China

Beijing: A Wall, another zoo, and some people who need putting in it.

Beijing was a good ending to China. It meant we didn’t leave on the huge negative hatred we had by the end of Xi’an. Or maybe we’d just got used to the spitting, squatting, staring and shoving by this point. Bad things in China begin with the letter ‘S’. There’s an episode of Sesame Street they never aired.

We started out, as I’m sure most tourists do, with Tiananmen Square. However, with two Metro lines to choose from (Tiananmen East and Tiananmen West) we were spoilt for choice.

“It must be a really big square if it needs TWO Metro stops,” I said to Ashley, quite excited.

“It’s the biggest in the world I think,” came the reply.

We arise from the ground to be greeted by a recognisable red building to the right of us with Mao framed nice and big in the middle…and a road to the left.

“Well, that doesn’t really count as the biggest square in the world. There’s a road going through it. I feel conned again,” I said, slightly disappointed.

After the mandatory photos of the big red Mao building, we headed back through the underpass to cross the road.

“Oh, ok. This is the square. I’ll let them off.”

We’d got out the wrong side of the road to appreciate the vastness of the square. Blocked by two rather large screens showing the beautiful sights of China on a loop, yes, but vast all the same.

Not quite sure how to get through to the Forbidden City without paying to visit a garden, we headed in the other direction and found ourselves in a modern looking, conveniently located tourist street. It didn’t take long to put the ‘2008’ date on the drains, artificial flowers and still fully stocked Olympic shop together and figure out that this street must have been built in time for the Olympics. It was like Disneyland. Until you notice a depressed sheep sat head in hands against a wall. Very odd.

By the time we left fakeville and reached the Forbidden City (through a garden we had to pay for) there was only an hour until closing time. And a homeless woman was having a breakdown. So we decided to do it another day. We did however, have time to go into a park behind the Forbidden City that gives the most amazing (but misty) view of the Forbidden City if you climb to a spot where an Emperor once hung himself. A bizarre sentence, yes, it may seem.

And so, as day two arrived in Beijing, it was time to hit the Wall. The Great Wall. One of the Seven Wonders of The World. A day to remember. It snowed a little. Doesn’t get much better!

And it was really cold. Really, really, really cold. But it was snowing! How could we not go to the Wall the day it snowed?! Imagine the beautiful photos! It’s higher up there, there’s got to be more snow! So we carried on regardless. There was no more snow.

The two main ways to see the Wall are tour or public bus. As the public bus cost a 10th of the price of the cheapest tour, we opted for public bus. We had a Metro station, and instructions to walk 500m east to the bus stop when we get there. However, east (or in fact north, south or west) is difficult to determine when you haven’t got a compass. Thankfully, a very nice man helped us out and pointed us in the right direction. Our new instruction was “second on the left”.

Before we reached “second on the left”, we found a sign pinned to a tree saying “919”, four Westerners and a man in uniform.

“Badaling? Badaling?” said the official man.

“Yes, yes. Badaling from here?”

“Yes, yes.” He spoke very little English. To make this easier, I’ve put the conversation in English.

“Ok. How much is it?”

“55 Yuan per person, per way.”

“55? I read 12!”

“No, no.”

Hmm. Something didn’t add up. So us and the other 4 Westerners worked as a team and found another bus stop further down – this time, the “919” was a sticker on a tree! Is that better than pinned to a tree?…

The same thing happened, only this guy wasn’t so sneaky,

“Yes, 55 each way. But with one, two, three in car, taxi, 400 Yuan.”

“Ahh, no, it’s ok, we’ll take the bus.”

Eventually, we found it. A bus stop specifically for 919 buses, full of 919 buses. At least 6 of them. Go team!

Our team of taxi tout avoiders had somewhat dispersed in the crowd but somehow me, Ashley and an American, Matthew, had managed to stay together. Matthew was a lovely bloke. He was also black – a rarity in Asia – as was proved when we arrived at the Wall for him to be met by two in-awe Chinese asking for photos with him. Good job he’s a good sport.

We weren’t sure when to stop walking the Wall. I mean, we didn’t want to end up out in the sticks, but thankfully our worries were put to rest by a huge sign in a square block of the Wall that read “NO VISITOR”.

We did it. We went as far as we could – I guess you could say we walked the Wall?…

We left the Wall feeling pretty good, if not slightly cold, which is more than can be said for when we left Beijing Zoo the next day. At least 50% of the animals caged were more intelligent than at least 50% of the visitors. Banging on the glass – including the gorilla enclosure, letting kids shout really loudly through the wires and  feeding crisps to the zebras. By the time we got to crisp/zebra girl, we’d had enough of “subtly” saying, “Oh, there’s a sign there – what dos it say? Oh, don’t bang? Oh ok then – I won’t bang the glass!”

Ashley approached crisp/zebra girl after we’d watched her for too long.

“Hey, hello, excuse me. Come here,” he ushered her towards the signboard. She looked stupidly and didn’t move. I joined Ashley, “Come, follow.” She still didn’t move.

“The sign says no feeding. Don’t feed them,” Ashley pointed to the crisps, “They’re wild animals. They can’t eat crisps.”

“Ahh, I know. I know.” Wow, she speaks.

We then proceeded to sit behind her for about 10 minutes. She knew we were there and didn’t feed them…until we eventually had to walk off.

Despite stressing out at the zoo and getting a tad cold, we had a pretty good time in Beijing. The Wall was more impressive than the Warriors and I think the Olympics must have worked wonders for upgrading the city here and there. That said, we were very much looking forward to getting out of China and into Japan.

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Xi’an: A Few Thousand Terracotta Warriors and Some Christmas Lights.

When we were ready to leave Xi’an, I think we were both ready to leave China. Everyday people spat more and more, including one idiot on a marble floor in a dead posh shopping mall. Everyday people stared more and more, including one man on our way to the train station who I couldn’t help but question very loudly in English. The shoving, the spitting, the starting and the sheer undeniable rudeness of the Chinese people had become far too much, and to be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to 5 more days in Beijing before we leave China.

This is a shame, because having said that, Xi’an is actually a really nice place and as close to rural China as we’re going to get on this trip (yes, I’m aware there’s a population of over 4 million). If you love history, you could hang around for ages because there’s loads of ancient tombs etc all around Xi’an. However, the main draw is the Army of Terracotta Warriors – self-dubbed the “Eighth Wonder of the World”. This was our Christmas Day! And what with it being Christmas ‘n’ all, we treated ourselves to a tour rather than making our own way on the bus. This turned out to be a bonus as you’d never notice it from the side of the road and would probably end up somewhere even more rural.

Anyway, we woke nice and early Christmas morning after the hostel Christmas shin-dig the night before. It was all very exciting. There was music, and competitions and a magician. I’ve always wanted to see a magician!…but a tall person sat in front of me for that bit. Back to Christmas morning – up we gets, out we goes and in the reception we waits.

“Are you waiting for a tour? To the Terracotta Warriors?”

“Yeah”

“I am your guide for the day. Welcome! Come with me. Merry Christmas!”

“Aww!! Thanks!” It’s Christmas!

It was quite nice that the other 3 people on our tour were an English family. We hadn’t met many, and the first we do we’re spending Christmas day with! On the way to the Terracotta Warriors, we stopped off at an ‘Art and Ceramics Factory’. It turns out that this place batch produce hundreds, if not thousands of mini and full-sized Terracotta Warriors for the tourists to buy. Do you ever watch Willy Wonka and think, “It’d be ruined. The wonder of his magical chocolate’s taste, fizz and scrumdidillioumptiousness would be ruined if you went there.”? Well that’s what this commission grabbing tourist trap did to my view of the Terracotta Warriors. But there’s more….

When you arrive and after the 360° circle cinema you finally walk into Pit 1 (there’s 3 pits altogether), it is actually quite impressive. As I wondered around, however, it became less impressive, and I couldn’t help but think “Is this a conspiracy?!”.

Fact #1: The weapons found in the tomb used technology not invented until 1939 in Germany.

Fact #2: The bodies aren’t all together. Some are headless, saves  bit of work.

Fact #3: The factory. They can be made so easily!

Pessimistic I know, but something felt a little odd.

It did make for a memorable and different Christmas day though. Worth a visit if you’re in China I think it’s fair to say.

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Shanghai: Land of lights in tunnels and dogs in zoos.

We were expecting things to get a lot more difficult by the time we got to Shanghai. We were prepared for much less English writing, and a lot more Chinese. But no! Still plenty of bi-lingual signs to help us navigate our way around. Excellent! When we arrived at the hostel, the men were wrapped up warm in their coats, sat in the dark.

“Ni hao. We have a reservation, under Williams?”

“Ahh yes. Budget private double? I’m afraid we have no power, we have a power cut. So we need your passports and we can give you the room card and your passports back at 6pm, the power should be back then.”

We offered a copy of our passports but I think they needed the visa bit. So we left our passports with 2 men in a dark room, headed up to our room and back down and out to explore. Our journey to the hostel had transferred us through People’s Square Metro station, which was quite busy and seemed a good, central starting point. We were greeted with a mass of neon lights, mega malls and offers of hashish. Things I would expect in Vegas, New York and Amsterdam respectively. It wasn’t what we expected. It was huge and relatively modern, yes, this we were expecting. However, it also felt quite spacious and if you look down the backstreets, the mega malls soon vanish.

At risk of spending 5 weeks in shopping malls, we made our way down one of these back streets, to find what can, perhaps patronisingly, be called “real China”. What you’d really expect, where the majority of the population probably shop, eat and socialise. It didn’t take long to find a baked sweet potato stand, and it didn’t take long to get confused by Chinese finger numbers once we’d ordered. Instead of using all ten fingers in order, they somehow (in a way we haven’t figured out yet) do it all on one hand.

By dark, we headed to the Pudong area on the other side of the river. Now this was what we’d expected. Uber-modern buildings, skyscrapers galore, an amazing pedestrian high walkway around the roundabout and a beautiful array of lights on the buildings. We found somewhere to eat, which was surprisingly cheap for the calibre of the shops and the size of the mall we were in – I think it’s fair to say, food in China is cheaper than Hong Kong. About half the price. Yay!

On our second day, we started at Shanghai museum, which was free and not bad considering. We then went to the Bund with the potential aim of doing the “Bund Sightseeing Tunnel” to cross the river and walk around the Pudong area in daylight. Well. The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel costs £5 one way or £6 return. I’m telling you now, don’t worry about the return. Ashley made a video of the…experience…. I’ll let you know when it’s online. I think it says more than I could with words.

Ashley and me have something that seems to have become a “thing”, you know, a “thing”. Could be called a tradition, could be called …well, a “thing” really. We go to zoos. That’s our thing. We went to Budapest zoo, we went to London zoo, we went to Hong Kong zoo and now, we’ve been to Shanghai zoo. What can you say about Shanghai zoo? Hmm. It’s an interesting one. It starts well, with a small aquarium and a reptile house – aka, lots of sea turtles and tortoises so I’m a happy bunny. Then there’s the goldfish section. Genuinely. Then you find the main attraction – the pandas! They’re really funny to watch, they sit around like slobs, legs apart, belly out,  chomping on bamboo! The type you’d imagine on Jeremy Kyle. Most of the enclosures aren’t actually too bad, including the panda enclosures. However, “Pet World” is a little bizarre. If you see a sign at a zoo saying Pet World, you would enter expecting…little fluffy bunnies? Guinea pigs and hamsters? Maybe even some more goldfish (borrowed from the goldfish section)? Well you’re all wrong. Unless you guessed dogs in glass suburban houses that is. Yep, different breeds of dog all in their own little concrete and glass “houses”. It was a very depressing place. The mating porcupines didn’t seem to care though. I know, I don’t know anyone with a porcupine as a pet either.

All in all, Shanghai is alright. It’s not as modern and shiny as it’s often billed but it gives you an idea of what China seems to be about – spitting, shoving and staring. Not necessarily in that order.

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