One Night in Shenyang

Unless you’re working for a Chinese public school or a kindergarten, Language Centre ESL teachers in China do not have the weekend off. Instead, you have two split days during the week – I have Monday and Thursdays off. When we have a holiday or two consecutive days off, I take full advantage of this! At the beginning of April, China celebrated Qing Ming Festival (Tomb Sweeping Festival). This is the time when people remember the dead. To be honest, I have not seen a cemetery in Harbin. Strange, right?

So, the point is…I decided to spend one night in Shenyang.

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I hopped on to the G train at 07:00 in the morning and there I was, on a mini break. I spent about 2 and a half hours on the train – I slept most of the way. I walked to the first taxi I saw and insisted on him using the meter. I thought I was a pain in the arse for this but oh well… Found the hostel with ease as I gave the driver directions verbally.

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Firstly, it was way warmer than Harbin so I was a little too layered. I decided to head over to the Qing Dynasty (Fuling) tombs. According to my GPS, it would take just under an hour to get there. So, water and a map! Due to the public holiday, the traffic was insane. So, it took a little longer than expected.

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The Fuling tombs are well-looked after and a great space to clear your mind! It is a large site so you need at least half a day to explore. There are some closed off areas that I under reconstruction or restoration. I needed to use the bathroom as I was leaving but I couldn’t find one. (There is an embarrassing story here but I will keep it hush hush).

Well, what else is there to do in Shenyang? Having a look at Tripadvisor would be a great start.

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When you’re finally exhausted of the historical sites, you could take a wander around the Unit 11 Art complex.

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There are numerous cafes around Shenyang. Make sure you have a beverage at Lenore’s! There are a few around town. They make a good, frothy cuppa!

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The Deets

Where to stay: I use Agoda to book hostels around China. I stayed at The Lazy Bee Youth Hostel.

Transportation: The buses are cheap and reliable. It’ll cost just about CNY 2 for a one way trip. Ask your hostel about which bus line to take. If you have an iPhone, you can just type in the address on Maps and it’ll show you which bus to take!

Entrance to the Fuling Mausoleum: CNY 50.

Tip: Try not to visit on a public holiday, it’ll be packed!

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Swan Lake at the Harbin Opera House

The winters are long and brutal up north so you do end up hibernating, involuntarily. However, you can find that there is loads to do besides bar hopping and drinking warm Harbin beer. I stumbled on a leaflet: Swan Lake (Russian Kremlin Theatre) was coming to town! I had never been to a ballet before so I thought, this is it!

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I often take the bus because it’s cheaper. Not on this evening. I was Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman – I had to take a taxi! I treated myself to a sushi dinner before the show; yes, it was a splurge day! I arrived early so I could take some photos and enjoy a cup of coffee in the theatre foyer.

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The architecture is magnificent! I stood in the foyer in silence in absolute awe; enjoying the general spleandor.

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I hadn’t been excited in a while so this show could not have come at a better time. New experiences always replenish your enthusiasm and sense of adventure. Well, the ballet certainly did. Of course, I did not know what to expect except for the routines I had seen in Black Swan the night before.

A beautiful, well-executed show that was worth every penny! I could do it again and again!

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So, there is more to Harbin than Bar Street and the Ice festival. You just need to search a little deeper.

The Deets

Where to stay: Well, I live in Harbin but I would recommend Agoda to book hostels around China.

Transportation: The subway and bus combo is cheap and reliable. Taxis are also in abundance, just make sure the driver uses the meter. It should cost no more than CNY 50 from the Qiaonan Jie area. If you take the bus, take the bus 119 from XiDaQiao to SongBei on the other side of the river. You can walk from the final stop or you could take bus 35 from the SongBei stop.

How to purchase tickets: I use the official website to see what’s on but I purchase the tickets at the Grand Theatre ticket office. It is tricky to purchase the tickets online if you do not have an ID.

Tip: Do it!

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Tianjin: Great Wall of China

One should always travel to the cities that are not particularly popular; I have always believed that you might find hidden treasures that way. I was excited for a number of reasons. Firstly, I was taking the slow train (the oriental express as I would call it for the rest of the trip) and secondly, we were going to climb the Great Wall!

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The train ride was a little awkward. I suspect that not so many foreign travellers take the slow train. I mean, you have the option of taking the bullet trains. An hour and a half of stares, fishy smells and heat, we arrived in Tianjin to get in to a taxi with a mad driver! She was on her phone, laughing and talking to herself and rarely looked at the mirrors. She dropped us off at the address I had shown her. Except, there was no sign of a hostel there. Oh dear! After approximately 45 minutes of charging phones, looking at maps, asking people if they know of the hostel, we took a leap of faith and got in to the elevator with other residents. We got off the 6th floor as the address stated…still no sign of a hostel. We knocked on apartment 601 and with a great sigh of relief, there is was: Marco Polo Hostel. The sign was behind the door! From there on, we came to a realization that Tianjin does not like signage.

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We didn’t want to waste the limited time we had in Tianjin so we went out for a little walkabout. With an over-enthusiastic taxi driver who mentioned Nelson Mandela as soon as I told him that I am South African, we made it to the Italian Quarter looking for pizza, pasta and wine. Nope. Everything was shut except for a place that sold salty box pizza. Disappointed and freezing, we headed back to the hostel for an early night before a day at the wall.

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Early start. We took the bus to Jixian, just outside of the Tianjin city centre. Well, an hour and a half out. Then, from the final stop you can take a taxi to the Great Wall (Huangya Pass). We didn’t get a taxi but we negotiated a return price with a local using his private car. Thanks to Matt, the driver agreed to drive us to the Wall, wait for three hours and drive us back to the bus station before sun set for only CNY 200!

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It was a fantastic experience! My legs didn’t think so, though. After climbing about 10 00o steps, it was time to call it a day! Plus, our driver was waiting for us. Chairman Mao once said, “He who has not been to the Great Wall is not a true man.” I’m a man!

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The Deets

Where to stay: I use Agoda to book hostels around China. We stayed at the Marco Polo Hostel which cost CNY 52 per night.

Transportation: The subway is cheap and reliable. Taxis are also in abundance, just make sure the driver uses the meter. Beijing to Tianjin slow train: CNY 30 . Bus trip from Tianjin to Jixian: CNY 35.

Entrance to the Great Wall: Huangya Pass Entrance will cost you CNY 65.

Tip: Try not to visit the city during the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year). Everything will be closed.

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Life Below Zero: Snowboarding

I now have a reason to love the harsh northern winter!

There are a few things you can enjoy when you are approximately 2300 km from the Arctic Circle…in the middle of winter.

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I seem to love early morning adventures; waking up at 05:15 am to catch the bus to the mountains is a breeze. Packed sandwiches, water and ready to roll. I bought a multi-coloured helmet that would probably match my primary school backpack – it’s worth a mention because I am so happy with the purchase! Mainly because it saved my life. A few times.

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As the snow season is drawing to an end, I have had my fair share of bruises, falls, rolls, aching muscles and and a sore butt! Coming from the sunny south, this was the highlight of a bitterly cold winter!

What an experience. And, it only cost me RMB 90 for an entire day on the slopes. This fare includes transportation and gear hire.

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Life Below Zero:Winter is Coming

Winter has come. But, it’s about to get worse.

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I honestly didn’t know that I could live in sub-zero temperatures; this is an alien concept for a Durbanite. I have, many a times, considered getting a bobsled just because it seems fitting. I now know what it feels like to crave warmth. I want to walk out in a flowy summer dress and slops feeling the sun kiss my ebony skin. But…I have neatly packaged those thoughts away and placed them right at the back of my mind. I have another 3 or 4 months of cold.

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The great thing about this weather is that I can stay in and cook warm, hearty meals. People don’t judge you for wanting to go home to curl in to ball and drink tea (read: wine) on a potentially good night out. I have been browsing the net looking for healthy winter meals to indulge in this winter. I found a winner a couple of weeks ago. Off to the morning market to find fresh produce I went! It was worth waking up at 05:30 am to find giant blocks of tofu for RMB 1.50! Hella crazy! I made a Thai Tofu, Butternut Squash and Aubergine Soup. You can find the recipe here.

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I am mentally drawing up a winter survival kit. Food, fun, friends are at the top of my list.

With warmth,

x

An Outing: Harbin Opera House

A friend invited me out to see the grand Opera House. I absolutely love design and architecture that I had heard of the Harbin Opera House before I even had the opportunity to leave South Africa.

Well, we both had the day off, it was a beautiful sunny day albeit the 2 degrees celsius!

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I took three buses to get over the bridge to the location. I could have taken two – my mistake. I took bus 119 to connect to the bus 35 at Song Bei Road. Really easy. I even read that you can take the subway to Teiping Lu then take the bus 35 from there. I have noticed that many foreigners prefer to take the taxi (too costly) because it’s more convenient, saves time or you just show the driver the address without an effort. I prefer the buses, to be honest. They are inexpensive (1RMB) and if you had to get lost you get off the bus, cross the road and take the exact same bus to where you started. Then, back to the drawing board. Or, take a taxi 🙂

I made it there after a lovely walk back to here I needed to be, the Opera House. I missed my stop. I was stopped by an overly excited Chinese woman – a photo with me, of course. She kept on saying how beautiful  (mei nu) was so I couldn’t say no.

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Well, the Opera House is all that and more. Except for the ticket office. So, the friend and I wanted to know whether we can walk in to the building for a bit of sightseeing. There was a bit of confusion of “we can but we can’t”. Then, we wanted to know how to get tickets for the shows (I really want to see a ballet showing at the start of November). This ballet could be on showing at the end of October. Or, not. Could we get tickets? The ticket office didn’t know. Well, that left us confused. So what do you do at a ticket office if you can’t get the schedule or purchase tickets or enquire about future shows. Sanch and I walked out thinking, “did that just really happen?”

We continued to meander about and get some good shots.

dsc04574dsc04602dsc04612It was time for an early dinner and head back home.

After spending half the day outside, I now have sniffles and a sore throat. Layer up!

x

PS: crediting Sanch for his photography skills…

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Fast Track to Beijing

A couple of weeks ago, I enjoyed a weekend in Beijing. This was not much an exploration trip but a reunion trek. I hadn’t seen one of my good friends that brought sunshine to my university life in four years. So, you can imagine we had heaps of catching up to get through so I didn’t plan much sight-seeing.

As the lone wolf that I am, I booked a return fast train ticket from Harbin to Beijing which should take just under 8 hours. This is phenomenal as it would normally be a 20-24 hour drive! I had to be at the Harbin West Railway Station by 06:30 am – I am a morning person so I chose the first train out so I could be in Beijing for the afternoon and enjoy a night out in town in the evening.

Seeing Maya again as she she was waiting for me at the station exit. We both shrieked in disbelief. Four damn years!!

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The train ride was alright. I had a book, my travel journal and some sleep to catch up on. I had booked myself a second-class soft seater because a sleeper would have been a little awkward. A cabin always has four bunk beds so travelling as a lone female would make me a little uncomfortable. After my little nap against the window, I woke up to the gentleman sitting next to me watching me sleep. Then guess what? He smiles at me as if watching strangers sleep is normal. I couldn’t get myself to sleep after that.

I stayed at Peking Youth Hostel which is owned by a florist so you are surrounded by flowers and plants which is a winner, of course. This is on one of the ancient hutons (alleys) in Beijing, NanLouGuXiang. It was clean, cosy and the staff were friendly so I might be a regular. I say this because I fell in love with this part of Beijing. It is lively, youthful and friendly. My first meal in Beijing was a falafel pita! Oh My God! A small Israeli restaurant tucked away in one of the hutons. Heaven and reminded me of my Durban Night Markets which always ended in a juicy falafel wrap!

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The evening ended with some beer and food at a bar with live music. Well, open mic, to be exact. We moved out swiftly when we could no longer handle the croons of a shiny clothed expat with his Michael Jackson look-a-like friend. No, really! I really could not hold in my chuckles!

We enjoyed a slow morning and started off at a dumpling restaurant with a smorgasbord of delights. We should really practice eating with our stomachs and not our eyes. Steamed broccoli, fried dumplings, steamed dumplings, potato and aubergine goodness and tea! Don’t forget the rice!

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After waddling out of the restaurant, we took a beautiful stroll to the Lama Temple. There are so many hidden treasures. So many! I wanted to stop every 5 minutes just to explore.

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After meandering the hutons, exploring all the nooks and crannies, we made it to the Lama Temple. I loved the incense and looking at the ancient buildings. I found it rather peaceful to browse the information building with a monk reciting his chants in the background.

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Since it was a Friday night and two friends from Harbin were joining us, we decided to paint the town red. Well, not quite. We started off at a live music bar called Temple. My kind of place, really. Live rock music! We watched two bands play (the second band was a little strange) then decided it was time to check out the salsa bar! My goodness, what a jam! They had a reggaeton/latin dance band playing and it was awesome. I felt like I was in a Dirty Dancing scene.You know, a guy eyeing you across the room with the music in the background then comes over to the bar to talk to you..

It was time to leave this bar!

We went back to Temple and sang old school rock music at the top of my voice while having cheap tequila shots. Please note that I had to set my cellphone alarm to 03:45am so I could leave the bar to meet up with Maya to go to the National Day ceremony at Tienanmen Square! This ceremony takes place at sunrise so this is 05:00. So, straight from the bar to a family ceremony! It was hilarious!

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As a foreigner, the locals thought I should stand in front to see exactly what was happening! So, there I was, a black South African celebrating China’s National Day (the day China became the People’s Republic).

This was a memorable trip and I will be doing it again soon. I still need to walk the Great Wall.

x

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What They Don’t Tell You

I have had a fantastic weekend in Beijing to see one of the best humans I know. This is enough to keep you happy, right? We explored the ancient hutons, ate amazing dumplngs, danced the night away and caught up. This should be enough to keep me happy.

But something happened.

When I was back in my apartment. Alone. Missing familiar faces. Receiving a cold text. After hearing my mother’s voice on the phone, chatting to my nephews, missing eating breakfast with my family after arguing about who will make it.

I broke down.

What we show you about our expat lives is always about the fun and exciting. Always about discovering new amazing foods, exploring the landscapes and meeting amazing new people. But, we are almost too ashamed to tell the world, to tell our families and friends that we are missing them incredibly that you find yourself pacing up and down your apartment trying to breathe. I had never had a panic attack before. I wish someone had told me that it feels like someone is squeezing your heart and you cannot breathe. Then you have insane thoughts – I can’t die here, I am 11 000 km away from my family. Then the thought of death just makes the entire situation spiral.

What they don’t tell you is that sometimes, amidst all of the amazing adventure, you will sorely miss familiar foods, familiar faces and familiar landscapes.

You will break down.

But, this will make you stronger. You will regroup then think about the mission and purpose. The reason why you opted for this lifestyle. You will have a cup of tea and appreciate the little things all over again.

It happens. It happens to everyone.

With love, x

In the Woods..

The first opportunity to get hiking outside the city was granted, I grabbed it with two hands! There was no way I could let that pass, no matter how exhausted I am. Since I have arrived in Harbin, I have made a deal with myself to travel as much as I can. Even if it means that I live like a peasant. I have planned a number of big trips in the coming months so I am finally getting to live my dream.

It all started with a small Moon Cake and a cup of coffee. I packed a light backpack with all the essentials for a day trip: sun screen, wet wipes, tissue, water (!!), a rain jacket, lp balm, a spare plastic packet, lunch and snacks for the trek up.

Destination? Xiang Lu Shan. To get there, we had to take a train to the end of the line (Hadongzhan) then two buses thereafter. It gets rather rural and the air becomes cleaner and fresher! Score!

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I thought this would be a walk in the walk, really. It started off really well with stunning Buddhist prayer rooms and flat walks with trickling streams. After the iron swing path way, it all went uphill from there.

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I honestly thought I was relatively fit. Halfway up, I was sweating and panting and asking myself why I do this to myself.  Why?

To put it quite simply, that is the reason. The challenge, the fresh air, the forests and appreciating mother nature. I resembled a tortoise walking uphill. Eventually, I caught up with the gang. The final battle going uphill was worth it. The view from the top was breathtaking – it was worth every curse I said under my breath. Note to self: Anele, cut down on the Harbin beer, noodles and rice. 

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Aaaaah.

If you ever make it to Harbin, I would recommend that you spend a day Xiang Lu Shan for a day hike. If you are coming in the winter months, then you can ski down the mountain after trekking up.

A day well spent. I love sore thigh muscles after a good work out!

With love, x

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Settling In..

It’s almost a month since I have moved to Harbin and I seem to be settling in now. I have my own apartment, I take the bus to school and pretty much every mode of transport available to go around, and I have become friendly with some of the people in my community.

I might live in a really old part of Harbin but my apartment is stunning and modern. Also, I like getting the feel of real local living. At the moment, I am looking after a little dog for three weeks before she runs along to her forever home – she is a rescue pup. She keeps me very busy.

I am finally getting used to the routine: the commute, long hours, eating out like its going out of fashion, lesson planning. All of it. I am taking it all in.

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I have been sight-seeing and have had some odd encounters so that will be coming up soon. But for now, I need to walk the pup and get ready for work work work.

With love, x