Friday, 7 November 2014

Quirky World: 10 Things from our Trip to China

When you travel to the other side of the planet, you don’t have to seek out the quirky. Quirky jumps right out at you. What is ordinary and everyday to that culture is often extraordinary and unusual to us. So, fresh from our trip to China, but befuddled with jet lag (still waking at 5am after a week back home!), here are my Top Ten picks from our two weeks there. 

1.World’s fastest elevators
Somewhere between time travel and Willy Wonka’s glass elevator, the lift in Shanghai's Jin Mao Tower catapulted us to the 88th floor in 45 seconds (that’s 9.1m per second!). The funny thing is, it felt like we weren't even moving. It’s the world’s 5th fastest elevator and the world's 7th tallest building. Right next door, the World Financial Tower, is even higher and has an even faster elevator which takes you to its Sky Walk – a transparent glass floor floating above the city – on the 100th floor. Yep, along with its futuristic walkways and outdoor escalators, this area of Shanghai is China at its utmost modern. 

2. Chicken soup for the bold
by Russ Bowling/CC BY 2.0
Or Waiter, there's a chicken in my soup! We saw this on the menu in the place we ate our very first meal – and several times afterwards. Of course China was bubbling over with foods and dishes that were unusual to us, some appealing, some appalling, by Western tastes  and many simply unrecognizable. "Unidentifiable Floating Objects" my daughter called this hot pot meal.
The meat section of the markets were certainly not for the pigeon-hearted (though you might be able to buy pigeon hearts there, possibly still throbbing, along with the sheep intestines, pig faces, fish eyes and duck feet).

I think this souvenir captures the spirit of the markets: a plastic squawking chicken, now hanging in our kitchen. When you squeeze it, it makes this incredibly loud, incredibly awful, dying chicken noise.
I use it now to call the family to the table when dinner’s ready.

3. Pictorial bicycle tour
What a great idea this is. A fabulous guesthouse we stayed in, The Giggling Tree near Yangshuo, had created various cycling route booklets which guided you around with photos and charming instructions like “Turn right at the gnarled tree” and “Cross the bridge after the fish farm”. Much easier and way more fun than following a map. Me and the girl set off on a tandem, cycling through paddy fields and tiny villages. 
We still got lost though.

4.Time Travel café 
This one was a deliberately sought-out quirky experience: The Mo Mi cafe-cum-bookshop in Shanghai where you can choose and write a postcard to your future self, to be sent to you on your chosen date – well any date up to 2023. I guess in this city where the architectural landscape is changing fast and furiously, they're not confident how long the café will survive. My daughter loved the concept, but played it really safe and selected the 2016 post box.
 “You’re not allowed to read it,” she said to me. “It’s private between me and my 10-year-old self.”

5.Bamboo rafting 
A highlight of our trip: a two-hour float down the Li River in Yangshuo. Utterly beautiful. Utterly tranquil. Nothing but the gentle splosh of our punter’s pole dipping in and out the water. 
The odd water buffalo wandering down for a drink, a cormorant fisherman, a bride and groom having a photo shoot on a raft, a woman washing clothes in the river. And every so often a whoosh of giggles and water-spray as we slid down a weir. 

6.Toilet business 
by Sofia Sweetman/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 (adapted)
Split pants cheekily caught our eye everywhere we went! Trousers with a big gaping gash, ready for the child to be rushed to the nearest toilet, drain or bush when the urge arises. The Western world of course, has recently turned this “no nappy” technique into a progressive approach to toilet training called Elimination Communication, but in China, they've been doing it forever.

And while we’re on the subject, boy, did we have some toilet experiences of our own. Squatting didn't take much getting used to ...
... but doing your business amongst strangers without a proper cubicle, let alone a door, is quite a shocker of a culture shock. The most, erm, interesting toilet we used had just a trough going down the length of the room, containing every type of human poop you could imagine. “Don’t look down,” I warned my daugher. Of course she did. “I think there were even a few horse poos in there,” she said afterwards.

7.The women with the longest hair in the world 
Mine and the girl's favourite bit of the whole trip was spending one night at the top of the Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces where the Yao people live. All the women have exceptionally long hair, only cutting it once at age 16. Most of the time they wear it closely wound round their heads under their headgear. But we caught one woman combing it.
As we made the hour’s walk to the top of the mountain along a twisty stone path, to the charming Tian Ranju Inn, we caught fascinating glimpses of their simple life.
The rice had just been harvested so the terraces weren't at their best, but still, waking up to the view in the morning... Nothing better.

The first thing my daughter did when we got home was try to recreate the rice terraces with Lego.

8. Magic calligraphy paper 
We found and bought this at a street stall. You write on it with a brush dipped only in water, but the strokes come out black and then magically fade away after a couple of minutes. With thousands of Chinese characters to learn, I guess it's a very practical, paper-saving way for Chinese children to practice writing them over and over. But if you don't have to learn them, as my daughter doesn't, well then it's just fun.

9. Foot massage for a fiver 
One heavenly hour for 50 yuan (£5) in the centre of Shanghai. Who could resist? Not us. We went back two evenings in a row. Sometimes tickly, occasionally painful, but mostly just sheer pleasure, with the odd titbit of reflexology info thrown in. I managed to work out at one point that the masseur was telling me he was working on my digestive system. Probably a good idea after some of the new items I'd put into it.

10. Itinerary in pictures
I have to end with this. I thought it was adorable. Some friends of ours from the UK overlapped with us in China for a couple of days. Every time they go on a family holiday, the dad makes their two children a gorgeous pictorial representation of what they plan to do. Initially they started it for their adopted daughter when she was too young to read, to make her feel secure and reassure her that they would be returning home. Now it’s become their family tradition. 

Mmm. I may have to steal this idea. 


  1. Wow your travels look amazing, you did so much. I especially like your rubber chicken.

    Thanks for sharing on #WASO

  2. It was a whirlwind, Sarah, and we are still trying to process it all, especially the visit back to our daughter's town of origin (a whole 'nother, less fluffy story).

    I have only just realized that you are the face behind the fantastic The Adoption Social website!

  3. Funny pictures Claire! It's great to spent time with family. Ahh! I miss my family. The chicken soup and the toilet business pics are the funniest. Really great memories! God bless you and your family. Hey try Photo Booth Rentals to give different effects to your photos and make them more attractive. Keep smiling and updating your upcoming events.