The Southern Tour

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August 10th 2010
Published: August 10th 2010
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During my time in China I had until this point only had weekends to travel. Though with sleeper trains your range can be large - Harbin, Nanjing, Hangzhou, it is nonetheless limited. But a two week holiday really allowed for some exploration further afield, namely the South.

Beijing - Hong Kong
I enjoy long distance train rides far more than is natural, or within fair reason. I’d been secretly looking forward to my 21hour journey from Beijing to the southern city of Guangzhou since I’d got my paws on the ticket. On a train your time is your own, and there is no pressure to do anything. You can on one hand sit for hours, staring out the window, watching the landscape develop as the world drifts by while on the other still feel remarkably productive - you’re crossing a continent after all. It’s also a good people watching opportunity too.

I particularly enjoyed the classic Chinese traits the guy in the bunk opposite displayed. Most of the time he would simply sleep but every so often would be awoken by his phone. He was meeting a friend in Guangzhou, and thus there was a frequent exchange of calls. Every time without fail, be it 10pm, 5am or 10 minutes after the last phone call his opening gambit would always be “Ni chi le ma?” “Have you eaten?”. He also had no luggage bar a laptop bag and a laptop. This seemed a little minimalist for a 2,500km trip to me and in wonderful contrast to the guy above him who appeared to be transporting half of Northern China’s annual industrial output in dirty grey hessian bags.

South China
My first impression of Southern China was hot, humid, but pleasant. Stepping out into the square in front of Guangzhou’s train station the sticky weather struck immediately despite it only being 8am. But what really hit me though was not being bombarded. Where were the hawkers pushing hotels and taxis? Couldn’t people see I was foreign? Where’s my allocation of attention? I almost felt rejected.

And this summed up the city’s relaxed feel. The park was full of people enjoying their morning. The city as a whole felt laid back, prosperous and green. It seemed that vegetation was bursting from anywhere, cracks in the concrete burst with greenery giving the city a luscious, lively feel. Life takes a lot more coxing up on the dry plains of the north. Alas I didn’t have the time to do Guangzhou justice; I had a border to cross and an incoming plane with on board excitement to meet.

Hong Kong
I loved Hong Kong. After 7 months in China it fulfilled all those things I’d been missing (often without really realising). Things were easy, things worked. Communication was trouble free and the concept of customer service is well known. It’s an irrepressibly cosmopolitan place that nevertheless retains its identity; it may be fastidious about hygiene, but there’s also no doubt that it’s Chinese.

On top of this it’s a beautiful city. The towering buildings have been built with thought, ambition and design rather than just bare concrete. The bay makes for a quite delightful water feature that even Charlie Dimmock would be rightly proud of. Victoria peak is a pleasant stroll with, of course, a famously fantastic view. Apologies for getting carried away, and any cliches that ensue, but for me the city feels like how cities should be built. Compact, efficient, 3-dimensional; human-kind scurrying about their business without destroying any more of nature’s land than necessary.

The star ferry across the harbour is a fantastically cheap boat tour, and for barely any more money you can get yourself to one of the peaceful surrounding islands to enjoy a bit of quiet, and some sea food. For me the place had everything.

However, I also suspect that my positive feelings for the place were partly as a consequence of where I’d come from. Perhaps if I’d just spent half a year in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur it would’ve been different. But for me Hong Kong was a perfect tonic to my time in Beijing. That’s not to say I would’ve swapped my time in Beijing for it, I wouldn’t’ve. But for a holiday it was bliss; fully-functioning, struggle-free bliss...

Macau is definitely a curiosity worth a day trip. The old centre is completely European in architecture and feel, with narrow streets awash with pastel coloured terraces and slatted window shutters. Portuguese is an official language, yet barely anyone in the city speaks it. It’s a gambling centre that generates more income than Las Vegas, yet it’s technically part of a country where gambling is illegal. In the midst of this it is undeniably Chinese at heart.

Though the reasons for it are clear, something still doesn’t sit right with me about how much easier it is for a foreigner to visit Macau, or Hong Kong, than a mainland resident. For me it’s just a piercing stare from an entrenched customs officer and a reluctant chop of his passport stamp and I’m in. For a mainlander it requires permits, good reasons, currency exchanges and postcards home.

Back to the Mainland - Guilin
But our time amongst China’s savvy offspring couldn’t last; there was the mainland to see. And a bank account to perform damage limitation on.

Shenzhen is only a 100m walk over the river from Hong Kong, but in spirit it is so much closer to Beijing, all those hundreds of kilometers further north. From here we took the train to Guilin.

I’d heard people, especially locals, rave about Guilin. I read beaming articles, and my guidebook sang its praises unapologetically. I expected much, but was left utterly underwhelmed. It’s just a city. A sprawling one that has forced itself on the area’s natural beauty - in complete contrast to how Hong Kong appears to nestle gently within its. Yes there are some nice green lumpy bits and some historical sights of note, but nothing to blow the mind. Not even a puff.

On top of this I struggled to endear to the people we met. Perhaps it’s the endless stream of tourists that pass through, maybe it’s the arrogance gained from its reputation but those moments delicate friendliness I love about travelling through China were in complete absence. There was only the string of usual tricks to extract as much money as possible from the Westerners. I was glad I’d seen them all before.

The natural limestone sculptures that make the area famous only come into their own as you head down the river, around the town of Yangshuo. We did a fantastic 24km hike between two local villages of Yangdi and Xingping. Though we’d been conned by the incorrect scale on our guidebook’s map (which suggested 10km), it was nevertheless superb. The landscape is remarkable, the setting had real rural charm and the adventure of having to take bamboo rafts across the river at salient points added a bit of fun, and of course challenge. An idyllic setting for sure. We just wish we’d spent more time here, rather than Guilin, before we had to fly to Shanghai.

I’ll come out straight and say I didn’t really like Shanghai. For me it wasn’t the happy medium between Beijing and Hong Kong that it could be. It feels like a city who’s preoccupation and overexcitedness at the thought of making money has gone straight to its head. Compared with Beijing it felt complicated and overly busy. Beijing has a grid system and tube stations with four exits at four cardinal points. Shanghai is irregular and has tube stations with 20 exits. Getting around is difficult and tiring, the heat and humidity didn’t help, but neither did the Shanghainese tendency to push and shove their way through life.

But that’s not to say I couldn’t see the appeal. I can see why it’s a haven for expats. The bund with it’s collection of European funded buildings - while it would barely be of note at all were it to be in London - is nevertheless an interesting insight into the opening up of trade in China. The view over the Pu river to the skyline of Pu Dong is spectacular, and the scale of the buildings will excite anyone who’s secretly still a 7 year old boy inside. What’s more our trip was made all the better by my cousin’s fine hospitality.

Yet Shanghai made me feel rather like the polar bear in its zoo. Having to cope with 35 degrees and 90%!h(MISSING)umidity is one thing, but having to cope when there are also people tapping on the glass, dropping litter in your enclosure, and throwing left over tit-bits from their packed lunch is quite exhausting.

The heat, crowds and in particular the frustration at spending a morning getting outmanoeuvred by the train ticketing no doubt unfairly added to my opinion of the place, and I should probably return to Shanghai sometime to give it a second chance, but actually I also felt like we had pretty much “done” Shanghai. There’s surprisingly little to it in terms of culture and history. I feel no great need to return. Beijing has comfortably kept me occupied with sights for 7 months, Shanghai just about filled 3 days.

Return to the North
We headed back to Beijing via Tai’An, to climb the famous TaiShan mountain. TaiShan't Be Forgetting This Sacred Mountain. For me Tai’An was the turning point of the trip, it marked our re-entry into the north. It smelt like the China I knew, it looked like the China I knew. The street food was familiar, the accent was familiar and the people were familiar. Next stop Beijing.

Sitting on two stained seats at the back of a rickety bus we arrived back in Beijing at 4 in the morning. There was a smile on my face though, as I felt like it was a homecoming or sorts. Don’t get me wrong it wasn’t like coming home after a long walk on a cold winter’s day to a mug of hot chocolate and a slump in a comfy sofa watching Ski Sunday. This was more like coming home to familiar old friend. A place where you know what subtle technique you need to use with the toilet to make it flush properly, where you know which windows have squeaky hinges, and which doors need a kick to budge them free. A place that’s one person’s old banger, but is another person’s pride and joy.

If nothing else our two week trip made me really appreciate Beijing. Shanghai doesn’t have its culture or history. Guilin doesn’t have its people. Macau doesn’t have its substance and even Hong Kong doesn’t have the sense of moment that Beijing has. Beijing is far from perfect but not for the first time in its history, it is on the up and is heading properly high, and that makes it a captivating place to be.

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10th August 2010

Hong Kong
I was in Hong Kong on a family holiday last year. Certainly a nice place but a strange mix of British and Chinese cultures (British road signs!). The light display on the bay is truly stunning, an entire city lit up in time to music. I was disappointed by the lack of cheap electronics :-( but I did get a 1W laser pointer for £7. Crazy powerful. No, Jerry, I haven't changed. We travelled to Singapore afterwards which is a completely different world. What I imagine the British Empire was like in 1800s. Glad to hear of your adventures. Benji

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