China again Dec 18-Jan 7,2016
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, Zhejiang, China to see Anna.
Leaving Dubai, the flight was diverted to Kashgar as weather prevented landing in Urumqi Airport and 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 of flights. 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 subway in the airport, take a line direct to your destination and then I had 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. Avoid these like the plague as robbery and extortion are the name of the game. 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 station (6kmms from Anna’s), 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. There is no information on the city online. It is 15km to downtown Yeuqing by public bus. This is far off the tourist map – there is absolutely no reason for a tourist to come here. The climate is warm, very rarely snows in the winter but rains a great deal (think Portland, Oregon). There is moderate smog most evident on clear days as the nearby mountains are in a haze, and the water in the canals is filthy. 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 dress 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. Over the few weeks here, I walked all over the city to people watch and observe the lifestyle. There is nothing of interest to see or do. Conversation is zero as no one speaks any English.
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 a guy comes by regularly to shovel it all up. I got tired of it outside the apartment and picked up a bag full – and continue to do so every few days. 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 (3.15m X 3.75m) 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, bowls and plates, 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, fruit, 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 an unbelievable selection of biscuits, cookies, candy, potato chips and processed food. Vacuum packed 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 (it is simply not available in this part of China). 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 several huge markets all with vegetables, fruit, meat and seafood (live fish in bins of water, turtles, eels, crabs, prawns). Prices are very cheap. 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. Measuring cups and spoons can’t be found.
But you can buy anything online. We have ordered and received within days (usually no shipping fees): cinnamon, All Bran cereal and an immersion hand blender. Prices are even cheaper than in the stores.
The streets are a beehive of people and vehicles: people on bicycles and walking, bicycle rickshaws, electric scooters (with cloth canopies for the rain), 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 on the sidewalk working on motors, pumps, chain saws and compressors. Construction debris (gravel, sand, bricks, wood, garbage) is everywhere. But things are happening and projects get completed every day. Everything has a disheveled, untidy, cluttered look. Just outside the apartment are 6 sheds of machinists milling blocks of stainless steel and these shops are unbelievably common around town. If you want anything made of metal, you can get it, but furniture or wood products are impossible to find.
Surprisingly I have seen no one playing the Chinese card game seen ubiquitously throughout the rest of China. I’ve watched 2 other card games played a few times but couldn’t figure the rules. But it is rare. Mah Jong is more common. Unlike Japan, there are not many old people. They congregate to gossip on benches on the many bridges over the canals.
Stores selling the same things cluster together. And the selection is monotonously the same. Appliance stores sell refrigerators, cooktops (mostly gas), washing machines, small 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 found a one-of-a-kind 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 one brand, OB Tampons.
But Chinese people, although not sociable with strangers are very sweet and nice. I always get a lot of smiles and many stares. It is very rare to find someone here who speaks any English and I must be the only white guy for miles. Basically the present Chinese people are descended from rural peasant stock. Most of the intellectuals left with the Kuomintang to Taiwan (a very different country culturally) 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, loud chewing and nose clearing don’t bother me anymore.
Dentists are common. They work in small cubicles with no privacy. None stock dental floss. I have seen no doctor’s offices but only one Chinese herbal medicine store. An old “doctor” with a cigarette in one hand was taking a guy’s blood pressure. The cuff was outside a jacket and he was palpating the antecubital pulse though his jacket with no stethoscope. Pulse diagnosis is the main diagnostic technique – something not used in Western medicine.
One of the tallest structures (other than a few high-rise apartment buildings) is a church called Christ Church. It is 7 stories high and is capped by a 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 ceilinged 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 a 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. I passed one small Buddhist gathering – a few old women and some monks sitting around a long table with a microphoned monk chanting and tapping a small wood resonating frog. Religion is not visible.
New Years was not much of a bang. We heard seven loud firecrackers/fireworks at midnight and that was it. But New Years Day was a national holiday and the people were out in force shopping in the clothes districts and markets. And in China, that can get intense. Sidewalks were full of racks of clothes and tables of clothes, much of which appeared to be on sale. Think Black Friday. Sometimes we go to MacDonalds for lunch and it was packed. Garbage was everywhere. Even beggars were out – guys with burns, ulcerated deformed legs and feet. It was a beautiful warm, sunny day.
After days of searching the streets, we were finally able to order a custom built counter for Anna’s tiny kitchen – cost 90US$. Her wee apartment will become as functional as is possible. I continue to pick up a bag of garbage every day outside her apartment building.
Chinese New Year (Feb 9 this year) is the big event with 3 days of holidays.
I needed my teeth cleaned and am tired or the $100/hour rate my dentist charges, and then they only spend 45 minutes. I went to a dentist where I had actually found floss at; she also spoke minimal English. A male dentist used an ultrasonic scaler minimally, then proceeded to polish my teeth – he did none of the vigorous instrument scaling I was used to and believed I badly needed, even though I floss daily and use a travel ultrasonic toothbrush. After using translation apps on their phones, I was told I had no plaque, which I found difficult to believe. The whole process was quite useless, but only cost 100 RMB ($17US).
I shop everyday. There is one large supermarket about 3 blocks away that has little Western-recognizable food – a veritable food desert for me. One bakery has delicious small round pastries filled with a date? mixture and slightly brown bread with walnuts in it that I buy most days. The girls there know me well. And there are 3 large open markets within 15 minutes that sell pork and beef, fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains, fresh and dried seafood (much still alive in little tubs of circulating water) and birds. The fowl available are chickens, pigeons, ducks and geese, all crammed live in wire cages. They slit the animals throat and throw it into a plastic barrel to bleed out and thrash around in. Then it is dipped in hot water and thrown into a plucking machine, a big drum with rubber projectiles, usually twice. Any remaining feathers and the skin over the feet are removed by hand. The head is chopped off and the animal gutted (the stomach lining is removed but most organs saved including the intestines), then it is washed in the hot water again. That’s it, from alive to ready to eat in 10 minutes.
January 3rd was a “wedding day”, auspicious in the Chinese calendar for tying the knot. Fireworks were almost constant all day, but firecrackers go off every day.
On Anna’s day off, we went to Yandangshan, a natural area about 28kms north of Hongqiao and walked the 5kms to the entrance. It is an area of limestone mountains with cliffs, caves and unusual rock formations all with fanciful names.
Her kitchen counter arrived and we had fun just getting it into the tiny space and putting the drawer in. She is very resourceful and likes to use a drill. So her cute little apartment is as complete as one could make it given the space: two towel racks, a coat rack, a shower shampoo holder, a counter with a drawer and shelves, a 4-level wall shelf for storage, a new kitchen light screwed to the wall instead of taped, a bowl, fry pan, 2 pots, utensil holder, various utensils, refrigerator, and an electric hotplate. Now all she needs is an oven.
I had a great time with Anna in Hongqiao. We fell in love with each other. She is an unusual Chinese woman: doesn’t want to get married or have children (which drives her parents crazy – Chinese parents have no problem giving their opinions – and cuts her out of the Chinese man market), wants to travel, practical (no make-up or spike heels), dresses nicely, not materialistic and has no interest in my money (I offered to buy many things and she always refused). And most significantly, she wants to be with me despite our significant age difference. She is also great to look at. Hopefully I will be back on my way home from this winter and again when I start next years trip.
I have been looking for a partner for some time and had given up on Canadian women, especially ones close to my age. They don’t travel in my style (long periods, dorms, ground transportation, walking), are usually still working, don’t have money of their own, have pets and grandchildren (so never want to be away for more than a month), liberated to the point that you must watch everything you say and are fixed and demanding.
I really enjoyed hanging out in this village (of several hundred thousand people). Chinese people are hard-working, honest and always pleasant. I loved walking around, people watching, going to the markets and stores, buying stuff and generally getting some glimpse into the culture without being able to speak a word of Mandarin. It was a nice break from my usual frenetic traveling style. I needed a good rest after 4 months and 11 countries.
And I did a lot of work on my web site, a constant work in progress. I don’t think there is any blog out there with as much basic travel information as my Travel page.
China has risen to its economic level by having an almost unlimited resource of hard working people. Education is highly valued. Parents are demanding and drive their children to succeed. But the middle class is growing and aspire to more: higher wages and a social safety net. And the one child policy has eroded that unlimited supply of workers. Just a few months ago, one-child was replaced with two-child for everyone.
Being Communist in name only, few social services are provided. Medical and dental care is all private, welfare doesn’t exist and pension plans don’t provide for a good retirement. Parents are quite dependent on their children for financial support in their later years. And filial duty is very much part of Chinese society. Children routinely give money to their parents to thank them for raising them. Anna gave her entire first cheque to hers.
Those higher wages are already cutting China out of manufacturing and Chinese business is relocating to places with cheap labour like India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Ethiopia.
Rather than exporting to the world, China’s future growth will be dependent on internal consumerism, much like the US is. The low wages put much out of their reach. All those apartment high-rises sprouting like wheat across every Chinese city are out of reach for the average citizen.
And they must be the least intuitive people on earth. Thinking out of the box, being innovative, having true understanding and taking the risk of being wrong on the path to figuring stuff out, are not part of their thinking. The most obvious indicator of this is the almost complete lack of Nobel Laureates, hard to believe with 1.3 billion people. Engendered by a route-memory learning system at all levels of education, this will surely be a major block to future progress. China is famous for stealing other’s ideas and being dependent on other’s innovation.
Evidence abounds in simple everyday life. Get the guy to spread the meat and vegetables evenly across the Subway sandwich, and no matter how many hand gestures you use he will never get the idea. Try to get an inflatable neck pillow blown up like some of the other samples of products in a travel store. Forget it.
On January 6, after walking Anna partway to work, I took a tuk-tuk (20¥) to Shenfang high-speed railway station and boarded for the 4-hour trip to Shanghai (210¥ + 5¥ commission – US$34). Of note, all tickets and train station on-board announcements are in English, even though I am imagining that I am the only white guy around who understands a word of it. Virtually none of the Chinese understand any English – they must get tired of how it is pandered to. The train headed north with stops at Taizhou, Sanmenxian, Ninghai, Ningbo (a big city), Yuyaobei (big), Shaoxingbei, (big), Hanzhou East (very big), Yuhang (big), Jiaxingnan, Songjiangnan and finally Shanghai (massive).
My flight to Urumqi for January 7th was cancelled! I spent hours getting a new flight, changing accommodation, cancelling and getting a refund for my ongoing flights to Tunis and then rebooking. I went out for dinner with a young woman from Shanghai I had met in Urumqi in September. It was very nice. And the next night I went to a jazz club with 3 other young people from the hostel. All the musicians were foreign. Entrance was 60¥ (10US$) and the food and alcohol was unbelievably expensive. I don’t know how much the Chinese audience appreciated the music but most of them spent the entire time on their smartphones. Nobody tapped their feet.
After 5 hours in my least favourite airport, Urumqi, all the seats in my row on my flight to Dubai were empty, so I got to lay down and have a good sleep. That doesn’t happen often.
Dubai International Airport has problems. Despite being constantly enlarged and expanded, it can’t keep pace. You walk miles from your plane to get to immigration. Then there are the longest immigration lines in the world, unless you are Arab. The baggage carousels have 3 flights on each of them. And there are 3 carousels labelled one. Even after all those waits to get there, you still have to wait for your bags. Wifi is free for any hour only.
So it is 23:00 and I am in Dubai sitting at a Starbucks waiting for my 04:35 flight to Tunis via Cairo. Sitting opposite is a very nice Chinese guy from Beijing. The philosophy of talking to everyone is constantly reinforced. Outside I talked to 2 Jordanians and got many great insights into a country I will be in next month. This Chinese guy was a fun conversationalist. Last month outside Terminal 2 in Dubai, I talked to a guy from Armenia. I talk to everyone. I feel sorry for those who socially isolate themselves on the road. They don’t know what they are missing. A whole family from Ecuador sat next to me – they reconfirmed that Ecuador has the highest incidence of crime in SA – even they get robbed. They are just some of the millions of expat workers in the Emirates – all here for the money but also a lifestyle better than at home.