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EXPAT LIFE

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This was my last trip exploring Fujian province before leaving my ‘home’ of Fuzhou. An escape to the scenic area of Wu Yi Shan, home to an array of plant species and wild animals. Drawn in by its tranquil beauty, I spent a weekend exploring Wu Yi Shan’s primitive forest, drifting on the water of Wuyi Canyon, and wandering around the caves and tea plantations that make up this stunning and protected scenic spot.

map of wu yi shan

Sunday 6pm. Work is over. Myself and my weekend travel companion have our bags. The bus is on its way, we already have our train tickets. We’re set. Around two hours later the train and bus are behind us and we are exploring Wuyishan city heading to our hotel. We purchase tickets for Wu Yi Shan, pick up an illustrated map and get an early night to prepare for the next few days. We have two and a half days to cover the 60 square kilometers of this natural and cultural heritage site.

 

Not starting quite as early as planned and our mood being slightly dampened by the weather, we have breakfast and make our way to the bus to take us to the site. Although having a Chinese friend with me makes the travel process incredibly efficient, the area is very tourist friendly and signs, for the most part, are in English as well as Chinese. Stepping off the bus and taking in the surrounding nature, for the first time I’m aware of how fresh the air quality is. Fuzhou is one of the cleaner air cities in China but I have forgotten how crisp fresh air can feel on a cold day. My mood is immediately lifted and we venture inside the site.

wu yi shan views

The area provides transport to and from the various scenic spots in this mountainous area. We are dropped off and we pick one of the many routes to see where the road takes us. The views are stunning. The mountains are layered with lush forest echoing the sounds of birds and various wildlife. The waters are emerald, clear and full of life. Tearing myself away from the natural beauty we follow the path leading to the Memory Hall of Zhuxi, a Song dynasty philosopher and the founder of Idealism Confucian. The memorial hall was once Wannian Palace and its courtyard houses two cassia trees of one thousand years old.

 

memory hall of zhuxi
monuments to zhuxi

 

Continuing around the remains of Wuyi Palace,  the oldest Taoist temple in Mount Wuyi, you are aware of the ancient history of this beautiful setting. The gardens hold impressive monuments that are perfect examples of China’s exquisite art. Temple walls hold inscriptions of Taoist teachings and pavilions provide shelter to simply sit and look upon the surrounding beauty. Following the path to an old town you can purchase local crafts and take in the stunning architecture. Wu Yi Shan is famous for its tea that grows in the plantations here and so the tea sets available are some of the most elegant I’ve seen in China.

wuyi palace
wuyi palace temple
taoist text

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

donhongpao tea plantation

It is to Da Hong Pao that we venture next. located at the center of Wu Yi Shan, inside the jiulong Nest Grand Canyon. The pathway is enclosed by step cliffs either side and growing out of the cliffs you can see the world-renowned Da Hong Pao tea. This scenic area houses several precious teas but Da Hong Pao is most revered for its color, aroma and taste. People always comment that the British love their tea but non celebrate it with more ceremonial elegance than the Chinese. To drink tea here is to be apart of a historical tradition.

The following day we head to the pick up point for the bamboo raft trip. Taking to the water you become immersed in the poetic landscape. Nine Bend Stream, the name given due to its abrupt changes in course nine times over, is the center piece of Wu Yi Shan. Sitting back and taking in the view of unusually shaped mountains, waterfalls and caves inscribed with ancient text, you lose yourself in natures overpowering serenity. Glancing in to the crystal waters you can see fish and turtles swimming contentedly alongside the raft. The boatmen are cautious in their rows and seem just as in awe of the scenery as though it was the first time their eyes had laid upon it.

bamboo rafting
water curtain cave

With the rafting drawing to a close we hike in search of more water in the form of the Water Curtain Cave. This is the largest cave of Wu Yi Shan and can receive over a thousand visitors. Following the paths steady incline we reach its peak where we find a man feeding a flock of white birds. The backdrop to this scene are mountains and tea plantations. It’s not hard to feel you have been transported into a piece of Chinese classical literature. Taking the bend to the left the water curtain reveals itself. Set in the hues of blues and greens, this waterfall that fronts the cave is responsible for its creation. The cave being eroded by the force of flowing water making it unlike the many other karst caves of the area. You can wander the higher ground to explore the ruins of temples and see the cliff carvings. The sticks placed under the curve of the rocks have their own charm also.

 

ancient cliff text

There are many hiking trails you can take here for stunning views of the entire park. Tianyou Peak gives panoramic views of the mountainous area and is located in the center of Wu Yi Shan. Unfortunately this was our last attempt of the day. With heavy legs we decided to stop half way and took rest at a pavilion, watching others continue the ascention of the stone staircase. Regardless of the level you reach you will not be disappointed with the views you find. Choosing a narrow path down between two cliffs we reach the bottom and return to our hotel for another day.

 

The final day is a half day as we need to return to Fuzhou for work. It would seem then to be a perfect day to explore the temples of Wu Yi Shan. There are grande new buildings in place for worship that, although beautiful, lack the charm of the older, simple temples that can be found if you are prepared to wander. Unlike the new temple, we find a smaller one that is void of other visitors. The building is much more simple in its design with passages to open small courtyards that hold plants and offerings to the gods for prayer. Opposite the temple are living quarters where the monks simple robes are hanging to dry. Bamboo holds these earthen colored fabrics in the air and they sway hypnotically in the wind.

modern temple
temple gods

Past the old temple is a beautiful building that is the living quarters of the monks. The windows are cased in wood, the overall design isn’t entirely recognizable as traditional Chinese architecture but fits the surroundings sympathetically. If you continue on you reach a magnificent view-point at the base of a striking white pagoda. Feeling a little rushed we make our way to a bus pick up point to return to the hotel and prepare for our leave. For anyone who has a love of nature, hiking, history and architecture, Wu Yi Shan should certainly be on your Fujian bucket list.

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old temples
monks living quarters
cliff temple ruins
white pagoda
chinese artist sculptures

 

It’s again one of those days in Fuzhou where I don’t know if the weather with hold. There is promise of rain undoubtedly, but a little rain has never deterred me. It’s the near monsoon that springs from nowhere that I don’t appreciate. The sticky climate is a given even in January so I venture out dressed for summer with fall accessories. With camera and umbrella in tow I’ve decided to discover one of Fuzhou’s ancient temples; Xichan. Located in the west of the city, as the name translates, Xichan is one of five ancient temples you can find in Fuzhou. The old sits with the new to impress with China’s stunning architecture. Pagodas, temples, litchi trees…you can explore this place for hours.

Xichan entrance courtyard

Entering the complex I am almost hypnotized by the swaying of the branches that drape low and dance in the wind. I pay the 20 yuan entrance fee and begin to explore. Immediately I look to the water. Its murky appearance is brought to life by glimmers of orange and yellow. Fish and turtles decorate this otherwise gloomy lake. Temples are known as a place where you can abandon turtles to a new home. Something which unfortunately gives a lack of responsibility to some of the foreigners who temporarily call Fuzhou home but feel the need to own “pets”. I gaze up to take in the scope of the complex. Xichan covers an area of more than 40 kilometers. There are statues, gardens and great halls, all of which should not be missed.

Xichan statues and lakes

Winding across small bridges and under swaying trees I take in all the bright colors that adorn the remarkable design of these structures. It’s not long before I reach a breathtaking pagoda that seems to reach for the sky. No matter how many temples I visit pagodas never fail to impress me. There symmetry and shape of these towers are perfectly balanced in beauty and strength. Walking around this magnificent structure gives was to an equally impressive hall. The dragons that adorn the rooftops give a type of life to these buildings when they cast shadows in the failing light. Every hall houses a different style of Buddha. The Hall of 500 Arhats is considered the most impressive with the Jade Buddha Hall following it.

Xichan halls and towers

There is always an inner turmoil I experience at temples. I have only visited a few that are completely open for tourists to take photos along side the statues. This is not one of those. Monks are here in prayer and locals wear an expression of offence when the ignorant visitor flashes away, and rightly so. But I am still one of those that longs to capture the moment and so occasionally I take a photo from the outside peering in at a distance. I’m not excusing myself as this is still considerably rude to one who’s religion I am invading but I’m trying to find a balance. I suppose educating myself in the Buddhist belief system may make me more humble.

Autumn garden

Besides the obvious modern structures that sit in contrast with Xichan temple, it is a small courtyard that captivates me. The walls a deep terracotta with two levels of narrow rectangular windows, if it wasn’t for the rooftops I would think I was wandering around a small Spanish town. The appearance of a monk dressed all in grey pulls me back quite sharply to the reality of where I am. I continue around the grounds. The rain heightens the scent of the garden but also means putting my camera away. As the sky becomes dull the trees remind me of Autumn back home. Except there is no chill to the air, just a humidity that I haven’t quite gotten used to yet.

Dragon rooftops

As the rain becomes too heavy I wander out to the bus stop. It’s a strange thing to leave the calm of a temple and transition back into the city. Xichan’s walls guard the ancient serenity of a life that almost no longer has a place against a bustling city that barely sleeps. But I have no doubt the grounds of Xichan temple will stand longer than any recent structures that seem to appear far to quickly for quality architecture to endure. If this city was to shake and crumble I could guarantee the temples would remain standing.

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Xichan architecture
Ancient and Modern
Xichan temple grounds
Baoen Tower
Prayer candles

I placed myself in the center, on the unclean wooden floor that gives promise of stains and splinters. I’ve decided this to be the most appropriate place for stability and therefore securing the idea that I won’t go over board. The sun is shimmering on the water and I’ve declared this the most questionable boat I have stepped foot on. Nevertheless we are steadily gliding onward with the roar of the engine that requires a manual start and lights up sparks through the smoke it produces. We are shopping for dinner. On the water. For all my uncertainty on the reliability of this vessel I wouldn’t be anywhere else. We set out early to drive over the mountains and take the boat out to explore the fish farms of Luoyuan bay, my step mothers hometown.

our boat for exploring

The mountains are beaming with the warmth of the sun. The water is opening up to reveal a floating city of ramshackle  wooden houses that stretch out over the sea to cover almost the entire bay. We pull our boat up along side a hut and jump ship for the first expedition. I’m being directed over the uneven narrow floorboards that make up a network crossing that lies on the surface of the water. Below are cages and nets housing everything from lobster to scallops. My attention is guided to the cage of abalone. When opened these shells incorporate all the colors of the ocean. I collect the empty shells that have been washed up among the ropes and wash them off hoping to keep my balance and composure. We bag some up and make our way back to the boat.

fish farm worker

Crossing the water surrounded by mountains I’m captivated by these simple homes that float within the fish farms. China’s mariculture industry has exploded over the last 25years and is now so large it accounts for two thirds of the world’s entire production. With this in mind I cannot help but consider the environmental impact harvesting at this level would cause with biodiversity being irreparably damaged. There is a three month ban every year for stocks to replenish but somehow I doubt those numbers balance out what has been lost. Putting these thoughts to the back of my mind I turn my attention back to the scenery and sea air.

family of fish farmers

This time we are leaning towards the direction of another boat and not quite slowing down as rapidly as we appear to be approaching! With what could be labelled a collision we stop and tie off to each other. Stretching over the sides of both boats I hop aboard and choose my step cautiously. There are nets being half dragged along the wet floor by the hostages inside. I don’t know what has surprised me more. The child in her pajamas waking among the crabs or the squid that is hypnotically dancing on the floor, it’s tentacles feeling for the opportunity of escape. There is a third boat attached with ropes forming a floating line of vessels. We buy fish from one and crabs from the other. While leaving this boat some words appear to be exchanged at a heightened tone and before I ask for the translation a fish is thrown at my feet. This is one of those moments to simply except the differences of this culture. I decide to return the fish to the water without uttering a word or question as to the reason behind this display.

planks of Luoyuan bay

Continuing navigating the fish farms we finally settle behind a larger boat that looks far more capable of crossings seas. We return our circus style routine of balancing along the boards to the security of the platform in front of the hut. The preparation begins for dinner. As we are joined by those I assume own the hut the washing and boiling begins. I’m directed onto the large boat all of a sudden and it seems we are leaving. I haven’t eaten over the entire day and I look longingly back at the food as we head around a mountain. It appears we cannot dock along the stone staircase ahead to reach land. Instead I find myself on a raft held together with rope and floating on barrels. I’m baffled by how I’ve managed to remain dry. It appears we are off for a hike to further work up our appetite.

caves of mountains

At the base of this winding hill a phone call is made. As always I’m unable to understand the details so I take in the amazing view of the bay. These fish farms are really quite spectacular and a tourist attraction in their own right. My attention is shifted towards the dirt track ahead and we start to climb. Half way up we meet a truck. There’s a discussion and suddenly I’m in the back of this truck clinging on with white knuckles. My step mother’s wild spirit gives way to laughter. We jump off at the top, I regain stability soon enough yet remain confused as to why I’m not yet eating what we spent the day purchasing. It all comes to light. Walking through an area of forestry I’m confronted by a narrow gap between caves. Obviously this is our route. My step mother joyfully takes lead and moves like a cat, winding her body around the rocks with a childlike excitement which is nothing short of infectious. The view is worth every scratch and spider that is now crawling on me. China is so far the most beautiful country I have seen.

 

Luoyuan views

The walk back down the hill is full of stories of how when my step mother was a child she used to hike into the mountains and collect various leaves for tea and dry grass for fire. When I think of my childhood in comparison it’s almost shameful how privileged we are in the western world, without any concept of life outside our own familiarity. There is a man at the base of the hill holding a bottle of red wine and a smile. The answer to the earlier telephone conversation. Back on the raft and a climb onto the boat we are on the move again past the hut and towards another mountain. I’m sticky from the hike in the sun and can’t remember the last time I have been this hungry. Alas, it appears I must wait as this is a day for adventure and earning your meal.

We reach a stone walkway and I see that it is another hike to this next destination. This time I spot a small stall and without notifying my company I’m gone. It was here that I was first introduced to an old ice lolly, a milky taste that is incredibly refreshing. Even with half of it dripping down my hand in the heat I’m relieved to have something to keep me going. I do not have the stamina of my step mother or her friend that has been guiding us this whole time. Upwards we go to discover more caves and a beautiful stone statue that is a place of worship. I’m aware of how little I know of China’s diverse religious beliefs and hope to one day dedicate the time to learning more about this countries ancient history.

 

wooden houses of fish farmers

As the sun’s light begins to lose strength we find ourselves back on the boat. On the platform the small table is laid and the smell is exquisite. I’ve never had sea food this fresh and the crab is worth every effort required to devour past its shell. We finish the wine and food and take home the remaining crab for the following day. Finding ourselves on our original boat, I take my place on the floors center and we leave the fish farms behind. The sun is setting on the water as we reach our destination and it’s another journey over the mountains home. Although not practical to shop for your food like that every day this has been an amazing experience. I’m incredibly fortunate to have an invitation to this real world of China outside of the guide books and known tourist locations. My step mother resides in Abu Dhabi with my father but I’m fortunate that she is here for my first month in this new country. Along with the rest of her family, she has not only shown me areas that I would never have been aware of but has shared her culture with me in a way that has allowed China to feel like home.

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fish farms and mountain view

To continue the theme of most of my trips lately its dark, cold and raining. It all adds to the atmosphere though. I’ve taken the speed train to Nanjing, Fujian. Following the 160 minute train journey it’s a 25 minute taxi ride to the bus station and a further 75 minute journey to our hostel that dwells in the heritage site we are here to see. I’ve brought my closest friend here in China along for the adventure. I’m grateful to have Chinese speaking company as although this is a well known tourist sight, I would struggle to find my way here alone. The more rural you go the more essential it becomes to have a grasp of the language. The commute out of the city and into the country is a bumpy route that winds around narrow mountain roads but well worth the effort to see the earthen buildings, the Fujian Tulou houses.

rural nanjing at night

Arriving at night we are greeted by the resident dog of our hostel who sleepily lays at my feet and rolls onto its back indicating the attention I’m obliged to give. After being taken to our rooms we abandon our bags on the bed and immediately head out for food. It’s late and our options are limited but the “mother” of the hostel takes us down the road, the dog in tow, and we order several local dishes that do not disappoint. Suitably full we decide to wander the cobbled streets faintly lit by a rainbow of lights that reflect off the wet stones. There are tea houses, pottery classes and souvenir shops all alive with people regardless of the hour and weather. We return to the hostel after a short while and play cards while drinking tea and discussing the plan for the following day.

rural village of nanjing

We set out early in the rain and begin navigating our way through this rural county to explore the history of these ancient Chinese dwellings. The word Tulou literally translates as earthen structures. Appropriately named, the buildings are constructed with load-bearing rammed earth walls that reach several stories high. They can each house hundred’s of people living as one community, generally made up of several families or the smaller tulou’s house one family clan that span the generations. The living quarters are like a corridor around the peripheral enclosure walls and a common courtyard takes center stage. The rooftops, made from clay baked tiles, are beautiful in their own right.

huaiyuan tulou building

The first tulou we come across is called Huaiyuan. There is a sea of colorful umbrella’s following the echoes of tour guides giving an account of this earth house which I’m unfortunately unable to be privy to. I ignore the glances that I have become slightly more accustomed to and wander inside this circular dwelling. The architecture is astounding. I have never seen structures quite like this and I am unprepared for how they are still very much lived in. I imagined tulou’s to be more like standing museums of an old way of life but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The kitchens are situated in the lower levels with the preparation areas being outside a few feet away. Food is being washed and prepared by the residents and clothes are being hung out to dry above. I feel almost apologetic for stumbling into another’s home with a camera and no invitation.

tulou interior

I follow the circumference of the building and become more comfortable with intruding this home. Many of the residents have stalls where they sell trinkets, teas and hand rolled cigarettes. Beautiful paintings are also available for purchase along with black caged birds that I have seen being kept as pets in the community I live in back in Fuzhou. I buy various items to take home for friends and move on to find the next earth building named Hegui. Outside this tulou I’m approached by an elderly lady who my friend tells me will take us up to her home inside the tulou for a small fee. The upper levels of the tulous are not open to the public and I’m intrigued to see them but my friend disagrees with paying and we stick to the ground level. Admittedly I regret this decision but it is the one we made.

art studio in tulou town

We wander down the streets of this ancient town and purchase some steamed sweet potatoes to warm ourselves in the relentless rain. We discover an old art studio that is empty but clearly not abandoned. Paints and brushes are out and beautiful work displayed on the walls. Unsure of whether we should really be inside, we quietly explore the studio then take our leave onto discover the square tulou of this sight. The building has an external wall surrounding it and the two structures are divided by a quaint courtyard. The wall i imagine would have been for defense purposes. Tulou’s were built to withstand arrows, gunfire and even cannon fire. A communal well sits within all the tulou’s and there is also a shrine for worship laid with offerings and clouded in incense.

tulou cluster of fujian

As the day draws in we head back for dinner and get an early night. The morning is a case of taking one bus then another to a second tourist site called Tianluokeng which is a cluster of tulou houses in the mountains. Upon arrival we step on to a balcony and take in a view that even the rain cannot dampen. There are four circular tulou’s with a square tulou sitting in the center. I read a sign that explains the the arrangement is related to ancient Chinese philosophy and represents the derivation of the five elements. Intrigued, we wander down the cobbled slope into the heart of the tulou’s. These seem to be larger structures housing bigger communities. Although the trinkets and souvenirs are all the same, the personalities of each tulou is individual. My favorite being the last tulou we enter that has colored hangings to protect from the rain and the courtyard is full of tables and people that seem to be in celebration. This communal style living has such appeal to me and makes me wish I could become a part of this lifestyle.

large tulou interior

The Tulou’s of Fujian have an extraordinary charm to them. They are like earth fortresses that live in harmony with the environment and provide a community lifestyle of equality. They were named a UNESCO cultural heritage site in 2008 after a decade long campaign. To find out more about these fascinating rural dwellings I recommend watching Secrets of the Fujian Tulou, failing that come and visit China and discover one of its many rich cultural sites and open up a world of history unparalleled by any the west can offer.

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square tulou
tulou shrine
tulou cooking station
caged birds of the tulou

My favorite evening used to fall on a Friday. I would finish work at 5pm, grab some food with friends and head to a quaint little jazz bar to see in the morning. Since moving to China the evening awarded my favor is Sunday. Work ends at 5:30pm, someone in the office usually makes a suggestion for food or drinks, but as we next start work at 4pm on the following Wednesday some of us find ourselves straight in a taxi and off to the airport. This “weekends” destination: Shanghai.

The bells ringing, our boxes are down and we are out the door positively beaming! Our flight time is tight so we take a taxi to the eerily quiet airport, find Starbucks and for the first time actually discuss what we want to do in Shanghai. The trip was booked on impulse, Emma said we needed a break, I agreed, Ctrip did the rest. But in a place like Shanghai where do you start?

European architecture along the Bund

We have three nights but only two days. Shanghai offers an endless array of museums, art galleries, cultural sights and night life. The restaurants are as diverse as the people and the architecture makes it easy to forget you are in China. We arrive late at night looking slightly disheveled from the rain, the two young men at the hostel desk smile and offer us a double room for the same price as our booked dorm. I’m already in love with Shanghai. We stayed at Blue Mountain Bund Youth Hostel booked via Hostel World. It was perfect. Friendly service, hot showers, all the usual facilities and centrally located. We unpack, buy a bottle of wine and sleep.

Shanghai or London

We decided we are here for less of a tourist trip and more to relax in a different city from the one we currently call home (Fuzhou). We sleep in, chat to other guests from all over and head out in search for the Bund. It’s raining with a crisp chill in the air and a grey mist, but oddly enough it feels perfect. It’s been eight months since I’ve wandered down a street with such familiar European architecture. The beautifully adorned grey structures and bare trees that line the street almost had me convinced I was in London. The only deterrence to that possibility was the array of shop owners flocking to the streets to lay out their plants to drink in the rain, something I doubt I’ll ever witness in London!

It is not long before we reach the Bund. The magnificent waterfront reveals its grandeur through the grey mist making a silhouette of some of its buildings. It’s as though you are gazing at a museum of international architecture. The following night we found ourselves exploring the west side of the Bund, lit up in neon we discovered the different architectural styles including Gothic, Baroque and Romanesque. As we wander along the Bund taking in our first symbol of Shanghai, a wave of nostalgia washes over me as I hear clock bells echo through the morning. A sound that was once so familiar to me having twice lived by a town clock now takes me by surprise. It is unusual what you miss about home when living in a country so different from your own.

Anren Jie

We continue along the Bund following the signs for the City of God temple that lies within Anren Jie. Suddenly you are taken out of the modern western blend of Shanghai and into an old town of classical Chinese architecture. Unavoidably so you encounter every possible trinket and souvenir any tourist could desire, admittedly I found myself purchasing a mahjong set that I hope to learn once I find three others keen to do the same in order to play. As soon as you are able to maneuver through the crowds you discover the jewel of this area: Yuyuan Garden. A famous classical garden with a history of over 400 years. The attractive garden is home to many pavilions, halls and ponds and if it wasn’t for its popularity it would be an extremely tranquil place to sit in silence and wonder at the scenery.

 

City of God temple

After enjoying the garden and temple we head in contrast for Nanjing Road to take in Shanghai’s shopping. The streets are bustling with fashion seekers undeterred by the rain. We find ourselves a new outfit and head back to the hostel to freshen up and reacquaint ourselves with the bottle of wine. One thing I’ve always enjoyed about hostels is the shared common area. It’s like being in an over-sized living room and for lone travelers becomes a haven for meeting others. We quickly make friends and head out for a drink. As its a Monday evening I cannot say we experienced Shanghai’s night life exactly but the bars are alive with fellow travelers and some welcoming locals.

Natural History Museum

The following morning is a lazy one. The weather has improved and we head out in search of coffee and a western style breakfast for a change. We become distracted by more shopping and breakfast turns into an Italian lunch in a charming restaurant with a view over the city. We discuss museums with the tightest time frame imaginable and I mistakenly order a smoothie that takes a lifetime to arrive. Jumping on the subway we make it to the Natural History Museum, or to its grounds at least! Not realizing ticket sales end long before closing we make the most out of the visit and explore the surrounding grounds. Fortunately the disappointment is recovered by the various sculptures that are on exhibit and the blue sky that has broken through the grey. The modern architecture of the area is also quite pleasing to admire.

 

Shanghai Shopping

It’s here that we decide to subway hop. Picking a random destination and letting the train do the rest we find ourselves on the west side of the Bund in awe of the various buildings, sculptures and monuments. The Bund should be explored both during the day and at night to be truly appreciated. Making our way back to the east side of the river we find a art deco style building with a sign for the recommended Captains Youth Hostel, known for it’s warm welcome to back packers and roof top bar with an amazing view of the Bund. We eat, drink cocktails and discuss the trip. We are both eager to return for a longer stay to take full advantage of Shanghai’s cultural hub, arts scene and night life. Two days is a taste of what Shanghai has to offer and we reluctantly return to our hostel to prepare for the return to Fuzhou.

Although fascinated by the cutural blend of Shanghai I would say it is a city that I will probably only ever visit. It doesn’t feel enough like living in China for me and although Fuzhou is also a city, I can feel a pull towards China’s more rural areas to deepen my appreciation for this countries ancient history and way of life. Forever a restless soul, I will listen to the wind to guide me through this chapter of my life and see what the future holds.

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City of God temple
Yuyuan Garden
Captains rooftop views

For those of you who have read my post on Zhangjiajie National Forest Park you are aware I was exploring Hunan Province in central China (October 2016). Following the magnificent adventure of Avatar mountain I, along with my work colleagues, took our trip onward to Tianmen mountain. It is undoubtedly one of the greatest mountains to visit in China. You are challenged to climb the stairway to Heaven’s door following the initial ascent on the world’s longest cable car ride. This journey, although questionable in it’s stability at first, offers stunning views of the mountains and its 99 bends.

Tianmen Mountain

The mist is still laying heaving on the mountains. For some this has dwindled their enthusiasm, but I embrace the eerie allure of the mountain peaks. If I was alone with a guide I would love to hike these mountains, alas I’m with a large tour group being guided by metal railings to queue for the cable cars. One car holds eight people. My car holds four terrified people, three calm individuals giving promises of safety and comfort, and then me. I’m in awe of the fantastic scenery opening up all around us and am unable to stop myself from standing and taking pictures from every angle, much to the dismay of the unfortunate group around me. I quickly recover from any disappointment to being unable to hike. There is a charm to the 30 minute cable car ride. The views are spectacular and give promise to another marvelous journey ahead. The final ascent is very steep going up at 37 degrees over sheer cliffs to one of the mountain peaks.

Tianmen views

Stepping out of the cable car the wind becomes like ice in your lungs. This is the first time I’ve been truly cold in China. The bustling crowds share their body heat at times when it seems impossible to move independently. It is not surprising that this area is a huge tourist attraction so I quickly decide to embrace the noise and shuffling. I notice no signs have English translation and the mountain is vast. I recommend anyone coming to book a tour so not to miss out on any of the splendid scenic spots that cover Tianmen mountain. There is plenty to see in the comfort of the inner grounds, Tianmen temple is a particularly beautiful spot to take in the peace and tranquility (ignoring the echos of the crowds) that the mountain offers. But, being me I always long to dance on the cliffs edge.

sky walkway

Clinging to the vertical cliffs, I am met with the walkway that sits around 1,400 meters high. Clinging to the cliff face offering a breathtaking view and a vertical drop that you are so keenly aware of when being pushed into the decorative wooden barrier that separates the distinction between life and death by the many tourists competing for the perfect photograph. For the next hour and a half I have the privilege to gaze across the mountains that stretch for miles, disappearing in the cloudy haze that gives an otherworldly aura to Tianmen mountain.

Coiled Dragon Cliff

If the thrilling sensation of wandering around the cliff face wasn’t exciting enough, I am presented with a new challenge that would not be suitable for the faint hearted! Initially slightly confused by the earlier requirement to purchase pink fabric shoe covers, the entire situation has come to light. I am at the glass skywalk named Coiled Dragon Cliff. Despite the mist the mountains below are crystal clear. The drop is immense. The length of this somewhat terrifying walkway is 100 meters. The bustling crowd is taking full advantage of the walkways 1.6 meters in width and I’m pushed closer to the edge of the barrier rather than the cliff face. True to the tourist nature it is all about the photographs. I take in the stunning mountainous landscape while people fight to sit on the walkway and somehow create the space they demand for the perfect selfie!

99 Bends

The view of 99 bends is continuously opening up as we move around Tianmen mountain. The road is given its name due to the 99 sharp curves that lead tourists all the way to Tianmen cave. Looking at these bends and knowing bus drivers in China, I’m more apprehensive about the journey to the bottom than anything else. Tianmen cave is the doorway to Heaven, a water-eroded opening that stands proudly between two mountain peaks. The stairway leading to ‘Heaven’s door’ is an arduous climb of 999 steep and narrow steps. Coming down these steps I lose the view, my eyes fixed on the next step ahead that barely accommodates my size 6 shoe! The awkwardness of this descent is in everyone around me so there is nothing for us to do but continue working our way to the bottom. I arrive on the last step nearly 20 minutes later.

Stairway to Heaven’s door

This level has a collection of souvenir shops and a developing queue for the bus journey back down Tianmen mountain. The day of adventure is almost over. The most dangerous part of the journey is the bus ride. With the mass queue of people I become separated from all but one of my group and we join a bus of Chinese tourists. Immediately I hope no one suffers from motion sickness. The bends are sharp and our speed seems excessive as I slide in my seat to cross the boundary of personal space to the fellow tourist either side of me. When the rumblings of the passengers convinces the driver to slow down I begin to take in the view of this mysterious place for the last time as night falls. Like Zhangjiajie apart of me feels like we don’t belong here. Although it is a magnificent place to see, there is a question I can’t help but ask…should we have such natural beauty made so accessible to us?

Mist falling over Tianmen Mountain

There is so much more of China’s mountainous landscape I wish to explore, giving life to the worlds written about in Chinese literature. This country offers such beauty. I only hope that it is not at the cost of tourism. We are all responsible for being ethical travelers. The more I travel and discover other cultures the more I become aware of how tourism can become a tool for development to benefit both the traveler and the destination.  Treading lightly on people’s homes and cultures and making a conscious decision to embrace the hospitality around me is all part of a spiritual growth that travel has afforded me, to that I am forever grateful.

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It’s a long weekend, and the earliest my alarm has been set since arriving in China. My bag is packed and I’m ready for the regular struggle of acquiring a taxi. As I (and two friends just as tired as me) stumble into the street I’m silently debating the likelihood of a taxi coming by at this time of the morning. Within moments one pulls up with a local and as he’s paying we slide ourselves onto the backseat before he even has time to retrieve his bag. The argument lost in translation begins. The driver clearly doesn’t want us in his car and my face clearly holds an expression of defiance. I show him the location to Wuyi square, unchanging my look of absolute refusal to leave. He submits finally and takes us to join the gathering of co-workers that has assembled in the square. We have a flight to catch. The destination: Zhangjiajie, Hunan province.

Zhangjiajie valley

This is the first time I will explore another province outside of my current residence of Fujian. The school I work for have organised a trip to the famed scenic area of Zhangjiajie National Park, home of “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain”, named so for lending it’s inspiration to the 2009 Avatar movie. The weather here is cold and wet. It’s a crowded and uncomfortable bus journey to the hotel once landing. I think on how easily we portray travelling as a glamorous, exciting life. Although I do not deny that travel enriches your life greatly, I also can’t help but acknowledge how little fun is experienced in the long commutes. We arrive, we unpack, we sleep. Tomorrow is a day of exploring the fascinating and mysterious scenery of Zhangjiajie.

Breakfast is early but it could easily be lunch or dinner. In China rice has become the side dish to every meal. It’s not uncommon to have seafood and meat along with a selection of vegetables for the first meal of the day. My personal favorite is fried sticky rice with nuts, found mainly in the towns and villages. Coffee is not so much a thing here and so once I’ve eaten I run to the nearest street stall to find bottled cold coffee. I’m in luck on this occasion and pack two for the days journey to Zhangjiajie’s scenic spots.

Bailong elevator

As though the gathering of my fellow employees isn’t enough, we have decided to visit during a public holiday. The crowds are enormous. It wouldn’t matter if you didn’t know the way, you would be shuffled through as though on a conveyor belt to your destination. We settle on a bus and before long we are transported through a sea of clouds broken by towering pillars that creates a celestial hidden world. Among these sandstone pillars sits, in complete contrast, the world’s tallest outdoor elevator. Bailong elevator, also know as Hundred Dragon Sky lift, is 335 meters in height. Clinging to the mountainside, peering through the glass elevator car you are given a view to Spirit Soldier’s Gathering, a formation of 48 rocky towers that stand like soldiers.

Spirit Soldiers’ Gathering

I have never seen mountains quite like these. There is a mystery to this valley that is only matched by its beauty. It is easy to see how it became an inspiration to the Avatar movie, and that very mountain featured I am soon to lay eyes on. The hike is rich in wildlife and the mountains continue to vary in form. Pillars become square and start to look like the steps of giants, descending to open valleys and mountains in a tinted shadow from a sea of mist. Ignoring the fact I am surrounded by tourists, this place truly draws a comparison with the mythical Pandora in that it does not seem like a land where humans should dwell. Although completely grateful for having the privilege to see this ethereal world, I can’t help but think the popular tourist site will become affected negatively by our presence.

Avatar Hallelujah Mountain

The clouds are beginning to drop back. I’m finally face to face with the majestic 1,080-metre Southern Sky Column (Avatar mountain). This pillar with its lush garden atop is nothing short of breathtaking. Although summers light would give such life and color to these views, for me the mist adds to the otherworldly feel. These mighty pillars partially hidden in the clouds are like floating gardens, those of which I had only seen in painting of ancient China. To be here in Zhangjiajie is a moment I will treasure.

Being here with so many others though is some what unfortunate. We are continually rounded up together so the guides can keep track of us. I would have been much happier hiking along the river up to to mountains and not taking the modern structure that is the cliff side elevator. This is a national park that you could hike for days and with the proper kit I would have loved to stay on the mountain for the night. This is the type of environment you want to explore at your own time and take in every part of its landscape. It should be noted that Zhangjiajie Park is a part of Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Area and has much charm to all its sections, not just the pillared mountains. Pagodas, pavilions and bridges are all sights not to miss while roaming the park.

Tujia women

While on the mountain we had the company of Chinese women in Tujia traditional dresses, coming down however we are met with a different kind of congregation. Monkeys have started to gather circling the many tourists on the mountains open balcony. They don’t seem phased by us at all, even those carrying their young. I couldn’t help but feel yet again that we don’t really belong here. People are falling over themselves for photographs and it’s not long before the security men start to set off firecrackers. Whether they were doing this to protect the monkeys or the tourists I’ve never quite decided on.

Zhangjiajie monkeys

 

Leaving this natural wonder behind we head back to the hotel. Tomorrow we are heading to explore Tianmen mountain, just south of Zhangjiajie city. Although excited for more unearthly natural beauty, its hard to imagine mountains that could ever impress more than the pillars of Zhangjiajie National Park.

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Zhangjiajie pillars
Zhangjiajie square mountains
Zhangjiajie mountain formation

Like anywhere in China, Fuzhou is home to many spectacular temples. There is nothing quite like the feeling of wandering the grounds of a temple, being an observer to the lives of the monks. Absorbing their humming prayers that, if you open yourself to them, will vibrate through you and fill you with an awareness of your own emotions. The place I have felt most spiritually aware is at Qishan Wanfo Buddhist Temple. You will not find this temple listed on any ‘Top 10 Things to do in Fuzhou’ list. I only became aware of the existence of this temple because of a local friend who drove me out to it. The address for anyone who is curious; Minhou, Fuzhou, Fujian Province, China, this is the best I can find online. Its near an area known as University City due to its countless universities.

Upon arrival you are greeted by the familiar gates that are the entrance way to all temples in China. I am used to seeing miraculous stone dragons guarding these gate, but Qishan Wanfo temple is guarded by beautifully carved elephants. Passing these gates you come to a more unfamiliar representation of a elephant, surrounded by water. This is a carved rock that houses many Buddhist statues taking their place on the more familiar stone dragons. This is the most unique example of Buddhist carvings I’ve had the opportunity to witness thus far.

Following the path around the water you come to some steps, the center of which you find displayed a magnificently detailed stone carving of a dragon that climbs the full height of the stairs. Reaching the top gives way to the first collection of many styles of Buddhas and Monks, statues which animate with such expression you can feel a life to them. You could spend so much time taking in the art form that are these statues. Studying the expressions, admiring the carvings, feeling the curve and shape of each one individually. But it is hard to ignore the first temple building that is standing splendidly straight ahead.

This is the first moment I become slightly uncomfortable taking pictures. There are monks lighting incense and in prayer, this is their home, their place of worship. It is a privilege to be granted permission so see such a humble way of existence, and so to show respect I take no photos inside the temple. I do not have the ability with words to describe to you the beauty and tranquility you feel upon entering this temple. This first temple is home to the four main Gods I believe. The light that enters this temple is illuminated by the gold that fills the room with warmth. Your head arches back to take in the grand scale of the statues that although do not meet your eye line, seems to penetrate their stare right through you.

To exit you go through an open door frame that starts maybe a foot above ground level, I hold the sides to step through avoiding embarrassment by tripping. Immediately my fingers caress the details of wooden carvings that span the length of the walls, these pictures are China’s history. I close my eyes for a while and follow the carvings, listening to the wind and trying to give color and life to the story in my minds eye. But I am with company who reminds me there is much more still to see.

history carved in wood

Qishan Wanfo Temple covers a large ground. There is a courtyard feel as you move from one temple house to another. Small stone bridges cross water that is surrounded by greenery. You pass many types of statues that I’m told are representations of the Gods various children. I wish I was writing this alongside my friend who’s knowledge of Qishan Wanfo both impresses and fascinates me.

We come to a temple now which vibrates as with a singular sound, echoed by many. The monks are in prayer and giving offerings to their Gods. We do not stay long although I feel I could stay all day quite content. You can’t help but feel like an intruder when observing life quite outside your own knowledge and experience. It is quite humbling to see but also highlights the ignorance I have for the culture I’ve decided to surround myself with. I shamefully cannot remember the names of the Gods my friend so passionately tried to educate me on.

 

The next temple awaits. I have never seen such an illuminating sight. Numerous gold Buddha statues line three walls. The scale of the statues is quite breathtaking. Upon their chests sits what many would recognize as the Nazi Swastika, an old symbol used throughout the world that traditionally has been a sign to mean good fortune. There are tables laid out with many simple offerings to the Gods, water, fruit, flowers. I mistakenly point to the Buddha’s chest when asking my friend if she knows the history of the symbol laid on their chest. She tells me this is something you cannot do and silently refuses to let go of my arm until we leave for the final temple.

It is at this temple that for the first time I am not immediately drawn to the statues. The room is filled with chrysanthemums, I am reminded of the aesthetics of Curse of the Golden Flower. I forget where I am for a moment and prepare to take a photograph. My friend silently protests by again linking my arm and holding it firmly to my waist. I am worried that one day I shall forget this moment. The visual beauty and the warmth it fills me with.

When it comes time to leave the temple we walk back through the grounds as the sun starts to settle on the first collection of statues we met on the elephant rock. I look down to the water that is filled with turtles and frogs of an unimaginable size. The air is starting to chill but I feel a light holding warmth to my chest. I think of the temples I will visit in the future as I continue my travels. So far Qishan Wanfo has had the most impact on me emotionally, ignoring its splendor and beauty. Being there at the time of the monks in prayer is incredibly moving. I am not someone who has a deep connection to religion, but I also cannot ignore the other worldly feeling you experience in a moment like this. I hope the memory of those chrysanthemums never fade.

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China’s cities are those of perfect contrast, old meets new on every street corner, modern stands alongside tradition. But the one that stands out the most in Fuzhou in my opinion is it’s architecture. You are surrounded by towering blocks of cement and glass reaching for the sky. Of course there are also buildings that have questionable stability and leave you wandering as to what type of health and safety regulations China has with its construction. For me though, wandering through the ancient buildings of Sanfang Qixiang is what strikes a union between the modern city and its history.

Sanfang-Qixiang literally translates to ‘Three Lanes and Seven Alleys’. It is a beautiful and lively district that is steeped in history, dating back, I believe, to the late Western Jin Dynasty. Wandering through the twisted lanes and quaint courtyards you can lose the bustling sound of it’s main street that is now the dwelling of restaurants, stores and coffee shops. Instead, you find yourself absorbed in the history this museum of architecture presents, down to the very seashells embedded in the walls, collected amongst the sand used to make the bricks.

The alleys of Sanfang Qixiang become narrow in places as you glide alongside the white walls, until you come to either another turn, an open courtyard or a hidden museum, often free, that opens up the history of the ancient residential complex that has been, and still is
home to many famous poets, politicians and military leaders. The delicate grey tiled rooftops are perhaps my favorite, curving and being just as decorative as every other aspect of the buildings.

At night, Sanfang Qixiang is more alive than the day, often you can here opera singing competing with the excessively loud pop music bellowing from the clothing stores. Artists practice their craft at their open stalls. Small children eat the sculptured candy as they walk in and out of the bustling crowd. Coffee shops are always alive in the evening and even Starbucks sits in the style of the old buildings. This truly is one of my favorite spots in the city and should be on any tourists or expats list of things to do in Fuzhou.

 

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For those of you who have read Solo Beginnings, you will know that my first experience of solo travelling planted an irrevocable seed that grew with such fever, the long wait for another vacation was never going to satisfy these itchy feet of mine that find it impossible to stay rooted to the ground. The direction I found led me to obtaining a TEFL certificate, and the path I followed brought me to my first expat destination; China.

Apartment views

Admittedly, China was not my first choice. I longed for the beaches of Thailand but I couldn’t wait for the next hiring period of November. Staying true to my impulsive self, I looked for countries with an earlier start date and within a week had set up five interviews, four in China and one for Vietnam. Vietnam would have won me over if it wasn’t for the lack of confidence in the school after having the skype interview. And so China became my number one choice. The Schools were all in different provinces, I chose Fuzhou as it was described as a city surrounded by mountains. I am fortunate to also have a base here. My step mother’s family reside in Luoyuan, an hours bus journey from Fuzhou. And so here I am, an expat in Fuzhou, Fujian, China, since July 2016.

From accepting the teaching position in Fuzhou to moving to China was a six week time frame. I gave five weeks notice to my employer, moved out of my apartment in the North West of England, and ventured home to Wales to spend a week with the family and store the little I had decided to keep. I drifted through the majority of this time, feeling quite void. Preparing the paperwork, having the conversations with everyone about where I was going and what I would be doing, making all necessary arrangements. I completed everything that needed to be done but none of it felt very real, I was simply going through the motions of it all.

Community Gardens

The moments when my attention was focused solely on uprooting my entire life to a country I didn’t know, gave way to absolute panic. I think I experienced two panic attacks during this six week haze, once pulling myself together the numbness allowed me to continue with all the preparations. I don’t know how better to describe how I felt as I didn’t allow myself to dwell on the fact that this wasn’t a vacation, this was a new life. I wasn’t going to be a tourist this time. I was going to be an expat, in a country who’s language I couldn’t speak and who’s culture is very different from my own. The excitement didn’t really take hold until after I arrived in the city I would now call home.

My first two weeks were hectic to say the least! I needed to go to the hospital for a full medical check, including a psychological test to ensure my condition was satisfactory to become a resident. The first thing I was told was to look past the fact the hospital would not be as familiar in standard compared to a western hospital. Although efficient, I to give this advice to new comers. I also needed to report to the Public Security Bureau to obtain a residence permit. Again a slightly uncomfortable interaction. You sit there with a representative of your employer, not really understanding what’s going on while you and all your documents are analysed. There’s no guarantee of a yes. Another thing I quickly realized was that I’ve never handed my passport over so often and for great lengths of time as I have since being in China. Obviously always getting my passport back but feeling slightly uneasy nevertheless.

Exploring at night

Also on my to do list; Set up my bank account, buy a Chinese sim card (you need your passport for this also), figure out my bus route, master the art of chopsticks and realize that traffic can always turn right in Fuzhou regardless of the false security given by the little green man! Becoming familiar with my surroundings became interesting in my first week when I was able to experience my very first typhoon! The intense rainy season that coincides with China’s summer months was like nothing I had experienced before. The warm rain barely lifted the balmy heat that left a permanent layer of salty sweat on your skin. Skip to winter and prepare for a cold that the buildings here are not designed to cope with. If you’re lucky your air-conditioner will be able to produce heat but don’t rely on your room having the ability to retain that heat. All I can say is layers.

Once becoming slightly more accustomed to the heat I began exploring the local area. My spare time was familiar to what I would do back home, read in coffee shops and go out for lunch, except now I could also walk around temples daily and wander up small mountains to find locals practicing what I assume is a type of Tai Chi. Fuzhou is a fairly westernized city and so if you feel like a break from Chinese food there are plenty of western options. There is also a variety of dining to enjoy from other cultures available around the city. Its simply a case of wandering and discovering.

Dancing in the park

One past time here that is unfamiliar is the dancing. There are a variety of parks all around the city where the older generation gather to listen to music and dance. There are many different styles from traditional to ballroom, and not a single hesitation from all to stand and dance as though no one is watching. Its a very moving experience, to be granted an invitation to watch a joyful expression in motion. This just wouldn’t happen in the UK, you wouldn’t see it and if you did it would be sneered at and considered weird. It is these experiences which take you from feeling like an expat on the outside to becoming part of a community.

Of course you are quickly reminded that you are in fact an expat when you realize how you took for granted the simple things in life. Like asking how much to pay for anything, ordering a coffee and being able to request no sugar, or being able to ask the person next to you if you were on the right bus. The immediate loss of general communication isn’t something I’ve experienced so profoundly before. In Europe I’ve always got by knowing only English, China is not the same. I smile and point and hope for the best a lot of the time. I keep my address laminated in my wallet for those moments I find myself completely disorientated. And when it comes to food, I’ve stopped trying to guess what I’m eating and just chew and swallow. The language requires serious dedication, learning the tones and how to read pinyin, to moving on to characters is a challenge no other language has presented to me before.

Water Calligraphy

Considering there have been days I’ve barely spoken when out exploring solo, I have by no means felt invisible. Fuzhou is not a cosmopolitan city like Hong Kong and Shanghai, many locals here haven’t seen or interacted with a foreigner and so there is an obvious curiosity surrounding the expat. My first time being filmed at a bus spot was an uncomfortable moment. I had become used to the staring and the random ‘Hellos’ that would be audible in many different directions, but being filmed felt like a violation and to be blunt, rude. Over time I have found it easier to ignore this and except that it is a curiosity and not an intention to be offensive. Besides it is mainly my height that draws the attention, my build and dark hair often allow me to blend in without being disturbed. Not so easy for my blonde friends I can assure you!

Exploring Fuzhou’s Temples

So far with all the ups and downs, I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to call this ancient country, steeped in history my home for now. The locals I have met here, and the insight my family has been able to give me in the variety of lifestyles here in China is an enriching experience I will never forget. Moving to another country changes you. You move through the world differently, enlightened to the world outside of your individual life. I am further reassured that to stay in one place is a detrimental and conscious choice to stay ignorant to the world and it’s people, for me personally. It is not easy to leave everything you know behind, I am fortunate to have little ties and no responsibility that cannot be fulfilled from anywhere I choose to be. Although wanting to take everything I can from being in China, I am also looking forward to my next destination. Wanting to live life as a permanent expat calling the world home.

 

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