An unexpected morning shift before my days off last week afforded me the chance of a short midweek city break and having heard many good things from both numerous friends and Leightonliterature.com, and with it being under 2 hours away, I decided to jump on the train & head North to the city of Ningbo.
Usually a jumping off point for those heading to the tourist-friendly Zhoushan island or on their way to Shanghai, Ningbo has more than enough to keep you entertained for a few days (especially if you’re living in the culinary wasteland that is Rui’an) Heading straight to the station from work, I made it to the hotel just in time to go for a quick swim in the ‘hotel’ pool (which wasn’t the hotel’s pool, but a leisure centre which just happened to share the same building, meaning it was much busier that I would have liked) before heading out for what would prove to be the first of two curries at Ganesha Indian restaurant just opposite Yuehu (half-moon) park. Not only is the food tasty and reasonably priced, but the service is excellent (between 7-10pm they’ll even get you a free cab to anywhere within about 10km of the restaurant after your meal, free of charge! Perfect if your planning on hitting Laowaitan after eating. More on that later) As it was, after work, the train journey, the swim and the meal I was spent for the day so just headed back to the hotel & crashed out.
I made an early start the following morning, not as well rested as I’d have liked but I had a long list of sites to hit so I nipped down and poked around briefly at the very disappointing hotel breakfast options (I went with toast, followed by more toast) and some ‘juice’. I say juice, it was so weak that I think it was water that had just been shown an orange once. A picture of an orange. From a distance. At night.
Still, the weather was great so after a brief, unscheduled nap back in the hotel room while I was making a coffee (there was none at breakfast) I headed out & towards Yuehu park. The largest park in Ningbo, Yuehu park is split in two halves and littered with restored historical buildings which were all restored and refurbished in 1998, the park is a great spot for a nice stroll when negotiating your way around the city centre. Sadly my mini-sleep meant the buildings were closed once I got there (opening times for all the buildings in the park are a restrictive 9:00-11:30am & 1:30-4:00pm) which made seeing the interior of all the sites there pretty much impossible without planning your day around it. I took a slow stroll around the North half of the park while making towards Ningbo’s major highlight, the restored ancient library of Qin Shi Zhi Ci, contained inside the Museum complex at Tianyige (not to be confused with Tianyige Square further north) If you’re looking for information on the park or Ningbo generally I can’t recommend the tourism office based in Tianyige highly enough! Not only did the woman there speak excellent English, she was so overtly helpful it actually became a little awkward as I struggled to carry collection of books & leaflets she furnished me with and kept up her barrage of questions while I was trying to leave. Still, an excellent resource for English language guides & maps 🙂
I paid my 30RMB admission fee ($4.70 3.40) and made my way into the walled complex. It’s a beautiful spot, a maze of shady courtyards, carved wooden archways, interesting exhibitions and with the ‘centrepiece’ theatre stage. The main function of the complex served as a library served by a family that dedicated themselves to acquiring and looking after precious books and texts for generations before the emperor got wind and ordered they hand them over to the kingdom. There are still two huge storerooms on site preserving these texts in specially designed temperature and humidity controlled conditions, and once a year all the books are removed for the annual ‘book drying’ when they are dried in the sun & cleaned / checked for damage (a process so important they have a statue dedicated to it!)
After around 2 hours exploring the various nooks and crannies dotted around the site (although you could easily spend longer) I made my way North towards the drum tower and Gulou pedestrian st. Sadly the drum tower was closed for refurb so not only could I not go up to admire the views across the pedestrian street rooftops, I couldn’t even see the tower as it was surrounded by scaffolding & green netting. Although the disappointment was tempered somewhat by the walking street. Pedestrian zones are rare in China, especially as the relationship between the road and the pavement is very much ‘fluid’ and so in the cities where they do pop up, they’re always busy and they’re generally crammed with food and snack stalls selling all-things Chinese (dumplings you drink filled with stuff made from crabs, sweet drinks with a layer of salty ‘cheese’ on top and all sort of mad-shit-on-a-stick) As it was, I settled on a McDonald’s (Don’t judge me, we don’t have one in Rui’an so it’s a rare treat)
The walking street leads conveniently into one of the smaller but certainly livelier parks in the city! The approach to Zhong Shan Square is an auditory assault, with collections of elderly singers and musicians knocking out some classic old-school traditional ‘tunes’ generally accompanied by one or more people playing the Erhu (a Chinese two-stringed fiddle) While I always enjoy a good live music performance, the musicians are all wedged in so close together that all you get is a cacophony of distorted sound. To my ear, it sounded bloody awful! However there were decent sized crowds around most of the musicians so there must be some way to ‘filter out’ the background noise which comes with experience (or maybe it was supposed to sound like that?)
Within earshot of the square choc-full of musicians is another, larger area, choc full of people playing either cards or mahjong. Almost every available bench, chair, table, staircase or rock is surrounded by (again, generally older) people playing cards. I’ve no idea what the game was but based on some observations I think you get extra points for flinging down your card as hard as you. That or there were a fair amount of bad losers in attendance that afternoon. Although not as popular asd the musicians, each table had a handful of observers keenly monitoring the progress (I’ve no idea if this is a form of evading the Chinese ban on gambling but I didn’t see any money change hands, the players who were keeping score generally did so with coloured matchsticks. The park also houses the Zhang Cangshui memorial hall, his former residence. Containing a brief history of the 17th C military general (who was from the city) It’s an interesting stop-off, if not least because the imposing armoured statue outside contrasts so drastically with his appearing to have sucked pretty badly; there’s no mention of him ever winning a battle and he was executed in his forties. In his defence, on being marched into the his execution ground in the mountains his last words are said to have been ‘nice landscape’ Maybe that’s why he got a memorial.
The lush grass verges framing the winding path leading around the outside of the house are scattered statues depicting various families & children at play, which is ironic as you’re not actually allowed on the grass (I saw one woman try to sit her child by a statue for a picture and she was promptly shooed away by one of the whistle-happy jobsworth security guards which litter so all Chinese parks and tourist attractions) This path then takes you to the, again quite busy, Zhongshan Square. Dominated by the walkway leading to an imposing statue at one end, the square was full of that mainstay of Chinese parks; elderly people dancing en-mass. It’s an unusual sight to Western eye’s but happens in almost every square in China every night. From what I can gather, doing things en-mass and in synchronicity is inherent in Chinese culture, and park dancing is no different. There’s no freestyle expression of self to the rhythm; is all about doing the same as everyone else, at the same time. Think Asian line dancing. Also, these sessions are usually to music that contrasts wildly to the dance and the participants. Today’s backing was a dance remix of ‘Old Lang Syne’. While I thought it was bizarre, those involved were clearly enjoying themselves so more power to them. The sun was setting at this point so I made my way back to the hotel for a rest and a shower before heading out once again for the evening.
My first stop for the evening, Tianyi Square (not to be confused with Tianyi where the museum is) Tianyi Square is East of half moon park and represents an absolute shrine to the worst kind of consumerism. Packed to the rafters with the sort of overpriced, logo-driven stores that I make a point of trying to avoid (think Prada, Apple, Armani etc) I cut through as it was en-route to my destination for the evening but also as the square offers a lot more than awful shops. Completed in 2002, Tianyi Square also serves as a public art space, winning an award for best public art construction in 2003 and hosting multiple sculptures, Asia’s highest musical fountain (40ft) and a 20 metres (66 feet) high by 60 metres (200 feet) wide ‘water screen’ on which movies can be watched. There are also a host of Asian and Western resteraunts and although Burger King was tempting, I already had my dining option for the night planned out. The North-East exit of the square leads to the bridge crossing the Yuyao river, taking you to Laowaitan.
Allow me to explain the significance of the name. ‘Laowai’ is the Mandarin word for foreigner. There’s not a day goes by you don’t hear this when walking in the street, accompanied by a child (although often an adult) pointing you out to a parent or a companion. Were we to stop in the street in the UK and just point while shouting ‘CHINEEEEESE’ we’d be rightly derided for it. Uunfortunately living in small-town China it’s just part of the ‘experience’. Anyway, I digress. ‘Laowaitan’ sounds like ‘Lao Wai Town’ and so this is effectively what is has become. An extensive site North of where the river forks, Laowaitan is packed full of pars, pubs and resteraunts. As soon as I crossed the bridge and reached the head of the first street I was reminded of one of the most distinctive areas of my last haunt, Dublin; Temple Bar. Laowaitan is basically Ningbo’s Temple Bar. Cobbled streets lined with bars, a festival of neon and each one and Guinness / Budwiser / Live music signs everywhere you look. Pleasingly, almost every bar had some live music with proper actual bands and musicians. One of the larger bars, the chain-pub Eudora Station, even had a Laowai band playing (which is unheard of!) I strolled around, taking in the atmosphere and noting the similarities with its spiritual Dublin partner 9505 kilometers (5906 miles) away although I didn’t nip into any of the considerable number of bar options a I already had my target location. Recommended by multiple friends and by tripadvisor, after 10 minutes or so wandering I found it; Uncle Bruce’s American bar & grill.
Smaller, but also much busier than most of the places I’d passed, it was a little haven to the West. I grabbed a sat at the otherwise unoccupied bar and ordered a Hoegarden & the house special, the ultimate burger (I want to stress that I’m not averse to Chinese food or culture. Quite the opposite; I’m immersed in it almost 24/7, especially so at work. This is why I seek out the little home comforts on the occasions I travelling to other cities, that’s the only time they become available!) Two pretty blond English girls sat at a table to my left discussing the trials and tribulations of being pretty blond English girls in China, a large table of Spaniards were holding court behind me and a large, brash, overly confident young American was lecturing the older, also-American landlord on how to make moonshine (the landlord had a weary ffs-not-this-again look on his face as the young man announced his ‘grandaddy makes the best moonshine in the world’) It’s difficult to explain but I took comfort in the familiar while simultaneously being reminded why I was keen to get out and experience other countries and cultures in the first place! An emotional juxtaposition that I can’t really reconcile myself with, hence my inability to clearly express it here. I’ll reflect on this more another time. I was unaware of it at the time as my attention belonged to the silent TV showing clips form a European sketch show I didn’t recognise and the big dirty burger I’d been craving since I saw a picture of it online. The cab ride back to the hotel saw me exhausted but full and very satisfied.
Keen to avoid another chair-sleeping incident (and as I was in no rush to make it to breakfast after the previous days farce) I had a lie-in then slowly made my way to a cafe / coffee shop around the corner which Leighton had recommended. The creatively titled ‘cafe and resteraunt’ is located opposite the North-East side of Half-moon park and while the menu is limited to salad, pasta or one of the two brunch options, it’s very good. The ironically named all-day brunch (ironic as I was initially ((confusingly)) 20 mins too early to order it) went down a treat with a frothy cappuccino and set me up nicely for another days exploring. My first port of call was to be one of the cities cultural ‘showpieces’, the ‘City God’ temple. With a raft of streets, parks, a shopping centre and it’s won metro stop I was expecting big things.
Sadly, the only ‘big thing’ I got to see was the big fence around the temples gutted shell. Like the drum tower the day before, it was currently undergoing extensive renovation and so was closed. Fail. Obviously worship can’t stop just for a few building works so the shrine which would normally occupy the temple was now in the foyer of the shopping centre around the corner, providing the unusual spectical of people making offerings & burning incense before hurrying off to finish stocking-up “oh gracious City-God, grand me peace, courage and wisdom and convince Primark accept this refund without a receipt…”
Around the corner from the ‘God’s-R-Us’ complex and the stripped-out temple is the ‘Tianfeng Tower’ pagoda. An imposing 7-storey red & black structure located just behind the Sun God temple, it’s difficult to miss (and thanks to the network of roads and trees around it, also difficult to photograph) The small park around its base had clearly seen better days but proved pleasant enough for the smattering of elderly Chinese men sitting talking about whatever elderly Chinese men talk about (Did you eat? Have you drunk any hot water in the last 10 minutes? Is your daughter married yet? etc) I’d been warned off trying to climb the interior of the tower in advance given it’s exceptionally narrow staircases and this was clearly a view shared by the ticket issuer who rushed out flailing his arms about in a ‘no, no, no’ sort of way before pointing at my arse. The view from the top is unexceptional anyway, offering a panoramic of the ring road and a building site temple so I didn’t try to argue the point.
After a quick coffee at the throughly pleasant ‘Half-full’ cafe across the road (it’s directly behind the bronze lillypad sculpture should you ever find yourself visiting) I started off south with the intent of making my way to Nantang old street, however I’d hardly gone 200 meters before I spotted a cluster of bronze statues and an opening to another pedestrian zone. On further investigation, I found I’d stumbled on ‘Moonlake Flourishing Garden’, a preservation area which combined a few sites of historical importance with far more shops, cafe’s boutiques and bars (including the obligatory Starbucks, the only Papa John’s I’ve seen so far in China, and ‘Evolution’ vodka bar which looked suspiciously like a well known chain of vodka bars in the UK with a very similar ((prefix it with an ‘R’)) but maybe that’s not allowed as a business name over here name) Theres also a tribute to the man who is credited with inventing Mahjong as well as the (sadly closed when I was there) Lingying temple. It proved an interesting distraction and a pleasent enough detour but it’s not somewhere I’d spend time seeking out had I known about it. The south exit dropped me back on my original path and I carried on towards Nantang.
Being a 25-30 min walk away from the main centre and the other attractions, I wasn’t sure if I’d find time to get to Nantang Old Street so I made some arrangements to stay an extra night in the hotel and get the early train back; so far as I knew I wasn’t at work until 1pm so had plenty of time. This gave me the evening back and the opportunity to explore Nantang at my leisure and (Ningbo exploration-wise at least) turned out to be a good call. Based around two long streets which run alongside the river, Nantang Old street (another pedestrian area) is absolutely choc full of literally hundreds of food, drink and snack stalls as well as restaurants, coffee shops, boutiques, gift shops, cafes and even a well-hidden hotel. These are all housed in a collection of refurbished and rebuilt 100 year old Chinese two-storey buildings, complete with slab stone construction, tiled rooftops and intricately carved, sculptured wooden doorways housing warrens of little shops and jewellers. I even bumped into the Monkey King! All-in-all, a few hours well-spent, wandering the alleyways, browsing the shops and marvelling at the various food offerings; some delicious (like the giant waffle & mango ice cream) and some less so (earthworms on a stick anyone?)
I made my way back towards half-moon park, picking up the path that runs around it at the southern-most tip, the very pleasant but mid-renovation ‘moon-alter’ featuring the 5m tall ‘moon God’ statue. sadly the renovation work stopped me walking the full course around the park over the term of my visit but what I did see, I liked. On my way back up to the hotel I made it into another of the parks sporadically open buildings, the ‘Haishu Yeuhu Museum of Fine Art’ A small one-storey building that was half-empty for reasons I wasn’t able to establish, the art was predominately displayed on the scroll-style wall hangs so synonymous with China which I enjoyed. I also picked up two packs of printed postcards with artworks displaying Ningbo’s main historical sites as a nice easy-to-transport memento of my time there. A fitting way to end a relaxing few days (alongside squeezing in another curry that evening at Ganesha)