Agra town, India

Monday, 16 August 2010

The mountain.

Doh! Blame premature senility, final word in China.....

Prior to quitting China for India, we spent three glorious weeks in the far western province of Sichuan. We were already parked up there early July in it's capital Chengdu to prepare for Tibet. When it eventually sunk in that Tibet was not to be, we were miserable as canned ham.
However Sichuan was the perfect place to be at this temporary block.

You can think of this province as the closest you'll get to Tibet without the political strife.
Sichuan borders the plateau on it's western flank. It has the culture, the panoramas and the days where you'll experience all four seasons in one 24 hour period. It's a jewel of a province.
If you're looking for adventure, amazing sights, landscapes to blow your mind, a place to chill, excellent partying, the spiciest hotpots in the country.....I would seriously recommend some time here. With this in mind, we went up a mountain.

Mt Emei Shan - Mist-wreathed Buddhist peak, home to a large community of monks, nuns and criminally minded Macaque's. We spent a week; some of the high and low-lights..

Day One
The premier backpacker haunt in Baoguo. The legend of Peasant Andy. Mosquito trauma.

Day two
Early start, bus, vomit, boiled egg, an elite tour group, up to the summit on an egg, no room at the inn, back to the start, eaves, pot noodles, pissing in a bottle. Am I sleeping yet?

Day Three
LEGS!! Monkey fear, a corn and an egg, here cometh the dutch, are we there yet? bad onions, a drenching, Spanish philosophy, monkey's in the mist, the love shack.

Day Four
Leg mutiny, safety in numbers, breakfast is for wimps, the long march, where the bloody hell is it? End in sight. Ahhhh beer....

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Longest Night

Distances that'll have you weeping into your plastic sick bag, an unforgiving travel schedule - 'it's fun to take the night bus'..NO IT ISN'T, sparse or should that be no comfort and rest? you can forget it..

The realities of travel in the monster that is China.

"So why do it, you berk!" you may well say! Easy......China's the bomb.
It is a bountiful banquet of unbridled joy, a super-sized crispy pancake of hoi-sin flavoured wonder, a spicy hotpot of pleasurable sensation.... I'm out of kack superlatives but you understand ja? IT'S GOOD.

The tough nights; usually the ones spent sleeping rough outside some hobo-riddled station cursing your existence or trying fruitlessly to mould your body into those plastic interconnected chairs in Maccy D's/KFC in a last grasp attempt at sleep, are all part of the necessary gauntlet of pain you must work through friends..

Our route through China has been a haphazard one to be sure, drawn and then endlessly redrawn according to the diktat of our ever-shrinking budget. Necessary sacrifices included
Hong Kong, Shanghai and the majority of the east coast. Swings and roundabouts. If we'd gone to Hong Kong and everywhere else we wanted to, we'd have been home by the 1st of July.

Our final route(!) cut a line east to west through China's central band of provinces, through Jiangxi and further west into Hunan. These provinces represent the backwater, China's rural heart. Hunan spawned one of this countries most influential and infamous political and ideological leaders, Mao Zedong. Consequently there are many towns and villages dedicated to his 'worship' around here, but we didn't let that put us off.
Jiangxi was another rural incubator for the rise of Chinese communism. At Nanchang, the provincial capital, the commies came together in a big way. Our guide book highlighted Nanchang's staunchly red history recommending westerners to perhaps give it a miss but we ended up there for a nights kip. Funny for a load of communists, they sure like eating in McDonalds.

Jiangxi was the first stop after our 'night' spent in Shanghai. We got a really crappy bus six hours west to Wuyuan, a national park famous for it's half a dozen heritage hamlets and small market towns whose original architecture and way of life has been lovingly retained. There's a pricey fee of six pounds each to enter the individual villages. This charge covers admission into various historical sights situated therein, but mainly it's (and I would agree after visiting) a necessary charge for the damage, wear and tear caused by the neverending trail of domestic tourists and the odd international speciman who flash in and out like roadrunners on crack.
You can stay in each place, most have guesthouses but a few locals also rent beds if you're so inclined. We stayed in two places, a small town Qinghua, and the village of Little Likeng.

The L. Planet guide on Qinghua: 'probably the least captivating of all the villages in Wuyuan'. It's true, on first inspection, Qinghua ain't too pretty. Then there are the touts....or a gaggle of men who await your arrival with glee.
They have fingers in many bowls of rice..You want a ride somewhere? they can take you, you need rest? they know a place.
Your best bet unless you urgently need their ride somewhere, is to walk away to a quiet area until you get some bearings. Particularly adept at making a disorientating situation ten times worse. They crowd, shove and shout in your face until the only way out in your confused/tired mind is to give in and hand over your money...or block them one..Tempting.

Given its tourist tag, Qinghua happily lacked gimmick and the over-egged twee atmosphere present in the other villages. The responses we have had in the sticks are rarely hostile, a little wary on occasion, but mainly surprise, a kind of bemused curiosity. The babies just burst into tears.

Regardless of our local freak status, most people we've encountered have been incredibly warm and amiable. A recent conversation we had with a globe-trotting Kiwi alighted exactly on this very point. Another survivor of backpacking in Japan, I thought he summed it up very well, saying "the Japanese are friendly because they feel perhaps they should be, but the Chinese are friendly because they want to be".
We can certainly relate to that. The restraint noticeable during our encounters in Japan melts away. Likewise the Confucious-driven indifference experienced many times in South Korea. We have met many Chinese nationals, young and old, during our travels and they were all alike in their eagerness for a chat or a photo. China has been welcoming visitors since the early 70's, with communication resurfacing towards the end of the Mao era but for some here, especially in the rural provinces, international tourists are still few and far between. The people we met were keen to talk, curious to know where you were from, and what you thought about China and it's people. The kids were keen to practise their English and were not shy about coming over, grabbing you and asking for a picture. This usually ends up more like a photoshoot as suddenly more considerably larger lenses appear from nowhere in front of you; chinese tourists taking snaps..

God I love China.....

Thursday, 5 August 2010

'We're American, we don't do stairs!'

The idea of the Great Wall of China being in any way 'secret' frankly borders on the ridiculous, but this tour of the 'secret wall' organised through the Leo Hostel, Beijing aims for a quieter, less commercialised excursion abroad Ancient China's interesting foreign policy.
We were sold on this and the promise of a decent hike along a 10km stretch of partially restored wall.

We're away from Beijing at 7.30am the start of a 2.5hr journey to our destination. It will be longer if traffic is bad - naturally it is.....never attempt a Gt Wall visit on a weekend, as Taggart would say 'muurder'.
After three jerking, cramped hours aboard transport which had known better days, we arrived slightly north of the hills at Badaling. The onboard TV screen; no discernible braking system but miraculously a working television(!!?)had looped documentaries of the Wall's history along the way. This filled in nicely for the youthful guide whose faltering but reasonable grasp of English was, when projected through an exceptionally tinny microphone, indecipherable.

The first look and mexican soundwave of 'ahhhh's' came at tourist-rammed Badaling. This section, restored in full to it's Ming-era glory, is also one of the most heavily photographed - chances are, if you have a print at home, it was snapped here.
I had wondered prior to our visit whether the Wall might be rendered less extraordinary having seen its image a thousand times before on telly, prints etc. Happily though in it's natural and proper context it is a truly marvellous sight, instantly seductive. Hadrian? Blow it out your arse! The Wall peaks and troughs over steep ridge and rolls deep into valley basin over and over far into the horizon. Perfick.

We were dropped roughly 20 minutes west of this busy patch and mini-buses drove us on to the secret wall proper. Incidentally the narrow winding path we took was being resurfaced for better accessibility, the interest for unrestored gen-you-ine wall evidently being on the up! Another tick box for the domestic tourgroup merry-go-round.

A climb of 70 to 80 steps up awaited our arrival, the effect of which led one of our American compadres to holler up 'we're American, we don't do stairs!!' to all round chortles. Gord bless 'em...
Our group numbered 15 peeps and encompassed a diverse rash of nationalities: Germany, France, Scotland, East London;)the U.S and Canada, a walking western wundergroup.

After the agony of the many steps up, we were dismayed to come upon a whole bunch more. Instead of the rock and rubble we imagined, there were instead reams upon reams of wooden steps which lay over their collapsed stone forebears. Falling off the wall here is an all too real hazard! Some of the steeper sections were largely overgrown with triffid-like weeds and wildbush forcing you onto the precipitous edges. The landing space below? A thorny void. NB: flip flops are a big no-no.

As the morning progressed, and the sun got hot (BLOODY HOT) the group gradually splintered into sprinters, pacers and plodders. One guy shot off solo from the start. Quickly nicknamed 'the mentalist', everybody thought him a German (God knows why? Vorsprung durch technik?). When we did eventually catch him up, he was actually a Yankee living and working in China as no surprise here, another arbitrator of ESL! (Like bloody locusts they are!!!:) Sadly he turned out to be a rare monosyllabic specimen and untempted by ours or anybody elses conversation was off again at a strident pace.

Our position teetered somewhere between the sprinters and pacers, not exactly in the doldrums of fitness but still could do better. The cockney boys caught us up midway and kept us entertained with their culinary adventures at the Donghuamen night-market (see earlier blog - Beijing, breath of fresh air?) They sampled the skewered baby scorpion - 'like crisps' they yell in Mitchell-esque vowels. They have brought a flag, (typical Brits, never the first but always harbouring a union jack). Another girl, hailing from Scotland but working in China teaching grad students, filled us in on the Tibetan's predilectation for all things yak.

Our final push down a steep muddy path adjacent to an particularly unnavigable rubble-strewn patch completed a challenging and exhilarating hike - possibly not as far as 10km mind....

Oh one last unexpected gem..LUNCH. Lunch actually sucked arse but everyone perked up when for reasons still unclear, a fist-fight broke out between our guide and the restaurant owner. No animals were harmed but the owner lost his vest. Ahhh..

'Secret wall' is a grrrreat tour if you want Wall without the usual tat and bustle. A worthwhile extravagance. The day cost us 50 quid tops and included transport, guide and lunch..