Archive for the ‘Tales from the Middle Kingdom’ Category

Beijing's Temple of Heaven

Since I’ve returned from China, lots of people have asked me for recommendations on where to go, what to eat and what else is important to know/ what I wish I knew before I visited China. This post covers what else is important to know:

  1. Facebook, twitter, YouTube is banned in China. To get round this, you will need to download a free VPN such at Hotspot or Freegate prior to going to China (downloading these via email or from websites are also blocked). The brands of VPN change as the “the Great Firewall” adapts. Apple users have to pay for web-based VPN such as securitales (approx USD 8 per month).
  2. English is still not widely spoken even in the larger cities like Beijing. So you will still need to know basic mandarin.
  3. Spitting happens all the time and everywhere! I have heard stories of people trying to overtake someone on the pavement and accidentally have someone’s spit hit them in the face so beware!
  4. Air pollution is bad, awful, terrible! There are days when you can barely see the blue sky because of the cloud of smog and it can linger for days or mysteriously go away overnight.
  5. Pedestrian crossings – it’s never safe even when the light is green! Cars and bicycles still drive like they have the right of way.
  6. Western medication is not easily available – bring your own paracetamol, food poisoning pills and whatever else medication you may need. Chinese traditional medicine is widely used, supermarkets and international pharmacies like Watsons and Mannings which are available in other Asian countries don’t stock western meds at all.
  7. Cosmetics and beauty products – while they do have these products in China if you’re fussy about a particular brand of hair products (esp. Non Asian hair products), moisturizers, contact lense solution, etc it is best to bring your own. Waxing products are hard to find!
  8. All imported products are expensive! Wine and beer is twice the price in London, butter and chocolate is probably 3 times the price! Cosmetics, high street and luxury branded clothes can be up to 20% more expensive in China. Local alcohol is cheap though!
  9. Fake stuff – there are markets selling fake everything! Fake branded clothes, shoes, bags, electronics (iPhones, cameras), cosmetics (Mac makeup, OPI nail polish). So if something is too good or cheap to be true, it most probably is! Even fake food, they have fake eggs that look, crack and cook like real eggs but taste like plastic and we’ve all heard about the melamine tainted milk.
  10. Chinese food in the North is very different from the South! The Chinese food they have in London’s Chinatown, Malaysia, Singapore etc are southern (more delicate, less strongly flavored).Northern Chinese food tends to be oily, salty and spicy!

hope this helps! China is pretty awesome and generally safe from serious crimes. Petty crime like conning tourists out of their cash, providing sub-quality products, taxis taking tourists on joy rides but safely to the destination is fairly common. Just be streetwise!

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Sichuan food is one of the more famous types of Chinese cuisine. My first impression of Sichuan food was VERY oily and spicy. Yup, to make hot pot they put so much chilli oil you cannot see the actual soup but through the years I’ve grown to love Sichuan food after trying out some really good Sichuan restaurants in the UK and Malaysia which have other more delicate and less oily dishes.

As Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan and we only had a few precious days there, we planned our meals carefully and spoke to the lovely locals we met along the way who recommended where to eat. We met a local couple from Chengdu on our tour and when we told them that we were visiting their hometown, the lady stopped eating dinner and wrote down a list of places to eat.  So here’s our journey:

First stop: Long Chao Shou (龙抄手)

The translation of the name is dragon won ton or dragon dumpling but famouse mainly because they have 2 set menus where you can try Chengdu’s famous street food:

Option 1: 12 snacks for RMB 28

Option 2: 14 snacks for RMB 32

Obviously we went for Options 2!

Our 14 course lunch 😉

Was good to have tried these but in all honesty they seemed pretty stodgy. The highlights were the sweets, desserts and dumplings.

Second Stop – Kuan Xiang Zi Alley(宽窄巷子)

Translated as Broad Alley, Kuan Xiang Zi is a modernised trendy hutong (alleyways) with good restaurants, cafes, tea houses and stalls selling street food as well as handicrafts. It’s pretty much modern day China trying to be reminiscence of olden day China much like Nan Lu Gou Xiang in Beijing.

Old man smoking a pipe

Sugar craftsmen

Now on to real food –

Stalls at Kuan Xiang zi alley

Noodle stall

Taufu and fish taufu - spicy!


More food

Third stop: Da Rong He (大蓉和) at Shuhan Lu

The street sign on Shuhan Lu literally states “A taste of the world” (一品天下).  This road was listed in our places to eat but did not state which restaurant to visit. This road is very long and is lined with restaurants on both sides. With that much choice, how does one decide on which one is good and which isn’t? We approached some locals working in a hair salon on this street to suggest a good restaurant for Chuan Cai (Sichuan food) and ended up at Da Rong He.

Restaurant speciality - Bull catfish casserole

Ronghe Jar (various delicacies simmered in a jar)

Better than mapo tofu

This was the best meal I had in Sichuan. Everything was delicious!

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My first ever panda sighting - he walked out towards us sat down and faced us and clapped is left paw to his right foot.

Chengdu (成都) is the capital of Sichuan (四川) and is one of the largest cities in China but the main reason it is on my map is because it is the home of the giant pandas!!! My first ever panda experience was at Chengdu’s Panda Breeding Centre located a ’30 minutes drive’ from the city centre and it surpassed all my expectations of how cute they would be. They are just the most adorable, gentle and clumsy creatures on earth with such cute personalities.

We arrived at 9am which is during the panda feeding time and when they are most active-

Step 1 - Use paws to hold bambo and collect several leaves using mouth

Step 2 - Hold stack of leaves with paw and take small bites

Apparently they are not very sociable and can be ferocious but when you see these sweeties, it’s really hard to believe.

A pair of sweeties

Remarkably human like postures

Full grown pandas eat up to 40kg of bamboo leaves each day. Only found in China, Giant Pandas have a carnivorous digestive tract and can only absorb 20% of the nutrients (that’s a whole lot of poo!) so they spend a large portion of the day eating or resting to conserve energy.

The 3 stooges

Was thrilling to be able to see them (relatively) upclose

Eating so much can be tiring too...

And then on to the Sunshine nursery to see baby pandas

2-3 month old pandas snoozing in a row. Awwww....

When baby pandas are born, they are 1/1000th of their mother’s weight and look a lot like hairless pink mice. These are 2-3 months old based on their name tags and date of birth. Seems like each mum gives birth to 2 cubs which range from 67g – 150g at birth.

It's a panda's life - woken up to have his tummy scratched

Melts any heart...

We were really blessed, the weather was ideal panda watching weather (cloudy and cool) when we arrived so we saw them frolicking and playing with each other. They were swinging from the bars, tumbling with each other on the ground.

Cubs playing their mum

Cuddly and rotund looking

Other attractions at the center

Red pandas look like raccoons

Miss International 2011 contestants where there too...

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Huang long is translated yellow dragon. I assume the reason it’s called huang long is because of the cascading pools of blue water that look like scales of the dragon?! The colorful pools formed by calcite deposits, especially in Huanglonggou (Yellow Dragon Gully), as well as diverse forest ecosystems, snow-capped peaks, waterfalls and hot springs.

View on the way up to Huanglong by bus:

Snow ridge

Snow capped peaks of Minshan mountain range

Getting off the bus for photo op

The landscape is so different, hard to believe this is a few hours away from jiuzhaigou! One of my classmates tried to visit huanglong a few days before us but the roads were blocked by snow.

At the top as we exited from the cable car

It’s a really strange feeling to be in high altitudes where the air is thinner. I think it’s a little more unexpected for people who are generally young and in good health because you feel out of breath and more get tired much quicker. E.g. One flight of steps feels like 4 flights so it was wise to choose to take the cable car up and walk down!


First glimpse of the cascading pools

Time for a cheesy photo 😛

View from the top of the pools

Curious how these calcified pools are formed in these shapes

More posing required

Huanglong is beautiful but visiting jiuzhaigou yesterday was a hard act to follow. It’s harder to impress me today than it was yesterday

Blue pools

Blue pools


Pools everywhere


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Jiuzhaigou valley is UNESCO heritage site located in Sichuan, China and is a MUST visit. I had seen photos of this place years ago and was the #1 place to visit on my list when I chose to come to China. I know it’s very cliche but the photos really do not capture how beautiful and awe inspiring it was.

Jiuzhaigou is literally translated as nine village valley and lends it’s name from the 9 Tibetan villages that used to be here and is now an awesome nature reserve and national park. I know, AWESOME and nature reserve don’t usually go together until you see Jiuzhaigou. See how hard I am trying to sell this place?

We flew into Chengdu and it was a 12 hour bus ride to get to jiuzhaigou valley. Depending which part of the valley you are at, it is approx 2,000m to 4,800m above sea level so most of us had mild symptoms of altitude sickness which goes away after a couple of hours. I probably wouldn’t have realised it was altitute sickness if I hadn’t googled it before leaving on vacation while waiting for my friend to come down.

For more info on altitude sickness:


Now back to Jiuzhaigou! There are multiple lakes and waterfalls located in the forest. There is an option to either take the bus or walk within the valley.  The walk paths are paved and steps well maintained, we walked a bit and took the bus for the longer distances as we only had one day here but could have easily spent 2 days here.

Map of the area

The photos really do not do this place justice, this place is beautiful from every angle.

View from the entrance to Jiuzhaigou

Because its quite high up, the weather here is quite extreme. In autumn, when I was there it was snowy/frosty in the morning and quite hot during mid day. According to other locals we met there, it rains frequently here so pack an umbrella and wear a rain proof jacket. Fortunately, we were blessed with good weather and not a drop of rain because we didn’t bring any rainproof clothing. Phew!

Photo doesn't quite capture it - glistening frost in the sunshine

Arrow Bamboo Lake

Arrow Bamboo Lake

Arrow Bamboo Falls

First glimpse of Panda Lake

Panda Lake apparently got its name because Pandas used to swim here

I can so imagine pandas living happy and freely here. Such a shame they are no longer many living in the wild (but check out my post on Chengdu’s panda reserve).

Panda Lake from the other side

Wildlife still here:

Fishes in the lake


Mandarin ducks (not these) still live here – mandarin ducks are popular emblems in Chinese weddings because the mate for life with their partner.


Catching a glimpse of mirror lake through the trees

5 Coloured lake – all lakes here are blue but these have coloured plants living in the water. Even puddles are blue! Apparently it’s the minerals in the water that causes the water to be blue.

5 coloured lake

Another view of the 5 coloured lake

More photos of the 5 coloured lake

Beauty of nature...

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Forming the heart of Beijing is the Forbidden City, officially known as the Palace Museum. Near the top on my “must visit” list, it is China’s most magnificent architectural complex and was the symbolic centre of the Chinese universe. The palace was exclusive to the imperial court and was only open to public in 1949 (not that long ago considering it was built in 1420). It is massive and needs quite a few hours to explore, we went after class on a weekday and I think I want to visit again so I can take it all in at a leisurely pace. Ticket prices to visit attractions are really cheap in China! A full price ticket is only RMB 60 (about MYR 30 or GBP 6 in Oct 2011) and only RMB 20 if you have a valid student card, RMB 40 for the audio guide.

Highlights of the Forbidden city:

1) Entrance at Tian’an Men – Mao proclaimed the founding of the people’s republic of china on 1 Oct 1949 from this Ming Dynasty gate, where his portrait still remains today

Chairman Mao's portrait at Tian'an Men

2) The forbidden city is actually enclosed within a larger walled area called the imperial city. The Outer court which is most of the other buildings in this complex was to service a city within a city.

3) Meridian Gate – Entrance to the forbidden city with two wings

Meridian gate (午门)

4) Golden water – 5 marble bridges, symbolizes the 5 cardinal virtues of confucianism, cross the golden water which flows from west to east in a course designed to resemble the jade belts worm by officials

5) Chinese lions – Lions guard the entrances of halls, the female has a lion cub under its paw but the male lion has a ball

Chinese lions that guard entrances

6) Gate of supreme harmony – used for receiving visitors but later used for banquets during the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1912)

Gate of Supreme Harmony, double eaved hall

7) Hall of supreme harmony – largest hall in the palace which was used for major occasions such as the enthronement of an emperor

Me in front of the Hall of Supreme Harmony

Throne in the Hall of Supreme Harmony

Grounds of the forbidden city - Hall of Middle Harmony and Hall of Preserving Harmony in the background

8) Marble carriageway – this 200 tonne single slab of marble was moved here from Fangshan by spraying the roads with water during winter to ice the roads and pulled all the way here.

Marble carriageway

9) Imperial Flower Gardens

Pavilion of a Thousand Autumns in the Imperial Gardens

Rock garden


Tile reliefs

Walk ways

Roof guardians – odd number of these figures are associated with water and meant to protect the building from fire

Roof guardians

View of the imperial city from Jingshan park clouded in Haze. You know I love Beijing, but pollution like this is quite literally killing me.

View of Forbidden city from Jingshan Park - clouded in haze

Maybe I’m a little jaded by now but I was a little dissapointed by the Forbidden City, it’s a massive complex but not as grand or spectacular as I expected (think Mulan or the last emperor). Maybe it’s like the pyramids,  just the shell remains and the movies we’ve seen makes us expect to bump into indiana jones and the treasures inside but since the treasures have been gutted and moved to museums you need to visit both to take in the full wonder. Unfortunately, in preparation for the Japanese invasion they moved the treasures from the forbidden city to Taiwan and is now housed in the Taiwan National Palace Museum in Taipei.

Night shot of Gate of Heavenly Purity

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Hua Shan (literal translation is magnificent mountain) is the western most and loftiest of China’s Five Sacred Taoist Mountains, and has a long history of religious significance. The mountain has five main peaks (North, South, East, West and Central) and is likened to a lotus bloom. The highest peak according to wikipedia is the South Peak at 2154.9m and according to my guidebook is 2,610m.

It is characterised by steep ascents, precipitous gullies and peerless views. The views from above was amazing and was even better than usual because of the autumnal colours of the foliage. The mountain climb takes approx 2.5 to 4 hours depending on your speed but the climb looked pretty treacherous. There are steps but some steps are really steep and shallow (half the length of my foot) and I could see people gripping the chains to hoist themselves up those steps. I knew in that instant, the wait for the cable car was all worth it as I would arrive near the top fresh and ready to walk around and enjoy the scenery 😛

Walking path

Perched on the side of the mountain

Hua shan steps

Once you’re past the cable car ride, it’s a leisurely climb with relatively comfortable steps or if not just for a few metres as you have to ascend or descend from a rock.

haiyaaaaaa! Attempting to move the mountain

Life on the mountain

Breath taking sight

We visited the the mountain during the National holidays and the queue for the cable car took us 2.5 hours! I never knew I could be in close proximity to strangers for such long periods of time…  all part of the experience I suppose!

The queue for the cable car.

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