Welcome to China (August 17th - August 30th, 2012)
(Huay Xai - Con Chai - Luang Namtha - Boten, Kunming, Shanghai)
Distance biked so far: (19,087 km)
I had a few days biking in Northern Laos before getting to the border with China. Various hill tribes dominate the remote North and the simple standard of life was evident.
It is a beautiful area and my days were filled with climbing up hills and being rewarded with great views.
The Laos people are known for being laid back and it seems that attitude to life has passed on to their cows who couldn't be bothered getting up for the trucks and certainly not a cyclist.
I arrived in the border town of Boten on the Lao side of the border but all the signs and spoken language are Chinese and I couldn't find one person that knew a word of English. I stayed on the Laos side to avoid using up a day of my visa in China and had a very difficult time getting dinner. I went to the first restaurant and as is my habit, simply walked up to the refrigerator and pulled out a drink and sat down. The lady told me it was 13,000 Kip (approximately 8,000 Kip to the dollar) so I paid and then asked for something to eat. She opened a refrigerator and I pointed to chicken and she said it would be 32,000 Kip so I paid and sat down with my drink. A few minutes later she came by and set down a plastic wrapped set of dinnerware. The plate, saucer, cup and chopsticks were all wrapped up and she reached for her calculator and said it would be 34,000 Kip. I shrugged my shoulder and asked "what?" I didn't understand. She punched in the number again and said I owe her 34,000 Kip. The best I could gather was that she was going to charge me for the dinnerware in addition to the dinner. I stood up, asked for my money for the dinner back and left. That was strange so I went next door to try my luck there and the place was empty. A man sat behind a desk and pointed to a table so I sat down. I waited and waited and he stayed seated. I got up and asked him if I could eat but he was too engaged in the television to pay any attention to a customer ready to eat in his restaurant so I just left. If this keeps up I'm going to get very hungry. I went to a local store and bought some fruit for dinner.
I crossed the hassle free border and within a few minutes rolled into China.
I planned to take a bus to the city of Kunming as my time is limited and I wanted to cover the 800 km's as quickly as possible so I found the bus station and had a few hours to kill so wandered around the small town and had my first meal in China, the dumplings were absolutely delicious.
My first impression of the border town made me question the economic miracle of China but I am in one of the poorer regions so we'll see how things change. This looks a lot like Laos on the other side of the border.
The good news was that I made it through the masses in front of the train station on time but the bad news was that it would be a 42-hour train ride and the sleeper trains were sold out. I had a non-reclining seat that would substitute as a bed for the next 2 nights. The seats were in groups of six separated by an aisle and 4 seats on the other side. Here is a view of my little space that I occupied for 42 hours.
In contrast to the many people exercising and the good diets there are a lot of smokers here. I used to hear that the tobacco companies in the U.S aren't too concerned when they lose a few of the class action lawsuits that headlined the news for many years because they make their real money in China. Many of the restaurants allow smoking and on this train, smoking was only allowed between the train cars. The problem is that the space between the cars had no windows. With the smokers blowing smoke the best place to sit to avoid smoke was actually in the smoking area as they blew it into the non-smoking area. Incidentally, the abolition against no spitting was also largely ignored.
The people were exceedingly friendly and often offered me cigarettes and food in an attempt to make the foreigner feel welcome. I was the only non-Chinese in the section and was warmly welcomed by a large family. Prior to the first night of sleep a large group gathered around to listen to an exchange between a 12-year old girl and me with her counting to 10 and me repeating the Mandarin version. When we were done a number of men slapped me on the back in laughter and quickly offered me a cigarette and beer to celebrate my first lesson. Later, I tried to ask a simple question of my seatmate. We managed to discuss that he was married and that his wife and daughter were at their home in Xian. The question that filled the next hour of time was, how old is your daughter? It seemed like a simple enough question but after 20 minutes of drawing figures, using sign language and every non-verbal means at my disposal, I simply could not get him to understand. A group of about 70 people had gathered around to listen to the funny speaking foreigner and not one of them could understand either. Finally I asked the young girl in front of me her age and she said 12. Then I repeated that to a young boy and he said 15. I asked them to repeat to the man in Chinese their age. Then, I drew a stick figure of a young girl and wrote the number 12 and pointed to the girl. I repeated that with a drawing of a young stick boy, wrote 15 and pointed at the boy. Everyone was with me, all nodding that the figures on the paper represented the boy and girl and their ages. I then drew out a man, woman and another girl and showed everyone that they represented my seatmate, his wife and their daughter and people nodded. I then asked how old was the daughter and after another round of head scratching, one man figured it out and the group erupted in cheers when my seat mate announced his daughter was also 12 years old. I decided not to proceed with questions as we only had another 38 hours before arriving in Shanghai.
At one point a lady stood up in the middle of the aisle near my seat and started yelling something in Chinese. I ignored her for a while but curiosity got the best of me so looked back and noticed she was giving an impromptu lesson in multiplication. I had no idea what she was doing and most people were intently listening but later she came by and was selling math books so that parents could continue the lesson with their kids.
I caught an overnight sleeper bus for the journey. The sleepers are unique with all the seats removed and 3 rows of 3-high bunk beds covering the entire area. They are really built for people less than 5'6" but at least you can kind of stretch out. The night went quickly and in the morning we pulled into Kunming.
When I talk about China I have to remind myself that the names seem foreign to anyone who has never been here. I don't think I could have named a single province prior to looking at a map. The country is roughly the same size as the United States and in the world only surpassed by Canada and Russia in terms of land area. There are 33 provinces and special autonomous regions and when I crossed the border from Laos, I entered the southwestern province of Yunnan and headed north to the provincial capital of Kunming. The province of Yunnan has 47 million people and Kunming is a small capital for Chinese standards with only 2 million. China has 138 cities with more than 1 million people (as a point of comparison, the United States has only 9).
Kunming is known as "Spring City" for it's nice year round climate and the air was noticeably cooler than what I have experienced for the last 6 months. It is at an elevation of 2,000 meters so that keeps the temperature very comfortable. I was dropped off at the bus station and was ready to bike my way into the unknown but was stopped by a friendly guy in a van. He spoke English and was curious as to what I was doing so after a few minutes of talking he offered to take me into the City. He said it would be difficult to navigate unless I knew where I was going so I agreed and off we went to a youth hostel. I have decided to stay in youth hostels in China, as they are one of the few places where the staff speaks English and they offer a lot of information for foreigners.
I spent a few days wandering the City and started getting a feel for the way the Chinese live. One thing that was evident is the importance they place on physical activity. In the mornings the parks are filled with people of all ages doing tai chi, dancing, playing badminton and all kinds of low impact movement. I saw a couple of at least 80 years old playing badminton and people aged 20 to 80 doing some form of exercise. I watched the groups for a full hour and they were energetic and active the entire time. Many not doing formal exercise were either biking or walking to work. If you combine that with the diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables that are on sale everywhere, it is little wonder I have not seen a single overweight Chinese person yet. Here are some morning exercisers in Kunming.
I decided that with a relatively short visa period and with China having so many sights in such a vast area that I would never be able to bike to see all the places I want to visit. I asked the hostel in Kunming if they could store my bike for a few weeks while I headed north and they agreed so I tried to book a train to Beijing. It was sold out for the next 10 days so the only way to get there was to first go to Shanghai and from there catch another train to Beijing. The next day I headed off to the train station with a few bags and a train ticket to Shanghai. Here is the waiting area in the Kunming train station; I think all of these people were on my train.
I always wondered why time seems to pass so quickly when you sleep. I can sleep for 8 hours and wake up thinking I just went to bed. However, when you sit on a straight train seat for 2 full nights I can assure you the time does not move faster at night. We arrived in the world's largest city around noon and I quickly made my way to a youth hostel and headed out to explore. One of the first things that caught my eye was the large bike lanes and that the bikers have dedicated traffic lights.
I saw lots of people doing their daily exercises and this one involved long ribbons that they used to dance with.
Shanghai is the most populated city in the world with over 23 million inhabitants. In other words, it has about 70% of the population of Canada. It is the financial center of the country and walking here is not a lot different than being in New York. You can even find lots of people that speak English and the signs are often bilingual, something that was not evident in the southwest. One interesting tidbit I read here is that the life expectancy of Shanghai's residents is just over 82 years, 80 years for men and 84 for women. That is one of the highest in the world. It is odd considering the pollution and the number of people who smoke but they must have good genes.
The Huangpu River bisects the City with the financial district on one side and the famous strip known as the Bund on the other. Here are a few pictures of the financial district from the Bund.
Here is a view of the Oriental Pearl Tower.
Nanjing Street is a long pedestrian walk closed off to traffic. Here are a few pictures.
I visited a planning museum where they outlined how they are planning for the expected continued growth of Shanghai, projected to reach 30 million people within a few years. Here is a model structure showing what Shanghai will look like which is pretty close to what it looks like now.
For years in Canada I have seen products made in China so it was nice to see a Made in Canada product in China.
Here is a lunch of noodles with an egg on top. I really like the noodles and this one was filling and again delicious.
When I was on my 42-hour train ride I wondered how many time zones I would be going through and what the time would be when I arrived in Shanghai. I was confused when I arrived without having to change my clock. I looked it up and found that all of China is on the same time but based on the size, it should have 5 different time zones. In China, they use what is referred to as Beijing time for the entire country. The problem is that when the sun rises at 6:00 am in Beijing, the official or Beijing time in Tibet would already be 9:30 am. Apparently, Beijing time is used for official purposes such as train and airplane schedules but the people out in the far west use their own unofficial time.
The language barrier in China is pretty dramatic with very few people outside of the tourist areas speaking English. I have heard that English is practically useless once you get out of the main tourist cities in the Shanghai-Beijing corridor. I tend to eat at local establishments and if there are no pictures I have no choice but to point at someone else's food or go right into the kitchen and start lifting the lids of pots to pick out my dinner. The people are friendly and good-natured and seem to appreciate the fact that I enter their restaurant as the only non-Chinese patron. I can understand why many tourists go with group outings or into Western food places, it's not always easy trying to get your point across but the attempt is always interesting and seems to amuse the people. When I have to resort to pointing I usually stick to noodles, rice and vegetables, the meat would be a little risky. They tend to eat all of the internal organs of animals here so what is normally a choice between beef, chicken, pork or fish can now be numerous choices of the inner organs of each.
Shanghai is starting to show signs of joining the typical tourist zones where you get a lot of uninvited attention. In most cities with a lot of foreign visitors, you are often inundated with offers ranging from buying carpets in Istanbul to a donkey ride in Petra and a taxi in Phnom Penh or Damascus. In Shanghai it is a little different as the tourist trap of choice is shopping. If I walk down Nanjing Street, I can count on half dozen or more English speaking Chinese women approaching me in a typical hour. I remember it because it was so unusual to hear fluent English from Chinese people. You will be approached and of course asked where you are from, the standard greeting all over the world and your first clue that they want to sell you something. If I say Canada (sometimes I say Iceland just to make things difficult) they will always say that Canada is beautiful and then ask if I am from Vancouver or Toronto, the cities they have memorized. The next step is to ask if you want to go shopping and they then show you a card with pictures of clothes, belts, shoes, dresses etc. If I say I am not interested in shopping I will be asked if I want to buy something for my wife, which of course is the lead up to the next question. If I say I am married then I will be told that I have to buy her something or risk being called a bad husband. When I say I am not married, they immediately change course and ask if I would like a massage followed by another card with pictures of beautiful Chinese girls willing to help. The funny thing is that everyone who approached me had the same cards with pictures of shopping goods and also the same pictures of girls for massages. It seems like a big racket is behind the scenes with a lot of people working for them. I also wonder how they are able to recruit such good English speakers and why those women have to resort to that work. The ladies approaching me have easily been the most fluent and I would think there is a good job available in the legitimate tourism industry.
The Chinese people are not known for their ability to form lines. I'm not sure if it is a lack of patience or just the fact that with so many people around you have to fight for your own space. The idea of standing in a straight line for your turn at something seems to be a foreign concept. When I was in the train station in Kunming, an announcement advising of our approaching train was met by a stampede to the ticket turnstiles. I'm not sure what the rush is when you have pre-assigned seats but there was a lot of pushing and shoving to get to the train first which is odd considering we will be on it for 42 hours. It is a strange feeling to be in line and get knocked around by older ladies with their head down and with no apparent regard for who is in the way and the only way to survive is to fight back. It kind of felt good when I stood my ground after a horde of short women seemed intent on knocking the foreign guy out of the way. I didn't feel too guilty just because they were half my size and I am 20 years younger. No one's keeping score but just in case it is Canada 1, China 0.
I will be leaving tomorrow for Beijing but this time will take the high-speed train. The train will cover the 1,300 km in 4 hours. This rail line is the world's longest high-speed line ever constructed in a single phase and the beginning of many high-speed rail lines that are being built at a feverish pitch.
I was getting hungry and noticed an interesting street vendor selling large sticky rice balls that were filled with a stick of fried bread. There was a long line up so I decided to see what the fuss was about. It was tasty and filling.