You may be aware that China has just celebrated the Lunar New Year, which I spent having a McDonald’s in Hong Kong airport. I was on my way back from travelling in the south of China and through Vietnam. I’ve been meaning to write this for ages, and I decided to stop messing around trying to be Michael Palin and just get it down and whack it up with some photos. Condensed to around five minutes, this is my ( extremely ) rough guide to ( parts of ) the south of China.
Shanghai 上海 My memories of being here are dominated by playing pool and eating European food, like Danish hotdogs and a spaghetti carbonara. It feels much more international than Beijing. The people don’t stare, which was a relief, and when I tried speaking Chinese to buy train tickers, the lady just replied with “do you want morning or afternoon train”. The centre was carpeted in skyscraperslike glass needles, illuminating the low mist. You get a stiff neck from looking up and around at the bright financial district.
When we walked home one night after searching out a pool bar, we ducked into an underpass where there were rows of sleeping bags, creased faces peering out from under woollen hats, and a tin mug pushed forward. For all its modernity, Shanghai still has its homeless.
Hangzhou 杭州 We split with the Danes. Joe and I went on to Hangzhou, the so-called “garden city”. Which is pretty accurate. There are plants spilling over the overpasses and threaded along the roads, and trees and shrubs on the unused space. Maybe I haven’t seen Beijing in its summer glory, but the capital seems monochrome by comparison.
We did a daytrip to Shaoxing 绍兴. The ( usually reliable ) Lonley Planet led us to believe there would be something worth while: We went, found a tourist street, ate noodles, came back. Sometimes the Lonely Planet is wrong, and we can all just forget that we ever went to Shaoxing.
People in Shanghai didn’t bat an eyelid at us foreigners. In Hangzhou, I felt like even the dogs were staring at us. I’ve never had so much attention since I’ve been in China, and the novelty definitely wears off.
Guangzhou 广州 Travelling in China is both a blessing and a curse. It’s relatively cheap ( £35 from Beijing to Shanghai, for example ) and you can travel on the high speed rail. Or you can take overnight trains. This trip included a 21 hour leg between Hangzhou and Guangzhou. Safe to say that the novelty of sleeping on a train wears off once you’ve woken up and it ticks around to hour 16 crammed into a bunk, which has been designed for a person of Asian stature, not a long-bodied Brit.
We weren’t in Guangzhou very long. Went to an arty-as district called Redtory, drank some craft beer, played more pool, stayed up with an old guy telling me about swarms of mice or frogs or something in Australia.
Guilin 桂林 This is dog country. Like, eating dog country, although there are dogs in the streets as well, but I guess it’s like having chickens run around or whatever. Guilin looked the most like what I imagine China to look like: beat up roads, people huddling around fires, shop fronts open onto the streets and families squatting around crates to eat lunch.
Joe headed back to Beijing on the Saturday and I spent a day in the hostel planning the next leg of the trip in Vietnam. I played ( more ) pool with the hostel receptionists, who taught me words like baoyang 包养 ( to keep a mistress ) and xiaosan 小三 ( affair, literally “the third person” ), and I returned with a broken Chinese explanation of “cougar” and “toyboy”.
Yangshuo 阳朔 This is deep China. It’s become more touristy, but it’s still isolated, a town thrown down like scattered bricks between the misty karsts. The landscape is unlike anything I’ve seen, and I spent the better part of a day lost in it.
Here I had some of my most ‘Chinese’ experiences so far: being cooked for by a Mrs Wei and sitting under a heated blanket in a cold living room, talking and trying to decipher her southern accent.
Nanning 南宁 I didn’t do much here but walk around in the rain. I stopped over on my way to crossing the Vietnamese border on my way to Hanoi. I had very little Chinese money, no Vietnamese currency, and no visa.
Vietnam adventures to follow.