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From the 'Workhorse of Industry' to 'Heaven': Ningbo to Hangzhou

CHINA | Saturday, 26 June 2010 | Views [754]

It has taken me a week to sit down and add to this journal. What a week, what an adventure. There are so many stories to tell. After so many years away from China I thought that there would be many changes. There are many changes but in the same respect much has remained the same: the staring, the food, the bad plumbing, the pollution and the traffic, just to name a few.

Our journey continued from Hong Kong onto to Ningbo in China. As soon as the plane touched down I was aware how much I had forgotten about the pollution in Asia. Even when we boarded the plane memories of Asia came flooding back: the small airline seats, the nochalant flight attendants and watching every passenger grabbing for a blanket as if their lives depended on it, for a very short hour flight. As we descended into Ningbo, the city was covered in permanent fog. We were picked up by a guide whose name was Lucy (all female guides seem to be called 'Lucy' nowadays. There must be many English teachers called Lucy). She was accompanied by a man called 'Scott'. Scott drove us to the Shangri La hotel, the newest in Ningbo. What the purpose for our visit to the hotel was entirely unclear but we did meet Scott's wife and young daughter who was due to join our school next year. We admired the orchids, the decor, the clean toilets and sampled their extensive tea menu before we were whipped off to the railway station to board a train for Hangzhou.

I had also forgotten how stressful boarding a train in China can be. Ningbo, for the uninitiated can be even more stressful. We joined the mass of people at the station. Firstly, we tackled security where one can watch one's bags disappear in an antiquated X-ray machine, the passenger runs through the metal detector only to meet and pray to God that you meet your bags intact on the other side. Once this is successfully tackled you then have to join the mass of humanity waiting for the train. If you were not aware of where you were travelling to or that this was the new millenium anyone could think that one was back in Communist China. The attendants stand at the steel barred gates and unsmilingly collect your ticket as the entire station surges through the gates. This includes everyone from children to the elderly, pets, vegetables, the latest electronic goods and of course one's food for the journey usually transported in leaking plastic bags.

What makes the experience all the more stressful is the fact that stations in China do not accomodate for suitcases with wheels; although everyone travels with one. Therefore it took us some time to bang our cases down the stairs and back up onto the platform. It made great entertainment for the locals to see 4 frazzled Westerners and their exasperated Chinese tour guide managing this feat with additional suitcases, backpacks, laptop cases, boxes of artwork and two bottles of duty free Australian red wine.

Once we boarded the train we became the main attraction. This is another fact about China I had forgotten. The 'staring'. In many Asian cultures 'staring' is not considered rude. It is just a case of the indvidual or individuals taking a natural curiousity in what is considered to them out of the ordinary. Therefore people will spend hours looking at foreigners trying to cope with the Asian culture, workman down holes, the peak hour traffic and of course construction of new buildings. As we struggled on to the train and found our seats, we were the main attraction for the next hour; from reading a book, texting on a phone (which everyone does in Asia) to struggling to get suitcases into luggage racks. The conversations between Wei Min and the fellow passengers were very loud and obviously clearly explained our situation. However, we did cause some concern when we had to move our luggage out of the general entrance into an area in the main cabin without disturbing any other passengers. This is made very difficult when space is at a premium.

Throughout the trip the view was somewhat typical of any Asian country. Rice paddies interdispersed with country buildings and industry. The trip from Ningbo to Hangzhou showed countryside that was quite industrial and very poor. I was surprised that the infrastructure had not improved in China over the last 12 years.

We arrived at Hangzhou, which is described as 'Heaven on Earth'. The view at the main railway station is far from this description. Masses of people arriving off a train all with wheelie suitcases and their 'food'. When Wei Min was asked was this 'peak hour' he proudly replied that 'No, this was the civilization of China!'. Again we bounced our suitcases up the stairs hoping to see our land transport. We found it in the end; a very small minivan that could squeeze all of us and our large suitcases. This was the first of our experiences that only can be recorded for posterity. After Wei Min secured the van through his 'network' we set off in what I would describe as the ultimate James Bond 'spyvan': the ubiquetous Asian van with dark windows and the lucky charms hanging from the rear vision mirror, the seats a bit worse for wear and of course no seatbelts. As it was very humid and polluted in the city, we requested to close the windows. As the van was moving through the busy traffic this was achieved not before every lever was tried including the one that opened the sliding door to the traffic! Thus with much yelling and agitation we managed to secure ourselves back in the van once again and safely make it to the door of hotel with only at least 3 attempts at a a three point turn.

Our hotel was typical of those in 'luxurious' three star accomodation hotels in China. Lots of marble, bronze beading, too cold airconditioning, very hard beds and leaky plubming. It was good to take a shower and fall into bed. Not before we had our first experience of a genuine Chinese hotpot. I had forgotten that directions in China, can be somewhat confusing, even to the locals. A simple request for 'Where is the nearest restaurant that serves the best local food?' can turn into an activity that leaves a game of 'Risk' to shame. After much crossing of busy roads and asking we found a restaurant that served 'clean' food. We found it! Our first meal in China consisted of placing raw meat and fish into a central 'soup' of boiling vegetables and chilli. Once the condiments were cooked one fished them out and ate them with rice. We did not know quite what we ate but it did satisfy the hunger that had developed over 20 hours of travelling.

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