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Journey Thru the Middle Kingdom - Backpacking Across China

An account of travel undertaken from Lhasa to Qinghai province and then across the length and breadth of China ending up in Hong Kong before the hand-over to China.

semi-overcast 20 °C

As the whole world stands at the threshold of what is dubbed to be the ASIAN CENTURY, the biggest of the Asian Tigers looms large as an economic powerhouse. After being closed for almost 30 years this giant nation has suddenly swung open its big red doors. Economists everywhere can cite by rote statistics about the rapid progress that China is making in almost all spheres of development. The glamour of getting more than a glimpse at the mystique behind the Bamboo Curtain that had remained so tightly drawn has proved to be irresistible to men and women of all hues. The West, ever on the lookout for new areas to sell their wares have been investing their dollars in this emerging market in spite of all the pitfalls that a country with no history of capitalist institutions throws up.

But probably the most fortunate beneficiary of this Open Door Policy has been the intrepid traveller with his love for the unexplored, the untrammelled, and the (till recently) forbidden. He has taken full benefit of the “COMRADES, WE MUST INCREASE THE PRODUCTION OF TOURISTS!” mantra that Chinese authorities have been silently propagating for the last few years. It was in 1981 that the Chinese suddenly started issuing visas to solo and uninvited travellers through a couple of their embassies overseas, but mainly through various agencies in Hong Kong. Just about anyone who wanted a visa could get one, but since there was no fanfare, news spread slowly by word of mouth. Within a couple of years just about everyone who landed in Hong Kong was going to China. After all, the whole travelling fraternity had been waiting over 30 years to travel in the country unfettered by tour guides.

Though Hong Kong is still the most preferred gateway into the Chinese mainland, I entered Tibet from Nepal and after travelling by road ACROSS THE ROOF OF THE WORLD (hyper link to article on journey through Tibet) made by way in to the Chinese mainland by bus from Lhasa. Before you even contemplate taking this route, I must warn you that it is not for the faint hearted. It was, without doubt, the most horrifying bus journey that I had ever undertaken in my life. The journey consists of about 36-48 hours of non-stop driving across the bleak northern portion of the Tibet Plateau and to add to my woes I was ensconced with a platoon of chain smoking Chinese soldiers. If at any time in the future I suffer from a secondary smoking related disease, I will know, at once, whom to blame. Anyway, I had no choice as that was the cheapest way to get from Lhasa to Northern China; the alternative being to take the twice daily flight to Chengdu costing a whopping $210.

Getting a Visa
No visa is probably cheaper and more easily obtained than the Chinese visa. Just because we fought a border war more than 30 years ago, almost every Indian is under the impression that the Chinese Embassy considers every Indian an enemy of the state. Nothing could be further from the truth. I got mine from the Embassy in Kathmandu without even showing my face to the official. A travel agent did it for me for the price of $3. If you are in a tearing hurry and want it the next day, the price is $10.

Essentials
It would be a tremendous mistake to try and equate a journey into China with any of your sojourns to the likes of Europe or the United States. Whereas it would be difficult, but not impossible, to make yourself understood in these tourist friendly countries, in China it is like going to another planet. You will be a solo traveller amongst a vast sea of people who can neither read nor speak even a single word of English. Tourist Bureau Offices are few and far between, sign postings are in Mandarin, and unless you are fluent in Chinese yourself, it is a most frustrating experience when you can’t convey your needs and get information. Therefore, to make your trip smooth and trouble free it is best to be forewarned and forearmed. My one-stop solution to all travelling problems is to arm myself with the LONELY PLANET - TRAVEL SURVIVAL KIT. I would sincerely advise you to do the same and guard it as you would your passport, tickets and other travel documents because without it you are dead. You cannot find a replacement for love or money once you are in China. Get hold of the latest edition on CHINA that includes HONG KONG and MACAU. The best place to get hold of one would be either at Kathmandu (plenty of second hand book shops there) or in Hong Kong. But if you want to do some reading before embarking, you can get hold of one at MALHOTRA BOOK SHOP, ‘A’ BLOCK, CONNAUGHT PLACE, NEW DELHI. Though the style that Lonely Planet adopts is, at places, sarcastic and sometimes downright derogatory it is replete with details of every essential aspect of travelling alone in a strange country. The most useful are the Phrase Section and the various little maps of major towns that help you navigate. You might even like to add your own common phrases and have them translated into Chinese and romanised Chinese if you meet a local who happens to know English.

Planning
China is a country that initially earned a pretty bad name for itself when it came to the hospitality business. But that was then and this is now - travelling in China has gotten much easier than it used to be. More and more people are learning to speak English, especially those in the travel business. Hotels in major towns do have tour operators who will organise conducted tours, book your tickets and generally try and make your stay comfortable. Even then it is, I think, essential for you to plan your route and finances before you even embark. Apart from the tickets to and from the entry and exit points you should be comfortable in about $30 a day.

Though most people enter and exit through Hong Kong, I would recommend that you enter from one end and exit through the opposite. That way you end up saving the airfare one way. There could be various alternatives. One would be to enter through Nepal into Tibet and then head further north and then east and out of Hong Kong (the route I followed). Another entry point to the Xinjiang province of Northwest China could be either from Pakistan (the Karakoram Highway - out of bounds to Indians) or from Kazakastan. There is a train route from Alma Ata to Urumqi and I would love to travel on that route one day. Of late even Myanmar has offered transit facilities through its territory to Thailand from the Yunan province. Keeping in mind these pieces of information you should plan the general route that you would want to follow. It all depends on whether you are on a longer trip and just passing through China or taking some time off to do a one-off China trip. For Indians I would recommend the route that I followed as it lets us take in Nepal, the Tibet region before you venture into Mainland China.

China’s Provinces
As with states in larger nations, China is divided into its many provinces on a geographic and administrative basis. Due to its vast size and history, China’s provinces each have their own sights and sounds to savour. Tibet, now de-facto a Chinese province, is a treasure house of travel itineraries. It is ethnically different and though has had a turbulent and sometimes violent recent past, is now peaceful enough to visit. Xinjiang, in the Northwest is predominantly Muslim and has more affinity to the other Central Asian States. The ancient Silk Route passed through this province before continuing into the Gansu province and then on to Beijing. Yunan in the Southwest has its own ethnic minorities and with its misty mountains is one of the most beautiful regions of China. Sichuan is famous for the Giant Panda and its delectable cuisine. The mighty Yangtze River also begins its journey to the east from this province and a cruise down it through the famous Three Gorges deserves its own story. The terracotta warriors of Xian, the Great Wall in the Heibei province and the ancient city of Beijing are other sites that need no recounting. The economic boom that is now synonymous with China is visible in almost all large towns but is most prominent in the southern provinces. Shanghai, Guangzhou (formerly Canton) and Shenzhen are some of the cities that have changed beyond recognition. It is said that almost 20% of all constructions cranes for high rise buildings are today located in China! It is hard to believe that where Shenzhen stands today was farmland only 10 years ago. China has even become a decent place for shopping - the department stores, once known for specialising in empty shelves, are now overflowing with consumer goods.

Trains in China
I believe that the hard core traveller always moves with his heart and mind as close to the ground as possible. It is the only way to drink in the various flavours and tastes that a new country offers. Flying is best left to the business traveller. China is one of the few countries that would rival the extensive rail network of India. During the Communist era the railways received the full attention of the government and were rapidly extended to almost all corners of the country. An all out effort to extend it to Lhasa in Tibet from the north was abandoned only after the Swiss, arguably the best tunnel builders in the world, determined that it would not be possible to tunnel through the Kunlun and the Tangula mountain range.

As it exists today, the train is probably the best means of travel in China. It is cheap, fast, clean, efficient, there is no ticket-less travel and reservation is available whenever you want it. There are many classes of coaches from “Hard Seat” to “Soft Sleeper”. On short journeys “Hard Seat” is recommended and on longer journeys you are better off paying the slightly higher fare for a “Hard sleeper” berth. The “Dining Car”, so fondly missed on Indian trains, is a welcome place to have a placid meal while the train meanders through scenic countryside. The only problem is to make yourself understood whilst purchasing a ticket. After a rather long wait in a queue at Golmud for a ticket to Lanzhou, I always used the services of touts. Stand outside the Ticket Concourse and one of them will find you. The Reservation system does not require your name and this makes it quite safe to purchase your ticket from these Samaritans. Just make sure that you have been given the correct ticket by comparing the Chinese characters depicting the destination to the ones in your travel book wherein the names of various places should be given both in English and Chinese. The time, date and train number can be easily read.

To control the vast numbers of people, who travel by train, the Railway authorities adopt very strict rules about access to the platforms and trains. Queues are formed outside the station about half an hour before the train departs and only those with tickets are allowed inside the waiting halls. Then about 15 minutes before the train departs, there is another queue to be allowed on to the platform where the train is standing. Make sure by constant checking with other passengers that you in the right queue at all times as there is no time to rectify mistakes. But all these strict rules ensure clean platforms, trains and comfortable and smooth travel.

Apart from trains, if you are still constrained for time and have the money, China has a plethora of airlines that are now hooked to a national reservation network. Reservation, cancellation and changes are possible from quite a few places now. Buses also ply extensively all over China and because of the vast distances involved, most of them are double decker semi-sleeper coaches. The road network is also one of the most modern and spanking new highways are coming up all over making road travel faster, smoother and cheaper.

Chinese Cuisine
Vastly different to what we have been used to eating in Chinese Restaurants in India, food in China deserves to be mentioned as a special aside. Chinese cooking is justifiably famous, a fine art perfected through the centuries. Quality, availability of ingredients and cooking styles vary by region, but you will almost always find something to suit your tastes. And yes, even in spite of the fact that the Chinese are notorious for eating anything with four legs except the table, it is possible to ask for and be served strictly vegetarian food. Just learn how to say, “I am a vegetarian” (wo chi su) when ordering food. I always did so whenever I thought that I might be served something that I did not like and enjoyed myself on mushrooms, bamboo shoots, sprouts, eggplant and a variety of other vegetarian stuff served with noodles or rice.

If the language barrier proves impassable, the best way to order a meal in a restaurant is to point at something that somebody else already has. Some restaurants are cafeteria style with the Bill of Fare on display and you can just point to what you want. You can adopt the same style when you decide to sample one of the numerous pavement stalls that are cheaper, and adopt a more informal Parisian café style. Outside of fancy hotel restaurants, prices are generally low. But it is always better to be sure of what you are going to pay before you order your dish. Adopt and perfect your own method and sign language early during your journey as this is what you will be doing most of the time in order to avoid going hungry or being overcharged. A few exotic dishes are ridiculously expensive - even if they taste lousy - and you can’t count on the staff to warn you in advance.

My own favourite dishes were Chicken Gang Bao Style (diced chicken served with peanuts and soya sauce), Pork Fried with Rice Crispies ( Pork and Vegetables in a thick sauce poured over chunks of crisp rice in front of you to a sizzling noise) and the various types of kebabs that were served by the Muslims in the north west. Firmly believing that you haven’t really savoured a country until you have tasted their most unique dishes, I did not hesitate to taste Five Step Snake (one bite from it and all you are good enough for is to take five more steps!), sautéed snails, shredded eel, and other repellent ‘exotica’. The Snake was a real rip-off at 100 yuan as I couldn’t tell the difference between it and the capsicum that it was served with.

Chopsticks. You’ll have to master the art of using chopsticks because there is seldom anything else available besides your hands - disposable wooden chopsticks are universally available. Don’t worry about making a mess - every one does. If you want to, raise the bowl right up to you lips and shovel in the rice. Spitting bones on the tablecloth or floor is standard practice. The same chopsticks that you eat with are used for helping yourself to servings from the main course that are dumped in larger bowls on a revolving “lazy lucy” in the centre of the table. The best way to master chopsticks is to be hungry in a place where there are no knives and forks - looking around and trying to ape the locals might help.

The fact that you as a foreigner are a good English speaker sometimes helps you get invited to impromptu meals. Youngsters will not hesitate to stop you on the road and ask you if they can ‘practice’ their English speaking skills if you could spare the time to have meal with them. It happened quite a few times to me in various cities and left with me with a sense of having ‘done my good deed for the day’, not to talk of the free meal thrown in. A word of advice though; it is better to be very specific about what you would like to eat. Otherwise in their enthusiasm your host might order something he thinks is exotic and you will be hard put to refuse.

China as a travel and holiday destination seems to most, to put it rather strongly, a bizarre idea. Especially to those of us who have been content to let our holiday needs be handled by agencies and packaged into “4 days and 3 nights in Goa/Manali/Shimla/…” or “17 days in Europe”. Apart from the fact it straitjackets your freedom, it allows for little creative relaxation and also sometimes prevents you from getting the real feel of the place by isolating you with rigid timings and locations. Travel is as much a discovery about oneself than simply visiting new places and sleeping in different hotel rooms. I strongly feel that the notion of a self-conceptualised holiday needs to be nurtured into our psyche, especially the young. Travel not only teaches you a lot about yourself, it is, I feel, an essential part of growing up. It allows you to see the outside world in an unfettered fashion, awakens a sense of humbleness and lets you make your own decisions. Moreover, China is not very far away, it is different from the West and must be seen before the liberalisation policy changes its face forever.

Conditions for travel may not be the best - but they continue to improve. China is now making a determined effort to modernise and catch up with the West. The size of the task is staggering, and now is a unique opportunity to get some whiff of what the Communists have been doing for the last 45 years. As far as I was concerned the only downside of my month long journey through this fascinating country was I came away with the distinct impression that our politicians have been taking us for a ride for the last more than 50 years.

Posted by nilesh 14:33 Archived in China Tagged china tibet backpacking_in_china chinese_cuisine lonely_planet silk_route tibet_highway lhasa_highway

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