Saturday, April 28, 2012

China 2 - off to Shanghai

After a few days in Beijing I needed to head south to Shanghai. Rather than flying I decided to take a train so that I'd get to see something of the country. I love train travel anyway; the fact that you just turn up a few minutes before you're scheduled to leave and literally walk on and walk off is so much more appealing than waiting around for hours at airports. Plus trains are usually more reliable and comfortable. The high speed train to Shanghai travels at up to 300 km/hour and reaches it's destination in less than five hours. The adventure started with the taxi ride to the station...if you've never been to China just imagine you are in one of those Bumper Car rides at a fun fair, with the only rules being you've got to stop just before you actually smack into the car in front and it's compulsory to keep one hand firmly pressed on the horn at all times. I eventually made a conscious decision to just not watch where we were going any more because I was convinced we would never arrive in one piece.
Once at Beijing South train station however I was hugely impressed. It's as big as an airport, super modern and easy to navigate. Check in is similar to an airport with all luggage x-rayed, and only ticket holders can access the gates to the platforms (Europe could learn from this!), where we were greeted by chic hostesses and stewards. The high speed trains are super modern and stylish, a first class ticket is still cheaper than flying and if I lived there, I'd never get on a plane again!

It seemed to take forever just to get out of Beijing...that city is truly enormous. In fact it's one of the most populous cities in the world with close to 20 MILLION people living there. Makes you feel a little claustrophobic just thinking about that many people in one place, right?
Gradually the dry brown planes and windswept subsistence farms of the province gave way to signs of spring. Green grass shoots started to appear as we headed south and about two hours out of Shanghai we started passing through hills and even some low mountains. Then suddenly we were passing through the outskirts of a city...and arriving.
Now I know it seems obvious to say it, but Shanghai is really, really big. I hadn't realized beforehand that it's the largest city in China with...wait for it....23 MILLION residents. In fact I'd kind of been looking forward to a slightly larger Singapore, I suppose. Wrong. Shanghai may have a reasonable ex-pat population but there the similarity more or less ends. This is hard-core Asia whereas Singapore is Asia-lite. One of the biggest hassles? You can't just jump in a taxi and go anywhere unless you speak Mandarin. Almost no-one speaks English except for tourist places. If you go anywhere, you have to make sure you get a friendly local to write down in Chinese characters the name and address of any place you need to visit including your hotel so you can get back again. It felt weird to climb in a taxi, say hello, then point to a piece of paper and hope like hell you arrived where you were hoping to go. However it was all part of the fun and I was determined to squeeze in as much as I could during my time there.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

China - Part 1, Beijing

This has been a busy month for travel as I spent a week in China, recovered for a few days than popped down to Italy for a quick visit. It's all to do with work and I won't bore you with the details, but the good part is that I got to spend a little time being a tourist and having a look around.
I'd never been to China before so was really looking forward to the experience. I started off in Beijing, visiting a nuclear energy conference which was held at the National Conference Centre, inside Olympic Park. It was kind of strange seeing the famous Birds Nest Stadium, the torch  and the Water Cube, which were such iconic features of the last Olympics.
However the day I arrived I headed into Beijing city with my collague. Figuring we were going to be jetlagged anyway having missed a night of sleep we may as well just keep going and get to see something, we braved a Beijing taxi and walked around the Forbidden City, People's Palace and Tiananmen Square.

" I stand out here?"
My caption of choice for the photo above would be 'spot the tourist'.  Kay and I were literally the only pale skinned blonds in a crowd of thousands. It was the week of China's most important public holiday, Tomb Sweeping, kind of an All Souls day. Tens of thousands of locals take the opportunity to play at being the tourist and visit spots of national importance. The crowds were horrendous. Mao's tomb (above) was hugely popular and at one stage we found ourselves literally shuffling shoulder-to-shoulder through a long pedestrian tunnel which funnelled us into an ever-narrower press of humanity. Just when we felt things were starting to get a bit hairy the crowd in front of us suddenly turned around and started pressing back! The doors had been shut at the far end so we had to make our way out the way we'd come. Fortunately there was no panic and we all eventually spilled back out into the large square but it was an uncomfortable sensation accentuated by the fact that there were soliders and police everywhere, both among the crowd and watching from the edges. Apparently there had been talk of protests being staged on China's social networking sites the week before, so the government had shut down Facebook, Twitter, and all the Chinese equivalents. Locals later told me that as a result probably a fifth of the crowd in Beijing was undercover police/military but fortunately we didn't have any problems.

I was looking forward to seeing the famous Tiananmen Square (above), although it would have been more impressive if it didn't have six lanes of traffic whizzing over it! I never realized that it's used as a major thoroughfare in the city. 

Beijing is an unusual city, very business like and despite China now being relatively open to foreigners most of this capital city was surprisingly untouched by Western influence.It was only early spring so it was quite cold and bare of greenery, which exacerbated the problem the city has with dust being blown in from the Gobi desert. Deforestaton is making this problem worse every year, and as one fellow conference delegate said, it's the only city he's been to where he wants to shower three times a day. In the evening we found a small local restaurant and using sign language and a menu which thankfully included photos we ordered some delicious dishes of celery and lily buds, prawns, and garlic kai lan. It was great to be eating real Asian food again! 

Saturday, April 14, 2012


This has to be the ultimate recycling plan...I pull the weeds out of the garden, the bunnies eat them, then they fertilize the lawn! Punky Muffin and Dumpling are grateful for every bit of greenery at the moment as the lawn is practically a desert. This winter we had almost no snow so the grass was uncharacteristically exposed for the entire time. This meant the bunnies chewed it back down to the roots and beyond. Hence the wire netting in the background; I've put down grass seed and am trying to get it to grow, although the chilly nights aren't helping at all.

After a winter with no greenery they've become used to me going out several times a day with andive leaves, broccolli stems, apple, bits of banana...basically anything I can give them for a bit of variety to pellets and hay. It's reached the point where as soon as the kitchen door opens they line up and start demanding their snack. At least I can cultivate the dandilions for free!