Archive for September, 2011

Autumn to Spring

Saturday, September 24th, 2011

Shanghai: 29 degrees, humid Autumn afternoon.

Thirteen hours on two planes, two time zones, about 5400 miles later –

Melbourne: cool, crisp Spring morning.

Yangshuo and Shanghai

Monday, September 19th, 2011

Yangshuo ended up being a day trip from Guilin instead of a couple of nights as originally envisaged. I liked where I was staying in Guilin and couldn’t be bothered to move! The trip started with a short coach ride to Yangdi on the Li river. Then a couple of hours on a fake bamboo raft watching the amazing karst landscape slide by. The rafts take four passengers. Two coaches arrived at the pier at the same time so lots of rafts set off within a few minutes of each other. Our driver was something of a Michael Schumacher, slicing his way through the pack of rafts. The river is not very deep. In places the bottom, or the water weeds growing there were clearly visible. These were the calm undisturbed waters between the boats and the banks before the wakes from the flotilla churned up the surface, destroyed the reflected limestone stacks and turned the crystal clear water an impenetrable steely blue-grey colour. At Xingping we switched back to another bus for the short ride to Yangshuo.

The guidebooks are right; the landscape around Yangshuo is even more amazing than it is around Guilin. They were also right about the town being much more touristy. In some ways maybe not a bad thing – for the first time in China there were laundries everywhere, and internet cafes which have also been in short supply. Over lunch I met a, nay, the globetrotting mama. Heather and her family are on a westerly round the world trip. They had arrived in Beijing on the same day as me and have been to many of the countries I will be visiting. We traded advice on South America and South East Asia. I’m more determined now that Ecuador and the Galapagos will feature in next year’s travels.

The cheapest flight I could find from Guilin to Shanghai was 840 yuan, a soft sleeper train was 620 yuan and the sleeper bus only 480 yuan. They assured me the bus took 16 hours, the same as the train. They lied. It was more like 24 hours and it wasn’t as comfortable as the sleeper buses in Laos and Vietnam. Everything is relative though. The discomforts pale into insignificance compared to the privations endured by Ernest Shackleton’s unsuccessful 1914-1916 expedition to cross Antarctica. I read most of the account of the expedition on my Kindle while cursing the midget who thought that 5’8″(1.72m)  is plenty long enough for a sleeper bunk and 2’6″ (76cm) is plenty of headroom. I would have read more were it not for the usual too noisy crappy movies they insist on playing on buses in Asia and the (also standard) lack of working reading lights.

With half a day less in Shanghai than I had expected the best thing to do seemed to be take an open top bus city tour. Having paid my 100 yuan I discovered there was a second city tour bus company with more buses and tickets only a third of the price. Hopefully they only covered a third of the sights too. With frequent hopping off and back on I only covered two thirds of the route shown on the map. By the time I’d had enough it had been dark for a couple of hours. Shanghai is one of the largest cities in the world so I didn’t even scratch the surface. It is also the largest port in the world and fully a third of all the sea cargo in the world goes through it. Compared to the other cities I’ve visited in China it felt much more modern. There are some ancient bits but the bits I saw were colonial or contemporary. The sense of hustle and bustle was much more urgent than anywhere else on my journey. I have to commend it highly to any photographers. Go at night. Take a tripod.

There are some photos from the Yangshuo day trip and Shanghai at Flickr.

And so the Chinese and Asian parts of my journey are complete. Next stop Melbourne, next continent Oceania.

Some China gotchas

Friday, September 16th, 2011

The Chinese net nannies do a much better job of blocking Facebook than do their Vietnamese counterparts. In Vietnam a simple proxy or even just a change of name server is enough to get you back on Facebook. Here the only thing that’s likely to work is a subscription VPN. And even they get blocked in the game of catch up played between the dodgers and the censors. I don’t use a VPN so there has been no Facebook for me since I got here. It’s frustrating because it’s the only way I have of keeping in touch with some people. I’ll have some catching up to do when I get to Australia. The authorities aren’t too keen on Google either. Search works, but slowly. Reader works but blogger doesn’t. I was able to keep up with the blogger hosted tango (and other) blogs I like to read through RSS feeds but couldn’t comment on any of them.

Where are all the bicycles? An enduring image I have of Beijing since seeing it on TV about 30 years ago is a city full of bicycles. Maybe I was in the wrong places at the wrong times but I saw very few bikes in use. Google puts the number of bicycles in Beijing as about 9-10 million as recently as 2009. I assume they’re mostly gathering dust in stairwells since they’re not out on the roads. I’ve seen more in Xi’an and Chengdu. I’ve probably seen more electric bicycles in Beijing than good old fashioned pedal ones.

The night I arrived in Guilin I was almost run over at least twice. Not by cars or buses but by electric scooters. These contraptions are totally silent in operation. They rush up behind you noiselessly like ghosts. At night the drivers often ride around with no lights on so you don’t see them coming either. At the last possible second the driver alerts you to their presence with a blast of their horn or by shouting at you. Like conventional petrol scooters they are much more massive than a bicycle or electric bicycle and getting run over is likely to result in damage.

The Chinese people are generally very shouty. Even more so when they’re “talking” on mobile phones. Dom Joly could have had them in mind when he created his shouty mobile phone user. Individually there are exceptions but collectively they’re rude, inconsiderate and unhelpful to my Western eyes. Maybe that’s a consequence of there being 1.3 billion of them. If they don’t shout, push and shove then they’ll lose out to the rest of the crowd. I guess the “rudeness” is a cultural thing but stop shouting please!

In probably every other country I’ve ever been in, if you’re out and about and find yourself in need of a toilet, McDonalds is a good place to find one. They’re always clean and functional and it’s easy to nip in, use the toilet and out again without having to buy anything. Not so in China. It’s hardly an exhaustive survey, but of the three McDonalds I visited not one of them had customer toilets. Actually finding a McDonalds is hard work in most places. There are very few of them in China. KFC however is just about everywhere. The couple I checked also didn’t have customer toilets.

Long term readers may remember that the price of a McNuggets meal was one of my inflation benchmarks in Buenos Aires last year. Well just so you know, they don’t have a McNuggets meal on the menu here, but 10 nuggets, large fries and large coke cost 34 yuan (about £3.40) compared with 28 pesos (one year ago and about £4.30).

Call the police! The fashion police that is. One of the ways the population here seem to express their new found individuality is through their wardrobe. I’m no fashion victim and probably have a few citations of my own, but the fashion police would have a field day here. Some of the clothes combinations are almost indescribably bad. Luckily I have a short attention span and poor memory so I won’t be permanently scarred by some of the wardrobe abominations I’ve seen. Women are the majority and worst offenders. Guys seem to specialise in bad hair styles.

Beijing is rubbish for electronics/phone/camera shopping. At least the big shopping mall areas are rubbish for techie stuff. I needed to buy a new phone, a battery charger and eyecup for my camera while here in China. I struggled to find them in Beijing. Xian and Chengdu offered many more possibilities. Especially in relative terms since they’re both much smaller places than Beijing. The charger is not a Canon one so it’s likely to cook my batteries eventually, and the eyecup is not exactly the right one but it does the job.