Since I was a kid, Confucius jokes have amused me. Images in my head of bent over old Chinese men with bum fluff beards and leathery faces shining with eyes of great wisdom, while hiding a cheeky smile and a magic behind it. Monkey Magic sort of stuff (Monkey was Japanese made, but the whole 1970's cult classic series was based on a 16th century Chinese story called Hsi Yu Chi or 'Journey to the West'). Add to that the fact that I also used to tease a Chinese kid in high school called Arnold (that was his English name anyway) because he looked funny and always had snot hanging out of his nose. Poor kid. So, given my past education and stigma attached to anything Chinese, I really had no idea what to expect when Ayala and I landed one early morning at Shanghai airport. We hadn't done our homework on China
. After all, I couldn't honestly expect to find Monkey on his flying cloud with Pigsy at his side...or could I?
The first thing that hit me after leaving the airport was how modern and sparkling everything looked, and not just in Shanghai. Electric motorbikes cruised noiselessly passed us through cities bursting to the seems with space age buildings built or being built by aspiring architects who must have grown up watching too many episodes of The Jetsons, the squeaky clean green garbage sweepers equipped with a pulsating light wand picking up rubbish, and then the young and chic Chinese talking on mobiles the size of wrist watches. I thought this stuff only happened in Japan? I was wrong. China is a country looming large into the future, dazzling the rest of the world with her progress, bright lights and furious power, letting go of her Maoist past and breaking free of the shackles of Communism. Like the legend of Monkey Magic, China was certainly on it's own Journey to the West. But every shiny coin has a flip side as we would soon see for ourselves...
A few days of searching for stuff to do in Shanghai besides shopping, Ayala and I were getting bored and beginning to wonder how we could afford to keep traveling through China if the whole country would be as expensive as Shanghai. Then Miriam, Ayala's hyper-active big sister turned up and we all ended up sharing a room together without letting our hotel reception know that we had sneaked another accomplice in to help bring down our enormous room bill. They suspected but never caught us.
By this stage, Ayala and I had struggled to order anything from any budget priced restaurant that resembled what we actually wanted
. The problem was, everything was written in Chinese, and most Chinese don't speak a word of English. That may be an exaggeration, but as we grew more and more hungry, roaming the streets of Shanghai in those first few frustrating days, we began to wonder if we had made a bad mistake in coming to China and whether we would starve or eat each other alive. I was in a much better position to eat anything, as I'm not vegetarian. But after eating some 'meat on a stick' one late night from a street stall, I began to wonder if the meat I had just eaten came from a kennel or a butcher. Later through our travels in China, I was happily enlightened by a Chinese English teacher that in fact the Chinese rarely eat dog, it's only eaten by a rare minority group in the south. He said that I would have to go to Korea if our reason for coming to China was to try a bit of Lassie. I gave up trying to explain to him that I wasn't obsessed by wanting to eat dog at all, I was just curious. He didn't understand. I finally smiled and walked away from a conversation that was going nowhere. After endless searching, we found substance in the form of vegetarian steamed buns. At last, and bloody delicious! This would be Ayala's main staple diet for the foreseeable future until we learned more Chinese.
So, from Shanghai, Ayala, Miriam and myself made our way north where we would eventually land ourselves in Beijing a week later and stay with a cousin of the two girls who's been living in Beijing over the past few years and works for the American Embassy. We bought ourselves a hard seat on the train headed north, next stop Qingdao. Lonely Planet describes Qingdao as 'a popular summer tourist destination for Chinese looking for a bit of fun in the sun and surf. A quaint little town once a fishing village sitting on the North-East coast of China'. Fantastic we thought. I couldn't wait to hit the beach again after a few months away
. As soon as we struggled out of the train station with a million other Chinese tourists in tow, getting punched and elbowed in the effort, the touts pounced on us. None of them could speak English so their efforts to get us to stay at their hotel was all in vain. They say that a picture paints a thousand words - we had learned by now that in China that wasn't the case - touts with pretty leaflets of hotel rooms with sweeping ocean views wouldn't get us to give in to them, so we fled the racket outside the train station and dived into a nearby taxi, met by a drunk taxi driver yelling at us in Chinese from his safety cage in the front. The only word I could understand from his yelling was Tsingtao - a famous Chinese beer whose factory was based in Qingdao. Maybe he was offering to take us there, but it was late in the night and I doubt the factory would have been open for tours at that hour. By the time we eventually found a reasonably priced hotel I guessed that the taxi driver wasn't angry with us at all, maybe he was in fact trying to be helpful and suggesting things for us to do in Qingdao? Where's a translator when you need one? I learned on that taxi ride that when Chinese yell at you, they're not necessarily upset with you, it's just that they love to yell. I guess that with over a billion people in this country, you might just have to yell to be heard in life.
Qingdao presented itself to us the next morning as we ventured out of the hotel and took a walk down to one of the busy beaches
. The quaint town LP had described must have had a makeover lately. Think of Las Vegas on the beach, then think of Qingdao. The beach was packed with millions of loud, excited Chinese tourists with the same coloured baseball caps, scampering over rocks and beach, dragging and netting anything and every possible sea creature they could find in order to either eat it or use it as a souvenir. Star fish, exotic sea shells, endangered this and that, all displayed in baskets in street stalls along the boulevard fronting the beach and a long Jetty (the jetty that is shown on the front of every Tsingtao beer bottle for those Tsingtao fans). Besides the mayhem on the beach, there was something else that didn't seem right about the scenario that greeted us. Then it hit me. An unmistakable whale coming from various hand held loud speakers positioned strategically around the promenade at regular intervals, almost damaged our ear drums. Bugger going deaf from raving too much, just go to Qingdao. Each loud speaker came a monotone Chinese voice. Over and over again the same message. I stood there overwhelmed by what I was surrounded by, and imagined that I was a prisoner of war and was standing inside a German concentration camp with loud speakers whaling around me - 'Ze Gestapo are your friends, not your enemies. Ve are here to help you' etc. Maybe it was the wrong language but from watching loads of war movies over the years, that's what Qingdao's speaker whaling sounded like to me. My head started thumping and I fled the crazy scene and headed back to the hotel and the girls. I wouldn't give in to being brainwashed by loud speakers, even if I didn't understand what was being said. At least that's what it sounded like. Reality, as we found out, was that the messages were all about trying to sell boat tours to the Chinese tourists. On the last afternoon in Qingdao, we came across a lush green park with loads of old Chinese ladies practicing Ti Chi, and men playing Chinese Checkers whilst drinking pints of Tsingtao and smoking wooden pipes
. It was a sight that took me by pleasant surprise. Maybe there still was an 'old China' still yet to discover.
Now I've had my fair share of shaking off Avon sales ladies with plastic airline hostess faces in the past when they've come to our front door looking for mum, so I was sent again down memory lane when we were approached on the train to Beijing by an airline looking hostess selling gadgets of all sorts. As our super train whizzed it's way to Beijing, a crowd of potential Chinese customers grew around her, all trying to see what gadget was flashing or pulsating from her overexagerated demonstrations . Then she pulled them out, a pair of plain socks. We held our breath. Everyone held their breath. She then pulled out a lighter, ripped the socks from their packaging with such precision and lit the socks right in front of us. Jesus Christ, maybe she had worked a double shift and was losing the plot. No she wasn't, no matter how much fire was thrown at these socks from a raging lighter/flamethrower, they wouldn't burn. So much for fire safety hazards on a crowded train. Alas, we have ourselves a pair of fireproof socks! Very handy for those moments when the apartment burns down and you need to grab the kids and make a beeline for the smoking front door. The crowd cheered and started pulling out their wads of Yuan. We burst out laughing and couldn't contain our amusement at the sight in front of us
. Fucking funny. Fireproof socks, look out for that one next time you catch a train anywhere in China!
Ayala and I liked Beijing immediately. Spread out, modern and bustling yet grandeur at the same time, Beijing has a lot to offer historically from the old China. The two girls and I were greeted at the entrance to a huge modern luxury apartment block in a rich area of Beijing by a concierge with a welcoming smile. We would be staying with Eaton, the cousin of Ayala and Miriam, for a week or so in a luxury apartment on the 17th floor with a killer view of Beijing. We dined in luxury, were taken to all the great spots, clubs, bars, fresh food markets, and the Forbidden City and Lama Temple. No Lamas though. The girls cooked up a mean feast for a dinner party we had one night, wine, great food and we met some interesting ex pats living in Beijing.
A few days later, Miriam had to leave for a flight back to the States. Ayala had loved hanging out with her and would miss her, despite the arguments, and I kind of bonded with her eventually in a badgering sort of way.
So, alone together again, Ayala and I caught a bus to the Great Wall for the day, at a quiet place on the wall called Huanghua. It was great to finally get away from the big cities and endless smog which we had only seen so far of China and to get lost in China's rural countryside. That day we climbed an overgrown part of the Great Wall where no one else really went, and had a wicked time crawling through scrub and over crumbling ramparts and ancient watchtowers overlooking forest as far as the eye could see. The Chinese government, in their endless effort to modernise everything in sight, had so far not touched and renovated this huge part of the wall
. An ancient spirit was our guide that day, maybe one of Genghis Karn's men, and we walked with the excitement of explorers.
As hard as it was to leave the luxury of our apartment in the heavenly skies of Beijing, we had to get moving if we wanted to see some of south west China with only two weeks left on our visas.
So, a flight from Beijing landed us in Chengdu, another busy metropolis with a thick tropical feel in the air. Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan, a province in the south west best known for it's extremely spicy dishes. Ayala asked me before we came to China for us to see two things - the Great Wall and a panda in the wild. The Great Wall was the easy part, seeing a giant panda in the wild was the hard part, impossible really. Sichuan had some forest reserves with over one thousand pandas still living in the wild, however finding one by chance would be almost impossible, so LP said anyway. We opted to go and see pandas in the Giant Panda Research Breeding Centre just outside of Chengdu. It was well worth it, even if we had a Chinese guy who kept getting his English words confused and saying things like we needed our passwords to get in instead of saying we need our passports. Confused, us group of backpackers eagerly made our way into the complex waiting to see these fury fun loving animals
. We were taken to the first panda enclosure, and were greeted by three panda's, one munching away on bamboo while the other two sat up on a bamboo platform, scratching themselves endlessly and panting from exhaustion. They looked fucked. It was hot after all, and with all that fur. Panda's are usually found in lush forests in China above three thousand meters, so I guess doing anything requiring movement must be hard for them in the lowland heat. At the end of the tour, we walked through a series of stuffed animal displays, with very scary looking pandas, foxes, squirrels and other cute and harmless animals made to look scary by the taxidermist who stuffed them. Can you imagine a Giant Panda with fangs and a rabid look on it's face? Have you ever watched 28 Days? Ayala and I pissed ourselves laughing, literally crying with laughter by the time we reached the end of the exhibit. What drugs was the taxidermist on here? A few others found the displays highly amusing as well. It was great to see the research centre doing great things for a species threatened by extension, all due to deforestation and habitat loss by land hungry farmers and hydro-electric projects. Add to that the fact that Panda's are very fussy lovers - They almost live completely in isolation from each other, and when two happen to meet by chance they need to really rock each others worlds to mate. The research centre has had huge success in breeding in captivity. Tne future looks brighter for these guys.
Tiger Leaping Gorge, believed to be the deepest gorge in the world, is situated in the province of Yunnan, a province neighbouring the country of Laos and an overland gateway into South East Asia. A twelve hour train ride and an eight hour bus ride from Chengdu landed us in Lijang, an old rustic and charming cobblestoned town with those men with pointed fluffy beards I had been looking for
. Was Monkey and his flying cloud nearby? Perhaps we would find him in the gorge, situated about 100km's north of Lijang. Our plan was to stay in Lijang a day then make it up to Tiger Leaping Gorge and trek it over a few days. An ancient Chinese legend once said that long ago, a tiger used the middle rock of the gorge to leap from one side to the other. It must have been one strong tiger as the gorge, in all of its magnificence, would be a challenge to climb even for the most determined rock climber. Water rushes through the gorge at phenomenal speeds and the rapids, overshadowed by jagged peaks, would swallow anything in their grasp. The walk was beautiful. Two days we spent walking a narrow path hugging precariously to the side of the gorge, staying in cute tea houses along the way with incredible views of the gorge. Unfortunately, Monkey was no where to be found, but if you were to find him anywhere, this is the place he would be. Magical.
At this stage, we had a decision to make with only a week left on our Chinese visas - to either try and go overland through Burma and then into Thailand, or if this wasn't possible, head back through Laos and then into Thailand. Ayala and I had both been to Laos before, so we asked around in Kunming, the southern most major city and capital of Yunnan, whether Burma was possible. Unfortunately it turned out that the Burma-Thailand overland option wasn't possible
. So we booked an overnight sleeper bus to Mohan, a border town to Laos. Now sleeper buses in China are literally a bunch of beds side by side in rows in a huge air con bus. Great. The only thing is, Chinese don't have a height problem...most are vertically challenged. I'm pretty tall, so half of me hung off my top bunk bed and the other half of me rocked sideways like a sea slug in a big swell as the bus drove a million miles and hour ahead. It was a rough night for me. Ayala, being the cute package that she is, curled up and slept better than me. I've always admired that about her, she can roll herself up in a ball anywhere and simply fall asleep. So by the time we finally almost reached the China-Laos border, we were knackered. A mini bus would then take us to the border town, a couple of hours still away. This for me was THE bus ride from hell. A Chinese lady hung out the window in front of me spewing her guts out the whole way. We received a good does of it as the wind pushed the spray back through the bus window. One guy had chunks all over his face and down his shirt from another ladies bad aim. He took it all in his stride though. It didn't help that the bus hurtled towards Laos at a ridiculous speed, the bald tyres screeching on every small curve in the road. Ayala also looked wild eyed and bushy tailed by the end, but still managed to sleep some of the way. God knows how she does it.
They say that the sense of smell is the strongest sense related to memory
. Like when you're walking down the street and a girl walks past with your ex girlfriends perfume on, it can jerk you back to times past. Well, the same happened for me when we finally emerged from the bus and walked over the border into Laos under a thick jungle canopy with the sound of a thousand cicada symphony orchestra. The smell filled my nostrils like the smell of a fond ex, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. It had been four years since I was last here. I guess too I was relieved, as well as Ayala, to be leaving China. China was a challenge, both for us individually and as a test on our new relationship. I found China to be the hardest country I've traveled through so far, but yet it gave me a great feeling of accomplishment to have traveled it independently. I wouldn't have done it any other way. China is rich in beauty, yet hiding an ugly underside. Huge factories dot the pristine countryside, spewing huge amounts of smoke into the dense hazy summer air. Kids play in rivers polluted by industry, once rich in wildlife. From Shanghai to Beijing, the haze was so thick that looking out the train window showed us nothing. China is poised to become the next big superpower, but to be honest, I think it's a country that needs to take a good look at itself before thinking about impressing the rest of the world. The Chinese are aggressive in every way of communication, and even more when you're bargaining for something. That was hard to get used to. I'll definitely not miss meat on a stick, Chinese spitting, steamed spring onion buns, Chinese tourists in their thousands, meat markets and sleeper buses designed for midgets. What I miss is seeing the Chinese walk their birds as the sun rises in the morning, the calming sight of people practicing Ti Chi in the park, and last but not least, the breathtaking scenery of Tiger Leaping Gorge. I never did find Monkey on his flying cloud, but there is still magic left in China to be found...you just have to know where to look...
CONFUCIUS say - 'man who go to bed with itchy bum, wake up in morning with smelly finger'.