I arrived in the Inner Mongolia Province of China. Apparently there are beautiful green grasslands in summer, but from what I could see in the train, everything was rather brown/grey and dry now. A dry countryside with big, smoggy cities… Hohhot was one of them and my first stop in China. There is not much to see but I got a good impression of the college life in China. See my other post.
The next smoggy city I had the honour of meeting was Beijing! I met three of my lovely Gobi friends again there (the Dutch couple and the Belgian guy) and since it was saturday-night, we decided to get some drinks and party. Something we all hadn’t been able to do since Moscow basically. It was really warm (for us, coming from Mongolia…) and we found a street where everyone was drinking outside and preparing for going to a club or in most cases, a Karaoke bar. Some local Chinese students told us we had to go to Kokomo, a rooftop club with free entrance and a good atmosphere. But since it was way to early to go there (guess partying starts late in China too), we decided to buy some alcohol in a bottle shop and just chill and drink in the streets. In Kokomo, which was indeed a really nice place, we met an expat/local who, as soon as he knew we were Dutch/Belgian, figured he would make us happy by taking us to a more underground club where they played techno. Well, he figured that right. I don’t know how but somehow we managed to get in to the Chinese version of a Tuk-Tuk with the five of us. No words needed for the rest of the night, but it became a really early morning.
Because of my somewhat troublesome time in Beijing I stayed here for 2 weeks in total. Two hostels and one couchsurf experience later I got a pretty good view on this city. Of which I’m not sure you can call it a city. It is so immensely big… For some people, this makes Beijing distant and impersonal, but for me it makes the city interesting. There is so much history in and around the area, you can spend weeks here to see all the different area’s, temples, parks and museums. Also, the vastness makes the city look so calm and organized. The crowds of Chinese people, traffic jams and chaotic streets I expected where nowhere to be found! (Okay, except for rush hour at the metros around the Central Business District where people literally start lining up around 5h30 pm for getting into the metro station). The streets are super wide and there are cycling paths everywhere, which makes it perfect for cycling (I am not talking about the air quality here). Also for this need the Chinese thought of an app: Mobike (and other versions of it). With the app you can locate a near bike, scan the QR-code on the back of the bike to open the lock and use it for 0.5 yuan per half an hour (basically free). Beijing is called the cultural capital of China and it makes to its name. Chinese and Western culture is everywhere, next to each other. I stayed with a local girl who lived in a typical Beijing Huton: a ground level house/apartment which is so small that some don’t even have their own toilet. That is why you can find public toilets everywhere, especially in this area. We went to a bar street in another Huton area where there was a night market with performances of Capoeira, belly dancing and Spanish Flamingo. Didn’t expect to see that in Beijing!
But as I learned while travelling, things are never how you expect them to be. I thought I was going to love Shanghai, not Beijing. Because most people I heard about it, loved Shanghai. Although I might have been a little biased, since I wasn’t feeling too well most days in Shanghai and the weather wasn’t that great, I still think I prefer Beijing. Shanghai feels empty compared to Beijing. Totally new and westernized, without much of a soul… There are areas in Shanghai that are old, like the Beijing Hutons, but it feels like a Chinese Island in a Western city. It makes it harder to find cheap food as well.
I only had a one-month visa for China, and I’d almost spent half of it in Beijing. This was why I decided to skip Xi’an and Chengdu and go straight to the Hunan province. My next stop would be Zhangjiajie, where I would visit a national park with incredible rock formations. From Beijing, I took an overnight train (22 hours). Waking up in the train, I saw the landscape had totally changed. The train changed direction, which confused me, but also everything was green again! No winter had arrived here. Coming from dry and grey/brown Beijing this seemed almost tropical: I even saw palm trees and orange trees (mandarins). This looked more like Vietnam or Thailand! Villages between the hills with terras-like agriculture overcast with a kind a kind of humid, morning fog. I saw old men and women carrying heavy baskets and girls with buckets on their head. I saw old men with tanned faces, smoking cigarettes in front of their houses with corrugated iron roofs. How one night in a train could change the world around me so much… When going out for dinner that evening we noticed that there was more street life here and dinner time started way later than in Beijing.
In the national park I experienced the Chinese way of tourism for the fist time. After the tourist crowds in some major sightseeing places Beijing (I didn’t even go to the forbidden city because it was sold out that day), I was used to people everywhere… but going to a national park I didn’t expect it to be that crowded. And what more, I did not expect that ‘hiking’ in the national park meant following some easy paved routes with public toilets every 500 meters. I would discover that this was the case in practically all the major sightseeing areas in China. Another example is the Wetland park in Hong Kong. They practically made a fake mini wetland park in front of the real one to show what a wetland park is. To make it a little more “realistic” there were some ‘signs of life’ to find. At some places you could see a perfect snake skin or an animal excrement on a stone with a sign next to it to signify what happened here.
Touristic cities are even worse than parks. Oh no sorry, I was going to be positive in this post. Let me say it is actually kind of hilarious. So there is an ‘old phoenix town’, called Fenghuang, a couple of hours by bus south from Zhangjiajie. Kind of the Venice from China. Really old Chinese style wooden houses along the riverside. But the old town is nothing more than tourist attraction. The houses are either hotels, hostels, apartments, (karaoke)bars, clubs, cafes or restaurants. In the daytime it is okay, you have to hide for all the souvenir shops, sellers and photographers (who want to take your photo with some ‘traditional’ clothing and some weird animal on your head), but for the rest, it is pretty to see… Especially from a super authentic bamboo boat who takes you (and the rest of the tourists) along the riverside. In the nighttime though, the whole city turns into a neon lighted carnival, with all kind of Christmas-like lights and colours you can imagine. The karaoke bars and clubs seem to have started a competition of who plays loudest and attracts most already deaf tourists. One good thing is it was low season… so apart from the fact I had a hostel dorm for my own, I could easily move around and run away from the sellers and their souvenir shops. Which, by the way, seem to sell exactly the same random shit in every touristic town in China. When I was in Yangshuo later (a little more South), I again wondered when someone got the idea of selling Djembés, small models of shopping cars and robot mignons. Because the Djembé shops have to compete with the loud music coming from the karaoke bars, they figured it would be good to let some random guy ‘perform’ in front of the shop, by playing a simple rhythm along with some album (which they also sell) of a Chinese artist. It’s great, really.
In the national park in Zhangjiajie, I met a group of Chinese tourists. I visited two of them later, because they invited me to show me around in their cities (Chinese hospitality again… I love it!). This is why I made a quick stopover in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province.
Also now I took a bus, since buses in China are often quicker than the cheap (and slow) trains. Taking trains in China can sometimes already be a challenge, since you have to find the right place to buy or pick up your ticket, go to 3 security checks and find your train… but it’s all quite organised. Getting a bus (ticket) isn’t that straightforward. It happened sometimes that I went to the bus station to ask for the right bus, and before I knew it, I was pushed in some leaving bus… Hoping I pronounced the name of the city I had to go to correctly. Going to the toilet when you travel by bus is also ‘Travelling China Level 3’. The dirty squatting toilets (squatting is life here) in the trains are nothing compared to the group squat toilets on the highway rest stops. In some places, there are no separate toilet cubicles, but just knee high walls to squat behind. The drains are open and the whole area is on a hill so you can see the shit of the people squatting in front of you floating by. One fellow traveller told me he was sitting next to a taxi driver who was shitting and trying to sell him a taxi ride at the same time. Like in the trains, also in the bus there are commercials. Sellers in trains who come by with a lot of stuff you actually don’t need, are a bit annoying, but also funny entertainment and they pass by quickly because they have a lot of cars to go to. In the bus to Changsha, there was this female bus employee, who talked loudly in a microphone about some undefined products for half an hour straight. I even couldn’t hear the music from my headphones.
On the way to Yangshuo, I had a bus driver who was too lazy to drop the people who had to get out in Yangshuo at the actual bus terminal. The bus would continue to Guilin and thought it was not worth it driving all the way into the city for this 10 people getting of. The result was that I got dropped right after the highway, about 9 km from the city centre, I saw on my GPS, which finally worked on my new phone! I asked a Chinese girl who got of with me, if she knew how I could get to the centre. It didn’t seem there were buses here and all the other people were immediately picked up by friends or family. A ‘hunting’ unofficial taxi driver was looking my way. With the help of offline google translator (yes yes, getting more south and better prepared), the girl explained she was waiting for her friend and she could take me to city centre. Then, her friend arrived. On a scooter. I had no idea how we were going to get 3 people and my backpack on that thing and I think her friend also looked a little worried when he saw me. But the girl, really willing to help me, convinced her friend and off we went. So happy the Chinese are skinny… Without a helmet and a speed that wouldn’t be possible with a normal scooter in Europe I held on so tight that I had sore legs the next two days.
After travelling in China for more than one month, in Guangzhou, I slowly start to understand some Chinese behaviour I define as rude, uncivilized or impolite. It is close to the Chinese new year and it is busy everywhere. In the hallways? of the metro, streams of people are coming in and out, maybe buying some last minutes presents from sellers with black garbage bags, selling all kinds of clothes and robots, and quickly putting everything back in the bag when they think they see police. The movement of people around China during that time of the year apparently is the biggest migration of species on earth. When I was searching for train tickets to travel a little more in China, I found that every single ticket was sold out. People who are too late to buy a ticket simply cannot go home to be with their family during the most important holiday in China. If you don’t fight for your place, you are screwed, a nobody. There are just too many people so nobody cares. For you one billion others. I wouldn’t want to properly stand in line in a city like Guangzhou either… or wait until all the people get out of the metro first, before getting in. Not getting the ticket for this particular bus, train or metro can simply mean the end of your career. thousands of others are waiting to get your job if you arrive too late. I decide to smile back to the woman who just totally skipped the line right in front of me and gives me a big smile.