Tag Archives: small town

Shant-outings*

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*Thanks to Joshua for the oh-so-punny title

As mentioned previously, Shantou is tucked into the coastline of the South China Sea, making it the perfect jumping off point for day trips to the numerous surrounding islands. On our first weekend in China, myself and the other Canadian exchange students took the ferry for 1 yuan (~20 cents) across the Shantou Harbour and landed on the idyllic shores of Queshi island. We were greeted by a woman expertly dissecting pineapples with a machete and neatly skewering the slices onto long skewers. An entire pineapple for 7¥ ($1.5) seemed a reasonable price to pay for a snack as we walked along the island’s meandering paths.

View of Queshi from the Shantou side of the sea

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Our goal was the pagoda we had seen every morning we walked along our side of the harbour. On our way up the mountain, we explored a series of naturally formed granite caverns with such enchanting names as “Rainbow Lying Cave,” “Happy Fate Cave,” “God’s Shoe,” “The Platform for Watching Sight of Flame Mount,” and “Three-Tier Cave Toilet” (on second thought, maybe that last one was 2 separate stops…)

View of Shantou from the Queshi side of the sea! 

Terrifyingly steep steps into the caves!

Lovely lunchtime stop
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Giant Buddha (only after an entire photo sesh with G.B. did we realise we had been sitting in front of a sign that read, in Chinese, that pictures cost 2¥ each… and consequently a terrifying encounter with the giant security guard ensued)

After eating lunch in the pagoda at the mountain peak and paying our respects to giant Buddha back down on the ground, we headed back to the ferry. Before we had even landed back on mainland, we were already receiving WeChats from our host students, inviting us out for an evening of quintessential Chinese cultural fun: KTV.

KTV (aka karaoke) is more than just a past time in China… it’s practically an art form. Whole streets are lined with massive KTV buildings, each hosting a multitude of private rooms where groups can order food & drinks and custom-create a karaoke setlist of K-Pop and the newest Swifty singles. At KTV, the most stoic and shy of students suddenly comes into their own and discovers their latent pop stardom, belting out sexy ballads with no restraint or reserve whatsoever!

Post-KTV, we were up bright and early to board the bus taking us to a village about 2 hours from Shantou. Interestingly enough for a self-declared Communist country, healthcare is not publicly funded in China, and therefore many citizens cannot afford basic medications or even a simple doctor’s visit. Thanks to Guangdong-born Hong Kong billionaire philanthropist, the Li Ka-Shing foundation has instituted numerous charitable works to address health inequities across the country, including the one we were participating in that morning – Medical Aid for the Poor (MAP). Once a month, MAP physicians set up free clinics in villages near Shantou, providing free medications, blood pressure readings, and specialist consults. They also provide home visits for any rural citizens unable to transport themselves to the clinic.

My lunch at MAP won the honour of being the most interesting food I have ever eaten to date: I was so proud of myself initially for trying what I was convinced was liver, since I had never had that before. But when I checked in with my Chinese friend, she blithely corrected me: “Oh no, those are blood clots. Maybe pig? Probably dog.”

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Home visits & tour of the village temple

Since we were spending so much time in “small town” China (remember that Shantou’s population is a mere 5 million), we thought we should grab the chance to see big city China at its most iconic: Hong Kong.

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For being so close to Shantou, it was a headache and a half to actually make our way to HKSAR. A chartered car, a bullet train, a subway, a walk through two sets of customs, and another subway later, we were finally in our Hong Kong home for the weekend – an itty bitty hostel room on the 14th floor. The rule was that some part of each person had to be touching their bunk at all times, otherwise there was not enough space for us all in the room!

Hong Kong had some noteworthy features: milk tea, pork floss toast, the mind-blowing bus ride up to Victoria Peak (call me small town, but I have never seen buildings rising up higher than the surrounding mountains!!), and the hilarious experience of finding our way up to the “Highest Bar in the World” and negotiating with the hostesses and fellow patrons for rented pants so our male compatriots could actually enter the bar (because apparently, while shorts are incredibly offensive and inappropriate, ankle-skimming polyester gems passed around to 3 different gentleman in 1 hour are far, far more acceptable). However, in general, I do not feel the need to go back to HKSAR. I feel so privileged to have spent the majority of my time in “small town” China that actually felt unique, and not simply like a crowded version of any forgettable kitschy American town.

Buildings, buildings everywhere…

The day after arriving back in Shantou from HKSAR, we were again packed into a bus, this time to trek several hours to Nan’ao island, where we spent a lazy day hiking up to yet more pagodas, watching our bus driver carve roast chicken with his bare hands, and getting yelled at by locals for daring to swim in the ocean (apparently, that’s just not done).

All in all, our Shant”outings” made an already memorable exchange even more extraordinary. And after three weeks of this, I still had a week of true holidays left…
(To be continued!)

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Piccolo Città, Grand Impression

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While I’ve always considered myself a city person (I’ve never quite recovered from my first year of college, which was spent living in dorm in a pig farming community where the “nightlife” consisted of going to the Timmy’s in Steinbach), I’ve never loved big cities. I guess my small village/farming ancestry goes too deep to be ever completely rooted out of my system. Traveling has convinced me and Josh that we prefer to pay homage to cities for a day, but then escape again to small towns or even smaller communities. A city has never been as beautiful, as engaging, or as connected to me as nature is.

Which was why I was astonished when the city of Florence first took my breath away, and then captured my heart.

Florence is a piccolo grande città, a little big city. It is the ancient stronghold of the Medici family, the great patrons of the Renaissance who supported (politically and financially) the careers of the artists, scientists, theologians, economists, and architects who inspired a new culture of awareness and knowledge (read more about the House of Medici). Modern beliefs of science nerds being “uncool” would have been laughable during this time: a classy night out included demonstrations of scientific principles (such as the “electric soirées” that literally shocked attendees), and scientific instruments were symbols of culture and social status. Are you starting to see why I love the Renaissance?

High society essentials: The barometer walking stick and the “Lady’s telescope” (equipped with an ivory cosmetic box)
High society essentials

This revolutionary perspective of treating science and art with equal reverence has created in Florence an incomparable tapestry of elegance and innovation that is visible even today in the graceful lines of the bridges, the talent of the street musicians, and the overwhelming number of geniuses and inventions birthed in this duchy (including Donatello, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, and Dante, to name just a few).

Galileo’s finger and thumb at the Museo de Galileo:
Galileo digits... ?!

The beauty of the first thermometers, invented by scientists and crafted by artisans:
Science & art fusion

We arrived in Florence and commenced the quest of tracking down our hostel. Josh is a travel agent extraordinaire, and put the wifi in his Gillam apartment to good use by finding us the absolute cheapest accommodations in the absolute best locations. However, these accommodations are generally not the ones known by information booths, so we are usually left to our own crafty devices in tracking them down. At first, we thought our Florence quest would be the most straightforward yet – we made our way directly to the street, traced the numbers down… and found ourselves at the entrance to a 4-star hotel. While I wanted to trust Josh’s travel agent prowess, I was a bit skeptical that two scruffy backpackers would even be allowed in the lobby of such a place, let alone afford to spend a week there. One bemused conversation with the receptionist and several phone calls later, the mystery was solved, kind of. Our hostel was not actually a hostel, but a dorm room in a language school located in the same building as the hotel.

Silly us, why didn’t we think to look for our room here?
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Clean and spacious, with lovely staff and an incredible location, Iris Florentina, aka Sprachcaffe Language School, was by far the most amazing place we have stayed. Our only complaint is that we didn’t know it was a language school, otherwise we would have absolutely stayed longer and taken an Italian language course!

Walking a mere five minutes around the corner brought us to il Duomo, a gorgeous Florence cathedral containing the largest masonry dome on earth.

il Duomo

Five minutes around the other corner brought us to Ponte Vecchio, the “Old Bridge,” the only bridge in Florence to survive the WWII bombing raids. It is also the only bridge to contain not only houses and shops, but also a secret passageway built in 1565 above the shops on the bridge. The Corridoio Vasariano (Vasari Corridor) allowed the Medici family to safely travel from the Uffizi to the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the river Arno without running into any of their subjects. It also connected to the private Medici balcony entrance of their church, Santa Felicita, one of the oldest churches in Florence.

Ponte Vecchio

Buena sera, Ponte Vecchio

We learned about this and other gems of Florentine history from Pierro, an elderly gentleman who saw us trying to take a selfie on Vecchio and offered to take our picture. He then began enumerating points of interest and the history behind them, keeping us mesmerized by his stories for the next half hour. “This is my city and I love my city!” he declared, and this love was evident in the passion and generosity with which he shared his city with us, two strangers. Florence became alive to us through Pierro’s stories. Both the beautiful, as he proudly gestured to the green cradle of hills surrounding the city that prevented urban sprawl, and the terrible. As he pointed out the Corridoio Vasariano, I jumped in with a tidbit I had heard about treasures being hid in that same passageway to protect them from the WWII bombing. Suddenly, Pierro’s face went grim. “The war… That is a different story, a terrible story.” For Pierro was there during the bombing, a child who remembered only the terrible fear of the bombs and the Nazi soldiers who filled his lovely town.

As the sun was setting, Pierro sketched out our route for the rest of the day (“You must go to this church, it is 1000 years old, and the maker of Pinocchio is buried there!”) and gave us a handshake goodbye, which quickly turned to exuberant kisses on both cheeks for both of us. His obvious delight at finding people who wanted to love his city as much as he did was only matched by our delight at finding someone willing to let us see their beloved home through their eyes, which, after all, was our whole hope for this trip .

Enchanting San Miniato al Monte cemetery:
View from San Miniato

Piazzale Michelangelo offers the most breathtaking views of the city:
Piazzale Michelangelo

Pontes from the Piazzale

Pierro’s Firenze, cradled by hills:
Florence's high green hills

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And then a different part of Florence that equally took our breath away: The Food.

Beauty for the tastebuds

Cappuccini at the Porta Romana

Shout out to Kaya: We thank you, from the bottom of our stomachs, for introducing us to this place.

Mouth-watering foccace (porcheta and black truffle cream, where have you been all my life?) and €2 self-serve wine… Yes, we went back two days in a row.
Porcheta, tartufo, and €2 wine... Wha?!