Again, we received some great questions for the Q&As, our final set! Thanks to all you interested readers posting questions, and if you have any urgent ones that need answering before we pack up our bags and head off the wall for good, make sure you get them in over the next week. We’ll do our best to answer them for you. We apologise if we missed any, it’s a slow process on our internet to go back through the blog and retrieve them.
Is the sky really as blue as that all the time? If so it augurs well for the Beijing Olympics.
Is the sky always blue in China? Well, no. Look at the photo below. This, unfortunately, is the sad fact of the northern China summer – all colour gets washed out as the entire landscape suffers under the dirty grey miasma of pollution and humidity. When the sky is grey in northern China it’s not a pretty grey – no dramatic thunderclouds rolling across the wide open spaces. It’s just hazy, smudgy and ugly.
Hazy shade of summer
Maybe our blog is a bit one-sided, but we tend to publish photos that were taken on sunny days. On these clear days, which is most of autumn, winter and frequently in spring, the sky is an amazingly deep, beautiful blue. In a nutshell, summer just isn’t a pretty time to be in China.
Which is a bit of a worry for the Olympics; August is incredibly hot, usually humid, and frequently grey. As most people know, the Olympic organisers set the Opening Ceremony for August 8, 2008, at 8:00 pm because 8 is a lucky number. From a blue-skies perspective, the organisers had better wish for good fortune indeed, because they’re bucking the climatic odds.
Is there still a tradition of returning to the land something of what you took from its produce, i.e. a little “night soil”?
It was a funny coincidence that someone asked this question around the first of April, because that’s right at the time “night soil” is collected in villages and returned to the fields. (For those not familiar with the term “night soil,” it’s a poetic euphemism for an un-poetic earthy substance we all produce.)
It’s an interesting process (that’s “interesting” if you’ve got nothing better to do but walk for 10 hours a day and observe life around you). Many households have a small stable enclosed within the courtyard walls, and often those stables serve as the toilet for people as well as the animals that live there. On the wall of the stable facing the street there is a hole, and when spring comes around the villagers shovel the night soil out of the hole and into big piles on the street.
Men in three-wheelers or donkey carts then come around, collect the soil and distribute it for use in the fields. It would be interesting to know the economics of this process – for example, do families pay the night soil collector for taking their manure or does the collector pay the families – but at the time we didn’t think to ask.
What a load of cr*p!
What is the traffic like on the roads? You hear about the terrible traffic in Beijing but not further afield.
It may surprise people who have been there, but Beijing streets are oases of quiet and civility compared to roads in the countryside.
In rural China, there are no traffic rules worth speaking of and no one to enforce them. Enormous dumptrucks and four-wheel drives routinely menace donkey carts and schoolkids on bikes, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. The only real law is that smaller vehicles and those on foot had better get out of the way when a coal truck comes rumbling down a one-lane road at 60 kilometres per hour. It’s terribly dangerous, and it’s deeply unfair to those who don’t do their traveling in construction vehicles.
Last year there were 89,000 deaths on China’s roadways according to official statistics. With only 2% of the world’s motor vehicles, China manages to account for 15% of the world’s traffic fatalities. We don’t have any way of comparing urban to rural road safety statistically, but we’d be shocked if the number of rural fatalities wasn’t grossly disproportionate to urban fatalities.
What have you been doing about food en route? How much do you carry?
Ahh, food. Something we think about all the time. First of all, we’ll give you a run-down of what we eat during a usual week of camping:
Breakfast – two small packets each of a Chinese specialty called walnut powder. Sound good? Sometimes it comes with instant oatmeal added, or sometimes you can find a super-sweet cornmeal variety. Just add hot water and you’ve got a sweetened, vanilla-flavoured, powdered soupy breakfast cereal. Strangely enough, we’ve come to really like it.
Snacks – biscuits, nuts, sultanas (that’s raisins for the Yanks), dried fruit, dried meat, shrink-wrapped eggs, fruit, chocolate (Chinese or Western), rice cakes, and anything else we find that we’re willing to try (we skip over the shrink-wrapped chicken feet and pigs’ ears).
Dinner – instant noodles. For camping stove food, that’s about the only thing you can buy around here and it gets really damn boring. The shops sell about three dozen varieties and flavours of instant noodles, but somehow they all manage to taste the same. We did find “just add hot water” instant dumplings once but haven’t seen them since.
In a common walking week, the villages we pass through usually have one or two shops in them. These shops aren’t really where people go for their groceries (that’s done in markets); these shops usually stock the basic toiletries, canned drinks, beer, bai jiu (grain alcohol), sweets, school supplies and pre-packaged food. You can be guaranteed to find some sort of soft drink or water for sale, peanuts, instant noodles and biscuits, which you buy by the jin (half-kilogram).
A well-stocked, nicely organised shangdian
Because the culinary options aren’t really overwhelming in these small villages, we usually stock up on serious snacks when we go to a larger town on our days off. In these towns you can find Dove chocolate (they’ve got the market cornered), salty crackers, more dried fruit and just about any other snack you would want. So the plan is we carry four or five days’ worth of snacks that aren’t available in the villages (like real chocolate) and buy things that are available when we need them. Brendan’s theory is that by the end of the week we’re hungry enough to eat anything (even Chinese chocolate). Have we mentioned chocolate yet?
How many Chinese characters did we need to learn to get around?
No matter how many characters you learn, you’ll never know enough and you’ll probably forget them anyway. So, having started with that little lesson, here’s our bit of wisdom – it’s not the number of characters that’s important, it’s the topics they cover that is. We learned far too many that don’t have anything to do with life out here in rural China, and we spent months catching up on the most important – translating a Chinese menu.
So what topics are important? Food, food, food. If you’re going to come out here, get a hold of a Chinese menu and get it translated. You can’t expect to eat gong bao ji ding (kung pow chicken) for a year because that’s all you know how to say. Chinese food can be wonderfully tasty and fresh if you know how to order it properly. Other important topics include accommodation, transport, landscape features, crops and animals.
But basically what really helps is a good understanding of the language and characters. Not necessarily proficiency (we are far, far from that), but an understanding. If you know how radicals work, that some refer to places, others to water etc, then it can help in getting you around and it can help in the rapid adaptation that you will need once you get out here.
What’s our day-to-day budget?
You need to budget for three common things – food, transport, accommodation. When camping and passing through small villages, we are often amazed at how little we spend. There simply isn’t anything to spend money on. A bottle of water in the country costs 1 or 2 RMB , a Coke 2 RMB, instant noodles 1.50 RMB and a kilo of biscuits 6 RMB (6 RMB = $1 AUD). If you’re really struggling to scrape together the cash for water, you can even survive on the boiled stuff from local villagers. And of course, if you’re camping then there’s no need to pay for accommodation. So basically, you can go a whole week without spending more than $10 AUD.
But, having said that, when it comes to towns, you can really spend as much or as little as you like. An average Chinese meal for two, which for us hungry hikers is usually two large plates of cold dishes and two large plates of hot dishes (meat and vegetables), rice, tea and beer (for Brendan) comes to around 30 RMB, and there’s still food left over to spare.
Hotels range from the cheap luguans to the more expensive binguans. Luguans cost 10 RMB per person and offer two single beds in a room that can be a spotlessly clean one in someone’s house or can be, well, not clean (see below). Usually there is no running water (water comes out of a large ceramic pot or kettle) and only a pit toilet, about which we will say no more.
Whaddya mean, no HBO?
A washing basin and water heater
It’s no surprise, then, that on our days off we seek the more expensive binguans, which offer a private bathroom, hot water, laundry service, a desk and sometimes even a double bed. They are rated according to a star system, with a standard room in two-star binguans costing about 140-200 RMB, three-star binguans at 180-300 RMB, and four-star binguans from 300 RMB up.
Strangely, two-star and three-star binguans are often quite a lot nicer than those rated four stars, which seem managed to meet the needs of huge groups of businessmen and Communist Party officials – meaning karoake blasting through paper-thin walls at 2 am; elaborate and persistent “massage” services; smoke-filled lobbies and lifts; and drunken men falling down the stairs at all hours.
One thing any traveler in rural China should know is not to pay the price shown on the board in the hotel lobby – you can nearly always pay roughly half the listed price. Usually the reception staff will offer this “discount” without your asking, but if they don’t be sure to ask.
And finally, transportation. Local buses are extremely cheap, around 4 RMB to go 20 kms. But they come with serious drawbacks – once a day service (usually at 6am), smoky and cold in winter, hot in summer, noisy, crowded, bumpy, and s-l-o-w. Most towns have taxis available, or at least a guy with a car, but taxi drivers love to overcharge foreigners. We’ve been quoted prices at 5 or 6 times the going rate. The standard (i.e. fair) rate is about 1.50-2 RMB per kilometre, and when you consider that our long trips are usually one-way, that’s all right with us.
Why didn’t Marco Polo notice the wall?
When you think about it, it seems odd that the first well-known Western tourist in China didn’t mention its #1 tourist attraction. We don’t know why he didn’t, of course, but that’s never stopped us from talking a bit of guff.
Before we launch into wild speculation, we should get our dates straight. Marco Polo was in China from about 1274 to 1291, during the reign of Emperor Kublai Khan (he of the Xanadu fame, stately pleasure dome and all that). This was nearly 100 years before the earliest construction of the Ming Great Wall and 300 years before the bulk of it went up. Obviously, Polo didn’t mention the Ming wall because it didn’t exist.
There would, however, have been remains of the long walls built during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) along Polo’s route, and he may well have seen them. But it’s worth thinking about what they might have looked like through the eyes of a Venetian trader in 1275 or so. The walls would have been crumbling ruins over 1000 years old – possibly in not much better condition than today – viewed by a man who wasn’t much interested in antiquity. Also, the ruins of the Han walls were located in an empire where nearly every large town was enclosed in walls that served a contemporary purpose and were maintained accordingly – the city walls of 1275 were quite possibly more impressive than the ruins of the Han Great Walls.
It’s also likely that Polo’s hosts wouldn’t have drawn attention to the Han walls. The Great Wall hasn’t always been an important symbol of China: wall-building was an important part of defence policy in some dynasties – the Ming, Han and Qin – but some dynasties saw wall-building as a waste of effort and even a bit embarrassing.
The Yuan Dynasty, which ruled while Polo was in China, was one such dynasty, and for very good reason: the Yuan emperors were Mongols, the very sort of people the Han walls (and subsequent walls) were built to keep out. The dynasty was officially established in 1271 by Kublai Khan, but its roots extend to the early 13th century when Genghis Khan conquered northern China from the Mongolian steppe. Though the Mongols adopted some Chinese customs while they ruled China, they never forgot their Mongol origins. It wouldn’t be too surprising if government officials hosting Polo were less than eager to point out the existence of walls that had been built specifically to prevent someone like the reigning emperor from entering China.