Warning! This blog was started in April but events have as usual taken over my life and the blog was put to one side… I am now finishing this blog sitting on the TGV from Nimes to Charles du Gaulles Airport… But that is another story entirely…

The end of March/beginning of April is really the best time to visit us. Last year we had our friend Kat, the year before the Scotts, and the year before that, my parents. This year we are welcomed Claire and her daughter Connie. Claire and I have been friends for 9 years since our first meeting with our babes in arms at the Balsam Burblers in Wincanton on a Friday morning.

Together the five of us have shared picnics at Stourhead in Wiltshire, been through the safari at Longleat multiple times, buried in the sand at Weymouth. We have known very sad events but also extremely happy times. Ollie, Claire’s husband passed away at St. Margaret’s Hospice in the May of the year we came to China. A brain tumour took the life of a man who was a giant. Standing head and shoulders above me you couldn’t lose him in a crowd. He was taken away from his family far too young and it struck us that none of us know what is round the corner and you have to live life to the full. Just recently a past colleague passed away at 45. Death is never easy for those left behind but live life to max and have no regrets. Grasp every opportunity available and with that thought in mind, Claire and Connie boarded a flight to Pudong. Usually we send a driver and car to Pudong to collect visitors, but as Claire and Connie had made the effort to come and visit us and they were doing it just the two of them, it is daunting, so Eleanor and I made the journey to collect them. Despite thoughts that there might be tears on arrival we all held it together remarkably well.

With lots of instructions and map drawing we left Claire and Connie on their own on the Monday while we all went to work. We then met up at the pizza place outside school, thankfully the number 7 bus goes from a bus stop that you can see from our apartment and you continue until the terminus stop, so we hoped that they couldn’t go wrong – and they didn’t. Bellies full, Martin took everyone home, via Decathlon for some light trainers for Claire – her boots while comfortable weren’t going to cut it in the warm weather we had. I had the final of the hotly contested Inter-House “One week to curtain” drama competition so stayed in school.

On Tuesday Connie joined Eleanor at Junior school, missing out Mandarin lessons and PE. Eleanor enjoyed having Connie in school, and Connie made some new friends that when I went to collect them at the end of school, many girls and boys said goodbye to her. It shows how the junior school pupils are really welcoming.

On Wednesday, I took Eleanor out of school, took some unpaid leave and time in lieu and the four of us (Martin still had school!) took an early morning, slightly delayed flight, from Wuxi to Chengdu. Eleanor’s passport was at the government office, having her visa renewed, as she and Martin had gotten new passports after Chinese New Year. So to be flying with only a piece of paper saying that her passport was at the office and that the paper was adequate identification for travel and hotel stays, it wasn’t until I was back in Suzhou having been away that I truly trusted the piece of paper.

As Martin couldn’t be with us, he had generously given us his IHG points which meant that our hotel in Chengdu was free, and we utilised the points in the world’s largest freestanding building at the Intercontinental at the Chengdu Global Centre. Sadly the wave pool and beach was closed. Not warm enough apparently and not open to May, we where there the first week of April when the temperatures were already in the high 20s, but this is China when many of the outdoor pools don’t open until June/July when in reality they could open a lot sooner. The girls while a bit disappointed, had to make do with the hotel pool instead – which was a stones throw away from the beach area. They weren’t that disappointed – it was water, they hadn’t seen each other for ages and they could do what they wanted while Claire and I caught up. 

There is of course lots to do in Chengdu and the surrounding area, but we were here for one thing synomous with China – the pandas, of course Eleanor and I had seen them before, but I could watch pandas for a long time, I don’t get bored watching them. They look like cuddly bears, and as an owner of many cuddly pandas, and I hope they are, but these creatures are playful, hungry for bamboo and I hope oblivious to the attention they get at the Panda Base.

While at the panda base, Eleanor was approached by some people with cameras, and she was interviewed. Goodness knows what she has since appeared on, but the questions she was asked were factual, about the amount of bamboo eaten, the lifespan of a panda and their sleeping habits. She didn’t quite know the answers but sounded confident in giving her estimations.

Tour of pandas done, lots of photos taken, we headed for a magical mystery tour. Didi (the Chinese Uber) works, but we decided to take a tour bus instead. It was cheaper to get into the centre of the city this way and show a little of Chengdu to Claire and Connie before heading back to the hotel and of course the pool. As you come out of the panda base there lots of people selling tickets for something or other, and I decided to be brave and go for it. We found the ticket seller, because of the course the person advertising the tickets, doesn’t sell them, and then the bus is nowhere near the ticker seller, but we made it onto the bus, and after 30 minutes or so, I found a place I recognised, and so we and a few other Chinese tourists (yes we were the only foreigners on the bus(!)) got off and we made our way to People’s Park. We bought the girls a couple of spinny things that go up in the air to keep them amused and of course we kept the Chinese onlookers amused too. Claire and I took in random people singing in the park with their speakers, Chinese line dancing, a brass band of sorts and generally just people watched. We then headed deeper into the park, and found an “amusement park”, which the girls went on a ride like a monorail, while I went to find somewhere that sold ice creams. I was thwarted, for in people’s park they only sell tea – or at least in the area I went to.

Connie’s palate hadn’t quite developed to the Chinese food yet, so I thought Hot Pot which is the must have food in Chengdu was going to be a bit much , so we skipped it.

Our whirlwind tour of Chengdu was over and back to Suzhou we headed. Eleanor’s  slip of paper was taken from us at Chengdu airport to be checked, but after a heart stopping couple of minutes it was returned. We had a quiet weekend in Suzhou, Martin left for the UK to go on a Maths conference. (I couldn’t complain as this was the same conference that he met our Deputy Director at and is how we ended up at Dulwich, China.)

Shanghai was next on our tour,  we booked the sidecars with Insiders again. We did this with Kat the previous year, and this time I chose to explore the French Concession. With tree lined avenues, we zoomed past the American consulate, were taken into a community to see a rather grand Art Deco house which had been given to a high ranking party member. And although he has died, his wife still lives there for her lifetime. We had a great time on the sidecars and it is an experience we will continue to do with visitors. 

Just as we are a Disney family, so too are Claire and Connie, so no trip to Shanghai would be complete without a a day trip to Disney.  Going in December has always meant that the water ride is closed, so this time, we went on the water ride, taking the ponchos from people coming off the ride who were ditching theirs in the bin. I used the poncho for wrapping up the camera and valuables. The others we shared the ride with didn’t bother, they came off wet, but no one seemed to mind.

The bund was also on the list of must sees. We saw it in the dark, and while half of it was missing because of the fog they got a good impression of it, and how popular the sight is to see. On their last day we went to the fabric market near the bund for Claire to get her mum some fabric for crafting. The fabric market in Suzhou, is, I believe no longer there, and the one in Shanghai is probably better for having garments made than just buying fabric for personal use. But Claire succeeded and I have been back on my own (well with colleagues) to have dresses made.

Also we made a trip to the Shanghai Technology and Science Museum … well the “fake” market underneath the museum. We took a taxi which dropped us off at the museum, but I have only ever come from the metro and so had no idea how to get into it from ground level. With colleagues recently I found out that there are two sides to this technology market (technology, sports gear, handbags, shoes, glasses and pearls and anything else that is made in China that has potentially “fallen off the back of a lorry” before getting to export and it doesn’t matter which side of the metro you come out on… Though it does matter if you arrange to meet someone!!

With every market there are touts hanging around to show you to their stall, and they are always pretty hard to shake off, only doing so, once you have bought something. Sensing our hopelessness, we allowed ourselves to be guided into the market and into someone’s shop. Claire and the girls escaped, but I stayed on and tried to shake them. Thankfully the market is so large they don’t follow you for long. But it is nerve wracking if you aren’t used to it as they do continue to hassle you. Purchases made, I deliberately brought an IKEA bag to put the shoes etc in, rather that parade about with the black bin liners they give you. IKEA bags are fabulous at holding everything and are easy to carry.

When looking for somewhere to stay in Shanghai, I wanted somewhere central and cheap, though in Shanghai that really isn’t possible – after all we had to have two hotel rooms. I plumped for the Radisson Blu at People’s Square. Centrally located to the metro and an easy walk to the Bund, that is pretty much it, but it served us as a base for a couple of days. The size of the room was tiny, with just about enough room for a two people. However, if you only use a hotel room for sleeping and you are out exploring during the day, it doesn’t matter.

I hope that Claire and Connie had a lot of fun times, and that memories have been made. We enjoyed having them, and sharing a snapshot of China with them. We packed a fair bit in, but there is still much to see and do. Though I doubt they will be back. Thanks for coming to stay Claire and Connie and sorry it has taken so long to do the blog.