Sleeping on a Train and in a Hutong

That is how we got from Guilin to Beijing – a train. It was a very relaxing change to have to sit or sleep for 19 hours. We played cards, read, snacked, watched scenery go by and sleep. I got a really good night’s sleep as the train rocked me. Katrine would disagree with me as she found the movement kept her awake. That said, she managed to see a really nicely lit up body of water when we passed it at 2:00 in the morning. We traveled like chinese and brought our noodle cups, fruit, etc with us. Boy was I ever glad that I had brought gluten free snacks with me from home because eating helped to pass the time. If you are ever thinking of traveling overnight by train, I recommend booking a whole soft sleeper car. The beds are no worse than a hotels and the space was roomy enough for our family of four to pass the time quite comfortably.

Each room had its own little table between the bottom two bunks.

Sorry it is sideways but this is the hot water tap. Great for noodle cups.
Not sure how I got this effect but Katrine hanging off of the top bunk.

We have checked into our hotel today and it is fabulous. When planning the trip, I found a hotel that is located in a 200 year old hutong in Beijing. It is decorated in a late Ching dynasty style complete with silk coverlets for the beds. Glenn and I are actually getting to sleep in the coolest bed that looks like a kang (think canopy bed). It actually has curtains that close!! Outside our room there is a courtyard with tables and chairs as well as a turtle pond with real live turtles which Elspeth discovered as we explored. Red lanterns line one side of the courtyard and they were lit at dusk giving the courtyard a cozy welcoming feel. It showered all afternoon but I still managed to get a bit of time to sit outside and relax to the sound of quiet only broken by the happy splashing of the small fountain.

Computer acting up. Sorry for the sideways photos.

What did we do? Took the subway to Tiannamen Square and did some shopping on WangFuJian. It is amazing how even that shopping street is changing. They appear to be in the process of building more closed malls as opposed to open store fronts. I am super happy that I was able to find some short steel chopsticks to send with Elspeth in her lunches this fall (she struggles with full sized chopsticks). We also stopped by their food street (of course) and got less exciting foods – sugar coated fruit on a stick and spiral cut potatoes on a stick. Nothing too unusual today I am afraid. I think that the girls are missing home as they asked for McDonalds for lunch and pizza for dinner. Oh well, only a few days left and then we will be heading home. Tomorrow though, we are off to the Muttianyu section of the Great Wall. Keeping our fingers crossed that the weather will be good.

An elephant, a cave and some rice

The title pretty much sums up our time here in Guilin. We have had some late nights and have chosen sleep over blog updates. We leave on the overnight train to Beijing tomorrow afternoon, so we thought that an update was due. Before I get into details about what we have been up to these last two days, let me just say that the scenery in Guilin has not disappointed. Almost everywhere you look, you can see green peaks poking upwards.

On our first morning, we grabbed a taxi and headed out to Elephant Trunk Hill Scenic Area. This park is located on the famous Li River. It was a lovely day and there were many amateur fishermen trying their luck in the river…never did see anyone catch anything though. We started off our exploration of the park on Love Island; named this because of the many statues depicting scenes of love. The girls particularly liked the ones with the mother and child elephants. As we reached the far end of the island, we were greeted by a group of elephants (statues) frolicking in the water. Behind them, across the water was the hill itself. It is not hard to see why it earned it’s name. The elephant’s back is the round hillside while there is a gap (Moon Cave) which creates the trunk dipping down into the river for a drink. We had originally planned on taking a bamboo raft ride but instead decided to climb to the top of the elephant’s back. It was well worth the exertion as the views were beautiful.

Now our original plan was simply to leave the park and walk along the water until we found a noodle seller. Instead, we walked along until we discovered the pedestrian street. No worries though, we got the much desired Guilin Noodles and ended up having hot noodle soup on what was heating up to be a rather warm day. We still had some time before we were going to head to our next destination and decided to poke around this section of Guilin a bit. In the process, we came upon the original city wall and a refurbished “old Guilin” shopping section complete with large pagoda. It was actually quite fun to wander through the laneways wondering what might be around the next corner.

At this point, we decided to go to the next item in the title – the Reed Flute Caves which were named for the reeds outside that were used to make instruments out of. Now, Elspeth did buy an instrument there but it was a penny whistle not a flute. We were feeling a bit lazy by this point so bought tickets (with the help of our taxi driver) for the little train that drove up through the tree tops to the cave entrance. The girls were very excited to see the stalagmites and stalactites as they had only ever seen them in books while Glenn and I had heard good things about how they were lit. The caves were crowded as they held people at the entrance and then let a large group in at once; and the tour was in Chinese. That said, it ended up not mattering in the least. There were signs in both English and Chinese at various points in the cave giving you a hint about what you might see in the rock – a lion’s face, a vegetable garden. The most interesting thing for me though was not the light show (which was pretty darn cool) or the signs, but the reflections of the lit rock formations in the still pools of water which had gathered at various points in the cave. Additionally, it was nice and cool underground which was nice given that it had begun to get rather hot.

That takes care of the elephant and cave in the title so I will skip forward until today and explain about the rice. Today was spent at the Longji Rice Terraces in Pingan Village. It was well worth the drive from Guilin as it was breathtaking. It boggles the mind to conceive how these terraces were constructed prior to 1910 without modern technology yet exhibit such engineering. The upper terraces feeding into the lower ones. Bamboo halves being used to help control the over flow in order to minimize erosion and protect the integrity of the fields. Additionally, every space was used. Corn and melons were grown beside paths that wound upward amongst the paddies. What did the girls think? Katrine enjoyed the science of the place as well as the many small waterfalls (some just a trickle) while Elspeth particularly enjoyed the free range poultry more specifically the roosters. This was also the first time that I have seen houses made fully of wood in China…okay, cement foundations and columns but wooden exteriors.

What do you do when you are tired and your feet hurt plus you are a bit wet from the Scotch mist? Why stop for a meal of course! Elspeth was super excited by a Zheung woman who was selling eggs cooked on a bed of charcoal. She saw them on the way up the mountain and just had to have one. Well, it turns out that this cooking process left the eggs hard boiled. She said that it was one of the best eggs she has ever had and that girl likes her eggs. The rest of us passed on the pig brain soup, and opted to try crystal dumplings that supposedly tasted like chicken corn soup and farm grown red rice. The rice was new to me. It was stickier than plain white rice but pretty tasty. I liked it better when I added some clear bone broth to it.

Goodbye to Nanning

This morning saw us saying “Until we meet again to Xixi.” She has really gone out of her way to help the girls have an glimpse into everyday life in China. In the process, she has provided them, and us, with a wealth of opportunities…like visiting snack street last night (just wait until you see the photos in a future post. I can tell you it was delicious!). We can’t thank her enough.

Then we made one final stop before boarding the train to Guilin at Katrine’s orphanage. Again we were surprised by the rate of development in the surrounding area. They greeted Katrine with open arms and smiles as one is wont to greet a long missed family member and poured over the photo album we had brought. They wanted to know all about her life as well as asking after her China sisters. Of course there was also some snacks (fresh bananas this time) and copious amounts of photos as well as a substantial lunch with the staff. It was a wonderful visit.

Now we are in Guilin ready to begin the final portion of our trip. We have two and a half days here before taking the overnight train to Beijing. Girls have both crashed and we are not far behind as tomorrow brings a trip to Elephant Trunk park and the Reed Flute Caves. Time to soak in some natural beauty. Here is the night view outside our room window.

Busy days and our first bout of bad weather

Sorry for missing some updates but we took a train from Shangrao to Nanchang spent one night there and took a 8 hour train ride from Nanchang to Nanning for the Katrine portion of the trip. Also the internet in our hotel is a little slow so I will probably not have any photos to post tonight.

The rate of change in Shangrao and Nanchang is amazing to see, but Nanning is almost a different city. ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) and the proximity to the Vietnamese border is a mix that is driving a rate of change that is in many ways mind-numbing. We went to Wuxu, Katine’s home town this morning and what was basically 2 dirt roads 12 years ago, and 2 so-so roads 5 years ago is now a 8-lane road and a 4-lane road, all built in the last 2 years. All the old shops on the corner that we were in 5 years ago are scheduled to be demolished shortly and most of the others in the area will be over then next few years. The locals told us that soon there will be no Wuxu town, just Wuxu street on the outskirts of Nanning. We are all glad we’ve come when we did. It is also bittersweet. Loosing those spots that hold memories and the changes to your hometown are not easy, but there are so many more opportunities for the people living in Wuxu and their standard of living is increasing rapidly.

After returning to our hotel, the girls and I took a quick break in the pool on the roof of the hotel. This was quite refreshing and a good mental break for everyone. Then we went to the Nanning Peoples Park (人民公园), which also is known and White Dragon Park (白龙公园), where some of our earliest pictures of us with Katrine were taken. The girls fed the fish, ate popsicles (naturally) and wandered around the park for a bit. Afterwards we grabbed a quick bit to eat, steamed buns for Elspeth, noodles fro Heather, Katrine, and I. We then took a bus ride (just for fun) to Nanhu Lake park where we heard there might be a fountain show. It was not to be however, as it only runs Fridays and we were a day late. Still another walk though the park on a beautiful evening is something to be cherished. Katrine and I did make a date to go to the night “snack” market behind our hotel at 8:30p but once we got downstairs we realized that the rumbling we heard was not construction but our first run in with tropical rain. Rain is in the forecast for tomorrow morning, so we have some indoor activities planned. Perhaps though it will clear for another try for snacks.

Adventures in Shangrao

The last couple of days have been busy, emotional and fun. Luckily they’ve been heavy on the fun, and I think that Elspeth will have really good memories of her visit to her hometown.

After the visit to the orphanage yesterday morning we went to the suburb of Shangrao where Elspeth is from called YanShan. This is a place that you can really see the old China and the new China merging. We started by having an amazing lunch in a very small local restaurant, then fortified with food, and me with not a small amount of water, set off to see the sights. First a small village on the edge of town is really rustic with the government trying to promote it, unsuccessfully so far, The girls bought some fans made by a grandma out of old rice bags and bamboo, and we looked at the old style houses and architecture. At the edge of the village was an amazing little gift shop run by a wonderful woman with a great sense of design. There were too many things that the girls liked and too little space to pack them all. As well this shop has a heritage designation for selling a special kind of local hand made paper only available in this location. Artists from around China purchase this paper for calligraphy and traditional painting. We of course had to buy some for Elspeth, as well as a small amount of the local red tea.

Gift Shop
Gift Shop
Then a ride through the old town on rick-shaws was called for, something that is fast disappearing from Chinese cities. Finally popsicles were on the menu for some much needed cooling before heading back to the hotel for some much needed downtime.

This morning we were up and ready to go for a drive out to GuiFeng, a world natural heritage site. It was a beautiful clear day but the heat was back so we didn’t see as much of the park as we would have wanted to. Still the blue skies, green trees and red rock formations that we saw were simply amazing.

GuiFeng Rock Formation
GuiFeng Rock Formation
We took a boat tour for some different views, but at the end we only saw 1/4 of the park if that. It will definitely be on the list of things to do when we return. We then went to a local “farm” restaurant where we attempted to play mahajong (very badly) and ate another wonderful meal.
Mahjong masters - not
Mahjong masters – not
Besides the excellent food, I must mention the rice that was grown, harvested and processed locally. This white rice was anything but bland and had a subtle sweet and nutty flavour that was wonderful. Then back to the hotel for a little lie down and some pre-packing.

This evening we were invited by our driver to join him and his family at their house for a meal. His wife is a teacher, and his mother used to be a foster mother at an orphanage. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me as sitting down to dinner with people in their house really gives you the feeling of the place you are in. The food again was amazing, but not spicy enough for our hosts, or Heather and I, but was a hit with the girls, with Elspeth eating more in one sitting than I’ve seen her do in some time.

Family Dinner
Family Dinner
The drivers wife was late to her dance practice but invited us to watch. Of course she was joined on her scooter by Katrine and Elspeth on a ride I’m sure they will not soon forget. It was quite interesting watching the dance troop, who are currently ranked #4 in this city as they prepare for an upcomming competition, but it was soon time to head back for packing and bed.

Tomorrow morning we have a short train ride to Nanchang for a 1 day visit before heading off to Nanning to begin the 2nd half of our trip.

Train adventures in Shanghai

Today was our day to travel to Shangrao but as our train was not leaving until 3:30pm and we already had our tickets, we were not scheduled to leave the hotel until 1:45pm. With a plan in hand and a couple of options, we left our hotel for some morning activities, leaving behind one crucial thing which I will discuss later.

First off was the Jade Buddha Temple (玉佛禅寺), a short 15 minute walk from our hotel. It is a small island of calm in the middle of downtown Shanghai… unfortunately it was under construction so our tour was not as long as planned and by 9:20am we were ready to head onwards. Quickly grabbing a cab with a little help from google translate and we were off…

To the Shanghai Museum (上海博物馆) which was a bit more for Heather and I but the girls enjoyed it. Wrapping up at 11:40am to leave plenty of time to get back to the hotel we realized our mistake from earlier. Anyone who has traveled to China knows that you grab a business card from the hotel so you can always jump in a cab and get back… we left them in the hotel room. This time google translate and google maps were not our friend and we could not get a cab to get us back to the hotel. We went back inside the museum and had some help writing down the Jade Buddha Temple in Chinese thinking that we would go back there and walk the rest. However getting a cab to stop for us this time was not working at all. We walked around the museum looking for a taxi loading area and found the Shanghai Metro (上海轨道交通). We went down to the ticket sales area and a very nice young lady helped direct us to the stop near our hotel. Two trains later and a 8 minute walk and we were back at our hotel. Unfortunately we had less than 30 minutes to finish packing get our bags and get our drive to the train station.

The train station is enormous and busy but our guide Laura got us to the right gate and gave us the lowdown on the process. The high-speed train network in growing rapidly in China and taking business from the planes and airports and its not hard to see why. It’s almost as easy to get on board as the GO train, but travels at 300km/h. Also the leg room in our first class seats (equivalent to coach on a plane) was much appreciated by me. Of course there was still stress in that this was our first time on the trains, and it’s a 3 minute whistle stop in Shangrao that you better be ready for. Still the train was punctual to the minute both leaving Shanghai and arriving in Shangrao and we exited without incident.

Leaving the station we met up with our friend Xixi who will be traveling with us for a large portion of the rest of our trip. She got us to our hotel, sorted out the room arrangements, and joined us for a late dinner. It’s almost 11pm here and tomorrow will be a big day. Photo uploading is being a pain right now so I leave you with qa shot from outside our hotel.

Tianyuan Longhu Hotel - Shangrao
Tianyuan Longhu Hotel – Shangrao
Depending on how the day goes tomorrow I may miss posting an update, we go to Elspeth’s orphanage in what is sure to be an emotional day.

24M people in Shanghai and they were all at the Natural History Museum with us

The day started with us going down for breakfast at the same time as a tour group so things were crazy from the get go.

ZigZag Bridge at Yu Gardens
ZigZag Bridge at Yu Gardens
However a quick taxi ride later we were at the Yu Gardens (豫园) to begin day 2 in Shanghai. The last time Heather and I were at the Yu Gardens was some 12 years ago and that was in February where as today was quite a bit different, and more crowded, with the early morning temperature already well into the 30’s. A short jaunt across the zig-zag bridge to the Mid-lake Pavilion Tea-House for some cool tea (jasmine for the girls, green for Heather and I) and we were into the gardens.

After the gardens, and a bit of shopping for the girls, we walked over to the Bund via the Guchen Park. The park was a hit with it’s shaded walkways and popsicles.

ZigZag Bridge at Yu Gardens
ZigZag Bridge at Yu Gardens
The Bund however was a different story. There was not a pick of shade, and being close to mid-day at that point the heat was close to unbearable for a quartet of Canadians.
Hot on The Bund
Hot on The Bund
So a taxi was quickly procured to ferry us to the Shanghai Natural History Museum (上海自然博物馆).

We then spent 3 interesting, although very crowded, hours looking over the exhibits. Elspeth was especially happy to see a number of butterflies and of course the arctic penguin display was a hit.

We thought to eat at the cafeteria but with the number of people at the museum with us that was not to be, so a quick sit down for drinks and pastries pilfered from the breakfast buffet was all we were able to achieve. Once we were all done a taxi ride back was called for, luckily it was just over $5CAD, rather that the original plan of exploring the subway.
Rocks are swag
Rocks are swag

This evening our guide stopped by with our next 3 sets of train tickets, we are set through to Nanning.

ZhuJiaJiao (朱家角) and Soup Dumplings (小笼包)

ZhuJiaJiao (Literally: Zhu Family Corner)
ZhuJiaJiao (Literally: Zhu Family Corner)

Qing Official's Library
Qing Official’s Library

This morning started out with a typical, for Shanghai it seems, 1 hour drive to ZhuJiaJiao (朱家角), a water town on the outskirts of the city. There we are number of interesting sights including a Qing dynasty official’s “house” and gardens, and an old post-office. The day was hot but the rain held off… although by 1:30pm with the weather feeling “like 40” if not more it might have been nice. The hour long drive back in an air-conditioned van did help quite a bit, followed off by a long cool down in the room.

Soup dumplings (xiaolongbao)
Soup dumplings (xiaolongbao)

One of the things that we wanted to try in Shanghai was soup dumplings (xiaolongbao – 小笼包) and a quick search show up a restaurant 2.5km away from the hotel. We decided to walk there and grab a cab back from to the hotel. We got some rice for Heather, spring rolls and soup dumplings for the girls and me, and a surprise order of filled won-tons in soup, I mean we didn’t think that we had ordered it but it showed up at our table anyway. One of the hazards ordering food in a non-tourist area I guess.
suprise won-ton soup
suprise won-ton soup

Elspeth and I really enjoyed the dumplings where as Katrine liked everything about the dumplings except the meat, perhaps next time a different variety would work. Katrine also liked the soup for the won-tons, but did not appreciate the dark green vegetables inside which I loved.

Happy 150th Canada!

Yesterday we were thrilled to spend Canada Day with my parents and a friend who we haven’t seen in a while.  This year, Elspeth did not play at the Canada Day celebrations but Katrine skated.  And what a skating show that was.  Throw in some crafts, playtime, fireworks, good food and good company and it was a wonderful Canada Day.

Chilling today
Happiness is a rainbow