A Travellerspoint blog

May 2011

North Central China

Hello from the city furthest from any sea in the world, Urumqi in Western China. It’s been a varied month spending time in the great Northern capital, and traveling through the Western grasslands and desert yet managing to experience all types of weather from scorching hot to snow but this email will be a bit different as half of it’s not written by me. Not being able to see my friend George in Japan thanks to the earthquake was really quite upsetting so it was just wicked having my friend Cec come out to visit me for a couple of weeks with very much a holiday feel to them. Our first night out in Beijing set the tone for things as after about 15 Jager bulls by 7am Cec had the biggest Red Bull crash since Mark Webber in Valencia last year. Whilst she was passed out beneath a flyover I took the unorthodox decision to use my excess energy to give an impromptu rap performance to 3 resident hobos and their bemused looking collection of canines.

Happy memories, and like China generally, despite the fact she insisted on wearing a bright pink ‘I ♥ BJ’ t-shirt at all times I will very much miss her presence as I go on.

I also managed to complete a small ambition of mine by climbing all 9 of China’s holy mountains (I don’t think playing centre half for the Os is gonna happen) which are dotted around the country. In Asia I’ve always made it a point to climb the holy peaks as they’re some of the most enjoyable places to see the two most important aspects of Asians lives- religion and family being played out.

As in other parts of the world, in Asia mountains play a key role in the people’s imagination, they’re frequently home to the usual selection of gods and monsters and due to the importance of high places in Eastern religions (they see them as auspicious) are some of the most holy places on the continent. It’s traditional that you undertake pilgrimages with your family and wherever I’ve been the different ways that families undertake the journeys have been some of the most memorable sights in Asia. In China that’s no different and it’s a great feeling clambering up the final steps of a mountain greeted by the sight of a colorful temple and a load of Grandmothers serenely burning incense and kowtowing to the Buddha statues. Having said that I do find the Chinese attitude to religion a bit more cynical than elsewhere, put it this way the saying “In China the rich believe in nothing and the poor believe in everything” is about right- the rich have made it and the poor blindly hedge their bets across Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. The things that are so important to the Chinese like wealth and status don’t easily slot into religious ideas of aiming to distance yourself from earthly concerns and subsequently the depth of religious practice here is nothing compared to other Asian countries like Myanmar or Bhutan.

Nonetheless, one of the greatest heroes in Chinese history is the monk Xuan Zang whose epic story of retrieving the scriptures from India before returning home is immortalized in Journey to the West (better known to Westerners as Monkey). I read all 1410 pages of it and got to see the great man’s home monastery in Xian which aside from fulfilling another type of pilgrimage has started to give me a bit of closure on China…

Before that though I spent the early part of the last month in the great northern capital of Beijing, I’d be lying if I said it’s my favourite city as it’s the one place in China where people try to rip you off and is blighted by duststorms and a terrible climate- hot and humid as hell in Summer and freezing as ‘heaven’ (?) in Winter but there’s loads to do including plenty of parks and it was fascinating returning there after visiting in ’03.

Like Rome, Paris or Delhi it has very much an imperial feel to it with your appreciation of space very much in the extremes; the centuries old warrens of cramped hutongs (alleyways) sit just off imposingly wide concourses on a gridiron with the absolutely mighty Tianamen Square (well, actually a rectangle) and all the apparatus of government ranged round it bang in the centre of it all.

The city is changing at a cracking rate, put it this way whilst Katie Melua would be amongst the bookies favourites for the most insipid musician of all time award her one semi catchy song ‘9 Million bicycles in Beijing’ I think is now out of date.

When I was here before the city was something of a construction site due to the upcoming Olympics which has had a profound effect on the city, the positivity which the Chinese greeted the games and still feel proud of its legacy was really admirable and stands in stark contrast to the negative nimbyism which many in Britain greeted the London 2012 award with. Whilst the price tag of ‘China’s coming out party’ was exorbitant (believed to be up to $50 billion) I think it’s definitely a nicer place to live now.

A series of efficient ring roads were built as well as several new Metro lines and whereas before the city was covered in 2 wheelers zipping around they’ve been largely replaced by cars as China has now overtaken the USA as the worlds largest producer and consumer of the 4 wheeled monsters. To offset this the city planners have massively upped the proportion of green space in the city and whilst all this was controversial due to the forced relocation of residents to towerblocks in the suburbs, the city is now cleaner and far more orderly than it previously was.

Having said that you are frequently reminded that China is only just starting to play at being a civilized country, you often see Chinese tourists or new arrivals to the city staring almost frightened up at the giant buildings and even in Beijing young kids just go to the loo by the side of the road as they don’t wear nappies, they have a slit in the back of their baby suits so their backsides are always on show!

The Chinese government recently brought in a laughable smoking ban too, this is a country which smokes 1 in 3 of the worlds cigarettes and where toilet roll holders often have ashtrays built into the top of them. Since there are no penalties for getting caught I’ve yet to see anybody adhere to it anywhere except in government buildings- which is ironic because the reason there are no financial penalties is because the government has a monopoly on cigarettes and is therefore a gigantic revenue earner for them. Probably most memorably though are the roads which have an improbable feel of somewhere between Japan and India i.e. there are wide, well marked roads and in theory a proper traffic system but both pedestrians and drivers just do what they want anyway ignoring red lights and signals. The police are so powerful here that they could drastically improve the safety record quite easily but for the moment it’s not a priority for them and subsequently the roads are darn dangerous with Nanjing in particular being an absolute death trap, I saw 5 accidents there in 3 days. Whilst none of them were fatal, a couple of them were ambulance jobs and they were down to the electric bikes which are popular in China. When crossing the road a sense of hearing is probably even more important than sight and as electric bikes make no noise pedestrians and other drivers just aren’t aware of them so they are quite literally an accident to happen. On the plus side though they are very environmentally friendly which is something I feel China gets an overly harsh rap on.

In recent years the environment has become one of the biggest lightning rods for criticism of China from the West with a lot of commentators taking an arrogant and even condescending view of the Chinese, something like: ‘It’s great they’re developing economically but they’re ruining things for everyone as they’re doing sooo much damage to the environment’ . This is not a viewpoint I have any sympathy with, just about every developed country has had to go through an industrial revolution and caused various environmental ills along the way and I don’t really see why China, India or anyone else shouldn’t have the opportunity to develop in the same way, and for the moment at the very least their per capita consumption ranks way below most developed countries.

Furthermore and to be slightly cynical despite over 40years of warnings about the possible consequences of over consumption and damaging the environment the attempts to educate people into embracing ‘The Green Revolution’ only really started taking off in the West in the last 5 years when individuals and more importantly big businesses realized they could actually save a lot of money by driving more efficient cars, turning off lights and all the rest of it. And in this regard China is no different; in fact money, or costs and its’ relationship to environmental protection is even more closely linked.

Aside from embracing electric bikes there are good consequences of this; when supermarkets realized they could charge for cloth bags instead of giving out free plastic ones here they started to do so and bingo China now uses far fewer plastic bags than it did before. Similarly when they realized they could reuse certain materials and therefore save money, very quickly public bins were converted to have recyclable/non-recyclable compartments. Also, as the vast solar power programme in Tibet, nationwide network of HEP plants or the epic 20,000+ turbine strong wind farms in the West will show where the landscape permits it, China has also been one of the worlds foremost adopters of renewable energy generation.

However, there are also plenty of negatives about China’s relationship with energy too and much of these come down to power and water simply being too cheap. It is a fair criticism that China is woefully energy inefficient, to produce one unit of GDP uses up 7 times more resources here than in Japan. The reason for this is that there simply isn’t a strong enough economic incentive to adopt more efficient processes. Eastern China is awash with water so that’s very cheap but more controversially it’s the Chinese use of coal rather than oil which causes so many of the problems. Around the world coal is literally dirt cheap relative to other energy sources and it’s not at all unlikely that as the cost of oil continues to rise at some point other developed countries may have to start using it in much greater quantities again. In their rush for rapid economic development, for the Chinese the price of energy is the most important thing to look after but this means the people have to put up with some unpleasant consequences in the meantime.

Annually China uses up nearly 1 billion tonnes of the stuff and recently overtook the USA as the worlds biggest producer of CO2. Ignoring the international effects like acid rain and possible contribution to global warming it’s the localized adverse effects on peoples lives here which I’ve found most noticeable. China is home to over 20 of the 30 most polluted cities in the world and by EU standards 95% of urban dwellers breathe unsafe air, but these are in the bigger cities- in the coal mining districts things are much worse again. There are coal mines dotted all over the country but the highest concentration is found in a couple of provinces to the SW of Beijing called Shanxi and Shaanxi and life really is not pleasant there. The yellowy grey ‘smog blanket ‘which blights cities like Athens or LA is a constant here but over a much, much bigger area and every day you get the nasty ‘black snot’ and film on your teeth just from walking around. The people all seem to have hacking coughs and everything- buildings, clothes, even the dogs you see are just dirty, covered in nasty grey powder. I couldn’t describe it as like stepping back 150years ago in England as it’s a much drier, harsher landscape and the lack of greenery seems to makes things worse. It’s a hard life, and it would be interesting to know what the life expectancy is like in these areas compared to elsewhere in the country. Beyond the health effects, safety rates for miners are appalling and they’re expected to work long, dangerous hours as the demand for coal means the mines are 24hr operations. It’s another example of seeing the geographical differences in the quality of life in China as you realize the comfortably dressed white collar workers in the coffee shops and cocktails lounges of Shanghai are able to live like that thanks largely to the sacrifices others are making elsewhere in the country. Similarly to other fast growing Asian economies there’s undoubtedly a generational gap too where the current and previous generation are working incredibly hard to ensure a better quality of life for their offspring who are now starting to see the comfortable benefits of their parents endeavors.

I ended up staying in Beijing for a while for 2 reasons and one of them was waiting for my St Reatham based Polish friend Cec to arrive as she joined me for a couple of weeks…and at this point the writing style may change somewhat as I (Cec) hijack the email for a bit. Well, as 2 and a half week holidays go, I can honestly say that this has been up there with the best of them. China has been an amazing place to visit for so many reasons and perhaps in the main because it has been such a varied experience. As Barney alluded to, the holiday got off to a pretty interesting start with the Red Bull night in Beijing – straight off the flight from London – and from that point onwards, sleep was very much an afterthought as far as the holiday was concerned. After recovering to some degree from ‘the crash’ we spent a day wandering around the Temple of Heaven Park in Beijing, where I was really blown away by the way the Chinese use their public spaces. Walking around, we encountered impromptu choirs, orchestras, tai chi groups and the like, all seemingly going about their business entirely for their own pleasure rather than for any performance purposes. In fact, as I write this, we’re in Urumqi (the furthest west I am going) where there is a much more significant Uyghur population, and we saw another very similar display there, with Uyghurs and a few Chinese dancing to a small radio – something that is very different from anything you could imagine seeing in London (unless you count people getting boozed on Clapham Common, though I suspect that would be a very different sort of experience)! Anyway, from Beijing, a night train took us to Xian, the home of the Terracotta Warriors, which was an immense sight and quite incredible to comprehend when you think that a farmer uncovered it by mistake one day. It was also my first major experience of Chinese tourism in China which is honestly a sight to behold and really quite daunting at times. Tour guide, flags, matching hats (one-time Burberry themed..!) audio guides and hi-speed photo-taking appears to be the norm – something I’m very glad we managed to avoid in the main! Though it was interesting that in a few cases, the tourist attractions weren’t the only thing that interested them, and we became the subject of a few tourist shots as well – I think I might miss my minor celebrity status when I return to Blighty!!

Which leads on quite nicely to that evening when, after a few beers on the ‘bar strip’ we went into a club and proceeded to have one of the strangest evening encounters. We were escorted up to the club in a lift and then all the way through the bar which, despite being pretty plush, was practically empty apart from one table where they sat us down. I thought they were just a table of local people, but it turned out that it was the manager and his groupies, who took it upon themselves to ply us with free drinks, fruit and cigarettes all night; my good intentions to not drink much were slowly eroded when he brought out beer, whisky, whisky shots in beer, B52s – complete with actions – and then engaged us in some bizarre whisky-fume-smoking game, the point of which I’m not really sure, but it seemed to be the appropriate thing to do to appear impressed by the whole thing! Really it was just the biggest display of machismo – the guy was 23 and apparently owned the club, clapped his hands any time he wanted a staff member to bring over more drinks and then, at about 3am when he decided he’d had enough, went into a side room and just shouted at us to ‘Go home’! We took that as our cue and headed for home…another late night and not getting any closer to catching up on the jetlag or night train! I think by that time though, the philosophy to ‘push on through’ had been pretty well established and we resigned ourselves to less as the holiday progressed.

The next day we worked off the whisky with a ride around the 640 year old Xian city walls on a tandem bike. I’d been missing my bike so was pretty happy to be back on two wheels, though the tandem, on cobbles and on a 19m high wall was a different experience altogether. Balance is not my strong point and it was definitely required, but by the end we were basically pros. The views around the city were phenomenal, with quite a marked contrast between the architecture on either side of the walls. One photo in particular really captured modern China, with the wall in the foreground and a mixture of traditional architecture, pagodas and skyscrapers following on behind. That evening we headed onto Lanzhou on the night train - after our first hairy transport moment when our bus turned out to be going to the wrong train station and we then were ignored or declined by every taxi driver that went past. They seem to have a back to front system here, whereby lights indicate that they are full, coupled with the fact that if they don’t like the look of you or where you’re going, they’ll just drive off. The trains, despite being tiring and testing on the body (I don’t think a sitting-sleeping position exists that remains comfortable for more than about 5 minutes) have been one of the great things about travelling across China and again very different from home. For one thing they tend to run on time and are actually pretty efficient. For another, they have the potential to sell some really quite decent looking food (I say potential because they also sell some really weird stuff like chicken feet which aren’t really my cup of tea) but one of the key things is how sociable they seem to be. It’s hard to know who knows who on those trains, but general chatter, music being played on phones and card games seem to be the norm. They also seem to be fairly ofay with the art of sleeping well on them, as exemplified by the ‘bodiless man’ we saw on this one. He laid down some newspaper under the seat, shuffled underneath, helped into his sleeping arrangement by the guy sat next to him, and effortlessly disappeared beneath the seat. All that remained were a pair of shoes and bare ankles sticking out and a bit further up a patch of trouser leg. He seemed to get one of the best night’s sleep on the train though. Unfortunately, that was the night that my (sister’s) ipod got swept up with the rubbish, but to date, that is the only negative thing that has actually happened.

So, to Lanzhou…probably fair to say the most rubbish city we stopped off in so therefore not worth much of a mention and a stroll to the pagoda was devoid of beauty of any kind! Despite that though, the walk there was great for other reasons. Having not seen Barney for the best part of two years, it has been pretty seamless seeing each other again and travelling together has been great and very easy – even when transport hasn’t really gone our way all the time – and stopping for random chats and general musings has become a bit of a feature of our strolls around cities and sights. I feel like we’ve fallen into a bit of a routine what with Barney being the more seasoned traveller – he’s taken to looking after the money and I’ve taken more responsibility for general entertainment! I’ve also been pretty impressed by how much he knows about China (and the rest of the world for that matter...not to mention the phenomenal amount of stats he seems to have at his disposal!) – hence why I’m leaving most of the intellectual and insightful stuff to his section.

Continuing west Zhangye was our next stop where the main thing to do (other than visit the statue of Marco Polo) was an overnight trip to Mati Si which was truly amazing. The bus journey to the town was the first stunner as we passed through agricultural land, to scrub land, onto desert and then mountains rising up out of nowhere. That was only the start though and a walk towards the waterfall took us through the most diverse range of landscapes and weathers – hot sun down in the grassland and pine forest, then snow on the ground as we ascended through the forest, and when the river turned to ice and we emerged out of the forest into rocky mountain terrain where it was actually snowing I was properly in my geographical element! I don’t think any descriptions can really do the views the justice they deserve – but a look back down the valley included ice capped mountains, orange sandstone cliffs, green pine forests, iced-up rivers, patches of farmland and duller scrubland towards the bottom. Sadly we didn’t quite make it to the waterfall as our path eventually petered out and we were left trying to scramble up a fairly precipitous mountain face in the snow, with a sheer drop just the other side of the path! It was disappointing but we had to give up in the end as there was no guarantee of a path or any form of descent the other side. When we got down to the bottom though it was more than made up for when we went a bit off-piste to scramble up to some old Buddhist caves that were carved into the sandstone cliffs and were really in pretty amazing condition. One of the statues was so well preserved from the elements that you could still make out some of the detail on the carvings and even some paint. The entire day was actually a total surprise for both of us – so much richer than we were expecting in both landscapes and history and definitely a highlight of the holiday.

Anyway, I said was hijacking Barney’s email but I’ve just realized quite how much I have, and I’m only about halfway through what we’ve seen and done. Another undoubted highlight was seeing the Western end of the Great Wall near Jiayaguan, unlike the touristy sections near Beijing it was totally deserted so we really enjoyed having the freedom to take in the awesome views at our own pace. I didn’t get close to getting over quite how big, amazing and interesting China is and that’s certainly something I’ve found to be true as we’ve traversed the country – the distances are immense, whether talking between towns and cities, or within them. The diversity of landscapes has also been a real surprise – not least when we arrived in the town of Turpan which sits in the 3rd lowest depression in the world at 154m below sea level. When we arrived there, we had literally been travelling through desert land inhabited in part by camels and part by scrub– and we then emerged into a basin which seems to be the grape growing capital of China. Vine-trellised streets really made it hard to imagine that we were really in China but they also made for a really gorgeous cycle ride to Jiaohe, an ancient Uygur settlement carved out of the surrounding sandstone plateau, which has been phenomenally preserved with dwellings, wells and temples still easily identifiable. The trip we took the next day included another Uygur village which is still inhabited and one of the most striking things about that was that they appeared to be building a new housing development right beside it. That in itself though is quite emblematic of the side of China that we’ve been seeing, and one of the things that has really astounded me at all times actually, as there is an incredible amount of change visibly taking place and at a rapid pace. Cranes and construction work is evident everywhere and it shows no sign of stopping in the foreseeable future! I’m going to leave my bit here though as I’ve definitely waffled on longer than necessary and Barney has far more interesting insights to write about – suffice to say that this has been but a taster of all that China has to offer (and I’ve not even said anything about the people, politics or the other 28 provinces that I have yet to visit)!

Back to Barney -the other major reason why I found myself stuck in Beijing for a bit was waiting to receive my new passport. I was down to my last 2 pages and as part of the ConDem (ned?) coalitions’ cuts it’s now much harder to get a passport overseas with only one processing centre per continent, however much to my surprise they granted me one and I was fairly delighted as I now have the opportunity to travel home overland. Having been away for about 2 years now it’s now time to begin my own version of Journey to the West with the plan (visas permitting) being to go through the ‘Stans and hopefully get home in time for Christmas. I’m not quite leaving ‘China’ yet though as I’m gonna travel through East Turkestan which I’ll write about once I’ve hopefully crossed the border into Pakistan.

For now though, from Urumqi,


Posted by carlswall 14:33 Archived in China Comments (0)