A minor miracle

Since going on retreat back in August, I was challenged to do the Tai Chi wake up exercises every morning for a month. School wasn’t back so – challenge accepted. This surprised everyone including me! At the time I couldn’t really articulate why I wanted to do this but I had a deep inexplicable sense of this being something that I needed to do. So I went along with it.

I was conscientious and did the exercises every morning before my shower. I found that it was a perfect way to wake myself up and I began to feel more energized. Some mornings I stood on the balcony with the early morning sunshine on my face which felt simply wonderful.

My wake up exercise routine ends with a 10-15 minute standing meditation. I have never been very good at keeping still and my mind generally goes all skittish with random thoughts. However, at school this year we were encouraged to think of 3 positive things each day as a technique for helping us to cope during the COVID difficulties, so I focus on that at the beginning of each meditation session and it really helped. I began to feel the benefit of having some ‘me’ time and the opportunity to engage in this form of mindfulness.

The standing meditation is known as ‘alert relaxation’ and to my surprise it is actually incredibly relaxing and energizing too. It takes practice but sometimes, occasionally and very briefly, everything goes calm. My joints feel soft and comfortable and I am filled with a blissful feeling that can only be described as a peace which passes all understanding.

Once school started so did the after school activities and Luca (Master Zhang) our Tai Chi Master from the retreat offered classes so I decided to join. His wife is one of our Mandarin teachers and he also teaches the kids Kung Fu after school.

I learned that there are in fact different types of Tai Chi. The sort that was featured in the Beijing Olympic Games opening ceremony is the type often seen in the park or other public spaces. Master Zhang calls that Tai Chi ‘gymnastics’ and says that many of those who took part in the mass performance back in 2008 are now suffering from knee problems! It is popular and showy and we often see people outside practicing it. They even get to use a sword (& I am a teeny bit jealous about that)

The type of Tai Chi that we do is called ‘Neigong’ (pronounced Nay-gong) which translates as ‘inner energy’. It is much less about style and form and more about the flow of energy through the body’s blood vessels. If the body is correctly aligned you can actually feel the energy or ‘chi’ flowing. Expert practitioners can even control the energy flow to specific parts of their bodies. I don’t think that Neigong techniques are as widely available as the traditional Tai Chi and most likely not in the UK.

Neigong has two sides, there are a martial arts moves which forms part of Kung Fu and the control of energy side which is extremely useful in throwing your enemy off balance. Although Master Zhang shows us some defensive moves I am not likely to ever use them! Lol. The exercises and routines that I do are not strenuous but involve stretching and slow, really slow controlled movements. You get all the benefits of yoga without the complicated positions.

When I do the basic exercises I can feel my fingers, palms and hands tingling quite strongly. I was so impressed that I could feel my energies (chi) that it inspired me to keep on practicing. It has reached the point now where I feel that I am probably getting a bit addicted. I now get up at 5:10 am so that I can fit in an hour of wake up exercises and practice before school. And this is something that I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would do.

The principle behind Neigong is that with the correct mental attitude and body alignment one’s energy can flow and increase. As a result the joints and tendons all increase in flexibility. I can testify that this is correct. After doing the exercises for just 6 weeks I was able to reach behind my back to do up a particularly difficult bra that I had previously been unable to do. I can also squat down to the bottom shelves in the library without a whole lot of moaning and groaning. I was delighted and given that I am approaching my 6th decade I thought that working on suppleness now while I still can will ultimately be of long term benefit.

I began to take it all very seriously and worked to learn each of the moves. They are not difficult but there are lots of them! Then I learned to slow the routine down. You need to isolate and move each part of your body in turn, flowing your movements like mercury. And boy, once you can do it all slowly the energy is much more powerful.

There is one particular move which everyone should do each morning when you get up. Stand with your feet slightly apart, knees bent and thighs twisted in. Then palms down, lift your arms to the ceiling and stretch. Do this 5 times.

For someone who has suffered from ME I was hooked. Many of you will remember that I have recovered from the debilitating illness. I can work and travel etc but I am still mindful of the fact that I was never 100% better. I am publishing this blog now because it is the 10th anniversary of that fateful weekend in Rome when I caught the nasty virus which did all the damage to my mitochondrial system and changed my life in so many ways.

Now, practicing Neigong I get a real buzz from the increased energy flow. I am only beginning to learn (I’m still a baby Yoda) but I get quite a natural high sometimes when I get the movement and the posture right. I had forgotten what being energized felt like. People at school have commented on how much more relaxed I look and how I walk the corridors with more energy. (And these are people who don’t know that I am doing Tai Chi)

I couldn’t have done any of this without the excellence of Master Zhang. I can be standing holding what I think is a pretty good position. He then adjusts my arm by twisting it millimeters and wow! There is the most incredible feeling.

I am in awe at how he knows. He even says that he can see visible signs of the energy moving in me when my fingers get puffy. It’s so impressive.

This is Master Zhang filming for a documentary on Tai Chi (note – I can’t do any of those kicks!)

I have a lot more to learn but nowadays I look forwards to getting up and don’t mind practicing in the pre-dawn. In a busy world this wakes me up better than coffee ever did.

My morning view

Talking of which, the Chinese cure for pretty much all ailments is to drink warm water. I was again challenged by a colleague to drink warm water for a week and to see how I felt. Challenge accepted. That was in September and since then I have probably had only three cups of coffee. I have even cut back (not out) on alcohol and I feel so much better and much more hydrated.

Life has a way of throwing curve balls at us and Kevin and I have had our fair share of those. The last 10 years has proved to be challenging in so many ways and on more than one occasion I have been taken way outside of my comfort zone. God moves in mysterious ways though and often bad or difficult things happen for reasons that we don’t fully understand at the time. I have found it best to accept and move on. Go with the flow, learn, grow and trust. This has certainly been the case for me as I reflect and realize that all the twists, turns and hurdles of the past 10 years have brought me to where I am now. In Shanghai. In Jinqiao. At Concordia. Able to take advantage of the opportunity to learn Neigong with its remarkable regenerative, restorative healing powers. I feel better than I have done for a decade and for me that is a minor miracle.

And I HAVE learned from my experiences. I recognize that I was probably over busy 10 years ago being a mother, a library manager, a church secretary, keeping a house clean and having a social life. I was an easy target for a virus that attacks people when their immune systems are compromised. I know now that I need to keep a better balance in my life. Like this…

Master Zhang

A staycation on The Bund

One of the disadvantages of being stuck in Shanghai is that we haven’t been able to travel as we normally would but the upside of that is that we have saved money especially during the recent half term break (Golden Week). Another of the disadvantages is that I can’t go shopping for new clothes. There is very very little available here in ‘Western’ sizes. I don’t really mind as I have sufficient in my wardrobe to manage but it has had the added benefit of saving me a bit more money. Every cloud has a silver lining I guess.

So we decided to treat ourselves to a staycation on The Bund. There are some wonderful hotels here but we went for what is probably the most impressive one. I chose The Peace Hotel for its Art Deco splendor and it’s links to British history. We didn’t go in Golden week as the prices were astronomical but this weekend it had reduced to just ‘expensive’!

The building is a Palmer and Turner Architects design. It was commissioned in the 1920s by the wealthy businessman Victor Sassoon, a British Sephardic Jew of Iraqi descent whose family had made their fortune in India and Hong Kong in the opium trade. Once that business became less profitable Victor decided to move into property and this luxurious building which opened in 1929 was known as the ‘First Mansion in the Far East’ because of its prime location on The Bund.

Altogether Sassoon constructed over 1600 buildings in Shanghai but this was the most magnificent being the first ever skyscraper in the Eastern hemisphere. The roof includes an iconic pyramid shaped tower of copper which is now burnished green. When ships sailed up the Huangpu River they knew that they had arrived in Shanghai when they saw that on the skyline.

The ground floor housed banks and shops and the fourth floor up were the Cathay Hotel. Sassoon lived in a splendid penthouse suite which is still part of the hotel and was recently occupied by Barack Obama.

Being a fan of greyhounds, Sassoon specifically requested pairs of dogs to be incorporated into the design and there are over a hundred throughout the hotel.

The Cathay Hotel was the first in the world to have en suites, telephones in each room and air conditioning throughout. The intricate original covers for the units have been retained.

Famous visitors included Noel Coward who wrote ‘Private Lives’ while staying here and Charlie Chaplin, who was particularly interested in the artistry of Chinese Opera which influenced many of his movie performances.

Sassoon left Shanghai when the Japanese invaded China and returned at the end of the war. The film Empire of the Sun is based on the semi- autobiographical story by J. G. Ballard of a family who were trapped in Shanghai when the Japanese arrived and who were kept in a room in the hotel for FOUR YEARS. Which puts our few months lockdown into perspective really doesn’t it!!! And they didn’t have WiFi!!! How tough was that?!?! I must rewatch that film now.

Sassoon came back to China at the end of the Second World War but in 1949 he left for good when the communist party took over. He handed the building over to the Chinese who used the space as offices. The rooms were occupied for a while by the Gang of Four, the Shanghai leaders who masterminded much of the excesses of the cultural revolution. It is quite ironic that they did this whilst surrounded by such historic luxury.

The Gang of Four

In 1952 the building was acquired by the Fairmont Group who renamed it The Peace Hotel and it was largely used to house visiting foreign dignitaries.

In 2007 the building underwent an extensive three year renovation and opened its doors in 2010 with completely refurbished and restored guest rooms and public spaces. The result is magnificent and a rare opportunity to step back into a bygone era of stylish elegance.

It was a real treat to stay in one of the 270 deluxe rooms, even if only for one night.

We had a writing desk
A huge claw foot bath
And a massive two poster bed! Even I had to jump up to get in.

We were surrounded by plethora of fine Art Deco details and we took advantage of the private tour offered free to hotel guests. Being the only non-Chinese staying there we had a guide to ourselves!

The decorated barrel vault ceiling
Beautiful staircase
A fine little statue

There was even a bell boy with pillbox hat. And a concierge whose sole role was to press the button to call the lift!!!! We felt spoiled rotten.

We toured the rooftop terrace and the Dragon Phoenix Restaurant with it’s ornately decorated ceiling.

We finished up in the hotel museum which had a collection of memorabilia.

And a stunning view of The Bund from an angle not often seen.

There are pieces of priceless Lalique glass dotted around the building, the picture below is a broken chandelier now in the museum. The glass dove in the sumptuous central atrium however, is a modern commission.

The hotel has a Scotland Room, an England room and a Dragon restaurant. Afternoon tea here costs approximately £35 per head.

Being British, we were delighted to discover that Sassoon had called the floor at the bottom of the building ‘Ground’. It is the norm here to call this the First Floor which confused me no end when we first arrived. So our room, 615 was actually really six floors up!

The highlight of the evening was a table at the famous Jazz bar (another privilege of being a guest, we did not have a minimum spend). This is one of Shanghai nightlife attractions and tables are hard to get.

As well as cool cocktails this bar is home to the oldest jazz band. By that, I mean that their average age is 80+. The oldest being 88 and the youngest 76. They suffered during the cultural revolution when music was forbidden. Apparently they learned that era was over when they heard Beethoven’s Fifth on the radio one morning! Now they play together in the bar every single night. No breaks. What dedication to their art.

Their music was smooth and the atmosphere was buzzing so sat back with a cocktail or two and soaked it all up.

The hotel was full, full of Chinese tourists. We appeared to be the only non-Chinese guests staying that night. I was delighted that so many want to immerse themselves in what is essentially restored European grandeur.

A staycation on The Bund

One of the disadvantages of being stuck in Shanghai is that we haven’t traveled but the upside of that is that we have saved money especially during the recent half term break (Golden Week). Another of the disadvantages is that I can’t go shopping for new clothes. There is very very little available here in ‘Western’ sizes. I don’t really mind as I have sufficient in my wardrobe to manage but it has had the added benefit of saving me a bit more money. Every cloud has a silver lining I guess.

So we decided to treat ourselves to a staycation on The Bund. There are some wonderful hotels here but we went for what is probably the most impressive one. I chose The Peace Hotel for its Art Deco splendor and it’s links to British history. We didn’t go in Golden week as the prices were astronomical but this weekend it had reduced to just ‘expensive’!

The building is a Palmer and Turner Architects design. It was commissioned in the 1920s by the wealthy businessman Victor Sassoon, a British Sephardic Jew of Iraqi descent whose family had made their fortune in India and Hong Kong in the opium trade. Once that business became less profitable Victor decided to move into property and this luxurious building which opened in 1929 was known as the ‘First Mansion in the Far East’ because of its prime location on The Bund.

Altogether Sassoon constructed over 1600 buildings in Shanghai but this was the most magnificent being the first ever skyscraper in the Eastern hemisphere. The roof includes an iconic pyramid shaped tower of copper which is now burnished green. When ships sailed up the Huangpu River then knew that the had arrived in Shanghai when they saw that on the skyline.

The ground floor housed banks and shops and the fourth floor up were the Cathay Hotel. Sassoon lived in a splendid penthouse suite which is still part of the hotel and was recently occupied by Barack Obama.

Being a fan of greyhounds, Sassoon specifically requested pairs of dogs to be incorporated into the design and there are over a hundred throughout the hotel.

The Cathay Hotel was the first in the world to have en suites, telephones in each room and air conditioning throughout. The intricate original covers for the units have been retained.

Famous visitors included Noel Coward who wrote ‘Private Lives’ while staying here and Charlie Chaplin, who was particularly interested in the artistry of Chinese Opera which influenced many of his movie performances.

Sassoon left Shanghai when the Japanese invaded China and returned at the end of the war. The film Empire of the Sun is based on the semi- autobiographical story by J. G. Ballard of a family who were trapped in Shanghai when the Japanese arrived and who were kept in a room in the hotel for FOUR YEARS. Which puts our few months lockdown into perspective really doesn’t it!!! And they didn’t have WiFi!!! How tough was that?!?! I must rewatch that film now.

Sassoon came back to China at the end of the Second World War but in 1949 he left for good when the communist party took over. He handed the building over to the Chinese who used the space as offices. The rooms were occupied for a while by the Gang of Four, the Shanghai leaders who masterminded much of the excesses of the cultural revolution. It is quite ironic that they did this whilst surrounded by such historic luxury.

The Gang of Four

In 1952 the building was acquired by the Fairmont Group who renamed it The Peace Hotel and it was largely used to house visiting foreign dignitaries.

In 2007 the building underwent an extensive three year renovation and opened its doors in 2010 with completely refurbished and restored guest rooms and public spaces. The result is magnificent and a rare opportunity to step back into a bygone era of stylish elegance.

It was a real treat to stay in one of the 270 deluxe rooms, even if only for one night.

We had a writing desk
A huge claw foot bath
And a massive two poster bed! Even I had to jump up to get in.

We were surrounded by plethora of fine Art Deco details and we took advantage of the private tour offered free to hotel guests. Being the only non-Chinese staying there we had a guide to ourselves!

The decorated barrel vault ceiling
Beautiful staircase
A fine little statue

There was even a bell boy with pillbox hat. And a concierge whose sole role was to press the button to call the lift!!!! We felt spoiled rotten.

We toured the rooftop terrace and the Dragon Phoenix Restaurant with it’s ornately decorated ceiling.

We finished up in the hotel museum which had a collection of memorabilia.

And a stunning view of The Bund from an angle not often seen.

There are pieces of priceless Lalique glass dotted around the building, the picture below is a broken chandelier now in the museum. The glass dove in the sumptuous central atrium however, is a modern commission.

The hotel has a Scotland Room, an England room and a Dragon restaurant. Afternoon tea here costs approximately £35 per head.

Being British, we were delighted to discover that Sassoon had called the floor at the bottom of the building ‘Ground’. It is the norm here to call this the First Floor which confused me no end when we first arrived. So our room, 615 was actually really six floors up!

The highlight of the evening was a table at the famous Jazz bar (another privilege of being a guest, we did not have a minimum spend). This is one of Shanghai nightlife attractions and tables are hard to get.

As well as cool cocktails this bar is home to the oldest jazz band. By that, I mean that their average age is 80+. The oldest being 88 and the youngest 76. They suffered during the cultural revolution when music was forbidden. Apparently they learned that era was over when they heard Beethoven’s Fifth on the radio one morning! Now they play together in the bar every single night. No breaks. What dedication to their art.

Their music was smooth and the atmosphere was buzzing so sat back with a cocktail or two and soaked it all up.

The hotel was full, full of Chinese tourists. We appeared to be the only non-Chinese guests staying that night. I was delighted that so many want to immerse themselves in what is essentially restored European grandeur.

Monet & Mandarin

It has been 150 years since any of Monet’s paintings have been exhibited in China so an exhibition in Shanghai was always going to attract a lot of attention.

Anticipating the Golden Week crowds we booked our tickets in advance (fortunately) and arrived very early. Even so we had to queue. The exhibition was called Impression:Sunrise as that painting formed the focal point of the collection.

It was fascinating to see Charing Cross Bridge having lived on Charing Cross Road for so many years.

Monet was one of the founders of Impressionism and it was interesting to learn that it was the advent of paint in tubes which allowed artists to be able to move out of their studios, to travel and to really begin to capture light in their work. I hadn’t thought of the importance of tubes of paint in that way before! You learn something every day. Here is Impression: Sunrise which we queued up to inch slowly past. It is also the painting which gave the new movement its name.

It was wonderful to see so many locals pouring over the art work depicting French and English scenes but Monet and others of the period had been heavily influenced by Chinese and Japanese works with their space and simplicity. Apparently he even had a lot of Chinese styled furniture in his house.

Monet also had a large collection of Manga from the early 19th century. This surprised us as we thought it was a new concept. mind you it wasn’t like the cartoons that we know today!

It was a small exhibition but a real treat to see here. There was even a fun interactive room where you could immerse yourself in the paintings.

Afterwards we strolled along The Bund before going for lunch at a rooftop restaurant.

This was a real treat
And great company (I look awful in this shot but I was enjoying it – honest)

It wasn’t cheap but I have wanted to eat overlooking The Bund. So that’s another thing ticked off my bucket list.

Hello Bike

This is actually the name of one of the many bike-sharing companies popular throughout China. It has taken us a year but we finally plucked up the courage and figured out how to use them. It wasn’t all that easy as EVERYTHING on the app is in mandarin and it did take us a couple of goes to get it right but we managed it and this afternoon we set off to explore.

The bikes are everywhere which is one of the reasons that they are so attractive. You can pick a bike up at any street corner and drop it off wherever you finish. There is even a tracing system on the app which provides a map showing where you are and where your nearest bike is (very handy).

There are lots of different bikes available but we use Hello bike (the blue ones) as that app is directly linked to our bank account and the money can be deducted automatically.

Even easier that London’s Boris Bikes, you simply scan the QR code at the back and it unlocks. There is a little whirring noise and a voice says ‘Hello Bike’ (in English) then some Mandarin that we don’t understand and off you go.

The infrastructure in the city is designed with bikes in mind and excellent cycle lanes proliferate. Mind you they are not just for cycles but scooters as well so you do have to be careful. It helps that most of greater Shanghai is flat so the cycling is easy.

The Hello Bike company began in 2016 at the peak of the bike craze in China. Since then its popularity has waned slightly but they still record 300 million cycle rides per day in China which I think is pretty amazing. It is of course hit and miss whether you get a decent bike or not but hey, if your brakes are dodgy just stop and swap it for the next one you see.

Today it was perfect weather, the temperature and humidity having dropped to a delightful 24 degrees. So we set off and headed south. It wasn’t long before we found a Taoist Temple in the middle of an area that is under construction. The structure is very old and the building works are clearly preserving it. Being a little off the beaten track the place was deserted and we were able to wander around and admire the shrines undistrubed.

I love the curving rooflines and the quiet tranquility of the interiors with the mahagony fretwork creating a sense of order and symmetry.

Outside the shrine was protected by the dragon guardian who looks as though he is giving other dragons plenty of grief!

Inside was a courtyard full of life-size and life-like statues.

We had no idea what their stories were but would be very curious to find out what this one was all about!!! He creeped us out.

The ceiling was beautiful and some of the golden screens were very intricate.

This statue was interesting as it is not often that you see statues with darker faces. This is Yang Wensheng and he was a local official who is honored for being incorruptible,just and fair. Not only that he was a wizard at medicine and is literally venerated for his supernatural ability to save lives.

Here is the Jade Emperor, quite an imposing figure but perhaps should have been renamed the ‘Golden Emperor’ LOL

Around the walls were banks of niches filled with glowing statues. At first I thought that they were Buddhas (we have seen so many and they looked the right shape) but on closer inspection they were actually Confucius (we think)

Back on our bikes we peddled home. We locked up the bikes by the gate to our complex and calculated the cost. Over an hour of cycling had cost us the equivalent of 40p. Not bad for a bit of exercise, some cultural experiences and burning off approx 1000 calories!

Tai Chi retreat

We have been fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a 3 day Tai Chi retreat this summer. The husband of one of our Mandarin teachers is a Tai Chi and Kung Fu Master and is running the retreat on Chongming Island which is a 2 hour drive from where we live but still within the Shanghai area, which is good because it means that we don’t have to do the 14 day quarantine again before going back on campus.

Chongming is China’s 3rd largest island after Taiwan and Hainan. It is situated in the mouth of the Yangtze River, which is about 12 miles wide at this point and the drive in the tunnel took ages.

The island is a few degrees cooler than downtown Pudong and is mostly farms or newly constructed houses for the wealthy.

Our hotel is also a farm and it was pear harvest season while we were there. All around us huge pears were being packed into boxes for delivery. Chinese pears are rounder than ones grown in the UK and were so juicy and fresh.

On arrival we we told about the Chi and how the energies affected all body parts. Tai Chi is about harnessing and releasing the energies in the body. It is very gentle as you are in a state of alert relaxation. Blockages of energy can affect your health and well-being so even some simple exercises can not only make you feel better and improve your mood but also give you more energy for your day.

We learned the correct stance for exercising and then oddly, the correct way to walk!! We’ve been doing it wrong all our lives. Who knew?

We had to practice for ages walking slowly and intentionally and it used muscles that we don’t normally use so even that was tiring.

The good thing about this retreat is the frequent rests (even if the bed is traditional Chinese and rock hard!)

In the evening we did more mindful walking this time down by the lake as it grew dark. It was beautiful there with a full moon and a gentle breeze tugging at the warm air.

Then we lay down on the decking and did some meditation and to my amazement as we gazed up at the starry sky a shooting star appeared. It was the first time I have ever seen one, it felt quite portentous.

One of the benefits of Tai Chi is that as it releases your energies it helps you to sleep better. I did have a reasonably good night despite the board-like bed. Kevin, on the other hand was kept awake by a cat howling just outside our window all night. It must have been the effect of the full moon!!!

The next day began for us at 7am with exercises in the rose garden. All very slow and controlled but apparently designed to wake up our meridians. I have to say that my meridians have never had so much attention.

Breakfast was traditional Chinese so no tea or coffee, just water to drink and congee to eat which is a very bland watery rice porridge. This can be flavored with a sort of scrambled egg or vegetables. It was all extremely healthy!

Our morning was spent doing standing meditation (there is a knack to it and you have to align all your bones so that it is comfortable to just stand) and other basic Tai Chi moves. Here we are using the chi to push the other person away.

Our Tai Chi master is extremely patient with us and very encouraging when we do something correct. By the end of the morning I did feel some tingling in my hands and fingertips which is apparently a ‘good sign’. I was releasing my energies which helps to keep the chi flowing well. Much of the energy flow follows the bloodstream but I guess that anything which improves your circulation can’t be bad.

From time to time the master would gently realign your posture and your limb would tingle strangely. Then he would stroke the energy away, called ‘letting go’. It was all extremely controlled and powerfully relaxing.

This was a typical meal. All fresh and organic. One day we had silk melon which I had never heard of before.

In the afternoon we learned about acupressure but strangely it didn’t involve putting any pressure on or even touching. There was a burning stick which I think was some special grasses and they were coated in something smelly. At any rate it was red hot and a slow burn. The idea was that you made special circular, repetitive movements over a certain point on the body which then corresponded to an organ.

Here I am doing the spot which is going to help Kevin’s heart (and help him to get a good nights sleep) allegedly.

And here Karin is working on Fernanda’s blockage (we were all blocked there apparently) It was a little scary at first as the tip of the stick was red hot and I was were worried that it was going to burn my skin or at the very least drop hot ash but after a while i relaxed into it.

My gall bladder is now doing great after much smoke was wafted over a particular point on my calf. In fact it has never had so much attention.

The evening was chinese massage and here Kevin is being shown the correct position.

Today we had a calligraphy lesson. It’s not as easy as it looks as you need to let your chi flow.

Many of my efforts looked like spiders in acid but I managed a few passable characters in the end.

And Kevin did a Tai Tree

We finished off with something which I never though I would ever be able to do: a 15 minute standing meditation. And I didn’t even realize that it had been 15 minutes. Wow! By the end my whole palm was tingling- a good sign of the chi flowing.

Kevin made a friend, 5 year old Shao Ma (means little horse) our Tai Chi Master’s son who was quite taken by the hairs on Kevin’s arms. He kept stroking them and giggling. At the end when we did a group reflection Kevin’s hairy arms had been his highlight and he wanted his dad to grow some. Lol.

Exploring Shanghai: The Shanghai Museum (a bit of culture)

Along with all the other attractions and ‘places of interest’ in China visitor numbers at The Shanghai Museum are reduced to 1/4 of what they used to be pre-COVID. This is not a problem if you arrive somewhere early in the day but we were too late to get into this museum and we forced to use the QR code to book a slot two days in advance at a specified time. It wasn’t easy to navigate as the booking system was all in mandarin so lots of guesswork was involved but we managed in the end!

So we turn up at our appointed hour and show the screenshot of our reservations. Then at the next checkpoint we had to show our Shanghai green health code. Then to another official we had to show our passports to prove that we were who we claimed to be. Then we went through a ticket checking machine. Then airport bag scanning security. Then a thorough body scan and pat down. All to get into a museum!!!!! Good grief.

The structure of the museum itself is interesting. It is a square building topped by a dome and arches. The dome in ancient Chinese philosophy represents the heavens and the cube is the earth!!!!! The flat earthers would be pleased, I’m sure.

Inside the museum is an impressive collection of ceramics, jade, fine art and ancient artifacts.

We started in the jade gallery which I was expecting to be very green but it wasn’t at all. In fact most was ‘white jade’ which looked a lot like marble.

This little chap dated from 3500 years BC so pretty old and is a carved deity.

The jade was also carved into cicada shapes which were placed into the mouthes of the dead as part of funeral rites because they believed that being reborn as a cicada was extremely lucky. I’m not sure that I would want to be reborn as an insect. A cat maybe, they eat and sleep and have human servants, but a cicada, I don’t think so.

This bowl decorated with dragons was pretty impressive and one of the few green pieces that we saw.

to my surprise the ancient coins were not all round, some were this funny tooth shape. And when they did become round they had a square hole in the middle. This is actually quite sensible as the early folk could keep their coins threaded on a belt for extra security in lawless times. It was interaction with the traders along the Silk Road which influenced the production of flat discs for coinage. Paper money has been used in China since the 10th century which is when the rest of Europe was still in the dark ages.

The Ming vases collection was pretty cool and again my prediction of colours was challenged. We only saw a few of the blue and white designs.

Kevin particularly liked this bowl below which dates back to 3000 years BC with a face on each corner. It could be a modern guy in glasses!

This colorful ceramic was an official with imposing headgear.

And this little chap was playing football back in the 7th century. So somethings never change…

Outside we saw a fountain (Kevin managed to capture it without any jets-sorry ) which was actually a sound and light water show that somewhat incongruously was playing ‘Scarborough Fair’. It was NOT what we were expecting after all that ancient Chinese history and culture!!!

The Silk Road: Day 7 Sandsliding and other adventures in the Gobi desert

Our last full day on the Silk Road tour and what an action packed one it has been. We are in Dunhuang, a small town in the Gobi Desert and our first stop was the sand dunes.

Once again this was a place so remote in my imagination that I never dreamt that I would ever set foot here. The sandscape was stunning but because we went early in the morning it wasn’t too hot. It was also fairly cloudy so we didn’t burn (luckily)

We had the choice of a optional camel ride and it just had to be done. It cost only £10 for an hour and a half!

They put me on the lead camel and off we went. The camels were dromedaries which meant they were easy to ride as you sat between the humps. Obviously getting up and down was tricky as you had to lean right back but we soon got the hang of it.

The four of us made our own little caravan and it was easy to imagine what it must have been like for those Silk merchants.

Apparently an average caravan would have approx 20 camels but of those 7 would be carrying the clothes and personal effects of the traders. Only 13 would have goods to trade. It was a lucrative but risky business as they were prone to ambush by local brigands. Just doing this tourist trip we had a real sense of how grueling the journey must have been but also how beautiful.

We were taken to a high dune and opted to climb it in order to get the best views. It cost an extra £2!

This was the ladder that we had to use.

At least we had a ladder!!! But I have to say that towards the top it got pretty steep and each tread was filled choc a bloc with sand. As you can see it was also very narrow and I felt once or twice that I might lose my balance. It was slightly outside my comfort zone. But we made it.

The next problem was how to get down. There were more tourists coming up the ladder behind us so it wasn’t that way. It was this.

A sand slide! Yay.

Oh boy that was exhilarating!

Then we walked to the other amazing natural feature of this location, the crescent lake.

This picture is courtesy of one of the others in our group who did a dune walk instead of the camel ride. We didn’t get this high ourselves. Formed from a natural underground water source this is a superb scenic spot. It used to be much bigger but as the town of Dunhuang has grown and taken some of the water away the lake has shrunk.

The temple beside it is new, the original having been destroyed in the cultural revolution.

But these prayer tags show that spirituality is alive and well in this communist country.

Then it was back to our hotel to wash the sand out of our hair and we were off again. If I am totally honest I could have just fallen asleep at that point. The fresh air and exercise was great but grueling at my advanced age!! There was to be no rest for us though as we had one final attraction to visit.

The Mogao grotto is a series of ancient Chinese Buddhist caves hewn into the rocks at the base of the sand dunes. Begun in 366 by a wandering Taoist monk who whilst traversing the dunes had a vision of 1000 Buddhas so he stopped and chipped away at the sandstone to make himself a little cave where he sat and meditated. This holy man attracted devotees and soon everyone wanted a cave.

Altogether there are over 700 caves of varying sizes. Each has statues and wall paintings which have been remarkably well preserved. The picture here shows some of the caves where the monks and painters lived during construction.

The Red Guard had been dispatched to destroy the ancient site but the then director was friendly with the local party president and he called in a favor and the guards were called away. Thank goodness.

The caves were cut out by individuals and families who saw their creation as ‘merit making’. Families would then make pilgrimages to their cave for special ceremonies or meditation. The wealthy families had large ornate caves like huge rooms but some poorer folks just had tiny ones. Like this.

Cave construction lasted between the 4th -14th century then as shipping took over from the Silk Road as a preferred trade route the site became forgotten. The local government also moved residents into the fort at Jiayuguan behind then newest part of the Great Wall and away from these locations as that was deemed safer. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that a local farmer rediscovered them. Many had become buried in the shifting sands. He discovered one room with over 20,000 preserved silk paintings and Buddhist sutras (texts) and he tried to get help from local officials who basically ignored him. He met some European explorers who did believe him and who recognized the importance of these ancient treasures. However many of these artifacts are now in The British Museum, The Louvre and Harvard University!!! Very tactfully our guide said that they were ‘being preserved elsewhere in the world’

Only about 70 caves are open to the public nowadays and no photography was allowed inside.

Here are some images that I found online of what the paintings are like. Many date from the 7th century and retain their original colours.

Each cave had a set of statues and paintings of 1000 Buddha images.

The final stop was the 7 tiered pagoda seen here from the outside

Inside was a giant seated Buddha statue 35 m tall. It looked a bit like this from the ground.

Originally there was no roof so his head poked out of the top!

That’s all for now. We are very tired as it has been all go with very little if any rest. We are off to an open air theatre production tonight which promises to be very good.

This has been a trip of a lifetime which we booked with only one week’s notice because we are stuck in China and can’t travel anywhere else. It has been quite an experience with so many different things each day and I am really glad that we have done it. I feel that I know a lot more about chinese culture, geography and history than I did before. Shanghai is so cosmopolitan that it has been described as ‘China-lite’ and Jinqiao, the suburb where we live is ‘Shanghai-lite’ so this excursion was an excellent way for us to see some of real China.

One thing I should say though is that we were subjected to intense scrutiny at every attraction along the way. We all have chinese SIM cards and apps and we not only had to produce our passports everywhere but also our green health code. Tourists from outside even if they were allowed in would not have access to all that. Our guide made sure that we arrived at each stop in time to complete the additional checks. Our group had enough mandarin to order a meal in a restaurant but nowhere near enough to have been able to navigate all the additional bureaucracy. We couldn’t have managed without our English speaking guide.

The Silk Road: Day 6 The Great Wall in the west and our minor celebrity status

We have reached the western end of the Great Wall and spent the morning exploring the last fort. The whole wall was finished at different times and this section was completed in the 1600s. The wall is over 10,000 miles long and I had imagined it as being a continuous line but that is not so.

The original sections were actually early city walls over 2000 years ago which the first Emperor joined together. Various dynasties continued construction but as you can see from the map below it was a haphazard affair with bits of wall all over the place.

Different sections of the wall use different materials and building techniques. Around Beijing the wall is made of stone and this is the image of the wall that most people have in their minds.

(Photo from a previous holiday in 2017)

The western section of the wall which we visited today was all made from clay and has a completely different feel to it.

Interestingly, we learned that the clay was made using the water from sticky rice which is glutinous and dries hard when mixed with sand.

Inside the fort was an old chapel area that now housed the statue of a famous general. Note the red face. Red denotes loyalty. White faces mean cleverness or trickery and black means justice.

The fort once housed 20,000 soldiers as well as locals who came in from the surrounding area so it must have been congested. This is the square where they all camped.

This is a stage where performances were held. Just look at the height. Apparently actors were quite lowly in society and they would wear long robes with platform shoes. This was because it was quite unlucky to see their feet during shows!!! Its a good job that doesn’t apply to theatre today.

The tour was fascinating as we learned about military strategies and local customs. For instance this staircase was climbed by soldiers using the steps but the generals rode their horses up the slope. It was quite steep so would have been lethal in the winter.

Throughout this whole trip we have been the only non-chinese people wherever we have been (except one hotel where we bumped into a group of teachers from a school in Shanghai that we knew. Basically they were traveling a similar route to us just a couple of days behind) apart from that we have been the only westerners.

While we were touring the battlements our guide was approached by a reporter who asked lots of questions about us. It turned out that some party officials were also touring the fort and they had a whole retinue of people with them. Being the ONLY foreigners there we had attracted some attention.

Here you can see them, the officials are in the blue shirts.

At one point their group walked past us and we waited to let them go. On the whole the men themselves ignored us but the accompanying photographers were another matter. Whenever they could they took our pictures and most of them had professional long lenses.

Our guide told the reporter that we were from Shanghai and we weren’t sure whether they were pleased to see tourists again or xenophobicly upset that we might have reimported the virus! We have witnessed locals deliberately putting their masks on when we board shuttle buses. And entry checks to all the attractions have been way more stringent and lengthy for us than for anyone else!

Interestingly she also told the reporter that we were all from England. She felt that it was safer to say that than to admit that some were Americans. I don’t think that my colleagues were too impressed with that!! But these are strange times we are living in

At one point we gathered for our customary group photo which our guide took.

Along came a guy with a camera who stood next to her and started snap snap snapping away. He was like the paparazzi!!! Our guide is only small but she really told him off and said that he should ask first. He stopped but by then he had his shots. We have no idea what is going to happen to them or if we are going to appear in Chinese newspapers, magazines or what!

Someone else approached and wanted our names. He wanted to use us in advertising for the fort but our guide sent him away. What an experience it was. We were conscious of being photographed from a distance too and in a small way we got a taste of what it must be like for the rich and famous.

Some other interesting things that we saw included this replica of 5000 year old cave drawings

The lovely names

And the unusual arrow tips

But the best sight was the guy at the gate dressed ready for battle.

I would not have liked to get on the wrong side of him!!!

The Silk Road: Day 5 The Rainbow Mountains

Once again the Rainbow Mountains were never on my bucket list primarily because I had never heard of them but they are gorgeous and I am so glad that I have had this opportunity to visit. Each day this tour gets better and better.

The whole of the Gangsu has province area is a huge geopark. 145 -100 million years ago the area was subjected to a pendulum swing of climactic conditions veering from extreme humidity to ice ages. The earth swung from being covered by ocean to rivers and back to ocean again resulting in striations or layers in the rock of different colours.

Over time the water levels dropped and the tectonic plates shifted making what had previously been horizontal layers now appear in vertical or diagonal patterns. Wind and water erosion has worked to create some unusual rock forms

In the morning we hiked along and up a Rift Valley formed by ice. Again it was strenuous simply because of the altitude but the views at the top of the climbs were worth it.

From here (below) we were standing in rocky, arid desert but looking back down the valley towards snow-capped mountains in the distance. Apologies for the phone mast but I could get rid of it.

Here is the camel

And these two are known as the man and woman

Thus is the magnificent Eagle’s head

And strangely since we are in China this was called The Louvre.

The flora was sparse but interesting. This plant is cut by shepherds and sold to pharmacies. It is used in Chinese medicine to create the sweet coating around bitter pills.

And this is a goji berry bush which I have never seen before.

There are snakes here so we kept to the paths and also rats. This was a new word for my vocabulary

I am not keen on heights but I pushed through and was very proud to have made it to the top of here

The Rainbow Mountains are sometimes known as The Painted Mountains and some pictures on the internet are photoshopped so the actual colours are not as vivid but they are equally beautiful.

This geological feature was largely unknown until 2007 when a Chinese filmmaker used the location as a film set. This film was popular and the public have flocked to the site ever since. This is the noodle shop built for the film. I think it is great that a film has generated a tourist industry.

And these prayer tags were uplifting

We went to three different locations where the views were panoramic.

Nature in all its glory