Thursday, 6 September 2007


We arrived in Xi'an without any hassle, getting dropped off by the airport shuttle bus outside a hotel minutes from our hostel, around midnight. Not wanting to make things too convenient for ourselves though we took a wrong turn and walked for an extra 10 minutes down a beggar ridden street before realising our error and making amends. The hostel was good, and got even better after we moved to a nicer room the following day.

Xi'an is a town of historic importance though we paid little attention to the details of that - our little heads have become saturated from our travels to date and have invoked a safety mechanism that now flatly refuses to care any more for such details. It was the capital city for a while though and has a big wall surrounding it and a bell tower and drum tower in the middle of town which banged drums and rang bells at appropriate times throughout the millenia. It has a large and distinct Muslim population, a lot of whom live, funnily enough, in the Muslim quarter and we stayed not too far from there.

In the Muslim quarter were old streets riddled with alley ways and signs with Chinese and Arabic script. Mutton was the dish of choice which made a pleasant change from the familiar rows of tanks of sad looking fish and crabs awaiting their fate that normally occupies windows and pavements. Inside the restaurants, patrons make their way through lamb skewers which they buy 30 of at a time in preparation for the sizzling hot-pots that follow, which get placed within a brazier, built into the tables. Outside the shops, chefs are busy cooking the skewers over fires and hot coals within trays, or pipes or big clay pots with flames shooting out the side at a furious heat like an open door on a furnace. The only saving grace for pedestrians is that there is so much activity you couldn't dream of walking on the pavement anyway, because if you did, you'd be coming home well cooked yourself. There was also a dried fruit market which we found a little odd. There must have been nearly 50 stalls, but they all sold exactly the same thing - exclusively dried fruit and nuts, which you bought by the kilo for not a lot of money and were great. It was like pick and mix because all the fruit was the same cost and all the nuts were the same cost so all you had to worry about was the final weight, and although not cheap by Chinese standards, was a steal by prices back home. Everyone had the same range from the usual suspects through to things like dried kiwi-fruit and berries and the nuts were bountiful across the board too. We stocked up on a kilo of macadamias for 20 yuan and a load of fruit too that would see us good for nearly a week.

We had come to Xi'an for one thing in particular though, the Terracotta Warriors. The excavation site was about an hour out of town and there were plenty of tour companies offering the trip. We decided to do it ourselves though on the public bus which would leave from the train station and save us a small fortune. We got to the station, and got on a public bus with the right number got on it and realised it was a different public bus with the same number so got off a stop later and walked all the way back to find the right one. Attempt number two was much more successful and an hour later we followed the masses of megaphones towards the entrance turnstiles and got in. The warriors were built by Emperor Qin Tse-Huang a couple thousand years ago. I say built by him, built for him, and then everyone who built it was killed so they couldn't tell anyone else about it. As a result, this subterranean collection of 8000 life size soldiers and horses lay forgotten about until a couple of boys digging in a field for water in the 1970's fell through a hole and decided they should probably tell their dad what they found.

The site isn't quite what we had anticipated. Firstly, the pit containing the army, isn't very deep so it's not like a cavern you can walk through. What they have done is clear away all the ground above them and plonked a big hangar over the top so that you walk around the sides looking down and into the pit. Also, although there are a lot of the chaps standing to attention, the majority is still to excavated. A lot of the pit isn't a pit at all but a continuation of the ground from one side of the hangar to the other. The ground caved in at some point in the centuries so the army, rather than standing underground, found themselves standing in the ground, completely buried. This is probably in part because the roof of the cavern was made of tightly stretched fabric with earth on top so it was kind of inevitable, and has resulted in severe damage to most of the soldiers who have fallen and broken and such like. The hangar was also very bright and full of natural light streaming through the many windows around it so there was no sense of eerie gloom, and being in China, no thought of silent wonder. There were a couple of other pits too, smaller than the first, these were better preserved and housed within much more atmospheric buildings. We left a little disappointed but not so much so as to have had a bad time. A brief disagreement with the bus driver, who didn't want white people on his bus followed, but soon enough we were on our way back to the hostel.

The smog in China is bad, but in Xi'an it is worse than anything else we have seen. There is no such thing as blue sky or clouds here, just a consistent grey haze, which you can watch the setting sun through without squinting or any discomfort what so ever. A distance of less than a kilometre will be fully lost to the haze so it is not possible to stand from any vantage point and look around. We decided the best thing we could do for our health in this atmosphere was to put ourselves on a bike and cycle around the perimeter of the town on the wall, at a height just perfect for maximum smog intake. It took about an hour and a half to cycle all the way round the square circumference . The wall is about 10 meters wide on the top, with a wall either side again to stop you falling off and the surface is cobbled - not ideal for bikes but not too bad. We picked a good time to do it too, choosing sunset which showed us the city in the day and night and meant we weren't fighting the fierce heat of the day, also unexpectedly, there was almost no-one else on the wall at all so we just about had the whole thing to ourselves.

Having had a good time in Xi'an it was time to head on to our next destination, Chengdu. We had our sleeper train booked and we settled into our berth wondering who we would be sharing it with, it turned out we would be riding with the PLA.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Hanging out in Hangzhou

We got off our big luxury bus in Hangzhou, suspecting we hadn't been offered the cheapest ticket to town. The hostel we would be staying at had helpfully printed directions on the back of the flyer we had but we were still in a bit of uncertainty as we did not know which of the four bus stations in town we were at. A walk around the building did nothing to relieve our uncertainty so we ventured a prod at the phrasebook under the nose of a tourist information assistant. She spoke English - we were saved, but then a familiar run of events ensued. Sometimes, it seems impossible to get a message across, despite a person's apparent understanding of your language and often with the aid of bilingual printed matter. The two us, the lady and our bags took a trek across the bus terminal and into another building where she employed the help of some more colleagues. Books were pulled out, chins were rubbed and foreheads scratched while we stood behind it all having repeated several times that we only needed to know the name of this station so we would know which set of directions to follow.

After nearly ten minutes and several hesitant liftings of a phone to make a call it was decided by committee what we were supposed to do and a hand written note was prepared for us to show to a bus driver. We were then given detailed directions on where to go to get the number 9 bus that would apparently take us to our hostel however the women couldn't agree on the route we should walk. We trotted out as per the instructions of the first woman, never really knowing which bus station we were at and after wandering through a bit of town where we were quite the novelty we found the street with bus number 9 arriving at the same time we did. We had no idea if it was going in the direction we wanted it to or if it would take us directly away from our next home but waving the note at the driver didn't result in an eruption of hysteric laughter so we decided we hadn't done too bad. The driver, who looked like she belonged behind the wheel of a school bus was very jolly and constantly re-assured us everything was okay every time we caught a glimpse of a familiar road name and stepped up for a better analysis. Sure enough we got where we were going and checked into what was definitely an improvement over the last hostel.

Hangzhou is widely considered the most beautiful town in China. Either we were in for an imminent treat or a depressing two months, we took an evening stroll to form our opinion. The description, like so many things in China, was a little overstated but not so much as to be an outright lie. The centre point of town is the West Lake - a large body of water full of legend and myth which neither of us are particularly interested in, but involves a turtle, possibly giving birth to the world. It was certainly a pretty spot and we spent the evening searching for food somewhere around it's shores as the sun set off yonder. We had our second curry in two nights though this time we were treated to the local beer as accompaniment, it's tag line across the label reading "FREE FROM FORMALDEHYDE". I don't know what is more telling; that the beer had that printed on it or that none of the other one's do. Either way, it didn't distract us from our food, that honour went to the girl who couldn't sing for buttons. She belted out the Indian hits, complete with dance routine, glitter ball and outrageously loud p.a system which descended the restaurant into a disco as plenty of disgruntled diners gave up on conversation because it was impossible to hear each other and instead drank their drinks, partly out of awkwardness but mostly to drink them before the glasses shattered.

The following day we circumnavigated the lake, as any visitor to town does. To walk it would take a day so instead we jumped on a glorified golf cart, adapted to carry about a dozen passengers and which warns of it's approach with a warbled electronic tune which sounds like a mobile phone recovering from a dip in the water. The trip round the lake was actually our second adventure of the day as we had once more got up early to discover very few feng-shui'ers and so climbed a traditional pagoda, built circa 1997 to enjoy the view of smoggy mist across the water. Due to our early start we had the brief privilege of being the only people up there and had a very peaceful time, leaving just as the first megaphones arrived.

We were quite the novelty in Hangzhou which was weird because there were plenty of white people in town but it seemed plenty of other people had never seen such a sight before despite this so we endured much pointing and laughing at, and friends turning other friends around to show them us. We smiled back for a while and then I got a bit fed of it all and started to consider them really ignorant but deciding if you can't beat them join them. I then went round pointing and laughing at any white people we saw too - I still don't get it though.

The next day we spent the morning enjoying a little park and then we had to get to the airport for our flight to Xi'an. No rickshaw this time, instead it was the conventional method - a taxi to the train station, to catch a bus.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Cycling in Suzhou

There was nothing to worry about, we were in the right place, but it's important to exercise those paranoia muscles - we do it as often as possible. We managed to beat the crowd to somewhere near the front of the taxi rank queue (big bags means big momentum and perceived big person) and did our best to help our lost taxi driver find our hostel. In the end we got out and walked and found it on the road that had been entirely dug up by a very enthusiastic digger. Our hostel was not as good as the last one, and the room was a bit damp too but we took it on the chin and decided we deserved that after such a good hostel before.

We had two days to see Suzhou, including this one so we wasted no time in heading out to explore. We settled into a Mongolian restaurant for dinner and had a particularly dissatisfying meal (the potatoes roasted in caramel being a highlight). We then attended an evening showcase of local performance, hoping the trend of the day would improve and it did. We were led around a traditional garden with little houses and pagodas surrounding a carp filled pond, where we saw about 8 different acts ranging from theatre to dance and traditional music. We had a nice evening and went to bed early so that we could have a very early rise and see people doing feng-shui meditations in the gardens the following morning. We were up at the crack of dawn and off on a couple of hired bikes. We went first to the biggest and most popular garden where we knew flocks of crowds would arrive soon enough, being led by megaphone wielding guides, trying to convey a sense of the serenity and peace that would exist if they all weren't there. We beat the crowds but we also beat the wardens because the garden was still shut so we went for a ride around town a bit, saw a big pagoda and then sat in a cafe and got stared at for half an hour while we nursed a glass of tea and then tried again. We were successful this time and got to enjoy the garden and feng-shui'ers who we suspected somehow bypassed the hefty entry fee. The place filled up soon enough though and it was a sight in itself to see such a tranquil place become consumed by so many noisy crowds trying to enjoy the very thing they were obstructing themselves from enjoying. I wondered if this might be a metaphor for the entire culture. We squeezed back out between cameras and people all posing with that familiar two fingered 'peace' sign and cycled to safety. After breakfast we had a nice time taking in the canals and back lanes that are the arteries of this town, we also cycled around the university campus a bit until the rain came and then fell asleep watching 'The Mummy' in Chinese on the tele.

Come evening, we took the bikes for one more spin in the hectic traffic and scared ourselves half to death before having a very good curry and saying goodnight to the town we would be leaving the following morning. Morning came and we left by bus but not before nearly killing the rickshaw cyclist who took us and our bags all the way uphill to the bus station. We felt so bad we paid twice what we had agreed on and gave him our water too before running into the station hoping that we hadn't missed the bus in our 30 minutes of guilt ridden lethargy.

Tea and Scams in Speedy Shanghai

We were hurried off our train by the carriage attendant and made our way through the cattle-run that is Shanghai Station Immigration. After processing we popped out into a large open concrete square, blinking in the brightness and trying not to look like a prime target to the hordes of touts. After a quick scurry back indoors for a guide book consultation we launched ourselves into the underground. There was already a big difference between here and Hong Kong - next to no English on the signs. As it would turn out, this seemed to be a unique oversight in this particular corner of town but there we were struggling through an underground map with only coloured lines and squiggles for guidance. With the exception of several wrong escalators we did alright and arrived at our hostel reasonably intact.

This would be our first foray into the world of youth hostels, having managed to see our way round the globe so far in hotels, of varying standards. The accommodation costs here in China are much higher than they have been anywhere else so far, so we decided to rough it and see what it's really like to be a backpacker. The hostel was lovely. We still had our own room with en-suite so it was no different to a hotel, with the addition of couches down stairs, internet, a bar, tv with a stack of pirate DVDs and most valuably, very friendly staff who all speak excellent English and can't do enough to help you. We vowed never to stay in a hotel again. Having settled in we ventured out to explore our new neighbourhood. We went in search of some traditional cuisine and had a very satisfying meal at Pizza Hut before continuing our walk. It was starting to rain so we popped into a tea-house to see off the worst of it.

Tea houses are a very big thing in China. The procedure is something a bit like this. You get given a menu with a huge list of different teas to pick from (in our case we just point at something) and then a little teapot stand with a candle in the middle is plonked in front of you, everybody around watches with much amusement to see what the white folk have ordered and once they've watched enough settle down. A glass tea-pot arrives and two little tea cups. Everyone turns again to watch your first sip and if you don't do anything interesting pretty much settle back into their games of cards. The tea pot is not very big, and the tea at first is rather weak. It is all loose leaf of course. As you get through the pot someone keeps coming past and tops it up with hot water from a flask. The leaves have the capacity to endure infinite refills it would seem, and so do the people, who will spend an entire afternoon or day even, playing cards and keeping out of the heat or rain on one pot of tea. About an hour later and the rain had not proceeded from threatening so we took the chance to head homeward. Anyone will realise that it was inevitable what happened next, and sure enough we cowered under the umbrella we reluctantly took with us at the insistence of the hostel earlier in the day. After much wandering around lost we gave up and got on the metro and discovered we had walked a full stop past our place and out the other side.

We liked the Metro system in Shanghai, mostly (not the night it stranded us on the wrong side of town by shutting at 10pm), but not as much as we liked the Maglev. The Maglev (magnetic levitation) train is a prototype installation that runs between the city and the airport. Using big magnets it floats 10mm above a concrete track and due to the reduced resistance can go very fast with not too much effort and no exhaust gasses. The train reaches a top speed of 431Km/h and makes the 30km trip in 8 minutes. We watched the scenery whizz past and watched the big speedometer in the carriage as it counted up to the top speed, held it for about a minute and then dropped back down again. Then we got off, went around the platform and got back on for our return trip on the fastest train in the world.

The rest of our time in Shanghai was mostly spent around town seeing the sights and the river. The city really feels like two cities. On one side of the river is the shiny new business district with all kinds of innovative sky scrapers competing for the wow factor, and across the water is the old city - a low-rise colonial facade of hotels and other big old buildings, from the days of European trade and administration. We were enjoying the People's Park one afternoon when we got talking to some Chinese students, on holiday themselves they said, and would we like to wander about with them for a bit, so they could practise their English. We were happy to oblige and while I was busy trying to explain the intricacies of Scottish devolutionary politics to one of them (who was genuinely interested) Nikki was starting to recall a warning we had read about this kind of thing. Our random meanderings had taken a very definite diversion out of the park and through town and when we suddenly found ourselves sitting down around a table to sample some fine Chinese Teas, Nikki knew we had been had. A sudden bout of that terrible head-ache she gets and we made a hasty departure, hoping we hadn't just offended our very perplexed hosts that were left behind. By the end of the day though we had been approached by about another four groups of students, all studying English, all on holiday, all wondering if they could practise their English on us and all heading along to sample some tea, and all trying to take us with them. There was no doubt we had had a lucky escape. The scam apparently works as it did to us and then we would have all enjoyed a happy couple of hours around the table, learning about how difficult it is for students to support themselves, and then when a stupendous bill arrives at the table, it becomes our sole responsibility to pay for it, the consequences for refusal being varied.

We had a fun time in Shanghai and left after about 5 days, having discovered that another wonderful thing about hostels is that they are happy to phone up and book ahead for you wherever you are going. We booked for Suzhou a town famous for its Chinese gardens and then hopped on a train - no sleeper this time though, only an hour away, and 15 minutes early too meaning we had that horrible doubt as we walked under Chinese language signs, hoping we didn't get off too early.