Tuesday, March 13, 2007

From Hong Kong to Beijing

I am writing this on the train to Beijing. We are near Zhengzhou in Henan Province. The brown stained concrete apartment blocks are back, bare deciduous trees between the gaps, untouched yet by Spring. The sky is grey, with morning myst or coal smog I am not sure. I'm certain that, for the first time since we arrived in Asia, I saw some blue somewhere behind the cloud.

Stopped at Zhengzhou station and the lights are out, just like at Guangzhou. It is dark inside the compartment, I guess the locomotive is in the process of being exchanged, hence the lack of electricity. B is watching the Chinese portion of the “Around the World in Eighty Treasures” documentary that I copied from the television and on to a Personal Media Player. The narrator, Dan Cruikshank, visits the Forbidden City, Great Wall at Jinshanling, Summer Palace, Xian and Shanghai and eats silkworm and snake from a street vendor. All part of our plans – maybe! I hear B laugh out loud and crunch on the Korean prawn crackers we brought along as snacks.

We had spent our last morning in Hong Kong sleeping in, after a late night (very late night for me, posting to the blog). Finally packed, we left our bags at the hotel and wandered the local area in search of food, as usual taking forever to decide. She wants congee (rice porridge) or roast duck, I could stomach neither. Our explorations took us past a street devoted not to restaurants, but to supplies for restaurants; burners, cutlery, plates and more. We tried to purchase a couple of plastic mugs for the train trip, but all sales were in bulk only.

Lunch was finally eaten in a decrepit shed adorned with photos of stir fried dishes. It looked local, although the english signs were an indication that their clientel may speak languages other than Cantonese. I swear that it was B, not I, that ordered the sweet and sour pork. I went for pretzel fish (fried fish pieces in batter).

With some bananas and mandarines in hand, purchased from a street vendor, we rushed back to the hotel to collect our bags and onwards to Hung Hom train station, with a couple of MTR and KCRC train changes along the way. In a hurry, as usual leaving everything to the last moment.

Passing through Chinese immigration was surprisingly simple, no x-ray checks at all. A uniformed train attendant exchanged our paper tickets for decorative tickets. Our cabin is decked out in beech wood, brass fittings and pink and white fabrics, two low beds separated by a small table. There is a luggage storage comparment above the door, though it is mostly full of linen. The doors are lockable and there is a small brass level that, when extended down, prevents the door being opened fully. We feel a lot safer for this. The attendant can lock the door for you if both occupants need to leave at once.
There are plenty of examples of mangled English throughout the train:

“Beware of Nipping Hand”
“Needles and threats are provided for your convenience.”
“Do not panic, squeeze or jump off the train”.

The route out of Hong Kong passes by the tall tenement blocks and hills of the New Territories. Many looked much cleaner and newer than those we had passed by in Kowloon. The architecture and the tropical greenery are reminiscent of many of asian locations, Korea, Japan, even Malaysia.

Barbed wire and Chinese flags mark our transition from the Special Autonomous Region of Hong Kong into China proper. Gleaming new office skyscrapers with golden windows and pink tiled residential blocks proudly displayed the new money of Shenzen. Yet soon the cityscape disappear, to be replaced by fish farms and vegetable gardens. Small cities with buildings of dirty grey concrete and peeling paint. Everywhere demolition, with people living amongst the rubbish. The rubbish is ever present, colourful bags, bottles, plastic and everything else besides, building materials brick and concrete. Vegetables growing amongst the rubbish make you think, do I really want to eat that food?

I get an SMS from a Chinese mobile phone network, welcoming me to their country. Then another SMS from Mum announcing the birth of my niece. I SMS back a congratulations to my brother. Global roaming is great!

I see water buffalos and ancient looking sampans in canals. B is already asleep on the comfortable bed. As dusk falls we pass by a river running through mountains, hinting at beautiful scenery obscured by the dark. I wish that I knew where we were.

Dinner is a meal of stir fried beef and crab omelet in the dining car. Thankfully Hong Kong dollars are accepted for we have not had a chance to exchange them for yuan. We are seated behind a posh looking Australian couple and child. Australians everywhere the last few days, but then there are plenty of Chinese and Hong Kong citizens in Australia. It is the first time I have taken dinner in a train dining car and the food is surprisingly good.

B soon returns to sleep after the meal, but I lay back and read a book, listen to mp3's. Occasionally I peak out the window. As we pass though one city I see a very bright blue search light's beam stabbing across the sky from atop a skyscraper. Other white beams cross its path. It's a scene out of science fiction.

I sleep well during the night, only woken occasionally by a sharp bump. The cabin really is comfortable and it is good to have a decent rest.

I awake into a pale dawn landscape of bare poplars, birds nests in their branches, and cultivated fields. Frequently a village passes by, decaying red brick walls and tiled residences, looking old and very poor. On the doors and gates are red posters for the Chinese New Year. In the fields are burial markers for the ancestors of the villagers. Workers in their blue mao suits congregate or cycle out into the fields to begin the day's work.

The filth in which people live is astounding. Decay is everywhere, buildings are crumbling. And yet there is a certain beauty, a sense of age that cannot be found in Australia.

Occasionall, we see something that defies explanation. There were a series of pyramidal structure in the middle of a field. What were they? Then, after Zhengzhou was a giant sculpture of two heads at the edge of a hill. Who were they?

There is so much out there to see and so much that I don't understand. I am glad that we have caught the train rather than fly. We would have missed out on so much.

At last we arrive at Beijing West station. We pass through immigration, then exit out into a large square. Everywhere are locals, standing around, chatting, smoking, staring. Where do we go from here?

We wander along the main road in front of the station, pointed in that direction by a policeman. Taxis race past until we stick out a hand. The driver doesn't speak English, but seems to read a little. I have written down the Chinese name of the hotel, the Novotel Peace Hotel, in Pinyin and he says he knows the way.

All the buildings seem of monumental size, office blocks and genuine sights. The road is broad but still leaves little room for the constant weaving of the cars. As we approach the front of Tiananmen Square we pass a large silver dome. It's not on our maps or in the Lonely Planet. B asks the driver what it is, but he cannot make himself understood. Eventually, during a lull in the traffic, he reaches for our phrasebook and finds the English word he is looking for. “Theatre”.
The taxi ride to the hotel costs us maybe A$8. We give the friendly, helpful driver a clip-on koala, for making our trip in a nice experience.

The room in the Novotel is huge, especially in comparison to Hong Kong. The corner windows give a view towards Wangfujing Street, the television plays the National Geographic channel, but the internet is an expensive 1 RMB per minute, up to 100 RMB for the day. The hotel is super convenient for exploring central Beijing.

After a relaxing train ride we both have energy to burn, so we go in hunt of the Quanjude Duck restaurant along Wangfujing Street, past the department stores. It is easy to find, with a big neon sign. We are ushered up to the 5th floor.

The interior of the restaurant is ornately decorated in red and gold with a painted ceiling and glass chandeliers. A chef prepares the duck in front of our eyes, while a waiter demonstrates how to assemble the ingredients for the Peking Duck, duck skin and meat dipped in sauce and laid across the thin pancake, cucumber, chilli, garlic and spring onion added, then fold over the pancake. Eat. Delicious.

One whole duck provided the meal for the night and we leave very full. Not really expensive in comparison to Australia.

Afterwards we wandered the shopping strip on Wangfujing street, searching for a jacket for B. The only shop selling the jackets included an extremely pushy saleswoman. So pushy she pushes us out with her truly incessant haggling (and we know haggling). Eventually we end up in the same shop purchasing from a different woman who at least let us try some different styles. A$25 is about one tenth the price for a down jacket in Australia. B is feeling really cold and all the locals are rugged up. My fleece keeps me warm, I can't tell what the fuss was really.

On the way back to the hotel we detour along the night markets selling a wide variety of snack foods, from fried ice cream to fried scorpions. The worst is the big bowl of stewed dogs penises. I promise B that tomorrow night I will try a skewered insect, but I'm looking forward to the other dishes more.

So many things to do in Beijing. Tomorrow is the Forbidden City and whatever else we can fit in. Will three days be enough?