Saturday, 13 November 2010

Beijing-Zhangjiajie train (3rd/4th of September)

The K267 was due to leave Beijing West station at 11.38, but we’d been warned to be there early because of traffic, security checks and luggage weighing. Getting there wasn’t too much hassle, just two buses at ~10p each. There were yet more police standing upright on street corners, and because it was raining people on the streets were trying hard to sell ponchos. Cyclists had rather ingenious ponchos that covered their handlebars too. The station was like an airport. First we had to go through a security barrier and our possessions through a scanner. Like before they didn’t seem to be taking much notice of the screen and the government just seems to be making more jobs for people. Jenny had read somewhere that we weren’t allowed more than 100ml of flammable liquid, so we’d been thinking we should have separated our methylated spirit into two sets of 100ml. This was all unnecessary worry since they didn’t seem to care.

Trains had waiting rooms allocated to them and we went to room nine where hundreds of people piled in and sat on the floor, benches, stood up or pushed their way towards the front. I began to feel slightly claustrophobic with all these people everywhere and was glad that our large backpacks meant that at least there was a little empty space around us.

About 25 minutes before the train was due to depart people began to stand up and start pushing despite nothing happening at the front. They were quite desperate to get to the train- there was no fire but we think they wanted to stake their claim on the best spots for their luggage and bottoms.

For me one of the joys of train travel is to see the world go past the window, watching how the people live and the changing of the landscapes. When you are on the top bunk of three and all you can see are the railway tracks and the luggage space you might as well be flying, apart from the carbon emissions. Thankfully we did get to sit by the window for very short intervals of time and just watching the Chinese sharing our carriage was fascinating.

There were 11 compartments without doors in our carriage, with each compartment with three beds on either side. Across the corridor from the beds are drop-down chairs beside little tables. From the top bunks you get a really good view of what everyone is up to. A couple in the corridor tucked into a takeaway spread of rice, meat and beans. The man sat there happily munching on chicken foot. Once remains of the lunch had been put in the bin they started to play cards. No card game we knew, and watching did not get us any closer to understanding how it was played. Below us men gathered to play cards with others watching on from the seats and standing in the corridor. At one point there were at least eleven people in our compartment. The Chinese appear to enjoy playing cards and get quite into it, whacking the cards down with great conviction.

There was also a never ending stream of pedestrian traffic in the corridor- people back and forth with pot noodles, the lady taking tickets and issuing us with our bed number on a plastic card, a lady checking our bags were correctly positioned on the overhead rack, a lady with a basket of children's toys (including a plastic yak and a talking parrot), people with trollies of fruit and veg, a bed sheet covering a soupy gloop and eggs, a lady folding the curtains (jobs for the masses), a trolley full of plastic trays of rice, meat, egg and vegetables and a mismatched selection trolley of items such as pot noodles and toothbrushes. In the evening some ladies came to write our names down on a piece of paper and look at our passports, but we're not entirely sure if that's what they wanted. There was a lot of confusion that we didn't have Chinese names along with our European ones.

As we neared Zhangjiajie City (and had the opportunity to look out the window) we went along a river valley with peaks and rice paddies. Having the top bunks may have been the cheapest, but it wasn't the comfiest of arrangements either, although we did just about manage to sit upright with our legs on the other bunk. At times it felt like I was a battery hen and it was good to get off the train even if we were faced with the hot humidity of Hunan province.

Beijing (2nd of September)

In the morning we took the subway a few stops to go to the central Post Office to retrieve the many non-DEET mosquito repellents mum had sent us in order to stave off malaria. Saying what we wanted in English got us nowhere. Pointing to the Chinese for 'post restante' and trying to say it also proved nigh on useless. We were directed to the customs part of the building where you could pick parcels up, but only ones that you had a code for. Everyone seemed a bit clueless as to what we wanted from them. Sitting at a table we finished off a few postcards, stuck their stamps on and just as we were resigning ourselves to dying of malaria the lady we had spoken to got up and headed for the stamp counter. Finally someone seemed to have grasped what we were after and she produced a drawer full of European post. It was rather full and perhaps most people had abandoned the mission of trying to claim their items of mail.

We walked back over a congested multi-lane road, past a school in the vicinity of which it is forbidden to sound your horn, in to a supermarket, through the affluent shopping district where you can buy Ferraris and Mercedes, past the police 'barracks' and through the more normal alleys of Beijing. At the Jade International hostel we attempted to borrow two of the fifty or so bicycles lined up outside, which according to their page on are available to rent free of charge. Once again the advertisement proved false. It seemed that the person in charge of the rentals was not there so they made up some ridiculous story about not having any locks so we couldn't rent the bikes. I complained, like a person who has had much tuition (thanks to the customers at River Cottage) in how to complain.

Not able to cycle to the Summer Palace as we had hoped we made ourselves content with a stroll around the Jinshan Park. The views over the smoggy city were nice and there were plenty of trees under which to find shelter from the not really visible sun. A man was stumbling through the Turkish March on a saxophone, two ladies were practicing a martial arts dance in a square, a group of old people were playing cards around a stone table, a group were playing that same hit-the-shuttlecock-with-your-foot game, a clotheless baby was pushed around by its proud parents and a lady was sitting next to her husband on a bench singing most beautifully. There were almost more people working in the park (tending to the beds, planting trees, pushing wheelbarrows around) than visiting it and it made us understand the need for the 20p entrance fee.

After the park we skirted round the Forbidden Palace and past the people selling sweet potatoes and melon on sticks. As seems to be usual in Beijing there were policemen everywhere. We made it in to Tiananmen square and back out again; saw many police descending upon it and missed the daily spectacle of the police marching within it.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

The Great Wall & Beijing (1st of September)

Doing the proper tourist thing we took a trip to the Wall from our hostel via another hostel and a different bus to Jin Shaling. On the way we saw mangoes or papaya growing and lots of paper bags tied to the trees for them to grow into. It was very pretty as we got into the mountains although a bit hazy.

Left at Jing Shaling we had to walk six kilometers, past 22 towers, where our guide would be waiting for us to take us down a track to the bus. For some reason everyone seemed to be treating it as a race and it was a while before I could relax, enjoy myself and not feel the need to play catch-up.

As soon as we started walking we began to be hounded by souvenir sellers, apparently farmers from Inner Mongolia and with wares to sell such as, fans, books, post cards and water. We would be asked where we were from – “Arrr England” and then they would try to sell us things to which we would say “no thank you” and they “later, later” and we “no thank you, no, no!” They would follow us for ages trying to engage in conversation, offering to hoist us up steep sections or giving us tips on the best side to walk. Eventually they would get the message and they’d try to find another victim. No matter how many times the first lady told us we were beautiful we were not going to buy her souvenirs.

It was not the most relaxing of walks, trying to scramble as fast as we could up the wall and attempting to fend off the sellers. But the wall was really quite grand and there weren’t thousands of people on it like you would see at other sites.

Often we wished we had a tape recording we could press to answer “no thank you, no thank you” in reply to calls of “t-shirt, t-shirt”. They did seem to like picking on us in particular and it took a bit of educating from fellow travellers until we got the right we don’t want to buy your stuff look. Everyone was trying their best to shake off the souvenir sellers. Some Australians who were walking the wall for five days and had already had a few days practice were offered beer and declared they could not buy it as it was against their religion. An Aussie lady couldn’t handle her Chinese shadow any longer and said she would buy the water on the condition that she’d be left alone. The German traveller from our group succumbed to the purchase of a t-shirt because he didn’t have any clean ones left. He bargained hard though and got it down to 12RMB, equivalent to about £1.20. Although it probably would have been a good thing to support these people’s livelihoods we just didn’t want any of their mass produced tat and really didn’t appreciate the way they go about getting tourists to buy it.

Since some people were yet to arrive at tower no. 22 we dawdled our way down looking at the oak trees with funny acorns, other plants, the furry caterpillars and a lizard. After an hour the guide and further members of the group arrived. Turned out they were going so fast and not counting the towers had got to no. 31, were stopped by the police who were just standing there and had to go all the way back to 22.

On the journey back I had an amazing view of all the amusing Chinese road signs with pictures of giraffes, elephants and cars with funny expressions on them. One sign read “Caution avoid collision with backside” and I was left wondering if I was riding a horse or camel again.

In the evening we moved into a new hostel so that we could use the kitchen it didn't have.

Beijing (31st of August)

Setting off early we tried with moderate success to beat the crowds to the Forbidden Palace. There we found enough roofs to keep me happy, joined the Chinese in peering through windows, looked at the trees with trunks forced to fork, got lost at times, avoided the foul smelling herbicide they were spraying on any grass that was still alive, and saw a lot of pretty pottery.

In the evening we made our way through the dark streets of Beijing to a vegetarian restaurant, because there was no kitchen at the Peking Hostel contrary to what might be written on the website. Despite the dark the Chinese were out in force exercising on the exercise machines in the parks, walking, cycling, playing this game where they have to hit a shuttlecock with their feet, shopping and eating. The restaurant wasn’t exactly crowded though, just us, another European traveller and four Chinese friends tucking into a plethora of different dishes. We were given a huge menu book with glossy pictures of all the dishes and their details in both English and Chinese. It took us a while before we decided on the dumplings, sweet and sour vegetarian pork and some potato balls. The Chinese do not make dumplings anywhere near as well as the Mongolians (or whoever they import them from) and eating them became a bit of an ordeal. Fortunately the sweet and sour ‘pork’ was delicious and so was the potato, and it was all very cheap.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing (29th/30th of August)

Train no. 4, which we had expected to be rather plush but wasn’t, left Ulaanbaatar station just after 7:15am. We’d got up at 5:30 and had taken the bus from the hostel at 6.00. We thought we might have the compartment to ourselves but shortly before it left some Mongolian men started loading it up with luggage. There were a lot of suitcases. Two big ones went in the overhead storage, another suitcase and three bags under the bed and then another three bags. Later we learnt they weighed 100kg altogether and that their owners were hoping to add another 20kg with cheap Chinese shopping. One bag contained a carpet from the black market and two of them Mongolian clothes purchases. We thought this might be one of the Mongolian students we’d heard would be filling up the train on the way to China and beyond. It turned out however to be a family of four Mongolians on their way home to London after a two month summer holiday. The man’s parents had worked in Mongolian embassies in Russia and he had grown up in various Russian locations before he left and tried to live in Germany and then England. They had two five year old twins, dressed identically and carrying pink rucksacks with Mini Mouse on them and Tinkerbell cups with a snow globe at the bottom. The family slept most of the day, having had a send-off gathering into the small hours of the morning. The two girls were hoisted on to the top bunk and the parents slept head to toe in the bottom bed. Sleeping arrangements were revised in the evening, with each parent sharing a bed with one of the girls. When they weren't sleeping the girls kept themselves entertained while their father told us of his concerns for their education and his plans to send them to Mongolia for secondary school because of the inferior standard of British education.

We were pretty convinced that we’d arrived in China when we were bombarded with street lights on unused roads and arrays of neon lights. At the station there were flowers in pompous stands, lights and an entrance hall with even more lights. The wheels of the train had to be changed so it pulled into a shed and they raised the carriages up and did something underneath. Someone came in to our compartment, rolled the carpet aside, opened a hole in the floor and banged a peg down. And another came in to 'assassinate' us with his temperature gun, firing it at our foreheads. Fortunately none of us had a temperature and we weren't kicked off the train or forced into buying Chinese medicine.

China was so different from the wild and empty expanses of Mongolia that we’d spent the day passing through. The most noticeable change was a rotten egg smell that filled up our compartment as soon as we crossed the border. We thought it issued from the toilet next door, but no, we soon gathered this was the smell of China- the sulphurous smell of pollution.

In the morning there were houses everywhere, and skyscrapers being built in what seemed like small towns. The power stations were everywhere too, belching out their smoke, as well as the mines with piles of coal next to them. A lot of the land was under cultivation, most of it fields and fields of maize with the odd sunflower in between- a stark difference to Mongolia. The landscape was slightly Californian looking, with rolling hills and later some rocky mountains. In one place people had built their houses into the cliffs/ground. As we progressed through the countryside I felt cold number three coming on and discovered my snot was dark black. Maybe the people that live here are unaware that it’s meant to be clear. It'll be a while until we can breathe freely again.

More reassuring was the number of solar panels on the houses and apartment blocks of some of the towns and villages we passed by. The houses were nice with red tiled roofs and brick walls. As we neared Beijing the air got thicker with pollution and we were in the midst of the smog. We went along a river that had been dammed upstream and didn’t contain a lot of water, but the surrounding valleys were very pretty.

In Beijing it was sweltering and the area around the station was swarming with people. We got money out once I managed to get the pin number right, because the numbers were in different places. There were escalators to get over the road to the bus stop, which saved our backs a bit of extra pain, but was really a bit extravagant. After locating our hostel we roamed around the neighbourhood and some seemingly innocent looking individuals tried to con us in to going to a tea ‘festival’ with them (and most likely would have made us foot their bill). Many of the roads were tree lined and the alleys between houses very pretty. Courgettes were growing along and above the alleys and cucumbers were hanging out in strips to dry. We wanted to go to Tiananmen Square, but Jenny had her penknife in her rucksack and we thought we wouldn’t make it through the security check (which in hindsight we probably would have got through no problem). There seemed to be policemen everywhere in Beijing just frozen in pose on street corners, in the underpasses, squares and anywhere else not already occupied by the Chinese public.