Sunday, December 16, 2007

[Putuo Shan, Zhejiang, China] The Sacred Buddhist Island

Putuo Shan is one of the four most sacred buddhist mountains in China. It lies off the coast of Ningbo, a modern city with a huge port near Shanghai. Because of its importance to buddhism, no industry is permitted on the island, and it is kept in immaculate condition for the pilgrims and tourists that flock there.

I took a bus, a ferry, another bus, a taxi and a passenger boat to get to the island, meeting two european girls along the convoluted route. Normally the journey wouldn't involve so many steps but 'stormy seas' (which I saw absolutely no evidence of) meant no direct boats were going to the island.

Once we got there we realised that it was a good time to come. The port is huge because it is built to accomodate hundreds of visitors at a time. However, going in December meant that not only were there hardly any people around, but the price to enter the island was lower. (Yes, they actually charge you to set foot on the place!) We found a cheap hotel (another advantage of going out of season) and set off to explore.

An island without traffic, pollution and the usual din of the east coast of China felt strange at first. It fell dark quickly and there was virtually no one around. We walked North from our hotel in the South and came across a charming village with winding narrow streets and a central pond. Market stall-holders were trying to sell souvenirs, incense and other buddhist wares to the small numbers of passers by. We stumbled across a tailor working diligently into the night cutting and sewing robes for the many monks that live on the island. His shop was full of ochre, grey and brown gowns and bags.

In the morning we set out early to explore the sights. The island is small and so walking from one temple to the next was a pleasant way to find our way around. The money that tourism has brought to the place has been used to great effect on signing the place really well and maintaining the paths and steps.

There are small caves turned into shrines dotted around the coastline, two large beaches in the east and countless monastaries and nunneries. We seemed to be the only foreigners on the island; the other visitors were all Chinese coming to the island to pray and offer gifts to the monks there.

By digging around behind the pristine temples we stumbled across the local life on the island... well kept gardens where they were growing food, a well used for washing clothes and tiny shacks with scurrying cats and drying produce. Often it is more interesting to see this old way of life than to wander around yet another yellow temple!

The girls left on Friday night so on Saturday I was on my own climbing the sacred mountain. I saw pigrims bowing to touch their heads on the floor at every step they took up to the 300m summit. The philosophy is 'the harder the journey, the more spiritual gain you get'. On the top was a huge temple where monks walked around in quiet huddles and visitors lit incense and knelt in prayer.

There is a cable car to ferry people up and down the peak but I decided to find a path to walk down, hoping that it would take me to the northern most point of the island. I found a well worn but no longer used track through the autumnal trees - a very peacful decent! At one point I disturbed a deer which promptly fled and I came across a small grove of pomello trees. Not knowing when lunch would come I picked some off the floor and tucked in.

When I reached the bottom of the mountain I went to explore the remote local village there. Following the sound of drums and an Arhu (Chinese violin-type instrument) I stumbled across a performance of Peking Opera in a makeshift theatre there. Local Chinese beckoned me into the dim 'threatre' and I sat with them cracking nuts and eating sweets as the drama unfolded. Of course, I couldn't understand a word of what was being said and sung but the costumes were beautiful and the music interesting so I stayed for at least an hour. People came up to me to ask where I was from and so on and I discovered that my Chinese is coming along slowly.

Today I am going back to Jiaxing for a night and then I will head up North next week...

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

[Zhejiang Province, China] The Hanging Cloud

I can feel winter creeping up on me. It's seeping through the rows and rows of concrete apartments and over the stagnant rivers in a cloud of fog and cold air.

I left Shanghai last Wednesday. Leaving Shanghai by the south railway station is little like leaving Britain from Gatwick airport - the station is huge! I guess that a station that links a city of 18million people to the Southern provinces and Hong Kong needs to be big, but it can take 1 hour to find the ticket office alone!

I met a Canadian woman in Shanghai who is teaching in a small (4million) city called Jiaxing, in the Zhejiang province. She offered to put me up in a spare apartment at her boarding school and show me around the local area and Jiaxing city: an offer I couldn't refuse!

Jiaxing was very very different to Shanghai. The first thing you notice is that it is far less crowded. People seem to be wandering around with no real purpose, and at a pace which suits them alone. It is not uncommon to see people holding a conversation whilst standing right in the middle of a 4 lane road! The second thing that struck me about Jiaxing is that people stare here. They stare at foreigners. It's not aggressive or impolite, but it takes a bit of getting used to. The best action to take is simply smile back and say 'Ni Hao'. Invariably, people will holler a 'hello' across the street to anyone white in Jiaxing.

People are much more friendly here and I met people in the school, and the Canadian lady's friends, both local and foreign who were accomodating and hospitable.

On Friday we took a bus (well, actually it ended up one taxi and two buses) to Xitang. Xitang is a small town and the main attraction is a 1000+ year old town set by canals and lanes which survived the cultural revolution. People still live and work in the ancient buildings and there are quaint little restaurants, shops, gardens and temples to explore. Again, the pace of life in a place like this is almost backwards!

On Saturday we took a trip to a huge shopping mall. NB 'Huge' in China means 'gigantically hugely massive.' I have been thinking about the plans I have for the North and really needed to buy some warmer clothing. I came away with a great furry hat (with ear flaps) and some especially warm under-trousers. I don't think I spent more than 10pounds in total... China is cheap!

I am in a city called Ningbo now. An American friend who I did the TEFL course with is now working in a school here, so she is giving me a free bed and lots of food. Tomorrow we will explore the city which is a coastal city full of fresh seafood and a bustling modernising business environment.

I can also catch a ferry from here to the island of Putuo Shan. It is a sacred Buddhist island with many temples, pagodas, monastaries and statues to explore. Plus there is no city or urban deveploment so I will be able to get out of these crazy metropolises for a few days!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

[Shanghai, Shanghai, China] The Street

Life in Shanghai hits you in the face as soon as you arrive. It's not just because of the 18-19 million people that live here; it's more to do with the fact that life spills out of the buildings in a cloud of smoke, smell, dust, music, chattering, hooters and the call of traders. Right out on to the street from 6am to 3am every single day.

I have been here for over two weeks now and in that time I have seriously improved my dodging skills! The first things to dodge are the people. There are lots and lots of people in the streets here. Some of them are walking, some are just crouching on the ground watching people. Others are selling food out of bicycle-cum-kitchen contraptions, whilst more just wander around trying to find someone to sell fake watches, fake shoes, fake cameras, fake anything to! Shoulder barging can be a neccessary action, although in Shanghai people seem to be more polite compared to what I've heard of the China outside of this gargantuan metropolis.

And then there's the traffic... Once you've left the hostel you simply can't let up on the concentration required for the safe negotiation of the roads, which as well as 6 lanes for cars, also have a lane dedicated to mopeds, bicycles and motorbikes. Not only are they driving on the right hand side of the road, it is also perfetly acceptable to jump a red light if you are turning off the priority road. Pedestrians are the lowest in the pecking order and the advice I was given was to keep your eyes on the floor and then people will drive around you. If drivers see that you are aware of them they assume that you will get of the way (which could quite easily put you in the direct path of a bus barreling along at 40 mph!)

So I'm sure you can imagine that the streets are far from quiet. Added to the traffic noise and hooters it seems to be that every shop selling trainers or sportswear (and there are hundreds of them) is compelled to play hard dance music out onto the street out of muffly poppy speakers.

I'm sure that the streets here tell you more about the city than the clubs, restaurants and tourist hot spots. Having said that, I haven't told you the half of it yet...