I’m in Europe at the moment, but December was a seriously good month for me when it came to traveling. I’ve already posted about my trips to Wuzhen and Hangzhou, and my Christmas week in Hunan, but what really started it all was a weekend outing to Nanjing. An hour an a half away from Shanghai by train, Nanjing really is a perfect escape. We traveled in a big group and, needless to say, a whole lot of photos were taken..
I’ve been in China for 142 days. I don’t usually count days (I’m actually quite horrible with remembering dates) but it seemed appropriate for this blog. I know it sounds cliché, but these past 5 months have literally flown by. I’ve learned around 700 characters, countless useful phrases, and traveled to Beijing, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Wuzhen, and around Hunan. I’ve come to be baffled by my 7-year old self who didn’t like Chinese food. I’ve fallen in love with Shanghai all over again.
And now I’m going home. No, thankfully not permanently. Not yet. But in an hour or so (if my flight doesn’t get delayed again due to heavy snowfall in Europe) I’ll be boarding a plane that will take me back to Holland. I’m so excited. I haven’t truly been homesick, but I’ve missed my family and friends. And over the last couple of weeks, several of my sentences started with “OMG I can’t wait for…”. I’ve asked all my friends who are traveling home what will be the first thing they eat once they get home. The most common answer? “Meat”. Steak. Because no matter how much we love Chinese food, we miss meat. Yes yes, Chinese dishes have meat, but it usually clings to bones and what you can nibble away with your teeth is so little that you’re barely ever satisfied. I think it’s safe to say a lot of us will be stuffing ourselves full of protein before returning in a month.
Once I realized I was truly going home, the cravings truly started. Not just for food, but for the strange comforts of home that seem so normal when you’re living there. Like what, you might ask? Well, because I like lists so much..
YAY I’M GOING HOME:
1. Shanghai winters are cold. Okay, I realize that the current snow-situation in Europe means it’s absolutely freezing over there too. But the problem with the south of China is that there’s no central heating. My little room has a little air conditioner that converts to a heating-system in the winter, BUT I managed to break it. I know, I’m very clever. So Europe: it’s cold outside, you’re shivering after a long walk, someone just threw a snowball at your face, but then you come home and plop yourself down next to the heating with a hot chocolate. Oh how I’m looking forward to that hot chocolate..
2. Snowball fights. Snowmen. Snow angels. Need I go on?
3. No loud throat noises followed by a big blob of spit flying out in the middle of the street. Or the metro. Or right in front of your feet. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the spitting.
4. Eating with a knife and fork.
5. Understanding everything everyone says.
6. And obviously: my dearest parents, lovely brother and amazing friends
142 days. Time to go home.
19 December. Continuing on the give-Max-the-best-impression-of-China-in-7-days train of thought, I’d planned a little trip to a water town called Wuzhen, together with two of my flatmates and a classmate. In contrast to our Sunday in Hangzhou, it was bright and sunny (the weather in China has serious mood swings). Wuzhen’s touristy sides are split into two sections: the East and West side. We’d been warned that this picturesque town would be swamped with tourists. And to be fair, it was impossible to avoid the tinned voices of guides spewing out facts through loudspeakers and their Chinese tourgroups on one of the sides (I don’t remember which, I have a terrible memory). The other, however, was blissfully deserted.
16 December. Max was in China for a week, and I was determined to show him as many places as I could. Not surprisingly, however, 7 days isn’t that much when exploring a country approximately the same size as Europe. But we’re lucky. Train connections from Shanghai to other cities are amazing, and usually quite fast. So, we headed to Hangzhou, a city about an hour and a half away, and best known for its West Lake. It was a miserable day, with uninterrupted falling rain and a wind that made the tips of my ears tingle. But somehow, the weather didn’t matter. I’m assuming Hangzhou is absolutely gorgeous when it’s sunny, but the pictures still turned out beautifully.
I originally thought I’d have to go to school on Christmas Day. And on the first day of 2013. It made sense really; Christmas is really only big in Shanghai due to the growing expat community, and Chinese New Year does not coincide with our celebrations. So when I discovered Fudan had decided to give the language department a 10-day break, I was majorly excited. My flatmate and I started planning a trip. Even though our options were limited due to our visa (I can’t actually leave the country if I want to keep studying here), deciding on where to go was no easy matter. China is huge. There’s so much to explore. But after a couple of days of research, we turned our eyes on the (relatively) close-by province of Hunan.
As I mentioned before, we went to two cities and two towns in the 5 days we were away from Shanghai. A 24-hour train journey took us to Jishou, from which we caught a bus to Fenghuang. Although probably definitely very touristy in warmer months, and slightly too commercialized, we loved the picturesque ‘phoenix’ town.
After Fenghuang we went back to Jishou, and then took a sleeper-train to Changsha. From there, it was a 2 hour bus ride to Shaoshan, the birthplace of Mao Zedong. We visited his house. Took some pictures of where the famous communist leader slept. Visited a museum with a collection of his personal calligraphy and numerous photos. Very educational.
Next on our list of places to visit? Sichuan, the place of pandas and spicy peppers!
Over the past 2 weeks I’ve completely and utterly ignored my blog. Horrible. I know. My excuse? Well, I actually have two. No, make that three.
1) Max came for a visit. He took up all my time. I showed him around Shanghai. We explored Hangzhou and Wuzhen together. Had a blast. I spent a week going through the hundreds (literally) of photos I took. Very time-consuming.
2) Christmas! Fudan was feeling generous and gave the language-department 10 whole days off. So, I had a wonderful Christmas eve eating a delicious roast chicken and warm chocolate-chip cookies. My flatmate and I boarded a train to Hunan, a province in China that can boast to be the birthplace of Mao Zedong, on the 25th. Within 5 days we manage to explore 2 cities and 2 towns, board 3 long-distance trains and numerous buses, and take 525 photos. And eat lots of spicy food. One thing I learned? Hunan is cold in the winter. And beautiful (when it’s not raining).
3) The start of 2013. I don’t think I really need to elaborate on why this would prevent me from blogging, but I shall do so anyways. I spent the 31st baking cute little apple pie-cupcakes, which turned out wonderfully. By 8pm, our apartment was filled with a group of people I’ve come to love, yummy food, and loud singing. We made our way to the Bund for a fireworks display and started 2013 surrounded by thousands of Chinese and foreigners alike. I think we must’ve made our way into about 100 random pictures by wishing every person (which was like, a lot of people) a Happy New Year. I’m pretty sure we were on TV at some point.
So, there my reasons. But I am sorry. Most of all because I haven’t even had the chance to wish you all a very very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I hope your 2013 is filled with lots of love and happiness!
I love Christmas. Yes, I realize that’s not a bold statement to make, as I actually haven’t met a single person who doesn’t love this festive season. But I’d never actually been to a Christmas market. Until last weekend. I’m still in shock that my first, German-style ‘Christkindlmarkt’ happened in China. The famous Paulaner Brauhaus has a branch in a huge French mansion, with a massive garden surrounding the property. There was gluhwein and sauerkraut. Currywurst, bratwurst and frankfurt wurst. Hot chocolate and waffles. Christmas trees, Christmas lights, and all sorts of Christmas decorations that twinkled in the dark. It was like a little slice of Europe, right in the heart of one of China’s biggest and most populous city.
I have so much love for everyone and everything this time of year. I hope you’re all enjoying the festive season as much as I am!
16:30, 11 December. I made the best purchase of my time in Shanghai so far. I hear you ask: “What did you buy, Renée? Those pajamas you were raving about? With matching lense-less glasses? A miracle machine that would prevent Max from being run-over? Surely not the iPad you’ve been drooling about for the past 3 months?” No, I bought something far better. I bought a bike.
Over the last 3 months, I’ve loudly been declaring that owning a bike wasn’t necessary. In reality, I was quite jealous of the millions of people that own one here. But, convinced I’d get run over if I ever attempted to weave my way through the streets in this crazy city, I stubbornly maintained that the metro was just as effective in getting me from place to place. Yesterday, I caved.
My flatmate mentioned last week that his classmate had an extra bike he planned on selling. This wouldn’t have interested me if it hadn’t had been for the fact that I had come late to class every single day for the last 5 days. In all fairness, I can’t actually blame this lateness on the tube. I blame it on my inability to leave the apartment without eating some kind of breakfast. Since my parents visit, I’ve taken to eating toast with hagelslag (if you don’t know what this is, you’re seriously missing out). It’s delicious. It also causes me to daydream about tulips and windmills and all other things that the typical Dutch person living abroad thinks about in their mornings (yes, I’m being slightly sarcastic).
But back to the point. A Chinese person without a bike/electric scooter is kind of.. unnatural. But a Dutch person without a bike.. well, that’s almost unheard of. We grow up on two wheels. And I’ve never actually bought my own. But yesterday, for a whopping 150RMB (roughly 15 pounds, or 19 euros), I acquired said bike. This purchase was monumental. The first real step of my adulthood. Buy a bike. Buy a car. Buy a house. Maybe I should try to squeeze getting my driving-license somewhere in there first though.
This bike, you can hear it from a mile off. It squeakes and squakes and the front wheel makes this rattling noise that probably means it’ll fall off within the week. The basket is loose, one of the brakes doesn’t work, and it’s actually a man’s bike. But it’s bright blue. And it’s mine. I love it already.
So Shanghai, beware, you’ve got another crazy Dutchie racing through your streets.
My parents came to visit for a week. I wasn’t worried. Afterall, we’d lived here before. And after living in India for 2 and a half years, well, pretty much nothing surprises you anymore. This week, however, my friend Max is coming to Shanghai. It’s safe to say I’m slightly anxious about the trip. Not because I’m afraid he isn’t going to enjoy his time here, but because I’m having nightmares about him landing in a Chinese hospital after trying to cross the street. So, I decided to write him a letter to warn him of such dangers. More for my sake than for his, I’d like to be able to sleep tonight…
I cannot begin to express my delight at your pending arrival in Shanghai. As I write you this letter, I’m planning your week in this beautiful city. If the weather permits, you will see all Shanghai as to offer, and more. My hope is that we’ll even travel to one of the watertowns bordering this city of 23.5 million people, to have a more local experience. I am jumping up and down in my seat in excitement.
I thought, however, that you I should warn you about the traffic situation here before you depart from your beloved home country in 2 days time. So, a few words of caution before you step on the plane in freezing England, to ensure I can safely (and wholly) put you on your flight back a week later.
First and foremost: try not to get run over by a bus or car. Or by a bike. They don’t have bells on their two-wheeled friends, and thus tend to shout warnings of their coming in Chinese. More often than not, however, stealthy bikers say nothing at all, or their shouts are lost in the honking and general noise of Shanghai. Electric bikes are even worse. While the standard Chinese bicycle usually squeakes and squakes like a duck being pinched in the behind, these electric monsters are like ninjas. They sneak up on you and race by.. if you’re lucky. But they blame you for being in their way. And no, staying on the pavement/sidewalk will not guarantee you’ll be safe from these jets on wheels.
As to the car and bus thing. While they’ll (usually) stop for a red-light, there are always the stragglers that shoot by at the last second. Thus, when the green-walking light flickers on, this by no means cars will stop. There seems to be a rule in this city that cars can always turn right. Always. Even when you’re on a zebra path and the traffic light is in your favor. I’m hoping your time in Tanzania after you climbed Kilimanjaro has prepared you sufficiently for the life-or-death situations you’ll find yourself in when trying to cross the street here.
There are so many more things I wish I had the time and space to tell you about. But alas, I fear you are going to have to see for yourself. Charge your camera. You’re going to love it here.
P.S. Bring a jacket. And some gloves. Oh, and thick socks. You’re going to need them.