Monday, December 28, 2009

Vamos a la Paya

Our days in Yangon are spent in the old city centre of streets crowded with stalls and tea shops. Because of sanctions Myanmar, like Iran, is not connected with the international banking system and once again we are carrying dollars (in mint condition, no fold, no tears, no marks) which we have to change on the black market - the official rate is way below market rate. We change money with an Indian jeweller in one of the big markets. The largest bank note here is equivalent to 1 dollar, so we emerge with our pockets bulging with bricks of notes. At first you feel a little self-conscious with these voluminous bill-folds but then even the fruit sellers sat on the pavements can be seen counting their wads of cash. It soon feels normal.

In the mornings we see lines of monks parading the streets with black bowls tucked under one arm, collecting offerings of food from homes and businesses. Nuns too, in bright pink and orange robes and often a brown parasol to protect their shaven heads. They are not begging - merely providing the people an opportunity to gain merits. One afternoon we catch a bus to Yangon's main tourist attraction and Myanmar's most famous stupa: the Shwedagon Paya. The bus, an old crusty thing with loose bench seats and open windows that catch nothing but hot air, crawls through the traffic. Incongruously there are two flat-screen TVs showing Burmese pop videos and TV programmes. Nothing we see on Burmese TV ever looks like anything we see here. The people are nearly always white, often in western dress and the streets are invariably paved with....well, they're paved. It's unreal.

The paya can easily be seen on the approach - a huge gilded stupa on a hill casting the sun's reflection far and wide. We climb the steps barefoot to the complex of shrines, temples, pagodas, statues and smaller stupas. Momentarily blinded by the dazzle from so much gold up here, we stagger forwards only to be called back to pay the 5 dollar entrance fee. Shame really, because the money goes straight to the government. Shame also, because it appears that the lower half of the Shwedagon Paya is covered in brown paper. Like a modern art installation. And as with most modern art installations we are disappointed. This is a phenomenon we now know as the 'Milan Duomo Effect' . It is the sense of being cheated of the glory of a building by the untimely and lengthy restoration work in progress. (Friends from Milan tell us their cathedral is permanently wrapped in scaffolding.) But there's plenty to see - the complex is alive with locals who have come to make offerings, pray and meditate. A young boy is going through the ordination ceremony to becoming a novice monk. Plenty of older monks are hovering around and eager to strike up conversation with tourists - practising their English, talking football (not politics),hoping to solicit donations. Tourists mill around, listening with glazed expressions to their guide's explanation of the religious and historical significance of a large bronze bell. And cameras are inevitably to the fore. Anything Buddha-ish is gilded, usually by gold leaf applied by the hands of the devoted. Some Buddhas have been electro-plated in shiny gold and look more like C3PO out of Star Wars. The sun sets and night descends. The complex remains busy and peaceful.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Yangon Christmas

There's always a thrill arriving in a country for the first time, no matter how many photographs we may have seen or books we may have read or conversations with other travellers that have coloured-in the simple sketch in our imagination. Driving into Yangon from the airport we get the sense of a provincial town of low-rise buildings, old and new. Only the distance to the centre hints that we're in a city of six million. We're riding in an old Japanese bus - a real museum piece - that's come from one of the budget hotels. There are a dozen of us and it feels like we've suddenly joined a tour group! But the hotel's been recommended to us and we always find it hard to turn down a free ride. The hotel is busy busy, with a big turnround of guests, and there seem to be as many staff as punters. It's all overseen by a woman who is clearly in charge and got everyone well-trained. After the chaos of sorting out rooms for us we are invited to have breakfast and sit down with Sylvie and Eric from France, who are great company.

We end up staying five days in Yangon, happy to walk around the city and adjust to a new place and a new pace. There's a faded charm about the old city centre. Clapped-out crowded buses tear down the dusty streets, the broken pot-holed pavements are alive with bustling food and clothing stalls. There are trees everywhere and tea-shops cluster around huge banyan trees offering welcome shade. We are immediately reminded of India and Sri Lanka. There are paan sellers everywhere and blotches of red spittle cover the ground. Maybe ninety per cent of the men are wearing longyis, and the women also with fitted blouses. Dotted around are old colonial buildings, remnants of the British occupation. Side streets are lined with mildewed concrete appartment blocks, washing is hanging everywhere. Oh and there are plenty of Indians here too in Yangon - descendants of immigrants who turned up with the British to build and run the railway, to trade or to work in the administration. We read that in the 1920's there were more Indians than Burmese in Rangoon, as it was called, and it's not hard to imagine.



lives, or is it dead?


Christmas Day is a low-key affair for us. We have superb biriyani for lunch and then go in search of a decent internet connection to phone home. In an undeveloped country where the internet is restricted by the government and the electricity supply is erratic, we're not too hopeful. Sure enough, our phone calls home are full of empty pauses and swallowed sentences - all very frustrating. In the evening we find a cheerful 'beer station' selling draught stout. Gayle prefers a glass of Shiraz, but they've none in. We join the patrons sitting on toy plastic chairs at toy plastic tables - like furniture borrowed from a kindergarten - spread out across the pavement. There's a nice atmosphere in the cool of the evening, and Christmas turns out to be rather merry after all.




Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Bangkok Interlude

The plane touches down (do planes really just 'touch down'?) late afternoon in Bangkok and we take the slow bus into the city. The air-conditioning on the bus is set to deep freeze and as we sit in the endless traffic jams of the Bangkok rush hour my lips slowly start to turn blue. When we finally get off Gayle has to massage my hands and frost nip has caught my nose. We soon thaw out.
It's high-season in Thailand, the climate is much less humid than our previous two visits and there's a noticeable increase in tourists. There's also a noticeable increase in Western men young and old walking around with their rented girlfriends. The streets seem to be full of food stalls - a bit of a change from China and Hong Kong and we soon get back into the habit of stopping for snacks and meals when the fancy takes us. It's great to taste Thai food again, even if the red curry sometimes seems to go beyond our taste buds' range. We have a few 'jobs' to do - find a Burma guidebook, trade a few novels, catch up on e-mails and this blog, eat a few choc-ices, buy pristine dollars to take to Burma - all easily done here. I am also in need of a haircut. Down by the main station we had noticed fellas getting cuts on the end platform in the open air. When I get there there's a queue. A man starts chatting to me and explains the haircuts are free. I don't believe it, but when it comes to my turn I'm told the same thing. The woman explains that they are all learning and that the cut is free but I don't get to choose the style. I have about 2 cm of hair, and all I want is a no. 1. She obliges and when she's finished directs me to a stand-tap at the end of the track to wash my head. Thinking back now, it's possible that the trainees were on some sort of rehabilitation programme.

Jurek, our Czech friend who we last saw in Chengdu, is also here and it's nice to catch up with him and hear his stories. It's also good to stay with Fiona and Gordon again. Seeing friends like these helps alleviate our occasional pangs of homesickness, particularly as this will be our third Christmas away. Lest we forget the overt commercialism of the event we are bombarded with carols and kitsch seasonal songs in all the shops. It all seems out of place here and even more phoney than at home. So it's with some relief and excitement when we catch our dawn flight to Yangon.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Hong Kong - c'est tout ce que j'aime

I'm loving it. You just can't beat a chicken-grilled sandwich, fries and coffee to go from those lovely smiley folk at McDonald's. Ahhh - the adventurous life of the traveller. And ahhhhhh - Hong Kong! You just can't beat the price either. It's the cheapest food around. Thankfully there's the Cafe de Coral too - a Chinese fast food chain that serves up the healthiest food possible in stark contrast. And speaking of stark contrasts. Well, there's the hot sunny weather when we emerge from the station at Kowloon. There's the smoke-free public space along the promenade with the great view of Hong Kong Island. There are the helpful and informative signs in Cantonese and English advising what you can and cannot do for everyone's safety and peace of mind. (Too many signs - the British have left their mark.) And a Falun Gong display of photos with accounts of China's brutal repression and human rights abuses. These are shocking in their own right, but we are doubly shocked to see such a display in public, after three months in China.
We take the best boat-ride to be had - the public Star Ferry across the harbour to Hong Kong Island - and go straight to the post office to collect a parcel from Poste Restante. My Mum and Dad have sent our camping equipment out to us along with some rather tasty chocolate which we sample while unpacking and repacking our rucksacks. Then it's a late lunch at the aforementioned global junk food emporium before we take another ferry to Lamma Island, an island without roads or cars. We've come here to couch surf with Adrian, a charming young Romanian who works in the city and lives alone in a small flat on the island. It turns out that Adrian is a very generous host and once he learns that we have come to trek some of Hong Kong's trails, he kindly invites us to leave excess baggage with him and to return whenever we like. Adrian thinks of Hong Kong as 'a London in Asia', but thinks the Chinese are ruining it. I'm not sure how. The locals he works with meanwhile refer to the mainland dismissively as 'The Farm'. There is certainly a sense that Hong Kong locals seem more sophisticated than mainland Chinese but I'd be hard-pressed to pinpoint why. Is it in their haircuts???

After a couple of days pootling about we buy supplies for trekking. Getting petrol for the stove seems to be a problem at one petrol station. After saying no, none of the staff gives us eye contact. We were never treated like this in China. Still, there is the super-efficient Tourist Information staff who track down a place where we can buy some and off we go to walk some of the MacLehose Trail which runs along the ridge of hills that separate Kowloon from the rest of the New Territories on the peninsula. Our first day's walk takes us over Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong's highest peak at about 950 metres, which promises great views over the whole area. Unless the cloud drops and you disappear into the thick mist, that is. It turns out to be the worst weather day, and from then on we have sun and light cloud as we cross eastwards above the skyscrapers and appartment blocks of the townships. It's good walking and there are some campsites with toilets, but on our second night we end up carrying water and having to camp right on the trail beneath a high-security radar station. I am spooked by troops of monkeys on some stretches of the trail that is forested, and occasionally we pass silent packs of dogs. These animals are pets that have been dumped in the national parks by locals. At one point we pass a group of vets in white body suits sterilising the monkeys - a rather weird sight. In the end we don't make it to the beach at the end of the trail - it's cloudy and trying to rain and we opt to return to Adrian's. It's the weekend though and there are hundreds of locals of all ages out on the trails and off to the beach with their tents.

Our other hike is on Lantau Island. We climb Hong Kong's second highest peak which promises great views over the whole area. Unless the cloud drops and you disappear into the thick mist, that is. We descend to a campsite above a monastery and a huge sitting Buddha statue, which serves as a pilgrimage place and a tourist attraction. The Buddha faces eastwards looking out towards the new airport, as if he's looking out for the Cathay Pacific flight from Singapore. Our second day takes us along rolling hills and down to a beach campsite where we can relax in solitude. Its hard to imagine we're in Hong Kong, having spent so much of the time in the national parks well away from the hustle and bustle.

When we get back to Adrian's for the final time we discover a full house. He seems to welcome everyone and we've already met a few other couch surfers there. On this evening there is also a Moldovan man who is bumming his way around Asia with an old bike with no gears or brakes. His stuff is in plastic bags tied to the handlebars and he looks like he spent the last night sleeping under a bridge. He probably has. He's already spent three years like this visiting every country in Africa, but in Asia he keeps having problems entering countries. No wonder really as he looks penniless. Adrian is as kind and generous as ever and wants to help him along. It strikes us that couch surfing hosts seem to have something special - to open their doors to complete strangers, demonstrating such trust and hospitality - it renews our faith in humanity, after witnessing in Hong Kong what seems to be only relentless consumption. Speaking of which, anyone for McDonalds??

Monday, December 7, 2009

Shanghaied

Suzhou is one of those little Chinese cities of only 5 million people. Thankfully the city centre is a low-level and low-key place, famous for its canals and gardens and provides us with a few days of easy strolling and low-level, low-key tourist sights. As it's December we skip the gardens (even resisting the temptation of The Humble Administrator's Garden, which is made easier when we see the entry price of a not-so-humble 10 quid) but make a bee-line for the small silk museum that explains Suzhou's role as one of China's major silk-producing centres. There are silkworms munching on mulberry leaves, a collection of old and very old silk textiles and clothing and a couple of large handlooms in operation producing different styles of silk cloth. In the city's funky modern museum there are an assortment of archaeological finds from the area, including some fancy treasures plucked out of buddhist pagodas, and some fantastic silk coats fit for an emperor, or probably a very wealthy merchant. And out on the street it's sunny, the trees are in their autumnal phase, and we're happy to wander around.
Once again we are stymied with our onward travel plans. We want to catch a train from nearby Shanghai to Hong Kong, but to do so we have to go to Shanghai in advance to buy it. For all it's fame and glamour we're not so keen on a day trip there, but at least there are express train connections that make it easier. As soon as we arrive we head to the large Ticket Hall and within minutes have two tickets in our sweaty palms. Now we can go out and enjoy ourselves and we head straight for a stroll along the Bund, the riverside stretch of old colonial buildings built by the foreign traders and businesses that operated for so long in Shanghai. And what was their business? Well, one of the grandest buildings was put up by a bloke who specialised in the opium trade. The British were particularly adept at this trade as they had a ready supply of the drug from India. How ironic that we are trying to prevent this trade these days. When the Chinese tried to stop the sale of opium the British and French waged a little war and by force won concessions to trade in other parts of China, and Britain took Hong Kong Island to use as a trading and shipping base. Nowadays these grand buildings are in various states of repair, but as Shanghai will host the World Expo in 2010 there's an army of construction workers refurbishing and polishing them up. I'm sure it will look lovely, but on this particular day it is all a bit dusty and scaffolded. We seek solace in a park and backstreets through one of the few old neighbourhoods still standing. Part of the area has the city's most popular temple - dedicated to wealth of course - and is surrounded by hundreds of tourist shops. Uh-oh. We take another lane and find a tiny place doing food for locals. We squeeze in with some relief at finding something rather normal at last.
Since we've suddenly got a taste for museums we head for Shanghai's big modern one. There's a stunning collection of statues, buddhas and other figurative pieces, but what impresses me more is the collection of Ming-dynasty furniture - 400 year-old stuff that looks so modern and graceful, including possibly the most comfortable bed in the whole of the Middle Kingdom. Outside we're surrounded by the tall skyscrapers that now symbolise Shanghai's position as the most modern and international city. It's also thought to be the largest. Everyone looks a little wealthier and a little more western, but maybe we're just imagining it. Down one pedestrian shopping street we're assailed by touts trying to sell us handbags, watches, more handbags, marijuana. Marijuana? A South Asian man gives me a conspiratorial wink when I turn in surprise. So the drugs trade is still alive in Shanghai after all.
We have a couple more quiet days in Suzhou before returning to catch our luxury night train southwards. In Shanghai station we pass through immigration control and are formerly stamped out of China before we board the train. We are sharing with a couple of older women, one of whom has been to Manchester in the woolly jumper trade. Her friend has a son teaching English at Hong Kong University and she's planning to see out the winter with him. Wise woman. We ask them whether they speak Cantonese or English in Hong Kong. One of them replies with a smile "We speak Mandarin - it's part of our country now!"

Thursday, December 3, 2009

On The Town

Beijing, Beijing, it's a helluva town. The Bird Nest's up and Tiananmen's down. The people ride in a hole in the ground. Beijing Beijing. It's a helluva ...... oh, Gene Kelly, where are you now? What can I write about the place that you haven't heard before? This is probably the least-surprising city we have visited here in China - it's just how we expected it to be. There's Mao's mug hanging over Tiananmen Gate and the infamous square just over the road - a huge expanse of nothing, oh, except for the man himself, tucked up in his monstrous mausoleum. The flag is flying. And through the gate is the Forbidden City which Gayle visits without me - I feel no great desire to join the crowds of Chinese. She tells me I missed a great collection of Ming and Qing dynasty ceramics, but that the buildings of the city itself are very similar to ones we have already seen around the city. We have already nosed around the Confucius Temple and the neighbouring College for the Imperial Civil Servants' Examinations, plus the Worker's Cultural Palace - and these buildings are all built and laid out in a similar style and decorated in the same colour - Imperial Red (not the People's Red). There are some pleasant parks to visit and at the weekends these seem to fill with people of 'a certain age' who happily indulge in rather wonderful group activities: there's the ballroom dancers swinging to Chinese pop, the opera chorus accompanied by an accordionist, the Tai Chi troop twisting and squatting in unison, two harmonica bands battling for supremacy with booming sound systems, and clusters of folk playing 'zhou en lai' (which translates as 'shuttlecock keepy-uppy'). Of course the rest of the week they all just sit around playing maj jong. Winter's come early this year, with heavy snow already been and gone (the snow had been induced by Chinese meteorologists in an attempt to counter the seasonal regional drought - they really wanted rain.) As a result most of the trees have lost their leaves, so the city seems all the more the great urban metropolis. Big buildings. Big roads.

And then there's the small matter of a wall. We set out early one day for a popular walk along a hilly section of the Great Wall. There's hundreds of steps, steep ramps, broken pathways, iron ladders and a suspension bridge to cross. The scenery is big dry rolling hills. We are duly impressed - the wall disappears into the distance east and west. When we set off it's in glorious sunshine, but at the end of the walk the mist has rolled in and, as we drop down into the car park we can just about spot the taxi drivers' fins sticking up above the cloud. They circle, they feed. We escape eventually with torn clothes but limbs intact. It's been a great day.

While we're here we apply successfully for our Burma visa. We have less than a month left in China, but we definitely want to return in the New Year. As is often the case, it's not the Must Sees or Things To Do that we've enjoyed most, but all the other things in-between. So, in Beijing we enjoy the morning wandering around the Sunday antique/crafts market, or the afternoon mooching about the trendy modern art 798 district. There are still some of the old hutongs left and they're entertaining to wander. These are the old lanes full of one-storey houses that once filled the old city centre. Much has been made of their ongoing destruction and those that remain look like they've been renovated or turned into trendy tourist shopping streets. The old houses have no toilets, so public ones are everywhere. In fact, they claim to have the most of all the cities in the world - handy in this cold weather and one boast to be proud of. There's a decent metro system and the city centre is huge, but we still end up walking a lot. Thankfully we've a decent and very cozy hostel to recover in.
This is the furthest north we're travelling, and at the end of the week we catch a night train southwards to get to Suzhou. As usual, the station's busy, there are the tedious baggage scans and the hanging around in the cavernous waiting halls before the gates are opened and the mad scramble to board first. We're on the train to Shanghai and it's full of rather well-off Chinese. We've got top bunks which means we can go straight to bed, and we nod off with the train announcements coming out of the speaker by our ears.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Travelling in ladies' underwear

"Wo xiang liang zhang piao dao Pingyao!" It's another tongue-twister but we pull it off and the woman behind the counter gives us two train tickets to Pingyao, in Shanxi, a province near to Beijing. This little place has a well-preserved old walled town and it's been used in countless films, too many to count apparently. It's a long journey - a whole night and day on the train from Chengdu and we arrive in the dark. Even then we can detect huge piles of snow everywhere. Our guesthouse is in an old Qing courtyard house and we have a small but cozy room with a stone platform bed. It's no more uncomfortable than all the other rock-hard beds we've had in China, but the place is a little more atmospheric than we're used to.
And so is the town. In the cold light of day, very cold light, we wander the quiet streets and really feel like we've travelled back in time. No wonder the film crews like the place. Unlike so many other old places, this one seems to have escaped the excesses of the normal Chinese makeover. Inside the city walls are small paved streets, thankfully free of vehicles except those pesky electric bicycles that seem to be all the rage. They seem to make a real difference to our immediate environment though - no noise and no exhaust fumes (those are generated at the power stations elsewhere), but it seems a pity that no-one actually pedals anymore. One day they'll be wondering why everyone is so unfit in modern China.
Everything is grey in the weak winter sunlight, but that's probably because all the buildings are built in grey brick. Doorways into courtyards reveal snippets of daily life - washing on lines, bicycles being repaired, snow and ice beng cleared away. It is too cold though - a wind howls down the lanes and much of the time the buildings put us in the shade. We can only stand it for so long. Gayle spots a shop selling tights and gets a pair to wear under her trousers. They're one-size-fits-all so the next day I get a pair as well. Wow, what a difference it makes. Nothing can stop us now.
Our onward train to Beijing is another night train which we take with Silva, a young German who has also been staying at our guesthouse. Silva is teaching German at a private boarding school in Beijing. She tells us how the children get up at 6.30 am for exercises before classes begin at 7. In the evenings after tea, they continue studies until 9pm. On Friday afternoons they are collected by their parents and return on Sunday afternoons, but this free time is often taken up by further private tuition. It's a real insight into how much pressure these children are under to achieve. In one newspaper though, there is a discussion on job opportunities for graduates. Over six million students will graduate next year and there's a real struggle for good jobs. The worldwide economic recession has slowed China's growth rate and now the government wants to encourage the people to spend more money and consume more Chinese goods.
We talk about these things before finally turning in for the night in our super-warm carriage. I'm beginning to wonder if wearing ladies' tights is such a good idea after all....

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Beach Time

One of the locals favourite pastimes in Chengdu is hanging out at tea houses and drinking tea. The parks are full of tables and on the one sunny day we spend here, the scene is lively. Unfortunately the rest of the time it's a bit grey and chilly. Still, we are ready for a break from travelling and although the city's not the ideal place for some 'beach time' , there's no sea, no sand and no sun, we end up stopping for a fortnight. The time flies. There are a few sights to see and thankfully Chengdu's enlightened authorities have made them all free entry with a Panda Card. The Panda card costs 10 pence. So civilised. We visit a couple of museums that are located on the sites of two remarkable archaeological finds both from China's early Zhou dynasty (about 1100 to 700 B.C.). In China's typical grandiose way, the museums are on an epic scale, and the finds are well displayed. Sanxingdui is thought to have been the capital of the ancient Shu kingdom of China and most of the finds here are incredible masks, mostly bronze and some gold. They look like nothing we have seen before and are very large. There are a couple of life-size bronze figures too. At Jinsha, the finds indicate a later capital, as if the Zhou moved west. There are an inordinate number of elephant tusks found in the sacrificial burial mounds. What's excited the Sichuanese is that there is evidence of connections with China's central plains, which was the most developed area in ancient China. What excites us is not so much the history, but the sheer art and craft of some of the pieces. There is a large amount of jade knocking about these sites too - something the Chinese still seem to be partial too, judging by all the jade jewellery and carvings we see for sale everywhere.
Whilst we're here we also become acquainted with Sichuan pepper. Now we thought Sichuan was the place for spicy hot food in China, when in fact everywhere we have been seems to dollop chilli into the cooking. What is special here is the mouth-numbing peppercorn which has a flowery fragrance when you bite into it, just before its numbing properties spread across your tongue and mouth. I love it. Gayle hates it.
We have become very comfortable and settled at Sim's. It's great to be able to dip into a huge dvd library and pull out a few very good films - something we have been starved of for so long. But ultimately it's not a reason to prolong our stay here. We have got another 30 day extension to our visa and, despite the cold, Beijing calls.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Panda Heaven?

The road to Chengdu, winding along the same river valley for 300 kilometres, is being rebuilt. The whole length of it at the same time. There's signs of the 2008 earthquake damage on some stretches - landslides and collapsed bridges - and we travel through new unfinished tunnels. Well, obviously they're finished, otherwise we wouldn't come out the other end, but they're crude, long, unventilated tunnels. For ten hours we drive along a buildng site. Along the way there's signs of new towns that have sprung out of the ruins of old ones.

Chengdu is at first appearances quite uninspiring. It's China's fifth largest metropolis, sitting below the mountains to the west and on the edge of the Sichuan basin that spreads eastwards around the Yangtze. The journey across town to the guesthouse seems endless. Everything looks like it was built in the last thirty years. It probably was. But Sim's Cozy Garden Guesthouse turns out to be just that - an oasis in this pitiless urban environment. Sim, a Singaporean, and his Japanese wife have created a wonderful comfortable hostel in an ugly modern building. There are two garden courtyards, lots of communal space and the rooms have been furnished for travellers. Look - hooks for clothes, somewhere to stash rucksacks, a DVD player. There's also a steady flow of
punters of all types and ages e.g. the young Americans on a 3-week tour of China and South East Asia, an older Aussie/Canadian couple ambling through from Central Asia. We meet Jan who is cycling from the Netherlands to Australia. He's full of stories and enthusiasm and joy for cycle touring (it's his first time) and he scratches our cycling itch. Then there's Phil, a Brit, who's on a visit with his Sichuanese wife, Yan. While he's here he's buying chunky Tibetan jewellery to hawk back at home when he's not teachng English. We're also very happy to see Jurek again and having spent a few lazy days doing nothing but laundry and watching a few films we've missed whilst travelling, we're keen to get out and see the pandas with him.

On the outskirts of the city is China's Panda Breeding Research Centre and an easy place to see these wonderful animals. The panda is native to Sichuan, living in the mountainous bamboo forests - they eat a lot of bamboo. As their natural habitat gradually disappears so do the pandas. Their survival as a species is more remarkable considering their mating habits - pandas only get it on once a year and tend to live a solitary life. In an attempt to keep the species gong the Chinese have spent years on research and at the centre in Chengdu we learn a little of how they have successfully bred pandas in captivity. In an attempt to find compatible partners the scientists first placed small ads in the local papers. Next they organised 'Speed Dating' events. In a remakable example of diplomatic detente, a specialist from India was invited to help. Dr. Virender Sehwag runs India's leading matrimonial agency in Uttar Pradesh, when he's not opening bat for the Indian cricket team. After years of failure the Chinese scientists went back to basics, rolled up their sleeves and gave the pandas a 'helping hand'. So far, hundreds of pandas have been bred successfully by artifical insemination and none have been reintroduced to the wild. As we wander around with Jurek we can understand why. The place is really just a zoo. The pandas live in concrete jails and are ejected each morning to sit in their enclosures and chew bamboo for our enjoyment. They are lovely creatures to watch. One happy looking panda picks up a fistful of bamboo and as he puts it to his mouth rolls backwards in a universal gesture of satisfaction. You can almost detect the smile. We have been advised to visit in the morning to witness this morning ritual so it's disappointing to discover afterwards that we missed afternoon sports time. Apparently the pandas are encouraged to play ping pong, badminton and even kung fu in order to keep themselves in trim. Fooball had been tried too, but the pandas kept mistaking each other for the ball. The Centre is a green oasis in Chengdu, but it's hardly a substitute for their wild origins.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Wild West Frontier

The early morning bus ride to Langmusi takes us across beautiful high-altitude prairie grasslands with grazing herds of shaggy yaks and horses. Snow-topped mountains brood in the early morning light. The landscape is unutterably beautiful. At least this is what Gayle tells me. I sleep through most of it, like the locals, who are always away with the fairies the moment the bus is in motion. That is, unless they are throwing up. When I am awake we pass by a truck that's managed to hit not one, but three yaks. He must have been really trying.

Langmusi is unfairly described as "enchanting" in our guidebook - a terrible misrepresentation of an ugly village plonked on the border of Gansu and Sichuan provinces. It is undoubtedly Tibetan - there are two monasteries here - and freezing pilgrims and locals go about in long coats from sunrise to sunset. They probably sleep in them too. At night the streets are virtually deserted. In the daytime young men ride into town looking like real cowboys from days of yore. Except nowadays they're riding Chinese motorcycles. They swagger into the noodles shops, doors left swinging in the wind, to slurp their dinner, picking out the vegetables from the broth in disgust. A beer is swigged and then Vrroooommm! they ride off in a cloud of dust.

There are snowy peaks close by and we once again plot a route and set off up the slopes in search of a sheep trail leading to the top. It turns out to be another great walk and we're lucky with the weather - clear blue skies and sunshine. No-one to be seen or heard. We climb up to a peak with prayer flags, snow and an impressive clutch of large wooden arrows tied together - the symbolism of which we know not. It's low season here but we still meet a few tourists in a traveller's cafe with apple pie just like our mums make. Well, sort of. We end up walking the next day with Jurek, a very jolly Czech who is going our way. We then travel souhwards together to Songpan, through more stunning scenery. Herds of yaks again, grazing the wide open flats and then an eventual descent into a narrow valley, passing some tidy and attractive Tibetan villages. New houses are being built in the old style. And then we reach Songpan itself - a disappointing town that's had an attempt at beautification i.e. a newly-bilt old fashioned pedestrianised shoppng street, red lanterns aplenty, and restored old walls. The weather has turned grey and Gayle has developed a Capstan on-Filter Cough - irritating to both her and me. Although it's still cold and a bit miserable (no heat in our guesthouse), we stay another day just to put off another bus ride. It's ten more hours down to Chengdu.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Yellow Hats

Well, the state we're in when we get off the train in Lanzhou is Gansu - a province shaped by the desert of Inner Mongolia in the north and mountains in the west. It's early morning and a freezing wind tells us that winter has arrived - everyone but us is wrapped up to the hilt. We're heading to Xiahe but the provincial museum gets rave reviews so we detour there on the way to the bus station. It's modern, free and heated so we enjoy it all the more. There's a lot of Silk Road archaeological finds, including Roman and Persian coins and ancient ritual jade daggers and vases. One item is decorated with silkworms. We are accosted by students as we walk around and stop for the obligatory photos.
Then its back out into the biting wind and onto a bus that takes us into the mountains and drops us into a grotty town peopled mainly by Hui, Chinese Muslims. In the 1800s there were two major rebellions by Muslims in Gansu that ended in their almost total eradication, but some communities have survived. This small town looks like it's missing out on China's new growth - the buildings are sad and ugly, the streets are scruffy. Thankfully there's a connection to Xiahe. Our crusty but trusty bus plods into more mountainous landscapes and finally deposits us in a muddy yard at one end of the very long one-street town. The sun has dropped behind the mountains and the sky is ominously dark.

In the morning Xiahe looks a lot better than first impressions. The sun is late to rise - a reminder that we're just a little further west - and there's a chill in the shade. The town's main draw is the Labrang Monastery, one of the six major monasteries of the Dalai Lama's sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The majority of visitors are Tibetan pilgrims who come here to pay homage and walk the kora, the circuit of the monastery lined with prayer wheels, stupas and temples.

The first sound we hear on this morning is not the chanting of monks or pilgrims but the unison shouts of soldiers returning to barracks behind our hotel. In the grounds their riot gear is laid out - for inspection or easy access? The riots in Lhasa in early 2008 also sparked protests here. It's alleged that 19 people died, but some think more. It's hard to know what tensions exist here - all seems peaceful and tourists have been allowed back since last July - but the town is visibly divided into three parts. There's the old Tibetan side, the Hui Muslims in the middle and Han Chinese at the other end, where big new buildings are going up. There are CCTV cameras on the main street and soldiers' barracks dotted about the valley.

The monastery is a huge complex of several temples, college buildings and hundreds of monks' houses. There's a constant stream of weary pilgrims circulating, uttering prayers, fingering prayer beads and turning prayer wheels. The air is thick with prayers. Most of the pilgrims are in traditional Tibetan dress - layers and layers and thick (yak-skin?) overcoats with overlong sleeves. Many of the women wear striped aprons, heavy jewellery and a face mask - to protect from dust/sun/cold. It's a fascinating ancient ritual but the pilgrims look shockingly poor and scruffy, with thin weather-beaten faces, compared to the well-dressed monks in clean maroon robes, good shoes and their chubby well-scrubbed faces. But that's how it always is. We meet a young monk, Gedun, who wants to practise his English. He's from a herder's family in Qinghai, the province northeast of Tibet. He studies Buddhist philosophy, and will do for many years to come. We meet him for tea a couple of times and talk about life, the universe and, uh, Barack Obama. When we ask about the monks with gold watches, and mobile phones , laden with shopping or tucking into big meals in some of the nicer restaurants in town, Gedun explains that many come from wealthy families and have "business in China". This makes it even more difficult to watch pilgrims kow-towing to monks in the street.

The surrounding landscape is dry and almost treeless. There are grassy hills on both sides of the valley leading to distant snow-capped mountains. Farther off up the valley are vast expanses of grasslands, but it's late in the year now and the herders have returned to their villages. The weather is perfect for walking and we climb to a peak with prayer flags, in the middle of a horseshoe ridge that gives extensive views all around. From up here we can see a longer ridge across up the valley, which we attempt the next day. The days are sunny but cool, but it feels warmer up on the ridges than down in the town. These are our first long walks since we left India and they're wonderful. Sitting in the long brown grass, looking down on minuscule villages fills us with an exhilarating joy. We have found a beautiful and untouched part of China at last.Back in the monastery we meet Andrea and Gerhard, two German cyclists who have come across from Uzbekistan. They fill us with Bicycle Fever. Like all cyclists, they seem to be always eating. With them, we witness the daily assembly of monks, all in their yellow hats, for morning prayers. It makes for great photos. If only we could capture the babbling chants and conch shell hoots as well. At night it's freezing and we wonder how long Andrea and Gerhard can go on in this severe climate. We are struggling to cope with long cold nights in our hotel - it would be perfect if there was heating and reliable hot water, but only on our fifth and last night do we get both.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Terracotta Hoax

It's probably China's most famous archaeological find - an emperor's burial pits that contain an army of 6,000 life-size terracotta soldiers. The Terracotta Warriors now tour the world in displays to promote China's cultural heritage. The closest we'd been to this phenomenon was in 2003 in Sao Paolo. But the queue at the museum was snaking around the building in temperatures around 30 degrees Celsius and we couldn't face the wait. Never mind - we're in China now. So it came as something of a shock to discover that the Chinese Government admitted the whole thing was a hoax only a few weeks before we arrived in Xi'an. The timing of the announcement was interesting. On the day that the world's press was dissecting the news of Michael Jackson's demise, a government spokesman was announcing the arrest and trial of provincial heads for "intentionally misleading the people of the world". Apparently, Xi'an party bosses, searching for something to boost tourism and the city's prominence, dreamt up the idea of "discovering" the warriors back in the mid 70's. A local farmer was thus paid to dig for a well and, purely by chance, locate the very edge of the largest burial pit. To ensure the elaborate hoax was not called, the perpetrators also went to great lengths to make sure that each terracotta soldier was individually produced - the site is famous for the fact that no two soldiers are alike. Very clever. Indeed it appears that no-one outside of about twenty people realised the truth. Thus, UNESCO even granted the site World Heritage status in the 90's.We visited the huge site anyway. The scale is impressive - buildings have been constructed over the three main burial pits and work is "ongoing". In other words, only a small amount of the estimated whole has been uncovered, reconstructed (all of the soldiers are apparenty in pieces) and displayed. The soldiers stand in situ, in the pits, about five metres below the viewing balcony. This puts you at a distance from the pieces. The Chinese tourists' enthusiasm is undiminished though - group after group push through the entrance and crush up to the balcony. No-one appears to look at what is in front of them - the vital thing is to capture a few photos on camera or mobile before being shepherded off to the next building. There are four soldiers that have been put in display cases for closer viewing. They are magnificent, although none really show the colours that each figure was allegedly originally painted. On the way out we pass a hundred souvenir stalls all selling remarkably good replicas of the Warriors. Mmmm. Bit of a giveaway really.National press coverage of the hoax lasted for a couple of days only, and global coverage amounted to short paragraphs from Reuters and other press agencies. It's estimated that 10,000 people are executed annually in China, more than in the rest of the world put together. Recent death penalties in the news include two men involved in the melamine-in-milk-powder scandal last year, a couple of men trafficking children and nine men involved in the riots and deaths in Urumqi. Party officials involved in corruption seem to get lighter punishment - a proper telling-off and a hundred lines of "I must not take bribes". This might explain why party membership is on the rise. But for the hoaxers of Xi'an this might not be enough to save them.

The Start of the Silk Road

Our 5-hour train journey to Xi'an takes ten hours. We seem to be stuck forever on sidings with nothing but a desolate landscape of flat land fractured by deep ravines. This is China's Yellow Earth - the loess blown southwards from Mongolia that makes up much of Shaanxi province. We are starving - thought we'd have arrived before lunch. Luckily Vivien stops to chat. She's on her way back to university and she has some french bread to share. She produces from her bag tiny little polythene packets of sweet white bread - the kind of crap you get on aeroplanes. We wolf them down, and in between chews, chat to Vivien about, y'know, life, the universe and everything. Well, no, not really. We only talk about China. Vivien tells us she wants to have a baby by a blue-eyed westerner with a "high nose". No marriage though. Her mum's divorced and she thinks men are not so good. Fair enough. She has a younger brother. It seems the one-child policy isn't uniformly applied. Exceptions are allowed for ethnic minorities and couples who are both single children. And some people break the rules. After visiting India and Indonesia it seems like the one-child policy is a critical social policy for development here. But it's also a frightening restriction on people's liberty and perhaps best demonstrates the state's control of lives.
Xi'an had become a bit of a Mecca for us since we seem to have traversed large portions of the old Silk Road on this journey. As the old capital of China, Xi'an was the starting point of trade with countries to the west along a variety of routes that stretched across the western regions of present-day China. Perhaps it was the start of globalised world trade. At its peak there would have been a huge amount of trade in goods and ideas and inventions between China and the Middle East and Europe. We still remember the silk cloth recovered from the ruins of Palmyra in Syria on display at the National Museum in Damascus, over 2,000 years old. It came from China and it travelled by camel from trading post to caravanserai right across Asia. In the opposite direction came Roman vases and glassware. Buddhism and Islam came with monks and traders. Why not the knife and fork? Eventually sea trade brought an end to the Silk Road and China's capital city moved further eastwards with successive dynasties. Xi'an is now a huge city once again and amazingly still retains it's impressive city walls around the centre. We walk most of their 14kms on a sunny day. There's not a lot of anything from olden days left here and surrounding the walls is another of high-rise buildings. But in the centre there are the grand drum and bell towers and an old Muslim quarter with a couple of mosques, built in Chinese pagoda style, and, more importantly, a couple of streets of food stalls and restaurants that get packed at night mainly by Chinese tourists looking for the L.S.D. Yep, that's right, it's the in-thing on your holidays here. Wherever you go, you must try the Local Speciality Dish. To be honest, I'm not sure what it is in Xi'an, but the fresh bread meat sandwiches are good, and the beef noodles hit the spot.We're hostelling again, but this time in a busier place that seems to be filled with mainly English people with northern accents. Bizarre. But kind of comfortable and very sociable. Hayley and Ben are travelling around the world with their young daughter. Their speed is dizzying to sloths like us. Before we leave, we take a bus out to a road junction on the west side of the city. In a little park area there's a huge stone sculpture of a Silk Road Caravan setting out. A little boy is clambering over the camel backs and heads of the traders. Down below an old fella is flying a kite about a kilometre above us. We give another old man in a greatcoat a fright - he takes one look at us and shuffles off quickly. If we wait long enough a tour bus will turn up for photos. Sure enough here it is. Out step the middle-aged tourists, to pose for photos, have a quick fag, then back on board and off. We will also be heading west, but only on a cheap and slow night train. This begs the question - what state will we be in when we get off the train?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

On the road to Xi'an

Luoyang's a little known city, unless you're into kung fu - the Shaolin Temple, home of kung fu, is not so far away. We've stopped off here on the way to Xi'an to have a look at the Longmen Caves, a UNESCO site of buddhist carvings and sculptures set into cliff walls along a river. The caves date from the 400's AD but the carvings have had a torrid time of it, what with anti-Buddhist movements of the past, theft by Western collectors, and then zealous Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Our guidebook describes them as ravaged. So it's a bit of a shock to find the entrance fee is about 11 quid each (no discount for holders of fake student cards either). It's a lovely sunny day when we get there and quite frankly, I'm not that bothered about looking at a few headless Buddhas. I'm reminded of a moment in my youth when on holiday in Scotland with my family I decided not to get out of the car to watch salmon leaping at nearby falls. I'd seen salmon leap before and pointed out that "when you've seen one salmon leap, you've seen them all". This comment provoked merciless ribbing from my father. If he made the suggestion to me again I'd go eagerly to watch this wonder of Nature. But getting back to the Buddhas - well, Gayle is keener than I, so we don't have to toss a coin to decide who goes in. While she wanders through the galleries and into some of the newly-built temples, I practise a few kung fu moves in the gardens.
We're staying in our first Chinese youth hostel here. It's in an office block near to the bus station and we appear to be the only punters. The bedrooms are big and comfy, but can't quite disguise the original purpose of the building. I half expect a secretary to appear with a sheaf of papers from the bathroom. There's an old part of the city that's had a slight makeover i.e. they've repointed the walls and painted the drum tower. Red lanterns are dutifully hung from the shopfronts along the main street. But it's not so touristy. A man with a street stall selling hot pork sandwiches tempts me. Gayle waits while I demolish my food. Only a little while later does she ask me if I saw what he chopped into the butty. I hadn't seen. "Pig's snout", she tells me, a little too cheerily. It may be coincidence, but I don't feel too good for the next few days.
We walk too much. We're just getting used to the spread of the cities. There's a Carrefour on our map, so we detour in search of fresh croissants, pain au chocolat, real coffee. Ha! On arrival it takes us twenty minutes to find something we think is edible. Where's the Rocquefort??? Where are the baguettes? There is lots of tofu and dried food and pot noodles and obscurely flavoured items like beef cookies, kiwi fruit crisps, red bean and coconut yoghurt. But there is fruit yoghurt and, on a tiny display of imported foods (pasta, jam, chocolate spread) I find the treasured coffee. Joy of joys. We've also become regular buyers of sugared puffed wheat, which is sold as a snack food in tiny packets. We can buy milk everywhere, so it makes for an easy cheap breakfast. And now there's real coffee too.
The city is fairly clean. So far, most of where we've been has been clean - cleaner than Manchester at any rate. At all hours of the day there are street sweepers in orange day-glow jackets keeping the pavements and roads spotless. There are litter bins everywhere, marked for recycling. There are also a large number of scruffy old folk who rummage these bins and look like they do most of the recycling. It would seem that anyone older than 40 has had a particularly rough deal of it in China - born into the chaos of the new People's Republic and Mao's dreadful policies like the Great Leap Forward and then too old now to really enjoy the fruits of the development of the country in the last twenty years. Saying that, working in a factory or on a construction site here can't be much fun, but the older people certainly look the poorest and most neglected of society.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Extension

There are clear blue skies over Kaifeng when we arrive in the morning. It's a small low-rise city with old walls, a remnant of the days when it was the capital of the Song dynasty days about a thousand years ago. The ancient city was built too closely to the Yangtze though - and was repeatedly flooded. It now lies buried beneath the existing modern city. We've come here principally to get an extension on our visa from the lovely people at the local Public Security Bureau - it takes two working days rather than the usual five here - and it sounds like a fairly ordinary and manageable place to visit. So, first things first, we troop down to the PSB with our passports, photocopies and phrasebook. There's a dedicated desk for foreigners and the woman is cheerful and friendly and looks like she has nothing else to do. Bingo. She too has a phrasebook, and we manage to communicate the essentials well enough. Come back tomorrow to collect, no problem.
As the city centre has some surviving old hutong (alleyways), we decide to do what we do best - go for a wander. There's a fairly large Muslim quarter here and another sign that we've come north is the amount of fresh bread for sale. In northern China the diet is traditionally based around wheat, i.e. bread and noodles. On one long meandering street we pass a pagoda-style mosque, a big old church (looking disused), and a newly restored Buddhist temple. There had been a synagogue here too, but it's been replaced by the People's Hospital No. 4. Muslims and Jews came into China initially along the old Silk Road, traders and craftsmen who were encouraged to settle here. The Muslims, called Hui, look like Han Chinese, but the women cover their hair with a headscarf or what looks like a lilac baker's hat whilst many of the men and young boys wear muslim caps. Inside the temple complex we watch a grandmother lead her daughter and grandson in the rituals of prayer and incense-burning before a shrine. The old lady does so with gusto, whilst her youngsters follow clumsily.
There's a street market stretching for a kilometre selling housewares, clothes and fresh food. The socks are cheap, but last only one day. Fresh bread is being sold hot and up by the university students are queuing for bacon and egg sandwiches. Mmmmm. We head for one of the city parks and are glad we invested in fake student cards in Bangkok. There's a discount on the entrance fee. Entrance charges are applied everywhere in China and it's a real pain for the tight-arsed budget travellers that we are. We have paid to enter villages, temples, museums, and now a city park. And the fees are very high. This applies to Chinese tourists too and it can quickly add up. Out of necessity we are having to be a little more selective about what we see and where we go, which is no bad thing really.
The other highlight in Kaifeng is the nightly food market in the city centre where the main street is taken over by hundreds of stalls. We are mesmerised by the noodle-makers - young guys who are constantly kneading dough, stretching and pulling, twisting it and producing long strings of noodles that are then tossed casually into huge steaming pans. They're delicious.
We return to the Public Security Bureau to collect our passports with the visa extensions slapped inside. On we go......

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Huoche / Choo choo

- You're going to Beijing? We're only going as far as Zhengzhou.
- Lanzhou?
- No, Zhengzhou.
- Zhoucheng?
- No, not Zhoucheng, to Zhengzhou.
- Ahh, Yangzhou!
- No! Zhengzhou. In Henan.
- Hunan?
- No. Zhengzhou IN HENAN.
- Oh, Zhengzhou!!

It's only a couple of hours into our journey and Gayle is already chattering away with the other passengers with mixed success. We're in hard sleeper class, which isn't as bad as it sounds - with two top berths out of a set of six. The carriage is carpeted, air-conditioned and kept clean by an attendant, despite the best efforts of the passengers who at some point all seem to be eating sunflower seeds and leaving mountains of husks everywhere. Hot water for tea and pot noodles is available between the carriages. It all seems so civilised.

Most of the passengers are heading back to Beijing after a few days holiday in Hunan. They're well-dressed and look rather urbane after our three weeks' travelling on country buses with the yokels. A couple of older women in the other berths keep an eye out for us and a young man and his girlfriend, who both speak good English, come and chat in the evening. Three young girls tentatively say hello and half an hour later, as I nod off, they are huddled around Gayle who is using the phrasebook to ask them questions.

Walking around Jishou before we left we had noticed for the first time many people giving us a second look. It's the kind of place that sees few tourists, I guess. Sitting down eating noodles at a street stall draws a few comments from observers who are probably amazed anyone could manage to eat anything holding chopsticks like that. Some people smile, some poke their friends and nod towards us, and a few shout "hello". If we reply, they dissolve into giggles. This is nothing new now for us, and if it's not irritating us it's reassuring in a funny kind of way.

On the train it seems quite normal for folk just to plop down on a seat and start up a conversation with others. It's like we've all been invited to someone's house party. Maybe it's this particular carriage load, but everyone appears very sociable. We could never imagine anything like this in Britain. Meanwhile the scenery flies past, like a frenetic slide show, as we pass through hundreds of tunnels. Green hills, empty valleys, little towns, big rivers, high bridges all zip past in a blur. At about 9pm people finish off their card games or pot noodles and start getting ready for bed. At 10pm the lights go out. We sleep until the attendant wakes us at 1.30am - time to alight at Zhengzhou. We're both sleppy and light-headed and everything has a dreamlike quality as we stagger out.

Chinese railway stations are fairly bleak, functional and souless buildings. For a start, you can't enter the waiting rooms without a ticket. These halls are designed to cope with crowds, not to provide comfort, and on this journey we aren't even allowed onto the platform until the train has pulled up. The only platform action you get is a desperate surge of prospective passengers lugging suitcases and a week's supply of pot noodles towards a closely-guarded train. Each door is defended by an attendant in navy uniform, brass buttons, epaulettes and a "Don't even think about messing with me" look. And it works. People get aboard and the train leaves on time. But there's absolutely no fun or romance in it - none of that expectant excitement thinking about the next destination. No family farewell scenes, no platform hawkers, no wooden benches worn smooth by the bums of previous travellers.

At 2am we emerge outside Zhengzhou station onto a wide open square surrounded by tall neon-lit hotels and 24-hour fast food chain restaurants. Travellers come and go in dribs and drabs. Some are lying down and sleeping. A police officer cruises past in an electric golf buggy, eyes peeled. There's nothing for him to do - no drunks, no unsavoury characters to move on. Just a whole bunch of bleary-eyed travellers like us. And like them, we retire to the nearest McDonalds for a hot drink and a blatant kip at the table.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Ginger cracknell, anyone?

Fenghuang looks like it's been seeing tourists for many years. The old town bares its wares with a weary sigh but still puts on a smiling face for the punter. Grey stone buildings all decorated with the obligatory red lanterns line pedestrianised alleyways and display their goods to the passing tourists. There are the local specialities - tea, rice wine in bamboo bottles, ginger cracknell (quality gear, this) and cured pork, including pig's faces, plus a whole host of shops selling scarves, shawls and trendy clothes, naff t-shirts, Communist memorabilia, and batik clothing. The old ladies who are selling jewellery (of both the silver and tacky plastic kind) have probably been doing this since Mao popped his clogs. Dotted amongst all this are restaurants, trendy cafes and bars that have live music every night - usually one man and his guitar singing James Blunt songs off-key. The feature of the old town, as with many places, is a murky river with a grand covered bridge and a few more basic wooden bridges and stepping stones. Men in boats will punt you downstream for a small consideration, but not small enough for us to consider it.. The river shallows are clogged with a kind of weed that I think we've been eating every day since we arrived in China - water spinach, is it?
The holiday spirit is still going strong here and we wander along the old city wall, dodging tour groups led by diminutive women holding flags and barking instructions through small loud hailers. "And on our right is the oldest Buddhist Temple in Fenghuang. Admire its pagoda style roof. It is now used as the local middle school. Now, forward march!" The groups shuffle onwards towards the antiquities stalls. Down on the riverbank everyone is photographing everyone else. There's the usual array of folk costume stalls and girls and boys dressing up for more photos. Despite the tourist tacky edge to the place it's still rather pleasant. We amble into the new town to photocopy our passports. It takes a while, with frequent asking, to find a place, but everyone is very helpful. The town, like all the other places we have visited, is incredibly clean and free of litter. This is incredible because everyone throws their rubbish in the street. On the buses, the window is the litter bin.
The weather is the only let down as cloud and occasional drizzle dampens the days and dulls our photographs.
We have a couple of days before our train journey northwards, so we move on to Dehang, a village in a "Scenic Area". It's still grey and wet when we arrive, and although the narrow valley and gorges with karst peaks are lovely, the village itself is far from scenic. It's plain ugly, really. It's not helped by the new buildings, including an open-air theatre, built for the domestic tourists, that line the route from the coach carpark to the village square. Our mood is not helped by the grotty accomodation options. We are shown one room with two beds that would only permit standing room for one person at a time. The room has only wooden latticework over the windows, but a large piece of plywood is provided if we want to close out the damp and the light. Fortunately we are rescued by a woman who leads us to what looks like a school boarding house. The room is clean, and despite damp sheets, we take it and quickly head off up one of the walking trails to look at China's highest waterfall. The waterfall has no water, even though it looks like it rains here every day of the year. It's one of those days. What are we doing here? we ask ourselves.
The next day is much better, with sunshine breaking through the morning mist, and we hike up another gorge and climb up a long set of steps to a viewpoint at the head of the valley. The view looking back is wonderful, but turn around and you can see a new expressway just being finished. It seems improbably high up and looks ugly and out of place, but I guess all big roads do at first. We hurry down and checkout, having resolved to spend a night in Jishou, the town where we catch our train. There's nothing to do there, but there's good street food stalls and the hotel room has it's own computer. Gayle quickly gets to work uploading photos from China onto Flickr - a slow task at the best of times, and a bit tricky when all the dialogue boxes on the screen come up in Mandarin. So how does everyone type Chinese characters then? Roland had told us that everyone has to type in pinyin, the romanised form of the language. The pc will then suggest characters to match the pinyin. Another day I watched a woman texting on her mobile phone. She had a touch screen, and with a long fingernail scratched out her characters. The phone then suggested various alternative characters and she chose one. It looked a slow process, but it works.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Five years old again

It's still cold and damp when we leave Xijiang, but the scenery is quite pretty. Eventually we reach a town where we catch our first train in China. It's a four-hour ride and we can't get a reserved seat. In fact we have no idea what we're in for and the characters on our ticket give no clues. We join the milling throng in the waiting room as far from the smelly toilets as possible. At one end is a fence with four gates. Our train number is on one of them and in front of it a huge queue. A tannoy announcement is finally made, the gate opens and the queue pushes forward. We queue jump with five hundred other like-minded people. There's a hint of desperation about the crowd and I start to sweat although it's cool out, but out on the platform there is order and calm. And there are several uniformed women with white gloves on making sure it stays like that. They bark out orders and point a lot. We are directed to a short queue - one of many that has formed along the platform. When the train pulls in we are slightly out of alignment with a carriage door. We are instructed to realign before we are permitted to enter. It's a bit scary but then no-one needs to be clubbed out of the way - something we once saw at an Indian railway station melee. Of course there are no spare seats on the train and we stand and watch the other passengers in their seats - families playing cards, children eating pot noodles, young couples kissing and cooing. Unbelievably, several seated passengers stand up to stretch their legs. After an hour I'm exhausted. But I'm getting off at 2 o'clock. This lot are going all the way to Beijing.

When we do get off we have to reserve a ticket on an overnight train for a few days hence. We have researched the train numbers and routes and times, but when we try to buy the tickets the woman behind the glass screen just says "mei you". There are none. She says a lot more in Mandarin but I'm buggered if I know what she's saying and walk away in surrender. Gayle goes up to have a go and seems to make progress. There is another train we can catch. After a lot of scribbling and double-checking, the ticket seller showing us the choices on her computer screen (all in unreadable characters of course), we finally buy a ticket. But it's a crap deal. We'll arrive at 2am at a town that is only a transit point to our destination. Whilst I'm moaning and rolling around in anguish on the concourse floor a young student approaches us and offers his assistance. Too late!!!! Never mind - he's very nice and helps us get to the bus station for a bus to Fenghuang. Can we walk there? we ask. He tells us it's a 40 minute walk, better to take a taxi. We do. It's a four-minute ride to the bus station, just around the block form the train station. But at least there's a bus for us and seats. We get to Fenghuang at nightfall.

I've just read in a Bill Bryson his description of travelling in countries where they don't speak English. "I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can't read anything, you have only a rudimentary sense of how things work, you can't even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses."

As we walk down the street looking for a hotel I feel like I'm five years old again. I can't read a single sign, it's dark and we're disoriented. Ahh, but we can recognise a hotel reception. Gayle suggests we try the first one we pass. Bingo. The room is clean and cheap and there's a woman who talks sense (or at least we guess she does, since it's all in Mandarin of course. Whatever. She looks like she talks sense). Out on the street there are stalls selling food. It's busy with visitors and there's a liveliness to the place. We pick a stall run by a family - mum, dad and daughter. They have a display of fresh vegetables and skewers of meat. You pick what you want for barbecueing or for the wok. So simple. One thing noticeable in a country with a policy to reduce the number of children, is how child-friendly everywhere is. Especially the restaurants and food stalls who have furniture that looks straight out of my old infant's school. Of course, it's hard enough trying to eat your food with unfamiliar utensils, but to do so whilst sat on a kiddies' chair at a table about one foot lower than your knees, is an act of contortion. Amazingly no-one notices my Mr. Bean performance and we have a great meal. As I try to extricate myself from my limbo position under the table though, I really do wish I was five years old again.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Saudade in Xijiang

Saudade is a Portuguese word that crops up in Brasil a lot. It means something like nostalgia or a sense of loss or absence - I'm not quite sure because I don't have my pocket Portuguese dictionary on me just now. Anyway, you can hear it in many Brazilian songs. The feeling creeps up on us one day in Xijiang. We both are thinking of home. It's probably the grey skies and pending drizzle that does it. As usual when we get these feelings we start to talk about the people and the things we miss. It's probably not the best way to deal with it, but eventually we get on to the people and things we don't miss. And that does the trick. We've been enjoying our time in China so far, but the weather and Xijiang leaves us feeling a little off kilter.

It turned out to be an effort getting here. When we reached Conjiang, in Guizhou, to catch an onward bus, there were no tickets left for the 11 o'clock bus. In fact no tickets left for the rest of the day. We were stunned. This meant staying an unscheduled night in what looked like a one-horse town. Well, there's a river and a road and a bridge, and a lot of newish buildings. Later on we saw these were shielding little wooden houses up on the hillside. Undaunted we quickly did a tour of all the bus station hotels. There are plenty. One place said they had rooms, but when the manageress saw we were foreigners, she said no. Hotels have to be registered with the police to accept us - although we're sure we've already stayed in plenty that aren't. At another place the price of the room yo-yoed so much we gave up trying to pin it down. Everytime we tried to clarify the price it moved. The trouble is that hotels show rates that are ridiculously high, say 280 yuan, when the room can be had for something more like 80. Eventually we found an okay one at the Conjiang Broadcasting Hotel. Next we went to find food, and fell on our feet. A row of restaurants had tables of raw ingredients on display. You pick out what you want and it gets tossed about in a wok for a short while. The wok's usually so hot that the oil catches fire, but instead of everything coming out incinerated and burnt to a crisp, it's perfect. That little spoon of MSG probably helps it along too. If you're unlucky the cooking oil smoke blows past you, leaving you choking for breath and eyes watering, but the more sophisticated outfits have huge fans to disperse the smoke onto passersby instead. Like teargas. And that was it for Conjiang. Not much going for it at all. The onward bus the next day was a bumpy ride on a road half built. It was a long journey and we were delayed when the bus driver decided to pick a fight with a minibus driver. At one point in anger he picked up a rock. He knew it was a mistake almost straight away and the other man went beserk. Luckily there were plenty of onlookers to intercede and push the silly fools back to their respective vehicles. But our driver nearly totalled the bus and probably all us passengers too in trying to overtake the minibus.

So here we are in Xijiang, a very large Miao village (the Miao being another ethnic minority) and wondering what on earth went through the heads of the authorities when they 'tidied' this place up. It really is kind of awful how the main part of the village has been rebuilt, with a huge pedestrianised street down the middle, extra wide for the tour groups, lined with gift shops and hotels. New bridges have been built, and walkways introduced - it doesn't look too authentic even to our untrained eye. Chimneys on houses are cleverly disguised as trees - growing out of the walls. I couldn't find a single litter bin, until I realised all the tree stumps were bins. At some point it seems funny. Towards the end of the day some awful karaoke kicks off and can be heard all over the village. Then we realise it's the daily folk extravaganza put on for the visitors. Neither of us feels inclined to go and see. Nor do we go for the dressing up in folk costume - although it really is the thing to do in these places.

In the morning we head out of the village and into the rice terraces along a path that climbs and winds it's way into the mist. It's trying to rain and there's a chill in the air. It feels like Autumn. What a strange sensation. Later we notice quite a few yokels wandering into the village. There's a drunk staggering past and a street barber doing a roaring trade. These are the tell-tale signs that it's market day. At one end of the village there are stalls set up selling all kinds of clothes, food, bric a brac. Loads of folk are here, the women with their hair tied in another distinctive knot, the old women covering it with pink towels. In other places they use traditional woven cloth, but here the pink flowery hand towel is king. Even the Miao are modernising. We mooch about with all the locals - weighing up the farming tools, the vegetable seeds, the embroidery cottons, the underwear, the padlocks, the Hello Kitty sandals. Steamed buns are going like hot cakes, so we have a couple too. At the meat market there are puppy dogs for sale beside the chickens. Some of them look ridiculously cute. Oh well. There's a good range of vegetables for sale - baskets of beansprouts, bamboo shoots, leeks, tomatoes, cauliflower - this might be the best we've seen in a long while. In one corner some blue polythene hides the drinkers, but outside there's a stack of beer crates. We survey the bustling scene. There's not another tourist to be seen. Maybe they're all down in the new concrete plaza waiting for the folk extravaganza to begin.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Huangzhou Amateur Photography Club Annual Outing

It's the end of the day when we reach Zhaoxing, a large Dong village that is being tarted up for the national tourist trade. The main road is a dusty mess from construction vehicles ploughing through taking concrete and aggregate to the new expressway being built on the other side of the hill. Everywhere in China there is construction work, catching up for lost years. Around the village there are signs of new build and old houses being dismantled, but incredibly it still retains a charming atmosphere. The locals seem to carry on with their normal lives as they always have done. But everywhere there are groups of Chinese tourists with monstrously huge cameras and tripods, clicking away endlessly. It's hard to tell whether they are desperately trying to capture digitally a way of life that is shortly to expire or to photograph the new 'improved' parts of the village. And, excuse me, but why are you pointing that 3 foot zoom lens at me? I'm only sitting on this bridge and watching the world go by. Stop it!

Gayle has learnt her first Mandarin. "Wo neng pai ni ma?" Can I take your picture? Some of the locals look surprised. The Chinese tourists just point a long black lens and shoot. It seems very rude, but no-one seems bothered. The rice processing is carrying on in earnest here - laid out to dry and gathered up again each evening. Fluffy baskets of cotton hang in the sun. Old and young women stagger past with yokes laden with rice or grass feed or buckets of foul-smelling shit. Not sure whether it's human or animal - some of the houses look too old to have toilets. A farmer returns from the fields with his cow and calf, and leads them straight into his house. The older folk are wearing the dark blue clothes of the peasant farmer. Standard issue green plimsolls. Conical hats. The women tie their long hair up in an unusual knot. The youngsters are looking more trendy - drainpipe jeans, assymetrical haircuts. Occasionally young women pass in traditional costume, locally woven and dyed deep purple with a sheen. But the women are dressed to perform for the tourists.

The new buildings stand out because the varnished wood is nine tones brighter than the old wood. Brick and concrete is being used on the ground floors, with wood panelling to cover up. We're not big fans of the 'beautification', but no-one can mind the locals getting new houses, new footpaths and bridges, can they? Interestingly, many of the hoteliers do not look like local Dong. Just a minute, we're being photographed again.

We try and escape the photographers the next day and take a walk with Roland to a neighbouring village. The path climbs up a hill and onto a dirt track that twists ever higher. We are rewarded with lovely views, but come no closer to the next village. Roland asks locals who pass by the distance. It always seems to be another 3 kilometers. Hot, thirsty and hungry we eventually turn around, but after refreshments we take a path to a village we can actually see. It's very quiet, with a few men working below a drum tower, and at one end a group of men and women labouring to dismantle another house. No nails. If you move house you could literally take it with you. This village has old paths, a dirt road, dilapidated buildings, but no photographers - it's the real thing.

On the bus when we leave the next morning we drive through a landscape coated in dust. The villages, the fields, the trees, the people. For many miles we are never far from the new expressway being constructed high up on the hillside. Huge concrete pillars rise into the sky waiting to be connected. Lorries rumble back and forth spreading more dust everywhere. The sky is a flat white and for a moment it looks like it snowed in the night. I'm sure it'll be a great road when it's finished.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Mooncakes

Lutz is on the bus heading to Sanjiang. We'd met him on the walk to Ping'An, going in the opposite direction and instantly started chatting away like friends who've not met for a while. He's been studying Kung Fu for 9 months at a Shaolin temple and is travelling around China for before returning to Europe to start a new life. Roland, a Welshman who teaches English in Beijing and is taking advantage of the national holidays, is with him. We're all going to Chengyang - renowned for its Wind and Rain Bridge.

It sounds like a long shot - travelling into the countryside to see a bridge (it is a lovely bridge), but there are also a series of traditional Dong villages, the Dong being one of China's many ethnic minorities. The countryside is very pretty, a river winding through wooded hills and surrounded by rice fields - what else - with wooden houses huddled together around Drum Towers. These are buildings that mark the village centre, usually with a small square and a stage to one side. The towers have pagoda style roofs here and usually an open room below where all the old fellas sit to play cards, smoke, drink tea. There are several villages clustered near to each other and connected by a series of these 'wind and rain' bridges - ornate wooden bridges supported by stone columns. Many of the buildings are built without nails, just interlocking joints.

We love the area and are undeterred by all the other tourists - most of them daytrippers who hurry to take photos of themselves in every conceivable location, the youngsters holding up two fingers in the V for Victory sign. Or is it Peace, man? You can even hire local costumes from the entrepreneurial locals for a few hundred more photos. Everyone seems to be having a lot of fun and so are we. It's harvest full moon, a special day in the traditional Chinese calendar, and perhaps a greater reason for everyone to be on holiday. Special cakes are being sold everywhere and some are delicious - like mince pies without the fruit. Lots of pork suet and peanuts. Yummy. It's also Lutz's birthday and we celebrate with beers on one of the bridges as the full moon rises. Around us, from all the bridges, firecrackers explode intermittently, like a Triad gang shootout. In the moonlight the fields and villages are perfectly illuminated.

Another day we walk between the villages and over a pass linking two of them. The views are great and it looks like good walking country. Back in the village there's a pumpkin fight being held in front of the Drum tower. Roland wangles us up on to a balcony above a shop to watch as young boys from the neighbouring village attempt to drive out heavily armed women from beneath the Drum tower. It gets extremely messy and some of the crowd join in or withdraw from the onslaught. Lots of oohs and aahs. Great fun. It seems a shame to move on.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Wo is me

Mandarin is allegedly a wonderfully simple language to learn. The grammar is very straightforward, verbs require no conjugation and it is pronounced as it reads.....in Pinyin (the romanized form of Mandarin). Aha, that's the catch. There are thousands of Chinese characters, but apparently you only need to know a few thousand to read a newspaper. I don't think we'll be putting that to the test. Instead I'll be thumbing through our phrasebook trying to find an essential word or two to get by. Apart from useful phrases like "How much is it?" and "I think it's the medication I'm on" there are others that we are unlikely to use such as "Do you know a dentist who's good with children?" or those that we may only need the once, such as "Is this the bus to Huangzhou?" (unless, of course, we go to Huangzhou twice.) Gayle is persevering with her tried and tested technique of speaking English and miming. Frustratingly for me, with my thumb stuck in my phrasebook, she can be very successful.

We venture forth from the safe haven of Yangshuo and to one of those beautiful Chinese locations given the typically poetical name of Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces. Catching the buses is made easier when you have your destination written in characters, but everyone seems helpful, and there's quite a few women working the buses. As everyone knows, women are much more responsible than men or rather, much less stupid. Sometimes we walk into a hotel and the man looks at us like we came from another planet. A mixture of anxiety and fear crosses his face. Can't even comprehend that we might want a room for the night. The woman meanwhile responds with a couple of clarifying questions, a smile and shows us a room. Chromosomes, eh?

The Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces are a couple of very pretty areas where there are um, lots of rice terraces. It's a classic scene and there are several traditional villages where you can stay and wander to viewpoints along traditional stone paths (built for the traditional tourists, but in keeping with the place) to take photos and admire the wonder of it all. The viewpoints have evocative names like "Seven Stars and The Moon", "Nine Dragons, Five Tigers" or the Zeppelin-esque "Stairway to Paradise". There are a few tourists around but plenty more hotels than punters. They remind us of the trekking lodges in Nepal. After a couple of nights in one area we trek across to the other. We are accompanied by a guide who leads us without asking along a quiet path, traversing the hillsides and climbing the ridges, just below the trees and just above the rice terraces. If we dawdle, our guide hurries back to look for us and if we stop for a break to admire the views, he whines. Now, as everyone who knows me knows, I don't like dogs. But this one is friendly and quiet and sticks close to us without getting under our feet. He looks very happy to be out and about. Small wonder, really, as they eat dogs in these parts. The night before, a Canadian recounted to us how two villagers picked up a dog in front of him and tried to kill it. They couldn't. In the end they put it in a gunney sack and smashed it with an iron bar. Later they were seen burning off the fur with a blowtorch. He appreciated that the killing was not a random act of violence - they were just sorting out their tea - but the method was a little upsetting. Our guide meanwhile runs ahead of us and leads us to a village that sees few tourists. It's tucked away in a small valley and the wooden houses look old and warped compared to the new tidy wooden lodges we've seen. There are few other tourists walking the path, and no Chinese. Eventually we reach Ping'an our destination. Before we enter the village we climb up to a viewpoint. Whilst we chat to an American, an old lady who is selling drinks catches our guide dog and ties him up with wire. The dog wails. I try and release him, but the old dear has a grip like a vice on my wrist and pulls me away. She even bears her ragged teeth in rage. It's futile. I can't look after this dog - I don't want to. But I have no doubt he'll end up in a gunney sack like the other one.

Ping'An sees a few more tourists than the other villages, and it's particularly busy because of the 1st October holidays. Sixty years ago Mao proclaimed the People's Republic of China. Lots and lots of people are on holiday for a week or more and the hotels are responding accordingly. Our room costs 60 yuan for the night, but we have to change hotel for the next night because the price is rising to 220 yuan. At the weekend it will be 400 yuan. I wonder how much the word 'communism' is aired these days in China. We find another room in a simple little place that has no other guests. No TV + no air-con = no punters. We like the family who run it and we're invited to sit down with them to watch some of the celebrations from Beijing in the evening. Lots of singing and dancing and folk costumes and fireworks and extras forming huge colourful patterns for those great aerial shots. The Chinese can do spectaculars. Shots of the stony-faced Central Committee, in dark suits watching from their balcony. It goes on for hours. We go to bed.

In the morning we walk away from the village and the hotels advertising folk remedies and foot massages (one, the Li Qing Hotel, even offers blood-letting services) and the Chinese tourists who are huffing and puffing their way to a viewpoint. Half an hour away is another village, virtually untouched by the outside interest. Another world almost. In the fields the harvesting has begun. Farmers are cutting the rice and laying it out to dry on the edge of each paddy field. Once it's dried for a few days they then thresh it into a wooden box in the field and cart off the rice grains. These are then spread out on plastic sheets to dry for a few more days. The grains are then winnowed, leaving the grains free of their husks, and put out to dry again. It's a labour intensive process that we are to witness again and again in the coming days.

One evening we walk into a noodle joint and I start stammering out "Wo....wo.....wo..." (I would like two bowls of rice noodles.) Gayle meanwhile has pointed into the pan of steaming broth and the pile of noodles on the side, given the two fingers to the cook and sat down to wait. "Wo xiang liang wan mifen!" I finally spit out as the said noodles are delivered to us. Mandarin sometimes sounds like a series of tongue-twisters that are best attempted when drunk...........

Thursday, October 1, 2009

China Lite

The night bus to Yangshuo is expensive but luxurious - with plenty of space and leather seats. This turns out to be problematic when wearing polyester trousers - I have to use the seat belt (seat belt!) to hold myself in my seat. Yangshuo, in Guangxi, is possibly as touristy as it gets in China, although as one friend has pointed out, where isn't touristy in China? Famed for its fabulous karst landscape and river views, as featured on the 20 yuan note, Yangshuo attracts both foreign and Chinese tourists by the bus and boat load. We are greeted by an English-speaking tout at the bus station who invites us to look at his hostel. Sleepy and dazed, we ignore our wealth of experience and wander off with him. He seems put out when we go and have a look at another hostel on route, and insists on entering the place before us. Our alarm bells finally ring, and we ask him to leave us alone. In fact, we don't want to look at his hostel. He turns apoplectic and starts demonstrating a familiar knowledge of the English vernacular. His face turns purple and his hands become fists. I get angry but stay calm, and invite him to 'have a go'. I don't know why I do this but thankfully he just goes off in a huff. We walk back the way we have come and meet a woman who speaks no English. She has a cheap comfortable room with bathroom and a/c in her guesthouse. Ideal. We take it.

This place is a great introduction to China for us. There's plenty to see and do, there are locals who speak English and restaurants with English menus. On the other hand, this is a terrible introduction to China. Although there's plenty to see and do, the locals all speak English and the restaurants all have English menus. We hire bicycles and ride out of town and along the rivers, getting lost, going in circles, saying hello to farmers in their conical hats, haggling with ferry boat drivers to take us across to the other side. There are lots of other tourists doing the same thing but it's not overcrowded. In fact it feels quite sociable. On one day we decide to hike a stretch of river that is popular with cruise boats. We meet a young Chinese woman, Yun Fei, who is doing the same. She stands out a mile in tartan cords, a dayglo pink baseball cap and a pudding-bowl haircut. And she's only five foot tall. As we trek along the river bank and through fields of orange trees and rice and vegtables, she tells us that last year she cycled from her hometown in Chengdu to Lhasa on a cheap bike. She fuels our craving to cycle here. Along the way we are greeted with calls of "Hello! Bamboo?" by locals who have built bamboo rafts with an outboard motor to ferry tourists around. Yun Fei chats to everyone and at the end of the day we remark on how friendly everyone is. "Yes and no", she replies. "They just want our money, really. It's too touristy here." Another cruise boat drifts by, a loudhailer echoes off the limestone crags that jut above the riverside.

In Xinping we try and find the old part of the town to photograph. But the stone-paved narrow streets are full of shops, cafes and restaurants. It reminds me of the towns in the Lake District. Groups of Chinese tourists are carried past in small electric buses, to save them walking anywhere. In the new part of town the buildings are uniformly concrete and painted white. The place is tidy and clean and the electric motorbikes are great - no noise and no exhaust fumes. Now it reminds me of those new parts of towns in Spanish Andalusia. Even the Chinese tourists don't look Chinese. Where are the suits and the dull haircuts? Everyone's in bright polo shirts and shorts, trainers or sandals, although there's also an unfortunate frilliness about the women's clothes. I guess these tourists are China's lucky ones - they have money and time for holidays. In Guangzhou Eli told us that most migrant factory workers get one week a year off work and maybe one day a month. No weekends unless they work in a well-regulated city. At least the peasant farmers meet my expectations - dark blue clothes, conical hats, a bit dour and always as thin as reeds.

We stay a while in Yangshuo, lulled by the comforts of an easy environment, and plot our route north to Xi'an. On October 1st China celebrates 60 years of its totalitarian dictatorship. There should be some good fireworks. Mao t-shirts are selling like hotcakes. The country will stop for a week and travel promises to be difficult. Mmm. Things are about to get interesting.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Culture Shock

The bus heads along the motorway past nondescript industrial scenes until we enter the outskirts of Guangzhou. It reminds me of Sao Paolo with its endless vistas of overpasses and appartment blocks, concrete everywhere. It's not noticeably polluted although the sunshine is hazy. At the bus station a friendly woman at the information counter tells us about onward buses. And food?, we ask, instinctively miming with our hands the act of pushing something into our mouths. Over the road, 3rd floor. We take a footbridge that leads us to a KFC and the Kung Fu fast food restaurant. Bruce Lee and Colonel Sanders look at us impassively over the heads of hundreds of hungry punters. Nonplussed, we decide to try our luck by the railway station where, sure enough, there's some cheap and cheerful little hovels serving noodles or rice and steam tray food. We plump for rice, veg and pork rind. Should've gone for the chicken. Now, how to eat rice with chopsticks? Despite Kenny's attempt to improve my technique in Singapore, I'm still learning. It's easier when I don't think about it. Unfortunately when I'm hungry I think about it a lot. Luckily, the bloke at the table next to us is demonstrating perfectly. Basically get your gob as close to the rice as possible and shovel. It works. Later that day we practice eating noodle soup with chopsticks. This is best done whilst wearing a multi-coloured patterned shirt.

We're Couch Surfing in Guangzhou. Couch Surfing puts you in touch with people who can give you a bed (or couch) for the night and perhaps provide some local knowledge. It's a great opportunity for some 'cultural exchange'. Our host is Eli, a 60 year-old New York businessman and self-proclaimed "wise ass" with a voice like gravel. He's straight out of 'Rhoda', and between cracks about living and working in China, he gives us shopping tips and places to find bargains. ("Haggle for everything!") It's a different kind of cultural exchange.

We take the metro, modern clean and crowded, into the centre for a look around. There are the ever-present 7-Elevens (which Gayle keeps calling 9-Elevens) and McDonalds. We even come across a Tesco's and check out the fruit and fresh produce. The apples look good, but we pass on the frogs, crabs, toads, turtles, eels and various fish - particularly the one that leaps out of its tank into the aisle in front of us and is quickly swept up by a cleaner and dumped straight back in. Not quite like home - at least here you know it really is fresh. In the old downtown area the streets are leafier and smaller and lots of cyclists whizz by. Instead of the shopping plazas and chainstores there are hundres of tiny shops, looking as untidy and disorganised as those we have seen in Bangkok's Chinatown. Everyone seems to be out shopping, just like every other Asian city we have visited, and come to think of it, just like London or Manchester. Shop shop shop. China seems on first impressions to be no different to anywhere else. This thought comes as a disappointment.

Guangzhou is China's third largest city and was it's biggest trading port before the Communist People's Republic opted to try Capitalism. The province is heavily industrialised and down on the river front you can see cargo boats and freight barges ambling past, whilst in the murky waters are groups of adventurous swimmers crossing the wide Pearl River. On Shamian Island, a piece of land conceded to the British and French, there's a clutch of old colonial buildings and churches. Some are still being restored. Young wedding couples pose in the gardens for photographs. Groups of old folk play cards or checkers or just sit motionless in the stifling afternoon heat. We succumb to the air-conditioned comfort of Starbucks. Inside there's a group of Americans with newly-adopted Chinese babies - apparently it's the place to do it - and various young and wealthy-looking locals, all busily tapping away at their laptops. We stay for two hours until our sweat-dripping clothes have dried out. Down Smooth Minaret Street is a smooth minaret. It belongs to a mosque that is believed to be China's first, established by one of Mo's uncles around 627 AD. Muslims only, unfortunately, but we can confirm that the minaret is smooth. Not far away is the city's oldest Buddhist temple, the "Temple of Filial Piety', about 300 years younger. The temple complex is in very good nick which means it either survived the worst of the Cultural Revolution or has been well-restored. We wonder how popular religion is these days in China.

Not as popular as shopping, based on a simple visual assessment. Down on Bargain Street things are hotting up. Discount shops have clapping sales assistants to entice us in. Or drive us away. Down a back street there's rows of food stalls. One advertises "Fresh New Zealand Mutton". Another sells kebabed grubs, beetles and scorpions. After shopping in Tesco's and drinking in Starbucks here is a great opportunity for us to submerse ourselves in China Proper. Go on, have a scorpion on a stick!