Worth its Weight in Beer

Worth its Weight in Beer
Qingdao, China

Qingdao, China


“How many jins do you want?” I ask Daniel. We agree on two jins each. Two jins (about one kilo) are weighed out into transparent bags using old-fashioned scales attached to huge barrels. They sit haughtily on the street just beside us. Our table, blocking the rest of the pavement infront of the tiny restaurant, is full of empty clam shells and other inedible remains of a delicious dinner. Summer, Jin (Korea), Fellow Beer Drinker (Germany) and I watch a straw being shoved through the foam at the top of the bags and a paper handle fitted. Daniel and I are all set! Tsingtao is everywhere in Qingdao, a seaside town six hours on the train north of Suzhou. China’s most quaffed local beer was actually established here by German colonialists worried about their residing army’s moral. Even just after August’s beer festival the locals are only too happy to share it with us. With European-style churches and the grand colonial Governer’s mansion the other main highlights, it does feel like Qingdao’s story began when the Germans arrived, named the place Tsingtau and then got a bit thirsty in 1898. When he’s not chasing girls Daniel is a good guide, drawing on his six months studying here a few years back. We people-watch at the seaside, admiring the girls in their beach attire: long skirts long-sleeved shirts shawl to cover the hair balaclava No, seriously, only their eyes and mouth are visible. The vast majority of the beachgoers are unfortunately gents in their later years spitting into the sand and strutting about in unflatteringly tight Speedos. A bikini in the midst of that lot would have to be airlifted to safety. We move on. Later, with Daniel wanting to know what’s under the balaclavas, French traveller Armand and I take a jin or two to the pavilion at the edge of the main pier. Young beachcombers use smartphone torches to hunt for crabs and other seaside grubs. Armed with my warning about the impact of the G20 Summit on tourism in his next destination Hangzhou, my French companion updates his plans and we agree to meet again in Suzhou the following weekend. Gives me time to get the scales level over the beer barrels. Cheers!/Prost!/Santé!/干杯& #65281;


Eating out in China part two

Eating out in China part two
Suzhou, China

Suzhou, China


Trip Advisor is rarely of much use to this backpacker when it comes to searching for a place to eat. A host of luxury and higher-end chain restaurants typically dominate the top of the charts. Sitting proudly at the summit of Suzhou’s list however is Finland Home Café. Thinking of my Finnish friends who brought so much to the European leg of this trip, I can’t resist a visit. It’s quirky. Cheap and tasty Finnish, Italian and Persian (?) food is served inside a mock sauna, just off the scenic Pingjiang Road. Zerko the host is playing an African drum on a stage at the opposite end of the tunnel-shaped room when I arrive and take my seat. A disco ball flashes behind him. His wife, who seems to be the one who knows what’s going on, tells me that her drumming husband was posted here with Nokia twenty years ago, took early retirement and they now run the place as a hobby. “Number one on Trip Advisor happened so quickly” she muses. “You know, at number two is this blind guy serving amazing dumplings and noodles. They queue round the block outside his place.” As I’m waiting for my meatballs and mashed potato, an Irish guy enters, sits and tells the waiteress that he’s walked here from Mongolia. “What do YOU want to eat?” he asks her when she presents him with the menu, either trying to pick the poor girl up or missing the point of the enterprise entirely. The waiteress giggles and orders the spaghetti. I leave giddy with the reaffirming thought that there are many ways to live a life, many ways to skin the proverbial cat… …as the one donating its fur coat to one of the restaurant’s wooden archways found out.


Hammers and rushes

Hammers and rushes
Suzhou, China

Suzhou, China


“Forget about it.” The two banks in town and the only restaurant unfortunately don’t accept VISA, MASTERCARD or West Oxfordshire District Council library cards. “Really??” “Yes. Have a good night!” Bemused, I leave the restaurant and its generous staff behind without having paid. Despite having been open as a resort area for a year the eastern shore of Lake Taihu, an awkward hour’s journey from Suzhou, isn’t ready yet. Incessant construction blows dust through the tall rushes fringing the lake. “Where can I go?” I ask with one hand on the saddle of a brand new bike. The two blue-shirted staff behind the rental counter look at each other. “That way,” says one, waving a hand airily to his left. He doesn’t look confident. “We need a 200RMB deposit.” “I haven’t got that much cash.” “Er ok then. Ummm…just your phone number.” “I don’t have a phone number.” “Name???” I pedal along the wide, empty lakeside boulevard past waving landscape gardeners and surprised tourist authority officials. It’s forty minutes before I have the diggers at my back. Three eerie buildings make up my hostel. I say my, I don’t meet any other guests. I pay for a spot in a six-bed male dorm and finish up with four beds and an ensuite to myself. In one room nothing but a scooter and a chair, in another an empty vending machine. Next door to a barren canteen (where according to a bored security guard breakfast is served) a bride turns and stares at me, surrounded by studio equipment. Later in the afternoon I explore the small town away from the lake. Every spare plot shudders under persistent, noisy drills. To my amazement, a solitary westerner sits awaiting a bus across the splintered street. “Do you live here?” she exclaims, her face mirroring my wonder as I approach. Before I can answer, her bus arrives and her story evaporates into the simmering air. The day before, at the bus stop in suburban Suzhou, a lad from the faraway northeastern city of Harbin traces a finger glumly over the timetable. Having just missed a bus, we have a two hour wait to get to the lake. “Forget about it”, he says to himself. He presses some postcards of Suzhou into my hand and turns back towards the city-bound metro. He’ll come back, or plenty of others like him will do. Best ‘forget about it’ for a year or two more though.


Eating out in China part one

Eating out in China part one
Suzhou, China

Suzhou, China


One dreamy summer evening we decide to leave the map at home and wander off the main thoroughfare across a serene, moonlit square. A busking cellist sends semi-quavers skittering into the fresh air as diners linger over indulgent desserts and coffee. After ten minutes or so on foot we encounter a tumbledown restaurant overlooking the water. We are the only tourists. A shrivelled, sparkling-eyed local welcomes us with a toast and tells us in broken English that the 99 year-old grandma in charge has been serving the same secret recipe for 94 years. Her food imparts the very soul of the city… …or something like that. Pay a visit to any of Europe’s graceful capital cities and such an experience is well within your grasp. Leave the map at home. In a Chinese city? Well. One sweltering Monday evening in August I decide to leave the map at home and proceed to blunder around Suzhou’s bloating intersections for a couple of hours. My t-shirt is already clogged with sweat before I have peered hopelessly at the indecipherable offerings at the first restaurant I come to. Nevertheless, the incessant car horns quicken my footsteps, flip-flops slapping urgently against the tarmac. I narrowly avoid several collisions with scooters coming towards me on pedestrian crossings, the green man flashing away obliviously in the background. What pavement exists is uneven, and after a while-my inadequacy giving rise to carelessness-I send my left foot crashing into a concrete indentation. My little toe immediately starts bleeding fiercely. I repair to a KFC… …where I order the same thing I did the last time this happened. Research a bit before you leave, choose a place to eat with good local repute and follow your map instead of your European instincts.


Watermelon and Eve

Watermelon and Eve
Nanjing, China

Nanjing, China


Nanjing 北京 běi jīng means ‘North Capital’. 南京 nán jīng means ‘South Capital’. Accordingly Nanjing, also blessed with canalside scenery, is more elegant and sophisticated than nearby Suzhou. My hostel during the two day excursion is a sociable one (one guest, Koji, comes from East Capital东京: Tokyo) but the three of us who end up rolling around town together don’t really function as an effective tourist unit. When it comes to navigation, as the only non-native speaker in our little group, I nominate myself to be the clueless one unhelpfully stating the obvious from time to time. However the guy nicknamed Watermelon from Guangdong unfortunately has a similar MO. This leaves a traveller who I’d met in Suzhou Eva, also from Guangdong. It’s down to her to handle most of the navigation AND help me think of a viable English name for Watermelon. We visit two museums. One details Jiangsu Province’s paramount importance as a centre of scholarship, commerce and governance in China’s history. I learn that the Su (苏)in Suzhou has stood for excellence in the arts, silk and academia for generations. The second tells the dreadful story of the Japanese Army’s ‘Nanjing Massacre’ at the end of the Second World War. Museum displays starkly assert that 300,000 civilians and unarmed soldiers in Nanjing were brutally disposed of once the Japanese had taken the city. The facts have been disputed and even denied in some quarters over time but the gruesome, tragic details and huge libraries of evidence on show here are bone-jarringly compelling. The best-known sightseeing area in Nanjing features a huge Ming tomb and another memorial to Sun Yat-Sen, almost identical to the one I’ve visited in Taipei. After a long day wandering past rather than to such attractions I convince my companions to buy an admittedly pricey entry ticket. In China it will ever be thus. Later we are undeservedly rewarded for our uncoordinated approach with the last few minutes of a spectacular sunset over Nanjing’s skyline, including the Zifeng Tower, the world’s 13th tallest building. Waterme- I mean Greg, looking out from the stone wall of the pavilion in silence, seems to approve. He really does look like a Greg. Now, which way back to the hostel?


Suzhou: the verdict

Suzhou: the verdict
Suzhou, China

Suzhou, China


Suzhou is certainly not Venice. The dorm where I expect to be staying for four months from 5th September looks like it has been subjected to a light shelling. And the local Wu dialect is (as I have been warned many times on my way here) utterly incomprehensible. But it’s a likeable, liveable city only twenty minutes from westernised Shanghai where I (sort of) know a few people. My university teachers will certainly be speaking Mandarin and before the studies begin there’s plenty of time to look out an extra canal or two if I’m missing Italy too much. It’s time to go back to University.


Bienvenido a Suzhou

Bienvenido a Suzhou
Suzhou, China

Suzhou, China


Sat next to me on the train to Suzhou is a leg of ham, and a woman. I look twice at the ham because it looks very like jamón Serrano. I almost travelled back from a year teaching in Spain with two such hams instead of my suitcases. Oh, a few slices of that with a tumbler of Rioja of an evening! Anyway, I look twice at the woman because she is the only other passenger in the carriage that isn’t Spanish. We have a brief chat and I learn she’s a doctor of some sort from Suzhou. And yet SHE is the one with the ham. I don’t have the Chinese to interrogate her further but after arrival into Suzhou train station I manage a little better with a member of the European tour group. Apparently there are seventy-odd Spaniards and a couple of guides that in two weeks have shuttled through Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Hangzhou and Suzhou. “It’s not great, travelling like this,” the woman says despondently as we step on to the escalator. “The first person ready has to wait for the last person before we can go anywhere.” I hope they get the opportunity to come back on a more independent basis but I fear they probably won’t. So, I arrive into Suzhou speaking Spanish. As long as I leave speaking Chinese…


The search for the Venice of the East

The search for the Venice of the East
Tongxiang, China

Tongxiang, China


“SHUT UP!”, screams our intermediary at my blabbering counterparts. “I understand what he’s saying, he understands what I’m saying.” This amateur mediator is suddenly all I appear to have. She’s a ninth-grader who speaks a little English. Not really sure whose side she’s on though. Wuzhen bus station is deserted and dark; I understand now why the bus I impulsively decided to board at the scenic water town area didn’t stop here as advertised. Why didn’t I wait 20 minutes for the one I knew was going to the train station and my connection back to Hangzhou? A few additional unfounded assumptions later and I find myself at a dead end surrounded by a group of local lads. Their astonishment at my appearance quickly turns to something more calculating. They are doing their best to restrict my options. After a spell of lively remonstrations, the last bus to the train station I should have caught from the scenic area pulls in briefly a few hundred metres up the road and then drives off into the night. I watch it go painfully. “So, what is your choice?”, the school girl asks. Wuzhen is one of several famed ‘ancient water towns’ sitting upon the canal network within easy reach for day trippers from Hangzhou, Suzhou and Shanghai. The place isn’t genuinely ancient; I can’t imagine the wide concrete paths and clear signage being part of the original design. It’s more like the Venetian Hotel Las Vegas of the East than the Venice of the East. Still, the interesting folksy museums and the swathes of moonlight beaming below the red lanterns hanging over the canals make up for the lack of authenticity. “If the FBI stop us, tell them we are friends”, says the driver’s mate from the front passenger seat later. I wonder how my ‘taxi’ fare will be shared among them and whether the girl – long since departed for town on the back of a scooter – will see any of it. I doubt it. No police inspection occurs and payment is made when I’m dropped off safely at the main railway station in Hangzhou. I’m still pondering the chaos my impulsive streak might have caused when I finally walk back into the Couchsurfing cafe, about £20 down. If you don’t speak and read Chinese and you don’t prepare thoroughly for an independent journey in China, you will probably come to a dead end. Come to a dead end and there will often be someone around to offer you help, usually before you even realise you need it. People seem equally split between those genuinely wanting to help and those who are more interested in extracting something from the situation. Which is fine. That ratio compares favourably to plenty of other countries.


Hangzhou away from West Lake

Hangzhou away from West Lake
Hangzhou, China

Hangzhou, China


“Whatever you do, don’t go to Suzhou, the guidebooks all say it’s the Venice of the east but there’s nothing to do or see”. This potentially dispiriting advice about my base for the next five months comes from Marta, one of tonight’s three Couchsurfing buddies. So, when she tells me she’s on her way to university in Beijing and asks me for some tips I am at my most helpful: “Oh I fell sick there for ages”. I do feel relieved that Raphael, the host, readily accepted my first ever Couchsurfing request at short notice. Before joining the fraternity of Couchsurfers had occured to me, a fruitless search for budget accommodation available to westerners online meant I arrived in Hangzhou without accommodation. Thanks to the impending G20 Summit, variations on the phrase “Foreigners are not allowed here” persisted in the clutch of places around the main train station. The exceptions were the posh business hotels, equipped to serve political delegates. One of these finally offered me their smallest room for a fee that at least didn’t make my eyes water. My Couchsurfing debut is in a squat two-floored cafe/bar in a business district south east of the lake. Flanked by tall office buildings bearing important corporate logos, the cafe is very quiet and dark when I pitch up early on a Tuesday evening. To my surprise, I learn on arrival that the host who I’ve been messaging all day is away in Thailand. The staff show me upstairs to a sea of about 30 high-sided couches and suggest I pick one. One or two are presently occupied by punters. The dim lighting makes me feel like I’m sneaking through a furniture store after hours. After that sluggish start the other guests – Marta, Anya, Ola from Poland – and I make friends. They kindly buy me a couple of cans and when we’re not comparing our China experiences, Ola is showing me how to use Instagram hashtags. They leave early the next morning and my day trip is thus put on hold while I take responsibility for the locked, empty cafe for a couple of hours before the staff arrive to open up! #theend #hangzhou #tbt #thisisablogpostaboutastrangecouchsurfi ngexperienceamidoingthisright?


West Lake

West Lake
Hangzhou, China

Hangzhou, China


Hangzhou, once the biggest city in the world, is host to one of the world’s most famous lakes, 西湖 (West Lake). The lake, located to the west of the city centre (surprise) has given rise to countless lines of poetry and declarations of wonder. Why not have a look at the pictures and come up with your own? Meanwhile, I can’t miss this opportunity to note how Chinese naming conventions-West Lake being a simple example-tend towards the charmingly literal. As I walk the lake’s circumference over a couple of sweltering days, I observe that there have been a succession of endeavours to identify West Lake’s most scenic spots to tourists as follows: 1. Top ten views of the West Lake 2. New ten views of the West Lake 3. Ten views of the West Lake selected for the third time The above are presumably to be followed later by; 4. Ten additional views (that aren’t as scenic as the ones we’ve already listed but might be worth a visit anyway) of the West Lake 5. Ten final views (that the locals definitely wouldn’t get out of bed for that frankly we’ve umm’d and aahh’d about including for ages before deciding what the hell if we put some kitsch craft shops and quaint little cafes in – you know, the stuff tourists go mad for – we can earn a few bob for our holiday fund. We’re saving up to go to Switzerland you know. Now, the lakes in Switzerland are REALLY something. What are the mountains called down there? Ah yes, the Alps. I’ve heard they are spectacular) of the West Lake.