Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Huzhou & Guanshang

Huzhou. It was the over-cooked soggy broccoli that had to be eaten. It couldn’t be put off. It had to be done. Huzhou is the city which Xin’s father calls home. It is thus also the stomping ground of his aunt (yes, the one previously mentioned) and their extended family.

My last trip here stained its name in my mind; perhaps, irredeemably so. Objectively, it is a fairly ordinary Chinese city, with its usual urban dust, smoke and honking horns. But on my last trip here I came with a heavy cold, seeming harassment for my food choices, alienation by the use of dialect around me. I was hoping this time might be better and it was (it could only be so!). It was our duty to go. (Start the Painted Black music.)

Our departure from Hangzhou and arrival at Huzhou were farcical. Our last half day at Hangzhou was spent killing time and then a seemingly interminable struggle to get to the bus station. It seemed the taxis were avoiding us. One came directly towards us slowly; we signalled to it; it turned down a side-street. We staggered with our full complement of luggage to a bus-stop and waited for a bus that didn’t seem to be coming. It was though. And all the while people waiting for it gathered. When it arrived, there was a stampede and then the kind of squashing in that wouldn’t be even remotely legal in NZ. I was cramped into a small cavity near the driver, leaving as much of my leg-room for the bags. Still the bus stopped for a few more people to squeeze into what was left of the breathing room. The bus ride was going to be about 30 minutes, but fortunately as we got closer to the station people alighted and breathing space was regained.

The station and ride were unremarkable except for the fact that I swotted up on the family tree. What I would call each person was a tricky area. Chinese relationship names are complex and when you don’t fit into the tree, it becomes even trickier.

We arrived at Huzhou and were surrounded by all the taxi and three-wheeled vehicle drivers all wanting to take us away from the station. Xin’s mum did all the talking.
‘Where do you want to go?’
‘The city centre. How much?’
’10 dollars.’
‘OK, fine.’
So we headed off to the man’s three wheeled vehicle, piled in and took off. Xin and I were trying for photos of the inside cabin with the driver, when suddenly I became aware that Xin’s mother and the driver were seemingly arguing. I hadn’t been paying attention but the words: ‘Well, fine just let us out here then,’ wafted past my ears. It seemed that once the vehicle got moving and the details of which part of the city ‘the city centre’ became clearer, the driver had become unhappy on just ten dollars. Xin’s mum had stuck to her guns and said that ten dollars was agreed and our destination was regarded as the city centre (something Xin and I as neutral observers agreed about). Either way, the ‘fine just let us out here’ became a reality and we exited the vehicle onto a big highway. Relation with the driver and her mum became worse as the language between the two escalated. On the side of the road they traded insults that started with ‘You’re mentally sick!’ and went much worse. After a few lines, Xin and I tried to stop this childish exchange and reined Xin’s mum in, after which the driver took his chance to say some hideous insults which were unreturned, hopped back in his vehicle and went away. Now that we are in the middle of nowhere, what do we do?

Fortunately, Xin’s mother was not a stranger to the area and found us a bus to proceed in on and then came to the home. As I’ve already said, my reception by the family wasn’t warm probably because I irk them as much as they irk me. The dinner was hardly satisfying because they’d made very few things a vegetarian could eat, and their comments were hardly palatable either.
Since Xin’s mum had come, they had a little bit of an accommodation shortage. But no worries, Xin’s cousin had a friend who owned a hotel not far from the family home (a 40 minute walk). Daniel could stay there while Xin and her mother stayed at the home. When Xin’s Dad came, he could stay in the hotel with Daniel. This sounded fine on paper, and so at our first dinner I was told that the family was heading to my room to have a shower after dinner. This was because their home didn’t have a decent place to wash (nor a toilet that could flush to any great effect). It also had two fish gasping for air in the bathtub (but I say that only in passing).

So thus we head to the hotel to find the filthiest hotel I’ve ever seen. It had the saving grace of clean sheets but otherwise was a mess. You wouldn’t want to walk barefoot in the room as it was covered in ash, dirt, nut shells, an odd metal bit etc. Her aunt went for the first shower, but came out shortly after saying that the hot water was minimal and asked for her son to call reception to get them turn the water on; ‘It is on’ was the response. After this, everyone went back home, except me who got to eat walnuts watching TV about the first proper legislation allowing proper workers’ unionisation and collective bargaining. The topic was humorous. In western countries the left-wing (socialist) parties are all about the unions and the workers. The largest ‘socialist’ country however has virtually no worker protection. Xin’s mother told me about the Wolf Culture, where employers push their employees as far as they can. The programme featured interviews with workers and employers, the latter of which said the same thing you hear here: The legislation will be costly to us; We’ll go out of business; The workers will exploit it to their own ends.

Xin’s dad came and without hesitation moved the family out to a hotel of a decent star rating nearer the home (about 10 minutes’ walk). If you consider how I view my reception and treatment in Huzhou, you might be surprised to hear that they had some expectation of me doing them a favour. They aunt’s granddaughter was starting to learn English (she was about 12). And what a coincidence, I was a teacher. So many of my evenings, I taught a wee-bit of English and gave her the chance to hear English being spoken. It has been some time since I had taught a (near) absolute beginner. And she had textbook English that she had to learn and revise so there wasn’t as much freedom to use topics of interest to discuss. But it was interesting anyway. The environment they have to learn English is poor; the schools that teach it overcharge for an ineffectual service. But there is a demand for this service and so there are these schools.

Respite from Huzhou came on a trip to Guanshang. This was the small country town Xin’s grandparents lived and also where her dad spent his childhood. It was in a home that was hundreds of years old, still bearing the original carvings. It was located in the mountains and had its own tea fields and bamboo forest. On our first evening, we went for a walk in the bamboo forest (where every tree has the name of the owner) and then amongst the tea terracing.
Aunt was there too; and there were more little clashes including the one and only time I responded to her baiting (to stand up for my principles). But on the whole it was an interesting experience there. We stayed in a house, which was probably older than the state of New Zealand. I experienced the full beauty of the northern hemisphere night sky for the first time. I met her reticent grandfather and her grandmother who has been mainly bed-ridden after a stroke. There was also a possessed cat: it didn’t meow but growled words; it didn’t respond to the International Cat Name (pooosh!) and it behaved quite oddly too.

It ended rather quickly though and we headed back to Huzhou and then fled the city to Nanjing – Xin’s childhood city.

Beggars belief

I can remember the first time I encountered a beggar; it was in Auckland. But the first time I really experienced them was in China the first time I went. The first time was the most traumatic too. Guangzhou in Southern China attracts people for work and for begging. Every time I went over the dusty overpasses there would be the deformed and the ill; the aged and the homeless; and the hungry and the exhausted. Some would just lie down with a dish to catch the coins while others would confront you with a question. Some would not leave you alone.

My education in Taiwan was an eye-opener of sorts. I was told that the gangs control the beggars, placing them around the city to gather revenue. They'd in turn look after the beggars in a basic way. This belief is prevalent in China too, as is the belief that many beggars are faking it. I choose to think this is an exaggerated theory; a reason that people give themselves to not feel any pity; a reason to tell their children to not give. Naturally, I cannot know if I, the naive foreigner, am right in this area. The Chinese would have more awareness of the real state of the people, but I have a developed cynicism of some of their justifications and arguments.

It is my inclination to give, but to do so with some judgement. I'd give a small amount (a Chinese dollar or two) if it was easily accessible to almost any beggar who approached me. I wouldn't give anything to any beggar who pursued or harassed me or was clearly putting on a show. To give would be to encourage the same sort of behaviour. It was my intention to spread the money as widely as I could to ensure that those in genuine need would get a proportion of the money, even if there was some falling into the wrong hands.

The stories are many. In Hangzhou, there was a most spectacular display. There was a whole bed with a boy's sick mother on the pavement. Along side the boy bowed non-stop in front of a bowl. I didn't give to them though.

In Huzhou, I was sitting in a restaurant when one came into the restaurant and thrust his bowl into my shoulder saying "Thank you boss" again and again. I refused. But he persisted for well over a minute. He didn't get anything.

Also in the same city, I seemed to bump into many elderly beggars whom I usually gave a dollar. But I did notice that they had the same or similar bowls and also I spotted them having a group chat or a meeting. That raises an eyebrow but shouldn't necessarily be a reason for scepticism.

In Nanjing, I was walking back from my wall-walk (more about that later). When a thin looking man, approached me and politely in Chinese explained his predicament. He had come into the city to work but hadn't found any and had run out of money. He hadn't eaten that day and was starving. I gave him some coins.

In Shanghai, I remember Xin and walking down a well-known book street when I spotted a mother and child were sitting on the side. She gave the child a push in my direction and he ran right into my path bursting into a fit of coughing, while also having the presence of mind to push a bowl into my belly. I tried to out-manoevre him but he was on me like glue for about 10 metres of walking, obstructing me all the way. He got nothing.

In Shanghai while I was with Xin's mum an elderly beggar approached me as I was about to cross the road. Luckily for her, I had money quite convenient and put it into her bowl as I was about to go across. What I didn't expect is that she'd pursue me across the road, but she got no more.

There were also a series of photos Xin took of beggars all of whom were rewarded for the usage of their image. One such one was a tremendous sight: A man slowly walking through the street in bare feet, his hair and clothes caked in grey clay and carrying a huge sack over one shoulder and a bowl in the other hand. This one was the most likely to be acting. He could have potentially been an artist. He was almost too perfect. But perhaps he was genuine... I don't know. He got a coin or two for the photo Xin took.

If ever I hesitated in giving I just had to think about how cold it was outside in China's winter.

It was my second time to Hangzhou, the first time being an unpleasant few hours in 2000. My friend Justin and I were making our way down the east coast of China. We had shared the planning responsibilities and while in Shanghai, Justin suggested that we spend a day in Hangzhou, famous for its West Lake. So we bought tickets and boarded a train. Unfortunately Justin had miscounted the days, something that came to light on the train; we'd have to leave Hangzhou straight away so we could board a long train ride to Guangzhou to make our exit from China on time. We got off in Hangzhou late at night and had to wait a few hours in the train station until the earliest departing train. Tired, we tried to sleep on the marginal train station benches. My stomach felt iffy, and suddenly nausea struck. I got up and quickly sought a plastic bag. Exhausted, I struggled to remember the word they use for plastic in Mainland China (one of the words that differ between the two countries). And what were the tones? I tried anyway and got my bag and ten seconds later my stomach put it to good use. After what seemed like forever we boarded a train and were whisked out of what is called one of the most beautiful cities of China.

This time it was well planned. I had descended my mountain and boarded a bus to be reunited with my Xinna and her mum in Hangzhou after their shopping blitz in Yiwu. There was a student sitting next to me on the bus who kept looking over my shoulder as I underlined words on a complimentary Chinese newspaper. The buses started and so did audiovisual programme. 'Please secure your seatbelts'. This would usually be hilarious. All buses have the advisory programme but usually the belts don't work, or are safely tucked under the seats. But alerted, I check and there was a working seatbelt. I almost fell out of my seat in surprise. All the more reason to put it on, I thought. A few moments later the student next to me also made it click - well foreigners can model appropriate behaviour perhaps. Which train station were we going to? I asked the student. The South station, he said. This was good as Xin and her mother were also arriving at the same station and at roughly the same time. The voyage went smoothly; we entered the city limits and proceeded onto the train station. I'm here, I texted. We're outside, Xin texted back. I went out the station and looked. Went over to the front and scanned the ragged masses. Xin wasn't here and more importantly, the word South did not feature in the bus station name. It was the West station. Argh. Fortunately after a taxi ride through rush hour, we were properly reunited at the hotel.

The next day Xin's cold was heavily weighing down on her. The mornings were the worst for her. I organised myself for a circumnavigation of the lake and visits to the National Tea Museum and a tea plantation for tea tasting. I only had two shirts: one with long sleeves and the other with short sleeves. The long sleeved one was sweaty and so I chose to have short sleeves. Her mother warned me that I should wear more, but I refused and left. This had special significance later.

It took me almost an hour to find the lake's edge; I had set off in the wrong direction due to faulty orientation. But once there, I was surprised to say it truly was a great sight. The path followed around close to the water's surface. There were hills surrounding it with the odd pagoda standing conspicuously on a summit. Mist was enveloping the mountains and floating along the water. I set out at a good pace, wanting to have time for everything but then I was assailed by my first local:

'Could I have a photo with you?' A young man asked in Chinese.
'Er, why?'
'I'd just like to have a photo with you.'
'But why?'
He was silenced momentarily, trying to think of a reason.
'There is no why, I'd just like a photo.'
'OK then. Why not..'
So I posed and he let me on my way.

I continued along and made an interesting discovery: the public toilets were free. This is very unusual in China where user-pays applies to lots of what we would call public amenities (like toilets, parks). This is brilliant because it actually removes disincentives from using them and reduce public urination, which is an all to common sight in China.

I walked for several hours, the scenery going from river-side traditional architecture to rural scenery, before I eventually found the Tea Museum. It was free too. I had a nice look around and had a tea-scented lunch. I walked another hour to the tea plantation where a lady upfront told me the situation (I could taste tea but I'd have to buy a canister of tea) and the price of the different qualities of tea. I was happy with this as there is nothing worse than finding out the expected obligation after enjoying a service. She identified herself in English as a peasant. I told her that she wasn't a peasant but a tea grower - peasant or farmer in Chinese, though being accurate to describe her role, carries a negative connotation. We spoke a lot about the tea and I learnt a fair bit. There was a mountain track behind the house but unfortunately time was against me.

I set off again and this started a sequence of encounters. I walked along the side of the road when a motorcyclist pulled up beside me:
'Would you like a ride?' He asked in Chinese.
'No, I like walking.'
'Where are you going?'
'Just around the bottom of the lake and then up the east side.'
'Your body is excellent.' This is a literal translation of a phrase that means your health is good, but I like the humour of the direct translation :-)
It was because of the short sleeved shirt. Only a crazy person or someone very confident in their body's physical condition would wear a short-sleeved shirt in anything less than sweltering conditions. He went on his way.

I went around the bottom of the lake. A street cleaner came from the opposite direction with a big wheelbarrow and a huge smile on his face. He said one thing:
'Your body is excellent.'
'Thank you.' I said unsure if that was appropriate.
He went on.

Light rain swept in and I made my way to a kiosk and started chatting with a man who was similiarly sheltering. He asked the usual questions and the expected comment that NZ is beautiful. We chatted for a while. He wasn't from Hangzhou, but from another province altogether, Jiangxi. I'd never met someone from there.
'Your body is excellent.'
'It is.'
The rain eased and I went further.

Rain swept in again and another kiosk presented itself. I ran beneath the eaves and a man who does photographs of people ran by asking me if I'd like a photo. I told him that I was fine without a photo, thank you. He chatted away how there was an American that always used to come to the park to chat with him very fluently but hadn't come for quite some time. The man wasn't a local either, coming from a city called Jiaxing.

After that I walked back to the more commercial edge of the lake, marked with a Starbucks, and then back to the hotel where a recuperated Xin was. There are some good merits to walking solo. I've never had so many random meetings with strangers.

That night we went with Xin's cousin Dongdong for dinner and snacks. I had a chance to have a debate about the shortcomings of the two education systems with Dongdong. It was a good practice of my chinese, but overall I didn't think I expressed myself clearly enough.

After going back to the hotel, our trip here was more or less over. The following day was striving to get to a bus station and head onto our next destination, Huzhou, the city where Xin's father's family live for the most part.

I now consider Hangzhou to be the most pleasant city I'd ever been in. The people were the most pleasant, openly approaching you without commercial intent, and more often than not, in Chinese. In Shanghai most people who approach you say 'War-chee! War-chee' to sell you things illegally. I would go back to Hangzhou again.
The Matriarchy

Family life in New Zealand can sometimes seem tricky, but this trip to China has given me the strongest impression yet of how much trickier it is in Chinese culture. My first trip to China was filled with unease around Xin's extended family; I was more or less a passenger or a passive spectator, regardless of which wing of the family I was in. Running back into it, I was resolved to be more active and assertive.

What I ran into was an interesting situation; I came face to face into conflict with Xin's paternal aunt. The setting was quite important: We had come in from Hangzhou. Xin was suffering with a cold, and was visibly thinner than the last time we had come to China. After dinner at the home, I reiterated that I was vegetarian, and they reiterated how unwise it was and 'The General', as I call her uncle, called me a monk.

The plan was for Xin and her mother to stay at their home, while I would stay in a small hotel 40 minutes walk from their home. After a night's rest, I walked over to their home to find Xin quite frustrated. Her aunt hadn't listened to her at all. Chinese families naturally tend to go a little OTT in the caring for 'children' and when they are sick, well, then they go even more overboard. And boy do they think they know best.

We went out but weren't told where we were going; it had already been planned. We went to a restaurant which wasn't really suitable at all for vegetarians. She tried to order something for me, and I asked whether there was meat in it: there was. I said I didn't want to it. She said it would be fine. I said it would not. And so we started on a bad foot.

Then there was a logical connection made: Xin is thinner. She has a cold. Her immunity must be weaker because she is thinner. She is with Daniel who is a vegetarian. Because she is with Daniel the vegetarian, she mustn't be eating her essential meat, which is causing her to lose weight and be sick. Much of the rest of the trip involved her lecturing either Xin or me.

She baited me too. I stood resolute on principle, but except for one time did not follow her into an argument. We were happy to finally escape the place. Xin raised the proposal of not going back.

Then after 3 hours of flying, we made our way to the other wing of the family, where there was internal strife from the start. Her maternal grandmother had long made it her mission to control the matters of the family. She resided in the home of Xin's uncle and his son (from his first marriage). After he got remarried, she found she couldn't stand his wife and said the wife couldn't stay with them. She actively blocked all efforts by her son for any compromise, and is resolute in her position. She also takes care of every aspect of her grandson's life, criticising every misstep and removing any sense of control he has over his life.

We made some politely phrased advice to her during our stay, but upon receiving the order from Xin's mum, Xin accepted the task of confronting her on our last night in their city. At the time, I was talking to the uncle and his son upstairs when I heard voices escalating. Heading downstairs, I sought to moderate the two sides but the discussion quickly went full-scale. There were tears; there were dramatics. The extended discussion went until 11pm at night (when we were meant to be packing for our trip home).

Both sides of the family had a very strong controlling matriarch. For a moment I thought maybe this might have been a common situation, but apparently not. Most of the Chinese I've talked to since has said the overbearing control of older generation has faded, especially in the coastal cities. The above described situations dominated my mind for the last half of my trip.

Huangshan or Yellow Mountain is probably the most famous mountain in China. It is a revered holy mountain and has thousands of visitors every year. 8 years ago, with a friend of mine, I climbed the second most famous mountain, Taishan, and generally enjoyed the experience. The previous time I went to China (2004) I wanted to climb Huangshan but was hampered by a cold and the cold.

Being based in Shanghai, which neighbours the province Huangshan is in, this was a golden opportunity to go. But as negotiations over our travel itinerary developed, it seemed it was getting less and less likely. The negotiations themselves were very tricky. Xin's parents had opinions about where we should and shouldn't go - and generally trashed all the places I wanted to go. Xin was reticent about where she'd like to go. In the end, the plan was to be pretty conservative: go to a commercial town Yiwu, then onto the lake town of Hangzhou and then onto Xin's father's hometown of Huzhou. I didn't want to go to Yiwu - Xin's mother had decided that she wanted to go, and hence wanted to go with us. Xin, who'd just gotten a cold, didn't mind as that would be the more restful option and she could buy stuff. So I conceded it.

We went to buy tickets to Yiwu but on route Xin piped up. I could go to Huangshan (my ideal) alone while Xin and her mother go to Yiwu and then we meet back in Hangzhou. The plan was perfect, except for recent forecasts saying Huangshan was going to be in the clouds. I was still weighing it up when we were waiting for tickets and then as Xin's mum went to the front of the queue, I decided. I was to be going to Huangshan in 24 hours' time on a night train.

The next day we went shopping for tramping food (not easy in China) and I started to pack. That evening, I got all sorts of lectures. Chinese parents are very anxious about the young going off alone. There are lots of stories about what could happen to a solo-traveller (I for the most part think they are overstated but can't really know). Her mum told me to basically lie to anyone who asked me where I was from. Saying you were teaching in Shanghai was the best lie because people would know that you know the country, customs and prices etc. and they are less likely to take advantage of you. If you said you were a tourist, that exposes you immediately. I was sceptical about this but went along with it. I packed my huge backpack and prepared to leave, but in my haste when moving around the house I slipped on a rug slamming my knee into the wooden floor. I got up and went to the kitchen to get something cold to RICE it with. What an omen!

Anyway an hour later I was getting onto the train. The sleeper carriage is something I'm now very familiar with. There are three beds bunked up on each of each partition, the bottom, middle and top. If you were on the bottom, your bed became the sitting spot for everyone during the day. If you were on the top, you'd get too hot and it was more difficult to get in and out. I managed to get the optimal middle bunk.

I was overdressed though; the train was warmly air-conditioned. My bag was huge and took up most of the bed space. And I was trying to sleep on a bumpy train which I've never been good at. Somehow I got some sleep during the night and about 6 am got up and sat around eating breakfast.

The older gentleman on the bottom bunk came around and we started to chat. He was a native to Huangshan who sold paintings in Shanghai and Beijing. Being Chinese, he asked a lot of questions about my background. I fed him the line suggested by Xin's mum. Then another chap came over. He looked about my age and said that he was going to climb Huangshan too that day. He hadn't managed to sleep at all that night apparently. He too asked me extensively about my background:

'Are you a student?'
'No, I work in Shanghai.'
'Oh, where?'
'In a language school.'
'Where in Shanghai?' He was Shanghainese.
'On Minsheng road.' This was a road near where I was staying so it came to mind quickly.
'Oh, I live around there. Which school? Is it the school on the second floor above the Bank of China?' Screw! I am a terrible (and unlucky) liar. I made some more stuff up but while talking, soon found I had already contradicted some things I had said to the first chap. I think the older chap realised it.

Once the younger chap went back to his partition, I chatted a bit more with the older chap and found that the area had a few kinds of tea I should be buying. The train was almost in the city nearest Huangshan and I arranged some transport to the mount while still on the train. After disembarking I went to minibus and found the same young chap who I had lied to poorly on the train. He was asking everyone what their plans were. Most were going up the next day and they were climbing but taking the cable car. He and I were the only people actually climbing it so we pretty much decided to walk together.

The minibus dropped us off at another transport hub. It is a weird aspect of travelling in China that they make some of the tourist sites missions to get to. The remaining road to travel to get to the main gate of the mountain was the sole right of one transport company to use, so you need to change vehicles to get to the main gate. It is possible to just walk up from the transport hub to the main gate, but the walk is lacklustre and it would take over an hour. So we waited at the hum for the next bus (which cost about 5 dollars for a ten minute ride). At the hub I walked past a small group and heard the usual whispered word 'Laowai! Laowai!' (foreigner). I rotated my head The Exorcist-style with my teeth frozen in a smile. I got a laugh or two.

After the proper trip up to the gate, it was already 12 noon and we started our ascent. We chatted most of the way up when we had breath to talk with. I came clean on my background and he said he was 41 years old (he didn't look older than me!). He worked for a Dutch chemical company and was a born and bred Shanghainese. He had already climbed Huangshan once a year before but wanted to climb it again when he heard that it had snowed on top. Last time he ascended in two and a half hours but had to come down the same day because it was in peak season and all the mountain top accommodation had been booked.

The mountain itself was shrouded in thick fog and the temperature was about 5 degrees, but we were always too hot. The path up to the summit was a long stairway that just kept going up and the energy required to keep going up it meant you'd be toasty after around the first minute.

Not many people were taking the walking route it seemed. The most common were the porters. They'd be carrying ridiculously heavy amounts of things from the nearest town to the top of the mountain, getting about 4 cents per kilogram of items transported. This is much cheaper for the hotels than using the cable car to bring things up. Labour is still very cheap in most of China.

We did bump into a group of three young Shanghainese who were going to pitch a tent at the top of the mountain! My jaw dropped because in New Zealand, you don't find that many people willing to do that in winter on a cold mountain and more significantly they were Chinese. It is good to hear that some of that adventuring spirit is here.

After a little more that two hours we got to the top. The view around the mountain was compromised by the fog but the snow and ice were spectacular. The sights that make the mountain famous are the crags and shapes of rocks and the trees on top. We couldn't see much of them but what we could see was amazing. It would be wonderful to see it in spring or autumn.

My companion had booked accommodation and had bargained for a cheaper price. I hadn't had the foresight to book at all. But once we found his accommodation, he slipped into negotiation and got me the same rate as him! It was 80 yuan (NZ$15) for a night in a dorm. All the others in our room had to pay the standard 120 yuan.

At night, it was tough to sleep as there were some snorers in full cry and also, paradoxically, it was too hot. We got up early in order to have a 5% chance of seeing the sunrise from the best outlook, but as time went on it became obvious we weren't going to be lucky. But in going to the site, we went the highest accessible point. We passed the freezing level on the way up so there was a lot of surface ice and it was a little perilous. They employed people to break the ice and sweep it out of the way but they can only go so fast. The tour groups with their loud speakers were also up there and it took some time to out-manoeuvre them.

There are plenty of routes down the mountain and we took the longest. My friend was starting to have some difficulties and was sorely tempted by the cable car down but resisted with the hopes of going down on foot and then soaking in a hot spring. On the way down we were apprehended by a large monkey bearing its teeth. My friend instinctively threw some lollies in pockets to the ground, which the monkey accepted eating them wrapping and all. This was a signal for the rest of the band to suddenly appear and charge towards us to get more food! My friend panicked and while being berated by some of other walkers for feeding the wildlife, quickly grabbed the whole bag of lollies, threw it some distance and made a hasty departure. They weren't the only wild animals to be seen. I saw lots of squirrels and interesting birds too.

We finally got down to the bottom around 1pm and parted companies once back in the nearby city. It is because of him that I have any photos of the visit. I didn't have a camera and he had a swish camera/phone/PDA. I'll publish those in time.
Civilised behaviour

The Chinese government and regional authorities love their slogans. Perhaps it is a latent cultural belief in the power of language or perhaps a socialist tendency to try and control the people's thoughts - I don't know - but they're written everywhere to exhort the reader to change their behaviour. Old town walls are painted with old ones telling the virtues of birth control and having one child. In the cities: Be a cute Shanghainese! Be a happy Hangzhou'er!

The more recent ones though increasingly had one particular word: civilised (wenming). The powers that be have decided that Chinese aren't civilised enough and have to clean up their act especially before things like the Olympics.

Chinese often boast of their country's civilisation (one that goes back 5,000 years as almost anyone through their education system will tell you) so it seems ironic that there is this thrust. What is uncivilised? What do you have to do to be civilised? Fortunately for those who need instruction, they often have diagrams on what is and isn't civilised. Civilised people apparently wait for those on the subway train to disembark before they board. They offer their seats to the aged, sick, pregnant and lame to sit on the bus or train. They don't honk their horns constantly. They flush the loo after use. They don't pee on the streets or into bushes in public places. They don't spit huge balls of phlegm onto the pavement and the surrounds. These are what the Government signs say.

And wouldn't it be nice if those could happen. I saw so many instances when the above were not followed. I've walked into too many toilets to see the last patron's piece of work waiting for me. I saw so many people squeezing into trains while those leaving the trains were coming out. Phlegm! Seas of phlegm! Pee'ers galore. I did see some giving up of seats for the aged though.

Slogans are slogans, and a population told what to do by slogans tends to not even see them after time. At least that's what my Shanghai friend thought.

Xin's dad thought it would be 20 years before Shanghainese were 'civilised', and 50 years for the rest of China. Most people see it as a peasant problem. Peasants and farmers are coming into the cities in search of work and with them bring their uncivilised habits. While the peasantry do have a lot to learn, those in the urban centres do break the above mentioned rules of civility.

One interesting story is from another slogan: Make it click. On the long-distance buses, they'll always have a video played to tell you to put on your seatbelt, and also roads signs reminding you to do so. Of course, being China, on most of those buses, the seatbelts are usually busted, stuck under the seats or non-existent. The taxi back-seats are the same. Nonetheless, I saw the video on my way to Hangzhou and noticed I did have a working seatbelt and made it click. To be honest, with China's traffic you'd be crazy not to. The young man next to me saw me fastening the seatbelt and after about 10 seconds followed suit. So maybe there is hope after all.

8 years ago, I arrived in Shanghai with my friend Justin and we had 24 hours to explore the place and then dash to a train station. This time Xin and I were stationed here, staying our first whole week here and the last three days. I had been told by many people, particularly Shanghainese, that Shanghai had developed hugely year upon year. When I first came, I was blown away by the modernisation; in my mind it pipped Singapore and Tokyo in the swishness stakes. Perhaps I only saw a slice of it, because this time round it seemed much less glossy.
As Xin noted, the difference between a sophisticated shopping area and dingey mucky roads can be measured in 10s of metres. Often you have to get your shoes quite dirty in the process of going around some of the shops.

The main thing to do in Shanghai is shopping, because there is not much else out there to do there. But the shopping is good. I went nuts in bookshops and was out-clothes-shopped Xin for the first portion of the trip. Books were dirt cheap; in my first splurge I spent about RMB330 on a huge stack of books, which is about NZ$100. Clothes weren't as cheap as I expected but shoes were.

Shanghai also came with the implicit advantage/challenge of having Xin's parents around. For the most part it is a huge benefit; They've dropped virtually all of the resistance to me and pretty much treat me as a son-in-law. When I first went to China with Xin, they sat us down for a discussion about us and the future and they seemed to have the starting premise that we couldn't really go on together. It is definitely not the case now. They do think rather seriously about their daughter's future and so do give me plenty of curvy questions like the financing of my future house, course of my career etc.

Her father ordered food well with consideration to my vegetarianism, which he didn't do well when we came the first time. Her mother and I get along like a house on fire, chatting non-stop on several forays out onto the streets. They also, although very cautiously, let us share a room on one of our trips.

The climate in Shanghai was pleasant with none of the chilling temperatures I experienced on my first trip, seemingly always between 5 and 10 degrees. It was though shrouded in mist for most of the days I was there. It took days before I saw the sun finally shine through the layer of cloud.

The people were generally as large city people are, which is to say that they are pretty apathetic to strangers. Despite people saying to the contrary, so called sophisticated Shanghainese still stare at foreigners despite being a fairly common sight. Actually foreigners are quite eye-catchers. Even I stare. Even Xin stares. 'Look lesbians!' she exclaimed once. The usual antidote to staring is to stare back in that direction. Usually that works, although not always. In an Aunty's Dumplings, I noticed a middle-aged lady staring over at us for a while. So I looked back at her for a good 5 seconds, before eating another dumpling and meeting her gaze again. She was still looking. She thought me looking at her was amusing so told her younger companion, who also decided to join in. Two pairs of eyes are better than one.

One odd thing about foreigners there in general is that they don't have any feeling of 'kinship' with others in China. Only one out of two or three dozen I met recognised my existence to any extent, despite some of my own attempts to break the ice.

Shanghai on the whole was not bad, definitely liveable, but I'm not sure if I would want to live there for too long.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The China Diaries

My stay in China is has finally drawn to an end. With some time to reflect on the experience from the distance of home, I thought it might be nice to describe some of my experiences on this trip and some of the places I've been to. Travel-wise, it hasn't been quite the adventure of past trips to China. This was partly due to necessity (half of it was about staying with Xin's family) but also other restraints. All of my trips to China have had some degree of cultural challenge; as culturally informed as I might claim to be, I must admit to being increasingly irritated by some of what I experienced and some of what I saw.

I'd best get on with it.