Back from Hong Kong…. finally!

My business trip to Hong Kong gained another six days thanks to the Eyjafjallajokull volcanic ash cloud and the closure of UK/European air space. I got quite excited at the prospect of rerouting to Spain and sailing back on the Ark Royal, or getting the Trans-Siberian train, but in the end the lovely ladies at the BA office in Hong Kong got me on the second flight back that left once the skies reopened. I landed at LHR at 6am this morning, and spent a fair chunk of the day completing expenses and insurance claim forms…..

The only downside about the extra time was that it meant I didn’t get to spend my birthday as planned…. no family brunch at The Diner in Shoreditch! But Simmons & Simmons friends in Hong Kong and London made sure that I had a great day on Sunday.

Getting a big bunch of flowers from S&S at the hotel was a great way to start the day and after a lazy lie in with newspapers and tea, I strolled down to central HK to meet Adam and family and Kelly and his wife for a lovely (“mostly veggie”) dim sum lunch, complete with a card and gift, cheesecake birthday cake and candles! I feel very lucky to know such lovely people in HK and in London.

Then over to Kowloon on the Star Ferry to explore the sights and shops. I phoned Phil en route and he told me one of my birthday presents is a “driving experience” – Silverstone Aston Martin here I come!

Strolled around Kowloon taking in the prom, park and night markets – and got a call from my dad and brother and families as I was perched on the prom taking in the harbour and the ferries, all lit up in their evening finery. Them singing Happy Birthday over the phone to me was a *lovely* end to my birthday.

Very glad of the BlackBerry too! Not to mention Twitter and Facebook for keeping in touch with friends, and tracking developments following British_Airways and HeathrowAirport on Twitter.

Back from three weeks in China

I’m just back from three weeks in China. Hazel’s dad’s been based in Shanghai for two years asking when we were going to be visiting, and I’d been looking at spending a week in Shanghai and Hong Kong with work, telling them about www.elexica.com and why Simmons & Simmons has it, so it was an opportunity too good to miss.

Holiday-wise, Hazel’s dad, Zhang and the team at Rail Partners put together a fantastic itinerary involving lots of long train journeys and internal flights to the sights, and staying in 3-4 star hotels rather than in backpackerland (mainly because IWW got us great rates through the excellent elong online travel service). Yes, a sign that we’re getting old(er) I guess.

Gap filling and photos to follow….

Planning
Weather: Shanghai
FCO travel advice: China
Wikipedia: China
BBC country profile: China
Lonely Planet: China

Itinerary and what we got up to

Saturday 13 / Sunday 14 October (photos): Fly London Heathrow to Shanghai, Virgin Atlantic. Arrive Shanghai early morning, airport bus No 6 to Shemun Yi Lu (18 RMB). Power nap then afternoon walk around Shanghai to get our bearings – walking through People’s Square and along Fuzhou to the Bund where we took a lot of photos of Pudong’s ultramodern skyline and the Huangpu river, complete with boats carrying electronic advertising hoardings. Return walk took us along Nanjing Dong Lu, with all its shops and shoppers. Dinner at the Malaysian Chinese (Nonya) restaurant on Dagu Lu.

Monday 15 October (photos): Coffee out at a Western cafe on Dagu Lu then rendezvous with Ivor to pick up updated itinerary and train tickets. Lunch then bus to Shanghai train station (2 RMB). Shopped for overnight supplies before relaxing in the soft sleeper lounge before boarding the Shanghai to Xi’an overnight train T138 (depart: 15:57, soft sleeper: 516 RMB)

Tuesday 16 October (photos): Arrive Xi’an 07:58 (but late in). Put day packs into left luggage (we travel light) and catch public bus to Terracotta warriors (left luggage 3RMB per item; bus: 7 RMB; entry: 90 RMB, audio guides 40 RMB), return to train station and catch taxi to check in at Tianyu Gloria Plaza hotel (room: 498 RMB). Walk past endless electronics shops to Big Goose Pagoda (entry: 25 RMB; pagoda climb: 20 RMB), walk to Little Goose Pagoda (closed) to eat at Maogong Xiangcaiguan restaurant. Walk back to hotel (too much walking today …don’t underestimate the size of the Xi’an city blocks!). Overnight in Xi’an.

Wednesday 17 October (photos): Taxi to Xi’an old town, explore the Muslim quarter, the Great Mosque (my favourite part of Xi’an), the Drum Tower, the Bell Tower, walk along the restored town walls (40 RMB) from the South Gate to Heping Lu / Yanta Lu gate. Walk back to hotel. Taxi to airport (along empty 4 lane motorways). Xi’an to Guilin by air (China Eastern Airline MU2307 dep: 13:40 first class flight: 1826 RMB). Airport coach to central Guilin, taxi to Guilin Bravo Hotel (room per night: 658 RMB). Walk around the Rong Hu and Shan Hu lakes, featuring pagodas and pretty nighttime lighting of the lakes, trees, paths and bridges. Eat in at the Guilin Bravo hotel, overdosing on pak choi, greens and water chestnuts… I wouldn’t agree with the Lonely Planet guidebook’s assessment that there is “…good food available in the hotel’s Chinese Japanese and Western restaurants”. Overnight in Guilin.

Thursday 18 October (photos): Li river cruise (booked via the hotel). The river scenery is lovely, but you lose something when you’re following 50 or so other cruise boats in convoy and after a long wait at the departure quays which are themselves an hour or so minibus journey from Guilin. Potter around Yangshuo where we indulged in coffee, lemon meringue pie and recent editions of the China Daily English language newspaper at the Dream and Hope Coffee House. Highly recommended: close enough to the main drag to keep an eye on the action, but far enough away for there to be peace and quiet and mercifully few street hawkers. Return to Guilin by minibus, and a tortuous rush hour fellow passenger drop off. Eat out at the ?Charlotte? lakeside restaurant (much better than the Bravo Hotel’s Chinese restaurant). Overnight in Guilin.

Friday 19 October (photos): Potter around Guilin, walking around the lakes in search of a good coffee (success in the shape of a specialist coffee shop on Shanhu Bei Lu, where an Americano came with fried eggs and toast and a view of the morning dance exercise sessions on the pavement across the road) heading for Seven Star Park (Qixing Gongyuan, 35 RMB) for a stoll up the limestone karst hills for views over Guilin, and around the kitsch Disney-esque tourist attractions at river level, plus the zoo where we watched several sessions of fish feeding frenzy. Taxi to Guilin airport (100 RMB fixed fare) for flight to Shanghai Hongqiao airport courtesy of Shanghai Airlines (FM9332, dep: 20:25 arr: 22:35 first class ticket: 2146 RMB). IWW on hand to lead us through the airport onward connection conundrum – taxis avoid the airport from 10-11pm so that they benefit from the late night fare surcharge that comes into effect at 11pm. IWW elbowed us onto the Airport Express bus into the centre of Shanghai (4 RMB) and thence a short hop home in a taxi.

Saturday 20 October (photos): Day trip with IWW, car and driver to the water towns over towards Tai Lake. First stop Tongli (80 RMB), second stop Zhouzhuang (100 RMB). Both were busy with Chinese visitors (although apparently we were there on a relatively quiet day) and it was rather like wandering around a Disney recreation than a living town. Delicious dinner at the Four Seasons hotel’s Japanese restaurant taking advantage of the all you can eat sushi menu and all you can drink draft beer deal, and the cigar-friendly, jasmin tea (with complementary biscuits) serving lounge.

Sunday 21 October (photos): Tour of Shanghai with IWW by bus, foot and taxi, featuring the Old City (mostly under demolition), Yuyuan Bazaar (another modern replica housing shops geared for tourists – of which there were loads) and Yu Gardens (40 RMB) (similarly heaving), the Memorial for the site of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China, sandwich lunch at patisserie Paul in Xintiandi followed by a stroll through the lovely french-style Fuxing park (featuring open air performances of traditional dance from the north/west of China) and the French Concession. After a rest chez IWW we headed out again for the Bund and evening ferry ride to/from Pudong for night time photos of both sides of the river. Dinner at the mediterranean place on Dagu Lu. Hazel’s downfall was to go for the lamb pitta….

Monday 22 October (photos): Taxi to Shanghai Hongqiao airport for early morning flight to Kunming (CA 1797 dep: 07:45 arr: 11:05 economy fare). Met at airport by one of Zhang Min’s contacts with train tickets and a ride to the train station – lovely people. Bags into left luggage then a leisurely potter around Kunming city, taking in various cafes, the Carrefour (they’re in lots of the cities – a bit of a strange experience shopping in a familiar French hypermarche, in China), various small parks, the relocated City gates, Jinmabiji Square and surrounding alleys and the East and West pagodas. I don’t think the LP does it justice. Overnight train to DaLi (N810 dep: 22:13 soft sleeper: 136 RMB)

Tuesday 23 October (photos): Arrive Dali train station 07:28, No. 8 public bus from the train station to the old city (30 mins or so). Stroll around Dali old town, and indulge in a traditional Tibetan breakfast on Huguo Lu before joining the ever descending crowds to admire the water channels, the old town streets, the “still real” market, the town walls and gates (2 RMB each). The public bus service having disappeared (or at least proving impossible to track down) we caught the 13:45 minibus from Dali to Lijiang (45 RMB). Taxi to Lijiang South Gate (7 RMB) and navigate our way to the Lijiang Wangfu hotel (520 RMB per night). Explore on foot to get our bearings. Again, lots of domestic tourists thronging the streets. Dinner in a restaurant Qiyi Jie overlooking the Yu river (I think… or else it was a large water channel!).

Wednesday 24 October (photos): Explore Lijiang – the traditional shop houses (albeit not as trad as they once were), the waterways, town square, Black Dragon Pool Park (60 RMB – the guide book gets is right, it does offer outrageously photogenic views of Yulong Xueshan – Jade Dragon Snow Mountain – and the park itself has a beautiful lake with bridges and pavilions and temples). Back in the old town, climbed up to Looking at the Past Pavillion (15 RMB), tried a glass of Yulong tea in a cafe with views out over the old town roofs. Dinner was sizzling vegetable and tofu hot pot at the Blue Papaya.

Thursday 25 October (photos): Up for 06:30 breakfast and hotfoot through town to catch the No 7 bus to Jade Dragon Snow Mountain National Park (10 RMB; departs from the square opposite the statue of Chairman Mao. Park entry costs 80 RMB plus an additional 80 RMB payment for something I forget, but it seemed reasonable at the time, and there was a laminated sheet with an explanation in English of the various charges), stopping off en route to rent a full length down jacket for Hazel. At the main visitor centre we joined the well organised system for the cable car ascent to the snow fields of Yulong Xueshan (40 RMB). we spent a good few hours climbing the stairways up to 4680 m and taking lots of photos, although the peaks and glaciers themselves remained determinedly shrouded in cloud. Return bus to Lijiang – with the same driver and lady conductor – via Baishui (with beautiful turquoise lakes and “moon” waterfall) and Baisha, which now calls itself Jade Peak Village – clearly with the tour group in mind. Second visit to Black Dragon Pool Park (for frustratingly cloud-free views of Yulong Xueshan, and “grannie” tracking). Indulged in coffee and cake at Don Papa’s – a french patisserie despite the Italian sounding name (it also does pizza!) – before exploring the backstreets on the west side of Dong Dajie where life is a little bit less tourist-driven. Chilled out in Sifang Jie (Market Square) watching the tourist groups and the “get your photo taken with a Naxi horseman in traditional fur-plus-rifle outfit” operation). Dined out on momos at Lamu’s House of Tibet – very chilled. Overnight in Lijiang.

Friday 26 October (photos): Another very early morning breakfast to allow for (relatively) tourist free photos in the old town, including watching the grannies gathering in Sifang Jie and taking more photos of snow capped Yulong Xueshan peeking out over the rooftops. Indulged in mid-morning coffee at Don Papa’s, thawing out on the suntrap roof terrace before more mooching around the backstreets and ultimately ending up at the modern market by the South Gate, which I loved. Taxi through the countryside to Lijiang airport (80 RMB; 30 mins) for Shanghai Airlines flight to Shanghai Hongqiao (FM9452; dep: 14:30 arr: 18:50; economy flight: 3158 RMB).

Saturday 27 October (photos): Shanghai Museum (20 RMB) with IWW then a DIY No 36 bus trip to Jade Bhudda Temple (20 RMB x 2). Dinner out at The Naked Cow – 3 bottles of fine red wine, tasty beef for H and IWW, scrummy pizza for me – and a final jasmine tea and cigar session at the Four Seasons.

Sunday 28 October (photos): Shanghai metro Longyang Road station, where Hazel headed off on the Maglev to Shanghai Pudong International Airport, leaving me to backtrack a little to explore the Pudong side of the river and to read Black Swan Green in a quiet riverside park before strolling back to base. Four Seasons for all you can east sushi dinner…. and the end of the holiday part of the trip.

Main impressions

  • In London terms, Shanghai is Canary Wharf to Hong Kong The City. It’s got glittering newly built office blocks on every street, and very little “old” building left – and, with the exception of the listed buildings of the French Quarter, most of what remains is being rapidly demolished to make way for modern housing and office blocks. The pace of change is phenomenal – the Time Out Guide to Shanghai quotes Sir Norman Foster as saying, “The process of urbanisation, which in Europe took 200 years will take just 20 years in China”. In Shanghai, the change from low rise shophouses to skyscraper apartments, commercial centres and office blocks has taken place in less than 10 years.
  • Most of the places we visited outside of Shanghai were mainstream tourist destinations. What I wasn’t ready for, however, was the sheer scale of domestic Chinese tourism, and it is as clear an indicator as any of the country’s prosperity. One consequence is that very few of the mainstream destinations manage to retain any sense of reality and historical sites are surrounded by (or in some cases, converted into) businesses targeting the tourist yuan. If you’re looking for “ancient” China, you’ll need to look beyond the places we went to. I’m still hankering after the remote deserts, mountains and towns of Xinjiang, and the snow festival of Haerbin.