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Wait…where am I again?

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 ­čÖé

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!