Beijing, home of all things Communist, serves its role as the country's capital admirably. The government has tried, and succeeded, to make this sprawling city the poster-child for Communist success: wide, tree-lined streets, bustling shops and a high standard of living. For the most part they've succeeded, but there's an unmistakably cold, smoggy and grey feeling to the place. Men walk about in shabby brown or grey suits, commuters seem to trudge rather than walk, and you often catch people staring expressionless into the distance. While I don't want to give the impression that the city is some kind of Orwellian communist cliche, you can't help but get a strong sense of it.
As for the Chinese people themselves, they're a mixed bunch. For the most part the 'cold exterior but warm interior' personality of other north Asian countries such as Japan and Korea pervades, but you'll occasionally meet a wonderful local who'll go all out to help you.
This can be a godsend in China, where the language barrier can be the biggest difficulty. Very few Chinese speak English, and very few foreigners can hope to master the subtle tones needed to communicate with the Chinese using a phrasebook. All that's left is gesturing, at which I've necessarily become a master (you should have seen me mime the question 'Do you have anything for diarrhoea?' to one very amused chemist).
Keeping entertained on the streets of Beijing with a quick game of Chinese chess. Enlarge »
On top of language, there are a few elements of the Chinese way of life that most foreigners (myself included) find difficult to deal with. First cab off the rank is spitting, which the Chinese have elevated to an art form. The energy and zeal that the locals invest into the hucking up, and spitting out, of enormous gobs of phlegm leaves me thinking that it must be taught in schools. And where do they spit? Anywhere: on trains, buses, indoors, outdoors, the pavement, hotel lobbies; carpet is simply not an issue. The throaty echoes of glutinous hucks incessantly echo around you day and night and then continue to haunt you in your sleep.
Second, the toilets. Now I'm used to squat-style toilets by now (and I apologise in advance for any unpleasant mental imagery that this discussion may induce) but stinking, dirty, door-less, partition-less and flush-less toilets are a little extreme, even for me.
They are truly hideous. The sight of ten men squatting in a row, their faces contorted in strained expressions of concentrated effort, is not the way I'd normally elect to start my day ï¿½ but at least it's an effective way of getting to know the locals. One word of advice, though: asking your neighbour about last night's dinner is definitely a Chinese toilet faux pas.
The sight of ten men squatting in a row, their faces contorted in strained expressions of concentrated effort, is not the way I'd normally elect to start my day.
Having checked into a dingy hostel for 50 Yuan (AUS $12) / night, I hired a bike (the only way to travel around Beijing) and headed off to see the sights. Central Beijing plays host to most of the city's attractions: Tiananmen Square, Chairman Mao's Mausoleum (which ironically now sits across the road from a McDonalds) where the father of Chinese communism lies mummified for all to see, and of course the Forbidden City.
of years the Forbidden City was the private, luxury playground of China's ruling emperors. Spoiled by more harems than any one man could possibly hope to satisfy and 100,000 eunuch servants to tend to their every need (normal, red-blooded men couldn't be trusted with the City's bevy of female beauties) China's emperors often had to make the tough choice between enjoying simple pleasures of the flesh, or taking some time to attend to the much more difficult needs of the State.
A turtle keeps watch over the impressive architecture of the Forbidden City. Enlarge »
It's not hard to guess which option they chose.
The eunuchs could sense a golden opportunity and moved quickly to fill the leadership gap their frolicking masters had left. They slowly gained influence within the City until they all but ran the country and began siphoning off the country's riches into their own pockets; payback, they must have thought, for being castrated by their parents at birth.
Gold or no gold, that's still a big price to pay.
On my third day in Beijing I joined forces with Tam and Nic, a London couple I was dorming with -- and one half of which had spent the better part of the previous night perfecting his one-man impersonation show "Kate Moss in a Public Toilet" thanks to some questionable Peking Duck -- and headed off to the Great Wall, the Chinese tourist attraction.
But for all the awe-inspired ooohs and aaahs it inevitably induces, I think it is often forgotten that the much-hyped Great Wall is, in fact, mankind's greatest project planning failure. After all it took 500 years to build (during which it had to be rebuilt twice), it was never finished, and when push finally came to shove invading armies simply bribed their way through.
aside though, the Great Wall is still a drop-your-jaw-and-shake- your-head-in-awe kind of sight. Unfortunately, the Chinese assume that most Westerners don't want to see the Wall in all its crumbling glory, and have taken it upon themselves to 'faithfully restore' a large portion of it. They have been so 'faithful' in fact, that they've also restored the tacky amusement park, cable cars, flying foxes and souvenir stalls selling "I Climbed The Great Wall And All I Got Was This Lousy T Shirt" merchandise that I assume must have existed 2,000 years ago when the wall was first built.
I'll race you to the next village! Enlarge »
Luckily we'd be tipped off about a rarely visited section of the Wall and, after a four hour minibus ride and a small payment of AUS $7 to the nearby village elders for a 'ticket', we clambered up to begin a four hour trek to the next town. Guided by two local children, who cruise the Wall by day looking for foreigners to sell postcards to, we panted and heaved our way up and down mountain after mountain, wondering why any invading army would even bother to try and cross this terrain, Wall or no Wall. Every so often we'd stop, rest and simply drink it all in: the smooth, accordion-like mountains, the sun beating down on us in the distance, and of course the Wall, which snaked around the mountain tops into the horizon in both directions. And through all of this, the one thought that kept recurring to me was: 'How can a race of people intelligent enough to build something so grand on such a gigantic scale subject themselves to such hideous, spawn of Satan, unbelievably bad toilets?'
I still haven't figured out the answer.
To be honest, my spirits were quite low in Beijing. The unbelievable cold (from -5 to 5 degrees C), the dramas of day-to-day Chinese life, the language barrier (I wasted an entire day walking around in the cold trying to find the Vietnamese embassy, unable to ask anyone for directions), loneliness brought about by the lack other foreigners, and general 'travel fatigue' brought about by my suicidal itinerary over the past two months had me wondering weather I'd had enough of Asia. Solo backpacking, especially through China during winter, was beginning to take its toll.
Thinking that warmer weather would lift my spirits, I booked a train south towards Shanghai. On the train, however, I met a local who insisted that another city, 300 km west of Shanghai, was definitely worth checking out, so 18 hours and three trains later I found myself in the university city of Nanjing.
Nanjing is like a smaller, greener version of Beijing whose only real claim to fame is that it once served as the nation's capital and was captured during the Taiping rebellion of 1853. The rebellion's leader, Hong Xiuquan, somehow managed to convince both himself and 100,000 gullible locals that he was Jesus's brother who'd been sent to create the perfect Christian society. Unfortunately he also forgot to tell his army that the 'perfect Christian society' would forbid two favourite pastimes of the Nanjingese, sex and opium, and it wasn't long after the city's capture that his support base collapsed around him and he fled into the foothills around the city.
But the marginally warmer weather of Nanjing did little to make up for it's rather drab atmosphere and I was still on a downer. I was ready to come home. The sheer effort of travelling here was no longer making up for the few interesting experiences I was having and I was, for want of a better expression, over it.
This wasn't helped by a run in I had with the omnipotent Chinese police (also known as the PSB) who seem to have an officer stationed on every street corner. I had been framing a shot of the mountains around Nanjing when a uniformed man ran up to me and began shouting something indecipherable to me at the top of his voice ï¿½ all I knew was that he wasn't happy. He went to snatch my camera but I quickly pulled it away from him. This 18 year old punk was not about to rip the film out of my camera, especially when it had my Great Wall photos on it. Suddenly he was shouting into his radio and glaring at my me. I tried to smile and look as innocent as I possibly could, but judging by the increased volume of his shouting, I'd say he thought I was being smart. Trying a different tactic, I attempted to make it clear that I was indeed a friend of the People's Republic of China, but my new found miming skills failed me as I tried in vain to impersonate Chairman Mao and indicate that I thought he was "tops". Unfortunately my grinning pose holding a souvenir "Little Red Book" that I'd picked up in Beijing and thumbs up sign only seemed to make things worse.
Five minutes later a PSB car pulled up and it was made fairly clear to me that refusing to get in was not an option. By now I was really worried. Convinced they'd take me back to the PSB headquarters to pin some call-girl's murder on me (hey, as much as I hate to admit it, I have seen that Richard Gere film) I asked them what I'd done. They just shouted Mandarin angrily at me in response. Ten minutes later I was in the PSB office, with irrational images of a decrepit, old Ally rotting away in a dank Chinese prison cell filling my mind.
They took my passport, put me in an interview room and closed the door. For over an hour I sat there, wondering what on Earth they were doing ï¿½ getting out the fingernail pliers, perhaps? Heating up pokers to take out my eyes? Or maybe just getting a bucket of water for some good ol' fashioned Chinese water torture.
By this stage my imagination had me so worked up that by the time a senior PSB officer walked through the door, I was ready to fall to my knees and confess to the JFK assassination if they'd only asked. Thankfully, what was left of my dignity stopped me from speaking first.
I was ready to fall to my knees and confess to the JFK assassination if they'd only asked. Thankfully, what was left of my dignity stopped me from speaking first.
The officer spoke surprisingly refined English and apologised for the delay, saying that he was the only English speaking officer in the neighbourhood and had to be pulled in from another part of the city.
"But, what have I done wrong?" I asked.
"You were taking photos of a military facility, which is forbidden under Chinese law."
"What military facility? I was taking a photo of the hills, and I hadn't even taken it before I was stopped!" I replied, exasperated.
Apparently there was a military training facility or something in the hills, and the rather eager new-recruit thought that I was a capitalist spy, sent with my high-tech super telephoto zoom lens to gather intelligence. The fact that I might have been a poor, foreign backpacker with a camera so dodgy it'd struggle to capture a stationary elephant on film at point blank range didn't even cross his mind.
But the senior officer was nice enough and after half an hour of questioning, he was convinced I was not imperialist scum and ordered the same 18 year old who'd arrested me to drive me back to my hostel, an order that the young kid was clearly not happy with. I spent the entire drive grinning at him and taking photos of the streets, just to rub it in.
In a last ditch attempt to revive my spirits I booked a train ticket back to Shanghai and knew that this was the last straw. If I left Shanghai feeling crap, I'd probably come home.
Shanghai was nothing more than a sleepy fishing town until the end first Opium War, when the British (who had won control of it) made use of its strategic position on the mouth of the Yangtze River to open up China to foreign trade. Since then it's become China's halfway-house to the Western world. Rich, lavish British colonial architecture along the Bund stands in stark contrast to the tall, acid-inspired skyscrapers ("Hey man, let's like design a buildings that look like a string of pearls ... or, like, even better: lotus flowers! Whoah man, is that Elvis at the door?"), bright neon lights and the centuries old Chinese slums that cower in the backstreets.
As soon as I stepped out of the subway station that night I fell in love with Shanghai. The vibrancy, the seediness and the unmistakable shallow, tacky party atmosphere seemed to wash away my weariness in an instant. Bathed in the glow of garish neon lights along Nanjinglu Road, I knew I was 'home'. There was life here. There was colour. Life was fast, There were people laughing in the streets as they rushed to meet their friends. These were all things notably absent from Nanjing and Beijing.
Hitting the streets of Shanghai with some newfound friends. I think I was sober at this point. The rest of the night is a blur. Enlarge »
I was literally grinning from ear to ear as I walked into my hotel, the oldest in Shanghai. What used to be the Old Astor Hotel that once housed President Grant, Charlie Chapman, Greta Garbo and even James Dean has faded somewhat, but has now become a backpacker's haven with dorms at 55 Yuan / night (AUS $13).
For the next few nights I made up for lost time and hit the town hard with fellow travellers from around the world including (among others) a Seattle fireman, a couple of Austrian waitresses, an Brazilian teacher and a bunch of South Australian uni students who were on exchange in Beijing. I was loving every minute of it: the bars, the clubs, the drinking, the shopping ... simply talking to Australians for the first time in months (they had been notably scarce in SE Asia) was a joy.
By the third day, however, I realised that my strict dusk till dawn regimen of alcohol and noodles followed by many hours of weary sleep had meant that I was yet to see Shanghai in the light of day. Feeling a little ashamed of myself I dragged myself out of bed and, after a bone crunching back massage administered by an elderly, blind local to help clear the cobwebs of my hangover, I went out and 'saw the sights'. Shanghai by day was just as great as it was by night. Loud, brash, seedy, crazy, but unmistakably Chinese.
Shanghai is the first Asian city I've truly enjoyed, a city I'd come back to again. It's taken the best of both East and West and blended them into a chaotic whole. In four crazy days it has also, thankfully, recharged my batteries (although the 24 hour train ride I've just taken sitting next to a screaming baby and a PA speaker blaring Aqua's greatest hits has put a serious drain on them again); and I'm now sitting here in Guangzhou in the country's south, waiting for a hovercraft to take me to Hong Kong.
I'm ready for the rest of China now: Hong Kong next, and then Guilin and Kunming in the South West before making my way into Vietnam. Is it going to be as difficult? As rewarding? As challenging? Who knows. But there's only one way to find out ...
Bring it on.