Friday, February 14, 2014

Spring Festival Road Trip 1: Shijiazhuang

This year I decided to take advantage of the Spring Festival holidays by renting a car and going on a road trip through northern China. I was accompanied by my American flatmate and a friend of his from college, who has only just arrived in China. Although I have had a Chinese driving license for the best part of a year, I had previously never done anything more ambitious than driving on one-day trips to the countryside around Beijing. This was my first time driving anywhere really far within China, and I knew that whatever happened we would be in for an adventure.

Travelling in China one must always be ready for mishaps and unexpected events getting in the way of  your plans. During the Spring Festival this is even truer than normal, and travelling at this time is best reserved for people with stamina and some experience of the country. With hundreds of millions of people on the move and most businesses and shops closed for days, China cannot be said to be working normally even by its own pretty abnormal standards.

Driving a car is a fun way to travel, but it also adds a whole new layer of possible problems, from the car breaking down in the middle of nowhere to the highways being closed because of snow (both of which things eventually happened to us). What’s more foreigners driving in China are still rare, and outside of the main cities almost unheard of. We were three foreigners preparing to drive alone through some of Northern China’s remote backwater provinces during the Spring Festival. I was thus quite ready for unexpected, frustrating and/or hilarious stuff to happen, even though I wasn't quite prepared for the amount of things which did eventually go wrong.

We left Beijing two days after the New Year. In typical Western style, we didn't manage to get ourselves together and leave before one in the afternoon. Our final aim was Kaifeng, a city in Henan province which used to be one of China’s ancient capitals, and was home to China’s only ancient Jewish community. We soon realized however that we would never get to Kaifeng in a single day, so we decide to make Shijiazhuang, the capital of Hebei province, our first stop on the way South.

After an uneventful four hours on the highway we reached the exit for Shijiazhuang. Once we approached the city, we immediately started regretting our choice. I mean no offense to its three million inhabitants, but Shijiazhuang encapsulates all the worst about Chinese provincial capitals: it is grey, boring, soulless, sprawling, and completely lacking in history or culture, since it only turned into a city about one hundred years ago. The huge buildings which dominate its skyline absolutely fail to lend the city any air of grandiosity or affluence.

What’s more Shijiazhuang suffers from a terrible pollution problem even by Chinese standards, and constantly records worse levels of air pollution than Beijing, which is really saying something. The first time we opened the car windows, we could actually smell the pollution in the air. As I drove into the city’s urban sprawl, I started cursing myself for not getting those cheap tickets to Thailand.

We stopped at a chain hotel where they told us that they weren’t authorized to take foreign guests (a common problem with provincial Chinese hotels), but pointed us towards another hotel down the road which could. This hotel seemed quite nice and comfortable, until we checked into our rooms and discovered that incredibly there was no hot water in the bathrooms.

The turtle we eat for dinner
After a while we went out to find something to eat, but given that this was 初二,the second day of the year in the Chinese calendar, most of the city was still in a state of shut down, including its restaurants. The only places open where McDonalds, KFC and other international fast food chains. We were almost resigned to eating in McDonalds, when we were lucky enough to come across an open Chinese restaurant, where we eat a really good meal. Our dinner included a turtle, which I joked was probably from an endangered species.

After the meal we decided to sample the local nightlife, and took a cab to what we had been told is Shijiazhuang’s best bar street. When we arrived, we discovered that the “bar street” consisted entirely of KTVs and only a single actual nightclub.  The club followed the worst tradition of Chinese nightclubs: it was a brash, loud, chaotic and expensive affair, full of tables where groups of young men played dice games and munched on fruit. There was also a “show” consisting of a scantily clad young lady pretending to sing in the middle of the room.

Shijiazhuang's  poor visibility on our second day in the city
We quickly decided against buying drinks and rushed back to our hotel, looking forward to getting out of this poor excuse of a city the following day. After waking up the next morning and being unable to shower because of the lack of hot water, we went outside and were greeted by some of the lowest visibility which I have ever seen in my life. (seen! Ha) The entire city was shrouded in a thick coat of mist mixed with heavy pollution. Buildings 100 meters away had become entirely invisible. The PM 2.5 count was however only at the level defined as “very unhealthy” by the WHO, rather than at the “hazardous” level, so we concluded that at least some of the poor visibility was due to natural mist. When you live in China, you learn to make such fine distinctions.

Silently we drove along Shijiazhuang’s boulevards, in a post-apocalyptic scenery. We could only see the vague silhouettes of the giant grey buildings on both sides of the street, while unfortunate locals rode bicycles around us. We reached the exit to the highway, eager to get out of this hell-hole, when we saw that all the entrances had a big red X above them, indicating that they were closed. Fearing the worst, I got out of my car and went to inquire. A guy smoking next to his car told me that the highway was closed because of the poor visibility, and he had no idea when it would open up again. There was a whole queue of cars patiently waiting for the highway to reopen, but we thought better of just sitting there for what could be hours, and decided to take refuge in a nearby Burger King instead.

We spent a couple of hours in Burger King, munching on chips and reviewing our options. We had pretty much resigned ourselves to the idea of spending another night in the area, but once we got out of the Burger King we found that the highway had reopened. We quickly drove through the exit before they decided to close it again, all of us vowing never to set foot again in Hebei’s grim capital city.