31 July 2010
(Found way after this blog was written in Yangshuo and promptly purchased)
If you’re scared of tight spaces, being enclosed on all sides by people making physical contact with each other; you’d best learn to deal with it before visiting China. Learn too how to develop a Duck’s back, so that 川流不息 (the stream flows without stopping), across it.
It’s been a month in total spent in China, with my stubbornness to see it through rivalling the local’s own, and I’ve been blessed with more insight in to the country than I would really have liked.
Copy Cat, Copy Cat, Sitting on the Door Mat! Ingenuity, inventiveness, originality; for the main, there’s none of that here. Try to understand the mentality; perhaps copying is the greatest form of flattery (though personally I think the greatest form of laziness), either way there’s little interest in moving things forward. Take shops for example; one opens in a street selling neon signs – let’s say – and due to success, others will soon follow and before you can blink, a row of “Neon Sign” shops will litter the entire street, packed full of identical premises selling identical stock. That’s perfectly acceptable behaviour and with not a sign of competition from any of them, impossible to tell one apart from the other on price, quality or merchandise. It’s the same in all walks of life, from mobile phones to the underground and all demonstrating shoddy, cut-corner and surface-level quality. Look closer and you’ll quickly realise that the rucksack, coat or umbrella you’re eyeing up will last about the time it takes for you to walk away and forget what the person looked like that sold it to you.
The Asian games is due to take place in Guangzhou later this year and I’m wondering how this sport will feature. We’ll need close-ups for one, slow motion replays and definitely a suite of Hawkeye cameras to record precise placement. In fact the guy opposite me on the train must be deep in to training, having just hacked up what sounded like his small intestine. I think he’s in serious need of medical attention from the noises he’s making; but no one seems to be bothered as he hobbles his way to the toilet. It’s banned in major cities and there are signs everywhere asking people to refrain, though it’s had little effect on this tradition (a definitive piece of Chinese heritage and culture), with even beautiful women not perturbed by their fugly counterparts training for the games regularly. Back home that’d be dumping material.
There’s too many people; hmm I’ve an idea. Let’s write down some rules for the population to follow and then wrap a story around it; giving it context. That’s where religion started and little has changed now except for the name – communism. It’s execution in China is far from perfect, with the affluent so far divided from the remaining 99.99% recurring that even a KFC half corn-on-cob is seen as a treat. It’s exactly the same as religion though; where only some practices and principles are followed – those that don’t affect coffer swelling rate – and just as wrong; it should be all or nothing. Trying to control technology though is surely the most ridiculous waste of money and infrastructure ever; subscribe to a cheap VPN to the UK or US for the same price as a Starf*cks Venti Mocha each month and punch a hole straight through it all. It’s bad enough trying to manage a few thousand users accessing the net (and that’s with cutting edge filtering technology); over a billion and it’s impossible, but their futile obduracy persists nonetheless.
7) Mobile Phones
Or more specifically the ring tones, which are all set to the maximum volume, blaring distorted and tone-deaf flat singers to all within a fifteen kilometre radius. It’s bad enough, though most leave it to play for a full thirty seconds as it must be their “favourite song” before answering; I’ll frisby It from the window shortly I swear it! The silent mode is lost here and even text messages generate the same kind of hateful eardrum punishing pain; but it’s all accepted. In fact you’ll need to ensure you can deal with noise when in China; everyone has the uncanny ability to switch off to it, sleeping through just about anything. Get a decent pair of headphones and ensure your iPod (or cheap KIRF bought here), is fully charged. In fact bring two; should one pair break you’ll want to beat your head against a wall until the connection from brain to eardrum is severed.
Chicken and rice please. Sorry, make that noodles. In fact can I just have a whole chicken? At least that way I can ensure I’ll receive meat; as opposed to the chopped pallet-impaling chicken bone lumps that even your malnourished canine would turn his nose up at. I’m sorely missing bread, brown bread from a loaf and filled with things that I can bite in to. This much rice and noodles and I think my teeth are beginning to disintegrate and turn in to mush from the lack of use. Everything is soft and easy to swallow here; there’s no chewing required. It’s all slurp, suck and swallow; the three Ss if you will. With one truly remarkable exception in Zhangjiajie City where to my surprise the dishes had wholly edible pieces of Chicken breast and strips of Beef, everything else has been a nightmare of SSS. Alternatives include offal, or “[something] on a stick”, which could be any number of animals; or perhaps fish heads may take your liking. A sandwich, my kingdom for a bloody sarnie.
I’m drowning in the red-tape, there’s so much it’s suffocating. Perhaps due to the sheer number of people and communist approach to unemployment, roles have been duplicated and copied in order to give people something to do. Take the trains; you’ll need to present ticket before entering the station for checking. Once inside, get it out of your pocket and show it to the staff guarding entrance to the waiting room. Upon train arrival, show it for a third time to the guards at the entrance to the platform stairs and once more at the entrance to your carriage. Find your seat or bed and expect it to be checked by a carriage attendant who will exchange it for a plastic credit card-sized replica; clever. Show your passport, presumably to explain blood-type, favourite colour and desert island disc choices and then expect a second round of guards to double check your passport and credit-card ticket. Once the train is almost at destination, swap credit-card for paper original. Finally you will need to show and submit it to the guards at exit point of destination. Wait, I’ve lost count – that’s nine right?
The next person to push past me is going to receive a knuckle sandwich. I don’t understand the mentality; there’s precisely no need to make physical contact and enough room to skirt around my body. Perhaps it’s laziness, perhaps it’s a lack of manners, perhaps it’s because I’m foreign; either way it’s unbelievable that so many people put up with such disdainful attitudes towards other humans. Running in London and it was something I was already accustomed to, people are blind and have the ability to look around 2nm infront of their own nose; here people are more spacially aware; just about. I’ve barged through countless people when running (shouting at them doesn’t seem to help, even in Mandarin), and except for one challenger who turned around and looked at me, everyone else has accepted it without contest. Boarding the metro necessitates this practice, for the numerous signs asking people to wait for passengers to alight first and painted directions at each carriage entrance have made no difference. I’ll simply force my way through treating it like a Rugby scrum (I reckon I’d make a good player), should someone look to get in my way I’ll tense up – I’ve even gone to the extent of pushing someone back for a good few metres and not been braved.
It seems to be a right, not a privilege here and every man falls down to peer group pressure when young. So much so that it’s actually rare to find a male that doesn’t puff away and when I’ve said I don’t smoke, I’m greeted with expressions of utter perplexity, usually taking at least three repetitions before the message is actually accepted. It must be a sign of manhood in Asia (it was the same to a certain degree in Japan), though personally I think deep down people are desperate to be different. Signs make little difference to your average addict, as he lights up yet again and makes no allowance for anyone wishing to maintain their own odour; be it at breakfast, lunch, in a closed space, on a train, on a bus, directly underneath a “No Smoking” sign etcetera, etcetera. The strange thing is that it is heavily limited to males, hardly any women are interested in increasing their risk of lung cancer; stranger still is the low number of cancer cases. Maybe it’s all that tea.
They’re cheap to manufacture and easy to install, being effectively a hole and suiting both genders alike, though with squat toilets come a wealth of foulness, filth and squalor that makes each bowel movement cause the same kind of dread as a death-row inmate must feel when his sponge is wetted. Ensure you have toilet paper – I can’t stress that one strongly enough – as getting caught short doesn’t bear description. Place it in a convenient pocket and place hand sanitiser in the other. You’ll be lucky to find somewhere with a functioning flush, let alone tap and set your expectations for water, paper and soap firmly to two hopes. Some squat toilets are cleverly designed 45 degree slides ending at a sight that may cause instant excretion from another orifice; others will be home to insects that don’t take kindly to invading human excretions; so try to make it quick. Learn the British Army technique for use of toilet paper and folding (again I shall skip over this loveliness), and when dropping shorts and pants, only lower them to calf-height before rolling twice and gripping with your opposing writing hand; you risk contamination otherwise. Oh and one last point; though some of these “establishments” may ask for a fee here’s a tip: Simply run in, do your business and run out. You won’t be stopped, just shouted at; I refuse to pay a few Yuan to risk catching a disease.
[Not risked taking camera out to capture the foulness]
Most guidebooks and articles incorrectly describe this as “curiosity”, and perhaps sometimes it may be just that; underneath the surface of clear jealousy. The Chinese are a jealous bunch; of status, wealth, power or anything making someone different from the rest. Most once they’ve got you locked cannot peel their eyes away, so stare back and refuse to budge. Once the initial glance has faded, it’ll soon return, and again, and again. Sat waiting for the train a girl diagonally opposite notices me and immediately calls to her friend “lao wei!” (foreigner), whilst laughing. Her three friends all turn to stare at me and as I reply “I can understand you” in Mandarin, they flush red but continue to stare nonetheless. Take this scenario and place it in a Western country and imagine it’s acceptability. In fact the only place I’ve found acceptance is Xiamen, with the northern cities scorning me simply for what I am. Walking down the street and the Londoner in me wants to Hulk Smash™ each and every gawping, staring racist that crosses my path. With a female travel buddy in tow people even dare to ask “Where is he from?”, to her or “Why are you with a foreigner?”; she knows me well enough to skip over the details as I’ll quite happily confront them. It is, however, the most annoying thing about the Chinese and having only ever experienced racism once in my life before; somewhere that anyone committed of a race-crime in the UK should be sentenced to spend some quality time, for it will forever change your attitude towards racism; and promptly.
After the break; 10 things I love about China.
30 July 2010
Yeah I think that one looks like a Roman nose; and that one just like the rock from – a film perhaps? Thing is, these types of formations are to be seen elsewhere in the world, so realistically there’s nothing special about this place except these following things three: 1) The Chinglish everywhere will keep you amused whilst tackling yet another set of steps, 2) It’s about as safe as playing Cricket with a grenade and 3) As the world’s largest real-life stepping machine, expect to be welcoming those quads to the pain train baby! We’ve just hiked to the top to find the Green Bus (so-called due to the hue of paint, rather than any tree-hugging), having ignored all touts trying to sell lift tickets at a fiver each. Bargain – I’ll take ten! Everyone but everyone tries it on; it’s both relentless and soul destroying.
The buses all have LCD monitors installed at the front, playing Karaoke songs singing of the wonders and joys to behold, though in typical fashion it’s wailing noise designed to numb your eardrums in to acceptance and forever sang flat; Auto-Tune™ must make a killing in China. On second thoughts, nah it’ll just be copied and pirated faster than you can say “License Agreem…”. Ah, we’ve reached our destination and are off to have a squint at some of these amazingly named formations, such as the “Great Bridge of The World” and “One Step to Heaven Peak”. But hang on, what’s this – holograms and posters galore of a film I saw not so long ago – yes the tourism board of Zhangjiajie has decided to name one particularly accessible rock after the film “Avatar”. Back in Thailand and the “James Bond Island” formation specifically features in the film and was used after it opened, as a tourist attraction; that makes sense. The Chinese however, like to praise and pat themselves on the back like no other people and so, in all it’s glory here is the “Avatar rock”.
To the international hostel inside the park we head for an evening of not a great deal in a tiny village; just one shop and street lamp, though strangely they have managed to install wireless everywhere. The bed is a cleverly converted base, made soft by addition of a few sheets; so soft in fact I think it’s capable of cutting through diamond. Next morning and a breakfast of tasteless congee with spiced vegetables makes me pine for a full English. Overcooked rice lacking seasoning makes for a stomach-churning start to the day; throw in some chillies with a Scoville score of a few hundred thousand and I’m amazed to have held it down: Back to the park.
Most things in China do not teem with quality and here is no exception. The health and safety brigade, having recovered from multiple cardiac arrests and returned to cordon the entire park, would struggle to understand how so few lives have been lost considering the thin and wobbly metal railings that barely prevent a fall of several hundred metres. If you’re hell-bent on topping yourself, it’s a great place to go out in style; frisby one’s fleshy carcass from any number of pillars of doom though and chances are you’d end up cascading down the cliff face, becoming increasingly mangled during the descent as your remaining nerve-endings fire signals to your brain of PAIN, PAIN and SHIT MORE PAIN before the eventual shock of seeing splattered parts of yourself ends your misery. So we’re both taking it carefully, navigating to the top of a peak and through crevices barely wide enough for anorexic sufferers, steep step ladders testing your balance followed by slippery footing and a sheer drop. Conquering the challenge, the view at the top is impressively marred by the presence of photo-souvenir touts perched waiting to call out to brave punters.
It’s a park of “natural wonders”, where “preservation” and “harmony” is spoken of on the many signs. Here is so much preservation that roads, paths, paving and tat shops have replaced much of the nature; which is diverse and not the kind of thing that I’d like crawling up my leg at night with sinister intentions.
Overall, an exceedingly expensive excursion consisting of several buses that would have been impossible to locate without a fluent speaker. And at 250Y for a 2-day entrance price, where your fingerprint is taken to ensure chancers are perturbed, I’m left with another sore arse from the snare of the tourist trap catching my cheeks. I won’t be back again in a hurry, but as the only non-Asian I saw during my entire time there, I suppose it’s something I’ve done that not so many other Lao Wei have.
27 July 2010
What a difference a day makes; 24 little hours, 8 hours commuting on 2 D-class “bullet” trains and narrowly making the connection and it’s a different world. Gone are the expensive tourist traps, scams and foreign-hating northern Chinese and I’m welcomed and smiled at warmly by all. This is Xiamen and what contrast there is between here and my previous three destinations; by all accounts China may as well be a country of two halves – with a longitudinal line drawn straight through Shanghai dividing it: Where once the subway cost 8Y for a short journey, here it’s for the first 3K in a modern air-conditioned taxi.
It’s very reminiscent of Taiwan here – and for good reason as it’s located only a few hundred K East – though whilst not quite as friendly or modern as the electronic giant, it’s certainly a lovely place to meet up with some friends, hit the beach, Gulangyu island and spend little money. It’s not that I’m being frugal, more that every time I put my hand in my pocket I’m blocked by shaking heads speaking “meyoh” and waving hands insisting I don’t pay. Back in April and on a tour to the Flute caves just outside Guilin and I befriended Coco, who kept in touch through email and suggested I visit her hometown.
I’m glad I listened as I’m currently waiting for one of my new friends to finish her ride on the fairground; located at the end of the 15k beach strip and at 20Y a go, it’s expensive considering the average salary here is a few thousand per month. I’m stunned by their generosity; people I only met a few hours ago covering my costs and it’s so humbling I’m not quite sure how to repay their generosity, or if they’ll even let me.
Renting a taxi for the day, it’s only fair I cover the 300Y cost for hire. At almost a quarter of her salary, I’m happy to shout this one; Coco and I are headed to Nanjing County to visit the incredible Hakka buildings that are still standing over 700 years after their construction. The design is ludicrously clever for the time; a circular fortress housing scores of families with only a single point of entry, itself reinforced with steel to prevent any potential attacks from succeeding. Inside, each ground-floor kitchen features a fresh-water supply and along with the central well for general use, this supply system means each building is self-sufficient.
It’s nicknamed the pots and pans (or soup bowls), and having reached the photo-taking gate I’m a little disappointed to find it guarded by ticket clerks. Thankfully the 160Y ticket price includes entrance to take stock-shot, though sadly not a single Yuan goes to the locals; necessitating sale of random tat and tea instead. Thank you communism.
A tour around Xiamen reveals plenty on offer to keep both tourists and locals happy. The University is a recently finished educational establishment as modern as any I’ve seen; housing students in style with serene lakes, greenery and an old Temple. It’s the kind of University that makes mine seem positively mediocre and hence little wonder why so many overseas students choose to study here. Next stop is Gulangyu Island, a 8Y round-trip away and with it harbouring so many famous attractions, it’s a fight to the ferry to load up.
Much of the remainder of my time in Xiamen is spent frequenting KTV joints, which sadly offer little in the way of Western music and hence force evenings of flat-sung Chinese pop (somewhat painful), and Barbeque spots, where skewers of meat and vegetables are sprinkled with enough spices and salt to absolutely require non-polar refreshment. It’s a fantastic place and goes someway to resetting my opinion on China, though I just wish there were more places like this. Last night my taxi was paid for by three complete strangers who called English-speaking friends to help ensure the driver knew where to drop me off; these are the kind of ambassadors that China needs.
26 July 2010
Nurture or nature; it’s an imposing question. I personally think everyone born within the large M25 car park is bestowed the gene granting ability to queue. Along with this skill is the uncanny aptitude of instant anger at anyone daring to jump said queue. It generates the same kind of rage as a passing motorist having neglected to nod or lift hand to say “thank you”. If you want to experience the most awe-inspiring jaw-dropping queues, you’ve got precisely 4 months to get your arse to Shanghai.
Queue at the ticket dispensing machines in the Subway and tap foot as it takes a full 10 seconds for the screen to refresh. Queue for the third time that day to have your bag scanned on the underground X-Ray machine (then wonder if your tech will still function). Queue waiting for the subway and then brace for impact as the queue of bodies piles past you. Queue at the Expo site for stunningly expensive 160Y entrance price and then again at security for your 4th X-Ray scan (tech must be feeling it by now). Queue for an average of 2.5 hours to enter your country’s display of choice (and with around 70 exhibitions, that’s some serious time and money to view them all), for the 10 minutes of attention it deserves. Queue for one hour to get to the first lift of the Pearl Tower and try not to get angry as the latest barging local selfishly jumps the queue. Queue half way up for an hour in order to enter the second lift that will take you to the top; painful. Queue once at the top for stock-shot of you-in-front-of foggy glass with white over-exposed background. Queue to come back down in torrent of hoarding humans with no respect or understanding for anyone else. Queue to catch ferry back to the other side of river. Queue amongst other queuing humans for shot in front of the Shanghai skyline, whilst under-powered flashguns go off throughout the night. Queue… queue bloody queue.
In total the day was spent with around an hour of viewing time, 6 queuing and 3 in transport. Whilst the Expo is something to behold, it’s a shame that the site’s size can’t accommodate faster throughput of humans at each display. The Japanese exhibition had a five hour queue according to all estimates of stewards and in searing heat, the two hours of patience-testing queuing in order to enter the UK exhibit was enough for me. In general most people agreed; the majority of displays were simply not worth the time spent queuing to visit.
To the top of the Pearl Tower and it’s another to tick off my list of skyscrapers visited. Though with so many people and no way of taking any kind of acceptable photo once at the top, it’s a disappointing way to spend so much time and money. It’s also one of the worst designed towers (if not the worst), I’ve had the misfortune of escalating. With only one lift to ascend bodies to the top ay half-duplex speed, the sheer number of waiting humans causing a compression wave in direction of the lift is relentless. So I’m passing time by jumping up and down on the clear glass floor to see if the architects got their numbers right – it’s the only other way to the bottom I’m sure of it and anything, literally anything but more sweaty pushing humans.
Shanghai does have some benefits over other cities in the North of China; for one it seems less racist and more welcoming to foreigners. With far fewer “lao wai!” and accompanying laughs shouted in my general direction, and a usually good command of basic English – it makes for an easier destination to tour. The People’s Square beckons some attention, but as more of an Oval and including a basic theme park and spattering of Coffee shops, it’s good for photo opportunities but little else. Females with hubbie’s plastic in hand will love Shanghai; turn a few degrees and there will be another shopping mall beckoning your other halves hard earned money. The usual suspects are hence also present, liberally coating the surface of malls; with Starf*cks, Burger King, Hagen Dazs and KFC easy to find.
It’s a city of perpetual development, with a monstrous appetite for construction. Visit the Jing’an Temple and realise shortly after entering that the 30Y entrance price was a waste of money – most of it being under tarpaulin. The high-rise buildings that flank it on all sides make what was surely once a mysterious and peaceful place of worship and thought, more of a tourist trap. The 15 tonne solid silver Buddha being the biggest waste of precious material ever, which would better serve Argos for hoop earring manufacture and sale to chavs.
My pick has to be the “foreigner street” in precisely the middle of nowhere. Imagine that in London – a street not only named as much, but lit with large neon signs at either end. Politically correct this lot sure aint. It’s the perfect place to meet people from all walks and with some nice eye-candy in the form of waitresses; a great venue to watch Germany lose, spend too much and miss the last train home.