Friday, 26 April 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Part 2d: Beijing (II)

world-map beijing

Greetings!

I hope everyone enjoyed my V-log midweek which brought you up to date with some of my more contemporary travels: a weekend’s camping with my son in the Welsh mountains. It was his first time camping and he absolutely loved every minute which makes me think that it won’t be the last. How about a series of posts entitled ‘Weekends in tent with a monster?’ Hmm… maybe. Until then, back to Beijing and a peek into a city which, apparently, is forbidden.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan (II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna

china02

21st July, 2002 – Beijing, China

And so 'twas our final day in China’s great capital city. We arose at an early hour in 'Famous Brand' and packed our bags before getting a taxi to take us across to Beijing West Railway Station from whence our train to Yinchuan would depart. On the way I photographed a few of the thousands of cyclists for which the city is world renowned, though to be fair, whilst they were numerous, there were far less on the streets than in the Netherlands or even Japan. As progress marches on, the car and motorbike will gradually replace the pushbike and perhaps in twenty years time, the bicycle will be as obsolete a symbol of China as the rickshaw now is of Japan.

Beijing West, being the city's second railway terminal, was not somewhere that I'd expected to be of note. What had happened is that over the years, rail traffic into the capital had increased by such a percentage that the original station could no longer handle the amount of trains coming in, and so this new one had been built the cope with the overfill; a sort of Milton Keynes of railway terminii as it were, hardly something for even a train freak like myself to get excited about. Approaching the district where it stood though, the Lowlander pointed out of the window and exclaimed, “What the hell is that?”

There on the skyline stood a building of Orwellian proportions. Around fifteen storeys high and topped by three giant pagodas, it was the Ministry of Truth meets Celestial Emperor's Palace.

“Dunno,” replied I, “some new ministerial building I guess, or an enormous office block.”

But on closer inspection this proved to be no office block, nor a house of the government, but instead the very railway station that we were headed for! Two gigantic clocks stood out on cantilevered limbs at either side, whilst our taxi drove up a ramp to the entrance. We were dumbfounded yet amazed. Beijing is a city built on an immense scale like no other on earth, yet even here, in this Land of the Giants, did the station seem huge and overpowering. It spoke the aspirations of it's designers well; a gateway to the new, developing and prosperous China. Modern and businesslike, yet at the same time showing respect for history and tradition. I liked it, as it was to me the natural descendent of the great railway terminii of London like St. Pancras, Kings Cross, Paddington or Victoria. Cathedrals of the new industrial age and bold statements of a faith in technology and the future. What a shame that we in the land where the railway train was born seem to have lost respect for our invention, and produce such pathetic glass, concrete and steel edifices.

beijing west Beijing West Railway Station

We locked our bags into the left luggage and checked the departures and layout of the place before heading out to see the sights. As I've already said, this was to be our last day in Beijing, possibly ever, and there was lots that we hadn't seen yet, including the city's foremost tourist attraction, and the place that we were now heading to, the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City confuses many by its name, since it's not actually forbidden in the slightest, but instead thronged with multitudes of sightseers from all over China and (like us) beyond. But the name is an apt one because for many years, (over five hundred of them in fact), forbidden it very much was. Originally established between 1406 and 1420 by Emperor Yongle, this is the palace from which the vast Chinese Empire was ruled, and in which a sizeable proportion of her wealth was spent, building new structures and keeping the Emperor's personal army of concubines and eunuchs in the lap of luxury. Despite its fame, importance and appearance though, the present buildings are not that old, fires and invasions having destroyed the originals, and nowadays what you see largely dates from the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, it's still a site to see, (or so they reckon), and so the Lowlander and I were soon queuing up for a ticket to do just that.

mao matt mao tom At the entrance to the Forbidden City with Mao

They say that the Forbidden City takes at least half a day to look round, but we did it in a couple of hours, being rather surprised when we got to the far end, (“I thought that it went on much further than this...”) That it is beautiful is without doubt, and that many of the carvings are exquisite is true also, but I for one felt that something was missing. Courtyard after courtyard, surrounded by well proportioned dark red buildings with graceful golden tiled roofs. Yes it was something special indeed, but to me it was not soothing or peaceful, even away from the hordes who thankfully seemed to stay in their groups only on the central path through the complex. Sat down playing backgammon in one of the smaller courtyards, I realised what the problem was; there was an abject lack of greenery. Even the gardens at the rear were as much stone as they were vegetation and throughout the whole palace, not a lawn was to be seen and few trees or water features also. Perhaps it was because as Europeans we're more used to our style of stately home, surrounded by acres of lush fields, woodland and vegetation, I know not, but the Lowlander and I, whilst enjoying Beijing's number one tourist site, came away feeling slightly down at heart, for not only had the greenery been lacking, but in quite a few places, it was obvious that the maintenance was too, and several of the courtyards were rather overgrown indeed.

forbidden city 1

forbidden city 2

forbidden city 3

forbidden city 4 forbidden city 5

forbidden city 6 The Forbidden City

Emerging onto the vast totalitarian expanse of Tiananmen Square, I wanted to join the queues and pay a visit the Mighty Mao who is lain out to rest in the 'Maoseleum' at the far end of the square. However, just a glance at the vast hordes waiting to see the Great Leader told us that with a train to catch several hours away, this might not be such a wise idea, as we'd probably still be queuing as our steed chugged out towards Yinchuan, so disappointed I turned about face and headed down into the depths of the Metro system to catch a train to Beijing West station. No Mao for me alas, but never fear, there was still Lenin waiting in Moscow!

Beijing's metro system was, I must admit, a bit of a disappointment to me. Communist underground railways are, I am told, Palaces of the People, full of murals of prosperous workers, mosaics of tractor plants and busts of great leaders, but this one was alas, as plain as its contemporaries in Tokyo and Rotterdam. What's more, it didn't really get you to many places. For a city of over twelve million, two lines is hardly sufficient and many important places are some distance from a stop, including Beijing West Railway Station. Certainly I hope that they improve things in preparation for the Olympic Games.

The stop nearest to Beijing West was Junshibowuguan, which was only a block away from the Mega Station that we were to depart from, so we took a train there intending to walk the rest. However, upon emerging from the depths of the earth, we noticed a huge Stalinist building across the road from us, topped by a gigantic red star. “I wonder what that place is?” I said, and after consulting the guidebook I discovered the answer to be the Junshibowuguan which had given the metro station its name. “But what's a Junshibowuguan?” asked the Lowlander. The guidebook soon revealed the answer to that too. 'Military Museum'; the place that details the history of the People's Liberation Army since its formation in 1927, and also many of the wars fought on Chinese soil throughout her long history. Well, we had an hour or two to spare, so why not sample a few bombs and guns?

I enjoyed this place. Although not really a militaristic kinda guy, I've always found pleasure in ogling a tank or two, and this place had lots of them, as well as planes, missiles and other military what-nots. What was best of all though was how it was all mixed in with some hard core propaganda with statues of leaders and tales of the evils of imperialists aplenty. I particularly enjoyed the piece on the Opium Wars which certainly did not paint a favourable picture of my home country, (although to be fair, we were pretty out of order on that one), and of course the depictions of battles with that evil of evils, the Kuomintang, from whom China was so thankfully (they said) liberated.

beijing tank In the Military Museum

We left the museum approximately half an hour before our train was due to depart, and made our way the short distance across the block to the railway station. Or at least, that's how it seemed on the map. In reality, this single block was over a kilometre long. That for me was the strangely disturbing thing about the Chinese capital. It is handsome, ordered and in many respects pleasant, yet its scale is so inhuman that I for one felt ill at ease there. Tiananmen Square can host well over a million, a block is a kilometre long... everything is huge! How ironic as well that one of the world's shortest races of people should have built it. Is it an inferiority complex?

Approaching that mammoth modern-day cathedral of the railway train we were more than a little surprised to see that instead of over an hour, the enormous clocks informed us that we had but fifteen minutes before our train departed. “I thought you said that we had plenty of time?” I asked the Lowlander. He looked at the watch that Chi had given us at the DMZ. According to that fine timepiece, we still had an hour and a half to spare. It had stopped once again! We quickened our pace into the building, wolfed down a take-away meal, collected our bags and joined the queue for the departure to Yinchuan.

train to yinchuan Boarding the train to Yinchuan

Boarding the train we discovered that hard sleeper meant six in a compartment, (not that they were really compartments, being open to the corridor), with bunks stacked on top of one another in piles of three. We parked our bags with difficulty on the already-crowded luggage rack and settled down for the ride. The train pulled out of Beijing West on time and threaded its way slowly through the suburbs of China's premier city. From the window a less glossy picture of the capital emerged; red brick slums reminiscent of Victorian England, a far cry from the plush apartments that we'd seen from the roads. Even these though, were far from being Third World standard. True they were small, far from new and not likely to win any architectural awards, but the vast majority were well-maintained and presentable. Beijing is not as rich as it initially appears, but on the other hand, it is far from poor too.

The city cleared but the train rumbled on, upwards into the mountains. For a while it followed a spectacular gorge with sheer cliffs and peaks that reached into the sky, like those on the Chinese ink prints of yore. The train popped in and out of tunnels and over girder bridges whilst on the river below a pleasure boat plied its trade.

Our travelling companions were many, with every bunk in the coach being taken. Close to us were a young student, a shy lady of around forty with a pretty face and her hair coiled in plaits at the back of her head, two young mothers and their daughters; a wide-eyed tot of around three clad in a traditional dress and a lively girl of around seven with pony tails and a cheeky grin. She amused herself by making monster faces at me and playing paper, scissors, stone. After that she decided to start giving me things, firstly a chocolate bar, then some peanuts and lastly some small prints of Buddhist gods and holy figures. I responded by buying her a yoghurt drink which she drank quickly after contemplating for around twenty minutes whether to accept it or not.

kid on train to yinchuan 

Fun and games on the train to Yinchuan

The scenery outside had now softened into a flatter landscape filled with heavy industrial plants, mines, red brick proletarian housing and vast collective farms. This was the China that I'd expected to find, a much larger Oriental Eastern Europe where those who toil reign supreme. Yet unlike the lands east of Austria, everything here still seemed to be functioning. It wasn't the flash and opulent world of Japan and South Korea, but it wasn't the desolate wasteland of the former Soviet bloc either. If anything, my impression was of another age, the time when my grandfather grew up when one worked hard and knew about industry and coal was king. And to complete the picture there was even the odd steam locomotive smoking away in a siding, ready to take a trainload of that essential black ore away to some unknown destination.

But this scene also lasted not. Very soon the factories and houses disappeared and we were trundling through a barren landscape in which one would more expect to find the Lone Ranger than Chairman Mao. A dusty plain stretching for miles with dry mountains in the distance. On the slopes of some of these were painted huge white characters, no doubt spelling out some enthusiastic message of proletarian achievement to the passing masses.

We retired to the dining car for backgammon and a meal of bony chicken. There we befriended the portly on train policeman, a jolly fellow who helped us decode the menu by mimicking the noises that each dish had made before it had been killed and cooked, (N.B. Yet another reason why meat-eating is preferable to vegetarianism; you can't do that with vegetables now, can you?). Later that evening, we met him again, drunk as a lord and eating with his colleagues. He greeted us with a hearty 'How do you do?!' before banging glasses and toasting our health in Mandarin.

Just after the stop at Datong, the sky grew dark and we busied ourselves with books and backgammon in-between toasts with the pissed policeman. We asked to take his photo, but he stoutly refused. I assume that the reason behind it is that drinking on duty is strictly prohibited.

Next part: 2e: Yinchuan (I)

Sunday, 21 April 2013

V-log 2: Llangelynin


Greetings!

I took my son on his first-ever camping trip this weekend and whilst romping around the wilds of Snowdonia, we visited Llangelynin, a remote 12th century church found by one St. Celynin, with a holy well in the churchyard.Such wells are a potent feature of the spiritual life of Wales - and many other places - and I always enjoy seeking them out. What I love most is the way in which religion and spirituality have interacted with the local culture to create a spot which is truly incredible. The pre-Christians Pagans in Britain used to say that there were 'thin places' where the fog between our world and the next almost clears, places on the edge of our reality, a halfway house between this realm and the other. Llangelynin, situated at the end of a tiny dead-end lane, the coastal plain and rolling hills below it and the rugged rocky peaks of the Cambrian Mountains above is one such place and being there caused me to make this short video musing on the interaction of religion and culture which so many people deem to be a bad thing, and the joy of seeking out such ancient holy places where prayer impregnates the very stones.

All of which is well and good. However, is it quite so wise to bring a five-year old assistant with you...?



Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt


Check out all my V-logs!

Friday, 19 April 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Part 2c: The Great Wall of China

world-map beijing

Greetings!

In this week’s extract, I get to visit one of the most famous sites of them all… and rediscover why travelling in an organised group is really not a very good idea at all.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan (II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna

china02

20th July, 2002 – Beijing, China

The Lowlander does not do organised group tours. “If I had to go on one of those coach holidays to the Rhine,” he once said, “I think I would kill myself.”

I do not do organised group tours. The last time that I went on one was in Spain with my mother. We went to a monastery. That was ok. Except that because our two coaches were there, and several others as well, it was very busy. And monasteries are all about peace and serenity. Plus, on the way back, we had to listen to the commentary. Firstly in English (ok), then in Spanish (fair enough), then German (Mein Gott!) in French (Excusez moi?) and finally in Dutch (lekker... not!). And after but an hour or two at the monastery, there was an uncalled for visit to a souvenir emporium, a trip to a winery (never asked for that one either, and there was only one free glass!), and the obligatory meal at a restaurant that would undoubtedly go out of business if it weren't for the tour groups, since I doubt that anyone would ever actually choose to dine there. And all this, for a highly-inflated price.

That's why we don't do organised tour groups.

So why were we both sat at the back of a bus that morning, listening to a tour guide's fascinating commentary... in Chinese?

The fact is, if you go to China, the one sight that you really can't miss is the Great Wall. It's like a eating a Sunday Dinner but leaving the roast beef, (vegetarians, don't start...). Problem was, that seeing the Wall is not easy. Possible yes, but time consuming and an all round pain. Unless of course, you book yourself on an organised group tour. And we, with limited time to spare, well what choice did we have? So there we sat, like the two bad boys at the back of the coach on the primary school trip to the swimming baths, listening to our guide witter on in Mandarin.

'Mandarin?!' you exclaim. 'But why ever did you not book yourselves onto a tour in English, or even Dutch?' Oh, but we did. 'Full commentary in English and Chinese' said the blurb that the travel agent in Beijing railway station handed us. Sounded good. But what exactly did they mean by 'Full commentary in English and Chinese'? Well, we soon found out. About ten minutes solid of Mandarin, punctuated by a brief, 'We are now passing Lama Temple on left. This is temple of religion of Xisang or Tibet,' before it was back into Mao-speak. Except of course, that at that moment we weren't passing any Lama Temple at all, since we'd already done that when she'd been announcing exactly the same thing in her native tongue. No, the commentary was a complete waste of time, and indeed the only bit that I remembered was when she announced who we had on the bus.

“Today we have many tourist from all around the world and China. We have foreigner from America, Singapore, Britain and the Netherlands, and people from many Chinese province such as Guangdong, Hubei, Manchuria, Shaaxi and Taiwan.” The Chinese province of Taiwan. Hilarious!

Our bus pulled up outside a large building that looked disturbingly unlike a Great Wall or Ming Tomb; the only two stops mentioned on our itinerary. “Where's this?” I asked our guide to all things touristy.

“This is jade factory. Here you can see them making the jade jewellery.”

And more importantly, buy the stuff too. The place was more like a hypermarket for green stone trinkets than any factory that I've ever seen. We were not impressed. Thankfully, they served free tea, so we bought some noodles since we were famished after having woken up at a ridiculously early hour, gone without breakfast and then sat on the bus for over an hour whilst they did the rounds of countless hotels more expensive than ours. And so we sat, supped and slurped, and bought not one bit of jade, and yes, made the guide wait until we'd finished.

The next stop however, was the real thing. We knew that since the bus actually passed through a special bus-sized gateway in the wall first, (how foresighted those ancient emperors had been), before entering into what looked like a mass meeting for bus rights in China. Coaches of all shapes, sizes and colours crammed onto an expanse of tarmac. It was the car park.

And so we alighted into a seething mass of tourists, brightly-clad dancers, musicians playing annoying traditional music, and hawkers yelling “Hello T-shirt!” It was overwhelming, but never to fear, our trusty guide led us through the massed throngs to a ticket office. “Queue here,” she said. The price was Y25.

“Wait a minute,” said I to my comrade from a below-sea-level town. “Wasn't the entrance fee included in the tour package.”

“That's what the guy in the travel agent said.” The American in our group, a pleasant, mild-mannered businessman, agreed too.

“Excuse me,” I said, (just remembering to omit 'miss'). “But haven't we already paid to get onto the Wall?”

“Well...”

“Well?”

“Well yes, you paid in the tour price.”

“So what's this for then?”

“The sliding cars.”

Sliding cars? What bloody sliding cars? We'd come here to see a world famous historical monument, not to play at being Nigel sodding Mansell! “But I don't want to go on the sliding cars!”

I was confronted by a glare that said, 'How dare you defy me impudent foreign devil? Nobody questions the wisdom of a trip on the sliding cars!'

“But the group is going on the sliding cars,” said she.

“But we are not!” replied the Lowlander. “Can we have our Great Wall tickets please?”

And so we never did slide on those cars, but to be honest, I don't regret it. Instead we walked the Badaling section of the Wall as far as they would allow us to, and that done, we walked back. And not only was that cheaper than the sliding cars, but it was also healthier and damn good fun.

Most people that you talk to, advise steering clear of Badaling with its tourist mecca by the entrance, and to be honest, you can see why. However, both the Lowlander and I do not really agree. Despite the huge numbers of visitors, Badaling is still one of the most complete sections of the Wall, restored in full, so you can really get a taste of what it had once been like in its Ming Dynasty (I think) heyday. Yet if you do desire a bit of peace and quiet, and a taste of the rugged Wall, then just walk less than a kilometre from the sliding cars and 'Hello T-shirt' stalls, and there you'll find it. A ruined Wall and not a soul in sight, the majority of tourists not bothering to walk any length of the structure at all. And as for all the in yer face tourist kitsch by the car park, well, that's got to be seen to be believed. No, here we got the best of both worlds, which we wouldn't have had had we booked on a trip to a more remote spot. So all I say, is don't knock it until you've tried it.

badaling 01 Badaling

Actually, it's quite fair to say that we both really enjoyed our Great Wall experience. The Wall is remarkable in its construction, its gradients (Jesus, it's steep!), and the surrounding scenery is breathtaking. What's more, at the far end where it fell into ruin, it was quite atmospheric and tranquil, and we descended down the countless steps back to 'Hello T-shirt' Land, contented gents indeed.

badaling 02

The Great Wall: steep

We still had a little time before the rest of our group returned from their guide-orchestrated succession of over-priced pleasures, so we decided to investigate an interesting-looking site just off the main complex that the Lowlander had spotted when we were up on the Wall. It turned out to be some sort of deserted Great Wall Funland, with mock plastic fortifications fading in the sunlight away from today's tourist. And it proved of course that history is forever moving, always moving, always creating and destroying. This was the previous generation's contribution to the Great Wall story. Not the finest maybe, but a contribution nonetheless.

badaling 06 The Great Wall: either you like it…

badaling 05 …or you don’t.

Lunch was of course, included in the price and I'll own that on this count at least there were no complaints from the Pointon quarter. A fine banquet spread of Chinese fayre was laid on, which we shared with the rest of our round table, all fellow bus travellers, all Chinese and all alas, completely devoid of English language skills. We did however, manage to have some fun with one of our fellow sightseers, making monster faces and thus friends with a cute younger member of the crew.

After dinner however, our tour-going gripes continued, since even though we were forced out of the dining room at an allotted time, and the bus was but a two minute walk away, our sage tour organisers had allowed us an hour and a half to make the trek. The reason behind that though was sadly oh too obvious, for that short walk to our mode of transportation was through the Friendship Store, a vast emporium of tack, both cheap and expensive, for tourists of all nations. From scrolls to dolls, silk to jade and fans to drinks cans it was all there, and thankfully we had plenty of time to buy it. To be fair though, I was glad of the opportunity in one respect. My mother collects dolls from abroad and I hadn't managed to get her a Chinese one yet, and so I coolly accomplished the task in the Friendship Store, but that little job took but fifteen minutes at most and for the rest of the time we just waited.

And it was just that waiting that pissed off both me and my companion from a more horizontal place. Around an hour or so at the jade place, another hour and a half here and it was a similar story later on at a Chinese Herbal Medicine Centre that we also hadn't asked to visit. If we'd have just gone to the Wall and Tombs, and then straight back without all this money making crap, then we'd have had time to visit the Lama Temple, or Summer Palace; sights that we wanted to see but hadn't the time to. But alas, we were straightjacketed by the bloody tour, and so we never got to see either. Still, looking on the bright side of a bad situation, (as one often must if one is a Stoke City supporter), at least this was for us a one-off. Oh, how I pity those poor folk for whom such tours constitute their annual holidays!

Back on the bus going towards the Ming Tombs, we struck up a conversation and friendship with the mother of the monster face's kid. That six-year old girl's named turned out to be the rather surprising title of 'Email'. The educated Chinese have a strange habit of picking for themselves an 'English name' because their real names are deemed to be unpronounceable by Westerners. We encountered quite a few of these on our travels, particularly here in the Eastern half of the country, but none so hilarious as 'Email'. Quite why a mother would consider 'Email' to be a beautiful name for her offspring I know not, but I for one was inspired. When I decide to start a family it'll be 'Hard Drive' for the boy, (masculine or what?), and 'Homepage' for the girl (the domestic instinct you see). Not only that, but then her initials will be 'H.P', which is of course also a famous brand of ketchup (now what about that as a middle name?) and what more could one want in a name than that?

Our Email turned out to be from Shenzhen, the ultra-rich Chinese Special Economic Zone adjacent to Hong Kong, and it was obvious that this one-child family were a model of the new Chinese prosperity. Loaded or not, she was a nice kid and I was soon busy teaching her and her ten year-old playmate George, papers scissors stone; how to touch the tip of your nose with your tongue and that age-old and ever-popular trick with the kids, turning one's eyelids inside-out.

email Email meets Snail mail

Typically modern China Email might have been, but George was not since the young lady with him turned out to be not his mother, but his sister. “But how did you get past the one-child policy?” I asked.

“Because we're from Taiwan,” she replied. “This is our first time in China too. We're here to see our homeland.” Taiwanese visitors to the People’s Republic are now welcome, but it's not easy. George and his sister had to go first to Hong Kong, and then apply for a special passport for 'Residents of China's Taiwan Province'; their international ones, like the country itself, not being recognised by the Chinese government. “Do you think that perhaps one day Taiwan shall rejoin China?” I asked, eager to hear an insiders opinion on the China-Taiwan debate.

“Well, looking at how Hong Kong has turned out, I don't think that it would really damage us economically. There's not the big economic difference that there used to be. But it won't happen for some time. Our politicians have their own agendas and many people still mistrust the communists. But as for me, well, why not give it a chance?”

email and george At the Ming Tombs, left to right: Email’s mum, Email, George’s sister, George, the Lowlander and me

The Ming Tombs were for me, a bit of a disappointment. For a start they were crammed with people, and on top of that they were but tombs; white chambers underground with not a lot inside them. I spent most of the time playing with Email and talking to George's sister, whilst jostling with the masses.

ming tombs1 

The Ming Tombs: busy

And after that, it was more pointless waiting around at a Herbal Medicine Centre, where a doctor examined me, informed me that I liked food too much and exercise too little, and proscribed herbal remedies costing a hundred euros, and then doing the rounds of the hotels once more, since first on obviously meant last off too. Oh well, it hadn't been a bad day all in all, after all how often do you see a world famous monument and meet a kid named after an electronic postal service? But we were glad that our tour was over and we wouldn't be answerable to a guide with a penchant for jade, sliding cars and herbal remedies ever again in our lives!

But of course, whilst the tour had finished, the day itself was far from over, for the elusive Ryan had phoned late the previous evening when he'd got back to his hotel, and we had organised to meet up, so after freshening ourselves up after the rigours of a day on the Wall, we took a taxi back through the smart streets of Beijing to meet our American.

Ryan Poindexter was much as I remembered him to be, but that was hardly surprising since it was only two weeks since we'd last met up anyway. He too was enjoying the China Experience, having done the Ming Tombs (yeah, he thought they were crap too), the Wall (a quieter bit mind), Summer Palace and Forbidden City already. And like us, enjoying it all so much, he promptly agreed that it was a great idea to get as far away from any vestiges of the Middle Kingdom by going to a Turkish/ Middle Eastern restaurant to dine, thus immersing ourselves in a rather different Eastern culture to the one that surrounded us. To the Lowlander and I, the falafels, pita and humus were all rather familiar fayre, after our time spent in the Holy Land, but the stunningly beautiful belly dancers were not. One, who looked the spitting image of a Bulgarian friend of mine, was especially attractive, so I asked where she was from, but a received a disappointing reply; she hailed from the wrong end of the Black Sea, Azerbaijan, not the Balkans.

And after that it was onto an Irish bar where we quaffed ales, (boy, was I out of practice), talked travel and watched a laughably awful Chinese group who sang in a sort-of English and thought that they were the Beatles. All good stuff anyway, and a fine end to a long Beijing day.

ryan drinks Drinks with Ryan

Next part: 2d: Beijing (III)

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Across Asia With A Lowlander: Part 2b: Beijing (I)

world-map beijing

Greetings!

Another week and another first for UTM, this time my V-log on countries that aren’t really countries. As I said when I posted it, I hope for this to become a regular series on various travel-related themes, (non-geographic specific), and subjects that I’m currently mulling over are guidebooks, what to pack (and what not), travel reading, travel viewing, why I love travelling by train, red tourism and travelling as a pilgrim. However, when they’ll appear is anyone’s guess.

The other big news is that I have finally finished my Ukraine, Moldova and Romania travelogue this week which will be posted after Across Asia With A Lowlander has been put up as the two are in many ways connected, the new travelogue being a (decade too late) completion of the old one.

But for now, back to that old one, and this week the Lowlander and I hit the Chinese capital where we manager to meet up with an old friend; remember Ryan from the trip to Hong Kong and the Philippines? Well, now he’s in Beijing… or is he?

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan (II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna

china02

beijingmap

19th July, 2002 – Beijing, China

When did one day end and the new one begin? Anyone, whose ever spent a night trying to sleep in a seat on a bus, plane, boat or train, will know that it is hard to tell, since proper, refreshing sleep is alas but a dream. I was however, one of the lucky ones. I got some slumber that night, and when I groggily awoke the early morning light revealed a monotonous flat landscape of red-brick industrial towns, dominated by the terraces of the proletariat and the smoke stacks of their places of employment. This was Maoland but after a lack of proper sleep, and only disgusting fayre on offer in the restaurant car. And it was in there that the misery and humiliation was piled on. “I didn’t sleep,” said the Droll Dutchman.

“I did,” replied the misty-eyed Midlander.

“I know.” He paused. “You snored.”

“Oh.”

“And drooled.”

Big “Oh.”

“It was disgusting.”

Beijing is a strange city. Although its population is just under thirteen million, it comes up on you all of a sudden. One minute it’s flat fields of grain, and then you’re smack in the middle of a sea of apartment blocks, with everyone preparing to alight at the soon-to-be-reached main station. Perhaps it’s because all the buildings are so huge, that it doesn’t take up a large land area. The Chinese capital is built on an immense scale that dwarfs even a tall Dutchman and rotund Englishman; veritably a city for giants. We went to the tourist desk and located a reasonable hotel, (the incongruously named ‘China’s Famous Brand Hotel’), which on the map was clearly just around the corner. We decided to walk, and the true scale of the city was revealed. After fifteen minutes, we seemed to have made very little progress indeed, and so hailed a taxi for the rest of the way. At first though, they were unsure as to where it was. At only thirteen storeys high it is far too insignificant to feature on most maps or in guidebooks. ‘Famous Brand’ it might have been. But obviously not that famous.

We showered and freshened up, and then set off for the wider world. Following our ticketing difficulties at Qingdao, we decided to try and sort our carriage onwards out as soon as we could, and so returned to the vast station to talk to the ticket man. Alas though, even our admirable foresightedness was not enough here.

“Shanghai? No sleepers to Shanghai on the twenty-first.”

“The twenty-second?”

“No.”

“Twenty-third?”

“No.”

It turned out that there was no sleeper to Shanghai for over a week, and we’d even have to depart a day later than we’d scheduled for a hard seat. And after our last trip in one of those, even that did not sound like a tempting prospect. Hmm… Perhaps we would have to alter our plan of going to Shanghai, Nanking, Wuhan and the Three Gorges Dam. Radically. We left the confines of the rail terminal without a ticket and with our nice schedule in tatters. This needed some thinking about, and such thinking takes time.

Whilst considering our future, we decided to do some sightseeing. No, correction, I decided to do some sightseeing, and the Lowlander didn’t object. I am sorry to say that I can be a bossy little bastard at times, and now was one of them. The thing was, we were in Beijing, and if there was one place in China that I wanted to see, it was here, but a short metro ride away.

Yes indeed. Some come for the temples, some for the Wall, some even for the food. But as I’ve said in great detail before, my object in visiting China was something different. I’m as red a tourist as one could ever hope to find, and for the seeker of socialism there are many shrines in that vast Empire of the People. But of them all, there is one, perhaps only second in the world on the Marxist’s Must-See List, right in the heart of the city. It’s the place where Mao declared the People’s Republic, the Congresses meet, the Great Leader is laid out, where the people protested against the Gang of Four and where the deviationists were gunned down. Yes indeed, if there is one place that sums up the history of the Communism’s greatest bastion, it is of course that vast expanse by the Forbidden City known to all as Tiananmen Square.

And as we emerged into the sunlight from the Tiananmendong metro station, there it was. Vast, no, vaster than vaster. An enormous expanse of grey stone, large enough to accommodate a million souls they say, flanked on one side by the Great Hall of the People where the decision-makers meet, and on the other by the colonnaded Zhongguo Lishi Bowuguan (National Museum of Chinese History).

tianemon02 Tiananmen Square

And there behind me was the magnificent Gate of Heavenly Peace from which the square gets its name, (‘Man’ means ‘gate’, and ‘Tian’ is ‘heaven’), complete with its huge portrait of the man himself, Mao Tse Tung. Oh, how hard is his legacy to define?! Murderer of millions, or Mentor of the Masses. The man who fought, and against all the odds, won, the Kuomintang. The man who established the People’s Republic of China out of the ashes of the Second World War, and the man who did what few others could do: Kept that huge entity together. He too was the man who transformed that poverty-stricken country into a modern state, leaving it with order, industry, a communication system and the nuclear bomb by the time that he died. Yet that is but one side of the story. He too began the repression with the Hundred Flowers Campaign, caused great hardship (yet boosted production) with the Great Leap Forward, split with his greatest ally, the Soviet Union and then presided over what has come to be seen as one of the greatest catastrophes to befall China in her long, long history; the Cultural Revolution. For fourteen long years, the Red Guards plundered and wreaked havoc, the intellectuals died and anyone not wearing a badge of the Great Leader or found reading a book by an author other than He, was in big, big trouble. The economy halted, priceless historical sites were destroyed, a generation murdered and another brainwashed, and the considerable early achievements of the People’s Republic left in tatters. But how much was it due to him? Did he plan it all, or did it just get out of hand? How do we view what he has left us? Was he the monster that the West portrayed, or was he the benevolent genius of the Little Red Book? Who knows? I don’t know enough to say, although the best assessment seems to come from the Chinese government themselves who, instead of deifying their hero, take a somewhat mixed approach. The ‘Seventy-Thirty’ is what they call it. How they reached those figures I’ll never know, but to me they sound about right. Chairman Mao was well-intentioned and heroic, but he was also human, and humans make mistakes. Overall, he was about seventy percent correct, and thirty percent wrong. One can argue about the figures, but to me it sounds a lot better than the attitudes found in Eastern Europe for example, where the Communists were either unadulterated villains who raped the country, or esteemed heroes who gave today’s Ruritanias everything that they have today.

tianemon03 Where’s this Mao fellow then?

Well, whatever his legacy might be, I for one couldn’t resist it. I’ve always been one for a large dollop of totalitarian architecture, and let’s be honest, Tiananmen Square is the largest dollop on earth. The Lowlander and I wandered over those hallowed stones, taking photos by monuments of happy workers, brave soldiers, mausoleums and red-starred buildings, before heading to the stalls just off main square, and stocking up on Little Red Books, Mao badges and calendars of Revolutionary Generals. The fact is, like it or not, there is one thing that you must admit. The communists have style, more than any wishy-washy democracy anyway, and here was my opportunity to take a little piece of that style back home to my mantelpiece.

tianemon01 You say you want a revolution…

Not having had enough of all the Dictatorship of the Proletariat stuff, we then made our way to the Great Hall of the People, (the Maosoleum being alas, closed in the afternoons), where Party Congresses are held, and where the famous Great Hall with its red star ceiling can be found. And this detour, was not one that we humble members of the international proletariat revelled in.

little red book Reading Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book

Actually, even for those not totalitarianly-inclined, the Great Hall of the People is a place well worth seeing. Each province has a chamber, decorated with objets d’art and the handiwork of the nation’s finest post-war craftsmen and artists. And then of course there’s the Hall itself. Vast, enchanting and instantly recognisable after all its TV appearances. What the Lowlander and I enjoyed most though, were the opportunities for silly and rather immature photographs. What better than a Dutchman taking a great leap on a red carpet by a sign marked ‘Forward!’ Or how about an Englishman reading a Little Red Book, by a big red star, on a very red carpet and wearing red and stripes? Well, we thought it was funny anyway.

Perhaps you had to be there?

great leap forward Great Leap Forward!

Back at the station, we located a travel agent who somehow could get tickets that the booking office could not. Nonetheless, he was still unable to help us with our Shanghai request, and so instead we decided to scrap the whole idea of heading down the Yangtse, (‘well, everyone does it you know darling, so au fait), and instead to head straight across Northern China to the provincial city of Yinchuan in Ningxia Province. Ok, so we’d never heard of it, but we were getting a little fed up of big places, and it was in the direction that we needed to head. And so it was set, and exhausted, we returned to our hotels.

tianemon04 Tiananmen Square: A great place to do gymnastics!

Our day was not yet done though. Back in Japan, a fellow teacher friend of mine, Ryan from Iowa, (readers of my Philippines travelogue may remember that he put up with me for two weeks there), informed me that he would be in Beijing that day, and that to me, was too good an opportunity to miss. He left the address of his hotel on the Internet so we hired a taxi and set out to find it.

Driving through the vast Chinese capital at night, it was clear just how much the city had moved forward in recent years. Wide, well-maintained highways were flanked by plush new hotels and office blocks, all looking forward to a great new era in Chinese history. Ryan’s hotel, whilst new, was smaller and sadly Ryanless. We left a message and went to dine on Chinese specialties at a nearby restaurant, (which had the most amazing teapots, with a metre-long spout!), and returned afterwards, but alas, our American comrade was still nowhere to be found. Oh well, maybe tomorrow, and besides, it was probably for the best as we were both ready to drop off to sleep, and so we took a taxi back to the (Not-so) Famous Brand Hotel and did exactly that.

Next part: 2c: Beijing (II)

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Across Asia With a Lowlander: Part 2a: Qingdao

world-map qingdao

Greetings!

This week’s posting is a day early since I’m off to Walsingham this weekend and so I need to be away from the computer for a few days. However, whilst I’m with Our Lady, you can be reading all about the time that the Lowlander and I sailed to China…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of the travelogue

Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea

1a: Toyama to Pusan

1b: Pusan

1c: Seoul

1d: The DMZ

1e: Seoul, Incheon and Across the Yellow Sea

Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China

2a: Qingdao

2b: Beijing (I)

2c: Beijing (II)

2d: Beijing (III)

2e: Yinchuan (I)

2f: Yinchuan(II)

2g: Lanzhou

2h: Bingling-si

2i: Xiahe

2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan

2k: Jiayuguan

2l: Dunhuang

2m: Urumqi (I)

2n: Urumqi (II)

2o: Urumqi (III)

Book 3: Steppe to the Left, Steppe to the Right…

3a: Druzhba to Almaty

3b: Shumkent to Tashkent

3c: Tashkent (I) 

3d: Bukhara

3e: Bukhara to Samarkand

3f: Samarkand

3g: Samarkand to Urgench

3h: Khiva

3i: Tashkent (II)

3j: Tashkent to Moscow

3k: Moscow (I)

3l: Moscow (II)

3m: Moscow (III)

3n: Konotop to Varna

china01

qingdao 

BOOK II

Master Potter does Fine China

(Or the accounts of a Midlander in a Middle Kingdom)

18th July, 2002 – Qingdao, China

Early morning afloat revealed a surprise. Opening curtains to our little porthole, we saw not the endless expanse of ocean that we'd expected, but instead a nearby shore, lined with skyscrapers and other lesser structures.

qingdao01 Chinese dawn

“But we're not meant to arrive for another two hours,” said the Lowlander.

“Perhaps the boat follows the shore for some distance, and this is not Qingdao?” suggested I.

But no, this was our city of destination, and half an hour later we were descending the staircase towards the dry land of China, a little unprepared and ahead of schedule.

china visa

Going through the customs and in the taxi into the town, I scanned the passing scenery eagerly, anxious to register my first impressions of this vast country. More than most places that I've had the good fortune to visit, I was curious. What exactly is China like? Rich, poor, totalitarian and oppressed, or free and easy? Considering its vast size we do hear remarkably little about it, but there again, perhaps that is intentional? All I knew is that it had been very poor but is now supposed to be getting very rich, very quickly. This wealth however was not being spread out too much, the cities of the Eastern Seaboard doing very well, whereas the West is lagging behind. Or at least that is what the sages in the world's current affairs periodicals tell us. Well, Qingdao being a port, definitely falls into the Eastern Seaboard category, but even so I knew not what to expect. Is it rich like Japan or South Korea, or just rich when compared with the Third World? And rich in what way? A brash, bold and untidy wealth, such as unbridle capitalism tends to produce, or a regimented, sterile and ordered prosperity such as old Mao would approve of? I was eager to find out.

My first glances told a mixed story. The port, with its grand yet shabby customs facilities was something straight out of the Eastern Bloc, yet as we drove into town in our Volkswagen taxi, we were in a city more akin to Seoul than Sofia. Brash advertising hoardings and boastful towers of commerce sprung up on both sides, and the pavements were peopled by men and women as smart and fashionable as their counterparts on the streets of Pusan and Osaka. Yet at the same time, this wasn't Korea or Japan, and underneath it all a redbrick and concrete block uniformity that smacked of Stalin was omnipresent. No, this was no Korea. That's because it was China.

The taxi dropped us and our baggage off as requested in the large square by the city's railway station. We'd decided beforehand to book our tickets onwards to Beijing first, and dump our baggage in the left luggage at the station, before embarking of the coastal city unencumbered and with a firm knowledge of how much time we had. Actually doing so however, proved to be far more difficult than we'd anticipated, as it soon became obvious that in China one cannot just turn up at the booking office and purchase a ticket for the next train.

“To Beijing? No, it's full.”

“What time is the train with free seats?”

(All this was being done, by the way, via phrases from the guide and phrase books, jotted down in the KFC across the road, before we'd entered the confines of the station).

“Nine at night.”

“Ok, two soft sleeper tickets.”

(In China there are two classes of sleeper, hard and soft. We thought that the latter sounded better).

“There are no soft sleeper tickets left.”

“Ok, then two hard sleeper tickets please.”

“No hard sleeper tickets left.”

“Oh. When is there a train with sleeper tickets?”

“Two days time.”

“Ok then, two soft seat tickets please.”

(Like the sleepers, you can get hard or soft seats).

“No soft seats.”

“Two hard seats then.”

“Ok.”

Hmm, that would mean travelling through the night to Beijing, (which was thirteen hours away), on a hard seat; a prospect that sounded far from inviting, but there was nothing for it. And looking on the bright side, at least we'd be saving money.

Tickets done, we went to stow our bags which would hopefully be an easier task to accomplish. Before committing my rucksack to the nice man at the left luggage counter however, I moved over to a dark corner to take out my money and guidebook. About to put my bag down, I was halted by a loud “Stop!” from the Lowlander.

“What?” I asked, somewhat perplexed.

“Look at the floor!” I did as commanded, only to find that every corner or niche, including that where I was about to put my bag, was covered with spittle. It was truly a most disgusting spectacle.

“I heard about that habit before I came here,” spoke my Dutch comrade in travels. “They spit in every corner they find.” Flob-covered baggage avoided, I moved to a more open place, and extracted my essentials, before committing the bags to a day of confinement in a metal locker, and heading out into the open, ready to explore the great Chinese metropolis of Qingdao.

Whoa! Wait a minute! What's this about a 'great metropolis'? Qingdao? Never even heard of the place myself; it can't be that great, surely? And to be a metropolis, well, you have to have a fair few people I reckon. We too, it must be admitted, had never even heard of the place either, yet a quick look at the guidebook told us that we perhaps should have. Qingdao, population 6,954,400. Wait a minute! That's seven million, that's bloody huge! That's bigger than any city in Europe barring London, Paris, Istanbul and Moscow! It's bigger that virtually every city in North America too, and far surpasses anything that Australasia has to offer. But there again, that's China; a country that the modern Westerner knows so little about, that a metropolis of seven million can be easily missed. In fact, who reading this can name more than four Chinese cities? Not many I imagine, and I doubt not that twelve million strong Tianjin is not in the list that you came up with.

Qingdao is not only big however. To the Chinese it is also very famous as an urban holiday resort and the home of the country's favourite brew Tsingtao, (an old spelling of 'Qingdao'). Its main claim to fame however, is not as a centre of Oriental ale production, but instead that during the nineteenth century, it was Germany's Treaty Port on the Yellow Sea, ( it was them that established the brewery by the way), and more than a few Teutonic traces remain, particularly in the city's architecture, making it the ideal place for those Chinese who fancy a bit of European culture to head for.

qingdao03

China… or Germany?

And indeed, sampling it they were. Large parties of schoolchildren were being assembled into orderly lines by harassed teachers who were anxious that they notice the railway station's Bavarian flavour. We however, had come to see China, not Hanover, and so we didn't stay around to watch, instead heading towards the bank to change some money.

qingdao02 Schoolchildren on a trip to Qingdao

We got our yuan without any hassle at an extremely plush bank and then set out, not for the tourist sites, but rather strangely, the post office. But there again, perhaps not that strangely. After all, we’d arrived safely in a new country, and were now deep within the scary unknown red bosom of the People’s Republic. Was it not right to tell the world that all was not evil and that we were safe and sound? That’s what we reckoned anyway, plus getting rid of some of the junk that we’d acquired in Korea might not be a bad idea too, so that’s what we did, and I must admit rather enjoying trying to get across to the friendly postal staff what we wanted to send and where we wanted to send it to.

Qingdao, despite being a hugely popular tourist resort, is not over endowed with sights to see, or at least, not sights of a non-German origin, most folks coming purely for the beaches. Well, that’s the impression that we got anyway as we passed bathing beaches numbers six, one, two and three, (Oh, how romantic the Chinese are with their names!), in our taxi en route to the only site that interested us; Zhanshan Si, a Tiantai Buddhist temple with, (according to the guidebook), twenty monks in residence. Not that it is that remarkable a place mind, it was only built in 1934, and so can hardly be listed in the ‘ancient’ category, but this was China, and in China seeing temples is a tourist must. Besides, I’d never been in a Tiantai, (whatever that means, I never found out from the visit), temple, or indeed any temple in China before, so why not?

Actually, Zhanshan Si turned out to be quite interesting. Incense fragranced the air, and although the buildings were of brick and unremarkable, the place did have an atmosphere, and the greenery that surrounded the complex was a welcome change. I bought a few of the smelly sticks and offered thanks, before marvelling at the wooden effigies of deities in the pavilions and then returning back to the city centre.

qingdao04 

Zhanshan Si

Now Qingdao may have almost seven million residents, but like Incheon before it, you’d never have guessed from visiting the place. In fact, from walking around the city centre, you’d be hard pressed to imagine that there was more than a million there, so tiny was its central business district, being no larger than that of Wolverhampton or Groningen. Perhaps we never did find the true heart of the city, or perhaps out-of-town shopping has taken off in a big way in China, I know not, but the place had the feel of some provincial town, now an enormous metropolis on a par with Berlin. Still, that meant that wandering the streets was not too taxing, and we two enjoyed it, purchasing a new pair of shoes for myself, a meal for us both, some English language books and stumbling on a fine Bavarian-style Catholic church where I acquired a rosary and small crucifix, (I’d figured we’d be needing all the help that we could get further inland).

qingdao05 

Qingdao Cathedral

Walking back to the railway station, the Lowlander and I decided to look upwards, not forwards, and entered into a discussion on the towering new buildings that dominated the modern centre of Qingdao. “The thing is though,” my sage Dutch friend commented, “they spend all this time designing nice new buildings, that are really smart and everything, and then screw it up with the air conditioners.” It was a wise observation. The appearance of each building, pristine and shiny, with straight lines reaching towards the skies, was completely ruined by the addition of air conditioning units fastened to the outsides of half the apartments or offices, destroying the sense of symmetry and design. It was in a way, perhaps a good indicator of the situation of modern China. The country is rich and getting richer, yet only two or three decades ago it was very much a Third World state, and in its rush forwards, some of the short-sighted and ill-thought out practices, common to the Third World, had not yet eradicated themselves.

We had some time to wait before our train departed so we headed into the McDonalds on the main square, (they have decent tea, ok), and drank several cuppas whilst continuing our mammoth backgammon competition, a session just favourable to myself, ending at three games to two in the Britisher's favour. As we looked out of the large plate glass windows onto the illuminated beach, whilst listening to the keyboard player that the kind management of the shop with the yellow 'M' had employed to entertain diners, we agreed that Qingdao was indeed rather a pleasant city and our introduction to the People’s Republic had been a favourable one.

It was dark when we boarded our train, a vast snake of seventeen carriages hauled by a mighty monster of a diesel locomotive. Hard seat class we found to our dismay was very much that, with the passengers being crammed in and the seats themselves having extremely annoying vertical backs. We asked about upgrading, which is possible on Chinese State Railways, but alas it was not on this service. It was high season, and Qingdao was a tourist resort, and every seat in every class was taken. So, we sat down with no option of seeing out the trip in a degree of discomfort.

qingdao06 All aboard the night train…

But it wasn't all bad, since travelling proletariat-style does mean that you are thrown in with those said people, and our fellow travellers did turn out to be not only friendly, but also English-speaking. They were a student from a town in Inner Mongolia called Homrue, and a jolly fat guy called Cheung Yan, who were returning from an enjoyable vacation in the German-esque resort. We chatted for a while, and then I finished Colin Forbes's Precipice, and when I had perused all its predictable pages, I handed it over to the student so that he may learn the English vocabulary connected with the World of European Espionage. And that done, and the lights turned out I snuggled down into my seat as much as was possible and drifted into a light and uneasy slumber.

Next part: 2b: Beijing (I)