BootsnAll Travel Network

China – A Dichotomy

(Dichotomy – a division into two mutually exclusive or contradictory groups. Not a medical procedure that involves sticking cameras into various bodily orifices. That just wouldn’t make sense now would it.)

This past week has shown me that China is definitely a country in the process of trying to reinvent itself. As the title suggests, China is a lesson in extremes with wealth and lots of shiny children, people, and buildings coexisting side by side with the exact opposite. This is usually within sight of one another. I got my first lesson as I made my way to the Guilin train station about which I will tell you in due course.

I arrived in Guilin on an afternoon bus from Yangshou. The bus was packed. All the seats were taken, so with typical Chinese ingenuity and resourcefulness, stools were placed in the aisles for more people to sit on. These stools must have been packed in the luggage compartment on the bus for just such an eventuality as they magically appeared at one stop. Once in Guilin, I made my way to a hostel near the train station. I checked in, dropped my bags, and then immediately left to go to the PSB. I planned to take a taxi. It wasn’t hard to find one. As a matter of fact, they found me. I had a choice between a car taxi and a man on a motorcycle patting the rear seat (we all know what this seat is called) of his bike while saying “very cheap.” Now motorcycle taxis are everywhere in Asia and are used by men and women alike. You have to negotiate a price beforehand. I wasn’t quite ready to make this leap into Asiana (I just mastered chopsticks and the squat toilet. It’s like creeping your way into a cold pool.) I went with the car taxi. At the Public Security Bureau (this time I got a woman), I was informed that it would take five working days to extend my visa and they would only give me 30 days from the date I applied for the extension. This means that I have to wait until my current Visa is almost expired. Dejected, I decided to walk back to the hostel so that I could get some happy endorphins and see the city. Guilin is much bigger than Yangshou but it is surrounded by the same limestone karsts making it quite scenic. On the way back, I met a Chinese man about my age who wanted to walk with me so that he could practice his English. I agreed but I was a little suspicious as there are plenty of scams in China involving people trying to befriend you, inviting you to tea shops, and ripping you off by severly overcharging you. He told me that his parents were rice farmers and that he worked in a travel agency in Guilin. We made our way to a park, sat by a lake, and talked about various topics ranging from China’s growth to the difference between Chinese and Western tourists. After about an hour, he suggested that we go to a tea shop owned by his cousin. In my head alarm bells started ringing, but I agreed to go with him just to see what would happen. We had also been having a great conversation, and I didn’t want to misjudge him. We arrived at the tea shop, and his cousin immediately prepared some tea for us to drink. Before taking a sip, I asked him how much. He said he was inviting me to tea so it was on him. While drinking the tea, I told him about going to visit friends in Shanghai, and he suggested on several occasions that I buy some tea as a gift for them. I thought it wasn’t a bad idea as I really liked the tea we were drinking. I bought 50 grams of tea. The price was clearly marked on the canister so I figured it was safe. I was charged the appropriate amount and we left. We walked for a little while longer on the main shopping street and then left as he said he needed to return to work. I was left with mixed feelings on the encounter. I am still not sure if he truly wanted to talk to me or just wanted me to buy something. Besides the tea shop, he also tried to sell me tickets to a minority group acrobat show. It was probably a bit of both I guess.

The next day, I went to the Reed Flute Cave with a South African lady that I met in the shower. I guess I should clarify this statement. She was in the shower stall next to mine with doors. As I couldn’t get any hot water, I asked for advice on what I was doing wrong. I never did get any hot water but after talking for a while we decided to go to the cave together. Reed Flute Cave is artificially lit up on the inside with lights of various colors. This causes the rock formations to glow quite beautifully. You’ll have to look at the pictures that I just uploaded to get a better idea of what I am talking about. After the cave, we walked around on some trails leading up a hill overlooking the city and then made our way back to the bus stop. While we were waiting for the bus, a large Chinese tour group all decided to buy some whistles from a roadside saleswoman. Now if I had to name one thing that a very large tour group could do without, it would have to be high-pitched whistles. I was very glad to get on the crowded bus. I was standing this time. As there was no convenient emergency hatch, I had to duck.

My final day in Guilin was spent on Fubo Shan. This is a steep karst which juts upwards from the edge of the town. There are great views from the top. Underneath the karst are the Returned Pearl Cave and the Thousand Buddha Cave. The caves are full of images and rock carvings of Buddha dating from as old as 1,000 years ago. I returned to the hostel fairly early. There I met a couple who was catching a midnight train to Schenzen. To help them pass the time, we played a game of Uncle Wang. This is the knockoff Chinese version of Monopoly. They basically added a 0 behind all the prices. The Chance and Community Chest cards were unreadable, but I asked the receptionist to show me the symbol for pay or collect money. The game pieces consisted of a Chinese girl, a British man, and an American man (??????????). I won, and I guess got the coveted title of Uncle Wang.

I woke up early the next morning to go catch the train to Shanghai. I had finally gotten my train ticket after many phone calls and several meetings with the man who was supposed to buy them for me. I was refreshed from a good night’s sleep (I had my dorm room to myself) and invigorated from the rousing game of Uncle Wang. I made my way to the train station. As I had a soft sleeper ticket, I got to use a special waiting room which was on the other side of the station from the main waiting room. The outside of the train station was full of people sleeping on the granite steps and around the flower beds. (Chinese people appear to be able to sleep on surfaces and in positions that would put Cirque du Soleil performers to shame. Maybe it’s all the massages). It was still very early in the morning so I wasn’t sure if these people were passengers or homeless. The lounge I was looking for was still locked. As I waited outside the first class lounge, on the nice granite steps, one of the sleeping men gave me quite the surprise. He was wearing some sort of skirt. He woke up, squatted down, and pulled up the skirt. Not to be a prude but there are some situations where going commando is just not appropriate or sexy, and I think this was one of those. (Commando – not wearing any underwear. The term is derived from the military. It was once explained to me, when I inquired into the origin of this term, that apparently some military personnel or commandos on maneuvers in hot climates don’t wear underwear to help with bodily climate control. Hence the term.) The man then proceeded to urinate on the granite steps. I didn’t wait around to see if anything else was going to come out. I was finally let into the lounge and waited with one other man for the train.

Once on the train, I found my berth. Soft sleeper berths in China consist of a small room with four beds, a table, and doors. You share this with complete strangers. I was sharing the room with three other Chinese men (none of whom spoke a word of English). Two of the men were already on the train as it didn’t originate in Guilin and the other man was the one who had been waiting with me in the lounge. After settling all my gear, I slept for about two hours. I sleep really well on trains. Upon waking, I found that my compartment companions had packed quite an assortment of snacks and were getting ready to eat some. I hadn’t packed any food as I was planning to rely on the dining car. There are also ladies who push around carts with various items of food and drinks for sale. They offered me a beer. I don’t really like beer but accepted as some ideas are too hard to explain with hand gestures. After drinking the beer, I went to the dining car only to see if they were serving yet. It was still sort of early. I didn’t see anyone eating, but I did see the staff sitting in front of a huge mound of chicken feet (nails included). They were skewering them. I thought now might not be a good time and went back to to my berth. Upon arrival, I was given a large amount of peanuts to eat by my companions. I was starting to feel bad as I had no food to offer in return. It was hard to say no though as they kept pointing to the bag smiling and pouring the peanuts into my hand. Soon I heard a ruckus in the hallway. It was the cart lady coming down the hall with a large pile of cooked chicken feet covered in green onions. You could buy a skewer with about four feet for 5 yuan. I was curious to try one but wasn’t sure how to eat it and didn’t want to end up with four chicken feet that I couldn’t do anything with. I was hoping that someone in my compartment would be inclined to buy a skewer, but they didn’t. I spent the 23 hours on the train sleeping, reading, watching the scenery, watching the cart ladies sell a never ending supply of chicken feet and other goods, and attempting to hold remedial conversations with the others in my compartment using the Lonely Planet phrase book and hand signals. I did manage to get a meal in the dining car consisting of chicken and rice. I ordered with the help of a young guy who saw me staring blankly at the all Mandarin menu.

I was picked up from the Shanghai South train station by Abby and David’s driver, Chen. Abby is a friend of my sister. As foreigners must have a Chinese driver’s license to drive, most expatriots have drivers provided by their employers. I spent my first full day in Shanghai sightseeing. Here the duality of China really set in. Shanghai was one of the first Chinese cities that the Western powers made the Chinese open up to trade after the Opium Wars. The Bund was one of the early trading districts of Shanghai. The riverbank in this district is lined with beautifully preserved classical buildings. Yet you go one block back, and the scenery gets much rougher with rundown shops and narrow streets. This is all over Shanghai. Many parts of the city are shiny, opulent and new. There is construction going on everywhere. I believe at one point that half the world’s skyscraper cranes were in Shanghai. Yet amongst all this growth and shine, there are still plenty of traditional neighborhoods and poor areas. After gawking at the big buildings, I decided to do some temple exploring. I have pretty much seen my fill of Buddha so I skipped those. I first went into a small mosque. In my last entry I recounted how we were shooed out of the mosque in Guangzhou as we weren’t Muslim. This time I was alone (with my dark skin), not with a white skinned Canadian, and had a two day beard. An older lady indicated I could go in. Once inside the men really paid me no attention. Upon leaving the mosque, I went to a Confucius temple. This temple is dedicated to scholarly learning so appropriately enough there was a book sale going on in the courtyard. There were a few English books scattered amongst the stacks. I bought the newest Harry Potter book and a book on a guy who drove around the world. The salesman appeared to value books on thickness as he kept showing me how thick the book was as we negotiated the price. The temple itself was quite serene with a coy pond, small pagoda, and weeping willows.

I spent the next morning at the Shanghai Museum looking at various exhibits on Chinese painting, currency, and sculpture while Abby was at work. We met up for lunch and then went to the “fake” market or the Gift and Clothing Market as it is officially called. This market is a sprawling underground complex near the Science and Technology Museum. Before entering the market, we were met by some guys who tried to convince us that the market was closed due to a police raid and that we should go their shops. I was looking for a knockoff backpack as my 21 day Nepal hike is quickly approaching. My current pack is too uncomfortable for the trek. We went through several shops selling fake North Face and other brand bags. I eventually found one from a Chinese company that fit and was the right size. The girl wasn’t willing to budge on the price of 180 yuan which is really too much for these bags. The bags are either poorly made or made illegally at the factories producing the real thing. She didn’t appear too amused as I showed her all the loose threads in the bag. She quite angrily pointed to my shirt sleeve to show me all the loose thread in my “real” shirt. The only problem is my current gear is really well made and the seam was perfect. In the end I decided not to buy a bag as all the ones I looked at were shoddily made. I don’t really want to trust my life to that equipment. In Nepal, I believe I can buy used gear for a decent price. Many mountain expeditions dump their gear after the climbs and there are stores that resell it. I did end up with a watch and a dress shirt. I have somewhat standardized my bargaining technique. When they tell me their opening price, I gasp and put my hands over my heart sort of like Red Fox in the series “Sanford and Son” (except I don’t say, “I’m coming Elizabeth.”). This gets most of them laughing and softens them up a bit. We then begin to haggle over what is “Good Price.”

My last day was spent with Chen at a water town near Shanghai. It looked a bit like a mini Chinese Venice. There were houses, shops, and restaurants lining canals. The canals were full of reed boats that ferried people to and fro. It is all heavily commercialized now. Chen was kind enough to come along and translate a lot of the exhibits for me. As I really wasn’t interested in buying jewelery, we only stayed a short while. I still had some time before we had to be back to pick up Abby from work. Not able to resist the call of cheap clothing, I went back to the market and bought more shirts. I will have to get Abby and David to bring them back to the US for me when they move back in a few weeks. Tomorrow I catch the fast train to Beijing. It just started operation in April and reaches speeds of 250 km/hr. I would like to thank Abby and David for hosting and feeding me for the last few days.

Side Note:
Chinese People: They provide one final dichotomy for me. The ones involved in the tourist trade can be quite unpleasant. You constantly have to be on the look out for scams as they basically view foreigners as a big ATM card. The “normal” Chinese are quite different. They are very kind and friendly. My train companions were very generous and in the dining car someone came to my aid. Abby’s driver Chen was also very friendly and liked to act as a tour guide. There are always those in between encounters that I am not so sure about like the tea shop in Guilin.

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One Response to “China – A Dichotomy”

  1. Kellie Says:

    So should we just refer to you as Uncle Wang now?

  2. Posted from United States United States
  3. Gashwin Says:

    Get used to similar behaviour in the subcontinent as well — you’re a walking dollar sign. Be firm, and rude if necessary.

  4. Posted from United States United States

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