Travels in Asia Part 3 – The Mainland

Like a barnacle clinging on to the belly of the Kraken, Hong Kong is dwarfed in every imaginable way by China – physically, culturally, politically, populationally (?) Just look us up on a map – we are a ragged mole on the underside of a monster. A previously benign mole that has recently started to cause said monster discomfort and irritation. It would probably have us lanced, if it could. We were lanced (kind of), for 150 years or so, but recently became re-attached. And it’s fair to say that the replantation process hasn’t gone terribly smoothly.

To wrap this tortured metaphor up, Hong Kong and China have a ‘difficult’ relationship. China is the overbearing tiger-parent and Hong Kong the kid who wants to make a go of his band rather than enter medical school. But, apart from the descendants of the 4000 residents who were quietly going about their business in 1840 when the British turned up, every ‘local’ Hong Konger is Chinese, they (or their descendants) moved here at some point in the past couple of centuries. But their relationships with the mother-country are far from straight forward.

And from the second you step over the border from Hong Kong, you begin to understand why. Because China is, and this is true in every sense of the word, a different country.

My first short foray in to China was to Guangzhou, two hours inland from Hong Kong, which I wrote about here and here. It was an interesting weekend, coinciding as it did with National Day celebrations and a visit to Chinese A&E with a fractured elbow. Since then, I’ve been a further three times and now, instead of the regular, boring ‘went here, did this, wasn’t it funny’ travelogue, here is China – in pictures…


The Forbidden City, Beijing. Seat of dynastic power for centuries (if not millenia – China is old) but forbidden no longer – as proven by the many thousands of people flooding through on this hot summer day. On the other side of the road is Tiananmen Square, where something once happened to some people (well, one never knows who’s reading around here…)


Women offering their daughters for marriage, in a park in Beijing. I am reliably informed that the signs in front of these women are personal ads for their dangerously old (i.e. over 30), unmarried daughters. Interested parties could drop by and get the lucky girl’s contact details. What a story to tell the grand kids!


People doing a traditional ribbon dance, near the Temple of Heaven, Beijing.


The Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium. We went to see it at sunset, when it lights up (as you can see here). But we got caught in an almighty downpour and had to shelter in the souvenir shop where, five years after the main event, they were still flogging 2008 Olympics tat. I bought a pocket fan that glows as it spins….


People feeding bears Sprite, Beijing Zoo.


View over Kunming Lake from the Summer Palace. When the Emperors weren’t lording it over their subjects by not letting them into the Forbidden City, they were taking the waters out here.


A bowl of lower intestines, upper intestines or maybe colon. General tripe, really. Not that you can’t get this in Hong Kong, but at least here it’s usually served in a soup, or hot-pot, or with noodles… It felt like the sauce here was deliberately served on the side, with the suggestion that ‘you should really be enjoying your unidentified stomachy bits as God intended but here’s a bowl of sauce if you insist, you pleb’.


Some wall or other.


Of course, it’s not any old wall. Just the ruddy Great Wall. Of China! We hiked 10 kilometres of it on an unbelievably hot and humid day. Note if you will the dark sweat stains on my grey t-shirt (not part of the design). That night I had a particularly memorable spot of heat and dehydration related diarrhea.


Old men having an impromptu hot-pot in a public park, Beijing, while waiting for the rain to go off.


You know how people will try to tell you that they went to Italy and were disappointed by the pizza, or that the curry in India wasn’t spicy enough… Well, if anyone ever says that they went to Beijing and thought the Peking Duck was nice, but not a patch on their local ‘Nine Dragons’ takeaway, then they are big fat liars.


Bejing Railway station at sunset in all its Communist-chic splendour.


Me reclining, Dowager Empress style, by the West Lake in Hangzhou. In 42 degree heat. Our visit coincided with the hottest August in 150 years… We just managed to take the picture before the camera melted.


One of the best (or worst, depending on who you ask) things about being a Westerner in China, even a very run of the mill Westerner, is the all the attention, darling. From double takes in the street, to laughing babies, to requests for pictures. On this afternoon in Hangzhou, one couple asked and the floodgates opened: at least 5 photos in as many minutes. Whereas, in Hong Kong, I could stage a recreation of Michelangelo’s David in Central, at rush hour, and still be unable to draw people’s eyes away from their phones.

IMG_0604 IMG_0529

Two views over the West Lake – inspiration for centuries worth of poems and fables – at midday and sunset.


The local train to Shanghai. Why is that man standing on the seat? Well, why not?


Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai. Lots of Koi and terrapins. Testament perhaps to the Japanese influence in the city.

IMG_0787 IMG_0780

Either side of the Huangpu River. The first, Pudong, is where the richest people in China compete to build the tallest skyscrapers. It’s home to something like the 2nd and 3rd tallest buildings in the world. The second, the Bund, has been home to all the banks that made Shanghai the megalopolis that it is for over a century. If you squint, and ignore the hulking great towers across the water, it’s like walking down a major boulevard in a European capital.


The only way to cross said Huangpu river – The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel. It’s supposed to be a journey to the centre of the earth, accompanied by strange lights and sounds, but it’s not really. It’s bizarre. The phrase ‘Only in China…’ has never been so apt.


A Bladerunner-y view across Shanghai, the undisputed biggest city on the planet, at sunset.


Xiao Long Bao. See the entry above on Peking Duck. The ‘Nine Dragons’ could never.


Old couples dancing in the French Concession. ‘Pictures tell a thousand words’ and so on. I recently made a vow to visit the Mainland at least once a year. When you’re not there, running around regular old Hong Kong, you want… the unpredictability of China. But after a week or so of being there you start to want the predictability of Hong Kong. Such is China: you want it, and miss it, until you have it. A bit like McDonald’s.