This is a collection of 71 videos (technically 70 videos and 1 slide show) from the Monkeetime adventure in China between August 27th 2007 and February 2nd 2008.
Sometime in 2006, myself and Derek have hatched a plan to head to China and explore it in great depth, way beyond what an average backpacker gets to do. A good way to do this sort of thing is to have a very large bank account and a 90-day visa. While the visa is not too difficult to obtain, both our bank accounts were remarkable for the amount of cash that they did not have.
This lead us to plan B: Get some jobs!
Using this thing called “the internet”, which is a network of several computers connected in different countries, we contacted a variety of schools which offered a variety of options, and out of those we picked Geng Dan College of the Beijing University of Technology. Beijing seemed like a good option for severe reasons: Being the capital city, it would have the best standard of everything which meant we wouldn’t be stuck in the sticks somewhere, starving. Second, it is loaded with phenomenal historical stuff, right in the city as well as nearby. Being a major (to THE) transport hub, it would also be very easy to arrange weekend escapades. And last, it offered a great opportunity to study Mandarin, which both of us have already been doing for a while.
Alas, on the 27th of August I loaded up onto a jetliner and made my way to Beijing.
The next six months were a hell of an adventure. Some of it great, some of it not so great, but all very very memorable. The school turned out to be a bit of a muppet show and an exercise in frustration, but on the upside, the accommodation we were provided with was beyond amazing (and free!) which made for a very comfy base. We spent our weekdays on work, study and local exploration, weekends on more in-depth snooping around the city, and every other weekend was a long-distance escapade. Thus, in the 6 months we spent in China, we got to see Beijing, Chengde, Datong, Qingdao, Xi’an, Shaolin, Chengdu, Kunming, Hainan Island, Guangzhou, Hongkong, and Macau. Aside of the main cities listed here, we visited a multitude of smaller towns, villages, and hamlets, got a rather rare glimpse into Tibetan areas of Sichuan, and did it all on trains, buses, taxis, motos, and on foot. This provided for a very intimate contact with China and the people living there, and pretty much burned itself into our memories.
Incidentally, 2007 was the year that I just discovered videography. My father gave me his digital camera with a video function, which I started experimenting with for no reason whatsoever. Before long, I was shooting random short films of everything and anything, and then when we headed to China I thought that maybe it would be cool to document the experience. At that time I had NO IDEA that this project would turn into a collection of 71 episodes, and that the youtube account would get thousands of subscribers. It was all uncharted territory back then…
When watching these videos, you will notice the progression of skill, both mine and Derek’s. The first few episodes were edited with Windows Movie Maker, which is a horrible little program and akin to doing dentistry with a stapler. Later I switched to a glitchy 4th version of Adobe Premiere Elements, which was much better, but still a little beyond me. Our acting, commentary, rough at first, was slowly improving. The Monkeetime style, however was set from the beginning: no bullshiting. If it sucks, say it sucks. If it is awesome, say it is awesome. Don’t lie to the next traveler. Slowly I was learning what to do and what not to do, what works and what doesn’t and so this is a learner’s project, but it is what it is, and while some parts are rough and hard on the eyes, I decided to leave it all for your enjoyment (or cringing) because however crappy the filming, it is still a China experience and I want to share it.
Here is a link to the 71-part playlist:
Click and watch it here, or just head over to www.youtube.com/monkeetime and pick your vid.
Now, 4 years into the videomaking, I cringe at seeing some of these, but as I said, that was the skill level, and those were the opinions of the time. I will not (and mostly cannot) change anything… The first episode is soooooooo fucking boring, I have no idea what I was thinking. I mean… 5 minutes and 20 seconds of… flight… Seriously? I did it mostly for myself, because I really REALLY enjoy flying, I get a buzz from being on a jetliner as the flight is the herald of the incoming load of adventure. But for a viewer not as keen on sitting next to an obese lady from Winnipeg (for 16 hours), the appeal might be somewhat diminished. So yeah, that’s how it goes. Some videos are less than entertaining, some are kick-ass, all part of figuring out how to film. The whole series was marred by a seemingly endless stream of technical difficulties caused by my HP laptop which was a morbid piece of junk. At some point, it decided to insert a strip of pixels into the right side of the videos, and I could do fuck-all about it. Fun!
In any case…
Following are the individual videos with some short notes about the content: what is it that you are looking at and all kinds of side info.
Part 1 – Beijing
This is the arrival bit. I flew Calgary-Vancouver-Beijing, got picked up at the airport by Mr. Wu, the school administrator, and got dropped off at my sweet-ass loft. The campus was located in Shun Yi city, not too far from the airport, and it is not the main Beijing University of Technology Campus, but rather a private affiliate named Geng Dan College. The school went all out on the accommodation, and they provided each teacher with a huge apartment with TWO bathrooms, fully equipped kitchen, massive living-room with a TV, PC, and a steady supply of internet, as well as a very cosy wood-finished bedroom. Derek had arrived a few days earlier, so we met up, and headed downtown into the Hutongs, which are the old neighbourhoods of single-storey dwellings which used to make up the majority of Beijing before the recent wave of development razed them all. For me, the Hutongs are an amazing part of the city – you are only 100-200 metres from major roads, but you don’t hear any noise – in fact, you might as well be in some dinky village in Tibet. It’s all bicycles, old people shuffling down the streets, dogs barking, and calm.
Part 2 – Beijing (2)
This video explores Beijing’s Temple of Heaven, the Metro system, as well as the Wangfujing shopping area.
The Temple of Heaven, literally the Altar of Heaven is a complex of Taoist buildings situated in the southeastern part of central Beijing. The complex was visited by the Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties for annual ceremonies of prayer to Heaven for good harvest. It is regarded as a Taoist temple, although Chinese Heaven worship, especially by the reigning monarch of the day, pre-dates Taoism.
Today the temple has come to symbolize Beijing, and usually is covered in swarms of tourists. We were lucky to be there on a somewhat empty day, but still found plenty of hippies feeling the magical powers of the temple.
The Beijing Metro is an expansive under-and-above-ground network which is expanding as rapidly as the city itself. When I first started working in China in 2003, there were only three lines. In 2007 there were five, and now, in 2012, as I type these words, there are 15 lines! The expansion is almost beyond belief, but it is in line with the general growth experienced by china in the last decade or so. A huge reason for this massive project moving as the pace it does is the insanely cheap labour force in China. Workers make about 50 yuan a day, which means any megaproject can move at high pace because it is never a problem to get things done with the amount of available labour.
The Wangfujing shopping area is hugely poplar with tourists, and as a result is covered in souvenir crap (which will fall apart about 30 minutes after purchase) as well as all kinds of food experiences. This is far from real china, as no one really eats scorpions, but everyone seems to enjoy a freakshow, and the place is always jammed with people.
The musical bit at the end of the video was filmed at the park surrounding the Temple of Heaven. That area is popular with locals who go there for exercise and relaxation, and everywhere you look there are small groups of people doing something they love. Thus you have musicians, dancers, tai-chi people, kite lovers, card players, snoozers, joggers, and so on.
Part 3 – Beijing (3)
This video picks up where we left off in Wangfujing. We both needed some cash, and back then we relied heavily on using travellers cheques. Chinese ATMs used to be horribly unreliable with western bank cards, and being stranded in the Middle Kingdom with no money is far from optimal. But as it turned out, changing TCs was also a grand pain in the anus, as it took forever. The amount of paperwork pushed, the amount of counting and recounting, the amount of stamps, and the number of people involved all would make you think that we cam in with 40 cases of cash and wanted to buy Nicaragua…
The blurb about the “hep bus” (the blood drive bus) is a reference to a tainted blood scandal that took place in the 1990’s in China. In the video I mistakenly name the Sichuan province when in fact the bulk of the problem occurred in Henan, and the scandal is now known as the “Bloodhead scandal”
From the early to mid-1990s a network of businessmen and government workers, known as “bloodheads”, set up hundreds of official and unofficial blood donation stations in Henan Province to supply the market for blood plasma created by hospitals and manufacturers of health products. The common practice of reusing needles, not screening for diseases, sellers traveling from station to station with false records to maximize their income, and the mixing the blood prior to centrifuging and re-injecting the separated red blood cells back into the peasant blood-sellers guaranteed the rapid spread of blood-borne diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis B.
Particularly in the province of Henan, tens of thousands of farmers and peasants were infected with HIV through participation in these programs. The blood stations began to be closed down in 1995 when the scale of the HIV outbreak began to become apparent. The ensuing coverup saw government officials take credit for dealing with the crisis which they caused, the harassment of journalists attempting to cover the story, and of whole villages dying of what was to them a mysterious disease because they had not been informed that they were likely to have been infected. On August 23rd 2001, the Chinese government admitted that 30,000-50,000 Chinese people could have been infected with HIV through illegal blood collections and sales.
Naturally, China being China, on August 24, 2002, the prominent HIV/AIDS activist, Wan Yanhai, was arrested in Beijing and detained for a month for leaking an internal government report on the Henan AIDS crisis.
After some random clips around town, the video moves to Tiananmen Square where we meet two young ladies who, while seemingly innocuous, are scammers. They immediately invite us to go for tea, the oooooold Beijing tourist scam. How does this work? Well, you get invited to go for tea by a cute girl, and, as a male, are unlikely to turn it down. And you dont want to look like a cheap-ass so you dont scan the menu too much. “How much could tea cost anyway?”. After a few hours of this, the bill comes, and you discover that the tea was US$ 50 per cup. Th girl seems to have disappeared somewhere, and got replaced by a guy with a big jacket and a tiny hat, usually holding a club or a steel pipe… and you end up paying. After you are gone, the girl returns, gets paid off, and finds a new sucker somewhere in the tourist areas of town.
Fortunately we were well familiar with this scam and we pissed away 3 or 4 hours of their time while practicing our Chinese, and consistently rejected any and all tea shops they tried to drag us into. In the end they got a slice of watermelon each, and we got rid of them. Hehehe…
Part 4 – Beijing (4)
First part is in the Tiananmen Square. I tend to gravitate to the square as it is the heart of the city, and almost the heart of China – surrounded by national symbols, huge governmental buildings, and ten million tourists, foreign and domestic, you know this is a special place.
During the imperial times half the square was firmly inside the Imperial City and off limits to most people. There was a huge ceremonial gate in what today is the centre of the square, and the centre was bisected by a pathway known as “the Imperial Way” or “the Meridian”, a straight line connecting all the main landmarks of the city. Along this path the emperor would make his way in a huge procession to the Temple of Heaven in the south to engage in all kinds of hocus-pocus prayers for good harvests… After the communists took over China, Mao Zedong decided to make the square into a huge public venue and surround it with monumental government buildings to impress the power of the party on the people.
In the west the square is mainly associated with the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations that resulted in the Tiananmen Square Massacre that occurred on June 4th 1989. These events are not mentioned in China today, and any talk of June 4th is quickly censored. In online forums people took to referring to these events as “May 35th” in order to bypass the censors. The square itself is fiercely secured by hundreds of cops, metal detectors, and all kinds of surveillance equipment installed on every streetlight and rooftop.
The second part of the video takes you to the Great Wall at Mutianyu, about 2 hours north of Beijing.
Part 5 – Beijing (5)
Part 6 – Beijing (6)
This video was filmed during the Teacher’s Day rally at the Beijing University of Technology… It was one of the more cringe-worthy events of my life, and the beginning of the end at the college… The show was cheeeeeeeeesy, random, and totally unfit for a “university”, though now, in retrospect, I appreciate the fact that this was a third-tier school and these kids could not have done better. Everything was random, or at least seemed random to us as we were not told ANYTHING about it, including the fact that we would be making speeches. Well done! And to top this off, we were supposed to be in Beijing that day to get our work permits in sorted out as our visas were about to expire. But no… This awesome rally was more important than our status in China. Weird.
Part 8 – Trip to Heng Shui City
Heng Shui is the place where I first started teaching English in 2003. There was some spare time, the weather was great, and so we picked up some tickets and got going. We had “hard seats” which was fine as the journey only takes about 3 hours. The train quickly filled with cigarette smoke and B.O., but that’s part of the fun. After arrival, we made our way to the school. Heng Shui high school is a top-performing high school in the Hebei Province, and as such gets quite bit of funding from the government, which results in some seriously awesome infrastructure and pleasant surroundings. I have seen this school transform from a drab, brick-clad shithole to a modern facility with all kinds of high-tech teaching aids such as video projectors, language labs, and so on. The students, in my opinion, were awesome. Very highly motivated, the kids were a treat to teach.
The school is used to receiving guests from all over China as well as from foreign countries as this indeed is a project worth showcasing. Because of this, they have several banquet rooms, and, sure enough, one was ready for us, filled with food. Mr. Yan, a dear friend who has been there for many years has then invited us to do a guest appearance in his class and to do a bit of a motivational schpeel for the kids. This was quite fun as we were already burned off with out “university” students in Beijing, so we shared some of our ideas about the difference between “good” and “bad” student habits.
Afterwards there was some more food, this time at a “meat on a stick” restaurant (“yangrou chuan” for the Chinese speakers), filled with random chit-chat and beers.
Part 9 – Heng Shui City
This video is a bit more unusual. We were randomly exploring various streets near the school, and when we got to the butcher street, it was a video orgy. Streets in small town China tend to specialize, so you have a hardware street, butcher street, garment street, etc., and while nuts and bolts are not great travel video content, the clip of dogs being processed for meat indeed was a stunner.
Some people think that the Chinese don’t really eat dogs and that the dog-meat stories are simply racist crap spewed by idiots. Some Chinese will also deny the whole “eating dog” thing, and some who don’t deny sure as hell are uncomfortable with it. Well, the evidence was right there before us. BUT… I don’t share the western opinion about dog meat. As soon as I posted this video, there were dozens of hateful comments and some interesting hate mail. But what is so particularly objectionable about dog meat? Just because YOU find it gross, doesn’t mean EVERYONE has to find it gross. My father hates shrimp. I love shrimp. You hate the idea of dog meat… But odds are that you are fond of bacon. Well, there are hundreds of millions of people around the world who think all forms of pork are disgusting.
In the end… We eat animals… There is no difference. And if you are one of those “but dogs are man’s best friend” people, you should know that it is hippie bullshit because dogs kill thousands of people every year. In fact, more people are killed by dogs than by sharks. In India alone there are about 30,000 rabies deaths annually, most caused by dogs. We really should be cuddling up to sharks…
But I kid. As long as you eat beef or pork, the Chinese are entitled to Fido.
The part of the video I did find objectionable was the visit to the Heng Shui Zoo. Contained in the People’s Park in the centre of town, it is nothing but a torture chamber for animals, as the cages are microscopic. It really was painful to see a bear, a tiger and a lion all locked up in enclosures smaller than your bedroom. Horrible stuff. Animals aren’t toys. Eat it, or set it free.
Part 10 – Beijing again
This video is a melange of random scenes that we encountered while roaming the streets of Beijing. First there was a visit to Hooters, just because. Then we tried to round up some tickets to Xining, a city in the west of the country, half way to Kazakhstan. We completely failed to secure the tickets, and ened up buying tickets to Shanghai instead, which was still ok, but Xining being farther away would be a more exotic and exciting destination. But buying tickets in China back then was a huge adventure, and when you threw in some language barriers – a near impossible task. What happens is the whole country goes on a vacation three times a year, meaning everyone travels and the number of available seats is unable to satisfy the demand. Scalpers make a buck (or several) by buying up tickets to popular destination well in advance, and then people have no choice other than to buy these at rip-off rates. Fortunately, as of January 1st 2012, China Railway requires I.D.’s to be presented at the time of purchase, which should effectively cut out scalpers. Whether or not these new rules are followed remains to be seen.
After some musical breaks, the video continues to a fight on a subway (unfortunately the video is a bit glitchy, courtesy of HP), and then a visit to a shopping mall where people are doing some freaky stuff…
Part 12 – Trip to Shanghai
Part 13 – Shanghai (2)
Part 14 – Shanghai (3)
Part 15 – Shanghai (4) The Maglev Train
This video is a bit boring to most, but due to the unusual nature of the content, I wanted to preserve as much of the footage as possible. The Shanghai Maglev Train is the only magnetic levitation train in commercial use in the world. Moving at a max speed of 430 km/h, it is a spectacular experience, and I could not make myself cut it down to a short video. Whatever. I think it was/is a great attraction, and everyone should give it a whirl.
Part 16 – Shanghai (5)
Part 17 – Shanghai (6)
Part 18 – Chengde (1)
Chengde, formerly known as Shangdu and Xanadu, used to be the capital, and a seasonal capital, throughout the different periods of China’s enormous history.
Part 19 – Chengde (2)
Part 20 – Tai Shan (1)
Part 21 – Tai Shan (2)
Part 22 – Datong (1)
Part 23 – Datong (2)
Part 24 – Datong (3)
Part 25 – Xian (1)
Part 26 – Xian (2)
Part 27 – Xian (3)
Part 28 – Xian (4)
Part 29 – Qingdao (1)
Part 30 – Qingdao (2)
Part 31 – Qingdao (3)
Part 32 – Luoyang – Longmen Grottoes
Part 33 – Shaolin Temple (1)
Part 34 – Shaolin Temple (2)
Part 35 – Shaolin Temple (3)
Part 36 – Chengdu (1)
Part 37 – Chengdu (2)
Part 38 – Leshan
Part 39 – Tibet-Sichuan Highway – Kangding
Part 40 – Tibet-Sichuan Highway – Tagong (1)
Part 41 – Tibet-Sichuan Highway – Tagong (2)
Part 42 – Tibet-Sichuan Highway – Ganzi (1)
Part 43 – Tibet-Sichuan Highway – Ganzi (2)
Part 44 – Litang
Part 45 – Bus to Shangri-La
Part 46 – Shangri-La
Part 47 – Qiaotou
Part 48 – Tiger Leaping Gorge (1)
Part 49 – Tiger Leaping Gorge (2)
Part 50 – Lijiang (1)
Part 51 – Lijiang (2)
Part 52 – Dali
Part 53 – Kunming
Part 54 – Shilin Stone Forest
Part 55 – Guilin
Part 56 – Yangshuo (1)
Part 57 – Yangshuo (2)
Part 58 – Dodginess in Yangshuo
This video is a more detailed clip of what went down between us and the owner of a little dodgy hostel…
Part 59 – Hainan Island
Part 60 – Guangzhou
Part 61 – Hong Kong (1)
Part 62 – Hong Kong (2)
Part 63 – Hong Kong (3)
Part 64 – Hong Kong (4)
Part 65 – Hong Kong (5) – Chungking Mansions
Part 66 – Hong Kong (6)
Part 67 – Macau (1)
Part 68 – Macau (2)
Part 69 – Macau (3)
Part 70 – This is China (slideshow)
As a finale of the whole experience, I decided to put together a slide show of some of the best and/or most unusual photos that both Derek and I managed to snap during the 6 months in China. For all the angry moments that make me us look like unhinged psychos, the whole journey was nothing short of amazing, and still, to this day, I remember that trip as one of the best in my life.
Thank you for going all the way to the bottom of this huge page…!!!