According to my WordPress app, this is the longest gap I’ve left between posts since starting my journey. And for good reason, too.
Since leaving the lofty peaks of my birthday in Zhangjiajie, my days have been packed full of adventure, leaving me little time to write anything but the odd short poem (be a good sport and check out the ones I uploaded a couple days ago, eh?). I’m now back on yet another long and relatively (un)comfortable Chinese train, so it’s time to share with y’all those adventures.
However, I wanna try something new today; change up the format of these posts a little.
Woah woah woah, what does this guy think he’s doing?! Thinks he can just go changing his style like a goddamned chameleon changes its colours? I just won’t have it.
Before you go getting your tighty-whities in a twist, hear me out. Usually I like to write this like a journal and include pictures intermittently, to show you what I’m talking about. But today I found myself going back over those photo’s to jog my memory; and I thought, why not show you a picture first – a sort of snapshot glimpse into my travels – before explaining the story behind it?
So that’s what I’m gonna do now. Not a radical change, I’ll admit, but hopefully one that freshens this post up a little – especially given how much I’ve got to tell. Some of the stories behind these pictures are short and sweet as Chinese bread (what I’d give for some wholegrain up in here). Others will stem from a single photo, but span millennia (exaggeration is my poetic license, back off).
I came to the Vegetarian game late in life, and so, even despite not having handled or eaten meat in two years, seeing it being prepared or cooked is really no problem for me… usually. This photo was taken in the infamous ‘dog market’ of Yangshuo, Guangxi Province. The photo is not of the actual dogs (or cats) because 1) ye might no hev hed yer denner yet, and 2) the butchers in there were stricter on cameras than monks are in temples.
Hanging from hooks all along one wall of this warehouse were geese, ducks, goats, and of course, dogs: butchered or skinned and ready for purchase. This in itself was unpleasant to see, worse however, was observing the caged dogs waiting their turn (and we’re not just talking muts here, but golden retrievers and labs too). You know the look your pet gives you when they’ve eaten yer Mars Bar and are waiting getting cussed out? Imagine that but with eyes void of hope for mercy – maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I swear I could see resignation in their eyes, as two feet away one of their compatriats is being dumped into a chemical vat for removing fur.
Needless to say, my pal Sean and I got out of there before long, walking aimlessly and in silence for a long while aftwerwards.
Now for something a little cheerier, eh?
Might I introduce you to two lads who made my stay in Guilin and Yangshuo what it was: Sean – American but living now in Hong Kong – and Douwe, another edition to my collection of Nederlande brothers from other mothers.
I met Sean first, whilst staying in Guilin, and we agreed to meet down in the beautiful Yangshuo a couple days later. Despite the dreaded Chinese VPN sitch blocking our emails, we managed to run into each other shortly after I arrived there. And that night, we met Douwe, who we’d spend the next two days with.
My first night in Yangshuo set the precedent for my next I-forget-how-many-it-really-is-all-a-blur nights there, then in Chengdu and finally in Chongqing. By which I mean we got pissed drunk and played drinking games. Or should I say, the drinking game: Chairman Mao. As per the rules of Mao, I cannot tell you any more about it – else I be struck down by the man himself – all I can say is this: it’s fun as sin, addictive as hell, and I’ll continue to teach it to everyone I meet along the way.
Later that night, in a sports bar watching the Liverpool game (Sean’s as Scouse as a lad from Michigan could be), we spotted a poster by the urinals for 100RMB day-long scooter hire. Our plans for tomorrow were then of course set.
Just like my day on the scooters in Jaisalmer with Jules, scooting around Yangshuo with these lads proved one of my favourite days in China.
In true Chinese fashion the Australian guy we rented off had zero-issues with Sean and Douwe’s inexperience with scooters, nor was he able to provide helmets, despite our asking for them (see Mum, least I’m trying to be sensible). The lads received a baptism of fire, their first ten minutes on the bikes spent weaving through traffic en route to the petrol station – probably for the best this was the case, given they’d have to deal with way hairier roads by the end of the day.
After some technical hitches with my bike, we were on back on the road. Once we got five minutes outside of the city the roads quietened down till we maybe only passed one or two other drivers every quarter hour. The road wound its way up into the stark karst mountains, looking down into lush valleys or up onto endless orange orchards, the fruit so ripe it was falling onto the road to be smooshed under our tires. So often we’d round a corner and be presented with jaw-dropping views of the Li River working its way through mountains and paddy fields worked by buffallo, ox, men and women. This was the China I’d always dreamed of visiting.
Never forgetting to thank the Chairman for allowing us to start our scooters back up, we made our way down a sketchy dirt track toward the old-timey village of Xingping. Here we struggled with the logistics of loading three heavy ass scooters onto a rickety old transit boat to take us across the Li, and then reversing them back across the teensy plank at the other side, and pushing them up a 45 degree hill (don’t worry Sean, I won’t tell them how you ran your scooter head-first into a wall).
We ate lunch on the cobbled streets of old Xingping, in a restaurant that did hands down the best veggie burger you’ll find in China. Feeling rejuvenated, restored, respawned with full ammo, camo, and at the top of the leaderboard, we set back for Yangshuo.
The road back was, thankfully, a highway. Meaning we could take those babies up to the rip-roaring speed of 70kmh, and not have to worry about potholes. That is, until Chairman Cal decided we should take a little detour.
This is Sean’s fuck you very much Calum face. What my maps.me app told me would be a decent road, turned out to be a super bumpy and tailbone-shattering dirt track, leading nonetheless through cute backwater villages. What my maps.me app told me would be a dirt track at the end of this ‘decent’ road, turned out to be a, how to say this – you know when the Fellowship try to avoid Moria by scarting round the edge of that perilously snowy mountain? – yeah, picture that, but instead of snow, picture 2ft wide boulders of varying heights packed like sardines all along this path which wound its way from the village up the side and round a mountain. I don’t think it was designed for humans, let alone dirtbikes, let alone rented scooters.
I was honestly absolutely spent by the time we got up and over the hill. We missed bottoming out our bikes by millimetres and lashings of luck. Our legs, wrists and butts were entirely dead. What’s more, the entire village had stopped their work just to watch these three stupid-ass Gweilos try to offroad scooters.
Hence, the look on Sean’s face, and the look on our faces when we finally found good road again:
This snap is actually one of my favourites from Yangshuo, though for sure I’ve taken better and prettier ones. It reminds me of my favourite moment in the entire day of scootin’ around, and one which made the mountain climb entirely worth it.
Just outside one of the aforementioned wee villages we stopped to look back into the valley and found ourselves immersed in a silence almost complete. The only interuptions to it were the sound of the wind, the static of insects in the grass, and the occassional cries of the lady (in the field by the house) tending to her water buffalo, as she’d chase them from her crop back into the field to feed. This was seemingly her sole task for the time being – to sit in the serenity of this valley’s quiet, and make sure the buffalo ate grass instead of crop. I fell in love with that place and that moment. One of many highlights from a day full of stunning views, enjoyable company, and tough but exhilarating rides.
This photo says more than enough. Post-scooters, we met some friends from Guilin (Sill & Luke: you’ll be hearing more about them once I’m in Beijing – where we’ve got big plans) and got stupid drunk on rice beer and baijo at the same bar we rented the bikes from. I called it at like 11pm, before we even got round to playing Mao. I was dissappointed I’d bailed, but at the same time, one more shot and I think I might have went blind.
Deciding to opt for a decidedly calmer and easier (we thought) mode of transport the following day, we hired push bikes with a new addition to the team, and set out for Yulong river (a similarly beautiful though somewhat less touristic river than the Li).
Of course this trip wasn’t without its complications, Douwe’s inner tube choosing the absolutely prime moment (butt-end of nowhere) to tear itself a new one, but it did yield gorgeous views, a welcome bit of exercise, and some cuts and scrapes just for good measure.
I realise I’ve been writing for a while now, so I think I’ll break my own rules and let some photo’s do the rest of the talking for this particular story:
I could have spent an hour just watching each panda individually. The are drop dead gorgeous creatures, clever too, and ridiculously funny in their laziness. The research/breeding base too was dope in terms of the free space afforded the pandas, and the success they’d had in aiding the breeding process. I think red pandas are my fave, they’re pure cheeky and way more active given their smaller size. If you ever get the chance to see pandas in a similarly well-maintained habitat, do not pass up the opportunity! The trip to Chengdu’s Panda Base was the perfect start to yet another hungover day, spent with the lads who feature prominently in this next photo story installment…
My company for the day was that of three cool motherloving Deutsch lads – Max, Quentin and Rasmus. Having already burned our mouths to oblivian eating the tastiest ass mapo tofu I’ve ever had at a local restaurant round the corner from our hostel that lunchtime, we decided this wasn’t enough. After an afternoon spent watching street performers and artists, drinking tea at a tea house, and playing Mao, we met up with a friend of Max’s from when he taught English in Liuzhou. This suave mother took us to a Communist-themed huǒ guō restaurant with five or more of his own friends from Chengdu.
A hot pot consists of two sides of a big pot (funnily enough), one a milder soup for all manner of veggies, the other the classic Sichuan pepper bubbling broth, typically for meat. With help from Max and Quentin’s impressive grasp of Mandarin, and the kindness and understanding of the Chinese lads, however, I was allowed plenty veggies added to the real hot side, so I could try it for myself. Have you ever eaten something so spicy its given you goosebumps and rendered not just your mouth, but your face, entirely numb? ’cause I have, and it was fricking awesome.
Once or twice we were asked to stand and watch as the waiters and waitresses formed a line to sing the Communist Party’s national anthem, which was as surreal as it sounds. The Chinese lads kept us plied with beer and cigarettes, calling for gānbēi (’empty cup’) with each fresh bowl of beer. And once we’d had our fill of all of the above, Max’s pal paid for the lot, refusing our offers of compensation given that we were his guests – as frustrating as it often can be, the Chinese ‘face’ culture does have its advantages…
After tea we headed out on the town, for my first ever Chinese club experience. My memory gets progressively foggier as I attempt to recall each hour of this night, but I can tell you that Chinese clubs are weird. For example, there is no dancefloor.
Did he just say…
Yep, you heard right. There’s a DJ, there’s strobe lights. There’s just no dancefloor. Clubbing in China consists of taking a table, ordering way way more beer than you could ever possibly drink (possibly because tables have like a 1000RMB minimum spend, possibly also to do with the ‘face’ thing, possibly just to show off), and sitting playing games on your phone instead of talking to your pals. This wasni how we were gonna roll though. For one, fuck if we were taking a 1000RMB (about £100) table, and two, we were determined to throw some mad shapes. Thankfully, we made it work to suit our own needs. A couple more beers in and we’d cleared enough of a space that our small group could bust a move or two; a couple more beers in and the makeshift dancefloor has expanded tenfold. Come 1am, the place is pure bouncing. It’s packed to the brim with Chinese, French, German, American, Indian and (probably just one) Scottish kids shaking dem boot-ehs. I’m usually not one for clubs, preferring pub-socialising, but I hadn’t danced and drank like that in a very, very long time, and it felt fucking fantastic.
Needless to say, the combination of alcohol and food as spicy as the huǒ guō was not conducive to a particularly fresh start the following morning. Which is exactly why I love this photo so much. I think it captures the mood of that day: rainy and overcast to a degree, but filled in its own way with colour which refused to be muted by my hangover.
Quentin and Max left early early that morning for their next destination, and so it was just Rasmus and I left to feel sorry for ourselves.
We met a lovely couple lasses in the hostel – French Mathilde and Canadian Kate – and headed out to the same place as yesterday for lunch. This time, though, no spice. No thank you. Instead we gorged on more super tasty veggies – honestly Sichuan food kicks ass – followed by cream puffs and cinnamon rolls from a wee bakery down the road. We legit giggled with glee as we stuffed these sugary treats doon wur gullets.
That afternoon was spent strolling gently around another park, drinking more tea, and playing more Mao (props to Kate, the fastest learner thus far). In the evening we visited Tianfu Square, home of a gigantic garishly lit-up and saluting Mao statue. What clearer an indicator that the game of Mao was very much alive and kicking?
Back at the hostel post-dinner was where the real colour of the day came to the fore. Meeting up with Patrice (total dude – Quebecua swing dancer and rock’n’rolla), Scarlett (or ‘big sister’ – the most caring Chinese lady out there), and two dancer lasses she knew, we got straight back on the bevvy.
Soon enough the girls are teaching us Samba and Rumba in the confined quarters of the hostel garden. Following this Patrice teaches us how to Swing, and Kate shows us all some Canadian line-dancing (so much fun). Scarlett is still not satisfied, and asks if Scotland doesn’t have some traditional dances I could teach the group.
Thank you Shimmy Wright.
I’ll not pretend I didn’t jump at the opportunity. Starting off with the Dashing White Sergeant, so as to include as many as possible in such a small garden, I then taught Kate and Scarlett a bit Gay Gordons. We were all getting a bit sweaty and tired (even the profesh dancers had to take a few breaks to catch their breath), but the grins on all our faves was indication enough that we wanted to keep dancing, keep learning. With exactly eight people in the group at this point, I had a revelation:
Strip the Willow
Patrice had a better revelation:
Strip the Willow, out on the street
So at perhaps midnight, eight drunken sods spilled out onto the streets of Chengdu ready to dance one of my favourite ceilidh dances. As self-serving as it sounds, I can only at this point refer you back to the poem about this in my last post – it’s the best way I have to describe the adrenaline and joy of that moment.
Back inside, the younger lasses had to scoot – dance recital early the next morning – and so with just the six of us we settled into the outdoor cushions, cracked open a couple more beers, some crisps and some cake, and started trading songs. The non-French speakers in the group marvelled at the beautiful sounds of Patrice and Mathilde’s songs (I got them to sing La Mer and Quelqu’un m’a dit because mmmmmm), Kate sang O’ Canada, Biggie Smalls, Joni Mitchell, and Sean Paul (props again for dat variety), and I sang some Paolo, O’ Flower of Scotland, and Tracy Chapman.
You know in movies where they show like the free-love, super alternative, super hip, super hippy, sort of round-the-campfire nights you might find in a commune or in backpacker hostels, and you’re like wow, cheese much? It was like that, and it was absolutely wonderful.
We’re nearly at the end guys, hold on in there. I’ve one more surprise for you…
What’s that? A wild Andrew Ferguson appears!
It just so happens that an hour’s train ride from Chengdu is a city called Chongqing, famous for it’s pretty girls, it’s monstrous hot pot, and its expat nightlife. Trumping all of the above was my reason to visit – my good pal and fellow Glasgow alumni Andrew lives just outside Chongqing, and has done for around six months, working as an English teacher of kids from kindergarden to college.
Despite the absolute numpty leaving his passport at home (you need your passport to check-in to every single hotel and hostel in China) he managed eventually to get a bed at my hostel, and with that sorted, we hit the town.
I was already pure shattered when we visited the first pub, having had all-in-all 9 hours sleep over the previous three nights, and still suffering a killer hangover. But needs must, and hair of the dug never fails to perk you up. We hit up a quiet expat bar for food and local beer, before moving on to Jeifangbei to see how many clubs might could cater to our drinking needs at 1am on a Sunday night. The answer was: not many. After stumbling about a super weird underground cinema thing, we came upon a bar/club hybrid with an odd choice of music, a robotic-arm-bartender, and an Old Fashioned cocktail that was by no means an Old Fashioned (though contained a hella lot of alcohol so who’s complaining?). The only foreigners in the place, we were soon invited over to a table of four in the corner, piled high with beer and fruit (the latter is, I forgot to mention earlier, another weird staple of Chinese clubs). Andrew managed alright with his Mandarin, whilst I sat quietly sipping my cocktail, watching the mother of all domestics unfold between one of the couples – the guy of which a mean Triad-looking type. Shortly after which Andrew and I made a hasty exit from that table, to retake our old pews and get a beer in. We were then invited over to a table of three, who had a bottle of tasty tasty cognac which they insisted on keeping our glasses constantly full with. Before we know it, it’s 4am and I am steaming yet again. With great difficulty, and another couple cognacs, we peeled ourselves away from this table and headed for the hills.
Needless to say, I woke up the next morning with the worst hangover I’ve had since that godforsaken night in that godforsaken bar in Amritsar, Punjab (Isabel and August can back me up on this one). How was I to cure this? How on earth could I ever start feeling any better? Could you die from headaches and a gross mouths? Then the answer came to us:
Spa & Pizza day
Yes. Baby. For about £15 altogether, we spent the day at an insanely luxurious hot spring spa on the edge of the city. This place was insane. It had everything you could ever want for: jacuzzi, steam rooms, power/massage water streams, saunas, flavoured and scented outdoor baths so numerous I won’t even begin to recount the number of them we soaked in (though I will say that the Eucalyptus one was dope; and that I hope the ginseng one, which called itself the ‘body building’ pool, works its magic on this auld belly of mine). There were a number of fish-feet-feeding pools which were super weird, intensely ticklish (to start with, like a tattoo, the sensation became pleasant after a time), and genuinely did make my feet feel cleaner, I think. And then, of course, was the full-body scrub, just to top things off. Similar in intensity to the Hamam I visited in Istanbul, the guy at this spa went to town on my body with his scratchy-ass flanel thing. My elbows felt so soft afterwards I think I should have been in some sort of moisturiser commercial. We showered and pampered ourselves in front of the mirrors whilst a bunch of other guys walked around bollock neckit. Then, back in fresh clothes, we went to find ourselves a goddamned Pizza Hut – because pizza is how every good day should end.
After pizza, pub. My hangover had been pulverised at the spa, and (although we agreed not to go over the two pint limit) I felt up to the drink again. In true Chinese style, we played dice-drinking games with our beers, and so did, I’ll admit, break our two pint rule, but only by one, so it’s all cushty. We were visited periodically by Chinese kids from the other tables, marvelling at two gweilos playing dice, or marvelling at two gweilos in general – like Eva, an overly friendly lass who declared her love for us both within a half hour, and refused to let us go when we started flagging. Eventually however, having had our fill of beer, dice, Eva and her table full of east European dancers (who, sole occupiers of the dance floor, and with their numerous towers of beer taps, seemed to be in for a much longer haul than either Andrew or I could manage after the previous night), we once again headed back home.
And that, my friends, family, brothers, sisters, and comrades, brings us up to date! I left Andrew in Chongqing this morning, for the first time since leaving the UK having to run my ass off to make my train, but nonetheless getting there on time for a 9 hour ride to Xi’an – home of the Terracotta Warriors and Hua Shan: ‘the most dangerous mountain in China (/the world?!)’, Google it.
I did manage to get off at the wrong train station and have to pay a 100RMB taxi to the hostel, but I arrived intact and with all my possessions, which is impressive given how heavy this past week and a bit has been.
I think now I’ll chill for a couple days, unless I can make it out to Hua Shan. Plus I’m definitely not drinking ever again (haha, ha, ha).
If you made it this far into my post, then kudos, congratulations, and thank you. I think you are probably 1 of 1. So here, have all my love. It’s there for the taking.
Stay cool. C x