Rails to Suzhou

Good day/Namaste/S’mae/How do/Hello/Nihao,

I’ve never done the U.K.’s longest train journey. If you depart Aberdeen at 08:20 you can be stepping into the Cornish night at 21:43 that same day. The destination of Penzance is around 13.5 hours (1162km/722 miles) from Aberdeen station (built 1867), via about 33 stops. The CrossCountry train costs £102.50 in advance or £241.00 on the day. It isn’t a sleeper train. It sounds tortuous.

So, boarding the sleeper train from Humen (Dongguan) via Shenzhen North (深圳北站) to Shanghai was a little less daunting. I could spend most of the journey kipping. I departed at 19:43 and arrived by 06:50 in Shanghai Hongqiao (上海虹桥站). Aside from a man taking my photos and two girls playing on their bright phones in the shared bedroom cubicle, it was an unremarkable but comfortable journey. Wearing a mask for the duration was a necessary evil. The return journey (10:20 from Hangzhou East[(杭州东站) to Shenzhen at 20:39) was much tougher, having to be seated for so long with little chance to stretch. The connecting journeys at either end made for a short wander (less than an hour each time). Considering Shenzhen’s station opened in 2011, Shanghai’s station the year before, and Hangzhou was built in 1992, but refitted in 2013, and all the trains were modern, it was surprisingly easy to scan my passport and travel ticketless, all for about 700rmb each way (around £79.10). Modern rail network. Fair prices – even if they were inflated for the Golden Week holiday period (黄金周).

Why did I travel so far? Well, madness. I haven’t left Dongguan’s city prefecture boundaries since March 26th 2020. The post-COVID-19 restrictions and worries haven’t helped. The first holiday of the school year gave me 8 days to play with. So, armed with an invitation by Tina, my coffee shop friend, off I trotted. The ancient city of Sūzhōu [苏州] is twinned with and often compared to Venice. It is in the same province as Nanjing, a walled-city I visited last summer. I liked there. I was certain that with everyone’s love for Suzhou that I wouldn’t be disappointed. For years I have been hearing from Tom, Dick and Harry how good the city is for travelling around. The hotel selected was the swanky Pan Pacific Suzhou (苏州吴宫泛太平洋酒店). Located close to the Auspicious Light Pagoda (1004 B.C.) it included access to the Panmen gardens and original South Gate of the once-walled-city. Built in 1996, the hotel bizarrely has U.K. plug sockets and other western trimmings but is now undergoing a substantial refurbishment. The location is ideal and relaxing with a great Xinjiang restaurant over the road, and restaurants onsite. The swimming pool looked good, but I didn’t take my trunks.

Suzhou’s tourist areas are colourful and lively. They’re a blend of the old world and new. There’re heaps of plastic and mass-produced goods claiming to be handmade and local. The shops that sell them, and snacks, are numerous. It can feel like Groundhog Day going by the frontages but amongst the clutter there are some genuine brilliant pieces of gold dust. There are collectible shops offering keepsakes and relics, coffee shops that have art galleries and art galleries that have coffee shops. There are hidden away alleys with tiny teashops and real dabs of history throughout the city. There’s a Finnish restaurant, the usual array of western food (Sera Nera [十全街吴衙场40-1号, 近迎枫桥弄] is one Italian place I will recommend), Ann’s teahouse offers English-style food, and then there’s local bites from bugs to great fish to choose from. Suzhou seems green and spread out, it’s rather like Norfolk in that hills and mountains are rare (as goes most of that general region to Hangzhou and Shanghai). It isn’t a terrible place to be, but it isn’t amazing either. Perhaps I hanker for the sea and mountains more.

So after a few days, I am sat back in Dongguan. Echobelly’s Great Things has just played on BBC Radio 6 Music. The bass and treble were just perfect for a summer’s day. It’s not summer here. It’s 24°C. This is autumn. It’s cooler and much more comfortable than other days this year. Yesterday’s walk around Dalingshan (from Cháng’ān [长安] town’s Lotus Mountain) was nevertheless a little sweaty and warm. I’d ate an excellent breakfast (English, of course) at Ziggy’s American Diner before zipping past Chang’an Park, and heading for what’s know as Lotus Mountain. Here I spotted a lake by the Lotus Villa Hotel (莲花山庄酒店, 长安镇莲花山). Within seconds the familiar flash of a kingfisher whisked by, and disappeared into a tree. Various herons, bitterns and egrets scattered around the quiet lakeside. A smell of sewage ruined the impression.

From the lakeside I headed upwards along a road, gently winding its way to a temple under restoration. Beyond that steps and a clearly marked-path guided me to numerous summits, but not the main peak (capped by radio masts and fenced off). The huge advantage of walking to the peak is that you can carry on towards Dalingshan Forest Park (大岭山森林公园)/. That is a far quieter and greener route, however like the Lotus Mountain litter lined many pathways and piled up hugely at rubbish bins. For a country with so many plastic reusable water bottles, single use plastics really do ruin parks. The reward of a wander through Dalingshan gave me the sight of the worst camouflaged moth ever and a pretty green mantid. That and a good stretch after the long train journey back from Suzhou via Hangzhou, Shenzhen North station and Humen town.

I’ve lived in China for six and a bit years. Too many flash bars pop up, look shiny and then go. Ziggy’s Bar has come, evolved and carries on, withing Chang’an town. With the nearby diner, and a proper set aside bar, it is a refreshing collective. Mitch, the boss, and his team are welcoming. The bar has great decor with movies, music and western culture slipping between a touch of the east. Expect great ciders and beers (domestic and imported). There’s Boddingtons Bitter from Manchester (well, now Luton), cider from Beijing, great ales on tap and in bottles. Spirits needed? Plenty here. Worth a ride out of central Dongguan or other areas for a proper knees-up, pool game, board game or a chill out session. Live music is also available. I didn’t visit the bar before the walk. I stopped by the diner. Joining friends, I grabbed the English breakfast and supped good coffee. The breakfast had great bacon, hash browns, warm beans, proper black pudding and filled my belly nicely. I can also recommend the fish and chips or the burger range, having been a few times in recent weeks. I don’t too much like the colour red, but the mood of the diner, with a jukebox, appears like an advertisement for Coca Cola. There’s other décor that makes you feel you’re no longer in China. It’s an oddity to step from the footpath of Chang’an into a different world. The good thing was that my belly enjoyed the leap of faith.

The world’s first purpose-built railway station terminus was Liverpool Road in Manchester. It opened in 1830. It was the start of the first true railway too. Two tracks, timetables and proper stations accompanied the steam locomotives. Not surprisingly the first railway warehouse, Liverpool Road Railway Warehouse followed. It houses much of the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry now. Looking at that example, it’s amazing to see the speed at which China slaps railway lines across its national soil. That day when Manchester and Liverpool opened their railway, the MP for Liverpool William Huskisson slipped and was ran over by Robert Stephenson’s Rocket. The Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR) was the first of its kind, and just 50 kilometres long (31 miles). Now, in China, the network of rail covers 121,000 km (75,186 miles) and it is growing every year. It plans to plan to expand the network to 274,000 km (170,000 miles) by the year 2050. I am just thankful that the 1,758 kilometres (1,091 miles) from Dongguan (Humen) to Suzhou involved music by Los Lobos and the latest Doves album, alongside John Bude’s The Lake District Murder novel (a classical detective yarn with plenty of detail and little happening).

Thank you kindly for your time.

Blues in Shanghai / Buzz of Yokohama

你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do / S’mae / Namaste

Back in July, I’d flew to Nanjing (南京市) from Shenzhen. The flight to Nanjing was simple enough and having paid for my train ticket to the city centre in cash, I checked in at the hotel early. The ticket machines being a rarity in that it didn’t take WeChat pay – it seemed the whole of that area uses Alipay only. On arriving in the city, I explored the impressive city walls, bumping into Peter from Valvoline there to watch the game in the sponsors’ area. After a gentle exploration I found an Irish bar, Finnegan’s Wake and had a natter to the owner Ian. After a hearty meal I returned to the hotel before having a good night’s sleep.

Nanjing could easily be one of my favourite cities in China. Despite having a population of just over 8.2 million it feels spacious. Trees line the roads and add natural feelings. Xuánwǔ hú (lake/玄武湖) stretches from the main railway station over a circumference of 15 kilometres (9.3 miles) – a strangely round number of 444 hectares. The city was once the capital of China from 1368–1420 then from 1928–1937 and also from 1945-1949. The Second World War and civil war in China have greatly affected this city. The city retains great swathes of culture and the museums throughout the area are well worth a wander.

On matchday Phil, having headed from Beijing, and I met up with many other travelling blues, enjoyed the pre-game event ran by the Nanjing OSC before heading over to the huge 61,443 seater Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre Stadium. On entering we passed market stall after market stall selling City’s new home shirts for around £4 a go (30RMB) and other tatty sporting event essentials (you know binoculars, raincoats and vuvuzelas). How new kit provider Puma and the Premier League allowed so many knock-off shirts to be sold nearby was beyond me?! The quality was near spot on with only a few visible faults on the club crest. Oh, and no sizes over UK medium didn’t help any foreigners to cash in…

On passing a body pat down, metal detectors and three separate ticket checks, we were in the stadium for the first fixture: Wolves versus Newcastle Utd. But, first to the bar. Oh. Lemon tea… and plum juice. Or water. Tepidly warm water. Or tiny little sweet sausages and crisps. No re-admission to the stadium. No drinks permitted at the gate either. Hmmm. Good job we had eaten earlier and drank some good coffee, and a few beers. Wolves dominated their game over Toon, who had just been taken over by Stevey Bruce the Elephant Man. Jota’s brace alongside goals from Gibbs-White and Allan of Toon made it four goals to nowt. A very one-sided affair. Martin Atkinson in the middle had little to do.

Nanjing has parks galore, and square dancing grannies (great for Wayne Rooney) – and people walking plastic bottles. It has character unlike some cities that are more copy and paste than commerical espionage at a car factory [NO NAMES… Land Wind?].

In a stand, east or west, I cannot recall, a large pocket of sky blue shirts filled block after block. Considering it was pre-season and a weekday (in a country where people work long hours and many days) it was quite impressive. Thomas Cook (before they went kaput in September) had made a mess and Etihad Airways had just managed to get City into China with very little time to spare before the game. The press was hounding City for time and events – and sponsorship commitments were hastily rearranged and fan meetings held, but with little information given out. As an expat living in China, I could not source when signing events and open training was being held. Others seemed in the know through media and channels unreadable to an English speaker.

A toothless West Ham display, so typical of pre-season games, started with the Hammers scoring a penalty against the run of play. Noble banged the ball in off the spot, after referee Craig Pawson had pointed to the spot. David Silva made the game level from a great solo volley before Pawson once again pointed to the spot. Up stepped Hamburg-born Lukas Nmecha to give the purple-tinted sky blues the lead. Sterling started a run of goals that would carry on into the season, finishing twice in that game. The atmosphere was subdued, relaxed but generally very nice.

Premier League Asia Trophy matches: Wednesday 17 July, Nanjing Olympic Sports Center
Newcastle 0-4 Wolves / Man City 4-1 West Ham

The day after the game, I checked out of my hotel. The train to Shanghai smoothly glided into the final destination. The last few kilometres gave me a panoramic view that revealed the city of Shanghai was far from small. My exhaustion from a late night’s drinking didn’t help me. Checking into the 24K something-or-other hotel near to the People’s Square was simple enough.

The game in the impressive Pringle-shaped curves of the Hongkou Stadium was policed by the central government’s Public Bureau of Security. Despite there being a notice saying that flags of 1m by 2m were allowed, a rough looking three-chevron official tried to snatch my simple Shenzhen Blues and Manchester City flag. I said no. He backed off. His 30cm height-disadvantage and my quick scrunch and pocketing of the flag did no harm. Piles of snatched flags and scarfs, eve posters lay on a table by the unwelcoming metal gates. The Newcastle supporters showing ‘Ashley Out’ printouts remained untouched. A Leeds flag hung at the halfway line. The atmosphere for the game was generally good despite City losing 3-2 on penalties, following a 0-0 draw. Wolves have always been a good side against City – and on this day deserved to lift the Premier League Asia Trophy. The only problem was the general over-policing, however, you could go outside at half-time for a pint, or varied soft drinks. Hóngkǒu Zúqiúchǎng (虹口足球场) was pretty much sold out – but some mentioned that the 33,060 was not allowed due to a license restriction. Would I attend any of City’s potential future games in China? No. The atmosphere is far from conducive for enjoyment at major sports events. I’m sorry to say football in a communist state is duller than a dull thing on a dull day in the village of Dull as the dull festival is commenced at dull o’clock.

Saturday 20 July, Hongkou Football Stadium, Shanghai
Newcastle 1-0 West Ham / Wolves 0-0 (3-2 pens) Man City

On the Sunday, Stephen and I from Shenzhen Blues joined the Manchester City Official Supporters Club Chinese branches in a meeting with club representatives. Many mentioned their OSC flags had been taken from them. The whole day seemed a little winy and the mood low. Stephen and I, with Greg from Hong Kong Blues spent much time explaining where the OSC money goes. An understanding of City’s fanbase domestically and an education of the meaning of the OSC works both ways.

Duting my time in Shanghai I caught up with my Aberystwyth University friend Kai, from Shanghai. We met over local food, a football’s kick from Puma’s flagship store and talked about old times, the present day and the future. I gave his son a small City gift and off we went. I hope we catch up again soon.


From Shanghai, back down to Shenzhen by flight, and up to Dongguan to do laundry and then outwards to Hong Kong’s Mong Kok area the next day after made for a tiring 24 hours. Watching open training, because Heather at City added me to the list, was relaxing and gave me a closer insight into how City operate on a coaching front. It was impressive.

The next day was game day and we headed to the Hong Kong Stadium despite an atmosphere of worry around the city and island of Hong Kong. Some protests had happened before our arrival and many were expecting more. Following a fantastic pre-game event organised by the Hong Kong Blues we headed into the football ground, famous for the HK Rugby Sevens.

I’d like to thank the tireless Martin Ng for his directions and Coco Kwok at HK Blues who had helped me store my bags before the training session. One thing that I enjoy about HK Blues, is that they are bloody friendly and very down to earth people. Every time I am in Hong Kong, I try to catch a game with them! Greg Knowles runs a tight ship over there, and they remain a credit to the Manchester City OSC.

City won the friendly with a less than friendly scoreline of 6-1. Protests concerning the ongoing political unrest in the area were present before, during and after the final whistle. The most bizarre thing, however, was the handing of flowers and substitution of veteran 37-year-old Kim Dong-jin. He’d played 11 games at Kitchee in 3 seasons, but he was given a huge hero’s applause. If he deserves it, fair play. Everyone loves a grafter and a spirit of the game protagonist. Following the win and a few drinks, it was bedtime and a flight the next day. Watch the YouTube match highlights and listen out for the phrase, “…and Wang is once again beaten again.” Oops.


I enjoyed the flight to Tokyo International Airport. Ray, blue Ray that is, was on the same flight. He’d opted to stay in Tokyo whereas I felt the time limit would give me just enough time to take in Yokohama’s sights. It was a cooler air than Shanghai and Nanjing but the game in Yokohama was toasty! Less humid, but bloomin’ hot! I didn’t envy anyone running in that heat. Yokohama F.-Marinos are a bloody good team. City found the net through from Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Lukas Nmecha (now on loan at Verein für Leibesübungen Wolfsburg e. V. – AKA Die Wölfe).

“It was an incredible test for us, incredibly demanding because of the conditions and the quality of the opponent.” – Pep Guardiola

City won the EuroJapan Cup with a 3-1 win – and shared a great style of play with the home team. Coach Ange Postecoglou has a vast career including spells at his native Australia national team. His Yokohama F. Marinos side currently sit 4 points off top-placed FC Tokyo and could secure an AFC Champions League play-off round place. If City ever visit Japan again, I’ll be booking my flights pronto.

Whilst Yokohama wasn’t cheap, the Minato Miraj 21 district has a great mix of architecture and history. The Nippon Maru ship was a museum boat and the skyline featuring the Yokohama Marine Tower made for a scenic city. Armed with a city map, coins for my subway and train rides I covered a great deal of ground and could even see Mount Fuji from afar – although the outbound flight from Tokyo Narita airport gave me a better view and scale of the beastly conical volcano. The Kirin beer factory and Cup Noodles Museum are located in Yokohama. Go on, have a try… and staying in a pod hotel can make the stay more affordable, as I found. The £11 pints will destroy your wallet.

Yokohama has a good toy museum, a cool model railway museum and the Nissan car centre isn’t a bad venue for a pre-match activity, as City did on the day of the game. The city is easy to navigate with plenty of railway and subway links – and they Nissan Yokohama Stadium is the pinnacle of their 4 city clubs. Holding 72,327 it is easy to see why hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup final and will host the 2019 Rugby World Cup final. It will also see football at the 2020 Summer Olympics. Just nearby is the outdoor Kagetsu-en Velodrome but sadly this closed in 2010 and I couldn’t gamble there.

 

再见/ Zài jiàn / Bài bài / Ta’ra / Goodbye / Hwyl Fawr / Dhanyabaad / Alavidā

Next stop: Nanjing

你好/ Ní hǎo / Nín hǎo / Hello / How do / S’mae / Namaste,

34 years ago, Richard Skinner mentioned, “It’s 12 noon in London, 7am in Philadelphia. And around the world it’s time for Live Aid!” That’s the legendary concert that plays ever so well time and time again. But, whilst Twitter is trending, did the concert have an actual reason for showing? Seems to be of little note in all the flashbacks across the interweb. Whatever the problem was, it must have been fixed.

 

“All we hear is 👏Radio Ga Ga 👏…”


CITY OF SHANGHAI

SHANGHAI PIN BADGE IDEA 1My checklist from 2016, of things I must do in China has been reduced. I ticked off visiting Qingdao, flying a kite, and in five days, Shanghai, a city my grandfather visited will be marked off. I triefd Chinese art, caligraphy and kung fu. All were insults to their heritage. At least I tried once or twice.

Changning, Baoshan and Pudong districts of Shanghai once had Marks & Spencers. The city has a French concession region and the Bund is world famous. So, will I be in China or a European city? I’ve been reading up on things to do, places to see etc. Aside from City’s game versus Newcastle Utd or Wolves, I’ll get cultured in five days when I visit Shanghai.

#1 Shanghai Museum #2 China Art Museum (Line 8) #3 M50 for urban art & Jade Temple (玉佛寺/Line 13, Jiangning Road) #4 Xuhui Riverside Park wander. #5 Jewish Refugees Museum – and the ghetto in Hongkou #6 YuYuan Park #7 Sculpture Park #8 Wusongkou Paotaiwan (Line 3: Shuichen Road) #9 The 1933 Old Millfun #10 Zhujiajiao water village (Pine 17) #11 Huangpu’s Garden Bridge #12 Chuansha park #13 复兴公园 Fùxīng gōngyuán

I’m still trying my best to understand customs and Chinese culture. I’ll mark it as done. It will go on forever. I’m still trying to learn Mandarin (slowly).

The things remaining from that list of 33 now stand at just 5:

1. Visit Kunming and Yunnan.

2. See the Terracotta Warriors.

3. Visit Hangzhou, “Paradise on Earth”

4. Check out Jiuzhaigou.

5. Visit Chengdu.


CITY OF NANJING

NANJING PIN BADGE IDEAFirst up, tomorrow I travel to the 2008 Habitat Scroll of Honor of China city that is Nanjing. I’m looking forwards to seeing the City Wall of Nanjing (南京城墙 Nánjīng chéngqiáng), a wall that heavily influenced the Forbidden City of Beijing. The Jùbăo gate (聚宝门 Jùbăo Mén) looks atmospheric. I may start my wall walk from Zhonghuamen Station. Keeping with the word city, there is Shítóu Chéng [石頭城] or Stone City by Hanzhongmen Station. Maybe I can look up Purple Mountain ( Zĭjīn Shān) because of City’s new purple trim. It has UNESCO status of some kind and many places to view that you wouldn’t see every day (the Imperial Tombs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties: 明孝陵/Míng Xiào Líng). The Ming Palace [明故宫Míng Gùgōng] located by Minggugong Station will be a good place to explore too. Most call it the ‘Forbidden City of Nanjing’. Or, for ceramc value, I can check out the Great Bao’en Temple [大报恩寺].

Nanjing seems to be a city famed for mausoleums and the massacre during China’s bitter war with Japan. The museum of the massacre [Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall 侵华日军南京大屠杀遇难同胞纪念馆 – Yunjinlu station, line 2] will be an emotionally addition to seeing the Nanjing Museum. Then there is a museum dedicated to Nazi Party member John Heinrich Detlef Rabe who saved sheltered approximately 200,000-450,000 Chinese people from slaughter by the Japanese. Rabe was the Nazi party’s local head, as a Deputy Group Leader in China. On one hand, he saved, on the other hand, he supported the Nazi cause. However, he did something monumental and saved many, many lives. Following his return to Germany, the Gestapo prevented Rabe from reaching Hitler. In his hand letters and documentation. His desire to influence Adolf Hitler and pass a message to the Japanese to cease their activity never was heard.

“It is not until we tour the city that we learn the extent of destruction. We come across corpses every 100 to 200 yards. The bodies of civilians that I examined had bullet holes in their backs.” – Rabe’s diary notes: December 13, 1937.

Soviet NKVD agents for Russia and then the British Army interrogated John Rabe following the war. He had a miserable few years following de-Nazifying. However, The Good German of Nanking (his wartime diary title), received food, aid and cash packages from the grateful people of Nanking. This continued until the Communists took over the city of Nanking. In 2009 a Chinese and a western movie portrayed John Rabe’s wartime experiences.

In 1948, the citizens of Nanking learned of the very dire situation of the Rabe family in occupied Germany and they quickly raised a very large sum of money, equivalent to US$ 2 000 ($ 21,000 in 2019). The city mayor himself went to Germany, via Switzerland where he bought a large amount of food for the Rabe family. From mid-1948 until the communist takeover the people of Nanking also sent a food package each month, for which Rabe in many letters expressed deep gratitude.[18]

The south bank city of Nanjing sits in the Yangtze Basin. It was historically known as Nanking, which I believe was purely to confuse me. China’s Three Furnaces are Wuhan, Chongqing and Nanjing so I won’t be expecting to see any snow. The average July temperature is 28.1°C (82.6°F) and I’ll be using the subway’s Jinlingtong (also known as IC-tong) to escape the heat between places.

On matchday, I’ll have a gander at My Town Bar around 3pm with fellow City fans. I wonder which City Legend will be alongside City mascots Moonchester and Moonbeam. Then it will be over to the Nanjing Olympic Sports Centre Stadium – and I must get a quite unique photo opportunity with the Premier League trophy, FA Cup, Carabao Cup and Community Shield.


After Shanghai, I fly back to Shenzhen, whiz up to Dongguan and then zip over to Hong Kong the next day…

CITY OF HONG KONG

 

再见/ Zài jiàn / Bài bài / Ta’ra / Goodbye / Hwyl Fawr / Dhanyabaad / Alavidā