Beijing & Shanghai: Photo Essay

AFTER X’IAN, BEIJING: we travelled there at 300 km/h, our speed digitally displayed at the end of the carriage. There was boiling water on tap, there were wide seats, there was more than adequate leg room and the train ran on time. In other words, it was everything that train travel in the UK is not.

 

THE LAMA TEMPLE

 

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Welcome to the Disneyfication of religion. Don’t worry if you’re not Buddhist, it really doesn’t matter. Please collect your complimentary bundle of incense sticks and proceed directly to the brazier, where you may light them. Screams of excitement are encouraged. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous (and you probably are) please do feel free to light the entire bundle at once (don’t worry about the sign telling you not to do that). Next, proceed to wander around the temple clutching your incense stick like you don’t quite know what to do with it. When you’re bored with it, just drop it on the ground. Thank you.

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THE HUTONGS

 

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Welcome to the hutongs, a series of old narrow lanes that you’ll probably get lost in. People have died trying to get out. Do come in, though.

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Residents are mostly friendly.

Mostly.

Mostly.

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Don’t touch my beer.

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All hail.

 

The discarded bikes of those who didn't find their way out of the hutongs.

The discarded bikes of those who didn’t find their way out of the hutongs.

 

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Don't worry that you're lost, having a beer will help you find your way out.

Don’t worry that you’re lost, having a beer will help you find your way out.

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THE WALL

 

Welcome to the Wall. Yes, it looks like it was rebuilt recently, and there's a reason for that. Try not to be too underwhelmed. Distract yourself by buying overpriced gloves to stop your hands falling off in the cold. And if that doesn't take you mind off it, don't worry, because there's a toboggan run all the way down to the bottom of the hill which is a lot more fun than the wall itself.

Welcome to the Wall. Yes, it looks like it was rebuilt recently, and there’s a reason for that. Try not to be too underwhelmed. Distract yourself by buying overpriced gloves to stop your hands falling off in the cold.

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OK, so it is quite impressive in places.

And if you're still bored, don't worry - because there's a toboggan run all the way down to the bottom of the hill which is a lot more fun than the wall itself.

But if you’re still bored, don’t worry – because there’s a toboggan run all the way down to the bottom of the hill which is a lot more fun than the wall itself.

 

REMEMBER THIS?

 

Remember this?

So 2008…

SHANGHAI

Welcome to Shanghai! You can get married here.

Welcome to Shanghai! You can get married here.

It's very popular.

It’s very popular.

We've got the whole post thing covered as well.

We’ve got the whole post thing covered as well.

And laundry. I'm pretty sure it's fine to be a Christian in China as well.

And laundry too. I’m pretty sure it’s fine to be a Christian in China as well.

We don't talk about the hairy building. Look away,

We don’t talk about the hairy building. Look away.

This is the view that you're paying £6 a beer for. Better enjoy it.

This is the view that you’re paying £6 a beer for. Better enjoy it.

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NEXT TIME: The food of Penang.

This post was written and uploaded in Kuala, Lumpur, Malaysia.

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Xi’an: Smog and Pottery for Overachievers

 

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I AND ABOUT a dozen other passengers watched as the security guard practised swings with his side-handled baton. He was standing behind the check-in desk for the 12:05 Sichuan Airlines flight from Lijang, Yunnan Province, to Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. As each person or family got called up to the desk, his baton swished through the air. Next person, please (swish swish). Did you pack this bag yourself sir? Swishswish. Just the one bag sir? Swishswish-SWISH. Can I break your kneecaps sir? What was that? Can I have your passport sir? Oh…..

It was March, earlier this year, just after the terrorist attack on Kunming station where 29 people were killed by Xingjiang separatists, and we were leaving Yunnan province to visit the tourist heartland of China: Xi’an, Beijing and Shanghai. We’d already seen police in fatigues with automatic weapons marching through the airport in lines and executing smart pivot turns at right angles. As I checked in I tried not to think about them executing me.

When I reached security and handed over my passport, the rather severe looking lady behind the desk gave me the stare of Chinese officialdom, the one that makes US immigration officials look like kittens. She examined my passport for some time, flicking between my visa and my personal details. She looked up at me, and then she called over someone else. There was a brief discussion, more glancing upwards, and then a third official was called over. Eventually, my passport was handed back, and I was waved on. There was no explanation. Right until I boarded the plane, I kept expecting to be lead into a little room with swishswish man.

The problem, I later discovered, was a hyphen. When we got married BK-C and I double barrelled our names: my name on my passport is Knight-Croft. Unfortunately, Chinese systems – for trains, planes, visas, or anything else official you might need to do – only allow your name to be composed of alphabetical characters. So while my passport said Knight-Croft, my visa and my boarding pass said Knightcroft. I read a newspaper article in a Beijing newspaper explaining that many foreigners with double-barrelled names had been forced to buy new train tickets by over zealous ticket inspectors because the name on their passport did not exactly match the name on their ticket. I was grateful that I hadn’t further complicated matters by changing my name to David Knight-Croft the 1st. How monarchs ever get through Chinese immigration is a mystery.

TOWARDS THE END of the flight to Xi’an, after the alarmingly sexual demonstration of how to inflate a life jacket, after the warm ham and cucumber rolls, after the stewardesses had collected our food wrappers and our drink cups, regardless of whether or not we’d finished them, they played a video of an older woman in an embroidered cardigan doing exercises. Cardigan lady stretched her arms out in front of her, and so did everyone on the flight; she rubbed her temples, and so did everyone else; she rubbed the bridge of her nose and all followed suit. It was like a giant game of Simon Says. I was the only person on our row not joining in and I felt pretty stupid. Such is the power of overbearing peer pressure, the fuel that seems to keep China going.

OUR INTRODUCTION TO the often bleak landscapes of northern China was on the bus into Xi’an from the airport. It was flat, with a dirty fog cutting off sight of the horizon. Giant tower blocks, half finished, all grey concrete and cranes, imposed themselves into the fog. Every so often there would be a towering brick chimney – the sort that you see everywhere in northern England, abandoned and dead – spewing smog into the dense air. I thought that it must have been what Lancashire and Yorkshire looked like in the 1800s. I saw a solitary man, sat hunched, fishing in a small pond by the side of the highway. The ground was scrubby around him, with little tufts of anaemic-looking grass, and the sun a pale disc of wan yellow above, struggling through the fog. He looked pretty lonely. But what do I know? He may have been having the time of his life. Further in towards the city, there were completed tower blocks in staggered rows, one after another after another, mute and identical. They disappeared off into the distance.

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Welcome to China. Would you mind waiting? We haven’t quite finished it yet…

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China as glimpsed from the train.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that I may have embellished this dystopian vision of hell, but I promise you – this is what it looked like. Perhaps it was the wrong time of year, or the weather was bad, or it really was fog and not smog – but I’m not convinced. We caught the bullet train from Xi’an to Beijing and from Beijing to Shanghai, and all the way on both journeys it was like this – flat, bleak building sites flashing by before they were swallowed again by the smog.

On the plus side, though, pollution does make for wonderful sunsets.

On the plus side, though, pollution does make for wonderful sunsets.

Xi’an is a wonderful place, with lots of history, lots of culture and many interesting things to see and do. I know this because I read it in the guide book. We experienced none of it – we were there for one reason only, and that was to see the terracotta warriors, about an hour or so outside the city. We were in the city for two nights, but didn’t leave the hostel in the evenings except to go to the convenience store over the road to buy instant noodles. It was cold, and we had inadequate warm clothing, and the centre of Xi’an was busy and confusing; we had got lost for an hour (as usual) before finding the hostel, encumbered by our huge bags and the deadening of feeling in our outer extremities as the cold stole our heat. So we hid in our room, avoided other people and felt warm and safe and didn’t have a single regret about not seeing the rest of the city. And you know what? I’d do it again.

THE TERRACOTTA WARRIORS were worth travelling to Xi’an, and they were worth getting lost and cold in the city centre. There are three warriors that you can see up close, behind glass screens, and they still hold some of their colour – and these are interesting to get close to (if you can shoulder your way past the crowds), just to feel that you’re near to something so detailed, so fragile and so old (about 2,300 years old). But for me, the really impressive bit is Pit 1, where they have excavated and reassembled hundreds of the warriors, and you can look down at them, all lined up like an army. Then you really appreciate the scale of the achievement.

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Later, in Burma, we met another traveller who claimed that the warriors in Pit 1 were all fakes. He knew someone who worked there, he said, (or perhaps a friend of a friend, I forget exactly) who had told him that all the warriors were smashed beyond repair except for three – why else did they have only three behind glass for you to look at up close? There are conspiracy theories on the internet that the whole site is one huge fraud by the Chinese Government, done to encourage tourism and to increase nationalism. These theories are far from credible. I hadn’t heard the alternate theory that only three of the warriors were real. I don’t believe it (think of all the international archaeologists that must have visited the site) – but a little part of me also wishes that I hadn’t heard it.

Definitely real.

Definitely real.

I mean, when have you ever known the Chinese Government to be economical with the truth?

I mean, when have you ever known the Chinese Government to be economical with the truth?

We visited the Terracotta Warriors on a small tour, organised through the hostel, and on that tour we met Dermot and his partner Jodie. They’d travelled (mostly) overland from London to China on the Trans Siberian Railway, and were three weeks into their big round the world tour, working their way to Australia. Their trip had gone swimmingly for a couple of days, until Dermot started to feel sick and had a bad stomach ache. This continued for three days, until they were forced to get off the train in Siberia and seek a hospital. It turned out to be appendicitis. You can read his account of how he lost his appendix while travelling the Trans Siberian Railway – including his stay in the less than sanitary Siberian hospital – here.

Suddenly, getting lost and cold in Xi’an didn’t seem that much of a hardship to visit the Warriors. So we left Xi’an with a renewed sense of purpose, a detailed account of the symptoms of appendicitis, and a cavalier attitude towards our own failure to go out and buy any more warm clothes. We were ready, in other words, for whatever Beijing could throw at us.

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ON SATURDAY: Photoessay on Beijing and Shanghai.

This post was written and uploaded in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

China Goes Wild, Nearly: Hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge

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ABOUT A QUARTER of the way through his account of travelling through China by train in the late 1980s, Riding the Iron Rooster, Paul Theroux writes: “so far, China seemed a place without wilderness. The country had been made over and deranged by peasant farmers.” He wasn’t wrong. Even in Guilin, a place of ethereal beauty, concerted efforts had been made to make it the Authorised River Tour of the Place On the Back of the Twenty Yuan Note With Visits To Ancient And Totally Authentic Farming Villages. In Yangshuo, a town amongst the limestone karsts that are the area’s trademark, farmland extended right up and indeed onto the stone towers. So when we told people that we were going to Yunnan and they said that it was a beautiful wilderness, I was sceptical.

Coming into land at Kunming airport, we’d seen acres and acres of poly tunnels stretching off into the glinting, plastic distance. Somewhere in the haze there were also mountains, but they seemed very far away. We decided to try and get closer to them by travelling to Dali City, about four hours drive west of Kunming. After similar experiences in South East Asia travelling through mountainous country, I was expecting a very windy journey on the bus. But I’d forgotten that Chinese roads are all straight. I presume that if they encounter any mountains on the way, they just blow them up. At least it meant I didn’t get travel sick.

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Dali is a pretty little walled town that sits on the edge of a lake and under the shadow of some fairly imposing mountain scenery. We were there mainly on the recommendation of an American girl that we’d been on a cookery class with in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. After we’d started talking again following the customary where-is-the-hostel-my-bag-is-heavy-I-told-you-it-was-this-way argument, we were able to appreciate why she’d recommended the place. This was the view that evening from the terrace in our hostel:

Trav10-3 The next day we wandered into the town itself, which was full of quiet streets lined with waterways and peach blossom trees.

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We came across an antique market, where traders laid out their goods on groundsheets at the side of the road. A combination of Chinese tourists and what appeared to be some serious buyers browsed through the goods, the buyers holding up pieces of jade and amber to examine them with their eyeglasses. In addition to these semi-precious stones there was a whole assortment of old Chinese wares from coins, teapots, and opium pipes to knives, chairs, and books. We didn’t know it at the time, but – with the exception of the Terracotta Warriors – these were the only genuinely old things that we’d see in Mainland China. Most “antiques” in China are just new things made to look old, and usually not very well. Most were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and those remaining are cossetted away behind closed doors, reserved only for the serious collectors. Later, in Beijing, we visited a big antiques market and were bitterly disappointed because it was all “handicrafts” and things that had been made to look old by reversing the vacuum cleaner. So we were glad that we took the chance in Dali to buy something genuinely old, purchasing a well used Chinese seal set made of solid copper (and, less good for my luggage, weighing about a kilogram). We haggled with the seller – fairly ineffectually – through a Taiwanese-American lady who happened to be there. She didn’t think that we got a very good deal, but we didn’t care because we loved it.

I’ve been carrying this around in my bag ever since, waiting until we meet up with our parents in Thailand so that I can offload it to them. Haggling in China is different to what we’d experienced previously. In SE Asia it’s a fairly good-natured affair, and you usually start off at about half the asking price and work upwards. In China, you start off at quarter the price and try your very hardest to stick to that price. Every Chinese trader we dealt with drove a hard bargain and gave nothing away. Which explains why I ended up paying £7 for a pair of gloves when I visited the Great Wall. £7 may not sound like a lot, but, trust me, when you’re buying gloves made in China, in China, it is. There’s a well known Chinese phrase: “It’s always easy to fool a foreigner.”

After the antique market we continued down quiet lanes until we reached a street that contained approximately 30% of the population of China. This is the other side of Dali – the one that’s been discovered by the Chinese tourist market. We blended into the crowd in our usual way by posing for pictures.

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The Chinese like to go to popular places and do popular things. If it’s not popular then, well, it’s not popular. This means that it can be surprisingly easy to escape the crowds in China. The Yunnan Provincial Museum, for example.

WE DISCOVERED THE other 70% of the Chinese population at our next stop in Yunnan Province: Lijang. It’s supposed to be a beautiful old Chinese town, with distinctive architecture. In fact, it’s a new Chinese town built to look old, with Disneyland architecture. It has spectacular views of mountains and many, many shops, most of which sell dried Yak meat for you to take home to remind you of that time you went to Yunnan province with everyone you know.

Trav10-10 Trav10-11  Fascinating though the people watching was in Lijang, we were there only as a stepping stone onto Tiger Leaping Gorge, the one thing in China that I Definitely Wanted To Do.

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So early one morning we said goodbye to our backpacks and boarded a minibus to Shangri-La (no joke, this is actually a place in Yunnan – formerly called Zhongdian until it was renamed in 2001 to attract tourists, supposedly because it’s the place that British author James Hilton based Shangri-La on in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon), which passed by the small village of Qiaotou, where the trail for Tiger Leaping Gorge begins.

 

Looking back from the start of the trail.

Looking back from the start of the trail.

We arrived at the trailhead having made three new friends – from Germany, Israel and France. We set out at a brisk pace, hoping to escape the expected hordes of other tourists. After all, the Lonely Planet lavishes praise on TLG, calling it the must do hike in China, and Chinese tourists are ubiquitous in the rest of Yunnan. But, in fact, we were alone as we made our way up a twisty paved road that soon gave way to a gravel path. It was a clear, sunny day and we looked out over a steep sided valley patched with rice terraces. We paused to look out over the view and adopted a more leisurely pace. After about half an hour, though, our Israeli and German friends said goodbye and marched off at speed – they were intending to hike the entire gorge in a day, whereas we had the leisure of two days. It was just myself, BK-C and Lorette, our new French friend. For most of the rest of the day we didn’t see a single other person and had the most spectacular views in all of China just to ourselves.

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If you’re a francophone then you can read Lorette’s account of our TLG hike here. If you’re not a French speaker, then you can enjoy her pictures and, if you venture further into her blog, you’ll see her wonderful, wonderful drawings, some of which she shared with us that evening (packing your sketch book and a set of watercolours at the expense of an extra coat definitely makes you a proper artist). Lorette was one of those chilled, inspiring and life affirming people that you seem to meet when travelling, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. She’d been working in Cambodia for the past eight months, teaching physiotherapy, and was on her circuitous way back there now, before finally heading back to France. Losing ourselves in conversation helped us to conquer the 28 gruelling switchbacks to the top of the gorge.

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We lunched on big, cheap bowls of noodles at Tea Horse Guesthouse, about half way, and then stayed the night at the confusingly named Half Way Guesthouse, about three quarters of the way along. Perhaps an hour before we reached Half Way Guesthouse, we caught up with the group of Chinese hikers who we’d shared the minibus with and who had overtaken us whilst we lunched at Tea Horse. At one point we all paused to appreciate a particularly breath taking piece of scenery. One of the Chinese hikers spread his arms as if to try and encompass the view, evidently overtaken by the beauty of the moment. Then he took a deep breath, gave an almighty shout, lobbed an empty plastic bottle deep into the gorge – where it will presumably join the ever increasing pile at the bottom – and stomped off. The Leave No Trace philosophy still has some way to go before it reaches China.

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THE NEXT DAY, we rose early and hiked onto the end of the trail for most, Tina’s Guesthouse. Leaving BK-C at the guesthouse to read her book, Lorette, a Korean guy we met called De-Ha, and I all tramped down a steep, steep path to the ferocious river below. On the way down there were the usual stalls manned by locals selling drinks and snacks. We’d seen perhaps three of these the previous day on our journey along the trail, their owners lazing in the sun on what must have been a very slow day indeed. They sold water, soft drinks, beer and wild walnuts, a speciality of Yunnan. On the way down into the gorge, one of them also sold big bags of surprisingly authentic looking green stuff labelled Cannabis. We pointed this out to each other and raised our eyebrows at the owner, and she just laughed. The gorge was steep and I can’t imagine that the Chinese police make a habit of patrolling the place, though the owner was risking a bullet in the neck by selling drugs. It’s a mystery to me why anyone would want to buy booze or drugs half way up a mountain, but this is what amounts to the wilderness in China – a place where someone else hasn’t set up a shop yet. Go to Tiger Leaping Gorge, and go now. Don’t delay – soon it will be full of plastic bottles and, maybe, stoned westerners.

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Looking to Hike Tiger Leaping Gorge Yourself? I recommend these blogs as a good resource.

http://easyhiker.co.uk/hiking-tiger-leaping-gorge/

http://withoutbaggage.com/essays/china-tiger-leaping-gorge/

The second one allows you to download the GPS track for your smartphone in GPX or KML format. I used the GPX track in MotionGPS [CHECK] on my iPhone, though discovered that I didn’t really need it as the path is well marked.

NEXT TIME: I finish up my travels in China by visiting Xi’An, Beijing and Shanghai.

This post was written on the bullet train from Kyoto to Hiroshima, and finally uploaded in Kuala Lumpur airport.

On Becoming a Celebrity in Yunnan Province

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I’VE BEEN READING Paul Theroux’s account of travelling through China by rail in the late 80s, Riding the Iron Rooster. Although Theroux is one of the world’s great curmudgeons, you can’t fault his perceptive eye for a place, and as we travelled through China ourselves I found my self nodding furiously at his insights into Chinese culture. “I’ve noticed that too,” I thought to myself, “so that makes me just like Paul Theroux!” I imagined myself incognito in the background, the great travel correspondent watching, observing and taking notes. Then I went to Yunnan province, and realised that it was impossible for a foreigner to be incognito in China.

We flew from Guilin to Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan. I was all for taking the train, but then I discovered that it would take 24 hours so we flew instead and it took 1 hour 30 minutes, costing the same as we would have spent on the train. Every time I looked at travelling from one place to another in China, I found myself surprised anew at just how big the country is.

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China – it’s big. (Map courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin).

And it’s all one time zone: the whole country runs on Beijing time. When we were in Guilin, in south eastern China, it was getting light at about 6.30 in the morning – in Kunming, in the south west, it wasn’t light until about 7.30. In Xinjiang, the country’s westernmost province (bordering Pakistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan) the sun doesn’t rise until 9.40am in the winter, over two hours after the sun rises in Beijing. This is bonkers.

We arrived in Kunming early evening. It was a pleasant 20 degrees centigrade, the setting sun making the picturesque park at the centre of town – with its little bridges, weeping willows and peach blossom – seem particularly lovely as we stumbled past it with all our bags, lost in the usual daze before we found our hostel. Kunming is known as the “Spring City,” because its weather is always nice – not cold in winter, and not too hot in summer. It has pretty tree-lined streets and boulevards lined with trendy shops, all kept clean and tidy by officious looking men with walkie-talkies who order the street cleaners around and move on homeless people. We’d read in the Lonely Planet that the city was very popular with international students and that a lot of people came there to learn Mandarin – but we hardly saw any Westerners whilst we were there; perhaps a handful, at most (and they were grizzled and unfriendly, the sort of traveller who would be rude to you because you had the same colour skin as them).

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The next day, we wandered through the park in the centre of town. It was sunny and teeming with tourists. Stalls sold snacks, drinks and tourist tack. A man on a stage whipped a crowd into a frenzy as he auctioned off mysterious looking cardboard boxes. We ate fried potatoes covered in salt, pepper, chilli and possibly crack cocaine they were so addictively delicious. And we had our own crowd. Yes, we too were a tourist attraction. In a garden full of peach blossom trees people were posing for photographs beneath the peach blossom, until they saw me and BK-C and then they stalked us amongst the blossom for a quick snap of the funny looking foreigners. One woman just came up and asked for a photo with BK-C. BK-C demanded one in return, with her whole family:

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What cracks me up most about this picture is how deeply unimpressed the older lady on the far right looks. At this point I was holding my two fingers up in the V for victory sign that is such a popular photo pose in this part of the world. She was having none of it.

Have yourself a bite. The first one's free...

Have yourself a bite. The first one’s free…

Trav9-2 One man followed us around for about 20 minutes until, when I was teapotting in front a giant teapot (why wouldn’t you?), he plucked up the courage to ask for a photo with me. It must have been my uncanny teapot impression.

I think that spending a lot of time with just the two of us may have jeopardised our grip on normality somewhat.

I think that spending a lot of time with just the two of us may have jeopardised our grip on normality somewhat.

Winners.

Winners.

This was our first encounter with our new found celebrity status. It’s carried on throughout East Asia. Some people pretend to take pictures of whatever’s behind us when they’re really taking pictures of us:

Here’s a man that I photographed pretending to take pictures of something behind us. He quickly refocused his lens on something else when I pointed my camera at him.

Here’s a man that I photographed pretending to take pictures of something behind us. He quickly refocused his lens on something else when I pointed my camera at him.

Other people just come right out and ask (which actually I prefer, as it feels less like you’re an animal in a zoo). If there’s a group of people sometimes we’ll rotate through the whole group doing photos with them. It’s given me a new appreciation for famous people – it must be very tiresome your face not being your own. Our new favourite thing to do is to either randomly pose for people who are secretly taking pictures of us – one couple literally fell over themselves with excitement when we did this – or to photobomb other people’s photos (people go mental – in a good way (I think) – when we do this). This must be what it’s like to be Bill Murray.

WE WEREN’T THE only people in the zoo. Chinese people come to Yunnan province not just for the spectacular scenery, but also to see the many different ethnic minorities who make the province their home. All over the province, there are groups of Chinese tourists having their pictures taken with members of these ethnic minorities in their traditional dress. The ethnic Han Chinese (who make up 92% of the population of Mainland China) seem to view these people as a form of walking entertainment – a bit like the Disney characters who walk around Disneyland, posing for photos. They’re an oddity to be ogled.

 In Dali and Lijang, there was a big business of renting out the traditional dress of different ethnic minority groups so that Han Chinese tourists could dress up, have their photos taken and laugh at how funny they looked.

In Dali and Lijang, there was a big business of renting out the traditional dress of different ethnic minority groups so that Han Chinese tourists could dress up, have their photos taken and laugh at how funny they looked.

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WE VISITED THE Provincial Museum of Yunnan, where there was an exhibition on about the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Yunnan’s Peoples.” Given the interest that Chinese tourists had in different ethnic groups, we thought that it might have been popular. But it wasn’t.

The museum was a grand looking building with marble colonnades and a huge sign with golden lettering. It sits just off a main road and outside it was busy, hot and noisy. Inside the cavernous foyer it was cool, dark and silent. Two security guards were fossilised at a table just inside the doorway, next to a knife arch and a sign saying that all bags would be searched. They wore green uniforms with epaulettes and big, peaked caps. As we walked though the arch and it screamed that we had metal on us, one of them slowly rose and sighed. I offered him my bag to search but he just waved it away and led me over to a bank of lockers – all empty – and locked it up there, using a 1 Yuan coin from his own pocket to pay for the locker. Upon first inspection, the information desk in the centre of the foyer appeared to be unmanned, but actually the man sat behind it had died with his mobile phone glued to his forehead, his cheek resting on the desk. A worried looking woman eyed us from her hiding place behind the cash register in the gift store. On the other 4 floors we saw many men in uniforms guarding the dust gathered in the corners, along with the occasional, presumably lost, Chinese tourist. We left having learnt little about Yunnan, but plenty about the resource profile of Chinese state run institutions.

THERE IS A postscript to our experiences of difference in Kunming. The day after we left the city, there was a horrific terrorist attack at the train station – 29 people were killed and many more injured when a group of people ran through the station with knives, stabbing and slashing indiscriminately. Those responsible for this attack were Xinjiang separatists. Xinjiang province, in the North West, is mostly populated by Uighurs, a people who are ethnically and culturally very distinct from the Han Chinese: they look like Afghans or Tajiks, have their own language, and follow Islam. After our experience of seeing and being ethnic minorities in China, it might be tempting to draw conclusions about the motivations and causes for this act of terrorism that elide what is, in fact, a complex situation. I’m not seeking to do that. This terrorist attack was a despicable and deplorable act that can never be justified. But I also can’t help thinking that China’s approach to its ethnic minorities does little to win hearts and minds.

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NEXT TIME: I discover that China isn’t all cities and farms.

This post was written on the bus from Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan, to Taipei, and posted in Kyoto, Japan.

 

Conversationless in China (From Hong Kong to Guilin)

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THE SINGLE MOST stressful part of travelling is arriving somewhere new. You step into the airport, or the bus station, or the train station, and you’re either mobbed by people trying to sell you a taxi, a hotel, a ripoff scam; or everyone ignores you, the signs are incomprehensible and you have no idea how to get where you need to go. Arriving in Hong Kong was none of these things – our bags were on the carousel when we arrived, I was able to pick up a map of the city for free, and there was helpful signage telling me exactly how to get where I wanted to go (American airports please take note).

Stepping off the bus at 10 o’ clock at night onto busy, bright Nathan Road in Tsim Sha Tsui we were all smiles. No one tried to sell us a tuc tuc ride, no one gave us a second look. “It’s so nice,” we said to each other as we wandered towards the hostel. “It’s like London,” meaning, of course, not that Hong Kong is anything like London (because it’s not), but that the people here were wealthier, the place was more cosmopolitan and we were just another face in the crowd, rather than The Clueless Tourists With Matching Backpacks. Yes our hostel was on the ninth floor of a building, just above a brothel catering (it seemed) exclusively to drunk Indian men, and yes our room was only the size of a postage stamp whilst costing considerably more than anywhere else we’d stayed, but we were happy to be in Hong Kong.

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Because we needed a visa for the mainland, our first day was sacrificed to Chinese bureaucracy, including what seemed like an inordinate amount of time asking people if they had change because the photocopying machine in the visa office only accepted $1 coins. It was maddening, but at least it was warm in there, whilst outside it was 8 degrees – downright freezing after the heat of Bangkok.

The rest of our time in the city we spent walking. Hong Kong was clean and bright and full of people walking with a purpose. Actually, that’s a lie. Hong Kong was full of people strolling with a purpose. The people of Hong Kong, even the ones in suits, had an unhurried air about them. Yes, they were going for a business meeting, but what was the rush?  I don’t know Hong Kong, maybe the fact that it’s cold in your city and I’ve packed a wardrobe that, in hindsight, might be considered a little optimistic, consisting almost entirely of shorts and T-shirts? But the people of Hong Kong were deaf to my inappropriate clothing predicament, and instead we bobbed around behind people, trying to squeeze past, trying to walk fast, but mainly shivering in our matching his and hers long sleeved thermal tops (purchased during a similar clothing crisis just before going backpacking in Yosemite, California. I really don’t when BK-C and I started buying the same clothes, but it has to stop).

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There we are, together, wearing all of our clothes that we brought with us, with our Special Hiking Gear and our Nearly Matching Buffs wrapped around our heads to keep us warm, BK-C with her Special Reflective Coat on so that she’ll be Safer Crossing the Road. For some reason, the Chinese people with us at the time of the photograph found us to be extraordinarily funny.

We visited Hong Kong Park, a very orderly place with asphalt paths, an aviary cleaned four times a day and a botanical house with lots of different plants from around the world and free wifi (as all Government buildings have in Hong Kong); we went on a Feng Shui course and a tea appreciation course provided for free by the Hong Kong tourism board; and we failed to get up to go for the free Tai Chi classes at 8am. All in all, we were very much in favour of the city.

Lens-size comparison club at Hong Kong Aviary.

Lens-size comparison club at Hong Kong Aviary.

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It’s not the size of your lens that counts, it’s what you do with it.

The wonderful thing about travelling, though, is that you can be completely anonymous. It doesn’t matter if you have matching clothes which are probably a bit smelly. Nor does it matter if, after spending 24/7 together for 2 months, you start finishing each other’s sentences or, worse, just stopping half way through a sentence because you don’t need to finish it:

“Have you got the…?”
“Of course.”
“Ah. I was looking…”
“Yes, but I’ve put it in the other one now.”
“How did you…?”
“I moved the bag with the things.”
“So where are the things?”
“In the other bag.”

All of our conversations are now thus. Or, more recently (after we’ve fought over the seat with the better view of the restaurant so we can stare at other people whilst pretending to listen to what the other is saying), because we’ve exhausted all our other topics, we’ve taken to comparing things, people, places, foods (“if you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?” or “what’s the worst place we’ve stayed in?” or “where do you stand on croissants versus pain au chocolat?*”)

So when we met up with my old friend from university, Jenni, who’s now teaching in Hong Kong (“Honkers”), we were relieved that she was too polite to comment on the fact that we were wearing the same clothes, or that there was a faint edge of desperation in our desire to talk to Other People. It was nice not to be anonymous for a night, to have a common history and a shared future.

With our mind on the next stage of our trip, we talked about the differences between Hong Kong and the rest of China. Jenni told us that Hong Kongers consider themselves to be quite different from “mainlanders.” “They don’t like the mainlanders,” she said. “Hong Kongers consider them to lack decorum, like their spitting all the time and doing a poo in the street.” (For the record I have never seen anyone taking a shit in the street in mainland China, though the unique nature of Chinese toilets does mean that I’ve shared that intimate moment a little more closely with some than I would like). “When we set critical writing for the students [at school],” Jenni said, “they always complain about mainlanders.” Since the handover in 1997 Hong Kong has been part of China but has operated under a different economic and political system, which by the terms of the handover must continue until 2047. “One country, two systems,” is the Chinese mantra when it comes to this former British colony. But Hong Kong is quite different to mainland China – there’s no censorship, internet sites aren’t blocked, and capitalism has a freer reign.

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I was thinking about these differences as we took the Hong Kong metro as far north it would go, so that we could cross over into the city of Shenzhen, in mainland China. The border crossing was easy; the other side, though, was dirtier and more bewildering than Hong Kong. At the exit to the metro station (which, mercifully, was also the train station) we were met by a man in an old, moth eaten uniform. “Train ticket,” he said to me as I passed. I stopped to talk to him, momentarily duped by his uniform. “Railway?” He said to me uncertainly, then more enthusiastically when I stopped. “Railway, railway!” At that point, I realised that he had none of the confident, bored authority of an official; he was just a tout, trying to scam unwary tourists into handing over their train tickets, probably so he could charge them an extortionate fee for showing them where to get their train from. In China, if someone looks like they’d rather be somewhere else, then they’re probably the person you need to speak to. If they offer to help, then they’re almost certainly not (although I must add that when we’ve asked someone for help, we’ve always found them to be unfailingly polite, if someone bemused by our attempts to mime what we’re after).

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FROM SHENZHEN WE caught a sleeper train to Guilin. We shared the carriage with three generations – grandmother, daughter, and toddler. They spoke no English, and we spoke no Mandarin, so we did the soon-to-be familiar routine of hellos, smiles and blank looks of incomprehension. Every time I looked at the little boy he hid his face behind his grandmother, and refused to return my smile. His mother tried the usual routine which all parents seem to do in China when they see us, of man-handling their child into a wave and repeating, “hello! Hello! HELLO!” I have never seen a child do this independently.

We disembarked from the train at 5.45am on a Sunday to find Guilin dark and wet. We were faced by the usual barrage of taxi drivers and touts, firmly telling them that no, thank you, we did not want a taxi, despite our body language desperately screaming that there’s nothing we’d like more than to climb into their warm, dry car. Instead we walked 45 minutes from the train station to the hostel, through dark, deserted streets, arguing all the time about whether it was the right way, searching endlessly for a toilet, and being startled occasionally by an electric scooter appearing out of nowhere from behind us (they’re all over China: swift, silent, and – as with the scooters in Vietnam – deadly because they’re ridden as frequently on the pavement as on the road).

It rained for the entire time that we were in Guilin. We sat in the hostel common room, bundled up against the cold, and read our books and surfed the internet. Occasionally we wandered out to get some noodles at a local place where you ordered from a grumpy woman at a cash register by the front entrance, before going inside to present your receipt to two angry ladies who either shouted at the chef or threw together your noodles themselves. We wouldn’t have been able to do this unless a kind lady we met at the hostel had written down for us what we should order. Each time we went there, I pointed at the Chinese characters she’d written in my notebook and held up two fingers. One time, we sat next to a Swiss-Chinese man who wrote down a different dish for us to try. But we preferred the first one, because it cost only 3 yuan (30p).

And, yes, we also went for a ride down the River Li and took lots of pictures of the limestone Karsts which the area is famous for, all eerie looking in the rain and the mist which clung to their peaks.

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“Some people they say to me, will we see anything because it is raining?” our guide said to us on the bus on the way to the river. “I say to them: yes! You are actually very lucky. Because when it is not raining, there is no mist, and it is not beautiful. So congratulations for choosing to come today, when it is raining!” At the end of the trip down the river, we all trooped up to a vantage point and were ordered by our guide to take photos of the view. She held up a 20 Yuan note to show that this landscape was on the back, but the Chinese tourists didn’t need any telling and were already pushing each other out of the way to get the photograph. So we stood in the rain, and watched them, and felt very lucky. And that was Guilin.

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*This last conversational topic was suggested by our good friend Benny Chastney, after hearing of our conversational dearth. Personally, my head says croissant, but my heart says pain au chocolat. If you’d like to send us new conversational topics just fill out the comments box below. Write now, don’t delay – we need your help.

This post was written on the train from Beijing to Shanghai. It was uploaded in Taipei, Taiwan.

NEXT TIME: I visit Yunnan Province in South West China, and discover that there really are parts of China that aren’t cities or farms.