Intense China

Trip Start Apr 01, 2008
Trip End Aug 2008

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Flag of China  , Heilongjiang,
Thursday, July 3, 2008

After a week in Singapore waiting on my China visa I was excited to get onwards. A night on the very clean Singapore airport floor and off I flew. Across southeast Asia and Hong Kong (regrettably) to land in Xiamen, China's closest city to Taiwan. This was to be the start of a massive overland journey to Tampere, Finland, some 17000km ahead. It had always been my plan, to come home overland, but travelling Indonesia and consequentially falling in love with it meant a later start and here it was to be.

The previous year I had spent an incredible three weeks traversing the immense landscapes of China's bordering country Tibet and its very own Yunnan province. The east coast of China beckoned for a fuller understanding of the most peopled country on earth. Xiamen hit me pretty hard. On the 15p bus into the city I tried to remember if the Pakistanis had stared this much. I clutched my guide book as the language completely deluded me. I got off the bus miles from the harbour, surrounded by tall buildings and a mess of road works. After a sweaty walk eastwards I then unknowingly jumped the toll on the boat to Gulang Yu, Xiamen's saving grace for tourism. Gulang Yu is a small island hosting Mediterranean architecture from concession days and looks back across to the non-descript towering skyscrapers of the city. Peaceful and pleasant lanes criss-cross the motor-less island. Beyond that all you do is feed the Chinese tourist industry with mundane visits to, for example, an organ museum. For this reason I delved into the city proper and loved being back in the fascinatingly introspective and unique world of China. Loud streets, crass consumerism, baffling mannerisms, deafening conversations, stares, dirt, woks, electric bicycles! Many simple needs are a challenge to obtain, western pronunciation leaving everyone mystified. Food markets shock with their animal cruelty, chicks skinned and placed atop the cage of their live brothers. The swell of traffic and people is a constant during daylight hours. This all goes to create such an intense travel experience.

A sleeper bus took me 600km up the coast to another massive modern Chinese city. Whereas Xiamen had an island of European architecture to draw the crowds in, Hangzhou had a lake. West Lake is pretty unimpressive! Smog limited views of rather tame hills on its far side, although good views could be seen of the skyscraper backdrop from a lakeside hill. Perhaps some context would help explain my dissatisfaction: a close friend, Marie Claire, from Glasgow was coming across to see me within the next few days. This would be the first person I have met that I know since leaving Scotland 14 months previous. I was very excited!

And so for the next three weeks we travelled some 3500km, first westwards and then north-eastwards having an absolute blast! It was such good fun doing it with someone with a similar mentality and energy that I knew so well. One of the three weeks we were also joined by Paul, an Irishman with equally easy going ways.

Shanghai did not carry the wow factor we both expected. Perhaps it had lost it with modernity. What must have been the old red light district was now dotted with seafood restaurants and camcorder wielding tourists strolling past its massage parlours. The waterfront was great though, grand French architecture one side and on the other towering modern skyscrapers. Oddly after 10pm all unnecessary lights in the city were shut off, French concession included. Coming back from a night out Marie and I were driven through fields of dark, leering skyscrapers, Shanghai quite an eerie city by night.

We began westwards with two 'off the beaten track' cities. Hefei and Bozhou each had larger populations than Scotland. One china man dismissed his city as small, this starting to depict the true scale of China. It is an absolute monster. These two cities came with relentless staring, stressful noise levels, dirt and stifling difficulty. Not as enjoyable as the rest of the trip but vital for a better understanding than we would have had of the Chinese and their country. We perhaps took more from these four days than the rest of the trip but the onus was on sights and good times!

It was great taking a back seat for the next few weeks and just having fun, as opposed to my style of full on independent travelling. The terracotta warriors, Xi' an, Pingyao, The Great Wall, Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Siberian tiger park were all on the itinerary. Pingyao was the real highlight though, a 1000 year old walled town teaming with Chinese tradition. Beijing is a city with so much to see that even a week is n't long enough. Beijing was an island of Chinese manners. Flamboyant and loud spitting ceased (or at least didn't hit the ground as we saw when one man mid-grogging clocked us), there were queues for buses and people did not push or stare as much. It is incredible the control the government has over the people, changing cultural norms in a city of 14 million in just a few years in preparation for the Olympics.

Harbin, our last Chinese city, was quieter and easier going. Russia was clearly not far off, an orthodox church graced a main square and Russian architecture lined some streets. Maz and I shared our last steamed dumplings and Tsingtao beer and parted ways.

I left China extremely grateful to have seen it, if not worried what I learnt. I thought how, if it were up to me, I'd have America rule over us any day over China. What a monster China is, a sheer power house, relentlessly charging forward with regards of only those in charge. Why shouldn't they? With our gleaming economies in the west they have a lot to aspire to and a lot of ground to cover. Human rights just get in the way, don't they? How untroubled the government was by any other country over this matter recently, and how untroubled they would be even if another economy did stand up solidly against it.

Ironically the only conversation I had with a China man that got past the smiling and laughing of saving face was one shouted over a crowd blocked from attending the Olympic torch run in Pingyao. "China has no humanitarian rights!" True, we thought, but please be quiet otherwise you will get us deported and yourself thrown in jail.

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