China Part 2: Red Capitalism

There is no free lunch in China. You have to pay for visiting monasteries, historic buildings, parks, mountains, lakes, scenic areas and nature in general. Anything remotely interesting has a price tag on it. Sometimes you have to pay just to get a look at a building from outside, entrance is not allowed (Three Pagodas, Dali). Government is not the only one collecting money, but entrepreneur locals do it independently by charging for using public roads (Shangri La) or ladders and bridges (Tiger Leaping Gorge). Nature spots are turned into neat theme parks with paved roads, curvy bridges and electric carts. Designed for mass consumption and tuned for efficient money extraction. Sometimes the theme park approach adds a nice touch, as it greatly simplifies exploring the area. Other times it feels just generic and tiresome. In some cases it may feel absurd, as you can enjoy exactly the same nature for free just next to the walled gardens.

Money extraction schemes can be cunning, as in the Stone Forest near Kunming, where the ticket booth is placed 3km away from the entrance. It is either a walk or a 3€ electric cart trip. As a reference, in China you can get a decent three pieces meal for this amount of money. Sightseeing is not cheap by any standards too. Entrance fees can reach as much as 30-40€ for top mountains. Student card is good to have nearby in order to get a discount (sometimes half the price). Paid attractions also are a sure way to summon tourist crowds, unless it involves a lot of walking. Eventually all of this was enough to kill all the interest in sightseeing in China.

Stone Forest was nice though.  A funky karst formation turned into a labyrinth set among lush green landscapes. It was naturally crowded, but at the same time large to provide solitude. Maze was challenging enough almost to get lost too. On the way to Stone Forest, a number of unwalled free-for-all similar karst formations was seen. So maybe another trip is in order sometimes for an alternative free exploration.

Otherwise Kunming was unremarkable apart from a) impressive sunsets, which seemed to go on forever b) having pig intestines for dinner that were gross and tasty at the same time c) putting  local buses into use. Thanks to Google Maps and a local SIM card, figuring out public transit has never been any easier. Just select the destination and it will figure out the rest. Turned out to be much cheaper than taxis and eliminated no need to deal with cocky taxi drivers, who spoke no English. Intense looks from locals on the bus were provided free of charge.

Progress of my journey (Part 3)

See Part 1 and Part 2

Bangkok (bus, ferry, 18€) ⇒ Ko Phangan (ferry, bus, train, 38€) ⇒ Penang, Malaysia (minivan, 12€) ⇒ Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands (minivan, boat, 21€) ⇒ Taman Negara National Park (local bus, 2€) ⇒ Jeruntut (train, 8€) -> Singapore (bus, 16€) ⇒ Penang (minivan, tuk-tuk, 17€) ⇒ Krabi (bus, 3.5€) ⇒ Surat Thani (bus, ferry, 6€) ⇒ Ko Phangan (ferry, 10€) ⇒ Koh Tao (via Chumphon, ferry, bus 24€) ⇒ Bangkok

Total: 175.5€

Krabi – Koh Phangan route was particularly interesting. I decided to save some money and do each step of the route on my own, instead of booking a package. The main motivation was to see if I can save some money, to gain some experiences (doing it a hard way) and to avoid tourist agencies. The result was saved 60 baht (one meal) and only minor additional hassle. Not really sure if it was worth it, but this is one way to do it.

I left out local transportation out of the equation, which can be expensive in places in Ko Phangan. Some examples. A boat ride from Had Rin to Had Yuan (2-3kms) is usually 200 baht and 300 baht if the boat driver is in a greedy mood. That’s 10-15€ there and back just to buy some groceries or book a ticket. Now that is a lot even by Finnish standards. There is no way to beat the system, apart from walking an overgrown jungle path, provided that you do not carry any bags with you. With bags the only way is to bite the bullet and pay whatever the boat drivers asks. Cartels are bad, mmmkay. Another example is that it cost me 300 baht (7.5€) to go by taxi from Had Rin to Thongsala, when I was leaving to Koh Tao. There were no other people to share the taxi in sight (damn party fiends sleeping till late) and I sort of had to catch a ferry. In comparison the ferry to Koh Tao was only 100 baht more expensive. Sometime local prices do not make any sense whatsoever.

On the subject of money

After traveling for three months from a city to a city, I am beginning to lose any idea what money is worth. Money is becoming something abstract of unknown value. When you go on a two week holiday, it is easy to have a point of reference of what money is worth, as you just compare the local price level to of your own country. Furthermore, touristy vacation is all about spending money anyway. For a limited time you get a nicely packaged experience, which you most certainly cannot afford back at home. But when doing a longer tour hopping from one country to another, the baseline price level becomes very vague and having no constant positive money flow makes matters even more complicated. What is cheap and what is not? Can I afford it now? Will I be able to afford in a couple months? Is that fruit shake worth buying? Should I buy clothes here or wait until I get to another place? Is one euro extra for a room really worth spending? I honestly do not know answers to any of these questions. Yes, experience is invaluable, but one extra fruit-shake does not change anything apart from giving you a momentary sugar spike. As for accommodation, you usually get better service and better quality for a higher price, but in the end does it really matter? As long as there are no bedbugs, I get a good night sleep and there are some people to chat with, I am ok with anything. Staying in a nice room does not matter in the long term, but as John Keynes put it “In the longterm we are all dead”.
The price dissonance is especially bad when you go from a cheap place to a more expensive one and keep lamenting all the lost cheap prices you had just last week, even if the actual difference is negligible.
Different currencies make the issue even more complicated. Is 100 baht a lot for a meal? What about 10 ringgit or 25 yuan? In all three cases it is the same amount of 2.5€, but interestingly enough 100 baht felt like a lot of money in Thailand, while 10 ringgit is a small pocket change. China was somewhere in between. My current strategy is to have a daily budget, which is actually somewhat higher that I spend on average. However, having an inflated budget gives a green light to indulging, which does not go well with my original low-budget strategy. Oh well, I guess I shall see if this strategy works out. Another possible strategy would be to spend money and worry later, which I guess would work very well at least in a short term. Then again the longterm effects are another matter…
Any comments on how to handle this mental dissonance are welcome 🙂

Progress of my journey (part 2)

For the first part, see here.

Bei Jing (night-train hard sleeper, 27€) ⇒ Xi’an (sci-fi fast train, 18€) ⇒ Luo Yang (bus, 2€) ⇒ Deng Feng (bus, 2.5€) ⇒ Zhen Zhou (0.7€) ⇒ Keifeng (fast train, 27€) ⇒ Shanghai (train, hard-seat, 2.7€) ⇒ Hangzhuo (32€) ⇒ Guilin (bus, 1.5€) ⇒ Yangshuo (sleeper-bus, 15€) ⇒ Zhuhai (on foot, 0€) ⇒ Macau (boat, 13€) ⇒ Hong Kong (Air Asia, 103€) ⇒ Bangkok

Total: 245€

Again, could be done cheaper (no soft seats or high-speed trains for example), but both were totally worth it for experience and quite a contrast to the hard seat, which is the cheapest train ticket available. Also it is cheaper to fly out from Macau than Hong Kong, but I found it out only after I had booked my flight.
Total for Helsinki-Bangkok: two months and one week of leisurely traveling and 622€, which is comparable to a cheap flight from Helsinki to Bangkok.

Good-bye China! It was nice visting you. Hopefully will see you again next March.

Money extracting schemes

One of the most popular scams in China starts with two cute girls approaching you on the street. After a series of generic questions (where are you from? how long in China? etc.), they invite you to a tea-shop, karaoke bar or something along these lines with highly inflated prices. The price list is not advertised of course and such a visit would cost you an arm and a leg. During my stay in Shanghai I met these con artists thrice. These people are so friendly, so that I felt almost bad declining their offer and exposing their scam. When asked directly about their scam, I hoped for a “fuck yoouuuu, I hope you get hit by a car” type reaction as it happened to fellow travelers. Alas, the ones I met were pretty good actors and became all confused and defensive, but lost all the interest and the mask of niceness at the same time. Plus body language never lies.
Another practice involves purportedly deaf people over-eager to help you hanging around ticket vending machines in subway. These people “help” foreigners buying subway tickets by pointing fingers on the screen (even if buying a ticket could not be easier). When you are about to get your ticket along with change, they demonstrate you a card with the message that can be summarized as “I am deaf, give me money”. The kicker is that you already have a couple of yuan in your hands, which makes resisting these artists somewhat harder. Very smart.
In yet another widespread money extortion scheme they get you to write your name and a sum in a notebook for one reason or another. Apparently according to the local customs, once you do that, that equals to a contract and you are supposed to pay the stated sum. Of course being an ignorant tourist, you can ignore local customs altogether (without feeling bad about it). I plan to draw a comic the next time I get this request.