American Griswold In China: Chinese for "Worcester, Mass."
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DAY 4: From a Different Planet to a Different Dimension
I am writing to you from Guiyang (pronounced Gway-yong) in the province of Guizhou (pronounced Gway-joe) in southwest mainland China. We are halfway through our first full day here. If Hong Kong was a warp to a different planet, our trip to mainland China has been a journey through a wormhole to another dimension.
We spent our last morning in Hong Kong visiting the Western district, which is famous for selling Chinese antiques and medicine. It was pouring rain, which was (oddly) a relief, because the rain cooled off the temperature, and the moisture on our bodies kept us even cooler.
Before heading to the airport we went (once again, like fat Griswold-ian tourists) to the American embassy known as the IFC mall, and ate at a totally Westernized salad place and then stuffed our faces at the City Super (yes, the second visit to the Whole Foods-ish place during our Hong Kong visit). We figured this was going to be our last Western-infused meal and experience for a while...and we were, indeed, correct.
The plane ride to Guiyang was absolutely fine. I acknowledge that I was nervous that we would be flying Lao Che Airlines' mountainside-bound twin-prop, sans inflatable boat raft. Alas, however, the Hong Kong Express plane was a very modern Boeing, much like one you might fly from, say, Indiana to Denver - the only difference was that the three loud-talking drunk businessmen next to us were speaking mandarin and not 'merican.
That familiar commuter airplane experience, however, was the last culturally recognizable experience we've had since landing.
The first thing we saw coming up the jetbridge was a stoic and silently snarling Chinese soldier - the first military presence we've seen, as there was almost no police or military presence in Hong Kong (though there were an incredible number of cameras there).
Getting through passport/immigration control was easy - the only bump was when I was pulled out of line to have my bag checked. The officer specifically asked to see the books I was bringing with me - which made me (understandably, I think) a bit nervous, because the books I have with me are very political (book research stuff). He thumbed through the books, looked a bit perplexed, and then let me through, thankfully with my tomes.
Mike was waiting for us in the airport - the only American/Western face in the crowded airport. Indeed, in our 24 hours here, we've seen no Westerners at all, except for Mike and Todd, the peace corps volunteer we are staying with tonight (more on that in a sec).
The weather here is much cooler than in Hong Kong - and much grayer. The atmosphere has been persistently overcast since we got here, a layer of thick cloudy fog blanketing the city.
The 20-minute cab ride into Guiyang (which cost 50 yuan, or $5 american) took us through the hilly countryside, which - almost without a suburban transition - became a crowded landlocked coal-mining city of approximately 3 million inhabitants, which Mike tells us makes it a small town by Chinese standards. He tells us that in terms of size ranking, Guiyang is about the 130th largest city in China, and gets very few tourists. So, for comparison, we're basically visiting China's equivalent of Worcester, Massachusetts - the kind of place that Tom Friedman and Fareed Zakaria never bother to visit or mention when "reporting" on China's economic "miracle."
Because it was already about 8pm, we decided to stay at the Trade Point Hotel - the nicest hotel in the center of town, whose rooms run about $60 american dollars a night. Quality-wise, it is the equivalent of a roadside Super 8, except for two minor details: 1) Signs tell you that the sink does not produce potable water and 2) The bed is like sleeping directly on a box spring, rather than an actual mattress.
Emily and I are still jet lagged and waking up ultra-early, so we opted to avoid hitting the sack early, and joined Mike for a late dinner. Though it was a Monday night, the streets were packed with people and noisy, and we fought our way to one avenue lined with Blade Runner-style street food stands. At these stands you can find seemingly anything - noodles, cabbage, live bullfrogs, live catfish, and something called Chodofu, which is a kind of tofu known for its wretch-inducing rotting feet smell. Though I did not see snake surprise or chilled monkey brain, I'd bet a trip to Pankot Palace that it can be found here.
We ate a dinner of Sichuan-style rice, regular tofu and beer inside a smoky restaurant behind one of these stands - and as we have learned, the smokiness is the norm, not the exception, almost everywhere. This country has a serious tobacco problem.
Back at the hotel, I waited for the much-anticipated and much-feared gastrointestinal backlash to our dinner food, but thankfully, it never came, and even more thankfully, Emily and I made progress on our sleep clock, sleeping mostly through the night until about 6am this morning.
DAY 5: Bathing In Boiling Oil Before Hamlet
Breakfast this morning at the Trade Point was a Chinese buffet - eggs boiled in tea, monto bread (a spongy kind of bread ball), noodles, and congee (rice porridge - mmm, very good). Bellies full, we checked out of the hotel and walked over to Guizhou Normal University, which is a college for teachers where Mike's Peace Corps friends, Todd and Jessica, currently work. Unlike Mike, who lived in a feces-scented gulag at a college outside of town, Todd and Jessica live in a (fairly) nice two story house. We're staying with them tonight (where I am currently writing this email from at around 2:30pm local time) and dropped our packs off in their guest room.
From there, we cabbed over to Qian Ling Park (pronounced Chee-en Ling Park), which is at the end of a busy tree-lined avenue, and features a lake and a mountain-top Buddhist temple. In America, many people go to parks to get away from the bustle of city life, but here, many go to parks like Qian Ling to relax to Re Nao, or "hot noise" - the loud, strange, and often screechingly irritating music that filled the plaza at the crowded mountain base.
We climbed the winding stone staircase to the Hong Fu Temple, thankful that the temperature is so much more tolerable than in Hong Kong. In that sense, the ascent felt easy. If you have seen the Kill Bill movies, the scene - the sky, the forest, the structures, the staircase - looked a bit like the setting when Uma Thurman first meets her karate kungfu master.
The original temple (pictured at right) was almost completely destroyed in Chairman Mao's infamous Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. However, it has been rebuilt and is impressive - a sprawling complex of traditional red-walled, green-roofed buildings, each with incense-surrounded golden buddah statues at the center. But the real treat was its vegetarian restaurant.
For about $13 american dollars, we were delivered a four-dish feast of potatoes and green peppers; simmering mushroom soup; corn and celery; and sauced eggplant - all with rice. This kind of Sichuan food, which is distinct to this region, is certainly filling, but it doesn't leave you with that slimy, gross, greasy, I'm a fat-shit feeling after you eat it. That's probably both because it's far less slimy, gross and greasy than regular American restaurant fare and because you are forced to eat more slowly with chop sticks.
Not surprisingly, each of us had to urinate after our meal, and after a trip to the traditional Chinese public bathroom, we were all thrilled that we didn't have to do any more than urinate. A public male "bathroom" in China consists of an open wall on the left to pee against, and a row of open stalls - no doors, and only about two feet deep - and holes to squat and defecate in as everyone else watches. Mike said he will do everything possible to help us avoid having to use these facilities, and that it will be a victory if we can succeed in said avoidance.
We walked up to the very top of the mountain to overlook the entire city, and watch the army of monkeys jump through the forest. These monkeys (pictured at left with our tour guide, Mike) are about two feet tall at full height, and they are everywhere. They are simultaneously cute and frightening - you get the sense that if you get too close they will rip your face off (and signs basically warn that that fear is, in fact, based in fact).
Back down at the gate of the park, we walked along the tree lined street to get a cab. The streets are a portrait in contrasts - expensive cars driving past a child clutching woman whose entire face has been burned off, well-dressed children of the elite striding by beggars.
There was a lot of business being conducted all around us, but one thing we've discovered is that unlike in other parts of the world, Americans are basically invisible here. If, say, you are an American walking in a souk in the Middle east or a market in Mexico, you will find yourself at least harassed, and often physically molested, by vendors trying to sell you things. In Hong Kong and here in Guiyang, you are, by contrast, almost completely ignored, as if you don't even exist. Certainly, when you inquire about some product that you may be interested in buying, the seller will try to sell you even more. But the culture seems to be one that tries to respect personal space (a bit strange, considering personal space is physically infringed on here by virtue of the sheer amount of people everywhere at all times).
Our evening began with a cab ride out to Ghuizou University, where Mike served as a Peace Corps volunteer. The university is about 45 minutes or an hour south of Guiyang, depending on the traffic. The ride takes you along a valley - on one side are are lush terrace farmed hills, and on the other side are central China's standard-issue, gray, dilapidated kitchen-tile-plated buildings. As China has relatively little arable land compared to its enormous population, any space that does not occupy buildings is a farmed patch, growing anything from corn to root vegetables.
It was fantastic to get out of the loud and bustling central city - and the university campus is rather well kept and bucolic in comparison to the other scenes we've seen. But this is inland China not America, so "bucolic" and "well kept" are relative terms. Don't imagine, say, Cornell's sprawling campus - imagine a large but rundown/underfunded city/community college like, say, Jersey City State University.
We walked through campus, and up to the place where Mike originally encountered his favorite kind of Chinese food, Da Pan Ji - translated as "big plate chicken." This is the specialty dish of the Uighur (one of the two recognzied Muslim Chinese minority people - and the group most recently famous for having some of its members detained at Guantanamo Bay and for being involved in riots in a nearby province*), and its literal translation does not do the dish justice. In fact, calling it a "dish," rather than a mini swimming pool, is an injustice unto itself.
The restaurant is connected to the university's large cafeteria, and what emerged from the kitchen were two metal swimming pools of boiling brown oil, with potatoes and chicken (and I mean, the WHOLE chicken) bobbing on its waves. As vegetarians, me, Emily and Jessica (the Peace Corps volunteer who we are staying with) refrained from dipping into the pool, and instead ate basic Lazhou noodles (named for the capital city of Gansou province, which sits between the two muslim-minority autonomous regions in China).
Towards the end of the meal, Todd, the husband of Jessica and our other Peace Corps host, bought us 40 ounce bottles of Pubu (named for the famous waterfall), the local beer. Each bottle cost roughly 25 American cents, and it only packs a 2.8 percent alcohol punch. It tasted like Sprite and did not achieve an important goal: Getting drunk enough to survive Guizhou University students' 2+ hour production of Hamlet.
No worries, though - because there are basically no discernible laws of any kind here in interior China, much less specific automobile open container restrictions, Todd and Mike were mixing, drinking and sharing vodka and tonic all cab ride long.
So safely tipsy and full, we walked over to the auditorium for Chinese Shakespeare. The theater is caked with a thin layer of dirt/dust, and built circa 1950 out of cheap cement - that is to say, In that way, it is like most of the architecture we've seen in the Middle Kindgom. Indeed, the Chinese architecture that isn't of the Historic Pagoda style (which is to say, most Chinese architecture post-cultural revolution) is American Campground Dilapidated style. Put another way, China sort of looks like one big Adirondack-region Summer Camp.
Hamlet was, well, Hamlet - only whereas Hamlet in perfect King's English is very hard to keep up with, Hamlet in heavily Chinese-accented English is near impossible to follow. There were certainly bursts of recognizable lines - and the mere fact that Chinese college students could put on such an intricate, fully (though heavily accented) English performance was impressive (imagine American college students trying to put on a Chinese language play - exactly, you can't even begin to imagine that). However, none of us - not even the Peace Corps volunteers who have been here for many months - could completely follow the dialogue, and at times, we were all asleep.
Our drowsiness wore off quickly, however, once we boarded the bus back to Guiyang.
Buses in this city are really just extra-large vans seating about 30 people. How is that possible in a van? Because people will sit on the floor and, really, on any open space available. That may be fine in a place where there are basic traffic safety laws - but that is not Guiyang (nor, I am told, anywhere else in China).
If I went before a court of law and insisted that in China there are literally no discernible laws, footage of a typical ride on a bus would be my Exhibit A. Before the last (poor) soul had fully put his body onto the bus, the driver had already floored the gas and turned the wheel hard left into oncoming traffic.
He proceeded to drive into town as if you might drive toward an emergency room with a passenger in your car quickly bleeding to death - engine whirring at its fastest output; wheel swerving in, out and between lanes; horn frantically honking, even at the police car right in front of the bus. Think Les Anderson (Corey Haim) driving his pregnant mother to the hospital in the last scene of License to Drive - and I would not have been surprised if the bus driver, like Les, had thrown the car into reverse if it was necessary to make his journey any shorter. In fact, at one point after a near-miss swerve past a cement overpass's pillar, he called a directional audible and changed the bus route entirely because he said it would be faster. Evidently, bus routes are more suggestions than set paths.
Luckily, we arrived at the center of town in one piece. Emily, myself and Jessica decided to cab it back home, which gave me a good chance to get some video footage of downtown Guiyang - check it out to get a sense of the bustle:
Meanwhile, Mike and Todd opted for a late-night trip for shao kau - ie. barbequed meat of all kinds. They asked me to join them, but after earlier hearing Todd's nightmare story about getting dysentery a few months ago, I decided to quit while I was gastrointestinally ahead and call it a night.
* Thanks to the Chinese government's media censorship, we heard nothing about the riots while we were in China, even though the strife was beginning while we were there. I've added this in to this dispatch since returning home. Only when we returned to the United States did we learn about the strife.