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During my big trip around Sichuan and Yunnan provinces in China, I visited a lot of famous landmarks. Amongst them was Emei Shan. This is fairly close to Chengdu (about 130km South West) and is one of the four famous Buddhist mountains (for further info, click here).

 

Rather than bore you with the history and the ins and outs of getting there, which will be available elsewhere on the internet or in any decent guidebook, I have simply posted some of the photos of the trip itself (with captions). Unfortunately, the pictures don’t do justice to the reality. However, if you’re interested in visiting one of the famous Buddhist mountains of China, enjoying draw-dropping views, old monasteries and mist-covered hills, I highly recommend that you go.

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If anyone is qualified to recommend the best way to learn Chinese, I am. I moved to Shanghai in late 2009 to start a course (from complete scratch) with MandarinHouse.com. I spent 3-4 months there, had a great time, met some fantastic people, but my Chinese was appalling. Now, I chose the course partly because it had a high rank on Google and partly because of the misplaced advice given by a family friend who suggested that I should choose a school which is a member of the ‘International Association of Language Centres’. As a result of the high Google ranking and the prestigious awards and associations it belongs to, it was inevitably expensive. The price of the course, combined with the price of living in Shanghai, ate up most of savings rather quickly. A clue to who the courses were intended for was given by some of my fellow students, which included a Microsoft millionaire, a Californian state attorney, a retired gynaecologist and lots of students with wealth fathers. The other students were very friendly but had a slightly different financial background! In addition to the expense of the course, the other main problem was that it was focused on learning pinyin: it was largely a course targeted at businessman who wished to learn how to converse with colleagues. My interest was to learn characters as well. Finally, another reason why my Chinese didn’t progress was because my circle of friends consisted solely of people from the course or other expats – not a single Chinese.

I decided that I needed to try something completely different if I were to make progress in the language. A friend of mine recommended that I study at a university, so I applied to Dalian University of Technology to start a Chinese Language course. [Why Dalian? Because the north of the country was meant to be good as the dialect is more standard. In addition, it was cooler than Ha’erbin, which was one of the other options available. Unfortunately, I had to take an entry level test when I got to the University. As the test was in Chinese and I had not yet had a chance to learn characters, my first 4 -5 months was wasted as I had to start from Chinese 101 again!

 

Fresh goat meat outside DUT

 

I spent a year at the University of Dalian and made some good progress. However, my downfall was that I still spent most of my time with the international students on my course. My reading and writing had improved somewhat but my oral Chinese still had a long way to go. After 1 year, my funds had dried up so I had no choice but to find some sort of work if I didn’t want to return home with my tail between my legs, having failed at my ambition. Fortunately, I managed to find a job teaching English, which was not only well paid (compared to the standard of living) but also only part-time, which give me ample time to work on my Chinese.

Whilst working part time, I studied at a private school which aimed itself at Japanese students. I haven’t posted a link, partly because the bloody website is impossible to find, partly because they ignored my numerous request for paperwork, which gets them a black mark! I chose the school largely because the price was the most competitive and the main focus for me was on conversation, as I could already speak a basic level of Chinese. All the courses were one-to-one and they were charging about 45 RMB an hour at the time.

I travelled extensively around China, including Sichuan, Yunnan, Xi’an, Shandong, Ha’erbin and others.This was a good way to practice the Chinese I had learnt. In fact, I would recommend taking local public transport as a great way to practice: I had a long conversation with a local on the 10-hour bus trip to Jiuzhaigou, who was delighted that the foreigner he sat next to could speak some Chinese!

I have recently moved to Lyon in France. Whilst perhaps not the most obvious place to practice Chinese, I have enrolled on a Master’s in translation using Chinese, French and English.

Whilst my level of Chinese is not as good as it should be considering the time I spent in China (you can see my level of Chinese on italki.com) it is passable for now. My main problem was finding Chinese friends to meet with to practice my Chinese. Had I managed to do this, my Chinese would have been a lot better.

 To sum up: My best advice would be to learn Chinese at a university – ideally one where there are few foreigners. If possible, try and stay in the Chinese dormitory on campus (it won’t be as nice as the foreign block but your Chinese will benefit enormously); alternatively, think about a Chinese homestay.

For advice on practicing your language, take advice from the expert at Fluent in 3 months.

 

 

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The Chinese are big on food.

Unlike social life back home, which tends to resolve around bars and pubs, the Chinese socialise in restaurants. OK, so the word ‘restaurant’ is perhaps misleading here – to me it conjures up images of a fairly upmarket establishment – ‘eating place’ is perhaps more suitable.

The majority of eating places are small, family run places. They’re hygiene standards certainly wouldn’t be accepted in many places in the world: they’d no doubt be shut down for failing food health and safety tests. But things are just different here. For example, the little old lady on the table next to you wouldn’t think twice about coughing up a sizeable lump of phlegm and dropping it onto the floor. People won’t use ashtrays – the ash and the butt will both end up on the floor. At night, cockroaches will occassionally scuttle past. The rubbish will be carried out straight through the main eating area. If eating meat on the bone, the correct procedure is to pick it up, gnaw on it and then drop the bone onto the floor. So, basically the floors are filthy.

So what’s on offer in the hole in the wall restaurants? Well, pretty much anything you want. Each restaurant must have around a hundred dishes on offer…

Below is a collection of food/restaurant photos in China for your enjoyment…

Rinsing duck heads in the river, Suzhou

Freshly rinsed, the duck heads are left to dry in the sun…

A country-style dinner shared with the parents of a friend in northern rural China. The meal included pigs’ trotters, pigs’ ears and the black things are silk worm cocoons or something of the sort (for more info see: http://www.0791quanquan.com/forum/topic_51358.html or do a google search for ‘蚕茧的营养‘ for more pics). The pin yin is can2 jia

A friend who manages a small muslim eatery in Dalian. It gives an example of what the majority of the local ‘eateries’ look like.

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Meat, vegetables and noodles. Less than 10 RMB – why bother cooking when you can eat for that price?

Dalian beer festival provided not only a nice selection of lagers but also a few tasty kebabs in case your feeling extra brave after you’ve downed a couple…

I was made to feel guilty about trying this snack after I was reminded about the plight of the humble bee in the UK. For anyone who wants to try it: the small ones tasted fine because they were mainly batter (deep fried), the larger ones were a bit bitter. Too much bee!). This was in a restaurant in Shanghai.

A selection of pics (along with the previous few) from a water town in the outskirts of Shanghai.

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A couple of years ago I went on a long trip around the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan, in the South West of China. I’ve decided that it’s about time that I shared some of the photos I took because some of the scenery was truly spectacular.

One place that particularly sticks in my mind is Jiuzhaigou in Northern Sichuan province.  I believe it translates as ‘nine village valley’ and is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve (see the Wikipedia entry for more info). The trip took about 10 hours by bus (stopping off at some of the worst toilets I’ve come across!) from the capital, Chengdu. I was originally reluctant to go because of the time it takes (I spent 10 hours on a bus, walked around the park for a day, and then returned the day after – exhausting!) and also because of the steep prices for entry into the park (from what I can remember I paid as much as 250 yuan for one day entry (around £25). However, seeing that the Lonely Planet highly recommended it, I decided to bite the bullet and go for it.

Rather than clog the page with over 50 photos taken of the site, I’ve displayed it as a slide show – if you would like me to post some larger photos as well, please let me know.

Enjoy!

 

Comments to follow…

 

 

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Before we arrive somewhere new, we always have an impression in our mind of what the place is going to be like. [Take for example, this recent article on the situation in Greece: our expectation is one of a country covered by riots]. Not once have I arrived somewhere and found it to be as I expected. My experience with China has been no different.

 

Most of the news I heard about China whilst back in the UK was regarding its incredible economic growth and its enormous population. The impression was one of a new world superpower in the making, determined to eclipse the US as the largest economy and to restore itself to its former glory.

Other than what was read in the press, you’d have had to have been stupid not to have noticed how many products used in our day to day life were made in China. You could pick up almost any object and it would have the inevitable ‘Made in China’ stamped on the bottom.

 

Exhibitions such as the Terracotta Warriors in London and the (false) claim that ‘the Great Wall of China is the only manmade object visible from space’ emphasised the country’s long history.

Chinese films such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon directed by Ang Lee or House of Flying Daggers by Zhang Yi Mou demonstrated the countries renowned martial arts skills and also gave us a glimpse at China’s history through its use of clothes, hairstyles and architecture from China’s past.

I had little to no knowledge of China’s history prior to arrival. The only knowledge I had was picked up from other people’s ideas and views, which were usually related to the atrocities of General Mao, human rights problems and the lack of democracy and freedom. Probe a little deeper and you would find that most people are actually fairly ignorant on China’s history and that they only have a fleeting understanding of China’s past – but they know enough to form an opinion, however inaccurate it may be.

 

Speaking to those in my parents’ generation, they often had the impression that the Chinese people are all small (similar in stature to more southern countries such as Thailand and Malaysia). There is also the perception that the Chinese will eat everything – including dog, cat, tortoises etc – which many people find repulsive and inhuman.

So, how accurate did my initial perceptions of China turn out to be?

On the economic growth side, the evidence can be seen by the number of new buildings being erected all over Dalian (the place where I lived for the good part of two years). What one year ago was an empty plot now contains a new apartment block. My flat overlooked an enormous development site, a complex of about eight apartment blocks surrounding a shopping plaza. The construction work goes on 24 hours a day. Besides new buildings, an underground system is also currently being built – the explosions at four o’clock in the morning testify to this fact.

On the surface development is happening at an astounding rate. However, beneath the surface things are not always as they seem. Due to the speed at which buildings get constructed, the quality tends to suffer. Buildings constructed over ten years ago are considered old. The interior walls are full of cracks, the skirting boards are falling off and plug sockets hang off walls. If you live on the uppermost floor (as I once did) you may find that the roof hasn’t been constructed too well, so that it leaks after rain – requiring buckets to collect the water and the soggy lumps of plaster that fall from the ceiling. I have spoken to a number of Chinese who said they won’t be using the underground system once it’s completed as they don’t think it’s safe. [In fact, it is the construction sector of the economy that is keeping much of China ticking – providing new jobs and economic growth].

In addition, many graduates are finding it difficult to get jobs. As the jobs become scarce, the competition gets greater and greater, meaning that many students choose to stay on at university for as long as possible in order to gain an advantage in the job market. I met a large number of students who had opted to complete a Master’s and even a PhD after obtaining their Bachelor’s degree. The target for many is to work for the CCP (China Communist Party), mainly because of the future prospects it offers.

I was expecting to find lots of winding alleyways, old buildings and courtyards as depicted in films. Alas, besides places such as the hutongs (which are rapidly being destroyed) in Beijing and other small preserved sections in some of the older cities, most of the architecture has been disappointing. Most of the cities I have been to have block after block of the same old ugly concrete apartment blocks, similar to the kind that were popular back in the 60s and 70s in the UK. I also saw a lot of what one might call a Stalinistic style of architecture – great big imposing rectangular structures made out of concrete – not a good look.

On a plus side, the new developments I have seen are now starting to incorporate a little more design into their style – in a few years the cities should start to feel more welcoming.

Regarding history, the ‘Mao’s a bad guy’ idea is really very simplistic. And wrong. True he made some bad decisions which resulted in the death of millions of Chinese through starvation but this was not a purposeful massacre. The goal was to build China into a great country again. It was very nearly torn apart by internal disagreements and by foreign influence – especially the Japanese domination in World War II. The older generation often talk about the hardships that they lived through under Mao. However, it seems that it’s the younger generation who have benefited from the sacrifices – many of the elderly still live in relative poverty.

Worthy of note is that many of our beliefs about the Chinese have stemmed from those that live in our country. However, the overwhelming majority of those who have set up Chinese restaurants or have spawned Chinese communities such as Chinatown were originally from Guangdong province (originally Canton) in the South of China. It is here that people are generally shorter in stature, are renowned for the wide range of cuisine and speak Cantonese which sounds very different to Mandarin Chinese. In the north of China people are generally much taller than in the South but every large city now has people from all over the country so the population is much more mixed.

Finally, although most of the culture was wiped away during the Cultural Revolution, there are still traces left to find. One of the most common sites in China is the dancing and Tai Chi sessions that take place (largely amongst the older generations) in the public parks. There are also a number of Buddhist and Taoist monasteries that have been preserved outside the main cities. Traditional Chinese medicine is still incredibly popular, although perhaps less so amongst the younger generations. I also find the obsession with white skin rather amusing: people will carry an umbrella when it’s sunny, cover themselves with ‘whitening’ cream and even don Doctor Who/Star Trek style costumes (enough to give anyone a fright!) to fend off the sun’s rays!

Further articles:

China’s cuisine

China emigration

China’s economy

What’s made in China?

Famous tourist sites

Chinese Films

General Mao

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Centrepiece of the Ice Lantern and Sculpture Festival, Harbin

In January, after the end of my second semester at Dalian University of Technology (大连理工大学), I took a trip to Harbin (哈尔滨) in Heilongjiang (黑龙江) province. The city is mostly famous for its ice sculptures and the Ice Lantern Festival, which we felt would be worth checking out whilst living in the North East of China. Whilst in Dalian I had already met many people who had been (any many who were planning to go), most of whom warned me about the cold. In winter, the temperature can drop to below -30oC, so I was undoubtedly a little concerned about whether my body would be able to function in such cold temperatures.

I was told I needed to buy a feather padded jacket or yurongfu (羽绒服) before going, which is basically a big fat puffer jacket, making anyone who chooses to wear one resemble the Michelin man. Although terrified of the cold, I nonetheless felt a little uneasy about parting with an extra £50 (~500RMB) for the sake of a few days holiday, so decided against buying one and instead opted for a multipurpose top that I might actually be able to use more than once (thanks Decatlon). The plan was to use it as an extra layer inside my already fairly substantial coat which I had picked up to face the Dalian winters, which can drop to -10oC and are worsened by the strong northern winds. My outfit consisted of: one beanie style hat, a Russian Ushanka style hat, a neck warmer, two T-shirts, a shirt, my new coat, my old coat (with hood), a thick pair of long johns, jeans, 2 pairs of thick socks, 3 pairs of gloves and a ten year old pair of hiking boots. It turned out that the weak points in my outfit were (as one might have guessed), the shoes and gloves. If you are thinking about going, I would recommend you to take a pair of shoes with a decent sole (like moon boots for example) and perhaps some sort of hand warmer to put inside your gloves.

Our first foray into the cold outside Harbin Airport

We stayed in the Ibis Hotel, figuring that it would be worth going to a trusted chain rather than experimenting with some of the cheaper places on offer, particularly as we would be using it as our refuge from the cold. The place was fine in general, although the service (particularly the breakfast) was certainly below that which you would expect in the larger cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai or Xi’an. I had brought a few miniature bottles of vodka with me (from IKEA), as I had heard that its freezing temperature was somewhere around 30oC. After a several nights outside the window there was not a bit of ice on them – we figured the night temperature must be around the -20oC mark, just missing the freezing point. Whilst not being able to brag that we’d been to a place so cold that the vodka freezes, we did have great fun pouring boiling water onto the window sill, which froze solid in under 10 seconds.

Harbin is supposed to have a rich Russian heritage, as Heilongjiang province borders on Russia. Many Russian Jews and White Russians fled to Harbin during the Russian Revolution and as a result there are many distinctive Russian synagogues and churches there from that period in history. To be honest, the buildings along the main cobbled street of Zhongyang Dajie in the Daoliqu District as well as the Church of St Sophia were the only nice pieces of architecture we found there. The main cobbled street was filled with tourist shops all selling almost identical Russian souvenirs (most of which we went into in order to escape the cold). However, there were a couple of nice little coffee shops/restaurants serving Russian fare in that area and it gave us our first glimpse of some ice sculptures.  This main street leads down to the waterfront and the promenade which takes you towards Stalin Park.

Church of St Sophia

The Songhua River that runs through Harbin is completely frozen over during winter. The ice is thick enough for a car to drive across, as well as for the horses and carts hanging around, hoping to take tourists on a ride across the river. I’ve heard that winter sports such as ice skating are popular here and that you can hire some equipment. We rented some rather old and rusty looking sleds to slide around the ice on – great fun!

Cars crossing the Songua River

In addition to the Russian architecture, there was also a Chinese temple which we decided to visit. Although I have already seen a great many temples in China, this was actually one of the better ones. The snow-covered rooves on the buildings make them a touch more picturesque than you might find elsewhere in China. I also managed to get a couple of pictures demosntrating the old-new contrast that can be seen in cities throughout China: one with a big tourist wheel and another with the usual uninspired residential blocks. As picturesque as the temple rooves were, to be honest they only do so much for me and my patience was tested somewhat having to wait around in the blistering cold for my friends to finish looking.

Having unsuccesfully tried to find some decent Western style cafes to shelter from the cold we felt we might have better luck giving up on this idea (as tempting as a good cup of coffee and chocolate cake is when it’s -15oC outside) so we opted to try some local cuisine. We tried out some typical DongBei (North Eastern) food and headed to a dumpling (jiaozi) restaurant. There was a huge variety on the menu – including fried dumplings, which are harder to come by. Apart from the large choice of jiaozi available, the rest looked rather unfamiliar and so we opted for some cold aubergine (qiezi) which came with some sauces to dip it in. Edible, but hardly inspired. There were undoubtedly a number of culinary delights hiding away in the menu somewhere but as usual we were hindered by both our experience and Chinese.

The main pull of Harbin was the Ice Lantern Festival. We found getting to the venue not as straightforward as it should have been. Unfortunately we were unable to find explicit instructions in the guide books (I think most people just get a taxi) and we were under the impression that the sculptures lay just across the frozen river. So we decided to trek across to the other bank, turning down offers for a ride on a horse and carriage and for an incredibly persistent old lady (she followed us for 20 minutes!) to guide us to the far side. Upon arrival we were disappointed to find no trace of the Ice Lantern Festival (although afterwards we learnt that the park we had arrived at did have many good Ice sculptures). We had no option but to board a minibus to take us to the Festival.

[Some of us (me) were more stubborn than others and felt that we could walk there instead. Luckily, others (everyone else) were aware that night was fast approaching and that we would all die from pneumonia before long so sensibly took the decision to board the minibus. Incidentally, the driver was quite reasonable with the price as we would have paid anything to get out of the cold.]

As the cold was indeed unbearable, we took refuge in a small cafeteria located in the arena (which incidentally felt a little like a fish tank, with all-glass walls) and reluctantly coughed up some money for some overpriced coffee, just so we were allowed to stay and defrost.

The best building by far was the central castle (within which was a bank I believe), which not only was enormous but also had colourchanging lights inside the blocks of ice. Take a look at the gallery for some of the different sculptures on show.

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Summary

Where I stayed: Ibis Hotel

What I saw: Russian architecture, Ice lantern festival, Tiger park

What I wish I’d seen: The Japanese centre for disease research

Beware of: Taxi drivers not wishing to stop for you

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