How much is enough?
The biggest headache with leaving a country is budgeting on how much cash you will need for the last few days. I withdrew what I considered sufficient from an ATM in Kunming and hoped for the best. Lindsey criticised me for not taking out enough, but the last think I wanted was to leave the country with s fist-full of unusable Yuan.
We took the bus to the border, hoping to cross it that night. It was an 11-hour journey; we got off the bus at 8pm, too late to cross the border. I had reserved 65 Yuan for this eventuality, a little more than five pounds. We had a pack of biscuits and pack of half eaten Pringles that would see us through. We were met off the bus by a tout with a CITS card pinned to his label. CITS is the state run travel agency so I assumed he would be trust worthy. He led us to the grottiest hovel you could imagine, a fleapit above a grimey restaurant, with plywood walls, and much noise with televisions in the room competing in volume with different channels. A pudgy Chinese man wearing a pair of boxer shorts and string vest with yellow stains running down the front peered round a door.
"Good hotel" he intoned. I looked at Lindsey. Ditch the tout! And so we walked from hotel to hotel, asking for a room.
"How about our last 65?"
Finally we found a clean (ish- only one cockroach in the bathroom) hotel. We'll take the room. In Chinese hotels you pay up front. Then there was the small matter of the deposit. This took some careful negotiation, and involved leaving twenty dollars, clearly marked on the receipt. Must get those dollars back.
Supper was the last of the Pringles- we'd had a free lunch at a roadside cafe so were not overly hungry. The biscuits were kept for breakfast. The next morning there was no trouble getting the deposit of dollars back, packs on our backs we started the short walk to the border itself. Roll on Vietnam!
What I forgot to mention
There are a number of points about China that I had intended to write about, but either forgot or didn't think fit into the burble I was writing at the time. Reviewing my notebooks, I think the following are worthy of mention. First and foremost, tea. I would like to say that it should be impossible to write about China without mentioning this ubiquitous hot drink, but given that Marco Polo never mentioned the stuff, its absence in my burble could easily be excused. Because I do mention tea however gives authenticity to our claim of having traveled through China, several commentators have questioned whether Marco Polo actually stepped foot in the country, pontificating that his travel writings are in fact a fraud, second hand stories he heard and cobbled together claiming them to be his own. But I digress. Of tea. It seems to be a generic term for any leaves thrown into hot water. We have had many versions of it. Possibly the best was in Beijing when, with time to kill, we wandered into a fine teashop and asked about Oolong tea. We were shown some ordinary pots full of the stuff, and stuck our noses in, inhaling the delicious aromas. But I had an inkling that we were being shown fairly ordinary stuff. So blagging as the connoisseur I shook my head and tutted. 'We are not interested in the peasant fare, show us the good stuff'. 'Arrrr, sir knows his teas'. We are taken into the back room and sat down at a table. The kettle is boiled. 'I think sir will appreciate e this...' He produced a small cardboard box and opened it. He then pulled the tea set towards him and started to prepare.
Now I usually chuck a tea bag in a cup and drown it with hot water, swirling it around a few times before squeezing the bag against the cup with a spoon. Omitting the kettle boiling and getting the tea bag out of the cupboard, I can have a cup of tea ready for consumption in less than thirty seconds. Here it seemed to take half an hour to get the tea ready.
He commenced by warming all the pots and cups, swishing hot water around them and pouring it into the sink below that was part of the tea set. Taking a particular spoon out of the tea-making utensil pot, with a flourish he scooped dry, curled leaves out of the box and dropped them into the small teapot. Lifting the kettle high above the teapot, He poured hot water over the leaves. He put the lid on and we waited ten seconds. The infused water was poured into a secondary teapot. Another ten second wait. This was then transferred into small, cylinders, about seven centimetres high with a diameter of about three centimetres. Small thimble sized hemispherical cups were placed on top of the cylinders and another short wait. With a deft flick of the wrist, the cylinders and cups were inverted and the cylinders removed letting the tea to slosh into the cups. We were instructed to take the cylinders and stick our noses in them, inhaling the aroma.
"Very good tea sir, the finest oolong with a delicate hint of ginseng".
The cup was barely large enough for a mouthful of tea, but oh what a mouthful. Tea doesn't get much better than this. Our friend grinned and commenced the process of preparing the cups again. And again. And again. And then we were down to the sell.
"It is certainly an excellent brew" I said. 'How much for the box?' picking it up and deciphering from the Chinese writing that it was 150 grams in weight.
"Four hundred Yuan" came the response.
I had difficulty in keeping a straight face - almost thirty-three quid!! Quick thinking required, there's no way we are going to spend a large chunk of our budget on this tiny box of green leaves, ginseng or not. "You take Visa?" I ask.
We had yet to find a shop that took credit cards; always a good way of getting out of the sale, 'I have to find an ATM to get the cash out...' was the usual response.
"Yes sir, we take Visa. MasterCard, American Express and Diners Club."
"Oh, urrr, great! Ummm, the box, it is quite large, we are travelling for long time and it may not fit into our bags."
"Don't worry sir, we can transfer it into a smaller bag, we have done that many times for other customers". Oh bloody hell, how do we get out of this. Then Lindsey joins in,
"It is very good tea, but it is little more than we were expecting to pay. We will go and discuss it and come back later..." Nice one Linds. The man nods his head.
"Very well then, I will be here until five o-clock this afternoon. I look forward to seeing you before then". We hotfoot it out of the shop taking care not to walk past it again during our stay in Beijing.
The next time we saw that tea ritual undertaken was in Lijang where we sat down in teahouse and asked for some tea. We expected a cup of leaves with a flask to be presented as usually occur in teashops. But we were given the full tea set and left to go through the rigmarole of pouring tea from receptacle to receptacle. And for the privilege we were charged four pounds. Ho hum. But the tea set seems unusual. Every hotel we stayed in had a flask of hot water and many provided jasmine tea bags. Flasks are everywhere, essential for topping up the containers of tea that are carried as commonly as mobile phones. All sorts of wide rimmed containers are used, from jam jars to dedicated pots with integrated handles. All with golden liquid and a handful of unfurled tea leaves. Tea is drunk everywhere. Or should I say slurped everywhere.
Interlude of bodily noises
As in Mongolia, making a noise as you drink is the done thing. Other bodily noises in this country include spitting (the Chinese must be the world champions in bringing up snot from the back of their throat and disposing it on the pavement, train floor or wherever) and the snot rocket whereby they place one finger of a nostril and exhale with a fierce blow the bogeys in the other nostril. Much to Lindsey's horror I have now mastered the snot rocket. Well, as they say, when in Rome...
Back to the Char
Along with the slurping in the tea houses tea is consumed with the accompanying sound of large, foot long tuning forks being tapped. The sound announcing the trade of the ear cleaner.
So there we are in Chengdu, drinking our tea and the man opposite us is having his ears cleaned out. The ear cleaner has a plethora of tools with different ends, similar to the tools of the trade of a dentist. And he is probing and twisting and pulling a long cocktail stick in his customer's ear and with a deft flick of the wrist pulls it out and presents it to his customer to inspect. A large globule of ear wax. Now another tool goes into the ear, unlike the last that had a wire looped end, this one has a bristle end. Like a bottle cleaner or a chimney sweep. And again it is twisted into the ear, pushed and pulled then left hanging out of the side of the customer's head (who nonchalantly sits, never flinching, showing no emotion as to whether it is a painful or enjoyable experience). And then the ear cleaner takes the large tuning fork, bangs it on his arm and presses it against the stick that protrudes from the customers ear canal. No doubt good vibrations man!
I am intrigued, but do not fancy having an ear clean myself. Lindsey thinks he is a charlatan, what qualifications does he have? And remember Lindsey had a real, professional medical ear clean in Stockholm. So I call the man over, and with the phrase book try to find out more about his trade. We get no further than the facts tat he has been doing it for ten years, he enjoys doing it and learnt his trade at school nearby. Or was that he went to school nearby. We'll never get to grips with this language.
It's all Chinese to me mate
The phrase book has been a vital tool in China, not so much as an aide to speaking Mandarin, rather for pointing at key expressions, questions and statements. My attempts at speaking it have generally been an abysmal failure. There are four tones in Chinese, plus no tone at all. These include the rising tone, like ending your sentence on a high tone as is becoming increasingly common in the English language, borrowed from Auzzie soap operas; a falling tone such as when you say exclaim an expletive, "damn!" and a falling-rising tone which is by far the hardest to grasp, and I think it sounds something like how you would say "it costs how-much?" He high tone is the easiest; it just sounds like a boring flat voice, a cross between a Brummy and a dalek.
It is one thing to read a collection of words out of the phrase book; it is another working out the tones. And to get the tone wrong can change the whole meaning of the word. Take the word ma for example. It can have six meanings, depending upon the tone used. Better still, being 'pregnant' (huaí yùn) can be easily mistaken for 'bad luck' (huaì yùn) and a 'poem' with the wrong tone sounds like 'a handful of shit'. But when you think of Shakespeare's sonnets I suppose this is not such a serious faux pas; "Shakespeare wrote a handful of shit" sounds about right!
One final comment about language. We have tried to work out what Lindsey's name means in Mandarin. Lin- si. Working through the dictionary li means pear. Full of expectation, we turned to si; Lindsey slapped me when I suggested that it was almost certainly going to mean ' shaped'. In fact there was no 'si' although there was a 'zi-se' that would work. Li zi-se. Selfish pear. But then Lindsey met another Lindsey who told her that her husband was barking up the wrong tree. She had it on good authority that the name "Lindsey" in mandarin translates to "lotus blossom," which pleased my wife very much indeed. Darling lotus blossom...
The flag and cap
If Marco Polo's failure to mention tea is considered to bring the authenticity of his writing into question, then failure to mention Chinese tourists in a modern synopsis of China would be equally erroneous. Chinese tourist on a package holiday are a whirlwind of cultural and ecological insensitivity. At every major tourist site they gather, following their leader, usually a young woman holding up a yellow flag attached to what appears like a radio aerial; talking incessantly through a battery powered megaphone. More often than not the party that trots after her shows little interest in her words, preferring to stick point their cameras in every conceivable direction at every object and site, regardless of how insignificant it is. They have no qualms about throwing the film packaging on the floor when getting another roll of film out. And when these sheep show signs of dragging their feet, the tour guide presses the yellow button on the megaphone and a shill tune bleeps out that is more ear piercing and unpleasant than the worst mobile phone ring. She knows who her sheep are, the Chinese tourist wears the yellow or white cap of the tour group, and to make sure has the tour party number pinned to their lapel or worn around the neck. And these tourists have money. They carry the Sony Handycam and the Cannon EOS 1. And if you consider the number of people in China and only one percent travel as tourists, why do you need foreign visitors? Surely they can sustain their own tourist industry.
Something that Lindsey has pointed out to me (other than the large number of pregnant women - she has a knack of spotting them out, and giving not so subtle hints) is how throughout China we have seen women holding babies with their bottoms sticking out whistling at them. And it seems to work, a couple of seconds whistling and a gush of wee wee pours from the infants lower region. And I am left wondering whether there maybe some sort of residual Pavlovian response in the Chinese psyche here, whistle loud enough and the nation will wet itself.
Goodbye china! We'd planned to stay a couple of weeks we ended up here for a month. We'd expected a backward third world country; we found a country leaping into the twenty-first century full of modernity and purpose. But China remains an enigma to us, and whilst we may return in a few months (to overland up to Tibet) it is impossible to say whether we love it or loathe it.