As some readers may have caught on, the only regular complaint I voice over Chongqing are the prolonged spells of cold, fog, drizzle and overcast skies that doggedly settle in for the winter months, a viewpoint shared by many Chinese friends from other provinces, and who moved here long ago through work and marriage.
In a strange way, I occasionally find this weather conducive to my work ethic, and whenever the heavens sporadically gift a few warm, sunnier days, you certainly learn to appreciate them.
While there are plenty of great winter activities in Chongqing, a short escape down south to one of Xishuangbanna, Hainan, or the coastal regions of Guangdong (Canton) means you can dig out the summer apparel and replenish some vitamin c.
At least in my case, I can return to Chongqing and go some weeks before the whole cycle begins to re-enact, by which time the advent of spring lies nearer on the horizon.
So in my post today, I would like to share my two day journey in Canton this week, and offer some tips on how you could do the same.
The most popular travel app in China is Qunar Wang去哪儿网, and you can easily reserve flights, train tickets and hotels, just as long as you can read Chinese and have a bank card issued in China.
Otherwise, you can ask a Chinese friend to reserve on your behalf, which also works fine nowadays.
When you’re available to travel outside of national and school holidays, with a little flexibility, it’s usually possible to find discounts of 90% on many routes starting in Chongqing.
On this occasion, my flight to Shenzhen, and return from Huizhou cost a mere 900 yuan!
After an early alarm call, I made the 7:30 morning flight to Shenzhen with a small back pouch of summer clothes, just enough to last two days without unnecessary burden.
On the ground before ten o’clock, I bought a souvenir transport card from an automatic dispenser to avoid the hassle of buying tickets on each journey, then we took a subway ride to Shenzhen North where we planned to stay the night closeby.
Here, I encountered the only expected snag on my trip.
Despite the fact more than two years have passed since the foreign resident’s ID card came out, many applications and public services are still playing catch up, meaning I’m still often forced to rely on my passport, as was the case with my train reservation from Shenzhen East to Huizhou Central.
When locals make an online reservation, they can receive the physical ticket by swiping their ID card at an automatic booth. The remainder have to brave the horribly slow queues in the main ticket halls. Ironically, I waited the best part of an hour to show my reservation number, and walked away with my ticket within a few seconds!
Since I was mostly tagging along with my wife on her business trip this day, my choice of destination was Shenzhen Bay park, a beautiful seaside walkway stretching from Nanshan district towards the narrow river separating Mainland China from Hong Kong.
For around two hours, we casually strolled along the palm lined coast under a balmy 25 degrees. People sat contentedly in groups on shaded lawns, young couples took in the bay view upon the rocks waterside, and cyclists breezed past nonchalantly.
Everbody we saw looked happy and relaxed amid such a picture of serenity.
Come early evening, we took the subway to Xiangmei香梅, where an old Chinese acquaintance dating back to my first years in Chongqing at Number 8 Middle School invited us to meet.
Originally a teacher of chemistry, his hedonistic personality and generous hospitality combined perfectly with an expansive web of connections to make him the head of student recruitment.
In China, there is great competition for entry into the most highly nenowned schools, even when classrooms are packed with upwards of sixty students each, so was often the case that parents with means arranged lavish meals with him to discuss placements for their children.
We foreign teachers always enjoyed a close affinity with Mr. Wu, as he invited us to attend such occasions to make a good impression on prospective families, even when it involved consuming large amounts of rice wine before an afternoon of lessons!
He only speaks Chinese, but in a special way that us beginners at the time found easier to comprehend, and when the goal wasn’t to meet parents, we always met in karaoke clubs, recreation centres, restaurants, or fun outdoor venues at Ciqikou Ancient Town.
Now he works in Shenzhen at an international school, this was the perfect opportunity to catch up since we last met around five years ago.
We ended up spending the whole evening on a rooftop terrace overlooking Yinhu Mountain, with the Pingan tower poking above the crest a few kilometres the other side.
Among the dishes was the local specialty of blood duck (血鸭Xue ya). I normally try to follow a vegetarian diet as far as possible, I’m sure most would find this meat dish where the blood isn’t drained out to be very palatable.
There is one admission I dare make here online, which inevitably deals with the slightly awkward matter of rice wine.
I barely drink any alcohol nowadays, and have never truly acquired a genuine taste for rice wine over all these years.
Nevertheless, the desire to gratify such generous hosts, combined with a determination to avoid getting drunk, meant that I needed a covert way to drink the infamous alcoholic beverage without actually swalling it.
My impromptu tactic worked to perfection. After each of the countless toasts, I took the mini glass cup of fiery liquid into my mouth, smiled a few seconds through the intense burning sensation, before taking a sly drink of tea to ‘wash it down.’
As the tea cup slowly filled, I took advantage of more boisterous moments to tip out the contents under the table, then refill halfway to rebegin the process.
This way, I ‘drank’ two mini glass pitchers of rice wine, and while the others drunkenly stumbled their way back downstairs, I had achieved both goals handsomely without any of my companions noticing!
Despite a gentle feeling of guilt, consuming those pitchers would have completely ruined my second day in Huizhou, which was by far the best day out on this journey.
Day tour of Huizhou
Early next morning, once my wife had left for Shantou, I had free reign the rest of the day!
I took the subway to Buji Station to catch the 11:08 train from Shenzhen East to Huizhou. The journey was a leisurely hour and twenty minutes through the towns and countryside of Guangdong Province.
The hard seat carriages are fine over short distances, but I did spare a thought for the hardened passengers around me who were in for the long haul.
The Z182 service terminates in Baotou, Inner Mongolia around 10:30pm the next day, so not only would they have to bear 36 hours on rock solid, upright seats, a sleepness night in a noisy carriage where the lights stay on overnight, but also swap the tropics for the barren, frigid winter of the far north!
As I stepped off the train in Huizhou, I felt the city was a good few degrees hotter than Shenzhen, perhaps because of the sea breezes don’t reach so far inland.
I politely declined offers from the black taxis and motorbike drivers, and took the 29 bus across the city to West Lake for a mere two yuan fare.
Over the next few hours, I crossed the lake over the pathways from the north to eastern gates, stopping every now and then to savour the atmosphere on the small islands, where you can find picturesque summer houses and wooden coridoors shaded by the verdant canopy.
Outside the eastern gate, you can cross the road, turn right, and walk a few hundred metres to Daijin Street带金街, an hutong style old street lined with small homes and businesses catering to tourists.
There were very few visitors around this day, so I almost had the entire street to myself. Apart from a handful of shops, most places were closed, but it was still fun to walk the whole length, and many residents leave their front doors wide open, so you can catch a brief glimpse of people leading their everyday lives at home.
My final sites of interest for the day were the city walls, via a memorial building for Sun-Yatsen (孙中山Sun Zhongshan) in a small park.
The ancient city walls once kept out migrants from the northern plains, but only a few hundred metres of restored sections remain nowadays. Nevertheless, it’s certainly worth the experience, and once on top, you can enjoy lovely views over the river, and the majestic Chaojing Gate that stands imposingly over an important traffic junction.
By now, my legs were beginning to feel the exertion of a day’s walking, but my flight from Pingtan Airport was still a few hours away, how should one enjoy these last few hours?
The clear answer to this question is the Jindi Spahouse opposite West Lake, just a short distance from the Chaojing Gate.
I paid 200 yuan on Wechat Wallet for an entry package including a 90 minute foot massage.
Inside, the gender segregated bathing areas were a complete godsend. The pools, showers, jacuzzis and saunas were exactly what I needed.
Upstairs, I took the foot massage in the cosy sofa bed sections, then tucked into some nice evening dishes they lay out as part of the entry deal. Perfect!
The taxi ride to Pingtan Airport costs 100 Yuan, which I just negotiated directly with the driver. When you know how much the journey should cost, you can negotiate a good price with honest drivers, and they are usually more than willing, as they needn’t declare the income.
I drove back home in Chongqing through heavy midnight rain and a chilly 8 degrees.
It was good to be back!