Family visit

The next morning we woke up early so we could take advantage of our bus tour tickets. For only $6 Canadian, they are valid for 24 hours after you first swipe them. We jumped on the first bus of the morning at 9 am and headed across the river to climb up the tallest (finished) building in Shanghai. The new tallest building in Shanghai is being built right next door and is already higher! The top of the currently tallest building in Shanghai is shaped like a beer opener or a handbag, depending on your perspective. You can walk across the handle of the handbag when you get to the top and the floor features a few glass sections, which are kind of scary unless you’ve been to the CN tower, like me, in which case they are fairly pedestrian.

On the way down from the tallest building we stopped to check out the Hyatt Park which occupies 10 stories between the 78th and 88th floor. Of course the rooms are ridiculously expensive, but they were beautiful and if you want to want to go almost all the way up the tallest building in Shanghai, it’s free to go get a tour of the rooms at the Hyatt. Once we finished up in the tallest building in Shanghai, we headed next to the building that used to be the tallest building in Shanghai until the bottle opener got built.

We originally headed into that building to have coffee on a cafe on the 88th floor, but we accidentally headed into another Hyatt right across the street! So this time instead of touring the rooms, we asked about places to eat. And we found a wonderful restaurant on the 88th floor. Now the food in China is really inexpensive, but this restaurant was not at all inexpensive! But happily, it was entirely worth the money! It was traditional Shanghaiese food and it was exquisite. I also crossed another thing off my list of things to eat in China. Pigeon Soup! I put together a full list of crazy and delicious things I ate in China at some point.


After our delicious lunch we hopped back on the bus to head to another part of town to get some gift and do some shopping. Now Shanghai isn’t that cold, but it’s on a river delta and near the ocean, so when it’s close to zero, it feels really cold. Especially when you are on the top level of a open top double decker bus. So once I was thoroughly frozen, we got off the bus and headed somewhere to warm up. After a coffe and some yummy pastries in a heated space, I was finally ready to head back out into the cold to walk through a historic section of Shanghai. The old parts of Shanghai are truly beautiful to walk through. The buildings are built in the old traditional Chinese style and the streets are crowded so that you get the full effect of Asia. This is something I didn’t experience in Beijing at all, since I visited during the Spring Festival most people were already gone by the time I got there and hadn’t returned by the time I left. I didn’t experience any vehicular traffic in Beijing at all, nor was I ever crowded in the subway. I look forward to returning to ensure I get the full experience of bustling Beijing. After a little walking around and some shopping, it was time to head to the suburbs for a family reunion! Family time was quickly becoming my favorite thing about this China trip.

Supper featured Zhen’s senior Uncle and his wife. It was hosted by their son and wife and I built a Lego toy with their three year old son! Zhen’s Auntie was there as well with her husband. Zhen’s three cousins from her junior uncle were also there, twin girls and one fiance. The wife of Zhen’s other cousin was also there, whom I had spent New Year’s Eve with. So it was a full house and again, there was a LOT of delicious food and merriment. I was definitely happy that I had learned the chinese phrase gan bei (干杯!) which is like cheers but literally means ‘dry glass’. I was so happy to work on the Lego with the three year old boy since he was the only one I could effectively communicate with. We followed the instructions to assemble the small Lego car Zhen had bought him together. When the car was finished, we played zoom zoom on the floor. It was a lot of fun and I think the family took about 100 pictures of me and Aoa playing. The evening unfortunately ended abruptly as we had to catch the last metro home. It was just as well since it had been a tiring day.

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Shanghai Is Wet

We came to Shanghai one day earlier than our original plan, so Zhen booked us at the Puli to cover the extra day. Although all the hotel we booked were good, the Puli was a notch above. They had an amazing swimming pool complete with hot tub and sauna and the rooms were very will appointed and most importantly, warm. Before we checked out we went for a little swim and tried out the hot tub and sauna.

We booked the Puli close to the Shanghai Metro, but after our experience lugging the baggage through the metro on our way from Beijing, we decided to take a cab to our next hotel, SSAW. Once we were settled into our new hotel we went for a walk in the pouring rain. Shanghai’s climate is quite similar to Vancouver, except I am told there is no time when it’s really dry. It rains all year round very consistently and there is a wet season for which the rain pretty much never stops for a couple months. So, we bought an umbrella right away and ventured into Shanghai.

Shanghai is much different from Beijing. It is very metropolitan and modern. The architecture is stunning in style, height and volume. There are a multitude of massive skyscrapers and very few monolithic blocks. They all seem to have some flare or differentiating visual appeal.



The Bund is a great spot to see a vast array of architectural styles from colonial to modern. It’s there we decided get on a city bus tour. There are a couple options for bus tours of the city, but for only $6 each, we got on the City Sight Seeing bus which allowed us 24 hours of hop-on hop-off travel along their roots

After our bus tour, we met up with some of Zhen’s friends from high school for dinner. The restaurant we went to had a long line of people waiting, but despite that it wasn’t long before we were in. Restaurants in China are on an entirely different scale than North American restaurants. Almost all of the restaurants are massive, often having 2 or three levels. A restaurant that seats only 30-50 people would more likely be called a cafe. There aren’t many that small. We had a great meal here and I got a video of them cooking the shrimp on an alcohol fire at our table.

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Off To Shanghai!

We had to wake up uncharacteristically early to make sure we caught the train to Shanghai. Having packed up the night before, there wasn’t much left to pack, however, as spring festival winds down, Beijing is winding back up, so we had to leave early as traffic is a whole new experience here, nothing like what you would encounter in the western world. Luckily, traffic wasn’t so bad. We got to the train station with plenty of time to spare, got our tickets and had a nice fast Chinese food breakfast.

One of the items we had were steamed dumplings full of meat and broth. These dumplings are a little delicate since they are filled with liquid, but they are absolutely exquisite and they are a specialty in Shanghai!

On the train to Shanghai!

Practically Flying!

We boarded the train to Shanghai on time, but it was slightly delayed due to weather. The speed was reduced from 300km/h to somewhere around 160km/h. It was fun watching the scenery change as we headed south. We passed through a hilly area, and ironically as things got green, we passed through a belt of light snow on the ground. As we continued toward Shanghai, the snow on the ground disappeared and was replaced with rain falling from the sky.

We met up with Zhen’s friend in the subway station that’s attached to the Shanghai train station. The subway was really crowded, probably since it was the last day of the spring festival national holiday.


Despite the crowded subway, we made our way to our beautiful hotel room at the Puli, and from there to a Thai restaurant for dinner.


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Yonghegong (雍和宫) Lama Temple

Although the temple is a tourist attraction, it was quite serene and people stopped frequently to pray at the various alters.


We were provided with a bundle of incense when we arrived. We burnt the incense and prayed at a few of the alters while taking in the sights. I wasn’t able to take photos inside the temples, but some of the Buddha statutes were amazing! One of the rooms was so awe inspiring I was moved to tears.




After we had enjoyed the temple, both Zhen and I had worked up a serious appetite. It didn’t take much wandering around for us to stumble upon an interesting vegetarian restaurant. Both Zhen and I love our meat, so we were both sceptical about this place, especially since it was so close to a tourist attraction, however, the food was very good! The waitress warned us that we had ordered too much, something we had been doing consistently the whole trip, but we stuck with our order and finished everything.

Vegetarian hot dogs and lamb skewers

After the delicious lunch, we connected with Zhen’s mom again. This time, she was at work, tasting tea with several of her colleagues. This was a real treat for me, tasting some of the finest tea in China. Wherever Zhen and I visited ‘high end’ tea spots in Canada, she always pointed out the problems with the tea. Even though, in some cases she found it reasonably good (she had advised me that it was actually terrible). After having some tea here, I have to agree with her.



Some of the teas we enjoyed were Tieguanyin poking, Pu’er and Black gouqi (goji) berry. They were all amazing.

Finally, we finished the evening dining with Zhen’s mom, her friend and her friend’s husband. Her husband had ordered some liquor so I was encouraged to partake. It was a delicious rice liquor, but I could have sworn it had a Poire Williams flavor.


The dishes at this meal were pretty tame, and again, incredibly delicious! There was duck, pork belly, cauliflower to die for (yes, cauliflower), and even a curry chicken.

Tomorrow, we are headed to Shanghai bright and early, so I’ll sign out for now.

Cheers from China,
Philip Mark

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The First Day Of Spring


Today is the first day of spring according to the Chinese lunisolar calendar. Fire works and fire crackers can be heard again all around the city, but not just because it’s the first day of spring. Today is also the fifth day of the new year, and today we welcome the god of wealth to ensure a prosperous year.
Zhen and I are back at her mom’s place, where we enjoyed another massive, delicious supper! We had a traditional dish which was like a giant spring roll, with a crepe-like wrapper and vegetable filling which was quite similar to spring roll filling. And they were definitely filling! We ended the night with more DiZhu (Chinese card game) and this time I actually won. A single hand…. Zhen won the big money but we didn’t really finish. We had to leave to catch that last bus home and I’m pretty sure I was warming up to a MASSIVE come back!

Yesterday we had a relaxing morning and watched some interesting Chinese fantasy show about a crazy emperor and his silver fox / witch wife. I can’t understand a thing, but the Kung Fu and magic spells are pretty awesome to watch, even if all the dialogue is Chinese. I’m using a web site called to learn some mandarin basics, so watching these shows, which always have Chinese subtitles really helps.

Once the show was over, we headed to the Xia’an Shopping Mall right next to our hotel and also next to the Olympic site for traditional Beijing style noodles. The place had great food as well as a couple birds and a flourishing coy fish pond.

After lunch we met up with Zhen’s mom in a neighborhood with lots of musical instrument stores. I had planned on buying an erhu, but after trying a few, I realized that playing the erhu, a bowed instrument, was going to require a skill set I did not possess and might take years to perfect. So I looked at some Gu Qing and some Gu Zheng and finally settled on a small Gun Zheng. It’s sort of like an auto harp and is easy to make a fairly pleasant sound with, so I think the kids and I will get the most use from it. I would like to add a Gu Qing to my collection of instruments eventually as well.

My new gu Zheng (古筝)

Once we had finished shopping for instruments, we headed to a Siachuan restaurant where I was able to try some delicious rabbit head.

Okay. It was pretty tough to get started eating this. But luckily, the restaurant provided instructions. The meal was quite delicious and a little spicy.

What's up doc?

Sunday we also had a relaxing morning and by the time we hit the streets we were ready for lunch. We tried to eat at a place Zhen really liked but it was closed for Spring Festival. So… We had hot pot again! We had just had hot pot the day before with Zhen’s cousin in central Beijing, so we were hoping to try something different, but the phase we selected was a different style of hotpot, so it wasn’t overly similar. And of course, the food was delicious.

While we were looking for a place to eat, we noticed a karaoke place in the plaza, so we headed there after lunch and sang songs to each other all afternoon long. You may think singing karaoke in China is an odd thing to do, but it’s quite a thing here. The karaoke lounges are really big, there are tonnes of them and the song selection is vast. Zhen and I sang to each other all afternoon and headed back to the Olympic village to walk around and take in the sights.

The Birds Nest

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Happy New Year … all week long!

So New Year, or Spring Festival, is not a simple night of drinking followed by a quiet day of recovery as we know it in the west. It is a week long national holiday with each night having some amount of firework display (provided by locals, not professionals) and a time when familioes congregate around their elders and spend time together. Zhen and I are back in a hotel closer to the center of Beijing. In fact, we are just across the street from the Bird’s Nest, home of many of the 2008 Olympic events. Sadly, we moved out of her mom’s place, where we were for New Years Eve, New Years Day and the following day. We had a wonderful visit there and ate SO MUCH FOOD!

New Years day (31 Jan) we went to Ditan as I mentioned in a prior post. I did NOT get lost but I did eat 2 insects! Check that off the things to eat list. They weren’t as disgusting tasting as I expected, but the visual effect was really terrible. I couldn’t look at them after I had eaten one for fear of puking. I had four on my stick but only managed to eat 2. Zhen tried to video the whole thing but we encountered technical difficulties. If I run across another booth of insects, I’ll video myself eating a couple more. Apparently the scorpions are more delicious than the cicadas, which is what I ate.

After we finished downtown, we returned to Zhen’s mom’s place. We rode the bus into town and home. It’s only $0.40 per trip! For the last bit of the journey, we used a bicycle (actually tricycle) taxi. I’ve attached a picture of that as well. We bought a pack of cards and played Dizhu (a Chinese card game). Her mom mopped the floor with us and we had a great time!

Yesterday (1 Feb), we had a relaxing day at Zhen’s mom place and packed our bags. Her cousin came back out to pick us up and all five of us (myself, Zhen, his wife and Zhen’s mom) headed into Beijing for hotpot. I got lots of pictures of hotpot so I won’t describe it at length here, but it’s a fun way to eat! During that meal I tried some more new things. Eel and pigs kidney were a few. I assure you they aren’t as gross as they sound. I am finding out that if you don’t want to starve in China, you need to expand your culinary horizons beyond the real of slabs of meat and sides of veggies. In fact, you can throw that concept in the garbage, I haven’t seen a slab of meat with a side of veggies since I got here and I don’t expect I will since we are purposely avoiding western food.

Happy New Year!

My last update came after my first complete day in China. Several eventful days have passed since then.

The day after we visited the Forbidden City, the huge palace of emperors past, we visited the temple of heaven. A place where the emperors worshiped their gods, that has large gardens various temples. It was not as vast as the Forbidden City and had far fewer buildings, but it was still very beautiful and quite awe inspiring to be in such an ancient place.

That evening we went to the famous Laoshen Tea House to see a traditional Chinese show. There were a number of different styles of acts, much like a variety show. Some musical, some comedic sketches, but the best acts were the Peking Opera act, think painted faces and annoyingly high pitched singing, and the Shezuan mask changer, which was the best. These traditional performers start the show with many layers of silk face masks and they dance around and change the masks as they dance. The amazing thing is that the mask is changed by some secret mechanism and it changes in the blink of an eye (much faster actually)! So it makes for an interesting effect. The performer walks out into the audience and changes these masks right in front of you too, it’s pretty amazing.

The next day, new years eve, we checked out of our hotel and headed to Zhen’s mom’s place. There we were treated to a giant feast of Chinese food. Her cousin, and his wife joined us and it was a tonne of fun. Obviously, I’m not my usual gregarious self in these environments where my language skills are so poor, but we all managed to have lots of fun and… as the clock drew closer and closer to midnight, the barrage of fireworks gradually worked up into a frenzy! It was totally amazing. By midnight Beijing was a continuous rumble of thunderous fireworks, flashes and booms! We ventured out right after midnight to set off our own arsenal of fireworks and saw lots of neighbors doing the same. I saw a young boy with his father setting off some pretty spectacular explosive devices and I couldn’t help but think what a great day this must be for a young boy (or even an older one, namely me)! You get to set off fireworks like crazy! I got a couple videos which will hopefully give you the idea. 

For New Years Day we are headed back to the center of Beijing, Ditan, a traditional new years day gathering place. It wasn’t as crowded as I imagined, probably because most people head home for Spring Festival (New Year) and many Beijingers are not from Beijing.

In Beijing!

After a lengthy but uneventful flight from Ottawa via Toronto, I finally landed in Beijing! This is the furthest from home I have ever been and I am really excited because I am not only visiting the capital of one of the oldest cultures in the world, but I am also lucky enough to have a local to show me around. Lu Zhen met me at the airport and we began our Beijing trip together. I left Ottawa at about 10:00 am on the 26th of January and landed in Beijing around 4:30 pm on the 27th. After I landed and we checked into our hotel, we went for supper near the hotel. Needless to say, the food was as authentic Chinese as it gets. A strategy I use to deal with jet lag is to never sleep on transcontinental flights. So when the time finally came, I slept like a baby.

Then next day, we went to the forbidden city. The Forbidden City was the Palace of the old emperors. We each rented audio guides, which detect your location in the palace and recount interesting facts about the all the various temples and court yards. After the palace, we toured an interesting district called Nanluoguxiang. This area featured lots of old shops in traditional one story houses. Effectively, it was the opposite of the palace, a place where commoners used to live, eat, drink, buy and sell. I saw some fans and parasols which would interest the girls, but they were a bit overpriced since we were in a tourist district and it was only my second day, so I didn’t make any purchases. Finally, we returned to the hotel to freshen up and ended the evening with a lovely supper with Zhen’s mom, their family friend. We had some amazing Roast Duck and a bunch of other stuff.