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apj home > destinations > tall tales > Into China - 3 Weeks in the cold.

The trick to travelling is not to get too worked up about it. My three weeks in China, partly with flatmate Rick, was a cold, sometime frustrating but a totally unforgettable experience,
writes Seamus Waldron.

Pre-departure drinks

The trick to travelling is not to get too worked up about it. Its Friday night, we leave for China in the morning. Rick, wanted to go pack, unpack, repack and stuff more stuff in. I wanted to go down the pub. Hey, Friday night in London is usually a good time out.

We get to the pub on time and meet up with a friend of mine who is trying to get an African expedition underway. I know how difficult it can be because I've been trying to do the same thing for 9 months. Tomorrow's trip to China is my first time off this year as I've been saving up holiday time to trek around South America. As that's not come about, I have to use up three weeks holiday. Okay, I admit that China is not the Peru I wanted, but of every place on earth that I could pick, it was the only one that fulfilled my two criteria; 1) the flight had to be cheap and 2) there were seats available on it.

Location map of China

I've been to China before, some four years ago, so I am looking forward to seeing the ch-ch-chch changes, as David Bowie would say.

But the pub comes first. It's the beginning of December, we are all sitting outside drinking, causing sacrilege by turning perfectly good Guinness into pure water. A neat trick if you can do it, I usually keep my deity stuff hidden, so for this miracle I was using a water purifier that is so good, it even removes the alcohol. Did I say good? Anyway, I get invited out to Morocco when the expedition gets there, who am I to say no?

Rick wants to go home, so we head off to another pub where we meet up with some more friends of mine, 5 girlies who are always a laugh to go clubbing with. Rick was starting to tremble involuntary by now, he can see my ruse. We go to a night club. Rick is apoplectic. I try and explain that as long as we have our passports and tickets, we don't need to pack, anyway, I promised we would only stay until 1am.

3am, we get a cab home. Luckily the flight isn't until lunch time, so I go straight to sleep, counting the number of times Rick packs and re-packs his rucksack.

Flight to the East

Morning comes.

Throw a load of stuff into my rucksack, I've travelled so much I used to be able to do this with my eyes closed. This time I throw everything out and throw half of it back in, an interesting pile left behind for my return in 3 weeks.

As we drive to the airport, I realise that I've forgotten my Dad's birthday - bugger. Usually I remember because a friend of mine shares the same birth date, this year Phil bit the dust, the git got married.

Hurried phone calls home and then it's time to check-in. We snake around in a long line for a while. I spied my boss and one of the directors from work, so I hurdled peoples baggage and went over to say hello. "Hello", I said, "What the f*@k are you doing here?" said Carl. He'd forgotten I'd booked the time off, so I asked for a week off in January so I could go to Morocco.

I briefly got excited when a sign was put up asking for volunteers to forgo their seat on today's flight, get put up in a five star hotel and get paid 500 for the privilege. My hopes were dashed when it became apparent that this was for the Hong Kong flight, not Beijing.

This is a trick all travellers should know. If you get the chance to be bumped off a scheduled flight, do it. You end up getting free food, fantastic lodging and usually a few bob to boot. Last time this happened to me I was in India, I got my first bath (instead of cold showers) in two months out of it - sheer bliss.

So, typically the flight was late leaving, but I bought a good book and promptly fell asleep the moment I'd finished my second dinner. Here's the gag. When the food has been served and you've scoffed your half filling dinner, grab a steward/ess going by and say; "This may sound like I'm a bit of a pig, but would there be any more dinners left as I've had very little to eat all day." I have never been turned down and usually they throw in a load of extra drinks.

Rick and I got blatted.

The arrival

I recommend that you change your money BEFORE you clear customs at Beijing. If you don't, you've got a queue and long wait ahead. Also, get the bus into town, it's dead cheap and you get to start seeing the real China immediately (only in a less crowded form).

You start at the airport, lots of activity, then you follow a motorway into town, this takes a good while. The intervening landscape (at Christmas) is bleak but quite rural, that is until you start hitting the suburbs. Wide streets, grey buildings. Then the bus starts dropping people off. We see many sumptuous hotels. I'm already saying 'When I was here last time...that wasn't here...that neon sign never existed....that Mc Donald's is new....'. Rick is getting pissed off at me. This, unlike me, IS his first time here and he certainly does not want to listen to me rabbit on about a time and place that quite obviously does not exist anymore.

We get off at the last stop. Time to explore a bit. Hefting our backpacks we started walking in a direction I sort of remembered. Past the train station, up a block, past the partly demolished Mc Donald's. This had just been built when I was last here. I was asked what Christmas decorations they should put up. No more Christmas' for this building, 4 years old and already being swept aside in a tide of change and for what? A shopping mall. 150 yards from the Imperial palace, major construction work everywhere. A whole street that I remembered being bustly and very Chinese. Cages with live animals, ready for dinner, vegetables, bicycles, old men with pipes and caps. Now what? A mall being built that will look just like any other street found in any other major city. This, I say to myself, is a mistake. This, is progress. This is China, watch out world.

Where it all happened

Rick's first look at Tiananmen Square. It is a vast open space. Impressive beyond belief. I do not know what private thoughts Rick had, but the feelings I had the first time I approached Tiananmen came back to me. An eary shudder, voices from the massacre, the thought of tanks and sacrifice. That first time I entered Tiananmen I realised I was looking at history, this time I was saddened. To my left was an enormous digital clock, counting down the days and minutes until the Hong Kong changeover the following July. I was sickened.

South through the square and south towards the hotel I had stayed in before. In December, the street vendors are selling roasted chestnuts, sweat potatoes and caramelised fruits on sticks. I attempt some Mandarin and get some chestnuts in return. We walk and walk. Eventually, I know I'm in the right place. I recognise an old mechanics shop, I remember the stadium on the other side of the river. No guest house. I later find out that it has been torn down and that it is to be re-built to cater for a wealthier traveller. Backpackers are not being encouraged. Not to worry, just a bit further on we get to our second option, the Jayhung Hotel.

Book in, unpack and try to book a trip to the Wall. No go until Thursday. We head for dinner, a small shack by the hotel. Warm, cosy, great food, cheap beer, good company and all for 42 yaun! We reapraise our situation. As Rick is sort of time, we decide to fly out to Xi'an and try to get back by Thursday for a trip to the Wall.

Sleep like a log.

Forbidden City Mr Bond?

Unwisely, we try breakfast in the hotel, then head into town. The good old No 14 bus. This takes us all the way to Tiananmen, which is good as the CAAC building is close by. After booking a return flight, costing 1800 yaun, we head to the Forbidden City.

Wow, big WOW. I never made it into the Forbidden City before, so this is as new to me as it is to Rick. Donning our walkman guide to the city, I notice that our 'guide' is non other than James Bond (aka Roger Moore). Unfortunately the Chinese thought that this English of Englishmen is American. This, as I recall, is very typical in China along with wonderful translations into English. 'Place for Eunuchs and things....' Amusing, though I can't laugh, I hung up a Chinese proverb upside down and didn't realise for months.

The city goes on and on. Palaces within Palaces. Architecture evolved over centuries. As you walk from bottom to top, you tread the path of history. China is full of history. We don't realise today that in the past visitors rarely got past the first gate or two. In the inner sanctums, lived servants who never left the palace. We breeze past in a few hours, mocking the sanctity the walls used to preserve, but it's worth it. Incredible, phenominal, breathtaking. How many adjectives can you use?

Saved by the teacher...

Bugger, git, shyster. Anymore? Those are the adjectives used to describe the rickshaw driver who tried to charge us $100 US for a one mile ride. He really thought we'd pay him. He was going to attack us until a teacher at the local University thought we were students and came to our rescue. Our knight in shining armour didn't just get rid of the rickshaw driver, but she took us across town and put us on the right bus for the airport.

In search of Warriors

On the empty plane we were given a light meal and a coin!? Don't ask. By the time we got to our guest hose, 'The Flats of Remnin Hotel', it was dark and cold. The girl whose dorm we were asked to share was surprised to see us, but not as much as we were to see her. To kill time until bed, we got some dinner across the road in a room which was a work place by day, restaurant in the evening and sleeping quarters at night - Mums Own Cooking. The girl who ran the place was typical of the modern young Chinese. Doing whatever she could to better herself within the system. She was doing well, not by western standard, but well none the less. She could speak a lot of English and we both felt she was a jewel within the mammoth one billion population.

The next night it felt like two billion, but I jump ahead of myself. Breakfast was just appalling. If only I had remembered my pot of Marmite, I could have almost made the food edible. At least the tea was nice. We persuaded our dorm mate, a German girl called Bridget, to come see the Terracotta Warriors with us. Time for a flash-back. Crossing the main square in town, where the train station is, I remembered my stay here, years before. Alex and I had stayed in a large hotel, practically empty on the edge of the square. There it was. We had arrived late and ducked out to explore the back streets. I remember food markets, oil drums ablaze, roasting chickens and tofu. The sounds and smells of a new and magical place. My memory is blurred or Xi'an has changed a lot too. I suspect my memory is still intact.

Before, I had taken a tour, this time, we just hopped on the local bus (407 for those interested).

Terracotta Warriors entry ticket

We arrived at the site of the Terracotta Warriors. A very busy market place now surrounded the enterence to the warriors. These stalls were here prviously, but now there was more industry about them, more hustle. Photography was strictly not allowed the last time I was here, I even saw a tourist on the verge of tears as his film was being ripped out of his camera. Taking photographs of the warriors was a very big NO-NO.

Now, even though the stern warning were still there, people were disregarding them. I tried to take a few photos on the sly, but they didn't come out. Perhaps I should have been more bold.

This stagering army of men, crafted from terracotta, is a true wonder of human creation. It is said that all the soldiers are unique. This is not stricktly true as each warrior is made up from a standard choice of heads, torsoes, hands, feet, etc and then individually painted.


Yes I know, this is the end, so much to write and so little time.
I promise I will finish this article one day, and add lots of pictures.

Still to come :

Banpou Climbing The Great Wall Kite flying in Tiananmen Square Climbing the mountain at Tai'an Trekking at the end of The Great Wall


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