Across Continents

Ken's Blog

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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Flying south

December 2nd, 2010

Much better behaved than I. Compliant. Diligently completing the immigration paperwork. Putting his bags through the unmanned scanner. Obeying the sign. I’d met Anthony in the Foreigners line at passport control. He was from Sheffield. In China on business. And, like me, hoping to cross into Hong Kong. His thoroughness had taken me aback a little. Not because he was doing anything wrong. Far from it. No. He was just being the person I’d have been before I started on this venture.

I’d flown down from Wuhan earlier in the day. Left Emma, my trusty steed, in good company whilst I was gone for a few days. It had been an early start, up before five. Preferring an extra coffee in Departures than a mad panic at Check-In. The airport had surprised me. Admittedly, for a city of about nine million people, you’d hardly call it provincial. But it had a sophistication, a modernity I’d not expected.

Check in friendly. And in English. Choice of seat. Security checks thorough. Professional. Reassuring. And very efficient. But meant I was madly early. Drifted around for a while. Bemused a little by the shops and expensive boutiques. “London Fog“. “Coolava Island“. And “Generic Shop“. Always wondering what the Chinese made of these names. And then copious coffee.

The flight hadn’t disappointed. Smart Air China A320-200 airbus. As pristine as the airport. Part of the Star Alliance. And a complementary copy of the “China Daily” English language newspaper. Brought to my seat. Soon arriving in the city of Shenzhen, close to Hong Kong. Emerging into bright sunshine. Unfamiliar humidity.

A brief foray into baggage reclaim. Even a check on exit to make sure my rucksack tallied with the label on my boarding card. Not short of people to do these sort of things. The usual taxi touts in the Arrivals Hall. Ignored. Another coffee to sustain myself. Starbucks. Then off to find the bus across the border. Not sure quite what to expect. Certainly not the pink sticker we all had to wear.

[Author’s note: Hong Kong remains a defacto separate country – not sure I’d go as far as describing it as independent – to the extent you’d be hard pressed to realise it, technically, wasn’t. Practical implications? Your mainland Chinese visa gets cancelled as you cross – assuming it’s not multiple entry – and direct flights are treated as international rather than domestic. More expensive. Hence flying to Shenzhen on the border, then crossing by bus – about fifteen pounds return – and very efficient and intuitive]

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Planes, trains and automobiles

December 2nd, 2010

Shenzhen International Airport. Thought I might be able to simply stroll across the border into Hong Kong. Looked close enough on my maps. Which, admittedly, showed the whole of China on two sheets. Foolishly, I’d admitted this to my parents. They’d been quick to point out it was a good hour by bus. Teased a little that I must have opted for a budget airline, landing far from the supposed destination.

I’d fly down from Wuhan. Couple of hours in the air to the north. Popping into Hong Kong to collect a fresh visa to enable me to ride south to the former colony at a sensible pace. Arriving in time for Christmas. A flying visit in every sense.

Chosen to travel on China Airlines for no other reason than it sounded reputable. Besides, couldn’t be any worse than the little known carrier I’d used from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan. An ageing Russian Tupulov jet. The sort where you’d wish they’d relax the restrictions on rivet guns in the cabin. In flight meal boiled sweets. Helps with the depressurisation.

My trusty steed Emma secure back in Wuhan for a few days, a simple task to fly south, albeit briefly. A brief introduction to Hong Kong. And a chance to visit the imaginatively titled “Flying Ball Bicycle Company“, introduce myself to “Bikeman” with whom I’d been corresponding via e-mail. I imagined a bushy beard. No idea why.

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Sophisticated society

December 1st, 2010

Waterfront bistros. Fine dining. Carefully tended public spaces. Parks and wide plazas. Early evening. A mostly older generation. Enjoying a brisk stroll, a few jogging, others walking their dogs. Suitably attired. Smart casuals or proper sports kit.

Lake - web

There’d been a steady upwards trend in prosperity as I’d headed eastwards. But there was a sophistication here on a scale I’d not encountered before. Admittedly I was close to Wuhan’s business and financial district, but that just seemed to reinforce comparisons with London’s upmarket Canary Wharf.

waterfront - web

A few laps of the lake in my improvised running kit. Luxury apartment blocks and and skyscrapers. Like so much of China, there was a scale here. Huge. But not intimidating. Proportionate.

Skyscrapers - web

Passed a few runners doing the opposite circuit. Nod and a smile. But otherwise lost in thought. I liked China. Both the country and its people. Not the first flush of a passionate romance. More an enduring love. Warts and all.

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Eastwards to Wuhan

December 1st, 2010

Cold, penetrating drizzle. Dark. Walked for perhaps half a mile along the street. Clothes shops. Every one of them. Then a bakery. Mostly cakes. I was famished. Been a long day. But I wanted something more substantive. A brief contemplative pause, then continued on. Hopeful but not optimistic.

I’d reached Xiaogan late afternoon. Final stop before the city of Wuhan, the end of the two hundred mile leg from Xiangfan. Reminded me of my first cycle tour, Holyhead to Cardiff along the Lon Las Cymru route six years previously. Similarities mostly confined to distance. Impoverished the final section around Merthyr Tydfil might be, but reckoned it fared quite a bit better than many of the rural settlements I’d seen in China.

Zaoyang. Suizhou. And now Xiaogan. Cities. My overnight stops. And relatively straightforward to get in and out of. Chaotic yes. Of course. But with little climb to contend with each day, progress was swift. Frequently passing ambling electric scooters, the odd motorbike. And each and every bicycle. Edging ever closer to Hong Kong.

Plodded on for another half an hour or so. Quite where I was in Xiaogan I really wasn’t sure. City centres sometimes a bit hit and miss. Sometimes there’d be helpful signs – the likes of "Zaoyang proper" – and I’d learnt the corresponding Chinese characters. But not tonight. Prospects for dinner weren’t looking good.

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Onward to Wuhan

November 25th, 2010

Fresh visa. New direction. A southerly shift. South East now. Towards the city of Wuhan. Perhaps ten days away. Two weeks at a push. Hills at first, then opening out. A large flood plain. Wishful thinking perhaps. Continuing as far south as Nanchang I hoped. The next major city before the final plunge south to Hong Kong.

Plans were in place. Arrangements made. My new visa insufficient to reach the former colony. Nights drawing in. So I’d conjured up a little, albeit quite legitimate, scheme to overcome this. Enabling me to continue south at a sensible pace. Make sure I saw what I’d come to see. China. Reaching Hong Kong in time for Christmas. But first I needed to reach Wuhan.

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