China – East Coast & Shanghai

16th – 23rd March 

Back on the mainland 

Leaving the comfort and homeliness of Hong Kong, we’re soon brought back down to earth by a disappointing encounter with Toyota China. Despite our clearest instructions, everything has been lost in translation and we are landed with a bill for 7,000 yuan (£700) – yet nothing we explicitly asked to be fixed on the car has been repaired! 

Hopeless and infuriating. But this being China, our most diplomatic and anger-stifled negotiations with the customer service rep reap nothing but wasted hours and two free bottles of engine oil. 

We can’t hang around arguing forever since we’ve still got 500km to drive today. Queenie manages to further dent Sino-Anglo relations by turning 500km into 600km and directing us out of Shenzhen in entirely the wrong direction. Welcome back to China! 

Heading up the coast 

Suffice to say we don’t reach our intended destination and pull into the decidedly unappealing ceramics town that is Chaozhou (nb the ‘-zhuo’ is pronounced ‘joe’), at 8pm, 150km short of our intended destination of Zhangzhou. Chaozhou is best entered after dark and best left before dawn. 

Most of the city’s hotels don’t take foreigners and it takes a frustrating 45 minutes to find a place that’ll have us – the friendly but rather damp Kunli Hotel, run by a middle aged Chinese man dressed rather peculiarly, in full Chinese army combat gear. His hotel shouldn’t take foreigners either, but thankfully he takes pity on us, covers our number plates with newspaper and swiftly ushers us upstairs. 

Rejoicing in the day’s first ‘positive’, we soon find cause to celebrate a few more pluses: (i) there’s a decent restaurant nearby and we can give our livers a break since they don’t serve beer and (ii) being the bog-making capital of south-east China, we’re guaranteed a Western loo in our hotel. We’re really clutching at straws here… 

A mini Hong Kong 

Happily, things improve. The following day we reach the wealthy coastal city of Xiamen in good order and have the chance to properly explore the former colonial island of Gulangyu, nestled less than a kilometre off the mainland.

Gulangyu, like Hong Kong, was ceded to the British as part of the one-sided and humiliating Treaty of Nanking, signed in 1842 after China’s military defeat in the first Opium War. 

It soon became a thriving foreign enclave, home to thousands of European consular officials and businessmen. These days the taipans are long gone and only their crumbling residences remain. Gulangyu is now a popular Chinese tourist attraction, thanks to its car-free cobbled streets and (mostly) untouched colonial architecture. The mock-Tudor and Georgian mansions, terracotta tiled roofs and Tuscan archways make the place feel like the progeny of a cross between Bath and Florence, although the frequent white tiled new additions leave us in now doubt as to where we actually are… 

We’re still playing catch up from yesterday, so by 4pm we’re back on the ferry to the sky-scraper clad mainland (which ironically looks very similar to the present-day Hong Kong) and then back to the car to polish off another 200km before dusk. 

Diplomatic relations 

Thanks to the east coast’s extraordinary new infrastructure we reach Quanzhuo by 6pm. But yet again, thanks to a directionless, clueless Queenie we overshoot the correct exit and spend an hour looking for suitable accommodation. 

Over supper, we delicately broach the subjects of research and pro-activity more directly with Queenie. Diplomatically, we explain that, although we understand that China’s a huge country and she can’t be expected to know everywhere, we do need her to research accommodation and sightseeing options for the towns on our route. It’s not a big ask – nearly every hotel we stay in has internet and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to dig out some hotels online! As for sightseeing, why on earth she hasn’t brought anything akin to a guidebook with her is beyond us. 

We ask her politely if, after supper, she can check out possible sightseeing options in Quanzhou so we can decide whether to spend any time here tomorrow before leaving. We’re now covering huge distances very quickly and don’t want our Chinese experience to become a conveyor belt of expressways, urban sprawl and characterless hotels. 

Quarrels in Quanzhuo 

Come morning, it’s evident that this particular penny hasn’t dropped. “So you decide what to do today?” Queenie calmly enquires as we load the car up. “Well, what did you manage to find out about Quanzhou?” asks Nina. “Well, I didn’t know what you wanted to see” comes the reply. 

This is too much for Nina, who now furious, promptly flips. Loosing one’s temper with a Chinese only child who’s going to be in your car for another two weeks may not seem like a grand idea, but really, nothing short of a Chinese firecracker up her backside will get dear little Queenie to be anything more than a glorified translator for us. 

When the tears subside, we try to make friends again and get on with some sightseeing. We’d foreseen this unfortunate outcome and spent three hours online doing our own research last night, so manage to find a small, ancient temple nearby that we’d like to see. 

The Kaiyuan Temple in Quanzhou is a delight. A working Buddhist temple, complete with monks, devout worshippers, crumbling pagodas and beautifully manicured gardens. We’re thankful we persevered. 

Understanding the mentality 

Queenie’s confused as to why we want to see said temple, when the biggest and most famous temple of this kind is apparently in Chengdu. It’s a typical Chinese sightseeing mindset – if it’s not the biggest, oldest or best in the country, or unique, then why bother? 

We explain to the still sulky Queenie that us weird foreigners actually enjoy visiting things that are small, sometimes in disrepair, not contrived or immaculately refurbished, and not jammed with other tourists. She raises her delicate eyebrows. “Oh. I never hear that before”.

Chinese civilization has evolved over the past 5,000 years in complete isolation to Western civilization. At times it’s been centuries ahead of the West; at other times it’s lagged behind. But always, always different. 

In a nutshell, this means that the Chinese philosophy, manners, actions and opinions simply cannot be meaningfully compared like-for-like with those of the West. Any tourist or ex-pat in China who doesn’t realise this swiftly is in for a really rough and frustrating time. We’ve tried to be mindful of this (especially when queuing!) but every day is a learning curve. 

The West Lake 

From Quanzhou we burn it north to Hangzhou, covering 700 miles in two days, interrupted only by one motorway tailback (three hours spent in the middle of a 3km road tunnel; not an experience we want to repeat) and an overnight in wealthy Wenzhou. 

Hangzhou is home to seven million people and the largest ancient ornamental lake in China – the West Lake. Having covered 1,400 miles in five days since leaving Hong Kong it’s a relief to be in the same place for two nights and to have a break. 

It seems our tête-à-tête with Queenie may have had some effect too – she’s actually found some hotel options for us! Friends again, our moods are brightened when we wake in the morning to see blue skies and sunshine – only our third clear day in China.

We take full advantage and spend the day walking the promenades and causeways that decorate Hangzhou’s West Lake. The lake was created in the 8th century when the governor of Hangzhou dredged and dammed the Qiantang River and began the lake’s 1,000 year beautification process with a series of ornamental islands, bridges, causeways and temples. 

The Chinese have long been masters of watercourses and landscape gardening. The West Lake is a prime example – every possible sightline has been aesthetically enhanced. At this time of year there’s an abundance of apple and cherry blossoms, bright yellow flowering shrubs and ancient, sculpted cedars and pine trees. Marble balustrades depicting lions and dragons chaperone the numerous, delicately arched bridges. It’s a wonderful place to refresh ourselves. 

It’s all West from here… 

From Hangzhou its only 90km north-east to Shanghai, China’s economic hub and the easternmost point on our entire trip. In fact, there’s virtually no countryside between the two cities, such is the population density in this area of China.

In the past two decades Shanghai has grown at a mind boggling rate. Its population numbers around 18 million and its most recent construction boom was so massive it engendered a crane shortage throughout the rest of eastern Asia. 

Despite the size, though, it’s a remarkably easy city to drive in to, thanks to a new network of elevated highways that keep us 30 metres off the ground from the suburbs to within 500 metres of our hotel. Away from the principle tourist and shopping centres, we actually find Shanghai to be a surprisingly peaceful, laid back city. 

Changing fast 

Apart from the construction sites – that is. Shanghai is hosting the 2010 Expo starting in May and the entire city is currently receiving a facelift – on a Chinese scale. Aside from the obviously vast construction works at the actual Expo site, every paving slab, traffic light, signpost and tree within the centre seems to be being replaced or planted – an extraordinary feat. But China’s experience of mass mobilisations of workforces means there’s absolutely no doubt the place will be ship-shape and pristine in time for May 1st, and an influx of 70 million visitors. 

Somehow the old and the new, for the time being, rub shoulders harmoniously – despite a drastic modernisation drive that has replaced much of ancient network of cluttered, claustrophobic alleyways with vast, faceless apartment blocks. 

Amongst the skyscrapers, we manage to find modest havens of traditional tranquillity – tiny lanes where households share the same outdoor sink (and remove their own tap to stop the neighbours pilfering their water), where tiny old women cook in kitchens the size of wardrobes and their husbands play mah-jong on street corners, always surrounded by a riveted audience. 

In amongst the city’s manicured parks, affluent one-child families enjoy the weekend sunshine, although the social contrast between the locals and the generally multi-offspringed ex-pat is visible and sometimes awkward. There is a second generation of cosseted and frequently spoilt ‘little emperors’ growing up in China; the social implications of which have yet to manifest themselves. It’s hard to imagine they won’t be severe, though, especially considering the rising male – female imbalance. 

Nevertheless it’s heartening that, despite the frenetic pace of change in this country, wherever possible ordinary people seem to be holding on to their traditional values. How long it’ll last for is another matter. As the Chinese proverb says, “If the old doesn’t go, the new won’t arrive”.

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