Getting the school to commit to a definite time frame for vacations was a bitch. Schools usually give around three-four weeks of vacation for the Spring Festival, known to us Yanks as the Chinese New Year (here it's called— you guessed it— "Spring Festival"). For whatever reason the middle school Amee and I teach at was due to finish final exams several days ahead of schedule. The vice-headmaster (Wu Lao-shi, the aforementioned 'Clark') wanted us to fill this time with special classes for the advanced students, i.e. those more amenable to spend valuable vacation time at school, OR teaching aspects of American culture to the English teachers at the school.
We just wanted more vacation time. Amee isn't coming back to the school next semester, so she needed a definite date to book her flight back home and such. Me, I just wanted to get away from freezing-cold Hunan for a nice, long, vacation in the freezing-cold North. My fellow WorldTeachers Todd and Sebastian, similarly wanting to go north, were to finish classes the first week of January (and so was I, except for this extra teaching thing), so I needed our schedules to be in synch.
For a week we pestered. Bargained. Pleaded. I offered to teach American culture next semester, which I seriously would love to do. At one point I almost swore to destroy Jiufang Middle School, but then Clark relented and we were to teach the English teachers for a week, a total of six classes.
Two of the classes were cancelled for lack of attendance. My highlight was squeezing American regional culture into twenty-five Powerpoint slides, in which the Cajuns and the Mormons each got their own slide.
And then on the twelfth, with everyone else planning trips to Yunnan (springlike) and Thailand (uh . . . you know, it's Thailand), us four set out for the north country.
Frickin' awesome. Todd once did a friend of his a favor by letting her stay at his house in Hawaii for two weeks, on account of SARS. On our trip to Beijing we cashed in big time—her parents are RICH! They let us stay at one of their ENORMOUS! apartments; her father is some kind of investor, which explains why his company builds houses, builds cars, and makes wine. This apartment is in the third ring of Beijing (Beijing is surrounded by four 'ring' highways) and was easily serviced by the Beijing subway system, which is small but takes you wherever you need to go. Amee's great-uncle on her mother's side (or some similar relation; it took a while to figure that out and I'm still not sure) lives in Beijing, so she stayed with him.
Our first night here I fulfilled one of my dreams for my year here— the one where I have a picture taken of me in front of the main gate of the Forbidden City while I'm doing one of those cheesy poses where I jump into the air with my arms spread wide and a goofy grin on my face.
You know what they say: "If you don't get to the Great Wall, you're not a real man." Well, the next day I silenced all you doubters out there and climbed that wall, although I didn't get the souvenir t-shirts, sweaters, or bronze plaques that would have conclusively proved that I did in fact get there. I took pictures. We also went to the Summer Palace, which has an awesome lake which everyone who was there walked on, even though there are bunch of signs saying not to.
We bought our tickets to Harbin days in advance, entailing a long wait at the extremely packed train station. I spent an hour and a half with my face inside the hair of the girl in front of me, thinking to myself "I think there's only one possible situation in which I wouldn't enjoy having my face in some girl's hair, and I am in it right now."
We also went to Sanlitun, the first expat bar district in all of China, with Nan, a friend of a friend of Todd's. I think Shanghai raised the bar for expat debauchery too high: Sanlitun was pretty low-key, almost disappointingly so, though we found a dance club to our liking. A middle-aged lady kept coming up to me to dance; she danced rather drunkenly so I let her go a couple of times. The lady spent the rest of the time in the arms of some weird backpacker dude, who at one point took off his shirt. There were also a fair number of Chinese people at that club (both genders, unlike in Shanghai), which I thought was healthy, but the others were of the opinion that the Chinese were just there specifically for the foreigners, and not the generalized 'have a good time.' Todd, Sebastian and I didn't get to bed until 6 am, because after the club we had breakfast and then went to check out an antiques market, which opens at four-thirty but apparently doesn't get going until hours later.
The rest of the time was spent eating snacks and watching HBO! at the apartment. On the next to last day Todd's friend's mother gave each of us a tie. I am eternally grateful.
You know what they say: "If you haven't spent four days in Manchuria in winter without showering, you're not a real man." Well, I believe I have now silenced anyone left doubting my manhood. I took pictures. Harbin is the capital and largest city of Heilongjiang province, the northernmost in China. While Todd, Sebastian and I (Amee stayed in Beijing) were there the temperature was around -10 or -25 Celsius, which is around 0 Fahrenheit. This is the tourist season here because many southern Chinese come up here for "An appointment with winter," as the sign inside of the lodge at a ski place we went to put it.
About this ski place: one day we just decided to take a city bus and head south towards a park on a map of Harbin we got. The bus didn't go its expected route, which is pretty common here, and we ended up either east or west of where we needed to be. We walked until we found ourselves in a remote industrial area— where, behind some abandoned-looking buildings, we found the top of a ski lift. We jumped the fence and took a look around; two days later we paid our way in. The place consisted of one bunny hill. It was my first time skiing, so I fell of the ski lift twice before I even got on the slope. It was worth it, though, just to say that my first time skiing I fell of the lift twice before even getting on the slope . . . in Manchuria.
Harbin is also famous for its long-gone Russian population, which left their mark on the city's architecture and sausages. In a restaurant we went to that looked like a German beer hall (and which did in fact brew its own beer) we were offered a Russian menu, which I declined for the Chinese one. That's how far my Mandarin has progressed, my friends. The city also gets a lot of Russian tourists; The gift shops all around the city carried either A) Russian army surplus, B) random American stuff that looked like army surplus, C) Russian chocolate (splendid), D) vodka, or E) pewter shit: tea sets, He-Man swords, figurines.
Harbin is also home to "Max Montesino's Financial Crisis, part one":
FINANCIAL CRISIS, PART ONE
I took out 'only' 2000 yuan (renminbi, kuai, same thing) from my bank in Zhuzhou— not as much as I would need by any stretch, but I figured if I got robbed I'd only lose 2000, whereas if I took out more I'd lose more. So I also brought along my passbook, to withdraw money with at any Bank of China location. (I don't know to what degree banking is state-controlled, though there are other banks). Could I get money from any Bank of China? I asked Amee, and she's used her passbook to get money in Changsha— from a different bank, albeit in the same province.
And no, I don't have an ATM card; my waiban (i.e. 'foreign relations officer,' i.e.'the teacher from school in charge of keeping the foreign teachers' heads above water') never got one for me.
And off I went. In the elevator of the hotel we stayed at in Harbin I met one of the tour guides for the hotel's Yabuli mountain ski trip package thing, which we didn't do because Yabuli is two hours away from Harbin, even though it's supposed to be China's premier ski resort. Anywho, her English was pretty decent. The next day I go down to the lobby to ask for the nearest Bank of China, only the lady behind the reception desk was ignoring me, so Qi-Jin-Yuan , my tour guide friend, comes up to me to help.
And in the next couple of hours I was gonna need some big help. At the nearest Bank of China I learn that they can't use my passbook to get me my money— they can't even access my money. Right then and there I proposed to open a second bank account in Harbin, and transfer money from Hunan to there. But it takes two days to open a bank account at this particular Bank of China; at the Heilongjiang Provincial Bank of China it only takes two hours.
And off we went. At the big bank I signed some papers, got a new passbook and, hell, they even threw in an ATM card. Accounts are supposed to begin with an initial deposit, so I threw in 10 kuai. But there was another problem— this Bank of China can't access my money either. I need someone in Hunan province to go into a Bank of China there and request a transfer of funds from a third-party account to another third-party account in another province.
OK. So I got on Qi's cell phone and first called the hotel room, telling Sebastian to check out (Todd had left for a plane to Changsha earlier in the day), then I started calling everyone I knew who was in Hunan. For several minutes, no dice. It's almost lunchtime. Everyone's phone is off. Qi, to her credit, is very patient. Finally I get a hold of Josh, in Changsha. After explaining my situation to him, he offers to loan my Harbin account 2000 of WorldTeach money, for which he is the principal signer and it would therefore be easier than trying to get me my money. But first he was going to lunch with a 90-year-old friend of his, so did I need the money right away?
Despite the gravity of my situation, my train wasn't leaving town until later in the evening (did I mention that before? Well, it's true). So yes, it could wait, I told him, happy that that was true. And it worked. I waited for a while, went to the Heilongjiang Provincial Bank of China's ATM and got the money. Whew!
Layover city. The Harbin station didn't have any tickets to Zhengzhou, my next destination, but a 17-hour ass-melter of a train ride to this fine burg was as close as they could manage. I crashed at Tianjin University's foreign student building/hotel, which is sparsely populated by Korean students cramming for finals. And for two days I pretty much laid low— the area around Tianjin and Nankai universities has a nice college-town feel, and I couldn't believe my good luck when I found a DVD copy of Strictly Ballroom which I'm saving for later.
The second day there I wandered around the city a little. First to 'Chinatown,' a traditional urban neighborhood in the middle of soon-to-be skyscrapers, then to a pedestrian shopping district. Tianjin has a lot of old European buildings as a result of many concession treaties to foreign powers (even Austria-Hungary got a piece) and that was cool to behold, especially the European-style street planning where five roads intersect.
And that was about it.
A hideous industrial city, and capital of Henan province. I was only there because it's the closest big city to Shaolin Temple, my real next destination. I didn't really plan out how to get there; Todd had a Lonely Planet guide but it didn't say how to arrive at Shaolin Temple. So when I got out of the Zhengzhou train station I was just gonna go with whoever was offering, 'cuz surely there are ways to get there from here.
And sure enough, I follow the first dude on the street that said 'Shaolin Si.' Actually he said 'Shaolin Shi,' and I hate hypercorrective speech, so I was inclined to think this guy was shady. I told him to help me look for a cheap hotel, so he did. A Chinese hotel is . . . well, avoid budget Chinese hotels. My room was nice and clean, but the floor lobby was under construction and the bathroom was missing a chunk of wall (good thing too, because it stank). And guests don't keep room keys, they have to ask an attendant to open the door for them.
I bought a tour-group pass for 190 yuan, which is really expensive. All morning I thought I'd been had: when an old woman came by to take me to the tour bus . . . when the tour bus was a ratty old minivan with three Chinese guys inside . . . when another Chinese guy came in and I thought "Well, at least I'm not the only one who got gypped" . . . when a bigger bus came and everyone on the little bus went onto the big bus . . . until a woman grabbed the microphone and cordially invited everyone to Shaolin Si.
There's a four-lane expressway from Zhengzhou to Dengfeng, the small town closest to Shaolin Temple. Along the way are drawings and statues of monks doing kung fu. Henan has been farmed continuously for ten thousand years, and it looks it: fields are sunken and look terraced, their sides sandy-brown and eroding. Sometimes what looks like a small cave or even a doorway has been carved into the sides of fields, and some of the towns featured a small, Catholic-mission-style church.
I didn't get gypped, but I did pay a lot. The tour was for two subsidiary temples, admission to the Shaolin complex, admission to the kung fu exhibition, a tour guide, and lunch (which came after we had seen everything). The woman was the tour guide, and she was very knowledgeable but I couldn't follow anything she was saying. I read up on the temple's history beforehand, though, and one of the other tourists was in the import-export business and his English was excellent, so I wasn't totally ignorant.
Shaolin Temple is the birthplace of the original martial art, kung fu, and Zen Buddhism, two huge contributions to world culture, let alone Asian or Chinese culture. For Daoists the gorgeous Song Shan mountain next to the temple is the center of either the world or the universe, I forgot which. I came in the winter because in the summer it's supposedly packed with tour groups. In January it was much quieter (the students of the temple-affiliated gong fu academy must have gone home for Spring Festival) although it still had some tourists, mostly German from what I could tell.
The kung fu exhibition was awesome. My personal favorite was the student with only one arm— oh man, he was just as good as the others. The temple itself, the actual place of worship itself, is the same size as the others I went to (the buildings and courtyard together are the size of a decent-size cathedral). The other highlight of the tour was a building in which there were a bunch of statues of spirits; starting from one statue, you count the statues you walk by, up to the age you are presently. That statue has a number associated with it; tell the attendant this number and they give you a card which has your incarnation in a past life. Ten yuan. Then you go to another dude, who from your deeds in your past life tells you your fortune in this life. The import-export dude's translated my fortune thus: "You are very clever; you will have a good job because you are a good man."
And then it was back to Zhengzhou. I went to the bus station and got on the next bus to Xi'an.
Xi'an is the capital of Shaanxi, the next province over to the west. It used to be the imperial capital, but now serves as a sort of "Gateway to the West" a la St. Louis. Here I stayed in a youth hostel— Xi'an is one of the major international tourist destinations in China, so like the others it's well-equipped to handle foreign tourists. But, like at Shaolin, things were dry in January: when I checked in there were only two other people at the hostel, two Australians on their way to Xinjiang. The next day two other people checked in, nationality uncertain (could've been Chinese), but the place was otherwise empty.
I came to Xi'an for two things: a) the Muslim quarter, within the old city walls (the walls themselves very well-kept), and b) the Terracotta Warriors, thirty kilometers east of the city. On one day one, the next day the other, and the third day back to Hunan.
The Muslim quarter is probably the best known but definitely not the only place of the Hui, Chinese Muslims descended from Arab/Persian Silk Road traders and their converts. It's physically well-defined as well as culturally so; go to the Drum Tower, cross through the tunnel at its base and whoomp, there it is. Its main streets are clogged with Hui selling food or trinkets, some culturally connected with the neighborhood (like the traditional Hui white cap I got at Yusuf's Islamic home accessories store), some with no connection to at all (like the Miao shirt I got; the Miao live in the next province over from Hunan). There were also a lot of signs advertising Sprite, which was weird until I realized that Sprite's color is green, culturally appropriate, unlike the red Coca-Cola I'm used to seeing everywhere here (and I mean everywhere— just outside the Drum Tower is an outdoor mall, and in the courtyard was a giant Coke bottle made out of Coke cans, wishing customers a Happy (Chinese) New Year).
The food is fantastic, rightly famous within China, but the trinkets can add up, leading to "Max Montesino's Financial Crisis, part two."
FINANCIAL CRISIS, PART TWO
The Miao shirt I got supposedly costs 800 yuan for tourists, but was 450 for me since I'm such a nice guy and one of the cloth straps is broken and needs some mending. I offered her 300, because I don't have 450 on me, I need money to take the tour of the terracotta warriors, and I need to eat. We finally agree on 310. However, I forgot to take into account another night and half a day's stay at the hostel, and transportation costs to get from Changsha to Zhuzhou. Both are necessities.
The tour of the terracotta warriors isn't a necessity, and I wind up short of the money needed to take it— and I mean like 10 kuai short! No biggie— there were two money-saving options I could think of, and I tried to exploit them both.
One— exchange my hard-sleeper ticket for an earlier train. Since the exchange would be on such short notice, the only tickets available for the train I wanted would have been seat tickets, which are substantially cheaper than sleeper tickets (depending on the class of train, it could be less than half the price of a sleeper). Figuring in the commissions taken by the train station and the ticket-exchanger, a kind chap who works for the hostel, I would still get enough money from the exchange to take the tour.
Unfortunately, the guy could only get another sleeper ticket for the train I wanted, which would have cost an extra 100 yuan that I didn't have. My original ticket was for a morning train, and I didn't have enough money to pay for another night's stay at the hostel. So I would have to take my original train, hang out overnight at the train station (which is cool, they're open 24 hours), and then sleep on the train.
Two— take the city bus to the Terracotta Warriors. Public buses here frequently skip stops if there's no one waiting at the stop or if none of the passengers says anything about it, but there's no way they'd skip the Terracotta Warriors, especially with a foreigner on the bus. The bus in question left from the train station, so I would need to take another bus to get there. I asked the people at hostel what buses to take, and was on my way. No cabs; everything needed to go perfectly so I could do what I wanted and still get back to my place in Zhuzhou.
So what do you think happened? Of course the bus never got to the train station. Not even close. They must have changed the routes, and the hostel people either don't know (unlikely) or forgot to tell me (fuck!). Instead I got dropped off at a decidedly un-scenic part of the city. I asked for the train station, but I just got vague pointing (ironically . . . fuck!) that led to a set of train tracks that I figured weren't even headed towards the train station.
So I walked for a fair bit, until I found another bus headed toward the city center. The only thing worthy of note was that I ran across a Bank of China, and remembered the 10 yuan deposit in my Harbin account that I never withdrew. I could use that to take a cab to the train station or something. So I get out my ATM card and do the ol' balance inquiry: yup, still there. But the machine won't let me take it. And the tellers can't help me. So I just kept on walking.
And that's how I didn't see the Terracotta Warriors. Not a total loss . . . I enjoyed the city nonetheless . . . bus routes may come and go, but no one's gonna get rid of the Terracotta Warriors . . . and I bought a set of miniature replicas for 38 yuan, roughly the cost of going on that tour. Fuck.
THE JOURNEY HOME
Nothing huge, I just wanted to say that I spent 40 straight hours in either trains or train stations, subsisting on packaged noodles and Ice Mint Sprite, a delicious foreign-market version of Sprite. This one was blue.
To top it all off, I got a cold somewhere between Xi'an and Zhuzhou. I've been chilling in my place, cooking and watching movies. It's still cold here. I haven't shaved since Christmas. I'm slummin', baby!
The other time was on the way to Tianjin; the boy sitting across from me was named Gu-Yu, so I offered him either "George," "Gary," or "Cory." I kinda hoped he'd choose Cory, but he and his mom both liked George, so that was that.
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