22.11.16 – Xiamen to somewhere in the Taiwan Strait

An uneventful banana breakfast is followed by packing and an eventful final lunch in Xiamen. We go back to the friendly restaurant next door and do what we call ‘build your own’ where you pick veg and protein from a vast selection and the chefs cook it in a broth. When it arrives it looks beautiful, red chilli flecked broth in a blue and white bowl topped with green coriander. The smell of Sichuan flower pepper wafts from it and we dive in. By the time we wave bye bye Al doesn’t need to ask if my bald patch is leaking as rivers of sweat are running down my head. If any chilli fiends out there haven’t tried Sichuan cooking I would recommend it.

Hostel turf out time is noon so with nothing to do we go to the ferry terminal. International Ferries to Taiwan are signposted in English but when we get to the indicated gate 10 there is nothing there. We have been told to pick up our tickets by 16.30 from the Cosco counter. Al relaxes with the bags while I try and find it.

Attempt 1 involves me riding an escalator into a posh seafood restaurant where I mistakenly think Gate 10 is. The door staff welcome me then giggle when I ask about tickets.

Attempt 2 involves me riding a lift to floor three where the ticket counters are. I emerge on the floor I was already on. A cleaner gives me a funny look.

Attempt 3 involves me finding the Cosco ticket counter! Hurrah! I notice all the computers have bin liners over them and three people are eating their lunch. I point at the cosco sign and one of the diners comes over and says ‘We are NOT cosco’

There is no attempt 4. Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing (Zen). I read my book.

About 2.30 I notice two blokes talking to a woman in a check shirt behind the Cosco counter. I stroll over and have a nose. They ignore me. I walk round to the other side of the counter and see she has one of the PCs on and has a spreadsheet open. I have hope. A security guard comes over and asks the two blokes to move the sacks they have left in the middle of the terminal. They begrudgingly walk off and I sense an opportunity and minutes later have tickets in my triumphant hands.

As the afternoon slowly shuffles forward the terminal fills with Chinese tour parties and by five when the doors are opened there are probably 100 Chinese tourists, us and two Danish lads.

We board with excited anticipation as we are off to a new country and we love ferry trips. Our four bed dorm has only us in there which is a bonus but on the ‘not-quite-a-bonus’ side we are the first dorm so everyone will pass our door which is a wild west bar style with no top or bottom and therefore no soundproofing. 

Also on the ‘not-quite-a-bonus’ list is the fact there is NO BAR and nothing worthwhile in duty free. There is a karaoke room but its closed and there is a sauna but its not on. We head to the restaurant and spend time looking at the pictures of food outside, because, let’s face it, we have time. Inside we are handed a laminate with four choices. We both go for fried rice and it arrives at least 15 seconds after sitting at our table. It is presented on a wonderful white plastic tray. We ponder if we are on a prison ship and try to get the other inmates to bang their cutlery on the tables while we sing “self preservation society”. No one joins in.

We watch the lights of Xiamen fade into the distance but the wind and rain drive us inside, so at 7pm, with nothing to do we head to our cell to read, looking forward to getting a good nights sleep……..

20.11.2016 Not visiting Gulang Lu

Hostel staff convince us that we are ok to get a bus to the Gulyang Lu ferry port. We follow their instructions, catch bus with usual grumpy driver who glares at us, pay our 12p each and play chicken as to when we should get off the bus. We miss the Guyang Lu ferry stop and have to walk about 2km back to the local port we saw yesterday and which our trusty lonely planet tells us we can get a ferry from. It is hot and humid and sweaty. 

Queuing up we see new signs which forbid anyone but a local using the local (cheap) ferry. All other tourists (including Chinese) have to use the ferry port we have just walked 2 km from and pay 5 times the price. We sigh, and maybe we swore a little too. As we were only doing this to kill time we forget it and decide to have a wander around the building site which is Xiamen. 

We go into a mall and see kids on an indoor ice rink practicing for the winter Olympics. It is just the weather for that at 29 degrees. We sit in a park for a bit. 

We get a BRT to the station and have a kumquat bubble tea! Lush but really, kumquats…..just the name makes me giggle and think I am too middle class . 

Guy is starving so we settle on a Korean restaurant and have a vegetable bimbi (hot pot kinda thing first introduced to us by fellow traveller Steve O’Connor in Birmingham!) also tonkasu chicken with a sweet sauce and shredded Chinese cabbage and apple sauce, kimchi and pickled diakon. It is really delicious. 

Also interesting to note that the 2 young blokes sat next to us have one sentence between them the whole time we are there. The rest of the time is spent on phones and have headphones on. Youth of today!

We have a free evening, Sunday evening. What to do? No bars but the local shop sells some small bottles of booze which we haven’t tried yet.

We tried them, mentholly and cloves flavours over power the palette. 35% though so does the job and at least we can say we tried it. 

19.11.2016 Hot, innit? 

We have finally made it to the heat we have been craving.  Xiaman seems like the real China, grubby back streets, open houses merging into restaurants, no English signs, heat, humidity and lung clogging air pollution. 

But, our planning has failed us, although the reviews for our hostel all say great location, we are not sure why. It is about an hour’s walk from the main drag, the ferry to Taiwan, the ferry to Gulang Yu, temples, parks absolutely everything,  it is all the other end of town.  The place is having a subway added, all stations seem to be being excavated at the same time so everywhere you walk there are massive holes and disruption, as there is no subway there is only buses to use which are not useful for us. 

We are getting used to the heat and humidity, a bonus of the heat is we can get washing done here, first job of a Saturday morning is to put 2 loads of washing on and hang it out. Guy is happy. 

We get outside and are sweating and hungry, so what do you eat when you are sweaty and hungry? Chilli!

All the cooks in the restaurant came to watch the ‘waiguoren’ eat the spicy noodles, Dan Dan mian.  I was wearing a white shirt…..it is now in the wash. They were lush, this is our favourite Chinese dish along with Zhajiangmian, which is very similiar. Like Chinese spag bog for you English heathens! 

We then walked for miles, my fitbit can testify to that, through parks, subway building sites spraying mists of water everywhere, food streets, past interesting back streets and then the usual redeveloped roads and shop fronts made to look like colonial buildings. With the covered walkways and Asian feel it reminded us of Penang. 

We made it to the water front, rested on a bench and peered through the smog to the next island. No sooner had we parked our arses and looked forward to a few moments peace and quiet when the locals started playing the Erhu and screeching along to it, through an amp. How the bloke next to us managed to carry on snoring I have no idea.

Eardrums blown we carried on walking, through the back end of the port, off the tourist trail, understandably!

We then looked skyward and saw an above ground transport system seemingly overgrown with bougainvillia and ivy. It seemed impossible to think this was a system to transport people about. We spied escalators so decided we had energy to investigate. It is a raised bus route, buses in the sky or BRT. Lonely planet said nothing about this phenomenon. Thanks! No signs were in English, the map was only vaguely familiar but we paid 6p each and boarded the bus in the sky. 

It took us closer to home, a mere 40 min walk home now. We decided to waste time queuing to try and buy tickets for our overnight train when we return from Taiwan, only to find out you cannot buy tickets more than 5 days in advance.

Guy needed a burger, a Mos burger, so we stopped and had a dirty burger accompanied by chicken nuggets (instead of the usual French fries!!!???)

 A sweaty walk home required a beer or two, and tea was dumplings, yes, more dumplings! We can’t get enough of them but these are at least coloured!!!!

18.11.2016 Hangzhou to Xiamen- not much happened 

If you are catching up on the blog and need to skip a day here and there, this is one to skip, we got a 7 hour train, sweated, went to bed. Food and beer were involved. 

If you are still wanting more or have time to spare at work (!!!) then I will elaborate. 

We left our lovely room and painted sink at 7.45. Walked through Hangzhou early morning rush hour, past mums and dads taking kids to school, butchers and veg shops doing brisk trade and the ever busy Muslim bread shop’s queue of loyal customers spilling out on the street. 

It was a lovely 14 degrees. 

We got to Hangzhou train station and admired it. On the walk to the waiting area you could buy a new car, perfume, flowers and very posh looking stuff from teeny boutique shops. No 7/11 for water though. 

Train was on time, we boarded, sat in our seats, no one else tried to get in our seats or tell us we were in their seats so it was successful. 

It was a 7 hour train which we used the time to read and blog, write diary etc. 

Breakfast was Taiwanese dumplings with outrageously hot chilli sauce, delicious. 

Pot noodles were had at 12.45, after everyone else in the carriage who had theirs about 11.15.

We watched the temperature readings get higher and higher. When we got off it read 29 degrees. There was no indication of the soaring humidity. We were drenched in 5 mins of lugging backpacks. 

We already knew we were getting into a train station 25km north of Xiaman, so knew we needed to either get a bus (recommended by our hostel) or train then 2km walk. As we have no idea where to get off a bus we opted for train. So got off our Xiaman North train, left station, queued at ticket office for tickets, queued for security checks (actually we were Chinese and skipped the queue for this, just looked hassled and pushed in), queued in waiting area for train, got on train and got to Xiamen (proper) station. 

It was now dark but still 29 degrees and humid. A 2 km walk down a street passing Tesco, Esso, MosBurger (Japanese burger chain) and many restaurants with plastic stools and people drinking cold, cold Tsingtao. 

We were excited, the thought of a cold beer and hot food kept us going. We nearly walked past the hostel, but trained observer Guy, saw the teeny sign and we went to reception, dripped sweat and got our room key (not before we had been shown the rules of the hostel, all in chinese, even the WiFi pass code).

Room was light, and had air con! How posh are we??

We went straight out on the hunt for food and beer. We found a lovely restaurant and ordered lion head meat balls (no lion meat was involved), spring rolls, sea cabbage (seaweed) salad, pickled cucumber, fried chickpeas, taro balls and a never ending portion of rice, oh and 2 (maybe 3) large beers.

It was like a Chinese tapas meal. Brilliant. All for £6.50. 

Full we made our way home, maybe got a couple more beers just to cool down in our room, and relaxed watching basketball and figure skating on channel 5.

17.11.2016 Hangzhou – Tea Museum

Guy wanted coffee. I always want coffee but as it is expensive here we only have it occasionally so if Guy wants coffee we have coffee. Our place has Illy coffee signs,  we order 2 western breakfasts which costs half the days budget, but was delicious. I had oatmeal and yoga breakfast, and was slightly disappointed when yoga was actually yogurt. Guy had American breakfast. 

We sorted out bikes from the hostel for the next few hours, planning on circumnavigating the lake and visiting China National Tea Museum. After testing brakes and bells, both worked, we set off down the high street and across junctions like pro’s. It wasn’t actually as scary as it looked when you are walking. The roads are big and freshly tarmaced, cycle lanes are marked, albeit used by buses, coaches and most other vehicles but hey, that happens in England! 

We got to the lake and as there were a number of No Cycling or Vehicles signs we dutifully dismounted, parked up and started to walk over the causeway. Within a minute we had seen cycles, motor bikes and electric buses ignoring the No Cycling or Vehicles signs so we turned back, took the clothes and tea bottle off our bikes that had already been put there, and (guilty at first) rode over the causeway.  Bells ringing, to order people out the way, we raced through the causeway stopping for a few ‘atmospheric’ photo’s.

We excitedly got back on the road around the lake before realising we had completely forgotten about the tea museum! We couldn’t miss this opportunity for tea facts to bore people with in the pub at home so turned back and cycled down some lovely wide roads. 

It was a beautifully located museum and a massive place, very new and informative.  There were loads of kids there as well. 

Having had more information on tea than we could process we stumbled upon a Tea Cultural Exchange Centre whereby you got served 4 different types of tea served to you in a beautiful room and explained which tea was which. Also we were told what you can use your old green tea leaves for- mix with egg whites and honey, et voila you have a face mask. 

The teas were gorgeous, the types of tea we had were Longjing, Jasmine, black with lychee and Oolong, they were all really different and brewed and served in different ways as this affects the flavour, apparently. 

It looked stunning and we were thankful of having backpacks otherwise we could have bought all manner of tea brewing and drinking implements. The whole museum was free to enter, so we did buy some of the local Longjing tea. 9 quid for a small pot!!!

Budget blown and time cracking on we decided not to do as the locals and cycle at dusk/ night with no lights on so made a direct route back to the hostel, providing fruit for tomorrow’s 6 hr train journey. 

Our last night for a meal here, we have been somewhat underwhelmed by the food here, having had a few less than tasty foods but play a blinder on our last night. We had spied some vegetables through a window so went in and found a canteen style restaurant with lots and lots of veg. Every veg dish has meat with it, obviously, but it was still mainly veg. We piled up our plates with aubergine and soy sauce, cabbage with bacon, seaweed with bean sprouts and a sweet sticky pork dish. They were all fab, okay the seaweed wasn’t amazing but you know it is good for you to chow it down being thankful for its goodness. 

We debated a beer, but could only find expensive ones, 10 yuan a can, so had a crap crepe for 25 yuan instead. I know, it doesn’t make sense. The crepe was plasticy, with hardly any fruit filling but topped with vanilla creme custard and creme bruleed. 

16.11.2016 Hangzhou 

We had planned for an admin day as both the BBC and Mo Weather said it would be raining all day. So we were slightly surprised to see the sun shining and hazy skies when we finally opened our (very effective) curtains. 

Feeling obliged to see anything of Hangzhou without a layer of smog and pollution we got ourselves out of the room, by 11am. 

Bananas and oranges purchased for breakfast and we were off. We got distracted walking down different streets and seeing some street art installations (as I believe they would be called at home!!!). A bike concreted into the wall was the one that caught our eyes. 

The smell of stinky tofu catches you unawares as you walk around the town. It is the region’s speciality so we need to get used to the rancid smell. 

We saw some weathered old steps ascending the back of our street so decided to explore. The narrow pathway meandered over rooftops of the ‘old’ city and it was nice to be above the crowded, tourist streets (and that stinky tofu smell). 

We walked passed bunk beds in a disused old room, maybe squat or maybe lodgings for workers. We ended up at some temples with plenty of open spaces for locals to eat, drink tea, play cards and mah jong, practice tai chi and stick fighting. There was even a yoga centre at the top, but no lessons going on For slightly out of practise westerners. 

The landscaping was beautiful with plenty of green shrubs and grasses, and flowers still in bloom, we even saw some bird of paradise flowers seemingly growing wild. For the first time on this trip I was missing my garden. 

The view at the top was obliterated by the number of trees on the hilltop but it made for a shady and peaceful setting. 

We made our way to a noodle cafe we had eyed up previously. We went in and pointed at food, it was promptly cooked and that was then put in front of us. Who needs to learn the language?  Well, it would be useful to know as we ended up with the weird, expanding, wriggly rice noodles, that you cannot chew and one of mine looked like an embryo. The soup was ok, very vinegary so Guy liked it more than me. Still, so far we had not had any dumplings today so that was a change. 

As the promised rain still hadn’t appeared we carried on back to the lake to get some photos of the place without smog (or atmosphere, as we were calling it now) . Guy was in his element. I looked on, advising (or teasing) him. 

We needed groceries for the 6 hr train trip we were doing on Friday so another trip to Carrefour ensued. It would be rude not to buy red wine whilst we were there, and we are not rude people, so 2 bottles were purchased along with interesting looking pot noodles, hawthorn berry sugar sweets and sunflower seeds. 

On the way home we went to a street stall that consistently had queues, we weren’t sure what it was for so decided to queue and find out. The menu is below, courtesy of Google translate, which didn’t help us tremendously. 

We had a pork and chicken varieties (according to the young lad in charge) and waited 20 mins for an unremarkable small pasty. Pastry was crumbly but filling was uninspiring. 

We then got some Chairman Mao pork, Dungpo Pork, from another street stall which was good, but still not as good as the plateful we had in Qufu. 

We then had a lovely evening in our gorgeous room, diarying, internet searching, chatting and listening to music (no Coldplay or Adele though 😂) and drinking delicious red wine that was only a fiver a bottle. 

15.11.16 Hangzhou – Chan Temple

Wonton soup for breakfast, ideal bland morning food. I also have a bonus addition of plastic netting taking me into a commanding 2-0 lead in the ‘Foreign Objects in Food’ competition. 

The visibility at the lake hasn’t improved but people are happily strolling around and brides are having their pictures taken.

 Electric buses zip past ferrying chinese tourists to Liefang Pagoda which on a clear day would have great views across the lake. We cross the road and head to Jang Ci temple which is a Buddhist Chan temple, known as Zen in Japan and the West. Chan is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism started in China and carried to South Korea and Japan which advocates meditation as the path to enlightenment. 

The temple is big and doesn’t have the over elaborate external decoration that other chinese temples have. The interiors are simple too with statues of Buddha and no images of the multiple other Mahayana deities.

I get asked to be in a photo (4-3 to Al) and we watch people pour water over a statue of a boy using a cup on a long bamboo pole. It makes me think of Vic and Bob. Al is encouraged by the locals to have a go which she does with much laughter.

The main temple is high up with views across to the pagoda and glimpses of the lake through the trees.

Next we stroll round nearby Taiziwan park which has been artifically landscaped to the extent of having concrete trees! The brides don’t seem to care.

Back in town we go to a restaurant to have dongpo pork aka Chairman Maos pork (he loved it) as Hangzhou is where the dish was invented (by poet and politician and cook Su Dongpo). We had this dish in Qufu and loved it. We also order ‘during the song dynasty fish soup’ and the ‘shrimp detonation eel back’. With so much expectation the pork is, of course, a disappointment. Dry and meaty with not enough melting fat. Eel is good though.

Back home for the first of two Skype appointments with family as the wifi is good here. It’s great to be able to see how everyone is.

Before the second call we head to Carrefour for tea and honey but spot they have red wine on offer. We buy a cheap french red which later turns out to be delicious. We spot 6 foot sugarcane in the veg section and in the ‘fish’ section we see live frogs, terrapins and turtles. 

On the walk home I realise that street scenes now feel familiar and less alien. Dodging bikes, mopeds and people’s washing while walking on a pavement seems perfectly normal and something I’ve always done.

14.11.16 Shanghai to Hangzhou

The scaffolding outside our hostel is being dismantled by a bloke with a pair of wire cutters. Lengths of wire and piles of bamboo litter the street. 

The rain of yesterday and the increase in temperature means it’s really humid this morning. Weather you definitely don’t want to carry a heavy rucksack through, onto a subway, in a city of 24 million people, at rush hour. The crush thins as we head out of the centre and my sweat dries. 

We visit an ATM …. also known as a CRM in China.

Today we’re on a Z class train. It’s the cheap ticket, cattle class, hurley burly, lived in train. The last few we have taken have been sleek G class bullet trains which are more expensive. Today’s fellow passengers look far more interesting than G class punters. Fashions are more garish, suitcases are more broken in and voices are coarser. A man carries a plastic box full of chicken eggs on a wooden pole, ladies in sequined knitwear scream and cackle at each other, a young lad stares unemotionally at his son who keeps thumping him. Our train number disappears and is replaced by red characters. I look around but no one seems bothered. The time to board comes and goes but no one seems bothered. Al goes up to the board and Google translates it. ‘Train delayed. Time unknown’. It turns out to be only 30 minutes. We sit with a young woman who speaks excellent English and an older lady who speaks English too. We chat for some time and are asked – where are we from? Where are we going? What are we going to do in Hangzhou? How old are we? What is my job? Is she your wife? We answer and smile. 

We arrive at Hangzhou which is the final stop and as doors only open at one end and we are at the other, we have to walk the entire length and witness all of the carnage. The carriage is a bombsite with litter everywhere. Tin cans, plastic bottles, newspapers, food cartons, sunflower seed shells and despite no smoking, cigarette ends. Every section of seating has litter discarded in it. As I step off, the inevitable cleaning lady is getting on. I wish her luck.

Hangzhou was the capital of the Southern Song dynasty after 1126 and Marco Polo visited here describing it as a beautiful city. It’s a major tourist site for the Chinese and our hostel is just off the bustling, redeveloped, tourist area. We are becoming used to the redevelopment of history in China and less resistant to its charms. The area is lovely to stroll around, with upturned pagoda roofs and winding narrow alleyways to explore. There are many tourists and many tourist shops. Tea, snacks, sweets, notebooks, tea sets, calligraphy sets, flutes, hats, selfie sticks, plastic kids toys. An emporium of unnecessary trinkets which are essential on holiday. We find snack street where 40 metres of tiny food stalls are maned by women. Duck leg, garlic aubergine, rice and meat dumplings and fried rice are devoured whilst checking out what else could be eaten. Al is asked to hold a baby and photoed.  4-2 to her. 

We walk down to the west lake which is the main draw card.  We cross through a lovely park beforehand, which seems very atmospheric with the humid, low cloud. As with Nanjing, you can’t see the other side of the lake and we’re both shocked by the air quality. 

Tired from Shanghai we sit on a bench until uncomfortable from the multitude of insects flying around us and we head back. We cross a coach park where boisterous day trippers wait for their ride home. The atmosphere has an edge like the british seaside can have. Young men in cheap fashion swagger their egos along the main drag with toothpicks or cigarettes casually hanging from their mouths with Hollywood machismo. They stare at us with cold eyes. 

I try the tv in the room and find an historical fairytale chinese kung fu soap opera love story teen fiction show. I’m hooked and make up my own plot. It goes on and on and on , the plot thickens but goes nowhere. Suddenly, out of nowhere, it finishes and I’m watching a girl review a Sichuan restaurant. Time for bed.

13.11.2016 Shaghai

We didn’t get a night of good sleep. We whatsapp’d, read and did some wizardry to make VPN work. At midnight, our German neighbours woke us up with a sing-a-long to ‘Simply the Best’ just as they were getting ready to go out. They politely turned it down and apologised.

At 5 am one of the Tina Turner fans woke us up with extremely loud bedroom fun times! His partner was clearly ‘in the moment’. It lasted about an hour. The wifi was down so we couldn’t even tell our friends about it on the internet.

At 8.30 am the orchestra started tuning up in the building next door. I can’t say we have had a great sleep in Shanghai.

After yesterday’s sunshine, grey drizzle was unwelcome. We spotted a small, grubby looking stall about a metre wide, fronted by a huge smile with a lady attached. Breakfast consisted of a shallow fried white bread bun (like a muffin/foccacia) split and filled with fried peppers and egg. Sweet, salty and spicy. It would have been perfect hangover fodder but we were just tired. We will be trying to recreate it when we have a kitchen/hangover.

Back to finish the Shanghai museum and we saw coins, Native crafts, jade, furniture, seals, calligraphy and paintings. I’d like to say it was all Chinese to me but they had informative English explanations. The coins from the silk road had Persian empire and Chenggis Khan pieces which felt like a real slice of history.

Back to build your own dish for lunch where we emptied the veg fridge and frozen rubber protein section. It was healthy, cheap and tasty.

As we were very tired now, we went back for a siesta and thankfully the orchestra next door had finished. Unfortunately they had been replaced by a practicing Chinese Opera.

We collapsed into the hostel bar’s sofas and drank tea from tiny cups, blogged and worked out tomorrow’s logistics. As cities here are huge (Shanghai 24 million people, Hangzhou 6 million) they have more than one train station so you need to check where you’re going to avoid last minute dashes across a city. We also normally figure out how to get to the hostel on public transport as we have no Chinese SIM card.

Tea was spicy noodles and beef curry.

  Tomorrow we head to Hangzhou and leave Shanghai behind. We have slowly fallen for its charms after being initially disappointed but that had more to do with our high expectations than this vibrant, fast paced, tall  consumer capital. I especially loved The French Concession area which is a fascinating place to wander about.