Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Lick of paint

December 27th, 2010

Lick of paint from Ken Roberts on Vimeo.

Ken describes a hotel with everything. Like an impromptu early morning alarm call. A wall being knocked through. But at least it was cheap. The only redeeming feature.

With hindsight there’d been a little confusion at check-in. Was he after a free room, money even? So perhaps they thought they were doing Ken a favour. Probably. Remarkably low price explained by the renovations. Not immediately obvious, although having to wait for the lift to be emptied of mattresses before taking Emma up to the room was possibly a bit of a clue…

And just around the corner? Another hotel. Passed on the way out of town. Looked quite smart. Or at least that it might have a modicum of heating in the rooms…

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Roads to Nanchang

December 11th, 2010

Travel is glamorous only in retrospect” – Paul Theroux, travel writer

Deceptively straightforward start. Escape from Wuhan. City larger than London. Heading towards the city of Nanchang. Smaller. Couple of million. Next leg of my journey south to Hong Kong for Christmas. Reaching my first stop, Ezhou, with the minimum of fuss.

Beyond Ezhou I’d left the comforting familiarity of the G106 National Road for a lesser Provincial Road. Soon deteriorating into a rough, if wide, track. Enveloped in thick clouds of dust churned up by passing lorries. The occasional strip of tarmac. Evenings spent wringing the caked filth from my clothes.

Faces - web

Nondescript hotel rooms. Forty channels and nothing on. Friendly enough establishments. Smiling faces at reception. Cheaper than a European hostel bed. But I was beginning to tire of it all. Repetitious. Finding myself struggling to place the various stops, even from a few days previously.

Evenings. Familiar pattern. Provisions for the next day. Some from a supermarket. Fruit from street sellers. By now dark. Traffic ebbing away. A few groups of women dancing on the wide pavements. Shades of line dancing but with more expression.

Eventually reaching the city of Jiujiang. Modest by Chinese standards. Bigger than Manchester. Back onto a National Road. Progress once more. Closing in on Nanchang.

[Author’s note: Series of short films of life in a typical provincial town to follow – once I can get them on to my video hosting service – blocked in China!]

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Places to stay

November 3rd, 2010

Accommodation - montage

For the Western traveller at least, accommodation in China is remarkably affordable. Few exceptions, mostly international chains catering to the business community. And quite diverse. A bed – just a bed – in a truck stop for the equivalent of a few pounds. Provincial three star hotels for between ten and twelve pounds. Even the odd generously sized business suite in the cities for around twenty. Many with wet rooms. Always handy for cleaning the bicycle and kit. Discreetly.

You may have to barter a bit, the aim being to pay what a Chinese person would, no more. I’ve learnt what to expect. Like a forty to fifty percent discount on the room rates displayed at reception. Which is usually what I’m offered at the outset. Takes the fun out of it, but not unwelcome at the end of a hard day.

Anything other than a truck stop usually comes with the standard complimentary items – always neatly presented – toothbrush and paste, comb, soap and shampoo. But, wherever I’ve stayed, the bedding is always clean. Never seen a bed bug. And I do look. Carefully. And rarely an objection to the bicycle in the room. In which case I go elsewhere.

Just two challenges. Assuming you’re not on a guided tour, haven’t pre-booked, and don’t have a reputable guidebook with decent maps. Finding the various establishments. And being allowed to stay. Cities are straightforward enough, big enough to accommodate places that actually look like hotels. Often showing their names in English. Provincial towns a bit more tricky. Often just a small foyer, usually distinguishable from neighbouring businesses by a line of clocks on the wall behind the reception desk.

In smaller places, or if you want a cheaper option, a case of asking around. In the towns the bus station is a good place to start. Requires quite a bit of patience, but I’ve never failed to find somewhere. In the end. And what the more basic establishments lack is often made up with by really friendly, helpful staff.

And being allowed to stay? Strictly speaking, only establishments registered with the authorities should admit aliens. Obliged to register your presence with the local Police. That’s the theory at least. In practice, rock up on a heavily laden touring bike, light failing, and you’ll be met with compassion. Warmly welcomed. Not sure what reception you’d get if you pitched up in a four-by-four.

And what of the other options? For the solo traveller, there’s always the a question of security. Flat, featureless desert providing little cover for wild camping. Further east, so far at least, opportunities for discreet pitching equally elusive. Besides, why take a risk if there’s a very affordable alternative. And backpackers hostels? To be found only in tourist destinations, and I’d passed through just a handful of those.

[Author’s note: Guidebooks and websites seem to be very vague on the requirement to register your presence with the local Police. My understanding is that the onus lies with your host, be it a hotel or a family home, to do so within twenty four hours of your arrival. I might be wrong, but nobody’s arrested me yet… And in hotels expect to pay a cash deposit – known as “yajin” – as much as two or three times the daily rate – refunded when you check-out. Assuming no breakages to pay for. They always check]

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Shenanigans in Shanshan

September 18th, 2010

Shanshan was a disappointment. I’d ended up in a hotel designated for overseas visitors. Pleasant enough. But not my first choice. I’d been asked to leave that one whilst still moving all my kit up to the room. No explanation given. And the manager too much of a coward to speak to me directly, instead leaving it to a very embarrassed receptionist to offer apologies. And directions to a more hospitable establishment.

DHOV - web

If I’d an inkling as to why I’d been asked to leave the first hotel, that was reinforced at the second. Seemed the local police diligently enforced the requirement for proprietors to register aliens with them. Together with ensuring overseas visitors stayed only in designated hotels. That’s their prerogative of course. Just as it’s mine to suggest the whole experience doesn’t exactly engender a warm welcome. More shades of paranoia.

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