Late arrivals at the Death Star

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January 22nd 2012
Published: January 22nd 2012EDIT THIS ENTRY

Shanghai South Railway StationShanghai South Railway StationShanghai South Railway Station

inside the Death Star

…..why travel, not only during the school holidays, always a pain even in sparsely populated countries like Australia, let alone the world's most populous country when over a billion people seem to be trying to go somewhere all at once? Because we're teachers & that's when we get our time off. It can lead to hair-raising last minute changes of travel arrangements, crowds that most of you might see temporarily at a big ball game constantly around you, queues at ticket offices that I could not imagine before I came to China &, in the case of the Spring Festival, it's in the middle of winter. There's nothing for it but to get your head down, elbows out & dive in.....

… the bus at Shanghai coach station then next door, (nothing's actually THAT close China), dragging bags, small suitcases & backpacks through crowded subway stations, up & down staircases or, if we're lucky, escalators. The train to Guilin leaves the South Railway station at 16:25. Plenty of time to test the warranty on my translator with the broken screen. “Take to this place”, says the lady at the book shop where I bought it, pointing at the
Pudong, ShanghaiPudong, ShanghaiPudong, Shanghai

The Pearl Tower on the left
manufacturer's address. I point out, very charmingly, that I have bought 5 in total at their shop for friends & have recommended it to others but that I might not if this one is not replaced. With a smile she gets another one from a box without any further questions. We get to the South station in plenty of time. That's where the problem begins.....

…..inside the station looks something like the Death Star, (see the photos). We have to stand in a queue to show our passports & ensure the bunk numbers match the passports. This paranoid circus completed we still have ample time to have a bowl of very tasty beef noodles at a little restaurant next to a KFC on the outer rim of the star, sorry, station. In fact after I check the location of our waiting area in the vast recesses of the interior I start to think we probably should get moving. We arrive at the gate with a full five minutes to spare, flash our tickets & start to walk through. “Bu keyi”, (“Can't”!). Turns out they expected us to be ready to board 30 minutes before departure. I am not amused,
The Bund, ShanghaiThe Bund, ShanghaiThe Bund, Shanghai

Quite a sight at night
naturally, but the woman in the uniform is adamant & the very interested crowd waiting for the next train learns some new vocabulary. We end up having to exchange tickets, the next available bunks being in 2 days time. I am so glad that guy who was ready to push in front of me in the queue didn't do it.....

…..we drag the same baggage back through the subway system in the hope that the Travellers Rest Hostel will have a spare room for George & me plus a dormitory bunk for Jenna. They do. We prepare to make the best of a bad job.....

… turns out to be a good opportunity to have a better look around Shanghai. I normally only come here on specific errands. We see the Bund, the old European style street across the Huangpu river from Pudong's ultra modern skyline, take photos of, for & with groups of Chinese people then go back to plan how to utilise the following day & a half.....

…...there's a skyscraper in Shanghai, quite close to the Pearl Tower, that looks like a bottle opener. In fact it's one of the world's tallest buildings, The
Pudong, ShanghaiPudong, ShanghaiPudong, Shanghai

The Shanghai World Financial Centre & the Jin Mao Tower
Shanghai World Financial Centre. It's taller than the Petronas towers & also the Sears (now Willis) tower in Chicago & Taipei 101, excluding their antennae on top. Because of its design there is a lookout at the very top, the highest in the world, on the 100th floor. 495 metres high. For ¥150 we get a look at an incredible scale model of Shanghai which appears to be updated to show buildings under construction with cranes in place! It changes lighting to show a one day cycle in a few minutes, with the buildings lit up at night. There is a lookout on the 94th floor, at the bottom of the bottle opener, then up to the 100th floor. Even on a day of less than perfect visibility it's worth a look. For comparison see the photos looking down on the ornate Jin Mao Tower next door, which is around 40m metres higher than the Empire State Building. Yes, for ¥38 you can buy a bottle opener in the shape of the Financial Centre.....

…..George & Jenna don't know Shanghai at all so we go to the Yuyuan area, full of touristy shops but including some quite stunning craftspeople,
View from the 100th floorView from the 100th floorView from the 100th floor

Looking down on the Jin Mao Tower
your own portrait cut from a sheet of paper with scissors, or made in 3D caricatures from clay, another creating intricately detailed & beautiful pictures from cut up Coke cans, another engraving inscriptions on pearls that are just visible in perfect calligraphy through the small magnifying glass supplied with each one......

…..I feel a bit guilty after a girl insists that I have my name engraved on a grain of rice. I hand her a piece of paper giving my name as Marmaduke Cholmondley-Featherstonehaugh. She turns pale & goes to consult the engraver as I make my escape. Presumably she asked if he had any long grain rice.....

…...we spot a new Lamborghini inching its way into a car park. Must be frustrating driving it in Shanghai.....

…..we buy tickets for an evening acrobatic show at Circus World. Brilliant backdrops & props, ridiculous contortions, backflips through hoops above head height, trampoline tricks on shoulder mounted planks about 10cm wide, not only 5,6,or 7 but 8 motorbikes in a 5 metre diameter “Ball of Death”, plus imaginative shadow projections of the performers. Personal favourite, the guy on a 1.5 metre pogo stick landing a triple back somersault perfectly,
George and shop assistants, YuyuanGeorge and shop assistants, YuyuanGeorge and shop assistants, Yuyuan

Using his British charm
(still on the pogo stick!), after being catapaulted off the end of a see-saw. Awe inspiringly pointless. A great live band soundtrack for the whole show though I am dissuaded from buying their CD at ¥150.....

…..finally, on Monday, the day we were due to arrive in Guilin, we depart from the South Station, not until after Shanghai has a parting shot. George finally gets a seat on a subway train. As soon as he sits down the train pulls into a station, the lights go off & the passengers all disembark. No explanation. The train leaves & we catch the next one, standing all the way.....

…..only 20 hours to Guilin. Occasionally chatting to the Chinese people on board but otherwise it's reading, sleeping or cards. No one complains (openly) about George's snoring.....

…, (always men), smoking between the carriages & of course smoke drifts into the carriage & we're near the end.....

… Guilin it's possible to see what stunning scenery would be seen around the city IF it were not the middle of winter. Arriving two days later than planned it's not possible to take that trip down the Li River to Yangshuo
Li River Fish, GuilinLi River Fish, GuilinLi River Fish, Guilin

Li River fish, local speciality, highly recommended
but really it would be cold & foggy & probably not the best time of the year. We look around the centre, (Guilin is a very small city of less than 1.5 million), at night after a colossal dinner at the Li River Cuisine Restaurant. Li River fish, duck, beef, stunning vegetable dishes & rice, plus drinks, for around ¥53, about Au$8. As usual China is unrivalled at creative lighting. There are....(hold on, this is what photos are for.....

…..The Sun & Moon twin pagodas, connected by a submarine tunnel, the Sun pagoda being the largest copper, (should that be brass?) pagoda in existence, beautifully crafted & decorated, a photo shoot for Jenna in traditional costume which cheers her up no end. Elephant Hill, craft markets, not forgetting the number 181 People's Liberation Army hospital.....

… to the airport, (Chinese New Year; we were unable to get train tickets to Beihai!). The 45 minute ride is ¥100, or say Au$5 each. The lady driving the taxi is quite chatty &, with a little effort we can understand each other. Then an “Only in China” moment. On spotting a toll gate she veers to the opposite side of the road, then off onto a parallel track. Under a pedestrian subway, luckily just wide enough for the taxi & the unfortunate pedestrians, then onto another road, now on the correct side but separated from the freeway by a high wire fence. She gets back to the main road through a small opening after avoiding the second toll gate. “Ni yi qian zuo le”, (“You've done this before”). She just laughs. “Hen cong ming”, (“Very clever”).....

…..Guilin airport is clean & modern, the flight to Beihai is only an hour or so & we have a chat in the shuttlebus to Beihai with a lady who speaks very good English, having worked for the Travel Industry in Dubai for four years. After a flurry of calls to Mike & Sunshine the taxi driver gets us to the hostel.....

….Mike found the hotel in Beihai, on China's south coast, quite close to Vietnam, not close to the sea as anticipated. How did my messages to Sunshine, or their translation, go astray? He has booked a room for George & me & a dormitory bunk for Jenna at a hostel close to the sea. If it were not cool, grey, foggy
Tunnel, Sun and Moon Pagodas, GuilinTunnel, Sun and Moon Pagodas, GuilinTunnel, Sun and Moon Pagodas, Guilin

Underwater tunnel joinng the pagodas
& miserable it would be fantastic.....

…..Jenna's tired & wants to just go to sleep. Mike, George & I go into the city for Shao Kao (barbecue), in gloriously messy & abandoned Chinese style. As usual the amount of street food would be phenomenal if we were not used to seeing it everywhere we go. Mike tells us of rats he's seen the size of small dogs. There may be an element of hyperbole involved here. We only see one crossing the road. The proprietors of the Shao Kao seem delighted to have so many foreigners patronising their al fresco eatery. Two oblivious, drunken Chinese guys are playing a loud game something like Rock, Paper, Scissors behind us. Back to the hostel before they lock up at midnight. What is this, an old folks home?.....

…..I drift off to sleep as George goes through his nightly repertoire of high decibel virtuosic mimickry, a roaring lion, approaching train, Alpine avalanche & a bestiary of mythical animals, the final curtain not even closed on his performance as I wake up a few hours later to go to the bathroom.....

… ¥120 per night, or ¥60 each, it's cheap, but
Street Food, Lao Jie, BeihaiStreet Food, Lao Jie, BeihaiStreet Food, Lao Jie, Beihai

This pancake thing wasn't that tasty
of course it's very basic accommodation. Still, it has a functional bathroom, flat screen TV & clean bedding, oh, & air-con, should it be required.....

…..from my childhood & formative, (should that be deformative?) years in close proximity to a seaside resort, in England, I should have known that there is no more dismal, dreary place in winter. Ragged flags flutter dimly through the ever present fog over the markers between which people swam in the blue, warm summer sea. This refers to Beihai, no markers or warm, blue sea at any time in Great Yarmouth. It's not really cold but, while others are still sleeping, I'm walking on the beach in a beanie & thick jacket wondering why we thought that, just because Beihai is below the Tropic of Cancer I'd be able to swim in the sea in the middle of winter.....

…..we explore the town but it appears to be devoid of any really attractive features. Sunshine finally turns up. She is having trouble getting her advance rent payment refunded by her landlord, also, so near the New Year, she can't get her belongings freighted back to Jiangsu. She hates Beihai & wants to return
Street food, BeihaiStreet food, BeihaiStreet food, Beihai

Kevin, Sunshine and Mike with sweet potatoes
to Yangzhou. She takes us all to Lao Jie (Old Street), a charmingly dilapidated street full of craft shops, eateries, hostels & quirky statues.....

…..we have a good dinner, including Kao Yu, (barbecued fish), at a small restaurant with possibly the most appallingly uninviting entrance I have ever seen, through a messy storeroom, past a toilet seconded from the waiting lounge for hell, & into a basic room with plastic covered tables. This is normal in basic restaurants in China. Eating here is intended to be enjoyable & not hampered by A.R. western preconceptions about table manners. The food is chosen from the display on the street at the front & the tanks a little further back. It's pretty good. Unable to send you all a sample I've tried to provide close ups of the food to whet your appetite. I'll post more pictures on the Photobucket site....

…..Mike stays in. Food poisoning? Ha ha, George & I did not eat the oysters or the half cooked squid. We are fine & we go to a hostel in Lao Jie in the evening as there is a pianist / singer there & I can borrow a guitar to
Mike, Sleeper busMike, Sleeper busMike, Sleeper bus

Only another 19 hours to go
do a couple of songs with Sunshine. Dan Dan, the hostel's receptionist, turns up by chance &, her English being better than Sunshine's or my Chinese, we manage to converse.....

….the Beihai aquarium is not really world class. Lost points for the “virtual aquarium”, images projected onto a wall made to look like a fish tank where the virtual fish risk getting dizzy from endless repetitions of the same route around the virtual seaweed. More lost points for the disturbingly moist concrete around some of the tanks, along with the badly applied silicone sealant repairs &, in some cases, sticky tape. Deduct further points for the grubby & uneven glass, fading paint, & one of George's incredibly loud nocturnal raspberries for the “Encounter with sharks” live show with scuba divers handling a live shark, an apparently heavily sedated nurse shark, which is not a fearsome denizen of the deep but a toothless creature that feeds on plankton. It has a fish shoved between it's slackened jaws & is just conscious enough to spit it out.....

…..Sunshine organises her affairs as best she can & we prepare to go to Changsha. She brings along a good friend, Kevin, an
Kevin and Sunshine, BeihaiKevin and Sunshine, BeihaiKevin and Sunshine, Beihai

Goodbye Beihai, Goodbye Sunshine
engineer, who has a car & helps us to get our baggage to the bus station. We all assume he is her boyfriend but she says no, just a very good friend. There is someone else & in the end we're all sad for Kevin. He had dinner with us last night & obviously thinks the world of Sunshine. Parting is such sweet sorrow. He's such a nice guy we all try to persuade her to give him a chance but she is adamant.....

… the train tickets were sold old when Sunshine went to buy them last week we board the sleeper bus, a new experience for George & Jenna. The general consensus is that Beihai is something of a dump with few redeeming features, great seafood but you don't need to go to the other side of China for that & the idea of going to the tropics in China in the hope of finding warm weather in the middle of winter is a stupid idea. Having to face a 16 hour trip on a crowded sleeper bus is a prospect to be avoided.....

… awkward parting for Kevin, luggage loaded & we are on board
Beef Noodles at the Death StarBeef Noodles at the Death StarBeef Noodles at the Death Star

Very tasty, we had the same on our return visit but finished a little earlier!
the upper deck. I should take a little time to describe this to those of your who have never been on one &, after reading this may well ensure you never do. Up the steps & take a red plastic bag from the bunch hanging on a peg. Take your shoes off on the step, (without standing on the steps in your socks or the floor in your boots!), then find your bunk among the three rows of two tier bunks. Two rows along the sides of the bus, another down the middle. The aisles in between are about half a metre wide as are the bunks themselves, just enough room for me to slide in & sit up. The length is more than adequate for a Chinese dwarf. In the end I manage to curl up in a semi-foetal position, my knees posing a risk to anyone making for the toilet at the back in the dark. I even surprise myself by sleeping well, in instalments, hood up over my head & trying to ignore the occasional smell of smoke from the already malodorous toilet just behind us, as addicts on this “Non smoking” bus assume they'll remain undetected
Shanghai World Financial CentreShanghai World Financial CentreShanghai World Financial Centre

View from the top, 100 floors or 495m
in this dismal, tiny cubicle, which to a slim, agile Chinese dwarf with no sense of smell might just be adequate.....

…..the bus stops at around 4am, after I return to sleep after the huge argument about a woman's underpaid ticket at around 3am. We have no idea why but we're there for about 3 hours. Turns out later it's one of those huge traffic jams for which China is rapidly getting a name. We finally arrive in Changsha, Hunan's provincial capital, more than 4 hours after the appointed time, about 20 hours. However we need to be in Jishou, about 400km west, where we would have ended up IF Sunshine could have bought train tickets. My friend from Jishou, Mr. Xiang has send a friend to pick us up. He looks remarkably cheerful having been there since 5am waiting for us. We get into the Toyota Highlander at around 10.30, ready for another 3 hours or so to get to Jishou. There's snow on the road, cars crashed everywhere & it actually takes around 7 hours, but that's a story for another week.....

Additional photos below
Photos: 28, Displayed: 28


Model of ShanghaiModel of Shanghai
Model of Shanghai

By night, a fantastic bit of model making
Ninjas, GuilinNinjas, Guilin
Ninjas, Guilin

So this is where Ninjas go to get their training
Li River Cuisine, GuilinLi River Cuisine, Guilin
Li River Cuisine, Guilin

If you're in Guilin, go!
View from the Moon to the SunView from the Moon to the Sun
View from the Moon to the Sun

Oh, that's me on the right
Jenna, GuilinJenna, Guilin
Jenna, Guilin

Canadian in Chinese costume

22nd January 2012

Oh Marmaduke..., You slay me!
22nd January 2012

Not feeling compelled to travel to China!
Holiday?? Sounds like a lot of frustration and hard work to me, Dave! I hope all the best bits made it all worth it! Just as well you have a sense of humour! xo
24th January 2012

All OK in the end
haha! I was impressed enough to want to return to Guilin & the second half of the trip was pretty amazing, even though in winter (Spring/New Year hol) hard work. Come over when the weather's better. We'll ensure you have an unforgettable time!

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