December 14, 2008 – January 3, 2009
Odette, Jerry & Will travel in China
So Will was studying at Beijing University, spending a term in a language/exchange program run by Pitzer. He agreed to travel with us if Odette and I came to China while he was there. Originally the idea was to spend a couple of weeks before his classes started in August, but after looking at vacation accruals and talking about it we all agreed that it would work better if we spent the holidays there.
Odette and I flew from Seattle to Beijing on a direct Hainan Air flight. It took eleven hours but it was a smooth flight and they fed us two or three times. I read the final Harry Potter book that I’d been avoiding. Odette broke the in-flight entertainment center. There were a whole bunch of customs stations and few travelers so Odette and I cleared customs really quickly. Will was waiting and we took a cab to our hotel on Ghost street. We had dinner at the Sultan restaurant where Will had previously eaten mutton that melted in his mouth. To me it seemed like pure fat – but still good. The hotel was a business hotel (star rated) near a couple of subways and on a street famous for a concentration of restaurants. The people at the desk didn’t really speak english but Will had no trouble communicating with them. We had two rooms which were big and very high-tech. The bed was really firm, the power only came on when the cardkey was inserted inside the room, there was a potable water dispenser and an electric tea kettle. There was a supermarket on the first floor and we bought tea and pastries and fruit there and ate breakfast in the room most mornings.
During our stay in Beijing we toured the old Summer Palace, the Beijing University campus, Lama temple, Temple of Heaven, the National Museum, the Forbidden City / Tiananmen Square, the new Summer Palace, several hutongs, a couple of other parks, the Olympics venue, and a whole bunch of markets and shopping malls. We spend some time and had dinner with the Director of Will’s Pitzer program. I rode Wills bike around the foreign student dorm at Beida. We joined a group of expats for a hike that took us onto the great wall (and an amazing lunch.) We ate at the Da Dong Peking Duck restaurant and in stalls in the street markets and had fantastic food everywhere. We rode the subways a lot and were impressed at how clean and modern and frequent they were. We took taxis whenever we didn’t know exactly where we were going and they were cheap and friendly. We didn’t buy much but we did marvel at the scale of the markets and the hustles practiced in the tourist stalls. We got up early on the days we went to the Temple of Heaven and the Russian District so that we could see the old people doing tai chi and ballroom dancing in the parks. I was impressed by how young everybody was. I came away with the impression of a sophisticated first-world city that was intensely entrepreneurial.
One enduring impression of Beijing was the traffic. Most of the streets were wide with a separated lane for bikes and pedestrians. Cars and busses didn’t pay much attention to lanes or traffic lights and at crossings it seemed like pedestrians and bikes congregated until there were enough of them that they could block traffic and cross. (There were pedestrian tunnels and overpasses most along most busy streets.) As you pushed out into the street waiting for an opportunity to cross you really had to watch out for vehicles making turns – whatever the color of the traffic light. Traffic and pedestrians paid much more attention to the traffic cops stationed at most big intersections than to the signals. Bikes in Beijing were almost all “city bikes” (i.e. clunkers) as opposed to “racing” bikes. Lots of people bike but they go slow and generally have somebody riding on the back. There are lots of tricycles for hauling stuff. Since they don’t have people on the back I oculdn’t figure out why the cargo boxes were almost always spring loaded. Also lots of electric bikes.
It was cold while we were there but we walked a lot in Beijing. Odette and I had purchased lightweight hiking boots in preparation for the trip and I’d taken the insoles out of mine and just put bare orthotics in like I do with my dress shoes. The first day I got major blisters on the balls of my feet because the inside sole of the boots wasn’t designed to be worn with no insole. We found some foam pads that hooked over my middle toes (in a 7-11 near the Traktor Pushkin restaurant) and that helped a lot. A couple of days later I bought a pair of cheap, flat, insoles at Carrefour and that pretty much fixed the problem. I got a cold the second or third day in Beijing and spent the next three weeks trying to get over it.
We flew from Beijing to Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province, a city of about 3.5 million people. Guiyang is in south-central China – not really that far from Beijing but it felt like a different country. Unlike Beijing the streets were narrow and dirty and the shops seemed older and less well stocked. We stayed in a star rated hotel but it wasn’t like the one in Beijing! (The hotel was nice but we had a room in an annex across the street where you could imagine them putting eastern european technicians in Guiyang for long stays. I amused myself watching out our window as the cops ticketed motorcycles and buses under the elevated highway.) We had dinner that evening at the only restaurant we could find and the food was exceptionally spicy. The next morning the cab took us to the wrong bus station for Kaili. We sat on the bus while it filled up and then for another hour and a half while other buses came and went. With no explanation for the delay we finally departed, but the bus stalled every time the driver tried to shift into third gear (and every time we went up a hill.) Before we got out of town it finally stalled for good and we waited an hour for a replacement but to pick us up. The three-hour ride to stretched to eight or nine because after the mechanical trouble we ended up battling traffic back-ups all the way to Kaili. The highway was a relatively good two- or three-lane divided toll road, but there was some construction and a lot of disabled vehicles. The traffic included a mix of coal trucks, buses, underpowered /overloaded farm trucks and passenger vehicles ranging from high-end european cars to Chinese three-wheelers. (Buick seems to have a lock on the official car market in China.) Most of the accidents seems to be buses running off the road or into each other. The hills were really pretty. We watched five or six hour-long episodes of some Chinese variety show. Three quarters of the way there the monk seated next to Will started vomiting. That was pretty entertaining.
Kaili is kind of a county seat in the ethnic autonomous area and has about 500,000 people. It is a really pleasant town and we stayed in a really nice hotel. Will hired a guide and a driver to take us around the Miao villages and to Leigong Mountain. We got the village tour which was really interesting if somewhat staged. The villages we walked through were more prosperous than I had anticipated – and very picturesque. We saw a lot of traditional headdresses, lots of signs suggesting that there were hoards of tourists during the summer. We had a great lunch with lots of courses and special local rice wine. Odette got repeatedly accosted by saleswomen that wanted her to buy silver bracelets. We missed the mountain and the Dong villages. We spent most of the next day wandering around Kaili (the ethnic minorities museum is evidently worth visiting – at least during the tourist season when it’s open) and Odette bought some batik. I amused myself watching the construction crew across the street from the hotel. Methods there involved much more manual labor than you’d see in the west, and the excavator operator was pretty much a cowboy. (The bamboo scaffolding was impressive, too.) We watched the morning tai chi – supplemented by guys spinning tops with their bullwhips. We got a cool cab ride where the driver was whipping in and out of the oncoming lane while talking on his cellphone. Odette made us walk back to the hotel. We spent a bunch of time in little shops looking at Mao memorabilia. The last night there was Christmas so we ate in a fancy restaurant and Will ordered a bottle of MaoTai – the local liquor. We didn’t finish it and I carried out what was left under my coat.
We decided to take the train back to Guiyang because the bus had taken so long. We got “hard seat” tickets – the cheapest class. Most of the riders were coming from distant towns to sell stuff in Guiyang and the train was totally packed with people and bags. We found three seats and watched people for the next four hours. A couple of times an attendant came through and shoveled the garbage off of the floor. Food vendors kept parading through including one guy who struck up a conversation with Will each time he passed – to the delight of the other riders. Our train left Kaili late and consequently had to hold up before entering Guiyang. It was faster than the bus but only marginally. The hills were still pretty, though, and I didn’t realize how much industry is clustered outside of Guiyang.
We stayed in the same room in Guiyang and we walked around the town for a while before finding a place to have hotpot. The girls in the restaurant all had to come look at Will and then they went off in giggling clusters and never did remember to bring us any beer. Leaving the restaurant we watched the cops arresting a guy. We couldn’t get money out of the China Construction Bank ATMs and finally sucked it up and paid the ATM fee at another bank. The next morning we got up really early and waited for a tour bus to pick us up. They handed us over to another bus that already had half a load and there weren’t enough seats for everybody so I ended up feeling grouchy and sitting in a jump seat. Half an hour later they decided that they couldn’t go fast enough in that bus and traded it for a bigger one with room for everybody. We went to a cave with a boatride on an underground lake, another cave full of Buddhas, a stone forest, and two big waterfalls. We also went to a mushroom store, a knife store and a candy store and we had an amazing lunch. It turned out that the guy I inconvenienced with the jump seat was a chinese-american from LA working in Guizhou (with a really cute girlfriend) and there was a guy from Singapore who had studied in the US and another couple and their friend who also spoke english… We made the Miao performers dance for us after the big waterfall and embarassed some of the guys from the bus when they got pressed into service for the wedding dance. Odette and Will got into a big argument about buying candy – the rest of the tour group and the store clerks found that pretty amusing. (Will was right, the same candy was significantly cheaper elsewhere.) On the way back to Guiyang I noticed how few of the buildings in the little villages had lights illuminated. We ate in a fish restaurant near the hotel that evening with very hot food and Odette spilled a beer and broke the glass.
Our flight to Shanghai wasn’t until afternoon so we went to a park in the middle of Guiyang in the morning, after eating street food for breakfast. We climbed the first of the seven hills and freaked out Odette who thought the trail was too steep. We descended and took a tram to the top of the next one and skirted the temple before climbing to the top of the hill where the monkeys were supposed to hang out. We saw one monkey in a treetop and figured that was it as we headed down the other side. It turned out that the monkeys stay near the people at the bottom and there were lots of them looking cute and begging for food. We walked all the way across town to our hotel and saw some really interesting markets and street food vendors (Odette was craving fried potatoes with chili powder) before heading to the airport and our flight to Shanghai. Guiyang reminded me that China is in the third world.
The taxi queue at the Shanghai airport was really long but it moved quickly. The ride to the Bund was different than what Will remembered and it turned out that the bridge next to the hotel was closed which changed everything. We checked into the Astor House (and admired the pictures of famous people who had stayed there long ago) and then had western food in their restaurant. Will had seen enough temples at that point but we went to the Shanghai Museum for more jade, bronze and caligraphy. We visited a lot of shopping malls (Will bought a sleeping bag, I bought a pair of pants) and took in an acrobat show. We admired the heritage architecture of the Bund and visited the old city (Yuyuan garden and a multitude of tourist shops.) The food markets we walked through were cool. The crowds of shoppers on New Years Day were unbelievable. We visted the costume museum on the top floor of the Metersbonwe department store. We visited Shanghai University. We almost froze to death in Century park and then warmed up in the Science museum in Pudong. (The digestive system ride alone is worth the price of admission.) There was a place in Century park that rented tandems and tripples but it was so cold that we passed up the chance to go for a tandem ride in China. We went to the observation deck of the Shanghai World Financial Center (second tallest building in the world) and looked out at all of the tall buildings in the new territories. We went to a vegetarian restaurant that disguised tofu and vegetable protein as meat dishes. We went to the St. Regis for a special New Year’s Eve “seafood extravaganza” where we were the only ones in the restaurant and got way overcharged. We went to a Japanese restaurant to make up for it and got overcharged there, too. Shanghai impressed me as being almost European.
We took a fast train to Nanjing and spent a day with one of Wills classmates who grew up there. We saw the Sun Yat Sen mausoleum and the river and several other parks and monuments. The city wall was impressive. We ate in a family style restaurant near the Confucian temple and got shushed because we were being too loud. I maxed out the memory card in my camera so we went to a tech market and bought a new one. We had tea in the revolving restaurant downtown from which we could see the Yangtze river. Nanjing was a really pretty, friendly city (at least the way we were introduced to it) that felt like as a college town even though it has seven million people. The train was really different from our previous train experience with reserved airline type seats. There were people without reservations standing between cars, though, that ended up crammed in behind our seats.
We got out to the airport – too early to take the maglev – and caught the flight to Beijing. In Beijing we claimed our left luggage and redistributed stuff so that we could avoid the overweight charges on Will’s speakers and books. Odette and Will had Chinese currency burning holes in their pockets so Will bought cheap and expensive baijiu and Odette bought tea and other stuff. We hung out and had lunch in an airport restaurant and then split up with Odette and I heading for the Hainan Air gate and Will heading off to another terminal and Air Canada. Our flight home was as smooth as the flight over – I read China Candid by Ye Sang and got more out of it than I would have if I had read it in advance of the trip. Will got to the gate and discovered that his flight had been cancelled. He took a cab downtown, got a haircut, and slept in the Pitzer office until trying again the next day.
We got to Seattle and found the customs process really offputting and offensive – especially to people with foreign passports. After we got our bags off the conveyor for the second time we couldn’t figure out where to get a cab. We got home to a text from Will – and Odette went into woman warrior mode because the airline had lost her child.
So what did I learn from this trip?
- The cultural revolution is over and Mao didn’t win
- Most people in China were really young (or weren’t born) in the early seventies and they regard the end of that era as a good thing
- I always knew that the “Red Star Over China” stuff was propaganda, but the three weeks there and the stories in China Candid make me question all of it (and of all of the current stuff I thought I knew, too)
- I wish I’d paid more attention when I was working on Bank of China and when folks in the office were doing CITIC
- Beijing and Shanghai are sophisticated, world-class cities that don’t have a third world feel (you could get around in either of them without speaking Chinese)
- There are a lot of people in China just trying to make a buck – there are a lot of people there with money to spend, too
- The floating workers and the rural agricultural guys have it really hard
- It seems like the mall / supermarket model with is the way Chinese retail is going – but the various players may not be related even though they share space and a cashier
- There were too many bank branches – not enough credit card use
- The braile pathways on the sidewalks seem inefficient and even dangerous
- Potable water is a big deal
- I want to find out more about the Chinese in the western US in the late 1800s – and what was going on in China then
- I need to read a Chinese history
- I’m really impressed with Wills conversational skills – I wasn’t that fluent until I’d been in France a whole lot longer than three months
- I want to go to Tibet. I want to bike the silk road. I want to go to Hong Kong.
- I want to read Simon Winchester’s books Outposts, The Map That Changed The World, and The Man Who Loved China
- I was pleased with the way my camera performed, but it wasn’t worth the hassle of carrying the telephoto lens around.Here are the images again