Long drive to Hangzhou

It’s a long slog today going east to Shanghai, where I will meet the East China Sea. My last couple of days have been a history-fest on the dynastic past of this great nation, but I have had many conversations over the years with people who see the Chinese as the same as the Japanese, but that is so wrong in so many ways. As a small child, I recall watching boys emulating the only difference they could see, where the eyelids go up or down. Their environmental difference is probably more central asia-based than anything else. But being such a huge country, and for much of its history a divided one, there are as much internal differences as there are ones from country to country.

The Chinese have had many battles with invading Japanese armies, including during the Second World War. It’s worth noting that the second Sino-Japanese war was began in 1937, (Yes, there was a First, but the Japanese do not officially recognise it as being related.) two years before Britain declared war on Germany. As I near Shanghai, I find myself in the centre of an area that has seen many invasions by Japanese forces over the centuries. Both Sino-Japanese wars were largely due to Japan issuing the Twenty-One demands in 1915. This was all about wrestling more political and trade privileges form China. Needless to say, China were not pleased. What was really interesting, it that the Chinese were partly suported by Germany, the Soviet Union and even the United States. This all changed on December 7th 1941, when the Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor.

The Mukden incident, 1931.

The battle of Tai'erzhuang.

The G60 expressway takes me along the river plain with mountains to both sides. I pass through Shangrao and onto Quzhou along the Qu river, the large agricultural plain running either side. I will be following this river all the way to Hangzhou. To the south is the Xianxia Ling mountain range, and to the west are the Yu mountains.

According to Google maps this route should have taken just about eight hours, but with a few stops and a restricted top speed, It actually takes nearly ten hours. I have ‘booked’ a room in the Merchant Marco Hotel, which is pretty central and near the fabulous Xihu lake. I’ll take a look at this in the morning. I am just a couple of hours from Shanghai, where I will organise my most taxing stage of this trip. Across the Pacific. For now, I will get something to eat and take a well earned rest.

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North to Nanchang

Leaving Ganzhou, I head out on the G45 along the east of the Luoxiao mountains and into Jiangxi province. The highway travels along the great plains bordered by three mountain ranges, and the rice grown along here are the dominant crop. Other more lucrative crops include cotton and rapeseed make up a large proportion of the economy too. Jiangxi is the leading producer of kumquats in China.

I cross the Lushui river near ji’an and take the S69 towards Nanchang further north. To the east runs the Gan River, which stretches 885 km and cuts a line right through the Jiangxi province, before joining the Yangtze river to the north. This open corridor was the primary route for trade and communication between the North China Plain and the Yangtze River valley in the north and the territory of modern Guangdong province in the south. As a result Jiangxi has been strategically important throughout much of China’s history.

I am passing through a region that has so many links for the history of China, it’s difficult to pick just one. Many of these towns and hillsides were once part of a dynastic past, where rule was fierce and refusal would mean certain death. The S69 takes me up and past Zhangshu, a city with a population of over 540,000. Zhangshu can trace it’s origins back to the Western Zhou period, which ran from 1046 to 771 BC and covered the first half of the Zhou dynasty.

Arriving in Nanchang, I drive to the Grand Skylight International, where I will be staying tonight. My double room, which I ‘book’ using Booking.com costs £50 (US$80), which is extremely reasonable, given the impressive hotel I find. It stands along the western edge of the Gangjiang river and facing the Tengwang Pavilion, which I will look into tomorrow.

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Paying my way through China

I have a reasonable journey today that takes me initially north on my way to Shanghai to the north east. I’m a little nervous heading into China, as my current understanding is from my western/British point of view. Communist rule, Military actions, human rights issues, the third power-state. Not exactly bright and cheerful stuff. But I hope to get a more rounded view of the nation and it’s people, and this is my first day doing that.

The Beijing–Hong Kong–Macau Expressway

The Beijing–Hong Kong–Macau Expressway, commonly referred to as the Jinggang’ao Expressway is an expressway that connects the cities of Beijing and Shenzhen at its border with the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. The expressway was completed in October 2004 and it was China’s first north-south expressway route. I filled up the tank as I left the city, but will need to fill up again before arriving.

Guangdong province is one of the wealthiest provinces in mainland China, contributing 12% of the nations GDP, and has some of the largest manufacturing corporations in the country. Guangdong also hosts the largest Import and Export Fair in China called the Canton Fair in Guangdong’s capital city Guangzhou. My destination today is Ganzhou. Guangdong was far away from the centre of ancient Chinese civilization in the north China plain. It was populated by peoples collectively known as the Baiyue, who may have spoken Tai–Kadai languages and been related to the Zhuang people in modern Guangxi. The Qin Dynasty represented the first unified China between 221 and 207 BC. Like many early civilisations around the world, the Qin Dynasty introduced currency, weights and measures, civil administration and organised trade routes. They brought order to an otherwise tribal nation, and set China on the road to bigger things.

In Dingnan, I come off the highway to find something to eat. It’s important to sample local food, as many provinces have different recipes and dishes to test. One of the things to enjoy here is the different street food. Almost everywhere you go will have people on bikes or carts selling a variety of snacks and cheap food. Not speaking the language will mean that nine out of ten sellers will try to over charge you. If you think you are buying a meal for only 30 or 40 pence (about 60 cents US), the money they make is small to western standards. You have to realise that there are some very poor people here, especially in the provinces. They are not insulting you, this is just the way it is. Would you really argue over 50 pence a meal, instead of 20 pence. Probably not. So here is a word of advice. Carry a bundle of 1 Yuan notes (approximately 10 pence). You would be amazed how easy this makes buying things, especially from street stalls. On busy stalls, stand back and watch. See what other people buy and, often as not, you can ask for something you have seen. The food is fantastic.

Tasty filled pancakes.

Yoghurt in a crock cup.

Back on the highway I find that China houses more toll roads than any other country, with Chinese toll roads representing more than 70% of the world’s total toll roads. Nearly all expressways charge tolls. Toll fees are approximately CNY 0.5 per kilometre, and minimum rates (e.g. CNY 5) often apply regardless of distance. However, some are more expensive (the Jinji Expressway costs around CNY 0.66 per kilometre) and some are less expensive (the Jingshi Expressway in Beijing costs around CNY 0.33 per kilometre). It’s worth noting that cheaper expressways do not mean poorer roads or a greater risk of traffic congestion.

In recent years, the toll system has started to use ETC systems. The driver is given a card that they take with them, handing it in when they go through the next toll. This determines the distance and cost and is now widespread. Having money with you is important, and most tolls have money lanes too.

After a largely uneventful drive, I pull in on the outskirts of Ganzhou and have a drink. Pollution is a common city problem in China and recent measures, since the Beijing Olympics, has improved the issue, but not controlled it.

I ‘book’ a hotel room in the Golden Dragon Hotel in Guilin for about 40 US$ for the night, which is just short of Ganzhou city. I leave the camper in the parking bay and retire to my room for a good rest.

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A little bit of Hong Kong culture

Back on the metro, I make a change at Prince Edward and head up to see the Wong Tai Sin Temple. It’s a little hemmed in between some very tall buildings all the way round, but it’s actually very easy to ignore them when looking around the template area. The template was originally set up in Hong Kong in 1915, but was built here in 1921, and is a Taoist template. The architecture is the traditional Chinese temple style with grand red pillars, a magnificent golden roof adorned with blue friezes, yellow latticework, and multi-colored carvings.

With Chinese ethnicity making up 98% of the resident population,[4] Chinese cuisine is naturally served at home. A majority of Chinese in Hong Kong are Cantonese in addition to sizeable numbers of Hakka, Teochew and Shanghainese people, and home dishes are Cantonese with occasional mixes of the other three types of cuisines. Rice is predominantly the main staple for home meals. Home ingredients are picked up from local grocery stores and independent produce shops, although supermarkets have become progressively more popular. Most restaurant serving sizes are considerably small by international standards, especially in comparison to most Western nations like the United States or Canada. The main course is usually accompanied by a generous portion of carbohydrates such as rice or mein (noodles). People generally eat 5 times a day. Dinner is often accompanied with dessert. Snack time also fits anywhere in between meals.

If shopping is your thing, Hong Kong has plenty to offer. Hong Kong is a very materialistic culture with high levels of consumerism. Shops from the lowest end to the most upscale pack the streets in close proximity. Some popular shopping destinations include MongkokTsim Sha Tsui, and Causeway Bay.

So I head back across to Shenzhen and my hotel, having sampled the city and some of the many fascinating attractions and histories. Tomorrow I head north and into China as I make my way to Shanghai on the east coast.

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Day 54: Hong Kong

Hong Kong is situated south of Shenzhen City and covers a number of islands, the largest being Lantau Island. My hotel is in Shenzhen, between Lichee Park and the Shenzhen railway station and when I venture out in the morning it is already warm, but cloudy. This is a stark difference to the beginning of my trip, where the -25 temperatures were hitting Europe hard.

You can't help but be impressed.

Everything is taller than me, except for the people.

In 1979, Shenzhen was made a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), which opened up the area to high investment. Initially, this was in large scale manufacturing, but the need to service-bases business expanded quickly and billions of dollars has been invested here since. Shenzhen was a small fishing village at the time and quite hilly in its terrain, but almost all of the hills have gone to make way for the vast building projects that have taken over. This is also the third-largest container port in China, after Shanghai and Hong Kong. Like so many areas I have passed through to date, Hong Kong is the product of Imperial rule. It’s situated on the south coast of China between the South China Sea and Pearl River Delta and has always been the centre of trade. Archaeological studies support a human presence in the Chek Lap Kok area from 35,000 to 39,000 years ago, and in Sai Kung Peninsula from 6,000 years ago. Three Fathoms Cove, to the south of Tolo Harbour, is probably the earliest habitation during the Palaeolithic era.

In 1839, the Qing Dynasty refused to import opium and resulted in the First Opium War between China and Britain. The main islands were taken by the British in 1841. Through many negotiations and false starts, the island was ceded to the United kingdon in Perpetuity under the Treaty of Nanking. Like all imperial rule, this has caused some political unease over the years, but that was largely settled on 1 July 1997, when the sovereignty was transferred to China, officially ending 156 years of British rule.

I think it’s only right that I try to sample the bustle of the city and head off to Sham Shui Po. This is the centre of the city and very busy. I find an unassuming place to eat called Lau Sum Kee. The Food it great and this place seems to have a great reputation, if not for the environment you get to sit and eat in. The menu is just in Chinese, so I stood and pointed and got a nice bamboo cane-pressed noodles with dried shrimp roe.

In 2003, Hong Kong was gravely affected by the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The World Health Organization reported 1,755 infected and 299 deaths in Hong Kong. An estimated 380 million Hong Kong dollars (US$48.9 million) in contracts were lost as a result of the epidemic. It has to be said, an epidemic on this type is very rare.

Being interested in such things, I head over to the Hong Kong Space Museum. This is a museum of astronomy and space science in Tsim Sha Tsui, just south on the Victoria harbour. East Tsim Sha Tsui Station will get you here. It’s open until 21:00, but I have other things to do, despite wanting to stay longer. It’s very humid and warm, so I have plenty of water with me as I head off to look along the harbour and then back on the metro to Yau Ma Tei to sit in King’s Park, which is nice. During the afternoon I make good use of the street sellers. Dining at a dai pai dong — the streetside cooked food stalls made of tin painted a distinct green — is an experience. I just point, and feel somewhat stupid that I can’t speak Mandarin, the most widely used language here.

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The G15 to Shenzhen

China has a population of about 1.4 billion people. That’s almost 20% of the world’s people in one country. I do like a good statistic, and I find that China is three times the size in area of India, but has only very nearly the same population. This is incredible considering that China has a one child per family limit. (The one-child policy was introduced in 1979 to reduce, or at least control, the growth in population. It’s not a flat limit, and rural or ethnic families doe not have such a hard and fast rule, but in recent years it would seem that many families disregard it anyway.)

There is an accepted speed limit of 100 km/h, but is quite normal to have someone shoot past doing a lot more than that. On this stretch of the G15, there are not that many cars or trucks. Considering the population, I am quite surprised by this.

About a third of that way along I pass Enping. As of 2005, there are 460,000 residents in Enping. Some of the earliest overseas Chinese came from Enping. There are 420,000 overseas Chinese with ancestry in Enping in over 50 countries. That’s a very odd statistic, given that this is a small city in a very large country. Besides the various mountain ranges, mainly to the northeast, the road follows the central area of a flat plain.

I meet a fair number of toll booths along the way, and by the time I reach the Xi river bridge, I have paid quite a bit in fees. Thankfully, this is the last leg of the route today and I draw money from an ATM when I fill up along the G1501. At Nansha, I cross the impressive Numen bridge which spans the Shiziyang river.

I will be visiting Hong Kong tomorrow, so I ‘book’ a hotel in the Futian area of Shenzhen. This is a very modern part of the city, and the roads are in a very ordered layout, much like New York. I park the camper and head for my room. Looking forward to my time in this city and Hong Kong, and I will research the history and culture and find some great food.

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Heading into Guangdong province

This morning I plot the route from Dongxing, on the Chinese side, to Maoming in the Guangdong province, which Google maps tells be will take about five and a half hours, but is more likely six to six and a half due to the top speed of my little camper. Ok, I know I am not in Dongxing just yet, but it’s only across the Ka Long river, and I’ll be there in an hour or so.

So I get a simple breakfast of tea, bread and jam, and make my way to the border road. It’s an easy and well arranged crossing, with the two border buildings either end of the Ka Long Bridge. I pay my dues, have my papers checked a few times and pass through the Vietnam gates. At the Chinese side I go through the same things again, but they get me out of the camper and give it a good look over. I suspect they are rather envious that I have one and they don’t! I am finally allowed through, but I don’t intend to stop, and make my way out onto the G7511 east.

Open road with the wind in my hair.

The initial G7511 takes me along the coast and south of the mountains. It’s a good route and I pass plenty of transports heading in both directions, but not as much traffic as I was expecting. The G75 to Maoming is a good, well maintained road and I make great progress through the area. En-route I pass Zhanjiang, a city of about 7 million people and a fine history. Despite its dynastic past, it was still a simple fishing village in 1898 when the French arrived and occupied the area. The French managed to force the Chinese into a lease of one part, and they renamed it Fort-Boyard and intended to develop it as a major port to take advantage of the silk trade. The port was taken over by the Japanese during the Second World War, and eventually relinquished by the French in 1946 by Charles de Gaulle. The port is now one of the busiest in China and has an annual throughout of more than 2,600 million tons.

The G15 takes me a little north and onto the city of Maoming. There are well built roads everywhere, but not that many vehicles on them. As I drive into Maoming, I notice the tower blocks and larger buildings in all directions.

After nearly an hour on Google, I find a room I can ‘book’ in the Nanguo Hotel for 251 CNY (£25.00) for the night. I am using the Agoda.com site here, which is a little cluttered, but has all the right information. I could stay in the camper, but I am actually feeling a little out of my depth here. Tomorrow I head north east to Shenzhen, and look forward to meeting up with my niece in Honk Kong.

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Mong Cai

I arrive in Mong Cai at three twenty-five in the afternoon and park up to the side of the bus station off the Quang Trung road. The border here turns out to be only open until 16:30, (I thought it was 17:30, but found better information that it was 07:30 – 16:30. Oh and expect to pay a dollar ‘overtime’ at the weekends.) so it’s unlikely I will have time to get through today, as there is quite a queue already.

Mong Cai shares the river with the Chinese city of Dongxing on the other side. Mong Cai is widely considered one of the wealthiest cities in Vietnam, and the city is very modern in places. Having resigned myself to not making the crossing, I head along to the river to look across at China. Although Dongxing is more developed an area, it is obvious that Mong Cai is where the money is, or at least where the money is spent. Maybe the Chinese have bigger places to worry about. I was expecting to get across and head off into China today, if only to stay near Dongxing, but the more I do my research the more I think I am better this side of the river. At least for tonight. There is a surprisingly lively nightlife. Families and tourists meander along the bridge and through the streets that branch off from the intersection in the centre of town. The cafes along the river offer a more romantic setting, and a younger crowd tends to gather in the two popular clubs. The town’s five-star hotel has a 24 hour casino, too, but local Vietnamese are not allowed into the hotel, so the only gamblers are Chinese or foreigners.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wRKH_bsgIcs?rel=0&w=420&h=315]

The border generates billions in trade between the two countries, and the nearby beach of Tra co draws in plenty of tourists. Mong Cai Town lies by the bank of the Ka Long River. Tra co beach stretches 17km (10 mi) along the south eastern edge of the nearby peninsular. It is mostly Vietnamese tourists from Hanoi and the northern region.

So, here I am, stuck, as it were, on the Vietnam-side of the border and unprepared. I like the look of Mong Cai, so I decide to head off for an early dinner and sample the local food. Not far from the bus station I find a chinese restaurant that is eager to serve me. There is no menu, and the owner insists, in actually good English, that I simply point out the ingredients I want and they will cook it for me.

Afterwards I head back to the camper, make a cup of tea and read for a while, before getting some sleep.

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A pass by Ha Long Bay

Today, Google maps plots a route across the Cau Long Bien Bridge out of Hanoi to the east and directly across the Red River.

Out of the three routes offered by the map, I choose Route 2 to stay near the coastal area and follow the lowland around the mountain range that overlooks the bays. Vietnam has a wonderfully diverse countryside, but the coastal route, especially on this stretch, is magnificent. Most of the roads are in very good condition, and they are travelled by an assortment of traders and long distance transports. The Chinese play a big part in this region, and many of the ‘locals’ are displaced Chines, or families that have moved here. Conflicts between the two countries have produced an interesting and cross-cultured community.

This region has been the scene of a number of Chinese invasions and the last major issue was in 1979. Chinese forces amassed on the border through December and January. At the time, the Chinese had an alliance with Cambodia, while the Vietnamese became politically closer to the USSR (The former Russian federation). This caused some friction, and Vietnamese citizens were massacred in Cambodia in the lead up to the invasion. On February 17th, China invaded in an attempt to destroy military structure in the north Vietnam region. The Chinese forces advanced and took Lang Son in early March, which represented a last defence before Hanoi. The well trained Vietnamese army pushed back and the Chinese retreated, but systematically destroyed almost everything on their way back across the border.

Back on the coast I am presented with incredibly beautiful scenery. Just three hours east of Hanoi and I head along the TL 326, which runs just north of Ha Long bay, a truly beautiful view. The pillars of limestone protrude from the sea, creating encircled, calm natural harbours.

There are nearly 2000 islets along this coastline, and the fishing community live among them, many on floating harbours that they moor to and fish from. There is something magical about this area.

Heading off north, I join the QL18 towards China. I expect to be in Mong Cai around 15:00 and to cross the border by 17:00.

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Day 50: Hanoi

I will spend today in and around Hanoi, visit some famous places and sample the culture and style of the city. Hanoi has always been the centre of Vietnam and was established in 1010. The city was the capital of the French Indochina between 1902 and 1954, when the French relinquished sovereignty to the Vietnamese. During the Vietnam war, it remained the capital of North Vietnam until the parts of teh embattled nation came back together in 1976. It’s a nice temperature today of about 26c, but very overcast and a touch humid. Still, nice to be walking around and taking the time for this fine city.

One fundamental thing I have learnt about the southern asia region is that life here goes back to an ancient age, and Hanoi is no exception. The red river area was inhabited from around 3000 BC, and has a strong trading and political base. This predates the Pyramids of Giza. In 1010, Ly Thai To, the first ruler of the Lý Dynasty, moved the capital of Đại Việt to the site of the Đại La Citadel. Claiming to have seen a dragon ascending the Red River, he renamed the site Thăng Long or Rising Dragon. In 1408, the Chinese Ming Dynasty walked in and took over. The invading China stuck around for twenty years and were driven out by the Vietnamese in 1428. It became Hanoi when the French took over in 1887.

The red river is part of Hanoi.

Life seems busy.

As it is so close to the hotel I am staying in, my first call is to the Hoan Kiem Lake. There’s a touch of the Arthurian legend here, in that the lake was the home to the Golden Turtle God (Kim Qui), who handed the Emporer Lê Lợi a magical sword that empowered him to defeat the Chinese and drive them out. The lake is often referred to as the Sword lake, and soft-shell turtles live on the shallow island that stands in the centre. The rather impressive Turtle Tower was built in the 18th Century. The soft shell turtle is badly endangered, and no one seems to know how many are actually in the lake. The Old Quarter amounted to just 36 streets a hundred years ago, and each street had merchants that specialised in a particular trade. Now, the Old Quarter is surrounded by the modern city.

For lunch I decide to try one of the street stalls, which look a little less than safe, but the food look incredible. While simply asking for Chicken Street in Vietnamese – Phố Gà Nướng – will probably land you in the right place [If you can pronounce it!], the actual street name is Lý Văn Phúc. I can’t quite face the grilled chicken feet, so I go for the drumsticks instead. A great bowl of rice with a hot sauce makes the meal. There are some concerns about the general hygiene in these markets, and some of the restaurants for that matter, but with a little common sense it shouldn’t be too risky.

Great food, despite the conditions.

Not sure about the grilled feet!

A little further on I pass Hỏa Lò Prison, otherwise known as the “Hanoi Hilton”. It was a prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners and later by North Vietnam for prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. I know it as the place that drug smugglers end up at after being caught at the airport.

As I head back to the Old Quarter and my hotel, I stop off at the Night Market. It is open late every Friday, Saturday and sundays. Dong Xuan Market was constructed by the French in 1889 and follows the many town markets you see in French towns and cities. It has to be said, it is mostly a tourist market selling souveniers, handicrafts, but I venture in and have a good look round.

It’s been a busy day and I have found some great places and easten dome terrific food. Tomorrow I head out towards China and another border crossing.

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