This is my oooooooold blog from Winter/Spring 2003, the first ever trip to China, back in the day when I was a nice guy and George W. Bush was popular.
Originally on my website www.vagabondpix.net, this went offline for a few years, but now that I decided to share all these tidbits of my travels through youtube and this site, it was time to pull it all out, dust it off, and put up online for the world to see how weak my spelling is.
It is still a work in progress, as I only managed to get the first few entries into a post-worthy state, but it will all happen soon.
Enjoy. Or don’t. It was all typed out 9 years ago, and many of my opinions back then are not around today, but hey, life is a journey. My writing is fairly weak as I am more a video-guy than a book-guy, but some things are just about impossible to convey through a video, so I thought a collection of rambles could assist in illustrating the appeal (and the disgust) of China.
Or something like that…
‘February 6th 2003’
The flight was long and tedious. The Northwest Airlines portion was standard: tight and uncomfortable. During the stretch from Detroit to L.A. I was fortunate to be seated next to some nice folks who treated me to their own lunch (God forbid the airline toss you more than a soggy apple and a bag of crushed crackers…)
The L.A. – Beijing stretch was right up there with getting your head bashed with a frozen mackerel. I realize this is a weak analogy, but it was a weak flight… The in-flight movie was a treat, as it offered a neat distraction from the nothing, the nothing, and the nothing of the ocean, although hearing Julia Roberts speaking Chinese was an experience all of its own. I was slipping in and out of consciousness during the 20-something hour flight, with some short breaks when I strolled up and down the aisles and engaged in some very limited stretching exercises, mostly to kill time (another way to kill time was to enjoy the view of nothing, but from as many windows as possible, and also to take some pictures in the lavatory). During the flight I was seated next to a petite Chinese lady who could not speak any English, but it certainly did not preclude her from gregariously reaching over to my side to grab a few of my National Geographic magazines… Without asking. At that point I was ready to discount her action as a local custom. If only local to seat 35 E… I have arrived at the People’s Republic at 5:40 PM Beijing time on Thursday (that’s 4:40 AM Toronto time). The authorities were not interested in searching my luggage or even talking to me, but merely placed a stamp in my passport, and sent me on my merry way. I got picked up in a black, government issue Volkswagen Santana, which not much to my surprise had not been equipped with seatbelts, but it had a very sizeable ashtray. It also became obvious that the driver was suffering from a muscular disorder which gave him only a diminished, almost binary control of the gas pedal: it was an “all-or-none” situation, with the “all” dominating the “none”… Needless to say, my butt was trying to compensate for the lack of seatbelt by creating a suction attachment between me and the leather seat… Before arriving at my apartment, we (the school’s head honcho Mr. Wang, the heavy-footed driver, the other ESL teacher named Ryan, and myself) went for a dinner, deciding on a hot-pot style meal, which was actually quite delicious, or I was simply starved after having the pleasure of eating cheddar-flavored goldfish snacks for the entire duration of the Air China trans-Pacific flight… My apartment is quite nice, the internet is slow, but it’s there, and for some reason I have a fully decorated Christmas tree in the living room with a sign “Welcome to Our Shcool” (yes, SHCOOL…) stapled to it. An interesting welcoming procedure indeed, although I suspect the other teachers to be involved in this. All in all, the things are well, and I am ready to tackle my first full day in People’s Republic of China…
‘February 7th 2003’
This morning I have woken up to a series of explosions, first taking place at approximately 5AM, and still going on (It’s 9AM). The Chinese New Year is celebrated with some SERIOUS fireworks and firecrackers, but the related sound effects may confuse one into thinking that they are in Beirut, or at least Detroit… I had a good introduction to the local neighborhood. I took off on a nice hike through the area, clocking about 8km. While out there, I had generated some serious stares from the locals. The area I am in has only seen a few foreigners, numbering in single digits. The sudden appearance of a pasty, yellow-haired, round-eyed “thing” pacing down the street is essentially getting the same response as spotting a scarcely clothed Masai hunter at Yonge and Dundas in Toronto. Upon my return to the school, my co-workers have promptly offered an explanation for the stares.
What I had experienced was the “Blue Pig Phenomenon”, me being the porcine in question. Imagine one day talking to your friends over a beer, when someone brings up a little tid-bit of info that there is a blue pig free-ranging somewhere in the Rosedale area… Since it is quite a sight, odds are you will hear about it rather soon, but since there is only one, your individual chances of spotting one are rather small. So you have been hearing about this weird thing for days, maybe weeks, and suddenly you spot one on the way to the grocery store. Odds are you will end up turning your head and looking, possibly shouting “Holy shit, look at the blue pig!!!”… Well, the same thing works here. The stares are very piercing, and some people are in fact able to turn their head in a owl-like fashion while riding their bikes, resulting in an interesting sight, and sometimes in an even more interesting traffic “incident”. Some people have taken the joy of “blue pig” spotting to the next level. During a cab ride to the other side of town, a cyclist had spotted me in the front seat, and had actually moved toward the cab head-on in order to get a better look. Despite the fact that the guy was about to get creamed by a Volkswagen Santana (what a horrible choice!), he still managed to get a good, long stare through the windshield, completely ignoring the blaring horn. Obviously, since he was departing the world, he wanted to “top-up” his blue pig experience… The language differences (that is actually a complete misnomer: seeing that I don’t speak ANY Chinese, there are no differences, only complete failures to communicate) are also quite interesting. Ryan and myself decided to treat us to some sweet-and-sour pork and rice for lunch. Well, ordering the food turned out to be rather difficult, until I decided to take things into my own hands. I took a piece of paper and promptly doodled a picture of a pig, a plate, and some rice… While causing a bit of a spectacle (other restaurant staff came over to check out the doodle), and generating a bunch of laughs, it also ended up getting us a HUGE plate of food, thus allowing us to stuff our bellies at less than Y 10 (10 Yuan) each — equivalent to just over a dollar or so… According to Ryan, anytime I am in trouble and in need of translation, all I need to do is find a small child, as they are all pretty decent English speakers (English is now taught in a majority of school around here). However, this advice sounds rather strange and un-kosher when taken out of context: “When in trouble, try to find a small child!” Now, seeing that I have a fridge full of sweet and sour pork, and a completely empty stomach, I shall proceed to the kitchen and rectify the situation.
‘February 10th, 2003’
Wow!!! More interesting stuff happening on a daily basis. I guess that was the original reason behind this whole trip idea… Yesterday (Sunday) Ryan and myself decided to go for a hike though the city and to the local amusement park / zoo operation. Well, it sure was an amusement park, as I certainly was amused… Upon entry we noticed two things: complete lack of people (justified by the crisp air temperature), and complete lack of aesthetics (justified by the fact that we are in China). The amusement park consisted of several decrepit “rides”, rusted out, bent out of shape, and host to various species of fauna and flora.
The park experience included a number of ponds where, for an additional charge, one could rent a similarly run-down electric-powered boat. Unfortunately, we were forced to curb our enthusiasm about the prospects of living out our “sea-wolf” fantasies by the fact that the ponds were completely frozen. For some reason (perhaps in anticipation of a sudden influx of western tourists hungry for a maritime adventure) there was a crew in the middle of one of the ponds, slamming the ice with sledgehammers. We couldn’t help but question the futility of their task, considering the fact that it still was early February, and even on the scale of that particular day the temperature had dropped a considerable amount. But then, what do I know, I am only a tourist… The zoo turned out to be one of the most depressing things I have seen in years. In direct contrast to the kitschy mural slapped onto the wall encompassing the zoo and depicting a majestic lion, a tiger, a crocodile, a black bear and an ostrich, incidentally all sharing the same wonderful mountainous habitat straight out of a “Watchtower” cover page, and upon dishing out the additional Y5 to see this section of the park, we encountered a sad scene: a tiger, eyes glazed over, locked in a cage a mere 2 by 3 meters in size. His only entertainment was a tree stump poking through the middle of the enclosure, bearing a few marks of the occasional pawing. The gates to the tiger’s cage were closed, and the poor thing couldn’t even escape the snow and wind. I am not at all a fan of the zoos, and visited this one mostly out of the curiosity regarding the state of the animals, but this was not what I expected. In a cage few meters down we found a midget lion, malnourished and catatonic, his only entertainment was provided by a kid who occupied his free time by vigorously kicking the cage and spitting on the poor animal. The black bear next door seemed livelier, only because he was nervously pacing one of the walls of his enclosure. A strange sight next door, testament to the extreme pollution found in this land, was a five-legged cow, with the aforementioned appendage protruding from the left-shoulder area. While looking at the cow, we were suddenly distracted by the young punk who now had made a new game out of spitting on, and kicking the cage of a family of nervous macaques.
Ryan was getting visibly annoyed with this, and by the time the kid decided to share his negative energy with the family of porcupines, Ryan appeared only seconds from a vigilante-style educational pounce. Fortunately for everyone the kid took a hike. After playing for a few moments on some “animal swings” (which, incidentally, seemed to be more lively and animated than the “real” animals at the so-called zoo), and after the park staff had reminded us not to break them (they were, after all, intended for small children, despite the many sharp metal bits protruding from various surfaces), we decided to eject ourselves from this relaxing and enriching amusement park experience.
Hiking the streets closer to the school, and with me yapping incessantly about photography and other crap, Ryan suddenly slapped my arm and yelled: “Holy shit man, take a picture of THAT!!!!!”. Here we were, standing next to the biggest pig I have ever seen, munching away on all the edible trash so omnipresent on the streets of Heng Shui. But that’s not all: right next to this specimen, a tiny little piglet was demonstrating the same voracious appetite, hoovering up whatever his mother missed. After stopping and shooting a few pics, we moved on, certainly enriched by this rare urban scene.
Today we went hiking again, this time made it quite bit further into the town, all in search of a barbershop where Ryan was hoping to chop his mop. Almost to my surprise, this part of the town was much, much cleaner compared to our little ghetto area. I am hoping to make more frequent trips out there, as the town square actually looked like quite cool place to hang out. After the visit to the barber, we headed back home, stopping at the now usual dining establishment a few hundred meters from the school. Our waiter was very happy to see us, and promptly provided us with some delicious grub in our own VIP section. Half way through the dining experience the waitress came in with a seafood dish we definitely had not ordered. Confused at first, it suddenly became apparent that one of the other customers, a business character, had paid for this expensive shrimp-scallop-and-some-other-unknown-sea-creature-dish. Smiling, and saying things neither of us could understand (for me it was easy to “not-understand”, but even Ryan, who has a decent ability to communicate in Chinese, was lost in that transaction), the man handed each of us a business card. As they were both done exclusively in Chinese, as of right now I have no idea what he was selling, buying, renting, burying, or curing. With time, I shall decode this event…
‘February 20th 2003’
Well, today has been two weeks since my arrival in China. What can I say? I think I have overcome the bulk of the culture shock, although I am sure there are many “second servings” left. [2012 NOTE: Oh, yeah! Anyone who thinks they can get over culture shock in 2 weeks is in for a surprise…] I am quite comfortable now. I have learned to trust the fruit and vegetables I buy at the market (although vigorous washing is still very much there), and I feel very comfortable hiking around the town. Obviously I still get the stares, but I have gotten used to it now. I have developed certain routines, which allow for reasonable functioning. I have a general idea when the water temperature is just perfect for taking a shower (in case you need to know, the hot water supply seems to be there only at 6AM and at 10 PM), and when is a good time to go shopping (the stores are empty around 1-2 PM as it is the Chinese version of the noon siesta, and that is taken VERY seriously). In the evenings I either hit the weight-room (which is not a YMCA standard, but it does the job), or the music room where they have two pianos, a very good drum set, a keyboard, and a bunch of other instruments, all for me to use (incidentally, the music students at this school are very well trained, in fact downright amazing). The teaching job is turning out to be absolutely excellent. All the students are very highly motivated to learn, and most of the classes are a real treat. I try to make my students as comfortable as possible, so laughs are abundant, which offers a bit of a respite from the otherwise strict life of the Chinese high school student. A lot of the students enjoy my level of activity, and I think that my hyper approach to teaching is keeping everyone awake. This is actually noted over and over again, by students and the faculty alike. Food is still interesting, which is a relief as I was a bit concerned prior to my arrival that the diet might get a bit bland after a few days here. Ryan and myself get invited to dinners every so often, which are very nice and allow us to learn about the different culinary delights as well as the customs.
INTERESTING CUSTOM #1:
The guests are seated facing the door. This originates from times long past , when travel through China might have been a bit less safe, and it was a good idea to sit in the position where you had a good view on who is entering the room and what is going on. Interestingly, my natural instincts always drove me to that position at the dinner table anyways.
INTERESTING CUSTOM #2:
When eating, it is considered polite for the guest to eat very little, and for the host to keep offering more food. One should not completely clean the dish as it might seem like a bit of an insult to the host: “You did not give me enough of THIS!”. I am finding this one difficult to deal with, because if it is yummy, I hoover it up big-time. Custom be damned!
INTERESTING CUSTOM #3:
When toasting someone, you “clink” your glass lower on the other person’s glass as a sign of respect. Some take it a step further, sometimes racing for the lower spot, eventually making it to the floor. Alcohol consumption is a competitive sport, the start of which is marked by the word “ganbei” (equivalent to the English “bottoms up”, but more accurately, in Chinese, it means “dry cup”). The phrase “dine under the table” is directly related to “ganbei”. My chopstick skills have improved greatly, although sometimes I have a ‘bad day’, where every food item I reach for seems to be under the influence of a localized and extremely intense gravitational pull. Sometimes I get tired of the battle and just spear the food, thus drawing and additional amount of stares, in addition to the regular stares (as per the “blue pig phenomenon”)
On the 15th of February, during the Lantern Festival, also known as the Little Spring Festival, we were invited to one of the teacher’s homes. We were treated to a truly great dinner, and despite the language barriers we had a great time. The host’s son was visiting from Xi’an (about 20 hours away by train), where he studies dentistry at a military college, and he was thrilled to converse with us having studied English for seven years but never having the opportunity to test himself “in the field”. We had a lot of laughs that evening, and after the dinner we climbed up to the roof of Ryan’s apartment building to check out the fireworks. Now, fireworks are an integral part of the Chinese culture. Every celebration ends up in a firework or firecracker display, be it a birthday or a wedding. Adults and children alike can be seen lighting charges that would be illegal in most countries. One time I spotted a toddler lighting up what looked like a stick of dynamite, with his father nearby, completely unconcerned by the fact that the charge was larger than this junior pyrotechnician! The evening of the 15th being an important holiday on the Chinese calendar, we were treated to a display which made the city look like Baghdad during the Gulf War.
[2012 NOTE: This was written about a month before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, so I was actually making a reference to the 1991 Gulf War… HOLY FUCK, do I feel old!]
Interestingly Ryan had mentioned that during the New Year’s celebrations the fireworks were about 10 times more intense, so I couldn’t even imagine what THAT sounded like. Yesterday another teacher, Mr. Yan, had invited me to a lunch at my favorite restaurant. Joined by Ryan and a plumber who fixed up my shower that day, we had a great time chatting over some really nice dishes. My biggest problem in ensuring culinary variety has been the fact that I cannot read the Chinese characters on the menu, but that seems to be alleviated a little bit every time I go for dinner with someone new who introduces me to a new dish. An idea popped into my cranium while at the restaurant: I could take one of the menus home and have it translated by one of the friendly English teachers. The restaurant staff was most accommodating, promising me my own menu the next time I come in! Communicating ideas in places other than this restaurant is a bit of a challenge, but it also provides ample opportunity for comic relief. I carry a pen and a small notebook with me, which I use to explain things to people. Right now it is full of pictures of pigs, cows, fish, carrots, apples, taxis, trains, and everything else you can imagine. In addition to the doodles, it also contains statements such as “Please take me to the Canadian/British Embassy” or “Please call the police” in both English and Chinese characters. This is the “just in case” section of the doodle book.
Whenever I start doodling, I get the complete attention of the other person, together with the attention of the 10-20 bystanders who are curious about what this foreign devil is doing, drawing and mumbling in the middle of a Heng Shui marketplace. This system actually seems to work quite efficiently: today I spent about 2 minutes “communicating” with the plumber, and at the end of this charade I managed to arrange for the guy to visit on Monday at 9:30 AM to fix-up some heating pipes in my apartment. Pretty good, considering that not a single word was exchanged! On a daily basis I am overwhelmed by the people I am surrounded with. Everyone seems to be very warm, and I am greeted by huge smiles everywhere I go. Every day I am warmly welcomed to join the team of secretaries playing hacky-sack outside of the main office building, which is a barrel of laughs, although I am amazed with how good they are at the sport – in fact they could compete with any of my friends back home! Even the security guard at the gate greets me with a great smile and a friendly “ni hao!!!” every time he sees me. The people here can do so much with so little, and certainly are not afraid to be nice to strangers.
‘February 25th 2003’
I spent the weekend in Beijing, and what a treat that was!!! First, we loaded onto a train in Heng Shui. Ryan was always advertising this trip by saying “just wait till we take a train to Beijing!” every time I got stressed out over the questionable levels of hygiene… Well, I was still surprised, despite the counter-advertising campaign for the Chinese railway company, as carried out by Ryan. First of all, it should be noted that in China the phrase “mass transit” is a very appropriate selection from the English lexicon, as the trains are used to carry the people in precisely that way. A mass of people is stuffed into every car, and all of them quickly activate the sweat glands even in places that normally aren’t thought of as possessing any. Much like a male moth can detect a female by the long trail of pheromones, one can detect a Chinese passenger train from a fair distance purely through the use of the olfactory sense.
But first things first. The train arrives at the station. I am still hoping to encounter something similar to the Canadian train procedure, i.e. a queue of people each waiting for their turn to board after others have come off the car. Well, forget queues. Everyone races toward the train as if track transport was going out of style.
The trains are stuffed like a can of sardines, and the people trying to get out are clashing with those trying to get in while stomping EVERYONE’s luggage which was scattered all over the floor in the most disorderly fashion possible. Since the doors open to the inside, a few of the less fortunate passengers find their heads bashed in as the door gets pushed open by the mob pumping to the inside of the train. Yes, I have purposely selected the word “pumping”. This really goes nowhere, but the occasional screams emanating from the engine signalling an imminent departure add to the frenzy, causing people to try to find other entrances, and to run around like frightened chipmunks in a forest fire. One middle-aged gentleman demonstrated a unique initiative by disembarking through the window of the dining car, first by tossing his luggage out, and then following it through the window only a few inches larger than his butt. Considering the fact that people in China are very distressed at anyone “breaking the protocol”, this was quite extraordinary. Due to the fact that I have never seen a Buddha-look-alike roll out of a train window in an ass-first position, flailing his legs desperately searching for the terra firma, I couldn’t stop looking. After he landed safely on the ground, he stood there for a few seconds staring at me, because despite his acrobatic display he still felt that I was the weirdest thing at the train station that day. After a few frantic attempts, we somehow managed to squeeze our carcasses onto the train (aided by a group of teachers traveling to Beijing for a conference). At that point I had experienced a rare feeling of oneness with the world, or at least with it’s population. I was suddenly jammed into the “mass”. In addition to the mass, I noticed that one couldn’t really see the floor, as it was covered in all kinds of refuse: orange peels, peanut shells, bottles, and other stuff. Around the lavatories the composition of the “floor decoration” was drastically different: it was much more wet, and much more brown. Although for the last few days Ryan had called me a germophobe every time I complained about the hygiene (or lack thereof) at any locale in Heng Shui, at that exact moment I thought that even the most able Zen master of inner tranquility would start to swear like a wounded pirate… Needless to say I was a bit stressed out by the visions of typhoid, dysentery, hospital food, and Hepatitis A, B, C, D, and E, which although not discovered yet, surely was there!!! The train started to roll. Immediately, about half of the passengers had pulled out their cigarettes and lit them up. The other half started to cough and spit. Loogie-horking is a national sport in China, and apparently I was traveling with the most able team in the province. Not being interested in resting my backpack on the floor (remember the “brown”), and not having any space on the racks, I decided to get inventive: I had suspended the backpack from the rack using a carabiner looped through one of the straps. I felt like this was a very good solution to the problem of space, but seeing that it was a very clear violation of “the protocol”, I was quickly ordered by the train staff to put my backpack on the floor, which in their opinion was perfectly clean. Since there is a bit of a discrepancy between the Chinese and the Canadian definitions of “clean”, I decided to engage in my own version of civil disobedience, a form of non-violent protest known as “playing a dumbass”. When instructed to put the bag down on the floor, I drew the stupidest face possible (for some reason I was very convincing with minimal effort), and pretended that I had no idea what was being said. Seeing that the staff was not familiar with the complexities of operating a carabiner and therefore not willing to embarrass themselves while trying to remove it from the racking, I decided to simply wait them out. This strategy worked very well, and after a few more attempts at correcting my youthful rebellion, I was left alone, most likely acquiring a title of “dumb foreigner”. Protocol-shmotocol, at least the bottom of my backpack wasn’t covered in poo.
After a few more minutes standing in the mosh-pit of a car, one of the teachers in the group decided to move us to the dinning car. After a brief battle with the traffic jam (and a brief moment of body-surfing), I managed to make it to the dining car, which was a stark contrast to the previous car. While still a bit of a dive, there were only about 15 people in the car. The air was cooler, and although it was already getting blue with cigarette smoke, it was much more bearable than the atmosphere of the other car. Furthermore, it was nice to be sitting down on a real chair. The only catch was that we had to buy a dinner in order to stay in this car. At Y 10, it was a deal!!!
I had no intention of eating the “dinner” as it came from a container that was probably not cleaned since the Revolution. Ryan picked at it, but I decided to stick to my hard-earned title of “germophobe”. The nicest thing was that when we were finished, one of the teachers offered to pay for it, and also bought Ryan a bottle of beer. The rest of the journey was spent chatting with the other passengers, reading the Lonely Planet guide, and wondering what time we would de-rail. We rolled into Beijing at about 4 hours after the start of the journey. This was a bit of a slow ride, but at less than CDN$5.00 per person one cannot complain. The Beijing train station is, well, HUGE!!! It sprawls over several hundred meters in every direction, and is able to handle tens of trains simultaneously. In fact it looks as if the U.S. Capitol mated with the Arc d’Tryomphe and sprouted several hundred tracks and a pagoda to top it off. We found ourselves a cab, and after being ripped off by about 40 yuan (standard practice in China – charge the foreigners as much as possible, because they either don’t care, or don’t know any better.) we managed to get to the Friendship Store where we met the “other” Ryan and Marama, ESL teachers currently residing in Beijing, and Ed, our fellow foreigner from Heng Shui. From there we proceeded to the local Pizza Hut, where I decided to fill up on some long overdue and well-appreciated pizza. We spent the rest of the evening chilling out at Ryan and Marama’s apartment, celebrating the weekend, and, coincidentally, my 26th birthday.
The next day we had a surprisingly early start (9AM), considering that we remained awake beyond 2:30 AM the night before, quite unusual for our current lifestyle. The decision was to visit a McDonald’s restaurant just down the street for some breakfast, and then take off downtown to do some touring. I am happy to report that the Beijing McDonald’s serves the same kind of barely edible injection-moulded burger as they do back at home. But due to the fact that I had nothing but Chinese food for 2 weeks, it tasted great! We hiked from the McDonald’s to the bus stop, and from there we rode on a city bus to the nearest subway station. While the Beijing “burbs” seem to be as aesthetically pleasing as those of Heng Shui or Bronx, the more central areas of Beijing were very nicely kept. That actually struck me the night before, while riding in a cab from the train station. The streets were brightly lit, clean, and order was dominating the picture. None of the dilapidated vehicles so omnipresent in the rest of China could be spotted anywhere – this is actually due to a specific restriction imposed by the government: only vehicles with certain license plates are allowed in the city. This is partly to relieve traffic congestion and reduce pollution, but also allows for counter-selection of the more “embarrassing” vehicles, such as home made, three-wheeled trucks, and motorcycles converted to taxi trikes. The Chinese government is struggling to present Beijing and Shanghai as sort of “front” cities. They are simply putting up a facade trying to prove to the rest of the world how modern China is. This is beyond an illusion; it is a delusion, as vast majority of the population lives in what I can comfortably call sub-human conditions. But that seems to be the way things are run here: everything for Beijing, at the cost of everyone else.
At noon Ryan and myself rolled on the subway and into the Tiananmen Square. By no stretch of imagination is the square a marvel of modern architecture: it simply is a vast desert of concrete, but as far as concrete deserts go, this one had some very interesting history. Conceived by Mao shortly after the Revolution, the Square has seen many parades and assemblies, numbering in hundreds of thousands, even up to a million people, all supervised by the Chairman himself. After Mao’s death, in 1976, over a million people had assembled there to bid farewell to their revolutionary leader.
The Square has seen two “incidents” (as labeled by the Chinese government): first, in March of 1976 (shortly before Chairman Mao’s death), crowds gathered in the Square to lay wreaths for Zhou Enlai (a well liked, and more liberal politician who was working toward improving China’s international standing and policies, and who died in January of that year). The radical government, not at al thrilled about the support Zhou was receiving from the crowd, was rather concerned over the content of the poems recited in the Square and the banners brandished by the increasing number of people. This went on for several days. Eventually, the Politburo, in an emergency meeting, decided that this was counter-revolutionary and with Mao’s approval decided to clear out the square. Some thirty thousand militiamen occupied the square, and many people were beaten.
In April of 1989 death of another reformist politician named Hu Yaobang resulted in another demonstration. Although initially a gathering of people paying their last respects, this soon turned out into a pro-democracy demonstration. The number of people, mostly students, grew day by day. Over 150,000 students gathered in the Square, and 3,000 staged a hunger strike. Similar protests erupted in other cities, and there was widespread support for this. For the government, the ‘Beijing Spring’ soon turned into a major nuisance, and eventually on May 20th martial law was declared. On 4th of June the 27th Army division attacked. Heavy tanks and armoured vehicles rolled through the Square. The number of deaths is widely disputed, with the Chinese government minimizing it, and some groups in the West putting it at several thousand. Disinformation followed the event on both sides, in China the event was reduced to a “brief riot by young hooligans”, while in the West it was portrayed as a massive violation of human rights. The fact that the current Chinese government uses tools of censorship is well known, but what is not well known in the West is that initially the army was ordered not to use force under any circumstances. In fact, the People’s Liberation Army was enjoying great respect among the people, and quite well received as “peacekeepers” in the square. According to the Chinese government, it was not until a large number of hoodlums and roughnecks started rioting (which IS believable, as this seems to happen EVERY TIME people meet for whatever reason), that trouble began. Soldiers were attacked, disarmed, and several hundred of them were lynched by the mob. At that point the order was given to dispel the crowds in any way possible. Naturally, that’s what the government media said about the incident. The Communist Party of China, well aware of the events unfolding in eastern Europe at the time, was not interested in losing its grip through something silly like a popular demand, and did what it needed/wanted to do in order to control the situation.
This is now known as the “Tiananmen Massacre”, although most of the violence did not occur in the square itself, but rather in the nearby districts.
The world-famous photos of the “tank man” were taken by Jeff Widener, a western journalist working for the Associated Press, and Stuart Franklin (working for Magnum) who were at the time staying at the Beijing Hotel. The PSB (Public Security Bureau) confiscated most of their rolls of film and destroyed them, but some made it out. Franklin’s film was hidden in a box of tea and then smuggled out of the country by a French student, who passed it on to Magnum which then distributed the photo worldwide.
Today the Tiananmen Square is a playground for children flying their kites, and a market for adults peddling the aforementioned kites. No traffic is allowed, except for the occasional government vehicle (usually police). Bicycles have to be dismounted, as no one is allowed to ride anything on the square. (Lonely Planet points out that this is odd considering that “apparently tanks are OK though”). Within China there is no mention of the events, with most people either ignorant of them or unwilling to stir shit up. There is a bit of apparent awareness in online discussion groups, but due to government censorship, the events of June 4th are referred to as “May 35th”.
The army and the police closely patrol the square, and I thought that getting a picture taken with one of the fierce-looking army guys or countless policemen would be quite a thing to show, but they all turned down my proposals with a clear and convincing “NO!!!”. I didn’t try to sneak my way into the pictures (as per what I usually do), as something was telling me that my usual charm has only a limited value in the People’s Republic of China.
From the Square we proceeded North to the Forbidden City. The gate is directly across the street from Tiananmen, and is adorned by a giant painting of Mao. One cannot help but pose for a few shots, as this spot has itself become a landmark. In fact, I noticed that there was a large crowd of people waiting to be photographed with the Chairman…
The Forbidden City (so named as it was off limits for over 500 years) is the largest and best preserved grouping of classical Chinese architecture. Although most of the buildings now seen date from post-18th century, the basic layout was established by Emperor Yongle between 1406 and 1420, although it was built on the site of an earlier Imperial City of Kublai Khan. The construction sometimes commanded as many as a million people. From here the emperors governed China, trying not to leave, unless absolutely necessary, as the palace was the ultimate in comfort and pleasure. A fantastic collection of sculpture, painting, and literature could be found here. Unfortunately the palaces often went up in flames, as wood is the primary construction material. Frequent firework displays often provided the spark. Sometimes the fires were less than accidental as the business of repairing a palace was a lucrative one. In 1664 the Manchus stormed and completely destroyed most of the buildings.
In the 20th century more drama descended upon the palace. First, due to the imminent Japanese attack, all the treasures such as valuable books, scrolls, pottery, and other artifacts got crated and moved to Nanjing, but most never returned as then, shortly before 1949 the Kuomintang (the Nationalists) took thousands of these crates and relocated them to Taipei, Taiwan, shortly before the Communist takeover. And then, during the Cultural Revolution, the wound up Red Guards threatened to destroy the remains of the palace, but fortunately got stopped by Zhou Enlai who sent in the army to secure the grounds. That’s really a lot of action for a place named “The Forbidden City”!
For 40 Yuan you get to see all of the palace grounds, which is a vast complex, and one can spend several days exploring it. We only had a few hours, so we spent it on photography, goofing off, and “chilling out” as one cannot help but just take it all in. There are areas where literally thousands of gargoyles stare at the thousands of visitors (fortunately we visited on a rather light day). Some courts are massive. Some are tiny. Everywhere you look, you are presented with some phenomenal art. Except in one spot where I noticed a rather crude and un-artistic carving in the wall: apparently a “Sherri from Canada” decided to leave her lasting impression here, using a compass or a pair of scissors… Urgh!!!
We spent the rest of the day cruising through Beijing on the subway. A very modern and clean addition to the city, this was actually quite impressive and pleasant, although for the time being the Beijing Subway system only has two lines.
[2012 NOTE: THIS is insane… Nearly 8 years since the first trip, I am typing this note on a flight from Beijing to Hongkong, as I just visited for X-mas and New Year, and the Beijing Metro has a whopping 13 lines! Talk about growth!]
In the evening I rolled around the financial district and photographed the night skylines of the China World Trade Centre and the surrounding buildings. As a wrap-up, we decided to be slightly different from the mainstream, and popped into a little Mexican restaurant. A truly multicultural experience: a Polish-Canadian traveler, with his American and Australian friends, in a Mexican restaurant in Beijing, China… If only the waitress was French. The next day the whole gang got up even earlier as we all wanted to visit Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum, or as it is locally referred to by the expats: “The Mao-soleum”. Set in the middle of the Tiananmen Square, the Maosoleum is a massive structure, heavily guarded by the army. Bags and cameras are not allowed inside (although I had managed to sneak my small digital camera past the metal-detector wielding security staff). Before entering, for a small fee people can pick up flowers (which get recycled – the same flowers get sold over and over again, a truly clever business idea!). I noticed that many had done so, and others were crying in front of the large statue of Mao inside the mausoleum. Hats are not allowed, thus I walked past the Chairman displaying my large puff of bed-head-no-shampoo styled bleach-burned hair. Everyone gets ushered in, getting only a brief glimpse of the Chairman who at this point looks like a wax figure. I cant tell with absolute certainty if it was wax or if really this was the body of Chairman Mao, as I was about 10 meters from him, and separated by three sheets of rather thick glass. (Even though I had a camera, I took no pictures inside the mausoleum, as I was not interested in a confrontation with the visibly overzealous staff…) At the other end, upon exiting the mausoleum, one gets bombarded by pedlars selling everything Mao-themed: watches, thermometers, fridge magnets, postcards, bottle openers, pens, buttons, medals, coins, towels, hats, t-shirts, and anything else large enough to bear print. Even now, over two decades since his death, Mao is stimulating the economy! The whole experience lasted less than 15 minutes, and as Marama remarked: “The best thing about it is that it was free…”
The afternoon was spent touring the National Museum of Chinese History. Interestingly, we purchased tickets to the Museum of the Chinese Revolution, but actually got ushered in to the Museum of Chinese History… whose price of admission was lower, so I don’t know what exactly happened there, other than lightening my wallet by about 30 Yuan. The whole experience was rather disappointing, as the museum was filled with PHOTOGRAPHS!!! Granted, they were very nice, but they still were photographs. Museums are supposed to have artifacts, original stuff not seen anywhere else. That’s what makes people want to come to a museum… In a way, it was much like a giant web site, which you browse by walking rather than by clicking. In a few places one can find some ancient statues, or rather reproductions of ancient statues. In fact, 90 per cent of the museum was made of enlarged and laminated photographs. There were a few models of buildings (nicely done, too!), and a few “simulated villages”, but most of this stuff was kitsch. Eventually, closer to the end I found a display dedicated to the Peking Man (anthropology buffs know that this is one of the earliest members in the taxonomic genus “homo”, found in China in the earlier of the 20th Century), but at that point I had no more drive in me to try to verify if the bones proudly displayed in the glass case were genuine, or if they were mere reproductions, to keep in line with the dominant style of the museum.
[2012 NOTE: This has changed a lot now as the museum was hugely revamped just before the olympics and now has one of the best collections in the world]
We left the museum around 3PM, strangely unsatisfied and rather disillusioned over the state of the Chinese educational establishment. From there we hit the local KFC (immediately to the south of the Square one finds one of Colonel’s larger stores, with the proud Kentuckian’s face on a huge advert board with some Chinese characters around him, surely saying things like “delicious” and “monosodium glutamate” in the same sentence. But I wasn’t the one to whine: I love the Colonel!!! On the way in I got accosted by a man peddling fur hats at a grossly inflated price (asking price of 30 Yuan was eventually knocked down to 10 – the rule is NEVER buy anything without haggling as the popular view is that foreigners are stupid and are there to have their wallets picked), and then I was stormed by the peddler’s kid about, eight years of age, who wanted money for lunch. Seeing that he did not seem particularly impoverished (other than dirty), and was rather good at latching himself onto my leg and demanding money, I discounted his action as a creative way of securing income while in his father’s employ. After disconnecting him from my right thigh, shortly after his quick hands started working their way toward my pockets (which, luckily are notorious for being empty, much to my own dismay), I proceeded inside the restaurant. After the feast we proceeded to the Friendship Store to buy some of the stuff we cannot get in Heng Shui. Friendship Stores are a chain of shops which carry a variety of foods and products rather rare in China, mostly as a service to the thousands of foreigners who are either sharing their knowledge (as odd as this sounds, I am a “foreign expert”, and even have a residency stamp in my passports confirming this…), or foreign businesspeople on hardship assignments in the People’s Republic. Things like butter, cheese, Kraft Dinner, and salami are hard to get in this land, so we stocked up a bit. It was rather hard for me, as my culinary skills are limited to hard-boiled eggs, and perhaps burned toast with some coffee. But I did purchase some KD.
After strolling through the local market (not as colourful as the one in Heng Shui, this one being actually quite clean and mostly specializing in cheap clothes and knockoff sunglasses), I decided that I had steadily grown weary of pedlars grabbing my arm and screaming “HALLO!!!!!!!” convinced that their superb command of this one word in the English lexicon would surely convince me to buy thousands of Yuan worth of “Addiddis” or “Tammy Hilfingler” clothes. One lady in particular had latched herself onto me with her raptor-like claws and tried to sell me a down-filled jacket, which I made the mistake of showing interest in. Asking price: 750 Yuan. After I declined, price went down. Five hundred. Two-fifty. One hundred. Eventually she got it down to an unbelievable 50 Yuan. At that point I actually could have bought it as it was quite nice (although, in keeping with the style of trademark forgery and ripping-off the foreign tourist as much as possible, it was completely synthetic, or at least of very low quality down), but I really have no need for yet another jacket.
From there we went on a hike through the city toward the train station. After a stroll through a nice part of the town, and next to a very picturesque albeit rather smelly and deadish river, we walked into the station, showed our tickets, and were allowed to board the train. Interestingly, the same group of teachers was once again on the same train and in the same car, greeting us with friendly “hellos”. This time we had REAL seats, and the car was not stuffed beyond the legal and humane limits, resulting in a quite pleasant journey home. Thus ended my first trip to Beijing…
‘March 4th 2003’
A few days have passed since anything big has happened and I once again felt compelled to write something about my life in Heng Shui. Yesterday, in a particularly strong bout of germophobia I have completely sterilized my apartment, cleaning out the strata of dirt deposited by the wind for years, in fact judging by the colour of the dust, probably since the time of Genghis Khan… The black dirt, which is omnipresent in this city, and in China in general, is the result of the widespread of coal as the primary heating and cooking fuel. After I finished the cleanup, and mopped the floors, something compelled me to wipe down the fluorescent light fixtures. It was a good choice as this one was home to a dust bunny so large that the name “bunny” no longer applied. “Dust caribou” would be more appropriate. While wiping, I went a little nuts and ended up accidentally dropping the tube causing thousands of tiny shards of nearly invisible glass to fly all over the room. Standing atop a chair in the middle of the room, and not wearing any shoes or socks, I thought that I had inadvertently placed myself in a rather precarious situation. Very carefully I managed to walk out of there unscathed, only to discover that removing the glass would be a bit of a challenge given the lack of a vacuum cleaner. Somehow I managed it. Today I decided to talk to one of my bosses, and ask about a light tube together with a regular light bulb for the kitchen (this one burned out looooong time ago). After being asked why, I described the situation, together with the story of my obsessive-compulsive episode, which could make for a great Lysol commercial (“Clean: yes, germ: no!”). The director, Mr. Wang, said that he would send someone over to “fix the lights”. I said that I just need someone to give me the tube and a light bulb, and I can do the job myself. At this point he specifically instructed me to not do it myself, and that someone else has to do it as it is too hard for me to do. I didn’t think that inserting a light tube would be particularly hard for a university graduate. Granted, I went to the University of Windsor which isn’t exactly Harvard, but give me a break, if you can proficiently “operate” a spoon, and if you can name at least six out of the twelve months in the year, you should be able to change a light without killing yourself. Apparently in China I am not allowed to.
Around 4PM I had a visit from the campus electrician. Two campus electricians. And a translator. That is a lot. It normally takes 2 people to fly a fully-loaded Boeing 777 from New York’s JFK airport to the Heathrow airport in London. In Heng Shui city it takes AT LEAST three people to change a light bulb. And it takes at least 45 minutes. One of the mandatory “maneuvers” in this exercise is smoking in my apartment? The unwritten law, passed orally from generation to generation, is that in China if you are in the company of a non-smoker you must immediately start to smoke, even if you just finished one. This definitely applies to passenger trains on the Heng Shui City – Beijing line, and apparently it also applies in my apartment. The other maneuver is wearing dirty shoes on a freshly cleaned floor. Now, I am only kidding, no one in China would wear dirty shoes on a freshly cleaned floor. This would be inappropriate. Thus, in order to enable them to wear their shoes, the electricians started ashing their cigarettes, thus de-sanctifying my clean floor and making it perfectly acceptable to walk all over it, including the sections in the rooms not affected by the “broken light bulb”. There is also the question of identity and address. “Have we got the right address? Is this the guy?” Sure, he looks foreign, but a professional strives for perfection: while I was occupied with my laundry, one of the electricians waltzed into my bedrooms and started examining my passports in order to verify my identity. After all, he would not change my light bulb if I weren’t authorized to be here. Yes, the obvious lack of concern over petty things like privacy was hugely evident. Snooping through the kitchen, checking out the various food items, or fiddling with my collection of videos all appeared to be standard procedure. I was a mere zoo animal for their enjoyment. But even in zoos the keepers do not rummage through the animal’s den while the animals are there. Unless I was perceived to be as innocuous as a deer or a koala bear. This perception was actually confirmed by a friendly slap on the back when they eventually finished their work and left. I said “they”, but in reality only one guy was working, the others were busy “inspecting things”. But I didn’t get a biscuit for being so “good”…
But I got over it quickly and after the procedure was finished we went out to grab a bite to eat. Really, what can you do? Freak out over everything? (well… I do that ANYWAY… keep reading…)
In my spare time I occupy myself with various things like reading, working out, and watching movies. One thing that is very different from the movie habits at home is the lack of VCR’s and DVD players, both of which have been replaced with VCD’s (video disc players). While much cheaper than DVD players, they offer a much lower quality picture and none of the options / functions. Since in China no one can afford to buy DVD’s, the VCD was the natural choice: the discs are extremely easy and quick to copy thus driving the prices way down. The VCD business is a very good moneymaker in China. With the population so large, and the public’s complete unwillingness to buy legal DVD’s, the underground distribution of VCD’s has exploded. Although fought by the government (occasionally one hears about the great busts, and of thousands of pirated copies of various movie titles being destroyed under steam rollers), the money earning potential is so big that for every distributor that “goes down” ten new ones pop up overnight. How does one get the movies ? You would hope that they are at least copies of the movies already released on tape or on a disc. Naaaah, fat chance. The average Chinese consumer wants the latest NOW, and can not wait the four to eight months until classics like “Eight-legged freaks” or “Master of Disguise” come out via legitimate means. Unfortunately, while so particular about timings, the consumers are much less discriminating when it comes to the quality. Thus, on the opening night the movies are usually filmed with a small camcorder (with the lowest possible picture quality), subtitled and/or dubbed, copied by the thousand, packaged, and distributed on the street within days, all at a price of 10 to 15 Yuan. This results in an extremely poor quality movie, even when you consider the savings. The picture is usually cut off somewhere, as this process does not format the movie to fit your TV screen. The superior sound effects of THX, Dolby Digital, or whatever else, are lost as the camera usually operates on one dinky microphone. At the beginning, at the end, and in the middle (at about the time of the first “bladder-break”), one will see several shadowy heads pop up and then walk across the bottom of the screen. No one seems to be bothered by this. No one seems to be bothered by the fact that the movie comes in sets of 2, 3, or even 4 discs (due to individual memory limits on each VCD). The VCD players are notorious for misreading the disc, resulting in jumpy picture where the sound is still there, but you are now watching a movie reduced to individual frames popping up every few seconds or so. Once again, no one cares! The most interesting thing is the way the discs are packaged. The packaging process is actually quite impressive – all those thousands of copies of crappy American movies are put in cases, which at a glance are no different from the DVD cases one finds in North America or Europe. But upon a closer examination, one finds hundreds of tiny things that are different, some of which are downright hilarious. In fact, I make a habit of paying close attention to the packaging and the labels, as they are almost more amusing than the movie itself. The titles are usually the same, although very often they are misspelled, thus resulting in movie titles such as “Saving Privateb Ryan”, and “Moonrker”. The actor’s names get equal abuse, introducing such stars as Bradd Pit, George Clccney, and Harrison Forb.
In China no one pays attention to the English text, as most people can’t read it. This is only there to make it look real. The descriptions of the movies (the summaries) are equally bad. Some are very poorly spelled. Some are completely wrong: the summary for High Crimes (Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman), is actually one for “The Watcher” (and apparently this VCD has a special feature: an interview with Bruce Willis – particularly special considering that good ol’ Bruce is not in the movie.) Some are just gibberish letters randomly keyed in to make it look like English text: the people have no idea. This is actually funny as most people in the West get tattoos or t-shirts with Chinese words on them, when they have no idea what they really mean. The notices on the cases are also fun to read. On the “Road to Perdition” : “Distrubuted Exclusivey for Golden Village Through Wamer Vodeo”. Along the bottom of the case one sees the labels for Dolby Digital, THX, 5.1 surround: all these qualities somehow prevailed despite the fact that the movie was copied off the theatre screen via a camcorder! One movie was simultaneously made by Warner Bros., MGM, 20 Century Fox, Universal, Paramount, DreamWorks, Touchstone, and it was an all-in-one CVD, DVD, and Music CD (in surround), with English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Italian subtitles. To top it off, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” is apparently “suitablb for children”. The photos on the VCD cases are also a good source of laughs. The back of the case for “Road to Perdition” has a picture of Jude Law getting into a white Chevrolet Tahoe – clearly a shot not having anything to do with the movie. The back of “Signs” has three pictures of Mel Gibson on the set, but none of the pictures from the actual movie. And a few days ago Steph has found a case labeled “E.T.”, which had the trademark “kid-on-bicycle-flying-thorough-the-sky” picture, but in the bottom left hand corner one saw a very big picture of… YODA!!! Holy shinkeys! Yoda!!! At least watch the movie if you are forging it! Some of the movies bear the ISBN number, which is odd to see on an item that is not a book. (ISBN stands for International Standard Book Number) The problem is that while the government is really trying to crack down on the illegal pirated video trade, the enforcement is next to impossible as the police are unable to identify fakes from originals if they do not speak English. The VCD stores thrive and as far as everyone is concerned, everything is legal (I wouldn’t be surprised if the owners themselves were not aware that they were selling illegal copies.
A related, although a totally benign phenomenon is the omnipresent Chinglish: Chinese-authored English text found on signs or consumer products. Ed has encountered a sign “Please don’t stay” which was intended to get people moving in a busy tourist spot so that others can get a look. A caution sign over a gorge reminded people to be careful with a message stating: “Caution! Nice to live.” Ryan has recently handed me an Oreo cookie that surprisingly cost only half the usual price. Well, this was not an Oreo cookie; it was an “Oairo” cookie, although still packaged in a same coloured sleeve, with a manufacturer’s name surprisingly similar to that of Nabisco. And immediately above the Oairo logo, there was an English description: apparently I was eating a “pandemic cookie”. How appropriate in China! (all this during the SARS outbreak)
A few days ago I had an interesting exchange with a good friend of mine who is currently studying in Oz. The topic of China being a third world country came up in the conversation. And this had me thinking. Being raised mainly in Canada (the later formative years, anyways), I have adopted this acute Western style of thought. Hence my culture shock, and harsh criticism of the things I have encountered. Dirt is too dirty, air is too smelly, the river too polluted. We label this the “third world”, but really this is the real world. Accepting this as reality is the hard part after living in the West for such a long period of time. Ninety percent of all people live in China, India, SE Asia, and Africa… Only a minority of people have multi-bedroom houses, warm water (treated), kitchens, bathrooms… The funniest thing is that I obviously knew it long time ago, but always treated it with a “Yeah, yeah, whatever…”. Well, people still struggle for day-to-day survival in most areas of the world. That’s why it is completely ABSURD (quoting Southpark) for the West to be telling everyone else about carbon dioxide emissions, the ozone hole, and saving the precious panda or lemur… People I see here have less living space than the pandas and komodo dragons in a vast majority of western zoos… And if the horn of an endangered rhinoceros can feed some African poacher’s family for a month, then good luck stopping him. Only the rich kids in Western Europe and North America can afford to be vegetarians, and protest the treatment of farm animals. Others have no time to ponder such things as animal rights or environmentally friendly lifestyle if they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. A few weeks ago I was bitching about the Heng Shui zoo. Well, I happen to come from a privileged country, and I happen to earn 5 to 10 times the average Chinese salary, so I am in a slightly different position, and probably should not judge until I have a better understanding of this world. One can still ask “why a zoo then”. True. But zoos are equally useless here as they are in the West. Another eye-opener while here was a different conversation, in broken Chinese and broken English, with a lot of drawings, about Taiwan. The Chinese feel very strongly about Taiwan being a part of the People’s Republic. There is a general consensus that Taiwan (or the island of Formosa, as it was previously known as) should be returned. The west has a really hard time accepting it. “Let them be”, say some. Well, while I would not endorse any military action against Taiwan, I can fully understand why the Mainland Chinese feel robbed: in 1949 the Nationalists under Chiang Kaishek’s command robbed China of a vast cultural treasure and of all the foreign currency and gold reserves, and then moved to Formosa, where they established the Republic of China, or Taiwan as it is commonly known. It is a small wonder why the small island country became one of Asia’s ‘little dragons’, with one of the strongest economies in the world. But the money used to start up this country, rightfully belonged to all the millions of Chinese people, not just the fraction of population with Nationalist sympathies. Whether the Communist party mismanaged the country to incredible levels or not, and itself robbed the country of its cultural treasure during the Cultural Revolution is beside the point -China’s money was stolen by the creators of Taiwan and the mainland Chinese have a right to be bitter. If Saddam Hussein left Iraq with all of its money, the international community would not let him keep it for long. If the Quebec separatists managed to pull their province out of the Confederation and stole most or all of the Canadian foreign currency and gold reserves, the rest of Canada wouldn’t be full of happy campers. So why is the West so supportive of Taiwan’s independence? Just asking.
[2012 NOTE: Actually, no one seems to be supportive of Taiwan’s independence, only in the preservation of the status-quo. Even the Taiwanese themselves cannot decide with a 50/50 split on whether Taiwan should be a part of China or an independent nation. The issue is really mucky, but the stronger China get, the less options Taiwan has.]
‘March 10th 2003’
Ryan took off to Beijing with Steph for a “mental health” break, while Ed and myself remained in Heng Shui. Despite the absence of grand plans, the weekend was an adventurous one! Saturday morning we set out on a journey across town.
For 5 Yuan we hitched a ride in a tuk-tuk/rickshaw/whatever you want to call it (a motorcycle with a small box in the back, think: James Bond’s “Octopussy” chase scene in India) to the outskirts of town, towards the Heng Shui power plant. The power plant is a rather large facility, which provides electricity for the city. Being a coal-burner it also provides the city with a steady supply of choking and tear-inducing smoke. The main purpose of today’s mission was to hunt for some good targets for our photographic obsessions. In the immediate neighbourhood of the power plant we had found a large number of shanties, but then by Chinese standards those might have been prime realty. Not massively different from any other shanty of Heng Shui, we moved on. We spotted some interesting livestock, namely a cow, a sheep, and a gander of geese (which had just climbed out of an incredibly polluted and smelly “river”, or more appropriately, “open sewer”. We hitched a ride on a bus toward the downtown area. While tuk-tuks seem to be a poor-man’s taxi (much cheaper), they are actually quite fun to ride in, if one is comfortable with the inherent dangers of the situation: you find yourself in essentially a box on wheels, driven by a lunatic. Anotherwords: an accident waiting to happen. Good pictures though! After lunch at an imitation McDonald’s (together with the apple pie and a rip-off Big Mac on the menu), we spent about an hour in the town square, watching the locals living their weekend lifestyle. A small group of students asked us to pose with them for a photo, a phenomenon that seems to occur more and more frequently, much to my enjoyment as I get to feel like Brad Pitt (or at least Fred Savage), if only for the brief moment. Some youngsters came over and struck up a limited conversation, intrigued by the appearance of the weird “blonde and ginger” foreigners (Ed is a ginger Brit), and very interested in our digital cameras. While chilling out in our sunny spot, Ed pointed out the blood-donor bus parked on the side of the square. Given the condition of all the medical establishments in China, we had dubbed it the “hep-bus”, automatically extinguishing any of our already limited desire to give the gift of life. After watching the seniors fly their kites, and the kids run, jump, and climb things, we decided to call it a day and take off.
The next day we rolled on a tuk-tuk into my neighborhood where I managed to get some very interesting shots at the dog-butcher’s stall… The notion that eating dogs in China is pure necessity is completely absurd, as dog meat is much more expensive and considered a delicacy. At 30 Yuan per pound, dog meat is out of reach for most people, particularly when compared to 5 Yuan or less per pound of pork. I took a few pics of choice cuts, and then the owner demonstrated some specimens for sale.
Both Ed and Ryan have previously expressed their dismay with the involvement of “man’s best friend” in Chinese culinary arts, but the way I see it, dog meat is qualitatively not different from beef or pork. Dogs are raised in large farms, bred for size, and in no way treated differently from pigs or cattle. Every land has its ways. Hiking around some more, we encountered many people playing various games in the streets. A friendly smile on my behalf seemed to be enough to get us invited for a friendly game of dominoes, chess, and other games I cannot possibly name (or play) at this point. Everyone was very thrilled with this unexpected visit from the “laowai” (foreigner), and we quickly caused minor traffic jams as pedestrians and cyclists stopped to take a look. This was a very friendly experience, confirming what was previously made rather obvious: while they might not have much, people in China are very friendly and generous. (On that note, I regularly get offers of free booze in restaurants as soon as fellow diners spot me. I have to graciously turn down the offers, partially because I do not drink, and partially because the liquor everyone drinks smells more like Russian rocket fuel than vodka) (Ok, I don’t really know what Russian rocket fuel smells like, but it can’t be good…)
‘March 12th 2003.’
Monday night we decided to go for a different restaurant experience. While hiking to the restaurant we came across an interesting sight: a group of nurses (ok, they LOOKED like nurses) dancing on the sidewalk to the accompaniment of loud Chinese techno!!! One of them was holding two lit-up fluorescent tubes, and danced on a chair facing, waving the lights to the rhythm, looking like Darth Vader’s happier cousin… Naturally, I couldn’t resist, and joined in. At first they were not to sure what to make of it, but after a few seconds they joined in, and about a minute or so later we had a Chinese version of Oktoberfest happening on one of the streets of Heng Shui. Fortunately, Ed took my camera and documented those precious moments of culture clash. We had the show, now it was time for the dinner. A few metres down the road we stumbled upon an eatery. The restaurant served what we dubbed “meat-on-a-stick” (alternatively “M.O.A.S.”, a name assigned due to the non-pronounceability of the original Chinese name.). Small pieces of lamb were skewered and placed over coal fires, which were built right into the tables at the restaurant. The air was thick with the coal smoke, and the interior rather bland (the white tiles were more reminiscent of a public bathroom than a restaurant) but the food was pleasant enough to warrant a return trip.
On Tuesday we decided to go bowling. Someone had told us that Heng Shui had a bowling facility, and we decided to give it a shot. We found it at the top floor of an upscale hotel next to the train station. When we got to the top, I was astonished to find that the hotel had spent the cash on importing (or transplanting) all the bowling equipment from some nameless “bowlerama” in the U.S.A.!!! Everything was there! The computer screens (straight from the 80’s), the seats, the pins, the balls.. Even the original English-language labels were still on. At 10 Yuan per game it was not bad at all. I am not much of a bowler, but after figuring out what goes where, and launching a few gutter balls (and one spectacular complete miss where my fingers slipped out during the wound-up, launching the ball backwards and narrowly missing Ed…) I even managed a few strikes.
‘March 16th 2003.’
The weekend plan was to go to Shanhaiguan, to spend two days poking around the Great Wall… Shanhaiguan is the spot where the Great Wall hits the Yellow Sea. (Technically it is the Bohai Sea, but they are connected…) According to the Lonely Planet guide it has several interesting spots to check out, so we all agreed that this must be seen, and off we went. The train left Heng Shui at 3:30 AM, which was good, as we wanted to have a full day there. Bad was the fact that we had not been lucky enough to purchase any seats. In China standing on trains is the norm. The trip from Heng Shui to Shanhaiguan is seven hours, and standing for that amount of time is doable, but it’s just about as exciting as being handcuffed to a dead moose. It is fun and thrilling at first, but it soon wears off… At first we stood around, thinking about pain and death.
We sat on the floor at the entry to the dining car, but after an hour or so got booted. Then we found a few empty seats in the next car, but I was not fortunate enough to be included in this game of “musical chairs” (it should actually be called “bowel chairs” ? You get the seat based on your proximity to the next person who had experienced a sudden and uncontrollable urge to use the disgusting WC facility). I headed towards the dining car again, it was empty this time, and so I got the gang and we all moved in.
Usually it is possible to buy a cheap, horrible dish, which in reality only serves as a ticket allowing you to sit there. If harassed, and if brave enough, you can actually nibble on your food to show that you are “still eating”. Sometimes it is possible to bribe someone to let you stay there for the duration of the ride, but at that point it did not matter as we were very close to the destination.
Upon arrival, after chasing away some of the most aggressive touts I have ever seen, we hitched a cab ride straight to the wall. The driver was trying really hard to up-sell some trips, but we consistently declined. We got to the wall shortly after 10AM. This section of the wall was actually built in the 1980’s, as only tiny scraps of the original structure had survived. We still decided to check it out, as it is a bit of a “mental landmark” – this is the point where the wall joins the sea, also referred to as the Dragon’s Head (looking west of this point you will see the wall slithering through the nearby mountains, somewhat similar to a long tail of a dragon, hence the name.)
The rebuilding resulted from the sudden realization that westerners are obsessed with the wall, whatever its condition, and are willing to go any distance and pay to see it. Thus Shanhaiguan decided to participate in the fad of eeking out every penny from a reinforced concrete wall, because they did not have a real one left as the French and their allies destroyed this stretch at the very beginning of the 20th Century. The attraction there is a walled-and-fenced-off compound containing the wall (or its remains), a small “temple” at the seaside (where you get charged for everything chargeable: hitting the gong, climbing a statue for a cool photo, only breathing seemed to be free of charge… for now), and a variety of crap attractions such as a “Double Dragon” amusement park-style swing, some random statues, and a countless number of shops peddling expensive bottled water, film, and crap souvenirs such as ships made from giant shells which clearly came from tropical seas of Polynesia rather than from the Yellow Sea… Personally I only enjoyed one attraction: a dilapidated Russian MIG-15 fighter parked not too far from the beach. I have never seen one up close (although saw many flying overhead as a kid growing up in Poland).
This one was badly beaten up by tourists (or bad pilots?), but we took a few shots. I did however decline the rare opportunity to sit in it as some guy wanted to charge me 2 Yuan for the privilege… While walking towards the Wall, we goofed off on the beach, taking model photos of each other, and going for that mandatory toe-dip in the murky waters of the Yellow Sea. The relative serenity of the event was only broken by the roar of some speedboats that one could rent in the event they did not experience enough cheesy tourist attractions and their wallets were too heavy. The wall was interesting. At the top we found a discarded French cannon (remnant of some war), and we enjoyed a quick lunch right atop the Dragon’s Head. After that I climbed the off-limits part of the tower, armed with an excuse that I did not understand the Chinese characters for “off-limit”. While walking back towards the compound we got intercepted by some tourists who wanted to take pictures with us (“Screw the wall, look at the white people!!!”). I was happy to help out, and even removed my hat, but when they saw the state of my mop, they asked that I put the hat back on. I am flexible that way. Back in the compound we found a rather cool labyrinth, made of concrete and spanning about 50 meters or so. Despite it’s small size and the fact that one is actually taller than the walls of the maze, it was built in a tricky fashion and it was almost a challenge to get in or out. Almost. Afterwards we decided to review the educational displays, and allowed ourselves to engage in a more hands-on lesson in Chinese history: we all grabbed some of the weapons displayed there and engaged in a bit of a fight. After using the bathroom facilities we decided that it was time to jet.
The next attraction was the dam and the reservoir. We took a rather expensive cab ride there (37 Yuan), only to find out that in order to cash in on the recent influx of prosperous idiots such as ourselves the town decided to charge an admission fee of 40 Yuan. We decided to give it a try, despite the fact that the 5-by-10 meter attraction map had highlights such as “squirrel sanctuary” and “boat rides”, although what we were after was a nature hike. We proceeded to the squirrel area.
The most striking thing about the sanctuary was the obvious misnomer, as there were no squirrels to be found. The first few cages had elaborate labels such as “American Black Squirrel” and “Stripped Guinea Pig” (I thought stripping a guinea pig would be rather cruel…). One cage had no squirrels in it, but it did have a rather large mousetrap. I did not think that a mousetrap would aid in prolonging the life expectancy of a squirrel, but I am not a zoologist, so I cannot really argue anything here. The one rodent that I did find was a drowned chipmunk, which was peacefully bobbing in a rather large concrete pond, which seemed not to have any apparent function (other than reducing headcount). We eventually found some black squirrels stuffed into a small cage, and nervously running around, possibly stunned by the sudden appearance of four dorks with money and cameras.
After inspecting another empty cage (this one supposedly home to a flying squirrel), we decided to enquire with the staff. The “staff” was a chubby-faced man with a lazy eye, who did not understand what we were asking for.
At that point myself and Ed started running around flapping our arms and shouting “mayo flying squirrel!!!”, meaning “don’t have flying squirrel”. (We were hoping that the English and Chinese word for the gliding rodent would be the same…). Detecting an obvious linguistic barrier, we proceeded to the next attraction, which was an aviary loaded with peacocks, and other birds I could not identify. Afraid of being covered in guano, and after being charged by a particularly territorial peacock (causing me to shriek like a tea kettle and pushing Steph at it in order to save myself), we decided to move on. Walking towards the dam and the reservoir I noticed a big sign, clearly advertising the facility (funny, we already were inside, which meant we did not have to be convinced to spend the money, as we already had sunk it…). The sign was interesting as it clearly portrayed a fantastic lake and mountains, and an overly jovial couple riding a roller coaster and having a good time. This was not so much an advert, as it was a visual argument with reality, the implied message being “YES, YOU ARE HAVING FUN!!!”
The only good time we had was in sharing the astonishment over the fact that someone could charge people for this attraction, and that the Lonely Planet guide actually had listed it (that warrants a HUGE complaint). After spotting a few fake cranes and flamingoes that someone placed on an island not too far into the reservoir (surely to pep things up and to convince the foreigners that it was in fact a nature experience), we had finally determined that we got massively ripped off and at this point the only damage control we could do was to leave..
During the cab ride back into the town we re-evaluated the trip, and decided to change our tickets and return in the evening the same day (instead of staying the night and touring again the next day). At the station we were presented with a choice of a near-immediate departure, and considering all the attractions, we decided to go for it. We had about one-and-a-half hours to kill, so we went for a dinner, and a tour of the walled city, this being an authentic old-time wall, if not part of the “Great” one… The city was actually quite interesting, loaded with tight alleys.
At one point we ran into a white haired senior citizen strolling down the street who looked like he belonged more in a Kung-Fu movie than on the streets of Shanhaiguan. He was rather proficiently swinging a menacing looking stick and grinned at us. I wanted to take a picture of him, but when I asked him if I could, he turned out to be a rather enterprising fellow – he asked me to pay him 10 Yuan. I thought that for 10 Yuan he was not my type anyway… We hopped on the train at 6:30 PM, and although we had once again only bought “standing” tickets, we got lucky as one of the cars was rather empty and we had a lot of sleeping space.
Ryan engaged in a long conversation with a pair of fellow passengers, and after I had a two hour snooze I decided to join in, my contribution being a series of random and basic Chinese words I had learned over the weeks, usually followed by some grunts and that smile of mine which usually gets me a friendly reply, even if I sound like a complete retard. The rest of the journey was uneventful, and we arrived at 1:30 AM (Sunday morning), less than 24 hours since our departure. Before I went to sleep, I pondered the attractions we saw that day, and realized that once again I was expecting too much. China managed to relieve itself of any culture during the Cultural Revolution, and so it sentenced itself to a long time of enjoying fabricated stuff like “squirrel sanctuaries” and papier-mâché statues for tourists to take pictures of. There was a lesson to be learned here: select the genuine attractions, put up with the incidental junk, and perhaps look forward to the nature experiences later on, as China does have some phenomenal scenery, you just have to travel further.
Someone had once said that “…life is not measured by the number of breaths you take, but by the number of moments that take your breath away…”
At this point I can say that in the Hebei Province of China you are mostly counting breaths.
[This blog continues. Go to “Blog” and choose “China Blog, February-May (Part 2)” for more stories, rants, gibberish, and photos. Also, you can see stacks of photos in the “photos” section…Because you know… That’s where photos are…]
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