a-zchallenge – Disneyland

Time to take a magical journey and head to the “house of Mouse”.

Shanghai Disneyland is out in the wilds of Pudong. Easily accessible to on metro line 11 with its own purpose built station. Arriving early with pre-purchased tickets (you use your id and booking information at the gates to receive your physical ticket) is the best way to start your day.

The park is huge and beautifully designed with acres of gardens and picnicking spots. There are a variety of rides and entertainment options, with less of an emphasis on thrill rides which are not so popular with domestic tourists.

Fast passes are available and if you want to visit the Soaring Over the Horizon I suggest buying passes. The lines never dipped below a 2 hour wait on our visit!.

The raging rapids is a cute water ride with the possibility of a thorough drenching. Waterproofs recommended!

There are lots of live shows which are visually spectacular if confusing for non-Mandarin speakers. We enjoyed the Pirates of the Caribbean performance with its amazing acrobatics.

The visually gorgeous Treasure Cove is great fun and the CGI enhanced ride Battle for Sunken Treasure is beautifully executed. Stop to spot some pirates and pay a visit to Captain Jack.

The absolute show stopper though has to be Tron. The coaster is ridden motorcycle style and can hit nearly 60mph (if you’re lucky). It’s absolutely great!

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a-zchallenge – Columbia Circle

Just off Shanghai’s major highway, Yan’an Xi Lu, and tucked away down a side road, is Columbia Circle.

Once the playground of wealthy 1930s Americans this compound housed the Navy Club and the Columbia Country Club until being put to use as a “biological institute” during WWII.

Recently restored and refurbished the buildings are beginning to house a range of shops, offices, cafes and restaurants.

The Navy Club has one unique feature, it’s mosaic lined outdoor swimming pool.

Unfortunately the stunning pool is now just ornamental.

a-zchallenge – The Bund

 

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The view from 5 on the Bund

No visit to Shanghai is complete without going to visit The Bund.  A mile of colonial splendour overlooking the spectacular skyline of LuJiaHui.  Many people stop for the iconic photograph of Pudong, but it’s worth taking a bit more time and learning more about the history of Colonial Shanghai.  The Bund might only be about a mile in length, but with 52 historic buildings it’s easy to make a half day visit or more to take in all the sites.

 

The “official” starting point of The Bund is the junction with the Yan’an Road.  The first site if starting from here is the Gutzlaff Signal Tower.  Built in 1907 to provide weather signals for the shipping industry, it was relocated and reconstructed it’s current position in 1999.

Wandering further along the waterfront and you’ll pass the Waldorf Astoria. A grand Edwardian building from 1910 which once hosted the Shanghai Club.  This bastion of British colonial classism was the most exclusive bar in Shanghai.  At one point the 2nd floor was home to the world’s longest bar (rather uncreatively named the “Long Bar”) which measured 110.7 feet in length and 39 in width.  It’s still there today and worth popping in for a delicious cocktail.

 

Heading North you will pass Three on The Bund. Converted and restored in 2004 this old insurance building has also been renovated and now holds a range of shops and restaurants. Nissin Shipping building at number 5 is home to M on the Bund, the first restaurant to open on the Bund and a bit of a Sunday Brunch institution. If you decide to visit, reserve a terrace table as the views are spectacular.

Continuing along the waterfront you’ll arrive at the Bund Financial Square, complete with it’s own charging bull. In this area you can find the stunning HSBC building, resplendent with replica bronze lions (the real ones are in the Shanghai Museum) and domed roof. You’ll pass several more banks as you continue.

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Looking down The Bund from the HSBC building.

After passing the Custom’s House and the North China Daily News buildings you’ll arrive at the intersection with Nanjing road.  On this corner you’ll find The Peace Hotel, formerly the Cathay Hotel. The art-deco north building is easy to spot with it’s greening spire.  It was was designed by Sir Victor Sassoon and built in the late 1920s. Venture inside to visit the Jazz club and don’t miss the small (and free) museum housed above the shopping area.

The Huangpu Park at the northern end of the Bund is one of the oldest parks in the city. For almost 40 years Chinese people were barred from this colonial park.  Now this small patch of green is open to all and home to the Monument to the People’s Heroes.

The final stop is the Garden Bridge. The fascinating history of this bridge is well worth exploring.  The steel bridge you see today is the 4th bridge at this location opened in 1908.  It straddled the border between the International Settlements and the Chinese district of Hongkou.  It has been the site of an assassination, 1920s prostitution, a refugee crisis and a diplomatic boundary.  During the Sino-Japanese war the Garden bridge marked the line between Japanese occupied territory and the International Settlements. This position as a front line border lasted until 1941 when the Japanese military occupied the International Settlement on December 8th.

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a-zchallenge – Anfu Lu

Anfu Lu is a great spot to spend an afternoon.

Positioned within the Former French Concession Anfu Lu hosts a fair cross-section of Shanghai’s architecture.  The French Concession existed for a century from 1846-1946, built on land conceded to the French after China’s loss in the Opium wars.

Shop fronts and apartments on Anfu Lu

Strolling down the tree-lined street today you’ll pass everything from modern apartment buildings to traditional lane houses, historic mansions and art-deco architecture.

The Centre looks even better on blue sky days!

Anfu Lu is more than just a pretty face though, the 850m street is home to tasty eateries, cute cafes and a plethora of interesting stores.  There are several popular foreign restaurants, little boutique jewellery and craft stores, luxury cashmere clothing shops, tailors and the ubiquitous “Big Movie” DVD stores for all your knock-off foreign (and local) movie needs.

 

Kung Fu Kids

Arriving at the Shaolin monastery is like stepping into a painting. The flat, sun drenched countryside suddenly just upwards in craggy peaks.

Out long drive from Kaifeng feels worth every moment as we breath in the Sakura scented air. This is the home of Kung Fu.

The Shaolin monastery sits with a large protected park and is very popular with tourists, local and foreign alike. We are staying at one of the small inns dotted around the scenic area and it takes us a fair while to find it. The park is much bigger than expected. We are glad we didn’t bring large cases!

We spend the afternoon wandering around the sites in the valley, stopping in to the monastery and marvelling at the trees pock-marked by years of monks finger punching the trunks.

 

The exhibition is interesting, showing the skills of the monks trained here. It is, however, very much aimed at a local audience and we were not won over by the “audience participation” which seemed to be very popular with local tourists.

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The next morning we were up bright and early, woken by the sound of early morning Kung Fu. Right outside our window a procession of little monks practiced their skills in the cool morning air. The sound of their drills punctuated by giggles and the morning bell was so similar to any other school that it was easy to forget these tiny children were up and working at 6am.

We left the kids to their exercise and prepared for our own.

In the center of the scenic area is the Mount Song, the highest of the 5 sacred mountains of China. We headed up in the cable car and set off along the cliff face paths.

The views are well worth the effort, although the crowds can get a little overwhelming at times. Make sure to bring a packed lunch as there’s not much in the way of food or water once you’re up at the top.

Back in the valley we returned to our hostel for the evening, passing the practice field once again where the students were still hard at work. We stopped to watch for a while marvelling at their dedication and energy.

 

Next, onwards to Luoyang!

 

April A-Z challenge again

Yes, it’s that time of year and I’m motivated to give this another go for the 10th anniversary!

So, here I go with my theme announcement!

Drumroll please…

Shanghai’s streets and districts.

I’m sure it comes as no surprise that I’m going for another Asia theme. This year I’m hoping to use the challenge as a bit of an extra push to get out and explore more of Shanghai itself. I can’t wait to get started!

Kaifeng Calling

Kaifeng is one of those cities you’ve probably never heard of. A sprawling ancient place dotted with imperial palaces and beautiful temples.

One of the 7 ancient capitals of China, today’s Kaifeng is a little, well, run down, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit. In fact I’d argue the opposite. This is China without the glamour.

Not quite as glamorous as Shanghai…

Getting around is simple. There are shared bikes, taxis and tuktuks everywhere. The city has a public bus system but is also surprisingly walkable with most of the historic sites fairly condensed in the ancient center.

The Iron Pagoda (which is not actually made of iron) is one of Kaifeng’s major historic sites. It was built in 1049 and is the tallest glazed brick pagoda in China. It has survived over 38 earthquakes, 16 floods, multiple sackings of the city and Japanese bombardment in 1938. The bricks are decorated with glazed pictures and visitors can climb the 168 steps up to view the flat Henan surrounds from the top.

Another site is the Dragon Pavilion which sits in a large park. We were a little unlucky that we were too early for most of the blossoms but I imagine the park is stunning when in full bloom. The Dragon Pavilion was once part of the Song imperial palace but has been reconstructed multiple times, most recently since its collapse during a flood in 1994.

Kaifeng’s long history has given it an unusually diverse range of religious buildings. With arguably China’s longest established Jewish population, a large number of mosques, large Christian churches and a variety of temples in different styles, it is easy to spend a day visiting many of these sites. We popped in to a few but decided to save our energy for the real star if the weekend. Kaifeng’s huge night market.

Centred around the drum tower this vast market mainly focuses in food and offers up local cuisine in all directions. From the weird (I’m looking at you insects) to the wonderful (hello delicious spiced meat) this is the spot to try all Kaifeng’s culinary offerings. Unlike the markets in Beijing, this is genuine local fare and certainly not a show for foreign tourists. The atmosphere is absolutely buzzing and despite the cold the streets were absolutely packed.  No weekend trip would be complete without a visit to this market and it’s certainly one of my highlights from my visits to Chinese cities.

Jeju

Late April and spring is in the fresh, clean air of Jeju Island.

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Hello Jeju, what beautiful beaches you have!

Off the coast of the Korean Peninsula lays the small but perfectly formed island of Jeju. While not particularly well known amongst westerners, it’s volcanic landscapes, unique natural and cultural heritage, and amazing food, make Jeju island one of Asia’s top tourist destinations.

So what is it about Jeju that pulls in the crowds?

Who would want to come here?

Tourism is a major industry on the island, particularly for Chinese tourists, who flock to the tax free shopping malls and duty free deals. Korea is well known for its innovative cosmetics industry, and Jeju is certainly a great place to stock up!

Innisfree, a Korean cosmetics brand, Famed for its use of natural, Jeju sourced ingredients, has a visitor center on the island. Pop in and have a go at making some of your own. The tea fields next door are great photo spots too, and there’s a tea shop and museum on site too.

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Jeju Stone Park is well worth a visit. You can lean about the local landscape and volcanoes as well as finding out more about the interesting local culture involving stone statues. Many have been collected from all around the island and brought to the park. We visited on a somewhat misty, wet morning and the eerie statues were particularly atmospheric!

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Having worked up an appetite with all the site seeing, make sure to stop for bbq! Jeju Black Pig is the local specialty and it is delicious! Make sure to try the traditional herb wrap as well as the more familiar lettuce. The flavors are divine!

Jeju is most famous for its landscapes and there are plenty of scenic spots to choose from. We decided not to climb Hallasan as we did not have sturdy enough shoes or enough time, but there are plenty of less exhausting spots to visit.

From waterfalls to forests, rugged cliffs to sandy beaches, Jeju really does have a bit of everything!

Of course, no visit to Korea is complete without some KPop, so head to the KPop Play museum for some hilarious and fun interactive exhibits. We were practically the only visitors and enjoyed ourselves way too much!

Jeju Island is easy to get around with buses and affordable taxis, however these are quite time consuming. The best way to travel is to hire a car, which despite the language barrier, is a simple process. There are plenty of hire firms in Jeju City close to the airport.

Ample parking is available at all the sites, but the tiny streets in the cities can be tricky to navigate so check if your hotel has parking before arrival.

One unexpected challenge – finding your car. Apparently all the hire cars on Jeju are white!

Dude, where’s my car?!

Waxam On, Waxam Off

On a somewhat dull and dreary morning we had the bright idea of heading out to the Norfolk Coast for a spot of seal watching.

Grey Seals are common along the coastline and in December they haul out onto the sands to pup. Horsey Gap, a long stretch of sand just beyond Sea Palling is a particularly popular spot with over 2000 pups born there this winter.

Seals become quite territorial when there are babies around and visitors are kept well away behind rope barriers on the tops of the sand dune.

Volunteer Seal Wardens are a fount of knowledge, many of them having monitored the seals on the beach for years. They are more than happy to answer questions and explain more about Seal life in Norfolk.

We got a little closer than expected to one little chap. His mother apparently decided the beach was not for her and delivered her pup in the middle of the footpath. The pup has since been causing trouble as he rolls his chubby self around in the fields and pedestrian paths.

After a somewhat cold and breezy morning seal watching, we headed back down the road towards Sea Palling, stopping off on the way at Waxam Barn, a restored Elizabethan building originally part of the Waxam estate.

First stop, the cafe for a warm, homemade snack!

Waxam barn is the longest Elizabethan barn in the country. In fact it is so long it has 3 threshing floors and the roof took over a year to thatch (with Norfolk reed, obviously). Being a coastal area, shipwrecks were a common occurrence and often the ship’s wood was reused. See if you can spot what may be a recycled ships’ mast pit to use by Tudor builders as a ceiling beam.

Haggis hunting in the highlands

Another gloriously sunny day and it’s time to head out and hunt some haggis!

Normally found running around the bottom of hills and hiding from local Haggis Bashers, the haggis can be quite tricky to spot in the wild.

We headed out of Durness along the long, single road stretch to Lairg.

With spectacular mountains and on all sides we kept our eyes open for deer and golden eagles.

A quick stop to change drivers and go for a little stroll at Scourie. The bay was stunning and the short headland walk well worth the break.

With legs stretched and snacks consumed, we headed back out onto the road and down the coast to Kinlochbervie.

The scenery is stunningly Nordic and we all wondered exactly how the fish trucks get around some of the tighter bends. Fortunately the fish is all loaded and on the road well before we are even considering waking up.

Back on the main road we decided to take the scenic route. With restricted road access I would recommend following the rules and giving this stretch a miss if you’re in an RV. Our Mondeo felt a little oversized at some points.

The treacherous roads are well worth the journey. Just look at the view!

We continued following the loop to the stunning beach at Clashnessie. As we were running short on time we didn’t stop to walk to the waterfalls, which are apparently beautiful too.

The route out of Clashnessie (what a great name for a place!) winds back up through inaccessible mountain passes and gives stunning views over Sullivan as we carefully picked our way down the mountainsides into Lochinver.

We arrived on the perfect day as Lochinver’s Highland Games were in full flow. We stopped to to watch some highland dancing, hammer throwing and various races. The whole town had a festival atmosphere with the distinctive music of bagpipes rolling across the sun dappled glen.

The final stretch of our journey took us back through the wooded hills where we spotted a few cheeky deer grazing in roadside gardens.

We passed by the rugged faces of Sullivan and stopped to explore the ruins of Elphin Castle, it’s crumbling facade reflected in the still waters of the loch.

Finally we pulled into Ullapool in time for a late dinner and a good night’s sleep!