Saturday, April 30, 2016

Shanghai weekend trip: Chengdu (alternatively, pandas, pandas, pandas)

One of the best parts about living in Shanghai is the ease of travel to a laundry list of holiday destinations (say what Australia for Christmas 2015 and Chinese New Year 2016??). It's a pity, though, that many of us don't travel very much domestically as a result. China, even when you live here, seems too big, too crowded, too spread out, and too difficult to traverse. English, even in major tourist centres, is lacking. Many people who live in Shanghai would prefer to go through the hassle of getting a visa to Vietnam than sort out a weekend holiday in Sanya. When I was in Bangkok this summer, I was shocked that the taxi drivers spoke English. I had completely forgotten how easy it was to travel in Southeast Asia (shameless plug for the ole No Plan Plans blog). In two years, I can count on one hand the number of taxi drivers I've had in Shanghai who spoke English.

But, stating the obvious, China has many incredible sights and a rich history. We have to remind ourselves that there are so many cool things we can do without having to go through the immigration line. Plus, there are airlines and high speed trains that can take you all over the country, often for pretty reasonable prices. (Note for travellers: flights are notorious for being extremely delayed so plane travel can be super frustrating. Keep it in mind.)

Embarrassingly, over the course of the Irishman's first 2 year contract, we only visited Harbin, Hangzhou, Beijing, and Zhangjiajie. Even more embarrassingly, for expats in general, that's a pretty long list.

At the beginning of the school year, a friend mentioned that she was keen to go to Chengdu to check out the pandas. I agreed it would be cool and we should do it "sometime". Luckily for us, Jen held me to it and emailed me two days later with a quote from a travel agent. My jaw dropped when I saw the amount ($700 USD per person for a four person trip, 1 night stay). On the condition that I sort out the itinerary (about $500 USD per person, 2 nights stay), we were off 4 days later! We are lucky people.

I would highly recommend other travelers and expats make the weekend trip. We didn't have to take any time off work and we had a wonderful experience. Check the bottom of the post for logistics info about how we did it.


Pandas (my favourite!)

The main attraction in Chengdu are the pandas. The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding was not too far from our hostel. I had read online it would only be about an 80 RMB taxi ride away and I was tempted to just go over on our own. However, despite my desire to do things the cheapest way, it really was worthwhile to have a tour guide. The facility is really big and spread out. Our guide beelined us to the best bits and we didn't have to look at maps or wander aimlessly, trying to figure out if we'd missed anything.

Despite it being a holiday weekend, it wasn't very busy. From what I've read, the afternoon is when most Chinese tour groups turn up. We arrived around 8:30 am (the facility opens at 7:30 am) and stayed for a couple of hours. We watched the information video at the end of our tour, which I think was to keep us ahead of most tourists. At any time there weren't more than about 15 other people looking at the pandas in the same spot.

A note on the ethics of panda breeding

I am not an expert at all but this is my take on it. Panda breeding is an objective waste of resources. Some scientists believe that they should naturally have gone extinct a while ago. And conservationist Chris Packham even went so far to say, "I would eat the last panda if I could have all the money we have spent on panda conservation put back on the table for me to do more sensible things with." And I get it. But they're SO CUTE! My much more ethical teenage self would be very ashamed. Look at baby pandas and try to argue they aren't worth a completely insane investment of money and research:
video

Best parts

I was completely in awe and giddy. Pandas spend the vast majority of their time eating and sleeping. At the time we went, soon after they wake up and eat breakfast, they were so much more active than I expected! They wrestled and climbed trees (slowly).

It was raining, so I was worried the pandas would be in hiding. Luckily, they didn't seem to care about the rain in the slightest!

It may have been luck, but I was shocked at how people behaved. At the most basic museum exhibits in Shanghai, people bang on glass, climb on exhibits, throw things. When we were at the research base, despite there being only low fences and no glass partitions in the open areas, people kept a respectful distance and didn't harass the pandas. I guess being a national icon has its perks. 

Not so best parts

As a Canadian, the red pandas were very disappointing. They are in the raccoon family. They look like raccoons. A little anticlimactic after SEEING FREAKING GIANT PANDAS. Other people on our tour were into it, though. The Irishman and I just chatted with the tour guide and got through that bit. 
Raccoon that doesn't have to work for his supper.

It wasn't clear whether holding pandas was still an option. I have seen conflicting information online. Personally, I would be worried about passing on diseases to the pandas from the outside world. Last year, two pandas died of canine distemper virus at a facility that allowed pandas to be held and the scientists couldn't figure out how they contracted the disease. Not worth it for a fun photo op, IMO! (See teenage Ange, I still have some principles...)

Leshan Buddha (Irishman's favourite!)

Next stop on the tour was Leshan. We napped over the 2.5 hour bus ride. We arrived in the early afternoon and had lunch at a nearby restaurant. Our tour guide ordered for us so we got a delicious mix of local food. She helped order non-spicy dishes for the people in the group who needed a little bit of a less intense Sichuan experience. Chengdu is located in Sichuan province which is famous for its spicy peppers that abound in many dishes. The traditional Sichuan spicy food wasn't any spicier than the fare I have had in Shanghai, which was a relief! We paid 150 RMB ($25 USD) per couple and were completely stuffed.


There are two ways you can see the Buddha: hike for several hours around it (along either side and in front) or take a 20 minute boat. You can't actually see the whole thing at once this way, due to its size. And thousands of Chinese people are pushing their way along the path with you. I deal with rush hour on the metro in Shanghai; I had no desire to experience going up and down hundreds of stone steps, being pushed, in the pouring rain.

Of course we chose the boat. The boat was fantastic. It wasn't too crowded and it stopped right in front of the Buddha for about 10 minutes while we took photos. You can see it in its full glory and have elbow room at the same time. I wouldn't do it any other way.

Wenshu Temple

So, I thought I would be adventurous (cheap) and be in charge of Day 2's activities. Based on TripAdvisor, I settled on Wenshu Temple and People's Park. We had breakfast at the hostel, checked out and left our bags with reception, and hopped on the metro to Wenshu Temple.

I don't know why this had such great reviews, including one stating that it isn't like every other temple out there in China. To our untrained eyes, it was like every other temple out there in China. Perhaps a tour guide would have made it more interesting. Positive review people, please feel free to comment below about what it is that we missed about the place.

The grounds were beautiful but I think People's Park would have been a better use of our time. 

We found a random food stall that did the job.

We planned to eat lunch at a vegetarian restaurant run by monks which came recommended online and by friends who had visited over the summer. We loitered around the temple, bored, waiting until we were hungry enough to eat. Then, when we went looking for the restaurant, it was closed! I failed as a tour guide. 

People's Park

I didn't expect to like the park. We have a People's Park and Century Park in Shanghai, which are lovely. Surprisingly, Chengdu's People's Park charmed us! It was busy but not super crowded. You could walk leisurely. People were ballroom dancing at various places in the park.

There are several tea houses in the park, a big part of Chengdu culture. We settled on a random one where the guys underwent traditional Chinese ear cleaning. Involving metal probing sticks, the cleaners dug wax deep out of their ears, flicking it to the ground. It didn't seem to be very hygienic but it was the thing to do! (Better the men than me...) A painful and brief shoulder massage followed, while Jen and I looked on and sipped our tea.

We hung out and drank tea for about an hour. The menu included English translations and they left us with a big thermos of boiled water to top up our glasses. 
They're trying to pretend they aren't scarred for life.
The open air tea house was full of locals sipping tea and playing cards. We also played cards and were the subject of interest for many people at the tea house. At this point, we're all used to being stared at so we didn't mind.

Reflections

Overall, I would recommend anyone coming to China to visit Chengdu. I feel a bit guilty that our previous visitors didn't go there. The pandas and Buddha were incredible and I will remember them for a lifetime.

Next time, I will skip the Wenshu Temple and go to the Jinsha Site Museum instead, which gets good reviews. 

Logistics

Flights

We used the Ctrip app to book our last minute tickets. Both flights were through Sichuan Airlines. Chengdu is around a 3 hour flight from Shanghai --not too bad for a weekend and yummy food (and terrible beer) is included in the ticket price. 

We left Friday around 7:30 pm and returned Sunday at 6:00 pm, early enough to be fresh for work on Monday. 

We could have found cheaper tickets if we booked more in advance or had more flexible schedules. Tickets cost around 1800 RMB ($300 USD) per person, round trip.

Hotel

We opted for a higher end hostel, Lazybones. Each couple got their own room with a bathroom. Even with the short notice, they had 2 rooms available. Each room was 189 RMB (~$30 USD) per night. For budget travellers, they have a sister hostel, Mix, with super cheap dorms and private rooms (with no ensuite bathrooms).

We arrived around 11 pm on Friday night, met at the airport gate by a driver for the hostel (prebooked via email, 90 RMB or $15 USD). It was convenient and only about 10 RMB more than a taxi would have cost. Highly recommended!

The vibe at the hostel was great. Good food, both western and local Sichuan options, was available at fair prices. They had good coffee, which I have given up on expecting at hostels and hotels in Asia. We ate most of our meals there, enjoying everything from kung pao chicken to pizza.

Most importantly, they organized our first day tour for us through a travel agency. For 498 RMB (~$80 USD) each, we were taken to the panda breeding facility and the Leshan Giant Buddha (a 2.5 hour drive away from Chengdu). 

Tip: The hostel says they are an 8 minute walk from Tianfu Square. The bus for the tour drops you off "at Tianfu Square" --this is actually about 10 minutes away from Tianfu Square (i.e. ~20 minutes to the hostel) due to needing to use underground passageways to cross the busy streets. We walked to the hostel after our tour, which I would not recommend. The metro has a Tianfu Square stop which would be quicker to get the hostel (Luomashi exit A is right across the street from the Lazybones).

Sunday, April 17, 2016

No Shame: On going out in public in pyjamas

I have a love-hate relationship with the "no shame" attitude of older Chinese people, and I pick and choose how I mimic it in my real life. (I recognize most of the people my age here have wider public-private boundaries but I choose to identify with the spunky aunties who dance in parks and yell at overworked cashiers at the grocery store.) Having several hundred people butt in line in Zhangjiajie was one of the most frustrating experiences I have had in my life, adding hours to my wait in line for a cable car. It lost a bit of its charm.

I already can sense some of you are bracing yourselves for a racist rant about how Chinese people "don't behave themselves". I hope you will be pleasantly surprised by this No Shame series I will be thinking about before our summer Canadian Road Trip. (But if you want, you can go be offended by this one.)

More than ever, I'm afraid I have no idea how to behave in public. I talked about this a bit before; we're now pushier, don't even register brushing against another person, and are quick to shout for our servers to come to our table. For our brief Christmas trips back to Canada and Ireland, we've had to be very conscious to act "normal".

Photo: TutorMing

Appropriate public attire

It's pretty common for people (okay, mostly old people) to trot around in public in full top and bottom pjs. Even in downtown areas, you can see older aunties and uncles walking dogs in their fleece jammies and slippers at lunch time during the work week. Before the 2010 Expo, the government even tried to get people to stop wearing their sleepwear in public.

I've embraced it and I often take Pup out before getting dressed, especially on weekends.

This morning, in some pain from a poorly calibrated wine:food ratio last night, I walked the dog in my pyjamas. I was a sight in pink cotton bottoms with hearts on them, clashing red Senators t-shirt, and slip on sneakers with no socks. I assume the wide eyes of people viewing apartments was due to a one eyed dog and foreigner stumbling along the path, not my outfit...Maybe it was both.

He forgave me for my slow reflexes.

I have drawn the line from wearing my Hello Kitty onesie in public after an incident in our old apartment. It was cold and dark, so I wore the onesie on top of sweatpants and hoodie to walk the dog. Another dog decided that he wanted to pick a fight with Pup. I'm a horrible dog mom and before I jumped in to intervene, I hesitated. The thought that I would end up going to the hospital and being interviewed by police after being attacked by a small dog while wearing a pink onesie with ears and a tail paused my rescue for a split second. So now the onesie is private time clothing + excuse to wear a clothing shaped blanket on Hallowe'en.

Public-ish nightwear?

Okay, so I still know better than to strut my stuff in my fleece sheep nightdress in public this summer (even though it's Canada's loss. Both my mother and mother-in-law buy me amazing pyjamas and I'm glad for our short time here I can share them with my neighbours). But now I have another stress: What is appropriate when you are staying at someone's house?  

In my experience, men as guests and hosts can get away more with hanging out in their boxers and t-shirts but women kind of have to keep it together and be dressed for day time at all times. Am I inventing that double-standard? Comments welcome.

For our trip, we'll be staying with family, friends, acquaintances, Airbnb hosts, etc, overnight. My general rule when we've been traveling has been to wear PJ shorts and a top that has a built in bra to bed or my husband's t-shirt and boxers (travel hack: steal your travel companion's clothes as much as possible. I also did this on my Asia backpacking trip with girlfriends). Basically, wearing things that, if seen for a split second in a bedroom to bathroom walk, would not draw attention to boobs in any way. 

Six weeks of avoiding being seen in my pyjamas is something I am not looking forward to, but I figure I have to try to respect the cultural norms of my homeland. First world problems. 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Staying Happy Travel Tips: The Folder

File this under marriage advice, as well.

We are lucky and get to travel quite a bit. And the actual travelling, transporting your body from home to somewhere else and back, is usually stressful, frustrating, and prone to error. Especially living in China, we hear a lot of horror stories from lost documents to messing up visas. Trying to make things as idiot proof as possible is key, whether you travel every couple of months or every few years.

Tired of searching for passports, fumbling in the airport for boarding passes, constantly forgetting where we put our Chinese Departure Cards (which they give you when you receive your Arrival Card. You don't actually need to keep the departure card side as there will be some available at the airport, but it's nice to not waste paper and to be able to fill out the form in advance), scrounging around for pens, etc, I put together The Folder.

Missing from the photo are paper clips and a couple of envelopes to sort out things like new vs. used boarding passes, keep maps and other paperwork organized, and have official forms together and on-hand.

We keep our passports in The Folder at all times (thieves, unless we're waiting for a visa renewal, it's in the black bookshelf to the right when you come into our apartment). We keep a handful of pens, highlighters, and Sharpies in there. Post-it notes are super handy. I like to use them to mark the last entry stamp into China and my visa page to speed things up when going through Immigration.

We are crazy about keeping everything in The Folder while we travel. The moment we get our boarding passes and baggage tickets, they go in there. Yes, we're constantly opening and closing The Folder while we go through various checkpoints, but it's easier than trying to remember which pocket you put it in and having moments of panic trying to figure out who had the passports last.

The only stress is figuring out who has The Folder. (Just kidding, it's always me.)

Presumably other people have similar strategies. If you care to share, please comment below!

Secondary travel tip - Check your passport & visa situation (duh?)

This should be common sense but over and over again we see people failing to do this. I think the more you travel, the more you take for granted. And this can be an expensive mistake to make. 

Many countries require at least 6 months before your passport expires when you visit. We know a family whose amazing spring break trip didn't happen because one of their children had a passport that is due for renewal in slightly less than 6 months. Which they found out at the airport. And they are super educated, well travelled people. Lesson: Teach your kindergarteners to maintain their own records. 

We also have friends who have had relatives rebook their flights at full cost because they didn't realize that you needed a visa (which EVERYONE does, basically, unless you are Chinese) to visit China. Or friends from the US who assumed they could get into Australia sans visa and had to pay a fee at the Shanghai airport to get a rush visa, right before their flight.

Monday, April 4, 2016

When We Were Young and Happy Canadian Road Trip First Draft

For as long as I can remember, the Irishman and I have planned to drive across Canada.

We spent today, Qingming holiday Monday, plotting out our first draft. Despite brutal Chinese internet, we managed to get it all down on Google Maps, schedule and all. A YouTube Canadian music playlist even worked about 50% of the time. 


So, yes, it's just the bottom bits. No Northern Lights for us this time. We have a lot to cram into 6 weeks. Our longest driving day should be <10 hours and there are a lot of charming Airbnb options along the way. 

The Irishman came up with a general schedule about a month ago and we went over it again today, checking lodging options, tourism stuff to do and ferry schedules. It looks very doable and hopefully not too rushed. Toronto, Ottawa, and Vancouver, you'll all be sick of us by the time we roll out. 

It's almost time to book flights! And start rereading Anne of Green Gables! And figure out what people do to rideshare these days --I assume Craigslist has become super passé since I last lived in Canada? Help! 

I have managed to block out most of my fear since the Toronto to Ottawa rideshare who got very drunk, had a meltdown, forgot her diabetes medicine in the car causing us to have to drive to Kemptville from Ottawa late at night, and groped me repeatedly through our drive. Is there an app where you can rate people for being absolute nightmares and prevent others from facing the same fate? Comment please!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Weight Preoccupation in China: On-Going Culture Shock

The issue of weight has been driving me a bit crazy lately. While everywhere I have lived has had a cultural preoccupation with weight, especially for teenage girls and women, it has been particularly painful to witness here. I know it is nothing compared to, say, Korea, but my patience is wearing thin as I am exposed daily to the pressure to be thin for Chinese women.

The average Chinese woman is already thin, even though Chinese people are getting bigger overall. All of my Chinese colleagues are female and all are thin. Despite this, many if not most of them are trying to lose weight, are told by relatives that they look fat, and weigh in (...) on each other's sizes.  

A few months ago, I was eating lunch with a few colleagues, three Chinese and one Canadian. One of the Chinese women commented that she was doing a lot of yoga in order to lose weight. This woman is thin, even by Chinese standards. The other two Chinese colleagues jumped in to explain her decision to me and the fellow foreigner as we asked, in all seriousness, where she expected to lose weight from. "Her body..." they said, looking at us quizzically. No matter how thin you already are, they explained, you can always lose weight, especially since she has an upcoming wedding.

Families certainly don't help the situation. One teeny colleague's mother told her that she looked 3 months pregnant. She is considering doing an all liquid diet, inspired by a colleague who recently completed the 10 day regime of water, lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and maple syrup.

That colleague "successfully" completed this self-inflicted torture. She was tired and miserable. The reactions of the staff were very divided on cultural lines. I pointed out that I weigh 50% more than her (although I probably seem gigantic to her) in a futile effort to get her to stop.

There is some really stupid stuff floating around Chinese social media. Women are told they should aim to be able to wrap their arms around their backs and touch their belly buttons. The collarbone challenge is another bizarre body image ruiner that has popped up on social media lately, the goal being to stack as many coins as possible in the hollow of one's collarbones.

The way I would ask someone how their child's concert last week went in order to show that I am interested in that person, Chinese people mention to someone that they have gained or lost even the smallest amount of weight. Commenting on someone's weight change is the opposite of rude; it shows you have been paying attention.

Since my wedding where I had to lose weight to squeeze into my mama's wedding dress (more a matter of cheapness than vanity, I can assure you), I have had the joy of being able to weigh whatever I want. No outfits or standards to squeeze into for photoshoots any more, hallelujah. I have relished in exercising because I want to, eating what makes me feel good, and wearing make up when I'm in the mood for it. Quick aside: Make up is not as popular in China as it is in a lot of places and not wearing it, at least in the circles and sector I am in, is not out of the ordinary. What a blessing, in contrast to the weight issue.

And, graciously, Westerners are given some leeway in the weight department. People are generous with what they deem "thin" for us, relatively speaking.

That being said, the Irishman and I (in separate incidents) have each been poked in the belly with comments about the extra junk in our trunks. No one even went that far back in my modeling days ("I CAN'T SUCK IT IN ANYMORE THAN I'M ALREADY SUCKING IT IN!" is a direct quote from me, but at least no one touched me when they told me pull in my tummy).

It has been hard to maintain a healthy attitude about weight when I feel like I need to preempt comments. After Chinese New Year, I heard so many women reflect, getting in before anyone else could, that they had gained weight over the holiday. Hearing women point out that they had gained 1-2 kilos (2-4 lbs) or having people point out similar weight gain/loss on others makes it very difficult to ignore these regular, normal fluctuations in my own body. For crying out loud, women retain 2 kilos of water monthly due to menstruation anyway.

At a work lunch the other day, in response to all the talk of liquid diets, the other foreigners and I went on a bit of a rant about how healthy bodies come in many shapes and sizes. While we risk sounding like xenophobes, lecturing people in a country where we are guests, I can't help but feel compelled to try to get my friends/colleagues to stop feeling bad about how they look. And maybe help me to not feel the need to reflect on my body shape and size so often when it doesn't matter. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

On living in a land of "bad tourists"

It's easier to think about living here after being away. We were in Ireland last week for my sister-in-law's wedding and answered questions over and over again about what it's like to live in China. In nutshell, our answer was always ,"We love it, but it is very different from here". The following is a big part of what we meant by "different".

Chinese people do not have the best reputations when it comes to tourism. They tend to congregate in gigantic tour groups and wreak havoc -defacing artefacts, publicly relieving themselves, and generally being rude in the eyes of locals.

This has been in the news even more lately as China claims it is creating a national blacklist for poorly behaved tourists to try to limit international embarrassment.

Unlike tourists I have met from other countries, Chinese tourists are not [typically] acting this way because of racism, classism, or thrill of anonymity away from home. People act the same way they would at home. Defacing artefacts, publicly relieving themselves, and generally being rude in the eyes of foreigners.

For example, this video taken at a Korean airport is quite representative of a lot of queuing (or not) situations in China.

I think if I watched this before I moved here I would think it was exceptional but I can attest that transportation hubs, markets, and major tourist areas can regularly be like this. When my bestie Tiana tried to get our Chinese visas for our No Plan Plans trip in 2010, it took her hours to get to the front of the line because she wasn't used to queuing as a contact sport.

The lack of consideration for others in public hit me, literally, at the airport coming back from Ireland last week. After 1.5 weeks of having a ton of personal space and people being extremely friendly, making an effort to ensure my comfort, I, completely stationary in a logical waiting place, was run into twice within a five minute span by people pushing their luggage carts. Jolted back into my China-brain, I didn't react as one traveller noticed my foreign-ness and mumbled "sorry" while the other looked wide-eyed at me as if to say, "Where did you come from?". You get used to this look in China.

The thing is, most local people wouldn't mind.


And I think this is something that many foreigners in China forget. What we perceive as rudeness and carelessness just doesn't bother people a lot of the time here. Of course, no one likes to get pushed out of the way to get into the Metro but the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality is more pervasive than the "publicly shame people into changing" (see video above) attitude.

In my nearly two years here, time and time again, I see Chinese people completely confused by foreigners' reactions to their behaviour.

For example, it's illegal to smoke indoors. But people do it anyway, practically everywhere. If you throw a fit (especially if you aren't speaking Mandarin), the person smoking likely has no idea what the problem is.

And another: My laidback husband had a bit of a freak out at a local museum last year, pushed one too many times. To be fair, we had been pushed and shoved by hundreds of people at this stage and seen pretty much nothing in the several floors of the museum we travelled through. He lost his temper, shouting in English, at a child and the child stared at him like he had two heads. The kid had no clue that shoving my husband was rude. Nearly every adult around him was doing exactly the same thing.

Only a few steps away, we saw a grandmother climb up the side of an aquarium, a few feet off the ground, to knock as hard as she could to get the fishes' attention. (It didn't work and no one stopped her or batted an eye.)

I often wish people would queue, not spit, speak quietly on the phone, bring their child to a more private place to urinate than the middle of a sidewalk, queue, not block sidewalks walking in groups, not hit me with their umbrellas, not stand still at the tops of escalators, hold open doors, queue, not smoke inside, not pick their noses, wash their hands, not take photos without permission, and queue.

However, I choose to live here. I am the outsider here. I don't get to decide how things work.


Of course, as foreigners, we don't have to jump into the local culture to the point of cutting our nails on the metro or growing our fingernails long to pick our ears (yes, that's a thing). But realize when you call people out on what is normal behaviour for many millions of people, you're the rude one.

Take deep breaths, laugh about it with your friends and family, and know that it's perfectly fine to openly take a photo of the pushcart of watermelons blocking a massive intersection or videotape the girl blocking the crowded metro door taking dozens of selfies.

And be patient. Things are changing, slowly, and this might be the main area where foreigners cheer "face saving culture".


Sunday, March 1, 2015

Chinese New Year Staycation: Round 2

As the avid reader/listener to a year of whining will recall, we swore last year that we would not stay in Shanghai this year. I was actually quite subdued about it on my Chinese New Year blog post, but overall we were bored and sick of listening to fireworks/firecrackers.
I strongly discouraged newcomers to Shanghai from sticking around. We are in an amazing location to fly to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Japan, to name a few places friends of ours travelled to this year.

But a combination of waiting too late and wanting to save some money led us to stick around, yet again. I was pretty confident I could do better this time around.

My mindset was one of anti-boredom. I had something planned one way or another almost every day of the break and a list of activities we could do when the mood struck. I knew from last year that museums and small shops aren't consistently open around Chinese New Year and just avoided them altogether. I knew from last year that most Western places would be open and that the fireworks on the New Year Eve (February 18th-19th this year) and the Fourth/Fifth Day would be epic.

Despite the lessons of last year, I discovered I had more to learn.

Failing at Firework Viewing

We were lucky that several of our friends were also in town for Chinese New Year this year. I organized a group to rent rooms at the Oriental Bund Riverside Hotel, a highly reviewed 5-star hotel in Puxi that overlooks the river. Or, wait, was it the Oriental Bund Hotel?

Great location! Just not for fireworks...

Yes, after hours of research, I managed to book the wrong hotel. Our hotel was located in Pudong, the wrong side of the river for the best views, and in Lujiazui at that, above a curve in the Huangpu River that prevented us from seeing pretty much anything at all.

So 9 of us all missed the fireworks on Chinese New Year thanks to my hotel booking fail. We still had a blast, singing and dancing until the wee hours.

 

Thankfully, due to my experience in 2014, I knew that I had a chance to redeem myself: The Fourth/Fifth Day.

My friend Solay has a sweet apartment downtown with a perfect view for fireworks. At my behest, she hosted a group of us for drinks and food and firework watching.

Everyone was pretty tired at this stage. People at the party had either been working or partying (or, in the my and the Irishman's case, getting foot massages) and were too tired to put up much of a partying effort. By 11 pm, having seen very few fireworks, we decided to call it a night.

30 minutes later, in a taxi on our way back to Pudong, they started. Epic, fantastic fireworks that everyone except yours truly got to experience. Yes, I crawled into bed in our 2nd floor apartment, while the Irishman walked Charlie, videoing the beautiful, colourful displays going off all over the neighbourhood. The other partygoers, who all live on higher floors, sent videos via chat app.

 

And now we all know that 11:30pm-ish is when to expect the Fourth Day show. Go figure.

T, my Toronto-based bestie, reminded me that I will not want for opportunities to see fireworks while living in China but it is still a bit sad that my two efforts at the biggest firework days of the year were thwarted by my own stupidity.

Lessons learned!

Succeeding at Staycationing

Not to toot my own horn, but we are now staycation pros.

Foot massage addicts

 

We got the lazy part sorted. Watch the Oscars in bed for 3 hours? Massages? House of Cards marathon? More massages? Streaming NHL games? Why not 'eh? I have never eaten so many nachos in a 12 day period.

 

We were even a bit productive. We both got a bit of work done, which might seem depressing, but will make it much easier to get back into the swing of things tomorrow *cries*. We worked out, despite the Irishman's gym being closed for 1 month with no notice (remember what I said about stuff not being open randomly?). IKEA and shopping for bike supplies counts as productive, too, right?

Chillin with Fili

 

Despite being in Shanghai, we even put the pup in boarding for 2 nights so we could go to our hotel party and chill out the next day without stressing about him. We had also taken in two buddies to babysit over the break: a colleague's daughter's hamster and a volunteer's guinea pig. I love animals and had a great time snuggling some extra four-legged friends!

 

Being at home (well, all but one night), we managed to save cash, despite eating out, drinking quite a bit, and getting our fair share of spa time in. We aren't tired from travel or sick from being cooped up in airplanes. There is no jetlag. I was stressed before the break that we would regret it but I think it worked out perfectly.

 

Plus, we're not handing in our expat cards yet --we'll be off somewhere tropical for Qing Ming holiday in four weeks anyway! Life in Shanghai is hard.

 

Year on Year

Last year felt very different. Some of it was due to us having friends around and me needing a break (vs being unemployed and bored) but it was an objectively different time.

 

Partly because of rain, there weren't nearly as many fireworks/crackers going off day and night.

 

It was very easy to get a taxi or Uber car in the weeks leading up to and including the break.

 

Next year, I mean it, we will not be here! We are planning to meet up with my cousin and her family. But even if we didn't, I feel much more positive about sticking around now that I think I do really have Chinese New Year in Shanghai down. The next time we are here over the break, fireworks or bust!!