Everything I generally get up to

Thursday 23rd June – Qinhuangdao – 秦皇岛

The train journey, which I expected to be a relatively boring three hours or so, flew
by. Having just recently mentioned how I don‘t want to make too much fuss about
people who enjoy my Chinese ability, it seems as if this will in fact be one of the defining
points for every event on this trip, as was the case on the train when an
attendant came past and tried to sell me something, after which my response gained a
growing amount of attention from those around me. At one point a jolly, outgoing and
possibly ‘slow in the head‘ old man got talking away to me and suddenly it seemed
half the eyes of the carriage were watching, bemused and curious in equal measure.

 

I remember when I left China last year I got talking to a guy, who spoke good English,
who said train journeys in this country are a sort of community experience in themselves;
people often have to sit together for so long that they have no choice but to
make acquaintance with those around them or otherwise remain bored and uncomfortable
for hours. This was certainly apparent with the people around me who were clearly
on good terms. Furthermore, and given the size of the country, people can share
their lives and experiences with those from completely different parts. Upon discovering
that I had studied in Chengdu, a particularly curious old woman began retelling
her experience of the Sichuan earthquake (which was very near to Chengdu), when
she was working on a farm in the region. This gained fair interest from those around
her. I should admit here that I never totally followed what they were talking about, but
certainly enough to listen without losing focus. My main issue with understanding is
simply when a person uses words I haven‘t yet learned. However some words that I do
know, and have known pretty much since I started, are everything relating to the act of
not understanding, so I sat in smug silence when at one point they were discussing
whether I could really follow the conversation, and then decided to talk faster and
with more mumbling to make sure I couldn‘t keep up, but since it was just variations
of, “If we talk fast and don‘t use standard Mandarin he wont get it”, I had little trouble
knowing what they were talking about. Heh.

 

The carriage I was on had about one hundred seats arranged in groups of four or six
with a small table by the window. One side of the train was six-seated sections and the
other was four-seated. I think most trains are like this. I was on a four-seater, sat by
the aisle. Overhead were relatively small luggage racks, typical of any train back
home, but with so many people it seemed miraculous that everything made it up there
with such ease. The ends of the carriage always had people loitering around, some
there to smoke and others who had bought standing tickets with the hope that a seat
might become available. Of the people I was talking to, the youngest was the same
age as me. He invited me for a cigarette near our end of the carriage, to which I
obliged. The smoking area, though not exactly crowded, was so poorly ventilated that
my eyes stung as we stood there attempting to converse. If there‘s one thing China is
yet to catch up on, it‘s the attitude towards smoking in closed public areas. I guess in
fairness there‘s a no smoking rule in the seating area. The best of both worlds, I suppose.
Having arrived at Qinhuangdao I can so far only say I‘m quite disappointed with this
place. Almost immediately outside the station there‘s a busy area of street food stalls
with basic outdoor seating and the smell of good food in every direction. Down one
slightly run-down looking street I saw loads of signs for traveller hotels and the likes.
It looked low quality and that‘s what I wanted. However I soon discovered that not a
single place could let me stay because of my ‘foreigner‘ status. I was directed to another
place a short walk away, then another, and another, with each attempt being for increasingly
expensive rooms, all equally futile. Even more annoying was that I‘d
specially tell the staff I was looking for a small, cheap place but each suggestion they
made sent me on to somewhere bigger and more expensive, right up to the ridiculously
lavish Qinhuangdao Grand hotel at 1000RMB per night at the cheapest! At this point I
resigned myself to buying the first ticket out of here and would have slept rough at the
station if I had to, but a small amount of luck was on my side. When I had first started
my search I was twice asked by old women if I was looking for a prostitute. This is
something I didn’t know happened quite so overtly in China, at least not on an open
street a hundred metres from a train station. On my walk back to this area, one of these
women approached me again, so I politely explained that I was just looking for a
cheap room, to sleep only. She took me to a few places down a very basic little street
but again the results were all the same—no foreigners. As a last resort she asked a taxi
driver who then made it a personal mission to hep me. A couple of phone calls later he
had found a place which was still a bit out of my budget but I agreed anyway. A short
drive took us to the Hailong hotel, where I paid 238RMB for their most basic room
(much cheaper than the price list on the wall behind the reception) and was immediately
upgraded for free to something of ‘deluxe’ quality, for reasons beyond my understanding.
I must say, for this price the room is absolutely amazing, but it still far exceeds
my budget so I‘m still not at all pleased with how things have turned out. Currently
I fear every place will be like this, and so am seriously toying with the idea of
finding a single place to stay as a base for a month or so, maybe in Beijing or Chengdu,
because I simply can‘t afford many more days like this.
Friday 24th June 2016
Qinhuangdao 秦皇岛
After yesterday‘s disappointment I hadn‘t really thought much about what to do today,
but I was soon occupied when it occurred to me that I had woken up halfway through
the ballot count of the United Kingdom‘s European Union referendum vote, which is
arguably the biggest thing to happen to the country in several decades. Looking at the
BBC news website, even with half the votes still to be counted the BBC (and others)
were predicting the result would be in favour of the UK exiting the EU. With this came
a sharp drop in the strength of the pound, which was quite alarming to see in graphical
form when I looked up real-time exchange rates between GBP and RMB to see a dramatic,
almost vertical drop on the chart representing the strength of the pound in China.
With this new and alarming information (though it had actually been predicted prior
to the vote) I quickly made my way outside to withdraw as much money as possible,
in RMB, using my British bank cards before things got any worse. In doing so I may
have caused my bank cards to be blocked—when trying to withdraw more money from
other machines the transaction was rejected—and it may have been too late anyway as
the exchange rate has now settled. Yesterday it was roughly 9.8RMB to the pound;
today it‘s 9.0 which means everything here is about 9% more expensive for me.

 

Regarding my concerns about not finding places within my budget at which foreigners are allowed to stay: A friend of mine—Justin, who lives in Beijing—
recommended an American (but now global) organisation called AirB‘n‘B
which is essentially a website where people can sign up and advertise their own homes
as guesthouses. Since these ‗guesthouses‘ are not fully fledged businesses, the prices
seem to be cheaper and the places are usually of a good, homely quality, which is to
be expected since they are homes. Furthermore, the international nature of the website
means I‘m at liberty to book places as I please without any restrictive government
rulings. I found a place which appears to be only a short walk from the beach, in a
locality called Xingcheng, a few miles south of the coastal city of Huludao where I
wanted to go before, about half an hour from here by train.
With this sorted I went back outside to arrange my train ticket and generally have a
look around the area at which I‘m currently staying. Firstly, even at midday I noticed
the weather is so much more bearable than Beijing and Tianjin. While still very hot,
the humidity is much lower, to the point that dripping with sweat is not quite such a
concern any more. A welcome change. My short walk took me through the main plaza
of the city, a huge concrete area with various bits of architecture—steps, blocks walls,
plants and a giant open space in the middle for people to make use of. One thing about
China is that everything seems to be done on a huge scale. You get a sense of desolation
sometimes, but this is soon altered when you return to a place and see it teeming
with people, and then the sheer size of everything suddenly makes sense. At this time
of day the plaza was fairly empty, but not peaceful. There were two small groups of
older people dancing to loudspeakers playing what sounded like very traditional music
from a previous era. The dancing seemed very amateur, with every person holding a
sort of coloured rag in each hand and waving it about. At best I would say it seemed
like morris dancing, but without the bells and without much real dancing. I think it was
just a load of old people out for a bit of a play really. Harmless fun, and certainly more
than can be said of the almost non-existent pastimes of most old folk in the UK. And
the weather back home can‘t be used as an excuse! This place gets as cold as the UK in
winter, or worse, and still people make it outside. I saw similar last year in Harbin
when it was minus 25 Celsius.
Leaving the plaza, I crossed a road and found myself in the ‗Peoples Park‘ which is, as
the name suggests, a public park, but nothing like the sort of park you may expect. It‘s
all very immaculate, almost clinical in the way it was made. Clearly it was fabricated
and built from scratch rather than being a natural feature of the environment. The
whole thing consists of paths around various bits that you can‘t really venture into,
along with areas of trees and plants but no open stretches of natural grass or whatever
one would think normal of a park back home. It seems to be built more as an area for
peaceful relaxation for the more stereotypically introverted and philosophical ways of
living ascribed to much of Asia, which is rather different from the open, adventurous
and sometimes messy ideals of discovery and exploration that are quite easily evident
in most parks and nature areas that I presume are the norm in much of the west, specially
the UK where many would turn the whole country into a national park if they
could.
I sat for a while by the lake in the middle of the park and snacked on what are apparently
sunflower seeds—a popular sort of salty snack in some parts of China even
though they‘re a real finicky thing with soft shells that you have to bite open to get to
the edible bit. Not long after sitting down a man greeted me and was, like all the rest,
excited to learn I was able to communicate with him. He quickly joined me and took a
place next to me on the concrete bench I was on. However he didn‘t sit; he put his feet
on then squatted. He spoke in a thick accent and extremely quickly. He didn‘t seem to
comprehend the fact that I might require him to go a bit slower, though he was aware
enough to mention that I spoke standard Mandarin so I might not understand his dialect
and, funnily enough, he said might not understand me! There can be such disparity
between Chinese accents and dialects that some people have a hard time conversing
with each other. In fact much of south China speaks Cantonese, which is argued by
some to be an entirely different language, which I suppose it is but then there is a reasonable
amount of mutual intelligibility. However I‘m in the north now so there are
surely not many Cantonese speakers around here anyway.

 

Soon another man, who had been watching from a distance for some time, joined us
and took a squatting position on the floor by the first guy. They asked me various questions about living costs in the UK, how much 1GBP is worth in RMB, and how much a
British salary is worth. They were amazed by this apparent wealth but didn‘t seem to
understand that it‘s only a relative measure since living costs are high for the average
Brit. From experience I would say leisure opportunities for the poorer person in China
are actually more abundant than for the same sort of person in the UK, particularly
regarding socialising. For example, finding alternative places for really cheap food and
beer with mates is pretty much impossible in the UK, whereas it‘s something of a norm
in China. These two people I was talking to seemed to be on the more ‘traditional’ end
of the social scale. They clearly had basic but comfortable lives, where they had
worked and had the scars and young wrinkles to prove it, but they still seemed content.
There‘s something telling about the way these two people, both seemingly unknown
to each other, quite happily approached and chatted with me and between
themselves. There‘s a certain openness and cohesion in society here that I find quite
impressive. People talk and get on with little hostility or fear. I‘m sure it‘s not all like
this, but it‘s certainly different from the much more isolated nature of British society.

 

The first guy then left and I sat a while longer talking with the other man, who stayed
squatting on the floor in front of me. He started to ask what were fairly complex questions,
to the extent that we were both using our mobile phone‘s electronic dictionaries
to get whole points across. By the end I had learned that the standard Chinese electric
plug outlet is 220 volts, much more than the British mains supply. Well, this is what
he told me but having just checked it turns out the UK supply is 230 volts. I should
probably have known that. Finally, he was interested to learn that, in my opinion, the
concept of marriage is becoming a little outdated in the west. This was strange to him
because in China a person must be married before they can legally have children that
are supported by the state. One of the many interesting differences in social policy
between the seemingly controlled ways of China and the relatively liberal ways of our
side of the world.

 

Saturday 25th June 2016
Qinhuangdao 秦皇岛

 

Woke up suddenly to the sound of continuous, booming explosions at about 7am,
which lasted for a good ten minutes or so. Looking out of my window, seven storeys
up, there was nothing out of the ordinary—people were just going about their mornings
as this noise reverberated all around the tall buildings of the area. I guess it was
some sort of construction project, or maybe the military, but still it seemed a bit mysterious to me. Then again, one thing I‘ve learned so far about this country is that these
sorts of things aren‘t usually much cause for concern. My first thought, when waking
up, was not one of worry or dread, but more along the lines of, ―What‘s happening
now, and why so early?!

 

I check out of this hotel at midday and have my train to Xingcheng at 2pm, at which I
expect to have arrived by 4 or 5pm at the latest to begin this new “AirB‘n‘B” experience.

 

13:10—Qinhuangdao station 秦皇岛站
Sitting in the station now, a much smaller place than that of Tianjin, though still of the
same spacious feel with the semi-reflective faux marble décor, lines of seats, electronic
information boards and the odd shop dotted around. Before coming here I decided
to pass the plaza and park I visited yesterday, this time to get some photographs. After
this was done, I found the nearest road and waved down a taxi. While approaching the
driver beeped his horn, then pulled up alongside me. There was already a passenger in
the front seat, but before I could really think about things the driver had shouted,
―Train station?!‖ after which I ended up sitting in the back, sharing the journey with
another person who seemed to want to get there quickly. The two of them chatted
away, then eventually their attention turned to me. The driver asked where my train
was headed, then the other passenger decided to take it upon himself to act as a translator
by pointing his finger arbitrarily and, in English, said, ―You! Go?! Beijing?‖ rather
desperately. He soon discovered I could use his own language, then talked at me nonstop,
and rapidly, while I sat there and nodded helplessly for the rest of the ride. He
said about the UK leaving the EU, and that it was bad for us because he‘d seen the
strength of the pound had dropped. He then went on to say he likes the British, along
with most Europeans, but hates Americans because of their politics and possibly something to do with the US military, but I‘m not too sure. He said that if I was American
he doesn’t know what he would have done, and tried to give some sort of analogy to
represent his hatred by explaining Chinese hatred towards Japan, who invaded and
colonised parts of China for many years. All this being said, he spoke with a good temperament and I highly doubt he‘d have acted on his apparent dislike if I were actually
American. We got to the station and he was quickly gone from the taxi without even a
goodbye.

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A standard Chinese railway carriage.

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The 238RMB room I eventually found after arriving in Qinhuangdao.

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The street outside Qinhuangdao station with plenty of places to stay, none of which allowed foreigners.

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The street outside Qinhuangdao station with plenty of places to stay, none of which allowed foreigners.

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Qinhuangdao central plaza.

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Man-made park.

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