In these times of Coronavirus, travelling around China in the way we used to, has become virtually impossible. Although the situation in China is gradually improving, it’s still far from stable. At any moment, a new outbreak could take everything back to square one and put the country back into lockdown mode. It’s hard to say when we’ll be able to go back and resume our travels. However, that won’t stop us from continuing to post at holachina.com!
We still have loads of unpublished material, as well as updates and great photos to upload. Maybe this quarantine we are undergoing at the moment in Madrid will enable us to be more productive!
Here’s to virtual travels!
Here are a few examples of what we still have to post.
Gweilo or gwailou (Chinese: 鬼佬; Cantonese gwáilóu, pronounced [kʷɐ̌i lǒu] is a common Cantonese slang term and ethnic slur for Westerners.
The rumour spread like wildfire around the gweilo* hangout cafes in Dali: Ruili 瑞丽 was now open to foreigners. Margie and I looked at a map and thought:’ why not give it a go?’
China in 1990 was a very different place. Many areas still remained firmly shut to Western visitors, which is why the opening of any of these previously closed off areas caused an immediate stir in the small backpackers’ community. Travellers trying to ‘out-travel’ each other would excitedly head for these newly opened areas, chasing adventures and cool anecdotes to share in the next gweilo café they’d find themselves in.
Deciding to go to Ruili 瑞丽 was one thing. Actually getting there quite another: in those days Ruili was a two day bus ride away from Xiguan 下关 / Dali City大理, with the bus overnighting in Baoshan 保山.
It is difficult to remember everything from the long trip down to Ruili 瑞丽, but I remember the incredibly polluted river running out of Xiguan 下关 and passing through several rural markets. And I’ll never forget the incredulous faces of the receptionists at the Baoshan transport hotel保山交通宾馆 when two foreigners joined the other Chinese passengers for the overnight check in.
Descending rapidly after Baoshan 保山, the road then crosses the Nujiang 怒江 / Salween River and you can begin to smell and feel the sweltering heat of sub-tropical South East Asia.
I remember a strange incident at a check point just before crossing the Nujiang River: Military Police, obviously looking for drugs or other illegal goods, boarded the bus and almost took it apart; nuts, bolts and all. They then dragged a passenger, a young soldier, off the bus and gave him a vicious beating, before dumping him back on the bus. At one point, I feared he would never be seen again.
Arriving in Ruili 瑞丽
We eventually arrived in Ruili at 12.00 midnight on the second day and no sooner had we got off the bus than we noticed there was something different about this town. In spite of the lateness of the hour, the whole place was buzzing: bars, restaurants and dodgy ‘massage parlors’ were all doing a brisk trade. The streets were filled with Chinese, Burmese and ethnic minorities milling around the open shops and street markets where hawkers were still touting their wares. Welcome to Ruili, 1991.
All this nocturnal activity was in stark contrast to the rest of China: in 1990 /91, even in Beijing 北京 and Shanghai 上海, such nightlife as there was, mostly packed up before 20.30. Ruili seemed to be on another planet altogether!
We checked into a brand new hotel, only to find it was so new that there was no running water and only the reception area was connected to the electricity mains. The following day, we escaped at the break of dawn and managed to track down the modest Ruili Binguan 瑞丽宾馆, where we bagged a cheap dorm room and where, to our immense surprise, we bumped into Glen and Lisa, an American couple we had met in Lijiang 丽江 a few weeks earlier. In fact, it turned out that the 4 of us were the only gweilos in town.
What to do or see in Ruili?
That was precisely the question. As Ruili wasn’t mentioned in any guide book (we were using Lonely Planet China, version 2) we set about trying to find the sights. Luckily, Glen and Lisa, who had taught English in Taiwan, could speak some Chinese,. After questioning the bewildered locals as to what we should see, we soon discovered that the actual sights were somewhat underwhelming.
A pagoda here, a huge banyan tree there, and the Burmese border crossing were about all the tips we could get from anyone.
Undoubtedly, the most interesting thing about Ruili was the incredible mix of people on its streets, the colourful markets and, why not, the sleazy, seedy ambience that hinted at clandestine wheeling and dealings.
Among the more exotic of Ruili’s various dodgy businesses were the wet markets (live animal markets), where the usual suspects blamed for causing the current Coronavirus outbreak and the previous SARS epidemic could be found in cages, waiting for the wok: cats, bats, rats and pangolins to name just a few.
Ruili in 1991 played host to jacks of all trades: Burmese Muslim merchants, jade traders, rich Chinese buyers with pretty young girls on their arm, hookers, pimps, drug dealers and addicts… and… beating them all for novelty:Kachin rebels (景颇族; Jǐngpō zú; in Chinese; members of an ethnic tribe struggling for an independent Kachin state) on rest and recreation after fighting the Burmese Junta. It was a kaleidoscope of peoples definitely worth coming all that way to see.
We found ourselves being wined and dined by rich Chinese jade dealers who seemed to think it gave them status to have Westerners at their table when negotiating with their Burmese counterparts. The whole thing was surreal and rather ridiculous.
After all, why invite people you don’t know to a slap- up meal? They couldn’t even speak to us; they just pointed at the food and urged us to eat! In hindsight, having a cheap Burmese meal with a few cold beers in the marvelous Sweet Café would have been much more fun. But that was the kind of thing that went on in Ruili in 1991.
The Burmese Connection Sweet Café
As I mentioned before, by far the most interesting people we met were the Kachin rebel commanders, back from fighting the Burmese military Junta. They used to hang out in the Sweet Café, a real Asian hole in the wall, but with more character than any posh banquet hall.
Some of the commanders were women, and they all spoke pretty reasonable English. They were a great source of entertainment with their stories of heroic exploits whilst fighting the Burmese army.
After its clientele, the next best thing about the Sweet Café was definitely its breakfast: milk tea, fried eggs, great fruit juices, and even Mohinga, a delicious Burmese spicy noodle soup with catfish and herbs, the perfect cure for a vicious hangover. Nowhere in China could beat the Sweet Café when it came to a tasty breakfast!
Burmese and other foreign produced products were ubiquitous in the street markets; including the infamous and totally politically incorrect Darkie toothpaste that had been renamed Darlie two years previously. Obviously, what was being sold had passed its sell by date.
And speaking of border, the border between China and Burma / Myanmar must have been pretty porous at the time, as the rebels explained that they often came to Ruili when they needed a bit of a rest. It seemed that the Chinese were turning a blind eye to their comings and goings. Actually, the Chinese authorities were turning a blind eye to almost anything happening in Ruili. But that was Ruili in 1991.
Of course, these laissez faire policies didn’t quite apply to Westerners. Some travelers told us they’d managed to sneak across the river to the town of Musé in Burma, only to get arrested and deported back to China, where they were made to write a self-criticism for having violated the laws of the People’s Republic of China. Obviously, this anecdote and the written self-criticism were worth their weight in gold, as the ultimate proof of ‘travel cool’.
And needless to say, if you did anything like this today, you’d be sent to prison. But that was then. China and Ruili in 1991 were not what they are today.
Back then, the Chinese authorities hadn’t really worked out what to do with mischievous foreigners. It was almost as if the PSB (Chinese Internal Security) and travellers were involved in playing a good humoured game of cat and mouse with travellers pushing the boundaries between those areas that were actually open and those that were still off limits, and the PSB trying to interpret the continuously changing directives from Beijing.
On our return to Baoshan we spent two hours trying to convince the local head of the PSB, who incidentally spoke impeccable English, to let us travel on by bus from Baoshan to Jinhong景洪 in Xishuangbanna 西双版纳 so as not to have to backtrack all the way to Xiaguan下关 and Kunming昆明. We studied the map together and he agreed it would be much shorter to travel direct from Baoshan 保山. However, his only answer was: “this area is closed to foreigners”. And that was the end of the matter.
All in all we spent three days in Ruili, exploring the border area near the bridge that linked the town to Muse on the Burmese side, taking a day trip to the sleepy, non-eventful town of Wanding 畹町, playing Chinese chess with the locals, and cycling out to the nearby景颇族; Jǐngpō zú ( or Kachin); villages where we were made to feel very welcome.
Our only regret is that the town of Tenchong 腾冲 had also just opened, but we didn’t know. At that time, Tenchong still preserved its historic architecture, which apparently has now vanished under the sledgehammer. A pity.
What to do if you find yourself stuck in Nanchang 南昌 for an afternoon waiting for onward transport.
Nanchang will never win any beauty contests. In the summer it is a polluted furnace; and in the winter its a polluted grey, damp and pretty miserable place to be.
Barring some Communist Party must see memorabilia, enticing sights to visit are conspicuous by their absence and a sightseeing tour of Nanchang won’t last too long.
However, Nanchang is the capital of the much under explored Jiangxi Province, and as such, it acts as a useful transport hub for reaching some of Jiangxi’s wondrous sights, such as the area of Wuyuan, Jinggangshan, Longmen and many more; you will undoubtably find yourself passing through. So what to do?
Hang out in the Parks
There is something for everyone in Nanchang’s central parks (these photos were taken in Ren Min Gong Yuan 人民公园 people’s Park in the center of the city). A cold beer on a hot day, warm tea and opera singers brighten up any dull moment in the winter, and Taijiquan 太極拳 practise all year round.
Martial Arts masters teach young enthusiastic kids the ropes: the expert we saw had drawn a huge crowd of onlookers and his pupils must have felt like the Kung fu stars of old as people applauded their every move (especially the parents). The master was always less impressed, finding fault in everything and urging improvement and concentration.
Musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments and Chinese opera singers show off their skills in front of large spontaneous audiences.
The clanging and bashing of drums and symbols reverberate around every corner of the huge park as does the high pitch shrill of the singers.
Then there are the various Karaoke competitions. Young wannabe stars blurt out famous Chinese pop songs to mixed reactions.
A critical and discerning audience never doubted in giving the thumbs up or down. In China, that means a rapturous applause, or a stony, uncomfortable silence at the end of each song.
Peace and Quiet
For those looking for more peaceful activities, they seem to while away their time away playing Chinese chess, sipping tea and chatting to friends. And for the one day visitor, there is plenty of activity to keep you enticed during an afternoon, and if tea is not to your liking, there are plenty of vendors selling beer and snacks.
Yak butter candle making 酥油灯; sūyóu dēng at the Ramoche Temple Lhasa 小昭寺; Xiǎozhāo Sì
The three story Ramoche Temple, in the heart of Lhasa, just a little walking distance away from the Bakhor, is an interesting place to visit when you are in Lhasa.
Ramoche Temple Origins
Originally Built around the same time it’s more famous sister temple, the Jokhang temple (at some point during the Tang Dynasty), probably between 649 and 676 during the reign of Mangsong Mangsten, the Ramoche temple has been destroyed and rebuilt more than once during its turbulent history.
A Strong Smell
Your nostrils detect the oily, buttery, smell of boiling yak butter long before you actually you arrive at Ramoche. The air in and around the temple is filled with the unmistakable smell of Yak butter; it permeates everything from the walls of the temple to the clothes of the pilgrims.
During much of the day Ramoche is a hive of activity, with throngs of visiting pilgrims, the odd tourist group, resident monks, caretakers, , sand using mandala makers (The mandala represents an imaginary palace that is contemplated during meditation), and finally, the unmissable yak butter candle makers.
As you watch the yak butter makers go about their trade, there are moments when you think they are going to be entirely devoured by the soaring flames. At other times, their faces are forced to wince and scrunch up at the scorching heat and the spitting fat that leaps out of the cauldrons.
The process is non-stop; with someone always on hand to take over when a worker is flagging. Sometimes its a monk, other times it’s a care taker, and at other times pilgrims join in.
With the yak butter candles inside the temple burning almost 24/7, it’s no wonder that the butter making process is relentless and continuous.
The heat generated from the cauldrons can be felt around the main square in front of the temple. Monks and workers use enormous wooden handled ladles to stir the molten liquid and then scoop it out and pour it in to buckets for the gooey fluid to cool.
At the same time other pilgrims are adding more butter to the cauldrons. The pilgrims believe that by bring their own yak butter they will gain merit.
When the butter has cooled, it is taken inside the temple, where an army of helpers fill the empty candle holders. Like the melting process outside, cleaning and preparing the candles seems to be an around the clock activity.
As soon as a new candle is prepared, there is always a newly-arrived pilgrim ready to burn it. And so the cycle goes on.
Making Sand Mandalas 沙坛城; Shā Tánchéng
If you are lucky, you might also catch the monks making sand mandalas 沙坛城; Shā Tánchéng .
One of Tibetan Buddhism’s most bizarre activities; the monks can spend hours, days or weeks preparing these incredibly beautiful and ornately coloured sand mandalas; only then to destroy them after a ceremony.
Why? To demonstrate the Buddhist belief that nothing is permanent.
The pictures you see here are the prints I bought from the temple when I visited as photography is not allowed.
I love visiting the arhats halls in Chinese temples. These are halls filled with amazing figures and transcendent scenes. Arhats or 羅漢 luóhàn in Chinese, are often defined as those who have gained insight into the true nature of existence and have achieved nirvana.
Arhats line the walls of many Chinese temples, but you’ll fine some of the most stunning examples in the 筇竹寺 Qióngzhú Sì, on the outskirts of Kunming, Yunnan Province. The temple’s arhat hall was built between 1883 and 1890 and includes 500 individual arhats 五百罗汉Wǔbǎi Luōhàn. 500 is the usual number.
Despite being a relatively recent creation, given china’s long history,the lifelike facial expressions of arhats in the Bamboo Temple, their clothes and the colours, all take one back to a time that evokes China’s mythical past and conjure up the west’s romantic fantasy with all things exotic and Chinese.
An arhat hall is the China we imagine when we read such stories as Journey to the West 西遊記 Xī Yóu Jì, Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三国演义Sānguó Yǎnyì or the Water Margins or Outlaws of the West 水滸傳 Shuǐhǔ Zhuàn.
For me personally, an arhat hall is the China I imagined as a kid having just visited the Chinese gallery in the British Museum.
When I visit an arhat hall, I’ll spend hours staring at their virtually true to life faces, pondering on who their creator was, and who he was basing them on, and speculating whether or not they were real characters who existed in the artist’s lifetime, or if they were just a figment of his imagination. Or as previously mentioned: was he on something?
In temples such as the Bamboo Temple, 筇竹寺 Qióngzhú Sì, 15 kilometers outside Kunming, the arhats are truly spectacular.
They are remarkable for the riot of colours; memorable for the individual expressions on the faces of the arhats; mind-blowing for the bizarre mystical scenes in which the arhats are placed.
The Bamboo Temple’s arhat hall is a creation of an artist whose powers of invention have run wild making it one of my all time favourite arhat halls. If you are in Kunming it is a must see. Below are the accounts of our two visits to the temple.
February 1991 and August 2010: two visits to the Bamboo Temple, 筇竹寺 Qióngzhú Sì
Despite all of China’s modernization, it still takes just as long to get from downtown Kunming to the Bamboo temple 筇竹寺 Qióngzhú Sì as it did way back in 1991.
Getting there in 1991
In 1991, you picked up a clapped out over-crowded bus in downdown kunming that within a few minutes had already reached the outer limits of the city. After that, the bus slowly trundled past verdant green rice paddies and along pot holed roads before eventually ascending up through the lush forest to the temple.
Getting there today 筇竹寺 Qióngzhú Sì
Today, there are no green fields, just kilometers upon kilometers of monotonous suburbs and snarling traffic that hold up the comfortable modern bus. Only the last two kilometers on the ascent through the forest brought back any memories of the previous trip.
Chinese domestic tourists now come to the temple in large groups on air-conditioned tourist buses; they are then disgorged from the buses and unleased upon the temple: A few selfies later they return to their waiting vehicles and moved on to their next destination.
Domestic Tourists Can’t Enter The Arhat Hall
Due to their recent unruly behaviour, especially, the throwing coins at the arhats and patting them on the head for good luck, the monks do not let Chinese tourists enter into the arhat hall. Instead, they must be observed from a safe distance from which no damage can be done. It maybe one reason why the Bamboo temple is actually far more sedate than it was 30 years ago.
Individual foreigners, on the other hand, will be invited into the hall by the monks to stand in front of the arhats if no tour groups are around ( no photography).
Mayhem in 1991
I remember the mayhem from our visit back in 1991. Then, the Chinese visitors came with their Danwei (work group), and would fight their way to the front of the hall in order to touch or throw coins at the arhats.
All the visitors, men and women alike, were dressed uniformly in their blue Mao suits; I can tell you it was quite a sight watching the hordes clamber over each other to get to the arhats!
The incredulous, and at the same time resigned expressions, on the faces of the caretaker monks said it all.
In 1991 there used to be snack stalls and tacky souvenir vendors around the temple. Most of them (if not all) have gone now. The area is actually quite a serene given that this is one of Kunming’s highlights..
What you do have now is a decent indoor and outdoor vegetarian restaurant set in lovely surroundings from where you can sip a cold beer, eat a delicious veggie meal and watch the huge resident tortoises roam around the grass. What more could you ask for?
While Wuhan 武汉 is on everyone’s lips due to the coronavirus 新型冠状病毒, it is important to realize that it is also a pleasant, vibrant city on the banks of the Yangzi river. Here is our diary entry from 30/12 / 1990 when we first visited the city. Wuhan 武汉 has changed a lot since then.
Around 9.30 we arrive in Wuhan where our boat docks alongside a modernist building in the shape of a ship, or perhaps waves? After a very long walk through crowded, bustling streets, we arrive at the Aiguo hotel 爱国宾馆, where the three-person dorms are mixed, but very cold: our breath comes out in clouds.
We wash our clothes, hang them up inside the room and aim a fan at them; all to no avail, as we will soon find out.
Then we go out and snack on cakes and something called doupi 豆皮: bean curd stuffed with rice and deep-fried. We find them a bit greasy, but they apparently were Mao’s favourite snack, so who are we to complain?
We spend the hours between 13.00 and 17.00 marching up and down Wuhan’s main street: from our hotel to the boats, to the Bank of China, back to the boats, etc., desperately searching for a Chinese person who A. can speak English, and B. is willing to buy Chinese-price boat tickets for us. None of the money changers are interested, none of the other, boarding passengers seem to understand what we want and the two American teachers we bump into claim they have no time … They do urge, almost beg us, to come to their flat in the evening for a little party, as they haven’t spoken to any other Westerners for ages; they seem pretty desperate but, our minds on more important matters, we won’t commit ourselves.
We waste almost the entire day in Wuhan trying to getting those elusive tickets to Chongqing, Adam and I are happy to give up the ghost by early afternoon, much to the disappointment of Mike, our temporary travelling companion, whose sole purpose in China seems to consist of trying to avoid paying foreigner’s price for anything; so we keep on trying.
Alas, just before closing time we are forced to give up and buy foreigners’ tickets for over 200 Yuan. We take a deep breath and hand over the cash. Done.
Now we just need to get some new supplies: instant noodles, instant coffee, chilli, biscuits and fruit; the usual. Of course, this is when we come across the only English speaking Chinese person in Wuhan, who knows exactly what we were after… What a bummer!
To make up for our financial set-back, we have an exceedingly cheap dinner – greasy fried rice and mapu dofu (spicy bean curd) for Y 2,50 each – washed down with even cheaper beer at Y 0, 80.
When we get back to our freezing hotel room, it turns out that all the floor attendants have just washed their hair in our adjacent bathroom and used up all the hot water. Fuming, Adam storms downstairs, armed with a dictionary and shouting the magical words: “hot water! Now!” The flustered staff decide to open up two other rooms for us, so that Adam and I can squeeze ourselves into a tiny bath tub together, while Mike is forced to take his shower right next to a foul-smelling, blocked toilet.
And that was our Wuhan experience. In spite of the day’s difficulties, it didn’t seem an unpleasant city; we saw some stately, European-style buildings, many tree-lined streets and avenues, lots of well-stocked shops and excellent food markets with a wide variety of vegetables on display. Pity we didn’t have the time to explore a bit more.
Taijitu太极图 near Yunlong 云龙, Yunnan Province, is a freak of nature. It looks remarkably like the famous Taoist Yin-Yang symbol when seen from high above. Viewed from ground level you would never know it was there.
The climb up to the view point is made along a steep winding road. If you can find a vehicle to take you there it is Yuan well spent. You don’t get any real inkling as to what is below until you suddenly arrive at the scenic viewing area. From this point, the whole Yin -Yang shape just suddenly appears before you. It’s quite magical.
A rain sodden trip to see local markets in Xishuangbanna 西双版纳 Yunnan Province
Menghai 勐海 xishuangbanna 西双版纳 yunnan Province云南省
Our attempts to reach the Sunday market at Menghun 勐混 were thwarted by the monsoon: due to heavy rain the new highway between Jinghong 景洪 and Menghai 勐海 had collapsed and no buses were running that Sunday morning.
When we eventually headed to Menghai 勐海 a few days later the buses were running again, but only on the old road, turning the normally smooth 45- minute journey into a four- hour crawl .
The most chaotic scenes occurred at the exit of Jinghong, as lorries, buses, tractors and private cars leaving the city fought with those vehicles trying to enter the city to either get on or leave the old road.
The chaos was such that there were kilometres of traffic jams in each direction and not one person of authority was there to put some order to the mayhem.
With so many vehicles stuck with nowhere to go, local entrepreneurs ran between the traffic, selling anything from boiled eggs to grilled meats and soft drinks.
Overturned lorries and their spilt loads only further aggravated an already desperate situation.
In the evening as we settled into our clean but rundown hotel in Menghai we watched the well-organized and meticulously planned Olympic games taking place in Beijing on T.V and wondered if we were really in the same country.
Our first destination from Menghai 勐海 was Gelanghe, a Dai 傣族 and Akha / Yaozu 瑶族 settlement, some 30 kilometres southeast. We took the lazy and wrong option and hired a car and driver for 200 Yuan to take us to Gelanghe.
The road starts climbing into the jungle clad hills only a few kilometres outside Menghai affording stunning views of the valley below.
Unfortunately due to torrential rains the road had become a quagmire. Our van slid and skidded its way up and up. Twice we had to release it from the mud with stones and planks of wood until the van eventually succumbed to the inevitable and got completely bogged down.
We now became the spectacle. The passing Akha / Yaozu 瑶族, who we had gone to see, stopped to gawp, comment and laugh at our predicament until a tractor, the only type of vehicle able to navigate the road, and its friendly driver pulled us out of the bog and turned our van round.
Defeated we headed back.
To compensate for the aborted trip to Gelanghe, we visited the Bajiao Ting (The Octagonal Temple) at Jingzhen 20 kms from Menghai and the Manlei Buddhist Temple at Mengzhe, a few kilometres further along the road.
Although both temples are pleasant, they are reconstructions of originals destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
The Jingzhen Octagonal Temple Bajiaoting 景真八角亭，had some pleasant Dai style Buddhist murals that depicted gentle rural Scenes.
Don’t miss Menghai’s morning Market just behind the Main road near the post office.
It has a real buzz and you might catch a few Akha, Dai and Lahu dressed in their finest.
Unlike the Menghun market 勐混 市场, the Menghai market 勐海市场 is a market for locals and people from the countryside around. The market gets underway at the crack of dawn and is heaving by 9.00 a.m. By midday it has fizzled out.
It should be a brisk 45 minute to 1 hour zip along a new highway from Jinghong 景洪 to Menghai 勐海. That is if the monsoon rains haven’t washed the highway away.
Buses run continually throughout the day from both Jinghong’s bus stations. From Menghai’s bus station there are regular buses to Jinghong, Menghun 勐混, for the Sunday market.
There are inconvenient buses for Xiding and its Thursday market (see article). If you are heading to the Burmense border there are buses to Daluo. For the route to Ruili there are plenty of buses to Menglian and Langcang.
This was our plan but the rains made the trip a travel nightmare. Eventually we had to back-tract and head to Menglun and Laos. Outside the wet season this westward journey would make a great trip.
We stayed at the post office hotel. A clean double cost 80 yuan. Staff were extremely friendly.
Food was a bit limited in Menghai to say the least. Simple restaurants can be found along the main street and some noodle stalls set up at night near the main square.
Taken straight from our diary. Part One of our visit to Xingcheng Old City 兴城老成城.
Part two will be about Xingcheng Beach兴城海滨浴场 and Juhua Dao.
Xingcheng Old City 兴城老城
Shanhaiguan 山海关 10/09/2016: Margie’s Diary
We get up, all ready and packed, and march to the train station with our bags, feeling quite fit and ready for action. Shanhaiguan 山海关 has really grown on us; I can even appreciate the beauty of the park to my left, with its secluded pavilions and stone seats and tables. Pity we never got to drink a cold beer at any of them.
We wait for our train, together with quite a few other people, and get on. A man exchanges seats with me, so Adam and I can sit on a two-seater together; the train is not full anyway.
This is called hard-seat 硬座, but it isn’t anything like the hard-seaters of old. In fact, the seats are padded and covered in a blue material, with little white head rests. Most of the passengers are sprawled over the seats and fast asleep.
I try to
use my time well by writing in my diary in order to catch up.
The train stops at a number of places and, at one of these, a group of extremely noisy old-age pensioners get on. They seem to be part of some package tour and are obviously having a whale of a time! They don’t stop chattering and joking and going around offering each other sweets and snacks.
All too soon, after 1½ hours, we are at Xingcheng兴城. We exit the train station and find ourselves on a dusty road, not quite sure how far we are from the centre and /or our intended hotel. So we hail a cab, which is cheap.
The Jin Zhong zi Binguan 金钟子宾馆 looks somewhat aged from the outside, making me a bit weary. After Shanhaiguan, I would really appreciate somewhere clean ….. The receptionist, a very efficient young lady with glasses and a bun who reminds us of a Chinese friend of ours in Spain, sends me to the fifth floor to inspect a couple of rooms.
The floor fuwuyuan 服务员 (the person responsible for cleaning the rooms on a particular floor) is waiting for me. There is evidence of plenty of cleaning being done here: piles of dirty laundry everywhere, cleaning materials, as well as an enormous hoover lying around, fresh bed linen on a cart and so on.
We can either have a clean , tidy but small room for 198 Yuan, or a humongous suite of uncomfortable wooden furniture and a glass-fronted bathroom with a real tub for 298 Yuan …. needless to say Adam goes for the small one ….pity.
Anyway, it’s hot and steamy so we clean up and head out. We are looking for a bite to eat before visiting the old city.
Adam quite likes the look of the main drag, says it reminds him of the China of old. The clothes shops, displaying the uniquely Chinese fashions of a provincial town in the 1970s, the blaring music, the bridal boutiques with their garish green and purple dresses, adorned with feathers and artificial flowers and so on. Then, there are street stalls everywhere, selling anything from grilled squid kebabs to jeans, tools or fruit.
We tried to find something to eat in the Happy Family Mall 大家庭 but to no avail as the food court mentioned in our guide book had ceased to exist. In a second Happy Family Mall a bit further along the road there were some Baobing 刨冰 counters (shaved ice with fruit and syrups), but that was about all.
We decided to postpone lunch until we got to the Old Town, which proved to be an excellent decision. Moreover, we also spied a train ticket booking office in the second Mall where it was easy to book high- speed trains back to Beijing 北京. Xingcheng 兴城 has its own high-speed railway station about 40 kilometers away at Huludaobei 葫芦岛北站 (See coming and going).
We keep heading straight as the receptionist had told us, but somehow miss the signpost indicating the entrance to the Old Town. Adam tries to ask several people, but they don’t seem to understand his Chinese. Even a couple of white- coated pharmasists – who we took to be more or less educated – cannot understand “Gucheng” or “Laocheng”; the Chinese for Old Town.
When we eventually get there, we can see that the main drag has already been spruced up for tourism, with many of the shops selling the typical tacky souvenirs that are ubiquitous at Chinese tourist sites.
However, there are a few attractive folk- inspired clothes shops, one of them called ‘Grandma’s’, with brightly coloured, flowery, padded jackets and such. Moreover, there are a lot of men pounding ‘nougat’ with huge hammers, whilst shouting and calling out to potential customers. They remind us of the nougat sellers in Xian’s Muslim quarter.
There are also a couple of handsome carved ‘Pailou 牌楼’ (stone archways) across the street, but we are more preoccupied with finding somewhere to eat at this very moment…….
We quickly spy a clean looking and attractive restaurant that has a few people in it. It proves to be an excellent choice and we enjoy some of the freshest and tastiest prawns and squid on this trip.
Other customers are wolfing down seafood dumplings; another of the restaurant’s specialties. Judging by the photos on the wall this place is either quite famous, or part of a larger chain. Added bonus: the beer is very cold.
We’ve really enjoyed the food and beer, but have lingered a bit too long. It’s about 15.20 and most sites, for which we have bought the expensive through ticket, close at 17.30. We’d better get a move on!
Confucius temple 文庙
We soon realize there isn’t that much of rush, as the sites aren’t great. We decide to do the Confucius temple first, which claims to be the oldest in northeast China. It’s true that it is well maintained and the gardens are lovely, with little stone bridges and gnarled old trees, but the halls are mostly empty.
We peek into another old residence / museum, but it seems an entirely re-built, largely modern construction, so we don’t linger.
General Gao’s House 将军府
More interesting is the handsome residence of General Gao Rulian, which dates from the 1920s. It has some beautiful brick carving, spacious and luxuriously furnished rooms that combine sleeping, sitting and studying areas, as well as a large peaceful garden complete with a rockery.
The general and his wife apparently lived here after his retirement and dedicated themselves to studying and cultivating their inner life. I think I could get into that if I had such a lovely, spacious house!
The general must have been an enlightened chap, because he was in favour of women’s education and set up a kind of college for them!
On the way out, we admire the exquisitely carved brick screen that stands in front of the entrance.
In the far corner of the old city, practically in the countryside, is the City God Temple. It’s a rather ramshackle construction where we meet a young girl studying to be a nun, who badgers us into helping her with the pronunciation of English phonetic sounds. And that is about it for sights.
The old town is very dilapidated, scruffy and semi-abandoned, apart from the aforementioned parts that have been rather tackily done up. All a little bit underwhelming and certainly nothing to rival Pingyao. What on earth was Lonely Planet thinking?
We climb up onto the restored city wall and walk round almost the entire old city. From here you can really appreciate the abandonment. There are crumbling old houses that are still inhabited, right next to others that have caved in, some with bushes and trees growing through what was once the roof, others that have completely collapsed.
Whole pieces of land have reverted to nature or been turned into vegetable plots. We see a couple of men herding sheep and goats…. Xingcheng Old Town is a sad and desolate place, a poor place, though not without a certain melancholy charm and potential. All these plots of land inside a walled city, surely they must be prime property? How long before a new-Old Town will rise on this spot and attract tourists from all over China?
For the time being, the bits of the town we like best are around the city gates, where some of the real life still goes on. Towards dusk, vendors start setting up stalls, selling fruit and veg, or preparing food; kebabs and grilled meats among the most popular.
Around the gates there are also some real businesses, such as funeral parlous, bike shops or bird cage sellers.
The Jin Zhong Zi Binguan 金钟子: a good option; friendly staff, comfortable rooms and a decent restaurant. What more could you ask for?
Food is good in Xingcheng 兴城. It might be worth coming here just to sample the fish and seafood. The town has a large fishing fleet and fresh sea produce is everywhere.
There are three good areas:
The old Town 老城 has one or two very good, atmospheric restaurants and lots of stalls at night outside the city gates. Unfortunately, we didn’t take down the name of the one we ate in. It is on the main street, as you come in through the main entrance, on your the left, before the first crossroad.
A second option is by the beach, where seafood restaurants with buckets of live food line the street. Huge portions of fresh prawns go for about 100 yuan.
The third option is in or around the Jin Zhong Zi 金钟子 Binguan. The hotel restaurant cooks up some pretty good seafood and spicy dishes. Opposite the hotel there is an excellent Muslim restaurant (pictures above and below), which we tried on our last evening. They serve up great veggie dumplings, fantastic eggplants and an unusual soup of sea snails and Chinese turnips.
They also serve my favourite vegetable; snowpeas 荷兰豆.
Getting there and away
We arrived in Xingcheng 兴城 from Shanhaiguan 山海关 on a slow train that took less than two hours. The train takes a pretty rural route, stopping at a number of places along the way.
We returned to Beijing 北京 from the new high- speed railway station at Huludaobei 葫芦岛北站 (40 minutes away by taxi). It is a brand new station in the middle of nowhere. The train left at 10.50 on the dot and we arrived in Beijing sometime after 14.00.
We bought our tickets to Beijing 北京 from a ticket office in the Happy Family Shopping mall. Very easy and very convenient.