China 2013

15 May

Waiting to Board in Johannesburg

So I made it across the cultural divide and am now in Jhb waiting to board the flight at midnight. I’m in the international business class lounge which is not too bad – hot meals and only 3 other people in the lounge. Maybe rich people avoid flying to China and the business class section is going to be empty? Yeah. Rock on! I don’t think we’ll get fed tonight on the flight – get your seat and sleep – hence the hot food. Last western meal before I eat cockroach tomorrow (got to stop talking about eating dog because Maryann and Seth are reading this blog).

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Biz lounge food.

Okay, time to start watching Gameof Thrones Series 1 on my tablet. See Kingsley??

 

15 May

On Board

So if you’re not interested in what I eat then this blog’s not for you. Gonna do a lotta eat’n.

Champagne’s for you, Andre. French.

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Business class. The seats are really great.  They are electronically controlled and you have a button pad where you can go up, down, this way, that way, in, out. Like an S Class Mercedes but I can’t be sure because I don’t have one of those either.

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You push one button and it morphs into a totally flat bed. It is 100% better than sitting in peasant class but still feels like a seat folded flat – you can feel the folds and it’s not like the palace bed we have at home. Still….

The bed is exactly 6′ long and I am 6′ 3″ so I woke up with curly toes.

It’s now 9am South African time but I’ve already set my watch to China time (3pm) which is supposed to help with jet lag, and I only slept for 3 hours, so I am now more or less on China schedule if I can stay awake until dark. Some of the people around me are still sleeping so they will probably get a jet lag shock I think.

They served a meal straight after takeoff and then another after 7 hours into the flight. So try and work that out. Breakfast? Dinner? They have also closed all the shades so the cabin has been in darkness the whole time and it is just a wierd feeling that you are in a time cuccoon – eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired, watch a movie when you’re bored. I once read a science fiction story by Ira Levin where it had the future population all living like this in limbo. Ah, enough of that – bring on the roast rat.

So I think I’ve solved the knife mystery. You know how they will confiscate a nail clipper if you try bringing it on the plane, but then give you metal knives and forks to eat with? Well the knife they give you has a rounded tip like a butter knife so the most you can use it for is to scrape someone to death. Definitely not as dangerous as a nail clipper (fly me to Moscow or I will clip you to death).

I’m also wondering about this route. There are 42 seats in biz class and 8 passengers. It makes it glorious for the passengers but surely this can’t be a profitable route for SAA? Economy class also looks about half full. I know that the ticket prices are about half the cost of an US ticket, which is about the same distance, so they are either under pressure from being a BRICS member and have to provide this route, or they are looking way into the future. Regardless, flying in an half empty cabin is great.

Oh, if you’re wandering how I got into biz class – I had airmiles that were due to expire and it was 98000 airmiles for peasant class and 128000 for swish class which is really a no brainer. Why China? It’s pretty much the cheapest destination on offer and who else do you know that just pops off to China on a whim? Also, I’m really looking forward to that first taste of crispy fried rat.

 

16 May

Beijing Airport

This place  is velly huge. The main international arrivals hall is easily 5-10 times bigger in volume compared to the Cape Town airport  departure hall. I didn’t want to take photos because I was initially a bit apprehensive about what you can or can’t do, but that was totally unfounded and I will post photos when I depart. There are 3 terminals and we arrived in one and you have to board a light rail through to the baggage collection terminal. See photo of baggage terminal

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Everything is of super high quality and sooooo clean. Who would have guessed.

Another pleasant surprise was the immigration and customs – both super slick and very polite. Sylvia and Maryann, you know what it is like in Saudi and Turkey immigrations? Very rude and intimidating? Well Beijing was just peachy. 30 seconds in a queue and through.

Maybe I am a little disappointed at it being so easy so far – its so much fun to dig yourself out of a hole!

The airport was definitely built to accommodate the Olympics. It’s just so big and well coordinated that I can see them  getting through 50000 people an hour in this place.

 

17 May

Beijing South Station

Time for chow – beef and eggplant noodles and shredded kelp.

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The noodles were my breakfast – the bowl was huge so it became my lunch as well. The seaweed was pretty good and I wonder why we don’t eat it back home? I’m learning quickly that they put some serious heat into their foods – whole chillies.

I went to the station to get a ticket to the great wall but failed because they needed my passport. So that blew my day at the great wall – will have to do it tomorrow.

Communication is a big hindrance. Only educated people seem to speak English but you don’t rub sides with them. So it took me about an hour to get a subway ticket – had keep on asking the people coming through to the ticket booth if they spoke English and if they could translate for me. Hugely frustrating.

Public transport is cheap – 2 RMB for a subway trip – to anywhere in the city (which could be 50km). The subway really is the only way to travel because everything is automated and you have a very clear map. If you take a bus you have to ask for assistance to know where to go – a non starter.

Wangfujing Road

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Came across this Christian Church in the middle of Beijing. Didn’t expect that.

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Wangfujing road is the main high street shopping road (the Rodeo Drive of Beijing) and all the big names are there – Hermes, Rolex, Armani, etc. Then as you go one street away it becomes squalor. Interesting.

Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square

Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City are like the Washington Mall of Beijing. They are laid out in a long strip which must be at least 5km long. It starts with the Square which must be about a square km in size – just a big square but it is always teaming with people. It obviously has huge significance for them. Chairman Mao is buried in the Square and there are a few other monuments dotted around. It is next door to the very large security headquarters building so it is a military parade ground – quite a few soldiers on the Square.

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On one side they have the two largest video screens I have ever seen and they continuously stream tourism clips of the country. Very impressive.

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The Square leads into the Forbidden City through a large gate and you go through a park before you get to the City.

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I took most of the pictures of the Forbidden City on my camera so I can’t put them on the blog. Even so there is just no way of capturing the immensity of the City on a camera. It is huge. It is totally surrounded by a 10m high wall which seems to be at least 5m thick all round (it is about 30m thick at the main gate). The main gate is a huge arched tunnel that goes through the wall with these massive iron gates. As you come through to the other side there is a massive courtyard with a huge ancient building on the other side. So you feel impressed until you discover that this is only the first of many massive courtyards and palaces that open up before you – for about the next 3-4 km. It is just mind blowing.

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There is a lot of history and it goes back 2 thousand years. It seems that every emperor who came along felt that it was nit big enough and did his own additions. It really was a full city within a city.

 

18 May

Great Wall

Off to the great wall today. To get there I had to take a subway to the main train station then get a ticket for a train to the wall which is a one hour train ride. So once again the language issue in finding the right ticket office and buying the ticket, but this time I got clever and had downloaded a picture of the wall. Walk up to the counter and flash the photo and hope to help they don’t sell me a ticket to Mongolia. This helped a lot but there were still a few false starts. Some Brazillians adopted me (he is working in China so has a bit of knowledge) and they guided me in the right direction.

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We had to wait in line for 2 hours to board. It’s a Saturday I guess and the whole of Beijing goes to the wall on Saturdays.

(I’m writing this end bit after returning from the wall).

Jeez Louise, just come back from the wall and I’m still having nightmares about the crowds. The train, the village, the wall were all just a heaving mass of bodies. Everywhere we went was a queue or a squash, and on a few occasions trying to get a hundred people through a narrow corridor just does not work, people!

So besides my moan, the wall was astounding. We only went onto a small section and if it was only that then I would be impressed.  But the wall carries on for thousands of kilometres. Mind blowing. Won’t forget the experience.

Spent the whole afternoon tagging along with.my new Brazilian buddies – helped a lot because we could take pictures of each other posing.

Back now in the hotel writing this up and am exhausted. It was a long and hard day. Still got jetlag – fell asleep at 8pm and sat bolt upright at midnight like a bell went off and now its 2am and I am as bright as a daisy.  Gonna feel shifty tomorrow (today).

Leaving Beijing this afternoon- catching a high-speed train to Xi’an – 900km in 6 hours!  Off to see the terracotta warriors.

 

19 May

High-Speed Train Beijing – Xi’an

Here’s a photo of the front of the Beijing West train station – a huge magnificent building and I know they have at least 3 railway stations.

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It was once again a crush to get on the train but at least this time the seat was booked so I didn’t have to join the crush.

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On the train now and have time to reflect. The train is amazing – the ride is exceptionally smooth and when you look out the window it feels like you are going about 100km but then they have a screen at the front of the car and we are doing 306km an hour! The seat spacing is good so it is like travelling biz class. Very clean, very new.

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Yesterday going to the great wall was a particularly hard day – hours of standing in queues, masses of people, uncertainty of getting things done, but looking back it was an adventure and utterly worth doing. I came here to try and understand the Chinese people and I can say that maybe I do just a little but most probably I don’t. On the one hand you must be extremely arrogant to think that you can ever understand a nation as different and complex as this; on the other hand they are just normal people who come from a different background and different environment.

The middle class live the same, drive the same cars, and have shops and schools and mostly everything we have. In Beijing they have a good standard of living AND THINGS ARE NO CHEAPER THAN BACK HOME! They spend money. Of course you can see there are poor people who may be country folk coming into the city, but in general there isn’t really a culture shock.

You do see people spitting and doing anti social things but that seems to be the peasants who have grown up in that way. The majority of people I’ve been rubbing shoulders with are young urban people who wear the same clothes, play on their cellphones (very big here – just about every young person walks around with a smartphone in his/her hand).

The food however is a disappointment. In general it is just plain nasty unless you go for the Chinese style food we know back home. Sorry, the bet’s off – I can’t spend the next 10 days eating things that make me heave. Macdonalds, I forgive you. Now having just mentioned Macdonalds, I headed towards one to have a look and found that it was a Chinese fast food shop that had “borrowed” the yellow M for themselves. Even Macdonalds is a knock off over here!

The language barrier makes it etremely difficult at times, but once you work things out and box smart, you’re okay. I am however reconsidering going into the rural areas and “getting lost” – this could be a tad foolish. I could be lost forever if my GPS battery runs out.

When the Chinese are just going about their business they are fine but when they get into crowds they don’t do the English way like us and stand in dainty queues – it’s just a push for the front. So I just have to get clever and steer clear of these situations (e.g. no tourist sites on holidays).

One funny thing – I was climbing the stairs out of the subway and an old lady who was clearly a peasant was dragging her bicycle up the stairs. I wanted to help but couldn’t say anything she would understand so I just grabbed the handlebars to share the load and she started screaming blue murder. She may have thought I was stealing her bike or just “what the help are you doing …”. Embarrassing. I walked away quickly and she kept on shouting until I was out of site.

 

20 May

Terracotta Army

This really was an astounding trip. I was expecting something nice but it was a thousand percent better. So let me explain.

I’ve been to a few world heritage sites (Victoria Falls, Petra, Blue Mosque, Robben Island) and with the exception of the monuments in Washington, the caretakers normally rest on their laurels and put very little back into the sites. On the total opposite end of the spectrum I can’t think of even one area where the curators at the terracotta warriors can do better.

The buildings housing the diggings and exhibits are polished granite and stainless steel and architecturally brilliant. They have arranged the whole site in a way which builds intrigue and awe as you move forward, and the diggings are just so well thought out. They’ve purposely left some parts uncovered so you can what was there before, some other areas half exposed, and the fully exposed warriors are gob smacking.

Here’s a few pictures leading into the site and then the covering buildings and museum.

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(Note the absence of massed crowds!)

The entrance ticket was RMB 150 (just over R230) and I initially thought that was a bit naughty, but at the end you realise that they must have pumped BILLIONS back into the site over the last 40 years from when the first warrior was discovered.

The whole site is the largest burial ground in the world (56 square kilometers). One of the ancient Chinese emperors from 200 BC have a 100m high earth pyramid built for his tomb (it is now a gentle hill due to weathering over the centuries) and then recreated the infrastructure of his earthly kingdom underground! There’s probably another 100 years of excavating to do on the site and what they’ve tackled first are the warriors. He basically built an entire army underground for his afterlife – it is estimated that the army, when uncovered, will total around 6000.

Just like the Great Wall you can’t take photos that can illustrate the immensity of it all; here’s just a taste below. Sylvia, Kingsley and Ashley, I don’t know how you guys would have got on in China, but I’m really sad that you weren’t with me today. It’s always nicer to share something like this with your loved ones.

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Excavations

Like I said in my previous posting, the curators of the site got it just right because they have every step on display. Below are photos of the archeologists doing their thing which is really cool.

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As they’ve recovered the site they found that mostly all of the warriors and horses had been smashed up, possibly by an opponent to the king after his death who feared him coming back to life, and they are recreating the soldiers ans horses as they go along. The archeologists carefully collect and collate all the pieces and then stick them together with clay from the area (they were originally built using clay from this area).

Sylvia, do you remember that terracotta lamp base that they boys broke in the Kruger Park and I repaired? Similar process. I guess I would be good at putting together the terracotta warriors.

When they were built they were all painted to resemble lifelike characters but when they are unearthed the paint peaks off withing minutes and that’s why they look like just raw terracotta. They do have some preserved with paint on that aren’t on view to the public.

Another thing they’ve uncovered on the site is a stone armour factory. They made the ornamental armour using stone blocks threaded together. The war armour was the same but with metal.

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21 May

Streets of Xi’an

I’m catching a train tonight to Chengdu where my signs supplier is so I decided to take a casual stroll down to the Xi’an wall. This is still the original ancient wall that surrounded the old city and is about 4km by 3km in a rectangular shape. My hotel is on the inside so I thought that if I walked around the inner boundary then I couldn’t get lost.

Here’s a photo of the wall I took last night. It is a real mother of a construction and must be at least 15m thick and 20m high. Even the yanks’ armed forces wouldn’t tear this one down.

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I’d also heard that you could get up onto the top of the wall and rent a pedal bike and take a ride around the wall. Stupidly I didn’t find out where this was and made the assumption that there would be many access points onto the wall. I was wrong of course and after walking 2 sides of the wall I eventually called it a day and left that bicycle ride for another year.

However I did spend time on the streets and went into some really shady places (read that as dodgy places). It was really hot (probably about 35C) so I wasn’t much in the mood to take photos but there were some really interesting sites. Many street food stalls – the one had squid laying in the sun (who knows – maybe that tenderises it?). The cooking pots and utensils gave me the heebie jeebies, so that put an end to eating off the street.

Crossing streets is a nightmare and you should really only cross when the locals cross. It is almost a free for all. They have pedestrian crossings (zebra stripes) on most corners but they are only for decoration. It seems that you have to use intimidation at intersections. Everyone just goes and either work through gaps or play chicken – the buses don’t seem to stop (you want to get into a fight with a bus?) and it works its way down from there. I’ve been in a bus a few times where you think there is going to be a collision when at the last moment the person who is not in the gap stops. They cam miss by a few centimetres. Bicycles and these small electric scooters go anywhere (on pavements, in busways) and they have no rules – across traffic, against traffic.

With all this chaos though I haven’t seen one accident or remnants of an accident. The vehicles aren’t bashed up. Wierd. Maybe they are just brilliant drivers or maybe if you drive to expect an accident you are better aware.

 

22 May

Chengdu

I arrived in Chengdu at midday and had made arrangements with my supplier to pick me up from the train station.  The lady who met me was Nancy, the sales manager at Dragonfly signs. Now as a bit of background I’ve been working on these signs for about 9 months with Nancy (why so long?) and suffered great frustration in dealing with her. I would send her an email and not get a response, and then phone her to ask her to look at her email, and then get only one question answered out of five, and so on. It was really frustrating so I took this opportunity to go and see her and the company to get better information.

Nancy picked me up at the station – it was a 16 hour trip with no shower so I was a bit crumpled and smelly – and she whisked me straight off to the factory. The factory is about 50km outside of Chengdu in a little village and it is pretty much the same as many other tool shops that I’ve seen in South Africa. They make their own dies, do their own injection moulding and do their own chrome electroplating. Nice slick operation. Uli’s father has a similar setup in Cape Town but whereas Uli quoted me about R150 000 for a full setup if I wanted to introduce a new product line, the Chinese would do it for free but they would keep the dies. Clever business model.

So anyway the meetings went well and I got pretty much all the info I needed.

After the factory Nancy took me to lunch in the local village garden restaurant. Sylvia, do you remember the roadside “restaurants” in Saudi? This was pretty much the same but outside in the garden. So I wasn’t really looking forward to the meal but it was surprisingly good. We had barbecued cubes of pork, pickled and boiled lotus flower bulbs, the boniest fish I have ever seen in a serious chilli sauce, and some other stuff which I hope I never get to identify. The table etiquette was “rustic” – fresh plastic cloth on the table and all the bones were tossed on the table then the whole lot was wrapped up when you were finished. Actually makes sense.

Then back to the hotel for freshening up and Nancy took me out to walk the ancient streets of Chengdu. This was a real treat. They’ve taken the ancient buildings and preserved them and put in shops and restaurants – same general concept as the V&A waterfront. But you could still see the ancientness of it all. (Sorry, no photos taken – it was too dark).

Then supper with Nancy in a more “normal” restaurant.

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The dinner conversation was quite interesting and she gave me some good insights into the life of a middle class Chinese person. The middle class seems to earn about as much as a normal middle class South African and they have the same expenses as we do – bond payments, taxes, utility bills. The government no longer provides in the way that it used to. They are still a strong socialist state but not as hard core as in the past.

The rate of urbanisation is massive and she backed this up. Some of the figures are mind boggling. Cities have grown from 500 000 to 5m in 10 years and she thinks Chegdu probably has about 18m people now.

Going through the cities by train you can see this massive urban infrastructure development taking place. As you come closer to towns you often see a cluster of 5-10 high rise apartments being built on the periphery of town. In Xi’an I stood on a rooftop in the centre of the city and the perimeter of the city was just a solid line of these high-rises in a 360 degree arc. These high rises are anything from 30-40 stories high and seem to be a standard design.

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Nancy says these are private developments and are going up simply to meet the demands for housing. She herself bought into one of them and paid R800 000 for a 100 square metre apartment.

Nancy says there is nothing sinister about the massive urbanisation. Peasants in the rural areas are dirt poor – they see they can earn good money if the come to the cities, and things take off from there.

Now I’ve been doing a bit of reading and it seems that when the government of the People Republic of China opened the doors to the outside world in the 70’s, the industrialised western world saw cheap labour and started moving their production to China. It was a slow and frustrating process which only really all came together in the last 20 years or so. Massive population, minimal labour regulation – could only go one way. (South African government – are you listening to this?).

Tomorrow Nancy says she will take me to see the Pandas. I promise to take photos.

 

23 May

My Blood Boils

I was in two minds about posting this picture. I’ve been hanging on to it for a few days. I’ve never been an avid anti-fur person and that’s probably because I’ve never really thought about it or been exposed to it, but when I saw this in front of me at a stall in Xi’an it made my blood boil. Rare mountain wolf fleeced on display. You make up your own mind.

And then there is the pet issue. Chinese people do keep pets (cats and dogs) and it is likely that most of them treat their pets as well as we do. Perhaps better, who knows? I’ve spoken to a few Chinese people who own pets and they do indeed regard them as part of the family.

Now before I pass any judgement, we’ve all heard of and likely seen cases of cruelty to animals in our own back yards. I’ve seen it a few times now in the China cities where dogs and cats have been tied to a tree outside a shop with a piece of twine. I know nothing more than that.

 

Rules of the Road

  1. Drive more or less on the right side of the road. If it suits you. If it’s inconvenient we understand
  2. Don’t drive on sidewalks unless you want to.
  3. If you drive a bicycle or scooter, you can go anywhere, in any direction, without looking.
  4. If you can see you are going to collide with somebody, just hoot. The collision will disappear.
  5. Those painted marks on the roads are for decoration purposes only. Please enjoy looking at them.
  6. Similarly, those bright red and green lights are also for your enjoyment.
  7. If you drive a taxi, we understand that you have another set of rules. Please let us know what they are.

 

24 May

Chengdu With Nancy

Nancy’s boss must have told her to entertain the African because today she took me site seeing and then to the Pandas. Now I’m not one for zoos but pandas are an endangered species and if left alone in the wild, with all the external pressures on their habitat (hunters, lack of land) they would probably go extinct. They need a specific environment and only eat one variety of bamboo (there are 78 different varieties of bamboo) so you can’t simply raise them in Arizona. Their only true habitat is in the Sichuan province. Another thing I found out later in the day is that excess pandas (when the sanctuary reaches capacity) are sometimes offered to foreign countries. They normally ship them in two’s, male and female, and if they have an offspring the baby panda belongs to China and must be shipped back to China at the foreign zoo’s expense.

Anyway, back to the start of the day. Nancy took me to an ancient shrine made for the original emperor of the Shichuan Province (it was the country of Sichuan back in those days – the conglomerate of China would only come later). The shrine is about 2000 years old and is centered around the masoleum of the emperor. It was turned into a museum/shrine about 400 years ago and opened to the public, so it was interesting to hear Nancy say “this is the original structure and this is the new bit which is only 400 years old!

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The place is beautifully maintained with sculptured gardens, water features and plenty of bonsai trees (she claims Japan stole the idea from the Chinese – going to have to read up on that one).

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She then took me through an adjacent shopping area which is pretty normal for all tourist attractions but this one was much more classy. The stalls you normally see are similar to Greenmarket square in Cape Town selling cheap trinkets (go to the wall and everyone is selling miniature walls) but this one was more upper-end and more to my liking. Here’s my thinking on this. You are only really going to by a miniature wall at the Great wall of China and a terracotta warrior at Xi’an, but then it comes to clapping monkeys or rubber snakes for R10 a pop, they will eventually be sold on Greenmarket square or the side of the road in Cape Town. So the only things worth buying in China are the expensive things – proper Chinese art, real silk clothing, and so on. This shopping district had that sort of stuff – take a look at the eggshell below – it is hand carved, and the glass ball below that is painted from the inside! Both are expensive.and not really my thing so they won’t be coming back in my suitcase.

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One thing I nearly did buy was silk pyjamas. Ooooh silk feels so good against your skin. But I resisted. Maybe next trip to China.

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Next blog will be the pandas.

 

Pandas

In the afternoon we went to see the pandas. As I mentioned there are very few pandas left in the world – close to extinction in the wild – so they’ve created a scientific institution where they breed pandas in captivity. This is Nancy in front of the entrance – she is a tiny lady – probably about 5′ to my 6′ 3″.

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The institute is immaculate and again is worth paying money to see – if only to wander through the gardens.

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We first saw the red panda which is actually not even a bear – I’ve never seen or heard of it before and it looks like a red haired racoon, I guess. Very cute with a baby face and lots of fur. It is apparently more endangered than the black and white panda bear.

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Then on to the pandas. I had no idea that they are very timid animals and non-aggressive, even in the wild. You can pay to have your photo taken bear hugging a panda (RMB 400) which is something you wouldn’t try with a grizzly bear.

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The red pandas were outside and the giant pandas (black and white) were all inside on the day we went. It was a blistering hot day and they bring them inside into airconditioned rooms as they can suffer from heatstroke. I guess in the wilds they would be able to seek out cool spots in the forest but to recreate this in an enclosed area would make the bears hidden. The public pay to come and see the pandas – the money gets ploughed back into the facility – so unfortunately the bears have to be on display.

They really are the original teddy bears – so cute and cuddly. The one in the picture above was chomping on bamboo and sitting on his buttocks (bears have buttocks?) and picking up sticks with his paw – as nimble as a human. You almost get the feeling that there is a human sitting there in a panda outfit. (oh my gosh, what if it was and we were being hoodwinked!)

So another great day in China.

I’m going to finish off with Nancy tomorrow – get some stock packaged – and then I’m heading back to Beijing on Saturday. I canned the idea of wandering through the countryside. I saw how much you can miss out on if you don’t have local knowledge (thank you, Nancy) and in the countryside there is very little literature available and my worry was that I would waste 3-4 valuable days getting to a scenic site but going through some ordinary areas to get there. There is a ton of written information on Beijing and lots I haven’t seen, so that is where I am heading to see out the remainder of my trip. They also have the subway there and quite frankly I want to keep out of vehicles because the drivers scare the heebie jeebies out of me.

 

How to Use an American-Style Keyboard if You’re Chinese

You can’t convert an English alphabet keyboard directly into Chinese writing, so how do the Chinese people write cellphone and computer instructions using a QWERTY keyboard? Well up until a few years back they couldn’t and they have simple Chinese keyboards. Keep in mind that they have (in general) one symbol per word so to make a full Chinese keyboard you would have to have tens of thousands of keys. Not going to work. So the first Chinese keyboards gave limited functionality.

Then some bright guy wrote a program that you could use on a QWERTY keyboard that would convert from English letters to Chinese symbols. The first thing they have to learn is the phonetics of the QWERTY keyboard (the letter q makes a sound like kee-yoo). If they have a Chinese word that sounds like “fung” then they type in f-u-n-g and they get a list of  th

 

25 May

Streets of Chengdu

Chengdu is really a great city. The best way to compare the cities I have been to – Beijing is like Washington or Pretoria (government buildings, monuments), Xian is just crappy (Brackenfell) and Chengdu actually feels a bit like New York, strangely enough. At least in the city. But then again, it isa city of contrasts – glass and granite skyscrapers down the main stretch and then grimy small shops as you go further afield.

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The above picture is a pedestrian mall with Leads on the one side and Gucci in the other and the mall is called – wait for it – Times Square!

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The picture above gives a very nice contrast – peasant lady probably bringing her harvest to market in the plush streets of Chengdu. Nancy told me that there’s a tremendous pull from the cities to get more cheap labour. A subsistence farmer could earn, say, RMB 500 or less per month and in the city or manufacturing areas a starting wage would be RMB 3000 pm. As they come into the cities they stay in the really dingy parts of town and the people from these areas then upgrade to something better. You are always passing one or another apartment development – its just a country that is growing fast.

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Most of you should know that I worked as a traffic engineer in another life and that’s why I took the pictures above. What do you do when you have a main city street that is congested and you can’t widen it? Well you just build another 4 lanes – underground! And then they did the same for the pedestrian flow – two big city department stores on opposite sides of the street, so you bridge between the two (nothing surprising) but then extend the pedestrian walkway along the length of the road above the cars.

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This ones for the ladies – Chinese weddings are also in white.

 

25 May

Chengdu Airport

On the way now to Beijing. Chengdu airport is really modern and spacious.

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Whats interesting for me is that I keep on yoyo-ing between slumdog and millionaire. I’m staying in 2-3 star hotels to save money (of course) and also with the theory that if your hotel is too nice you will spend too much time indoors and not outside on the tourist stuff. The same goes for the transport – trains and buses are cheap but can be a bit of a hardship post. I took trains to Chengdu and arrived pretty smelly and disheveled and it was fine – I got to speak with the other people in my compartment – but it is a slow process. The train back to Beijing is 26 hours and that’s why I’m taking the plane.

The price difference between say a plane and a train (RMB1100  VS.  RMB700) makes a huge difference in the comfort levels. At the stations you are in the developing world and have to put up with huge volumes of people. The airports (so far) are like 5 star hotels and the people are, well, normal.

I’ve been through some really smelly swamps in the cities as well as New York 5th avenue type shops – 5th avenue is comfortable but boring – the swamps can get really interesting.

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Chair massage in the airport waiting area.

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This is a really clever device. Haven’t seen them in SA but I’m sure they are throughout the world in airports. (Actually maybe they were in South African airports at one time but got stolen. Sitting in a shebeen in Crossroads). It’s a landphone that doubles up as an internet screen/airline info/and whatever else – all on a touchscreen.

Next stop Beijing for a few days then back home.

 

161 Hotel, Beijing

Spent last night going through booking sites to find a hotel in Beijing. Looking for a reasonable price but something that has good reviews (Tripadvisor). Settled on a place called 161 Hotel which is really a hostel with a few private rooms (went for the private room). It describes itself as a “homestead in a traditional hutong”. A hutong is a Chinese home built around a courtyard.

Didn’t know what to expect so I only booked for 1 night just in case. Let me take you on a journey.

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Seedy part of town. Coming around the corner on the left which will lead to the hotel.

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The hotel is there on the left about 4 buildings along.

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Ta da.

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Lobby.

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Snack room / bar.

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Mezzanine lounge area.

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Bedroom.

And you know what? It’s a flipping lekker posi. It is a good lesson for our guesthouse back in SA. They concentrate on the things that matter to this level of traveller:

– spotlessly clean bedroom and bathroom (clean carpet – the first clean carpet I’ve seen in the Middle Kingdom) – crisp linen
– free wireless in the rooms
– reception staff that speak English (whoopa) and are happy to help
– it is not pretentious and has a vibe

My window looks out at a concrete wall,, the furniture is cheap (but stable), everything is all over the place. These things don’t matter unless you’re Hilary Clinton.

So I’ve just booked for the remaining 4 nights until I leave.

What do you guys think? What do you look for when you travel?

 

26 May

Subway Hopping

Get on the subway and head for the coolest looking name. Get off and see what’s there.

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Here’s the bike for the man who has everything (Pete) – a BMW urban cruiser. But here’s the thing – if you can afford to buy it, would you be riding it in the streets of Beijing?

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This is a candy animal. The person poured hot candy out on a plastic board in the shape of the animal and waited for it to cool a bit and then inserted a straw and blew it up. Amazing to watch and he was so quick about it.

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Then came across a silk shop where they had a display showing how they get the silk. First the silk worms (I think everyone knows that part) and then they drown them in water and spin the threads while it is still in the water (if you look really closely you just might see the 4 threads coming out the bath).

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Jingshan Park

I mentioned previously that Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City run along a straight line. Well seeing as the ancient Chinese were excellent astronomers this line is exactly north-south and is in the very centre of Beijing (or at least it was in ancient times when the foundation stones of the city were laid. I did some further exploring around this axis this afternoon and went into Jingshan Park which is also on this axis and just to the north of the Forbidden City. In the centre of the park is the one and only hill in Beijing and this hill has a temple on the top. It’s actually quite high and the tallest vantage point in Beiijing.

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This is it as you approach the top of the hill.

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When you get to the top you have an uninterrupted view of not only the Forbidden City but also the entire present day Beijing. Or at least.you would have if the air wasn’t so polluted.

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The Forbidden City is about 3km long and the air was so bad that I couldn’t see that far. Talking about the pollution, I haven’t seen the sun since arriving 10 days ago. Even in the countryside. There has always only been this brighter part of the sky. Eyes always itch, throat is often scratchy.

Anyway, back to the present. I had a good enough of a view to see that this north-south axis actually extends for probably about 8km with a number of really important structures along it starting with the original southern outer city gate – Tiananmen Square – Forbidden City – the shrine where I was standing – clock tower – Bell tower – north outer city gate. The top of the hill was also smack bang in the centre of Beijing.

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I then went back down into the park. It is a Sunday which is a day off for most people and there was quite a festive mood. People were hanging out and doing their thing – achoir practice, folk dancing, a littlele band. None of them were doing it for ninety, it just looked like a community thing where they used the park as their gathering place. Then I came across some guys doing Chinese spinning tops.

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This was fascinating.and owners up spending about an hour ons park bench just watching them do their thing (I have video footage which I will show when I get home). I’ve never seen it before and it is a mix of ribbon gymnastics, yoyo, ballet, … They have two sticks with a string between and a spinning top about the size of a sideplate. They twirl the string around the spinning top and keep it running up and down the string in mid air. If you remember a few years back there was a market craze where you would hold a stick in either hand and flick a third stick between them? This is a similar concept but much more sophisticated. It is the kind of thing which you would say “make it a sport and put it in the Olympics”. Can’t wait to show you the video.

Then back to the hotel and I purposely walked through the back alleyways. Lots of people around, perfectly safe, and a chance once again to sample a bit of the real life in Beijing.

 

27 May

Streets of Beijing

Didn’t really have a plan today. Spent most of the morning reading up about the history of China and Beijing. Felt is was necessary to understand where they came from to understand who they are today. Also, all the buildings and monuments are worthless without the history to attach to them.

Chinese civilisation goes back 5000 years and it was unified as one country about 2200 years ago. Since then they’ve been beating the crap out of one another. It’s just a continuous stream of one emperor taking power and then the moment he, or his descendents weaken someone else comes along to boot him out. There are some well known names in the mix – Ghengis Khan and his grandson Kubla Khan, all the dynasties (Ming, Quin), the Manchu family (Fu Manchu), and so on. In between the peasants get peeved with the opulence of the emperors and revolt, and get beaten back, and it was only in the 20th century when finally the peasants got a leg over and deposed the emperor. It could have happened any other time in the past 2200 years, and when the peasant revolt eventually succeeded in 1949 they had a charismatic leader (Chairman Mao) and a communist blueprint from the Soviet Union to learn from.

Up to about the late 1800’s they were constantly one of, or the most powerful nation on earth. The communist era was really just a minor speedbump in a very long highway of events. The common thread throughout all of this is that they have prospered when they have had strong leadership and suffered when they didn’t. We shouldn’t think of the Chinese resurgence as a flash in the pan.

Anyway, I went back out on the streets again at about 2pm heading towards the National Museum which apparently has more information that would add to my knowledge. Decided to walk and got sidetracked and only got the the museum at 4.30. I didn’t realise it closed at 4 so I’ll head back there tomorrow. Got a great shot of the original city gate on the way.

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Sadly this was the main gate in the wall and they took away the rest of the wall in the 1960’s and used the void to make a freeway. The wall is about 25m high and 30m thick.

On the way back I went through the “1000 year old trees park”. Very humbling experience. Here’s one of the old folk (an Ent).

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Then saw Buddy’s long distant cousin fishing in the moat around the Forbidden City …

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… and finally ended up at the Donghuamen night food market for some munchies. The things on the left are starfish.

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Full tummy, off to bed.

 

Toys for Boys

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9m long limo. It’s roof is about 9″ high (I couldn’t reach the roof).

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Nothing more to say other than “I kid you not!”. 2300 cc engine.

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Mr Bean.

 

28 May

China National Museum

It’s raining today. Not a big deal but yesterday’s weather forecast said hot, no clouds. In fact most days the weather report has been wrong. I don’t think the weather forecasters are inept, I think it is the pollution. When I first flew in, the whole of China – about 3 hours before landing in Beijing – was under cloud cover (we flew above it). I’m almost certain it wasn’t cloud, it was smog. I think that the weather forecasters haven’t got a clue because they can never see the surface of the earth in China because of the smog. Still haven’t seen the sun since I arrived.

The museum. Stunning large polished granite building. Apparently the largest museum building in the world. 200 000 square metres of floor space (a rugby field is 5 000 square metres so this is 40 rugby fields of floor space). The displays are well spaced out and beautifully presented so all in all a great experience. The entrance is free ;). This is the entrance hall – about 150m long.

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The museum has about 30 galleries on topics such as prehistory, ancient bronze, jade carvings, the tools and artworks of the dynasties, all the way up to the present so it includes the recent history of the People’s Revolution. There is quite a bit of propaganda covering the last 60 years but if you look between the fluff you can see the truth coming out. I really came here to get an understanding of this culture and this is really helping. Regardless of a person’s political views this is truly an amazing civilisation with such a strong heritage.

Of course there’s are lots of Ming vases and I know these things can be valued in the millions but the scary thing is I can’t see any difference between these ones and the ones on sale in the markets at RMB30. What do I know?

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One hall that I really liked was a progression of paintings showing the conflict and rise of the CPC (Communist Party of China). Chairman Mao features prominently in most of them and it shows a graphical story of events – like reading a comic book. Easy on the brain. I’m not a fan of communism but I am fascinated by strong leaders, people who have vision and can influence huge numbers through just the strength of their convictions. I particularly liked this painting and I stood on that spot and can imagine it taking place.

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Another very kitch but interesting display shows all the gifts given to the government leaders by overseas dignatories – silver eagle by Gerald Ford (USA), copper animal wall mounting by Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia), curved daggers from just about every middle eastern kingdom, wooden masks from Africa and so on. They say there are about 600 on display so I won’t go through them all. Phew. Zuma gave a wooden carving of some buffaloes. The display notice says “cattle”.

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I was looking hard for a wooden giraffe from Zimbabwe but couldn’t find one.  These are probably the things I would like to bring back home if I ever visited these countries (got to bring back a shrunken head from Borneo) so it was a bit of a touristy thing for me. The not so cool gifts were the ivory carvings. Thank goodness nobody gave a rhino horn. Often a poor country gave a really over the top gift – probably as a show-off gesture. The UK prime ministers always gave simple gifts – silver trinket box, silver cup.

They also had a really cool display on how they constructed their buildings, you know the ones with the upturned corners? The only rigid parts of the buildings are the columns and they have intricate patterns of wooden blocks that slot on top of the columns in a 3D grid pattern. No glue, no nails. So with just the force of gravity these structures can stand for thousands of years. The oldest wooden structure is in fact a thousand years old. The imperial structures use this method and have porcelain blocks. They will be around for a very long time. Here’s a mockup of a corner block unit (sorry, light not too good).

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The reason the corners are always turned up is because it brings good luck. The expensive homes have ornate carved animals on the spines and corners of the roofs.

Off to the Olympic Sports Complex this afternoon.

 

Olympic Complex

The Olympic complex is so big that it has 3 subway stops along its length. It has a central walkway which is 120m wide and 2,5 km long. It comprises ad-hoc seats, little parks here and there, trees. On the right is the athletics stadium (birds nest) and on the left is the swimming stadium (cube) and indoor arena. There is a waterway on the right which goes all the way to the end where it becomes a lake in a forested area. All of the sports, except for the marathon and road cycling, took place within this complex. The non-sporting areas (lots of it) where just to accommodate the crowds and to chill out. There is a purpose built shopping centre inside the grounds, restaurants, etc, which are now barely used, it seems.

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It is a little frayed around the edges but is still a flipping lekker place to hang out.

I walked the length and breadth – took me about 4 hours, and then left when it got dark so I saw the stadii all lit up.

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One really cool thing they did was to engrave all the winners details on a long granite wall. I checked – Lance Armstrong wasn’t on the wall or else they would have a problem.

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Oh, and the sun finally came out. Welcome back, my friend.

 

29 May

Pearl Market

The Pearl Market is a 4 storey building flea market that happens to have one total floor dedicated to just pearls. The building.is probably the size of Stuttafords in town. I just went to have a look because that is supposed to be THE place to shop for the things that us souties like (electronics, clothes, etc). It was utterly exhausting and I left after 15 minutes. Every stall owner harrasses you as you pass to “look-see-buy” so you try and avoid eye contact and just walk on by. But the whole point of going there is to window shop so you do end up looking -and then they’ve got you! Then if you see something interesting and are curious about the price then oh hell, they just pound you. Some peope get a thrill out of it, I didn’t. So I can’t even say if their prices were competitive or not.

I can tell you that for most things China is the same or more expensive than South Africa. The cheap cinese goods that we get in SA are made in bulk and channelled to the big buyers. The little guy in China.seldom gets a sniff. Apparently if you want to get cheap then go to Hong Kong because they’re in on the action.

Now it may be that the locals get lower prices than the westerners but Nancy said no, they pay the same prices. I know that meat is really scarce and beef even more so. The Chinese.dream of having steak (and so do I – please give me astral braai on Friday). Beef is generally no on the menu I’m restaurants. Its really only just pork and chicken. If you order pork the best you’ll get is thinly sliced like bacon. I realise now that the pork cubes that Nancy ordered for me must have cost a whack.

Oh, did I tell you that their food is rather grim?

On the way back from the Pearl Market I saw this building. Jaw dropping (only an engineer could say that.about a building). Do you guys recognise it? It’s a world icon -the CCTV building. It’s not only an engineering feat, it’s flipping huge, taking up an entire city block.

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Off to 798 art zone this afternoon.

798 Art Zone

I kept on reading about this place in other travellers’ “things to do” but it is seriously.off the beaten track so I’ve been putting it off. But today had to be the day because I’ve run out of other things to do. You can only see so much temples.

It is described as an art area in a previous munitions factory where.all the arties hangout. It was really great and was so much like Woodstock in Cape Town. A very welcome break from the rest of Beiijing. The environment was great but the art was average. There was one person though who was world class. He makes pieces out of molten copper (Im sure he gets his copper from Soweto) and then gilds the leaves. You have to see it to appreciate it. His name is below – look him up. Also, can you see the price RMB 200 000!

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30 May

Wrapping Up

This is my last entry on this most fascinating trip to China. It was a real eye opener and I’m happy to say that it has made me more aware of the world, more tolerant of other cultures, more open to different ways of doing things. Sylvia, you need no guidance in life, you already know where you stand, but Kingsley and Ashley, you guys just have to travel. The more you see, the more you interact, the more rounded you’ll become.

Here’s some stories that slipped through the cracks.

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These are wooden carvings in Chengdu that sell on the north side of RMB1m. They’re made from petrified hardwoods that may be thousands of years old. This is wood that gets covered underground (trees, ancient timber structures) and lie in an ideal environment which makes it dense and black. To find pieces this size (these are man size) is extremely rare and to carve one up must take huge balls. By weight it is worth more than gold in its raw state and they occasionally get unearthed by peasant farmers.

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This is Nancy showing me how to write the traditional way. She’s an arts graduate, couldn’t find a job so went into sales. When you use the traditional brushes the heal of your palm mustn’t touch the surface – the movement comes from your arm. I asked her how children learn to write in China. I explained that in the western world you start with shapes (circles, lines) which combine to form letters. Then the children learn letters and then simple words (cat,dog). I couldn’t see how you could just jump straight in with an entire word – each symbol in Chinese is a whole word. She understood what I was saying and said that firstly children start school at 3 and then for the first year they basically just scribble to build up the muscles in their arms and hands. Then they also have very simple character-words that they start with. For example the number 1 is just one horizontal line. A 2 is two horizontal lines.

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The older buildings have lips on the bottoms of doors, originally to keep out external elements (rats, floods) but they grew into status symbols. The ones in the palaces are often the size of trees.

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This is just a funny picture. This dude was trimming a 10m wide hedge and there were no paths into the centre of the hedge.

And that’s it. Back home tomorrow afternoon. Cheers.

 

 

 

 

 

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