Day 630: A Moment of Terror
You know that stomach-dropping moment of terror you have when you realise that you’ve just, like really, really messed up? I had one of those this morning. Last week, when I did this trip in reverse, I put my GPS tracking device on the window sill next to my bed (economy class gives you a bunk bed in a room with 32 other people) as it likes to have a window to look out of in order to get a signal. Nowt wrong with that, I collected it in the morning and all was dandy.
However, on the return leg my bed was nowhere near the window. I didn’t want to leave my GPS thing there overnight as if some light-fingered gentleman did grab it, I would lose all my GPS tracks for the last couple of weeks: including the proof that I had actually stepped foot in North Korea. This would not be a good thing.
So I did what I sometimes do and got a reading before I went to bed and then turned the damn thing off until I got up in the morning. This is why you sometimes see a dead straight line connecting two places on the map (see the ‘Proof’ link above^). As I’m going over the sea, it doesn’t look too bad and who is seriously going to think I took a helicopter from one point in the middle of the ocean to an other? As I tried to explain to the police in Congo, I’m not James Bond. More irritating was the fact that even though the GPS was on for the entire 48 hour journey from Lhasa in Tibet to Beijing, it didn’t pick up a SINGLE signal. On the GPS map it’s just a straight line – madness. It seems to be a problem with trains: I had the same experience in Europe and in Korea; my GPS just doesn’t like them.
ANYWAY, in the morning I woke up at 7am and put my GPS device on the windowsill. I was awake and sitting on a nearby bunk writing up my blog. At 8am the ship had docked and I got up to grab my GPS… and it was GONE!
I panicked. I threw my stuff in my bag like a madman and ran out of the cabin, completely freaked: I had lost my GPS, but worse: I had lost the proof I had been to the DMZ. Without my camcorder, it was going to be pretty tricky convincing The Guinness World Records to just take my word for it.
Thoughts flashed through my mind: maybe I could get them to search everyone’s bags and pockets as they disembarked. Really Graham? They’re going to do that for you and a thirty quid GPS tracker? Maybe not.
Damnit. I had held onto that little critter since Day 1 – along with my iPod and my backpack it’s one of the few things that I’ve carried with me every single day for the clast 600 odd days of travel.
As I rushed down the stairs to the ship’s reception area, I was greeted by a stewardess holding out in both hands (as they do when giving here – something I really like) my bloody GPS. A passenger had thought everyone had left the cabin and taken it.
I’ve never been so relieved in my life.
I felt like hugging her, but I thought it might not go down too well in this part of the world.
After that little drama was over, it was skip skip skip hop hop hop to the bus station in Qingdao. There were no buses to Shanghai this morning, but there were a ton this afternoon. I bought a ticket, dropped my backpack off in a locker and went out to find somewhere with wi-fi and beer.
Hmm… easier said than done.
Strangely enough for the place where Tsingtao beer is made (Tsingtao is the old pre-pinyin spelling of Qingdao – pinyin being the new spelling standard brought in by the communists – hence ‘Beijing’ instead of ‘Peking’), it was all but impossible to find a bar. But I shouldn’t have been so surprised. In China, and in Korea for that matter, the Western concept of drinking-for-the-sake-of-drinking hasn’t really stuck: meaning that unless you go to a dedicated ‘Irish’ or ‘American’ bar, the only place you can sit down and enjoy a swift half is in a restaurant: and you’re expected to order food with your drink.
I pounded the streets for hours looking for my Holy Grail, but it remained elusive. I made do with a restaurant: there was no wi-fi, but at least there was beer. And gloriously GLORIOUSLY cheep beer at that: 50p a litre. Seriously. I bought two.
But time and tide and blah blah blah soon I was saying tatty-bye to the remarkably pleasant German concession town of Qingdao and heading FULL STEAM to the Chinese Megacity One: Shanghai.
Day 631: Jew Loo Loo
I arrived in Shanghai at 5am, got into a taxi and told him to go to ‘Jew Loo Loo’ (downward tones, like you’re angry) as per Chris’s text message.
Chris and Debbie are old chums of mine from Liverpool. Chris was the quiet kid who got my bus (while I was busy swinging from the stair banister like a orang-utan and failing to impress Kate Nelson with my zany antics) and Debbie was my ex’s mate who used to go to the Krazy House and ignore me (that’s what the vast majority of girls did at that time of my life, so I don’t hold it against her). They’ve been living in Shanghai for a couple of years now, teaching at a local English school.
So, another couch to surf, only this time they couldn’t leave me a negative reference. Ha!! Chris and Deb work as teachers here in Shanghai, and as they left for work, I set out to get myself a Vietnamese visa, which (with any luck) should be the LAST GODDAMN VISA I NEED TO BUY BEFORE I ARRIVE IN A COUNTRY. And that, my friends, sets my pants on fire with glee.
What doesn’t set my pants on fire is when I waste two hours getting to the Vietnam Consulate (I made a couple of bad choices when it came to which trainlines to take), only to find that the DAMN thing is closed until Monday because of a Vietnamese holiday.
Given my camcorder is bust, my laptop screen is cracked, all my clothes STINK after being drenched in Korea, my shoes are on the verge of being banned by the UN inspectorate of chemical weapons and there’s going to be no way I’ll be out of here before this weekend, I was beginning to think that the gods had it in for me. But Chris and Debbie’s gaff was really lovely, situated in the leafy French Concession part of town.
As much fun as it is for an Englishman to take the piss out of the French, I do respect their tree-lined avenues: Britain and Australia could really do with taking a leaf (literally) out of the Frenchie’s book on this one: they look great, they keep you and your car in the shade and when the sunshine filters through the branches, the lighting would make Terrance Malik dance.
Back at Chris and Deb’s flat I found out that the wonderful David Collins from Lonely Planet TV was up for lending me a replacement camcorder (second series anyone?!) while mine got fixed. Better still, he would have it in the post tomorrow: which meant (if I was really lucky) I could be back online on Monday. Hallelujah!
Days 632-634: Rounding The Bund
The next day I set off to the part of town that had all the laptop hawkers and fixers, aiming to get Sony Jim sorted out – the large black blob to the right of the screen where the crack emanates is growing like Venom, and will very soon engulf the LCD entire. Quite what Sony where thinking when they designed a computer with a hard glass screen with a backing of floppy plastic I’ll never know.
Anyway, I scouted around for a price thinking oh this is China it’s bound to be cheap. Ha. No. The best price I got was 200 quid. Considering I paid 300 quid for the damn laptop in the first place, I, like Queen Victoria, was not amused. I resolved to plough on with the crack until it stops my ability to write my blogs, mess around with Photoshop and make nice videos for YouTube.
On Friday night Chris and Deb and I went out for an awesomely cheap curry-and-all-you-can-drink bonanza with their teacher mates. On Saturday, quickly shaking off the resulting hangover, we headed out to see The Bund – the Shanghai waterfront, complete with this HILARIOUS building:
My word – and I thought I had a dirty mind!!
Anyway, the OTHER side of the river (our side, the side of The Bund) is just peachy: very, very reminiscent of my hometown of Liverpool, well the nice bits – you know down by the Pier Head before they built that shed next door.
Next up I needed to replace my Vans. Wading through the hooky drain water in Seoul had left them incapable of ever smelling normal ever again: I had tried washing them TWICE in Chris’s washing machine and they still had the power to melt my face like the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Think wet dog with a soupcon of rendered fat and a sprinkling of sweat from a sumo’s butt-crack and you’re still not anywhere near.
We found the shoe supermarket, but as it’s China, there is pretty no way of guessing whether anything is real or not. But that wasn’t my biggest problem: that was getting my size. I’m by no means Sideshow Bob when it comes to my shoe size, but I guess that even years after foot-binding was made illegal, the Chinese have still got a love-affair with dinky feet and therefore resolutely refuse to cater for anyone who has feet any larger than Bilbo Baggins.
Eventually I found a pair that fit, the only problem being they were BRIGHT RED (should have figured on that – this being China and all). Oh well, maybe if I click the heels together three times… no, that doesn’t work either.
But given the Hobson’s choice on offer, I plummed for the scarlet slippers. Then I haggled the price down from 55 quid to 15. I’m good at stuff like that these days. We headed back to the flat with Sonic’s hand-me-downs and we watched British box-office flop ‘The Infidel’ which is about as funny as finding a lump on your testicle. In fact, it’s probably the least funny ‘funny’ film I’ve ever seen. Seriously: it was sub-Wayan brothers. If I ever met David Baddiel (the writer) I may have to break his hands with a hammer lest he attempt to write any more similar dirge, I would be doing the world a favour.
Days 635-639: A Fiery Dish of Hades
By Monday I was up and full of beans: the Vietnam consulate would be open. I headed down there and queued up for over an hour, only for them to stop taking applications when I was one person away from the desk. Come back after lunch. And the bad news didn’t end there. Chinese customs where holding my replacement camcorder. And they wanted – wait for it – 400 POUNDS in tax to release it from customs.
And it got worse: customs in China takes 5-7 days to clear incoming goods. Next Thursday is a ten-day holiday in China. Yes: not only did customs was 400 quid, they would also be keeping the camera for at least TWO WEEKS.
I did what any other swaggering squashbuckler would do in this situation: I went to the pub. I took along an American guy called James who had also just been knocked back from the Vietnam consulate. After a couple of jars of the amber nectar, we headed back to the consulate and got our applications handed in: the visas would be ready tomorrow.
Fair enough. Now: what the HELL was I going to do about this bloody camcorder? I decided it would be a Bully’s Special Prize of a good idea to take it down to laptop city (where the grass is green and the girls are pretty) and see if one of the many Sony shops down there could do a number on my camcorder in just a couple of days.
You have to understand: I’ve had camcorders fixed in the UK before and it’s taken them WEEKS just to diagnose the problem and MONTHS to fix the damn thing. But this is China, and I guess people are a bit more handy. James came with me and, unbelievably, there was a place that said they could have it fixed on Wednesday. I love the UK, but at some things it totally sucks the big one: this being a great example. Hurrah for China! The price they charged for parts and labour came to about the same as what they charge back home just to look at the bloody thing.
Much happier about the situation, James and I joined Chris and Debbie for a meal at which I stupidly ordered the pepper beef. Eek.
No, seriously, eek!
Amongst my other not-inconsiderable achievements in my life is the fact that I managed to complete the Curry Hell challenge at the Rupali restaurant in Newcastle, as seen in the Viz. I got a certificate and a trophy and man did it hurt to go to the toilet for days afterwards: for poos and wees.
But this pepper beef must have been concocted by nothing short of a madman. I’ve never seen so many chilli peppers, except when I visited that chilli pepper factory. And as we struggled to eat this fiery dish of Hades, the air-conditioning could not do anything to stop the sweat pouring from our brows, much in the manner of Ted Stryker.
The next day James and I picked up our visas and on Wednesday I went to pick up my camcorder only to find that when I tested it, there was a problem. It wasn’t recording or playing back right: dropping frames like the goddamn Chuckle Brothers. Can you come back on Friday?
Chris and Debbie were leaving on holiday tomorrow for Laos. That would be a no, then.
Eventually he said it could be done for six o’ clock in the evening tomorrow. Debbie, the legend that she is, said I could stay at their flat until I got the camera back, even though they wouldn’t be there. Cool! A Shanghai flat to myself. House Party!
No, Graham, that wouldn’t be very nice now would it?
So after a final meal (mmm…. pizza) together, Chris and Debbie left me on my Billy Lonesome the next day. They were having administration nightmares of their own: their school still hadn’t given Debbie her passport back (she had given it to them over a month ago to get her visa renewed). In the end (and at the 11th hour) Debbie did finally get her passport and they set off for the airport.
Bah! Wish I could fly.
Later on Thursday I picked up my camera and (joy of joys!) it was working again. I thanked the guys and headed home to put the growing mountain of video tapes from Nepal, Tibet, China, Korea etc on my hard-drive. Boring, but someone had to do it.
On Friday, I met up with James and we went to the Shanghai Expo together. I would have gone earlier, but I wanted to get it on camera, but to be honest I shouldn’t have bothered: the architecture on display just set me up for a full on rant which I’ll post in the Featured Column when it’s finished.
That night, Chris and Debbie’s mate Matt came over for a few beers and action movies while I backed-up the last lot of tapes onto my computer. Matt has done a rather spanking overland adventure of his own: Manchester to Sydney, and unlike the Oz Bus, he didn’t cheat by flying. I may need to pick his brains if I’m going to get from East Timor to Australia in one piece.
So that’s it: a week of errands and housekeeping. But now I was set on the blocks, ready for the starter’s pistol. I have everything I need to race through the countries of SE Asia in double megaquick time: just one hurdle remained: Taiwan. Given that Taiwan and China are mortal enemies, how on Earth did I expect to go from one to the other and back?