Herrrro from China!
I had two very uneventful days in Manila becoming a mall rat and taking advantage of the cheap albeit dire Filipino food. As I was leaving my hostel for the airport the owner casually told me that if I missed my flight they were having a bbq on the roof that evening, I mean, I love a nice slab of grilled meat but how relaxed did he think I was about catching my flight?
The plane landed in Shanghai and had barely left the runway when the Chinese passengers unstrapped themselves and started collecting their bags out of the overhead lockers! Shanghai was a bit of a climate shock, after living in 30 degree heat for the passed few months within just 3 hours flight time I was plunged into a rather English affair of 2 degrees and drizzle. Chinese new year had kicked in so my arrival at 2AM the place was practically a ghost town as most occupants flee the big cities to be with their families elsewhere around China. Chinese new year is a nice time to be in Shanghai, one night there was a display of orange lanterns drifting in the wind with the futuristic Shanghai skyline in the background. Every night the streets echoed with the constant sound of firecrackers being let off and not just any firecrackers, I found one used firework the other day the size of an armchair! When these things go off it sounds like an ambush of AK47s, it is deafening and followed by so much smoke that you can't see your hand in front of your face. The purpose of the firecrackers is to ward off evil spirits not too mention to scaring the bollocks off unsuspecting tourists. There's no oooohs and aaahs, people just seem to step out of their house, light some firecrackers and shut the door while an explosive carnage ensues outside.
Shanghai is a very un-Asian city in my opinion as it's far too pleasant! It took me almost a week until I realised that the scooters are largely battery powered which explains why the place isn't as rough around the edges as most other Asian cities, there's less noise and pollution so far less chaos than I've been accustomed to for the past 5 months. As I was considering this point the other day a guy on a scooter passed me, on the back of his scooter he was carrying another scooter so I guess i'm not out of Asia just yet!
I walked around the famous area of Shanghai known as "the Bund" and was asked by a couple of young Chinese guys if I could take their photo which I was more than happy to do. We got chatting and they explained they were students visiting a friend in Shanghai. After a while they invited me for a cup of tea with one of their friends who was a resident of Shanghai and carrying out a masters degree in English. Having just arrived in Shanghai I was delighted that these locals took enough of an interest in my life (as was I in their's) and was more than happy to join them for a tea and a chance to immerse myself into the Chinese culture which at first glance Shanghai sadly lacks. We found a small tea house and a room where we sat for around an hour enjoying a lavish tea ceremony served by a nervous Chinese lady who spoke no Engish. About half way through the cynic in me had suspicions as to how genuine these people were. I quizzed them on their education, their families and their background in general. They had an answer for everything and when the young English student used the word "benovelent" I had no doubt these people were well educated and wouldn't need to resort to a life of crime. As I was to find out, they were a little too educated. The bill arrived.... ouch! It was 350 yuan or as I though at the time, around 22 pounds. It seemed a lot for such a small tea ceremony but then it was Shanghai and being new to the city I wasn't sure how expensive it would be. A part of me thought they were scam artists and another part of me believed they were good honest people, they even allowed me to take their photo, what criminal would allow photographic evidence to be taken?! I returned to the hostel, googled "Shanghai tea ceremony" and bang! there it was! A whole page of results from other unsuspecting travellers who had been scammed. To add to my annoyance, in my dazed state I had mixed up the exchange rate of 15yuan to the pound (as published in my Lonely Planet) with the actual exchange rate which was 10 Yuan to the pound so I had actually been diddled 35 pounds for a few cups of poxy albeit very nice tea!! As soon as I discovered this I grabbed my camera and ran back to the tea house with the hope of confronting the nervous and not so innocent Chinese lady who served up the brew. I had it all mapped out, I was going to burst in there snap a photo of the lady as evidence (she hadn't wanted to be in my photo with the scammers) and if she refused to return my money, I would open a can of woop ass on her or get the police involved (more likely the latter). I even went as far as photographing a police car on the way to the tea house so that I could show her the photo in case she didn't understand that I meant business. Of course, when I got there it was closed and just as well as further searches on google showed that a lot of these people operate in gangs so rubbing them up the wrong way probably wouldn't have been a good idea! Luckily I had ended the ceremony at the first opportunity and therefore got off lightly compared with others. Another guy in the hostel had a friend who was taken for 1000 yuan (100 pounds) and internet searches show people being stuffed for anything from 400 to 2000 yuan. The hostel notice board displayed a note from one poor chap who was invited by a girl for a drink and ended up footing a bill of 1,200pounds after she miraculously dissappeared. Unfortunately for him he had no option as these guys get violent if you don't cough up. Welcome to scam country and welcome to China! It's a shame it happened as so many countries I've visted have afforded me some unforgettable interactions with the locals through such situations but this one experience has left me feeling dis-trusting of the Chinese people. To compound my misery I then lost my bank card so have now rung up a large mobile phone bill no thanks to Declan from the Co-Operative Bank who stayed on the line to recount his story of how he left his wallet on the plane in Tenerife and had to (as he put it) "sponge off the missus for a week" Still, with spirits and dignity just about intact I soldiered on!
So, not the best introduction to the people of China and as of yet I can't say I have warmed to them. In Guilin I was told off for taking a photo in a supermarket of a tube of crisps with a funny name (Toss). Quite what cultural boundary line I had crossed or what area of their national security I dipped my toe into i'm not sure! Going to a local convenience store the shopkeepers latch on to you and follow you around pointing out various random items in the shop which they think you may need. When it looks like you are about to leave they get frantic and start pointing out even more items which is a bizarre sales tactic especially if you're a stubborn git like me who refuses to deal with people perceived as annoying when in reality that's just the way business is done here. Walking the streets of a crowded city the Chinese can be aggressive, they see no problems with pushing passed you in a queue or barging you out of the way. This of course works two fold as I usually have a huge bag on my back with my daypack on front, the ultimate barging tool and a great stress reliever especially as they don't react when you push, it's not a politeness thing it's just how it is, a real dog eat dog attitude. They seem to roam in clusters, like a pack of zebras they feel less threatened when there's a crowd of them. It's also funny when you hear Chinese people talking to each other as it sounds like they are having an arguement when in actual fact they are having a perfectly pleasant conversation. I passed a police officer who was shouting down the phone at someone but I couldn't tell whether he was angry with the person. I chuckled at the thought that he might be on the phone telling his wife he loved her.
Yesterday I set off for a 2 hour walk to a small village outside the town of Xingping which is in the southern province of Guanxi. When I arrived at the village a lady shouted at me and pointed to the bamboo raft at the riverside which could take me back to Xingping. I wanted to walk however had problems conveying this to the woman who could speak no English. She decided to follow me and despite every effort in using sign language she would not leave me alone. Every time I took a different turning she would shout to me "noah!!!" then pointed to the direction where the raft was which by now I clearly understood was her raft, otherwise why would she tail me for an hour and 5 minutes!!?? 10 out of 10 for persistence. Whatever I said was lost on her as all she could say was "hello" and "noah" which I presume meant "no" unless Noah had his ark moored downstream. I tried frustrating her by walking in rougher terrain then trying zig zags all to no avail. So after half an hour I decided to make a run for it. Tourists on the boats chugging along the Li river would have witnessed the bizarre spectacle of a foreigner running along the river banks, camera in hand with a a local Chinese lady in hot pursuit yelling "noah, noah, bamboo". Well my marathon legs were wasted as she ended up behind me again so I now had me a stalker. I kind of knew I had attracted the village nutjob as a local guy passed me pulling a trailer, he looked at me shook his head horizontally and raised his eyebrows as if to say "good luck pal".
If there's one thing I will take from this part of China it's the relentless hassling from ladies asking if you want to go on a bamboo. As it happens I did go on a bamboo raft, it was getting dark and I needed to cross the river. Luck was in store as an old man was able to take me across in what can only be described as 5 large bamboo tied together with rope to form one long plank of bamboo! It was around 4 or 5 metres in length, no wider than me and when I perched my big western caboose on it the bamboo poles were flush with the water. I have been on kayaks with more stability than this thing but what made it worse is I was fully clothed and had a backpack full of expensive camera gear. I sat on a small stall and spread my legs as wide as I could just to add a bit more stability to the rocking plank as the old man started paddling us cross the river, the water lapping onto the raft from the passing boats and the swelling current. I can't remember the last time I got myself into such a situation, I honestly thought I was going to go in and the travel insurance would finally be required!
Another encounter with a local was with an over zealous sausage seller in the old town of Shanghai. I was hungry and in need for a lunch and am not the kind of guy to turn down a sausage or two. The street vendor told me it was 1 sausage for 10 yuan which to say is taking the piss is an understatement. I offered him 5 yuan for two sausages which he was not prepared to do. So I got 5 yuan out of my wallet and showed it to him then pointed to the sausages showing him 2 fingers signifying I wanted 2 sausages for my 5 yuan. He snatched the 5 yuan out of my hand put it in his apron and gave me 1 sausage. I lost it with him and raised my voice until I was almost shouting, red with anger with my eyes about to fly out of my head. He conceded, gave me 2 sausages then gave me a huge smile. Guy 1, Shanghai sausage man nil - a message to the food vendors of China: no one gets in the way of me and food. In all seriousness all I wanted was some lunch, not a fight and I don't expect my blood pressure to shoot up before i've even eaten!
Of course I have met some absolutely wonderful Chinese people but I figured you would rather read about the nutty ones!
Having visited most Asian countries one thing that is prevalent is spitting but nowhere more so than China. They spit everywhere and they can't help but make the process known to everyone with the sound of a huge "hoooooiiccccck" from their throat then emptying the contents of their mouth on the pavement. For me, a woman smoking a cigarette was always a big turn off but that pales into comparison when you see Chinese woman phleming on the pavements! What amazes me is that it's such common practice that it is acceptable to do this in restaurants, one man waltzing in whilst my friend and I enjoyed a feast then spat on the floor by our table! Wonderful, only in China.
I wasn't prepared for the language difficulties as very few people speak English and everywhere looks like a Chinese takeaway. I had around 4 pounds of Philippines pesos which I wanted to change into the local currency so I nipped into a travel agent to see if they could assist. After some initial confusion with the girl at the desk, she passed the keyboard over the counter so I could type her my question which she would then translate into Chinese through an online translator. She didn't know the answer to my question so responded with "feel shy, typing to my manager" so she ended up copying the Chinese translation of my questions to her boss who was sending a response in Chinese via instant messenger which was then being translated back to English. After 10 minutes I got my answer which was a no we do not convert Philippine peso! All a hell of a lot of effort for 4 pounds.
Most of my time outside of Shanghai was spent in Guanxi province in the south of the country staying in small towns and villages surrounded by limestone peaks and rice terraces. The town of Yangshuo is surrounded by towering peaks with the river Li carving an intricate network of canals through the town. Unfortunately the whole place, while containing all the comforts of bars, restaurants, travel agents etc, is stupidly unsymapthetic to its gorgeous environment, - if there's one thing the Chinese can do well it's collosal tourist traps. The place even has a McDonalds which I have to confess visiting after a night on the beers. It was full of Chinese with a handful of westerners who stroll in acknowledging other westerners with a nod of the head and a comment along the lines of "I know it's wrong....." My last night in Yangshuo was the final night of the Chinese new year celebrations and they put on a firework display like i've never seen before. 30 minutes of fireworks echoing around the mountains and culminating into a final minute where they seemed to put up as many fireworks as they could possibly squeeze into the air!
The grub here is delicious, although strange not experiencing headaches and heart palpitations from all the MSG that we have in our Chinese food at home. I haven't tried anything too funky but I choose my eateries on the strength of their Chinglish as displayed in their menu. I will sign off now with a few of the best all from one restaurant!