by Erik Koht
That's all they do you know, the Chinese, they speak Chinese all the time. They write, sing, inform, discuss... Everything we do back home - they do, too, in Chinese. It means that we suddenly turn illiterate and in addition turn deaf and dumb. See yourself relaxing in front of the telly at night with that sort of handicap. Walking down the street looking for a shop, you have to really look inside the shop to determine what they are selling. Once you get to China and leave the airport, you're the only one that looks and speaks the way you do. You go from looking like a perfectly ordinary human being to being very special indeed. You're a monkey, and a clever one, too. They know that if they call out "hello" - and they do that a lot - they can make you react, look their way, smile, return the greeting. Really clever stuff for a monkey, so they laugh, enjoying this bit of entertainment.
An illiterate, deaf and dumb person who really just understands "hello" is more than just a bit helpless, not much chance of getting around on his own. Can't even cater to his personal needs. Without a friend to help you, you're dead in the water. So I'm the lucky one, I do have such a friend. With the help of my friend, China opened up, became accessible and understandable - to some extent. I could be the observer I wanted to be. Still, it is wise to keep in mind that I was myself influencing the people and places I was trying to observe. When the western monkey made his appearance, the scene and the people in it changed to accommodate the presence of the monkey. Besides, the monkey's brain contained the images and behavioral patterns of Monkeyland and interpreted events in the context of his mind set.
Yes, I did go to China again. I won't bore you with a day to day account of my and my wife's nearly four weeks together in her native land. Rather, I'll try to describe some of the phenomena I observed or was subjected to, as the case may be. We came in through Hong Kong and started our visit in China proper in the city of Shen Zhen - the seat of the new stock exchange and the pride of the republic. Then we were on a plane heading for my wife's home town of YiBin in Sichuan province. YiBin marks the birthplace of the Yangtze river, a river that flows into the China Sea at Shanghai, a few thousand kilometers to the east. For the most part we stayed with my Chinese mother, her son and his wife, but the last week of our stay, we sailed away on our own. I wanted to go on a river boat cruise, and I got all I bargained for, plowing down the Yangtze. We joined the boat a bit further down stream at the city of ChongQin. After the boat trip and a 16 hour rail road journey we arived at the old imperial city of Xi'an. Another 16 hour train ride and our journey ended in Beijing. Next time, I'll go see the Great Wall, just maybe.
What about my qualifications to make assertions and draw conclusions? I have none. I am not a sociologist or a anthropologist, I am not a historian, economist, architect or a scientist of any sort. I am merely a person who has gone to China twice and survived. The time between visits is 11 years, and it may well be another 11 years until my next visit. Though I much admire my mother-in-law, she was not the main purpose of my visit - though she was the reason my wife made the trip. Anyway, I am glad we didn't spend all our time in China going from place to place, our one week of traveling was just about all I coxx
China is a nation of stark contrasts between new and old, rich and poor, the real and the phoney. One of the things that pleased me a great deal were the children. They always seemed to be smiling. Much more than in Norway, the children looked to be an integrated part of the adult world. They were playing on the sidewalks, they were safe in the arms of fathers and mothers or helping out in a restaurant, learning the ropes. I never saw any prams. Even the little girl in the arms of a beggar looked content and well fed, even well dressed. Though Chinese adults are dressed well, black is dominant. Not so the children, they look almost fluorescent by comparison, brightly dressed in primary colours. These children are obviously disciplined and discipline is something you need a lot of, if you want to survive in this harsh environment. In China the family is a very important unit, the most important social entity by far. Raising a child well is a source of great pride. I once commented to my wife: "Do you know why this child never has to cry to be lifted onto its mother's lap? Because it is already there." I also discovered that even very small children are hard at it, learning English. After "Hello" comes "What's your name?" This was obviously learned by rote, like some magic spell. I was asked the question at a fancy tea house restaurant by two little girls whose parents were playing Mahjong, their black Audis parked outside. I was asked the question again on a side walk in a poor section near the train station of Xi'an. "What's your name?" At the same age, my wife was learning Russian. English came later. Even today her English vocabulary surpasses her Norwegian in many ways.
The second source of joy - what else but the food! I am talking about the kitchens of Sichuan - they are all over the place. Even far off cities have Sichuan restaurants. It is a good idea to learn these two signs: 四川 The first one looks like a square window with drapes either side, the other one is just three vertical lines, the first one slightly bent outwards at the lower end. Separately they mean the number four and river. Together they become the province of the four rivers, "Si" and "Chuan". That is, you need them if you never reach Sichuan. In Sichuan proper, they are all Sichuan restaurants. Now, I had my wife picking out the food for me, and at first I thought it was something special she did, knowing me and my tastes, and she does! But lo and behold, we went visiting her friends, and guess what, I got the same delicious food, well, plus some strange ones like the tree frog, but what the heck. They eat three square meals a day, all hot. Breakfast may or may not be leftovers. I never parttook in the native breakfast, settling for my European style thing with some buns plus marmalade and coffee from the old country. My European needs thus settled for the day, I could happily eat whatever was offered for the rest of the day - and I did it with gusto. I must have eaten 15 kinds of mushrooms. They eat duck and chicken, beef and pork, intestines and stomach lining, kidneys and liver, fresh water fish and eel, but above all else, vegetables, lots and lots of fresh delicious vegetables. Even their spices are fresh vegetables. I am told I was eating things that were not meant to be eaten, things that were meant just to add flavour to the rest of the food. Oh, well, there are some advantages to monkeyhood. To me, it looked like they were salivating over things I wouldn't feed to a dog, like the head of a duck or the claws of hens. At a Sichuan dinner you can pick and choose. They do tend to slap various things into your bowl, a sort of feeding instinct I guess, but I found that if I made my wishes clear: "I will not eat that fish", then nobody tried to slap me with one. What happens is this: You get a bowl, and unless it is a very special occasion, you get rice in your bowl. All over the table there are plates filled with food, and always there is a bowl of soup. The soup is enjoyed at the end of the meal. It looks the way water would after doing the dishes, but it tastes just fine. There are things floating in the soup, like salad leaves or little chunks of meat. Except for using with the soup, there are no serving spoons. You just use your chopsticks and pick food from any of the plates on the table in any order that suits your fancy. While we are eating more plates with food arrive from the kitchen. This does not mean that these things constitute a second or third course, it just means that these dishes were not quite ready when you sat down. But people do tend to concentrate on the new dishes - that may be because they are the ones that are still hot. The number of dishes vary and so does the content. This is the most common way of serving dinner. An entirely different kind of dinner or evening meal is the fire wok. Even though there are many kinds of dishes on the table, everything tends to taste just the same because everything is cooked in the same spicy sauce, bubbling away in a wide pot center stage. That way the texture of the food becomes much more important, mushy, brittle or chewy. Some ingredients need only to be heated or softened, other things should remain in the pot for a longer time. You learn something about the behaviour of foodstuffs exposed to boiling oil. The fire wok is not an easy act. Some food becomes so slippery it tends to get away from you and you are politely asked if you would like a spoon. Fat chance! Other food tends to break up into smaller pieces when you try to haul it out of the wok. Each time I had this meal, I discovered that I had new grease spots on my pants, my shirt, my tie and up my sleeves. In short, joining the natives for a fire wok meal, they got you beat, so forget your pride and just enjoy the grub. When they're not having breakfast, lunch or dinner, they keep from starving by eating fresh fruits and nuts. So why aren't the Chinese fat?
As far as social structures go, there are a lot of labels. I come from a country where social welfare and equal oportunities are paramount. Norway is a multiparty state where free elections can actually change the things that the parties do not agree on. Also, Norway is an immensely rich country. This said, we did not have conditions like the ones I saw in China, the people's republic, even at the time when Norway was much poorer. I try to remember details from my childhood and the different places I grew up. I honestly can't remember seeing cripples walking on their hands and match stick legs, others writing pleas with brush in mouth on paper stuck to the sidewalk. Here there were new cripples each day, their disabilities heartbreaking. These were not victims of industrial accidents, though such cases could also be seen, these were birth defects. I wondered why these children were not helped, had not been helped. The answer lies in the fact that China has no social welfare at all. You get what you pay for, and that's it. If you can't pay, you die, and before you die, you suffer. Though I have praised the Chinese for the closeness of the family unit, the level of their social conscience and responsibility is low indeed. Since I last visited, I found the city of YiBin greatly changed: many more private cars, a public bus service was running, and new buildings and new shops were everywhere. On the other hand, the surrounding countryside looked much the same, though housing had improved somewhat. There were no agricultural machines, storage facilities were small, and the interiors of the homes I saw were abysmal. Obviously, the Chinese have no system by which the wealth accumulated in the cities can be redistributed to the countryside. The social and ecological consequences of this trend are to be seen, but have not yet run their full course. I do know from other sources that young people are leaving the countryside in droves, splitting up that family structure the Chinese so much cherish.
The second horror is a bit on the funny side, compared to the one above. I am thinking about the roads and the people who use them. Their fundamental understanding of driving is totally different from ours. "Just do it" seems to be the credo. One joke has a punch line that goes: "Don't criticize my driving, I am a perfect driver. Those that were only good drivers are already dead." How they make a left hand turn is no joke. You start your turn about 30 meters before the intersection - if oncoming traffic permits. This means that you will be crossing the first pedestrian crossing driving in the left hand lane. As you complete the turn, you will be entering the new street at about the middle of the second pedestrian crossing. There are plenty of pedestrians, bikes and motorcycles in your path, but don't let this bother you, they will get out of your way. If you are in a car, all you have to care about is other cars, busses and lorries. Pedestrians are at the lowest rung of the pecking order. They have no rights at all, not even on the sidewalk. A group of pedestrians, 20 or so, may to a certain extent turn the table, but I have seen bikers force their way through such a crowd at a crossing, and nobody but me seemed to think it was odd. You are as safe crossing the street in the middle of the block as at an intersection. That is why they have railings keeping the pedestrians from crossing where they want. This way they make people cross at the intersection. This is the place to be, waiting for other pedestrians, quickly getting enough people together to constitute a street crossing force. But watch it, this crowd will make an oncoming driver hesitate and slow down, but it won't make him stop.
The main roads of the YiBin district are paved with sectioned concrete slabs and have two lanes. This kind of surface can be laid down manually, making it cheap. Outside the city there are, understandably, few personal cars. The main vehicles are busses and grossly overloaded trucks. In addition there are a great many three wheeled motorcycles that serve as pickups and taxies. There are bikers and people out walking, household animals, and even people, miles from any habitation, swiping the road with brooms. Now, as you picture this, turn off the light. If you are out there driving, I'd say it's time to sharpen your wits. The aforementioned motorcycles usually have no rear lights at all. Trucks and busses may have, then again, may not. But, watch it, some of those slowly moving trucks have spot lights mounted on the left hand side, next to the drivers cabin, these lights are shining to the rear. Now, try passing something like that at night. That spot light pretty much hides oncoming traffic in its glare. In addition, the state of the road will give you a few surprises. The concrete does not run uniformly. Sometimes there are parts broken off, sometimes just a chunk, one meter square, at other times a whole section of pavement has disintegrated entirely. If the hole has been filled with gravel, you'll be all right, if not, you hit it hard. On both sides the paved surface ends at an abrupt 90 degree angle. In addition there may be a pit. If a bus or truck veer into this pit with one wheel, it can't get out on its own volition. A motorcyclist or biker would surely get killed on the spot.
The saving grace of Chinese traffic is its relative slowness. The slowness is what makes it all possible and prevents it from turning into carnage. There is a great deal of honking. A bus driver will honk his horn each time he approaches a bend, sees a pedestrian, a dog or a chicken, when he intends to pass another veichle, and any other time he sees fit. I realize this is a safety measure, people have grown to expect it. But if you have a choice of seats on a bus, I recommend sitting half to three quarters to the back of the bus, or that honking horn will drive you bananas - if the incessant music from the bus karaoke hasn't already done so. Well, enough of horrors...
A couple of thousand years ago an emperor, Qin Shihuang, the same guy who had himself buried along with several thousand terra-cotta soldiers and 78 000 of his countrymen, did a job of standardization. The length of swords, the shape of coins, the width of an axis, that sort of thing. Useful things, all, if you want to calculate and plan. Now, China has gone beyond this. All over this mighty nation, tarpaulin material looks precisely the same. Huge building sites are covered by this material, so is the raw materials being freighted by road or river, smaller pieces serve as protection against the sun, suspended on poles above fresh vegetables, all look the same. The pattern is spaced red and blue stripes on a white field. A great feat of design this, so why go looking for anything else?
I also imagine there is a sort of kit you can get if you are a mayor of a city and you want to liven the place up a bit, especially at night. In the kit you will find great anti-aircraft lights with various colored filters. All you have to do is set them moving in unison to brighten up the night skies. Hopefully nobody thinks to ask about the stars. They are permanently covered by the misty air and the reflected glare of the city. In the box you will find rows of bulbs that you can stick on bridges and important buildings, outlining them. But above all else, what joy, you will find the twinkling dandelion tree. The trees all have the same shape, I guess about 6 meters high. From the top of the stem, a hundred sticks of neon magic stick out evenly spaced in all directions, creating a bulb. The sticks will cascade, blink and glow rhythmically in complex patterns with many variations - to the awed delight of onlookers. Like permanent fireworks, ah, oh and gosh. Forever.
I also imagine that the distance between each column in every house is standardized. It makes every shop on the ground floor of every house precisely the same width. The width is like that of a private garage but depth varies. In retrospect I wonder if this observation can be true or not. Maybe I was deceived by the sameness of these buildings.
Another great feat of standardization is found in the realm of popular music. There are basically two songs, the hymn and the ballad. I had to wonder, were they all singing the same ballad over and over? To test the hypothesis that I was being influenced by the fact that I didn't understand the language, I listened a while to Finnish music courtesy of Finnair on the flight back. I don't understand Finnish, either. But no, the songs from Finnland all sounded different. The Chinese ones do not. Today, there isn't a tune I remember.
The Chinese have a great love of ceramic tiles. They are perfect for sidewalks, for covering the facade of houses, for making the floors of your abode look luxurious and decadent. Rarely will you find one even slightly out of place tile, and on the floors of all department stores and shopping malls, all tiled floors are polished to perfection by an army of diligent cleaners. You don't have to lift your feet, you can just glide, glide, glide.
They also have a great love for chrome metal. From the rods of public railings to the sofa table at home, you'll find chrome, shining by the efforts of a million hands, polishing, polishing...
Passing through any shop and restaurant doorway you will be treading on a red mat. On it it says something in Chinese and then "Welcome" in golden bold miniscule italics with swash underlining. The pattern never varies, but I did spot one green mat. Once.
Our Norwegian sidewalks are not interesting. By law they are uncluttered and plain, just some traffic signs and lamp posts, the occasional trash can and a bit of greenery, that's all you get besides the tarmac. Not so the Asian sidewalk. It's a place for the five second sales pitch, for dining out, for social interaction, and, sure, you can also use it for walking from A to B and back. It sure makes walking an attractive proposition, and it's something motorists don't get to enjoy. On the avenues the motorists can insist on their "might makes right"-philosophy, but once they enter a side street, the game is up. Top speeds of up to five kilometers an hour have been registered, but all the full stops will bring your average down. Unless you're a tax collector trying to haul in the VAT and other such atrocities of the western world, the sidewalk is the place to be. In China you pay a fee to the owner of the sidewalk which may be the municipality or some local entrepreneur, then you're all set to bring in your wares. Or you take your chances and pay nothing. The side walks bring gainful employment to untold millions, and in YiBin as well as the rest of Asia, unemployment means destitution. You don't need a loan to get started on the side walk, all you need is something to sell and a few baskets. The farmers of the YiBin district flock to the city, bringing fresh vegetables, spices and fruit picked just hours earlier. In an ordinary shop you may hear the statement: "We don't discuss prices here". With that kind of attitude, you've got no business on the street. Prices are not posted in any way, haggling is the only way to determine cost. While the business of buying something was going on I had to leave my wife as per instruction. The sight of a foreigner would double and triple prices on the spot. In addition to being cheap, the side walks are also flexible. The same spot would be used for different purposes throughout the day, thus a place occupied by a farmer in the morning might be a place to buy used magazines later in the day and turn into a restaurant after dark. Finally the sweepers would move in, getting everything neat and ready for the next day of hustle and bustle. I think it safe to say that in YiBin you could live for months without entering a proper shop.
Did I mention that the Chinese read and write Chinese? Yes, I did, but I didn't mention to what an extraordinary extent they use their script. If you ever saw a Chinese painting, the reason you knew it's Chinese was that the fellow who made the painting also scribbled something on it. It's a part of the composition. If you get a Chinese vase, well, it's the same thing again, script is a part of the design. If you see a factory wall, the signs are there all along the entire length, and in, on and around just about everything else you see. The Chinese don't spend a lot of money on fancy design and lighting effects to make their signs stand out in a crowd, their shop signs are just plain legible, black or red words on a white field. Couldn't ask for more. Since I was the only European in town this particular October, I could hardly demand they make signs especially for me. The English I saw was meant for other eyes than mine and usually contained no useful information at all. In order to get back home I had to turn a corner at a shop called "E-mail". No e-mail high or low in that particular shop. I couldn't trust any familiar looking logo, either. A lot of European and American trade marks had found new uses. I am still not clear about the Playboy rabbit - is Playboy really running a chain of outlets for women's shoes across western China? In this world of signs, you really take notice when there are none. You'll be hard put to find any street names, and in the personal sphere, there is no name on people's front doors saying who lives inside. but most likely the door is ajar, so why don't you just stick your head in and ask. That might not help, people seem to have an aversion to using other people's names. My wife goes by so many different designations, I've lost count. Yes, I did learn a few signs while I was there - knowing "Ladies" 女 and "Gentlemen" 男 is useful. Faucets are marked blue and red, but I wouldn't bet on the validity of that piece of information.
One oddity: China is a land without mailboxes. You deliver your mail by hand at the post office or at the desk of your hotel. Private homes have no box at the door, everything is delivered by the local house caretaker, I guess. In China, mail is not an entirely private concern.
Our bit of travelling was nothing out of the ordinary. We were not on the road for long, nor did we go by any unusual means. We just used the public and private transport available to everybody. Hah! Not really available to everybody - you have to know it's there, don't you. In China you just have to assume there is a way and then head for it. In Europe, you'd phone ahead, study the schedules of busses and trains, get your bookings in order. You'd know in advance how you are going to reach your destination and when. That's not how things run in China. Best thing is, you talk to someone who's been there, done that. Preferably recently. This is in modern terms the "feasibility study". (One time we had gone for four hours by car to see some stallactite caves, only to find them closed while they were being "redecorated". We still had a great trip.) We knew there was a boat running down the Yangtze. Was it still running? Would there be berths for us? Where could we get on and off? "Just call them", you say. China has no telephone directories, bet you didn't know that. No use calling "information" on the phone, the ladies don't have any directories either, actually there are no ladies and no information. Travelling is a case of learning by doing. We had to get on the boat at the city of ChongQin. An independent city, destined to be the final port of call for the newer and bigger ships that are going to be sailing the great Yangtze Lake. Not a lot of information flowed out of that place, despite the phone call, the extension number acquired with the help of friends. My wife did manage to find out that the river ferries were still running, despite the lateness of the season. So, we went to the bus terminal and read the schedules posted there. A few days later, we hopped on the bus and rolled down the super highway. Where did that suddenly come from, I hadn't seen one of those for a long time. Notice please, that even though the bus halted right in front of the booking offices of the boat we wanted to reach, no sailing schedules had been available in YiBin.
Note also, that the people selling tickets to the boat have nothing to do with the boat, they are independent agents. What they give you is a contract, not an actual ticket. They explained to my wife that the reason the river boats were still running was due to the fact that this was their last year of sailing down the river on just ordinary river water, a lot of people thought it worth seeing. On the sixth of november this year it would start to rise because of the great dam downstream, and a few sights would soon be submerged - or no longer be as spectacular. We had to settle for second class. There were three classes - our class meant that we had to stay aft when going on deck. Third class meant staying off the deck entirely. We were advised that even though there was a boat leaving today, it was not the one we should be taking, it would be passing the main attractions under the cover of darkness. And if we wanted to get on the day boat, we'd have to pay a bit extra for the guided tours. The tour guides were mandatory. The boat would be leaving 10 o'clock the following day - but "we'll get you a nice hotel and pick you up in the morning", the man assured us. He did get us a very nice hotel and the price was just right. What we didn't know was that from this moment on, we'd be at the mercy of agents. The first one brought us to the hotel. The second one appeared the next morning, 30 minutes early, and started on his sales pitch. We would need a place to stay when the boat reached its destination, wouldn't we? "So, let me take care of this, and I'll send a fax ahead. Our man will meet you at the pier in YiChang and take you to a nice place." Our trouble was that we didn't really trust this loud young man. Would there be someone at the pier, would they accept that we had payed in advance, was there really an hotel and if so, what were the real rates? Our distrust appeared well founded when we discovered our cabin containing four, not two, berths. But in actual fact, there wasn't anything else to be had on second class. The discussion between the agent and my wife went on for the remainder of our stay in ChongQin harbour. To his consternation, he didn't manage to get off the boat in time. He had to sail two hours down river with us. By then another contract was signed and paid for. We feared the worst, tourists are easy marks and won't be back to rise hell. The two young ladies who shared our cabin hadn't raised such a fuss with their agent, representing the same company. As the ship neared its final destination, I wondered if maybe they should have. The afore mentioned company would admit no knowledge of their booking when called by mobile phone for confirmation. Fortunately, they were able to make other arrangements, but presumably, their money was lost. My wife and I were more fortunate. At the pier we were greeted by a third agent holding up my wife's name on a piece of paper. A hundred other agents were doing the same thing. In all, three agents handled us and our bags that night, either consecutively or simultaneously until we were finally settled in our room at two o'clock in the morning. After another night in a full size bed, I woke to find my wife already gone. She had gone out to get train tickets to our next destination, Xi'an - the place where all those terra-cotta soldiers are. No problems getting tickets if we wanted to sit up for all the 16 hours of the trip. But, having revealed our itinerary to the agents who assisted us the night before, and who just happened to have a small office at the same hotel, we got a call to our room and a promise that we could pick up our second class sleeping berth tickets at four p.m. in the hotel lobby. She kept her word. This time and also later, we found that those agents could get tickets where we couldn't - similar to getting tickets to a play on Broadway in New York. This time, the agent had obviously pulled some strings, but on another occasion we were trying to get the tickets early, and still there was nothing to be had - until another agent got his fee. There is something not quite right about the train ticket procurement system in China. Or we were just too plain stupid to figure it out.
Since my last visit, the restrictions placed on foreigners had been lifted. I could stay at any hotel I wished, and also stay in a private home if I preferred, which I did most of the time. Report your whereabouts to the police within two days. The two to four star hotels are made for the natives. The natives are small and sleep on hard cots. They drink tea, play mahjong and wear their coats indoors in the wintertime. They watch only Chinese channels on TV and eat with chop sticks. They do their business on holes in the floor. If you can't accept this, you're being an oaf and should have stayed home in your own soft bed and loafed about in your own overheated living room. I must admit I gave this some thought, despite the oafishness, especially in the morning as I woke up stiff as a board with pains in my joints and muscles. Most hotels will give you towels, small and big ones, and lots and lots of complimentary objects like slippers, toothbrushes, soap, shampoo, bubble bath and combs. You'll find tea bags (no cream, no sugar) and a water cooker, too. On the boat there had been none of these amenities - not even toilet paper in our bathroom with cold and cold running water. But no hotel room is perfect. There are bulbs missing, the bath water may come out a smelly yellow, there is no room service, there's redecorating going on, there are bits and pieces coming off the wall or the ceiling, you can't quite manage to close the window. But they are always clean. This is the one bit of maintenance the Chinese take very seriously. I am most grateful for the fact that Chinese hotel guests are not exposed to the hotel room fridge. These are a western abomination - or at least their content and the prices of said content are. Now, if you are cold, I recommend you do the following: Open the door to the hallway, it's usually warmer out there. Fill their stamp size bath tub with hot water and leave the door to the bath room ajar, turn off the ventilators, leave all light bulbs burning while you are in the room and, finally, remember to secure the window and close the curtains. If all this physical activity didn't make you warm, then some of my suggested measures may, just give it time.
China was devastated. War, civil strife, neglect and the infamous cultural revolution of the Mao Tse Tung era caused irrevokeable damage to the heritage of the nation. Pointing at a table at an exhibition my wife commented: "We all used to have furniture like that, but they came and took it away." Nothing much was overlooked by the Red Guard by way of art and architecture. Historical documents and records are all gone. Probably the minority peoples were the hardest hit of all. They were hit to such an extent that it now it up to the Han Chinese to keep some expressions of this heritage going. My thoughts go to the American indian on his reservation. But vestiges do remain of the old China. Hands still remember the old crafts and minds recall the ways things were. New stones are being laid down where the old walls once stood. Sure, the new pagoda may turn out to be some sort of military installation, but more likely it really is a pagoda with Buddhas, insence and all. It's easy to tell it's not really old by the somewhat lavish use of concrete, but it does look nice at a distance. The guardians of these new places of worship are the disciples of Mammon, not the monks of yore. Though Buddhistic rites are spreading throughout the land, the pagodas on the mountain tops are not very relevant in this context and treated without perceptible piety. They are just life size souvenirs of another age. But the efforts going into making the country look presentable are important and impressive. Soon even the Chinese won't know what's old and what's new and you'll be able to buy a sculpture of Mao Tse Tung that's at least a thousand years old.
There is a sameness to Chinese cities. My wife claims that this is the case of European cities, too, though I can't see it. Since most tourists are other Chinese, I guess the locals feel they have to do something special to cater to their visitors. As a European, just the act of walking down a side street looking at the people (and being looked at) is a bit of an adventure. The buildings are not all that interesting, but the people are, what they do and how they interact, what they wear, the pace, the sounds, the pleasure of communicating through the multi-tired barriers of culture and language. Notice I didn't say "the smells"? China is not a smelly place. Only on foggy days will you feel some discomfort due to the coal dust that gets trapped by the moisture. The Chinese have been relying on coal for heating and cooking, but the increasing use of gas will be alleviating the situation. I think.
I've heard and read about the countryside villages. Maybe I'm blind, maybe they were on the other side of the hill or they just appear different than I expect. I just saw small houses spread out all over the place. I didn't see anything resembling a village. Maybe it's a question of definitions? Maybe three huts in a row constitute a village.
When you’re in Xi’an you get to chose between four tourist routes, one for each point of the compass. They were adamant about showing me their local mountain, Xi’an must be another word for completely flat. But, being eager to see the terra-cotta soldiers, I opted for the northern route and didn’t get to see their great geological attraction. I told the guide we had a great many mountains at home where I came from and felt no great need to go for a six hour drive just to see another one. Rather flippant this, but I was getting to the end of my rope as a tourist and needed to hold on to my priorities. I did see a great many mountains, earlier, and even climbed to the top of a few of them. Running up through the three minor gorges on a side trip from the main river, I saw rock formations and cliffs that would have stood a snowball’s chance in hell had they been exposed to gletchers and such. Here, as in Sichuan, only water, vegetation and the odd earthquake had shaped the landscape. Sorry to say, if you weren't there this year, you've missed the true adventure of the three minor gorges. Bit by bit, this part of the river will turn into a lake.
One of my wife's girlfriends used to work for a silk factory in YiBin. That went broke. She lost her job and her husband and little daughter, too, through divorce. Now she got it going as a street entrepreneur. She and her grandmother are making ready-made sticks for the fire wok in the daytime, and she's selling them at the curb at night, 10 for one yuan. She's smiling and doing well, except on rainy days. The silk factory, the paper mill and the weapons factories are all gone. Now only the liquor distiller Woulianye is left of the big ones. It really is big, with a work force of several thousand. YiBin is restructuring. Smaller settlements on the outskirts are less fortunate and feeling the pinch. Like the girlfriend, people are finding new ways and getting on with their lives. Don't be frightened by those motor cycle gangs hovering 'round the bus stop. They're really nice guys ready to take you where you want to go, at any speed you prefer. Twice my wife and I shared the back seat of one of those bikes. Smooth and easy on a sunny day. The first boy told us he'd been to Chengdu working. Thee first week he got some pay, the next week less and the third week nothing at all. So he headed for home on his bike. In the city you can't drive three on one small motor bike, you get in trouble. But in the countryside it's A-OK.
For a long time there hasn't been any business schools in China. The first entrepreneurs who tried it on their own either became rich beyond words or went flat broke. Having your cake and eating it, too, seemed to be a problem. The newly rich accumulated mistresses and lawsuits, got zonked by unexpected taxes and building restrictions. The new breed is smarter. Diversification and a clean bill of health pertaining to taxes seems to be the order of the day. The people who handle their money well really have it made. The cost of living is symbolic compared to what we Europeans are used to. There are also businesses that cater to the very rich or offer special services to those that are willing to pay a little extra. A little? Well, a little to some. There are millions upon millions of truly poor people in this country. It's a situation that will have to be sorted out, one way or another. When you are truly poor, you have no way of understanding the causes of your plight and no means of doing anything about it. From the way the farmers did their business, I concluded that they were not organized in any way. Without such an organization, they were voiceless and competing among each other, causing prices to fall. My wife said she got depressed by seeing places that hadn't changed since she was little. There were many places like that.
That's what a country really is, isn't it? The people, the shapers and the shaped. Shaped by and shapers of landscapes, historical bonds, traditions, schools of thoughts and beliefs, language, arts and crafts, environments. I had a deceptive feeling I knew them already. I do have advantages, having lived so much of my early life abroad and having two Chinese living with me all year round here in Oslo. They are fairly easy to get along with. I even have a chinese friend on the internet. Not understanding what is being said is not new to me, knowing beforehand there are many ways of doing things, not one better or worse than the other. Tone of voice goes a long way to explain a situation, so does gestures and facial expressions. At the hotel with the stinking yellow bath water I spoke my mind to the staff, knowing they didn't understand my words, but they sure got my meaning. But, you know, I don't want to be a stranger all the time. I want my TV and my daily paper, I want to be able to grab the phone and say "hello", hop on a bus and know where to get off. That's why I wouldn't want to live there and be a monkey full time. I'd stay there because of the people, though, they're good people. A poor woman offered me an fresh peanut out of her bag. I'll be remembering that for a while. I showed a sailor how to do tricks with just my fingers. He laughed and tried imitating. At one time six hands grabbed for my trunk as soon as the cab driver opened the boot of his car at the pier. All the hands withdrew just as quickly when I placed mine above theirs. They'd shove each other for my trunk, but not me. There was no ugliness, no uncomfortable incidents, no theft, no threats at any time on the trip. Once a price was fixed it stayed fixed. I never observed drunkenness, voices were not raised. A sales lady wanted me to try the fit of some new pants by bending at the knees. She showed me what to do. I pretended to misunderstand, bending at the hip and touching my toes in stead. We laughed. The best moments were those when nobody tried to say anything. With men I exchanged cigarettes, with the girls just smiles. I found that was the best way to keep the peddlers at bay. Just smile so they'd know I had seen and heard them and looked at their merchandise. That was all they expected me to do anyway. Not talking isn't so bad, I say so many needless things anyway. Laughing and sharing a cigarette, that was good. I could do that for a month or two, easily. Meanwhile here in Oslo, I'll be going around calling out "hello" to each and every Chinese I see, and follow through with the magic phrase: "What's your name?"
Since we didn't go on a prearranged tour, but went on our own, we were not the average tourists. Doing what we did would be impossible without a native guide, and that guide would be taking on a great deal of responsibility and hard work. I doubt if such a person exists, who would have done professionally what my wife did privately and with the help of friends and her family. We visited the Bamboo Sea with the aid of the military, we toured YiBin at night in a police car, I was welcomed into several private homes and enjoyed Chinese friendliness and hospitality in so many ways I will be forever indebted. Even though others may not be able to duplicate our vacation, some of our experiences may have general interest.
To withdraw cash with your credit card or exchanging dollars for yuan, you use the Bank of China's main local branches. Bring your passport. The bank may be closed from noon until two o'clock. Using the ATM outside the bank worked well, too, but there is a 2.500 yuan daily limit. You can circumvent this by bringing more than one card. No hotels and just one shopping mall would take our cards, and the ensuing procedure was not a speedy affair. They also wanted to charge us an additional three percent tax, claiming this was done by government order and applied to electronic goods.
When they see your blonde hair and blue eyes, prices triple. Knowing nothing about haggling and being somewhat influenced by the fact that everything seemed cheap to me, I learned to leave the scene and let someone else elicit the true bargain price. Ignore price tags, they are there just for fun and bear no relationship to the real price of the product except for always being too high. Go for a third of the price on the tag and you may still be losing money. Only large shops may tell you: "We don't discuss prices here" - they say that on the bus, too. As far as I could tell, there were no bank fees. But that state of bliss is changing, so I am told.
Prices vary throughout China. West is cheaper than east. They also vary according to where in the city you are. Things cost more in shops than at the curb. Goods imported into China will often cost the same or more than at home except for the fact that there doesn't seem to be any VAT or sales tax. Stuff like coffee, cars, imported consumeables are expensive. What the Chines make themselves are bargains. Get clothes, shoes, an apartment, china, stay at an ordinary chinese style hotel and dine out to your hearts delight. You never had it so good.
Tips? No such thing. Only at hotels did we have to dig up some extra cash to cover possible damages. This money was always returned to us when we checked out. But then, we always were able show the receipt.
Service There is never a lack of helping hands. To my Norwegian eyes, shops, trains and hotels looked vastly overstaffed. The only time you have to wait in line is at banks, ticket counters and some tourist attractions. I was delighted by the friendliness and the professional servicemindedness provided by "mere" employees.
The Chinese know about service and luxury, they just don't quite know what is required. At the hot springs resort, we paid our 60 yuan extra and opted for a private bathroom. Too bad we had to block the outlet with a towel. Also, there was no cold water to be had at any price. In the separate dining room where we entertained our friends at the end of our stay, there were just 10 chairs in the lounge section. We were eleven, meaning someone had to stand until dinner was served. Sorry, no extra chair could be provided. As a result, everyone remained standing until it was time to eat.
Though the food was almost always to our liking, I have also seen the interior or some of the most disgusting eating places on the face of the earth. I hasten to add, none of those were to be found in YiBin.
Like I said, floors are tiled. They are cold, so slip on those complementary slippers. the beds are rock hard and may cause you some lasting injury. The microscopic bath tubs can only be filled half way up before the overflow drain hole takes over. Except for one instance, all bathroom facilities were of a western style. Hotel rates are low and they no longer charge inflated "special prices" for foreign visitors. All information and forms are provided in Chinese only. Thank heaven for room numbers and elevator buttons. They display the familiar arabic numerals. A menu might boast the word "menu" on the cover, but there would never be anything but Chinese on the inside. No matter, I probably wouldn't know the names of any of the dishes anyway.
Bring all you plan to eat on the way and then just go. On a train you may be exposed to various sales pitches for reading materials, toys and weird edibles by the staff. One staff member wanted us to rent a small LCD DVD player labelled "Lucky Baby", just right for the bedtime story. You may not like the blaring music or the lack of privacy, but the trains do run on time and take you where you want to go safely. Much to my surprise, I encountered a western style toilet on one train. On the long distance bus, there were no such amenities at all.
When travelling within China, you will be asked for your passport and they will check your visa. On a sleeper they take away your ticket and replace it by a colored tag made of metal or plastic with a number on it. You get your ticket back when you are getting ready to get off. Give the lady back her tag. Prior to entering a train terminal waiting room, you must pass your bags through a fume detector. If you want to smoke, go stand near the exit. Having gone through several checkpoints beforehand, I was surprised to find my Finnair butter knife and my lighter fluid confiscated by the Shen Zhen domestic airport control. The lighter fluid I bought later was just a hoax and gave off strange fumes when lighted.
You discuss the fare with the taxi driver before you open the door, through the open side window on the drivers side. There are no safety belts in the back seat. The one next to the driver is always full of grime and dust. The price of dry cleaning your clothes are not included in the fare. All cars have side windows tinted blue, obstructing the view. Maybe they have this for reasons of privacy or glare. Maybe they just want to tell the world they ain't lookin' left or right.
There were plenty of tricycle taxis in YiBin. Sorry, I won't use them even though I know some of those farmer boys would have liked the extra dough. A person half my size pulling me and a tricycle down the road is not a thought I contemplate with ease. At one tourist resort they even had sedans standing by, two of those fellows would carry you up the steps. Again, "sorry!", first I'd have to break a leg.
Wines are hardly worth bothering about. Beer may contain anything from 2 to 10 percent alcohol, so I recommend you read the label carefully in advance. The malt content is low. By all means, try it, ask for "pee-jew". The Chinese drink tea continuously. You'll see people carrying their lidded glass jars everywhere they go. That tea looked awfully diluted to me, I suspect they were just drinking boiled water. You should do that, too, or buy bottled water. Selling water in pet bottles is big business, on the street there is a water sales person every few meters, price 1-2 yuan. At home, I would never consider drinking carbonated soft drinks to any meal, but much to my surprise, in China it was just the ticket.
YaDing's Lost Sichuan
Remember to enjoy the clear soup served at the end of dinner. Tap water in Sichuan was fine by smell and color, I just didn't drink it because I was warned not to. I never had digestion problems the entire time.
Maybe someone reading this will say: "But, didn't you see...didn't you understand?" Yes, it is true, a lot of what I know about China does not stem from this trip. How could it, when I was just a deaf and dumb tourist? To me, as a person trained in aestethic and creative work, the lack of personal and artistic expression was astounding to see.
I can't say whether this is a cultural trait, as I have been told, or if everyone is just holding their breath. While business is booming and hopes for the future soar, a thousand blossoms are not blooming. On TV I did not hear a single public debate. Drama and satire was cloaked in trappings of the past. There were no galleries presenting todays art, thre wasn't even a squiggle on a wall. People's minds seemed focused on business and science, busy realigning themselves or catching up. Truly, birds don't need to walk before they can fly, neither do spirits.