I have no idea how it happened, or even why, but entering China was the easiest crossing I have done in years. Even a simple crossing from Derbyshire to Worcestershire (Wuss-ter-shire for all of our North American friends who continually pronounce the sauce incorrectly) is harder, although admittedly a bit of that is due to the lack of a mutual border and the need to get around Birmingham. Ah well.
I got to Incheon and on to the boat without incident. My expectations for licourice induced problems came to naught, and it was then just the matter of a 24hour crossing, which after the first 2 was about 20hours of nothingness and boredom. The start interesting only because the ferry went through a lock, which is the first time I have ever done so on an international ship before. It was almost like being in Panama...
The Ferry entering the lock to leave the port of Incheon
The approach to Tianjin - actually, Tanggu, 50km away, but they sure as heck weren't going to tell us that beforehand - was notable only for the huge number of cargo ships all seemingly fine, but lacking anything resembling movement or people, which were anchored out to sea on the approach. It felt kind of like passing through a graveyard as we inched through literally hundreds of these moored ships, of which I can only guess were moored just outside Chinese territorial waters, for reasons unknown, but probably were actually quite exciting.
Entering China took me all of 19seconds.
No trouble, fuss, bag check or anything. The problem came outside when i discovered that there was nothing even vaguely resembling a ATM or Exchange office. The other 3 foreigners on the boat (we had studiously all ignored each other on the boat, only to club together on disembarkation) and I stood around like lemons for a while until we were shepherded onto a bus. We asked for Tanggu station, but that flew past, and then so did Tianjin, a city of 10million or so, which we had then expected to arrive at. Thus with limitde options, we just sat there pondering where the fr1ggin heck we would end up. It turned out to be Beijing, but not somewhere helpful. Oh no. An obscure University campus miles from anywhere. Groan. And so, in what must have been a strange sight of pilgramage to all locals, 50 Koreans and 4 white folk all with large rucksacks, proceeded down the road for a few kilometres in hunt of the metro. And in a stunning break with tradition, actually found it.
Outside the Forbidden City at night
It was when I got off the metro and got hold of money that things started to go slightly skewiff. Jeff, my host, had just moved house that very day and at short notice was unable to put me up. Which left me at 8pm somewhere in Beijing without anywhere to stay. Long story cut short, but the wonderful Jennifer took a phone call from a sheepish Welsh guy around 9pm that night, agreed to put me up that night, talked to a taxi driver on the phone to get me where i had to go, and I proceeded on the utterly inevitable taxi journey across the city which led me to a statue of the chairman in a University campus barely 300m from my original starting point...
The statue of the Chairman, in daylight hours. Dissapointingly, he is nowhere near as frequent in his appearances as was Lenin
The following day it happened. I actually had to do something vaguely work related. The big boss and a couple of colleagues were in town, and I, not exactly one to turn down free food and beer at the best of times, agreed to meet them. I can truly say now (especially to Kate, Jen and Clare who I seem to remember salivating over the sheer thought of Crispy duck in Thame that one time) that Beijing duck is truly fantastic. S*d bird flu, that duck is damned good. Much duck and a good few beers later (including Sten, and that really scared me. He sounded like a raving Alcoholic. Sven and David seem to be getting through to him at long last!), followed by a trek to, the, erm, not exactly traditionally Chinese Belgian bar and I was suddenly hit with the full whammy. I had to be at their hotel the following morning at 8am to go to a meeting. Shudder. 8am is not a good hour on work days, let alone on holiday.
The girl is the wonderful Jen, my saviour regarding accomodation. The cheery looking man next to him is my boss, Sten, the evil guy who occassionally makes me do some real work, and forced me out of bed at a ridiculous hour on the friday morning
Some of you will be stunned to learn that not only did i make it (Beijing rush hour traffic and all), but I was actually early. The rest of you will just think that i'm lying through my teeth. By the time we'd left the meeting I seem to have been talked into doing more stuff the following week, although I'm not entirely sure how that happened. Oh well. After another free dinner (Mmmm. Ribs) with the guys, I headed off. Confused a taxi driver so much that he forgot to charge me, and then spent a few hours in a leaving party for one of Jen's friends, before taking in the Sanlituan bar district for a couple of hours, depressingly western, and barely a local in sight. I didn't come to China to be surrounded by Westerners, and Brits. If it was Brits I was looking for, I would have gone to Sydney. Boats allowing, of course.
Spent a couple of days doing not a great deal, except doing some wandering around. Much of it was trawling through some of the numerous markets, looking at all kinds of assorted cr*p, trying not to buy stuff I don't need (until I get a house to decorate, anyway), and practicing my bargaining skills. I picked up a decent knock off coat with removable fleece for probably a twentieth of what i'd have paid in the UK, and some socks (all sheep, of course) to replace the ones lost in the Seoul incident. Also realised that i'm now shorter on underwear than I had been when i left. What was this guy in Seoul up to?! The DVD stores are amazing, just for the sheer variety of stuff they had (most of which has barely hit cinemas) and also just how funny some of the covers are. Somewhere along the way of copying a film, they seem to manage to mix up parts of the cover (some correct, some relating to up to 4 other films, in sometimes 3 different langages), and also to install the wrong subtitles. Some of them seem to be for other films, and some are just random peoples conversations... Note must also be made of Paul's Steak and Eggs restaurant, unsurprisingly an expat haunt, where I had the best damned Fried breakfast I have probably had since my last trip to Greasy Lil's. And the (very) few of you who know what the heck i'm talking about there will understand just how long ago that was!
And so i trekked down to Shanghai to go to another holiday meeting. The best part of 3 days was spent indulging in the most amazing food and culinary delights, either arranged by the wonderful people i had got to meet - thank you DIST Shanghai - with a long feeling of dread (i had no idea what i was going there for, but it scared me) but turned out surprisingly well, or by Elysee who anybody who has ever one on to the TT and uttered the word Shanghai will know all about. Everybody lives for their stomaches in this place, and that works just fine with me.
View from the Bund across to Pudong in Shanghai
You know that for the Shanghai metro to have to have introduced such a sign, they must have had some serious trouble in the past...
I had a little scare wandering in to the hostel bar the first night straight into a Swedish language film, which took me a while to accept that i wasn't halucinating and it was actually being shown, and also caught King Kong on a stupendously fake DVD, complete with random people standing up, popcorn throwing, and the recorders hand coming over the camera to hide the light for a while) which turned out to be an OK film, but not really 3 hours worth. And i met a lovely Welsh girl, Helene. I know that i mention such occureences regularly, but i meet other Welsh folks so damned rarely in my travels that they are major events for me. If you don't like it, tough. Didin't have time for too much touristy stuff, but took a few wanders and saw enough to realise that I must return to have a proper look.
Shanghai Old City
Trekked back to Beijing for yet another meeting, and this one really was scary. I had to talk and remember some of that w*rk stuff. I had no idea what the heck i/we were doing when i was actually still working, let alone several alcohol fuddled months later, and they expectde me to be professional, articulate and knowledgeable. These folks must be mad! And was topped off by a looooong sloooooow journey through Friday Rush hour traffic with the taxi driver getting utterly lost, a still bemusing concept to me. And finally, at about 10pm on Fri the 23rd, I was done. And somehow it was time for Christmas.