Wednesday, 18 July 2012

China tour with Akademiska Kapellet, part 4

On Monday we went up absurdly early to catch a high-speed train to Hangzhou. Naturally there were traffic jams all the way there so we got there too late, but apparently the tour manager managed to make the train wait for us. Crazy, but nice. Despite general tiredness and nothing but snacks all day in the way of food, it was a very pleasant journey. About a thousand kilometers in eight hours, that doesn't happen in Sweden even if the trains are on time. We were five orchestra people who shared a compartment with a friendly Chinese guy. He turned out to speak very good english, living in New York, so we ended up talking all through the journey. Playing poker, him teaching us a bit of Chinese, we teaching him a bit of Swedish, discussing cultural differences. At the end of the journey we had made a new friend, and he promised to come to one of our concerts in Shanghai. That train ride was probably one of my favourite parts of the tour, and definitely one of the best train journeys I've experienced. I like travelling by train.

The day ended on a rather miserable note for me, though. Not having found anymore vegan food to eat on the train other than nuts, dried fruit and small bits of tofu, I was too tired and head-ache stricken when we at last got to Hangzhou to even be hungry anymore. Dizzy and in misery, I went to bed instead of joining the others for dinner out on town.

The following day I woke up feeling better. After a wonderful breakfast at the hotel me and my roommate headed out for a walk through the city. For once we actually were close enough to where we wanted to go that we didn't have to take a taxi. I really prefer strolling to taxi or subway, but you don't get to see much of a 20-million-people city that way. The things I'd heard of Hangzhou before we got there were 1) that it is a very beautiful city (possibly the most beautiful in China), 2) that there is a lake called West Lake in the city that supposedly is so beautiful you just had to see it if you got the chance of visiting the city and 3) that it is famous for its tea. So, we headed out to the lake in the hope of seeing some of the city's beauty, and possibly purchasing some tea. Regrettably the fog lay thick over the city all the time we spent there, but the little of the lake's surroundings that was visible through the haze was quite nice. Not mindblowingly beautiful, but I could imagine it would be on a clear day, being able to see the lake in its entirety, as well as its surroundings. Alas, we had to hasten on, otherwise I gladly would have stayed for a few more days and waited for better weather. At least tea was found, bought and packaged within five minutes of roasting. Green tea is better the fresher it is, apparently. Not so for black tea I learned, but more on that later.

The afternoon was spent rehearsing, and in the evening we played a concert. This time as well in a great big concert hall that felt a bit overwhelming for me who'd never played in such large venues before. Apparently there were over a thousand seats, and most of them were filled. How come so many Chinese people want to see a student orchestra from Sweden? Apparently we had been quite well-promoted, but it's still surprising. I mean, we're not even professional. Anyway, the concert was a huge success judging by the audience this time as well. 

This we celebrated in the Hotel's rotating skybar later on in the evening. Some with beer, others with wine or fancy drinks. Me with watermelon juice, since I had made it a small quest of mine to try as many strange juices (vegan juices, mind you, before anyone makes any gross associations) as possible during the journey. Let's see if I remember the ones I tried... Apple, orange (not so strange, but included for completeness), corn, watermelon, tomato, coconut, kiwi, and carrot. Most of them freshly made while I waited. All of them good but oh my gods kiwi juice really is a stroke of genius. Seriously, you  just have to try it. Unless you're allergic to kiwi. Then it sucks to be you, I guess.

That's all for now. In the next episode of this immensely entertaining travel blog: we're off to Shanghai! Stay tuned.


Sunday, 15 July 2012

China tour with Akademiska Kapellet, part 3

The following day we waved good-bye to Beijing, and went by bus to Tianjin. Since we were free this day as well, we headed out on town to explore (at least a tiny part of) the city. Nobody seemed to speak any English at all, so we showed the adresses of the places we wanted to go to written down on a piece of paper to the taxi drivers, and hoped they drove us to the right place. Most of the time it worked, at least I never got lost or robbed or dumped at a murky backstreet. Travelling by taxi in China certainly is an experience in itself. I suppose there must be traffic rules, but either they are significantly fewer or not as well reinforced as in Sweden. Driving at great speeds down six-filed roads, taking every hint of an opening as an excuse to make suicidal manoeuvres seemed to be custom for taxidrivers. Not to mention honking all the time. And apparently they also took it as a personal insult if you wanted to use the seatbelt. It was all you could do to hope you survived and got where you wanted. At least it was cheap; about a tenth of the taxi-prices in Sweden.

Walking around shopping in what might have been the "cultural quarters", being caught in a surprise rain-and-thunder storm (they have proper storms in china!), ordering food without a word of english (thank goodness for body-language and translating smartphones). A nice thing about Chinese meal-customs is the communion of the mealtimes. We were a group of about twelve people who got seated around a big, round table, with a rotating glass slab upon it. All the dishes we ordered were brought in (including a whole duck, head and feet and all!) and placed upon the slab so that everyone could grab a piece of everything. According to our experience, the rice comes afterwards, and there are no drinks until after the meal, except for sometimes a glass of hot tea. Strange and interesting customs.
Going back to the hotel, we tried to wave down a taxi, but after having failed for twenty minutes, a moped-taxi stopped and offered to take us to the hotel. After consulting a map and reading the adress-card through a magnifying glass we hoped he was going to take us in the right direction. It was a bumpy and cramped ride; there were doubts about whether the vehicle would manage the uphill parts, but we made it home at last.

Might have seen a moon for a short moment during the evening, the rain having cleared the air (somewhat) of smog for a short while. Not even a hint of a star, though. 

The following day we played at a large concert hall, with several hundred people in the audience. The concert was fun and went well, at least the audience seemed to like us! Feels like I should write more about the actual performances since we were there on a tour, after all, but nothing out of the ordinary happened, really. I cannot quite account for the overall sound either, sitting in the orchestra.

We also had time for a back massage. Chinese massage is another interesting, somewhat painful, but at least afterwards relaxing experience. A little scary to order massage using only your body language. A bit awkward lying there hoping the masseurs didn't break anything in your body, wondering what they were giggling about all the time. We will probably never know.

There is another curious observation about Chines culture: the chinese humour. It's apparently quite different from Swedish humour. Chinese people seem to laugh about nearly everything. A man gets sick at the subway (on my shoes, for the record); people don't help him, instead they laugh at him. (Not that I was any better, I quickly shuffled away in terror...) Bad news from our tour manager were always accompanied by a row of laughter from himself. While I guess it's a good approach in life to be able to laugh about anything, it's still mildly disconcerting not knowing whether they laugh at you or with you.

Right, that's about halfway through the travel blog, I think! To be continued...


Saturday, 14 July 2012

China tour with Akademiska Kapellet, part 2

Time marches on. Ye gods, four weeks have already passed since I got home. I never got very far with the travel blog, but I made a promise, so here comes at last the continuation!

The friday was dedicated solely to tourism. We started out visiting the great wall, or at least a tiny fraction of it located some miles north of Beijing. Another mind-blowing monstrosity of a monument. Crazy big: more than three friggin' times as long as Sweden. And Sweden is a pretty damn elongated country! Crazy old: they started constructing the thing at about 200 B.C., and then it took 1800 years to finish it. How did they come up with such an idea? Some build a wall around their city, sure, that's reasonable, but who cracked the idea "I know, let's build a wall around our entire country!"? And how many times did they get invaded by the mongols while it was constructed? I am thoroughly baffled. Apart from these musings, or perhaps including them, the visit was a pleasant experience. Escaping the smog for a while, observing sunspots from atop the wall, hiking around in an over-priced silly hat. One day I might even show you a picture.

Back from the wall we had a decent lunch ("udon noodles is the shit!" as they say in... wherever they say that) and then visited Heaven Peace Square. Huge, flat place, occupied by a Mao-soleum (nope, that was not the worst pun of the trip), a flag with a guard, and horrible memories more or less successfully swept under the political rug (student massacre, anyone?). Much to reflect upon, even if my reflection-abilities were somewhat diminished due to a combination of reflecting so much sunlight and still having a fever. That might have been a contributing cause to me managing to get lost on said square. I'm almost proud of it. Not everyone would manage to lose their way in such a tremendously flat and empty place.

The remainder of the day also offered a visit to the once-forbidden city. Once again, much to ponder and marvel at. Just a hundred years ago the emperor lived there, ruled there, was served and worshipped ad absurdum there. An entire palace dedicated to the emperor's changing of clothes before giving an audience (in a separate palace)? Totally! Though the forbidden city itself is ancient, all the buildings were burned down by some European douchebags in the 1600's, so they weren't all that old (which apparently was the reason our guide didn't think the forbidden city wasn't all that much to see for us). Still, I'm glad to have seen a place I've heard such a lot about. History feels more real, somehow.

Continuing in the way of the tourist, we also went souvenir shopping in a quarter that gave the impression of being a movie set. More Chinese than China itself, in a burlesque kind of way. Anyway, I quickly became aware of that I have no skills when it comes to haggling, whatsoever. A scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian springs to mind.

No no no, it's not worth ten, you're supposed to argue! "Ten for that, you must be mad!" 

I'm sure I paid at least ten times the worth of most things I bought, before I started to get the hang of it. Even then I most certainly got fooled as good as every time. I'm far too easily-persuaded and well-mannered to be good at bargaining. Not to mention neurotic: the situation itself puts me ill at ease. I'm sure it's an integral and social part of the culture and all that, but not one I appreciate. I prefer the Swedish way of being fooled by large companies or the government without a choice when shopping to being fooled loudly and stressfully on the street. Hah. Am I brain-washed, or what?

There's another absurdity about China right there. Supposedly a communist country, I think I've never experienced such flourishing capitalism.

With that reflection, I leave this travel-blog for now. To be continued...