It’s been that time of year again when my rucksack came down off the top of the wardrobe and I bought 2 packets of shortbread fingers (they travel whatever the climate) as emergency rations and headed off to experience somewhere new. This year I went to Hong Kong and China for a whistle-stop tour of the ‘highlights’. Every year I teach about the one (then two) child policy and how China is the manufacturing centre of global trade as that’s what the textbooks tell us so was looking forward to seeing what China, as a tourist destination, is really like. I was under no illusions that I’d get a real flavour of the ‘authentic China’ but I was hoping for a little more insight into this great country other than its large population and Peking duck!
Picking up my travels as the sunset on the train ride from Shenzhen to Guilin, before the lights were turned out at 10pm I ventured to the toilets and I have to say I was pleasantly (well as pleasantly as you can be about a squat toilet) surprised that it wasn’t too bad. But what this train journey and this trip to China is once again proving is that toilets are a big thing – knowing when/where there is one, if it’ll have toilets paper, the style, whether or not they flush – these conversations just start dominating when you travel. It’s a microcosm of the culture you are visiting and people get obsessed. So far I’ve found Chinese toilets to lack toilet paper (but my handy box from Sainsbury’s sorts that it) but not to be as bad as some other parts of Asia I’ve visited – what I will say it that I don’t understand at all why some public toilets can appear quite clean but you can smell them a mile off! The secret in that case is to prepare as much as possible before entering (ie get your toilet roll ready) and get in and out as quickly as possible! And if it doubt just keep reminding yourself people pay good money to do squats in exercise classes! The only warning I’ll give if you find yourself in this part of the world is that the cubicles tend to be very small which is fine for a squat toilet but if you find yourself in a western ‘potty’ one then it can be a bit of a squeeze getting in and out!
Back to the train journey, with lights turned off at 10pm you have little choice but to try to go to sleep. I won’t pretend it was the best night’s sleep ever as the train kept stopping and people weren’t always the quietest when getting their things together and the biggest disadvantage of being in the bottom bunk is the end of your bunk is often the only place they can rest bags on to get their things together or sit on to put their shoes on – the social nature of the bottom bunks that is welcome during the day becomes a right pain at night when you’re trying to sleep! Arriving in Guilin around 6:30am, we walked bleary eyed and a bit zombified to our private transfer to the starting point of the River Li cruise – with a quick stop off at a hotel for breakfast on the way.
The departure point for the River Li cruise was my first taste of mass tourism Chinese style. Queues and queues and queues lining up to go through security with your named ticket matched against your passport and then walking through rows of stalls selling drinks and souvenirs. Walking down to the docks, the boats are lined up seemingly as far as you can see and on reaching your berth number you walk across the front of many before reaching your own to take your allocated seat at tables in the cabin. After the crew are introduced and what seemed to be green tea was served, the boats start to set off to make their way in a long line through the karst scenery. With looping videos of cartoons and instructions on how to wear a life jackets and piped classical music more reminiscent of a Mediterranean hotel lobby, the river winds its way through the outcrops named after the animals or objects they are imagined to resemble.
On arrival in Yangzhou 4 hours later, we disembarked from the boat to be met by many holding taxi signs offering to take you to your hotel followed by the relatively new covered walkway into town lined with souvenir stalls. This town is definitely tourist central! Bars and restaurants line ‘west street’ and bright neon lights lure customers in. Returning to the street in the evening, it’s rammed with people and street stalls and music and flashing lights. The side roads, we had dinner in one, are slightly quieter with many having a singer providing interesting interpretations of Western songs.
But before dinner we headed to the light and dance show on the river front. Put on by the same person who arranged the performance for the Beijing Olympics, the show tells a love story on the water with some amazing use of lights and ribbons and boats by the 600 performers. With two performances a night to audiences of 2000 people a time (and three performances on the evening we went), this is well planned to maximise tourism business. However, this is Chinese tourism and a Chinese audience so there is very little clapping, people talk all the way through and then get up and leave before the end!
The next day we returned by coach to Guilin to catch a flight to Xi’an. Arriving early evening, we dropped our bags in our room and walked to the Muslim Quarter which made west street in Yangzhou look quiet! Food stalls (some with restaurant areas behind) line bitty side of the street selling lamb and squid kebabs, spiral potatoes on sticks, freshly made juices and something in white pots. In the restaurants, the Xi’an food staple of wheat noddles is sold.
On Wednesday we set out to explore a bit more of the city with visits to the Big Goose Pagoda and the Great Mosque. What is very noticeable with these and other similar places we visited is the lack of strict dress codes for access – shoulders and knees both allowed on show – perhaps linked to the communist aspects of China that counter any form of religious beliefs. While at the Pagoda we had the opportunity to listen to a scholar tell us about Chinese script ancient to buy our names in Chinese script and other paintings by the monks. In the evening we sampled a range of different dumplings from chicken to cabbage to pork in different varieties – some accompanied with a ‘make your own sauce’ of vinegar and soy sauce (I omitted the chilli).
Thursday involved one of the highlights of the trip – a visit to the Terracotta Warriors – while I expected organisation and for it to be busy, this was Chinese organised tourism at peak as they have nailed every possible opportunity to make money! For example, before you can visit the site, tour groups must first visit the factory where they make the Warriors in various sizes today – you can even have soldier made modelled in your own face! – which includes a vast shop with everything from lacquered furniture and life size Terracotta Warriors to silk scarves and key rings. A further bus ride to the site and an airport style terminal greets you with security scanners before walking nearer to the site (past toilets and refreshment stands) to queue through turnstiles. Wandering round feels like you are fighting thousands of others for a tiny glimpse and you need patience, perseverance and elbows to push your way to the front of the first excavated pit for the famous view from the tour guides and displays when some traveled the world (I went to see them at the British Museum when they were in the UK). Even with the atmosphere cooled to preserve the Warriors, you soon get hot and sweaty jostling amongst the crowds but there is a cool reprieve in the ‘fake’ museum containing replica chariots found in the pits until you realise there is no way you will ever get close enough to the glass cabinets to see them as the crowds are 6-8 deep and all trying to touch the glass – the handprints them really obscure the view through the glass!
Leaving the pit area (there are also numerous souvenir shops, a cafe, cinema and VR experience at additional cost) we walked back to the Terracotta Village of restaurants (McDonalds standing proudly first!) and more souvenir shops to a restaurant for lunch followed by tea tasting at a tea ceremony. Whether the teas have the medicinal properties listed or they are a placebo effect I’m not sure, but it doesn’t matte how many medicinal prosperities the third one we tasted has, nothing is worth drinking a cup of that a day! Others were really good though and a bag of my favourite may have found its way into my rucksack for the flight home.
After the tea ceremony we drove back to Xi’an with time to buy snacks before boarding another sleeper train to Beijing – this time a soft sleeper. The station wasn’t quite as orderly and calm as the one at Shenzhen as it’s much older but the soft sleepers do have there own waiting room and the shops sell the staple food of instant noodles. With four bunks to each ‘cabin’ these have a little more privacy than the previous hard sleeper with a door to the corridor and control of your own lights. There is also the promise of a western toilet complete with toilet paper and soap!
And so started the 12 hour train to Beijing…to be continued…
Note: with thanks to Explore and their Highlights of China tour (see http://www.explore.co.uk for a wide range of different itineraries and tours throughout the region).