Tag Archives: “This is China”

Chinese New Year celebrations – Welcome to the year of the Snake 蛇 Shé

Chinese New Year is the most important and, at 15 days, the longest holiday in China.  Chinese New Year begins on the first day of the lunar calendar, so it is also called Lunar New Year, and it is considered the beginning of spring, so it is also called Spring Festival.  Chinese New Year is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays.  Regional customs and traditions concerning the celebration of the Chinese New Year vary widely.  The Chinese New Year celebrations ended on Sunday February 24th.  We heard hours and hours of firecrackers and fireworks going off until the early hours!  We also lit 2 Chinese lanterns and sent them soaring into the sky.

The Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival as it’s been called since the 20th century, remains the most important social and economic holiday in China.  It is also a time to bring family together for feasting.  With the adoption in China of the Western calendar in 1912, the Chinese joined in celebrating January 1 as New Year’s Day.  However, they continue to celebrate the traditional Chinese New Year, although in a shorter version with a new name–the Spring Festival.   (Significantly, younger generations of Chinese now observe the holiday in a very different manner from their ancestors. For some young people, the holiday has evolved from an opportunity to renew family ties to a chance for relaxation from work.)

Some of the traditions at this time include: each family to thoroughly cleanse the house, in order to sweep away any ill-fortune and to make way for good incoming luck.  Windows and doors are often decorated with red colour paper cut-outs with themes of “good fortune”, “happiness”, “wealth” and “longevity”.  Other activities include lighting firecrackers (to frighten evil spirits) and giving money in red paper envelopes – red is very lucky colour in China!   People post scrolls printed with lucky messages on household gates and elders give out money to children. In fact, many of the rites carried out during this period are meant to bring good luck to the household and long life to the family–particularly to the parents.

The Chinese calendar is a complex timepiece.  Its parameters are set according to the lunar phases as well as the solar solstices and equinoxes. Yin and yang, the opposing but complementary principles that make up a harmonious world, also ruled the calendar, as do the Chinese zodiac, the twelve “signs” along the apparent path of the sun through the cosmos.  Each new year is marked by the characteristics of one of the 12 zodiacal animals: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey (me), rooster (Owen and Isabelle), dog and pig (Oliver).

Most important is the feasting. On New Year’s Eve, the extended family joins around the table for a meal that includes as the last course a fish that is symbolic of abundance and therefore not meant to be eaten.  In the first five days of the New Year, people eat long noodles to symbolize long life.  On the 15th and final day of the New Year, round dumplings shaped like the full moon are shared as a sign of the family unit and of perfection.  It is a time for family get together, cooking and celebrating!

The Friday before New Year (February 7th) BISS finished the week of Chinese celebrations with the opportunity for the children to dress up in traditional dress.  Isabelle and Ava were suitably attired:

Chinese New Year celebrations at BISS.  Isabelle and Ava dressed in traditional Chinese dresses.

Chinese New Year celebrations at BISS. Isabelle and Ava dressed in traditional Chinese dresses.

Oliver is born under the sign of the Pig, specifically the Fire Pig, and those born in the year of the Fire Pig are supposed to be enthusiastic, extroverted, rebellious, passionate, brave and valiant; however, they can also be hot-tempered, snappy, uncontrollable and short-tempered.

Isabelle and Owen are born under the sign of the Rooster who is supposed to have a very flamboyant and expressive personality, very talkative, an extrovert who loves to showoff.  The Rooster is a trustworthy, hardworking and confident individual.  Brave, romantic, motivated, proud, blunt, resentful and boastful.  Isabelle is a Wood Rooster who likes the company of others and is a good friend.

Chinese New Year (CNY) is also the time for companies to hold their annual parties to celebrate and recognize their employees.  My company is no different and on Tuesday February 5th we were all at a posh hotel for dinner.  We all signed a huge board on our way in:

Signing the board (bottom left)

Signing the board (bottom left)

I walked into the Ballroom that had a stage set up and lots of tables.  I was asked to sit at the center table.  (This meant that I had lots of toasts to keep up with the Chinese Baijiu wine, which is lethal!!!!)  This consequently meant a pounding head on Wednesday.  🙂

The "Red" table - many courses over the evening and many toasts!

The “Red” table – many courses over the evening and many toasts!

Throughout the dinner, the employees were engaged in the entertainment.  I was amazed to see displays of karaoke, drinking games and dancing.  The first show was a flamboyant dance to Abba’s Dancing Queen:

"Dancing Queen"

“Dancing Queen”

"Sales" and "Operations" singing about their love/hate relationship!

“Sales” and “Operations” singing about their love/hate relationship!

This drinking game involved a large glass of Baijiu and glasses of water.  The goal was to guess who was drinking the alcohol!

This drinking game involved a large glass of Baijiu and glasses of water. The goal was to guess who was drinking the alcohol!

A fantastic voice singing a lovely song!

A fantastic voice singing a lovely song!

I got "volunteered" for a game on the stage.  This involved getting a pretzel stick to the shortest length possible with your partner.

I got “volunteered” for a game on the stage. This involved getting a pretzel stick to the shortest length possible with your partner.

In many ways, all the games were a throwback to my youth!  It was all unexpected at a business function, but everyone is actively participating.

Speeches and flowers to the support staff.

Speeches and flowers to the support staff.

The final song of the night.

The final song of the night.

My first Chinese New Year celebration was fun (very alcoholic!) and an unforgettable experience.

Celebrating the end of the Chinese New year festivities with the lanterns:

Lighting the lantern - it took several minutes to fill with warm air.

Lighting the lantern – it took several minutes to fill with warm air.

Kids letting it go.......

Kids letting it go…….

Up, up and away.  We watched it soar so high - it was still flying and alight by the time it was out of sight!

Up, up and away. We watched it soar so high – it was still flying and alight by the time it was out of sight!

Passport Woes

The Chinese New Year is the biggest travel time within China.  It is the equivalent of the Western Christmas/New Year celebrations or Thanksgiving.  Many people travel back to their home towns and cities for extended celebrations with their families.  Most Ex-pats leave the Country!  (Shops are closed, drivers are with families, Ayi’s are with families, so it is difficult to stay).  We had decided to book a trip to anywhere that we could get flights to.  All our Emerald friends had told us that getting out of China would be difficult at this time of year, and they were right.  Owen and John (friends who we would be travelling with), spent almost a day with a travel agent working out an itinerary that would work for us all.

Having decided on Vietnam and because of long layovers on flight connections, we decided to extend our time in Hong Kong at both ends of the trip.  January 8th and our trip is booked, signed and paid for!!  I am in Beijing while all this is being done.  The following week I am in Singapore and Owen then calls me in a panic because he has been researching the Visa requirements for Vietnam and sees that they require 6 months validity on passports to issue the visa.  I have 4 months left on mine!  Uh-oh……

It is 3 weeks to go before we depart and it looks like I will not be able to get a Visa.  I research a fast passport renewal process when you are out of the UK and am told that I can do an expedited service (2 weeks) through Hong Kong (mainland China no longer allows UK passport services).  However, my Residence Permit is in my “old” (current) passport and I will need that to get back into China.  The Chinese Government also require you to carry your passport at all times, so the renewal process is unique in that you do not send your old passport in with the application.

I took a colour photocopy of my passport, complete the application form, take copies of our travel itinerary, rush to get photo’s done and DHL the packet to Hong Kong on January 25th – exactly 2 weeks and 1 day before travel day.   I check my UK bank account and see that the expedite passport service fee has been deducted from my account on January 31st, which means that the UK has received the application and is processing it.  Yippee, I think!  Then I wait and wait.

Wednesday February 6th and now I getting nervous as I still have no passport.  I have processed Vietnam Visa-on-Arrival paperwork for the rest of the family so they are good to go.  Owen is in the UK and says that he can collect my passport from the UK office if it is there.  I phone the helpline to see if this can be done and am told that there is no way I will be getting my passport before Saturday February 9th and there is no way that Owen can collect it.  HELP – what is a girl to do?  The helpline is actually helpful and I am told that if I visit the British Consulate in Shanghai they may be able to issue me an Emergency Passport.  Now, the new research starts……  will Hong Kong and Vietnam allow entry with an Emergency passport?  Can I get a Visa in time?  Will I be allowed back into China on a cancelled passport with a valid residents permit AND an emergency passport?  Will the Consulate even process an Emergency Passport for these reasons?

Thursday morning dawns and I am waiting for the Consulate to open to get answers to all these questions!  Eventually, they phone me back at noon to let me know the answer to all the questions is YES, YES, MAYBE, YES and YES!  Again, YIPPEE, I think!  The only problem may be in getting a Vietnam visa as it is Lunar New Year celebrations across Asia and many Government agencies are already closed.  I rush down to the Consulate with photos and paperwork and they tell me to come back first thing in the morning to collect my Emergency Passport.

I am waiting outside the Consulate doors on Friday morning for opening time!  2 minutes later and I have a passport in hand – valid for 7 months for 1 trip only – to Vietnam via Hong Kong!!  Now, to get the Visa.  I find a company online that will process it for me – for an astronomical fee, of course!

Friday afternoon and I have the emergency passport and Visa-on-Arrival approval!  Less than 24 hours before travel time!

Friday afternoon and I have the emergency passport and Vietnam Visa-on-Arrival approval! Less than 24 hours before travel time!

For any British people living in Shanghai – the Consulate is awesome.  Very helpful, calm and patient people working there.  They went above and beyond to help me out at short notice.  This is very handy to know 🙂

I am so glad that I phoned the UK passport helpline – they immediately had visibility into my application process and could give me the information that enabled me to work on a Plan B.  I have Marie, Lin and Emma to thank for that advice!  It was becoming the morning bus stop conversation – the ongoing saga of Sara’s passport!!  Everyone was nervous for me.  I had offers to spend Chinese New Year with the only set of friends staying in Shanghai!

I was so nervous travelling on this document, but I had no problems with any immigration.  Just a few funny looks and intelligent comments like: “this is an emergency passport” and, “did you know that this is an emergency travel document”.

February 20th – I still do not have my full passport back from the UK.  So much for an expedited process!

Harbin – Tigers, Snow and Ice Spectacular

We had a fabulous weekend in Harbin.  Friday January 18th, we collected the kids from school at noon ready to fly up to Harbin in the very north of China. In fact, any further north and we would have been in Russia!  Evidence of this can be seen in the town centre:

Chinese and Russian signs above the shops in Harbin.

Chinese and Russian signs above the shops in Harbin.

This was an “Emerald” weekend away as there would be 6 families staying in the same hotel and doing all the same site seeing!  We had travelled up with John, Jenny and their 2 boys: Daniel and Luke, and the others were arriving at different times during Friday and Saturday morning.  Once we had walked off the plane into the baggage claim area, we (along with every other person on the plane) immediately started to bundle up: ski gloves, scarves, additional layers.  It was cold, cold, cold!  We stepped out of the airport and felt the cold air on our faces.  It was only minus 27 degrees centigrade that night!  Luckily it was a short walk to the waiting car.  It was funny to see the inside of the car windows frost up during our 45 minute drive to the hotel.  Once we got to the hotel (Shangri-la – highly recommended in Harbin) it was time for dinner.  We dropped bags off and decided to eat in the hotel restaurant.  It was buffet style and the kids loved being able to help themselves.  We also met up with Marie and Tim and their 3 children: Cai, Lia and Seren.  They had arrived earlier this morning and had already done some sight-seeing.

We got up early on Saturday morning and began the long task of getting dressed. Layering up with thermals, long sleeves, 2 pairs of socks, sweaters and then ski coats.  Then add ski gloves and liners, hats, ear muffs, face warmers and scarves!!  Poor Isabelle and Oliver did not like wearing so many clothes and they weebled their way down the hotel corridor to the elevator!  They both look the Michelin Man!  We had arranged for a mini-bus to take us, John & Jenny + family and Tim & Marie + family to the Tiger breeding station first.

Tiger Breeding Organization

Tiger Breeding Organization

The Siberian Tiger Park covers an area of more than a million square meters (250 acres+) and it was set up as a place to breed and house Siberian tigers.  The Siberian tiger is the largest of the big cats.  The breeding program has been very successful, and there are now about 800 Siberian tigers (about 100 can be seen here) along with other large cats like lions and pumas.  This is amazing, since it is estimated that there are only about 500 Siberian tigers left in the wild.  Almost all of these wild ones are in Russia, and maybe 12 are in China.  The facility includes a museum, breeding areas, and cages/pens for the other large cats.  It is amazing to see a group of striped golden tigers walk and run together.   You can also have the option to buy some live animals to feed the tigers with:

Tiger Menu

Tiger Menu

We were full of good intentions to buy a chicken but by the time we had walked through to the bus, we had lost our opportunity.

All of the kids waiting to go into the Tiger Park.

All of the kids waiting to go into the Tiger Park.  Dan, Isabelle, Seren, Lia, Oliver, Cai and Luke.

Riding in the tiger cart

Riding in the tiger cart

Once we moved into through the gift shop, we got into the bus that would drive us through the large open areas filled with the tigers.  It was fantastic to be so close to these magnificent animals.  They are beautiful.

Beautiful White Siberian Tiger.  Quite Rare!

Beautiful White Siberian Tiger. Quite Rare!

So many tigers here......

So many tigers here……

This tiger has just fed on a chicken!

This tiger has just fed on a chicken!  You can even see a feather hanging down near its mouth!

At the tiger feeding area - there must have been between 30-40 here.

At the tiger feeding area – there must have been between 30-40 here.

Wow Mum, we saw a lot of tigers!

Wow Mum, we saw a lot of tigers!

Owen and Oliver getting eaten by a Tiger!!

Owen and Oliver getting eaten by a Tiger!!

After spending a good few hours here, our feet and our faces were starting to get numb.  The temperature was minus 35 degrees centigrade and you cannot stay out for too long!  We all got back into our lovely warm bus and drove back to the Hotel for lunch and to warm through!  After we were toastie again, it was back in the bus to check out the snow sculptures at Sun Island Park.

The Harbin Snow and Ice festival officially starts January 5th and usually lasts one month.  Ice sculpture decoration technology ranges from the modern (using lasers) to traditional (with ice lanterns).   Some of the most impressive ice sculptures are full size buildings made from blocks of 2–3 feet thick crystal clear ice directly taken from the Songhua River.

Sun Island Park Entrance

Sun Island Park Entrance

The first sculpture we saw was this one of the 7 dwarves.

The first sculpture we saw was this one of the 7 dwarves.

Snow sculpture

Snoopy Snow sculpture

more snow

Oliver and me by a beautiful sculpture.  This gives you an idea of the scale of a lot of the sculptures in this park.

Just the girls posing by the greenery at the Snow sculptures at the Sun Park.

Isabelle, Lia, me and Oliver posing by the greenery at the Snow sculptures at the Sun Island Park.

Getting ready for mass slide

Getting ready for mass slide

Slide executed!

Slide executed!

Isabelle and Oliver by a sculpture

Isabelle and Oliver by a sculpture

Ludwig Beethoven in Snow!

Ludwig van Beethoven in Snow!

More music in snow

More music in snow

Amazing sculptures here in China

Amazing sculptures here in China

Snow egg

Snow egg

The sculptures are absolutely amazing.  Many of them are huge – towering above us.  They are all intricately carved with exquisite detail.  There was even a building with a slide.  We all rode down this on a rubber ring – it was thrilling!

Waiting to ride the slide

Waiting to ride the slide

Harbin - Snow and Ice Capital!

Harbin – Snow and Ice Capital!

The detail is amazing.

The detail is amazing.

I loved this simple design.

I loved this simple design.

More detail.......

More detail…….

Almost the same.  Minor changes in these heads make you look twice!

Almost the same. Minor changes in these heads make you look twice!

Cinderella shall go to the ball.

Cinderella shall go to the ball.  I laughed at the fact that Cinderella and Prince Charming cannot possibly get into this carriage!  Still a fabulous sculpture though!

Another wonderful sculpture

Another wonderful sculpture

Solider shooting in snow.

Solider shooting in snow.

The magic flute

The magic flute

We spent all afternoon here and as the sun began to set, the light was amazing and the photos that we took later in the day were spectacular.

Such wonderful detail

Such wonderful detail

And then the evening lights came on too!

And then the evening lights came on too!

Back to the beginning, this time this is all lit up.

Back to the beginning, this time this is all lit up.

We had been overwhelmed enough for 1 day!  Tigers and snow sculptures and we had been outside for most of it.  Our feet were cold and it was time for dinner.  All the other families from Emerald had arrived earlier in the day so we were looking forward to a lovely meal with everyone!

We had booked several tables at the back of the restaurant in the hotel.  All the boys gravitated towards one, while the girls took another and that left all the adults to enjoy an evening together at the main table!  🙂

The boys at Dinner

The boys at Dinner – Ethan, Oliver, Luke, Cai, Daniel and Harry (Joseph is missing from the boys table).

The Girls table - Maddie, Lia, Isabelle and Ava.  Seren and Amelie are missing from this photo.

The Girls table – Maddie, Lia, Isabelle and Ava. Seren and Amelie are missing from this photo.  Isabelle is getting quite good with chopsticks!

A selection of the adults"

A selection of the adults: Nick, Owen, Marie, Lin, Tim, Kevin, Jenny and Emma

Obviously towards the end of the evening......Kevin, Jenny, Emma, John and Jane

Obviously towards the end of the evening……Kevin, Jenny, Emma, John and Jane

Oliver, Seren and Ethan

Oliver, Seren and Ethan.  Oliver and Ethan both love Seren and she knows exactly how to make this work to her advantage!  All 3 play so well together and they are wonderful to watch.  They had a great weekend!

girls

Isabelle, Ava, Maddie, Lia and Amelie chilling out after dinner!

We had another early morning on Sunday so that we could go down to the Songhua River.  We wanted to walk on water!!  The kids laughed at this!

The ice sculpted entrance to the river slides.

The ice sculpted entrance to the river slides.

The view from the top.  So many activities on the river.

The view from the top. So many activities on the frozen river.

Time to slide down to the River so we can ride in a tank!

Time to slide down to the River so we can ride in a tank!

And down we all went......

And down we all went……

Time for a ride in the Tank!

Time for a ride in the Tank!

Owen and Isabelle on the left, with Oliver and me to the right.  This was HUGE FUN!!!!!

Owen and Isabelle on the left, with Oliver and me to the right. This was HUGE FUN!!!!!  Of course, with Owen’s Army background he drove it perfectly.  I had to be rescued off the center divides several times!!!!!

Isabelle cheering a perfect round!

Isabelle cheering a perfect round!

Oliver and I cheering the fact that it was a straight run!

Oliver and I cheering the fact that it was a straight run!

So. Much. Fun.

So. Much. Fun.

The ice is so clear.  It is taken from the river and carved into wonderful sculptures.  This block is almost 2 feet thick.  You can clearly see my victory salute through the this.

The ice is so clear. It is taken from the river and carved into wonderful sculptures. This block is almost 2 feet thick. You can clearly see my victory salute through this.

We spent hours on this slide.

We spent hours on this slide.  The only downside was pulling the tires back up to the top each time!  Eventually Isabelle had been down enough times with Owen or John, that she decided she was brave enough to do it herself.  There was no stopping her then.

Oliver posing!

Oliver posing!  So many layers on him!

Fruit on a stick

After all the fun on the river, it was time to warm up before going to the Ice Festival.  We saw this fruit on a stick display and the kids immediately wanted to try one.

Oliver's choice was huge.  He ate it all!!

Oliver’s choice was huge. He ate it all!!

Just cherries for Isabelle.

Just cherries for Isabelle.

Tourist attractions again in Harbin.  They are getting used to all the photos that the locals want to take of them!

Tourist attractions again in Harbin. They are getting used to all the photos that the locals want to take of them!

We had found a Costa coffee shop and warmed up with coffee and hot chocolate.  After that, we needed to get from downtown to the Ice Festival and so jumped in a couple of taxis.  This was a very interesting experience as Owen watched our driver signing the driver of the other taxi (where John, Jenny, Luke and Daniel were) and then both taxis pulled over into a side road.  The drivers were trying to negotiate an exorbitant fee to take us.  Thank goodness for iPhone’s with maps as John saw that our hotel was right around the corner so we just got out the taxis and started walking.  A little bit scary and I was sad that we were targetted for a rip off (especially with young children with us).  Once back at the hotel, we (hotel concierge!) negotiated taxis to take us to the Ice Festival at Zhaolin Park and then wait to bring us back to the hotel when we were done!  A much better solution.

Ice Time!

Ice Time!

We took so many photos of the fantastic ice sculptures.  It is amazing what is built and how beautifully lit up they all are.  This was truly a fantastic experience.

We took so many photos of the fantastic ice sculptures. It is amazing what is built and how beautifully lit up they all are. This was truly a fantastic experience.

We tried the Harbin beer!  A little too much like Bud Lite for us!

We tried the Harbin beer! A little too much like Bud Lite for us!

Ice, ice and more ice.

Ice, ice and more ice.

A lot of the buildings had ice slides incorporated into them.  Everyone enjoyed these - "big kids" and little kids!

A lot of the buildings had ice slides incorporated into them. Everyone enjoyed these – “big kids” and little kids!

A mass tumble down this slide!

A mass tumble down this slide!

More slides

Oliver trying different moves down the slides

Some of the ice buildings are HUGE.

Some of the ice buildings are HUGE.

Lots of different themes this year.

Lots of different themes this year.

...

Quite the view from the top of this one.

A slightly different angle.

A slightly different angle.

More ice

You can just see the top of Oliver’s hat on this slide.  The kids had sooooo much fun here.  We stayed until quite late and they had not even started moaning about being cold!  It was us adults that had had enough of the cold for one day!

The Temperate reads

The Temperate reads minus 26 degrees centigrade

People

Harbin is a very popular destination in January and February.  Even so, it does not feel too crowded as you walk around.

Spectacular architecture surrounded us.

Spectacular architecture surrounded us.

There was a ski lift and ski slope at the back of the park.  There was also some cool rides down.  What I especially liked here is that this slope was just for children 16 and under.  There was a slightly steeper slope for the adults.

There was a ski lift and ski slope at the back of the park. There were also some cool rides down. What I especially liked here is that this slope was just for children 16 and under. There was a slightly steeper slope for the adults.  You can just see me escorting Isabelle and Oliver up (dragging their tyres to sit in).  I then had to run down as I was too old to ride!!!

Not just ice sculptures, some snow ones too!

Not just ice sculptures, some snow ones too!

Even the transportation around the park was lit up!

Even the transportation around the park was lit up!

Owen and John inside an Ice Bar.

Owen and John propping up an Ice Bar.

Movie entertainment inside the park.

Movie entertainment inside the park.

The kids liked the detail of the Ice Age animals.

The kids liked the detail of the Ice Age animals.  Oliver immediately named Diego, Manny and Sid!

More Ice

More Ice

And more ice.....

And more ice…..

And even more ice

And even more ice (with some snow!)

Isabelle and Oliver playing peek-a-boo at the Angry Birds sculpture.

Isabelle and Oliver playing peek-a-boo at the Angry Birds sculpture.

I had to join in too!

I had to join in too!

Restaurants and bars were made out of ice too.

The Angry Birds sculpture.

Restaurants and bars made out of Ice.

The Angry Birds catapult!  This was a very clever sculpture.  There were people dressed up as the birds putting on a show every 15 minutes.

The lights in all the sculptures are very cool.

The lights in all the sculptures are very cool.

Lots of very cool lights

Lots of very cool lights in very cool sculptures

Amazing

Amazing…….

It was all so wonderful.  So much effort for such spectacular results that last such a short time.

It was all so wonderful. So much effort for such spectacular results that last such a short time.

The scale of the layout

The scale of everything was over-whelming.

Me and my little chicks....

Me and my little chicks….

John playing with Oliver in the Ice Bar

John playing with Oliver in the Ice Bar.  Oliver won that arm wrestle!

Family Jones - proof that we were there!

Family Jones – proof that we were there!  Only if you can tell who those people are underneath all the layers!

We safely returned to the hotel (not to be under-estimated, given our earlier experience with the taxi ride!)  It was hot chocolate all round before we all crashed into our beds.  An exhausting day with so much walking and the biting cold.  I definitely could not live in this climate!  We had decided to get up early again to take advantage of a couple more hours on the frozen river.  Our flight back to Shanghai was early afternoon on Monday January 21st and we wanted to make the most of our final hours.  Isabelle and Oliver both wanted to ride in the tanks again, do the tyre slide down a few more times and try out the ice bumper cars:

Bumper cars on ice!

Bumper cars on ice!  Isabelle and Owen having fun.

This was a fantastic, fabulous, wonderful weekend.  It would not have been on our “must see” list if it were not for Jane Steele, lovely Emerald friend.  She organised all the families, researched transportation, hotels, things to do and gave us the inspiration to go!  If you come to China in the Winter, Harbin should not be missed!

100th Post

This is my 100th post documenting the adventures of OSIO in China.  Looking back over our journey so far, I see a variety of posts on many different subjects: kids, school, China culture, China life, toilets (it must seem that I have an obsession here), friends, ex-pat life, and of course, our travels and experiences in Asia.

100 posts in approximately 300 days (since we arrived in Shanghai) – I am astonished to find that I have managed to keep up the pace of a post every 3-4 days….  With approximately 420 days left on my assignment, I hope I can keep up the journalling.  OSIO all enjoy looking back on our adventures and I hope that the memories (along with our many new friendships) we are creating here will last a lifetime.

Evolution of Squat toilets

Visiting an office in Beijing, I noticed this sign in the toilet.  It was not a squat toilet so I nearly fell off laughing!!  The translation reads “It’s time to enjoy, not to create.  We don’t want you to fall off.”

Squat Toilet Evolution

Squat Toilet Evolution

Sanya for New Year

After a very busy Christmas, we were all looking forward to a relaxing, sunny beach holiday in Sanya, Hainan.  This island is at the southern most point of China and is nicknamed the Hawaii of China!  Late afternoon on Thursday December 27th, we flew from Shanghai to Sanya.  We were greeted at arrivals by a very nice man from the hotel to take us to check in.  It was a 45 minute drive through roads with large brightly lit hotels and buildings – it reminded us a little bit of Benidorm!  We arrived at the Intercontinental hotel, checked in and then got on a golf cart to take us to our room.

Intercontinental Hotel

Intercontinental Hotel

The hotel is beautifully laid out and is a sprawling complex of 1 or 2 storey beach side rooms, restaurants and pools.  There is a high rise building behind all of this but it is tucked into the side of the mountain and quite unobtrusive.

Oliver & Isabelle on the balcony of our hotel room - it had a double lounger!

Oliver & Isabelle on the balcony of our hotel room – it had a double lounger!  In the background you can see the fabulous roof gardens on top of the single storey hotel villas.

The hotel rooms below us have gardens on their roof!  We are on the top floor - 2nd storey, overlooking the pool and ocean.

We are on the top floor – 2nd storey, overlooking the pool and ocean.

Our room is fantastic with the largest balcony I have seen. We have 2 double beds and a single.  The room is spacious even though it has 3 beds and has all the right AV connections for us to connect our IPads to the tv for movie time for the kids!!

Beautiful pool

Beautiful pool

We wake up on Friday to glorious sunshine, blue skies and 25 degree heat.  We ate breakfast in the club continental restaurant, after which we walked around the resort.  We checked out all the different restaurants, fitness facilities and kids club.  Both Isabelle and Oliver wanted to do some activities while we were there so we checked the times of their favourites.  It was back to the room to change into swim suits and go to one of the pools for the day.  We settled by the only heated pool which was also by the kids slide/kids pool.  Oliver immediately made a friend and the 3 of them were off sliding, jumping, swimming.  Owen and I relaxed by the pool for the whole day!!

The Ocean was warm too!

The Ocean was warm too!

One of the pools

One of the pools

The infinity edge Club Intercontinental pool overlooking the beach!

The infinity edge Club Intercontinental pool overlooking the beach!  The Sea Pavilion restaurant is on the far left on jetty’s over the ocean.  Fantastic Chinese meal here!

That evening we decided to try the Sea Pavilion restaurant which is a group of buildings built over the coral reef.  We had the best Chinese meal that we have ever eaten in this restaurant.  Everything was beautifully cooked and presented.  We even had a bottle of imported Chablis to drink with it!!

Breakfast al fresco at Club Continental

Breakfast al fresco at Club Continental

Saturday was another day by a different pool and today it was Isabelle’s turn to make a friend.  We read books while the children played – they really are water babies and are totally happy to spend the whole day in the pool.  1 kids club activity to do – fishing off the jetty.  They came back with a bucket filled with a large eel, 3 large fish and a large crab.  They had also caught 5 shrimp but there was no evidence of these as they had obviously been eaten by everything else they caught…..  We took a couple of photos and then walked down to the beach to put them all back into the ocean.  We ate at Club Continental that evening.

Crab, eel, shrimp (now eaten!) and fish - not bad in 1 hour fishing off the jetty!

Crab, eel, shrimp (now eaten!) and fish – not bad in 1 hour fishing off the jetty!

Sunday – was a chilly day and we actually had to wear long sleeve t-shirts!  Kids had a couple of activities at kids club – pancake making (Isabelle burnt her hand on the hot plate) and they also made an alarm clock. They were supposed to go fishing again but Isabelle’s hand hurt too much.  Even though Isabelle’s hand burning was an accident (she touched the hot plate that they were making pancakes on), the staff could not have handled it better.  They immediately applied ice and gave us a special burns cream (burns are obviously a matter of fact in the kitchen!)  The next day there was no evidence of the burn and it was almost forgotten!  That night we ate at Mediterraneano and the kids got to play on a bouncy castle that goes up every evening.  Owen had delicious beef and I had lamb!  It had not been a pool day as it was too chilly for all of us.  It was a lazy movie day in our hotel room.

The water slide at the family pool.

The water slide at the family pool.

Lazing on the alligator in the Club pool.

Lazing on the alligator in the Club pool.

New Year’s Eve dawned a little warmer and we had to be early as Isabelle and Oliver were going off to hunt for seashells on the beach as a kids club activity.  Straight after they made shell necklaces.  We picked Oliver up after these activities, but Isabelle wanted to stay and play with a lovely little boy who would not let go of her hand at kids club!  (We later found out that he is the General Manager’s little boy!!)

We went to the pool and had lunch sitting by the pool. Although it was a blue sky day, it is still a little cooler than when we first arrived.  Our New Year’s Eve
Celebration dinner was a magnificent buffet at Mediterraneano that included baby lobster, crab, all sorts of meats, Chinese specialities and a chocolate fountain!  It was all delicious and we stretched it out as long as possible, but the kids did not make it past 10 pm.  Owen struggled through to 11.55 and then it was just me to make phone calls back home – slightly tiddly!!

Isabelle with her New Year's Eve hat on.

Isabelle with her New Year’s Eve hat on.

Oliver's New Year's Eve hat.

Oliver’s New Year’s Eve hat.

Me with my 2 lovely children celebrating at Mediterraneao

Me with my 2 lovely children celebrating at Mediterraneao

Garfield came to visit the kids at the restaurant.

Garfield came to visit the kids at the restaurant.

Tigger came too!

Tigger came too!

Tigger with Isabelle!

Tigger with Isabelle!

Walking back to our hotel room after New Year's Eve dinner.  We stopped by the fire pit.....

Walking back to our hotel room after New Year’s Eve dinner. We stopped by the fire pit…..

A fantastic family shot on New Year's Eve.  Owen worked out the self timer on the camera and we took some lovely photos of all of us on our balcony.

A fantastic family shot on New Year’s Eve. Owen worked out the self timer on the camera and we took some lovely photos of all of us on our balcony.

New Year’s Day was a beautiful day. Kids were off to kids club for t-shirt art and hand/feet art in the morning.  Owen and I sat and chatted with the General Manager all morning.  Jeff had arranged bikes for us in the afternoon so we rode to the opposite side of the bay where there is a large marina and we stopped on the way back at a fab playground park for the kids to play.  Dropped the bikes off and then headed to the pool……

We took 2 tandem bikes to the other side of the bay to check out the Marina.  This was the only time we ventured out of the resort!

We took 2 tandem bikes to the other side of the bay to check out the Marina. This was the only time we ventured out of the resort!

Kids by the Marina

Kids by the Marina

Wednesday, Thursday, Friday was more of the same!  Pool, pool, pool.  We at least tried all the restaurants in the resort!!  We did not leave the resort – other than on the bike ride. We were all perfectly content to laze by the pools.  One afternoon the kids spent an hour or so creating art out of rocks.

Oliver Rocks!

Oliver Rocks!

Isabelle Rocks too!

Isabelle Rocks too!

Owen and I read books on our iPads and Isabelle and Oliver were in paradise, throwing themselves down the water slide or playing in the pool.  It is amazing how long they will play in the pool for.  They also made sand pictures and had a water gun fight in the pool as part of kids club activities.  One final highlight of Kids Club was an hour spent in the restaurant making cookies and muffins with Chef Alex.  They both absolutely loved that!

Chef Alex with his Sous Chefs!  The boxes contain cookies and muffins that they made in the restaurant kitchen.  They loved this!

Chef Alex with his Sous Chefs! The boxes contain cookies and muffins that they made in the restaurant kitchen. They loved this!

Isabelle and Oliver in the swinging bar seats by the beach.

Isabelle and Oliver in the swinging bar seats by the beach.

A beautiful Sanya sunset.

A beautiful Sanya sunset.

Owen with Isabelle and Oliver outside the Beer Factory restaurant.

Owen with Isabelle and Oliver outside the Beer Factory restaurant.  (Great Fish and Chips here!)

Trying to pick up the giant beer mug!

Trying to pick up the giant beer mug!

Alligators in the Club Pool!

Alligators in the Club Pool!

Blue skies, palm trees, sun and relaxation.

Blue skies, palm trees, sun and relaxation.

The general manager told us that the hotel was fully booked, but you would never have known it.  The pools were mainly empty (except for the heated pool!) and there was always room in the restaurants.  The resort is a paradise – a zen zone!  It has a very calming, peaceful atmosphere and we were very well looked after.
It was just what we were looking for after a busy end to the year.

Cultural observations

You rarely see a fat Chinese person.  I think this is because they do not eat a lot of processed food – their diet consists of mainly meat, vegetables, rice and noodles.  They are not big dairy eaters and dessert at most restaurants is usually fruit.  They also eat most of the animal or fish, parts that most westerners would not.

You don’t often see a balding Chinese man.  I wonder what it is about their genes that allow them to keep a full head of hair into old age.  If you could bottle that, it would make millions!  The beautiful straight dark hair seems to stay that way into old age too – I have not seen many grey haired ladies (perhaps they all dye it!)

The airline rules don’t appear to apply to Chinese.  It doesn’t matter if we are taxi-ing or just landed – they will get up, use the toilet, open the over-head bins.  The seatbelt sign is obviously just for amusement.

Queueing is an alien concept.  You just barge as quickly as possible to the front.  So, you don’t have to let people off an elevator first, before getting in – regardless of how many people are trying to get out.

Personal space is much more limited than most Westerners would like.  I think that because there are so many people here, you just get used to sharing less space.  It has taken me a while to get used to people walking so close to me (and each other) and just general crowding.  The only time I really object is when you hear the horrible noise of a Chinese person clearing their throat getting ready to spit.  I know that different beliefs and customs in a culture should be tolerated – but I really cannot stand that.

The Life of the Celebrity

Having spent the weekend being followed, photographed and touched, I now have some sympathy for those who live life in the tabloid magazines.  The celebrities who court fame, fortune and continual hounding are at least compensated with free designer gowns, fancy jewels and endorsements.  In return they must put up with the constant presence of paparazzi taking their picture.  All we are doing is living in China!!  Our children are a magnet wherever we go.

It is not so bad in Shanghai as it is the most westernized of China cities.  However, a 3 hour flight in land, to Chengdu, and it is much more noticeable.  Even though Chengdu is a popular destination for tourists (to visit the Panda Bears), it seems that Western children are still a novelty.

I especially noticed it this weekend as we were out and about so much.  I do not mind quite as much when people keep their distance, but it becomes intrusive when they get too close and then want to touch them both.  I lost count of the number of photographs that were taken of our 2 lovely children.  Many people asked to have their photo taken with them too.  Isabelle and Oliver now ignore the attention as they are getting used to the stares, pointing and smiles, and will generally ignore it all.  At least our 2 children bring smiles to everyone around us!

China’s City Tier System

This weekend we are going to Chengdu in Sichuan province in Southwest China.  It is the capital City of Sichuan and is home to approximately 14 million people.  It is designated as a Tier 2 City.  This got me thinking….. what is a Tier 1 City, how many tiers are there and what does it mean.  Surprisingly, I could not find an official definition anywhere.  I did, however, find lots of websites that have opinions so I thought I would summarize my findings.
In the past two decades, numerous cities in China have experienced unprecedented economic growth and this economic phenomenon triggered the rise of a classification system based on “tiers”.  This aims to rank cities throughout China in terms of their population size, development of services, infrastructure and cosmopolitan nature.  Although the tier system is often criticized for being inexact and lacking standardized criteria, it can serve as a useful reference for companies that are trying to structure their China strategy.

Beginning in the 1980’s, the Chinese government began investing large amounts of capital in major Chinese cities in order to stimulate economic growth in different regions of the country.  Because every city experienced growth at its own pace, it became relevant for the economic and business communities to become familiar with this tier- based classification method.

TIER 1 CITIES
Tier 1 cities were the first to be opened to competitive economic development by the Chinese government.  These cities are recognized for being densely populated as well as culturally and economically influential.  Tier 1 Cities attract the attention of foreign enterprises given their large middle class representation and income levels well above the national average.  Cities that fall within this category represent China’s most developed markets in terms of consumer behavior.  First tier cities register total retail sales of around 30 billion RMB ($4.75 billion USD), and an annual per capita income of around 11,000 RMB (1,774 USD).

Tier 1 Cities are:  Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou.   These cities are known for being important political, cultural, industrial and financial centers in China as well as key hubs for the greater East-Asia region.

TIER 2 CITIES
The rapid economic growth and rising incomes in 2nd tier cities has caught the attention of foreign investors over the past several years.  The markets in Tier 2 cities are a lot less competitive and the labor costs are substantially cheaper compared to Tier 1 cities.  A rapid increase in consumer spending in second tier cities is creating more demand for foreign brands.  However, the income of consumers in second, third, and fourth tier cities has been reported to be less than half compared to those in first tier cities.  At the end of 2011 around 60 cities in China qualified as second tier cities (China Sourcing).

Some sources point to a more complex method of classification within second and third tier cities (rightsite.asia).  This method of classification divides cities into three subcategories within their tier: high, medium, and low.  Tianjin and Chengdu are examples of cities that fall within the second tier high category. These two cities are considered rapidly developing economic centers.  Within the second tier medium subcategory we see places like Nanjing and Xi’an where economic development shows relatively stable progress.  Second tier lower cities are generally characterized for being the capitals of some provinces as well as cities that show increasing economic development. Second tier lower cities include Wuhan and Hefei.

TIER 3 CITIES
There are approximately 200 county-level cities in China that fall within the category of a 3rd tier city (China Sourcing).  Within third tier cities there is also a categorical subdivision like I mentioned above. Third tier high cities include Zhongshan and Shantou.  Third tier medium cities include cities like Xining and Baoding.

I also wondered why the Chinese government created a system like this.  Again, I could not find any direction or explanation.  It seems that it is a useful reference for foreign investors who wish to establish a presence in China.  China has more than 120 cities that have a population of 1 million people or more.  In fact, it is mind boggling to imagine 1.4 BILLION people in this Country.  And, that 800 million of them live in remote, rural areas in relative poverty – that is more than double the population of USA to put it in context.  Many of these people have never seen a 100RMB note (approx £10/$15).

China Provinces and major Cities

NOTE: This is not an official list!!

First tier

  • Beijing
  • Guangzhou
  • Shanghai
  • Shenzhen

Second tier

  • Changchun 
  • Chengdu
  • Chongqing 
  • Dalian 
  • Guiyang 
  • Haikou
  • Hangzhou 
  • Harbin
  • Hefei 
  • Kunming
  • Lanzhou 
  • Nanjing
  • Ningbo 
  • Qingdao 
  • Sanya
  • Shantou 
  • Shaoxing 
  • Shenyang 
  • Shenzhen 
  • Suzhou 
  • Taiyuan 
  • Tianjin 
  • Urumqi 
  • Wenzhou 
  • Wuhan 
  • Xiamen 
  • Xian 
  • Zhuhai 

Third tier

I could not find a single listing for Tier 3 cities so by process of elimination, if you are in a Chinese city that is not listed as Tier 1 or 2, then you must be in a third tier city!

Chinglish Lunch

Today I went to lunch with a group from the office.  We went to a local Chinese restaurant and had a delicious meal.  I love the Chinese way of ordering lots of different dishes and then everyone tries a little of everything.  It is also nice to go with locals who order food that I would never think to order and most of the time, it is yummy!  I had to laugh at the translation on the menu for many of the dishes.  I don’t know what the staff thought I was doing when I asked to keep the menu so I could take photos!

Every restaurant in China has a food safety certificate prominently displayed.  I think that yellow is ok to eat!  No funny tummy so far……

A yellow neutral face for food safety today

There were 7 of us for lunch and everyone ordered a couple of dishes each.  I chose a spicy fish option, because my first choice had already been ordered:

Explosion Lamb! It was fantastic.

Pork Grandmother (the translation means “homestyle” cooked). Again, it was delicious.

This cauliflower dish was perfectly cooked with a fabulous combination of flavours. Unfortunately, none of my friends knew the English for the “green stuff” so I don’t know what it was cooked with. It was definitely not mustard!

The rest of the photos here are of dish names on the menu that made me laugh, but that I did not try.  I will be going back, so I will be sampling some of these in the future.

So many on this page alone: Moo Meat; Braised Stroke; Chicken Black Fungus; Rich Beef; Cowboy Cake Ring; Chicken, blinds results.

Grilled Husband Sixi. Perhaps all the scorned women of China get together for a special type of “divorce”.

I love soybeans (edamame), but I had no idea that I just been eating the good ones up until now. I can’t wait to try the naughty ones next time!

3 yellow chicken

How many versions of yellow can there be? And, this poor chicken has 3 versions……..

Old Chicken Pot. This poor chicken looks like he just gave up the struggle to live. Chicken in China is more often than not served like this (head and feet). It is also the same when you are buying it. The feet are a delicacy and are most often served deep fried.

Chicken Feet