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The Paroissien Diaries


CHINA | Sunday, 13 May 2012 | Views [767] | Comments [1]

I want to start by answering the question on everyone's lips. After many hours and days I have concluded that there are exactly 61 million 783 thousand 499 Chins in the Chinese phone book. You'll be pleasantly surprised to find, however, that this name has been well usurped by the name Lee which has an outstanding 457 million 129b thousand 602 names in the big book. Comparative to Australia this name has a bigger percentage per capita than the names of Smith and Jones COMBINED! Truly remarkable. One may conclude that, considering there are over a billion people in China, this name task took up all of our time. You are sorely mistaken. The following also happened whilst in China. 
Like all good blogs it starts with an overnight train journey and a midnight border crossing. The journey began on a lovely sleeper carriage in Hanoi and was destined for Nanning in South West China. We were on board late and with the recent theft of the Ipod it meant three things. 1) Straight to bed 2) No computer games for Para  3) An awkward sleeping position where my arms were looped through both rings of my backpack, which was chained to my ankle, which was attached to a bell. This of course attracted some amused looks from our fellow passengers, but safety (and neurosis) never takes a day off. 
Next to us in the cabin were old mate, his wife (both in their 20's) and her father in law. This isn't interesting except for the point in the night when old mate came down from his middle bunk and started canoodling, innocently it must be said, under the sheets. Kissing and giggling like school kids under the sheets with torches. And although father-in-law was snoring for Vietnam on the top bunk, I still thought it was pretty brazen. Beth however, thought otherwise.

B "oh darling, isn't that sweet, maybe I should come down and get into your bed and snuggle...? 
A " Darling, I would have said yes but with the ball and chain/bell combination I'm afraid it may not be that comfortable and we may wake up Father-in-Law and then we'll all be in trouble.'
A few hours later, well after everyone returnd to their own bunks, we arrived at the Vietnamese border. In a simple operation we handed in passports, watched them be taken away, waited, and then giggled (to ourselves) as the official tried to pronounce Paroissien on return. Don't worry mate, plenty of people have failed in the past too...and they spoke English. 
What wasn't simple was the customs control in China at 2.30 in the morning. The Vietnamese and Chinese aren't known for being light packers and so the routine check where all luggage had to be taken off the train was a tedious task. "No one goes back on board until all luggage is checked." Woe is us. 
Nanning- Welcome to China
What did I expect? 

- Millions of people everywhere, no space, concrete jungle, a stench of wee, Mao Zedong, spit, pork and black bean sauce, sizzling steak, fried rice and a people apathetic to two tired backpackers- one with a majestic mustache. 
What we saw in Nanning

- A lovely modern city, crowded yes but not unlike any other city in Asia. 
-Well organised (apart from the motorbikes on the pavement) 
- Recycling bins, little green men counting you down as you cross the road and wonderfully huge shopping malls on every corner. 
Other observations of Nanning/ China first impressions 
1) Meat lovers anyone? Welcome to the land of the hanging meat. The country don't just love it, they J'adore it. We've been gifted with the sight of hanging ducks, chickens, pig heads and all sorts of mystery 'what do you reckon that is' meats. 
2) The language. Like Vietnamese, Chinese has a fastness to it and, for want of a better phrase, has a harshness to it. Are they fighting or just having a conversation? ( culturally insensitive?)

3) My personal favourite. The babies and toddlers walk around with pants which have slits in the back. Classic! Hilarious! The result: Millions of little brown bums poking out everywhere and little mustard stains and wee puddles in all sorts of wonderful places. Im still trying to weigh up the environmental positives versus the hygiene and social negatives. On the one hand you save millions of non bio degradable nappies. But on the the hand you have human shit on the street and you raise a generation of people who feel they can go to the loo...anywhere. Although saying this, nappies certainly havent stopped the world's population of men going anywhere they feel like, now has it. 
Could you imagine if this no nappies thing made it to Aus? The council would have signs that read 'please pick up after your baby and your dog.'
Peronsally, I think the slit pants are genius and I got a pair tailored for me too. But I am concerned about what happens in winter? I could see a million brown bums in Beijing turning a bright red come snow time. hmmmmmmmmmmmmm
4) I'll comment more later but I was a little surprised to see such rampant consumerism with a growing middle class. 
5) The use of the local park. Like Vietnam, the public space is limited but what they lack in space they make up for in ingenuity and enthusiasm. The local plaza/ park in Nanning was packed with people, activities included: 

-Dancing- solo with music, two step, Chinese Salsa and group random ensemble. Although with this last one we had trouble deciphering who was actually leading and who was following. Notably, you could tell that some of the old boys has been dragged down there by their missus for dance class and they weren't too happy about it either. Don't worry Dad, you're not the only one.

- Live performance. In what was a cut throat business, little pockets of performers sung and danced as hard as they could for people's attention. Classic! 

- Cards. In huge groups around the park the most intense games of cards I'd ever seen were being played out. This game which we saw all throughout China was an institution. I never figured it out, but the men (I never saw women playing) would sit on sheets of newspaper and hold as many as 30 cards and then at random would throw, no sorry, hurl the cards down into the middle at random intervals with as much gusto as a Bruce Lee round house kick. Awesome.  

"heeeeeeyaaaaa, take those 5 kings"  

oh yeah? " wataahhhhhhhhhhh, 3 jacks." 

6) The last early-observation was the public display of government newspapers, conveniently pinned up for all to read. Propaganda or just a nice thing to do? 
So after a nice day in Nanning it was off to the supermarket in preparation for our hard-seater train to Hong Kong. Overnight 16 hours on a hard non-reclining seat. Joy to the world. Here's how the journey went:

While waiting for our train Beth scared me into fighting for a spot near the front of the queue.
"Sometimes in hard seater it's so full you don't get a seat" 
"Really? Even if you have a ticket?"
"I think so." 
"Well, I'm not standing for 16 bloody hours, get the bags, thank goodness I taught you how to hip and shoulder last footy season."

The line up front is packed and it's hot and sweaty. The group are like horses at the starting gate and there is a nervous tension in the air. A few smiles pass between competitors but there's no room for a nervous pee, unless, of course, you have crouchless pants...
The guard prances up and down the start line, looking at his watch and rocking back and forward on his haunches, pleased with his limited power and attention. Bang. The gun goes off, the gates open and the crowd, complete with wine bottles, pot noodles, Gucchi suit cases and dirty backpacks (2) surges...slowly through the gate.
Until we're out into the clear and then it's on like Donkey Kong. I'm so excited I even leave Beth behind, as well as everyone else as I'm no match with my luggage attached to my back. I race past everyone to cries of foul game but I don't stop to check the legality of the luggage carrying situation until Im well settled into our seats. Once the adrenalin dissipates and the luggage is away I stop to take in our surroundings: very uncomfortable chair, sat between a tiny Chinese girl against the window and my beautiful wife. Why the rush to the seats? I still don't know but jeeze it was fun racing everyone. 
I got well stuck into 'the hunger games' while Beth made friends with everyone in the carriage who wanted to be associated with the whities silly enough to be in hard seat carriage. A translator was called to interpret the questions and answers as Beth gave up all our secrets. The main characters in the show were: (made up of course) Chloe- main interpreter and life saver ( she actually guided us all the way to HK.) George, Chinese. small with glasses, good English but very shy who sat across from us. Lily, Chinese little, chatty, no English who sat next to George. Sleeper girl who had the window. Big mama who was directly to our left and who had taken two seats to herself and wasn't having a bar of sharing. And Big mama's son and daughter in law who sat across from her. 
So early on Chloe and George asked us questions and we asked back and 30 or so of the chorus line listened in including Big Mama who was barking chinese at us and laughing and then barking some more instructions at little George who looked scared. Everyone soon got bored with us when the son-in-law cracked open the laptop and put Titanic on. Well, everyone was loving it. English and Chinese sub titles meant eyes were entertained between pot noodles and dried beef. But alas at the crucial ice crash moment the battery ran out! Ohh the crowd goes mental " we want out money back." I didn't have the nerve to tell them they all died but I did let it slip that the cute blond one didn't make it and the girl threw her diamond necklace in the sea. 
Time goes by slowly as Mama barks some more and Chloe heads to her bed. Lily, who's been flirting non stop with George, shares some of her pistachios with us and then offers her vacuum-packed yellow chicken foot to me to suck on. Hmmm, everyone pauses to see what happens next... "so sorry but I'm a vegetarian." They all wait impatiently for George to translate and when they hear the news a grumble and guffaw breaks out amongst the crowd. Beth then explains to me that in China eating meat is equated with male virility- and now the whity doesn't eat meat. Dear oh dear. 
"Well well well, he's about as useful as the blond who died on the boat" barks Mama with a sly smile.
Night gets later and lights stay on. George and Lily natter away non stop as Mama rips the curtain down off the wall and uses it as a blanket. I taunt her with my hoodie and we both smile, then I pull out my beanie and she laughs, not before sending a torrent of Chinese abuse at me. 
The nods finally arrive as Beth and I go into a Ti Chi routine of sleeping positions that must have looked so strange. E.G Beth sleeps with her head in her knees and I see an opportunity and rest my head on her back. This continues, lights on, and by the morning we've had 39 X 5 min power naps and George and Lily are completely in love. Happy days. 
Hong Kong
Hong Kong, one of the great financial capitals of the world, where the main currency is space. As we stumbled around the modern metropolis we realised the dream of big ensuite rooms was over. That night we paid $20 for a shoe box with a 3/4 length bed on the busy side of Kowloon Island.
Highlights include

The last time I was in HK I was about two years old and had very blond hair and was a lot cuter. Of course I was told, on good authority, that everyone wanted to touch me and my hair. Unfortunately this time was a little different. The only people that came close were the persistent but nice hawkers who were trying to sell me a tailored suit. Unfortunately the tailors in Hoi Ann had beaten them to the punch.

-Surely the city was based on the 90's hit song "the only way is up baby, for you and me now." In every direction you look there are sky scrapers and come night time it's a spectaular array of lights. In saying this, what is special and surprising is that the 70% of the HK area is undeveloped national parks; move away from Central HK and you're presented with some cool little beaches and a wicked amount of hiking, walking, biking and climbing.
- The incredibly uncool and unbreathtaking 80's light show which shows every night. " Aghh which way to we look?" Insert Doctor Evil voice " All I want is for the buildings to have fricken laser beams attached to their heads." hahahahahaha brilliant.

- Russian Visas- 350 big ones and so back the gollum diet. Spasiba.
- Wicked trams where you jump on the back and pay at the front as you get off. You reckon that's got a few tourists in the past?

- Wan Chai walks, dim sum, little markets, boutique bars and wicked little alleyways.

-Helen Prior
Who took us in from the rain and the cold and generously gave us a room in her apartment for 5 days. You can't explain just how lovely it is to have creature comforts and a stove to cook vegies on! Helen, being a bad ass director, had her production week for her play at school and so one morning we headed to school and helped with hair and makeup and were gifted with a sweet rendition of " a midsummer night's dream.' Awesome. Helen, we can't thank you enough for everything you did. Dinners, chocolates, beds, chats and especially when you looked after me when I was projectile vomiting in a won ton restaurant! love love.

- Birthday surprises- barbeque shapes and beer for breakfast! Boometh Towneth. What else could you want? 

- Brian Moore
 Brian and I used to work with each other for years at Riva in Melbourne. Brian, being the master chef, came out to HK 7 years ago and is now in charge of over 10 restaurants out here. Get in! The day started with beers on the rooftop of a huge super mall and then moved on to champagne in Brian's sweet little pad. Brian, being the ever generous person he is, then took us to his favourite restaurant in HK, and one that he'd set up from scratch, called 'Steik.' This meal was up there as one of the most extravagant feasts I've ever had. Smoked slamon, foi grois on a base of sticky date pudding, chicken liver parfe, buffolo mozeralla, Brians epic signature Thai infused scallops, an incredible steak flown from Ireland and dry aged in the restauant. All washed down with a primo red from Australia. The only issue was my stomachs ability to cope with the food. After months of rice and noodles it was somewhat surprised by what came down that evening. 
Following dinner we hit the town for Jager bombs, beers and then finally bed. Not before of course, Brian, at 4 am dragged me to a local dim sum place. " Para, we have to go! This place is the BEST dim sum place in Hong Kong, no whities go and it's only open between 3am and 10 am." 
So after the biggest meal of the year, I force down 7 plates of the best dim sum I've ever had. Brian and I solved the worlds problems over those plates of Dim Sum, pity we couldn't remember the solutions in the morning. Thanks Brian for a memorable couple of days.
- Other highlights
climbing to the highest sitting buddha in Asia
- Outdoor escalators 
- Becoming very sick on our last night and spewing in a bin out the back of a dim sum restaurant. Then spewing in the mall, and on the ferry and well you know the rest of the story. 
Back to China
With Russian Visas secured and a solid belly we hit China energetically. From Shenzen we took the night sleeper bus which was made for tiny people to Yang Shou. Yang Shou is a stunningly beautiful place and was a sweet place to start our whistle stop tour. It's very similar to Halong Bay in that it has hundreds of tall, skinny mountains jutting out, but on the land instead of water. And although a super tourist town, it has a lot of character and is just pretty easy to get about. 

Two days here meant loads of walking, bike riding and eating tradional Yang Shou clay pots which consisted of fried goodness on top of boiled rice and served in a clay pot. Delicious and so cheap! 
Yang Shou to Xi 'An - 30 hours, hard seater train.
With our trip coinciding with the May 1st holidays we were well behind the 8 ball in getting across China quickly on a train. Due to visas in Russia taking so long and having to get our Mongolian visas in Beijing, it meant that we had to move quickly. Don't try moving quickly across a country of 1.3 billion when there are public holidays on, unless, of course, you want to sit on a hard seat for 50 hours.
The train from Yang Shou to Xi'an wasn't nearly as bad as we thought. The same shennigans as last time with running for our seats and packed trains but this time we were prepared for it. We had enough food to feed a small horse for a week. Amazingly, the Chinese train authorities also sell standing tickets. We met a few people who stood the entire 30 hours. Because of this, the aisles are packed, people sleeping standing up and a constant game of musical chairs is always being played out. Although being hesitant about the hard seaters we both decided it was one of the best things we did in China. We made some great connections with some locals, shared food, jokes, hugs, toilet paper, everything. Imagine a carriage that's been sitting or standing for 28 hours and then imagine how stir crazy people get 30 minutes before arriving. Awesome! 
Observations of China

- Weird hygiene double standards. The skankiest, filthiest crack den toilet will have a primo/expensive hands free basin wash. How about fixing the flush first, or putting some dividing walls between the shitters?
- A smile carries you so far. A moustache carries you further.

- The slogan- 'better out than in." is the main religion. Said by someone important like Confucius or Mao it means that spitting is the national past time. This of course means that there is a cacophony of hoiking, spitting, gobbing and coughing that goes on which is UNBELIEVABLE. You wont go a minute without hearing someone gobbing on the street. One day I counted over 300 different spits- without really trying! Nowhere is sacred!Not even indoors!
- Half the population wear SARS masks while the other half cough and sneeze without covering their mouth.

- Interesting recycling policy. Recycling bins which the homeless raid to make money. 
- The severe water shortage and their obsession with over-using water. In fact, environmentally the Chinese have some pressing issues. Due to immense deforestation, China's deserts are growing by approx 200 square kilometers a month! HOLY MOLY. 

- Communism and the shear passion for consumerism. Whilst traveling around we were amazed by the sheer passion for consuming. On top of this is the growing middle class and the widening gap between rich and poor. James Palmer in 'Time Out Beijing writes " Half of Beijing society are engaged in a luxury arms race while the other half are cleaning their kitchens and rummaging through their trash."
Xi An highlights
- Terracotta warriors. What an immense archeological find that was! Despite the billion other people there due to holidays it was still breath-taking and will only get better as they uncover more.
- An old walled city which rocked the show.

- The old Muslim quarter where food was incredible. You wouldn't think that a nation obsessed with pork would mesh well with a religion that couldn't eat it, but they do and they mesh amazingly well. Pita breads filled with lush Chinese vegies and Chinese style kebabs than can be eaten at any time and not just on the way home. The atmosphere in those little lanes was electric and fun and crazy and definitely worth a visit to Xi'an to experience.
- Sweet bell tower, cheap sun glasses, great mosque and the list goes on.
Xi'An to Pingyau- hard seater take 3

- get worried as we board and the kid next to us has those slit pants. "really? In the train?"
-Siberain terperatures in the train.
- Faithless... I can't get noooooooooooooooooooooo sleeeeeeeeeeeeeppppppppppppppppppppppp!!!!!!!!!!!!!111

Pingyau was another cracking destination in China. With so many places we could have chosen, Beth directed us beautifully in her destination choices. Pingyao is an old city that has been completely preserved so that it looks like it did 1000 or so years ago. This means cobbled streets and a wall that goes all away around, maintaining a magical feeling. My on going thoughts were that it reminded me of every Chinese kung fu movie I'd ever seen and Im certain was the set of cult television show Monkey Magic! 
- Finding a sweet room with a lovely courtyard and reading in the sun, drinking cold beers and playing cards. Bliss. 
-Walking and walking and walking around the old cobbled streets buying street food and checking out museums (from the outside) 
- Hold folded buttery and fatty pasty with chilli sauce inside. Delicious!  
Again my expectations were of a city with a million bikes, cars, bicycles and people moving everywhere at a million miles an hour. Again I was wrong. Beijing is unbelievably massive which means that there are pockets of the city that are quiet, trendy, narrow, green and full of character. It is far from simply another Asian city. There is heaps going on and sooooooo much to do there. The pollution isn't great (on a blue sky day, the pollution is equivalent to smoking 1/6th of a cigeratte) but it wasn't gloom and doom smog either. In saying this we happened to have three of the clearest and most beautiful days of the year. Additionally the government have put some sort of a ban on motor bikes and so everywhere people are riding motorized bicycles which are super cool, quiet and much better for the environment.

- Getting our Mongolian Visa in a frantic one day transaction. so frantic! Another 180 dollar whack- cheers for that.  
- Walking 8 km at 4.00am from the train station to our hostel and managing to catch the raising of the flag at Tienanmen Square! Awesome.
- Tienanmen square, the forbidden palace (almost), walking around the city, dumplings and reading in parks.

-The Great Wall of China! Possibly the greatest thing I've seen on this trip and one that rivals Anchor Wat in Cambodia. What was special was that we took 2 local buses in a six hour mission and went to a part of the wall that was closed to the public. This meant we climbed and ran about like school kids with the wall practically to ourselves! The immensity of the wall can only really be realised once you are there and you appreciate simply how awesome and difficult it must have been to build such a thing.
- The people in Beijing and China have been awesome. I was worried that we'd get nothing but apathy.. I was unbelievably wrong. Along the way we have been helped so much by many kind people who sometimes speak not a word of English. Everywhere we've gone and especially on the trains people have been generous, hilarious, helpful and wonderfully curious. We can't wait to go back and see it properly.
Well that's it folks. By now we've hit Mongolia and tonight take the train to Russia. Good times.
love love



Its me Para - Steven Srzich aka Mr. S.

Finally got reading your blog and I am not disappointed.... Im amused.
Great to see you getting around and in the thick of it.

Hope you are well - right now


  Steven Jul 12, 2012 1:29 PM

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