Across Continents

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Road 101

November 26th, 2010

I’d sat in the window to watch the world go by. Instead it watched me. Lantian. Provincial town to the east of the city of Xi’an. Westerners something of a rarity. Possibly because it’s quite difficult to find. Even when I’d reached it, I had my doubts. Eventually quelled by some forensic navigation. That’s where you use a blend of GPS data, Google Earth and a conventional map or two to work out exactly where here is, and where you’ve been. Not always obvious.

A deliberately short day. In distance terms. Little more than thirty miles. But it’d taken quite a bit of time, mostly escaping from Xi’an. Should have been pretty straightforward. I’d sketched out a route using a mix of satellite imagery and a local map. But overlooked the road works, the diversions. The city’s largely grid layout should have helped compensate, but still left me a bit bewildered amongst the heavy traffic.

A familiar pattern. Set off. Confident. Done my homework. A few landmarks to look for. Stick to what you imagine can only be clearly defined main routes. After a while doubt starts to creep in. Sure it looked different on Google Earth. It probably did. Such is the rate of road building. Eventually, any decent bit of tarmac heading east suffices.

Hoping for a road sign, there’d been more confusion. Finding one for Lintong, written in both English and Simplified Chinese, my spirits raised. I’d expected to see Lantian, and the characters were slightly different to those shown on my less than reliable map. A different place or a transliteration error? I wasn’t sure.

I’d asked quite a few pedestrians, bystanders. Which was the right road? Then an elderly couple on smart bicycles. They’d hailed me from across the carriageway. Rode with me for a short while, parting company once a sign for Lantian appeared. Could barely conceal my delight. But not the G312 highway I’d expected, I’d followed from Kazakhstan. No. Road 101.

I’d find out later it was the right way to go. But not without incident. Quite a bit of chaotic roadworks. Then there’d been a road accident. Cyclist. I’d have stopped to help but for what’s termed mechanism of injury. A lorry. And plenty of people milling around. Not that they could do anything. Of that I was absolutely certain.

I’d found somewhere to stay in Lantian without too much difficulty. Headed out at dusk. Prosperous. Lots of shops selling things you didn’t actually need. A few pavement market stalls. Some, curiously, openly selling bundles of what purported to be various popular currencies.

Eventually drawn into a Western style fast food outlet by the possibility of a fresh coffee. Met with "Good morning" and a smile, the usual greeting in such establishments. "Tom and Jerry" on the large screen. Dubbed. In the background "Scarborough Fair" played on a loop. Faces at the window.


Onward to Wuhan

November 25th, 2010

Fresh visa. New direction. A southerly shift. South East now. Towards the city of Wuhan. Perhaps ten days away. Two weeks at a push. Hills at first, then opening out. A large flood plain. Wishful thinking perhaps. Continuing as far south as Nanchang I hoped. The next major city before the final plunge south to Hong Kong.

Plans were in place. Arrangements made. My new visa insufficient to reach the former colony. Nights drawing in. So I’d conjured up a little, albeit quite legitimate, scheme to overcome this. Enabling me to continue south at a sensible pace. Make sure I saw what I’d come to see. China. Reaching Hong Kong in time for Christmas. But first I needed to reach Wuhan.


Back at the Bureau

November 24th, 2010

The solitary policewoman. Still looking bored. I’d returned to the Public Security Bureau to collect my new visa. I hoped. After the protracted efforts to submit the application, I’d a suspicion it mightn’t be as easy as just walking in, handing over the receipt, and departing with another three weeks in my pocket.

Xian visa

I was wrong. Quickly checking the visa was all in order, the obligatory signature, and I was off. Having thanked the officer profusely. She’d never know quite how overjoyed I was to be reunited with my passport. I’d become quite attached to it. Back outside, the obligatory taxi back into the city. And a driver I’d met previously. How could I be so sure? I’d recognise that dermatitis anywhere.

[Author’s note: If you are remaining in the same location overnight as for the previous day, ensure your hosts re-register you and your new visa with the Public Security Bureau. Insist on this – it’s a legal requirement in China]


Around Xi’an

November 24th, 2010

Bell - web

Xi’an. It somehow felt different. Subtle nuances. Elusive at first. Masked by familiarity. Similarities with other cities I’d passed through. Urumqi. Lanzhou. Barely discernable order on the roads. Hectic. Pavements at times as frenetic. Familiar shop fronts. Small cafes.

Western influence a little more in evidence? Or simply catering to tourists, drawn to the walled city by the Terracotta Warriors nearby? A few more smart hotels. Unappealing. Bold monoliths, devoid of the relative homeliness of the small establishments. Faceless foreigners. Wealthy Chinese busying themselves.

Mug - web

A morning amongst the side streets, the markets, vendors in the city’s Muslim Quarter. Then a coffee in Starbucks. I’d baulked a little at the cost. Quite a bit more than I was used to paying. But, I realised, suggestive of greater urban prosperity. A shift of emphasis. A few more upmarket shops, catering for disposal income rather than necessities. Ever so slight, but there nevertheless.

And there was something else. But far less subtle. Westerners. Saw more in a single day than I’d seen in the previous month. And with that, inevitably, English, both spoken and written. On street signs, in places foreigners might well frequent. The de facto international language.


Taking tea

November 18th, 2010

Tea bags, she explained, weren’t popular. Could only be used once, whereas a quality loose tea might make a few cups. I suggested some of my Northern relatives might disagree. The humour was lost. On everyone. Not even a grimace from my fellow travellers. Seemed best not to elaborate on the rituals surrounding “builders” tea.

Tea ceremony - web

We were visiting a Chinese tea room. Little touristy, but tastefully done nevertheless. Sort of “Whittards” with tables. Here to experience a traditional tea ceremony. Sampling various blends. Sweeter varieties like lychee black tea, popular for the Western palate. Green teas such as Ku Ding, popular for its purported medicinal properties, or Chrysanthemum tea. Good for the throat apparently.


Tea ceremony

November 18th, 2010

Tea ceremony from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Following on from yesterday’s piece on taking tea in China, a short clip to give some insight into the ritual. From Xi’an, central China.


Troublesome tourist

November 17th, 2010

I wasn’t being a good tourist. Not even mid-morning and I’d be politely, but firmly, rebuffed for not paying proper attention. To the amusement of my fellow English speaking travellers. Then there’d been the various souvenir shops. Hadn’t spent as much as a single Yuan. As much for reasons of practicality as pure taste. Hadn’t really got room in the panniers for a replica Terracotta Warrior. And jade’s not quite my thing. Doesn’t go with any of my outfits.

Kelly - web

It had started with a late night phone call. Said her English name was “Kelly”. I’d heard about these sort of things. Did I speak Chinese, she enquired. A brief pause. “No” I replied. She wanted to meet. Eight thirty next morning. In the lobby. She’d be my tour guide. I was relieved.

Tour group - web

We were a small group. Jesse from Delaware, US, Clive and a friend from the UK, and a French couple. All seasoned travellers. Jesse spending time in Taiwan learning Mandarin. Languages, I discovered as the day went on, were definitely his thing. Fluent French, impeccable accent. Later he’d admitted to a smattering of Spanish. You just knew this’d be an ever so small understatement. Clive had travelled to China by train, meeting up with his friend, an old work colleague, in Hong Kong. And the French couple on a research exchange with a Shanghai University.

There’d been a visit to the Big Goose Pagoda, Banpo Neolithic village, a jade factory, and a pretty decent lunch. But I think what we were really interested in, intrigued by, was the Terracotta Warriors. And we weren’t disappointed.

Terracotta warriors - web

The vast majority of the Warriors are housed inside “Pit One”. It ressembles a large aircraft hangar. Not just the shape. But also the size. The largely natural lighting casts an almost mystical hue over the arranged army. Discovered by chance in 1974, not a single soldier intact, their restoration a testament to patience. Foot soldiers. Generals. Horses.

The General - web

[Author’s note: Xi’an is tourist territory, and prices reflect this. A full day tour, including transport, lunch, and entry tickets for sites such as the Big Goose Pagoda and Terracotta Warriors costs about £40. But, despite my natural reticence to part with cash, worth it. You could make your own (cheaper) arrangements, but then you’d miss out on a guide, and quite a bit more as a result.

Replica Terracotta Warriors – in various sizes – are readily available. Full size, including shipping, comes in at about £1000. Excluding the six litres of Superglue you’ll need to reassemble it….]


Stanley and the stamp

November 15th, 2010

Time for some more armchair adventure. Wrestling with officialdom, a less than useless guidebook, flurries of taxis, and an evasive stamp. Struggling to smile. Masking frustration an unenviable necessity. No matter how tempting it might be to do otherwise.

Progress hadn’t been what I’d hoped for. I’d always known it would take the best part of two to three months to cross China, comparable to my journey through Europe. But a few bouts of illness now meant I was running out of time on my current visa. Not an unsurmountable problem. Entitled to apply for a further thirty day visa whilst still in China. Not as much as I’d like, but it would do for now.

So, consulting my dubious guidebook, it was off to the local Police Public Security Bureau. I’d done my research. Photocopies of my passport. And my bank cards to show I could support myself without being a burden on the State. Couple of mug shots and a pen. What could be simpler? Quite a lot it seemed. For one thing, a friendly policewoman explained, yes, this was indeed the Bureau. But they no longer processed visa applications. Hadn’t done so for a while. That was now done at the Traffic Police Headquarters outside the city walls. Obvious really. So, helpfully provided with the correct address in Chinese, I headed off to find a taxi. First of many.

Eventually finding the right building, found myself in a large hall, packed with passport photographers, photocopiers and long queues. Quite bewildering. It was going to be a long morning. Or it would have been, had someone not encouraged me to wander up to the next floor. The visa office for foreigners. Manned by a solitary policewoman. She looked bored.

“Yes”, she said nodding, “You can apply for a new visa here”. Provided me with an application form. But my photocopies weren’t quite in order. Had to be A4. And I’d need a copy of my ’Aliens Registration Form’ from the hotel. Seemed reasonable enough, plenty of time to put everything in order and submit my request before they closed for the day. So, off I went. Another taxi.

A little while later….. and another taxi

Back once more at the PSB, the mornings helpful policewoman had been replaced by a policeman. This time there was a problem. My registration form from the hotel needed an official stamp. Smiling with gritted teeth, I enquired as to when the Bureau would close for the day. “Perhaps four” he suggested, a little shrug of the shoulders. I doubted I could make it back in time. A day lost. But surely a problem easily fixed. Return first thing in the morning.

Back at the hotel….

The hotel did have a stamp. But it was in Shanghai. Which is nowhere near Xi’an. This was not going well. I enquired as to whether John Lei, the hotel manager I’d met on my first night, might have one. Stanley, the front desk manager, assured me he’d try and contact John, away until the next morning, and see what could be done. Fingers crossed. Resigned to a frustrating evening of waiting, of hoping. Then a phone call. From reception. Problem solved. With what looked like a very shiny new stamp. Back on track.

Stamp - web

The next morning. Early

Same solitary policewoman. Still looking bored. But very helpful. And impeccable English. All was now in order. Just had to pay about sixteen pounds for the visa. Another office. Return with the receipt and I’d be finished for the day. Took about ten minutes. Return in five days to collect my passport. Things were looking up at last….

[Author’s note: Despite the term ’visa extension’ being widely used, it’s a misnomer. What you actually get is a new visa – a zero entry one as you’re already in country – obtainable from the local (Police) Public Security Bureau (PSB).

In theory, you could apply anywhere but, unless you’re a fairly competent Mandarin speaker, I’d recommend locations, such as Xi’an, where they’re used to dealing with foreigners. And where they speak English. Note that your thirty days starts from the date you submit your application, processing normally takes five working days, so once you get your passport back with the new visa, you’ve usually got just twenty three more days.

If you want to find the PSB in Xi’an – about four kilometres outside the city walls – just show the following to any taxi driver. About £2 each way from the city centre:

PSB - Xian - web

Worked for me!]


End of the road

November 14th, 2010

Camel - web

The exact start and finish of the Silk Roads is a subject of scholarly debate. And a very academic one at that. For one thing, they were trading routes. The flow of goods rather than people, different merchants for different stages. At best you might identify hubs, marketplaces. Perhaps Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Staging posts rather than repositories, many wares continuing on their journey much further west.

And route is probably a more apt descriptor than road, not just because they were trading routes. For I suspect that, even at their busiest, huge swathes had little by way of discernable track. Instead reliant on local merchants to ensure the smooth flow of goods. Local knowledge.

So, not an exact science. I’d settled on the eastern Turkish city of Trabzon as my starting point. And the finish? Xi’an. Whatever its intellectual rigour, its historical merits, my route had at least felt right. The path through the mountains of central Georgia, the crossing from Kazakhstan into China, through desert and into Xi’an. Intuitively at least, it seemed plausible.


Cycling into Xi’an

November 13th, 2010

I’d been doing what I thought was a pretty credible impression of a lost Englishman. I, at least, was convinced. Her name was Duan. On her way to collect her young daughter from the creche. A smattering of English, but still much more extensive than my Mandarin.

It’d reached Xi’an’s city walls with an hour or so of daylight left. Entering via the north west gate, I reckoned that still left me twenty five square kilometres in which to hunt for my hotel. A long night loomed, not least because I’d the usual mediocre map, its legibility even in daylight questionable.

Xian map - web

Difficult to pin down the size of Xi’an. Estimates vary from between three to over eight million. Either way, it’s pretty big. My efforts at entry comparable to riding into London armed only with postcard of Big Ben. At night. Sometimes wonder how I ever got out of Europe.

Soon dusk. Then dark. And still no sign of my hotel. By now I’d dismounted, deciding it much safer to walk than to ride amongst the chaotic evening traffic. If there was a consolation, aside from what I hoped would be a hot shower at some point before dawn, it was that I thought the place quite beautiful at night. The Bell Tower in the centre at least. Tastefully illuminated.

And I’d probably have seen much more of the city if it hadn’t been for Duan coming to my aid. She knew the road I sought. There were lefts and right. Distances. Distinct junctions. Landmarks. Rare precision. And she was right.

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