Asia | China | Shanghai – New Year at the Crowne Plaza
Yet again he slacks it on the ‘live’ diary front… but sitting in a dark and dingy room with a load of Chinese blokes wearing headphones and playing some mad computer games, smoking a load of fags, and having just handed in his passport in order to get access to the web, he doesnae give a fuck. Where to begin? After yet another 2 and a half week period of not updating my live diary, the idea of spending a load of time typing away with freezing hands, and knowing that a few people await me at PRESIDENTIAL FUCKING SUITE 2626 of the 5-star Crowne Plaza Hotel in Shanghai with a shitload of alcohol, and having hardly slept last night due to reasons I shall explain later, I’m not sure how long or interesting this will be, but let’s get cracking.
The final day in Beijing was a slightly hectic affair. Our last night was a particularly boozy affair, ending up in a 7am crawl into bed, only to wake up on the Sunday after 5 hours kippage to go and play bridge somewhere. I know everyone wants me to provide massloads of details about the bridge session, but I’ll keep it short for all those ignoramuses out there. We (my Chinese team) played three sessions of 16 games each; the first session was fairly mediocre, and we faired average. At the break, having not eaten or drunk anything, my hangover kicked in big-style, and with ridiculous shakes, the second session went fucking awfully, with some ridiculously awful play on my behalf, to the not-so-evident glee of my playing partner. The third session I got it together, and we kicked a little ass (Chinese bumcheeks not being so huge). It was then a rush to the hotel, to rush to the train station, to attempt to get a train, to be told there wasn’t a single fucking train giong anywhere in China, to have something to eat while deciding what to do, to ending up finding yet another booking hall, to being told we could go to where we wanted to go after all, to booking a hard sleeper (not as bad as it sounds), to getting the Nora out of Beijing, and making our way towards Xi’an, home of my Muslim bruvvas, and the Terracotta Army, the Chinese-designated 8th wonder of the world.
SHE ANNE, AND HE SICK
It was on leaving Beijing that I realised I’d been sneezing like a cunt for about a week, and that obviously I’d stifled the fucker by some excessive drinking skills and dodgy Chinese fags. So the next 18 hours spent on the train were particularly sweaty, but lots of fun. At one point me and Martina (you remember, Dutchwoman) had about half the train attendants and repairers and police force sitting with us asking us all manners of questions from the war with iraq to when we were gonna get married. Either way, we got off at Xi’an, a supposedly small city south of Beijing, where I’d haggled with Marty to let me see the Terracotta Army in exchange for a trip up a sacred mountain with her. I say supposedly small cos the Chinese version of a small city has 6 and a half fucking MILLION people. All of whom spit. No joke. The Chinese are extraordinarily skillful gobbers. From the businessman in a worksuit, to the most beautiful 18 year old university student, to the 80 year old grandmother of 12. And it’s not just gobbing, man, it’s nasal spittage as well. Yuo know the sort, press one nostril in and allow the green globule to fly out of your nose. And do it as loudly and as flamboyantly as possible. The reason why this was not noticed in Beijing is that the Chinese government is trying to chill people out on this national pastime and introduced fines in Beijing and Shanghai. But get out of these two cities, and it’s fucking everywhere. So I obviously felt very at home. And joined in with glee.
So we got a room in a hotel, and I fell pretty ill and ended up staying in for a couple of days doing jackshit. Two days in, and Martina’s getting worried, bless her little minge, and decides I need some to see a doctor. Note that the night before she’d gone and gotten me some Chinese medicine from the pharmacy which had basically done nothing whatsoever apart from leaving a really minging taste in my mouth. So she asks reception where a doctor is, the three ladies behind the cuonter being in hysterics and telling me taht I'[ve got a cold for fuck’s sake. She then drags me along to this doctor woman who basically gives me more medicine without asking me a single question about how I was feeling and without examining me, and seems to find it hilarious that all I’ve got is a cold, yet I’ve come to be examined. All this, and Martina’s still not satisfied. So we go back to the hotel and find out where the nearest fucking HOSPITAL is (at which point the receptionists are nearly in tears laughing at us), and jump a cab to Xi’an general hospital, a dirty fucking place in the centre of town. We walk in, and go to the main desk, and she asks what’s wrong, I tell her I’ve got a cough and am spitting yellow shit. She tells me I’ve got a cold and that I should go up to the third floor to see some doctor. We go upstairs, and get ushered into this room with one doctor man, two trainee doctor girls who speak a little English, and seven or so patients, all of whom are standing around looking decidedly un-ill. I get asked by one of the trainees what’s wrong, I tell her I’ve got a cuogh and am spitting some yellow shit, she tells me I’ve probably got a cold and that I’m lucky that the doctor who’s going to examine me is famous in China. The doctor starts feeling my glands like some performance artist moulding some clay, and then listens to my chest (Martina, in the meantime, is haggling with the girl telling her that I surely must have bronchitis). The doctor tells me to go and have a blood and urine test (don’t ask me why), which I do, bring the results back, and get told I have a cold. We show the doctor the medicine we already have, and he says that it’s fine, that we should use it, and that I’ll be fine in a few days. Of course, Martina still won’t let it lie, and points to the medicine which says it cures bronchitis and tries to make me feel better by telling me she still thinks I had chronic bronchitis, and in the taxi on the way home reads me the appropriate excerpt from the Lonely Planet which says that you can die from the disease.
The next few days I basically wrap up warm and attack the streets of Xi’an. It’s typical of Chinese cities, in that there’s a blanket of fog and smog that hangs over the city all day, and is fairly dirty, but is chaotic and has lots of character. Xi’an has a large community of Muslims. Actually, China has a 3% Muslim population, which in a country of 1.3 billion, amounts to a huge amount of the fuckers. The mosque in Xi’an, though, is the most famous in China, dating back hundreds and hundreds of years, and being a really fucking surreal experience to walk round. It basically looks like a Buddhist temple, but has ltos of Arabic writing and excerpts from the Koran all over the walls, and engraved on stones. I spent a morning chilling out there, doing some drawings, speaking to some of the Muslims, and basically having a distinctly unreligious experience, but really enjoying it. More interesting is the Muslim quarter built around the Mosque, which has lots of mad food, delicious sweets, and, errrm, Chinese Muslims.
But the main reason we’d hit Xi’an was for the Terracotta Army. For those who don’t know (and give a fuck), a huge army of terracotta soldiers was unearthed not even three decades ago by a couple of Chinese peasants digging a well. There are thousands and thousands of these soldiers, all with different faces and expressions, and all lined up ready for war, with chariots, horses, jewellery, painted, madness. And despite it being overwhelmed by tourists (mainly of the Chinese variety, but this is no good thing, as Chinese tourism consists of large tour groups of very loud people bustling around taking pictures of everything in sight, from the entrance gate to the woman selling oranges in the courtyard) and my rattiness at being 3 days off the fags due to my acute bronchitis, it was pretty fucking impressive.
And apart from that, 6 or so days were spent in Xi’an in a bit of a heady coldy phazed out affair, eating lots of food (I’m starting to balloon a little), and staring at the hoards of barber shops with red lights that have a nice made-up young lady sitting outside and that double-up as brothels. We weren’t totally sure that this was the case, as when I was walking around with Marty, the ladies would just look at us, but then I walked around alone one day and literally had the girls grabbing me by the arm and attempting to drag me into their little dens. Anyway, we finally managed to jump a train out and head to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, a province which borders Tibet, has the spiciest food in China, together with some of the highest mountains in country.
SPICY HOTPOT AND COLD MOUNTAINS
Another 18 hour train ride passed. This one, however, was in the company of a Jewish English couple who were extremely Jewish and even more English. I’d had a small chat with them in Beijing where they were staying the same hostel as us, and they seemed very “nice” and friendly enough. I’d also heard this story from a guy at the hostel about this couple who’d he’d gone up the Great Wall with, and the girl had had some severe panic attacks, culminating in some serious hyperventilation, brought on by her suffering of vertigo. At one point, she was supposedly in TEARS at the prospect of going down a particularly steep part of the wall. Well, that girl turned out to be the Jewish English girl. I kind of felt for her, but I tell ya, this couple were a funny fucking pair. Apparently, she’d actually only climbed her first ever fucking ladder a week before. And she had problems climbing up onto her bunk in the train. Meanwhile, he was afraid of the water, and got some serious bout of trainsickness on the trip down. But after laughing at them both, and asking her whether she’d ever sat on a stool or seen an ant before, we arrived in Chengdu early in the morning after suffering a couple of hours of a serious smell of shit all the way through our carriage (one of the worst things about China is the state of the toilets; they’re of the squat variety, but they almost never fucking flush, and people must have some seriously bizarre-shaped asses cos they seem to miss the fucking toilet most of the time).
Chengdu is another chilled city of 11.3 million people, and is the gateway to the Yangtze river. My whole trip had been planned around going up the Yangtze and seeing the Three Gorges before they get damned, and it was even more perfect as I was supposed to be spending New Year in Shanghai, which is the end point of a 7 day trip downriver from near Chengdu. Ideal. Marty was also heading down south to Thailand to meet up with a friend, so we thought Chengdu would be perfect to spend a few days around before going our separate ways.
We ended up staying at a really nice hotel (I used my Arabic haggling skills to full fucking effect) which was basically where the Jewish English couple were staying, and which served up the most amazing fucking breakfast of yoghurt and fresh fruit muesli, English fry-ups, waffles and maple syrup, etc. etfuckingcetera. Don’t get me wrong, man, I like Chinese food, and could eat it day and fucking night, but sweet, soupy rice first thing in the fucking morning just isn’t fucking right, is it (let’s chill out on the swearing shall we, Omar, for Dani’s sake if nought else).
Chengdu is cool enough. Good atmosphere, another great mosque experience, character oozing out of all the sideroads, some seriously AMAZING fucking hotpots, and some of the bizzarest streetlights I’ve ever fucking seen. We also found this really nice park with a beautiful outside teahouse on the lake. We sat and chilled out there for a few hours with this nice but extremely sleazy Spanish guy and his Chinese girlfriend who both lived in Shanghai and got me fucking excited about New Year. When I paid for the tea, the guy gave me my change, went away, and came back 10 minutes later, shouting at me in some Chinese I didn’t get (it was his dialect, you understand), and waving my 50 yen back at me. I didn’t really get what was going on, but then I twigged that I’d given the guy a countefeit note. I tried spending the fucker in loads of places only to have it thrown back at me (once I had this waitress standing 10 metres from me with 6 or 7 dodgy looking Chinese guys all staring at this note and looking at me in disgust), but finally managed to rid the fucker on a fruitseller (where are your principles, maaaaaaaan?). Man, I still have no fucking clue how they figured the note was counterfeit. It looked exactly like any other 50. The annoying thing is I was given it by a Westerner… dodgy fucking bastards, the lot of them.
That night we met up with Matt and Dave, who were staying down the road, and who I was supposed to be spending New Year with in Shanghai. These two guys had talked about living it up in style on New Year’s eve, and sure enough, Matt the American’s dad had loads of free hotel points, so they’d secured a twin bed room at the Crowne Plaza (did I mention this fucker had 5 stars?) hotel for 70 dollars a night. When they asked the woman at the hotel on the phone whether they could have a bigger room than a twin bed, the woman replied, “But, Mr Tooman, the Presidential Suite is our biggest room”. BRING. IT. ON. We had a few beers, a couple of games of Mah Jong, and the next morning me and the Marts had decided to hit the mountains for a few days. Note that I’d now given up on the Yangtze for a number of reasons. Firstly, I didn’t have the 7 days to make it to Shanghai on the boat. Secondly, everyone I spoke to in Chengdu from tourists to tour guides were telling me that there was so much fog at the moment you couldn’t see shit. Thirdly, tourists who’s done it and people on the Lonely Planet website were all ranting on about how it was the most distinctly underwhelming experience and was not worth the argents (cash). Fourthly, the boats that go up the river are expensive and rat-infested. Fifthly, Marty was almost begging me to go up the mountain with her. Sixthly, I kinda liked Marty and wanted to spend a few days more days with the bint. Seventhly, I figured I would be better off diong this trip some other time weather-wise and cuold also do it in the opposite direction from Shanghai. Eighthly, (fuck off, Omar, surely that’s enough, you rampantly ridiculous Arab).
So we made a general direction for a town north of Chengdu called Wolong, from where we could attack the Wolong Nature Reserve (with its pandas; Sichuan is THE panda province of China, although you can’t see them in the wild; they’re all couped up in cages in national parks), go up Mt Siguniang (6250 metres high, and supposedly extemely beautiful), and hit Denbu (Tibetan village four hours away by bus). We took a bus from Chengdu to Dujiangyan, from where you can get a bus to Wolong. Dujiangyan is only an hour away from Chegndu by bus, and on arriving, we realised our skillful fucking planning had meant that we’d missed the last bus to Wolong for the day. So we walked around the town and found a wicked park that was massive and had loads of walks and temples. We walked around for a while, got some great views, got a little freaked out by a weird Chinese fucker who kept asking me if I was there alone and telling me there was no way out of the park that evening (Marty was taking a shit in a bush somewhere), and then ended up back in town to grab some food and hole ourselves up in a cold room with no electricity for the night.
The next morning we grabbed a bus out at sunrise to Wolong, and on arriving and walking around town, saw another bus whose driver told us they were going up Mt Siguniang, so we thought “fuck it”, and hopped the fucker through some seriously astounding mountain scenery to a place whose name I still don’t know, but was somewhere up the mountain. And this was Christmas Eve. And both of us ended up suffering from some serious altitude sickness (spaced out, bad headaches, no fucking energy whatsoever). We walked around the mountain a little, found another place with no heating, and got seriously fucking cold. And at that point I my first real an I’ve-got-to-get-somewhere-warm experience. So the next morning, and much to Marty’s reluctance to leave the mountains, we hit another bus at sunrise out of there, and back down the mountain, not sure where we were going, but thinking abuot a smaller, holy mountain 65km from Chengdu.
The bus ride was beautiful, and I ended up in near-elation at the warmer weather and immediate relief from the altitude sickness, and we found a bus that took only 20 minutes to get to the base of Qingchengshan, a seriously fucking beautiful Taoist mountain dotted with some wicked old temples and some awesomely chilled scenery. That’s the good thing about travelling around China now. Yes, it’s cold, but that means there’s hardly anyone anywhere you go. We had this mountain to ourselves for two whole fucking days. We walked up on the first day, a nice gentle amble up, checking out some temples on the way (one of which was actually built in a cave on the side of the mountain), and slept on a snowy Christmas Day as the only guests in a serene little temple at the top. This temple had some seriously eccentric characters, by the way. An old Taoist monk with a thin, long beard smoking the longest, thinnest pipe I had ever seen, and with a squeak of a voice reminiscent of a David Lynch movie (“My dog… he BARKS soooooome”) being a prime example. And everyone in the temple was obsessed with food. I asked for a room, but all the guy could say to me repeatedly was “Have you eaten yet?”. I got the room, and the lady who showed me the room asked “Have you eaten yet?” as a response to every question I was asking. I went to sk for some hot water and the lady who I made my request to asked “Have you eaten yet?”. So we ate. And watched some guys play Mah Jong. And heard lots of screaming from the young waitress who served us, all through the night.
After waiting for the sun to come up at the top of the mountain the following morning (the clouds meant we waited a long fucking time), we walked back down the other side of the mountain. Another beautiful walk, and another temple which when we hit it at lunchtime, found a group of monks and nuns obsessed with our eating patterns, and we got down the bottom at the end of the afternoon, to hit a really tiny, muddy village. I’m an avid fucking meat eater. But we saw this gaggle of people standing outside this little shack and heard the noises of an animal squealing. We went over to watch. There was a pig literally split in two hanging from a wooden beam. And other was in the process of being killed, while half the town stood around watching and almost cheering. Maaan, one guy had his fingers in the animal’s nostrils, and was slicing it’s head off (the head of the other pig was sitting smiling at me on a little table nearby). Once the fucker was dead, they dragged it over to a large clay pool of boiling hot water, and dipped the pig in for a while so they could take it’s skin off. And the stench of blood and guts and shit was everywhere. Fucking awful. To think that in England we go crazy over food hygiene and animal rights and all that shite, and yet here I was, in China, eating meat that was being killed in this extremely unhygienic and barbaric fashion… Either way, that pork sstirfry still tasted fucking delicious that evening, I tell ya.
We got a bus back to Chengdu later that day. We were supposed to stay for a couple of days, but the train to Shanghai for the next day was half the fucking price of the one in two days, so I booked that one, and Marty booked to go further south to the Yunnan province the next day as well. Our last night was quality. We hit town, had our first Western meal since leaving Blighty, hit a joint for some table tennis and bowling skills, and the next day did some bits and pieces (laundry and jacket-buying being two examples of the mundanities) before splitting up in a pretty fucking emotional farewell fashion.
So Marty left me, having spent 5 weeks together in a lot of laughs, and me looking distinctly fucking shabbier as a result of her numerous curses, the witch (she told me se liked my ring, some of the silver fell off it; she told me she liked my snowboarding trousers, the elastic band holding the waste together snapped; she told me my jacket was cool, it ripped in not one, not two, but THREE FUCKING PLACES; she told me my hat really suited me, I lost the fucker; she told me she liked my hair longer, it’s started fucking receding). We’ll meet again, I’m sure, but in the meantime, I took a train to Shanghai, another day and a half of traintracks across some seriously interesting country, and yet another 40 hours of playing cards with locals on the train (I fucking love it, I tell ya), and hit the Paris of the East (innit?) in a big way Sunday morning, 29th December. And I await the Brit and Yank who will treat me to some good-style New Year celebrations in this huge, glitzy city. PUNISH IT!