Postcards from China

Sunday 30 April 2017

How exactly do you describe a first time visit to China? All the way home on the long flight, I thought about this. I knew that when I got back, people would be asking me how it had been.

What would I say? How would I sum it up? The truth is, I’m still not sure.

China defies description from the perspective of one visit – its so vast, so full on apparent contradictions, so complex. Almost any adjective you can think of would describe some part of it – vibrant, tranquil, traditional, cutting-edge. China seems to be all these things and more.

Of course, I was visiting for work purposes, so I didn’t have the typical tourist experience. My destination was Ningbo, a city most westerners may not have heard of, even though its got a population of 7.6 million and is twice the size of London.

The city is part of the north east Zhejiang province. Its built around one of the largest sea ports in the world, sitting across the bay from Shanghai.

The name, literally translated, means ‘Serene Waves’. As a trade city on the old silk road route, Ningbo dates back to 4800BC. Today it’s a place of towering skyscrapers bisected by three main rivers, with pockets of old China floating to the surface here and there.

When the opportunity came up to go over, I felt I would regret if if I didn’t take the chance to visit a country that I have long found intriguing, even though it meant leaving my little boy Theo for a week, which was really hard.

I flew from Birmingham airport into Paris and from there to Beijing with AirFrance, before taking a domestic flight over to Ningbo.

I was staying at the Accor Sofitel, which was extremely comfortable. My room was lovely, very spacious and well equipped. The especial highlight for me was the glass-walled bathroom where you could take a bath looking out of the twinkling lights of the city’s towers. That felt quite magical after a hard day!

The hotel also had a lovely reception area dominated by huge marble pillars and a beautiful bar area.

The food was excellent as well, with a huge selection of freshly-cooked treats available at breakfast – everything from traditional Chinese and Japanese fare to my personal favourite of crepes and honey with dragonfruit and watermelon.

Each day, I had a car and driver take me into the university campus, which I can only describe as surreal. The campus is an exact replica of the one at home, and only English is allowed to be spoken in the grounds.

It’s a bubble – you feel like if you closed your eyes, you could be back home, in the middle of a tranquil, tree-shaded park and then right outside the gates is the reality of huge, buzzing Chinese city.

I had quite a few meetings scheduled, events and presentations to give, but whenever I had a spare couple of hours I based myself on an outdoor table at the Starbucks on campus and did some emails.

Really pleasant to be able to work outside in the sunshine. I wasn't expecting it to be so hot, but while I was there it ranged from 20-30 and sunny, although there was a big thunderstorm one night, and it set in to heavy rain on the day I left, so I was probably lucky.

It was the 10th anniversary of the university opening its campus there, so there were lots of events planned to mark the occasion. Perhaps the most beautiful and bizarre was a mass wedding! Ten couples who had met as students at the university came back to get married in the grounds.

Watching ten brides all line up at once to get married was really strange. Each couple was proceeded down the aisle by a rather grumpy looking child dressed as an angel, which only added to the feeling that I was having a cheese dream!

Witnessing so much happiness as once was lovely, thought I still cant imagine wanting to share my big day with anyone else. They did explain to me that each couple may have several ceremonies and celebrations, which is apparently quite common, so I suppose that they had other chances to celebrate individually.

The next day, there was a Colour Run through the campus grounds, with lots of obstacles, and the runners being squirted with water fund, pelted with powder paint and then running through a foam pool into a wall of bubbles! I was only spectating that part but it looked so much fun I sort of wished I’d taken part! A lot of students did the race on bikes, which was a bit odd.

On the first night, my hosts took me and the photographer who went with me to a Korean barbecue restaurant. You order platters of meats and vegetables and cook them yourself on a wood-burning stove set into the table. This was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten! I especially enjoyed the spicy sauces that you dipped the meat into after cooking. It was a really fun and sociable way to eat.

I also got taken out for a North Chinese meal on one night. My hosts explained that the food in China is very different from region to region and that most of what we have as ‘Chinese food’ in the UK is actually Cantonese, which can be far removed from the food in other parts of the country. It would be a little like comparing English and German food and saying they were all ‘European’.

The hosts ordered a selection of dishes for the table, so I didn’t really catch what individual dishes were called – and I wouldn’t have been able to pronounce them anyway!

There was grilled spiced fish, a kind of pork stew with dumplings, and a dish with wide flat noodles and chicken. I also had sea buckthorn juice to drink, which was really delicious and citrusy. I also had some lovely food at the university itself, my favourite being this spicy beef dish with pak choi and noodles.

There was quite a lot that was literally lost in translation though. Sadly, I don’t have any Chinese, but I do know that inflections in how you pronounce the words are hugely important and can alter the meaning quite drastically, so I didn’t feel confident enough to attempt any.

Outside of the university, almost no-one spoke any English. I think in the UK we are quite pampered and used to going abroad and usually being vaguely understood, so that was a bit of a culture shock. All I can say is thank goodness for Google Translate, or I would have been stranded a couple of times!

Next door to the hotel I was staying at was a huge shopping mall called Wanda Plaza, that was open really late so a couple of times in the evening I had a stroll around there and tried to do some shopping. The stores inside were a total mix, from Chinese shops to large Western brands like Zara and some designer stores. I especially liked one store called Monnma, which was sort of like Urban Outfitters and sold everything from clothes to books, to tech gear to toys.

However, actually shopping was a little problematic. I found the shop assistants almost quite reluctant to deal with me – maybe they knew I wouldn’t speak any Chinese and thought I’d be a difficult customer!

They also wouldn’t take a Visa payment, which seemed bizarre for such a big shop, although I got told late that some stores only take mobile payment and sometimes they can be suspicious of Western credit cards and things. Still it seemed a bit strange, but I did manage to get what I wanted in the end!

Even though Ningbo is a huge city, I don’t think most people are that used to seeing foreigners outside of the university environment. I was stared at where ever I went and quite a few people came up and took photographs of me.

This wasn’t done in a horrid way, and everyone was quite polite, but still, sometimes after a long day you don’t want to be stared at and feel eyes on you when you’re out and about. Of course, Chinese social customs are quite different too and they certainly don’t have the same perception of ‘personal space’ that we do in the UK, so people will stand a bit too close to you or walk very close and things, which is a bit unsettling at first. However, like I said, everyone I dealt with was pleasant and I felt very safe there, even going around on my own.

The one time I took a taxi was a bit hair-raising though! My driver was – no exaggeration – smoking, texting, eating a doughnut and drinking a coffee while swerving at high speed in and out of several lanes of traffic without indicating! He nearly got us taken out by a bus several times, and on his part, several pedestrians and cyclists had to swoop out of his way. There was no seat-belt either! I was hanging on for dear life and I certainly discovered religion in the backseat of that taxi.

One evening, the photographer and I had an evening out in Laowaitan, or ‘the old bund’. This is an area on the banks of the river that’s full of old trade buildings  and cobbled streets put up by the Dutch and Portuguese traders in the 18th century, but its now full of bars and restaurants.

All the skyscrapers across the river have light shows, and the whole area is strung with fairy lights and pretty decorations, so it’s a really nice place for a night out. We went for dinner and drinks, and then to a pub quiz run by the university staff at Office, one of the bigger bars. I really enjoyed it although I soon found out my general knowledge is extremely lacking!

A couple of other nights I was quite tired, so instead of going out for dinner, I visited the shopping mall next to my hotel. There was a big Walmart there although it wasn't like the American one very much as it had lots of tanks of live seafood waiting for you to pick it out. There were lots of things there that wouldn’t be familiar to us here at home.

I brought back a few little treats for my trip, although with some of the foods, I think my lack of Chinese led to a few surprises! Here’s what I shopped:

I brought back some biscuits and chocolate for my boys – and then these things on the far end with a cartoon lion on the packet, that I thought were some kind of jelly sweet and turned out be shrink-wrapped sausages!! I also got some Kinder Dino Joy for Theo that have the dinosaur toys in and these little bamboo and perspex toy race cars, as he’s obsessed with cars at the moment.

For myself, I picked up a pack of these milk face masks from a brand called Hola, which I’m really looking forward to trying, this super cute glass water bottle with cat years, and this patterned silk scarf which I really liked – it will go really well with blouses and crisp white shirts for a sophisticated look.

In China, a lot of websites like Google, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are blocked by the government, but I got round this by using a VPN. This allows you to connect to the internet via a ‘virtual private network’, securely encrypting your signal and data, so I was still able to access all those sites.

Some VPN services aren't reliable or get periodically shut  down in China, but I used ExpressVPN, which worked smoothly and was easy to install on my iPad and iPhone. A month’s subscription is about £10 and you can cancel at any point.

I also downloaded WeChat, which is like What'sApp. Its massive out there and is used by lots of official bodies and as a payment system lots of places. This way I could video-call home a lot, usually about three times a day.

There’s an eight hour time difference, so they’d just be getting up at 6am when it was mid-afternoon in China, and I would try and call before going to bed at 11pm which is about 4pm in the UK.

Obviously, I missed my little boy huge amounts, although I knew he was having lots of Easter fun at home with daddy, his granny and all his cousins. Seeing him made it a little harder in some ways, although of course it was lovely to be able to say hello from the other side of the world.

Flying home, I went from Ningbo into Hong Kong. I wish I would have had enough time to go into Hong Kong and explore as I find it very intriguing.

Even just the airport is lovely, built out into the sea and surrounded by misty green mountains. I had a great Frapuccino there that featured caramel popcorn and pretzels! Then I had a flight to Amsterdam with KLM after being delayed by heavy rains and I was back on (almost) home soil. It did make me think how upset I will be when I have to go through the ‘non-EU’ gate at the airport though.

I got back to my house at about 11pm that night, so I didn’t get to properly see Theo until the next day. Although he looked a bit confused at me suddenly appearing in his bedroom in the morning, I soon got a big cuddle and everything was fine.

Although I only experienced one small part of China, the uniqueness of the experience definitely made me want to return someday and explore different parts of the country. I do feel priveledged to have seen a side of China a little off the usual tourist trail though, and get a small insight into what a ‘real’ Chinese city is like to live and work in.

A land of contrasts perhaps unknowable to Western eyes with an intimidating pace of growth but still with a certain serenity born out of ancient truth – thank you for having me, China.


  1. Omg it looks amazing! Makes me really want to go now! How long was the flight?

    Great post hunni! Im glad you haf a fantasic time.

  2. "I discovered religion in the back of that taxi" hahaha, you poor thing, I know how you feel!
    Wow, you really went at the right time! What a cool experience, seeing the mass wedding! I love your photos. You've captured such a good range of moments. And what lovely weather you had! I'm glad you enjoyed the Korean BBQ...maybe one time you'll enjoy the real thing?! ;P I've been considering popping over to Shanghai or Beijing for a weekend since it's so close to me here. Is there anything you suggest I try, food or otherwise?