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Traveldiary chapter 15 [September 2006 - November 2006] as PDF
(China incl. Hong Kong, back to Thailand and Singapore)
|Photos: Singapore||More about Singapore: chapter 13 (Main Story), chapter 17 (Thaipusam), chapter 18 (Farewell), chapter 34|
Singapore: Street Light Up Festivals in September
After we had left southern Africa, we arrived back in Singapore
on Sept. 16th, 2006. Now we appreciated the lively streets even more
than before, where nobody seemed to go home early and there was no worry about
security. We enjoyed being surrounded by locals of all walks of life when we
were eating in the food-stalls and restaurants. As common in Asian cities, most
of the people eat out three times a day. In
As the hotel we had stayed at the last two times, was now undergoing renovations, we found good lodging in the small Kerbau Hotel in Little India. Most days we were still busy writing our African travel story, but at night we enjoyed the three “festivals of light” that were all held just around this time.
The quarters of the different ethnic groups were decorated and illuminated for around a month. The Muslims celebrated "Hari Raya Puasa" mainly in the family. What was very obvious however, were the thousands of additional shops and markets under huge tents that sometimes covered entire streets. Many more food hawkers sold delicacies, but as this festival is held during the fasting month Ramadan, the Muslims took the food home to feast after prayers at sunset.
The streets of the Muslim quarter were illuminated nicely, but moderately in comparison to Little India. Here they celebrated the "Deepavali Festival" and the streets were decorated with impressive illuminated arches covering several kilometers of road in colourful animated lights. Here only a few small lanes were closed to traffic for 6 weeks and covered with tents to convert them into more shops. "More Shops" is anyway the most widely seen sign in this city!
The mid autumn festival, also called Moon festival celebrated by the Chinese, offered yet another picture. They had modelled big flowers and animals in iron frames covered in colourful satin cloths and illuminated from inside. The most impressive models were pagodas or temples or huge dragons. Some were up to 12m high and maybe twice as long. Various animals or fairies did move their wings. Theses ornaments decorated the flower beds in the middle of the road and pedestrian overpasses. It was a wonderful sight by day and even more so at night. On the full moon night of Oct. 6, the festival peaked in a lantern parade. More about Singapore: chapter 13 (Main Story), chapter 17 (Thaipusam), chapter 18 (Farewell)
|Photos: Hong Kong - China|
China; a transforming country
We left for Hong Kong
on October 10th 2006 on a
cheap Jet Star flight (€ 75). On the way from the modern airport into the
city center, we saw how much the once untouched
Surely; some more skyscrapers had
been added to the outskirts and some of them looked really posh. The old
apartments in the city center on the other hand, didn't seem to have been
maintained well and many looked really old and dirty - something we hadn't seen
In many small side lanes we found
cramped markets where fish and crabs were sold alive. The entire down-town area
was very cramped, which was probably due to the times when
We were delighted that Ivy, a
travel-crazy teacher we had met 1 ½ years ago in
We learned from Ivy that nowadays most
women choose to work and as we noticed also in
As Chinese embassies were closed for an
entire week due to the Chinese National day on Oct. 1st, we applied
for the visa to enter mainland
Now we were preparing to visit China. We had bought a big Lonely Planet guide book, 5 cm thick. First we read about the country's troubled history, which is hard to describe in short. Documented from as early as 4000 BC, millennia of various dynasties fought and succeeded each other, often changing social structures and philosophies of live dramatically. As everywhere, the emperors put much suffering on the people in their desire to remain in power and to enlarge their territories.
Well-established trading routes existed
along the Silk Road to
Therefore, the Chinese Qialong, ruler
from 1736-1795 banned trade with Opium. This resulted in two opium wars with
British troops defending their big source of income. As the Chinese lost,
they had to give away
Back to the 19th century: the increased
presence of missionaries fuelled further hatred against the "foreign
devils". At the same time, the leader of the “Taiping movement” believed
that he was the brother of Jesus Christ, after being in contact with
Missionaries. His supporters hoped therefore to install the Christian
This was followed by the dark story of
the last two emperors and the proclamation of the provisional republican
During Japanese occupation, hundred
thousands if not millions of Chinese civilians were gruesomely murdered and
massacred during their "burn all, loot all, kill all" campaign. Following
the Japanese defeat and the end of WWII, the Americans attempted unsuccessfully
to negotiate a settlement between CCP and KMT. Finally, on Oct. 1st,
1949 the CCP succeeded and Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic of
The leaders of the KMT fled to the island of Formosa (Taiwan) taking with them the entire gold reserves of the country and what was left of Marine and Navy.
The PRC began its days as a bankrupt
nation, but there was great enthusiasm among the people. Within 4 years they
managed to turn around the legacy of economic mismanagement left by the KMT and
improved production back to post-war levels. In the cities the communists
eradicated the slums, rehabilitated millions of opium addicts and eliminated
child- and slave labour. Between 1958-60
After Mao's death 1976 the party's official line soon surfaced that Mao was 70% right, 30% wrong in his leadership.
After his death the totalitarian
practices of the communist government were significantly modified concentrating
on a "4 modernisation programme: agriculture/industry/science and defence.
Slowly they increased contact with the capitalist economies in the west. As the
party began to lose its ideological grip, by 1978 demands for a 5th modernisation
were heard: democracy. 1986 Hu Yaobang was sidelined for his support of these
demands. The mass memorial, following Hu's death in 1989 turned into a popular
peaceful rebellion as hundreds of thousands of students gathered on Tianamen
In 1993 President Deng Xiaoping frankly proclaimed that "to get rich is glorious" and began to trim down state owned industries, leading to mass unemployment. The new doctrine is now "the modern interpretation of communism/Marxism/Leninism and Maoism" and we were wondering what this means and how much the country had changed since our last visit in 1991.
On Oct. 15th 2006, we took a
speedboat from Hong Kong to Shenzhen where we boarded a plane to Guilin.
Here we got a first glimpse of modern
Endless shops lined the streets and the
people were dressed more modern than those of
Many buildings in town were brand new and there were lots of construction sites modernizing the city even more. There were still a few side alleys left, usually with older buildings, where small workshops and food stalls served their customers on the pavement. In a way, it's a pity that they are all disappearing, because that's where part of the social life is, where people stop to chat. The new buildings, of course have a clean and sterile shop front and nobody lingers in front of them. Also most of the street-markets disappeared and are now replaced by air-conditioned supermarkets.
Many of the remaining old buildings, shops or apartments looked as if their time would come soon. They will eventually disappear behind a wall that's put up around every construction site.
Once the government decided that an old building will be replaced or has to give way to a new road, the occupants get notice and have to move out. As not everybody is delighted about the news and the new dwelling offered (usually at the outskirts of town) some tenants take their time moving out. As soon as a party does so, workers make the flat uninhabitable immediately for fear that somebody else will occupy that apartment and as a visible sign to those that still live in the neighbouring flats. In front of such a half inhabited building, the towns stinky waste-trucks all parked overnight. We wonder whether this aimed at chasing the last die-hard’s out or whether they’ve been there for long…
When we decided to visit "7 star
park" as recommended by the tourist brochures, we didn't quite know what
its main attraction was. Brigitte hoped to see some of the karst hills for
Well, we were more fascinated walking
around the ordinary streets and parks of
Within 20 minutes only, market-stalls were brought in, seemingly out of nowhere and hawkers were ready to sell. Now there was a stretch of 1 km of souvenir and food stalls, all properly illuminated with neon lights. They didn't need to wait long for shoppers browsing the souvenirs and also more useful items.
After two days filled with new impressions, we headed for the countryside. We took a bus that drove us through a scenic landscape with many small karst hills. For an hour we clutched to the window, trying to penetrate the mist that was hiding many rows of those narrow high rock hills that have inspired painters for centuries.
During this ride we realized how big
the differences are between city and country side in
65 km down the road, Yangshuo, on a river between karst
hills,that once started as a legendary Backpacker's hangout, has changed a lot
in recent years. This was the only place in
Once more LP travel guide got the point
when stating: "
If you look beyond the endless shops and souvenir stalls, Yangshuo is not ugly. It still is a big village with real Chinese life - traditional as well as modern. Big battery driven golf-caddy-like vehicles were used as a means of local transport and to herd around up to 20 tourists in the same vehicle. Even the police used such an environmentally friendly car. The touristiest streets are for pedestrians only and they still get extended as new buildings are added. Most are constructed in a modern style but most reflect traditional architecture.
We rented bicycles and after passing construction sites for dozens of big hotels and apartment blocks for several kilometers, we finally reached the unspoilt countryside. Out there we found rice paddies, where farmers harvested rice still the same way we had seen 15 years ago. Old women led their water-buffaloes to the river and fishermen used their bamboo rafts to catch dinner. All this was framed by idyllic karst formations all around us. It's so terribly beautiful, we really can't blame all these others wanting to see it too!
On this first trip out to the fields, the farmers were greeting us very friendly with "Ni Hau" (Hello (G’day Mate)). The second time, when we pedalled more along the river, most locals were greeting us with an enthusiastic "Hello Bamboo" (raft for rent) on the way out and with "Hello water"(water for sale) on the way back. We met many of their relatives also in town, calling out "Hello Banana", "Hello postcard", "Hello Tour" or "Hello flute" - the latter one followed by a perfectly played melody of "Frère Chaque"...
We barely managed to learn a few words of Chinese, but couldn’t remember any of their approx. 47’000 characters.
Most restaurants catering for overseas tourists are located along what was now named "West(ern) Street" and that's where also most young Chinese go to get a taste of western food and western life. Today, there are certainly more Chinese than western tourists ordering typical backpacker's breakfast consisting of 'Banana Pancake' or 'Yoghurt and Müesli'. As traditional Chinese fare is freshly prepared but served real quickly, some restaurant owners got complaints from Chinese customers, because the ordered western style meal was not served quick enough. One owner explains to them that the preparation of western food does take more time and if they want to get a quick western feed, they shall go to KfC and so his customers usually get suddenly more patient.
Western food is "in" but they haven't heard of our habit of eating one course after another. In many restaurants everything is served at the same time and from the soup to the ice-cream onwards to the salad, to the Spaghetti and back to ice-cream, it's eaten all across the courses.
We were amused by the Chinese tourists who loved to mingle with westerners. Some liked to secretly picture us, others asked straight forward (with or without English words), whether we would pose with them. In some cases they wanted to be arm in arm - Brigitte with the man, Heinz with the woman. This happened quite a few times also in other places later and we must be in several photo albums now. Well; 95% of the cameras used were digital cameras!
With the opening of
Therefore, flying is now often possible at the same price or even cheaper than taking the train and a 20 hour train journey can be reduced to about one hour by plane.
So, we took a taxi back through
the karst hills to
After a couple of kilometers, about 30 junior high school students came cycling towards us. There would have been a special cycling path for each direction but as the entrance (anyway to the wrong direction for them), was blocked by a parked car, they simply entered the freeway head on.
The check-in for the flight with one of
the state owned airlines was very speedy. Our destination was Xiamen
on the east coast facing
Especially along the water, there were many modern high rise buildings with plenty of space for pavement and separate lanes for bicycles and scooters, cars and buses. Also this town had very wide streets. This is probably the advantage of a one party system that coordinates and builds the necessary infrastructure projects without too many unnecessary compromises and delays.
It seemed the long pedestrian zone had only recently been introduced, as that road was closed to traffic with temporary barriers only and road marks were still in place.
At night many apartment- or office buildings had their edges illuminated with animated changing colours. Entire skyscrapers had their façades projected with changing geometrical forms or pictures, similar to a giant PC screen saver. We wonder how they were generated.
There were many large parks around the city, one even had some canoe's on an artificial lake. Another night, we passed a park with a giant fountain "dancing" as a “water ballet” to classical music and illuminated by changing mellow light.
With the help of the word "ditu" and five very nice employees that didn't speak any English, we managed to buy a map and locate ourselves. Even though this map was of 2006 and all streets were nicely marked in Latin characters as well, it was not always easy to find the way. As the entire town is being newly built at lightening speed, maps seem to be out of date by the time they leave the print shop. Sometimes a road was blocked or didn't exist anymore due to a construction site and sometimes we found brand new roads that weren't in the map yet. Such was the one built on pillars standing in the shore water with several exits built on a concrete platform. The lanes were bending out over the sea and back inland. This way it connected the "fly-over" with the road on the ground level like a freeway exit. They had a smart system of leading roads above each other to create more space for the ever growing traffic. We had seen junctions with up to five levels criss-crossing each other.
As in the rest of
For us it was time to go on. Contrary to earlier times, city- and intercity buses leave on schedule even if half empty. They don't wait until they have loaded about twice their capacity until leaving as they did in earlier times. In a pleasant air conditioned bus, we drove north for three hours on a freeway. We passed many smaller and bigger towns that all offered the same picture: lots of construction sites. Between them were many rice paddies and vegetable fields. Only very few houses were made of adobe bricks with old type saddle roofs of stone tiles, all the others looked modern.
Now we arrived in Fuzhou (say Foo-zow), a 6 million. city that was not on the tourist trail at all. Maybe because of this, we encountered neither beggars nor touts.
In most big Chinese cities, there was
no real budget accommodation available anymore. However, quite often 2-5 star
hotels offered discounts of up to 70% for last minute bookings through tourist
offices and on top of that cheap rate, the 15% service charge that applied to
the full rate, was also waived. This time we ended up in a 4 star hotel, paying
318 Yuan (€ 32) per night including breakfast; instead of 820+15% (=€ 95). In
comparison; Youth Hostels charged sometimes € 45 in a plain double room and
they never gave discounts, because they always filled up, as people think they
must be cheap. In the
Of course we enjoyed the posh room with a view from the 18th floor, but we admit we felt a bit out of place when the porter handled our backpacks with white gloves on the golden trolley and the waitress in uniform pampered us on the breakfast buffet. As soon as the slightest sign of a question mark appeared on our faces, some English speaking staff member immediately appeared on our side, ready to help (and sneak in our a..). In future we made sure we stuck to 2 star places that still cost between 180-300 Yuan (€ 18-30), even if that meant we had to come by with staff that spoke Chinese only. To overcome this obstacle gave us much more satisfaction and was fun anyway.
The very same that we've said about the
process of re-building the entire city in the previous places, also applies to
A few things were special about this place though:
- Around the pedestrian area was an intact quarter of 16th century Ming Dynasty style wooden buildings. These looked still beautiful with bended roofs and painted woodwork along a bustling street with many hawkers complimented by the almost compulsory Mc Donalds. Just behind this old quarter, big and modern apartment buildings appeared.
- Here was the only statue of Mao we have seen on this trip. 15 years ago, every village and every town was adorned with at least one Mao statue but not anymore! They all seem to have silently vanished, just as the huge propaganda paroles for the communist party. Nowadays, each square meter of party propaganda has been replaced with 100 square meters of commercial advertisements, promoting electronics, credit cards, fast-food chains, designer ware etc. Everything a consumer oriented society (should) desire.
- There were many
Christian churches in
- The conversion from ordinary roads into wide alleys was not yet completed and therefore, traffic was more chaotic and hectic here.
We continued our trip to Shanghai on a very efficient flight with the state owned carrier "China Eastern". They managed to serve two rounds of drinks and a full meal on a flight that took 70 minutes only and cost 500 Yuan (€ 50).
Surely, the very same that we've said
about the process of re-building the entire city in the previous places, also
The main pedestrian street "Nanjing Lu" is more than one kilometer long and lined with (real) designer ware stores, those expensive ones. As everywhere in the country, shops were open 7 days a week until 10pm.
It was very pleasant to stroll along by day and also by night, when many neonlights illuminated the buildings. The only annoyance were a few beggars near tourist attractions that were insistently doing their job, plus the many touts that constantly approached us, trying to lure everyone into their overpriced shops. But the west has introduced its own revenge: the poor Chinese are now also being bothered with Amway and Tupperware parties.
All the other people were extremely friendly and extremely helpful, even though it was often hard to communicate. They went out of their way to assist us if we tried to ask for something and with sign-language, pen and paper we usually managed together. Some would even accompany us to some shops or offices, once they understood what we wanted, explaining the personnel our wish.
You have probably seen pictures of
Facing this skyline from the opposite side of the river is a front row of what they call "old buildings" consisting of an assortment of neoclassical 1930's European style buildings, formerly used as courts, banks and hotels. That area is called the Bund and stands in stark contrast to the neon lit skyscrapers that start to spread out just behind them. Everything was of course well lit at night which ever direction you looked.
Many boats offered harbour cruises but
some only drove up and down the river showing advertisements on an oversized TV
screen of about 10x25m. In
Only in 1990 modernisation of
As all over
During the 6 days we stayed, we could witness how quick things change. Every work that was not hidden behind these big advertisement clad walls that usually enfenced construction sites, was normally carried out at night. During the day, we hardly ever saw any trucks on the road because construction material was delivered at night. That’s when they also dug open the road to lay cables and canalisation. By the time we passed the site again in the morning, it was usually sealed again with tar or cobble stones. One shop, where we bought some water before going back to the hotel after dinner, didn't exist anymore two days later. By then, the entire 50m long building was flattened.
In the beginning, we didn't find many
Somewhat it was unbelievable: we got the impression the more western and the more expensive a restaurant was, the more it was favoured by young folks. In "normal" places, drinks were being served for around 3-15 Yuan (€ 0.30-1.50). Coffee lounges with cosy sofas and mellow music were very widespread and popular, but they were really overpriced with drinks costing around 25-80 Yuan. At least they usually served (western) food at moderate prices. These coffee lounges were always bustling with young Chinese and even if there were 150 guests, it was an exception to see a westerner in there.
As a stark contrast, the traditional teahouses where old men used to gather, seemed to have disappeared at least in the cities. A few upmarket "boutique tea houses" were now available for those who could afford it. Their main business was to sell luxury tea mix presented in noble tins and most also had one or two beautiful tables, usually made of carved tree trunks. Those who decided to sit down, paid 80 Yuan or more for a pot of tea!
That's one of the contradictions in the Communist People's Republic, where many farmers in the countryside still live on subsistence farming and some earn hardly more than one Yuan an hour.
In a country with such an economic growth that is mainly home-made, even those on the lower end of the salary scale are doing much better than before and most Chinese are excited about the rapid modernisation taking place. Old people less and young people much more, that's normal we guess. The few people we could talk to were all quite happy with the central government, but rather unhappy with the local government because they feel there is much corruption and mismanagement.
We were quite surprised how open and
critical the English language newspapers of the central government: "China
Daily" and even more the
As we continued our trip, we reached
our next destination after one hour by train. Suzhou (say Soo chow) who's population exploded from 50'000 to over 6
million within only 20 years. Never the less, it was a very pleasant city and
became Brigitte's favorite - Heinz's favorite remained
There was a lot of water in the area
Almost all Chinese dressed modern and
especially young ones loved to dress hip and style their hair that was often
coloured. The blue Mao-dress is almost extinct and even school-uniforms, if
worn at all, represent the spirit of today’s modern
Apparently, there are close to 20 gardens that can be visited for an entrance fee. Their hallmark was not flowers, but usually big old trees, rocks, water, bridges and pagodas. A few were even listed as 'world cultural heritage’ with Unesco. A replica of the "Garden of the net's" the first one we visited, shall be built by a Chinese company in Dunedin/New Zealand shortly. It consisted mainly of buildings and covered walk ways around a pond, whereas the second we visited, called "humble Administrator’s garden" appealed more to us. It was much bigger with many big ponds, more what we imagine a park to be.
Another thing that was different to
what we imagined, was the internet; going ‘on-line’ in
On the other hand, the government's iron grip that held tight control over the people is loosening. Whereas 15 years ago, common Chinese citizens needed a permit to travel from one city to another, today’s government motivates its people to travel and see their country - quite successfully, as we noticed.
Not only bus- and train-stations, also the airports were bustling with locals. One hundred and fifty airports had just been upgraded or newly built and already they decided to extend another 150, including some that only had been upgraded in the last few years.
By now, the government agreed with 85
countries to grant Chinese citizens visa for group tourism. Officially they are
also allowed to travel independently but as
After 3 days, we left
As we approached Hangzhou, we noticed that they had an architectural spleen of erecting
little turrets on new apartment blocks. The rivers and canals were heavily used
for cargo transportation. The city of
Lots more was mentioned: the causeway and small islets plus the wide boulevards that were all reserved for pedestrians and electric 'golf-caddy-buses' only. In one part of the shore park, mellow (western) music was played from hundreds of loudspeakers. In one area, a big fountain played "water ballet" after classical music and at night everything was joyfully illuminated. Busloads of tourists were brought in for every fountain-performance and on the weekend, the park was crowded with people. That's how it looked like in the middle of November. This was off-season and we wouldn't want to know how many people show up here during the summer holiday.
We didn't mention yet, that we were not
very impressed by this lake at all, of which the other shore (3km away) was
hardly visible through fog or smoke most days. For our taste even the smallest
We've been very lucky with the weather. When we were in the southern part four weeks ago, it's been almost tropical warm still, whereas here, almost 1'000km further north, we could enjoy an exceptionally warm and dry autumn with day temperatures ranging between 17-25°C. Strangely, some stores switched from cooling to heating on November 1, maybe as a principle rather than by common sense.
So here, our trip through modern
interpretation of communism/../../.." resulted in the fact that
people who live in a town earn several times more than those living in the
countryside. That only those living in a city get social security and free
health care. Although
interpretation of communism/../../.." has helped China's economy to rise its GDP
by an average of 10% annually for the last 25 years. That GDP was at abt. 6'000
USD for the year 2005.
According to Chinese media, the average
pay increase is currently around 11% annually and this with an inflation rate
that is negligible. The World Bank stated that
On the top end of the salary scale,
We have never seen a country with that much advertising. Big bill boards and oversized LCD screens covered buildings and big walls of construction sites or as road side ads. Also above shelves in supermarkets, in places where people had to wait i.e. on bus stops and in front of elevators, flat screens were throwing advertisements at people trying to stimulate their taste for consumer goods.
interpretation of communism/../../.." means also, that
new luxurious housing developments advertise these dwellings with slogans like
“the new world of wealth & worship” or “life style for the
Even people that can afford to live in such expensive apartments do not necessarily own a car. Unlike in other developing countries, we hadn’t seen anybody living in a shack with a brand new Mercedes parked in front of it. Never the less, almost half a million cars are currently being sold and registered every month. As Chinese are very undisciplined in traffic, be it as pedestrians, cyclists or with motorised vehicles, we had seen minor accidents almost daily throughout the country.
On one hand, the government expects every new facility to be built according to the newest safety- and environment standards. More and more is being recycled and more environment friendly technologies are being introduced. The population is being bombarded with ‘green paroles’ on TV.
On the other hand the local governments are constantly haggling with the central government to get more time to upgrade or replace old polluting or unsafe industries to today’s standard. In the meantime the media reports weekly about fatal mining accidents, poisonous pollution of water, topsoil or air and of violations of ethnic practices, copyright and lots of corruption.
From a distance it looks like
The different cities and provinces seem
to compete who creates the most extravagant city.
Despite all these impressive numbers,
even in comparison to other developing countries like
As long as no recession hits the country, the “communists” have a good chance to remain in power. If the astronomic growth continues for another 10-20 years, we all better start learning Chinese now. 1, 2, 3 means: yi, er, san…
|More about Thailand: chapter 8 (Main Story), chapter 13, chapter 17, chapter 34|
Thailand: after the military coup 2006
On November 12, 2006 we left
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