Backlog of Travels: Part 4: Christmas in Shanghai

At 5:45am, two days before Christmas 2012, Cliff and I took a taxi to the airport and then a plane to Shanghai. It was bitterly cold there for us sub-tropics dwellers, at 30-odd degrees Fahrenheit, and immediately upon leaving the Shanghai metro we spotted a cleverly located shop selling hats, gloves, and scarves where we bedecked ourselves appropriately with winter wear.

We dropped our bags at the hostel and took off to find People’s Park, a journey which first led us astray to the aptly named Sculpture Park, which was sprinkled liberally with, you guessed it, sculptures of all makes and models. From giant animals to cascading showers of metallic trash, we took in the unexpected art tour and then had a conversation in our by-now-quite-rusty Mandarin with three park guards who had very different opinions about where People’s Park was.

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Once we found it, we were bewildered by the slow-moving, massive crowds of predominantly elderly women. Following the crush into a long, dark tunnel near the entrance of the park, we saw what the fuss was about. The tunnel, and indeed every path radiating out from the entrance of the park, was lined with what appeared to be resumes. They were each numbered, with a photo of the person and a detailed list of their physical attributes, career prospects, personalities, and more. I had found myself in what must have been one of the world’s largest dating pools in history, and it was all being conducted by the old aunties or grandmothers of  the bachelors and bachelorettes. The youngsters being pawned off on one another were in their twenties, thirties, or forties. Very few of them were in physical attendance, as you might imagine, but the resumes were all that was necessary for their elderly relatives to go about their matchmaking business.

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We made our way out of the crowd and found two things of interest: an art museum where we happily spent a couple hours, and then a rundown old fair with a few functioning rides. I could not be persuaded on them as they went too high into the air for my tastes, but Cliff gamely rode one.

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After visiting a bit of Shanghai, we took a train to spend a couple days of our brief trip in Nanjing, a city unfortunately known for the historical massacre of Chinese men, women, and children by Japanese invaders in 1937. This single horrific event has flavored Chinese-Japanese relations ever since, as the Japanese government has never formally apologized or even admitted that the massacre took place. Compare that to the vast reparations and official apologies that Germany has made in the wake of the Holocaust, and what it would have been like for the world if Germany had NOT done so, and you can see why there is so much anger left simmering in Chinese society toward basically Japanese anything.

Last year, during a lesson in which we read a story written from the point of view of a young Japanese child who lived in the US during World War II, a 5th grade student told me that her dad had told her that the Japanese were bad people for what they had done. I navigated the situation as gracefully as I could, but actually reading the short story by Yoshiko Uchida was much more effective than I was – reason #1,000,000,000 why literature is important to developing empathy and understanding. (I should mention that this was the same student who later agreed when another student said that he was “sometimes germaphobic” to a certain ethnic group. My vehement outrage at that statement was perhaps not my best teaching moment, but it got the point across. What children learn from their parents sticks, so PLEASE TEACH TOLERANCE.)

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The Japanese – Chinese feud is not omnipresent in the society, however. An opposing anecdote: I made friends my last couple weeks in Longgang, Shenzhen with a woman who had approached me while shopping to see if I wanted to get a cup of coffee. Thrown off guard, I said no, several times, but she was persistent and I’m no good in the face of persistence, and so I agreed to hang out with this perfect stranger. She was very nice, we chatted about not much at all, and I found out she lived in my apartment complex with her Japanese boyfriend, and that she worked at a Japanese company.

The best place in Nanjing to get information on the subject is the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, where Cliff and I went on Christmas day. The Memorial Hall did not mince words/images/etc. in regards to its history, nor should it have. The high estimate of massacre victims tallies around 300,000 – deaths not of soldiers but of unarmed, starved, defenseless citizens. Parts of the memorial hall were staggering in their simplicity and solemn beauty – an example being the gargantuan statue of an emaciated woman at the entrance, slumped with legs splayed, pain etched in her stone face. Other parts were overwhelming in their aggression and insistence – walls of photographs of atrocities, piles of bones.  Some parts were absurd, such as the cheaply mechanical recreation of a Japanese soldier entering a Chinese house.

Following through the museum led us out into a long dark corridor with candles illuminating name upon name of the known victims. After this reflection in the dark, there was light, as the tour ended outside with a long shallow pool of water leading to a giant stone memorial carved with words of peace.

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We also made time to walk the Nanjing City Wall. Having lived in the sweltering sub-tropics for three years, I have often felt starved for seasons, especially autumn. When our taxi driver – who was very kind and told us about all the different places we should try to see – dropped us off, the heaviness of the morning disintegrated and I felt actually frolicsome as I darted up the stone steps leading to the wide city wall. (Darted might be a bit of an exaggeration – my ankle was still swollen and twisted from a hiking incident a couple weeks before.) We were stopped for a couple pictures before we could get very far, but after we’d done our foreign-tourist photo duty, we were left alone on the wall.

Alone.

In a city of over 7 million souls, for the first time since I’d stepped off the plane in Beijing in August 2010: alone.

It was so beautiful up there, with a breathtaking view of the city and the lake. Leaves blanketed the top of the wall in autumn colors which seemed improbable at the end of December: yellows, oranges, browns. We walked a couple miles down the whole length of the wall – we knew we should turn back at some point but it felt so good to keep skipping ahead, to lean over the wall, to take pictures, to have impromptu races and to not be pushed or crowded or anything else that is daily life in a busy city.

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Eventually we ran out of wall and had to literally come down from our high, but that tall, leaf-strewn, expansive, and gloriously empty place that gave me such peace and joy on Christmas day is a forever-memory.

Though we could only experience each place briefly, I thought Shanghai and Nanjing exuded dynamism and vibrancy and would be amazing places to get to know for a longer stretch of time.

Krakatau

5am departure to Carita from Jakarta. Tired after a delayed flight and late arrival the night before. Air is humid and smells a little smoky, heavy with evidence of the previous night’s rain. Headache from little sleep, dehydration. We’re on the highway for a quick minute before spending a couple hours on winding, potholed seaside roads lined with children readying themselves for school and brightly colored domiciles: sapphire tile, ruby tile, sunshine yellow tile.

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speedboat gliding out of the canals before hitting open ocean

8am arrival in Carita. Breakfast of fried rice and fresh orange juice. Later, I see abundant orange trees lining the road. We walk to the dock through a cluster of houses with children shouting and adults openly staring. The speedboat, maybe 20ft for six of us, revs to life, filling the air with gasoline fumes. It picks up speed. I put my head over the side of the boat like an eager dog. Remember fishing trips with Grandpa; remember tubing with Uncle Jeff. But I’ve never gone so fast, and never  on the open ocean. Exhilarating. So open – no land in sight. Beautiful sunny day and I keep seeing the ocean as water in a bowl about to spill over.

Theme of the day: prehistory, primordial ooze, the beginning of time.

We’re heading into storm clouds. Boat hits waves that toss us like rag dolls. No one else seems concerned that the blue water has turned a menacing gray: direct antithesis to my worst-case planning. Kick off shoes, I tell myself on repeat, hold onto the seat cover – looks like a flotation device. Be okay with tumbling through water for a while. Trust you’ll come back up. Get as big a breath as you can. Later, past danger, I found where the life vests were stowed.

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Krakatau seen smoking from the boat

Weather cleared as we had our first glimpse of Krakatau, which seemed to part the clouds and tame the sea as we approached. Krakatau is an active volcano which erupts regularly, most recently in September 2012. Smoke reeking of sulfur steamed and drifted from still-cooling piles of magma. It was two mountains in one: Krakatau’s peak and crater in the distance, pouring smoke, and the magma layer.

Our guide had seen it explode. “Like fireworks, the smoke, like thunder, boom boom.”

We hiked up to the summit of the first steep dune (sand, ash, stone), somewhat hardened by the rain the night before. We struggled up, slipping back each step, shoes filling with sand. At the top of the dune  we looked down into a valley of magma and up to Krakatau’s peak. There’s a clear path where the lava gushed forth and tumbled down to the sea, boiling the waters and killing all manner of sea-life. The piles of magma spew smoke and smolder red in some places, white ash in others, like hot coal. Freshly made pumice and other volcanic rock litters the volcano’s side. I take a piece home. I don’t feel guilty.

It is unreal to stand on an active volcano. It’s like being transported back in time a couple billion years ago to the

hot magma trailing down to the sea

hot magma trailing down to the sea

Earth’s rebellious adolescent years when continents and oceans were more vehemently in flux than they are now, like witnessing my great great great grandparents meet for the first time and realizing I would somehow result from that moment.

We hike back down. Get in the boat. Speed away to a little island for lunch on a beach overrun with too many little crabs scuttling to and fro, eyes on stalks, airs of suspicion.

We snorkel, briefly. Look through crystal clear water to unbelievable depths (tall towers of coral, brightly colored fish darting here and there) and listen to my own shaky terrified gasping breaths through the snorkel. I love snorkeling but each time (three times only) there is a long period of adjustment as I get used to the fear, the new way of breathing, the vastness of the wide unexplored ocean world. It’s nearly the same fear as of heights, combined with the mind-drenching terror of imagining free-floating in space, though there’s no real way for me to fall or even drown in the calm waters.

Meanwhile, as I struggle to regain myself, tiny jellyfish sting and sting – my thumb, my arm, my legs. Sharp isolated areas of buzzing pain that last for a half hour after I’m back in the boat.

Happy Chinese New Year! Spent the holiday and some of my annual leave in Indonesia, in and around the capital, Jakarta. The first day (recounted above) was eventful – the rest, spent on a tiny island an hour off the coast of Jakarta – was less so. I finished Anna Karenina if that’s any indication.

Apologies for the long absence. Love and miss you all!

Next

So, I’m going back to the Orient! Not to Shenzhen this time, but to Hong Kong, a world apart from mainland China, where the English language is plentiful, Western food is abundant, toilets are of the sit-down rather than squat variety, and the cost of living is the ninth most expensive in the world. Yikes.

I’ve been offered a job on Hong Kong Island as an English teacher and editor/writer for a learning center in Causeway Bay. I was offered the position mid-June, actually, but arrival in Hong Kong felt so far away that it was difficult to think of the job as a concrete thing. Now with my departure scheduled for swiftly-approaching August 15–a fifteen-hour straight shot from Detroit to Hong Kong–my first “grown-up job” (to me that means: contractual, salaried, full-time, useful, relevant to my interests, absorbing) feels a bit more real. I will be teaching general English, English literature, test prep, and writing to international and Hong Kong students who may want to study abroad somewhere like the UK or USA. I also cannot wait to jump at the opportunity offered to involve myself with the editing department within the company, as an editor and contributor for various English textbooks, and a soon-to-be-launched educational-themed magazine.

For those who have been following along all year, let me reiterate the perks of this new teaching gig specifically as compared to last year’s job: I’ll teach a maximum of six students per session. Six, not sixty. I will not be teaching ESL, since the students already speak fluent or near-fluent English, but instead, literature and writing. Or, as my brain keeps saying, “Books! I’m gonna talk about books all day!” These students will likely be motivated and hard-working, but even if they weren’t, with so few of them to keep track of, they will not be able to sleep through my lessons, text and play games on their cellphones, do their hair in mirrors propped up on their desks, or throw crumpled paper at their peers’ heads at the back of the classroom.

There are downsides, too. The turnover rate for my students will be greater than last year, so I won’t be able to develop as close of teacher-student relationships. And no doubt, there is something completely endearing about a pile of sixty students eager to hang out with me for a class that could very likely turn brutal at a moment’s notice for everyone involved due to that pesky language barrier. My Ping Gang students’ eagerness on most days to let me be a part of their lives as their resident, and dear, foreign teacher, is very unlikely to be paralleled by world-weary international students who are being bullied into after-school tutoring by their parents.

Nonetheless, I am optimistic. I am apartment-hunting, visa-applying, luggage-packing (about to start, anyway), goodbye-saying, summer-enjoying, and I am optimistic.

The Truth, If I Could Tell Her

Marie,

    Hi,I miss you so much.

    Where are you?What do you do?Are you happy now?

    We have just finished the final exam,and I have time to write a letter to you.

    Many studentsin senior 3 in Pinggang failed their exams.They must be very sad.

    I regret that I didn’t choose arts.I really love painting.However,my parents disagree.I doesn’t mean that I don’t love my parents.In fact,I love them very much.I know they love me too.They gave me a best childhood in the world,I think.They have rights to ask me to do everything.It is my responsibility to obey their request,though I am unhappy.I hope that they can be happy when they live.

     Do you know?In China,‘孝’is important.It means ‘filial piety’.It may be different from that in America,right?

     Only two years can I prepare for the college  entrance exam.I must do my best.So I might have less time to write letters to you.I have been a little tired.I must insist.

     I still remember what you told us—-go and play.And I want to go to America to play.

     OK.I am going to go to bed.Bye.

                                                                                                                                                                               Pig

                                                                                                                                                                      2011.7.7

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Pig,

Hi. I miss you too, even though, if I’m being honest, I don’t remember which exactly of my 600 students you are.

I’m in my home, on my bed, in northern Michigan with a computer on my lap. I’m worlds away from you. I do things–today, on a lazy Sunday–like fold clothes, clean my room, eat grilled chicken with rice and salad, do the dishes, and play with my new camera. No, I’m not very happy. But I’m working on it.

Congratulations on finishing your exam. The fact that you’re laboring to write me a letter in English after the completion of said exams fills me with pride. I’m lucky for knowing you.

My heart goes out to the Senior 3 students who failed their exams. Their lives are altered now in ways I can only imagine. For one, their chance to go to college–any college–has just gone out the window.

I wish you’d chosen the Arts major, despite your parents. Pig, I hope you’re painting right now. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from a Humanities degree it’s that your passion can thrive right alongside your day job. It’s just a shame it has to take a back seat to the Science major your parents are pushing you–a high school student–into. I did know about 孝 (xiao4), and no, it’s not the same in the United States. Filial piety is an important concept and a good basis for a family, but here it is manifested in different ways. My parents, for example, are proud of me for chasing the things that make me happy, not for obeying their every whim and becoming a mini-clone of their own forgotten hopes and dreams, nor a ticket to their future financial stability. I hope your parents can be happy while they live, too, but your unhappiness should not be the price of their contentment.

You only have two years to prepare for the college entrance exam that a bunch of Senior 3’s just failed. Good luck. You must do your best because the social pressures on you are greater than on anyone else in the history of humankind. Females in China have the highest suicide rate in the world at about 15 in every 100,000 women and you’re dealing with that every day. You’ll “insist” because you “must.” You’ll strike those frail little fists against every exam and application and every all night study session where you’re so tired your head drops onto the stacks of books open on your desk. You’ll stop eating and sleeping and you’ll punish yourself brutally for every wrong answer. For what? The infinitesimal chance of going somewhere else. I wish you didn’t have to work so hard, but at least there’s this: it’s worth it. Going somewhere else is worth it.

Go and play, Pig.

Love,

Marie

just a few things I’ll miss

The way children are adored here, the more precious because there is only ever one per family, their little bare bottoms peeking from the split bottom pants, the way they freely urinate in public.

The food, the variety of it, the vegetables, the fish, the eggplant and rice noodles and dumplings and ricericericerice and teateateatea and green beans and meat with all the fat and bones intact and chicken feet and tofu that smells like a sewer and tofu that tastes sweet as sugar, and lotus, and the sauces that transform normal garden produce into something exotic and intensely flavorful, the spice, the little black balls of spice that numb your mouth, and the fruit–mangoes, mangosteen, durian, dragonfruit, pears–sweet, cheap, abundant.

The vibrant vegetation, the way the tree at the end of the road of my apartment complex burst into flower over the weekend without anyone noticing. After the heavy day-long rain this tree had a sunset painted over its fern-like leaves, small red flowers catching the daylight and tossing it this way and that. Under the tree red petals littered the ground and caught in bushes nearby like snow in hair and my, how lovely.

The freedom to travel, the rush of joy at a new city, how they’re all so different and all the same.

The lived-in feeling of public transportation, the relative ease with which I can cross a city–this city, my city–as big as a state.

The way when you meet someone there’s no preamble. Immediately phone numbers are exchanged, immediately someone says to you, “I hope we can be friends,” immediately you are a part of their life.

The way students disobey and sleep during class and ignore your questions and still love you fiercely as one of their own, as someone to be proud of, as a member of their community.

Off Again

The Shenzhen Education Bureau handed down late notice of yet another 5-day vacation for yours truly on Friday, in honor of May Day. You’re thinking right now that I don’t actually have a job, and you are about 30% correct. In the case of my lovely roommate, Jess, you’re closer to 90% correct, as her school has decided that she is only teaching one class on Wednesday mornings from now until the end of contract.

My Saturday-Wednesday vacation was spent on another rapidly planned trip, this time with Carrie, Jenni, and Gen. We hopped the express train from Guangzhou to Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province and very near to Shaoshan, the hometown of the one and only Mao Zedong. We were told that in Shaoshan, 80% of the citizens have the surname Mao. We got in late to the hostel on Saturday night, but luckily there were beds available for us. We wandered down the street at 10:30pm until we found a place for a belated dinner, and had the most delicious fried 饺子 (dumplings) ever. Sunday we got ready to start our day in the company of Jun, a Guangzhou native who was traveling alone and asked to spend the day with us. He was small, polite, and very helpful since he spoke Chinese and could help us navigate the buses we needed to get around town. He also ordered our breakfast in this hole-in-the-wall shop near the restaurant: fresh, hot, Guilin style rice noodles. We spent the day riding buses and wandering over Yuelu Shan. The mountain is home to one of the most renowned classical Confucian schools in the country, Yuelu Academy, established in 976AD, where Zhu Xi and Zhang Shi both lectured. It officially became a university in 1926 and is now known as Hunan University. The academy buildings trail through the mountains, surrounded by trees and ponds, and include Confucian temples, pavilions, and towers.

Wandering the mountain (our circuitous hike down included stops at various tombs, a temple, and viewing pavilions) took most of the morning and afternoon. We stopped for lunch at what looked to be a decent restaurant but ended up being one of the filthiest places I’ve ever eaten, and when we finally got to the Hunan Provincial Museum at 3pm, we were told it was sold out for the day due to high traffic. We went to the “walking street” instead where we said goodbye to Jun and found an amazing little place called Caco Cafe. Sitting on the patio with our drinks engendered endless stares by the passing Chinese, which was even more disconcerting than usual.

That night we went on the biggest Ferris wheel in the world (not really, it’s second to the one in London, but it was sufficiently huge; we had to take an elevator five floors up in a hotel to get to the loading dock). I was nervous. But the cages were enclosed and the Ferris wheel went so slowly that there was very minimal rocking and as we were going up there were gorgeous fireworks in the distance and the line of headlights from cars on the street and from buildings was beautiful. I did think how in Michigan a Ferris wheel like that would put you right up into the stars. There weren’t any stars, but China puts on a grade A fireworks show. Makes sense, since they were invented here.

The next day was our day trip from Changsha to Shaoshan, Mao’s hometown. The morning dawned cold and overcast (we didn’t have a single ray of sunshine for the whole long weekend), but we assumed that it would warm up to the usual muggy eighty that we’d been dealing with for awhile. We assumed wrong. It was windy, cold, and drizzly in Shaoshan and we were dressed inappropriately in shorts or skirts and tees. We stood in the longest line ever, fighting to maintain our place against the pushing Chinese tourists behind us, who have absolutely no conception of a line as an orderly institution that dictates when you will participate in an event. This one old woman ducked under the rope to cut in front of us, and she was so boldly unapologetic and friendly about it that we let it go (“我要看一下。Wo yao kan yi xia,” she said about Mao’s home. “I just want to take a look.” Haha, oh, is that why you’re in line like the other three thousand of us?) To pass the time (we were in line for about an hour) she started humming. She was cool. The women shoving into us from behind, and the children who tried to squeeze between our legs, however, we held our ground against.

Mao’s home was a small country farm style house, and his bedroom was just across the open atrium from the cattle barn. I imagined the smell every morning and thought it was probably just what Mao deserved, even if he didn’t know it. For awhile I got stuck behind the old humming woman as we went through the house (in the same pushing line as before), and it was so interesting to watch her. She read every plaque slowly, out loud, by holding her finger up to a character and pronouncing it, then kindly pointing out the English to me or the other girls if they were nearby. In the kitchen she paused for a long time, standing by the door to the next room and just staring. I wondered how much of her life, as an elderly Chinese woman, was spent in a kitchen: first her mother’s, then her own, and now perhaps her child’s, taking care of the grandchildren. I wondered if she was imagining what it would be like to be Mao’s mother, what she’d cook him for breakfast, how she’d wash his clothes and keep the house clean. I hate the man and most everything he stood for, but most of the Chinese I know are fiercely loyal. It doesn’t occur to them not to be.

Eventually I left Mao’s childhood home to watch several girls take a picture of themselves touching a “Do Not Touch” sign. Clever. They were also photobombed by a completely clueless woman who wandered into their picture and stayed, looking confused, which was sincerely hilarious.

It was very cold at this point, but we wandered through the souvenir stalls and then found the Mao Zedong Relic Museum, which is this absolutely gorgeous modern building and a completely tasteful museum filled with all of Mao’s personal artifacts from his life: clothes he wore, the utensils his assistants used to comb his hair (ironic, I thought, to think of this Leader of the Peasant Class having his hair combed by what amounts to servants), books he read and poems he wrote (also ironic considering his vendetta against intellectuals and the reeducation of scholars that often ended in torture/death that was such a huge component of the Cultural Revolution), forks he ate with, pottery he used, pipes he smoked, slippers he wore, music he listened to…basically anything that had touched his person and could therefore become an object of worship to the Chinese people. The museum made him seem like a pretty stand-up individual. Propaganda’s a powerful, irresistible force. We’re all subjected to some form of it everyday, in the news, in the stories we’re read and told, in our history books, in media from commercials to movies to music videos and we don’t even know half the time but it shapes everything about us. I have my own opinions about Mao because of Western propaganda and the Chinese have theirs because of museums like this.

We tried to go to Di Shui Dong, Water Dripping Cave, after the museum, but it was so cold and truly raining by that point that we gave up to take the bus back to the hostel for more clothes and a rest before heading out to dinner. That night’s dinner was the best of the trip and also probably one of the best of my life: fried pork baozi, spicy sliced potatoes, a spicy grab-bag bowl of lotus, shrimp, pork, peanuts, and broccoli, a dish of eggplant and eel, and fried rice. We went to a coffee shop called 5th Tone afterward to meet one of Carrie’s contact teacher’s friends, but he wasn’t working that day. We instead had a long chat with Sarah, an American who’d been working and living in Changsha for 6 years. She had started as an English teacher but now works full time at the coffee shop. It’s a really community-focused place with a weekly English corner and live music on Friday nights, and it was cool to talk to an expat who wasn’t the sleazy kind found so often in Western bars in Shenzhen.

After the coffee shop we decided to go back to the walking street where we had noticed a lot of bars, but the street was mostly closed down. We found an open bar and sat down to play dice and cards for an hour or so, and we were lucky enough to witness the following: a group of young Chinese–likely university students (Changsha is a college town if there is such a thing in China: there are a bunch of universities around the area)–getting riotously drunk. One of the young men apparently lost a bet, and a bad one it was. His chubby friend bared the upper half of a round, jiggly white bottom, and the first guy had to kiss it. The kisser then proceeded to dry heave, but it was mostly for show, because he didn’t learn his lesson. He was back to betting in a second, and later lost again: this time he had to approach the four of us and give us a “gan bei!” or “bottoms up,” which meant he cheered us and then chugged his beer while we took a sip from ours to humor him.

The next day was our last. Our train was in the afternoon, so all we wanted to do was visit the Hunan Provincial Museum, have lunch, and then get to the train station. My heart sank when the guard at the museum said “今天不开.” Not open today. The astoundingly well-preserved remains of 2100 year old Lady Xin Zhui are in there (! wah, so old!), as well as a bunch of relics from all over China. It’s supposed to be a damn good museum and I was bummed that we couldn’t see it.

rawr!

But, well, we went to a Tibetan Mastiff Exhibition instead. Our taxi driver told us the island we wanted to visit was also closed…things in China usually shut down on Monday, if at all, but everything had been open on Monday because it was May Day, so it was all apparently closed Tuesday instead. The driver had dropped us off at a place he thought we might like to see, a Windows of the World which looked like a worse version of the very kitschy one we have in Shenzhen anyway, but luckily we spotted this Exhibition right next door… so we braved the smell and petted drugged up puppies and dogs like the one in this picture for awhile before heading out for lunch and then back to the train station to Guangzhou and finally to Shenzhen. It’s always that, in the end: back to Shenzhen.

Solo

I was surprised on Tuesday to discover that after my two morning classes on Wednesday, my students would be taking exams for the rest of the week, leaving me with five free days. My initial thought was “Cool!” but then the idea of being in Shenzhen for that long, unoccupied, while my friends were all working, quickly became the worst idea ever. So I decided to hoof it to a nearby province, one of the “it” places for Chinese and foreign tourists alike, and a popular destination for a lot of CTLCers during the National Day holiday back in October when I went to Yunnan Province: Guilin and Yangshuo in Guangxi Province.

The idea came to me Tuesday night while I still had to lesson plan for Wednesday’s classes. I lesson planned, went to bed, woke up, taught, and “planned” my trip between classes and during the two hours between getting home and leaving for the bus to the train station. Planning in this case involved rapidly making copies of an out-of-date Lonely Planet and throwing half of my belongings into my backpack so that it felt heavier for this five day trip than it did for my three weeks in southeast Asia.

I successfully purchased a train ticket for that evening, but of course there were only hard seats left, so I remained in a miserable, upright position in the freezing air conditioning of the train for 13 hours while the almost exclusively Chinese male patronage around me snored deeply or smoked between the cars. Four guys from Hong Kong approached me around hour 6 and asked if I was traveling alone, and seemed appalled when I said yes. They were heading to Guilin, too, so I gave them my number and decided to pal around with them for the day when we all got off the train.

Getting off the train was a relief, but I was nervous since the first, easiest leg of the trip was over and now I’d have to rely more heavily on my wits. As we all know, my wits are not always up for the tasks I ask them to do. Guilin was overcast, but the rain held off for much of the day. I hooked up with the Hong Kong boys: Man, Keaton, Alvin, and Ken straight off the train, helped them find their hostel, and booked a dorm room for myself as well. For breakfast we all went out for the local specialty: 桂林米粉, or Guilin rice noodles. The noodles are freshly made with thin strips of beef, salted peanuts, spicy peppers and this unidentifiable veggie, and broth.

We rented bikes from our hostel and spent the day cycling around Guilin, which is a big city with many cultural attractions, but much of the scenery is obscured by tall, ugly buildings and general city life, which I get enough of in Shenzhen. We visited Elephant Trunk Hill and Seven Star Park and Cave. The caves were beautiful, these huge, arching caverns with stalactite formations artificially lit with rainbow colors and with weird names like “Falling Fruit and Vegetables,” “The Fairy Maid” and “Lion Watching Camel”…weird, until your eyes adjust to the trick of the stone/light and you see the formations exactly as they’re described.

For dinner we met up with Ken’s local Guilin girlfriend, who took us to a restaurant, much to the boys’ relief, because unbeknownst to me, Ken has the best Mandarin of the bunch and the rest of them struggle a little to understand the locals, since as Hong Kongers, of course, they speak Cantonese most of the time. The family-style dinner was fabulous, with eel skin, fatty pork (seriously, it was like a thin strip of pork and then several thick layers of fat, and I asked Alvin, “Do I eat the fat, too?” He leaned in and said, “Marie, that is the highlight.” And readers, it was) eggplant, a seafood dish, and spicy duck that I was the only one eating because for once I was with Chinese people who couldn’t handle 辣, being the soft-tongued Cantonese they were.

We returned to the hostel where I said goodbye to the boys, who gave me a pear in farewell, and fell asleep almost as soon as I closed my eyes.

In the morning I took a bus to Yanghshuo. It was during this bus ride, through the rain streaming down the window, that I began to understand why I had come to this area of China. The scenery was beginning to physically affect me with its beauty. The karst landscape there was unbelievable.

Yangshuo was a tourist trap of the nth degree, but as a solo traveler, I felt comforted by the English all around and the various, easily accessible hostels, eateries, and souvenir stalls. I grabbed a private room in a hostel, ate some more 桂林米粉, and wandered around the streets for a bit. I found my way down to the river and was again caught off guard by the sheer fact of the karsts and the water and the dim gray sky fading into dusk. For dinner I tried another local specialty, beer fish, along with the local beer, Liquan, and called it a night.

The next day dawned sunny, and I decided it was time to get on the river. I took a bus to Yangdi, where there are “bamboo” rafts (the bamboo raft trade boomed awhile back and now they’re all painted plastic with small motors attached) available to take tourists to Xing Ping, where I would take another bus back to Yangshuo. But I had made a mistake in not booking a raft ahead of time, and had to expose myself as a dumb foreigner and ask for help. I hooked up with some other foreigners who were learning Mandarin in Guilin and were on a field trip with their teacher, Kolok. Kolok was kind enough to offer me a seat on one of the two rafts they had booked, and after waiting for two hours for those rafts to show up, down the river we went. It was gorgeous. The limestone formations jutted into the sky and the sun on the water hurt my eyes in a pleasant way. I like when the outdoors reminds me I’m actually outdoors by making me uncomfortable in someway. Kolok was a Guilin native, and he’d been down the river probably dozens of times, so he quickly grew bored and proceeded to jaw my ear off. He told me he was in not one, but two bands, and showed me some lyrics he’d written in English, because that’s just what guys do when they meet me for some reason. They show me lyrics or play me music but someday that pattern will end, right? Anyway, these lyrics were just as bad as all the other lyrics I’ve ever read, but since he was working in a foreign language, I was more impressed than I would have been otherwise.

In Xing Ping, they offered to take me back to Yangshuo in their van rather than letting me catch a bus, so I agreed and passed the time talking “shop” (i.e. teaching English and learning Mandarin) with an elderly New Zealander.

Back in Yangshuo I had “orange duck” for dinner, which I would gladly eat every day for the rest of my life, except POOR DUCKIES!, did some more souvenir hunting, and went to bed.

The next day I was up by 6am for a trip to a Zhuang minority village and the Longji rice terraces in the mountains. The day was mostly spent on the bus, but it was a good day. The women in the Zhuang minority village wear bright pink and black clothes and have the longest hair probably in the world. They only cut it once in their lives but they keep the hair they cut and weave it back into their braids for the rest of their lives. Even the old women have pitch black hair, supposedly because they wash it in “rice water.” The women sang and danced on stage, untying their hair and combing it out down past their feet for tourists to see and then they tied it back up.

We had rice baked in a bamboo stalk for lunch, and then hiked up the mountain’s stairs (all mountains have stairs in China, I’ve come to realize) to the top for the best view of the Longji rice terraces. It was peaceful up there and I didn’t want to come back down. The terraces were another wonder, in a different way from the karsts. The karsts look entirely alien but nothing could be more natural than these limestone rocks formed over the millenia. The rice terraces, however, are man-made feats of agricultural engineering, and yet they complement the landscape to the point where the mountain looks like it has been that way, ridged with terraces, since the dawn of time.

The bus descended the winding, dangerous, switch-back mountain roads at too high a speed for comfort, and we headed back to Yangshuo. That evening I caught a sleeper bus to Shenzhen, and after 7.5 oddly comfortable, snoozy hours, I was suddenly back in Luohu. I had to catch the metro to the E5 and by the time I was settled on that familiar bus, for the trip back to Longgang I’ve made dozens of times by now, I felt like my journey was almost a dream.

Pictures are on my facebook. Just over a month until I’m home!