I’ve been back in the States for almost a month now, but somehow I still haven’t managed to post about the end of my study experience in Beijing. The list of things I wanted to get done in the 3 weeks before I flew home was pretty long. Surprisingly, I was actually able to check most of it off as done by the time I my plane took off (never did make it to the temple of heaven), but I’ll probably save that for another post. I wanted to take this time to write about my favorite part of those last few weeks – my trip to Shanghai, Hangzhou (China’s post card city), and Suzhou.
The first stop on our trip was Shanghai, the World’s largest city which has a total population of over 23 million people (ironic since it was the city we spent the least amount of time in).
Some Shanghai Cuisine 上海菜
I eat dumplings and steamed buns everyday in Beijing (literally), but they’re a totally different experience in Shanghai. While traditional dumplings usually consist of a meat and veggie filling wrapped in a thin pastry, southern China is known for it’s xiaolongbao “小笼包” or soup-filled steamed buns. Xiaolongbao are created by wrapping a meaty gelatin with a meat filling inside dough, with heat from the steam melting the gel into soup. The best way to eat them is by poking a small hole in the side, sucking out the soup, then eating the remaining filling and bun.
The Bund 外滩
The Bund is a waterfront area in central Shanghai, which runs along the western bank of the Huangpu River facing Pudong. The Bund usually refers to the buildings and wharves on this section of the road, which trace their origins back to a building boom at the end of 19th century and beginning of 20th century when it was a major financial hub of East Asia. I hadn’t done too much research on Shanghai before we went, so although I knew I needed to go see what a lot of people call the Wall Street of China, I had no clue what to expect. Aside from the Chinese tourist masses, I can say it’s easy to feel like you’re back in 1920′s England/Europe.
Pudong is an area of Shanghai located along the east side of the Huangpu River across from the historic city center of Shanghai (a.k.a the Bund). In the past 20 years, Pudong has changed from farmlands to high buildings and has become the “Pearl of the Orient” and the “symbol of China’s reform and opening up”. The most popular images of Shanghai feature Pudong’s skyline, including the Shanghai World Financial Center (the Bottle Opener), and the Oriental Pearl Tower. It had been pretty foggy and rainy the day that we took pictures of Pudong from the Bund, but we were still able to get a clear view of the skyline during the day, and a slightly dimmed but still colorful view at night.
The Shanghai skyline at night
Yuyuan Garden, City God Temple, And The Old City
The Shanghai Old City Bazaar
Obviously much bigger today, the Old City refers to the most ancient area of Shanghai, which was surrounded by city walls to protect the town from raids by the Japanese. We made the mistake of telling the cab driver to head to the Old City, only to be dropped off at the Bazaar which is basically the ultimate tourist trap in Shanghai. While the shops and buildings all resemble old style architecture, it was all recently built which takes away a bit of the awesomeness. We were tired and had to catch a train so we didn’t make it very far out of the Bazaar, but to anyone who goes, take some time to explore the nearby Yuyuan Garden, the City God Temple, and the neighborhoods and streets in the area that are reminiscent of the real Old Shanghai.
The Almost Disaster Train Ride
The 1 1/2 hour train ride from Shanghai to Hangzhou had the potential to be a real disaster. We hadn’t realized it when buying them, but it just so happened that our 30 kuai (about $5) tickets didn’t come with a seat. We were essentially the last people to board the jam packed car, and let’s just say i hadn’t been in the presence of that much smoke and sweat since my mid-winter bus rides to Beijing University. Luckily my friend Hank had the genius idea of asking a server in the dining car if we were allowed to sit inside that car, which we were for an extra 20 kuai. An extra $3 got us our own booth in the car, air conditioning, an electrical outlet, and complimentary coffee and tea. It was the best $3 I had spent in a long time.
Our chariot to Hangzhou
West Lake 西湖
West Lake or Xihu
Hangzhou is the capital of Zhejiang province in Southeastern China, and it is centered around the freshwater West Lake or Xihu. While Shanghai has the postcard skyline of China, Hangzhou is the postcard city of China. The lake is divided by three causeways, with temples, pagodas, and gardens dotting the surrounding hills, and artificial islands within the lake. Getting across the lake is easy, as there didn’t seem to be any shortage of the narrow six-person boats rowed by boatman (very cool at night when traveling by lantern light). We had a good time hanging out by the lake our first night, and planned to rent bikes and explore around the lake the next day, but our plans were ruined by a depressing amount of rain.
Hangzhou’s Musical Fountains
I was having a hard time finding any official/factual information on this, so I’ll keep the wording to a minimum and let you watch the video to get a better idea of what it is. Long story short, it was around 7:00 and we had stopped and asked a police officer the best way to get to a restaurant across the West Lake for dinner. He said a cab would be cheap, but hes suggested walking, telling us that in 15 minutes there was going to be some sort of light show on the water. Here it is:
Dongpo Pork 东坡肉
The restaurant that we were trying to get to on the other side of the lake was the 150 year old Louwailou. Pork is the most popular meat in China (the Chinese character for meat 肉 refers to pork if no particular meat is specified), and one of louwailou’s most famous dishes is called Dongporou or braised pork belly. Now a part of traditional Hangzhhou cuisine, Donpo Pork is made by pan-frying and then red cooking pork belly. The pork is cut to around 2 inches square in dimensions, consisting of half fat and half lean meat. While I might not go as far, my friend said it was the best dish he had eaten in China.
Dragon Well Tea Village 龙井村
Tea is an important part of Hangzhou’s economy and culture, and it’s best known for Longjing tea, a unique variety of green tea. Several tea-producing villages are located in the area around the West Lake, and both the villages and tea are named after a spring in the area where the pattern in the water resembles a dragon. I’m more of a coffee fan, but the dragon village is supposed to be beautiful (which it was), and I was happy to get out of the main part of the city. It was just as scenic as I thought it would be, and although almost every woman in the village tried to persuade you to com into her home/makeshift tea house and buy extremely expensive Longjing tea, it was still relatively peaceful and definitely worth the trip up.
Part of the Longjing Village, Hangzhou
The last leg of our trip was spent in Suzhou, a major city located in the southeastern part of the country very close to Shanghai. It’s one of the top tourist attractions in China, and is often dubbed the “Venice of the East” or “Venice of China”.
The Master of the Nets Garden 网师园
Master of the Nets Garden
Suzhou is probably most famous for it’s private gardens. Close to 70 gardens have been preserved up to this day, and they have been collectively classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I should clarify that the term garden should be interpreted loosely. In reality, they’re private estates with separate individual pavilions and villas located in immaculately landscaped parks. My favorite was the Master of the Nets Garden, one of Suzhou’s most famous yet smallest gardens which was originally built in 1140. The garden centers around the Rosy Cloud Pool, which has multiple pavilions and a grotto, and if I ever have enough money, I’m having a replica constructed in my own backyard.
Suzhou’s Canals: Mudu 木渎 and Pingjiang Road 平江路
Suzhou is also considered one of China’s most beautiful canal towns, with the famous Pingjiang Road and Shantang Road dating back to between 800 and 1200 years ago. Suzhou is a large city now, so in order to get the small canal town feel, we went to a nearby town called Mudu. Mudu had canals alright, but like much of China, it catered to tourists so outside of the few gardens in Mudu, all you could really see were shops for taking dress-up photos, and lots of trash. It wasn’t disappointing, it’s the reality of many places in China. My friends and I hit up Pingjiang Road at night, and with it’s characteristic red paper lamps and short bridges spanning the canal, was much more of what I know I was hoping to see.
A canal in the town of Mudu
My trip down to Southern China couldn’t have been better considering both the weather and the short amount of time we had put into planning it. While I was hesitant to spend the money, I needed to at least get a glimpse of another part of China since I’m looking to head back there for work. Although I’m confident I’ll land back in Beijing, it’s good to know I have a better picture of southern China, so if opportunities arise in different parts of the country, I’ll be able to make a much more informed decision.
If you have any other questions or comments please feel free to leave them below and I’ll get back to you!
My name is Nate Nault, and I'm the creator of The Study Abroad Blog. Studying abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and my goal is to help students make the most of it. Feel free to connect with me here or on just about any social network in existence.