Racing Across China

From Beijing to Hong Kong

Click here for more pictures from China.

By David Abel | Globe Staff | 1/29/2006

Earplugs shoved in, eyes tightened against the fluorescent bulbs above, hacking, snoring, and bleating cellphones all around, we shoot through the frozen night, clanging past desolate fields and impossibly crowded cities.

I curl up on what the Chinese call a hard sleeper, one of six coffin-sized boards stacked in our overnight train's doorless compartment, waiting for sleep to blur the 10-hour ride with my dreams.

Unable to move without knocking my head into the bunk above or plunging five feet below, I try to rest after racing through Beijing's massive, neon-lighted streets and crossing a sea of humanity. (Late on a Monday night, the sprawling train station everything in China feels gargantuan seems like New York's Penn Station at rush hour, only more crowded.)

Three days into a three-week trip that would take us more than a thousand miles from the bare, stone-topped mountains surrounding Beijing to the chaos of the pollution-choked streets of Shanghai to the serene, sampan-lined beaches around Hong Kong my girlfriend and I have already learned a few lessons:

Pointing to pinyin (the Roman letters spelling out Chinese characters) leaves most people as clueless as we are trying to read Chinese. City maps are about as useful for conveying distance as textbook pictures of the solar system (just crossing a street in Beijing, many of which are more than 14 lanes wide, not including the bike lanes on each side of the street, can feel like an epic journey). Northern China in the winter is about as temperate as the tundra. Oh, and everyone from grandmas to businessmen spits.

We might have discovered such things before leaving, but because my girlfriend had just landed a new job, we arranged the trip only five days before we left. We had long wanted to travel to China. And with luck finding reasonable fares $700 round trip from Boston to Beijing we applied for rushed visas and took off with no plan, other than to see as much as possible.

I had always imagined China like Napoleon's sleeping dragon, a giant still burdened by a long history of authoritarianism and communism. Instead, we find a nation awakened as a superpower. (A few days after our arrival, a government report announces China's economy this year will exceed those of Britain and France, making it the world's fourth-largest, behind the United States, Japan, and Germany.)

We also find that it's a place rife with irony and extreme contrasts. There are 2,000-year-old pagodas in the shadows of some of the world's largest skyscrapers. Tyrannical one-party rulers dissidents are routinely jailed struggle to control the chaos of 1.3 billion people. A new class of millionaires live large while some 100 million people remain mired in poverty, many unable to afford medical care.

My first discovery is a Wi-Fi signal at the airport. The hourlong drive into traffic-clogged Beijing also offers glimpses of the country's latest great leap forward: countless new Audis and BMWs cruising state-of-the-art highways; a canopy of pollution stretching over the city like a neon halo; a horizon cluttered with so many high-rises, many of them recently built, it makes Boston seem like a village.

Over three days in Beijing, we visit ornate Buddhist temples adjacent to ancient slums. We take 40-cent subway rides that put the T to shame. We get lost in dense crowds at tidy markets full of fake jade and Mao-waving watches. We sip green tea at restaurants whose windows advertise the carcasses of ducks, some next to a McDonald's or KFC.

We watch monks perform martial arts and acrobats contort their bodies in seemingly impossible positions. We brave the freezing winds under Mao Zedong's gaze on Tiananmen Square, a vast, mainly empty cement plaza, except for tourists, hawkers, and green-jacketed police. We tour the warren of old halls in the Forbidden City, making obligatory stops at the "four-star" toilet and Starbucks. We climb the pristine hills of Mutianyu to a restored portion of the Great Wall, a sight that lives up to all the superlatives. After enjoying the wintry solitude of one piece of the 4,100-mile delusion of various emperors' grandeur, we hop on an alpine slide down to the parking lot.

Groggy as dawn breaks and our train rolls into Nanjing, the capital at various times in China's history, we lug our backpacks into the cold of the sleek, new station. (For all their progress, it seems the Chinese have yet to master heating systems.)

A few minutes later, in a taxi to the museum commemorating the Japanese invasion in 1937 (one of Nanking's periods as capital), we hear what sounds like air-raid sirens. I make a bad joke that the Japanese are back; in a few minutes, with hundreds of people lined up for a ceremony next to the museum, we learn it is the 68th anniversary of the attack. The occupation and systematic massacres left an estimated 300,000 Chinese dead.

We spend the morning gaping at gruesome photos and mull it all over a tapas-like lunch of dainty, perplexing dishes. We later try out our five or so words of mispronounced Chinese on smiling, puzzled merchants and sneak into a regal villa honoring Sun Yat-sen, China's revered first president.

After yet another miscommunication, this one stranding us at the train station for a few hours, we take a two-hour trip east to a city called Suzhou, less than half the size of Beijing, with about 6 million people. We haggle to stay in what may be the planet's most elegant Sheraton a stately complex of humpback bridges, picturesque canals, and serene courtyards and spend the day roaming the city's renowned gardens, gawking at ancient pagodas, and passing on plentiful opportunities to buy silk.

A few hours later, we hop on another train, this one little more than an hour east to Shanghai. When we arrive around midnight, China's largest city is ablaze with neon-lighted towers, and it all feels about as foreign as Times Square.

Over three days, through a gnawing cold, we walk for miles, exploring the colonial buildings along the Bund and ascending to the top of the rocket-shaped Orient Pearl TV tower. We stroll through an old ghetto where the Japanese confined thousands of Jews during World War II and dine atop Pudong, a section of Shanghai where the only constant seems to be moving cranes and the flash of blowtorches used in building skyscrapers in every direction. We haggle in tourist-filled markets for knockoff bags and other baubles, and when my girlfriend leaves me to power shop on Nanjing Road, I spend an hour fending off a legion of prostitutes, who patrol the city's wide shopping corridor in high heels and long winter jackets.

We take breathers from the overwhelming pollution with forays into the city's sophisticated museums, where a certain freedom of expression thrives. At a small modern art museum, we watch a video of pigs feasting on a drunken man's table; at the urban planning museum, we stand in a wraparound video simulator that transports us to the future city; at a large history museum, we find ourselves dumbfounded at the spare-no-expense exhibits.

Rundown and in need of clean air, we take a two-hour train ride south to Hangzhou, a lakeside city dating to at least 221 BC.

With hills ringing the large, placid West Lake, it's easy to understand why the Chinese call the city paradise, even in the dead of winter. We take a small ferry across the murky expanse and stop to explore several island gardens whose beauty is impervious to the cold. We eat "beggar's chicken," a local delicacy in which the bird is wrapped in lotus leaves and clay. (It's one of the few poultry dishes to survive the nationwide campaign to isolate the avian flu.)

Before heading out yet again, this time for the airport, we do something we haven't done much since arriving in China. We relax. We dry our rheumy eyes in the hotel's sauna, then devour dragon fruit, a prickly, pink-fleshed monster of a flower that tastes like a mix of kiwi and watermelon.

Later, we fly to Guangzhou, formerly called Canton, an enormous city of some 10 million people in southern China. For years the country's most prosperous city, replete with flyover highways, acres of malls, and smog-veiled skyscrapers, it looks a bit like Los Angeles. Even the warm air is similarly velvety.

With only a short time left, we haul our increasingly heavy bags along narrow sidewalks to the closest bus stop. When we spy a large, modern bus in the parking lot, we jump on.
It's time for Hong Kong.

Under a bright sun, we leave the congested city on a dizzying, three-hour ride south, one that would require clearing two frenzied customs stations with hourlong lines, switching buses three times, having our passports stamped twice, and stopping for heat-sensing cameras to check whether we have any sign of fever, perhaps the avian flu or SARS.

When we finally arrive in Kowloon, the edge of the mainland just north of Hong Kong island, I quickly realize "one country, two systems," the former British colony's special status since China took over in 1997, means more than different currencies or a frontier dividing capitalism and communism.

There's the greater political freedom antigovernment protests in the parks and newspapers that print actual news. There's the beauty of the city's skyscrapers packed like a forest along the island's craggy hills. There's the human scale of the streets, many of which are lined by old banyan trees, lighted like day at night, and narrow enough that they don't require a marathoner's endurance to cross. There's also the ubiquitous English and slew of double-decker buses driving on the British side of the road, all providing a feeling of being at something more than a crossroads, a kind of prosperous merger of East and West.

After gorging on dim sum, basking in the skyline's laser light show's glow from the top of Victoria Peak, and negotiating a harbor cruise on an old sampan, we take a high-speed ferry though the South China Sea's bright blue waters to Macau.

On our short visit, we find that the 400-year-old former Portuguese colony, which also became Chinese territory in 1999, has more to offer than casinos.

There are the restored churches and other anachronisms, such as signs everywhere still in Portuguese. A large museum compares everything from the history of Eastern and Western philosophy to the derivation of the word tea "cha" in Chinese and why it is pronounced either "cha" or "tea" in languages around the world. (The difference results from where in China traders first bought tea.) But Macau's most important cultural contribution, in my humble opinion, is its small, freshly baked almond cookies, which shopkeepers offer by the handful to lure visitors into their stores.

Our spur-of-the-moment trip to China ends on a diversion.

In our rush to leave Boston, we had applied only for single-entry visas, not realizing that to return to the mainland, to fly home from Beijing, would require another visa. (The Chinese, to retaliate for the stiff price of US visas, would have charged us more than $100 each.)

But we discover a way around the issue, without another Chinese visa.
We fly to Vietnam.

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

IF YOU GO:United and other airlines offer flights from Boston to Beijing, often with a stop in Chicago or San Francisco. Fares generally run more than $1,000, but deals on the Web can get close to $700. And if a Massport-Hainan Airlines plan gains Federal Aviation Administration approval, travelers will be able to fly directly from Boston to China aboard China's low-cost carrier by the end of the year.

Where to stay
Marco Polo Hotels
The Marco Polo Hongkong Hotel offered a large room with a king-size bed and postcard views of the skyline for $125 a night.

Grand Hyatt
Jin Mao Tower, 88 Century Blvd., Pudong, Shanghai
The "highest hotel in the world" on the 53d to 87th floors is in the heart of Shanghai's financial district. The lobby has views of the Bund and Huangpu River. Rooms start at $250 a night.

Westin Shanghai
88 Henan Zhonglu
A modern hotel near the Bund and Nanjing Road, with a spa that offers after-hours de-stressing until midnight. Club deluxe rooms start at $350, including breakfast.

Sheraton Suzhou
259 Xin Shi Lu
A deluxe, five-star hotel surrounded by magnificent gardens. Rates start at $150 a night, including breakfast.

Where to eat
Beijing There are entire restaurants devoted to producing the city's most famous local dish, Beijing duck. Emphasis is on lamb, pork, and large, doughy dumplings. Staples are heavy noodles and breads rather than rice. Street food is plentiful, cheap, and of varying quality. Fast-food outlets such as KFC are ubiquitous.

Shanghai You'll find restaurants representing every regional Chinese fare, as well as cuisine from around the world. Here food is known for xiao long bao (steamed dumplings), hairy crab, and river fish. Its street food is the city's culinary claim to fame.

Hong Kong is dizzying in its choices. Don't miss the dim sum palaces, which serve from midmorning to midafternoon. There are more than a thousand kinds of dim sum, and many restaurants prepare 100 varieties daily, serving them from carts, often steamed in bamboo baskets.