Typically, when I struggle to get to sleep, I wake up far too early and lie there like a lemon contemplating my existence. After the stress of yesterday, I had hoped to sleep like a little baby and wake up totally refreshed. Instead, I woke up at 6.30 with the echoes of "NO NO - NONO NO NO - NONO NO NO - NO NO THERE'S NO LIMIT" still ringing in my ears from, what seemed like, half an hour ago. Next to me, Lisa was fast asleep, her body trying its best to rid her of the nasty little bug terrorising her stomach and intestines.
I couldn't get back to sleep so I decided to get up and make notes about China and our experiences so far. I didn't have to rack my brains too much because it was all fresh in my mind.
China is one of the most dominant and powerful nations in the world and, although there are many modern aspects to Chinese life, the people and technology still have some catching up to do with the more modern nations. Take banking, for example.
In England, Hong Kong and America, banks are dominated by computer terminals and automated tellers. In China, however, even in the larger cities like Guangzhou and Chongqing, all transactions are paper driven. Travel arranging is the same. You can walk into a travel agent in Hong Kong and walk out with flight tickets, train tickets etc. all having been verified and printed at a single computer console, yet in China, you have to wait for the travel agent to ring elsewhere to obtain information and details about your planned itinerary and mode of transport, and still have to wait for your tickets.
Last night's arrival of our train ticket from Yichang to Xi'an is an example of this. We had purchased them two days earlier in Chongqing. Having said that, we did obtain flight tickets immediately, though I believe this was a special case. Surprisingly, though, the system works, despite the opportunity for failure. The Chinese we had met so far, particularly those involved in the banking and travel industry, were very helpful and organised.
It was strange to see people walking about with expensive suits, pagers and mobile phones, yet see farmers ploughing fields with oxen. The cities were spearheading China into the next century while the smaller towns and villages were comfortable drifting along in the previous century. Rural China's attempts to embrace technology had, as far as I could tell, not been widely accepted. For example, the only motorised vehicle we had seen in Guilin had been similar to that used by Richard Briers in "The Good Life", a sort of go-cart with a tractor engine attached precariously to its back end. In places like Fengdu, we would not have had a more intense reaction from the local people if we had three heads and four legs. China had opened its doors to tourists about twenty or so years ago but large parts of the country were still unfamiliar with the sight of a blond haired westerner with the scruffy beginnings of a ginger beard.
I had also noticed that there were very few fat Chinese people. I may have criticised the food we had experienced so far, but clearly the natural diet of China had a positive effect on their bodies. Of course, there were exceptions, but in the case of the male population, I suspect that the additional weight on the front may have been something to do with China's love of beer.
One of the biggest frustrations was the lack of scope for using our credit cards. After yesterday's theft, I had become very nervous about carrying large amounts of cash around with us, yet it was a necessity because, we were told, credit cards we only accepted in large hotel chains and banks in the big cities. We had paid for everything with cash so far; flight tickets, train tickets, cruise tickets, hotel bills and food. We would have to continue to pay for most necessities with cash for the remainder of the trip; a worrying prospect. The only good thing about the theft was that from now on we would be much more vigilant, especially in hotels. Captain Paranoia had actually strengthened my own resolve not to get robbed again, probably ever. I've heard victims of burglary and theft say that being robbed is like a slap in the face, a kind of reality check. This was the first time I had been robbed ever, and it brought me down to earth. No longer was I invulnerable to crime. I was a normal person who could easily be mugged, robbed or worse. Furthermore, Lisa had been particularly affected by having our space violated and abused, as well as our belongings taken, because she had effectively been defenceless in bed. Although I was in the room with her, she had found it difficult to suppress her negative feelings about the potential danger of having a stranger in her room while she was asleep and totally vulnerable. In reality, if the perpetrator had tried anything, I would have been there to protect her, unless of course, I had been attacked first. After all, I had been asleep too.
I found myself drifting in a sea of negativity, so I stopped dwelling on the robbery and picked up the guide book to find out what Yichang had to offer. Depressingly, it didn't have much to offer at all. The guide book described Yichang as starting point for visiting more interesting places. We were here for most of the day. After the trauma of yesterday, I didn't feel like exploring and sight-seeing anyway. There was nothing else to do but try to go back to bed. I was absolutely shattered but the adrenaline bursts, I had received yesterday were still present in my body, making sleep impossible. I simply lay down contemplating life, the universe and everything.
After another hour or so, my worst fears were realised.
A rather nasty noise in my abdomen, announced the arrival of Lisa's bug. I managed to reach the bathroom in time and, thank goodness, found a western-style toilet. My record was still intact (though the toilet in our cabin on the boat may have failed the trade descriptions act had I tried to describe it as a "western toilet"). Without going into too much detail, I had the runs. Unlike Lisa, there was no pain, simply the annoyance and frustration of having to leap out of bed every half an hour. It had been difficult enough to sleep, but this made it impossible. Thankfully, my problem only lasted a couple of hours and by 10.30, I was back to normal. My comings and goings had awakened Lisa. She was still suffering, so we effectively had to take it in turns for a while.
By midday, both us felt able to venture more than a few yards from a toilet and took the opportunity to pack and check out of the hotel. Just to be on the safe side, Lisa disappeared into the toilet once more while I handed our rucksacks to the concierge.
The Xinerxin Hotel was a very clean and slightly upmarket place. I sat in the foyer waiting for Lisa and watched people coming and going. The female hotel staff were all dressed in an identical uniform. Each wore a white silk blouse and a long skirt with a huge split up the side. I found myself staring at them as they went about their chores. They were all extremely attractive. Unfortunately, Lisa also found me staring at them and I received yet another slap. I tried to explain that I was trying to find out how Chinese hotel staff differ from their European counterparts. I received another slap for lying.
Outside, I truly felt as if we were in the "”Wok of China". The heat was almost unbearable. Our first port of call was a little shop to buy some water.
The hotel was situated next to a wide open green area, rather like a town square. The buildings were spotless, as were the streets. Yichang was the complete opposite to Fengdu in this respect. Since we had a couple of hours, we decided to try to locate the railway station, so that we knew where to go when the time came to leave, get something to eat and explore this small town.
The map in the guide book was not detailed, so we had to ask a passer by where the railway station was. Incredibly, he spoke limited English and gave us fairly good directions.
The railway station wasn't far but it was located at the top of a steep hill. We could only reach it by climbing what seemed like hundreds of steps. In this heat, it wasn't a prospect either of us were looking forward to. Still, we had to make sure that Yichang station wasn't like Guangzhou and that we would be able to find our way around easily enough. Reluctantly we climbed the steps. On our way up we were accosted by street traders, who had laid out their wares on the steps. I felt sorry for them sitting there in the intense heat, trying to make a living. After the robbery, we were a bit short of cash and, because today was Sunday, no banks were open. We had to be very careful what we spent our money on. Unfortunately for the street traders, junk was bottom of the list.
After about five minutes of climbing we reached the top of the steps. In front of the station were a few restaurants and shops but there weren't that many people around.. Both of us craved burger and chips after our cruise and the guide book highlighted a place at the bottom of the steps, called Charles' Fast Food, which would satisfy us. But, in China, especially next to a railway station, obstacles can get in the way of even the simplest of decisions. In this case, the obstacle was a small man.
"You are hungry - you come to my restaurant," he said, standing in front of us.
"No," I replied. "We are not hungry."
We tried to walk past him but he grabbed my arm and pointed to a little café opposite the station.
"My restaurant is good. You come."
The robbery, the stress caused by the cruise and my impatience and annoyance at being accosted by strangers trying to sell us rubbish all amalgamated, threatening to turn me into Mr Angry. Common sense and politeness quelled my inner urge to throttle this man, which was lucky because just then, he was joined by another gentleman, who, for want of a better word, looked menacing. His shirt was open revealing several tattoos, and he had a mouthful of gold teeth and extremely short hair. I wasn't going to mess with him. I made an excuse about eating later and exploring Yichang and smiled politely at both of them as I turned away.
"This is only restaurant at station," said the small man as we left. "You come back to eat here."
Of course, he was lying. There were at least two other places to eat. I felt angry that he wanted us to dine in his café just so that he could rip us off by charging the "foreigner price".
Tourists can be ripped off world-wide. No more so than London, where, on a red hot day as a child, I tried to buy a can of coke from a street seller, who had a huge tub full of ice and cans of soft drink. At the time, canned drinks were about 10p each. The seller, seeing that I was an English child, said "They're too expensive for you." I was puzzled by this and hung around for a while to see exactly how much they were. I didn't have to wait long. An American tourist paid 50p for a can, i.e. five times the normal retail price.
The difference in China, however, is that it is official policy to overcharge foreigners. For example, Chinese Airlines apparently add a 50% surcharge to the price of flight tickets. Hotels, too, add a surcharge for foreigners as do some museums. If you consider people like the restaurant owner we had just encountered, they try to overcharge tourists even further, so effectively we are being ripped off twice. While I appreciate that foreigners are generally richer than the local Chinese people and can afford to spend the additional cash, I feel it is unfair for people to exploit tourist ignorance in order to make a fast buck. To make matters worse, in Europe and America, it is only obvious that I am a tourist when I open my mouth. In China, however, I cannot fool anyone. As you know, Lisa and I had been stared at and picked on by touts and rip-off merchants for most of our time in China so far. And I couldn't see anyway round it, except to ignore street sellers and touts and anybody unofficial. I decided that I wasn't going to be fleeced for the remainder of the trip. Losing money to a thief was one thing, which had strengthened my resolve. Being overcharged by a restaurant owner aiming to make money from an ignorant tourist was almost as bad in my opinion. He obviously thought I was naïve and would hand over whatever he charged. I had reached the point of no return and was ready to fight back. All it would take would be one more person trying to relieve me of my money, as long as he wasn't accompanied by a member of the Chinese Mafia of course.
Back in Yichang, we made our way down the railway steps in search of Charles' Fast Food. On the way we were pestered by street sellers once more and replied by saying "No thank you" - as if they would understand us. More bizarrely, there were a couple of fortune tellers who tried to stop us and look into the future on our behalf. How could they have informed us of impending disaster or untold riches when they couldn't speak English.
This in part led to our decision to learn the Mandarin for "No thank you" from our Chinese phrase book. "Bu xiexie" pronounced "Boo share share" seemed to have a slightly better effect, not least because the people could now vaguely understand what we were saying, though I doubt that the accent was very good.
At the bottom of the steps, we couldn't find Charles' Fast Food. We wandered around for about ten minutes but it was nowhere to be found. Instead, we risked going to a Chinese restaurant. I use the word "risked" because, thus far, our most embarrassing moments had been when we tried to order food. I prayed that the restaurant had an English menu, though "Chinglish" would have sufficed.
We entered the restaurant to the usual stares but, this time, there was near panic amongst the waitresses, who seemed to be arguing in a very animated way. Eventually, one poor woman was pushed forward, I assumed because she spoke the best English, and she led us to a table and presented us with another unbelievable Chinglish menu. The delights on offer included (and once again, I swear I am not making these things up):
Fried pig bowel
and best of all:
My imagination ran amok, thinking about the contents of magnetic hotpot. It was difficult to keep a straight face as the waitress stood expectantly next to us, waiting for our order. I held up my hand in a gesture meant to say "Can we have five minutes to decide?". She understood and rejoined her colleagues, who stared at us from the other side of the restaurant.
I couldn't help myself. I burst out laughing. Magnetic hotpot did the damage and I hadn't even ordered it. My uncontrollable merriment attracted stares from diners who, until now, had been polite enough not to stare at the two foreign devils entering the restaurant. It took a monumental amount of self control to stifle the guffaws, but even when the laughter had subsided, I could still picture hotpot being sucked of a plate towards metal pans whilst helpless chefs watched from the sidelines. I had images of a waiter bringing the dish, covered in a metal lid, to a table, lifting the cover to reveal an empty plate and the hotpot stuck to the inside of the cover.
Lisa was unaffected by the Chinglish but slightly embarrassed by my laughter. Because we had little idea about the real contents of the menu, she once again opted to use the phrasebook to ask for dishes we were familiar with, i.e. pork, beef, chicken etc. The waitress nervously came to take our order and Lisa told her that we wanted stir fried pork and braised beef. The waitress understood and left Lisa shaking her head as I continued to try to stifle my merriment.
In around ten minutes, the waitress returned with two huge plates full of steaming hot delicious food and a couple of local beers to wash it down with. This was a superb meal. After we had finished, the waitress came back and tried to ask if we wanted any more. For a second, I thought I was in America, where the amount of food they give you could satisfy an army. This restaurant appeared to serve huge portions and we were fully expected to continue with more dishes. Trying to tell her that we wanted no more was great fun. She tried to use the dictionary to work out what to say to us and we tried to use the phrasebook to tell her we wanted no more. She kept giggling; we laughed in return. After a few minutes we convinced her that we wanted to pay and she smiled and left, returning a minute or two later with the bill. We left the waitress a tip (not knowing whether it was the right thing to do or not) and left to explore Yichang.
The weather outside was still extremely hot and I didn't really want to stay outside for too long. The town itself was full of little shops selling all manner of stuff. There seemed to be a large western influence and the whole town thrived and looked prosperous. One thing that struck me about this town was the lack of beggars. In every town we had been to so far, there had been a large number of poor people begging for money on the streets and especially in the railway stations. Here, I hadn't seen one.
The people of Yichang were not used to foreigners and, like most places we had been too, continued to stare at us. Here, though, the people seemed to be a bit more up front about it. Youngsters especially would follow us around speaking to us, saying, "Hello," and "How are you today?". We always smiled at them and said "Hello" back, which in almost every case sparked a truly brilliant reaction, especially in the children. They would run past us and walk towards us again saying "Hello" as we passed, giggling when we replied to them.
As I've already said, Yichang was a very clean town. Of course, there was lots of traffic and the drivers were as demented as those we'd encountered in every other city.
Taxi drivers were particularly deranged, especially motorbike taxis. These guys would come up to us and ask if we wanted a ride, offering us a spare crash helmet. Seeing how they zipped around between the cars, buses and lorries, there was no way I would have taken a ride on one of those things, even if my life depended on it.
After half an hour of walking, the intense heat started to take its toll on Lisa, who was still suffering with stomach problems. She started to complain about stomach cramps which were getting more and more severe. We started to head back towards the station hoping to see a medical centre or doctor on the way. Fortunately we found one in a little side street.
Inside, there was a female doctor and two other people, one male and one female. If ever we required the use of a phrasebook and dictionary, now was the time. Ultimately though, we found that sign language played an important part in the process of communication.
The doctor began by asking Lisa, in Chinese, what was wrong. Armed with the phrasebook, Lisa tried to find the terms for "sickness", "diarrhoea" and "stomach cramps". Whether the doctor understood immediately, I am unsure. However, she proceeded to perform a routine external examination by checking Lisa's tongue. Then her assistant asked a very worrying question. Did Lisa want an IV drip? Lisa was visibly shocked and vehemently shook her head. I couldn't work out why she had been asked this. Perhaps the doctor and her assistant had misunderstood the symptoms. Lisa tried to explain again, trying to use sign language to say that within an hour or so of eating, she felt sick, had diarrhoea and stomach cramps. Trying to show the act of being sick, and worse, having a bout of the runs, was embarrassing for Lisa but highly amusing for me. Lisa's plight slowly became obvious to the doctor who prescribed three sets of pills. Finally the doctor and her assistant had to explain to us how many of each pill Lisa had to take and when. This was of major importance and I must admit, I was very worried about getting this wrong. Eventually, we checked and double checked and both parties were certain that the message had come across. Lisa had to take four yellow capsules every four hours; four brown pills every six hours; one yellow-brown pill every four hours.
Given the quantities of pills the doctor had given to Lisa, the dosage seemed reasonable. Lisa began by taking the necessary pills there and then, with the agreement of the doctor, which was a good sign.
All the time Lisa had been talking to the doctor, the other person in the surgery, presumably a patient, was trying to talk to me again using the dictionary. I assumed that he was trying to help us out but it turned out that he was genuinely interested in finding out about us. It was an enjoyable experience until he asked where we were from. "Manchester," I said. "Ahh! Manchester United."
AAAARGGHH!! I couldn't hide my disgust. He thought he had offended me, so I smiled, put my hand on his shoulder and tried to explain using thumbs ("thumbs up" for Manchester and "thumbs down for Manchester United") that I did not like Manchester United at all. He understood and tried to tell me that everyone in China liked the team. Disappointing, but then again, after seeing the Manchester United shop in Guangzhou, I had already guessed this anyway.
We left the doctor's waving and smiling, having shaken hands, and jumped into a taxi to the Xinerxin Hotel. Lisa was feeling too ill to walk the distance between the surgery and the hotel but I wondered whether the taxi journey would precipitate something horrific. It didn't. But I'm so glad we did get a taxi. Lisa literally had to run into the hotel to find a toilet. The runs had struck again.
I waited in the hotel foyer, admiring the female staff once more whilst drinking a refreshing green tea. Once again, Lisa caught me and I received another slap.
Lisa's trouble eased after several visits, so we decided to make our way to the railway station to catch our train to Xi'an. Unlike our last train trip, we were travelling in soft sleeper, the height of luxury in Chinese train travel, which meant that we only had to share with two other people, the beds were soft, you could turn those wretched speakers off and, most importantly of all, we had a lockable door on the compartment and our own lights.
Before boarding the train we stocked up on supplies; noodles, bread, pop, water, ham and sausage and, of course, toilet paper.
My expectations about the soft sleeper were spot on. The compartment was luxurious compared to the hard sleeper we had had to endure from Guangzhou to Guilin. There were two beds either side of the compartment, with enough room on the top beds to wake up with a start without braining ourselves on the ceiling. In addition, there was a separate luggage compartment, helping to ease my paranoia at the thought of being robbed again.
We were sharing our compartment with two men, Ron and Jim, who were in a party of eight, travelling around China in tour organised by a Turkish tour guide. It was a multinational group; Ron was from Bristol, Jim was from Toronto and the rest of the party consisted of an American, a Welshman, two Indian women and two Chinese women from Hong Kong. Other members of the party were in adjacent compartments and they kept coming in to talk to Ron and Jim.
We exchanged stories about our trip so far, and the to men were flabbergasted that Lisa and I were making our own way across China without the help of a guide or somebody who could speak a little Chinese. Unlike us, they had a fixed itinerary to which they had to adhere. I sensed regret in their voices, as they said how brave we were, but only because we were on a bigger adventure, in their opinion. In a way, I envied them because they would be more prepared for the unexpected events befalling them and also, although these people hadn't known each other for more than a week, they had clearly become very good friends, so much so, in fact, that the two men left us in the cabin on our own, whilst their entire tour group joined up next door for a huge party organised by their Turkish tour guide. Ron and Jim said that they would try not to wake us up when they returned but couldn't promise anything because of the amount of alcohol they planned to consume. I didn't expect them to be too late anyway because they had to get off before us at 6am in the morning.
We spent the rest of our day talking, playing cards and drinking excellent beer, sold in huge bottles for the princely sum of around 40p.
At 9.30, sleep beckoned, so we both retired. I have no idea what time Ron and Jim returned, nor do I know whether they were stone cold sober or blind drunk. The motion of the train and the comfort of the soft sleeper bed helped me sink into a deep sleep almost as soon as my head touched the pillow.