Posted from Xi'an, China.
First of all, let me apologize for not posting recently. The Internet here in China has been spotty at best and downright frustrating at worst. Sometimes I can access my website and other times it has been completely blocked. Sometimes I can not even access my Gmail. I have no idea if this is due to the “Great Fire-Wall of China” but I have a sneaking suspicion it is. So let me just say it: Grow up, PRC. (People’s Republic of China) Thankfully, I have been writing a lot of notes, so I have most of my details archived.
So when I left you last, I was just about to leave the cavernous train-station in Harbin on my way to Dalian. After joining the massive line-up for my train to Dalian (everywhere in this country there are just too many people and monstrous waiting times) I eventually made it to my train wagon and compartment. The trains are a little different than in Russia. Instead of having six beds in three groups of two, it is just three beds side-by-side and small fold-up seats on the opposite wall of the train. Also, the aisles through the wagons are much larger… even though the people are smaller. A little bit of irony. Thankfully, my bed was the one on the bottom (the best one) while the space available for the bed at the very top of the triple bunk is small even for Asians… so insanely small by Western standards. However, at least the triple bunks have ladders so no gymnastics skills are needed. The wagons themselves are connected by a hallway without doors, just an open area you can walk through. However, in the Russian trains, smokers can enjoy their habit at the ends of the wagon car enclosed by doors, except Chinese trains lack those crucial doors.. so the smoke just wafts right into the wagon. Great. Further, I thought the toilets in Russian trains were bad… however Chinese toilets are just squat-holes in the floor and are about ten times as filthy. The Chinese also don’t seem to believe in flushing, so now I finally understand why Singapore has so many punishable fines for things Westerners would deem very silly .. because its necessary.
On this journey, my questionable “train-luck” continued. The bed opposite mine contained and old Chinese man who appeared to have a horrible cough, except he didn’t seem to believe in covering his mouth… yuck. I immediately vacated my seat to avoided being covered in old Chinese man germs and sat at the opposite wall. As the train started, he immediately went to bed and started to snore profusely… just my luck again. He must have had some sort of illness as his snoring was sporadic and extremely loud for such a tiny person. I eventually got tired of listening to this, so went for a walk to see what the rest of the train was like. Like Russian trains, most people seemed to be enjoying various foods, drinks or just playing cards. There are three types of classes. Hard seat (third class), Hard-sleeper, (second class, the one I was in) and Soft-sleepers (first class). The hard sleepers are as I described, while the soft sleepers are better beds and there are only four of them in a closed compartment. The hard-seats… well, they’re about as close to the edge of hell as you can get. Third class is just three seats next to three other seats. So picture six seats across packed full of people with every available space crammed with luggage, bags of whatever and food products. Also, there is a payment for the seat itself… or you can stand. That means there are people sitting as well as every available space crammed to the gills with standing Chinese. Some stood for upwards of fifteen hours! Often they sleep on the floor, on top of each other, in the space inbetween the wagons and under the seats themselves. Wherever they can find a place. Its an absolute nightmare that I got to see from afar, but thankfully have not experienced yet.
I headed back to my wagon and stripped off the majority of my clothes. The wagon itself was hotter than Russian trains (which I could not believe was possible) and I was burning up. I bought a couple beverages, did my best to cool down and started writing in my journal in the seat opposite the compartment. As I was writing, I noticed the man at the top bunk had started coughing something fierce and was clearing his throat loudly. He then grabbed a piece of tissue from his pocket, hocked a massive one in it… and then just threw the tissue on the floor right next to my bed. I nearly threw up in my mouth. I grabbed my shoe and kicked the discarded faux-pas underneath the bed of the sleeping man next to me… Welcome to China. This was just one of the truly disgusting acts I would witness during my stay here. Eventually the lights in the wagon were turned out, so I retired to bed.
The next morning, I was up very early and watched as the train pulled into Dalian, a coastal city in China. Grabbing my things, I wandered out of the train station into a taxi line. After a small wait and with some difficulty by my driver, I found my hostel, checked in and immediately hit the sack. The mattress was thin as paper, so since I was the only one in my six-bed dorm, I grabbed another mattress from the bed next to mine and tossed it onto my bed which made it significantly more comfortable. Genius. Around noon I woke up and decided to walk into town. Dalian is a smaller city (only a few million people, seems any city here under a million is a small town) which made it easier to just walk into the center. I made my way through the city’s main squares and towards the main plaza in town called “Victory Plaza.” Since I had heard Dalian was the “Hong Kong of the North”, I walked through the various famous shopping malls underneath Victory Plaza and perused the wares before heading back to my hostel.
That night I ended up recieving a message from a couch-surfer in town who was able to meet me for dinner. I have had some poor luck in China with being hosted by couch-surfers, but a few have been kind enough to meet me for a least a few hours. Shortly after I got the message, I called him up and he met me at my hostel. His name was Yuan Cheng and we decided to get a pizza together at a popular western-style restaurant in town. While we only met for a few hours, Yuan was a pleasure. He was the same age as me, but was a pharmacist of Chinese-medicine in Dalian and he lived with his fiancee. He dreamed of traveling like I have and asked me a lot about my experiences as well as quite a few questions about Canada. Further, he also asked me what I thought of China, his country’s government as well as its people. With my knowledge of political science, I did my absolute best to be as diplomatic as possible while at the same time attempting to find out what he thought of his government, his fellow countrymen and what his image of Canada was. Needless to say, the hours flew by and before long he told me had better get home to his wife-to-be.
The next day, on the advice of Mr. Cheng, I decided to walk along the ocean coast-line south of Dalian. I ended up getting a bus to a popular park in the city (Xiang Park) on the far south western side of the peninsula and walked for about four hours straight east within sight of the water. This was by far my highlight of Dalian. The coast-line was stunningly beautiful (the weather was sunny and clear) and the walk took me along various elevations which made for excellent scenic pictures. Also, since it was the winter, the beaches were virtually deserted except for a few Chinese men I noticed taking quick dips in the absolutely frigid water… crazy. However, I learned that in the summer-time, the beaches are so populated you literally can not walk sideways.The large amount of closed-up shops, boutiques and stands I noticed next to the beach were obviously evidence of this, so I was quite glad I got to see the beaches when they were largely deserted. After what seemed like a marathon of a walk, I grabbed a taxi back to town.
I noticed another couch-surfer from England named Russell had left a message in my inbox and had invited me out to dinner with himself as well as his expatriate friends that evening. I accepted and he sent me the address of the restaurant. That evening, I took a taxi to what he said was a popular sichuan restaurant in town. While I did not immediately notice Russell in the restaurant, I noticed another “lowai” (Chinese for ‘Foreigner’) entering and asked if he was Russell. It was actually his friend, Warren (a fellow from the States) but he guided me upstairs to where they were all going to meet. There I met Russell as well as large group of his friends from various Western countries who were either teaching English, learning Chinese or attending post-secondary education in China. The meal itself was fantastic. The sichuan-style of food is the spiciest in all of Chinese cuisine and according to most Chinese, their absolute favorite. The conversation with the various students/teachers revolved around their lives up to today, their lives at home, the upcoming trips home for the holidays and a few even asked me about my travels. Before long, many decided to retire for the night and I headed back to my hostel after extending many thanks for their invitation to what was a fantastic evening.
The next morning I was off to Dandong, which is China’s border city with North Korea. While the city itself is nothing special, the bridge in the city that connects the country of China with North Korea is the pariah-regime’s number one lifeline. China is North Korea’s largest trading partner and the majority of goods that prop up the reclusive regime from collapse cross that bridge every day. Naturally, I had to see it so before long I was on a four hour bus ride towards the border.
As my bus arrived, I met another couch-surfer who I had contacted on very short notice named Nancy who was a house-wife and mother of one in Dandong. She helped me get a train ticket for that evening which ended up being the last ticket available for the train to Beijing. I had a few hours in Dandong, so while chatting about Chinese history, we walked in the direction of the river that separates North Korea from China. The famous bridge I mentioned earlier you cannot enter (well, I didn’t try) but there is another bridge that runs parallel to it that only extends halfway across the river separating the two countries… the other half was bombed by the Americans during the Korean war. I walked along what was known as “the broken bridge” and snapped quite a few photos of North Korea on the other side. Standing at the end of the bridge, which was technically in the middle of the river, you begin to notice an extremely stark contrast in relation to the two coast-lines. The Chinese coast is full of twinkling lights, moving cars and towering skyscrapers, while the North Korean coast is devoid of practically any lights and looks as if it is a ghost-town. There are no people (apparently, they were all evacuated away from the coast so they could not see how much better life is in China) and it does not look like anything is moving at all. I said a quick “Hope you get whats coming to you Mr. Kim” (in not so many polite words though) underneath my breath and walked back down the bridge with Nancy towards town. Three days later and Kim Jong-Il bites the dust. Coincidence? I’d like to think my power of suggestion is stronger than that.
After it became dark, Nancy took me to a popular street in town that contained mostly North Korean restaurants. She escorted me to one of her favorite and I treated both her and I to dinner. The food itself was nothing special (most bland chicken, cold vegetables and odd-tasting salads) but the rice soup that was served with the meal was spiced with ginseng and was quite tasty and filling. Nancy and I conversed about her life, her dreams, as well as her experience with other couch-surfers and how her life was in China/Dandong. She asked me a lot about Canada, my travels, as well as my family and what I thought of China. However, before long, I was wishing Nancy good-bye and thanking her for helping me before boarding my train to Beijing.
Beijing itself was quite a trip. I spent three nights and almost four days there before heading towards the city of Xi’an where I am now. However, since I have already written this much and I am fast running out of available Internet time here in my hostel, I’ll save that story for tomorrow. Until then.