I would like to say that China is a strange country, but of course, all countries are strange to those who didn’t grow up there. Each country has its little conventions and rules of conduct which seem weird to visitors. I’m sure, for example, that Chinese visitors to Scotland (where my family originated) would find Haggis as strange as many Westerners find snake soup or fried dog. Actually, even I found Haggis strange until I tried it and liked it.
But most of us tend to forget this. We’re so used to living in our own countries that we can’t even imagine that other people would want to live differently. Travelling through so many in such a short period of time makes that quite obvious. Asia has advantages and disadvantages, but the only thing I have a real problem with is the concept of `saving face’. As far as I know I haven’t really had to deal with it on this trip, and I can see a few advantages to it, but I’ve grown up with friends who I can trust explicitly and not being able to really trust anything that anyone says gets frustrating after a while. I’m sure that the Chinese and others must have some way of working out if a person is telling the truth or not, so I guess I just have to find out what that is.
Anyway, back to China. In many ways, the country just seems to be living in the fifties. It has the same kind of fake conformity that we see in old movies while underneath everything is changing rapidly. I wouldn’t want to claim that the next decade will be like the sixties, but the whole country seems to be full of regulations which are simply ignored because they’re impossible or counterproductive to enforce. Even though the Party is still nominally in control, the country seems more capitalist than many of the nominally capitalist countries in Europe. With such a mixture of communist politics and capitalist economics, I’m sure the Chinese are living in interesting times…
I spent Friday just tidying up loose ends – getting money changed, posting another lot of unneccesary stuff (books, tripod, etc) back to my parents, and changing my flight from Hong Kong to Taiwan as I wanted to see what the Hong Kong job market was like so I extended my stay by a few days. The main Post Office in Beijing was surprisingly friendly and efficient even though I had to visit about six different counters before my parcel was finally accepted. It was also the only time I’ve ever had a parcel checked by a customs official before it was allowed out of the country. Even then I’m not sure what the point was when it only received a cursory inspection.
On the way back I stopped off at a supermarket to pick up some munchies as requested. Since all the packets were marked in Chinese I merely grabbed a few things that looked interesting and hoped that people would eat them. As I returned to the flat the lift attendant already knew which floor I was going to. That’s quite a nice touch.
Saturday involved an early start. Some of the students had arranged a weekend trip to the beach at Beidaihe, and we were to join them. After last-minute packing we were just in time to meet them at the college, then drive to the station to meet some of the others. As we waited a legless beggar came over to see us. One of the students told him that he had no small change. The beggar produced a large wad of notes and explained that this wouldn’t be a problem.
On arrival at the bus-stop things didn’t look too promising. The driver’s head and shoulders were hidden under the bus as he reassembled the engine. He didn’t even have a Buddha sitting on the dash to look after us like most taxis in Bangkok and some in Hong Kong. We climbed on board and hoped that it would start. Only to realise that we’d forgotten one of the students. Oops.
Luckily the driver wanted to wait for as many passengers as he could get, so the final student arrived just in time. The bus rolled off into busy Beijing traffic and we chatted with the students for some time before reaching the open road. I finally fell asleep for an hour or so, and on waking was quite glad that I’d done so.
Overtaking in China seems to involve the following procedure:
- Beep the horn loudly
- Pull out onto the other side of the road
- Check for oncoming traffic – if you see any then beep the horn even louder.
- If the oncoming traffic doesn’t swerve off the road, then beep the horn more insistently to show them you’re there.
- If all else fails, slam on the brakes and horn at the same time and stop with four or five feet to spare.
I counted three close calls on that trip and was glad I’d slept through some of the others. Ah well, at least the sky was blue now we were away from the city.
Every hour or so the bus driver had to stop to refill the engine with oil. After about three hours (by which time we were supposed to be in the sea) he decided to stop for lunch. A judicious chat with the students persuaded him to keep driving, but in the meantime I had my first encounter with traditional squat toilets. At least they weren’t as bad as some people had made out.
Mountains and a darkening sky indicated our approach to the coast. After about five hours on the road we finally reached the outskirts of the town, only to be pulled over by the cops. As it is supposed to be primarily a resort for Party members we assumed this was an ID check and I was somewhat worried as I discovered that in the rush that morning I’d forgotten to transfer my passport from my other trousers. Luckily he just asked if we were carrying any fruit-knives, and when we insisted we had none he left. Apparently long knives are illegal in that part of the country and I guess we looked trustworthy enough.
We finally pulled into the Chinese hotel that the students had chosen. No rooms were available, but after a brief chat with the receptionist some were discovered. The rules said that Chinese and foreigners could not share a room, or even a block, so we were sent to a special block reserved for foreigners. I must say, the room was the best I’ve ever had for $8 per night. Twin beds, bathroom, air conditioning and just about anything else you could want. The students got us a seriously good deal.
In the last few years I’ve only swum in Florida, where I wore shorts, and they were getting too delapidated so I had neither those nor trunks. I’d planned to buy some in Singapore, but as the water park was closed we never got round to it. Instead we had to go on a shopping expedition, and one of the students demonstrated her bargaining skills again as she helped me buy some. Another had never been in the sea before and found herself a rubber ring.
We reached the beach and set up. The sea was tolerably warm and very rough – we should have had surfboards. We spent about forty-five minutes swimming and then had to go back to prepare to meet the other students who’d preceded us. As we were changing the sky grew very dark and heavy rain began to fall. We grabbed our stuff and rushed off to the shelter of the deckchair stall. The only exception were the two students still swimming, who were in the best position of all for a rainstorm!
After a five minute photo session so that everyone could have their picture taken in front of the double rainbow we walked back to the hotel, showered and napped. We met up with the other group of students and they took us to a seafood restaurant on the shore. It was unlike any I’d been to before in that on the way in you chose a selection of live shellfish, fish and crabs from buckets by the door and they were taken away to be cooked for your meal. I’d previously only seen many of the shellfish on offer sold in shell shops in Europe.
The dinner was huge, as was the supply of beer. Dish followed dish, and I had to work hard to keep up. Most of the shellfish were nice, but I declined the snails and had learnt my lesson before about trying to eat crabs with chopsticks. By the end of the meal the students were a little concerned that we’d drunk three or four bottles of beer each but we pointed out that the English knew how to take their beer and wouldn’t fall over.
The local food in China is very cheap, good, and very messy. I loved the meals that we had in various small restaurants, and none came to more than about $4 per head even with beer. Admittedly hygiene is not up to Western standards, but I didn’t catch anything. I was, however, lucky that I had Tansy and the students to translate as most menus were only in Chinese.
We continued on to the beach, stopping at a stall to pick up more beer and some munchies. One of the students had brought along his guitar, and we sat on the sand illuminated by streetlights and shop lights listening to him play and playing silly games. At midnight the lights cut off, but I still had my video light to keep us going for another half hour or so.
Compared to Beijing the sky was very clear, and many stars were visible. The cool sea air was also a pleasant change. Reluctantly we packed up just before 1am and returned to the hotel. I was spending far too much time looking at the stars and too little looking in front of me on the way back, but luckily one of the students kept me from crashing into things.
The next day we hired a minibus to take us to another beach nearby. We drove for nearly an hour and were then surprised to see people sliding down a large sandbank ahead of us. A cable car took them to the top, then they slid down on the far side. I wasn’t sure if they were using skiis or something like a bobsleigh, but it looked quite fun. Unfortunately the queue would take about an hour to clear so we decided we’d better leave it.
The beach itself was pleasant but had no shark nets so wasn’t recommended for swimming. The rusty Armored Personnel Carriers giving people rides along it added an interesting surreal touch. I think the machineguns had been removed. All along the shore motorboats were assembled to give rides, and further down a 4×4 towed people for parascending. I hadn’t expected this kind of thing in China.
We walked along the beach for a while collecting shells, and along with one of the students I tried to rescue some crabs that had stayed out too long in the sun, but they were dead. Perhaps for the best, as otherwise they’d probably have been in a seafood restaurant in a few days anyway. We stopped and chatted by an old fishing boat which was slowly falling to pieces.
Before leaving we decided to risk a ride in one of the motorboats – hell it was only $1.50. We didn’t realise quite what it entailed. We pulled on the lifejackets then climbed in, soaking the legs of my trousers as we did so. I found myself in the front seat, hanging onto the bulkhead and a small handle on the side.
As they pushed the boat out into the breakers it began to roll wildly at forty-five degrees or more. Just as I thought we were going to go right over it turned back, but only because it was hit by a large wave which soaked me to the skin. Another couple followed before the driver got it under control. Soon we were skimming over the waves at high speed. Each wave we hit would throw us into the air and then we fell back to the sea with a thump that ran right up my spine.
You know, I sometimes feel that there are two parts of me. One part is reckless and fearless and will agree to try just about anything. The other is a real scaredycat who’d rather be at home with his mother. This was one of those times. But I must admit, even though I was soaked through by the time I returned it was a lot of fun. I wasn’t screaming because I was scared, just because I was enjoying it. Honest.
A little further along we found another beach suitable for swimming and set up for a long stay. The biggest problems were the umbrellas and deckchairs. We didn’t really want any, but soon we had an entourage of about fifteen people following us along the beach to try to persuade us to rent some. Eventually we gave up and hired an umbrella just to make them go away.
I covered up with sunscreen and headed off into the waves, some of which were five or six feet tall. I spent most of the next couple of hours hanging on to a rubber ring with one of the students, riding the waves. The currents kept washing us into the shark nets until we learnt to keep swimming away.
This time we avoided the rain, and I abandoned the sea when the waves became far too large to comfortably deal with. Even so, I had to fight hard against the current to get out. Only after I began changing did I spot my red shoulders and arms, and realise that all that time on the ring they’d been out in the sun. Ooops.
We packed up and took a train back to Beijing. We’d wanted to take a train there as well, but no tickets were available. Somehow the students had managed to organise some for the trip back. That was far more comfortable and saved two or three hours of travel. However the crowds were incredible. We had to fight to keep moving and trying to keep the group together was difficult, involving a lot of shouting and gesticulating over the heads of the other travellers. Somehow we all ended up in the right seats.
The next day would be my last in Beijing, as I was flying out on Tuesday morning. Unfortunately I woke up with very sore and peeling arms and shoulders, feeling generally unwell and with some trouble walking in a straight line. I spent most of the day dozing on the sofa and hoping that the damn sunburn would sort itself out eventually. By the evening I could at least manage to get to the shop by the base of the flats. They only spoke Chinese, but that wasn’t a problem. The shopkeeper had already worked out that when one of us went down there the question wasn’t “would you like some beers?”, but rather “how many?”
Joyce also had a minor problem that day as the taxi she was in was rear-ended by a car. Luckily she was in the front seat and consequently unharmed. I’m rather glad that I did stay at home instead of joining her as I would have been in the back. Perhaps the sunburn was useful after all…