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china blog

tales from china

Mode of Travel - Getting to know new places

I've never really traveled like this before, on my own moving fairly rapidly around a fairly massive country (most similar to a mammoth two month USA tour with my family quite a few years ago). What I have found most enjoyable, apart from the beautiful scenery and meeting people, has been the sheer exploration of places I've never been to before.

One thing I love to do more anything is to 'learn' a new place, by this I mean become familiar with it enough to be able to get around with no worries. I love that feeling I get after a few days or so in a new town or city when I've had a chance to explore, and I see something I'd seen as I first arrived. I recall how alien it appeared to me back then whereas now I can precisely place it in the surroundings and be able to reach it from anywhere, I know how that place fits together.

In fact I've noticed that I'm pretty ratty when I first arrive in a new town, as my mind works overtime to assimilate the wealth of visual information my eyes are receiving, construction a mental map of where I find myself. I have a fantastic geographical gene, education and sense of direction - thanks Mum! - which has facilitate my ability to travel so far from home in a strange culture and not get lost. I also have an inbuilt theory(/arrogance) that it's not actually possible to get lost as eventually you'll fine somewhere (right, this stems from my English heritage, living on an overcrowded tiny island).

This sense of seeking and exploring a new place has even more interesting than some of the places of interest I've visited. Exploring the town near one of these landmark sites has the added bonus of meeting locals and seeing things that the average tourist completely misses.

Interestingly when I arrived in Nanjing I was tried, ill and homesick which prevented me from performing the crucial location assimilation with the result of me not getting to grips with the city and not really enjoying my experience. That was one places where the 'sights' were the only saving grace - sorry Nanjing.


China - A 'Description'

China, china, china... China. Now how to describe such a place?!

Eeegerurkingwoormerhurga! - But harder in English.

Right, so take the United States of America and remove the freedom, human rights and personal space. Bury all the Christianity underground and multiply the population by about 100000 and give half of them completely pointless jobs. Reduce the weight of everyone down to something completely sensible. Also colour everyone's hair black (rather attractive I feel) and give them a language that is almost, but not quite, completely unintelligible. Then attempt to cultivate every conceivable plot of land which is not otherwise built upon including grassy verges and mountain tops. Remove all pointless metal utensils and in their place locate a plethora of bamboo made ingenious utensils.

Populate all the attractive parts of the country with people selling utterly pointless merchandise (all "very very cheap") and chinese tourists buying it, making sure that 99.9% of the tourists don't stray into more than 2% of the beautiful scenery - they must all then take identical photographs* of each other in front of one 'beautiful' location.

Finally give 90% of people a bike, 10% a car and set them all loose together on every single road interspersed with thrill seeking pedestrians.

* triple the time spent taking the one inanimate photograph compared to the rest of the world.



The obligatory chopstick blog. I've long thought that these are perhaps the single greatest invention of all time, perhaps even better then the towel - controversial, and my experience in China has only deepened it. I'm considering writing to the Scouting Organisation and suggestion that the standard '5 Things' be increased to 6 with the addition of a pair of chopsticks. I now carry them everywhere with me as they are useful in so many situations, you can:

  • pick up any object (excluding some cooked mushrooms)
  • cook with them
  • remove butterflies from dangerous situations
  • kill mosquito's in mid-air*
  • spread jam on your Chinese 'bread'
  • chew on them while in serious pain
  • use them as pick axes while climbing up snowy peaks
  • use them in very attractive hairdos
  • catch bullets that your enemy is firing at you*
  • tap rubber from trees
  • fashion rudimentary false limbs from them
  • skewer various items for cooking
  • eat with them after a quick wash

* requires advanced chopstick skills

I've had a number of comments from the Chinese that I use them well (which i knew anyway but it's always nice to be told). If you would like lessons then I will be happy to teach you over a Chinese meal that I will cook for you. Just send me an email when I'm back in Southampton.


The Great Great Wall

Well I spent last night asleep on the Great Wall, it was amazing! I went up on Friday afternoon to near Simatai arriving there just after sunset. We set off up the mountain and onto the wall walking in moonlight surrounded by misty mountains and bathed in the faint glow of a waxing moon. It was a stunning place by night as on the distant hills the spiky wall with towers could be seen snaking into the distance. The wall itself is a lot more real than that at and near Badaling, though still repaired in places.

After a little walking we stopped and set up camp in one of the towers and a nearby stretch of wall, having dinner of break and biscuits. We then gathered around something warm and sang into the night. At around 11 pm a satellite group arrived with some African guys and a drum which raised the atmosphere and our voices upwards. It was quite an experience, something like nothing else.

This morning I woke up around sunrise with the full view of this impressive structure in the glory of the morning light. With a chili nose and legs I set out for a stroll/climb along and over a couple of hills to admire the view and fill my memory card with photographs :) These will hopefully appear along with many others when I get back.


Yeah Right

"One country, two systems" they say.

I say "two countries, two systems, two people, two entirely different worlds!"


New Bluebird

Yay! Good old Nissan have finally produced a new version of the fantastic Bluebird, of which I own one. I looks pretty cool with inbuilt computer things and a Heads Up display (why have these taken so long?). OK it might not be the most cool and funky of cars but it should be a damn reliable car.


Traveling Music

Now I never used to be much of a music listener - it wasn't until the first year of uni did I own my first music CD [Barenaked Ladies 'Shunt'] and I only now have about 10 (though over 100 classical). Then I came to uni and discovered that listening to music is rather cool and a good way to relax and even work (I was always a silent worker). So for the past few years I've been listening to more and more music and with the advent of MP3's, well....

The effect of music, and indeed what music is, I find quite interesting. Firstly we still be able to create new music after countless years of doing it (sure some stuff is just covers) which shows the versatility of the human mind and voice. Then there is what music is - a collection of notes and words that are pleasurable to listen to. Why does one person likes Rock and another Techno, while a third chooses Britney? It's just so cunning.

So now I come to China and music is gone bar the odd whine of some Chinese classical being piped through various PA systems in museums, trains, mountains. But occasionally someone somewhere plays a familiar track that I know and the effect is really quite surprising. Just having that familiar link with what I'm hearing in a land where 99% of conversations are a jumble of unintelligible Chinese is a huge moral boost. I had one train ride where they occasionally put on some film theme music including Brian Adams 'Anything I Do'. It totally lifted my mood to able to sit there and sing along, quietly.

Many people I meet traveling have these MP3 players and I can really appreciate why they can be such a life saver. I'm still happy to travel in the quiet enjoying the view an local sounds but it will be nice to get back to music again.


Air Conditioning Rain

Not the most groundbreaking of blogs this but this phenomenon is something quite common and something I'd not experienced before. It's simply a result of positioning the air con units on houses on the front over hanging the street which means that as people walk along the pavement below they get rained on. Quite nice sometimes.


Common Sense

For one of the most highly educated of all people with an examination system dating back thousands of years and a rich history of technical and historical firsts I've been finding that most people are distinctly lacking in common sense. Take spitting for instance - surly it's obvious that this is not the best of habits to have, and if stopping is out of the question then at least people could aim for strategic locations (in bins, shrubberies, toilets, sinks, even just 'outside'). But no.

Another example I noted was on a bus journey where a lady took a fully biodegradable sweet corn cob (though appreciated, they can take years to decay), placed it in an un-biodegradable plastic bag and lobed it out of the window! There is the extensive recycling bin infrastructure in place to take and deal with this massive populations waste but people just cant get the hang of them. Despite their bright green colour. However I despair at people in England who are incapable of this simple yet vital task :(

And don't get me started on the escalators...

Don't get me wrong, I greatly respect many Chinese people but this educational disparity is somewhat odd. I've come to the conclusion that the reason behind this is three fold : intense over population mixed with an educational career too focused on exam success rather than development and thirdly a huge lack of personal freedom in thought and action. Frankly you could explain every problem here on these three factors, so there actually doing quite well in spite of them.


China Again

I've now headed back into the depths of China after the colourful extravaganza of Hong Kong. First thing I noticed is that hygiene standards have left again, spitting is back in force and people can no longer use escalators (must blog that...) and the police are back in force. I also met a rather nice pick--pocket who tired to steal my camera from the bag around my neck as I walked to the train station after my previous blog in Guangzhou.

I noticed a tug on the case and my camera pop out and dangle by the cord that attaches it to the case. The guy that I suspect did this (for he was standing right behind me) tired to go all dumb on me and, as none of the onlookers were going to give me any assistance (I don't think many people here would help anyone else unless they were paid to do so - sorry China), I had no ability to question this man so let him go.

This guy had tired to unclip my case from its strap as well unzipping and pulling the camera out of its case. Thankfully he was foiled by the strap being slung over my head and arm, and secured under my rucksack; the camera was zipped into the case (though he had unzipped it) and the camera was strapped to the bag by the hand chord. This last measure prevented the camera from being taken away in his hands as I would have had little chance to run after him while fully laden with belongings.

Another experience of pick-pocketing in Shanghai showed that having zip pockets is a great aid to security - I choose Peter Storm trousers which have a zipped pocket behind an open pocket, the open pocket is the easy target but of course I keep nothing in them.



In China they don't work.

I cant remember so far actually being in a public transport vehicle where the speedo actually worked. This was at first quite alarming - how do they know what speed there going? - but I soon realised that actually none of these vehicles, mainly busses, actually get to drive very fast at all due to the mammoth congestion everywhere and the constant threat of killing a pedestrian or cyclist. So the diverse go around at a speed somewhere between 0 and 'a little too fast' keeping a constant watch for other road users. This allows the role of the speedo to become superfluous to requirement and so they tend to show any speed they think fit.

The boring ones are just plain broken and sit at 0 all day. Some more interesting ones choose a speed depending on air pressure, gravitational variations and the slope angle that the bus is currently going up or down. However the really exciting ones, and I think perhaps most common, are those that fly about all over the place, flicking back and forward, jittering, stopping, zooming over 100 then back - it gives something else to keep you entertained if you get fed up of watching attempted bike/pedestrian suicides out of the windows.


The Joy of Visa

OK. So I don't remember anyone telling me that I would require anything more than a typical '90 day' visa when my plans have, right from the start, included Hong Kong as a destination. I was unaware in fact that such a 'multiple entry' visa existed (my application clearly stated HK as a destination, but it was not flagged). So I was completely dumbfounded when I strode towards the China Border Control only to be refused entry and turned around after having quite happily (though sad at the actual leaving) left HK.

The border guard directs be upstairs to where a handy visa issuing office exists "for all your visa needs" (didn't actually say that) where, for a single payment of 680 HK Dollars I can get an insta-visa. Two issues with this - I'm a budget backpacking traveler (680 is quite a bit) and more worryingly I had no money on me. I enquired as to the whereabouts of an ATM : 'Non of those here' was the response. Ahh, handy.

So in desperation I went downstairs, haggled with various guards, was refused entry back to the border (the way I'd just come) a few times and eventually dragged some of the guards to speak to each other and let me get back (under large 'no U turn signs). There I apply for entry back into HK which is accepted and I get stamped in. Collect my 200 pounds for passing GO, and return, getting stamped back out for the second time that day and merely 10 minuets after that particular entry (I'll show you my passport some time).

So with the payment I collect a visa and enter China again - two trips for the price of... two :( Well it's all about the learning experience isn't it!


Michael Palin

These travels by train really make me feel like Michael Palin on one of his marathon treks across the world. In fact the whole experience of China is turning out to be like this.What's really great is that now I get to smell and fully immerse myself in the atmosphere that is only just hinted at through the TV. Thinking about this I've realised what an impact those series have had on me. As a family we woulds it down to watch with excitement each week as he trekked vast distances, meeting interesting people and having a fare few near scrapes.

However I can not neglect the love for traveling and the ability to do it that I have inherited through my Mother and Grandfather. Both have taught me so much of the art and given me the confidence to actually head out there.Indeed this China trip is taking me along part of the path that my Mother and Grandparents took over fifteen years ago.

In particular some 'Palinesc' moments that I've encountered so far include: taking long distance cattle class (hard seat) train journeys; meeting and befriending street sellers; getting to experience a variety of toilets; being stuck in a strange city with no means of transport out and most recently sprinting half way across a city fully luggage laden, jumping from bus to bus in order to make a train before it departs. It really will give me new insights the next time I watch him - which will be sooner than you think as Michael Palin is currently filming a new HimalayanAdventure


Street Habits

Right, I failed to save this when I started this last time so I'll have another go (though I've little time yet again).Street habits here leave somewhat to be desired, and somethingI won't miss back home. In particular there are three popular habits that really get me: littering, spitting and blowing ones nose (not in the usual way of course).

Littering :: just about everywhere seems an acceptable place to put rubbish be it paper, cigarette boxes, food remains or bike parts. I think the general idea is that someone is bound to come along later and clear it up, so why not just leave it. Sadly this is indeed the case - over population is such that there are literally hundreds of people employed to come along and clear the streets by hand behind everyone else, so eventually everything is cleared up! Maybe looking from the other side littering is in fact helping keep employment up?!

Spitting :: ugh! *shivers* Yep this is prevalent, everyone does it and they do it everywhere. Now I can appreciate that sometimes it might me really necessary to remove from ones mouth the contents contained there in, especially while riding. But this is on a whole other level. Left, right, centre, here, there, on my shoe - yikes! You walk along the pavement and if you gaze down dotted everywhere are these little wet, ever-so lumpy, patches where someone has previously 'hock-a-loogied'. And while you run the gauntlet of avoiding the spittle patches you are continually serenaded by the throat worborling, phlegm building, lung emptying sound of others adding to the spit frenzy. It could have something to do with the fact that everyone smokes and this might hence be having an adverse effect on their lungs - but who am I to think?

Nose Blowing :: normal you might think - everyone does that and doing it in the street is no different. Wrong.This is not the polite British white tissue affair, it's a whole art form in itself. No tissue required, just bend over holding one nostril shut (reaching over your head to maintain a clear exit path) and then blow. The ensuing violent storm will evacuate that nostril with the contents being sprayed liberally over the surrounding area. What I have yet to ascertain is how to avoid self coverage - perhaps that is the 'art'. As a foot note I should highlight one incidence when I was unfortunate enough to be downwind of someone performing this activity, and I was certainly the one liberally coated in the residue - nice. [08-09-2004]

Undercover Baby Convention

Something strange is going on here in Kunming and it involves allot of babies. I first noticed it when I walked from the train station into the centre of the city, suddenly about five babies on their mothers backs passed by within the space of three minutes. Now, as I've only seen perhaps three babies in the whole of China (pregnant woman count currently 11), this was somewhat surprising. And since then I've been seeing more all over the place. I'm pretty convinced that all the new mothers in the whole of China are coming to Kunming to meet up for a massive (all be it small) chin wag. It's mighty weird I can tell you.

Teaching Again : Juizhaigou

What fun, I turn up at a beautiful scenic spot in North SichuanProvince for a day or two's hiking and I end up staying for three days to help train some English speaking volunteers for an international tourism conference happening therein a few days time. Well as I keep saying: this is China!

There were nine girls from around the area including some Tibetan which was exciting, they had pretty good English already, better than mine in places, so my role was really just to check for any common errors and generally help improve their language. I hope I succeeded in this task, I certainly enjoyed my time thoroughly.

I was also honoured to have five of the girls give me a guided tour of Juizhaiguo valley (the place I'd gone to see) which was in a word stunning - I'll have to give you my photos at a later date. We drank butter tea with some monks, dinned in the visitors centre and walked for miles along the really well constructed foot paths.

So not at all what I was expecting, but a good surprise and a really great experience to add to all the others, sadly however it has left my time in Chengdu rather short and I move on to Kunming tomorrow :(


The Long Drop

It had to come didn't it, and this is the time, so prepare yourselves for the inevitable (and possibly not the last) Toilet Blog. You should now start thanking your lucky stars that I have no access to upload photos so far though I might be able to squeeze one in if you ask very nicely).So if you have your toilet paper to hand I'll begin...

The toilets of which I speak were experienced while traveling recently in the North of the country. They are only toilets in the loosest possible sense of the word so immediately rid your mind of all Armitage Shanks that come to mind. Right so in fact it's just a sparsely decorated room cited precariously over a rather large pit. The room is half divided into open cubicles by 1 m walls and in each cubicle you are provided with a hole. That's about it.

Right so to the plan of attack - First judge the time that the loo is likely to be least occupied (gone 12 at night turned out to be quite popular). Secondly take a deep breath and thirdly enter with the knowledge that it's only natural and everyone (even the queen) has to do this.

You see what happens is you pop into this shed, position yourself in a 'cubicle', squat over the hole above the squirming mass (yep, the whole pit is alive with maggots - actually quite entertaining to watch - a bonus for being male {well there has to be some]) of the excrement your fellow humans have recently deposited before you, and just go. The smell I found to be in fact no worse then cleaning out the cage of a guinueapig/rabbit combo - a sort of peppery ammonia, and by that I should specify the nasty ground pepper that you get in dodgy roadside cafes.

Now some of you might be feeling a little green at the thought of this, but in fact I found the whole experience strangely pleasant. Well, OK, pleasant is not quite the word, but I didn't mind these things - there incredibly clean, you touch nothing that anyone else touches, there quick, efficient and entertaining. In fact as a means of public toilet I'd recommend these over our western loo's any day.

Though it is another kettle of fish entirely when the very notion of the cubicle is removed from the equation...


Teaching English

OK so it might not be for me, but over the last four days I have been teaching English. It turns out that I was never really properly taught English myself and so I've also been learning English over the few days as well. It also transpires that there is a whole phonetic way of writingEnglish that enables people to pronounce each and every word that exists, of which I knew nothing about. I've also learnt that it's best to teach complete opposites to someone separately, i.e. teach 'left' then after a week or so teach 'right', this way there is a distinction made and confusion is reduced.

Amazing mate!



Right this is worth a blog as the busses here are a real experience to say the least. In fact there a wonderful variety of hell razing and near death experiences all for the price of about 10 pence or less. There are in fact two flavours of experience,the uber cheap hell rides and the softer air-con fancy version which costs a little more. I tend to go for the seat of you pants ride as I'm of course a cheap ass student,but have traveled on the cool option as well just for comparison.

For one kuai you get a puss, the basic box shaped thing with about four wheels and an engine. The driver may or may not be with it, that's the luck of the draw*. Seating is limited, possibly a scattering around the edges and this abyss for the filling of with people in the middle (I know that doesn't make grammatical sense but I don't care right now).


Cities of the South

Though not as far south as you can go in China (I'll be trying that later) I've ventured further south into the Province of Jiangsu, in particular the city of Nanjing but I sadly wasn't impressed. Certainly not as I had been with Xi'an and Kaifeng, Nanjing appeared not quite at ease with it's self, sort of wanting to be like Shanghai in it's modernisation and appearance but without the actual substance to make that work. And in trying to achieve this state had lost some thing of the charm and friendliness that other smaller cities maintained.

One of the greatest downers about Nanjing was the cost,everything was so expensive with this drive for modernisation,and was really bad news for my budget. The first night I'd attempted to book into a youth hostel but at 180 yuen a night and far out in the sticks I was having none of it.The attempt of finding this place was also father wearing and wasn't adding to my enjoyment of the city. I finally found a place, the university accommodation no air con and a huge great big tower block for 100 yuen, quite a departure from previous nights. The second night was spent in an exceedingly seedy place that was found by a street hawker at the station.Still a rip off at 50 yuen but I knew IU was letting myself in for something less than pleasant!

Around Nanjing was good however wit a beautiful mountain park worth a visit, and a definite joy to be amongst wildlife for a change. However busses there and back seem to end at 5 pm abandoning you to the whim of the countless taxi drivers who turn up like sharks waiting to prey on the hapless stranded tourist (that was me). The museum of theRape of Nanjing was also superb and well worth a visit -plus free for students, baby!

So all in all not horrific, but not a place I'm too keen to return to!


The Squat

Right so the deal is "stand on two feet, nothing else touching the floor and curl up". The Chinese are asters of this position and practice it at every available opportunity. They are also trained in the art from a very early age. The main reasons is that you really don't want to touch the floor and this appears to be the most comfortable way to 'not sit' on it.

There is one other reason to: the toilets. You might have traveled in France and seen their nasty loo's which are just a hole in the ground and 'tutted' at the state of French hygiene. Well it looks like the Chinese invented them, at least there the most common variety around. In the week I have been here I have only used one once due to careful judgment, planning and much holding-in.

Last night I took the plunge, or 'squat', which was surprisingly painful on the knees, and had a go. And actually I was rather impressed isn't the word... comfortable with the experience. Aim was accurate and general lack of touching anything much appreciated. So all in all an experience I shall not fear so much in the future, that is until I experience it communally!


Travels By Train

Well it's an experience, not totally a good one, but not on the whole bad. The trains are certainly themselves variable which doesn't help in the categorisation. I've now taken two trips by train here, both long distance (though I couldn't tell you how far), one from Beijing to Xi'an and then fromXi'an to Kaifeng.

Beijing to Xi'an
This was reasonably comfortable, a modern air conditioned train with people only really smoking in the toilet and between carriages. I had a window seat for at 15 hour journey (I know!) and managed to get some sleep. I chose to go hard seat partly as it's easier to come by and partly cos it's cheap ass. The hard seats were in fact padded and not too uncomfortable, and I quickly learnt the correct sleeping position be coping the locals. I also met a lovely lady from the city returning home to see her family, she spoke pretty good English and so we chatted most of the way (people often like to have a chance to improve their English here).
So that was nice

Xi'an to Kaifeng
Not so good. OK I was feeling really pretty ill anyway; I had earlier walked the breath and nearly length of the walled part of Xi'an carrying my huge rucksack; my stomach was feeling a little off colour from the hot-pot the previous night; and a medium migraine had taken hold. So it wasn't a good start. However the train was also pretty basic, old rolling stock with padded but uncomfortable hard seats and no air conditioning. Thanks I guess to intervention I had a window seat and sat opposite a guy who spoke some English! The journey was shorter but sleep was difficult due to pain and constant station stops. Smoking was also rife through out so I spent most of the time trying to breath in outside air. The toilet was better however and by the end of the trip was not full and swelling like the previous one.

Swings and round-a-bouts I guess, but with another hard seat non air conditioned trip to Nanjing coming up I'll soon learn to travel by bed.


First Steps in China

But this is the real thing. I am here, in China, actually in China. It's really quite strange but totally exciting and different, but I don't appear to be experiencing any major culture shock - probably thanks to my near Chinese existence back home, it feels rather right.

So I've been here about 2 days (you can see just how long by seeing the counting clock above, hopefully set to my landing time in Beijing. In this time I've only really been finding my way round this mammoth city and exploring some of the Hutong. I've brought some things, haggled for a cheap phone card, had dinner for 30 pence in a street stall, experienced Tiananmen square at night which was really totally amazing with hundreds of people flying kites. I've met a number of locals who have helped me round, some students who showed me their art (yeah, OK, I fell for it, bus escaped with a nice little painting which cost about 3 pounds!). I have also managed to meet up with the leader of the Southampton Christian Union from my first year who let me stay with him.

Internet cafes seem a little hard to come by due I think to government restriction but I shall try to keep in touch here and my email (sending one shortly). However I'm off to Xi'an tonight on an all night train journey on hard seat (for the experience I keep telling myself!) so will update you from there.


China Town - London

This is not the real thing, merely a practice, a warm-up if you will for the real thing later this month. This is in London, just South of Soho, and is rather lovely if a little small (compared to San Francisco which is the largest in the world!). I purchased lots of things here including woks, chopsticks, bamboo steamers, food etc. Nothing like the real thing I'm sure!

Chinatown in London