China 2011

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sunday Jan 16 Airplane Thoughts

I like the time warps of air travel. Sunday lasted about 12 hours for me this week; I set my watch to Hong Kong time on take-off and hit Monday half a day early. Sunday consisted of waking up, getting to the airport, and getting on the plane. But as always when I travel, huge amounts of life and thought pile into every hour. Instead of life as usual, frozen Alaskan tundra rolls past the window, unfamiliar Bordeaux wine joins a first class steak, and I watch a great movie over… wait a sec, did I just have steak and wine for breakfast or was that lunch?

Air Canada service has soared since the dark days a few years back, when most flight attendants were (to my male chauvinist and one-track mind) menopausal bitches. There’s hardly a beautiful woman, or indeed even a young woman, in the front half of this plane, other than the two 8-year-old passengers in a sea of grey-haired men populating business class… but the attendants are solicitous, professional, and helpful. I’m not complaining. I love flying business class, even if all the pretty girls are somewhere out of site 100m behind me. The bed’s cozy, the movie selection’s great, the Bordeaux delicious, and the 13 hours of peace and comfortable quiet… a perfect start to three weeks of vacation.

Monday Jan 17 Bus to Shenzhen

I thought the standard Hong Kong subway would get me to Shenzhen. Oops. Good thing I called Zhaoliang to check before leaving! I felt nervous leaving the large crowds behind me and heading for the “transportation to mainland” section of the airport. A couple girls tried to sell me limo rides to Shenzhen, but I insisted on the cheap route… not so much to save half the fare as to experience public transport. 80 HKD got me to Shenzhen Port. From there, a short taxi ride brought me to Dongua’s Jiayue hotel.

Zhaoliang made me work harder. She said she’d meet me in the lobby of the Keminski hotel, a 10-minute walk. Fine, but I had to ask directions (in Chinese) about 4 times before I got there! I relished the challenge, but felt like crawling into a cocoon ASAP. Instead, I met her husband, found out they both make more money than I do (he’s an architect flying all over China designing shopping malls and office towers, she’s HR diretcor for a boutique corporate capital management company), ate hot pot, and walked around Shenzhen for a while.

Construction was under way on a new shopping mall façade. Monday evening at 7:30pm the workers were busy. The shops were starting to close down, but there were still people on the streets. So much energy!

Tuesday Jan 18 all day in Shenzhen

Jiayue hotel is a comfortable cocoon to hide in. The young men at the front desk can do broken English, and smile at my broken Chinese; we mix it up. For 308 RMB ($50) I got a 4-star room with free internet, and breakfast-included in the “Western Restaurant”. I didn’t see any knives or forks, but there was bacon beside the zhou and porridge behind the rice. Most importantly, the coffee was excellent.

I’m trying to figure out if the “air conditioning” can actually heat up this 15-degree room and I’m shy to ask the hotel staff. (Later I learned there’s no heat in any hotels here.)

Zhaoliang gave me complicated adventure instuructions to find her office area at lunchtime, a mix of Chinese subway names with a few English transitions like “and transfer to…”. Hmmm… or appartently it’s 40 yuan for a taxi ($7). $2 adventure or $7 simple taxi ride? I’m trying to convince myself the taxi would be a cultural experience too, but I’m failing. Maybe I’ll try my GPS and walk?

… So proud! I figured out the subway, including transfers, comparing characters with Zhaoliang’s handwritten notes! On the way back, I even used the Chinese-language screens to buy my subway tickets, although they have English. Cellphones work throughout the subway. Interactive signs show where you are and where you’re going.

Zhaoliang’s office on the 23rd floor looks out over parks and highrises. They manage IPO’s and corporate capital investments for clients around China, with 33 employees. She thought the boss was cheap giving only 100% bonuses this year, given how well the company did! Hmm… the booming middle class here makes the same money as Canadians, work in the same offices, pay the same for Starbucks (tall extra-hot latte at the mall on the way back to the hotel, 25 RMB), live in the same apartments and drive the same cars. For this huge swath of China, it seems to me the standard of living, even the style of living, is indistinguishable from Canada. Only the politics are different… and how many Canadians pay attention to politics?

After looking at Terra Cotta warriors and horses and chariots in the Shenzhen Museum, a traveling display from the original Xi An collection, we had lunch at a Shanghai restaurant in a local mall. Delicious! I know we claim to have good Chinese restaurants in Vancouver, but I prefer the ones here, better food. Chrysanthemum tea, candied lotus root, soup-filled wontons, ribs & tofu, shrimp dipped in vinegar, sweet fish soup, and watermelon for dessert. Mmmm.

Back to my hotel for a quick nap and email time, then off to dinner with Zhaoliang and ZhongBin… a Sichuan/Hunan restaurant. Most of the dishes were very familiar! J After dinner we drove to the Seaview Hotel for a Salsa party. It was quiet, being Tuesday evening, with perhaps a dozen couples, who dance earnestly and quite well for a beginner crowd. The teacher, HenHua, is a stunningly beautiful local lady and sweetheart, who learned in Beijing, and is a pleasure to dance with. Her Italian boyfriend Marco, her student Mike who lived two years in Vancouver, and I chatted as the last dancers left around 11:30. This is hard-working Shenzhen; people get up early.

Wednesday Jan 19, from Shenzhen to Chongqing

I asked my Shenzhen hotel staff how to get to Hong Kong airport and got told 700 for bus from the nearby Holiday Inn. I thought I could have more adventure, more Chinese practice, and lower cost, and told them how I got here for 110. They shrugged and rattled off stuff I didn’t understand.

So I just grabbed a cab to “Shenzhen Wan” where I crossed in Monday. No English spoken, no problem, 18 yuan so far.

Then I found a bus ticket booth and asked for a ride to Hong Kong airport. They kept trying to speak poor English to me and I kept insisting on bad Chinese. After a minute of dual phone calls the girl said “meiyou!”. What? No busses? I asked when there would be one, and she started arguing with a boy beside me. She said 20 minutes so I asked him what he thought: 30 minutes. Ok I was not worried, I have all day! I paid 150 for my ticket and she sent me off with the boy. Within 5 minutes I’m in the front seat of a minibus waiting in the customs lineup. My only regret is that maybe I could have cleared customs walking through then found a larger cheaper bus… But I was told by friends that they don’t run that way. Might be one adventure too many.

I’m having so much fun! Tonight to Sichuan!

… The two hour flight to Chongqing was a snail’s crawl. I was aching too much for the destination instead of the journey. I spent the flight reading my book, listening to my ipod, observing the other passengers, thinking about culture clashes. I was disappointed to notice two other white guys on the plane… I’m vain enough to like being unique. My vanity was assuaged with the drive out to Baobei and registering in the little hotel there… I may well have been the first foreigner to ever check in there; the desk clerk knew she had to process my id, but didn’t know what a visa was, kept asking questions during the computer registration. Writing this a couple days later, I haven’t seen another foreigner yet!

Thursday Jan 20, Beibei

In the most interesting moment of the day, I was flat on my back on a yoga mat, with a young and very pretty yoga teacher “helping” me with the splits, pushing down on my legs so hard I almost cried out… despite being the only man in a class with 8 beautiful women. It was a great class, but her idea of shevasena was to catch 3 quiet breaths between poses. What a workout!
Xin and I started the day with the “Western & Chinese” 12-yuan breakfast in the hotel, including terrible lukewarm coffee without coffee cups, but wonderful Chinese sausages and porridge and eggs and veggies and cakes…

We walked around the town taking photos and videos, had lunch in a hole in the wall. I made a video of the owner/waiter/chef/cashier cooking my spicy wontons. Everyone’s bundled up warm, because it’s a record-breaking cold winter, in a place where buildings generally don’t have heaters. Hundreds of stores line the streets, or consist of a couple chairs on the sidewalk, selling cigarettes, hair cuts, dental surgery, New Year’s envelopes, apples, medical diagnosis, cellphones, internet advertising, candy, and on and on. It feels more intense than retail in Canada… but relaxed in comparison with other parts of China.

For dinner we visited Xin’s parents, walking winding stone paths between apartment blocks, climbing the 7 flights of stairs Mrs. Ma does every day. There’s no central heating and it’s close to freezing. Mr. Huang huddles beside a small space-heater and invites me to join him. Dinner is delicious spicy chicken plus dou-gar (marinated tofu), green beans, spinach, and of course rice.
After dinner we walked to a local supermarket where dozens of salespeople help find stuff and flog promotions. We got about 5 minutes of help picking long underwear for me, which I’m grateful to have now! Then we got about 5 minutes flogging until I finally gave in and bought a couple bottles of a certain red wine she must be paid a huge commission for. Well, it can’t be huge; the pair cost 88 yuan.

Back in the hotel room, 9pm and I’m exhausted – intense yoga, intense environment shock, walked around all day, and didn’t sleep much last night. The hotel ISP hates my PC’s security software… not sure my email will ever fully download.

Friday Jan 21, Beibei

I’m embarrassed how challenging a few simple environment differences are for me. I’m fully prepared for culture shock, I expect my Mandarin to be insufficient for much conversation… but I’m surprised how hard Chongqing’s winter termperature is to take! It’s cold here, below 10 degrees. I laughed at that back in Vancouver, threw an extra sweater or two in my suitcase, and figured that was warm compared to my Kootenay home. But in southern China, the restaurants, shops, homes, and hotels aren’t heated, so you’re living with 10 degrees 24/7. It’s a shock to my system. Sure, we heat up our hotel room with the air conditioner, but it’s a blast of hot air into a cold room, and we can’t stay here all day. I bought thermal undewear last night.

To Xin’s parents’ home for lunch. Her childhood nanny is there for a visit, and her older half-brother. Altogether we’re 8 people, with about 8 dishes on the table. The home-made fish and kung-pao chicken are wonderful, the store-bought dishes nanny’s daughter brought are so-so. Xin’s brother and I drink baijiu (Chinese hard liquor, 56% alcohol) together; sadly I have to ask Xin to translate most of the time, but we get along nonetheless. He’s 60, spent his career as medical doctor to a factory in Chongqing, then opened an Intenet café. Now he relaxes, drinks a little bottle with each meal, talks about his son in the police force. I get drunk.

Wandering home to our hotel, I’m thinking about what I wanted from this trip to China. The big tourist draws are optional; I’m not going on the Three Gorges boat cruise. I hope to get a genuine feel for normal life in China, as wide a range as possible. I realized this lunch gave me exactly what I seek. I was buried deep in family politics, home-cooked food, a normal apartment in a normal town, with its huge differences from Canada. For example, electricity costs about the same as in Canada, which is pretty steep for people on a government pension or “normal” salary… so most people don’t buy clothes dryers. Apartment blocks feature millions of clothes drying on the balconies.

Walking home, I need a coffee shop. So far we’ve found four in town, three of which are nearly identical, elaborate stuffed-furniture heavy-drapes places with $5 coffees and formal waitresses. They have “coffee menus” longer than Starbucks, and all three perch on the second floor, overlooking the street. The coffee is terrific. The fourth is KFC, serving delicious chicken and terrible $1 coffee. I’m torn.

But now it’s Friday evening and I’m truly scared. I’m hugging my keyboard, almost frantic at tomorrow’s plan. We’re going to abandon our laptops for nearly a week! OK I’ll have my blackberry, pen, and paper. I can still write, just more slowly. It will be painful but healthy for me. And I’m not abandoning civilization at all… going into central Chongqing for a couple days, staying with Xin’s school friend who teaches university English, then by five-hour bus ride to Langzhong, a 2300-year-old town. But laptopless!

Saturday Jan 22, Chongqing

Can’t count the construction cranes. Banks everywhere. Terrific public transit, a bus to anywhere every 5 minutes. Wave to get on anywhere, the pretty girl in the red uniform sells you a ticket after you sit down. Air conditioned soft seat bus costs more, but still about half the Vancouver transit fare.

Mass transit and freeway constructions continue. With these packed buses and streets who thinks this is over-stimulus?

Plastic surgery hospital 20 floors with a bank on the first floor.

Walking around town, it seems to me a huge percentage of the women dress consciously for fashion and attraction, reminding me of Paris. Lots of make-up, lots of short skirts, leather boots, sexy leggings, high heels, teased and coloured hair. According to my fashion-expert companion the fashion sense is questionable, but according to my expertise in being male, they are succeeding brilliantly. And among them, a handful are truly beautiful.

After wandering downtown Chongqing for a few hours, including a ride across the Jialing river on the oldest cable-car in China, and a culture-shock-retreat to Starbucks, Xin’s friend XiaoLi picked us up in her locally made Ford sedan and brought us to her suburban home. I didn’t know what to expect, but I certainly didn’t expect the home she brought us to! 3000 square feet of luxury townhouse in a gated community, ostentatiously furnished with rich woods and wide spaces, marble floors and high ceilings. Her spare room is on par with small 5-star hotel suites. Her husband is deputy director of the Chongqing city center district, and she teaches English in a local university. They’ve worked hard for decades to build up their wealth, he as emergency room surgeon, finally taking the civil service exams a few years ago, she as a tour guide and translator, semi-retiring to her university job recently. Upper middle class, they seem to live exactly like upper middle class in Canada, with the same salaries and the same costs.

Their beautiful house cost them 700k yuan a few years ago, and is now worth over 2 million, or about $320,000. Sure, it’s cheaper than Vancouver suburbs, but Chongqing is more like a Chicago, and they are 30 minutes drive from the center. I think real estate in China costs about the same as in Canada, for comparable values. The high end in China is the same as the high end in Canada, with million-dollar condos and multimillion dollar mansions. The low end is lower, with dirty tiny run down ugly apartments that even Vancouver’s downtown east side would scorn. But the salary scale runs lower in China too.

Xiaoli turned on the heat as we arrived, and slowly the living room and dining room rose up to what we call room temperature in Canada. Heating costs are similar to Canada’s (I looked up the cost of electricity)… but salaries are of course much lower. Chongqing Municipality has about the same population as Canada (!) but a GDP about 10% as high. Since professionals seem to make about the same as in Canada, this must leave a huge swath of relatively dirt poor peasants, despite the urban hukou of most Chongqing residents.

A bit later, the poodle barked crazily, the front door opened, and a woman walked in quietly. She’s Xiaoli’s cook, who started to work on our dinner. At 6:30 she called us to table, and after a few minutes joined us to eat. 3 local vegetable dishes, 2 meat dishes, rice, and pressed tofu. All Sichuan style of course, spicy and flavourful.

Xin and Xiaoli chat nonstop in Sichuanese. The cook spends over an hour quietly cleaning the kitchen or busy doing something there, perhaps working on tomorrow’s lunch for the high-school reunion party. She leaves without a word. I’m ignored, sitting in a corner playing with my blackberry, writing this journal, digesting my impressions, thinking about similarities and differences, lifestyles and changes.

Sunday Jan 23, Suburban Chongqing

Looks like a quiet day, aside from the neurotic poodle, who completely forgets who I am every time I go upstairs for a few minutes, and barks madly as if I’m a complete stranger on my return. Tonight will be a dinner party of Xin’s high school classmates; for now we relax at home. The housekeeper made us breakfast, bacon and eggs and zhou. After, Xiaoli offered a nonstop stream of chocolates and fruit and candies. I began to worry about coffee… would I have to ask for a sojourn into town to seek a coffee shop and pay $5 for coffee again? No! Xiaoli has one coffee a day, and she proudly showed off her 4 or 5 coffee apparati, from a grinder to a bodem to a test-tube machine that sends steam through the grinds. Her husband brought some special coffee back from Europe his last trip, so we tried that one. I have my caffeine, all’s right with the world. How fragile I am: I like to think I’m flexible and open-minded, but take away my caffeine, or my hot shower, or my room temperature, or my three meals a day, or probably a hundred other things, and I can’t be happy. So lucky I am, that all these “necessities” come to me, most of the time.

Went for a little drive into town to press soybeans. Brought our bucket of soaked beans into the market, and found a little stall with a press. For a few yuan, the proprietor ran our beans through the machine, and we brought it home. Fresh tofu tonight.

Later, I’m huddling in Xiaoli’s office while the dinner party continues downstairs. Majiang rattles and friends shout in mock anger, or laugh at each other. The men are playing cards, but people shuffle back and forth between kitchen, Majiang table, cards in the living room, and conversation. Xin catches up with a middle-school friend she hasn’t seen in 30 years. I wander in and out. Upstairs to read a Dean Koontz novel for a while, something I can understand. Downstairs I pick up bits and pieces, but I’m sadly not fluent enough to really follow conversation… particularly when most of it’s in Sichuan dialect.

The dinner was delicious, lots of spicy dishes, French pinot noir too cold and Californian chardonnay too warm, conversation obviously delightful though inaccessible to me. The body language is friendly and fun, but I can absorb only so much.

Enough downtime. Tomorrow we take the 5-hour bus to Lanzhong. I look forward to the countryside passing the bus even more than I do the 2300 year old town.

Monday Jan 24, bus to Langzhong

Smoke in mouth, our bus driver has just pulled out of Chongqing station, his conductor yelling back and forth with some station official. The bus is full, young 3-person families, couples of many ages, and exactly one white guy (me). I did see one other, the other day on the street.

Chongqing is not a pretty city. It’s a good place to see China at work, normal life.

Xiao Dai had his driver bring us to the bus station this morning, with him on his way to the office. We talked about health care systems, as he’s in charge of public services for the district, and before that, more specifically for the health system. He’s obviously proud of the improvements toward universal care in recent years.

The rising wealth is dramatic. I commented that professionals live the same here as in Canada; I heard several counterpoints: that our air’s cleaner, that half a kilometre away there is poverty, and that 10 years ago none of this cohort had cars or owned apartments. It’s new.

The bus zips along the expressway, traffic moderate but steady. I haven’t seen the crazy traffic jams of Beijing fame here; in fact the streets in conjunction with abundant public transit seem to function very well.

Chongqing may not be beautiful, but it works, provides homes and work for 30 million people, many very comfortable. Most people dress well (at least the women). And of course, famous for it, the food is great. Before the bus, we had lunch at a friendly place off the main square, four delicious spicy dishes plus rice and beer for 67 yuan ($10).

A very nice boy waited on us, hovering unnervingly throughout the meal, jumping into action at every request. He bashfully said he could understand English ok but struggles to speak it. He practiced on me, did fine.

While I key this into my BB the highway’ slowly climbing into the rolling hills, past unending construction, rivers, bridges, crumbling apartment blocks, chaotic tiny vegetable and rice plantations, tunnels, and toll booths.

A few hours pass. The horn is blasting some 10% of the time, not in anger, but in warning to vehicles and pedestrians in the path of our careening seemingly brakeless bus. Or sometimes he just seems to like honking. The lady across thew aisle and the little boy in front of us are sick, throwing up in the metal buckets scattered through the bus. It may have nothing to do with our weaving across all lanes of traffic including the oncoming ones, or the symphony he’s composing on the horn. But our 5.5 hour trip takes just over 4 hours. 🙂
Tuesday Jan 25, Langzhong

Wandering the old town for two days, steeping myself in it, I got to like it more and more. The first hour, walking a nearly empty street in the cold evening, I thought we might have made a miserable mistake, at least with timing our visit in the middle of winter. A few shops offered foot massages, not much else. Wasn’t sure if the buildings were even authentic, since there are signs of reconstruction everywhere, and the everpresent construction cranes hovering around the outside edges of the old city.

But I was wrong. A few blocks further, the bustle started. This morning, we walked through a thriving market, with live chickens, children playing, hundreds of vegetables laid on the ground to choose from, cigarette shops, dozens of mobile phone shops, posters of Mao Zedong, Sichuan snacks, Zhangfei beef, local vinegar, fermented rice wine with bits of fruit (yummy!), and a dozen silk factories. I watched a lady pull silk from cocoons. I tried on a hand-made coat from a tiny shop, but it was too small. Xin asked the old man if he’s making any more larger ones, and he gruffed that he’s 85 years old, doesn’t feel like it, besides it’s Chunjie (Chinese New Year spring festival). I was videotaping with my blackberry. In the shop next door, two boys were studying at a tiny table, books and paper and pens scattered about.

Lunch was a series of little snacks, bowls of one noodle or meat at a time. The best was a bizarre mixture of meat and sauce and something like pretzels, salty and sweet, like a porridge. He apologized it wasn’t a full bowl, and wanted to charge less than the usual 2.5 yuan (40 cents).

I wanted to see a wide range of people this trip, from poorest to wealthiest, city to country, English-speaking friends to locals who’ve never seen a foreigner. To my surprise, despite my extroversion, it’s becoming a bit tiring to be stared at so much. It’s kind of fun to hear kids exclaiming to each other or their parents “ta shi yige waiguoren!” (“he’s a foreigner!”), but after the hundredth time… ok I’m wrong, I still like it. It’s fun to say hello to the kids, either in Chinese or English. Most of them are more excited to hear my English so I’m starting to use that more. Just “hello” for most… they bashfully smile and turn away. I took lots of photos, some surreptitiously, to catch people just walking. And their homes, from the dark hovels with clothes hanging in the windows, to the mansions. Didn’t see any mansions in Langzhong… but thousands of poor homes honeycombed through the old city’s shops and hotels, filling the back streets.

We popped out into the surrounding new city, the cacophony jumping a bit louder with vehicle traffic, and more people. A pedicab charges a few yuan for a tough cycle back to our hotel, over the cobblestones, past shops that could border Times Square, selling fashions for American prices, then into the old city with its stone pedestrian streets. Nearly every woman is wearing heels, probably at least half in leather boots and skirts. The older generation looks much poorer, and many still wear traditional clothes. Smokers abound.

We paid 35 yuan each to visit the Imperial Examination Compound, a sprawling complex built around the beginning of the Qing dynasty (China’s last if you don’t count the Communist Dynasty J), 500 years ago. Langzhong was briefly capital of Sichuan, and held prefecture-level and province-level exams. From the Chinese tradition started almost 1000 years ago, most government jobs at all levels went to those who pass the various levels of exam. We saw the registration rooms, sample exams, marking, the supervisors’ offices and bedrooms, and the actual writing rooms, like little voting booths. It was all so serious and formal! So important to one’s career, there was lots of attempted cheating… there’s a display of attempts, like an undershirt covered with cheatsheet notes. There’s an old map showing how many people passed the exam from each town in Sichuan one year, most from Langzhong (48), most towns having perhaps 1. It reminds me of the college entrance exams under the Communists, including the absolute ranking of all candidates, and honours to the first place… they have records of who won #1 going back hundreds of years! It gave me a context for Xin’s friend at the party the other day, telling me how special she is, having been #1 in humanities for Chongqing in her year.

But my favorite place was the Du Family compound. I have a Protestant guilt story here. From the Internet Xin had reserved the Du Family hotel, only 130 yuan. The lobby is beautiful, even in the dark evening. We checked in and were shown up the narrow stairs to our room overlooking the first courtyard. Oh no! The doors are like wooden shutters, that don’t close fully. A padlock holds them shut from the outside, nothing locks them from the inside. The bed fills 80% of the room. The washroom is filthy, urine on the seat, a shower head whose highest pressure is little more than a drip. No internet. Cold. We went out to wander the town, and found a much nicer hotel, with modern shower, free Internet, and a beautiful view over the river to the Buddhist temples on the hills. We checked in, walked back and got our stuff. The next morning after breakfast, we formally checked out of the Du hotel… and spent half an hour there taking pictures. It has so much beautiful old character. Famous poets, including DuFu, stayed there. It’s over 1200 years old.

Wednesday Jan 26, bus to Chengdu

Hello! This past week has rushed through me like rafting through a fast river. So many impressions piling onto each other I need a few hours of quiet every evening to digest and write about and rest from them… But I don’t always give myself those hours. 🙂

I’m writing this on my blackberry, sitting in the Langzhong bus station, bound for Chengdu. We spent two nights in this ancient capital of Sichuan, home of General Zhangfei of the three kingdoms time. The brave but not very bright General is all over the town, in costume, in statues, with a spicy beef named after him, a hotel and some streets. We didn’t pay to visit his shrine because Xin doesn’t like him. So many other things to see.

Our favorite was a 1000 year old family compound, converted into a hotel. 8 interlocked courtyards, with 2 floors of rooms overlooking tiny gardens. All intricately carved wood, on a stone foundation. A couple square kilometres of flagstone pedestrian streets, full of life — a market from 8am til whenever it’s dark and empty enough to close up.

I’ll show you pictures of our restaurant last night, all the different kinds of dried meat hanging from the rafters, us the only patrons, simplest bare wooden tables, chopsticks from a jar on each table, no washroom, cash only, “hello” the only English, and tastier food than almost every restaurant in Vancouver.

Riding on the bus now, rural China rolling past the windows: rice paddy terraces, black and white houses, hundreds of forested hills, some with temples atop, cars honking all over, motorcycles everywhere, never a km without a construction project, highways full as soon as built, despite tolls every few km. I cannot see Chinese growth below 8% for at least 5 years. They’ll pass US GDP by 2020 as I predicted to laughter 10 years ago.

Two silly movies later, the bus’s TV is still blaring music. The drive is quieter than last time though; this driver seems to follow speed limits and mostly stays on his side of the road!

Thursday Jan 27, Chengdu Restaurants and Temples

Thinking about purchasing power parity. How do I compare the restaurant lunch I just ate in a streetside food fair with anything in Canada? It cost $10 to fill two hungry walkers, including a large beer, bottomless steamed rice, stir-fried veggies, delicious wontons, a spicy beef dish, and dessert. But the plastic chairs were uncomfortable, the service abrupt, the air near freezing with no heater in sight, the toilets utterly filthy, the beer glass nearly opaque with old stains, and the cooks smoking over their work. Later my Starbucks latte, full environment matching the West, cost what it does in Vancouver.

Afternoon silly (to me) Taoist temple complex full of colourful statues of “Taoist Immortals”: Gods and elevated humans, a stele attributed to Zhang Sanfeng (semi-mythical founder of Tai Chi), and a bronze “goat” embodying 12 animals, tied somehow to a reincarnation of Laozi. Tai Chi classes advertised, with a white woman prominent in the class photo. Fortunes predicted by monks. Some temples 400 years old refurbished in 19th century, some built or rebuilt in 2006.

Friday Jan 28, Chengdu taxis and Dufu Memorial

Afternoon spent at the Dufu memorial park, learning about the greatest Chinese poets, bracketed between fabulous Sichuan meals. Much more needs to be said about Dufu, and how much impact a few translations had on me. He seemed to chase me around Sichuan, appearing in Langzhong, Chengdu, and later up on Qingchen Shan. His influence on the literature of 1.4 billion Chinese speakers is greater than Shakespeare’s influence on the literature of 400 million English speakers, and yet I’d never heard of him before this trip!

We also learned to take busses rather than taxis in Chengdu. While very cheap compared to Canada, about $2 for a typical 15 minute ride, the taxis are super busy so hard to flag down, try to reject fares they don’t want, don’t know where many things are, and are freezing in winter with windows open. The bus system is terrific: heated and air conditioned for the season, drivers know all the routes, electronic signs announce upcoming stops, busses come every couple minutes, routes are clearly mapped and available on google maps, and each ride is 2 yuan (35 cents).

Saturday Jan 29, Qingcheng Shan

I love China’s trains! I thought England’s were good but this is better. 20 yuan for first class to a mountain 100 km from Chengdu, assigned seating, smooth quiet ride, clean sleek train. The station was a well organized madhouse — the Saturday before New Year’s. Huge masses of people cramming into the station, pushing bags through xray twice as fast as airports, smooth crowd control with gates and waiting areas. With this huge population Xiaoli’s husband claimed administration is harder, but I see more the huge economies of scale. We just can’t support wonderful train systems like this in empty Canada.

I enjoy getting my emails here on my blackberry, even as I trek through the back country of Sichuan. It seems to work everywhere. It even gave me directions including what bus to catch, within Chengdu city, to get from our restaurant back to our hotel! It has a terrific video camera built in, so I’ve been taking lots of videos, of markets, of our hikes, of the city streets, and the views from our bus, or train, or taxi, or hotel room.

Today we’re at Qingcheng Shan, or “Green City Mountain”, the birthplace of the Taoist religion. Xin had been here with colleagues from Beijing university just after finishing her first degree. It’s a beautiful collection of foothills to the Tibetan mountains, with mist and bamboo, and tons of little temples tucked in the trees. We took the train here from Chengdu this morning, and spent the afternoon hiking up the mountain. Our hotel is at the park gate, at the foot of the hike.

The hike was about 500m of vertical, but miles of winding trails, and so many things to see along the way, that it took well over 3 hours to get up. There was snow on the trails near the top, and some of the buildings were closed for renovation over the winter, but it was a beautiful experience anyway. Even in this off-season, there were hawkers selling fresh cucumbers and oranges, or barbequed kebabs, 2 hours up the mountain, scattered along the path. Various monks and peasants and tea house owners live up & down the mountain. Drying laundry hangs on beautiful temple eaves, and you can rent rooms in most of them. China has a thriving free market everywhere, so vibrant it makes the US look lazy in comparison.

The path all the way to the top is beautifully placed flagstones. Carrying any one of those stones up the mountain would be a day’s work, perhaps for 2 people, and yet there are dozens of meandering paths up the mountain, thousands and thousands of those stones!

In the second century AD, a sage named Zhang Zhenren hung out on this mountain for several years, meditating on Laozi’s writings. He became enlightened, and created “Taoism” as a religion, teaching it to others. Now I understand better the gap between fundamental Daoism from reading Laozi… and the elaborate religion of gods and monks and reincarnation and temples and rituals which is called Taoism in China… they essentially had their own “catholic” church create a whole religion out of it, hundreds of years after the source. Just like Christianity.

Funny, the signs on the mountain say it’s measured to have a huge concentration of negative oxygen ions, which is good for longevity and vitality. They give the concentration at various elevations. Haha.

A beautiful description of one of the pavilions stood out on one of the brochures; Xin translated it for me as “Reaching a cool, peaceful environment; happiness is cultivated in your heart”. Unfortunately the English provided was “Truly a refrigerant area, make you gladly”. Google Translate offered “to a cool environment, students loving heart” and a Chinese translation page offered “To cool the heart, joy”.

Along the paths, speakers looking like natural rocks played beautiful Taoist instrumental music, with the wires well buried. One speaker played on, though covered in snow. Every 100m or so a wooden pavilion would appear, with beautiful writing, blending into the forest around it. Hiking in China is a literary experience, often drenched in poetry. Girls walk by in high heeled boots.

Sunday, Jan 30 Taxi Walk Bus Train Train Bus Walk

I watched Sichuan go by today, mile after mile, rice paddies from the train window, Buddhist temple in an old village on the back of Green City Mountain, train stations and bus stations, construction cranes, peasant houses, millions of people going home for Spring Festival.

The weather is warming, the lights glowing stronger every evening, the streets getting noisier.

Monday Jan 31 Quietly in Beibei

Quietly I wandered the noisy streets of Beibei, feeling the New Year excitement build. Cleaned my shoes (3 yuan), bought a coffee at KFC (5.5 yuan), peeked into a thousand shops, collated this diary, which had fragmented in the past week into various emails, Blackberry memos, and files on different laptops. Home cooked meals at Xin’s parents’ house, a few minutes walk past the shops, and up into the warren of walking-paths between the crumbling apartment blocks.

Tuesday Feb 1 Jinyun Shan

The plan was to hike up Jinyun Mountain, just outside Beibei, originally just two of us. Then Xin’s high school classmate Zhangzhang called to say she’d like to show us around it, since her media company got the contract for signage around the park. Then more of her classmates heard about it, and it became 7 people. Together by noonish, it was too late to hike all the way up, so we drove half way up to have lunch by the Daoist temple. What a beautiful temple! Peaceful healthy vibes poured through me. The building is simple, the usual statues somehow more natural and sincere than usual. The flagstones felt more deeply in touch with the deepest Earth energy. I felt happy and quiet.

Lunch was long and full of beer, strong fermented red wine, and rich meats. Three of the friends gave up the hike after 5 minutes, leaving me and 3 ladies to climb the stone stairs. We ran out of time to cross the hilltop to the Buddhist temple, but looked around the bamboo forest a bit. Back at the Daoist temple, the men smoked and all drank tea for another hour of nostalgia about high school, chats about kids scattered at universities around the world, a bit of international politics and business.

I love the beer, the conversations, and especially the food… but I could have used more hiking and less talking. Ah well, different people, different tastes.

Wednesday Feb 2 New Year’s Eve, Beibei

Shoes cleaned and polished for 3 yuan (~50 cents). 10 people gathered for a huge mid-day meal, stretching out to family of family. One young man spoke English, which was a welcome relief for me. He was very polite and engaging, talked about his career – he’d worked for several years for an Australian company, which had two joint venture factories in Chengdu; they pulled out with the financial crisis; now he’s an entrepreneur, using connections he made to import luxury glassware and soaps from the Czech Republic, trying to set up retail outlets in Chongqing. He says there’s plenty of market, with more people getting rich all the time.

6pm, the streets are getting noisier, firecrackers randomly firing as the stores and markets and street vendors close.

Let me try to give you some impression of New Year’s eve as it evolved. You’ve been to Vancouver’s Symphony of Fire, right? Terrific fireworks for about 30 minutes, with the feeling all Vancouver is out on the street, in a great party environment? Now, imagine that the fireworks were not so organized, and more spread out, all over the city, not just in one place, and they started at 7pm and kept going until midnight. Music blaring everywhere not just from one barge. People partying all over the city not focused on one beach. And all that was just the WARMUP. At midnight, the sky exploded. I don’t just mean 300 metres up in the sky. They’re not so careful with fireworks here. People all over the place were blowing up huge fireworks at about the 2nd floor level, in between the buildings. One piece landed on my arm as I walked underneath. You’ve seen movies of war, with bombs exploding all over, and gunfire so loud people have to shout and can’t hear each other? Like that, nonstop from midnight til about 1am!

I walk down the street and my shoes crunch crunch constantly on the fireworks’ debris, littered everywhere are spent firecrackers, fireworks casings, paper and wax and other party stuff. Kids are lighting lanterns under big coloured paper bags, which float into the sky thanks to the heated air. I fell asleep exhausted around 1am, but there were occasional explosions through the night, and the firecrackers started in earnest again around 8am.

Thursday Feb 3, Beibei

I wandered the city alone. Hmm… no I wasn’t alone at all; there are hundreds of thousands of people on the streets! But I hardly spoke to anyone, except a few words to buy a leather hat. I did Tai Chi in the hilltop garden of the town park, after winding through the bonsai gardens and stone paths. The town is full of people on holiday, shopping, amusing their kids with rides and painting, shooting off more fireworks.

(The “town”? Beibei’s physically the size of Trail, or any mid-size town in Canada, but it holds 600,000 people, more than live in the city limits of Vancouver.)

Friday Feb 4, family lunch, family dinner

Let me introduce a young man I met in Chongqing: Huang Min, Xin’s nephew, in his mid-twenties. I was discomfited that for New Year’s, without even having met me, he’d bought me a beautiful Chinese tea set, which I’ll treasure for years as the symbol of this vacation. I brought him a small gift when we visited his parents for lunch, their traditional 2nd day after New Year’s. Thought fighting a horrible flu, his dad spent the whole morning preparing our Hot Pot. Over lunch, with 10 people over, a mix of extended family I couldn’t get straight, I noticed Huang Min taking great care to show respect to the older people there. The oldest man, sitting to my right, was tentatively reaching for a particular bit of fish in the pot, a bit out of his reach, so tentatively I thought I was the only one who happened to see it. But a moment later, without being too obvious, Huang Min stood up and offered that piece to the old man. It wasn’t an isolated example; I watched him throughout the visit (he had to sneak off duty from his job as policeman to attend, on his parents’ request), unfailingly attentive to the many elders. He struggled to use a few words of English with me, and was gracious.

Over dinner that evening, Xin’s mother asked me what I liked, and then what I hadn’t liked, about Chongqing, after these two weeks’ visiting. I talked about the amazing food across Sichuan, and the pretty girls (Xin’s sister said this is winter – I should see them in summertime!). Pressed for negatives, I talked about Facebook withdrawal, how obvious the government control of television was, and how tough I found the temperature extremes (I didn’t mention it’s the temperature inside the buildings that gets me, not the fact that it’s cold outside!). She nodded. After decades as a devout Party member, she’s a news junkie, but still devoted; I don’t know what she really thought. After some consideration, and a few more cups of flower wine, I told her, through Xin’s translation, that my salient impression, this trip, has been how dramatically China has improved the quality of life for its people, all billion of them… that this ongoing accomplishment dwarfs all the other feelings and thoughts I’ve had, as I’ve criss-crossed parts of this country.

Saturday – Tuesday Feb 5-8, Beijing

Thrilling and scary for me, alone in Beijing for the first time – I’ve been here three times before, but always shepherded and cared for nearly every hour, by colleagues or friends. Of course I don’t get as many “wow, a foreigner!” stares here, and I could probably get by in English if I wanted to… but I was quite surprised how many people in Beijing speak hardly any English, starting from my airport taxi driver, and including most of the restaurant staff I’ve met.

Probably a first for Donglaishun restaurant. Not serving a white guy — there was an English couple across the aisle assisted by Chinese friends. Not a lone diner — their hot pot is designed small enough and the hostess expressed no surprise. Nobody on staff seemed to speak any English. But when I put them on the phone with Xin in Chongqing to order for me, there was a lot of laughter and puzzled expressions across the restaurant!

At the biggest McDonald’s I’ve ever seen, stopping to pick up a $1.80 Americano, listening to the hot rock music (Everybody’s Birthday) blaring, waiting in line in the washroom, saw two young men come out of a toilet stall, smiling happily.

Now let me tell you an embarassing story. I didn’t think I’d include this, because I’m ashamed of it – but it made Zeng Li laugh the next day, so perhaps it has a place here. I thought I was smart, and travel-hardened, careful and experienced. But I got taken to the cleaners for $200 and hate myself for it. My first night in Beijing, after a long walk from my hotel all the way around the outside of the Forbidden City, through Tiananmen square, and back to Wangfujing Street where my hotel is, I was very hungry. Not relishing the task of ordering Chinese food for one, I seriously considered the McDonald’s in front of me. At that moment, a pair of women nudged my shoulder and asked “Hello! You speak English?”. One of them was very friendly, neither of them was very attractive, but they seemed nice enough I chatted with them a while as we walked in the same direction. She asked if I’d like to join them for dinner, and I was happy to; I figured I could even pay for dinner for three, in exchange for someone ordering competently, and interesting conversation. First she suggested a “tea room” with snacks, around the corner; hesitating, I agreed. The menu seemed frightfully expensive, with teas for 280 yuan ($40!), but we agreed on one, and a beer, and talked for half an hour. The bill was an astonishing 700 yuan ($100), with charges for the crackers they brought. I was shocked and angry but paid, thinking this was downtown Beijing, and maybe these are normal prices. Around another corner, we settled on a restaurant offering Peking Duck; it seemed to have lots of locals in it, and the prices were saner… so I paid for dinner. It was the worst Peking Duck I’ve ever eaten. Edible but not pleasing. 480 yuan for the three of us and it felt expensive for a man who had just spent two weeks in Sichuan heaven. Alas, I continued to play the fool. I told the ladies they could go to their karaoke without me; I wanted either my hotel to sleep, or a Salsa club if I could find one. They begged for a quick 20-minute drink at a local bar first, and I stupidly agreed, having walked by the bar earlier and thought it looked interesting. Hey, I’m here for interesting experiences, right? The menu was shocking — $40 for a glass of red wine, $5 for a beer! I had a beer; they ordered wine. The bill again was $100. I said good-bye and went home, feeling used and sick. Too tired to find Salsa, I went to bed at 10pm, cursing myself for an idiot. It only started to get funny the next day, when two other women approached me on the street with exactly the same lines. I just laughed at them.

I realized a dream the next day: I drove a car all over Beijing! Zeng Li’s shoulder was killing her, so she couldn’t drive, but she offered that I drive her car so we could get away from her residential suburb on the far west end of the city. Alright, it was Spring Festival so the traffic was light, but I still got to drive on the wrong side of the road to get around stopped taxis, navigate intersections without traffic lights, drive between Hutou walls in the HouHai district, squeeze past a parked car with 6 inches to spare on both sides, make an illegal U-turn across 4 lanes, drive up the Sanlitun bar district weaving between pedestrians, and zip through Tiananmen Square’s 7 lanes-a-side ChangAn avenue! It was wonderful!

Dinner was pretty good too, overlooking HouHai lake, in a restaurant opened in 1854, famous for its barbequed mutton (every table seemed to have it). Still state-owned, so terrible service, but the food was ok, and the environment delightful. Walked around the lake after dinner, listening to twentysomethings belting out their rock guitar music, bar after bar with speakers blaring outside each one to entice people in. One bar offered pole dancing, visible from the street… though not in action during the Festival. Beijing’s half-empty, as half its workers go “home” elsewhere to be with family for the holiday.

Next night, my last dinner in Beijing didn’t go exactly as planned. I arrived at 8:35 to discover they closed at 8:30. Not a big surprise; I somehow had a feeling I wasn’t going to get good Beijing Duck this trip. So I wandered the little market off Wangfujing street, thought about buying some snacks there. Off to one side, an enthusiastic young man tried to get people into his restaurant. He was loud and a bit aggressive, but in such a friendly way, I came back to his place and ate there. Just 47 yuan for a plate of jiaozi and some green vegetable, and a Yanjing beer. Not very good, but not bad either. I got my food, and came back “home”. Ready for bed early tonight, hopefully feel a bit better tomorrow. A week after New Year’s, the Beijing sky is still full of fireworks, booming from every direction all over the city, every few minutes from dusk until after I fall asleep.

Then… the tea leaves swirl and settle in my glass of deep brown Pu’er tea, an esthetic joy to watch. I’ve just eaten among the best Peking Duck of my life, for my last lunch in China, accompanied by the duck’s subtle white broth, and a cup of mushroom soup (at least four varieties). Glad I ordered the tea — so hard to find Qingdao beer in Beijing, and I don’t much like the everpresent Yanjing brew. The duck skin dipped in sugar, for appetizer while watching the young man carve my duck, was sublime.

Now I’m tapping on my blackberry (literally “heimei” in Chinese) in the comfy back seat of an expensive Audi. The husband of one of Xin’s friends sent his driver to bring me to the airport. I’ve been enjoying a bit of 5-star luxury for the last few days of my vacation, staying in one of Beijing’s top hotels, a few blocks from TianAnMen.I love travel! Especially China. Next time, Tibet, I think, maybe see if I can arrange a trip over to Nepal and on down into India. In a couple years. For now, I’m very happy to return home, to surround myself with familiar things and people, and slowly digest this intense vacation.