Category Archives: China

From Qingdao to Shanghai

My penultimate stop in China was Qingdao, a nice and enjoyable seaside city. Major seaport in China, Qingdao hosted the Olympic Sailing competitions in 2008 and was in the hands of Germans for decades, so it still retains many buildings with a German architectural style. I strolled along the new seafront promenade and felt strange to find myself in a “Marktstrasse” with German shops and inscriptions. Qingdao is also the home of China’s second largest Tsingtao-brewery. The Germans did a good job here! As a result, beer is available everywhere and even sold in Qingdao-style: from kegs, in plastic bags, to be drunk through straws! With newly met friends, we jumped on the springy platform of a dance floor and continued our road together to Shanghai.

The largest city by population in China was even more crowded during the Chinese National Holiday. Possibly the biggest crowds we have ever seen couldn’t stop us from taking a walk alongside The Bund, at the banks of the Huangpu River. We fought our way to see the Pudong skyline, Shanghai’s financial and commercial hub. It was even more impressive by night, all lit up. My eyes were quite satisfied having seen the panoramic view from the Oriental Pearl Tower – it makes you feel so tiny and unimportant! – and the beautiful “Above the Earth” photography exhibition. But then it was time to make my stomach happy – with excellent crab-meat-filled juicy dumplings!

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Marriage Market

The years go by, you are getting older and your parents have given up hope that you’ll ever find the appropriate life-partner on your own? In China, they will try to solve the problem for you. Held every Sunday afternoon at Beijing’s Zhongshan Park, the marriage market is a public gathering for desperate parents who somehow want to get rid of their educated, career-driven children, some of them still living at home.

Crowds gather in the park, standing up or leaning against trees, showing each other pictures of their children. Some of the senior citizens sit on low stools, worried frowns on their faces. They look at each other and read the information displayed on a piece of paper. The matchmaking cards consist of the most important facts: Body height and age, degree, current job position and annual income. It becomes more and more clear that this is a bazaar of some kind – with buyers and sellers and an advertised person to be traded.

Sunday afternoon marriage markets exist now in major Chinese cities. We were lucky enough to have found this one in Beijing and discretely tried to take some pictures. However, they came into existence only some years ago. Marriage in China was traditionally a private affair and publicly expressing interest in finding a spouse for their child would have caused the parents a loss of face.

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Buddha cave and 7,000 steps to heaven

Don’t get confused now, as there will be some more posts on China to show you how the journey from Beijing to Shanghai was like. My way south-east of Beijing had a good start staying at a friend’s place in Tianjin for a week, who had moved there only two weeks before. That’s what you call a nice break from travelling! We spent most of our time catching up, went with Chinese friends to karaoke, tried a Japanese restaurant where the cook prepared some flaming food called Teppanyaki exclusively for and in front of us – it was amazing! And the sushi was delicious, too.

As I continued my way to Jinan, I thought that only in China there seem to be cities, inhabited by millions of citizens, of which you have never heard before. Like Tianjin (13m) or Jinan (8m). In Jinan I was hosted by a Chinese family and ate potato-like vegetables I’ve never tried before. The impressive Thousand Buddha Cave with dozens of illuminated Buddha sculptures was worth a visit, but after two days in the city I became restless again and moved to Tai’an.

Together with Beth from Wales I climbed the 7,000 steps of the holy Tai Shan mountain. We decided against walking up there in the night and the cold to see the sunrise – which is what many Chinese do – as witnessing the spectacle among hundreds of tourist heads next to each other wasn’t really what we were looking for. So I admit that the two beautiful pics were taken by my roommate! But still, we enjoyed our climb; having arrived on the top our legs burned badly and we were happy to take a rest and enjoy the view!

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On the way to Mongolia

The journey from Beijing to Ulan Bataar, Mongolia’s capital, is possible by plane or night train, but much more interesting if split up into a couple of days. Passing through China’s Inner Mongolia province, the countryside changes gradually from forests to endless grassland, and then into a dry steppe.

Language and looks change as well, and more and more signs are written in Cyrillic as a second language. Another change is that no more western faces are seen, and nothing, not even the word hotel, is written in English. The food is great. There is schnitzel and goulash!

People looked at me in a curious but friendly way when I walked through Inner Mongolia’s capital city Hohhot, and later through Erlian, the border town. Another change is the temperature, Hohhot is not hot at all, and Erlian is freezing, but sunny.

Crossing the border was slowed down by the fact that people bring enormous amounts of goods, from car parts over furniture to room decoration, from China into Mongolia. Our bus was held up by customs until after hours and long discussions the passengers stumped up some baksheesh.

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Bowling in Beijing

China’s capital surprised us with its modernity, confidence and grandeur, an americanized lifestyle, nearly five million cars, not much space for pedestrians, six ring roads and sterile skyscrapers. Honestly, we imagined Beijing to have kept more of its historical charm; it seems as if the rapid economic growth and social transformation have wiped out much of Chinese ancient culture and traditions, which you still can find, but you really have to look for it.

So we tried to find it and visited the Forbidden City, one of the largest and greatest palace complexes ever built, and the Temple of Heaven, where the emperor would make sacrifices and pray for good harvest. Monitored by close-circuit TV cameras, the Tiananmen Square with Mao’s Mausoleum presented itself as one of the most unattractive public plazas. Nowadays, the embalmed Mao is raised every day from the refrigerated chamber for public viewings.

Our personal highlight was none of the above, but rather strolling along the hutongs, or winding old alleyways lined with traditional courtyard houses, where the 21st century is kept at bay. We went bowling, made new friends, bounced to a rock concert and visited the cool ’798 Art District’ on a disused factory site – now the center of Chinese contemporary art with galleries, graffiti and exhibitions.

The Great Wall snaking through the countryside over deserts, hills and hills, for nearly 6,000 km, was worth a day trip. The ‘original’ wall was begun over 2,000 years ago, when China was unified under Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Hundreds of thousands of workers linked the separate walls together to defend people and territories against northern nomadic tribes.

We chose to see the wall from Jinshanling, a section less easily accessible. This made the journey quite adventurous, as it included trips by bus, van, motorbike and taxi to get there and back. Few tourists and silence were rewarding enough; the views from sharp peaks were impressive, but one had to work for them! Steep, partly un-restored sections and a stony trail turned it into a strenuous, but breathtaking and spectacular climb.

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