Day-by-day experiences of our first weeks in China, by Xavier

Hello all!Sorry for keeping you waiting, as an excuse, this blog is 7 pages long (word document)! All with its usual dose of humour, information, emotions, and, hopefully, enjoyment.

After the exhausting 13 hours of plane (don’t forget there’s a 6 hour difference from South Africa to China…), Hong Kong greeted us with a wave of suffocating heat combined with a new not-so-nice experience: a humid air which bathed us in unwanted warmth and sweat. This air was actually hard to get: I’d take a deep breath and it wouldn’t be air which came in but a sort of thick moisture that stuck in your throat. Anyway, by that time we were so tired and exhausted that we just pulled our baggage behind us and concentrated on getting a bus. After all, it was 7 in the morning, or the middle of the night in English time. We did get the bus, but only after my Dad ran to get some change because the bus driver wanted to be paid the exact amount.

Hong Kong seen from the bus wasn’t very beautiful – a tumble of disorganized vegetation followed by a mass of towering 40-storey buildings which stared at me with their fixed sad grey look. Once in Hong Kong, in that gigantic industrialized city, I noticed that the circulation was mad: cars, buses, lorries… you name it, all fighting to get I don’t know where. There wouldn’t be zebra crossings as such, at least not much. It seemed instead that a crowd got together and advanced on the cars, finally forcing them to stop while everybody got past. And crowds weren’t hard to find! It was like a flow of people, like a torrent which invaded the pavements, leaking onto the roads, overflowing up the buildings, dragging people and objects alike in a craze of mad movement.

But for the time being we were spared from the crowd: us and our luggage having retreated to a crumbling, dirty wall. Us children waited, ingesting the heat and the humidity, swallowing the first impressions of the ugly grey giant: Hong Kong. Meanwhile our parents debated on where we had to go, while behind them a publicity panel blinked, flared and repeated. At last we departed through the streets, our loud grumbling luggage silent under the reign of noise. We were hot even though our pull-overs had long since gone. I’m guessing it must have been 35 degrees Celsius, doubled by the 94% humidity.

By my memory, it wasn’t long after that that we found our ‘hotel’, after having missed it a few times, dismissing it for a shabby old room. Surprisingly though, this WAS our hotel. We entered, and it smelt as it looked. A Chinese guy raised his head, looked at us, and looked back down at his papers. Hesitantly we found a lift; went up14 storeys. We saw that nearly all the ‘hotels’ were to be found in this building. Ours was called the Red Dragon, or something close to that. We went in, there was nobody there. Tired, annoyed, we waited. After a time, a woman came in; gave us our rooms. We wanted to sleep, but we couldn’t: we needed to get used to the time difference, had to wait till 8 o’clock in the afternoon. That first exhausting day was passed on Internet, sending emails to my friends.

Over the 3 days we were there, we got used to the weather, or as used as you can. We would go outside, burn a while then be relatively comfortable. The problems were the restaurants…Once inside, you would freeze to death because of their air conditioner. Then once you got out, it would be too warm. David even went around with a pull-over especially for the restaurants🙂.

Some of you are probably waiting for me to do a declaration on the food. Well fear not, I have lots to say about it. Most of you might remember our first restaurant in South Africa (which I wrote about pretty extensively). It was an… interesting experience to say the least. And I can say the same thing for our first Hong Kong meal.

Once inside, we gazed a little quizzically at the menu. The only things we could understand were titles such as Fatty Beef, which were lumps of fat in a weird soup. Other interesting titles included Ox tongues, etc. We each chose a noodle clay pot, me with mushrooms, Eric with seafood and so on. Firstly, the knives and forks seemed to have disappeared from the table, in their stead were Chinese chopsticks. I’ve never been good at eating with sticks, and certainly not at catching slithery noodles dripping with soup/sauce/ boiling water. Secondly, each portion was plentiful enough for the whole family. Thirdly, apart from the rare exception, the food was ‘sans interêt’: mine had no real taste and Eric’s disgusted him from seafood. And all the restaurants were the same. Hong Kong food has still left its mark. One last thing: once we ordered Ox tongues and found out that they were some sort of bread/ pastries. The waiter, who didn’t understand a word of English, so much for past British rule, showed us that we had to eat them with ketchup and mustard. Even though my Dad had asked him, we ignored his advice and took them with sugar, though we probably disgusted him. I mean, pastries without ketchup??? Yuck!🙂

Our last noticeable adventure was when going away from Hong Kong by train. We wanted to send disks with photos by post so as to not lose them. So my Dad and me went out to find the post office in this strangely non-English place. If Hong Kong hadn’t decided at that time to throw some monsoon rain at us, it might have been quite nice. Anyway, it would have been too easy if we hadn’t been drenched then drowned at least once in China. So yeah, that’s basically what happened.

Past the Chinese border, my Dad found a guy who would supposedly get us on the night bus we wanted. This person lost himself in the process, but we got on the bus all right. The bus was actually rows of beds, each slightly smaller than me, but that’s part of the fun. Technically we did sleep, so I’ll leave it at that.

7 o’clock in the morning. Woops, we missed our stop… That’s the simple way that we ended up in Yangshuo instead of Guilin. Luckily we’ve given ourselves freedom in our trip, us counting on providence. Anyway, we were out of the bus, tired (we always do seem tired, don’t we?) and frankly a bit lost in this weird town, when our supposed lodging was an hour’s bus away. Luckily though, we look like tourists. This means that we’re walking gold mines. So it didn’t take long before a motorbike stopped beside us and a man, speaking roughly English, walked towards us. Was he there to help? Yes he would have said. The fact is, he was, surprise surprise, a hotel manager! Who would have guessed? Very nicely, he offered us a lodging at his place. We accepted, and my dad bargained the price down.

The hotel was not bad, once you had climbed the thousand or so steps to get to your bedroom. Two bedrooms, each with three beds and, more importantly, air conditioning. It wasn’t long before somebody knocked on our door. It was the hotel manager, nicely proposing to us some trips to do during our stay. He would point to a picture of Yangshuo scenery, say ‘lovely lovely’, then show us a book with a happy face scribbled on it. After our fair share of ‘lovelies’ and ‘happy’, my Dad had chosen a bike tour, with water cave included, and a river cruise. Our host congratulated us on our choice, then bombarded us with exorbitant prices. A bargaining began.

I’d just like to draw attention to one period of this discussion which I found hilarious: my Dad was saying he had to pay for 6 people, so it was too expensive, when our host asked about us children. One way or another, the discussion ran on to my Dad saying he was teaching us for a year.

“You teachers?” our host asked.

“Sort of, yes.”

“Oh… middle class, not much money, teachers!”

I suppose it aided our cause… though we still managed to pay a high amount.

Yangshuo, a village surprisingly close to lush green mountains which tower nobly over the village, defying the skies. By now though, we were more interested in finding food than at gaping at mountains. We set about trying to find lunch, but only passed clothes shop after clothes shop. At last though, we found a small road which led into a restaurant galore path. As we passed each restaurant, a woman would run out, chuck a lump of Chinese words at us, then hand us a conveniently English menu. I wonder how they suspected we weren’t Chinese… At each woman, we would struggle to say no so that they could understand, then at last when we would be free again, it would be only to have another Chinese woman speeding towards us. At last though, we found a charming little place where we decided to eat. Supposedly they were very kind to us, although they might have been cursing us in Chinese for all I know. Their food was pretty delicious, although we had much too much of it. At that point, we hadn’t understood that it was supposed to be a few dishes along with a bucket of rice to SHARE between us instead of one dish each, along with a minute quantity of rice, European style.

Next day was Sunday, which meant mass. Mass? The only Chinese which had known what it meant had directed us to a Buddhist temple. We had to go to to another city to find a Catholic church, and that city was… Guilin. We woke up at 6, had a very doubtful breakfast, and sped through the silent village towards the herd of buses. The silence was unpleasantly ripped apart by a woman shouting her head off, saying: ‘Guilin! Guilin!”

We waited three quarters of an hour before at last the bus departed, then it took an hour to get there. Once there, in the ‘gigantic’ city (relative to Yangshuo), we were, as you may have guessed, pretty much lost. We did get to the Church which had been indicated to us, only to find it was Protestant. Luckily though, a woman got us going in the right direction. What we found was a really big and pretty much beautiful church. We went in, and the mass wasn’t in process.

While wondering what to do, there came two Chinese students, one engaging us in an English conversation, or should I say, Chinese-English, while his friend admired him. He told us, visibly proud of his English and of the occasion to test his English, that the mass started at eight. We were 9.30. My Dad thanked him and we went forwards to pray. During this, we were interrupted by the two Chinese students who wanted to chat. After some talking, my Dad invited them to have a drink with us.

Here we were, 6 wierdoes from Europe walking with two Chinese. Where do you want to drink, they asked us. Wherever. They proposed KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken), but we said no thanks, which they told us was “Boo Ya” in Chinese, which turns out very useful to us everyday. Luckily, we were stopped by another Chinese, which even though he spoke English less well than my little brother, was an English teacher. He motioned us to a tea house, and left us. The tea was superb, a specialty from Guilin which can be diluted up to 50 times without losing its taste.

The two students had left us, but it wasn’t long before the English teacher came back, and proposed to go to this ancient dynasty park. One inside, he left us, and we enjoyed the park. There is a certain charm in not being able to read Chinese, and so going through a ‘museum’ without losing a whole lot of time reading stuff you’ll forget straight afterwards.

At one time, we were sitting on a bench eating not-so-nice pastries (pastries in China = big mistake 99% of the time), when two girls asked us if they could take a photo with us. Sure, why not? Once they were gone though, a whole tourist group of Chinese had boosted their confidence and were bombarding us with photos. Then they came to ask us, in turn, for photos with the ‘authentic European family.’ This started the process of us being models. Everywhere we go, there are the shy Chinese which debate in front of us who will ask for the photo, or who shoot us in secret while we’re eating, and the brave ones who ask us, in sign language, if we would be so kind as to take a photo with them, so they can tell their friends: look at what we found! It’s nice to be gasped at and pointed at like strange zoo animals. Really.

At the end of the park, there was a whole troop of Chinese girls which melted when they saw Amandine’s cuteness. They asked if they could borrow her, and click click click went their cameras. When they handed back my little sister, my dad had an amazing album of Chinese girls. After all, they might want photos of us, but so do we (want photos of them, not of us). Straight afterwards we met another English guy who proposed to make us visit Guilin.

We said ok, but that first we wanted lunch. Traditional Chinese meal, we asked. Which you must admit was pretty stupid of us. It was an experience though, just like that Chinese red pepper was an experience for me. Ouch…

He gave us a tour of the riverside (Guilin has got 4 rivers and 2 lakes!), and we were surprised at the slower pace of Chinese lifestyle. Chinese were playing chess (a Chinese type of chess, obviously), mahjong, weird cards, and generally dozing on numerous benches. There was a very nice, very peaceful atmosphere present, nothing to do with the European atmosphere, where life goes quicker than rockets.

The end of the day passed quickly, before we knew it, we were back in the calm village of Yangshuo, where we fell in our beds after a rapid Chinese meal where I successfully took my revenge on red peppers, not without a certain amount of discomfort. Getting ready for India…

Monday! Here comes biking. At this time I was on my bike, whose quality wasn’t very… good. Both my parents were at the front of two double bikes, with Eric and Amandine adding their strengths. We all had hats, supposedly Chinese hats, which somebody had managed to sell us. Unluckily their quality was worse than our bikes, and on us, they screamed ‘tourist’ at passers-by. Every time we went faster than 2cm an hour, the rope would give way and our hat would fly away sadistically, forcing us to stop, go back, and lose it again. I learnt to hate that hat.

We had a guide, an ‘English’ guide, who took us on to a dirt path (actually there wasn’t much else to choose from). The path was nice. The bike was all right, because at least you didn’t have somebody whose bike went three times quicker than yours, and who would shout at you for going slow. The guide was also nice, as far as we could understand. Everything was nice (forgetting the hat), except for one thing, which China likes to do: the sun.

Remember how in Hong Kong just walking made you sweat? Well I could say the same thing for biking, only worse. Shade was rare, water rarer, but overall it was pretty fun. After a few hours in the heat, we came to a stop. Water cave time! A quick note on the toilets: in this country, there’s almost only Turkish toilets. Yey! What’s more, most do not benefit from a proper separation of cubicles. To add to this, I could say most do not even have a lock, there’s even group toilets with no walls. We’ve all seen our fair share of people by mistake, none expressed concern, one even started singing! As if this wasn’t enough, the toilets we were currently in had no flush, instead you went outside, took water from a giant bucket, and used it as…

That’s enough about toilets. I’ll go a bit forward in time, to when we were all in this row-boat, which threatened to throw us overboard at any moment. Thus we got to the entrance of the cave, which was so low that thanking the fact that we had helmets took up most of our time. Once the sun disappeared from view, our world changed.

A cool air played over the cave, stroking the stalagmites, fondling the stalactites. A world of silence lived there, dwelling hidden from the world, hidden by rock, hidden by thousands of years of formation and history. It was this world, this world so beautiful and magnificent, which whipped us with awe and wonder. It was this world which had been struck by a plague of laughing, bubbling tourists. But then, a place not used is a place wasted.

Our English guide seemed to have a very keen imagination, or memory, as he would point out lumps of rocks and say ‘fairy’, or ‘beautiful woman combing her hair looking into a mirror’. Most of the time the rocks he showed seemed like nothing else BUT rocks, but then I wasn’t there to argue. When one hears the word cave, one thinks of small, yet this ‘cave’ was nor small, nor big, but huge. And very beautiful, with an equally dream-inducing atmosphere.

After a while of looking, walking, and looking once more, we arrived at the first ‘attraction’. It was a bath, a natural bath. Oh, dear me, I realize I forgot a word: this bath did not have water, but thick liquid mud. Yuck. Yet the fact that we’re weird, and the fact that if we didn’t go in we would be bound to regret it, saw to it that of all the tourists present, only 6 foolish people went in the mud. Guess who?

The first impression that met you was your legs being half swallowed by gooey mud, to give it credit it was warm, although I’d find it hard to give much more credit than that. At the bottom of the mud, where one couldn’t see, seemed to be strands of ‘plasticky’ mud, which cuddled your legs in a most annoying manner. As I waded in, I saw my Dad was already lying in the mud, actually floating thanks to the composure of this mud. There was also a mud slide, where I got stuck midway. At the end, it looked like we had tanned to the extreme, except that skin doesn’t drip off you. Luckily there was a stream close by, and so we untanned. That’s all for the mud bath.

The cave was far from finished though. At the end were three natural swimming pools and a waterfall. Again we were the only ones. The only problem is that when I say swimming pool, one imagines it to be heated…

We got back ‘home’ much later, after a surprising yet nice Chinese meal. We were starting to get the hang of rice. On the way back I had ridden a double bike with Amandine, and we had both experienced a rather horrid experience which I will unluckily not recount to you.

We were not going to bed right away. After all, my friends reading this will wonder why they’re slaving away at school while I have the grand life. Fear not though, my parents will restore justice! It was our first day of home-schooling, where we just got to know the materials. Then sleep at last after this exhausting day!

ZZZzzzzz…

Knock, knock on the door. I ignore, and will the knocker away. Both my brothers are sleeping. Knock, knock, I try to fall back asleep. The knocker goes away and I almost go back to sleep. Almost, because the telephone starts shrieking at us over and over again. ‘Come down in 10 minutes’ it says. Aaarrgghhhh…. I had almost forgotten the pain caused by waking up for school.

Soon we’re down, our minds still sleeping but our feet leading us away from our beds. Quick breakfast, which almost manages to wake me up completely by its weirdness, then school. It starts roughly, forcing facts in, forcing sleep out. Still, there were four students for two teachers, which meant I worked largely alone. There’s a certain wonderfulness in teaching myself at my rhythm, slower when need be, full speed otherwise. Fear not for justice though, such optimism doesn’t last too long.

After this 3 hour session for me, 2 hours for my brothers, we set about finding food. We were starting to get the hang of it, and the women were now less insistent. We had started with one bowl of rice for 6 at the beginning of China, now we were hitting unprecedented records of 5-6. Then came the river cruise, lucky us (that’s strange, I said it without sarcasm!).

Our ‘boat’ was in fact a bamboo raft, but there’s no fun without surprise. A Chinese guy (there seems to be lots of Chinese guys in China, no?), methodically dipped his bamboo rod into the river, pulled under the leadership of repetition, then took his rod out and restarted. Indeed, this would have been nice, but instead he sat lazily in his big bamboo chair and listened to the oppressive groan of the motor. Technology can be a nuisance.

Anyway, once we got used to the noise, we almost felt at peace with the beautiful scenery and lovely rush of the water, drop following drop, forming a current of the masses, which our motored bamboo raft cruised through with ease, slicing the current like a red-hot needle melts through tissue. Luckily, society doesn’t leave us too long alone. It wasn’t soon before we passed other bamboo rafts loaded with Chinese tourists who would wave at us, or, giving little warning, whip out their cameras, machine-gunning us with bullets of light, like crazy madmen slobbering at new victims to capture on their screens. I suppose we look like that most of the time though, with bursts of enthusiasm for photos of food, trees and even insects.

That day was a mountain of peace. Water trickled past us, mountains stared at us from in front then from behind, all in all, it was a load of fun. We saw water buffaloes engulfed in water, passing their heads under the blue to get to the seaweed. We passed two men loading a raft with loads of seaweed, to make the doubtful soup we had once tasted, and Eric and Amandine started a seaweed catching competition. Once though, our raft made a pause on an island and we were violently attacked by Chinese traders. But then, one doesn’t visit China without the Chinese.

Next day, Wednesday, was a day of rest. Started off with school, where my Dad shot a Maths test at me (he loves doing that). Nothing much to say except for the dinner. We had now tried almost every restaurant, and people recognized us (not that we were easy to miss though). I had tried loads of weird things, such as prawns which were cooked with their “shells” and which you ate whole, snails which did not have garlic sauce but still had their saliva blocking their shells, although ‘cooked’, and in which it wasn’t rare to eat the shells of baby snails, also frogs legs which would not classify as such in France, a plate of green peppers which blew half my head off and stole a single tear out of me and much, much more…

After yet another dinner, with 6 bowls of rice, we were walking along the dark roads of Yangshuo when we were accosted by a man who presented himself as the “guy which tried to sell you something outside the water cave”. When I was saying we weren’t easily forgotten… He proposed to us if we wanted to see the light show for 50 yen each instead of 188 yen. We would be a bit further from the stage, but we agreed it was worth it.

He told us we’d get a “private” bus, which was in fact a mini bus which was far from private. But oh well, it was worth it, or not? When we arrived, it was already very dark. They showed us chairs, which were in fact pretty far from the stage, or should I say, we were to see the show from across a lake… The chair I sat in was minute, although bigger than the doll chair beside me. In fact, I am bigger than the average Chinese adult. Anyway, my Mum passed us some Chinese pastries, which were again largely disappointing. At one time I stood up, asked the two Chinese woman adjacent to me to keep my place, or said it in sign language, and went to ask my Mum for desert. When I turned round, both woman had moved up to take my seat. I looked at them, a little shocked, and they smiled at me. I looked at them again and again they smiled at me. I sat down in the doll’s chair to enjoy the show.

The show was surprisingly well done, if we had seen anything in greater detail than as blobs. A Chinese trader was selling binoculars. From far the show certainly looked good, what with the more than a hundred actors. Unluckily though, we didn’t understand the Chinese plot. It was a bit like looking at a Chinese television through your neighbours window. The images are bad, and so is the sound. AND it’s in Chinese.

On the way back, there were only two buses. One went without us, and the other was so crammed that it was impossible to add another person, not speaking of six. Well, they managed to pack us inside. Wow. Our “private” bus wasn’t very comfortable though…

Next day was also a day of rest (yey). School again, then peace. Once more though, we went out to town when it was dark. On our way, we were suddenly surrounded by a band of giggling girls which I guessed were 11 or 12 years old. They made us understand that they were having an English party tonight, and if we would please come. Although we were a little cautious, we couldn’t very well let the occasion pass without later regretting it. On the way, I talked with a band of these girls. I was at least a head taller than any of them. They asked my age, I said 14. They all giggled. I asked theirs, they said 16. Woops. Don’t judge a book by its cover NOR its size. I replied I was nearly 15…

They got us to their school, which was a girls English school. They took us to a building, sat us on a sofa-ish material and went to get us water. So there we were, sitting, while girls went to take water for us. I gladly took the opportunity to visit their classes. Their classes were narrow, but big. They passed me one of their English books, which I opened on a random page. I then stared at all the words on that page which I did not know. Advanced vocabulary… although I doubted than any of the girls here knew them. Later I showed them on a map where France was, where I was born, and the countries we would take to go around the world, I was still talking to this girl when we found out that everybody had gone. We ran outside, where there were circles of chairs full of girls, and in the middle, an English speaking tourist. My family were all in the middle of one circle. They sat me alone, surrounded by these English speaking girls. I engaged a conversation.

I was caught by surprise by somebody with a micro asking me to introduce myself. Luckily I’m not shy when it comes to speaking in public… This was followed by songs, dances, a comedy show, after which I said well done to the wrong person (ouch…) and lastly games. The English teacher would announce the rules and then people would come out to play, watched by all. At the second game, which I heard had something to do with tongue twisters, I went up first and the game started. There were some girls and a European English teacher. When everybody had read his (mine was about a two-toed tree toad that loved the ground a three-toed tree toad trod), the Chinese English teacher asked who had won and all the onlookers shouted out something.

I didn’t hear much, so it came as a surprise when they told me I had won. Three girls came with dishes of silver, and on each was a Christmas tree line thingy. I chose one, and under it was a banana. The teacher gave me both, then advanced his hand. Thinking he wanted my banana, I gave it to him. He said no, and gave it back, again he advanced his hand. Maybe he wanted my line thing? I gave it to him, but no. Again I passed my banana. All this happened in front of all, until I at last understood he wanted to shake my hand…

All this ended with a Chinese rabbit dance, which was more a dance of endurance than anything else. Then the day was gone. That was for the time being the best event I’ve experienced in this world trip.

That’s all from me. Thanks for reading, and please don’t hesitate to leave a comment.

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