(Photo of one of the Buddhist statues at the Lama Temple, Beijing, China)
It was 5 years ago when I first visited China. My daughter lived in Beijing and that was as good an excuse as any for me to board a plane and come visit her. On the day I arrived in Beijing Allie, in her wisdom, took me cycling for 9 hours to help me “re-adjust” to the time difference and of course to feed the mosquitos with some new foreign blood. They feasted on me from the time I arrived, until I realized that wearing strawberry flavor lipgloss probably wasn’t the best idea I’d ever had 😱. Mosquitoes are inclined to have a sweet tooth. My lips paid the price. Free Botox basically! 😜
During my stay in 2013 Allie took me to one of the most beautiful parts China. A small rural village in southern China called Yangshuo, situated about 70 Kms from the city of Guilin and the closest thing to Paradise on earth I’d ever seen. If you want to experience the true Chinese culture, this is the place to visit! Back then, we travelled on to Shanghai from Yangshuo where I met her then new boyfriend, Jonny, who is now her husband. They had met on a Russian aircraft carrier ship that had docked in China shortly before my arrival. A party was in full swing on the ship and Jonny naturally spotted my glamorous daughter across the dance floor (biased much? 😂, but I speak the truth). They had never clapped eyes on each other until this particular night. And when he asked her to dance, lo and behold, they discovered that they both hailed from our hometown of Tullamore in Co. Offaly. How mad is that? In a country with over 1.4 billion people, that two Irish people who lived in different cities (Jonny lived in Shanghai and Alison in Beijing) would meet and fall in love and eventually marry and go on to have my beautiful grandson Harry. Now that’s Serendipity at its best!
Anyway, I digress! So, way back then when we travelled around China, I totally fell in love with this place. With its people, its unique culture (well parts of it), the beautiful landscapes, the Temples and Gardens and basically the history associated with it. It fascinates me! Some of its Temples go back to the 1300s, with fabulous tales of Emperors and their Empresses and concubines no less! It’s spectacular to experience and nothing like you might imagine it might be, before you arrive. The media coverage in the western world is not often very complimentary to China and there are many reasons why, however there is an abundance of beauty and wonder about the place that just must be seen to be believed. In a nutshell, you experience what can only be described as “a whole new world” and very different to any other country in the world in terms of its customs and practices. It’s a Communist country of course and one of only a handful of countries remaining to be governed in this way. Governments and people throughout the world have various opinions on Communism generally and I get that. There are ongoing concerns associated with Communism, particularly around human rights which I might touch on later, but for now I’ll reserve judgement on the political side of things. Democracy also has its own set of problems, including human rights issues, however in a very different form I guess.
And so, arriving back in Beijing had a huge level of excitement attached to it for me. Since my earlier trip, I have been constantly raving to Colm (and everyone else who’d listen) about its beauty. And so after a welcoming traditional Chinese meal with some friends in Jinsong, we ventured out the following morning for a walk in a nearby Chinese park to get some much needed rays of sunshine. As I mentioned earlier, there are some very significant differences between Chinese and European culture. Some good, some not so good. One of the differences I struggled with on our first day out, (and still do), was the constant “hocking up” of phlegm and spitting on the street, and indeed in restaurants while eating. It is an everyday occurrence here and possibly the reason for the tradition of taking shoes off at the door of every Chinese home I guess. “Hocking” is as normal here as sneezing back home. Not an eyelid is batted as girls and guys walking along hock up and spit phlegm in every direction. Heading out for breakfast in the mornings, I would be pretty hungry, only to get to the restaurant and having seen all of the hocking going on, decide that I could only handle a cup of boiled water or a coffee. Great for the diet, and it does take a bit of getting used to, particularly when it’s happening at the next table at a restaurant where you’re trying to enjoy a meal. Not for the faint hearted, but on the overall scale of things it’s a small inconvenience and trade off for the experience of seeing the sights of China.
On the day in question, as we strolled around the park, delighted with ourselves to be in Beijing at last, I decided to use the restrooms. Off I toddled into the ladies toilets, to the familiar sight of the toilet bowls positioned at ground level! Apparently this is a much healthier way for our body to rid itself of unwanted waste (ahem) by squatting over a bowl built into the ground. In fairness, it doesn’t present too many problems until you’ve had a few gin and tonics, and then it’s hilarious. You get the picture 😱And it’s also best to carry around your own toilet paper. Oh and that’s not to be flushed but rather placed neatly in a basket beside the toilet after use!! I’m just sayin’ ha ha. Interesting stuff indeed. Forewarned is forearmed 🧐
A very endearing thing happened to me on this day out and indeed on a few other occasions here. While I was at the sinks in the ladies toilet on this particular occasion an elderly woman had obviously spotted me going in to the cubicle and unbeknown to me, followed me and waited for me outside. When I came out, she produced her phone and kept touching my face and signalled that she wanted to have her photo taken with me. The same happened on another day out, when an older woman near the apartment where we were staying in Jinsong (on the outskirts of the city) ran up to me excitedly and asked that I allow her to take a photo of me with her. It occurred to me then that these elderly women, who had no access to social media or in fact any media or news from the outside world, had probably rarely, if ever, seen someone from outside of China. A foreigner, as we grew familiar with being referred to and that amused us no end. We were the only westerners for miles and the warmth and welcome we got from the elderly people living in the area was unbelievable. But also somewhat sad at the same time. Social media is blocked by the Government in China and so such restrictive practice means that the people living here literally exist on a planet of their own, isolated from the rest of the world (unless they are privileged enough to be able to afford to travel outside of the country of course). They have their own Facebook (Weibo) which is only available to those living in China. They have WeeChat, instead of Messenger or WhatsApp. Living with no access to outside media or news, only news that is strictly monitored and edited to reflect only postive news about their own Government, its governance and occurrences generally in China. There is no requirement on the Government for transparency on any level in the same way that there is back home, financial reporting included. Statistics and monetary reporting are sporadic, questionable and cosmetic at best!
On another day we went for a walk around a park after a trip to The Forbidden City in the Centre of Beijing. I was entranced with the sound of choirs singing, out of sight at various parts of the park where we walked. I couldn’t resist trying to find the source of this magnificent music amongst the huge trees and pathways. We made our way towards the chanting and singing to discover, to our amazement, crowds of people gathered together singing the most enchanting songs in harmony and in unison with such passion! It was like witnessing a world class operatic performance right there in the centre of the park. And on further enquiry I discovered that this singing, almost cult like, was a celebration of the love and admiration that the people of China have to this day for their deceased, most famous leader of the Communist party, Mao Tse Tung. It was magical, it was eerie and it was all-consuming. At every corner of the park, another choir had gathered, all singing patriotic songs about Mao, (and quite possibly commissioned by him in writings before his death). These events are apparently supported by the existing Communist Government, and it’s a very surreal experience to witness how the Chinese people revere and idolize this man, in an almost godlike fashion. And remember, the Chinese people in the main have only ever been exposed to positive stories about this man, Mao. Many outside of China would have varied opinions about his reign, some not as charitable as those within China itself, however given that I’m still in Asia and hoping to spend some more time in China, it’s best to avoid this subject for the moment! It’s also noteworthy that the vast majority of Chinese people are unaware of the horrific events of Tiananmen Square that occurred in 1989. Nationwide restrictions on reporting the events that occurred in Beijing on that day are still very much in place and westerners are forbidden to discuss anything associated with that day with the Chinese people. In fact, any discussion in public by Chinese people which might be interpreted as being disloyal to the Government brings with it severe penalties, imprisonment and worse. And yet, on the social media platform anyone can threaten to kill or maim an individual and that activity is not in breach of any law. Our laws thankfully forbid such activities and I’d like to think that if someone publicly threatened to murder another person that the full force of the law would come down on them.
I explain all of the above to give an indication as to the very different environment that exists here by comparison to back home. As a foreigner in this country however, it is probably the safest place to visit and travel around. Crime is practically non-existent as the fear of punishment is much too great and so we have had the luxury of absolute freedom to explore and venture around both Beijing and Shanghai with the comfort and security of knowing we are totally safe. And yet there is a whole “pang of conscience” bit going on for us, given that we are learning more day by day about the workings of the State, and yet we still chose to visit and holiday here. However, like I said earlier; we are here because of the beautiful country, the people, the learning experience and are trying to do so in a non-judgemental and respectful way, of a culture that is so very different from our own. The Chinese people themselves are kind and caring in the extreme. They are excited to be meeting with “foreigners” and cannot do enough to make us feel welcome in their country.
So, as we settled in, one of our first challenges on our “to do list” after our arrival was the “must do” climb of The Great Wall. We headed off early on the morning to tackle it, and took a cable car to the top of the wall to begin the challenge. The temperatures were nearing 32 degrees celsius. We mapped out our plan of where we would walk, a total of 2kms, which sounds like a simple task, but in such hot temperatures, loathe though I am to admit it, it was torturous for me at certain parts. In contrast, it didn’t knock a feather out of Colm. I blame the fact that I am an ex-smoker and I believe no matter how long ago it was that I gave up, the effects are very much still there. I tried to walk the same distance during my last visit to Beijing and failed miserably, and this time I was determined not to give in. It took the guts of two hours, (probably the longest two hours of my life) but I did it. The scenery is spectacular as you climb higher and higher, and as we walked we met so many people from all over the world who had also travelled to do the climb. The key to doing it is to bring lots of water to drink along the way. Dehydration can happen really quickly, so it’s essential that you keep hydrated no matter what the weather. The mango ice pop that I treated myself to at the top was so worth the wait!
(Climbing the Great Wall – the struggle was real!)
Another great outing that we did was to the world renowned Beijing Acrobatic Show in a quaint theater in the centre of Beijing. As a spectator it was both jaw-dropping and a “heart in your mouth” experience as the acrobats performed dangerous stunts to perfection. The standard of this acrobatic performance is world class and flawless and so worth a visit. When the Chinese do performance, they do it to perfection and this is just one example of this.
Being back in China also presented the perfect opportunity to take another trip back to Yangshuo where Colm could at last see the place that stole my heart all those years ago. We booked a flight to Guilin and headed for the most unique Retreat Centre on the outskirts of Yangshuo called “The Giggling Tree” where I had stayed with Allie all those years ago. A visit to this part of the world is so affordable, with our 5 day stay at the Giggling Tree (with its own pool and restaurant/bar) with food, drink, taxi-fares, entertainment and tickets for shows and bamboo rafting included for us both. It worked out at less than €700 in total. The Giggling Tree arranges all tickets for shows, all taxis to take you around the area, and everything you can ever need is provided.
When we arrived, a notice greeted us on the wall in the reception area to explain that we would probably not get a peaceful night’s sleep, as there had been a death in the neighbourhoood. A local man from one of the nearby houses had passed away earlier that morning. We could hear what I can only describe as bagpipes playing Chinese laments, very loudly! And the Chinese equivalent of Irish keeners soon joined the chorus of bagpipes. Sure we were nearly in tears ourselves at that stage and we didn’t even know the poor divil that had passed! The Chinese tradition in Yangshuo and in the southern part of China generally is to have a 24 hour lament from the time of death until the departed is removed for burial. Family members within this 24 hour period are set the task of travelling to the local range of karst mountains to pick a burial spot for the body. Once chosen, the family members prepare the burial ground. It’s a magnificent tradition, and as we travelled through the mountains in the following days, headstones with beautiful flowers and trees were visible throughout the mountains where all the local dead are buried. There is no undertaker, no planning permission, no religious involvement, only the age old tradition of families bringing their loved one on a float with a flower covered coffin through the town to the mountains beyond to be buried. And while it was wonderful to witness the goings on for this particular funeral, being woken at 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. to the sound of fireworks and bagpipes and wailers was a bit hair raising. Yet again, however, we had decided to travel here, to their village, and the culture of these people must be respected on every level. We took it all in our stride and were happy to learn of the local customs. And sure so what if we were a small bit inconvenienced with tiredness the following day. It was worth it!
(Photo: Bamboo rafting along the Yulong River, Yangshuo, Southern China)
Our next stop was to do some highly recommended bamboo boat rafting on the Yulong River. Oh man! What an absolute blast, and another “must do” when visiting this part of the world. Basically, the local Chinese men are employed to take tourists down the river on a bamboo raft that is steered by them with nothing but a huge bamboo stick. Two to a raft, and the trip is out of this world. As you travel down the river, you experience the surreal scenery of the karst mountains that flank the Yulong River and the peaceful calmness of the area as you gently make your way along. The only interruption is the sound of the birds and the excited squealing that’s unavoidable as the raft drops down the small weirs along the way. It’s a journey of about an hour and a half, and we did it early on a Saturday morning after a good hearty breakfast at the Giggling Tree. A quick stop back for lunch and a swim at the pool, and then it was about getting ready for the most spectacular event that this town has to offer. The Fisherman’s Light Show! With tickets prebooked and a taxi ready to collect us to bring us the short distance to this magnificent venue in the Centre of Yangshuo, I was beside myself with excitement at the thought of seeing this performance again, and even more so to see Colm’s reaction to it. Our tickets cost the equivalent of just over €60 and were situated in the VIP area of the auditorium for that price. Now trying to explain the enormity of this event is difficult. Suffice to say that the guy who produced the introductory performance for the Beijing Olympic Games is responsible for the production of this magnificent musical performance that literally takes place once darkness falls, outdoors, on the Yulong River, with the mountains lit up as the backdrop/stage. The orchestra begins and suddenly, out of nowhere, hundreds of Chinese fishermen make their way out onto the river, with lanterns lit, on their bamboo rafts. They line up along the river and perform a synchronized movement with fishing nets illuminated with red light to the Chinese music echoing from every corner of the venue. It is spectacular to watch. Colm’s reaction from the moment the mountains lit up and the fishermen sailed out from every corner of the river….”Holy F**K” 😱😂. Like me, (and everyone else who has been to this performance), he was blown away by it. And on it went, with lines of performers (600 in total) with illuminated costumes performing various synchronized dances on the river. A large half moon then sailed out, representing an old Chinese romantic legend of a beautiful woman dancing naked on the moon, with her Chinese lover transfixed with her beauty looking on from the ground below. The performance once had a real naked Chinese woman dancing on the yellow lit moon, however, following objections over the years to her performing on a live show naked, she now sports a full neutral color body stocking to appease those complainers. I can’t help wondering what the gender breakdown of the complainants were? Ha ha. The show takes place twice every night. People who know me back home have heard me raving about this show for the past 5 years, and I kid you not, if you ever travel to these parts, make sure not to miss it! The Fisherman’s Light Show…you heard it here, you’ve been warned! 🤪
A noticeable cultural difference in this part of the world, is the role of women in society. As we travelled around, elderly women were bent over in rice fields in sweltering heat, from the small hours of the morning until late at night, tending to the rice plants. I also witnessed women high up on buildings mixing cement in the same sweltering heat that I could barely walk in. Women are vulnerable here, and it is evident that they are the backbone of the community. Men work hard also, but I witnessed groups of men sitting around in the sweltering heat playing cards or board games while the women continued the arduous task of farming and on those construction sites. Women participate in the whole process of manual labour to a greater degree than I have ever seen anywhere else in the world, albeit I have yet to visit other countries along this journey. It was quite shocking if I’m honest, but again, that’s the way of life here and has been for centuries. Education is minimal apparently, and toil and strife is the order of the day for most families, who live in relative poverty by comparison to families in other parts of China and the western world. But happiness is also evident amongst the community. They are content with their lives here, and living in the most beautiful part of our planet in relative calm and simplicity I guess has a lot to do with it.
After a few more relaxing days in Yangshuo, we headed back to Beijing to see another bit of this beautiful city . And so, on our return; next on the list was a visit to the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Lama Temples, and the beautiful surroundings of the Summer Palace. We took a boat out onto the Lake at the Palace and sailed along with not a care in the world other than the heat we were trying to contend with. It was so beautiful and brought back memories of the last time I took a boat out on this same lake with Alison. Our boat back then was a diesel powered engine one that we had all to ourselves. A bit bigger than a paddle boat really. Alison took to the role of “captain of the ship” admirably. Even after the bottle of wine that we brought on board, and drank; she didn’t create an unwanted ripple on the lake , until just on the horizon the sun began to set over the Great Wall and we were hypnotized into staying to watch it go down, come hell or high water! By the time it had gone out of view our time was well and truly up for returning the boat and the guards at the Summer Palace were closing up the gates for the night. Suddenly, the owner of the boat was whizzing towards us in his high speed boat, (well, higher speed than ours ) screaming at us in Chinese. Naturally he was upset that we were still on the lake in possession of his boat. I was all ready to offer an apology when next I heard Alison shouting back at him in Chinese! I thought, “what on earth is going on here?” In English, Alison told me to say nothing, but look like a damsel in distress. Now, I hadn’t a clue what was going on but this was just right up my street, and of course I did what she asked, probably a little bit exaggerated, but nonetheless, needs must as they say. (Apparently there were guards on the lake that could arrest us if this guy tried to make out that we were trying to steal his boat so my apology would probably fall on deaf ears anyway!). The guy on the speed boat, immediately calmed down and began tying a rope from his boat to ours to drag us back to shore. Once we got there Alison told me to get off the boat and run as fast as our legs could carry us. And we did, holding our stomachs laughing as we did. Apparently she had shouted in Chinese at the guy on the speedboat that our boat had run out of diesel in the middle of the lake, and that our lives had been put at risk due to his inability to ensure customer safety by making sure there was enough fuel in the boat to begin with. And that she was going to report him if he didn’t take us back to shore immediately! He hadn’t thought in his panic to check our boat for fuel when we were out there and by the time he would discover that there was probably enough diesel left in it for us to sail the Chinese sea and back again, sure we were well out of reach. 😂😂😂. Our trip to the Summer Palace on this occasion was a little less eventful, with no run ins with local law enforcement thankfully! 🙏
Our trips to the Forbidden City and the Lama Temple were jaw-dropping! Colm was loving every day that unfolded with something new as much as I was. Colourful Chinese Temples at every turn, with the world’s largest Buddhist statue situated in the grounds of the Lama Temples near the Dongchemen area of Beijing. Fabulous to see, but also difficult to cope with the temperatures that had risen to over 40 Celsius at this stage. I struggled badly when walking in the mid-day heat on some of these outings. But I got it done nonetheless, albeit looking like something the cat had dragged in on many an evening after walking for miles.
We took a 4 hour train journey to Shanghai early on a Thursday morning, and while it is in the same country as Beijing and Yangshuo , there is no comparison to seeing the sprawling metropolis of a prosperous city, with skyscrapers as far as the eye could see. It is certainly a beautiful city to visit and we ate out in some top class restaurants near the French Quarter of the city where we were staying and ate like royalty at very little cost. The cost of living generally in China is low. A four-course meal with drinks for two will set you back in some places for as little as €50. We often had to do a double take on the bill when it arrived, to make sure that a mistake hadn’t been made. Shanghai is a modern city with streets of designer shops and restaurants. To stand on one side of the Huangpu River where the old part of the city overlooks the newer and famous “Bund” is a spectacular vision. The lighting up of these buildings every night, in particular the well-known “Oriental Pearl Tower” is a must see when in Shanghai. It also has a diversity in its huge population that few cities in China have. It is up there with New York and Paris for sure, but for me, it doesn’t have the same quaintness and culture associated with it as Beijing and other Chinese cities have. If I landed in Shanghai and didn’t know I was in China, I would be hard pressed to figure out that I was actually in the heart of such a beautiful country. Given that historically it has been a port city and open to outside trade, it is very evident that Shanghai is one of the few wealthy cities in China.
(Photo: The Bund, Shanghai, China)
Reminiscing yet again about what a beautiful place Yangshuo was after we left, I found myself googling “English teaching jobs in Yangshuo”. To my delight, the private college in Yangshuo had job vacancies. And so we applied and waited with bated breath to see if we would qualify. And we did! We subsequently got called for interview, which we did over a Skype call with the head of the college. And folks, within a few days we both received job offers to work there during the Summer months! And so, we’re going back! I’m beside myself with excitement! We’ve signed our contracts and we start work after our next stop off in Vietnam. We spend the next three weeks in Vietnam and then return to Yangshuo where we’ll spend a glorious summer teaching young children how to speak English! We couldn’t be happier, and I can’t help feeling that all those trips to the Buddhist Temples have paid off 😂. It’s all happening for us and I’m feeling so grateful and blessed! It will mean having to cut short our trip to Vietnam by a couple of weeks, but we can return at some point as we go along. As my late mother used to say “Never look a gift horse in the mouth”!
Next stop Vietnam…I wonder what awaits us there? 😱😱😱