Tuesday, June 20, 2006

China Stories Pt. 14: Home to Beijing

Bob and I were going hard sleeper on the return trip to Beijing. The hard sleeper was different from soft sleepers in a couple of notable ways. The soft sleepers had 2 bunks on each wall, whereas the hard sleepers had three. The hard sleepers did not have a volume knob for the dreaded loudspeaker. And the hard sleepers were not enclosed in a compartment - they were open to the passageway that ran the length of the car.

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On the way back, we didn't really want to chat with people - not as much as we had on the way out. Now, we didn't have a door to close for privacy. Fortunately, sleeping or pretending to sleep worked pretty well.

Once again, we were graced by sharing our trip with a couple of characters. This time it was an eight year-old boy. He was on his way to Shandong, where his parents were in the opera. At age eight, he was already a decent Peking opera singer.

The budding opera star in our train car.

He sang for us, and man, he was actually good. Not only could he sing, but he had the facial expressions, the gestures...the whole package.

He also wrote a poem for me, about my "yellow beard."

We shared our "bay" in the car with a family, including a cute little girl. She was made no less cute when she sat, staring at us and smiling, while gnawing on a chicken's foot. At her dad's urging, she offered Bob and I each a foot. We declined, politely. I may have said something about not being able to eat chicken for dietary reasons. (My language skills must be improving! I'm becoming a liar!)

The journey passed uneventfully. The biggest adjustment was not being able to control the rattling speaker that helpfully announced anything and everything even remotely noteworthy along the way. Regardless of the time of day.

Returning to Beijing did really feel like coming home. It seemed relatively familiar. It was nice to see my classmates, whom I had known for less than a month. I was thrilled to be reunited with the remainder of my belongings in my room. This was especially the case with my clean clothes. (I think that made everyone happy, in fact.)

Bob and I had had an incredible trip. Nearly everything I had experienced, from morning to night, was new. It was exhilarating. Part of the thrill was what we experienced; and part of it came from knowing I could DO something like this. It was a good feeling.

But now I was happy to throw on my old familiar (and relatively stink-free) clothes and relax. As an added bonus, my roommate Chad was not yet back from his holiday trip, so I had some time to myself.

That night I thought about the trip, about home, and about getting back to studying.

And I slept very, very well.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

China Stories Pt. 13: Leshan

We started the Year of the Snake riding a bus to Leshan. It was about a four-hour trip. By Chinese standards, this was nothing. It didn't really even qualify as a long-range bus trip. Long range buses that made 12-, 18-, 24-hour trips were common. They were outfitted with bunks instead of seats. I never took one of these buses, but I can't imagine it was pleasant in, say, hour 18. The first hour on the four-hour bus certainly wasn't.

Our bus was like a school bus – bench seats, small and close together. Bob and I squeezed into a bench near the back. We were the only foreigners on the bus. And since we were heading into a more remote part of the country, quite a few people on the bus were not ethnic Chinese. That is, not of the Han ethnicity, which comprises 92% of the population of China. The remaining 8% of the population is made up of 55 different ethnic groups, most very small and located in the outlying areas of the country. I really hadn't encountered non-Han Chinese people before. Our fellow travelers to Leshan looked very different than Han Chinese. They wore brightly colored clothing. They reminded me of indigenous people in Mexico and South America.

I'm guessing we were at least as interesting to them as they were to us, since they stared at Bob and me continuously for four hours. They didn't feel any shame or embarrassment about it. Being stared at all the time took a lot of getting used to.

The road to Leshan was not a freeway. It was a winding two-lane dirt road that meandered between hillsides. It seemed to be in no real hurry to get to Leshan. Every square inch of hillside was planted with tea. The steep hills with their neat rows of tea looked like green wedding cakes.

We went through a few small towns along the way. Billboards everywhere touted China's family planning policy, showing smiling couples with one child. (Oddly enough, many of the families looked white. I don't know why, maybe they're easier to draw.) I saw one sign that said restaurant in Chinese, and next to it, written in English, "RESTQURQNT." I figure the owner had found someone to write out the word for him, and in handwritten lower-case letters, "a" had looked like "q." It's pretty understandable – there are a lot of Chinese characters that look pretty similar, but are completely different.


Once our bus arrived in Leshan, Bob and I went to find a room. There was a brand-new hotel in town, touted as being "five-star." We were skeptical, so we opted to head to the older, more established place. I can't remember, but I think it had an evocative name like "Guest House No. 2." After we checked in, we headed downstairs for dinner.

In the restaurant, we ended up sharing a table with a couple of backpackers. They were from New Zealand, and they'd been traveling in China for about 4 months.

We exchanged a little bit of small talk with them, I don't remember what about. Probably the usual traveler chatter: where they had been, where they were going.

Travelers, especially of this backpacking sort, had this kind of ritualistic exchange about their travels. You always go over these same well-worn questions and answers. Then, at some point, each would try to one-up the other as to who was roughing it the most, who was spending the least money. There was some perverse sense of nobility in this I guess.

"You paid to take the bus here? Really? Wow, that must have been nice. Oh, us? Yeah,we hitchhiked down in a truck loaded with raw hides going to the tannery. The smell was awful, but it only cost us one pack of Marlboros."

There was something a little odd about these guys that I couldn't put my finger on. They clearly hadn't done a lot of shaving since being in China, but that wasn't it; that's just backpacker chic. I just remember immediately wondering if they were in China hiding out from the law.

As became apparent, they did not speak Chinese. The waitress came to take our orders. They spoke a few words of Chinese, and pointed. They did it with a kind of hostility, like it was a tremendous inconvenience to them that no one spoke their language. It didn't matter that people made an effort to try to speak English, and that they didn't seem to try very hard to speak Chinese. I'm sure that over a period of months, it made them feel a little helpless, and frustrated.

The fact that Bob and I could speak Chinese, and could actually communicate with the waitress, must have galled them. The small talk lapsed into awkward silence.

After we were finished, the server came back to clear the table.

"Finished?" she said in English.

"Yeah," said one of the backpackers. She began to clear the plates, then he added:

"Hey, when you come back, do you think you could suck my d**k?"

The server just stood there for second, uncertain and uncomprehending. Then the guy laughed. Then the server laughed nervously, and retreated to the kitchen.

We finished our dinner, paid, and left. Bob and I walked, and said nothing.


We walked around the town a little bit, and eventually found our way to the new hotel. As we walked through the lobby, Bob did a double-take.


"Bob!" Mitch was our classmate from Bei Da, and Bob's roommate. Here we were, four hours from Chengdu, 1,400 miles or so from Beijing, and we run into Bob's roommate.

We knew he had gone to Sichuan, but didn't know where. He was traveling with a Chinese friend, Lu, to visit Lu's family. (Lu had lived with Mitch's family in the US.)

We went up to see their room, to get the full effect.

The hotel had very few guests, so it had an eery, abandoned feeling. I half-expected to see Jack Nicholson or Scatman Crothers. (Yes, that was a "Shining" reference.) And apparently, the lack of guests meant they would not so much be heating the hotel.

The room was perfectly generic – it could have been a Ramada Inn in Indiana. Except instead of being connected to a Waffle House and having pay-per-view porn, this Ramada Inn only had hot water until 8pm, and got three TV channels, CCTV-1, CCTV-2, and the Sichuan TV channel. After visiting with Mitch and his friend for an hour or so, we departed. They were getting up early to drive on to Lu's family's house, and we had to get up early to go see the Big Buddha.

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The Leshan Dafo is the tallest Buddha statue in the world, at 71 meters. It's located on the side of Emei Shan (Mt. Emei), one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains in China. As such, it's a destination for Chinese travelers as well as foreigners. Bob and I were an added attraction for the Chinese tourists. Some even had their pictures taken with us. We were getting used to it.

The statue is carved out of a mountainside at the confluence of three rivers. To get to it, we walked onto a pontoon dock extending into the river. From there we took a small ferry across to the other side. Once the ferry seemed full, they loaded another, oh, 18,000 people aboard for the short trip across the river.

We joined the long line of tourists snaking along the shoreline, over to the foot of the Buddha. From there, we climbed six or seven flights of stairs that stood just to the right of the Buddha. At the top we took some pictures – right next to the Buddha's nine-foot tall ear. Then we descended the stairs on the other side.

At the foot – er, feet – of the Buddha, tourists milled about taking pictures, eating snacks. There was no barrier to keep tourists from crawling all over the statues feet, which they did. One after another, they would scramble up onto its crumbling toes to have their pictures taken. At this rate, the Buddha's 1,000 year-old feet would crumble to dust in a generation. (Now there is a protective railing.)

In the afternoon, we took the bus back to Chengdu, where we would spend one night before catching the train back to Beijing. Bob and I agreed that after three nights spent in cold guest houses without running hot water, and before spending two more days on the train, we could splurge a little and stay at a hotel with hot running water.

We checked in and I took a long hot shower. I have never appreciated hot running water more than I did at that moment.

Bob and I grabbed some dinner, then returned to our room where we watched an episode of the American TV show "Hunter" dubbed in Chinese. Then we packed for the train trip home.

That's how it felt – we were going home. Beijing, thousands of miles from my real home, where I'd only been for a couple of weeks. But after traveling another 1,300 miles into even stranger, less familiar surroundings, I was looking forward to getting home to Beijing.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

China Stories Pt. 12: Chengdu

After thawing out from our first night in the guest house, Bob and I set about accomplishing priority one: getting our return tickets. Which meant going back to the train ticket office.

The Chengdu train station was like a caricature of the Beijing train station. Beijing was crowded? Chengdu was more crowded. Beijing was loud? Chengdu was louder. The posters warning of the dangers of fireworks were even more graphic and disturbing. And I thought the people in Beijing were pushy.

It was as though we were trying to buy tickets on the roof of the American Embassy before the fall of Saigon. It was every man for himself, pushing and shoving, flying elbows everywhere. Somewhere in the middle of it were two Americans whose sense of fair play was offended, wondering why people couldn't just wait their turns.

Fortunately, we were seasoned travelers now, and fortified by our success in Beijing. We got in line and we were ready to give as good as we got. There were some pushy grandmas who discovered the taste of my elbow on that day, I can tell you.

We coped as best we could with all the pushing and jostling, but eventually it became too much. A guy barged into the line ahead of us, and that was the last straw. It was time to play the foreigner-in-China card. The toddler-in-the-grocery-store card:

"Oh, so you think you can treat me unfairly without any consequences, do you? Well, think again."

Another variant is the crazy-guy-on-the-bus card. If people don't know what to do with you, they disengage and leave you alone.

Last Straw hadn't even bothered to pretend he wasn't doing it. So we raised our voices. In Chinese.

"Don't cut in line!" I said to this goof. (A useful phrase I'd picked up from our experience in Beijing.) He ignored me.

Bob got right close to him from behind and said something like, "most Chinese are courteous! But there are others aren't so courteous. You know what I mean?"

I replied, again inches from the back of this guy's neck, "apparently, some people don't understand how to be wait in line."

Not exactly a "going postal" kind of outburst. No profanity. But because we were blond-haired blue-eyed American devils, and we were saying all this in Chinese, and loud, everyone was staring at us, and by extension, at Last Straw.

I'd like to tell you that he ran out of the building, and the onlookers applauded us.

So I will: He ran out of the building, and the onlookers applauded us.

Only that didn't really happen. After awhile, Last Straw did find some excuse to move away from us – he probably found a better place to cut in line. After that, no more people cut in front of us. We got our return tickets to Beijing and got out of there. (This time we would be going hard sleeper instead of soft sleeper. And again we had succeeded in paying in RMB. Score! Another $7 saved.)

Our next order of business was to get bus tickets to our next destination, the town of Leshan, a few hours to the south of Chengdu. On the bus ride down People's Avenue, we passed by one of Chengdu's biggest attractions, the statue of Chairman Mao.

Chairman Mao, after all, had inspired the phrase "cult of personality." At one time there were thousands, probably tens of thousands of Chairman Mao statues all over China. But under Deng Xiaoping in the 80s, as China modernized and reformed, this type of leader worship was deemphasized. Deng did not allow any statues of himself to be erected, and Mao statues around the country came down in droves. In fact, the last statue of Mao at Bei Da* had been pulled down shortly after I arrived. Not many statues remained. (Sidenote: I always wanted to acquire one of these. I wanted to have a Chairman Mao head, maybe 5, 6 feet tall, in my back yard.)

I was fascinated by the Cultaral Revolution, and by the cult-like adoration for "the Great Helmsman." Though it was disappearing quickly, there was still quite a bit of evidence of how things must have been in the 1960s. There were the Mao badges that everyone had worn, now being sold to people like me. There were large slogans painted on walls. I remember walking onto the running track at Bei Da and being taken aback when I saw a political slogan on the wall, in characters that were probably 6 feet tall. Fading, but still there.

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Bob and I found the bus station, and fortunately, buying bus tickets was much easier than buying train tickets. I guess not many people were planning to spend the first day of the new year taking a four-hour bus ride.

So there it was. We'd spent our first half-day in Chengdu doing nothing but organizing our escape. This was the rhythm of traveling in China, especially outside the major cities, that I became accustomed to. As soon as you arrive, figure out how and when you're going to leave.

Bob and I visited the Wenshu Monastery, which was literally across the street from our guesthouse. It was a real functioning Tibetan Buddhist monastery, with novice monks in saffron and brown robes circulating through the grounds.

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We were there at an interesting time. It was New Year's, so many people were visiting to make offerings – to light incense and bow before the various altars. Furthermore, we learned that the 10th Panchen Lama had just passed away.

The Panchen Lama was the second highest ranking lama, behind the Dalai Lama. China had "liberated" Tibet in the early 1950s. In 1959, Tibetans staged an unsuccessful rebellion, during which the current Dalai Lama fled into exile in India. The Panchen Lama remained in China as the highest ranking lama in China.

The Panchen Lama had been a somewhat controversial figure. Was the Panchen Lama upholding and representing the Tibetan people, the spiritual leader who stayed to fight for his people? Or had he been co-opted by the hated Chinese occupiers? He had been jailed by the Chinese government. But he also married a Chinese woman and had a daughter. Before he died, he had made a speech highly critical of the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

The monastery was crowded with worshippers paying their respects. There was an altar adorned with a large portrait of the Panchen Lama, flanked by pyramids of oranges. People crowded around the altar to light incense.

I definitely had the sense that we were seeing something unusual and significant.


The next day, we visited another temple, on the outskirts of the city, called Baoguangsi. I don't remember too much about the temple - it had the usual assortment of ghoulish looking deities, which I've never enjoyed all that much. Mainly I remember that there was a somewhat prominent calligrapher there, and Bob and I talked to him. Bob found some connection with him, because Bob had attended UCLA, and the calligrapher's daughter was there. Something like that. He ended up making a poster for each of us. My poster, which said something about US-China friendship, is now hanging in a bathroom at my parents' house.

We also went to an open air market to replenish our snack supplies for our bus ride the next day. Since China didn't have a national highway system to speak of, the goods for sale in a market in Chengdu were really quite different than those in Beijing. Everything was a little different – clothes, books, and especially food. Imagine going to a grocery store in Cleveland, and almost none of the same goods are on the shelves that you're used to seeing at home. I was especially struck by how the market in Chengdu had different vegetables than what we saw in Beijing. Well, not only that, but I saw vegetables I'd never seen before. There were bright red radishes that looked like giant radioactive carrots. I wondered if there were giant rabbits with x-ray vision in the Sichuan countryside.


That night was Chinese New Year's Eve. The fireworks were getting louder and more frequent. In the evening, I took a shower. A "shower," you may recall, consisted of heating kettles of water on gas burners and pouring them over yourself as you stood in a tiled basin.

I heated my water, then stood in the basin. I mixed the hot water from the kettles in with some cold water. I poured it over myself. This was the first real shower I'd had since Beijing. It felt wonderful to be warm and clean. Wonderful, but then I realized it was still about 40 degrees in there, and I was freezing. I had to hurry up and do it again. I poured out my kettle, and poured it over myself, but I didn't get completely rinsed off, and now I was out of hot water. I needed to heat more water.

Wet, shivering, I set about quickly refilling the kettles. With shaky, wet hands, I tried to relight the gas burners. For a moment, it didn't light.

Just at that moment, a GIANT firecracker went off outside the window. For a split second I thought: great, I just blew myself up. What a way to go, too. They'll find me, sprawled naked in this tiled basin, covered in third-degree burns and goosebumps.


Chinese New Year's Eve was a little like Christmas Eve – what if there weren't any open restuarants? But then we reasoned: even though it's a holiday, some restaurant will be open. And odds are, it will be a Chinese restaurant.

We ended up sampling one of the local delicacies, Sichuan hotpot. It's kind of like a big pot of boiling oily soup, into which you add meat and vegetables, sort of like fondue. And also? It's very very spicy. The hallmark of Sichuan cooking is that not only is it spicy, but it also has a special peppery spice that makes your tongue tingly and numb. Regular spicy is "la." Sichuan spicy is "ma la." It's delicious, and it's rarely replicated in Chinese food in the US. (It also made for fun jokes with servers. You could ask someone, are you afraid to eat tingly-spicy food? That would be: "Ni pa ma la ma?" Or: "Ni pa bu pa ma la?" Isn't that fun? Anyone else? Just me? Okay.)

We watched the CCTV New Year's program as we ate. We drank terrible local beer out of the plastic bowls provided by the restaurant. The servers invited us to go into the kitchen to select what we wanted to add to our hot pot. We chose a lot of vegetables, and some pork. We politely declined to have one of the sheep's brains that was neatly lined up on a tray.

The next day, Bob and I boarded a bus for a four-hour ride to see the largest sitting Buddha statue in the world.

*In case you missed it: Bei Da = Beijing Daxue = Peking University.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

China Stories Pt. 11: The Work Unit Guesthouse

After our train arrived in Chengdu, our new friend took us to his work unit guesthouse. It was nice to walk out of the train station with someone local. Coming out of the train station can be intimidating. There are unlicensed taxi drivers standing around, who try to get you to go with them. They take advantage of your being disoriented, they don't have meters, and its very easy to be taken advantage of.

We were happy to avoid the shady characters outside the train station. But on the other hand, we were getting into a van with a guy we met on the train. Were we crazy?

Well, no, I don't think so. It felt completely above-board. I'm pretty hazy on this particular detail, but I think Bob and I both felt pretty comfortable.

For the most part, as a foreigner in China, I felt pretty safe from the typical run-of-the-mill crime. Foreigners were still somewhat... exotic. Set apart. People didn't really know how to deal with us. Nobody wanted to have much to do with us outside of transactional situations ("I'll have a bowl of noodles."). The threat of creating a spectacle sometimes came in handy.

The work unit was not only centrally located, it was virtually across the street from a famous Buddhist temple, one of the main tourist attractions in Chengdu.

Our host led us through a dark arch way into a small courtyard, and told us to wait. After a few minutes, our host came back, and led us to the guesthouse.

The "guesthouse" was really just a four-room apartment. It had two bedrooms, a sitting room and a bathroom, sort of. It didn't so much have a bath, as it had a tiled basin you could stand in. And it didn't so much have running hot water, as it had a couple of gas burners and kettles. You could heat water for a bath in the kettles, and then mix it with cold water in a small wash basin and pour it over yourself. No problem. It was just for a couple of days.

Bob and I with our hosts at the work unit in Chengdu. Room temp: about 40 degrees F.

It really looked quite comfortable. We set our bags down, and our host insisted on making us tea. While he made us tea, a couple of other people came in to talk to us. We made small talk. It was made smaller by the fact that our new visitors had Sichuan accents, and we could only understand about half of what they said. I did a lot of nodding.

They were speaking Mandarin, but it was somewhat different. And some words were completely different. "American" in Mandarin is "mei guo ren." In Sichuan, however, it sounded like "mei gui ren."

"So what?" I hear you asking. Well, "gui" can mean "devil." As I heard this walking around in Chengdu, I wondered: were all these people calling us "American devils?"

Eventually we were able to clarify.

After a cup of tea, our hosts took their leave, and Bob and I looked around our little apartment.

"Hey," we thought. "This will be just fine."

We took the dust cover off the TV and turned it on. Since it was Spring Festival, CCTV was showing their giant spring festival special, a program that lasts, I think, 3 days. Seemed like it.

We saw a foreigner on the program, Dashan. He was a Canadian expat who frequently appeared on TV and who spoke, to my ears, near flawless Mandarin. I mean, really good. He was accomplished in something called "xiang sheng," a type of comedic dialogue that relies on speed and puns/homonyms. It's similar to Abbott and Costello's "Who's On First." (I had seen him at Bei Da, where he was a student. I'd heard that he frequently wore a "Canada" Hockey sweater because he did not like to be mistaken for an American.)


The Spring Festival TV show was punctuated by loud bursts of firecrackers coming from outside our windows. As the city geared up for New Year's, we knew that it would get steadily louder until it sounded like we were under attack.

Eventually we got tired, and decided to go to bed. Then we realized: hey, it's cold in here. No problem, we thought. We'll just.... Oh. There's no heat.

Bob and I cheerfully adapted to our surroundings. I went to bed that night under a heavy comforter, wearing long underwear, pants, two pairs of socks, two shirts, a jacket, a hat and gloves.

I heard a rustling noise from the next room.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"I'm running in place under the covers to try to warm up," he said.

I tried running in place too, and it did help a little. I lay on my back, watching my breath curl up towards the ceiling.

"At least we're saving money," Bob, said.

We both laughed, knowing that the small amount we were saving by not staying in a real hotel in NO way made up for the lack of heat and running hot water.

Yet we also knew that no amount of money spent at a hotel could have given us such a unique experience.

Since you asked...

Tiananmen Square, 1989.
Click on thumnail for larger image.

Friday, June 09, 2006

China Stories Pt. 10: Train to Chengdu (II)

We napped and read as our train chugged westward through the rugged terrain of central China. The compartment had a loudspeaker that crackled to life every 10 or 15 minutes. Sometimes it helpfully alerted us to some attraction. ("Attention, we are now crossing the Yellow River.") Sometimes music blared, jarring us awake. Fortunately, one of the benefits of the soft sleepers was a volume control. (Hard sleeper and hard seat did not have such a luxury.)

The scenery was new and fantastic — now we were in rural China. Every inch of arable soil was cultivated. Impossibly steep-looking hillsides were planted with neat rows of crops. There were water buffalo, occasionally with children riding on top of them. We saw other trains, including an ancient looking steam locomotive that wouldn't have looked out of place in the old west in the 1800s.

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Steam train. Not the one I saw, probably, but a decent facsimile. Courtesy of the internet.

Somewhere in Shaanxi (not to be confused with Shanxi), the train stopped, and we got off. It was nice to breathe a little fresh air, stretch my legs, and get something to eat besides the snack food we had brought along, and the fairly terrible food that was available on board the train.

If I thought I had been stared at before, I was mistaken. Out here, Bob and I were the main attraction. Having tons of people staring me was a new experience, and I found it a little unnerving. I bought a bun of some sort, some White Rabbit candies, and a chocolate bar, and got back on the train.

(White Rabbit candies are like taffy, I guess. They come with an outer wrapper and an inner wrapper. The inner wrapper is made of rice paper, and is supposed to be left on and eaten. I really liked them, but after 40 or 50 on the train, I decided to take a break. The chocolate bar was a total loss. It was like eating a flat brown candle without a wick.)

The train got back underway. I sipped tea from my mug. My mug was just a tin cup coated in white enamel. It had a lid, and it was big enough for instant noodles, or "fang bian mian" — literally, convenient noodles. I'd put some tea leaves in my mug, and then fill my mug with hot water from the thermos. Every so often, I'd take it down to the lavatory at the end of the car to throw out the leaves. Loose leaf tea only, of course. Tea bags were not that common. And anyway, I was in China, I wanted to have my tea the same way everyone else did.

As the sun went down on our second night on the train, our young roommate started to open up a little bit to us. He was one smart kid. I was flabbergasted when he told us the names of the leaders of the Allied Powers during World War II. (Meanwhile, American students struggle to identify Mexico and Canada on a map.)


The next day, it dawned on Bob and I that soon we would be arriving in Chengdu, and we didn't really know what we were doing. One of our fellow travelers made us an offer.

"My work unit has a guesthouse. It's nice! It has two bedrooms, a TV, a bathroom. You should come stay there."

The work unit was one of the main building blocks of Chinese society. When people joined the work force, they were assigned to work units. Work units provided people with housing, healthcare, even food rations.

This was intriguing. It would be fascinating, wouldn't it, to visit a work unit? And it would be cheaper, too.

"Oh no, we couldn't. You are too kind." We had to decline at least twice.

"No, it's as it should be. Please, don't be so polite."

After declining again, Bob and I agreed. Tonight, we would be guests at a real-live work unit guesthouse!

I was excited, but also nervous. In a couple of hours, we would have to leave our safe little train compartment, and enter a city of close to 10 million people.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

China Stories Pt. 9: Train to Chengdu (I)

It was time to go to Sichuan. I packed my backpack with lots of warm clothes, since it was February, and Sichuan was reasonably cold. Furthermore, many buildings in China had poor or nonexistent heat. I had my food, my tea and teacup. My toilet paper. I was ready.

Bob and I made our way down to the main Beijing train station. The Beijing train station was bewildering, and a little bit frightening. Since it was Spring Festival, the station was packed with travelers coming and going. Plus, countless thousands of poor peasants who came to the city in search of work camped outside the station with their belongings.

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The main Beijing train station. Courtesy of the internet.

Bob and I found our way inside the station. It was noisy and crowded. Everywhere we walked we were met with blank stares. We didn’t know where to go, and what few signs there were weren't very helpful. And by the way, the signs were in Chinese. (The nerve!)

We stood around trying to get our bearings, trying to figure out where our train was and when it was boarding. Bob and I eventually found our way to the “soft sleeper waiting lounge,” which mercifully was quiet and less crowded. It was not exactly the Red Carpet Club, but compared to the main halls of the station, it was heaven.

Finally it was time to board. I was excited, but a little apprehensive at the same time. I’d never been this far from home, and now I was going even farther away.

The soft sleeper cars were divided into enclosed cabins, with an upper and a lower bunk on each wall. During the day, the upper bunks folded up so that the occupants could sit. There was a small table in the middle of the compartment, and a thermos bottle of boiled water for tea.

Bob and I boarded the train, and the attendant took our tickets, and asked for our passports. We handed them over. He looked at them, and then gave us plastic tokens.

"What are these?" we asked.

"You keep this. When we get to Chengdu, you give me the token, I'll give you back your passports."

I had read about this, but it still made me nervous. Letting my passport out of my sight was a little bit nerve-wracking. It was part of my security blanket.

We put our packs in the storage rack, sat down, and took a deep breath. With the hurly-burly of the station behind us, we could finally relax a little.

After a few minutes, our "roommates" arrived: two middle aged men, one traveling with his son, about 4 or 5 years old. They were well-dressed, and seemed nice. The man with the son worked at some sort of research institute, I can't remember exactly what. It was clear from the fact that they were traveling soft sleeper that they were, by Chinese standards, well-to-do or well connected, or both. They did not seem overly perturbed to be sharing their accommodations with foreigners, nor did they seem uncomfortable around us.

The little boy was shy, but curious. We spoke to him. "Hi. What's your name? How old are you?" He hid his head. We continued talking with his dad. But then he reached out and touched the back of my hand.

"You’re hairy," he said. True. By any standard, I had a fair amount of hair on my arms and hands.

"Your face is hairy, too!" he said. Also true. If you've seen the picture in my profile, this may surprise you. But once upon a time, in 1989, say, I still had a full head of hair, and I had grown a beard. By Chinese standards, I was a blond Sasquatch.

Eventually the train pulled out, and we were underway.

"You're hairy!"

We sat chatting. Sometimes, people walking past the open door to our compartment did a double-take: we have foreigners in our train car! Some of the passersby were bold enough to stop in for a visit. They wanted to talk to us, which was great-- this was why we were here, right? To meet people, to speak the language? To break down cultural barriers?

"What country are you from?”
“America is great. It's a rich country.”
“Do you like China? China is a poor country.”
“How old are you?”
“Where did you learn to speak Chinese? You speak very well!"
“Would you like a cigarette? Are you sure?”

We really enjoyed the interactions, at first. But over and over, it was always some variation on these same questions. About two hours in, it started to get tedious.

I’m American.
Yes, I like China.
How old do you think I am? 35? No, I'm 20. That’s right, I'm 6 years younger than him.
I learned Chinese in college in the US. Thank you.
No thank you, I don’t smoke anymore. (Much easier than trying to explain why you didn’t smoke at all, which was odd.)

It got to the point that we really only enjoyed the people who asked different questions.

"Does your family own a car? How much money does your father earn? Are you married?"

We got to talk a lot to a lot of different people, which was good. But eventually, both Bob and I just wanted to rest, read, and look at the scenery. But the well-intentioned visitors wouldn't leave us alone.

I began to wish I had never spoken, so that I plausibly could have pretended not to understand, and gone back to reading my book. Over the remainder of our trip, on several occasions I pretended to be asleep so that I could stop talking for a little while.

As we chugged westward towards the setting sun, we drank tea, chatted with our guests and watched Beijing peel away. Then suburbs gave way to farmland, and we continued westward, into the night.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

June 4

Just a quick note. June 4 just passed, the 17th anniversary of the massacre in Tian An Men Square. I always remember June 4. I always will.

I was not in Beijing, not in the square on June 4, 1989. I had been before, but by June 4 I was in Hong Kong.

I will have more to say about where I was and what I was doing when I get to that point in the narrative.

China Stories, Pt. 8: Making Travel Plans

I had just gotten to China, and already I had a week off. I wasn't sure what to do, until my classmate Bob asked if I wanted to travel together with him, and I agreed. We had decided to go to Sichuan.

After looking through our guidebooks (Lonely Planet), we decided we would start off by going to the provincial capital of Chengdu, and then travel out from there to Leshan. Our first and most important task was getting train tickets. (We were only getting our outbound tickets-- we could only buy our return tickets once we got there.)

Spring Festival in China is the holiday-- it's the time when everyone returns home. It's Christmas and Thanksgiving combined. Oh- and Fourth of July, since fireworks play a big role in the celebration. It's the busiest travel time of the year by far, so we were worried about being able to get tickets. We were certain that getting the tickets would be a hassle, since everyone else was getting tickets too.

Bob and I rode our bicycles down to the Xizhimen train station and made our way into the station, which was packedwith would be travelers. There were posters on every wall warning of the dangers of fireworks, complete with colorful graphic photos of gruesome injuries.

There are 4 classes of service on trains in China: soft sleeper, hard sleeper, soft seat and hard seat. For long trips such as we were taking (47 hours, two nights and two days), the sleeper berths were absolutely the way to go. But plenty of Chinese traveled those kinds of distances by hard seat, because of the cost, which was probably 1/2 the price of hard sleeper, which in turn was 1/2 again the price of soft sleeper. Spending two days and nights upright on a bench seat--with a hundred or so other people-- did not sound like my idea of a good time. Fortunately Bob and I were in agreement: no need to be a hero. We would go hard sleeper.

We made our way through a pushing, grabbing mass of people to find the right line. We had to be vigilant to keep people from breaking into the line. We were being stared at by virtually everyone, most of whom were probably from small rural towns, and had not had much contact with foreigners. People were curious about us. But they had no compunction about pushing their way in front of us.

When we finally got to a ticket window, we asked for hard sleepers.

"Sold out," the ticket woman said.

She was about to help someone else, which would mean we'd be out of line and out of luck. Bob kept talking while I held back a human tide that wanted to push us away from the window.

"How about the next day?"

"Sold out," she said again.

"How about soft sleeper?"

"Soft sleeper...how many? Two?"

"Two." Okay now we were getting somewhere.

She started shuffling papers around.

"230 FEC each,"she said.

Bob and I were flabbergasted. That was a lot more than we were hoping to pay.

"But we're foreign students. We pay in RMB."

"No," she said dismissively. "Foreigners pay in FEC. 230 each."

Bob and I just kept talking - just to stay at the window. It was as though we were talking someone in off a ledge. At the same time, people behind us in line were trying to push us off a ledge.

"We're just students. We don't have FEC, only RMB. We can only afford to pay RMB."

She paused to consider our argument. We held our breath. If she asked for our green cards, we would be out of luck.

"Wait," she said, and walked away. Was this progress, or would we never see her again?

While she was gone, Bob and I had to physically protect our position at the counter.

She came back.

"Okay. 115 RMB each."

Bob and I were only too happy to pay and get out of there. When we emerged from the station with our tickets, we were physically and mentally exhausted. The effort to get to the window, to stay at the window and to finally get our tickets had been taxing. We were elated to have paid in RMB, and we hadn't accounted for the extra savings from paying the regular price instead of the jacked-up foreigner price.

We spent the afternoon in comparative relaxation buying other things we would need for our trip-- food, loose tea, a teacup. Toilet paper. Reading material.

In less than a week, we would traveling by soft sleeper to Chengdu, a 47-hour trip spanning more than 1,300 miles, for the cost of about US$15.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

China Stories Pt. 7: Eating and Drinking

My roommate Chad and I set about getting settled into our dorm room, and making it comfortable. Chad in particular was willing to make some sacrifices to make this happen.

Chad and I went shopping. We bought some cheap carpet to throw down on the cold linoleum. Then Chad got inspired.

"We need a sofa," he decided.

We went to a little furniture shop just outside the University gate. We bought a cheap loveseat and carried it back to our room.

"There's not enough room," I said.

Chad studied the problem.

"Let's try this," he said.

He dragged his desk out into the hallway, shifted his bed and voila: now we had a nice little sitting area in the corner of our (now carpeted) room. Chad seemed untroubled by the prospect of not having a desk. Sacrifices were necessary. The desk eventually ended up on a balcony at the end of the hall.

We were getting comfortable in our surroundings, and getting to know our classmates. We were in China to be sure, but most of us were still college kids. We had parties.

Beer was cheap and plentiful. China didn't have much of a national transportation infrastructure, so beer was basically a local product. (Tsing Tao was sort of national, but it wasn't widely available. It was really more of an export product.) In Beijing, the beers of choice were Beijing Beer or Five Star Beer. It wasn't great beer, and occasionally a bottle would have the distinct odor of the formaldehyde that was used to clean the bottles. But once you got over that, it was okay.

We bought wine bottle-sized bottles of beer for the equivalent of about a nickel a piece. We lugged a couple of crates full of these beers back to the dorm. The ledge of our window in January kept them plenty cold. For two or three nights in a row, our room was party central. For two or three mornings in a row, I awoke amidst party debris - empty and half-empty bottles, some used as ashtrays. Our dorm room was just like any other dorm room anywhere. I was just another college kid with a hangover. Except when I woke up, I had nothing to drink but the thermoses of boiling hot drinking water that were left by our door each morning. It's hard to take aspirin with boiling water.

There were also some more high brow affairs. Randy (the schoolteacher) and his wife Patty invited Bob (grad student) and me (hungover but mature 20 year-old) for a dinner party in their dorm room. We fanned out over the city to find the ingredients for our feast.

In those days in Beijing, the search for little creature comforts was a kind of city-wide scavenger hunt. Finding something like peanut butter seemed like a big score.

"The Renmin Binguan (People's Hotel) has a bakery that makes croissants," so off we would go on our bikes.

Another classmate had a Chinese friend who flew to Italy for CAAC. She brought parmesan cheese.

Randy and I shared a love of coffee that bordered on a fetish. We went to the Friendship Store to buy Melitta coffee.

The University was located in the northwest part of the city, while the Friendship Store was just east of the downtown area. It was a 30 minute cab ride, but we didn't go by cab. (For one thing, taking a cab would mean going through that whole RMB-or-FEC ordeal.) We rode our bikes from the University down to the northwest corner of the subway system (Xizhimen Station), and then took the subway the rest of the way.

The subway was pretty basic- it had one loop around the downtown area, and one spur that stretched out to the west. (It has since been expanded,and is being expanded further.) It was cheap and efficient if it went where you were going. I still remember the announcements they would broadcast:"Attention passengers: the next stop is Jianguomen Station. Passengers going to Jianguomen Station, please prepare to disembark."(This was in Chinese. Frequently when I am asked to "say something in Chinese!" this is what I say.)

By bike and subway, the trip was probably an hour and a half each way. It was a lot of effort, but for the luxury of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, it was worth it.*

Dinner was pasta with crab meat, if I remember correctly, and it seemed exquisite. It was nice to be having some quiet conversation, after the more raucous nights.

"What are you doing for Spring Festival?" Randy asked.

That's right. We'd just gotten here, but in a couple of weeks, we would have a full week's vacation for Spring Festival, aka Chinese New Year. It seemed like a waste to stay on campus. But I had no idea what to do.

"I'd like to go to Tibet," said Bob. "But I think it will take too long."

"That would be incredible," I ventured.

"You wanna go? Together?" Bob asked. "Maybe not to Tibet, but... somewhere?"

"Yeah!" I replied.

Of all my classmates, Bob was the one I would feel most comfortable traveling with. He was an experienced traveler. He was adventurous, but sensible. He was not going to do anything crazy. This was no small consideration for me. I had just traveled, I don't know, 8,000 miles from home, and now I was contemplating traveling into the hinterlands of China with someone I'd just met. It was a little scary.

"We could go to Sichuan," Bob said.

"Sounds good."

Bob and I worked out a rough itinerary, and then began to prepare for our trip.

*I was living in Beijing in 1997 when the first Starbucks opened. There are now 51 Starbucks outlets in Beijing.

Monday, June 05, 2006

China Stories Pt. 6: I Buy a Bicycle

You just couldn't live in Beijing and not own a bicycle. A bicycle was absolutely indispensible. It was still the predominant form of transportation. They were affordable for the average person, and they didn't take up a lot of space. As China has become more affluent, more and more people can afford motorcycles and cars, with disastrous conequences. The air and noise pollution are already terrible, and getting worse. The traffic congestion is getting worse all the time.

By 1989, there were many bikes to choose from - different styles, different shapes-- there was even a choice of colors! Not a lot of colors, but still, this was quite a departure after years of drab, monolithic conformity. For decades, bicycles were black. Period. There were multiple brands, but these were really just different factories building the same basic design. It was China's version of the Model T. Big, black, clunky. Relentlessly utilitarian.

That was exactly the kind I wanted.

There were three main brands of bicycle that I remember: there was "Feng Huang," or Phoenix, "Yong Jiu," or Forever, and "Fei Ge," or Flying Pigeon.

Based on names alone, I wanted a Flying Pigeon. Phoenix and Forever were probably very nice bikes and all, but come on! Who wouldn't want a Flying Pigeon?

I decided that I was definitely going to buy a used bike, so off I went to the neighborhood used bike store. I test-drove several, and got many helpful suggestions from the onlookers who had stopped just to watch me shop for a bike.

"Too small," said one.

"That one's no good," offered someone else.

"Hey! I'll sell you my bike- $100 (US) dollars!" Wise guy.

I chose one and haggled over the price. After the usual dance of bargaining, I had my bike. I paid the equivalent of around US$11. I don't know if that was a good deal or not, really. I just know I thought I got my money's worth out of it.

Just as I had planned, I came home with a large black Flying Pigeon.

A boy and his bicycle.

Friday, June 02, 2006

China Stories Pt. 5: Change a Money?

In China in 1989, the Yuan was not freely convertible. You could not get it outside the country, and if you took it out of the country with you, you couldn't convert it into other currency. Furthermore, when you went to exchange Yuan back into foreign currency, you had to have receipts showing you had exchanged at least that much money into Chinese currency; in effect, you had to show that you were taking less money out than you had brought in.

Back then there were actually two currencies. One was "the People's currency," called "reminbi," or simply "RMB." ("Yuan" is the formal name of the currency, but nobody calls it that colloquially.) The other was "Foreign Exchange Certificates," or "FEC." FEC was for foreigners, and RMB was for local Chinese. Many foreign goods, such as TVs and washing machines, were only for sale at certain stores, and those stores only accepted FEC. So if a local wanted to buy an American washing machine, they might have to go to the "Friendship Store**."And they would have to have FEC.

The exchange rate for the FEC was held artificially low, so in effect foreigners were overcharged for everything. Meanwhile locals wanted the FEC, because they needed it to buy the washing machine. Foreign students didn't want to be overcharged, so we wanted the RMB. Thus, there was a flourishing black market exchanging FEC for RMB.

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Back of a 50 cent Foreign Exchange Certificate. Zzz.

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Front of a 1 RMB note. Woman driving tractor. Much cooler than FEC.

We had our own nickname for the currency. Since "RMB" sounded like "R & B," as in rhythm and blues, we called RMB "rhythm and blues," or just "rhythms." As in, "Hey, would you mind paying for the beer? I'm all out of rhythms."

(I don't know if any other foreign students did this, but my friends and I did. Maybe we were just weird. Really, don't discount that possibility.)

Here's how I got my rhythms:

I went to the bank, and exchanged money - say, a US$100 traveler's check. For simplicity's sake, let's say I received 360 FEC. I then took my little wad of monopoly money and headed out the small south gate of the University, into the winding streets of the surrounding district, Haidian. In Haidian, I wandered around. There were shops - a book store, a bike shop, a tea shop. There were outdoor food stalls. There were people playing pool. Pool was very popular then. Since a ban on it had only recentlly been lifted, there were pool tables set up outside on sidewalks all over the city. Eventually I spotted My Guy.

My Guy was about 5' 7", with black hair. (Yes, I know I just described about 400 million men in China.) He had longish, thinning hair, and a wispy beard. He was sort of tough looking, in his leather jacket, but not really menacing. (Kind of like watching The Wild Bunch or West Side Story today. You say, "aww, remember when we found that threatening?") People did get have trouble occasionally, but it wasn't a major concern.

He stopped playing pool and walked over to me.

"Change a money?" he asked.

Then we did the dance. He threw out a number.

"1.6," he said, meaning he'd give me 1.6 RMB per 1 FEC.

"No way! That's way too low! I got 2 to 1 yesterday!" I replied, feigning indignance.

He looked me skeptically. (And rightly so, since I was lying. I had gotten 1.8.)

We went through another iteration, really more of a formality.



Then we arrived where we both knew we would end up anyway: 1.8. I gave him the 360 FEC, and he counted out 650 RMB, peeling the bills off a massive roll.

Yee-haa! It was like I had just gotten a 45% discount on everything in China (outside the Friendship Store). Well, actually, it felt like we had just avoided being fleeced by China.

It wasn't always easy, because not everyone wanted to give us the 45% discount. Foreigners were only supposed to use FEC, unless they had a special card called (ironically enough) a "green card." Green cards were for long-term students or foreigners being paid in RMB, such as teachers. Still, RMB was widely used by foreign students. Even though my classmates and I didn't have green cards, we finessed it most of the time. Most of the time, but not always.

One time I went out with a group of friends for dinner across town. Afterwards, we were looking for a taxi back to the University. A driver stopped.

"FEC or RMB?" he asked.

"RMB," we said. "We're students."

And off he drove. The University district was a long way out, and this guy wasn't going to go there for RMB. Finally a taxi picked us up without asking us FEC or RMB, and we didn't volunteer it. The driver clearly thought he was getting FEC. When we arrived back at the dorm, my friend Randy (the schoolteacher), handed the driver RMB. The driver was dejected. He insisted that we were foreigners, and that we must pay in FEC. Randy refused, got out of the car and started towards the dormitory. The driver became livid, and pursued Randy. He demanded to see his green card. Randy kept walking. The driver grabbed Randy, and they exchanged blows. Nothing big, but the driver had to be extremely angry to engage in that kind of spectacle: fighting with a foreigner was a big deal. No good could come of it. Eventually he left, hurling obscenities and empty threats as he did.

On one hand, I felt bad for the driver, since he didn't get what he thought he would get. On the other hand, "what he thought he would get," seemed to us to be a big rip-off. And we got ripped off and price-gouged enough that it was hard to feel bad for the guy.

Even when we used RMB, we would be overcharged. I'd walk through an open air market and feel like a big pinata full of money. The fruit vendor's eyes would light up, thinking, "I wonder just how ridiculously high a price I can charge this guy for a pear."

*There were some exceptions. You could exchange FEC at the Bank of China in Hong Kong. Not sure where else you could do that.

**Nice name, huh? The Friendship Store, at least the main one, was on Jianguomanwai Avenue, near the embassies. It was useful for buying little luxuries such as english language books and good coffee. These things were not widely available in China in 1989. More on that to follow.