Archive | May, 2012

Visits: Hángzhōu

22 May

Whilst Shanghai itself is not that old, it is surrounded by lots of “smaller” towns with a long history. The most famous ones are Sūzhōu and Hángzhōu (pronounced su-joe and hang-joe), which are respectively 30 minutes and an hour’s fast train ride from Shanghai.

When my parents were here, a while ago now (I have been a bit lazy), they felt like escaping from the city environment for something quieter and relaxing. So we headed to Hangzhou, which I was told is very pretty, prettier than Suzhou despite its UNESCO Wold Heritage status.

We thought we’d hire an English speaking guide at the train station to show us around and explain us a thing or two. As soon as we left the platform, we were greeted by lots of people selling their touring services. My speaking and negotiating skills were put to the test. I did well but it still took 35 minutes to get a guide (non-English speaking) and a car just for ourselves. English speakers are difficult to find at the station (I think you’ll have to hire one from a travel agency in Shanghai); also it wasn’t clear that we didn’t want to share a car and finally of course, there was no way we were going to pay 1,000 RMB (80 euros, 100 pounds) per person. So I got it down to 400 RMB for the three of us :D

Totally random: a black cab in Hangzhou!

As for the other posts on my recent visits, here’s my practical piece of advice. Although it can be pricy, I’d advise anyone with limited time in Hangzhou to hire a guide if you don’t want to walk a lot. Once you’re around the historic places, it will be very difficult for you to find a cab to get back to the station or anywhere else in town.

In Hangzhou, most places to see are around the large lake, which is located to the west of town. As everywhere in eastern China, you have to expect company anywhere you are, even if you think it’s a cunning plan to visit Hangzhou on a Friday. For a long time, it was difficult for Chinese people to move inside their own country, because infrastructure were not as developed, people couldn’t afford it but also because it was forbidden or highly regulated. In fact, you still need to give your passport number to be able to buy a train ticket to go anywhere. So they’re now making the best of it and are therefore the first tourists in their country.

Anyhow, despite the crowds, traffic around the lake and the mist, Hangzhou was beautiful and very relaxing. It’s very green and there are some mountains in the horizon which remind you that nature survives outside Shanghai. Around the lake are pagodas and houses of historic and learned figures. I’m sadly unable to give much details. I just know that Hangzhou was the capital of the Wuyue Kingdom during the 10th century. During this short time, the arts flourished and so did Buddhism, leaving us with the pagodas. Hangzhou is also known for having an Arab community, which settled in the 12th and 13th centuries when the city was an important sea trading post. Ibn Battuta visited the city in 1345 and praised its beautiful lake.

A lot of more private resorts, like the one at Mogan Shan, developed lately, catering for really quiet and relaxing weekends away from the crowds. So there’s definitely a lot more to do in Hangzhou, you just have to dedicate more than one afternoon. More on that next time hopefully…

Visits: Běijīng

6 May

When my parents confirmed they were coming to visit, I immediately asked them whether they would like to go to Beijing. I probably have some affection for the Chinese capital because it’s the first (and only) place I went to when I visited China for the first time. I was so excited to be there and have such good memories of it that I sort of kept the enthusiasm for it. Also, to be fair, it would be a pity for anyone to come to China on holiday and not visit Beijing. It’s filled with absolutely grandiose historic places, the sort you will only find in a few places on earth like the Pyramids or Luxor in Egypt or Versailles in France.

I won’t go over every single visit we did, because I can’t describe them and you’ll need to go and see it for yourself one day. I’ll just say it’s impressive and fascinating even though the pictures below probably don’t do these places justice.

Part of the Summer Palace

Brides by the annex of the Forbidden City

The Great Wall

Apart from the abundance and monumentality of historic places, the trip was interesting because it made me realise how different Beijing and Shanghai are. Some differences couldn’t be more obvious but there’s more than meets the eye. As a city, Beijing is monumental in every single way. Not just because of its historic monuments, but the scale of everything is just not human and reminds you of the power game that’s always existed between China and other countries. China’s got land, people and can mobilise both, don’t you ever forget it. Beijing is there to remind you of that. Tiananmen Square is massive, the roads are gigantic and difficult to cross and the basic unit of distance is certainly not the meter but the kilometre. My father chose a hotel which was central and therefore close to the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the lakes Houhai and Beihai. We thought we’d go for a quick afternoon walk on the day we arrived. We walked for about an hour and even I got fed up and decided we’d take a cab to get to Lake Houhai. It makes Shanghai, which is a bigger city (23 million vs. 16 for Beijing) feel very human. In spite of its flaws, it certainly is more pedestrian-friendly. Here are two pictures but again, it’s really difficult to give a sense of scale of Beijing within a frame.

Tiananmen Square

The Beijing Opera House

Culturally, oddly enough Beijing is definitely more happening than Shanghai. You would’ve thought that being the seat of power of a controlling regime, artists would go elsewhere. But no, the cultural scene is located here. When I visited in 2004, the 798 Art District was still an underground place, now it’s become a bit too commercialised for my taste, but still has a few good things to see. I’ve read somewhere that there is a sort of ambivalence of the government towards artists. The fact that some Chinese artists are doing so well abroad is a source of marketing (and income) for the country, but at the same time the government doesn’t want it to get out of hand. So there’s both encouragement and restraint.

798 Art District

Installation by Palestinian artist Bashir Makhoul

From an expat’s perspective, I have often found that foreigners who have lived in both cities tend to prefer either Beijing or Shanghai, but rarely like both. Shanghai is definitely a yuppie kind of place, very entrepreneurial, very wealthy, sophisticated and show-off. Beijing, despite its aggressive urban environment and climate (very very dry and very very very polluted), I am told, is a calmer, more settled place. People are warmer and it appears that there is a better integration between Chinese people and foreigners. And those who have lived in Beijing speak about it with a lot of fondness.

On the way to the airport to fly back to Shanghai, I have to admit that I felt really grateful to have ended up in Shanghai rather than Beijing. The pollution and traffic really got to me after four days only. I am nonetheless very curious. Next time I visit Beijing, it’ll be to get a resident’s perspective and understand what it is that makes this city so endearing.

Six months on…

1 May

and I’m still jobless (yekhk) but when I think about our state of mind six months ago, things are actually positively interesting. We’ve been around a lot of places in Shanghai and, although we still need to discover many more, we generally know what people talk about when they mention different spots around town or street names. Linguistically, not wanting to brag out too much, but my Mandarin is quite satisfactory. I manage fairly well on the street, in most shops or taxi situations and, most importantly, to negotiate prices. Script-wise, I may know less than 150 characters (I have to double that by July 22nd for my second exam), but six months ago, had anyone told me that within this short period of time I’d be able to have basic text message conversations in Chinese, I would’ve never thought it possible.

It’s interesting to look back. Five days after arriving to Shanghai in November, we were invited by one of J’s friends, a Lebanese who has been here seven years now. We had just moved into our flat, done a thousand things on that day and were really exhausted. That evening, we met what is probably the majority of the Lebanese community in Shanghai. Leaving the party, we felt a bit depressed seeing how comfortable these people were in this city, how well they spoke Chinese and all the things they knew and we didn’t. And, mostly, we thought they were kind of crazy anyway coming to China and settling here, some at a really young age… For about two weeks after getting here, when I walked on the street and spotted other foreigners, my eyes widened up as if I was looking for some sort of solidarity on their behalf just for being here too. Most of the time, they passed by without looking at me.

Today, after having had family and friends coming over and meeting two days ago with other Lebanese people visiting Shanghai, I feel I’m part of a sect. I can spot foreigners who have just arrived to China, their eyes open wide when they see me. I smile compassionately. With other lǎowàis*, we have the same codes, exchange tips on where to find this or that type of food we miss, are always amazed at the Avocado Lady’s stock, make sense of the lùs**, who employs an āyi***, who’s the best tailor at the fabric market, what VPN**** is better to access Facebook or You Tube or all normally censored websites and how many devices you can connect it to… and even mimic taxi drivers!

To top it all, we finally organised our overdue housewarming party yesterday. It also happens to be my birthday today and it’s heart-warming to be surrounded by about 15 people we didn’t know at all six months ago, some of whom I hope will stay lifelong friends.

* lǎowàis: respectful word for foreigner

** lù: road in Mandarin

*** āyi: aunt, auntie, but also meaning cleaning lady

**** VPN: virtual private network, usually accessible at a monthly or yearly fee. It’s basically as if you’re using the Internet from the US or another network from non-censored country. We use VPNExpress.

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