Sunday, 16 December 2018

Shanghai, Day 2 - Silk, Precious Antiquities and "The Venice of the East"

There is nothing quite as luxurious as the soft, slinky, sensuous feel of silk and today we were off to a silk factory to learn about the history and production of this sublime thread. According to Chinese legend silk thread was discovered by accident in the 27th century BC when the Empress, Hsi Ling Shi, (Leizu) was sitting under a mulberry tree sipping tea when a silk cocoon fell into her tea and started to unravel.  She was fascinated by its silky thread so set about  developing a technique for spinning and weaving it into fabric.  Initially reserved for royalty, silk's fame gradually spread through Asia and it wasn't long before demand for silk led to the trade known as The Silk Road - at that time silk was considered to be more precious than gold. Over the centuries silk has become more affordable and accessible  and is now produced in many countries, however, China is still the major producer, cornering nearly two thirds of the market.

The labour intensive job of unraveling the silk
cocoon to remove the worm
Our tour of this modern day silk factory was fascinating and enlightening.  While machinery spins the yarn to make silk fabric,  many parts of the production are manual and labour intensive starting with the removal of the silk worm from it's cocoon, something that can only be done by hand. This requires having your hands in cold water for most of the day summer and winter. It is hard work for low pay so not surprising that no young people want to take on the job.  After watching the whole process of silk production we were invited to help stretch a small square cocoon of silk to the size of a quilt. It took some effort but we got there and were surprised at just how strong silk is.   The factory showroom was an Aladdin's cave of exquisite silk products and many of our group bought items, at very reason prices, at the end of the tour.

Stretching a small silk cocoon to the size of a duvet

Spectacular floral display, People's Square

Before lunch we visited People's Square, central Shanghai,  to admire the spectacular plantings and enjoy the peaceful ambiance of the surrounding park. It is a popular spot for locals to perform Tai Chi or dance but was quiet when we were there in the middle of the day.

The square is the location of the Shanghai Museum, our destination for the afternoon.  Set in a stunning building designed to look like a ding, an ancient Chinese cooking vessel,  the museum, set over four levels, contains a comprehensive collection of Chinese art, ceramics, sculpture, furniture, jade, coins, calligraphy etc.  I love Chinese porcelain so particularly enjoyed that gallery. I was also fascinated by the elaborate, antique furniture in the furniture gallery and the display of traditional costumes from various parts of China.  It is an excellent museum, considered to be one of the best in China, and the perfect place to look at and learn about rare and precious Chinese antiquities.

Exquisite porcelain and national costumes at The Shanghai Museum

Late in the day we drove 50kms out of the city to visit Zhujiajiao, one of Shanghai's ancient water towns.  The village, home to only 300 families, is 1700 years old with many of its buildings dating from the Qing and Ming periods. 

Known as "The Venice of the East" it is a charming place, with weeping willows arching over the ancient trade canals and old houses nestled together along the alleys and canal banks.  It is like walking into one of those romantic paintings of old China. Unfortunately, its beauty has led to a massive influx of tourists, ourselves included!  

"Venice of the East", Zhujiajiao

When we arrived the village was crowded but nevertheless pleasant enough to stroll beside the canals, up and down the narrow alley ways and over some of the village's 36 stone, humped back bridges.  Our group was a pretty adventurous lot so managed to get off the main tourist paths at times and find quiet little corners to enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the place. In order to retain its character residents may alter the interior of their homes as much as they like but cannot alter the exterior.  Most of the lower floors of the two storey houses are given over to shops, food stalls and restaurants, selling everything from roasted scorpions and spiders, to more palatable, to my mind anyway, roast pork wrapped in leaves and duck.  As the day turned to dusk the town emptied out until it seemed there was just our group and the villagers left.  It was so peaceful beside the canals  as the sun dipped below the trees and the lanterns gradually come on,  their light shimmering in the water. We had dinner in the village followed by a very dreamy, step-back-in-time, canal side walk through this ancient village and back to our bus.

Zhujiajiao by night

What a great day, with plenty of time to reflect on what we had seen during the bus ride back to the hotel. 

Two more views of Zhujiajiao

Here are some things of note about Shanghai:

*Shanghai is China's most populated city with 25m residents

*The streets are very clean and there is no graffiti anywhere
*Billboards and advertising hoardings are relatively rare
*All the major roads around the city are adorned with colourful baskets of
Apartment buildings trimmed with lights
flowers attached to the safety railings
*Spectacular floral displays around the city are constructed from hundreds of   very small pot  plants
*It's smoggy but not every day
*They love lights, even  apartment buildings are elaborately decorated with lights
* And despite being officially an atheist country there were Christmas decorations  everywhere!

I really enjoyed Shanghai and would happily return at some stage but we were off to our next destination, Xian.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Shanghai, China, The Paris of the East, Day 1

 It has been 25 years since my husband and I visited Hong Kong and China so I thought it was about time I went and had another look. I was interested to see how much China had changed in the years since.  In 1993 we were aware that the UK would soon be returning the governance of Hong Kong to China and we wanted to see it before then because we were unsure of what its future would hold. 
In a Cantonese Village 1993
  China had only started to emerge from its self imposed isolation in 1978 and we were keen to see life there before the overwhelming influences of the outside world took hold.  At that time the streets were still thick with bicycles, millions and millions of bicycles, many people still wore  grey or navy blue Mao suits and my husband and I, both blue eyed blondes, were often trailed down the street by a crowd of people staring curiously at the weird foreigners. 

Canton 1993 - Mao suits and carrying baskets
That tour took us through the district of Canton, the closest part of China to Hong Kong, and although we traveled on a relatively modern bus the roads were so primitive and pot holed that, on one occasion, it took us a whole day to travel 40 miles. 

Chinese road workers in 1993. Their only tools, a pick, a shovel and old style wheelbarrows. Note they are wearing sandals.   No wonder the roads were bad.
It was a great trip and I was so pleased to have seen China at that point in its history. As it happened I returned to Hong Kong several times for work and found nothing much had changed after the hand over in 1997, it was still busy, buzzy, capitalist and exciting.

This year I wanted to see the changes in China, also to visit some of its iconic sights and tick them off my bucket list so  I joined a Wendy Wu tour which took me to three great cities, Shanghai, Xian and Beijing.

Joining a tour group is always interesting. You are a group of strangers thrown together to spend a lot of time sharing the same experiences. Our group numbered 29 and I can't believe how lucky we were to have such a great crew. Everyone got on well, everyone was interested and interesting and although subgroups of like minded people formed we were altogether a happy, harmonious group. 

Our Wendy Wu Tour Group at the City Square, Shanghai

TIP FOR SOLO TRAVELERS: take the plunge and join a tour group.   You will not feel like a loose wheel, there are always other singles and, in fact, our group consisted of 19 singles and only 5 couples.  It makes sightseeing fun to have others to share it with.

For some reason I had always wanted to visit Shanghai, I guess because it has featured in several novels I have read and carries an air of romance about it. It was the least Chinese of the cities we visited and, I would venture, probably the least Chinese of China.  As the country's financial centre it is a modern, cosmopolitan, affluent city with a population of around 25 million, also home to the worlds busiest container port. The British and French influences from the past are evident in the grand banks and hotels lining The Bund  so it is easy to imagine you are in Paris or London or any number of other European cities, in fact Shanghai is often referred to as "The Paris of the East". Turn around and look across the River Huangpu, though, and you are met with an astonishingly futuristic skyline.

Elegant buildings line The Bund

But first we were immersed in old world Shanghai during a visit to the magnificent Yu Garden.  Built in 1559  for the commissioner of Sichuan Province the garden covers two hectares and is a fine example of Chinese classical garden architecture, containing all the key features of a Chinese garden: stone, water, trees and architecture.  This is my kind of thing. I could have happily spent hours there although preferably when there were about 90% fewer people! It wasn't exactly tranquil. Outside the garden the modern world erupts with a Starbucks and a KFC prominently positioned in the very crowded adjoining square.

In the Yu Garden.  I managed some shots without the crowds!

Lunch was on a floating restaurant in the river overlooking a constantly changing view of  barges and river boats ferrying containers up from the port. Then we were off to the Shanghai Tower, one of three massive skyscrapers built in a cluster. The high speed elevator takes just 45 ear popping seconds to reach the 88th floor and then you are rewarded with an expansive view over the city, or you would be if the smog wasn't quite so dense. The most dramatic part was leaning over a light shaft through the centre of the building to view the lobby of the Grand Hyatt hotel 127metres below, not for the faint hearted!

Left: Shanghai from the Shanghai Tower.  It's a wee bit smoggy!

Right: looking down into the Grand Hyatt Lobby

Would we like a ride on the world's fastest train?  Would we ever! So next stop was the Maglev.  Driverless and computer controlled the train levitates above the track on powerful magnets. It reaches a top speed of 431 ks per hour and takes just 7 minutes 20 seconds to cover the 30kms to the airport, a journey that takes buses an hour.  It was a thrilling, exciting ride out to the airport and back. Two elderly American men sitting behind me spent the whole trip whooping with delight.

All this excitement!  It was time to calm down a little and take a gentle stroll along The Bund including a visit to the former HSBC Bank.  They don't build banks like that anymore!  Mosaic ceilings, marble pillars, gigantic lobbies, grandeur at every turn. The jaw dropping building is still a bank although no longer the HSBC.

   Marble pillars and mosaic ceilings

As the day turned to twilight we meandered leisurely, enjoying the scenery, the lights gradually coming on up and down the river and the crowds of locals enjoying a walk after work. I was fascinated by the elaborate walls of pot plants along the river bank making the perfect backdrop for wedding  couples having their photos taken.
This colourful wall is made up of very small individual pot plants

Our final activity for the day was a cruise on a river boat to view the magically lit waterfront of Shanghai.  It was the perfect end to a fantastic day of sightseeing. And tomorrow was another day.

You can view the cruise here:          (music - Dreaming by Wai Fat Chun)

Friday, 16 November 2018

Northern New Zealand Road Trip, part 2 - Kauri trees and pristine blue lakes

The beauty of going on a road trip, with no set plans, is that you can wake up in the morning and decide to go  wherever takes your fancy.  Doing it solo is no great hard ship, the downside is there is no one to share it with, the upside is the delicious  feeling of freedom that comes with having no one else to consider.

The mighty kauri tree
Bright and early in the morning I was back on the road again and this time heading to Trounson Kauri Park, 38ks north of Dargaville.  The kauri tree is a remarkable New Zealand native hardwood which can live for thousands of years.  They are precious to New Zealanders and although there were once a great many across the country, clearing of the land by settlers in the early days meant that there are few remaining now and those that do remain are mainly in bush reserves.  Like the Californian redwood they are an awe inspiring tree.  The most famous kauri in New Zealand is called Tane Mahuta it is located further north in the Waipoua Forest and is estimated to be between 1250 and 2500 years old. It is stunningly impressive with a girth of 15.44 metres and a height of 45 metres (148 feet)  Sadly many kauri are being attacked by a bacterial disease so preservation of them is more important than ever.  At the entrance to Trounson Kauri Park there is a shoe washing station to ensure no spread of disease and then once into the park there is an elevated boardwalk which takes you on a 1.7k walk through idyllic native bush and past magnificent kauri trees.  The boardwalk is in place to ensure the tree roots are not damaged or infected. I love being in New Zealand bush and must have looked a bit idiotic strolling through with a grin on my face enjoying the silence save for the calls of native birds, the sound of trickling streams and dappled by the sunlight shafting down through the trees and feathery ferns.

Trounson Kauri of my happy places
Unless you take a guided night tour through the park you are unlikely to see any of the 200 kiwi which make their home there.  I remember, years ago, a famous New Zealand pilot saying that being in a forest of tall trees was like being in a cathedral.  I agree, I always have the same feeling of awe and admiration for their splendour.  Going into an isolated forest park alone was probably not the wisest of decisions but there were no cars in the car park so I took the risk that it was unlikely I would meet anyone with ill intent and I also kept a watchful eye out. Fortunately, once again, there was not a soul around.

A spooky looking swamp near the Kai Iwi Lakes...I expected a monster to rise up!
Back in the car and off to my next destination, the Kai Iwi Lakes, 35ks from Dargaville and another new destination for me. The 3 lakes are famous for their crystal clear fresh water and their pure white sands and they are stunning. Long a popular camping holiday spot for New Zealand families the lakes are isolated and the perfect place for a get-away-from-it-all holiday where you can enjoy all types of water sports. I drove around the lakes, stopping at various spots to admire the view and take photos  The only people I saw were a young couple in a camper van who were leaving just as I arrived. Coming from New Zealand's largest city it had been really refreshing to visit so many places and have them all to myself.

Kai Iwi Lakes
It was overcast and breezy but beautiful all the same

Golden kauri gum with a centipede encased in it
Left: This kauri was germinated in the year 1100, Maori arrived in New Zealand in 1200, Abel Tasman discovered New Zealand in 1642. The tree was cut down in 1960

Day three of my road trip completed so next morning it was time to head back home to Auckland but first I had to complete my plan and visit the Kauri Museum at Matakohe on the way. I had heard this was a great museum and it certainly is, a couple of hours there just flew by.  The museum, as its name suggests, is mainly focused on the kauri tree, its milling, its uses and the collection of kauri gum which was a vital ingredient in the preparation of varnish and linoleum in years gone by.  There is also a focus on the social history of the area, the lives of the gum diggers and tree fellers and an impressive replica of a saw mill.  The museum displays the world's largest collection of kauri gum, a glorious honey coloured amber like substance, and some very fine examples of kauri furniture. You can also wander through a full sized, two storied boarding house built from kauri. I was so pleased I had finally got there, it was well worth the trip.
The replica saw mill at the Kauri Museum, Matakohe

The trip back to Auckland was through steady drizzle. The bad weather had waited until my trip was nearly over, lucky me! I had had a marvelous time and was fizzing with excitement about the places I'd been and the things I'd seen.  Road trips, with no set schedule, are so much fun, I am already wondering where  I can go for my next one.  I highly recommend them.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Road Trip Adventures in Northern New Zealand

It's great fun  to head off on a solo road trip, bubbling with that delicious feeling of freedom and filled with the anticipation of finding new places to explore.  Last week I was free of all my normal commitments so grabbed the opportunity and took to the road. I had an idea of where I was heading but was mainly just going to go with the flow and see where opportunities took me.  One place I had wanted to visit for years was the Kauri Museum, at Matakohe, so that was my only definite destination.

My first day was spent having a lovely long catch up and chat with my sister in law at the beautiful seaside town of Mangawhai Heads. Late afternoon I drove across country to the small town of Dargaville, stopping briefly at the village of Paparoa to admire a beautifully restored villa which the proud owner showed me through, the old country store and the grandiose bank building, now no longer in use. Banks were pretty important to small town life in years gone by.
The Paparoa Store, established in 1884

Those were the days, when banks were banks!  It seems very grand for a tiny village but would once have serviced farms and villages for miles around

 This was my first visit to Dargaville which lies on the Kaipara River, a fairly muddy looking river it has to be said, and the town is probably not the most exciting of places to visit.  Like many small towns in New Zealand it has a rather dismal main street with many empty shops and an air of decline about it. Nevertheless it has some pleasant residential areas, some lovely old villas and makes a perfect base to visit some beautiful places nearby.

Looking along the Kaipara River and the town of Dargaville

And looking south along the river from the Dargaville Museum
Verdant rolling countryside surrounds the town so on my first morning I went for a drive to explore it, getting quite lost but, in the spirit of going with the flow, loving it all the same.  I am not a fan of driving on unsealed roads however I soon found myself on one and decided to stay  on it for quite some time. Absolute bliss to be alone on the road entranced by the stunning views out to sea and the peaceful isolation of the farms along the way, a total contrast to life in the city.

A replica gum diggers hut at the Dargaville Museum
In the afternoon I visited  Dargaville Museum, a surprisingly good museum for such a small town. It is not well sign posted and can be hard to find but keep looking, it is worth the effort.  Located on a hill just outside the town it has commanding views over both the town and the river and is crammed with  plenty of items of interest, well displayed.  I highly recommend it.   The displays cover  the history and people of the area, stories of the gum diggers, ship wrecks and collections of all manner of things from thimbles, to bottles, to piano accordions.  Apart from the museum staff, I was alone, spending a good couple of hours there, thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to linger for as long as I liked. As it started to drizzle I headed back to my motel to relax and cook some dinner.  Note: There are very few places to eat out in Dargaville.

Kiwi on display at the museum

The next morning dawned fine and sunny, perfect weather to explore.  My first stop was at Bayly's Beach, ....north of Dargaville.  Bayly's Beach is part of the spectacular Ripiro Beach, an unbroken  107 kms, or 66 miles long, running down the west coast of the north island.  It is longer than the more famous, but incorrectly named, 90 Mile Beach. The beach is a designated road so 4 wheel drive vehicles are permitted to drive on it but must observe the usual road rules. You need to be careful, though, since many a car has become bogged in the damp sand. I don't have a 4 wheel drive so just parked near the beach and walked.  With high cliffs of lignite behind me, long breakers curling onto the shore, the wind blowing sand into eddys around me and nobody else on the beach as far as I could see, it was wild and wonderful. I sat in the dunes for quite some time mesmerised by the surf,  the sea, and the sea birds squabbling and calling to each other until it was time to go and explore some more of Northland which I will write about in my next post. So far it had been the perfect day on the road.

Above and below: The glorious Bayly's Beach...not a soul around, just me and the birds, paradise!

Thursday, 25 October 2018

The top 15 most read blog posts on A Wandering Widow Solo Travel

This is my 200th post on A Wandering Widow Solo Travel.  I find it hard to believe there have been so many, and this morning I got to thinking about what a fun journey it has been.  Not only has it been a brilliant motivator, making me get out, do things, see the world and meet people in order to have things to write about but I've had an absolute ball in the process. Travel has always been one of my greatest loves, and makes up most of my posts, but I have written about many other things besides, like gardening, sculpture, cooking and festivals, to name a few. It has given me great pleasure to relive my experiences in writing and, I have to admit, it gives me quite a thrill when I see it is being read in some remote corner of the world. I have lost count of the many different countries showing up in my blog statistics.

Writing up notes for my blog - Port Douglas, Australia
 A Wandering Widow Solo Travel has now reached close to 50,000 readings so I thought it would be fun to see which were my most read posts.  Here are the top 15 starting with the most read at the top. 6 of the 15 are about places in New Zealand, my stunning homeland.

If you are interested in any of these posts they can be found easily by typing the title in the search box at the top right hand side of the blog.

Art Deco in Napier
Oamaru - New Zealand's finest Victorian town  

Napier - the Art Deco capital of the world

Des Goupillieres - Troglodyte village, Loire Valley, France

The Giant's House Sculpture and Mosaic garden, Akaroa, New Zealand

Gibbs Farm, Kaipara Harbour, New Zealand - An art lover's dream

Flavigny Sur Ozerain...and Chocolat (France)

Tracing the Ancestors - Bradford on Avon, England 
Den Gamle By, Aarhus

Akaroa - New Zealand's only French village

Craft Beer - Smog City Brewing, Los Angeles

Saltaire - Yorkshire, England

The Ghan Adventure - a train trip through outback Australia

Den Gamle By - Aarhus, Denmark
The Ghan, Australia

Homestay on a Turkish Farm

Top Tips for Solo Travelers - Updated 
 ( this is the second post of tips)

Day Trip to Waitomo

They are just a small sample of the many and varied topics I have written about over the last few years.  There will be more adventures to come, I hope.

Meanwhile this is one of my favourite travel quotes and I think it is one all keen travelers can relate to: "Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote and I shall be happily infected until the end of my life"  Michael Palin

Happy travels, everyone!

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Rangitoto Island, Auckland, New Zealand - A Must Visit for a great mix of geology, botany, stunning views and social history

600 years ago the Maori living in Auckland must have been terrified when Rangitoto erupted for the last time. The great spurts and rivers of lava looked to them like flowing blood so they named it 'The day the blood of Tamatekapua was shed.' after  Tamatekapua, a chief from the Te Arawa tribe who had arrived in New Zealand around 1350 and been killed in battle near by.  Rangitoto had erupted several times before the Maori migration though, rising out of the sea floor as far back as 6000 years ago.  Now standing sentinel at the entrance to Auckland harbour it is an iconic, dormant volcano beloved by Aucklanders. It says 'Auckland' to everyone visiting the city and 'home' to Aucklanders returning. Although not considered to be extinct the possibility of it erupting again is slim. Rangitoto is 5.5km wide and 260 metres at it's highest point, interestingly it's conical shape looks the same, or almost the same, from which ever angle you view it.

Rangitoto Island
Despite living in Auckland all my life, and seeing Rangitoto on a daily basis, I had visited it on only a handful of occasions, the last time at least 20 years ago.  While my family from England were visiting recently my daughter-in-law took my grandson to the island for the day and came home thrilled and excited by what they had seen. This spurred me on to go for another visit myself.

It was a perfect morning as I drove to the city to catch the ferry
So last Saturday I was up at the crack of dawn to catch the 7.30am ferry to the island, about a 35 minute trip. It was the most perfect of spring days, calm and sunny with the water smooth and reflective.  Once on the island I set off straight away on the 2 and a half kilometre climb to the top. The path is well marked, sloping upwards all the way but not arduous, at a steady pace it takes around an hour to get to the summit. At this early hour of the day there weren't many people around and most of the time I was alone on the path which was pleasingly peaceful and gave me time to just enjoy and observe without distractions.

Left: The path to the summit

Right: Ancient lava flow still looks recent

Rangitoto is a fascinating place, the fields of exposed black lava  still look surprisingly fresh even after 600 years.  Despite the fact that the island is composed of volcanic rock, air borne dust and leaf matter have settled over hundreds of years to enable 200 species of plants to grow and thrive, relying solely on rain for their water.  Rangitoto is home to the world's largest pohutakawa forest, pohutakawa are known as the New Zealand Christmas tree for their red flowers which cover them at Christmas time. There are rata, wild orchids, a kowhai grove where the native tui get drunk on the flowers' sweet nectar, and even, strangely, alpine moss.  
Plants establishing themselves in the lava fields.  
It is interesting how plants adapt to different environments, even mangroves, which normally grow in mud, can be seen growing on the volcanic rock at the water's edge.

One thing I noted was how few birds were on the island, the reason being that there is little food and no fresh water source.  I did however spot some tui, a fantail and  sea gulls. The island is also predator free.
What a view!
At the summit of Rangitoto I spent some time admiring the expansive view of Auckland and surrounds, enjoying the perfect day and reluctant to leave.  Eventually I set off again taking the detour 200 metres down the mountain to explore the lava caves. These are tubes formed when molten lava cooled forming a crust while hot liquid lava continued to flow underneath.  Visitors can walk through the caves however do bring a torch or cell phone to light your way...they are very dark. The landscape around the caves is primeval and magical.

Left: A view through one cave and into another

Right: Moss and gnarled roots surround the caves

Back at the base of the mountain I took a walk along the coastal  path to look at the historic baches.  A bach is the New Zealand term for a simple holiday home and comes from a time when single men, or bachelors, were housed in small, plain accommodation huts at forestry and mining sites. In the 1920s and 30s around 140 baches were built along the shore line of Rangitoto on leased land. There were a number of permanent residents on the island although many of the baches were used as holiday homes and fishing retreats.  
Bach #38 open to the public on some summer Saturdays - note the volcanic coastline
When the leases ran out in the 1970s and 80s it was decided by the government not to renew them and to demolish most of the baches to preserve the integrity of the island,  now only 35 remain, protected with  heritage status.  Back in the 1930s it was a lively little community where dances and parties were held on long summer nights, now it is sleepy and sparsely populated, a quiet echo of times gone by.  In this age of ever increasingly stylish and grand holiday homes they are a nostalgic reminder of the holiday homes I stayed in as a child.  Bach number 38 was built in 1937 to house the island's first caretaker and is open to the public on some Saturdays through summer. It is well worth a look as an example of a simpler life.
Inside Bach #38 and the old cooker still works well

 Then it was back on the ferry to return to Auckland. I was thrilled with my day on Rangitoto and won't leave it so long before I go back again.  I suppose it is the old story of taking things for granted when you see them every day so I would encourage everyone, Aucklanders, New Zealanders and tourists alike to get over to Rangitoto for a close look at a truly fascinating island.

Note:  For those less able there is a 4 wheel drive road train, with a full commentary, to take you to the summit.

There are no shops on the island so you must take all refreshments with you and take all rubbish home