A retreat in Songkou, the ancient town

Monday 12th of April 2018, somewhere in the deep mountains of Fuzhou, China.

The road gets more and more winding and the series of turns makes me nauseous. However, it feels good to enjoy the silence. We are lost up in the mountains and the air by the window tickles my cheeks. A getaway from the busy Fuzhou city is all I need. Finally, I can breathe some fresh air and feel connected to something else than buildings and noise. Nature, trees, the sounds of the birds, I am missing it.

The deeper we get into the mountains, the more authentic it feels. The civilisation is slowly disappearing, leaving some space to little towns and villages. There are farmers working hard in the fields, oldies and children selling food along the road. We stop on our way to buy some fruits. A Chinese fruit that I have never seen before and which is quite tasty.

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“Oh my god where are we?! Where are the people and where are the shops!” ask Yance, my dear friend who is panicking at the idea of losing trace of civilisation.

I laugh. This is the whole point of this trip. A retreat far away from the city life. An adventure I haven’t experienced since I have been living in China. Discovering an ancient Chinese town and feel the old vibes of what China used to be thousands of years ago.

Two hours later after a trip that felt like four because of the winding road, we finally arrive. I jump out of the car and look around. What strikes me the most is the very peaceful atmosphere that reigns here. There are no cars horning or motorbikes slaloming. No untimely brouhaha coming from every corner of the streets. Probably because there’s only one main street in this old town.

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I spot a sign “Songkou”. Songkou is an ancient town in Yongtai County of Fuzhou. Located beside mountains and rivers, the town used to be the original residence for Hakka ancestors migrating from Fujian to Guangdong. The Hakkas or Hakka Han are Han Chinese people whose ancestral home are chiefly in the Hakka-speaking provincial areas of Guangdong, Fujian and a few others provinces.

The architecture of the ancient town features a combination of Chinese and western styles. Songkou has a history of over 1,000 years and is notable for a wealth of well-preserved old buildings from the Ming and Qing dynasties. I can tell this town isn’t yet a year-round major tourist destination, which preserves its tranquility and authenticity.

We’re walking to our guest house which turns out to be a charming cottage built of wood and stone. The scenery is picturesque and delightful to the eyes.

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As we get in, I smell the scent of wood and jasmine. The place is cosy and warm. The design combines Japanese and vintage style. The wood, the stone walls and the decoration give an impression of old mixed with new. I am guessing that the place is a very ancient building that has been renovated with wooden structures. I like seeing the vestiges of the past with the big cracked walls and the roof made of old bricks.

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The bedrooms upstairs are simple and minimalist. Every single piece of furniture is made of wood. I lay down on the big Totoro bed on the floor, the dream of many children and big kids like me! There’s a Japanese style living room where we can sit on pillows and have some tea.

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I go up to the last storey of the guest house and go out on the balcony to look at the view. I feel like going back to the XIV century and sense an air of the old China during the Ming dynasty. The architecture, the shapes of the roof, the old stones, the bricks and the walls that curve like a maze. I am so glad to capture this unique atmosphere full of history.

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After unpacking our bags and a quick rest we go out exploring the town. Exploring is my favourite hobby when I am discovering a new place. I feel inspired when I explore.

We’re going down a beautiful pedestrian street made of stones which shelters food shops and little home-craft shops. I like witnessing the lives of the local people. They are looking at us, city people that we are and they’re watching me with an air of curiosity.

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This stuffed onion little bread is so addictive!

There are oldies sitting at the front of their shop, smoking and whiling away the time selling fresh drinks and fruits. I spot a rudimentary hairdresser, probably the most authentic I have ever seen. The street is very calm, there’s no noise here, only the laughter of children, and the rooster’s morning song. The simplicity of life in this town revitalises me. At some point, the city life, especially in China, eats you and I sometimes feel overwhelmed. Here, it’s like coming back to the basics and the simple values that we tend to forget.

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We go down the stone street and to my great surprise we end up on the shore of a beautiful river coming down from the mountains.

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The ancient town of Songkou was once the second largest port of the inland rivers of Guangdong and the Maritime Silk Road. With its rich Hakka history and culture, the town has become a cultural hub for overseas Chinese and traditional folk songs.

There are some very ancient houses on each side of the rivers and some of them are literally about to collapse. I jump on a large wooden construction that turns out to be a boat. I would have liked seeing these large pieces of wood put together, floating on the river. I smell the odour of fish that fishermen leave on the sun to dry out in big wicker baskets for a few days.

 

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As we walk alongside the river, I am having a close look at the houses on the shore. I even walk on people’s property without knowing it. These houses and their authenticity fascinate me. They carry so much history and have remained untouched. They make me travel back in time and fill my imagination with pictures of ancient eras under the reign of Chinese emperors.

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The heat is getting more intense and we happily go back to the guest house where an afternoon tea is offered by the house. The main room of the cottage is cosy with an artistic design. Each detail has been well thought out and put together, resulting in the most original decoration.

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We sit on a little couch by the window. The hostess brings us some dry plums and pours our glasses with a thick yellow drink that appears to be tea. I am surprised by its unusual thickness and its delicious fruity taste. It’s probably the best tea I have ever had.

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After drinking two pots of tea, I go exploring the guest house and its every detail. This place is full of little treasures. I find out there’s a small art gallery on the last storey. I spot a small ladder and climb to discover a little attic with a Japanese set up where you can relax and read a book.

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The morning of our departure, I devour a delicious breakfast made of local products:

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Life in Songkou is peaceful and relaxing. The pace is slow, there’s not much to do around. If you’re seeking an exciting nightlife, there is none. Songkou is the place to go for a retreat and forget about the turpitudes of the modern world. I love the simplicity in which people live their lives, far away from the city, with no artifice, a life full of authenticity. The ancient town definitely gives a sense of the old China and its impressive history. For a couple of days, I felt like I was living in another century.

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Shanghai Mon Amour

Sunday 31st of December 2017, 5 am, Fuzhou, China. 

My alarm clock pulls me out of my sleep. I slowly open my eyes with a big smile on my face. It’s time to get ready!

I could not find my sleep last night. It always happens when I am too excited. Today, my friend Yance and I are flying to Shanghai and it is the most exciting way to end the year and start a new one.

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On the way to the airport, I am thinking about the NYE and the one before that. Two years ago, I was contemplating the fireworks over the Harbour Bridge in Sydney. Last year, I was in Auckland, unpacking boxes and drinking champagne with my ex-boyfriend in our new apartment. This year, I am in China, free as a bird, and I am going to spend NYE in Shanghai with my dearest friends. Life is truly unpredictable.

The icy air of Shanghai instantly freezes my face as I get off the bus. It’s much colder than Fuzhou and today is a bad day. The air pollution is quite high and a giant misty cloud covers the city. An unusual palette of colours gives the surroundings a vintage look and feel. Yellow, brown, grey, I have the impression to discover Shanghai through the reels of an old movie.

My first Shanghainese discovery starts at a lovely suburb called The Former French Concession (FFC). The French Concession is the area of Shanghai that the French government administered from 1849 until 1946. Time seems to move a little slower here and an air de déjà-vu brings me back to Europe. I love the gorgeous tree-shaded avenues, which invite lingering strolls and exploration. The architecture, the fine old houses, the many wrought iron fences and stair railings remind me of Paris.

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As we walk, I spot many restaurants, breweries, concept bars, boutiques, art galleries and antique stores. I am amazed by the beautiful streets, quaint and pretty with outdoor cafés sprinkled here and there. The French Concession is brimming with little treasures that are delightful for the eyes.

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A lovely window of a café catches my attention. “Pain Chaud“, a French bakery. My craving for French food pushes me to open the door. A familiar and exquisite smell tickles my nostrils. The myriad of pastries, croissants, croissants aux amandes (almond croissants), pains au chocolat and baguette sandwiches make the taste buds dance in my mouth.

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After feeding our greedy bellies, we are setting into our Airbnb where we will be staying for the next 3 days.

“What the hell,” says Yance at the doorstep once we’ve arrived. We look at each other, both wanting to laugh and cry at the same time. We’re standing at the door but the place looks like an old barn that is about to collapse.

We’re starting to ask a few people and look around, but for a moment we’re thinking that we got scammed! As the last attempt, I dive into a little street a bit farther away, when I finally see it. The wooden door, number 46 that we’ve been praying would exist. In our defence, how confusing is it to have two 46s in the same area?

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Filled with excitement, we open the door and the most charming vision enchants my eyes. The place is a cosy little loft with a very artistic design. Each detail has been well thought out and put together, resulting in the most original decoration. There’s a smart combination of hippie, natural and vintage style. The atmosphere is so peaceful and details like a turntable, a vintage retro projector, and a ceiling rocking chair make me want to live here forever.

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“They are here!!!” shouts Yance. We rush outside and run like lunatics to welcome our dear friend Christine and her boyfriend Jeff whom we haven’t seen for a year.

I met Yance and Christine in Sydney 3 years ago and they’ve become my best friends on this side of the world. How beautiful it is to meet up with your dearest friends in another country, and start the new year with a huge dose of friendship?

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The best thing about real friendship is that no matter how long you have not seen your friends, you always feel like it was only yesterday.

We start to talk like old times, catching up about our lives and what’s been happening with all of us. It’s good to hear Christine’s laughter again, she has the most infectious laughter and I like when she giggles.

We decide to go for a night walk and explore the surroundings. It’s really cold outside and the smell of some beautiful food makes us stop at a little street food stall. The shop is tiny and run by a lovely Chinese couple of oldies. I have no idea of what type of food it is but the old lady is talking about “Chinese pizza” with mince, spinach, pickled vegetables and it smells just like it. We order two and while the old man is kneading the dough, I am observing his every move. It does look like the making of a pizza but in the Chinese style. The best part is how they cook the pizza. The oven is a big barrel with fire at the bottom and the pizza is “thrown” on the side of the barrel for 5 minutes until it’s cooked. I’ve never seen that before and the result is pretty delicious!

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For our first reunion night, we set up a giant bed in the attic of the loft so we could all sleep altogether. It’s like a pajama party and we talk about everything and nothing until one of us falls asleep. I finally close my eyes after a big day, squished by Yance who’s literally sleeping across the whole bed we’re sharing, and lulled by the cute sound of Christine’s snores.

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Monday 1st January 2018, Shanghai, 9 am.

“Aaahh, aaaaaaah!!” Yance’s yelling brutally wakes up all of us.

Yance sometimes talks during his sleep, but this time he must have had a nightmare by the sound of it.

“Let’s go have breakfast, I know where to go!” I say all excited.

Of course, I had to take everyone to “Pain Chaud” and start the day with some delicious French pastries and coffees.

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After stuffing our faces with croissants and coffees, we decide to go to Tianzifang in the French Concession district, a must-see fascinating arts and crafts destination. The area retains an “organic and original” look and feel because of its untouched human marks. While much of the older homes and buildings have been replaced, the character of this old European district has been carefully preserved in its architecture and layout. The design is a Chinese-style Shikumen (stone gate) building fused with French Colonial architecture.

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I am delighted to discover the small laneways and green alleys begging to be explored. There are small galleries and craft shops on every corner. Artists can be watched working on their craft in their little studio.

Tianzifang is an artsy area, flooded with hundreds of bars, cafés, craft shops, design studios, art galleries, and boutiques.

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We are wandering in each alley, each shop, sometimes we’re getting lost in the multitude of laneways and boutiques. Food is omnipresent and the stalls are filled with a variety of local food.

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It’s time for a break and we all want a refreshing drink, something typical. We spot on the other side of the street a line of people queuing to get in a milk tea shop called Hey Tea. 

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The place seems to be very popular and even though there’s a line, we’re getting in the queue just out of curiosity. The drinks menu is quite surprising: cheese green tea, cheese ice blended strawberry. Tea with cheese? I have a mixed feeling about that but we are all keen to try.

The shop is so busy we have to wait for our number to be called out. After 30 minutes (we got lucky that day, I’ve read that it’s usually way longer!) we finally get our drinks.

The layer of cheese is an about an inch, a mixture of whipped cream and cheese (cream cheese, I assume), lightly seasoned with salt poured at the top. The cheese layer is fluffy, thick, creamy and rich. It is surprisingly good and quite filling.

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After getting our bellies filled with cheese tea, we are heading to Yu Garden to unwind from the busy city. Yu Garden has been built in the Ming Dynasty, more than 400 years ago. The unique layout, beautiful scenery, and the artistic style of the garden architecture have made the garden one of the highlights of Shanghai. It perfectly blends decorative halls, pavilions, glittering pools, zigzag bridges, pagodas, archways, and impressive rockeries.

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After a morning of walking around and exploring the city, we decide to have a massage. The idea of getting pampered for an hour sounds appealing to all of us.

Yance, who’s turned into our tour guide today, is already looking for a well-rated massage place on his phone.

In China, there are some really good massage places where you can stay for the whole day, have lunch or dinner and rest in your room while eating fresh fruits and drinking tea. It is pretty much like a hotel and I find the concept really smart.

Yance has found a massage place where they can have 4 people getting massaged in the same room. We get in pretty excited, get changed into a kitsch pink outfit and lay down on our comfy beds.

Four masseurs come in. Two women and two men. I ask to have a woman but I probably shouldn’t have. I did not know but the women are trained to massage men and the men are trained to massage women.

So this tiny Chinese woman is massaging me with the strength of a man and my sensitive body can feel every inch of pain.

My cries and yells make everyone laugh. The woman goes hard, she jumps behind me and twists my arms pushing her feet at the bottom of my back.

What the hell is that? I feel like doing sports combat on a massage bed and I am clearly not winning. After getting pampered (assaulted in my case) for a couple of hours, we are heading back to our Airbnb to get ready.

Tonight we are going to The Bund, a famous mile-long stretch of waterfront promenade along the Huangpu River. For a century, The Bund has been one of the most recognizable symbols and the pride of Shanghai. To the west of this stretch stands 52 buildings of various architectural styles: gothic, baroque, and neoclassical styles. It is often referred to as “the museum of buildings”.

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It is the perfect way to end a beautiful best friends reunion in Shanghai.

I got in touch with a friend of a friend from France who’s been living in Shanghai for 4 years. She is running a cocktail bar and lounge in the heart of The Bund. Her name is Lucile, “Lulu” to her close friends and the Chinese people who find it easier to pronounce.

The taxi drops us off in front of an impressive early 20th Century building. The sophisticated entrance and hall let us guess that we’re about to discover a special place. Little did I know that it would be one of the most glamorous nightspots of Shanghai.

Upon entry, I am struck by the kaleidoscope of art on the walls and the mix of styles that bring a very original and unique look and feel. The place sparkles with an eclectic decor, gourmet bites and a cocktail menu that dazzles the senses. The bold colours splashed on the walls mixed with masterpieces from a private collection give a playful, fun and chic atmosphere. Not to mention the peacock peering at you.

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I spot Lulu straight away and she warmly welcomes us. She leads us to a table and we all follow her, eyes sparkling and bursting with joy. She has reserved a table near the window with a spectacular view of the Shanghainese skyline. As we’re sitting down on stylish chairs and sofa, the waiter brings us 5 flutes of champagne, offered by the house.

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What a perfect start to the night. Canapés and gourmet bites follow the champagne and it’s like a succession of delightful delicacies. Tonight, we are the privileged ones and we are enjoying every second of it.

As if it could not get any better, Lulu takes us to the private balcony of the dining restaurant. I could not hold my joy and I let a scream of amazement. Standing here, in such a special place, makes me realise why Shanghai is called the Magical City.

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Besides the breathtaking view, it’s the atmosphere that strikes me the most. I feel like I am in a futuristic space city, ready to see a spaceship flying down the Oriental Pearl Tower. The misty clouds enfolding the buildings and the silence high up on the rooftop give an impression of solitude and mystery.

I can’t get my eyes off the Oriental Pearl Tower. Its architecture fascinates me. This 468m (1,536ft) high tower is the world’s sixth and China’s second tallest TV and radio tower. Built with eleven steel spheres in various sizes, hanging from the sky to the grassland, the body of the tower creates an admirable image. It is described in an ancient Chinese verse as “large and small pearls dropping on a plate of jade.” (大珠小珠落玉盘).

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Standing in front of such beauty with my dearest friends makes me reflect on my life. Who would have thought I’d be in China in 2018, teaching English to children and so far away from my comfort zone? At this very precise moment, I feel fearless, I feel powerful. I am the captain of my life, the master of my destiny, and even if I don’t know what the future holds, all my decisions, my actions define me and will lead me as far as I want to go.

Yance pulls me out of my reverie and after taking a hundred photos we get back to our table. The rest of the evening is a decadent feast for the belly and the senses ­– delicious food, surprising cocktails and to close an amazing night, Lulu orders a beautiful 2 tier cake stand overflowing with desserts including my favourite: a Pavlova, a meringue dessert with a crisp crust and soft, light inside topped with fruit and whipped cream. I could easily get used to getting spoiled like that. It is truly a magical night.

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It’s now time to head back home and we’re getting in the taxi, our minds filled with amazing memories and very content bellies.

Wednesday 3rd January, Shanghai, 5 am.

Yance and I wake up silently to get ready to go to the airport. Our Shanghainese trip is coming to an end and we have to leave our dear friend Christine and the charm of our cosy loft.

As we are about to walk out the door, Christine wakes up, still half asleep. We all hug, quite moved as we won’t see her for a while. Then we depart, leaving the warmth of the studio to a cold and windy dawn.

 

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