The China Logs: Xi’an

Xi’an was wet and miserable when we got here, but has cheered up since then. Nothing much to report except for the Terracotta Warriors which were predictably a highlight. It is one thing to read about them, and understand how many of them there are (4,000) and how old they are (more than 2,000 years) and that they all have different faces, and that some of the technology used to manufacture them and the other things buried with them have amazed 20th century scientists. But it is another thing entirely to find yourself in an aircraft-hangar-sized complex in the middle of the Chinese countryside and actually behold them with your own eyes.

They reckon it will take another 10 years to fully excavate and research the site, but what they have discovered already is amazing to see. The sellers in the market outside the gates are also amazing in their tenacity.

Upon leaving, we were met by an impenetrable line of them holding up small replica warriors, bits of jade, the usual Chinese tourist stuff, and yelling prices at us. The prices fell rapidly too – within less than one minute I had bargained with one woman for a box with four warriors and a horse in it (they are about 4 inches high, don’t panic!) from her initial “One dollar! One dollar!” (Y8, or the price of our dinner some nights) to Y3 (25p). I reckon I could have got her down to Y2 but that would have been churlish.

The China Logs: Chinglish 2

More Chinglish For You Fans Out There

  1. Sign outside bar in Xi’an: “Sunny Half Past And Friend Changing Club” (any ideas, anyone? We have a few…)
  2. At Terracotta Warriors complex: “Fire Exting Atcher Box” (you can guess this one)
  3. Enormous billboard in Xi’an advertising something I didn’t understand: “You can’t along with eagle to fly, when you are as high as turkey together.” (this is my favourite so far)

The China Logs: Chengde

Well it’s been all up and down since the Great Wall, and we have clocked up quite a few miles too.

I am writing from sunny Xi’an (not! It’s been raining for 24 hours now) which is about 1,200km south-west of Beijing. I thought it might be a bit warmer here, and it’s certainly not cold, but this incessant pouring rain is getting to me, especially since both of us have come down with inevitable colds.

One of the highlights of the trip so far was last Sunday, when we took a four-hour train journey north of Beijing to spend the night in the mountain resort of Chengde. We travelled in a hard-seat carriage, which certainly doesn’t mean sitting on wooden benches – it is a reasonably comfortable carriage with about 150 people to the carriage, sitting 3 opposite 3 or 2 opposite 2 on nicely upholstered seats. Being a Sunday, most of the passengers seemed to be in high spirits, and it was a really enjoyable journey.

The train left promptly at 7.16am and after an hour or so we slowly left the built-up area of Beijing, and the high-rises melted away. The countryside began to take over as we climbed into the craggy mountains. The land looks fairly infertile but it can’t be – every spare inch of ground has been cultivated in some way, right up to the train tracks. Mostly the corn crop was dominating, although the harvest was over and all that was left were stalks ready to be cut down to make fuel or to be burnt on the narrow terraces for the next crop. The harvested corn was everywhere, like I saw before, stacked on windowsills and roofs to dry. A good deal of cabbage was being grown on the cleared land, and in the foothills I saw orange, lemon and peach groves covering every possible corner.

The people working the land seemed to have a hard enough life. We are talking 19th century farming methods for the most part: I saw one small tractor in the whole journey. Mostly, the land was being cleared by hand with scythes, or weeded manually with long-handled hoes. Other harvested crops (wheat? rye?) were being threshed by hand by the women, or laid out on the roadways to get the traffic to do the heavy work first. I even saw a traditional stone mill for grinding flour – it looked fairly newly-hewn and was clearly in current use. Nonetheless, there are electricity lines going into most of the dwellings so it’s a bit of a mismatch of technology I guess.

The sun shone as the train flew along through this scenery. I caught a rare glimpse of myself like a satellite camera zooming in on my position on the globe – I am so privileged to be able to travel so far in the world and to see these things for myself. There is a one in four billion chance that I was born to be who I am rather than the daughter of one of these subsistence farmers.
My thoughts wandered to my Dad, from whom I inherited my much of my adventurous and inquisitive traits. He was a great armchair traveller and I am sure would have been able to tell me a thing or two about my destinations and what I had seen, as well as being fascinated by the insights I gave him. I thought of all the things I had already seen in our travels that I would never be able to share with him, and how much I missed him still. Sitting there on the train as China passed my window and the sun shone on my face, I wept for all the new conversations I would never have with my wonderful dad.

In time we reached Chengde, and after a hairy hour or so looking for a bed for the night, we got our bearings and jumped on a local bus to take us to the biggest local attraction, a Buddhist monastery with an interesting statue (the book said). After 20 or so minutes crawling through the busy shopping streets of this little city (population approximately 1.4 million!) the shops thinned out into stalls and barrows selling fruit and other local produce. On the outskirts in the hills we could see the pagoda roofs of other local temples (there are eight in the general area) as well as some weird rock formations, one which looked like a club standing vertically (called Club Rock) and another which really looked like a toad (called, predicably, Toad Rock!).

We couldn’t have missed our destination though. The bus driver gave us the nod as we reached what looked like a fairly big monastery complex surrounded by touristy stalls selling the usual tat (red Chinese hanging good-luck things, postcards, bits of jade on a string, chopsticks, Fifty Cent tee-shirts???? yes really). We bought our tickets and a young monk let us in through the space-age-looking entrance gates into the ancient-looking complex. We found ourselves in a courtyard surrounded by smaller buildings in the Chinese style, as well as one pagoda housing three large steles (tall stones with calligraphy on). Just behind this building was another larger temple in which we found three buddhas, one representing the past, one the present and one the future. The middle one (the present) was a bit bigger than the other two, and they were all really nice, but nothing hugely exciting.

I looked around a bit more trying to be impressed and then came back out. Hmmm. Wonder which one was the interesting statue?

At the back of this courtyard were huge steep steps up to another gathering of buildings so we climbed up. A much larger courtyard was surrounded by buildings which looked a bit more Tibetan/Buddhist to me. A big trough held central position in which many big incense torches were burning. Young monks sat and chatted in small groups, hugging their maroon robes around them and kicking at the stones with their trainers. They looked like any other group of youngsters except for the shaved heads and monks’ habits. Closer to the main temple, a huge building at the back, was a group of much older men playing traditional Chinese instruments and chanting. Being late in the afternoon, there were few others around and I could really appreciate the tranquillity of the place.

We walked into the big temple, which was really high like a pagoda. On the right and left were huge painted statues of mythical warriors which are the protectors of the temple. I was fascinated by these and inspected them closely as they resembled a lot of what I had seen in India. Orlando’s bemused face directed my attention to the centre of the temple.

There, behind the monk’s prayer benches, above head height, I saw a pair of giant wooden bare feet peeking out from the carved wooden folds of a gown. I stopped in my tracks as I beheld what must have been the bottom quarter of an enormous statue. Even without being able to see the whole of the statue I was frozen to the spot by its presence. Awed, I edged forward and gazed ever upwards until I could see the whole 22m (about 70 feet) of this heart-stopping sight: the Buddhist Goddess of Infinite Mercies, Guanyin, with over 40 arms, carved entirely out of four types of wood, stood in majesty gazing at me from above.

(Strictly speaking, Guanyin is not a goddess (as Buddhists don’t worship gods) but a Boddhisattva, which is a person who has reached nirvana but chooses to stay on earth as a guide for others.)

Her head was crowned with an ornate headdress, an enormous necklace of wooden beads hung around her neck and her arms were adorned with what looked like jewelled armbands (but everything was polished red-hued wood). Each of her hands had an eye in the palm; each hand held an implement or object: an urn, a flower, a bow (for throwing arrows), a sword, a goblet.
I was entranced: more, I was overawed, and fought the urge to fall to my knees in front of her. There is only one time in my life that the sight of something has reduced me to tears, and that was the very first time I laid eyes on the Taj Mahal; but my reaction to this magnificent sight was much more profound that a reaction to an object of beauty. I am not sure if thoughts of my father were still fresh in my mind, or if the goddess herself sensed my emotions and understood. I truly felt as if I was in the presence of a divine being. I had no words for Orlando (then or since); I simply stood and wept silently for the second time that day.

The China Logs: The Great Wall

We hiked the Great Wall a few days ago. The plan was to be dropped off about 11okm north-east of Beijing at the Jinshanling entranceto the Wall, and hike the 10km or so to the Simatai Great Wall portion. Sounds interesting: the Lonely Planet said it was not for the faint-hearted, but would take about 4 hours. I can do that, I said. Let’s book it.

We were picked up with a few others from our hostel at 7am and went off in a small minibus. A few more pick-ups later we were on our way. It took about 2 hours to get out of the built-up area of Beijing itself (bear in mind that the metropolitan area of Beijing is about the size of Belgium!) and soon we saw familiar-looking mountains ahead. Just before noon we passed through the gates of the Jinshanling entrance and parked up. It was fairly chilly so I was glad of my rain jacket and sweater.

The entrance place was well organised with a ticket office (Y30 each to get in – about 2.50 sterling) and plenty of stalls selling drinks, food and “I climbed the Great Wall” sweatshirts. We walked along the nicely-landscaped pathway towards the wall (the signs and litter bins brought to mind a nice country park) and finally saw the way up to the Wall itself – a fairly steep set of stone steps.

My heart sank. I hadn’t even seen the bloody wall and I was already out of breath and getting too hot. I lagged behind badly from the start. Orlando encouraged me to keep up and said I was not to be “the limping gazelle”. That didn’t help- all my life I have been the limping bloody gazelle, struggling up a hill whilst some bloke or group yomped happily ahead. Why do I continuously do this to myself???

We reached the wall in about 5 minutes, and I must say it was quite a thrill to set foot on this amazing structure. The wall stretched for miles as far as the eye could see in both directions, with a tower breaking the snakelike route every 100m or so. We stood and gazed and took photos and took in the moment. Then the hard work began. The wall looks like it undulates gently over the hills from tower to tower. It does nothing of the sort. It climbs steadily and relentlessly up and down some of the steepest inclines I have ever seen. The steps are uneneven and range from 4 inches high to about a foot high. It is hard going and unforgiving. I hated it from about 3 minutes in.

My daypack got heavier and heavier, and I ran through its contents in my head to see what could be jettisoned (where? There were no bins and I was hardly going to litter a World Heritage site). Water? First aid kit? Dried fruit for energy? Our last remaining Sainsburys Diet Red Bull-type drink? Lonely Bloody Planet?

Orlando didn’t even seem to notice the inclines. I knew those muscular thighs of his were useful for something: now I knew.He gently and patiently waited for me every 10 paces (I do not exaggerate). Vendors swarmed around us trying to sell us books and tee-shirts. They were 10 years older than me, and wearing kung fu slippers, not my Ultra-Lite-Weight mountain hiking boots. They hadn’t even broken a sweat, and now and again stretched out their hand to help the poor heaving Western woman up a tricky bit of wall.

Simatai was not to be seen on the horizon. We were still only on a fairly easy stretch. In the distance (about 10 towers ahead) I could see a particularly steep part of the wall going up a hill that looked almost vertical. I was panting like a marathon runner (although I guess they train well and don’t have that problem) and my legs were literally shaking with the effort of every step. We had been walking only 45 minutes. We were less than a quarter of the way, and the bus was leaving the other end in three hours and 15 minutes.

The sellers were looking at me with pity, and they stopped Orlando and spoke to him (as the man of the couple, almost all communication is done through him, which is good as street touts ignore me in favour of him, but occasionally hurts my feminine pride). He told me they had said I wasn’t going to make it. Apparently we were on a easy section of the wall, and if I was struggling now, I was not going to make it across the next part. There was an easy way to Simatai, they said, off the wall and through a valley alongside. One of them would take me if I bought a book from them. My pride was not too strong to consider this get-out-of-jail card carefully before dismissing it. I really did think I was struggling. But could I face the ignominy of accepting defeat? Also I would be ruining Orlando’s experience too.

In the end, Orlando said he would continue on alone and meet me at the other end if I wanted to bail out. I conceded, and we (cheekily) bargained the woman down from Y100 to Y80 to guide me off the wall to the other end. We parted, and I followed the woman off the wall at a nearby tower onto a mountain path heading downhill away from the wall but vaguely going in the same direction. We walked quickly down the hill, the guide walking ahead of me. At first I politely declined her offers of assistance but a one tricky bit I finally accepted her hand and she steadied my progress down the steep and crumbling hill.

Once the pathway evened out I spoke to her. Her name was Li Qui Shu (first two words with a downward tone and the last with an upward tone, like a question or an Australian sentence). She ws 41 years old and a Mongolian farmer. Her husband still lives and works their farm in Mongolia with their oldest 2 children, a 17-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy. She lives near Beijing with her youngest son who is three, and she sells books and tourist gifts on the wall to make money to keep her children in school. She is 41 years old.

Li Qui Shu led me along a gentle pathway (at a fairly quick pace) which wandered through trees and small crop fields. Whilst walking she helped me with my Chinese pronunciation, gently correcting my numbers and other routine words. The pathway brought us along a small number of houses and smallholdings where corn was growing and people working the fields. She taught me the word for pig (ro), sheep (yang) and chicken (jee). Coming towards us along the path was an ancient-looking person bent almost double with a load of straw on their back and a conical woven hat on their head. All I could see was the crown of the hat and the straw as the person proceeded towards us. As they passed I saw the smiling face of an old woman taking me in – she grinned more broadly and returned my hello.

After an hour’s gentle but brisk walk we turned a corner and there was the wall again. Li Qui Shu pointed out Simatai to me – only two towers away. We did our business (I bought her book) and I thanked her again for her help. She led me along the final approach to the wall and we got back up through another tower. I sat on the edge of the wall and laughed in jubilation – I could see people coming towards me along a fairly dodgy section of wall and thanked my lucky stars I had found an escape route. Li Qui Shu insisted upon waiting with me until my “husband” (Eye-run in Mandarin) caught up with us.

Not 45 minutes later I saw his distinctive figure come into view and a few minutes later we were reunited. He has a few beads of sweat on his forehead but was not even out of breath. What a man. We walked the last stretch of wall before having to come off and down some steep metal stairs to cross a ravine via a cable bridge, as this part of the wall had collapsed. The cable bridge was hairy to say the least – we were miles above a river and the footbridge swung (to my mind) wildly as we crossed. Orlando hummed the Indiana Jones theme tune whilst I tried not to see through the considerable cracks in the planks down to the water far below, and chanted madly to myself that it was all going to be OK.

Half an hour later we were sitting under a tree talking to other travellers, gazing at the wall from a distance. What a day. I was so glad I had come, and even happier that I had escaped the full experience. From Simatai westwards the wall snaked out of view, climbing even steeper inclines that Orlando had walked and I had escaped. I have no comprehension of how the people managed to built this amazing structure, given that I couldn’t even walk along it.

On the way home in the bus, we dozed (although it’s not like I had exerted myself for too long!). We were booked on an overnight sleeper train to Datong that night, which is where I am writing to you now. Datong doesn’t look too big, but apparently 3 million people live here (WHERE? It’s really not that big looking). Max temperature yesterday was 9 degrees, and minimum last night was -3 degrees. We are wearing almost all the clothes we possess.

We got back to our hotel room last night and it was freezing. We complained that the room was cold and were given two more duvets: there is no central heating (or to them it not cold enough to switch on – temperatures here in winter get to -30 degrees so they probably think this is nice autumn weather). We have now checked out of out hotel and we have 7 hours to wait until our overnight sleeper gets us out of here back to Beijing and beyond. Hope we can keep warm until then!!!

The China Logs: Chinglish

A week into our odyssey and I am settling in at last. The past week has been a whirlwind of activity and confusion and excitement and frustration and highs and lows and triumphs and cock-ups. I got to enjoy Shanghai before we left on Monday afternoon – I think my initial shake-up was simply culture shock to be honest. We had a good few days there sightseeing and getting used to the Chinese way of things.

“Chinglish” is the term for the Chinese way of translating things into English with interesting results. Sometimes you can understand the jist; sometimes it is completely unreachable.

  1. Take-away Breakfast translates to Breakfast Outside Send.
  2. Sign at Datong city taxi stand: “The Taxi Stands”.
  3. Proclamation outside Beijing central China Post depot: “Post is Profession. Post Bureau is Home. Mail is Life. On-time Delivery is Gold.”
  4. Flyer inside a Beijing restaurant menu: “Print the degree throw around flat cake. (A form plays now).” Answers on a postcard please…
  5. Notice on restaurant in Shanghai market: “Carry Forward Diet Civilization!”. (I think I get what they want to say)
  6. Lots of words seem to have their “l”s and “r”s mixed up: my favourite was on a cocktail list in our Shanghai hotel where a Glasshopper cocktail was on the list (I really really hope it was genuine and not ironic!) (they also had Chivas Legal listed so I guess they were genuine)

Interesting Things About China Part 1

  1. People wear brushed cotton pyjamas as outer wear in the streets.I mean nice fluffy ones with balloons or teddies or nice paisley patterns on them. One gentleman taking the air in a park on Sunday morning had teamed his blue pyjama top with some nice casual trousers for a new look.
  2. Anything that can be eaten can be put on a skewer and cooked over charcoal: we have seen frog’s legs, octopus, lamb, chicken, a whole small bird on a stick (I bet it was NOT chicken), and I swear what Orlando was attempting to buy on a street corner last night was dog.
  3. Police cars drive around with their blues and reds flashing (no sirens) at all times, just so you know they are really cool and important. Police on bicycles have no sirens or lights, but cycle through crowds at speed enthusiastically shouting “LAOW LAOW LAOW”(roughly translates as “excuse me excuse me excuse me!”) and that seems to work fine. Somebody might pass this on to the bicycle ambulance team as a cost-saving proposal.

The China Logs: Shanghai

Yes, friends, the Captain’s Log is back (for those of you who remember my original postings online way back in the late 90s). Orlando and I planned to update the websites as we went along in China, but unfortunately we didn’t plan for the vagaries of Chinese internet access. We can’t access our website write pages!!! Actually, we can’t even access the BBC news website so in that context I guess we were hoping for too much. So I will email you all on a regular basis instead, and copy everything later on to the website for posterity. (Nic or Paul please copy to the usual PTS distribution list – thanks)

So, China.

I am getting used to it.

I am not sure if I was just very tired and emotional by the time we got here or whether our marathon 6-hour walking odyssey yesterday did me in completely, but I am struggling at the moment. We arrived here in uneventful style on a perfectly comfortable flight (those of you with China Eastern flights booked, bring plenty of entertainment as all the TV is in Chinese!). It gets dark here at about 5pm so we saw little of the taxi journey to the city.

Our hotel is absolutely lovely – the Pujiang Hotel (or Astor House as it used to be known) is an old colonial Victorian style edifice, all dark wood and marble and vaulted ceilings and old-world east-meets-west charm. Our room is enormous, with a huge desk upon which Orlando writes daily (I prefer the sitting area for my musings), a minibar (Chinese red wine is quite nice, I found on the plane!), a vast TV with cable (ie lots of Chinese stations and CNN) and a huge bathroom which is bigger than some hotel rooms I have stayed in. We love it!

We are about 5 minutes walk to the Bund which is the heart of the city – a river-side walkway along the river Huangpu (a tributary of the Yangtze) which is lined on both sides by amazing buildings: on the old Shanghai side there are venerable old hotels and banking buildings dating back to the 1800s and the height of Shanghai’s heyday; on the new Pudong side there is an amazing array of 21st century skyscrapers that outdo anything the west can offer, dominated by the Oriental Pearl Tower, a 430m TV tower which looks for all the world like an inverted hypodermic needle pointing skywards. The Bund is where the whole of Shanghai congregates in the evenings to take in the view and promenade amongst the hawkers selling tacky souvenirs, photo opportunities and a chance to fly a kite shaped like a shark.

The rest of Shanghai is a little weird for me; I guess I was expecting something a little more Oriental and Communist and Chinese and, well, different. But a huge proportion of the city is given over to the worship of consumerism like any big Western city. Elaborate shopping malls jostle for space with smaller stores, all selling Salvatore Ferragamo, Gucci, Prada, Tag Heuer, Levi’s – and I mean the genuine article, not rip-offs, all at Western prices. The main shopping areas look like any city centre shopping streets to me, with pedestrian walkways, shopper mini-trains for the weary, nice seating areas, McDonalds, KFC and – yes – even Starbucks Coffee. It’s just the fact that most of the signs are in Chinese and most people speak little or no English that gives it away. I am struggling with the language – we both are, but Orlando is making a valiant effort and it is paying off.

I had a bit of a panic attack last night when it was way past time for dinner, and we couldn’t find a restaurant with an English menu. We hesitantly approached one place and were finally sent upstairs to the (much more expensive) first floor to read the English menu: my face and my spirits fell when I read lists of such appetising dishes as boiled chicken claws (the one thing I dreaded but it was the nicest thing on the list!), chicken gizzards, stinky tofu in beer, sliced eye fish in sauce… I am quoting directly from the menu. Would we ever find edible food in the city?? I had been haunted since the night before by the memory of lumps of beef fat glistening amongst my noodles at dinner, and had resolved to eat only vegetarian food from now on, but even the veg dishes had sounded worrying.

Thankfully Orlando was still feeling buoyant and he managed to allay my fears until we happened upon a clean, bright, 24-hour fast food place with – wait for it – PICTURES of food in the window (to think I used to deride this practice in Spain). I ran in and found to my delight that they had a list of English words to go with the photos. In bad Chinese and hand gestures we ordered a dish of beef with rice and tea eggs (eggs boiled in tea and star anise – quite tasty it seems) for Orlando, and a simple plate of beef and fried noodles for me. The food came and it looked exactly like it did in the photos!!! I fell on it and devoured my noodles in minutes. Delicious. I was so relieved.

We had a long day yesterday so we are taking it easy today – nothing like lounging on your sofa in your colonial hotel room eating chocolate raisins (Orlando) and drinking coffee (me) and reading magazines and Lonely Planet whilst Shanghai life buzzes outside your window. But not all day – shortly we will take a stroll (not too far today!) and sample a few bars and coffee (sorry, tea) houses before starting today’s search for edible dinner. I promise: no visits to Starbucks!!!

Tomorrow we fly off to Beijing where a new city awaits. More then.