Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Letters from China

Posted by Scott

My old mate Adrian (Rosehill College fourth form nicknames: Aids, Aido, A drain etc) and his partner Susan are travelling through China on their way to the mysterious land of Mongolia, where they apparently plan to ride camels across the Gobi Desert (or a little bit of it, at least). Here's the first part of Adrian's logbook:

Hey!

I'm writing this from our hostel in Beijing, on our third night in the city. We (Me, Susan, and two friends Dan and Cindi) caught the ferry from Kobe to Tianjin in China on the 6th of August and stayed on it for 2 and a half days. I was half expecting a watered-down Love Boat with a Chinese Cpt. Stubing and Gopher, but we got the Waiheke ferry sized up to handle open seas and with bunks beds.

We shared our room with a largish Chinese family who had some cute, but very annoying children who liked to come over to our side of the room and open the bunk curtains to stare at the sleeping (or trying to sleep) freaky foreigners. And they were really noisy, though that went for everyone on board. It didn"t help that all public addresses on board had the volume cranked right up, no matter the time of day or night.

For entertainment we had an emergency drill, Chinese movies with subtitles, and, at night, karaoke dominated by a really obnoxious American guy who belted out Rolling Stones' songs at top yell til all hours. Despite how all that sounds, it actually was pretty fun overall. Two days was about right though, anymore and it'd drive you a bit crazy.

When we arrived in China we had to organise Chinese money and transport to Beijing. Susan handled the money changing, and got us a pretty good deal after refusing the first offer. Dodgy looking guys run up and offer to change US dollars, and got pretty suspicious about yen, but took it in the end. Then the 2 and a half hour minibus ride cost 50 yuan each (NZ$10) and was only missing the cages of chickens for authenticity. It was a clapped out old heap packed full of people and luggage. The driver kicked out an old lady and her grandchild for us, which made us feel bad but she took it in her stride well.We crammed the four of us, our bags and two wheelchairs Susan and I took to China for a charity into what space was left and set off, careening through the streets.

Driving in China is like something from Mad Max: no one indicates, they just honk their horns and go for it and we had at least half a dozen (in my safe-driving opinion) near misses along the way. The bigger the vehicle, the less concern for road rules - on a latter taxi ride, our car was forced out of its lane by a bus, despite the driver's horn honking.We met a nice Mongolian woman on the minibus though, who gave us good advice for Beijing and her number in Ullan Bator when we visit there.

China is a lot different from Japan, heaps different. Everything's a lot smoggier - 50 metres is clear viewing, 500 is about the maximum limit due to the haze - and there's a lot of half collapsed buildings around with people living in them and the vibe is firmly third world. So far everyone's been pretty friendly and a lot more open and up front than in Japan - in China you know if someone's pleased to see you or hates your guts, while in Japan it can take months to find out what people really think of you.

We found people overall really friendly, though there's a lot of beggars in central Beijing, cause of all the tourists. We used the train to get to our hostel, but we ended up wandering around a lot cause we couldn't find it on the map. It was near the Workers' Stadium but that was as close as we could get. We got help eventually, with some helpful people who helped with gestures then led us to the hotel - really friendly. It turned out the name of the hostel had changed, which was our problem.

Next day Susan and I caught a taxi to deliver the wheelchairs. It was a 1 and 1/2 hour trip to the countryside southwest of Beijing and took a long time, with our driver asking for directions a load of times. The coutryside was pretty but well-used: still lots of smog and the place was pretty polluted. People are very poor out there, some covered head to foot in oil and big trucks all over the roads. The roads are wide, but due to bad potholes everyone ends up driving on the same lane for most of the way, honking the others out of the way.

At the Children's Hospital we met the Italian doctor Susan had talked to by email and he showed us round a little. It did specialist physiotherapy for children all over China run by a volunteer European organisation and we were delivering wheelchairs from a charity based in Japan. After he took Susan, me and the taxi driver out for lunch. We narrowly avoided the waitress opening up a bottle of apple vinegar for us, thinking it was apple juice, so I think the staple beverages were beer and tea only. The taxi driver was a really nice guy, though we couldn't understand each other, and after lunch we dropped the doctor off and said goodbye and headed back to Beijing for another hour and a half. The whole trip cost 420 yuan, NZ$85, so not too bad.

Today we went to Tiannamen (spelling?) Square and saw Mao's corpse in his tomb. Apparently it flaunts all rules of fengshui too. A huge queue policed by officials to stop the many queue jumpers, but it moved pretty quickly. I think his face is a wax mask set over the real one, so not too grisly.Then we had lunch and went to the Forbidden City. Huge and cool, but I wasn't as overwhelmed as I thought I'd be. After seeing all the temples and stuff in Japan I guess I have got a bit used to them.

So that's all the big stuff for now and I'm out of time,
[saccharine endearments to friends and family edited out]
Adrian

Letter number two:

Since I have the internet opportunity, I thought I'd send another email off before I head into the wilds of Mongolia.Tomorrow we get up at 5am to catch the train to Mongolia, travelling 24 hours or so and getting off at a little station to ride camels for 3 days.

It sounds uncomfortable, as I'm not keen on horses and camels seem just like bigger, badder tempered versions. Fun.

Since our trip to the Forbidden City and Tiannamen Square we've visited the Summer Palace, which used to be the Empresses' summer home during the Qing dynasty, a really huge series of gardens surrounding a big lake. Apparently she spirited away money from the Chinese navy to pay for it.

It was okay as a visit, your usual gardens plus pedal boats to chug around the lake on. I was keen so we all headed out on one, which turned out to be harder to pedal than I thought and then it pelted down with rain. Got a little ripped off on the taxi ride back, and Dan was pretty pissed off but I figure it's all part of the game over here. Everything seems negotiable, especally if you're a tourist.

Yesterday we went to part of the Great Wall, a 3 hour bus trip then pouring rain. It was surprisingly steep in parts, with steeply sloping steps and uneven paving. Really cool, but unchanging from what I could tell and in a constant state of (dis)repair - bricks in our part of the Wall ranged from 600 years old to 28 years. That piece of info comes courtesey of a destitute farmer woman who followed me up the first 300 metres of so trying to sell me stuff. She seemed pretty nice though, and told me bits and pieces about the Wall, though we had trouble understanding each other, and was mostly content just to follow along occasionally accidentely hitting me with her umbrella, sure of an eventual sale.I caved eventually and bought some overpriced postcards after much haggling. She was nice though so I didn't mind and once I figured she wasn't going to give up I thought I'd save her further walking.

On the bus journey back we passed an army truck. I was curious, so had a good gawk out the window as we passed. As I did I saw the driver and his buddy having a good gawk back, just as curious about a bunch of foreigners on a bus. Kind of embarrassing when we caught each other staring.

We went to a Beijing acrobatics show last night, all child performers. Pretty amazing stuff, 12 girls riding the same bicycle and contortionist tricks. The clown pulled Dan up from the audience, and would have to have made the perfect pick of the most outgoing, extrovert in the front row. He was very happy for the attention.

The other volunteer was a Japanese girl, instantly identifiable by her V sign posing for photos as soon as she hit the stage. They got her to pose in Mao-emblazoned bag and red star hat, then let her go.Got accosted by a horde of beggar kids on the way home,sicced on us by their parents. This didn't bother me much since my kid seemed to be having fun. He latched onto my arm and wouldn't let go, then kept jumping off the ground so I had to carry him along to keep walking. He seemed to think that was pretty funny, and we had a laugh together. Didn't get any money out of me though.

Able kids like that aren't depressing but there are some horribly disfigured beggars around, one guy covered in burn scars from head to foot, his hands reduced to stumpy claws. Another guy, not a beggar, lie on the footpath with a festering sore the size of a saucer on his side.

Went to the markets today and everyone else got fleeced. I didn't buy anything so I was okay. Cindi bought a jacket for 120 yuan, after an initial asking price of 1,200 yuan, so there's a huge mark up for tourists. Susan bought some DVDs too, latest stuff from a guy on the street, 4 DVDs for 30 yuan (NZ$6). Dodgy, but they look like they'll probably work. They had stuff that had only come out in the cinemas in the US this month.

Well that's it for now,
Adrian.

Beggars can make you feel pretty bad here

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