Shanghai’s secret ancient town

An old man fishing the canal by long pole

Timing is everything, so the saying goes. Well the timing of our trip to China saw the continuation of our lucky run. As it happened, we were in Shanghai at the same time as Frank, an old mate from Melbourne. Frank was back in his old hometown to share the New Year festivities with his family.

Frank offered to show us one of Shanghai’s hidden gems. Who could refuse an offer like that? So we jumped on the subway and made our way a short way across town. We exited the subway onto a broad commercial boulevard and the anywhere nature of our surrounds led me to question whether we had got off at the wrong stop, but just ten minutes down the road we found the Qibao Ancient Town.

Qibao is an ancient water town hidden in the heart of a metropolis, just eleven kilometres from downtown Shanghai. Crossing the threshold we left the soulless high-rises, neon signs and broad traffic laden roads of modern Shanghai and walked into the bustling cobbled laneways.  It was like stepping back in time. The street was alive with colour and movement, red lanterns were strung up in every doorway and street corner. Multi tiered wooden pagodas and temples with tiled roofs finishing in a flurry of curved flourishes that draw eye and soul skyward. An old man smoked beneath the quaint stone bridge and fished the freezing canal waters by long pole. Shops and street vendors crowded the lanes with their wild and wonderful wares: foods of every kind, fireworks and rice whiskey.

I kept my eye out for one of Mr Wing’s suppliers so I could pick myself up a wholesale Mogwai but unfortunately we didn’t stumble across one. My disappointment was well and truly tapered by the stinky tofu, beer duck and beggars chicken. For the latter, a whole chicken is seasoned with herbs then wrapped in a lotus leaf then slow baked in a clay coating. The legend goes that the cooking method was discovered by a poor man who stole a chicken. He was preparing to cook it on the fire when the landowner happened along. To conceal his crime, he quickly wrapped it in mud and threw it in the fire, later he discovered the succulent cooked chook inside.

We spent a couple of hours wandering the streets reveling in the atmosphere. Then it was time to go. I got myself a porcelain flask of rice whiskey, a box of dumplings and walked back to the subway feeling thoroughly grateful to Frank for having shown us something we would never have otherwise seen.

Beggars chicken for sale at a street vendor
Chinese temple at Qibao Ancient Town

The lanes of Qibao Ancient Town

A red-letter stay in Shanghai

The streets of Shanghai on the eve of the Year of the Tiger

A week in Shanghai was a fitting end to our six-month expedition; we were there to share the New Year festivities with Amy’s cousin Toby, his wife Bonnie and their little boy, Sonny. It was a great time to visit, Shanghai is at its least crowded during that time of year, factories are shut and many of the people are on holiday. That being said, we were still left in awe of the sprawling metropolis, Shanghai is very much the archetype city of the new China.

I noticed very early on that the Chinese have a very different idea of the concept of luck. It is obvious that it is fundamentally important in all aspects of everyday life but I also noticed that it seems to be also something that can be influenced. Not content to wait for the winds of chance to blow favourably, Lady Fortune is coerced and courted.

By visiting during the New Year celebrations, we had definitely made our own luck. We saw a different side of the city; the weeklong national holiday had the city moving to a different beat. In a place where a sense of urgency is the norm people seemed to be taking a moment, pausing to reflect. As we ate, shopped and strolled amongst a maze of skyscrapers that just a generation ago would have been town houses and fields there were times when it seemed as if everybody had packed up and gone. Apparently that wasn’t too far from the truth, for many, the New Year holidays provide an opportunity to travel back to the towns and villages of their birth to spend time with family and friends.

With all the factories closed, the air was fresh and clear. The roads, while still chaotic were negotiable. There were times when the streets were largely deserted. In places usually hectic to an inch of your life, not a soul was to be seen. There were also times when a flood of unexpected visitors converged on what would normally be the city’s sanctuaries meaning that they were mercilessly devoured back into the metropolis.

There were a couple of staples of Shanghai life that even the celebration of the New Year couldn’t alter. The malls were full and so were the restaurants. I shudder to think what they are like when the city is in full swing.

Food is one of the fundamental aspects of Chinese culture. Meals are to be enjoyed, a time shared with family and friends. And so it was with us, we spent many hours eating and laughing with Toby and Bonnie. It is those eating experiences that will linger most vividly in my memories of Shanghai.

This isn’t to say that the Shanghai dining experience is a walk in the park. As an uncouth Australian, the language barrier was a very initiating hurdle as was the plethora of delicious looking digestibles. This meant ordering wasn’t a matter of peruse and pick rather a complex series of negotiations. As luck had it Bonnie is fluent in both Shanghaise and Mandarin and a shrewd diner to boot. She asked the hard questions and demanded the best but she always got results. This meant that we sampled a substantial share of Shanghai’s finest fare. So many satisfying meals make it hard to pinpoint the highlight but the crab and egg stew, a mixed mushroom stir-fry, chili beef and the shared hot pot stand out.

The actual New Year celebrations were something to behold. Shanghai was at its eerie best for the start of the Year of the Tiger. Bonnie and Toby live in an apartment on the 12th floor so it provided the ideal spot to sit back and watch the city put on its show. And what a show it was. In the hours leading up to midnight the city was flooded with flash and flare to the point of being reminiscent of a coordinated carpet-bombing campaign. But the lead up proved just a flash in the pan when compared to the New Year extravaganza that followed. Forget the choreographed and coordinated fireworks displays you see at events and milestones in Australia. This was a free for all of epic proportions. Families, friends and individual punters had brought bulk explosives and put on dazzling excessive displays, competing against one another to see who could pull off the biggest bang. The entire skyline was engulfed with colour, light and noise. A million different explosions overwhelmed all senses. Then came the calm after the storm. The city was left shrouded in a haze of smoke and the ground covered in a blanket of red, the shredded remains of the fireworks. Then the snow began to fall.

The following day – New Years day – we again went in pursuit of luck, this time at the Shanghai zoo. We practically had the place to ourselves meaning that all the luck associated with seeing Bengal and Sumatran tigers, on the first day of the year of the tiger was heaped upon us.

That was how we welcomed in the Year of Tiger in Shanghai. We ate, drank, laughed and became creatures of the night. We braved icy winds, smokey jazz clubs, explored the lonely streets and marveled at the spindled grey skyline. Fortuity, providence, chance, serendipity, whatever you call it, landed us in Shanghai. Our time with Toby, Bonnie and Sonny made it great. I count myself lucky to have visited Shanghai.

Sonny Mak: a little tiger living it up in the Year of the Tiger
Amy in the early hours of New Year's day
Amy in the early hours of New Year’s day

Toby Mak playing at the Melting Pot

Getting your toggs off in Thailand

Beach goers get their kit off in Phuket
Beach goers get their kit off in Phuket

Having done a lot of swimming in my time I was very comfortable with my Speedo wearing ability. I was quite confident on my ability to hold my own going into our trip to Thailand. Oh, how wrong I was!

When you go on a big trip it often gets to the point where you need to take a holiday from your holiday. That is what we headed to Thailand for and that is what the Thai tourism industry is banking on. Tourism certainly is big business there: according to the yellow bible (South East Asia on a Shoestring Lonely Planet) Thailand received 13 million foreign visitors in 2006.

From my experience, all of them like wearing Speedos. In the two weeks we spent lazing on Thai beaches (Koh Tao, Koh Phi Phi and Phuket) I was inequitably found out as a tin-pot dick-togg wearing pretender incapable of smuggling a budgie with any semblance of dignity.

Maybe, the lack of coconut and baby oil on my skin contributed to my incompetence. Maybe it was that I was loath to spend entire days frying myself in the sun.

Either way I just couldn’t compete with a dizzying multitude of European men wearing skimpy, high-cut, multi-coloured slug huggers all with clapt-out bog-catcher arses.

Not to be outdone, the women get amongst the skimpfest as well. It seems Thailand is the place to get your boosies out. And age is no obstacle, in fact it seems the older, more saggy and wrinkly they are the more likely they are to have their bits out. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great. I’m just too prudish to get amongst it.

With tourism being such a massive industry many of Thailand’s beach areas are super developed and westernised but it is still a great place to unwind from the rigors of Asian travel. It also provides the ideal setting to put your sun and skimp skills to the test against some really stiff competition.

Self-reflection from the top

Sunrise from the summit of Mount Kinabalu
Sunrise from the summit of Mount Kinabalu

What is this overwhelming urge that drives us to climb big stuff? When did it first start? Where did come from? Most likely a group of caveman were sitting around their cave fire, they had finished gnawing on the roasted mammoth they speared earlier in the day and had exhausted their conversation about the advantages of bronze over stone. One sits back contentedly then notices the snowcapped peak rising above their campsite. Suddenly his blood begins to boil with envy and quiet rage. Before going to sleep he thinks, “Look at you sitting there, so high and mighty. I’ll show you!”

The next morning he and his mates are lugging their hairy arses up some monstrously dangerous mountain.

I guess it has something to do with ego, the need to challenge yourself and, in doing so, learn more about your self and your limits. Irrespective, you have to admit that is quite odd that people choose to traipse up and down a big hill in the freezing cold in pursuit of some elusive glimpse of self-enlightenment. Why not just climb up and down some stairs in the comfort (and warmth) of your own home?

Not that I can talk, Amy and I were overcome by the same irrational impulse while in Borneo. Somehow, we convinced ourselves that it was a good idea to climb up and down Mount Kinabalu.

At 4150m, it is the highest mountain in South East Asia.  On a clear day you can see the Philippines from its summit, and we climbed up and down it.

I use the word ‘climb’ liberally as while we found the going quite tough (coming as we did off an intensive six month preseason of pissing on and sitting around) the route is very well established, meaning that ‘walking up a steep track’ is probably a more apt description.

While there are various permutations, to climb to the summit you have to buy a package. We caught a mini-bus from Kota Kinabalu at 7:30am. Arriving at the mountain about two hours later, we checked in our packs, collected our climbing permits and a packed lunch then met our guide. We jumped on another bus which took us up to the park entrance and the beginning of the climb. We spent the next four and a half hours alternating between walking up a really steep track and catching our breath at the rest hunts. We reached the lodge at about 3pm.

We ate, showered and watched the most amazing sunset from above the cloud line before heading to bed at about 8pm.

The next morning saw us rise at 2:30am, scoff down some breakfast before embarking on a two-and-a-half hour trek up to the summit. Negotiating the steep but smooth granite slopes in the dark was interesting but it was the biting cold that consumed us once we reached the summit, which was the most challenging part of the experience. It was well worth it to watch the ever-changing dawn light illuminate the stunning vista that stretched off in every direction.

From that point there was no other way but down. We reached the lodge at 8am, had breakfast number two before completing the four hour trek back down to the park entrance.

I am not sure that our walk up and down Mount Kinabalu taught me anything new about myself or my ego. What I did get was sore legs and a memorable sunrise.

Borneo: forecast unknown

A juvenile orangutan in trees of the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
A juvenile orangutan in trees of the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

Common wisdom holds that you should prepare for travel: do some research about your destination, read some travel guides, and speak to friends and family who have been there before you.

It gives you ideas on what to do and where to go but it also builds expectation. This becomes a problem when the actual travel experience differs from the expectations you have imagined.

We had very high expectations for our time in Sabah Borneo. The things I read and the people I spoke to made it sound fantastic: great diving, jungle and mountain trekking, orangutans, pigmy elephants and great food.

Unfortunately we couldn’t help but feeling a little disappointed when we left. Much of it had to do with bad timing. The fact that it pissed with rain nearly the entire time we were there meant that the jungle trek we had planned was cancelled due to flooding, the beach time was average and the diving visibility poor. The North Borneo Railway line being closed for renovations also didn’t help.

But also unavoidable was the fact that much of Sabah Borneo isn’t the undeveloped jungle paradise we had imagined. Massive tracks of jungle have been logged and replaced by palm plantations, which makes for morbidly monotonous bus trips

Many of the tourist highlights are either highly regulated or ridiculously expensive. While it was exciting to see orangutans feeding in the jungle at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, average punters only get a minute glimpse of the reserve from the confines of boardwalk not much more than a hundred metres long.

That being said, we did have some great times. The food was fantastic, climbing Mount Kinabalu was amazing and the Sandakan Memorial Park, which marks the site of an infamous WWII Japanese Prisoner of War Camp, was heart-wrenchingly fascinating. There were also some unexpected gems like when Amy’s fruit salad was served drowned in mayonnaise, or surviving an eight hour ride in the back of 4WD with nine adults and seven kids under the age of three.

I learnt a lot from our visit to Borneo. First and foremost, disregard your expectations. Secondly, if you want to fully appreciate the natural gems that Sabah Borneo has to offer (the diving at Sipadan or the unspoiled beauty of the Maliau Basin) take a wad of cash. And finally, if you are going to plan ahead for a journey to Borneo, start by planning a visit in the dry season.