Monthly Archives: November 2019

Overview – overland UK 2 NZ without flying – eleven stages in fifty days!

From October to November 2019 I travelled from England to New Zealand to join a family reunion in the South Island. This blog series details my thinking, decisions and then the stages of the actual journey. It took much more money, probably more emissions, and a lot more time than flying would have. I hope you enjoy looking at the pictures, perhaps even reading some of the account and researching your own train/ferry/ship experiences!

Find a CNN article recounting the story of a young man who took twenty-four trains from UK to Ningbo. What was he doing? I only took six! As a sidebar of the article, you will also find a comparison of carbon efficiency in some of the biggest airlines.

Blog Series MENU

Planning Parts

Part I: Is there any other way to get from UK to the Antipodes without flying? Why not fly?

Map of the world showing route across Europe towards NZ

Part II: First book your freighter cruise

wing deck entry door

Part III: Further reasoning to avoid flying, via Totnes, Transition Town and Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion Flag

Part IV: Finding Real Russia support system for ticketing and visas – plan ahead!!!

Real Russia sandwich board

Part V: Picking up Visas and finishing up in Brighton UK

Better view of queue outside Chinese Visa Application Service

Part VI – Gathering in London: Modern Crisis talk with representatives from Science, Politics and Spirituality

King and Malone, Baroness and Sister on stage at the arena.

Travel Stages

Is your emission really necessary?

Stage One – ferry from Harwich to Hoek of Holland and visiting Rotterdam

Rotterdam harbour reminds me of Hong Kong

Stage Two – train to Germany and exploring Hamburg harbour

Hamburg Harbour

Stage Three – train to Berlin to visit memorials and consider humanity

Where is the S? Or the U? The answers reign on high

Stage Four – train to Warsaw and considering a different kind of memorial

Central train station

Stage Five – overnight train from Warsaw to Moscow

Our compartment manager and her carriage

Stage Six – visiting Moscow to marvel at metro stations

First look at Belorusskaya Metro station

Stage Seven – multi-page post TransSiberian – TransMongolian Railway from Moscow to Beijing

Our Russian Engine on electric for now

Stage Eight – visiting Beijing and the Great Wall of China

Given my recent train life I was keen to commune in 798

Stage Nine – out of China: trains to Ningbo, Fuzhou and Pingtan and ferry to Taiwan

There's a lot of ships in the Taiwan Strait

Stage Ten – train travel through Taipei, Tainan and, finally to Kaohsiung, the largest port in Taiwan

Tainan Train Station with Kaohsiung train approaching

Stage Eleven – Two weeks shipping with CMA CGM Coral from Taiwan to New Zealand

Quick phone movie

Flyskam: flight shame – to Tågskryt: train bragging!

Stage Ten – Taiwan – sea to ship to sea – overland UK 2 NZ

encouraging train at Kaohsiung metro station
Get on the encouraging train at a Kaohsiung metro station

If you’re new to my sustainable (?!) journey across the world, here’s a menu to help you find your way:

For fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!


I had no idea how long I clung to my potentially slidy bench in the CSF ferry to Taiwan. Given my overheated and nauseous position, clinging like a limpet, I was going nowhere. Flat hands, straight arms, I was stuck with all my spidey force to that window seat. I stared down at the heaving sea. The horizon, and watching the rising spray as the prow smashed through the waves, kept me anchored against the giddy sickness that threatened to swamp me.

The horizon behind us, because we were moving into darkness and stronger forces, was tinged with light beams over the surface far away as the cloud cleared. I kept hoping it would light up ahead but there it was only getting darker. The past horizon was a line of misty magic with constantly moving gleaming, as though a spotlight played upon a shining stage. It was disconcerting when that steady thing to pin hopes upon, that faint, distant horizontal line, kept shifting and then, horrifyingly, disappeared entirely into the dark.

Soon enough lights of habitation appeared on the coast. My arms began to ache with their suction work upon the bench surface. I leaned on the cool glass. Presumably, as we neared the coast, the swell worsened for there were some hefty bangs and heaves that reminded the ship was man-made and would not last for ever.

As soon as the vessel entered Taipei Harbour the heaving stopped. All was calm. The Dangerous Waters had been crossed. Straight away Taiwan seemed safe and friendly. We lined up to exit the ship and were guided down through the cargo hold. Not sure why the ferry didn’t take cars – it could have. A few mini-containers and some other minor cargo were off-loaded as quickly as us humans. We were counted off in groups of bus size. Being the last group we had longest to stand out in the drizzle. Some people got cross and remonstrated with the staff, who sympathised because they too had to stand out in the dark and damp. I merely pulled my Danish rain-poncho from the back of my pack and stayed Scandi calm and dry.

We were crammed onto the final bus ferrying us to the security, customs and immigration building. I was the only ‘foreigner’. Inside the building all the staff wore masks. There was a good chance of Pingtan germs, I suppose. I held out my New Zealand passport with poise and dignity, having only been a little bit sea-sick. The senior official did not blink an eye as he took the pretty black document embossed with the silver fern and looked at me, looked down at the passport, yup that was me, and began to flick through. He was looking for the Chinese visa, wasn’t he? Yes, he was. So I handed him my UK passport with a sophisticated veneer covering my raw nerves. Then, remembering I had to have a way out, I volunteered my shipping ticket. I can’t remember if he asked for it or not but he certainly gave it full attention. He tapped the picture of the cargo ship. ‘You are crew?’

‘I hope not!’ Given the fare I’d paid I certainly didn’t expect to be swabbing the deck. ‘Passenger.’

‘Okay, fine.’ He gave me back all my documents and waved me on. I almost cavorted out of the room! I had entered Taiwan on my NZ passport and the rest of my travels would now be simple. (Er … )

Luckily, I still had some sense of propriety for the next office was a money changer and I was able to change my few Chinese yuan into thousands of NT dollars. I was rich! Enough, at least, to pay for a taxi into the city. I was prepared to do taxi, ferry and MRT to the station but I was tired and shaky so when the large uniformed cheery man on point duty for the taxis asked if I wanted a taxi, I said, ‘Yes, to the train station, please’. He said $800 and I said yes. Then the taxi driver asked for $700 so things were on the improve quickly here in Taiwan. I was so tired when I got to the station I started walking into the police station and the taxi driver shouted at me as if I was about to get arrested! It was one of many entrances into Taipei Railway Station and I’m sure I would have merely been waved on but being shouted at is a stirring thing and woke me up.

As usual with me, it was all about onward travel, and I wanted to be in the city of Tainan the next day, half-way down the island, to return to my original plans. Amazingly, most of the people I encountered in the station had some English! But, it was not a well-sign-posted station. Two ticket sellers said, no, go to the next place. Round and down to the high-speed train. I booked one and a half hours to Tainan at 11:11 the next morning. Seemed like a good magic number. And the considerate attendant gave me directions to the exit nearest to my hotel. People were very kind.

With my back to the train station, Taipei looks thriving
With my back to the train station, walking towards hostelry, Taipei looked thriving


I found Roaders Hotel. It appeared to be a crazy youth hostel in the foyer; lots of couches, conversation spots and Halloween decorations. Food and drink on offer included VEGAN INSTANT NOODLES! The young staff were friendly, obliging and super-keen to show off their living room. The rather more sophisticated hotel room was clean, modern and quiet. I was incredibly grateful to be able to shower, soak up those noodles and watch an American reality show about fashion catwalks. In English. Brain turned to idle. Sent a message to Sue Jollow to say I was there and apologised for such short notice. I did it! I was a Kiwi in Taiwan!

Tao 26 said, ‘Gravity is the root of lightness’ which I suppose most comedians know.

I saw a man capering as I walked from the station to the hotel. He began frolicking as he ran, presumably, towards the person he was meeting. I thought, he’s not doing that fun dance for himself so I followed with interest (because that was where I was going) and watched him greet a tiny tot with his mum. The little lad had, I assumed, been at day care and the two parents were on full alert, shepherding him along the streets of inner-city Taipei like a flock of goats. Or a drunk. Not sure who first described small children as drunks but certainly the kids I’d seen recently, in trains in China, normally extremely well-attended by family members, were exactly as unpredictably devoted and irascible, crazy and funny as any drunk. This babe tottered along, nappy bulging, keen to get about his biz with the parents hovering to protect him from the road and wanting to protect themselves from having to mop up after a full-blown tantrum which was likely given the hour. So they kept up the cheery chat and corralled him in a manner I remembered well from my own childrearing days. The man was aware I was walking behind them as I’d had to wait as they dilly-dallied along and we’d shared a brief glance in which he acknowledged I was in no hurry and all was well.

We crossed a couple of streets and then there was a little turn and a moment where the little fellow could have bustled out into traffic. Dad, quick on his feet as usual, scampered out to protect the lamb, and in doing so, directed the child straight into the next shop. A games parlour. This brightly lit, colourful arena was complete with toys to be won, flashing lights and super, dingley-dell, cute music. Ah, said little one, and lurched toward the fun. Dad caught my eye and we enjoyed a hearty laugh. Out of the traffic frying pan into the commercial fire. Very heartening. I loved those interactions. Language free and utterly human.

Taipei Fast Train Station - stand up straight!
Taipei Fast Train Station

In the morning, Taipei resident, Sue Jollow, wonderful fellow mother, came at a moment’s notice, bearing gifts of organic apples and vegan chocolate! It was so nice to see her, particularly because she had been part of the tricky planning exercise to exchange passports between China and Taiwan.

Sue Jollow and I celebrate being in the right place at the right time - Taipei Fast Train!
Sue Jollow and I celebrate being in the right place at the right time – Taipei Fast Train!

Sue worked as a legal translator, in constant demand for her meticulous work. She had been living in Taiwan for the last ten years, her son grown, graduated and about to start work for Google, and her husband an esteemed Chinese scholar at the University. She loved Taiwan and it was not hard to see why. Everything required for comfortable living was available. She visited farmers’ markets to keep her supplied with organic food and she felt a well-established part of the local community.

Leaving Taipei on the fast train
Leaving Taipei on the fast train, giving a vague idea of the size and spread of the city

As you will know, dear reader, ongoing travel is always at the back of my mind. I had not planned on visiting Taipei, as I would be straying from my course south. My only reason for being there was the poor weather and my only reason for staying was to visit with Sue Jollow. As we caught up with our family’s activities, she walked with me to the station, bought me a delicious vegan bagel at Starbucks and helped me find the correct platform for my train. She was right, of course. There was much to see in Taipei and Taiwan was a beautiful island – next time! Xiexie, Sue!

Taiwanese train ad: Kangaroo travellers giving us Aussies a bad rep!
Whaaaa … ? Giving us Aussies a bad rep!


The fast train took no time at all to get to Tainan but, as I clambered around the gardens and the motorbike parking around the Fast Train Station not in the city, I realised I was now in tropical lands. It was hot. I was sweaty. I could not work out how to get to the city centre. Turned out it was miles away. It would have been better to take the slower train direct to town to save an hour of bus travel. However, as it was, I was rescued by a sophisticated young lady. Her English impeccable, she told me she and her mother were catching the transit bus into town and I should disembark at the same stop as them. Turned out she was a businesswoman from NY, specialising in marketing for start-ups. She had come to visit her mum at the same time as checking up on her shipping contacts in Taiwan and China. Wanting Yu was Taiwanese and had gone to NY initially to study fashion. Now she was tracking new products, working with shipping and transport. Apparently sustainability was THE buzzword in NY. Everyone was speaking about eco this and green that. We hoped it would not be greenwash but actual change.

Tainan footpath showing different levels of each shopfront
Tainan footpath showing different levels of each shopfront

I did get off the bus with Yu and her mum, and it was possibly not in the right part of town for me. I did not enjoy the long, hot, sweaty walk to my accommodation. However, I received a lovely cool welcome from King when I finally arrived at the OC Hostel and found myself in a peaceful, clean, quiet environment. I really needed a place to unpack and calm down. Up on the fourth floor, I had a bright white space to myself; an ensuite with shower, a desk for work and another for eating breakfast, a lovely big bed and a washing machine. I was able to clean and sort and in the near vicinity found fruit markets aplenty to buy crisp red apples and funny mottled blobby looking mandarins. Together with Happy Cow I found a comfy little café, the Harbour Fantasy, offering vegan Green Thai Curry that was actually a nice mushroom stew next to a grand temple where I could go upstairs and see the length of the antique street in its entirety.

OC Hostel, Tainan, a clean and friendly welcoming from King and Kiki
OC Hostel, Tainan, a clean and friendly welcoming from King and Kiki

The next day bright and early saw me off to the real Tainan Railway Station to buy my ongoing ticket to Kaohsiung in three-days’ time. I was getting closer to that big ocean-going moment, boarding CC Coral, and two weeks at sea. This voyage was the first thing I had booked many months before. The planning seemed so surreal that I could hardly believe it was coming true.

Even the Tainan petrol pumps are friendly!
Even the Tainan petrol pumps are friendly!

But I had another mystery to solve more immediately, of the whereabouts of the train station. told me I was there, this was the place, but I couldn’t see the entrance or ticket office anywhere. I popped into one of the ubiquitous 7/11s to ask directions and Dad immediately took over, calling son from the back room to organise my ticket from a machine in the shop. Took careful time and lots of it but I emerged with a ticket to Kaohsiung too early in the morning but it was the only one not booked out. Another very kind family to help me on my way.

On my return to the hostel, King then directed me to bus 77 to go to Anping District for the walking tour of the first old town. One bus was either too early or a no-show but the next one eventually came along. Arrived at the old fort meeting place with plenty of time to seek lunch.

Gǔ Mì Shū Shí - relaxing shady cafe by Tainan waterfront
Gǔ Mì Shū Shí – relaxing shady cafe by Tainan waterfront

After scooting around the wrong way and asking for directions thrice, I came to a street stall with a radiant woman who had been vegan for twenty-five years. She was an aficionado of the Supreme Master and the bowl of noodle soup was clean and refreshing for a mere $50 Taiwan. The day before at Harvest Fantasy I had been charged $400 for a bowl of mushroom curry, admittedly with delicious blue rice, coloured with special blue flowers they grew themselves, and a special cup of chamomile tea they’d also grown themselves. I could not complain. I was happy in both places. I should have given radiant woman more cash but life was hot and sweaty and my brain did not function until ten minutes after the event.

Beautiful trees in the grounds of Fort Zeelandia
Beautiful trees in the grounds of Fort Zeelandia

The walking tour was a no-show, so I wandered around the old fort Zeelandia together with a disparate group of scattered polyglot tourists.

Tainan early 17th century showing strategic Dutch fortifications
Tainan early 17th century showing strategic Dutch fortifications – or trading posts?

The building was entirely reconfigured by the Japanese and probably altered for tourist interest later so nothing was left to see of the trading post established by the Dutch bar the strategic position at the mouth of the harbour.

Tower at Fort Zeelandia, Tainan, Taiwan
Tower at Fort Zeelandia, Tainan, Taiwan
Looking towards OC Hostel from Fort Zeelandia, Tainan
Looking towards OC Hostel from Fort Zeelandia, Tainan

Back at bus stop 77 the bus drove past me, not taking customers, and then twenty minutes later, the next one drove past again because I didn’t see him coming and wasn’t standing in the middle of the road waving my arms off.

Tainan Harbour near bus stop
Tainan Harbour near bus stop

So I remembered we’d passed a Carrefour supermarket, checked on and found it an easy walk of about 2.5km. I wandered happily around the aisles, finding some familiar things but still not reading the ingredients without assistance. Picked up survival rations just in-case; peanut butter, crackers, fruit and nuts, oat biscuits …

Tainan City Hall
Tainan City Hall

After finding the ongoing bus-stop and seeing I had 15 mins to wait I went downstairs to the thing area (as opposed to the food area) and found new pens. Located a triple pack that would do the job, rushed to the pay station, was waved upstairs, no pay there, no over there, long queues, self-service mystery, assistant sorry, not functioning, rising blood pressure, annoyed, gave assistant the dratted pens, explaining, like the White Rabbit, ‘no time!’ and rushed out to bus-stop. To wait.

Long wait. Hang on, there went the 77 once more, but in the far lane indicating no interest in passengers and, what the heck? Got frustrated and sad. Next bus in 25 minutes. Dark. Tired. Very sweaty. Annoyed. A taxi pulled up right in front of me. An invitation? It disgorged four young men with those half-litre plastic cups of cool drinks shrink wrap covered in plastic, carried in plastic bags. I began to suspect the notices on the bus stop might say something like ’77 bus not running today’. I hesitated, having just spent almost $2,000 (!! I mean, thousands!!) on potentially extraneous nibbles. If the next bus didn’t show … It didn’t.

A few minutes later, deeply relieved, I climbed into a taxi and I showed him Chihkan Tower on, the driver understood easily where I wanted to go, and the trip only cost $100. On the way back to the hostel I found a sushi place with a vegan option.

My next day in Tainan saw me trying to keep up the blog and then seeking sustenance. Kiki, co-manager of OC Hostel with King, had to draw me a map, having managed to confuse myself horribly as I went around the block a few times trying to seek out a posh vegetarian restaurant (in the end not very impressive food) a mere hop and a skip away.

Turtle Gate at vegan restaurant, Tainan
Turtle Gate at vegan restaurant, Tainan

On the way I managed to make an appointment with a lovely barber who reluctantly agreed to trim my undercut. Yes, I understood it was just for men but I would not stay for long, a mere buzz around the neck, $150 fine. I understood customers didn’t like their male space invaded by females but I didn’t trust female hairdressers with clippers. Sorry, men, your last bastion, the barber, is not inviolable.

Mission accomplished, back of head cool, my next adventure was the Post Office. At first I went into the wrong building and a lovely lady in a high viz jacket redirected me and then rushed to offer me a pen when she saw I needed to address my cards. Such thoughtfulness offered with such big smiles. Off you go, across the road, post them there.

Delightful Tainan citizen helps post my cards
Delightful Tainan citizen helps post my cards

I must have looked more lost than I felt because I was soon intersected by a smiley lady who said, in excellent English, ‘Where are you going?’ and I told her, showing my cards as an example. She took them and admired her home country. She was an expert in Tainan and explained I had visited the bank and was now headed, correctly, to the post office and she would accompany me. She took me inside, pressed the number machine and waited with me, handed over the cards and negotiated with the man behind the desk. He got out his little glue stick and pressed down each stamp carefully. I paid. He gave my cards back to my smiling friend and off we went to post them. She had nothing to do with the PO other than being an innocent passer-by. This was a sunny day. We parted good friends.

I proceeded back to a supermarket where I’d seen assorted goods and thought I might find pen and paper there. Nup. But the attendant pointed down the street, where I was headed anyway, so off I trotted once more. I asked (I mean, smile/dance/mime and Google Translated!) at a little hole in the wall photocopying place but they had nothing suitable. Where would they suggest I look next? There was scratching of heads and a meeting evolved with another lady who was visiting. Oh, the best place was very far. There was really nothing near. Far too far to walk. Impossible.

Suddenly, a lot of discussion, a decision made and everyone beamed at me. The man made the international sign of motorbike revving with his hands held out in front of him, nodding and smiling. Everyone waved at me. Go with her. She’s going to take you on her bike. Brrrrrm brrrrm went the couple in the shop, accelerating joyfully with their hands. Gulp. I could count on two fingers all the motorbikes I’ve ever been on in my entire life. But there was no debate with these three enthusiasts. So cheery and encouraging, they were going to help me no matter what. I obeyed without further ado. My helmet tightly fastened under my chin, I swung my leg over the little bike and off we went, into the wide river flow of Tainan scooter traffic. I was scared of squeezing my driver to death, especially as it was so hot. It was 30 degrees (in winter) already that day. At each set of lights I set her free to breathe. We broke no speed limit and all the other bikies around us carried on as though I wasn’t pretending this was the most usual and normal thing I did every day. I tried hard not to imagine the worst, tried hard not to think at all WE MUST BE NEARLY THERE SOON SURELY HOW FAR IS SHE TAKING ME HOW WILL I GET BACK and slowly I found I was grinning from ear to ear and the wind was in my face and I was moving along the roads effortlessly and she was so kind! She swung into a parking spot and indicated, on no account would she leave me alone, she would come with me and negotiate with the staff.

Badass Tainan Bikie survives mortal midsection squeezing
Badass Tainan Bikie survives mortal midsection squeezing

It was indeed a magnificent stationery shop and offered many options in both pen and notebook. I handed over my examples. I’m not a fan of ball-point pens, they are not as fast as a felt tip. With the assistant’s serious attention, we found suitable replacements, both my friend and I trying them on scribble pads. We turned our attention to seek out a notebook and again were successful. When I asked the assistant what the Chinese characters on the cover said she mimed exuberance and joy! Perfect. (King told me later they read ‘Inspiration for the mind.’)

Inspiring notebook from Tainan
Inspiring notebook from Tainan

My friend insisted on driving me back to where she’d found me. I said, ‘Xiexie,’ as much as I could and felt so honoured by her efforts. I had the notion of pre-paying for her next job at the little photocopying shop as a pay-it-forward idea but the owners disabused me of that scheme. No way. Just be grateful. So I was. All was well.

I’d been spirited away to a place where I could get all my requirements. Tainan’s citizens and their friendship more than made up for the sins and omissions of the day before.

Special Taiwanese tea and malt bun at vegan bakery, Tainan
Special Taiwanese tea and malt bun at Han Ji Pang, vegan bakery, Tainan

I went to Han Ji Pang, a beautiful little vegan bakery nearby, and enjoyed a malt bun with a fresh cup of Taiwan tea.

vegan bakery Tainan
vegan bakery Tainan

Tao 29 said, the world is a spiritual vessel and can’t be controlled. I had been witness to such generosity of spirit that day I could no longer control the amount of my gratitude!

The next morning began with generous amounts of fireworks scaring away evil spirits. While I contemplated catching the tail of rail history through Russia and Mongolia, sporadic explosions outside the windows helped me visualise coal and fire.

I joined the Inner-city Free Walking Tour promptly. I trailed around after two earnest Taiwanese young men, Tom and Michael, keen to explain the many temples of Tainan.

The God in the foreground has the power of long sight, ready to protect Queen Masu in her goldern security
The God in the foreground has the power of long sight, ready to protect Grand Matsu Temple dedicated to Queen Masu

The sculptures of dragons on the roofs of temples represented good luck and more importantly, water. As temples were built of wood and contained burners they clearly needed protection from fire.

Dragons on the roof protecting the temple
Intricate carvings atop the temple keep in line

Many temples were allotted one or more of the nine sons of the dragon. Each of these characters are distinctly half dragon and half another creature, like fish, tiger or turtle.

Chikhan Tower is the other strategic Dutch placement, also reconfigured in turn by Ming, Qing and Japanese regimes
Chikhan Tower was another strategic Dutch placement, reconfigured in turn by Ming, Qing and Japanese regimes

We started just around the corner from OC Hostel at Chihkan Tower, originally 17th century Dutch, rebuilt by Ming dynasty, then Japanese, then ROC, the current rulers. Taiwan was regarded highly because of its strategic position between China and Japan. Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch had all influenced Taiwan since the 1900s, Europeans naming the island Formosa, the beautiful. Ming and Qing had their time of invasion and rule. It was only after the civil war that ROC (Republic of China) retreated to Taiwan and took up power. I heard ROC airforce roar through the air daily showing their military might in case modern China (PRC = People’s Republic of China) get any ideas. As this site puts it, they are two separate states with a common history. Well, if they’re considering building a bridge from Pingtan to Taichung the air-force might be roaming the wrong space?

Idyllic courtyard at Grand Matsu Temple
Temple courtyard, Tainan

According to my walking tour with Tom and Michael, children of any remaining aboriginal tribes have intermarried with Han people and mainly live on the east of the island. The West is open for business, from Taipei to Taichung, Tainan and down to the major harbour city, Kaohsiung. We passed many signs in little green circles showing the international information ‘i’ as Tainan wanted to be seen as friendly to English speakers. The city really didn’t need to try hard as you already know. The people I met were incredibly friendly and generous. In contrast with many of the people I’d encountered in China who were exasperated or helpless in the face of my Western ignorance. Not quite, ‘Go back to where you came from,’ but more, ‘I can’t be bothered with trying to communicate with you, life’s hard enough already!’

Tainan tour guides Michael and Tom with Hayashi Department Store backdrop
Tainan tour guides Michael and Tom with Hayashi Department Store backdrop

We visited Hayashi Department Store, a beautiful art deco building in the centre of Tainan. It was the second to open in Taiwan because the Taipei sister store decided to sneak their moment of glory a day earlier to steal thunder. We skipped past the Tainan Art Museum and spent a little time in the garden of the seventeenth century Tainan Confucian Temple.

Sculpture of Confucius across from Temple
Sculpture of Confucius across from Temple

Here you begin with a class to learn how to be polite. Once you are good enough you may enter the main temple. That is decorated with the afore mentioned owls plus messenger tubes bringing dispatches directly from the Gods. We learned correct temple etiquette. Always enter the right-hand door, the Dragon door, to bring in good luck. Do not step on the threshold be it stone or wood, always step over. Women lead with the right foot. Exit the left-hand door, the Tiger door, to drop bad luck behind you. It was said there were five hundred gods in the temple as everything was a God.

Tao 27 said ‘Good travellers leave no tracks.’ Of course. I think that’s the best plan. Perhaps selfies are good for something after all. Tao also spoke about teaching. Good people teach bad people or in another take, bad people are the good person’s resource.

On the roof of the main Tainan Confucian Temple, which we missed seeing because it closed at 5pm, were sculptures of owls. Contrary to Western Culture, owls were not revered in Chinese thinking, actually they were very bad indeed. They ate their parents as soon as they could. Confucius was very serious about filial duty. Chinese children were bound to care for their parents above all else. (Of course, parents had to look after their children but the flip side was equally important.) So, the owls were there because they were the worst possible students for a teacher to have to work with. If you could get an owl to look after their parents, and not eat them, this would be a big success for a teacher. So bad people are the good teacher’s resource.

Japanese government road directly infront of Confucian Temple
Japanese government road directly in front of Confucian Temple

When visiting Matsu’s Temple, you could avail yourself of advice by way of two small wooden blocks in the shape of crescent moons known as Moon Blocks.  You would ask your question and provide identification; name, address, age, work and everything to let your chosen God know who you were. Then you asked the yes/no question. I could hear blocks clunking on the floor all around the temple. If the two flat sides face down the answer is definitely no. Stop asking. If the two curved sides are down it’s a no but you could consider rephrasing the question or reconsider your options. If one down, one up, it’s a yes.

Burner at Chi-Ming-Tang temple at Lotus Ponds
Burner at Chi-Ming-Tang temple at Lotus Ponds

Also at the temple we saw the ovens where worshippers burn golden money for the gods and silver money for their ancestors to be able to afford all their favourite things in the afterlife. That’s a lot of burning when you consider the amount of joss sticks also alight. I wondered if those ovens ever cooled down.

Students pink slips asking for Gods assistance to pass exams - subject, time and place
Students’ pink slips asking for assistance to pass exams – subject, time and place all detailed to help the Gods pinpoint exact student.

By the oven of the Temple to the God of Literature we saw a notice board filled with little pink slips. These were filled in by students needing extra support for their exams. You stated your name, address, DOB and all the subjects you were sitting. The Gods couldn’t be expected to tell everyone apart without the requisite paperwork. I supposed these would be burned with the tons of money once the exams were over. How long has this burning tradition been going on? Would worshippers consider composting instead?

Tainan burners - outdoor heating in the tropics?
Tainan burners – outdoor heating in the tropics?

And now for some art.

Hand-painted film posters
Hand-painted film posters at Chuan Mei theatre, Tainan

Wonderful painterly posters attract audiences to Chuan Mei cinema. Director Ang Lee frequented this cinema as he grew up. This is probably one of the last places to see these hand-painted posters although the Master, Yan Jhen-Fa, who works en plein aire across the road, has many acolytes who may continue the tradition.

Tainan Master Film Poster Painter photo outside his office
Tainan Master Film Poster Painter, Yan Jhen-Fa a photo of a photo outside his office across the road from the cinema

We were then encouraged to try Tainans’ most famous drink from a stall over one hundred years old. Bitter melon.

One of the cutest bitter lemons you've ever seen is an ingredient in a popular Tainan drink.
One of the cutest bitter lemons you’ve ever seen is an ingredient in a popular Tainan drink.

It’s boiled for over twenty-four hours until syrup and then made into a variety of cool beverages. Eschewing the old ways, the third generation of stall-holders had brought the bitter melon drink into the tech age. You entered your order into a machine on the wall (taking advice I ordered lemon flavour), took a number and waited for your drink to be ready. It was amazingly sweet and I didn’t manage half. But it was refreshing and gave me strength to carry on as we finished the tour at the National Museum of Taiwan Literature, a grand building built in 1916 for the Japanese government of the day.

National Museum of Taiwan Literature built 1916
National Museum of Taiwan Literature built 1916


Tainan Train Station with Kaohsiung train approaching
Tainan Train Station with Kaohsiung train approaching


Slowly got myself ready for the big march (1.5km – not really!) to the station in the cool of morning. Even though I worried I’d overslept I managed to get myself there in plenty of time. No great security queues there, I found myself in the lift with the rubbish man who checked my ticket and escorted me to the exact spot where my carriage would stop on the platform. The train was on time, I got in line and a smart young man in a suit waved at me. I thought it unnecessarily polite but it turned out to be Tom, one of my young guides from the day before! He was attending a psychology conference to deliver his graduate paper. He was also, unlike his fellow grads, making an effort to hang out and network with his professors, making sure he saw the main keynote early in the day and generally being all-round, excellent student. I sat next to Benedict from Hamburg while Tom leaned in the aisle, not having purchased a seat. The three of us chatted about travel and exchanged our Instagram addresses. Luckily Tom was able to assist Benedict who, it turned out, was on the wrong train entirely!

Kaohsiung safety first sign
Kaohsiung safety sign

After a short, sunny, hot walk, I joined the line of chattering tourists catching the ferry to Cijin island for an outing – a snip at five minutes across the water – a fascinating introduction to the harbour where I’d be joining my container ship in a few days.

Looking towards Cijin from Kaohsiung Ferry wharf
Looking towards Cijin from Kaohsiung Ferry wharf
Kaohsiung Harbour from ferry
Kaohsiung Harbour from ferry
From Cijin looking towards hills of Kaohsiung
From Cijin Island looking back towards hills of Kaohsiung

Lots of little motorbikes and scooters piled onboard so plenty of fumes as we all exited the ferry and proceeded down the road of food-stalls and beachy tourist trinkets.

View from Tidal Guesthouse, Cijin Island
View from Tidal Guesthouse, Cijin Island

Found the hostel, very smart and recently refurbished, in fine position opposite the beach from where I could see ships queueing off-shore. Could my ship be there? (No.) I went into the cool foyer space, a lovely kitchen/bar area. I didn’t fancy dragging my packs around any further.

Happy Cow showed me a pleasant-sounding vegan café just back over the water so, once I had made contact with my hostelry, I had a plan for my next meal.

front door of Muye-Mottainai vegan restaurant
Front door of Muye-Mottainai vegan restaurant

As there was still no sign of action in the modern foyer I got out my homework and resumed typing up blog notes. As it turned out this was good because my room had no desk or table to put things down nor even a hook to hang anything. Teddy, the owner/manager of the Tidal Guesthouse, told me he thought I was a monk with high ideals because of my overland/sea travel and because I did not wish to eat animals. I didn’t mind being a monk.

Cijin Fort at tip of Cijin Island
Many tourists visit Cihou Fort at tip of Cijin Island

I wandered up to the eighteenth century Qing fort at the tip of the island to see the sunset.

Cihou Fort attracts many sunset photographers
Cihou Fort attracts many sunset photographers

Due to the lie of the clouds the colours did not survive but the fort, presumably rebuilt by Japanese, was a landmark with the remains of gun placements and a strategic view-point around more than 250 degrees of sea. Walked past all the trimmings of beach life, surfies (not sure where they go surfing) and a glamorous sundowner beach bar.

Looking back down Cijin Island from fort
Looking back down Cijin Island from fort.

The next morning my guts were tender. I had sailed too close to dangerous waters somewhere. I had been diligent about boiling, peeling and washing in filtered water – up to these last couple of days when I had eaten salad at the vegan cafe and lettuce in the sushi.

With a sense of foreboding I watched Teddy unpack a pile of breakfast such as I had never seen; a big plastic sealed cup of soy-milk to go with steamed mushroom rice and veg (I had half for brekkie and half for dinner!) and a neatly trimmed white-bread club sandwich featuring layers of mango, kiwi and tomato on each separate slice. It looked very pretty. But I did not know my guts were only just beginning the fight then.

Teddy encouraged me to make the foyer my own and I did, as it was the only suitable desk, and I began to lose strength for tourist work. I spent the day typing, unable to venture far from the bathroom. I was surprised and grateful Teddy had taken the time to examine my author’s FB page.

I sent the required email to all of the CMA CGM agents declaring my position and heard back the ship would be a bit later than expected. I would need a couple more nights. Teddy was not able to help so I started searching for a hotel that looked economical and close to the port. The whole city is close to the port. Kaohsiung is the port and one of the longest in the world, Hamburg is a similar shape due to the rivers’ confluence. Cijin island acted as a great lid on the coastline, giving the harbour well over a hundred container berths. It really would not matter where I stayed in Kaohsiung. I went for economy and metro station.

Tao Day 32 toyed with me; ‘Tao endures without a name like valley streams flowing into rivers and seas.’ I KID YOU NOT! Tao! What are you doing to me, in my watery, weakened state of health? Here I was at the Tidal Guesthouse being as tidal as any river going into the sea. Next day saw me nibble at a banana and some (washed in filtered water) grapes. Later, needing to rebuild strength, I wandered up to the shops to find apples. Slept a good deal. Teddy was super keen to bring dumplings for breakfast but I gently suggested plain white rice would be perfect. Yes, that would suffice. Just rice. And a banana. I was recovering. Luckily, I had plenty of probiotics and vitamins to hand.

Tao Day 33 said, Forging ahead shows inner resolve. Thank you, Teddy and good luck with the guesthouse!


Went from guesthouse to ferry to taxi rank in a matter of moments. That’s when the real negotiations began. The driver could not understand the English of, nor the form of Another driver ambled up to help with his spoken word app. He spoke into his phone and then showed me the result: ‘Negotiation.’ I smiled and nodded. Thanks, for that, buddy! Took me a while but I realised I could just call the hotel and get reception to explain to the driver. If reception understood English! Not straightforward but we got there in the end. Aaaaah, said the driver. Hotel ^&*(%£! That may well be, my good man. Let us vamoose! He drove straight along the route and I paid according to the fare calculator. Easy, so long as you were not in a rush.

The hotel was called R8 Eco. It was another of these hotels, like the Roaders in Taipei, that takes up one or two floors in an office or domestic building. This one was very close to the Sanduo Shopping District MRT and the big department store, Sogo.

Entance to the night market Kaohsiung
Entance to the night market Kaohsiung

When I arrived, walking through the sizzling, smoking, steaming stalls of the night market warming up, I entered a grim foyer where a man and his visitor slumped behind a desk watching a tv and various bits of building and furniture lounged against the walls. I said, ‘Hotel?’ The man and his visitor both pointed to heaven and the lift and then said presumably some numbers, holding up fingers, 1, 2 and 3. But all at different times. I reflected back, I, 2 and 3, holding up fingers I thought suitable. No, no, no, no, it was 1, 2 and 3! As I was obviously too daft to understand, the visitor moved into action and pushed number 12 on the lift. Huh? How do you get 12 out of … ?!? Oh, well.

Up in the hotel proper, the reception lady was very sweet and we both utilised phones to translate. I didn’t really care so long as I had somewhere quiet to be. It had a desk. I was safe. It took me hours to do my washing and work out where to hang it. I ate a peeled apple. Later, a banana. And then, feeling super brave, some of the oats out of my muesli which I soaked with boiling water. I thought it a good sign I was feeling hungry.

On day 34, the Tao was still laughing at me with; The Great Tao overflows! However, I was proud of my relaxed convalescent return to tourism the next day. I was able to organise a 48-hour transit card – I had a choice between a perky orange-pink skinny lady and a fat green man – I chose the cheerful green man – and trooped off to see the Dome of Light, at Formosa Boulevard station, Kaohsiung’s answer to Moscow’s subway stations of beauty.

The Dome of Light at Formosa MRT stop
The Dome of Light at Formosa MRT stop

I presume they do a light-up swirl around on the hour, like Melbourne’s cockatoo clock in the Central shopping centre and I just caught the end of that. Then they light up the dome and you can explore the beautiful glass mural that arches overhead like the leaves on a drooping tree. It goes from blue sea images to red fire and evokes gods and travel and energy.

Central Park, Kaohsiung
Central Park, Kaohsiung

Back on to the MRT I got off the subway to visit Central Park, a small park with a little lake full of sculptures surrounded by very orderly trees, where many folk practiced their fitness regimes while some laid back to listen to their radios. About half the populace wore face masks. In the station I’d seen a cool ad on the video screen where a gang of groovy models pranced around an urban landscape wearing smooth outfits, outlandish makeup and different coloured face masks to match. That’d be a nice pressie for my son!

I found another big supermarket where I wandered to find more vegan snacks for my trip – still worried I’d not be able to negotiate food. I got more and more frustrated until I remembered Google Translate had a camera! I had a SIM! For the first time that magic system actually proved useful. Coming in and out of focus, I could read the ingredients as they shifted from Chinese characters to the Latin alphabet! Still frustrating as everything contained milk. Even with an entire aisle of crackers, I was left with the choice of milk or palm oil. I took a deep breath and went with the oil. That was what first world survival choices looked like.

I wandered into Forester, a café I’d found on Happy Cow, and did some more telephone negotiation. (Here’s another traveller writing about the cafe and all the other things I missed seeing in Kaohsiung) She was such a nice lady and eventually brought me a huge helping of rice and steamed mixed vegetables. I ate about half and really enjoyed it. She’d also brought me a cup of green tea. It was white and fluffy. She assured me it didn’t contain milk but it was unlike any green tea I’d ever seen. How was it fluffy? My tiny exploratory sip also revealed super sweetness. Yeah. Nah.

I know travellers are supposed to explore local traditional food, and I was in the heart of night-market-foodie-heaven but my principles, my high ideals as Teddy described them, held me aside from most people’s customs. Unless I happened upon a thoughtful, compassionate vegan village in which case I’d try anything once! I did try to find a new thing each day, no matter how small. Not necessarily to eat, perhaps something to see or do.

A consequence of being a solo-traveller meant I didn’t have to argue with someone of a different travel philosophy. But the other frame was that I was not in Taiwan primarily to learn about local culture. I was there to catch a ship. Messages from the CMA CGM agent were terse, repetitive and never answered my questions. So I just followed instructions.

I was so grateful to my body and its defence systems. Although I was still in recovery mode I ate well and felt alert. I was able to keep going with my work. I did suffer a great disappointment with some fruit and nuts I’d bought from the BIO section of the big supermarket. The photo looked lovely on the outside of the packet. But nowhere did they say they’d been soaked in SOY SAUCE. After I washed them in boiling water, rinsed them in cold filtered water they were relatively plain again but still not my cup of soy.

Mr Wang, shipping agent, would pick me up from my hotel around midnight the following night. I would have to book another night at the hotel. I would have to shift rooms. My plan was to arise at 6:30 am, breakfast, publish my Out of China post, pack everything ready to store luggage preparatory to changing rooms and get out and about to go on a walking tour. I had been laid low for three days. I had a duty to see Lotus Pond. I started to fill in the online booking form for the Free Walking Tour but balked when I had to input my Visa card deets. Why did they need to know those numbers when I’d be paying by tip? I would take my chances. Either Cindy would be at Exit One of the station or she would not. Isn’t it funny how you don’t know how sick you’ve been until you recover? Had to keep sitting down to get my breathing straight.

Tao 35 said, Hold the great elephant and the world moves.

Detail from inside dragon tunnel, Lotus Pond
Detail from inside dragon tunnel, Lotus Pond
The bridge to this temple is guarded by a pantheon of Gods riding different animals
The bridge to this temple is guarded by a pantheon of Gods riding different animals
Lotus at Lotus Pond
Lotus at Lotus Pond

At Lotus Pond there were sculptures of great elephants, tigers, dragons, gods, pantheons of gods wielding all the weapons, men punishing weaker men, more glory, more gold, more sculpture and such wonders …

Tiger and Dragon towers at Lotus Pond
Tiger and Dragon towers at Lotus Pond
Kaohsiung city from Dragon Tower looking towards my hotel
Kaohsiung city from Dragon Tower looking towards my hotel
Detail from inside the dragon tunnel, Kaohsiung
Gruesome detail from inside the dragon tunnel, Kaohsiung
The back of the dragon at the towers, Lotus Pond, Kaohsiung
The temple visible over the back of the dragon at the towers, Lotus Pond, Kaohsiung

The main features of this lake were the temples with attendant sculptures which not only bordered the lake but also were built out into the water. These had zig zag paths guiding you out to a serene watery view. The first temples I encountered were twins, featuring a dragon tunnel and a tiger tunnel. Inside the tunnels were fantastic ceramic sculptures of gods, animals and humans in big trouble.

Dragon guarding temple, Lotus Pond
Dragon guarding temple, Lotus Pond

Another tower further down the lake was guarded by an enormous dragon surrounded by a family of gods.

From Chi-Ming Tang Temple over the lake towards Kaohsiung
From Chi-Ming Tang Temple over the lake towards Kaohsiung

That sculpture also featured a pool of turtles which clustered hopelessly near a couple of inept sunshades and baked in the full sun. (This was still winter.)

Decorations within the Chi-MIng-Tang Temple, Lotus Pond
A tiny fraction of the elaborate decorations within the Chi-MIng-Tang Temple, Lotus Pond

I went to look at another temple featuring a pool chock full of enormous koi and a senior man silently guarding little children’s rides in the shape of some of the demi-gods. I decided to call it a day.

Money to burn - gold for the Gods and silver for your ancestors
Money to burn – gold for the Gods and silver for your ancestors

I was feeling tired. Tired physically, and now, mentally. I was tired of being a foreigner. Tired of not knowing where I was. Tired of constant calculations as to what to do next, what to see next and how to find what to eat next.

More money to burn at Chi-Ming-Tang Temple
More money to burn at Chi-Ming-Tang Temple

I could hear dragon boats on the other side of the lake as I walked back to where I’d started and caught a taxi back to the station. The fast train station offered food options and I caught some non-lettuce, tofu wrapped sushi to bring back to the hotel. I also peeled a cool, deep-red, dragon fruit. Then went to bed.

Entance to the night market Kaohsiung
Entance to the night market Kaohsiung

I lounged, pottered around on FB and then my son RANG ME! We chatted happily and caught up with all the news. I rested some more and the hotel rang me a couple of times to tell me Mr Wang had changed his times but finally, it was the big moment. I got up, showered, had another breakfast and then packed, went downstairs to the lugubrious entry hall and played Bejewelled Blitz on my phone until he arrived. He laughed as he thought of Westerners wanting to stay in this hotel, surrounded by the night market. Did I eat from the stalls?

Day inner city Kaohsiung from balcony of R8Hotel
Day inner city Kaohsiung from balcony of R8Hotel

I explained I never went out at night (being a monk) and he laughed some more. He didn’t think so. I found it for myself on the internet? Of course. He just laughed when I explained I wanted somewhere near the port. We weren’t anywhere near to where we needed to be! I scampered along behind him as he marched along, slightly annoyed he’d had to go so far to find a car park. But I was going to a ship. And that ship would take me first to Brisbane and secondly to Auckland.

Night inner city Kaohsiung from balcony of R8Hotel
Night inner city Kaohsiung from balcony of R8Hotel

I had travelled by giant ferry, trains and bus to small ferry and fast trains and now, a commercial container ship! Nearly two weeks at sea lay ahead.

a message for me at a Kaohsiung metro station
a message for me at a Kaohsiung metro station

I dearly hoped I’d left the angry weather gods behind in the Taiwan Strait!

Stage Eleven, all at sea, coming soon, I promise.

Stage Nine – Out of China – Ningbo, Fuzhou and Pingtan – the BIG FERRY SHOWDOWN

Arriving into Ningbo
Arriving into Ningbo

If you’re new to my sustainable (?!) journey across the world, here’s a menu to help you find your way:

For fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!


Different ticket prices for different size children
Different ticket prices for different size children

Ningbo had only just built a subway system. Very easy to use, clean and straight out of the train station, I soon found myself walking unfamiliar roads toward my hostel, thank you, I’d chosen the hostel for its proximity to the Ningbo port. Now I no longer needed that connection it was far from Ningbo proper. Began to have misgivings as I walked in the busy highway to get around the construction zones. When finally broached, the hostel was better than many I’ve met (particularly on the Camino!) and had lovely pods in which to shut yourself away. The common-room was filled with young people intent on their devices, the boys mainly playing League of Legends on screens that varied from huge to tiny. Couldn’t see the kettle.

I need not worry about my onward travel. Real Russia had sorted my ticket to Fuzhou and it would leave from where I’d just come from. I’d collected both paper tickets at Beijing South Railway Station. So I could relax in the slightly grubby shower and prepare to find food.

The new touristy hutong of Ningbo
The new touristy hutong of Ningbo

Headed down to a newly constructed ‘old Chinese hutong’ full of the snack bars and trinket shops so evident in the popular Beijing hutongs. (I didn’t see any churros in Ningbo.) This was a strange place so I turned off and went down a lane to find myself in normal Chinese life. There were folk going about their business, working in shops selling pots and pans, front doors and fish in plastic tubs. There wasn’t much on offer. Particularly the fish stalls. When I remember the markets in my HK childhood there was such a wild range of sea food, flapping and bubbling away. This scarcity? A result of overfishing?

Outer suburbs of Ningbo
Outer suburbs of Ningbo

Nothing near reported on Happy Cow so I acted like my son, Felix. He had a nose for a good restaurant. I tried to sniff out vegan food from the lines of cafes on offer. I chose one seemingly run by women. Not only staff but three customers and two children came to offer opinions, examine Google Translate and point at pictures on the wall. I had no idea what I would get as the front of house person waved me to a seat. It was delicious. Steamed rice, soupy garlicky lettuce and a stirfry of garlic beans in soy sauce. Perfect.

Plastic sealed crockery at Ningbo cafe
Plastic sealed crockery at Ningbo cafe

Tao 23 said, within the way become the way; those who gain, welcome within the gain. Those who lose, welcome within loss. Without trust in this, there is no trust. Winners and losers both, may as well accept your lot!

I slept very well within my capsule. The ladder was so widely spaced when I climbed down I needed some good leg waving to seek the next step. Useful to exercise those little-used muscles. As I approached my capsule in the evening, a young American woman cried out, ‘Oh! Another foreigner!’ and we embarked on a conversation. I explained my itinerary and she insisted she would be only too happy to get on the road early to show me the way. Insisted. She was up, bright and early at 6:30, snapping on lights and rustling about. When I signed a gentle remonstration, she said, ‘Nonsense! They’ve come in all drunk and silly and disturbed me in the night, I’ve got every right to see what I’m packing in the morning. That’s just how they behave in hostels here!’ I hadn’t heard a peep out of anyone in our female-only dorm the night before and if that was indeed the way to behave in dormitories in China, then perhaps one might offer an example for future peaceful, quieter sleeping. I merely demonstrated by action, quietly turning off the lights and shutting the door when we’d left.

Ningbo railway station passenger waiting area
Ningbo railway station passenger waiting area

Turned out Sarah was an English teacher from North Carolina. She’d spent six years in Korea previously and I think she’d been in China four years already. She’d just signed on for a further two year contract. She was a bit sad to hear I’d missed out on the Ningbo sights, especially the Lake and the oldest library in China. She preferred not to speak Chinese, although she was learning, for people got angry with her attempts. She travelled a lot in her weekends. She preferred the bus, for if she saw a brown sign that indicates a historic site, she could get off and explore. She used to be a librarian before she was a teacher so she spent most of her free time reading in her little apartment. She went back to see her family every second year. She got bored just sitting watching Fox tv all day but she did enjoy shooting pistols with her dad. She told me that although they’re not allowed, Chinese people have a lot of guns. And if they don’t shoot people they use knives. I suggested America was winning in the gun death numbers and she wasn’t so sure. She had to do a lot of study to get her license and the problem is most guns are got illegally, they’re the ones who kill people, the ones who don’t know how to use a gun correctly. She also had some observations about Chinese children, now mainly raised by grandparents who were essentially peasants. Their educated children go to work while the children lose all their manners and are no better than animals. I ventured that these days grandparents were often the main childcarers in Western culture, too. Sarah just shook her head. These people were raising the society of the future and it looked grim to her. I offered my notion that the society of the future was being raised by their mobile phones, the opiate of the masses. Sarah responded with some interesting facts about Chinese religion. The temples and churches were run by paid actors. They were not real monks. It can’t be easy, living alone in a flat, going out only to go to work or Chinese class or see the odd film. She taught full time, 22 fifty-minute classes a week. That was a lot of prep. She seemed a solemn person who didn’t miss her homeland. She’d just got a kitten so it looked like she’ll be in China for a while. She didn’t trust the medical system. One of her friends, who’d been here 20 years, had a mystery infection. Three operations later, he was dead.

On the escalators Ningbo Railway Station
On the escalators Ningbo Railway Station

We made it to the train station and I shook her hand and wished her well.

Which old man would you prefer to be your snackfood host?
A question at Ningbo railway station.
Which old man would you prefer to be your snackfood host?



The train was a straightforward fast train (more of them in the world, please!) and the touts waiting in Fuzhou seemed to be more prevalent. I ignored them and walked with determination towards the bus stop. I found a kind man in a uniform and showed him where I needed to go. He looked around frantically and there was another kind man with a mobile phone at the ready. He looked things up, wrote things down and made me a plan. (I’m glad I read The Arrival, thanks, Sean Tan.) Perhaps the younger fellow also worked for the trains or transport department for they seemed to know each other.

Fuzhou South Bus Station Tunnel
Fuzhou South Bus Station Tunnel

It would cost me one yuan to Fuzhou South Bus Station. Half an hour trip. Got off at elderly, concrete station and stood confused, not knowing where to go. Luckily a man in a uniform waved at me and gave me directions. Went through a grim tunnel and then into another section before spotting the ticket window. Then I would buy another ticket for a hundred thirty seven yuan. Running out of cash, I couldn’t see an ATM. But I had enough for the moment.

Everyone got on the bus and immediately drew the curtains, many to better see their mobile phones and most, eventually, to sleep. I reached over the preparing-to-sleep masked woman next to me to twitch the curtain a little so I could see. She nodded assent and then remained in the same position for the duration. The drive took 90 minutes and went over a big bridge onto Pingtan Island.

All day I had sat next to, or across the aisle from, a mum with her small wriggling son. The individuals on this bus were two dead-tired parents and their demanding toddler. Perhaps one raised by his grandparents?

Pingtan Island

The helpful man at the station had told me I would have to catch a taxi in Pingtan. So, ignored the touts and the ricketty little tuk tuk things outside the bus station because I needed cash to get the cab, and thought, okay, it’s just over 5km to the hostel. I’ll walk. It started to rain. And sunset! Bam. Suddenly it was dark. I found some cash. I began to regret my choice. It would take an hour. I was tired. Hungry. I went back to what I’d thought was a cab rank. There was building featuring a big green neon sign shining off the wet roofs of a line of cars, giving an impression of a row of cars with green lights on the top. Really.

I remembered my father’s sage advice to always go to a big hotel if you need a taxi. So I went to the Ramada Inn where they were hosting a wedding. I stood outside in a dither. Should I just call it a night and stay here? Should I ask for a taxi? Should I walk? Aaaargh! I really didn’t know what to do. The guy hosing the big black limo/jeep hosed a pretty girl in passing who shrieked at him. Action! I went inside and girded my loins to try to communicate. The receptionist had no word of English. Nothing. By a clever combination of brilliant mime, dance and Google Translate we worked out I wanted a taxi. I asked if she could call one for me. She told me it would cost 25 yuan. I asked if she could break a 100 yuan note? Yup. Cool. Good. Then she gave me a post-it with a number on it. And asked for her money. It took me a while to realise she’d called me the Chinese version of Uber on her own account. How nice was that?

When I got into the car the driver wanted to check the address so I showed him my and off we went. Then he started chatting on the phone and according to he went the wrong way (I’m pointing and making noises from the back seat and he’s nodding, yup under control and I’m not feeling that) and finally he went around a corner, the wrong corner according to, and there was huge construction works and a young lady running towards the car. He pointed at her and said, ‘Hostel’. I opened the door in mystification and she said, ‘Hello.’ And I said, ‘Hostel?’ Really? In this building site? And she said, ‘Yes.’ As we walked up to the hostel she explained how kind he had been. He had rung her to come to meet me because he was worried because I didn’t speak Chinese I wouldn’t be able to find my way to the hostel and he was right. I probably wouldn’t. Not only that, but the young lady from the Ramada Inn had also rung ahead to warn her I was coming. I relaxed a little. Pingtan was starting to feel positive. I was in safe hands!

Ka Liu Lan Island International Youth Hostel
Ka Liu Lan Island International Youth Hostel

The hostel was the most extraordinary hostel I’ve ever visited. It really was in a theme park. It was huge. Once again a four-person, female-only room, I had a capsule again, this time with a heavy metal sliding door (the Ningbo hostel had much nicer bamboo blinds). Split level spotless bathroom, with a shower over the squatty potty, and a big bowl with a metal pretend bamboo tap. I spread out and enjoyed my miso soup and crackers, mandarin, nuts and choc for dinner. This place has room for hundreds of people, in fantastic capsules with all sorts of fancy lighting options and a tv screen at the end of the bed but I didn’t ever turn that on. Totally clean and amazing, I could use the washing machine in the morning, and get up to the port to organise onward travel. It was enough. I was very glad to be there.

In Pingtan, if not in all of China, everything is done on WeChat. Every payment, every map, every message. From the lockers in the UCCA foyer to a piece of toilet paper in the public toilets, everything is WeChat.

Toilet paper vending machine Ningbo Railway Station
Toilet paper vending machine Ningbo Railway Station

Heard a lot of Les Miz audible during the night. Not much sleeping. I was nervous about the ferry ticket. Would it suffice?


I can’t believe I forgot to mention Brandy in Berlin whilst telling you about Berlin. The place where memories were made. Way back in the early planning days it became apparent that I could not book a ticket Out of China to Taiwan unless I booked it in Taiwan. And it had to be a return ticket. So I was hoping, when I got the Pingtan Port, I could just plead until I found a way to do it. Until Berlin, that was!

When I walked into my female-only dorm in the Happy Bed Hostel a young lady from Taiwan was lounging on her bed. Brandy was a dancer whose teacher organised annual outings to see dance festivals. To different countries around the world. This year Berlin, last year, Tokyo, was it? Her friends had left her behind while she had chosen to continue travelling in Europe. ‘You’re from Taiwan!’ I almost shouted! ‘Can I ask you a big favour?’

And so it was that we both lounged on our neighbourly beds and took turns tapping away at my computer. She finally managed to buy me a ticket! A return ticket! I had to screen-save the evidence and get it printed and the next day (after Brandy had left) the CSF company agreed to refund me the part of the ticket I didn’t use.


The stage in the middle of Ka Liu Lan Island International Youth Hostel
The stage in the middle of Ka Liu Lan Island International Youth Hostel.
That’s my laundry to the right.

After I’d hung out my washing in the big old courtyard next to the stage, I prepared to find the port. I took my printed evidence, passports and the works. I would not leave until I had confirmation I was going to Taiwan the next day. I was confident.

My lovely friend Wheet on the reception desk wrote me out a clear description of what I could and couldn’t eat in simple Chinese. But was sorry, she hadn’t been able to find a taxi anywhere near. She didn’t think there was a bus. Okay. I had and all day. 8.9 km. I’d walk.

Another door to the hostel on Pingtan
Another door to the hostel with some fun guards not necessarily from ‘Old China’

Out of the bizarre park/maze of entirely new building and on to the road.

Pingtan Island theme park details
Pingtan Island theme park details

I crossed eight lanes of empty freeway – maybe a few scooters (without little jackets here, it was warm).

Half-way across the road. The 'Old China' theme park is to the right.
Half-way across the road. The ‘Old China’ theme park is to the right.

Wandered along until I saw people standing at a bus stop. I decided to join in and showed the waiting people the picture of the ferry. They smiled but shunned me. The driver was much more helpful. I stood beside him while he drove and considered my options. He took me one kilometre and pointed at another bus stop and said, ‘Bus 5’. By now I had decided to invoke Great Aunt Min and her wonderful perseverance. Right. Crossed many lanes. Bit more traffic but still not impressive amounts.

There's a bus stop over there somewhere
There’s a bus stop over there somewhere

None of the buses listed for the stop was 5. I think his English was a little bit rusty. So I just flagged each bus until one guy let me on. To the port! I had alive and ready and we proceeded until he stopped the bus, actually got off with me and pointed to the correct number on the next stop. 53! Stay here, he indicated! I was now a good 5 km into my journey so very happy. The driver of 53 was puzzled when I boarded but when the sign for the terminal came up and I jumped and waved she nodded and let me off the bus. So, there are working, useful, buses on Pingtan! And friendly drivers.

Bus stop for bus 53
Bus stop for bus 53 – not much else to do but wait!

There was a tall gate pulled across the Ferry Terminal driveway but after showing them my ticket the two guards waved me on through. Go ahead. You’re in the right place. It was locked up tight. Wandered around until I found an open office and a young fellow slouched at his computer. He looked at my ticket and rang a friend, handed over the phone. SHE SPOKE ENGLISH!

BUT she did not have good news. She said, due to bad weather, my ferry had been cancelled.

YOU WHAT? Suddenly I could not breathe. I had never envisaged that. What the hell was I to do? But she went on quickly, it was okay, she would organise me a ticket to go to Taipei, in the afternoon instead of the morning. Taipei is very popular. You will like it. This took ages. Three more phone calls. The young man multiplied into five men of varied ages. They sorted through my passports, papers and sundries with more or less interest.

Once I had my printed ticket in hand and had packed away my paperwork I asked the three younger men remaining if there would be a bus back to Pingtan township so I could get more money, not having taken out enough the day before. Which bank? Any bank? Yes! And all three of the men came out of the office, shut the door behind them and indicated they would take me. I did, for the first time, think about my kidneys as I climbed into the apparently brand-new van (but only briefly) and off we went to town.

First sight of Pingtan township after the ferry people dropped me off
First sight of Pingtan township after the ferry people dropped me off

They dropped me off opposite a bank and we watched astounded as a line of human-sized Pikachus waddled along the road. Later I caught up with them at some kind of film premier.

Glamour in Pingtan
Glamour in Pingtan

Red carpet, pretty ladies and me stepping through mud and rubbish on the other side of the road.

Pingtan township is also under-construction
Pingtan township is also under-construction

Found a mixed goods shop offering a wide selection of fruit and nibbles. Every time I went to the counter to pay, the young lady would wave me off to the senior woman who was presumably her mum and she would weigh and price the item. Not just the fruit but also the little rice cakes and nut bars.

Three common Chinese fruit: Mandarin, passionfruit and hawthorn
Mandarin, passionfruit and cute little hawthorn

Not sure if this link takes you to the correct Chinese hawthorn but the ones Wheet introduced me to varied from yellow to the brown colour pictured and tasted like a mini-apple-pear. As usual I worried about ingredients in the snacks and I asked the young lady at the till if she could assure me there was no milk in my chosen treats. She looked at me in horror and just laughed as she read Wheet’s carefully translated note about being vegan and whathaveyou. She carried on laughing and said to one of her probably regular customers, (I’m paraphrasing here) ‘No fucking way can I deal with this! Did you ever hear the like?’ But the other customer was actually very kind. She bent to read the tiny ingredients and assured me no milk no egg no cheese! Very grateful to her.

You can see the cranes over the construction site next to my hostel
You can see the cranes over the construction site next to my hostel – walking beside 6 lanes of mostly empty road

Walked back to the hostel, a mere snap at 5km and as soon as I’d relieved myself, dropped the whole roll of toilet paper in the squatty potty. You’re not supposed to flush paper down these drains. Instead you put the tissue into a handy receptacle. Which I did. All of it.

Just as I was washing my hands, Wheet knocked on the door to invite me to join the team for a spot of sightseeing and I could also join them for lunch. Really? As a vegan? That would be okay? It was. She served me up some rice before she left, she said she’d already eaten, and introduced me to two woman in their forties and three younger guys. I tucked into some delicious okra and a scrumptious crispy dish of celery, lotus and fungus. They did keep asking if I would like to try this and that meaty thing and I did keep having to refuse. I know. I was rude. But I didn’t feel like getting sick on behalf of Mr Manners. They didn’t seem fussed and we happily organised to meet for the outing.

Wheet also arranged to post the keycard back to the last hostel in Ningbo. (So fond of my keycards now I don’t want to give them back!) The team in the car now consisted of Anina, Devin, Fashion (who drove everywhere) and Jay and Boah who alternated during the afternoon.

The crew of Ka Liu Lan Island International Youth Hostel
The crew of Ka Liu Lan Island International Youth Hostel; Anina, Devin and Jay

Anina, a very impressive young woman of 27 years, was keen to practice her English. She runs four shops near the hostel. Her mother manages the tea-shop for her. Perhaps dad is in the instant noodle shop?

Pointing at Taiwan. Its a long way to swim 170.4 km)
Pointing at Taiwan. Its a long way to swim (170.4 km)

We drove to a lookout to see Taiwan for tomorrow’s journey, another beauty spot at the other end of the island and a traditional village of stone houses now under renovation ready for weathy holiday makers.

Beauty spot on coast of PIngtan Island
Beauty spot on coast of PIngtan Island. You can tell because it’s been framed.
Pingtan with an eye to the future
Pingtan with an eye to the future

Finally, Anina and I were delivered to a museum built around an archeological dig, reputed to have uncovered evidence of habitation from 6,000 years ago. As we entered the grounds of the museum I was startled, and delighted, to encounter these carvings.

Gateway to Austronesian archaeological institute
Gateway to the Austronesian Archaeological Institute Pingtan
Austronesian archaeological institute
Signs at Austronesian Archaeological Institute
Maori carving Pingtan
No mistaking the beautiful Maori carving

What on earth had they to do with Pingtan in China?

Pingtan as gateway to the Pacific
Pingtan as gateway to the Pacific

Turns out the Austronesian Archaeological Institute has been investigating travels from Pingtan to New Zealand over 6,000 years. People had been traced migrating from Pingtan to Taiwan, to the Philippines and Indonesia, Hawaii and thence NZ. How very fitting to connect with my own journey!

Anina and I walked on to another hostel, a few more kilometres under my belt for the day, where we sat in a rocking chair and she showed me her favourite breakfast foods. Beautifully arranged juices and coffee, toast and eggs. She was delighting in healthy food. She had converted her boyfriend, friend and her parents to healthy living. She also ran an hour a night on her treadmill.

When they picked us up they even invited me to join them for dinner but I pleaded exhaustion and went up to my capsule. I suppose it’s got to the stage where I really don’t feel comfortable eating with other people when they’re chomping down on bits of dead animals. Does that mean I’m anti-social? I was happy to hang out with tea and toast, walk in park or game of cards? So, no. I was still a social animal. Like most of the critters people like to barbecue.

I had a new room mate who was gently snoring as I made myself a cuppa and chopped up an apple. I was very happy I had my ongoing ticket sorted. There was only the small matter of the passport to decide when I got to the other side and, bonus, I would see Sue Jollow in Taipei after all!

It was all going to work out very well but perhaps not for the cat or the ridiculously cute dog trapped in cages in the foyer of the hostel. I didn’t take their photos. I wasn’t sure you’d like to hear about them, either. But there’s something very strange about the whole development, the whole island really. Anina mentioned that Pingtan is for Taiwan. Bait. President Xi hoped to bring Taiwan back to China. He had offered young Taiwanese money to live and work in Pingtan. I wondered if the Austronesian Archaeological Institute had shown President Xi their map. There were no arrows flowing back into China. They all went one way.

Most of the team have been working in the hostel for between two and four years. It opened seven years ago. Now the rest of the estate is taking shape around them. They expect it to be finished in another year. LA China Land. On my way back from the township I noted a big derelict shopping centre at the top of the road which had clearly failed to attract the crowds. It was trashed, with rain-stained couches pulled out in conversational ways showing someone found it useful in the quiet hours. I hoped that tourists did find their way merrily to the hostel. They were certainly sure of a great welcome and some considerate helpers!

The main entrance to the theme park of Old China
The main entrance to the theme park of Old China

I was nervous when I woke up on Big Ferry Day. Had a sensible breakfast, supposing that would do for the foreseeable future, really! I went for a walk around the theme park.

Big Drum and Big Screen Pingtan
Big Drum and Big Screen Pingtan
Beautiful details in Old China Theme Park Pingtan
Beautiful details in Old China Theme Park Pingtan

Didn’t see Anina’s shops. Returned to work on the blog and then went down to wait for the taxi. Ate an apple as I waited, refusing their kind invitation to lunch. I had a ship to catch and said thank you to Wheet and I really was grateful for their friendship and support.

I was hoping the real water would be less swirly
I hoped the real water would be less swirly for my ship!

Soft Chinese rock music serenaded the easy (8.9km!) drive up to the terminal entrance. It was open and flooded with people, both staff and passengers. Walked through security and we had, of course, a very long wait. Wandered about aimlessly.

It's right beside the toilets, right? So what do you think it is?
It’s right beside the toilets, right? So what do you think it is?

No, I’m not going to tell you. Put your answers in the comments below.

Ferry from the waiting room
Ferry from the waiting room

You can just make out the walk-through gangplank going from shore on the left to ship on the right. I’m sorry I didn’t take any better photos because I lost my composure.

They called the boarding time (I supposed, as everyone got to their feet and started arranging themselves) and, happily clutching my fresh A4 ticket, I lined up. The queue began going through the next level security. I was almost last in the queue. I saw with interest that everyone else had a blue and white card with the CSF logo for a ticket so out of mild curiosity I wandered up to the ticket desk and showed them my printed page. Was this okay?

The girl behind the desk was chatting merrily to a young man casually leaning on the bench. She nodded and he nodded and I turned to go back to the queue but suddenly he was beside me. Wait. He pulled out the phone. Uh oh.

He talks earnestly then hands it to me. I’m still not sure but it sounded like the same gal from yesterday. ‘Victoria, you need to buy a return ticket. My friend is concerned the Taiwan officials will not let foreigners enter Taiwan without a return ticket. You might not be allowed into the country.’

It hit me like a ton of bricks. Why didn’t anyone mention this yesterday? On and on she explained. Lots and lots more words. Meanwhile, I’ve got the credit card out, all the cash I’ve got, there’s announcements going on, the queue is shrinking, shrinking before my eyes. Okay, let’s go, let’s buy this sucker and get on the ship. The man and the young woman are arguing with the woman on the phone and another official girl comes up beside me with sympathy in her eyes and says, ‘Okay?’ and I say, ‘No.’ And she says, ‘Uh oh.’ And I whole heartedly agree. ‘Right.’ I give her a shaky smile. She stays beside me. Still the arguing goes on between the woman on the phone, the woman at the desk and the young man. Suddenly, I realise I do have a return ticket! I pull out the evidence that Brandy and I had been so careful to print way back in Berlin. I slap it down on the desk and the woman and man pass the papers between them, ah ha, ha ha!

I ask for the phone. Before I can get a single word in she’s off, talking, talking, explaining the situation to me one more time. And then another time for good measure. I’m saying, ‘Excuse me. Wait. Hold on. Stop. Please!’ Sympathetic lady nods as I grimace, grit my teeth and clench my fists in frustration! Will she not stop talking!! ‘One moment … ‘ Finally she takes a breath.

I explain, very clearly and slowly, I have already spent the Taiwan dollars on a return ticket. Can they just change the date of that ticket? Ah, well. There is a pause. And the arguments start again. Another lady appears. The queue has gone through. Clock is ticking. I say, ‘Please. Whatever it takes. I just have to get to Taiwan today.’

And young lady behind the desk finally handed me out the blue and white card. The woman on the phone said she would make sure I was reimbursed for the part of the ticket I did not use. I was shaking trying to get the pack swung up onto my back. And the computer pack on my front. Of course, the second I was through the doorway I had to take them off again to put through the next x-ray scanner! You’d have thought the first one back at the entrance would have sufficed, wouldn’t you?

I desperately looked around for a clue as to where I should go next. Not enjoying myself.

Another lady waved me forwards to fill in the form. I got her to fill in the ‘flight’ number. Ship number. Then I was waved through to border control. I had no sense of humour left. I waited behind a gentleman with big red sandals on his feet. The feet did not move.

A senior, kind looking official man approached me and asked me if I spoke Chinese. I said, ‘No,’ and, smiling encouragingly, he engaged me in English conversation. He asked me about my trip and I was not sure why I was telling him but he wished me a wonderful journey and I was calm once more.

The Chinese Official duo looked at my UK passport and visas with some interest, bordering on concern, but finally waved me through. The rest was a piece of cake and we were onboard the ferry, a similar vibe to one experienced whilst whale watching in Queensland.

There was a guy behind me who brought his bike on and he so reminded me of the philosopher and the goat I met in France. He was only interested in games on his phone so I didn’t think it was him. (Remind me to tell you of the philosopher and the goat sometime.)

Cases on the carpet to prevent sliding
Cases on the carpet to prevent sliding

I found a seat – not our numbered seats – it didn’t matter – everyone piled their luggage up on the carpeted area because it soon became apparent things slid on the smoother surfaces.

Out of Pingtan - possibly oyster farms?
Out of Pingtan – possibly oyster farms?

I looked out the window to see sampans, oyster farms and distant hills. We puttered out of the smooth safe harbour, through some of Pingtans’ many surrounding little islands and I was sailing out of China. I began to relax.

NEWSFLASH TO MY BRAIN – I HAD A TICKET OUT OF TAIWAN!!! IT WAS ON A CARGO SHIP! Oh, for pity’s sake. Now I really could relax. At least, until we got to Taiwan Officials where I’d show them the evidence and all would be well.

There was a pile of grey on that horizon where there’d only been mist before. Ah. The weather. The reason they cancelled the ferry to Taichung.

We are headed directly into the dark clouds
We are headed directly into the dark clouds. Looks flat, doesn’t it? Looks are deceiving.

The ferry began to go up and down. A few fearless older men chuckled and then, as the ship banged down, laughed very hard. Then everything went quiet except for the engine, the rattle of the boat and the sea. No more laughing.

A young staff member came to give me an Arrivals Card. With a pen. Now we were moving in open water and the sky was leaden and the swell was up and down I did not think it possible to fill that form in. This was the Big Moment. I would fill this card in with my NZ passport number. And maybe it would work or maybe they’d need the Chinese Visa in the UK passport and I’d be stuffed. (Well, somewhat inconvenienced.) I nodded, smiled my gratitude and sat up straight and hard by the window. I could not look at the words. I kept my eye on the horizon and the pen and card firmly under my leg. Each seat in the rows in the middle of the cabin had a tempting pink and white plastic bag and I began to hear rustling and coughing. One man groaned.

I could see plastic rubbish in the sea, going up and down but at different angles. Tubs and polystyrene chunks and bottles. I kept my eye on the horizon. At one stage I thought I’d better see outside for some fresh air. I sashayed from side to side of the aisle (the staff member didn’t do much better either!) noticing how wonderful my fellow passengers were that they could just go to sleep in this minor turbulence.

I felt incredibly stressed as I bumped into the wall and flung open the door to the stern deck. I looked up to see the fuming chimney stacks and realised there would be no fresh air at this juncture. The fumes did not improve my composure.

Taiwanese ferry exhaust system
Taiwanese ferry exhaust system

I slammed back along the corridor and bumped into all the chairs along the rows. I decided to try different places to sit to see if that made me feel any better. It didn’t. So I went back to my original place and sat up straight. I leaned against the cool window so I could see the spray come off the bow as the boat thrust down into the water. I could hear a lot of quiet coughing.

There's a lot of ships in the Taiwan Strait
There’s a lot of ships in the Taiwan Strait and none of them were straight

Later, my tour guide in Tainan informed us the Taiwan Strait used to be known, not affectionately, as ‘Dangerous Water’ or ‘Black Ditch’. It was said that six in ten Chinese people attempting the crossing would die. Three would arrive and one would turn back in terror. I knew how they felt.

And then, I realised, I couldn’t see the water any more. It was night. I could no longer see the horizon. Uh oh. Desperately I searched for lights. Surely we were near Taiwan by now. The ship plunged into the heavy water and suddenly I got it. That metallic sting along the teeth …

I scuttled across the aisle to nick a candy striped bag and sat quietly heaving up the remains of my apple. Not much to chuck. I did feel better though.

As soon as we had entered the harbour the heavy lifting and swelling and sinking stopped and I was able to fill out my Arrival Card. Which I did, proudly filling in my NZ numbers and turning Kiwi immediately. Guard Pacific’s triple star …

I was in Taiwan!

Next step. Taiwanese Customs and Border Officials. Gulp.

Bye bye China
Bye bye China! (And what’s with the giant fender thing?)

Stage Eight – Beijing – overland UK 2 NZ

If you’re new to my sustainable (?!) journey across the world, here’s a menu to help you find your way:

For fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!

Front door of the Courtyard Hotel
Front door of the 161 Wangfujing Courtyard Hotel

First impressions of Beijing

Sounds. The orchestra of Beijing. Live! Footfalls of people, barking of cute puppies, motors and horns of cars, buses, scooters covered at the front with little sleeve blankies, bike bells, warning officials with their flags or coloured batons; all process with purpose. Going to the supermarket was a bold endeavour.

The guard is in the yellow jacket but I think raelly all she can do is observe and comment
The guard is in the yellow jacket but I think raelly all she can do is observe and comment

There is some regard for others but only as objects to avoid. Face masks, small people, both elderly and children, smoking, more people and more scooters all travelling, going somewhere, curling around, moving away, getting places. I was scared at the traffic lights even though there were supervisors. When little green man lights up the vehicles take their time to stop. And some bikes and scooters just keep going. I was constantly amazed no one got hit!

Just waiting for a good time to go
Just waiting for a good time to go – my back to the supermarket

I stayed in a small hotel in a traditional hutong near DongSi station away from the tourist centre but close enough to the subway to be within easy reach of everything. It was also surprisingly quiet. I had predicted my need some privacy after six days of train life and I was mighty glad to get into a warm shower and get a load of laundry organised. Both May and Zhao, the two girls on reception duty, spoke excellent English and could not have been more helpful.

Little quilted jackets for your scooter to keep your hands warm and quell the oncoming breeze
Little quilted jackets for your scooter to keep your hands warm
and quell the oncoming breeze

Around the hotel, and the hutongs generally, rose the familiar earthy sewage smell I’d grown accustomed to in Seville. These are old streets and drains and occasionally a burp is to be expected. However, unlike Spain, I couldn’t detect bleach and strong detergents. In fact, although my hotel room was impeccably clean, I did not smell any particular product at all.

Something interesting in the Hutong
Something interesting in the Hutong

As I wandered around the narrow streets of the hutongs I walked past an elderly woman. She was talking with another, a neighbour or sister, both small, bent and white-haired. As I came up the road she looked me up and down in the most blatant, obvious way. She pursed her lips and made a face like my mother would have, perhaps thinking to herself, ‘What is she wearing?’ or, ‘What sort of get-up is that?’ Then she caught my eye and I laughed at her outright, recognising the resemblance to my mother’s attitude and feeling great warmth toward her. She knew she’d been caught out but decided to join in my merriment and we both laughed heartily. What a wonderful moment. A reminder that the best communication needs few words.

Solar hot water on a hutong roof
Solar hot water on a hutong roof

The hutongs comprise narrow roads lined with concrete brick walls, folding back on themselves with twists and turns. Air conditioners hung high on roofs, doorways lead off the main street into further twists and turns into un-see-able interiors.

Hutong featuring flowers in front and tons of snack bars and trinkets behind me
Hutong featuring flowers in front and tons of snack bars and trinkets behind me

Elegant pot plants and ornate doorways decorated the exterior of more settled hutongs while some looked a bit run down. Like blocks of flats, but all low-rise, semi-gated communities. I saw a group of observers gather around some electric workers, moving up and down ladders and retrieving objects from the little truck that was actually a motorbike in disguise. You wouldn’t get away with much in the hutongs.

Gateway to a popular hutong near the river
Gateway to a popular hutong near the river

As usual, my first objective in arriving in a new place was to test my onward travel. Gained expert tuition from reception, jumped on subway and bought my next ticket from Beijing South Railway station. My dry-run complete, also achieved a Transportation Card and hopped back into tourist mode to face Tiananmen Square. I assumed there must be phone shops near there and popped into a fancy hotel to enquire. Three people on the desk, not one with English. Or if they did, relied heavily on the speak-and-translate app. They seemed to fight amongst themselves for who would be the unlucky one to speak with the gweilo. In the end, they all had some input and we managed to work out there was a China mobile shop 300 metres down the road. Off I trotted.

The tiny hole in the wall shop was overseen by a large fellow on a platform reminiscent of a favourite Mediterranean delicatessen in the western suburbs of Melbourne. He towered above me as I negotiated a SIM for China and Taiwan. Using Google translate he managed to find a card, snap out the SIM, insert it into my phone, say, ‘Internet Only’ which wasn’t what I wanted but he’d done it by then and asked for two hundred yuan. We both knew he was ripping me off but the phone now seemed connected to something and I wanted to get out of there. How could I argue when it was clear he didn’t want to communicate? I paid and hightailed it to follow Happy Cow to a vegan café.

Only, Happy Cow is partially affected by the FireWall, in that the maps don’t work, and I couldn’t find where I was wanted to be. (I hadn’t organised a VPN as I was only here for a week and I walked a very long way and the air got thicker and thicker and began to sting my eyes. Saw a sign saying, ‘Herbal Café’ and thought that might work. Up four floors in a department store. Beyond reasonable hunger. No-one had English. Waved my little sign that Kim had written for me back on the train – vegetables only – no meat – said ‘Bu shi’ to egg – dan –  and sat down to a plate of noodles with sprouts and onions. I avoided the heap of egg they’d left hidden in the middle with a sinking heart. My guts felt greasy for hours later. I have become sensitive.

How to get to Tiananamen Square?

Monument to the People's Heroes
Monument to the People’s Heroes in Tiananmen Square

I ate my mandarin in the foyer of the building to degrease. Catching the subway again, I went back two stops to join queues and crowds of people flocking towards Tiananmen Square. Felt inadequate. Felt duty bound to go sightseeing even though I really didn’t want to. I didn’t want to feel the power of that place, so recently marched over by the 70th Anniversary Military Parade.

Happy Anniversary, China
Happy Anniversary, China
A nice fruit basket for the birthday party
A nice fruit basket for the birthday party

I wandered through security, the kind young woman (and the folk behind me) waiting for me to fish out my passport, caught up in the flow of humanity heading towards the famous portrait of Mao.

Portrait of Mao ZeDong
Portrait of Mao ZeDong

Through the gate I went, fully expecting to join those paying respects. But no, we headed towards the Forbidden City.

As we went I could not see a ticket office and we drew closer to signs that said, ‘Ticket Inspection.’ I had missed a vital clue. The harassed guards at the gate waved hands at me and said, ‘Sold out!’ Okay, plan B. To be honest, I didn’t feel I’d missed out on much. Given the amount of tourist work I’ve been doing for the last few years one castle and a millennia of history less in my kit bag wouldn’t hurt. Went around walls, through gates and out to walk toward Jinshang Park where from I knew I could stare down over the fence and into the palace grounds.

I have an amazing knack at taking photos with hardly any tourists visible in them, don't you think?
I have an amazing knack at taking photos with hardly any tourists visible in them, don’t you think?

As I exited, I checked my direction on the phone and looked up to find a perky young woman attentive as a little bird asking if I knew where I was going? Could she help? She’d love to help. She knew lots of history. Let her help! I had done my homework and knew what this friendly lady was up to. I was on to her! Apparently there were scammers operating near the tourist centres. They were full of information and helpful hints and then guide you off to have a nice special Chinese tea ceremony or special beer or whatever takes your fancy while they share all sorts of good Beijing tips. Then the place charges considerable sums and you are sucked dry. So lucky I’d prepared myself for that, especially in the light of Mr SIM. I was polite but firm but, by golly, so was she! She’d be the guide to take me there, for sure. If I needed a guide to walk in a park.

Might have been a couple of other tourists up on Jingshan Lookout
Might have been a couple of other tourists up on Jingshan Lookout – certainly a few down in the Palace Museum

The flood of humans caught me up once more and off I went, marching along the footpath, in the shade of big old trees. The roads seemed to get more crowded with traffic. Possibly school pick-up time?

The smog got thicker as I walked around to the park. Met a middle-aged guard who stood in my path and started to chat. He finished by suggesting, ‘5?’ With his hand outstretched, Five. All of the fingers. Did he expect me to pay him? For what? Letting me walk on the footpath? I smiled and laughed and played dumb, waving both outstretched hands at him. Five? Let me show you Ten! Ten waving fingers! Ha ha! Although he kept smiling he stepped in closer. I shrugged in a friendly manner, said ‘Du bushi, wo bu dong’ (I was sorry, I didn’t understand) and stepped out to go around him. He clapped me on the shoulder, and then kept patting me as I walked, copping a casual feel as he patted. Still smiling like one of the boys in sixth grade. Beat it quick.

Heading up towards the Forbidden City (Palace Museum)
Heading up towards Jingshan Park Lookout

Nice couple let me in at the ticket window – well – I was there first. We all laughed. Marched up to the lookout. The path was quiet. Lovely moment between up and down. Not another person in sight. Noise volume kept down by the trees. Still. Took deep breaths of tree supplied oxygen and turned to my tourist duty once more. Off I went up to the top. Well, that’s where they all were! Must have taken a different path.

Some of my tourist friends look at the centre point of Beijing
Some of my tourist friends point at the centre point of Beijing

Sometimes I felt like I was invisible. A young lady shoved me aside to take a photo of her friend against the smoggy view. I offered in immaculate mime to take a snap of her and her friend together but she ignored me. Her friend noticed though, and after they’d gone a few steps they returned and she offered to take one of me with my camera. Using my mime to great effect once more, I refused, explaining I didn’t want to see my ugly mug! Laughed and made friends 4 eva.

The big point of Beijing
The big point of Beijing

Lovely lookout; if there was no smog. Apparently it may not be all pollution but also dust blown over from the Gobi desert. Not sure I understand how that would work. If Beijing is surrounded by mountains I can see how air particles would get stuck inside but how does it blow in?

Jingshang Park looking from the highest temple to the other
Jingshang Park looking from the highest temple to the other with the lovely city views

Came down from the lovely place and considering that I would be climbing the wall on the morrow thought I could try to level up on Beijing public transport. I would attempt a bus and save my legs for the wall walk. Wonderful lady, fellow passenger, helped me work out which bus would be good; 128 was the one for me. So pleased I had a transit card. I hadn’t even realised it was going past DongSi station so was thrilled to alight just across the street from the road to my hutong.

My friend in the supermarket - why wouldn't you?
My friend in the supermarket – why wouldn’t you?
Can't get away from advertising
At the bottom the sign said, ‘Support The Handrail’. Captive audience for advertising

Wandered around the big supermarket once more and found another lovely lady helping with my museli selection. Lots of smiles and giggles as she told me which one would suit my purposes best. All in dance and mime. After a bit more wandering I discovered another aisle had more options and stood looking at the pix on the packets when yet another helper came to my assistance. Soon we were joined by helper number one and the three of us all weighed in. Got to be the one with the kangaroo on the front. Second lady started pulling stuff out of my bag and exclaiming in wonder, ‘Where did she get this stuff from?’ When I unpacked later I realised each of the things she’d pulled out had contained smaller bags. Perhaps she was commenting on my lack of sustainable shopping? I had bought severe over-packaging in snackpack size.

What’s the best way to see the Great Wall of China?

When I was working in Kings, Brighton, a teacher had pre-prepared a lesson for his absence, about the Great Wall of China. Personal research time! I spent that ninety-minutes reading, listening and searching the internet with around a dozen international students. What did they think the best way would be? The discussions revolved around crowds and touristy trinket shops. I decided I would avoid them. Instead I would go on a private tour with a Trekking Company.

Driving out of Beijing, looking back at the fringe of the city
Driving out of Beijing, looking back at the cloudy fringe of the city

James picked me up bright and early from the hotel – driver Vincent had to go around the block a few times because there’s no standing in the hutongs.

The start of the walk. Both of us fresh and jolly!
The start of the walk. Both of us fresh and jolly!

As we drove out of town I asked James about the air quality in Beijing, being victim to the surrounding mountains restraining the smog. James told me there had been much improvement in recent years. Tree-planting, coal fires had been outlawed … Not so fast, I assured him my own lungs still contained coal particles from the week before! I had to show him the photos to prove it. He was surprised to hear it and assured me the inner city was completely coal free.

Great rocks in the Great Wall
Great rocks in the Great Wall

Mind full of autumn leaves in gold, yellow, brown and cracking vermillion into orange. Lizards flicked away, rocks crumbling, some hewn from larger foundations into rectangles, some shards placed to balance or fill, some sturdy, some loose, sound of shifting as footfalls, clinking as stones replace.

James up ahead on the track - harsh farming land
James up ahead on the track – harsh farming land

Terraced paddocks in far valley between steep rounded mountains, the girl raising the bike into the triumph for a photo on the peak at the three region marker, clean air, joy of concentration on a safe foot position, life, living on the edge, the wall, the drop, the hazards, the surviving. This was great fun.

Cyclists celebrate by carrying one bike to the point of three regions
Cyclists celebrate by carrying one bike to the point of three regions
The prisoners and soldiers building the wall must have had a tough life
The prisoners and soldiers building the wall had a tough life

The wall built by emperors who never saw it. Did it ever stop any Mongolians from marauding? Perhaps as it protected the soldiers who guarded it, the prisoners who built it and the farmers who fed them all.

The Great Wall of China - a cemetery for the prisoners and soldiers who worked to build it four-hundred years ago
The Great Wall of China – a cemetery for the prisoners and soldiers who worked to build it four-hundred years ago

James told me of Emperor Qin, first emperor of China, who heard a scholar examining the moon and as a result of his observations exclaimed that the Emperor must be away from the palace. The Emperor overheard and assumed the declaration was as a result of learning and science. As a result the ruler was scared and ordered all the books to be burned. My Tao 20 for the previous night had been that people would benefit if learning was discarded. There would be no more thieves if skill and profit were banished. Hmm. What does the scholar or sage do if they cannot study? Well, apparently, they get buried alive.

Autumn colour on the Great Wall
Autumn colour on the Great Wall

As I walked on the crest of those bony hills, I tried to work out what made the shapes of these mountains so distinctly Chinese. Obviously they were rocky, I’m no geologist, but even I could tell the folk who built the wall were using resources close at hand.

More autumn tones around the Great Wall environs
More autumn tones around the Great Wall environs

When I tried to remember Spanish mountains I thought Asturian mountains wider at the base but sharper at the top. New Zealand mountains were much sharper. Perhaps someone will tell me my theory is baloney but to my mind a Chinese mountain is a tall thin rounded mountain.

Crumbling ruins. I walked over the cemetery of the broken wall builders.

Unrestored Great Wall crumbles slowly away
Unrestored Great Wall crumbles slowly away
The point where three regions meet: Beijing, Tianjing and HeBei
The point where three regions meet: Beijing, Tianjing and HeBei
Restored Wall snakes into the future
Restored Wall snakes into the future – we did not go there. Instead we head downhill to a guest house and lunch!
The guest house is set back into the quarry
The guest house was set back into the quarry. The Great Wall was a good example of making the most of your resources
Chinese flag flutters over the guest house
Chinese flag flutters over the guest house where we stopped for lunch
Farmhouse feast with vegan inclinations
Farmhouse feast with vegan inclinations. The dish lower left is shredded potatoes cooked in soya sauce. Delicious.

Not sure if the Wall walk or rest had managed to calm my mind but I did feel considerably better on the third day of my stay in Beijing. When I had arrived I felt stirred up. I couldn’t think. Now, I just didn’t want to.

What is 798 Art District?

70 birthday celebrations inserted into 798
70 birthday celebrations inserted into 798

My next outing was to 798, the art district, risen like a phoenix from the industrial remnants of factories closed down to clean Beijing’s air.  The websites described funky warehouses and brutalist buildings. Cool. I was looking forward to some art.

Sui Jianguo’s famous Red Dinosaurs
Sui Jianguo’s famous Red Dinosaurs

It was a change on the subway and nine stops on the bus. I alighted outside an electronics shop and wandered inside to find myself a long overdue mouse. These are the sort of negotiations that take time and patience – not from me! The young woman who attended to me was incredibly helpful, showing me all sorts of mice and obeying my whim to see my selected brand plugged into a similar Mac. When I got it home I struggled with it for a day or two until it tamed me and I believe it has been successful!

Shut when I visited but all those buildings BG are still in the art zone
Shut when I visited but all those buildings BG are still in the art zone

On the train, Maria had asked me of my expectations of Beijing. I said I’d given up having expectations years ago. That said, I must have had expectations of 798 and they were not met.

Street art of 798
Street art of 798

Many galleries charged an entry fee – to my stunned surprise I even got a bonus bottle of water for my five-yuan ticket in one particularly big shiny art gallery – the water was from Tibet.

My bedroom window and water from Tibet
My bedroom window and water from Tibet

Happy Cow gave me no vegan options in the entire area. Any entrepreneurs, start-up businesspeople, here’s a potential market for sure. Did find an NZ café – Cafe Latte – they have two in the area – demonstrating Kiwi prowess with coffee. They even sold me some ground to take away.

Chinese Cafe Latte Cafe in 798 district
Chinese Cafe Latte Cafe in 798 district

I ordered a BLAT – without the pig – focaccia. When was the last time I even saw a focaccia? Couldn’t remember. Hopped in with teeth and smile.

Inside Cafe Latte, a NZ cafe with a kea chewing the streetlight
Inside Cafe Latte, with a kea chewing the streetlight

It had been buttered. Now, to you, that’s nothing. What’s wrong with butter? I’d had the conversation with the waiter about my vegan attitude, shown her the sign Kim from Singapore had organised for me, talked about pig and cheese and, for sure, there was no egg but I’d forgotten to say, ‘None of your rich, creamy NZ butter, thanks’. Why couldn’t it have been a scraping of delicious NZ olive oil? Bare bread? Or just smeared avo?

To you, I’m sure butter is terrific. To me it felt greasy, like I’d eaten an entire yellow lip-gloss. For the next hour or so I could feel it around my teeth and tonsils. I didn’t feel sick. It probably amounted to a teaspoon of cow fat after all but I didn’t like it. It was present in my gut for long enough to remind me to get the hostel staff to write me a clear note for me to carry in the future. Another lesson learned.

Bit unfair. The staff were hurrying to fix everything at CanArt
Bit unfair. The staff were hurrying to fix everything at CanAr. Fascinating show of famous artist Cao Li. Very detailed dream-like work

In only one gallery, a pop-up, was I truly engaged.

Gravitational Tides Rock 'n' Roll, big Universe serpent behind
Gravitational Tides Rock ‘n’ Roll, big Universe serpent behind

‘Gravitational Tides’ showcased a collective of ten cartoon and toy designers based in Beijing showing their creations and selling collectable models.

Lots of cute things - watch out for the exhibition in Japan
Lots of cute things – watch out for the exhibition in Japan

They’d arranged the space so there were a number of photo ops for youngsters hungry for selfies and fun group shots with their favourite characters.

Gravitational Tides exhibition poster and classroom set for selfies
Gravitational Tides exhibition poster and classroom set for selfies

Because the young guide was happy to practice her English, she showed me around and indulged in some fun portraiture. This at least showed an interest in the audience, vibrant set design and some intriguing design chops.

The serpent that lives across the Universe seems like a fitting seat for someone travelling across the world
The serpent that lives across the Universe seems like a fitting seat for someone travelling across the world

Disappointing art aside, 798 area was worth the visit.

Object d'art in 798 district
Object d’art in 798 district

The remains of big industry soared above the pedestrian, brutal, angular and powerful. Their utility gone, individual artists were beginning to mark various walls and commercial interests used the spaces in a variety of ways. I saw the Beijing Fashion Festival setting up near the big blue tank.

Event centre. I think Beijing Fashion was preparing
Event centre. I think Beijing Fashion was preparing

The atmosphere was like a fun-fair or theme-park. Old factories! Big art! And tons of trinket shops selling tourist stuff. I could see hanging and unpacking going on in preparation for a big art fair so some galleries were closed.

Shut when I visited but all those buildings BG are still in the art zone
Shut when I visited but all those buildings BG are still in the art zone

Plus it was a grey, rainy day so customers had stayed away. It’s perhaps too arrogant of me as a visitor to wish I’d seen more youthful art.

Ex-factory 798 art district Beijing
Ex-factory 798 art district Beijing

The space cried out for art schools and invention. I would love to have seen more fresh street art and less advertising but I’m sure I did not see everything.

One of the exhibitions at UCCA, a big gallery in the centre of 798 district, was a community-based show. The first piece was dramatic, a heap of burnt newspapers supporting glass printed with headlines. The pillars and stacks of blackened news reminded of ancient buildings, ancient happenings, while the roof of glass (glass ceiling?) could also have spoken of fragility as well as impenetrability. Thoughts of ephemeral events, judgement, censorship and biodegradability were provoked as I walked around the shapes. The other community pieces included a photography collection of stories from the hutongs and a fun skeletal walk-through student house.

Sculpture UCCA 798 - Fondation de Berceau
Sculpture UCCA 798 Fondation de Berceau – didnt smell at all
Sculpture tag UCCA
Sculpture tag UCCA

There was also a big American show, Redoubt, by Matthew Barney about myth, hunting and ritual in Alaska. A big space was filled with tree trunks, altered and filled with molten metals. There were a number of electroplates on the walls. The core seemed to be a two-hour long film about Diana hunting with her two Virgin assistants, observed by the Engraver and the Electroplater. It was intercut with footage of wolves and a hoop artist who sculpted herself into creatures with the additional hoops. I liked the part where Diana shot one of the plates. That is hidden away in a back room – a nice burnt bullet hole evident in the metal sheet.

None of those pieces added up to the excitement of walking in a Beijing street or thrills of finding my way in the subway or drama of visiting the supermarket seeking sustenance!

More sincere advertising
More sincere advertising

In Beijing, I found the lovely fresh innocent faces apparent in advertising were stunningly smooth and beautiful, almost entirely devoid of sexuality. Western ads, or what I remembered of them, were generally full of wanton stares and come-hither looks, buttocks and cleavages for male and female alike. Yet in Beijing the sweeties offer friendship, cheerfulness and companionship. You too, could be like me! The first ad I notice in Ningbo, a city over a thousand km south, is a woman in an off-the-shoulder skin-tone ballgown, as risqué as I’ve seen in China, but, still, her gaze is direct, honest and open.

Not sure whats shes advertising but Id trust it
Not sure what’s she’s advertising but I trust it

On the surface, I was not sure what this economic system missed in comparison with Western Life. Very conscious of people stuck to their phones. Their spines curve down like bananas to their laps on the subway. I calculated one in four were NOT on their phones. Saw one paper book and one e-book. Most folk are on their phones as they walk the streets, stop in corners of the subway, at the cafes, everywhere to play games, communicate, catch up with news, who knows …

Moving pictures once the train has picked up speed through tunnels
Moving pictures once the train has picked up speed through tunnels

Struck by tunnel ads flashing past the train after leaving tunnel. Slides? Electronic but presumably static. When train has picked up speed the pix line up and give the impression of movement, selling bright cheerful things. There are also video screens in the carriages, similar to Moscow. When you bring advertising to the people, better make it fancy.

Yonghegong station for Lama Temple
Yonghegong station for Lama Temple

Next attempt at tourist work was to visit the Lama Temple. On arrival I walked around the area until I saw shops and retraced my steps, going around the block until I found an arrow on a police bus pointing me in the other direction. Then I walked, repeating first steps, looking for an entry, until I reached another hutong area well past the Temple. It may have been closed for lunch? Another tourist fail. Luckily, Happy Cow informed me of two vegan options near the Temple and they were easily found without a map. I picked the first which, given the nature of Chinese dining, may have been an error. The woman spoke a little English and seemed to comprehend I was there by myself and wanted a simple lunch. Of course, Chinese dishes are meant to share. And so, I faced my delicious mountain of steamed broccoli, a huge platter of sweet and sour lotus root with potato and a bowl of rice mixed with corn with some trepidation. When I lived in HK as a child we employed an amah called Jean. Her sweet and sour sauce still held highest esteem in my flavour memory. This stuff was not a contender.

Again, I must still be vulnerable to expectations!

I was enjoying reminders of the Chinese aspects of my childhood even though overwhelmed by sights, people and smells, buildings old and new, sounds, those sounds of Beijing. I was living on the edge of another culture once more and I found it comforting.

Tao 22 talked of the way being crooked and then smooth. The paths, particularly when I thought of the Camino, were always shifting. Sometimes straight, sometimes twisty, and yet always the same path. On the TransMongolian, you only had to turn your attention away, read a book for half an hour and the landscape changed utterly. Yet we were still on the same journey.

Beijing Subway Stations have their own style
Beijing Subway Stations have their own style

I was glad to have taken James’s advice and left an hour earlier than I thought necessary. Having done the dry run I thought it would be straightforward. James warned me, ‘You will have to go through security. It will be crowded.’ There was something in his tone. The voice of experience. So I obeyed.

Big brekkie, enjoyable routine of packing, pulling up the little tendril roots I’d set down by rearranging the furniture to suit my odd ways. There was May, asleep in the foyer. I imagine she must hardly ever go home in the winter. She told me she lived a half-hour bike ride away.

Not sure if it was rude or interesting to leave all my small change behind. Euros, zloty, roubles and tögrögs … perhaps the small child can play banks with them if they cannot exchange them.

Many subways around the world are fencing off the trains and I really like the inspirational travel pic for failed tourists
Many subways around the world are fencing off people from the trains. At DongSi station I liked the inspirational travel pic for failed tourists

The air was fresh at 06:20 as I strode off for the last time to DongSi station for the last time. The security guard  was hunched in his jacket like the performers in the skit from Secret Policeman’s Ball waiting for the end of the world. He was a silent, bulky, sleeping mountain as I swung my packs into the x-ray machine to be scanned. I saw another head over the top of the scanners, bent and still. It did not move as I picked my bags up, ready to go.

There was a distinct increase in population after my line change but it wasn’t until I reached my destination until I found myself in an extruder of humanity up the escalators to ticketing floor 1F.

I went to refund my Transport Card. There was a deposit of 20 yuan and I think around another 20 yuan still left. I hadn’t paid much attention once I knew I’d have enough to get myself to Beijing South Station. As I stood in line a spritely woman darted up to me and indicated the sign saying there was no refund at this station. She looked happy, like she’d just landed a big fish. Ah, thought I, as she jammed my card into a machine and finding no number, turned to offer me a crisp 20 yuan note, enterprising. Especially if the note turned out to be fake! (It didn’t.) Apparently scammers, as mentioned before, have included forgery among their daredevil activities. But, I enjoyed the communication and wished her well.  

I made my way to security. Thank you, James, I whispered. For there were all the people. I lined up calmly for I knew I had plenty of time. Sadly James had not been able to advise others for many people were late for their trains. And they pushed and shoved and elbowed to get past blockages in the line, like me. I felt like a boulder in the middle of a river as I watched folk, completely ignoring me, strive to get past as if it were a matter of life and death. Here were human spawning salmon. Some panicked, rolled their eyes and twisted and turned in their efforts to find a weak point to break through. Like water under pressure, the queue moved towards each twist and turn in the path increasing speed. There was a press behind me and people pushed through as fast as they could go.

There were four gates and three diminutive women holding back the flood. The ID cards flipped cursorily against the scanners and there was no waiting for permission to go. I saw one man avoid the card section entirely. A man tried to get an attendant’s attention when he saw I was holding my passport like a butterfly flag over my head. It would not go through the scanner system. I was extruded next to the uniformed girl. Tapped her shoulder and she nodded at the passport as if she hadn’t ten thousand people bearing down on her. Scanned the luggage, took it round the corner away from the crowds. Stared aimlessly into the window where the young man stared at the little pink and green boxes sliding past on his screen. The guard must have felt my observation and turned to frown at me. ‘What are you looking at, punk?’ I melted away but not before wondering about the training they must undergo. To observe pretty pictures of see-thru suitcases for hours on end must take a particular skill set. (Unless asleep like the guy at DongSi!)

Beijing South Railway Station departures and arrivals
Beijing South Railway Station departures and arrivals. My train’s got to be there somewhere!

Then the pressure recommenced as we extruded up the escalators to the waiting area. Further, up, up to waiting room 2F. Now all I had to do was locate my train. I began by time, narrowed it down to train number and found entry 12/13. Off to the squatty potty for my ablutions. Again, the notion of queuing is relaxed, depending on how desperate you are to use the loo, I suppose. The rest was plain sailing.

The guard checking my ticket took his time to look at my passport but a woman with small child in arms disapproved. He was taking too long for her. I think he said, ‘Boil down, Lady,’ and easy down the escalator I went. Check I’m reading my numbers correctly, carriage 4, seat 5D. Lovely staff onhand, interested and smiling. There was a person in my seat who quickly disappeared when I showed my legit ticket.

Chinese Fast Train
Chinese Fast Train

Trains have come a long way since I arrived in Beijing. These days we had fast trains. Not a hint of coal in the air. Averaged around 295 km per hour. It felt a lot like an aircraft cabin, which is why I’ve advocated for airlines to get into the fast train biz. There was a lot of advertising. I saw a trolley going by filled entirely with fruit in plastic boxes. Anther sold drinks and yet a third type featured big orange plastic bags. What was in the bags? Why, roast duck, of course.

There was a screen showing a hero film and I wasn’t sure where the audio was from. I was surrounded by little game noises and people chatting on their phones, their individual phone sounds and songs as their relatives called for a natter. Most people hunched over their phones had ear buds jammed in their ears but many played their videos so other people could share in the delights. There were the sounds of coughing, sweet wrappers and I suppose the roast duck wrappers as well.

Inside the fast train carriage
Inside the fast train carriage

Surprisingly soon we were out of cityscape and back into rural surrounds. Oh. No. Back into city. Not so much rural life in evidence, actually. The city of Nanjing was huge. Row after row of high rise. People have to live somewhere. Lots of mono-culture tree-planting along the lines. If a disease or beetle should fly along many of these trees would be vulnerable, like a line of dominos. Perhaps they spray for that.

Once more my experience of life in a major city, Beijing, had to be merely surface. I had missed most of the tourist ‘must-sees’ (Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven and Big Shorts) and knew nothing of history or dynasties. I was a traveller, moving through the land, observing and interacting as best suited the moment. For who knew if there would be another visit?

On my train to Ningbo there were several recorded messages at first in Chinese followed by clear, concise English. ‘Please to mind the safety.’ One exhorted the passengers to behave well and not stand on things. One of them explained if you did not pay for your ticket correctly, or misbehaved in anyway, the information would be reported to the authorities and recorded on your credit history. How interesting that modern China invokes fear of credit, the traditionally capitalist manner of controlling people, down to the smallest infractions against the transport department.

The lady next to me in a purple tracksuit had been steadily eating an assortment of carefully wrapped snacks for hours. She stared at the instructions on her instant noodles for a very long time before going to fill the container with boiling water. (Most long distance trains offer boiling water for your cuppa.) I could tell they were very tasty but they did not smell like my cup of broth.

Housing on way to Jinan
Housing on way to Jinan

Went past a fun-fair apparently in the middle of no-where. It caught my eye because of the giant Sphinx. There was also the glass pyramid of the Louvre, a huge Greek temple and a giant robot. Perhaps monster mini golf?

As I stared around the carriage I thought the opiate of the masses had become the mobile phone. Generalising from my observations, people around the world do not talk to each other the way they used to. Common areas in hostels are quiet. People’s spins curve down to their machine in a way that looks painful. I’ve watched people looking at sunsets through their phones. But when I walked past, they weren’t taking photos. They were scrolling through Insta. Sitting next to their friends or loved ones, looking down and hunched. I’d seen parents chat on their phone and, when they’d finished, give the phone to the toddler.

We travelled around the satellite towns of Shanghai and down towards Ningbo. For those of you who have been following since the early planning, Ningbo was where I was supposed to catch the cargo cruiser. But I was only going to catch an ongoing train. Onwards, south to Fuzhou, a bus to Pingtan and a ferry to Taiwan. This was were the matter of the passports would be resolved, once and forever. I was headed out of China.

Head to Stage Nine – Pingtan and beyond!

Stage Seven – Trans Siberian/Mongolian – overland UK 2 NZ

How do you catch the train across Russia, Mongolia and China? You just get on the TransSiberian and/or TransMongolian Railway. (Start from Moscow/Mockba or Beijing/Pekin and head to the other one.)

Victoria outside Chinese carriage on the TransSiberian/transMongolian Railway
Outside Chinese carriage on the TransSiberian/TransMongolian Railway

If you’re new to my sustainable (?!) journey across the world, here’s a menu to help you find your way:

For fellow travellers who might notice errors and omissions, please add your comments. In fact, all comments welcome!

Please note this is a multi-page post. Although my trip took 6 days, one hour and four minutes to complete, it won’t take you that long to read! That said, you might need a cup of tea and a little snack to take with you.

Hope this account inspires you to explore the world by train, too!

Tuesday 15th October 2019 – NIGHT ONE – TransSiberian/Mongolian – boarding the train at Yaroslavsky Train Station, Moscow – 23:55

Moscow to Beijing ticket
Moscow to Beijing ticket with a Golden Seal

Two middle-aged men in uniform greeted me at carriage five with some bemusement. They frowned and flapped my ticket. ‘But, do not fold it,’ I cried out mentally, thinking Lena from Real Russia would be shocked to see their carelessness. They gave the precious paper back to me and one fellow ambled inside. Without anything else to do I followed him and he pointed at my compartment and my lower berth number 9.

I said, ‘Xiexie,’ (‘Thank you’ being the limits of my Chinese so far) and he blinked at me before he left. This was not the same train as my previous shiny new Russian train. This was an antique Chinese train. It felt a bit rickety and there was no fancy screen showing time and temperature on the wall. Could it have been a steam train? I could definitely smell coal. Everything smelt of coal in the carriage.

Obeying train-life rules I quickly jumped into comfy nightwear and then serious man gave me a couple of sheets and a pillowcase. I said, ‘Xiexie,’ some more. I got my sleeping bag out as a base layer against the cold and I had brought a pillowcase of my own. I found the pillow on the top bunk but didn’t like to investigate further.

Between the bunks compartment 5
Fleur-de-Lys between the bunks of compartment 5.
No room for push ups here. (Ref: Compartment 6)

The full moon out the window. It was a wonderful feeling as the tow kicked in and the carriage began to move, pulled in the wake of the engine. We were off. We chuntered and chattered and clunkered on and on. We were going to Beijing. From Russia to China through Belarus and Mongolia. I was in for the trip of my life. At least, it would be the longest train journey of my life! Six days, one hour and four minutes.

The air got in and, boy, was I woken by some extreme industrial pongs in the middle of the night! Petrol, gas, plastics; all sorts of foul stenches came up from the walls. I got really cold too. (Mainly because I was too dumb to work out where the blankets were.)

First look at the dunny at night
First look at the dunny at night

The toilet was European-sit-down, metal and grim. I couldn’t work out how to flush it. I kicked a green lever and opened a tap all over my foot. I kicked it off and then noticed the other foot pedal. Actually, I considered the foot-lever thing a good plan considering Goddess Hygienia. Out in the corridor I could see the antique water boiler at the other end of the carriage. I couldn’t see anywhere else to get water.

Our water boiler; the coal fire behind it
Our water boiler; the coal fire behind it

The coffee from Avocado Cafe kept me alive, alive, oh, so I stared out the window at the big shadows and lights of the station and thought I was lucky. I was safe and well. The door locked with a big chunky metal handle.

During the night we stopped for long periods at a couple of stations where, through a tinny loudspeaker, a kind of clarion trumpet call heralded a woman’s shouting instructions. Still no-one else got in my carriage. I began to hope I might have the place to myself.

I got out my test sachet of arnica and dripped the oil over the clean sheet. Not so clean really and definitely made my mark in the pattern of old stains! (My Fisiocream from Spain had finished and, given this interesting twitch in my arms from constantly altering photos somehow uploading upside-down, I needed a new muscle cream. Back in Moscow I’d gone shopping. The cosmetic lady waved me through to the chemist who pondered the ingredients and bought me a couple of options. One had recognisable calendula flowers on the front, and mint, so we were a quarter of the way to the recipe. I pointed to the hypericum on the ingredient list, thinking perhaps pharmacy training might extend to Latin – the old St John’s wort – but with smiles and extensive, ‘Spasibo,’ in action, in the end, made do with her offering. Smelt like toothpaste. On the way out, cosmetic lady pulled me over into a corner. She pointed at the Weleda range. There was arnica. She gave me three sachets – if only she’d gone there first! That’s the stuff I spilled over the sheet. Smelt nice anyway.)

Awoke very cold. Went for a wee and on my return prodded around above me. Piled on the upper bunk I found a long thin blanket to cover the base of the bed and another, wider, to cover me. I was so glad to have these. Not sure who else was in the carriage. All the doors were shut but it felt quiet, empty and cold. Apart from the constant train movement and groan and hum-bumbles of the engine.

Under my bunk in compartment 5
Under my bunk in compartment 5 – the sturdy metal container to the left.

There was, what I took to be, a sizeable air gap over the door. I wasn’t sure who had the key to the door. BUT STOP! I couldn’t be there for almost a week and worry the whole time. I had to give myself over to the power of the moon and my beautiful empty compartment for the foreseeable future. All would be well. My hip sockets existed, firmly pressed against the bunk. Slept, rocked by the irrepressible train.