Chongqing Meaning Nowhere

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IMG_6283The only reason I ever went to Chongqing was because I wanted to see a Buddhist sculpture complex not far from it. The only thing I KNEW about Chongqing was that it’s the biggest conglomeration in China. Apart from that, I didn’t have a single mental association. I ended up being quite… flabbergasted. Yeah. That’s a good word for it.

It is without doubt one of the strangest cities I’ve seen. It grows out of steep hills that seem to transform into tall buildings almost imperceptibly. The buildings are new, but the moist air covers them with a film of green growth, so everywhere seems at the same time very modern and derelict. Great bridges and winding flyovers span over the buildings in loose knots. Wafts of mist from the Yangtze (or maybe just smog) cover the riverbanks, hiding them from view. It’s a city from a Tarkovsky film.

IMG_6412My impression, for some reason, was that it’s very new. Probably because you never, ever hear it mentioned in any lectures or anything. Turns out it’s actually quite old, having been founded in the Spring and Autumn period. More recently it served as Chiang Kai-Shek’s base before he fled to Taiwan.
IMG_6423 It’s a cliche to say that a place is full of contrasts – but Chongqing really is, more so that other cities (methinks). You can still find original dilapidating teahouses from the 20’ies and five minutes later take an escalator so long you need to get a ticket for it.

IMG_6285I’m sure this is going to change quickly as they renovate everything, so I feel I was lucky to catch a view of it as it is now, on the cusp of old and new.

IMG_6484Another thing is – it really is quite un-touristy. I think the only other foreigner I’ve seen in 3 days was the Australian lady I was staying with. Once or twice a local actually stopped me on the street and asked: “So… erm… WHY are you here?” Apart from that no one paid me a lot of attention, so it was quite relaxing (except for the buses. They can be very confusing because a lot of them stop at a certain number of bus stops in one direction – and then skip a half in the other).  IMG_6486

IMG_6499So there it is: a city that is never, ever mentioned when you ask for interesting places to go in China. It’s like a traveller’s black hole. Probably one of the largest cities in the world that no one has ever heard of.  IMG_6501And yes, maybe it doesn’t have the Great Wall or the Terracotta Army, but there are some interesting places around, the people seem more chilled out, no one pesters you – and it’s just quite a unique spot in itself. I’d say try to stop by for a day or two before it loses this weird balance of dilapidating and new. IMG_6502PS 1: Also, if I was a man, it would’ve been the place where one of my fantasies came to life. The lady I was staying with teaches English at a school for prospective flight attendants and she asked me if I could go and have a little chat with them about myself, where I come from, my travels. I said sure. So there I was, surrounded by a whole bunch of young attractive girls looking vaguely clone-like due to their identical hairstyles, make-up and uniforms – all being trained specifically to be nice and attend to all one’s needs with maximum grace and charm (seriously. At one point they asked me if they can take a photo with me and they took me to a room with a huge mirror on the wall, like in a dance studio. Some of them were sitting cross-legged in front of it. “What are you doing?” – I asked. They answered with perfect earnestness: “We’re practicing graceful sitting!” (I have the photo, but I don’t want to post it in case I violate some privacy laws. Also, they were all elegant and made-up, whereas I had just been swimming – yes, they had a swimming pool there, because a lot of Chinese girls can’t swim and sometimes it’s necessary during a flight! – so I feel like I would be doing a huge unjustice to my appearance). IMG_6512 PS 2: I forgot to mention it in the last post: there’s now over a hundred of you following this blog! Thanks, everyone!

The Gigantic Buddha Of Leshan

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Chengdu was one of my favourite stops, not because of the pandas (yeah, we’ll get to them too, in due time), but because I went on a day-trip to see the Buddha of Leshan.

This enormous statue was carved out of the cliff overlooking a river during the Tang Dynasty (started in 713, finished in 803 – the sculpture, not the dynasty, I mean). Measuring 71 meters, it is the greatest statue of Buddha in the world, and frankly – it’s awesome.

IMG_6177You start from the top (where the people in the picture are standing), then take a tiny steep narrow path…

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that leads down to there…

IMG_6199Of course when I showed up it was full of people (although admittedly it wasn’t even remotely as crowded as some of the more major attractions in China, which was cool), but the good thing is, it’s a whole mountain of gardens and relics and buildings, so if you find yourself a bit oversurrounded, you can sneak away and come back later after going for a walk here:

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IMG_6123Or even here, if you’ve got a few more minutes:

IMG_6151And then come back through the supposed fishing village AKA tourist trap:

IMG_6152But just make sure you get to see this before you leave:

IMG_6195Honestly, it’s really cool. And you get to go through the nice little town where the sculpture is. So if you’re in Chengdu and have a day to spare – I’d say go for it. The pandas will wait!

 

 

 

 

 

Feet Of Clay

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What was the reason for us to go to Xi’an in the first place?

Duh. These chaps, of course:

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The Terracotta Army is located about an hour’s drive from the city and constitutes one of its major tourist traps.

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The statues themselves are very interesting and beautiful, but the exposition space (big halls not unlike airplane hangars) gives them overall a slightly disappointing look. Of course one can’t really expect one will be able to walk between the actual figures or what – even though one secretly rather hopes so…

IMG_5948But the real eye-opener was the whole circus they set up around it. Boy, do they try to milk it. First, when you arrive, they drop you off at a big parking lot. You have to go through 1 km of bars, galleries with dubious quality art and shops with stuff varying from Disney toys to real furs, before you get to the enclosed area with the mounds and halls. Then you discover the ticket booths were actually right next to the parking lot, only a bit to the side. So you go back, get the tickets, then walk the whole route for the third time. This time you start noticing the little details you missed before, like the huge cinemaplex or whatever that is they’re building at the back.

IMG_5943I think one of my favourite things was the shop/gallery with traditional Chinese artworks, trying to entice customers with a huge sign: “Where is Mona Lisa?” Apparently there’s a block of wood inside – or maybe it was a Guanyin statue, anyway, something equally unrelated – and if you looked at it the right way, you could see Mona Lisa’s face.

Erm… Sure. Why not*.

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And of course don’t expect that once you’re inside the actual compound, you can escape. Crossing the gate means only that the scams inside are more fanciful. In one huge shop my flatmate started talking to a man selling real-sized replicas, just for the heck of it. The starting price was, if I remember, somewhere around 2000 yuan, if not more. By the time we walked away, the guy was ready to sell the statue for 200. The lesson for us all is: not really wanting the thing can give you a really good price for it.

*I had a look. Didn’t see any face at all. Maybe wasn’t squinting my eyes the right way.

**I know, boring pictures. But that was before I went to see the Amazing Chinese Doctor (check the previous post), so I was still feeling a bit rubbish.

 

How To Get Well In Xi’an

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My problem with the modern media of transportation is that they tend to rely heavily on air-conditioning. In principle there’s nothing wrong with it, but in practise I just seem not to adapt too well to it. When I have to travel for a longer time on an air-conditioned plane or train, as often as not I emerge with cute dry cough that inevitably transforms itself into a cold (I know the routine well by now…). The same thing happened on the train from Beijing to Xi’an and by the time I arrived, I knew that trouble was brewing.

For the time being, I just got on with the business of having fun. The day we arrived (me and my flatmate), our CS hostess Susy told us there was another traveller staying at her place that night. We arranged to meet him in one of the highlights of Xi’an nightlife – the Muslim Street. Yes, there is a Muslim Street in Xi’an – there’s a large population of Muslims in that area, sometimes they look Chinese, and sometimes they don’t. But they always make good food. My favourite stuff was the roujiabao, which is basically a kind of kebab/hamburger and very very tasty, and which I consumed with cloves of garlic to ward off the oncoming sickness. It didn’t work. But it tasted good (no pictures due to the fact that I was busy tucking in).

IMG_5921IMG_5916We waited for the Mysterious Traveller in front of this impressive gate (the old city walls are completely preserved, outlining a big square area – you can actually walk or cycle all around them)…

IMG_5934IMG_5936…and once again had a chance to admire Chinese people’s determination and skill in falling asleep whenever sleep needs to be had:

IMG_5942…until finally the Mysterious Traveller arrived and it turned out… he wasn’t that mysterious at all, being our third flatmate’s friend from Hangzhou… (face palm) Of course. And they say China is a big country.

Anyhow, joyful greetings over, we all set out to explore the goodness that is Chinese/Muslim street food:

IMG_5924IMG_5923IMG_5933In the end we chose to have a local speciality, which is a kind of broth with a lot of stuff in it (usually some meat of your choice, but not necessarily), which you eat with a sort of dryish bread that you need to shred into your bowl first. A very filling bowl of goodness…

IMG_5925IMG_5926IMG_5929Sadly, despite all my preventive measures, the evil bacteria were not going to give up and eventually I ended up coughing, with a sore throat and aching head, and all my arsenal of traditional Chinese syrups was simply not working – it wasn’t too bad, but I knew it would be if I was not well by the time I got on the next long-distance train to Chengdu.

This was where Susy stepped in, and blessed may she be for this. She took me to see a doctor who had a tiny little office in an alley right next to her apartment block. The doctor was about 80 years old, though he looked no more than 65, and had studied both Chinese and Western Medicine. He was very disappointed I couldn’t speak Russian (he could!), but also very impressed that I could speak Chinese. He advised me to marry a Chinese man and stay in China forever. When I reverted to my usual excuse – “oh, but my parents would be so unhappy to have me live so far from home!” – he told me to get them to move to China, because it’s a great place for old people. Okay, I kind of agree with him on this one, but I’m not sure if uprooting my folks to Asia would make them very happy (of course not that they would let themselves be uprooted). He then measured my pulse with his hand and looked into my throat and told me to stop taking most of the stuff I had been recommended at the pharmacy, and when I told him about the dreaded train journey, he just said: “not to worry, we’ll have you up and running by tomorrow”. Whereupon he opened a drawer full of little slots and started measuring out my medicine, to be taken three times a day for the next three days. This is what I got:

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Fyi, this is just one dose (about 15 pills of about 5 different kinds). He then charged me 100 yuan for the whole visit and the medicines, and just as I was about to leave he slipped a piece of paper into my hand. The paper said: “To Ao Jin, from an old Chinese feller; June, 2012″.

Aww!

And – I know you’re wondering about it – yes, the medicine did work. I don’t know what those pills were and what they did to my liver or other organs, but by the time I got on the train the next day, I was on the way to being completely healthy. Cool!

Perfect Brightness & The Train Experience Story – Part 1

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My last stop in Beijing (oh, all right, so the very last one was actually a bar/bookshop, but let’s not squabble over details) was the Old Summer Palace, or Yuanmingyuan (The Garden of Perfect Brightness – I am a huge fan of literal name translations from Chinese: any other language makes them sound ridiculous). It was built in 18th century as a residence for the Qing Dynasty emperors. It was then destroyed in 1860 (first looted by the French and then burned by the British) during the Second Opium War in retaliation for the kidnapping, torture and death of about 30 envoys sent to negotiate a truce.

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The Yuanmingyuan was also called The Garden Of Gardens because of the many pavilions and parks in different styles.
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There is also the Western Mansion, built in the 18th century by Jesuit missionaries to satisfy the emperor’s interest in the exotic (funny to think of the Western culture as being on the receiving end of exoticism, isn’t it?). Part of it is this little labyrinth. Sweet.IMG_5906 IMG_5908

Then there’s the European-style palace. It feels really weird to see Western ruins in China, kind of cognitive dissonance. But it’s a nice place, definitely worth a visit.IMG_5903 IMG_5904Okay, enough of the boring touristy stuff. Now for some travelling meat from a world-weary back-packer!

On the evening of that day I was supposed to meet up with my flatmate from Hangzhou, who was staying somewhere else in Beijing, and we were to take a train to Xi’an. We agreed to meet at a metro station two bus stops away from the West Train Station.

Tip No. 1: if you’re going to take a train from the Beijing West Train Station – don’t. Wait a few months with your trip and let them finish the metro station first. Take my word.

Of course at the time we didn’t know any better, so we went for it. 30-45 minutes should be more than enough to ride two bus stops, right? Oh, sweet naiveté…

Tip No. 2: if you absolutely have to take a train from the West Station now, know that getting there from anywhere, no matter how close, will take you a very, very, very long time, especially from about 3 to 9 pm. We were both looking at the watch and panicking as the bus literally crawled its way through the evening gridlock, looking at the Station building looming ahead and not visibly getting any closer, knowing full well we would have walked the distance much more quickly (yes, even with our twenty kilo backpacks).

When we finally got there, it was a sprint slalom to make it on time. Then a nervous break when we were queueing up to the ticket control gate. Then a sprint slalom again.

Tip No. 3: sprinting with a heavy backpack while trying to circumnavigate crowds of Chinese people who are all trying to get on their respective trains is. Not. Easy.

All in all, we got there just in time to board the train, but it was quite a close call. Then it was just an overnight ride and – next stop (and next post): Xi’an!

(Tip No. 4: it is possible to spend a night in the hard-seater carriage in a supine position, if you accept the risk of bumping your head against the seats you’re sleeping under or having your legs/all of you crushed under the feet of other passengers and generally have very high threshold when it comes to hygiene.)

Zhang Leiping

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Today was supposed to be about the Summer Palace in Beijing, but in the end I’ve decided to be very high-brow and present to you some works by an artist named Zhang Leiping.

I saw her exhibition in the Shanghai Art Museum and was very impressed with her paintings inspired by the mountain landscapes of China. What I like the most about them is the mixture of traditional ink painting with the modern abstract style, and the fact that despite the abstract forms (sometimes more, sometimes less pronounced) the landscape inspirations are still so clearly visible.

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IMG_5383After seeing the exhibition I went home to my Ganma and Ganba and told them about how much I liked it. Ganba (who is himself a well-known traditional painter) commented dismissively: “Oh yes, her. She’s the wife of the mayor. That’s probably why she got the exhibition in the first place”. Well, apparently my standards are lower. But then again maybe her style is not quite applicable to the traditional Chinese standards. Or maybe the fact that she’s the wife of someone important works against her and people don’t respect her because they think she wouldn’t get where she is if it wasn’t for connections? A reasonable assumption not only in China, but I fear in some cases it deprives some people of the credit they actually deserve… Be that as it may, I really enjoyed her paintings, and I hope you do too.

 

 

Beijing 978

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Have you heard of 978? It’s an old factory complex on the outskirts of Beijing (well, I assume it used to be outskirts about 15 years ago… Anyway, not anywhere central), now converted into a hip artsy place with galleries and cafes and whatnot, where young people go to get a taste of modern art. Erm… Ish.

Being the kind of person who considers herself an artistic entity (erm… no, not really, no) somewhat on the edge of current trends (…okay, this one’s a definite no), I went to check it out and managed to find my way to this out-of-the-way corner of the world (getting there? Not horribly convenient, at least the first time, but could be worse. You just have to watch out for the buses).

As is usual with me, I chose the wrong end of the complex to begin with. It was dead empty. I thought I got the wrong place or maybe they’ve just closed it down.

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But no, there was some life there, if only in the form of a Tibetan prayer flags exhibition…

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Things started getting interesting from there:

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And finally I got to some actual galleries, with (fancy that!) real people in them.

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I thought at first this was a depiction of a row of mugs with frothy beer in them… Very Freudian…

IMG_5689And then it was definitely time for some earned respite. If you’re wondering why a cup of ice tea and two scoops of ice cream should make me so ecstatic, please remember I had behind me a whole-night train ride in a hard-seater and the temperature that day was about 40 degrees.

IMG_5692Thus refreshed, I emerged again from the nicely air-conditioned (and that means a lot coming from me – I’m no friend to air conditioning. In Poland we take whatever Mother Nature throws at us and bear it with pride. Except in winter. If we did it then, we’d all die. But still) cafe back into the sweltering heat – and suddenly it turned out there were people everywhere. Oh. So not only had I chosen the wrong entrance, but showed up too early… Noted for future reference. In the meantime, I enjoyed the whatever there was to enjoy (more ice cream! – that is why I don’t have more decent photos, my hands were occupied).

IMG_5694There was a lot of interesting-looking little places:

IMG_5708And some randomness, which you probably know by now I enjoy the most:

IMG_5717And still more randomness:

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And more:

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And even some baffling panda-hate:

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And my personal favourite (okay, but the panda is almost on a par!):

IMG_5701And then I had to go back to the city and meet a friend, so that’s it. Sorry I don’t have any more photos, but – it really was very hot! Just take my word for it when I say it really did get to be more crowded and lively and interesting than it looks here.

To sum up: it’s a fun place to go and spend an afternoon. If you’re a real art junkie, you can’t miss it – but then again, expecting high art would probably be a mistake on your part. Whatever you do, don’t do what I did and make sure you start at the right gate (sadly, I forgot which one it was and how to find it now. Oh well, good luck with it then!).

 

Forbidden – Forsakeable

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UPDATE Huh? Where did all my introduction to the post go? Really, WordPress, are you trying to be annoying today? Well, anyway, I just basically said that I went to the Forbidden City and, much as I expected, it turned out to be not that interesting at all. Now, read on!Tian'an Men Square - with the face of that *(&^#@)&^ Mao still presiding over it.

The Tian’an Men Square, still (of course) with a massive head of Mao presiding over it. Emerging from the metro station (Beijing metro may not be as modern as the Shanghai one, but it’s so wonderfully cheap – only 1 yuan per ride, wherever you go!) and seeing all the crowds, I experienced my first “let’s get the hell out here” moment. But I was tough and I stayed.

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The good thing was I still had my student licence from Hangzhou (hmm, I think it might have actually been the first time I used it in the whole year…) and so only needed to pay half the price. Also a nice surprise: despite the huge crowds milling about in front of the entrance, individual tourists like myself don’t actually have to queue up that long – there’s not that many of them and they’ve a separate counter.  IMG_5749

So this is it. You cross the Gate of the Heavenly Peace – and this is what you see, just like in “The Last Emperor” or “Hero”, only with guided tours instead of chanting soldiers.
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And then you cross the next gate, and there it is – erm, basically the same view…IMG_5756 And then again… and again… Seriously, it all looks the SAME. IMG_5763

So the first opportunity you get to escape into a sideway alley, you take it, and it gets more interesting straight away – but only for a second, because then it turns out those little courtyards also look exactly alike…

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The Hall of Abstinence, where the emperor would go for two days before making his offerings to Heaven and fast – by abstaining from wine, onions, chives and garlic. I mean – oh my, what a horrible and self-denying regime! I now understand much better why Heaven turned Its back on the Qing Dynasty and let it get such a beating (then again, I’ve read the palace kitchens were so far away that by the time the food got to the imperial table it was usually cold, so maybe the lack of these basic condiments was something to really bemoan…).IMG_5768 IMG_5779

See? The same!IMG_5781

I did like the colours, though, especially when set off be the green foliage (then of course the one courtyard with some greenery in it was closed for visitors…)IMG_5785

All in all – I had more or less known what to expect outdoors, but I had really been hoping for a glimpse of the court’s private life: the private chambers etc. – and in this I was thoroughly disappointed (it is possible there were some to see on the left, but I went to the right and it was just too bloody far to walk, so maybe I was just unlucky in my geographical choices). You know when you’re touring some historical residences or palaces and you’re wondering if you could live there (I mean, the view’s pretty, but what about plumbing?)? Well, the Forbidden Palace is the one place I had not even a shadow of a doubt that I might ever enjoy and I can’t imagine any sane person would either. Hell, I wouldn’t stay there for holiday, even if they paid me. It’s a thoroughly depressing place, designed only to impose and confine.

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But look what you find the second you leave through the back gate and cross the street! The old Imperial Garden, which is now a municipal park, entry – 1 yuan. So much nicer!IMG_5798

There’s a hill with a pagoda inside it, from which you get the view of the Forbidden City. It looks much nicer from the distance (this isn’t a representative view, since this photo was taken about halfway up).IMG_5808

Of course some people only seemed to have climbed all this way up so they could… take a nap…
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Seriously, don’t ask. I’m not even trying to understand… Maybe it’s here to stress the ancient Chinese history?IMG_5818

Nice and green, with a lot of shadowy spots to hide from the sun (and let me tell you, Beijing in summer can be pretty hot).

So, to sum-up: let this be a lesson to all of us, that the much-vaunted attractions are often not really worth the bother, whereas much nicer and more interesting places are usually sitting quietly just around the corner. Amen.

And no, I have no idea what’s with the weird layout on the top of the post, and why the photos organised themselves the way they did, but I have a serious cold and can’t really struggle with it now, so… let it be.

A Walk Around Shanghai

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Time for the last visit in Shanghai. Some snaps from around the centre. I can understand how people may think it’s big, characterless and noisy, but there’s a lot of life there, and a lot to do and to observe. Sure, occasionally you’d need to get away and breathe some fresh air, but if you’re a big-city person, I think you might do a lot worse than Shanghai.

Some shots from a tiny park on the way to… well, somewhere else: this man here was practising calligraphy on the pavement, using water instead of ink:

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Cute notice on the lawn: “Baby grass is resting, please do not disturb”.IMG_5316

What I really like about China is the people dancing everywhere there’s any space available:

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Very classy. I don’t suppose she’s actually aware of what it means – or maybe?IMG_5321Shanghai old (ish)…

IMG_5327And modern:

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Another park, and inside: an… erm… a dating market for middle-aged and old people. I love the idea! Some guy came over to talk to me – how flattering! IMG_5434

Of course there was also a part for young people, where they were advertised by their parents, who would sit on the ground with the child’s profile and picture on a little card in front of them. I was told by someone that the young people in question do not necessarily appreciate it…IMG_5435

And on the way back by pure accident I bumped into an antique market:IMG_5565IMG_5568IMG_5571IMG_5567IMG_5570

And the last stop: only in Asia can a bar advertise itself like this and still get some custom – because despite all the reputed downsides (not bigger than in any other place) it brings people together. And sometimes that’s all you need.
IMG_5585So that was my last adventure with Shanghai. Let’s see if I ever get a chance to go back!

Van Cleef & Arpels in Shanghai

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This time – sorry, all you gentlemen out there – a slightly girly post, as it concerns jewellery. It is, however, jewellery of the highest quality, so hopefully you’ll find the photos enjoyable too.

During my last stay in Shanghai I went to the Museum of Modern Art, where an exhibition was held of jewellery made by a French company Van Cleef & Arpels. This family firm was created in 1906 in Paris, after the marriage of Alfred Van Cleef, the son of a diamond cutter, and Esther Arpels, the daughter of a precious stone merchant. It has since provided beautiful wearable art for people such as Grace Kelly, the Duchess of Monaco, the Shah of Iran and many other celebrities and aristocrats. Hope you like it – and sorry for the overload, there were so many stunning pieces there, I’m only posting a half of my pictures anyway! 

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