Days spent – 33 days (9 September 2016 to 12 September 2016 and 7 October 2016 to 6 November 2016)
Places visited – Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Lijiang, Qiaotou, Chongqing, Wulingyuan, Shanghai, Guangzhou
Books read – Wild Swans
Things done – Great Wall, Yonghegong Lama Temple, Confucius Shrine, Forbidden City, Beijing Summer Palace, National Museum of China, Xi’an City Wall, Big Goose Pagoda fountain show, Terracotta Army, Shaanxi History Museum, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Baisha Village, Three Gorges Museum, Spring Temple Buddha, Shanghai Museum
Highlight(s) – Yao, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Spring Temple Buddha day
Lowlight(s) – Chinese customs, pollution
Cost – £1,043.45 (£31.62 per day)
Warning: This blog contains content that some readers may find distressing.
China, China, China.
Beautiful, wonderful, amazing China. I’ve got my mojo back! It’s Sunday the thirteenth of November. I left China on the sixth, just a week ago. I miss the place. I get sad and nostalgic thinking about writing this, again whilst planning and one final time when writing it.
Firstly, a note on pronunciation. ‘X’ reads as ‘sh’, ‘q’ sounds like ‘ch’ and ‘zh’ is more like a ‘j’ sound with a hint of ‘z’ about it. Now go back and read the places visited and things done again, because, be honest, you read them wrong, didn’t you?! The problem is pronunciation is important here. A lot of words have different meanings, depending on how one says them, and a lot have four. A flat tone, a rising tone, a falling tone and and tone that falls then rises. Some pronunciations are quite gutteral or nasaly, sounds we don’t really have in English. It’s all quite complicated. I try my best, over a month in China and I learn as much as possible because I never know when I might need it. China is big so plenty of long train journeys are required meaning I have time to kill, let’s learn Mandarin. On one train, me and Mimi (a Swiss girl I met) meet this really nice Chinese couple and we teach each other languages. I’m fully confident having spent hours learning on the app. Ok, let’s count. One is yī, which sounds more like ‘eeee’. ‘Eeee’ I say, no ‘eeee’. ‘Eeee’, no. This back and forth continued for about fifteen minutes, after which we graduated to two… Sigh, more work required… As you can perhaps tell from what I’ve written I still don’t know the difference and I still don’t think I’m saying it correctly. On another train, I talk to a student from a university in Xi’an. He asks if I know any Chinese to which I reply ‘ni jiáo shénme míngzì’ and not only do I learn his name, I also get congratulated on my pronunciation, yay!
As you can probably tell from the opening lines of this blog, I love China. But, there are downsides it helps to be prepared for. Many of these you hear about before arriving: the Chinese are horrible, everywhere is dirty, you’ll get ill. Everyone seems very quick to insult and belittle China and its customs. If you want western culture in all its ‘glory’ go to south Spain in summer with all the other drunken Brits and Germans who weigh over fifteen stone but inexplicably think they look good without a shirt. I wonder if some of those that criticise China have ever actually been. Alas, they’re sort of right. On arrival you are likely to be struck not only by the complete craziness of everything (hello culture shock), but by the clearing of throats and spitting, everywhere. It doesn’t matter if one is indoors or out, or even on a bus or a train.
I can see why they do it though, everyone is ill, permanently. For China is polluted, very polluted. On my second arrival in Beijing I exit the subway and I can literally taste it. By the time I get to Xi’an I’m clearing the throat and spitting like the best of them, can I have a Chinese passport now? I hear about China being dirty, but only once did I see excrement in the street, I think it was human. Don’t judge, there’s more excrement of the canine variety on London’s streets. Seeing children going to the toilet in the street is strange but you do get used to it. In some public toilets there are no barriers between the squatees. Seeing other men defecate is something I can’t get used to… Thankfully, only once did I have to use one for the sit down thing. I’m not used to this, my muscles seize and I can’t get up again! Ahh, now I have to touch something! There’s a reason that the best friend of a traveller in Asia is hand sanitiser. Also, putting a hand to ones mouth when coughing isn’t a thing here. On a bus from Lijiang to Qiaotou I got a shower I really didn’t want! The lack of respect for personal space and the queue jumping also take some getting used to.
Another downside is that I let myself get conned of about thirty pounds in Beijing. I get approached by a middle-aged (I consider this to be older than myself these days) lady speaking perfect English in Tiananmen Square. That should have been my first red flag because no one that old speaks English here as a rule. We end up getting coffee and snacks and I end up footing a triple price bill. I’m not annoyed about the thirty quid (ok, maybe a little), but I’m annoyed I didn’t stand up for myself or make a fuss. I played along in my meek, dumb tourist role. What’s the worst that could have happened? A night in a Chinese prison? It would have been an experience if nothing else…
I’ve had my fix of thrillers in Russia, Japan and Korea. In China I choose to read Wild Swans by Jung Chang (pronounced Yung of course!). I looked at a few books to read and chose this one because it’s banned in China! I now want to know what’s in it. I log on to VPN and download it. It’s banned along with Google and Facebook and several other apps and websites. International rivals to Chinese firms are blocked. The Great Firewall of China, as it’s dubbed. The Japanese all drive Toyotas and Nissans. The Koreans all drive Kias and Hyundais. In my opinion it can just be a culture thing. Anyway, on to the book, like China, it’s brilliant. Everyone should read it. It’s a real insight into China, both old and new and one of the best accounts of what happened there in the last century. A country ravaged by turmoil, war and oppression. It’s brutally honest and that makes it a hard read at times, especially as it’s real history. Some things really hit home. After the famine during the Great Leap Forward came the Cultural Revolution and the persecution and denunciation of both of Jung’s parents. Her father is an incredible man. Just read it. I finish it on the plane out, probably in Chinese airspace. Only then do I realise Jung’s mother lives in Chengdu and I could possibly have met her. Damn.
Anyway, enough of that, let’s talk about now. Beautiful, wonderful, amazing China. Food, well Chinese food obviously but in China they just call it food! In fact one of the first meals I have isn’t Chinese. I’m in a southeast Asian restaurant in Beijing (thanks Molly for showing me the place) and have mee goreng, so nice. I now have to go to Malaysia and Indonesia for this… Lots of fried rice and noodle dishes are consumed because they’re cheap. In Chongqing the famous local speciality is hot pot, we get the least spicy option. Thank the lord, it’s so spicy. One day I want to try the spiciest one just to see if I can avoid hospitalisation. The photo below was taken after we’d finished crying… Not one of my favourites but good practice for Indian spiciness. Central China is very keen on its spicy food making ‘no spice’ one of those essential Chinese phrases to learn. Of course it’s not possible to go to China and not eat something crazy. For me it’s chicken’s foot. Popular in a soup and as a snack in Chongqing. It takes a while for me to pluck up the courage but it’s quite good! The following day, on the train out of Chongqing, I’m sat next to someone snacking on chicken’s feet. Yesterday this would have horrified me, today not so much… In Shanghai I get complimented on my chopstick use. Chopstick level: expert.
The next step after Beijing is Xi’an which is close to the Terracotta Warriors so a visit is in order. In Chinese, the army is known as 兵马俑 . Ooh, I recognise the middle Kanji character, pronounced mă, it means horse, very exciting, but not helpful. That’s the thing with language learning, you learn things you don’t need and not things you do, it’s a little annoying… It was ordered by the first emperor to unify China, Qin Shi Huang. This literally translates to First Qin Emperor, remember that Qin is pronounced ‘chin’, hence China! Ahh, it all makes sense… Well, nearly. This army guards him during the afterlife. However, in life he was a bit of an tyrant, which seems typical of those in power in China. The army was top secret, it’s said that each warrior is different because once made the maker was killed to protect the secrecy. He also had three thousand concubines. But he got things done, he built roads, unified China, had his army constructed and initiated the Great Wall. All before 200BC, quite impressive. All Britain has of that time is Stonehenge and we don’t know what it’s for or why it’s there! When one sees it, it’s hard to believe how old it is. It’ll take another seventy years or so to restore them all, good luck to them.
After Beijing I start to feel tall, in Xi’an, even if I’m a step below someone on an escalator I’m still invariably higher than they are. Also in Xi’an I see another example of the contrast in China. Xi’an is a former capital and has the most intact city wall in the world. One can still walk all the way around, or bike if speed is more of an objective. Surrounded by over two thousand years of Chinese history, there’s a Chinese band covering an Ed Sheeran song. Below are two pictures of the same place: Chongqing. In Beijing, a shop is selling iPhone 7s in all its white lighted magnificence. Next door is an old lady selling some sort of broth from what looks like a cauldron. Could she be a witch I ask myself? I wouldn’t rule it out…
No trip to China is complete without a visit to the Great Wall. Many thanks to Molly for taking me here and showing me around on what was only my second day in China. I wouldn’t have gotten very far on my own armed with just níhăo and xièxiè! The quandary regarding the wall is which part to go to. Where it’s still intact? Where it’s dilapidated? Hmm, intact it is, hopefully with some nice views. It’s quite a climb to even get to the wall and this is when I wasn’t feeling very well so it’s a bit of a struggle! Thanks again to Molly for putting up with me during this time. It’s over four thousand miles long, maybe one day I can walk it, that would be fun.
In Chengdu I look into going to see the Leshan Buddha but on looking into it I decide I’d rather go to see the Spring Temple Buddha. This is partly because it’s the largest statue in the world. I go from Chongqing and after I go to Zhangjiajie, it’s a bit of of a mission, I should have gone here from Xi’an. My train arrives at Leshan at 02:10, that’s a stupid time! I just have to wait for my bus. I haven’t slept and I didn’t sleep, it’s cold. After burning a little in Tiger Leaping Gorge I’m now freezing. At seven I can’t stand it and get the bus, there are already some schoolkids on the bus and they’re surprised to see me. Maybe not many westerners do this. To that end, I have to do all photographic duties with the Chinese tourists! It’s probably the only time I’ll have my photo taken over twenty times in one day.
At one point I go past a family with two young children, the youngest is a girl of about four. They’re slow so I get ahead of them pretty quickly, shortly after I can hear the kids running after me, they stop just before me and I can hear them stalking me. I’m walking towards the Bell Tower which has this massive bell! We arrive at a similar time and apparently I’m the main attraction, no one cares about the bell. After toying with the idea for a long while the girl plucks up the courage to say níhăo. I reply in kind. Without saying another word she grabs my hand (which was in my pocket) and we’re posing for a photograph. Mum appears as if from nowhere with the requisite camera. But that’s not all, Mum wants a selfie too!
Back at Leshan I’m eating at this place and getting several strange looks. Whilst eating I look around and catch another girl trying to take a sneaky photo of me. Haha, busted! She’s maybe about six and is slightly embarrassed initially then breaks into a massive grin. After this we exchange glances and she’s grinning from ear to ear each time, cheeky mite! I decide I like her so I let her have a proper photo of me because the one she has must be rubbish. Only then does she go all shy, maybe she’s surprised I’m speaking broken Mandarin. In the train station a teenage boy stares at me for the whole time I was there (maybe fifteen or twenty minutes). I need to look at something on my phone, he looks over my shoulder and then watches as I write four Kanji characters in my notepad.
In Beijing, I go to the Summer Palace. The main problem is you can’t see it anymore because Britain destroyed it. Sorry China. But we did help build it… I also go to the National Museum of China. I get stopped by security, I have to drink some of my water to prove it’s not petrol or anything weird, ok. The first exhibit I see is a statue of a mother depicted with her head thrown back in anguish, she’s holding her dead baby. It’s called The Shattered Family and the caption reads “Never returns to son killed, never returns the husband buried alive, sorrow drowns the wife raped, heavens…” Heavens indeed. This refers to the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, a real horrible thing. I then figure out how overcrowded China is. I’m advised to get to the train station two hours early, what is this an international flight?! When I get there I can see why, it can take an hour to collect your ticket!
I need a haircut, I’m in Beijing, what could possibly go wrong?! Níhăo, níhăo, níhăo. Ok, now what? Firstly, of course, I have to point at a map to show where I’m from. We have plenty of language problems with lots of gesticulating and pointing at hair and beards. In the end I show him my passport photo which gets some laughs, yes I want to look like this. Ok, on we go. First I have my hair washed because apparently I’m skanky (probably true). Then, it begins and it doesn’t end for a long, long time. It’s light when I enter and dark when I leave. Clippers then scissors and every hair is double and triple checked. After, my hair is washed again, I then go back to the chair for more perfectionism. I start to wonder if I’ll have to skip a meal! After using some spray stuff (I now smell girly), it seems to be over, phew! Possibly the only time in my life without a hair out of place.
Everywhere in China, markets are rife. They are quintessential China to a certain extent and offer me so many unknowns and strange sensations. It’s an assault on the senses, thronging crowds, unusual sights, contradicting smells, a cocophony of sound and a risky taste if one is brave enough to try something. Something can smell divine before five metres later it’s overridden by something that smells horrendous. I’m never brave enough to try anything and it’s normally overpriced anyway. The picture below is one of the abnormal sights.
In Chengdu I meet Mimi, who is my travel twin. We both quit our jobs to travel. We both took the Trans-Mongolian. We both have older siblings and we both have nieces and nephews of the same age. We’ve both also gone from Beijing to Xi’an to Chengdu and we’re both looking to go to Tiger Leaping Gorge. The only problem is it’s so far from anywhere else in China. Ok, bullet bitten, train booked, we’re going. It’s worth it! Such a great place and my first glimpse of the Himalayas. This is the highest I’ve ever been (nearly three thousand metres) and the first time I’ve seen a peak over five thousand metres. It’s called Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, cool name. On our second day of trekking we get the Sky Ladder from the river back to the hostel. I’m not that good with heights so I’m not sure at what point I thought this was a good idea. We climb from the river for a bit to get to get to the ladder. The climb is about three hundred metres. After less than one hundred metres we’re on the ladder. Oh god, does this thing go to the top?! Thankfully, it doesn’t because I’m taking ages to climb because I’m holding on for dear life. The bus out isn’t much better. I’m sat on the back left seat and we’re driving on the edge of the gorge. So close that when I look down, I can’t see the edge of the road, that’s scary. But, that aside, I love the place and it’s been the first place on this trip that I’ve been sad to leave.
I was also sad to leave Shanghai. In Chongqing I meet Yao. We both arrive too early at the hostel to check in so we exchange hellos. Crikey – she’s pretty. She has long black hair and dark eyes. I’m a sucker for dark eyes, eyes where I can’t tell where the pupil ends and the iris begins. I spend a long time looking at those eyes and I can feel that everything is reciprocated. Those eyes are looking right into my soul too, I’ve never felt like that before. Everyone in China has dark hair and dark eyes but hers are different, because they look at me like that. The following day I get back to the hostel early to make sure I’m there when she gets back (is that weird? Creepy? Maybe). She sits behind me so I move to talk to her. We exchange the usual, name and place of origin etc. I’m just about to ask if she wants to come to Chongqing’s viewpoint with me (that’s romantic, right?) when a Polish guy scuppers the plan, he wants to get dinner. We’ve already eaten but agree to go along and have a beer. I’m there, Yao’s there, it’s a start… The Polish guy is stereotypical extrovert and seems to think I care about his life (right now, not so much…), he makes all the conversation. We get back to the hostel and Polish guy goes to bed, my prayers have been answered! After that, everything is seamless. You know when it just works, no games. I like her and she likes me.
I’m not sure why because things like this don’t happen to me. Is there something wrong with her eyesight? She doesn’t seem to be visually impaired. I try to refer her to a psychiatrist but she insists she isn’t crazy. I think she is because she doesn’t think she’s pretty, silly girl, what a weirdo. We have ‘the night’, you know like they talk about on Friends when Chandler falls for someone (which is weird because I’m basically a real life Chandler). We talk rubbish, I wonder if one day we can have our Golden Retriever that we think should have an English and a Chinese name. It’s to be called jiăozi (dumpling). Maybe it’ll have one name but we can use the other when we don’t want the dog to know we’re talking about it. Eighteen hours later she has to get the train home, she lives just outside Shanghai. My plan from Chongqing is to go to Lushan to Zhangjiajie to Guilin to Yangshuo to Guangzhou. But I go to Shanghai. Have I found my Aouda? I wonder if she misses me as much as I miss her. Maybe I should go back to China? Beautiful, wonderful, amazing Yao… Oops, I mean China.
Strawbs – written 13-24 November 2016
Tiger Leaping Gorge white water
The Trans-Mongolian train being jacked up to change the wheel gauge on first entry to China at the border
Is any China blog complete without a bit of Chinglish?