Trip to the Terracotta Warriors – Xi’an 🇨🇳

After being in the country for over a week travelling independently with my friend who spoke Mandarin, it was time for me to go it alone for a couple of days. I could not visit China and miss the Terracotta Army, which I remember learning about at school, all those many years ago, and had dreamed of seeing in real life ever since.

I was travelling there from Chengdu and with limited flight options to Xi’an, which didn’t fit into my packed schedule, and the fact that I wanted to travel overland as much as possible, I decided to book onto an overnight sleeper, taking just over 15 hours. Loaded up with snacks, podcast’s and a good book, I managed to find my carriage and bed with help from what seemed to be the only other English speaking person on the train (a Chinese-American from Seattle) and got settled in for my journey.

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Taking the vacant top bunk, I met the family I was sharing the cabin with, my plans to rest and read on hold as it became apparent my young neighbour on the opposite bunk, wanted to play and wave for pretty much the entire trip. I’m not complaining, he was lovely and enjoyed watching the scenery and sharing snacks as much as I did.

I caught the train mid afternoon, and as well as playtime with my young companion, I sat out in the carriageway on one of the little drop down seats to watch the incredible landscape pass me by. Tiny little villages flew past, then miles and miles of nothing but countryside, bridges, rivers and mountains. It was a part of China I wouldn’t get to see on this journey, I was only sticking to the big cities, but it made me day dream of a future trip where I could get off the beaten path a little bit more.

Then came the night time, and although I had a broken sleep, I luckily wasn’t sharing my cabin with a snorer and managed to get some rest. It was still dark when I arrived at Xi’an station in the Shaanxi Province, and with my hostel name and address written down, I waved it in front of a taxi driver and within a few minutes he pulled up outside the Hangtang Inn Hostel door. Had I been more awake and arriving in proper daylight I may had figured my way there on foot, but the taxi wasn’t expensive and it was my first full day travelling alone in the country so getting a taxi felt the safer and more sensible option.

I had a lazy sleep in, and with 2 days to spend in the city, I decided to spend a quiet day wandering around the ancient city, with day two earmarked for my trip to the giant terracotta warriors.
Xi’an is one of the oldest cities in China, and so its overflowing with history and culture so I was happy to just wander around aimlessly soaking it all in. The centre of the old city is enclosed by old city walls and right in the centre is the Bell Tower which made a good navigational point so I didn’t get too lost.

The bell tower was lit up bright red in preparation for the New Year definitely making up for the cold grey, smoky skyline. There was two levels to explore, a spiral staircase to climb and of course the huge bell, although the original is now on display in a museum, There are many legends associated with the tower, one being that there used to be a powerful dragon in the river who was always causing earthquakes in the region. A strong iron chain was attached to the dragon from the bell tower and was used to restrain him under the water so he could never cause trouble again, and to this day there haven’t been any more earthquakes!

For lunch I explored the many food stalls and markets in the area, full of dumplings, noodles and tofu sizzling away, it all smelt delicious. I was surprised to find a Muslim quarter too, selling kebabs, cakes and breads, I was really spoilt for choice and just grazed my way through the small passageways.

The rest of the afternoon was spend exploring the the city walls and the Daci’en Temple complex, specifically to see the Wild Goose PagodaThe Pagoda was built during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 AD),  it’s full of Buddhist artefacts, including golden statues, figurines and artwork. From the top you have a great panorama of the city around you, whilst down below at the entrance, buckets of incense burn slowly, giving the air a scented, smoky feel.

That evening, I wandered far longer than I should have, trying to find a place to eat. Many places didn’t have any menu’s translated into English, and after my recent fail with the spicy Sechuan food, I fancied something simple, veggie and none spicy, but still traditional. I eventually found a menu with pictures and had written down the word for ‘vegetarian or vegetables’ and I succeeded in ordering a huge pile of stir fried greens with plain rice and lots of green tea – a total success!

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The next morning I was up early to catch the tourist bus from Xi’an train station to the Terracotta Army, bus 306 had an English sign in the window, making it plain and easy to board the correct one. It’s also the bus where all the tourist looking people were hanging around (i.e holding camera bags, bottles of water and bulky rucksacks) all of us wanting the same destination. It takes about 90 minutes to get there and the journey costs just under £1 each way. Although there are many options for private tours, the public bus was clean, easy and dropped you right off outside the world heritage site, and at such a tiny cost, there was no way I could justify spending a lot more for basically the same ride.

The terracotta army is indeed one of China’s most famous and renowned sites, but it is also one of the most famous archeological sites in the entire world. I remember being fascinated at a young age learning about the thousands of life sized statues buried underground but still standing to attention, as they guarded China’s 1st ever Emperor in his vast tomb. Discovered only in the 1970’s, the site is still a working excavation area, and even now, more of the army is continuing to be uncovered. There are 3 main pits you can visit, and I had been advised to visit them in reverse order, as Pit 1, is the largest and most impressive of the 3 and makes for a great finale.

So far over 8000 warriors have been excavated and the number is growing, so basically this UNESCO site is not only an historic museum, but also a working archeological site and you can see workers painstakingly dusting off new discoveries during your visit. Each of the thousands of warriors has its own unique face, along with chariots, weapons and horses, its absolutely fascinating to see, as you start to notice different hairstyles, clothing, footwear as well as their individual facial expressions.

Pit 3, which I left till the end was incredible, housed inside a building the size of an aircraft hanger, 2000 warriors all stand to attention facing east, with another 6000 potentially still to be uncovered. As I walked around the perimeter trying to take it all in, I noticed everyone just like me, peering down open mouthed at the sheer vastness of this historic discovery. Yet another day in China that will stay with me forever.

It was mid afternoon as I caught the bus back into Xi’an and then another short walk via the hostel to collect my bags and I was back to the main train station. I had a late afternoon train to catch onward to Beijing, taking about 5 hours on the incredibly futuristic looking bullet train. I even opted for 1st class, it being a luxury I can’t afford back home in the UK, it was worth it, I got a reclining window seat, snacks and unlimited green tea.

The views started off nice and clear, and I got to witness more small countryside villages, rivers and mountains in the distance, but the closer we got to Beijing the harder it became to see much at all. The hazy polluted air became thicker all around and I had to almost rely on the train guard to let me know when we had arrived.

Beijing was unlike any place I had visited before, and so I was glad that I had been in the country for a couple of weeks before my arrival to this loud, frenetic, serious capital city. Those first 2 weeks had given me time to adapt to the pace of Chinese city life and familiarise myself with certain words and signs, so I was able to figure out enough to get myself to the hostel without getting too lost. There I was reunited with my friend who had flown in from Wuhan, our final leg of this Chinese trip was about to commence.  .  .

Eats – I ended up eating at a food court, there was so much choice, and although all the menus were only in Chinese, all the food is on display, so you can look and point at the food that looks the most appetising to you.

Coffee and Cake – As well as delicious savoury foods, the Muslim Quarter had stalls full of cakes and fruits, it was a sheer delight to wander though.

Top Tip – If you are doing the Terracotta Warriors independently, don’t bother with the audio guide, I had been told its not great quality and hard to understand. Just get a map, wear your most comfy shoes and head off on your own, its all you need.

Always be polite –  bù  xiè xie! “No thank you” (if the audio guide sellers get a bit pushy!)

 

Pandas, butter tea and ear scooping – my trip to Chengdu 🇨🇳

I don’t quite know where to start with this post, Chengdu was memorable for so many reasons, obviously seeing the panda’s for sure, but Chengdu really overdelivered on all fronts.

First of all, I really wanted to travel overland from Wuhan, but it was an 8 to 10 hour train journey, which is pretty much an entire days sightseeing, and with a flight taking only 2 hours and for not much more money, we went with the flight option. The internal flight itself was an experience, a shaun the sheep video, followed by the most terrifying government information film on drug smuggling, the inflight entertainment was varied, I’ll give it that.

We arrived at our hostel, Lazy Bones, early evening and had a wander in the local area, going straight in for some very spicy Sichuan food at a local restaurant and spent the remainder of the evening swapping tales with fellow backpackers at the hostel, the hostel was incredibly cheap, but super modern and one of the best hostels I have ever stayed in for price, friendliness and location.

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The next morning, we got up early for our pre-booked guided tour (booked via our hostel) of a place that has been on my bucket list for years, the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. With no direct buses or trains to the research centre, your best bet besides booking a tour is to take a taxi, taking roughly 30 minutes.

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Starting in 1987 with just 6 giant pandas, the breeding and research centre just outside of Chengdu now has 83 panda’s living their best life, along with the ferocious little red pandas. It was just magical seeing the pandas in real life as we wandered down the bamboo lined paths, taking us to the nursery, research centre, cinema, the giant panda kitchen, the veterinary centre and of course the outside enclosures. So magical indeed that I threw up in a cluster of bamboo trees, I think it was a combination of overexcitement, far too many Sichuan chilis the night before and strong black coffee on the early morning drive over.

 

 

We got to watch the pandas play, eat, and sleep, all while learning about the incredible work that the researchers are doing to ensure that the conservation of these fascinating bears continues. Those with extra cash to splash can pay to meet the pandas in person, but for us, we managed a quick selfie with a giant panda and a quick photo with a curious red panda, curbing the urge to give it a tickle, as these small red bears are known to be a bit aggressive. What a privilege to spend the morning there, seeing these endangered but beautiful animals in their native China and meeting those who have dedicated their lives to their survival, it’s a trip I will never forget.

 

 

That evening, after a restful afternoon, settling my stomach and feeling much better, we booked tickets for the Sichuan Opera House through our helpful hostel, for a display of shadow puppetry, magical face-change theatre, as well as traditional singing and dancing. Oh, and unlimited cups of green tea, every single time we finished our cup, a waiter would instantly re-appear to fill our cup again, causing us to sip a bit slower to avoid a trip to the bathroom mid performance!

 

 

Next morning, revived with a bowl of porridge from the hostel, we caught a taxi 15 minutes through the manically busy traffic to the People’s Park, also known as Renmin Park. It’s a popular and busy park filled with both locals and tourists, and it showed an incredible insight into everyday Chinese life. Around every path was an open space filled with people taking dance classes, tai chi, aerobics, a karaoke session and we even spotted a man practicing his Samurai sword moves along a hidden path, and so began another day of memorable experiences.

 

 

But Renmin Park was just the gift that kept on giving, it is here where you can experience the ancient tradition of Tao er or Ear Scooping. Within seconds of sitting down at a table, a serious looking man came over with some serious looking instruments and before I had time to change my mind, I handed over my money and he set to work. It was not uncomfortable, he sort of twirled and scooped his way around the inside of my ear.  It was like someone was giving you a light tickle inside your skull, he also used a vibrating tuning fork (like I use on patients back home) which gave the most unusual, but again not uncomfortable feeling, the funniest thing though was watching my friends reaction as I sat there oblivious to what he was doing.  Then it was her turn, and I got to experience it from the other side, then with our newly cleaned ears we sat and drank our Jasmine Tea, watching other slightly cautious tourists and seasoned locals take their turn.

 

 

We exited the park east to explore around the huge Tianfu Square, the largest open square in the region, a giant statue of Chairman Mao presides from the sidelines, with skyscrapers, shopping malls and cafes stretching off in every direction. We shopped, ate dumplings, petted the cutest of dogs and even got a photo with yet another golden horse, as the final days of the Year of the Snake wound down until it was the horses turn again.

 

 

I had just about recovered from my spicy Sichuan dish from our first night, when it was time for the hostels weekly hot pot evening. We arrived in the dining room  to be greeted by a large sizzling pot in the middle of the table, surrounded by thinly sliced meat, vegetables and a whole array of dipping sauces. Unfortunately for pretty much all of us, including a traveller from northern China, it was just too spicy for us to enjoy. We all really tried our best to eat it, but it was blow your socks off, turns your tongue numb hot, luckily the accompanying beer was cool and refreshing and after admitting defeat, we all set off to buy yet more dumplings from a local street vendor up the road instead.

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On our final full morning in the Sichuan province, we got a taxi to a little piece of the Himalayas, or rather Little Lhasa. Chengdu is a popular starting place to travel onwards to Tibet, although it’s over 2000km’s away, it’s the closest Chinese city to the Lhasa, so many overland tours to the mountainous kingdom begin here. Little Lhasa or the Tibetan Quarter is mainly based along Jinli Pedestrian Street, and is full of restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops and little market stalls. With over 10,000 Tibetan’s living in the city, the area is a cultural hub, full of people walking in traditional dress and monks making their way to the temple, there is an obvious increase in police presence here too, a constant reminder of the many restrictions these people face on a daily basis.

 

 

 

Tibet is famous for many things, one of those things being Yak Butter Tea, so we headed up a steep set of stairs to a cosy little tea shop, full of kittens for some bizarre reason. We ordered a pot of this buttery, slightly salty hot tea, settled into the comfy couches, people watched and played with the kittens for probably a good hour, another one of those memorable moments from the trip.

 

It was an early evening of more dumplings for dinner, before my Welsh Mandarin speaking travel companion and I were to part ways for a few days. She had to return to Wuhan and I was travelling onward alone by train to Xi’an, until we were to reunite in Beijing for the new year celebrations. The adventures continued . . .

EATS – Hot Pot is the dish to try when in Sichuan, just maybe have a back up, if like me you couldn’t handle the chilli. Hot Pot restaurants are all over, our hostel provided us with our very own hot pot experience, but also had plenty of recommendations if you wanted to go it alone. I also picked up some dumplings at little road side stalls, always hot, always fresh and always delicious.

COFFEE AND CAKE – After not having too many sweet things so far on this trip, we found the Taiwanese chain 85 degrees at various spots around the city, selling both hot and iced coffees along with cute little cakes, it made the perfect pick me up.

TOP TIP – If you have time, a popular day trip is to the UNESCO Leshan Giant Buddha I really fancied it, but chose to spend my final day seeing more things inside Chengdu, but you always need a reason to go back right?

ALWAYS BE POLITEKāfēi – Coffee, Hǎo  – Ok. (there are many different ways to say Okay depending on the context, next time I visit, I am taking a translation app!)

 

That time I went to Wuhan 🇨🇳

I hadn’t heard of Wuhan, in the Hubei province of central China, until my friend moved there for a year back in 2014. It’s not really on most tourist travellers itineraries that’s for sure and there isn’t really any reason why it would be, its a super frantic, fast growing city, that sits on the banks of the Yangtze and Han rivers. Of course it’s now a place that pretty much the whole world has heard of thanks to a certain virus, but back then, it was pretty unknown.

Within China, Wuhan is well known though as being the main educational hub of the whole country and has an astonishing 59 Universities and colleges based here as well as a being a major economic and technology zone. I have never seen a place with so much development, scaffolding and cranes high up in the sky, a sea of sky scrapers and tall apartment blocks stretching as far as the eye could see.

But first I had to get there, beginning my trip in Shanghai was a great starter to Chinese travel, as it’s a pretty international city, so they are used to foreigners and English is spoken a little, so this allowed me to settle into the culture slightly, without feeling totally overwhelmed. Although you can fly into Wuhan, I fancied overland travel as much as possible, for the environmental aspect of course, but also relaxing on a train and seeing the countryside go by is far more pleasurable than being stuck inside an airport.

China has an exceptional train network including modern bullet trains, so we boarded the fast train for our 4 hour journey west, it was comfy, fast and friendly, I would highly recommend travelling this way. Loaded up with podcasts and tv on our iPads, we ended up passing the time with a sweet young boy who ended up watching cartoons on my friends device, whilst my other neighbour kept trying to entice me to eat the spicy duck neck he had brought with him, a local delicacy I was told, it was a memorable journey for all kinds of reasons.

I booked all the train tickets before I left the UK, this was to ensure we got the exact days we needed, it was Spring Festival time, when literally millions of Chinese travel across the country back home to their families, so trains get booked up fast. I used China Highlights to book all our train trips and would use them again if I am lucky enough to return.

Once we arrived it was a short trip to the University campus where my friend was living and we spent the next few hours meeting up with her fellow students from all over the world, hearing about their adventures in China it was truly enlightening. We ate in a local noodle bar for dinner, a favourite with the local student population where it must have cost less than £1 for a main meal and drink and it was delicious! Then it was off out reliving my own student days from Salford, as we hit a local bar, worryingly called Wuhan Prison for some beers and my first attempt at a Chinese squat toilet, not that easy once you’ve had a couple of beers.

The next morning we grabbed breakfast at a local stall, for what was to become another one of those food dishes that I still think about today – Wuhan Hot Dry Noodles or ‘rè gān miàn’. Its a local speciality breakfast consisting of yellowy noodles, coated in a thick sauce with soy, garlic, chilli and sesame oil, oh boy it was amazing, it cost about 30p and was freshly cooked by the road side.

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Then my friend took me off to explore her ‘hood, we wandered the streets, explored the local shopping mall, spotted a bride and groom having their wedding photo shoot, and amused ourselves trying to deciper the information signs at the local park.

We made it to the banks of the Yangtze River & although it was pretty quiet along the promenade it seemed a popular place for families, I spotted bike rentals, craft stalls and if you fancied, you could rent a kite to fly. It’s Asia’s longest river and the 3rd longest in the world, so unsurprisingly there was quite a lot of ship traffic passing through and beyond the other side you could continue to see the forever growing Wuhan spread off into the distance.

For dinner than evening, it was time yet again to experience some of the best food I have ever eaten, the colourful, messy and utterly delicious, Soup Dumplings. These delicate ‘soup basket buns’ are filled with a clear soup, that you have to quickly slurp up before it bursts. I was lucky having my personal friend/guide, who having lived in Wuhan for a few months knew all the best spots, and we treated ourselves to a large bamboo dish of rainbow coloured parcels, full of spinach, carrot and red cabbage.

My final full day in Wuhan, started the same as the previous day, but this time we got our hot, dry noodles to go, complete with chopsticks and braved the Wuhan Metro system. Opened in 2004 with just 1 line in use, the metro has rapidly grown like the rest of the city to become the 6th busiest transport system in China, with 11 lines, 282 stations, and serving 1.22 billions passengers a year!

We hit local markets, practicing my none existent haggling skills to try and get some hair curlers, then shopped till we dropped in a mall, before getting our nails done. All the while, stopping to say hello to any cats or dogs that crossed our path, of which there were many.

That evening after styling my hair with my new appliance from the market, it was time for another student night out, this time to a KYV or Karaoke Bar.  We rented a booth for the evening, ordered drinks and snacks including spicy deep fried lotus root and spent the evening singing American rock songs out of tune. It was great to have a few days just living regular Wuhan life, with no particular agenda, as the next morning we had a plane to catch, and a chocked itinerary ahead of us.

EATS – The main speciality in Wuhan is the hot dried noodles, and they are incredible, best served piping hot at a road side stall. The soup dumplings also cannot be missed, I wouldn’t have a clue where to go now in Wuhan, I do remember visiting a food hall in a shopping mall for some though. It was a slightly easier experience than having to navigate a menu in a completely unfamiliar language often found in the local restaurants, I guess it must have catered for the large number of international students in the area with part of it’s menu translated into English.

COFFEE AND CAKE – No cake discoveries as yet on this trip, there were too many noodles and dumpling dishes to try. That said, I did discover sweet cheese tea, it sounds an acquired taste and it was, but I loved it. It’s usually a green or black tea, made with or without milk, and served with a topping of salt covered cream cheese, oh boy it was good!

TOP TIP – Find a local to take you to the best spots and hidden areas of interest, or like me have a friend move there for a year! It’s a busy, expanding, working city, and although it does have a rich history, it’s not an obvious tourist destination, so you will need to come prepared in order to get the best from your trip if you want to get around.

ALWAYS BE POLITE – ‘Nǐ hǎo’ – Hello

Tea, dumplings & a marriage market. Adventures in Shanghai 🇨🇳

When my friend Polly messaged me to say she was moving to China to study for a year and would I like to visit, I started researching flights possibly before she even bought her own.

We planned to meet up during China’s New Year Spring Festival in 2014, when my friend would have 2 weeks off, along with the rest of the Chinese population. We arranged to meet in Shanghai, then travel by train and plane across a few cities, finishing up in Beijing for New Years Eve.

But first things first, I had to get a visa and luckily for me, I was living in Salford at the time, so it was a short tram ride to the Manchester Chinese Visa Service where after a nervous wait, clutching all my evidence, I was issued with my visa.

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I landed in Shanghai at a ridiculously early hour, after travelling via Dubai, and was greeted by my friend who had landed an hour earlier than me from Wuhan (yes that Wuhan) where she was living.

After dumping our bags at Shanghai Blue Mountain Hostel we headed straight to the waterfront, known as The Bund.

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The Bund is a one mile stretch of land alongside the Huangpu River, full of historical houses all in varying styles of architecture, showcasing just how important and influential Shanghai’s old waterfront used to be. You can spot Gothic, Renaissance, and Art Deco buildings all along here, with important trading houses and banks from all across the globe making the Bund their home. This established Shanghai as a major financial hub in Asia from as early as the 1860’s. Impressive buildings we spotted included the Customs house which has it’s own version of Big Ben, the HSBC building with its mosaic interior ceiling, and the red bricked Russian Consulate, although a lot of the buildings are now high end shops and hotels its still makes for a fascinating wander.

Although the majority of the old buildings are no longer being used for their original purpose, Shanghai is just as important as ever as a major business and financial hub. Directly across the river from the historical centre is an incredible feast of skyscrapers all jostling for position in the new financial district, particularly the Oriental Pearl Tower with its two colourful spheres and we knew we had to make a visit there later in the day.

Time for something more peaceful, we made our way over to the old town and to the beautiful Yu Gardens. Built in the Ming Dynasty in 1559, I really felt like I had been transported back in time, with the beautiful Huxinting Teahouse, sitting on stilts in the middle of the lake. We spent a good chunk of time, ignoring our impending jet lag to explore the gardens, with each turn and crossing of the little bridges taking us to new discoveries like the koi ponds, the Jade Rock, colourful pavilions and ceremonial halls.

The whole place had been decorated too for the New Year, full of vibrant red ribbons and lanterns, with the star of the show, a large golden horse in the centre of the courtyard, as this trip was back in 2014 and it was about to become the year of the horse!

Next door is the City of God Temple, which has been standing even longer than its neighbour the teahouse. Now a Taoist centre, it has been providing a place for peace and prayer since 1403.  It felt a welcoming place as we explored the grounds, breathing in the woody smell of burning incense and as we rang the prayer bells, it felt like there was no better way to start our Chinese adventure.

It’s pretty chaotic once you leave the confines of the temple and gardens, the immediate area is full of shops, stalls and markets, and the place was awash with even more bright red, as locals stocked up ahead of the new year celebrations just over a week away. We grabbed some incredibly sweet toffee covered strawberries squashed onto a long stick and headed back to our hostel for a rest.

The evening brought with it one of the main challenges we faced, as we travelled across the country independently –  food. Luckily my friend Polly spoke pretty good Mandarin and was able to decipher most menus, as some of the English translations didn’t really inspire much hope. When the first place we looked at for dinner served ‘deep fried smelly bean curd’, I thought I may struggle to adapt to the diet, but then we discovered fried dumplings and I was in heaven, in fact I ended up having some of my most favourite dishes ever on this trip, that I still rave about today.

That evening we jumped on metro line 2, over to Lujiazui and the new financial district, where we took the elevator a quarter of a mile up to the observation deck of the Oriental Pearl Tower. The views from up high were unreal as we rather unnervingly realised we were higher up than most of the surrounding skyscrapers, all of whom were lit up and glowing in the night sky. As well as a revolving restaurant, shopping centre and an indoor roller coaster (no thanks!), we got our adrenalin rush from standing on the transparent 1.5 metre glass walkway. The views down below made a little queasy if I’m honest, especially when Polly starting jumping up and down on the glass – eeek, after a while though, I plucked up the courage and managed to pose for a quick picture before returning to the slightly less scary wooden platform.

As we headed back down to the lower ground, I think the adrenalin rush faded and jet lag arrived with full force and it was back to the hostel to collapse in a heap and rest for the night.

The next morning we started off with a street food breakfast as we explored the famous Nanjing Road, a pedestrianised street, full of both designer shops and local traditional stores selling tea, jade, herbs and more. It was here that we almost got scammed by a seeming innocent young women, who stopped us in the street and after a brief introduction and announced she would love to take us to a local tea house. But Polly was wise to her within a few minutes, and unbeknownst to the women, had also been living in China for about 4 months at this point so was already well versed in popular tourist swindles. Like the true Brits we were, we kindly thanked the women for her invitation and intention to scam us out of our entire holiday budget and headed off in the opposite direction.

Walking south, we arrived at People’s Park, this huge park and popular tourist attraction has 8 gates, a tea house, a theatre, dance house and museum of contemporary art. There were locals playing chess on stone benches and yes just like in the movies, people practicing Tai Chi.

One thing I wasn’t expecting in the park was to stumble into a Marriage Market, I had quite clearly missed reading that chapter in my guidebook, but apparently it occurs every Saturday and has done since 2004. Standing around both parents and grandparents show off pictures and a brief written profile or biography of their single child in the hopes they get a match. Tinder it ain’t, and if I’m honest the whole thing felt weird and clinical, but it’s not my culture and so not for me to judge, it was just another one of those unique experiences that I will remember forever on this trip to the Middle Kingdom.

That second evening a bunch of us from the hostel headed off to a popular dim sum restaurant, and between maybe the 10 of us, managed to order a good portion of traditional dishes from the menu. With Shanghai’s location close to the East China Sea, seafood is commonly served with such delights as sliced eel and hairy crab to be found, but also chicken and pork meatballs heavily feature too. If like me you don’t eat meat or fish, you still had lots of choice with steamed noodle dishes, spring rolls, fried dumplings and soups all offering veggie options. I did try a little piece of the famous 100 year old egg dish, which is basically a black egg sat on a plate, though I had to quickly wash it down with a Tsingtao beer, never to be tried again.

Fully stuffed on dumplings and beer we headed off on what became one of the more surreal nights out I have ever had, in a nightclub in the middle of a Shanghai shopping mall. On a hot tip from the hostel reception, we arrived all dressed up (as much as you can do when you are living out of a backpack) and were treated like A list celebs (or foreigners with money) as we stepped out of the elevator and escorted to our own private booth for the night, with table service, free snacks and lots of champagne. Slightly worried it was another scam, we were relieved to learn that no, this was all legit, and we danced and drank and snacked on skewered fruit till the early hours.

After making arrangements to meet up with some of our fellow hostellers later in the trip in Beijing, we got ready to travel onward. But not before we found a back street food stall and devoured a breakfast bowl of noodles to help remedy our hangover from the night before. Then it was off to the massive Shanghai train station to continue our journey across this magnificent country, I couldn’t wait to experience more.

EATS – Eating at little stalls and tiny cafes is going to be the cheapest and most likely the tastiest option, but if your language skills are limited to 2 phrases like me, then ordering something specific could become a challenge. I was lucky travelling with my friend who was able to order on my behalf. That said, restaurants in the heart of Shanghai do cater to foreigners with menus featuring photos of the most popular dishes and often with English translations, which although rarely translate into something you would recognise, are incredibly funny. Our big meal out though was at the Dim Dim Sun Hong Kong Style Cafe with free wifi and a massive selection of delicious dumplings.

COFFEE AND CAKE – Although I usually try and avoid the obvious coffee chains both at home and abroad, there is no mistaking China’s most popular coffee shop, and that’s Starbucks. For the first day or two I got my caffeine fix at either a Starbucks or a Costa (of which there are also plenty) because they had a diary free option and I wanted to gently adapt to the diet. But I got braver as the trip continued and was drinking CoCo Milk Tea by day three when I discovered they had a diary free creamer in their milk tea and I was smitten!

TOP TIP – Don’t presume pedestrians have the right of way, even if the traffic lights are on red! I almost got run over at least twice during my trip, heart stopping stuff, when you cross the road, you take your life in your hands.

ALWAYS BE POLITE –  Xièxiè – ‘Thank You’ – I really struggled with the correct pronunciation of this word, so I’d recommend you listen to it on youtube or a translation app, I kept saying ‘shayshay’, but often just got a blank stare in return, which my friend thought was hilarious, at least I tried . .