Wow, I really missed blogging, as it proved almost impossible to do from behind The Great Firewall – other than that, China was one of the most astounding, amazing and unapologetically bonkers places I’ve ever visited.
Landing at Shanghai was a great orientation, as it’s widely thought of as the chinese version of New York City, a bit more western than other parts of China, complete with tall buildings, copious shopping/eating destinations and big businesses doing bigger deals. Traffic lights are more of a suggestion than a binding law, personal space is widely considered to be negotiable, and even if you know a little Mandarin, it’s like learning English from a textbook and visiting Newcastle.
By far the most difficult thing for me to negotiate was the traffic. To be honest, I find it faintly terrifying crossing the road in the UK – imagine trying to complete Frogger at a high enough level to be impossible (play the easy levels here!) and you get the idea. Roads appeared to my foreigner’s untrained eye to be a complete gladiatorial free-for-all, although everyone still seemed to be roughly aware of other vehicles and pedestrians, working on the faith that people/vehicles/animals will simply get out of the way if they know how to walk/drive/gallop properly.
Car drivers use their horns like bicyclists use their bells, announcing their position as opposed to sounding a warning. Buses drive like boy racers, bicyclists drive like they have transplant organs to deliver, and pedestrians do some kind of quantum thing where they can exist in the same place as traffic without actually appearing to encounter it.
They play music on the trains here (I quite liked it, although I’m told it’s an acquired taste). People come through with actual bowls of fruit and green tea instead of kitkats and bendy sandwiches. Trains are fast, smooth and clean, and cost £3.50 for the equivalent of travelling from London to Oxford (about 60 miles). Amusingly, despite a vast gulf of cultural differences, there was still a man shouting on his mobile in our carriage (I like to think he was saying the Mandarin equivalent of “I’m on the TRAIN! I’ll be home in 5 minutes!!”) – I settled myself in with my Accelerated Learning Chinese book with renewed determination.
But I digress (as usual). So, after singing KTV with friends and sampling the Shanghai nightlife, it was off to Beijing for the classic tourist rat run, consisting of Summer Palace, TianAnMen/Forbidden City and Great Wall.
One plane journey later, and I’m squeezed into the last vacant computer spot in a Blade-runner style Internet Cafe, realising why someone made up the phrase “culture shock”. I was truly in the heart of the People’s Republic, surrounded by world-of-warcraft-playing Shaolin Monks (long story, we were next door to Beijing’s Kung Fu Demonstration Theatre, the show was on in an hour, these guys were killing time (and other players) before taking to the stage to kung fu each other).
It’s hot and humid in Shanghai and Beijing, without being sunny, Despite the crowds, It’s low season in China. The Olympic Games are only a month or so away, accordingly, tourist attractions were less crowded than usual, and I got some fantastic vid footage of the Great Wall, north of Beijing, which I shall hopefully trim up and stick onto youtube soon.
The Great Wall was incredible, although walking in 35 degree heat for 3 hours armed only with warm bottled water, rehydration salts and comfortable shoes proved slightly tiring. It turns out that the main thing one does in Beijing is walk… and walk. After a quick (2-mile) stroll around the Forbidden City, it’s a “gentle” ramble around the Hutongs, followed by a “soothing” hike up 60 steep stairs to the top of the Drum Tower.
Sample dialogue included:
Tour guide: “Well, when I ran up the Great Wall, and it took me around 40 minutes, so an hour and a half should be enough to get to the top and back”
LJ: “Ok, see you in an hour and a half”
three hours later
LJ: “…need …water …and …new …cardiovascular … system”
Tour guide: “well, if you’ve done the Great Wall already today, then these 60 steps should be a breeze…”
LJ: “Ok, I’m up for this. Great, let’s Gooooo!”
60 steps later
LJ: “…legs …shaking …uncontrollably”
So, Beijing left me thoroughly educated and exhausted (in equal measures).
Climbing (very slowly) into my plane seat, I wondered what Chengdu, my next stop, would have in store…