Tuesday 18 September
Ed: Woke up on the train with a good hour to spare until we had to un-heave off into Zhengzhou. The Americans seemed v. suprised to find that we were getting off at the uncharming city of Zhengzhou, rather than going all the way to Beijing. "You're getting off here?" - made us feel like real hardcore nettle munching backpackers.
This was old territory for Jo and I now, having been here on our last trip. We found a bus station, and got tickets to our destination town of Kaifeng - ancient capital etc. - and found a bus that would take us there. This bus had no free seats left however, so we got on the next one that was just filling up. Unfortunately, our ticket stubs were on the original bus, and this probably meant that they would be getting paid for carrying us while our bus driver would have to do it for free. Contract service problems are apparent in China as well as at home. Our curse on the bus continued as we knocked the exhaust pipe off a minibus and dented the back end during a 5mph overtaking maneuveur (?). Much shouting and waving of hands, and we thought we were back safely on our way again, but it appeared that the drivers had just arranged to meet a less crowded place out of town where they could have a proper argument. It looked like they were using the sign language for panel beater, and a guy soon came round and gave an estimate for the damage, which was paid for. This is all interpretation on my part however, as I don't really know what was going on. We got underway eventually though, but our journey took three hours instead of one and a half. This was not too bad though, as we had a happy film about prison abuse to watch - a gory action kung goo film what Chinese prisons might be like in the future if "capitalistic" men privatised them. Nice.
Arrived in Kaifeng and smiled out the window as we pulled into the bus station. This caused a swarm of motor-pedalocab drivers to appear as we got off the bus, which we politely ignored. Got a taxi over to the hotel we stayed in last year, which is still very quiet and pretty, and had a good wash and brush up.
Had to make do with using the internet at a computer school that evening, as it was the only place we could find. The man in charge of the school very kindly made an exception and let us use his computers, even though they were v. slow, and we made the usual report back home about general safety and morale. Had a little drink by the lake where some old Ewok like local old biddies laughed at us for wearing shorts in "winter", and then went and stuffed ourselves on rice, potatoe strips and beef in plum sauce for supper (with complimentary dishwater soup). Really yummy, except for the soup.
Had our annual gander at the night-market, and popped off to bed for twelve hours sleep. Being so much further north than Hong Kong meant it was a lot cooler (think warm autumn, with clear skies and sunset) and a lot more bearable weather wise. As such, slept really well dreaming of home lots.
Wednesday 19 September
Ed: Yipee! Actually got through the paper diary backlog and now able to write about today!
Indeed, we slept a lot last night, and only surfaced from the hotel at 1100hrs with a wallet full of small change and nothing to pay our hoteliers with for the rest of our stay. Having resolved to find a bank, Jo bought a noodle and onion bun for breakfast and we absconded over to the Iron Pagoda park. This is inside the city walls, and to the northern corner of the place. It is called the Iron Pagoda, beacuse it is a pagoda, and it is clad in rusty brown shiny tiles, made of clay. It is also phenomanally exciting, because it has a little five foot high tunnel that sprials up the inside and almost to the very roof of the thirteen storey tower. I almost wet myself with excitement about climbing it, and it was just like Tomb Raider going through the little stepped passage. The handrail lasted one floor, and the lighting even less, and the very top of the stairs culminated rather anti-climactically in a brick wall and a small window. Still great fun climbing it though, and very exciting with the wind howling through the little portals around the spiral staircase. Excellent!
The rest of the park was quite pretty, with lots of Kaifeng's speciality - lakes - to try and not fall into. The religious music being piped out over the tannoy in one of the park buildings also induced us, through its similar tune, into singing "In the bleak midwinter" a lot. Another thing which the locals thought strange.
It was quite breezy, and so it wasn't long before my frisbee got blown over the park wall into the place next door. V. high wall stopped us jumping over to collect it, and so we left the park on our adventure to try and recover it. First try was to sneak into the work unit compound next to the park and try and work our way back north to the point where the frisbee was lost. This failed though, as the old man guarding the place told us to bugger off in various different ways, and so we carried on trying to find a way to the "other side of the wall". The next place we tried was some sort of factory, where we found a high wall that we could climb on to, and see if we could see the telegraph pole near where the frisbee lay. In true James Bond style, I popped my head over the wall to find the secret base of an evil terrorist force, complete with evil henchman marching around and doing evil things. Jo had a look, and we concluded that jumping over the wall into this place would be a bad idea as we would probably get shot, so we carried on walking away from the park hoping that we would find a route back to the frisbee's telegraph pole. The next bit round was Henan University, whose security guards didn't seem to mind two laowai wandering in and poking around. We found the evil terrorist's base, which was in fact just a sports field with a group of Chinese student army cadets practicing parades on. Still, we didn't want to walk out onto the athletics track right in front of them, so we tried to sneak round the back. By this point, said telegraph pole had been located and was unfortunately right in the corner of the sports pitch. We couldn't get round the back, not even after convincing some old Chinese gardeners to let us into their greenhouses, so we braved it and walked straight across the sports track to the telegraph pole. No frisbee, but lots of junk around the back of people's houses. Our mission had failed, and I was starting to need a poo, so we went back to the hotel. Still good fun though poking around the back streets of Kaifeng, and especially good fun getting the student soldiers into trouble for staring at the laowai.
One extremely large lavatory session later, and we went out to have some lunch. This involved a bucket of rice at four in the afternoon, but was sufficient to settle my tummy. Cashed some US dollars into yuan, paid the hotel for the rest of our stay, and popped into the travel agent for some train tickets to Beijing. The woman in charge of the travel agent was heard to say "Oh God. Here come two foreigners." by Jo when we entered the place, and when Jo started talking Chinese, she looked v. embarrassed while all her friends laughed. Well done Jo. We needed to give them our passports in order to get our tickets, as apparently the government are having their annual worry about potential Beijing protests at the annual People's Republic founding celebrations.
Went and found an e-mail place, which was crap, so walked over to the one we came to last year, which was still open, and have been here for about two hours typing happily away while Jo reads a book (or two).
Thursday 20 September
Ed: Still in Kaifeng, and we have just read last year's entry for the place, which has brought back many memories.
Woke up with an astonishing number of painful legs. It appears that the Iron Pagoda was just a little bit too taxing in that while it was great fun squeezing around steep staircases in little passages, it also involved using some rather undeveloped muscles, which have now turned into painful hard bits at the top of each leg. My way around the pain is to lock my leg straight before I put weight on it while walking, but this means that my travelling direction is a little eratic, and now Jo has a bruised shoulder from me walking into her all the time. We look like we've been `in the wars'.
We managed to visit three temples, all of them slightly different, and like most temples in China, they are of great importance historically. This is probably on the basis that all the bogstandard ones were knocked down by the angry peasants, and only the important ones were protected etc. etc.
The first one was another thing that we meant to look at last time, but didn't ever get round to seeing. It was right next to our hotel, and quite long, with an octagonal courtyard in the middle surrounded by and octagonal corridor room thing, and was full of interesting mystical buddha statues. One of the curators of the temple kindly explained to us (in English) what all the statues meant, including the pair of good and bad weather gods. These gods apparently got the people to do things by a method that the curator told us was like "American police: good cop, bad cop".
Bought some interesting things after that, and then went into the Merchant's half way house thing that is in the middle of one of the many slummy parts of town. Been here before though, so really only for nostalgia's sake. This time though, I did have the new knowledge (from actually reading the guide book) that due to the Yellow River being rather uncontrollable, most of the old town was below a couple of meters of silt, and that all the historical things that we were wandering around had been dug out and raised back to the surface in the nineteen eighties. V. impressive, except for some of the restoration work on the lesser temples, which had a touch of the `three year old with poster paint' style of restoration about them.
Temple number three still had a buried bit, and you could walk down into it, giving a great sense of how much silt comes out of a flooding river. One wonders what else is down there.
Popped back to the hotel to drop off our new toys that we had bought (hush hush) and have a quick play with them to verify they were in correct working order, then popped out into a light drizzle for some buckets of beef, plum sauce, egg fried rice, and boiled animal jelly juice (for Jo). Quite impressive that this was now only the third time in six weeks that it had rained on us, and only one of those times was actual get-you-wet rain.
Over to Jo for some light hearted, wry sideways looks at life in China!
Jo: Back to what Ed was saying about reading the guidebook. My position as invaluable-fact-provider has been done away with now that Ed has started reading the guidebook. Last year and for the first part of this holiday I managed to get away with suddenly producing amazing and interesting facts about different places, whereas now I have been shown up as the fraud that I am. Bum.
As we were on our way to the last of the three temples we discovered that we had taken the wrong road and had to walk through a market to get back on the right track. In the market we found a man doing something that looked rather lethal; he was heating up a pressurised bottle over a fire and kept touching the bottom of it to see if was hot enough. It has never occured to me what a safe and boring country we live in (Britain) where, for example, popcorn is popped one piece at a time. This man was heating up his pressurised cannister then filling it up with corn and sugar then heating it up some more and then blowing it up into a massive bag, which process makes a very respectable explosion. Ed and I watched this from start to finish, and by the end of it all there was a really big crowd of people around us, watching us watch the popcorn chap. Mostly the crowd consisted of elderly women all of whom shouted with glee as they saw the surprise on our faces when the whole thing popped. In return for providing them with such good entertainment, we where given a bag of popcorn for our troubles and sent on our way.
Later that evening we returned to the restaurant we patronised on our first night in Kaifeng. As before they gave us a complimentary bowl of soup with our meals which was very kind of them, although their motives were a little confusing. Ed thought that they couldn't stand the thought of us being hungry as we left their establishment, and I thought the chef had mucked up a recipe for another table and they'd given it to us to see what laowai would make of it.
Ed: Catching a train at 1900 tonight to go back to Beijing. It gets there at 0500, and we will spend Saturday night through to Tuesday night there, before coming home on Wednesday. Our last day in Kaifeng (Friday) is therefore being spent getting up late, milling around eating death donuts (hot fried dough balls with liquid glass inside) and absorbing some little town China before being confronted with the capital again. The budget calculations we do are starting to get a bit more eratic. We divide the amount of money we have left by the number of days we have left to spend it, and as this means averaging the available cash over fewer and fewer days, big changes in daily spending show up more clearly. Looks like we will just about make it with enough left over for croissants for breakfast in Beijing though.