Saturday, 21 February 2015

Return to China

It is, it must be said, a slightly surreal moment when you realise you are sat in a railway waiting room in Nanning, a medium sized city in southern China, waiting for a sleeper train that makes you wonder if you’ve slipped through a time portal to the 1960s to whisk you through gorgeous Asian countryside (gentle rolling hills, rice fields and a big open sky) to Hanoi, and almost everyone in the room is staring at you — the elderly gentleman in the seat opposite had fallen asleep and the young girl accompanying her parents was too busy trying to see if my camera bag was huggable to spare any attention for me. 

China is a wonderful country to travel in. Sure, it’s got its share of annoyances: everyone smoking everywhere, a complete lack of manners in most people, a real risk of cracking a tooth on a piece of bone you were not expecting. But these pale in comparison to the friendly and curious nature of the population, how safe it almost always is, how ridiculously cheap everything is, and how this comfortable and convenient country still throws in a bit of dirt and grime and character that makes it so interesting. I love at times how lax rules can be: buying armloads of fireworks on the street, being allowed to walk on the streets to dinner in a restaurant while sharing a beer with friends to name a couple, while still having a reliable police force and almost zero serious crime in the tourist areas. Most of all, I love that people here don’t speak English, because it forces me to practise my Mandarin, and the touts leave me alone.

Returning to Hong Kong after 10 months away was a lot of fun. It’s nice to remember streets and directions and feel less like a tourist, though it can take away the feeling of ‘discovery’ that I love so much. I once again returned to the Check Inn, which is in a great location and has friendly and helpful staff who recommended a great Char Sui place across the street. I was also lucky enough to meet up with some old friends, including my Chinese teacher from Bristol, May Kay, and her husband. The three of us went to eat some great Dim Sum (and isn’t it convenient having a tame local to help you order?) and enjoy a walk among the tiny back alleys and large boulevards that make up the Central district of Hong Kong Island.

And speaking of tame locals, the wonderful Wada girls managed to book me a bus ticket from Shenzhen up to Guilin, a process which would have been next to impossible on my own due to it being so close to Chinese New Year. It’s much easier to get to Shenzhen than I had thought, just use the subway system in Hong Kong to reach either of the two northern checkpoints (I went to Lo Wu), jump out of the train and head through Immigration. Though the words feel odd to say, it’s actually convenient to be a foreigner at Immigration here, as you are part of a very small percentage of the total crowd and will have a couple of lines to yourself. On the far side of customs lies the Shenzhen subway system, and off you go. Just remember that as soon as you pass that border, no one will speak a word of English.

I can only assume the drivers of the night bus had a penguin on board they were trying to make feel at home, as the air-con was cranked up past ‘freezing’ to ‘arctic’ mode. The bed was designed for a hobbit, and the blanket provided was the type that screams ‘bacterial infection’. I wondered if there was a reason it was a queasy yellow colour, like the colour of vomit. Wonderful. Learn from my mistake! Around New Years, it’s best to book the train several weeks in advance and enjoy a comfortable 3 hour ride.

Oh, and on another note. If you plan to visit Hong Kong before China, save yourself the pain of applying for a visa in the UK. I showed up at an agency in the China Commercial Building, dropped off my passport with a £60 fee (about the same as at home) and was told to pick it up the next day. No forms, no print outs, no hotel booking. Swift and simple, I’m never going to do it any other way from now on if I can possibly avoid it.

New Years Eve (the Chinese version) is a lot of fun. Back at Wada, a group of us pitched in together and spent £50 on fireworks. For this, we managed to buy approximately 30 kilograms of high quality explosives. We’re not talking backyard bangs here, we’re talking River Thames level booms. Along with everyone else, at the stroke of 12 we made as much light and noise as possible, and plunged the city into a perpetual smoke that still hadn’t cleared by sunrise.

And then after a brief jaunt through the Rice Terraces nearby Guilin, themselves shrouded in a mist (from the time of year rather than gunpowder however) though still impressive and worth the trip, it was time to jump on the train and head south to Vietnam.

Thanks for reading!

Andy