Monthly Archive for July, 2011

Last days in Beijing

The last days in Beijing are passing slowly. I had expected Beijing to be this great city with lots of sights. And the guidebooks say it will take a week to take in all the sights, but really it’s a lie. This isn’t Paris or New York, and you can see pretty much all there is to see in a few days. The Lonely Planet says you should allow yourself a day in the Forbidden City ‘for exploration’ and then another day just to see all the exhitbitions. Truth is, you can see all there is to see in the Forbidden City in one day, including all the exhibitions, and read all the captions at that. The average visitor will probably have had enough after at most three hours. Of course, travel guides don’t sell by saying there’s not that much to see.

Still, it gives you the chance to talk to other people. Some are rather boring, some are quite fun and every now and then you stumble across someone who has something interesting to say. Last night, I stumbled across Mat. Mat was gonna start Law School next year but had done some consultancy work for the government the last two years, and told me about the procedure to get security clearance. I thought I had to answer some ridiculous questions on my visa application, such as ‘were you ever a part of nazi-regime of Germany?’  or ‘are you planning to engage in any terrorist or subversive activities during your stay in the United States?’, but this was on a whole different level. Hooked up to a poligraph, he had had to answer questions such as ‘how many girls have you had sex with’, and ‘how do you like to do it with them’, the aim of these being to find out any information with which you could be blackmailed. Damn.

Back in Beijing

Well, the title says it all. Time seems to fly. Been doing so much that there was hardly time to sit back and relax, let alone write. But now I have a spare moment.

For those who thought after my last report that I hated it here, I don’t. Well maybe I do, a little bit, but I’m still having a great time. It’s just that everything takes soo much effort, everything takes so much time and energy when really it shouldn’t. You take a taxi from Shanghai airport to the center of town and the meter shows it was 31.5km ride, when you know it should be 15km to 18km. Tapping the meter and grunting gives you a 15% discount but it’s still too much. But I don’t mind paying 10 euro for a taxi ride. I mind being taken for a ride and I mind sitting in a traffic jam for an extra 30 minutes just because this, this, [censored] of a cab driver is trying to scam me. I mind the ‘art students’ that want to take you to a ‘tea ceremony’ that costs hundreds of euro and hawkers that quintuple their prices if you’re white – it goes on and on. It’s as if someone is trying to scam you every single thing you do and it’s not funny. And it’s not just scams either. If you can’t communicate with people around you, even the simplest things become difficult. “I want to do laundry. Wash these clothes. Wash. Washing machine. Do the laundry. LAUN-DRY.” And then you get taken to the room where they store your bags. Sigh.

Shanghai, though, is easily mainland China’s most liveable city, with monumental buildings, promenades, parks and museums. But we were there for only a day before we headed to Tunxi – recently renamed Huang Shan Shi or Huang Shan City, Huang Shan being the mountains that Avatar’s are based on. And there’s no denying it: the scenery is stunning, with almost vertical granite peaks piercing the clouds, mist rolling over the mountain ridges. But this has made it one of the most visited tourist destinations in China. And this shows. Everyone and his mother visits Huang Shan. Literally. And to make sure mother can actually get around the mountain, there are stone paths, almost perfectly even, and stairs – actual stairs. I can’t help but feel I’m a bit in Disney Land, also because of the crowds. ‘Maddeningly crowded,’ the Lonely Planet calls it. Let’s just say ‘.mMaddeningly crowded’ has taken on a whole different meaning. I’ll upload a short film when I get home so you know what I’m talking about.

And then from Tunxi, back to Beijing. And I finally walked the Wall.

Dear Visitors,

Welcome to take the cableway of jade screen, congratulations! The child has grown tall, free of charge according to the children under 1.2 meters of relevant regulations; 1.2 meters to 1.4 meters of children purchase the child ticket please, more than 1.4 meters of children purchase adult’s ticket please.
Thank you for cooperation.

(Bovenstaande tekst sic overgenomen van een informatiebord bij Huang Shan)

Report: the past two weeks

As posted before, from Xi’an, we took a sleeper train to Chengdu. We got tickets for the L21. I once read that Chinese trains have no first class, because the idea of a first class / second class distinction was contrary to communist thought. Instead, the Chinese had a second and third class (and a fourth class, for those really unfortunate comrades). Nowadays, they have hard seats, soft seats, hard sleepers and soft sleepers — a convenient way around the first / second / third class distinctions. All comrades are equal, some are just more equal than others. The same goes for trains in general. What we didn’t know when we received our tickets was that the ‘L’ in L21 meant this was a temporary train. A train dragged from the scrapheap to take some pressure off the regular scheduled trains. Soft sleepers are a luxury invented long after this train was built. The hard sleeper carriage consisted of triple bunk beds, the lowest bunk serving as a communal bench during the day, the top bunk without much headroom. Twenty of these bunk beds were perpendicular to one side of each carriage, with a narrow aisle on the other side. There is no air-conditioning (outside temperatures were 35C when we boarded the train). Large fans blow hot air around; the heat lingers. Through the open windows, the deafening rattle of the train. Squat loos – that can’t be flushed – in every second carriage. The horror. The horror.

In Chengdu, we board the D5104 fast train to Chongching. Seemingly without effort, the train speeds up to 200km/h. In this train, everything was modern; the squat loos the only strange anachronism that reminded us that this was a Chinese train — apart from the fact that in every compartment, everybody was Chinese.

From Chengdu, an even faster train (D3016), this one to Chongqing, were we boarded a shabby-looking cruise ship for a three-night voyage on the Yang Tze. The story that broke the other day, about a cruise ship sinking on the Wolga, was fresh on my mind. But this was not the Wolga and the battered old ship pulled through. Not without wrecking us, though: we would be woken every morning at 6am by Chinese music blaring over the stereo so loud that you could here the speakers crack. Loud is something the Chinse love. Whether on a boat or on a bus, Chinese tour guides talk so long, so loud, in such shrill, high-pitched voices that splitting headaches and earpain are inevitable. Even through my earplugs it hurts. That’s how loud it is.

The Yang Tze deposited us at Yichang, where we took a bus to Wuhan and then a train to Shanghai. Wuhan is an awful city. It really isn’t a city at all. It is three cities grown together, growing ever larger, spreading like a malignant mass, already now housing 10 million and covering 100 square kilometers. Yet everywhere are wrecking balls bringing down shabby one-storey brick houses and cranes creating skyscraper skeletons. Within a year, on a square plot not more than 200m across, 16 identical tenement buildings will rise, each 30 stories high, 10 apartments on each floor, each apartment housing maybe 3, maybe 6 people. A square plot of land no more than 200m across, now barren, will within a year house 20.000 people. This plot of land is not unique, it is everywhere. I knew China was building, but seeing it in action, it becomes… Eerie.


Ik sta stil voor een van de vele winkeltjes met kitscherige souvenirs in de nauwe straten van Xi’an. Mijn oog is gevallen op t-shirts met afbeeldingen uit De Blauwe Lotus. Ik schrik me wild van de stem achter me.

“Ah, kuifjah. Kom binnen in onzah winkl, kom binnen. Welkah maat? Medium? Mooiah t-shirts, dit Blauwah Lotus, deze Shanghai, hier Xi’an. Wij makeh goedah prais omdat wij maar kleinah winkel hebbah. Tachtig. In grote winkel kost honderdvijftig.”

Ik ben zo stupefait dat ik vergeet af te dingen.


Beijing – Xi’an

“Is-a 300 RMB”
-“No, 100.”
-“300 RMB!”
-“No, 100. I know the price.”
-“OK — 100 and-a 50”
-“No, 100.”
-“No, 100 and-a 50. This a special taxi.”
-“No, 100.”
-“100 and-a 50!”
-“Bu xie da fao xi jie $%@ !!”

-“Tian’anmen, here, Mei Shi Jie [pointing at map].”
-“Yes, here.
-“Ja, wat jij wil.”
-“Jongen, ik vind het allang prima, doe maar wat jij wil.”

Beijing taxi drivers seem to be unsure if pointing at the map really means yes, I want to go there. They also don’t seem to understand that rambling on in Chinese doesn’t help since I have absolutely no idea what they’re on about. They also don’t seem to know that the sounding the horn is not an adequate substitute for hitting the brakes.

We were supposed to take the train to Xi’an this evening (soft sleeper – four beds per compartment), but it was fully booked for the next week (!) so we had to fly there this morning. We escaped the hammering heat of Beijing (35C during the day, 25C at night with suffocating humidity) — Xi’an was experiencing a torrential downpour. The temperature was an agreeable 26C, so we didn’t really mind the rain. Also, people are really nice. We got someone from Singapore to help us buy traintickets. 16 hours to Chengdu for Y113 (E12,50)!