BACK IN CHINA March 7 – April 6 2016
After a busy 6 1/2 months on the road this winter, I am back in Hongqiao for 3-4 weeks (I still don’t have a return flight), to be with my sweetheart, Anna. I flew from Tel Aviv to Shanghai on Aeroflot via Moscow. The price at US$355 was great and I only had a 1hr 50min layover in Moscow for a total flight time of 14 hours.
I didn’t reserve a train ticket from Shanghai to Shenfang so had to stand for half of the 3 3/4 hour trip. There are 10 high speed trains on this route every day; my train had 15 cars with 80 passengers per car (1400 passengers) and there were 13 people standing just at the one end of my car. So it is anybody’s guess how many people travel just this route every day, but it dwarves any other country. China never ceases to amaze me.
This has been one of my best travel years with highlights of Tibet, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Tunisia, Lebanon and Jordan. I saw everything I wanted to most everywhere. The one disappointment was not making it to Turkmenistan (though not for lack of trying). And I am ready for some time off.
I’m in no rush to get home, but am not sure how I can handle China too. Anna works full time, so I need to find things to fill my days in her tiny apartment. I can only read so much, but I go shopping most days for food and we enjoy cooking together. Unfortunately this city (nor anything within several hundred miles) has anything much to do or see for a tourist.
Anna had 4 1/2 days off over Easter and we decided to go to Hong Kong. The train was much cheaper (and not much longer than flying) so we took the high-speed train eight hours from Shenfang direct to Shenzhou. These are great trains, very comfortable and travel at just over 200kms/hour. We stayed at a hostel in Shenzhou (Shenzhou has over 11 million population and is one of the 20 biggest cities in the world) and then caught 3 buses to Kowloon. Immigration was horrendous as many Chinese were going to Hong Kong for the long weekend too and we spent over 2 hours in line.
Hong Kong is, compared to China, a very expensive place. We stayed at the cheapest hostel in Hong Kong and for a tiny room with an ensuite bathroom, still paid almost US$45. Food is likewise expensive and contrary to what everyone says, not that great. Street food is not as good as in China. There is not really much to do here other than shop (in that sense, it is quite like Dubai). On our first day, we walked all over Kowloon, saw a church, a temple, Kowloon Park, the Temple Street Market and watched the light show across the harbour at 8pm. Billed as spectacular, only a few buildings actually had good lights and the show lasted only about 15 minutes.
On day 2 we took the metro to Hong Kong and walked up Victoria Peak. Expecting to take the Mid Level Escalator at least part way up, it goes down until 10am – go figure. So it was good exercise. The views of all of Hong Kong island are great from the 3.2km loop trail that encircles the peak. I had seen all that I had wanted to see when I was here in December 2014, so we took it easy for the rest of the day. It was Sunday and the day off for all the Filipino women who work in Hong Kong. It looked much more like Manila than Hong Kong.
The return through immigration was 1 3/4 hours shorter as all the Chinese had gone back on Sunday. We stayed at the same hostel in Shenzhou and had another relaxing 8 hour train ride back to Hongqiao.
I spent most of my time playing bridge online and reading (I caught up on many weeks of the Economist). I enjoyed walking around Hongqiao and people watching. I stick out like a sore thumb and get lots of stares. The people I enjoy the most are 1. The “motor guys” who take up the entire side walk in front of their shops. They repair anything with a small motor: chain saws, tools, generators, and have tools spread all over the place 2. The card players. There are always lots of games going on, all for large stakes as Chinese love to gamble. Mah Jong is not nearly as popular. Look at my Traveller’s Card Games on the Travel page for descriptions of the two commonest types of cards played. The “Best Hand Wins” takes a fair amount of skill and at one game, the winner makes about US$50 per hand. 3. The scale maker. Rather than electronic scales, many merchants still use a short stick with weights to measure vegetables and meat. This old guy was pleasant and i watched him make these beautiful stick scales from start to finish. He was just outside an optometrist and one of the women who worked there spoke good English. This was really the only time I had a meaningful conversation with anyone in Hongqiao. Most people make a meager living on the street selling stuff, sewing, shoemaking and bicycle repairs. I have had repairs made to my pack several times for pennies that would have been expensive at home. Just before I came home, I always get a haircut (just a trim of the hair on my neck). For $1.50 I get superb service for what they insist on charging 15-30$ for at home.
I shop for food every day visiting a few large markets (vegetables, meat and seafood) and the one large supermarket near Anna’s. Cooking is difficult as there are so many products not available in China. We make a lot ginger beef, sweet and sour dishes, fried rice and satay. I brought split peas and lentils from Israel and make some good soup. Anna and I cook well together.
I really should have carried a camera with me – there are tons of great pictures available every day of daily life in a small Chinese city. Across the lane outside Anna’s apartment, lots of construction has been occurring including a 4 story building and two small additions built to use any small bits of space available for building. Chinese are great workers, a comment I have made previously, and I believe the key to their success. But the standard of living for most Chinese is not great. Wages are low, rising slowly, but still pricing China out of the low-cost manufacturing market.
My VPN to access Google, Gmail, YouTube and Facebook has worked well in this part of China. Up until April 1, I had no problem seeing the Economist online but then the April 2 edition main article was titled “Beware the Cult of Xi”, the leader of China. The Great Firewall of China reared its ugly head and I then needed my VPN to access it. Xi is quite the autocrat and has been actively suppressing any dissent.
On April 5, I got the high speed train from Shenfang four hours to Shanghai, stayed the night in a hostel and flew on Hainan/Alaska Air via Seattle to Vancouver to spend a few days with my children on April 6. I foolishly waited too long to book an Air Canada flight direct for the same price and the price doubled from US$520. I am looking forward to spending some time in my beautiful apartment in Courtney and eating “normal” food.