Returning to Macau

… continued from previous post.

Macau.

First things first, ugh I’m really hot. I got here via the Special Economic Zone of Zhuhai (boring), and have now departed China-proper and am in the former Portuguese settlement of Macau (Aòmén 澳门, or門 as they like it here). It’s the first time in a while that I’m up a gum tree with communication; on the bus you hear Cantonese, Portuguese, Mandarin, and English, but when push comes to shove, the only one which matters is the first, in which I can say “hello”, “thanks”, “fantastic” and “aeroplane” (which I thankfully learned on the fantastic aeroplane trip last week). Signs are written in Portuguese as well though, which makes me glad for my limited exposure to Spanish. A police guard failed to understand my Mandarin (mainland-speak) when I asked for the nearest ATM. The only place that I’ve got by in English was in Dairy Queen, which I patronised mainly for its temperature.

I saw the obligatory cultural sights: the Ruins of St Paul’s (that famous lone-standing façade), the Church of St Dominic, and another chapel round the corner, as well as lots of street-wandering. Similar to my recent Taiwanese experience on Jìnmén 金门 just off Xiamen, Macau is more like the China from movies – narrow cobbled streets, vertical signs and characters squigglier than those I’m used to (traditional, unlike the mainland’s simplified variety). You also get more aromas and miscellaneous whiffs that remind me of London’s Chinatown. I have lots of experience of street ambience in Macau, since I spent about two/three hours alone searching for some Burmese restaurant recommended in the Lonely Planet book which turned out not to exist (my trusted companion has turned against me). In the end, I gave up and went to some generic noodle joint.

It’s worth repeating how ridiculously warm it is here; as hotels are also ridiculously pricey (over £60 for anything apart from this, and I’m on a shoe-string) I’m feeling the heat in the San Va Hospedaria, which lacks air conditioning and loves to keep the front door open. There’s an army of ceiling fans making a valiant yet futile attempt at making the air temperature tolerable. For the first time ever, I’m not frustrated at the lack of hot water in the showers, for the icy plunge this evening was the most welcome feeling of relief I’ve felt all day, maybe bar Dairy Queen. For all this guesthouse lacks in luxury and comfort, it more than makes up for it in character and charm. Plus, it’s comparatively reasonable at £17 per night. Let’s just see if I can sleep though…

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Returning to Kaiping

… continued from previous post

I was literally the only person on the bus from Guangzhou to Kaiping, and I can see that the city is hardly a wonder. It’s not really endowed with beauty either, but it hasn’t been a wasted trip. The charm lies in the surrounding countryside scenery of rice paddies and fields, and the homes-cum-watchtowers which are scattered among them. These diāolóu 碉楼 were the homes of overseas Chinese who got rich abroad and returned to their ancestral homeland to build and reside in these buildings. Apparently there are thousands around Kaiping (according to the trusty Lonely Planet guide who has been with me since the beginning!), but the diāolóu I’ve been able to see were all around Zilicun 自力村 (shit, what’s happening, I forgot how to write first time round!), only about 10 of them. After getting off the bus at the side of a deserted road, it was a disconcertingly long walk along a lonely road in some fields (you know that feeling when you don’t know if you’re on the wrong track…?). On the way I saw a duck farm, which was fun, albeit noisy. I dare say that this was real Chinese countryside, and it felt really peaceful.

The diāolóu cluster stood sturdily yet inconspicuously nestled in among the trees of the plain. The main attraction to this place is the European styles of the buildings and the curiosity of such styles existing in China, but despite my family’s penchant for architecture, I’m ashamed to say I couldn’t distinguish between Gothic or Renaissance (or whatever else), sorry mum). As such, as I’ve seen my fair share of European architecture, coming to the diāolóu for me serves as an excuse for a nice tranquil countryside walk, a brief perusal into local history, and pneumonic cleansing from the smoggy Pearl River Delta. Returning to Kaiping let me catch up on the London 2012 Olympics. The Chinese are winning obscene amounts of gold medals, and are rightly pleased with themselves, too.

To be continued…

Returning to Guangzhou

So it’s come round to that dreaded time of year again when my life gets transplanted to Oxford, meaning that all my worldly possessions have to be sifted through and hauled into boxes. One nice side-effect of this process, however, is rediscovering useful stuff which I had previously buried into some obscure folder I never use in that dangerous “this is a nice, safe place” state of mind. This time round, I unearthed some scraps of paper which I had scrawled travel notes on while in Guangzhou, Kaiping and Macau (from my recent summer trip). Here goes:

Guangzhou

I left Xiamen last night, and in true environmentally-unfriendly style, I took the hour and a half’s flight to Guangzhou, situated in the far south of China, a stone’s throw from Hong Kong. On the flight I was accosted by a 11-year-old boy, who took me in as his big brother, teaching me a few words in Cantonese (the local dialect there – Mandarin is spoken as well, but the locals’ native tongue is Cantonese, very different) – but I can’t remember the majority of what he taught me. He also emotionally blackmailed me into recording a video of me and him on arrival in Guangzhou airport, possibly the most embarrassing thing I’ve done in a while. It consisted of the two of us making ‘peace’ signs to the camera, him saying “we are super friends” and then giving me a high-five – it was just too hard to say no! Another highlight on the timeline of our relationship was at the baggage reclaim, when he pointed enthusiastically and shouted “Oh look James, it’s another foreigner, looks like he’s from India”. We parted company on good terms, despite the embarrassment.

ANYWAY. Impressions of Guangzhou: I’ve been trying to think of this all afternoon, but haven’t come to any conclusion yet. My day started in the ultra-modern area of Tianhe and the New Guangdong Provincial Museum, which despite initial disappointment, ended up to be really good in its exhibitions of the history and nature of Guangdong. The area around the museum was packed with glistening skyscrapers, but the Martyrs’ Memorial Park area felt grubbier and slightly more characterful. The area around the Guangxiao Temple and the Mosque Dedicated to the Prophet, even more so. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was the Cathedral of the Sacré-Coeur – a Western-style old building nestled among typical, grey, dreary and oh-so-Chinese residential tower blocks, with clothes drying out the windows.

Then, an even more unexpected appearance: a boisterous and passionate sermon being delivered to a room full of African expats. I was in China, yet had flashbacks to a trip to Zambia I made when I was younger. Down an alleyway I wandered through a bustling market street with chickens crammed up in cases and being snatched up for the slaughter, old ladies scrubbing clothes in the streets and an army of bicycles fighting against the surge of pedestrians. The Pearl River waterfront is hardly Victoria Harbour or South Bank; I dare say that neither will Guangzhou as a whole be likely to win any aesthetic prizes anytime soon. Finish off the evening with a stroll through a busy fishery/market thing and a bowl of noodles served by some Henan people (who noted that I apparently look like I come from Xinjiang (Central Asia)?!)

So a pretty mixed bag from GZ. Definitely got its empire of glitzy glass edifices, historical substance, cosmopolitan culture and buzzing market life. Yet none of these impressions have proved to be strong enough to define the city for me. Maybe that’s a good thing (everyone loves vibrancy and variety), maybe it’s bad. Either way, despite only exposing myself to a day of its sweaty and stifling smog, it doesn’t ooze that more-ish quality that other cities can boast.

I’ll come back if I have to.

P.S. I’m mourning the death of my Lonely Planet paper cover, which has been in shreds for a few weeks now.

To be continued…

5 Things I Miss About China

Dodgy “Chinglish” translations should also really be on this list…

It’s more than a month since I arrived back to the UK from Beijing, and in the typical fashion of a freshly-returned, well-travelled and irritatingly nostalgic bore (if you hate reading solipsistic indulgence, don’t read on), I’ve been musing over what I miss the most about expat life in China. I could also say that these are aspects of China which I’ll be happy to be reacquainted with if (hopefully, when) I return at some point in the future, in whatever capacity. These are just five things which I thought of really quickly off the top of my head, I suppose in some sort of order of how much my life is simply a misery without them.

 

5.        TRANSPORT.

Some love two-day-long train journeys, or the cities’ occasionally pungent subways, or the buses, and some loathe them. I had some really memorable nice train journeys (such as the 35-hour train to Xinjiang in the far west), although I also (as I imagine any commuter would say) found the twice-weekly subway journey to my English teaching job mind-numbingly dull. Yet the ease and cheap price at which you can get around both Beijing and China makes a laughing stock of the UK. I’ve never experienced a line closure, strike or delays in transport anywhere in China. A single-use London Underground ticket costs about £4. In Beijing, it’s 20p. That’s all I’m saying.

4.         “FOREIGNER” CONVERSATIONS.

This is probably the most unexpected one on here, but striking up a conversation with a total stranger (or having one started for you) is by no means uncommon, especially if they somehow pick up that you can speak a bit of Chinese. They can strike at inconvenient or stressful times (such as one example of comparing tuition fees in China and the UK while we were trying to haul heavy bags through a bus station), which sometimes makes you want to strike back with a good kick, but it’s all part of the experience and, most of all, 9 times out of 10 it’s out of well-intentioned curiosity and interest for your life.

(A side note on conversations – and something I’ll also miss – is being able to talk about people in English in crowded places on the assumption that they probably won’t understand. I wouldn’t recommend this 100% of the time, though, after a few embarrassing experiences.)

3.         PRICES.

It’s not as cheap as it used to be, and in certain places it’s all too easy to get ripped off (*cough cough the Silk Market*), but everything is generally cheaper in China than in the UK. Transport (as I’ve already mentioned), food (as I’m about to mention) and services are all significantly cheaper than at home, which left us more money to go on trips exploring the China outside of Beijing.

2.         GOOGLE MUSIC CHINA.

This really would have been at number 1 if it wasn’t soon to be taken down because of some strategic business reason. Basically I downloaded a huge amount of music (with any artist or album already released for a few months available), for free and legally. I still have no idea how the whole funding/copyright issue worked. If it were still around, then it would probably encourage me to become one of the first people ever wanting a VPN to China rather than out of China (which is what many Chinese-based expats do to circumvent Internet censorship and access Facebook, YouTube etc.).

1.         FOOD.

Obviously this is the main reason I’ll come back to China. If the bland anglicised nonsense that we Brits buy at the local takeaway is good, then the real thing is mind-blowing – it’s a huge variety of food cooked in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of sauces, from filled steamed buns (包子baozi) and dumplings (饺子jiaozi) and big oily crepe-like things called 煎饼jianbing to fried noodles and spicy home-style tofu. There are the chickens’ feet as well, for the real adventurous types. Some people are put off Chinese food when they come to China (and fair enough, because it’s really different), but I honestly can’t say how good the real thing is. The best thing of all – we ate out in restaurants pretty much daily, and it rarely crept above £2 per head.

 

It’s great being back in the UK now for lots of different reasons, although I’m finding it hard readjusting to being extorted on the trains, not having my blonde hair scrutinised and fondled by strangers, the moral dilemma of “do I or do I not pay for music”, and Marco Polo’s bastardisation of noodles. It’s nice to know that all these things will be reversed when I go back, hopefully sometime soon.

The Return…

So yeah, the blogging thing didn’t end up working for much longer after about May, although it had a fair run.

I did a whole load of getting around China in July and August (Sichuan with my sister who came over from the UK, Nanjing, Huangshan, Hangzhou, Mount Sanqing (especially awesome!), Wuyishan (meh), Quanzhou, Xiamen, Guangzhou, Kaiping, Macau, HK – so yeah, quite a bit). Memorable experiences:

  • Pandas in the Panda Research Base near Chengdu in Sichuan (standard, really)
  • 4 hours of strenuous steps up Huangshan, freezing camping overnight on the top, misty but spectacular sunrise, crowds, 8 hours of up and down to the bottom of mountain
  • Mount Sanqing, camping without a pillow but with a yowling cat outside keeping us awake all night, freezing, but waking up at 4am to see the sunrise, above the clouds, spectacularly blue skies and an awe-inspiring walk along a stone pathway clinging onto a completely vertical cliff face. Pretty much the most memorable experience of China.
  • The Guangzhou smog and heat
  • Days/nights out in Hong Kong, followed by kicking back on the beaches with white sand and clear water, as well as a day hiking the MacLehose Trail to sections of isolated coastline.

So yeah, this year has overall been a great experience and, even though I feel that it’s all been a whirlwind of travelling, there’s so much more to see and do in China – and I’m determined to go back. Most of all, the south west (the typical “Chinese” scenery of Yangshuo, and especially Yunnan province). Further delving into Xinjiang (in the north west) and, although currently difficult, Tibet are on the list as well.

The situation with me now is that I’m preparing to head back to Oxford in about two weeks while currently running a marathon trying to catch up with the work that I should have done in China instead of exploring the country. I’m going to carry on posting China-related stuff, fingers crossed.