Eagles Land on Planet Bling

Where do you go to see the best of night-time Shanghai? Walking Street and The Bund, of course.  We arrived, utilising Shanghai’s ultra-modern subway system. Once on the platform, my head shook from side to side in amazement. Trains arrived every four minutes here, for just about every destination. Again, the contrast to our ‘Puffing Billy’ services at home, felt like a slap.

Once on this amazing boulevard, we felt that the Gods of sparkle had transported us to Planet Bling; viva Las Vegas, at its best. Hey, hold on a minute … this is supposed to be China; the so called third world. Within minutes, our necks felt sore from constantly looking up at the lights and … because half of the Chinese population seemed to be in the street at the same time as us, we fell into a stream of humanity, dragged along by the crowd, to the street’s end, some four or five city blocks from where we started.

We left Walking Street; our necks still stretched, as we attempted to take in the view over the crowd. As we entered The Bund, we saw a water-side expanse of beautiful flood-lit, French and British colonial buildings that ran along the western side of the Huangpu River. On the far bank we discovered Shanghai’s equivalent to Manhattan. Modern architectural marvels that disappeared into the heavens; some of which, rose over one hundred stories high. A giant Television screen took up the entire facing wall of one high-rise, and, like the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, their kaleidoscope of moving light, reflected back to us across the surface of the water. Beautiful, yet I wouldn’t have wanted to be burdened by the cost of the electricity bill.

Ah, Shanghai; modern, generic and stinking hot, yet the only real negatives we experienced here, were from foreign sources. I became appalled by the rudeness displayed, by some of the western ex-pats towards the locals. At one point, we witnessed a suited individual, push his way off a train and purposely elbow a young girl in the face. He didn’t even honour her with a glance, yet neither she, nor her young boyfriend reacted. We spotted quite a few of these middle aged, self-styled Taipans, invariably with a young Chinese girl on their arm. Perhaps I’m being foolishly judgemental, but I couldn’t help wondering if these beautiful young things would be discarded, once these businessmen returned to their wives and families.

The next day we zig-zagged our way to Zhujiajiao (pronounced: zyou zyow zyow), travelling in every direction other than the right one; finally making it to the old canal town, after an expensive direction adjustment, made in a local taxi. Zhujiajiao, the Chinese Venice, seemed nice, in a touristy kind of way, although almost deserted. We supposed the heat and the distance kept even the holidaying Chinese away. Strangely, we made it back to central Shanghai, by getting on the correct bus, which turned out to be an hour shorter than the forward journey.

That night we headed across the river from The Bund, to the Grand Hyatt Hotel, which I’m told is one hundred and ten, or so, stories into the stratosphere. Here we enjoyed a scenic drink on the eighty seventh floor’s restaurant. I swear that the whole building swayed, despite the non-existent Shanghai breezes, which seemed especially heightened when I sat on the toilet; very disconcerting! Has anybody experienced this?

We both realised the lesson we received from our visit to Shanghai; a classy, ultra-modern, and definitely sophisticated city, yet, with few authentic cultural areas that weren’t primarily over-crowded tourist traps. China seemed to be developing and westernising so fast, that we feared for the loss of its culture; the ‘so called good life’ obviously has its price. I guess this is easy to say, when you’ve never been without.

Then we heard it; a call, ‘go west young man (and woman)’ for a more authentic Chinese experience. So, trusting the weird voices in our heads, we purchased the only tickets we could to the city of Chengdu, a small county town of ten million or so people, in the Province of Sichuan, at the foot of the Tibetan Plateau. Unfortunately, we would have to endure a thirty-two hour train ride to get there, on a hard seat. It sounded absolutely back breaking, yet we couldn’t wait to leave for the home of the Giant Panda.

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Eagles in Old Shanghai

The very idea of hurtling along on a train at three hundred and fifty kilometres an hour, is both scary and preposterous, especially given that our Albury to Melbourne fast-train service, struggled to reach jogging speed in places. Before we boarded, we began hoping and then actually praying that these Chinese tracks allowed for a slightly more reliable and less hazardous journey than ours. The ride exceeded any scenario I could have come up with. It felt remarkably like flying in a large jet-liner. It turned out to be very smooth and comfortable although the scenery flashed by so fast that we didn’t feel quite at ease, especially with the digital monitor at the end of each car constantly displaying the current speed.

Buildings of Shanghai

We reached Shanghai alive, which is always a bonus, but immediately became assaulted by the heat and humidity as we left the train. We managed Beijing’s dry heat, but this …? Within minutes, I become a human sprinkler system, spraying unsuspecting victims every time I moved. At the terminal we were picked up by an Australian expat, who put us up for a few days. Over that period, we received an education on all things Chinese, particularly the food. One of the local hot-pot restaurants called ‘The Little Sheep’ became our favourite. Each table came with a sunken pot, with a heat source underneath; something akin to a steam-boat in the middle of our table. Initially, we filled the boiling water with herbs and spices, and later with a range of local produce, which included some ‘not so local’ New Zealand Lamb. We also found a good dumpling restaurant, aptly named ‘Discovery’, with great varieties to choose from. In fact, we ate an awful lot in Shanghai, perhaps because of our exertions, or more likely, because of the air-conditioned facilities. Some of the dishes included spicy fish head, donkey, frog, snake-head fish, black wood fungus and goat, to name but a few.

On one of our days exploring the city, we discovered the ‘Alleys of Taikang Road’, which originally began, when an Australian opened an illegal restaurant to avoid zoning regulations, called the ‘Communard’. It became so popular that eventually all of the old houses in this tangle of streets become restaurants, quaint bars and galleries. Later that night, we visited ‘The Cotton Club’, which is particularly famous if you love live jazz; not unlike ‘Ronnie Scott’s’ in London. A classy mixture of Europeans and locals, belted out song after song, but the action really began, when an African-American woman joined the band from the dance floor and sang the roof off the place. Eventually, two other American gals and one stunning Bulgarian joined her. It turned out to be no accident; the girls became a group so that they could sing their way around China, at two cities per week.

In the middle of our Shanghai experience, someone recommended we head south on another fast train, to visit the city of Hangzhou. We initially found this small Chinese city of only four million people, very smoggy and unappealing; wondering why we ever ventured here. Then we discovered the ‘West Lake’, which is the city’s gem. It looked particularly beautiful at night, especially the fountain displays in the lake, which combined timed sprays of water, with coloured lighting and classical music. Despite the wonders of the lake, Hangzhou’s humidity almost did us in. Even the unimaginable crowds of local people and other tourists seemed to wilt; most, wetter than the eels in the bottom of the lake. Once again, the ever-present icy poles (roughly translated as La-bing-wa), saved us.

Chinese Dragonboat on West Lake Hangzhou

We travelled back to Shanghai with sobering news. Another fast-train, travelling from the same station as ours, crashed over a bridge after being struck by another train, with forty souls lost. Apparently, a lightning strike stopped the first train, but not the second, which couldn’t stop in time. We missed the same fate by moments and felt sick thinking about the grief suffered by all of the victims loved ones. It only strengthened our resolve to live life to its fullest and not waste a precious moment … while we still could.

Eagles Adorned

Feeling more than a little excited about the day’s possibilities, Katie and I headed out on foot, to explore Beijing’s Beihai Gardens. Along the way we discovered the National Calligraphy and Public Seal Cutting Exhibition. We enjoyed the displays and the National Library, especially the intricately carved seals and the skill and elegance of the calligraphy, despite not understanding the meaning of the characters.

Beihai GardensWe spent the rest of the day exploring the lake and the lovely gardens, experiencing beautiful Beijing at its best, even with the ever-present blanket of smog. We hardly noticed the oppressive temperatures, as we strolled through the subtle artistry of this master-work of palaces and gardens, which once belonged to Kublai Khan and then to a succession of emperors.

The next day we set out with an expectation of even more horrendous heat, crowded public transport, massive gatherings of humanity and above all, more of the capital’s grandeur and … it didn’t disappoint. With stomachs full to the brim with an assortment of steamed dumplings, we headed to the closest underground railway station; finding the train system relatively easy to negotiate, despite our lack of local language.

From the station, we plodded a long way in the heat; hardly spotting another person on our way to the lake and grounds of the Summer Palace. This quiet journey eventually morphed into one of the most memorable contrasts of my existence. The initial dribble of human activity we encountered soon rose to a flood; sweeping us along a river of smiling faces and picnic baskets.

Summer Palace It looked scary, yet to our astonishment, everyone moved in a most considerate and orderly fashion, which is a phenomenon that seemed unique to China. In the midst of the flowing masses, Katie and I became celebrities; accepting our new-found illustriousness with good humour. We found ourselves photographed between mum and dad and the kids, over and over, until, by the end of the day we became more famous than Brad and Angelina; about to be adorned on many a mantelpiece around China. Can anyone out there explain why this happened?

Snap-shot heaven is the only way to adequately describe the lake, the grounds and the wonders of the palace. It’s no wonder that after only five days of travel in China, we had taken around five hundred pictures each, which is a warning to all of our friends. Be prepared to avoid all future dinner invitations. You may be required to view them all!

Because of many millions of holidaying Chinese, train tickets to anywhere became more scarce and elusive than an honest politician. Procuring any ticket required standing in an endless queue, so that you could be told that you were in the wrong line. After three such experiences, we luckily managed to snare two fares on the super-fast train to Shanghai, which wasn’t Xian, our intended destination, but a great destination none-the-less.

We danced through the crowd, like a pair of dizzy school kids. It’s amazing how surviving the mob can make you feel. In truth it felt sad to leave Beijing, but adventure beckoned. Tomorrow we will be travelling at three hundred and fifty kilometres per hour. Come along if you dare!

What I’m reading at the moment:

  • Mice by Gordon Reece
  • Let’s get digital by David Gaughran

Icy Pole Eagles

ImageWe began the morning, treating blisters and eating dumpling soup, before heading to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China; a pleasant three hour bus-ride from Beijing. I think I read once that you could see the Great Wall from space, yet we needed to be within three hundred metres to see it through the smog.

After our arrival, we entertained two possible options to get up onto the wall: wait in a queue for a cable car, or climb up yourself. Easy decision; we trudged up the steep terrain through dense humid forests until we reached the wall. During the ordeal, we got to know quite a few equally sweaty holidaying Chinese, with perspiration soaking their favourite outfits. It is amazing how sharing a difficult experience can create a simple bond. For the rest of the day, whenever we encountered each other, we shared a nod and knowing smile.

At last stood we stood atop one of the world’s most well-known structures. It felt amazing, even though our view dissipated into the density of the surrounding pollution. We couldn’t help thinking about the soldiers who built this incredible structure. Just walking up once, became a trial. It’s no wonder so many perished trying to relocate such gargantuan amounts of rock to the top of these ridge-lines.

After several hours and another ten kilometre of steeply ascending steps, we arrived at the highest tower in the area and began to wonder about the fitness and tenacity of the warriors that defended these walls. They endured freezing cold and extreme heat with no modern amenities, while we brave souls needed a modern-day survival tactic; requiring at least one icy pole at each tower.

No matter the country or the culture, some things never seem to change. Of the thousands of souls from China and from all over the world, who braved the conditions to experience the great wall, the fashion fatales were without doubt the most obvious. A common dance ensued, as high heels plunged into gaps in the stairs or slipped on the uneven pathway. It seemed unkind to smile when tightly clad knees banged together, ankles buckled and arms adorned with jewellery flapped about, not so elegantly, for balance.

Once we arrived at the lowest section of the wall, we realised that you could luge down to the bottom instead of walking. Given that our calves still had a fire in them from our climb, sliding down the mountain with the wind in our faces seemed really appealing. So, with hearts pounding, we mounted our mighty plastic steeds and flung ourselves down the precipice. Somewhere on the way down, an old woman passed me, stepping carefully as she descended the nearby stairs. At that point, I became the head of a group of at least twenty other sleds, all wedged into my rear.

Because of the heat and the extent of our exertions, we shuffled to a nearby café, where lunch and that first cold beer felt heaven sent. Here we got the chance to share our day’s delights with Leanie and Will Louw, and Mia, from South Africa, who were about to travel to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Railroad; nice people. There wasn’t much talking on the way back to Beijing. Our bus-load of satisfied, yet tired adventurers were in the land of nod.

Although, one question still remained unanswered. Apart from someone’s arthritic looking homing pigeon, flying limp-winged from our hotel roof, we were still to see any native birds. Tomorrow we’ll venture into the famed Bei Hai Gardens … and quite apart from its expected grandeur, we’re hoping to find the location of a country’s missing birds. Does anybody out there know where they are? [see comments added below]

[In response to my “where are the birds in China question …” Our friend Di’s expert step father provided this info …

We had a similar problem in China, there are a number of issues. Being winter there will be no summer migrants present, there are also few birds in the built up areas ( they probably eat them or keep them in cages) and we did not see many birds at the great Wall. Our best bird observations were at the South Springs , about 15 km from Chongquing. To see many birds one would need to obtain the services of a good Ornithological guide and be prepared to travel all at the right time of year.

Thanks for your help Di.

Ken Grace]

The Eagles and the Beast

Beijing National Centre for the Performing Arts

We began our first full day in Beijing, exploring the narrow streets around our hotel. The maze of alleyways ablaze in a riot of colourful lanterns, wall hangings and advertising. We came here for this; everything seeming magnificently alien with unrecognisable tones and language, strange and tantalising aromas and hundreds of smiling faces. It soon dawned on us that we were the real aliens and that the smiles were actually amusement at our weirdness, but the local people went out of their way to be helpful and accepting.

Later that morning we took a short walk to the spectacular and iconic, North Gate of Tiananmen Square (the Gate of Heavenly Peace), yet it was the size of the crowd that truly astonished. It moved as one monstrous breathing entity in every direction at once. We entered this chaos with a good deal of apprehension, sure that we would be swallowed up by the beast. Despite our hesitation, we managed to move relatively freely.

We pulled ourselves above the crowd, as we climbed up into the North Gate; marvelling at the view of the square. Directly below us we spotted the start of a queue that literally stretched for miles. We found out later that it took about five to six hours to shuffle into the mausoleum of Chairman Mao. For each pilgrim’s suffering in the blazing heat, they received a single glimpse of the great man of China; six hours for two seconds; that’s dedication!

From Tiananmen Square, we continued north in a crush of humanity, until we reached the Forbidden City. Everyone’s seen pictures, but it didn’t prepare us for the sheer size of this imposing compound. Sitting atop towering red walls we discovered a building of intricate architectural designs, decorated in a range of bright primary colours. Somehow this clash of colour worked its magic on us; it felt wonderfully peaceful despite sharing the experience with half of the planet’s population.

By mid-afternoon the temperature in our unshaded and overcrowded square, rose to such a point that I become a puddle. Even my eyeballs seemed to perspire, yet Katie appeared to be oblivious and happily unsympathetic, perhaps because of her years suffering the cold in Freeburgh.

Before retiring to cold showers, beer and air-conditioning, we decided to walk back to our hotel, via the Beijing Performing Arts Centre. If you ever experienced the movie Independence Day, then you could be forgiven for thinking that an enormous silver-domed space craft just landed in a lake in the midst of the city; presumably to load up with dumplings, fish heads and some obligatory Peking Duck, before heading to a galaxy far … far … away.

Given that winter time at home in the mountains isn’t the best period for wearing sandals, we were unprepared for the resultant wear and tear from such a long, sweaty walk. Suffice to say that feet are much more attractive when they are covered with skin. As we continued our tortuous trek back to the hotel, we noted our first older model, rust-covered and severely dented vehicle. It turned out to be a beat-up old Kombi van, driven by some European hippies; lost in a time warp. They seemed to be looking for a road back to the sixties.

As Katie and I knocked down the last of our medicinal beverages, we entered into a discussion concerning the day’s events and an anomaly in our observations. We didn’t manage to see one bird in all of our march. How could this be possible, given the amount of large trees lining the streets? Perhaps they somehow disappeared in the smog, or the heat drove them into hiding, or perhaps our excessive body heat made us delusional and we just didn’t see them. Whatever the reason, our deliberations could wait for a good night’s sleep and breakfast, once we found a decent dumpling house.