Saturday, November 24, 2007

Chinese Confession – Xitang – A City of Contrast

To say that a certain country or city is “a place of contrast” is one of the biggest clichés out there. That doesn’t mean, however, that it is not true or is a superficial description of a place. China has more contrast than any place I have ever seen in my life. From the brand new BMWs and Mercedes that share the roads with rusty bikes that are barely even holding together to the transition that nearly every city here undergoes as the sun sets and the lights come on. I think the city of Xitang is quite possibly the best example of this exact phenomenon. We had the chance to see the city first at night, with the traditional Chinese lighting complimenting the amazing Chinese charm that it has maintained, even despite the explosive growth occurring almost everywhere in this country. The following day we had the chance again to go back and see the same area by day, and it was hard to believe that we were even in the same place as the night before.

To start off, here are some of the pictures I took.

Xitang, much like Suzhou, has a canal running through the city, which gives it a Chinese-Venice feel. It’s just a whole lot less expensive and, in the humble opinion of one who has not personally been to Venice but has heard about it and seen pictures, not overpriced and certainly not overrated. It wasn’t without its array of tourist trap shops, but the people were very friendly. They are also huge fans of fireworks. All along the canal, there were people shooting off fireworks and playing with sparklers. There were also people who sold origami boats with candles for about 13 cents. I bought one and sent it off into the water. Of course, you are supposed to wish for something while you send it off, so I tried to think of something, but in all honesty, I had a tough time thinking of something to wish for. I guess that’s a good sign that I’m really happy with my life and where I am going.

We also got to take a ride in a small boat up and down the canal and see the city by night. It was quite beautiful, actually, but impossible to capture fully with a camera. Since night shots require that a camera be held completely still to keep from blurring, it was virtually impossible to do so in a rocking boat. I tried as I could, and I also discovered that blurry pictures bear an uncanny resemblance to impressionist paintings. This, of course, can easily be illustrated with the use of some basic Photoshop skills.

The reflections in the water were amazing though. The whole scene was surprisingly calm and pleasant, even if it was a bit crowded. I finished the night in a local bar where I played drinking games with some friendly Chinese locals. They had beear, I had Coke. I obviously did much better since I was able to do statistical analysis in my head, whereas he was probably just doing random guessing. But we got some great shots and discovered, yet again, how amazingly friendly the Chinese people are. We also played some Jenga, and even had those hand-held plastic hand clapper things to try to mess people up. I tell you – the Chinese people are the best kept secret in China.

When we came back the next morning, it really was hard to believe that it was the same place we had been before. For starters, the buildings were generally pasty white with dark grey, traditional roofs. The bright reds and other colored lights of the night had all vanished. The water, which by night looked so beautiful and reflective, suddenly looked absolutely filthy and stagnant. Its bright reflections were replaced by a homogenous hue of a pale brownish green. It was a wonder that it didn’t fill the air with an undescribable, putrid odor. It didn’t mean the city was not pleasant. In fact, it made it feel even more calm and relaxing than before. We walked around the area, saw an old but very large traditional Chinese home that had been converted into a button museum. They even had what must be the biggest button in the world, considering it was probably 5 feet in diameter.

Along the canal, the tourist trap shops all had their doors open again and were doing business, which was one of the few things that actually remained the same. The bright lights were gone, but seemed to have been replaced by helplessly cute animals. I am not joking. I am quite sure that some of the shop owners would just get tiny kittens or puppies and put them on the ground in front of the store. They always drew the attention of the people walking by, which would allow the store owners to try to lure them in to buy things. I came across one ginger kitten who was so tiny and young that it couldn’t even really move. It just sat there curled up against the step, hoping to not get stepped on or something. Another store owner had a tiny puppy who was trying to stand up, but its legs were so wobbly that it could hardly maintain its position for more than a few seconds before it would collapse against the wall. I saw another puppy, which was at least old enough and strong enough to stand up and wander around a bit.

I saw a few rusty Chinese bikes, which I just had to take pictures of even though they honestly can be found on almost every street in the country.

I guess it’s a token tribute to one of the most overdone subjects in art school, aside from naked people, which – for obvious reasons – were not as readily found. And on the topic of art, there were several shops selling traditional Chinese ink paintings. At one in particular there was a man actually doing one of the paintings at a table in front of the shop. I shot a picture and found that the prices were actually very reasonable, so I bought one. They obviously are not all unique compositions, because the man was sitting there painting a scene of the city without even looking up. But it still had its charm, and I still appreciate it as art, so I bought it. Aside from the art shops, there were also a bunch of art students all along the canal that had setup their easels and were painting the scenes around them.

After exploring for a couple of hours, I found a small staircase leading down to the surface of the canal, and I just sat down. I sat there for one hour and just enjoyed the whole scene. I watched the people walking by – the tourists, the locals, an occasional dog. Shelly, a friend of mine, came along and sat down as well and we just people-watched. People watching is a great pastime, and it is especially enjoyable in China because it is so lively and unique. There is always something going on, whether it is 9am, 3pm, 9pm, or 3am. We watched people come to the water and wash their clothing and sheets. We saw a father and his young son, who had gotten sticky, sweet goo all over his clothing, stop at the canal and attempt to wash it off.

It was honestly one of the best hours I have spent in China. I loved just being able to see everything that is going on. You don’t need TV or movies for entertainment here. You can just stop and watch and appreciate the things all around you. You can try, somewhat in vain, to try to capture it all in pictures or on video, but you really only capture a miniscule portion of the true beauty that lies underneath, that lies in the moment.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Chinese Confession – Yiwu – The City of Socks

One of the many perks of this study abroad program is that travel opportunities are abundant. In fact, some are even mandatory, which is great for peeling me away from this computer and classes and out into the real world. Early this month we had the chance to go to a couple of cities near Shanghai. Well, I use “near” in the loose sense, meaning that they were both within 3 hours of the city by train.

The first city we went to was Yiwu. Okay, some background information on Yiwu: if you have even heard of the place, I would be quite surprised. None of us had. It’s a tiny city with just 650,000 people. What the city has going, however, is nothing short of amazing. In all of the world, amongst its 6 billion inhabitants, there are somewhere between 500,000 and 750,000 components manufactured (I have the actual number written down somewhere, but I can’t find it. Either way, it’s a lot). About 2/3 of all of them can be found in Yiwu. It is basically the wholesale market of the world, and it makes Sams Club look like a lemonade stand. No other place anywhere in the world even comes close to it. And we got to see firsthand where it all takes place.

There is a three phase development in the city that is basically a giant wholesale mall. Phases one and two are already complete, while phase three is under planning and construction. It would be virtually impossible to get a picture of it, but here’s a top view of it from google earth:

By the way, it is relatively new, so this only shows phase one as being complete. The area for phase three isn’t even on the map yet.

It’s enormous. It’s way bigger than any mall, but I suppose that’s to be expected if it has 2/3 of all the different things manufactured in the world. All of these manufacturers come here and set up a store front in a small shop about the size of bedroom. There they display everything they produce and have a representative or two to negotiate purchases, shipping, and everything else. It’s not much of a retail front, so don’t plan on going on a shopping spree unless you really can’t resist buying 3,000 meters of LED rope light, 100 Chinese throwing stars, a few hundred vacuum cleaners, or a few dozen ATVs. You could even get cotton candy machines if you’d like. Actually, there is a “small” retail tourist shopping area where they actually sell things at great prices.

There are so many of these wholesale stores housed in this giant complex that they actually name the “streets” and alleys, have “blocks” and addresses, and have maps. If you were to spend just three minutes in each store, looking at what they have to offer, it would take you an entire year to see them all. And then, of course, you have to go back and see the ones that opened up over the course of that same year. Oh, and don’t forget phase three that is under construction. When that part is done, it will be bigger than phases one and two combined. That means you would have to spend another year or two seeing all of those stores there along with the ones that would open while you are spending three minutes in each. It would basically be never-ending.

The place is just mind-boggling, and yet so few people have ever heard of it. It is a very recent development, which is one of the reasons. There are also virtually no Americans setting up or doing business there. The way of doing business is so different that most who have tried have given up. This, of course, does mean that there is tremendous opportunity, but it will require a lot of patience, hard work, and devotion. Yiwu will be an incredibly fascinating place to see it in twenty years or so. It is a pretty small city, but it felt very, very international, especially in terms of the presence of people from Western Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The city is just in the beginning phases of its explosive growth, and it looks like it will be an incredibly wealthy, entrepreneurial area. It is already the most entrepreneurial area in all of China, and a staggering amount of companies can trace their roots to this specific area and province. Right now the entire city is pretty much one massive construction zone.

One of the things that kept going through my mind is that it would be so easy for someone in America to set up business with connections in Yiwu. You can get direct access to 2/3 of everything manufactured in the world, so the possibilities are endless. You could just contact a supplier in Yiwu and buy the products directly from the manufacturer. Or if you don’t want to find them yourself, you could easily find a buyer’s agent readily available that could help arrange the logistics and get the products to the US or anywhere else in the world. As long as you aren’t positioning yourself in an oversaturated niche of the market, it would be quite easy. Suddenly it just doesn’t seem so impressive when I think about those people who “know someone who knows someone who knows someone” who can hook them up with inexpensive wholesale goods direct from China. I know exactly how it works and I’ve seen it first hand. Not even Wal-Mart seems impressive anymore.

I got a picture of one of the entrances to phase two:

Here is a model of phase two that was on display. It’s huge.

Just for kicks, I decided to walk around the Christmas section of the mall and snap pictures of Christmas trees, pretending like I was actual doing product research. It must be a pretty common thing for company representatives to go around like that because it didn’t seem strange to them. There were still plenty more that I didn’t even get to check out before we had to leave.

Here are some outside shots of the commodity center phase two.

And if you can stand it, you can even buy the biggest sticks of incense that you’ll probably ever see, as shown by my friend Kirsten.

And on a random note, here is a picture of the round-about outside our hotel. If you look in the middle, there is a screen that displays the volume of the commotion in the city. As noble of an effort as it seemed to be, I don’t think it actually did anything because it always read between 68dB and 70dB morning, noon, and night. I figure it was meant to just impress tourists who wouldn’t actually take a closer look.

Another random fact about the city: they produce over 3 billion pairs of socks every year. It’s the sock capital of China. Actually, it’s probably the sock capital of the world. I doubt any other city produces nearly that many.

After Yiwu, we went to Xitang, which is another canal city not far from Shanghai. It is a lot like Suzhou except it has preserved more of the traditional Chinese feel and character. I have a lot more photos of that city, and I will post them with a new blog once I get them all sorted and organized. Of course, I also have to apologize for the randomness of my recent blogs. They aren’t exactly in chronological order, but rather in the order of ease of writing. Hopefully they at least offer an interesting view of China.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Chinese Confession - Beijing, Nanjing, and Joe Completely Confused

Well, the week-long break from school and classes is coming to a close. We got back to Shanghai last night, and I am definitely glad to be back here. It was an interesting week, and although we didn’t have our trip nearly as planned out as we should have, it was still quite good and we saw a lot.

After seeing the Great Wall outside of Beijing, we saw several of the other major sights. My favorite was definitely the Summer Palace. It was so peaceful and beautiful. We spent an entire afternoon there, which was more than we were anticipating. We tried to check out the Olympic Park, but there was so much construction going on that we really couldn’t see a whole lot. Beijing will definitely be ready when the Olympics kick off next August, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have an astonishing amount of work ahead of them. They also have to get several metro lines open and running, on top of their current 5.

A lot of our sight seeing was severely limited because of the weather. It wasn’t too rainy most of the time, but it was really, really cold. Apparently all of China was cold, so it wasn’t just Beijing though. I went around bundled up in my coat, a scarf, knit hat, and occasionally gloves, but I was still almost always cold. I’m really not a big cold weather fan, but I just deal with it.

We got to see Lama Temple, which is one of the Buddhist temples. It was really neat to see, actually. The most fascinating thing about it was seeing Chinese people still practicing a religion, including burning incense and bowing and the other parts of the ritual that they go through. We were just standing back and watching it all. I shot a few pictures. I won’t lie – I kind of wanted to join in and burn some incense, but I just felt that would not be appropriate, especially since I am not a Buddhist. They also had an absolutely enormous Buddha statue in the tallest building in the temple area. It was probably about 40 feet tall, which is extremely tall. That’s actually probably close to being as tall as the tallest buildings in downtown Loveland. That’s either really impressive for a Buddha statue or else really pathetic for Loveland.

On the topic of cities and size, Beijing really didn’t feel all that large to me. The city supposedly has somewhere around 14 million people, which makes it 4 to 6 million smaller than Shanghai, but it is so much more spread out and there really aren’t many tall, tall buildings. It felt more like a city of perhaps 2 million. I don’t know where they crammed the other 12 million, but they are in there somewhere. Perhaps they are all on the subway. That would explain why those metro lines were so insanely crowded. Many times we tried to hop on the metro only to be unable because there literally was no room anywhere. The city cut the metro fare down to two Yuan as a flat rate, which certainly has assured that there is an innumerable amount of people that take it. It probably helps alleviate traffic, though I wouldn’t have known because we only took a cab a few isolated times. The traffic is supposedly horrendous though.

Forbidden City was also pretty neat. It was absolutely huge. I had no idea that the palace could be so massive and have so many rooms, but it did. We spend about three hours there and saw hardly any of it. They were doing a lot of renovations on it, which meant that a lot of it was inaccessible. This, of course, was on top of the many areas that were already inaccessible for other reasons. There certainly wasn’t enough time to see the whole thing though, even if it was completely accessible. My attention span is decent, though not quite as good as some people’s, but even I started to tire of seeing corridor and room after corridor and room. The novelty definitely wears off after a while, which can be said about a lot of places and things.

The last day in Beijing we went to try to see some Millenium Monument, which ended up being a huge disappointment, coupled with the fact that we couldn’t even find the entrance. That coupled with chilly temperatures meant that we gave up soon enough and went to the Military museum. The museum was interesting for a while, but I guess I’m just not huge into war and military things. They had all kinds of guns, tanks, and aircraft that have been used by the Chinese over the past 100 years. Steve really gets into that kind of stuff, so he knew a lot about them all. For me, most of the time I was just going through the motions looking at things, my eyes hazy and unfocused as I wandered around in “Joe Land” in my imagination, barely sparing any mental processing for the multitude of guns, armor, tools, and Chinese documents in front of me. This is usually the same thing I do when I’m bored in class or have some idle time.

There wasn’t a whole lot written in English, though everyone once in a while there was a big paragraph explaining the big picture of what was going on. I knew enough about Chinese history that I could usually put it at least somewhat into context, and that was what made it more interesting. Steve and Will were also there with me, and Steve is a big history buff, so we could discuss things as we came across them in the exhibits. Beijing, as the capital of China, is also the political center of it and the government’s showcase to the world. I wondered if this museum is something the government will encourage foreigners to see when they come for the Olympics. It was replete with propaganda and things that, if not taken in a historical context, would lead you to believe things in history weren’t quite as they were. Of course the government certainly won’t deny this. They already plainly admit that they control education, media, and a lot of the books and intellectual things that are allowed or taught in the country. With the blurbs offering historical context for the things displayed in the museum, it was particularly interesting to see the word choices that they selected. They provided information that, although not terribly inaccurate, still didn’t reveal the full picture of things.

It’s really tough to describe just how much propaganda was there. You certainly could see it in the paintings and sculptures that were placed around the museum. The soldiers and workers labored tirelessly in some sculptures, wearing bright, wide grins on their faces. Women and children stood around them, also smilingly as if they were in an idealistic paradise. Obviously these sculptures weren’t meant to be historically accurate, because I really doubt they would all be grinning as they wheel cannons around to engage in a civil war that has engulfed the country or trekking through feet of snow, high up in the mountains in the winter. It just felt like these were more like expressive works of art meant to glorify the system they were all working to build rather than to document history. Perhaps this was the only way the artist that sculpted it could get the government to pay for it and put it on display. Perhaps it was forged during the Cultural Revolution, as the whole nation was swept by a unified vision for a completely new country and world. Perhaps they represented an attempt to revise history somewhat, or even rewrite it. I really can’t say, and it’s rather unfortunate that the sculptures and paintings themselves don’t have voices by which they could speak for themselves.

I’m not trying to be political or bashing in this, I am simply trying to provide an illustration of the things that I saw around me and show some of the inconsistencies with how they are presented, how they are meant to be interpreted, and how I interpret them because I have heard of them from multiple sources. I took a picture of one of the more, ummm, “colorful” blurbs offering context for China’s civil war that took place after World War II. I will include the picture here, so anyone can read it if they wish. I highly recommend it.

I found it interesting to see how they present the Communist Party as being the underdog, the will of all of the people of the country, and outright blaming the other side (and the US, of course) for “launching a nation-wide civil war.” The second paragraph is even more interesting, especially with how they tackled the topics of Tibet and Taiwan: “Up to June 1950, [the People’s Liberation Army] had liberated the whole country except Tibet, Taiwan and a few islands and won the War of Liberation.”

The last line is my favorite line of all: “The Party finally realized the objective of its long lasting struggle–‘to liberate the whole nation with its people and establish a new democratic China.’”

The last few hours in Beijing we spent mostly just wandering around and experiencing the city. Beijing is a very unique and interesting city, and there are many, many things to do. As I mentioned before, you really feel the presence of the government there though, and it really was like a weight I just couldn’t get off of my shoulders the whole time I was there. I’m glad I went, and I really did enjoy my time there, but I must admit that I was glad to be able to leave.

We took another night sleeper train to get down to Nanjing from Beijing. Nanjing is a decent sized city of about 7 million people. I think it felt bigger than Beijing, but it is also much more dense. Beijing is horrible to get around if you just walk and take the subway because it is so spread out. Nanjing only has one metro line and is fairly dense. I really liked it. The two days we were there, though, it was raining the entire time. It wasn’t as cold as Beijing was, but it still wasn’t balmy. This meant pictures weren’t quite as picturesque, even though the city really is beautiful.

We were pretty tired by this part of the trip. We also didn’t have a guide book for the city, so we didn’t really experience it quite like I was hoping we would. Fortunately, the city is only two hours away from Shanghai, so if I want to go back, it makes for an easy weekend trip.

The main tourist thing that we did was seeing Dr. Sun Yatsen’s Mausoleum at a huge mountain near the middle of the city. It is amazingly beautiful and clean. The trees, plants, flowers, and rocks are abundant. The tourists normally are as well, though there aren’t as many westerners in this part of the country as in Beijing or Shanghai. Unfortunately the clouds and fog were also extremely abundant, so the visibility was close to nil. I took what pictures I could, but I was unfortunately limited.

Our hostel was at the end of a main shopping area in the heart of the city. We could just step out the door and walk a few meters and find ourselves in a huge pedestrian and shopping area with just about anything you could want. It’s actually a lot like Nanjing road in Shanghai, surprisingly, except that in Nanjing there are far fewer tourists and no people trying to get us to get prostitutes. My favorite thing to do was to just walk up and down the streets in this area.

They had some amazingly delicious fruit skewers that proved to be nearly addicting. They just took some fruits like oranges, kiwi, cherry tomatoes, and grapes, and put them on these wooden skewers. Then they put a very thin hard candy coating on them that locks in all of the fresh juiciness without being too sweet, and then they sell them all around the area. They actually have these things all over the country, and they are absolutely amazing. I could probably eat them all day and still want more. Plus they are really healthy, which makes them a true guiltless pleasure (not that I, of all people, would have to worry about calories).

At night time, the people all flock to this part of town and just walk around, shop, and eat food. It really is a big social thing.

I decided to join the locals of Nanjing and experience it like they do. Based on my experience, I concluded that the locals of Nanjing go there to enjoy the amazing food, see the dazzling lights that illuminate the area, take lots of pictures, and shop. The clothes shopping is actually the most interesting part. Unlike in the US, the main objective here is to go to these überstylish stores, browse through what they have to offer, and try to determine if the clothes are for guys or girls. Once they determine that the article of clothing is one that their gender wears, they purchase it and wear it everyday for a year straight.

Okay, I am exaggerating a little. But in all honesty, I walked into these clothing stores and I seriously could not tell which ones were for guys and which were for girls. I would then turn to one of the workers, and ask:

这是男孩子的还是女孩子的?(Is this guy’s or girl’s?)

They would then stop, look at me like I had three heads, smile awkwardly, and try to find out what my size is. Needless to say, it made for a completely new shopping experience. I can see it now: I will go back to the US, start up a retail chain where part of the shopping experience is determining whether something is for guys or girls. It will be genius! Now boyfriends and girlfriends will have to go shopping together to determine which one should wear the pair of jeans they just purchased. Purses are still safe though – they seem to be only for girls here as well as in the US. Outside of those, anything is fair game.

When the time finally came our trip to come to a close, and I was still completely unsure of what clothes were for guys and for girls, we took our last train back to Shanghai. We took a D-train, which are almost the nicest trains in China. We got “soft seat” tickets, which basically are the equivalent of first class, so we rode in style. It felt more like flying than taking a train. Not only did it hit 249kmph (about 150mph), it made for a very, very smooth ride and the seats were very roomy and comfortable. It was certainly a transition from our hard-bed sleepers that we took everywhere else on our trip.

We did have to forgo the massages we planned on getting in Nanjing because we couldn’t find a massage parlor. But we can probably do that here this week. Getting back to Shanghai was really, really nice though. It felt like we were coming home. It’s so much warmer, denser, and more fast-paced here, which are big pluses in my book. But this trip really made me see just how unique Shanghai is. It is, hands down, my favorite city that I have been to in China (aside from Hong Kong, of course). It is also much more western than the other places I have been to, even Beijing and all it is doing to prepare for the upcoming Olympics.

Now that the trip is over, I only have about 5 weeks left here and a couple of really, really big projects that will be taking up a lot of time and effort for me. I will face those tomorrow, along with classes as they restart. I certainly feel like my spoken Chinese has improved tremendously with all of the speaking that I have been doing. I’m pretty excited to hit Mandarin class again and put it to work again and see how it goes!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Chinese Confession-Xi'an and a Certain Rectangular Place

I know it has been a while now since I have written anything of substance. Hopefully this will at least make up for some of the lack over the past couple of weeks. In all honesty, however, things have been getting increasingly busy and my time here in China is drawing rapidly to its close.

Right now I am actually writing this in a hostel in Beijing near the Lama Temple. We started our trip around China last Thursday, with the plan being to spend two days in Xi’an, five days in Beijing, and three days in Nanjing. Before leaving, however, we did have our midterm test for Chinese class. We went over review for it and it honestly seemed so easy that I didn’t feel that I really needed to study too hard before hand. Normally I would dismiss that as laziness, but in all actuality, I think it is quite the opposite. Preparing for a test in Chinese does not depend on how many hours you put in the few days before a test, as you cram and cram and cram and focus entirely on that one test. I find that the true preparation takes place everyday that I make the decision to go to class, to bring the language to life, go above and beyond what the minimum is, and most importantly – make it fun. I’ve been doing that the whole time I have been here in China, so I felt really well prepared for the test. And I think it went really well. Even the oral part, which normally is a challenge, was not too bad. It just came naturally. I told my teacher about being in France for two years. That gave me plenty to talk about for the entire time.

After the test, I packed and tried to finish a few things before we headed off to the Shanghai train station. We took an overnight train to Xi’an. We ended up taking a slower train (one that makes more stops), so it took us 16 hours to arrive there. It was fun though. This first part of the trip I spent with five other American classmates: Steve, Will, Mark, Monica, and Shelly. Although we speak English amongst ourselves (some just began Chinese this semester, so conversing is very difficult), I still am getting a fair amount of Mandarin practice in because I seem to be the best speaker amongst us. That means I get to be the one to buy the train tickets, ask directions, ask other questions, and help out in whatever ways possible. I don’t have a dictionary with me either, so I really have to work to come up with ways of saying things that can be understood and understand what is written on signs and such. It’s really good language practice, to say the least. I think my Chinese professor from home would be proud.

Xi’an itself is a pretty neat city. It has a lot of history, for those who are interested in that. It is home to the Terracotta Warriors (兵马俑), which are its most famous attraction. Those are a huge draw for people. The city itself has some other cool things like a HUGE city wall that goes all the way around the city and has been really well preserved. It also has some parks, gardens, and even a great mosque in the Muslim neighborhood. We certainly didn’t see everything there was to see in the two days we spent there, but we saw enough that we were ready to move on by the end.

As for my actual opinion of the place and its people, they are still quite friendly. They don’t see foreigners nearly as often as in Shanghai though, and that was pretty evident. We got a lot more stares than in Shanghai, and some people seemed to not be able to communicate with us very well. The cab drivers, in particular, were really bad at trying to understand us. We tried with three different cabs, and each time the drivers ended up kicking us out. I don’t know if it is because they couldn’t understand me (which is possible, but I am not so sure) or because they just didn’t want to have to deal with a foreigner. Maybe they’ve had bad experiences. But each time we got in and explain where we wanted to go, they said “I can’t! I don’t know!” and made us get out. I got really angry at the last one because I told him what street we wanted to go to and he said he could take us there. Just to make sure, I pulled out a map and pointed to the exact intersection, which was really easy to get to and was literally perhaps 10 blocks straight ahead. He wouldn’t even have to turn. I told him “there is a restaurant there and that is where we want to go” But once I showed it to him and told him this, he said he couldn’t and it didn’t know where it was and he kicked us out. I won’t lie. I was pretty angry about the whole thing, especially after being a cab driver in the US. Those were the easiest directions in the world, and I couldn’t have made them any clearer. But he didn’t even want to try to understand. That’s probably the first time I’ve really gotten mad at a Chinese person here, and hopefully it will be the last. I didn’t yell at him or lose my cool or anything, but I walked away rather annoyed. We were all extremely tired and hungry anyway, having just spent an hour looking for a place to eat, but finding none and having walked at least 10 miles already. Either way, I hate to paint a generalization, but I have to say that the cab drivers are not very dependable in Xi’an. So if anyone plans on going there, I will recommend trying to get a driver from the train station that is more specialized in taking tourists around. You generally have to pay them for the whole day, but they know the city and can take you where you want to go. You just have to negotiate a price.

Our hostel was pretty interesting though. It appeared to have been converted from a couple of the old, fancy traditional Chinese homes with courtyards and a bunch of rooms. Our hostel here in Beijing is probably nicer and more modern, but it is also a bit more mainstream and not quite as unique of an experience. It’s still better than I would expect elsewhere in the world for the price we pay (about $7 per night). I’m happy.

Beijing so far is also a pretty unique city. It’s pretty lively, mostly because the government here is so huge and so many people work for it. It does have a very different feel from Shanghai though. We saw Tiananmen square today and walked around it and some of the surrounding area, just getting a feel for the place and getting familiar with the surroundings. On the square itself, I really felt aware of the presence of the police and soldiers. The square is huge, and there was a pretty big crowd, especially for November, which is not a big tourist season. There were soldiers all around the place, some standing completely still at their stations at certain monuments. Others were walking around a bit more. There were also numerous police stationed at the entrances to the whole square, performing searches of the bags that people carry in. I only had my camera, so I was okay. Some others had bags but they didn’t get searched for some reason. There was also a police van driving around on the square itself the whole time.

It’s really difficult to describe, and perhaps it was just because we were more aware of what had happened there before, but the feeling was very strange. Chinese people are completely unaware of what happened. I have had a couple of my teachers here make mention of it during lectures, but they do seem to be a bit more hushed about it and don’t dwell on the topic too much. The intangible presence of the government just felt heavy, like I could feel it bearing down on my shoulders. I can’t explain it any other way. It was almost surreal seeing all of these Chinese people smiling and taking pictures and such, often coming up to us and wanting to take pictures with us just because we were foreigners. I find myself wondering if they felt the same thing that I did. As I was talking about it with Steve, my classmate, he mentioned how its pretty similar in places in DC in that there are military and police, and yet the feeling is so different there. Perhaps it’s a case of national pride. Perhaps it’s a trust issue. Maybe the Chinese on this square feel like Americans do at the tomb of the lost soldier or the Lincoln Memorial. Most of the police and soldiers didn’t even have weapons. It is as if their mere presence and the government buildings around are enough to keep things peaceful and orderly.

After a few days of being here in Beijing, it will be interesting to be able to compare it with Shanghai and Hong Kong, and possibly Shenzhen and Xi’an. They are all very unique and have completely different feelings. The pace of life, the way the people see us, interact with us, and respond to us, and even the cultures of the cities are all pretty unique. Beijing certainly doesn’t have the same modern, cosmopolitan, international feel that Shanghai does. But then again, Shanghai doesn’t quite have the same modern, cosmopolitan, and international feel that Hong Kong does. This place is definitely all about the government and seems destined to be the face that the Chinese government presents to the world. That, of course, will be displayed next summer when the Olympic Games finally arrive in China. What happens with the city after that point, however, is anyone’s guess.

Tomorrow morning we will be seeing the Great Wall, which should be a pretty amazing trip. It’s quite far out of the city though, and I am not quite sure how to get to the two places along the wall that people in my group want to go. We’ll be working those details out later tonight. In the meantime, I will save this and get on to experiencing Beijing!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Off for a few days

As the time has flown by, I have not been able to post my pictures from Huang Shan. I will get those up as soon as is feasibly possible. We actually have all of next week off, so I will be heading out tomorrow after my Chinese midterm with a few friends, hitting the railways, and kicking off the grand tour of China! It's actually pretty exciting.

The plan is to take an overnight train up to Xi'an, which you can check out with this link:

In Xi'an we will be seeing the Terracotta warriors, an ancient city wall that surrounds a large portion of the city, seeing the Muslim district and eating some reputedly delicious food. Then Saturday night I will take another overnight train (about 11 hours) up to Beijing.

Here's a link to find Beijing:

Since Beijing is the capital and there is so much to see there, including the Great Wall, the Olympic park, a certain square that starts with 'T', the Emperor's Palace, etc., we will spend five days there. Once Friday rolls around, we will take another overnight train (about 9 hours long) to Nanjing.

Here's a link for Nanjing:

I don't know a whole lot about Nanjing, except that it has a big museum about Japan's "rape of Nanjing" (a political hot-topic), a big mountain that you can take a gondola up, and a bunch of Chinese people. I figure that by this point we will be so traveled-out anyway that we will just want to take it slow and mellow and just enjoy the city. It should be good.

Nanjing is really close to Shanghai, so we will take a train back on Sunday afternoon at the latest, then prepare for classes to begin the following day. When this trip is over, I think it will be safe to say that I have seen more of China than I have of the United States. I can't decide if that is really cool (having seen so much of China) or really lame (having seen almost none of the US).

And as usual, I will be sure to take an obscene amount of pictures. At this point I have close to 20 gigs worth, which is exceeding what I even expected in the first place, and my expectations were high!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Chinese Confession - Huang Shan I

At this point, I think it is pretty safe to assume that China is an amazing place. Shanghai is amazing. Hong Kong is amazing. The people are amazing. Being from Colorado, however, I always had the mountains just minutes away. That is something that we don’t have here in Shanghai, so I had not been able to see how the mountains of China stack up compared to those in the US.

If you’ve ever seen the movie “The Painted Veil”, it takes place in the mountains of China. They looked absolutely amazing. I also remembered the pictures I had seen of huge mountains jumping straight up out of the ground amidst fields of rice. Patches of fog here and there provided just cover to give the whole scene a divine, peaceful feeling. Needless to say, I had pretty high expectations of the mountains here would be like.

When a classmate of mine asked me if I would be interested in going with him and some other friends to Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain), I was quite eager to leap at the opportunity. In fact, seeing some mountains was high up on my priority list.

Okay, here’s a little bit of background on Huang Shan. It has a reputation of being a pretty beautiful place. Okay, that’s too modest. “The Lonely Planet”, which is basically the bible of tour guides (especially for China – don’t come to this country without it, like I stupidly did), actually says that if you go to any place in China, Huang Shan should be it. It’s probably the most famous mountain in this country, aside from Mt. Everest which is on the border. Although it is not one of the sacred Buddhist Mountains, it is pretty close in how much the Chinese revere and honor it. There are some beautiful parks and countryside around it as well. One park in particular is where they happened to film a movie that is fairly well known in America, called “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. I confess that I have not seen the movie, but I assure you it is on my list now.

Our trip started out with a train ride from Shanghai to Huang Shan city. We could have taken the bus, which would have taken five hours, but we opted for the train instead. The train took eleven hours. I am honestly at a loss for why a train would take twice as long as a bus, especially considering the train usually takes the most direct route. I still don’t get it, but that’s what we did. We actually went all out and took a sleeper train, which is what they call cramming a whole bunch of people into an oversized sardine can. It was actually quite fun. We somehow ended up next to a group of people from Germany, so we chatted with them for a few hours.

I should probably also mention that this trip was in mid October. Yeah, I’m a little bit behind with my blogging. And since time is so precious, I will save my illustrious descriptions of the minutest of details and provide a rapid, continuous stream of thought summary of what happened. If you want a visual, picture this as a montage. You can pick your own song to play in your head as the scenes flash before your eyes. Or, if you’d prefer, imagine this being read at a speed that renders it nearly incomprehensible. Whatever suits you.

We arrive in Huang Shan city. Considering none of us have been there, we somehow manage to get around the city pretty well. This city actually was named something different, but I have no idea what it was and apparently nobody else does because they just decided to rename it Huang Shan city to make life a whole lot easier for tourists, although it ends up more complicated because the actual little city at the base of Huang Shan is about 45 minutes away. There is a cool, traditional-styled Chinese street about ¼ mile long that has hundreds of stores all selling almost the exact same thing. It does mean that they got a bit monotonous after a while, but it also means that comparison shopping is a breeze. If you are kicking yourself for passing over that little 3-inch Buddha statue, morbidly obese and happily so, based on the grin he has stretching from ear to ear, you are in luck because the store 20 meters down has the exact same thing. You just have to be able to barter because even in America, $30 is not a decent price. Needless to say I am not buying any Buddha statue. This is just for illustration. Instead, I am buying a Chinese watercolor painting of a beautiful scene of rugged mountains rising above some low lying clouds and a beautiful waterfall. It’s pretty big, and it ends up only costing $15, which is a decent drop from the $55 the man was originally requesting. I’m pretty sure it is actually an imaginary scene, but I don’t really care because it is amazing and I will love it forever. It is definitely worth the $15 I pay. And it was hand painted by a real Chinese person, which is more than I can say for almost anything by Andy Warhol. I’m so glad he’s dead.

I step out of the shop. The architecture on this street is amazing. It’s so Chinese! I snap some pictures. I see an old-styled Chinese pharmacy. It’s still a pharmacy. I’ve seen these before. They’re crazy! One of them had a 3 foot long snake coiled in huge jar of who-knows-what-liquid. I don’t know what it is used for, but I’m going to guess that it is supposed to make children do chores or a man stop watching the football game and mow the lawn or fix the toilet. It’s easy, actually. I mean, nobody would actually want to eat this 3 foot snake. Trust me. If you were presented with the opportunity to eat this snake or else fix the toilet or mow the lawn, you would pick the latter too. It was not pretty. Okay, confession time – I thought it was amazing and would make for a great conversation piece, but none of the girls agreed with me. Whatever. I guess I’m weird like that, but I also happen to want to buy one of the tarantulas that they have perfectly preserved by placing it in a glass mold. I don’t seen any tarantulas for sale though, so I move on.

We eat lunch. Or do we? I can’t remember. Maybe we just snack. Either way, we have to be quick and hop a bus up to Huang Shan. We will be staying in a hostel there at the base of the mountain and hiking up the next day. In the meantime, we have a couple of parks that we will be seeing on the way up. We actually get a van that will drive us up. It is only about $15 to get all of us up there, which is pretty good considering it takes us 45 minutes. The driver is insane though. He is spending more time in the left lane than the right, and I am pretty sure the shocks were either optional in this van that is about the size of a Toyota Camry or else they were worn out about 300,000 miles ago. I don’t dare fall asleep.

We arrive in the small town at the base of Huang Shan. We get in an even smaller van about the size of a compact car and enjoy a non-communal religious experience as we al pray for our lives. We arrive at one park, walk up the trail, and watch in awe as a man actually has a job to sit up here all day and do almost nothing except when tourists arrive at the end of the trail. He then makes monkey calls, throws out some kernels of corn into the forest as we watch, and wait for dozens of native Chinese monkeys come out, climb through trees, flip over rocks, and collect and devour every last kernel. Occasionally they steal a glance at us as we watch, utterly amused. After about 15 minutes, they’ve had their fill, and our camera memory cards have too, and we all go our own ways. We head down, get in the van, pray some more for our lives as the tiny thing zips around on the narrowest roads I’ve ever seen, and drops us off at the entrance to the park where they filmed “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.” I’m sure it has a name, but I don’t remember what it is and it would disrupt my stream-of-conscious to stop and dig for it.

The park is amazing. There are hundreds of Chinese people who love to take pictures of the most random things you could imagine. If we were all in Paris, we would be taking pictures of the Eiffel Tower while they took pictures of the pigeons or a patch of grass. But that’s okay. It’s one of those interesting things about Chinese people that I just love. As we hike up the canyon that makes up this park, we pass pools of pristinely clean, turquoise water. A waterfall here, a giant boulder there, majestic mountains rising up over our heads – all is calm and perfect. It’s no wonder they shot the movie here. I didn’t realize the Earth could hide such beautiful places

When we finish, we walk back down the canyon to the entrance of the park, taking a path through the bamboo forests. Once again, we fear for our lives in the tiny van, then arrive at the hostel, eat some dinner, and go to bed.

The next day our hike up the mountain begins, but that will have to wait for my next blog! I took 573 pictures during the whole trip, so I’m still sorting through them and getting the good ones ready to post. But here’s a Huang Shan teaser to build anticipation.