The Very Forbidden City

In the past, uninvited entrance into the Forbidden City would have been met with instant execution.  For many years now this has thankfully not been the case, although I strongly suspect one of the guards to the palace wishes he could deliver such swift retribution on my head.

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A January morning, looking towards the Gate of Divine Might.

In the latter half of the twentieth century the palace was opened up to the public.  Today, the Forbidden City is one of the most popular tourist destinations in China, both for foreigners and Chinese nationals alike.  It is certainly an amazing place.  I had it on very good authority that the most impressive way to view the whole complex was to enter at the Gate of Divine Might and head south through the palace, so this is what I attempted to do.

I was instantly met by a guard waving frantically at me.  I politely waved in return and carried on my way.  He mimed something to me so I gave him the thumbs up, but kept walking.  I am not exactly sure what giving somebody the thumbs up means in China, but it must be similar to in the UK because it generally does the trick.

In this case, however, it didn’t.  He was adamant that I shouldn’t be entering through the northern gate.  I had met these kind of access problems elsewhere in China and generally, when I just pretend to be a stupid foreigner who doesn’t understand or know any better, I’m allowed on my way with a grudging shrug.  If that fails then my next technique is to ask lots of questions, which often leaves people so shocked they frenetically wave me on in a gesture of outraged horror.

So I challenged him, questioning why I wasn’t allowed to enter the Forbidden City from the north.  He said he couldn’t answer that, so together we summoned his superior who was napping in a nearby port-a-cabin.  He wasn’t best pleased to be woken up, but he eventually came out, leaving what looked suspiciously like a large, semi-automatic on his seat.

I started by telling him what I wanted to do and he replied that I couldn’t do it.  After ten minutes talking with him it finally dawned on me that I actually wasn’t going to be allowed in through the Gate of Divine Might.  Complementing his coat and covert hints at bribery had both failed, so instead I resorted to finding out the reason I was being turned away.  After all, I knew that in the very recent past it had been possible to enter through this gate. Indeed, if you search online right now, many websites state that you can still enter from both the northern and southern gates.

I told him this, but he flatly denied that this had ever been the case.  It might seem like, by my questioning, I was causing unnecessary problems.  I find that it can be cathartic to occasionally challenge the status-quo, albeit in my own little way, in China.  As a general rule, whichever way of doing things that would seem to be the most logical and sensible, expect the polar opposite to be the way things are actually done.  This quickly becomes infuriating and the only way I have been able to keep myself sane is by these occasional discussions, discussions where I can explain my frustrations and seek answers as to why things are as they are.  Admittedly this rarely does any visible good, but mentally I find it very beneficial.

As is often the case, my queries as to why I was being stopped from entering were met with the classic Chinese response: ‘No why’.  I simply turned and walked through the gate at this point.  As I told him over my shoulder, if there was no reason – ‘no why’ – that I was being denied entrance, then presumably it shouldn’t be a problem for me to go through the gate.  He ran after me and barred my way, clearly getting rather angry, but he had hit on a particular pet hate of mine.

‘No why’.  It is a common response from my students when I ask them to explain why they hold a particular opinion.  I struggle to explain to them that, without an argument to back up their opinion with (whatever it may be), their opinion would be seen by many to be almost worthless.  This is basically what I explained to the guard at the gate.  If he could give no reason not to do something, why could I not do it?  If there was no reason that he could give me not to enter through the Gate of Divine Might, then I would say goodbye and go on my way – through said gate.

He did not like that at all.  Logical, sound reasoning can be a heinous thing in some places it seems and he threatened me with the police.  It was at this point that I decided to leave, realising that ending up in a Chinese prison over something so trivial would not have been my finest hour.

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The Forbidden City is pretty special… if you can get in!

I can certainly appreciate the irony of being the first man to be barred entrance to the Forbidden City since the fall of dynastic China. Later in my stay in Beijing I was able to tour the palace, entering through the Meridian Gate in the south, and it is definitely a wonderful place.  I won’t soon forget it, or my discussion with the guard at the gate.  Why had the rules changed? Why couldn’t he answer my questions?  Why was his reaction to coherent logical reasoning so disproportionately strong?

In China?  ‘No why’, of course.

Impressions of Beijing

In the nineteenth century, George Eliot wrote that Rome is a city that makes ‘the mind flexible by constant comparison’, a place that ‘saved you from seeing the world’s ages as a set of box-like partitions without vital connection’.  Contemporary Beijing has this same wonderful quality.  From the Temple of Heaven to the Bird’s Nest Stadium, the Forbidden City to the CCTV Tower, Beijing is both ancient and modern.  It is undoubtedly my favourite Chinese city.

I stayed in a hotel nestled in an old hutong.  Hutongs are sprawling areas of traditional courtyard residences, laced with narrow streets and alleys.  Some date from as many as three thousand years ago, and they are good places to get a feel for the ambiguous, enduring quality which Eliot describes and Beijing certainly has.  The word ‘hutong’ is actually a Mongol word, the entomology of which hints at China’s often tumultuous history and the influence of the Mongol hordes on the capital, more of which in a couple of weeks when I write about the Great Wall.

The hutong I stayed in lay to the south-west of the Forbidden City, with the hotel about fifteen minutes walk from Tiananmen Square.  It was interesting to wander through the hutong, noting how things became more and more commercial as the hutong neared the Archer Gate, at the southern end of Tiananmen.

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The hutong, near the hotel.

The narrow alleys where I stayed were bordered by traditional dumpling houses, numerous ‘Chinese General Stores’ (as I call them – think ‘Open all Hours’, but the food is generally even more out of date), and many other impossibly cramped shops so inscrutable they could conceivably have dealt in anything from scrap metal to pets, hair-cuts to traditional Chinese medicine, or indeed any possible combination of each or all.  The traditional cobbles had mostly been replaced by asphalt to cater for the array of vehicles which careen through the narrow alleys.

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The commercial end of the hutong, looking towards the Archer Gate.

After a few minutes of walking towards the Archer Gate the asphalt was replaced by slabs of slate paving – definitely an improvement – but as the alleys widened and the tourists increased, so the shops lost their enigmatic charm.  Increasingly fast food joints replaced the traditional dumpling houses and it became far easier to tell exactly what shops were selling. This is not necessarily a bad thing, I suppose, and there were still many traditional restaurants selling Beijing duck and other delicacies, but it was hard not to feel like something had been lost.

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The Bird’s Nest Stadium.

I was lucky enough to see many wonderful sights in Beijing, besides the hutongs. As well as the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, I was also able to check out the Yonghegong Lama Temple and the Summer Palace, not to mention the Bird’s Nest Stadium and the CCTV Tower.  All of these stand in a city which has endured, through various incarnations, for three millennia.  This is what made me think of Eliot’s words and how history should not be seen as ages, separated in ‘box-like partitions’.  When it is possible on the same day to visit a temple built as the seat of an emperor and his dynasty nearly 600 years ago, and then marvel at a state-of-the-art athletics stadium, itself constructed to stage a sporting event initiated in ancient Greece (which was in turn restored to prominence by a Frenchman at the end of the nineteenth century), it is hard not to have sympathy with Eliot’s words.

Today, writing about Beijing, three months after my visit and in the light of Eliot’s thoughts, it has made me see the hutongs differently.  My thoughts are certainly not as profound as hers, nevertheless, I like them.  Yes, things had been lost in the hutongs, but things are always lost with the passage of time.  This ‘losing of things’ is inevitable and fundamental to the formation of history.  Saying ‘history has been lost’ is to utter one of the most commonplace truisms of them all; history is lost the second it happens, but is then constructed and inflected by future peoples over and over.  History is ultimately a palimpsest, both on the ground and in our minds.  As such, to mourn what has been lost of ‘traditional’ Beijing is a futile exercise, far better to revel in what the city offers today – for it will surely be different tomorrow!

Those were my impressions of the Chinese Capital.  I haven’t mentioned the smog, sadly I could never think of living permanently in the city because of it.  Tragic though that is, don’t let it put you off visiting what is a remarkable city!

I should finally apologise for the lateness of this blog, the internet has been down since last Friday, my phone has also died, plus the shower has broken!  One of those weeks, although they do seem to be more frequent in China… Tomorrow I’ll be writing about ‘The Very Forbidden City’.

Confucius’ Hometown

Confucius was born two and a half thousand years ago in a place called Qufu.  Qufu lies in Shandong province, about halfway between Shanghai and Beijing.  It is a less frequented stop for tourists and, after the anonymity of Shanghai, I once again found myself the centre of attention.  Qufu was recommended to me by a friend as a great place to experience some fascinating Chinese culture, but also as a spot to escape the crowds.  It lived up to his billing, although not exactly in the way I expected.

The bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing passes within a few kilometres of Qufu so it is an easy place to get to.  From Qufu East station I took the bus (the K1 if I remember correctly) into the old city.  The problem for a non-Mandarin speaking foreigner on Chinese busses is that it can be very hard to pick out the name of the stop within the continuous announcements.  I heard ‘Nan men’ (which I think means south gate) and jumped off, taking my chances.  From there it was a short walk through the historic centre of the town, passing under the city walls, to the YHA hostel.  The hostel is cheap, although you do get what you pay for, but it is in a great location.

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The South Gate of Qufu City Wall.

Qufu has a population of about 60,000.  In modern China this puts it very much within the category of a small town, but in the past it was an influential city, a centre both of ideas and commerce.  The towering city wall, replete with gatehouses and a forbidding moat, is a testament to the settlement’s strategically important past.  Today it is most famous as the birthplace of Confucius and the location of the Temple of Confucius, the Cemetery of Confucius, and the Kong Family Mansion.

The first place I explored, however, was not one of these famous sites.  Directly across the road from the hostel is the entrance to the Yan Temple, a shrine to Confucius’ favourite disciple, Yan Hui.  Relatively little is known about Confucius’ students, but Yan Hui was foremost in his master’s affections.  A promising thinker and scholar, he died at 32 while Confucius was still alive, leaving his teacher bereft.  The temple itself, commissioned by Confucius, was deserted when I arrived, leaving me free to wander at my leisure.

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Some of the wonderful detailing on the Pavilion of Joy in the Yan Temple.

The Yan Temple is a small walled complex, measuring barely 100 meters by 250 meters.  In my experience these smaller temples are often more enjoyable to explore than the larger, supposedly preeminent sites.  They attract less people and thus allow for a more meticulous inspection of the numerous halls, pavilions, gates, and statues.  One feature in particular named the Pavilion of Joy I found remarkable.  It is a small structure dedicated to finding joy in the simple pleasures of life.  The proportions of the pavilion are wonderful and it is superbly finished in dazzling patterns of turquoise and red, detailed with dragons of gold.  This pavilion, nestling amongst the stately Cypress trees, seemed to me a perfect exemplar of architecture standing as a foil for, and even an addition to, the beauty of nature. This harmony between the works of nature and man lends the whole temple an overwhelming sense of calm and serenity.

After delighting in the magnificent Yan Temple, the rest of Qufu threatened to be something of a let down.  Regrettably the Temple of Confucius was out of bounds due to renovation work during my visit and the Kong Family Mansion seemed to have been transformed into a network of shops and market stalls selling overpriced tat.  I was not able to read the Chinese information boards, so admittedly there was probably more to the mansion than I could grasp.

I was initially disappointed at not being able to visit the Temple of Confucius.  The more I thought about it, however, the more fitting this denial of a look at the famous site seemed. For Confucius the most important thing was not that he should be revered and worshipped as an idol after his death, but that his ideas should survive and prosper.  It is difficult to condense Confucius’ teachings into a single sentence, but perhaps one of the most relevant teachings of Confucianism for contemporary society is that we should value learning for the sake of learning.  By experience and education we can learn to be discerning, and Confucius argues this will not only enrich our own lives, but also help us to behave virtuously towards others, thus enriching theirs.

So, although it was disappointing not to visit his temple, I think Confucius himself would probably be happier that there is now another person who has ‘The Analects’ – a selection of Confucius’ ideas collected in a single text – on their reading list.  Qufu is a nice place to visit, but if you can’t afford the air fare to China you could always head down to your local second-hand bookshop for some ancient Chinese thinking instead…

Until next week,

The Gardens of Suzhou

If any city in China could be described as quaint, then it is Suzhou.  Founded in 514BC, Suzhou was described by Marco Polo in 1276AD as ‘The Venice of the East’.  Famous for its canals, silk, and classical gardens Suzhou leaves an impression unique among the cities I have visited in China.  Despite having a population of around four million people, contemporary Suzhou manages to retain much of its antique charm.

This is partly down to the city’s extraordinary canals.  Suzhou was once a major port on the Grand Canal, which stretched over one thousand miles from Beijing to Hangzhou.  All the major rivers in China run from west to east, so this canal was a necessity in ancient times to link the political and economic capitals in the north and south.  Blessed with the fertile soil of the Yangtze river basin, Suzhou prospered, becoming a rich trading city. Remarkably Suzhou’s canals are still used to this day to transport produce from the surrounding countryside to the city’s markets.  These little crisscrossing waterways lend a tranquility to parts of Suzhou, which seems such a rarity and a luxury to experience in Chinese cities.  Sitting in a tea house garden next to one of these gently meandering canals I found it difficult to believe the madness of Shanghai was only a brief train journey away.

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Suzhou city wall, and moat. The moat forms a small part of the city’s impressive canal system.

Yet, despite my disbelief, Suzhou is indeed only about thirty minutes by bullet train from Shanghai.  Our plan was to have a day trip to Suzhou, whilst keeping our base in Hangzhou.  This was a good plan in theory, but the trains from Hangzhou to Suzhou travel via Shanghai, increasing the travel time considerably.  Sadly this cut our stay in Suzhou, but we still had enough time to explore the city. Although Suzhou is a lovely place to relax, if you’re pressed for time then a day-trip from Shanghai with an early start is sufficient – if you’re organised!

Tom and I arrived at Suzhou train station in the centre of the city.  The first sight to greet us was the impressive city wall, which has stood in various incarnations for 2,500 years. Today a restored version stands nearly ten metres high and is bordered by a wide moat. It was an unseasonably warm, still day and we walked  alongside the water in the hazy sun before crossing into the old city.

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The blending of nature, landscape and architecture is exquisitely well executed in the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

The first garden we visited was the Humble Administrator’s Garden. This is one of the four most famous classical gardens in China, two of which are located in or around Suzhou.  The garden is designed around a labyrinth of connected pools and islands, containing many pavilions and bridges.  It is a perfect melding of nature, architecture, and landscape.  No single one of these aspects dominates the garden.  Rather, these three foundations of garden design harmonise wonderfully together, creating a restful haven of peace and tranquility.

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One of the many pavilions in the Humble Administrator’s Garden.

The garden was a pleasure to explore and comment on with Tom, although, as we continued, our critique lapsed from the aesthetic… into paintball.  A full scale replica would make an unbelievable paintball arena!  We vowed to build one if we ever had the money, or rather build two: one to enjoy in peace and the other for high octane games of paintball assassin.  If you’ve seen NBC’s sitcom Community then you will understand the appeal!  Thankfully there is no way our plans could ever be realised within the walls of the original, a very good thing to. It is a gem well worth visiting.

After a brief spot of lunch beside one of the narrow canals we visited another garden, this one named the Lion Grove Garden.  It is one of the four most famous gardens in Suzhou.  Centred around a vast limestone rockery, which towers several metres high in places, labyrinthine passages wind their way around the garden, skirting ponds and pavilions.

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A small part of the limestone rockery in the Lion Grove Garden.

The predominance of rocks meant it was noticeably different from the Humble Administrator’s Garden, but no less impressive in its own way.  Admittedly, however, the low hanging rocks were fairly lethal for somebody standing at 6′ 4”, visiting with a hard hat might be prudent.

There are many other places of interest in Suzhou that we had no time to see.  It would have been wonderful to have been able to visit the Lingering Garden, Beisi and Yunyan Pagodas, as well as some of the famous ancient streets, but for a flying visit we didn’t do too badly.

Just like Hangzhou, Suzhou is a lovely spot.  It is certainly well worth exploring for as long as you can spare as it really is unique among Chinese cities, at least in my experience.  It was also my last stop with Tom before I headed north to Confucius’ hometown and from there on to Beijing.  Much, much more of these adventures in the weeks to come!

Wandering in Hangzhou

Hangzhou is a far older city than Shanghai.  It is the capital of Zhejiang Province and forms a rough triangle of must-see places on the east coast, along with the municipality of Shanghai and the neighbouring city of Suzhou in Jiangsu province.  I think that is correct…  I am never certain of how to name all the administrative divisions in China, with provinces, municipalities, autonomous regions, and special administrative regions making up the 34 provincial level divisions within the country.  Confused?  Me to.

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West Lake, Hangzhou, on a beautiful January day!

Hangzhou was our first stop post Shanghai.  Tom and I stayed there for three nights, but only had one full day to explore the city as we squeezed in a day trip to Suzhou as well.  We arrived quite late on New Year’s Day (after thoroughly taking advantage of the Marriott’s 2PM late check-out to catch up on some sleep).  The hostel we stayed in is called ‘The Green International’ and is located to the north west of the West Lake, Hangzhou’s main tourist attraction.  I found the hostel nice, perhaps a little out of the way, but easy to find on the bus and taxis are cheap.

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West Lake, Hangzhou.

The city is built around its famous West Lake.  This lake has inspired poets, painters, and garden designers throughout Asia since the time of the Qin dynasty, 2,000 years ago.  It was certainly a lovely spot on an unseasonably balmy morning in early January.  Very peaceful and tranquil, it is not hard to see why it has inspired for millennia, although admittedly the great and the good of Chinese art and literature probably had to deal with fewer poorly trained dogs and water taxis interrupting their landscape paintings and poetic musings.  The lake is also deceptively large and it took us nearly two hours to amble around just a small northern portion.

We were both interested in checking out some markets while in the city so we went in search of a walking street named Hefang Old Street.  These walking streets – supposedly free of cars and mopeds – are full of arts and crafts.  Unfortunately, in my experience at least, the arts and crafts themselves do not vary markedly from place to place.  It seems that China is experiencing its own epidemic of soulless identikit high streets, which in the UK seem to stretch far and wide from Bangor to Bradford, Glasgow to Gloucester.  Instead of the same stores, however, in China it’s the same products.

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The food market of Hefang Old Street.

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One of the many ‘delicacies’ – some sort of crustacean I think.

Of course, in both cases this problem is not universal.  One narrow alley off Hefang contained an amazing food market, filled with anything you can imagine attempting to ingest – and several things you probably can’t.  The smells of cumin and cloves, star anise and five spice were intoxicating, accompanied by the sonorous cries of vendors and the general hubbub from customers.  The alacrity with which food was dispatched was seriously impressive, although once or twice while taking photos I found myself in the way of a zealous foodie and his dinner and got a couple of blows in the ribs for my trouble.  A very enjoyable place to spend half an hour and well worth searching out.

As is often the way, the best little finds are down the small alleys and so it proved again, this time when we stumbled upon ‘Nepal Hadicraft Street’.  I regret not buying anything now as I haven’t seen any little figurines resembling those found in this alley in all my wanderings since.  It was certainly better than a night market we went to later that evening.  I have found that once you get over the fact that these night markets are, predictably, at night then there is very little else to get excited about, unless counterfeit apple phone chargers are your thing.

We found several good places to eat, chief among them a Hangzhou based restaurant chain called Grandma’s Kitchen.  This is different to the chain in Beijing which goes by the same name, where the food is Western.  Hangzhou’s Grandma’s Kitchens serve Chinese food, some of the best I have had in fact.  A tip-off from a friend made it sound incredible and it more than lived up to his recommendation.  The menus had pictures (an absolute dream for my pictorial menu starved self – in Hunan I just point and hope) and the dishes were even in English as well as Mandarin.  The food was cheap and delicious and the restaurant itself pretty classy (bare in mind I had just come from the Marriott, so I had high expectations at this point in the trip).  Why these restaurants are not all over Asia – and indeed the world – is baffling.

Hangzhou proved a great place to relax after the madness of Shanghai, but it’s not all sedate.  There are several lively bars to be found on the south east bank of the lake and even livelier clubs as well, with great banter from the locals!  Not dissimilar to Shanghai, Hangzhou has got it all… but on a much smaller and, for me at least, more manageable scale.  I left feeling that Shanghai might be nice for a flying visit, but it would destroy me after a few weeks!  Hangzhou, on the other hand, would be a place to spend a year or more.

Much more of neighbouring Suzhou with its wonderful gardens to follow next week.

Champagne Backpacking in Shanghai

Shanghai is technically the world’s largest ‘city proper’ ranked by population. Despite its size, however, it is remarkably easy to navigate. The metro is fantastic and almost all the signs are in English which was a welcome surprise for me! It only took thirty minutes to make it to my stop on East Nanjing Road from Hongqiao train station. Some metros around the world seem to have a bad reputation, but i cannot speak highly enough of the one in Shanghai. It’s cheap, safe, and remarkably efficient.

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In Shanghai! The skyline is definitely worth comparing to the picture below.

I went there to spend the New Year holiday with my old mate Tom from Cornwall. We stayed near The Bund, on the western bank of the Hangpu River. From where we were it was only a ten minute walk to the river and the Pudong skyline or, in the other direction, People’s Square, a nice relaxed park in the centre of the city. The hostel was called Bund Blue Mountain. It had very helpful staff and reasonably priced rooms and dorms (at least for Shanghai), all in a great location.

We had done very little research and basically stumbled upon The Bund on our way down to the river. It could be described as a relic of imperialism, an opposition – both in terms of architectural style and founding ideology – to the glittering skyscrapers across the water. The predominantly neo-classical buildings of The Bund once housed colonial trading houses and banks throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. Today they are designer shops, expensive bars, hotels, and multi million pound apartments for the rich and famous.

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The view of Pudong from the Bund… before the building began.

If China is the country with 5,000 years of culture, Shanghai is probably the best city to experience some of the rapid changes the country has undergone in the last century. The Bund museum provides a fascinating insight into the modern history of the city. Most amazing of all are the old pictures of the Pudong side of the river, now named the Lujiazui financial district. This area was marshland less than 50 years ago. To contrast those pictures with the skyline today is staggering. It is opposite this contemporary scene of opulence and excess that The Bund stands, a financial centre from a bygone century and a reminder of another era of unparalleled opulence. Shanghai is an ultramodern city, but not one without its historical echoes.

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The view from the bar on floor 100 of the Shanghai World Financial Centre.

On the evening before New Year’s Eve we headed over to the skyscrapers on the Pudong side of the river at Lujiazui. It was time for some champagne backpacking in this city of excess so we checked out the view from what was once the second tallest building in the world, the Shanghai World Financial Centre. If this building was in London it would surely have been christened ‘the bottle opener’. The view from the top was pretty special. We were able to grab a window seat at the bar on the one hundredth floor as night fell and had a birds eye view of Shanghai as the lights came on.

Incidentally, the trip over from the Bund side of the river is itself an experience. What is deceivingly named a ‘pedestrian tunnel’ turns out to be a series of small tram-like compartments which slowly travel along tracks while the passengers inside are subjected to an epilepsy inducing light show, replete with the awakening of repressed fears as inflatable clowns and sharks lunge at the windows, and finished by the strong suggestion that you are in fact passing through hell. Lovely.

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You pay for the views at Bar Rouge, but they are pretty impressive.

We had a couple of good nights out as well. All a bit blurry but I can definitely recommend Bar Rouge (not Rogue, Bude people – very different places) on the Bund waterfront. It is a touch expensive, but worth it for the views and the Old Fashioned cocktails! Also Zapater’s bar/club, which is somewhere (exact details a touch hazy) in the French Concession area, is fun and not too pricey.

The ultimate champagne backpacking experience, however, undoubtedly came at the Marriott. Thanks to Tom’s sensible decision to do a degree with promising job prospects we were able to get a free night there on New Year’s Eve. Unlimited scallops and beer at the buffet, followed by a free swim and a steak… although I predictably struggled with the all-you-can-eat breakfast the next day.

I always question the wisdom of waking up on the first day of a new year feeling horrendous, but for once it was definitely worth it. After seeing Shanghai celebrating on the UK New Years Eve-evening news for countless years, it was epic to actually be there! The chance to spend some time with a chap I had barely seen in 6 years, with this amazing city the backdrop… Special indeed!

It’s Christmas… but not as we know it

Imagine Christmas. Family, roast turkey, mulled wine, open fires, Jesus (if you’re into that kind of thing), the smell of pine needles, mince pies, increasingly incomprehensible Doctor Who specials, pigs in blankets, long walks, Del-boy, parents going to extraordinary lengths to maintain their childrens’ belief in Father Christmas (including my father nibbling carrots into anatomically correct reindeer bite marks – it’s the only explanation), and even a few presents if you’re lucky. Crackers resound with a sharp crack as nail clippers and mini chess sets fly into the gravy and, as you gently coax a flimsy paper hat onto your head, a joke about a nosey pepper (they always get jal-ap-een-yo business, especially at Christmas) receives the obligatory chuckle/groan.

Sadly, in every pack of crackers, there is one that’s just a bit of a damp squib. It doesn’t so much crack apart as gradually un-coalesce in a gurgle of disappointment. The contents are slightly damp, the crown just won’t fit, somehow tearing itself to mush, the joke falls flat, and you’re even robbed of the functional nail clippers. This is a cracker made in China. This is Christmas, made in China.

Christmas, much like a soggy party hat, just doesn’t fit China. That doesn’t stop them trying, however. If there are moans in the UK about how materialistic Christmas has become, then China takes that materialism to a whole new level. Their are sales on everything from clothes, to beds, to dogs (both to love and to eat), and they offer astronomical discounts – discounts which begin on Christmas Eve. The intensity of some shoppers borders insanity. Yesterday was International Women’s Day so Hypermart decided to give a massive discount off all tampons. It was madness. The shelves were stripped bare, an undercurrent of aggression ran through the whole store (I resisted the urge to make a ‘that time of the month’ joke), and one women was even forced to put some back because she had bought too many. Christmas was much the same, but with the shopping madness not limited solely to tampons.

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Just a few of my Christmas apples.

The Christmas trees that appeared were finally taken down two weeks ago which, in a country so obsessed with luck, seems a little strange. They were also bedecked with banners proclaiming ‘Happy 2014′ in what is a widespread misunderstanding and amalgamation of the Gregorian New Year and Christmas. I received lots of messages at midnight on December 24th from my students wishing me a Happy New Year, a nice but ultimately misguided attempt to generate some Christmas spirit. They also gave me apples, lots of apples, I ended up with over 50. The word for apple in Mandarin sounds like peace, so to give an apple to somebody in China at Christmas is to propagate peace. Not a bad tradition at all, but hardly a Christmas tradition.

The main problem is a lack of understanding about what Christmas is about. Whether that means family or religion, in China little of either seems evident at Christmas. China is, of course, not a Christian country. There is a state sponsored Christian church, but Buddhism and Taoism far outweigh any other religion in the country. As a consequence there seems to be very little knowledge of the origins of Christmas as a Christian festival, or the corresponding importance of family at this time.

I taught two classes on Christmas Day, which was a little strange. The other foreign teachers and I were able to secure a chicken for a makeshift Christmas dinner, but I could’t help but think back to 365 days before… excitedly opening my stocking at 7AM and then stuffing my face for the next 16 hours! Much like a cracker made in China, Christmas made in China left me feeling disappointed, a little frustrated, but ultimately not that surprised.

Here’s hoping Christmas 2014 will be all the sweeter for the experience!