rt2k6 - Korea to Britain the hard way

2006-03-16 11:53

Back online, sort of

Ok, this fucking site is mostly back up now, after me spending far too much of my time hacking blosxom's failings back together in chinese internet cafes where they require your passport, the internet is slow and disconnects randomly, and half the fucking sites of any use are blocked in the name of censorship, but it IS up. Mad props to my man resiak for caching my site so aggressively, and I'll be taking more backups than I previously did.

No comments; if you want, you can email me. I might make them happen at some point, but right now I want to just get on with the trip. I'll also do some tidying up for those of you with sensitive sensibilities.

My camera is still in at Nikon HQ here in Shanghai - if it's not ready by tomorrow, we're going to Nanjing and Suzhou for the weekend, then back here to pick it up. After that, it's down south to Fujian province. I'll make a map of how far we've come sometime soonish.


2006-03-16 01:24


The (Whore|Pearl) of the (Orient|East) with a wild history and a big future. I was warned before coming that Shanghainese are a grasping bunch, all out for the kuai and damn the torpedoes, and unfortunately it's not untrue. A lot os made of the Bund, the riverside boulevard of european and american-built merchant-houses and banks, but even in the off-season it's so rammed with sightseers and strollers and millers and scamsters and eejits it's actually more a pain in the arse than any other part of china I've been in so far, and that includes Tiananmen Square in the middle of summer. From the Bund, the new district of Shanghai (Pudong) is the main view - with the ugly space-ship-like three-bulb hypodermic needle tower in tasteful off-pink, and the two glass globes, one with a big red China, at front and centre. Signs for virtually every Japanese electronics company vie for the skyline - and I was happy to see that Nikon are represented amongst them, so after throwing coins to the unfortunate turtles which live in the filthy Huangpu, we struck North towards the sign, thinking naively that it might actually be the Nikon Building or so. No such luck - the hoarding took up the entire roof of a block of flats and a guesthouse and restaurant.

With a bit of help from the yellow pages and the staff at the hostel, we set off in search of Nikon's head office, West down Fuzhou Lu, down what must be one of the most trafficked streets in China, and therefore the world. This entire stretch of road, from about Sichuan Lu to Renmin Square, is utterly owned by touts, scamsters, bullshit artists and people selling everything. Everything. Ossie and Paul had one guy who started with Rolex watches, then moved on to bags, shoes, sunglasses and eventually girls, more or less in one breath. Even the shoeshiners have their scam - wipe a bit of white stuff on your shoe, then offer to clean it off for a fee. My boots had already been cleaned earlier in the day, so when the next guy tried this trick, I wiped the stuff off on his pants leg. He called me a 'moduhfukuh', in english even. There's also the old Beijing Art Scam, whereby 'art students' ask you to come and look at their 'exhibition' of 'original' 'paintings', which you can then buy for a modest few hundred kuai. The fact is that these are knock-off copies of more or less famous chinese paintings, which are available at any market in the country for a few dozen kuai at most. Anyway, lest I sound bitter, we did eventually find Nikon HQ, and when I explained my camera's malfunction to the stunningly beautiful woman at reception, she said "I suggest you take your camera in to our service centre on the 26th floor of this building." Up on the 26th floor, there were yet more beautiful women (wo)manning the desks (maybe Nikon only hires photogenic people?), and they told me the CCD (which appears to be the camera's problem) is covered by an unconditional warranty, and will be fixed free of charge if that's the problem. I got a phone call the next day saying the whole thing (including the damage it took when I fell off the GWOC with it) can be fixed for 425 kuai, which is about NZ$70; a bargain at twice the price. The only people in Shanghai who aren't after a fast one?

So, off into the streets of the old city south of the Bund, in search of sustenance. We'd been spoilt somewhat by Wuhan's superb simple eats, so were disappointed to find a lot of swank and not a lot of substance. Harbin beer is named after a city way up north where it's so damn cold they make ice sculptures with lights frozen inside, but is made by Anheuser-Busch, the eejits responsible for that Budweiser shite merkins call beer; and tastes much the same. I'm now convinced that whenever sytaff bring out a menu in english, it shows the special Whitey Tax Price, as well. After some slimy, salty noodles and oily meat, we wandered in search of a venue for a game of cards and a beer, eventually settling on one of many little places on a busy alley.

Now, anyone who's ever travelled in Asia has their Toilet Story, and while mine is undoubtedly more boring than most, this is it. Having chosen a place to eat, checked the prices of beers, verified that sitting and drinking and playing cards wasn't a problem, I went off to get cards, leaving Deb and Ossie there to get settled in. Since there were at least a thousand people within a hundred metres, I figured there must be a few toilets about the place, so I asked the woman at the shop. She pointed vaguely down the street, and wrote something down in Chinese, as though I should be able to understand it (sorry - takes longer than three weeks to learn the most complicated written language in the world). Heading off in the direction of her vague pointing, I found the street she'd mentioned, and - lo and behold - it was full of whorehouses. The kind with a big shop-window sort of thing going on, and skankily-clad women flouncing about or draped over couches or each other, under pink and purple lights. Perhaps she misunderstood. Nevertheless, I pressed on and came to an amusement arcade. Not that kind of amusement - video games and ping pong and such like, full of lads in their early teens. They pointed me upstairs to - another whorehouse! This one was particularly scungy, and was also a gambling den full of drunk, fat, cruel-looking middle-aged men. Still, there was a toilet - there were two, even, and outside the damn whorehouse, so I didn't have to go into the bloody place. The men's was utterly destroyed. Throne-style toilets simply require too much upkeep in a continent where 'clean the toilet' means 'flush it and spray water around once a month, whether it needs it or not'. The cistern was smashed and held no water, there was no seat, the floor was covered in piss, and the thing had clearly not been flushed since the cistern broke. Next! One of the madams pointed me to the women's, and the door was open, but unfortunately an old fat man was passed out on it. Back to the street; look left, look right; fuck it, I'll go back so Deb and Ossie don't think I've been kidnapped. It seems they'd ordered beers, then the management had come and shouted at them for not ordering food, had made them order food, and they were not eating it. Why they hadn't told the management to go fuck themselves is beyond me, since I had already made clear to them we'd not be eating. But by now things were getting serious in the toilet department. What the other 999 people within the 100 metres clearly did was nick off down one of the dozens of unlit alleys, but that's too tricky for a stupid whitey like me - I don't know which are for shitting and which for whoring, which are peoples' houses and which ones have big dogs or uncovered drains or mean guys with knives. Wandering further along, an old geezer pointed me in the right direction, and I found a public toilet. And the door was locked. Only open from 10:00 until 20:00, if I understood the sign correctly. It was about 20:45 by this point. Nearby this, however, was the epicentre of the Shanghai Old City Scam Industry - the queen of the hive, the nerve centre. A huge faux-old-chinese complex all ringed around with fairy lights and absolutely jam-packed with people selling all the useless shit that eejit package tourists like to buy. In this place there was a massive food-courtish restaurant called Shanghai Distributed Tourist Restaurant (distributed?? wtf?) and above it, a public toilet. Huzzah. But, as I was squatting there, the Old City had one more trick to play: the lights went off, and I heard someone lock the door. It was clearly 21:00, and the place had closed. Stuck inside a tourist-trap, in the dark, with my pants down! The horror! But it only took a few minutes of me banging on the doors and shouting to get someone to open up and let me out, and all was well.

Back to Ossie and Deb, who'd by now finished their beers. I decided that if these bastards were going to give us a hard time they could go and fuck themselves, and asked the tarty woman out front how much. She pretended to add things up, and wrote down 100 kuai. For three beers and soup with nothing in it. I laughed in her face, threw down 40 kuai (twice what it was really worth) and walked away, and they didn't say a word. Didn't even call me a moduhfukuh. On another day I might have made a fight of it, but the filth and whores and scams and being locked in a dark toilet had gotten to me and I just didn't have the heart.

So we decided to sit around at the hostel (downstairs, where beers cost 10 kuai instead of 35 kuai, as they do upstairs in the permanently-empty Captain's Bar). The management tried to figure out the rules to Bid Whist, with apparent success, and a Chinese-American dude held an English conversation lesson which turned into a drinking-game session with a Korean, a Japanese guy and a Chinese.


2006-03-16 00:06

Across the Yangtze

China is divided into North and South by the Yangtze river - in Chinese 'Chang Jiang'; Mighty River. Wuhan sits astride it, and moving from Hankou to Wuchang requires crossing it. It's about a mile wide at Wuhan, and even in the dry season at the end of winter, it's one hell of a river - brown and deep and turbulent. We'd tried to cross on Sunday (12th), but for some reason the ferry was closed. On the 13th (my birthday!) the ferry was go and so were we, on our way to catch the 17 hour train to Shanghai. There are many oddities about China's South/North divide - stereotypically, northerners are tall and pale, stern, officious, they eat noodles and speak Mandarin; while southerners are smaller, darker, more relaxed, eat rice and speak a hundred different dialects of their own. China has historically bbeen ruled from the north - but the bulk of the population live in the south. Beijing has been the political and intellectual capital of China for centuries, but Shanghai has always been the more affluent and international city, and Guangzhou (Canton) is apparently so far removed from Beijing it's hard to believe it's in the same country. But the thing which crystallised the North/South divide for us was noodles.

In New Zealand, chinese food is a sort of institution - every town has a chinese restaurant, typically attached to a fish and chip shop, and most kiwis order more or less the same few dishes - sweet and sour, chow mein, fried rice, won tons, maybe egg fu young or beef and black bean sauce if they're feeling adventurous. Chinese food is obviously more complicated than all that, but we'd nonetheless been trying to see how those dishes compare to their counterparts back home. But nowhere north of the Yangtze had we been able to get convincing chow mein - chao mian, the humble fried noodle. We'd tried to order the bloody things a dozen times, but had always been told they weren't available today, or not at this restaurant, or brought noodles in soup instead. Maybe it's a seasonal thing. But almost as soon as we got off the Yangtze ferry in Wuchang, south of the Mighty River, we found ourselves in alleys chock-full of people selling nothing but chao mian. Not bad, either.

On to Shanghai, on a train which was supposed to leave at 14:25 but eventually got going about 15:05. The change in scenery from the brown and wintry north was dramatic - wet rice cultivation, green and lush; intricately terraced fields, small communities on a miniature lake, with sampans and stilt houses and all. Sun on a warm spring afternoon isn't a bad time to spend on a train, even if it is your birthday. We met a scottish bloke called Andy who was going from Hanoi to Shanghai, and was complaining about the cold, but this was the first day of proper t-shirt weather on the whole trip.

Got thrown out of the dining car for playing cards when people wanted to eat (beer is food, damn you!). Otherwise it was a fairly normal 17 hour train ride, which is to say it was fine for the first four hours or so, but soon became a Pain In The Arse.