Zhejiang, China May 9-27, 2017
I am back in Hongqiao for the third time to visit my girlfriend, Anna. I obtained the most incredible flight – US$353 Johannesburg to Shanghai, 16 hours of flying time with a 4 hour lay over in Dubai. I enjoy it here – even though no one speaks English and I am stared at with some curiosity – everyone is pleasant and has a ready smile. I am certainly the only white face ever seen in this “village” of 160,000 people. Hongqiao is a suburb of the much larger city of Yeuqing. It shouldn’t be confused with the largest train station in the world, Shanghai Hongqiao with 56 gates, just for the high-speed section. It is next door to Shanghai Hongqiao Airport, one of the two international airports in Shanghai. Hangzhou is the capital city of Zhejiang. Not one of the mega cities of China (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, or Chongqing all with populations in the 20 million range), Hangzhou is a second tier city with an estimated population of 10-13million. And I bet you have never heard of it. It is one of the 6 ancient cities of China with a history 2200 years old.
Hongqiao is a city of canals and bridges. But you wouldn’t want to swim in this water. It is also hot and humid here, but it is not intolerable. It must have more clothing stores (almost as many for men as women) than one could ever believe exist. I wonder how any of them make a living. There must be as many phone stores. And like everywhere else in the world, every person has a smart phone in their hand. There is a MacDonalds and a KFC here too.
Services are very cheap. Getting a haircut is a few dollars. I needed a new zipper and the legs hemmed up in a pair of shorts – all for 8RMB (US$1.30). He insisted on giving me change for a 10RMB bill. And lots of people are doing very menial jobs and must live on little. Street sellers are everywhere – the same people selling the same one kind of fruit every day.
She has a different apartment in the same typical, older Chinese apartment building – a six-story walk-up. And this apartment is on the sixth story, so it is one way to get exercise in this completely flat city. This apartment must be three times the size of her old one. But, being the top floor, it is very hot. Sound proofing is non-existent and the neighbors on one side keep us up as they seem to talk all night in a loud, animated way. If it gets too much, I place a blue tooth speaker against the wall. Knocking loudly on the wall does lower the volume for a while. Last year there were about 8 metal machine shops (metal machine shops are very common here) in sheds in the space between her apartment and the 6 walk-up apartments across the way. All have been demolished – simply knocked down and a jumble of bricks, cement and metal corrugated roofs. What a mess and who knows when it will be cleaned up. There are places like this all over town as they are constantly building something. All the apartment buildings are different with no two alike. If there is any space, you can guarantee that someone will be putting up another apartment building. In the corner of the “square”, a fellow is still building a 5-story building that he started when I was last here 13 months ago. Today they were pouring the roof on the 4th floor. Three guys were handing up one-gallon buckets of cement, one at a time. I got tired watching them. Chinese are easily the hardest working people in the world. No wonder they have accomplished so much in the last 20 years.
If I had one criticism of Chinese social behaviour, it is that they are not socially aware. They wander when they walk. When approaching someone, it is a big guess which way they are going to go – they feint one way and then decide the other. They don’t move to one side of escalators so that there can be a walking lane. They don’t wait for others to get off the bus or subway before crowding on. The horking doesn’t bother me any more. Go to my post on cultural habits of Chinese for a discussion of all this. I think it is because they are basically a peasant, agricultural people now living in big cities.
The washing machine is next door on the top floor so it is very convenient. But Anna does not use it as she can’t bear to wash clothes that would be next to her skin in a washing machine that other people use. So she washes everything by hand.
Anna is shy and very conscious of gossip, especially from her coworkers. On my first visit, I often walked her to work and we went out for dinner. But now we are never seen outside her apartment together. And if we were, I would never touch her. People used to believe she was my interpreter and I was here for business. Because of the age difference, I defer to what she feels comfortable with. She decides when she wants to touch me in public when we are away from Hongqiao.
Chinese people are not neat when it comes to garbage. The stairs are actually now swept once a month but are soon littered with cigarette butts and all kinds of garbage. The streets provide ready employment for a cadre of street cleaners.
She works full-time so I have a lot of time of time on my hands. I spend my days playing bridge online and reading – mostly wading through the last 7 months of the Economist that I have missed. This year, wi-fi access was poor and I rarely had the time to read it. But it is easily the best news magazine in the world and very enjoyable. I am the ultimate news “junkie” and have a feeling about every country in the world. But since an article on Xi Jiping, the Chinese president appeared last April, the Economist is blocked by the Great Chinese Fire Wall. So I need my VPN to read it (as well as to use gmail, Google, You Tube or Facebook).
I go out every day to shop, mostly for food in the two supermarkets, the two large open markets for meat and most of my vegetables and the bakery where I am actually able to get bread that is a little bit brown. It is impossible to get almost any Western food, but you can get anything online in a few days – at good prices and free shipping here in Zhejiang. I go for lunch everyday to an area in the shopping district with tons of food stalls. I used to be addicted to a large crepe (one egg is spread over it, hot sauce added, then green onions, some pale yellow vegetable, an uncooked hot dog and pork rinds all rolled up. But this year, everyday I eat a shaved pork/green vegetable wrap that is very tasty and only costs 8RMB (US$1.30).
Then I wander down to the card game. This Chinese card game must be the most played card game in the world. Even though no one outside China plays it, all 1.4 billion play it here. The table is on the side of a small street in front of two of the player’s shops. The rules vary slightly but are basically the same, a variant of asshole but with many types of melds possible and strategy about when each is played, that it is interesting to watch. I’ve played a few times but not in this game, which is only for high rollers as they play for over a 100RMB per hand (about US$17). And each hand only takes 5 or so minutes to play. It is the same 6-8 guys (four play at once with two decks) who play and it is often the same crowd of kibitzers. Chinese play with great emotion and cards are slapped down with incredible violence. There is always lots of table talk. Nobody pays any attention to me, except one day, I spent about 30 minutes answering questions using a phone to translate. Down the street is another table of mostly women who play another game (I call this one 7s). It is the same group every day and the same group of kibitzers. Much less money is played for here. Go to Traveler’s Card Games in the Travel page to see the rules of each. Wherever one goes in Hongqiao (or anywhere in China for that matter), people are playing cards or Ma Jong. Ma Jong does not appeal to me much. And money is always involved as Chinese love to gamble.
We always cook ourselves and never eat out. Anna makes breakfast every morning and spoils me. We often cook together at night and then play cards to see who does the dishes.
Much of the time on this trip to China has been spent working on our conjugal partnership application. This is for couples who have many of the features of a common-law relationship but aren’t able to live together. It is one path to permanent residency in Canada. We applied for a tourist visa for Anna (a 10 day trip before my Africa trip in November) but she was turned down twice on four counts. It was apparent that she could never get a tourist visa to visit Canada. We are putting a lot of hope in this application. Beside seven standardized forms, photos, birth certificate, passport photocopy, a copy of her hukou (a Chinese residency permit), a criminal record check and a medical exam (the latter two very expensive), we have written 92 pages of documentation trying to prove that we have a bona fide relationship – all emails, video chats, trips, flights, hostels, train tickets, photos of gifts and on and on. But I have no doubt we will get turned down again on this one. Canada is a very hard place to immigrate to. But with permanent residency, she would have all the rights of a Canadian citizen except the right to vote and have a passport. And I would enter a legal agreement with the government of Canada to provide complete financial support for all the time she is here (until she become a citizen).
A Chinese passport is easily one of the worst to have in the world. Most northern Europeans are visa free in 158 countries, Canada in 156, but Chinese and Indians in only about 56. Most of those visas must be obtained form their home country, so we expect a lot of difficulties in our future travel. And most countries refuse visas for Chinese anyway. We had an Indian many on our trip through Africa this year, and he had many difficulties. He never did get a visa to South Africa. Even though it is not possible for Anna to ever get a tourist visa for Canada, I have a 10-year tourist visa for China that expires in 2023, and I didn’t even ask for it.
Anna was able to get 10 days off work and we are going to Sarawak, Malaysia. It is the only place I haven’t been to in this side of Asia. Gunung Mulu National Park is famous for its caves and limestone formations. After 5 days there, we are going close to the border of Kalimantan to Bario in the Kelabit Highlands to hike in the jungle. We have 8 separate flights to get around (3 hour train to Hangzhou, flights to Kuala Lumpur, Miri, Mulu, Miri, Bario, Miri, KL and then Hangzhou). There are no roads in this part of the world. I am storing my big pack in the Hangzhou train station and will leave directly from there to Shanghai and my flight home on June 8th. It will be one of my best 7 months of travel so far. 89 countries now with 60 more to go before I finally give up.
This trip is therefore very likely my last trip to Hongqiao (and possibly China). I have seen almost the entire country and, if we aren’t successful with our conjugal partnership application, our future together is doubtful. Everything will depend on her wanting to travel with me and thus getting visas, a difficult proposition for Chinese passport holders. Whenever I would come back to Canada (which I do for 3-4 months per year), she would have to return to China, where she would not have a job. That is not a very satisfactory situation for a young Chinese woman. I suppose she would live at home which would not make her very happy. Her parent’s constant chiding about getting married and having babies would drive her crazy.