Wednesday, April 6, 2011

China: At last!

After 12 years, I finally returned to China for a two-week visit! Michala and I met up with our friends Mark and Lisa for an awesome time hitting Beijing, Shanghai, and Xiamen with them before M and I moved on to the small city of Yangshuo (阳朔, Yáng​shuò​) in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region ​(廣西壯族自治區Guǎng​xī​ Zhuàng​zú ​zì​zhì​qū).

It is hard to sum up in a few sentences the feeling of returning to China after so long, but suffice it to say that it felt like going home, like going for the first time, like digging around in my past, and like opening a window on the future. As always it is place of great contrasts. Take these two photos for example. Above: A detail from the Great Wall (cháng ​chéng, ​长城) at Mutianyu (Mùtiányù, 慕田峪). Majestic, beautiful, full of history and intrigue, a place of solitude and somewhere I could probably go everyday. Then, on the other end of the spectrum - this apocalypse-ready signage, seen on the side of a public bathroom in an alleyway (My caption). Slightly ridiculous, kind of gross, and frankly a bit frightening.

My only guess is that the signs were placed there ahead of the Olympics, in order to discourage foreigners from going in there - without their gas masks and safety harness, which in theory will prevent you from the "Daop down" into the cesspits in case of catastrophic failure of the "Ovntilating" system.

In spite of the bathroom situation, and the eternal search of my comrades for what we called a "Western deucer," we all had a good time. More evidence I had been gone a long time appeared in the form of Beijing traffic. When I left in 1999, there were three ring roads around the city, with a fourth being constructed. Today there are six, with the Sixth Ring Road (六环路, liù huán lù) having a circumference of about 200 km. Apparently a seventh is on the way. The traffic was also terrible. It took forever to get anywhere by taxi and some cabbies even flat out refused to take us certain places during rush hour.

One important thing I did in Beijing was to retrieve my trumpet. I had left a bunch of stuff (3 boxes worth) at my friend's house. Among these boxes of mostly junk was my trumpet, a nice nickel silver horn that I have had since grade school. It is a beauty and it was fun to reunite with it, although I need to get it cleaned.

Shanghai was like an alien spaceport. I had never spent much time there, but it had obviously changed a lot. For one thing the buildings all had ads on them. I don't mean billboards, I mean entire buildings that were 60-100 stories tall lit up and ads and graphics danced across the surface as millions of tiny lights on the sides of the buildings, acting like huge monitors.

I'd never been to Xiamen (厦门, Xià​mén) ​before, and we only stayed there for one full day. The main thing we saw there was Gulangyu (鼓浪屿, Gǔlàngyǔ)​, which was a small island, near the city of Xiamen, which is also an island.

There was a funny scene where I purchased tickets for the "ferry" across to Gulangyu. I paid for the tickets, but received no tickets. The girl came out of the ticket office and led us to a dock where there sat a large Mark-Twain-ish style river boat, which we approached and got ready to board. "No that's the boat that goes around the island," she said.

She led us to the other side of he dock, where there was some kind of tug boat or fishing rig, maybe 30 feet long. We shrugged as the woman indicated we should get on. Not as good as the other boat, but OK, we were all up for the experience. Then she says we should keep going! So we walked across the deck where there was a small 12-foot motor boat with a teenager behind the wheel. "That's your boat," she said. Fortunately the ride was only about 30 seconds long and waters were fairly calm.

After Xiamen, Mark and Lisa rejoined their cruise, and M and I went on to Yangshuo in Guangxi. This is a spectacular place to visit, for the weird, tree covered limestone karst mountains that are everywhere. More on that place later!

In all, it was a great trip. I had sort of assumed that the China chapter of my life was complete, but now I am not so sure. It is still a fascinating country, and the fact that my spoken Mandarin was still in good shape was encouraging. The fact that Michala liked it there and had a good time was also a good sign for future dealings with the place. We also met up with several friends that I had not seen in years, so that was also great to re-activate those relationships.

Mark summed it up nicely, when I was talking about having not been back for so long. He said: "It was time." I owe a special thanks to Mark and Lisa for making the trip actually happen. I guess we'll see what the future brings. Looking forward to more trips to the dynamic, wacky, frustrating and inspiring, ancient and modern country of China, land of contrasts. As I write, things are springing to mind, so hopefully more detailed posts will follow in the not too distant future.


Susan Moger said...

I like Mark's comment, "It was time." That's what your trumpet would say too,if it could speak. Interesting that in those 12 years you have changed too. So the Ben regarding China in 2011 has a wider perspective than that younger Ben. Fortune Cookie sentiment: You can't step in the same river twice, and with the right harness you can't fall in a hutong toilet either.
More, more, more soon!

Mary Anne said...

Loved your narrative. Your affection for China was quite discernible. I bet you could write a book on the then and now of your Chinese experiences. I am sure I can handle a sequel to this blog. BTW, my Lexmark printer indicates dangerously low ink with the exclamation point in the triangle. Must be the universal warning for all kinds of adversities.