The China Express

China is a land of mystery as much to those who live there as it is for those of us traveling through. Barbaric from the onset yet so refined, China, is discovered in the little pockets of civility stashed away like veins of gold in a dark mine.

With the raw interpretation of our five senses we perceive how grotesquely dirty the land and air are in the cities and among the industrial districts where the world’s factories work feverishly, pumping pollutants into the air and water to cheaply satisfy the cravings of our materialistic and consumer bent western society. Unfortunately I didn’t really get a good look at the “real” Chinese country side, but from what I did see from the train in the daylight, still hours away from a major city was a land which looked simple, clean, and untarnished by the evolving world around it.

But even in the dirty cities, after a few days letting your eyes and nose adjust to the environment, a people and nation with such phenomenal potential meekly peaked out at me through the grime and smog; it was almost frightening.

My trip began in Shenyang, a medium large city in the far northeast of China, just north of North Korea. A friend from college, Everett Griffiths, has stationed himself there as an English teacher for a few months. My arrival was his excuse to get on the overnight train and take me on a trip into the capital city of Beijing.

The train itself was one of China’s shimmering streaks of gold; the train station was not. For far less money than what we would pay for a cheap motel room in the US, we got a clean bunk on a sleeper car for the 12 hour ride to Beijing. Our confusion in the train station about where to catch our train led us to ask questions of some uniformed officials, but they only made repeated demands for ten more yuan (US $1 = 8 yuan / slang: quai; 10 jaou = 1 yuan). Just as Everett and I were looking at each other, seeing if the other had clues to share, a nice Chinese woman, Anita, asked in English if we needed any help. She told us that they were trying to sell us insurance of some sort for the train trip. So much for trusting someone in uniform.

Anita’s English wasn’t strong enough to really explain what the insurance was, but it didn’t really mater. This experience was just another example of the mayhem that we slowly came to expect while in China.

Anita (her English name; her Chinese name is Zhao Hexiao) as it turns out is on the same train as we are. She is going to Beijing to submit an application for a student visa to study at the University of New South Whales in Sydney, Australia. She came back to our car for another visit after we pulled out of the station and gave us more travel tips for Beijing. Another streak of Chinese gold.

The next morning, after arriving in Beijing, Everett and I caught the last tour bus from Tinanmen Square to the Great Wall of China. It was a Chinese tour bus, so we didn’t understand a thing as the tour operator explained at some length about… well, I have no idea what it was about. It was on the bus that we met David. Born in the US, he moved with his folks to Israel when he was young, and he’s been living and working in Israel ever since. He’s on a 3 month leave of absence from his job with Intel to backpack around Asia. He told us of his adventures in India, Nepal, Tibet and southern China and that he was heading to inland China and the mountains after Beijing.

Our tour took us to a spot developed for tourists along a rebuilt fragment of the remaining bits of the Great Wall called Badaling, which translates directly into “Eight reach mountain ridge.” I was later told that this name was meant to indicate that you could get to eight sections of the wall from there.

At first, to hear that the wall had been restored and was constantly worked on was disappointing. I expected to see how time had treated the abandoned structure. But as it turns out, it was enlightening to see the wall in its full form as it stood many years ago, when Chinese guardsmen patrolled its great length, defending the dynasties that built the first (if not the only) man made structure which can be seen from outer space.

After arriving in China, I had to make a quick adjustment from the friendly passive sales attitude of the Japanese and Americans to defending myself from the aggressive, yet still friendly, style of the Chinese vendors. I already had such a mode preprogrammed in my mind after spending three months in Nepal.

“Bu yauo” was some of the early Chinese I learned, meaning “Don’t need.” And when said with a friendly smile, most vendors were respectful. But the need to constantly defending yourself is just another of the irritating aspects of this society. On the other hand, these pesky, persistent vendors may well have something useful, like postcards. I realized after I had fended off one woman in Shanghai, that I did actually want to buy some postcards, but the sheer aggressive nature of her sales style automatically put me in an defensive and declining mode. Something to watch out for: that their attitude does not blind you from what you want to accomplish.

Of the 16 Emperors of the Ming Dynasty, 13 of them have tombs clustered together in an area called The Ming Tombs. Our tour bus made a stop at one particular tomb known as Ding Ling. The tomb chambers are open to allow people to walk through the tomb chambers and around the gardens and grounds built to honor the emperor buried here.

It was dark when we got back to Tinanmen Square and we were ready for dinner. Everett and I had not yet found a place to stay but Dave said he had found a nice place for 35 quai a night (US$3). We stashed our stuff and were now on the hunt for dinner. As it was Dave and Everett’s last night in town, we found a nice small place serving the town’s namesake dish, Peking Duck.

The next day Ev and I didn’t really know what we were doing until we ran into Maria, a young lady from Melbourne, Australia who was ethnically Chinese and had spent some of her childhood in Hong Kong. She was heading to the Summer Palace on her own and in no subtle way, with her clever Austrlaian humor, suggested we join her. On the bus, we met Thecla from Ireland and Nadine from Germany. They were heading to the University of Beijing where Nadine needed to check out courses to study there next year.

The Summer Palace is a long way out of town by public bus, so it turned out to be an all day event. Well worth the trek out that way, it’s a simple series of buildings and shrines built along the northeast shore of Kunming Hu (Lake). It was nice to stroll along the lake as we appreciated the peaceful and pleasant environment. We could easily understand why the emperor and his crew had this place made. Afterwards, we found a bus that went right back to Tinanmen Square instead of the circuitous route we took via the University to get there.

While in Beijing, if you’re a visitor, especially if you’re a westerner, you’re likely to be approached by a team of two Chinese art students who would like for you to come have a look at their art exhibit. Again, a defensive reaction is common, but many are charmed by the students English ability and the defenses relax a bit. I visited a few of these exhibits, and they’re all quite nice. The situation seems a bit odd on the surface though.

The art galleries are often tucked away in the backs of other stores so it feels like an under-the-table operation. But when you stop and think about it, this is an example of the cultural revolution that so badly needs to take place in China. And, if they truly are “starving art students” they’re not going to be able to afford the rent for a high profile location. Ever since the communists took over China, artisans, free thinkers, and intellectuals have been suppressed into the government and militaristic scheme. My history and facts in the matter really aren’t that strong, but I do know this selling art thing is relatively new.

The only thing I remain skeptical about is, where does the art really come from? These students claim to have done the work themselves, and it all looks very nice but it remains a mystery to me. While in Shanghai, we were approached by more art students, and actually got into a conversation about who could buy their art. We told them to stop hunting down grungy backpack folk like us, but to look for the wealthier travelers who were wearing nice shoes, maybe had a nice watch or something like that. I don’t think it influenced their strategy.

Back in Beijing, Maria, Everett, and I had a great dinner of what’s called “Hot-pot.” It’s a doughnut shaped copper pot filled with a water and broth mixture which sat on a small burner in the middle of the table. We ordered veggies, meats, and tofu, which came to us raw and we tossed it all into the boiling caldron to cook away. It was a fun experience of dip, cook, and eat.

We wandered around some of the back streets of Beijing and ended up at Tinanmen Square again after dinner where Maria and I bade Everett farewell as he took the subway to the train station to catch his overnight train back to Shenyang as he had to teach the next day, Wednesday.

Maria and I headed back to the hostel. She had an early get up the next morning to catch a bus to the Great Wall, and I was going to wander the city to visit the various in-town sights.

I had to haul all my stuff with me as I was catching a train that night to Nanjing, another 12 hours south of Beijing. I didn’t really have that much with me, so it was no big deal. First stop was the Temple of Heaven. A large area where the emperor would go for a few days out of the year to pray for a “bumper” crop season. It was nearly lunch time as I came out of there via the north gate, so I picked up some fried chicken from a street vendor along with some corn on the cob and continued north towards Tinanmen Square and into the Imperial Palace, aka the Forbidden City.

The Forbidden City was another large complex with a few large cobble stone squares or courtyards where troops could assemble, farmers could setup market and where the daily business of the city was conducted centuries ago. The homes and shrines of the royal family were lined on the center axis of the city going from south to north and smaller shrines and abodes flanked along the east and west walls. Towards the back, or north end, there were gardens with ponds and what seemed to be a more relaxing environment.

The place was closing up as dusk started to settle in. As I was leaving, a group of soldiers dressed in their very strict and sharp uniforms marched past towards the flagpole to conduct the lowering of the flag ceremony. Soldiers are not an uncommon sight in China, giving the distinct impression that the Chinese are very fond and aware of their military. The citizens have a great sense of nationalism in this country and hold heavy grudges against anyone who opposes or has ever opposed China.

If you really want to send Chinese nationalists into a tizzy, ask them if they think Taiwan is doing OK as an independent nation, and they will assure you that Taiwan is not an independent nation and the Taiwanese love being apart of China. Ask them how they feel about the Japanese and you’ll find many of them still carry a heavy grudge for the cruelties the Japanese engaged in during the Sino-Japanese war. What the Japanese did to the Chinese is on the same level of what the Nazis did to the Jews, but the Chinese government continues to conduct public campaigns to keep these cruel events in the face of the Chinese people. Intending to feed the hatred against the Japanese, rather than just to educate. Ask Chinese nationalists what happened in Tinanmen Square in 1989. They will tell you it was a rebellious and riotous groups of students causing nothing but trouble. And if an official of some sort heard you talking about what “really” happened, you may well find your visa revoked and on the first plane out of there.

The next time you have a gripe about the western media or if you start feeling we are being suppressed in any sort of way, you will quickly be humbled by following a few stories about what’s happening in China via the China Daily. Check it out at and remember that websites like,,, etc. cannot be accessed from within China. Better yet, get over there for a visit yourself and look out for what suppression and government led conspiracies really exist in the world.

Here’s where things start to get scary about China’s potential. If the government would stop suppressing the people, and if they had the freedom that many of us take for granted, they could finally begin to pull all of their citizens (not just the rich and powerful) out of what feels like the dark ages. The potential for growth, in so many ways, is being suppressed and spring loaded only to explode louder and greater than the 1989 Tinanmen Square incident.

That night, Wednesday, I was ahead of schedule to catch my train to Nanjing, so I opted to grab a bite to eat before the 12 hour overnight ride. I purposely walked down a less popular and darker road leading to the train station to find an eating place unspoiled by the mass of tourist traffic that populate the many businesses along popular routes.

It was obvious I had found what I was looking for when I stepped inside my restaurant of choice and I saw the reaction on the faces of the patrons to a white face in their midst. I unstrapped myself from my bags, sat down at one of the square tables (of which there was about 10), thanked them for the hot tea they brought me along with the menu. I took out my Mandarin phrase book out to try and sort out the menu in the cold fluorescent light. An older gentleman, a member of the staff, looked over my shoulder into my phrase book and then grunted something as he pointed to one of the common dishes listed called Yuxiang Rousi. Fine, I’ll have that one then.

It turned out to be quite a delicious dish of shredded pork in spices and veggies, and I ordered some rice on the side. As I was finishing up, I was about ready to take a bow for the entertainment I had provided through their fascination of my use of chopsticks and amazement that I came at all. Just then a young man came into the shop and after some chattering and encouragement by the others, he approached, greeted and welcomed me in English. I told him the food was very good, but I needed to pay and go as I was catching a train to Nanjing this evening. This whole meal cost me just over a dollar and I waived good bye to the astonished but smiling faces of the half dozen staff members and handful of guests (whose interest in me came and went) and set off for the train station.

After only a few strides, I heard some calling behind me and turned as the young man who spoke some English ran up to me, reconfirmed that I was going to the train station, and then indicated to follow him. A short cut, eh? How cool!

He led me in the darkness of the evening through a series of narrow stone passageways, towered on either side by window and door-less stone walls of houses neatly packed in this small community. Just a hint of moon light cast a silver blue hue along the tops of the walls in contrast with the midnight blue of the pathway below where the light couldn’t reach my feet. I consciously tried to memorize the twists and turns we took before suddenly breaking out into the open of a small market right next to the service/back gate of the train station. We looped around the terminus of the many tracks at the main Beijing train station, asked a conductor which track my train was on, and found it. I thanked my new friend, and exchanged names. Csu Chi said he was a reporter and I think he said his wife ran the restaurant where I had eaten. He thanked me again for coming to their shop and welcomed me to come again. It became a battle of thank-yous as I did the same for him showing me the way. He jotted down his address and number, Now I need to sort out how to write his address so I can send him a card from the US. More Chinese gold: meeting Csu, the good food, that whole evening.

Nanjing was wet and drizzly when our train pulled in. It was my first experience of rain in China and actually quite refreshing. I instantly hoped it would scrub the skies and take some of the heavy smog out of my lungs. After a bit of confusion sorting out which bus to get on, I found a place to stay and called my friend in town, Dai, whom I had met in Japan and is now studying International Relations at the John Hopkins University branch in Nanjing. All the courses are in Chinese and there are quite a few westerners enrolled in the same program. However, since so much of the Japanese written language is imported from China, Dai has a distinct advantage over the western students. He understands most of the characters, so he just needs to learn the Chinese pronunciation. To that end, he’s actually taking five courses instead of the usual three keeping him quite busy and our time to hang out and catch up was limited.

Dai pointed out to me in the Lonely Planet guide book what sights I should make priorities and that was helpful in planning out my 2 days in Nanjing. Nanjing literally translates into South Capital, just as Beijing means North Capital. The location of the capital depended on who was in charge of the current dynasty and sometimes changed with the seasons.

The rain let up, and the air did feel cleaner as I had hoped. The skies remained gray as I left my hotel and started wandering around town first visiting the old drum tower, the central of the old city. The drums were used to notify the town of various events like the coming and going of the emperor, noble guests, and of an assault on the city. My guidebook said there was still one drum of the more than a dozen drums of various sizes that were once housed there, but I couldn’t find it. It’s now a nice little teahouse, which was completely empty save the two ladies running the place who were sitting at one of the tables chatting, and didn’t quite know how to react to me.

I also visited a smaller and much less significant bell tower, which still had its bell, but was surrounded by boxes as that space had been converted to storage. I walked quite a while, again, taking turns down small obscure streets and eating from the street vendors as it seems many of the locals do. It’s always nice to break away from the tourist track for a bit.

The ancient Ji Ming Temple stood tall in the gray skies of Nanjing and was quite amazing. It was built on the side of a hill at the end of a small road where countless vendors sold incense and trinkets. This temple appears to be a pilgrimage as people with their newly purchased incense would climb the many stairs, light their scented smoking sticks, and go through a ceremonial style series of bowing and praying with the smoke following the movement of their hands pressed upon one another in prayer. A small bald headed monk in a gray robe would wander around, answer questions, and maintain the candelabras throughout the temple. This all took place below a very tall multi-storied pagoda, the center piece of the temple. Like many temples and shrines in China, this one had been rebuilt several times after the many wars that tore through this city and from a lightning strike that nearly demolished the whole thing.

Nanjing claims to have, or have had the longest city wall ever built in the world at 33 km. Nanjing’s wall was unique in China because it made many twists and turns as it encompassed the city. Most city walls were laid out as squares or rectangles. Four walls, four corners, that’s it. Some of the wall of Nanjing still stands and the modern city has been built around the wall even incorporating the wall by building roads through the old gates.

Another major pilgrimage for the Chinese is a visit to the impressive Zhongshan Ling, or Sun Yatsen Mausoleum built up in the hills on the outskirts of Nanjing. Sun Yatsen made his mark in Chinese history by impressing upon communists as well as the Kuomintang the reputation of being the father of modern China. The Mausoleum is an impressive structure made mostly of concrete sculpted into typical Ming style architecture. On a clear day, you could get quite a view from the top, but I was not so lucky.

Early the next morning I caught the train for a three hour ride to Shanghai, the last city on my list for this trip. I had debated trying to get down to Hong Kong as well, but decided it would bit too much of a push. Shanghai continued the theme of gray weather but it really didn’t bother me one bit. It just added a mystique to this modern city and complimented its unique architecture. Shanghai also gets the gold star for being the cleanest city I visited in China. That’s a very relative term, however. But it has at least two advantages over other cities: One, the recent rain washed the ubiquitous dirt particles out of the sky and off the ground. Two, the city also has a history of resident foreigners bringing a modern and western influence to the city. The river however was disgusting. Trash and various unidentifiable substances continued to float along in the thick gray opaque waters. One sign along a riverside walkway gleefully commented that sometimes the river rises just above the walkway and people can enjoy splashing along in the refreshing river water. Maybe it’s just a seasonal thing, but for now… I’ll pass, thanks.

The architecture is pretty amazing. Many of the buildings you look at and wonder, “how?” “why?” “huh?” but it all seems to work because the collection of unique buildings in the city keeps any one of these unusual buildings from standing out. Just wandering around the city is quite fun, because you turn a corner and go “whoa, another one!”

One of these typical Shanghaiese buildings is the Museum of Shanghai. This is tops on my list deserving another visit next time I’m in Shanghai. The building looks a bit like a Dutch Oven and the inside is very well laid out. Displays are smartly arranged making for a very comfortable day of strolling around and checking out the ancient bronze sculptures, coins, jade, and other Chinese art. Guest exhibits also come through and I checked out the Mayan and Tibetan presentations.

Of the 33 hours I was in Shanghai, I managed to sleep not a wink. After cruising around the city, I ended up back at the hostel and met up with some other travelers who were keen go out on the town. The nightlife of Shanghai was difficult to find at first, but once we got going, things didn’t stop until a quiche breakfast at Starbucks around 7 am. I met up with a crowd of travelers from Australia, Finland and the US, and over the course of the night met a few locals as well as folks from Singapore, France, and Venezuela. There were about half a dozen languages between us and it was amazing to see who could join into which conversation going on depending on what language was being used.
The next morning, after getting back to the hostel bed I didn’t use, I had a nice hot shower, peeled away the smoke and sweat of the night and returned to tourist mode to continue exploring the city.

All on foot again, Ally from Melbourne and I, perused a few markets, and found a temple hidden amongst the modern buildings. Ally picked up a train ticket for Hong Kong, then he and I had a nice chat in a café while waiting for my bus to the airport to fly me back to Shenyang, the city where this adventure in China started.

Getting back to Shenyang, I was brutally reminded of how much colder it gets by moving just a few degrees further north. Everett and I went out to buy a space heater for the apartment and did other exciting stuff like laundry, which ended up freezing on the line when we hung it out to dry. We did get back in touch with Anita and she introduced us to a nice Chinese restaurant where we tried delicacies like duck tongue and other local dishes. Other than that it was just a matter of sorting through the photos I had taken while on the road and going out to the pub in the evenings after Everett got home from work.

I sensed relief as I started to make my way home after landing at the Nagoya airport in Japan. I still stood out amongst the general population in Japan as I did in China, but the familiarity of being “home” was comforting and appreciated. On the airport bus I had the opportunity to help clear up some confusion with some non-Japanese Asian people who spoke English but not Japanese. A funny twist of irony in my mind, the situation just felt a little backwards.

China was fascinating and those two weeks were just a preview as I look back on the experience and look forward to my next trip to add more adventures, to continue to hunt for that rare and precious gold. Yet, the adventure continues even as I e-mail with my new friends who are still traveling and experiencing the great adventure that is China.

About the author

Adventure Correspondent Cameron L. Martindell is a freelance adventure travel and expedition writer, photographer and filmmaker who founded in 2000. He has contributed to Elevation Outdoors Magazine, The Gear Junkie, National Geographic, The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Outside, Backpacker, Wired, Australian Geographic, and others. He has been to all seven continents and lived on five of them, including a four-month stint at the South Pole. Cameron has more than 10 years of mountain search and rescue experience, is an Eagle Scout, has been an Australian bush firefighter, competes in sailing regattas, plans national and international youth programs, guides Oregon rafting trips and Australian bush backpacking trips.

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