- High quality feasting
- An unsurpassable gap in society
- Trying Chinese medicine
- China´s ultramodern and chaotic train system
- Cab race
- Reaching the capital of China
- Strolling around Beijing
I am now in Beijing, China ’s capital. Since the last time I wrote from Shanghai we have changed our plans several times and have to keep on adjusting them thanks to all the obstacles posed by the Chinese railway system, but to that later.
High quality feasting
In Shanghai we had very nice last days. Anne’s father came back on Friday and he invited us to two very nice places in Shanghai. On one night we went to the second Hyatt hotel (the first one occupied the top 30 floors of the second highest building in Shanghai). This one is not that high, only 28 floor, however, it I,k,90000000=87 (this was just typed by the puppy cat which runs around the hostel and apparently likes keyboards) is located in a perfect position where the river takes a turn and from the roof you have a view both on the Pudong skyscraper skyline and on the Bund, the promenade of Shanghai. We had a table in the Bar and could go to the terrace where we took a lot of touristy pictures. To be fair they do look very cool, decadent (there was a Jacuzzi on that terrace as well), but cool.
On Sunday then, Anne’s father invited us to have Easter lunch at the Meridien Hotel in central Shanghai. I am pretty sure that this was the craziest buffet I have seen in my life. On the 30th floor of the hotel with a view on central Shanghai we sat on a terrace and could have as much as we wanted of the following (and this is just what we actually had): Oysters, Shrimps, Crabs. Sushi, Lobster, Sashimi, Nagiri, salt crust salmon, lamb chicken, pork, duck, rabbit, veil, beef roast, two kinds of caviar, froigrat, Beijing Duck, several entire suckling pork, every side dish you can imagine, every fruit and salad you can imagine, every bread type, a bbq outside with bbqed fish and various meats. Then for dessert a buffet 10 meters long with everything ranging from éclairs, crème brulee, pannacotta, mousse au chocolate, several mousses that I cant remember in chocolate crust, different ice creams, a whole tower of sweets, a table of cakes and crumbles and, obviously, two 1.5m chocolate fountains (white and dark) with fruits to dip into it. To finish it off an open bar with coffee, spirits and wine. And the waitresses came by and made sure that the champagne glass was always full. I know, first thought: hoooow is this backpacking? Second thought: boaaaaaaaah!
An unsurpassable gap in society
I mean I accepted quite soon into this trip that my Shanghai experience would not have been similar to those that I usually had and have now, that is to say a backpacking experience. From the beginning I saw it as an insight into the life of expats in a metropolis like Shanghai. It was an incredibly valuable experience because it makes you think whether you would want it. After 10 days I have to answer: no, and I couldn’t.
It all makes sense, I mean you get a good job abroad, paid better than at home. Then you are in this country in which you have lots of money and in the spare time that you have obviously you want to spend it. The local offer of activities adjusts itself to these interests and you end up with all these over the top decadent things to do, mostly materialistic. Once there I bet I would do the same, and I mean it is just incredible what you get as an expat in that position. But what I personally would not be able to cope with is the wide, insuperable gap between the society you are living in as an expat and the local, “real”, authentic society. It is impossible to bridge this gap and for me this is something I could not live with, as for me all materialistic stuff has to be put into context, be an additional reward on top of social integration. This is not possible in Shanghai.
A lot of locals have adapted this lifestyle and love it, as Chinese people have very materialistic ambitions in live which fits perfectly into this picture and therefore every rich person in China tries to show off as much as he can. The result is that expats plus a few wealthy Chinese segregate themselves form society and place themselves (sometimes unintentionally) in a position of superiority. ‘#’0000000000000000 (the puppy again J ) I had the feeling in Shanghai that just because I am white and western I am treated better and unequally to others. I had this feeling before in Asia, especially in Nepal, but in Shanghai it seemed part of the emerged society, kind of normal, which made it even worse to me.
Trying Chinese medicine
But let’s leave behind this analysis and look at the facts which saw as all having the most amazing brunch of my life. All you can eat of the best food you can possibly imagine accompanied be amazing drinks, is there anything better? It was truly beautiful and the perfect ending to these 10 days that I personally enjoyed a lot, both for the expat experience and simply for seeing one of the most modern and controversial cities in the world.
In Shanghai I went to a clinic for Chinese traditional medicine at the beginning of our trip, on Monday. I did this because western medicine simply cannot deal with my foot injury. They give me 3 options, leave it and hope for the best, take painkillers or operate. All three are absolute crap.
In India last year I went to a traditional Tibetan clinic in Dharamsala, the Men Tse Khang, and undertook a treatment based on herbs for a month until they stole my medicine in beautiful Phuket. It really helped back then, and I was surprised by how much it actually helped. In Asia, they do not see the pain in your foot alone. They see it as part of something bigger, something g western medicine with all its incredible progress has not been able to understand. With thousands of years of history in this field, I thought it would simply be stupid not to go to such a clinic.
To be honest, I thought it would be easier than it actually was. In the clinic they just send us anywhere, as we couldn’t really communicate, then a doctor who knew maybe 10 words in English examined my foot, made me pay 20€ and gave me two big bags of dried herbs, flowers, roots, mushrooms and told me to make kind of a tea with these twice a day and immerse my foot for 30 minutes. I have been doing this for 7 days and I have the feeling that it helped. I had to stop now because while traveling it is impossible to continue the treatment but I went back to the clinic, bought another 4 bags which Anne will bring back to London and I will continue it there. Topstuff.
We also got our stuff from the tailor, really nice shirts, coats, suits, blazers. It’s just amazing how you can get an item for the same prize at h&m in Europe or custom tailored in Asia. I have tried several tailor so far in Asia, especially in Thailand the tailors are amazing. Got to take that chance and I left everything in Shanghai and Anne will bring it to London. Topstuff.
China´s ultramodern and chaotic train system
Ok now to our trip after Shanghai. In the last mail I told you about our great, ambitious plans. Well, that was before I found out 1. How huge the language barrier is, even for Anne sometimes. And 2. How the train system in China works. Despite having invested 120 billions in the last couple of years in a topnotch train system, the logistics are very poor. You can only book 5 days in advance, which makes long term booking impossible. Moreover, the Chinese know exactly when to book which train, so we were left with really expensive tickets for Beijing and worse, we cannot do our great trip, because we would rely entirely on getting tickets the same day (as we cannot book more than 5 days in advance) and if we didn’t get it we would be stuck somewhere in China.
So we had to adjust the plans and make it easier, that is to say Beijing, then down to Guillin and its beautiful limestone mountains and then to Hong Kong. It is a compromise which has benefits, such as having more time in the various places and being able to actually watch the match of FC Bayern Munich against Real Madrid on the 17th.
The trains are super modern here in china, they have different types, at the top is the magnetic one in Shanghai with 450 km/h, then the high-speed ones which cover all the major cities with 350 km/h, then the ones we used with 150 km/h and then the slowest which are like normal trains in Europe. It’s really good, because I always compare it with India, the other over one billion people country I have been to, and the difference is like comparing FC Bayern Munich with its local “rival” 1860 Munich , namely a divergence so big it turns inconceivable. Here you have departments in the trains, aircon, TVs, plugs, hot water, nice toilets, space, cleaning personal, no stops, just perfect.
So now to our train trip, fucked up as it started. Our driver told us that out train would depart from Shanghai ’s western train station. He brought us there, we got out, he drove off, we go in and ask where our train departs: they look at us, shake their heads and we understood that it left from the other train station, 23 km away. We had 40 minutes. So 23km on congested highways in Shanghai in 35 minutes. Mission impossible? Not with a Shanghai cab driver. What followed is absolutely mental. I will have nightmares from this cab ride. If anyone has seen the crap French film Taxi, well just imagine the first scene where he brings the business guy to the airport without the rocket boost. It didn’t take him 30, not even 25, it took him 17 minutes….. We were not talking in that time, we were just hoping that the nonexistent gaps in the traffic which our driver was going for would actually open up. ZickZack with 120 on the congested highway. Mental, no other words for it. I have taken a lot of cabs in my life, many in Asia, but this was unique. Well we got there in time, could even take it easy and got onto the train.
Reaching the capital of China
We managed to sleep really well until I got up to watch the sunrise from the window. Well, that wasn’t like I expected. China ’s eastern coastline is one huge grey urban area with cities with 30 million inhabitants which you have never heard of. For 3 hours all I saw where horrible 6-7 floors soviet style houses and modern 25 floors houses. Not one field, not one tree, not one glimpse of green. Grey, grey, grey. All houses look the same and are directing south-north. It looks scary. I cannot imagine how people live here.
After a nice 12 hour train ride we arrived in Beijing. What a city. For the major part of the more than 2000 year old history of the Chinese empire it has been the capital. It was seen as the centre of the world, with the Forbidden City at its heart which is a symmetrical complex of 8000 (!!!) royal buildings. For 6 centuries the emperor lived here and did not leave these halls. No one from outside a part of a few handpicked people were allowed to enter the walls (this explains the name).
In 1949 Mao announced the success of the revolution from the entrance of this compound, the Tiananmen Square, the world´s biggest confined square, measuring 40 hectares, which is around 10 times the St Peters square in Rome. These dimensions give a good idea of the impression we have had after one day in this city: huge. Instead of building skyscrapers like in Shanghai, Beijing focused on keeping its traditional sites and complementing it with vast, huge new communist headquarters and institutions. It is way more Chinese and there is not a visible expat society here. It seems poorer and less developed, which might be true, but I think it’s mostly the superficial impact of Shanghai ’s wealth which gives us the impression.
Strolling around Beijing
Today we just wandered around the city, along the beautiful lakes and channels, visited the Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. It was quite impressive, as communism and current Mao worship can be felt more here than anywhere else. China flags everywhere, military, Mao paintings and so on.
Also some of the most horrific events of recent Chinese history occurred here. In 1989 people started gathering and protesting on the Tiananmen Square demanding more democracy. The government called for a state of war and rolled over them with tanks killing an unknown (undoubtedly high) number of civilians. You can see the effects today. Access to all squares and public places is restricted, you have to pass scans and it is clearly aimed at preventing unforeseen and unwanted accumulations of people.
Well I will write more of this at another point as this mail is quite long already.
So tomorrow we will do a tour to Jingshaling, one of the most remote parts of the Great Wall which is supposed to be breathtaking. Then one more day in Beijing and we will head off to Guillin on the 12th.
Speak to you soon.