Down and Out in China

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May 10th 2007
Published: August 7th 2007
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Get a GripGet a GripGet a Grip

The roots of a strangling fig clutch at the stonework of an old villa on Gulang-yu. © L. Birch 2007
The rain fell like stair rods as we sheltered beneath a street awning in Bangkok, waiting for it to stop. It rained most days now. People were saying that the rainy season was starting earlier and earlier each year. Was this a sign perhaps, that the effects of climate change were beginning to affect weather patterns that could once have been predicted with a near perfect accuracy? Change was not always for the better.

Other changes meant that we had to keep a watchful eye on the number of days we spent in the kingdom. New regulations affecting the amount of time foreigners could stay in Thailand during any 6-month period had come into effect shortly after our arrival in October 2006. Despite being careful however, the final 8 days of our current 90-day allotment seemed to creep up on us rather unexpectedly: it was time to decide what we were going to do next.

Malaysia was the most obvious option, simply because it was so close and so easily accessible. The Philippines were also a hot contender but in the end, it was a late entry that beat them both to the finishing line. The idea that we
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The tower blocks of Xiamen overlooked the harbour and main square at Gulang-yu. © L. Birch 2007
might be able to squeeze in a visit to China had been growing steadily for some time. Hovering massively above South East Asia, it was hard to ignore China’s influence over the region - both physically and culturally. We were so close. Surely we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit a country that was almost on our doorstep? In addition, China was going through some spectacular changes and was expected to become one of the most influential powers of the 21st century. If this was indeed the case and we were ever going to see it before it changed beyond all recognition, now seemed like the best time to go. The presence of two journalist friends in Beijing, finally tipped the scales and a few phone calls later, our decision was made.

Welcome to China

It was after dark when we arrived in Xiamen, a coastal city in China’s Fujian province that looked out across the Formosa Strait towards Taiwan. At least it wasn’t raining. Our first experiences with public transport provided a taste of what travel in China was going to be like. Signs and information in English were rare and hardly anyone spoke the
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Sampans at rest in the strait between Gulang-yu and Xiamen. © L. Birch 2007
language. So when we boarded our first bus, asking if it went to the ferry port, we were met with a shrug of incomprehension. Hoping we were on the right bus, we took a seat anyway. The 27km journey was undertaken in darkness, neon city lights and mile-high advertising screens, shrieking at us in bold Chinese script. Nothing was familiar, nothing was recognisable - we had no idea if we were even going in the right direction.

From what we could see, the fare for any journey was 1 Yuan (equivalent to about 6p in UK sterling) - that was simply dropped into a collection bin by the door upon entry. However, newly arrived and unfamiliar with the currency and costs, the only change we had were a 50 and a 100 Yuan note. There was no change provided for anything so large and when I showed the driver the notes he shrugged again and waved us brusquely aside. Politeness and manners, we were soon to learn, were obviously not something the Chinese attached much importance to. Already, we had discovered that the Chinese never queue for anything. Stand aside for that little old lady to board the bus
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Red roofing tiles, shuttered windows and pastel colours - all conspired to give Gulang-yu a Mediterranean feel. © L. Birch 2007
ahead of you and half of China sees this as an opportunity to get on the bus before you do.

Fifty-five minutes after boarding the bus, we were beginning to worry that we had missed our stop; surely the journey shouldn’t take this long? Outside, the passing cityscape seemed never ending. How would we even know when we had reached our destination? Fortunately, a passenger in the seat next to me - a young student - came to our rescue. My attempts at mangling the language were soon met with a shy smile of understanding. We needed to get off at the terminal stop, he told us in fractured English. The ferry port was just across the road from there.

Sure enough, the bus eventually came to an abrupt halt, the driver indicating mutely that we had to get off. Xiamen itself (pronounced “Shiamen” in the local dialect) was a huge city island but we had decided that we wanted to stay on the smaller, neighbouring island of Gulang-yu. Across a busy 6-lane highway, a brief search soon turned up the ferry terminus. Once again, nothing was written in English and attempts to ask for help were met
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Plants grow from the walls of the former Japanese Embassy on Gulang-yu. © L. Birch 2007
with uncertain smiles. It was now close to mid-night and we were feeling tired and irritable after many hours of travel. Beyond a set of unmanned ticket stiles, we could see the boat coming in to dock. Did we have to pay and if so where? For all we knew, this might well have been the last ferry of the night. And so, pushing through the stiles, we ran down the ramp and joined a scrum of Chinese - all of them fighting to get on the boat at once.

Ours were the only foreign faces in the crowd and as such, we began to attract a fair amount of attention - covert glances or outright stares that seemed to say, “What are you doing here?” As if he sensed our feelings of uncertainty, a tall Chinese youth with high cheekbones and spiky hair seemed to take pity on us. As the boat filled, he had appropriated two seats and now beckoned us over, standing so that we could sit down. Stammering inarticulately with gratitude, we took the offered seats while he squatted down beside us. Apologising that his English was so poor, he managed to ask us where
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Lives on amongst the bright lights of Xiamen's busy commercial district. © V. Birch 2007
we were going. Relieved simply to have a kindly benefactor, we told him that we were heading for a youth hostel on Gulang-yu. He nodded seriously and said no more. Had he understood? We were not sure. We could not begin to communicate our concerns, but the fact was, it was now very late and we had no idea how to find the hostel. Fortunately, we seemed to have found a guardian angel.

As the boat came in to dock at the island port with a gentle bump, we joined the masses trying to exit the boat and were pushed along with the crowd until we found ourselves in a large square from where the town, dark and unfamiliar, rose up above us. Looking back across the strait, we could see the tower blocks and neon lights of Xiamen, lit up gaudily like something from the set of “Bladerunner”.

Once again, our friend from the boat was beside us. Without a word and after a brief perusal of an information board on the quayside, he indicated that we should follow, leading us into a darkened side street. It was too late to worry about where he might be
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Gulang-yu's most famous landmark towers over the island's villas and ornamental gardens. © V. Birch 2007
leading us, our silent helper who had barely spoken three words in English, and abandoning ourselves to fate, we followed - walking along cobbled streets lined with imposing old buildings from China’s colonial past.

After 5 or 10 minutes, we stopped outside the gate of a large house, its shuttered windows giving it the appearance of a Mediterranean villa. We had arrived, and relieved after the events of the long evening, asked our friend how we could repay him in return. In answer, he held up a hand. “Nothing.” He replied simply and bowed formally. “Welcome to China.” He said, before turning with a final wave and disappearing into the darkness.

Down and Out in China

We had booked two nights in the Gulang-yu hostel, erroneously believing that it would give us ample time to take in our surroundings and arrange onward travel to Beijing. However, we hadn’t bargained for a national holiday that saw 150 million Chinese - most of whom seemed to be on Gulang-yu - on the move at the same time. Trains and buses, we discovered next day, were booked up solidly at least five days ahead. Not only that, but the
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Our home for three nights looked like a Mongolian sheepherder's tent. © V. Birch 2007
hostel was full to overflowing and could only accommodate us for the two nights we had booked for.

“Now what?” We wondered as we nursed a lunchtime beer on the hostel’s balcony. Was China to be a series of crises that we were continually going to have to battle our way through? At least the beer was cheap and at just 3 Yuan a bottle (about 19 pence), made everything seem a little more bearable. Earlier, we had made a brief foray into the town to explore our surroundings, gather some information and have something to eat but the sheer crush of humanity on the streets had to be seen to be believed and soon drove us back to the relative sanctuary of the hostel. Trapped by the lack of available onward transport, we looked at our options. It was soon evident that every hotel in town was booked up for the next four days and we had begun looking at the small parks and shop doorways we passed, wondering whether they would make suitable places to sleep in an emergency. Had it really come to this? For the first time in our travels, we were faced with the
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In China, the May national holiday is known as "Golden Week" and the crowds have to be seen to be believed. © V. Birch 2007
very real possibility that we might have to sleep rough like a couple of tramps. Below our balcony, an impossible number of people surged through the narrow streets - Chinese tour groups for the most part, being led by a loudspeaker toting group leader. There were so many of these groups that all day long, the only thing you could hear were the constant squawk of loudspeakers competing with each other. It was an odd sensation to look down at all those people and feel utterly distanced and apart from them all. “Bet they’re not having to sleep on a park bench tomorrow night,” I thought morosely as I watched them trooping past.

We had one more night in a bed and then next morning…. There was a break through! A sleeper berth became available on a Beijing bound train. It wasn’t leaving until Monday night - three days away - but at least it would take care of one problem. And so, we made a quick trip over to Xiamen to book our tickets. That done, we only had to worry about where we were going to sleep for the next three nights. Throwing ourselves on the mercy
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Like something from the set of "Bladerunner", the bright lights of Xiamen dominated night-time views from Gulang-yu. © L. Birch 2007
of the hostel back on Gulang-yu, we asked if there was any way at all that they could accommodate us. The ten-person dorm already had fourteen people sleeping in it, I was told by the pretty Chinese receptionist as she ran through the bookings. She was just shaking her head when she stopped and said, “Unless…” There was a pause. “Unless what?” I asked, suddenly hopeful. “Unless you don’t mind sleeping in a tent in the courtyard?” She replied with a note of apology in her voice. Did I mind? I was so pleased that I wanted to reach across the desk and give her a big kiss.

We now had train tickets booked and somewhere to sleep. It didn’t seem to matter that the tent wasn’t waterproof or that it rained heavily on the first night, the hostel staff simply covered the exterior of the tent with bits of plastic and old sacking so that it resembled a Mongolian yurt. Yes, things were definitely looking up. With the basics taken care of, we could relax a little and finally begin to enjoy our surroundings. Even sharing them with half of China’s 1 billion, 300 million strong population seemed
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Taking a rest during a circumnavigation of the island... now, where did that ice cream seller go? © V. Birch 2007
less of a trial and we delighted at being regularly asked to ‘star’ in their photos with them. Apparently, foreigners in this part of China were something of a rarity and the Chinese seemed just as fascinated by us as we were about them.

Gulang-yu, we discovered over the next few days, was an attractive island filled with old buildings left behind by successive colonists - the French and the Japanese mostly but the British had also maintained a diplomatic presence here. A brightly coloured Chinese temple looked down from its vantage point at Sunlight Rock over a sea of red-tiled rooftops below which, labyrinthine alleyways wove through the heart of the old quarter, just begging to be explored. We ate at small back street eating houses where nobody understood what we were saying, pointing at dishes on the tables of other patrons to indicate what we wanted. While many of our choices proved delicious, some of the meals were a culinary adventure. Stir-fried cow’s stomach, chopped duck necks, diced pig’s ears and slippery pieces of intestine served up in a smoke flavoured sauce. It appeared that the Chinese would eat anything and everything.

For English speaking company, we fell back on the resources of the hostel where - among the throng of Chinese holidaymakers - a few other travellers were holed up like ourselves. There were a couple of Canadians, a Taiwanese American, a Singaporean woman and an Italian who had been travelling alone in China for the past two years. His stories of far off Tibet, Inner Mongolia and the deserts of Xinjiang made us wish we had more time to spend in this huge country. But a month was all we had and five days of that had almost slipped by unnoticed as we sought simply to survive the Chinese national holiday. In a few days time, we would begin the long 1447-mile (2335km) train journey to Beijing. One day and two nights on the train: we could hardly wait. The prospect of getting out there, of seeing China and experiencing life on the train was almost too exciting to think about. Would we be able to cope with the language difficulties? Would a journey on a Chinese sleeper train come close to the marvellous experiences we had enjoyed in India? What was it going to be like to finally see the Forbidden City and to stand on the Great Wall? In just a few days time, a new adventure would begin and we would find out the answers to these and many other questions.

In the meantime, there was always one more delight to discover, one more person to try out our meagre store of Chinese words upon (always good for a laugh) and, in the end, we were to leave Gulang-yu wishing we had just a few more days to enjoy its uniquely Chinese atmosphere. But once again, the clock was ticking. It was time to move on.


25th May 2007

Weather is nice here!
you seem to be having a lovely time. oh for your sense of adventure. LOL
26th May 2007

China Visit
Good to see you're having a good time in China. I suspect that this will be the first of a few journal entries for China. Looking forward to reading the next few. Grant

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