A Trip to Shanghai, Beijing and Xi’An
Excerpts from a diary, September 2013
Before leaving the UK we had to get visas to visit China. This takes much longer if your trip includes going to Tibet. You can apply for the visa online. In the space where it asks who has invited you, it is acceptable to put the name and address of hotels where you will be staying. We went to the embassy in London to collect the visas.
Friday: Taxi arrived at 11 (David still packing) and drove us to Heathrow.
Virgin flight to Shanghai. Sat opposite a boy who I swear is an actor but who claimed heworked for Ebay.
Shangai airport was very efficient. We had to give ‘customer feedback’ at immigration by ticking smiley faces.
Taxi to Le Meridian Hotel (艾美酒店) on Nanjing Dong Lu. Note: Taxi drivers do not speak English nor read the English version of hotel names. If you do not speak mandarin, there is a man at the taxi rank who will translate for you but you will need to queue. It is much faster if you go online before leaving home and print off the Chinese name from the website.
Driver was friendly and found my bad Chinese very amusing. Chatted a bit.
Le Meridian Hotel was lovely (we have stayed there on previous trips.) The lobby is dark with pools of water and orchids. I thought they were glass disks – nearly got a wet foot! It also smells lovely, a jasmine perfume. Our room had great views down towards the Bund.
Had tea at the hotel, then walked down Nanjing Dong Lu. This is a main shopping street and whilst the shops are fairly ubiquitous, the signs are all in Chinese script and there are street sellers selling unusual fruits and trying to entice you to buy fake designer goods (which is illegal, so best not to!) Walked through the ‘Peace’ (Fairmont) Hotel. They were having a tea dance. One day I want to stay there, it looks like a lovely old colonial hotel.
Walked along the Bund. This is the water front to the Huangpu River. Across the water you can see the amazing skyline of Pudong (the financial district.) Along the Bund are all the old colonial buildings from Victorian times, it is like stepping back in time. It is lovely at night to walk along beside the river, seeing the lights and watching the city wake up for the evening.
We walked back to the hotel via the lanes (I would not want to do this at night, though it might be safe.) There were lots of interesting shops, street hawkers and food stalls. One food seller was very insistent that I taste some fruit she was selling, she kept just telling me to taste it. So I did! How stupid. I cannot believe I did that. Worried I would be ill for rest of the trip.
We ate dinner in the hotel buffet. This was a mistake. The food was lukewarm, not especially nice and cost a fortune. Next time we will eat in the lounge, which is included on David’s card (I am beginning to like him doing business trips. I can manage to not see him for a few days every so often if he gets nice treats on his travel cards!)
The hotel lounge has drinks and hot snacks whenever we want them and also has a full breakfast and evening cocktails. It has big comfy sofas with great views towards the river.
Went to bed exhausted. A really really long day (actually, two days rolled into one.) However, I didn’t sleep until about 4am. Not good.
Sunday: Breakfast in the lounge. I had a pastry. David had everything, including pork dumplings! Great coffee.
Went up to the hotel bar and took photos of Shanghai. It’s a good view and lots of non guests go there just to take photos.
Walked along Bund, then old part of the city. Weather is great, very comfortable for walking. Found some alleyways. Tiny shops, stalls selling swatches of lace, fruits, stalls full of eggs, fish swimming in large plastic containers, meat, hens and ducks (alive) with their feet tied or in wooden crates (no water to drink, poor things). If you bought one, they took it to the back of the shop and killed and plucked it. One even had a ‘plucking machine’ which looked like a big metal barrel. The meat was not refrigerated, but was incredibly fresh. (I know my chinese friends in England do not like that the meat they buy in UK is several days old. They like to buy meat the day, if not the hour, that it is killed.)
It was all hugely interesting as long as you didn’t ‘think’ or ‘feel’ too much. I think it is essential to remember that China is a different country with a whole different culture and history. It would be wrong to make value judgements I think when visiting as a tourist.
We bought cans of lemonade. Before coming I had bought a box of wrapped straws online. I always carried a few in my bag, so it was possible to drink from a can without actually putting any potential germs into our mouths.
Saw several street sellers selling plain paged books. Bought one for 10RMB (£1) Why didn’t I buy more? Great for scribbling notes in.
Went to hotel gym and pool. China now has a law that you must wear hats in public pools. Bought a couple (£3 each.) Took me a while to work out locker system (I failed to notice there was a number on the key they gave me!)
Decided to be brave and go out for dinner to a restaurant we had seen down a side street. It was very Chinese. There was a choice of starters: chickens feet, turtle heads or gristle. We picked a few safe dishes and had a lovely meal, loads of food and all for only £15.
I do not know however, how you would manage if you didn’t speak any mandarin. It would be completely fine in larger hotels, where everyone seems to speak excellent english. People here are very good at understanding very bad Chinese, but in shops and restaurants they speak absolutely no English at all and in smaller restaurants they may not even have a menu in English script.
Monday: Very little sleep again, finding the time difference difficult to adapt to. I tried a traditional breakfast of fried dough sticks. They involved more oil than I was hoping for and weren’t great. (I had hoped they would be a variation on a fresh donut. They weren’t!)
We walked around the People’s Park (人民公园）。 Interesting to see old men playing mah jong, people practicing tai qi and children catching huge coy carp from the pond. (I am pretty sure they were not meant to catch the fish!)
Found a book shop. Stocked up on chinese books (they were so cheap. Will blast the weight limit on flight home!)
In the evening, walked to see the fountains outside the museum. They are floodlit but look much better from above through the hotel window. The park was rather foreboding at night, I am not entirely sure how safe it was to walk there.
We saw a man in the street lying on a trolley. He was very disabled and was begging. I find the beggars here upsetting. I have no idea what charity is available for them, if they need to beg to survive or if it is a huge scam and they are ‘organised’ by criminals (which is what I understood was the case in Mumbai with children begging.)
Bed. No sleep. Really, no sleep. And not for a good reason. Could never be an international business traveller.
Tuesday: Posh hotel car drove us to Rainbow Bridge (虹桥）Railway Station to catch train to Beijing. Scrum (literally) to go through security at entrance to station.
Used station toilet. You have to take your own toilet paper but it was fairly clean. Found out which platform we needed and waited for gate to open.
Assumed there was going to be another scrum to enter platform so didn’t bother to queue. A mistake. Joined back of queue. Was a bit concerned as we had red tickets and most people had blue ones. Checked we were in the right place. We were. Train was nice. The seat was big, with plenty of leg room. We put our cases in the luggage rack at the end of the carriage. If travelling by train, try to avoid sitting at the front of a carriage as you only get half a window.
Do not sit next to the toilet. |
There was a tap that dispensed hot water and lots of people came to refill their drinking flasks. (Chinese people drink a lot of hot water. When my friends come for ‘coffee’ in England they usually just want boiled water.)
Arrived Beijing. Got a taxi. Here, no one spoke or read any english, so essential to have hotel chinese name.
A half hour ride was only £5.
Staying at St Regis Hotel. Beautiful.
Went for a stroll. David looked at Arsenal shirts.
Had a drink in the hotel’s press bar. Very nice, lots of dark wood, textures, leather seats, candles and books.
Ate (English food) in hotel restaurant.
Watched a film then went to bed. Slept for 2 hours. Oh dear.
Wednesday: Had a coffee but no breakfast (David rather perturbed by this. I hadn’t realised before how much he likes regular meals.)
Got underground train to Tian an Men Square. Underground was really easy, clean and safe. Only cost 20p for a ticket. All bags go through an X ray machine when you enter the station. The trains have an underground map next to the door and a light shows which station you are at, so it’s really easy to track your route.
Tian an Men square is big. Really big. With no shade. There are pretty buildings (the old city gates) where the old walls used to be (before they bulldozed them.)
In the evening, went to Wangfujin Road. Found a really cool market. Really crowded. Fresh (still moving) scorpions on sticks waiting to be deep fried. All kinds of snacks, ranging from bird foetuses to insects and sea creatures.
We weren’t tempted to taste any but was really interesting. So much noise and colour and people packed together. Lots of people (Chinese people) were taking photos of the snacks, so we felt very comfortable taking pictures.
Thursday: Went to DimSum restaurant in hotel (very nice and very good price.)
My stomach was bad, so I just had some congee (米粥）which was perfect, very plain – like a porridge made from rice.
Went to The Forbidden City (故宫).
Bought the wrong tickets in the wrong place and ended up in the garden next door.
Found a back entrance into city but still had to queue up for the correct tickets.
Finally made it. It’s big and initially interesting but goes on for longer than you want it to.
It is all in individual courtyard sections, so it is hard to get a sense of the size of the whole thing. The front few courtyards were well preserved, repainted and clean. The back courtyards were faded, dusty with grass growing in the roof gutters. (I think I preferred the later courtyards.)
It was all very elaborate and impressive.
It was not too crowded or too hot (lots of seats in shade if you needed to rest.) |
It was very interesting (though in my opinion, not as interesting as the alleyways. Not much beats seeing people eating scorpions!)
Went to Haagandas shop for ice cream. Perfect.
After dinner, drank hot chocolate and watched a big storm.
Tried to find a launderette on internet as we need to do some washing (hotel laundry prices really high. Would be cheaper to buy new clothes!)
Friday: Am finally sleeping for most of the night.
Pollution very bad today, you can hardly see beyond 200 yards. The air feels heavy when you breathe, I expect it causes problems if you have asthma.
We tried and failed to find a launderette. Asked a few people. It seems you either take your clothes to an expensive chinese laundry/dry cleaners or travel a long way to a launderette (there is one at the university) but they do not have dryers. Decided to hand wash stuff.
Walked around Qian Men Da Jie (前门大街) It was slightly ‘plastic, touristy, rebuilt’ but was colourful.
Found some interesting alleys which were more real.
It was a beautiful clear day (I think not worth going if the pollution is bad.) We could see Beijing on the horizon. The mountains were beautiful, green folds that went on forever.
Went back on the underground to JingShan Park (景山).
It is directly behind the Forbidden City and has a hill that overlooks the city. In many ways I preferred this to the city itself because you get a real sense of the size of it.
Some people were singing folk music so we had an ice cream and listened. Not a pleasant noise.
Then an extremely strangely dressed man walked past and the park attendants face was a picture! You have never seen such a look of complete distain! It made me giggle.
Another main attraction of the park was a tree where an emperor had hung himself. Pleasant setting I guess.
Monday: Got a taxi to Summer Palace (颐和园).
It was quite a long taxi ride but still only cost £7. Saw some interesting parts of the city from the taxi window.
The Summer palace was brilliant, my favourite place in Beijing.
We hired a pedal boat and went on the lake. Then we walked around the edge (which takes a long time, it is massive.) We went up and down lots of steps looking at temples and pavillions, all beautiful and all very oriental. There were lots of traditional chinese bridges and willow trees draped across the water.
We then took an uncomfortably hot and crowded underground back to the hotel. Definitely worth avoiding subway during rush hour.
Tuesday: It rained and we did very little.
Went for a walk to try and find a station which is on the front of one of my books.
Saw some bits of the original city wall and some rather naff parks.
Went to ‘The Friendship Shop’ which was in the guide book and which was awful! Worth avoiding. Very tacky and over priced.
Wednesday: Decided to visit an animal market that was in the guidebook.
Got a taxi to Shi Li Dong Tian Bridge (十里洞天桥).
Market was brilliant, amazingly Chinese. As you walked in there were shops selling huge coy carp and other fish. In the actual market, there were little wicker baskets containing crickets, which you could hear chirruping as you walked around.
There were traditional bird cages with birds, kittens, terrapins, squirrels, mice – just about everything. There were also lots of walnut stalls, some in the green fruit, some polished and some strung onto bracelets. There were tables of carved wood, polished stones, pipes, shoes, cages, plants.
Thursday: Up at 7:30 and got a taxi to the north railway station.
Catching the train was much less worrying than last time.
Caught a train to Xi’an. Journey uneventful.
I didn’t much like the look of Xi’an as we went in a taxi to the Hilton. It looked much poorer than either Shanghai or Beijing.
The Hilton hotel was in the old part of the city, within the old city wall (which is still standing.) It is not near the terracotta warrior museum but I think it is a good place to stay if you want to see a glimpse of real Xi’an.
We arrived at the hotel at the same time as a coach full of american tourists. the receptionist was somewhat stressed and complaining (in mandarin). When she showed us to our rooms, I thanked her in mandarin and she was suitably embarrassed and asked if I had understood her comments (which I had.) We got very good service after that….
Our room overlooked an apartment block. It was shabby but very interesting.
Friday: Breakfast buffet in hotel. They have an open kitchen so you can watch the chefs at work while you eat, which was rather fun. David had noodles (I think just because he saw them being prepared!)
Went shopping. Shops much the same as anywhere else in the world. Except in large department stores, you have to take what you want to buy to an assistant who gives you an invoice, which you take to another til to pay, and then return to the first place to collect what you are buying. It was a bit confusing but they were very helpful and friendly.
Bought some warm clothes (Xi’an was much colder than Beijing) and some sturdy boots for wading through debris.
We went on the city wall. It cost £5 to go up and at the top you could hire tandems or bikes. It was very wide, as wide as a major road, and fully walled, so it felt completely safe. We hired a tandem.
It took us an hour and a half to cycle around the whole wall. It was brilliant. Some excellent views of the city and lovely to be able to exercise outside.
Saturday: We got a taxi to see the Terracotta Warriors.
Walked through a plaza to buy tickets, trying to dodge the very persistent tour guides. They kept telling us that we needed a guide to show us the way and explain things or we would miss interesting things. In the end we gave up and accepted one. Then she would NOT stop talking! It was like walking with a bossy radio and no ‘off’ button. I did not need to be told where to stand to take a photograph, or where to look. I had read the guide book before coming and she was just irritating.
I ate a moon cake and we walked to the exit, which was through another market. It was rather crappy but did have lots of fox fur and bear skins, which at least was different.
Our taxi had waited. We drove back to the hotel.
The museum is in a very different part of Xi’an. There were mountains in the distance, trees, fountains, lots of orchards and fruit sellers. It was pretty, but I think I preferred our rather scruffy, real life area.
Sunday: Breakfast. I tend to eat boring english stuff (bacon and eggs.) David tends to eat everything (bacon, eggs, noodles, fish, bread, pastries…)
We got a taxi to a church we found on the internet. The first taxi refused to take us there (said the road was too narrow and drove off.) There was an old lady at the gate. She welcomed us and bowed. The church building was quite big but it wasn’t very full. It was all in chinese. The hymns were on a big screen, which made it easier to join in (David sang the ‘Amen’ at the end of each one!) The sermon (exactly one hour) was quite difficult for me to understand, I could only really understand the main gist of what she was saying. It was very formal. The congregation was mainly women, most were taking notes. There were several people coming and going during the service. At the end, a girl came and hugged me, clearly excited at having visitors. It was rather touching. We looked at their bookshop but they only had about six. I bought a jade cross for my mum.
Lots of round doorways and pretty roofs. There was a street market with some interesting textiles (bought a cushion cover for my collection.) There was street food and a lot of walnuts.
Monday: Breakfast. David didn’t hold back again. Chatted to a couple from Hong Kong who are stranded due to a big typhoon.
We got a taxi to Big Goose Pagoda.
There was a fountain show but we had missed it.
There was a lady in traditional costume being photographed. She asked if David would be in the photo with her. Then she couldn’t stop laughing, neither could the photographer or her husband, who was watching. David seems very tall and very blond here. It was one of those random happy moments that seem to happen frequently here.
We walked around the garden, which had excellent statues.
The pagoda was basically just a lot of stairs. I was unclear why it was necessary to go up them. Is a boy thing (like church towers in Norfolk. I have never understood the need to go up those either.)
We spotted another Starwood hotel (Westin) so went inside for lunch. It was clean and peaceful and safe. I love seeing China, but it is lovely to have breaks from all the new culture every so often.
Paid to go into a park. It was not very nice. It felt fake and slightly broken and smelled of sewage. It had been advertised as the Xi’an equivalent of the Summer Palace. It wasn’t.
Tuesday: Caught a flight back to Shaghai. Stayed at Royal Meridian again.
Wednesday: Caught flight back to England. An amazing holiday.
Thank you for reading this extract from my holiday diary.
If you enjoyed this, you will love my new book: The Sarcastic Mother’s Holiday Diary.
I have always written a diary on holiday, so last Christmas, I decided to find all my old diaries and blogs, and make a book for my children. However, several other people also asked for a copy, so I have written a public version – it’s available on Amazon and has been described as “The Durrells meet Bill Bryson”!
Why not buy a copy today? I think it will make you laugh.
The US link is here:
The India link is here:
The UK link is here: