May 18th: A Wall, A Palace and A Lot Of Walking

We’d heard all manner of horror stories about the manic, chaotic nature of the largest train station in Asia, so set out very early to try and collect the Beijing tickets ordered for us by Anny’s husband, Frank.  Sure enough, we arrived at Shanghai’s Hongqiao Railway Station to find thousands of people milling about, huge queues and limited English signage. So we asked the nice lady at the ‘Enquiries’ desk where we should go – ‘2nd floor, ticket counter 9’ she told us.  We ignored the huge queues at most of the staffed windows of ticket counter 9 and instead walked straight up the window marked ‘Passport holder ticket collection’ where we presented our passports and collected our tickets.  All done in under 10 minutes. What hassle!?

We’re convinced Shanghai’s efficient, reliable and cheap subway system acts as a training ground for travellers to traverse any underground railway across Asia (as we found out in Tokyo). Beijing’s subway system proved equally as reliable, taking us from Beijing South station to Nanluoguxiang (near our hotel) for the pricely sum of 20p each.

Bron outside our hotel

Bron outside our hotel

Call it irony, satire or a deliberate joke; we checked into the ‘Beijing Traditional View Hotel’ and were surprised to be allocated our particular room.  Never mind not having a view, our room didn’t even have a window.  After a little complaining, the friendly hotel staff moved us to one that did.

Walking down Nanluoguxiang

Walking down Nanluoguxiang

We hadn’t realised quite how close our hotel was to one of Beijing’s most popular famous “hutongs” (alleys): Nanluoguxiang: a narrow street filled with tiny shops, bars and restaurants.  After dark the street sellers appear, tempting the passing visitor with temporary tattoos, clothes, bags, plush mallets, Union Jack piggy banks, etc.

The Forbidden CityBron and I have a preference to explore on foot, taking taxis only as a last resort. Google Maps told us the Forbidden City wasn’t too far to the south from our hotel, so we headed out on our walking expedition.  What Google Maps failed to show us was that the only entrance was at the attraction’s south (something we had to discover for ourselves after walking around it for a particularly long time). At the risk of insulting our hosts, the Forbidden City is a very strange attraction, consisting of many elaborately architected buildings, most of which visitors are not permitted to enter.  Not willing to join in with the scrum (nigh on literally in places) to peer through windows nor the fight to establish a line of sight for photography, our visit consisted of simply looking at buildings then walking to another building.  All very impressive, but very underwhelming for Bron and I, normally used to exploring both the inside and the outside of exhibits. Completing our disappointment, we discovered we’d unknowingly been following a one-way path, leading to the exit at the Forbidden City’s north.  Our next chosen destination: Tiananmen Square, directly to the south of the Forbidden City.

Monument to the People's Heroes

Monument to the People’s Heroes

Tiananmen Square has incredible historical and cultural significance (I’ll let you research it, dear reader*, should you not be familiar).  It’s an impressive sight to see in person, even if it does offer little to directly observe for the exhausted tourist whose feet are demanding respite from both the heat (32 degrees) and all the bloody walking.

According to the Fitbit, we walked a total of 29 miles during our three days in Beijing. Fortunately, most of the thick, acrid smog we’d read so much about had dissipated, leaving the sky not too dissimilar to Shanghai on a sunny day. Perhaps we were fortunate, but walking without fear of coating our lungs with a putrid veneer improved our visit immeasurably.

View across the lake in the Summer Palace

View across the lake in the Summer Palace

On our final Beijing day, we took the subway out to the confusingly named Summer Palace (since it’s more of a park, and definitely isn’t a palace). Without a doubt, the most impressive attraction we saw during our brief visit to Beijing,  again on a fairly sunny, warm day.  A massive park, spread over nearly 3 square kilometres, featuring a huge lake (which we explored on a battery powered, super speedy boat), ancient buildings (some of which we were actually allowed to enter) and beautiful scenery.  Our half day there wasn’t nearly enough to explore it all – in fact it’s difficult to do it justice in words; the photos below do a much better job.

Having been used to prices in Shanghai for a year, we were surprised to discover the majority of prices in Beijing were nearly half that of its coastal rival.  In the UK, the opposite is true, with the capital city displaying an air of arrogance that demands additional charges for just about everything, as if the visitor is paying extra for the privilege of simply being allowed to visit London.

A "wild" bit of the Great Wall.. and a confused construction worker

A “wild” bit of the Great Wall.. and a confused construction worker

On Thursday we eventually managed to convince a taxi driver to take us to our next stop – a hotel near the Badaling  section of the Great Wall.  The hotel claimed to offer a private trail to an unrestored section of the wall,  but failed to mention what this meant in reality: a very steep climb up a mountain path and three confused construction workers reluctant to let us explore the wall, pointing out the sheer drops on either side. We ignored them, slid down bits of the wall, climbed other bits but eventually agreed with the construction workers that the fear of death was greater than the joy of exploring the wall without any other tourists present.

 

 

Great Wall - BadalingWe persuaded the hotel staff to take us to the Badaling section of the wall on Friday morning, with our attempt to beat the tourist rush partially successful. We chose to walk up to the wall rather than take a cable car or a ‘sliding car’: an excellent decision since it meant we could wander along a section of the wall in relative isolation.  Reaching the end and heading back in the opposite direction is where we found most of the other tourists.  From orange capped bus tour visitors (most groups seem to have orange hats of varying shape so I’m not completely clear how this helps identify them) to random family groups and a few Westerners, we found them all, seemingly at once. Stamina is the winner here though – persevering down and up the steep slopes, climbing steps higher as high as tables and sliding down slopes thanks only to the all-important handrail, the visitors thinned out dramatically as we reached the opposite end of the accessible Badaling section. We walked along the wall for over 8 miles – a fairly long walk even by our standards, but a walk involving climbing nearly 2,500 steps upwards (again, according to the Fitbit).

The wall, of course, is incredible. We were tired enough after walking it – building it (and restoring it) represents an astounding feat of human engineering, ingenuity and strength.

I’m writing this on the train back to Shanghai from Beijing, currently speeding along at 301 km/h. If only trains in the UK were this efficient…We’ll get back with 4 nights remaining of our short-lived but utterly fantastic Chinese adventure.

 

*Sorry, very Christopher Hitchens-esque.

 

April 8th: Eating Locally, Hong Kong Style (Part 2)

Times Square

Times Square

Hong Kong offers those tourists not willing to go the extra mile a glimpse into Chinese life. But to suggest to the locals that they are identical in behaviour or culture to their mainland neighbours is akin to calling a Scouser a Manc (OK, not quite that bad). The Hongkongese speak Cantonese, not Mandarin; they rarely spit in the streets; they do not incessantly beep their horns. They’re fiercely protective of life as they’ve become accustomed; reluctant to change and suspicious of any attempts to get them to do so. It is a very different experience to mainland China, but does that make it in any way better? I’ll leave that one alone…

Adam, Heather, Bron and Me overlooking the Kowloon skyline

Adam, Heather, Bron and Me overlooking the Kowloon skyline

Our arrival into Hong Kong was less than ideal – a delayed flight resulting in a 1.30am Saturday arrival. Since we’d arrived from Shanghai, home of H7N9, the passengers were greeted by a man aiming a temperature gun at their foreheads. Never mind immigration, I’m convinced a reading above 37c would have resulted in refused permission to proceed beyond the exit of the contraption* leading from the plane to the airport gate. Hong Kong airport has a convenient train to take passengers from remote gates to immigration; this train stops running at 12.30am. So we arrived at the hotel around 3am, tired, grumpy and a little disturbed at the vision of the future Hong Kong offers – where surgical face masks are commonplace and social interaction via facial expressions is limited to interpretation of eye movements and intense study of dancing eyebrows. There’s a joke in there somewhere: a man and a woman both wears surgical masks go on a date…

I would like to know what happens when mask wearers are eating? Or do they never eat in public?

Me, Bron, Danny and Carmen... Happy despite the very dull Liverpool game.

Me, Bron, Danny and Carmen… Happy despite the very dull Liverpool game.

Ours was a somewhat enforced trip, but we took advantage of the opportunity to say goodbye to Heather & Adam and Carmen & Danny. Heather taking us to experience some fine barbecued Hong Kong food on Saturday night followed by a traditional Sunday dim sum; Carmen taking us back to the first restaurant we ever visited in Hong Kong. Very fitting as a first and probably last dinner in Hong Kong.

*I’m sure it has a technical term. “Contraption” probably isn’t it.

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October 14th: The Japanese Diversion

Writing this bit on a Shinkansen train to Hiroshima, where the onboard announcements are preceded by the first 5 notes of the British national anthem, although I assume that’s a coincidence. And the staff bow each time they enter or exit the carriage (then again, the ground staff bowed to the plane when it landed).  Other than that, Japanese trains are perfectly normal.

Japan is weird.  Entertaining, sometimes breathtakingly beautiful, but weird.  Entire buildings filled with arcade-style crane grabbing machines to win anything from, erm, happy-lady-toys to packs of Pringles.  Dedicated drinking streets where you, too, can share one of many wooden sheds with 3 other squashed people.  Cisterns that double as sinks (genius). Women dressed in pink rabbit outfits (note: definitely not bunnies) to lure men into bars.  Giant robot women in pink bars.

And ridiculously expensive.

Recognising that most of our Chinese colleagues are not happy about us visiting Japan due to the Diaoyu Island dispute, we’ve broached the subject in several bars to get the Japanese perspective.  So far the view is one of indifference – everyone we’ve asked seems to think it should be up to the politicians to decide but wouldn’t be too upset if they were officially ruled as belonging to China.

What follows is the quick record of our trip – far too much to type up in detail (and far too much effort to tidy up the mixture of tenses, styles and content).  I’ve also uploaded a few select photos – the remainder we’ll inflict on relatives only (and I might get around to labeling/tagging the photos later this week).

I don’t think we’ll have 10 days as bizarrely entertaining for quite a while.

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4th Oct Thursday: Tokyo

Landed in Tokyo; monorail and metro (“Tokyo Met-a-ro” says the announcer) to the hotel in Shinjuku.

Lunch in restaurant: push buttons in machine outside to make choice and take ticket to counter.

Evening: edge of tropical storm – heavy rain after 10 minutes = not going anywhere so hotel restaurant instead. Confused waiter by giving him Chinese bank card to pay . He says “Xiexie” (Chinese for thank you).   Loving the Japanese pronunciation of new words – such as (phonetically) “Inta-neh-toe”.

Out after rain.  Weird sights in Shinjuku.  Neon everywhere.  Bars called things like ‘Happy Girls’.  We think this may be red light district.  Huge chair beyond window with big mechanised woman behind.  We have no idea.

Man beckons to us: “Come into club – couple friendly but you [me] can mix with Japanese girls; they have good English”. We decide this definitely is red light district.

Ended up in tiny bar in Golden Gai area -‘Hip’ – 6 seats. Barman plays guitar in a band called Kactus. Few hours later back to hotel.

 

5th Oct Friday: Tokyo

Visited local government building shaped like computer chip. Building swayed by seven metres in earthquake.

Asakusa area- interviewed by Japanese TV crew on how polite Japanese people are. Very.

Tokyo Sky Tree tower.  Very tall (350m).  Massive queues.  Big views.

Top nosh meal in Jyujyu teppan restaurant.  Avoided place with “biblemeat” and “pig rectum” on menu.

Early-ish night (midnight) due to tomorrow.

 

6th Oct Saturday: Tokyo

Up at 3.30am to go to Tsukiji fish market.  Ridiculously expensive taxi: about 30 quid.  In Shanghai we could almost travel all day for that. Queuing outside from 4.20am. Only 60 people allowed in.  Entertained hungry mosquitos.  In at 5.50.  Watched tuna auction.  Done at 6.30.  Breakfast at 7am of sashimi – not normal.

Tsukiji is biggest fish market in the world.  Struggled to find our way out.  Bed at 9am. Up again at 1pm.

Imperial palace: couldn’t get near.

Saturday evening with Dwight from Brainchild in local tempura place (excellent food).  Didn’t know you could eat the leg things from prawns.  You can.  And eel bone. Along with different types of sake.

On to another small bar in Golden Gai area. They feed us sour Japanese plums.  Bar-lady to Bronwen:

  • “Are you married?”
  • “Yes”
  • “You’re very beautiful”
  • “Oh, thank you”
  • “I’m bisexual”

Photo of us taken and now on loop on digital photo frame in bar.

Mosquito bites doing well.

 

7th Oct Sunday: Hiroshima

Train to Hiroshima. Meet up with Rachel half way there (with about a minute to spare).

Atomic Bomb Dome and Peace Memorial Museum. Very graphic; incredibly moving.

Turned away from 3 restaurants in evening (X-factor style crossing of arms apparently indicates they cannot accommodate us. But doesn’t indicate why).

Settle for all-you-can-eat place. No English, no pictures.  Rachel’s demands for sushi, sushi and more sushi were well met.

Discover at end of meal it was all-you-can-drink too. A discovery made too late.

Bite on arm continues to develop nicely.

 

8th Oct Monday: Nara

Train to Nara.  3 trains.

Hotel has no wifi but receptionist offers a razor and toothpaste instead.

Beautiful place. Largest wooden building in the world. Largest bronze Buddha in the world. World’s weirdest mascot: Baby Buddha with antlers.

Tame deer roaming free in park. Rachel attacked by deer.

Evening in restaurant with no English menu (or English spoken) but promising pictures of food. Inside we discovered there were only about 4 pictures available. We chose the pictures.

Bite on arm recedes after an evening of being frozen by ice.

 

9th Oct Tuesday: Kyoto

Rachel back to Tokyo. Bron and I to Kyoto. Hotel not where it was supposed to be.

Evening in tiny Japanese restaurant – best meal in Japan so far. Grilled beef cooked like we’ve never had before. Elderly Japanese lady next to us delighted we were heading to Kobe.

Bar staff in evening offer us Japanese sugar.  At least I think that’s what it was.

 

10th Oct Wednesday: Kyoto

Walked for miles (15 of them according to the Fitbit). Bamboo groves and orange painted lined avenues. Overheard a lady neatly summarising Kyoto to her husband: “There is a lot of temples”. Very accurate.

Another stunning place – views and scenery. No monkeys.

Gave in to 6 days without curry.

Refused to pay cover charge in several bars .Given X-factor style “members only” message in others. Found free bars instead.

Everywhere in Japan we’ve been to so far has featured areas with street after street of tiny bars, with the majority insisting on a cover charge of anywhere from £2 to £25 per person. We’ve only paid it one, by accident. And then negotiated a 2-for-1 deal.

Mid October and still T-shirt & shorts weather.

 

11th Oct Thursday: Kobe

Nishiki market in Kyoto – all manner of weird dried fish, aubergines in fresh batter, octopus on a stick.  Whole tiny octopus. Apparently romantic to share the head with your partner (girl in front of us did so).

Train to Kobe.

Ryokan (Japanese style) hotel – no hotel signs outside in English. Guess at entrance. Lady shows us to room but no sharing of names.  We hope we are in right place.  Cheapest night of our trip to Japan – shared bathroom, but free pyjamas.

Soju for pre-dinner drinks (similar to Sake but a bit more flavourful).  A bar full of huge Soju bottles and nothing else.

Noodles for tea.

Hit head four times in ryokan.  Hair is good.

 

12th Oct Friday: Arima Onsen (near Kobe)

Three local trains to Arima Onsen for Hot Springs hotel.

Bron gets to choose her yukata (type of kimono but less hassle) colour. Mine is fixed. Asked if I would like to pull Bronwen in a cart for 2 metres from reception to lift.

Room has an outdoor hot spring.  Relaxing but very orange.  Room also has magic toilet that opens its lid when you open the bathroom door and offers wash and blow dry.

We try another type of hot spring.  Water is hotter than the sun.  I am pink.

Evening meal consists of loads of courses of random Japanese food.  No instructions.  Given our own hot plate to cook Kobe beef.  Apparently the best beef in the world – might well have been if someone else had cooked it.

Head back into orange hot spring after dark – sat outdoors in a bath looking at stars.  Great experience.

 

13th Oct Saturday: Tokyo

More random food for breakfast followed by rice pounding demonstration.  One drum beat to one pounding of rice. We therefore cannot make at home (no drums).

Train back to Tokyo.Pass Mount Fuji, just like in every film with a train scene in Japan.

Met-a-ro to Shibuya.  Hotel is a hefty walk away – another Japanese style hotel (but this time with own loo).

All of Tokyo’s young people appear to be out in Shibuya in the evening.  More neon; more tiny bars; more robot women.  We find English bar (The Aldgate) selling probably the best beer this side of the planet.

Having tried Japanese-style curry on Wednesday, we opt for Japanese-style Thai food.  Good stuff.

End-up squashed into a place called the “Beat Cafe” surrounded by French people.

 

14th Oct Sunday: Shanghai

Train, monorail and plane back to Shanghai.  Back to normality?  Never thought I’d say that…

August 28th: Laowai

And so tonight we experience some of the worst aspects of China.  And maybe one of the best.

Bronwen falls head first (literally) after tripping over a cable left outside a busy Metro (underground) station, landing on her forehead (feet caught under the cable).  Lying on the floor with me trying to sit her up, nobody, and I mean nobody, offers to help.  Or even looks concerned.  The security men stay fixed to their stools.  The commuters pass by with small glances at the commotion.  Some of the construction workers look on expressionless.  Some of them… laugh.

Bronwen sits up and has somehow managed to avoid knocking herself out.  I realise Bronwen is not as seriously injured as I feared and start looking for the guy in charge.  A construction worker with fetid alcohol breath takes charge and begins shouting at me in Chinese.  I start gesticulating at the cable being stepped over by the passers-by and they hastily withdraw it.  Bronwen, now on her feet, demands to speak to the laoban (boss).  The construction workers laugh a little more.   Bronwen is bleeding from the cut on her upper lip and the huge graze on her knee.  A lump is forming on her forehead.

I call our friend Rachel (who is not a native Mandarin speaker but is near-fluent) to see if she can speak to the man who appears to be in charge, but he refuses to take the phone.  Another guy speaks to her, but offers no help.  Rachel works nearby, and offers to come and meet us with her Chinese co-worker and we gratefully accept.

Meanwhile, I call the number listed on the back of our health insurance card.  A recorded message informs me the number is not in use.  I call twice more, checking the number carefully, with the same result.  The construction workers gather in number.  Alcohol-breath guy begins shouting at us again.  The cable appears once more with bunting wrapped around it.

Tim texts me the number for International SOS, our travel insurance company, and they quickly get a doctor to speak to Bronwen on the phone.   Bronwen’s lump on the head continues to grow.  The doctor on the phone recommends a local hospital with English spoken; we agree to go.

Rachel and her co-worker Ashley arrive.  Ashley takes control and identifies a different construction guy in charge and translates for us.  The construction workers want to know why we just don’t go to the nearby hospital and just disappear.  She explains that because we’re foreigners, that isn’t going to work out for us.  She gets the guy to agree to take us to our preferred hospital and to pay for any treatment.  Now worried that we haven’t just quietly slipped away into the night, they seem to just want the problem to go away.

They organise a driver and head off to the hospital with Bronwen, Rachel and Ashley; I follow-on in a taxi.  At the hospital, the construction company guy waits nervously as he realises Ashley won’t let us do the normal British thing and attempt to shrug it all off.  After an hour or so, Bronwen is discharged with mild concussion (huge lump on the head), a number of bruises and a big limp.  The construction company guy pays the bill contritely and bids his farewell.

Rachel – you are a true friend.  Thankyou again for helping us out.

Ashley – thank you for taking time away from your family to travel with Bronwen to the hospital, negotiating with the construction company and explaining the problem to the hospital staff.   So much appreciated.