Suzhou to Hangzhou by local ferry on the Granal Canal December 21st 1990

In the winter of 1990 we took a local ferry along the Grand Canal, travelling from Suzhou in Jiangsu province to Hangzhou in Zhejiang province. For me, not Margie, it was one of the most memorable trips in my life. All the more so, because it is a trip that can never be repeated in the same way, as there has been virtually no local passenger transport between the two cities for over a decade.

Before I give my own version of the journey, here is how our treasured 1988 copy of Lonely Planet described the canal ferries:
“Travellers have done the route from Hangzhou to Suzhou on overnight passenger boats (with sleeping berths) or on daytime 150-seater ferries. Some people regard this trip the highlight of their China trip. Others have found the boats dirty, crowded and uncomfortable, with a fair percentage of the trip taken up by high canal banks. Some words of advice; you need a good bladder since toilets are terrible; you need some food; and try to get a window seat, both to see the scenery and escape the smokers on the boat.”

In corroboration of this rather dry comment, one reader wrote the following: “The boat is terrible, dirty, cramped, its windows just above the waterline make it hard to see anything, but the ‘toilet’ won the prize as the worst in all China. It was a large bucket that was not emptied during our trip, which took 14 hours (including two hours when we were stopped by fog, which is very common in fall and winter).”
‘China A Travel Survival Kit’ 1998, Lonely Planet.

Here is our account:

A freezing fog hung heavily over a wintry Suzhou. Our spindly cycle- rickshaw rider whisked us through the dark silent streets, now and again letting out a tired groan as he heaved and hauled his rusty old bike over the many arched bridges that spanned the dank, black canals, his body tensing as he stood up to force the rickshaw over the final few centimetres, before slumping back onto the seat as the decent began. The eerie silence was often broken by the tingle of approaching cyclists’ bells, who, like the spectres you pass in a ghost train, flashed out of the darkness only to vanish again into the void. We passed clusters of hunched shapes, peasants on their way to market, weighed down by bundles, sacks and laden bamboo poles. They didn’t speak, preferring to concentrate on the task ahead. Bare light bulbs, or the rare lantern, lit up whitewashed houses and black slated roofs. The night hid their poverty and decrepit state and they looked romantic, as if belonging to another, more prosperous time.

It was four thirty in the morning and we were heading for the boat dock for the local five o’clock ferry to Hangzhou. Continue reading “Suzhou to Hangzhou by local ferry on the Granal Canal December 21st 1990”

Baishuitai 白水台

Baishuitai ( A day trip from Zhongdian Yunnan Province)


Here is how we wrote about it in our Diary that day (Sept 3 – 2007): … It is a stunning, largely uphill ride, through dense forests and undulating meadows crossed by rushing rivers. On our way we pass the occasional nomads’ tent and several small minority and Tibetan villages.
The first is a rickety, wooden Yi settlement that is virtually deserted. According to our driver, a taciturn Tibetan, the Yi are probably out gathering mushrooms. Curiously, the subject of the Yi is the very first to loosen his tongue: he claims that the Tibetans dislike the Yi because they practise slash and burn agriculture and are responsible for the cutting down of the forests…. Moreover, in general, they are not to be trusted (his words, not ours).  His outburst leaves us a bit baffled because, as far as we know, not all Tibetans are equally ecologically-minded. What to think e.g. of the extended use many Tibetans make of rare furs?


Fortunately, our driver is much more positive about the Hui village we pass later. Continue reading “Baishuitai 白水台”

Jinghong Part 1 (February 1991)

old-post-card.jpg

In February 1991 our bus from Kunming pulled into the dilapidated bus station of Xishuangbanna’s capital Jinghong. It had taken 3 long and uncomfortable days to get there. The bus was old and worn out; its seats broken and on their last legs, with sharp metal edges digging painfully into our sore thighs. In spite of the length and discomfort of the journey, most passengers, a mix of gloomy backpackers and Chinese officials, seemed unwilling to engage in conversation and no spirit of group solidarity had sprung up among us; something that usually happened (and still does) on long trips in China. Only we and a gaggle of young Hong Kongers seemed to be enjoying the tropical scenery and the gradual rise of temperatures. The main relief was provided by the nightly stops in extremely basic, but surprisingly clean road-side hotels and the decent food along the way.

One of the highlights of the seemingly-endless journey was an early encounter with one of Xishuangbanna’s many minorities. It happened during a toilet stop near Simao, when a pair of shaven-headed Lahu girls, who were walking by the side of the road, started screaming and pelted for cover in the jungle as soon as they saw Margie and I disembark. And we hadn’t even started peeing…

On arrival, we had the satisfaction of beating our unsociable fellow travellers to the reception desk of the Xishuangbanna Binguan (or Banna Binguan) where we managed to grab the last cheap room in the old wing and settled down to a cold beer and a shower of the same temperature.

old-photo-of-xishuangbanna-dai-village.jpg

In those days, the Banna hotel was one of China’s few hotels with a bit of character and ambience. Continue reading “Jinghong Part 1 (February 1991)”

Sunday 11 November 1990: hard seat from Jiayuguan to Lanzhou!

After an hour-and-a-half wait at the station we embark on our very own journey through Dante’s inferno. As we only have standing tickets, we literally have to fight our way onto the train and through five carriages already overflowing with people, before finding any place at all. We end up in one of the little hallways, right by the place where the train bends, and not even in any protected corner, but smack in the middle.

The first six hours are a bit of a nightmare: there is nowhere to put our backpacks, we eventually have to lay them flat on the floor and kind of squat on top of them. Unfortunately, people are endlessly pushing trolleys with food and drinks through the aisle and each time we have to lift all our luggage and make ourselves as small as possible. The hot-water trolley, which passes every two hours, is the worst as it leaks water and oil, covering the floor in a disgusting black sludge, in which we have no remedy but to put our packs down again. To make matters worse, in its wake, the hot-water trolley is inevitably followed by a horde of pushing and shoving Chinese, anxious to refill their thermos, or jam-jars, full of tea. It’s this continuous, heaving mass of people, fighting to get past you, while you struggle to keep your balance and defend your patch, that really tires you out and wears you down.

The scenes we observe around us would have been best described by Dickens, as coming straight from the work-house, debtors’ prison or mental asylum. Everywhere you look the carriages are spilling over with people: there are 5 or 6 passengers to each bench, people down the aisles, crowding the halls, pressed up against, or even inside, the toilets, you name it. Luggage is piled up as high as the ceiling, as well as suspended from metal hooks: there are massive sacks, held together by ropes, primitive bundles, plastic bags, haversacks, heaps of sandwiches and thermoses. Continue reading “Sunday 11 November 1990: hard seat from Jiayuguan to Lanzhou!”

Xijiang西江镇: Thursday August 21, 2003, Taking our packs on an excursion: Kaili – Xijiang – Kaili – Guiyang

Update:

In 2003 it was free to enter Xijiang 西江镇 Miao minority village, Guizhou and there wasn’t a tourist in sight. Now tourism is big business. The entrance ticket appears to be a whopping 90 yuan.

Xijiang Miao village Guizhou 西江镇

Kaili 21/8/2003

When we get into the lift and look down at our feet, we discover that yesterday’s floor mat, which read ‘Wednesday’, has been replaced by a ‘Thursday’ one. We wonder if this is a new fashion and whether there might be a special member of staff, responsible for keeping the lift mats up to date.

xjbustickets.jpg

At the bus station we catch an 8.30 bus to Leishan, which takes just one hour. The scenery is great, we follow a beautiful river that runs through green fields with rolling hills behind.

On the way to Xijiang Miao village Guizhou 西江镇

The countryside is dotted with prosperous-looking wooden farmsteads, all with front balconies and rows of corn-cobs, hanging out to dry.

On the way to Xijiang Miao village Guizhou 西江镇

Near the river, there are several picnic areas with little wooden pavilions, kiosks or small restaurants, where families come and spend the day relaxing, eating, dipping their feet in the river. This might answer my question as to what on earth the Kaili people do in their free time.

On the way to Xijiang Miao village Guizhou 西江镇

We pass through several villages along the road each one having their market day. Continue reading “Xijiang西江镇: Thursday August 21, 2003, Taking our packs on an excursion: Kaili – Xijiang – Kaili – Guiyang”

Ganzi / Garze A Night to Remember

gz1.jpg

Ganzi is one of those towns you’ll never forget. Arriving late at night, we first tried the plush new “Golden Yak Hotel” at the bus station. Unfortunately, despite having all the mod-cons, there was not a drop of water coming out of its taps. This is how our diary describes it:

Tuesday August 31, 2004We enter our room and feel we are in heaven: brand-new comfy furniture, cosy beds, a power shower, fluffy towels, all those things we have been dreaming about. However, when we try the taps, there is no water. A minor detail the teenage girls who seem to be running the place “forgot” to mention. They claim the problem is extended to all Ganzi, something to do with the pressure, and suggest we try the hot-springs tomorrow. Angry, sceptical and covered in grime, we march into a nameless Chinese hotel across the road, whose well-lit lobby has caught our attention, to make some further enquiries. Here we are received by a large-bosomed lady with her hair in a lacquered bun and a handbag dangling off her arm, a kind of Chinese Mrs Slowcombe, for those who remember the British series “Are you being served?” She proudly assures us, and shows me personally, that not only do they have running “shui” (water), they have lots of “kai shui”(hot water) as well, because they have their own water system. Obviously, not all of Ganzi is without water! We confront the hotel girls with this news, demand our money back and move over to the other side of the road, dragging our filthy-unpacked backpacks and lots of plastic bags behind us.

Overall, independently from the water problem, Ganzi is an incredibly friendly town. For one thing, we have seldom come across more helpful and efficient staff at a bus station anywhere in China……For more go to HolaChina: Your Gateway to China

We will be updating Information on Ganzi from our 2009 Visit

Gansu Travel Insurance “Mafan” 2002

Kafka Comes to China

Mafan 麻烦 meaning:  hassle / bother/ inconvenience

Pingliang Bus Ticket
The Holy Grail: Bus ticket to Pingliang 平凉

Getting to Pingliang 平凉 to Visit Kongtong Shan 崆峒山

甘肃保险 Gansu Bus Insurance

It wasn’t as easy as we had thought. Having paid 200 yuan for the Gansu Travel Insurance, a worthless piece of paper that does nothing for the hapless traveller, but protects the bus company in case you are injured or killed on one of their buses, a possibility that cannot be excluded, given some of the driving and conditions on the roads, we expected to be sold a ticket and board the bus to Pingliang.

甘肃保险 Gansu Bus Insurance

Adam had seen on the departures board that a bus was leaving at 11.20, so he strolled over to the window, insurance paper in hand, to purchase two tickets. To our amazement, he was told by the rude attendant that there were meiyou (no) buses to Pingliang, ever, and that we had to take the train. Disbelieving, we went outside, to the departures area where we identified the actual bus and checked with the driver and conductor, who both confirmed that this was indeed the bus to Pingliang and that it was leaving at 11.20, but that we had to buy a ticket at the ticket office.

Kongtong Shan 崆峒山 the reason for visiting Pingliang

Round two: we returned to the office, choosing a different window, and asked for 2 tickets again. The second attendant just waved her hand at us in a dismissive manner and said meiyou baoxian (no insurance). So that was the problem? Triumphantly, Adam pulled out the insurance paper and placed it in front of her. Without even looking at it she just repeated meiyou and turned to the customers behind us. Though Adam insisted that our insurance was in order, she just blanked us, as if we didn’t exist. And here began one of those episodes that occasionally can drive China travellers to despair: we refused to budge, she refused to look at us, or our insurance. After a stand-off of 2 or 3 minutes, she pulled down the shutter and moved away. We tried two more ticket sellers, but met with the same response.

Kongtong Shan 崆峒山 the reason for visiting Pingliang

Eventually, we decided to just board the bus. We took two seats and waited. The conductor wanted to take us and was willing to purchase two tickets on our behalf. Unfortunately, an inspector prevented her from doing so. By now it was 11.20 and the driver was anxious to leave. However, knowing that we were in the right, we refused to get off. It was an uncomfortable situation for all, but we held our ground, locked in a ridiculous battle of wills.

Kongtong Shan 崆峒山 the reason for visiting Pingliang

As a last resort, Adam decided to appeal to the PSB, the security police. Leaving me on the bus, he went to the PSB desk inside the bus station. A friendly officer told him that he needed insurance to travel in Gansu province. Patiently, he again produced our insurance papers. Again, without looking at the papers, the officer told Adam to follow him to a travel agent’s next to the bus station. The agent pulled out some forms for us to fill in and said the insurance would cost 200 Yuan. Totally exasperated Adam showed our papers again and, at long last, someone actually bothered to look at them! ‘But you already have travel insurance!’ the surprised travel agent exclaimed, comparing the two forms. Back to the station Adam went, victoriously, accompanied by the PSB officer. He marched up to the same ticket seller, who had previously spurned his insurance papers. This time she merely smiled sheepishly and quickly sold him two tickets. Then we were off!

The Holy Grail: Bus ticket to Pingliang 平凉

Kongtong Shan 崆峒山 the reason for visiting Pingliang

Kongtong Shan 崆峒山 the reason for visiting Pingliang

Taxi Talk 2

The Opium War revisited (Camelia Hotel to the Kunming Bus Station)

Not all Chinese have a positive impression of the British (See previous posting) . This cab driver, on our short ride to Kunming’s Bus Satation, angrily reminded us that China had not forgotten the Opium war and that the time was soon approaching when those countries responsible would be held to account.

His monologue mirrored Chinese history teaching on the Opium War that paints a very black and white picture of villains, the British, and Victims, the Chinese. “You humiliated China and now China is strong again” were his parting words.

I did my thesis on the Opium War at university and know that the issue is far from black and white. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to get a word in before we were dumped at the bus station. Never mind, it was eye opening ride.

Taxi Talk

Taxi Talk

If you want to get a fragment of what today’s China is thinking then speak to your taxi driver. Whether it is in Beijing, Shanghai or anyone of those forgettable towns you pass through our get stuck in on your travels in China, you’ll find, like their counterparts in New York, London or Madrid, China’s cabbies have plenty to say. That is once you get them talking!

Below are just a few recollections of some of the more thought provoking conversations.

The Beijing Warmonger

(Wangfujing to Guijie 2003)

  • “Blair is very good” the driver said immediately after I had told him I was a yingguo ren (English). This came as somewhat of a surprise, given that most Chinese I had spoken to previously, had associated him with the Iraq War. But this turned out to be precisely what he liked about Blair. “Go on” I asked inquisitively, “why?” “The English army is very good, they have a lot of experience”. I am quite aware that many Chinese are pretty nationalistic and hold their army in high esteem, so I returned the compliment with a vague reference to the increasing professionalism of the Chinese Liberation Army (The PLA). With a disdainful wave of his hand the taxi driver told me “they don’t have experience, not like the English army, the Chinese haven’t had a war and so the army is useless and needs experience.” Provocatively, I ask where they might get that experience. “We must invade Taiwan” was the answer. Having quite a few friends in Taiwan I suggested that Japan would be a more suitable target given the current state of relations. “No, it must be Taiwan, we have to invade Taiwan to get the experience so the army will be prepared and then we can have a war with Japan and revenge Nanjing”. I asked what would happen if the Americans tried to help Taiwan, but he nonchalantly laughed this off and claimed they wouldn’t. We arrived at our destination and said our goodbyes.

 

Next: The Opium War revisited in Kunming:

Gansu Travel Insurance: From Our Diary: September 10, 2002.

Tuesday, September 10, 2002, Bus ‘Mafan’, or bloody hassle!

Kongtong Shan Gansu Province / 崆峒山甘肃省

It wasn’t as easy as we had thought. Having paid 200 yuan for the Gansu Travel Insurance, a worthless piece of paper that does nothing for the hapless traveller, but protects the bus company in case you are injured or killed on one of their buses, a possibility that cannot be excluded, given some of the driving and conditions on the roads, we expected to be sold a ticket and board the bus to Pingliang. Our final destination being the Taoist mountain of Kongtong Shan.

Adam had seen on the departures board that a bus was leaving at 11.20, so he strolled over to the window, insurance paper in hand,  to purchase two tickets. To our amazement, he was told by the rude attendant that there were meiyou (no) buses to Pinglian, ever, and that we had to take the train. Disbelieving, we went outside, to the departures area where we identified the actual bus and checked with the driver and conductor, who both confirmed that this was indeed the bus to Pingliang and that it was leaving at 11.20, but that we had to buy a ticket at the ticket office.

Round two: we returned to the office, choosing a different window, and asked for 2 tickets again. The second attendant just waved her hand at us in a dismissive manner and said meiyou baoxian (no insurance). So that was the problem? Triumphantly, Adam pulled out the insurance paper and placed it in front of her. Without even looking at it she just repeated meiyou and turned to the customers behind us.

Though Adam insisted that our insurance was in order, she just blanked us, as if we didn’t exist. And here began one of those episodes that occasionally can drive China travellers to despair: we refused to budge, she refused to look at us, or our insurance. After a stand-off of 2 or 3 minutes, she pulled down the shutter and moved away. We tried two more ticket sellers, but met with the same response.

Kongtong Shan Gansu Province / 崆峒山甘肃省

Eventually, we decided to just board the bus. We took two seats and waited. The conductor wanted to take us and was willing to purchase two tickets on our behalf. Unfortunately, an inspector prevented her from doing so. By now it was 11.20 and the driver was anxious to leave. However, knowing that we were in the right, we refused to get off. It was an uncomfortable situation for all, but we held our ground, locked in a ridiculous battle of wills.

Kongtong Shan Gansu Province / 崆峒山甘肃省

As a last resort, Adam decided to appeal to the PSB, the security police. Leaving me on the bus, he went to the PSB desk inside the bus station. A friendly officer told him that he needed insurance to travel in Gansu province. Patiently, he again produced our insurance papers. Again, without looking at the papers, the officer told Adam to follow him to a travel agent’s next to the bus station. The agent  pulled out some forms for us to fill in and said the insurance would cost 200 Yuan.

Kongtong Shan Gansu Province / 崆峒山甘肃省

Totally exasperated Adam showed our papers again and, at long last, someone actually bothered to look at them! ‘But you already have travel insurance!’  the surprised travel agent exclaimed, comparing the two forms. Back to the station Adam went, victoriously, accompanied by the PSB officer. He marched up to the same ticket seller, who had previously spurned his insurance papers. This time she merely smiled sheepishly and quickly sold him two tickets. Then we were off!

The Ticket
Kongtong Shan Gansu Province / 崆峒山甘肃省