November in China: Tangshan Hotsprings

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No pictures this post. You’ll figure out why in a bit.

After Nanjing, we headed to the hotsprings at nearby Tangshan (literally: soup mountain; I think tang could also be an old-fashioned term for hot water). When Nanjing was a capital, Tangshan was highly regarded for a place to take the waters. Apparently one of the Soong sisters, most likely Ching-ling, liked going there so much she commissioned a special road to lead there from Nanjing.

The town itself was the usual dusty nondescript so typical of minor Chinese townships. The only difference was the numerous spa resorts dotting the area. Ours was the Yishang Spring Resort, consisting of a hotel complex complete with restaurant and spa park.

At the reception, we were issued with a bead bracelet that also had an electronic locker tag. Then we were ushered to the spa park entrance that had turnstiles quite like those at amusement parks! Here was where Mum and I said bye to Dad and we separated into male and female locker rooms. We were issued with ugly mass-produced rubber slippers and tacky Hawaiian-motif happy coats. A friendly attendant grabbed us firmly by the elbow in case we slipped on the wet floor and walked us into the massive (this is China, remember?) locker room to locate our lockers.  She instructed us to change into our bathing suits and then proceed to the shower rooms for a rinse before entering the park proper.

Before entering the showers, we had to run the gauntlet of more attendants who checked if patrons were going in or out and made sure that each person was sufficient hosed down before getting a towel to proceed inside! Coming out of the park was worse, they wouldn’t give out towels till after the shower! Mum was aghast when she saw naked locals coming out from the shower dripping so that one of the attendants would wrap them in a fresh towel. She made sure to ask for a towel before going in to shower and spoke in English when they threatened to be uncooperative.

There were lots of different pools in the spa park. Most of them were hot pools. On the periphery were pools of spa water of varying temperatures, as stated on little wooden boards above. You could start from 32ºC all the way up to 45ºC. Another area had some roman-style dry baths where people could sit on the heated marble floor between a series of partitions along a marble wall. With such cold weather, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to sit on heated marble out in the semi-open.

There was also a heated swimming pool, though no one swam in it and also an area for getting buried in hot sand. Extra was charged for the privilege of being buried alive. Mum and I went past all these and quickly jumped into one of the 32ºC pools before we froze to death from exposure. I wanted to go straight into a 45ºC one but Mum stopped me. You have to start cooler lest you overheat!

Preliminary soak over, we proceeded inside to explore further. There was so much more! One of the highlights was a heated pool filled with lots of little nibbling fish. The trick is to find a spot to sit comfortably and where you’re covered to the chin and stay absolutely still. The fish would then come over and nibble on toes, knees and elbows . The first nip was startling and we could immediately spot the newbies from their tickled yelps and screeches. Soon I got used to it and was trying to figure out how to get more fish to turn up and also how to get them to nibble  on my fingers. None did no matter how hard I tried.

This place was pretty upmarket, with lots of little services. Waiters would serve soft drinks in plastic cups directly to people soaking in the pools. It got pretty gross when the kids would then proceed on to use the cups to catch fish. Whenever someone hacked and showed the slightest hint of spitting, we’d immediately exit and move on.

Other pools in the area had lots of exotic brews. There were pools of red wine, chrysanthemum, rose,lemon, lemongrass and pomelo-flavoured soaks. Of course there were also lots more flavours I hadn’t even seen before. It was great to pick one, lie in there for a while, feel too cool, pick a warmer one and then get too hot. After soaking for about half an hour, Mum and I would then go to an indoor area for complimentary flower tea. We’d towel off and sit for a while, watching incredulously as groups of men would sit around playing cards and smoking cigarettes (again provided free). Cigarette in mouth, they’d grab another one from the box and stick it behind their ears for later. Odd, but part of the spa experience.

If we were tired from the repeated raisin treatment, we could go inside to the clubhouse. Here there was an area full of rows and rows of soft sofas, all (surprise, surprise!) facing a TV playing the latest Chinese soaps. If not for the TV, it would be a quiet rest room. Once coming in, you could have a nap, get a foot massage or pedicure  (extra charges) or just read a book and have some refreshments. This is how people spend days there!

The best part of the spa was going there after dark. I remember lazing in one of the faux-rock pools looking up at the dark sky. I felt warm from the water, yet my face was cool from the early winter air. I was on holiday. It was the best feeling in the world.

November in China: Nanjing’s Zijing Shan

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In the grounds of the Sun Yat-sen Memorial, there lies the Open Air Music Hall. It’s a charming garden where tourists go to relax and not feel like they have to do any serious work appreciating historical figures. Here, there is just a fountain, patches of grass and space to sit around and enjoy the white pigeons.


This being China, lots of vendors were on hand selling grain for the birds. Crowds of feathery white surrounded the ones who splurged the most on pigeon food!


The feathery fellas were quite fearless and of course their feeders were quite happy to be clambered upon.


Of course, there was much photo-taking to be done and many poses  and rigid smiles all round.


Mum didn’t fancy it much: she was worried about bird flu.

November in China: Nanjing and Sun Yat-sen’s Memorial

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Nanjing proper is another one of those modern second tier cities with too many new buildings sprouting towards the sky. The sameness coincided with the dull weather. Aside from a little morning adventure in the side streets searching for local breakfast (the biggest bowl of noodles in beef broth I’ve never finished and some odd little tandoor pastries), there wasn’t much to Nanjing city. Most of its sad history has been buried in the pilings of the new skyscrapers.

After a visit to the very credible (and free in 2008!) Nanjing Museum, we headed out to Zijing Shan (literally: purple gold mountain) to visit Sun Yat-sen’s Mausoleum and Memorial. Sun Yat-sen was one of the fathers of the revolution against the Qing Dynasty and highly revered by both China and Taiwan. The first notable sight of the Memorial is the Bo Ai Gate (literally: love for humanity). It being a weekend, there was no escaping the tourist horde that we were a part of. I amused myself by taking pictures of people taking pictures. It was fun to see how everyone posed in exactly the same way exactly the same distance away from the gate!


Going past the gate, we entered the massive complex and climbed up the many steps. Apparently the number of steps matched the number of county-level cities in China at the time of construction. How did I know? I eavesdropped on the local guides taking groups around! There were so many of them going past with their matching caps. There’d be a horde of red caps, then fluorescent green, then yellow. Now I wish I got a snap of them.


Right at the top was the Mausoleum. I’m not sure if Sun Yat-sen’s body was really inside. Still, the done thing was to join the milling crowds and go in whenever the guard outside whistled the next group in. It was all as orderly as China got, and very Communist. People stared at me for taking this shot. I felt quite the paparazzo.


Of course, once in, we were quickly herded round the room. The guards yelled at those snapping photos, but I don’t know whether they were yelling for people to get a move on, or not to use flash, or not to take photos at all. Such being the chaos, I ignored it all and hung back to take the flash photos I wanted. No one stopped me. It’s funny how all these people (myself included) were so fascinated by a marble sculpture of a dead man.


Now the ceiling is far more fascinating because this was the standard Sun Yat-sen created. It’s one of the only places in China you can find this. The image is retained in honour of Sun. Outside of Sun-related memorials, this symbol is pretty much prohibited because Taiwan uses it as its national flag.


Very soon we were spat out of the place as the next group was waved in.


Heading down from the hill, I took in the romantic view of the countryside shrouded in late autumn mist.