Hong Kong 2012
First time, I only hopped through China: a few days stopover in Hong-Kong from Japan back in early 2012. Hong Kong can only be marginally thought of as Chinese; half of it much westernized due to the long British rule and influence. Kowloon side is as Asian as it gets, crowded and busy, bustling with life.
The short duration, not the best weather and family constraints did not allow too much photography at that time. I did manage to capture a few street scenes of the Kowloon, fascinated being about the colours of the neon advertisements and the density of the residential skyscrapers lining the broad boulevards.
Shanghai, Beijing, and Suzhou during the Chinese New Year
Back in 2018, we have decided to visit a friend during the Chinese New Year festivities. Unlike the rest of the world, Chinese people celebrate the New Year according to the lunar calendar. The first day of the New Year begins on the new moon that appears anytime between January 21st and February 20th. Back in 2018 it was on February 16th.
Although based in Shanghai, we did not spend that much time seeing it. The actual festivities we have spent in the countryside, astonished by the amount and availability of fireworks. Locals fill up their trucks with firework boxes from specialized shops and light up their yards well before and after the most important day of the year.
Around Shanghai in winter, it does not get that cold, at least not as cold as in Europe. This is the reason while the houses in the region are not well insulated. Sleeping under thick duvets, wearing several layers of clothing, and occasionally using the air-conditioning units to produce hot air (not the most efficient housewarming method) is how you keep warm. That is, apart from gathering in the kitchen for the famous hot-pot and keeping your body in constant movement. As much as we enjoyed the hospitality of our friend family and the activities the locals indulge in during this time, getting back to a western hotel was a somewhat relief.
The high-speed train from Shanghai to Beijing was an exciting experience. The train stations look more like airports than on the old continent. Airport-like security and huge spaces tend to create this impression. Riding at more than 310 km/h was enjoyable and not something that I have experienced before, not even in Japan. Our trains in Europe are obviously much slower.
Beijing has a much more formal feel than Shanghai and more conservative. We arrived too late or maybe it was the period, but the central Square was closed off and so was the Forbidden City. That did not stop visiting other sites around the city for a few days before heading back to Shanghai.
Almost forgotten, I also visited a section of the Great Wall the closest one to Beijing. Extremely crowded as expected, it did not leave a lasting impression, probably due to the winter-but-not-winter mood and the over-commercialization of the site.
On the way back we stopped in Suzhou. One of the other big cities in Jiangsu province next to Shanghai, it was said to be the Venice of China. We misestimated the size of the city. Not so difficult in China, as many travellers will find what seems to be a little town you only read about in the guidebook, turns out to be a metropolis dwarfing in size most of European capital cities.
Criss-crossed by water canals, Suzhou may indeed be regarded as an Asian Venice. After this experience we have learned that there are many other water towns in the Yangtze River Delta, varying in size and charm. Pleased by the Suzhou, I have decided to come back and explore a few more of the charming water towns in highly populated Yangtze river delta. Which I did in 2019...
Shanghai, Hangzhou and Tongli in summer of 2019
With the occasion of the wedding of the same friend we travelled to China again in the scorching heat of summer. Throughout the duration of the stay, stepping out from any interior (airport, hotel, house) was like stepping in a sauna. High humidity in the lowlands of Shanghai region made the heat sometimes unbearable. Despite, this were the weeks I have enjoyed most in China (so far).
Starting and based in Shanghai as last time, I got the chance to get a better look at some sites around the city: the Yu Yuhan Gardens and bazaar, the whole Bund, and the French Concession district. I found the Yu Gardens astonishing in the mix of reconstructed traditional architecture, the buzz of historical vendors of culinary delices and the more recent businesses offering Virtual-Reality experiences. The district brightens up at night, enhancing the charm of the old Chinese architecture, while at the same time clearing some breathing room from the mass of day-tourists. One can enjoy in relatively tranquillity a lovely tea in one of the many great tea houses operating here for a few centuries.
Somebody introduced me Hangzhou as something like Ouchy and the Lake Leman riviera of Switzerland. A beautiful lake-side city very well maintained with parks and promenades. But it forgot to mention that the city is home to more than 20 million people or more than 3 times the population of whole Switzerland. And that is how you feel after 3 days in Hangzhou: that you need another week to say you visited the place. We settled with exploring the West Lake (and not all of it) and the old town (or one of them) remarkable as the birthplace of what is known today as Chinese medicine.
However, what I enjoyed the most in this voyage is the small water town of Tongli. There are many charming water towns between Suzhou and Shanghai and around in the Yangtze delta. We chose Tongli randomly. Going to Tongli is like stepping back in time. The little village is closed for car traffic, not that there would be places where a car could be driven. It is a water town: the village is built on water, with canals, paved footpaths and pedestrian bridges connecting it. Trees are planted in abundance by the sides of the canals, creating impressive green tunnels. Although amazing as an effect, it also traps the moisture and the heat, creating a steaming bathhouse in summer.
The village lives on tourism at least since the last dynasty. That is not to say it caters to mass tourism or foreign travellers. Most of the restaurants, hotels, tea houses, shops and the lively bars on the Ship Lane are still ran by locals. Everything felt personal and authentic. The few days of scorching heat and getting about with hand language in Tongli left a lasting impression on me, as one of the most memorable places I have visited.
These are only a few glances of China. With countless other destinations to explore, I am looking forward to my next trip in this diverse country. In the meanwhile, I hope you enjoyed my photos as much I have enjoyed my time taking them. Here is the complete China gallery.
September 2nd, 2020 - published also on my personal website.
Photo credits: Bogdan Lazar.
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