Tuesday, November 3, 2009

China Notes Part I

For my trip to China, I decided on traveling with a tour group. Jenni and I had traveled with Peregrine for our trip through Vietnam and Cambodia, and despite some problems with group members it worked out alright. I decided to try Gecko's, because they seemed to allow a lot of freedom during the days, and also went by train for parts of the trip. I chose the East Coast Adventure, because it hit all the major spots that I wanted to see: Shanghai, Hangzhou, Huangshan, Suzhou, Xian, and Beijing. I tried to book my flights through them too, but they wanted to route me through Sydney, which the only flight to Shanghai would have left at 8am, meaning I had to get there the night before. I even took a look at those automatic flight planners, which routed me from Perth (all the way on the opposite side of the country) then to Sydney. I think the flight time would have been 1 week. I routed myself through Singapore, leaving in the evening, and catching a midnight flight to Shanghai. The flight from Singapore to Shanghai was only about 5 1/2 hours, leaving little time for sleep. Sometimes faster jets are not the way to go.

Day 1 - Shanghai

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The plane landed in Shanghai just as the sun was rising, casting it in a yellow haze. I was immediately struck by the immensity of everything, from the 20 minute long taxi to the gate, to the cavernous halls of immigration. After clearing customs, and passing the swine flu screening, I stepped outside to the greeting area and felt the hot humid air at 8 in the morning. I'm disappointed, having swapped one hot humid place for another. A driver sent from the tour company greeted me, and we headed out to his car - a strange box shaped mini-suv/van that everyone who went to the airport seemed to own. Not long before leaving the airport, are we coated in this bizarre mist - a cross between fog and smog, thick and grey. We passed by giant concrete bridges, testaments to China's continued economic growth, seem to stretch on forever dissapearing into this ethereal mist.We quickly get deeper into the heart of Shanghai and more traffice. Road construction is everywhere, apartment buildings are going up, while old buildings are being taken down. I spotted a busload of construction workers, headed toward the site or from it, two of the workers still wearing their hardhats try and catch a few minutes of sleep, carefully balancing their heads on one another.

I arrived at the hotel, and struggle to check in. No one at the counter seems to care that I'm waiting to be served (gosh darn-it!), and other Chinese hotel patrons jump in front of me. THis was my first of many experiences with the lack of German like rigidity to their lines. This bugs me, probably because of my Swiss lineage. Eventually, I get frustrated enough and jump to the front. They seem confused as to what I want to do, but eventually give me a room. I tried my key in the lock, and it didn't work, so I knocked on the door and my new roommate opened it for me. He seemed surprised to have a hairy American knocking on his door that early in the morning, but we worked it out that we were indeed on the same tour. Dan is a soft spoken Canadian, and actually mistook me for an Australian initially. Probably because when I knocked on the door I gave a big Aussie grin and said "G'day mate, how ya going?"

The room left much to be desired, it was definitely budget accomodation for business travelers. The only thing that separated Dan and I from showering together or sharing the morning toilet trip are two slabs of frosted glass. The toilet and shower are separated by a sink with no wall. After cleaning oneself up, you had to delicately open the frosted glass door, keep it open and dry off behind it. Other than that, the beds are relatively comfortable, albeit the same width as me.

After a short nap, I decided to head out to The Bund river front area. This is the historic European business district, back when the colonialists were "still" around. It is still home to many global banks, now. It give views looking back on the shiny new Pudong area. Shanghai was selected for the 2010 World Expo and the entire Bund riverfront is now under heavy construction as everything is being prepared. China construction is not heavily dependent on technological innovations, given their massive workforce, construction can continue at a blinding pace of 25 hours a day 8 days a week. Having just read Devil in the White City, about the Chcago World's Fair at the turn of the 20th century, the importance of an exposition like this can't be understated. It will be Shanghai's voice to the world, has to out do all previous world fairs and, of course, the Beijing Olympics. It is hard to see what they are creating behind the dust and grime as I walked along the fenced off river front constructions. There are glimmers of what will likely be impressive architectural feats, though. Unfortunately, the route I took to The Bund made the impression that Shanghai was a city that screamed "Footpaths! We don't need none-of your Bourgeois footpaths!" This impression really came from my poor navigation skills, as on the way back I found where I was supposed to be walking.

Surprisingly Shanghai, the largest city in China with 20 million people, does not feel crowded. This sprawlling giant city compensates for the population by wide-open streets. Footpaths have few people, and traffic only seems heavy because of the road construction. It isn't till you are in a smaller space, like the queue of a supermarket around lunch time that you suddenly realize what a city of 20 million people feels like.

The Pudong

Day 2 - Hangzhou

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The next day we headed out to the city of Hangzhou. There were four of us on our tour, so we joined up with another group that had been traveling for over 20 days together. Their tour ended after the Yellow Mountains, and then we joined up with another shorter tour for the last part. After our tour ended, our guide had been gone for over a month.

To get to Hangzhou we took the bullet train from Shanghai. The train station is one of those places where you get a sense of how populated China is. Throngs of people tried to get through two metal detectors and2 x-ray machines. None-of-us were certain exactly what these security stations did, other than slow done the entrance. They were the same at every train station we went to. Metal detectors that were never on. X-ray machines that were monitored by teenagers in oversize security guard costumes. If you wanted to smuggle something on board, metallic or otherwise, wearing an oversize coat would and carrying it on your person would have sufficed.

Riding on a Bullet Train makes one hopeful of the fruition of President Obama's high speed passenger train network for the US. They are more comfortable and rival speeds of passenger airplanes. Although, these were only equipped with squat toilets. I have to admit to becoming a fan of the squat toilet, even though my legs weren't built for that kind of stretching, and the rocking of the train made it an even more difficult challenge. Don't forget your toilet paper though, no public Chinese toilets supply them for you.

Marco Polo found Hangzhou to be the finest city in all of the world. It is well-known for it's beautiful lake and the pagodas around the lake. The rest of the city feels like a typical industrial city, but maintains the wide streets of Shanghai. We walked from the hotel to the lake, where we were left by our guide to find our way around the lake and back to the hotel, while he went to purchase bus tickets for our trip the next day. Everyone from China seemed to join us there that afternoon. It was my first encounter with the outfits little kids (~2 to 4) wear, with the back open to the wind like a hospital gown. This makes it easier for the kids to squat wherever and use the toilet. Must save on nappy costs. It isn't very troublesome, because seeing a 2 year old's bottom hanging out of their clothes is more humorous than anything.

In Shanghai, people didn't stare much, a westerner tourist was not a novelty in a city used to business persons. However, while walking along the lake, several people would stop and stare at me. This wasn't so bad when little kids would giggle and smile. It was a little more disconcerting when a group of grown men did the same. I shared this with Dan later, and he said he didn't notice people staring at him. I suspect it may have had more to do with my facial hair than the novelty of a westerner.

It was windy along the lake, so kite affecianados were out in force. Kites ranged in size from tiny butterflies, in both size and shape, to large kites that cut through the air with a zipping sound.

For dinner that night, we went to a market and what our guide referred to as "snack street." Hangzhou is also famous for its tea, so many of the shops at the market sold tea in all shapes and sizes. One specialty shop, sold, as far as I could tell, only Ginseng. From Ginseng floating in wine (see video), to Ginseng that was hundreds of years old. I could almost hear a 1920's sidewalk seller hocking it, "Cures what ails ya!" But here is the shocker, the hundred year old Ginseng cost upwards of 70,000 yuan, roughly 10,000 US dollars. Sure, at first, Jenni was upset with me for spending our house savings on "some old dusty herb," but I think she is starting to come around. I'm even allowed back in the house.

Snack street was made up of different stalls that sold about every kind of food imaginable. See for yourself:

Day 3 and 4 - Huangshan (Yellow Mountain)

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The next morning we left early at 7:20 am to get to the Yellow Mountains. It was a scramble to find breakfast before getting on the bus, as the bakeries opened at 7:00 am. I don't know how the guide managed it, but the bus picked us up before going to the bus station to get the rest of the passengers. It was a long bus ride through beautiful scenery and massive tunnels. Passing by the mist covered mountain slopes, one gets a sense of how the unique Chinese Landscape paintings originated. As we continued deeper into the mountains, tiny villages nestled themselves in the tight fitting valley bottoms.

Eventually we arrived at a town that I never learned the name of. It was cold, and I felt it more than most having come from Darwin, and ill-prepared for the brisk mountain air. It was still refreshing after the stifling city air of Shanghai and Hangzhou. After checking in, we sat down for a family-style lunch. All the plates of food are placed in the middle of the table on a lazy suzy. It requires patience and courtesy as you wait for each plate to make its way around the table.

Not one to waste a second, our guide took us out to an area called Valentine Valley, where part of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was filmed. The valley is a series of falls and pools connected by a footpath that wraps around. I broke off from the group as we all started to spread out, taking a "short cut" up .5 km of stairs. I was curious to find out what the next day would be like to as we went up the main mountain. It was possibly the wrong direction to go, as most people seemed to be heading the other way.

As I got to the top passing, near the Magpie Bridge, in the distance I could see something that looked like a bicycle on a high-wire. It turned out to be acrobats crossing. The timing worked out, because shortly they disappeared out of view.

Given the name of the valley, it would be expected that the valley was popular amongst couples. There were at least three couples having their photographs taken in wedding outfits. The costumes were all the same, which makes me suspect they were rented specifically for the photographs.

It was sad to be a spot meant specifically for couples and not have Jenni their to appreciate it with me. I could even hear her reminding me to put down my camera for a minute and enjoy it with her (thankfully).

The day ended with another family style meal. I warily tried everything. Having been sick in the last three countries we've visited in Asia has made me decide food is not my friend. Luckily I was alright throughout the trip.

I woke up the next day at 5:30 am to the sound of rain coming down hard; which did not bode well for our trip up to the Yellow Mountain. We walked to the bus station from our hotel, street sellers selling us ponchos along the way. This is something that has always amazed me - street sellers the world over always have a ready supply of whatever the unprepared tourist might need. At the station we were shuffled into the "foreign guest transfer channel" room. I'm not kidding, that's what the room was called. We didn't wait their long before we were put on the bus for the rough and winding ride up the mountain. Before you even ask, yes, I did get car sick. And luckily I didn't throw up.

Some of our group decided to walk up the 7.5 km staircase to the start, that is, the stairs before you get to the rest of the steps. I opted to take the cable car up, thinking it would leave more time at the top. Our guide said it would take them 2 1/5 hours, but they managed 1 1/2. At the top we did an 11km hike up and down steps, which did not include the extra 7 km up and 7 km down to the bus station.

The mountain was covered in clouds, and you could see little beyond a few hundred metres in front of you. Rather than detract from the experience, it enhanced it and added a bit of mystery to the place. I tried with the photos to imitate the style of some of the Chinese landscape paintings I saw, as it seemed so suitable.

After lunch we headed back to the stairs from our rest stop in small groups. Each of us as we went were acknowledged with a friendly "Hallo" from a group of Chinese hikers enjoying their reprieve in the same spot, showing off their English skills. Not to be outdone in a lack of bilingual ability, I responded to my "Hallo" with a light smile and a friendly "Ni Hao." They greeted this atonal attempt with polite laughter and applause. Mandarin is a tonal language, meaning different words might mean different things depending on which tone is used. So for all I know, I might have called them all horses.

On several occasions our progress was slowed by Chinese posing for photographs. It is usually entertaining to watch, as they are often very dramatic poses as if straight out of a silent movie or melodrama.

A tradition on the mountain, is for couples to place a padlock on one of the chains along the steps. Some of the locks had inscriptions on them, one was a bike lock. They are a symbol of the couple's bond and longevity....A cynic, of which I am clearly not, might call it a metaphor of the ball and chain...Had Jenni been there, you can guess that I would have put one there, but unfortunately, yet understandable, both members of the couple needed to be present.

There are a handful of, expensive, hotels and restaurants on the mountain. To get the supplies, from food, to pillows and sheets, they used porters. These porters ran up and down the stairs several times a day, carrying at least their own weight on their shoulders. Their calves were nothing but muscle, and possible could have carried the load by themselves.

We returned to the hotel by the bus, just in time for a nice hot shower.

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