02.08.2015 - 16.08.2015 32 °C
So this is what is feels like to be a rock star...long hair, jet lag, another hotel room, all thats missing is the fame, fortune and wild parties, unless you count two bottles of Tsing Tao, a pot of jasmine tea and some Peking duck as a wild night out. I'm also getting stared at out here constantly like a minor celebrity by every man, woman, child, baby, dog....although to be fair, with my current appearance the same would probably happen back home. Welcome to China, an intense country full of flavour, crazy traffic, smog and people....absolutely everywhere. Oh yes and home to the great firewall meaning no Google, Facebook or any other medium of expressing free speech for the next two weeks...I best be careful. Tiananmen square incident, what Tiananmen square incident?? ( I did see a policeman having a punch up on the square when I was there, I can feel another wikipedia page coming on...)
The chairman is watching...
These guys are a bit paranoid and to get a visa you need to provide details of your whole trip. Aliens though..someones been watching a bit too much ET...
I started the Chinese leg of my journey in Beijing having flown in from Istanbul via Azerbaijan of all places. A quick mention to Baku in Azerbaijan, which has possibly the most extravagant airport I've ever seen...shows how far sitting on a bit of oil can get you, never mind that the place was in the middle of a desert and half empty. Onto Beijing though and as I feared into the smog...the pilot gave the weather report on the ground as 25 degrees and sunny, I'll assume he was being paid by the 'Everything's OK, keep smiling' department of the Chinese government, as on getting out of the plane you could barely make out your hand if you put your arm out in front of you. After a quick ride on the local metro, which was all in 'Engrish', a strange form of English only the interpretors of China can explain, I surfaced near my hostel for the next 4 nights, right next to the infamous Tiananmen square. Putting the jet lag to one side I staggered through the square and forbidden city before retreating for a well earned plate of mystery meat dumplings and long awaited sleep before heading to the grand designs of boundary construction, the great wall of China, the next day.
A real natural wonder of the world, the sun does shine here sometimes
For my trip to the great wall I entrusted myself to a team of Germans/Austrians, that I'd met in the hostel the previous day. A wise choice I thought based on their reputation for excellent time keeping and planning....wait a minute, didn't your guide book say 'don't get off the bus before the last stop'? Unfortunately we did, part of a local scam to trick us trusting travellers into getting a taxi for the final leg of the journey. Having bargained with possibly the most cheery con artist imaginable (probably because we were about to pay him enough to take the next year off) we were bundled into two cars and eventually made it to the wall.
Talk about impressive, who cares if you can't actually see it from space, this wall is an engineering marvel and to top that the Chinese are milking it for all its worth, constructing a series of cable cars and fake period towns around the wall to cater for the ever increasing army of Chinese tourists. Forget keeping the Mongolians out, the wall is now to keep the tourists and their valuable Chinese Yuan's in and spending it on all kinds of home made tat. The effort to make it to this section of the wall was more than worthwhile, as we virtually had the place to ourselves (apparently other more touristy parts of the wall are so busy you can't see the wall due to the number of people on it)......the only other people around being a few families and the usual blokes wearing their Beijing bikinis (where they roll their top up to expose a rather full looking beer belly) who seem to be everywhere with their ever suffering other half's, even taking their tops off in restaurants...it seems the motto in China is 'If it feels good then do it', this bunch could do with a few weeks in finishing school!
The following day I visited the impressive forbidden palace and took in a smoggy view of the city from a view point behind the palace. The day was rounded off by eating the iconic food of the area, some Peking duck. It was like a doctors surgery at the restaurant as the chefs donned their operating gowns and sharpened their scalpels, except the patient in this case came out in small pieces with a side of hoisin. Get this duck some spring onion and pancakes quick!
Beijing dress code, bikini on!
The next day I left Beijing for a trip to head to where my Grandpa was born, a city called Tianjin...yes I have a Grandpa who was born in China, and unfortunately no, that didn't result in me being any good at table tennis...I'm still getting over missing out on selection for the under 14s team for my local vilage! The trip also meant I got to experience Chinas ultra modern bullet train...faster than a left hook from Bruce Lee and cutting through the smog like a knife through....smog, I made the 150km journey in less than 30 minutes. I imagine this place has changed a fair bit since my Grandpa was here... by the look of it I imagine it has changed a fair bit in the last few months. I was greated by high rise construction after high rise construction, and a pretty impressive skyline which I took in by boat cruise...purchasing the ticket being the usual pointing, shrugging and awkward laughing exchange I'd got used to by now. 'Yes Mrs ticket lady, hard to believe it, but I do want to buy a ticket from you to go on the boat and not option b a rocket to the moon'. It was yet again a real pea souper of a day, not just the smog this time though but the river too. I know in Chicago they dye the river green for St Patrick's but this was no celebration here, still it didn't stop the locals going for a dip and emerging looking like the increbile hulk and it also didn't stop them fishing their dinner out of it.
I'm not sure Google translate has ever seen the sentance 'Is that terrapin his dinner?'
A quick note to all those athletes that are competing here in the athletics world championships at the end of August...I know your reading it Mo! I really feel for these guys, I made a short trip to the birds nest athletics stadium that evening... If I was a bird I'd steer clear of this place, that's if I could see it for the smog....I'm not sure a 100m race has ever been called off because you can't see the finish line...'Which way is it?' 'Come on Usain, nice and straight, then its all the MSG laced Chicken MaoNuggets you can manage'.
On my last day in Beijing I continued the world tour of dead, waxy looking leaders I'd started in Vietnam, by visiting Maos mausoleum. The main difference this time being the sheer number of people here to see him. Apologies Ho Chi Minh, but in the number of followers stakes your very much Accrington Stanley on an away trip to Torquay, whereas Mao is World Cup final day. Having seen Mao up close though and knowing the Chinese reputation for knock offs, if I was the owner of madam Tussaud's I'd be checking my communist leaders section...this chap looked waxier than the sweepings pile at the crayola factory. It didn't stop the droves of people walking by and leaving flowers, and in the land where you ask no questions, I made my way back to my hostel to prepare for my first sleeper train Chinese style.
I really can't believe how modern this country is (well the cities and infrastructure at least). Its almost like the Chinese government are playing a giant game of Sim City, rebuilding and modernisation taking place everywhere. So I shouldn't have been surprised that the sleeper train I borded was brand spanking new. My 5 bunk mates for the night, 3 generations of the same family, including their 9 year old daughter/granddaughter who despite being in school holiday mode was forced into an impromptu English lesson. Apologies to her later in life if those Derbyshire pronunciations hold her back! They even bought me a beer and taught me the Chinese cheers equivalent in return...Gānbēi!
Next on the pre agreed itinerary was a trip to Xi'An. One of Chinas ancient capitals and home of the self proclaimed 8th wonder of the world, the terracotta warriors... I'm sure I've seen about ten 8th wonders of the world now, at least 2 of them in China...come on guys, think of a new tag line! The city of Xi'An was also packed full of historical monuments and was surrounded by another huge wall...damn good brickies this bunch. On my visit to the terracotta warriors I was befriended by some Chinese students, keen to show me around and practice their English....with all the chaperones you'd almost think I was being watched...and despite having to further perfect my skills of pushing through hoardes of locals, the visit to the warriors was fantastic. Apparently each warrior is unique, and their mission was to protect emperor Qin in the afterlife...should have chosen metal weapons mate, everyone knows wood rots!
Terracotta warriors FC new signings will hopefully sort out their static back 4 and statuesque strike force.
I also found out in Xi'An that a pet store and a supermarket are interchangeable in China. Among other weird and wonderful items you could buy toad at a mere £1.80 a kilo and terrapins were a snip at £3.20...I'm not so sure about my friends intentions with his 'pet' tortoise in Tianjin now.
Xi'An done I borded my next night train to Chengdu, famous for its panda breeding centre, and as I was to find on arrival some of the craziest scooter drivers to date. There were scooters everywhere, pavements, roads, cross walks, even the lifts...
Forget look left and right...here its up and down too...
I couldn't come to China and not see the national emblem, plus also what is probably the only animal I haven't seen on a menu to date. (Quickly on the subject of food...the menus are full of the wierdest things I have seen on my trip to date, a few of my favourite items are listed further down and also there was no chance of Dracula following me here from Romania, as every meal is served with heaps of raw garlic) The Chengdu panda centre was basically a panda production line, pandas apparently growing in a laboratory, before being upgraded to a cot, and finally settling into a life of eating bamboo and sleeping, whilst having a thousand cameras thrust in your face. Actually that last bit sounds a bit like being a western traveller over here.
Back to Chengdu and yet another metropolis being modernised at a rate of knots. The towns focal point being a huge Mao statue and the peoples park, where you guessed it...there were lots of people. Chengdu is also the capital of Sichuan state, home of some of the spiciest food in the country. Step forward the newest member of sichuan pepper addicts anonymous...these peppers aren't so much spicy as they are mouth numbing....they must contain a form of anaesthetic, as eating anything with them in leads to your mouth having an out of body experience. Forget having an injection next time at the dentist, ask your dentist for a fist full of these potent little things!
Having just about recovered my taste buds it was time once again to head on. The next stop, via a 15 hour day time 'express' service, my final planned stop in China, Shanghai.
As I arrived late at night I had to wait until the following day to take in the city scape this place is most known for.
Unfortunately for the city, this view, incredible as it was, was all it really offered. On a local top 10 things to do blog I found the top three were:
1. See the city scape in the day
2. See the city scape at night
3. See the city scape by boat
Hmmm I'm beggining to see a bit of a pattern here!
Over the next few days I managed to find a few other things to do...go to a local football match and support the team in blue until the 80th minute, when I realised I'd actually bought the home teams away shirt and they were in yellow (I'd also been slating the number 27 on the yellow team, until I realised it was his name on my shirt) and finally head to the city's old town... or as it was, not so old town, having been redeveloped and now packed with the vast array of shops and hoardes of locals I was now just about getting used to.
Going back to the top 10 list I mentioned before, I finally completed the top 4 on the list, which believe it or not meant riding the high speed train to the airport. It was the fastest commercially operating train in the world apparently, so for all those train spotters out there blink and you'll miss it. The tourist trail of China seen it was time to head on to my final destination on my Asian odyssey, the land of the rising sun, and hopefully some mighty fine sushi, Japan.
As promised a few of my favourite menu items:
The steam fries a round mass of food
The wood beard fillet
Spicy duck tongues
Spicy dry burning frog
Spicy toothpick meat
Lamb spine hot pot
Big hot pepper tatty intestine
The fire explodes the kidney
Breeze flavour chicken
Domestic life bean curd
Not a restaurant item, but in a supermarket I saw an item called...surprise commodity.
And finally some standard answers I received in China:
Its not smog, its always this cloudy
Why do we need google, the Chinese version of events is much better
Mao is the greatest thing sinced sliced bread
Cough, Sneeze, Snort, Spit...sorry what did you say
Eating - check, sleeping - check, recycling....get back to me on that one. Great leaders say wishful thoughts make for short life, I focus on eat and sleep parts.