Searching for locations: Old Shanghai, China

The old Shanghai refers to a small area of Shanghai that used to be walled in and remained that way until about 1912 when all but a small section of the wall was demolished.  With the advent of the concessions, Old Shanghai became the administrative center until later when it became a shopping complex.

Now it has many restored historical buildings as well as new buildings in a somewhat traditional style that has become one of Shanghai’s main tourist attractions, housing many shops and restaurants.

The “Old Town” is not exclusively old, as you still have a chance to take in the atmosphere if you wander into the quaint side streets.

But, on first viewing walking down the street towards the complex, I’m not sure I’d go as far as to say this is in reality old Shanghai, except for what appears to be a true representation of it architecturally. 

The buildings, which are shops and restaurants, are set out symmetrically, with streets, alleyways, and squares which may prove that it was specially built for the tourists, and no mechanized traffic.

Anyway…

The buildings are magnificent, and a photographer’s delight, and you’d finish up having hundreds of photos by the time you leave.  All the buildings are exquisite representations of traditional Chinese architecture. 

As for buying stuff, remember if you’re not Chinese you have the sucker tourist stamp on your forehead, so be prepared to walk away if the vendors will not bargain.  

Nothing here is worth the price tag and in our group discounts like from 130 RMB to 50 RMB and from 1 for 1,200 to 2 for 950 RMB are common.

Here common t-shirts that we can get for 3 dollars back home start at 150 RMB which is roughly 35 dollars.  It’s that kind of market.

We end up is a tea room, on the third floor of the meeting point below, and discover all the tour guides sitting around a table counting money, and I have to say it’s the most $50 notes I’ve ever seen in one place.  
It is, we were told, where they discussed ‘strategy’.

Searching for locations: West Lake, Hangzhou, China

West Lake is a freshwater lake in Hangzhou, China. It is divided into five sections by three causeways. There are numerous temples, pagodas, gardens, and artificial islands within the lake.

Measuring 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) in length, 2.8 kilometers (1.7 miles) in width, and 2.3 meters (7.5 feet) in average depth, the lake spreads itself in an area totaling 6.5 square kilometers (2.5 square miles).

The earliest recorded name for West Lake was the “Wu Forest River”, but over time it changed to two distinct names.  One is “Qiantang Lake”, due to the fact that Hangzhou was called “Qiantang” in ancient times.  The other, “West Lake”, due to the lake being west of the city

It’s about to get busy, with a number of activities planned, and the warmth of the day is starting to make an impact.

The tour starts in the car park about a kilometer away, but the moment we left the car park we were getting a taste of the park walking along a tree-lined avenue.

When we cross the road, once again dicing with death with the silent assassins on motor scooters.

We are in the park proper, and it is magnificent, with flowers, mostly at the start hydrangeas and then any number of other trees and shrubs, some carved into other flower shapes like a lotus.

Then there was the lake and the backdrop of bridges and walkways.

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And if you can tune out the background white noise the place would be great for serenity and relaxation.

That, in fact, was how the boat ride panned out, about half an hour or more gliding across the lake in an almost silent boat, by an open window, with the air and the majestic scenery.

No, not that boat, which would be great to have lunch on while cruising, but the boat below:

Not quite in the same class, but all the same, very easy to tune out and soak it in.

It was peaceful, amazingly quiet, on a summery day

A pagoda in the hazy distance, an island we were about to circumnavigate.

Of all the legends, the most touching one is the love story between Bai Suzhen and Xu Xi’an. Bai Suzhen was a white snake spirit and Xu Xi’an was a mortal man.

They fell in love when they first met on a boat on the West Lake, and got married very soon after.

However, the evil monk Fa Hai attempted to separate the couple by imprisoning Xu Xi’an. Bai Suzhen fought against Fa Hai and tried her best to rescue her husband, but she failed and was imprisoned under the Leifeng Pagoda by the lake.

Years later the couple was rescued by Xiao Qing, the sister of Baisuzhen, and from then on, Bai Suzhen and Xu Xi’an lived together happily.

The retelling of the story varied between tour guides, and on the cruise boat, we had two.  Our guide kept to the legend, the other tour guide had a different ending.

Suffice to say it had relevance to the two pagodas on the far side of the lake.

There was a cafe or restaurant on the island, but that was not our lunch destination.

Nor were the buildings further along from where we disembarked.

All in all the whole cruise took about 45 minutes and was an interesting break from the hectic nature of the tour.

Oh yes, and the boat captain had postcards for sale.  We didn’t buy any.

Lunch

At the disembarkation point there was a mall that sold souvenirs and had a few ‘fast food’ shops, and a KFC, not exactly what we came to China for, but it seemed like the only place in town a food cautious Australian could eat at.

And when tried to get in the door, that’s where at least 3 busloads were, if they were not in the local Starbucks.  Apparently, these were the places of first choice wherever we went.

The chicken supply by the time we got to the head of the line amounted to pieces at 22.5 RMB a piece and nuggets.  Everything else had run out, and for me, there were only 5 pieces left.  Good thing there were chips.

And Starbucks with coffee and cheesecake.

At least the setting for what could have been a picnic lunch was idyllic.

Searching for locations: The Silk Factory, Suzhou, China

China is renowned for its exquisite silk, so naturally, a visit to the Silk Spinning Factory is part of today’s tour.

After that, we will be heading downtown to an unspecified location where we’re getting a boat ride, walk through a typical Chinese shopping experience, and coffee at a coffee shop that is doubling as the meeting place, after we soak up the local atmosphere.

The problem with that is that if the entire collective trip a deal tourists take this route then the savvy shopkeepers will jack up their prices tenfold because we’re tourists with money.  It’ll be interesting to see how expensive everything is.

So…

Before we reach the silk factory, we are told that Suzhou is the main silk area of China, and we will be visiting a nearly 100 years old, Suzhou No 1 Silk Mill, established in 1926.  Suzhou has a 4,700-year history of making silk products.  It is located at No. 94, Nanmen Road, Suzhou, Jiangsu, China.

Then we arrive at the Silk Factory, another government-owned establishment with a castiron guarantee of quality and satisfaction.

The look and feel of the doona cover certainly backs up that claim

And the colors and variety is amazing (as is the cost of those exquisite sets)

We get to see the silk cocoon stretched beyond imagination, and see how the silk thread is extracted, then off to the showroom for the sales pitch.

It isn’t a hard sell, and the sheets, doonas, pillows, and pillowcases, are reasonably priced, and come with their own suitcase (for free) so you can take them with you, or free shipping, by slow boat, if you prefer not to take the goods with you.

We opt for the second choice, as there’s no room left in our baggage after packing the Chinese Medicine.

Searching for locations: From Zhengzhou to Suzhou by train, and the Snowy Sea Hotel, Suzhou, China

For the first time on this trip, we encounter problems with Chinese officialdom at the railway station, though we were warned that this might occur.

We had a major problem with the security staff when they pulled everyone over with aerosols and confiscated them. We lost styling mousse, others lost hair spray, and the men, their shaving cream.  But, to her credit, the tour guide did warn us they were stricter here, but her suggestion to be angry they were taking our stuff was probably not the right thing to do.

As with previous train bookings, the Chinese method of placing people in seats didn’t quite manage to keep couples traveling together, together on the train.  It was an odd peculiarity which few of the passengers understood, nor did they conform, swapping seat allocations.

This train ride did not seem the same as the last two and I don’t think we had the same type of high-speed train type that we had for the last two.  The carriages were different, there was only one toilet per carriage, and I don’t think we were going as fast.

But aside from that, we had 753 kilometers to travel with six stops before ours, two of which were very large cities, and then our stop, about four and a half hours later.  With two minutes this time, to get the baggage off the team managed it in 40 seconds, a new record.

After slight disorientation getting off the train, we locate our guide, easily ground by looking for the Trip-A-Deal flag.  From there it’s a matter of getting into our respective groups and finding the bus.

As usual, the trip to the hotel was a long one, but we were traveling through a much brighter, and well lit, city.

As for our guide, we have him from now until the end of the tour.  There are no more train rides, we will be taking the bus from city to city until we reach Shanghai.  Good thing then that the bus is brand new, with that new car smell.  Only issue, no USB charging point.

The Snowy Sea hotel.  

It is finally a joy to get a room that is nothing short of great.  It has a bathroom and thus privacy.

Everyone had to go find a supermarket to purchase replacements for the confiscated items.  Luckily there was a huge supermarket just up from the hotel that had everything but the kitchen sink.

But, unlike where we live, the carpark is more of a scooter park!

It is also a small microcosm of Chinese life for the new more capitalistic oriented Chinese.

The next morning we get some idea of the scope of high-density living, though here, the buildings are not 30 stories tall, but still just as impressive.

These look like the medium density houses, but to the right of these are much larger buildings

The remarkable thing about this is those buildings stretch as far as the eye can see.

Searching for locations: The Erqi Memorial Tower, Zhengzhou, China

A convoluted explanation on the reasons for this memorial came down to it being about the deaths of those involved in the 1923 Erqi strike, though we’re not really sure what the strike was about.

So, after a little research, this is what I found:

The current Erqi Tower was built in 1971 and was, historically, the tallest building in the city. It is a memorial to the Erqi strike and in memory of Lin Xiangqian and other railway workers who went on strike for their rights, which happened on February 7, 1923.

It has 14 floors and is 63 meters high. One of the features of this building is the view from the top, accessed by a spiral staircase, or an elevator, when it’s working (it was not at the time of our visit).

There seems to be an affinity with the number 27 with this building, in that

  • It’s the 27th memorial to be built
  • to commemorate the 27th workers’ strike
  • located in the 27th plaza of Zhengzhou City.

We drive to the middle of the city where we once again find traveling in kamikaze traffic more entertaining than the tourist points

When we get to the drop-off spot, it’s a 10-minute walk to the center square where the tower is located on one side. Getting there we had to pass a choke point of blaring music and people hawking goods, each echoing off the opposite wall to the point where it was deafening. Too much of it would be torture.

But, back to the tower…

It has 14 levels, but no one seemed interested in climbing the 14 or 16 levels to get to the top. The elevator was broken, and after the great wall episode, most of us are heartily sick of stairs.

The center square was quite large but paved in places with white tiles that oddly reflected the heat rather than absorb it. In the sun it was very warm.

Around the outside of two-thirds of the square, and crossing the roads, was an elevated walkway, which if you go from the first shops and around to the other end, you finish up, on the ground level, at Starbucks.

This is the Chinese version and once you get past the language barrier, the mixology range of cold fruity drinks are to die for, especially after all that walking. Mine was a predominantly peach flavor, with some jelly and apricot at the bottom. I was expecting sliced peaches but I prefer and liked the apricot half.

A drink and fruit together was a surprise.

Then it was the walk back to the meeting point and then into the hotel to use the happy house before rejoining the kamikaze traffic.

We are taken then to the train station for the 2:29 to our next destination, Suzhou, the Venice of the East.

Searching for locations: The Henan Museum, Zhengzhou, Henan Province, China

The Henan Museum is one of the oldest museums in China.  In June 1927, General Feng Yuxiang proposed that a museum be built, and it was completed the next year.  n 1961, along with the move of the provincial capital, Henan Museum moved from Kaifeng to Zhengzhou.

It currently holds about 130,000 individual pieces, more of which are mostly cultural relics, bronze vessels of the Shang and Zhou Dynasties, and pottery and porcelain wares of the various dynasties.

Eventually, we arrive at the museum and get off the bus adjacent to a scooter track and despite the efforts of the guide, there’s no stopping them from nearly running us over.

We arrive to find the museum has been moved to a different and somewhat smaller building nearby as the existing, and rather distinctively designed, building is being renovated.

While we are waiting for the tickets to enter, we are given another view of industrial life in that there is nothing that resembles proper health and safety on worksites in this country, and the workers are basically standing on what looks to be a flimsy bamboo ladder with nothing to stop them from falling off.

The museum itself has exhibits dating back a few thousand years and consist of bronze and ceramic items.  One of the highlights was a tortoiseshell with reportedly the oldest know writing ever found.

Other than that it was a series of cooking utensils, a table, and ceramic pots, some in very good condition considering their age.


There were also small sculptures

an array of small figures

and a model of a settlement

20 minutes was long enough.

Searching for locations: The Pagoda Forest, near Zhengzhou City, Henan Province, China

The pagoda forest

After another exhausting walk, by now the heat was beginning to take its toll on everyone, we arrived at the pagoda forest.

A little history first:

The pagoda forest is located west of the Shaolin Temple and the foot of a hill.  As the largest pagoda forest in China, it covers approximately 20,000 square meters and has about 230 pagodas build from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Each pagoda is the tomb of an eminent monk from the Shaolin Temple.  Graceful and exquisite, they belong to different eras and constructed in different styles.  The first pagoda was thought to be built in 791.

It is now a world heritage site.

No, it’s not a forest with trees it’s a collection of over 200 pagodas, each a tribute to a head monk at the temple and it goes back a long time.  The tribute can have one, three, five, or a maximum of seven layers.  The ashes of the individual are buried under the base of the pagoda.

The size, height, and story of the pagoda indicate its accomplishments, prestige, merits, and virtues. Each pagoda was carved with the exact date of construction and brief inscriptions and has its own style with various shapes such as a polygonal, cylindrical, vase, conical and monolithic.

This is one of the more recently constructed pagodas

There are pagodas for eminent foreign monks also in the forest.

From there we get a ride back on the back of a large electric wagon

to the front entrance courtyard where drinks and ice creams can be bought, and a visit to the all-important happy place.

Then it’s back to the hotel.

A photograph from the Inspirational bin – 28

Just what everyone needs in their backyard:  A Gazebo, or a small bandstand!

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Often when we go to different places, it gives us ideas, sometimes ideas beyond what is possible.

I have always wanted a gazebo, perhaps not on the same grand scale as the one above, but one where we can put a BBQ and a few seats, and relax on a sunny afternoon.

Shade, a cool breeze, a cold glass of wine or beer, and the aroma of meat cooking on an open flame.

But…

Reality sets in.  The backyard isn’t big enough, so my dream will stay just that.

But as an idea for a story, I suspect this might be the place where you first met the love of your life in circumstances that become the stuff of legends.

It can definitely be a meeting place, whether to carry on illegal activities, whether it’s after sneaking away to be with someone whom others will not approve, or whether it is many, many years later to reminisce, or to reconnect.

As usual, the possibilities are endless.

Searching for locations: From X’ian to Zhengzhou dong by bullet train, China

Lunch and then off on another high-speed train

We walked another umpteen miles from the exhibition to a Chinese restaurant that is going to serve us Chinese food again with a beer and a rather potent pomegranate wine that has a real kick.  It was definitely value for money at 60 yuan per person.

But perhaps the biggest thrill, if it could be called that, was discovering downstairs, the man who discovered the original pieces of a terracotta soldier when digging a well.  He was signing books bought in the souvenir store, but not those that had been bought elsewhere.

Some of is even got photographed with him.  Fifteen minutes of fame moment?  Maybe.

After lunch, it was off to the station for another high-speed train ride, this time for about two and a half hours, from X’ian to Zhangzhou dong.

It’s the standard high-speed train ride and the usual seat switching because of weird allocation issues, so a little confusion reigns until the train departs at 5:59.

Once we were underway it didn’t take long before we hit the maximum speed

Twenty minutes before arrival, and knowing we only have three minutes to get off everyone is heading for the exit clogging up the passageway.  It wasn’t panic but with the three-minute limit, perhaps organized panic would be a better description.

As it turned out, with all the cases near the door, the moment to door opened one of our group got off, and the other just started putting cases on the platform, and in doing so we were all off in 42 seconds with time to spare.

And this was despite the fact there were about twenty passengers just about up against the door trying to get in.  I don’t think they expected to have cases flying off the train in their direction.

We find our way to the exit and our tour guide Dannie.  It was another long walk to the bus, somewhat shabbier from the previous day, no leg room, no pocket, no USB charging point like the day before.  Disappointing.

On the way from the station to the hotel, the tour guide usually gives us a short spiel on the next day’s activities, but instead, I think we got her life history and a song, delivered in high pitched and rapid Chinglish that was hard to understand.

Not at this hour of the night to an almost exhausted busload of people who’d had enough from the train.  Oh, did I forgot the singing, no, it was an interesting rendition of ‘you are my sunshine’.

The drive was interesting in that it mostly in the dark.  There was no street lighting and in comparison to X’ian which was very bright and cheerful, this was dark and gloomy.

Then close to the hotel our guide said that if we had any problems with the room, she would be in the lobby for half an hour.

That spoke volumes about the hotel they put us in.

Searching for locations: From Beijing to X’ian by bullet train

Beijing West train station.

Beijing west railway station is about eight kilometers from the Forbidden City, located at East Lianhuachi Road, Fengtai District.  Most trains traveling between south central, southwest, northwest, and south China are boarded here.

This place is huge and there are so many people here, perhaps the other half of Beijing’s population that wasn’t in the forbidden city.

Getting into the station looked like it was going to be fraught with danger but the tour guide got us into the right queue and then arranged for a separate scanner for the group to help keep us all together

Then we decided to take the VIP service and got to waiting room no 13, the VIP service waiting room which was full to overflowing.  Everyone today was a VIP.  We got the red hat guy to lead us to a special area away from the crowd.

Actually, it was on the other side of the gate, away from the hoards sitting or standing patiently in the waiting room.  It gave us a chance to get something to eat before the long train ride.

The departure is at 4 pm, the train number was G655, and we were told the trains leave on time.  As it is a high-speed train, stops are far and few between, but we’re lucky, this time, in that we don’t have to count stations to know where to get off.

We’re going to the end of the line.

However, it was interesting to note the stops which, in each case, were brief, and you had to be ready to get off in a hurry.

These stops were Shijiazhuang, Zhengzhou East, Luoyang Longmen, Huashan North, and Weinan North.  At night, you could see the lights of these cities from a distance and were like oases in the middle of a desert.  During the day, the most prominent features were high rise apartment blocks and power stations.

A train ride with a difference

G Trains at Wuhan Railway Station

China’s high-speed trains, also known as bullet or fast trains, can reach a top speed of 350 km/h (217 mph).

Over 2,800 pairs of bullet trains numbered by G, D or C run daily connecting over 550 cities in China and covering 33 of the country’s 34 provinces. Beijing-Shanghai high-speed train link the two megacities 1,318 km (819 mi) away in just 4.5 hours.

By 2019, China keeps the world’s largest high-speed rail (HSR) network with a length totaling over 35,000 km (21,750 mi).

To make the five and a half hours go quicker we keep an eye on the speed which hovers between 290 and 305 kph, and sitting there with our camera waiting for the speed to hit 305 which is a rare occurrence, and then, for 306 and then for 307, which happened when we all took a stroll up to the restaurant car to find there had nothing to eat.

I got a strange flavored drink for 20 yuan.

There was a lady manning a trolley that had some food, and fresh, maybe, fruit on it, and she had a sense of humor if not much English.

We didn’t but anything but the barrel of caramel popcorn looked good.

The good thing was, after hovering around 298, and 299 kph, it finally hit 300.

We get to the end of the line, and there is an announcement in Chinese that we don’t understand and attempts to find out if it is the last station fall on deaf ears, probably more to do with the language barrier than anything else.

Then, suddenly the train conductor, the lady with the red hat, comes and tells us it is, and we have fifteen minutes, so we’re now hurrying to get off.

As the group was are scattered up and down the platform, we all come together and we go down the escalator, and, at the bottom, we see the trip-a-deal flags.

X’ian,and the Xi’an North Railway Station

Xi’an North Railway Station is one of the most important transportation hubs of the Chinese high-speed rail network. It is about 8.7 miles (14 km) from Bell Tower (city center) and is located at the intersection of the Weiyang Road and Wenjing Road in Weiyang District.

This time we have a male guide, Sam, who meets us at the end of the platform after we have disembarked.  We have a few hiccups before we head to the bus.  Some of our travelers are not on his list, but with the other group.  Apparently a trip-a-deal mix-up or miscommunication perhaps.

Then it’s another long walk with bags to the bus.  Good thing its a nicely air-conditioned newish bus, and there’s water, and beer for 10 yuan.  How could you pass up a tsing tao for that price?

Xi’an is a very brightly lit up city at night with wide roads.  It is very welcoming, and a surprise for a city of 10 million out in the middle of China.

As with all hotels, it’s about a 50-minute drive from the railway station and we are all tired by the time we get there.

Tomorrow’s program will be up at 6, on the bus 8.40 and off to the soldiers, 2.00 late lunch, then train station to catch the 4.00 train, that will arrive 2 hours later at the next stop.  A not so late night this time.

The Grand Noble Hotel

Outdoor scene

Grand Noble Hotel Xi’an is located in the most prosperous business district within the ancient city wall in the center of Xi’an.

The Grand Noble Hotel, like the Friendship Hotel, had a very flash foyer with tons of polished marble.  It sent out warning signals, but when we got to our room, we found it to be absolutely stunning.  More room, a large bathroom, air conditioning the works.

Only one small problem, as in Beijing the lighting is inadequate.  Other than that it’s what I would call a five-star hotel.  This one is definitely better than the Friendship Hotel.

In the center of the city, very close to the bell tower, one of the few ancient buildings left in Xi’an.  It is also in the middle of a larger roundabout and had a guard with a machine gun.

Sadly there was no time for city center sightseeing.