CHINA Dec 18-Jan 7
I don’t often get to spend Christmas with someone I know. It is often a rather lonely time. With time on my hands, and nowhere special to travel to, the plan was to fly to Shanghai and get a train south to Yeuqing to see Anna.
Leaving Dubai, the flight was diverted to Kashgar as weather prevented landing in Urumqi Airport and thus I missed my connection at 10am to Shanghai. I have not missed the unbelievable rigorous Chinese security. I tried to smuggle a lighter tucked under my belt, it was discovered and I was carted off to the police station. Eventually I was let go by the very stern police officer “This is illegal in China.”
After 5 hours in Kashgar, we flew to Urumqi where it was -17 and very foggy and the overhead announcements were nothing but cancellations. After several hours in line, a flight for 10am on the 19th was arranged. China Southern provided a free hotel room for a much better night than the last one I spent at this airport on September 30 (it closed for the night and I slept outside in very cold weather for 2 hours until it opened at 5am). The bad weather (more fog) prevented the flight from leaving until 2:45pm and I spent the day in my least favorite airport in the world.
I like China. Navigating Shanghai is so easy. Get off your flight, walk to the airport subway, take a line direct to your destination and then have a pleasant 8-minute walk to the hostel (Blue Mountain Bund).
I walked the Bund in the evening to see the magnificent buildings across the river and then tried to stay out of trouble on East Nanjing Road, the massage (prostitution) capital of China. After some shopping the next morning, I took the subway to Shanghai Hongqiao Train Station (immense with 50 gates, there is nothing in the rest of the world like China’s high speed rail network), got my E-ticket and boarded the high-speed train (300km/hr) 3¾ hours south to Shendang, the high-speed rail station for the city of Yeuqing.
Anna lives in Hongqiao, a suburb of Yeuqing. She doesn’t know how many people live here, but China is full of small cities with a million people or more. It is 30km to downtown Yeuqing by public bus. The climate is warm, very rarely snows in the winter but rains a great deal (think Portland, Oregon). The countryside is flat with some surrounding low mountains. Both cities are riddled with canals.
I walk Anna to work every morning. The first day there was a full piece marching band to walk beside. No this wasn’t a parade but a funeral. Cremation happens right away here, then there is a 3-day “wake”. One element is a parade through the town. It is happy marching music, not sad melancholy Chinese opera. The family dresses in white, the friends normally and they all follow the band in a long line. Fireworks are part of the ceremony and there always seems to be some going off somewhere all the time.
The garbage here gets depressing. Not only is there a lot of it but it doesn’t often get picked up. We throw our trash on a big heap on the curb and I guy comes by regularly to shovel it all up. I got tired of it outside the apartment and picked up a bag full. At least in India, it is swept up every day.
She lives on the fifth floor of an apartment building with no elevator so it is good leg exercise. I finally swept the stairs of months (years?) of accumulated dirt and rubbish. Her apartment is unbelievably small but, unlike her last apartment, has a bathroom (wet shower – ie no cubicle or curtain so everything gets wet) and a tiny kitchen. I have bought her many things to make it a more livable space: coat rack, towel bar, shower shelf, fry pan, electric single burner hot plate, small and big pot, a drill to put all this stuff up, and a small refrigerator. It has been fun dealing with all the merchants without a word of English. I wanted to get a custom counter/cupboard made to make the best use of the kitchen, but nobody knows anyone to make it.
Grocery shopping is a treat – other than vegetables, soy sauce and oil – there is nothing that I recognize and many things impossible to purchase. Spices other than black pepper and five spice blend are nonexistent. But there is unbelievable selection of biscuits, cookies, candy, potato chips and processed food. Packaged unrefrigerated processed meat is copious. The meat department consists of huge slabs of pork, some beef in large chunks (hamburger would be an impossible find) and frozen chicken. Ice cream doesn’t exist. I counted 600 different kinds of toothbrushes but no dental floss. There were 90 kinds of soy sauce but no teriyaki or Tabasco. The only bread is white. There is a good selection of fresh vegetables and fruit but quite a few are unrecognizable to me. There are many large markets with vegetables, seafood (much still alive in little basins of water) and butchers. We went into Yeuqing on Anna’s day off but shopping was poor and the Walmart only a slight improvement over the local supermarkets. But 1.3 billion people can’t be wrong.
The streets are a beehive of people and vehicles: walking, electric motorcycles (with cloth canopies), motorcycle carts, pushcarts, small red enclosed tuk-tuks, cars, trucks and buses. Traffic jams are common on the narrow streets. To cross a street, you must just go for it and weave between the vehicles. Merchandise clutters the sidewalks and guys are sitting out working on motors, pumps, chain saws and compressors. Construction debris (gravel, sand, bricks, wood, garbage) is everywhere. Everything has a disheveled, untidy, cluttered look. Just outside the apartment are 6 sheds of machinists milling blocks of stainless steel.
Stores selling the same things cluster together. And the selection is monotonously the same. Appliance stores sell refrigerators, cooktops (mostly gas), washing machines, hot water tanks, rice cookers and woks. But try to buy anything else, especially small appliances and you will be out of luck. Despite it raining a great deal, you can’t buy a rain jacket. We went to a hiking store in Yeuqing that sold Arcterex Goretex jackets – they cost 900$C. Everyone uses an umbrella. Chinese women never use tampons, only pads. Walmart had many types of pads but only a tiny section of OB Tampons.
But Chinese people, although not sociable with strangers are very sweet and nice. I always get a lot of smiles. It is very rare to find someone here who speaks any English and I must be the only white guy for miles. Basically the Chinese people are descended from rural peasant stock. Most of the intellectuals left with the Kuomintang to Taiwan (a very different country) after the civil war that ended in 1949 and then Mao finished off the rest during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Their cultural flaws of horking, spitting, queue jumping and nose clearing don’t bother me anymore.
One of the tallest structures (other than a few high-rise apartment buildings) is a church. It is 7 stories high and is capped by high brass cone then a large red cross. I visited and it is very unusual. The open air ground floor was full of elderly women cutting up pork and onions. The first floor was full of round tables and chairs like a banquet hall. The second floor was a big, low ceiling room and the third floor had pews with bibles on the seat backs. But the stage was full of amplifiers and lights that rotated in front of black screen. There wasn’t a picture of Jesus, Mary or any saints, no Way of the Cross and nothing that indicated it was a church including a pulpit. Odd.