Archive for the Hubei Category

Xiangyang Style

Posted in China, Hubei, Xiangyang with tags , on March 5, 2014 by gannet39

Xiangyang is a small city in Hubei of only half a million people, about 2.5 hours on the train from Wuhan. Foreigners are relatively rare here so you can expect to get stared at a fair amount but the flipside is that people will be quite friendly and well disposed towards you, unlike larger cities where you are less special. I had just two nights here so there is not that much I can tell you about the place. 

20130829_125051Xiangyang is also known for its old city walls although reviews on Trip Advisor say they are a modern reproduction. I didn’t have time to go see them but it may be possible to get to them on foot from the hotel in about 30 minutes. As you can see on this Google map, the fortress is just south of the Hanshui river, though I’m not sure whether either of the two bridges have pedestrian access. A taxi would be pennies probably.

I was put up at the Celebrity Hotel (Te No.1 Paopu St, People Square, Tel. (710) 348 8888), a rather old and dingy hotel that I doubt has ever seen a sleb. The rooms are a fair size but the carpets are pretty grotty and the TV didn’t work in my room. On the other hand I could access my email for the first time since arriving in the country.

The breakfast is probably fine if you’re Chinese but other than a couple of boxes of All Bran, some cheap white sliced bread with jam, melon and a greasy omelette there was nothing tailored for the Western palate. I went native for the duration and had the beef noodle soup each morning which was pretty tasty. Noodles are a bit risky for the work shirt though , it’s best to get your face right down to the bowl as the locals do to avoid splashes.

There is a rudimentary gym with some flimsy looking machines and a pool full of noisy kids, both of which I avoided. The staff were unimpressive except for Felix the assistant manager who was very helpful and spoke a bit of English, unlike any of his colleagues. The check out receptionist struck me as being a racist though as she didn’t even look at me or say thanks. An experience you occasionally get sometimes as a Westerner in China unfortunately. I just ignored her back.

So why stay here when you could be at the Crown Plaza uptown? In my case it was because my place of work for the two days I was here, the Happy Castle Disney Magic English Language Training Centre (!), was just five minute’s walk around the corner.

20130829_121937I couldn’t find any data about local restaurants on the net, or anywhere else, and the one time I did go out there was no picture menu to be had. Instead I just ate a big lunch and had the hotel’s complimentary fruit in the evenings. The school took me to a place down the side street over the road from the school (the restaurant is on the right in a small square/car park) where, rather than reading a menu, you pointed out what you wanted to eat from a series of cards hanging on the wall, although without help from the teacher I was with, I wouldn’t have known what most of it was.

20130829_121931On the first day we had some steamed pak choi in garlic (B+), thin slices of stir fried silk tofu with chilli in a tasty sauce (A) and a mixed plate of lean and fatty pork with yet more chilli (A+). It was so good I couldn’t stop eating it but the hot spice combined with the humid weather meant I was dripping with perspiration by the time I left. The next day I went for the much blander stir-fried lettuce (!) with garlic (C+) and some cold roasted duck (C) which were much less appetising.

20130829_204529For some entertainment in the evening I went to see what was happening in the People’s Square (turn left out of the hotel and go straight, over the crossroads, and you’ll see it on the left after a couple of minutes). Half of Xiangyang seems to be here letting their hair down in the cool evening air.

20130829_204540There’s a stage where the local kids can get a taste of stardom singing solos or dancing in troupes (love these kids in wigs and green outfits!) in front of an appreciative audience. There are several other competing sound systems where groups of middle aged women perform ballroom dancing moves together while the men stand around and watch. My favourites were the troupe of all ages doing the chachacha to Mercy by Duffy. The younger generation seem to prefer dancing to a frenetic form of electronic dance music (EDM) that’s all the rage in China, Korea and South East Asia generally. The dance style for this seems to basically be shuffling at high speed, as demonstrated by a couple of youngsters in the square.

Behind the square there are the back streets lined with street kitchens offering piles of greasy looking bird carcasses, pig trotters and hearts and quite a few other things I couldn’t work out. I have given these kinds of places a try in the past (for noodle  soups) but the lack of hygiene standards means that I can’t risk getting sick and jeopardising my job.

Xiangyang is not a pretty place from what I saw but it was friendly enough and I enjoyed working there for a couple of days.

Weary in Wuhan

Posted in China, Hubei, Wuhan with tags , , on February 28, 2014 by gannet39

Wuhan is the capital of Hubei prefecture in central eastern China. With a population of 10 million it is the biggest city in central China. During my brief stay, there was little that distinguished it for me from other Chinese cities except maybe the air pollution seemed even murkier than usual.

I stayed for three days, most of which were taken up with work or sleep as I recovered from the long journey, via Manchester, Amsterdam and Beijing. Thankfully my luxurious super modern room at the Hotel Marco Polo (Times Square, 159 Yanjiang Avenue) was an air conditioned haven from the heat (33C at the end of August) and pollution outside. I could lie in my bath on the corner of the 15th floor and gaze out over the river and other tall buildings sitting ghostlike in the soupy air. The view should have been much better but visibility was down to just a few hundred metres at times.

The hotel has a very well equipped gym and also a pool but the latter was closed for renovation when I was there so I can’t comment on it. Every staff member I met was really helpful and friendly. My only gripe was that I couldn’t access my BT Yahoo email account. I was prepared for having my WordPress blog and Facebook blocked by the Great Firewall of China but losing email as well was a new one on me. Whether Wi-Fi or cable, in the room or in the lobby, the internet was really slow and eventually I just gave up on it. Unusually though, the hotel did have both BBC and CNN on the TV, both of which are often blocked in other hotels where Westerners don’t usually stay.

20000101_141621The hotel breakfast is pretty comprehensive, catering for both Western and Chinese tastes. A typical Hubei breakfast food that I tried here was Hot & Dry Noodles, the spice coming from the dried chillies and the dryness from the sesame paste which the noodles are tossed in. There was a diced vegetable in the mix but I couldn’t work out what it was. It was edible enough but I can’t say I was wild about it (C+).

20000101_141626I also tried Doupi which is sometimes described as a kind of pizza. In fact it’s two large sheets of beancurd sandwiching a filling of rice and perhaps other ingredients like beef, shrimp or mushroom, although they just had the plain version at the hotel.

I did eat in the rather boring hotel restaurant one night as I was too tired to go out. The food was fine (A) but expensive. I paid double what I would elsewhere for three small beers, a plate of fried rice and some steamed pak choi. On another night I decided to get out and about, so I went to this place recommended by the Eyewitness guide for China.

Yanyangtian (aka Sunny Sky), (Advanced B+), Jiefang Dadao, Baofeng Lukou, Tel 027 8375 0706.

This place is a fifteen minute cab ride from the hotel but as taxis are really cheap it only costs about £2 to get there. There are two floors, a large, noisy and plainly decorated main room at ground level and a more intimate and nicely decorated smaller room upstairs. As is often the case, the staff were pretty shocked to see a Westerner but they were friendly enough. I was armed with my food flashcards (see my post on Getting Fed in China) and dictionary app so communications went fairly smoothly.

20130825_201104On the advice of the guide I tried Nongjia Xiaochaoru which was described as a spicy pork dish but was actually okra tossed in chillies and tiny chunks of cubed pork and some other ‘stuff’, all good (A) .

20130825_202613Usually, alongside my main fish or meat dish, I have a plate of stir fried green leafy veg of some description so I just pointed at something green on the picture menu without knowing what it actually was. In the end it turned out to be green peppers with larger slices of fatty pork sitting on chunks of a hard rice cake, which was fine (B) but resulted in a bit of an overkill on both the veg and meat fronts!

20130825_200353Both dishes were good but the portions were huge (meant to be shared by a group) so I couldn’t finish them. However, even with two 500ml Snow beers and a big bowl of steamed rice, the bill was much cheaper than the hotel even though this was quite a posh restaurant.

The Eyewitness guide mentions a few other restaurants which I list below, even though I haven’t been to them. It’s best to have reception call them first to make sure you can get in and also write the address for the taxi driver. Take the phone number so the driver can call if he’s not sure where to go.

Changchunguan Sucaigan (269 Wuchang, Tel 027 885 4229) is a vegetarian restaurant next to a Daoist temple, the decor of which it mimics. The guide suggests you try Lazi Tianluo, apparently a veggie version of river snails, or Xiaopinpan which is a sample platter of their most popular dishes.

Fang Fang Caiguan (1 Jiqing Jie. Tel 027 8281 0954) is the oldest and largest restaurant in town. Apparently you can pay to be serenaded with pop hits or trad classics which for me makes it sound like a place to avoid, but others might like that kind of thing. The Ya Bozi (duck’s neck) and caiyu lianou (fish and lotus root) are supposed to be good.

Mr Xie Restaurant & Pub (558 Jiefang Dadao, Baofeng Lukou, Tel 027 8577 7288) is a busy expat hangout which lots of locals also go to too. The steamed Wuchang Fish (Qingzheng Wuchang Yu) is recommended.

I wanted to go to Xie’s most of all but the taxi driver told me it was shut so I went to Sunny Sky instead.  I don’t know whether the closure is just temporary or permanent.

Other than this I can’t say much about Wuhan. Important historical events have taken place here (various uprisings and battles) but there is not much to see as far as I can make out. There are a few old buildings with some nice architecture along Yanjiang Avenue. If you turn left out of the hotel and walk straight you will soon come to the former Bank of Indochina building on your left which looks quite nice. There are a few bars next to it that look good but I didn’t have the time or energy to check them out.

Catching the train in China is much like catching a plane, complete with trolley pushing stewardesses and meals in trays that you can purchase on request. The stations in major cities are huge terminals where thousands of people sit waiting to be released onto the platforms. Rather than buy the tickets at the station (involving long queues and ticket sellers that don’t speak English) you should buy them, at least a day in advance, via the hotel concierge. Travelling first class guarantees you a seat but don’t hang about because all the seats in both classes usually sell out very quickly.

It’s also a good idea to aim to arrive at the station 45 minutes early as taxis can be scarce at peak times and traffic jams can seriously delay you (see my Ningbo post for the nightmare I experienced on my last trip). The hotel told me it takes about 20 minutes to drive to the station but they didn’t say that it can take nearly as long again for the bell boys to get you a vehicle. I eventually went out on the street and got one myself after only a couple of minutes but perhaps I was lucky.

Once at the station you need to factor in a bit of a walk due to the size of the building. Tickets and signs are all in Mandarin so you only have the numbers of your train, carriage and seat printed on your ticket to help you. There are usually two entrances down to either end of the platform which are numbered according to the carriages that are at the front or back of the train.

Thankfully after a traffic jam scare, I made it with about 20 minutes to spare. Next stop Xiangyang.

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