka me) disrupting affairs.

Along with visiting the sites of the Kaiyuan Temple (housing the 1000-armed Guanyin - see above for the picture), I walked along Chaozhou's old city walls, climbed up its gate towers and crossed the River Han on the Guangji Bridge built in AD 738; a time when, according to captions which I read in Chinese (lie), Chaozhou was a marshy bog land filled with man-eating crocodiles and the sort. That is until Hang Yu, a Tang Dynasty administrator and poet, banished them all with...his words?? Meh. He was popular enough for the people to name the river after him - he even had his own temple built for him which I also duly visited.

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I of course also sampled widely the food that was available in Chaozhou.
Funny, didn't taste like home food! Perhaps my identity crisis hasn't been solved after all...

January the 19th

Although I only spent 2 nights and 1 day in Chaozhou, I think I could have easily stayed there for longer. Everyone was so friendly and it was liberating to be able to speak my own dialect after years of feeling that it was useless. Whilst I'm still a bit embarrassed at not being able to speak mandarin fluently, I feel that after visiting Chaozhou, I no longer have that wish that I had instead been taught mandarin by my parents when I was younger. This local boy is proud of his ancestral roots :P

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Posted by EddieBlock 22.01.2011 08:15 Archived in China Tagged me food sunset temple bridge funny sightseeing chaozhou Comments (4)

Nights in rural Hakka heartland

3. Yongding (永定)

As soon as we had stepped on the bus heading into Yongding County, we were immediately asked whether we wanted to stay in a tulou (土楼)- literally "earth building". I guess we (well, mainly Natasha and Elinor who had by this point joined us) stood out as tourists and the locals probably knew that the tulou houses were the main draw of rural Yongding County and for good reason. These traditional Hakka roundhouses are, in my mind, Chinese "castles" albeit made of earth instead of stone. Yet the earthy roots of these structures make them more organic and thus fitting with the surroundings rather than sticking out like British tourists on a local bus...

After driving on some really bumpy tracks, the three of us were bundled into a minivan and driven off to a destination then unknown. It was a bit worrying but kind of exciting as well. It's those kind of situations which could only happen *outside* of a tour group (note to mum and dad!). We finally stopped right outside a tulou which would turn out to be our residence for the next two nights. The guy who had driven us there owned a couple of the rooms in it and now he rented out. It was strange to think that as the locals moved out to more, how should I put it, modern homes, the tourists moved in to fill in the gaps!

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The video below shows my evident glee at having finished bargaining for our rooms and being handed our keys (not that the tiny padlocks added any security!).

N.B. Those of you with some mandarin skills will have noticed that I didn't say "here's our tulou" but "here's our tudou" instead (!) which meant "here's our potato" :/. Oh dear. I should go do more revision of my Chinese....

A priceless moment during the bargaining had been when we refused the first room he showed us because it had no 'closeable' window to keep out the wind. To that, he immediately whipped across a piece of fabric and proudly exclaimed "WINDOW!". Man, that guy was classic.

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There was definite rural charm to the tulou buildings - sharing a huge communal space in the middle with chickens and pigs definitely made the place feel alive and the fact that the structure looked like it was going to fall apart at any moment added to the strange thrill you got, especially as we were living on the uppermost floor. Come night time, the absence of lights made the night so very dark, it was as if I had never seen the true 'blackness' of night before. With wooden floorboard creaking with the wind whistling through the tulou, I (embarrassingly) have to admit to moving into the same room as the girls though the main reason was of course so we could play card games together (I taught them 'big two' which was taught to me by Cantonese friends from home - it soon became a stable of our journeys).

January the 16th

Waking up the next morning to the cockerels was a magic moment with slices of sunshine coming in through the wooden planks that made up the door to our room. Although it had been very cold (I didn't quite experience the 'cool in summer, warm in winter' tag line), I felt peculiarly rested. After a tasty and cheap bowl of noodles for breakfast, we spent the day visiting other tulous nearby and just taking in the countryside scenes. Vegetables were hung out to try in the sunshine whilst other villagers were making some home-brew plum wine in clay pots. Others still were tilling the ground and another was tending to his pigs. This heartland of the Hakka minority group was simply filled with beautiful panoramas wherever you looked.

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January the 17th

After a second night in our tulou, we boarded our buses and sadly left our 'earth building'. Although modern amenities such as toilets (there were clay chamberpots instead!) were absent from the tulou, the overall bucolic charms of Yongding County made the experience truly memorable and I'm certainly glad that it was on my travel itinerary.

Posted by EddieBlock 19.01.2011 17:00 Archived in China Tagged accommodation rural funny tulou yongding Comments (0)

Technically island hopping...

2. Xiamen (夏门) and GuLang Yu (鼓浪屿)

After an 8 hour train ride (short by Chinese standards!), we arrived in Xiamen, a coastal city which is technically an island! It definitely has a lot of 'old world' charm and used to be known as 'Amoy' in the west. Unfortunately, it wasn't as warm as I thought it would be - perhaps I had an overly optimistic anticipation of southern China consisting of t-shirt-wearing climes! Having wondered around the shops nearby (including one which sold fake glasses?!) and got ourselves a cheap bowl of noodles for dinner, we soon retired to our hostel.

January the 13th

The next day, we explored the nearby Nanputuo Temple, an active temple complete with chanting monks and worshippers murmuring their prayers - the whole works! Despite not being religious, I always feel compelled to buy some incense and say a few words...this time was no different. Hmm, perhaps that classifies me as 'spiritual' instead (or just hedging my bets!).

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Nanputuo Temple

Behind the temple was a rock-stewn hill which made for a great climbing opportunity as well as a chance to explore crevices which were filled with various statues currently not used in the main temple complex. We had intended to dine with the monks but we forgot that noon was already too late as everyone in China likes to eat lunch early! Disappointed that we had missed this chance to eat at the temple, we conspicuously followed some monks out of the temple and into a specialist vegetarian restaurant nearby. Perhaps this is where the high-brow monks come to eat! MMmmmmm...even this self-confessed carnivore could be turned by dishes such as these! The 'lamb kebabs' were particularly good.

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Money permitting, we would have tried a lot more dishes! What we did have was delicious!

As night closed in, we hopped onto a boat and 10 minutes later, we were on another island called 'Gulang Yu' island, also nicknamed 'piano island' due to its love for classical music; a remnant from its colonial past. However, I thought that a more fitting nickname would have been 'cat island' due to its strange fascination with cats...

January the 14th

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One of the famous cat-themed cafes on the island...so famous that people feel the need to take photos whilst in it. Oh and check out the menu...
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With its winding streets around European style villas and its walkways shaded by old banyan trees, GuLang Yu island really was a delightful place to spend a few days wandering around. The weather had improved immeasurably and as we walked along the beaches, stopping to pick up a coconut or two, you couldn't help but think that winter was finally gone (despite it still being January!).

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Although there were several old colonial consulates and buildings to visit, we thought it best just to save the money and go where our feet took us as we soaked up the calming charms of the island. By night, we were still leisurely strolling around with our milk-tea from one of several cat-themed cafes dotted about. The number of kooky independent shops ranging from hand-painted shoes and t-shirts to themed 'cute' stationary made me think that this was definitely a place my family would enjoy coming to.

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I cannot recommend the service

January the 15th

Soon it was time to say goodbye to Gulang Yu and after an Y8 RMB return boat to Xiamen and a cheap-but-filling lunch of dumplings, we hopped onto a bus and went onwards into Yongding County.

Posted by EddieBlock 18.01.2011 09:00 Archived in China Tagged beaches food temple sightseeing xiamen gulang_yu Comments (5)

And so it begins!

1. Shanghai (上海)

January the 10th

Having planned my itinerary in detail and having handed back all of my 300 corrected exam papers, I was finally off on my self-entitled 'Epic Spring Fest China Tour' (though not before a rather rushed packing session on the morning I was due to leave!!)

Although I had been to Shanghai twice before, and decided that Chinese cities on the whole weren't really my thing, this time was a bit different. Having watched Chinese state TV (CCTV 9 of course) for more than 4 months now, I had been gradually sold on the idea of the World Expo in China. Although, the Expo has been going on for more than 150 years, I hadn't really noticed it before but I guess being in China made it big news. Thus I was pretty sad that I couldn't have gone to it during the 6 month display last year but was pleased to find out that the China pavilion would still be open for 6 months after all the other pavilions had been closed.

By the time we got to Shanghai, it was already night and so we took the opportunity to walk around and see the Bund, a promenade of European architecture from the early 1900s, and Shanghai's night skyline.

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Shanghai's night time urban landscape from atop of Jinmao Tower, China's 2nd tallest building at 420.5 metres high

January the 11th

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FAIL. Jumping photos never were my forte.

It was bitterly cold and having wanted to escape such climes, my escape into the south of China couldn't come soon enough. However, in the end I was pleased that I had stopped off in Shanghai before doing so. By experience of the remnants of the Shanghai Expo made me wish even more than I had seen the delights of all the other pavilions - the whole site of the World Expo was staggeringly huge.

The China pavilion itself was covered in a lucky red (the colour is actually called 'Chinese Red' I believe!) and took its inspiration from the shape of a traditional Chinese knot. Inside, there were 3 sections covering multiple aspects of Chinese culture; past, present and future. My personal highlights included a cinematic China intro movie that was pretty moving stuff - ha ha, I must have seemed like some sort of overly-patriotic Chinaman but honestly, it was the bit about the Suchen Earthquake of 2008 that got me. Powerful stuff.

The other key highlight for me was the mesmerising 'River of Wisdom': Zhang Zeduan's 12th century masterpiece reworked as a 3D animation of all 1068 people, boats and animals. It was really great to see such an old painting brought to life in such a way (see video below) - I spent ages just watching small segments of the animated painting and seeing the people in it go about their daily chores as day cycled into night and then back again.

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The original painting by Zhang Zeduan (张择端) was particularly fitting because it was called 'Riverside scene at Qing Ming Festival' with Qing Ming being 'Spring Festival' aka Chinese New Year.

The video above shows the the result of the original painting being enlarged by over 30 times so that the final animated 3D replica could show animations from even the smallest of figurines in the painting.

As we took a ride (a literal one) into the Chinese future, I hoped that this green vision of sustainable consumption could indeed by achieved in China. With such thoughts in my head, I left the China pavilion chuffed that I had been able to see at least a small part of what was the World Expo of 2010.

January the 12th

After a morning snack of xiao long bao (小龙包) - my favourite thing about Shanghai - we departed from Shanghai and journeyed down south towards the seaside town of Xiamen.

Posted by EddieBlock 11.01.2011 17:00 Archived in China Tagged buildings culture city sightseeing shanghai expo Comments (0)

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