Temple Tours With My favourite Russian Friend and His Bobble Hat
It was time to re-join my urban life in the heart of Shanghai after a rural trip with my friend Max to his home town. Coming back on a long journey in the car I felt renewed enthusiasm for Chinese culture and wanted to delve deeper. I had witnessed a simple kindness and joy for living uncommon in big cities. Shanghai was alive however every hour of the night, it’s lights bright and people forever awake. I was excited to come back and be part of the buzz, disappear into the crowd and experience life here, a far call from my own.
After a night back in my favourite hostel (The Captain Hostel, best rooftop bar in Shanghai, check it out 😉) I had a day back wandering around city streets. I spend a long time taking photos down some spots I hoped no one else had photographed and an even longer time eating strange foods. My all time favourite ròujiāmó (肉夹馍) was on offer in a secret spot I was introduced to during a Shanghai food tour. They are basically China’s take on a burger and after a couple of them in high spirits I headed further out from the city to explore. I met some friends at a market we visited frequently. Before I knew it I had been ushered into a bar off a side alley, much like a modern day speakeasy. There was a table of 6 of us having some drinks, the lighting making it seem like 3am. Thick smoke filled the room, highlighted by painted Chinese lanterns hung from the ceiling.
I had agreed to meet my Russian friends in the outskirts of the city late afternoon but with all drinking excursions I lost track of time and rushed out of the bar. A quick zài jiàn to my friends before running to the train station. Navigating through central Shanghai is easy, with English and Mandarin signs guiding your way but as you get further out it isn’t so easy. I used a Chinese map app on my phone as everything google is banned and I began working my way further and further away. The signs turned purely to Mandarin and soon enough I was getting confused. I dropped my friends a text hoping to reach them around 9pm. Shortly afterwards my phone died, at least they knew what time I would be there.
After the most horrendous, disjointed train journey of my life getting lost many times I arrived at the station at 11pm. Well at least I thought it was the right station… The rain poured down on me as if I was in a sad movie but as always I beamed a smile not willing to be beaten by a bit of tough travel. It felt like a really adventure.
Iphones do this strange thing where they run out of battery but if you wait a while you can usually turn them back on for an extra couple minutes on 1%. By sheer dumb luck my phone buzzed back to life just long enough to get an address along with a few maps photos. I drew a miserable map on the back of my hand which quickly began smudging in the rain. I would struggle finding my way back without my phone and it was almost midnight so although an exaggeration I had pretty much decided to find my way or sleep on the streets. I was not ready to add that to my travel stories.
I slipped through alley ways and parks. Locals drew their curtains and lights began turning off in the tower blocks above me. Through the dark, a hooded figure lost and soaked through hoped to find flat 266.
I came to a tower block in amongst almost identical copies and was about 60% certain I had found the right place. I came through the entrance to witness some real Chinese homeless smoking and glaring at me. I picked up the pace a little and headed down a pitch black corridor with a lift in the end. In I clambered at pressed for the 52nd floor. It whirred to life like an old fairground ride while I took long breaths to try and relax myself. Side by side with my fear of flying, lifts fill me with dread. Especially if they sound like a robot being kicked down the stairs. After a lifetime the doors creaked open and I used my arms to push them the rest of the way. I found my friends door and gave it a knock well aware that they were probably fast asleep.
Evgeniy came to the door. A gentle giant he towered above me having been on conscription in Russia. It had taken him from my size to muscle by day after day running, climbing mountains and carrying kit. He greeted me with a big smile and told me they were both still awake. I hadn’t planned to stay the night but I think at this point we both knew what was up. I had a quick shower, borrowed some clothes and got set up on a sofa. Evgeniy brought me some food and out came Alex from the bedroom to greet me. I had met both of them during my first time in China on an excursion into the Yellow Mountains. We climbed Mount Huangshan together and watched the sunrise at 4am over a rock named “Monkey gazing over a sea of clouds.”
It was as if I hadn’t been gone for a year and we quickly returned to great discussion. I talked of home and they told me more of their new life moving to Shanghai. The tower block was a little menacing but their flat was lovely. We chatted late into the night and Alex soon went to bed as she was up working in the morning. Evgeniy had the day off so he told me of his life back in Russia and what it was like to have winter there. I had felt brave heading here in the dark and rain but quickly realised I needed to toughen up a bit. One photo of his old house buried under snow made me shiver.
Time for bed and Evgeniy said he would take me to a temple tomorrow. Like all great travel I hadn’t planned tomorrow and now a spontaneous trip was emerging. I turned my light off shortly before it was getting light again, plugging in my phone with that satisfying noise you get while charging.
Alex was already at work by the time I woke up but Evgeniy and I had breakfast together before getting kitted out for a cold day outside. I was wearing some Chinese thermals I’d picked up for pennies at a local market while he put on a bobble hat on further cementing his quirky and kind personality. I’m tiny really, at least in body size and I’ve found that Chinese clothes are the only ones to fit me perfectly. Wrapped up we headed back down the lift while I counted down the floors to my freedom. Coming back through the homeless Chinese looked a lot less menacing and I think I may have even got a smile from one of them.
I filmed a vlog for Youtube as we walked along talking. We followed some busy roads heading towards a beautiful local town I forget the name of. When we arrived the town was full of life, people flooding out of market stalls and shops. I strapped a gopro to my head as we went through, my eyes and nose full of new sensations. What caught my attention the most was chicken feet. I see them everywhere in China, a common street food for locals but I still didn’t feel brave enough to try them.
My adventurous side began to pluck up a little courage and I turned to Evgeniy. “What are they like, those chicken feet?” He looked a little puzzled “Hmmmm, they taste like… chicken sh*t.” I decided not to eat the feet.
At the end of the main street we came to the base of a temple. As with all of China historic temples and building like these weave their way through the city almost unnoticed. Small reminders of an older, richer past life here. Wondering through the temple I learnt about Confucianism although don’t ask me to pronounce it. Confucius was a Chinese philosopher who founded schools all through China. I was in one of these schools, and one of high renown. All around there was memories of the school, paintings, engravings and woven artefacts from the time. An outside courtyard had small huts one after the other where exams took place. Each with a wall in-between to stop cheating.
I never enjoyed school, it just didn’t really fit with me but then again I was a stubborn child. As I’ve grown I don’t feel the same resentment to school as I did when I was younger but their was a subtle satisfaction to be had when I discovered that even back then they were cheeky enough to cheat during exams. In front of me was a full waistcoat with all the answers to a test on in Chinese characters. One would simply wear it underneath and check when needed. I used to write things on the back of my hand but this was another level of genius.
After a tour of the temple from Evgeniy we headed to a local museum to soak in some real Chinese culture. A ancient culture as fascinating to me as the Egyptians and I had many new places to discover.
In my next blog I visit an abandoned theme park on an island off Shanghai. Don't forget to sign up in the top right hand corner to comment and receive updates!