A week on and the novelty of catching out of the corner of my eye the pearly white flash of natural skin where my watch graced my wrist in the baking south China sun still hasn’t worn off. Once upon a time this would have been an object of shame; now, a relic of a month of exotic climes, of exploration, food and fresh air.
It all began many months ago, when two of my best friends announced they were leaving Harbin. Without going into detail the mild to moderate gutwrenching devastation that ensued, we agreed that our final goodbye would be a little jaunt to a couple of cities in the south. We settled on Nanjing and Shanghai, for their various attractions and also because we have friends from Harbin in both places, so it was a good chance to meet up with old faces. Thomas, Katie, Rachel and I met with a Chinese friend first in Nanjing. The hostel mostly had senior school students who had come to Nanjing to take university entrance exams. There’s a good chance this was their maiden voyage away from the clutches of their parents or grandparents, and let me tell you they were making the most of it. You’ve never seen such fierce card gaming. One evening we were sat around a table and one of them asked if we could show him how to play Uno. We were in. Feeling a bit like teachers on a school trip whilst trying to fend off puppy dog eyes from the one who’d had too much beer, trying to wordlessly convince the 18 year old European student that no, we didn’t all fancy him, and generally trying to find the energy of our youth to stay awake past 10pm after busy days sightseeing, we spent our evenings playing cards.
One evening, Rachel, Katie and I decided to go and find a massage parlour. Paying for a massage in China is entirely normal and there are parlours on every street offering a range of services. Some are sketchy, most are legit, and then there are the ones where you just have no idea what’s going on. We ended up at the latter. It was an impulse decision, born from the aches of a long day of walking, and it was about 8pm when we ventured forth into the night. The place our hostel recommended was closed. We asked at a hotel; they pointed us to another down the road. Trying to match the neon characters on shop fronts to the google translated word for ‘massage’, on we trudged. We asked at another hostel. Kept walking. Eventually we found a tiny nail salon wedged between rows of mysterious shops. The owner (laoban) wedged us down into stained red recliner chairs and her assistant brandished beakers of hot water at us. There was no back room; straight off the street you walk into walls lined with shelves of neon nail varnish, UV lights, posters advertising the mathematical calculations to determine the best eyebrows for your face shape. Judging by the posters they also offered minor cosmetic procedures. After a conversation that largely relied on us miming the giving and receiving of back massages, she understood what we wanted, and conceded that although she offered nearly every service taught on a Hair and Beauty BTEC, she simply didn’t have the room to whack out a trestle table and start massaging us. Luckily, she knew of a massage parlour just across the road. She called the laoban, had a good old chat and then told us to wait.
Shortly after, along came a little man, fag hanging out of his mouth, telling us to follow him. The lady waved us goodbye and off we went into the night. Having already been on a wild goose chase this evening, us three girls wondered if the final chapter of the night would see us being sold into some sort of ring. The risk was low and we really were wanting that massage, so we agreed to stick together. Up the street he whisked us and into another shop. As well as the runner, he turned out to be the chief masseuse as well as a chiropractor. His style of massage was brisk and not relaxing but definitely rooted in Chinese medicine. As we left, with the frankness of a doctor but in the close atmosphere where we were both aware he’d spent the last hour with his hands all over my entire frame, he indicated that I needed to shrink certain key areas (my Chinese isn’t great but you can’t miss the meaning of a man who’s pointing directly at your thighs and buttocks). So that was fun.
Other points of interest in Nanjing were the usual historical Chinese pit stops; temples and rivers and museums. But these were particularly interesting. If you’re thinking that Nanjing sounds a bit like Nanking, you’re right. And you know anything about China-Japan relations, you might be wondering if this is the place where the Nanking Massacre of 1937-38 (otherwise known as the Rape of Nanking). During this time, Japanese military invaded Nanking, the then-capital, and spent six weeks indiscriminately raping, looting and murdering. The death toll during these 6 weeks ranges from 40,000 to 300,000, depending on who you ask, in one city. It’s impossible to gain an objective idea of what happened, and the openly anti-Japanese, victim rhetoric is at times overwhelming, but even so, the museum was really interesting and very saddening. It was beautifully constructed, reverent and respectful and yet it packed an almighty punch. Its purpose is at once to memorialise the victims and also to ensure no-one forgets how evil took root for those few weeks. The dark rooms that we moved through had a quietening quality, and there was so much information, so many facts and so many horrifying images that, hours later, as we emerged into the fading sun, we were all a bit unsure of what to say.
We spent another day wandering around a hill called Purple Mountain (anything bigger than Wepre hill is a mountain, and anything that once displayed pretty coloured cloud formations after a storm is immediately christened as such). We walked alongside the road for a bit before coming to the palace of Soong May-Ling, the wife of Chiang Kai-Shek (disgraced president of China 1928-31). Soong was an intelligent, beautiful, artistic, articulate woman who was publicly very passionate about Chinese politics. Her palace, a comfortable 20 minute ride from the city centre (and her husband) is stylish, in a classy combination of 1920’s deco and modern Chinese style. In a similar vein, she and her husband had possibly the best wedding photograph ever taken.
On the other side of the hill was the mausoleum of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, first emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD). It is a beautiful tomb, grand and vast, guarded by pairs of 10ft stone animals. Unlike many tombs and historical sights, this was different. The paintwork wasn’t freshly touched up last week. Grass had grown between the flags on the ground, crumbled walls had been respectfully removed rather than repaired with obvious cheap imitation stone, blossom orchards lined the sweeping pathways and the scent perfumed the air. Slowly this place is being reclaimed by the land, and it felt refreshing, that this tomb might one day fade away with its occupant.
After several other attractions, including in-city temples and palaces, a boat ride along the canal, and a visit to the largest subway station in Asia (it took about an hour to get out, by which time the novelty had somewhat worn off) our time in this lovely city had come to an end. After 5 days in Nanjing, we hopped on a snazzy fast train to Shanghai, and were there in 90 minutes.
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The first night in Shanghai was like something out of a parental preparation course, where they purposely immerse you in conditions that make you sleep deprived and thoroughly pissed off. After the luxury of a 3 person room in Nanjing, the hiked up rates of Shanghai meant we had to go for the budget 8 bed dorm. Of course it’s true that when you pay budget, you expect to be sharing with other people who are paying budget. No problem. And travellers are usually good at following the unwritten code of the traveller I.e. do onto others as you would have done onto you. All was well at bedtime. We cleaned our teeth and got into bed and said our goodnights. Happy campers. But, at some time in the deepest darkest depths of night, somewhere between the time that witches roam the streets for children to eat and bats start fluttering from trees, we were awoken by the most almighty snoring you have ever heard. The man below me slept like a newborn babe through the choking, gasping and spluttering that his tracheal organs echoed around the room. He sounded like he had sleep apnoea mixed with a general subconscious hatred of mankind. In the darkness I was wide awake running through my St John’s Ambulance training just in case that in breathe never came. After a good 20 minutes, Rachel tried an assortment of methods to disturb him, in the hope he’d roll over and end the madness, but nothing worked. Eventually the sun rose. We bought cotton balls which we twisted up and stuffed in our ears the following night.
When in Shanghai, you have to visit the Bund. I didn’t really have any idea of what the Bund was before I went to Shanghai, and now I’m still not entirely sure. As the city is close to the coast, there is a big river running through the city. The Bund seems to be a stretch of road and pedestrian pathway alongside the river. We could have been strolling along the Thames in London. Running along the old side are a string of grand old British style buildings, relics from the foreign influence of when Shanghai was a world trading port. Across the river is a cluster of sci-fi looking buildings, emerging from the earth. Shanghai’s financial district. Amongst them is the Shanghai World Financial Centre, one of the world’s tallest skyscrapers at 101 floors. That night, up an amusingly sci-fi lift which had the feel of a 1960’s Doctor Who time machine, with flashing lights and electro music, we arrived at the observation deck on the 100th floor. We had tried to visit the night before, but a freakish turn in the weather resulting in unexpected snow and rain meant that the top of the building was shrouded in clouds. The second night, the visibility, in the city where according to some sources they have to project a video of the setting sun onto a big screen because you can’t actually see the real thing through the smog, was perfect. Shanghai was as smoggy as any other city, but really nothing like they’d have you believe. The view from the 100th floor – the buildings and neon lights and rows of lights and roads and shops and apartments and suburbs – went on and on and dropped off into the distance. You had the exciting opportunity to look down through the glass floor if you chose to. I loved looking but walking on it feels a bit weird. Think Blackpool Tower and add a bit. It was spectacular. I had one of those Wow I’m in Shanghai. What’s going on with my life? moments.
Another night we met up with a friend who used to live in Harbin, and went to Mr. X’s Puzzle House. We were locked in a room and given an hour to solve the clues to make our escape. The premise of our room was that we were prisoners, divided into two cells. We divided into girls and boys. By torchlight we had to shout to eachother, describing our room, the paintings on the walls, objects dotted about, anything that might lead to cracking the code. By the end of the hour we’d opened the secret door and cracked our way into the ‘security guard’ watchroom, but didn’t make it out completely and had to do the walk of shame the way we came in, a young assistant from the front desk entering the code into the electric keypad to liberate us.
There is an old French quarter close to the hostel we stayed at. It’s mostly old apartment blocks and shops, but a small section has been renovated to resemble a maze of traditional hutongs filled with souvenirs, tea shops, bars and snacks. The heavens opened on the day we visited, so we ran up and down the alleys, taking refuge every now and again. We found a really nice tea shop in one corner, filled with Chinese minority paintings and crafts. The lady gave us some tea, and helped us to choose from a selection of overpriced mini teas. She put them in little silky drawstring bags though, so on balance we were happy. Other highlights include eating perhaps the most delicious meal in China up until that point, at a restaurant called Shanghai Grandmother. It’s mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook, which is quite an accolade considering there are restaurants literally every way you turn on every street in China, and it was worthy. Braised pork, steamed spring rolls, plus other dishes that I can’t remember exactly through the haze of blissful contentment that has just shrouded me in my memories. It was divine. Also, they had cans of Diet Coke, which was just the cherry on the cake.
Finally, we were keen for a positive massage experience, so we found a massage place of slightly higher standing than our previous destination. This one is staffed by visually impaired masseuses. I went for a foot massage, one of the best hours of my life. I knew my guy was blind because he immersed a spare stool directly into my herbal foot bath thinking it was the storage rack, and then as he massaged my feet he didn’t even blink at the big fat buddha tattoed on the front. This has been something of an inconvenience because a) I’m not 18 any more, b) China is a very Buddhist country, and c) tattoos, especially in the eyes of a school of its teachers, are still considered taboo. So it was nice to air my feet in public for the first time in this country.
Both Nanjing and Shanghai left a me with a really good impression. Shanghai especially, rather than the flashy commercial tackiness I was expecting, it just felt really impressive. It was classy. Looking up at the skyline was grand and imposing and ambitious. But on the ground it was classy, friendly and felt local. People slate it for feeling like a Western city, but maybe that’s why I liked it so much. If you only visit Shanghai you’ve definitely not been to China, but if you go to China and don’t visit Shanghai, you’ve not really been to China either.
There ends the tale of the first part of my trip. After 5 days in Nanjing and 4 in Shanghai, we went our separate ways and I waved goodbye to Rachel and Katie for the foreseeable future.