Archive for April, 2006

chinese beauty

Tuesday, April 25th, 2006

(I wrote this whole post the other day and about three minutes from the end, the electricity went out. that’s china for ya)

we’ve spent the past two days in the chilled-out, quaint little city of pingyao. it’s so nice to have a chance to kick back and relax after several days of “hardcore” travelling – long gritty bus rides, dodgy hotel rooms, and lots of communication and technical difficulties. all the better that the place to relax is as lovely and charming as pingyao.

there is much about china that is beautiful. and there is much that is not.

having pretty much seen the entirety of the little market town the first day, today we headed a little further afield out the the shaughlin si – a temple full of ancient buddhist sculpture, which until recently had been allowed to moulder away in oblivion.

we decided to walk out there, as it was only abou 5km away and the guidebook described it as a pastoral stroll. in reality, we eneded up following the railroad tracks along the side of the highway, like two lunatic westerners, sucking in all the fumes and dirt and coal dust, waving off the innumerable solicitations by the taxis and tuk tuks who all thought we were nuts. by the end, i was sure they were right.

the temple was once again as paradoxical as the rest of china. irreplaceable sculpture rotting away under a thick layer of pollution and grime, but currently being “restored” with clay replicas replacing the originals. beauty which is only valued once the tourism potential is realised, and the authenticity destroyed in favour of what they think people want to see. unique and incomparable and extraordinary and polluted and exploited and a little sad. just like china.

we took a taxi back.


Sunday, April 23rd, 2006

got to upload the beijing pics, so check them out here.

hitting home

Sunday, April 23rd, 2006

we’ve taken a short detour from wutai shan to pingyao (via tai yuan and more banking madness, but all’s well that ends well and we finally have some cash in hand).

pingyao is a tiny little ming dynasty village, a walled city which has, for most intents and purposes, been preserved in its original state. we were’nt even planning to pass through, except that someone talked us into it.

and so we’ve stumbled into this tiny piece of another time and place. and it’s beautiful. absolutely gorgeous. we wound up having dinner at a funky little place playing reggae with posters and lanterns and candles. drinking beer and watching china pass by. and it suddenly hit me with the force of a tonne of bricks. this one beer is worth all the months and months of socialising i gave up. because this is *it*. this is what i’ve wanted ever since i first discovered my love of travel. this is my big dream. to go around the world. and i am living in it. i am *doing* it.

it’s mine.

mountain retreat

Saturday, April 22nd, 2006

as yesterday was a wash (what with the drama over the banking and getting ripped off) today was the first real day we were able to explore the temples of wutai shan. which, after all, is the only reason to come to this otherwise grim and industrial little town.

as one of the holiest of buddhist sites in china, wutai shan has temples in abundance. multitudinous temples. and as you escape the tack tourist strip, and step into the ancient enclaves, that’s where you begin to feel it. incense thick as clouds. hundreds of monks meandering about in robes of saffron and crimson. the ringing of thousands of bells with each mountain breeze as the devout pilgrims bow, pray, chant and make their offerings. solemnity and peace infuse the high clear air. this is the spiritual connection you were seeking. this is the calm and serenity you so desperately crave, so far removed from the chaos that is chinese daily life. the fluttering flags, the soft gongs, the meditation – they’re all about as far as you can get from the hectic everyday. it’s an oasis. a brief respite. a reminder of purpose, the eternal and the creative force amongst the mudane and wearying details.

it is said that pilgrims used to take up to 2 years to visit all the temples of wutai shan. we had only two days. but it is enough to know that this mountain retreat exists, as yet unspoilt. for now.

reduce, re-use, recycle folks!

Saturday, April 22nd, 2006

if you’re wondering where plastic bags go to die, it’s china. what should be rows and rows of brown dirt waiting for planting, are studded with multicoloured plastic bags everywhere. sad.

the (un)kindness of strangers

Friday, April 21st, 2006

so we took the bus to wutai shan, leaving the stopover port of datong (proud designee of one of the most polluted cities in china) gratefully in our wake. in South america, they’re affectionately known as “chicken buses” – here they’re just impossibly crowded, ancient, and dirty buswes with roadside farmers jumping on and off every few miles. However the fact that they require automatic purchase of life insurce awith your ticket should give you some idea of the quality of vehicles we were travelling in. At one point during the 6 hour trip, there was a heated discussion between a group of farmers over one guy who got on waving a packet of old polish zlotys – not sure what the gist of that was all about, but the outcome was that he was unceremoniously dumped off the bus.

wutai shan is one of the most holy buddhist spots in all of china, but it’s farily remote, and has, as yet, been relatively untouched by foreign tourism. we had been running low on cash, as there wasn’t a working atm in datong, but weren’t particularly worried, as there was a national bank of china in wutai shan. so we checked into our hotel, did a little wandering, and stopped off for lunch, with about 70 yuan in our pockets. given that even the most expensive dishes usuall only cost about 20 yuan (the equivalent of a little less than 2 pounds) we had more than enough for a light lunch of some noodles and rice. the proprietors of a small cafe off the sqaure beckoned us in, and poured us some tea as they handed us teh menus – completely in chinese. when it became clear that we hadn’t got a clue, they started pointing to the 120 yuam dishes, to which we replied a firm “no”. paging through the guidebook for “everyday dishes”, I ordered a bowl of wonton soup, and j ordered some chicken fried rice. what emerged from the kitchen, however, was a bowl of wonton soup, a plate of fried rice, and what can only be described as a small vat of chicken stock, complete with gristle, bones and neck. it was the size of a small washing up tub. of chicken soup. unsure how to attack it, j decided to leave it untouched and we asked for the bill. which came to… 186 yuan. (as a further point of reference, our two nights in a dodgy hotel only came to 160 yuan).

seems that even after firmly declining the exact dish they’d originally pointed to, we’d somehow *magically, and inadvertently* managed to order the very same thing. what a coincidence. it suddenly became crystal clear that they were taking the piss, and had decided to see not only *what* they could get westerners to eat, but *what* they could get them to pay for it, and pulled something off the back of the stove and put it in a bowl. after hemming and hawing amongst ourselves, we emptied our pockets on the table, shrugged, apologised, and left. what could we do? my first “dine and ditch”.

this little expensive lesson, however, left us with not a single yuan to our name. so we headed off to the bank. with no atm in sight, we dug out the reserve travellers’ cheques. which were met with a clear “no”. we went slackjawed in disbelief. we clawed out the emergency cash – pounds and u.s. dollars. negatory.

at a loss, we pondered out options – starve for the next 24 hours and try to buy a bus ticket to the nearest big town on credit, or um….. that was it. in a village without an atm, without a proper hotel, and without even the slightest concession to the tourist, the sudden very real probability of being stuck here without any resources available – well, panic set in. luckily, i do some of my best thinking under pressure, and marched up to the cits office. (explanatory note: the cits is the governement office in charge of the safety of tourists, and basically they usually act as glorified travel agents, but their ultimate responsibility is for the foreigner’s well being.) the lovely cits woman had about 10 words fo english to her vocabulary, and basically sent us back to the bank – who again turned us down. returning to cits again, we were getting nowhere fast until in a fit of desperation i showed her my american dollars with tears in my eyes. appparently the greenback still talks. she marched off to the bank, then came back eith a friend of hers, whom she’d persuaded to withdraw 300 yuan from their own account in exchange for $40 bucks. we were saved.

i’m pretty sure i got sscrewed on the exchange rate, but i’m not complaining.

waste not, want not.

Thursday, April 20th, 2006

the influence of communism in china isn’t immediately apparent until you start looking at all the multitude of ways that utilitarianism pervades the everyday ethos.

fashion sense is utilitarian in the extreme – if it covers you, and it’s warm, why not wear it? high-falutin’ notions of colour-coordination don’t even enter the picture. that rattling deathtrap of an automobile? if it still goes forward, then health and safety be damned. if you can squeeze an extra person into a sapce, you do. if you can do without something, you do. everything is spare and there is very little waste. even in the workforce, there is an understanding that everyone can be put to use in some way. everyone has a very specific job, a purposeful role to play – from the street sweeper to the woman who approves the bus to leave the station.

nothing is left unused.

the best invention since sliced bread

Thursday, April 20th, 2006

it’s amazing how much information you can glean from roman numerals. if you know the general layout of the situation you’re in (a train station), and what you should be looking for (time, platform) you can muddle through with numbers, even when everything else is gibberish.

thank god for them, or we’d be fucked.

hard sleeper

Thursday, April 20th, 2006

we’re headed on a 7 hour trip to datong. this wasn’t the first choice of destination. we’re trying to get to wutai shan, one of the sacred buddhist mountains, and left it too late to book our tickets, so that all that were available were “hard seat”.

train travel in china falls into three different classes. “Hard seat”, “hard sleeper” and “soft sleeper”. hard seat is the cheapest for a reason, as it is essentially “chicken bus” class – only not as nice. it involves sitting on wooden pews, smooshed up against throngs of people, all their families luggage, and several pieces of livestock. not what you want on a 13 hour journey.

hard sleeper is usually the backpackers’ ticket of choice – pricier than the hard seat, it’s still better value for money than the plush “soft sleeper”. hard sleeper is basically rows of bunk beds. if you’re a small person like me, and don’t need a lot of room, the middle or top bunks are your best bet – you can get a little space to yourself and stretch out to nap and pass the time. provided, of course, you aren’t nothered by the thick curtains of cigarette smoke which hang down from the ceiling, or the less pleasant aromas which waft upward. the people on the bottom, bunk, howevere, get shafted, as during the day, the bottom bunks are used as a communal seating/eating/spitting area. not so nice, though it does offer advantages to the taller guy who can’t be clambering up and down.

so really, hard sleeper is the preferred option, if at all possible. and faced with the extortionate cost of soft sleeper, the horror show of hard seat, or the rising cost of another 2 days in beijing waiting for our choice of tix, we decided to head to datong, and take a bus from there.

see you when we get there.

file under t.m.i. (too much information)

Thursday, April 20th, 2006

there’s nothing like being in a completely foreign country to foster honest and frank discussion with your spouse about the state of one’s bowels.

i’m just sayin’

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