About a month ago I spent five days in China and a day in Taiwan. Yes, a day…my workplace has an unspoken rule that all business trips must be as tightly packed and tiring as possible. It’s like the company is run by travel masochists.
I spent most of my time in China in an inland rural community about 500kms south-west of Beijing. It was everything I was expecting it to be – smelly, dirty, awkward and very poor. It reminded me a lot of all the documentaries I’ve seen about North Korea (a place I would love to go to just because it’s so bat-shit crazy.)
We stayed at the guesthouse of our clients who are a bit of a matriarchal power-house and who have most of the local community working for them. The guesthouse used to be a staff dormitory that they had ‘renovated’ and installed some of the latest mod-cons: shower stalls (that didn’t work), bum-washing toilets (that didn’t work), air-con (which thankfully worked) and a variety of the weirdest interior decorating I’ve ever seen (my boss had disco lights in his room).
I felt like I was in a war zone. Everything was broken and/or half-built. The air was so thick with smog that you couldn’t tell if it was morning or afternoon and I just constantly felt dirty. Even after taking a shower I still felt dirty because the water was gritty and smelled like manure. The view out my window was this:
Being blonde and a bit of a foreign attraction, they rounded up the local school children and asked me to talk/sing/entertain them for an hour or so. The local newspaper crew turned up and took photos of me leading a round of “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes”. The funniest part of that was that my boss also had to join in and we got a great video of him inch wincy spidering it with gusto (complete with hand movements).
They had their own in-house chef who cooked up a storm for us three times a day and every meal was eaten at a large round table with the whole family and an electric lazy susan. Holding the table in place while someone wrangled some food onto their plate with chopsticks was etiquette. The chef was also very good at vegetable carving and each meal come with some delightful animal:
Strangely, in that part of the country they don’t eat rice and don’t drink tea. It’s wheat noodles, warm water and fruit salad covered in mayonnaise (they take the ‘salad’ in the name quite literally.)
We did go out for one meal at a local restaurant and they had a delightful English menu with all the bad Engrish cliches you could possible hope for (“e.” stands for entrails, going by what it says in Chinese):
After a couple of days I was desperate for coffee and suffering caffeine withdrawals. I was also quite ill with stomach cramps which magically cleared up the day I left the country. I was quite careful in what I ate (no raw food) and drank (only bottled water). I also used bottled water to clean my teeth but I still somehow managed to get China belly. I don’t think my daily game of how long can I hold in my need to go to the toilet was helpful either. The toilets outside the guesthouse were quite horrifying and I vehemently refused to use any form of public toilet. I kept my water drinking to a minimum and thought happy thoughts of clean toilets.
We did quite a bit of travelling by road, train and domestic flights. The road travel was just insane – cars coming towards you at break-neck speed on the wrong side of the road, roundabouts where there is no rule for giving way so you just push forward and hope for the best. You also apparently need to drive with one hand on the wheel and one hand permanently on the horn.
The train was better, although I had a lot of misgivings about going on a bullet train in China. The journey started with a wait in line to get tickets where we witnessed several screaming matches between the ticketing staff and the people in line (apparently that’s a thing too…). Fortunately we forked out more cash and upgraded ourselves to business class so we had our own little cabin and sleeping pods that reclined full-flat. For a five-hour train journey that began at 6:30am that was definitely required and was probably the most well-spent $200 of our lives.
We spent a couple of days in large coastal cities like Ningbo and finally saw the sky.
The city was very large and modern and I felt like I was back in civilisation.
After dinner with our clients we were walking along and I saw Starbucks. They asked if we wanted something and even though it was 10pm and waaay past my normal coffee drinking hours, my boss and I were like, “Uhhh, yessss!” They got us take away grande lattes and I took it back to my hotel room, ready to enjoy it like the caffeine junky that I am, except I put my handbag down and then immediately dropped my coffee all over the minibar bench. I managed to snatch up the cup and drink the last mouthful but I almost cried at losing 99% of my first proper coffee.
The domestic flight was fairly normal (and there was Haagen Daz ice-cream in the inflight meal!) the flight to Taiwan however, saw me stuck inside a plane for five hours while the tail-end of a typhoon passed. I’ve never been on a plane before that has taxied out to the run-way and then sat there for an hour and then has reversed back to the gate. Looking out the window at the torrential rain and wind, I was very glad that we hadn’t taken off though. My one-hour flight to Taiwan ended up taking 6 hours and I eventually arrived only to discover that my hotel was not where I thought it was (not even in the right train station!) and I spent about an hour in the rain walking around trying to locate it.
Taiwan felt very much like Japan to me. The bullet train was just like Japan:
The Engrish was just like Japan:
The funky showers were just like Japan:
Maybe the hotel service was a bit beyond what a normal hotel provides in Japan:
There were also a tonne of Japanese tourists there and everywhere around me I heard Japanese. If I’d had more time I would have stayed a couple of days and done some shopping because I’m sure I would have been able to stock up on Japanese supplies.
So that was my trip. I certainly won’t be hurrying to go back again anytime soon.