The Retirees Invade China – Day Nine – Shanghai to Brisbane

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The tour has finished and we are packing to return home well at least I am as Kerry has come down with a crushing headache. I leave her to take a walk around the hotel until Kerry has a chance to rest and throw the headache. So, I walk outside and down the road and discover Shanghai as it was before the economic boom. People living in ramshackle houses made up of a variety of building products using the streets for recreation the footpath for their businesses and their laundry. This is China as I have seen it. The new China does not look that different to home only supersized. This China shows the poverty that exists beside the economic prosperity of modern China.

After returning to the hotel, Kerry has settled and it is time to catch the bus to the airport. Our flight home is uneventful but tiring however I am debating at an International Women’s Day brunch so a quick change and I am off to battle for the oppressed men of my community. So, that is it for China. Till next time.

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The Retirees Invade China – Day Eight – Hangzhou to Shanghai

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Hangzhou is surrounded by hills and these have been put to very good use by the Dragon Well Tea Company. We visited one of their plantations and the tourist centre to see what makes a good green tea. As we entered the small valley we had row upon row of tea bushes (a variety of camellia) climbing the hills on each side. At the end of the valley is the tourist centre, itself surrounded by tea bushes. In or about April the tea pickers pick the tiny green tips from the bushes and deliver them to the drying process. Some tea oil is placed in the bowls and men swish the clippings through the bowls which are electrically heated until the tips are dry. 72,000 tips are needed to make 1 kilo of tea.

Of course, there is a tea room where we sampled the tea and learned of its medicinal properties. We learned of the Buddhist monk (his statue stands in the courtyard) who first used the green tea for everyday drinking rather than just a medicine. One of its properties is to absorb oils in the human system and this is demonstrated with some rice in a glass to which is added iodized salt which turned the rice black and by the addition of the tea the rice was cleaned.

Persuaded by the demonstration we were first to buy some tea and received an extra can which we sold to one of our fellow tourists. After collecting our tea, I noticed two pieces of calligraphy hanging on the walls reminding me of home.

After escaping the gift shop trap, our bus headed for Shanghai two and one half hours away. The highway was lined with settlements of high rise apartments, and as we got further into the country some country homes with the fast train rattling past them. Today we had lunch on the run eating sandwiches a packet of chips a snickers bar and a banana. Nice change. An hour outside Shanghai we pulled into the roadside stopover for a relief/comfort stop and a break. There was an enormous market with all sorts of things but we were still full from lunch.

Driving into Shanghai we were stunned by the enormity of the freeway system and the apartments reaching to the edge of the freeway. We passed a disused amusement park on our way to the viewing platform on the 88th level of the Jinma Tower, which stands between two other higher towers. We passed them by, barely visible from the bus window due to the dirty air of a fine day. Then we are standing on the footpath looking up to the heavens.

We then ride the elevator to the viewing platform and look out in amazement at a city that has grown to its present size in the last 35 years.

After the viewing platform, we drive to a showroom for what is described as an art gallery but it turns out to be a jewellery sales pitch for a company related to our tour company – not happy Jan. On the way, we pass Shanghai’s only roundabout and the largest sundial. The featured image is a photo of the sundial. The next day we get the chance to ride on the world’s fastest train – the Mag-Lev from Longyang Rd Station to Pudong International Airport. Thirty – one kilometres in 7 minutes reaching a top speed of 431kph and back again. The train rides on a magnetic track and levitates hence the name Mag-Lev. Really exhilarating.

We then had the misfortune to end up at the markets under the Shanghai Science and Technology Park. Well it was the worst experience you have in China being harangued by shop assistants to buy knock watches and handbags and in my case, being physically restrained to buy some further hand bags. Fortunately, Geoff and Jennifer had found a good coffee shop and we took a time out there before venturing outside to see what we could see. On getting back to the surface we found the science and technology centre and a quiet park nearby which led us back to what appeared in the first instance to be Shanghai’s only roundabout only to find out it is a signalised intersection that is round rather than cross shaped. Crossing with us is one of the hangovers from China’s past – the pedal powered transporter of everything. These bikes have one forward gear and we have seen everything stacked on them from refrigerators to waste paper. Across the road looking like 4 enormous rice bowls is Shanghai’s Art Centre.

Lunch time. Not that we felt we needed lunch but it was part of the tour and we had paid for it. So, we traipsed to old Shanghai or at least a remake in the architecture of 19th century Shanghai and the inevitable markets. No sooner had we walked towards the centre than we were met by street vendors and the flavour of the month is strap on skates – convert your shoes to skates. We rebuffed them time and time again but they still kept coming until some of us were able to shelter in the relative peace of the dumpling restaurant for lunch. But the respite was short lived as we had at least a further hour to endure. We strolled through the market place which was far cleaner than the original would ever had been and encountered a pair of elderly women begging. Earlier in the day we had encountered an elderly man playing a whistle in the park at the Science and Technology building and donated all our change probably $1 in Australian money so these beggars missed out.

We are filling in time now as the bus takes us to the Bund – a walk along the Wampu River (a tributary of the Yangtze River) looking at the buildings. We had not done much walking in the last two days so it was good to stretch our legs but the inevitable consequence of eating large meals 3 times a day meant we had calls of nature at a time when only public toilets were available. Now these have proven to be very clean and reasonable with both squat and European toilets available but not so this time probably due to the heavy traffic using them. There was a strong Police presence in this area using mini pursuit cars – chasing pedestrians.

Five o’clock and we are off to dinner – the farewell dinner. Not the great celebration we had expected. Oh well we had a nice time with our new friends. Some of us then proceeded to the harbour for a night cruise whilst others with an early departure tomorrow returned to the hotel. The harbour cruise was extraordinary – the city lights up with a display like I have not seen before. It is still the end of winter so our choice of the open – air deck to get the best view and photos was a brave one. Here are the photos to speak for themselves.

The Retirees Invade China – Day Seven – Suzhou to Hangzhou

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After seeing the silk embroidery, I was looking forward to visiting the silk factory the following day. It hardly looked like a factory and it was not. It was a tourist stop with some minor demonstrations on the life cycle of the mulberry caterpillar, the moth and then the pupae in the cocoon, the treatment of the cocoon and finally the sales room. We started with an explanation of the life cycle and the importance of double cocoons as opposed to single cocoons (about 1200m of silk filament from a single and 1800 – 2000m from a double plus the guarantee of a male and female moth to reproduce). We were then told of the benefit of silk fabrics and shown silk doona, mattress protector and duvet. We were then shown how they loosened the filament to make the thread and how tough the silk can be. They also boil the cocoon to kill the pupae before they eat their way out and of course the pupae are eaten by the Chinese. The cocoon after boiling can be stretched over a metal implement from which they draw off the filaments. We were sold on the idea of a silk doona and purchased the mattress protector, and two light weight doonas for about the same price as a synthetic doona here in Australia. In addition, we made some other purchases before enjoying lunch in the 2nd floor restaurant. No not really a factory.

We then set off for Hangzhou and a visit to West Lake which is  freshwater. It is divided into five sections by three causeways. West Lake has influenced the Chinese for its natural beauty and historic relics, and it has also been among the most important sources of inspiration for Chinese garden designers. It was made a UNESCO Heritage Site in 2011, described as having influenced garden design in the rest of China as well as Japan and Korea over the centuries.

We picked up our local guide Jack and drove straight to the park containing West Lake. Again, we boarded a Chinese ferry to slowly drift around the lake, admiring the countryside the gardens the Pagoda the view of the city and the wild life. Not very exciting except for Jack who worked hard to find something interesting to say about this body of grey coloured water. However, there were some highlights like the floral arrangements on the walk to the ferry, the quaint little car used by the Tourist Police, the floral arrangements of a lotus near the ferry wharf and the ferry itself. We were joined on board by another tour group from Malaysia and Jack was given the floor to find the interesting things to say about what we were seeing.

A highlight for us was finding a shop selling ice creams. As we sat on the causeway park we notice the wind was rising – tomorrow will be cold. An early dinner meant we did not get to our hotel until after dark. As with Suzhou, the buildings were lit up. Unfortunately, I had to take the pictures from the moving bus, until we arrived at our 5 star Jimna hotel.

The Retirees Invade China – Day Six – Wuxi to Suzhou

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Up early and on the road to Suzhou and the Lingering Garden. It is a renowned classical Chinese garden located in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, China. It is recognized with other classical Suzhou gardens as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was commissioned by Xu Taishi an official in 1593 and it was initially called The East Garden.

The garden was reconstructed in 1876, and the garden was renamed to Liu Yuan. It was abandoned in 1911 and it fell into disrepair. After establishment of the People’s Republic of China, Suzhou government took over and renovated the garden. It was reopened to the public in 1954. In 2001 the garden was added to the UNESCO Word Heritage list, and remains a major tourist destination.

We parked in the adjoining car and bus park where I spotted a flowering magnolia – my first for Spring. Inside the entrance was a variegated azalea – very beautiful. As we moved through the garden it was clear the designer had used simple arrangements against a white wall to give a serenity to each setting. The central feature is a lake with the four seasons able to be viewed from various vantage points. The pavilions were designed to take advantage of all aspects of the garden which used bonsai plants extensively. The big feature is the rocks and the placement of these rocks which are brought in from Lake Tai. The dining pavilion is decorated with hand painted silk panels over 500 years old and the men’s and women’s lounge rooms are each fitted out with mahogany furniture. Such a small space for so many different faces – truly magnificent. Then there was the bonzai garden – turly unbelieveable what trees they have grown in a shallow bonzai dish.

Suzhou, is a major city located in south eastern Jiangsu Province of East China, about 100 km northwest of Shanghai. It is a major economic centre and focal point of trade and commerce, and the second largest city in the province after the capital Nanjing. The city is situated on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River and the shores of Lake Tai and belongs to the Yangtze River Delta region. Suzhou is a prefecture-level city with a population of 4.33 million in its city proper, and a total resident population of 10.58 million in its administrative area.

Founded in 514 BC, Suzhou has over 2,500 years of history, with an abundant display of relics and sites of historical interest. The city’s canals, stone bridges, pagodas, and meticulously designed gardens have contributed to its status as one of the top tourist attractions in China. Suzhou is often dubbed the “Venice of the East” or “Venice of China”.

Part of our tour included a ferry ride along the Grand Canal. This was a step back in time to see a different China which will soon be all gone. It started with boarding the ferry – not what I pictured. Then off along the canal, passed temples house and most of all houses perched on the canal and looking rather shabby. Our guide told us that they had all the mod cons inside – TV, kitchen appliances toilet and shower. Many small bridges led to even smaller canals. And it was busy with many other ferries. Once we reached the basin where the canal joined the old city wall moat it was time to turn around. Suzhou is famous for maintaining the old moat even though the city wall and imperial buildings have long since gone.

The next day on our way to Hangzhou we stopped at a silk embroidery factory which was created after the unification of China in 1949 bringing together all the talents of many villages and towns in this ancient skill. I had never given this much thought and had dismissed it as an old woman’s hobby. Not so. To see the embroidery is amazing – no photos were allowed as they consider their skills protected intellectual property and when you see silk screens that have been embroidered on both sides in different colours and different patterns done at the same time you gain an understanding of the skill of the masters. Chinese room screens to art to hang on your wall – it is truly remarkable. I can only show you a photo of the front door.

After a busy day, we retired to our hotel which seemed more than ever to be out in the boonies but there were some surprises in store – like the bath tub in the room not the bathroom and the toilet having a button for every conceivable function as well as being on show to the bedroom and a glorious light show on the adjacent buildings. Unfortunately, the innovation was not matched by attention to detail and it was damned difficult to work out how to turn on the lights. The buffet dinner was very average except for the ice cream for dessert.

The Retirees Invade China – Days Four and Five – Shanghai to Wuxi

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Day 4 we spent on a bus a plane and another bus to reach the southern centre of Wuxi (meaning “no tin”). We arose early to travel to the airport and unexpectedly we got there an hour and a half early. Good thing too as they cancelled our flight after we had booked in, dropped off our bags and passed through security. This meant we had to exit the departure lounge, collect our bags from the arrivals carousel and rebook in redeliver our bags and pass through security for a second time. None of the Chinese officials even blinked about this odd procedure. So we caught our new flight without incident to meet Maggie (this is her English name – her Chinese name being Tai Meow – like a cat) at Shanghai Airport board a bus and travel for two and half hours to Wuxi. In that time, we passed a spaghetti jungle of roads and overpasses, large farms under shade houses, some odd motor vehicles and an unbelievable number of apartment blocks in the middle of nowhere apparently. In one case I counted 16 towers under construction at the same time each with their own crane/I apologise the photos are taken from the moving bus.

Nestled on the northern shore of Tai Lake, China’s third-largest body of fresh water, Wuxi lies on the southern border of Jiangsu Province, about 128 kilometres northwest of Shanghai. It borders Suzhou to the east, Zhejiang Province to the south and Changzhou to the west. With a total population of 4.578 million, Wuxi is a city richly endowed by nature owing to its pleasantly warm and moist climate. Relying on the near-by Yangtze River and ancient Grand Canal, it had been a port city with the busiest rice and cloth market in China before 19th century. In modern times, with its rapidly developing industry, Wuxi became one of China’s top 50 cities with broad strength and is thus called the ‘Little Shanghai’ for its prosperous economy.

With a splendid history of over three thousand years, Wuxi claims to be ‘the Pearl of Tai Lake’. Besides being a rich cultural repository, Wuxi is blessed with charming natural beauty. Our first stop was Nanchang Street. Nanchang Street is a famous ancient street in Wuxi which has now been renovated to be elegant, unique and integrated with various elements.

Once again, the bus dropped us and ran and we had a significant walk to the memorial marking the start of Nanchang St. Our guide then told us that this was part of the canal system known as the Grand Canal which linked Wuxi with Suzhou, Hangzhou Shanghai and Beijing. We had 40 minutes to have a look around and by the way the oldest stone bridge was just up the canal. Qingming Bridge, the oldest and largest single-opening stone arch bridge over the Grand Canal in the city, connects Nanchang Street with Nanxiatang area. We walked along the street which was full of people, scooters, bikes ,wheelchairs and the like making it to the Qingming Bridge and back again in the allotted time. The lights on the bridge had an interesting arrangement whereby each light would throw a different pattern on the path across the bridge.

I suspect the night and the bright lights covered a few issues. One of the interesting but not open nor illuminated buildings was the house of a former linen menrchant now a museum.  As we returned Kerry stopped to photo the Chinese version of “toad in the hole”.

We overnighted at Deacon House Hotel on the 32nd floor and had an early start to get to Tai Lake and the Ray Pearl factory. Lake Tai is a large freshwater lake in the Yangtze Delta plain. The lake’s southern shore forms the border with Zhejiang. With an area of 2,250 square kilometres and an average depth of 2 meters, it is the third-largest freshwater lake in China. The lake houses about 90 islands, ranging in size from a few square meters to several square kilometres. Lake Tai is linked to the renowned Grand Canal however in recent years, Lake Tai has been plagued by pollution as the surrounding region experienced rapid industrial development. The lake is renowned for its unique limestone formations at the foot of the adjacent Dongting Mountain. These “scholar’s rocks” or “Taihu stones” are often prized as a decorating material for traditional Chinese gardens, as exemplified by those preserved as museums in nearby Suzhou.

Next, we visited Ray Pearl. Wuxi is famous for its quality fresh water pearls and the use of crushed pearl as a health tonic and in a skin cream. We watched as our host cut open one of the younger triangular shaped oysters and laying bare the beginnings of pearls in the shell. Unlike here in Australia where we use shell grit to seed the oyster, in Wuxi they use other oyster meat and seed the oyster multiple times. This poor oyster will become fish bait and the shell will have the immature pearls removed for crushing and mixing to form the tonic. There is always a retail purpose attached and so we were shown into the awaiting arms of the sales team to sell us some pearl products.

As we left we met some of the local traders selling nuts and fruits at good prices. Two days later I finished off the bag of roasted almonds whilst typing this blog.

The Retirees Invade China – Day Three – The Summer Palace, The Pandas and the Hutongs

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Kerry is not well and needs to rest but insists I carry the flag, so I meet the bus as scheduled and we head for the Summer Palace. Everything is an hour plus in the bus. The hotel is well out of town and the traffic is always horrendous. So after sitting in traffic we arrive. The Summer Palace, is a vast ensemble of lakes, gardens and palaces. Mainly dominated by Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake, it covers an expanse of 2.9 square kilometres three-quarters of which is water.

Longevity Hill is about 60 metres (200 feet) high and has many buildings positioned in sequence. The front hill is rich with splendid halls and pavilions, while the back hill, in sharp contrast, is quiet with natural beauty. The central Kunming Lake, covering 2.2 square kilometres (540 acres), was entirely man-made and the excavated soil was used to build Longevity Hill. The natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value.

Just as the Forbidden City has the political and the pleasurable pavilions so it is with the Summer Palace. Built in the Qing Dynasty it is only 200 years old but continues in the Ming style. The reversed position of the Phoenix and the Dragon comes about because of a female regent exercising her power. The horned beast is a stylised fertility beast outside of the throne room.

As we walked around the grounds we found several senior citizens practising their calligraphy which is said to be very therapeutic. The lake is the feature along with a covered walkway with paintings depicting Chinese history. The visit over we walked back to the bus which had found a park some distance away. On our way, to find the bus and travel to the Zoo, I found another group of Chinese electric cars and their electric bike.

This is Sunday and parents are visiting the Zoo with their children. Cars park 4 deep from the gutter to off load the family whilst Dad seeks a car park so the bottleneck is again horrendous. Finally, we are offloaded and Eddie goes to buy our tickets – he must have known a man because he seemed to get to the top of the queue very quickly. So, in we go. We are here to see the Pandas – nothing else. Eddie knows the short cut to the Panda trail and the three pavilions built for the Olympics and the Asian games. Fortunately, Pandas are very sedate and it was easy to get photos but that day the China Daily carried an article about a wild Panda that attacked and devoured a goat. Are Pandas China’s great white shark????

Eddie then organised a visit to Yandai Byway (also known as Smoking Pipe Lane). There were stores selling tobacco bags and smoking utensils which led to the name “Yandai Byway” after the large wooden sculpture of a large tobacco bag at the eastern end of the street. You can still find the old image of the store now.

Our main purpose was to visit the Hutong lanes. Hutongs are a type of narrow streets or alleys, commonly associated with Beijing. Hutong is a Mongolian word meaning “water well” and Hutongs were part of the Ming dynasty town planning on a class basis. In Beijing, hutongs are alleys formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences. Many neighbourhoods were formed by joining one siheyuan to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another. The word hutong is also used to refer to such neighbourhoods.

Since the mid-20th century, a large number of Beijing hutongs were demolished to make way for new roads and buildings. More recently, many hutongs have been designated as protected, in an attempt to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history. We walked through the alleys to a hutong which had been owned by its present family down through the generations. Along the way, we encountered more of the small electric cars that seem to be do popular as well as some of the past history of bicycles. After many turns and walking past the public ablutions (hutongs share a communal toilet block which does not have any walls or partitions so you get to know your neighbours intimately) we arrive at the front door of the hutong we are to visit.

Inside the court yard we met the eldest son in the parents’ room to hear the history of the hutong, and then check out the remaining rooms. Beijing has now introduced laws to retain the history of these residences.

We finished off the day with a rickshaw ride/race, the drivers must have the best legs with single gear bikes towing two larger Australians and no brakes other than the soles of his shoes. He also had to contend with traffic of all kinds – wheel chairs motor scooters cars and pedestrians.

The Retirees Invade China – Day Two – The Jade Factory, the Great Wall and The Forbidden Palace

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The next morning was an early start. One thing we were learning about this tour was that the itinerary was flexible according to Eddie which meant what you expected rarely happened. So, we were expecting to go to the Great Wall but Eddie wanted to go to the Jade Factory firstly. Eddie is very fond of Jade in all its shades and hues and was very chuffed that China included Jade in all the medals awarded to athletes in the Games and the Disability Games.

So, he took us to the factory that made the medals. The factory was nothing to look at but inside we were warmly greeted by Monica (not her real name) who showed us the cubicle where the craftsmen carved the jade to time honoured patterns. Then she took us into the showroom to see their wares and put the bite on us tourists. It was very interesting to hear the reason for the popularity of jade amongst the Chinese, how to distinguish the real from the fake and what a good investment it was. Monica chased us around the show room until she finally got the idea we were not buying. As we were departing I noticed a forlorn group of Chinese and went to visit them. No wonder they were forlorn there was a bear amongst them. Buddha was happy though.

The bus chugged out the gate and slowly climbed to the tourist stop for the Great Wall. Now I had been to the Wall (but at a different location) in 1998, so I knew what to expect but still I was surprised by the steepness of the hills then some of the segments of the Wall along the way and finally the section we were going to climb and looked at it wondering how far I would get on that hill. We gathered at a coffee shop below Fortress No 7. We commenced our climb and Kerry had to turn back – her left foot still troubles her. In the photos, you can see Fortresses 8,9, and 10. Fortress 7 can be made out in one photo in the bottom left hand corner. I made it to Fortress 9 and the photos will tell you what I saw going up when I got to Fortress 9 and coming down – note the ice on the steps and that some fool put a pagoda on top of the opposite hill.

Returning was quite difficult due to the ice and the steepness of the stairs but I made it in one piece. I met up with Kerry at the coffee shop talking to fellow tourist Polly. A chance to sit down and take in a hot cup of coffee. Some of the younger ones made it to Fortress 10 and beyond but I was very happy with my achievement.

The morning was not finished yet. Eddie had line up the Cloisonne workshop and restaurant. Cloisonné is an ancient technique for decorating metalwork objects. The decoration is formed by first adding compartments to the metal object by soldering or affixing silver or gold wires or thin strips placed on their edges. In antiquity, the cloisonné technique was mostly used for jewellery and small fittings for clothes, weapons or similar small objects decorated with geometric or schematic designs, with thick cloison walls. In the Byzantine Empire techniques using thinner wires were developed to allow more pictorial images to be produced, mostly used for religious images and jewellery, and by then always using enamel. By the 14th century this enamel technique had spread to China, where it was soon used for much larger vessels such as bowls and vases; the technique remains common in China to the present day, and cloisonné enamel objects using Chinese-derived styles were produced in the West from the 18th century. Eddie arranged a guided tour for us before shuffling us upstairs to another Chinese banquet.

Our appetites sated, Eddie determined we would return to the Forbidden City to see what we had missed out on. Along the route, we passed at speed an unusual building which I photographed poorly but which I have included here because of its strange appearance. We were dropped off a few streets away from the Forbidden City due to the parking problems, and after walking for 15 mins arrived back at the moat and the southern gate to the Forbidden City – Gate of the Divine Might. Of course, we could not enter there but has to walk around to the Eastern Gate – East Glorious Gate where we had left off yesterday.

Inside the inner walls, we encountered the Hall of Supreme Harmony where the Emperor held court received envoys and important persons and generally lorded it over everyone. We followed the meridian through to the Palace of Heavenly Purity where the Emperor resided, spotted the Buddhist White Pagoda where Marco Polo was first received in the 12th century, into the Imperial Garden and then out the gate and onto the street from where we could see the temple where the last Ming Emperor hung himself as the Manchus pillaged and burned Beijing before taking the throne and creating the last dynasty, the Qing Dynasty.

I thought we were at last going home but wait there is more. Another “5 min” walk that turned into 15 or 20 mins to the Chinese Academy of Medicine where we were treated to a lesson on herbal remedies a 20-minute foot bath followed by a massage and the hard sell to buy some of the remedies. Kerry was not fairing very well and had sat out the revisiting to the Forbidden City and desperately wanted to go the hotel. So after travelling to the restaurant for dinner we persuaded Eddie to call us a cab and we travelled back to the hotel and room service.