After reassurances from the Korean Embassy in Beijing that we would have no trouble getting in to Korea, we decided to head for Weihai, ferry gateway to Incheon, Seoul’s port, and to the Opening Ceremony. Since the full story has already been told, I’ll just show the alternative that we contemplated.
A dawn swim to the East beckons
Actually, more than just contemplated…
Some things just leave a bad taste in the mouth
With only 4 days to go ’til the Opening Ceremony of the World Cup 2002 Japan/Korea, the ball finally reaches the other side of this 7000 mile wide continent. Holy Smoke, the sea air is welcome since our last sniff of English Channel air, the recent soup of Beijing air, oh yeah, and the self inflicted tab smoking. I can hardly believe that Chris, the ball and I, have made it this far and with only a short ferry trip over the Yellow Sea to the start of a month of football heaven in Korea and Japan, to go. So flicking through the Weidong Ferry Co. brochure we decide to treat ourselves to a Royal Class cabin for the 17 hour ride. “Not so fast, oh World Cup travellers….
So how does the ball and the FLH team cover the huge distances they have travelled across mainland China? The answer is the excellent Chinese rail network and its fleet of sleeper carriages.
Buying a ticket at a Chinese train ticket office is initially a challenge. There is no Roman alphabet in sight and staff often speak little or no English. The first step is to find out the Chinese characters for your destination of choice…
The Ball takes over the Square
The Ball found a quick visit to Tianamen Square irresistable, though it seemed like a place in which it would not be made welcome, despite China’s qualification for the World Cup finals for the first time this year. It decided to head onwards very quickly…
However, before it could roll onwards, the intrepid travellers conceded a goal to time in Beijing… the Forbidden City was forbidden by time-constraints as we struggled to arrange the final leg of our journey by surface, photocopying, typing letters, visiting embassies and writing emails. We got our trip description translated into Korean, and wondered what on earth it now says – it’s been “Chinese whispered” from English through Russian and Chinese into Korean. Well, here it is…
Outside the Terracota Army near Xi’an (where I launched a beautiful free kick over a wall of imitation statues) there are many tourist-tat-traders / thieves. We were surrounded quickly, our pockets felt and as always the Ball received much attention. This warrior couldn’t resist a touch:
Shortly afterwards, as our attentions were bombarded with diversions, I noticed the ball gone…
Terracotta Army! Make some noise!
Xi’an provided us with a day’s break between Xiahe and Beijing, and, of course, the classic photo-opportunity of playing football in and amongst the Terracotta Army.
Spot the player
…to Xi’an and deep into Han territory, heartland of the Chinese majority and the terracotta army.
The Ball rolls onwards
To my surprise, we’ve found a hospitable, vibrant and cosmopolitan city full of life and colour. And, as always seems to be the case, the individual people are peace-loving and friendly, despite my preconceptions derived from my experiences with Uyghur and Tibetan folk. Perhaps it is only collectively that we discriminate so cruelly against one another.
Anyway, the mission for tomorrow is to secure boat tickets to Korea from the CITS, see the sculpted warriors, and catch our onward train to Beijing – for which we only have hard seat tickets. I pray that we can get upgrades to a sleeper carriage when we get on the train.
And (at 3.30am) so to bed…
Gonpo our Tibetan manager
Meeting in the Labrang Monastery Restaurant with English speaking Gonpo, after a morning spent designing possible signs for their front door (with all the spelling mistakes of course, well, would we?)
Yes yes game with the monks will be good. Turn to three young monks, big smiles all round. Right, so tomorrow on the Tibetan middle school pitch 6 o’clock yeah, grin, yeah. Woah, hold it, not so fast, fourth monk say different, gonpo listens. What can he be saying? The mood has fallen. They cannot play here, they will be seen by concerned elder monks (see political comment here), the grasslands will be better. For the love of Jesus Dalai Lama Christ ‘n’ football ‘n’ life on this competitive road, let’s do it. Agree, agree. Our third game in as many days at 3000 metres. Ole, ole, ole, ole, ole, ole.
Well, secret from the authorities it was, we and they then bigged it up in a beautiful exchange of rules, tackles and yet again, this beautiful game…
Rain in Xiahe threatens to drown our plans
The second of our games in Xiahe was played against the Tibetan Middle School team. It seemed touch-and-go whether it would take place, as the first rain that we had seen since Kazakhstan came pouring out of the sky and on to the pitch. Undeterred, the school team turned out in force to face the tourists, now bolstered by Rob’s arrival from London and Tim’s reappearance from Jiayuguan.
At first we thought that we would be playing a combined monks-and-others team as we had the previous day, but politics intervened…
We advertise for a game
Our stay in Xiahe has – surprisingly – produced more games of football than anywhere else we have visited during this trip. The Tibetans are crazy about football, and play at every opportunity. With the help of Gonpo, who runs tours of the area and who speaks great English, we advertised our presence in Xiahe by posting a notice in Tibetan at the entrance to the monastery. Even though we managed to get the wrong date on the poster, many people started to contact us, and we played three games on three consecutive days.
The team captains shake hands
The first game took place on a school playing ‘field’ in the Chinese part of town…