Published: August 18th 2006August 18th 2006
We are thoroughly enjoying China. As I write this, we are in the far West of China - in Kashgar, a Silk Road trade route city near the borders with Kyrgyzstan (where we are going soon), Pakistan and India. This is the most westerly city in China, and it is genuinely a world away from Beijing, where we spent four action-packed days this week. After Beijing we spent a day in Urumqi, the capital of Xin Jiang province. It is the furthest city in the world from the ocean, and it was hot and dry. We'd hoped to spend several days in and around Urumqi, but transport problems put paid to that plan! Wonderful country, wonderful food
Beijing is the biggest city I have ever seen. With almost 14 million inhabitants, it is a crowded, sprawling metropolis which is undergoing a massive face-lift in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. Unfortunately the weather in August is pretty grim - it's cloudy, very humid and visibility is limited. In spite of this we had the best time - four days of walking around, picking up some bargain souvenirs, speaking to locals, climbing the Great Wall and,
of course, eating the superb local food.
Our experience in Beijing was diverse and far from normal. We ended up avoiding most of the typical tourist sites almost by accident. The fact that Indie speaks Mandarin has allowed us to see and do things that most non-Chinese speaking tourists would not access. I feel very lucky.
We wandered through the tea-market district, where we were confused by a multitude of tea-shops and tea-houses, all selling different aromatic and fragrant tea leaves. To me it all smelled the same... until we were invited into one family-run place, where the owner (pictured smiling with us!) insisted we sit down with him and sample some tea. Some girls working there showed us the whole shebang. They talked us through the tea filtration process, they explained what made the optimum taste experience, everything! Indie chatted away in Mandarin and I tried out a few phrases I've learned - "I am from Scotland", "pleased to have met you", "how much does this cost?" etc. They also practiced a little English with us, and before we knew it we'd been there for two hours.
We bought some tea, and the following day we
Back in Beijing!
The same side street restaurant we ate in on my first day - it seems like so long ago!
visited a bustling, charming flea market called Panjiyuan where we got some tea artefacts - saucers, teapots, filters etc... After all this I'd better drink this damned Chinese tea when I get back! I also picked up a well-used copy of Mao's little red book written in Russian, which was intriguing.
The food here is so good that my words cannot possibly do it justice. Back in the UK, I liked Chinese food. But I realise now that I had seen nothing! Wherever we go here, we find delicious and affordable food. Spicy aubergines in soy sauce, barbecued tofu cooked with ginger and peppers; all kinds of Chinese greens cooked with lemon juice and garlic; spicy minced lamb with onions and chillis... it's so good. We also went to a Yunnanese restaurant, where we ate BBQ-d pork ribs with a red peppers and chilli sauce, along with deep-fried cactus flesh, which was way nicer than you'd imagine. One of the tastiest things we ate was a dessert of chocolate balls encased in coconut which had been fried then covered in more coconut and ginger, then dipped in honey. Just remembering this is making me hungry! Claustrophobics, stay away!
If you highly value your own personal space, this is not the country for you. Likewise, if the idea of being almost constantly surrounded by other people doesn't appeal, give China a miss. This is no country for the faint-hearted. Wherever we have gone, and I mean wherever
, there have been immense crowds of Chinamen. Now I know what you're thinking - 'no shit, sherlock - you're in China'. But it's even more crazy than you could imagine if you've never seen it. Throughout S-E Asia Indie would say to "just wait til you see how many Chinese people there are in China!" to which I would usually reply with the lowest form of wit. But it's true - whether it's early afternoon in a Beijing shopping street, the middle of the night in a train station ticket office, or evening time in a small cafe, there are vast quantities of local people.
Even in places where you would rationally expect there to be few Chinese people - let's say the Kazakhstan embassy half an hour before it opens, or a small regional airport at 2 in the morning (Kashgar), you'll be bowled over. At the
Kazakh embassy in Beijing there was a mighty queue - whoever thought so many Chinese people would be so desperate to get to Kazakhstan?? They were, and this meant we had to wait two and a half hours just to get into the embassy to apply for the visa! Indie remains deeply frustrated by it all, and to an extent I sympathise, but for me it's still just funny.
It wasn't funny, however, when it we discovered train tickets to Urumqi were completely booked up. Urumqi is the capital of Xin Jiang, China's remote, vast Western province which has gradually been taken from Central Asia over hundreds of years. Indie has told me that the stereotype of Xin Jiang people is that they are mean and evil characters, to be avoided. I was dubious about this stereotype, until we got to China and started asking random people (in different parts of the country) what they thought of the Xin Jiang locals. Their response was almost identical - they are cruel people, less civilised. In short, the message is - don't go there. From an economic perspective, Xin Jiang is far less developed than coastal Eastern China. Why then, do
literally thousands of Chinese people want to leave Beijing and travel to Urumqi?!?
As I've mentioned before, we strongly wanted to travel from Beijing to Europe only overland. But when every conceivable, reliable way of getting a train ticket (ie not the black market) tells you the same thing - not possible! - we had to fly. It is very frustrating cause it's completely not what we wanted to do, but sometimes you just have to accept the unexpected and go with the flow. Ironically the same thing happened to us in Urumqi therefore we are in Kashgar earlier than planned, having got a last-minute flight deal. Stereotypes and bizarre situations
*We were lost while trying to track down a restaurant that Indie vaguely recalled. Although I could list many positive qualities about my travelling companion (open-mindedness, wit, intelligence etc), his attributes are sometimes overshadowed by a frustratingly underdeveloped sense of direction. If I had to describe Indie's sense of orientation in one word, I'd say - awful. We were hungry and jaded after Beijing's classy Sanlitun district for what seemed like hours. Indie's 'rough idea' of the restaurant's location had gotten us nowhere.
We finally bumped into some German expats and asked them where the place was. They backed off, slightly wary of us at first. Once of them hesitantly asked us, with genuine trepidation, "are you from... the United States?" No, "England" and "Scotland" we replied. The German guy's face lit up, and he beamed at us. "Wonderful!!" He then proceeded to wax lyrical about Scotland, and swiftly told us exactly where the restaurant was. His friend even phoned ahead to confirm they had a table!
*After the long wait at the Kazakh embassy we were told to return at 1630 to pick up our passports. We were with a sound Australian guy who needed to catch a train at 1800 so we decided, having been in the epic queue that morning, to wait outside the embassy at 1600 just in case. A while later, along came a massive, jovial Ghanaian guy who was also waiting to pick up his passport. Upon seeing us waiting at the embassy gate, he started to chuckle to himself and bellowed:
"Hah! The white man is always early!"
*We decided to visit a little-restored part of the Great Wall of China,
called Huanghua. It was spectacular - see the photos below. When we got there, we were abruptly stopped by an assertive Chinese woman who demanded we pay a 2 yuan admission fee to cross a bridge. We were dubious because the 'ticket' she issued looked fake. However the woman was evidently quite poor and 2 yuan is not much money (only around 13p) so we paid and set off. Behind us was a French guy who adamantly refused, straight out, to pay the admission. This sparked off a heated shoving match with the crazy lady, who began screaming and pulling at his clothes really aggressively to stop him crossing.
A couple hours later we descended from the Great Wall and were surprised to see the French guy again, surrounded by Chinese policeman. He was visibly exasperated and pissed-off. We were concerned he'd been robbed or worse, so he we asked him what was going on. He complained that he didn't speak Chinese and that the Chinese cops didn't understand English. Apparently he's phoned the police to report the fraudulent tickets! What a waste of time and energy. We asked ourselves what was better: to buy a fake ticket for
13p and enjoy the Wall for two hours; or to get hot, red-faced and angry by spending the same two hours fruitlessly attempting to communicate with the Chinese police?
This has probably been the longest blog yet, so I'll say so long and leave you with Indie's famed political rant of the week: Indie on China
"China - a country of stolen land. The victims - Tibet, Mongolia and Xin Jiang. This makes up more than half the land mass of "China". What is happening in these places is little more than cultural genocide. I mean, in Lhasa (capital of Tibet) there is a Tibetan Quarter when actually there should be a Chinese Quarter. In all these regions the local populations are slowly decreasing, giving way to a mass influx of Han Chinese migrants. Children are taught in Mandarin, and as the language of these regions dies, so, inevitably, does the culture.
The Superpowers claim to care about 'democracy' but when the Tibetans called for help in the midst of the Chinese invasion - when they called for their right to live their way - these Powers stood idly by. "Why?" you might ask...
There are more photos below