Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Guizhou Pt. 3

Everyone agreed that taking the train from Guiyang to Kaili would not be as "convenient" as taking the bus. The train station was "a little chaotic," the desk clerk at the hotel informed us. And besides, the bus left every hour.

The long distance bus station is on the fringes of Guiyang, seemingly an artifact of some master plan where the current city of Guiyang swells far beyond its current boundaries to some new, "modern" ring of villas and suburbs that haven't yet been constructed, that are only a dream on some central planning commission's drawing boards and the occasional aspirational billboard. The bus station has the same swooping curved roof as just about every Chinese airport constructed in the last few years, modeled after the archetypical Beijing Capital Airport Terminal 3 built for the Olympics. Inside, it's the same dull mat white walls, scuffed and smudged, grilled ticketing windows and truncated tubular crowd control fences, the less citified customers cutting lines wherever they can.

A helpful information officer led us over to the appropriate window to get tickets to Kaili. We were told to "mashang zou,"—our bus was leaving soon.

We made our way out the back, to where the buses waited.

Our bus: the most broken-down bus on the entire lot. Soiled doilies on the head rests. Seats that smelled like someone had spilled a bottle of baijiu on them—they reeked of stale alcohol.

Suspension? Shock absorbers? The bus laughed at such bourgeoise notions.

We traveled through a green, increasingly hilly countryside. The most striking thing to me were the graves. There are graves everywhere: grass mounds, mostly, some covered in gray stone, like Celtic cairns. All topped by flags on poles made of twigs: scraps of banners, shredded by wind, all white, with red bands. Later, we would see graves in the most unlikely places. Once, on the outskirts of Kaili, where autoshops and junkyards had been carved into the hills (the city of Kaili seems to have been created by blasting into granite mountains), there was a tiny copse that had somehow been left, surrounded by piles of auto parts, fenders and doors and stacks of tires, and there were graves there, too many, crammed into that tiny space. And I wondered, where were there families whose loved ones were buried here? Did they come to pay their respects, still? Did they sit on a pile of hubcaps to do so?

Some three to four hours later, we arrived in Kaili.

Kaili is the capital of the Miao/Dong minorities Autonomous Region in Guizhou, described by Lonely Planet as a jumping off point to visit villages without any great interest of its own. I liked Kaili. I couldn't tell you why, exactly; on the surface it looked like any other third-tier Chinese city. But there's something charming about it. Maybe the size: at about 500,000 people, Kaili is a small town for a Chinese city. Most likely, the people. Did I mention that, even though I hate making these kinds of gross generalizations, as a group, Guizhou people seem unusually friendly? I don't know how much of this was because we were foreigners visiting a place that didn't see all that many (we hardly spotted any Westerners our entire time there), or how much was due to the culture. According to the "Tourism Attractions of Kaili" book in my hotel room, around Kaili, "Every day is a festival. Every third day is a major festival." I kind of believe it.

For example: Richard, my traveling companion, had a minor injury that needed attention, and we decided to stop in at the Kaili First People's Hospital to see what could be done. It was close to 5 PM. The reception nurse walked us to the doctor's office. The doctor, who seemed impossibly young, let me hang out in the exam room, and later, took us upstairs to see his boss, who was just getting ready to leave for the day and had his eight year old son in the office. The son and I entertained each other (we determined that he wanted to be a jet pilot when he grew up, among other things), while the father put his white coat back on and attended to my friend. Afterwards, problem treated, he invited us both to dinner.

We declined. You know, stuff like that is awkward. Did he mean it? He seemed to.

So we had our own dinner to figure out. After a lot of fruitless wandering looking for a recommended night market, we finally hopped in a cab and asked the driver if he had any suggestions for dinner. He immediately brightened. "Have you been to the best Miao restaurant? You should try that!"

A short drive and we were there. To the left was what appeared to be banquet rooms for large parties: Miao women in traditional dress lined up at the entrance, along with Miao men holding the huge pipes used to play the old music. We went into the main restaurant. This was the only place in Kaili that we saw other Westerners, a Canadian (?) family with a tour guide. Even so, it seemed like it was still a big deal for foreigners to come in to dine. We attracted a lot of attention.

For example: after ordering (the recommended local beer, an amazing Miao tofu dish, some scallion pancakes, a superb cabbage-based soup), a man in his thirties approached our table and started chatting with us, a younger man trailing behind him.

He was a minor government official in some educational capacity, and at first we thought we were being hustled to take questionable English teaching positions (this happens a lot). The younger man was his fuwuyuan, specifically his driver. I offered them some beer—it seemed like the thing to do.

"I'm being presumptuous," he kept saying, "because I have been drinking. But I saw you and wanted to talk with you."

They sat for a while. He talked and asked the usual questions: Where were we from, how long had we been in China? Refused our offers of food but drank more beer (we kept them coming). Our waitress thought that he was pretty funny — "He likes to chui niu," she said a couple of times, a polite version of a phrase that means to blow your own horn. I didn't think he was really doing that, but it was hard to figure out just what it was that he did want.

Which turned out to be, to buy our dinner, which we found out after he finally did say goodbye.

The next day, we went out to visit some "minority" villages. We'd decided to splurge and hire a driver—it seemed the most effective use of our limited time (a note for travelers: Lonely Planet highly recommends the Kaili China Tourism Office, and they are right. Super-helpful folks). The driver, Mr. Ou, was not supposed to be a guide per se, just a driver, but for us, he was also the perfect guide, explaining just enough without going into some memorized spiel. Throughout the day, as we were driving and would see some spectacular spot, he'd say, "Do you want to stop and walk a while?" (we hired him again for Day #2) In many ways that was the best part of the experience—just walking through this spectacular scenery (I hope the photo essay below gives some sense of what it was like).

The biggest tourist attraction in the area is Xijiang—the Miao "Thousand Household Village." And there are some definite signs of tourist development there:

(ATMs, post office, cell phone cards and services readily available as well)

Still, I'd recommend Xijiang for a visit. The architecture is truly lovely (the top photo in the photo essay below is Xijiang), and I personally am a sucker for the Miao music. And the rice wine...

One last note...

As we left the village, riding in a convenient electric shuttle (yes, this is a fully developed tourism site), an older woman dressed in cargo pants and a baseball cap started chatting to Ou. "Are you their guide?" she asked. "Where are they from?"

"They're Americans," he replied, "and they speak Chinese."

She turned to us. Her accent was a giveaway, but we asked anyway. She was a Beijinger. "I'm traveling by car with my older brother," she explained. "We've been to Xi'an, to Kunming, to Guilin..." She grinned and gave a little shrug. "I'm retired, so why not?"

"That sounds like a lot of fun," I said.

"Where are you going next?" she asked. "Why don't you come with us, back to Beijing? We'll stop and visit Hunan. It's just the two of us; we have plenty of room!"

She seemed to mean it, too. Beijingers are also friendly folks, in my experience.

We'd already booked tickets to Kunming, and besides, it's such an awkward thing, to consider accepting a stranger's hospitality. But it was another one of those moments that made me glad I'd decided to take this trip.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Guizhou Pt. 2

I have a lot to say about Guizhou, and normally I would write a post and intersperse it with photos. But thanks to the Great Firewall, it took me so damn long to upload all these photos that I don't have time to actually write anything before returning to Beijing, and I wanted to share with you how stunningly gorgeous this place is.

So, presented without captions, here's a little photo essay for you. Keep in mind that the photos don't do the real place justice. You'll have to imagine the clean, crisp air that smells like pine and woodsmoke and flowers, for one...and the taste of the local rice wine!

(Click to enlarge)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Guizhou Pt. 1

I knew very little about Guizhou before my friend Richard suggested that we visit it this trip. It's one of the poorest provinces in China, west of Guanxi and east of Yunnan, with a high percentage of "national minorities" (the officially favored term) — Miao and Dong in particular. We had also heard that it is spectacularly beautiful and rarely visited by tourists. Good enough reason to check it out.

You'd think it would be easy to catch a train from Guilin to the capital, Guiyang, but not so much. Apparently a new high-speed rail line is in the works, but for now, flying was the easiest option. We arrived in the evening at your basic (decent) Chinese airport, most notable for its extremely orderly taxi line.

From the cab window, Guiyang looks like any other second or third tier Chinese provincial city: lots of strange gray and tan high-rises with fogged mirror glass, shorter, white-tile fronted buildings with blackened grout, apartment blocks with sagging, rusting balconies. And, even in one of China's poorest provinces, a luxury mall advertising Gucci, with promises of Armani to come.

I made reservations at a hotel through a China travel site that I frequently use. There weren't a lot of recommends for Guiyang, but 4 stars at the price of around $30 seemed pretty good.

Of course, there are catches to everything. In this case, the cab driver brought us to the address, which looked like another slightly seedy mall/high-rise from the outside. The sign for the hotel was posted in big plastic letters across the front of the building about five floors up. But there was no obvious entrance. We stumbled around with our excess of luggage, going downstairs to a greasy-smelling food-court, then upstairs on an escalator to the third floor, which at first looked promising but turned out to be a cinema multiplex.

Luckily the locals are very friendly. I'll be saying this a lot over the next few posts: the people in Guizhou are about the friendliest, most helpful people you'd ever want to meet. I hate making those kinds of generalizations, which by and large I think are pretty meaningless, but that's sure how it seemed.

One of said helpful folks pointed us in the right direction and walked us halfway around the corner to be sure we found the entrance. It was about the least likely looking hotel entrance you can imagine, especially for a "four star" hotel (someone was being awfully generous with that star rating).

For example, when we walked around the corner, this building below was what was on our left:

Then, to our right, the actual entrance, with the red lanterns:

The oddest part was, you walk into a lobby that's for the entire building and which has no direct connection to any hotel at all. Then into a narrow narrow vestibule that looks like it should be in the basement of some fairly sleazy, well, I'm not sure what. Faded, cigarette-burned and warped linoleum, torn plastic ads on the three elevators there. And of the three elevators, only one of them went to the hotel, which started on the 25th floor, which instead of being the 25th floor, was labeled "G" (for a Japanese hotel group).

Once you reach "G," which takes forever, with only one elevator that goes up there, you are greeted by an actual hotel-type lobby which really is pretty cute. And then you have to get in another elevator to go up to the next four floors, which make up the hotel.

After all this, we needed a drink, STAT. Thankfully there is a bar in the building. But first you have to ride the G elevator down to the first floor (yes, only one elevator goes to the first floor), get off, and ride a different elevator up to the fifth floor, where the bar is.

The first thing I did was memorize the fire escape stairs. Because you would not want to be waiting for that elevator in case of an emergency.

As for the bar, it was small, smoke-filled and featured fish tanks.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Two Yangshuo views...

I tried to upload a few more but this looks like what I can get for now...

Just one thing...

Really hope to be able to post some photos and an account of the time in Guizhou tomorrow...but for now...I leave you with this...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Well, I'd planned on posting a series of photos showing off Yangshuo's incredible beauty—and I gotta say, I loved it there the second time as much as I did the first—but the Great Firewall right now is frustrating all my attempts to do this. And I have some lovely photos too! Otherwise, I was going to talk a little about how even though it's a very touristy place, it's still awesome and lovely, and how the influx of foreigners has led to some interesting cultural fusions, and how much I love biking around in the other-worldy hills, breathing the clean air, every now and again seeing something like a pretty young woman working the fields wearing a T-shirt that says "Awesome Cutie Honey" and wondering about her life—stuff like that. But basically I didn't have much to say because I was too busy just taking it all in and going, dang, this is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, so here are some photos. Except I can't post them.

So, here are a few photos from my first trip to Yangshuo in Nov./Dec. 2009. Here too.

Right now I'm traveling in Guizhou, which has been super-interesting. I hope to write up something about the experience thus far tomorrow. Only don't count on any photos...

Saturday, April 16, 2011

To market!

I'd heard that one central agricultural market supplies the majority of produce for the entire city of Beijing—according to this Global Times article, 70 % of vegetables and 80% of fruit (the photo above is an example of a typical city fruit vendor).

I'd also heard that the majority of Chinese agriculture is still conducted by individual small farmers, which is both heartening and scary—the latter due to the difficulty of enforcing regulations concerning pesticide and antibiotic use, and, you know, adding melamine and stuff.

These two things seemed hard to reconcile.

I decided to make a field-trip to said market: Xinfadi in Fengtai, South Beijing.

The photo above was taken at the entrance to the market, a huge dirt lot surrounded by walls that spreads out over a couple of city blocks.

The trucks line up in rings, sorted by the type of produce they sell. Apartment blocks of south Beijing in background. As mentioned in the GT article linked above, the market is due to move out to the 6th Ring Road in a year or so.

Scenes from around the market. As far as I can determine, the farmers bring their own produce in by truck. According to one article I read, the market is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, with the busiest time being from 4 to 6 AM.

Random foreigners apparently are not a common site at Xinfadi. You'd think the occasional Western chef would make his way out here to buy for a restaurant, but we didn't encounter any. Maybe they come at the magical 4 AM to 6 AM hour, if they come at all...

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Welcome to Beijing...

As we entered the arrival hall of the Beijing Capital Airport the other day, we were greeted by throngs of teenagers and young women holding up signs of a young man, the sort of teen idol who would have found a home in "Lisa Simpson's Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. These fans were decked out. Many wore custom green T-shirts, and some of their signs had flashing diodes. With every new entry into the hall, they surged against the guard-rail, squealing in the manner of teenage girls the world over.

"Who is it?" I asked a bunch of them.

"BIE!!!!" they screamed—ecstatically.

I still haven't figured out who "Bie" is, but when he did arrive, a very slight, young Asian man, the crowd swarmed around him, tossed bouquets of flowers, took countless photos, pressed against the elevator that takes you downstairs, to where the taxi lines are.

It was a strange way to start a trip that in all honesty, I wasn't much looking forward to.

The "situation" here had become, from the outside at least, increasingly depressing. The detention of Ai Weiwei represents a new high (low?) in the government's recent crackdown of activists: an internationally respected figure, a cultural ambassador, who helped design the Bird's Nest, whose father was one of China's most respected poets. All those things only protect a person so much, particularly a person like Ai Weiwei, whose actions seemed designed to provoke the state to reveal its true nature.

It's particularly depressing because many of these "activists" were only "acting" within the boundaries of China's own constitution and laws, which as toothless as they may be, at least represented an attempt to move toward a rule of law. Opinions from those far more knowledgable than I differ on the extent to which this is a departure from recent norms or a continuation of a tightening that's been in place since at least 2006, but what's hard to dispute is that the boundaries of the nascent civil society and acceptable public discourse seem to have narrowed. Witness this editorial from the Global Times, which manages to sound hysterical, incoherent and sinister all at once:
Ai Weiwei is an activist. As a maverick of Chinese society, he likes "surprising speech" and "surprising behavior." He also likes to do something ambiguous in law. On April 1, he went to Taiwan via Hong Kong. But it was reported his departure procedures were incomplete.

Ai Weiwei likes to do something "others dare not do." He has been close to the red line of Chinese law. Objectively speaking, Chinese society does not have much experience in dealing with such persons. However, as long as Ai Weiwei continuously marches forward, he will inevitably touch the red line one day.

In such a populous country as China, it is normal to have several people like Ai Weiwei. But it is also normal to control their behaviors by law. In China, it is impossible to have no persons like Ai Weiwei or no "red line" for them in law.

The West ignored the complexity of China's running judicial environment and the characteristics of Ai Weiwei's individual behavior. They simply described it as China's "human rights suppression."

"Human rights" have really become the paint of Western politicians and the media, with which they are wiping off the fact in this world...

...Ai Weiwei will be judged by history, but he will pay a price for his special choice, which is the same in any society.
I don't know why I was surprised, or if I even was. I've been coming to China for over thirty years, and I've seen this cycle before. But it's hard to reconcile when externally the country has changed so much, when there are contemporary arts districts and hip bars and metal bands and avant-guard architecture. Where teenage girls scream for their latest pop idol.

Most of the reporting on the crackdown attributes it to "Jasmine Revolutions" in the Middle East. Some of my friends are of the opinion that it has everything to do with the upcoming transition of power (due to play out in 2012), the need to look "tough" to the old guard. I'd guess it's a combination of those things. For all the Western commentators who opined that China was in no danger of the kind of unrest seen in the Middle East, the government here isn't taking any chances.

Risk or no, the insecurity demonstrated here is telling.

Anyway, I wasn't very enthusiastic about taking this trip.

But...and yet...

A couple of days in Beijing, after seeing old friends who are so bright and funny and unique...returning to my favorite coffee place near the Drum Tower, where the two young women who work there recognize me and greet me after absences of months at a time...the small interactions I have with people, the friendliness and humor...it's hard not to fall in love again.

It's just the kind of love that will break your heart, is all....

UPDATE: Check out my friend Richard's revealing post about a conversation with a Global Times editor...it speaks volumes about the Chinese government's curious mixture of arrogance and insecurity, to quote James Fallows' just published piece...