Archive for September, 2007


Drinking in China

In China, most drink beer. There’s good reason for this. Many parts of China are life-threateningly hot; so much so that cold beer is an integral part of your life-support equipment. That and spirits drinking is a knotty, complex area of Western culture that is stubbornly resisting assimilation into Chinese culture.

Case in point, an exchange with a waitress at a spirits-themed bar in Yangshuo:

“I’ll have a rum and coke.”

“Rum?”, she asks uncertainly.

“Yeah, rum.”

Waitress hurries off and scans a shelf of spirits bottles. Her finger passes Bacardi, Coruba and Captain Morgan.

“We don’t have ‘rum'”, she says anxiously.

“Uhhh huh… Well, I’ll have a bacardi and coke.”


Later on I’d order a Black Russian and receive a Martini glass filled with something milky-white coloured. At first I thought it was straight Kahlua, but on closer inspection I saw it was floating on top of about half a shot’s worth of Coke. Looks like somebody accidentally reversed the proportions in their bartending manual.

I feel curmudgeonly to be bitching about this. The fact that I could order in English at all is a tribute to the vast effort they must have put in scaling my side of the language chasm. They’ve obviously worked a lot harder than I have. I tried to learn some Mandarin phrases, but whenever I went to use them, the situation’s confusion and trouble just deepened.


GTA Beijing


After one of many close calls during our tour buses’ overtaking manoeuvres, one of the other tourists joked that it was just like playing Grand Theft Auto. He has a point.

  • No apparent speed limit.
  • Right of way isn’t enforced.
  • Nobody indicates.
  • Police only get involved if they witness an actual collision.
  • Even if the police do bust you, a donation can set you on your way again.

Seems to me like Asia is the natural setting for GTA. Why do Rockstar keep setting Grand Theft Auto in New York, Miami and LA lookalikes?

Think of the possibilities:

  • Denser, more chaotic traffic, to keep things interesting. Perhaps it’d be best suited if it were a final level of the game?
  • More varied interesting vehicles. I kept seeing tuktuks, rickshaws, huge tricycles with a big carrying tray between the back wheels (pickup tricycle? ute trike?), motorbikes converted into minibuses, tractors converted into minibuses, and so on. I even saw one guy cycling through the hutongs on a ute trike with its tray removed and a charcoal grill welded in its place. He was a mobile shish kebab stand!
  • Pedestrians whose courage and stoicisim is matched only by their keen senses and finely tuned reaction times. Not to mention their sophisticated flocking behavour which allows them to make impromptu pedestrian crossings, much like a column of army ants will form a bridge out of their comrades.



Rail in China

Beijing Railway Station is intense. It feels like an airport with all the gigantic architecture, but the thing is when a train arrives, it turns mosh-pit. In China, rail is serious business. They even X-Ray your baggage.

The departure boards probably had around 50 trains listed, and over how many platforms I have no idea. I do know that when we went to the departure lounge-like waiting room on the way to the platform, it was waiting room #13.

Back when I was leafing through the tour notes, a sleeper train didn’t seem like a bad idea at all. After all, my only notion of sleeper trains had come from 1950’s films.

My preconceptions of a sleeper carriage:


Our actual sleeper carriage:


Around 60 people to a carriage, triple decker bunks, and just about the only door on the carriage is the one on the heinous squat toilet. It’s a barracks with wheels.

The top bunks are roughly 8 feet in the air. I was in a middle bunk, and an elderly couple had the top bunks. Before I could figure out how to offer to swap bunk assignments, they had scrambled up top with surprising nimbleness. Good on them.


Terracotta Warriors

As impressive as the Terracotta Warriors are (8,000 life-size statues with unique faces, sculpted in 210BC), you do have to wonder about the guy who commissioned them, the first Chinese emperor.

You know, I’m no Qin Shi Huang, but I’d like to think that I would’ve realised that the Terracotta Army was a silly idea at some point during the estimated 38 years it took to complete them. I’d like to think I’d realise it before I’d go and commission a bronze handkerchief for my bronze charioteer to wipe away his (bronze?) sweat with.


But then again, it’s just that kind of unimaginative thinking that’s stopped me from unifying any Chinas lately.

Or thinking up any awesome stunts like this:

A German art student briefly fooled police by posing as one of China’s terracotta warriors at the heritage site in the ancient capital, Xian. Pablo Wendel, made up like an ancient warrior, jumped into a pit showcasing the 2,200-year-old pottery soldiers and stood motionless for several minutes.


Stuff from gift shops I wish I’d bought

Chairman Mao Alarm Clock

A little mechanical alarm clock with a smiling Mao on the face, surrounded by adoring workers. It even had his salute arm attached to the pendulum, so he waves back and forth (ala an Elvis pendulum clock). As hilarious as it is creepy.

“It’s Mao-o’clock! Time to rise! Rise up, people, rise up!”

Tabby Scarf

“Hey, look at these furs in this stall! I didn’t know you could get marmalade, gingery coloured ferrets or mink.” I paused. “Wait… there’s something familiar about those tails…”

“Craig, those are cat skins.”

I really should’ve got one for my sister, she’d scream with delight.

And the same stall had German Shepard floor rugs too!


Culture Shock

Culture shock. I thought it wouldn’t happen to me. Oh no, not me, calm and collected citizen of the world. Hah, yeah right.

Oddly it wasn’t the squat toilets (nasty, but relatives had warned me in advance) or even the lack of English, it was a mall in Beijing.

The place is called Silk Road Market (“One Market! One Dream!”), and it’s a combination of a mall and a market. It’s a large building – six stories high along with four sub-basements – yet the shops inside are open stalls, packed into a grid, spaced little more than an armspan apart from one another. Each stall has a couple of back walls lined with shelves, a small area to stand in, and a shop assistant or two.

Every shop assistant is trying to get your attention through yelling, waving and occasionally grabbing you by the arm. The crowds are shoulder-to-shoulder, and even if you could see where you’re going, there are precious few landmarks in the featureless expanse of stalls.

I’m the kind of guy that gets uncomfortable if a kiwi shop assistant asks “Can I help you?” twice. So for me, getting lost inside that place was kind of like a perfect storm of awful.

As soon as I could get back to the exit, I retreated to a neighbouring sandwich shop, where the crowds had thinned out to merely busy. I got my head back together while I watched the world’s slowest sandwich get made. (Unfamiliar with the strange foreign process of making a sandwich, the guy had to stop and ask his supervisor about several aspects)

Later in the trip we went to visit Buddha Water Cave, which was fantastic. At one point we had to wriggle our way through a very narrow, windy tunnel, headfirst and on our bellies. I found the cave crawl far less claustrophobic than Silk Road Market. At least wedged in a limestone crevice I could hear myself think.


Great Wall Hawkers


China is the land of the hard sell. It was pretty common to have hawkers trailing around behind you, relentlessly trying to sell things.

On day #1 we went to see a section of the Great Wall called Simatai. It’s a truly spectacular hike. The wall runs atop the crest of Yanshan mountain, with the highest watchtowers at the kilometre-high peak. We didn’t get that far, the highest four watchtowers are closed because the wall there is in unrestored condition (only 40cm wide in places), leading to a spate of tourist deaths.

At Simatai, the hawkers there were particularly memorable because it’s one thing to have a saleswoman follow you out of a shop, but it’s quite another to have one pursue you over two-hours worth of steep watchtower stairs just to sell postcards.

It works though. I overheard a conversation between a couple of Aussie tourists (not in our group), after one had bought a glossy panorama of the view.

#1: “It’s nice quality” (thumbing the shiny paper)
#2: “Oh yeah, how much did’ja pay?”
#1: “Uh, a hundred. The local bucks, umm, yuan.”
“Reckon it’d look nice at the office, might have it framed.”
#2: “Not bad. You could sell something like that for a lot more after that.”
#1: “Yeah, yeah!”

The 100 yuan he was talking about is a striking red banknote worth about NZ$20. Whenever you use one, the eyes of the locals widen, and they start acting quite strangely around you. This is because 100 yuan represents around a day’s income in a city, or almost a week’s income in a poor rural area. I’m sure 100 yuan makes up for the many trips up the wall following tightwads like me.