Essential China: Everything You Need to Know

One of the best things about studying in Shanghai is the easy access it gives you to the rest of China. China is so well-connected, and a great jumping off point for going further afield and exploring Asia. Obviously, it’s huge, but the transport network ensures that you can get to anywhere in the country in a few hours. This series, ‘Essential China’ will focus on the how to travel around China and places to add to your itinerary. We will cover places such as Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Taiwan, Hangzhou, Hong Kong, Suzhou and Nanjing.

Panda in Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding

So, why should you go to China? More importantly, why wouldn’t you? As the fourth biggest country in the world, it is diverse. No matter what kind of traveler you are, China has something to offer you. It has one of the most interesting histories on Earth, is brimming with natural beauty, is famous for its unique food, and is rapidly changing and developing all the time. It has the second most UNESCO world heritage sites in the world (34),  surpassed only by Italy. China is both massively underrated and misunderstood. It often gets such a bad press in foreign media that people subconsciously dismiss it or harbour negative conceptions about it.

Street food in Suzhou
East Nanjing Road, Shanghai

Go to a hostel in Asian countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Japan or Vietnam, and you’re bound to be surrounded by foreigners. China, not so much. Perhaps it’s because getting a visa is more difficult, or that it’s not perceived to be as affordable as other Asian countries. People that I’ve spoken to, just don’t seem to be that interested in China, or if they are, they think that a few days in Beijing and/or Shanghai will suffice. It won’t. If you neglect China, you are missing out big time.

View of Qinianmen from the Temple of Heaven, Beijing

THE BASICS

Getting there
Fly direct from London to Shanghai in roughly 11 hours or from London to Beijing in around 10.

Currency
¥ (RMB/CNY)

Time Difference
+7

Language
The official language of the country is Mandarin, but each province has its own dialect. Even Shanghai has its own dialect: Shanghainese. China is divided into 34 areas. The dialects spoken in them can vary as much as from English to Dutch, but the standard script of the written language remains the same. Due to its pictorial language, China is one of very few places where you can speak the language but also be illiterate.

The art of calligraphy in Chengdu
Tea City, Shanghai

Visa
You will definitely need a visa, unless you are planning on just visiting Hong Kong/Macau. Don’t let this put you off though, the process is simple and quick! Depending on whether you are simply traveling, studying or planning to work here, your visa will differ. All information regarding the process including step-by-step guidelines can be found here. Remember that if you’re planning to go to autonomous regions like Tibet, you’ll need to get a separate visa. Due to the political situation there, foreigners aren’t permitted to travel there solo and must go with a tour group which can be expensive. The best offer I’ve found is here.

Map of China. Image credit: Travel China Guide

Getting around
Something that I’ve found, is that there are many people traveling around China with tour companies. This is so unnecessary. Granted, China is more difficult for the average traveler, but if anything, this ensures that it’s more of an adventure. Do it alone. I believe in you. If you want to attempt to explore the entire country, it may be necessary for you to occasionally take internal flights between your destinations. However, the train network is also huge and continually expanding and developing. There are bullet trains connecting most major cities, for example, you can get from Shanghai to Beijing in less than five hours.

If you’re not in a rush and you wish to save money, you could also opt for the sleeper trains. They have four different types of accommodation: hard seats, soft seats, hard sleeper and soft sleeper which vary in price. By western standards, they are very inexpensive. I’ve taken the sleeper train from Xi’an to Chengdu in winter and it was not uncomfortable in the slightest. There are four beds in each room (two bunk beds). Most cities have efficient metro networks and pretty much everywhere has buses.

Hectic subway scenes in Shanghai
Soft sleeper bed from Xi’an – Chengdu

Political Situation
China is run by the CPC (Communist Party of China). It’s not quite a communist country, they adhere to ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics.’ In the past thirty years, there has been an unprecedented amount of rapid development and privatisation leading to China emerging as one of the global economic superpowers. As the focus has arguably been on economic development rather than social, censorship still plays a role in keeping the peace. Therefore, you will need to download a VPN if you wish to use your phone/laptop to access most social media in China (whatsapp, youtube, facebook, snapchat, gmail, Instagram, skype, BBC news, etc). There are many free options but the best ones are constantly changing, so do some research closer to the time of your trip.

Resources for before you go
If you’re planning to spend a prolonged amount of time there, or if you’re just simply interested in getting to know the culture more, then I’d highly recommend having a look at the following resources. Many are books/films that I’ve studied in my Chinese culture and history classes over the course of my year at STA, and others are simply things I’ve found interesting. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just an introduction. If you want any more, then feel free to ask!

Books: The Rape of Nanking, China: A Modern History, China in Ten Words, Factory Girls: Voices From The Heart of Modern China, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, The Art of War, The Peony Pavilion
Films: Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell My Concubine, To Live
Ted Talks: Behind the Great Firewall of China; Are China and the US doomed to conflict; Learn to Read Chinese With Ease; Understanding the Rise of China

The Great Wall of China

Under the Radar: Mexico

As my step-mum is from Mexico, I’ve been lucky enough to spend many summer and winter holidays there. Mexico is one of the most eclectic places I’ve ever visited. While most people travel there for its beaches (and for good reason), it has a far more diverse landscape than most people realize. It is also home to jungles, volcanoes, deserts, mountains, lagoons, colonial towns and ancient ruins. Here are three places in Mexico that I think are vastly underrated…

For Beach Vibes:

PUERTO ESCONDIDO

While most flock to Cancun to sample the nightlife that Mexico has to offer, if you prefer less tourists and more chilled out vibes, then Puerto Escondido is the place for you. Literally translating to ‘hidden port’, it is definitely something of an underrated, hidden gem. Long appreciated by backpackers, and dubbed a ‘surfers paradise’, it’s time that it received the universal recognition it deserves.

We visited here last December and could not have come at a better time. Spending NYE here was charming. It wasn’t too party oriented, but there were definitely places to have a good time. Among my favourites was the cute bar and live music venue located along Zicatela: Casa Babylon. It’s an ideal spot to recover during the day – it even has an array of books available for free via an exchange system. Alternatively, you can head down there when it comes alive at night with live music, dancing and cheap cocktails.

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For a City Escape:

PUEBLA CITY

The city of Puebla is the capital of the state of the same name and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s one of the five most important Spanish colonial cities in Mexico and boasts a myriad of baroque, renaissance and classical architecture. One of the most notable examples of its architecture is The Cathedral of Puebla, which is one of the largest in Mexico.

While you’re here, be sure to check out the Amparo museum. It’s easy to see everything in a couple of hours, and it seamlessly incorporates technology to keep you engaged. Not only does it have an impressive collection of pre-Hispanic artefacts, but it also has wonderful contemporary exhibitions. Bonus points for the roof top terrace with views over the city.

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For History Buffs:

CHOLULA

A quaint, colourful town only a short taxi ride from Puebla (so, it’s very convenient to combine the two in one trip). This Mesoamerican site is home to the Great Pyramid of Cholula: Tlachihualtepetl. While little of the structure remains, and it resembles more of a hill (due to the mud bricks which have resulted in an entirely buried structure), it is in fact the largest pyramid in the world. Yep, although it doesn’t look like it, it is in fact bigger than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt (in terms of volume, not height). Not just that, it’s also the largest monument built on Earth so far. Ever. Which is interesting considering that archaeologists weren’t aware of its existence until the early 1900s.

Climb the ascent to find the church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedies sanctuary which was built by the Spaniards atop of the complex and is perfect for enjoying a panoramic view of the town. Then, wander around the colourful, bustling markets for traditional food and handmade garments.

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Croatia Countdown: Top Ten Destinations

Lately, everyone has become obsessed with Croatia. During the first half of this year alone, the Croatian tourist board has reported a 36% increase in overnight stays from British travellers. When considering a trip to Croatia, the myriad of destinations can seem overwhelming to say the least, so I’ve decided to compile a handy list of brief summaries of my favourite places…

10. TROGIR
SUMMARY: Big things come in small packages, and there’s a reason why tiny Trogir has been granted UNESCO status.
TOP TIP: You only really need half a day here. Go in the afternoon, appreciate the cathedral and then come nightfall visit some of the many bars and restaurants strewn along the harbour.
EAT: Konoba Trs, for a traditional restaurant located in a 13th Century house.
UNESCO:

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9. PULA
SUMMARY:
Home to a host of impressive roman ruins, most notably Augustine’s Temple and the Colosseum’s little sister: the Pula Arena.
TOP TIP: It was very quiet when we visited in April. Instead, go in the summer and combine it with attending Outlook Festival, which is based nearby at an abandoned Roman fort in Stinjan, Croatia
EAT: Jupiter for some of the best pizza in Croatia. Be warned though, the portions are huge.
UNESCO:
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8. SIBENIK
SUMMARY: A small, coastal city located where the Krka river flows into the sea. Full of meandering stone alleyways, fortresses and tranquil squares.
TOP TIP: Visit the nearby Krka National Park.
EAT: Head to top-rated Pelegrini for the ambience and the friendly staff who go to great length to explain the menu and local ingredients to you.
UNESCO: ✔ (The Cathedral of St James)

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7. SPLIT
SUMMARY: Though some may say it is overrated, no trip to Croatia would be completed without at least a day in Split. Mosey around Diocletian’s Palace and climb the bell tower to get a breathtaking view of the whitewashed stonewalls and orange rooftops.
TOP TIP: Split is perfectly located for island hopping. Take a trip across to Brač to relax on Zlatni Rat, one of Croatia’s best loved (and sandy!) beaches.
EAT: Ostarija u Vidjakovi for comfort food sourced locally
UNESCO: ✔ (The Historical Complex)
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6. HVAR
SUMMARY: Pag is often dubbed the Ibiza of Croatia, but I’d say Hvar is more deserving of the title whereas Pag is more comparable to Magaluf. Hvar oozes sophistication, has a beautiful little cathedral and many healthy eateries for foodies. However, it errs on the expensive side compared to the rest of Croatia.
TOP TIP: Carpe Diem, a club on its own island complete with swimming pools, a private beach, several bars, top DJs and the sea. You can get there by a small boat which departs regularly from the island.
EAT: Since you’re in Hvar, splash out on food at Macondo before heading for drinks at Hula Hula.
UNESCO: ✔ (the Stari Grad Plain in Hvar)

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To be continued…

The Importance of Staycations Part Two: Edinburgh and Canterbury

Part Two

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND

Duration of trip:
Two nights, which was a good amount of time to cover the main bases but nowhere near enough. Then again, I’m probably biased as I wish I could spend my entire summer in Edinburgh especially with the Fringe Festival occurring in August!!

Attractions:
Edinburgh Castle, Scottish Parliament, Holyrood Palace, The Scottish National Gallery and the Scott Monument. We also went on the Hop on Hop off bus (so cheesy, but I love to do this in every city just to get a feel for the layout and also because it provides you with free transportation around a place for 24-48 hours)

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Scott Monument
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Edinburgh Castle

Luckily, Faye lives right next to Carlton Hill, so on our second day we were able to have access to an amazing panoramic view over Edinburgh and observe Arthur’s Seat without having to physically climb it in our fragile and hungover state. It also contains the National Monument of Scotland, which makes it easy to see why Edinburgh is often dubbed the Athens of the North.

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View of Arthur’s Seat
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View from Carlton Hill
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My way of appreciating the National Scottish Monument while hungover


Food & Drink:

We mostly ate at home, but we did have an amazing fondue at the Chocolate Lounge in Harvey Nicholls.

The mixed fondue from the Chocolate Lounge
The mixed fondue from the Chocolate Lounge
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Cocktail menu at Bramble

We also had some delicious drinks at a cute underground cocktail bar called Bramble which had an intimate ambience and a great DJ.


CANTERBURY, ENGLAND

Duration of trip:
We used my house in Kent as a base, and visited just for the day. For tourists, I’d say two nights is sufficient enough.

Attractions:
Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine’s Abbey, Eastbridge Hospital. If you have time, the historic river tour is charming, especially during the summer. Not only had I never visited the aforementioned attractions, despite living 20 minutes away, I’d barely noticed them at all. I’d walked past them on several occasions, blissfully ignorant and engrossed in shopping or on night out. Of course, I’d appreciate the architecture but never more than briefly acknowledging it in a blasé fashion before moving swiftly on. I had no idea that Canterbury was host to a UNESCO world heritage site.

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St Augustine’s Abbey
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Canterbury Cathedral
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My little history buff Alisa in her element
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The sky looking like a painting

There was an especially poignant sculpture in Canterbury Cathedral adeptly located hanging above the original crypt of Thomas Becket. ‘Transport’ by Antony Gormley takes the shape of an outline of a body and is made from iron nails that were taken from the repaired roof of the Cathedral itself.

“The body is less a thing than a place. A location where things happen. Thought, feeling, memory and anticipation filter through it sometimes sticking but mostly passing on, like us in this great Cathedral with its centuries of building, adaption, extension and all the thoughts, feeling and prayers that have had and transmitted here…We are all the temporary inhabitants of a body, it is our house, instrument and medium. Through it all come impressions of a wider world and all other bodies in space, palpable, perceivable and imaginable.” – Gormley

The comparison of the body to a location, and in particular a house, reminded me of part of Warsan Shire’s* poem, ‘The House’:

‘Mother says there are locked rooms inside all women,
kitchen of lust, bedroom of grief, bathroom of apathy.
Sometimes the men they come with keys,
and sometimes the men they come with hammers.’

Transport by Antony Gormley. Image Credit: Gareth Fuller/PR Wire

Food & Drink:
We went to GBK for something quick and easy. Other restaurants that I’ve visited before that I’d definitely recommend include: Cafe de Amis, The Pound, Club Burrito and Cafe du Soleil. We didn’t have time for drinks, but good places to go out are The Cuban, Chemistry, The Ballroom and of course, the Spoons.

Loving life in Spoons
Loving life in Spoons

*If you don’t know who Warsan Shire is, then you are missing out. It’s her poetry that is featured in Beyoncé’s Lemonade and she is quite simply a goddess. Look her up immediately. You’re welcome.

The Importance of Staycations: Bath and Glasgow

While I have been lucky enough to travel abroad from a young age, I haven’t spent much time exploring my own country. I didn’t appreciate England because it was home terrain. I was much more interested in going to exotic, far-flung destinations. A few years ago, my dad invited me along on a trip to the Lake District and I rejected, assuming it would be boring. I definitely regretted that when I realized just how picturesque it is. Due to my parents separation, I’ve grown up splitting my time between London and Kent. The best of both worlds: a seaside town during the week and the city on the weekend. Like a stereotypical ignorant Londoner, I presumed that this was everything I needed and there was not much else to see in the rest of the country. However, in the past couple of years I have completely altered my attitude. It was when I was forced to visit other cities for university open days that I realized what the rest of the UK had to offer and how much I’d been missing out. I am so lucky to have not only England, but also Scotland, Wales and Ireland right on my doorstep. In wake of moving to Shanghai at the end of August for a year abroad and the possible break-up of the UK post-Brexit, I have decided to try to spend as much of my spare time as I can this summer sampling various cities around the UK.

I took the first of these trips last week and traveled to Bath, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Bath and Edinburgh are both UNESCO world heritage sites and I am so lucky that two of my close friends live in two of the most beautiful cities in the UK, and were kind enough to host me and act as my tour guides. I’ve always thought that I want to eventually settle in London, but this trip has definitely changed my mind and made me consider other possibilities. I was also able to host one of my friends when she came to visit me in Kent (although I’m embarrassed to admit that most tourist excursions we embarked on were also new to me). 

BATH, ENGLAND

Duration of trip:
I spent four nights here, and thought that this was definitely enough to cover all of the main attractions. However, due to the large number of museums and other things to do in Bath, you could easily spend a week here.

Attractions:
Bath Abbey, The CircusThe Roman Baths (go in the evening to beat the queues and crowds, when the Baths are also lit up), Pulteney Bridge, the Jane Austen Centre, 1 Royal Crescent and Royal Victoria Park.

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Bath Abbey
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Bath Abbey
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Roman Baths with view of the Abbey in the background
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Learning the language of fans in the Jane Austen Centre
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Entertaining Tasha in exchange for being a great tour guide at 1 Royal Crescent

Food and Drink: 
We had Afternoon Tea at The Regency Tea Room which can be found above the Jane Austen Centre.

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We had dinner one evening at Hall & Woodhouse which also has a beautiful rooftop bar and grabbed some ice cream from the Real Italian Ice Cream Company.

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We had relaxed drinks at Turtle Bay (go for 2for1 cocktails during happy hours 6-7 or 9-10pm) or alternatively, some great nightclubs include The Second Bridge, Zero Zero and Po Na Na.


GLASGOW, SCOTLAND

Duration of trip:
One night which definitely was not enough, I’d say at least another night was needed, if not two.

Attractions:
I only had time to go to The Gallery of Modern Art, George Square, and the Glasgow Cathedral. Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum is meant to be amazing and is definitely at the top of my list for my next trip.

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Gallery of Modern Art

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Food & Drink:
Went to Ashton Lane in the West End, which is strewn with quirky bars. 
Dinner was at Ubiquitous Chip which was delightful. Being in Scotland, I thought it was only right to try the vegetarian haggis to start, followed by the charred asparagus.

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Afterwards, we had some drinks at Vodka Wodka opposite the restaurant, and were really impressed with the quality of the cocktails and how reasonably priced they were.

To be continued…