Xi’An – China’s Great Ancient Capital

We have learned so much during almost 2 years in Shanghai and yet, broke the most important rule: Do not travel in China during national holidays. However, the 1st of May holiday was our last long weekend left in China (we will reveal soon where we’re going next…) and it seemed like a no-brainer to visit Xi’An before we leave. What should I say? It was busy. Very busy!

Banpo Village & The Terracotta Warriors

There are many reasons to visit Xi’An as this ancient capital has much to offer, especially when it comes to Chinese historic and archaeological wonders. The main reason for most tourists to visit Xi’An is the Terracotta Warriors of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, which were buried with the emperor in 210–209 BCE and discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a water well.

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Our tour guide recommended visiting Banpo Village first, which was discovered in 1953 and displays the remains of Neolithic settlements about 6,000 years ago. My favourite story about this particular settlement is that only women lived in the houses, as this was a matriarchal society, and men were only allowed to come and visit for a short while, but never to settle down with the women. The most disturbing story that our guide told us at Banpo Village was that babies and young children often died early and were buried in pottery jars near or in the house, so that their spirits could keep living with their mothers.

We visited the Banpo Village and Terracotta Warriors the day before the national holiday started and yet it was already fairly crowded. As of today, you can visit three different pits displaying different terracotta warriors and each has a slightly different story to tell. Unfortunately, our verdict about Banpo Village in particular, but also the Terracotta Warriors, is that what sounds like a spectacular archaeological site, actually felt like another mass tourism attraction in China to us. Our tour guide told us a good three hours (if not more) worth of stories, however, many stories are just archaeological assumptions and remain unclear.

Bell Tower & Drum Tower

As we returned from the Terracotta Warriors into Xi’An’s walled city, the sunshine had returned to us and we decided to explore the area around the Bell Tower and Drum Tower by foot. As both towers looked very interesting from afar and at the same time very crowded, we decided not to go inside. Instead, we enjoyed the upbeat vibe around this area and let ourselves drift into the Muslim quarter…

The Muslim Quarter

Almost everyone we told that we’re going to Xi’An said: “The food there is amazing, especially in the Muslim Quarter!” Having visited Malaysia last year and grown up with a growing Muslim influence on the food industry in Germany, our expectations were high and mostly wrong. Having just visited Yunnan, we were disappointed to find almost all of the same touristy street food in Xi’An and rarely anything new. However, this is not to criticize the Muslim Quarter, which we loved spending time in at night. We did have one very good homemade noodle dish there, but also many other disappointing snacks. Despite that, the Muslim Quarter had a unique feel to it with quirky vibes and night markets. We spend every evening wandering and getting lost throughout the maze of this area and couldn’t get enough of just people watching, especially during this busy national holiday.

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Speaking of people watching…

After four days in Xi’An, we kind of lost track of how many people were staring at us, “secretly” (or most often very obviously) taking photo of us, asking us to take photos with them and calling us “wai guo ren” (foreigners). Welcome to China on a national holiday!

It's a two way street!
It’s a two way street!

The Wall

Xi’An’s wall was definitely our highlight and we even walked and cycled it. The first time, we walked from the South through West to North gate which took us about 2 hours and we loved it, as the weather was superb and we could take our time to look beyond and inside the walled city, taking in every little detail. We decided that two hours walking was enough and were keen to get off the North Gate from where we could walk and then cycle around the Daming Palace Park – which was our second highlight as it was not crowded at all!

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Contrasts – beyond and inside Xi’Ans wall

On our last day, we decided to cycle around the whole wall and it was fun, but on the whole we didn’t enjoy it as much as walking, as some parts of the wall are quite uneven and we couldn’t take the scenery in as much. If you decide to rent bicycles, clarify with the staff first if you can cycle the whole way around, as they might close parts of the wall.

Xi'Ans Wall

Wall park close-up

Wild Goose Pagoda

I envisaged a day of peace and tranquility around the Wild Goose Pagoda and its two big lakes and parks surrounding it. It was a national holiday, so I was wrong. After we got increasingly annoyed with people staring at us, people blocking entrances, tacky techno music along the lake and food poisoning o’clock at the food court, we were happy to leave and even more happy when we discovered a German beer garden next door with. no. people!

Furong Lake / Tang Paradise
Wedding photo shoot at Furong Lake, near Wild Goose Pagoda

On the whole, we mostly enjoyed Xi’An’s nightlife with the gates beautifully lit up, craft beer breweries, bars and the busy muslim quarter, as well as walking along the wall and cycling through the quiet and peaceful Daming Palace Park.

Xi'An at night

Have you been to Xi’An? What did you like the most?

– Her

 

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Doing an HSK test in Shanghai for the first time!

We have been studying Mandarin for just under two years now and finally decided to get an HSK qualification, the HSK2, under our belts. We had worked our way through an introductory book, the HSK1 and 2 books with our tutor and had been revising for a few months now, so it was definitely time to do this. This was my first exam in about 12 years or something, so I was pretty nervous! However, I think it went well, we just have to wait for the test results. Anyway, I thought it might be useful share a few tips on how to prepare for this and what it was like to do the test in Shanghai!

Xujiahui HSK Test Center

The test centre

As a first step, you will need to register and pay for your HSK exam on chinesetest.cn. There are a few centres, but our closest test centre (上海长宁汉龙教育文化培训中心(网考)) is located near Xujiahui metro station and is in a building that is relatively easy to find opposite China Post. However, inside the building it isn’t actually signposted so you will have to use your initiative and locate the right floor in the lift. The concierges in the building seem to be used to lots of foreigners traipsing in so they can always tell you the floor though, and the likelihood is you will meet other foreigners going the same way. If you happen to go to the same test center, it’s on the 11th floor. The test centre tell you not to bring any valuables with you and this is because there are no lockers, so you have to leave your bags unattended outside the room. This is a bit unfortunate, but you can keep your phone (switched off) and wallet in your pocket and passport on your desk. Just make sure you remember your passport and printed confirmation letter as they will ask for this. There are some toilets in the test centre, but that’s about it for facilities. Inside the test centre the other candidates seemed to be mainly Japanese, Russian or Middle Eastern, all united with a common purpose – to learn Mandarin!

The test

The test takes place on reasonably modern laptops with cheap headphones that you can fortunately adjust the volume of. I chose a very loud setting to make sure I caught every word of the listening test! There was a bit of a boring long wait of half an hour before the test started, but it went quite quickly and then we started. The staff gave the instructions in Mandarin, English and Japanese and were very helpful. The test was very similar to the practice papers we had done for HSK2. A couple of the questions were in fact identical to the practice papers! You can guess what one of my top tips is going to be!

Top Tips:

  • Complete as many practice papers as possible! It also helps to go through what you got wrong with your tutor. There are only 5 papers for HSK2 available, as far as I’m aware, so be careful to pace yourself with these. You can find all practice papers and audio on the University of Manchester site here. There is also an HSK2 app, which isn’t perfect, but was a useful revision tool.
  • Learn the vocab at the back of your HSK2 book! And additionally vocab from HSK1. This is an obvious thing really.
  • Practice listening to dialogues from the book read at different speeds. It definitely helped us prepare for the listening by having our tutor read through various dialogues quicker than during the actual test. One thing that put me off at first was how robotic the presumably computer-generated voices are on the test, so this took some getting used to.
  • Having more than one lesson a week really helped our progress. We wish we had started doing this much sooner during our time in China as our progress rocketed as soon as we started doing this. As we are always busy, a week was a long time between lessons and we found we forgot things from week to week.
  • Characters can help, even with HSK1 and HSK2. Even though you only need characters for the first time for the HSK3 test, there are still characters written on the reading part of the HSK1 and 2 tests. It can definitely help you to get the right answer on the multiple-choice section if you can already recognise some characters. This is also forward thinking for HSK3.
  • You don’t need to understand everything to pass the test. And the pass mark is low at 60% (I think)! Really, we think we could have taken the HSK2 test a long time beforehand as in many texts and listening dialogues, you only really need to have understood one key word of vocabulary to be able to select the correct multiple-choice answer. In the end, our goal is to be able to speak Mandarin rather than to pass tests, but depending on your personal goal, you might be able to take HSK2 test a lot earlier than us!

Hope this helps and good luck with your first HSK test!

– Him

 

 

Shanghai Botanical Gardens

Last Sunday Shanghai surprised us with hot and steamy weather, so we decided to visit the Shanghai Botanical Gardens, that have long been on our to-do-list! The entry fee is only ¥15 and you could easily spend many hours in the gardens, renting a boat to go around the lake, picnicking with friends or just relaxing in the sun to get away from the hectic city life.

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Cosy pavilions framed by beautiful flowers inviting its visitors to dream and relax…

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The botanical gardens are surprisingly huge with lots of different areas, including greenhouses, outdoor dining areas, picnic areas, bonsai gardens and much more!

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The Bonsai Garden @ Shanghai Botanical Gardens

For an additional fee (just ¥7), you can visit the Bonsai Garden. It’s totally worth it, as it’s a really quiet, calm oasis. A must do in Shanghai for Bonsai tree lovers! (Although I have to say, the Bonsai Garden in the Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou is still a touch more spectacular!)

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Overall, the atmosphere in the gardens is very peaceful and despite us visiting on a Sunday, it was not crowded at all. It’s such a short taxi ride away from the city center that we think it’s a must do on a sunny day.

Address & Opening Hours:

947 Longwu Lu,
near Baise Lu
龙吴路947号, 近百色路

(Just 15 minutes by taxi from Xujiahui / Xuhui)

Open daily, 8am-5pm

Have you visited the Shanghai Botanical Gardens yet and did you enjoy your visit?

– Her

10 days in Yunnan – our itinerary

We just returned from our road trip in Yunnan and before we start writing about our discoveries and impressions of one of China’s most beautiful landscapes, we’d like to share our travel itinerary with you. Planning where to go in Yunnan and how to get to and around each place was a difficult start as there are just so many fascinating corners to explore and as it’s a less touristy route, we relied greatly on friends’ recommendations who have recently visited Yunnan.

As a starting point, all our friends who had previously visited Yunnan agreed that:

  • They were most fascinated by Dali and Shangri-La
  • Lijiang is very touristy and should only be used as a connection point and/or to hike the Tiger Leaping George

One of our Chinese friends also recommended a city called Tengchong to us, which is famous for its’ volcanos and hot springs and not on the beaten track yet. And she was right – there were few tourists and we didn’t see any other Western travelers.

Keeping all of these recommendations in mind, we came up with the following itinerary:

Yunnan

  • Flight from Shanghai via Kunming to Tengchong, staying for 2 nights
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Tengchong’s countryside

If you’re traveling on a budget, then flying to Kunming and taking the bus to Tengchong is much cheaper, but be prepared for a long and tiresome bus ride. For us, it was worth the money taking a connection flight to Tengchong, as 10 days are already pretty tight for a holiday on Yunnan, which is a vast province with so much to explore. For transportation within Tengchong, a Chinese friend helped us to book a private driver who collected us at the airport, drove us to all the sightseeing spots and main activities.

  • Private driver to Dali, staying 3 nights
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Erhai Lake in Dali

I know it sounds posh having a driver and this was our first experience, but it the price in China is reasonable and it was just so hassle free and worth it! As we didn’t find an alternative to go from Tengchong to Dali, we asked our driver to get us there. It only took about 3.5 hours and felt very safe and efficient.

  • Bus to Lijiang, staying 1 night
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Lijiang’s old town

We stayed in a new little inn and were recommended to take a taxi to Lijiang. Fortunately though, we were just a two minute walk away from the “Jade Emu Hostel” that our friends had recently stayed in and advised us to book our bus ride through them. It was quick and simple: we asked the receptionist to book the bus tickets the night before and then on the morning of our travel, a taxi driver collected us and brought us to the bus stop. However, would we have known how close to bus stop was to the hostel (about a 10 minute ride max.), we could have gotten our own taxi and paid about half of the bus fare that the hostel charged us. The bus ride was not too long at just about 2.5 hours and fairly pleasant.

  • Bus to Shangri-La, staying 3 nights
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Tibetan Temple in Shangri-La

Even though we found information about the bus schedule and prices online in advance, we felt a bit uneasy about not having had booked bus tickets in advance and our hotel could not help us with that. However, it proved to be easy – we made our way early to the main bus station, which is just a 20 minute walk from the Old town, and bought tickets for the next available bus, about one hour later. The fare was very cheap (just 58 RMB per person), but the bus was very simple (not as comfortable as the long-distance buses we were used to in Malaysia) and the drive very… ‘exciting’ as we drove along narrow mountainous roads while our bus driver overtook EVERY vehicle on the road.

  • Getting back to Shanghai from Shangri-La (Diqing) Airport
Shangri-La, Napa lake
It snowed during our last two days in Shangri-La!

People we spoke to and reviews we read online all suggested going back to Lijiang or Kunming to fly back to Shanghai. We almost planned to do this as well, until we found on the China Eastern website, that you can fly from Shangri-La via Kunming to Shanghai. What a life-saver, as otherwise we would have missed on a full day in Shangri-La and would have had to take this awful bus back to Lijiang. Interestingly, this flight was not listed on the English Ctrip website, but only showed up on the Chinese Ctrip website (that you can use easily when opening it in Chrome or Safari and choosing the browser option of translating the whole text to English).

Overall, we felt that the length of time at each place was just right to do the main things we planned to do. Every place we went to would have also offered the opportunity for plenty of day trips or a day relaxing in the spa.

I hope this post helps you to tailor-make your trip to Yunnan based on what activities you like to do during a holiday and which landscapes you find most fascinating.

– Her

Shanghai Photography Walk

Last Saturday we were very fortunate to go on a private photography walk with Franc Peret, a professional filmmaker and photographer based in Shanghai. These are just some of the outcomes of our street photography in the Former French Concession (near Tianzifang) and what we learned…

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A common sight in China is people collecting and separating waste. After these women smiled at us (and probably wondered why the hell we want to take photos of trash), they carried on with getting the trash ready for transport. Can you see how the colour blue is reflected in all different aspects and materials in the photo?

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Sometimes all is not what it seems and it becomes apparent how many opportunities there are in Shanghai to take photos with a vintage ‘science fiction movie’ effect.

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We carried on walking over one of Shanghai’s many elevated pedestrian walkways and tried to capture the cyclists shadow silhouettes.

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A new method of photography that I learned during this walk was ‘tracking’ in which you follow a cyclist not just with your camera but also with your body movement.

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In Shanghai you can find many things that don’t match together or that look a bit odd. This is great for photography as it catches the eye, and in this case, reflects the sunlight.

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Behind this photo is a little story. Franc suggested to take a photo of the Chinese ladies kneeling down to take photos of the pregnant cat taking a nap. When grandma and her son saw us do that, she said to her son in Chinese: ‘Go, kiddo, pretend to play with the cat so the foreigners can take photos of you’. He looked adorable playing with the cat, but the cat did not like it! In the end, the poor kid was confused whether he should keep on playing with the cat, risking his life to be our model, or give up and return to grandma.

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Cherry blossoms? Plum blossoms? Who knows – I’ll never get the hang of that and I find them all equally beautiful! When you start taking photos in a more serious fashion, you quickly learn that it’s all about perspective. This beautiful blossoms in fact belonged to a little potted plant in a hidden little courtyard next to trash bins. With this one the trick is: if the surroundings aren’t great, better zoom in as much as possible to expose the subject’s details and light.

IMG_6982 (2) Despite the boom of the likes of Mobike and Ofo that are now littering the pavements, many people still use their old bicycles in Shanghai.

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Hanging socks and underwear in the courtyard, in front of windows and literally anywhere outside… The Chinese way of life. After posting this photo on facebook, a friend of asked us what’s the point of taking a photo of socks. The answer is, it’s all about the light!

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We ended our photography walk in this romantic little lane. This walk not only taught us about street photography tricks, but also reminded us of what we love about Shanghai: those hidden little details.

– Her

Tiger Hill in Suzhou

Once upon a time, a white tiger appeared on the hill to guard it after the burial of King Helü, king of the state Wu until 496 BC … or so the legend says!

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Once we started exploring the gardens around the pagoda, we left the crowds behind us.

After a day of Suzhou’s parks and gardens, we decided to head to Tiger Hill which features a leaning pagoda that was built in the 10th century. Fortunately it was easy walking up the little hill to get to the pagoda – but we found the view up to the pagoda from the little ancient gardens surrounding the hill more peaceful and impressive.

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Ancient gardens nestled along the Tiger Hill

Can you believe that two weekends ago when we visited Suzhou it was 19°C sunshine and we walked around the hillside and gardens without jackets? I hope that the weather forecast is true and we’ll get this spring weather again starting tomorrow!

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Bonsai garden and ancient Chinese architecture

This is the place that I loved the most at Tiger Hill. The architecture of the house reminds me of Japanese temples and castles that we have visited last year in Kyoto. And what makes an ancient Chinese or Japanese garden complete? Bonsai trees!

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Out weekend getaway from Shanghai to Suzhou felt exciting, relaxing and peaceful especially when we visited Tiger Hill and strolled along Chinese style pavilions, gardens and along the canal and tree dotted river.

– Her

Discovering Suzhou’s landscapes

As we sat at Daga Brewpub’s rooftop terrace on a warm and sunny afternoon two weekends ago, we decided to make the most of the spring weather and spend the weekend in Suzhou. While enjoying our iced coffee, we quickly decided to book Garden Hotel Suzhou due to its prime location in the heart of Suzhou and excellent reviews.

After a short 25 minute ride on Shanghai’s fast train and an early check-in, we decided to visit Lion Forest Garden, the old city center dotted with canal alleyways and the Dongyuan Park area in the northeast of the old town.

Suzhou's Old Town
Suzhou’s famous canals

I’d already visited the historic canal alleyways when my friend came to visit us last November and I have to say, coming back on a weekend, it was unfortunately much more busy (as anywhere popular in China on a weekend). If you’ve been to Shanghai, then I would say Suzhou’s old town reminds me of Shanghai’s Tianzifang, just along canals. Would you agree?

Lion Grove Garden

Northwest of the old town, we visited the Lion Grove Garden (aka Lion Forest Garden), which is one of Suzhou’s classical gardens and top sights. Let me put it this way: it would have been an outstanding experience in a zen landscape with tranquil surroundings… if it hadn’t been for all the people! Walking along tiny pathways below ancient rock formations along a small lake with way too many tourists pushing past was not one of our most treasured China moments and we were glad to leave the park once we’ve seen everything.

46EC7D6F-4BC4-4A36-9864-C38DA1CEEDD5-7192-0000089F1F775496_tmpDongyuan Park20,000 steps later, we decided to call it a day with all the sightseeing and to just have a quick look at the Dongyuan Park amidst the ‘Couple’s Garden Retreat’ area, which was not only a world heritage site, but also conveniently located by the old town. We actually found this place on Apple Maps and not on Tripadvisor or other review websites and were fortunate to have stumbled upon it as we ended up spending another hour or two there until sunset. We entered the park and found ourselves in an oasis of spring flowers, river walks and canoes in quiet, vast surroundings. We really took our time walking along the river path admiring blossoming trees and exploring part of Suzhou’s ancient city wall at the end of the park.

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This experience tells us again, that it’s worth looking beyond Tripadvisor reviews and ‘the best things to do in…’ results on Google. Soon this week, I’ll also write about our visit to Tiger Hill in Suzhou, which is quite a touristy attraction as well, but so spread out that we still found many scenic quiet spots.

– Her