A Busman’s Holiday

You can take a girl out of the library but…

Today Kevin took me on a Mystery Tour to a shopping mall on the other side of Chengdu. I know that I have bemoaned the lack of decent shopping experiences in Shanghai but I was slightly surprised at his desire to visit another one on our holiday (particularly as our hotel was right next to one) Anyway, I went along. After the stress of a new job I was happy to just tag along wherever and not have to think too much. And in fact the pollution levels jacked the AQI up to 166 so it was pretty nasty outside & I figured that an indoor experience was just the thing on a day like this.

What I hadn’t expected was that Kevin had done some research and discovered what is allegedly China’s most beautiful book shop.

I have never seen anything quite like it.

There are mirrored ceilings everywhere which expands the space. This one is the auditorium where author talks happen.

I loved the craziness of the children’s area with its books and crannies and beautiful toadstool features

I guess shelving on curvy shelves is hard though…

Apparently the shop is owned by a former teacher who has a few of these now. He always gets a designer in and the results speak for themselves.

Then we moved across town on heaving subways to our second bookshop destination.

This was in the basement of a shopping mall and was HUGE. It was on three levels with books on both Chinese and English (yay) with an excellent collection of children’s stock. I might have been a little tempted at that point…

Anyway it had lots of stalls with non book items just like Open House in Bangkok but bigger! I was in seventh heaven. I notched up 10k of steps very easily.

And they even had some bookish art in the middle of the mall! Niiice


The main reason for our visit to Chengdu is to see the Pandas. These iconic bears are native to western China & so we couldn’t really live here without seeing them in their home habitat.

Chengdu is home to the national breeding centre and research park or as they say it…

Beginning in 1987 with 12 rescue pandas the park has grown to being the single largest center for pandas bred in captivity.

Pandas eat between 30-50kg of bamboo a day and the recent human population growth has seen a rapid decline in their available natural habitat which has put them on the endangered species list.

That coupled with the precarious breeding cycle (we learned that a female is only ‘on heat’ for a couple of hours each year) had led to a decline in the wild population.

The breeding centre aims to raise pandas which can ultimately be released back into the wild. But first they had to overcome several problems which they have done with advanced genetics to prevent the problems of inbreeding.

The scientists test the female pandas urine to be able to tell when she is ready to conceive. The center has successfully impregnated females and raised over 100 panda cubs. We visited the nursery where the current cubs slept and they were just adorable. Cutenesses overload.

Pandas have a short oesophagus and this means that they only digest 17% of their fiber rich diet. One consequence of that is that they rest or sleep a lot to conserve energy. Many of the pandas we saw were just ‘hanging’

Particularly the ones in the sub-adult enclosure (or teenagers as we quickly realized)

Some of those positions did not look comfortable!

The park is also home to several Red Pandas

The are called this although they are not technically related to the panda species at all! It’s just a name to confuse everyone.

Perhaps ‘foxy lemurs’ might be a better name. Any other suggestions folks? They were still quite cute too though. (Not my picture below)

We had a thoroughly enjoyable day with multiple opportunities to see these cuddly creatures. Until recently tourists could pay $200 to have a photo taken beside a panda but too many diseases were passed across and some pandas died so fortunately this practice stopped. It was crowded

But not too bad in places

Fascinating facts:in 1984 China stopped giving Pandas away and instead only loaned them. This means that all pandas in zoos and parks around the world technically belong to China. Adelaide Zoo for instance has a pair of Pandas and they currently pay AUD 1 million a year to China for their loan. All cubs born overseas also belong to China.

Pandas are the most expensive animal to keep in captivity costing five times more than an elephant!

Panda diplomacy however has been around since the 7th century when China is recorded as giving a pair of the animals as a gift to Japan.

China uses the pandas to improve its image and create relationships with nations able to supply it with needed resources & technology. This has been described as an exercise in ‘soft cuddly power’.

Finally we got chance to send some cards via Panda Post! Yay!

Photo courtesy of Zang Zhile.

Golden Week

Here we are at the end of September already and celebrating the first Golden Week which doubles as our much needed half term break. But what a glorious name for an October holiday with overtones of yellowing leaves and ‘mellow fruitfulness’.

Monday in fact marks the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the a People’s Republic of China and to mark the occasion there is a 7 day national holiday.

Everywhere is bedecked with lanterns & the red flag, even our humble apartment block gets one

All factories and offices are closed and there is a mass migration of people as many head home to see family or the more affluent travel abroad. We are used in the west to choosing our holiday weeks but not here. It’s everyone altogether and as such the hotels, transport and attractions are heaving! Sardine time. The Chinese I have come to realize have little concept of personal space and no ability to queue! This image is of The Bund in Shanghai and one of the reasons why we headed out of the city and flew 2.5 hours west to Chengdu.

Here we have encountered old China in the alleys around our hotel.

The alleys were a maze of courtyards and shops topped with the iconic rooflines of traditional buildings and although there were plenty of people around we felt a sense of calm and could imagine the inhabitants wandering around in flowing silk robes.

Shops were filled with eye catching displays to tempt the crowds in. These bamboo sticks had messages on a little like the key gates in Europe.

People wore traditional dress and the tiny alleyways reverberated with soft chiming music amidst the unusual vendors.

These buildings were once the home one wealthy ruling class and you can see how important they occupants were from the height of the thresholds. (Kevin shown here for comparison)

Our favorite was the dragon place. We weren’t entirely sure if was the entrance to a restaurant, tea house or shop! It was simply splendid whatever it was

Interspersed between courtyards and leading to retail spaces were many moon gates. I love the shape of these as they remind me of a warren of hobbit holes

We walked for hours just soaking up the atmosphere. It’s so different from the ultra modern Shanghai

Many Mooncakes

The 15th day of the 8th lunar month marks the mid-autumn festival here in China. It is a time of the full moon. We get the day off on Friday (Yay) & a very welcome long weekend.

Essentially a harvest festival legend has it that there was an excellent archer called Hou Yi and one year when 10 suns rose in the sky scorching the earth, Yi through his skill and bravery shot down 9 of the suns with his arrows, leaving just one to give light. One of the gods admired this feat and gave Yi an elixir of immortality. Yi and his wife Chang’e planned to take it together but a thief broke in and tried to steal the potion when Yi was out. Chang’e refused to hand over the vial instead swallowed it all herself.

Chang’e flew to the moon where she could still be close to her husband. There she resides to this day and if you look carefully at the shadows on the surface you can see her.


Apparently if you look closely next to the moon lady in the shadows is a rabbit grinding up medicines for her! I’m not entirely sure why.

At this time of year the Chinese gaze up at the moon as Hou Yi once did. And they eat Mooncakes which represent the full moon. On the day of the festival they gather as a family to pray, to give thanks for the harvest and to celebrate their unity.

There is a proliferation of Mooncakes in the weeks leading up to this festival. A few years ago I tasted one which was solid and dry and seemed to suck every ounce of moisture from my mouth. That experience put me off Mooncakes. This has now been rectified by re-education as my two library assistants have been bringing me a different moon cake to try every day.

Here are some of the tasty treats:

The marks on the top are the makers brand

inside this one it has a sweet and creamy yolk like an egg

This was a Hagan das ice cream one (quite expensive I understand)

There are meat Mooncakes too which resembled sausage rolls in a different shape

Apparently these are so popular that people queue for ages in the rain to get some!

I was fascinated by these sweet ones in domes

Each Mooncakes had its own little package of silicia crystals underneath!

So many different types.

Yesterday we received a beautiful gift via the cleaning lady who explained everything in Chinese so we are non the wiser who it is actually from.

The one we ate had a filling of sweet chopped nuts similar to a baklava.

The tin alone was gorgeous. It’s a shame that we don’t know who to thank.

It’s shopping, Jim but not as we know it.

Shanghai isn’t just big it’s vast! You can travel on a train for 2 hours and still be in Shanghai! There are 26 million people living here and I had expected to have been served a world class shopping experience. I have been disappointed.

Our problem is that our winter wardrobe was packed into storage in Morecambe. We thought that we were going to be in tropical climes and wouldn’t need jumpers, coats or boots! Now here we are in China where they have cold, wet winters. We looked in the lock up this summer but our warm clothes were packed so deep we couldn’t access them easily! And we also had limited luggage allowance so we decided it was just going to be easier to buy things here to last us for 3 years. Hence my need to go shopping.

As I also need to restock the kitchen my ideal venue was a department store, something along the lines of a John Lewis or Debenhams or event an outlet store. But strangely Shanghai doesn’t have them or any equivalent.

There also isn’t a central shopping area (like Oxford St in London or Siam in Bangkok) I was expecting glitzy shopping malls catering to china’s nouveau riche. Somewhere where you can try things on, wander around, see the choices available- you know, old fashioned things like that.

Instead we are faced with Tao Bao, the massive online shop. Everything but everything is ordered online. When I ask my Ex-Pat friends where to get things from they all say Tao Bao. Tao Boa looks like this:

And as you can see all in Chinese. Great! There is another site in English which obtains many (but not all) of the same items at a highly inflated price just because it’s in English. What a cheek!

Tao Bao I have found does accept English in the search bar which is a relief. So I can search, however I have to think carefully about search terms. ‘Wellingtons’, ‘Wellington boots’ and ‘Gum Boots’ returned nothing but ‘waterproof boots’ did.

Next we needed sone basic letter sized envelopes, not something out of the ordinary you might think. Think again! It was REALLY hard. There are no obvious stationary shops, Tao Bao showed us this

Which are pretty but not the sort of thing you want to send a letter to the bank in! It took ages of searching to get regular envelopes!!!

The prices are very reasonable and items are dispatched and delivered within only a few days. On occasion though the driver has called me with a question & we’ve had a less than interesting conversation as they speak NO English.

My main problem though is that the item description is all in Chinese so I am unable to read the small print. Last week I confidently ordered what looked like a sieve from the picture (none being available in Carrefour) only to find when it arrived that it was the size of a tea strainer!!!! Hey Ho.

It’s all trial and error.

We did find the famous ‘fake’ market but the pressure from stall holders to drag you into see their wares was the most intense I have experienced ever. One guy waited for me outside every booth I went into which I felt was pestering and just made me want to leave.

We did have to travel to another area (for a meeting) and found a small shopping complex there which had a very unusual structure which lit up at night. So maybe there are others that we just haven’t discovered yet.

The whole shopping experience plus coffee stop etc seems to be reduced to sitting at home ordering on your phone then waiting in for the delivery & hoping it’s right! I am fortunate that my two library assistants have helped me to learn which buttons to press but I can’t ask them to translate all the time.

One thing which we have seen which is fascinating are these automated servers in some restaurants or markets

They glide around in a very futuristic way and we feel as those we are in an episode of Lost in Space.

All the shopping apps link to the main app which is called We Chat. It’s a messaging, phone and Facebook app all rolled into one. It also has a wallet which has been linked to my Chinese bank account. No one uses cash anymore. Everything is scanned on your phone and the money is deducted instantly. I even buy school dinners that way!

We Chat also has a scanner with a pretty nifty translate function. You can scan some text and it translates it to English as if by magic. This can be quite amusing. I bought a rice cooker (everyone has one) and the buttons are all in Chinese.

In the shop I had been shown which sequence to press to cook the rice but I was curious about the other functions. The button on the left I suspected was a timer but when I did the translate it said ‘book an appointment’ LOL!

Perhaps this kind of shopping is the way of the future and China is just way ahead of the west.

Don’t get me wrong there are a couple of malls, but so far all have contained shops that I wouldn’t want to buy anything from… so if you are planning to visit us, bring everything you need as shopping won’t be on the agenda

… on the plus side we can easily obtain cheese and wine.