Cathy in Asia

News from China #4 - November 14, 1999

Getting out of the Zone

When I flew into Dalian I saw the peaks and valleys of small green mountains stretching for miles around: the topography was intriguing, lots to explore, I thought. In the last couple of months, I've had the opportunity to get out into some valleys and on top of some mountains to see the area at closer range.

I took two trips during our impromptu October holiday week. One afforded a chance to see the newly rich side of China; the other was more down to earth.

My first trip was with Margaret and Haiyan to Shenyang, the capital city of Liaoning province. It was the beginning of the National Week holiday and people were travelling back to their families; best friends were head-to-head in endless, earnest discussion (I asked Haiyan what they were talking about: "Everything!" she said.) On the four and a half hour train ride north, we could see cornfields, the corn mostly harvested with the husks in large conical piles, and the orange-yellow corn laid out on the tops of roofs to dry. In endless apple orchards red apples dotted the trees.

Both nights we dined with friends of Haiyan, men whose business is real estate. They drive expensive cars (we drove to dinner in a Volvo 950) and eat at excellent, but expensive restaurants. The food we had was amazing, endless dishes of all kinds of the best Chinese cuisine, whole fish, prawns, crabs, pork, chicken. At one point the manager of the restaurant came in to our private dining room and sat down with us to sample a dish; it was found wanting and sent back. Throughout the meal cell phones rang and conversations with unseen partners took place at our big round table. Chinese language flowed around us and we understood little, except what Haiyan translated for us; we were token foreigners, smiling politely, in an isolation imposed by lack of language. Karaoke was the entertainment of choice, and in the cigarette smoke haze it seemed like a new kind of Chinese torture.

During our one full day there, we were given a car and driver to go to Anshan, and a park nearby called Qian Shan (Thousand Mountains). We toiled upwards through large needled pines on stone steps, up, up, up. Past the brightly painted and well-cared for temple, past the one beggar (who flustered me, appearing as he did quite suddenly--I thrust too much money at him, to his delight). Past the women selling religious icons and trinkets on the path. At the top we had a fabulous view of treed valleys, and a sense of calm. Chinese hikers panted up the last few steps to join us, in their suits and skirts and thick nylon stockings and white canvas slip-on shoes, bought at the bottom of the hill.

On our way back to Shenyang from Anshan we stopped to visit the Jade Buddha, a massive buddha carved entirely of jade. It is housed in a large, well-maintained temple, brightly painted and with paintings all around its interior walls. As we wandered around we drew a few interested Chinese people (not least because Margaret had joined in on the Tibetan-type prostrations of a monk, sliding flat out on the floor and back again). Two old ladies, in particular, endeared themselves to me by coming up really close to us and examining us intently. One started talking, asking us a question as if we could perfectly understand Chinese. The other one observed, "Tamen bu dong," ("they don't understand"). They looked up at us some more, then wandered off to continue their visit with each other. I saw them later, sitting close together at the edge of the temple yard, one picking something out of the other's front teeth.

In keeping with the high tone of this trip, I decided to try "soft seat " for my return trip to Dalian. The main difference between this and hard seat was that the seats were bigger and that cell phones were continually ringing to their own individual tunes (my favourite? Jingle Bells). The trip came to a suitable end with the strains of "Auld Lang Syne" drifting through our carriage as we pulled into Dalian station.

Bing Yu Gou (Bing Yu Valley)

The day after returning from Shenyang, I went with Susan, Ms Ma, who works in our office, Douglas (Ms. Ma's husband, and now our Chinese teacher), and their three year old son, Odin, to a scenic valley about 250 km. north of Dalian. (Odin's previous name was "Butler" but it got confused with "Butter" so on Douglas's professor's recommendation, they gave him the name of a Norse God instead. I don't know why we call Douglas and Odin by their English names and Ms. Ma "Ms. Ma"). We took a combination of bus and taxi to get there, and on the way stopped for apples, sold on the roadside. As we approached the "Scenic Area" the road wound around hillsides and swooped into valleys.

The valley is one of Liaoning province's top ten "scenic areas", with small karst formations jutting out of the river on the valley floor. Luckily for us, we got there before the holiday crowds. The first and third day, we enjoyed long walks along the river. I felt that I had at last touched "real" China, the unpaved earth of China.

The second day we walked along a riverside stone path and up stone stairs to "Ancestors' Cave Temple". In anticipation of the holiday crowds the locals had set themselves up along the path to sell various items. There were herbal medicines, roots of all kinds laid out nakedly on cloths on the ground. We bought a necklace of tiny boiled pears strung on a string. There were also games for the holidayer to win prizes, like "Hit the Can." This game consisted of three battered Coke cans poignantly set up on a dusty board. When we were there, no one was lining up to try their luck. There were also fortune tellers, sitting with small red cloth squares at their feet, on which were cans with numbered sticks in them. I had my fortune told at the temple, and when I drew my stick, the man became very excited as I had apparently drawn the best one. He flipped through a ragged book and read from it in a loud and ceremonial voice, pausing to let Douglas translate for me. He promised me abundant success: many friends, wealth, health, and honour for my country. The payment for the fortune telling depends on your fortune, so when I gave him 2 yuan he said a bit stiffly that it was customary to give 10 yuan for such an excellent forecast. I paid up immediately, of course.

The Ancestors' Cave Temple was at the top of many steps through the woods, and the bottom of the steps was crowded with sedan chairs and men hopeful for fares. (The canopied chair is slung between two bamboo poles, which are manned front and back by two strong men.) Little Odin found the stairs beyond his ability, and was soon looking like Pu Yi under the canopy of one of the chairs.

We stayed a couple of nights in Bing Yu Gou in a very basic hotel that nevertheless had a TV. We watched the events of October 1, the parade and review of the troops (which was replayed endlessly for weeks afterwards), and got to know Douglas and Ms. Ma better. We talked about the politics of China and the way life has changed for the better for many people, in a way that was more open than I had thought possible. On a more personal front, Douglas and Ms. Ma asked how old we were--we asked them to guess and they guessed way low. They said in some exasperation, "it's so hard for us to guess foreigners' ages!"

Although on our first day in Bing Yu Gou Ms. Ma said she didn't like walking, she became a hiking convert and since our trip we have had a hike every Saturday. Usually there are a number of us, and we've enjoyed getting to know each other, learning and practising Chinese and English along the way. It's been a treat to get out into the fall sunshine, colours clear and leaves changing by the week. We've been three times on Da Hei Shan (Big Black Mountain). The hike to the top is rugged, through scrubby pines and oaks, over steep rocks and along ridges. When I went up there in the last week of October, the light shone golden through yellow and red leaves; the next time we were crunching those leaves underfoot. It's an hour and a half to the top if you go steadily, longer with a group. Each time we've gone up there we've started on one side and hiked over to the other side by different routes, finishing in a small village where we can catch a taxi home.

Another clear sunny day, a group of us took a minibus into Dalian, and walked along the seaside road. The road winds up and down and around the cliffs which fall steeply to the sea. There are some sand beaches at places, and at one scenic spot, an information board with English on it informed us that "thousands of millions of people" enjoy themselves at the beach. Luckily there weren't quite that many on this brisk day, but I can imagine it.

There are still other hills and paths to explore, and we will continue to find them as long as the weather allows. Yesterday's hike showed us some scrubby little pines and oaks clinging to a seaside hill, giving advance notice that the winter could be harsh and windy. But when the winter does set in, I will look back at the photos of the happy golden fall days spent with new friends, and remember the moment the shutter clicked and we all said, not CHEESE! but CHIYEZUH! (EGGPLANT)!

Next time: How's school going?