The more I thought about it, I had to admit that it was pretty strange being back in Beijing. Not all the time – usually it was normal. But stuff like doing things I used to do while living there, like visiting an old restaurant, or visiting the market, really were pretty surreal. It just kind of transforms you back to that time. When I took Nancy to the same hostel I stayed at when I first arrived at Beijing, I had to take a subway line I hadn’t taken since I first arrived in Beijing and all these memories of newness and anxiousness flooded back. I remember living out of the hostel and going to work for the first time to do something completely new. It’s very rare that you get these feelings in life, I’ve found. We go through our lives repeating a thousand daily things and we forget that at one time, when we were younger or at least at some time in the past, all this stuff was new and exciting. You answer your cell phone without thinking about it, but when you first got one, you were probably all excited about how cool it was. I took the subway every day in Beijing and it was nothing, but it was something new and exciting when I first arrived. I was glad I was able to recapture a bit of that feeling.
So, yeah, I eventually left Beijing. Nancy and I bid our farewells (something strange after two weeks of traveling together) and I headed off on my super cheap train ticket. Let me tell you, that train ride was the worst train experience of my life. It was horrible. I couldn’t even fit in the train until 30 seconds before it left because it was so full and when I finally squeezed in, I was greeted by sweltering heat and PEOPLE. Tons and tons of people. Hundreds of people. This train car had people sitting in the seats, under and on top of the tables, lying in the aisles, standing over the people lying and sitting, people crammed in the little area connecting the two cars, in the bathroom, piled up in little storage compartments and anywhere else you could imagine. It took me 5 minutes to plow through the seething mass and sit at my assigned seat (which was taken, but was given up to me when I got there). And everyone was staring at ME. Everyone. The farmers interrogated me (this car was only for farmers because it was cheap) and because of their accents, I couldn’t understand a thing. Luckily there was a girl who knew a little bit of English that could help me. I answered all sorts of questions that night as I was smashed in my little seat. The windows were open but all the cigarette ashes flew by my face and on my clothes as they zoomed out with the wind. Men spit out the window and the phlegm would fly back and land on my arm. I really wanted to cry. But I persevered. I joked around with them. They were fascinated with my mp3 player and offered to trade their AM radio for it. When I refused, they added in two apples. I told them they would also have to buy me a thousand beers. They laughed when I chained my backpack to the table and spent the evening trying to crack the combination on my master lock. I told them I would give them 10 yuan if they could do it, but if they couldn’t they would have to pay me. It was pretty funny. And although they were all good guys, I had to get out. I had to get to some place I could breathe so I headed to the dining car. But it was 4 cars ahead and I had to swim through the people for 20 minutes to get to it. Picking through a mass of people like that on this train required me to be in top physical shape. I had to leap over people, grasp bars high above my head and pull myself over the people, step with great precision and accuracy, and of course apologize when I smashed someones skull with my foot. And when I finally arrived, I figured out that I had to pay a really high price for a meal but it entitled me to stay in the dining car until 10:00PM, at which point I would have to buy another meal which allowed me to stay until 5:00AM at which point I had to buy another. I would watch as the farmers came in and looked at the menu and would ask for just some rice (which was expensive in its own right) because they couldn’t afford the rest and were asked to leave (they just wanted to sit in the car. There was plenty of cheap food to be had elsewhere on the train). I met a girl who worked for a fashion agency doing choreography and we chatted for a long time and then after a few beers I tried to get some sleep on the table. At 3:00am they woke me up and said I could upgrade my ticket for 50 yuan to a sleeper which I gladly did. And after 22 hours, I arrived in Shanghai. My God…what an experience…
So I’ve spent a few days in Shanghai now. I really really like it. I can tell you this much: it certainly doesn’t feel much like China. It feels more like Buenos Aires or maybe even Hong Kong. It’s crazy. It’s so modern and colorful. The people are friendly and the food at the street stalls is still pretty cheap. There is an old French district with French architecture and lots of little old town pockets to explore by the river amidst the modern outcrops of skyscrapers and the like everywhere you go. People don’t spit nearly as much here (I’ve heard it maybe 3 times in 3 days, unlike Beijing which is more like 3 times a minute) and it’s really really nice just to stroll around the city. This place is incredible. I was going to go visit some other city some place close, but I think I’ll just stay here for the next few days and hang out. The hostel is really nice and I’ve made lots of friends and we’ve been going out together and that makes it a lot of fun too. Today I’ll buy my train ticket to Hong Kong. It should be a sleeper ticket so I hopefully I won’t be doing any crying.
So I last left off with seeing the Giant Pandas. We had one more day before leaving for Xian and we wanted to get the most out of it. Unfortunately, we are lazy bastards and slept in again. After a lazy morning and a late breakfast / early lunch, we headed to the train station and bought our tickets to Xian for later that day. I spotted a guy with a really cool (and massive) umbrella hat and when I asked if I could take a photo of him, he said no but I could wear it for my own photo. He made my day.
There’s not really much to do in Chengdu proper and so we ended up at this ancient poet’s cottage to check it out. It’s been converted into a huge park with all sorts of stuff related to him. In his museum, they quite modestly said, “The DuFu cottage museum is superior to any other places in the world.” Now that’s quite a statement! I had my doubts at first, but very quickly realized that it was the greatest place on earth. After all…it was DuFu’s cottage! (yeah…who the hell is Dufu?)
We ended up running into a couple we met in Tiger Leaping Gorge and we all talked for a while. They said they spotted us on the train coming from Dali – passed out on the hard seats in crazy random positions. We didn’t see them. So later, it was time to catch our train and we did that. It was pretty uneventful and we had hard sleepers so after some beers and a few games of chess, we passed out and woke up in the morning. We had met a nice Chinese guy who spoke perfect English and we went with him to his hostel in the morning. The hostel was pretty nice seeing as it was huge and had lots of corridors and patios, a restaurant and bar, and cheap rooms. But we had no time to marvel at the hotel – we had to go see the terracotta warriors! For anyone who didn’t know, Xian is the home of thousands of man sized stone soldiers in China that were excavated in 1974. They were all broken up so they have had to reconstruct them. So we wanted to see them, but didn’t have much time so we planned to do it the next day. In the mean time, we went to the museum and grabbed some coffee which we sipped over an intense game of chess. Nancy has been beating me recently and I was having a very difficult time coming up with all sorts of excuses as to why. I finally had to admit that she is a really good chess player and that defeat comes with the territory. It’s much better than playing against someone you always win though. When you are traveling, a 2 hour game of chess can really entertain you through some boring times (as long as you are one of the ones playing).
That night we hung out at the pub and played some pool while we chatted with some Australians, English and an American. I played the drums with the band in the pub which was cool. That morning, we met up with an Australian girl and headed to the bus station so we could go check out the Terracotta warrior statues. The admission to the park was pretty steep (nearly 12 dollars) and my fake student ID card didn’t work seeing as they only allowed Chinese students in – so I just had to pay it. I’ve heard lots of people go on and on about the statues but I’ve also heard most of them say when asked how they were, “…ummm…they were cool”, which led me to believe that they would be somewhat of a disappointment. Well, let me tell you! …They were…
Why? Well, you go in and see all these statues (only about 15% of which have actually been excavated) and you really know nothing else about them. You don’t know why, when, how, how they reconstructed them, why they destroyed them, when they would finish, what the future plans were. You just walk around, see a bunch of statues in some buildings and leave. It would have felt the same just looking at photos (and I had seen my brother’s so I already knew). But oh well, it was on the way, so I’m not complaining.
When we returned, we had our tickets already booked to Beijing. We caught the train in the afternoon – and sadly, we only had hard seats for the 17 hour train ride. So basically, we sat in two pairs of opposing chairs, staring at the Chinese guys in front of us for the whole trip. While passing through the dining car, I saw a foreigner reading John Stuart Mill and of course struck up a conversation. He was an international human rights lawyer from Gibraltar (look on the map – an English colony in the south of Spain) working in Beijing and we had quite a fascinating conversation about the world. I hadn’t talked much about human rights and the farce of the European Union (which he actually believed in) in Spanish so it was really cool. The funny thing was that neither had he. In Gibraltar, they speak Spanish on the streets and English as the official language, but we both chatted away for hours before heading back to our car and chatting with Nancy. Nancy and Jaime played chess while we drank to pass the time away (in these trains, there is not much else to do – and at 20 cents for a huge bottle, it’s hard to resist). I slept from exhaustion for a few hours (maybe two) and we arrived in Beijing at 7:00am. I took Nancy to her hostel and I headed for my friend’s house and gave everyone a call. My old roommate Shery said I could stay with her and I was to meet up with Maurizio for some dinner. I took Nancy out on the town to show her around and then that evening went out with Maurizio and his friends for coffee and dinner. Then me and Maurizio went to the campus pub and hung out there for the night. It was really fun to be able to do that again and it reminded me of so many weekends in Beijing when I lived there.
Well, that night, I had to make it back to Shery’s apartment. To make a long story short, I ended up getting the wrong building and really freaking some Chinese people out at 2:00AM before wandering around the complex and finding the right one. In the morning…well, afternoon, seeing as I woke up at noon, Shery and I got some lunch and then I headed into town. Nancy and I were to get Beijing Roast Duck for dinner and I happen to know where the best place in town is. We went and gorged ourselves – and loved it. What an incredible meal a good Beijing roast duck is, hey.
The next day, I bought my train ticket to Shanghai (a 19 hour hard seat again seeing as they were all booked out – but which I managed to get for 10 bucks as opposed to 40) and then we headed to the Beijing TV tower so I could show Nancy Beijing from above. Even though I had already seen it, I was blown away yet again.
That night, I went out to dinner with Maurizio and some other friends from here and we all had a really nice evening joking around. And this morning, here I find myself doing this post. Funny how that happens.
So how does it feel to be back? Very comfortable. I know where to go for everything and I have lots of friends here. Things have changed, but not as much as I expected. Some stores are different and stuff like that, but nothing too dramatic. My friends haven’t changed at all. People from the stores I frequented still remember me, even, and that’s pretty cool. But otherwise, it’s just a place I’m passing through again. Like being back home for a few days.
So today I’m going to go to the market and who knows what else – then it’s off to Shanghai and then down to Hong Kong, depending on how much time I have. A ticket to Cairo from HK is 650 bucks, but it’s only 100 to fly to Bangkok and 380 from Bangkok airport to Cairo. So I’ll do that and save some cash. My friend Colleen is in Thailand right now so she will reserve the ticket for me. It sure is a weird feeling to have friends in so many countries, let me tell you…
Yeah yeah yeah. Life on the road. After that break in HK it’s back to flying (well, training) around at break neck speed. I’ve only got 30 days on my visa and I’m trying to get back to HK before it’s over, even though I’m really really tempted to extend it. China is sooooo damned cool.
So Nancy and I left Lijiang and headed for Qiaotou so we could start a nice little 2 day trek through what is called Tiger Leaping Gorge. The bus ride was spectacular (despite the cigarette smoke) and it’s fascinating just to stare out the window at all that is going on. There are always hundreds of people in the fields planting and transplanting bright green rice shoots, people hustling about on bikes loaded up with leafy vegetables, old women walking down the road with a big stick over their shoulders with two baskets tied to each side carrying an assortment of items, and tractors (a Chinese tractor is hard to describe) putzing down the dirt trails between rice fields. We descended into a huge valley and as the mountains grew higher and higher our little bus was slowly swallowed by the canyon. The soft shadows cast by the sun and the overhanging clouds created fluffy patches of loosely highlighted brilliance – bringing out the details of the water flooded fields and scree mountain cliffs…and the bright farmers’ clothing. It was breathtaking.
And then we arrived. We hopped out and chatted with a tout who wanted us to take his bus to the entrance of the trek and avoid the entrance fee, but I didn’t know if it was legit and I would rather pay the money so they could maintain the trek, so we just walked to the start. As we got closer, an Australian woman marched over to us and asked gruffly if we were going to start the trek right then.
“Well, yeah. We’re just gonna walk two hours, halfway up the mountain.”
“It’s too hot! And you’re going to walk over 1000 meters up. You should wait until tomorrow.”
“Hmm…it’s 4pm, the coolest part of the day and we have 3 1/2 hours of daylight. Are you sure?”
She threw her hands up dramatically, “IT’S YOUR CHOICE!” and stormed off.
Nancy and I looked at each other…”What a bitch!” we both said in unison. But more on her later. We started our trek and ventured up into the mountains. The climb wasn’t bad and the views were great (although it was a bit cloudy) and we walked a little bit up the mountain before stopping at an incredible guesthouse. It was impeccably clean and besides a Japanese guy and Chinese couple, we were the only other ones. The food was great and cheap and from the courtyard we had a view of the valley and grey snowcapped mountains above. I spent the evening playing chess and practicing Chinese with the lady running the place.
So the next morning, we got up late and had a nice and filling breakfast. And then we set off. The climb was quite steep as the trail winded up the mountain to 2600 meters, but the view at the top was incredible. The chocolate brown Lijiang river (from the silt) roared through the gorge and brilliant green jagged farming terraces climbed up the valley walls, requiring us to stop every so often to ponder the beauty. We had a lazy lunch at another little guesthouse and played with the owner’s dog and then continued on, eventually arriving to our destination: Walnut Grove. We checked into the hostel and went to the courtyard where we met a Scottish couple who were both doctors and we spent the night staring from our patio into the gorge (it was a phenomenal view) and chatting about everything from health care, to the European Union constitution, to travel to amoebic dysentery (of course!). That morning, we all split a taxi back to Qiaotou. We hopped in a bus to Lijiang and just before we took off, that same obnoxious Australian woman poked her head in the bus and commanded us to get out and get another bus because this one wasn’t going to Lijiang. She then asked the lady if it went to Lijiang and she said yes. So the Australian woman told us we could stay in the bus. We told her that we knew and she stormed off again.
“What a bitch!” we all said in unison. The bus driver said that the Chinese people didn’t like her. She had a restaurant in town and had been there a while, but she had a lot of enemies because she was a biatch. We all concured.
When we finally arrived, Nancy and I wandered about the town for a while before catching our sleeper bus.
My plan was this: I wanted to get to Chengdu, but I didn’t want to take the train 10 hours back to Kunming and then up to Chengdu (another 20 hours). So I could catch a sleeper bus to Panzhihua (10 hours) and then catch the train on it’s way to Chengdu (another 10 hours). Nancy decided that she wanted to go to Beijing and would go via Chengdu as well, so we got our bus tickets. I managed it all in Chinese!
Well, the bus was horrible. It had about 30 full on beds crammed into it in three rows and you could barely walk between the beds, they were so close. I didn’t really fit and couldn’t lay on my side and the whole bus smelled like a toilet (literally). I had a window bed though, so it wasn’t all that bad, and Nancy and I were able to entertain ourselves by annoying and complaining to each other. At about midnight we stopped somewhere to eat and I wandered away from the bus towards a dark valley and sat for a few minutes listening to the discordant hum of thousands of frogs croaking. The moon lit up the valley, which had a huge lilly covered lake within – and the experience was quite surreal. I snapped out of my trance and stumbled back to the bus still in a sleepy haze – and went back to sleep.
We eventually arrived at our destination and were herded out of the bus into the onslaught of taxi drivers wanting to take us to the train station. My guidebook had no map or directions so we hopped in the cab and put ourselves at the mercy of the taxi driver. He drove us all around and I could have sworn I saw the same place twice, at which point I voiced my concern.
“I’ve already seen this place. Why is this so expensive?” I asked.
“The bus station is far!” the driver replied. He pointed at a sign that said 15 km to the train station.
“I’m not going to pay this much, but keep going.” I said. I would handle it when I arrived by talking to a cop.
You see, the problem is that I had no idea where the hell I was, where the train station was, how far it was, how much it should cost, or when my train would leave. Nancy and I were at this guy’s mercy – until we got at the station and he wanted his money.
So we finally arrived and the meter said 77 yuan, which is insane. I’ve never paid that much, ever and I was in dismay. I said to wait a minute and went inside to talk to the lady at the counter (mind you, it was 3AM). I asked her how much it should cost from the bus station to the train station and she sleepily pondered my question. The taxi driver came in and started telling her stuff (like how far it was, and that it was expensive) and I knew she wouldn’t tell me after that. She didn’t want to disrespect him.
I got mad. I looked up the word for police in my book at told him that I wanted to speak to them. He shrugged his shoulders and said there were no police. I said that if there were no police, he would get no money. I set off toward a sign that said “police” and saw a few taxi drivers and got an idea.
“Hey, how much to the bus station?” I asked, as though I wanted to go.
“50 yuan! 40 yuan! We take you now!” they cried.
“Aha!” I thought and returned to my taxi driver.
“They say it should only be 40 or 50 yuan. Why is yours so expensive?” I asked.
He drew two points on a piece of paper and put 25km in between them. “It’s far.”
I looked at him and said, “Yeah, but I saw the same place twice.” As though the two points on the paper were places, I drew a straight line and then a long line that went to the bottom of the paper and back to the other point.
“This one, 2km, this one 25km.”, I showed him and the group (I now had an audience of about 20 Chinese guys).
“Noooooo!” he replied.
“Then we wait for the police,” I said. And he called the cop saying, “the foreigner isn’t paying me.”
It went kind of like that for 10 minutes and then a sleepy security guard finally showed up. The group started yelling at him and I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “Please come with me. Don’t listen to them,” and we walked a ways away from the group. I pleaded my case, explaining that I came from the bus station and it shouldn’t be that expensive. I asked him how much it should be. He told me that it should be 50 if the guy went quickly and 60 if he went slowly, in a polite and helpful voice. He was really a nice guy. Then the group came over and everyone surrounded us. I told the taxi driver that it should just be 50 yuan if he drove normally.
“But that’s for one person. You were two,” he replied.
“I don’t care if it was one person, two people or 100 people. You put the meter on and you drive. I’ll give you 60 yuan, that’s final,” I said.
“70 yuan!” he replied.
The security guard looked at him and said to take it. It was a good price. He smiled and nodded okay. The group roared and started skipping around (they were loving this show) and yelled out, “The foreigner speaks good Chinese!!!” It was pretty funny. So I paid him and shook his hand and he was gone.
That killed one hour, but we still had 6 hours until our train left. I went to sleep in the terminal and Nancy read her book.
Confrontation is a really funny thing. I’m a pretty confrontational guy if I feel that I am being treated unfairly and I’ve learned a few things about how to present yourself in these situations. I was at a huge disadvantage in this situation because I didn’t know where I was and speak Chinese like a 4 year old – but I was confident and I am a Westerner. I’ve found that it doesn’t matter so much what you say in these situations as much as how you present yourself. If you present yourself as a confident and intelligent person, they see through the language barrier and give you respect. You need to remain respectful, and learn how to convey with your eyes that the person is making you mad without really getting mad. It’s kind of like how your mom says your first, middle, and last name when she’s getting pissed off. If you are Western in a lot of these countries, it makes things happen. But in hindsight, what I was doing was pretty stupid. If the cops did come and weren’t happy about being woken up, they could have hauled me to jail, I suppose – although I doubt it. I could have missed my train, but I figured I had enough time. But I knew it wouldn’t be serious trouble, and if anything, I would have a really funny story to tell either way. So boredom and self righteousness kept me at it. God bless China!
The bus ride was pretty uneventful – and worse, long. I made a few Chinese friends and they offered me beer and a whole pack of cookies and Nancy and I played a lot of chess in between naps. I took a lot of videos of the stunning scenery soaring by. With three hours remaining, and absolutely nothing to do (I was banging my head in boredom on the table), we took to drink and had a few beers while chatting with each other and the Chinese. The time slipped by and we eventually arrived at Chengdu at 10:30pm.
A short and uneventful taxi ride later, we were at our hostel and we checked into the dorm, which was pretty posh seeing as it was just a nice hotel which the hostel leased from the hotel (I don’t get it, either). We went in search of food and found a place where we sat with an Australian girl and American guy and chatted. The guy told us that the new Star Wars movie was playing so we set off to watch it at midnight (this was like a marathon of no sleep) and it started raining. No worries – as the theater was close and before I knew it, we were in the theater watching the flick. It was pretty good, but kind of cheesy and I didn’t really get it all, seeing as I haven’t seen many of the others. After the movie, we headed back to the hotel (now 3AM) and came across a few Chinese guys doing some really weird stuff. We stopped and watched and I laughed a lot. The scene went something like this.
One Chinese guy was really really drunk and stumbling through the street towards a car pulled over on the side of the road with its lights still on. The other two guys were talking to him and the drunk guy kept kicking the car and screaming. He kept trying to get into the car and they would pull him out and start punching each other. The drunk guy took off his pants and stood there kicking the car in his underwear, yelling at the guys. I asked some people in the street what was going on and they didn’t know. But man was it entertaining! I laughed so hard, man oh man. But eventually, we headed back to the hotel and passed out in exhaustion.
This morning, Nancy and I woke up around noon and headed for the Giant Panda Panda Breeding Center where we saw the pandas and stuff. It was really cool and the facility was surprisingly accommodating for the pandas. I was really impressed.
And now here I am, hungry and done with yet another post.
So I left Guilin and headed to Yangshuo. It was a pretty uneventful bus trip and I arrived without any problems. Upon arrival, I set out to find a hostel. Yangshuo is a very unique place, indeed. It’s not your typical Chinese city in that it was kind of a nice little getaway before and as word spread, it has exploded into a tourist Mecca. There is a bit of a run down area in the outskirts, but the majority of the town is filled with hostels, hotels, western restaurants, people selling cheap tourist junk, old women selling fruit, beggars getting money hand over fist from the old Europeans and the like. It was like any really touristy town in Southeast Asia, but with a unique Chineseness that can’t actually be described. The only way I can put it is that where the Southeast Asian towns had a kind of trashy and fake feel, Yangshuo has a more innocent and quaint feel – despite its touristocity. It’s a really laid back place surrounded by towering rings of limestone peaks with rivers flowing through and around the town. I eventually found a hostel and was walking towards the entrance when I caught a glimpse of a familiar face.
I looked. She looked. We both squinted…”Casey???”
It was Ale from Beijing. She started working for Berlitz about two weeks before I left and we’ve kept in touch as I’ve been traveling. She taking a weekend vacation and it just so happened that four months after I left, we randomly met up at the same place and had checked into the same room at the same hostel (and it’s not like there weren’t a hundred to choose from). She was leaving in an hour and we chatted for a while and got some food and then I was left to my own devices in the town. My routine here seems to be something along the lines of check into the hotel, figure out some things I don’t know how to say and then pester the hotel staff with these very questions – thus learning a bit of functional Chinese. So as I was doing this, I met some Columbians who needed to make a phone call but realized that it was around 50 cents a minute. I told them about Skype (check out http://www.skype.com) which allows you to make calls over the net from a computer to a phone for 1 cent a minute and I said they could use my account to make their call, seeing as I had nothing much to do. They had free net access at their hotel and they made the call, and as we were hanging out, we learned about this really amazing light show on the river where they light up all these mountains and have all these people on boats with lights and stuff at night. So we signed up for that (and it was indeed incredible) and promised to meet back at the hotel before the show in a few hours. I went out to the river to snap some photos seeing as the clouds had cleared (it was really cloudy in Kunming and Guangzhou) and tried to find an old man with a boat to take me around the river. I eventually found an old woman with a boat and she had a dutch girl waiting, so we split the 15 cents it cost to cross the river. The Dutch girl had some food so we sat and chatted and it was quite interesting. It was a really strange conversation though, actually. We talked about life and teaching in China (she was a teacher too) and stuff like that and the dialog was hilarious because we were both pretty witty in the conversation. When we finally crossed the river to the other side, she suggested that we since we got along so well, that we get married (to make a long story short). Seeing as I realized that she was a bit nutty even before that, I got away quick in search of the Columbians.
So anyways, I went to the light show with the Columbians and we had a great time. We got dinner afterwards and chatted the night away which I really enjoyed. That night, I met Nancy, a really funny English girl, and we ended up playing chess for the rest of the night.
That morning, and really early at that, an obnoxious Chinese guy burst into the dormitory and starting talking at full volume and smoking. When I complained downstairs, and they confronted him, he said that it wasn’t him that was smoking, it was the other Chinese girl (this quiet sweet little girl who had been in the room for a few days). What a jerk. So that day I didn’t do much but relax. Nancy and I went out and saw the mountains and a few parks, saw a few crazy food markets (Deep fried dog and rat for dinner, anyone?) and played a bit more chess. That night, I ran into the Columbians again and met some Chileans and we promised to meet up the next day for the lunch. The next day, we did that and talked all about Chile and Pinochet and stuff. I learned quite a bit. So then I checked my email. I saw my friend Colleen online (who I had traveled with in Nepal) and asked her where she was. Her response? Yangshuo! So we walked out to the street and saw each other and she was with my friend Zach. What a random coincidence, but like I said, they aren’t really a rare occurrence for me, so it seems. We chatted and caught up and then it was time for Nancy and I to head back to Guilin so that we could catch the train to Kunming in the morning. We did just that and I checked into the same hostel that I was at before and we got some food before getting to sleep.
In the morning, we caught the train, and 21 hours of hot steamy misery ensued. The train was soooo hot but we eventually survived by spending a lot of time sitting in the first class car (which was air conditioned) and playing card games with an English and Irish guy we met. It was pretty funny because the English guy had all sorts of purple dots all over his body. He said that in Yangshuo he went out for a bike ride, got some bad directions, ended up at some random town and slept in a really dodgy hostel and ended up getting bitten in about 300 different places all over his body. He went to the doctor and he gave him some stuff that turned all the dots purple and that was why he looked like a psychedelic cheetah. It was great, but it would have sucked had it been me.
When we finally arrived, we all headed to the same hostel and checked in. Seeing as I could speak the most Chinese of everyone (which isn’t saying much) I helped everyone get squared away, which would have been quite hard otherwise seeing as no one here really speaks much English. The dorm was pretty cool and it was me, a Swedish couple we had also met on the train, the UK guys and Nancy. Morgan the Irish guy, Nancy and I went to Shilin for the day and it was pretty incredible. This place is made up of hundreds of thousands of limestone pillars and you just wander around in it for hours. I was really impressed and had a great time. I mean, the place is otherworldly. You wander around these massive stones jagging out of the ground in awe and there are tables and stuff in little hidden areas to sit at. There are also hidden underground caves which blast refreshingly cool air on you as you walk by, taking the cut off the heat. Surrounding the area were thousands of rice terraces and on the way back to the bus station, I asked our tuk tuk driver to stop so I could snap a photo of the workers in the fields. He slammed on the brakes and literally squealed to a halt and all the workers snapped their heads up at me to look at what the hell I was doing. I didn’t get a very good photo, but my “sneak” attack sure was funny. Shilin was quite a few hours away though so the bus ride was a bit monotonous and Nancy had a look at my phrase book. She started laughing and pointed out some funny phrases like, “Hey, I think my ancestors are from this place. Is there anyone here with the surname of Cobb?” She was pretty embarrassed when I leaned over to the Chinese farmer and told some of the stuff to him with a straight face.
“Excuse me, sir. I think my ancestors are from this place,” I said in a matter of fact tone.
“Which place?” he asked, surprised.
“This one. You think it’s possible?”
He examined my face closely. “It’s possible,” he replied.
So we arrived back quite late and we all went out for dinner. We chose hot pot, which is really quite good, but only the Swedish guy, me and Nancy seemed to like it. Tom, the English guy, screamed when he pulled out a boiled chicken’s head from the pot (*note: hot pot is where they give you a boiling pot of broth and raw meat and you cook your own food). The Irish guy was disgusted and after announcing that it was the worst meal he had had in his life, he got up and said he would find something else to eat. We all enjoyed the meal and talking though, and when he got back, we all split the bill. We headed back to the hotel past more crazy food markets (where they seemed to have a pitbull cut up and deep fried on display) I headed back to the hostel and passed out from exhaustion. The next day, Nancy and I wandered around Kunming for a while and I tried to find some shoes that were my size. I think China is one of the only countries in which I can walk into a shoe store and say to them, “I need REALLY big shoes. The biggest you’ve got!” and have them bring me back a size 8 1/2. I finally found a large 9 that my feet could squeeze into and I’m hoping they stretch. They seem to be, and seeing as I don’t have to go everywhere in flip flops anymore (I sent my boots home while in India), I’m happy.
There really wasn’t much to see in Kunming. It is just another big city. It is a lot cleaner and brighter than Beijing, but I really want to see the more rural stuff now, so I kind of zipped through it. We caught the bus in the afternoon to the “ancient” city of Dali and after fending off the touts and the old men who follow you around trying to get a commission for “bringing” you to the hotel you were going to anyway, we checked into our hostel. The dorms are always cheap and are a good way of meeting people so I always stay there and this place was really nice, although the bathroom, in stark contrast, was atrocious. The Chinese bathrooms at many places basically consist of a trough with cubicles built over it and water constantly flowing down it, if at all. You do your business while trying not to fall in to the trough. It’s rough. We spent the evening wandering around the city and I have to admit, I was amazed. There were so many Chinese tourists. I’d never seen so many in one place before. They outnumbered the western tourist 20 to 1 and were everywhere. It always surprised me how much the Chinese travel in their own country. They always go in a tour group, but they go everywhere. It’s a phenomenon I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world.
Dali was really nice. It didn’t have much in the way of things to do, but it was jam packed with cafes offering a wide selection of pirated DVDs for your viewing pleasure, along with pool, foosball, free internet, large cushy couches and a huge selection of books. The city consisted of many stone cobbled roads and alley ways and a huge outer wall which marked the boundary of the “ancient” city. I spent the whole day just kind of wandering around and watching the people. It was different than Southeast Asia in that even though it was strictly a tourist place, there were local places too and it was still packed with tourists (that is, Chinese tourists) so you still got to see the way of life. It was touristy, but Chinese touristy and thus educational.
One thing that did shock me though was seeing old women walking up to me and asking if I wanted to buy marijuana. “Haaah Sheeesh?” they would ask in a hushed voice. This was very common in Southeast Asia and Nepal, but China was the last place I expected it. I’m sure the penalty for selling it is death here. It wasn’t all that uncommon, though, seeing as there were several mary-jay plants growing in front of dorm room.
So we spent a day there and then continued on to where I am now, Lijiang. The bus ride was 3 hours and I spent the better part of it sticking my nose out the window and trying not to inhale the barrage of cigarette smoke coming at me from the Chinese farmers in the back of the mini-van. Smoke is always annoying when you are locked in a bus and the ashes are falling all over you with the wind. The funny thing was that I had control of my window and I had it full-open to suck the smoke out. The Chinese guy behind me leaned over and snapped my window shut and I just snapped it right back open. The guys here can be so rude and they seem to respond well to you being “ambiguously” rude back to them. I snapped the window back shut (and would have done it again and again) without looking at him, which made it all right. Some vinegar was leaking out of the drum in the front of the bus and leaking all over my bag. I thought it was water and smelled it and all the Chinese guys laughed pretty hard (including myself) at the face I made. The ride was beautiful though. We zipped past low lying rice fields with groups of 20 or so workers picking and sorting neon green rice sprouts and transplanting them into other flooded sections of the field. It was absolutely stunning.
So I’ve arrived here to Lijiang and have walked around quite a ways with Nancy and am really enjoying it. There are even MORE Chinese tourists here and it’s great. The city is all cobbled with tons of stores and it’s quite ancient looked (despite the electricity, you know) and I’ve snapped hundreds of photos. I leave tomorrow for a 3 day trek in the mountains to check out “Tiger Leaping Gorge” and after that, it’s off the Chengdu.
Man, I’ve said it before, but I am really really glad to be back in China. This place is great. The people are so friendly and there is so much to see.
The food is incredible and there’s lots of good fruit to snack on – and it’s realllllly cheap. The portions are huge and you always pay less than a buck for a massive fill. It’s excellent. But of course, there are the famous Chinese spitters everywhere. Everyone spits and you hear the hawking noise everywhere you go. It’s really great to wake up to that – kind of like a Chinese rooster. I’m having a great time with the language and the jokes (like, saying my ancestors are from here) are really funny and I love having that comedic connection with the locals. Every day I’m learning more functional vocabulary and phrases and I can get around quite easily now. I still have problems with the tone sometimes and I’m sure I say some pretty funny stuff. When I think I’m asking for the bill at the restaurant, I’m probably asking for a fried cat, or something like that. Oh well, that’s Chinese!
Another thing that’s kind of interesting (I know, I use that word a lot, but I can’t think of any synonyms at the moment) is the fact that all the roads have miles and miles of tunnels in them. Where we go around and over the mountains, they just go straight through them – which is kind of indicative of the Chinese “can-do” mentality. I suppose that in our countries, tunnels are expensive to do for roads, but here labor is cheap so they just smash right through the mountain. It’s great that they are building the infrastructure while it’s cheap. China (again, I say it again) is transforming rapidly.
And so here I leave you.
Ron was an excellent host. Good food, free floor to sleep on and lots of laughter. It was great! And I loved Hong Kong. But as all good things do, my time there came to an end – and on the morning of the 5th, after a nice dinner with Ron and his friends and several games of snooker the night before, I left for mainland China. Hong Kong makes it pretty easy for you: you just hop on the subway to the train station, then head for the border, snap through customs and you’re in China. I had some girl from the HK tourism board come up to me and ask me lots of question about my stay in Hong Kong. The funniest part was when she asked me how many days my vacation was and I answered, “about 700…”.
And then I was in China. I found the train station and bought a ticket for Guang Zhou and after a while of waiting, I was on board. I quickly fell asleep and woke up there. A really cute Chinese girl was stealing looks at me when I woke up and we started talking on the way out of the train. She showed me where the subway was and after we said goodbye she walked back up to me and asked me for my phone number. Haha, if I were so lucky…No phone and she had no email. And I had no idea where I would be even later that day – so we said goodbye. What a rough life I live 🙂
Anyways, I thought I was at the main train station and after confirming with a guy outside, I wandered around trying to find my hotel. None of the streets made sense and after I while I asked a police man where the street I was looking for was. He had no clue. Some other people came over and helped me (my Chinese is REALLY limited, I remind you) and even with a map they had no clue. After wandering around for a while, I went back to the subway and realized that I wasn’t actually at the main train station (so, yeah, basically that guy lied to me and I spent an hour wasting my time) and hopped on the train to where my hotel was supposed to be.
Let me tell you, the Guangzhou train station is nothing short of incredible. It rivals even Singapore and Hong Kong’s metro and I had a blast going all over the town on the two lines they have zig zagging throughout. You just buy a token at a machine and it magnetically lets you into the metro area and you just pop it in the machine on the way out. It’s super fast and convenient. It’s funny how Beijing (the capital, even!) has a dinosaur of a metro compared with Guangzhou. So I eventually found my hotel, only to find that the dorms were booked out and they only had 200 yuan a night rooms ($24US, yikes!) so I tried another on the other side of town (actually, near the main train station) and on my way there, I was intercepted by a hotel tout who I negotiated a room with AC and cable for $10 a night. It was more than I wanted to pay, but good enough. I had to do some hard bargaining with the people at the hotel because obviously the tout went too low – which basically consisted of me standing close to the door and saying, “ba shi quay, ma? (80 yuan?)” and when they hesitated, threatening to leave. They eventually caved and showed me my room, which reeked of urine – but had AC and cable, so I took the bed that didn’t smell like urine and went out to find some food. There was no restaurant near me so I ended up at McDonalds with a cheeseburger in both hands (God bless America!). After I scarfed them down, I realized that my stomach kind of hurt. Not a good sign. That night, I went back to my hotel and nearly passed out from exhaustion. But then I ended up waking up and watching some documentary and taking a shower before going to bed late (I don’t know why, but after taking a quick 10 minute nap when I’m exhausted, I can stay awake for hours). I was kind of concerned about my stomach and then went to bed.
In the morning I headed to the train station and booked a ticket to Guilin for the next day. I went around the town and checked it out. For breakfast, I walked into a random restaurant and asked (in Chinese) if they had an English menu and when they said no, I ordered the only dish for which I know the Chinese name, Sweet and Sour Pork (you can’t beat it). I didn’t know what to order for tea because it was a big random list of Chinese characters so I pointed at the cheapest thing and ended up with a pot of hot water. Oh well – you can’t win them all, eh?
After that I walked all over town, visiting a few parks and and markets. It is really fun just kind of observing everyone going about their business. I ended up at the “Peaceful Market” where they sell all sorts of random animal parts. No joke. In my short stroll through, I saw dried sea cucumbers, starfish, curry, roaches, beetles, worms, snakes, frogs, scorpions, beef, spices, huge mushrooms, herbs, plants, hair, and a thousand other things. The smells blended together into an aroma of almost suffocating spiciness that clogged my throat, singed my eyes and lit my nose on fire as I passed by a hundred old joyfully cackling women playing cards as they waited for a customer.
From there, I went in search of cheap internet, following a lead in my guidebook. I walked for nearly 2 hours and didn’t find it, much to my dismay. It would have to wait for the next day and I hopped on the subway back to my hotel where I ended up watching TV until 3AM again.
The next morning, I checked out and put my backpack behind the counter for the hotel to watch and went out in search of cheap internet again. I actually found free internet at a cafe and spent a few hours there, checking out stuff on the net to see what the hell was (is) wrong with my stomach. I don’t know what the problem is but it’s still not back to normal and I am constantly exhausted and so I’m taking action tonight. I’ll spare you the details but basically I’ve read the symptoms of amoebic dysentery from many sources and I match all of them. My theory is that since the medicine my genius Indian doctor prescribed me was for both bacilliatory and amoebic dysentery (it had two antibiotics, but not enough to actually kill the amoeba if that was in fact the problem – but enough to kill the bacilliatory, which makes it hard for me to tell which I had/have), it just kind of knocked the amoeba back a little bit which is why I still haven’t gone back to normal and am still seeing symptoms (which are tricky with amoebic dysentery because you might not even show any at all). There aren’t any really side effects with taking the antibiotics for amoebic dysentery (and I’ll probably never need it again in any case so who cares about immunity buildup if I’m wrong – and besides, there are plenty of other antibiotics for treating it if I get it in the future) so I’m just going to take it for 10 days and be rid of it. Better than spending 1000 bucks to fly back home and get it diagnosed only to do the same thing. I can see the worried emails from my mom now, but I don’t care. I am sick and tired of being sick and tired all the time. It’s draining me and costing me a lot with respect to enjoying the trip of a lifetime. When I get back though, I’ll have my doc check me out of course.
So anyways, I eventually took my train to Guilin and arrived this morning and after spending the day wandering around the city and climbing a few “mountains” towering throughout the town (it’s weird, they are just sitting there in the middle of all these buildings in the middle of town) with a Russian girl I met, I compiled a list of errands I needed to run and went out on the town.
Now, I repeat that I don’t know much Chinese – but the little that I do know amazes me. It is fascinating how much you can put together from so small a vocabulary. I managed to do all the following with my limited ability (although the Russian girl I traveled with was fluent and so I asked her quite a bit and learned some useful phrases):
Got a haircut: “Top short, sides shorter. No massage, no shampoo.” It cost me less than 80 cents for the whole deal. In Hong Kong they wanted 20 bucks WITHOUT massage. Hah!
Bought some Metronidazole to kill the bugs in me: This was quite a challenge seeing as no one here speaks any English. You show them the drug name and they blank, giving you pills for hair loss or tongue cancer. I had to go to the net and search for the Chinese name and as soon as I went back and showed them, I could see the enlightenment flash in their faces. “Ahhhhh!” Nearly 2 weeks of meds? $1.10 US. Beat that, Medicare!
Sent my picture CDs back home to my dad: This is always a challenge. You have to buy the envelope and then explain what you want to do with it, find out where the glue “jiao shui” is to close the envelope (there is no glue on the envelope to lick) and then figure out where to put the envelope. I was acosted by an old woman and begged to write some English address on an envelope of hers. I happily obliged seeing as it would have been quite a difficult task for her. If you doubt me, go try to find some Chinese characters on the net, then try to write about 60 of them on paper. It’s actually quite complicated but easy for you because you can write from memory. It would have been the same with English for her.
Bought some tea: Had to figure out which was Jasmine and which was Green tea and then bargain him down.
Got some food: Ordered and told the woman I wasn’t interested in the more expensive dishes she was trying to sell me.
Bought a train ticket to Yangshuo: An incredibly difficult ordeal which involved several other people trying to get tickets helping me and other ladies who spoke limited amounts of English asking me questions. All over a silly misunderstanding, but all the same. My goal is to be able to buy a train ticket in Chinese without a hitch. But this process here involved talking to three different agents at two different locations and comparing prices before going back and buying one.
Checked on plane ticket prices: Learned a few words and with a joke got a lady to offer me some of her lunch.
Tried to get some more pills (unsuccessfully): When you take antibiotics, the natural lactobacillus bacteria in your stomach is killed off. You need to either eat yogurt or take lactobacillus pills to rebuild the colony. Try explaining this to a pharmacist who doesn’t speak ANY English. My phrasebook didn’t have the words for bacteria or lactobacillus. But it did have the words for yogurt and milk. She told me to go to the supermarket…
I ended up meeting a tout and he tried to talk me into going on a boat to Yangshuo but then just asked me if I wanted to get some beer in the evening (which I knew was because he wanted to take me to some cultural dance show, but I didn’t let on). I met him and after buying him a beer, hammered him with questions about China and his life here. I didn’t go to the culture show and he ended up getting an “emergency” phone call and had to leave – no doubt a safety measure in case I wasn’t buying anything. He was a really nice guy though and I learned some stuff.
Did you know that China has a really bad boy/girl ratio population problem? The Chinese value boys much more than they do girls here and so they have basically ended up aborting large quantities of girls. So that means that in China now, the ratio is about 110 boys to 100 girls and here in the south, it’s closer to 120 boys to 100 girls. Incredible, no? So the government has basically made it illegal to find out if your child is a boy or girl before it is born. Quite a sensible solution, if I do say so myself. If measures weren’t taken, the ratio would get even more dramatically offset in the future. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
Man, I am really happy to be back in China. I don’t know quite why, but I think it has something to do with the fact that I understand the culture and know a bit of the language. I’ve been writing down all the new words I’ve learned each day and have been trying to speak as much Chinese as possible. The Russian girl I met today thought it was pretty funny how much I could speak. I don’t speak correctly, but I can always convey what I want to say. I got the same reaction from the Chinese girl who put me up in her parents’ house for the night in Nan Ning. She thought it was great. And I see how the tables have turned. In South America, I could speak perfectly and got annoyed when I heard some jackass speaking horrible Spanish – even though they were proud of it. I would kind of but in and say what he wanted to say. But now I see how much fun it is just to say stuff and get reactions, not really caring about what the other people think. I mean, who really cares if you speak like a 4 year old. You will never see these people again in your life. But I always start the conversation with, “I can’t really speak Chinese, sorry, but let me ask you…”. It seems to work really well.
People always say that the best way to learn a language is to get a girlfriend in that country, but I disagree. If you are trying to win a girl, you don’t want to talk like a 4 year old. You want to be charming and witty and funny. So if she speaks English, you speak English. If she doesn’t, then what are you going to say to her? That can either lead to purely sex (hmm…who cares about the language anyways) or many really awkward moments and a very distant relationship. The best way, in my opinion, is to just go to the country and try to do everything in the language. I was sheltered in Beijing because I didn’t need to speak it so much. But here, I have to, and I do. And I imagine that in the month I will be here I will learn what I would in 6 months with a Chinese girlfriend (but…you know, without the sex, which somehow makes it seem less of an accomplishment…). I’m gonna keep a log of all the stuff I’ve learned.
China is a really interesting place, you know? The people really are different. One thing about the younger generation that strikes me as interesting is how, although traditional Chinese are very conservative with no public display of affection, the people in their late 20s and younger are very affectionate in public. In the subways and parks you can always see couples holding each other like it’s their last moment together on earth, or kissing or making faces at each other or something of that nature. The older people would never do this. I’ve noticed that all Chinese are closet romantics. The culture has long bred this with romantic and dramatic poems and books and stuff, but only now does it seem to be manifesting itself publicly.
Chinese people also really like traveling around China and visiting parks and stuff. The parks in the cities are all impeccably kept, seeing as manual labor is cheap, and you can see families, couples and individuals wandering all around historic parks checking them out. I walked through one today where everyone was randomly singing at the top of their lungs and playing instruments like the flute everywhere you walked. It was pretty funny. People also like getting in large groups and exercising together in public places. People can be seen dancing, marching, doing Tai Chi or some other sort of traditional activity together in the early mornings or late nights. I took pictures if you don’t believe me.
China is changing, and although I’ve said that many times, it really is true. The challenge though will be to counter the communist “don’t challenge authority and keep your head down; don’t question and keep your mouth shut – and NEVER question the rules even if you secretly think they are stupid” foundations of the past 70 years with the appropriate amount of capitalist “challenge the status quo, work harder to excel and be better, innovate and always question; take your ideas to the boss, he will promote you” ideology that China will need if it is to become an economic powerhouse of quality products – and not just cheap t-shirts and can openers. This balance is teetering precariously just about everywhere you look and the government is trying to exert and maintain control while at the same time fostering this new ideology (but not too much, mind you, because it might just throw them out of power). They don’t have to worry as much though, because unlike the generation of Tiananmen ’89, the younger kids are much more politically indifferent (“excelllllennnt”, says the government).
The yuan is about to be revalued sometimes soon due to pressure from the US, and at that point, things are going to skyrocket here. It’s going to get hot. Get out the sunglasses.
I leave for Yangshuo tomorrow which is supposed to be stunning. I’m going to spend a few days there and then come back and head even further south to Kunming for a few days before going to Chengdu. I’ll still be plugging away at my Chinese, I promise you. It really is fun to be in a country and have a bit of a foundation. You should try it!
My time in Hong Kong seems to be coming to an end, seeing as I leave tomorrow for the mainland. I’ve now spent a week here and I’ve made a few observations. But first: what have I been doing since India?
Well, my flight got delayed in Delhi for a few hours. It was already leaving at 2:00AM but then got delayed until around 4:00, then it was delayed in Bangkok for a while and as such, I didn’t end up arriving in Hong Kong until around noon, having only 2 hours of sleep for nearly 2 days. It was okay in the airport though. I made a joke with some American in the customs line and in the duty free shop, he realized that there was nothing he could buy with the rupees he didn’t exchange at the counter, so he just gave me a wad of money amounting to maybe $12 US.
“Buy something better than I could have bought!” he said to me as he left to catch his plane. I looked around for a while and realized that there was nothing I wanted (who the hell buys stuff in these shops anyways? You can get a better deal at Costco.) so I just went and spent 2 hours on the net (at $5 bucks an hour at the ridiculous airport price). That killed some time and then it was time for my flight. I went and got the free food at Subway that the airline provided for us because our flight was delayed and the funny thing was that because I asked them for the vegetarian sandwich (I gave up on meat in India for reasons I already explained), they ended up serving me only vegetarian dishes on the plane (what attention to detail!) which wasn’t so bad seeing as I got my food before everyone else.
When I arrived, it was time to navigate Hong Kong. I withdrew some money from an ATM (which I should have waited to do later because there happens to be a Bank of America here and I wouldn’t have been charged the $5 bucks BofA charges me for every non-BofA withdrawl) and made a phone call from the complimentary airport phone to my buddy, Ron. Back home, I went to university with him and he ended up moving back to HK and offered to put me up when I arrived (an offer I never refuse) and so I was cashing in that chip, and we would meet after he got off work. Right away you see that HK is a very modern place. Very modern, indeed. The airport is incredible. Right after landing, you are whisked away on a train to the luggage pickup and after clearing immigration, you are dumped out into what seems like a shopping mall. I managed to eventually make it onto a bus going to Olympic Village, where Ron said he would meet me, and drank some coffee while I waited. Once he arrived, he took me back to his place to set up camp.
Man, ohhh man, did I hit the jackpot. Ron’s got a huge TV, Playstation 2 with tons of games, hundreds of DVD’s, a new computer with high speed internet and (best of all) even air conditioning! We went shopping and stocked up the fridge and went out to eat so I could check out a bit of Hong Kong. I consider myself very (veryveryvery) lucky. Every day we’ve gone out to a different restaurant so I could try all the different kinds of HK food and his parents even came down yesterday to take me out to lunch AND at a really nice sea food place that they have been going to for 20 years, and then out to the streets of HK so we could wander around and check out the markets. His parents are great and they taught me quite a bit about the culture. One HK custom that is kind of interesting is how they clean their silverware with the tea served to them in cheap restaurants rather than drinking it. It’s not uncommon to see a table full of people with all their forks in a cup of tea. At the restaurant I went to with Ron’s parents, they even brought a bowl of steaming water to us when we sat down. Hot tea was then poured from glass to glass while the glass was rotated quickly to get all the germs off. The silverware and the mouths of the glasses were then soaked in the steaming water and shaken clean. They do this because the restaurant might be too busy to do a thorough job cleaning (but they added that it probably cleaned them okay). I wondered if the restaurant slacked on the cleaning because the people were so willing to do the job for them, and if some hot water and tea without soap was really doing much in the way of cleaning, but thought it wise not to say anything. Besides, this way is much more entertaining! People certainly didn’t seem to mind. Over the past 20 years, the restaurant has grown from a single floor to 3 floors in two adjacent buildings. There was a huge line of people out front waiting to get in (but Ron’s family are VIPs so we didn’t have to wait). Seeing a country with a local friend is an incredible experience and I am deeply indebted to Ron and his family for showing me such a good time. Your experience in a country is completely different than what you would see as a backpacker staying in a hostel and I learned much more about the culture in the countries in which I stayed with friends. I wouldn’t trade these experiences for the world.
Ron and I have also gone out to see some of Hong Kong’s night life, tourist spots (like some museums and the biggest hill in HK from which you can see all of Hong Kong) and I’ve met a lot of his friends.
And by now, I’ve also mastered the MRT (Mass Rapid Transport) system which is a marvel of efficiency to behold. As soon as I arrived, Ron got me an MRT card which you just have to hold over the entry gate device of the subway, bus or ferry for it to deduct the fare and let you in. And what’s even cooler is that you can use your MRT card to pay for stuff at lots of stores and places like McDonalds. It’s quite a clever and convenient system (you don’t even have to take the card out of your wallet) and you just refill it when it’s empty. They even have free internet in the subway terminals here! This has been the perfect place to recover from India and I’ve had a great time just wandering the streets and observing people and the pace of life here. I just got done meeting up with my friend Mikael (a French Canadian guy I traveled with for a bit in Vietnam) and it was fun catching up with him. He gets sworn in as a lawyer tomorrow and will move to Beijing in a week or so, so I’ll probably end up getting together with him again very soon. Randomly, while in the subway, I ended up running into an American girl I met in Singapore, too. What a crazy coincidence (but not so crazy, seeing as this kind of stuff seems to happen to me a lot for some reason). I’m having a great time in HK and it’s a place that I actually think I could live quite comfortably in. I’ve discovered that as much as I like hiking and stuff in the mountains, I really like big cities too. I liked Beijing and Sydney, as well as Buenos Aires a lot. The thing about really huge cities is that there is always so much going on everywhere you look. You can never get bored. It’s like a jungle, but with concrete and people, and in a way, walking around in the city isn’t all that much different from trekking, it’s just that you can do it with sandals and there is a McDonalds on every corner.
So what observations have I made while I’ve been here? Let’s see.
Ron and I were in the museum of HK history and we came across a display of a bunch of cavemen in “prehistoric Hong Kong.” Every museum has a display like this and I’ve seen in a million times, but then I realized something. We always look at these displays to show how much better we are now and how much we have progressed, but when you really sit down and think about it, what could you show a caveman that would be of any use to him if you were sent back to his time? You could show him how to check the email on your phone, I’m sure, but he could also show you how to make an arrowhead with his chisel. Sure, there are people who could show him how to implement some sort of new revolutionary technology from scratch at MIT or something like that, but what could you show him? How much smarter are you and I as individuals than a caveman? Quite the contrary, it would probably be him that showed us what you really needed to know, like how to get some food and keep from starving to death. That is kind of humbling, no? Although things have become more complicated and more knowledge has been contributed into the social “pot,” when it comes down to it, each one of us is no different than the caveman who taught the other caveman to make the arrowhead for the caveman that needed it to do the hunting for the cavemen that needed to eat. Only now it’s the guy who teaches another guy computer science so he can write a program for the guy who needs a program so he can make some money for his family members that need to eat.
And the fruits of this age old process are all around you in Hong Kong. It has more skyscrapers than anywhere else in the world. It’s very developed and everything is in both English and Chinese. You can get anywhere you need on the incredible public transportation system (which consists of countless boats, subways, trains, buses, trolleys and taxis). I’ve seen maybe 4 people begging on the street since I’ve arrived and everyone is in a big hurry. Everything is pretty expensive by Chinese standards (costs are pretty much what they would be back home for everything, and sometimes even more expensive) and it’s quite an odd experience having come from Beijing, which I thought was “developed.” For example, although Beijing has a subway, it’s 3 yuan for anywhere in the city. You can ride it all day as long as you don’t leave. It’s simple but cheap, but how much money are they losing by not charging more for longer distances? It’s developed, but still primitive. But unlike Beijing, the “in progress” development of HK isn’t quite as obvious (although you can see places under development) but that’s probably because they have run out of space and have put the energy into developing behind the scenes infrastructure (subways and the like) more than stuff like buildings. There are a million shopping malls (some even open 24 hours!) in every part of the city, nearly everyone is dressed in the latest fashion, and you’ve never seen so many Mercedes and BMWs per square mile in your life. The glittering lights and pace are reminiscent of Las Vegas and at the same time very different. I guess you have to see it to understand.
Ron has told me that one of the reasons there isn’t much to see as far as tourism is concerned is because everything has been torn down in the name of progress, and nothing cultural is left. And although that is a very interesting point, there is of course a flip side:
A popular activity among tourists is to complain about how “the real (insert country name here)” is being destroyed by development and how sad it is that they aren’t preserving their culture. They explain the sense of loss they feel with such passion and never think about what it really is that they are saying.
I always want to say this: “So let me get this straight. You come to this country and see the poverty in the streets. You realize that thousands of people die from starvation every year and the infant mortality rate is several times what it is in your own country, in addition to the lifespan being several years shorter. You recognize that people don’t have access to quality education because in many places it doesn’t exist or is too expensive and that a cycle of poverty is being perpetuated due to the lack of any sort of economic infrastructure. People are dying on a daily basis and as much as you like to philosophize from the comfort of your air conditioned SUV about how “technology” isn’t really necessary and that these people have really figured out “the way,” a mother down the street is struggling to just get by with enough food for their sick infant so it doesn’t die like her other three. And once development starts taking hold and a few dilapidated buildings (which you would have liked to snap a photo of) start falling so they can build a new school, or a new hospital or a new skyscraper for a corporation that will generate billions of dollars in tax revenue and infrastructure for this country, you start complaining about what a shame it is. Do you realize how selfish, sick and twisted that sounds?”
Hong Kong may lack a few temples for me to visit while I’m here, but c’mon, I’ve seen ONLY FOUR beggars in a whole week! Of course it is important that it is that a people don’t forget who they are (which people in poorer countries are generally much better at than Westerners, in the first place), but there are plenty of ways to document that nowadays which doesn’t stifle progress. Why can’t we as tourists just go to a country, see what they are doing for themselves and just observe and take note. The choices they make are indicative of their culture and you can learn quite a bit about a country by learning about its developmental genealogy. If you want to see the “old” Beijing, go buy a picture book. But for humanity’s sake, let the people have their comfort. And for those that argue that the “the rich just get richer and the poor just get poorer,” it’s simply not true. I want to tell them to stop reading inflammatory populist propaganda and simply look at the facts and statistics (The standard of living in China and India, along with plenty of other developing countries, is a perfect example).
It’s always funny to listen to people say how “all this” isn’t “really” necessary. While in Vietnam, I heard a local say how “everyone wants something better and how everyone wants to see more” and then I listened to a Swedish guy lecture him about how that wasn’t true: he was perfectly happy where he was in his life and didn’t need more. In dismay, I brought up the fact that he was actually spending several times this guy’s yearly salary traveling in a country far, far away from his own. If he was so happy with his own life and didn’t want to see more, why was he on vacation in Vietnam? Only then did he realize how silly his statement was. We all have little hypocritical opinions like this and in my opinion, it’s important that we figure out what they are so we can adjust our perspectives and so get a better and truer understanding of the world in which we live, which allows us to contribute to our full potential. When you are running in a fog, it’s much more difficult to keep from smacking into something and, as such, it takes a lot longer to get where you’re going.
Hong Kong was only given back to China by the British less than 10 years ago and seeing as it was a completely different country before (that is to say, not just a part of another like it is now), you constantly find yourself saying “when I get to China.” It feels like a completely different place, but I imagine that Shanghai and even Beijing will soon look very similar. Boo hoo for the Western tourists that “miss out” on seeing it now. But I can assure them, that it will still be China whenever they come. It is physically and philosophically impossible for any part of China not to be the “real” China.
And of course, I can’t finish my post on Hong Kong without talking about the girls. They are on average wayyyyyyyy prettier than the girls in Beijing. I don’t know if it’s because they are dressed more modern, because there are less girls with mustaches (nothing makes me want to cry as much as a beautiful girl with a mustache), or because girls in the south are generally more attractive to me (I noticed this when I flew to southern China to cross over to Vietnam, too, so maybe it’s a Southeast Asian influence thing), but it’s something you notice as soon as you arrive in the airport. I was never really attracted to Asian girls until I spent so much time here, but man, I’m sure that that’s one of the reasons I commented to myself that I wouldn’t mind living here. It’s funny too: after seeing so many incredibly slim and fit Asian girls, you see a westerner and they just look fat, even if they aren’t. It certainly is interesting to see how your perceptions warp due to perspective.
Tomorrow I leave for the mainland. I’m actually quite excited. Good food, interesting people, beautiful countrysides, contrasts between wealth and poverty, old and new, the traditional and the modern mingling. China is changing at an incredible pace, arguably faster than any country ever has and I would also venture to say that no country may ever change with quite the same intensity ever again. I’ve got a visa for a month and I’m hoping I can cram all that I want to see into that limited time. We’ll see how I fare, although I’m sure I’ll be back in the future.