Part of a trip concentrating on East Asia (China, Hong Kong, Japan, North and South Korea), continuing in South Asia (Bangladesh, India) and ending on the Arabian Peninsula (Oman, United Arab Emirates).

China

– visited August/September 2015 –

The airport bus is the most convenient way to get to the Beijing City Central Youth Hostel. As the bus wants to enter the highway, the road is blocked by a policeman. Everyone stops but an expensive SUV swerves right and just drives past him. I am not surprised. In the view many people hold of China the Communist Party hast total control, there is no individuality and the people take everything without questioning and without complaints. This image was destroyed during my first visit to China in 2002. The real China proved to be chaotic and, in many areas, it seemed the government was only trying to steer the chaos into some direction. Much is left to the initiative of individuals, leading sometimes to curious outcomes. Money, especially how much you have of it, is of great importance. During my first visit I had avoided political discussions and questions. It didn’t take long though for people to tell me what they thought. One man made it perfectly clear what kind of idiot Mao was, in a train, in public and didn’t seem to care who listened. My impression back then was, as long as you do not directly demand democracy or a change of government, you can get away with a lot of criticism. The example of the SUV emboldens a taxi driver. He tries to circumvent the policeman but is lacking in determination. The policeman comes over and stops him, a loud discussion follows. The taxi driver acquiesces to the state power.

It’s my third visit to China. I went to Beijing in 2002 and honestly didn’t like. In truth, I was just overwhelmed. China was interesting but could be annoying and was difficult to travel. I was glad when I could “escape” to Hong Kong, which I loved. In 2003 I returned, not because I wanted to visit China again, but because I had an already arranged return flight to Hong Kong and wanted to travel back to Germany overland. I thought about crossing China as quickly as possible to reach Kyrgyzstan. Back then, after some days, I started to relax and started to enjoy China. I stayed for two weeks and if the visa situation would have allowed it, I would have stayed longer. China was difficult to travel but worth it, and at the end of my trip I managed something few tourists would do, I bought a train ticket all by myself without the help of a travel agent. Fast forward to August 2015, when I take a trip to North Korea that starts and ends in Beijing. China, here I come again.

Bejing

Beijing is one of the most impressive cities on earth. It has three UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Summer Palace, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven) within the city and four others nearby (Peking Man Site, Great Wall, Ming Tombs, Grand Canal). I limit myself to (re-)visiting some of the highlights, the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven. I rent a bike just to cycle around. Beijing has changed a lot. When I visited in 2002 there were exactly two metro lines, reaching the Summer Palace felt like a trek out of town. Now there are fifteen metro lines and getting to the Palace is just a short ride. High-rises and skyscrapers have gone up, I head to the CCTV (China Central Television) Headquarters for its amazing architecture.

Security is tight; even to enter a metro station you have to go through a metal detector and your bags are being x-rayed. I don’t mind, the process is organized efficiently and is quick. What I do not like is the tightened security at Tiananmen Square. In 2002, I had a by-chance meeting with a German friend and we ended up flying a kite on Tiananmen Square in the evening. This friend even managed to ride his bike onto the square past the policemen who was keeping watch. Nowadays, riding a bike on Tiananmen Square would be nothing but impossible. The whole square is fenced, access is only through underpasses and you have to go through a security check. Is this done for safety reasons or is this done to prevent anyone from showing signs of protest on the square? I would love to visit Mao’s mausoleum, I didn’t in 2002, but it is closed for the time I am in Beijing.

One evening, I meet a friend that I met a year earlier in South America and she treats me to some of the best food I have ever tasted. She doesn’t stop ordering; we eat less than half of what is on the table. A sign of respect, I learn.

The weather is perfect, the sky is blue, nothing to see of the infamous Beijing smog. The reason for that is simple, the World Championships in Athletics are held and China wants to present itself in a perfect light. All polluting industry had to cease operation a week ago, they will re-start after the championship has concluded. If you have a blue sky once, you have to use it so a military parade has been scheduled for the 3rd of September on the “Victory over Japan Day”. That is causing me some trouble. First, it’s the reason why Mao’s mausoleum is closed, second tomorrow the whole city centre of Beijing will be shut down for a parade rehearsal and thirdly the Chinese have gotten a few days of holidays and they are on the move. Train tickets are hard to find…

For the Athletics World Championships no tickets are available through the official channels anymore but I try my luck and head to the stadium anyway. The black market is thriving and there seem to be more sellers than buyers. I bargain hard and get a ticket worth 300 yuan at 160 yuan (20 €), only slightly more expensive than the cheapest official tickets. Walking towards the brightly lit Bird’s nest stadium I think I must be the dumbest person on earth. Buying a ticket at such a discount, it must be fake. From my previous visits I took away the notion that China is a land of dishonesty. For a map I was once quoted a price of 50 yuan, I bargained it down to 34 and the guy tried to short-change me. A few minutes later I was offered the same map for five yuan. I had heard numerous stories of people being cheated over deposits they had paid at hotels. I had once booked a boat trip including a stay in a hotel the night before and when I got there, they demanded extra money because of single occupancy. I was promised an English-speaking guide on the boat and yes, she did speak English. Exactly three words. Hello, Yes and Sorry. China is the only country I have ever seen someone being short-changed twice in one transaction. It was not even a foreigner; it was a local Chinese person. To my surprise, I get into the stadium without any trouble and I am close to the pole-vaulters as my compatriot Raphael Holzdeppe takes the silver medal. Jamaican sprinter legend Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce takes the gold in the 100 metres. The medal ceremonies are funny, the flags are hanging limp on the flagpole as they are being pulled up. When they are in position, an air blower starts and suddenly they flutter perfectly.

In a restaurant I meet two Polish guys. They have hitchhiked all the way from Warsaw to Beijing in seven weeks. Unfortunately, they spent all their time on the road, trying to move on and have only a few days left before flying back. They crossed all of China and developed an absurd theory of her being a country of great wealth and economic equality. “Well, all the people that gave us a lift had new and good cars.” That may be, but the majority of people here does not have a car and does not even dream of having one as they will never be able to afford one.

High-speed Trains

I am looking forward to the train trip to Shanghai. In 2002, China had exactly zero kilometres of high-speed tracks and I vividly remember a man telling me how incensed he was that the government had recently decided to buy Japanese high-speed trains and not German ones. Now, just thirteen years later, high-speed trains are all over the country. The 1,380-kilometre trip from Beijing to Shanghai will take just under six hours, an average speed of 230 km/h. While doing my research I learn that trains taking only four-and-a-half hours are already scheduled, a whopping average speed of more than 300 km/h. Take this as a sign of China’s ambitions. The German railway system prides itself on the connection Berlin-Munich that is currently being upgraded and will allow trains in the future to cover the distance in a little less than four hours. That is a paltry average speed of 158 km/h.

Leaving for North Korea we had left from Beijing Railway Station and it brought memories of my previous trips. It is incredibly full; people everywhere and they push to get where they need to go. Beijing South Railway Station is a different kind of breed. It mostly serves high-speed trains. I underestimated the distance from the city centre and I am late. I leave the metro ten minutes before departure, run the few metres to the station. The security check goes reasonably fast. Inside, the station is organized like an airport. The ground floor is for arrivals only and I have to take a few elevators up to reach the departures area. I make my way quickly and am confident that I will catch the train. I arrive at a counter that looks like the boarding gate of an airport and try to scan my ticket. Three minutes to departure. The turnstile does not move. A young lady appears and she tells me I am too late. “Please!” “No. Boarding is finished.” I need to be there at least five minutes before departure. I can look down on the platform and see people enter the train. It leaves right on time, no late departures due to late passengers.

Thankfully, I can exchange my 75 € ticket for another train, two hours later. The waiting room is guarded by two special forces policemen (marked SWAT). Black uniform, bulletproof vest, an assault rifle in hand. They stand back-to-back, each guarding his half of the room.

The now Chinese trains are closely modelled on the Japanese Shinkansen. Like them the cheapest class has five seats in a row but they are comfortable and spotlessly clean. In the next row I witness a display of the clash between the old and the new China. An older couple who do not look like regulars on that train, is travelling with their grandson. Along comes a neatly dressed lady selling ice cream. But she’s not selling any ice cream, she is exclusively offering overpriced Häagen-Dazs. I don’t understand more than a few words of Mandarin but the meaning of that encounter was totally clear. The grandparents decide to buy some ice-cream, they ask for the price, they are shocked, “but it’s Häagen-Dazs” she exclaims. The child has to do without ice. The landscape is unremarkable, mostly flat, we pass a lot of cities. Everything is obscured by a whitish haze; I am not sure if this is pollution or just the way it is in China in August.

Shanghai

Right on time, we pull into Shanghai Hongqiao another brand new railway station mostly used by the high-speed network. It’s quite far out of town though, by metro it takes about 45 minutes to reach the centre. Just as I started to think that China has become a much more pleasant place to live a fight starts on the metro train. Two guys attacking one guy. I don’t really know why, they are not really violent, throw a few punches, kick his phone to the ground (but don’t steal it) and leave the next station.

At the first place I can find I have a shrimp dumpling soup for a bit more than 2€ that is absolutely delicious. I walk to the Bund. An amazing place, on one side of the gently curved Huangpu River is the old colonial Shanghai. A string of buildings, constructed in the early 20th century in the Beaux-Arts style, that once housed international banks and trading houses. On the other side of the river is the Pudong district. Once a wasteland, development started in the 1980s and it is now an assembly of skyscrapers centred on the iconic Oriental Pearl TV Tower. I love cities at night, I love skyscrapers and this is just wonderful.

The next day I reach the Yuyuan Gardens a place as touristy as it can be. It’s a famous teahouse in a pond reached by a zigzagging bridge. Around it a huge bazar, selling touristy stuff including a McDonalds and a Starbucks. It’s full of people, either newly built or recently over-renovated and spotlessly clean. I leave. Nearby is the Taoist City God Temple. I still do not get how China handles religious freedom, what I can say is that there are plenty of Taoist, Confucian or Buddhist temples that are active and where people worship. I like the rituals with the fires and the incense burning. The statues of the myriads of gods and goddesses are often amazing although I have little knowledge which statue represents what. I try to take interesting pictures although it is hard without violating the privacy of the worshippers.

A long walk brings me to the People’s Square where the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall is waiting. A few pictures of the old days, Pudong district really was just fields thirty-five years ago. The highlight is a massive model of Shanghai and the planned development. I learn about Shanghai’s future: “Under the guidance of the party’s theory of scientific development concept, Shanghai will be gradually developed into an eco-friendly, energy-saving, and livable city with reasonable plans, fully equipped facilities, and comprehensive services.”

The metro brings me to Pudong to explore the skyscrapers. Close to the river is a Paulaner Biergarten and a branch of the Munich-based luxurious restaurant Käfer. The ferry brings me back to the other side. Time for more shrimp dumplings.

Old warehouses are now home to numerous small galleries in the M50 Art district. In Ai Weiwei’s shadow, Chinese Art has become fashionable also on the international stage. I love the interactive installation where you can climb on a pulpit to face a booing crowd. My next stop is in the basement of a residential building. Signage is minimal and only who knows about it will find it. The Propaganda Poster Art Centre is a gem, a collection of propaganda posters throughout the history of the People’s Republic. Mao with Stalin in Moscow in the early days, the famous bridge over the Yangtze, a ballet of gun wielding army dancers, happy Chinese farmers.

I wander through the so-called French Concession. An area formerly ceded to France. It’s seen as one of the sights of Shanghai but it leaves me disappointed. Yes, it has some unusual European architecture, it seems to be a pleasant place and it is amazing how many Westerners start flooding the streets in late afternoon, after work I assume. There are nice restaurants, cafés, bars but this is not what I am looking for. Just in general Shanghai leaves me unimpressed. The Bund is amazing but besides that? I imagine Shanghai is a pleasant place to live but somehow leaves me, as a visitor, unexcited.

Nanjing

The 284 kilometres to Nanjing take a bit over an hour. A lady in a special red uniform walks along the aisle, she tells some people to push their bag a bid further onto the luggage rack, she stops at my backpack, she doesn’t speak to me but pushes my straps further in.

“Nan” means “south” in Mandarin and “jing” means “capital city”. Nanjing served numerous times over the last thousands of years as the capital of China. In 1949 it lost that title to Beijing. “Bey”, by the way, means “north” so Beijing means “northern capital”. Nanjing has at times been one of the largest cities in the world. It has seen god times and it has seen bad times.

Remember the man I wrote about who was angry that the Chinese government would buy Japanese trains instead of German ones? Well, it wasn’t that he liked Germany so much, he just hated Japan. “Do you know what they did in World War II? Do you know what they did in Nanjing?” I didn’t, but now, 13 years later, I am here to find out.

The Nanjing Massacre was an episode of mass murder and mass rape committed by Imperial Japanese troops against the residents of Nanjing over a period of six weeks starting on the 13th of December 1937, the day that the Japanese army captured Nanjing. During this period, Japanese soldiers murdered disarmed combatants and Chinese civilians. As little historical evidence has survived the number of victims is disputed, realistic estimates point into the direction of more than 200,000 people. The Nanjing Massacre Memorial uses the number 300,000 and might be correct with that. Why all that? The historian Jonathan Spence concludes: “There is no obvious explanation for this grim event, nor can one be found. The Japanese soldiers, who had expected easy victory, instead had been fighting hard for months and had taken infinitely higher casualties than anticipated. They were bored, angry, frustrated, tired. The Chinese women were undefended, their menfolk powerless or absent. The war, still undeclared, had no clear-cut goal or purpose. Perhaps all Chinese, regardless of sex or age, seemed marked out as victims.” The Nanjing Massacre Memorial is well worth a visit. It is moving, informative, balanced and there seems to be an outstretched hand to build a better future together.

I am even more surprised at the former villa of Chiang Kai-Shek. Not a single bad word can be found over the nemesis of the early Communists, from arch-villain he seems to have been transformed into a patriot. The Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, honouring the man who was instrumental in overthrowing the Qing dynasty, is a beautiful building.

Pingyao

Travelling China has become a lot easier compared to my previous visits. Back in the days, nearly everyone would buy train tickets at a travel agent as these were the only places where someone would speak English. Otherwise, things could be rocky. On my first trip (2002) I vividly remember my attempt to get to some little visited section of the Chinese Wall. I followed my guidebook’s advice to some bus station which was in fact a massive parking lot with hundreds of buses. There was not a single sign in English, nothing I could read or understand and I wasn’t really able to find someone to help me. After wandering around for an hour, I headed back to the hostel and booked the standard tour. On my second trip (2003) I list it as one of my accomplishments to have bought the train ticket from Ürümqi to Kashgar by myself with a lovingly prepared Mandarin sentence. Now, there are numerous official ticket agents where you can book as if you are on a train station. Many speak English and are very helpful. But even without English it is usually no hassle, you can research all the trains online and see the availability of space. Armed with the train number, the date, the places of departure and arrival written on a piece of paper you can buy tickets even without verbal communication. I want to exchange a soft sleeper ticket (super-comfy) for a cheaper hard-sleeper ticket (comfy enough, the standard is good) that has become available. I tell the lady at the train station and I have the feeling she doesn’t understand me. But then she answers “window three”. I assume she hasn’t understood and just sends me to an English-speaking colleague but no, she has sent me to the special windows for exchanging tickets.

All in all, there is much more English spoken across the country and much more signage in English. Many tourist sites have been upgraded and are more easily accessible. English restaurant menus are easier to come by. I also have the feeling that the country has become gentler and nicer. During my first visits being cheated seemed to be a part of life that you had to defend against. On this trip not a single attempt, instead I receive a lot of kindness.       

My travel plans are partly dictated by the availability of trains. China’s high-speed network is tens of thousands of kilometres long and high-speed trains even have sleeper cars for the long-distances. If only beds on these trains would be available. The holidays around the 3rd of September give the Chinese the time to travel and they make use of it. Taiyuan is one of the few places where tickets are available and from there it is a short hop to Pingyao. Officially the “Pingyao Ancient City” is famed for its importance in Chinese economic history and for its well-preserved Ming and Qing urban planning and architecture. It is well worth a visit. Pingyao is beautiful but the work moral is lax. Uniformly all the people checking the tickets have a phone and a big power bank, watching videos all the time. I take a day to head to the Wang Family Courtyard which is, well, a grand, fortified family compound and to Zhangbi with its temple and underground castle.

Pingyao has two train stations, the old Pingyao station that is right next to the old town and the new station (mostly high-speed trains) which is called Pingyao Ancient Town but is about ten kilometres away from the old town. That is one of the recipes for fast travel between metropolitan centres. In smaller towns the tracks are optimized not for access to the town but for being in a convenient location to build the line without much deviation. For my onward journey to Xi’an, I could get nothing more than a hard seater ticket. For many Chinese that is all they will ever be able to afford. These seats used to be really hard wooden benches but nowadays they are much better. It is just a normal seat that cannot be reclined and the carriage gets crowded. Just the right thing for my overnight journey.

Xi’an

The Terracotta Army is stunning. More than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses, and 150 cavalry horses made from clay, meant to protect a deceased emperor in the afterlife. Megalomaniacal and crazy. What good could have been done with all the effort being devoted to that useless undertaking? Visiting the Terracotta Army though is a dreadful experience. It starts with the buses to get there. The queue snakes across a whole square, we wait nearly two hours. At the Army you basically have to push through the masses to get a good view at the main pit. People are standing in five or six lines at the best places. The museum is doing its best but there are just so many people. Catching the bus back is a stampede.

Similar sites near Xi’an, like the Tomb of Emperor Jingdi, are much more enjoyable, they lack the massive size but they, fortunately, also lack the crowds. Xi’an is one of China’s oldest cities and has been its capital under several of the most important dynasties in Chinese history. An interesting place, it has a sizeable Muslim population with their customs, a Muslim Quarter and a historic Great Mosque. A view of China that I have never seen before. And now, it is finally there, the “Victory over Japan Day”. People run around town with flags that are free for everyone.  

Hua Shan

Hua Shan is the westernmost of the Five Great Mountains of China. It is considered as holy and has a long history of religious pilgrimage. It has five main peaks, the highest of which, South Peak, reaches 2,154.90 metres. That is a serious hike, as the trail starts at an altitude of about 410 metres. To reach the lowest summit, North Peak, is already an altitude gain of 1,200 metres, from there you can decide if you want to proceed. There are cable cars to help you get on the mountain. It is an experience, the landscape is of utmost beauty, the paths are best described as hiking highways but can be challenging, some parts are steps that have been hewn into steep rock faces. There are temples, restaurants, food vendors, red bands, memory padlocks, hostels and many, many people. I climb up but take the cable car down.    

Luoyang

I have now concluded my trip to the Four Great Ancient Capitals of China. I visited Beijing, Nanjing, Xi’an and finally Luoyang. Not much remains of that grandeur but the Longmen Grottoes are stunning. Some fine examples of Chinese Buddhist art. Tens of thousands of statues of Shakyamuni Buddha and his disciples have been hewn in grottoes in the limestone cliffs along the Yi river.

Guilin

You might never have heard about Guilin but you will recognize the pictures. Everybody has seen the iconic steep limestone hills covered with thick vegetation. Some of these pinnacles rise as high as 300 metres. It has been described as a “peak forest plain” which is a fitting description. Guilin itself is only the gateway town, there is the Sun & Moon Pagoda but not much else. The real show starts at the Li River, in Yangshuo or in the valley of the Wulong river an hour or more away. I take a boat trip and rent a bike for further exploration. It is superbly beautiful but, understandably, there are many visitors.

Shenzhen

Contrary to the other cities Shenzhen has no ancient history. Back in the 1950s, where the city of 12 million inhabitants now is, were mostly empty fields. But in the last decades Shenzhen has seen a meteoric rise that even in China has no equal. Let’s recollect a powerful narrative of Chinese history. China has been a great power for thousands of years, for long periods it had been superior to any other power on earth. Gunpowder is just one example of knowledge or skills that China had before anyone else. Contact to the European world was limited and so the power disparity was not obvious for everyone to see. But in the Age of Enlightenment, Europe made great progress and the power balance changed, by the 18th and especially the 19th century European powers started to encroach on Chinese territory. They proved highly superior and forced unequal treaties on the Chinese Empire which was seen as a deep humiliation.

The Chinese path to modernity proved difficult. The Empire came to a close in 1912 but the new Republic of China struggled to establish itself and sooner than later was engulfed in an external struggle with Japan and an internal struggle with adherents of Communist ideas. Japan was fended off and the Communist side won the internal struggle. In line with other communist countries, the People’s Republic of China planned its development in Five Year Plans. The second of those (1958 to 1962) was called the “Great Leap Forward” and caused an estimated 45 million deaths by pursuing policies grounded in ideology but detached from reality. Most died from hunger, to harvest you have to plant.  After a few years of recovery Mao Zedong called for the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”. Victory would come as Chinese society was freed from remnants of Capitalism and Tradition. Along the way, critical voices within the Communist Party could be silenced. The Cultural Revolution, later officially declared to be “responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the Party, the country, and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic” continued until Mao’s death in 1976. The proud China was weak and in disarray. By 1978, Deng Xiaoping, in prison during the Cultural Revolution, had become the new paramount leader and it was realized that in order to become strong, China would need to get in touch with the outside world. One part of the “Reforms and Opening-Up program” was the “Open Door Policy” meaning welcoming foreign businesses. Shenzhen was the first Special Economic Zone (SEZ) being declared on the 31st of January 1979. It has never looked back. The Special Economic Zones were supposed to be an experimental ground for the practice of market capitalism within a community guided by the ideals of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. The SEZ’s slogan “Time is Money, Efficiency is Life” became famous.

The “Exhibition Hall of the Reform and Opening-up History in Shenzhen” in the Shenzhen Museum is an homage to Deng Xiaoping and his reforms: “The history made Chinese people understand that sticking to reform, opening-up, pioneering, and innovation is an indisputable truth. Through reform and opening-up, Shenzhen has rapidly grown from a small, poor and backward border county into a modern metropolis, which is an unparalleled achievement in the history. The growth of Shenzhen has washed off the humiliation on it, and proclaimed a powerful, flourishing and prosperous future.” Policy makers of today, take note how strong this humiliation narrative still is.

I cross the border into Hong Kong, moving from one system of China into another.