A few days before leaving, I told some friends that I was gearing up for a three day trip from Beijing to Yangzhou. Yangzhou? This was a city I knew so little. This was a city that my friends knew even less. This was a city I was about to spend a fast and furious three day dventure.
Before heading out though I already had a few first impression of Yangzhou. My first impressions of Yangzhou came from going to local Cantonese restaurants in Canada and ordering one of my favorite dishes: Yangzhou fried rice.
Later when I grew older I became really interested in early travel writing, if you can call it that, when I was an undergraduate. This led me to read, among other things, Marco Polo’s travel logs that were published in English as “The Travels of Marco Polo”. While reading his writings – as well as works criticizing the books credibility - I learned that he was somehow involved in Yangzhou. Critics however were still out in terms of what role he actually played in Yangzhou with some stating that he was a mere passerby while others stating he was in fact the governor of the city. Quite a bit of difference between the two opinions, but nonetheless, on my mind it put Yangzhou on the map.
A depiction of Marco Polo.
A few years later, I also had the chance to read the actual work by the famed – although comparatively less known - Ibn Battuta. Who was Ibn Battuta? Well, if you don’t know Yangzhou you probably won’t know Battuta either. When I first discovered his journeys I was so surprised that I had never heard of him before given that he was basically the most badass of all travelers of the 14th century.
First, let’s get the boring part out of the way: Ibn Battuta was a Berber explorer born in what today we call Morocco. He traveled a little bit later than Polo but in the same era. That little bit of information is the only boring part of his amazing life.
He traveled extensively around the world in a time where even living in your village was a pretty darn dangerous adventure given the lack of sanitary conditions and the abundance of danger at every corner. And unlike many other earlier travelers he not only had the chance to live long enough but also had the idea to write his experiences down for posterity. During his travels, he not only went to West & North Africa, but also went to Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and explored extensively in Asia – in particular China.
While everyone knows Marco Polo, if you have a chance to read his work you will see why the little known Battuta is considered one of the greatest travelers of all time.
A depiction of Ibn Battuta.
Me, on the other hand, I was neither a Polo or a Battuta: I was a life-long student in a group that was to travel by the relative luxury of a train. I was not a Battuta, leaving without anyone I knew and going towards who knows where and for who knows how long. I was not a Polo, traveling to an unknown destination without any real idea of what to expect there. I knew exactly where I was going, with whom, and what I was to expect – to some degree. That said Yangzhou’s beauty surprised me in many ways and I could not think of a better group of people to go visit this still unknown land.
I was with a thrifty band of professionals working in the communication industry – in varying capacities - whose major priority was to maximize the experience and minimize costs. To further this end we decided to leave Beijing late at night in order to sleep on the train and save on hotel costs. We would leave by train the night of the 22nd and arrive in the early morning of the 23rd . Because we were an odd group of communication professionals, students and members of various governments, we were to be well received by the local government once we arrived
The journeys of Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta.
The journeys of me and my group – smaller but nonetheless interesting.
The Railway Station
Me and my compatriots met up at the Beijing Railway Station. It was easier – or so we thought – than meeting up beforehand.
A glimpse of the railway station.
I have always been fond of airports because of the exciting feel of people coming and going on adventures everywhere. But this was quite different. This was much larger. This was organized chaos. Meeting our group was quite hard amidst the chaos of everyday life at the station.
Facing the railway station & the lineups.
While I like to feel I am an “experienced” traveler - used to the coming and going of large amounts of people - the Beijing Railway Station stood before me as what the philosopher Kant might call a moment of the sublime: it was huge. It was bustling. It was there. I, on the other hand, was scurrying around the people trying to find my teammates among the crowds.
Unknown noises. Unknown smells. Our group gathered and finally made our way to the entry of the station.
With my ticket in hand I passed by security without any problems.
I wonder in fact what they had been even checking? The man – or better said very young boy – working the security x-ray machine looked like he was sleeping and people seemed to have been bringing a little bit of everything with them.
I had read online that Swiss army knives might be confiscated I had no problem going through with mine. Neither did I have any problem passing security with my bottle of unopened Mexican tequila that I took as a quick way to make local friends on the train.
After passing security we – the multicultural bunch of tourists that we were – slowly re-massed as a rhizomatic blob. We moved on and we were finally greeted with the beautiful interior of the train station that had all the necessities for overnight traveling that we could think of: snacks and coffee. We stocked up and made our way to our gate & what we called our “waiting room”.
We were surprised to see so few people inside compared to the throngs of people outside.
Not sure why there were tropical plants – did we just follow Alice in to the rabbit hole?
A quick look back at the security we passed through and off we were to look for our train.
We soon noticed that many of the shops were carbon copies of previous ones we saw and it was getting a little boring to see the same thing over and over again. There were rows and rows of the infamous “boxed Peking duck” that it seems many people like to buy and bring back to give as a gift. We definitely were not getting a box.
Finding our way to the right stop in the huge building.
Once in the “waiting area” for our specific train we caught a glimpse of the beautifully decorated ceilings that seemed to have been colorful remnants of the Beijing Olympics. It was definitely not the Sistine Chapel but it was nice to look at.
Random athletes next to random world attractions.
Not the Sistine Chapel but not terrible either.
The Railway Experience
Getting on the train itself was itself an experience to remember.
As we were a very diverse group of foreigners, with people hailing from a little bit of everywhere, we all had different expectations with regards to etiquette. In fact, we came from a total of 21 different countries and we spoke a variety of languages. Fate landed me to hang out with a band of Samoans, Canadians and Montenegrins while we made the initial foray in to the train. This did not lead to any serious conflicts but instead it made us hold up the train by quite a bit.
Our first glimpse to what would be our train.
Making our way to the train.
I quickly learned that some of us in our group have never taken a train before, and this meant that as a group we took much more time than the locals in terms of finding out where we had to go and getting ourselves settled. I think that our train was even a little bit late because of this.
Getting ourselves set up was quite hard at first.
With such a group we got quite a bit of looks from locals wondering where we were from and where we were going.
After throwing my bag on the top bunk of the room I head to the washroom and to my dismay found it locked. It’s one thing to find a dirty washroom but a locked one is the thing of nightmares. It was not until I asked one of the security guards there where I should go for the washroom that she unlocked it for me – they seemed to keep all the washroom stalls locked until the train gets actually moving. As I had been the first to use it the interior of the washroom was quite up to the proper standards.
Now that the train and my bowels had moved I went to my top little bed. Each open room there were a total of 6 beds: three on each side. I had the luck of being located at the very top at the highest bunk. As I was traveling very light I had no problem to put all my stuff up on the top but getting there was a bit of a challenge.
The top bunk only gave enough room for imagination and not much else. That is, practically all physical movement was limited to squirming and squirming I did. When I tried to take off my shoes I had to go on my side to fling a leg off the bed and finally untie my shoes. At this moment, I realized why slip on shoes were so popular.
This was a start to what would be a very long first night on the train ride. If you are a smoker I am sure the second hand smoke on the train would not bother you. But if you have just quit, taking the cigarette filled train was about as difficult as it gets.
My tempered love of nicotine - my one-time flame - was only kept at bay by talking with some local Chinese who were also taking the train. Even though we were leaving from Beijing none of the people I spoke with were from this area of China. In fact, it seemed our whole cart was filled with people from the Yangzhou area and most people spoke to each other in a Jiangsu language that was pretty much incomprehensible to my already tone-deaf ears.
While we communicated in various languages we did come to some understanding. It was really the people who were the highlight of this train trip as I got a chance to meet with and spend time with a group that I would have probably never met during my stay in Beijing. In particular, they were very curious why a whole load of tourists from a whole bunch of nationalities were all doing in Yangzhou. They were as proud as they were curious that we were going to their city.
Despite our language problems the conversations really started to flow when we shared some Tequila with the Yangzhou locals. They gave us some small oranges in return. We all smiled.
By now we were beat tired and most of us scurried back to our positions on the train while a group of elderly Yangzhou people stayed in the night playing cards.
Being at such a high level on the train you can really feel all the swaying of the train back and forth as it moves along the tracks. I ate some oranges and I tried my best to muffle out this sound by playing with my iPod.
When the lights of the train went off at 11 PM I was happy I had already packed all my stuff back in my backpack and had my iPod handy as it was almost bitch black in my room. At some point in the night, I believe I also dropped one of the last of my baby oranges from my top bunk. I spent a few minutes horrified – worrying if I had just dropped a small orange on an unsuspecting sleeper – but I quickly fell back to sleep listening to some jazz.
My view from my third floor perch.
Nice to see some heavy duty cleaning supplies hanging in the washroom – just in case of an emergency I presume.
I took art history classes as an undergraduate. I found that even my background in the fine arts was not fine enough to discern what this little painting was trying to tell the audience. Why was a leaf being inserted in to Canada?
Yes – the W.C..
This was a great place to splash some water on my face to try to keep my face hydrated – it was super dry on the train.
Arriving in Yangzhou for Breakfast
I am actually not sure how well I slept that night. I woke up a few times and finally woke up to a call made by a friend that I should get out and get ready to debark. Even when the doors were still a few meters away we could already get a sense of the fresh air that was awaiting us. Moving outside of the hot, stuffy tin can we finally greeted beautiful Yangzhou with our feet.
The train chugging on in the morning.
Compared to the heavy smog of Beijing where short breaths are the norm many of us greeted Yangzhou with a very large gulp of the fresh air. The air was even made all the more fresh given that we had been living in a cigarette filled - hot - train for the entire night. Once we were all off the tin can we sped across the train station and made our way to the bus that was waiting for us to take us directly to our hotel.
The hotel entrance made me wonder what it was before it was transformed into a hotel?
The hotel was tucked away in a bit from the major street outside. The photo is taken from the view of the main entrance looking at the main street under the arch.
A nice standard western style hotel room.
After living in Beijing for a while now and having a squat toilet at home, seeing a nice western toilet was quite a welcomed surprise – and it even warrants a picture. In fact, it even doubled as my office.
The view from my third floor room hotel was some of Yangzhou’s back alleys.
The entrance of the restaurant of the hotel.
Once at the hotel we quickly freshened up, had our breakfast, and headed out to the Slender West Lake.
My breakfast was simple and delicious – congee with preserved vegetables (xiáncài;咸菜), shaomai (shāo mài;烧麦) & a little watermelon.
Slender West Lake
While our rag-tag group may have been feeling rough we were going to a place where relaxation is one of the key attractions: Slender West Lake. Don’t let the terrible name fool you, this place is beautiful.
After a peaceful stroll of the lake, we entered a small garden and happened to walk into a group of older people who were playing what I later learned is an erhu (èrhú; 二胡). The two-stringed bowed musical instrument has sometimes been called the "Chinese violin". At first, I thought the base of the instrument was covered in honeycomb but it was in fact python skin.
I was very curious about the instrument and looked up as much as I could on my cell phone. It seemed that in the late 1980’s the local government passed some legislation after the PRC ratifying the “UN Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species” (CITES), making it illegal to use and trade unlicensed pythons and instead created a system to defend against poachers. To bypass this process all together, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra began research alternative to the use of python skin and came up with a polyester alternative. I thought of all of this while being half-asleep and wandering the peaceful lake. Whatever this specific instrument was made of, however, it sounded beautiful and the locals seemed to be enjoying themselves. I got lost in the music of the day.
We were then guided on these beautiful boats and were served tea and some local snacks.
The gold dragons on the boat were a little tacky but quite nice.
The view of our boats.
The view inside one of the boats.
On the boat and passing underneath a bridge.
After our journey we were brought into some buildings that had been built by local salt traders centuries ago. One of the buildings was called “Tingli Hall” or the hall of the oriel. Guarding the “Tingli Hall” were two cauldrons from the 5th century that were – as the tour guide told us – used to collect rain water in case of fires.
In the courtyard of another complex, which translates literally as “little golden mountain”, was a beautiful stone that seemed to be like a miniature mountain with little steps. I saw some people dropping in some coins and later I would see some others picking up the coins that were left. Inside one of the buildings of this complex was Guangdi Hall – named after the famous Chinese general and god. There was a reason for its name but I really forget it. I was still entranced by the music and the beautiful surroundings.
Guangdi Hall was named after this guy – one of the most awesome generals of ancient China.
The Bonsai Garden
We went back on the boat and headed to what we would later discover is an amazing park dedicated to what we in Canada would call Bonsai trees. Here we learned that Bonsai trees had originated in what we now call China. When the tour guide was telling us this, I could not help but feel that like anywhere else in the world, culture does not stop at current national borders. Instead, in the chaos of history and tradition are always made and remade in a constant state of flux.
Here, of course, the trees did not go by their English transliteration of the Japanese “Bonsai”, but instead by their mandarin name Penjing (盆景; pén jǐng).
When looking at all these little trees before us, I could not help but think just how long it must take to care for all of these plants. While some were definitely more beautiful than others it was a beautiful scene. In fact, one of us in the group fell so in love with the park that they asked one of the tour guides if they could get married here. He laughed and said she could.
With some irony, we first saw a map of the lake when we were leaving.
Old City Streets
After another boat ride we made it to what must have been an older part of the city.
While walking down an alleyway I saw this interesting little poster. In the past, being a very rich city Yangzhou was quite well known as being a center for amazing entertainment. Part of this entertainment included brothels. This explains, at least in part, perhaps, this little poster…
The poster states boldly that its clinic can help cure herpes, STD’s, etc in just four hours time! They can also cure impotence. In fact, their office is just a short bus ride away if you want to meet with them.
I had a good laugh. The poster reminded me of older American ads of the 1920’s that would go at great lengths to “scientifically explain” all the benefits of using a particular brand over another. This specific Chinese poster goes on a tirade scientifically explaining what is the STD and how their facility can help you – scientifically! Instead of checking out the clinic, we all head to our first lunch in Yangzhou.
The First Lunch
After the trip to the Slender West Lake, we made our way to finally have lunch. Here, the lunch really did not disappoint. We were given the royal treatment at the restaurant and the food seemed to just to keep on pouring in. By the time we were finished the large table had two layers of dishes somehow acrobatically hanging over the dishes on the bottom.
Round one of the food.
I am not sure if you can make out the brown covered cup thing in the back. It was super tasty and reminded me of a sweater version of kimchi that I had tasted when I was in Korea. All in all, despite how tired we were, we were all very impressed by the food.
Marco Polo Museum
After our wonderful lunch we were again carted off on to the bus as we were lead to the next destination: The Marco Polo Museum.
While my friend was very impressed with the small museum, many of us were very disappointed in the state of the place. It was painful and not worth the five minutes it took us to walk around.
The Venetian flag was one of the few things I understood at the museum.
The small museum was not short of interesting little displays such as this – none in English.
Random photos without any context seemed to be the norm.
The entrance to the museum looked like the entrance to a poorly designed tacky “Italian” restaurant.
Not only was the place very small but it had very little legible English, making it incomprehensible to most of the group. To make things worse some of the technical displays did not work. Maybe by now we had become accustomed to the beauty that Hangzhou had to offer but this little museum just did not cut it for us.
The 3D projected images were interesting.
Like Nietzsche said the ancient live on only if we give them the blood to do so and our tour guide did try valiantly to give the lifeless museum a little shine. Having read Marco Polo’s travels, however, I felt that the museum really did not cut it as being a museum. It had some nice pictures and some interesting display technology but in the end I felt it was poorly put together.
Exiting through the gift shop at the Marco Polo Museum
In parts, I felt it was written by people who had never in fact read Polo’s work and instead relied on Wikipedia articles and the like to create the aura of a Polo museum without ever having to actually provide any interesting information. I guess it’s like they say, the book is always better than the movie. Well, Polo’s book was much better than his museum. We quickly left and moved on – refusing to buy any of the Polo paraphernalia that was being sold. But I did kind of like that mouse pad…
The best part of the museum experience – the great escape.
Shao Bo Ship Lock Museum (邵伯船闸闸史陈列馆)
After the Marco Polo fiasco we head to what we later learned was called the Shao Bo Ship Lock Museum that understood was built in 2014.
The building was half museum half practical worksite.
While everything was said in Mandarin we were lucky that our tour guides were very helpful in giving the English run down of what is the significance of the building and the boat lock in general.
We learned that the lock was originally built by the Chinese Nationalists and it was quite a feat of engineering for the period.
By now we were mere shadows of our real selves – exhausted.
This display was a little bit strange as it had both super high tech film equipment next to what looked like children’s toys. I did in fact end up playing with one of the boats a little bit given I was getting a little bit tired.
At some points it felt that the museum was half finished.
Again, we were not really sure what to make of all the museum displays but we felt that here was much better than where we just where.
Some of the videos that were played were pretty professional.
Just steps away from the museum was the functioning ship lock.
We got to see all types of boats lined up getting ready to head to their final destinations – wherever they may be.
Again, dinner did not disappoint. We were told we were eating some Huaiyang Cuisine specialties, a specialty of the Yangzhou region. We ate, now exhausted, and prepared our way to go back to the train that would take us to Beijing.
For such a beautiful hotel we were surprised to see chairs thrown a little everywhere in the back. In fact, when I went to ixpect the chairs I found a lady sleeping on one out of view.
While I may never travel to the same degree and intensity of a Battuta & Polo, I also came out of this little trip a little richer. We ended our journey to Yangzhou with a big plate of the famous Yangzhou fried rice and in so doing I could not help but think of a line from T.S. Eliot: We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
It is only appropriate to end where I began – imagining Yangzhou fried rice.