Shanxi Adventures: Day 2

On the way to breakfast, I met a young man who insisted on speaking to me in English.  It took a minute to adjust – I kept trying to use Chinese with him.  He repeatedly replied in mechanical, stilted English, “You can just speak your native language.”  He went on to tell me about his time attending high school in Canada.  He especially wanted to tell me about his favorite geology teacher, whose resume he recited to me in exhaustive detail.  He also asked how I was finding the Tai Yuan region’s environment.  When I, thinking that he was referring to the culture or the infrastrucutre, replied with some innocuous pleasantry, he launched into a short diatribe on the mismanagement of mining and coal production.  I’d found China’s lone environmentalist.  I wanted to ask him how Shanxi differed from the rest of the country in that regard, but I refrained.  His life must be hard enough without antagonism from abroad.

The environmentalist wasn’t the only person who wanted to use his English with me.  Everywhere I went, people would smile at me and push their young children forward to show off the English they’d been learning in school.  Not a single child seemed comfortable with this.  But the parents all beamed, happy to have found, in the flesh, an object lesson for their child on the usefulness of their studies.  The parental subtext seemed to be: “What if you come across a foreigner at a tourist destination and need to greet him?  Then you’ll be glad you applied yourself in school!”

Breakfast at Chinese hotels is usually interesting.  This one proved to be no exception.  Chinese people enjoy a range of breakfast options, and the Jinci Hotel seemed eager to cater to them all.  While I would have been happy to have noshed on some jiaozi or suan la tang (hot and sour soup), the attendant who showed me around the breakfast room kept pointing out all the bread options.  Someone must have told her that what foreigners really like for breakfast is bread.  I nodded politely and went off in search of spicy noodles, green tea, and a pair of chopsticks.  Undeterred, she took it on herself to make me some toast.  A few minutes later, she showed up at my table unbidden with two slices of toasted white bread.  I ate one of them, just to be polite.

This morning’s adventure was a trip to the Meng Shan Giant Buddha statue.  It has an ancient body, and a head that was rebuilt from 2206-2008.  It only opened as a tourist destination after the reconstruction of the head.  Security to get into the statue was structurally robust, but procedurally deficient.  Everyone goes through the same metal detector, and everyone sets off the detector.  This is pretty common in China – airports seem to be the only place where metal detectors are used for their intended purpose.  The guards looked me up and down, then asked me one question: whether I was carrying any cigarette lighters.  I considered this for a minute – I had brought a few cigars and a lighter on my trip on the off chance that I’ll be able to smoke them.  But then I looked around – it was 15 degrees below zero.  There was snow on the ground.  It was so cold that my camera buttons froze and stopped working.  The chances of me even getting the lighter out, much less using it for a nefarious purpose, were as low as the temperature.  I’m not sure what they were hoping to prevent; there were many people smoking at all parts of the outdoor exhibit.  So I lied.  The guard grunted and pointed me through the security check.

Any tourist destination with a religous theme will be riddled with irony.  In China, trebly so.  While a site that venerates an ancient religion, a visit to the Meng Shan Giant Buddha isn’t a calming trip away from civilization.  It’s a nice hike up a gorge to see the statue.  But it’s not a serious athletic challenge.  Of course, the presence of an oxygen bar halfway up this low-elevation hike might hint otherwise.  The walk is decorated with plastic animals and plastic flowers.  Poppy, energetic music plays from speakers on the walk up and down from seeing the Buddha statue.  While there are two people dressed as monks at the base of the statue who periodically ring a giant singing bowl and facilitate worship at the base of the statue, they are also selling electric candles for use in your home worship.  You can pay them with WeChat using a convenient QR code.  QR codes for donations also show up on donation boxes in the less-visited temples off the beaten path.  One of the many gift shops, next to the Virtual Reality lounge, was selling wire-framed machine guns.  Despite all this, there were a decent number of actual worshippers coming to venerate the Buddha.  Several of them, after bowing down, came to ask me if they could take pictures with me, too.  

I’d like to take this opportunity to remind the reader that I, like the Buddha Siddhartha, make no claims at divinity.  Every taxi driver I’ve met in China will agree with you.  They universally despise me.  Case in point: the unlucky driver who answered the call to take me from the Giant Buddha to the Tai Yuan train station.  Like every taxi driver, he called me to talk about the ride before picking me up.  You must understand, my Chinese language skills are impressive – if you don’t speak Chinese.  If you do, then they’re somewhere on a range between bewilderingly incomprehsible babble and an outright offense to this beautiful language.  No matter where you find me on that scale, one thing is certain: every taxi driver I try to hire would like to have an ent-length conversation about the ride before picking me up.  Often I won’t answer the phone, but that just makes them more angry.  When they call, I select from a few of my most-used phrases: “This is embarassing, but my Chinese is bad.  Please speak slowly,” or, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.  Can you speak more simply?”  Usually, the response is a torrent of words, possibly an attempt to expose me to every Chinese word at once.  Probably for my improvement.  But I don’t improve.  I haven’t learned any new words from a taxi driver yet.  Talking with one driver on the phone, I said, “The more words you say, the less I understand.  Keep it simple: Are you coming or not coming?”  His response might have been the entire text of ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’.  Or just a version of his family’s history, ending with the reason that he’s on the way to pick up a *bad word* foreigner in a taxi.  My most successful conversations usually end up with me hanging up the phone on the driver.  Often when they see me and realize that I’m a foreigner (wai guo ren, or outside country person), a small light of realization flickers in their eyes, and I get a grunt of absolution.  Either way, I finally connected with my driver after a painful (for both of us) series of communication missteps.  The dropoff happened without any hassle, and I was back into the TaiYuan train station for my trip to PingYao.

It was comforting to be back on the train, navigating a station that was no longer new.  The Swiss have got nothing on China: the Chinese system of high speed rail is impressive.  The trains are fast and comfortable, and ticket prices are cheap.  You can get almost anywhere in the country by rail.  Every train I’ve taken has run on time, to the minute.  Tickets cost about three or four times the cost of most in-town taxi fares.  First class tickets are only a little more expensive than coach.  I settled down for a nice ride.

From the train window, I saw stepped farming. It seemed an attempt to turn the foothills nestled next to a small mountain range into productive land.  All seemed to be fallow, with no sign of crops apart from neatly plowed patterns in the soil.  The small steppes were occasionally riven by what looked like dry river gorges or wide runoff channels.  These, too, were plowed at the bottom.  Snow and small clusters of concrete houses dotted the jagged steppes and the bottoms of the gorges.  Many of the concrete slab houses had solar panels on top, and all of them had traditional New Year’s decorations.  I wondered if the residents use WeChat and AliPay.  From everything I’ve seen so far, they probably do.  

Arriving at PingYao, I saw the same thing I see all over China: endless rows of massive apartment building under construction.  The number of new units being added at any given time must be massive.  I asked a taxi driver where all the people will come from to live in these houses.  As expected, I didn’t understand his answer.

Old town PingYao is fabulous.  Upon arrival, I decided that it’s probably my favorite place in China, and maybe in the world.  My major metric for place-attraction is ambiance, and PingYao has so much ambiance that the word ‘PingYao’ should henceforth be substituted for the word ‘ambiance’ in all future usage.  The entrance gate to which my taxi driver delivered me had a police station and a ticket booth.  It cost 125 RMB to enter the old city, and this seemed to be on the honor system.  So I did what everyone else walking through the gate was doing: I walked by, between the ticket booth and the police station.  

A driver from the guest house met me inside the old city wall, and drove me just around the corner to the hotel.  The place he stopped didn’t seem like a guest house – I couldn’t tell from the outside that the building was even occupied.  But when he opened the door and ushered me in, I stepped into a world of ancient oriental delight.  This is the place that every ancient-Chinese-themed place in the world aspires to be.  Large fish chased each other around a massive fish tank in a corner, right by a table whose design practically announceed that old Chinese men were to use it when drinking tea.  The guest house hostess ushered me out a back door and toward me room, and into a courtyard whose beauty literally took my breath away.  It was nigh on evening, and red Chinese lanterns lit the courtyard, creating a beautiful sense of PingYao.  

All of the guest rooms open to the courtyard, with only large windows and wooden screens creating a small amount of privacy for the guests.  What the rooms lack in modern convenience (nowhere to put clothes, no hotel bathrobes, etc.) it made up for in PingYao, with ancient-looking furniture.  The large bed, which took up most of the room’s square footage, aspired to be a slab of concrete or a hardwood floor.  My Chinese teacher warned me about the use of ‘kongs’ (or traditional hard sleeping surfaces) in this type of guesthouse.  She cautioned me to be sure to reserve a room with a bed and not a kong.  I tried, but I think I failed at this.  No matter: when you’re tired enough, you can sleep anywhere.  And I was tired.

(If you’ve read this far, I have a special message for you: “Hi, Mom and Dad!” If you’re anyone else, please leave a short comment just so I know you’re out there and interested.)

Shanxi Adventures: Day 1

Solo travel in China has been fascinating.  I’m not too far out of Beijing but I’m far enough that I’m meeting many people who appear never to have seen a foreigner before.

Today is the first day of the Lunar New Year, so most Chinese people are recovering from late-night celebrations with their families.  Because of this, I despaired of finding a taxi for the long cross-town trek to Fengtai train station, especially at 5:30 am.  Even the ride-sharing services, at all other times ubiquitous, were not guaranteed.  Enter Mr. Wang.  I texted him the night before, on New Year’s Eve.  He checked with his network of drivers – none of them was willing to be away from their families early on New Year’s day.  So he agreed to drive me personally.  In the morning, he explained that his son is a public servant, a government official (probably at the city level), so his son wasn’t able to join his wife (a housecleaner) and him (an independent driver) for New Year’s Eve.  They ate a nice, small, quiet meal and went to bed early.  In the morning he was ready to drive me on the eerily-empty streets of Beijing.

Arriving at the train station was new to me.  I didn’t know the protocols.  And the checkin procedure relies on a Chinese identity card, a shenfenzheng, that I don’t have.  Luckily, the guards seemed familiar enough with a foreign passport, and getting into the station (and later getting onto the train pokatform) wasn’t a problem.  The train station felt like a more casual version of an airport. I tried to use the first class lounge, but it’s apparently only bookable through corporate buyers.  No matter – the wait wasn’t even long enough to sit down.

For this trip, I decided to travel heavy, bringing my full DSLR kit instead of my small, light Fuji XE-4 camera.  Shooting in the train station, I realized just how out-of-practice I am.  But all the skills come back easily enough, like a language that you haven’t spoken in a while.

I boarded the train and sat in my first-class seat.  It was remarkable how smooth the takeoff and ride were – this is a high-speed train.  It’s part of the network of high speed trains in which China has been investing so heavily for the past 15 years or so.  I rolled through the countryside, trying to observe what I could while simultaneously recording the third Harry Potter book for the little boys.  The countryside, though I’ve never seen it, looked familiar. It was filled with signs of progress (a big field of solar panels) mixed with rural poverty, small manufacturing, and geographic contours that somehow communicate their very ancient nature at a glance.

The trip was over before I knew it, and it was clear getting off the train that I wasn’t in Kansas any more.  I needed even better language skills to get around, and many people I came into contact with seemed like they aren’t used to seeing foreigners.

The hotel I selected is a once-opulent affair.  Apparently built many decades ago (and not improved or maintained since), it’s a conference site nestled at the foot of the hills.  It looks as if its main purpose is to impress provincial-level  government and party officials, who no doubt use it for important meetings.  I chose it for its proximity to the Jinci historic area, and I was not disappointed.  Though there are limousine-length golf carts constantly loitering around the front door and eager to satisfy the transportation whims of guests, the historic area is an easy (and rather pretty) walk front the hotel’s front door.

I skipped the walk at the insistence of a golf cart-limo driver, and he dropped me off at a side entrance to Jinci Temple ‘scenic area’.

At this point, it might be worth mentioning that solo travel also affords me the freedom to indulge my whims, and to see this place on my own terms.  I only share this to explain my lack of understanding about the things around me.  For example, there are guides every few feet at the entrance to the scenic area who were haraunging visitors.  Several of them argued with each other about whether it was worth pitching me.  I moved on before they could settle that dispute.

I decided that, instead of listening to an audio tour, engaging a guide, and reading all the signs (or at least the ones that are translated into English), I would just walk around and let my visual sense enjoy the scenery.  I’d like to walk away with pictures this time instead an an exhaustive (and soon-forgotten) grasp of the finer points of local history.

Jinci Temple park was lovely, and the Duke’s Art Gallery (castle?) was especially impressive.  After entering the old city/museum, I wandered, climbed lots of stairs, photographed, and generally enjoyed myself.  At the end of the day, I stopped in a coffee shop at the museum for a cup of coffee and to process pictures.  The staff, after making me swear that I wouldn’t share it with anyone, was kind enough to give me the Wi-Fi password.

After picking my way back across the vast museum/city and scenic park as the temperature went down with the setting sun, decided to stay at the hotel for dinner.  That was an interesting experience – at first I thought I’d made a mistake.  Dinner was served in a corner of a large conference hall, and the sheer size of the room made for weird ambiance.  Then I looked at the menu, where they featured very expensive delicacies, including the famous bird’s nest soup and the infamous shark fin soup.  I worried that I might be in for a 3,000 RMB dinner full of things that don’t please my palette or my ethics.  Luckily, I found many items on the menu that looked appetizing to my taste buds, my wallet, and my ethical sensibilities.  I put together an order of 5 small items.  The server told me that it was going to be too much food.  She took one of the items off of my order.  I shrugged, said OK, and waited for dinner.  She was right – it would have been far too much food.  And when I got the bill, it was only 30 RMB ($4.42 in USD).  For a delicious, restaurant-quality meal!  I’ve seen this trend elsewhere – restaurants in China tend to price everyday, normal food very low.  Even though it might be delicious or a regional speciality (like the razor-cut noodles I ordered in Shanxi, or Beijing’s JianBing), Chinese people just assume that it’s common food and price it lower than other, less common dishes.

Though I’d decided to eat in, I also wanted to see the city of Tai Yuan at night.  After taking a taxi way into the city and walking around a bit, I met a family of guys heading into a karaoke bar.  They were already half-drunk and in a very celebratory mood.  They invited me to join them, and I decided that I probably wouldn’t get another chance like this.  I accepted, and had a blast singing with them.  It was great language practice and even better diplomacy.  The father, the dominant figure in the group, told me with increasing volume how proud he is of his country.  The background on this phone was a picture of him as a much younger (and much thinner) man, kneeling in fatigues.

Getting home was a challenge – one driver picked me up, drove for a while, stopped, saw where I was going, and loudly complained at me until I got out of the car angrily.  When I finally did get a driver who was willing to make the 20-minute trek to the hotel, we found the large front gate locked and the guard on duty sleeping in the guard house.  An unhappy and bleary guard opened the gate for me, but the driver had already left.  I made the rest of the walk across the expansive hotel grounds in the freezing cold.