Auld Lang Syne

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Oh! The horror!

Whilst in Hong Kong I was frequently given stern and foreboding warnings about the degeneration which is prevalent in China.

Traffic is relentless and uncompromising I was told; in fact, if a car happened to clip your heel, it would proceed to turn around and run you over for killing somebody is certainly cheaper than and less tedious than paying insurance premiums.
If you ask for chicken in your soup people quipped, they will give you dog instead, not out of spite but because dog meat is more feasible than a chicken’s tender loins.
People are rude and abrasive, inconsiderate of other peoples personal space and harmony was ultimately, the general consensus amongst those I spoke to.
The streets were also purportedly dirty and laden with litter.
And so forth.

This was not the case though as I found the traffic to be controlled, the food delectable, the people affable and the streets clean.

My expectations of China even before I heard these extravagant apocalyptic accounts was somewhat morose. The government’s proclivities for the death penalty, capriciously obliterating satellites in space, aiming missiles at Taiwan, supporting Kim Jong-Il and most recently, hacking into the Pentagon, generated a rigid facade in my mind of what I should anticipate.
The people were not brutal murderers however, nor were they penny-pinching thieves. They were, in fact, the opposite.
Whenever I required help, ultimately, most people, despite the language barrier, were grateful to offer their support.
One notable instance was in Xi’an; I was bewildered and lost, unable to find my bus, and a taxi driver who had previously been heckling me saw my disposition and consequently personally guided me to where my bus was situated. This was without asking for money, of course (unlike the tendencies in a certain other country which I have recently visited). Furthermore, this was not an isolated incident.
All societies have citizens who are good and bad, benevolent and malevolent, honourable and evil and so forth. Yet in China, from my travels there, the former epoch disproportionately overshadowed the latter.
Consequently I have realised that maybe was are slightly xenophobic towards the Chinese; a fear arising from the reality that a new, potent and powerful force is emerging in the world.
Is China a threat? It is too premature to tell, although, judging by the people it is undoubtedly better to engage rather than altercate with them.

What I realised whilst walking around the streets of the major cities and seeing rows of shops selling Gucci, Prada and Nike is that this country does not practice Communism. No, instead ‘Chinaism’ leads the way, for this is the Communist Republic of Capitalism!

And so, the tone is set.

Shanghai, my first destination in China, was a vast sprawling city. Compared to the compact convenience I had become habituated to in Hong Kong, exploring the city was particularly assiduous upon my feet. Nevertheless it was fascinating to wander through (with the aid of the subway) as the juxtaposition between the old and the new became apparent; between the old, quaint colonial buildings and the new looming skyscrapers. The most remarkable area was The Bund where you can take postcard picture of the skyline. Although, in contrast to Hong Kong, Shanghai’s skyline appeared slightly barren, with the array of cranes constructing new landmarks in the distance, it seems apparent that within a decade it will be as saturated with glass, steel and concrete than its southern neighbour.
After subjecting myself to a day of rigorous walking, I passed a massage at night and was tempted by a foot massage – for two pounds. That the young wench seemed to have more of a tendency towards my thighs than my feet (and once the massage was over she asked if I would like her to continue with a “full body massage”) is not of too much importance; the sensation of feeling as if I was walking on a blanket of woolen clouds is!
I decided to truncate my stay in Shanghai to only one night though in an attempt to maximise my meagre schedule.

Next on my itinerary was Xi’an where the world renowned Terracotta Warriors are situated. The city itself was considerably more pleasant to wander through than Shanghai, with a bustling Muslim Quarter (that served appetizing dishes which kept my palette whet for several hours after finishing devouring them), a few pagodas and a selection of museums. On my final day there I visited the ‘Forest Steles’ museum which proudly proclaims that is possesses the heaviest library of books in the world (…because each ‘book’ is written on a capacious slab of concrete). The Confucian layout of the museum was so simple and serene though that the books became unimportant; the ambiance was enough to enjoy and admire.
As for the Terracotta Warriors, such a venerated attraction can be dolefully disappointing.
This was not the case, although, I was not overawed either. Each of the completed warriors was alluring to gaze at due its intricate design and originality, but surprisingly, the army was not as comprehensive as I anticipated. Witnessing in one compound the archeological ruins, as they were discovered, and in another that completed reassembled statues was intriguing though.

Before visiting the next major city – Beijing – I stopped off in the small town of Pingyao for the day. When I did finally reach Beijing I had spent three out of the prior four nights sleeping on trains!
On the joy!

Pingyao was worth the visit. Its small size provided idyllic circumstances to ride a bicycle around and the narrow, charcoal coloured streets, whilst affected by tourism, had not been tainted by it. A day was apt for Pingyao despite how it probably contains more museums per square foot than any other place in the world. The museums themselves were not particularly enthralling and it was circumnavigating the city walls (which were akin to Xi’an’s, but due to Pingyaos succinctly smaller size, these walls were much more conspicuous and thus affecting). With the invaluable help of the black market though I left for Beijing on a train that was already full, less than twelve hours after I had arrived…

In Beijing I was hospitably housed by Alice (a friend from university) and her amiably exuberant Aunt (Xiamen, is, I think, how you spell her name). There are a plethora of small anecdotes and events that I could list for Beijing, but instead I will just write about the notable attractions.

There was, of course, The Great Wall. After a degree of contention as to which part we should visit, Alice, her friends (also from university and equally as friendly) and I opted for the ‘Mutinayu’ section. Whilst touristic and partially renovated this is supposedly the best part in close proximity to Beijing to see, and it is unsurprising why.
Yes, you must overlook the cable carts which bring you up and the tobogganing ride which takes you down from the Wall, but despite this it was easy to appreciate its magnificence. Not until you are there can you wholly comprehend how far the wall stretches, how high it soared and how steep it inclines. It was as if the remnants of an archaic game of Snakes & Ladders had been abandoned and left to wilt in the distance. Furthermore, the older, disintegrating sections of the wall which had not been renovated for tourism on adjacent mountains was a palpable reminder of how old the relics are.

The following day I visited the Forbidden City (which is located next to Tiananmen Square) and the Summer Palace. Despite the prestige of the former, it was superlatively surpassed by the latter. Although the Forbidden City did possess some emanating elements, outside of a historical context it was quite monotonous with each courtyard leading to another courtyard that was essentially identical. Conversely, the Summer Palace, whilst undoubtedly defined by its bucolic beauty, contained sundry facets that augmented each other; the colossal central azure lake made the trees and landscape seem so small yet exuberant; resolute temples overlooked the city outside of the Palace, discording the anciently artificial with the contemporary; quaint peddle boats glided in the water whilst a cumbersome but beautiful marble boat perpetually remained docked by the periphery of the lake.

In my quixotic attempt to see and experience as much as possible, I opted to embark on a two day, one night excursion up Mount Taishan from Beijing, intending to then subsequently return to Beijing for one more night before departing for Guilin.

That I missed my initial train to Tai’an (the city where Mount Taishan stands) is not too important for I fortuitously managed to board one later that day. Thus, arriving in Tai’an at 22:30, during the nights infancy, I took a taxi to the mountain’s base to begin my overnight trek.

Mount Taishan is the holiest Tao mountain in China and consequently hoards of people exert themselves throughout the year to climb to its summit to view the morning sunrise.

As I arrived, I was eagerly embraced by five Chinese people – three girls and two guys – who entreated me to join them, so I did. The climb aside, it was a remarkable feat how I managed to converse with them for over six hours when their English was restricted to a few broken sentences and my Mandarin was constrained to a whole two words (I have mastered those words though you ought to be glad to hear)!
With only our torches lighting the invisible path during the first half of the climb, the mood was eerily subdued. When we shone our beams to the side, sometimes archways were revealed with ancient symbols whereas on other occasions nothing by a distilled form of darkness was evident. Along the path diffused glows sometimes swayed in the distance, which, as we approached closer, became part of a larger conclave of small reverent temples reeking with incense and permeated with smoke.
During the second half of the trek more people emerged from the darkness like fireflies, humming and buzzing with their faint spotlights. The incline steadily became steeper as the clock moved forward, but we arrived at the peak for 5:00am, one hour before sunrise.
The view was ineffable.
For the first time in my life the horizon was more than a wisp of light – here it penetrated the sky separating light from dark. Whilst I was hardly a lone wanderer above a sea of fog for people were speckled around me, the clouds stretched like an ocean across the sky, as I was above them. Then, as light gradually became to glow, the sun appeared through a slit in the design in the distance, rising of the horizon’s perimeter.

Back in Beijing later than night I felt weak and fatigued, as not only had I been depriving my body of adequate sleep since I left Hong Kong, but by remaining awake throughout the whole of the prior night whilst simultaneously vigorously exerting myself, my body must have been swept into locomotion.

That was just the beginning though.

The next day I met Alice for lunch (although I was still residing at her Aunt’s apartment, Alice had just begun her new job) after which we offered our salutations and goodbyes.
My train to Guilin was at 19:10.
Somehow, after completing a few last minute tasks I was back at her Aunt’s by 17:50. I hastily packed by bags and ran outside.

And there it was:
Immovable cars jarred by the traffic.

Flailing and waving around it was not until 18:35 that I finally found a taxi.
He told me that it was impossible.
I was determined.
The car turned and swerved through the traffic as the clock marched ever closer to the deadline.
I arrived in the station at 19:05.
I ran.
Overhead, I do not know whether out of spite, sadism or support, the station’s PA blared out the melody for ‘Auld Lang Syne’.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?

Pushing through people, still clinging on to that fleeting hope, I raced towards my platform.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

People were staring, my back was aching and scratched due to my rucksacks metal shards and I was struggling; but I kept on running, hoping.

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

And then I saw it; my gate, with the clock stating that it was 19:09.
I had made it!

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp,
And surely I’ll be mine,
And we’ll tak a cup o kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

Grasping my ticket and flaunting it to the warden, she removed it from my grasp, observed it and… duly dismissed me away!
Her reason!? Check-in ended at 19:05.

The music seemed to rise to a crescendo as the demise started. I began my walk to the bus station, back to Alice’s Aunt’s apartment.

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou’d the gowans fine,
But we’ve wander’d monie a weary fit,
Sin auld lang syne.

Auspiciously, if such a word is appropriate, with the defatigable and altruistic aid of another of Alice’s aunts, I managed to board the same train the following day to Guilin. She had somehow managed to purchase, literally, the last available ticket for me. The only folly was that it was not a ‘hard sleeper’ but a ‘hard seat’.
Surely it could not be too bad?
Truthfully, it was not. Whilst the conditions were unsanitary and overwhelming, with, for example, my row of six seats being occupied by eight people and the isle-ways heaving with seat less others, the charismatic and ebullient nature of the Chinese people made it an endurable experience. Even when the lights and radio were kept on throughout the night…

Guilin was such a voluptuous and beautiful place that despite the time (23:00) and the fact that I had just endured a twenty-seven hour journey with little sleep or comfort, upon viewing the monstrosity of mortar and bricks, I left immediately for Yangshuo.
It was not that Guilin was utterly abhorrent, but I was anticipating luscious hills and green plateaus; seeing luminous skyscrapers instead deterred me from staying.

Fortunately Yangshuo was only a one hour bus journey away and the further away the bus drove from Guilin, the more natural the surroundings became. Yangshuo was a minute town completely absorbed by the innumerable mountains rising like humps in the landscape. Each mountain resembled a small island, possessing its own unique traits whilst forming the components of a perfect portrait.

One day in Yangshuo was actually spent on a tour of nearby Longshen which I had been relishing to visit for the views of its mountainous rice terraces. I was not disappointed as each hill was formed like the deft layers of a wedding cake, creating intricate steps that circled around each mountain’s circumference.

During my other day in Yanghsuo I rented a bicycle and cycled to ‘Moon Peak Hill’ which is one of the most renowned of the vicinity’s mountains due to the hole that has formed towards its summit, creating a passage to look through and observe the surrounding beauty from all sides. From the peak the sheer depth of Yangshuo’s mountain range became evident as the mountains appeared to form a fortress of nature around the area.
Later that day I decided to rest by Yangshuo’s salubrious Li Jing river.
Maybe my esteemed reputation has already spread from Bollywood to China, or maybe it is just because I am a Westerner, but by the river, no less than four separate groups of Chinese people asked me to have their photograph taken with them, all within thirty minutes!
Despite the serenity, eventually I had to escape.

My mode of transport from Yangshuo to my next and final destination in China, Shenzhen, was by a sleeper bus. What I had not been forewarned about however was that this was a sleeper bus for Chinese people; thus my legs were perched upright all night as the sleeping space would have been considered as economic even by a pigmy’s standards. Moreover, the driver’s penchant for crass nineties dance music made it an excruciating endeavor trying to sleep as even the most aloof of people would struggle to rest whilst hearing ‘No Limits’ and ‘The Venga Boys’ rumbling on in the background.

Shenzhen epitomises the political dichotomy of China – it is essentially a Chinese Hong Kong where unrestrained capitalism prevails. This is protected through its status as a ‘Special Economic Zone’, which also means that although it is part of the mainland, even Chinese citizens are required to pass through a customs border to enter the city.
There was scarcely anything to do in Shenzhen except complete last minute bargain shopping and have a two hour massage (for 5 pounds!) before hauling my rucksack across the border to Hong Kong.

Back in Hong Kong I remembered how perpetually bright the city is due to the effusive neon lights shimmering across the streets. It was placating returning to such familiar smells and sounds.
That night after quickly finding accommodation, showering and changing clothes, I took the Star Ferry to Central where I met Will, Dan, Patch, Ben and Dave – all friends from Durham – in Lan Kwai Fan. Following a quick drink and dinner we visited Temple Street night market which was reminiscent of my first night in Hong Kong.

The following day I boarded the ferry to nearby Macau; the egregious gambling haven which has recently opened a ‘Venetian’ casino, that is the largest gambling complex in the world.
Gambling aspects aside Macau is actually a pleasant city to visit with its often bemusing juxtaposition between Portuguese Colonial architecture – embodied by the cathedrals dotted around the streets – and Chinese shops and stalls. Even the weather accentuated the continental aura as the strident sunshine basked over the city with a gentle breeze sweeping through to offer some respite.
From the casinos I visited, I soon inferred that there were two types – the old and the new. The former were relentless in their gambling pursuits, destitute of appeasing entertainment to those who did not care to watch their bulging wallets emaciate like magic. Conversely the latter at least possessed shops and restaurants, with the ‘Venetian’ containing its celebrated canals and gondolas.
Macau’s gambling district is still incomparable to Las Vegas as America has learned to diversify in a plethora of manners, offering much more than mere gambling. However, with investment seeping through Macau like a gushing waterfall, it may become a viable alternative to Vegas by midway through the next decade.

The end is nigh.

My final day was the embodiment of my prior stay in Hong Kong; rushed, busy and hectic. I met John, Ian and (briefly) Mike from where I worked for lunch and shopped around.

Am I happy to be returning home? Yes.
Am I sad to be leaving? Yes.

But as always, whatever goes up must come down; all things that have a beginning have an ending too, and this is mine.

So, for one last time:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp,
And surely I’ll be mine,
And we’ll tak a cup o kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pou’d the gowans fine,
But we’ve wander’d monie a weary fit,
Sin auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn
Frae morning sun till dine,
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
Sin auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand my trusty fiere,
And gie’s a hand o thine,
And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang syne
.

Thanks for reading.
Pepe

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