A Travellerspoint blog

Chopsticks and chillies

On food and eating

Eating always occupies time and thought in one’s day and no less when travelling in China. Our breakfasts are provided each morning in the hotels. In southern China, western food of bacon and eggs, toast and marmalade, coffee and tea was usually on offer but as we have gone forward north and now west, the breakfasts have become more Asian in style with veges, dumplings, and noodles. This morning for the first time there was no coffee or tea and our guide told us that was usual Chinese style.
Lunch is usually had standing behind the vehicles with the back door open and the boot acting as a makeshift table – standing and walking are good alternatives after sitting in the cars for long periods. We have been stopping in small towns mid-morning and buying fruit and bread from road side stalls or small shops. Our guide helps with the language difficulties, but people are friendly and open. We realise that as we go west ‘big noses’ are a curiosity not regularly seen in small towns. Young people particularly are keen to try their school-learnt English on us – with varying degrees of success. A group of giggling teenage girls accompanied us last night to a restaurant and ordered the meal for us – and then ran off to their English language lesson.
Dinner tonight for a change was at a western style cafe recommended in the Lonely Planet, close to our hotel, but is usually had in a small Chinese restaurant where the locals eat. These meals are at least half the price of meals in the hotel restaurants. Eating out is cheap – we can often feed the four of us for the equivalent of $20NZ, & this includes a drink as well. We try to find restaurants where the menu is presented with coloured photos so that we have some idea of what we will be served.
Two difficulties present themselves: how to eat with chopsticks without messing the entire table cloth and oneself as well, and how to avoid ordering food that is so spicy that one’s throat burns and one’s lips turn numb. We have asked our guide to write down in Chinese ‘no spicy food, no chillies, please’ or words to that effect, and we produce this when we order. Usually we order 3 or 4 bowls and share the food; several times we have had to leave food largely uneaten because of the fierce chilly taste. Martin thinks he can handle chop sticks with the finesse of an old hand, but we think we often provide amusement for the locals as they watch us try to eat slippery noodles that fall so easily off the chop sticks. Fortunately a spoon is also provided. And we watch the locals slurp up their soup straight from the bowl or shovel in rice from a bowl two inches from the lips.
If all else fails as we order the food, Maurice has a digital translator – you punch in the words and out comes a Chinese voice with the order – beef, rice. Mostly the young waiters seem to cotton on. So we are enjoying the food here and we won’t go hungry!

Posted by Silkspin 06:42 Comments (0)

Stage One Completed

Arrival in Xian

I shall try to give a simple run down of where we have driven and the highlights we have seen since we left Shenzhen about 10 days ago. China is such a large country and the place names are mostly not familiar to us. Generally speaking, we have come straight north from Hong Kong, travelling through the lovely green and damp south until we hit a dramatic change yesterday coming over the dry mountains into the city of Xian. Here is a rough highlights summary:
Yangshou – the limestone karst scenery begins, wonderful small mountains rising straight out of the flat surrounding country side. The weather is showery and misty, so visibility is not great. We go bamboo rafting on the Li River, each couple on one raft navigated by a farmer who poles the raft down the river - great fun. We stay in our only non-city hotel accommodation, run by a Dutch couple and more like a family backpackers. We attend a spectacular song and dance show in the evening.
Guilin – more karst landscape, more fog and another great evening show with ethnic minority items. We visit the Reed Flute Cave, actually a series of huge amazing limestone caves. The day time temperature is 13 C one day and colder still the next! We get our gloves out. We visit an old restored wealthy village where the people still live, but have opened it up to tourists – but not loads of them, so it is very pleasant.
Guilin to Guiyuang – we visit 3 interesting villages belonging to the minority groups of the Yao, Dong and Mao peoples. The first one is very touristy with pushy touts but is in the must-see famous Longji rice terrace area, farmed for hundreds of years. The fog covers the spectacular view of the terraces from time to time but we do get some windows of opportunity to take photos.
Guiyuang – we visit an old walled town dating back to the Ming dynasty of the 1600s.
Chongqing – another old restored town, called Ciqikou where we try lots of edible goodies and Maurice and Martin buy puzzles to master.
Xian – today we have been to the terracotta warriors. We tour in style: our guide hires a 5 seater car to go there (we pay, but our guys get a rest from the traffic) and we are shown around in a small group, so much better than the large bus-load groups of most other tourists. We have really hit the tourist trail today, but it is great to see the warriors and hear the story of why they were created and how they were discovered. We buy a book signed by the now elderly farmer who discovered them when digging a well in 1974 – hope it is for real!
Our daughter Maree visited the site 13 years ago and tells us that the powers-that-be tried to stop photographing, announcing this in English, though it was the locals who were offending. Things have changed and the battle has been lost to the tourists. You can now take photos but not use a flash.

Posted by Silkspin 02:42 Comments (1)

Why don't they just bulldoze them down?

Of motorways and traffic hazards

Since we have been in China – a week and a half now – I have been reminded of a conversation that took place in Form 4 Latin in a class taken by David Thurlow, our Social Studies teacher back in the distant past of my youth. He was trying to impress on his class the difficulties of farming in the Gisborne – Hawkes Bay ranges because of the mountainous terrain. One bright lad named John put his hand up and asked why they didn’t just bulldoze the hills down. I recall Dave Thurlow spluttering with exasperation.
Something of that thinking pattern seems to operate here quite well. It’s not so much that the mountains are bulldozed down; rather the motorways go straight over or under whatever is in the way. Huge viaducts over cities and industrial areas, long tunnels, often of 4 or 5 kilometres in length, through mountains, and great bridges spanning deep valleys. Construction of motorways and fast train tracks is part of the landscape. Several days ago we travelled from Wuzhou to Yangso on amazing motorways covering many kilometres in just a few hours. Yesterday we did 400 kms from Sanjiang to Guiguang; the first 200 were done on second grade roads and took about 5 hours plus stops, the second 200 took about 2 ½ hours. From the point of view of interest the second grade roads win hands down, but to cover China’s huge distances the motorways are wonderful.
Martin needs a medal for his exploits in the city traffic. All the reasonable hotels are in cities, so there is no way to avoid the traffic. Maurice with his racing car expertise is in his element. Today, going to an old walled restored town, there were always 4 lanes to cope with; sometimes they became 5 or even 6 lanes. For 6 kms we crawled along for over an hour at about 10 kms an hour, with everyone trying to better his position by constantly changing lanes. Tauranga knows nothing of this type of congestion – I hope it never does! Yesterday our guide got a taxi to drive before us into the city to find our hotel and today a guardian angel in a little red car agreed, at the guide’s request, to drive before us for some kilometres to show the way.
We have a guide with us all the time. In Guangdong (used to be Canton) Province we had Steven and now in Guangxi and Guizhou we have Qin, pronounced Chin. In NZ, the idea of a guide seemed restricting but here you quickly realise that in order to drive (to survive!) it is an absolute essential. There is little in the way of English signs and few people are competent in English. Radio contact between Bilbo and Heehaw helps a lot, especially if the lead vehicle gets separated from the other. We also have radios between the guide and the other car so that directions and tourist info can be shared. Martin and I also try to pray over the day and the driving, inviting the Lord’s protection.
Tooting is an ever present feature of Chines driving, usually used as a warning: you are coming too close to my vehicle, that’s my lane you are trying to cut into, watch out, I’m coming through. In some areas there are no tooting signs, but as I write now in our room on the 17th floor, I can hear the city traffic tooting below us. Martin took about two days to join the tooting brigade, finding it very handy as he makes his way in the traffic. Most days we see one or more traffic accidents, so we realise that driving is a hazardous occupation.
We also see fights – shouting, fists and all. Yesterday as we left the motorway, we first had to pay the toll. Usually there are a number of toll booths but on this occasion there was only one, causing cars to jostle for position in the queue. One car was determined to shove in and everyone else closed ranks, resolute that he was not going to push in. Fortunately we were onlookers to action, several cars back in the queue. The end result was the guy pushing damaged two good quality cars, with much shouting and anger. As we left, the police were involved and the culprit was sitting cowering in his car with the windows up.

Posted by Silkspin 05:32 Comments (1)

China is waiting for you

Four and a half days wait

So Sharon our Chinese agent in NZ had emailed us, as she wished us well for our travels. By the end of Thursday 31 March, we were definitely waiting for China! We had waited and waited. Martin and Maurice spent the day waiting with Steven and his manager in queues in various buildings, hungry, without any lunch - for vehicle warrant of fitnesses, emissions checks, brake tests, licence plates and so on. Anne and I waited in the hotel, reading, eating, writing, eating again, still waiting. At least we didn’t go hungry. We tried several unknown items on the hotel menu which proved interesting. One turned out to be a hot papaya, large and whole but cut across the side like a lid and filled with almond milk. Very filling.
Those who have been following our blog will have realised that we jumped from looking forward to 18 months of preparation for the trip, to actually being there in Shenzhen. I feel we got away from home by the skin of our teeth; it was such a mad dash with so much going on at home that the writing of the blog was left incomplete. But we did prepare thoroughly. Much consultation went on between us and the O’Reillys about the route and what countries we would pass through. The vehicles needed to be thoroughly prepared with spare parts and a complete overhaul of road worthiness. We would pack the cars with as much as we thought we would need – medical kit, emergency food, reading material and maps, clothing and footwear, cooking equipment, sleeping bags . . . .
We read as widely as time would allow and learnt that the Silk Road was not just one route, but many, over which traders and travellers made their way from China to Europe and back again, roughly from about 150 BC to 1400 AD. Caravans would not attempt the entire length of the journey, but rather would traverse their own well known section, linking with similar groups at each end of their travels. The Silk Road is regarded as beginning and ending in modern Xian, famed today for the terracotta army of warriors. We decided to begin in Hong Kong, go north to Xian, swing west to Kashgar, cross borders into Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the 3 Central Asian Stans we would tackle, and proceed through Russia, Ukraine and Poland and into Germany. The journey would take two and half months and we would be away nearly four.
New Zealanders Jo and Gareth Morgan with four other motor bikers travelled from Munich to Beijing in 2005 and told of their adventure in Silk Riders: Jo and Gareth Morgan’s incredible journey on the Trail of Marco Polo. Like the Morgans we used Silk Road Adventures in Greymouth to organise much of our route and like them also we soon found out we couldn’t just go where we liked through China and Central Asia, but were required to pre-arrange accommodation, guides and routes. Sharon of China Travel Services in Auckland orchestrated the China part of the journey. Unlike the Morgans, we decided not to go through Iran as that country required a vehicle bond of 450 times the vehicle’s value. I was relieved as I was having enough worries coping with the Stans in the middle of the night!
By the time we arrived in Hong Kong I had become wary of expanding on our travel plans. For example, conversation with a HK Chinese while waiting in the queue to use the toilet after the Vine Centre church service, where the McPhersons attend: Are you visiting? Yes, I’m from New Zealand. We are friends of Anne and John McPherson. Are you passing through? Yes, we’re on our way to Europe (big understatement!). Oh, so you are on vacation? Yes, I agree. The look of disbelief and consternation on the face of the young Chinese woman next to us on the plane had warned me not to be too explicit. She had been studying in NZ and was returning home. Her expression said it all. Was her leg being pulled or were these mad New Zealanders really going to set off into the wild west of China?
As of Friday midday, China was still waiting for us and we were still waiting for China! But as of Friday mid-afternoon, we were away, no longer waiting and off north towards Guilin and other destinations. We had our Chinese number plate, a laminated card, sitting in the front window, and Bilbo and Heehaw were licenced to drive in China.

Posted by Silkspin 07:25 Comments (3)

What's the chicken for?

Bilbo and Hewhaw in Shenzhen

There in front was one of our vehicles riding high above the Shenzhen 5pm traffic on the back of a yellow truck. We were following behind with our driver and guide, grateful not to be driving in the chaos of the traffic. Rule number one seems to be that you have to change lanes as frequently as possible in order to gain that small, but often fruitless advantage over your fellow drivers.

It was our guide Steven who asked about the chicken. Reasonable question. Who would put a sticker on the back of the car with a chicken on it? ‘That’s not a chicken,’ we all exclaimed. ‘It’s a kiwi.’ And there followed an explanation of our national bird. ‘Like the panda,’ Steven said and we agreed though we were all trying to imagine the thoughts that must be going through his mind about these people who took a flightless bird as their national icon.

We had spent two rather frustrating days in Shenzhen trying to secure our two Nissan vehicles which had arrived on 8 March, nearly 3 weeks previously. Driving licences, eye sight tests, customs papers for the cars, temporary number plates – the bureaucracy seemed endless and difficult to understand. Steven spoke reasonable English, and he and the driver who was Steven’s manager, were very helpful, but we often didn’t know what was taking place and what would happen next.

Nevertheless, Shenzhen is an amazing place and between dealing with the cars, we had time for some sightseeing. We had arrived in Hong Kong on 26 March and spent two days recovering from jet lag and the exhaustion of getting away on our travels. We spent Sunday with friends John and Ann McPherson, NZers working in HK who kindly spent a day with us and showed us some of the sights of HK. Then we were picked up at our HK hotel and driven to Shenzhen, through HK and Chinese immigration to our next hotel and the long process of securing the cars.

One morning Steven took us to the Shenzhen Museum, a beautiful large edifice that would be the envy of any NZ museum curator. The temporary presentation was very appropriate for us – findings along the Silk Road in the days before it became an important trading thoroughfare. Because of the dry desert conditions, items of clothing, household goods and mummies had been very well preserved. The permanent displays concerned the history of Shenzhen and the economic miracle that has taken place there in the last 30 years. In 1977 Deng Xiaoping visited Shenzhen, concerned at the number of Chinese escapees to HK. His words had a tremendous impact on the future of the area. ‘It is not a question of control effectiveness; it is a question of our policy.’ By 1979 changes were in the wind and Shenzhen became a special economic zone with rights to sell land and operate in the share market. Today Shenzhen is a rather beautiful city with a modern varied landscape and lots of trees and gardens.
To return to the vehicles on the back of trucks – Martin and Maurice were unable to drive them because we couldn’t get the right licence plates for them – apparently a computer failure. The Nissans are now in the hotel car park and the guys are away working on the licence plates, while Anne and I drink coffee and write blogs.

Posted by Silkspin 19:11 Comments (0)

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