I’ve been very quiet again lately, I know. But I have a very good reason. You see I’ve just taken my very first overseas trip. Here I am, at the ripe old age of 52 and until 11 days ago, I’d never left Australia. Whilst I’ve now been to every state in Australia, I’d never left our shores, so when a great deal came up on one of those email offers, I grabbed it. My friend Cecile and I were heading to China for 10 days. Here is the diary that I kept while I was there. I hope you enjoy it.
We had a morning flight and being 2 hours from the airport, we decided we’d stay at an F1 hotel near the airport.. For those who don’t know the F1 chain of hotels, they are ultra budget accommodation We only needed a bed for the night so we could get to the airport nice and early and it was cheap so it suited us. Oh my God.. We were barely able to walk around the bed, the room was so small. It had twin beds but they had to be pushed together as there wasn’t room to pull them apart. You had to step up into a tiny bathroom which was so claustrophobic and it had strict warnings to close the door as it set the fire alarm off. The said fire alarm had been stuffed with paper so I’d say it has happened many times. The beds both sloped to one side but thankfully they sloped towards the outside so we didn’t roll onto each other all night. When I got up bright and early because my back was killing me, I sat on the side of the bed and the whole thing tipped over lol. Mmmmm.. Good start. Anyway, a Maccas cuppa next door and we were on our way in a taxi. Of course, the driver took us the long way so a $15 -20 taxi ride became a $27 ride. Ahhhhhhh. Doesn’t matter, I’m so excited about being out of Australia for the first time ever, that nothing is going to phase me.
We got to the airport more than 3 hours before our flight left. We walked for a few km’s I think before we found our Southern China airlines gate. It was so far away from the normal flights and we lined up with all the others who I think were all going home. We looked for people who looked like they might be on our tour but didn’t find anyone who looked like they fitted the bill. Going through the customs process was simple and though it took ages due to the lines, we were through fairly quickly.. We changed our money to Chinese Yuan and went and had some overpriced disgusting dry breakfast. Nothing is going to phase this excitement though and we headed down to the boarding gate. We almost had to take a picnic lunch to get there and my feet were already killing me as I wore pointy toe shoes instead of thongs.. but we made it and boarded, a bit late but I think we took off on time.
The plane looked reasonably new and I’d read lots of reviews about how old and crappy the airline was so was relieved to see it. The staff were lovely and we settled in for our trip. The food was good though all rice and noodles but I had no probs with that.. I was on a Chinese airline after all. Mind you after 10 days here I’m sure I’ll be hanging for a steak and chips lol. We watched The Great Gatsby, Definitely Maybe and Burn before Reading on the way which distracted us from the length of the trip.
We landed in Guangzhou which is an industrial city and covered in a shroud of smog and pollution. We were expecting a high of 18 degrees in Beijing so didn’t think it would be much different anywhere else.. Well, it was 28 degrees there and you could feel it through the windows. Hot and smoggy and completely industrial.. The airport was massive but there were people everywhere telling us which direction to go in. We went through customs with no checks at all. Our luggage was transferred to the next plane without us having to touch it, so they just x-rayed that as well as our hand luggage and that was as much as we had to do. No declaring anything.. nothing scary.. Really easy process. Everything written in English as well as Chinese and most people spoke English fairly well too. As we walked around one corner there was a small train there waiting to take us to the domestic terminal which was just as well as my feet were killing me and it was a long way away.
After the travel I really needed to find the ladies room and here I encountered my first squat toilet. I really didn’t know if I was going to be able to do this. My legs were stiff and sore from sitting in the plane for so long and here I was, expected to squat right down, manoeuvre my pants out of the way, balance myself while nature called and try to reach behind me to find the non existent toilet paper all at the same time. This was not going to be easy but a girl has to do what a girl has to do. It turned out a bit easier than I expected and I was proud of myself for managing without any great disasters. I had been fed so many stories about the nightmare of squat toilets that I had imagined all sorts of catastrophes befalling me. Instead I triumphed over the trickiest of tasks with great aplomb. This was going to be a breeze. I could tell. I gave myself a good pat on the back (after washing my hands of course) and went out to find that a few doors down was a Western toilet. I was a tad peeved but I wasn’t going to admit it.
We went to buy a coffee for Cecile as I don’t touch coffee, only tea. We couldn’t really understand the menu… our first glitch.. The menu suggested a cup of milky tea with cheese balls which my dear friend decided I should try but I really wasn’t particularly thirsty lol. We got to the next departure gate just as boarding started so we were soon on our way to Beijing. This plane was a lot smaller but we got yet another meal.. Our third for the day (excluding breakfast) so we were full. The first meal on the plane was lunch.. That was beef with rice and vegetables.. with a bread roll, butter, salad with ham and pieces of fruit. The second meal was our dinner and it consisted of delicious pork dumplings with noodles and vegies, fruit, a salad, a date scone and some cheesecake. The third meal (another dinner) was chicken with rice and vegies, fruit, a salad, a bread roll, some pickled vegetables in a packet (I passed on those) so we were well fed. They don’t seem to do good coffee on the planes though, which didn’t affect me at all. I did laugh though when Cecile asked for coffee and they picked up her lemonade glass and filled it with coffee. Oh well, no need for sugar I guess.
Getting off at Beijing was incredible. The airport once again, is massive yet it’s not crowded. Everything runs smoothly.. We followed the signs that said Foreigners and went through easily.. Picked up our bags and walked out where our tour guide William was waiting for us. I always wanted to be met at an airport by someone holding up a sign looking for me. We had a quick walk down to Starbucks so that Cecile could feed her coffee addiction.. I had a hot chocolate. By this time it was 11pm their time, so 2am our time and we were exhausted. William put us into a Buick people mover along with another Aussie couple and sent us to what we thought was the Hilton, however it turned out to be the Convention Centre Grand Hotel.
Holy guacamole Batman….. the traffic.. For starters, not only is the man in the moon upside down, but we’re driving on the wrong side of the road (well compared to Australia anyway).. But they weave in and out of traffic, all fighting for supremacy.. They swerve in and out, no blinkers, not caring where anyone else is. They beep their horns constantly and most of the time I have no idea why. I tried not to look as it was too scary. Buses drive in the emergency lanes.. No one gives a damn where they drive or where they stop.. It is bedlam yet it all seems to work. They get where they need to be with no real problems. We saw one accident on the way from the airport but nothing serious. We drove past the Bird’s Nest from the Olympics and that was much bigger than I expected, however it was dark and we couldn’t get a good look at it.
The hotel is gorgeous and the bathroom alone is almost as big as the room at the F1.. It’s just lovely here.. We had twin 3/4 beds so lots of room, they are so clean and comfortable. Everything is top of the line and we feel very spoiled here. We finally fell into bed around 3am our time so we thought we’d sleep well but as per usual, I was wide awake at about 6.30am our time when I didn’t need to be up till 10am our time. Oh well. I laid still and went back to sleep thankfully but was awake on and off till it was time to get up and get dressed and out the door.
When I finally got out of bed, I went in to have a shower. Okay, I just had to try to work out how to turn it on. Eventually I figured it out. The bathroom here is beautifully appointed. It has a full sized deep bath and soft fluffy towels, combs, toothbrushes, shower caps, emery boards, bath gel, shampoos, conditioners, body lotion etc.. You name it, we have it. Even 2 nice white waffle robes and slippers for us. Very swish all in all.
We wandered out the door and went down for breakfast. That consisted of anything you can possibly imagine. From soups and noodles and typical Chinese fare to eggs, bacon, waffles, pastries, fruit, fresh bread rolls etc. Enough food to feed a small country and enough variation that NO ONE should be able to say there was nothing they liked there. The tea, however, was really ordinary and made me glad I’d put a packet of tea bags in my case to bring over just in case I couldn’t get a decent cuppa in the land of tea.. However, finding milk isn’t easy. They do have tea bags in the room but no milk.. just powdered creamer. So though they had milk at breakfast, the tea was ordinary so still no decent cuppa. But if that’s the worst I had to put up with, the crusty warm bread rolls and glazed pastries made up for the lack of tea. Milk is on our agenda to try to buy.
On the bus by 9am, we headed to Tienanmen Square and had a look around our neighbourhood as we went. There is no sun to speak of. It’s there and you can see where it should be but the smog is so thick that the whole sky appears to be white. There are KFC’s, Maccas and Pizza Huts everywhere. (William tells us that they are in fact the three biggest selling foods in China now. How very sad that is.) We are right next door to the huge convention centre. There is a large conference going on so security is pretty high and there are uniforms everywhere. And when the Chinese wear a uniform, they REALLY wear a uniform. There is not a hair out of place and everything is pristine. They walk stiff and upright and obviously wear the uniform with pride. There is a huge amount of patriotism here which is quite unexpected. I don’t really know what I expected but I am surprised by it regardless.
Getting off the bus in one piece in amongst the crazy traffic, we walked across to Tienanmen Square. Here I got a bit emotional remembering those pictures of the student in front of the tank. The amount of people who walk through the square and go to pay their respects to Chairman Mao Zedong who died in 1976 is unbelievable. He is considered to be almost godlike here and millions of people pour through the area where he lays. I stood in the square, surrounded by people in red caps carrying the red flag of China with pride. I had my own moment of pride when i saw a flagpole flying not only the red flag but our own southern cross. I was proud to see it flying in amongst the sea of red.
From there we kept walking through to the Forbidden Palace. Now this is the China we’ve grown up expecting to see. Full of temples and buildings with gold, sloped roofs, walls painted red with lots of animal statues guarding the outside. We walked so much we will really be paying for it tomorrow…. (but we have to climb the great wall so we can’t let it get to us yet lol) The Imperial Garden was a monument to beauty. The tall twisted trees that are so old they are now being supported by beams, the huge rocks that were transported from over 1000 km’s away and the amazing statues that decorate and keep a watchful eye on the gardens were an absolute delight to see. Just incredible. Here in Australia, our country is so young still that it boggled my mind to think about how old this all was. The paving is all gnarled and uneven and we really had to watch our footwork. What was the HIGHLIGHT of my day (not) was using another squat toilet. It was rated 2 stars (and had the sign to prove it). I’m thinking, oh well if they’ve taken the time to rate it, its gotta be okay.. We’d passed ones that we were told not to use unless it was urgent as they weren’t “Happy Rooms”. I have no idea how bad they would have to be as this one was pretty awful but it flushed so I guess the others didn’t. It’s all part of the experience isn’t it?
We wandered back to the bus, fighting our way through a sea of maimed beggars and street vendors trying to sell us everything from crazy hats to corn on the cob. We’ve been told not to buy from these particular vendors as it is the shadier side of town and they are likely to take your money and run. Still very confronting to see though. A woman carrying a baby kept grabbing me asking me for money. It’s hard to keep walking but we were told we had to for our own safety. The bus pulled into a non parking zone for about 38 of us to get onboard again. It seems road rules aren’t really important over here. Still it really does seem to work for them.
Off to a traditional Chinese restaurant for lunch, we had a banquet and it was lovely. All except for the dish which had small Yorkshire puddings stuffed with a mushroom type filling. I passed on that. The rest was delicious. Especially the fried peanut dish. Scrumptious. When we got out from lunch, we had to fight our way through more street vendors who were so persistent, it becomes quite scary at times. They have no respect for personal space whatsoever. Our bus was parked ON THE FOOTPATH waiting for us. Mmmmmmm.. okay.. I repeat, no road rules. William tells us they do have road rules however they think of them more as simply suggestions lol. However, the police pulled up and made him him shift the bus as, not only was he blocking the whole road off, there was some important dignitary about to drive through. So, he was forced to drive around the block while we waited for everyone else to come out. Trouble is, a blockie isn’t quite so easy in Beijing and we waited about half an hour for him to return, all the time shrugging off the persistent vendors.
Back on the bus finally, we headed out to a tea ceremony. It wasn’t as traditional as we would have liked as it was more a marketing process (everyone wants to sell you something here) but it was very enjoyable all the same. It was interesting and pleasant even if I hated most of the tea. I did love their wallpaper though. From there it was a quick trip to the pearl market which, to be honest, wasn’t what I was expecting. I didn’t end up getting the stuff I wanted because I couldn’t find what I thought suited. Anyway, we were late back on the bus due to Cecile waiting for her purchase while they tried to sell her everything in the shop. If we are late back to the bus we’re supposed to buy everyone an ice cream so I hope they forget lol.
Back home again, we decided not to go to the Kung Fu show tonight, so wandered down the road to the supermarket trying to find something to eat for dinner but couldn’t find anything. Good news is I found milk or at least I thought it was milk. It’s hard to tell as nothing is written in English but it has a cow on it so I’m feeling hopeful. Thankfully tea is back on my morning menu :). We ended up having dinner at the hotel which was pretty good. However trying to order anything other than the norm is a near impossibility. I tried to order a raspberry vodka (which they had on the menu) with Sprite. They looked at me like I had grown another head. We ended up with five wait staff around us trying to work out exactly what it was that this weird Western woman wanted. Finally the fifth one looked at it and said.. “Oh we don’t have that”. Oh well… I settled for a wine with my dinner. I opted for a western meal of chicken served with chips as we’ve got another 8 days of Chinese food so wanted to get something different while I could.
Back up to the room for some much needed rest. We walked so much that I really hope my poor old legs will hold up alright tomorrow as we have 3000 steps to climb for the Great Wall. I may not be able to walk after it but it’ll have been worth it I’m sure, to be able to wipe this off my bucket list. I know I’ll be a bit emotional as this is always something I’ve wanted to do. I’m really looking forward to it.
The dampener on the whole trip is the fact that while we’re holidaying in China, our families are back home in the Blue Mountains which are on fire. We’re getting updates on CNN and it’s not helping our nerves. No matter how much those at home tell us it’s all going to be okay, it doesn’t feel right to be living it up while they are dealing with such a horrible situation. We just have to keep believing that everything will be okay. I do believe that what you concentrate on, you manifest so I’m concentrating on rain and angels wings wrapped around our families.
Do I make it to the top of the Great Wall of China? Do I continue to find squat toilets easy?? For these and other life changing questions, you’ll have to stay tuned for the next instalment of The China Diaries..
Till then… Happy Happy Rooms