Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Ordinary Places...

(originally posted on Murder Is Everywhere, Feb. 17, 2013)

(click to embiggen)

One of the consequences of a rising Chinese middle class is the huge expansion of domestic tourism. If you've traveled in China, you've probably seen one of these groups -- all wearing identical baseball caps, being herded from Point A to Point B by a guide, usually a young woman, with a pennant flag and a bullhorn. It reminds me a little of the old film, IF IT'S TUESDAY THIS MUST BE BELGIUM, though I barely remember it -- the way Americans used to travel forty years ago, in package tours.

I tend to do the opposite -- I travel a lot by myself. This marks me as somewhat eccentric, a woman traveling alone. There's a sort of enjoyable melancholy to solo travel, a kind of loneliness that's pleasant. It sounds like a contradiction, but I don't know how else to describe it. I move at my own pace, wander around, try to take the measure of the place I'm in. 

When I go to China, I usually visit at least one place I've never been. This last trip it was Tunxi, a small city in Anhui Province. Tunxi is best known as the jumping off point to visit Huangshan, "Yellow Mountain," probably the most famous scenic mountain in China. I had it in mind to go there, but the respiratory grunge I'd picked up combined with snow up on the peak made me think better of it. Instead, I mostly stayed in Tunxi. Tunxi rated a shrug from the tourist accounts I'd read, a small place, not a lot to see. It has a well-preserved Ming/Qing Dynasty section, "Old Street," and I'd gotten a room at a "boutique hotel" in a renovated building there.

If you've traveled in China, you know what it can be like in a shopping area aimed at tourists: countless exhortations to "Look! See!" and buy. Tunxi's Laojie wasn't like that. Tunxi's shopkeepers were happy to sell you something if you wanted to buy it, but they didn't try to rope you into it. Instead they played games with their kids. Joked and chatted with each other. Did their work. Well-tended pets, dogs and cats, lounged on the slab stone streets. 

Since I wasn't feeling 100% and I had some work to do, I spent a lot of time in coffee houses/bars doing that. I was a little surprised that Tunxi had a bunch of cute places like this, given that it was supposed to be kind of a boring provincial backwater. 

One of the coffee house owners was a guy originally from Beijing. He'd come down to Tunxi, he told me, because there was more genuine traditional culture left in Anhui. "You should go see Hongcun and Xidi," he told me. These are World Cultural Heritage sites that were used as locations in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. "You can really see some of old China there." The other thing about Tunxi? "It's more relaxing here."

(my pal Wan Wan, a happy Tunxi cat)

That's basically what I did -- relax. Take the time to see what Tunxi outside of the tourist center was like. 

Fantasy China looks like this: 

(Hongcun, and it really is that pretty)

Real China? More like this:

I spent some time wandering around where the locals shop. In the big cities, you'll find fancy malls, designer stores, all the brands you're used to. In a place like Tunxi, you're more likely to find something like this:

I did make it out to Hongcun, where I spent an enjoyable afternoon (and bought some killer Christmas presents, including a toy bamboo tank music box that plays a totally out of tune version of "Fur Elise" as its turret rotates. Oh, and it says "Victory" on the side, in English). It's a beautiful place. There are all kinds of famous places in China, spectacular sites, amazing monuments.

But I don't know when I've had a nicer time than I had in "ordinary" Tunxi, doing not very much of anything, just being there...

I'll leave you with these thoughts:

(click to embiggen)

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A Tale of Two Trains -- Strangers on a Train Pt. 4

(originally published on Murder Is Everywhere, Feb. 3 2013)

When I travel between cities in China, I nearly always take the train. China has an extensive rail system, for one. For another, you get to see more of the country than you ever will from a plane. Mainly, you meet people, you talk, and even though the experience isn't always comfortable (don't ask me how many times I come down with some kind of respiratory bug after a long train ride), it's always interesting. I remind myself of this when I commit to doing things like, taking a two day train trip from Chengdu to Xinjiang: "It will be interesting! Yes, I am sharing a compartment with a crazy woman, her husband with the tubercular cough and Obsessive-Compulsive Guy! But think of the stories!"

On this more recent occasion, I needed to get from Tunxi, Anhui Province, back to Beijing. The Tunxi station is actually called "Huangshan," after the county but mostly after the famous sacred mountain, which is what draws most people to Tunxi. I found Tunxi to be pretty charming, actually -- I spent a lot of time hanging out in coffee shop/bars and eating mao dofuwhich is delicious. Really.

Here's a friend I made while I was in Tunxi:

It used to be that many hotels would purchase your train tickets for you. This came to an abrupt halt last year when the government started requiring verified identification to buy tickets, which in the case of foreigners means, you have to show your passport. Most hotels, at least the kind I tend to stay in, don't want to deal with that. So, off I went to the train station to attempt to purchase train tickets with my less than fluent Mandarin. I'd done my research. There was a train leaving Tunxi in the morning that would get me to Hefei, the capital of Anhui Province. From there I could take a high-speed train to Beijing the next day.

I really wanted to try one of China's shiny new high-speed trains. Even though one of them had crashed into another last year, killing forty people and exposing the staggering corruption of the railway ministry. Odds were that wasn't going to happen again, right?

The price of my ticket from Tunxi to Hefei was 32 yuan. About five dollars. It was an eight hour ride. I realized, somewhat after the fact, that I'd booked myself on the slowest local train, and that it had to be hard seat only. Hard seats are the cheapest rail tickets you can get. It used to be that a hard seat ticket didn't even guarantee you a seat, but in this case, I had an assigned number. Plus, the trip was during the day. I figured it couldn't be too bad.

When I got to the train station early in the morning, I realized I was in one of those places in China that was stuck in a different time. It's a small, provincial train station, pretty typical. Most of the other passengers looked like peasant farmers, or migrant workers, their luggage made out of plastic grain sacks.

And in a flashback to the China I'd first encountered in 1979, I'm guessing most of them had never seen a foreigner up close before. One guy, middle-aged, wearing the PLA snoopy hat, walked up to me, staring, absolutely beaming, like I was, I actually have no idea what. Some kind of weird, semi-miraculous apparition. I said, "I'm just an ordinary foreigner." But I guess, for him, there's no such thing.

On the wall of the train station was a billboard of the new bullet train, watched over by Comrade Lei Feng.  Lei Feng was a PLA soldier supposedly devoted to the Revolution, utterly selfless, the sort of fellow who helped little old tai-tai's across the commune. After his unfortunate death in 1962 (apparently he was hit by a truck), he became the subject of an intensive propaganda campaign, the model Communist who all good comrades should emulate. What he has to do with bullet trains eludes me.

In any case, our train to Hefei was one of the ancient green ones, the slowest of the slow, the ones I didn't even think they used any more. Inside, it wasn't bad, mainly because it wasn't crowded.

Most of the people in my compartment were young. The girl across from me was a college student. Older than she looked, she told me at one point. She looked very young to me, almost frail, her hair cut in an uneven bowl shape, like she'd tried to do it herself, wearing a neon-yellow parka with white cotton cuffs pulled over the sleeves to keep them clean.

We talked for a good chunk of the eight hour ride. She was returning to college after dropping out for a while, which she'd had to do to help her family. Her life was difficult. Her studies were hard. Her family, poor. Her father hadn't wanted her to go back to school; she hadn't worked hard enough, he'd said; why should they spend the money? And it seemed that she wasn't sure herself why she was doing it. She was studying accounting, but could she get a good job, after? The competition was so fierce. The corruption, so terrible. And she was old, so old, maybe too old to find a husband.

She also wanted to know why President Obama was against China, as evidenced by his support of Japan in the Diaoyu Islands dispute. They had discussed this in her college classes, she told me. There have been a lot of protests in China about these islands, at times violent, the kind of nationalistic expression the government encourages to channel public discontent in an acceptable direction but that often threatens to bubble out of control. "The islands don't matter very much to the United States," I managed. "Not important to our national interest. Most Americans don't know anything about them."

During the ride, every hour or so a train worker, a cheerful, good-looking young woman wearing no-nonsense tailored slacks and shirt would come through with things to sell. Not the usual snacks and drinks. Instead, she had toys and magical washcloths that would clean your hair without water, at least I think that's what it was supposed to do. I was much clearer on the toys, which included a bullet train that played music and flashed colored lights as it trundled up and down the aisle. I had to get me one of those. "A little expensive," I told her, hoping I could bargain down. "No, this is a good price!" she insisted. "Outside it's thirty kuai. Here, only twenty-seven!"

Who could resist?

 (crossing the Yangtze River)

Some eight hours later, we arrived in Hefei, the capital of Anhui Province. It was hard to tell exactly when we'd arrived. Hours before the train pulled into the station, you'd see huge construction projects, blocks of half-finished high-rises, associated with some town I'd never heard of, in one of China's poorest provinces. What were these places? Who would live in them? How and why had they been built? In China, you never know. There are "ghost cities" throughout the country, massive developments where no one lives, shopping malls with no stores, a real estate glut fueled by the need to keep China's economy booming and workers employed; also, corruption. 

I spent the night in Hefei, at a Holiday Inn, because I'd never stayed at a Holiday Inn in China before, and I didn't know anything about Hefei, and I wouldn't really have time to see any of the city, which from the ride from the train station to the hotel looked to me like every other second or third tier Chinese city in the middle of a building boom on steroids: high-rises going up, a subway system tunneling under. 

I woke up early the next morning with a pounding headache and a churning gut. I was pretty sick. And I had to make it on that train to Beijing that left at 1:30 PM. I'd paid over a hundred dollars for the ticket. I had a room at a hutong inn waiting for me in Beijing. 

I swallowed some Dramamine and Coca-Cola and dragged myself downstairs to take the hotel shuttle to the train station. I would do this thing. I would not throw up in the shuttle as it lurched through stop-and-go-traffic, swimming in exhaust fumes. I would get to the train station, find the soft-seat (first class) waiting room, curl up in an overstuffed chair, and it would all be fine. 

Except, there was no soft-seat waiting room. There was only a waiting hall, filled far beyond capacity, crowded with smokers, no place to sit. And it was cold. They didn't heat the station, apparently, and the  temperature was close to freezing. 

And...the train was delayed.

This. Never. Happens. 

But apparently a storm had dumped a load of snow on the route by Beijing, and the shiny, new high-speed train couldn't negotiate it. 

The red diode signboard, and the public address announcement, said only that our train would be an hour late. The hour came and went. No updates. I asked a station worker, who told me that they didn't know when the train would come, or if it would be cancelled. 

Meanwhile, some young, hip business-guys standing close to me were discussing the situation, the one getting angrier and angrier and finally getting on his smartphone to the rail authority, saying things like, "How are we supposed to make plans when you won't tell us what's going on? What arrangements am I supposed to make?" and remarking to his friend that in the U.S., this wouldn't happen, they don't start a service like this before it's really ready to go. I was kind of tempted to tell him that in the U.S., we can't get our act together enough to build something like this at all, but I was too tired, too cold and too sick. 

Finally, I did what a Chinese person would do in this kind of situation: plopped myself down on my soft-sided suitcase, rested my chin in my hand and went to sleep. 

The train eventually did arrive.

I had paid for First Class, which isn't even the nicest class -- that would be "Business," which was twice as much as my hundred dollar plus ticket. I glimpsed one of those Business cars. It was incredibly swank, club chairs grouped around little tables, with attendants hovering around the few guests, bringing them drinks and snacks. 

But the First Class was impressive enough. Deep red seats, only two across. Plenty of legroom, and leg-rests. Bathrooms with smoked Lucite doors. And attendants who were wearing what looked like old Pan Am stewardess uniforms, with the little hats, the white gloves and everything. It felt like a hallucination, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't.

The car was half-full, if that. The seat next to me, empty. The trip passed in a blur, the train whirring down the tracks so quickly that it felt like we were somehow hovering above the landscape, a ghostly gray darkening to black. 

In less than four hours, we arrived at the Beijing South Railway station, me clutching my toy high-speed train...

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Crazy Bad

(Originally published 1/20/13 on MURDER IS EVERYWHERE)

In the last couple of weeks, Beijing's horrible air pollution has drawn international attention -- not for the first time. In the run-up to the '08 Olympics, there were a lot of concerns about the air quality that awaited the Games, to the extent that the US team arrived wearing filter masks, and received a lot of criticism for it. After a first few smoggy, hot days, there was a torrential rainstorm, the smog was washed away, and the sky remained a glorious blue till the Games concluded. I was there. Beijing was beautiful. Flowers everywhere. Happy volunteers. And not so many cars. Because one of the things that the authorities did to achieve those blue skies was to strictly limit car traffic for the duration of the Games. And to temporarily shut down the coal-powered factories out in Hebei, and other provinces ringing Beijing. And seed the clouds, in the hopes that it would make the rain fall (I don't know whether the storm I experienced was connected with that or not).

But once the Games were over, it was back to business as usual.

In 2008, the US Embassy in Beijing started a Twitter feed of hourly air quality reports, an action that ticked the Chinese government off (or in Chinese diplomatese, "hurt the Chinese people's feelings"), since the Chinese government was unwilling to provide such information, and the news tended to be pretty bad. Anyone who's spent any length of time in Beijing knows that the air pollution is terrible, but it's one thing to look out the window and think, "yeah, air should probably not appear as a semi-solid," and to know that you are routinely breathing air that according to international standards is considered "hazardous."

And then there was the day in 2010 when the pollution was so off-the-charts terrible that a tweet went out from the official US Embassy air quality twitter feed describing it as "crazy bad."

Jonathan Watts, whose excellent environmental reporting from China is a must-read, described this as "a joke embedded in the embassy's monitoring program and triggered by a reading that was off the normal scale."  I can tell you that one afternoon while I was having a drink at the Vineyard Cafe, I overheard a conversation between two Americans in which one of them confessed to have been the culprit. I felt as if I'd been a witness to history...

Many things have been gained and many things have been lost in China's rush to modernize and become a global power. Put the natural environment in the negative tally. Pan Yue, the deputy director of SEPA, China's EPA, warned as early as 2005 that China's environmental crisis would undermine its economic miracle. He also saw China's environmental problems as part of a larger global problem. His explanation was that the capitalist system displaces its economic problems by creating environmental ones: "The environmental crisis has become a new means of transferring the economic crisis." Or, as he also put it, "the rich consume and the poor suffer the pollution." 

Mind you, he was not just implicating wealthy countries in China's ecological horror show. Pan Yue spoke out against Chinese government policies, local authorities and polluting industries, blocking projects that were environmental disasters. He was widely considered the driving force behind promoting sustainable development as the path forward for China. And this might be why, when China's economy was sagging because of the global economic crisis, Pan Yue suffered a bout of "ill health" and was replaced by someone widely considered pro-development.

I think we all can understand the trade-offs of economic growth for environmental quality. The history of the last two hundred years is replete with stories of horrible, killing pollution in exchange for greater wealth. But what Pan Yue understood was that horrible, killing pollution has its own economic toll charge, and it's not an insignificant one.


Aside from not always being able to breathe the air, you really have to worry about what you eat. Problems in China's food supply are legion. Among the more notorious examples: Sewer oil. Fake eggs. Detergent-doctored tofu. Pigs that glow in the dark. I could go on, but you may not have had breakfast. More typically food is contaminated with hormones, antibiotics, pesticides and non-food additives like melamine, whatever it takes to make things grow faster, cheaper.

Officials and the wealthy have ways around the problems in China's food chain. They get their food from a "special supply" — dedicated organic farms that only sell to them, not to the general public.

Air, though...that's a little trickier. You can filter the air in your apartment and office, but at some point, you will be breathing the same muck as everyone else.

And the pollution in Beijing this past week went beyond "Crazy Bad" into levels  greatly exceeding those  experienced in the middle of a forest fire.  In the Air Quality Index developed in the US, 500 (for particulate matter) is the top of the scale and is considered "hazardous." Anything above that is "Beyond Index." During this siege of smog, levels were up above 700 and at one point almost hit 1000.

(for some perspective of how bad this is: the sort of "moderate" air pollution typically experienced in Los Angeles is between 51-100. "Unhealthy for sensitive groups" is 101 - 150. Levels considered a public emergency are 201- 300 and rarely seen in the US)

In a turnaround of its former, "tweak the numbers and call it a 'Blue Sky Day" policy, the Chinese government stopped fighting the US Embassy Twitter feed and began releasing accurate air pollution data last year. During this crisis they released figures hourly. More unusually the Chinese media covered "Airpocalypse" with aggressiveness and openness. There's been a lot of speculation as to why this reporting was allowed or even encouraged, particularly when at the same time, control of the Great Firewall, the system of internet censorship, has been tightened and the Global Times (owned by the CCP) defends censorship in the wake of the Southern Weekly controversy.

Put me in the camp that thinks environmental concerns in China have the potential to unite large numbers of people, and in fact, they already have. From poor farmers protesting polluting factories that destroy their crops to wealthy urban dwellers who would like to be able to breathe safely on the streets of their own cities, these issues cut across class, income and location.

                     Protesting an industrial waste pipeline in Eastern China

Put me as well in the camp that thinks these issues also cut across national boundaries. We in the U.S. may have exported many of our polluting industries to countries like China, but guess what? We're getting the pollution back anyway. Clouds of Chinese pollution now routinely land on the west coast of the U.S.: "If the weather conditions are right, contaminants including mercury, ozone, sulphur and nitrogen oxides, black carbon and desert dust, can reach the west coast of the US within days." Remember this the next time you hear an American politician screaming about a "War on Coal!"  or wonder why the state of California is fighting efforts to increase American coal exports to China and other industrializing nations.

The problem is, all kinds of economic interests are invested in keeping things going the way that they're going. In China, local authorities depend on growth. They need it to build things that will keep people working. They need it to look good to the higher-ups, in the pursuit of their own personal advancement. They need it so that money flows into their pockets, and in a lot of cases, that's probably the biggest driver. Without a significant enforcement budget to back up its progressive laws and regulations, SEPA can only do so much.

What I'd really like to know is, why can't we do more?

Just as one example, the United States, "with less than 5 % of the global population, uses about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources—burning up nearly 25 % of the coal, 26 % of the oil, and 27 % of the world’s natural gas."

In its pursuit of modernization and growth, China has done some amazing things, some of which both provide jobs and help the environment. Take mass transit: For all the problems and corruption associated with its high-speed rail program, China has created a passenger railroad network that we should envy. Its major cities already have or are building modern subway and light rail systems that make getting around without a car far easier than trying to do the same in most American cities. And yet for the past few decades, U.S. government policies have starved our passenger rail network and neglected our critical infrastructure. The only major high speed rail project with funding and a start date is here in California, with Phase 1 not scheduled for completion until 2029.

We're supposed to be the most powerful country on Earth.

What's our excuse?