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Visits: Hong Kong

13 Jan

A little over two months ago, we went to Hong Kong for the first time. One of our best friends, R., was there for work and, given that she had already visited Shanghai last year (and inaugurated our first flat with us), we thought we’d make the trip this time.

I had heard a lot of great things about Hong Kong from friends in London but the most enthusiastic ones, by far, certainly are our fellow Shanghainese residents. They praised Honk Kong’s shopping offer like it was paradise and spoke a lot about some small streets with independent shops and art galleries. Following their advice, we went to these places but not being a big fan of malls or a shopaholic (mind you I do have occasional shopping sprees), I actually was quite disappointed by all of this.

As my father said to me, I may be a bit blasée. Having spent 10 years in Europe, it might be true. By contrast, our friends in Shanghai, who have spent many years in mainland China, do crave that European feel which is after all closer to our cultural background, whether we come from Europe or the Middle East. I thought about it again and actually realised that I liked Hong Kong, just not for the reasons everybody in Shanghai seem to worship it. Here is why.

First, I absolutely loved the view of both the sea and high mountains in the backdrop of the city and its skyscrapers. I cannot stress this enough. I think coming from Beirut, the visual connection with the mountains from probably anywhere on the coast and the sense of altitude and topography is very important to us. So Hong Kong reminded me of that. I was always annoyed at the flatness of Paris and London and now of Shanghai. You can’t see beyond the buildings, this eternal flatness can feel claustrophobic…

Going from Kowloon to Hong Kong island

View of Hong Kong island with the mountains in the back

Quick and very retro ferry ride

Quick and very retro ferry ride

Second and still in connection with those mountains, their dense and lush vegetation holds the promise of nature beyond and it just makes you want to cross them and see what’s out there. We met with a Lebanese friend who has been living in Hong Kong for 7 or 8 years and who doesn’t intend to go anywhere else. She confirmed to me that 70% of Hong Kong’s territory is nature and there are great treks to be made through the mountains and jungle to reach beautiful small creeks with lovely beaches and a shack serving fresh seafood and fish. It sounds lovely to have this so easily accessible, instead of having to plan a trip out of it. That’s when I felt quite jealous…

Third, I thought the urban experience of Hong Kong was such a weird trip. The city is extremely dense, particularly on the island of Hong Kong, and it feels like every square centimetre has been exploited. It’s a mix of New York, Asia and London, with the double-deckers and the driving on the left side of the road.

A bit of New York

A bit of New York

A bit of London

A bit of London

Asia

Asia

The local Leicester Square

The local equivalent of Leicester Square

A bit of British debauchery

A bit of British debauchery

Also, because of its density, roads are very narrow and in a considerable part of the centre, pedestrian mobility is ensured by seemingly endless elevated walkways, totally segregated from the street. Even if we were fairly efficient in terms of our route (J. and I are very good at reading maps and directing ourselves), we still had to go through malls to carry on and get where we wanted. We were eventually able to reach ground and street level to get to another segregated outdoor path to reach the tram station, which takes you to the Peak, where you can enjoy a plunging view of the city.

Starting on the elevated walkway

Starting on the elevated walkway

Looking at the street level

Looking at the street level

Carrying on

Carrying on

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Walking to the Peak tram station

Walking to the Peak tram station

On the tram

On the tram after about 30 minutes queuing

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Fourth, J. and I thought the Kowloon part on the other side of Honk Kong island was actually quite nice. Yes, it is more local but it has its charm and, in spite of the crowds, it feels more spacious and human, less utopian. Less walk-ways everywhere around. If you have dinner on top of any sky-scrapers there, you’ll have an amazing view of the other side. But there are also little gems to be discovered, such as the world’s most affordable 1 star Michelin restaurant, which, much to my disappointed, we couldn’t enjoy as we got there too late and the queue was too long for me not to miss my plane back.

Dinner at Hutong on Kownloon

Dinner at Hutong in Kowloon

Strolling in Kownloon

Strolling in Kowloon

Tim Ho Wan - cheapest 1 star Michelin in the world

Tim Ho Wan – cheapest 1 star Michelin in the world

So here we are. Hong Kong: been there, done that. Off the check-list. I’m not saying that there isn’t a whole lot more to discover or that it’s not interesting. But given how much of Asia and the Far East we still have to discover, I’d rather use my money to go to a new destination.

Visits – Sānyà

1 Sep

In July, after enduring much heat and, for J., much humiliation (Cf this post), we headed to the beach. Although Shànghǎi, again which literally means “above the sea”, is on the sea, we never saw any of it, except perhaps from the plane shortly after taking off or before landing.

Sānyà was very nice. Perfect beach, lovely sea. It’s a city on the island of Hǎinán, located to the south of China, just across Vietnam. Sānyà is on the sounthern tip of the island. We were very well advised by our friend and neighbour C., who had been there many many times. She told us not to bother doing any research and to go Yalong Bay, where the most beautiful beach of Hǎinán is and, out of the many hotels there, to head to the Mangrove Tree Resort. We did exactly as told and had a perfect time lazying in the sun and… observing middle class Chinese by the beach.

Their behaviour is really contradictory! On one hand, most Asian people are known not to like being exposed to the sun. Being sun tanned is associated with working in the fields, which is in turn associated with the countryside and poverty. You will see many people in Shànghǎi walking with an umbrella on a sunny day. On the other, more and more middle class people are heading to the beach, in Sānyà and elsewhere in Asia, for their holidays, even though a fairly significant proportion of them (including people in their 30s) do not know how to swim. I can’t give a definite explanation to this rush to the seaside. But I suspect it may be a fashion imported from Europe (where it was also once frowned upon to be tanned). The fact that paid holidays are a very recent introduction to labour laws (initiated only in 1999 to boost domestic tourism) probably contributes to this too. Some of you may have seen pictures like the one below.

Thankfully Sānyà wasn’t like this at all. The beach, on a weekend in July, was practically empty, while the hotel was fully booked with 99% of customers being Chinese. Those few Chinese who ventured to the beach did so with a lot of caution. A lot of them came fully dressed, maybe just to have a peak, considering that was enough to enjoy the sea. A whole other lot of them were in swimming suits and still used umbrellas to walk from their chaise longue to the water, perhaps even into the water. And some of them wore funky gear. Others were slightly more adventurous.

Breakfast time

The beach!

Those girls took pictures of one another under the umbrella, in the sea, with the view, etc.

Could she swim at all?

The adventurous ones

It has been proven that sun exposure can be quite harmful and I have stopped over exposing myself a long time ago. Maybe it’s just a slow process to be able to fully start lazying around nearly naked by the sea. At the moment, Chinese people appear to be still too flustered and excited about seaside holiday to fully relax on their chaises longues.

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.

Visits: Nánjīng

17 Apr

Until early April, the only places I had been to in China were Beijing (and surrounding tourist sites: the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs) and Shanghai. It looks like spring is the season of bank holidays in China too, gracing those who work with long weekends and making my weekdays a bit less lonesome.

With some friends, we decided to go explore Nanjing which is about an hour and a half to the northeast of Shanghai. We woke up early and headed there with the fast train that goes all the way to Beijing. According to our research and guides, there are few things to see in Nanjing. After all, it was the southern capital* for a few centuries and dynasties. The trip was all in all very interesting but unfortunately not for the reasons we had anticipated.

Various sources will point you to a few places. Although we haven’t visited all of them, if you should go to one, it is the Ming Tombs. Yes as in Beijing, Nanjing’s got its own version of it. In many ways, they are similar to those outside Beijing, only perhaps smaller. But the site is beautiful, especially with all the plum trees in full bloom (which entitled us to a discount on entry tickets – plum tree festival or something), the buildings are impressive and the promenade from one tomb to the other very pleasant. Like for many historic sites in China, there is no available explanation on the site and you have to put up with aberrant things like a kids’ entertainment park within the premises of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But hey, it’s China and compared to what we saw before, it isn’t such an eyesore.

At the Ming Tombs

Golden tiles, colour of the emperors

That’s for the must. What you should by all means avoid is the Purple Mountain. It may have been an important site at some point, but now it’s just an attraction park for Nanjing’s inhabitants to escape the city and picnic or play cards. Thankfully, we took the cable car all the way to the top and back down (our initial plan was to walk) and then strolled from absurdity to absurdity, i.e. bad modern structures and sculptures supposedly spiritual or reminiscent of important people. The only thing we got out of it was probably some fresh air for our soiled Shanghai dwellers’ lungs.

At the Purple Mountain

The ex-neo White Cloud...

Back in town, the Linggu Temple is not really worth your while. It now feels more like a roundabout than a Buddhist Temple set in a park. Clearly we didn’t have the time to see everything, there are a few museums and other spots to check out.

That’s for the bad stuff. I’m not trying to undermine Nanjing or its heritage, but I can’t help complain about creating fake heritage sites and not emphasising properly (through information or design) those sites that are of true importance.

Now what I found of real interest is that Nanjing is actually a lively and pleasant city. At the moment, it has “only” 8 million inhabitants but clearly the authorities are foreseeing massive expansion of urban areas. We arrived at the southern train station which is in the middle of nowhere. However, it is surrounded by construction sites and I’m sure in a couple of years or so a whole neighbourhood will have emerged out of the ground. Another thing about the station, it is ABSOLUTELY MASSIVE. It must be the size of two football pitches. You could organise the Athletics Championship in that station.

The arrival hall at the station

The pick-up area

Heading back to Shanghai

The departure hall

Access to the platform

Also the fast train’s tracks to Nanjing are elevated along the whole journey. It makes you realise that the level of investment in infrastructure from the government is phenomenal. I guess that’s where most of the money is going, along with defence, given that taxpayers pay high taxes but don’t really benefit from any social or economic security.

* nán = south, jīng= capital; běi = north … Běijīng = northern capital

Visits: 2010 Expo Site / Shibo Gōngyuan

12 Apr

I don’t know who reads this blog, besides my friends and family, but if there are any foreign residents of Shanghai or prospective visitors, this may be of interest to you. I’ve recently had two friends and my parents visiting and, with the lovely weather and warm temperatures back, I’ve started venturing around town again and beyond. This post and the next ones are about the places I’ve been to but also provide useful advice as to how not to waste your time.

Here’s my advice: if you don’t want to waste your time, do not go to the Shanghai 2010 World Exhibition Site (or Shibo Gōngyuan, i.e. park in Chinese). Really do not bother. Although I was very eager to see it, I felt a little bit suspicious about the whole expedition when I couldn’t find any clear information on the net or in any guidebooks about the site, what is still out there, if it is open to the public or freely accessible. To answer, to the exception of the China Pavilion – which is a beautiful and impressive building but one you can’t visit unless there is some event taking place- there’s the “Expo Axis” (also not accessible) and the rest is largely a wasteland. You have to walk a lot with a few other stranded tourists and equally stranded souvenir sellers only to end up in the “Mercedes-Benz Arena” mall, containing an ice rink, a few restaurants and a cinema but largely empty on a Monday morning. It does however offer a 360 degree viewing platform on the 6th floor, which confirms that there is not much to see in spite of our perseverance. Amongst the few still erect structures are: the apparently much spoken about and quite popular Saudi Arabia Pavilion known as the Moon Boat (I personally failed to see the interest of this building from outside at least) and the non-descript Qatar Pavilion and another Saudi building.

See for yourselves…

The China Pavilion - by architect He Jingtang also director of the Architectural Academy of the South China University of Technology

There are 56 beams, representing the 56 ethnic groups of China

The Expo Axis

Looking north

Looking west, with the Moon Boat

Looking southwest, with a pavilion being dismantled and the Chinese pavilion

The Qatari Pavilion and a big dump

After telling our disappointment to a friend and long resident of Shanghai, he told us that he thought the Expo was disappointing when it was ongoing and all the pavilions were above ground. However what he found quite good is the side event about cities. As you may know the theme of the Exhibition was “Better city, better life” and there were mini-pavilions about cities and how they are working towards improving the quality of urban life through design, transport, green spaces, sustainability, etc. I don’t know what are the plans for the Expo site, but that’s certainly some food for thought… You can still visit some of those pavilions. They are located across the Expo site, in Puxi. I haven’t been yet and as for the main site, I can’t find any clear information. I will go at some point and hopefully it won’t be a waste of time.

1933

30 Mar

Historic buildings in Shanghai, unless of very high profile like those on the Bund, do not currently have very long life expectancy. The notion of urban regeneration is not really widely practiced here and wholesale redevelopment is generally preferred to re-use or adaptation of the built fabric.

1933 is a welcome and refreshing exception to the current paradigm of Chinese urbanism. It is an ex-slaughterhouse, which has been converted in 2008 by Axon Concepts into a retail venue, with some shops, restaurants, cafés (all of which are independently owned) and a few offices. It is located in northern district of Hóngkǒu.

As its name suggests, the slaughterhouse dates from 1933 and was built by a British architect. Sadly that is as much information I’ve been able to gather from the net and the few books I’ve got about Shanghai and China. The structure is mainly characterised by the use of concrete throughout and by the way it is organised. It consists of originally two fully open buildings, a round one enclosed by a large square one, which are linked by a series of steps (for humans) and ramps (for cattle), which spiral around the structure’s four storeys into a series of bridges between the rotunda and the square, creating amazing views and perspectives. The place is a real Escher-like maze and after visiting it three times, I still get lost but somehow make my way to the roof very smoothly.

Every time I go there, I am amazed by the care put into designing a slaughterhouse (!) and the refinements of the details, such as the “balcony” or passages’ geometric balustrades, the facetted columns (or flowering columns as they are called) or the wrought iron on the windows, which are either original or are faithful replica. The redevelopers have been thoughtful enough to provide some explanation (in both Chinese and English) along the way, but you still feel you need to understand the meta-organisation of the place better. Apart from the segregation between cattle movement and human movement, I still can’t tell where the slaughtering actually took place (logically somewhere on the top floors), then how the meat was channelled and where it was stored and how were the carcasses disposed of.

Funnily enough, I’ve recently seen the movie “Temple Grandin”. Temple Grandin is an American scholar specialised in animal husbandry. She is behind what you could probably call humane slaughtering of animals, i.e. creating stress-free environments for animals before they are slaughtered. Grandin also happens to be autistic and has made use of her condition to understand animals better (she has also written a lot about autism). Visiting 1933, you can clearly see that some of her precepts were applied way before her time, namely through the spiralling internal movement, the sloped ramps and the high barriers, all of which, according to Grandin, replicate the natural moving patterns of cattle and therefore significantly reduces stress. In 1933, they even allowed spaces for animals to rest and feed before they eventually met their fate.

Anti-slippery ramps for cattle

Adjacent neighbourhood

Canal on the other side

The only negative thing I have to say about 1933 is that I am a bit worried it isn’t successful enough. Every time I’ve been there weren’t many people and those who come don’t seem to spend much, however impressed they are by the place. Take me for instance, I’ve only had a cup of tea there. Across the road, there used to be an artist’s residence, which clearly didn’t work out well as it is now only used for private parties. Don’t get me wrong, I very much appreciate being able to enjoy the place without it being over-crowed, but I fear that if it doesn’t pick up it might be stamped with that red character, which I’ve been told translates into “erase”.

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