I just made a profit on a taxi journey.
Following most of the day struggling to find an enormous luxury hotel I've passed every day for a week and then talking them into letting me use their business centre to print off my boarding pass not one but two cabbies decided to try their luck.
There’s a definite different attitude to drivers who ply their trade outside expensive 5 star resorts. The first one claimed not to know what a train station was despite me showing him clearly on my phone. We drove around for ten minutes with him muttering in Mandarin to himself.
"Train station! You know, to Beijing?"
“Ah Beijing!” The chancer’s eyes lit up and he prepared to turn off onto the highway, instantly prepared for a 700 mile journey.
Five minutes later and a disappointed cabbie pulled back into the forecourt of the Shangri-La Hotel.
Cabbie number 2:
This time a concierge told him where I needed to be.
I closed the door and the meter shot upwards instantly. Your first 3km in a Chinese taxi are meant to be 80 yuan then it goes up fairly rapidly. Within two minutes of this journey however the meter read 120! 140! 190!
“Errrm…meter?” I indicated the machine.
The driver ignored me.
I took out my pen and wrote his number down. Pretty stupid trying to con me in a registered cab!
He looked alarmed for a second and then tried a different tactic.
“It’s cold!” He shivered and smiled.
“Yeah, freezing. Meter!”
We pulled into the train station with the meter reading 600 yuan (about £60 for a journey that should cost 80p) I handed him a 20 note and got out and stood on the kerb pretending to make a phone call.
The driver handed me a 100 note and shrugged.
Nice try buddy.
So tomorrow I check out. This dump specifies kicking out time is 12:00 but the cleaners (who don't actually do a massive amount of cleaning) start wandering the corridors shrieking in Mandarin and half heartedly kicking a dry mop around the floor from 07:30 onwards.
My train back to Beijing (assuming the ticket is valid this time!) leaves at 21:40. That's a lot of time to wander around in -30c temperatures! I'm hoping to kill some time by talking my way into the Business Centre at the Shangri-La hotel for people with more money than sense to print out my boarding pass. Anything to cut time on my way to the airport. I have to admit, it's unusual for me but I'm worried.
My train (hopefully!) gets into Beijing at 07:40 and my plane to Amsterdam (KLM!) leaves at 11:55. With check in, getting to the airport etc that really isn't a lot of time. Depending on the taxi queue/if I get an awkward git who claims not to understand despite waving a picture of planes at him I'll get the express train shuttle-at rush hour with my backpack
It's been an interesting few weeks. Beijing definitely ranks as one of my favourite cities. Harbin not so much. I've discovered my limit is -11c, after that I begin to suffer.
Plan is to return to Beijing as soon as possible after my graduation ceremony, head down to Shanghai and over to Taiwan for a few months.
Then again I have this strange yearning to visit Gabon! I have no idea why.
I have this crazy plan to use this blog as part of my autobiography. Finally tell the truth about the KFC story and some other stuff.
If anyone has been inspired by my trip simply drop me a comment and I'll reply as soon as I can.
I started this journey assuming the local Chinese would object to having a camera shoved in their face. It just seemed the sort of thing they would object to.
My first few days were spent "guerrilla shooting", quite difficult when they can spot a wàiguórén from five miles away. Quite often I'd attempt to get a good shot, I'd have the perfect image of say a market trader doing their thing, only when it came to looking back at the photo there'd be a crystal clear scene of an elderly Chinese face staring directly into the lense, usually with one eyebrow raised.
Scenery shooting has been amazing, particularly Harbin and the Ice Festival although a big challenge has been getting a clear snap without hoards of domestic tourists descending on whatever I was trying to picture whether it be temples, the frozen Songhua river or even a tiger.
China is an extraordinarily beautiful country despite 1.3bn people spitting all over it and the infamous smog in the big cities.
I would go as far as to say out of every nation I've visited so far China is probably the nicest in terms of beauty.
A debate has raged for years over whether the Harbin Tiger "Preserve" is either cruel exploitation or safeguarding the last few Siberian Tigers left (plus a few geographically confused African lions) I took a visit to make my own mind up.
At 100 yuan entry (90 plus another 10 that I couldn't work out the purpose of) and a lengthy taxi ride out across the Songhua Bridge (Reminds me of Grand Theft Auto 3..you'd have to see it)
I immediately get the distinct feeling the tigers aren't the only ones being exploited.
Apparently (and I didn't see this) they do a roaring (sorry) trade in Tiger Bone Wine at a crazy 150 RMB (about £15) per small glass. If this is true then that pretty much solves my dilemma on the spot, although it's supposedly warming and at -28c I might have been tempted.
First up is the traditional Chinese art of ticket obtaining.
I wrestled my way to the front using my elbows and got to the little plastic booth in record time before getting yanked back by the hair. Mustering up some energy despite the numbing chill I launched forward again and stood squarely on my offender's foot. Flicking the guy's pink 100 yuan note dismissively into the snow I replaced it with my own and an unseen hand produced a ticket through the hole.
5 minutes later, sharing a flask of green tea with the man I'd attacked we boarded an old bus for the tiger safari. He chuckled and pointed me out to his friends while outside, within clawing distance a large cat looked on with presumably raised eyebrows. Large teeth and stripes vs an Engrish Alien in Harbin..No chance.
It seems no one at Safari park training school explained the concept of actually seeing the creatures to the Chinese. We bombed through the enclosure at around 60mph narrowly avoiding large orange paws while the locals smoked and flicked ash through the barred window. Within ten minutes our F1 tour was over and aside from a long cold walk past some cages that was that.
Whether or not it is preserving these rare animals it doesn't make much sense to have lions there. A Lion's natural habitat is NOT -28c!
I'm no expert. Some of the cats were pacing up and down in an agitated manner but that's what they do isn't it?
I've stayed in some pretty grim hostels in my time, even dangerous ones but right now I'm staying in my worst ever.
It's not dangerous. It has windows and a ceiling plus an (uncomfortable!) bed. However after just two days it's obvious the owners have never actually seen the inside of a backpackers and appear to be modelling themselves on a 1960s YHA.
Last week I stayed at the fantastic Happy Dragon in Beijing. That was everything a hostel should be. Cosy, warm, friendly, lovely little café attached, (basic) English speaking staff, tour desk etc. It rubbed off on the guests and everyone got on well.
This week I'm in the Moyan Outdoors (who came up with that name?!) in Harbin, Northern China
Welcome to the coldest city in Asia...
It's the coldest city in Asia and is currently shivering at -32c. Sadly the chill extends to the hostel. Long sterile corridors patrolled by a semi aggressive dog, huge dorms where no one speaks to anyone else. Smelly toilets with no lock and a tiny door with gaps, crap Wi-Fi (I'm piggybacking someone's connection)
Worst of all is the staff. There is a bar (laughingly called "the pub") attached. You'd think getting a warm drink would be taken for granted when it's 20 below outside. Errm nope.
Coffee starts at an insane 38 kwai (about £4) more expensive than Starbucks! But that's not a problem since you can't actually get served! I waited ages for the bar tender to stop chatting to her friends, when she finally did she took my order before returning with an automated message on her phone "The bar tender is not currently serving!"
"Right, so I can't get a coffee?"
"The bar tender is not currently serving"
"and when will she be serving?"
"The bar tender is not currently serving"
"Is there anywhere else I can get a warm drink?"
"The bar tender is not currently serving"
I let her get back to her card game with her friends.
Another vital addition for a hostel is if for some reason they decide to set up miles from town is to provide BUS INFORMATION!!!
It's not a massive ask. Moyan has at least made an effort here-in Mandarin only!
Moyan Outdoors is a perfect example of how NOT to run a hostel! The fact that it is half empty around the time of one of Asia's biggest festivals proves my point. Sadly I don't get the feeling the owners would listen. They'd just set the dog on me.
I made some Chinese friends but the staff still panic and run for cover when I appear.
I stocked up on toilet paper earlier. KFC does have it's uses.
America’s most famous fried chicken chain’s food might not be great but they have an unending supply of bog tissue. A rarity in China.
Those that know me know that I tend to avoid American chains while travelling.
I don’t mind the likes of McDonalds, Starbucks etc but only in their rightful place, i.e. the United States. I object to paying double when there is a far better local product on the same street.
Hence climbing the Great Wall, admiring the amazing views and peaks I was a bit irritated to bump into a branch of Subway
It’s become unfortunately common. Exploring the Ethnic cultures park, a collection of 56 museums and village scenes from each of China’s minorities, turning a corner near a group of brightly painted Buddhist flags in the Tibet area was a pair of familiar Arches.
Most of the big chains appear to be represented here. McDonalds, Burger King, Subway etc with KFC seeming to be by far the most ubiquitous.
The clash between America and China becomes painfully obvious occasionally despite the half hearted attempt at what the capitalists fondly believe is "local food" (Pizza Hut offers an appetiser of “New Orleans Gristle”)
Adorning my tray containing the -probably impossible to pronounce in Mandarin- Spicy Chicken Fillet Burger is a sheet of paper with helpful illustrations showing farmers and happy smiling poultry. Unlike Americans it’s hard to imagine the average young Chinese male getting all warm hearted over the Disney grin spread all over it’s suspiciously healthy looking beak.
This is rapidly turning into one of the hilariously worst hostels of my entire travels.
I've stayed in probably hundreds ranging from 50p a night fleapits to £35 a bed Norwegian flashpackers.
My China accommodation so far has definitely been a tale of two halves.
The Happy Dragon in Beijing was down a fascinating hutong full of vendors selling interesting items and just 5 minutes from a subway station. The staff were friendly and it was cosy with a nice café attached.
Moyan Outdoors meanwhile (stupid name!) is miles out of town (apparently an hour on the bus although the staff refuse to confirm which number) It’s sterile and cold with huge dorms. They’ve clearly been inspired by the old style YHAs. There is a "pub" attached. I attempted to order a coffee despite the price being at least double Starbucks. The server wandered off and returned with a mobile phone. Pressing a button an automated American voice repeated “the server is not yet attending” at me. I shrugged and left.
I’m getting a feeling they might also be segregating nationalities by dorm. Despite the huge size of the room it appears to be myself and possibly the only other Brits in the entire city. Other dorms seem to have Chinese in them. I’m not sensing the friendliness of the capital in Harbin at all. Maybe it’s the cold but while Beijing is definitely on my itinerary again for 2015 Heilongjang’s main city isn’t.
A good hostel sets the atmosphere. In a hostel where the staff care it rubs off on the guests. Moyan Outdoors simply doesn’t have it.
Well today has certainly been surreal. I'm typing this from a tiny bed on a bus, whilst having my ears pulled affectionately by elderly peasants.
I SHOULD be on a train. It turns out though that the ticket I was issued was in fact due for the 1st Jan. It clearly says "8th" on the paper I handed over but meiyou! All that could be done was I call a “hotline” number. Realistically the chances of finding someone who spoke enough English, plus working out the Chinese phone system in half an hour before the train was due to depart was exceedingly unlikely. Standing outside the train station wondering what to do, a guy with a clichéd Hollywood Chinese beard muttered something at me in Mandarin. I shrugged and replied with something about trains to Harbin.
“Aah! HarRRbin!” He smiled and beckoned me to follow. What else did I have to lose? Sometimes you have to go with these things and be prepared to run at short notice. He led me to an underground carpark. Definitely one of those “be ready to leg it moments” deep below ground was a waiting room where a guy behind a counter motioned for me to pay 300 yuan (about £30) Realising I didn’t have the cash I mimed an ATM and he ordered my original captor to follow me.
20 minutes later and I was sitting uncomfortably in a waiting room, today’s entertainment.
An old guy motioned to a huge map repeatedly and kept indicating an area just over the Russian border where three red dots had been drawn in felt pen and giggled.
Slightly anxious as my Russian visa ran out approximately a year ago I was reassured by a young guy that I was going to Harbin. He giggled as well which worried me. They then had a lengthy discussion on why I have a broken nose. I only know this because my original captor at one point decided to demonstrate something to the group by tugging mine and then miming walking into a wall. It was decided that I’d walked into a wall as a young child.
. Attention turned to my ears. These are too big apparently. Finally after analysing my skin tone (and me repeatedly removing the old guy’s wife’s hands from my thigh) someone decided it was tea-time. We all settled down to drink green tea, slightly interrupted when one guy decided it would be a hilarious joke to pretend to rob me. I laughed uncomfortably and resolved to track down the train ticket company and beat the hell out of the CEO of it. After another hour in which a major discussion took place over where I was from (Sweden was mentioned but eventually someone zipped open my coat pocket and removed my passport and discovered I was British)
“Erm yeah. Can I have my passport back? Thanks”
Suddenly everyone was on the move and I was ordered to follow a woman with an identical hairstyle to Little Britain’s Bubbles DeVere. I followed Bubbles and we reached a tiny white transit minibus. Either this was a feeder bus like in Thailand or I was being majorly scammed. We hit the traffic and eventually pulled in near Beijing South Railway Station. Again Bubbles beckoned me and as a group we went shopping as the coach was apparently not due until 16:00.
Finding a café after some serious purchasing (them not me, the bus was costing me a day’s budget) we sat down for some tea and a debate ensued about the size of my nose. Someone produced a tape measure and it was measured. It was when a comment was made, everyone laughed and Bubbles winked at me while waving the tape measure that I had to leave for some (Beijing style) “fresh” air.
It’s now dusk, passing through the inner suburbs and I’m in the top seat row of a sleeper bus. I’m confident now that it is going to Harbin. I have no idea what time it gets there or even how I will recognise it though.
This afternoon has been a real experience in getting to know the Chinese as people, not just anonymous faces scurrying around the subway. Yes I’ve been the subject of (affectionate) jokes regarding the size of my nose and ears but they somehow seem “different” now.
Less serious and formal. Interestingly I noticed while we were shopping Bubbles became temporarily “Subway Chinese” again adopting a grim expression. From what I could tell most of the group were unknown to each other yet once introduced they immediately stopped treading on each other and actually did things like hold doors open!
China really isn’t good on “Western manners” Queues are noticeable by the frustrated American at the rear while the locals surge forward using arms, bags, even a large framed picture of Chairman Mao in once case I observed at Wangfujing Subway Station. It’s not personal, it’s just “Chinese”!
If the person in front of you is taking too long it’s perfectly acceptable to wrench him backwards by the hair and take his place. Pretty much it’s every han for himself.
Back to now I’m beginning to tire of having my ears played with. They aren’t THAT unusual!
I almost offended the elderly guy earlier I think. He decided to start stroking my face and repeating “bao”
It seems “bao” means “unshaven” from what I could gather from the following mass discussion on my hairy chin.
His wife is sat a few rows from me now, smiling through terrible teeth. I’m slightly worried about what the pair of them have in mind for me if/when we get to Harbin….
Edit: It’s 18:30. We’ve been travelling about 2.5 hours. We’ve stopped at a tiny service station with squat toilets in the middle of nowhere. That was the quickest pee of my life. The idea of being left behind on a rural Chinese highway fills me with horror!
It’s noticeably colder than Beijing wherever we are now. It’s also dark but squinting through the window we don’t seem to have reached the snow line yet. The next time we stop I’m staying on the bus. The alternative doesn’t bear thinking about…
11:30am and I’ve arrived.
If you haven’t experienced -28c temperatures before then it’s a shock. The cold seeps through your gloves and into your bones. Harbin itself seems a lot more aggressive than Beijing with touts actually physically accosting you at the train station and trying to take your luggage.
It took a while to find the hostel in the taxi, it’s miles from town and it appears to inspired by the traditional YHA with long sterile corridors and bad wifi.
It seemed the receptionist had never met a foreigner before from her stunned reaction but there seems to be a couple of (unfriendly) Northern sounding Brits in my huge dorm room. There doesn’t appear to be a bathroom in the entire place, just a traditional squat toilet. First impressions of this place and of Harbin aren’t particularly positive. I’m already missing the comforts of Beijing.
I originally wrote 'Every Han for Himself' for the now closed Travelpod site. In January 2014 I was lucky enough to able to tick off a long held bucket list ambition by visiting both Beijing and the Harbin Ice Festival.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.