Everything I generally get up to

Beijing and the Northeast

Sunday 26th June 2016 – Xingcheng – 兴城

Should have written this yesterday but laziness got the better of me. Arrived in Xingcheng
at sometime soon after 4pm where my AirB‘nB host, Siqi (sort of pronounced
‘suh-chee’) was kind enough to meet me at the station to take me to her home, where I
was to stay. We got a taxi there which she asked me to pay for once we‘d arrived. Well
that was unexpected, given I’d have been more than happy to catch a bus and make my
own way there. Siqi lives in one of the many, many new high-rise apartment blocks
that are now all over China. Hers is in a seemingly very new neighbourhood where
much of the surrounding area is flat and rubble-like in appearance, as if in preparation
for further developments. It has a fairly ‘middle of nowhere‘ feeling which is standard
of quiet Chinese suburbs (though to be honest I‘m sure many visitors would feel the
same in any residential suburb of the UK too).

 
The buildings are a sort of sandy brown colour in a gated, and guarded, compound of
sorts. This makes it sound like some sort of settlement for the elite, so at this point I
should mention that many residential areas are like this—it‘s nothing out of the ordinary.
When we arrived there happened to have been a power cut so we took the stairs
to the apartment which is luckily only one floor up. Finally entering, I was greeted by
Siqi‘s mother, a friendly lady of short stature who was pleased to learn that we were
able to loosely communicate with each other. The apartment is of a good standard and,
while not especially big, is an ample living space. There are six or seven rooms altogether
including three bedrooms, a living room, a small kitchen and even smaller
washroom. The room I‘m in has its own bathroom. This makes the place sound quite
spacious, which I suppose it is for Chinese standards but it‘s still fairly compact in its
layout. They seem to be of a reasonably wealthy standing, but in all honesty I don‘t
know enough to comment on this. Given the rapid development of China it could be
that they’re part of a very typical middle class that I simply haven‘t seen properly yet
because I‘m choosing to go for all the cheapest options as I travel.

 
By this point it was about 5pm and to avoid sitting awkwardly in another person‘s
home (though her mum did say I can consider it my own place while I‘m here) I decided
to head outside. Siqi offered to show me the nearby shop which is only a hundred
metres or so away. Walking into the place, the shopkeeper said something along the
lines of, ―Oh he‘s returned?‖, to which Siqi said, ―No no, this is just a friend.‖ Moments
later Siqi explained that her husband is British and they all thought I was him
simply because I‘m white skinned. She then went on to say that her husband, who lives
in London, might not be too happy with her using her home to host foreigners such as
myself (and I‘m pretty sure I‘m the first guest she‘s had, at least according to the given
information on the AirB‘n‘B website). Things suddenly felt a little awkward, but I
wasn‘t exactly going to do anything about it—paying 80RMB a night to stay in the
room I got is a steal!

 
With the shop visit out of the way, and having returned to the apartment (where the
lazy old guards on duty also made comments about me, the husband, returning), I
asked which way the seafront was and again Siqi offered to show me. It was about a
mile‘s walk there, from the wide and mainly vacant street near the apartments towards
a mildly busy little pedestrianised spot leading down to the beach area itself, a fairly
well developed area with shops, a road and multiple restaurants lining the coast. To be
honest I didn‘t really expect Siqi to show me around. I don‘t know if she was being
polite or what but I had expected this “AirB‘n‘B” thing to be more of a guesthouse
experience than a homestay. Not that it‘s at all a bad thing, but going around with her
from the moment I got off the train has been a bit much. And she keeps on talking
about her husband. I think, being the first westerner she‘s interacted with since she last
saw him three or four months ago, my presence reminds her of her him (who she appeared
to be constantly messaging on her phone while we walked and talked). Siqi is
relatively short and slightly more stocky than the typically slim Asian figure, but not
in a bad way. I suppose one would call it ‘curvy‘. At a fairly confident guess I‘d say
she‘s around 23 years old (the wifi password for her apartment has the date 1993 in
it…). She showed me a picture of her husband—he looks like a fairly typical British
guy—and said he‘s 25 years old. They met via a dating website. In this modern era of
increasingly internet-based social interaction I see nothing much wrong with this, other
than the fact that she said he has little interest in China and that, when I asked her
about her current ideas on the UK (which she‘s yet to visit but will hopefully be getting
her visa sorted soon) she simply said that she doesn‘t really care, it‘s just where
her husband is. Hm. I wonder how she‘ll cope in the long run? All this being said,
they clearly like each other very much so I wish them all the best. They‘ll be living in
Greenwich, London, so life should remain quite vibrant for her, if not quite literally a
world away from what she currently knows.

 
As she continued simultaneously messaging her husband and talking to me, Siqi floated
the idea of getting some food from a really good place she knew, and at 100RMB it
was ‗cheap‘ too. Well, 100RMB is certainly not cheap to me, and I told her so, yet she
suggested it again and in a sort of awkward politeness I just went along with it. We
caught a taxi there, which I had to pay for, at which point I decided to frame myself
and told her it really couldn‘t be that expensive for me. With this in mind we still went
in and ended up ordering food, but only to the price of 35RMB each, which was actually
quite fair and provided enough to feed us twice over (the leftovers of which we
brought back). The restaurant was the sort that you‘d expect of any reasonable Chinese
restaurant in the world, with wide round tables, some of which had rotating glass
sections in the middle for easier sharing of dishes. I‘m not much of a foodie so I‘ll
simply say that the food was good and I‘m glad there was more than enough to take
home for later. We caught another taxi back which I paid for again. Somehow I didn‘t
exceed my budget for the day but I must say all these extra expenses have been a bit
of a surprise. Siqi is clearly only trying to be a good host, and as a person I have absolutely
nothing to complain about at all, but I think a bit more autonomy for me as a
guest would have been nice. It‘s my money I‘m spending, after all.

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The apartment block I was staying in with Siqi and her mother.

The following day, which is today, took me on a small quest to buy train tickets—
many of them—as a quick check of their availability revealed that it would definitely
be wise to plan ahead if I hope to go anywhere of particular interest. Well, I say
‘interest’ but my aim is to go to random, smaller destinations on the Chinese railway
network map, which I‘ve used for guidance. I now have nine tickets which will get me
to various destinations over the next couple of weeks, which I shan‘t list here because
lists are boring and every time I write about plans, the plans seem to change or go
wrong. One thing, however, that is not happening, is the intended stop in Dandong on
the North Korean border, but this doesn‘t mean I‘ll be missing that border altogether.

 
The walk to the ticket office was predominantly straight, along a wide main road leading
directly away from the seafront. The road has about six lanes, and has a sort of
lazy, outback feel where occasional vehicles drift by in no particular hurry. On either
side are low buildings, mostly grand in scale but not spectacular to look at. They all
seem a little old and washed out by the sun. Some buildings are clearly derelict, having
been taken over by plant life or by locals setting up basic homes around them.
Others are still functional and seem to serve fairly important purposes, such as the
state power grid, a dilapidated hospital of sorts, and an official government administration
building with an LED sign stretching above the whole entranceway, with
words scrolling across saying things which mean something like, ―Learn how to be
civil, advance the civilisation of China!‖ and other pro-society messages. My translation
has made the message sound a little blunt but the Chinese version comes across
better. We‘ve been led to think these sorts of things are a little evil or totalitarian but I
really can‘t see what‘s wrong with a government actively promoting socially conscious
ideals to its people (regardless of whatever other negative things the Chinese
government in particular my or may not be doing).

 
I bought the train tickets from the office (actually just a window that you stand outside
and talk through a little gap with a speaker through the glass) then hung around under
some shade at a shop nearby. The surroundings still had the sparse, lazy, washed out
feel of the road I‘d taken to get there. A fairly unexciting place to be honest; life here
is clearly of the slow, semi-rural kind. The weather was a little more humid today, and
very hot, but still not as bad as Tianjin. The owner of the shop got talking to me. He
said he used to know English but had forgotten it all now, and reminisced about a time
when he knew some foreigners, to whom he would always accidentally say, ―Very
good!‖ when he intended to say ‘thank you’.

 
After this I took myself to the seafront Siqi had shown me yesterday. This time the
intention was to be a bit touristic and get some photos of Chinese beach life, which I
think is much the same as anywhere else—people swimming, sunbathing, eating,
drinking and generally doing the sorts of things a person might do on the beach. There
were only two differences I noticed. Firstly, a lot of small groups of men, presumably
locals, sitting on the sand, mostly in the shade of the trees lining the road at the edge
of the sand, playing card games; secondly I saw that a lot of these guys seemed to
slightly pull their swimming trunks down to fully reveal their bums while they sat or
squatted to do whatever they were doing. A strange habit! Aside from this, it was very
much normal beach life. I bought a drink from a little family-run shop at the far side
of the beach front, at an area where twenty or so little old fishing boats lined the shore
in various places, and sat for a while on one of the two plastic picnic benches provided
by the owner. A couple of guys, including the shop owner, asked if I‘m Russian. This
is a common question around here, no doubt because north-eastern China is near Russia,
with the most direct historical ties, and my trip so far has been creeping in that sort
of direction.

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Some typical Xingcheng streets.

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Local governance .

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A closed and forgotten hotel on the main street.

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Beach life. Bums out.

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These women were selling small, shelled and presumably edible sea creatures they’d collected that day.

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Fishing boats.

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The shop by the seafront.


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.


22nd June 2016 – Tianjin – 天津

Had nothing planned today, but didn‘t intend to do quite as much nothing as I did. I
spent a while in the morning thinking about where best to go next, and became set on
the idea of taking buses everywhere because it would be cheaper and more interesting.
I‘m sure the ‘interesting‘ aspect would be true enough but, after going to the bus station
to find things out, it appears to be that bus ticket prices are similar to trains anyway.
I then settled on the next best idea, which was to break train journeys between
major cities into smaller sections so, for example, instead of the several hundred miles
from here to Dandong, I can make several stops on the way. The reason for this is two
-fold. Firstly it will hopefully get me to slightly more interesting places (though maybe
I should brave it and catch a bus to somewhere trains can‘t even reach) and secondly
I have a budget of 200RMB a day which I want to remain within even when buying
travel tickets between destinations.

 
With this in mind I decided to buy a ticket to Huludao, a small coastal city halfway
between here and Dandong, for about 100RMB. However the queue inside the station
was so long that I decided to postpone the task until later. Even with about seven ticket
windows open each line was a good ten or fifteen metres long. At least nobody was
pushing in.

 
By now it was lunchtime so I returned to the place where I gained the freebies yesterday.
Not that I expected anything else but its good to go somewhere familiar. The
woman serving the dumplings was there and seemed pleased to see me. I bought the
same as yesterday then sat and talked with a man who I presume is the husband of the
woman making the food. I learned that they‘re from Anhui province, some 1000 miles
south of here. He said it‘s in the middle of China but, having checked a map for myself,
I‘d be far more inclined to say it‘s in the east. At it‘s closest point, Anhui is only
about 100 miles from Shanghai, and you really can‘t get any more east than that.

 

After this I stopped at a shop connected to the bus station, which is right next to the
big open pedestrian area in front of Tianjin train station. I wanted to buy a certain
snack I‘d seen which is apparently a Tianjin speciality. It isn‘t really anything special,
a sort of baked biscuit thing made of dough in long strings twisted up. Imagine a thick
rope –the type you‘d get tying a mid-sized fishing boat to a harbour—then take a fiveinch
piece of it, make it dark brown and biscuit-like, and add a sweet or salty flavour.
Not bad but not a favourite. More interesting to me was the two old women who
worked there. They got talking to me and it quickly became apparent that they had the
strong and indifferent characteristics that only an old person can show without fear of
reprisal. They asked about Britain and my opinion on China‘s leader, Xi Jinping, to
which I said I really had no idea. Their response was that they hate the Chinese government because they don‘t get to vote for anybody. I didn’t know how to really explain that western  ‘democracy‘ is a money and media spin-controlled farce, and instead
an agreement was made wherein we both admitted that we love our countries but
not their respective forms of governance. This sort of discussion is surely a little more
dangerous for younger people in China to have. The conversation then became more
tame with the usual questions regarding what I‘m doing, my age, if I‘m married and
the seemingly common suggestion for me to marry a Chinese girl and stay in China.
Interesting really—if a foreigner arrived in the UK solely to find a wife it would be
frowned upon to some extent, yet here I‘m having the idea pushed onto me by men and
women alike! These old ladies are not the first to have suggested such a thing.

 

Later, and after rethinking my travel ideas once more, I bought my train ticket, but not
to Huludao. I‘m instead going to Qinhuangdao, a different coastal city in the same direction but not quite as far.

 

Thursday 23rd June 2016
13:30—Tianjin Station 天津站

 

Currently waiting for my train, the K77 14:48 to Changchun (though I‘m only going a
couple of stops, to Qinhuangdao). The station waiting area is huge and much like that
of an airport with the usual sorts of shops and several huge electronic displays showing
regularly updated information for the trains coming and going over the next 12 hours
or so. The main difference between here and an airport waiting area is the rows and
rows of seating in the majority of the central of the area, which is certainly needed as
there are hundreds of people in here.

 
One thing I‘ve been rapidly reminded of is the lack of ability to queue in some people
here, particularly older folk. To get into the station there are security checks, including
an X-ray for luggage and frisking for every entrant. The staff manning the security
however are very young, surely only just of employable age, and as such they really
don‘t seem interested in what they‘re doing. There are sub-optimal security checks like
this in every public transport area, including metro and bus stations. When I was entering
the station, a semi-orderly queue had formed but several people walked straight to
the front. Even more strange, in my opinion, is that nobody said anything to them. Chinese people seem to keep quiet about most things that don‘t massively concern them.

 

Today also I‘m more aware of how many people are noticing me as a foreigner. I
bought some noodles from a small shop between the station and the place I had stayed
at, wherein a table of four slightly grubby looking guys—clearly from out of town—
kept muttering something to do with a  ‘foreigner‘ and looking over at me. However it
wasn‘t hostile; merely curiosity. After this I went to a nearby shop to buy snacks for
my journey and was again greeted with surprise when the staff learned I could speak
Chinese with them to a mildly conversant level. Strange since Tianjin is a major city
almost directly next to Beijing, where I‘d have thought a fair few foreign faces can
speak the language. I suppose I should expect a lot more of this kind of reception from
people as I travel into slightly more obscure areas and so this is the last time I shall
mention it, unless it relates to something really out of the ordinary.

 

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The front of Tianjin station. Tianjin long-distance bus station can be seen on the right hand edge of the image.

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Inside Tianjin station.

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Boarding the train to Qinhuangdao.