An airport decision

An airport decision
Chengdu, China

Chengdu, China


She mentions it only once or twice, for the first time days earlier in Beijing, but in the interim the idea turns over in my brain. Kaili flies early this morning to meet her parents in Taipei tomorrow and will head home to Singapore from there. We stayed last night in the Chengdu airport complex to facilitate this. But I could fly with her. I’ve had an incredible journey here from Beijing and much of that can be attributed to Kaili. For one thing, she has guided us around China’s fascinating complexities and culinary highlights with great enthusiasm and it has all been hugely entertaining. I really do want to go with her. Furthermore, China is complicated. With Alex and Laurent now in Japan, the alternative is starting out alone. Even with Kaili’s Chinese cheat sheet I remain culturally and linguistically way out of my depth, a position I am still coming to terms with. A flight, though. I originally started out to make an overland trip wherever possible and although I knew I would have to fly at some stage, I’m sure it is achievable to get from Chengdu to Hong Kong, my visa exit point, overland. I have ten days left on my visa to do it. It might even be a bit of an adventure, too. Speaking of the visa, sacrificing almost half of it now seems like, well, taking an easy way out. If I had been following the ‘easy way’ around the world, I would have got on a plane in London instead of the Eurostar. Another fork in the trip, then. Inside the soulless airport terminal I finally make up my mind. I actually miss the clamour and chaos of a train station. I resolve (through gritted teeth) to continue overland through China alone. For her part, Kaili almost misses her flight since the booking agents neglected to book her onto it or even charge her after her order. Only the first example to date of an attentive Chinese customer service representative and a 6-legged / 4-wheeled dash across the terminal gets her on the plane. Actually, we are both privately hoping she doesn’t make it. During the crucial ticket reordering conversations, where flight and credit card details are being triple-checked and time is short, I want to blurt out diverting questions like: “What’s 19 divided by 3 times 16.8?” “What does this button do?” “Can she take 34 lemons onboard? Does your lemon policy differ to your position on other citrus fruits?” But Kaili has pressed a postcard into my hand and disappeared through security. I am out of there sharply. I have breakfast, finish the previous night’s sleep and bus into the city to retake my place among the overland travelling fraternity.


Advertisements

Xi’an – Chengdu

Xi'an – Chengdu
Chengdu, China

Chengdu, China


Dep Xi’an 06:19 Arr Chengdu 23:00 So what are an unkempt, golden-haired Westerner and a friendly Singaporean girl with impeachable Chinese doing together on Monday’s day train to Chengdu then? Those sharing our carriage appoint a smiling grandmother and her seven year-old grandson from the next set of bunks to find out. Whether we are swapping language lessons (Chinese for Spanish), eating or trying to photograph some wonderfully authentic riverside scenery before it vanishes behind trees and tunnels, Kaili and I are unceasingly interrupted by our curious carriage mates. Once Kaili translates them for me (often with unsuppressed amusement), the grandmother’s questions reveal that structured family life is her idea of personal success: Are Kaili and I married? Why not? Has Kaili been to my home village? Have I been to hers? Oh, and one that is apparently passed up from the other end of the carriage: why don’t I trim my beard? A picture of my family from my Granny’s 90th birthday earlier this year finally brings the curious but initially shy young boy out of his shell. He whisks the photo down the carriage to show his Mum, also onboard. I give him a British ten pence piece once he returns my phone. He holds on to the coin for an hour before he sets it down carefully on his bunk. “Your family is fair and very pretty.” With this approval from his grandmother, the boy (still too shy to tell us his name) moves on from keeping us topped up with sunflower seeds – as essential train fodder here as they are in Spain and Russia apparently – to practising his English. We launch into a version of Hangman and a ‘guess the flag’ game. Later he sets me indecipherable maths problems with increasing frustration at my apparent ineptitude. Once or twice he reaches out and idly strokes the hair on my arms or beard, as if to check it is actually real. After several consecutive early mornings, we attempt to sleep as the evening stretches on but – with his family also resting – the now bored and uninhibited youngster won’t leave us alone. He tickles my feet and tries to pull the covers off my couchette in a bid for attention. We leave the late-arriving train for a taxi ride on an expressway that cuts through a sea of brashly illuminated buildings to the airport. Chengdu. Our exhausted young friend holds his mother’s hand as he trudges ahead of us up the platform. We’ll never know if we’ve inspired him to keep practising his English.


Two nights in the Muslim Quarter

Two nights in the Muslim Quarter
Xi'an, China

Xi’an, China


With our two days in Xi’an filled with excursions, we barely have a few hours in the evenings to explore the city. Which is a shame. Xi’an contains an appealing contrast: its modern, purposeful bustle is squared off by the ancient city walls. It definitely warranted a full day in itself. However, we find the perfect evening activity to follow the day trips: the electrifying Muslim Quarter food market. The crowded alleyways are lined with stalls and small restaurants serving all manner of delicacies. Meat, whole crabs and seasoned squid on skewers flash past as we push through the throngs looking for snacks. The latter turns out to be delicious! Confectioners armed with huge wooden mallets pound sugared sesame into a tasty dessert, and dough hung from the stalls is stretched out into the alley. Amid the kitchen clamour, vendors loudly try to reel us in. In principle, we set out to find the wide, flat noodles particular to this area and the regional signature dish paomo. Paomo arrives very innocuously – it’s just a dough bun in a bowl. However, once we’ve shredded it into crumbs and returned it to the waiter, it reappears doused in a very tasty meat soup. Interactive and appetising! Stomachs filled with those and one or two other snacks, we can replenish our supplies for another day on the train south to Chengdu.


Mount Hua

Mount Hua
Xi'an, China

Xi’an, China


The Chinese tourist industry seems intent on employing as many people as possible. Attendants stand in front of automatic gates to feed the ticket through for you and more sit in pairs behind needlessly wide banks of ticket counters. To sustain this, affordable and independent routes to key attractions are despairingly convoluted, if at all available. So, once again I am indebted to Kaili, who debates, bargains and consults with the locals to guide us through three bus connections out of Xi’an to the temple marking the start of our 5-hour day trek to the North Peak of Mount Hua. Our steep hike will end at one of five peaks which represent a fairytale image of natural China. Indeed, Kaili grew up in Singapore with story books featuring the mountain. It is extremely humid and close at the bottom as we start the ascent. With time, the wide path becomes slippery narrow stairs and eventually a stone ladder for the final slog to the summit. We don’t complain though; on the way up we pass hardy porters with wooden poles across their shoulders, supporting huge containers of water, food and even an electric motor. Calves bulging, they take one slow step after another. The view once we get to the North Peak is breathtaking. The low-lying clouds, visible below us, gradually rise to enshroud the surrounding peaks as we eat a well-earned lunch. As our return cable car plunges into the clouds and we start the long trip back, I realise that I would definitely return one day to explore the other peaks and camp at the top to view sunrise and sunset. But that goes someway down a still very long bucket list! As the pictures will hopefully attest, the place is very worthy of those Singaporean fairytales, although editing out all of the shuttle buses at the beginning and end was probably a good call.


The warriors of terracotta

The warriors of terracotta
Xi'an, China

Xi’an, China


In 1974, a peasant sinking a well accidentally discovered the excavation site of Qin Shi Huang’s Terracotta Army. This was the first record of what already stands at over 1000 figures. So much remains unexcavated still. Set up ready for war, they boast an incredible amount of individual detail as they wait patiently for their chance to defend the Emperor in battle. While it is the breathtaking first pit where the scale of the findings can be appreciated, I am equally drawn to the site of a pit not yet excavated. Breaking in and introducing oxygen will immediately alter the pigment of the warriors underground, and no scientific solution has yet been found. One oddity: the site features a museum about the Terracotta Army museum. Seemingly installed to extole the virtues of the museum managing the excavation work, this museum’s boards enthusing about when the museum was opened and the rounds of awards and funding granted seem rather superfluous! The Emperor’s Mausoleum is off site. A stone plinth above a non-descript square, a visit does give us a free local guide who (with Kaili translating for my benefit) can provide some further background to what we’ve witnessed in the pits. Until he starts categorising local types of jade. Then it’s time to go back to the hostel! And the peasant? He still lives locally and offers guided tours around the site of his historic discovery.


Shanghai – Xi’an

Shanghai – Xi'an
Xi'an, China

Xi’an, China


Dep Shanghai 08:50 26th June Arr Xi’an 04:37 27th June We take our first ‘hard sleeper’ tickets to Xi’an. This involves a couchette in a partioned cabin, with six bunks to one section of the carriage. It’s a delightful place to people watch, and I have carte blanche since everyone stares at me all of the time anyway! Mostly the tables in the long corridor joining the bunks are filled with Ferrero Rocher. HAHA just kidding I mean instant noodles of course. The only drawback is the early arrival time into Xi’an, which sees us wandering around the streets by the city’s South Gate in the dark looking for our hostel after our taxi driver gives up.


Life on the Bund – Shanghai

Life on the Bund – Shanghai
Shanghai, China

Shanghai, China


The heavens open suddenly as we approach the street corner carts bearing fresh vegetables and a skewer-laden mobile barbeque. Kaili can’t complete our order as the vendors dash off to find some cover. A police van slowly follows them but I’m sure that was just a coincidence… I was undecided about a visit to Shanghai. In the end it’s a lack of available Beijing-Xi’an train tickets that means there is no other option. As it is, Shanghai is Alex and Laurent’s departure point from China. Kaili and I will continue on to Xi’an and then Chengdu. While our day and a half in this metropolis is certainly sufficient, it is a brilliant day and a half; it is fantastic to share Shanghai’s sophisticated brand of chaos with such wonderful travel buddies! We spend our days investigating the old city, surrounding the Yu Yuan gardens. We don’t bother with the pricey garden entrance fee but the ornamental teahouses, food stalls and a zigzagging bridge around it are great fun to explore. Taking advantage of a clear-ish evening, we watch the sun set over the skyscrapers of Pudong from a river-side bar. It is a spectacular scene that is well worth the £5 we each stump up for a pint. We amble back to the hostel past newly-married couples posing for wedding photos on the Bund. They must ignore the traffic and paparazzi tourists for their treasured snaps. Oh and the food… The first night, Kaili takes us to a tiny joint with only one dish – a typical Asian scenario. The local specialty – Xiao long bao, ravioli like dumplings -is what’s for dinner here. They are delicious and fun to scoff; first you balance one on a spoon, nibble a hole in the top and suck out the juice through it. Then you drop ginger stalks through the bite marks and devour instantly. We (only) order eighteen between four and I have to physically restrain myself from stealing food from my travel companions. And the other restaurant guests. On our final night, with the mobile barbeque carted away before our eyes and the rain beating down, we dive into the first place we set eyes on. Their specialty is swimming around in tubs outside. Once cooked, a tray of fresh, shrimp-like creatures is brought over to us in an incredible sauce unique to the little restaurant. The locals gawp, laugh and eventually help us get to grips with them before we round things off with another sleeper train shop. I’m really starting to like Asia.


Beijing – Shanghai

Beijing – Shanghai
Shanghai, China

Shanghai, China


Dep Beijing 19:00 23rd June Arr Shanghai 08:00 24th June Kaili, who speaks the language and has travelled in China before, guides 3 bewildered Western Europeans through Beijing station for our train to Shanghai. Alex, Laurent and I are wide-eyed. We let ourselves be directed through passport control, an airport-style luggage check and a body search just to get into the station, and then we flail about as Kaili swiftly decodes the chinese script indicating our waiting room, from which we can queue for the platform. All this amid a bustling throng of travellers sleeping on cases, pushing through the queues or buying last-minute supplies. By which I mean instant noodles, of course. The sleeper is divided into secure cabins much like the Russian trains. Onboard we chat, briefly explain our presence to curious locals and rest up ahead of our morning arrival in Shanghai.


Royal residences

Royal residences
Beijing, China

Beijing, China


My bid to understand the geography and history of China’s capital begins with the Forbidden City. The entry point is via Tian’nammen Square. The vast concrete expanse also houses Chairman Mao’s mausoleum and scammers, many of whom attempt unsuccessfully to cajole me into following them into teahouses or art galleries to spend much more than I would like. It takes me four hours to tour the colossal Imperial City site, planned to be the centre of the Chinese universe. This complex, harmoniously symmetrical by Ming dynasty standards, housed generations of emperors in luxury and excess, entirely disconnected from the realities of existence outside its walls. It is from Jingshan Park to the north that I get some perspective on the walled city amid modern Beijing’s sprawl. Later in the week Alex, Laurent and I tour the Summer Palace, where the imperial court would make camp in the cool air around the huge Kunming Lake during the summer. It is lavish and scenic, and we spend an enjoyable day passing between the parks, pavilions and temples.


Unforeseen delays

Unforeseen delays
Beijing, China

Beijing, China


After the return to Beijing from the Great Wall, I am wiped out for three days by a combination of the intense heat, my instant noodle diet and exhaustion. I am uncoordinated and sick, and not able to do much about it in my four-bed dorm other than drink water and stare at the curtains as unobtrusively as possible. Although very grim, my illness has at least allowed some of my old travel buddies, Kaili, Laurent and Alex to finish their Mongolian adventures and travel over to Beijing. It seems their onward travel plans now align with mine. The low point of the trip so far serves for something then!