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March 15-16, 2013
(Posted by Xavier, edited by Kristin)

There are over 1,000 pages in our China Lonely Planet book, and not one is dedicated to Ningbo — it’s not even listed in the index. So if it is not in the LP, it must be some obscure little town, right? Nope. Ningbo is a major commercial city with a population over 7 million, but it’s not on the tourist circuit.

We got into Ningbo after a speedy and comfortable bullet train ride from Xiamen. It was especially enjoyable since people were not smoking in the cabin. Smoke-free, ultramodern, clean sit-down toilets, and the rare guttural throat clearing made for a tremendous difference from our first train ride experience. And talk about fast and smooth, whoosh!

During the train ride there were several stops along the way. The stops were uneventful if it were not for the fact that all the train stations we stopped at were of mammoth size. Incredible in size but empty, we started to wonder why all these stations were so large. Then we remembered reading, and also Phil had told us, of 3 national holidays where massive amounts of people travel across China, mostly by train. They say that during these holidays the crowds are so large that they are estimated as the largest migration of people in the world. So we assume these cavernous train stations must have been built to accommodate these mammoth crowds at these peak times.

As we passed through the countryside, we were amazed at the overwhelming amount of construction everywhere. It wasn’t just one or two high-rise apartment complexes being erected, but sets of ten, twenty, thirty, forty high-rise complexes per site! And there were many of these sites at every city we passed, not to mention elevated roadways, bridges, shopping compounds, etc. It was impressive when we first came into mainland China from Macau and saw all the construction underway, but this was unprecedented from any place we have ever seen. Where are all these people coming from? Where is all the money coming from to build all these buildings, the material, the infrastructure, etc.? It was mind boggling and after a while a bit frightening. Plus every city we passed along the way was HUGE! Then again it only makes sense, when you take a look at lists of the world’s largest cities, China has about 20% of the largest 50 cities in the world. Like they say, seeing is believing, and we were getting smacked in the face with it.

We got into Ningbo in the early evening and had to try and find our way to our hostel. We had Google mapped it and had directions via local bus. We approached the information desk to see if by any chance someone might be able to help us get the right bus going in the right direction. Our luck ended as they all looked blankly at our attempts to try and communicate with them. We were about to see if there were other options for us, when out of nowhere a lady came up to us, and in excellent English, asked if she could help us. Are you kidding me? Yes, you can help, please! As it turns out, she has a brother living in the San Francisco Bay Area. After discussing our dilemma and taking into account the time of night we decided to take a taxi to our hostel, and our new found friend wrote down in Chinese what we needed to show the taxi driver to get to our hostel. We thanked her and jumped into the taxi queue.

With the help of her note we arrived at Ningbo Mingtown Hostel (aka Lee’s Hostel) in good time.

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We aren’t usually too critical, but this is one hostel that could improve greatly with a little more cleanliness and attention to the bathroom, not to mention addressing the dust bunnies breeding under the beds.

There were several reasons we had decided to stay in Ningbo. First, Kristin’s colleague’s sister Lauren (who we were going to meet in Shanghai) had recommended that we visit as there was a fantastic ancient library there. Second, it was a city along the way to our next big destination. Third, Lauren had a good friend there, Emma, that could help show us around. If you know me, then you know I’m a sucker for history and even more so for ancient world history, so the library was the clincher.

It was late when we got in the first night, so our options for eating were limited as the restaurants were closing down around 8pm. We found one that was still open and welcomed us in, even though they seemed entertained that we had chosen their place to eat. They were whipping up some soups in a blazing wok and we just pointed to the ingredients we wanted in it. When I pointed to the chili paste and motioned to load it up, I got a reaction. Okay, I guess they don’t know Mexican around here. The cook whipped up the bowls of soup, adding a big scoop of chilies to mine, and brought them to us. Then the cook, owner, and waitress stood around to watch me eat my soup. Once they noticed I was in heaven and gave them the thumbs up, they smiled, looked at each other and I guess they said something like “he likes it hot.” They giggled and left us alone.

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Make mine hot and extra SPICY please!

Our first morning in Ningbo we set off to find the library, “Tianyige Museum”, which supposedly was very near to our hostel. After walking through a park with a beautiful man-made lake with paddle boats, we practically walked right by the subdued entrance to the library.

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We really didn’t know what to expect from the library and what we saw was impressive. It had courtyard after courtyard of beautifully designed buildings, gardens, ponds, cultural and historic structures of Chinese heritage. After doing a little research we found out it encompasses an area of over 26,000 square meters. We should have known by now that in China everything is big.

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The story of the library is that a local man started to collect books, and particularly historical books, of all kinds. But this man went far beyond just collecting books, he researched and found the best ways of preserving them. He knew about humidity, using herbs to absorb humidity, fireproofing as well as he could, and pest control. He was far ahead of his time for book conservation.

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The library survived many wars, attempted thefts, and natural catastrophes. Many other private collectors have since donated their libraries to the collection. The library is now sealed behind temperature-controlled, fireproof rooms with glass walls for visitors to look through. The Tianyige Museum now stands as one of the largest influential ancient private libraries in China.

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The story goes that man had two sons, and on his deathbed he called them in and asked each one if he wanted the library or the family wealth, knowing that the son who chose the library would be the right one to take care of it. As far as the father was concerned, the true wealth of the family was in the library. He also stipulated in his will that the family was to always take care of the library for eternity and never break up the collection. In short, this place sort of blew us away.

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We had gotten some tips from Lauren on Ningbo and selected some very interesting sights and temples to go see in addition to the library, but unfortunately they were too far out for us to visit for the short time we had in the city (plus we got a late start). It turns out that we wished we could have spent more time in Ningbo because there was much more to see. (This has been a reoccurring theme on our trip…)

We had managed to connect with Emma, and she had graciously invited us for tea. We left the library and caught a taxi over to Emma’s place, which was in one of those countless high-rises. The taxi didn’t exactly leave us off right in front of her place. We still had to find the right building, floor and apartment, which for us in China, was a big accomplishment. We finally found it, and Emma welcomed us into her office, also joined by her friend Tanya. It turns out that both Emma and Tanya teach English for a living. We all sat down for tea and had a great conversation covering many subjects. Their English was very good so we were able to communicate easily, a welcome change from our day to day communication struggles. They were very curious about us and our view points on many subjects. I’ll only mention a few that gave us some insight into China.

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Our Ningbo friends Emma and Tanya.

They asked us how Americans felt about Chinese people buying up property in the US and moving there, and if it upset us. We answered that the issue really isn’t on most people’s radar, but if they have the money then there’s not a lot we can do about it, why do you ask? They indicated that there is a feeling in China that if you can get out, do it — and the US seems to be the country of choice. It is understood that the standard of living there is much better. Next was something that took both Kristin and me by surprise. In talking about politics they mentioned that the Chinese, and especially the Chinese women admire Hillary Clinton. We asked why. Supposedly on one of her last visits to China she had made a statement that China over the next 10 years or so may become one of the poorest countries in the world. Kristin and I immediately were taken aback by this, and asked if they had heard right and maybe Hillary Clinton didn’t really say that. But they insisted that she did and for that reason they admire her, because it was the first time a high ranking international figurehead had the courage to come out and state what a lot of Chinese people have been feeling for a long time. “You have to understand that we are not allowed to speak out or protest. The only thing we can speak out on is that there are too many people in China.” We went on to lighter subjects but it made us pause about social conditions in China.

The four of us left the comfortable office and headed to a popular local restaurant for some Ningbo specialty dishes. The evening was wonderful as we passed away the time chatting about other subjects and eating a delicious variety of dishes. They treated us to dinner and Emma’s mother drove us back to our hostel.

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Mmmmm, fresh frog legs!

Emma did us one more favor of writing down directions for us to give the taxi diver the next morning so that we could catch our bus to Huangshan. We didn’t say goodbye to Emma but rather see you soon in Shanghai. It turned out that she likely was going to be there when we would be staying with Lauren.

We woke up at the crack of dawn the next day, walked down to a major intersection, caught a cab and made it safely to the mammoth bus station. We were off to our next destination, Huangshan, for our high mountain adventure.