Cathy in Asia

News from China #9 - February-March 2000

Adventures with Mum

Mum joined me on my Chinese winter holiday (han jia, appropriately, "cold holiday") in the middle of February. We had an ambitious itinerary which included several major tourist attractions of China: the karst scenery of Guilin, the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River, the Terra Cotta Army in Xian, the Great Wall, and the Forbidden City.

We first spent several days in Yangshuo, a small town about one hour south of the city of Guilin. Yangshuo is a popular holiday hangout and is well-appointed to meet the needs of travellers. It was a perfect place for a first time visitor to China to acclimatise: we could go out and experience "China" and then come back and have a cup of coffee.

Our first few days were full of adventures involving different forms of transportation. If we weren't mountain biking through fields after having got off a boat in the middle of nowhere (because it had broken down), we were put-putting along in a three-wheeled vehicle or a motorbike with a sidecar. Then there were the public buses, crammed full of people with interesting luggage (like the woman who boarded a bus clutching a live chicken by the legs with one hand and a baby in the other.) We took bicycle cabs with skinny guys straining at the pedals, and a boat ride up the Li River with an elderly couple who cooked us lunch out back with their laundry and drying meat hanging overhead.

Our adventures were not undertaken alone; we were accompanied on our first outing (a bicycle trip to nearby Puyi Village, about 17 km. away from Yangshuo) by "Peter", a young man from Guangzhou who had come to Yangshuo to study English for several months with my Chinese tutor, "Steven". He was amazed at all Mum's questions, repeatedly laughing and exclaiming, "oh, so interested in everything!" Our Chinese dinner that night was specialties of Yangshuo: beer fish, stuffed snails and stuffed tofu, and the ubiquitous "cauliflower" (the Master Gardener said it was sprouting broccoli).

The next day we headed off for another cultural and culinary adventure with our guide "Jenny". Four of us, our driver, Jenny riding pillion, and Mum (whom Jenny called "Aunty") and me crammed into the sidecar, bumped our way carefully over rough tracks between the fields towards Jenny's village, where she would eventually feed us lunch. Jenny was a mine of information to satisfy Mum's craving and likewise added to her own store of knowledge by stopping every now and then to write a new English word in her notebook. After doing a bit of spelunking, we went to Jenny's house, which seemed to spread itself over several buildings. We ate in an earth floored shelter, the four of us on tiny stools around a coal-heated wok. The hotpot meal was simple and delicious. After lunch, Jenny hauled Aunty off her little stool, then disappeared for a while to do the washing up, and the driver and Mum and I watched TV in another building which looked to be the family's sleeping quarters, surrounded by baskets and shoulder poles and other farming paraphernalia, and overlooked by the family shrine. Then we made a visit to the locally famous "Moon Hill," reached by 820 steps. Jenny's mission in life at that moment was to ensure Mum's arrival at the top, and short of actually carrying her did everything she could to help out to this end, including a shoulder massage at mid-ascent. Finding her limited English inadequate to express her admiration for Aunty, she flipped through my Chinese-English dictionary until she found just the word she wanted to describe her: "intrepid."

We also were invited to dinner with my Chinese tutor in Yangshuo, and although Steven is not a farmer, his family, too, live in what might in another country be called camping conditions. We once again squatted around a low table, with a hotpot cooking over coals on the floor. Their main luxury is a rooftop where Steven does Tai Ji at sunrise, overlooking the unique karst mountains around the town.

On our excursions around the town and in the villages, Mum noticed things that I had stopped noticing. Male and female construction workers, for example, wear suits that look more appropriate for work in an office than on the flimsy scaffolding of a building site. Down on the slippery, muddy riverbank, the lady who arranged our doomed boat ride was wearing high heeled shoes. The market was another place for me to see anew. Freshly killed chickens hung upside down from tables, blood dripping, while a tiny child looked on with disinterest. Rabbits, ducks, heads, disembodied feet, all were on display on flimsy tables, no refrigeration in sight. Just another routine day.

The Yangtze
After several misty, rainy days in Yangshuo we flew to Chongqing, the departure point of our boat trip on the Yangtze River. Our plan was to cruise through the Three Gorges before they are submerged by the famous Three Gorges Dam. As it was winter there were a limited number of boats going, but I managed to get us on a "tourist boat", the good ship Dong Fang Wang Zi. We were the only English-speaking people on board, save one or two staff whom we saw little of--it was going to be another authentic Chinese experience. It turned out to be a journey we couldn't have paid a travel agent for.

We'd taken the advice of other travellers to go at least second class. When we showed up to claim our cabin, we met our roommates for the voyage, a ten-year old boy and his Dad. The boy was delighted with the challenge of communicating with the waiguoren, speaking slowly for me and doing mime when necessary (involving his dad when trying to explain "line-up"), while the dad was more perplexed by how to handle the language difference. Like all good Chinese tourists, they had brought bags of food and were continually offering to share.

Our room was comfortable enough. The dad smoked, which was unfortunate, but he tried to wait until we were out of the room, or else held his arm out the window between drags. More annoying were the endless announcements which were broadcast into our cabin at full volume, repeated over and over and over, to the point of torture. I strained to understand them, but could make out practically nothing. Our cabin mates seemed to ignore them, but for all we knew these announcements were giving crucial information.

Leaving our cabin to disembark or to go to the dining area (where, in the words of Fodor's Guide, they serve "execrable" food), we had to go down through the third, fourth, and fifth classes. This was like descending into hell. People sat on the crowded, filthy metal floor amid garbage, wrapped in blankets against the cold. Babies were crying, video game terminals were sending out a driving electronic beat, and the infernal announcements persisted. The smell from the overused and underwashed W.C.s contributed to the hellish ambiance. Meanwhile, our problem with our private toilet that required bucket flushing paled into insignificance.

As I mentioned, our ship was a "tourist" ship, which meant it stopped at the tourist attractions along the way. Unfortunately, we missed out on a lot of explanation by the Chinese speaking guides who seemed to have a lot to say (at full volume, through megaphones). We wandered through temples and gorges and saw big placards on the sides of the valley with water levels (135 m, 175 m) written on them, and had to come up with our own interpretation. We did know that the area we were travelling through will be completely flooded, which is an eerie thought--houses, temples, fields, all underwater.

The frustration of not getting much information was compounded by another frustration common in travel in China: that of dealing with situational mirages--what you expect is not what you get. Our first "tourist stop" epitomized this frustration.

At 6 a.m. after our first night, it was dark and there was banging on our cabin door, running in the corridor. We didn't know what was happening but our cabin mates slept on, so we stayed in bed. There was more banging on our door, and someone burst in and had a rapid-fire exchange in Chinese with our cabin mates. Apparently this was our first tourist stop, and most of the other passengers had already got off the boat. I overheard a woman say that the taxi ride to the temple should be 1 yuan. Armed with this information, Mum and I set off. A short, apparently neckless, taxi driver accosted us before we even got off the ship--3 yuan to the temple? One yuan, I said confidently, and he agreed. We drove off in the dark. After driving for about 20 seconds, he got to the top of the hill, where he stopped the car and tried to sell us a package to three sights--for 60 yuan. He kept repeating his offer slowly and loudly over and over again--"Ting bu dong a?" ("you don't understand, eh?") I insisted we just wanted to go to the temple. But he wouldn't just take us to the temple; it was either get out or go with him. Our doubt was, would we miss something really wonderful? We finally agreed to go with him on his "tour." Just minutes later we had to pay another Y55 each for admission to the first stop. He had neglected to tell us the little detail that admission was not included in his tour. Inside the temple he wouldn't let us move on until I had lit incense and candles, for another Y30. The morning was becoming nightmarish, and I let slip an expletive totally inappropriate for the atmosphere of a temple. Then we went on to the next two sites on our tour, neither of which would accept our ticket--it would have cost an additional Y55 each time. At each gate our driver tried to pin his mistake on us, saying, tamen bu dong ("They didn't understand"). But the gatekeepers said mei you banfa! ("no way"!). As we exited the site of our second failed visit, we saw that the little taxi was no longer where our hapless driver had parked it. It had been moved and was being inspected by two uniformed policemen. A man with a guide's identification card attached to his lapel was angrily shouting at our driver and I finally clued in. The guy wasn't a licenced guide and didn't know the ropes at all. I felt really gloomy; duped again. He took us back to the dock, where he sat with us and ate a hearty breakfast, as if nothing untoward had happened. In compensation, the next day, Ke Di (our ten-year-old pal) and his dad made sure we stuck with them on the day trip up the Minor Three Gorges, and in addition, insisted on paying for everything all day.

Perhaps the most tantalizing of all the mirages was the matter of our arrival time. I had asked when we bought our tickets when we would be arriving in Wuhan. I double-checked, triple-checked, the time by getting the ticket seller to repeat it and then write it down for me: 3:00 p.m, Monday. About the time we were feeling that we'd had enough of the boat and this trip, I asked again to confirm our arrival time in Wuhan: now it was 11:00 p.m. Hmm, so much for going to look for a nice hotel with hot showers. Next Ke Di informed me we'd be arriving at midnight. Oh. Next time I inquired, it was 6 a.m. Tuesday. Another entire night on the boat! Oh well, we thought, at least we can sleep a full night. But at four a.m. they were banging on our door: we'd arrived in Wuhan and they wanted our ticket tokens. Next thing there was a guy in our room, very pleasant and very helpful with a map of the city. He carried our luggage off the boat and up the long ramp. We were thinking, "wow, a really helpful staff person!" You'd think we'd have learned by now. Naturally, his taxi was waiting at the dock entrance.

So overall, I'm afraid this wasn't a romantic trip on the Yangtze as we'd envisaged, but rather a prolonged lesson in isolation due to a language barrier, and to real down and dirty Chinese travel. The Yangtze turned out, for us, to be as unromantic as its Chinese name: Chang Jiang, Long River.

However, things looked up again as soon as we got off the boat in Wuhan. Our taxi driver turned out to be a godsend: he helped us arrange our flight to Xian, without being too pushy, then offered to drive us around for the day. In fact, it turned out that the woman in the passenger seat, his sister, was to be our driver. She was a great guide.

Our first stop, at the Hubei Provincial Museum, was a case of going from the ridiculous to the sublime: as we stepped across the threshold, a uniformed staff member rushed up with deep concern on her face--we hadn't put the plastic shoe covers on! We revelled in the immaculate condition of the museum, which contained artifacts from a 433 BC tomb, including the coffins of the maids, and an entire set of massive bells. We also visited Mao Ze Dong's summer villa, a massive, austere place which nevertheless is where we were given a detailed demonstration and explanation (in Chinese) of tea ceremony. The girl demonstrating asked me if she was speaking too fast (she was) but I accidentally said "no" and she continued merrily on, babble babble.

At each tourist stop our driver dashed ahead to personally find us a guide, and they were all pleased to show us around but fooled by my clear pronunciation into thinking I would understand Chinese spoken at normal speed. I continued to fool them by repeating key words that I could understand at intervals, and they would say, dui, dui ("that's right"). I didn't want to deceive anybody; I was trying my utmost to make sense of what I was hearing. But my vocabulary is too limited to get more than the basics, and after a while, I got tired of always having to tell my guide I didn't quite get it. My nodding at or repeating any familiar word became my only way to keep a connection with the person I was with, even if I didn't know what they were saying. It was perhaps a way of saving face, and I've been keeping that experience in mind when I talk to my students.

Our driver also took good care of our need for food and introduced us to some Wuhan street food specialties, including a sweet doughnut and hot soy milk, and at lunch time took us to a Daoist temple with an excellent vegetarian restaurant. Finally we visited Wuhan's landmark site, the Yellow Crane Tower, and then we were off to the airport. I desperately tried to think of things to say to keep the conversation going as it appeared our driver was falling asleep after all her exertions. Nevertheless, we arrived in one piece and got on the next plane to Xian, where we were going to see the Terra Cotta Soldiers.

The Terra Cotta Soldiers were indeed an awe-inspiring sight. As a "Unit Designated to Receive Foreign Tourists," it was efficiently set up with walkways and explanations all around. Farmer Yang, who in 1974 was digging for a well when he found a bit of warrior, received us there, wearing a blue mao cap and thick black-rimmed glasses. His days in the field have ended, as he has become a national cultural treasure. However, he looked bored as he signed "The Newest Edition" of the coffee table book about the warriors.

Xian was grey and heavily polluted, and although there are cultural treasures all over the city (for example, the Forest of Steles, for the calligraphically inclined), my favourite place was the Muslim Quarter. The first hint that you may be about to step back in time is at the entrance to the Muslim quarter, where there is a noodle shop. Outside a man is making noodles by throwing his hands in and out again and again. Each time his hands part, there are more noodles between them. We had some in soup with beer, for under a dollar.

When you walk through the Drum Tower Gate (part of the ancient city wall) and leave behind the heavy traffic, Bennetton, Italian Pizza, etc., you enter an exotic world. Before dusk, the street is crowded with pedestrians and various vehicles, and the sidewalks are completely taken up with commerce of the edible kind. All down the sidewalks are large tables covered in trays filled with dried fruits, nuts, seeds and sweets, including the popular peanut cakes. Woks in flames sizzle wildly, and long narrow barbecue troughs are covered in satay sticks. Vegetable and meat pancakes are cooking on big skillets. There is a pervasive smell of mutton. Goat parts are visible in the portable glass cabinets and small shops where mutton dishes are sold, and inside one glass cabinet, a man is cooking with the company of a goat skull, while chatting on his cell phone. A bicycle cart rolls by, full of bones. There are animals and parts of animals, hanging on hooks. Over there are whole chickens, glistening with fat. Other food sellers are making bowls of dessert, with raisins, walnuts, and piles of yellow and white stuff. A guy is sharpening knives on a well-greased stone. A broom seller trundles by with a pile of brooms on his back, and gives a massive hawk onto the pavement. Two old men are playing wei qi, with an audience of eight men wearing blue and white skull caps, standing around looking very intently at the game strategies unfolding before them. This is a happening place.

Mum's Agenda for Jiang Ze Min
It was in Xian that Mum began to plan her meeting with President Jiang Zemin. It started when she saw his picture and declared she didn't much care for him "because he hasn't even noticed that his country needs powerwashing." She decided she'd better start a list of agenda items as there was rather a lot she'd like to discuss with him. In addition to a street scrubbing program, the agenda includes lack of free entrance to parks for local residents [scandalous] and tourist ripoffs [the government store sells porcelain bowls for Y300 ($54) when they're only Y60 in the Muslim Quarter market]; and open man holes everywhere.

On arriving in Beijing we discovered that a street scrubbing program seemed to have already been implemented, but there were still more items to be added to the agenda, including child contortionists in acrobat shows [what would a pediatrician say?]. However, she'd like to congratulate Jiang on the noodles, and on the economy of reusing Public Security Bureau stationery for the hotel laundry note. She also approves of the one-way streets in Beijing.

Back to the big metropolis of Beijing, where we had to contend with the much heavier traffic on the many multi-lane streets. Crossing the streets was challenging and not for the slow of foot or faint of heart. A man watched us negotiate one particularly scary crossing, and when we successfully made it across, called out in English with a beaming smile, "It's dangerous! Welcome to China!"

Beijing at the end of February was still cold, and at the Summer Palace, where we strolled for almost three hours, Kunming Lake was a vast expanse of ice under the winter sunshine. The textured surface was sometimes like diamonds, light refracted and broken, a rough kind of shine; in other places the ice formed smooth curved lines.

In Beijing we also visited the Forbidden City, known officially to Chinese by the more politically correct term "Palace Museum". It's a huge complex and we spent most of a day wandering through it with the guidance of Roger Moore, whose soothing voice through our headphones advised us when to look left and when to look up. The complex is well-maintained and when we entered some of the older wooden buildings we had to purchase "overshoes" to protect the floor. I was interested, as ever, in the quaint translations of the everpresent admonishing signs: WRITING ON THE ANCIENT WALL IS A BREACH OF CIVILITY.

One of the last compulsory tourist sights we visited was the Great Wall at Badaling, the closest site to Beijing, about an hour's drive. Too smart for my own good, I insisted that we mustn't pay Y200 for a hotel tour, but must instead find our own tour down at Tiananmen Square for Y100, which we did (or rather, the tour operators found us). The mistake here was, of course (will I never learn) that we were in for another day of not knowing what was going on, as the tour was completely in Chinese. When we got to the Wall, we were taken to a ticket booth-oh no, I thought we'd paid for everything already! But the cable car wasn't included in our tour and I couldn't see another way up to the Wall. Mum took a look at what looked like a luge chute. "Oh, wouldn't the boys (my nephews) have fun on that!" she said, taking it for an amusement park ride. When we were stuffed into the little dish that was the "cable car", facing each other with our knees up around our ears and our feet on each others' bums, we headed straight up a steep incline, Mum on the down side barely able to breathe for laughter and tears as she declared she'd never been so unhappy in all her life. But the worst was to come. We got out, declined getting our picture taken on a camel and many other offers of T-shirts, certificates ("I climbed the Great Wall!") and cheap trinkets, and climbed the steep, but certainly not ancient, steps, to a vantage point where you could see the wall snaking along the ridge, out of sight. I thought it was quite impressive. Mum, however, had barely arrived at the viewpoint than she had turned around and was headed back; she was too preoccupied with how we were going to get back down to the bus, and to this day claims she never saw anything as good as what was shown in the pictures. We arrived back at the cable car terminus, and when she saw that the luge chute she had assumed was a fun activity for children was actually our return route, she said, "oh, no, I am NOT doing that!" "Come on, Mum, our bus is leaving in ten minutes!" "I'll take a taxi back to Beijing!" Meanwhile, an elderly Chinese couple, both of whom were short and round and wearing thick coats, folded themselves into the tiny dishes with some difficulty but no complaints, and set off, escorted by one of the staff who rode a dish in front to help with the braking. If they could do it, so could Mum. This time they let us each have our own dish and off we went, each clutching at the brake. It was fun! Mum enjoyed the ride so much that the fellows posted at the turns had to shout, "mandianr!" (slowly!)

So it seems that from the worst can come the best, and that about sums up our journey. Our return to Dalian was not uneventful, but that story is for another time.