Dezember 21, 2013

Three weeks with my girls in China

Just after I found out that I will be spending one semester in Shanghai three of my best friends from Germany who I went to school with started planning a visit to China. We were all really excited to go on such a great trip together after so many years and they actually booked their flights before I even did. At the end of November the day finally came where I went to Pudong Airport once again to pick up my next visitors. Since I was very determined to share all great places with them that I have gotten to know during my semester, our touring program started right after they had dropped their luggage in our apartment. The first night we went to the Vue Bar located directly on the river with that stunning view on Pudong – still definitely one of my favorite places in the city. The next days we did the typical sightseeing tours through Shanghai’s main streets, the old part of the city etc., went to the fake markets and my university campus, had lots of social time and tried different local dishes.

After five days of sightseeing in Shanghai, the girls took an overnight train to Beijing, where they stayed for three days. Since I had just been there a few weeks before with my mum, I didn’t join them during this part of the journey, but then we met again in Taiyuan. Taiyuan is the capital and largest city of North China’s Shanxi province and one of the greatest industrial cities. We didn’t see much of it as we just used the city as a transit point to get to Pingyao. The girls and I had planned to meet at the hotel in the evening we all landed in Taiyuan but instead they waited for me at the airport which was a great surprise. Thanks again for that girls and for not letting me sit in one of those taxis by myself. Thinking of this situation I could write a lot about issues with taxi drivers again… but oh well let’s just say we eventually made it to our hotel. After overcoming some more language barriers with the hotel staff who had a very hard time giving us directions to the train station for the next morning although it was just a few meters down the street, we just went to bed after a late dinner at McDonalds and were happy that we hadn’t planned on staying in Taiyuan as the first impressions weren’t that good. The next morning we took a train to the ancient city of Pingyao. The train ride was a really interesting experience since the whole cabin was packed with Chinese who kept starring at us, took pictures and tried to start little conversations in English. By the way people were dressed you could tell that we were in the middle of the countryside in China – a completely different picture compared to the outer experience of people in big cities. The only thing I didn’t like about the train ride is that all guys were smoking on the train wherefore it smelled very bad especially since there were so many people on there. But the ones sitting around us were all friendly, kept asking questions and helped us to get off at the right train stop. Those are the times during which I really don’t mind if people keep taking pictures of us because they all showed a great interest. But others who treat us like monkeys in a zoo are a bit more difficult to handle depending on my mood ;) 
Pingyao is located about 80 kilometers from Beijing in Shanxi Province and used to be a financial center of China in the late Qing Dynasty. It still retains its city layout from the Ming and Qing dynasties and is famous for its city wall that is very well sustained. Pingyao is also called ‘turtle city’ as the wall has six different gates that are distributed in a way that the pattern reminds of a turtle. Besides the old part of the city that is surrounded by the wall there also is a new part outside of it. We decided to stay in a hostel right in the center of the old part. During our visit we explored all the streets and little stores around the historic places and walked on top of the city wall more than half way around which were about four kilometers. Pingyao is definitely worth seeing. I really enjoyed the architecture which seemed to be typical Chinese. It just would have been nice if it was a bit warmer, but considering that we visited at the end of November we were still lucky to have a blue sky and sunshine on all days.

Our next stop on the journey was Xi’an. We had planned on taking an overnight train from Pingyao. This worked out but instead of the soft sleepers we were hoping for, there were only seats left. So we sat on another crowded train with lots of locals and this time not for two hours as on the way to Pingyao but for eight hours during the night. That definitely also is an experience I will never forget! It was a bit exhausting, but we saved lots of money and we had organized a pick up from the train station for our arrival in Xi’an. This way we got to the hostel right away and luckily we could check in the room although it was very early. So we slept for a few hours before exploring the city.  Xi’an is one of the oldest cities in China with more than 3100 years of history. It is the starting point of the Silk Road and home to the Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. The city is also surrounded by a city wall. But this time we decided not to climb it since we had already seen the one in Pingyao a few days before. One of the best places in the city is the Bell Tower, a symbol for Xi’an, which was built during the early Ming Dynasty. It is located in the middle of the main roundabout traffic that all big streets lead to. From the top of it we had a great view over Xi’an and also discovered a German Christmas market that we explored right afterwards. It was cute but the different stalls didn’t really sell anything that reminded of Christmas. They were offering Chinese products like a rice cooker and different makeup brands. But something we really enjoyed about it, were Chinese girls singing different Christmas songs on a little stage. Another interesting place was the so-called Muslim quarter with different souvenir stores and lots of different kinds of food of which we especially liked some sweats and bread.
On one of our days in Xi’an we went to the Terracotta Army. We were accompanied by a Chinese who we got in contact with over a friend of one of the girls from Germany. At first we had some difficulties to find topics to talk about as he seemed a bit nervous about speaking English. But this got a lot better after a while so that we actually spend the whole day together and found out that we were the first foreigners who he spoke English with and that he will therefore never forget about us. He is a landscape architect ant took us to one of his big projects in the area of Xi’an on the way to the Terracotta Army. I’m glad we combined these two things and also had some great cultural contact that day as I was a bit disappointed about the Terracotta soldiers. There are big halls in which tourists can just look on the soldiers from the top instead of getting close to them. Before our trip I actually already knew that it would be this way as some friends who went to see it earlier during the semester told me about it. So the disappointment wasn’t that big. It just proved to be right what I had heard before. It still was a great day as we got to know this Chinese man. I always appreciate getting in contact with locals as this happens very rarely. After our days in Xi’an the girls flew to Guilin where I have already been during one of my first weeks in China, so that I returned to Shanghai while they kept travelling. And this way I also didn’t miss any of my courses at university ;) After Guilin, the four of us had another day in Shanghai to do some final shopping before the girls flew back to Germany. Thanks a lot for visiting Maria, Ina und Judith! I had a great time that I will never forget about!

November 16, 2013

A short trip to beautiful Hangzhou

During my mum’s second week in Shanghai we decided to go on a short trip to Hangzhou where we stayed for one night. With the fast train it only takes about 1,5 hours from Shanghai to get there and it was definitely worth seeing that place. Hangzhou is known for its Westlake at which we spend our first day. We started from our accommodation that was located directly at the Westlake and walked along the promenade for a while before we got on one of the boats to get to a little island. We weren’t expecting much so it was surprising for us to see the landscape from there that is printed on the one RMB banknote. Since there otherwise wasn’t a lot to do on that island we decided to get a portrait drawn by one of the artists there. It only took about ten minutes but during that time there were already many Chinese gathering around me and taking pictures again. The portrait turned out nicely but since it didn’t really look like me we started to bargain so in the end we actually only had to pay half price and that were only about 5 €. After getting back on the mainland on the opposite of Westlake from where we started, we took a little touristic train to get to the next attractions. There we looked at a temple, different bridges and gardens, did some shopping and had a great coffee at Starbucks where we got to know some very nice retired Chinese men, with who we talked for at least 30 minutes. Considering the fact that very often it is difficult to find English speaking people in Shanghai even among the young Chinese it was surprising to me that they spoke and understood English fluently. We had fun talking about their earlier jobs, their visits to Europe and many other topics. After this memorable break we took a bus to get back to the city so that by the end of the day we had surrounded Westlake with different means of transportation. And at night the Westlake and its promenade look especially beautiful as there are lights everywhere, people are gathering for dances on the street and we even got to see a little water show.
The second day we took a taxi to the surrounding area of Hangzhou where we got to see lots of tea plantations, which I hadn’t really seen before. This was very interesting and it was especially nice that we were almost the only people around so that we were able to enjoy the peace for a little while before going back to busy Shanghai in the afternoon. The only people we did meet on the way were different Chinese couples who got their wedding pictures taken. Those couples really seem to be everywhere – we had fun watching them leaning against trees or being placed in a little pavilion. 

Another Highlight: I tried Chinese calssical dance on the street with an older man who was at least one head shorter than me and there were only natives around - it was lots of fun and the Chinese where happy I joined them :)

November 12, 2013

Our Trip to Beijing

Our cabin on the way to Beijing
In the evening of October 24th Susu, me and our mums took a train over night to Beijing. We left Shanghai at about 9.30 p.m. and arrived at 9 a.m. the next day. When we decided to book a train instead of a flight on the way there we all agreed that this is one of those things that are worth doing in life and I’m very glad that we did since it was a great experience that I would always recommend. The four of us could share one cabin with two loft beds that were pretty comfortable. Against all expectations we were able to sleep almost just as if we were spending the night at some kind of hotel. An hour before our arrival we got woken up by nice Chinese music, the light got switched on and people started to get ready. After that good night of sleep we were well prepared to explore the city so that we decided to just take a shower in the hotel, drop off the luggage and start walking the streets of China’s capital right away. For the first day we had planned to meet up with our friends in Beijing and wanted to visit the Forbidden City that is known as a former palace of the emperor which the public wasn’t allowed to enter until 1920. Frauke and Nora did a good job guiding us through the city with its different places, gates and buildings of which most were named or at least contained the word harmony in some way. After about three hours of strolling through the different parts we were ready to leave and climb the “Kohlehügel” from where we had a great view on the Forbidden City and on Beijing. It was nice to have been to this highlight of Beijing but it wasn’t very impressive to me. Maybe my expectations beforehand were a bit too high but what I really did enjoy is the view on it in the end. After this side trip to the top my mum and I walked through the surrounding streets of the Forbidden City, visited Tiananmen Square, some old parts of the city with antique and artists’ stores and we had dinner at really fancy Buddhist Vegetarian Restaurant. As we knew that air quality in Beijing is very bad so that many days are foggy we checked the weather that night to find the best time to visit the Great Wall and decided that it should be the next day. 

We got up early in the morning and were almost the first ones at the breakfast buffet in our hotel, where I had the best breakfast in a very long time. After strengthening for the day we took the metro, then a bus and taxi to get to the Great Wall where we arrived about 2,5 hours later. In Beijing there seems to be a lot more traffic than in Shanghai so that we were mostly stuck in some traffic jam on the way there. The part of the Great Wall that we went to is called Mutianyu, about 70 km north east of Beijing. We could take a cable car on the way up and a coastal slide to go down in the end. We were really lucky that the weather turned out to be as great as forecasted, so that we spend about three hours walking on the Wall, taking great pictures and enjoying the view on the beautiful trees that had started to change colors. I’m sure that this must have been one of the best times during the year to visit the Great Wall as the trees made the whole scenery especially beautiful.  

On our third day in Beijing we visited of the so-called Summer Palace, which was build 1750 and rebuild several times since then. When we got off the metro station that was closest to the entrance I asked two Chinese guys for the right direction. They also happened to be on their way to the Palace and told us to just follow them. At first they didn’t talk a lot and we weren’t sure if they had really understood what I had asked them for but after only a few minutes we were standing in front of the entrance, the two guys bought water bottles for all of us, they helped us to buy tickets and somehow we ended up spending almost half of that day together. Due to a lot of smog we were not able to see as much and take as many nice pictures as we were hoping for. But instead we had gotten to know these very nice Chinese with who I could practice a little bit of their language and they also seemed to enjoy speaking English and asking questions about Germany. It is not easy to get in touch with locals, especially because of the language barrier so that I am very happy that I got to know Tim and Joseph. In the afternoon my mum and I took the metro to a newer part of the capital, where we went to a shopping center and visited “The Place” with its big impressive LED screen where we looked at different pictures and also saw some kind of short movie in the evening, which summarized the development of life on earth. For dinner we tried Hotpot with coconut and satay, which is somehow similar to Fondue. Typically there is a pot at the center of the table, there are different ingredients like vegetables, meat or fish that can be ordered and those are placed in the boiling pot so that the food can be cooked right at the table. 

On our fourth and last day in the capital of China we visited the Hutongs, which are narrow streets with traditional residential buildings that are commonly associated with northern Chinese cities such as Beijing. After walking those streets and looking at different stores, we used the rest of our remaining time to take a Rikscha through the area. We had actually already seen everything that we wanted to and realized that three days would also have been enough in Beijing so that we were ready to get back to Shanghai. Still we were lucky that our flight was scheduled for the evening since our metro station closest to the hotel was the one at Tiananmen Square where the car accident or attack happened that afternoon. If we would have left from there an hour earlier than we had planned to we might have been one of those people who got injured that day so we really were very lucky and decided to take a taxi to the airport instead. I was happy to be back in Shanghai that evening, but my mum and me actually only stayed there for one day and went on another short trip to Hangzhou, which I will write about next time. 

November 04, 2013

My mum and aunt in Shanghai

It’s about time for some input after two great weeks that I got to spend with my mum and aunt. On October 19th they both arrived in Shanghai and I couldn’t wait to welcome them at the airport. Especially my mum was very relieved when she finally arrived. Not only because we go to see each other but also because I had asked her to bring as much German bread, cheese and sweets as possible. Those things are not only hard to get in Shanghai but also very expensive so that it was definitely worth trying to bring them. It all went well and I could eat a German roll right away. After our reunion we decided to take a taxi to avoid those crowded metros to the city. This way the two could already have a look at the outer parts of Shanghai. Their first impression actually wasn’t that good as it all looked very different from what they were expecting. In the outskirts there are lots of high, run down, grey buildings - an area where one gets reminded that there are great differences of living standards within the city. I’m sure that this is true for many places but in Shanghai it seems especially obvious. Luckily this was only one part that my mum and aunt got to see the first day and I promised that their impressions would change until the end of the day.

"The market of lost souls"
Not too happy about the date offers
After a short break in their hotel we started our first tour through the city center and decided to visit People Square and the park behind it which I had actually also not been to. By accident we got to see the so-called market of lost souls that takes part every Saturday. I had already read about this before and was very excited to finally see that spectacle. The park was packed with parents who were trying to find a partner for their son or daughter. For me it’s unbelievable that something like this still exists!!! Hundreds of parents put up
signs with the most important data about their children and try to arrange dates. Their children do not seem to have any say as they are not even there making any choices. From what I have heard and understood on those Chinese signs, the young adults who are supposed to get married are mostly in their mid- or late 20th and have started good carriers which makes it especially hard for women to find an husband as men are only interested in dating if they are in a better or higher position. Generally, I doubt that the young Chinese are that concerned about finding a partner that they send their parents to find one- this is all about tradition and once again it becomes very obvious that there is a great gap between culture and modern life in Shanghai. As we walked through the park everybody seemed to think that I am looking for an husband so the parents started asking for my nationality, age, job etc. I was glad my mum was there to save me when a Chinese man suggested that I should meet their son who he promised is the best looking, and successful guy in town…. Yeah right they all are :P

Nanjing Road

Then we spend the afternoon walking along Nanjing Road and taking a look at the skyline of Pudong which they both experienced as breath taking as I did when I saw it the first time. At the end of the day it already became clear that the city has many different faces to offer and that there are many things and places to discover.
Even after two months in Shanghai it's always great to the beautiful skyline :)

The next days we did a tour through the old part of Shanghai, visited some modern areas such as Pudong and the French Concession, spend one morning in Tianzifang, an area with cute little stores, cafés and restaurants that is known as an outside art gallery, went on a day trip to Suzhou where different gardens can be visisted and Tongli, a typical canal village. We mainly enjoyed the bus ride to the villages as we were able to see some countryside and small Chinese towns on the way. Suzhou did not have much to offer and I don’t understand why its gardens are a world heritage. Therefore the first part of our tour that day was a bit disappointing. I liked Tongli a lot better. It’s not that touristic and worth a visit, yet the villages that I had already seen in the South of China seemed more interesting and more original… Besides looking at different places my mum, aunt and I also did some shopping and went to the fake market to buy souveniers for the rest of the family back in Germany. I really enjoyed showing them around. It was a fun girls trip and my highlight of every day was going out for a very nice dinner in the evenings. We usually try to eat as cheap as possible in Shanghai, buy food on the streets or order typical dishes with rice. By the time my mum got here I was more than ready for a change in food matters. So we chose somethig different every night, tried some good typical Chinese, Thai, Indian, Spanish and always had a nice location with great views on the city.
It was very interesting to observe what my mum and aunt perceived as being exciting, different or also strange. The most striking thing for them was how the Chinese in Shanghai dress. They always talked about how the Chinese combine so many different colours, wear glasses that just consist of a frame or even walk around in their pyjamas on the main shopping roads. Secondly they were shocked about some habits such as the spitting on the streets. And they also experienced it as being very difficult to find people who speak or understand English. In those nice restaurants that we went to in the evenings every European would expect good service which we could only find in one or two cases as nobody understood our orders unless there were pictures on the menues and we could just point on what we wanted to eat. To me it seemed like they were culturally a bit more shocked than I was when we arrived in China, which shows that we got very well prepared beforehand.... After a fun week together in Shanghai my aunt flew back home while my mum stayed for another week, in which we did a trip to Beijing, the Great Wall and Hangzhou. I will soon write about those experiences as well :)

Oktober 04, 2013

Our journey to the state of Guangxi

Our trip started at 5 in the morning last week on Wednesday. We took a taxi to the airport and got on the plane for about 2,5 h to get to Guilin. At our reserved hostel we met Frauke and Nora, two German friends from Paderborn, who are participating in the same program and spend their semester in Beijing. We were very excited to see each other again after the first couple of weeks in China and exchanged experiences for a while before we left the hostel. For the first day we had planned to explore Guilin, but for Susanne and me it ended up being a desperate search for something warm to wear. So far it had been around 30 degrees in Shanghai and we didn’t expect it to be any colder in the South. But unfortunately it was very windy that day and since we had planned to climb the rice terraces the next day, we decided to buy some warm sweaters. This took much longer than we thought as the Chinese fashion is a lot different from what we like to shop for which made it very difficult to make up our minds. At least I own a pullover now that will always remind me of the Chinese style :) Because of our shopping tour we didn't get to see a lot of Guilin as we stayed on the main shopping street all day. But we were still happy in the evening when we sat in the hostel with our warm, comfortable sweaters and enjoyed some very delicious pancakes with the rest of our group.
Our travel crew (Nora, Susu, Frauke, me)

The next day started with a three hour bus ride to the village of Longsheng. Once we arrived, there were already some local women waiting to carry up our luggage. At that point we didn’t know how many stairs we would have to overcome again and we also didn’t know that we would have to walk uphill for one hour to get to our hostel… we actually didn’t bring that much luggage, but a backpack instead of a suitcase would have been very helpful (2nd lesson we have learned on this trip :)).
After we had tried to stay strong for the first part of the distance and after continuously trying to tell the local  women that we would be able to carry our own stuff, we were determined to make it all the way to the top. But those women were clever. They followed us the whole time in the hope that we would give up at some point… and I must admit I did think about it several times ;) When we finally reached the top, the great view recompensed all the effort. It all would have been perfect if it had been a bit warmer, but it still was a great and stunning experience to finally see how people grow rice there and how they live in the middle of the terraces. We used the rest of the day to explore the area and to take some pictures of that beautiful countryside. 

We spend the night in a hostel in Dazhai Village in the middle of the rice terraces. The accomodation looked like a cozy cabin and a nice place to stay at until we saw the facilities and discovered some cardboard on the walls that was used in some corners of our room which would explain why it was terribly cold in that place. We tried to take it with humor, ordered something warm to drink before going to bed, and just slept with all of our clothes on. It was very foggy when we got up the next morning so that we weren't able to see more of the beautiful countryside as we were hoping for. After breakfast we headed back down with all of our luggage again but this time we decided to ask the local women for help... they were actually already standing infront of our hostel while we had breakfast and waited for their next opportunity to earn some money. After they had annoyed us all the way up the day before we were now thankful to meet them again.
Back in Longsheng at the bottom of the rice terraces we took the bus to Guilin again, where a Chinese man was already waiting to drive us to our next highlight of this trip. About one hour south of Guilin we arrived at the water's edge of Li Jiang River. The river also runs through Guilin, yet we drove to a specific point of the river to take a bamboo boat through the beautiful karst landscape. For 1,5 hours we just sat back, enjoyed the wonderful weather and the great surrounding. At the end of this relaxing ride we got to see that part of the landscape that is also printed on the 20 RMB banknote. Another bus ride that day took us to the city of Yangshuo, where were stayed for the next three days. 

The first day in Yangshuo started with a very nice Western brunch that we couldn't get enough off after having eaten soft rolls, cereals or Chinese noodles for breakfast the weeks before. With all that energy we were ready to go on a first cycling tour through the karst landscape. Our first destination was the so-called dragon bridge which we reached after riding our bikes along the river and through small villages for about two hours. 

When we arrived at the Dragon Bridge we took a break for about an hour, sat down in a small café next to the river, and had something cold to drink. I actually had the best Mango Sorbet ever :) at this point it really felt like being on vacation and not like taking a few days off from our semester abroad in Shanghai. The Dragon Bridge itself wasn't that special, but once again we had a wonderful view on the river and the karst landscape in the background.
Following a suggestion of our Lonely Planet, we decided to go back on the other side of the river which turned out to be a lot more complicated but at the same time adventurous than we were expecting. The street we drove on was more of a gravel walk for which our bikes were not very convenient and then the curve that was supposed to show up after about 20 minutes just didn't appear or we missed it in the end. After around 40 minutes we figured that we were on the wrong track and tried to asked for directions. Although there were some Chinese farmers who were willing to help us we were challeged by the language barrier again. An even bigger issue was that we were driving on the wrong side of the Karst hills and didn't
find a way to get through. When we were almost ready to stop some vehicles to ask them for a ride, we found a small and very bumpy road to the other side with the help of a Chinese lady pointing us in the right direction. Against all expectations we made it back to Yangshuo before it got dark and at the perfect time to go out for dinner. That night we went to my favorite food experience in China so far as we chose a vegetarian restaurant where I could finally find a great variety of choices. It was so yummy that we actually forgot to take pictures ;)

As if our first day of cycling had not been exciting  enough, we decided to go on a second trip the next day.
Our backside was still hurting so we could hardly sit on our bikes but yet it was worth overcoming this little handicap. On the one hand because Frauke had not been able to join us the day before due to a migraine and it was more fun with the whole group and on the other hand there were still some must-see places left that we wanted to visit duirng the cycling tour. Our first stop was the Big Banyan Tree. It really wasn't worth paying entrance for it as I had seen many trees like this in botanical gardens in Australia. Susu and I decided to make the best out of this situation and payed for some Chinese Customes to take fun pictures in them. We don't really know if they had some kind of traditional meaning, but it was lots of fun especially because we were surrounded by many Chinese tourists who were taking pictures of us like crazy and also kept asking for pictures together with us. We enjoyed that feeling of fame for 20 minutes but then it was also nice to take those customes off and just walk around as a normal tourist.
Our next destination was the moon hill. Just like in most other nice places we have been to in China there were stairs (800) that we had to overcome before enjoying a view through that great moon hill window. After this hike we were ready for some lunch and decided to ride our bikes to the next little town which was only about ten minutes away. At first it didn't seem like we would be able to find a restaurant, but then we saw a young man eating some rice with vegetables that looked very good. We tried to ask him where we could get something similar and he pointed to a little place that we would never have entered without his hint. The menu was all in Chinese letters and there were no pictures that we could order from. In the end we followed the waitress in the kitchen and just pointed at all the ingredients for the meal that we got served. We didn't know what to expect but we were lucky. The food was very delicious and I'm sure this was a special experience for the Chinese working in that restaurant as well. The city didn't look like there are ever any tourists that get lost in this place. 

We used the morning of our third day in Yangshuo to go souvenir shopping in all those little stores that may be found in the city center next to lots of bars and nice litlle restaurants with food from lots of different countries. In the evenings there are hundreds of tourists, lights everywhere and you can definitely feel a special holiday air! I really enjoyed our stay in Yangshuo! It is a very touristic town but yet the perfect place for a short and memorable vacation surrounded by one of the most stunning natural spectacles China has to offer. Just as all good things this trip came to an end after six great days in the state of Guangxi and Susanne and I flew back to Shanghai in the evening.