Monthly Archives: November 2019

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

Arriving into Ningbo
Arriving into Ningbo

Ningbo

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, maps.me. 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?

Onwards!

Fuzhou

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 maps.me and off we went. Then he started chatting on the phone and according to maps.me 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 maps.me, 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?

BRANDY IN BERLIN!

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.

THANK YOU, BRANDY! XIEXIE!

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 maps.me 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 maps.me 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, see Stage One. Or you could start way back with Part I of planning. 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.

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 journey across the world, see Stage One. Or you could start way back with Part I of planning. For my 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.