2 weeks in China… Enough for a taster of this vast country but probably no way enough to get under the rough skin and brash culture that hits you with shocking full force on arrival.
Having heard so much in the press about the growth of this poor but fast developing country and its comparisons to India, we didn’t expect to see the mass of high rise towers, superb roads, big brand boutiques let alone the speedy subway connection into the city centre. A far cry from India’s dirty roads and lack of pavements, Shanghai was a metropolis which many a western, developed city would be envious of!
We spent our 4 days in Shanghai drenched in rain but managed to see the key highlights including the Bund, the Qi Pun wholesale markets, Old Town and several movies as we rested in our room! Not sure whether it was the rain, the burn out from sightseeing over the last 1 and half months or being shouted at or shunned away by the local people when we asked for anything, that led us to taking a relaxed approach to this part of the trip. In hindsight, this was in its own way a fun way to spend our first few days in China.
The contrast between the westernised, modern exterior of the city with the people who spit everywhere and ANYwhere, push past you as if you were holding them back in a head lock and ignore you if you ask for help was an extremely frustrating factor in the trip. The reason for the title of this post was that despite the incredible rudeness we experienced from the Chinese people (my fists were clenched many a time, ready to knock them out, or at least try to); there were random acts of kindness which completely played with our perception of the people. We had asked for directions of someone who was passing us on the street and they had actually helped… That was shocking on its own, however, 10 mins later as we were continuing down the same road, we saw her running back to us to apologise and let us know she had made a mistake in her directions and it was another way we needed to go. Whoa! Would I have bothered to run back and find that person who I’d misguided?! Hmm..
We also have to give credit to the Chinese for their acrobatic talents; a cirque de soleil eat your heart out style show for £18 each was fantastically on point, elegant and enthralling. That sounds so posh… Basically, it was really great watching the people throw each other about, bend in ways unimaginable and fly about on pieces of material hanging from the roof with such style and for so cheap!
Of course, no part of the trip would be complete however without a visit to the markets. In true backpacker style, Rishi’s shoes had holes in them and mine were just cheap so the rain had no problem obliterating them (it wasn’t even THAT rainy). It’s ok though Rishi took me to buy some fake uggs 2 sizes too small for me for £4. Isn’t that sweet of him? And then we went and bought his shoes which were about 10 times the price of mine, from an actual shop, and the ass even managed to get them in his own size! The cheek!
Rested up and ready to see more of China we headed to Yangshuo. This is a gorgeous mountainous town to the west of Shanghai. It’s a completely tourist overrun town and so we loved it. They actually had a vegetarian Indian restaurant!! Soo good! We spent our 2 days here cycling around on a tandem venturing into the mountain area and taking a bamboo rafting trip down the river. The tandem was sooo much fun, I could just sit at the back while Rish pedalled and directed us around town! Kidding, I totally cycled… Don’t scoff! I did! Ask Rishi! In fact, when you ask him, also get him to tell you how he was in the middle of the fields with a Chinese guy’s arm around him!! Hmm!!
Evening activities here included walking around the markets interspersed with pole dancing bars… Despite my pestering Rishi to go to one of these bars, he insisted we go see this water show set in the Yangshuo mountains which was directed by the guy who did the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. It was in Chinese but the effects and the sheer mass of people in the show was immense. The views were phenomenal and so different when lit up so magnificently…A definite must see. We got the cheapest seats (negotiated 150 yuan per person including transfers) and don’t advise paying anymore as the views are more than good enough from these!
We moved onto Xian to check out the famous terracotta warriors. Spring had arrived as we arrived here, so China’s frustrations started to seem less aggravating or perhaps the people were just that little bit nicer… Whatever!
Anywho, being the history buffs we are, we knew that the terracotta warriors had been created as toys for the army to play with when off duty, right? … Uh no, ok, so we had no idea what they were for but knew we had to see them. The warriors are certainly impressive. Each carving has a different face, not to mention the horses and cows which are detailed and so life like. We discovered that this mass expanse holding the terracotta army was actually built as a mausoleum for a king. He was scared of the after life I guess?!
Xian otherwise was pretty chilled out, we managed to see the Jing Di mausoleum which was more like a star trek ship voyage with a holographic film showing the history behind it, the Bell Tower and Muslim Quarter and I cannot talk about Xian without mentioning the amazing pancakes at our hostel…
Despite visiting this walled city, we’d been recommended to visit Pingyao, another walled city where people still live like they used to back in the day…so we took an overnight train from Xian to Pingyao in a hard sleeper. Getting on these trains was an experience on its own. People are queuing up for these trains hours in advance with massive bags holding lord knows what. We were their entertainment, me walking to get water was just as interesting to them as watching Victoria Beckham put on another pout for the camera! Around 40 minutes before the train departs the gates are opened and the big push to get on begins. It’s kinda fun in an odd way. The hard sleeper ‘cabins’ themselves are little areas with 6 beds. We were ‘lucky’ because only the top bunks were left which means there is very little space between the breath coming out of your mouth and the roof of the train! I personally was happy with this as it means we aren’t disturbed by passing people or others sticking their feet in our face to climb up, instead we can stick our feet in their face! Hahahaha!!
Pingyao is a nice little town to visit. The whole place is inside a wall and the buildings are old school but to be fair it can get boring after a while! We skipped out on paying £15 each to see all the sights in town and instead had an afternoon nap after our tiring morning of cycling round on our tandem! Hey, its 8km all the way round, it doesn’t take that long to see!
Ready to move on pretty soon after, the next day we had another exciting journey by bus and train to Beijing. Firstly, we nearly missed our bus, but we got on one directed by the electric car driver who had taken us to the bus stop… As we sat there relieved to be en route, we suddenly hear shouting and pull up next to a truck where a guy is beating the driver senseless… We did what every good citizen around him was doing.. Sat and stared! Everyone had gathered around and obviously we had no clue what was happening plus the driver wasn’t even fighting back… After a short break to watch the ‘show’ we continued our journey to reach Taiyuan. This is where our mind really got fried by the bi-polar Chinese people. We tried to get a back to the train station from the bus station and managed to secure one with the guy shouting “meter, meter” at us. As we got in though, there was the driver and another guy in the front and the driver had locked our bags in the boot. We set off, slightly worried and noted how there was no meter. We kept shouting meter at him and he responded promptly by putting two fingers up at us… Nice! By pure luck, he got sick of us and told us to get out the car! Thank God! … O shiiit, our train was in just under half hour and there was no way we would make it by walking there. Thanks to google maps we knew which direction it was in. So after a few failed attempts at getting a cab, Rish asked a guy at a bus stand if any of the buses went to the train station. YES!! One did! We got on it and after a few seconds the guy says to us, “I made a mistake”… O FEEEK!! .. “There are too many stops you won’t make your train. I am going to train station too, why don’t we share a taxi”… Uh ok.. So we got out at the next stop and he hailed a taxi in seconds… Bit sceptical as to his intentions I worried that I only had a 50RMB note and the cab was 10, but in fact the guy paid for the cab and refused to take money from us. He was sorry he had given us poor information regarding the bus! … That was a truly amazing gesture of kindness and such a stark contrast to the cab situation we had only minutes earlier… I am aware that everywhere there are good and bad people, but the experiences in China had been so incredibly… Opposite? That we just didn’t know what to make of it.
Anyhow, we were so rejuvenated by the incredible gesture and high-speed train journey that we were actually looking forward to Beijing!!
The three days in Beijing were just superb! Of course, we did have our Chinese frustration moments, like being threatened by a rickshaw driver in the middle of the night as he blocked us from getting out and having photos taken of us without permission from 5 feet ahead of us but overall it was the highlight of our China trip.
The first day we visited the Forbidden City, Tianemann Square and the Temple of Heaven. For some reason, I’d been feeling anxious and kind of low that morning but with the sun out and the sights being so beautiful particularly the moat surrounding the Forbidden City, I awoke from that slumber to get back into the moment and enjoy the travels!
However, it was still niggling away at me and what really helped was the next day when we ventured to the Great Wall. It was a culmination of reading the notes sent by the lovely Kajal and Mitan from camp with meeting a couple of chilled out guys on the bus to and from the Wall that reminded me that anything is possible, I just need to chill the f*!? out!
There is a direct bus from Beijing to the Mutiyanu part of the wall (bus 936 from Donzimen bus station) which we got up super early for. Lo and behold, 1.5 hours later, the bus arrived and so did Kyle and Miguel just in time! Lucky lads! We spent nearly 4 hours on the wall, taking a ropeway up to Tower 6 and then walking up, over, and beyond Tower 23 where the wall is completely deserted and unrestored! Amazing. We were so incredibly lucky with the weather for Beijing and the Wall, with temperatures above 20c which is almost unheard of at this time of year! The wall, the views .. It’s simply spectacular. A real eye-opener to the capability of humans! You just have to take some time out on the wall to marvel at how cool and nuts it is!
We headed back down to Tower 6 and got on a Tabogan all the way down to the bottom! A great way to rest yourself cos you will be tired plus its fun!! Wouldn’t you rather slide your way down the mountain rather than walking if you could?! 🙂
As we sat at the bottom, waiting for our bus after a tenderly prepared Subway sandwich (extreme sarcasm), we got chatting to Miguel and Kyle who were both travelling separately but had met in Beijing. While we told them about how I pretty much pre-planned most of our trip and they told us how they had hardly any idea how their trips were going to unfold and I panicked as to whether our bus would arrive while they made jokes about whether Miguel’s hand would gain full functionality again (he has massive cut down the hand and fingers held on by some contraption) … I promised that this part of the post would be known as ‘Three chilled out guys and the organised girl’ … Ye ok not the greatest thing you’d like to be known for… But it sums me up pretty well… the important bit was that I just thought bloody hell, these guys are out there doing what they want, following their dreams, open-minded to their future and they have one big-ass smile on their face! This really is what it’s all about!… I’m going to chill the hell out… God tested me on this promise to myself though. We went for dinner at a super posh vege restaurant, which we took ages to find, then headed to see the Cube and Bird’s nest lit up, which was closed 10 mins before we got there followed by a visit to the night market which closed 20 minutes before we arrived and then when I went back to the hostel to console myself with a pancake, the kitchen had just closed…. AAAAAHHhHH!!! Chill out, my ass! Why can’t things just go the way they’re meant to?! … Hmm, perhaps it may take a little time to undo the extreme planning I’ve been doing since I was a kid but at least it’s a start?!
Truth is, I’ve really summarised this experience for the blog but the moral of the story remains. Perhaps it may take a bit of time, but I can see the learnings from the people we’re meeting from the trip. Everyone is in your life or crosses through it for a reason and each of these people we’ve met on the way certainly has had a message for us or me… Either, we can take the lesson on and make a change for our own benefit or ignore it and have the same annoyances and frustrations bite you in the butt again and again… And I have to say I’m sick of getting bitten so am going to try my very very best to make those changes that I know are right for me! Just because you know what you should be doing though, doesn’t mean you are necessarily doing it and it sure as hell doesn’t mean you don’t need reminders along the way… And I’d like to say that’s where your friends and family come in. But I’ve been relying on that assurance too much… Having them tell you what you’re doing is right or wrong may give you short-term comfort but if deep down inside you don’t have that determination and courage, you will veer off track very quickly. You need to find that dream and FOCUS. This doesn’t mean you don’t take support from others around you.
I’m very thankful to my family, friends and Rishi but they can only guide based on the information they have at hand or their experiences. They don’t have the one thing that we’ve all been given, the compass, our gut instinct.
Thanks Mit for your inspirational chat on bbm that day btw! What I remember so clearly from those notes the Sachdev’s sent through was a reminder that EVERYTHING is ALWAYS CHANGING! So sorrow is only temporary and likewise joy. Remember that and endure it. I can plan all I want but there will always be change and if I don’t move with it and adapt, I’ll be back in that lost zone with no escape route visible….
And the escape route was visibly clear, it was our last day in China before we flew to Singapore. Rishi and I finished off the trip by going on a cycling tour through Beijing early in the morning and visiting the Summer Palace in the afternoon.. Seeing old people doing Tai-Chi in the park or going for walks with friends despite the chilly start to the morning was inspiring. We’re apparently going to get our cycles out of storage this summer and may even cycle to the shops instead of driving!! Eek! You’re all more than welcome to join us…
It was a great end to our turbulent journey through China.. A part of the trip we will certainly not forget any time soon!
P.S. No Chinese were harmed in this experience.
P.P.S. Seriously though, we do appreciate that just because it took us time to understand the culture in China, it doesn’t make their way or ours any superior to one another. It comes down to respecting their model of the world and taking it for what it is. Just because they do things differently is no indication of whether they are good or bad people. My P.P.S does not however cancel out how I felt through the whole experience. It’s just another lesson in life.