rt2k6 - Korea to Britain the hard way


2006-03-25 15:29

Unwelcome among the unwelcome


On the afternoon of the 23rd, we left Ossie in bed, sick as a dog (after nearly three months in China, it's probably about time he got sick) and headed out to Yongding, five hours by bus inland from Xiamen. It's a town small enough to not have any taxis, which is something of a rarity in China - though it does have several thousand motocabs - 125cc motorbikes modified to have three wheels and a covered cab on the back. It's a nice enough place, with a hill and a river and some mines and a lot of rain - in fact, all Fujian province seems to do is rain, all the time.

On the ferry from Gulang Yu we met Nancy Chen; Taiwanese-American, thirties, bossy, talks a lot, speaks fluent mandarin and probably hokkien as well since she lived in Taiwan, has traveled a lot in China, is going to Vietnam soon also. She recognised us from the PSB office, and she confirmed that there IS in fact a Vietnamese Consulate in Guangzhou, and that getting a Vietnamese visa in Nanning is a pain and takes a long time and is expensive. Good news; it looks as if we'll be going to Guangzhou after all.

The bus to Yongding, while slow and crazy in the wet weather and poor roads, was uneventful, and by chance we found probably the best accomodation we've come across in China so far - the Dong Fu Hotel; a minute's walk from the bus terminal, a double room with a real live double bed (in China, 'double' means 'two single beds in the same room'; if you want a double bed you need to ask for a 'husband and wife room' or a 'deluxe room' or some similar bullshit, which typically entails an additional 100 or 200 kuai), everything's clean and works, the staff speak no English but are terribly helpful, etc. The husband and wife room cost us 128 kuai per night. We spent a whole day (the 24th) juust arsing about the place - walking around, getting quizzed on our origins and thoughts of China by schoolgirls, walking around a virtually abandoned supermarket, eating at a chinese rip-off of KFC called S&A, that sort of thing.

First thing in the morning of the 24th we had gotten a phone call from a bloke called Mr Lin, who seemed very nice and reasonable, but he called too early and we told him to piss off. He's the owner of Fuyu Lou, one of the nearby toulou, the Hakka Earth Buildings which we'd come here to see. The Hakka are one of China's celebrated minorities. The precise origin of the Hakka is little known, but the word means 'guest', but with a connotation of unwelcomeness. Large numbers of them fled south from Henan province starting in the 5th century. They've settled more or less everywhere south of Henan, including Hong Kong, and have largely kept their culture and language intact by keeping themselves shut away from the outside world. The design of toulou is introspective - the outer walls are solid; high, thick and impregnable, and on the inside of the donut (if you like) are several storeys of dwellings, and in the centre, common areas. Some of the bigger buildings have two or more concentric circles, including firebreaks and lockable internal doors to protect against attack. The Hakka were a persecuted people, and family solidarity preserved them.

That night, Mr Lin called back, and we talked turkey about having him as a guide around the Hakka settlements. He's skinny, 30-something, wears a shabby business jacket and cargo pants, and his business card says 'Economic Teacher'. Mr Lin wanted 100 kuai per person per day, which is reasonable, and his own Earth Building is a hotel, for which he wanted 50 kuai per room per night. All very cheap indeed, and I figured the catch would lie in kickbacks from overpriced restaurants, curio sellers, and so on. Nevertheless, hiring a driver is the only way to get around the settlements, so we agreed. I need to state for the record here that I fucking hate organised tours; I despise being hemmed in and shepherded by other people who are inevitably more bossy and noisier and more stupid than I am, and I hate having to go to places at prearranged times and leave them at other arbitrary times, and I absolutely will not put up with being told where and where not to go. I am the wrong person for tours. My ideal tour is one person, or maybe two if the other person is Deb. So you could say that the whole affair was doomed from the start.

He picked us up at 0800 in a trademark Chinese vehicle called a microbus - it's about the size of a Mitsubishi Mirage, except it has a 1.1 litre engine and seating for eight people. In it already were two noisy blokes and a noisy woman from Hong Kong. People like this are why I hate tours. Add the two of us, plus our packs, and the suspension in that vehicle was hurting. It got even better when his sister hopped in at a petrol station along the way. The rain showed no sign of stopping, and the roads got worse as we carried on to his place. It's a big, square (archetypal toulou are circular) farmhousey building, with four central courtyards, five main living spaces (corners and centre) and three floors of sleeping rooms. It's a lovely, homely place; quiet and in a very rural backwater with a (swollen, on account of the rain) river alongside.

On to the first actual destination - bloody miles away. The three Hong Kongers were swapped for three other Hong Kongers - middle-aged women this time, one actually from Hong Kong, the other two of whom lived in France. It's very odd hearing people chop between French and Cantonese and Mandarin and occasionally English. They were every bit as noisy at the other three Hong Kongers, but less obnoxious.

At our first stop we got our first dose of the old Chinese 'oh-didn't-I-tell-you-that-so-sorry' - 50 kuai per person to enter the village. I questioned Mr Lin forcefully about it, and why he hadn't told us, and he apologised and told me the rest of the entrance fees; another for 50 kuai and one for 30 kuai. So that's how he makes bank - by collecting a cut from the villages for each tourist he brings, having not made them aware of the charge in the first place. When we'd organised this, I'd gone over every detail of the cost (suspecting a scam), and even asked him if there were any other charges. Not that there was anything we could have done about it - we were now a couple of hours on backroads out in the middle of nowhere, and anyone with a vehicle in the area would be in on it; so we bit the bullet and paid up. At this point we also managed to meet up with another tour of about a dozen men in their thirties, from - you guessed it - Hong Kong, with cheap suits and expensive cameras and a penchant for shouting the cantonese equivalent of 'hoo-ah' or 'pighting' whenever one of them took a group photo of the rest. Roughly every five minutes. Mercifully, they were heading out as we were heading in.

This first village (Chuxi) was about 500 families, and we were clearly intruding on their lives. The place is build around one of the oldest toulou, built in the early 15th century, and was spread up a hillside. It reminded me of Jerusalem, up the Whanganui River - but Jerusalem doesn't charge US$5 of anyone who comes by for a look around. The main building, the bloody old one, is now a sort-of museum for tourists - though not just of Hakka culture, but all sorts of strange stuff, from general Chinese history to a US$1,000,000 note (yes, a one million dollar note) and bizarre exhibits on such topics as opium smoking, tobacco cultivation and manufacture, and prostitution - including another possible candidate for 'world's strangest sex gear' - a saddle with a huge wooden phallus set into it, presumably for the rider's pleasure. I spent most of my time outside - the rooms of the museum were poorly or unlit, and the content was generally low-grade stuff the like of which you can see in any museum anywhere. Outside was interesting - water buffalo tied in an archway, old ladies herding chickens and playing with their grandkids in the rain, kids playing basketball and haggling with their great auntie who ran the hole-in-the-wall lolly shop, ancient men smoking ancient pipes. The Hakka made their money in tobacco, and one geezer who must have been in his nineties showed me photos of him (he claimed it was him) in his twenties, smoking an old pipe made from a hollowed-out branch. He had a whole series, one photo per decade, of him puffing away on his old pipe, and a bit later as we were leaving, I spied him sitting in a doorway smoking that same pipe, shiny with age. Bizarrely, he also handed me a bunch of business cards - artists from New York, lawyers from Los Angeles, architects from Switzerland, businessmen from Tokyo. I didn't have a businesscard to give him. He didn't speak - most people, when they try to communicate with you, natter away in their own language just to make themselves feel better, but this guy didn't day a word. Mr Lin said that the really old people don't speak Mandarin - they only speak Hakka, so that may have been it. Then again, he may have had most of his throat removed from eight decades of smoking.

After lunch we went to #2 - Zhongchuan. Hu Bao Villa is here, the ancestral temple and memorial home of Hu Xiao, former member of the Politburo and - I'm not sure I believe this - inventer of Tiger Balm. It's also the memorial home of someone else immortalised repeatedly in bronze, 1882-1954, but since the whole thing is in Chinese, I can't tell you who.

The village itself is built on sheer cobbled walls containing a small river - all the rivers in this area are flooded due to heavy rain. It's very old, and very picturesque in a dilapidated and destitute sort of way. The general way of life around here hasn't changed in about a century, and I don't mean that in a good way. Communism has not helped these people, and capitalism through tourism ain't helping them either. Here again we were duped - we were charged 30 kuai each, but the only thing which the entrance fee actually buys is entry to a mini-museum of the grotesque. There are siamese piglets here - one conjoined head with one central eye, eight legs; pickled in a jar. And conjoined dogs - joined at the shoulder, both able to survive at least a while - nobody could tell me how long, but they were definitely not puppies any more. A two-headed snake; two albino snakes, one very small; one four metres long - both still alive. The pickled body of a one-of-a-kind fish, three metres long and white, prehistoric-looking, caught off the coast of Taiwan and a stuffed rabbit with antlers like a deer - Bunneh would have been very confused. The sad bit is that most of the critters are still alive, but are kept in the most miserable conditions - abovementioned four-metre snake in a tank two metres by one metre by half a metre high; a 120-year-old tortoise in a tank about half that size. I'd guess 25 of that 30 kuai per visitor is being siphoned off into other things - like paying for the village boss' hookers and booze.

One more stop for photos in picturesque Jinan valley, at the confluence of two rivers, then back to Fuyu Lou. Dinner was basic, rustic and overpriced, and just before bed (things happen in threes), we were again asked for 50 kuai each for the fourth stop, tickets for which Mr Lin had kindly given us earlier. But we didn't go there. By this time Mr Lin and the Hong Kong French Connection had buggered off, and we were dealing with his father, whose English amounts to 'herro', 'cheers' and 'sankyu'. On the horn to Mr Lin, who by this time was very drunk, and lapsed constantly into hokkien; the gist of my argument being "We didn't go there." He put on one of his girlfriends, who's French (though not the HKFC), but spoke perfect English and Mandarin. She explained that the fourth ticket is for Hongkeng, the village in which Fuyu Lou is situated, and since we're in Hongkeng, we have to pay. My argument changed to "We didn't get to see or do anything since we arrived at dusk, and we're leaving first thing in the morning.", and after some gentle persuasion on my part, they finally agreed to not make us pay the final 100 kuai.

The guestbooks of this place are filled with glowing recommendations and gushing thanks from people as far afield as New Zealand and Norway. (Probably the majority are French. This place sees a HELL of a lot of French people.) One of the recurrent themes is how welcome people felt, as if they'd been invited into the family home. We saw none of that. Mr Lin was friendly and spoke reasonable english while closing the deal, but once the trip was on he didn't want to know us, and left immediately upon dropping us back at Fuyu. His mother was the same - cooked dinner and served it to us in a separate room, then disappeared. The father was somewhat different - tried to chat a bit with us, and gave Deb a pouch of Hakky Baccy, drove us to the bus in the morning, and so on. Basically, he was the only one who treated us like people who were welcome, rather than sources of cash who'd be better if we just gave over the money and buggered off. I suppose that's the problem with turning your home into a tourist attraction - so many folks coming through see you as tourist attractions, not as people, and it's normal to reciprocate. It offends me because I explicitly don't see them or treat them in that way.

[L], 2006-03-25 Hongkeng, Peoples' Republic of China

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2006-03-23 12:53

The story so far...


Finally got around to posting the map of where we've been so far, and here it is:

so far

It looks smaller than it is.

Lossless PNG here for those with bandwidth.

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2006-03-22 10:44

Wi Xiamen


There's a joke, right:

q: How does Bob Marley like his sandwiches?
a: Wi' Xiamen.

And another one:

q: How do The Wailers like their sandwiches?
a: We hope they like Xiamen too.

It probably doesn't work unless you realise that Xiamen is pronounced a bit like 'Jammin'.

I like Xiamen, too. It's a clean and interesting city, small enough to walk around. It's actually on an island, but there's an even smaller island called Gulang Yu which once housed foreign delegations, and now houses tourists. There are no cars or motorcycles on Gulang Yu, except the electric golf carts run by the big hotels for fat bastards who are too bloody lazy to walk around an island about a kilometre across. The ferry from Xiamen is free to come here, but costs 3 kuai to get back - a crafty trick indeed. It's good to be in a warm, seaside climate again - the weather here reminds me a bit of Auckland - warm but not really hot, moist and muggy. It drizzled warmly all day yesterday, and we got caught in a rainstorm trying to find somewhere for a beer and a snack before availing ourselves of the many kinds of scaled, shelled and carapaced critters on offer here.

We haven't really done much except wander about, but we got our washing done, and eventually got our passports into the Public Security Bureau, aka the Department of Preventing People From Doing Anything Without Official Permission. I say eventually, because we turned up at the office (after getting lost in windy streets) only to find that lunch time is 11:45 until 14:40. Good deal. Came back after it reopened, and after queuing for an hour or so, were told that we needed to supply a photocopy of our visas, a photocopy of our ID page, and that the docket from our hotel had to be stamped by them. Upon jumping through these hoops, it turns out that it requires six working days to process. These requirements, and the processing time for a visa extension, varies wildly from place to place. In Beijing it takes three days, you need a hotel docket but it needn't be stamped, and you don't need any photos. In Yinchuan, it's three days. In Luoyang, it took Os four days, and they didn't care about the hotel docket at all, but in Xiamen they appear to do things By The Book. And slowly. This two-day delay causes a few problems with our plans for Vietnamese visas. There's also some confusion about HOW to get a Vietnamese visa in China - we have two Ronery Pranets; one says there's a consular office in Guangzhou but doesn't mention Nanning or Kunming; the other says nothing about Guangzhou, but mentions a consular office in Kunming and says you can get a visa through CITS in Nanning. They both agree that there is an embassy in Beijing, which is something. we called the Guangzhou number, and got a 'doesn't exist' signal - the trouble is that Guangzhou is reasonably close, but Kunming is about 1000km out of our way. It looks at this point like Ossie will head straight to Nanning from here, and we'll catch up once our visa extensions go through. He'll almost certainly have to cross the border before us, because he's on his final extension. The Nanning visa takes longer than normal and costs more, presumably because they have to courier the passports to Kunming or Beijing.

Gulang Yu is full of seafood restaurants where all manner of bugs and slugs and things are kept in buckets or tanks in or outside the shop, and you buy by the jin, which is about half a kilo. The quality's pretty high, and so are the prices, particularly since you're buying live critters, in the shell. Crayfish at 180 kuai (NZ$30) per jin, big greenshell mussels just like we have in NZ for 20 per jin. We ended up with an enormous clam-like thing, a jin of mussels, a jin of langoustines (like a big prawn, only straight instead of bent), a jin of smaller clams, and a jin of little red mangrove crabs which were more work than they were worth to extract meat from.

Afterwards, a cafe caught our eye, and someone (it wasn't me) misread the sign. Cafes in asia are without exception a complete waste of time and money. The sign was thought to have said Tsingtao beer for 6 kuai - in fact, that was the price for diet coke, the item below. On Chinese signs and menus, the Chinese name comes first - unlike in Korea. Tsingtao was actually 12 kuai, and that for a smmall bottle. The real killer was that the sign also has meat pies listed for 10 kuai, which we promptly ordered. Eventually we got warm doughy things filled with diced onion and sugar, about the size of a cupcake. No meat. No pie. In the end it appears we were charged only 1 kuai each for them.

The craziness continues.

200603221044.41


2006-03-19 14:58

Wuyishan Scenic Spot


Showered and all, we went in search of a bank and lunch before heading out to the Wuyishan Scenic Spot. The main entrance found us in a topiaried garden surrounded by craggy peaks and forest, with a clear green river alongside. It drizzled all day but wasn't cold - subtropical bush pretty similar to the stuff you find in NZ - lush and green and smelling sweet like moist earth and flowers. Fed fish in the river; little ones at the top, big ones down below, while people coming down the river on rafts called out to us. We're going to do that tomorrow. The rafting, not the calling out. Got lost and stumbled upon a nunnery trying to find a particular peak - Ossie got attacked by guard dogs, we got heckled by construction workers taking the piss out of my appalling mandarin, and found a huge colony of green tree frogs in a bamboo stand in the middle of a pool. A little girl taught me the Chinese word - qing wa. Qing means green!

Ate red bean paste ice creams, then off to the other part of the Scenic Spot, where to find the Water Curtain Cave - not the same one of Monkey legend, his was on an island apparently east of Japan.The cave wasn't apparent to us, but there was a locked temple of Three Sages - one Confucian, one Taoist and one Buddhist, so the temple may have been built onto the cave. The light was fading, so we headed down towards the river to Eagle Beak Rock and the Great Red Robe Tea trees. The place was empty, and the high, high cliffs and tea terraces and wild bush and birds and clear stream was like ancient times. High up in the cliffs are 'Ancient Dwellings', which must have been reached by ladders or ropes or something - deep, low horizontal fissures in the limestone walls on the South side of the valley above the river. It was getting properly dark by the time we reached Huiyuan Temple - another temple housing the great three faiths of China, but this one is active, and unlike most temples, this is a castle-like medieval structure of stone, with arch windows and crenellations and all. The odd mix of chanting monks, chirping bats a diesel generator; and the smell of fermenting oolong tea filled the valley as we retraced our steps in the dark.

The Scenic Spot shuts at 1830, and we got back to the gate in pitch darkness at about 1900 - nobody was there, just angry dogs tied to guard the hawkers' wares. As we considered a 6km walk back to town, a family in a ute drove by, and stopped to give a ride to the woman ahead of us, so we jumped in the back as well, and sped off through the sweet-smelling rain and bush like dogs with heads out the window. He wouldn't take any kuai; just a handshake and tsai chien.

Time for Ronery Pranet to earn its keep - a restaurant called Bamboo Palace is recommended for frogs and bamboo shoots, and the food we ate there was the best we've had in China; the best food I've had in years, even. The son spoke a bit of english, and we sat outside under a bamboo gazebo, next to a hedge of bamboo, with the river running alongside, drinking bamboo beer. We ended up with stir-fried bamboo shoots and bacon-like pork; noodles with a mountain herb which tasted a bit like (but wasn't) tea; a whole steamed fish caught from the pond next to our table and, after some linguistic wrangling which culminated in the boy bringing out a sack of big mottled live bullfrogs, said bullfrogs quartered and boiled in water with two slices of raw ginger as the only seasoning. This was very un-Chinese food to me; almost everything we've had so far has been richly spiced, usually fatty, and served in heavy sauces; the fish was taken out of the water, cleaned, and steamed so briefly that it was served in a pink mixture of its own blood and steam, with spring onions and absolutely nothing else. Likewise; frogs and the tiniest hint of ginger. Quality ingredients treated with respect and care, and the result in both cases was nothing short of sensational.

200603191458.14


2006-03-19 03:16

Hualong Towers


Train from Nanjing was two hours early, resulting in a mad dash for the door. Bought tix for Xiamen tomorrow night and checked into the Hualong Hotel across the road, which, while once a snazzy executive-type joint with a conference centre and all, is now a complete fucking dive. The whole place seems to be run by a timid and utterly ineffectual guy about 30 and a couple of tarty women in their 20s. Despite the fact that we appear to be the only guests, we had to wait while they cleaned our room. When we found out the shower in our room had no hot water, it took ten minutes of wandering the stairs and passageways of this huge place to find him, and then he showed us into the room across the hall (also not cleaned), where there appeared to be a functional shower. It turned out there was only about three minutes hot water, so I went downstairs and shouted at him, at which point he turned to one of the tarts, who sorted us out yet another room for a shower. The toilet in our room also appears to be blocked. The whole place is musty and shabby and stained, and in the typically Chinese state which is between reconstruction and deconstruction. Despite the fact that we've had one meal in the past 24 hours and three in the last 48, nothing will induce me to eat at the restaurant, where "high-grade chiefs cook all kinds of pastries and delicacies of chinese styles". Not confident about the state of the sauna, either.

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2006-03-18 09:19

No time in Nanjing


Got my camera back from Nikon yesterday, as advertised. Had decided to go to Nanjing to see the memorials to the 300,000-odd Chinese murdered in the Nanjing Massacre, which the Japs still refer to as the 'Nanjing Incident', and fail to mention in their history textbooks - along with similar occurrences in Korea, Siberia and Manchuria in the early part of the century.

This is the slow train, and was due in at about 0100, but we didn't get settled until 0300. Hard seat was full of peasants, heading home from the city to the country; a bit of a shock after Shanghai's affluence and relative sophistication. An ugly, hard looking woman was breastfeeding a fussy boy of about walking age. She stood up, and held the baby out from her, and while still sucking milk he pissed directly onto the floor of the train. Once finished, she sat down again, and nobody batted an eyelid.

Walking from the station towards the lights, we were hassled more than usual by hotel touts and taxi drivers, and were turned away from two or three hotels outright - because we were whitey, ostensibly, though I expect it was more to do with the fact that they didn't want to pay the touts, who'd come in with us for commission they hadn't earnt. A huge room with four single beds; Deb found bugs in two of them, and it was right next to the railway line so we didn't sleep well. We got moving about lunchtime today. Our next stop is Wuyi Shan, but there's only one train daily from Nanjing, and it leaves at 14:22, so we decided to skip Nanjing and head straight to Wuyi Shan rather than spending another night idle. The memorials and so on will have to wait until another time. We need to be in Xiamen (way down south in Fujian province) by monday or tuesday, so we can apply for visa extensions, which take about a week, so there really wasn't time to fuck about for a whole day.

This looks to be our longest train so far - 14:22 until about 10:30 tomorrow morning; 20 hours or so. Fortunately, we have two bottom bunks and a middle, and therefore the table and most of the compartment to ourselves. Bought a (cold) roasted duck and some flatbread, that and tea is breakfast and lunch today. The chinese have a great plan for tea, which I've adopted most wholeheartedly - everyone carries around a jar with tea leaves in; when it gets low, they refill it, with hot or cold water depending on weather and availability. This place really does run on the stuff.

We're heading south, and the weather's getting warmer and more spring-like the further we go. Trees are green, and the willows along the banks of rivers are especially springy. There are flowers and birds, and last night it rained. We're heading well down into the subtropics, so I threw out the feather and down lining of my jacket in Shanghai, and I'll be surprised if I need it again before Tibet.

200603180919.30


2006-03-17 07:58

Robbed blind in Shanghai


Bah.

Yesterday at the internet room, despite taking all sensible precautions, my bag got nicked from literally right under my nose. I got it back a few minutes later, less $300-some in benjamins.

Chalk another one up to the Shanghainese.

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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.

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2006-03-16 01:24

Shanghai


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.

200603160124.00


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.

200603160006.45


2006-03-11 08:58

Shaolin Finger Jab


Upon return from Longmen, we caught a bus out to Dengfeng - a small city in the shadow of Song Shan, upon which sits the ancient and hallowed Shaolin Temple, whence originated Kung Fu, and thus all other east asian martial arts.

Dengfeng is a bit of a shithole, but there were a bunch of tents set up, in which we sat, ordered food to be cooked before our eyes and played cards, much to the amusement of half the population. Fried frogs with chilli and sichuan pepper, garlic stem and pork stir-fry, Fish With 10,000 Tiny Bones, and the real deal - lamb's balls on a stick. Ossie wasn't much of a fan (claimed to not like the texture because it reminded him of brains), but I thought they were damn good. Soft and juicy, a bit muttony. Try them if you get the chance. Yes, I can see you all smiling nervously and squirming in your seats. Squeamish bastards.

Dengfeng ain't great shakes, so the morning found us at Shaolin temple. Another golden mile of tourist traps (yes, I beleive you that that genuine Shaolin Wu Shu sword is only 300 kuai - no, 200 kuai - no, 150 kuai - no, your best price!). If the facilities themselves had half as much kuai spent on them as the tourist traps, they'd probably house substantially more than the thousands of students who currently train there. But anyway.

A fairly stock demonstration, incredibly fit young lads from about eight to sixteen years old showing what wu shu is all about, but being hassled to have my photo taken with the boys and to buy postcards and beads and fake swords and shit was just a bit much. I did manage to sneak out back, where the lads who do the demonstrations get to hang out and be lads before a show - sparring and talking and playing basketball and sleeping in the sun. That's still the best thing I took from the place.

Two other things of worth relate to our man Da Mo - the cave in which he meditated for nine years, and the stone which his shadow is said to have been imprinted upon. The smooth, black stone was removed from the cave at some point, and a life-sized figure of him carved into it, and it was erected in the second-to-top level of the Shaolin temple. The cave itself is still there, and now has a much-larger-than-life image of the old geezer sitting above it. The story goes that Da Mo came to this part of China via India via indochina, Sichuan and Tibet. When he arrived at Songshan, the Shaolin monks turned him away as he wasn't sufficiently cultivated. So he climbed up to the cave on Bear's Ear peak, and meditated there for nine years, until they relented and let him in. The first martial arts in the world supposedly originated in India, and Da Mo found the Shaolin monks in very poor physical shape, on account of them practicing very much meditation and very little else. Da Mo demonstrated that life is about balance, and between meditations, encouraged them to imitate the actions of the birds and animals of Songshan. When Shaolin came under attack from local warlords, the monks found that their meditative styles adapted very readily to combat, and thus were born the fundamentals of what we now call kung fu - Crane Style, Bear Style, and the Tiger Style of Wu-Tang fame, and from there developed eastern martial arts as we know them today.

Da Mo's cave is a bloody long way up the mountain, and it's amazingly steep. When you see footage of monks in orange spider-walking up and down stone stairs in the middle of winter, that's where they're going.

200603110858.26


2006-03-11 08:28

20,000 headless buddhas


The 6th century was a big deal in China, a time of massive turmoil and conflict, from which emerged the Tang dynasty which ruled gloriously for three hundred years, and exerted influence over virtually all of modern China, most of Mongolia and modern Korea as well (via the Silla). Luoyang was one of the great capitals during the Tang (the other being Xian, or Chang'an as it was then known), and was also a capital of a bunch of other dynasties and so on. The effect of this was the tendency of the (relatively) recently buddhisyletized Chinese royalty to acquire merit in various ways, most notably in the endowment and construction of buddhist temples and monuments. The Longmen (or Dragon Gate) caves are positively thick with them - hundreds of hand-hewn caves, containing thousands of inscriptions, statues, reliefs and sculptures dating back to the fifth century, on both banks of a greasy river. The catch: looters and rabid cultural revolutionaries have defaced (literally, removing the faces or heads) or destroyed almost all of them. A chamber of 10,000 tiny buddhas - each with its face chipped off. Not as much work as carving them, certainly - but that sure is a hell of a lot of effort to go to. But I suppose when you have 4,000 years of culture to erase in a single generation, there can be no half measures. Arms were thrown up and hands were wrung in righteous indignation when the Taleban destroyed the Bamiyan buddhas - do those people even know about this?

Some pieces are in museums in the US, more are in private collections, and yet more were just smashed up and used to build roads with. If there's one thing which really stands out about communism, it's shortsightedness. This is perverse, since communist theory is all about building a bright future through temporary hardship, but it shows in almost everything built since 1949 - and since there's practically nothing remaining from before then, that means most everything in China. It's a country of shreds and patches, which appears to just be realising that maintenance is something which needs to be done, not talked about.

So there's still a lot to see at Longmen, but what's more remarkable is the dissonance between ancient and recent history, and between stated and acted attitudes. The signage bemoans the thieves and vandals and treasure hunters of the 1930s, but fails to mention the Cultural Revolution. It states as fact the wars of the 6th century which halted the construction of some of the finest pieces, but not the war between the PLA and the KMT which destroyed many more (though mostly not within the Longmen area). The place is now all shored up and accessibilised, and hefty fees are charged both to get in, and in a gauntlet of tourist-trap shops, extortionate bus and taxi fares, and restaurants on the gholden mile from the parking lot to the ticket counter. On the far bank of the river, connected to the Xiangshan Temple where empresses once composed poetry, is a luxury resort and conference centre. The place must be hell in summer.

200603110828.34


2006-03-07 15:22

Luoyang


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.

200603071522.04


Zhengzhou


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...

200603071522.03


2006-03-06 04:22

Evicted!


The Chinamen apparently don't like Whitey's ways - Paul's new landlord and bosses turned up to fit his new shower and other such things today, but instead of doing so they hung a curtain rail and went away again. Paul phoned to ask what the hell was going on, and apparently because the place was a bit messy and there were lots of foreigners staying there, he's being evicted. This is complete bullshit, given that the place is filthy to begin with, and also that he got it two weeks later than advertised, and he hasn't been paid yet, but the main fact is that if it's his apartment he ought to be able to keep it any way he feels like. You can bet your arse they wouldn't have said boo if a Chinese tenant had had a few friends over for a housewarming. Paul's confident he can sort it out, but he basically reckons if they can't keep him in this place or find him another one within a few days, he'll quit and get another job.

200603060422.04


Home Sweet Home


Not my home, Paulie's. He's teaching here in Tianjin for four months and he moved into his apartment about an hour before coming to pick us up from the train station. The Friday night train from Beijing was full of smartly-dressed teenage couples, apparently off for a night on the town.

So, life in a real live Chinese apartment. Paul lives in a complete shithole part of Tianjin, with a massive metallurgic plant at the end of his street, and a solvent factory on the other side. There's really fuck-all here: a few restaurants and crumbling low-rise concrete apartment blocks; a phone room (because many Chinese - Paul calls them 'Chinamen' like the Rotherham football hooligan he is - don't have phones at home) and a couple of shops. The apartment itself is very decent, if bizarrely designed - two bedrooms, a pentagonal lounge and a window connecting the kitchen and bathroom. He currently doesn't have a gas range or shower, but he DOES have a shitload of cockroaches, a lovely 5-bulb lily chandelier, a refurbished 1980s TV, the channel buttons 4 and 5 of which have been repurposed to change channel up and down, the rest of which don't work at all; a big red faux-leather lounge suite, a metal-pipe-and-doilie coffee table and a tasteful selection of watercolour prints. No Chairman Mao portrait - those are a bit naff in the new China. The apartment block itself is a dusty wasteland - dry ground, rubbish everywhere, and a park full of sparrows. The only colour aside from shades of grey and beige is provided by Paul's school, which sports a brand new, full-size top-grade astroturf football pitch provided by the nearby Tianjin Pipe Factory. Several buildings are partially of wholly abandoned. The place is empty - the songs of competing vendors of LPG, water, vegetables and rubbish collectors echo like duelling muezzin..

Catzilla and Bride of Catzilla live here. They live under the next building, and are the two biggest cats any of us have ever seen. Catzilla is white and very fat, about the size of a large bull terrier; the Bride is a little bit smaller, tabby and fluffy. They appear to have sole occupancy of that particular two-storey building. At one point, a small child on a scooter approached the building ... I suppose they must not have been hungry, because they could easily have made a meal of her.

Last night we trolled Paul's street looking for a likely restaurant, armed with the Rough Guide to Mandarin Chinese phrasebook. None of us can recognise very many chinese characters other than 'bei' and 'jing', but I do know 'mien' (noodles), so we picked one with that character on it. The whole place appears to be run by a couple of teenage girls who speak no english and giggle a lot, but after a bit of messing about, we did manage to get a grand feed. Since Paul's place was in need for a bit of warming, we decided to buy beer and head back - to our shock, twenty 630ml bottles of Yanjing beer, and two sacks to carry them in, cost us the princely sum of 36 kwai. That's over twelve litres of beer for about NZ$7. And it's good beer, too.

We went back to get takeaways earlier today, while waiting for Paul's shower to arrive, (which this being China - it didn't and almost certainly won't) and got more food than five hungry people could possibly eat (fried rice, noodle soup, dumplings, chicken and mutton stir-fry) for all of 65 kwai, about NZ$12. The mind boggles.

Dinner was mongolian hot-pot - a huge bowl on a hotplate, half stock, half insanely spicy stuff - into which you throw meat and, in our case, random stuff we ordered off the menu without having the faintest idea what it was. Did pretty well, though - dumplings, noodles, radish, sweet potato, pickled garlic, coriander, tofu, congealed blood. Not bad, but amazingly spicy.

200603060422.04


Peking Man


March 3rd, our last day in Beijing, we jumped through linguistic hoops to get a taxi to the Tianqiao bus terminal, where we had to catch either the 917 or the 971 bus. As it happened, ALL the buses were numbered 917, but appeared to be going to various places. An hour and a half later we set foot in Fangshan - a half-arsed one-street village with a bunch of alcoholic taxi drivers and a restaurant (Mongolian?) where we tried without success to order noodles in soup. Eventually we got three identical plates of noodles, no soup, cold, served with ground peanuts, lime, coriander and vinegar - cold. Perhaps it was a Thai restaurant.

One alcoholic taxi ride in a decrepit rebranded suzuki van later, we arrived in Zhoukoudian at the 'Beijing Ape Man Site', on Dragon Bone Hill (the less-spectacularly named Chicken Bone Hill is nearby). In the 1920s, a Swedish bloke called Gunnar Andersson (there never was a more Swedish name) found the remains of Peking Man, and later Upper Cave Man - a site inhabited by both early and modern humans for more than 200,000 years, and a treasure trove of paleoanthropological goodness, including the fact that the noble badger was one of Peking Man's preferred prey animals. The site is quiet and plain (some would say boring), but the museum is pretty good and the whole thing can be done in an hour or two.

There were no taxis on the way back, but we flagged down a bus which drove us at about 20kph back to Fangshan. The driver spied a 917 bus about to leave back to Beijing, hit the gas and drove his bus in at an angle to cut the 917 off, so it couldn't leave until we were on. What service, all for 1 kwai each.

200603060422.04


Train Malarkey


No trains from Tianjin to Qingdao, so we went back to Beijing. From Beijing we had the option of a standing 10-hour trip to Qingdao leaving at 2200, or hard seats at 2200 the following day, so we decided instead to strike inland for Zhengzhou.

Just an aside here about the young woman who runs the information desk at the Beijing City Central Hostel - she's pretty and speaks perfect english, but she is utterly fucking useless at her actual job, which is giving people information and helping them do stuff which requires reading, writing or speaking Mandarin. Such as checking if there were any train tickets to Zhengzhou. Actual conversation follows:

Me: Hi, can you call Beijing West Railway station and ask if there are tickets available?
Wench:: No.
Me: Um. Why not?
Wench: Don't have phone number.
[goes back to sending text messages on her phone]
Me: Do you have a phone book or something?
Wench: No.
Me: Ok, I'll find the number then.
[five minutes elapse while we search the Beijing Yellow Pages and Paul's Lonely Planet and Wench texts several friends and recieves two phone calls]
Me: Ok, here's the number. Can you ask if there are hard sleepers available to Zhengzhou tonight?
[finishes texting her friend, probably about how annoying and evil we stupid laowei are, then calls]
Wench: They have top-bunk hard sleeper, 133 kuai. Leaves at 22:48. They have tickets now, but maybe not when you get there.
[top-bunk generally means there aren't many left, so time is criticalish]
Me: Can we book through you?
Wench: We charge commission.
Me: How much?
Wench: 30 kuai per ticket.
Me: Ok, book them.
Wench: You pay now, 163 kuai one ticket.
[five more minutes fucking about while she finds 11 kuai change...]

Just another example of how a simple thing is made difficult by fucking idiots.

200603060422.04


2006-03-02 15:46

I'll have a half-measure of Longevity, please


After yet more hijinks in and around Beijing, we finally managed to meet up with Stu and Toni, and promptly fail to meet them again for a trip to the Summer Palace in Northwestern Beijing. It's a mammoth place, and even in darkest winter it's clear why an emperor would make this his summer residence - an enormous lake surrounded with pavilions, temples, bridges, sculpture, trees, theatres and gardens. It takes about two hours at a decent pace to walk around, and about four at a lazy taking-hundreds-of-photos pace like Deb's.

Still no photos from me, since I took my camera in to a shop in Qianmen hutong, and the kid said he could fix it for 900 kwai, about US$100, but when I went back to get it, he hadn't been able to. But he didn't charge me, or try to rip me off, and seemed genuinely befuddled by it. Considering taking it into a proper Nikon store in Shanghai.

Feb 28th at 22:25 saw us on a train to Tai'an, seven hours south of Beijing, and the town at the base of Tai Shan, the mountain atop which the Jade Emperor supposedly keeps his court. Even at 6,663 steps, it's the most-climbed moutain in the world; if you get all the way to the top you'll live to be 100 years old. The train got us into the freezing, hazy town of Tai'an at about 05:30, and upon booking our return tickets (no up-front return bookings in China), we were overjoyed to find that the return train that night had only five available places - two soft sleeper berths and three hard seats. So much for the quiet season.

Seeing no noodles upon which to dine, we got a cab to bot bottom of the mountain and proceeded climbing in the chilly predawn. Even at this hour, there were plenty of people on the mountain - running up and down, fetching water, all of that. there's a temple and a few restaurants, a carpark and a cable car at halfway. Silly me thought that the heat from climbing would last, and that the brilliant sun would be warm, so we sat outside and I took off two jackets. Within moments (less time than it takes to read a menu), the icy wind was cutting us to the bone. Rearry. It was fucking polar. We rapidly moved inside and dined about 08:45 on "fry rabbit", "noodle beef (soupy)", "noodle with fry vegetable" and "frizzled little fishes from stream on Mt. Tai" which tasted exactly like the sediment you sometimes get if you drink stream water. And green tea which was cold by the time you got it to your lips.

Toni was very keen to walk all the way to the top. Stu and Deb just flat-out said no, and I was 50/50 until I felt the cold, and saw the sheerness of the second stage. The first part was the easy part, and it genuinely looked like the second stage would take the rest of the day. Nobody else was climbing it. So we took the cable car to the almost-top. In Korea there's a drink called Baekseju - hundred year wine - which, if you drink it daily, will pickle you until you're 100. When mixed 50/50 with soju, the result is Oshipseju - 50-year wine, and if you imbibe that daily you'll only live to be 50. I rather hope that a half-measure of Longevity doesn't restrict us to a half-century.

A bus down into Tai'an and it was decided we had time to go to nearby Qufu, birthplace of our man Confucius. Some blokes at the tour bus stop offered to take us for 20 kwai per person, but we figured that was daylight robbery since it was only an hour trip, and since the bus stop looked pretty close on the map, we figured we could get there and buy a local bus ticket for about 5 kwai each. Silly whitey! We walked about an hour to the bus station, and the local bus was 16 kwai each. Got to Qufu about 16:00, booked tix back ... last bus at 17:00. Yay. Decided to go for it anyway - and the entrance ticket was 105 kwai per person. 105 kwai! That's about 12 US dollars - to put things in perspective, we paid 200 kwai each to sleep on (and fall off) the Great Wall last year; you can get a full three-course Beijing Duck in Beijing for 80-150 kwai. But pay we did, and go very fast we did, and get hassled by street vendors and eejits we most assuredly did. The best and most interesting stuff was out back, in what was presumably the site of the actual house where the man lived before they built a castle and temple complex around it - original Han and Qin reliefs and inscriptions. That's BC we're talking, folks. All stored in plain old wooden sheds, no lights, signs, no real sense that people might be interested in them.

A mad rush to the bus, and then four hours to kill in Tai'an, during which we got hassled some more by eejits, ate awesome chicken steamed in a lotus leaf, and had coffee and ice-cream in Mian Tien Coffee Language (rearry, language), a terribly swank joint which with only a little modification might work in Wellington.

S&T took the soft berths home, which was only sane since they're getting on 14 hours of planes a few hours after the train was to pull in. The hard seat wasn't too bad, but it was insanely cramped, and I'd developed a miserable cold from the icy wind, so it was basically 7 hours of hell on earth. A 0600 shower and straight to bed until lunchtime, followed by a day of doing more or less fuck-all was the only cure, and that's exactly what I've had. Oh, and strange Chinese throat lozenges which are like LifeSavers, and pills made of human placenta, among other things. Don't tell a chemist you have a cold in China, folks. They overreact.

Tomorrow we're going to the Peking Man site, and to stay with Paulie in Tianjin, then on to Qingdao for the German-built railway station, brewery tour, Beatles museum cafe, and a chance to see snow on beaches.

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