Wuxi Cherry Blossom Festival: Where People Outnumber Flowers

The Chinese Cherry Blossom Festival features Japanese Sakura and hordes or people!

The annual Cherry Blossom Festival in Wuxi takes place from March 20th until April 20th and welcomes visitors from all over the country. The stars of the show are the 30,000+ cherry trees, some of which were gifts from Japan. The location where the festival is held, known as the Turtle Head Isle Scenic Spot, happens to be an exciting place to visit year-round but it truly comes alive in spring.

We chose to visit at the very beginning of the festival on March 25th. The trip was preceded by a week of intense rainfall so I expected a blooming wonderland and was disappointed to only find a small percentage of flowering trees. The park was full of trees right on the verge of blooming. Their near-bursting buds were almost torturous to look at. We were tempted to spend the night and visit the following day but the crazy crowds ended up changing our minds.

Even though we arrived about an hour after the park opened, it was packed. If you’ve been to China before then I don’t need to tell you about the horrors of crowded Chinese tourist sites. People push, spit and take photos non-stop of literally everything. I had to wait for ages just to take a selfie in front of a blooming tree. I was there less than a minute before a rude man had the audacity to tell me to move!

It got worse on the boat… we had to wait in line to get on the boat, then were shoved and crowded on the boat and I won’t even mention the line coming back from the island. Other than that, the boat-ride was great and free! What we originally thought was an overpriced entry ticket turned out to be completely worth it.

For 150 RMB (about $20) we got entry to the park filled with temples, beautiful scenic spots and a round-trip boat to an island on one of China’s largest lakes. If I hadn’t looked at a map before the trip, I would have assumed that we were on a calm ocean. The water was clear and stretched as far as the eye could see.

Before coming to the Turtle Head Isle, we read up on the place on Trip Advisor. One of the comments mentioned that the place was “a little fake”. On a previous trip to Wuxi we had visited a large film set park, so we knew all about fake Chinese structures. That’s why I can guarantee you that this park’s monuments, temples and beautiful bridges are far from fake. They just weren’t built thousands of years ago, since the park is just 30 years old. “Look at how fake that is” became a running joke.

Maybe the visitors who left that comment didn’t visit the colorful Taoist temple where visitors prayed, monks preformed their duties and guards tutted at us as we tried to sneak photos of the largest wooden statue I have ever seen! Just outside the temple was a typical Buddhist candle-burning station that transported us back to Mount Takao in Japan. It was vibrant and breathtaking and like totally not fake. *smirk*

As the title of this post indicated, the con of the day was the masses of people who kept stepping on me or sticking their phones in my face to take photos. But the pro was definitely the food. Another Trip Advisor reviewer that we ended up mocking on the trip mentioned lack of food in the area. They must have visited during off-season because I have never seen a wider selection of Chinese food, with the exception of Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter.

Vendors selling at least ten different traditional street foods can be found approximately every 500 meters. There is a huge vendor area right near the entrance to the park where they sell literally every type of Chinese street food that you can imagine. Tofu (stinky and regular), roast lamb, sushi, dumplings, hot pot, chicken feet, fried rice – you name it, they had it. All of the prices are mostly around 15 RMB ($2) which is only slightly inflated and completely reasonable for the quality.

There were vendors all over the park, but we were the most impressed with the “food court” on the island. We found the spot by following what sounded like the grunts of men in combat. They turned out to be two guys beating nuts with large wooden hammers to make a delicious crunchy dessert. It was the perfect advertisement that we couldn’t resist. Needless to say, the box we bought to take home never made it off the train.

All in all, it was a fun day: as beautiful and delicious as it was crowded! If I could get a do-over, I’d visit a week or two later when everything is in full bloom. Wuxi is just a short train ride from Shanghai and worth a visit if you have the time to explore. It also happens to be really close to Suzhou’s famous ancient water town, but try not to mention Suzhou while you’re in Wuxi or vice versa – they is some rivalry there. It’s no wonder since both are perfect for a day trip and definitely worth a visit!


Online Shopping in China: JD vs Taobao

The cheapest way to get anything in China is to buy it online, but Amazon.cn is not the best way to go. The two most popular alternative websites to Amazon are JD and Taobao. While the two websites offer similar, each has it’s pros and cons.

Most foreigners who live in Huaqiao prefer to use JD over Taobao. JD happens to have a warehouse right in our town so the delivery speeds for certain products are unbeatable and shipping costs are low. The fastest we’ve ever seen anything delivered was a microwave that arrived just two hours after clicking “buy”.

A lot of teachers at Kang Chiao get things delivered to the school because they don’t have someone at home to receive deliveries. It is possible to leave notes when you purchase something on JD, but you need the help of a Chinese-speaking friend – we’ve never tried this but I’m guessing you can try to ask for a specific time frame.

Although most JD deliveries come around noon, I’ve had items delivered as early as 8:30 AM and as late as 9 PM. If you’re not at home when the courier arrives they will usually call you angrily in Chinese or just leave the package in a closet near the fire extinguisher if your complex has one.

We actually have a text message saying “leave in closet” saved on our phones in case this happens. If there is no Chinese speaker around, we just hang up the phone and text them. Although there is no guarantee that someone else won’t take it, I’ve had things left in our public closet for almost a week without anyone touching it.

For the first 6 months, Isaac and I only used JD. We avoided Taobao because it was a bit more complicated to use, it was harder to find reviews and different sellers sold the same products for very different prices. Recently we’ve used it more because we discovered that it can be a lot cheaper!

Being a lot cheaper is not always a good thing. Anything ordered through JD is distributed by JD and has a guarantee. You can take a photo of any problem, get easily re-reimbursed and return anything for no reason within a certain number of days. We made a mistake ordering a drone on Taobao because it had no warranty, so we lost $300 when it fell out of the sky.

The best way to explain the difference between the two e-shops is to compare JD to Amazon and Taobao to eBay. Before you buy anything on Taobao you need to read up on the seller and see if someone else sells that item for a cheaper price. This can take hours but due to competition among sellers, prices on Taobao can be a lot lower than on JD.

You can order almost anything you can think of on JD from fresh sushi grade salmon to speed boats and live stingrays (as pets, not food). On the other hand certain Western goods such as fruit roll ups can only be found on Taobao. These goods are imported directly from abroad which makes delivery costs higher.

It’s impossible to say which eshop is better. If you want fresh food or items with a guarantee of quality and warranty, go with JD.com. If you want the lowest price and a wider variety of choice you should go with Taobao. Personally, I look up whatever I need on both websites and then decide.

One Noodle Diet: 3.8 Meters Long & Belt-Thick

Can you lose weight by only eating one noodle per meal? Not if they are 3.8 meters long and as thick as a belt!

Xi’an is known for many unique traditions: I even bought a set of postcards called Ten Strange Shaanxi Customs (see photos of them below). One of the cards mentioned belt-thick noodles, so we set out on a mission to find them.

There are various places in Xi’an to try these noodles, known as Biang Biang Mian. “Biang” happens to be the most complex character in the Chinese language. The dish itself is much simpler: it’s a handmade noodle made by strenuous noodle pulling that is commonly done in public to attract hungry customers!

One of the best places to eat this delicacy is in the Muslim Quarter. Unfortunately due to time restrains, we had to find a different option. We ended up in a popular chain called First Noodle Under the Sun. Although it’s a chain, it is mostly just popular among locals so the staff doesn’t speak English and the menu is mostly in Chinese.

If you come eat here, be prepared to get seated in the center of the restaurant so that everyone can look at you and take photos, which regularly happens to foreigners all over China. The menu has a vast selection of dishes from roast lamb and rice to steamed vegetables. Of course, the recommended dish is the infamous Biang Biang Mian!

We were treated like royalty and served tasty flowery tea while we waited – which wasn’t long. Three waiters brought in the noodles: two plates with one ginormous noodle per person and two smaller bowls of soup each. One of the soups was fishy with tiny shrimp and tofu while the other had lamb with various spices. The “spicy” soup was yummy and although I can’t handle a millimeter of chili pepper, it was completely manageable, so don’t shy away from it if you generally hate spicy food.

The staff had to show us how to eat the noodle. First, you wrap it around a chopstick and place it in one of the bowls. Use the other chopstick as a knife by pressing it against the edge of the bowl to cut off a section of the noodle. Eat the noodles out of the soup bowls. Voila! If you still have room once you’ve eaten the entire noodle (unlikely) you can drink the remaining soup. Slurping is not rude, it’s expected in China!


Great Food and Colorful Lights: Muslim Quarter in Xi’an

The Muslim Quarter in Xi’an is delicious, full of character and an exciting mix of cultures!

Xi’an is known for the world-famous Tarracotta Army that was built over 2,000 years ago but only discovered in 1974. It only takes a few hours to visit the army, which is located about 50 kilometers from the city center. Luckily, there is so much more to see here!

As Going Awesome Places mentions in their blog post about Xi’an: “Go to Shanghai and you will find a 100-year-old China; go to Beijing and you will find a 1000-year-old China; go to Xi’an and then you will find a 3000-year-old China.”

If you only have one weekend to see what Xi’an has to offer, I recommend visiting the City Wall (skip the boat tour, it’s not worth it), the Big Goose Pagoda for the fountain light show and the Muslim Quarter. Although I am still quite confused about the history and social factors of the large Muslim populations living in China, I have a lot of experience sampling their delicious food. It may be available all over the country but it is by far the best and most diverse in Xi’an!

The Muslim Quarter is a vibrant maze of streets full of multi-cultural vendors selling fragrant foods and the cheapest souvenirs in Xi’an. The area is quite large and always busy with tourists from all over the world as well as locals coming to grab lunch. Make sure to come on an empty stomach because there is SO much food to sample.

We happened to visit the Muslim Quarter on a random rainy Saturday with bad moods and low expectations. This quickly changed. As soon as we turned the corner of a quiet street with just three friendly vendors we were assaulted by lights, smells and dangerously driving e-bikes! There were hundreds of vendors selling everything from nutty desserts and pomegranate juice to quail eggs on a stick and large bamboo skewers of smoked lamb.

After trying sweet sticky rice and splitting a bowl of famous hand-made noodles (to save room for more food) we explored the area. Walking past Chinese-style neon signs with Arabic characters and people dressed in colorful shawls and hats, we were almost overwhelmed with the bustling atmosphere and mix of cultures.

The streets were all lined with vendors ranging from young tan men wearing typical Turkish-Islamic hats to older Chinese-looking women in brightly colored headscarves. What really made the place stand out was the attitude of the vendors who weren’t fazed by the bad weather. Everyone was smiling, yelling greetings at passersby and inviting us to film their goods without expectation of purchase.

Since I have never had the opportunity to visit the Middle East (with exception of a family trip to Egypt when I was 8), I can’t make comparisons between the Muslim Quarter and authentic Arab markets. It was definitely different than any Chinese or European market than I have ever been to. Even though it was too crowded and rushing e-bike drivers kept trying to run me over, I highly recommend everyone visiting Xi’an to come explore the area.

The Muslim Quarter has so much character and it was definitely one of the most exciting places I have ever visited in China. Sadly we only saw it during the day and it’s supposed to be even more amazing at night. Come see it for yourself because my photos don’t do it justice. Video coming soon!

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What to Expect at a Chinese Visa Health Check

What to expect at a Chinese Visa Health Check!

I’m not going to lie. The visa process to come to China is one huge headache. It requires a lot of paperwork and everything has to be certified, translated and super official. But that’s not the worst part! Before arriving to China you need to go through a very thorough and unnecessary health check. Once you arrive, it is repeated in a Chinese hospital.

When the health check is done in your home/residing country, all you need to do is find a general practitioner who will do all the checks, do a blood test and then send you off for a chest x-ray. However, once you arrive in China, things will be very different. They have entire hospitals dedicated to foreigners who are going through this health check.

The process starts with your employer giving you the forms (sometimes they will fill everything out for you). They will also provide you with an employer letter and may photocopy your passport for you. Generally they will also make an appointment for you and send you off with instructions to not eat 10 hours before the appointment, remind you to bring your passport as well as 4 photos.

Pro tip: order a ridiculous amount of passport-sized photos before you even begin the process. I ended up needing at least 20 for the visa application and renewal.

Keep in mind that whenever you reapply for the visa (every year) or if you end up switching visa types, you will need more photos, paperwork and extra health checks. As much as it all sucks, yearly blood tests are good for you. Also, lung x-rays may be dangerous because of the radiation but they are also very important when you live in polluted China!

Once you’re in China with the necessary paperwork and a hospital appointment, the process can still be quite an adventure. Since every foreigner needs to go through this health check, the Chinese have become experts at getting you in and out quickly. Unfortunately, you will probably feel like cattle…

When you get to the hospital, prepare for lots of lines. First they will check all your paper work, attach photos and they will tell you what to sign where. The second line will check that you look like your passport photo and will give you a bunch of stickers with your name and a bar code. The last line will collect your money (a fee of 500 – 600 RMB that is usually refunded by the employer after your trial period).

Pro tip: bring cash. They do not accept credit cards or WeChat payments. I happened to forget my money and credit card at home. My foreign card didn’t work in the ATM so I had to run around asking strangers for cash in exchange for a WeChat transfer. It was embarrassing but it worked!

Once your papers and payments are in order, the real fun begins. You will walk through a maze of numbered rooms that usually start with a sort of coat check. Here you will be asked to take off your shirt (and bra) and put on a hospital gown over your pants. They will give you a key to a locker to store your clothes and other belongings. You are allowed to bring your phone with you, but you’ll barely have time to glance at it, so I recommend you leave it behind too.

Although most of China doesn’t speak English, these nurses and doctors do. They will yell clear instructions at you like “passport”, “next”, “room 208”, “relax”, “breathe”, “don’t move” and so on. If you’re scared of doctors or needles, prepare to not be coddled. Their ultimate goal is to get you out as soon as possible and it’s nor personal, so don’t get offended!

Speaking of blood tests… people will try to scare you. Just keep calm and don’t worry about Chinese needles being bigger than Western ones. I’m a huge baby when it comes to blood tests but these nurses are incredibly skilled. Seriously, trust me! I had my most painless blood test of my life yesterday with the biggest needle I’ve ever seen. But I have to warn you that they leave all the blood samples out which can be unnerving.

There are a total of 6 – 8 “stations” where they will weight you, check your eye sight, blood pressure, listen to your heart and so on. The stickers I mentioned previously will be used by the doctors to stick on your results and tubes of blood. Each “station” will take about 3 minutes so you can be in and out of the hospital within 30 minutes of arrival. So try to focus on the speed and efficiency instead of feeling like a slab of meet! I spent several hours getting these tests done in Europe so I can’t complain.

Once you’ve been through the loop of nurses and hospital rooms, you end up back in the first line to give them all the papers and to discuss pickup. Many employers will give you an address to have the results sent to. This only costs around 20 RMB and the staff will fill out the envelope for you if the address is in Chinese.

Finally, make sure to have a hardy meal afterwards and celebrate your official arrival in China! It’s a crazy place that will keep you on your feet. Prepare for endless culture shocks and life-changing experiences. Not everyone has an easy time in China, but I guarantee that you won’t regret your choice to live here.

Huaqiao Off the Beaten Path (PHOTOS)

What happens when already live off the beaten path? Find something even more unusual! (PHOTOS)

First of all, Huaqiao is an entire city that’s off the beaten path. It’s an economic development zone right outside the Shanghai boarder. It’s a city within a city and it’s more like a village with high-rise residential buildings anyway.

The central areas of Huaqiao are modern with plenty of fancy restaurants. The main street is busy with cars, e-bikes and people rushing about their business. Just parallel to the busy, lined-with-skyscrapers street, is a farming wonderland where people live physically harder but in a way more relaxed and rewarding lives!

I found this place by accident while searching for a long-cut on my way to Kang Chiao International School.


Half of these streets don’t even exist on Google maps.


The houses here are fascinating. Huge, colorful and with a strange hybrid architecture.


Farming can be beautifully messy!

The first time I got lost here, I didn’t have my DSLR. So I came back on the weekend and this time, we traveled in style!


It’s not even a motorcycle… it’s electric. But it still makes us look cool!


We just loved this mysterious door that didn’t even close…

Back to the beautiful buildings…

Did you know that the norm in China is living with your entire extended family? That’s why the houses are so big.


It is generally really cold inside these houses during winter time since there is no central heating. This makes drying laundry really hard! That’s why a bit of sunshine is the best way to dry everything.


This is a Buddhist style shrine!

It’s not all sunshine and roses 😦


But the houses are SOOOOO interesting and beautiful!

After the crops are harvested, they are transported using these electric vehicles…


Then the food ends up in markets like these.


Don’t let the spiderwebs scare you away. There may be no health regulations but the locals shop here. Everything is home-grown, fresh and delicious. We’ve even bought meat at markets like this and we’ve never gotten sick!


Thanks for reading (and picture looking). Feel free to leave comments below!

China Doesn’t Sugarcoat Meat-Eating & Neither Should You

Eating fresh meat comes at a price. Can’t bear to look? Then maybe you shouldn’t be eating it.

The meat-eating industry is not pretty. We all know the horrors that go on in slaughter houses but few of us go out of our way to stop it. I’m not here to shame anyone. I happen to be a regular meat eater and a cheese addict which causes even more cruel animal deaths. Living in China has desensitized me by showing me dead animals in various stages of production and I can’t commend them enough for being so open about it.

Have you ever seen one of those videos where a child finds out that the pork on their plate used to be a cute pink pig? Chinese kids grow up knowing exactly where their meat comes from which lets them make an informed decision about eating it. There may not be too many vegetarians in China but at least no one is kept in the dark about what they are eating and how it is killed.

As I mentioned before, I have become quite desensitized and no longer look away from the gruesome scenes in the market. I have always known how the meat I eat suffers and it would be hypocritical of me to look the other way and then eat it anyway. Before you judge me, it’s not easy to change your entire diet overnight.

Seeing squealing pigs squeezed into tight spaces for transport (which is hidden in the USA and Europe but is done openly in China) has impacted me. My husband and I no longer eat pork when we can avoid it and we plan on gradually changing our diets to eliminate first beef, then chicken and finally all other meats. But it takes time.

We are also aware that simply not eating meat is not enough to make the world a better place for animals. The milk industry is just as bloody, if not worse, the medicine we take is animal-tested and all means of transportation continue to destroy our environment. It is virtually impossible to live without harming the world around us and I have so much respect for anyone who tries to do less damage to it.

Anyway, back to China… When you walk into a market you will see meat in all shapes and forms. Entire skinned animals, cut off heads, bloody hooves, duck heads, chicken feet and pig testicles are put on display for everyone to see. Sometimes you will even see live animals that can be killed for you on request. There is no fresher meat! But it comes at a price.

A few weeks ago, Isaac and I were returning home after a day of e-bike riding and exploring the neighborhood. We ran into a large crowd of people standing right by the entrance to our apartment community. We had to investigate and we were so shocked by what we saw. Hanging upside down was a headless ram that was being skinned… and children as young as two were watching!

This reminded me of Christmas in Prague where children cheer as burly men with large machetes behead carp publicly. I would always look away but this time I didn’t. The ram was already dead and the preparation process was strangely mesmerizing. Once the hooves were chopped off, the skin was stripped off effortlessly all in one piece. The men from Xinjiang (the largest autonomous region in China) placed the skin fur down on the ground and used it as a mat for the ram’s organs.

The ram was hung on two hooks by it’s feet so that it could be chopped in half with an ax. Expertly, they first cut the ball sack in half and continued hacking down until they could remove the stomach and intestines. The liver, lungs, heart and who knows what else followed. All of these were neatly laid out on the ram’s own skin. The beauty of it all? Every single organ, piece of bone, drop of blood and inch of skin was going to be used. In China, no part of the animal goes to waste.

By the time we left, the ram was no longer recognizable and was chopped into four large pieces. After spending an hour in a nearby cafe, we returned to find a long line of hungry people drawn to the delicious smell of smoked skewers of meat. We joined the line and paid 30 RMB ($4) for a generous amount of the freshest meat we’ve ever tasted.

After watching the ceremonious preparation (although we were glad we missed the actual slaughter and bleeding) we felt like eating part if it was a way of honoring the dead animal – which is not something I ever thought I’d feel or think. The ethics of the meat eating industry are definitely complex and debatable. Feel free to share your thoughts or experiences in the comment section below.