Thursday, October 31, 2013

217 long days in China

After more than two hundred and seventeen days in China I am more than tired. I'm absolutely exhausted.

Far from being a holiday it's been more like an expedition. From Beijing to Yunnan, treks to Laos and Vietnam, in temperatures exceeding 30°C, and a nearly a month in Shanghai, one feels like having been on a campaign. Indeed it has been like the Long March!

No time to relax

There's been little time to relax. And travelling with Chinese is more tiring in that they seem not to know how to relax.

Every trip is like a disorganized army manoeuvre.

Take a trip to Laos for example. The guy who offered to drive wanted to head off at 7 am, which is fair, but he turned up at eight. Then by they time we were loaded it was nearly 11 am. Even then it was necessary for everyone to find a mixian restaurant.

So by the time one actually hit the road it was midday. Then it was a very long and hot drive to Pu'er with a couple of stops on the way.

The first stop was at a road side café. The only time the Chinese appear to take time-out is when their stomachs rumble. But there's no time for after dinner mints or conversation. As soon as everyone's eaten it's "Let's go!" and one is obliged to leave.

The next stop was to drop by some friends of the driver, a 30 minute pit-stop where everyone rushed to use the lavatory. Again, the only other unscheduled stops were for a call of nature.

We arrived in Pu'er at around 7 pm and tried to find a hotel. Of course, no one had the foresight to check Google maps, a travel site or equivalent, in order to secure reasonably priced accommodation. So it was nearly 9 before hitting the streets to find a restaurant. And in China, just like Faulty Towers, the chef stops at nine. In some places there will be late night restaurants or 24 hour McDonald's burger joints, but that is more the exception than the rule.

We eventually find a fish restaurant where they boil the fish in a large pot at the table and the patrons eat it with various condiments such as chopped coriander leaves, spring onions and chili.

After eating there's again no suggestion of going for a drink. Instead there's merely an exclamation that we should all be in reception at 8 am before going for breakfast. And in China it's always mixian. No milk and Rice Krispies here. In China it's rice noodles for breakfast, a bowl of rice with lunch and also with dinner.

Rice, rice and rice

And after six months of boiled rice, fried rice and rice noodles, one dreams of potatoes. Chipped, fried, boiled, roasted, in their jackets or sauté.

In fact one desires Western food all the more after a constant diet of Chinese cuisine.

Don't get me wrong, I like Chinese food. But NOT everyday for six months. Song Shu Yu [松鼠鱖魚], Yu Xiang Qiezi [魚香茄子] and Suan La Tudou Si [酸辣土豆丝] are all great, but one soon gets tired of lots of separate dishes.

One longs for a 'square meal' on a round plate which one can eat with a knife and fork. Such things are a rarity in China, and where such choices exist it can often be expensive or a pale imitation of the real McCoy.

Escape to McDonalds!

The only escape is a trip to McDonald's, a KFC or Pizza Hut, though don't expect to find one except in a large city, and even then don't expect the Chinese to join you, and the older they are the less likely they'll be interested.

In fact, while they might accommodate you in dropping by a MacDee's, they'll expect you to grab it and go so you're forced to struggle eating a burger and fries in a moving vehicle while somehow managing not to spill your strawberry milkshake or Coca Cola.

So you arrive in Pu'er, a town famous for its tea, and you eventually settle into your hotel room. Even if it's clean, and believe me there are many hotels you wouldn't wish to house your cat, few have WiFi, so unless you have your PC with you checking out local tourist hotspots is virtually impossible for those armed with smart phones or tablets.

And even when you do have Internet access, it's certainly not what most westerners are used to. This is Communist China and only sites deemed appropriate by authorities are accessible. Thus, without a VPN, there is no Foursquare, Facebook, Google+ or Twitter. Even Google Maps is creaky with slow refreshing times.

As regards the WiFi issue, there is a solution in that one can buy a relatively cheap portable router such as a TP-Link TL-WL700N which can be simply plugged into the hotel Ethernet cable and give WiFi 

On the road again

After a good sleep, the journey continues. There's no time, apparently, for sight seeing. No checking out a tea shop and drinking some Pu'er tea in Pu'er. The only delay is to grab a large bowl of mixian before once again hitting the road. Not being a great fan of mixian, and given there was not McDonald's within 100 kilometres, I myself request a bowl of wheat noodles, commandeer a bunch of ingredients and knock together a decent bowl of Yi Bin Ran Mian. Basically it consists of a thick sauce containing dark and light soy, dark vinegar, sugar, garlic, sesame paste, chili oil and sesame oil to which the noodles are added and topped with chopped coriander, peanuts and sesame seeds.

After breakfast there's another long journey before stopping for lunch at a road side café. The only other stops are for calls of nature. Stopping for a toilet in China is not always the most pleasant of experiences, but on the road in rural China it's even more unpleasant. While squat toilets are difficult to escape, hygiene is extremely difficult to come across, and paper is entirely absent. Privacy may also be absent as one is expected to squat alongside other patrons. As such it is advisable to make sure one has made all necessary visits to the rest room prior to leaving the comfort of one's hotel!

On the Laos border

Eventually we arrive at Mohan on the Chinese border with Laos. For the driver, there appears to be some disappointment in that the border shut at 5 pm and won't be open until 8 am the next day. So no quick getaway for him and the other passengers not wishing to venture into Laos and thus we need to stay overnight.

So it's back to vehicle and back to the main town to find a hotel. Here again another debate ensues concerning price and quality. The average westerner of course wants comfort and cleanliness for a reasonable price. However many Chinese are driven only by price.

It may have squat toilets, no air conditioning, no lifts, no Internet or WiFi, but if the price was 150 RMB instead of 300 RMB for all the above, most would take the former.

And so an argument concerning where to stay begins. Eventually, the Chinese give in to the laowai's demands, but there's no such concession with dinner.

Despite being close to the Laos border and the suggestion one might try to find a restaurant specialising in Lao cuisine there is no interest to even inquire and ask the locals if such a place exists.

While the meal was good, it was, once again typical Chinese food.

Breakfast was mixian, though it was at the hotel so no need to traipse all over town. Despite the slightly more upmarket accommodation there was no western alternative except for some cake like bread and warm milk. And there lies another culture shock for westerners who like their bread. In China decent bread is very hard to come by. In Beijing one could pop into Jenny Lou's and grab a nice loaf, but the price is extortionate. In other large towns it is possible to get sugar free bread, but it can often be dry and stale. Occasionally supermarkets might sell sliced bread, but for often than not one is only left with the choice of brioche style 'bread'. 

Coffee is rarely on the menu unless at a top class hotel so one is now quite accustomed now to carrying a cafetiere, ground coffee and sugar in one's luggage. Even if near to a Costa or Starbucks the cost is ridiculously expensive.

Time now to head to the border, a task in itself since despite only three people going into Laos, the whole troop want to go.

There's no practical reason behind such decisions. There was no luggage to carry or a need to see us off. After all we were merely popping across the border and returning within a couple of hours. Again by travelling with the Chinese one is often led by the most dominant member of the group and what they want to do.

While one may have wanted to head into Laos proper, perhaps even grabbing a coach or taxi to the nearest big town and even sampling the local cuisine, such choices were not on the table.

We were stuck with individuals who either had no interest in going and did not even possess a passport. This was seen as merely as an exercise to comply with China visa restrictions requiring us to exit China every 90 days.

Even though it was only a couple of hours away from the main group, it was two hours of fresh air.

My wife is Chinese, but she has become far more westernised, willing to relax a little, go exploring on a whim and not rush everywhere as though there were no tomorrow.

And despite time restrictions we walk a kilometre or so into Boten, though it was very much a ghost town, and then we relax for a couple of Lao beers before taking a leisurely stroll back to China.

On returning to the main group the army manoeuvres begin once again. First another, you guessed it, Chinese meal washed down with cheap, weak Chinese beer. Having discovered the nice strong BeerLao, the taste of Chinese beer was far less palatable. For some reason most Chinese beer is only around 3% and has no real body, so the discovery of a decent beer made one long all the more for a foreign lagers, beers or cider.

After grabbing a crate of LaoBeer we were on the road again. We head north and stop near to a small town not too far from some botanical gardens. That was the adventure for the following day, but first we had to check into a hotel before grabbing dinner at yet another Chinese restaurant.

By the time we'd arrived in Xishuangbanna everyone was pretty tired, but none so tired as myself of Chinese food.

Despite the south west of Yunnan province being the home to a vast number of different ethnic minority groups, each with their own individual style of cuisine, the rest of the party had little interest in trying anything different.

When insisting upon stopping with the wife at a little Dai restaurant near our hotel, everyone else declined and instead went to eat at an eatery where we'd already eaten twice before.

Our travelling companions might be excused by the fact they were old. Stuck in their ways, they could be forgiven for not wanting to try different flavours or unusual cuisine.

Vietnam adventure

But travelling with younger Chinese people is often no different. A trip to Vietnam proved to be an adventure which was just as uninteresting in terms of discovering new culinary delights.

Once again it was mixian for breakfast, mixian and smelly tofu for lunch and on arrival in Hekou, on the Chinese-Vietnam border, a typical selection of Chinese dishes, which either due to their chili content or the lack of hygiene, played havoc with one's guts the following day.

Breakfast was thus avoided!

Our intended trip into Vietnam was delayed due to the fact that one member of the party did not have a visa and had to acquire a temporary permit.

In one sense it was a blessing in that it prompted a discussion at the travel agency sorting out the paperwork as to how long we might spend in Vietnam. It was suggested we might pay the tour company to drive us to Sa Pa. It was one of those all inclusive deals which provides food, a hotel room and travel arrangements.

The drawbacks given such a late decision to spend two nights in Vietnam were two fold. The first was we had now wasted more than half a day hanging around in Hekou sorting out documents. Thus it was nearly 2 pm before arriving in Sa Pa, which is only a few kilometres from the border.

The next drawback was the food laid on by the tour company which was poor by anyone's standards and more like Chinese food than it was Vietnamese.

The excellent beer did however make up for it and on heading into town one soon found an array of restaurants offering very decent food.

Sorry to say that by this time I was myself not in the mood for further experimentation and thus opted for dropping into an Italian restaurant called Romano's. The margherita pizza was however excellent and the Vietnamese coffee was also very good.

Just as the brief visit to Laos created a longing for decent beer, the excursion to Vietnam also reminded one of things back home. Dispite being a Communist country, Vietnam's Internet is far more open that that of China. After months of frustration accessing the Internet in the Middle Kingdom, trying to find an Internet connection and jumping through hoops and using VPNs to access Twitter or Facebook, being in Vietnam was a sudden breath of fresh air. 

Even in Sa Pa a rural mountain top village, WiFi was everywhere. Certainly these networks were much to do with catering for the many tourists but nonetheless to be able to easily use western social media, Google Maps and other websites was fantastic.

Return to China

Such luxuries were short lived as we soon had to return to China. Back to more Chinese food, and an Internet that gives one a migraine. Now based in Kunming, rather than a rural town in Yunnan province, there was certainly a few more choices concerning food and entertainment. However the weather was beginning to cool and summer was becoming a distant memory.

There had not been many chances to relax or swim and excursions to places such as the Fuxian Lake are perhaps best avoided. The lake is a pleasant enough loaction, however the few places where one can park up and swim attracts hoards of tourists from near and far making the experience feel more like the Tokyo subway at rush hour rather than a relaxing day at the beach.

Parks are very much the same with little chance of an afternoon of solitude. In short everywhere is crowded.

Final stop, Shanghai

After months, mostly in Yunnan province, Shanghai was the last stop on the agenda. Things had certainly changed in the 6 years since last visited. Pollution levels seemed much better, but more striking was how much more modern the city had become. While still restricted by censorship, WiFi Internet access points were everywhere. Telephone kiosks were WiFi equipped and a WiFi network called i-Shanghai provided decent coverage across much of the metropolis. The major drawback for foreign visitors was the need to have a phone with a local SIM in order to get a password to sign-in. However there were nonetheless many bars and restaurants providing WiFi without such requirements.

The city, much like Beijing, attracts many expats, and that was another breath of fresh air in that after months of stunted conversations in Chinese to Chinese people one could finally have a conversation in English with people from all over the world. In one bar there was an eclectic mix of Chinese, British, Algerians, Jordanians, Australians and Spanish. The drawback was the price of beer at around 35 RMB for half a litre, though happy hour was a salvation.

Sadly all good things come to an end and within a few short weeks in Shanghai it was time to leave the Middle Kingdom for the United Kingdom. Back to the damp and cold, but back to a larder full of decent food and a 30 Mb unrestricted Internet.

China certainly has some good points, but for those who like their mod cons, western food and a decent Internet 7 months is too long. 

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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