Suzhou moat bridgeA few days later than planned, I boarded an overnight train to Shanghai (上海) and once again entered China proper. As I watched the countryside whizz by, the sheet scale and pace of construction staggered me – there was not a single kilometre we passed that did not have either an apartment complex, road or train line being put together out of steel and concrete. Needless to say, the land itself was a Bosch-like chaos of litter, discoloured water, mud, factories and half-demolished buildings, and my reacquaintance with China was quite depressing.

I arrived in Shanghai just before lunchtime, met up with Dan (whom you may remember from previous exploits in Korea) and proceeded to find the Propaganda Poster Art Museum just over the road from his apartment. After a quick tour through communist history, we went in search of lunch and discovered that the two vegetarian restaurants in the area had both closed down (presumably due to lack of clientèle in meat-ubiquitous China). Our wanderings were frequently punctuated by the machine-gun-like reports of firecrackers going off – at New Year, everyone gets hold of as many fireworks as they can and sets them off in the street. For days after the main events, the roads and pavements are awash with tattered red confetti from the wrappings.

Left: The southern moat bridge in Suzhou. Below, left to right: Bao’en Temple from Beisi Pagoda in Suzhou.

Bao'en from Beisi (1)Bao'en bridge

Bao'en gazeboI had an extra day before moving on, and we decided to go to nearby Suzhou (苏州) as both of us had seen quite a bit of Shanghai already. Unfortunately, several hundred other people had the same idea and we couldn’t get a train until the afternoon (though it did give us the chance to check out M50, an art collective in an old warehouse complex not unlike The Custard Factory in Birmingham). Pointedly ignoring all the taxi touts (perhaps a mistake, as things turned out), we walked over the river to Bao-en Temple and hiked up the nine-storey Beisi Pagoda to the rather precarious viewing balcony hundreds of feet above the city. Suzhou is known as the “Venice of the East”, but the only water we could see was in the temple pond behind us. We picked our way down again and walked the few kilometres to the Master of the Nets Garden, a formal garden that turned out to be closed. As did all the others – the city more or less shuts down at dusk, and we were out of time all too soon.

Left: A gazebo in Bao’en Temple. Below, left to right: Candles in Bao’en Temple, giant incense sticks in Bao’en Temple; Views from and of Beisi Pagoda.

Bao'en candlesBao'en incense

Suzhou from Bao'enBao'en from Beisi (2)Beisi from Bao'en

Old Observatory (1)From Shanghai, I managed to get a train going north to Qingdao (青岛) despite the New Year-travelling masses still persisting (most people had Monday to Friday off, but had to work the following Saturday and Sunday as regular days) and presented myself at the brilliantly-used Old Observatory Youth Hostel for my final days in China. I spent most of my free time walking around the European-style streets and waterfront, though did not get to see the new Olympic facilities as they turned out to be sited several miles away. Such is the rate of redevelopment in China, I reasoned that there was a good chance I’d stumble across an abandoned building while exploring (and, indeed, I did find an entire neighbourhood in mid-demolition). However, the whole place is so derelict to start with that there is no sure-fire way to tell which buildings are abandoned and which are just dilapidated and still in normal use.

Left: The Old Observatory Astrodome. Below, left to right: Qingdao from Zhongshan Park, Qingdao from Gianxiangshan Park; A vine in Gianxiangshan Park, the Old Observatory Astrodome, teh French-built telescope in the Astrodome.

Qingdao from ZhongshanQingdao from Gianxiangshan

Qingdao vineOld Observatory (2)Old Observatory telescope

Weidong Ferry, the operator that runs the China-Korea passenger routes, has two near-the-middle-of-the-line ferries packed with useful facilities such as shops, saunas and eateries. Although a rough crossing would still inevitably mark me as a landsman, I was not particularly concerned about the level of comfort I would experience and prepared my ditty bag for the midshipman’s berth accordingly. I was therefore uncommon hipped when the shuttle bus pulled up outside that infernal slug, the Queen Qingdao – an ancient transport drafted in while the more opulent New Golden Bridge V was refitted. I quickly made my assessment of the new post: nothing in the convenience store except water, Tsingtao beer and Korean canned coffee; nothing in the restaurant except rice, soup and assorted Korean pickled side dishes; no entertainment facilities except a TV in the room; no bathing room; top speed several points off the wind so we would arrive at least five hours late; rust and holes in the deck commonplace; an exterior door wedged open with another door that had fallen off; broken structural supports fixed with Sellotape; all toilet paper used up before the ship was even out of the harbour (note: unfortunately, none of this has been made up or exaggerated). There were, however, three Nutmegesque consolations that made the voyage bearable: I had my own capsule-like berth and so did not have to sail sardine class; said berth had a working power point so I could at least use my laptop; the sea was extremely smooth and I barely felt any swell at all.