China – 8/10

hi all,

for those of you who are not now aware, i am travelling the world just now. this is the second of the updates on my travels. it focuses on china (although there are a few words in here on south-east asia too).

the key points are:

* overall i give china a strong 8 out of 10, a very creditable score – i have downgraded australia to 6 out of 10 (from its previous 7) to make more room at the top.

* key things driving this high grade include the extraordinary cheapness of travelling in china, the unexpected friendliness of the chinese people, and the amazing stuff you can do and see there.

* china is enormous, hugely diverse in every possible sense, and filled with amazing sights, great scenery (new zealand is still better though), incredible natural and unnatural wonders, teeming cities, teeming rivers, teeming skies, cheap restaurants filled with outstanding food at embarrassingly low prices, cheap acrobatic shows, cheap beer, and a hell of a lot of people that don’t speak my language.

* some bad things about china include the toilets. enough said. and staring. lots of people just stare at you all the time. and spitting. it seems to be okay to just spit anywhere. including indoors. including in restaurants. including in public buildings. including in trains. unless it is carpeted, that is. then you have to spit out the windows. and it is still okay to hawk noisily, no matter where you are.

* on the way to china i spent a couple of weeks in singapore, kuala lumpur, and bangkok – not really long enough to give them a grade. but they were cool nonetheless. i hope to get back there some time soonish, and do south-east asia a bit more fully.

* i am in hong kong at the mo. no one seems to spit much here. but prices are 20 times higher. i am not sure if there is a connection. i am waiting around to get a russian visa. then i am going to russia. probably for three months. it depends how cold it gets.

in the last six weeks or so (since my last update) i have done a whole mess of cool things, including:

* i flew to kuala lumpur, made a short detour down to singapore, and then took a mammoth two day overland trip by train, taxi, bus and foot from singapore to bangkok.

* i played at an ultimate tournament (ultimate is the world’s greatest game, in case you are unaware) in shanghai. i was part of a team that lost every single game. we were, perhaps ironically, called the Pan-Asian Allstars. and yes, this is the first time i have been an honorary asian.

* i climbed the highest peak of the most holy daoist mountain in china in the driving rain. visibility was just about zero (i.e., there was no view) but it was good all the same. i since learnt that these climatic conditions are par for the course while climbing huangshan. i wonder when they take the postcard photos.

* i ate muslim food and discovered that parts of china do actually smell nice in the muslim quarter of xian (the reknown terracotta warriors live nearby – although apparently they travel the world quite a bit too).

* i visited a chinese museum and discovered that tibetans think that tibet has always been an integral part of china. and that the chinese military ‘peacfully liberated’ tibet back in 1950. i also found out the hard way that you can not access cnn or bbc websites from within china.

* i spent a night sleeping with history on the great wall of china.

* i floated down the yangtze river for 4 days. along the way i saw the three gorges (soon to be significantly deeper under water), and the construction site that is the gezou dam – the instrument of submersion.

* i promised myself i would come back to see some more of the country. including out in the (wild) north-west.

i ate out a lot in china. it is cheaper to eat out than in. sit down at a restaurant. open your guidebook up to the food section. choose a vegetable or meat that you like (say, eggplant). point at the appropriate characters. watch in wonder as the waiter nods, wanders off for a few short minutes, and then returns carrying an eggplant dish, spicy, delicious, just off the wok and outrageously cheap. marvel at how very few proprietors take the opportunity to rip you off by inflating prices. note in amazement that even if they doubled prices, dinner would still only cost NZ$5.

one day dinner only cost 30 cents (this is new zealand cents too – or less than 15 cents US). i could not believe it. even in bangkok dinner usually cost at least 50 cents. i felt kinda guilty for getting all that food so cheap. so guilty, in fact, that i had to go back and buy more. i ended up spending $1 on dinner. in some kind of sad way this made me feel better, assuaging my westerners-are-rich guilt a little.

i got rained on quite a lot too. and they don’t have so much of that pathetic, mostly-just-little-bits-of-water-blown-sideways-by-the-wind-rain here. it is a full-on, wet-entirely-through-in-10-seconds type rain.

it held me up in beijing actually. i figured i could not leave without seeing the great wall (it is pretty great too, but watch your footing). so i waited for the rain to stop. later we discovered (‘we’ being the people i met along the way and i) that it was raining because it had been a dry spring and early summer, and the chinese military (them again) were seeding clouds to make it rain more. nice of them to ask me first.

see an attractive girl in china? (this is not hard in itself, given the amount of energy chinese people devote to looking good) not put off by the fact that she is smoking (apparently more than 60% of adult chinese men smoke)? then perhaps her halo will be slightly tarnished when she hawks noisily and spits in the street. yum yum.

another one of those weird culture-shock things about china is that people stare. it is just not considered rude to stare at people. and, since (being six foot three and having blond-ish hair (the regrowth is getting pretty outrageous really)) i stand out a little bit, i attracted a lot of stares. people will even continue staring at you even if you stare back at them (although they might glance away momentarily to make you think that they are not looking any more).

it seemed to depend where you go. hong kong – very few starers. up the east coast was pretty good (mostly big cities where they see quite a lot of white people with big noses). but try travelling down into central china, even in huge cities, and eeek.

it is kinda creepy sometimes. one night (towards the end of my month) three of us gwailo went out for some noodles and a drink. so we wandered across to the local kiosk and bought some beer. then we walked up to this huge kick-arsebridge and sat there in the heat (it was midnight, but still very hot) andjust sat there, drinking beer and talking.

there were lots of people going by. but pretty shortly a lot of them stopped going by so that they could stare at us. before two minutes had passed we had a whole gaggle of about 15-20 people all just watching us sit there drinking beer and talking. i am pleased i had not reread the Midwich Cuckoos recently. most of them were young people. sometimes they would go away and then come back to stare some more.

it was a bit weird. so after a little bit we went down to the restaurant and bought some supper. sure enough, a small crowd of passer-bys gathered to watch the foreigners eat noodles. i didn’t think i used my chopsticks so terribly differently.

anyway. key point is that is am still alive and kicking, and still having fun. i have made a brief pause in hong kong so as to get a russian visa, and then i am heading there for a while. probably till october. i hope, wherever you might be, that the sun is shining.

probably seeing you not very soon at all, i have the honour to remain your humble and obedient servant,