As we enter our last few months in China, friends and family have realised that this is their last chance to visit us here and we are experiencing a welcome flurry of visitors. My improved Chinese means that the tour guide skills I can offer have hugely improved since our tentative attempts at travel in our first year. Guests sometimes ask me if it is boring to go back to the same places repeatedly, but I can assure them it is not! Most tourist destinations are so huge that each trip offers something fresh, and in addition, it is gratifying at last to be able to navigate places and get to restaurants and ‘scenic spots’ without difficulty, even showing off a bit of conversation in Mandarin on the way.
For example, I’ve been to Hangzhou twice over the last few months; Hangzhou was our first day trip outside Ningbo back in 2012. Since then Ningbo and Hangzhou have become connected by high speed train, both have fancy new stations and Hangzhou has a new metro system. During my first attempt at being a tour guide for friends last September I made the embarrassing mistake of not realising that we’d arrived in a different station and getting us lost on the metro system. This month I was on my mettle and navigated the metro without mishap.
The West Lake is the main attraction of Hangzhou (it has been since at least the 12th century) and a circuit of the lake combined with a traditional lunch of beggar’s chicken and/or lake carp makes a good day’s outing. Especially last week, when the sun shone, the temperature rose to 25 degrees or more and the magnolias were in full bloom. Despite the modernisation of the city, elderly locals still gather to dance and to sing opera at the water’s edge. On our return I read a Guardian article by Anne Karpf about how unfriendly modern British cities are for old people, from struggling to cross wide highways to the lack of places for social interaction. It is generally the same in China of course, but here parks and other public spaces like those in Hangzhou at least seem to be more welcoming to the elderly.
We accompanied our last pair of visitors to Shanghai, where they were embarking on a grand tour of the country. Although we have been to the city many times, there are still surprises. On our very first visit to Shanghai in June 2012 we were told how single men came to People’s Square to look for a wife, but we hadn’t seen how this ‘would like to meet’ ritual actually took place. Last Sunday afternoon while showing our friends the park, we came across a long path dedicated to this purpose. Hand written, laminated A4 sheets, some with photos, but many without, were laid out on the path, showing the birth year, height, income and general prospects of the hopeful groom, although there were a few hopeful brides as well. Round the corner, people (perhaps parents of unmarried children) sat with more ads, but here they were stuck on top of open umbrellas which formed platforms on the pavement. A man approached me and asked me if I had a daughter. For the first time in China, only having sons seemed a disadvantage!
For many months we had been meaning to visit the Shanghai Urban Planning Museum, also on People’s Square. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shanghai_Urban_Planning_Exhibition_Center
This museum has a huge scale model of the entire urban area of Shanghai and new buildings are added as they are completed. You can walk around it on a raised platform. It occurred to me that this would be a brilliant introduction to the city, helping to orientate visitors and show the layout of the old city, the 19th century concession areas and the Bund, so our visitors finally prompted me to go there. Another floor is dedicated to photos of old and new Shanghai and it is fascinating to see pictures side by side of neighbourhoods in say 1980 and 2004, with low rise tumbledown courtyard houses and people on bicycles transformed into high rise blocks and cars on eight lane highways. It has to be said that the photos are all taken on a sunny, clear day, and the terrible pollution that shrouds Shanghai most of the time is not to be seen!
Our next set of visitors will be visiting China for the second time; their previous visit was before ‘reform and opening’ so they will be experiencing the changes recorded in the Shanghai photographs. I’m very interested to find out what they will think of new China.