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China Diary & Blog

We'll post reports, some of our thoughts and photos of our trip to China in these pages.  It won't be updated daily but we'll try to keep the new material coming!   If you are looking for our son's blog then it is here.

October 2006

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Nanjing - A Retail Delight

We were on a mission: to obtain cheese, a breadmaker and an inexpensive multi-function scanner/printer and make a reconnaissance visit to the Zhonghuamen long distance bus station.  The plan was a little thwarted by a late start to the morning (0700) and missing the bus we wanted to be on by about 5 minutes. The plan changed to taking the next bus to our favourite Maqun bus station and skipping the visit to Zhonghuamen (we can do this next week). It takes us about 2 hours to get to our Nanjing destination from our Jurong apartment, door to door, as we negotiate the various public transport systems we use (depending on how over-full and therefore how many Nanjing city buses we can't comfortably get on with our luggage).

Having left our bus map at home we bought YAM (yet another map) at Maqun and used it to plan our day's travels around Nanjing.   After leaving our "Russian Doll" luggage kit of bags and large day packs within our travel pack at the apartment we followed the "new" map's route only to find that the particular service we wanted now runs a different route. More time is lost as a new route is planned and several possible bus services go past. By now it is almost lunchtime and we are just arriving at the "Metro" department store/supermarket. A slight diversion is required to KFC for sustenance and "relief" (there being no bus aisles handy). Eventually we look at the breadmakers on offer only to find they have Chinese only Video CD "recipe" and instruction "manuals".  Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay they are not! Perhaps we'll pass. All is not lost as, with the day and the chances of getting a bargain by haggling on "Computer Street" fading, we found the Canon Pixma MP150 scanner/printer at a good price there.

Returning to the apartment, TJ arranges for Sam to play with Derek, a Chinese boy who used to attend Somerfield School in Christchurch. Neil sets off in search of a breadmaker with English Instructions and Recipes. After visiting Carrefour (a supermarket), Suning and Gome (appliance retailers) we agreed to get the Carrefour offering with its English instructions and Chinese language recipes as we thought there would be no problem getting alternative recipes if necessary. This turned out to be the case (try Goolging "breadmaker recipe"). A prototype baking run is scheduled for tomorrow.

On Neil's walk around the centre of Nanjing he found across a block of shops in the centre of town devoted to selling chemistry apparatus (distilling glassware, stands etc) and chemicals and electronics parts. He took a quick look around the 3 30x50m floors of the electronics "fair": each housing several vendors with stalls in various sizes from about 4sq.m. There was everything from SMD passive parts through 40pin DIL ICs to 100A diode bridges, test equipment, wire, electrical fittings and housings. A more detailed visit is required!

On Sunday, after attending church at the NICF, we had a roast dinner at the Thames Restaurant, a new establishment run by a Chinese chef who has worked in London and the Middle East. This was a great change from our usual fare: the roast beef, roast vegetables, yorkshire pudding and gravy were delicious.

Tonight, one of our students took us to a local restaurant about 500m up the road. John ordered for us and the food was excellent: peanuts and chicken, fish (apparently the eye and brains are the best parts - might try them some other day) plus a vegetables dish and a tofu and spinach soup.

To continue the saga of the Campus Diminishing Deceptions: there is a hotel with a restaurant on campus. We'll try the restaurant out next week.


Shi Tang - Campus Dining Hall

Last night one of TJ's students chaperoned us to the Campus Dining Hall ("shi tang").  This multi-storey building has a variety of meals available starting at RMB2 (NZ$0.40) and going up in price as you go up a floor.  Payment is made using the "card" rather than cash. The student's cards serve as both "pre-paid debit cards" and library cards. We needed a chaperon as TJ hasn't been issued with one of these cards. We went to the "third floor" restaurant (which has recently been relocated to the second floor beside the second floor restaurant), where the food is reportedly the best and is sort of a-la-carte. Meals here are RMB5 each. Our student friend ordered the meals from the Chinese menu blackboard while we sat and got stared at. Some people had suggested the food in the Dining Hall was not very good.  In this area it was great although a hot & spicy fish "soup" caught Neil a little unawares with some potent chillies hidden amongst the spinach - at least there was free entertainment for everyone else! A peanut and chicken dish was our favourite. Sam had boiled rice: his favourite (after McD's). I think we'll be getting a "card": so we can eat there when the Chief Cook and Bottle-washer can't be bothered with cooking. The restaurant manager came over to check that the foreigners were happy with their meals.

After dinner, we were shown past the free hot water area (where about 100 people were filling their thermos flasks) to the small supermarket at the back of Dining Hall. It had all the important food groups: baijou (white "wine" = rocket fuel), pijou (beer), chocolate, soft drink, coffee, Lipton Tea bags, chips, biscuits...). Unfortunately it does not stock fresh milk (only UHT and flavoured milk). Payment can be made by "card" or by cash. I'm not sure what amazes me the most: that there is a supermarket on campus or that we've been here for two months and nobody had told us about it previously! Go figure! I wonder what other treasures are awaiting discovery!



We had a good trip to Suzhou. We definitely had a scenic bus trip there, first heading South East towards Hangzhou rather than North east towards Zhenjiang as we had expected. We stayed in the 3-star Suzhou Hongde Shi Lu Super 8 Hotel. This budget hotel was clean, comfortable and close to the major fast food attractions!  We booked on-line and the three nights total cost was <NZ$100 (including credit card currency commission). It had double glazing, aircon, electric kettle but no refrigerator.  It had a good view of the nearby Holiday Inn with its cool animated, multicolour neon light show. It is situated by Shi Lu, a major shopping and night market area. It has several major bus routes into the centre of the city passing it (bus fare is NZ$0.20, motorbike cab fare is NZ$1, taxi is NZ$2) There is a supermarket that has Western food (including NZ Mainland Edam Cheese) diagonally opposite. We'd stay there again mainly because of its close proximity to these services.

Neil went to the eMex trade show on the Saturday morning.  This large show occupied 3 halls, each larger than the Christchurch Westpac indoor stadium. It was similar in content to the Australian Austronics show and like a mini Electronica that is held every two years in Munich. One sales guy said I was the only foreigner he'd spoken to in the entire 3 days of the show. Maybe that is why I got the VIP treatment and was whisked past the entry queue to register before the show opened! A few stands took some photos of the waiguoren checking out their products. I made some useful contacts of which a Taiwanese plastic injection moulding company was the most interesting. I made the mistake of attending on the last day when the show encourages schools and retirees to attend.  There were huge crowds of middle school (like NZ secondary school) aged young people walking around in convoy.

We had set ourselves a relaxed itinerary and visited the Lingering Garden in the afternoon. Chinese Landscape Design is certainly different from what we are used to.We walked there and back from our Hotel and enjoyed the stroll, stopping to watch tour boats on the canals. People are amused by Sam being carried on Neil's shoulders or "piggyback" by TJ. We enjoyed the Pizza Hut pastas we had for dinner - a very pleasant change from the usual fast-food meals that Sam prefers. The light shows in the Shi Lu pedestrian mall are amazing and Sam was amazed with the fountain that danced to the music. We took a stroll around the stalls and shops that are in the area. A great effort has been made to make the Shi Lu area a bright and attractive place at night: indeed, it looks rather ordinary by day.

On Sunday we went to the Silk Museum. It was fascinating to see how it was processed so long ago and to appreciate the skill and detailed fine work required to make the patterned fabrics. The "museum shop" had several very nice items available including silk duvet covers, duvet inners, coats, ties, scarves, shirts etc. This helped us to calibrate the upper end of the silk product pricing!

TJ investigated getting a made-to-measure silk suit, dress or jacket. It takes about a week and could be posted to us when complete. In addition to the clothing styles, there were a huge range of silk colours patterns and prices to choose from.  So much so that she delayed getting something made just yet.

Neil checked out the local electric bicycle (scooters and bicycles) shop: all 4 floors of it. The salespeople were keen to get me to take one for a test ride.  "Do I need a drivers licence?" "No, you need to sign up and pay RMB8".  He declined playing Suzhou Chicken in the crowded streets and footpaths.  There were several brands of  scooters available but they all have similar specs. The saga of establishing the merits of each brand continues...

In the afternoon we went to the centre of Suzhou with its large pedestrian mall and wall to wall people. Several streets are pedestrian only except for the "mini-buses" that run along the length of the street. We looked at the Temple of Mystery and its associated market stalls. This used to be the centre of commerce for Suzhou in ancient times.  We looked at some of the silk clothing but resisted the temptation to buy. Sam had a little money to spend and wanted one of the cool swords that were available at several stalls. He is learning about "wants" and "needs" and the value of money as the swords were all a little more than he had.

Our return bus trip on Monday took us by a more direct route and was on a large comfortable bus.  It went to the second bus station in Jurong, the one we thought was for "local buses". One of the differences we've noticed is that most babies/toddlers don't wear nappies but have an open trouser so they can squat and "go" as and where required.  I wondered how the parents coped with their child answering the "the call of nature" while on public transport. Well, I didn't have to wonder for very long and I now know why there is a "hose-able" floor covering rather than carpet in the bus aisle!

Shi Lu Lights

Shi Lu Fountain

Fountain moves to the Music

More Shi Lu Fountains

Suzhou City Mall

Temple of Mystery Entrance Gate


Birthday Week

Yesterday was Sam's 8th birthday.  Understandably, it was a highlight for him and us. Sam has been counting down the days all month. TJ and a couple of her students (as interpreters) arranged the decorated birthday cake from one of the local bakeries.  A few students came over to help eat the cake and create a "gathering".  Family and friends sent emails, letters, parcels and made phone calls. Sam really loved the picture of his Harewood School classmates. A KFC dinner completed the days festivities.

Unfortunately today, the new, 1 day old, super-cool plastic "airgun" had a breakage.  The plastic "cocking" handle broke off and caused much distress.  We shall see if SuperGlue will restore it to its former glory.  I've never seen any toy that shoots "suction cup" projectiles and gets them to stick - this gun was great. We had several "bullets" stuck to the door. It was also a fantastic demonstrator for basic firearms safety. Sam and I had only just finished discussing how cool this toy was and how well it worked when it failed. No, I didn't break it.

Sam plays with a couple of the other teachers' boys: one is 9 and the other 11.  They usually only play at weekends because their school hours are 7:30am - 11am and then 1:30pm-5:00pm. Sam's school hours are a little more leisurely than this! Last Saturday we were invited to the home of one of these families.  Several parents and children congregated there and the kids had a ball.  It was great to meet some other staff in a social setting.

On Sunday two of TJ's students showed her how to make Jaozi (small dumplings). These are like large ravioli and can have a variety of fillings (we had pork and vegetables).  The casing is flour based and a (very) little bit like pasta. Then, they stayed for tea as we enjoyed these delicious treats. The girls said that women eat 20 and men eat 40 for a meal. We gave them a fair nudge but there were still plenty left for lunch the following day.

Otherwise, this week has been filled with getting into the rhythm of Sam's Correspondence School work. We are going to look for a VHS player, an audio cassette player and a Multifunction Scanner/Printer to assist with this. DVD players, MP3 players and mobile phones are very common in the shops here but the others are likely only available in the big cities. Airmail is quite expensive and so the Scanner/Printer will more than pay for itself over the next 12 months of Correspondence School. We've been introduced to the Open Source Audacity Digital Audio Editor / Recorder and processing software (I wish I 'd had this when I was working on PDA audio systems at Trimble).

Neil has begun his transformation to "the dark side" and has written his first Windows Visual C++ "Hello World" application and revised one of his Eagle user language programs.  Alas, the if/goto/label constructs he's been happy with in the past may have to be consigned to the history books. Fortunately, a whole world of "C" awaits: if only Chinese language was so easy.

We're planning to go to Suzhou this weekend.  This is a city known as a "Garden City" and the "Venice of the East" owing to all its canals.  It is also famous for its silk products. We'll probably visit Suzhou a few times while we are here. It is about a 3hr bus ride and there is only 1 bus per day in each direction. Neil's main goal for this visit is attending the last day of the eMEX IT and electronics tradeshow and checking out some Electric Bicycles.


Back to School

Today we received the bulk of the NZ correspondence school material that we've been expecting. I hope this will help me bring some more interactive activities into Sam's lessons. We've got some tests to do and then some exploring of all the materials before we rearrange our current timetable to accommodate them.

TJ has negotiated with the Polytechnic to swap Sam's double bed for a single bed, a divan (sofa-bed) and a coffee table. We will put Sam's new bed into the master bedroom (with our bed), shift the TV that is currently in the master bedroom back to the new "lounge" and place the new sofa and coffee table there.  We often have students come to visit to practise their English and so this will be more comfortable than sitting around the dining table. Today TJ bought a 6' high coatstand (NZ$8) for our daypacks and, as yet unused, winter jackets. All this, and the shoe rack she bought yesterday, will make the daily job of sweeping the floor easier and helps to make the place a home.


Nanjing - A Week in Retrospect

Last Sunday we took the bus to Nanjing. We've now made 4 trips to, or from, Nanjing and the fare has been different 3 of these times! Initially Sam was charged the full adult fare. Then he was charged the child fare (half-price based on being under 1.4m tall - height rather than age is the standard way of assessing ticket prices). Finally there was some sort of insurance or surcharge for our last trip.

We stayed in Hilary and Gary's apartment while in Nanjing. The six flights of stairs helps to focus the mind into not forgetting items that you need to return for when you leave; and to remember everything you want at the local supermarket when coming home. I think their apartment would be described as modest by Nanjing expat standards and we found it very spacious and comfortable. To us it is luxury to have a sofa and lounge chairs to slouch in while channel-surfing or reading.

We found the city-wide bus system fairly easy to negotiate once we'd spent a little time planning what services and routes to use on the "Tourist Map". We used a combination of 3 maps: the Tourist Map (in Chinese) with the bus routes, an English language one without bus routes but with a major street and attraction index and a further central city map found in the expat focused Map Magazine. I also discovered an on-line map. Fortunately, most buses also have a copy of their route map displayed inside (useful for those services that are new and aren't on the Tourist Map - like the one we use to get to the apartment from the Maqun bus station that the services from Jurong finish at!) 

The Map Magazines have articles introducing some of the local attractions, historic people and places, top sights as well as a bunch of classified adverts for restaurants, bars, attractions, childrens activities and services. We've used this material to plan our visits and to identify a couple of restaurants that we'd like to try sometime.


One of our main goals was to source (and consume) some western food. To Sam, this means McDonalds is a must, even though they don't have BBQ flavour sauce for his McNuggets! We had identified a couple of restaurants that we wanted to try but that didn't quite work out.  Maybe next time!

On our first evening, John and Joyce took us to a Pizza Restaurant near the University where they live and work. It was very good to share a western meal with another family.

In addition to the small Suguo supermarket near the apartment, we went to two large supermarkets, Carrefour and RT Mart, which both had a good selection of beef (both quality cuts and mince), butter and cheese. With pre-made pasta sauces, pasta and beef available, we cooked our first spaghetti bolognaise style meal in over five weeks. On one of our day trips, RT Mart provided French bread, cheese slices, ham and Fanta to allow us a delicious make-shift lunch on their outdoor picnic tables. These large supermarkets have one floor of food and one floor of electrical, homeware and clothing goods. The local Suguo also had cheese slices and some ham (albeit a slightly different flavour than we're accustomed to).

We gave the local McD's a bit of a nudge on two occasions and TJ & I found that sufficient. On Friday we planned to have breakfast at McDonald's but were disappointed to find they have the same menu all day, unlike in NZ or Hong Kong. We'll try to find out if this is common at some or all McDonald's here. The nearby KFC appeared to have a breakfast menu, but that didn't include the pancakes that Sam wanted. We settled for our staple cooked brekky: rolled oat porridge. We haven't tried the local rice porridge.

Bread doesn't taste the same here: most of it has a peculiar sweet flavour that we've not developed a taste for. Fortunately, Nanjing has the Skyways Bakery & Deli that offers European style bread in two locations. One of these is on the bus route that runs past the apartment. Gary had left us a wholemeal loaf to get us started. The shop was shut for the start of the holiday week but when it opened, we made good use of their produce. We had lunch there one day: made-to-order sandwiches and a soft drink for the same price as a "fast food combo". Their chocolate brownie was fantastic. Their deli stocks a range of European cheese, pasta sauces, dried pasta and imported wine.

Yangtze River Bridge

We took a bus to the Nanjing Railway station for a quick familiarisation look and then, after avoiding the hordes of touts offering bus trips and hotels, caught another bus to the park at the base of the bridge. After a short walk in the park, we took the lift to the road deck. The buses that cross the bridge stop nearby and would be much cheaper than the lift (CNY1 vs CNY15 for the park entry and lift ticket).

Built by the Chinese in the 1960's, this is an impressive piece of engineering. It was designed and constructed without any foreign assistance and completed the railway link between Beijing and Shanghai. It has 4 lanes of vehicles on the top layer with a footpath on both sides and trains run on the level below the traffic. The bridge proper is about 1.5km long, but it totals about 4.5km when the elevated approaches are included. We can assure you that it is not only in Texas that things are big!

We took some different bus services home so that we  could check out the "Sun Palace" swimming pool.

Road Level on Bridge
Bridge Approach Supports

Confucius Temple

This area of town has a large "pedestrian mall" with shops, restaurants, stalls, the Confucius Temple, and a small canal. We knew that a night-time boat trip on the canal would be spectacular so we had a "lazy" morning before heading off on the day's adventures.

Fuzimiao, as it is known locally, was a popular place to be. Despite the crowds, temple and shops, we (or more accurately Sam) were still an attraction. All of the stall owners invited us in to look at their wares and bargain with them. Sam found silk pyjamas to his liking at the second silk stall we entered. After we passed several similar shops with similar, if not identical items, his disappointment at us not buying them subsided. Several people wanted to take a photo of Sam or have their photo taken with him.

After the obligatory "Golden Arches Franchise Meal" - that restaurant was packed full - we watched the light show develop as twilight and then darkness fell. The 40 minute boat ride was spectacular with neon lights decorating the canal. When comparing the daytime and night-time scenes, we thought the night ones were more impressive.

This was definitely a highlight of the week.

Day time dragons

Night time dragons

Canal Lights
Canal and Harbour

City Gate

The old city of Nanjing was surrounded by a wall with several major gates. Rather than being rectangular, the wall followed the natural watercourses which formed natural "moats". Over the years some of the wall has been destroyed or has had roadways put through. The southern gate is fairly well preserved and we were surprised by its size (see the photo of Sam at one of the two "front doors") and engineering. It is a three stage affair with the capacity to "accommodate" a few thousand soldiers and their provisions.  Each side has a wide shallow angle ramp/staircase that the generals could ride their horses up.

The gate now has a bonsai garden in one of the courtyards, some souvenir shops and a few displays of the site history. The top of the gate is now paved rather than in lawn as this photo shows.

Aerial View

Gate Inner Courtyard

Big Doors!

Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum

The burial site of the founder of 20th Century China is on "Purple Mountain". Having led the fight that ended the Qing Dynasty, Dr Sun Yat-sen is recognised by both the Communist and Nationalist sides of China's recent history. Visiting this site is something of a pilgrimage for many Chinese and it was very busy during this holiday period. Neil visited it and was one of the few foreigners who were rather outnumbered by the  thousands of Chinese people. 

It is a huge, well manicured site with a large central stairway between two tree-lined walkways. The mature trees provide some relief from the fierce heat that Nanjing is renowned for.

There were orderly queues (something of a novelty in China!) at the burial chamber. The police let groups of about a hundred people through and as they filed around and out of the burial chamber, they let the next lot in. The mosaic ceiling and floor in the memorial and burial chambers are impressive.

There were several stalls selling trinkets and souvenirs as well as professional photographers ready to take a perfect portrait. Most people were having their family and friends take their photos at the important sites and one lady wanted her photo taken with this waigoren.

Lower Gate

Burial Chamber

Looking Down from the Top
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