Whenever I finish a blog I always think to myself where on earth am I going to get the material to write my next entry especially when I look at my route back to Shanghai from the south of the country which didn't exactly look like a source of comedy. Well, the great thing about travelling this part of the world is that it's just a conveyor belt of crazy ongoings, no day is the same so it's with much sadness that I write to you my final blog for this trip.
Since my last blog I visited the famous rice terraces of Longji, the terraces being steps which are carved in, up and around the hillsides with each step trapping water to allow the rice to grow. Sounds boring but it's impressive, you'll have to wait for the photos. As with most of my journeys the trip from Guilin was not without excitement. I took the bus 3 hour bus to Ping'An and on the way we encountered some mechanical problems in getting the door shut. It took the driver half an hour to work out what the problem was. Earlier in the journey he had been speaking on his phone and ran over a huge rock which made a dreadful sound under the vehicle so the bus must have somehow buckled as the door was now jamming at the base. With a little Chinese ingenuity he found a huge hammer, started whacking the floor and after 10 minutes of smacking the crap out of the decrepid vehicle we were on our way again. We had seen two humongous car accidents which had only just occurred that morning, without a doubt one of them was fatal and I expect there were many other incidents that day due to the heavy rain which had caused numerous landslides along the road. Having seen these accidents and the manic way the bus driver was taking these hairpin bends I seemed to be the only person on the bus who had my seat belt on. I was dropped at a junction and was told by the driver which way it was to the village of Ping'An - well, I wasn't told I was shouted at in Chinese! I couldn't see the town so it looked like I was in for a walk. The driver of course spoke no English so there was no way I could demand he take me to where I paid to go. So off I went and started walking uphill with 20kg of bags and camera gear in the hope that the village would magically appear after one of the many twists and turns in the road. After 20 minutes it was clear the driver had left me in the arse end of nowhere and because of the delay with fixing the door he must have been running late. I wasn't overly concerned as there were many buses so attempted to flag one of them down. To my dismay the first one fobbed me off, then the second, then the third - they all drove straight passed me. It's a good job no-one speaks English as they wouldn't have appreciated the expletives which flew off my tongue. No more buses appeared so I continued walking then tried hitching a lift with a few cars. Again they all waved me off even though I was quite clearly suffering, drenched with sweat and about to collapse from dehydration. What concerned me is the sign in Chinese at the start of the road, it had the figure 20 in it, was that km? All I could see as I looked up the hillside was the road switching back and forth and not a village in sight, it didn't look good.. I started cursing the Chinese and their lack of compassion. After an hour and a quarter I was finally picked up by a lovely couple who were in fact from Hong Kong!! Guess us Brits instilled some empathy in them.... I finally made it to the village and spent two days walking around the rice terraces in the mist, there was hardly any other tourist in the village so I had the whole place to myself which sounds great but really it isn't a whole lot of fun when you can't see anything. On the last day the sun briefly popped out and I had an amazing view of the terraces. Longji rice terraces, done.
My next destination was a little further north to the town of Chongqing. This involved another long journey on the train which I have come to enjoy as the Chinese run an unbeleivably fast, efficient train system with comfortable sleeper beds and delicious Chinese food served to you in your bed! The journey to Chongqing was no fewer than 20 hours which by China standards isn't so bad - Shanghai to Tibet is around 49 hours. Chongqing surprised me, most people have never heard of this city yet it's humongous with a metro population larger than Sydney or Melbourne. Outside of the hostel I was the only westerner and it was here that I began to realise how useful it is to speak Mandarin! Luckily the girls on reception at the hostel are used to muppets like me not knowing any Chinese so they wrote down a few key words which would come in useful for my onward journey.
From Chongqing I was heading east back to Shanghai the long way via the Yangtze River with my first stop being the town of Fenjie. Arrival at the Chongqing bus station there were hardly any signs in English but knowing how to pronounce your destination and do a clueless shrug of your shoulders gets you a long way. I took my seat next to a young lad who was carrying his computer with him and no, not a laptop! He was carrying a whole boxed up desktop computer and somehow in addition to seating himself he managed to squeeze in a tower, keyboard and 21" monitor without encroaching on my space. The journey took 5 hours and what struck me is the way the Chinese have just ploughed this whopping great big dual carriageway through the countryside allowing nothing to stop it's progress. Whereas most countries would pussy foot around a mountain by going around or up it in a series of zig zags the Chinese appear to tunnel and bridge their way through anything which gets in their way, we went through so many tunnels I could barely read my book.
Arrival in Fenjie nothing was in English not even the word Hotel. I didn't realise how far off the tourist trail this place actually was, you can usually tell how many non-Chinese they receive in a town like this just by the number of people who stare at you, especially the kids who look at you as if you are some sort of white devil. Luckily there was one girl on the bus who could speak some English "can I help rou?" It's always the younger ones who can speak English and this girl despite only speaking very basic English was an absolute gem. She not only helped me to buy my hydrofoil ticket for the trip down the Yangtze the following day she also arranged my hotel room right next to the jetty. I gave my passport to the hotel owner to inspect and he started chatting away to the girl, I was concerned with the girl's reaction as some hotel's cannot accept foreigners then she translated his words "British people are very welcome in my hotel, Japanese people are not" !! I burst into laughter and high fived the guy (ok a polite handshake) he laughed too but somehow I don't think he was joking, they're not a huge fan of the Japanese.
Fenji is a small town on the banks of the Yangtze and full of high rise buildings. The Chinese love living vertically but here there's hardly any room for horizontal expansion so the town is built on the side of the hill overlooking the river and is densely packed with ghastly 80's era apartment blocks making it look like 1980s Peckham in Only Fools and Horses. I took a walk across the bridge to the other side of the Yangtze which had a beautiful blue/green hue to it as opposed to a mucky yellow colour as I remember it from my school geography text book. On the way back I noticed a youth who had started to hang around further down the bridge about 100 yards away. As I moved, he also moved. He did it again and after a few more steps down the bridge I began to feel I was being followed. I noticed he was playing with his phone, maybe texting his mates? I have been travelling for around 8 months on and off and I thought this is it, this is my mugging. It's the same with crashes, I've yet to be in a car, train or plane crash and i'm long overdue when you consider the amount of transport I've been using. As he got closer and closer I tried to stare him down then realising he was only a small lad I lightened up. He then got his phone out of his pocket and asked a passing fruit seller if she could take a photo of him with the white devil!
In the evening I ventured out for some street food and perched on a tiny plastic chair about 30cm off the deck forcing my knees up to my chin. I was joined by the husband of the wife who was cooking what was a delicious pork and chilli dumpling soup. A girl presumably his daughter also racked up and seem to take a shine to me going so far as to mix my dumpling soup to ensure I get the best possible taste and making a gesture when my mouth needed a wipe. I realised as I was eating I had an entourage of 5 other people behind me all fascinated in my reaction to the food as well as my chopstick technique which I don't care what anyone says, gets the food to where it needs to be. A lady came by and held her hands together at the side of her head and leaned into them as if to signal bed time. I assumed she had a hotel I could stay in but I was fine, I had a hotel. She later came and joined us and started pointing to the girl next to me doing the same sign then the girls father joined in much to the embarassement of the poor girl. I wish I knew what they were talking about. I went to the next food seller and ordered or should I say pointed at his fried potatoes sizzling in the wok. This man did the same with his daughter who laughed nervously and then shyed away. So I can only assume they were trying to palm their daughters off on me! One of the more obscure nights I've had and I was only out of the room for 20 minutes.
The food in China is AWESOME but I have to confess while travelling the middle of the country I hadn't a clue what I was ordering. As English and indeed Chinglish was out of the equation I resorted to choosing my meals based on which of the restaurants have pictures I can point at. I found a street seller who served dumplings and I wanted to know what filling was in them. I reeled off the name of a few meats to see whether this person knew any English, he didn't so I resorted to making the noise of a pig in the hope that they had some filled with pork. They looked at me a little strange then laughed. As I walked away and bit into my dumpling I realised they had no filling. It must have been quite surreal for them to witness some strange guy approach them, blab a foreign language then start making pig noises. Good job I stuck to the one animal as I was quite prepared to go through a whole farmyard as let's face it the Chinese eat anything!
The final part of my journey through the middle of China was down the River Yangtze by hydrofoil. I stood at the open doors for most of the journey taking in the views of the gorges which rise dramatically on either side of the river the only thing interrupting my serene experience being the occassional Chinese barging me out of the way so they can spit out the phlegm which they have hoicked up from the pit of their stomach. Seriously, the spitting thing got out of hand on the hydrofoil, one man was spitting on the floor and the two women next to me, both quite striking, had a bin in front of them so they didn't have to get up and spit overboard. What puzzles me is where does it all come from? I won't go into the nose clearing which they do, you get the jist by now i'm sure....The journey down the Yangtze was fascinating. Without warning these huge towns would appear, again, all high rise apartment blocks and not particularly sightly in comparison with the stunning surroundings. They are like small cities but without the suburbs, it seems the most unlikely place to have such a huge amount of high rise flats.....This stretch of the Yangtze is part of the Three Gorges Dam project, the dam being the largest hyrdroelectricity plant in the world. The body of water which I floated on for 4 hours has with in the last few years artifically risen due to the damming downstream. In doing so the flooded lands have displaced around 1.2 million people from their homes, mostly farmers, many of them who were not compensated for their loss. So as we zoomed along the river I was humbled of the thought that below the boat lay the remnants of people's home, their land and their livelihoods. Its amazing how man has managed to tame such a monstrous river. Supposedly the total area of the resevoir and the river which the damn blocks is the size of England, there's a QI fact for you!
Built 10 years ago and still the fastest train in commercial service, the Shanghai airport Maglev train does not dissappoint. It makes me weak at the knees just typing this, it is a stupidly awesome bit of kit. Using magnetic levitation technology the train hovers above the concrete track and zooms a distance of 30km in a tidy 7 minutes reaching a top speed of 430km/h, thats 270mph for us Brits and faster than an F1 car. I didn't need any excuse, how many times can you travel over land at 270mph and not get a speeding ticket!? I don't really have the time or patience to give you a detailed analysis but put it this way, when the cars that flash by you on the adjacent motorway appear almost stationary you know you're doing some serious speed.
China has been a real experience and not knowing the lingo has made it hard work but sure made for an adventure. It is amazing how far you can get by sign language and making noises such as a choo choo sound for a train, brum brum for a bus and a pig sound if you want pork. Then there's hand gestures in particular a sign I don't need to explain which I have used when needing the toilet. I have used the sleeping sign when communicating to the train ticket office that I require a sleeper bed on the train. Of course I now realise from my experience in Fenji I could have inadvertently been asking the ticket lady for a shag!
The penultimate laugh from China came from an old lady who pestered me when I left my hostel in Shanghai. She was walking funny with a slight hunched back and I ignored her knowing full well she was just going to hassle me for something. That's until I realised on her face she had a silly pair of plastic glasses with a big nose and fake moustache attached with the intention of making a sale from me! The final laugh I had from this crazy crazy country was yet again induced by a Chinese senior citizen. This particularly charmer was sat at her gate waiting for a flight at Shanghai's impressive Pudong airport. It was 12am, things were quiet and she had a full load of 747 passengers surrounding her. Showing absolutely zero signs of restraint she let rip not one but two monstrous belches in front of everyone without any shame and no acknowledgement of the diaphragm rattling burps which just came out of her. Oh China how I love you and your craziness. I will be back.....
So there you have it, almost 6 months of travelling done and dusted. What a roller coaster it has been. Thanks to all of those who have made travelling such a joy. If I have met you in the passed 6 months and you're reading this it means you are one cool dude. Travelling wouldn't have been the same without my Everest trekking buddies particularly Natalie and all those I met at Alobar1000, Johanna for your company in Yangon (remember I'm always available to finish your leftover donuts), Reino, Eric "Bassman" Wilson, Oriol (I will never forget the sight of you bursting into the tent at 6AM unshaven with your white shawl, the return of the messiah or what!?) Laura and Jane for providing some sanity in Varanasi, Anna (thanks for the tlc while I was sick!), Dutchy and lastly the Shanghai Palawan crew!
If you're bored of life and need some insipiration get yourself a plane ticket to this part of the world, have your mind blown, experience everything, regret nothing.
Goodbye from me or as they say in China "hooooiiiiiickk ..........."