In what’s becoming an alarmingly regular occurrence, I’m back in China for work again. It seems to be the rainy season here, and the Saturday I arrived I experienced this torrential downpour as I wandered around the Jing-an temple in Shanghai.
Sunday afternoon it cleared up a bit, and I went to see another temple, Jade Buddha temple. Walking back from there I found a bit of the city I actually quite liked, north of where I was staying in Zhongshan Park. There’s a river and a park and a university. It’s quite peaceful and not too crowded.
I was back in Suzhou as usual, for a rather stressful week of work. Friday afternoon the others left for the airport and I made an immediate start to my impromptu holiday by visiting the Hanshan temple. I’m definitely a sucker for the temple plus garden plus old building combo that the Chinese like to call a “scenic area”. This wasn’t the best I’ve been to, but it was a fun place to spend a few hours. Unfortunately I failed to make it to the top of the pagoda because on the second level the old guard shooed me out as it was closing time. 🙁
The weekend before last there was, very briefly, a minor heatwave in the south of England. So I decided to have a big day out exploring. Except I wasn’t really exploring at all, because I just walked along the section of the Ridgeway from Swindon to Goring. Still, it’s guaranteed to be a fun day out: one of my favourite places to go walking, just behind the other bit of the Ridgeway out towards Avebury, but that is a bit of a pain to get to from where I live now.
And this is one of my favourite places on the route, the neolithic long barrow called Wayland’s Smithy. It’s about 5500 years old and in a glade off the main path surrounded by these old, but not quite so ancient, trees. It’s really one of the most atmospheric places I know, especially if you’re there on your own. I ate lunch on the roof. Hope that wasn’t too disrespectful.
I experimented a bit with using my phone to take photos but Samsung seem to have dropped the oversaturation bomb and everything looks a bit psychedelic. Apparently that look is popular in Korea. Think I’ll stick with my camera in future.
This place is called Uffington Castle, which is a truly fantastic name. Friend Blodgett once commented on a previous visit here that it’s not a real castle. But that is clearly incorrect. This is either the moat or perhaps part of the rampart. Use your imagination. On the side of the hill there is a large chalk horse, but it’s quite hard to see from above.
This place is about 2500 years old. It occurred to me while I was sitting here having my second lunch, that when this castle was constructed, the long barrow nearby was already over 3000 years old, which is older than this castle is to us now. History is weird.
The 20 miles or so from Uffington castle to the Thames at Goring is uneventful, but pleasant, and usually devoid of people. The evening sun going down the long hill at the end was really pretty. Didn’t time it quite right to catch the sunset though.
There’s an alarming trend among clothing manufacturers recently, particularly those in the “outdoor” sector, to make coats without the little loop used to hang it on a coat hook. Seriously! WHY??! This is a £130 Berghaus “Light Hike” jacket. How am I supposed to hang it on the coat hook, eh? By the hood or something?? A little fabric loop would have cost about 5p.
Well the joke’s on you Berghaus, because I returned it and bought a different one. Here’s another example from a Craft running raincoat. This is almost tolerable as it’s a special purpose item I can chuck with the rest of my running stuff, BUT HOW HARD WOULD IT HAVE BEEN TO PUT A TINY LOOP ON IT???! There’s already even a little elastic thing for tying up the hood.
And just to prove it is possible in 2016 to put a normal hanging loop on a coat, North Face managed to get it right.
Who knew there was a castle in Berkhamsted? Not me! And that was my major discovery during an otherwise uneventful walk along the canal towards Birmingham.
In the little information hut I learned the castle was built during the Norman period and was once besieged by the French and held out for two weeks. But it later fell into ruin and that’s what we see today.
Going north of here towards Birmingham becomes a bit logistically complicated. Maybe for the next trip I will try to reach Milton Keynes. Exciting!
I’ve been getting seriously behind blogging about my adventures! This one happened several weeks ago before the coming of the heatwave and is almost the reverse of a walk I did this time last year.
I stumbled upon these carvings in a wood near Bedwyn. The owl one is quite subtle.
My word of the day is gibbet, which is an “instrument of public execution”. Here is one that gives Coombe Gibbet it’s name. I had lunch here which wasn’t the best spot to choose as it’s rather exposed and sooo windy.
Originally I planned to venture somewhere new like Andover or Amazingstoke but the weather wasn’t that great and both were unexpectedly far away so I decided instead to try climb a local landmark: Beacon Hill. The hill is a huge isolated mound in the valley and on top is an iron age hill fort. Judging by how tired I was after scaling the side, it must have been impregnable.
On my last day in China I didn’t have much to do except go to the airport. But how to do that? Perhaps I could ride on the worlds fastest operational passenger train??! Sounds like a plan. Oh, also it’s a MAGNETICALLY LEVITATING TRAIN. It looks quite unassuming:
It’s very important before you go on the maglev that you do a bit of homework: because running the train at full speed is so uneconomical, it only operates at 430km/h at certain times of the day. Outside of these times it runs at a rather plodding and pedestrian 300km/h. You can find the times and speeds on this helpful website.
I timed my trip so I arrived for the 9am train which is the first 430km/h trip of the day. On the way there I had a bizarre taxi experience. I got in and asked “去龙阳路火车站！” and the driver said something like “磁悬浮站吧？” and I was like “…whut?”. 磁悬浮 of course is “magnetic-suspend-float” or “maglev”. In what universe do you expect a foreigner who can barely speak to know a word like that? 😕 Anyway I managed to redeem myself a bit later by telling her that I really wanted to go to the station and not straight to the airport because I REALLY LIKE FAST TRAINS. This I think is one of the major problems with the maglev: it doesn’t actually go anywhere useful so you need to take a taxi or metro to get to the station.
While I was on the train I made a video so you too can experience the awesome. Note that the train is still accelerating at the start of the video, so it doesn’t reach the maximum speed until right at the end.
Sunday was my last full day and I got up super early to catch the metro to Hongqiao on the other side of the city. A bit of a forward planning fail meant I only looked up where the train left from at 10pm on the night before. Anyway after an hour’s uneventful train ride I arrived, seemingly along with half the population of China, in Hangzhou. The crowding I’ll address later but for now Hangzhou is famous for exactly two things: tea and a massive man-made lake.
There might be other things in the city. But I didn’t see them because my stay there exclusively involved an extended stroll around the lake. It’s called 西湖 “West Lake” and was dug out and landscaped over 2000 years by various dynasties. And is surrounded by gardens and pagodas and little temples. Due to it being a sunny weekend day and one of China’s top tourist attractions the paths around the lake were clogged and progress was very slow. Also there was over an hour of queuing to get into any of the lakeside attractions. So my advice to anyone going would be to visit on a weekday. I think it may have been particularly bad that weekend as unbeknownst to me Hangzhou was hosting the G20 summit so all the roads were gridlocked.
Anyway I eventually made it to the west side of the West Lake and the crowds had thinned out a little. Around here is the start of the famous tea growing area. There’s the Chinese National Tea Museum which is quite good. And outside there are some plantations you can wander around and see tea being grown in the traditional way.
The most well known local tea is 龙井 “dragon well” but it’s normally just transliterated to Longjing in English. The tea picking and processing is still done by hand. By luck I had arrived just at the end of the 2016 harvesting season so all the tea was super fresh. I wondered idly what effect the recent pollution has on tea flavour.
I bought some for a slightly extortionate 180元 for 50g in a small small shop. But the staff were friendly and they dished it out of a big sack which seemed pleasantly rustic.
By the time I’d completed my circumnavigation of the lake and returned to the city it was time to go back to Shanghai. I said to myself “well it’s an hour and a half until my train so I have plenty of time to collect my ticket and maybe eat dinner at the station”. Oh-my-god I had never seen so many people. Queuing for the metro, packed into the metro, and then queuing for nearly an hour at the ticket counter. I barely made it onto the train in time, which would have been awkward as I had to fly home the next day. I think I learned an important lesson about travelling in China at the weekend. At least it wasn’t Chinese new year.
Anyway, Hangzhou seems like a decent enough place. Apparently there is good hiking in the hills nearby, and some tea producing villages you can visit. So maybe worth another extended trip in the future.
For the Easter weekend I left Suzhou and returned to Shanghai. In the morning before I took the train I intended to visit Tiger Hill. But the walk there proved somewhat longer than I had anticipated, and when I reached it, it was already time to go back. Sadly it will have to wait for another trip. On the way there I passed through a very crowded “local” market with all sorts of strange foodstuffs and even live chickens in cages and fish in paddling pools. Often China appears quite modern but occasionally you veer off the tourist or business track and it becomes suddenly a bit third world.
The train back to Shanghai, however, was the very latest technology. Completing the journey in about half an hour where the car ride out from the airport had taken over two. I travelled first class, because at £10 a ticket who wouldn’t? I didn’t have the best impression of Shanghai from my last stay there. So I only planned to spend half a day exploring and then do a day trip on Sunday. At least it wasn’t raining this time.
I stayed right next to “People’s Park” which was expensive but I was using some of my hotel reward points I’d accumulated through business travel. I explored the park a bit, which had some nice cherry blossom trees, and then tried to catch the metro to Pudong. This was challenging as the station under the park makes the maze under Kings Cross seem petite and easily navigable by comparison. I’m not joking: the metro station extends the full length of the park!
Pudong is a vast new area of skyscrapers on the other side of the river to Shanghai-proper. It’s amazing to think this was mostly swamp 20 or 30 years ago. The main attraction of the area is surely the Oriental Pearl Tower. Like their comrades in eastern Europe, the Chinese certainly know how to build an excellent TV tower. I didn’t go up it in the end: the weather had become quite hazy so I thought it probably wasn’t worth the exorbitant entrance price.
In the evening I went to this place called “Tea City”. It’s advertised as a sort of tea supermarket, which sounds fun, but is actually more of a tea shopping centre. With literally hundreds of tiny independent shops selling confusingly similar products. I wandered around slightly bemused for a bit and bought some Pu’er tea from a store chosen at random with a friendly if slightly strange shopkeeper. Seemed to be more of a place for people in the tea trade to be honest.
On Good Friday I was done with work but instead of going home like everyone else I stayed in China for a few more days. There’s loads of day trip opportunities around Suzhou, including one of China’s largest lakes, but that will have to wait for another time because I instead picked one of several historic “canal towns” nearby. This one is called 同里 “TongLi”: the characters mean “with” and “inside” but I’ve no idea what the etymology is. It’s about an hour from Suzhou by long distance bus. The “long distance” bit is an important distinction as it means it departs from a totally different bus station to regular buses and boarding one involves a tortuously complex ticket buying and queuing system. Riding it was an interesting experience. Let’s just say I’ve been on cleaner coaches. But on the way back I made friends with a fellow passenger and got to practice my Chinese a bit, so overall it was a positive experience.
Modern Tongli has about 30 thousand inhabitants but the old town core is incredibly well preserved, perhaps due to a fee-charging tourism zone. The town is criss-crossed with canals, miles of them, to the extent that it has hardly any real roads. Apparently Suzhou was like this too once, but most of it was concreted over in the 20th century.
With a single “town pass” you get access to a myriad of old buildings and gardens. I ambled around so many beautiful traditional gardens that they all blended into one and I can’t recall what was the significance of each.
Anyway it all made for a nice relaxed atmosphere. All the guides I read cautioned that it would be heaving with tourists as it’s a popular day trip from Shanghai, for local Chinese at least. But I think I got lucky by visiting on a weekday. I ate lunch outside the house of an old lady who had set up some tables by the canal side. It was very… homely. But no sign of food poisoning and the tea was lovely so an excellent choice.
The evening light was fantastic so I snapped a few photos of the colourful waterfront houses before hopping on the bus back to Suzhou.