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A Nanjing Getaway – Part 1

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Sunday 8th November, ~5pm

I’m on a Chinese train on the way back to Shanghai, hopefully arriving in about 40 minutes. It’s been 3 hours so far on the train, where we played a game of Cluedo – which I won (it was Miss. Scarlett in the lounge with the revolver), and thereafter attempted to nap. Before the Cluedo game, a saleswoman was promoting some cucumber-slicing tool, by going around the carriage with a cucumber and peeling/slicing instrument, explaining how to use it and what benefits cucumber has on your skin. (Answer: it whitens it — skin-whitening is a huge thing in China). I guess she got excited when she came to our booth and found not 1, not 2, not 3, not 4, but 5 foreigners; and so when I asked her what exactly it was she was selling, she responded by slicing me a thin ‘layer’ of cucumber, putting it on the back of my hand, and saying “it will make your skin white!”. (Yes! There is hope for me yet!)
She then proceeded to cut some for all of us, while I responded: “but I kinda like my current skin, I don’t wanna make it white…”, to which she chuckled, already halfway down the carriage, and won me turned heads and curious stares from about half of the carriage.

The de-browning process

The de-browning process

 

On Thursday, I arrived in Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province, on a high-speed/bullet train from Shanghai, which took under 90minutes and reached speeds of about 300kmh.

Bullet trains - 300kmh

Bullet trains – 300kmh

I met up with Nafeesah, we didn’t do much sightseeing that day, until nighttime, when we went in search of a night market with a famous reputation online, only to find out after arriving at the location that it had closed down a few years ago. Oops.

Friday, however, was a beautiful, hot day; we visited the famous Purple Mountain Scenic Area (紫金山). The first stop was a shuttle to get to Sun Yat-Sen’s Mausoleum, where we climbed and climbed to reach a not-incredibly-interesting statue of Sun Yat-Sen, but a pretty view, albeit a rather foggy one. The pictures make it look foggier than the reality, though.

Starting point

Starting point

 

First glimpses

First glimpses

 

Halfway up

Halfway up

 

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From the top, looking down

 

There were ladybirds EVERYWHERE; on our backs, arms, faces, heads, shoulders, bags, everywhere. Black with red spots, red with black spots, orange with black spots, all the colours.

Count the ladybirds

After going back down, we bought tickets for the cable car, met a Chinese guy whose English name was ‘Relax’, and who was also visiting the site, so we headed to the cable car area together. After walking through the trees for about 20 minutes, he declared that it was another couple of kilometres, and wasn’t really walkable, so we got in a taxi, made it to the cable car boarding spot and man – it was a scenic ride.
The leaves on the tress were in full Autumn colours: reds, oranges and greens that I thought I wouldn’t be seeing this year!

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We reached the observatory spot, but didn’t realise we were just meant to lift up the metal bar ourselves and let ourselves off, so we continued up to the top of the line, disembarked to admire the view and be attacked by ladybirds left, right and centre, and all of the other 16 directions. We tried to walk up the hill that claimed to lead to the peak, but ended up at a green gate, for military personnel only…. Seems dodgy.

On the cable car down, we jumped off ourselves this time at the only other stop, to visit the Zijinshan Astronomical Observatory (Purple Mountain Observatory). There we saw samples of rocks that had been found around China, as well as other countries, that had come from space. Apparently. I must admit, I wasn’t entirely convinced by most of them, but I guess I wouldn’t know what a piece of the moon looks like up close. I just didn’t expect it to look like a marble tile like this:

On display as a piece of the moon...

A piece of the moon on display…

It was made more ‘believable’ by the prices of some other rock pendants that were on sale for only 50RMB per gram…

Convincing

Astronomical pendants

 

We saw some interesting astronomical instruments, enjoyed the truly beautiful view from the rooftop and decided to ditch the cable car, and walk back down.

This is an armillary sphere. It was used for determining the positions of celestial bodies in ancient China. Don't ask  me how.

This is an armillary sphere. It was used for determining the positions of celestial bodies in ancient China. Don’t ask  me how.

 

And this is a 'gnomon', or so the sign said.

And this is a ‘gnomon’, or so the sign said. The shadows produced supposedly indicate when it’s the solstice.

 

View from the top of the Observatory

View from the top of the Observatory

 

Incredible autumnal colours

Incredible autumnal colours

 

By the time we got down, it was getting dark and we found a bus going back to the city, went to meet a friend at the railway station who was joining for the weekend, grabbed some dinner and headed back to the hostel after an exhausting day.

 

On Saturday morning the weather surprised us; the 12⁰C cold was far from the 25⁰ we’d experienced the previous day, but we continued with our plan to visit Xuanwu Lake, which I absolutely loved. It was so quiet and peaceful inside the park, a welcome break from the bustle and noise of city life.

Xuanwu Lake/Park

Xuanwu Lake/Park

 

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A little bonsai collection

A little bonsai collection

 

Inside the park we saw a man practising Taiqi to his own little music player, and the whole scene just made me feel so peaceful. It was the kind of thing you might imagine China to be like from inaccurate movies etc, which depict everyday life in China as being tea-drinking, Taiqi-practising, country life in beautiful green surroundings.

People's wishes, dreams and prayers hanging on red strips

People’s wishes, dreams and prayers hanging on red strips

Someone representing!

Someone representing!

If it had not been cold and wet, we would probably have gone on those huge hanging swing rides 😀

The lake/park area and the Purple Mountain are places I wouldn’t mind coming back to. After lunch, we went to the Presidential Palace, which was nice enough, but not exactly riveting in my opinion, as I feel like it’s very similar to all other such places I’ve seen before. We had planned to visit the Confucius Temple after the Palace, followed by the famous night market around it, but by the time we were done at the Palace, daylight hours were almost up, so instead we headed straight to dinner and then the night market.

You can never evade the Chinglish

You can never evade the Chinglish

 

Inside the Presidential Palace

Inside the Presidential Palace

 

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Not so secret anymore...

Not so secret anymore…

 

Night market things

Night market things

 

5:45pm – I think we’re almost there so Part 2 will follow soon!

A weekend in Hangzhou

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Monday 26th October, 9:30pm

Last week was pretty busy, and for fear I will forget details of the Hangzhou weekend trip, it’s about time I wrote about it.

We departed Fudan around 6pm, and arrived at the hotel in Halberangzhou soon after 9pm. I met up with Nafeesah who came from Nanjing to join our trip, and we ventured out in search of some dinner. We saw a night market along the way but decided to come back to check it out the following night because we were too hungry. (Story of my life)

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8 kuai fried rice and my free soup makes me a happy girl

After dinner, I enjoyed some of the small, simple pleasures of our hotel, including a hot shower where I didn’t have to see red numbers blaring at me from from a meter on the wall measuring my hot water usage.

On Saturday morning, we drove to the Arts and Crafts Museum, for a workshop on embroidery. We were each given a fan with a simple design already outlined, and instructed on how to begin the embroidering, one by one (and thus a very slow process, given there were ~30 of us and only 3 teachers). I made exceedingly little progress in the short time we were there, but I was not alone.

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Embroidered artwork

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The process

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What I started with…

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What I ended up with…

Just kidding, gullible readers. That was the sample they showed us.

 

We drove to a restaurant near Fei Lai Feng (Flying Peak), where they had an interesting idea of vegetarianism that involved chicken, beef, possibly pork….and when we told the waitress to take one of the many non-veg dishes that were brought to our table to one of the other tables in our party, she looked all confused and went over to ask our teacher/guide, who then looked at us in equal bewilderment, and asked: “Oh, not even beef?!” (牛肉也不可以吗?) NO!

Another interesting thing I noted was how our conversations about restrooms in China go. Someone from our group asked another if the restaurant toilets were Eastern or Western (i.e. squats or seats). She replied “Eastern”, but followed up quickly with “but they’re clean, actually!!”
“Oh yeah? Do they have soap?”
“Yes”, was the reply, “they even have loo roll”.
SCORE.
I kid you not, this was a serious conversation, because, I kid you not, the overwhelming majority of toilets in public locations in China do not provide loo roll, and never ever soap.
Moreover, although most of us are fine with using Eastern toilets, they’re usually just so filthy that you’d rather just wait. -_-

Fei Lai Feng is a peak with rock carvings inside the caves under it. We wandered around on our own, climbed to the peak, swung from all the Tarzan vines that the area was full of, and got told by a Chinese stallowner that Nafeesah and I were sisters. Dude probably needed new glasses.

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Buddha carvings inside the cave

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More mini buddhas

We were also taken to a local teahouse, where we drank authentic Dragon Well Tea (龙井茶 – Longjing tea), and learnt about distinguishing tea grades based on the colour of the tea leaves.
I’m not a fan of Chinese teas, but we were told that each tea is different, and for this particular one, the second and third cup often taste better than the first. I made it to my second cup, but wasn’t impressed enough to go for a third, unfortunately.

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I don’t usually drink my tea with leaves in it…

 

After another vegetarian dinner – a real one this time, we returned to the hotel, and then three of us went to check out the night markets that Hangzhou is famous for.

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Not 100% sure what these character blocks on the ground were, but they looked cool

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Night market things

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Met this cute old couple: the man had started studying English a few months ago and was keen to practice with us. It was adorable.

I was surprised to spot random Islamic sites around the city, implying that Hangzhou must have been a relatively important city back during the Islamic dynasty in China.

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The gated entrance to someone’s tombstones

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Behind the gates

 

On Sunday morning, we were out at 8:30am to go to the famous West Lake, where we took a boat cruise out onto the Lake. According to Chinese legend, this is how the story goes: There was a jade dragon and a golden phoenix in the heavens who were very much in love. The jade dragon gave a pearl to the golden phoenix as a gift one day, which someone else wanted. A fight ensued, and somewhere in the midst of all the kerfuffle of the struggle, the pearl dropped from the heaven, and landed on Earth as the West Lake. Hangzhou’s West Lake is incredibly famous in China, and features on the 1 yuan notes.
Since it was pretty early, the view was pretty foggy, and I felt like we couldn’t appreciate its full beauty.

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9am at the West Lake

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From the West Lake, we drove about 90 minutes out to a water-town called Wuzhen, which is between Hangzhou and Shanghai. We had lunch (which was actually really nice) and were then allowed to roam around the pretty, albeit rather touristy town of Wuzhen.

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Quaint and charming

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The pagoda up close

 

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Saw this gem walking around Wuzhen. Unsure whether it’s meant to read ‘plastic’ or ‘spastic’… or I’m just ignorant to the point of not knowing what ‘psastic’ is

 

Failing to get a good group photo in Wuzhen

Failing to get a good group photo in Wuzhen

We made a quick stop at the Footbinding Museum in Wuzhen, an informative exhibition, and a reminder of just why I hated reading about footbinding. It’s interesting, but so so wrong.

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The process would start when a girl was a few years old so that her feet were ‘malleable’ enough to be forced into shape

 

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It was considered attractive, and it would be near impossible for a woman without bound feet to find a suitor

From there, we boarded the bus again and began our ~2.5 hour drive back to Shanghai, which brought an end to the public-funded trip 🙂

Xinjiang: Urumqi, Day 1

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It’s been a while since I posted. Again. As mentioned in my last post, my laptop has been totally unusable from a few days after final exams finished, then I was off travelling, and then the last week in China was pretty hectic anyway. Yes, I’m now back in London, but I can still say that I was in Beijing last week! That’s something, right?! I arrived back last Friday evening, and… I already miss China. It feels very surreal (still), and I have this feeling like I’m still supposed to be going back. I can’t be staying here, like, permanently now,  can I…?

Don’t get me wrong, London is an amazing place to live and I love it (don’t talk to me about prices, don’t talk to me about prices, don’t talk to me about prices….) but my year abroad in China has been full of so many amazing (and some less so amazing) experiences and I am 100% glad I did it. No regrets whatsoever. More of that later, maybe. But for now, I’m gonna go back almost a month to the 11th of June – the start of my travels to China’s far West: Xinjiang.

During our travels, I wrote the old-fashioned way, on paper – so here goes typing it up and inserting pictures, of which there are many!

Arrival in Urumqi

After landing at the airport in Urumqi, one of the first things I noticed that I thought was pretty cool was seeing signs in Chinese, Uyghur AND English.

Good English, as usual…

We made it onto a shuttle bus into the city, on which the only seats remaining were one right at the back squashed between luggage and the men to which the luggage belonged, and one seat up at the front next to the driver. Coordinating where we should get off wasn’t made any easier this way, shouting across the minibus, earning us stares from the other passengers. Nevertheless, by the time we got off somewhere on the road our hotel was on, both Beth and I already loved the city. Unfortunately, local buses still confused us, after getting on two that didn’t get us to the right place, we took a taxi…which drove about 2 minutes back up the road, and dropped us off opposite our hotel.

After dropping our stuff, we decided to go to one of the city’s main parks which wasn’t too far from us, Hongshan Park (Red mountain park), named for a red pagoda at the top of a hill inside the park. As soon as we left the hotel and made to cross the road, Beth grabbed my arm and shouted “CAKES!” and started pulling me towards a little shop she’d noticed just a couple of doors away from our hotel. Of all the little bakeries and similar places I’ve seen in China (mostly Beijing) this one was by far the best…it could win on one factor alone: It was clean.

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The fact that the cakes/biscuits were tasty and looked delicious was just a bonus 🙂

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We bought a few each, sat down and ate, at which point I counted all the different baked goods on sale and panicked when I reached 30, realising that would mean eating 10 a day if I wanted to try them all before we left Urumqi. Yeah…they were that good.

This little bakery was where we learnt our first word of Uyghur: Thank you – which is pronounced ‘rahmet’.

As we were entering the park, we saw a guy selling yoghurt…and decided to buy some. We realised that if we wanted to keep eating this way, we might as well forget set mealtimes. Who needs mealtimes anyway, when you have so much to choose from all the time… and so little time to actually choose?

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A cooling yoghurt snack/drink

He filled cups with cold yoghurt out of his mobile fridge, added sugar and nuts on top, and only half-smiled when we said ‘rahmet’. But when we asked if he could tell us how to say ‘tasty’ in Uyghur, he smiled more and replied: I don’t know, I’m not Uyghur, I’m Hui.
Oops.

Hongshan Park is lovely: white picket fences, plenty of shady greenery, a bit of a fairground inside, including but not limited to a ferris wheel, from the top of which we had a (clear, unpolluted!!) view of most of the city. From the top of the hill where the pagoda stood, there was this sign on a railing, beyond which was a rocky drop down to the main road…

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Beyond the railing

The sign on the railing

The sign on the railing

I don’t think anyone who wanted to cherish their life would willingly try to cross that road…from up there.

On another part of the railing, there were countless padlocks crammed onto any free space, engraved (scratched, to be more accurate) with the names of friends or couples… Beth correctly pointed out the romance in what the padlocks symbolised in terms of relationships.

After the park, we tried to find the well known International Bazaar because the hotel reception desk had told us that the Wuyi Night Market (famous for its many different food stalls) had closed down, something we  had not come across in our research. We found another small bakery on the way to the bazaar, got caught in a torrential downpour and incredible winds that pretty much forced us back inside the shops, which were selling headscarves and abayas! That’s not what you think of when someone says China, right?

And what about this scene? (The picture doesn’t do it justice, take my word for it: it was beautiful!)

Beautiful scene

Beautiful twilight scene

The stormy weather meant that we found a little underground market, but didn’t find the actual International Bazaar. I went into a mosque to pray, the first time I’d done that in a long time. Trying to avoid the storm meant that it had become quite late by the time we got back to the hotel. Lots of places started closing what we thought was quite early, but maybe this was because of the weather, rather than the time?

By the end of Day 1, or even halfway through the day, Beth and I have both already decided that we are coming back to this city. That’s gotta say something about the place.

Beth’s input
“I want to live here forever. I want to get a padlock and go with my hypothetical boyfriend to lock the padlock onto the railings in Hongshan Park and then go back after I’m married to find it. And therefore I have to live in Urumqi when I’m older!”

Good logic there.

Attempting to describe Urumqi, I’d say it’s definitely much greener than expected, we both expected barren deserts or something, it’s definitely much greener than Beijjng, there are way less people, it’s hilly (Xinjiang is a mountainous region) and the air is fresher! There are less people smoking, less dogs (in fact, I can hardly remember seeing any today), no spitting spotted yet, and there are dessert places! Yum! Urumqi is a city with a totally different look to any of the other Chinese cities I’ve visited.

Nuts, raisins, chocolates – clean and tidy!

A painted electricity box, showing a woman holding Xinjiang’s famous ‘nang’ (naan)

It’s a lovely city with a friendly vibe, beautiful weather, a bustling lifestyle and plenty of small cake shops to satisfy those sweet cravings 🙂

Bakery no. 2!

The start of the Summer holidays

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And so it begins…

The Summer holidays. With which comes the end of my year abroad.

Okay, not quite yet, but the end is in sight!!

My exams (which started on Wednesday) finished on Thursday, bringing me to the end of my academic year abroad. I’m basically finished! Our visas don’t run out until the end of June however, and as mentioned previously, I will be flying to Xinjiang on Tuesday and spend a bit of time travelling in the region. The plan is to spend a few days in the capital city, Urumqi, then take a 2.5hour train to Turpan, a city famous for its grapes, where we’ll stay a couple of days, and finally a 6hour train to Hami, famous for its melons. (‘Hami’ 哈密 is actually the same as the name for honeydew melons – hami gua 哈密瓜). Fruit seems to be a recurring theme, yes. Although we’ve booked hostels, we’ve yet to book our train tickets, because of the system in China, which means that you can only buy your train tickets 10 days before the date. And we didn’t have the time for that before exams.

Xinjiang: Locations of Urumqi, Turpan, and Hami

We’ve also been spending a fair bit of time trying to properly research and plan out our trip. In Urumqi’s vicinity are the Tianshan Mountains, and the Heavenly Lake, which does look rather heavenly in pictures we’ve seen online, but hopefully I’ll be putting up some of my own pictures soon! This is supposedly the ideal place where you can get a break from the stifling heat, with its clean and cool air, refreshing water and…. I can’t concentrate, this just sounds so HEAVENLY compared to the greyish yellowish whitish scene I could see out of my window for the whole day today. And for the last three days. It looks like a sheet has been hung over the outside of the window, for all the visibility out there.
Anyway, back to the Heavenly Lake at the Tianshan Mountains, you can also spend a night out there in a traditional Kazakh yurt. When am I ever going to be able to do that?! I really hope we can make this happen!

Plus! This time next week, I will be able to say (hopefully, fingers crossed, touch wood, etc etc) that I have been at the CENTRE OF ASIA. The very middle of the enormous continent that is Asia. It sounds much better in Chinese: 亚洲之心 (yazhou zhi xin) which translates to “The Heart of Asia”. Wow. I was impressed. And if you’re not impressed, it’s only because you must be jealous! In all fairness, there’s nothing actually there, except for a very..fanciful…marker, which probably tells you that you’re standing in the centre of Asia (now doesn’t that sound cool?!), and there’s probably nothing to do but take a picture, and then…well, leave. But either way, I’m excited for it!!

More in Urumqi includes the Food Night Market (Hell, yeah!!) and the Tianshan Grand Canyon.

According to Lonely Planet’s guide book, Turpan is the Death Valley of China. Now, I’ve been to the real Death Valley, and boy, that was hot! I guess it’s lucky that there’ll be no shortage of juicy grapes in Turpan to keep us cool and hydrated…? >_<
In Turpan, apart from the Grape Valleys, we can ride camels along the Flaming Mountains (this all sounds so surreal!), and see ancient cities of pre-Islamic civilisations.

Hami is going to be even more scenic, we can go to another part of the Tianshan Mountains again, if our visit there from Urumqi was so amazing that we want more, ride horses around what I expect to be another beautiful lake, we can go to the Grand White Rock (what a name…), as well as eat lots of melons and absorb a completely different kind of culture than the standard Han Chinese one that we’ve become accustomed to all year.

I didn’t mean to write so much about this trip that hasn’t happened yet… I expect I’ll be repeating a lot of this when it actually happens, but well, I got carried away….

From Hami, we’ll get a 27 hour sleeper train back to Beijing – I already know this is most likely going to be extremely unpleasant, but whatever – I’m all for ‘experiences’! I’ll be spending my final week in Beijing, packing up this one year of my life here, before returning to the UK, with my mother who will have come out pretty much as soon as I return to Beijing. It’s all gonna happen so fast!!

In the meantime, I wish I could say I’ve been truly making the absolute most of these few free days in Beijing, and regale you with exciting stories of final Beijing experiences, but in all honesty, there’s been a fair bit to do! Chilling has been on the list too, I won’t lie (some things can’t be helped), but researching for this trip has been and still is an arduous task. It’s not as ‘out there’ on the internet yet in terms of tourist destinations as a lot of well-known places are. We can’t find out everything before we go, so I’m certain a lot of it will be made up on the go, but that’s all gonna be part of the fun!

Not to mention, the weather here has been absolutely appalling lately. The smog/pollution is the worst I think I’ve seen it all year. A friend of mine has a theory that goes a bit like this… Because the government will want to ensure glorious weather for the national holiday next week (the Dragonboat Festival, which falls between the 10th and the 12th of June this year), they have to temporarily pause whatever weather/pollution controls and measures that are in place, for a few days prior, so that they will be more effective when they bring them out again for the national holiday. This, according to a friend, is why the pollution has been worse over the last few days. I guess we’ll see if there’s any truth to this when I look out of the window on Monday morning…

Tomorrow is our Leaving Ceremony at uni, and if the Opening Ceremony was anything to go by, it’s going to be an extremely boring couple of hours of speeches. Lots of SOASians aren’t going, but I figure I might as well. I’m only gonna have one Leaving Ceremony in China, so, why not? Boring as it might be, I won’t know if I don’t go 🙂 My class is also planning on going out for lunch after, and it’s the last time I’ll see most of them ever again!

Finally, I’d like to share something that I’ve found, which actually stemmed from a real conversation I was having with Beth about all the delicious food there’s gonna be in Xinjiang, including kebabs, nang (the Chinese word for what we call ‘naan’, because it’s not actually a Chinese food, but has come from Central Asia, and is found around China in the Muslim restaurants only), yogurt, and some good old pilau rice. I was saying that we should make a map of China using foods to represent areas, so Xinjiang could start out as a whole big nang, and we’d add in other foods at different cities in it, Beijing could be…well, the obvious choice would be roast duck, but I/we wanted it to be personal, something we’d experienced for ourselves and could relate to. Beth pointed out that this probably already existed (breaking my heart in the process), and sure enough…

Amazing grilled lamb kebabs, you say?! I’m so there.

This isn’t exactly what I had in mind though (but nice enough anyhow), so maybe I’ll still make my own one after all, but it’s a taster 🙂
Hmm, I’ll be tasting some o’ those kebabs pretty soon….
*mouth waters*

H&M’s true beginnings

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Only in China

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Just a couple of amusing ‘Chinglish’ pictures.

Something I’d seen in Chaoyang Park:

Oxymoronic, much?

Oxymoronic, much?

Walking home from uni one day:

Please, keep your pet pigs to yourself, thank you.

Please, keep your pet pigs to yourself, thank you.

Would you ever, ever see that in London?

T-shirts on sale in the night market:
(Poor picture quality is because I took it on my phone)

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No comment.

 

And, please! There’s gotta be something against this:

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Wannabe Ferrero Rochers?!

The night market 2

As requested, some pictures of the night market, which I posted about recently.

Books!

Jewellery

An unexpected extra!

The rabbit was a new addition, but I wasn’t too surprised… Coming back from university, I often see this small collection of animals:

What? It’s just a squirrel. In a cage.