Category Archives: China

China round up

Well we’ve certainly had some extreme views about this place. Here are our well considered notes after we got over the initial shock.

GOOD

Yes we have quite a few things.

It’s bloody Cheap
yay for that. Beer and food were unbelievably cheap. Full pints were 16p from a shop as were those gorgeous roasted sweet potatoes. In fact, everything was really cheap and not too marked up for foreigners.

Lots of history
The history of China is much more in evidence than it was in Japan. I’m sure that as Chinese development continues some of that may be lost but the Chinese do seem to recognise their history as an asset and are looking after it well on the whole.

The great wall is truly amazing, as are the terracotta warriors. Neither are over restored and so have retained their original charm. The same cannot be said for the forbidden city in Beijing which has been painted a very garish fluorescent red! Some of the back streets in there were interesting though. Pingyao was full of beautiful old Chinese buildings and Xian was dotted with them also.

Karst limestone formations
These things are truly amazing. Have a click on our picture links to see for yourselves. One of my old University lecturers, the very eccentric Jan Bloomendal, used to go on about them all of the time. It always made me want to visit China to see for myself, I was not disappointed. The scenery at the bottom of the karsts was lovely too, rice paddies with water buffalo. As it was spring so everyone was out planting.

Off the backpacker trail
Although there were quite a few tourists it gave us a bit more of a challenge. The same can be said for Japan too where there were less tourists still.

Dare I say it? Food
Aside from that evil noodle soup in Nanning it was gorgeous. My favourite things being chilli beef pittas and roasted sweet potatoes. The standard was usually very high. We did get a little sick of it by the end of the three weeks as it’s universally oily. That said, i think we’ll struggle to find any Chinese restaurants in the UK the are up to scratch now. It’s nothing like the stuff in China.

Well then. That wasn’t to bad was it? Here goes on the not so good stuff…..

BAD

Pollution
It’s overwhelming in North East China, by far the worst place being the port of Tianjin. I remain absolutely and utterly appalled. Severe Smog in Beijing, water courses absolutely filthy. I found many of the streets to be repulsive and smelly too although John doesn’t feel quite so strongly about that one. The price of development eh? I wonder how modern China compares to Victorian England. I think it’s industrialised at a much faster pace but would welcome comments from anyone who knows more about this.

Overcrowding
Partly might be a reason why there’s so much rubbish all over the place, however, it is socially acceptable to litter. Lots of people’s jobs seem to happen outside. We cannot believe how much welding goes on in the streets of China, you have to be careful where you’re looking sometimes or you might get blinded. Activities on the streets are quite interesting in themselves, the only problem is that if there is a pavement there’s no room to walk on it. The roads are crazy with a whole range of vehicles with very little regard for traffic law, it was usually difficult to enjoy a stroll as you needed your concentration to avoid being flattened. China works to the tune of endless car horns too.

The overcrowding was probably the thing that got to us the most in the first week or so. There is simply no escape! It gets on top of you after a while and is perpetuated by the lack of polite co-operation between individals. There are scrums rather than queues and a lot of people just concentrate on looking after number 1. Getting across the road is a nightmare, nobody gives way and zebra crossings are completely meaningless. This is in contrast to Japan’s society from which we sailed. The two nations people couldn’t be more different if they tried.

Persistant Hawkers
I do feel sorry for them as many are very poor. We did buy things from some but there are just too many of them, you get absolutely mobbed. I’ve been told that this was common across Asia but the ones in Vietnam just ask and if you say no and smile they let you be on your way. Not so in China, smiling is not really as helpful there for some reason. Most of the people trying to sell us things simply would not take no for an answer, some of them followed you for quite a while too. It’s a bit stressful for me and irritating for John (we react in slightly different ways). There were some breaks from it but in the touristy areas it’s pretty unbearable. The strange thing is it acually makes us less likely to buy things, especially in shops where you get hassled. It ends up that you daren’t even look at the goods for fear of attracting unwelcome attention.

John tells me that the Hawker intensity in China is similar to India and isn’t quite as bad in the other parts of Asia he’s visited. Phew.

Getting around
This is related to the overcrowding. The long distance train tickets are so sought after that most of the tickets are bought by touts. Getting them on the black market can be a little bit nerve wracking as you don’t know whether you’re coming or going. That means you feel trapped in a crazy overcrowded city with no certain means of escape. It does something funny to your brain sometimes.

Spitting
It had to be in here. It’s not really the spitting it’self that’s really discusting it’s the all too audible means of summonsing it. Absolutley revolting. Not so bad outside on the street it’s really when you have to share the same sleeping quarters as a person with this filthy habit that it gets to you. Apparently the city of Beijing is having a crackdown on it in time for the olympics. GOOD!

Right, that’s that off my chest. Here’s one or two quirky things.
Toilets
Not good enough to make the good category. It would perhaps be a little strange if I said one of the countries best features were it’s toilets anyway! Apart from the first one, which was utterly disgusting, they’ve not been all that bad. We were lucky that there were not too many insects about, that always makes toilets worse. In New Zealand there were a couple on the government campsites that were unusable due to insects buzzing around inside the hole in the ground loos. Dont fancy any of that lot near my bare backside thankyou! (apols for disturbing mental images…) Anyway, i’ve seen far worse toilets at British music festivals.

People
Chinese people like being out on the street (well, we didn’t check to see if all the houses were full too actually), apart from the welding, street chess and cards are popular. Cooking outside is another fave.

Overall the Chinese were a joyless lot and didn’t smile very much. We didn’t feel treated differently though, they weren’t particularly nice to each other either. John thinks that quite a few of them might just be miserable. He’s perhaps right. There were a few notable exceptions to this although the overwhelming majority of the friendly people we met were women and children rather than men. We’ve counted 3 nice men we met. I’ve also mentioned that the basic manners are different to Europe. That takes some getting used to.

The last comment on China is that although we were not enjoying ourselves for much of the time we were there we do feel very rewarded for the trip. It was a massive learning experience and a great challenge for us. It’s what travellings all about and is much different to being on holiday. We’re exploring and and looking forward to finding out more about the world in Vietnam although maybe we’ll give that noodle soup a miss!

The runs caught up with us

It was bound to happen sooner or later. It’s just a shame it chose the day we had a 9 hour land crossing from China to Vietnam. Maybe we said too many nice things about Chinese food and some balance needed to be restored.

The cheap noodle soup we ate at lunch time sat awkwardly in our bellies soon after we ate it. We just put up with it and enjoyed our last night in China with the insane doorman of the hotel restaurant. He was so pleased when we understood his English that he was laughing like some kind of mental case for a good 2 minutes after every sentence. When we told him in Chinese that the food was lovely he was nearly giggling himself into an early grave. We all counted to 20 together in Chinese, can you imagine the state of him after that? A very very fun way to spend our last evening in China. Nice to go out on a high. Or so we thought…..

Neither of us slept. The cheap noodle soup was expanding to unearthly proportions inside our bellies. By 4am some workmen we battering the living daylights out of something or other hanging off a crane outside our window. John was disappearing at ever increasing frequencies in the direction of the loo. Oh dear.

We got up at 6.30, I was feeling tired but OK. John said the thought he’d be alright. We boarded the train for the border. After only half an hour John was draped over the table feeling terrible. We discussed getting a hotel at the border and staying around but he started to feel much better once he got off into the fresh air.

Apart from John being repeatedly asked if he had a gun at Vietnamese customs the crossing was slow but OK. We found no transport once we arrived in Vietnam and so reluctantly accepted a taxi ride. It was a scam. We were deposited at a petrol station in the middle of nowhere where a minibus to Hanoi conveniently appeared demanding six times the local rate as a fare. I was getting very ill indeed by this point and we had no choice. The next 3 and a half hours were the kind that get atheists like me praying to anyone who might exist or listen. My insides were angry at the noodle soup and they didn’t care whether they ejected it upwards or downwards. The more I resisted the more ill I became and the more every bump in the road required upmost determination to cope with.

The hostel staff at Hanoi were like angels. They let us straight into the room and drove John around town on the back of a motorbike looking for remedies. I was as ill as ever and spent the night and the whole of the following day without even leaving our room. John still wasn’t all that well himself and really pulled all the stops out for me. Thank you. Today we are finally both fully recovered – just. We’ve been in Hanoi for 3 days.

We’ve not yet tried the local speciality food of Hanoi – Noodle Soup.

Other last stories from China.

The only notable thing really was our journey from Yangshuo to Nanning. We said our goodbyes to Wei (father person) and his family. Wei’s niece came to help us flag down the bus. We estimate her to be between 16 and 19, she works like a slave cooking and cleaning. She was working when we got up, she was working when we went to bed. Every day. She somehow seems really happy and is always cheery and giggly, we really warmed to her. Wei, although not an unpleasant man in any way, never lifted a finger to help his wife (also lovely) or niece. I know this is not Britain but China with totally different cultural values but I couldn’t help lose a little respect for him. I’m going away to do more exciting things and kept thinking about Wei’s niece doing the same boring thing forever. Waiting for the bus I had an uncontrollable urge to take her with us and save her from a life of endless domestic chores. I’m confused, she would hate me to do that and seems to be happy. Not sure what to think.

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The antics on the bus soon distracted us from our sad thoughts. People were being kicked off the bus only to be picked up again minutes later. The driver and conductor were arguing furiously. Later the driver was stopped and fined for having too many people on board. Ahh! The penny drops. Some people had to get off. They were picked up less than 100 metres away, barely out of eye shot of the police. Amusing.

John will write a post about Vietnam soon, we’re liking it so far. Next up will be the China round up.

Take care everyone.

Love Viv xx

Time out

Greetings from Yangshou!

We are just at the end of a relaxing few days in Yangshou where we have had a home-stay with a Chinese family who have made us feel very welcome. We’ve even learnt a bit more Chinese and helped out cooking our evening meal which was a very amusing experience with much hilarity caused by our inital ineptitude and the novelty of having a man in the kitchen.

Yangshou itself is set in magnificent limestone karst scenery, it’s quite a sight to see these gigantic near-vertical rocks sprouting from the ground all around you. We spent a day cycling around the the foothills of the karsts on little tracks weaving their way around rice paddy fields where the farmers were planting rice and ploughing the paddy fields with water buffalo. We even managed to climb a karst with a large hole at the top called Moon Hill which was an achievement more for running the hawker gauntlet at the bottom than for climbing the 1000 or so steps to the top. Later in the day the heavens opened which coincided with us having just set out on a clay track and the clay clogged up the wheels on out bikes so we had to carry them back to the road and pull the clay off with our hands and then cycle through lots of puddles to get the bikes clean again, with the side effect of making us even muddier – we arrived back plastered in the stuff!

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Other than that we’ve spent a few days chilling out, a little more than intended actually as a day of rain yesterday prevented us from embarking on another bike ride and boat trip down the river.

We’re now feeling that our batteries have had a bit of a quick charge and that we’ve renewed impetus for tackling Vietnam where, all things being well, we should be arriving on Saturday.

I’m afraid the pictures are still not fixed, we’re still working on getting them back, in the meantime you can still view all the latest pictures on our flickr sites – click on the links to the right. Viv has uploaded a few and I have uploaded lots, with even more to come!

And finally congratulations to Dan and Fran on their recent engagement.

Down South

Hello from South China!

We’ve seen a good improvement in our experience of China since the last post. I’m sure you’ll all be glad to hear that and as Kat points out, at least we’re not at work. Fair enough.

We had a delivery of 11th hour train tickets on Wednesday and so boarded our two night sleeper train. You might think we’re mad for getting on yet another sleeper train after the earlier write up. The only other choice is flying and we’re trying to be good and not using the planes.

It turned out that luck was on our side and we were sleeping next to three Chinese versions of John’s aunt Ros. They fed us all sorts of things and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Most of it was pretty healthy. It’s the only period in my life when i’ve eaten two entire cucumbers in 24 hours. We had lots of fun talking to and being mothered by these women, who turned out to be physics lecturers from a Xian University! We were really upset when we woke on Friday morning to find that they had already gone. It would have been nice to say goodbye.

I think this is a good time to snitch on John. HE’S EATEN AND ENJOYED CUCUMBER. OK it was cooked in a stir fry but he ate it alright. I saw it with my own eyes.

When we arrived in Nanning on Friday morning it was a bit different. The locals are not used to travellers/tourists and so were not trying to sell us anything. The average level of English was zero. It was more fun that way. The place did seem a little miserable at first as a few people in a row didn’t really want to play the improvised communication game and just shook their heads. After we handed in our Vienamese visa application we actually managed to get some train tickets booked (yes, hooray the first time!) This was largely thanks to John’s impressive copying of Chinese characters which we presented to the train station staff.

We couldn’t believe our luck. Things had gone smoothly for a change. (This is by Chinese standards, it still actually took us 7 hours to sort everthing). We were happy though so earned the right to get leathered in our hotel room. Happy days, one of the best nights we’ve had in ages!

Today we arrived in Yangshuo. On the way we met more women who gave us food. Very tastly corn on the cob this time. We’ve not really had much of a chance to explore Yangshao yet as we’re a bit tired from the 7 hour journey and the previous evening’s merryment. The Kaarst landscape is absolutely stunning though and we can’t wait to hit the hills.
We’re staying with a Chinese family here. They’re very nice, if a little shy at the moment. We all ate around the family table this evening (lovely!!) and we’ve already had a Chinese language lesson. Our memories are abysmal so we need to practice a fair bit. show_random($num=4, $tags=’yangshuo’); ?>

Tomorrow we’re going out on bikes and having a cooking lesson.

Doesn’t that sound better? It seems that not all of China is the same. It is still pretty busy down here but doesn’t seem as bad. Someone even let us cross the road yesterday! To be honest some of our new found optimism may stem from us slowing down the travelling a little, to some extent we may be getting used to the Chinese way but I think the best of China is definately away from the main cities and tourist traps. Seems obvious doesn’t it?

Yum and Yuk

Yum

The food in China is divine. It always made me ill in Britain so I never touched it. Here it’s incredible and also extremely cheap. The good thing about that is you’re free to try things without worrying about wasting your money. Only once have I not liked something we’ve tried. We thought we were buying fried potatoes and it turned out to be yakky bean curd. I bloody hate bean curd it’s just revolting, why anyone would want to eat it is beyond me!

On the other hand we chose not to try any of the more unusual kebabs on sale in the streets of Beijing. The choice included Cicadas, scorpions and sparrows. show_random($num=4, $tags=’Donghuamen’); ?>

Yuk

I have never seen pollution and land laid to waste on the scale we’ve seen in North East China. It’s like something out of a horror movie. The smog in Beijing is unbelievable, it’s difficult to appreciate anything when you can’t see it properly. I’ve no idea how the plants manage to survive with so little sunlight.

Although we’ve met some nice people here we’ve struggled with some people’s habits. There’s quite a lot of spitting going on in public and i’ve already mentioned the toilets. To be frank, the part of China we’ve seen so far is nothing short of filthy.

So then, what have we been up to since we arrived in Beijing?
Tiananmen Square is quite interesting but not stunning. We had a good stroll around the forbidden palace which was vaguely interesting but a bit over restored. I’ve been a bit off colour from our anti malarials so not really in the best mood to appreciate these things. We had a pleasant and really interesting walk around the back streets (Hutongs). Daily life all seems to take place out on the streets, watching people sell their produce and get on with things is quite fascinating. I say ‘get on with things’ but something that amused us was the number of people just hanging around watching everyone else. Children seem to be fascinated by us and like saying hello, giggling and running away. Beijing’s OK but despite its interesting culture and beautiful buildings we were overwhelmed by the sheer number of people, noisy vehicles and general chaos. It’s impossible to relax there and there is nowhere clean enough or suitable to sit outside. show_random($num=4, $tags=’Beijing’); ?>

The piece of the great wall we visited was amazing, a real once in a lifetime experience. We walked for 7 miles on a fairly quiet section, it was steep in places but a good challenge. There were no buildings, industry or anything unsightly. I can’t really describe how walking along a 2000 year old structure surrounded by hills with blossoming trees makes you feel. Awesome! show_random($num=4, $tags=’GreatWallofChina’); ?>

Next was our first sleeper train experience. Not much sleeping to be done on the way to Pingyao. It was pretty packed and some of the people around us were revolting. I’m not sure how much phlegm it’s humanly possible for one person to have in their body but it and about half a toilet roll were out and all over the floor by the morning. Openly farting and belching seemed to be an OK thing to do too.

Feeling very tired we practically fell off the train at 7.30. We were hassled to within an inch of our lives for taxis and other things. One taxi driver followed us for about two thirds of our 20 minute walk to the guest house. Pester power clearly works on some people but we will never give in! NEVER!

Pingyao is beautiful, although still pretty dirty/dusty. It’s one of the few intact walled towns in China, our guesthouse was a traditional Chinese building arranged around a courtyard. Absolutely gorgeous. With Pingyao being such a haven for hawkers it’s not really somewhere to relax so we didn’t want to stay too long. Unfortunately as the train tickets are such a nightmare to get hold of we had to get them on the black market. We didn’t know until the last minute whether we had them and when we did get them they were just faxed copies. Life is so chaotic in China that it does leave you feeling pretty homesick and overwhelmed. There have been times when we’ve both thought we might go mad and times when we’ve just wanted to come home. show_random($num=4, $tags=’Pingyao’); ?>

Somehow the ticket copies got us on the train and out. It wasn’t so bad this time, we were surrounded by younger people who do seem to have much better manners. show_random($num=4, $tags=’xian’); ?> We’re currently in Xian being held hostage by the train ticket black market yet again. Xian is as crazy as everywhere else and we just want to get down to the countryside to chill (maybe, I hope we’re not expecting too much..) show_random($num=4, $tags=’terracottawarriors’); ?>

Maybe we will be on our way south today. Maybe not.

At least it’s cheap and the foods good.

Abandon Ship!

‘The Captain has instructed that we must abandon ship’. Not really what you want to hear on any ferry. We were passed our life jackets and lead to the life boats. Both John and I were surprisingly calm. I was worried about us being split up, worried about a capsized ferry being on BBC news back home and scaring our friends and families. Emergency calm mode was engaged though so we just did what we were told. When we got to the life boat deck we were instructed on how to behave in an emergency and sent back to our bunks. Just a drill! Certainly made us pay attention to the emergency procedures. We were fairly speechless for an hour or so afterwards.

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We had left the rather drab Kobe and our cot shaped bunkbeds on Friday morning for a boring two days on a ferry. It turned out to be a fairly interesting experience. There were three other westerners on the boat, everyone else was Chinese.

Here’s quote from breakfast:

John to Adrian the Canadian- ‘Have you ever seen an egg with a green yolk before?’

Breakfast also had lovely lentil porridge (my favourite, nice and salty). It was grim. The bright side was that we had a long sleep on the second morning as breakfast wasn’t worth getting up for.

In the evening we listened to Chinese Karaoke. Very entertaining. What wasn’t entertaining was the music piped all through the ship’s corridors. It sounded like a demented Japanese version of a bad eurovision entry. It was blasting out of the speakers whenever the restaurant was open and at 7.30 in the morning to get you up. No earplugs can defend anyone against such a din.

The other main feature of the ferry was sharing a room with a guy that sounded like he had some chronic phlegm related illness. The illness was a very good timekeeper and clocked in for work at 6am every morning. Impressive!

On Sunday morning we were really looking forward to dry land. It was going to be a challenging day……

Welcome to China

We made it, and at no time had to evacuate the ship. We counted our blessings and sailed through immigration. One of our new friends did have a little trouble as the border guard had never heard of Finland. He somehow convinced him that it was a valid country and rejoined the rest of us. We decided that safety in numbers was a good option so a gang containing two of Sheffield’s finest ;), two Canadians and a Finn were at large in North East China.

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My first impression of China was overwhelming. The port air was incredibly polluted and the area looked like a war zone. Old collapsing buildings were covered in dust and soot. On our bus ride to the train station the canals were filled with rubbish and an oily sheen gleamed in what little sun made it through the smog. A great opportunity for John to take photos you might think. Believe it or not he didn’t, he was in emergency calm mode again. The first bit of China we saw was truly surreal. We made it to the train station thanks to a few kind Chinese people helping us. One even paid us on the bus as we didn’t have any change yet.

I don’t know how we made it to the train station but when we did we were persistently hassled by a woman that can only be described as a ‘taxi driver pimp’. She wanted all five of us, each with a huge backpack to travel in a single saloon car. We shook her off eventually but it involved running away Monty Python style.

After gaining our train tickets, again with help from a willing member of the Chinese public, it was time for our first outing to a Chinese public toilet. Lydia (canadian gang member) and I decided we’d let the boys go first. While they were away we attracted a huge crowd of onlookers, all we were doing was standing chatting. John came back with tales of a scrum at the urinals. Lovely.

A description of the ladies loos is not suitable for this blog. It’s safe to say that emergency calm mode was engaged once more. If anyone is curious enough please email me separately and I’ll tell you!

After creating another impressive crowd of onlookers while attempting to order food, we caught the train and made it to our youth hostel room.

A toast to China with 16p bottles of beer! All’s well that ends well.