................................................ENTER THE DRAGON..........................................
At the start of October I entered China by train, checked myself into the Dragon King Hostel, Beijing (one of the best hostels by the way), and began what turned out to be just under two and a half months travelling in China – with an extra week in the middle spent in North Korea (more about that in the next section!)
As soon as you get into China you realise it is a huge, noisy, busy, disorientating place. Obviously everything is in Chinese so the ability to at least memorise or roughly pronounce the names of places, etc. quickly goes completely out the window…
Lots of people don’t really like it in Beijing, I can see why in some ways, in particular the pollution is an issue – there were days where the sky was completely overcast…until you realise that you can make out the orange silhouette of the sun, and that the whole city is actually overcast with a thick cloud of smog!
If you’re travelling overland the route I took Beijing is an unavoidable transport hub but as a result I found it a great place to meet travellers from all over the place – as well as a huge amount of expat’s working out here, normally teaching English.
Beijing also has its fair share of big ticket, essential ‘touristy’ stuff that you kind of have to see (Great Wall, Forbidden City, endless parks, temples etc…). I did go to see all this stuff but I won’t bore you with the details, you've all probably seen the pictures of this stuff already and I’m pretty sure every other China travel blog already has that covered. I'll stick a few extra pics including these things in the gallery viewer at the bottom of the page.
BEST NOT TO ASK!
One of my highlights in Beijing was the Chinese lantern adorned food street that stretches for about 1km. There is a huge selection of little restaurants and food stalls with hilariousy bad English semi-translations of what they have on offer – some examples:
“Fried squid leg (must be)”
“Boiled goat face”
“Garlic fans steamed dishes the doll”
“Royal dog roll from the classic time”
All of this provides great entertainment for an evening meal. Some other special things I found on offer included duck neck, lambs testicles (lambs ‘treasures’!), snake head, dog meat, and of course, cows penis. All this stuff tasted better than they sound, though I didn’t try any dog (due to the fact that I consider dogs to be my friends) or any of the penis because according to a local “it doesn’t taste good”.
In general, when being served up dubious or mysterious looking bits of meat food that you’re not sure what it is, I’ve figured it’s probably just best not to ask!
.......................................CHINESE PUNK ROCKING....................................
Back at the Dragon King, I made friends with a Swedish rocker dude, also by the name of Alex. We got a group of people together and headed out to a place called the School Bar for a Chinese Punk Rock. This was actually a lot better than it sounds and than what I had expected. They had a live band banging out some super hi speed Chinese punk music. There was a small Chinese girl on the drums and banging out the beats with a surprisingly impressive amount of energy.
The place got pretty rowdy and there was a good amount of ‘moshing’, generally aggressive dancing, pushing people around etc. and dancing like a moron, but not in an overly violent way. I was loving it! This was apparently one of the biggest rock bands in Beijing and at the end a big fight broke out in the street between some rival band members that my Swedish friend was doing his best to pacify, but not getting much appreciation for this whatsoever.
I do appreciate the general abundance of public toilets in China, particularly useful if you’ve had a bit to drink. Obviously they are the squat type toilets, but one thing I hadn’t seen before was a row of five of these, unsegregated. So this means you can happily be doing a wee into one of these while a Chinese guy is sat down right next to you doing a poo. It occurred to me that this is, in fact, one of the few situations in life where it would be possible for you to accidently piss on somebody else’s head. I did my best to avoid this happening, you know, cultural differences and all, you never know whether it would be appreciated or not :)
Never go to a big Chinese city like Beijing or Shanghai without a thorough grounding in the various scams going on or you will likely end up severely ripped off…or worse.
As an example, The Chinese ‘Tea Ceremony Scam’ is well documented, and involves some hot, young Chinese girls chatting to you in perfect English before leading you to have a cup of tea/coffee/beer etc. before you are landed with your share of the bill, often exceeding £100. Big Chinese guys will be blocking your exit, and the local police are in on the scam so once you are caught up in it, it’s very hard to get out.
Nearly everyone I spoke to had either had this tried on them, or managed to be sucked in by it (on one occasion, even after I specifically warned them about it!). I knew about this and a lot of others so wasn’t going to fall for it, but here is my story about how I unwittingly ended up in a pretty dodgy situation.
We’d been out drinking at a famous place in Beijing known as the heaven supermarket. This is a fabulous establishment. It started off as a normal supermarket, with a small table where customers could sit down and drink a few beers. It evolved to have a huge number of tables spreading all out into the street, while still selling booze at supermarket prices. So you get the best of all worlds. Supermarket price drinks, with the buzzing vibe and loads of people of a bar. Although it does sound too good to be true, this place is no scam, it’s one of the highlights of Beijing! You can even buy rizla paper there.
So anyway, after a load of dodgy Chinese rice wine from this place I shared with a group of expat’s I’d met, we went out to a rooftop club, continued drinking etc. It got to about 4 in the morning and I’d manage to lose track of my friends.
Due to space considerations, I’m going to have to put the rest of this story on a separate page. Click below!
Next stop from Beijing…Shanghai! Shanghai is somewhat of mega-city. The population of the city is greater than that of Holland. It’s the most developed city in China with huge, brightly illuminated skyscrapers in all directions and a buzzing nightlife.
I’m pretty sure I did a lot of stuff in this city, but there was one experience that will be permanently etched into my memory!
I got talking to a group of American students, who I’d met a previous night. They mentioned to me they were going to a music festival. I was like “oh, that sounds interesting, what type of music is it?” They told me it was psy-trance, techno, etc…so this definitely got my interest…psy trance?? In China?!... They were leaving that minute so I pretty much had to drop everything and just join them to see where on earth this would lead…
I was actually pretty surprised to find myself at what a party that was pretty much indistinguishable from the psy-trance/rave parties that I’d become so used to in the UK. They even had some drum and bass playing out here, including the Culture Shock tune that features in my Youtube soundtrack for this section (see below).
I ended up rolling on md and also tripping out at this party, both sorely missed activities from back home, and both of which left me really pretty pleased with myself as the sunset illuminated the beautiful Chinese farmland we were currently inhabiting…
Things took a turn for the worse though when I noticed the groups of Chinese men, actually dressed in suits, standing around the place clearly monitoring the situation and waiting for the whole bloody thing to be over. Already not in a particularly sound state of mind, this was enough to send me a bit more loopy than I’m normally used to.
To cut a ridiculous and largely non-sensical story short, I became convinced the whole thing was a set-up, a clandestine experiment designed to test some new fangled chinese research chemical drugs (hint: 25cNbome) on unwitting party goers, and observe the unpredictable behaviour of deviants like me in their product refinement process. I was also convinced that the organisers had hired a group of about 10 actors that were not actually party goers at all, they were there to represent various archetypal rave characters (drunken Belgian, non-stop raver etc.) in order to make the general vibe of the party more conducive to their experiment. There were a suspiciously large proportion of these who claimed to be from Belgium, despite not knowing each other! It became increasingly difficult to tell who were the actors, and who were the real people! You hardly ever meet people from Belgium. For there to be more than one in the same place that do not already know each other is a statistical impossibility.
The end result of all this was that I had a minor mind-meltdown, ending up with me extremely confused and roaming the metro stations and streets of Shanghai trying to console myself for longer than appropriate. On a later reflection, it became clear to me that those suspicious people definitely WERE actors. They must've been. My whole life doesn't make sense anymore otherwise.
In the end, I was pretty pissed off at myself for failing to get the numbers or properly say goodbye to any of the people I liked that I at the party (including a girl from Bristol!). It took a few days of reflection (drinking) for me to piece together the events of that night and work out how best to place the broken pieces back together in my head, but I got there in the end! To those real people who I was too spun out to remember what happened, the memories of you are there in my head somewhere. If you ever existed in the first place!
The moral of the story is: The Chinese psy-trance scene I came across in Shanghai is very ex-pat orientated and also a bit like what most people associate most Chinese manufacturing – on the surface, it appears to work, but if you look deep down, it turns out that the workmanship is somewhat dodgy. Be careful about tripping out in China, it’s a weird place to be in such a state of mind!
I apologise of the lack of decent pictures of this particular experience and in this section in general, my mind was somewhere else a lot of the time. Expect better in the forthcoming sections!
ONWARDS TO YANJI...
At some point during my time in China, it occurred to me that it was technically possible for me to visit North Korea, while still keeping within my 'overland' travel rules. I had initially planned to visit Taiwan for a few weeks, but once I got the idea of North Korea into my head, I had to weigh up how much more interesting a week there might be instead.
Needless to say, the allure of such a different place won me over and so my next after Shanghai was to head all the way up to Northern China to a city called Yanji, right near the border between NK and China.
This involved approx 40 hours of train journeying, with a stop in a place called Shenyang, a pretty grim urban sprawl that is not exactly 'the place to be...' My journey up to Yanji was definitely one of the more lonely and reflective experiences of my time in China, (evidenced by my choice of angst-y 90's rock tunes at the tail end of the soundtrack below). I didn't come across any fellow English speaking people to talk to on this really quite untravelled route for backpackers.
I'll finish this section with a couple of random observations from my first foray into the Chinese motherland. One of these is to do with the treatment of homosexuality. I heard this from a gay expat I met in Beijing.
One of the unexpected side-effects of the Chinese 'one child policy' is that there tends to be more a higher proportion of males, with a distinct lack of girls to go round, so to speak. As a result, being a gay male is no real problem at all, at least in the big cities. Afterall, it's working to increase the supply of eligible females afterall!
Being a lesbian however...that is most totally unacceptable! How weird is that!
Another comment is on what appears to be a pretty ruthlessly effective and often brutal expansion of this country. In any of the big cities I visited (they are all MASSIVE cities!), anywhere you look you will most likely see at least four or five construction cranes...and on any train or bus journey in or out of these cities you will struggle not to notice mile after mile of high rise buildings currently under construction.
Contrary to mine (and I expect many others people opinions) of China being a poor country, all the cities are jam packed with designer brand retailers, extremely high end hotels I concede that things are very different in the countryside which is primarily poor farming communities but the fact remains that there are extremely significant divides between these poor people, a massively burgeoning middle class and the "mega rich" business people dominating development in the inner cities.
I might add that on the surface there appears to be relatively little support for elderly, disabled or otherwise disadvantaged people. One particular incident that was upsetting was to see this charming little old lady happily singing her away along the path where I was sitting on a park bench...we had a very friendly conversation and despite not having a common language, she succeeded in expressing some wise advice (not good to drink, not good to smoke!!)....anyway, after our brief exchange I saw her go on to search through the bins for some food to eat...Oh no!!
Another relevant story I heard from my friend Chris, who currently lives in China and who you will meet in the next section...He lives in the huge central city of Xian and used to frequent a local little street to pick up his shopping and groceries and other little bits. One day there was a sign saying that this street was due to redeveloped.
Only a week later, the entire street, including all the shops, all the homes and all the people that lived on the street, was completely deserted and secured by security forces. Apparently there was some kind of small protest during their forceful eviction, but it was completely hopeless in a place like urban China. Wealthy real estate developers clearly had the upper hand here and their power was expressed with ruthless disregard for the local communities. There are some really shocking things to go into on the subject of Tibet, but I'll leave it for another time!
Also relevant is the shocking quality of the radio station broadcasts I monitored in the cities I traveled...okay, so granted Chinese pop music is probably not your thing - but the thing that struck me was the ridiculous overabundance of irritating, high frequency jingly advertisements on the radio, often repeating several times before moving onto another ad. This noise pollution seemed to make up about 80-90% of the total radio output. I've done my best to filter through this rubbish in my radio recordings to the right hand side.
My inescapable conclusion from all that I saw was that, despite the communist party facade promoting some vague idea of socialism, China is the most brutally capitalistic and aggressively expanding country I've visited. Their aim is to be a global superpower and in my opinion, they are well on the way to achieving this. The USA doesn't stand a chance of retaining its position, to be honest!
So I've ended this section on a bit of a serious note...don't worry though, as I headed south in the my second entrance to China, my overall experience was lot more positive with a lot less mulling over political bullshit!
Anyway, without, further ado, onwards to North Korea!!
Chinese international train engine
Shalanaya psychedelic festival
This guy had a LASER pen capable of lighting a cigarette! Seriously! I want.