Bucket List

I recently saw the Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson film The Bucket List, and also read a couple of blogs about people travelling around the world ticking off bucket list items as they go. While I’m not anticipating my demise any time soon, the idea stuck with me as a way of documenting and organising my dreams and aspirations, and giving drive to my free-time activities.
So here’s the list of things I can remember at the moment. I’ll add to and update it as time goes by.

  • Sail across one of the world’s great oceans.
  • Have a book published.
  • Become fluent in a second language.
  • Climb the highest mountain on a continent (I don’t mind which continent).
  • Go parachuting.
  • Go bungee jumping.
  • Cycle the Pan-America highway.
  • Cycle the Paris-Brest-Paris.
  • Do the mongol rally.
  • Run a marathon.
  • Live for an extended time in the Netherlands or Denmark, the world’s two great cycling nations.
  • Live for an extended time in Spain or Italy, two of my favourite places in the world.
  • Be self-employed.
  • Visit over 100 countries (so far: 1. France, 2. Spain, 3. Italy, 4. Portugal, 5. Switzerland, 6. Austria, 7. Germany, 8. Ireland, 9. US, 10. Canada, 11. Netherlands, 12. Belgium, 13. Denmark, 14. Sweden, 15. Finland, 16. Estonia, 17. Latvia, 18. Czech Republic, 19. Greece, 20. Turkey, 21. Tanzania, 22. China).
  • Fill up a passport.

Beijing to Xi’an

At the end of a lazy holiday, I planned on lazily heading to the airport. My flight was at 3pm, so I had a very lazy morning checking out of the hostel and doing some writing in the hostel bar. I think I spent about 75 per cent of my time in Beijing in the hostel. I don’t mind though, it’s a really nice hostel, perfect for meeting cool people or just relaxing and reading or writing. Plus the air-conditioning is great. At about 11am I went to Starbucks by the Qianmen. Behind me in the queue were two Australian sisters, travelling together now they’ve retired. I helped them with their order, and then we sat together and talked. After they headed off, I got my Kindle out to do some reading, and then Greg and Australian guy I met at the hostel says hello. We sit and talk for an hour or so, neither of us seeming particularly interested in getting contact details to keep in touch, but both of us quite happy with the transient type of friendship so common among backpackers.

At about 1pm I headed off to the airport. Beijing has an airport express train. But, just like the Stansted “Express” in London, there was nothing “express” about it. In fact, just like the Stansted “Express”, it was old, slow, rickety, and a bit smelly. The only difference was the price. The ticket was ¥70, which is about 70p, whereas the last time I took the Stansted “Express” it cost me something like £25.

As I had an e-ticket for my flight and no checked baggage, I used the electronic check-in machines and headed straight to security. Despite having two hours to spare, I “accidentally” chose the express lane for people who’s flights are departing very soon. It had nothing to do with not wanting to stand around for ages of course, honest. The security personal with the metal detector wands were all pretty young women. I “accidentally” left my phone in my pocket and had to get a pat down. Oops.

I wandered around the terminal for a bit, wondering what to do with the two hours before my flight. I picked up a copy of China Daily, the state’s English newspaper, to see what’s officially going on in China. On the front page was a story about how the Chinese Yuan Renminbi is going to outperform all other world currencies in the coming years. On page three there was a full length column about a FOREIGN English teacher who was playing in a swimming pool and used his FOREIGN culture to throw a five year old girl into the pool. The girl was traumatised by this FOREIGNER’S actions and so now he has to go back to his FOREIGN land of New Zealand. Did I mention that the article said the teacher was a FOREIGNER. Finally, I read two short paragraphs on page four about six workers who died in an industrial accident. I decided to take the entire paper as a sarcastically written comment and analysis piece on priorities and China, and didn’t bother reading the rest of the paper.

As soon as I boarded the plane I realised I had quite a major problem. I had to pee really quite urgently. Must have been that bottle of water I drank about half an hour earlier. Not to worry, I thought, we’ll soon be in the air cruising and then I can go to the bathroom. We pushed back from the gate about 20 minutes behind schedule and started taxiing towards the runway. But we must have lost our take-off slot, as we then waited on the taxi-way for a little while. After five minutes I thought that we had to take off soon. But then half an hour came and went. I was in physical pain. The term “bursting” almost became a literal reality, and still we waited. After an hour of sitting around on the taxi-way, waiting to take off, we finally approached the run way and powered into the air. I was looking around for any sign that we were levelling out and seat belt sign was going to be turned off, but I couldn’t wait much longer. Eventually, despite the seatbelt light, another passenger got up to walk to the bathroom and I hastily followed to the other bathroom. Ahh relief. Crisis averted.

From Xi’an airport I took the airport bus to the Bell Tower, and then the metro back home. I’ve been in Xi’an long enough now that it actually felt like home after having been on holiday.

Beijing Day Two

I got up late, at about 10. I must have been really tired, since that’s about 11 hours sleep. I meet Kiki, the Swiss guy from the bar last night, and we had breakfast before heading over to the local shopping street that heads south from Qianmen. We had a look in Uni Qlo since he wanted a hat, and then headed up to Tiananmen square again.

We decided to go in the Great Hall of People of China. This is the meeting place for the National People’s Congress, so it acts like the Chinese Parliament. It feels like typically 1950’s communist architecture. You can tell a lot about places by the light fittings, and these looked like they were trying to be grand and simple at the same time. Exactly the effect an all powerful communist party would want to achieve.

Me and Kiki hit it off straight away with inane banter. We sat and looked at a large canvas with Chinese text on it. With our combined Chinese, we worked out it had something to do with three big people, and wondered if it was the instructions for changing the lightbulbs.

From the Great Hall, we headed to the main shopping street in Beijing. The street has air-conditioning units and vaporisers every 50 metres or so blowing out cool air and mist. It was a joy to slow down past these and cool off. We had a McDonalds lunch and then went to Gap. Gap had a sale, all mens shorts were ¥100. I considered it a lot, but decided that my one pair of shorts is actually enough.

After shopping, we headed to the new CCTV headquarters. I find it a little ironic that the state broadcaster in China has the same acronym as closed circuit television. Since Brittany answered the question of “what does it stand for?” a few weeks ago with “China Communist TV”, I can’t remember what it actually stands for and have to look it up every time. Ah, it’s actually China Central TV.

The reason for going to a TV broadcaster’s headquarters is the architecture. The building rises up on two sides, then extends out and joins up in mid air. It’s really quite cool.

After leaving the CCTV headquarters, I went back to the hostel to do some more writing. I was really getting into the writing but this point, knocking out several thousand words a day. A bit later on Kiki turned up and talked the evening away putting the world to rights.

Beijing Day One

I woke up at about 8am, wondering what had happened to the plan to get up at midnight after a power nap. I had a shower and then some breakfast in the hostel bar while I did some writing. At about 10am I headed out to see some of Beijing.
My hostel is on a street just south of the Qianmen, the gate at the southern entrance to Tiananmen Square. There’s a traditional looking shopping street running due south from the Qianmen with trams running up and down and western brands like Uni Qlo and H&M. Apparently the whole area was newly built before the Olympics to provide western tourists with a sanitised version of traditional China.

While major train stations in China have airport style security, every metro station in Beijing and major tourist attractions also have the same level of security. To get onto Tiananmen Square I had to use a metro station as an underpass, so one set of security checks, then to get onto the square itself I had to go through more security. There was a lot of security on the square itself, with police everywhere. I wonder why [cough]wikipedia[/cough].

The square is huge. In the centre is Mao’s mausoleum, which would have been interesting, but it was a Monday and he’s closed on Monday’s. Everyone needs a break from time to time. I wonder what he’s up to. On the east and west side is the National Museum of China and the Great Hall of the People of China. At the north end is the Tiananmen, the gate of heavenly peace (‘tian’ = 天 = heaven, ‘an’ = 安 = peace, ‘men’ = 门 = gate). The square is mainly just a vast expanse of grey stone with very little shade, so I don’t spend too long there.

After the square I headed north through the gate itself and into the Forbidden City. As expected, the tour guide hawkers were out in force. I deliberated paying the ¥60 entrance fee, but decided it was worth it. Inside the Forbidden City are lots of old buildings. There wasn’t much explanation of what was what, so I just followed the crowds heading north and took lots of photos. It’s all very nice and the buildings are beautiful, but it started to feel a bit samey. It was like going to London and seeing five very slightly different versions of Shakespeare’s globe one after the other.

North of the Forbidden City is a beautiful park with a hill in the middle and a pagoda on the hill. It looked nice and shady and not too busy. The entrance fee was ¥2 which seemed like a bargain to get a high up view of central Beijing and the Forbidden City. The view was great, but I did get a sense of scale. I had been planning on walking due north to the Olympic Park, it didn’t look too far on the map and I thought it would give me an insight into a swathe of Beijing, but seeing how far away the Olympic Park was made me reconsider my plans and I went to find a metro station instead.

I consider myself a reasonably street wise person. The last time I was scammed was in Prague around eight years ago. That time, me and my friend Alistair got into a taxi that had a dodgy meter. The driver wanted a ridiculous sum that we didn’t have, and we eventually got away with paying him £20 in cash after convincing him that it was worth more than it actually is.

This time, I left the park by the east exit knowing where I was going. Turn right to the main road, turn left and arrive at the metro. Maybe it would take 15 minutes at most. But I was immediately accosted by a pedicab driver. “Where you go?” he asked. “I know where I’m going” was by now my standard response. “Metro?” he asked and I must have said yeah, because he then offered to take me for ¥3. It was hot, I was tired, but I still had some fight in me and I bartered him down to ¥2. Bargain. I hopped onto the pedicab and we set off. I have a good sense of direction, and even though we went down twisty narrow side streets I still knew we were heading in the right direction. I wasn’t worried at all, he probably just wanted to avoid the busy main road and I’ve never felt threatened in China. My mind did have a slight inkling that ¥2 might be too good to be true, but I was on the way now. I got the ¥2 out of my wallet during the journey so I wouldn’t have to open it in front of him.

A few minutes later we got to the main road and stopped. The driver said the metro station was just around the corner. Cheer’s mate, here’s your two kwai, to which I received a torrent of abuse. “Er kwai! Crazy! No! Fare san bai kwai, tip er kwai! You pay me three hundred!” He wanted ¥300, about £30. Fuck off mate, we agreed er kwai, here’s your ¥2. He mimed drinking and managed to stumble through saying he couldn’t buy a drink of water for ¥2. No, ¥2, you said two kwai, here’s your ¥2. He then said ¥200. I then remembered from the map that there was another main road to cross before the metro station. I also realised that this was a big guy, and we were down a narrow unkempt side street with lots of closed doors. One of the doors opened and a guy looked out to see what was going on. I thought that if I play this wrong it could go very badly indeed. I had to show a willingness to compromise, so said I’d give him ¥10 – 5 times what I thought we’d a greed and a 20th of what he now wanted. I also remembered I had a ¥20 in my pocket – I could give him that without getting my wallet out – so that was my mental limit. He said ¥100, and I said ¥20 and took out my note and gave it to him and walked off, he didn’t say anything after me.

I was simultaneously very pleased to be out of a potentially risky situation and furious at myself for being scammed for the first time since Prague. Still, ¥20 is about £2.

When he said that the metro station is around the corner, what he meant was that he’d taken me about a third of the way and it was still about a ten minute walk. By the metro station I saw a McDonalds and thought it was an ideal time for a spot of lunch, then I caught the metro up to the Olympic Park.

Coming out of the Olympic Park station, I passed some awful looking fake old buildings. Grey concrete bricks built to look like a little old Chinese village. Exactly the kind of fake twee that I hate in the UK. I caught a glimpse of the Birds Nest stadium. It doesn’t look as impressive as it looks on TV, but maybe I was too far away. One of the common themes of studying urban geography is the decay of disused Olympic facilities. Barcelona 1992, Turin 2006. It’s been less than 4 years since Beijing 2008, and already the park is getting a bit shabby. Despite all the talk of legacy, I expect to have to write the same thing about London in a few years.

There’s a tripod shaped building with glass pods and the Olympic rings on top, presumably a building for media organisations. The glass for the lift shafts looked dirty and discoloured, and there was rust coming through the white painted steel. Onwards I walked across the endless expanse of grey stone. The sun was beating down, heating up the stone, and the heat from the stone was rising up. Great bit of urban planning, well done Beijing.

I reached the landscaped area around the Birds Nest stadium itself. The grass and trees made a nice change, the area felt noticeably cooler. The stadium is impressive, no doubt about it, but it did feel a bit smaller than I was expecting. I wasn’t going to pay the ¥50 to go inside, but glimpsing the inside from some open passageways I realised that the athletic field is quite a bit lower down – it’s dug out into the ground, requiring less super structure for the stadium itself. I didn’t see any of the Beijing Olympics – I was cycling across Europe at the time – so I was interested to see a wall with a lot of the medal winners carved in. I walked along to rowing, and saw that Team GB won a few things. Nice.

Across the vast expanse of stone was the aquatics centre with its plastic bubbles. The plastic looked old and discoloured. Now the world’s media isn’t watching, there’s no incentive to keep them nice.

Leaving the Olympic Park, I took the metro back to the hostel. I had a table to myself in the bar and got on with some writing. Later on, a Swiss guy motioned to ask if he could sit with me so I said yes. He was cool. He’s teaching German at a university somewhere else in China, and we agreed to meet up the next day to do some sightseeing together.

Qingdao to Beijing

I planned to have another chilled out relaxing day, taking the train up from Qingdao to Beijing and checking into the hostel.
A lot of the travelling I’ve done in the past few years has been rushing around trying to see as many deprived parts of a town as possible (urban geography fieldtrips) or rushing around trying to see as many ‘must see’ tourist attractions as possible (holidays with friends). I was having none of that on this vacation. This time, if friends ask “what did you do on holiday?” and I can honestly answer “not much, just chilled out and relaxed a bit” then I’ll consider it a success.

My train to Beijing departed at 12:08, so I had lots of time to amble around packing and having some breakfast at the hostel. Excellent. I like train stations, watching the world go by, wondering where people are coming from and going to. As I mentioned in my post about the day in Qingdao, I also really like train station architecture. St Pancras station in London is perhaps one of my favourite places in the world. I find the juxtaposition of grand old architecture and grand modern architecture really exciting, and I’d read that Qingdao’s train station was old and had been re-developed so I was eager to have a good nose around.

I went in the east entrance of the station, through the security that seems to be obligatory in major Chinese train stations, to see a gleaming marble hall. I went up the stairs to the overpass and to look across the concourse and tracks. The roof is a modern glass and white painted steel structure, sitting on top of the old Germanic buildings. It was quite tastefully done. As I was looking up at the building, I realised I was standing above a sleeper train with hundreds of people boarding. My Chinese is now at a point where I can recognise about 20 or 30 characters, and I noticed that the departure board said 西安, Xi’an.

As I waited in the departure lounge, I realised that my ticket for this journey was in the middle of the three seats across on the Chinese trains. I hoped I could do the same trick of playing the ignorant westerner and sitting by the window again, but when I boarded the train I found that the window seat was already taken by a fat sleeping man spilling over onto my seat. He had a single very long beard hair. How had he managed to miss shaving that one hair his entire life, surely he knew it was there? Anyway, close to departure I thought I might be in luck and the other seat of the three might be unoccupied, but just before we pulled out of the station, another fat man arrived, carrying a supersized bucket of KFC.

The train journey was very similar to the one from Shanghai to Qingdao. The train was modern and smooth, and had a little display announcing the speed. The fastest I noticed was 308km/h, although you wouldn’t know it unless you look out of the window. Squashed between two fat men, one of whom stank of KFC, I decided to bury myself in some TV on my laptop, and then do some writing. I watched the first episode of the new Armando Iannucci comedy, Veep (didn’t think much of it), another episode of Modern Family (excellent), and watched the new Tron movie again (excellent).

Arriving in Beijing, I had to buy a metro ticket to get to the hostel. Knowing the metro ticket machines in Xi’an, and how fickle they can be about accepting notes of different values and ages, I’d managed to keep a small selection when receiving change. But the machine didn’t accept any of my ¥10, ¥20 or ¥50 notes. I tried each a couple of times but to no joy. The person behind me in the queue was probably getting a bit frustrated at waiting, although he didn’t show it, and eventually offered the ¥2 I needed in coins. China sometimes feels like the friendliest country in the world.

At the hostel in Beijing I checked in and went to my bunk in the shared dorm. It’s a really nice hostel, with messages written on the walls from pervious backpackers. All the more amazing is that no one seems to have abused the privilege of writing on the walls – all the messages are nice. The dorm had 10 beds and was wonderfully air-conditioned.

It was already 5pm and I didn’t feel like doing anything in Beijing yet, so I headed to the hostel bar to do some more writing. I was definitely over my writer’s block by now. I also promised I’d call my best friend Jaine back in England, so found a spot with free wifi and tried to use Skype, but I couldn’t get through.

In the hostel bar a bit later I met some cool people that had spontaneously formed a group. About four of them lived in Beijing and the other four were passing through. None of us could remember each other’s names, but since we were all from different places and had different accents we called each other by places. I became ‘posh London’ since there was another Londoner, and we also had New Zealand, Ohio, South Carolina, Canada, Ireland, Iceland and Sheffield. We were all getting on really well, and it was turning into an interesting evening, but I was really tired. At about 10 I asked if they’d all still be there at midnight before heading out somewhere else and they said probably yeah and that they’d wait for me, so I went for a power nap. Clearly the power nap turned into a deep sleep, as I woke up the next morning at 8am.

Back to Reality

Apologies for the delayed service recently. I got back from my holiday in the evening on a Wednesday and went straight to work on Thursday. Today, Wednesday, is my first day off since my holiday almost two weeks ago. I’ve been working for 13 days straight.
Everyone gets the post holiday blues and needs a holiday to get over their holiday, but I crashed hard this time. My first weekend back, I was reminded that the air-conditioning in the school is rubbish, but is especially bad in my classroom which feels like a sauna. We’ve been told that it’s an old building and the air-conditioning struggles, but the building looks modern and is located in the newly developed north of the city so can’t be more than ten years old, the school has only been open for four years, and every other floor in the building is lovely and cool.

Having a slight tendency to indulge in conspiracy theories, I would blame it on the company spending only just enough on air-conditioning to keep us just happy enough to not complain too much. But, I’m reminded of the saying “never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by incompetence”. The three other branches of the school In Xi’an are so well cooled that apparently teachers complain it’s too cold, so I think someone from the company that owns the building needs to get a good kicking.

The annoyance at the air-conditioning was made worse by the water situation at my apartment. I’ve been having problems with the water going off several times a week, and perhaps once a week when I want to have a shower in the morning. After Saturday’s classes I was hot and sweaty, but I’m a morning shower person so I planned to have a shower on Sunday morning. Except I woke up to find the water was off again so couldn’t have a shower. I was in such a foul mood that I spent most of the day hiding in my classroom instead of being around colleagues in the staffroom. In the week and a half since then it’s happened a couple more times and I’m now at the point where I’m going to insist I move to a new apartment.

The old part time Director of Studies at my school moved to work full time at the other school he worked at, and since then he’s gone from being my boss to being a mate. I met him a week ago for brunch, and inevitably had a moan about all the things that annoy me about work. I pointed out that of the eight foreign teachers, only one is planning on signing up for another year contract, and several of us are counting down to end of our contracts (128 days!). He said at his school every teacher who’s contract is ending soon has signed for another year.

One of my complaints is the lack of Chinese lessons provided by the school. The job advert and interview, and even my contract, says that I’m entitled to one free Chinese lesson a week. In almost eight months I’ve managed to have three, and those were only after much badgering. I eventually lost the will to fight those kinds of battles so haven’t had any more. My DoS friend says at his branch of the school they have Chinese lessons timetabled on a Friday morning and they happen every week. At my school, the new DoS has made some progress, but it’s been around two months since he arrived and I still haven’t had another lesson.

In the weekly meeting when he told us about organising the lessons, he gave a stern warning of “three strikes and you’re out”: If we miss three lessons, then we don’t get any more. I wanted to say “what about the same policy for the school, if you miss providing us with three lessons you have to pay for them to be provided privately?” but managed to hold my tongue. I’d quite happily sign a “one strike and I’m out” letter stating that if I miss one lesson then I’ll waive my right entirely to Chinese lessons. I just want the Chinese lessons that I’m contractually entitled to.

One good thing the school has done after I complained is to run the Teacher Knowledge Test course over the summer. The TKT is offered in the job advert and interview, and it is one of the reasons I chose this job over the two other job offers I had at the time. But the school only ran it from September through to March, and if your year contract started and ended during that time then you couldn’t complete it. My contract starts and ends at the end of November, and I eventually persuaded the school to run a second course over the summer. It’s clearly wanted as 12 teachers over the four schools have signed up. We’re only doing modules two and three though, so I’m preparing for another battle at the end of August to do module one before the end of my contract.

Enough moaning about work, now for something good. I have a new class, to elementary level students aged 16 to 20. It makes a really nice change all of my classes with young students, and as it’s a condensed summer course over three weeks we do activities outside school on Friday afternoons. Last week we went to Pizza Hut, this week we’re going to Starbucks, and next week we’re going to Laser Quest.

A note to my bosses and colleagues who I know read this: everything I’ve complained about in this blog post are things that I’ve complained about openly at work. Note also that I haven’t ever said on my blog which English school I work at in Xi’an.

Since my holiday I haven’t really had any time for socialising, but I have had a couple of bike tourists staying with me. Lots of people know about CouchSurfing, which is a really cool project linking people backpacking with people who have spare rooms. There’s another website with a similar goal, but aimed at bike tourers, called WarmShowers. Mateu and Martina are cycling from Barcelona to Beijing, and they stayed with me for a few nights a week ago. They’re really nice and we had a great time talking about Barcelona, about bike touring, and about life in general. I hope we can meet up again when I’m next in Barcelona!

My work schedule over the past two weeks has also meant I haven’t finished my updates from my holiday. I’m spending the day writing in Starbucks to catch up, so I’ll be posting all the updates over the next few hours (I hope!).


My day in Qingdao was very lazy, just as I’d planned it to be.
I had breakfast at the hostel then went for a walk. Qingdao used to be a German concession, and the architecture of the old city still shows this. The older buildings look very Germanic and the streets are consistently built to a human scale.

First I headed to the Laoshe Park, and wandered down the hill to the sea. In the park there was an old man writing traditional Chinese calligraphy on the empty base of a fountain. He had a big stick and a pot of black paint. He took time with each character, looking like he was putting a lot of thought into what character to write and exactly how to write it to express the correct message.

At the base of the park I came to the sea. The sea front was heaving with people, and there was very little beach, just a few rocks sticking out above the water line. I took a random decision and decided to turn left, heading north east along the shore, with the sea to my right. Along the sea front I walked, a lot of the time unable to see the sea due to the rampant commercialism along the shore. I went up a hill and found Luxun Park, so went in to relax and watch the world go by. The park is high on a rocky outcrop with good views of the rest of the shoreline. I sat on a rock with the sea lapping the rocks far below. The scent of the pine trees gave the setting a very Mediterranean feeling. As ever in China, sitting down for that long, I became an attraction myself, with people taking photos surreptitiously.

Tired of the attention, I left the park to go to Xiao Qingdao, a scenic island with a causeway leading to it. By the start of the causeway was a Naval Museum, with four decommissioned war ships and a submarine. Scattered seemingly randomly on the shore was a weird collection of helicopters, missiles, gun turrets and other military paraphernalia. On the island I found a tourist-tat shop, so bought little gifts for everyone back in the office. Further around the island I found a coffee shop, so stopped for about an hour while I drank a coffee and got my Kindle out to read another chapter of the book I’m reading.

Leaving the island, I wandered back to the old city centre, with the goal of finding the train station to see how much of the original German station has been retained and repurposed in the modern station. Expecting the station to be like a Chinese St Pancras, I didn’t have the opportunity to see it – the station was across five lanes of busy road, with no obvious way across. I tried to go around, but found myself half way back to the hostel in the process. The Chinese town planners “won” that one, and I headed back to the hostel to do some more relaxing and writing.

As I ordered dinner in the hostel lounge, the waitress accused me of coming to China and spending all my time on my computer. I countered by saying that I’ve lived in China for the past seven months, that I’m on holiday now so I’ll do what I want and that isn’t necessarily experiencing more of China, and (quarter truth) I’m a writer so have been doing lots of writing, not just surfing the internet. She seemed very impressed at my claim to be a writer and let me off the hook.

After publishing a few blog posts and receiving the same cold shoulders from other self-absorbed backpackers as I had on the previous nights, I headed to bed.

Shanghai to Qingdao

Another early morning. That makes three in a row. I’m knackered.
At 7am I slip out of my hostel room as quietly as possible, trying not to wake anybody. I sleepily head downstairs and through the hostel’s tranquil central courtyard filled with patterned shadows from the dawn light filtering through the lovingly tended trees. The night receptionist, not fully awake herself, pays me my deposit. The peace and calm is serene, and I almost whisper xièxiè so as not to interrupt the quiet.

Then I head out into central Shanghai. Bam.

The hostel may be asleep, but the rest of Shanghai is certainly awake. Along the couple of streets from the hostel to People’s Square I dodge delivery vans, children cycling to school, fat cats in big black cars, hundreds of commuters on electric bikes, workmen pushing wheelbarrows. The square itself is no better, thousands of commuters all more important than everyone else power walking to work.

Down into the metro and I already have the ¥4 in coins I need for the ticket to Shanghai Hongqiao railway station. Despite the masses of people, the ticket machines are deserted. Everyone using the metro at this time in the morning are commuters with pre-paid cards, the tourists normally clogging up the ticket machines are still sleeping. Somehow, as I’m almost carried along by the sea of bodies, I manage to help a pretty girl carry her ridiculously large suitcase down the stairs. Perhaps she’s the only other tourist at this time in the morning.

I reminisce living in London, commuting daily on an overcrowded metro system, getting annoyed at the pettiest things like backpackers or tourists with wheely suitcases slowing me down. “Damn it, I’m going to be late” I’d curse as if the 5 seconds lost were really going to make a difference when the train wasn’t due for another 2 minutes anyway. Being a part of the commuter rush, but somehow also on the outside looking in, puts things in perspective. I’d like to say I’ll never glare at another slow tourist again, but in reality, at some time in the future, living in the moment, I’ll no doubt get as caught up in the commuter rush as everyone else does.

At Hongqiao station, like at every major station in China, I have to pass through security. The queues are long but moving fast. There are 12 distinct lines, with people moving back and forth trying to choose the fastest. As a relatively tall person compared to most of the Chinese, I can see that there are only actually four security check points but somehow each has three lines that merge into one.

Inside the station I’m in awe of the scale of the building. I look at the departure board. My train will leave from platform 3, at the other end of the concourse. I start walking and what seems like a long time later look back to gauge my progress. I’m a third of the way. I reach my platform and realise I have an hour to spare. I look around for some options for breakfast. I see a KFC high up and think, sod it, I eat Chinese all the time, now I’m on holiday I’ll eat whatever I want.

The population of KFC is a 50-50 split between Chinese and westerners, with most of the westerners looking a little hypocritically disdainful at the others for indulging in KFC. With my KFC to go I head to the little supermarket to buy snacks for the journey – Orion Pies (like Wagon Wheels in the UK), some chewy sweets, and a couple of bottles of water.

Downstairs again I wait for the gate to the platform to open. Twenty minutes before departure people start queueing, and I decide to join them. I reach the gate and put my ticket in. It doesn’t fit. In fact, it looks different to everyone else’s ticket. Oh boy, this is going to be a problem, what if my ticket isn’t valid, then I’m stuck in Shanghai. I force my way through to the assistant, and she clips a hole in my ticket and lets me through. Boarding the train, I find that my seat is the middle of five across, next to the aisle and with no view at all. I decide to sit by the window anyway and hope I don’t have any seat neighbours. Of course, another passenger turns up and looks perplexed at finding a westerner in their seat. I point at the window and mime looking out of it, then look back at them and shrug in a way that I hope conveys that I’d like to sit by the window to look at the view, if that’s ok by them. Seven months of improving my non-verbal communication must have worked wonders and they reply “hao de”, meaning ok.

At 9:39am the train departs right on time and is wonderfully smooth. It’s a six and half hour journey so there’s lots of time for window gazing. Watching China go past the window, and having just spent a couple of days effectively on an urban geography fieldtrip, I’m in a reflective mood about China and where it’s going. While my thoughts appear in my mind randomly from every which direction, eventually they start to form a bigger picture. Before I forget them I get my laptop out to write an email to Tass, even though we just spent two days talking about China, there’s still more to the story.

While I have my laptop out I also write a dull blog post about maglev train technology. I apologise if you managed to read that one to the end!

Even though I’m peering through the window in the direction of the sea all the way to Qingdao, my first glimpse of it doesn’t come until the train has arrived and I’m walking to the hostel. There’s too much industry on the coastline to see the sea from the train.

The hostel, Kaiyue International Hostel, is alright. It’s in an old church and the building has lots of potential for creating a great hostel. But there’s something missing; it just doesn’t have any soul. The lounge is too big and there are too few people that you’re not forced into sitting near anyone. I take my laptop out to do some writing, and ask a fellow brit if he knows the wifi code. “It’s three ten times” he says curtly. I ask if he knows the football result. “Italy won”. Does he know the score? “Two-one”. Well, he’s a friendly fellow. I try to initiate conversations with a few other backpackers and get similarly curt responses.

Clearly this isn’t the place for socialising, so I bury my head in my laptop and find that my writer’s block seems to be over.

I have so much writing to catch up on that I don’t notice the hours flowing past. By 9pm I’m simultaneously knackered and hungry. I decided earlier that I’m on holiday from China, so I have no qualms ordering western food. A pepperoni pizza later and I’m ready for bed. Three early mornings and two days of Tass fieldtrip have done me in.

By 10pm I’m asleep in bed.

A Day in Shanghai with Tass

The day certainly started early enough with a 5:30am alarm.
We had a flight booked at 8am from Xi’an to Shanghai. As ever with a flight, we worked out our schedule backwards. Even though we only had hand luggage we figured an hour at the airport to be safe, half an hour in a taxi getting there, and half an hour to find a taxi at that time in the morning. That meant leaving the apartment at 6am. So I set my alarm for 5:30am, allowing just enough time for a shower and turning off all the electrical stuff in the apartment. But before 6am is not the most wakeful time of day for me, and as I write this in my hostel in Qingdao I wonder if I remembered to close all the windows.

We found a taxi and I negotiated a price to the airport. Actually, while I say I negotiated a price, there was no negotiation involved. Nick had said he managed to haggle a taxi down to ¥120 to go the airport. That was my benchmark. I had to try and get it for ¥120 or less. The driver’s opening price was ¥100. I was so astonished at the low price I just said yeah, ok, hao de!

We arrived at the airport at 6:50am and proceeded to the electronic check-in. It was as painless as it should be, but isn’t, everywhere else. Enter your passport number, choose a seat, print your boarding pass. Done. We headed to go through security and were directed towards the VIP security lane with a red carpet. Me and Tass certainly didn’t look like VIP passengers, but maybe they put the English speaking staff on the VIP line and when it’s quiet in the morning it’s less hassle to have English speaking travellers use the VIP line. Who knows. Anyway, UK airport security could learn a thing or two from Xi’an airport’s VIP security check. Efficient, prompt, no hassle, no nitpicking over bags 5cm too big.

With an hour to the flight we decided to get a coffee. We headed into Segafredo. The Chinese waitress greeted us in Italian. “Buongiorno!” she said with a pretty good Italian accent. “Buongiorno, come stai?” I responded, but that seemed to flummox her. “Uno cafe latte per favore” I followed with. Nothing. It seemed I was going to have to do this in Chinese. “Wo xiang yao yi bei cafe latte huh yi bei cafe americano”. Progress! The coffee’s were ¥40 apiece, so Tass paid to even out me paying for the taxi. Drinking our coffee we discussed how much longer Chinese society can continue so economically unequal. With our taxi driver’s fare for a 40km journey he could just about buy two coffees.

After the coffee we headed to the gate and found we’d be sharing our plane with a load of stereotypical Americans. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I just hoped I wouldn’t be squashed in next to one of them. Apologies to all of my normal-sized American friends, but this group, every one of them, were clinically obese.

Arriving in Shanghai I immediately noticed the humidity. When I last visited at the end of April, Shanghai had been lovely and warm and I don’t remember noticing any humidity. This time, it felt like stepping into a hot rain shower, just without the rain. It was oppressively hot and humid. I could probably have survived without drinking if I could swallow the air.

In the terminal we searched for the left luggage deposit so Tass could leave his bag to collect for his flight that evening instead of lugging it around all day. I had no such benefit. I planned on staying in a hostel for the night before taking the train to Qingdao the next day, so had to lug my backpack around Shanghai for half a day, with the added annoyance of the straps irritating the sunburn on my neck and shoulders.

With everything sorted, we bought our tickets for the MagLev train that goes part way into Shanghai. We were a few seats away from the Americans we shared the flight with, who whooped and hollered as the train reached its maximum speed on that run of 300km/h. Me and Tass sighed in disdain, commenting that we’d both been faster on the Eurostar, TGV, ICE, AVE and various other high speed trains in Europe that were both quieter and smoother.

Continuing our journey to Pudong, we once again did the trick of going to the hotel lobby on the 56th floor of the JinMao tower to look at the view for free instead of paying the exorbitant price to go to the official viewing gallery. The viewing gallery, at the top of the building, would have been pointless anyway in the cloud. Exiting the wonderfully air-conditioned JinMao tower, Tass commented that going outside was like entering the tropical glasshouses at Kew Gardens. That’s exactly how it felt. Going outside in Shanghai in the summer feels like going inside an artificially hot and humid environment in London. With the dull dank sky and the close air it feels like a you’re in a dome. Any minute you expect to see the Chinese Truman Burbank come around the corner.

After Pudong we headed to People’s Square so Tass could go to the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall and I could go and check in to my hostel and drop off my bag. The hostel, the Mingtown Etour International Youth Hostel, was fantastic, with friendly staff, a lovely courtyard, nice rooms and clean bathrooms. I can’t recommend it highly enough and I’m disappointed I only got to spend one night there!

I met Tass an hour or so later and we went to the Bund. As Tass said that a section of the urban planning exhibition had talked about the Bund and it recently being done up with a bit of waterfront redevelopment, he was anxious to see it in person. As we seemed to spend a lot of time during my degree talking about waterfront developments as the initial step in wider urban redevelopment, me and Tass were looking at it from a completely different perspective to everyone else.

From the Bund we headed to the Old Town area, with Disney-fied old buildings. When I was in Shanghai last time I also found a really run down area near the old town, so I took Tass through that on our way back to a Starbucks for a coffee. Again we talked about the inequality in Chinese society. In sight of people living in shacks are the gleaming towers of Pudong. At 7pm we met my friend Neil to go to Blue Frog for a nice burger, and at 8 Tass had to leave for the airport, so me and Neil stayed for another drink to catch up properly ourselves. Finally, it was time for me to head to my hostel and Neil to head home.

At the hostel I met some lovely Dutch girls on holiday, and some French guys who have been studying in Beijing for a few months. I forgot how much I enjoy the fleeting friendships made for a day or two in hostels when travelling. But with a 9:30am train the next morning, and needing to leave the hostel at 8am at the latest to make it, I reluctantly retired to bed much earlier than most other backpackers.

MagLev Trains vs. Old Fashioned Trains

This post will interest maybe three people in the entire world, my brother James and friend Louise who work for TfL, and Tass, who was with me on the trip to Shanghai. Apologies to everyone else.
My degree in human geography, with a heavy focus on urban issues, my interests in cycling and liveable cities, my curiosity with trains, and my annoyance at inefficiency has made me very aware of transportation issues within cities and when travelling between cities. As a European I am, rightly, proud of the high-speed rail network invented, designed, built and operated across my continent. The high-speed rail network now stretches from southern Spain and Italy to France, Germany and Scandinavia, and it even has a short branch-line to London.

However, high-speed rail’s detractors say that it is still based on 200-year-old technology – steel-wheel on steel-rail – and cite magnetic levitation as the next big technological leap. MagLev, they claim, can achieve higher speeds and a smoother ride as there is no physical contact between the train and track. Despite the enthusiasm, maglev always seems to be about a decade away from adoption. Currently, there is only one commercially operated maglev passenger line in the world, from Shanghai Pudong International Airport towards the centre of Shanghai.

Having ridden the maglev train from Shanghai airport, I feel I can now make an informed comment about the future of the technology. In short: it has no future outside of vanity projects. I’m currently writing this (although I posted it later…) on the high-speed train from Shanghai to Qingdao. The train is a modified Siemens Valero on a newly constructed line. It has a design speed of 380km/h, but has reached 457km/h in trials. We’re currently travelling at 310km/h, and the train is so smooth that apart from the scenery flashing past the window at an outrageous speed, I wouldn’t know we were moving. There is not much noise, if it was within the Chinese character to speak softly in respect of other people’s peace and quiet, it would be possible to have a whispered conversation.

Compare this to the maglev. The train left the station bouncing up and down, I presume as it passed over different sets of magnets to keep it aloft. It accelerated quickly, but so did the frequency of the vibration from the magnet sets. The noise, while not loud, was still much greater than on the traditional train, and the top speed is only 50km/h faster than the traditional high-speed train. In fact, the top operational speed, at 431km/h, and even the record maximum speed of 501km/h, is lower than the world-record top speed of the TGV in France, at 515km/h.

So the benefit is the false promise of a smoother ride and faster speeds, and the disadvantages are many.

Traditional trains cannot use maglev tracks, and maglev trains cannot use traditional tracks. There is no hybrid solution, so any maglev system has to be completely segregated from the existing rail infrastructure. Why is that a problem? Well, a high-speed train can use low speed track when it’s more convenient. Instead of rebuilding the last 10 km of infrastructure into the city centre, the train can run at lower speed and share the network with ordinary trains. A maglev train would require completely new infrastructure right into the station, which then couldn’t be used by the existing trains. This is the reason why I wrote that the line in Shanghai goes “towards the centre of Shanghai” – it actually stops at LongYang metro station, which is nowhere useful, and you then have to continue your journey by traditional metro train.

Ordinary high-speed trains are a developed and proven technology, the infrastructure to build the infrastructure, if you like, is already in place. There are three or more different designs of train, from Alstom, Siemens, Hitachi and others, with those companies competing to produce the best trains for the lowest prices. The factories producing the rails and sleepers are already operating. The signal technology has been developed and is in use. The maintenance routines and service schedules of the equipment is known and quantifiable.

With maglev, although there is the passenger line in Shanghai and various development test tracks around the world, these are very much small scale proof-of-concept lines and not enough is yet known about the long term service reliability of long distance lines and trains in constant use.

So, my conclusion. Maglev is dreamy vanity technology, but with no real future.