Archive | January, 2012

“I taste a Wuchang fish in the surf and swim across the Yangtze River that winds ten thousand li”

27 Jan


They say that the way you spend your new year will set the tone for the year to come. Unfortunately, at 00.00 hours on January 1, 2012, I had been choking down a fake-vodka and cranberry in the backpacker bar round the corner in anticipation of an early night and a flight in five hours time. Luckily in China, you get a second chance. January 22, 2012 – Chinese New Year.

From Shanghai, The Mother and I flew to Yicheng. From a dock down a tiny path lined with a series of restaurants (all closed for new year), we boarded the Victoria Lianna cruise ship. Our 新年(xin nian, new year) was to be spent on the Yangtze River.

“I taste a Wuchang fish in the surf and swim across the Yangtze River that winds ten thousand li,” wrote Mao Zedong, the famous swimmer, Great Leaper, fly swatter, and mass murderer.

“Today I have a lot of time,” he continued. Unfortunately, the boat staff did not seem to think we had this luxury. First they did not recognise The Mother’s name, then declared we had only booked for one person, then gave us a room in which half the lights were broken, all the while reminding us hysterically that 130 Chinese people were about to arrive and we needed to hurry up.

Team Laowei and their varying reactions to the food on board

Amid the panic, however, we discovered the seven other non-Chinese people on the boat. Birds-of-a-feather syndrome kicked in. Three Brits, two krauts and a couple of Canadians huddled together to take on the Yangtze.

In the end, New Year itself was a muted affair. In Beijing or Shanghai, the whole city (or so I am told) is thrown into five days or more of endless fireworks, loud celebrations, dumpling binges, and red, red, red all over the place. On board the Victoria Lianna, most people were in bed by 11pm. As midnight approached, things started exploding outside. Inside, all that happened was that The Mother sat up in bed, gave a sleepy “Mwwhahthatt?!”, then passed out again with a loud snore. I clambered up on deck. There were certainly fireworks, but it was no more impressive than Guy Fawkes Night in London.

Even so, firecrackers were still going off as we set sail next day. They carried on as the landscape around the boat changed from scenic, rugged cliffs to grim-looking shack houses and piles of rubble. They didn’t stop going off as we were shepherded onto a bus, through a security check, back on the same bus again (which seemed to defeat the purpose of scanning our pockets) and then deposited at the Three Gorges Dam.

Dam, it's spooky

According to one signpost, “The construction of Three Gorges Project has made the long-cherished wish of the Chinese people come true. This great achievement is an embodiment of the wisdom and endevors of all participants of the work and will render benefits to the future generations with its comprehensive functions in flood control, power generation and navigation improvement.” Of course, 1.4 million people were not booted out of their homes to make way for the dam, nor were 1,000 villages and towns flattened. No one has died in the flooding that has resulted from the redirected water flow – certainly not 145,000 people in one flood in 1931.

Shrouded in fog and with firecrackers exploding from somewhere deep in the mist, the pylons and machinery looked appropriately eerie and destructive.

We were deposited back on board ship and began a four-hour ascent of the five locks up the Three Gorges Dam. It was painstaking. You wondered why they hadn’t  just built a ship elevator like the one on the Three Gorges Dam itself.

I was just falling into a proper reverie with iPod headphones firmly wedged into both ears when a costumed waitress appeared out of nowhere proffering a champagne glass of what tasted like apple cider. Cue the evening’s entertainment – captain’s welcome, sushi buffet which the majority of the passengers descended on like gannets, then vast New Year feast in the dining room and a display of minority costumes to round the night off before bed.

At 6.20 am the next day, The Mother careered out of bed, turned on all the lights, crashed around the room announcing that the camera was lost, then barged out of the door. I lay for a couple of moments rocking in the wake of her departure. Then I sighed, got up, stuck in my contact lenses, found the camera on the sideboard, and headed upstairs.

By the time I arrived at about 7.20, there was only just enough light to see by. What there was to see was a lot of rugged cliffs and foliage – along with a huddle of frozen tourists (The Mother included) who were regretting their decision to do this whole “early rise” malarkey. I had apparently timed my arrival pretty well, in fact. Within minutes, the Goddess Peak hove out of the mist, poking like a finger over the rest of the mountains. Then tannoy barked at us to go and have breakfast.

Lifejackets for extra warmth

Having dutifully gorged ourselves on fried egg out of tin trays, we were sent on a sampan boat tour along a river tributary. It took us past “hanging coffins” – tombs cut into small caves in the rocks – and the odd local bamboo farmer employed to yodel folk songs at tourists. The scenery was stunning, it was true – soaring cliffs, gnarled trees clinging to the rocks, and at one point a row of ancient Chinese characters daubed in red across a cliff face – but it was so bitterly cold and dank that most energy went into keeping your feet warm rather than appreciating the wonders of nature. The fervour with which we launched ourselves into the potato soup back on board ship spoke for itself.

Postprandial activities – the White Emperor City, famous for its role in part of the Three Kingdoms story – the bit where the king of the Shu kingdom, Liu Bei, entrusts his kingdom to a virtuous Prime Minister Zhu Geliang. The “City” is only about the size of a Beijing temple, but contained a few nice statues, some leafy courtyards and pagodas, and a diorama illustrating the whole Liu Bei story. OK, so it may not have been worth 250 RMB extra we had to cough up, but it was a relief to stretch the old legs before it was back to the boat for yet another gut-thumping Lazy Susan banquet and evening talent show by the crew.

Unfortunately, in the cold and the general holiday feeling, Team Laowei had got carried away and purchased a bottle of the dreaded baijiu rice wine between us. Naturally I’m hardened to the old sino sauce, and sprang out of bed as spritely as e’er the next day. Unfortunately The Mother had to make a tactical withdrawal to the cabin after just two shots; one of the Canadians narrowly missed skipping breakfast as he tried to cure his “headache” the next morning under a hot shower.

From Ghost City - beauty can't be bought... or can it?

Still, on day four we made it to the Ghost City, Fengdu, a Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) temple complex dedicated to two imperial officials whose names, Yin and Wang, sound like “King of Hell. The story goes that this confused local people so much that they decided the city must be a site for ghosts and turned it into a place for worshiping ancestors.

I know this thanks to a handy leaflet provided by the ship, and not tour guide Linda, whose ear-tapping gestures and head-tilts gave the impression that she was attempting to contact the mother ship. The one thing we did get off her was that the statue-makers in Fengdu had made a mistake; they had given the “all-hearing Buddha” an extra eye as well, but left the “all-seeing Buddha” with somewhat ordinary vision. There are haves and have-nots, I suppose.

Next morning, as we hurled business cards into each other’s coffee and tried to ignore the shrieks of the boat staff trying to chivvy us off, I thought back over my Chinese New Year on the Yangtze River – and my prospects for the year to come. What is in store for me in my Dragon Year (for yes, it is MY year in 2012)?

I will still be a laowei. I will keep bumbling through China on the back of my dodgy Chinese. I will continue to eat far too much, feel guilty, then eat another helping.

I can expect to be confused a lot of the time, bored some of the time, but most of the time in a permanents state of amazement at the mad and exciting twists and turns of this fascinating, terrifying, ever-changing country.

I will keep meeting ever more eccentric and ever more interesting people – mostly Westerners, but Westerners who are interesting enough to want to leave the West, at least for a while.

And it will continue to be the best damn year of my life.


26 Jan

Biffing along the Bund

Chicken Feet’s King would never, never abandon Beijing. Brief moments of flight from the Chaoyang coop may be refreshing, but the thought of taking up permanent roost elsewhere in China is literally “chicken oriental”.

That said, there’s something about Shanghai…

Something… don’t laugh… something like London. For me, that means something like home. And it is weight-lifting-off-shoulders, homesickness-curing wonderful.

The Mother in holiday mode

Of course, the presence of The Mother has given the whole experience a bit of a honeyed glow. Mumsy has done a runner from the NHS for two weeks, swapping her paediatrician hat for a tourist’s cap. Rather sportingly she has also coughed the cash for a bit of a tour of China for us both (“Christmas present”). Beijing-Shanghai-Yangtze River-Xian, with a side dish of a few snazz hotels and some super-pricey crab stuffed soup dumplings (99 RMB for 8 – ahem, I hadn’t noticed that when I “zhege-d” at the menu). Nice.

But it’s also Shanghai itself that reminds me of home sweet h. The Bund, Shanghai’s riverfront, is lined with a façade of late 18th and early 19th century British buildings almost akin to the Victoria Embankment along the Thames. The wide promenade by the Huangpo river is lit by those big, pearl-like Edwardian lamps a la Battersea, South London. Even the damp, chilly (but not as chilly as Beijing) smell that wafts up not too unpleasantly from the river reminds you of a London evening.

The Mother has a culture shock on Nanjing Road

You never quite lose sight of what country you are in. On Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s huge pedestrian shopping street, Chinese characters flash fifteen feet high next to the Samsung sign, and every few minutes someone will approach you with a big leaflet of watches and say “Look-a look-a, you want shopping?”. But blink once and the towering neon signs could take you to Piccadilly Circus or Times Square, and it’s all as pristine as Vienna’s Graben.

The “Old Town” shopping district is anything but old. Unlike Wangfujing or the hutongs, you aren’t forced to dodge tin tuk-tuks, motorbikes or trucks. In between pearl shops and fan stores and stinky tofu stands are Starbucks and Dairy Queen. Thanks to the coming Chinese New Year, there are red lanterns everywhere and huge, gaudy dragon floats planted in red carp ponds.

If such Disneyfication is your cuppa, look no further than Shanghai’s Tourist Tunnel from the Bund to the business district. Cough up 60 RMB and climb into a glass pod that will take you on a journey through flashing lights, bleeps, and strange two-meter tall puppets. A mystical voice periodically delivers meaningful life titbits: “masses of magma… meteor shower… paradise and hell…”.

Yes, Shanghai is the “Europe” of China.

But there still came a moment when the “laowei” towel was rubbed smartly in our faces. En route to a restaurant for dinner, The Mother was swept up by an excited man waving an English menu. “It’s already nearly ten!” The Mother declared hysterically, “There might be nothing else open!”

From the moment we crossed the threshold, it was clearly a mistake. A decidedly stoned-looking waiter pushed us towards a table through piles of dirty tissues, broken chopsticks and the unconscious body of a man who had clearly had a bit too much of the baijiu.

There followed the biggest palaver I have yet experienced to get a plate of pak choy. A gruff string of syllables told us to stop moaning that we were hungry, which we hoped meant that food was coming.

The minutes and ultimately hours ticked past. No food.

The pak choy eventually - EVENTUALLY - takes up its rightful place alongside the fish slop and grease puddle

The Mother fell totally silent, other than the occasional swig of beer and wordless groan of hunger.

It was gone 11 by the time some MSG-soaked slop  finally materialised in front of us – slop that tasted no better for the  150 RMB price tag.

Foreigner-influenced? Yes. Foreigner-tailored? Yes. Foreigner-friendly? Not always.


Hangzhou day three: Buddhists, buses and the bane of the Buchdahls

7 Jan

A good place to come after Christmas and New Year

Monday’s glorious sunshine had been fleeting. My breakfast porridge matched the Scottish weather, what with the mists and dour grey skies. But I had planned my day to the hour. I would cram as many temples as physically possible into the morning, then at 14.30 hours arrive back at my snack street for a final binge that would get me through the inedible aeroplane food.

After popping into the Jingci Temple on the basis that it was right next door to my hostel. It took less than three quarters of an hour to ogle the incense and take some snaps of Buddha statues. Then I took a bus to the Lingyin Temple.

The main temple site is reached via an odd shopping street featuring a negligee shop, a couple of KFCs and a snazzy-looking fruit market. No sooner was I past the ticket barriers than I found myself on yet another flight of stone steps into hills. Just as I was thinking that 40RMB was a bit steep for more traipsing through the mountains, I suddenly came across the Buddhist carvings. Lingyin became a whole lot more interesting.

Buddha has a good chortle

I had assumed that “Peak Flying from Afar” was a bit of a Chingrish translation of the cable car that you can take right up to the top of the peak (I decided against this based on the weather). However, it turned out to be a series of 10th to 14th century Buddhas carved into the rocks around Lingyin. My favourite was the rotund laughing Buddha, who, according to the helpful sign in front of him, had a belly large enough to swallow up all the discomfort in the world and always laughed at misfortune.

Beneath the caves were a network of carvings. Most were pretty packed with tourists, but (as with every Site of Interest in China) a short walk away from the path and up a bit of a slope led me to more that were completely deserted.A noise like voices through the trees and the tunnels and holes in the cave roofs grumbled and whistled, each gust preceded by a whump sound like a drum or traffic speeding past.

I looped back round and paid another 30 RMB to go into the main part of the temple, which includes the Hall of the Heavenly Kings. It was certainly impressive. The Great Hall in particular was crammed with bronze statues of people on their way to enlightenment ranging from a wizened old man who looked like he’d swallowed a lemon, to a monk holding a mini temple model, to another cheering with both hands as if celebrating a goal, and even one who was having a good itch with a back-scratcher.

Monks like a spot of basketball too, it seems

But the best bit was yet to come. Free of charge, but quite a walk away from the main tourist area, was a beautiful series of Buddhist cloisters wrapped around the woods and streams in the mountains. Other than one or two irksomely noisy students, it was empty.

I took a bus back – finding the stop again took some effort – and arrived at West Lake at about 2pm, much later than I had expected.

From then on, everything got a bit stressful. Like it or not, I am a Buchdahl. Buchdahls do not like to be late. There is nothing that stresses me out more than the thought that I might miss a plane. Nothing, that is, apart from when I realise I am stressing out and consider I might be turning into my mother/father. Paradoxically it is often trying to prove to myself that I’m “chilled” about catching a train or a plane (yes, a plane, once) that causes me to miss them.

West Lake out of season

I forced myself to look around the Quyuan Gardens, but the fact that all that all the fragrant lotus blossoms were dead, January not being lotus season, made me all the more hysterical. I started towards the famous Snack Street. The walk there took a lot longer than I wanted it to.

It was coming up to 3pm. I had been walking since 9.15. I had eaten nothing since breakfast and my hypoglycaemic  mind started creating more and more disasters – traffic, inability to find a bus, not being able to get on board the bus, a faulty plane ticket. I mentally turned back my departure deadline from “sometime around 5 or 5.30ish” to “4.30 at the ABSOLUTE LATEST, and that means being on the BUS at 4.30”. My flight, I should mention, was not until 8.15.

I eventually made it to the snack street, my hands trembling on the map. In record time I bought a bag of souveniers and four items of street food, but eating them on the go proved more difficult than expected. I downed my spring roll in one gulp like a sword-swallower, and gave up entirely on chopsticking my fried-rice-in-a-pineapple into my mouth, instead taking bites out of it as if it were a sticky sandwich. Rice, peas and pineapple juice poured across the street.

I arrived at the hostel not at 6pm as I had feared, but at 4.15. My relief was only fleeting. The hostel staff told me that the bus I had arrived by on Sunday did not in fact go in the other direction. I would have to take a different bus to catch the airport shuttle coach from a different stop. “Even then,” said one guy lazily, “the airport bus won’t stop to let more people on if it’s too full already.”

I panicked. I rushed out onto the street clutching directions on a note that the hostel staff had just written out for me, and an empty taxi pottered towards me. I had been told that it was utterly impossible to ever get a taxi in Hangzhou, particularly between the peak hours of 4 and 6pm. I took this as a sign and dived in. Thankfully we got to the airport before the meter hit 120 RMB – that was all the cash I had left after my street food binge.

And the time? 4.55. Those bloody Buchdahl genes.

Still, that left me with a good three and a half hours to dedicate to my street food.

Takeaway challenge no. 1

All I can say is, eating a crab from a polystyrene box without any of the requisite claw-cracking tools or meat poker-outers is not an easy task, even less so if you are sitting on an airport waiting-room chair. Praying that no one around was too offended by the seafoody smell, I slurped as much spicy meat out of the legs as I could and prodded a bit more from the body with a chopstick. Then I gave up and moved onto the main course.

So much more than a clay potato...

Take a whole tiny chicken, feathers still on. Wrap it in lotus leaves and coat these in clay. Bake it for hours and hours. Then sell it for 30RMB as Jiaohua tongji, or “beggar’s chicken”.

If getting into a crab without utensils had seemed tricky, it was nothing compared with the task of cracking open my jiahoua tongji without a knife. Black clay crumbled all over my lap and the airport floor as I tore at the solid potato-shaped mass. Eventually, from the wreckage of leaves and dirt, I managed to salvage a pile of beautifully cooked chicken onto a tissue. Of course, the feet were still on, and I avoided the spot where I thought I might find the head,  but thankfully all the feathers had dissolved during the cooking process.

Success is a tissue full of chicken

Aside from the fact that I ingested a fair amount of clay along with the meat, it was ideal – the perfect end to three days of sheer, unadulterated me-time. Beijing may still be the Chicken Feet’s King, but like that little Jiaohua tongji, Hangzhou certainly wins the title of Prince.