On the Trail of J.G. Ballard and New Wave Art in Shanghai

The overnight train from Hong Kong to Shanghai was very comfortable and fast, a pretty standard sleeper train that goes at 160km/h with four person berth cabins, a toilet at the end of the corridor and an open plan sink area with two basins at the other (which oddly usually became a hang out for the married males in the carriage). We were soon joined in our cabin by a lovely Chinese couple who helped us to more accurately map out our exact route forwards through China and shared their steaming flask of green tea with us (hot water is available on tap on all Chinese trains and everyone tends to carry a Thermos with an inbuilt tea strainer). The journey would take us a mere 20 hours to pass through 1,991 km, though this is not as fast as the new High Speed link between Beijing and nearby Shenzhen (making it the world’s longest high-speed railway line) which opened in December 2012.

The route out of Hong Kong led us through lush hills and spacious hilltop villas, which shortly transformed into high-rise urban sprawl when we reached the border with Shenzhen (we spotted some fairly quirky architecture in this city – from elephant-shaped shopping centres to castle-turreted restaurants). After a good night’s sleep we were woken in the morning to the sounds of classical music played through a speaker in the cabin and corridors, which progressively increased in volume as we approached our destination. We felt fairly relaxed by the time we reached Shanghai, which was lucky because the break in travelling had lulled us into a false sense of security and we had forgotten to write down the address of our hostel in Chinese. It was raining and the queue at the taxi rank was long, but luckily someone in the queue was able to help us out by translating the street address.

View from Hostel Window

We had booked into the Phoenix Hostel, a short walk from Dashijie station (Chinese: 大世界站; pinyin: Dàshìjiè Zhàn), The Bund and People’s Square (Chinese: 人民广场站; pinyin: Rénmín Guǎngchǎng Zhàn). This is a great hostel with a fantastic and reasonably-priced restaurant on its ground floor (we thoroughly recommend the mushroom dumplings). We spent the first day getting our bearings by walking around the district and finding our way to The Bund (parallel to the Zhonshang road) – previously a British concession and financial power base and now an embankment of preserved historical buildings in Shanghai where building heights are restricted. After a period of intentional neglect during the post-war communist era, Shanghai came under the spotlight again in the ’90s when it was selected as the show-ground for China’s reform and new economy. Consequently, it is now both China’s largest and richest city and it has gone to some lengths to rival Hong Kong’s famous harbour-front light displays along its own affluent riverside stretch.

Not only is every building bordering the Huangpu river and every boat on it lit up at night but so are the city’s highways, under-lit by a dazzling UV light which seems to epitomise the city’s Blade-Runner-esque futuristic aesthetic.

The Bund, by contrast, offers a throwback glance to the city’s days of colonial concession where European powers such as Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands as well as America, Russia and Japan were apportioned areas of territory in the city under the terms of a series of unequal treaties. The British, who controlled The Bund (later with America), made it a playground for the amassing and spending of their financial riches from the East, erecting gothic and baroque style corporate buildings and hotels along the waterfront along with clubs, Cathedrals and huge mansions for their hedonistic exploits in and around the wider city (J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun and Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton evocatively depict expatriate life in the city in the lead up to its occupation by the Japanese during WW2).

I’ve read a number of accounts from people returning to Shanghai on J.G. Ballard’s trail who find themselves dismayed when faced with the fact that his house, 31a Amherst Avenue, has now been gutted and turned into a wine bar/restaurant. The current battle lines of Shanghai – drawn between preservation and development -  also point to a battle of histories and the question  of whose ‘past’ merits preservation, if any. The name J.G. Ballard means nothing to the current owners of 31 Amherst who see it as a prime business location and nothing else; the government seem keen to support this view on the whole and even if a building is heritage listed not much can be done to prevent it from being developed if the right money changes hands. Shanghai seems keen to reinvent rather than preserve its past, rejecting anything which may hold it back in its quest for ultra modernisation.

Having said this, there are still plenty of concession era remnants around the city left standing – The Bund being an obvious place to start with most of its flagship buildings still intact – the iconic Sassoon Mansion or Peace Hotel is particularly worth looking out for given that it has survived in purpose as well as structure. The next best place to walk through is the old French quarter (a foreign concession until 1946) where spacious tree-lined boulevards and low rise 1930′s style housing still abound. The famous Art Deco Cathay Theatre on Avenue Joffre (Huaihai rd) is an obvious port of call – it is still a cinema and is famous today for its screenings of low budget art house films.

The French district is still characterized by its long, tree peppered boulevards and it also remains a hub for ex-pats as there are many art shops, cafés, bars and cinemas here.

Not long after we arrived on the Fuxing Lu road, we came across two French girls wheeling their bikes along the pavement, who later told us that they were both working in Shanghai. They volunteered to show us around and took us to some of their favourite spots which included the café Bikes and Friends – famous for its chips, wines and film nights. The café was full of young Australians, Germans and French people when we arrived – many of whom were currently working in Shanghai (we spoke to a couple of them who seemed nostalgic for their homes and said that the Café was run by a Chinese businesswoman who let them create a little piece of it here in the café). After a couple of drinks the girls walked with us a little further and dropped us outside a gated club called the YongFoo Elite; they told us that it’s an exclusive dining club housed in the building and grounds of the old British consulate. They told us it was well worth exploring and even though we felt under-dressed they advised us to walk in confidently and say we were meeting someone for tea (you don’t actually have to buy anything to look around the gardens). We proceeded up the driveway and soon saw a British-looking house partially covered by a pine tree. We felt as if we had entered another country in another century. Ornamental ponds of coy carp sat alongside English barber chairs, American vintage fridges, French chaise longues and Indian garden beds. It was very peaceful and serene, the only sound coming from garden birds and the well-dressed Chinese men and women quietly taking tea on the Art Deco patio. For all its modernisation, I suddenly felt like I really had stepped back in time in Shanghai:

Alongside fashionable clubs and bars such as the YongFoo Elite, Shanghai is also fast making a name for itself in world class dining and as in Hong Kong, you can find most types of cuisine here. We were lucky enough to find a very interesting restaurant down the road from us, which specialised in food from Yunnan, called “Dreaming Yunnan Gourmet Specialty Restaurant” (a particluarly popular type of Chinese cuisine in Shanghai). Ingredients are central to the menu choice here and you can choose every aspect of your dish from ‘roots’ to ‘drug herbs’. We played it fairly safe – opting for vegetable based dishes such as the yellow mashed potato with blueberry and the Taro with fragrant willow. The restaurant also served a variety of fried larvae and worms, a regional taste that we decided we’d give a miss this time around.

Before we left Shanghai for further rural explorations, we were keen to visit the sprawling arts district known as Tian Zi Fang. The area is largely hidden from the neon-pulsing shopping streets that surround it, and it took us a little time to locate the entrance on Lane #274. Rows and rows of narrow, pedestrianised streets hide beautiful textile and ceramic shops, a microcosm of world cuisine and some of the most fascinating tea shops we’ve ever seen. Thanks to areas like this, Shanghai is becoming synonymous with cutting-edge art, fashion and design that blends ancient crafts and traditions involving scent, taste and patience with new technique and aesthetic. It is also the chosen hangout spot of Shanghai’s young set who break up their shopping in the districts’ quirky courtyard bars.


Inspired by the tea tasting rooms of Tian Zi Fan, we decided to make Hangzhou and its nearby Longjing tea plantations our next destination (we were told that with any luck we’d just be in touch for the picking of the first flush), so with some reluctance we booked our onward train…

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Hong Kong

Hong Kong is familiar to most people as a nexus of capitalism and is often portrayed as the world’s busiest city, where individualism and the rule of the dollar note have always gone unquestioned. However, it is actually a much more complex social and historical hub than some of these portrayals would have you believe and it has undergone huge changes in the last 100 years (but somewhat ironically less real change since its handover from the British to the Chinese in 1997 than you might think!). Hong Kong simultaneously represents everything from the last vestiges of colonial government to a beacon of ‘freedom’ on the fringe of a rapidly-evolving China, but these simple labels don’t really explain the current sociopolitical dynamic.

In the context of our journey around the world, Hong Kong was also special because it marked another turning point for us. Not only was it the first familiar territory we’d encountered since America, but it would also be the first time I had seen my parents after eight months on the road and a Christmas aboard a cargo ship. Another reason for my excitement on arriving was that my family lived in Hong Kong for about five years when I was a child. My dad was offered a job there in the ’90s and we eventually moved over to live in 1992, during the last few years before the island was handed back to China in 1997. What was originally supposed to be a one-year secondment became a five-year stint abroad on my parents’ part and a defining point in my childhood. As a young boy, I experienced a very ‘bubble wrapped’ view of the island’s culture, but I was lucky enough to explore some unsung parts of Hong Kong life that, like the city itself, are now changing so fast they have almost become unrecognisable. Coming back to those same places as an adult and re-parsing my old memories was something that I had been looking forward to since we set off from England. We had a lot of catching up to do…

We arrived at Kowloon Tong station in the early morning and had some time to wash, rest and recover once we reached our hotel (the shiniest we’d stayed in for quite some time). Most people in Hong Kong live in high-rise apartments, so it didn’t seem strange to me that we would be on the 23rd floor but it was probably the highest above sea level we had been since visiting the Nepenthe restaurant in California all those months ago. Black Kites circled outside the window, riding thermal currents to scan the grassland of one of Hong Kong’s inner city parks for prey. My parents arrived a little time after us and some emotionally charged greetings followed their arrival in the hotel’s wine bar. We had a lovely evening watching the sunset over the hazy city while reminiscing, catching up and deciding how we wanted to spend the next 10 days.

Not surprisingly, the hit list included many excursions to old places from my childhood past as well as some of the places that we never took the time to visit when we used to live on the island all those years ago. While it was something of a whistlestop tour, we took time to reflect on the contrast between life in Hong Kong, our time in South East Asia and life back home.

Star Ferry

We took a number of journeys on the Star Ferry while we were in Hong Kong. This iconic ferry service has been running since 1888, and the ferries currently in service are an average of 40 years old. They are still more than seaworthy and are actually quite a fast way to get between the sides of the Harbour, if you’re already in the city centre.

Nothing seems to have changed here at all since I lived in Hong Kong, except for further building development/land reclaim on the harbour and the introduction of a comically named Oyster-style system called the “Octopus” card which you can use to buy your ticket.


Hong Kong Cricket Club and Hong Kong Country Club

Nestled on the mountain along the Wong Nai Chung Gap Road, which separates the harbour front from the secluded southern parts of Hong Kong island, the cricket club used to be a meeting house for all kinds if expatriates, from socialites to sports enthusiasts. On the surface, it’s not much different than a glorified leisure centre, but its walls are brimming with quirky historical artefacts if you care to look a bit closer. The cricket pitch was originally constructed right on the waterfront, surviving four years of Japanese occupation in 1941-45 and decades of social change in Hong Kong, but later moved up the mountain in 1975 as the increasing price of land made the club’s presence in such a prime seafront location untenable. The new pitch has probably one of the best views of any in the world, the dance of Hong Kong Harbour playing itself out in miniature in the distance below.

Inside the pavilion is a replica 17th century wooden-beamed British pub, originally built by the harbour-side and then moved beam by beam up to the new location at Wong Nai Chung. The interior reminded us of a quiet country pub in deepest Sussex, each wall stacked with commemorations of old matches between now-extinct colonial power bases such as Burma, Macau and Singapore, as well as newer commemorations of matches between Hong Kong and minor county sides from the UK or Australia (Hong Kong unfortunately usually ending up as the losing side). Other relics of the bygone age of British influence in Asia and of the resistance movement during the Japanese occupation can also be found in the room that used to be a relatively large video rental library when I was young. Other rooms house more recent celebrations as new histories are forged on its cricket pitches. This relic of British governance over Hong Kong has been embraced by the city alongside other clubs such as the Helena May women’s club (which was running its spring tombola and tea party when we visited) and the Hong Kong Country Club which recently celebrated its 100th year.

The country club is slightly out of the city near Ocean Park and is a relaxed, family-oriented (if slightly Desperate Housewives-ish) meeting place with a secluded pool, a cocktail bar overlooking Causeway Bay, and a few decent restaurants. When I was younger a couple of goats helped to manicure the lawns but they are now long gone and only the old climbing frame and green swing boat remained – surprisingly still in good working order!

Tea Museum

Nestled in the middle of Hong Kong Park, this little museum was one of the little gems we found when exploring the area near the Mid-Levels. A place of relative peace and quiet in the hustle and bustle of the city, we explored halls of eccentric tea pottery and were first introduced to the ways of the Gongfu tea ceremony by a video of the resident Professor of Tea (serious business in China and Hong Kong!). The tea ceremonies are traditional forms of both mindful meditation and perfect tea brewing, a set of steps each with its own name and backstory in Chinese lore (my favourite part being “the dragon rolls the ball”, an intricate movement of the fingers where teacups are washed one at a time by rolling them between three fingers in a cup of boiling water).

Adjoining the museum is a beautifully decorated tea house, where we sampled some of the finer Chinese leaf teas and were able to practice some of the tea rituals we had studied earlier (shown above is the traditional way of warming the tea pot by pouring boiling water over it, which is then collected into the tea stand itself).

Wetland Park

When I was here last, the Mai Po marshes were part of a wild stretch of land between Kowloon and the border with China. Now the marshes have been transformed into an entirely new area of affordable housing developments, bordered by a stretch of protected wetland which forms the Hong Kong Wetland Park. We travelled to the park by MTR and a new tram service which allowed us to take in how much the northern suburbs have changed in the 15 years since our last visit. The densely packed housing developments were huge and laundry hung from poles which were pushed out of many of the high-rises’ tiny windows. The temperature had begun to soar so it was difficult to imagine how hot the box-like flats must get.

The wetland park is the main segment of open space left in the area and is a sanctuary for wild birds of all kinds. It has been cleverly marketed as a tourist attraction and the waders who have frequented the marsh for years have become its stars – viewable through bird hides, viewing platforms and high-spec telescopes. Highlights include spoonbills, the Crested Bul-Bul, kingfishers and herons.

The sprawling megalopolis of Shenzen (mainland China) looms over the lakes in the distance, and the marshland feels like the last barrier keeping these two enormous cities from combining into one giant concrete mass.

Occupy Hong Kong

Free speech and the notion of ‘freedom’ (despite the fact that Hong Kong has never had a general election in all its existence) is defended much more strongly by the population of Hong Kong than other places in Asia. The Occupy Hong Kong group were able to camp under the concourse of one of Hong Kong’s main banks (the HQ of HSBC) for 306 days mainly due to the fact that the Legislative Council is careful not to appear too authoritarian for fear of antagonising a public that is already nervous of sweeping change. We happened to stumble across it while going from one place to another – all the activists were out apart from one guy who was looking after the camp and it was interesting to talk to some of the passers-by about their views (most were positive but one woman almost spat at the camp while repeating the word ‘disgusting’ over and over). The camp was cleared by bailiffs in September 2012 following a legal action from HSBC, but it’s interesting to note that the group’s activities were never stopped by the government themselves. Down the road, near the peak tram terminal, there is a smaller scale protest with banners and leaflets set up by a lady who believes she was abducted by aliens. Apparently, she has been there so long she is almost a feature of the landscape and there are no signs that she will be moved on anytime soon.

Rainbow Restaurant, Lamma Island (Pok Liu Chau)

After seeing so many other aspects of the island grow out of all proportions in the last 20 years, it was heartening to find that not everywhere has been swept up by the maddening pace of change that Hong Kong’s particular brand of capitalism is famous for. A short ferry ride from Tsim Tsa Tsui or the small harbour community of Aberdeen (on the south end of the island), the island of Lamma was and still is home to a small community of local fishermen who serve up their catch of the day in their own unique style via a number of waterfront restaurants.

As a child, I have fond memories of frequenting the Rainbow restaurant, which I was excited to learn is still there. This was the first place I had returned to in Hong Kong where time really hadn’t changed it at all – the writing on the melamine plates and bowls was slightly worn but the same, almost as if they were the same plates that we had eaten off 15 years previously, the table cloths had the same familiar patterns and the food was just as fresh as I remembered. As night fell, we watched the fishing boats heading off to start fishing by the moonlight and filled ourselves with delicious rice, noodles and fish roasted with salt and a local recipe of soy sauce, garlic and plum sauce.

The Peninsula Hotel and the Hong Kong Cultural Centre

The Peninsula hotel opened its doors in 1928 and was once described as ‘the finest hotel east of Suez’. It manages to retain its elegance but is a magnet for the cruise-liner passengers who form snaking queues in the lobby for its famous afternoon tea (one family had even hired a Filipino girl to queue in their place so they didn’t have to bother!) I remember going once or twice for tea when I was younger and we were over on the Kowloon side of the harbour so we decided to have tea one quieter afternoon after visiting the nearby planetarium. It felt strange to be back amongst tea and scones again, having bypassed most of the places that have kept up this tradition in Malaysia, but it was in some ways comforting, seeing as we were pretty sure we wouldn’t be having any more scones with strawberry jam until we were back on home turf, still a very long way away. To complete this British themed day we decided to see what was on at the Cultural Centre (which, for those who know London, feels a little bit like the Southbank centre crossed with the Barbican). We’d hoped to catch an appropriately train-themed drama ‘Railway is like a Long Winding Recollection’ but that wasn’t starting until the next week so we saw a ballet rendition of Turandot instead.


The place and culture of Hong Kong has left its imprint on my character since I lived there as a child. I was expecting a lot more to have changed, but I realised that perhaps I have changed even more than the place I once called home. Sure, there are big new buildings, a new government and a couple of square miles more harbour than when I last left its shore, but its the somewhat zany spirit of the place – with the freedom of days spent floating on junks, island exploring, sharing adventures with friends of every nationality and weathering typhoons, landslides and hill fires that have stayed with me.

Our Russian and Chinese visas procured, our next journey was a voyage across mainland China to another bustling city hub: Shanghai!

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Menacing Hills and a Brush with Food Poisoning: if we can just make it to Hong Kong…

For the last few days of our stay in Yangshuo, we were transferred to the Mountain Retreat’s sister establishment, the Yangshuo Village Inn at Moon Hill (so called because of the mountain peak with a moon shaped hole which overlooks the village). Moon Hill is more ‘touristy’ than the isolated Mountain Retreat so expect tourist buses and crowds bustling in the streets below. Despite the noise, it is just as cosy and really comes into its own in the summer months where the shady veranda and roof top terrace are opened up and buzz with the chatter of visitors.

At the Inn, we were first shown into the converted mudbrick farmhouse at the back of the Inn which was beautiful but also extremely cold, having only just been opened for the season. Luckily there was a slightly smaller but warmer spare room available in the main hotel with a beautiful view of Moon Hill which we chose to opt for instead. I say luckily because the next day Anna started to feel very sick and came down with what we think was food poisoning (we met two lovely American girls while we were staying at the Inn and one of them came down with it too). Anna and our new acquaintance Crystal were both stuck in bed for three days and I spent most of an afternoon frantically attempting to rearrange our onward journey, giving us an extra day to rest and recover. Luckily the Inn staff were really helpful, managing to send for new tickets and helping to translate for me over the phone. I spent a few days wandering the local scenery and playing cards with Deb (the non-poisoned American). An American man at the Inn who lived in China gave me some medical tea sachets to give to Anna which he said would help ease the sickness (by this stage we had to keep the curtains closed because Anna said the mountains had become too menacing to look at, so I really hoped the tea would help). By the third day, she seemed better and was able to eat something so we decided to try and make the onwards journey to Hong Kong the next day. It had become a little bit like a beacon to us as we knew if we could just get there, we’d see my parents and enjoy a little home comfort and familiarity (I spent several years of my childhood there) for a week or so.

The next morning Anna was still weak so I packed as much of her stuff as I could into my backpack and we boarded the bus back to back Guìlín. Unlike the last connection, we made it with plenty of time to catch the overnight train to Guangzhou which would take us almost within batting distance of HK. It felt strange to be leaving the karst peaks for the built-up environs of a city again but I was looking forward to taking the backpack off after over six months ‘on the road’ and getting Anna some medicine that I could actually read the label of. The overnight journey to Guangzhou passed in relative peace and we were able to get some sleep. By the time we woke up, the train was just pulling into Guangzhou where we would catch an early morning connection to Shenzhen, the last city we had to get through before crossing the border with Hong Kong. After an hour’s ride on a very modern train to Shenzhen station, we disembarked with a crowd of other passengers and soon saw arrows pointing towards Hong Kong. We followed these on foot for about ten-minutes through what felt like a discount shopping centre, luntil we came across a queue which we gathered was for the immigration checkpoint. Hong Kong is now a region of China but resides in its own ‘Special Economic Zone’, meaning that travelling from within China to and from Hong Kong counts as an ‘exit’ for visa purposes, so the length of our stay here was pretty much defined by the amount of time it would take to get Russian and Chinese visas for our onward journey (but that’s another story). Compared to the difficulties we’d had getting into China from Vietnam, this border crossing was a breeze, and we were not only ushered into a shorter queue but also given permits to stay for 180 days.

Once we were through the other side, we took a short ride from Lok Ma Chau, the northernmost station on the MTR, to the big rail station at Kowloon Tong. The map looked a little bigger than I remembered but became familiar again quite quickly. Apart from a couple of stretches of old rail lines, most of the MTR stations were built in the early 80′s and looked exactly the same as I remembered. Brightly coloured tiles line the spartan walls, decorated only by safety posters and billboards full of gaudy advertising.

Once we reached our destination, we suddenly emerged in a gleaming white station with fast food outlets, chain stores and a huge glass ceiling. It was a little surreal given where we had come from only a few hours ago. Taxis queued up outside, fighting to take our luggage, and too tired to protest, I gave in and just laid back, looking forward to seeing the land of my childhood again…

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Among the Karst Peaks of Yangshuo, Guanxi Province

The moment we arrived at the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat, we knew we were somewhere special. We were dropped off by taxi on a deserted, wet mountain road which wound its way through immense karst peaks (irregular limestone formations) that dominated the plains of the valley on either side of us. The rain – which had been falling regularly since we arrived – was flowing down the road in snaking streams, heading in the direction of the Yulong river which flowed just below us, at the foot of the retreat’s garden. We were later told that it’s not unusual for the garden to become flooded after heavy rainfall and there were a number of kayaks lined up against the wall to help staff and guests get about if it did. Although the river was raging, it hadn’t yet swallowed up the garden and so we followed the signs and made our way along the garden path to a very warm welcome – a roaring fire, home made biscuits and a pot of hot ginger tea. All thoughts of the damp, darkening mountainscape forgotten, we settled in for the night with a hot shower and a comfy bed, looking forward to tomorrow’s explorations.

After a very restful night, we awoke to the sound of rain splattering on corrugated iron rooftops. This combined with cool mists is apparently what makes Yangshuo so good for growing pomelos, persimmons (best eaten sundried), chestnuts and oranges (Ponkans) which are the feature ingredients of many local dishes. That morning the rain only lasted for an hour before easing off, leaving us free to go for a misty walk across the flood plain. Yangshuo is best explored by bike but we decided to follow the narrow path, which led from the Mountain retreat to the Yulong Bridge, on foot. The journey would take us along the Yulong river and through the local villages of Yima, Xiatang, Xinglong and Jiuxian. The map we were given marked all the villages, bridges and settlements of the area – some with fantastic names such as: “Two Lions Playing a Ball”; “Frog Crossing River”; “Elephant Out and Horse in a Cave”; “Lion Watching Nice Horses”; “Lion Riding on a Carp” and “Grandpa Guarding the Apple”. With our first marker (Tortoise Probe Head) in mind, and map in hand, we set off for the day. The air was cold and damp, and the a grey mist obscured the tops of the huge karst peaks which towered all around us. The Chinese believe that spirits inhabit these mountains and groups of family graves can be found clustered around their bases – the silence soon became almost eerie, broken only by the occassional passing of a truck, carrying bamboo rafts from the town back to their base further up the river. After about half an hour we passed a farmer leading two buffalo along the road; he didn’t seem in a hurry and was happy to let them eat and pause as they saw fit. We came to associate patience with the Chinese here, especially when we later attempted a calligraphy class and a two-hour tea ceremony where we learned the importance of getting the minute details right!

The scenery was beautiful with an aura of the sublime and the timeless. Orange trees grew along either side of the path, surrounded by small settlements of Qing dynasty houses and sheds where chickens roamed and children played. Some of the children ran alongside us and waved, others were disinterested but everybody seemed quietly but intensely focused on whatever they were doing, even if it was sitting on a hay bale staring at the mountain peaks. After about an hour of walking past quiet and almost deserted buildings, we saw signs for the “Outside Inn”, which someone at the retreat had told us was the first countryside accommodation for foreigners that opened in the area. Luckily for us, it was just opening for the season and was serving lunch, aided by some very necessary heaters. To find it, we left the path onwards and took a small winding track through a rural village until we reached the inn. The food was good and just what we needed before heading back into the cold and onto the path leadaing to the historic Chaoyang village, which has so far foregone the touches of modernisation which are quickly sweeping other parts of China. Standing amidst the chickens, crumbling stone, drying beans and red painted walls of this wonderful place remains a stand out memory of the trip, perhaps best illustrated in photographs:

After spending an hour or so exploring the nooks and crannies of the village, the overcast skies had already begun to darken. Evening was setting in and the temperature was dropping fast. Not relishing the thought of walking all the way back, we took out the map and identified a rafting station marked not too far away, near the Xi’angui Bridge. It wasn’t yet warm enough for tourist season and so most of the rafts were tied together next to piles of faded umbrellas unceremoniously lying in the mud. A couple of touts came up to us saying ‘ride?’ and after a bit of thought we negotiated with one family who agreed to take us down the river and back to the retreat (or so we thought) if we paid upfront…

The river was almost as still as a mill pond – everything seemed frozen in the icy mist which was fast descending, infiltrated only now and again by a diving water bird.

It wasn’t long before we reached the first of the rocky dams which punctuate this stretch of the Yulong river. Unfortunately, our raft became stuck and our oarsman, the man who was supposed to be guiding it, began to sway and shout. As he did, we were greeted by strong alcohol fumes and we soon realised that he had probably spent the afternoon drinking in the local café along with the other rafters lying in wait in vain for people stupid enough to want a raft ride in this weather. Not wanting to fall into the freezing river, we lifted our feet up in the air as he jumped onto a rock and began to push the raft roughly down the small drop. At the last moment he jumped back on, submerging all of the raft, bar the slightly elevated seat we were huddling on. Twenty minutes and two more stone dams later, the oarsman had run out of energy (perhaps the hangover was starting to kick in) and made a quick phone call, which resulted in further shouting. Before we knew what was happening, we were heading for the banks of a field where we were essentially pushed off the raft and left in the hands of a confused looking farmer. He started speaking to us in Chinese before running off through the winter-hardened field. We reluctantly followed where he was waiting for us with a hay cart, pulled by a buffalo, that was just about to leave. Whether it was the cold, or the thought of shivering all the way home on the back of a shonky looking hay cart, I got pretty angry. The poor guy suddenly looked quite frightened and ran off again, this time returning with a motorbike which he patted the seat of. We both managed to squeeze on the back and were soon whizzing through the darkening karst peaks and scarily icy roads back towards the hotel. I was too cold to be frightened and just concentrated on clinging on to his coat with my numb fingers. A few swerves and curves later and we were back outside the retreat, where we thanked the farmer (who was really blameless in it all) before quickly running inside to thaw out by the fire with a big pot of hot ginger tea.

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From the City to the Mountains by Train and Bus

When it came to navigating our way through China, we knew that we wanted to spend some time in the more rural countryside outside of the power and manicness of its cities. We were due to meet Alex’s parents in Hong Kong early the next month and so we couldn’t wander too far away from the coast if we were to make it back overland in time to see them. In Hanoi, we had got talking to an American who had been teaching in China and he suggested that we make our way to Guilin and then take a bus from there to Yangshuo – “you’ll see why when you get there” he said with an almost whistful look that we took to be a good sign. He also recommended that we look up the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat – an eco residence on the banks of the Li River set against some ‘incredible’ scenery. Upon investigating further we could see why he pointed us in its direction; not only is it set in a spectacular part of the country but it also invests in sustainability initiatives, educational programmes and the community (importantly for us, it is also 100% managed by locals who help their visitors to understand and learn about the area). Luckily for us, we just caught the end of low season and managed to book in for few nights; now all we had to do was get there.

The train to Guilin left Nanning early the next morning. We soon discovered that there were no taxis around at that time due to commuter traffic on the roads, and it would therefore be easier for us to walk/run to the station. It was pouring with rain and my small wheelie case – which had made it over Cambodian dirt tracks without a problem – chose this moment to break. Luckily, the handle was still (just about) intact and so we made it to the station with five minutes to spare. What we hadn’t bargained for (this being the first domestic train we’d take in China) was the security processes you have to adhere to here before boarding any inland train. First through the ticket officers, then through the scanners and finally through a turn style controlled by some fierce looking guards. We got through the first two okay but I was taken aside at the turnstyle where the guard grabbed the red notebook I was carrying and started frowning into its pages (we’d be playing cards and so perhaps he thought the lists of numbers were some sort of code). He demanded to see my passport which he just glanced at the cover of before saying “British?, Okay”. For the first time on our trip, I felt relieved to be holding a British passport (we later heard stories from others about how certain countries discriminate against certain nationalities). This time, our passports had worked in our favour and we just had enough time to run through the barrier and hop on the train before it left.

We had booked the ‘third class’ wooden bench seats but the cabin guard took pity on us (we must have looked wet, flushed and tired) and ushered us into another cabin with softer seats which we were glad of as the journey would take 5h 30. The train wasn’t full and it was relaxing to watch the scenery go past. A smartly dressed businessman sat opposite us and I was amused to hear that he had Yann Tiersen’s La Valse D’Amelie as his mobile phone ring tone (we later found out that the Amelie soundtrack is very popular in China). It somehow set the scene for the journey and the time passed quickly as we watched urban sprawl fade into rice fields, rivers and small stone peaks. These started to grow in size as we neared Guilin and looked incredible through the steamed up window panes. On board a sales man was standing in the middle of the carriage doing a pitch and demonstration involving a bowl of water and a quick drying towel which fit into small plastic tubes and came in three bright colours. He handed one out to each passenger and placed its casing prodly on the table in front so we could delight in its magic; unfortunately we were more enchanted by the scenery outside the window and so didn’t make the most attentive of audiences. Catching on, he quickly released his tubes from the clutches of our hands and sauntered off to the next carriage in search of more appreciative listeners.

The peaks rolled on and it wasn’t long before we pulled into Guilin’s station. It felt good to be off the train and stepping into fresher air. We found our way out into a carpark where there was a small cabin with pictures of buses on the side. We showed the lady behind the desk where we wanted to go on a map and she nodded, picked up my bag and ran across the car park with it. There was a local bus just leaving which she ushered us onto after taking our money. This turned out to be a very local bus which not only seemed to stop nearly every 10 meters to pick up and drop off shoppers but also appeared to collect and dispatch post. We hadn’t seen the sun since arriving in China and although it was only 4pm, the light was already fading – we willed the bus on, not relishing the thought of finding our way to the mountain lodge in the dark. About forty minutes later we arrived in Yangshuo town centre – a strange mix of sports shops, cafes and Austrian mountain style buildings – perhaps the result of the influx of tourists the Lonely Planet coverage of the town brought in the 80′s and 90′s. West street is the main shopping street here and was buzzing with tourists (mostly Chinese, escaping from the cities on the increasingly popular bus tours on offer in every major urban area). We felt glad that the Mountain Retreat was a 15 minute ride out of this tourist ville, into the mountains. We managed to find a willing taxi, negotiate a fair price (which we were always getting in the habit of asking about from whatever guesthouse we were headed for prior to arrival) and were soon heading into the mountains…


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Into the mists of China we go…

The last train we caught in Vietnam left late in the evening. We hopped into the taxi arranged by our guesthouse and were soon rushed through the laneways of the Old Quarter, flanked by a stream of motorcycles and scooters which flowed onto the freeway. The international train station at Gia Lâm is located a few kilometres North East of town and we arrived a little early only to discover that the train was delayed – we were in for a couple of hours spent examining the other visitors to the waiting room and watching the sunset fade to a deep shimmering red through the window.

In the waiting room we had a short conversation with one of the staff from our hotel, who happened to also be waiting for an arrival from the train. We couldn’t exchange much in the way of conversation, still being reliant on our phrasebook and wild gesticulation, but managed to swap greetings, some basic stories and, in true English style, complain about the last few days’ weather. At long last the train pulled up – this was a Chinese train, markedly different from the Vietnamese versions we’d travelled on before in interior (the Chinese go in for emblemed carpets, polished wood and sleeker sound-systems/screens). It was our first step into what would become a constant flow of elaborate and ornate displays of affluence.

In 1902, the line from Hanoi to Đồng Đăng (the Vietnamese station on the border with China) was built. At the time Vietnam was still colonised by the French and the line was heavily bombed by the Americans during the Vietnam war. Since then it has been patched up and is again a major route for the transporting of goods and passengers between China and Vietnam. It is also a great way to experience the marked contrast in landscapes and philosophies between the two countries.

This line would carry us over 396 kilometres of terrain to the relatively small (by Chinese standards) border town of Nanning – but first we had to experience the delights of our first Chinese border crossing.

Not long after we’d settled into our cabin on board, a train guard knocked on our door to check our passports, visas and tickets before swapping them for a couple of colourfully decorated plastic cards, leaving us free to wash and get ready for bed despite the knowledge that in a few hours we would be rudely awakened for our first border check by train. We had been on the train for around three hours, enjoying the luxury of a train carriage all to ourselves, before we were alerted by the guard to get ready for the border crossing (it was about 1.30 am and the cabin felt freezing so we quickly pulled scarves and warm jumpers out of our backpacks). We couldn’t see much outside apart from the occasional collections of lights in the distance and the noise and flash of sparks coming off the axles. It felt like this went on for some time but the train had started to slow and ten minutes later it came to a complete stop at the dimly lit border check point.

The night air was the coldest we’d felt in a long while – and we felt glad of the warm clothes we’d purchased in Hoi An. By the time we assembled ourselves, we were one of the last off the train and the platform was eerily empty but for a couple of border officials who were inspecting the train carriages and carriage underbellies with torches for stowaways and contraband. We were motioned into a brutalist style building where a group of around 30 shivering passengers were gathered around the glass screens of the passport office, protected by three officials in thick military coats. Behind the screens, the office staff had begun to stamp, hand-wave and pore over the minute detail of each passenger’s passport, taking especially long over our European ones. Once a stamp had been granted a stern-faced official would bark the passport holder’s name and wait for them to come to the front and collect it, rather like a school prize giving. The stern expressions of the officials only changed once – amusingly when they reached Anna’s passport – at which point the guard’s frown melted into a smile and he raised his shoulders in an actual laugh. We don’t know whether it was the photo, the strange butterfly hologram on the passport’s photo page or the surname ‘Rice’ which did it but whatever it was, it brought a more human side to the otherwise military-style experience.

The Chinese border post

After twenty minutes of huddling in the cold, we were back on the tracks for a five-minute train ride to the Chinese side of the border, where we had the pleasure of repeating the entire process again, thankfully in a heated room this time. The difference between the sides couldn’t have been more stark: the Chinese border post was kitted out with top-of-the-line scanners probing our bags with all kinds of rays and sniffer dogs mainly on the lookout for dangerous fruit-bearing tourists. Presumably other ‘dangerous’ goods are occasionally tried but I wouldn’t bet on a smuggler’s chances here…

We were now officially in China and it wasn’t long before the train was pulling away and edging towards Nanning. The train carriage was pretty freezing by this point, so we decided to keep our jumpers on underneath the duvet before attempting to get some sleep (tip: Chinese provincial trains are rarely heated except in extreme conditions so always bring something warm for nights). As day broke, we were woken to a dawn chorus of hauntingly beautiful piano music, played out through the sound-system to wake up sleeping passengers.  We drew back the curtains to see our first glimpse of China – the paddy fields of Vietnam had transformed into beautiful Karst peaks, huge towers of rock that stand alone in the mist as millenia of rivers have whittled their edges down to steep cliffs that oscillate across the landscape. This didn’t last for long as we soon hit the urban sprawl of Nanning’s outskirts. This “small” border town is in fact huge – with a population of six million, it is almost the same size as London and has a shopping district to rival that of any British city. This wasn’t the easing into Chinese culture we’d hoped for but it was at least a ‘real’ introduction. With no airport terminals to soften the blow, we were soon released into a station heaving with Chinese workers and commuters (and not another ‘tourist’ in sight). Hanoi felt like a village in comparison.

Nanning Train Station Square in the rain, by Ian Stacey on Flickr

The area outside the station station is a large concrete mass with an underground shopping centre to shield pedestrians from the cold in winter and a topside market full of motorcycles, each laden with a different speciality of fresh fruit or hot dumplings simmering over portable gas heaters. Vast video displays arch over entire sections of the streets, while four lanes of traffic speed past pavements full of pedestrians all moving as fast as they can to get out of the smog.

Our hostel was located a 10 minute drive away, so we pulled the Chinese phrasebook out of our backpack and attempted to find a taxi. Luckily, we’d thought ahead and had the address written down in Chinese which saved us (I don’t think our terrible attempt at conversation was getting us anywhere). The hostel was located in a side street in a sort of park next to the river – if it hadn’t been signposted, I would have taken it for a toilet block. The inside was thankfully quite welcoming and there were a couple of Australian and British travellers who were about to continue their routes into Vietnam. They told us that Nanning is really a business town and most travellers just stop by en-route or to investigate business opportunities (one of the Aussies was there to try and sell New Zealand and Australian wines into business hotels and restaurants – an alcoholic beverage which is apparently becoming more popular with Chinese businessmen and women since travel has become more commonplace). Although it was still early morning, we were incredibly hungry and so decided to go out to find something to eat. The back streets which wound their way to the centre were abuzz with activity – metal sheets were being sawed, old men were playing Mahjong in the park, pans and pots were bubbling over and textiles were being hung out to dry. It felt similar, yet different to Vietnam – more industrial with a slightly aggressive sense of purpose hanging in the air.

We followed the streets until we hit a line of cafés (where no-one spoke a word of English) on the main street. We opened our dictionary but realised stupidly that we didn’t know whether to use Mandarin or Cantonese. We went into one of the cafés and attempted to order something vegetarian, trying the word in both languages before the lady behind the counter nodded and ordered something for us, directing us towards a hatch at the end to collect it. The café was full of smartly clothed office workers and mothers with warmly-wrapped babies. After collecting our food, which arrived in a sturdy iron vessel from the hatch, we took a place at one of the bright red plastic tables. We’d ordered some kind of soup, which was definitely not vegetarian judging by the tentacles and grey bits of meat which were floating in it. There were however piles of vegetables and tofu thrown on the top so it was halfway there and tasted really delicious. After travelling for this long, we were used to eating what we were given and in all honesty it was exactly what we needed. While we were busy sucking up the noodles, a toddler at the next table decided to take an interest in us and tried to feed us noodles from her bowl. The mother was soon encouraging her to wave and say ‘ni hao‘, so our first breakfast in China became something of a family affair, a welcome change among all the offices and business suits.

Feeling refreshed, we made our way back to the hostel, where a French family were watching Alvin and the Chipmunks on the television in Chinese with badly-dubbed subtitles (“get suitcase down Alvin chipmunk”, “no, I am furry-tale Simon chipmunk” etc.) Our train to Guilin was due to leave early the next morning and so we decided to catch up on some sleep before heading out for dinner. After conducting much research on travel forums, we came across a well-rated Chinese-run restaurant called Babel, serving British/American cuisine which was apparently very popular with dating couples and the young crowd of Nanning. We decided to give it a go, feeling like a change from noodles, and were surprised to find ourselves in a slick style palm house where the after-work crowd were quietly sipping on Bellinis and Cosmopolitans. We ordered a vegetable burrito with cheese (we hadn’t seen dairy products in quite a while!) and a ‘roast chicken’ with gravy and a dish of mashed potato. The next table were busy tucking into a massive wedge of chocolate cake and cream while sipping on an American beer. We didn’t think the food came close to the deliciousness of the noodle broth we’d had for breakfast, in either quality or taste, but this was one of the pricier restaurants in Nanning and there was a large queue forming at the door by the time we’d finished. Was this the ‘changing face of China’ which we’d heard so many people speak of? We’d have to wait and see…

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