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China

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Trip in December 2003. All "facts" are how things seemed to me at the time.

China. Where to start? There is only so much you can see on a one-day organised tour, but that's still a lot. The tour was from Hong Kong, and (briefly) takes in the following: Catamaran to Shekou port in China. Through immigration to the tour bus, then a stop at a Chinese Kindergarten. Next stop at some Pandas in Shenzhen Safari park, followed by a museum which contains 5 of the 8000 teracotta warriors. Afterwards, a bus trip from Shenzhen to Canton and a Chinese meal in a restaurant in Canton. You have half an hour or so to look round Canton and a walk through a wet-market, then a bus trip to a large temple complex. The final stop is the Sun Yatsen memorial hall, then on to the train station for the train ride all the way back to Hong Kong, passing through immigration before boarding the train. There's a information pack that you're invited to buy at the start of the tour. It's expensive for what it is, (About £7.50) but does at least contain some useful items, such as chinese banknotes, coins, stamps and one of the poorest quality maps I've ever encountered, showing the Pearl river delta and surrounding area. There are a few other leaflets in there too.

The Chinese immigration people are very serious. There's no messing around here. Immigration people are not the friendliest at the best of times. (Ever visited the States and been cross examined? Heaven knows what it's like there now.), These were no different. There's no crossing the yellow line here before you're allowed, even when you're on a group visa. There is no cross examination though - more of a glare. No pretty stamps in the passport sadly, only the group visa is stamped. Just after the immigration area is a Police recruitment poster showing two model Chinese Police officers, one of each sex in impossibly perfect uniforms, saluting and staring off into the skyline in that way that people in Communist propaganda posters always seem to do. What they're looking for I have no idea, but they are still looking for it. The immigration area looks very Communist, especially with this poster, but the effect drops off a lot after you leave this area and get outside. However, there are a distinct lack of adverts around all the countryside/towns we passed through, making the whole place look a little like Hong Kong but with the sensory overload turned way down. As much as Hong Kong is populated with ads, Canton isn't. The Chinese name for Canton is Guangzhou, and it's the capital of Guangdong province and the 5th largest city, but I'm going to use the name Canton here, not least because it's easier to type. It's where SARS seems to have originated from, and on or about the day we were there (26th Dec) was the day the first new case for some time was discovered.

There was a lot of checking for SARS. Going in and out of China and Hong Kong meant that in one day we were checked at least four times. Near to immigration is an infra-red camera and a person to monitor it. You're required to stand on a spot for 3 secs while they have a look, and if your body temperature is greater then 38 degrees, then I guess you're taken off for some examination. Coughing or sneezing for a joke is definitely not a good idea. There are health forms to be filled in too, as many as there are temperature tests. We were advised to just tick the "No" box on everything otherwise the ensuing investigations would hold up the tour group forever. Great. SARS might have dropped from the news here after a while, but everyone here still has it at the forefront of their minds.

So, on to those stops in chronological order. First stop - Kindergarten. Perhaps the most baffling of all the stops, we eventually concluded that it was probably slighly more for the benefit of the children than it was for us tourists, so they could meet some foreigners. You go into the school, they do some dancing, singing, playing of musical instuments, then you're invited to join in with the dance, each kid coming over and selecting a tourist partner. Cute, but a strange situation to be in. There is no shop at this stop.

Shenzhen Safari Park

The next stop is the (in)famous Shenzhen Safari Park. I've since read a few alarming things about this place on the Internet, but the tour bus pretty much goes straight to the Panda area, then after a while of admiring how cute the Pandas are, especially whilst they eat bamboo or climb trees, it's off out again, after a quick stop at what they refer to as the "Happy Room" (Toilet). Unusually, there is no shop here, but there is a chance to sit on some poor elephant and pay for a photo, ditto with a monkey in a suit on your shoulder. We declined both. Not too far from the Safari park is a more bizarre sight though - The Eiffel Tower poking its way up from behind some entrance gates. There is a "theme park" called Windows On The World. To save the Chinese the trouble and cost of travelling the world, they have just copied apparently 118 of the worlds top tourist attractions, (both natural and man-made) at various scales from 1:1.5 to 1:7. Those Chinese and copying things eh? Possible the strangest sight in Asia are some of these things as the bus whisks past it all.

The bus ride from Shenzhen to Canton is quite long but never boring. There are lots of houses and fields to look at on the way. Some of the areas are new and modern, and some of the others look like Beirut used to on 80's TV news reports. Not due to action though, more neglect. There are plenty of rice fields and some crappy housing next to them, those huts like in Vietnam war films. The main thing to notice is the lack of advertising. There just isn't much at all. The whole place does have a bit of a Communist look to it. "But how does a Communist country look then?" I have been asked. Well, I think it looks plain, muted, concrete and quite square, 60's military looking buildings, and certainly some of this place has that. The factory/industrial buildings have it in spades. An oil/petrol refinery we passed is a good example. A bit run down looking, but not too much, and with a simple 60's looking building with a no-fuss sign on the top.

There is an awful lot of building work going on in Shenzhen, a city which's apparently grown from some 40,000 in the early 70's up to about 7 million now in 2003. Quite an amazing place, with quite an amazing crime rate too. That was the explanation for most of the buildings having bars over the windows. Even the people living 10 stories up still had the bars, in fact all the way to the top of the building. Shenzhen is the closest city to Hong Kong, and looking at the downtown areas, is becoming similar in many ways. Shops, Neon, possibly the largest Mercedes dealer I've ever seen - Shenzhen is on it's way but I don't think it really knows where yet. Especially when you add in the strange crop of theme parks - which include Minsk world, one of the ex-Soviet Navy's large aircraft carriers, now sold to the Chinese and restored to all it's mid-seventies cold war glory complete with MIGs and replica missiles. All for the viewing pleaseure of tourists - complete with shop. The KGB would be mad at the thought of westerners walking and photographing the Soviet stuff. How the world has changed. I saw an ad for this place on the train back to Hong Kong, and filed it away in my memory for a future trip. Unfortunatly for all it's development, Shenzhen seemed to be missing Hong Kong's tidyness and large green spaces.

The next stop was the Teracotta Warriors Museum and shop. The emphasis here is more on the shop than the museum. At the strong suggestion of the museum tour guides, we spent more time in the State-run museum shop than looking at the warriors themselves. The warriors are impressive pieces, and I'm sure look even better in their 8000 strong format than these 5 AWOL warriors, who have deserted to Shenzhen so they could set up a shop, selling (You've guessed it), miniature versions of themselves for the tourists. But it's not all bad. Usually with tourist attractions, no stone is left unturned, no opportunity for tat is missed when there's a monument around. Take the real Eiffel tower: Brass Minatures. Minature with clock. Minature with barometer. Key Ring. The possibilities are endless. Perhaps the warriors will realize this in time. "Now buy the Chocolate Army. 8000 individual pieces cast entirly from real chocolate. Perfect for when you need an army or snack in the next life". The rest of the expansive shop is filled with all sorts of Chinese products. Tea, ivory, paintings, carvings, alcohol, clothes. You name it, they have it. At least most of it is tasteful though. As in the rest of Asia, there are enough assistants for each of a 15-strong tour group to have a personal shopper and remover of everything you look at from it's hanger. And they accept Hong Kong dollars. How convienient. What's more, the conversion rate is a happy 1:1. But only a cynic would suggest that perhaps the entire point of the tour is to sell you as much stuff as possible.

Canton (Guangzhou)

The Chinese meal in Canton was quite interesting. It's main point of interest was it's close resemblance to a UK Chinese takeaway. Seems most of our Chinese Takeaways are actually Cantonese cooking. There are others, of which Szechuan is one. The others are quite different. More spicy, or more salty for example. The time spent in Canton wandering around the streets the streets immediately surrounding the restaurant is entertaining. There is time to pick up a few DVDs (They are less than US$1 each) and look in a few other shops. If you happen to go on this tour, there is a DVD shop located on the opposite side of the road to the restaurant, further down. We went into a clothes shop which again had more assistants than customers. They were quite eager to try out their English skills on us, which were not bad considering. I tried out my one word of Chinese (Ni-how, for Hello/How are you) and it suprised the hell out of one girl, who did not know what to do except stand and look embarrassed. She only knew the equivalent English word too, so it was destined to be a short conversation. According to the tour guide, many of these people have never seen a Westerner before, and we did get more than a few stares.

The tour goes to the wet market after you've eaten for a reason. One of the main scenes that sticks in your mind from this market is that of a couple of Chinese guys with a few large baskets of live frogs. A hapless frog is selected at random, and his head is expertly snipped from his body with a pair of kitchen scissors. The body is passed to another person, who removes the innards. The process is repeated until all of the several hundred strong frog baskets are empty. There is a fair amount of blood, and a large pile of frog heads. A similar process takes place further along with snakes, but we missed that one. They were all still alive. Amongst the other strange stuff for sale/eat are turtles and scorpions. I think the term of "wet" in the market is more for the water used to wash down the street rather than for the blood itself.

Most of the remainder of the tour is taken up with temples and traditional curly roofed buildings, some of which are old and some not-quite-so-old. They are all nice enough, and contain much of the usual stuff. Burning incense sticks, offerings and Budda statues. There is though, (convienently) just enough time to be taken to another state-run shop before going to the train station. This one sells similar stuff the the earlier one, albeit minus the chocolate teracotta army. Amongst the stuff are bottles of "Snake Wine" - available to both try and buy. For reasons which will become clear, I thought that the Customs officers at Heathrow might take a bit of a dim view of this stuff, so we stuck stuck to trying, not buying. The "wine" on tasting is actually more like brandy. Harmless enough, you might think, but when bottled some several years earlier, a snake is put inside before the cork goes on. So what we have is a bottle of what looks like white wine, but with a dead snake inside curled up at the bottom. Whether the snake died inside of alcohol poisioning or whether it slithered off it's mortal coil before it dived in was not clear, but the wine/brandy tasted none the worse for it. There's little room for guessing whether the wine benefits in any way from this, and the unfortunate snake is not removed from the bottle before pouring, though it is long past the point of complaining. Somewhere up in snake heaven it's probably thanking the snake god that it ended up drunk in a bottle of wine than headless in a wet market.

During the entire tour, there is another person accompanying the driver and guide. Armed with a 35mm camera, she takes pictures of the tour group. Some candid, some posed. Upon our reluctant posing (There's always a catch with these things in Asia which make me hesitant to co-operate with anyone which appears to be doing me a "favour"), she assured us it wouldn't cost money - the photos were for her job. She disappeared about half way into the trip and reappeared near the end with prints of the photographs both on photo paper and mounted on to some of the cheapest plates in China. You are invited to buy. We declined. The cost was about 10 for plate and photos. The manufacturing cost is probably closer to 50 pence.

The journey back by train is peaceful enough. The train is a little old and a little used looking, but contrasting well with the trains in the UK, it not only moves under it's own power, but is on time as well. Just before boarding I bought a can of Coca-Cola in Canton railway station. English on one side, Chinese on the other. The remarkable thing about it was it had an old-fashioned style pull-and-remove ring pull, the type of which I'd not seen since I was a kid. The Coke was the same though. For all it's concern about becoming westernised, I don't think China has to worry. It's always going to be very different to anywhere else, and a few Cokes, Big Macs and Hollywood movies are not going to change that.

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Copyright © M.F.Hughes 2004

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