Tianjin was on my China bucket list. Not because it's famous for anything - but more because it's a big city that's really close to Beijing. It took me (and my beloved class mates) over 2 years to finally take that 35 minute train ride to Tianjin. We were in for a pleasant surprise.
Before I let the pictures (and the captions) do the talking, here are some facts about Tianjin:
Sources: Chinatoday.com, Wikipedia
Welcome to China's far Western region of Xinjiang. A place we were lucky enough to visit last week during the October holiday. It is safe to say that this is like no other place I've seen in China and I hope you learn something too and get inspired to visit this truly fascinating region.
Sightseeing. You're in for a treat!
Despite having only visited a tiny fraction of Xinjiang, my family and I were struck by its beauty and diversity. You can visit Swiss-like alpine lakes one day and feel like you're in the midst of an Indiana Jones movie set the next day. You can enjoy Chinese noodles at lunch and a lamb kebab with freshly baked naan for dinner.
The city of Kashgar in the far west is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Xinjiang. It is known for its old town, the hustle and bustle of its bazaars and livestock markets, and for various sights outside the city (such as the Mor buddhist pagoda). After this description, it may come as a surprise to you that we opted for the eastern past of Xinjiang. We decided to stay in the capital Urumqi mainly because of travel time and airfares - but also because I had my eyes set on two particular sights I wanted to visit:
Heavenly lake - or Tian chi - is an alpine lake. At 2200 metres above sea level, it is classified as the highest level scenic area in China. The site has undergone a recent multi-million restoration (providing, among other things, comfortable walking paths around the lake) and this place is the perfect spot for a day trip if you're staying in Urumqi. We found the Regional museum in Urumqi interesting and had a very nice, traditional Uyghyr dinner at "Miraj". But apart from that, we were not that impressed with the capital of Xinjiang. The area around Turpan was a whole different story. On our third day in Xinjiang, we set off on a day trip with a local Uygur guide and a (han Chinese) driver. It quickly became apparent that our programme was a bit too ambitious and we ended up feeling sorry for our exhausted driver - though he did not complain, Our "dream team" took us to some spectacular places - namely the Bezaklik Thousand Buddha Caves, the charming old village of Tuyoq, the majestic Flaming Mountains and the ancient city of Jiaohe. Should you decide to explore the Turpan area, I recommend that you stay at least one night in Turpan,
We only had 5 days in Xinjiang and I am sure I could have listed plenty of other famous sights if we had had time to explore them. Imagine how much time one would need to see all of France, Spain, Germany and Great Britain? Until next time. I am not done with Xinjiang.
Finally: enjoy some pictures
Inspiration and sources: Farwestchina.com, The Atlantic, South China Morning Post, Aljazeera.com,
Cooking has always been one of my least favourite chores and since we moved to China I have really tried to find the passion for cooking by buying new cook books, strapping recipes from magazines and watching cooking channels - including my friend Jens's genius youtube channel peking papa. But alas. Ask me to host a dinner party and I'll be quite happy but everyday cooking, not so much.
But I have a solution for that. An incredibly privileged solution! Like 99% of expat families in Beijing, we have an Ayi. A maid. She comes a whopping 5 times a week for 4 hours. She tidies up, washes and irons our clothes, cleans and...cooks. I still have to get used to having a maid so I am still as disorganised as when we lived in Belgium. I would like her to cook but I forget to plan ahead, buy the necessary groceries or ask her to pass by the market so she can pick up what she needs. But all that is going to change now thanks to my new purchase! A cookbook of everyday French dishes with all the recipes written in English AND Chinese! Ladies and gentlemen I give you "Cuisine mei wenti!"! Mei wenti means "no problem" in Mandarin. The book is divided into sections with starters, main dishes, side dishes and desserts and includes useful information about the differences between Western cuisine and Chinese cuisine. For example, point 6 is "MSG is not usually used" [in Western cuisine]. Yes this book is the kind of idea I wish I had had! Just like other great ideas that cater for expats and tackle the language barrier here in China. But the woman who DID have the idea is called Olivia Guinebault and I am very happy that my neighbour Anna passed me her contact. However, I am very curious to see if the book lives up to its promise on the front page: "Daily cooking becomes a pleasure". Well if not for me then for the Ayi :-)
Son: “Mamma, I think I've been scammed”
Me: “oh no! Did you drink tea?”
Son: “How did you know??”
Me: “stay where you are. I’ll come with the police”.
Thursday last week: we had just arrived in Shanghai. I was relaxing at the at the hotel after an early start and a 5-hour train ride and my 17 year old son had gone for a walk on his own when I received the above wechat message from him.
So how DID I know about this scam? Well it is a quite common scam (which I had obviously forgotten to warn my kids about!) and I’ve heard that it’s more common in Shanghai than in Beijing.
Here's how it works:
Women or young couples (who are hired by restaurants/tea houses) go to the streets and approach foreigners. They'll sometimes ask to have their picture taken with you and then they start chatting. Are you a student? what do you do? etc. and finally they invite you to join them to drink tea at a tea house.
The tea is often presented as the most exclusive tea and - like in my son’s case - sometimes you're also offered a glass of Sake.
Then the bill arrives. And tadaaaaah: it’s on you!
My son was lucky. It was 400 kuai (around 50 euros) but it is often much more.
What we did
As soon as I got my son's text, I went to the reception of our hotel and asked them to call the police. That first step was rather easy but when the police arrived and I had to explain what had happened and why my 17 year old was out on his own in Shanghai, it became a bit complicated. I had to quickly think of a friend who spoke perfect English and who was a Chinese native speaker. I am very grateful to Alan who stepped in (on the phone) from Beijing!
My point was: My son is underage, I know he’s been scammed, they mustn’t get away with this, and yes I also played the “I’m-a-diplomat” card.
The next thing I see is a huge police van and two officers. They are there to pick me up so we can go together and face the owner of the restaurant. It was a very short trip but I had time to grin a little to myself while thinking “excuse me, is this a strange dream or am I finding myself in the back of a police van in Shanghai?"
My son is waiting for us outside the restaurant and we walk in together. The officers speak to the owner in Chinese (aaaargh I was so frustrated that I couldn’t understand) and within less than one minute, he gives my son 400 rmb cash. He even walked us to the lift and bowed in a slightly embarassed way.
I want to thank the Shanghai police! The policemen were kind and efficient! One of them spoke English and gave me a call the next day to say that they were doing a follow-up. But my boy was the bravest: He immediately realised that something was not right. He then contacted me and even managed to take a picture of the two women who will hopefully have to find a new job!
What to do if it happens to you:
It won’t because I’ve just warned you! :-)
I should mention that we had a great weekend in Shanghai despite this incident and that Chinese cities are generally very safe and people friendly and helpful! ...she said thinking about the similar tourist trap we fell into in Suzhou the next day when we paid a private tour organizer (in advance) and they just put us a public bus and said "bye bye"! Bad, bad luck! Nothing more!
Recently I've been giving myself quite a few high-fives for convincing the rest of the family to buy a car. It turned out to be a good decision!
The first of October is the Chinese National day and the week following is known as "Golden week. So we decided to take the car on holiday! Yes, proper inauguration of our Volvo from 2003.
We chose Inner Mongolia (which is in China not in Mongolia) as our destination because it sounded interesting and is within a bearable distance from Beijing (see map below). That was the official explanation. I was later to find out that my husband suggested Inner Mongolia because there was a marathon there during Golden week. Sneaky!
We have many (rather long) road trips behind us. It's practical! Pack your bags, fill the car up with snacks and drinks, give the kids orders to bring enough stuff for them not to be bored during the trip. Electronics galore in our case. No, wait - to be fair, one child actually brought a BOOK too!
The highway on the first of October: Oh dear!
We were optimistic and left Beijing at 7 am. It was supposed to be 6 am but we didn't manage to get ready on time. And I wonder if it would have changed anything. The first 10 K went smoothly but then it changed. We should have listened to advice about avoiding the highways on the 1st of October!! It took us 4 hours to do the next 60 K!!! It cleared up after the exit to the Badalling Great wall section. Finally out of the woods! And into the first highway toilet and "restaurant" of the day. It wasn't pretty. And the food on offer was single wrapped chicken feet and boiled eggs. But we managed to find a roll of Oreos. Lunch!
First stop: Hohhot, Inner Mongolia
As most of our road trips, nothing was really planned. We did not book a guided tour to stay in yurts and drink sheep's milk for breakfast. In retrospective, that might have been a better way of doing it, but we never got round to looking into options, prices etc. So we booked the Sheraton in Hohhot (and I can hear you go "come ON"! Seriously?"). But it was the perfect base for a couple of nice temples, the Inner Mongolia museum and a fantastic day at the Xilamuren grasslands! Hohhot has 2,5 million inhabitants and is the capital of Inner Mongolia. It's quite interesting also thanks to its large Hui Muslim population, A city where temples and mosques lie side by side. However, I would say that 3 days there is more than enough!
Second stop: Bayannur, Inner Mongolia
4 hours further west lies Bayannur. A city of almost 1.7 million inhabitants which is famous for...nothing. And tourists are a very rare sight there. Check out my pictures below of us being treated like superstars. But the said Marathon (Bayannur International Marathon) took place here and more than the city itself, the Marathon became the reason why Bayannur was an unforgettable experience.
My husband Francesco was invited, together with other foreign runners, to participate in the race. Their travel expenses, hotel and food for 3 days were offered. As is a cash reward for finishing the race. This is a common practice used at sports events in China. Partly because these runners give the city an image of being attractive to foreigners but there is much more to it and rest assured that I will write more about this soon!
We stayed at a typical Chinese hotel in Bayannur. Good standard, rather clean and with a buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I believe the food was the same for all three meals. Thank God for the owner of the hotel shop who had decided to stock up on Snicker bars!
Apart from the western runners, there was a group of professional runners from Kenya and Ethiopia. Rarely have I met such a nice and humble group of people! So much sacrifice and training. Travelling the world (when their agents manage to book them in) for weekly races to try to make a living.
The marathon went quite well for Francesco, the atmosphere at the finish line was great, and our visit in Bayannur ended on a high in the evening where a rock concert had been organised. Needless to say that the whole group became selfie targets again.
On the road again - back to Beijing!
We were around 950 kilometres from Beijing and decided to drive back in one day. The distance did not scare us but we were worried about what would happen once we approached Beijing. It was the third last day of "Golden week" and we knew it would be a busy travelling day. But it went smoothly! And once we were back home, we thanked the old Volvo and agreed that there will be many more self-drive holidays to come!
What to know when taking a road trip in China: