rt2k6 - Korea to Britain the hard way

2006-03-07 15:22


Despite being less than a couple hundred kilometres from Zhengzhou, Luoyang is a whole different place. It's the former capital of the province, and has been the capital of this area no less than thirteen times in its long history. It's supposedly the birthplace of Sanzang (Xuanxang), the monk who went to India to fetch the buddhist scriptures, as documented by Wu Cheng'en in my favourite bit of literature, Journey To The West. It's also the closest major city to the Shaolin temple.

This is a town I could actually live in. Actually, it's another city of 6 million people, but it's less filthy and seems a bit more lively than Zhengzhou or Tianjin. Walking East from the space-station-like Public Security Bureau, where Ossie had to get his visa extended, we had a game of open-air pool, much to the bemusement of the locals, who gathered in throngs to watch whitey do a very poor job. I blame my game on the fact that the table had about a 5 degree lean on it, but I don't expect that makes it any better. While playing, a bloke called Mr Chang stopped by to have a word. He's a Chinese-language teacher who speaks some English, and also does a bit of work for CCTV, a national TV station which has at least one English and ten Chinese channels. He seemed nice enough, showing photos of his son and daughter and workmates and - bizarrely - other foreigners he'd met walking the streets of Luoyang. Seems like he's a whitey-collector. Had a book for us to write our names and email addresses in and all. He really, REALLY wanted to organise a hotel for us (NEVER let anyonelse organise your accomodation, ever), and he really really REALLY wanted to go with us to the Longmen Caves tomorrow. I think Deb and Os gave him fake email addresses, but I gave him my real one, just to see what he has to say.

We snuck away down an alley while he was on the phone, and into a food market, where I found fantastic smoked beef; dry-smoked, brown and leathery outside and moist inside. I love smoked food, and Korea is a fucking desert for it (though I did find some very lightly smoked fish in Busan). Good stuff indeed. Lots of other goodies, which Ossie threatened me with in satisfaction of our bet, but frankly I think he can do better. None of it was that nasty. I've eaten tripe before, duck's heads don't scare me, and pig tails don't look like they have much meat on them anyhow. He reckons bugs at the night-market will be the ticket, but we'll see.

Following the erroneous map in the Lonely Planet, we found our way to the Old City, which appears to be a genuinely Old part of town. It's all grey brick and tile, cobble stones and wood, with banners instead of neon. It's clearny not original medieval stuff, but it doesn't look brand new either; it just looks like it's been well-maintained and rebuilt with a view to keeping a certain old character about it. Tea shops and printers and calligraphers and keymakers and bronze-casters and incense-sellers and occasionally a restaurant with people playing cards out front; not the sort of contrived traditionality you often find in 'old cities', but just a particular area where people practice their trades. What it really needs is a pub, or a guesthouse. There's a genuinely warm, friendly atmosphere to the place, and the ambience of low-rise buildings and narrow, dim streets in the smoky dusk is really a lovely change from the filth and hassle and neon of most Chinese market streets. There'd be a lot of tourist money to be made here if someone put their mind to it.



I've found that towns whose primary purpose is to be a thoroughfare to bigger and better places, are rarely good, and Zhengzhou is no exception. Apparently 100 trains leave here every day for virtually everywhere in China - this city is a stop on the Beijing-Kowloon Express, the Beijing-Shanghai Express and both the Beijing and Shanghai lines to Xian and further west.

We got here after nine overnight hours on a fairly modern hard sleeper from Beijing. We'd made the mistake of borrowing Paul's Lonely Planet guide to China - it's sheer folly to expect that a guidebook could be written and kept up-to-date on such a vast and rapidly-changing country without employing a staff of hundreds, and the China LP is at times worse than useless. This morning was one such time, as we checked into the Tian'e Binguan, expecting clean 30 kuai shared rooms and 90 kuai singles with bathroom. As it happens, the 30 kuai rooms are 30 kuai per hour, and none of the cheap rooms have private facilities, which would be fine if only the shared facilities weren't filthy, cold-water-only, no-shower-head showers and rank no-door-on-the-stall squatters with big windows which allow a grand view into (and from) the adjacent building. We checked in without realising this, then went to check straight back out again, but they offered us a Good Deal of a single and a double room with private facilities for a sane price, which we talked down to an even saner price, since we needed to get cleaned up and sorted out.

The place has an air of commie shabbiness; the rooms have water-stained carpets and reek of cigarette smoke, the walls are scarred and pock-marked, the doors don't fit their jambs properly, and we got our first breathy phone call from a young woman offering 'room service' at 09:15.

The city's not much to talk about - a mallish thing which wouldn't be out of place in a medium-sized city, but is a bit weak for 6 million people. Bizarrely, there was also a street of kitchen design stores selling kitchens that most Chinese wouldn't know what to do with, let alone have space for. There does appear to be a small number of very affluent people here, though - a few black Audis and BMWs.

The top feature of the city the Provincial Museum, which was closed. The only other thing to do appeared to be what the locals were all doing - walking Zhengzhou's old city walls, which date back 3,500 years to the Shang. For unreinforced tamped-earth walls, they've lasted pretty well; they're about a storey or two high, and ten or twenty metres wide. Plenty of people walking dogs, old men playing cards and mah-jong, and in a park at the middle, old people flying kites, doing tai chi and spinning tops. Chinese-style top-spinning looks like a lot more fun than it sounds. The tops are big, heavy things, and you get a long whip to keep them going. Crack crack! We mused about the possibility of 3-a-side top-football as a new sport for the 2008 Olympics...