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In Xanadu, with Kublai Khan 和忽必烈汗在元上都

Mention the word Xanadu and what pops immediately into your head?

If you say ‘Kubla Khan, Mongol Empire, and ST Coleridge’ then I absolutely take my hat off to you. Read no further.

However, if like me, your first spontaneous thoughts on hearing the word ‘Xanadu’ are
Olivia Newton John, purple and mint-green legwarmers, and rollerskating, then read on, you may learn a thing or two.

I always thought Xanadu was a mythical, magical place, the kind of place people wrote poems about while intoxicated by opium, poems which other people read and were then inspired to write even more fanciful poems and songs and movies. I never for a second considered it might be a real place.

Imagine my surprise then, when during a moment of intense and uncharacteristic scrutiny of the map this week I noticed a small dot marked ‘Ruins of Xanadu’ not more than sixty kilometres from our current position on the road between Ulanhot and Hohhot. Really? Xanadu was a real place? In Inner Mongolia? With ruins to prove it?

We decided immediately we had to go and see Xanadu, whatever was left of it.  After all, it would only delay us for three or four hours on our onward trip to catch the Naadam Festival of Mongolian sports in Gegentala.

On the map it is marked as Shangdu 上都, its proper name, built in 1252 as the opulent summer palace of the great Kublai Khan, grandson of Ghengis, leader of the Mongols and Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty and all of China. 

Every July Kublai Khan’s court would decamp to Shangdu to spend the hot summer months in the cool grassland meadows, and this annual pilgrimage continued for one hundred or so glorious and legendary years until 1369 when Shangdu was burnt to the ground by the Ming Army. 

(That last sentence makes it sound like I actually know who the Ming Army were and why they were inclined to burn things down. I don’t. Copied it straight from the interweb. I’m hoping on our travels I might come across the Ming Army ruins, and then I can enlighten you.)

By all contemporary accounts it was an extraordinary place deserving all its mystery and fame. The best descriptions of it in the west come from the recollections of Marco Polo, who visited in 1275 and wrote of:

‘….a city called Chandu, which was built by the Khan now reigning. There is at this place a very fine marble Palace, the rooms of which are all gilt and painted with figures of men and beasts and birds, and with a variety of trees and flowers, all executed with such exquisite art that you regard them with delight and astonishment.

Round this Palace a wall is built,inclosing a compass of 16 miles, and inside the Park there are fountains and rivers and brooks, and beautiful meadows, with all kinds of wild animals (excluding such as are of ferocious nature), which the Emperor has procured.
The Khan himself goes every week to see his birds sitting in mew, and sometimes he rides through the park with a leopard behind him on his horse’s croup; and then if he sees any animal that takes his fancy, he slips his leopard at it, and the game when taken is made over to feed the hawks in mew. This he does for diversion.’

From Shangdu Marco Polo derived Chandu, which in 1614 became an even more romantic sounding Xandu, transformed by a fanciful English clergyman – Samual Purchas – who had never visited the place but wrote a detailed description in his book ‘Purchas’s Pilgrimage’, based on Marco Polo’s writings.

It’s worth reading Purchas’ account, if only for the remarkable association it has with Coleridge’s later poem:

‘In Xandu did Cublai Can build a stately Pallace, encompassing sixteen miles of plaine ground with a wall, wherein are fertile Meddowes, pleasant Springs, delightfull streames, and all sorts of beasts of chase and game, and in the middest thereof a sumpuous house of pleasure, which may be moved from place to place.’

Samual Taylor Coleridge, the Romantic poet, had likewise never visited Shangdu but imagined it in a fantastical opium-inspired dream that occurred when he fell asleep while reading Purchas’s Pilgrimage. Purchas’s words echo in the opening lines of his famous 1797 poem Kubla Khan below.

Coleridge, like many who wake feverish from dreams filled with inspiration, claimed he would have written hundreds more lines of the poem if he hadn’t been disturbed by a visitor ‘on business from Porlock’ who ruined his chances of getting it all down on paper. 

Kubla Khan
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And here were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

There’s much, much more which you can read here.

And what of Xanadu today?

Well, the road to Xanadu was rough and long. Our side trip to Xanadu eventually cost us twenty four hours, and because of it we almost missed Naadam altogether.

You see, Xanadu was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site just four weeks ago, and in a headlong rush to prepare it for the thousands of daily visitors who will come to see it, every road leading into Xanadu is closed so it can be rerouted or upgraded, leaving only a donkey track to drive along for sixty kilometres at donkey speed.

At times the donkey track, pitted with potholes the size of cow, widens into a broad expanse of mud, deep pockets of water and intertwining side tracks, which seems to inspire a wild episode of off-road rally driving in the vehicles around us as everyone spreads out onto nearby fields in the faint hope of overtaking the car/minibus/6 tonne truck in front. It’s complete mayhem. 

Soon after we’re all nose-to-tail again on the donkey track, having the bones shaken out of our bodies and the teeth shaken out of our heads by the endless bumps and ruts.

My husband, patient driver that he is, is heard to mutter darkly that Xanadu ‘better be a bloody good ruin’ under his breath.

When finally you arrive you can see why Kublai Khan chose this site. A broad expanse of flat meadow is circled by distant low mountains, and overhead reaches a vast blue sky. You pass along a long narrow road surrounded by fields of orange and white wildflowers before arriving at the outer gates of the former summer palace of the immense Kublai Kahn.

What remains now are the ruined outlines of the city walls, outer and inner, where 100,000 lived at the city’s peak. There is some evidence of the glory that once was – a single golden marble pillar carved all over with dragons, and the foundations of what would once have been a grand pavilion.

Now you must use your imagination, standing where Marco Polo and Kublai Khan met, and rebuild the fantastic and awe-inspiring palace in your mind as you stand under the enormous blue sky and look out over Kublai Khan’s meadows, gazing north, south, east and west over his empire.










Ruins of Xanadu

Known as Yuanshangdu 元上都 Relic Site, Inner Mongolia

Approximately 460km from Beijing, and 260km from Xilinhot

Co-ordinates: Lat 42.338777 Long 116.193498

Reached by heading east from Zhenglanqi township on the S308 and turning left onto the X517 (total 25km). Can also be reached by heading west from Duolun village (37km).

Site open 7 days
Admission: 30 yuan adults, children free, electric car from carpark area to site 10 yuan per person.

The Secret Life of Inner Mongolian Beekeepers 内蒙古的养蜂人

The first thing we did after setting off from Aershan was to get hopelessly lost. We hadn’t counted on having no mobile phone reception or 3G signal this far north, depriving us of our Googlemaps lifeline and leaving us to find our way on our own, just us and our massively inadequate maps. I also asked a lot of local goat herders and shepherds for directions. 
I have exactly five maps for this area, three of them issued in China and very detailed, yet we’ve still failed to find many roads that exist in black and white on the map but not in reality, and failed to drive on roads that do exist but are now being diverted and upgraded. We’ve also driven right across pristine areas of blank map where no roads exist at all, except that we’re actually speeding down a new four lane highway built since our hopelessly primitive Chinese GPS was last programmed and our maps were last printed a year ago. We once drove on water for twenty kilometres, all four tonnes of us a pulsing blue dot hovering elegantly above the waves, but our wheels firmly hugging a thirty kilometre long bridge. Things move fast in China, and maps just can’t keep up.

So of course we did get utterly and completely lost, and had some minor domestic map-reading issues, and spent twenty fruitless minutes near the crest of a hill in the rain trying vainly to pick up a phone signal….but it did mean we met the Inner Mongolian beekeepers, which was very, very cool.

Lin Ming De and his wife Wang Gui Qin keep bees in a field of brilliant yellow rapeseed right where Inner Mongolia and Mongolia proper meet.  We’ve seen many itinerant beekeepers camped near flowering fields since arriving in Inner Mongolia, but something else set these beekeepers apart and made us stop immediately. They were living in a homemade RV.
Lin met us still in his beekeepers straw hat, the net rolled up over the brim. His large spectacles reflected the sunlight and he wore a cream shirt tucked into tightly belted cream trousers that were way too big.
Bees were everywhere, from the forty beehive boxes standing just south of the field and right next to his truck. He waved us in to sit on tiny stools under the outside awning, took off his hat and set to rolling a cigarette from a little pink and white cardboard box full of flaky fragrant tobacco.

Wang Gui Qin, seemingly glad of company other than bees and her husband, fussed over the children and made us a glass of honey water to drink from their freshly harvested flower honey, and brought us small sweet melons to eat.
She told us this was their first summer in the fields – Lin Ming De’s family had been looking after bees since 1959 in Ulanhot, but when the farmer nearby invited them to camp for the summer next to the rapeseed in order to help fertilize the flowers with their bees, they jumped at the chance.
So far, they were enjoying this more relaxing life. The move meant they were closer to their two daughters and their grandchildren, and their days were easy and slow. Wang Gui Qin felt so good she had given up taking her blood pressure tablets, although she did ask me to check her blood pressure with an old sphygmomanometer she kept inside the truck. 140/90. Not bad.

Let me explain a little about their home-made campervan. It was a regular old two tonne truck, painted light blue, and converted for living and travelling. Lin Ming De had replaced all the wall panels with wooden ones and installed heavy plastic ‘windows’ that could be propped open to catch the breeze. The back tray of the truck was permanently unfolded as an entry to the living area, with a long plank leading up to the back door. 
Inside was a comfortable double bed, and a small kitchen with a gas cooker. What didn’t fit inside, including two birds in their birdcage, was stored outside underneath the truck and guarded by the dog.
Lin Ming De told me it had taken him one month to convert the truck into a fangche. He was very proud of it.
It was extraordinary to think they had travelled two hundred kilometres with forty full beehive boxes stacked in the back to get to their current location.

Wang Gui Qin, hospitable and kind, made delicious egg noodles for us for lunch, and we drank more glasses of sweet honey water. The price of such honey? Wang Gui Qin had a nasty bee sting on her face, but she said she was used to it after so many years. She pressed two bottles of their wonderful honey into my hands as we left.
The people of the countryside here in Inner Mongolia have been so kind, welcoming and generous to us, and these bee keepers were no exception. We parted friends, nomads of different kinds, travelling in different directions. I hope one day we might meet again.










Pure Air and Pastel Fairytales: Aershan, Inner Mongolia 内蒙古和阿尔山

There’s something about the air in Inner Mongolia I can’t quite put my finger on. It makes everything clearer and brighter, it makes colours more intense, it makes food taste more delicious, and it turns your skin a deep nut brown. It has qualities no other air in the world seems to possess. It makes you sleep better, with pleasant dreams, and awake refreshed. It is in fact better than any kind of medicine or tonic and I highly recommend breathing it for several days just to experience its mysterious benefits for yourself.

After twenty long days on the road and more than 3500km from Shanghai we passed into Inner Mongolia, a place I have long dreamed of visiting. I’m not entirely sure what I expected to find, since most of my inner images of Inner Mongolia are, on reflection, from Mongolia, the country that is the cup to Inner Mongolia’s saucer. 

In my mind’s eye I see nomadic herders featured in The Song of the Weeping Camel – a 2004 documentary, and I see a small pile of photographs from a friend who visited Mongolia more than twenty years ago. From the former I remember nothing but desert, and from the latter, an overwhelming sense of green. Could either of these be remotely like Inner Mongolia?

As it turns out, green is everywhere. Entering Inner Mongolia via the border town of Ulanhot we drive immediately north towards A’ershan, some 250km away. A’ershan (on some maps written as Arxan) has hot springs, and I’ve seen a photograph of the town taken from a meadow full of flowers. It sounds interesting and fanciful, and lacking any better plans we decide to visit. This is the joy of having your own wheels – on nothing more than half a whim you can go anywhere you want.

The road – sometimes dirt, often potholed, occasionally smooth and fast – meanders through valleys between rolling green hills, with fields of coloured wildflowers – pink, white, yellow and purple – everywhere you look.  On the hillsides flocks of white sheep and goats, tended by shepherds, roam feeding on the sweet green grass. Clusters of small red-brick farmhouses nestle between the soft folds of the hills. 
Winding rivers with rocky beds and clear cold water line the valleys beside the roads, shaded by groups of trees. It’s beautiful, and you want to drive with the windows open and the wonderful air, warm and smelling of summer, filling your lungs.

So when, hours later, we drive into A’ershan, the town comes as a complete surprise. It’s a busy place with a wonderful quirky European feel, a popular destination for travellers in this north-east part of Inner Mongolia, and has the added attraction of famous hot springs, but it warps my mind completely. 

The long broad streets (well, just one long broad street actually, bisecting the town) is lined with ornate pink, gray and peach sherbet coloured buildings with wedding cake white trimming, tourists and locals alike making the most of the warm summer evenings by promenading after dinner, Italian style. Behind the town the velvety green hills roll on and on in endless waves.

Those not walking take a turn in one of many horse-drawn carriages clipping smartly down the street past the China Post building in the late afternoon light, white spokes spinning as the top-hatted driver urges the horses on.

I’m feeling quite dislocated now – I have mental images of the Sound of Music, several Walt Disney fairytales, and Switzerland in summer mashing together in my head and I need to constantly remind myself that I’m in China. China. Adding to the confusion, the local souvenir shops are doing a brisk trade in his and hers taxidermied deer, and all of a sudden I’m mentally in Braemar Castle, Scotland, where every room is graced with a handsome pair of stuffed deer. 

Perhaps this is all one giant surreal movie set, and we’re all extras. It’s entirely possible, I decide. At the end of the street a giant futuristic sculpture marks the town’s one and only roundabout, manned by a starched policewoman standing on a red and white striped pedestal and wearing a navy pillbox hat and doing a great job of keeping the horse-drawn carriages and promenaders in order.

I would like to have stayed longer in A’ershan, soak in the hot springs and visit all the pastel buildings, but Inner Mongolia’s biggest festival, Naadam, is calling us from 1600km away. We better get going!


Shenyang, City of Dumplings and Dreams 沈阳:一座饺子和梦想的城市

They say you should avoid coming to Shenyang at all, if possible, because it’s a massively polluted industrialized dump in the middle of the far north east of China, with little to recommend it other than the departures gate at the airport where at least you know you have a chance of leaving (either a greater or lesser chance, depending on which Chinese airline you’ve had the misfortune to choose).  
But if visiting Shenyang is unavoidable – as it was for us while the campervan spent two days and a night being fine-tuned at the mechanic’s workshop, before being exposed to the road perils of Inner Mongolia – then you shouldn’t miss Laobian Dumplings, those dumplings of long history and deserved fame.
Perhaps because my expectations of Shenyang were so low, the city totally and utterly surprised me. It had buzz, it had bravado, and it had a lot going for it. I liked it, although I realize I am alone in the world in saying this, even among people who live there.
The Shenyang I found was an exciting city outgrowing itself so fast the outer ring road had just become the inner ring road and the inner ring road had just been converted into a high-speed flyover zooming between luxury shopping centres. Banks were so plentifully crowded cheek by jowl on every city block it was clear everyone must be filthy rich and in need of a place to store their lucre, and indeed when the locals went out shopping it wasn’t for milk or bread, but for large electrical appliances and whole apartment blocks. The place was booming.
Luckily for us, the boom times seemed not to have affected the local food culture too much, because according to everyone I spoke to the most popular restaurant in Shenyang is hands down a cheap-as-chips dumpling den, Laobian Dumpling.
Laobian makes it into Lonely Planet China, usually a sure sign that this is somewhere you don’t want to eat. Suspicious, I also searched Dianping, the everyman’s guide to what’s good to eat (all in Chinese, I’m improving on that front) who confirmed that this was indeed a very good and very popular spot. (The other thing I love about Dianping is that it lists the most frequently recommended dishes of any restaurant so you have some idea of what to look out for when you’re presented with one of those biblical Chinese menus.)

Ooooooo!-long tea. Why? Read on. 
Laobian (“Old Bian”) dumplings have been around since 1829, started by Bian Fu who by all accounts was a true dumpling master, and continued by Bian Degui (1856 – 1942) who, according to the company’s own history ‘was good at absorbing others’ merits to make up his own shortcomings’. No love lost there then. Despite this Laobian Dumpling went from strength to strength and now offers ‘more than one hundred kinds of dumpling.’ You can see why I had to visit.
The restaurant is a bustling but plain three storys, each one packed to the brim with hungry diners. The only nod to fanciness is the Bian dragon logo on the teapots and cups, and the cheery red outfits of the waiters and waitresses.
You can choose individual dumplings form the main dumpling menu, including mandarin duck dumplings, exotic perilla leaf dumplings, wild vegetable dumplings, or even sharkfin dumplings if you’re feeling politically incorrect, or just avoid all the confusion and treat yourself to a set course dumpling feast.

Then began our own dumpling feast with the famed ‘Ice Dumplings’ (28 yuan), steamed jiaozi filled with scallions, tiny shrimp, pine nuts and rich tofu, then placed in a shallow pan and fried in a thin layer of batter and turned out upside-down onto the plate so the crunchy lacey fried batter forms a visually stunning effect. These were amazingly good – crispy at first bite with a soft, finely diced filling.

The regular jiaozi were simple boiled dumplings with a pork and vegetable filling, made much more interesting paired with  the roasted smoked chili flakes and minced garlic provided on the table.

For a little novelty I also ordered a single crab ‘dumpling’ (15 yuan) but the waiter wouldn’t have it, telling me each one was no bigger than his thumbnail. So I ordered two. They were so gorgeous with their little black sesame seed eyes on stalks and tiny, tiny claws, but they did taste of nothing more than dumpling dough.

Our final basket of dumplings were mandarin duck (20 yuan for ten), a rich combination of dark, finely chopped duck meat and herbs, stir-fried together first before being added to the dumplings making them rich and satisfying.
The only low point in this dumpling extravaganza came with the bill when I discovered our pot of oolong tea had cost 158 yuan, in contrast with the dumplings, all fifty-two of them combined costing only 70 yuan. 
Tea prices, like wine in other parts of the world, can be staggeringly steep in Chinese restaurants, and like the novice who tells the waiter ‘Bring me a bottle of red!’ without asking the price, I had done the same thing with tea. The waiter had simply chosen the best and most expensive sachet of tea on my behalf. It was great tea, but I would have liked to know how great it was so I could savour it a bit more.










Laobian Dumpling 老边饺子馆

Laobian Jiaozi Guan
208 Zhong Jie, Shen He District


Open seven days from early until late 
+86 24 24865369

The China Road Trip so far (in case you missed any):
My Year of Maximum China – in which the PLAN is hatched
The China Road Trip – A Progress Report in which obstacle start to present themselves…
Finding the Great Chinese Campervan – the vehicle is found! but the price will be negotiated endlessly for two more months
See How Easily You Can Camp in China! – the test drive weekend and surviving marital discord on the road
The China Road Trip Begins! – Where We’ll be Going, and When
Lian Island and the Art of the Perfect Beach Wedding Photograph – beach hideaway in northern Jiangsu Province
The Campground That Almost Was…..because you can’t win ’em all
Clinging to a Cliff Under the Great Wall – Northern Tianjin Province

Clinging to a Cliff Under the Great Wall

After the debacle of the Chinese camping ground that really wasn’t, we had three major problems:

1. No water left and nowhere to fill up

2. Nearly two weeks’ worth of dirty washing – for four people, that’s a lot of unclean clothes

3. The area surrounding the campsite included a magnificent stretch of the Great Wall (known as Huangyaguan – yellow cliff mountain pass), a river, some caves, and extraordinary beauty. We weren’t ready to leave and had planned on staying several days.

I can’t say just how helpful Mr Googlemaps has been on this trip, and that’s how we found the Dongshan (East Mountain) Hotel, perched high up on a precipitously steep hillside underneath the Great Wall itself.

The winding switchback road all the way to the top proved a huge effort for the van, but apparently practically none for the punchy little two-stroke engines of the trayback tricycles laden with peaches overtaking us on the steeper sections. Peach and apricot trees heavy with fruit seemed to be the only thing holding the mountain together, terraced in climbing rows.
The Dongshan Hotel, the van, and yes, our washing
The Hotel is located through the entrance gates to this section of the Great Wall, so if you haven’t already purchased a ticket you’ll need to buy one in order to stay there.

Calling the Dongshan a hotel may have stretched the truth slightly – the hotel reception, in a temporary tin shed in the car park, apparently also serves as the local police station. Inside, two policemen sitting on a vinyl sofa and smoking heavily, are interrogating a skinny male suspect about a robbery of something yellow. A car? A handbag? A pair of sneakers? Through the thick local dialect it’s about all I can make out. Still, he doesn’t look that worried, leaning back languidly on the opposite sofa and tapping the ash from his cigarette into a plastic ashtray. It’s all very Columbo, circa 1974.

The check in procedure involves a lot of carbon paper and forms in triplicate (“Make sure you use the correct form for foreign guests!” barks one of the police officers to the receptionist, before he goes straight back into questioning) and then we were shown to our rooms.

The long low building of the hotel is guarded by a pair of terracotta warriors with swords, just to ward off…something or other. The eaves are painted with scenes of the mountains and the wall, in local traditional style and through the flycreen curtained front door are eight rooms in all, identically furnished with three closely spaced single beds, a  television, a kettle, and a tiled bathroom with cold running water and a tank you can plug in to heat water. If you touch the edge of the tank by mistake it gives you a small electric shock, and this initially worried me quite a deal, but as long as you touch only the outlet hose of the tank you’re fine. And we all really, really wanted hot showers.
The real treat of the Dongshan is the location, and the ability to walk along the wall at any time during your stay – dawn, dusk or midnight if the moon is full and the mood takes you.

Huangyaguan is a stunningly beautiful section of the Great Wall with a history of more than 1400 years – the wall unscrolls down mountain cliffs on both sides of a deep river chasm, meeting in the middle over a bridge like ‘two dragons drinking from a stream’. It’s unforgettable in scale and magnificence and I hope you can get there to see it someday. 






The newly restored section of the wall meets the ‘old wall’ made from the local gold-coloured granite high up on the western wall.

Huangyaguan (Yellow Cliff Mountain Pass) Great Wall
Northern Tianjin Province
The Wall is accessible in two sections, the popular and easy to get to Western Wall where tour buses arrive from Beijing or Tianjin (both around three hours), and the less accessible but equally stunning Eastern Wall which you can get to via minivan, horseback or three-wheel tricycle, all available in the Western Wall carpark.
Adults 65 yuan
Children 35 yuan
Children under 1.2m free
Parking 10 yuan
Dongshan Hotel

Co-ordinates Lat 40.245314°  Long 117.454871°
All rooms are triples with their own bathroom but rates depend on the number of occupants. Meals not included.
Singles 100yuan/night
Doubles 200yuan/night
Triples 300yuan/night
Discounts available.
There is no food available at the top of the mountain but the Dongshan is happy to open their restaurant – overlooking a lotus pond – for guests. Dinner for four people including a variety of local dishes and soup around 100 yuan in total.

The Campground That Almost Was…

In my fantasy world, away from the brutal practicalities of everyday life on the road – camping by the roadside, cold showers in a space the size of a broom closet, sleeping in a too-short bed, wearing dubiously dirty clothes because the clean ones have run out – I imagine us occasionally driving to a real life camping ground where stunning natural beauty sits side by side with toilet and shower facilities, running water, and maybe even mains power. Maybe.
But a dream it remains, because proper camping grounds are in very short supply in China. My good friend JW, who helped enormously with the Chinese language research for this trip (and translates these posts) spent two full weeks compiling a list of Chinese camping grounds for us, then calling them one by one to ensure they were still in operation. 

I won’t labor over the details, but suffice to say that the official list (the one you’ll find on the Ministry of Tourism website) and the actual list differ a great deal, perhaps because there were many camping grounds that accepted hefty government tourism subsidies to open up then closed down a short time later. 

I’ll just tell you how many were on the short list – fourteen camping grounds, in all of China. One for every 93 million people. Not so many huh?
Many of them are clustered around Beijing’s outskirts, but there is one in the area we’re traveling in right now as we head north towards Inner Mongolia, so we decided to make a detour to northern Tianjin Province to stay in it, right next to a remote and mountainous section of the Great Wall – it sounded perfect. I thought we might even meet some like-minded Chinese campers!
I looked on their website and was thrilled by mains power! water! and something that looked like a homemade RV! JW called ahead for us the day before and confirmed. No reservation needed.
Pick the bought one!
The anticipation of staying somewhere actually legal where we didn’t have to worry about being moved on in the middle of the night, spurred us on to a mammoth eight hour day of driving through a fierce storm that saw most other vehcles pull off the highway. Not us. We pushed on. We had a camping ground to get to.

Finally, around dark, we arrived at the tiny winding mountain road of the campground’s address, but somehow missed the entrance the first and second times we drove past. There was a black and yellow bar boomgate across the driveway and the sign on the gateway was a little overgrown. Small nagging worries needled me.

We opened the boomgate ourselves and drove in. The whole place seemed a little low on the maintenance side and there were no other campers at all, but we pulled into a bay with its own electricity and water box just as the caretaker arrived.

“Hello! What are you doing here?” he asked. As if he didn’t already know!

“We’re travelling! We’d like to camp here for the night!” we said. 

“You know we’re closed down? We don’t have any power or water. But you can stay overnight if you really want to.”


Somehow JW had failed to mention this in her text message. I read it again. “Ucan go to the campsite directly, free now, and is not a site for rv but parking is okay.”

I seem to have glossed over the important parts of that message when it first arrived, particulary the ‘is not a site for rv’ bit. I tend to ignore bits of information that don’t fit with my perception of any given sitution, it’s a dreadful flaw and now it had come back to bite me. I guess that’s why I had interpreted ‘free now‘ to mean ‘plenty of space’, rather than ‘free of charge because with no electricity, water or facilities we can hardly make you pay.’ Bugger. Bug-ger.

After having a quiet little weep to myself I looked around me. The kids were running about having a ball and making as much noise as they wanted. It had stopped raining. We were in one of the most beautiful locations imaginable – a natural amphitheatre in the cradle of a ring of pink granite mountains now glowing orange in the light of sunset. It was stunning.

So the electricity box was fake, and the water taps were all dry, and the camping ground was falling apart from neglect. So what. We had a private peaceful spot to sleep and there would be other camping grounds to visit in other places. A whole twelve others to be exact.

Morning brought sun and clear blue skies and we set out to explore our surrounds. The campsite had been glorious until quite recently with an attached Mountain Sports Centre complete with obstacle course, groves of apricot trees, a camping field, a picnic terrace overlooking the valley, a rope bridge and small huts. A terrible shame it closed down, but like all businesses there has to be money in it, and clearly camping hasn’t yet reached that stage in China.

Luckily we’re on a mission to change all that!
Looking a bit overgrown since the last photo.

Giant rock-climbing wall and massive skate ramp to keep you busy when you’re bored with blowing up the air mattress

The tent camping field, lush, level, and ringed with trees.

And the rusting home-made RV, up on bricks, forever in the same spot

The entrance – just in case you ever decide to make a visit.

Campsite Notes: Northern Tianjin Jixian Village Mountain Sports Ground

The campground is technically available for overnight ‘parking’ although the caretaker turned a blind eye to outdoor cooking and other camping activities. We weren’t charged for our overnight stay, but it was made clear this was one night only.

Name: Tianjin shi Ji xian Xiaying zhen Shanye Yundong jidi campsite
Address: Jixian Xiayingzhen Qianganjian cun
Co-ordinates: Lat  40.227401° Long 117.429789°
Water: nil
Electricity: nil
Public Facilities: nil
Quietness: High echo factor. Evening karaoke session in neighbouring valley crystal clear
Nearest water/groceries: Jixian Village <2km
Outlook: In the cradle of a ring of mountains. Unbelievably beautiful.

Ten Must-Try Foods in Shandong 山东美食探险

Insect eating alert! Do not proceed past Number 8 if you’d prefer not to think about deep-fried crunchy things. Keep going all the way to Number 10 if you’re OK with that.

Insects aside, we survived our first week of camping and from the beaches of Qingdao to the rocky mountain of Tai Shan and Qufu, birthplace of Confucius, Shandong Province has some great eats and is considered one of China’s Great Eight Cuisines, also known as lu cai. I’ve eaten some incredibly delicious and some incredibly challenging dishes this week, yours to share. 

Restaurant dishes 餐厅菜肴

1. Seafood 海鲜 hǎixiān

Since Shandong forms part of China’s east coast, fresh seafood is in overwhelming abundance. In Qingdao you can eat at a seafood restaurant, choosing your fish, clams or shrimp with care from the rows of tanks outside, or you can get an impressive choice at the fish market and take it to a nearby restaurant for cooking in any style.
Shandong seafood dishes tend to bring out the sweet clean flavour of the seafood without overpowering sauces, as in these shrimp fried with garlic and a little chili, and these tiny clams.




2. Slow-Braised Fragrant Spiced Pork 香辣肉丝 xiāng là ròu sī 
With meat literally falling off the pork bones, we tried a tiny neighbourhood restaurant full of hungry diners for our first lunch in Qingdao, and this was their specialty dish. Slow cooked, fragrant, tender and so, so delicious with star anise and specks of numbing sichuan peppers in the juices. Bones were being sucked clean at tables all around us.

香辣肉丝  四川辣味猪肉条


3.  Three Fresh Flavours Tendon 三鲜烧蹄筋sān xiān shāo tí jīn 

As foreigners who don’t read Chinese that well this dish was very unfamiliar to us and we spent the whole dinner trying to identify the long white pieces with the slightly chewy, spongy texture.

“It’s some kind of mushroom” said one daughter, not very confidently.
“I think it’s squid…or something…” said the second.
I thought the pieces were made of slightly chewy sticky rice.

The other components of the dish were easy to see – plump shrimp, squid, and clams. Finally we asked the waitress to tell us what the mystery ingredient was.

“Beef tendon!” she said. Well, that was certainly a surprise to us.








4. Confucius Tofu: 孔夫子豆腐 Kǒngfūzi Dòufu 

Like many things in the overcrowded, overpriced and over-touristed town of Qufu, the food has only very tangential and suspect connections to Confucius – Kongfu. There was Confucius Duck, Confucius Soup and Confucius Fruit Platter.

 We did try the Confucius Tofu – cubes of smoked tofu stir-fried with mushrooms and green peppers, and it was very passable too. But worthy of the world’s greatest sage? I don’t think so.



5. Nine Coil Large Intestine 九曲大肠 jiǔqū dàcháng

Sometimes, though not often, I wish I didn’t feel compelled to eat something I’d really rather not eat just for the sake of being able to write about it afterwards. Intestine is not high on my list of favorite foods but in Shandong they love it. So I had them cook some up for me in a street market last night in Qufu, and it was really very good with a strong taste of sausage – I guess that tells you a lot about what goes into making sausages.

Street Food 路边小吃

6. Corn Cakes With Fried fish 玉米糕 Yùmǐ Gāo 

Corn grows in every single field in Shandong, and freshly steamed corn cobs are a popular street snack.  This was a little different though – soft corn cakes made from either yellow or black corn fried on a griddle, and served with tiny crispy fried fish.  Winning combination!



7. Boiled Peanuts 水煮花生 shuǐzhǔ huāshēng

Peanuts are plentiful in Shandong and most meals are accompanied by a plate of boiled or fried peanuts. Here they’re mixed with boiled edamame and served as a cold appetiser. I love the texture of these – soft but still with some bite.



8. Crisp-fried Cakes 煎包 jiān bāo 

Little fried parcels filled with chopped scallions and vermicelli noodles, these are just the right size for when mid-morning hunger hits.



9. Fried Grasshoppers  炸蚂蚱 zhá màzhà

I just closed my eyes and popped one gingerly into my mouth. There was some salt, and a deal of lightweight crunch with very little substance and no aftertaste. And an audience of several interested fellow diners crowded around the table, who really wanted to know what I thought of their local specialty. 

I’d eaten insects before, but never grasshoppers, so it was a bit early to form a considered opinion – although when the waitress asked if I’d like to take the remainder of the plate away with me I politely declined. One of the grasshoppers escaped during the cooking and sat on the table watching us eat his cooked friends, which was distasteful and insensitive of him.



10. Deep-fried Golden Cicadas   zhá jīnchán

This local Shandong specialty is hugely popular. My husband loves eating them every time he comes to Jin’an on business and he was keen for me to try them too. I managed one, mostly by imagining I was eating eating deep-fried shrimp instead of cicada nymphs and that helped, but I didn’t have seconds. 



Home Cooked Dishes 家常菜

After just over a week on the road I’m slowly getting into a rhythm with cooking. Part of the process has been getting to know what food I can buy fresh in the small villages we pass through, many without shops. This always turns out to be whatever is in peak season – long snake beans, juicy red tomatoes, and some things completely new to me like these broad flat hairy beans.

I just asked the farmer I bought them from how to cook them – “sliced finely and fried with garlic and lots of lajiao!” she told me, and she was right – they were delicious.



Eaten any other memorable Shandong dishes? Tonight I tried Dezhou’s famous roast chicken, which falls tenderly off the bone at the slightest tremble. 
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Lian Island, and the Art of the Perfect Beach Wedding Photograph

The beach makes my heart sing. The smell of the salt water, the burn of the hot sand getting hotter and hotter with every step as you dance across the sand to the closest shade, then the feeling of complete freedom as you dive under the water, salt water stinging your eyes.

In the last forty years of my life I have never gone more than three weeks without a visit to the beach, and I mistakenly thought China with its long eastern coastline would have plenty to choose from, but much of the coast is beach-less river delta where rivers widen dramatically to meet the sea over a broad flat tidal expanse of mud. Not ideal for swimming.

When I began to plan our trip I desperately wanted to find a beach, somewhere beautiful and not crowded. I asked around, I consulted maps and guidebooks, but other than the beaches of Qingdao (too crowded) and the beaches of Hainan Island (too far south, and inaccessible without a plane or boat) I drew a blank.
Wasting time one day last week I opened Google Earth and scrolled randomly up and down the east coast, just looking and hoping. Near the town of Lianyungang in Jiangsu province (a place I’d never heard of) was a small island connected to the mainland by what looked like a causeway. As I zoomed in I felt building excitement –  the island had two perfect crescents of sand separated by lush green hills, and other than a small resort development at one end appeared largely uninhabited. Even more promisingly I could see rows of beach umbrellas lining the smaller beach. Yes!

Lian Island turned out to be even better in reality – a laidback seaside world. The island’s entry road is lined with little shops selling retro shell souvenirs line and rows of fresh seafood restaurants, fronted by outdoor tanks of live fish, shrimp, molluscs and crayfish just waiting for customers to come along and choose their own catch of the day. Bypass these if you’re not hungry and drive past the fishing harbour to the island’s northern side where an exquisite small cove called Suma Wan awaits, the lush green jungle tangled with vines and flowers tumbling down the hills to the blue sea. Peacocks wander in and out of the gardens, occasionally showing magnificent plumage and calling their distinctive call through the jungle.

Bookending the beach are two rocky promontories topped with traditional Chinese pavilions. I often forgot where I was as I swam out to deep water, unti I looked up and saw the gracefully upturned eaves in the distance.

The beach itself is perfect – a sheltered cove with fine, shell-strewn sand and lines of thatched beach umbrellas. The only major oversight as far as I can see is the distinct lack of a cocktail bar, but other than that you can keep yourself busy with water bicycling, tumbling around on the water in an inflatable hamster wheel, jetski touring, or just floating around with a fluorescent life preserver around your middle.

What strikes me is that swimming is not a skill possessed by most Chinese visitors to the beach, hardly surprising given China’s massive internal land mass, far from oceans. Mao though, famously swam every day when able in rivers, the ocean, or lakes.
The unfamiliarity with swimming becomes clear from people’s dress – most are wearing bathers bought from the small shop on the beach, and a quite a few are swimming either fully clothed or in their underwear. Adults and children alikeare protected from the waist deep dead calm water by wearing life preservers or clinging to the floating guide ropes in the water. 
The few who can swim do so ostentatiously, dressed in full and proper Olympic swimming kit – short, close-fitting trunks, bathing cap, goggles and nose clip. They go out just deep enough for everyone to see they know what’s what and with great sense of purpose swim a few strokes in no particular direction, then emerge striding from the water. 
It’s a lovely relaxing day, everyone is enjoying themselves in the sun….and then the brides and grooms arrive, all fifty-eight of them, over the next few hours.



上周某一天我为了消磨时间打开谷歌地图随便浏览了一下东海岸,无意中发现,靠近 江苏省连云港市有一个小岛。随着我将画面推近,不由得有一丝兴奋——岛上有两处沙滩,中间隔着郁郁葱葱的小山,而且仅有一小部分得到了开发,在另一头则大部分无人居住。更令我充满希望的是哪里有成排的沙滩阳伞。太棒了!




很搞笑的是,当我们都很努力地要把我们苍白凄凉的皮肤晒成古铜色的时候,我们身旁的中国游客们从头到脚都裹得严严实,还打着伞来保护他们美丽的白色肌肤免受日光侵扰。当我 今晚躺在这儿,皮肤被晒得又红又烫时,我倒是也希望自己能有白白的肌肤。

Beach Wedding Photography, Chinese Style

The clutch of brides, more beatiful than the white peacocks roaming the beachside gardens, spill out of a minivan in full wedding regalia, long white dresses sweeping the ground, hair arranged in sleek black chignons topped with dramatic headpieces crusted with flowers and pearls, and ears heavy with long pearl and diamante drops. 

Their eyes, heavily rimmed with kohl, turn towards us oddly dressed foreigners in our swimming costumes and towels as if to question the suitability of our attire for attending the beach, and then with one long sweep they scoop up the trailing trains of their dresses over their arms, revealing scuffed plastic Crocs and cutoff denim shorts. The illusion dissolves immediately.
We follow them down the wooden stairs, all six bridal couples accompanied by a brace of photographers, assistants, make-up artists and gophers carrying assorted props – bags of fake floral bouquets, rainbow-coloured windmills, a violin in a case, a red and white life buoy, and six reflector screens covered in foil.
The Chinese wedding photography industry is a mysterious country of its own, with its own government and bylaws, its own ethnic factions, and its own currency and festivals. Couples enter into this land through the portal of glittering shops with names like Paris and LoveWedding, where they sit for days with wedding consultants poring over style books to decide on the style of wedding they would like, the only irony being there is no wedding and they’re not actually married. 
The actual wedding, compared to the splendor of the wedding photography, will be a drab affair months later involving five hundred guests in a fancy Chinese restaurant surrounded by life-size images of the couple as they appeared in their wedding dream, as realized by those magician photographers on a memorable day in the distant past.
Like all magicians, there is a great deal of smoke and mirrors involved in the transformation of a pair of short-sighted graphic designers from Lianyungang into a romantic beachside vision of true love. Here’s how it’s done.
The wedding dresses are made of machine-washable synthetic, one size fits all, and are fastened with bulldog cips at the back if you’re on the small side, or an infinitely expandable corsetry lacing if you’re not. The grooms, in white suits with ruffled shirts and enormous collars chosen to match the wedding dress, look stiff and uncomfortable as they’re directed into position. But the suits are completely wrinkle-free.

The make-up, lavishly applied to both bride and groom, is made from heat, sun and sand-resistant polymers that probably last for days afterwards on your skin.

Props are chosen, poses are positioned, and then the couple strip down to their underwear right there on the beach and change into Bridal Ensemble Number Two, usually a brightly coloured version of Bridal Ensemble Number One. And the whole scene is repeated in blazing technicolour polyester.

After watching this magic for two whole days and more than forty couples on Suma Wan’s tiny and now very crowded beach I have realised there are five standard poses in any Magic Beach Wedding photography set:

1.  The Standard – bride and groom side by side at the shore line, dress draped artfully on the sand. Variations include props placed artfully on the draped dress, such as dried starfish or the jaunty red and white life preserver.
2. The Distance Shot – often the groom stands behind the bride, facing away but looking back wistfully at her over his shoulder
3. The Happy-Go-Lucky shot – this involves hands in the air, or kicking water, or jumping simultaneoulsy. It doesn’t usually involve a group of swimmers and four other couples in various stages of dress/undress, as shown here.
4. The Groom Solo Shot – embracing married life, as it were.
5. The Novelty Shot. This involves the couple bringing something of their own personalities to the scene – crazy glasses, funny hats, or in this case a pair of bunny hand puppets. I know, I know – you wish you’d thought of this for your wedding photos too.

So there you have it, Chinese wedding photography for the uninitiated. Dusk falls, golden hour is over and the couples traipse in a straggling column back up the steps. The dresses and suits have been stuffed tightly into bags for washing.
At last, the beach is empty and the only sign of the photographic love fest that has just taken place is a lone pair of false eyelashes, marooned on the sand.

Suma Bay Eco Park
suma gang shengtai yuan
Admission: Adults 50 yuan, Children 25 yuan, Vehicles 15 yuan
Open daily 9am-6pm
Beachside overnight cabins available for rent

Campsite Notes: Lian Dao

We camped in the small secluded carpark just west of the Suma Bay Eco Park ticket office and entrance – the park closes at 6pm so the nearby carpark is empty at night. Between 7pm and 8.30am next day there were no other cars.
We considered overstaying closing time within the park itself but all the suitable parking sites have CCTV cameras so it seemed likely we would be moved on by the staff as they left for the day.

Co-ordinates: Lat  34.757590° Long 119.492593°
Water: nil
Electricity: nil 
Public Facilities: nil
Quietness: Crickets and breezes
Nearest water/groceries: Liandao village, at the entry road to the island (limited supplies)
Outlook: overlooks ocean

The China Road Trip Begins! Where We’ll be Going, and When.

Our first Chinese fuel station stop yesterday reinforced that our just-commenced China Road Trip will be no ordinary kind of travel, and there will be no blending quietly into the landscape as we’d hoped. People of China, thank you for your intense interest in our vehicle and our journey- we’ve only just begun and it’s absolutely heartwarming. 
For those readers who are new here, let me introduce ourselves and our plans (for those of you who already know us, skip ahead!). We’re an Australian family who have lived in Shanghai for the last three years and loved every minute, but our longing for a great adventure means for the next six months our home will be one on wheels – a campervan with its own beds, kitchen and even a miniature bathroom.
Our dream has always been to see all of China, every last gorgeous and wild corner of it, from the coast to the interior and everything in between, so over the next half year we will circumnavigate China roughly anti-clockwise, beginning and ending in Shanghai. 
Our Travel Plans

Mr Google Maps has been a good friend to us so far and I’ve no reason to doubt him when he says it will be 18,941km from start to end. what Mr Google Maps doesn’t now is that I’m navigating, my maps are all in Chinese, and I seize the chance to take a detour if one presents itself, especially if it involves good food or large and bulky antiques. So maybe make that 20,000km. Or even 25,000.
So here’s our trip in a nutshell. I felt really good about sitting down for this last five minutes with the Google Route Planner and making a plan. It’s the first time I’ve seen what exists in my head on paper, so to speak. (Please don’t tell my husband because he thinks I’ve had a day-by-day itinerary planned out for months, but I’m only giving it to him a day at a time so it will be a surprise.) 
The summer months will see us head north then west, and during the winter months we’ll travel to the warmer climes of the south and east.
The northward leg for the next few weeks will take us to Inner Mongolia and the fabled Naadam horse festival of the nomadic Mongolian grassland peoples, then west along the path of the ancient Silk Road through some of the most remote desert in China to the trading oasis of Kashgar. Kashgar is nestled in a corner of China bordering on five other countries including Afghanistan and Pakistan. We were there last year too, and can’t wait to return.
From far western China we’ll travel south and east through Yunnan, a land filled with colourful peoples belonging to China’s many ethnic minorities, and some of the most extraordinary natural beauty and biologic diversity in China, then eastwards across Guizhou Province, China’s poorest but arguably its most unspoilt and interesting province where tall green hills rise up from narrow river valleys dotted with villages belonging to the Miao people. We will visit during their lusheng traditional music festival in winter to see the magnificent costumes and traditions of a people whose lives have changed little in the last five hundred years.
Lastly, our journey will bring us via the traditional roundhouses of Fujian Province back to Shanghai.
Our First Night

Crossing the mighty Yangtze. Colour of sky and water identical.

I wish I could tell you our first night was idyllic, quiet and magical and we all communed with nature. 
Actually, due to an unexpected late departure from Shanghai we drove like maniacs for five hours due north, crossing the Yangtze near Nantong and traversing hour after hour of flat wall-to-wall farms without a single suitable camping site anywhere among the rows of corn and the rice paddies. The sky was dense and humid, darkened by the smoke from frequent burning off in fields.
Around nightfall Google Earth (my other friend) helped me find a little river bordered by stands of trees (it looked like a perfect, quiet spot), where we parked in the mud next to a decrepit gravel dredging crane and right on top of the town dump. The sweet smell of rotting garbage was matched only by the thousands of flies and the stench from the duck farm across the water. My first step out of the van squelched ankle deep into a pile of manure. Love nature. Love camping. 
Luckily, tonight I’m 500 kilometres from Shanghai overlooking the ocean, high on a hill. Darkness has fallen and when the clouds part I can see real, actual stars – lots of them, and high behind me a lighthouse casts its regular radial beam. Tomorrow I’m going to swim in the ocean, but tonight I’m happy to listen to its sound and feel the cool clean breezes blowing.

Follow Along…. 

I hope you’ll follow along on our journey with us – thanks to my wonderful friend and translator JW, Chinese language posts will appear every Monday and Thursday. If I wrote it in Chinese, believe me, you wouldn’t want to read it.

To be up with all the daily news and gossip on our travels you can follow us on:
Twitter @nanchanglu
Weibo @nanchanglu