Suzhou moat bridgeA few days later than planned, I boarded an overnight train to Shanghai (上海) and once again entered China proper. As I watched the countryside whizz by, the sheet scale and pace of construction staggered me – there was not a single kilometre we passed that did not have either an apartment complex, road or train line being put together out of steel and concrete. Needless to say, the land itself was a Bosch-like chaos of litter, discoloured water, mud, factories and half-demolished buildings, and my reacquaintance with China was quite depressing.

I arrived in Shanghai just before lunchtime, met up with Dan (whom you may remember from previous exploits in Korea) and proceeded to find the Propaganda Poster Art Museum just over the road from his apartment. After a quick tour through communist history, we went in search of lunch and discovered that the two vegetarian restaurants in the area had both closed down (presumably due to lack of clientèle in meat-ubiquitous China). Our wanderings were frequently punctuated by the machine-gun-like reports of firecrackers going off – at New Year, everyone gets hold of as many fireworks as they can and sets them off in the street. For days after the main events, the roads and pavements are awash with tattered red confetti from the wrappings.

Left: The southern moat bridge in Suzhou. Below, left to right: Bao’en Temple from Beisi Pagoda in Suzhou.

Bao'en from Beisi (1)Bao'en bridge

Bao'en gazeboI had an extra day before moving on, and we decided to go to nearby Suzhou (苏州) as both of us had seen quite a bit of Shanghai already. Unfortunately, several hundred other people had the same idea and we couldn’t get a train until the afternoon (though it did give us the chance to check out M50, an art collective in an old warehouse complex not unlike The Custard Factory in Birmingham). Pointedly ignoring all the taxi touts (perhaps a mistake, as things turned out), we walked over the river to Bao-en Temple and hiked up the nine-storey Beisi Pagoda to the rather precarious viewing balcony hundreds of feet above the city. Suzhou is known as the “Venice of the East”, but the only water we could see was in the temple pond behind us. We picked our way down again and walked the few kilometres to the Master of the Nets Garden, a formal garden that turned out to be closed. As did all the others – the city more or less shuts down at dusk, and we were out of time all too soon.

Left: A gazebo in Bao’en Temple. Below, left to right: Candles in Bao’en Temple, giant incense sticks in Bao’en Temple; Views from and of Beisi Pagoda.

Bao'en candlesBao'en incense

Suzhou from Bao'enBao'en from Beisi (2)Beisi from Bao'en

Old Observatory (1)From Shanghai, I managed to get a train going north to Qingdao (青岛) despite the New Year-travelling masses still persisting (most people had Monday to Friday off, but had to work the following Saturday and Sunday as regular days) and presented myself at the brilliantly-used Old Observatory Youth Hostel for my final days in China. I spent most of my free time walking around the European-style streets and waterfront, though did not get to see the new Olympic facilities as they turned out to be sited several miles away. Such is the rate of redevelopment in China, I reasoned that there was a good chance I’d stumble across an abandoned building while exploring (and, indeed, I did find an entire neighbourhood in mid-demolition). However, the whole place is so derelict to start with that there is no sure-fire way to tell which buildings are abandoned and which are just dilapidated and still in normal use.

Left: The Old Observatory Astrodome. Below, left to right: Qingdao from Zhongshan Park, Qingdao from Gianxiangshan Park; A vine in Gianxiangshan Park, the Old Observatory Astrodome, teh French-built telescope in the Astrodome.

Qingdao from ZhongshanQingdao from Gianxiangshan

Qingdao vineOld Observatory (2)Old Observatory telescope

Weidong Ferry, the operator that runs the China-Korea passenger routes, has two near-the-middle-of-the-line ferries packed with useful facilities such as shops, saunas and eateries. Although a rough crossing would still inevitably mark me as a landsman, I was not particularly concerned about the level of comfort I would experience and prepared my ditty bag for the midshipman’s berth accordingly. I was therefore uncommon hipped when the shuttle bus pulled up outside that infernal slug, the Queen Qingdao – an ancient transport drafted in while the more opulent New Golden Bridge V was refitted. I quickly made my assessment of the new post: nothing in the convenience store except water, Tsingtao beer and Korean canned coffee; nothing in the restaurant except rice, soup and assorted Korean pickled side dishes; no entertainment facilities except a TV in the room; no bathing room; top speed several points off the wind so we would arrive at least five hours late; rust and holes in the deck commonplace; an exterior door wedged open with another door that had fallen off; broken structural supports fixed with Sellotape; all toilet paper used up before the ship was even out of the harbour (note: unfortunately, none of this has been made up or exaggerated). There were, however, three Nutmegesque consolations that made the voyage bearable: I had my own capsule-like berth and so did not have to sail sardine class; said berth had a working power point so I could at least use my laptop; the sea was extremely smooth and I barely felt any swell at all.

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Qingdao hill fortAfter a delay of a few days (ostensibly due to bad weather), the ferry whisked me away through the snowflakes to Qingdao (a mercifully calm crossing); away from Korea and (for the time being at least) away from Amy. I quickly established that WordPress had earned the ire of the Chinese government and was completely blocked, forcing me to save all my stories up and publish them in one huge update from Vietnam. China was pretty much as I remembered it; slightly surprising given how much I’d heard about how much it was changing. I was still able to buy baked sweet potatoes off the street and even managed to organise train tickets in broken Mandarin. Other than an imposing German hill fort, several parks and the marina for the 2008 Olympic Games, Qingdao had few distractions and so I headed south after making quick plans for the rest of the country.

Toilet ratingsNo suicides please

Paramount ShanghaiAn overnight train ride later, I arrived at the only place to be revisited from my earlier trip to China – Shanghai. The colonial Bund was still there, the skyscrapers and Pearl Tower (commonly confused with a giant hypodermic needle) loomed over the people wandering about below and the bustle of millions of people of all nationalities hurrying about hadn’t abated one bit. I had initially planned on taking a side trip to Nanjing (home of the memorial to the Nanjing Massacre), but the only train that was available (or rather the only ticket the train station staff would sell me) arrived after the museum closed. When I thought about it later, a round trip of seven hours to see one thing might have been a bit counterproductive anyway as there was so much in Shanghai itself still to see.

Wherever you go in China, it won’t be long before you see someone selling food of some kind from a cart or portable stall (for example, the sweet potatoes). There was always a small congregation of food sellers on the street corner near my hostel, strategically placed to get the human traffic going to the metro station. Breakfast every day consisted of folded pancakes with egg and herbs, but these vendors were replaced in the evening by something far worse – stinky tofu fryers. Stinky tofu (chou doufu) looks and smells exactly like brownie-sized chunks of cow manure but supposedly tastes pretty good. I couldn’t stand the smell for long enough to buy some, however.

The BundOver the river

Shanghai statueChangsha University

Shanghai MuseumThe Shanghai Museum, housed in a rather fetching saucer-shaped building, contains a huge array of Chinese art and artifacts (sadly all the temporary exhibits were temporarily closed) and some very well-done lighting. Galleries of important objects are lit solely by the display lights, making them stand out in the gloom; the art and calligraphy scrolls aren’t lit at all until you approach them, activating motion sensors which bring up a soft glow. Conversely, the Natural History Museum has a wonderful musty air as it’s not really been altered since 1956. There is a fairly large collection of both pickled and stuffed animals (including lots of frogs and a hairy tortoise), most looking in need of a bit of sprucing up. The taxonomical mis-labellings continue – Shanghai’s snow leopard (Uncia uncia) is displayed as Panthera uncia, though to be fair this was a fairly recent change.

Poster boyThe often-overlooked city of Changsha was my next stop – well off the tourist trail and home to the Lei Feng memorial. Lei Feng was the poster boy for plenty of Chinese propaganda, being the model worker and soldier, and there is a fairly large exhibition about his life. There is also an equally large exhibition of Chinese military might, complete with scale models of tanks and missiles. Tragically, the Chang Sha (Lei Feng) 7-Piece Puzzle Popular Science Paradise building was closed, so I never got to find out what’s in it.

Guilin (1)Guilin (2)

Shan LakeOversleeping for the first time on my trip, I missed the early train to Guilin and had to wait several hours for the next one. No upgrades were available (mei you) and so I was stuck in hard seat – nine hours, standing for the first two, in a crowded carriage full of smokers. I’d never been so relieved to get into the (relatively unpolluted) fresh air. Guilin is the transport hub for one of the more scenic areas of China, and is well on the beaten track. Karst limestone formations abound, which are imposing and awe-inspiring when the view isn’t obscured by rain and cloud, as it was when I arrived. Still, it was a refreshing change from the cities.

Mulong Lake (1)Mulong Lake (1)

XingpingFollowing the off-season trickle of tourists, I took a bus out to the rather touristy town of Yangshou, a bit further down the Li River. Apparently a Chinese saying goes: “Guilin has the best scenery, but Yangshuo’s is even better,” which has possibly lost something in translation. Despite torrential rain, the scenery was spectacular – the limestone hills loomed over the rivers and fields like guardian earth elementals.

GaotianLi River

Moon HillI took a trip out to the village of Gaotian, and was pleasantly surprised to find minibus taxis in operation just like in Africa. Gaotian is the nearest settlement to Moon Hill, a natural arch which, with the sky as a backdrop, forms the phases of the moon as you walk round it. The storm intensified as I hurried back to Yangshuo, and (this being a backpacker area after all) I ended up in a warm cafe sipping green tea and listening to Bob Marley’s Stir It Up. The following day, Xingping and the hiking trails along the river were my destination. The rain stayed away, and (typically) just as I was leaving Guilin the sun came out.

Green Lake ParkMy final destination in China was Kunming, a bustling city graced by many a solar water heater (there are hundreds of shops selling them everywhere). The weather turned mild and sunny, and I had to leave the winter clothing and break out my sandals for the first time since India. My passport was deposited at the Vietnamese consulate (they refused to put the new visa over the top of the old one, using up another precious page) and I went in search of doxycycline (an anti-malarial antibiotic I would need to take all the way through South-East Asia). This proved difficult, as I didn’t know the Chinese name and found it impossible to pantomime or draw malaria. Resorting to the internet, I got the Mandarin characters and headed back only to find they’d sold out. I tried at the next place (mei you) and eventually wound up at the local hospital outpatient pharmacy. Despite technically needing to see a prescription, they sorted me out.

Yuantong gateYuantong Temple (1)

West SideI sampled another street breakfast (rice wrapped round a ball of batter and sprinkled with sugar and sesame seeds), wandered round Kunming and was suitably impressed at the thousand-year-old Yuantong Zen Buddhist Temple. Not only was this a large and interesting site, but they had a restaurant with delicious temple-blessed vegetarian food. Though tempted, I thought that going back for seconds might be in poor keeping with the surroundings.

The following day, I decided to go out to the much-hyped World Natural Heritage site of Shilin (Stone Forest). This is a large area of limestone pillars, eroded by the wind and rain into strange shapes over the course of several thousand years. Although the photographs make it look remote and eerie, tourism has taken a firm hold and there are paved paths, stairs and imported Australian turf to make the whole experience a bit canned (not unlike a zoo). This in itself wouldn’t have presented much of a problem, but our guide seemed bent on parting us from our money at every turn. Out of a two-hour tour, only around forty-five minutes was spent walking around the stone forest. We watched a “traditional” dance performance (to suspiciously modern music), but alarm bells started ringing when we were led into an art gallery (free tea and calligraphy but no pressure to buy, oh no sir). After that was a tea-tasting (the tea was very good, but no I don’t want to buy ten kilos of the stuff), a lecture (in Mandarin) on something to do with the local people and some kind of “culture experience” which turned out to be a guy yelling at us though a PA system and traditionally-dressed women draping cloaks over us, then shaking us by the shoulders and demanding 100 RMB. After the whopping 140 RMB entry fee and 40 RMB (each) guide fee, this really was a bit much and we flatly refused. Our guide then walked off in a huff and we had to quicken our pace to keep up with him.

Yuantong Temple (2)Yanguan incense

Shilin (2)The bus ride to and from Shilin was supposed to take two hours each way. Of course, a busload of tourists is a hard prize for any entrepeneur to resist and I started to smell a commission racket when we pulled into a souvenir shop complex after an hour or so for a “twenty minute rest break”. This wouldn’t have delayed us much, but a short while later we screeched to a halt outside Yanguan Temple (actually interesting, though an hour was far too long) and its attendant hawkers. The return journey was mercifully shop-less, until a mere kilometre from Kunming we pulled into a flower market, of all things, for a “ten minute look” which stretched to thirty. I returned to my hostel having dealt a killer blow to all commission racketeers.

Shilin (1)Shilin (3)

As you may have surmised from the existence of this post, I’ve made it to Hanoi. Normal service has been resumed.