Category Archives: China

Mahjong, smog, and plant pot armies – Xi’an

Mahjong, smog, and plant pot armies – Xi’an

After such a gruelling and seedy train ride (for me at least), we were glad that the hostel we’d booked provided a free pick up service. We’d encountered free pick up services before, and it usually involved the hostels sending a taxi or rickshaw to collect any customers, whilst also trying to grab any potential customers who’d turned up without a reservation – a sensible system that works well for both parties. We were greeted on the station platform by a young girl brandishing a piece of card with the hostel name on it. She looked about 12 years old, and I thought maybe she was someone’s daughter helping to pick up passengers, but it transpired she was in fact a hostel employee, and was probably about 35 – It’s extremely hard to guess the age of Chinese people – they either look incredibly young or incomprehensibly old, there seems to be no in between.

Anyway, ignorant racial generalisations aside, once she had realised we were the only fish from this morning’s catch, the friendly young girl escorted us to the ludicrously densely populated square outside, and advised us to follow her to where we get the bus. Assuming there must be a minibus around the corner, we obligingly followed, ploughing through the thick field of people, taking care to maim and kill as few as reasonably possible with our huge swinging baggage. After a 5 minute upstream struggle, we realised we were in fact getting the public bus. From previous experience with Chinese city public transport, we weren’t all that enthusiastic about this prospect, as usually seats are rarer than gold dust, there’s nowhere for luggage, and the journey involves standing crushed, holding onto roof handles for dear life as you desperately try to prevent yourself from falling over or snapping your spine in two from the immense weight on your back. Luckily for us, this was the buses starting point so we actually managed to get a seat, and managed to have a reasonably comfortable (but excruciatingly slow due to constant gridlock) journey to our hostel.

The hostel was cheap, modern, clean, and fairly empty. It appeared to be run by a posse of 8-12 year olds, but as I mentioned earlier, they could have possibly been late 30’s. An interesting quirk of the place was that the hostel staff seemed to speak pretty much no English (not a complaint, just an observation, as hostel staff tended to be some of the few English speakers) so when we asked them anything, they would all instinctively pick up a city map of the desk, and with a biro and a learned script, they would explain to us how to get to the Terracotta Warriors. This information came in very handy when it was in fact the terracotta warriors we were after, but when we were seeking info about laundry or the nearest minimarket, it was a tad less than useful.

Of course being in China, these were our linguistic failings, not theirs, but we did have a little help up our sleeve for such situations in the form of a lonely planet pocket Mandarin phrasebook. Granted, people would often stare blankly at our barely audible burbling, as we pathetically attempted to utter phrases, but it could work like a charm when we pointed to stuff in it – a bit of a cop out I know – but needs must.

Incidentally, it is interesting that throughout China, the phrasebook was sometimes no use, due to what we think were two main factors. The first was dialect; there are shitloads of dialects in China, with some apparently sounding as different as Spanish and Italian. Because the phonetics in the book were written in Standard Chinese (similar to “Pekingese”, apparently the purest form of Mandarin), saying the words could be futile, not that we were ever very successful with speaking phrases, even in Beijing. The second factor was that we think many people, especially in rural or poor inner city areas, may have been unable to read. All the places we went were predominantly Mandarin rather than Wu, Min, or Yue (Cantonese), and despite the dialects, written Mandarin is supposed to be fairly unifying, with only a few regional variations in the glyphs. People would often spend a good few minutes staring intently at a simple sentence like ‘vegetable fried rice please’ or ‘how much does it cost’ and then eventually apologetically shrug with incomprehension. Some refused to even look at anything written down and just waved us away. None of this is backed up by any sound (or indeed any) research – just musings really.

After that meandering digression, I’ll get back to Xi’an and mention the place’s ‘star’ attraction – The Terracotta Warriors. Surprisingly we were actually able to get there by public bus, so it was refreshing not to have to feel like such a tourist (even though we were going to perhaps the second biggest tourist attraction in China). The Terracotta Warriors are a vast collection of terracotta sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China. I reckon the guy must have had to make quite a lot of enemies in order to unify China, and it seems he was seriously worried about all the heinous shit he’d done coming back to bite him in the afterlife. Presumably because it seemed like a winning formula, he approached the idea of afterlife in precisely the same way as he approached the world of the living – He built a f’cking ginormous army to prepare to smash the holy crap out of anyone who might try and mess with him.

So as to save my fingers, and more importantly, not to go spouting dubious half read, half heard information, here’s a brief summary from the reputable and reliable Wikipedia – “The figures, dating from around the late third century BC, were discovered in 1974 by local farmers in Lintong District, Xi’an, Shaanxi province. The figures vary in height according to their roles, with the tallest being the generals. The figures include warriors, chariots and horses. Current estimates are that in the three pits containing the Terracotta Army there were over 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses, the majority of which are still buried in the pits nearby Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum. Other terracotta non-military figures were also found in other pits and they include officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians.”

Despite the pricey ticket cost, I would imagine most people hard pressed to go to Xi’an and not go see the Terracotta Warriors. The excavation and the artefacts themselves are obviously amazing to behold, especially when you consider some of the mind blowing facts, like these beautifully crafted figures are well over 2000 years old, and despite what you see, only about 1/3 of the army has been excavated. Having said that, the whole experience is not entirely one of awe and wonderment. Firstly the only way in is through the obligatory gauntlet of hawkers and tat shops. Once you’re through the defcon 5 level security, the whole place still feels like a dull grey Military barracks, which I think it may actually be. Grey concrete is the order of the day, and there are genuine soldiers marching all around the place. The excavation sights themselves are each under what are basically aircraft hangers. I’m sure it’s all very practical, but they could have housed the hangers under something more aesthetically pleasing, and not so obviously modern, at least for my benefit.  It’s like going to see Tutenkhamun’s sarcophagus at an M6 service station, or the Elgin Marbles in Carpet Right – still amazing, but definitely a few layers of sheen removed.

Anyhow, back to Xi’an itself. With over 3000 years of history, it’s one of the oldest cities in China, and is one of the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China, having held the position under several of the most important dynasties in Chinese history, including Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang. It was once the eastern terminus of the Silk Road and has now recently been named as one of the 13 emerging megacities, or megalopolises, in China. Despite these impressive facts, apart from the ancient city walls, and the occasional impressive old building in the middle of a roundabout, or poking out in between all the concrete and glass, the majority of the city looked typically quite grey, smoggy, and charmless. The well paved paths and roads, and extensive use of privet hedges, did however give the place an ever so slightly more European feel than anywhere else we’d been in China so far.

Maybe because of the Universities and such there, the City did have a notably young and vibrant feel. It seemed like there was a lot going on, and loads of young people seemed to be milling around and enjoying themselves. It also felt like we were much less like visitors from another planet, and even though we didn’t see a huge amount of other westerners in the whole city (apart from maybe the Muslim quarter), people generally didn’t pay that much attention to us, which was nice.

Last but most certainly not least, the real highlight of our time in Xi’an was the Muslim quarter. The sights, sounds, and smells in this bustling network of streets and alleys were a real assault on the senses, but we soon figured out the best way to pop in and out of the river of flowing people and enjoy the snack stalls, hole in the wall restaurants, and general amazing sights. In every shop and stall people are chopping, stirring, laughing, or quite often, beating a bunch of seeds with an immense mallet. The sheer enthusiasm with which this huge variety of foods is both cooked, sold, and consumed is quite infectious. Some streets are a bit touristy but you only need to nip down an alley to get back to people working and living in this genuine community. Groups of men ride or walk to the mosque, sit huddled around Mahjong tables or tending to their little caged birds. Most commonly of course, people are sat eating and chatting together – it seems like it’s what life is all about here. It felt like being transported to a different city or even a different country to see all these Chinese guys with white skull caps, the elders with their long beards (we almost never saw a Chinese guy with a beard unless he was Muslim), and the women with their colourful scarfs and garbs. We spent a good few days pootling around this place, getting enjoyably lost and soaking up the atmosphere. One day we even managed to arrange to meet again with our friends from the US, Xavier and Kristin, and spent a good evening aimlessly exploring the sights, smells, and most importantly, tastes together.

The Chinese Muslims, or Chuslims in tabloidese, are actually called the Hui people, and although they are ethnically very similar to the Han Chinese, they retain some Arabic and Central Asian features, with their whole culture presumably being formed, or at least hugely influenced, by their position right at the end of the Silk Road trading route. Apparently there are ethnic Hui dotted all over China, but the main concentration is around the Silk Road terminus in the central and Northwestern Provinces. From our very brief experience, the Hui seemed to have a really vibrant culture going on in the Muslim Quarter, and everyone we had dealings with seemed extremely friendly and relaxed. It would have been nice to have a chat with someone to learn a bit more about it all, but the language barrier (and my general social ineptitude) made it pretty difficult. I did however get spun around numerous times by a very enthusiastic Hui guy, and he made sure Amy took a photo of us together afterwards, in what looks like a rather strange communist salute.

Finally it came time to head south towards our next destination, so we checked out, geared up, and hopped on a crowded bus to the train station. After what felt like a few days in the Xi’an traffic, we arrived at the station and settled into our train bunks for the 482 mile, 12 hour ride to Chongqing.

(Update: Since writing this, a young girl from China messaged me to say that the guy who picked me up and span me round wanted to know how much I weigh – apparently some older guys like to bet on how much westerners weigh. So there you have it.)

Xian, Shaanxi Province, China
19/04/2013 – 22/04/2013

 

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Datong and Pingyao – the Chinese odyssey continues

Datong and Pingyao – the Chinese odyssey continues…

As mentioned in the previous Trans-Siberian post, the scale of construction in China is absolutely mind-blowing. On the route from Beijing to Datong it felt like we were never out of view of a construction site. As we arrived in Datong, a fairly big city in itself, it seemed like a whole new city was being built in and around it with vast cranes and concrete monstrosities populating every angle of the skyline.

The most bizarre construction project in Datong however, is the rebuilding of the old city. A huge swath of the population has been forcibly relocated, and the buildings levelled, in order to rebuild a bigger and better version of the old city, which was not all that long ago destroyed to build the new city. Apparently this is part of a larger new-old trend in China, whereby all the ancient cities and towns that were ripped down during the Cultural Revolution, are now being rebuilt to get in on the exponentially burgeoning tourist trade. Large parts of the new-old town were pretty much up and running, but we didn’t actually have the time to see it. A few people we spoke to surprisingly mentioned that it’s been tastefully done and is actually quite a magnificent site – so maybe there is hope for Chinese tourism yet.

On the subject of Chinese tourism, CITS is the Chinese International Travel Service – something akin to a national tourist information bureau that also sells tours. Sounds helpful, but in fact, in most places in China they are an absolute joke and are just as likely to rip you off as any other dodgy two-bit outfit. Despite this, we’d seen from a few online blogs that the CITS in Datong was run by the helpful and charming Mr Gao, who arranged good quality, reasonably priced tours out to the local wonders (in China, making your own way to tourist attractions often ranges from extremely difficult to impossible, so unfortunately organised tours often seem the only way to go).

As we walked towards the station exit into the raging throng of rabid ticket touts, travel agents, and taxi drivers, stood at the front of the lot, calmly smiling at us, was a slick middle aged man who spoke excellent English as he handed us his business card: Mr Gao – CITS. This was a stroke of luck, we were only coming to Datong to see the surrounding tourist sights and we’d worried about finding the CITS office.  “Just the man we’re looking for” I said ,“I’ve read all about you”. Mr Gao smiled, and didn’t seem at all surprised by this. He must get this all the time – this is ‘what he does’. We told him we wanted to go and see then Hanging Temple and the Yungang Grottoes the next day, so he escorted us around the block to his office. Dubiously, his office was the empty conference room of a seedy looking hotel, down a grubby alley – but due to his trustworthy face, we acquiesced and arranged the trip for the next day.

Next challenge was to find the hotel we’d booked. We managed to battle our way through the mob of obscenely aggressive taxi drivers and get to the bus station. Luckily I had the address of the hotel written in Chinese in an email on my phone, so the plan was to show it to each bus driver to see if they went there (genius, I know). Just as we stepped on the first bus to awkwardly shine my shiny screen in the unwitting drivers face, my thumb accidently caught the screen, deleting the email and presenting said bus driver with an email about discount underpants or some such nonsense. Using a combination of intuition and stupidity, we took a punt on the bus anyway, staring intently out of the window at this alien land, looking for some sign of our hotel. About 500m down the road, the bus chuntered to a stop. It had broken down and was pissing oil all over the road. Brilliant. We lugged our rucksacks off, and went for plan B – wander around aimlessly.

Looking around we quickly realised there was no way the hotel would have a roman script sign anyway, so we needed to retrieve the email with the address. After a bit (lot) of a struggle we found some fabled internet, and with it, the address. It still took another 45 minutes of bumbling around pathetically showing people the address before some lovely young kids managed to guide us to the place – essential an empty, dingy, motel with an air of mould and lots of weird 70’s furniture. We dumped the bags, and headed out for some well needed grub.

Wandering around, doing our upmost to avoid being killed on the insanely chaotic roads, we came to a couple of realisations. The first one is that Datong is a shithole. It’s crowded, noisy, dirty, polluted, massive, concrete, grey and garish. Not that I wouldn’t recommend going there, because shitholes can be seriously interesting places to wander around. The second realisation was that we are really weird. I mean, seriously outrageously peculiar. As we wander around with our rucksacks like lost beetles –  Amy with her massive eyes and super pale skin, and me with my immense height of 5’11” and a scraggly semi-ginger beard – heads turn, jaws drop, fingers point, and gasps and laughs can barely be suppressed. Apart from the new-old town, Datong is not a tourist town other than a one day stop-over for the surrounding sights (most people don’t even stay the night, or stay one night next to the train station). Deep in the city centre where we were, it felt like westerners were anything but a common sight.

The Hanging Temple, or Hanging Monastery, is a temple built into a cliff about 250ft above the ground, near Mount Heng in Hunyuan County, around 40 miles from Datong. Built more than 1,500 years ago, this temple is notable not only for its location on a sheer precipice but also because it is one of the only existing temples with the combination of three Chinese traditional religions: Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism – a section of the temple is dedicated to each. It’s quite a sight, and when you’re up there, feeling the whole building creak and sway, looking at the old dried out oak beams, you do wonder how it might fair under a visit from health and safety. The almost incomprehensible age and location of this magnificent building was genuinely humbling, and was still a special experience despite the occasional tour group.

The Yungang Grottoes are ancient Chinese Buddhist temple grottoes near Datong. They are excellent examples of rock-cut architecture and are often said to be the most impressive of the three most famous ancient Buddhist sculptural sites of China (the others are Longmen and Magao). The stone carvings were undertaken in the 5th and 6th centuries and all together the site is composed of 252 grottoes with more than 51,000 Buddha statues and statuettes. Of the grottoes, only about 20 are well preserved and there are just a few main super-spectacular ones. In 2001, the Yungang Grottoes were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As with the hanging temple, the photos don’t even begin to do this place justice. I’ve never seen carvings on anything like this scale, and the shear enormity of some statues coupled with the amazing intricacies of the wall carvings really is awe inspiring – and this is in the modern age – imagine the feeling someone would have felt seeing these caves before the age of modern building technology. You could be forgiven for believing that these caves were created by an almighty being (although perhaps not if you were Buddhist).

Another interesting fact about Datong is that it’s the coal capital of China, supplying something crazy like 1/3 of China’s coal (as I type, that figure sounds ludicrous, but it’s what I remember been told by a tour guide, and after a quick flick through Google, I could neither confirm or deny the fact, so I’m sticking with it). Apparently locals are pretty proud of this unconfirmed fact, but I’m not quite sure why. The air is thick with coal dust and after only a few hours on a windy day I was regularly ejecting bits of black gunk into tissues from my hooter. All buildings and cars are dusty and dirty, and the roads outside of the city are completely rammed with almost nothing but coal trucks, with trails of black soot covering the road and floating off into the air. It’s an ominous sight.

That night we boarded the sleeper train to Pingyao. The train network in China is totally outstanding. Fast, comfortable, cheap and punctual. Apart from the odd cultural niggle it is an absolute joy to use, but I’ll write about the Chinese trains in more detail another time.

We arrived in Pingyao around 6am in a bleary eyed stupor, and stumbled into a moto-rickshaw where we were miraculously stuffed in with all our bags and about 3 other people. We hurtled off towards the old town, a mass of flailing limbs and luggage straps flapping in the dusty air. Not having had time to put my contact lenses in, the whole experience was literally a blur to me.

About 450 miles from Beijing, Pingyao old town is undoubtedly a spectacular sight, and unlike the current new-old fad, Pingyao is genuinely ancient. During the Qing Dynasty, Pingyao was a financial centre of China, but its history dates back 2,700 years, and is one of the best preserved ancient cities in the known world. It is still inhabited by 50,000 residents and is renowned for its well-preserved ancient city wall, and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The lonely planet guide describes it “what you thought all of China would look like but doesn’t”, which is quite apt. Genuine Qing era it is, genuine Chinese life it ain’t. Although many people still live and work in the old town, the largest part of the town caters primarily to tourists. It’s to be expected really, and I’d imagine there isn’t a well preserved ancient town in the world that isn’t now primarily a tourist attraction. Also, the integrity of the town has been kept surprisingly well, with no neon lights or rampant, garish advertising plastered on every surface. The nicest thing we did there was to rent bicycles and pootle around all the little alleys and narrow passageways. Outside of the tourist area it’s possible to catch a glimpse of real Chinese life, which apart from the odd mobile phone and satellite dish, seemed like scenes unchanged from 600 years ago.

Other than a few museums and the city walls (you need a rather expensive ticket which lets you in to everything, there’s no individual tickets – we gave it a miss) there is little to do in Pingyao other than stroll around buying tourist tat. Once we escaped the expensive tourist restaurants, we found a few good, cheap little noodle shacks, selling strange local food that was decent enough, but nothing to write home about. One evening we went out for a couple of beers with two Italian law undergraduates, Francesco and Thomaso, who were having a month’s break in China before exams. Two genuine and funny blokes, who unfortunately ended up eating what they said was one of the worse meals of their life in Pingyao, although being Italian, it may just be that they are spoiled when it comes to food.

Our hostel had a comments wall, which, as one might deduce, is where people scribble notes about their stay and stick it to the wall. We noticed that something mentioned with regularity amongst the scribbles was Mian Shan. There was no mention of it in the guidebooks, but it was apparently a holy mountain, and one visionary wall scribbler even declared “it should be one of the wonders of the world!” Something with such rave reviews, and a chance to see something off the beaten track, not in the guidebook seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.

There was a 4 person minimum to arrange the trip, but luckily there was a couple from the US, Xavier and Kristin (who we’d briefly met in Datong), who were also looking to go to the mythical Mian Shan, and so, the next day we departed.

The following is my best attempt to describe Mian Shan: A-spectacular-ancient-holy-mountain-natural-beauty- hotel-theme park-dinosaur-water park-hotel-temple-megaplex. If that sounds strange, it is. It’s history goes back over 2,500 years, but it’s basically a huge mountain that was originally covered in various temples, including China’s oldest Taoist temple, and is now a mixture of ancient temples, temple reproductions, hotels, restaurants, gorge walks, picnic spots and swimming parks. The scenery is truly breath taking, as are some of the old temples, some of which appear to be defying gravity stuck to the cliffside. The tacky restaurants, hotels, and big green shuttle buses that spend all day zooming up and down the mountain do take a bit of the shine off things though. And whoever decided what this magnificent mountain needed alongside its riverside paths, was shitloads of massive concrete dinosaurs, I have no idea. Despite (or maybe because of) it’s unparalleled weirdness, we had a brilliant time at Mian Shan, and as long as you have no illusions about what you’re going to see, it’s something we’d heartily recommend . Also, we did have very good company. Xavier and Kristen have been doing a blog about their round the world trip, well worth a read, at bmorenomadic.wordpress.com

As this place is purely a Chinese tourist destination (we were the only westerners out of hundreds of people) we were a real added bonus for a lot of people, and Amy was particularly fascinating for them. At one point there was a queue of tourists lining up to have their picture taken with her, and once or twice even I was deemed interesting enough to deserve some paparazzi action. As an interesting aside, we think the reason Amy was so popular in China is that a lot of Chinese have a thing about pale skin, they think it’s beautiful, and scarily, nearly all cosmetics from soap to moisturiser to sun cream, claim to have added whitening in them. They would often point to Amy’s skin and give a beaming smile with the thumbs up.

That evening, we geared up and headed for the train station. Having bought our tickets to Xi’an a couple of days earlier, we weren’t anticipating any problems. However, as you might have gathered, there was a problem. Quite a big one. We weren’t allowed on the train.

We thought we were half an hour early for our train, but it turned out that we were in fact about 23.5 hours late. The train was at 20 past midnight, or 00:20. When we were buying the ticket we explained many times what day we wanted the ticket for, and were assured again and again that although the date on the ticket was the 18th the ticket was correct because 00:20 is still really that same day. Bear in mind that both buying the ticket, and finding out our tickets were wrong, involved conversations between people who couldn’t speak a word of each other’s language. We did have a little phrasebook which we could point to word in, and without that we would have been at the very source of shit creek. After much palaver and protestation on our part, we conceded that things get lost in translation and asked to buy another ticket. Typically there was only one bunk bed available, so off I trotted for my first experience of the ‘Hard Seat’.

‘Hard Seats’ are the cheapest tickets (other than no seat) and are in fairly ordinary seated carriages – fine for shortish journeys in the daytime, not so ideal for long night journeys. What’s uncomfortable about them is not so much the seats, but the sheer density of people. In the hard seats at night people sit/lie/balance anywhere they can. 5 sit on 3 seats, people lie under tables and seats and even in the isles. It’s seriously packed. If you are brave enough to run the gauntlet to the toilet, someone will be pretending to be asleep in your seat when you get back, and you have to awkwardly shift them.

This was all quite an alarming experience at the time, and luckily for me I had a guardian angel in the form of a young teenage girl who I think took a little bit of a fancy to me. We’d chatted a few words on the platform, then when she saw me on the train struggling to find my seat, she showed me how empty seats don’t exist, and if you have a ticket with a seat, you simply have to politely drag people out of your seat. As you would expect, I was serious novelty on this train, and people all around were staring in wonder and trying their best few words of English on me. Everyone was friendly enough, but it was a daunting experience. During all this I saw the young girl using a translation app on her phone and writing a note. Eventually she handed it to me… “Don’t worry, we are all very friendly here, welcome to China J”. As we would see time and time again throughout our time there, China’s salvation lies in the young ones.

In a strange display of hospitality, a young bloke and his aged father force fed me sunflower seeds for almost the entire 8 hour trip. The old man seemed to get very anxious when I stopped shelling and eating, even for a moment. I manage to get about an hour or two’s respite when they dozed off in the early hours of the morning. After a long, sleepless, seedy night, we arrived in Xian.

Datong to Pingyao, China
14/04/2013 – 18/04/2013

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Barmy Beijing

Barmy Beijing

The moment we arrived at Beijing Central Station, we were swiftly swept outside by a strong current of humans into the warm, smog filled air, where it appeared that the entire population of China had kindly turned up to greet us. As it turns out, there’s quite a lot of them. 1.35 Billion of them actually, with 20 million living in the Beijing Municipality alone. We said goodbye to our Trans-Siberian friends Maarten, Paulina, Megan and Steve, and swam off through the thick soup of Chinese people in search of our respective accommodations.

Looking at the map, it seemed our hostel couldn’t be more than 20 minutes away. Over an hour of trekking later, mainly down the side of a massive dual carriageway (Beijing is built in a vast grid), we arrived. This wasn’t the first time we would underestimate the utterly immense size of this City.  Being British, we have the peculiar habit (especially to Chinese Rickshaw drivers) of walking absolutely everywhere, and this had served us perfectly well so far on our trip. However, after quite a few cases of “Peking Knees”, we eventually conceded that our feeble legs alone were not going to suffice. We also now pay very careful attention to the scale on all Maps.

Beijing’s underground metro system is pretty impressive – if you’re the kind of person to be impressed by such things, which I am. The sheer scale, efficiency, and punctuality were mind-blowing. Being a simple northern soul, I still wonder at the London Underground, which seems to baffle impatient Londoners. After experiencing the Beijing Metro, I can now appreciate that there are better (although maybe not as charming) systems out there. The longest we ever had to wait for a train was about 3 minutes, and compared to our usual experience, this was a major inconvenience. An LED map inside the train shows you where you are and which direction you going at all times, and there are a load of TV screens in every carriage, beaming incomprehensible, mind melting Chinese pop into your trapped and vulnerable brain. We soon found there is very little in Beijing without a screen on it. A ticket for 1 journey (with as many line changes as were needed) cost just 2 Yuan, or 21 pence to you and me. No matter what the time of day the main lines were always totally rammed, and fitting on the train invariably required slotting 2 or 3 Chinese people under each armpit (My distinctly average height of 5’11” made me a comparative giant here, with Amy’s diminutive 5’3″ figure looking about average).

Sinisterly, the Government decrees that the Metro stops service at 11pm every night, which is amazingly effective at basically shutting down the entire city, with unsanctioned large congregations also being banned. The Government also keeps a watchful eye of the population with the aid of hundreds of thousands of CCTV cameras. Recently the Government announced all cinemas, theaters and music venues in the city are now required to install security cameras, and you can’t look up anywhere, inside or outside, without spotting one. I vaguely remember reading that per person the UK actually has more CCTV than China, I don’t know whether this is true, but the surveillance certainly felt more apparent in Beijing than anywhere I’ve ever been. Maybe we are just blindly oblivious in the comfort of our own country, which is slightly scary. It was also hard to find a major street or tourist attraction without a police or military presence. Anyway, it does seem that the Chinese Government is not without a sense of humour, with their aptly named state television network: CCTV (China Central Television).

Our hostel was a large impersonal affair in the Sanlitun district, but it was dry, clean, and fairly cheap. We were pretty well placed for the local markets and the metro to the rest of the city. A couple of the young female staff spoke excellent English, which turned out to be a life-saver in a city where it seems absolutely no one speaks a single word of the Queens. We often got addresses written down in Chinese so we could get directions from locals or occasionally a Taxi to take us there (also cheap, around £1 per kilometer).

Our first night we had arranged to meet up with Megan and Steve for some of the famous Peking Duck. This was before any of us had truly started to comprehend the sheer size of the city, and the necessity of getting addresses written in Chinese. As is the vogue in modern city planning, in Beijing, the areas of business, retail, food, and leisure frequently merge into one, and after much struggle we finally found this quaint little duck restaurant on the bottom floor of a vast glass office building, in the middle of a huge strange business and retail complex. As we only just managed it with a large dose of luck, it wasn’t surprising that Megan and Steve never found the place, and so the meeting failed. The duck was incredible though, and we did manage to meet up a few days later (outside a designated McDonald’s of course) in order to go exploring one of Beijing’s weird and wonderful night markets.

The night market was good fun, and felt much more authentic than the other one Amy and me had visited the night before, which was just a single long street of stalls, all seemingly owned by the same firm (all stalls looked identical and staff wore the same uniforms) where you were just constantly and unrelentingly heckled to buy all sorts of vile oddities like scorpion, snake, grubs, and most horrendous of all, smelly tofu (more on that later). It was a very bizarre, loud, smelly, unfriendly, tourist conveyor belt – as opposed to the second one we visited which was a jumble of narrow alleys, peculiar sights and smells, and just a much more genuine atmosphere…

Another night we successfully managed to meet with Maarten and Paulina for a surreal and incomprehensible dining experience at an immense 3 story mega restaurant, apparently very popular with locals. Due to our linguistic inadequacies, ordering anything involved a large amount of sign language, random guessing, and pot luck. In the end, we managed not to order anything too horrendous and it all went pretty well.

I’ve already babbled too long, so I’ll just do a brief run-down of our activities and observations from 9 days in this mental city…

– How to ruin a tourist attraction. Beijing gave us an introduction to the immeasurable ability of the Chinese to suck the life out of almost any tourist attraction. We visited all the main crop of wonders: The forbidden city, The Tiananmen (gate of heavenly peace), Tiananmen square, Jinshanling park, the Temple of Heaven and various other things. The inclusion of large plastic signs, chrome railings, neon lights, digital ticket booth signs, and mammoth tour groups of Chinese pensioners in matching neon baseball caps (and guide with a megaphone) makes visiting these places, to put it lightly – a strange experience, especially the more ancient sights, most of which date from early (14th century) Ming dynasty.

– The sea of hats. In China, you quickly realise you have to learn to embrace the above mentioned tourist groups, otherwise they will drive you completely and utterly mad. Each group is like a giant, marauding, neon hatted entity, feeding on the despair of other tourists (particularly avid photographers) and generally hoovering up the last drops of authenticity from any experience. However, once you learn to appreciate the power and comic brilliance of these bizarre groups, life becomes much easier (and funnier).

– Avoiding the Paparazzi. It turns out there are not as many western tourists in Beijing as you might imagine, and for many Chinese the sight of one is quite an amusing experience. This seems due to the fact that something crazy like 1/3 of the population of Beijing at any time are actually Chinese national tourists, for whom a visit to their capital is the most exotic of holidays. Because of this, it was pretty common for Chinese tourists to approach us and ask for a picture with us. The shyer amongst them would try and covertly (and it has to be said, poorly) take snaps of us strange foreign beasts from a distance – something that certainly takes a while to get used to. It’s also interesting to think how many remote Chines mantle pieces and photo albums Amy and me will now be gracing.

– Park life. Probably one of the most endearing parts of Chinese life is their park culture. Despite the immense hustle and bustle of Beijing, it was surprisingly easy to find peace and tranquility inside one of the many city parks. In the parks locals enjoy themselves however they fancy with a totally charming lack of embarrassment of self-consciousness – taking part in group dancing, tai-chi, Jianzi (Chinese hacky-sack with a shuttlecock type thing), meditation, kung-fu, or whatever else they enjoy doing. The parks are just full of people genuinely enjoying themselves. It is interesting that the idea of letting nature run its course seems unheard of in Chinese culture, with nature being something that needs taming and controlling for purpose. Nearly all parks are spirit level flat, symmetrical, orderly affairs, usually arranged based on Confucian principles of symmetry, constraint, and order, or the Taoist balance of Yin and Yang. When done well, in combination with the stunning architecture and ancient Cyprus trees, this type of park can actually be quite an amazing sight.

– Hutongs. One of the highlights of Beijing is the Hutongs. These are the network of little alleys that form the capillaries of the city. Apart from the odd one which is window dressed for tourists, these are the genuine lifeblood of the city, where locals live and eat. Some of the best and cheapest food we ate was at little street stalls and ‘restaurants’ down the Hutongs. Although amazing for us tourists to see, I’m not sure what life is life for the actual residents, who often seem to live in small, cramped, overcrowded conditions, sharing public toilets and water access. Whether the state manages to maintain any control, or whether they are just run by slumlords I also don’t know. Regardless, some of the happiest looking units of family and friends we saw eating or playing together down Hutongs.

– A wee revelation. An unexpected bonus of the Hutong life for tourists is that you are never more than 5 minutes away from a public toilet, due to the fact that toilets are shared by Hutong communities. This was an absolute revelation after the miles trekked and millions of pounds spent finding and using public toilets in Europe.

– Asleep on the job. Everyone. Despite all the crowded commotion of the city, it seems that most people in Beijing are employed in the service of snoozing. Security guards, Rickshaw drivers, shop assistants, stall owners, police and generally everyone seem to be contractually obliged to nap time. It also appears everywhere is ludicrously over-staffed. Small shops staffed by 18 teenagers, tiny car parks manned by 4 sleeping security guards, or newspaper shacks staffed by 2 or 3 daylight slumberers are all common sights.

– Rickshaw rip-offs and scams. The list of scams targeted at tourists in Beijing is pretty endless. Even writing this far into South-East Asia, I don’t think there has been anywhere as ‘scammy’ as Beijing. The Rickshaw drivers are by far the worst culprits though, and we have found this to be true pretty much everywhere we have visited since. One guy took us less than 1km, told us it was 3 Yuan (a fair price), then dropped us down an alley near a group of his dodgy looking pals and said it was in fact 300 Yuan (about £30). We managed to walk off pretty quickly after he realised that he couldn’t threaten us (I’m about 3 times the size of the little guy) but he did stalk us for a while looking pretty sinister. Another time we jumped in a Rickshaw, and driver said he was splitting the hard work and the fair with his friend, so we were put into separate Rickshaws, and then predictably we were dropped nowhere near our destination and they demanded two fares. You’ve just got to be firm and walk away. Even some of the official yellow cab drivers will try and scam you by saying there is a surcharge as well as the metered price, or by refusing to put on the meter. Other common scams involve very well educated, charming, English speaking student types approaching tourists and offering to take them to a local tea house or art gallery, where they will then disappear and be replaced by a couple of heavies claiming the bill for the tea is a few hundred dollars. We got approached by a few of these hucksters but never got sucked in – although they’re so charming and convincing I could see how people easily do. If you’re sensible and keep your wits about you though, it’s not too much of an issue.

Beijing, China
05/04/13 – 14/04/13

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Canned applause from China (Trans-Siberian Leg 3)

Canned applause from China (Trans-Siberian Leg 3)

For the final leg of our Trans-Mongolian train journey, we were to board another Mongolian train. This meant that we would complete our “Trans-Siberian Railway” trip without once getting on a Russian train. At least we’ll have the memory of the shabby Russian restaurant cart from our first leg, with good old Vlad the Impaler and his Borscht.

Another turn up for the books, which we discovered when comparing tickets one night in a Gerr, was that our new friends, Maarten and Paulina, turned out be our cabin mates for the remaining to Beijing. As we’d been living in eachother’s pockets in Gerrs for the past few days, what was another 30 hours between friends eh?

In the cabin next door were couple from the UK, Meg and Steve, who we’d seen before briefly at Lake Baikal. They’d come a similar route to us so far – through Europe, Russia, Mongolia, and now into China. Also like us, they were heading for South-East Asia, but then of to Nepal and India I think. We didn’t know it at the time, but these 2 would turn out to be good friends, who we met up with at a couple of places in China, and as we arrived in Vietnam.

All 6 of us chatted away and enjoyed a few beers, many laughs, and the odd game of cards, and shared stories of our misadventures so far. It was a really pleasant trip, with the only downside being that Maarten and Paulina decided to try out the Mongolian restaurant car, and got stung for a hefty bill for food they didn’t even ask for. The shady looking restaurant Manager gave them menus, asked if they wanted lunch, to which they replied yes. He then promptly took the menus back before they’d had half a chance to look at them, and disappeared into the back. A while later he proceeded to bring out 3 courses of mediocre food, and charge them $50 for the privilege  It’s a bummer, but these things happen, and we all agreed it wasn’t likely to be the last time that any of us fall victim to such scams.

The major difference about this leg of our train journey was that this was a… wait for it… A modern train. The heating wasn’t coal powered, it was clean, there were LCD screens in the cabins (which didn’t appear to do anything, but still), there were digital signs in the corridor showing what station we were arriving at, how fast we were travelling, outside temperature and all that palaver  We even got free tea bags and cups of tea. We were seriously high rolling.

The most annoying/surreal part of the journey was the Chinese border crossing and gauge changing combo stop. The stop in total was over 8 hours, and for at least half of this, it frustratingly felt like absolutely nothing was happening. The gauge changing was a very strange experience to say the least. The purpose is to change the bogies (wheelsets) from Russian 5′ gauge to the standard 4′ 8½” gauge used in China. The train is shunted into a shed, and then the carriages are somehow uncoupled and lifted, until many are side by side, rather than tip to tip. The carriages are then raised up high and a bunch of noisy, busy people, with hammers and machines do something or other, than gradually put the train back together again. If I read correctly, all this gauge changing monkey business is purely because the Russians decided to use a different width of train track, so that if they were ever invaded, at least the invaders couldn’t use their own rolling stock on the Russian rails. After being invaded, knowing the aggressor was unable to use their own trains on my rails would seem like quite a hollow victory to me… Anyhow this lasted for a few hours, and the Chinese passport and cabin inspection lasted the same. What was happening the rest of the time I have no idea.

Once passports were checked, as we were just sat at the border crossing, we were able to get off, go to the station shop and use the bogs etc (Train loos were still out of bounds when stopped, which suggests that even on this swanky modern train, they are still dropping shits onto the tracks). The strangest thing however, was that during this stationary period, during the wee hours past midnight, huge speakers on the platforms were blaring out very load, and very poor quality martial type music, and every song was followed by canned applause – no doubt supposed to be the jovial tidings of the vast and completely unified (of course) Peoples Republic. Unlikely though it sounds, I’m pretty sure they also played an instrumental Michael Jackson number, and a piece of Mozart.

Eventually the train set off we tried to grab a few hours shut eye. When we awoke, the change in scenery was remarkable. As we trundled through the quarries and ravines of the mountains of Northern China, we began to see the first signs of the truly unbelievable scale of construction that is happening in China. As we neared Beijing and the terrain flattened, vast half built cities seemed to appear on the horizon every few miles. Huge clusters of 20 or 30 high rise apartment blocks were everywhere – some built, some half built, many seemingly abandoned half way through construction. It’s as though things are popping up so fast, they forget to finish one project before they start on the next. I’m pretty certain some of what we saw were China’s infamous Ghost Cities. Apparently China builds something like 12-14 new cities a year, and then the wealthy middle class buy up all the real estate (Government laws don’t allow the Chinese to invest overseas), thinking of it as a safe investment, then no tenants can afford the rent, so entire cities stand empty. Madness.

As usual, I digress… Around 2pm, after about 170 hours of sitting/lying down on a train, a few days of stop overs in Siberia and Mongolia, and 4,735 miles from Moscow, we finally arrived in Beijing.

Trans-Siberian (Trans-Mongolian) Leg 3
04/04/2013 – 05/03/2013

(PS – the previous post was about our time in Mongolia in case you missed it, feel free to take a goose. Hopefully a fair few more posts to come in the next week or so to bring us back up to date)

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The Great Firewall of China

Just as the Great Wall of China was built to keep out the fierce Mongol Hordes, China’s great Firewall is currently doing its job of censoring these 2 fierce and intrepid travellers. We were so naive, the Chinese obviously saw the Sam and Amy invasion coming a mile off.

Not only does the People’s Republic of China block access to the gargantuan waffle fountains that are Facebook and twitter, it also blocks access to WordPress, the blogging platform through which we are broadcasting our fearless brand of investigate travel journalism. However, through a mixture of courageous daring do, and taking my phone out of my pocket I have found a loophole in the system which allows us to post. I’m using the WordPress app on my phone. This means I can post, but doing the usual essay of piffle and wodge of photos just isn’t possible without using the laptop.

All is not lost however, China my have won this battle, but the war still rages on. We will not sit idly by and let these harrowing reports of the strange foods we have eaten and what the weather was like go unreported. We cannot be silenced… Hopefully.

Keeping up to date with the blog on our Trans-Siberian journey has been quite difficult as we were always on the move and under deadlines with no real down time. I’ve prepared a few posts of our misadventures so far to bring the blog more up to date, but currently I can’t post them.

It’s amazing how much of the Internet China has managed to censor. Most social networking and blogging platforms are censored. Opinions and suchlike are detrimental to the future of the people and must be stopped at all costs.

Realistically, I get the impression that all the great firewall really does is piss off foreigners, I think most Chinese who regularly use the Internet use a proxy or VPN. We just need to find a way of doing this too. As you might of guessed, many search engine terms are blocked, such as VPN, Proxy, and how to get round the great firewall of China etc. other things that are blocked are anything on Tianamen square and even China’s Wikipedia page.

If anyone back home can give us any advice on how to thwart China’s merciless attempts to censor our regime changing blog, it would be much appreciated and you would go down in history as a hero to the cause.

It’s time to sign off as I think I hear the stomp of boots marching down the corridor…

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