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Archive for July, 2015

My friend Anita has a beautiful outdoor porch. She uses it as her retreat, leaving the confines of the house with walls, out in the garden, surrounded by trees and the click and bleep of a thousand invisible insects.

This haven is set deep in a sub-division of Raleigh, North Carolina. I’m entranced by the exoticism of the garden surrounds; bright pink and purple flowers hanging heavy on tree branches. Red birds flitting around the feeder. And that noise. That jungle-loud insect cacophony that rings out from the dense woodland lining the housing estate, constant, other-worldly, hypnotic.

We paint on the porch. Picking over the long lines of white paint tubes, all spattered in a kaleidoscope of colours. Squeezing and dabbing and swirling that paint onto clean white canvases in many shapes and sizes. Seeing what flows from the brush. Listening to the bleeps, working alongside each other in silence, feeling waves of warm air drift through the porch, and out into the expansive woodlands behind.

Two big fans on the ceiling gently throw invisible sheets of cool air down on us, a welcome relief. We swill our brushes, heavy with turquoise, pink, orange, green, around in the murky water in the jam jar.

Faces emerge from our canvases. Lizards, birds, animals, humans. We rip and stick newspaper cuttings, messages from the print. Sequins, beads, glitter. Wash over with another layer of paint.

Our hands and legs grow freckles of paint. I have some in my water glass. A dab more, a dash here.

And then it’s done. We lift our canvases up to take a look, and prop them up on the mosquito netted windows to admire our latest creations.

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Beijing

The drive from the airport

Greener than I thought, although the green here is different, it’s a dry dark green. The leaves look like they can stand some serious heat. Mum told me of a friend who visited Beijing and didn’t see any birds. I saw two flocks on the way from the airport to the CBD. They were on the outskirts though. As my eyes scan the strange letters and the unfamiliar sights (motorcyclists with umbrellas for shade and oven gloves on to protect them from hot handles), I start to feel lucky, to have this opportunity to visit such far flung corners.

Fairly quickly we joined a tangle of highways, gridlocked into the centre. A good hour buffeted between the lines on the road, cutting across cars and weaving through the lines of vehicles. I could taste the fumes from within my air conditioned car.

The hotel, 05.24am GMT, 12.24PM local time

Safe inside my shimmering, glittery palace. Air cooled and conditioned to trap out those fumes. Pristine white sheets, spa-style bathroom products. A deep bath, a cup of jasmine tea, and some yoga to shake off the stiffness and lethargy of my 10 hour flight.

Tried to phone-home, or at least fire up Facebook or Gmail to post or email. Internet times out. I think the sites are blocked. It lets me into my work email, so I can send my signal home

The first afternoon.

Walked miles in my flipflops. Intense heat searing down, slowing my western steps to fall in line with the eastern meander. Lines of metallic umbrellas in every shade of pastel, beating back the sun. People crowded into shady spots. Queues to get into Tiananmen Square and the surrounds. Inadvertently found myself standing in the queue, the one I was told to avoid. Oh well, go with the flow, it’s too hot to go against it.
Beautiful ornate roofs, lined with fearsome animals protecting the temples from fire. The scale of the Forbidden City is huge. I walked for miles. It just kept going, Lots of pictures, stops in the shade. The orange tiles glimmering and shimmering in the heat.

At the far northern side of the city is the Imperial Garden. Some welcome nooks and crannies to find escape from the sun. Rocks, gnarly trees, fountains and pagodas.

Wound my way back through some hutongs, peering into old and crumbly courtyards. Stopped to buy a strange pastry snack and an even stranger cold sour yoghurt drink. Trying to fit in with the locals. Somehow, what felt like hours later, popped up in the shiny Oriental Plaza, home to my hotel.

Grabbed an ice coffee from Starbucks on the Plaza. Lay briefly on my pristine white sheets. Dozed off for a second before jumping up – NO STAY AWAKE. Another bath, called my contact in Beijing, a friend of a friend – he’s taking me out to eat tonight. I need a beer and some food that isn’t scary looking.

Oh, and there are birds everywhere!

Day 2: The office

There is nothing like having heavy eyelids first thing in the morning. Set up in an office on the 15th floor of Tower E2. Strong sugary coffee at my side. It’s nice working at this time. My laptop clock tells me it’s 3.50am in the UK. My American colleagues are just about to say goodnight. The world falls silent around me. Beijing, however, remains noisy. The gentle thrum of the air con in the corner and the musical bib-bib of the horns of Beijing traffic outside my window. Yes, Beijing, I know you are there, you cannot be ignored.

The rain storm

Mid-afternoon, the air is thickening in the office despite the air-conditioning. The ring of the car horns continues outside. A low rumble joins in. The view from the 15th floor has turned grey, diagonal lines of rain streak across the view. The pavements far below are slick. The storm sets in.

The evening

Battling heavy eyelids all afternoon, leave work just before 6 back to my hotel room, to lie down and drift off into a hazy sleep for a couple of hours. A delicious night in the hotel with unadventurous room service and HBO. And sleep.

Day 3: The Great Wall

Up early and into a cab to get to Nan Luo Gu Xiang. A funky street ploughing through the middle of a labyrinth of hutongs. It’s early so everything is shut, a few locals busying about their days. Window shopping on the way down. Peering into hidden alleys. Find the hostel, wait with the backpackers, get in the van, drive for 3 hours.

Walk the wall at Jingshanling. It’s majestic, built up in places, crumbly in others, snaking over the green mountains, the dramatic countryside with its rolling hills and valleys stretching out as far as the eye can see. And as far as the eye can see there’s more wall and more turrets.

With my new backpacker buddies we trek up the many steps, in the blazing heat, learning each other’s stories and stopping for shelter from the sun at each turret. Sweat clings our tshirts to our bodies, the temptation of ice cold coke or ice cold beer by the farmer’s wives at each turret. We push on. Taking photos on each and every corner and new views of the sweeping wonder reveal themselves. 6km and about 2.5 hours later we’ve made it. Hearts hammering and all now good friends, I finally give in to a persistent farmer’s wife. A fresh T-Shirt “I climbed the Great Wall” and an ice cold coke, for the heavily bargained down price of 20 Yuan (about £2.40). We climb down from turret 22 to the car park below and get back on our blue bus for the 3 hour trip home.

Back in Beijing and at the Backpackers place the road that was so quiet this morning is now pumping. It’s packed with local cool kids, promenading and posing up and down the alley. Bars and cafes blast music, neon lights flicker, karaoke is underway. Bright coloured drinks bubble, meat is served on skewers. People stop every 5 seconds for another selfie…

I wait to meet Dave and Bridget but they’re late. A lot of people watching later I give up and head to the subway, then I get a text – they’re here! Stuck in the throng. I walk back to meet them and find them with “the beast” their motor tricycle. It’s amazing but slow moving in the people crowd. I hop on the back and Bridget carefully guides us through the crowd. We pop out at the end of the lane and navigate crossing the exceptionally busy road. It’s exhilarating waiting in the middle of this huge intersection with cars whizzing past me, blowing up my hair from being so close, and bibbing very loudly.

We head down a quite dark road, passing a park with a bunch of older women doing a choreographed dance to tinny music, and find a cute little restaurant, lit up with red lanterns. Dave orders plates of food and beers and we settle in for a much needed dinner.

After we get back on the beast and head towards my hotel – we’re nearly there anyway, weaving in and out of the maze of streets we suddenly pop out on Wanfujing Street, the main shopping street, Bridget hops off and heads for home whilst Dave drives me at top speed through the late night shoppers and back to drop me off at my hotel. A final swim before heading for bed.

Day 5: Sunday in Beijing

Lie in. Breakfast. Work.

Subway to Jishuitan. Walk along main drag, shops of every kind. Duck into a street cutting through more hutongs. Weird and wonderful alleys. Coffee shop with strange animal in cage.

Walk around the hutong tour area. Then onto the lake. Duck palace. Come back and over the Silver ingot Bridge. Watch karaoke singer with everyone else. Then back onto depths of hutongs, some quiet, some crazy. Shady temples, pop into bar for iced tea and to escape the heat. Regroup.

Head to the park to watch the locals with their pride and joy only children, all dressed up and parading. The lake is beautiful with the view of the White Pagoda, the lake is full of boats, duck shaped, lotus flower shaped.

Visit the 9 dragon mural and get a call from Dave and Bridget – go and join them back in the hutongs for a massage.

Massage is insane, breaks me and puts me back together. Howling in pain from the Great Wall yesterday. Come out feeling like I’m floating on a cloud.

Get on “the Beast” and heat north past the Drum Tower to another hot spot and have a dinner of delicious dumplings before I say my final farewells to Dave and Bridget and jump in a taxi back to the Wangfujing street. Final stop is the Night Market and then Snack Street to see skewers of scorpions (live) and Seahorses, and the pained expression of someone singing Chinese opera, before I hot foot it back to the hotel room to Face Time with Chris, have a bath, pack, check in for my very early flight tomorrow, and bed.

Shanghai

The journey from the airport

I take the maglev bullet train from the airport to Longyang Station. An 8 minute journey. On this one you really feel the acceleration as I watched the on-board speedometer rapidly tick up to 431km per hour. Being the only tourist (so it seems) on the airport train, I sneak a photo. The whole carriage tips as we round a corner. My heart quickens. I love fast trains.

After the joy of the bullet train, I decide to take a taxi the rest of the way. Some guy at the station leads me round a corner to a taxi. It didn’t feel quite right. 30 minutes and 400 RMB lighter I know I’ve been ripped off. Frustrating, but that’s China sometimes.

The afternoon in the French Concession

Monday is a public holiday in China. I’m now at the start of our conference week and I am starting to see some familiar faces checking into our Shanghai hotel. I do some work, settle into my hotel room, and then decide to go for a walk. Being inside the hotel is dark and oppressive. I head out into the French Concession.

I decide to loosely follow a “90 minute walk around the French Concession” from my guide book. Heading out of the hotel and find the main road and start my journey. The air is thick and heavy with humidity. Trees hang over the road to make a tunnel of dripping leaves. It feels more tropical here. South East Asia, or New Orleans spring to mind. I pass boutiques and small local shops filled with fruits and plastic toys. Men and women sitting on low chairs in their doorways. The atmosphere is very relaxed. Bicycles ride up and down the long streets. Birds sing in cages, hung from balconies overhead. Occasionally there’ll be a break in the shops and my view will open up to a construction site, with huge skyscraping buildings towering up into the overcast sky. Progress.

I stop enroute at one of many funky looking coffee shops. Relieved by the air conditioning and the comforting feel of takeout cup in hand, and the welcoming taste of milky coffee. I walk for about 40 minutes, turning left, then right, enjoying the feeling of a new strange city, so completely different to the one I was in a few hours ago. Enjoying the feeling of moisture on my skin, the fragrances here, the gentle new sounds, the more mellow atmosphere.

I find a park and wander in. Elderly Chinese people sitting on benches, on the exercise machines, enjoying their afternoons by doing, well, not much really.

Quite by accident I stumble across a labyrinth of shops and bars and restaurants. Crammed into packed little lanes. Weird and wonderful boutiques and eateries. It’s much busier here. Young people bustling around. I let myself be taken along with the sweep of humans. Bright colours, loud noises, close contact. A lot to take in. I pop out on a the main street and buy a pink plastic umbrella. It’s about to rain, I can feel it.

I feel the ping of my blackberry and my colleague has arrived at the hotel. We agree a meeting point , a subway ride away. The subway is surprisingly easy and clean. I even tell a tourist how to buy a ticket, and it’s my first time too!

30 minutes later I pop out on Nanjing Road. The main drag, Nanjng Road. Shanghai High Street. Big, wide, busy. The Apple Store looms. Another side of China. Another side of everywhere. I dodge the people trying to sell me selfie-sticks and wheels to put on my feet and take a pew to people watch and wait for Clare. We meet and walk down the drag to get to the Bund.

A beautiful man-made skyline. A line up of concrete souls rising up out of the river. Space craft.
We catch a ferry to get on the water and find ourselves enjoying another view from the foot of those stunning skyscrapers, whilst drinking German beer and eating Goulash.

We walk along the river promenade. It’s dark now and the Bund is alit with neon. The skyline takes on another personality. The people of Shanghai are out in force, promenading along the banks. Small children throw glow in the dark missiles into the sky.

My guidebook tells me about a kitsch tunnel that you can take back under the river. We finally find it and climb into the ski-lift carriage which takes us back under the river. This bizarre experience reminds me of the scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the original) when they go into the factory for the first time. I expect to see an oompa lumpa.

The week at work

I’m here on a work conference with our Asian sales teams. It’s an intense week of workshops, presentations, and brainstorms. We’re in a conference room in the hotel which is feels far away from Shanghai. Most of our meals are served in the restaurant, which serves an abundance of food, but I’m not entirely sure what most of it is and I don’t feel that adventurous after hearing they served turtle on the first day.

It’s amazing to spend time with my colleagues from all over the world. We get to steel back into steamy Shanghai in the evenings, with foamy beers in nearby bars, watching the locals perform their evening dance routines in the park, we take a trip to a big shiny Chinese restaurant in Wu Gardens, and another jaunt to see the Bund again. One night I take the marketing ladies back to my discovered labyrinth. We find a cosy Thai restaurant and have cocktails and green curry, a welcome break from the Chinese food!

Our final night we say our goodbyes to our colleagues as they head back out to their corners of the world. There are a few people left (mostly from the Middle East team!) and we head out for Lebanese food. We’re all tired, and after a beer at the Boxing Cat Brewery, we head back to the hotel. A second wind then catches us all and we end up in a Bowling Alley after midnight, followed up by a massive night club with booming base and vodka flowing. Another city that never sleeps.

My last day in Shanghai

I’d always planned a final day in Shanghai before flying home but wasn’t sure what would happen. One of my newly acquainted colleagues from India invited me along to spend the day with a friend of her friend, a French lady living in Shanghai. Why not?

So, we have a whirlwind day buzzing around Shanghai, taxi hopping between old and new all day. From a delicious dimsum place to the Wu Gardens (this time in the day) for temples, shops, the tourist bridge and some turtle spotting. From the local bird and flower market, spotting crickets in plastic balls and baby chicks and baskets of terrapins, to the multi-floored “fake market” with handbags and sunglasses from every “designer” under the sun. We walked through an antique market that was in the process of being pulled down, small kiosks crammed with “antiques” surrounded by piles of rubble. Back to the Bund and this time up to the 32nd floor of the Hyatt for a Peachocolada cocktail with one of the best views of my trip. That neon river scene, and the classic Shanghai aerial shot that you see in all the movies. We ended up in a really funky contemporary restaurant, Japanese and China fusion. Beer in round bottomed glasses and mouth-watering fusion food before being whisked off in our last taxi for our final goodbyes and to pack, as my China trip had come to a close and an early morning taxi to the airport beckoned.

Beijing and Shanghai, two very different siblings, the older is more formal, traditional, unlike any city I’ve ever visited, the other young, vibrant, full of life but trying to be like others around it. It was a privilege and a joy to experience both side by side. I’ve only seen a scratch of China and now I crave to get out into the country-side and see a whole other side. The cities are loud, proud and attention seeking, and next time I’ll head farther afield.

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