Summer Palace

On our last trip to China our group went to the Summer Palace and we went with them. There was one problem, Katrine was under the weather so none of us properly experience the park. Today was different in that aside from sore feet, we are all healthy.

We have been taking the subway in Beijing as it is easy to navigate and pretty darn cheap. It took us from down the street from our hutong, right to one of the park gates. The park is physically overwhelming due to its size and to really experience it to the fullest in terms of its history and culture we should have had a guide. That said, we throughly enjoyed what we saw and I recalled enough of my late Ching history facts to give it some context when needed. The girls favourite parts were the weeping willow trees and the vibrant pink lotus blossoms that gathered at the sides of the lake and canals. Looking at them, you couldn’t help but smile. They are just a happy colour. We also enjoyed looking at the stone boat and Peking Opera facility and imagining the Dowager Empress sitting on them in all of her splendour. The lake in the middle of the park is so peaceful with all of the boats gliding across it, that it is easy to forget that it is a man made lake dug completely by hand AND it is huge. Oh, and I also learned that the chinese used forced air under the floor heating to warm the theater building for the imperial family. I mean, who would have thought that you could use burning wood to heat a floor. There was also a small gallery of imperial artifacts. There was paper thin porcelin that you could see the light through that was gorgeous. Plus, examples of highly detailed carved jade. Both white and various shades of green. It was a small gallery but if I am honest, just big enough for the girls.

We grabbed the subway to Wangfujian for some dinner. On our last trip, Glenn and Katrine lived on dumplings from this one shop. Our trip would not have been complete without a stop there tonight. Unfortunately they have not stood the test of time and were not as good as in memory. As we were walking to get the girls a final fruit stick, we passed dancing fountains so paused to watch the show. Both girls enjoyed watching the way that the various jets were co-ordinated to the music and us adults quite enjoyed it too.

We finished up our last full day in Beijing with a cup of tea in the courtyard. Tomorrow morning we are hoping to stroll around Beihai Park and taking in both the natural beauty as well as normal city life. After a quick lunch we will be starting our journey homeward.

Mutianyu Great Wall

Today was set aside for the Great Wall. We chose to do a section of the wall that we have not seen before. As with the other sections, this one was well worth the drive as well as the early start to our day. We were on the road as of 7:00 and upon arriving at the wall we were glad of the early start because there were no lines which translated into less people and a better time.

Now, we knew that we did not want to climb up to the wall as well as the wall itself. Before starting our trip we had planned to ride the cable car up. I was not thrilled about this but thought that even with my fear of falling, with Glenn and four walls plus a floor I should be able to get to the top and hold myself together. Well….there was a cable car but it went to the wrong end of the wall. The section that we planned to tackle had a chair lift not a cable car – no walls, no floor, just a lap belt and open air. I was terrified but also stuck because here I am having promised the girls and what kind of example would I be setting if I said that I have an irrational fear and I am letting it stop me from grabbing hold of life. It was only Glenn who got me on that thing if I am honest. Without him I wouldn’t have got on and then my day would have been ruined because I would have felt like a bad example. Anyways, Elspeth and him were beside me and had a great time chatting about the chestnut trees we were passing over and the slide chute below us while I sat clenching the bar with my eyes shut trying to hold it together…not sure that I succeeded in presenting the image that I wanted to. 🙂 Katrine? She got to sit with our guide for the day; swung her legs back and forth having a grand time.

Then we climbed and climbed. Both of the girls did much better than us older folks but we two hung in there. It is even more amazing when you consider the fact that some of the stone steps came up to Elspeth’s waist! We made it to 8 different lookouts and the views were well worth all of the work. Stunning! It was a bit overcast today which actually made it even more interesting as the clouds reached down to touch the mountain tops in places. The views from Lookout 1 were the most impressive with a clear view in many different directions.

Now please don’t worry that I had to travel back down on the chairlift. I never had any plans of traveling both directions in hanging contraptions. This section of the wall has a slide that you can ride down the mountainside. A hand break, and the speed of the person in front of you, determine how fast you go and if you lean into the corners you will be fine. This we were all excited about and it too held up. We all enjoyed speeding down straightaways and around corners…although the people in front of us appeared to want to go rather slow at times. Fun for the whole family!

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.