Agra town, India

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.....

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