An overland journey home

Kiwi journalists Mauricio Olmedo-Perez and Charlotte Whale are taking the scenic route home from London.

Enjoying celebrity status in China

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Charlotte with some new friends. Photo / Mauricio Olmedo-Perez
Charlotte with some new friends. Photo / Mauricio Olmedo-Perez

We arrived at Shanghai airport, took the world's fastest train into the city centre and negotiated the metro system with surprising ease.

After five amazing but full-on days in India, everything seemed so efficient and clean. What struck me most was the quiet - no incessant honking of horns. Ah the serenity. But my inner calm was short lived - 'HHHHHHHOICKKKK!' - a man spat a big wad of phlegm onto the pavement right next to me.

As it turns out, it's the norm across all echelons of Chinese society to spit, in the loudest possible way, wherever and whenever you please. And they don't hold back.

Other than that I absolutely loved Shanghai. Strolling through the French Concession, taking in the futuristic skyline of the city centre, and enjoying the sites in the old town made for a great day.

The people were friendly and the taxis cheap - on the back of the drivers' seat were mini TVs - often playing features advertising New Zealand as a place to visit.

Of course, what would a trip to China's largest city be without a shopping expedition?

These days it seems almost everything is made in China and there are great bargains... if you are willing to look for them.

There's an area that houses a number of mega malls all filled to the brim with piles of clothes. The higher up the levels you go the better the quality but even then you have to wade through plastic bags full of garments. I bought a couple of things and managed to stuff them into my ever bulging pack. (I keep nervously checking it for signs of wear and tear because the rate I'm going it's going to explode on some crowded train one day soon).

After two days we had to get a move on and start our journey west across the country.

Stupidly, Mauricio left it to me to decide our next destination. I mucked it up a tad, organising train tickets to Wuhan when I had actually wanted to go to Wujuan - a town surrounded by quaint little villages, ideal to explore on a day trip.

Wuhan turned out to be a rather charmless city described as a "transport hub". It wasn't a total disaster though - it was in the right direction at least and further west than Wujuan, so that got at least one foot out of the dog box.

Unsurprisingly, Wuhan is not exactly a tourist mecca. We didn't see any foreigners while we were there, so I was somewhat of a celebrity thanks to my blond hair.

People would follow us for a good five minutes smiling away, a few daring to ask to have their photo taken with me. Others simply stopped and snapped without my permission. Of course I didn't mind. We just found it hilarious.

Even grown men would come up and shout "hello" and fall into a fit of giggles when I said hello back. Mauricio was mostly ignored.

Because of the lack of tourists, hardly anyone spoke English. Google translate became our new best friend. Every morning we'd anticipate what kind of questions or words we may need that day, take photos of the Chinese translation on my phone, and present it in restaurants and taxis. It actually worked quite well.

We got out of Wuhan as soon as we could, taking an overnight train to Huaihua. From there we aimed for one of China's most popular domestic tourist destinations, Fenghuang.

There were touts with signs for minibuses there as soon as we were exiting the train station. What is it with us and minibus rides on this trip? Something worth noting always happens.

We set off on the two-hour journey - overloaded of course - and had to change minibuses three times before even starting.

The first half of the trip was so bumpy my bum actually left the seat every few minutes. A sweet Chinese girl, with glasses that took up most of her face, started vomiting next to Mauricio not long into the trip.

On my side, a middle-aged man was making strange groaning noises and clearly had a flatulence problem. We stopped for a loo break... except it wasn't a loo, not even a squat toilet. It was an open drain intersected by chest-high concrete walls that were supposed to aid privacy. Except there were no doors. Lovely.

We got there in the end though and were rewarded. Fenghuang is a pretty little place with an old town centred around a river. The pagoda-style architecture was very romantic, especially when the buildings were lit up at night. We loved it and stayed two nights.

Again, the lack of western tourists meant I was one of the star attractions. More photos and pointing and giggles. Two girls, who we sat next to at dinner, bought us fresh kiwifruit juice in my honour. Mauricio still insists it's because they fancied him.

We have been eating so well in China. I think it's been my favourite food so far. Chinese is usually quite far down on my list of takeaway options in London or New Zealand, but what we've been enjoying is far from the gluggy sweet and sour pork I associate with the cuisine.

The food and flavours have changed as we've gone from province to province but across the country a popular method of cooking is on BBQs. At night, seemingly normal streets and alleys are transformed as they're lined with tables laden with a smorgasboard of delights. This made choosing food easier as we didn't have to decipher a menu: we'd just point out our meat and vegetables of choice and the vendors would cook them for us - or we could cook them ourselves at our table. Simple and delicious.

I'll tell you what though - they eat some mighty weird stuff here. Smoked pigs' tails and trotters that have a big stick of bone left at the end, no doubt to act as a handle off which to chew.

Crab kebabs that are literally that; tiny but entire crabs impaled on a stick.

All sorts of seafood that I've never seen before, most concerning was what looked like pink membrane blown up like a water balloon.

Stinky tofu with a smell so putrid it assaults your nostrils a good ten metres from where it's being cooked.

But the most curious is the chicken foot snack sold in supermarkets. A girl next to me on the train opened the packet like you would a muesli bar and started nibbling. It looked like a scary sinewy claw to me but she seemed to enjoy it.

I think I might buy one just to say I've tried it: I'll report back.

Some restaurants had live produce out the front: rabbits and ducks, fish and furry little things. They would be skinned and plucked, sliced and diced and served up to an awaiting diner just a few feet from the commotion in the kitchen. It wasn't unusual to see fish flip out of their containers and flop about the floor - sometimes out onto the footpath! These places probably wouldn't be my choice for a first date.

Overall we've found the Chinese very sweet and helpful and I can't help but be intrigued by them - living in a country that is as much stifled by government controls as it is a booming global phenomenon.

The one-child policy for registered city folk has been imposed for over thirty years now, and as the population has far surpassed one billion I don't necessarily think it's a bad idea. But I found myself studying people as they doted on their child.

Pregnant women drew my attention more than they do anywhere else. I couldn't help but think that they'd better make the most of it because it's the only chance they'll get.

As a woman I hold life's greatest privilege; to give birth. Something that even as a twenty-eight-year-old I find intimidating but also empowering. I may not have children. If I do, I may choose to only have one. But I do not like the idea of having that right to decide taken away from me. From my gentle inquiries it seems folk here just accept it and move on.

On the subject of children, I absolutely must add one more thing: It seems that nappies are not on Chinese parents' shopping lists.

In fact, most toddlers you see simply wear pants with a slit in the back. And if the need to go arises, they just go. On the footpath. In public. They are either held - hovering over the ground - by mum or dad, or they squat themselves.

Thankfully parents are equipped with a pooper scooper although I've been told this is not always the case.

It's just another of those social norms that is the complete opposite of what is acceptable behaviour in New Zealand. But that's what travelling is all about, learning about how other people live... and we are getting quite the education!

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