Saturday, November 26, 2011

Winter Migration

Zhengzhou was getting too cold for me, with nighttime temperatures plunging uncomfortably close to freezing and the hazy days faring little better. Exacerbating the situation was the lack of indoor heating that prevails in most of China - people just put on more clothes when they're at home in the evenings. There was only one solution: I bought myself a train ticket, direction due south. The scenery rolling past the train (when you could see through the endless mist) was one of small, steep hills with isolated villages surrounded by paddy fields, now denuded and home only to stubble and the odd, rather lost-looking, water buffalo. As soon as I stepped off the train in Wuhan I knew I was headed in the right direction and I was even able to take off my beanie, which had become a permanent fixture on my head since returning to China.

Like many large Chinese cities Wuhan is undergoing a boom that is seeing a rise in local investment and consumption. So far 4 of the cities I have visited have metro systems under construction and many are also building swanky shopping and leisure districts such as the one above that has regenerated an old canalside.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Cradles And Graves

500km inland from Qingdao lies Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province. The province's name means "south of the river", in this case the Yellow River, and is without a doubt the cradle of Chinese civilisation. Within a relatively small radius lie the remains of over a dozen capitals of previous dynasties and kingdoms, most of the buried under countless layers of silt deposited by the continuously flooding river. For archaeology buffs it is the region to visit in China.

Zhengzhou itself is a large, hectic city of over 8.5 million people (more than Greater London) that, despite its long history, has little to show for it. But as a major railway junction it is a handy base from which to explore the surrounding region and travel back in time. If you want to work chronologically your first stop should be Anyang to the north of Zhengzhou, a rather nondescript and drab city, but sitting atop the ruins of the ancient Shang capital. Dating back to 1400 BC the ruins represent the very start of Chinese history as well as the origins of the Chinese writing system. Thousands of bones and turtle shells have been unearthed bearing the characters that would give rise to modern hanji script, and although most of them are too far removed to be recognisable, the few that have traversed the millennia almost unchanged elicit goosebumps as you feel the ancient world communicating directly to you. The succeeding Zhou dynasty moved the capital to Luoyang, west of Zhengzhou, where the historic remains include more than just excavated earthen walls and tombs with ritual sacrifices. The most noteworthy are the Longmen Grottoes, stretched out along either side of the Yi river. Here generations of Buddhist monks carved shrines and temples into the rock, from the tiny to the grandiose, with the central Buddha reaching over 17m, over a period of 300 years. Most of them survived unscathed until the beginning of the last century when the combined effects of Western collectors, Japanese invaders and the disastrous Cultural Revolution defaced the majority.

The main temple of the Longmen Grottoes with its 17m central Buddha carved from the cliff face.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Not Quite Bavaria

I left Japan via Shimonoseki's ferry terminal, my port of entry to the country. It wasn't something I had wanted to do but there was no other option if I didn't want to fly. Not only was it my first and last stop, but the last person I saw in Japan was also my first: by chance I ran into my host from my first days in Shimonoseki, Seiji, who was seeing off another guest (a Mexican named Homero) who was also headed to China on the same boat as me. It was nice to have someone to talk to among the 24 other passengers (all of them, from what I could gather, Chinese working in Japan) on the 29 hour passage to Qingdao as entertainment options on the ferry were limited to a single channel of Chinese TV, a meagre onboard library of half a dozen foreign books, and taking long, hot showers and soaking in the public bath.

The ferry bathroom where I spent a considerable chunk of time on the crossing from Japan to China, simply because there was little else to do, and baths are a rare luxury on the road (figuratively speaking, of course), to be taken whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Land Of The Rising Yen

There are a number of eclectic skills that you pick up as a long-term traveller: you learn to memorise your passport number and issue date for filling out endless visa and immigration forms; you become adept at noticing good spots for sleeping rough, even when you don't need to; and your long multiplication, which is essential for currency conversions, greatly improves. The latter (as well as the sleeping rough one to a certain degree) was certainly needed in Japan. One pound is currently worth 120 yen. A relatively easy number to calculate with, but not one I particularly like. Only four years ago a pound would get you 250 yen, and the lowest the pound has been against the yen in the past 13 years (the furthest back I could get data easily) was less than a month before I arrived, at 117 to the pound - having lost more than half of its relative value in a very short space of time! The sharp appreciation in the value of the yen has been across the board against other currencies and is somewhat strange as the Japanese economy is not doing particularly well itself and hasn't been for many years now. Nevertheless international investors see it as a safe bet and keep buying yen, which is causing a great headache for the country's export-oriented economy. Needless to say I was not happy either, and neither was my bank account. Japan has always been an expensive country to travel in, but with the exchange rate skewed so heavily against me, every purchase, no matter how minor, was taking a significant bite out of my budget and I had to use every trick in the book to save money.

Standard budget food whilst travelling on a budget in Japan: super noodles. To make them even cheaper you should get the simple packets without a pot or bowl and procure your own receptacle. In this case it was a discarded cardboard coffee cup that surprisingly lasted for 3 days before I threw it away.

Sunday, November 06, 2011


When I first planned this trip and drew up my itinerary on the back of the proverbial napkin I had purposefully omitted Japan for a number of reasons. The first was the cost (see next post) and the second was that it was something of a dead end and would require me to double-back on myself, something I strive to avoid at all costs. In the end both concerns were justified but were unable to outweigh my curiosity for the country, its unique culture and bracing combination of old and new.

One of the most recognisable symbols of modern Japan: the shinkansen bullet train pulling into a Tokyo station.