July 23rd – 9:15pm
It looks like I’ve found myself in a hotel room somewhere on the campus of Changsha University, located in Changsha, Hunan Province. I’m currently participating in the Chinese Bridge summer camp, a couple weeks of cultural and language exchange with 120 students from around the world. There’s time before tomorrow’s rigorously planned schedule to relate some experiences of my second journey to China.
Some background: I’m on a 6 month journey in China. Purpose: continue learning Mandarin, see friends from last year’s journey and make new ones, visit lots of new cities, all while doing some work on my startup company. I’m travelling alone through hotels and hostels, with the exception of Shanghai.
I landed in Shanghai on the 13th of June after a 16 hour journey from Toronto with a stop-over in Vancouver. There’s a 12 hour time difference between China and Toronto, so I ‘lost’ half a day. The 12 hour difference makes it really easy to figure out what time it is back home.
In Shanghai I stayed with my buddy Kyle and his girlfriend Emily. Kyle graduated Systems Design Engineering from the University of Waterloo. Emily, is also from the same university, born in Dalian, China (my Chinese ‘hometown’) and speaks great Chinese. The three of us did some travelling, clubbing, watching Chinese soap operas (步步惊心) and mostly eating great food.
We checked out Yuyuan Garden (豫园), Jing’an Temple (静安寺) and the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum (科技博物馆). Yuyuan was a beautiful Eastern style garden, a peaceful respite from the very touristy environment just outside. It was interesting to see what happens to the fish when you put your hand over the water. They assume there’s food coming and begin a grand struggle.
Jing’an, translated as ‘Temple of Peace and Tranquility’, was very tranquil in some areas. In others, people tried to through coins onto high places or into holes for good luck or just the feeling of accomplishment. Gamification (turning everything into a game, perhaps with points and badges) is a trend that perhaps was started thousands of years earlier than it happened on the internet.
The Science and Tech Museum was remarkable for its massive architecture and excellent stuffed animal exhibits. The Africa pavilion looked like a very Chinese feel; the population density of animals approached that of downtown Shanghai. Kyle and I, being the Systems Design Engineering graduates we are, forced Emily to visit ‘World of Robots’ with us. We had been spoiled with all the cool stuff built by our classmates, so the exhibit seemed relatively timid.
Shanghai clubbing was fun, though, I learned a lesson when it came to cheap Chinese liquor. It’s really, really cheap and really, really strong (58% alcohol). At just over $1 for per bottle at any convenience store you can give yourself a great headache the next day.
From Shanghai, I said goodbye to my friends Kyle and Emily and was off to the high speed rail station. Next stop, Suzhou: Venice of the East.
Canada, in general, is a very good place. I’m currently out of the country (travelling through China, currently in Suzhou), which gives yet another perspective on my home country. Here are some reasons we have to be thankful for Canada.
Free Healthcare – the stress of arranging your own insurance won’t kill you here
Freedoms and Opportunity - our judicial processes robustly protect freedoms while the average standard of living is quite advanced
Peaceful Founding Story - Canada’s confederation came at the expense of less blood than most countries can attest to. This helps establish a narrative of peace to be continued
Cosmopolitan - a variety of cultures make up population, adding festivity, food and viewpoints to the national patchwork
Limited Military - with two oceans, frigid ice and a powerful neighbour (USA) to protect us, we can spend our resources in more productive pursuits
Stability - we haven’t had a war on our own soil in almost 200 years, with an economic and political stability seldom seen in the world
Back in May, Jim and I had taken the 15 hour train ride from our home-base in Dalian, China to visit Changbaishan (长白山) or in English, Perpetually White Mountain. On that trip (see post here), Jim and I stumbled upon a path up into the mountain where few tend to trek, and it wasn’t long after we came back that Jim began to think about another trip to further explore that path into the mountain range. The goal wouldn’t be just to take a stroll through touristy roads, but rather to see just how far we are able to go, how far into the mountain we could get.
A few months later, Jim assembled a crew of 2 of our friends from Dalian along with 2 former Chinese soldiers living in nearby Shenyang (only a few hours by train). It was safe to say that our Shenyang friends turned out to be capable climbers, as well as later good friends. Politics wasn’t their favourite subject.
After the long train ride, our Dalian crew met up with our fellow travelers in Jilin province. We practiced taichi and soccer at sunrise to wait for breakfast establishments to open around 6 am. From there, it would be several buses and cabbies on our way to the mountain’s foot. A deal with our cab drivers got us accommodation in Changbai city. After a stroll through the city and its forests, we returned to the apartment to find a young couple fast asleep in one of the beds. That was quite unexpected and more than a bit awkward.
That day the cabbies drove us up an ‘unofficial’ route to the mountain to avoid entrance fees. We were let out and traveled by foot, along with some fellow hikers from Shandong province. The entrance to the forest held a monument to the local mountain God as well as a tree suffocated by a thousand red ribbons. Not such a lucky tree. Part of the landscape was a jet black where apparently Manchurian poets and falconers used to take their inspiration from.
At one point we were travelling over a river using a series of bridges. One of the bridges in the series had succumbed to time and we were left with nothing but a slippery ridge. One of my party fell down the ridge into the river much to his dismay. It took a while but we found his glasses in the mud along the bank. My turn over the ridge was also met with peril as I was carrying an overly heavy backpack; it was bad planning on my part. I slipped off the ridge, falling backwards through the air. Somehow, I instinctively wrapped my leg onto a log that led down in to the river, using it to slow my fall and right myself so that I could land with one foot into the river. I’m still not quite sure how that worked, but I ended up with a few scratches, a cut on my wrist (luckily not horizontal, now a scar that reminds me of this trip), and very wet feet. At that point we were very, very lost. Somehow, we made it back to the road close to where we started off and taxied back to civilization.
The next day, our crew journeyed to the foot of the mountain, the weather now hot and sunny rather than the previous day’s storms. We were about to make our way up into the path when a guard stopped us from entering. After the journey it was to get here, it wasn’t as if we would give up so easily. Jim and I charted an alternative route through the wilderness, seeing that it was feasible to reunite with our originally intended path. That was true, though it took an extra 3 hours of not very easy climbing. We found the intended road and started to make our way.
We ran into a group of South Korean travelers, all decked out with sports gear and professional cameras, touring the area for a snap at the landscape. One of them spoke English, warning us of the danger of guards lurking the mountain. They had apparently already made a deal with them in advance, though we were not so fortunate. The way was difficult and vertical dampening the motivation of one in our party. At that point, Jim and one of our Shenyang friends had ventured forward in order to scout, leaving me in charge of this group. And such, the fellowship of the mountain was split in two.
The path progressively began difficult as I mustered our party’s courage as much as I could and supported the less experienced climbers along the way. We made it up the hardest part of the climb with no deaths, to be greeted by some very amazing scenery. The journey was worth it.
We rejoined with Jim’s group amid an amazingly beautiful plateau, when not 15 minutes later, amidst green pastures, a guard in the distance spotted us. I will note here that this mountain is on the border with North Korea. Take it as you will. So, the guard detained us along with another of his compatriots, leading us down the mountain in what was not a very good spirited descent. At one point, Jim and I were off the side, looking at another possible path to descend without our escort. We decided against that particular course of action. Anyways, we found ourselves on a bus to the mountain police station, placed into a room for interrogation/negotiation.
So here I am detained in a Chinese police station not understanding what exactly is going on knowing a fine or worse may be possible. What does one do in this situation? If there’s something I learned in China, it’s that you must learn to trust your friends. It’s one thing to have 酒肉朋友 (‘friends’ that you just go out to eat and drink with) and it’s another to trust someone enough to get you out of a situation like the one I was in. So, I sat back and relaxed, let Jim and my Dalian friend negotiate our fine down to a reasonable amount, and we were free to go out for another hike through the beautiful Changbaishan.
The next couple of days were spent with dinners of hotpot or Korean, eating foods that I won’t name here, sampling the local beers and late night walks through the stormy city. The weather there was quite adolescent, changing between extremes rather quickly. We took cabbies and buses and a train home, laying over in Shenyang in the middle of the night, spending hours in the train station practicing Chinese, and doing impromptu surgical removal of a tick implanted in Jim’s back. We traveled straight back to work on Monday morning in Dalian morning traffic.
Arrival time: 9:15am. Almost perfect.
Saturday August 4 – 8:56am
I have a fascination with empty offices. My mind fills the empty chairs desks and whiteboards with the enterprise I want to create one day. And with this hope in my heart, and in this space, I begin telling my story in Shenyang.
We missed our train. It was kind of our fault; an experienced traveler will always blame themselves for any mishap. For our part, we could have arrived earlier and talked things over with the numerous clerks and offices who messed up our train tickets. The sober result was that we took the later 6 hour train instead of the earlier 4 hour train, arriving in Shenyang at around 2am. We had a much appreciated 3 hours of sleep at the hotel before the next day’s 5:30am enthusiastic early start.
Some background – we were to meet up with some of our friends in McMaster Engineering (previously featured in From China With Love) and more who are also students at the University of Waterloo in Canada. This was a weird kind of reunion taking place in the capital of Liaoning Province, China. Nonetheless, I was very glad to meet fellow ‘in between’ people, each with a foot in a China and Canada, though perhaps reversed. There was also my friend’s little brother who lives in Henan Province and isn’t in University quite yet.
We took a 3 hour bus ride until we reached a mountain to do some whitewater rafting. This was not to be just any white water rafting, we were decked out with an array of water guns, buckets and paddles ready to do some damage on the high seas. It was all good fun until another flotilla flanked us and stole or broke a number of our guns and one of our 2 paddles. This cruel act of piracy left our proverbial sails tattered. From the battle, we decided to beach on a sandy beach where we recuperated for a time. Another couple boats also docked soon before we were to leave. Here was where our plot began to take shape.
My friend noticed a large armament of water guns in the boat docked slightly downstream of us. We, driven by the ‘necessity’ and the open wounds of our last failed engagement, hatched a plot to steal the guns. My crew boarded our boat and I began to pull the boat away from the dock, though going somewhat parallel to the beach. We came next to the other boat and I knew the time was right. In a flurry I grabbed a number of their guns, throwing them into our boat while trying to evade capture by the enemy crew. I shook off a number of outreached hands and clinged to the side of our own flotilla. While we seemed to have gotten away from the main crew, there was one woman who was also clinging to me! We pulled away from the beach and brought both me and my would be assailant onto the boat, making her our defacto prisoner of war. At the nearest opportunity we beached her outfitted with one of our stolen guns. The spoils of our adventure were 9 guns for the 8 member crew. More personally, I felt terrible for a long time. I did what I think is a very unethical thing, though I did learn a lesson. It’s amazing what humans may do when they feel driven by necessity. This ‘game’ created the conditions that made it cognitively acceptable to do what in actuality is a rather unethical and cruel thing. In the future, I hope to more objectively evaluate what I feel is ethical outside of a local, and thus limited, perspective. We returned to Shenyang proper after what was, besides the episodes of piracy, a very fun experience.
We had an amazing dinner with both friends and family, a combination that I think has a lot of merit. To make a generalization, I think the Chinese are more inclined to blend the two spheres than I experience in Canada. The barbeque was held outside surrounded by horse riding, lakes and weddings. Surprisingly, there was also blues music which inclined me to dance a solemn solo jazz routine in homage to dancing in Toronto. We ate 烤羊 (kaoyang – roasted sheep) on a big spit above hot coals. Of course, we couldn’t help but have the traditional Shenyang helpings of 啤酒 (pijiu – beer) and played a drinking game that involved arithmetic in Chinese – I learned quickly. Afterwards, I taught an impromptu swing dance lesson and watched my Waterloo buddy give a break-dancing demo. I was very glad to make a friend who also shares a passion for dancing, though a different style, which I hope to pick up a bit of in the Fall.
The next day we explored the estates of the Communist General Zhang Zuolin and the Shenyang Financial Museum. I enjoyed taking pictures of desks, posing with wax figures, and paying homage (pun intended) to an idol of a money God. It was also fun being led around by my friend’s little brother. He was a bit afraid at first, me being the first foreigner he’s interacted with outside of English class, but later a quite enthusiastic and cute little kid.
Later, we went for a really good Korean BBQ lunch and a few of us checked out an Imperial Palace. I could no longer resist the 3 month long urge to make Kung Fu poses in every photograph. The evidence follows. From there, we said our goodbyes and looked forward to reuniting in Waterloo. It was also time to say goodbye to Shenyang herself and board the train Dalian bound.
For the next post, the story of our grueling hike up an epic mountain and capture by the Chinese authorities. See you next time in - 回来长白山 – ‘The Return to Changbaishan’.
July 14 10:14am – At the office
In the background are the emphatic sounds of my coworkers making use of the ping pong table. What! C** (Chinese swearing)! Ayyyaaahyaa! Such is the ambiance to write about my 5 day adventure in Shanghai.
This was to be my first trip on my own to another city in China. Of course, I pick this city to be Shanghai, the most populous city proper in the world. Some call it ‘heaven for the rich, hell for the poor’, while my expat friend described it as a ‘wild and wacky place.’ I was soon to find out.
The plane, late to depart due to mechanical issues, arrived in Shanghai at 1:30 am. On the way there I met a high school graduate who was going to interview at a Shanghai University where the chances of getting in were 1 in 50. From the airport a Chinese man who had lived in Canada (Scarborough, Toronto to be exact) helped me get to 人民广场 (People’s Square) in downtown Shanghai. A woman pointed me in the right general direction and a pretty girl named Jenny walked me part of the way. From there, a pair of prostitutes and their pimp gave me further directions and finally I arrived at the hotel by 2:30 am, ready to sleep before my first big day in Shanghai.
Shanghai is split into two by the Huangpu River, the west side named Puxi and the east Pudong (西 xi and 东 dong mean west and east, respectively). Puxi has a lot of older buildings dating from the time Shanghai was governed by a conglomerate of Western countries. The west riverside we know as The Bund ( 外滩 – waitan) is dotted with banks and grand Western architecture, quite a marvelous sight. Even more interesting was being able to see the new Shanghai across the Huangpu in Pudong and contrasting that with the heritage of The Bund. 20 years ago, Pudong was predominately farmland. Today, it’s representative of the economic power of Shanghai’s modern affluence.
In my walks in Puxi I passed by many shops, often entire areas selling the same type of goods. One area sold all steel products, likely being manufactured in Shanghai’s suburbs, the largest steel production area in the world. Another area was dominated by threads and fabric, while another was of electronic components. There was an entire electronics mall which would probably make my electrical engineering friends quite excited. I found it hard to believe that many shops had teenage girls as shopkeepers when I just barely passed Analog Circuits myself.
I visited a dense housing area to see how some local people live. The 3 story buildings were very close together with narrow lanes between them. One side would have a row of sinks while the small and dark house would be on the other. I met a group of people with an old lady who was so delighted to show off a few words of English. The local dialect of Mandarin was tough to decipher even when they weren’t speaking Shanghainese. The weather was approaching 36 degrees and I was ready to go to the hotel for a shower and afternoon nap.
That evening I visited Pudong to see the massive buildings amid the setting sun, and later, an illuminated night sky. I was among many people crowding the streets gazing at steel behemoths, each of us projecting our own meaning on this grand but indecipherable display.
It was late enough that I could check out Bar Rouge, one of the hippest and best known clubs in the city. It sits upon a rooftop patio in Puxi with everything about it screaming ‘cool’. There was a well-dressed foreigner majority, models sitting upon couches amid bottles of expensive champagne. To contrast the ultracoolness was yours truly dancing like he just don’t care to the funky house music. I met a group of MBA students from France, foreign language students with a girl from Montreal, and a model whom I had a 4 sentence conversation with. It turns out she likes her job traveling around the world, who would have known? I came up with 5 new startup ideas and watched women perform a pole dance. I couldn’t help but notice both the Pearl Tower (iconic of Shanghai) and the Chinese flag both in the background. A line from the movie Scarface came to mind: Tony Montana – “First you get the money (Pearl Tower), then you get the power (the flag). Once you got the power, then you get the women (and the pole dancer of course). ”
The next afternoon I met up with Jenny (the girl who helped me with directions the first evening) and explored more of the cityscape. She doesn’t speak any English which made things all the more interesting, and at times frustrating when we had to get the dictionary out, followed by a couple minutes of interpretation. In the evening, I met up with my friend Yiling who was also on vacation in Shanghai. We had been online friends for a couple years, so it had been quite a shock when we learned that it was actually possible to meet in China. She’s from Chengdu, Sichuan Province so I timed my Shanghai vacation to overlap with hers. We spent time with her aunt, uncle and their 8 year old son at the mall and later going out for what was a very good Shanghainese dinner. Highlights include eating frog (no, I wasn’t in France or Guangdong) as well as trying good 黄酒 (huangjiu – yellow wine – rice wine).
Sunday, I waited for Yiling and family at a large park while studying Chinese and listening to a group practice a Chinese opera. I love how at the end of every set the leader would say 这是好，这是好 (this is good, this is good). We visited an aquarium where I forgot the Chinese name of every fish and later saw a dolphin/sea lion show. Then, we had lunch and went to Pudong to ascend the Pearl Tower. The views were pretty good, the indoor rollercoaster…unexpected, and the signature of Mike Harris on the wall (former premier of Ontario)…also unexpected. Yiling and I went for a not very tasty curry dinner but she appreciated trying a new food, though definitely not as spicy as her home Sichuan cuisine.
Monday, I went exploring the area around Yuyuan gardens, buying some new clothes. My other clothes were soaked with sweat from someone accidentally turning the sun up a few too many notches. I took a ferry from Puxi to Pudong (cost: 35 cents CAD) to soak up the views. In Pudong, I went up the Shanghai World Financial Center, currently the largest tower in Shanghai to take in the sights, and what sights they were. The elevator had lights and sounds that made me feel like I was in a psychedelic 60′s music video.
I went shopping/bargaining for treasures of the Orient to bring back home, followed by a leisurely visit to Century Park. I rented a rickety reclining bicycle and cycled around the central lake before meeting Yiling and family at the mall in Puxi. That evening was spent clubbing with my friend Jenny at ‘Ibizia’, named after a Spanish vacation spot, though oddly the club didn’t have any of its signature decor or music. I followed a legion of girls going upstairs (accidentally) where they were given a sort of lecture. It turned out that they all worked at the club and their job was to keep the place interesting on a Monday night. This seems to be a common thing at nightclubs in China so beware of bored looking girls at tables.
The next day I checked out of my hotel and ventured to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center to feed my inner child (which used to play a lot of SimCity). There I met up with a friend named Stacey from Nanjing and later went to the Shanghai Museum where we saw many ancient artifacts. After a farewell from the Huangpu riverside in Pudong, I took the subway and then the super speedy Maglev Train (only at 250km/hr due to off-peak time) to get to Shanghai Pudong International Airport. The plane going home was also late but I’d come to accept that as a normalcy here. A few hours later I was happy to have arrived home in Dalian safely, contemplating my experiences in Shanghai before heading to bed.
The last couple of days my stomach has been on the fritz. Once again, 藿香正气水 (an ethanol based Chinese medicine) has substituted stomach ache with a little bit of tipsiness, a trade I’m very glad to make. It’s been a few weeks but it’s not yet too late to relay the adventures at 步云山 – Buyunshan.
Jim and I took a long distance cabride to bring us to the area around Lushun, west of Dalian. The good thing about these cabbies is that they are very quick and are shared with others so the price is quite reasonable. We had a big lunch, checked into a hotel and made our way out to the country side for an afternoon hike.
We went quite a way until we finally made our way back to a village where some country people invited us to spend some time. We shared stories from afar while munching on nuts collected from the surrounding mountains. One of the men in the party had visited ports around the world while sailing in search of odd jobs. After the great conversation (which I didn’t understand most of) we went back to his house to meet his family and fix his internet. He drove us back to the hotel on his motorcycle and arranged for a moto-taxi to guide us to the next morning’s hike.
We went to a local restaurant for some food when dinner was interrupted by trouble outside. Jim and the restaurant owners went outside to see what was going on when they quickly ran back in and locked the doors. There were people trying to get in when I heard someone say laowai (foreigner) a couple times. I wasn’t sure if they were indeed coming for me to play ‘kill the foreigner’. So, I ran into the kitchen and accidentally into a family’s dining room. I slowly closed that door and made an appraisal of the tactical situation. Two doors, a large pot with a good handle and two very sharp looking knives. Nothing happened for a while so I went outside to ask Jim what was going on. There was a pole/chair with blood on it on the floor and a man with blood a bit into the distance. Apparently, there had been a drunken fight between this man and a group of others. The man made his way back towards us and made it into the restaurant to use the phone. The restaurant owner was strong enough that she could wrestle the phone out of his hands and storm out of the restaurant. All Jim could surmise from the resulting discussion from the locals was that ‘they were drunk’.
Back at the hotel, we simmered our frayed nerves in the hot spring pool and later into snuck into another pool full of small fish. They crowded around us, biting off little bits of dead skin, a very ticklish skin therapy.
The next morning I went for breakfast where I saw a goat being drained of blood and butchered. I also met a man who felt compelled to tell me about his farm. Let’s do some chickenomics. He has 2 flocks of 5 000 chicken a piece, so 10 000 chicken in all. Each chicken sells for ¥7.8/斤 (half kilogram). Assuming each chicken weighs about 2kg, his chicken flock would be worth ¥312 000 or $50 000. There’s gold in them wings.
Our moto-taxi brought us across beautiful country, rickety roads and makeshift bridges to reach the gates of Buyunshan. We convinced a guard to let us through the construction gate and we made our way to the foot of the mountain. Our taxi driver was really helpful in giving us advice, leaving, coming back to give us more advice, leaving, coming back for yet more advice, and repeating perhaps one more time. We made our way up the mountain which was still under construction – the steps were missing in many places and we took the construction road when needed. We finally reached the top after climbing a gravel and a forested slope. Before the summit, we would need to pass three wild cows which guarded the path. Sneaking past the guardian cows, we reached the stone platform of the summit.
On the way down we noticed old Communist Party houses and an unearthed tunnel. On our way down, I suggested we take a more interesting detour. Indeed, we started to forge our own path down the mountain through thick forest, over large rocks and stream. The way was difficult as it was long. We were lost, but we knew that the only way through was down. Finally, we reached a road which was one of the greatest reliefs I’ve felt since passing my 2nd year of engineering. We met up with the moto-taxi, received a few more rounds of advice, made our way across the countryside and boarded the bus homeward.
While you don’t need to learn Chinese to live successfully in China, there are lots of good reasons to learn some basic Chinese. Here are some
- You will be less socially isolated and find it easier to make friends
- Provides insights into the culture of another people
- Dating becomes more possible
- A greater sense of independence
- People will respect for you for trying to learn their language and be more friendly
- People may assume that you are a genius
- A sense of personal satisfaction and achievement
Some ways to learn Chinese
- Textbook – New Practical Chinese Reader is what they use at the University of Waterloo in their Chinese courses. It’s a very good textbook and helps you with both vocabulary and grammar.
- Teacher – You might have a friend or 4 who would be willing to help you learn. I find it more effective to have them help you going through the textbook. In China, people are very willing to help you out, especially if you can help them with some English.
- Smartphone apps – Skritter is my favourite app for learning vocabulary and is very good for making friends on the bus. About $9.99/month.
- Web apps – Memrise helped me for a long time. I find it gets me to be able to know the meaning of characters very quickly. Though recently I’ve switched to Skritter because I can learn to write the characters at the same time. Free.
- Classes – I found out I was going to China in the middle of an academic term so I haven’t tried formal classes yet. Looking forward to it back in Waterloo though!
- QQ/Weixin (WeChat) – QQ, the Chinese version of MSN is a lot of fun and many people use it. The good thing is that you have time to use your dictionary to figure out what is going on.Weixin (WeChat) is similar to QQ but helps you make new chat friends.
- Relationships – Having a relationship with a native Chinese speaker can be very interesting and helpful for learning the language – probably the ultimate motivator. It can also be quite a challenge especially if your partner speaks little or no English.
- English corner – There are events in some cities where Chinese people learn English and foreigners can learn Chinese. Great for both conversation practice and great for making English speaking friends.
- Social – Go out and have fun!
Tips for the English speaker in China
- Numbers – If you are going to learn anything, learn the numbers. This will help with buying things and keep your money in your wallet.
- University girls – are very helpful (and pretty). They tend to know the most English of any demographic.
- Dictionary/Translator – I use Pleco to help smooth things over sometimes. Google Translate also helps but requires internet connection. Note that this can really slow down a conversation.
- Keyboard – Enable Chinese input on your computer (link) and smart phone. Note: do not change your cellphone language into Chinese. This effectively renders it unusable until you go crying to a Chinese friend to change it back.
- Mantaphrase – An interactive Chinese phrase book developed by students at the University of Waterloo in the Velocity incubator. It’s still under development but the beta is already very useful. Let me know if you would like to get an invitation.
As a final note, remember that you are not alone in what is a pretty challenging situation. You have lots of friends, colleagues and random nice people who will be very glad to help you out. Always appreciate them and try to make the experience valuable for both you and them.
Sat June 16 – 3:12pm
We’re in a hotel 4 hours north of Dalian awaiting the warmth of hot springs and the challenge of tomorrow’s mountain hike. Somehow, I don’t think this weekend will compare to the James Bond-esque adventure I’m about to describe, but if there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that life is full of surprises.
*James Bond theme plays in background*
Saturday morning, Jim and I took a couple buses to find ourselves in the countryside. We were meeting up with his friend Justin, his girlfriend Fiona, as well as his family from Shenyang. We waited for them in a police station next to the road and posted guard at the front entrance. If you can picture me with a police cap guarding a random police station in China, you must have quite the imagination.
We met up with the group and went for an awesome seafood lunch, something Dalian, a coastal city, is well known for in China. From there we went to pick 樱桃 (yingtao – cherries) as it’s now cherry season in Dalian. The experience reminded me of home and childhood picking cherries in my nonna’s (grandmother) backyard. The orchards are owned by a company which Justin’s father’s friend is the president of. After picking cherries and exploring the surrounding gardens we check our friends in to a beautiful hotel built by the Japanese prior to WWII. Dalian has been occupied by both the Japanese and Russians in its tumultuous but not so long past.
We went for dinner with the family friend again where I saw firsthand the truly remarkable drinking skills of the locals. There’s an art to the way people drink here, either as a table, or toasting each other with kind words. Now, when locals ask me how much I can drink (a common question oddly), I’ll at least be able to say that I can keep up with the locals (now to figure out how to say that in Chinese…). The night’s meal included live shrimp, drunk in a pool of 白酒 (liquor) and tended to flinch violently every once and a while. There was a definite reluctance on my part, but I summoned the courage to adventure.
Next, us 4 young ones went to traditional Chinese public bath. We swam in a warm pool, were scrubbed clean by very strong men, and massaged tender by equally strong, though petite women. I left with both much less skin and knots in my back. Justin and Fiona returned for their hotel and Jim and I slept over at the spa.
In the morning, we got lost in the car-ride to Justin’s hotel. Our driver picked up an old couple at a bus stop to give directions, sandwiching me in the back. This next part of the story I wasn’t aware of at the time. We had been following behind the car of a high level official as they sped through the streets of Dalian. This is somewhat okay if you’re high up in rank but as we were not, a police car began tailing us, chasing us through heavy traffic. Luckily, there was a truck partially blocking a narrow street which we were just able to pass, losing our pursuer in the process.
We picked up our friends and went to a beach peninsula where we walked along and took a speed boat tour of the surrounding waters. The entire area had previously only been open to high level officials and the military which still keeps an installation nearby. It was nice to feels the sand, climb rocks and observe the >5 wedding photographers work magic.
Lunch was served at a venue which had previously been visited by people such as Mao Zedong and Hu Jintao (current Chairman of China). In our company were many powerful people whom owned large construction companies in Shenyang as well as the head of Police/Legal in Dalian. The place was impressive, the food was delicious, and of course, toasting each other was a lot of fun. I was given the honour of making the last toast of the meal in the best English/Chinese I could muster.
We once again explored gardens, taking pictures with Justin’s ∞-megapixel DSLR camera. On our way back to downtown Dalian we took a pit stop which happened to be on a movie set. The picture’s name is 势不两立 which apparently translates to ‘Irreconcilable’. I met a friendly group of gay cameramen which reminds me that some things remain constant around the world.
We took a nap at the hotel and went for Japanese food with Justin’s immediate family. After a satisfying meal, we planned trips to Shenyang to see the family again and to Changbaishan for yet another visit to that epic mountain. We said our farewells and took a long taxi ride home. That evening, I slept.
I’m writing from a restaurant called ‘We Are Family’ staring at a menu in Chinese. Luckily, the waitress just brought me a menu conveniently with pictures or dinner could have be a bit more of a surprise than usual. What wasn’t a surprise last weekend was a well-deserved soreness in my thighs after hiking 大黑山 – Da Hei Shan – Big Black Mountain.
Saturday morning, 6am, we met up with our colleagues to go to a health clinic for the company annual checkup. Instead of medical insurance, most companies in China provide an all-inclusive set of tests at clinics like these. It ended up being a lot of fun going to station to station for all kinds of amusements. It was a lot of fun to watch the Chinese doctors look suspiciously at both my insides and outsides. Apparently, I should eat foods with less iodine.
In the evening, we took a bus ride to DLUT (Dalian University of Technology) in order to meet our friend Ben and stay the night. Packed in their software engineering dormitory, there was the typical 4 beds per room and mono-gendered building for Chinese universities. One new friend gave me some wonderful calligraphy he had made which now graces my room at home. That night, we stayed in a motel near the school (suspiciously placed…see 2 sentences prior) and rested before the next morning’s journey.
大黑山 (Da Hei Shan – Big Black Mountain) was not actually very black. Big? Well, compared to Changbaishan it was a pimple. Nonetheless, we gave it a good hike, walking for over 7 hours to complete the range. It was fun navigating cliffs and shouting at the top of our lungs to be replied by travelers on other parts of the mountain. Afterwards, our feet hurt, our stomach felt plump from cherry season here in Dalian, and I was able to take a nice collection of pictures. Enjoy!
The next weekend would turn out to be somewhat ‘James Bond’-esque. Movie sets, police chases, speed boats and dealing with the rich and powerful – it’s all there. See Daniel Arrizza next week in ‘From China with Love’!
Sunday June 5 – 7:15am
I’ve just woken up in a motel near Dalian University of Technology, appropriately placed due to the lack of privacy in their shared dormitories. Today we’re going to hike up 大黑山 (Da Hei Shan – Big Black Mountain). Though, before that, there is time to relay the adventures from last weekend.
We left work at 4pm on Friday to take the 16 hour overnight train from Dalian to Anshan. Our eventual destination was the mountain range 长白山 (Chang Bai Shan – Perpetually White Mountain). The largest mountain there is known as Baekdu Mountain to Koreans, as one of their sacred spiritual mountains. Baekdu shares a border with North Korea, and like the country, it is actually an active volcano. However, it only erupts every 100 years rather than the 4 or 5 for N.K. Both the border (don’t want to accidentally step over) and the mountain being overdue for an eruption (109 years since the last) were moderate concerns.
The train ride to Anshan was a very communal experience as 7 of us crammed into a sleeper unit to share photos, stories, languages, and just time. Sleeping on the top bunk was fun as there was so little room between me and the roof. I nearly hit my head when the 6 am roll-call shouted 早上好！早上好！早上好！(good morning x3) followed by rambunctious classical music and the morning news. I said my goodbyes to friends on the train and of course exchanged QQ numbers (Chinese instant messaging) before arriving in Anshan.
The air was noticably cooler and the flora more winter hearty. We had at first the slowest taxicab in all of China, nay, anywhere. We switched taxis and were back to the regular driver who dodges traffic, while chain-smoking, listening to 90′s techno and telling stories to Jim; just as it should be. The roads were extremely damaged if at all existent. Many had not been repaired after a flood perhaps a year ago and provided a very bumpy ride. We stopped at a small Korean-Chinese town at a restaurant where we first tried 狗肉(gou rou – dog meat). This local delicacy was actually very delicious despite its Western taboo. There were also wild vegetables which tasted awesome and healthy, actually more expensive than the dog meat.
That afternoon we reached a Korean hotel with a hot spring pool outside in the now frigid weather. It was snowing heavily and as I waded into the pool a mass of slushy snow pummeled from the high roof above, which I just narrowly dodged. What I couldn’t read was a sign that asked patrons to keep from swimming where I did. Accordingly, Jim and I took turns dodging the falling snow. We made another gaffe as we tried to keep our shoes from getting wet by running to another building in search for an evening meal. When I burst into the building nursing my feet from near frostbite I saw 20 country people ready to go to sleep all turn and stare at this oddity. It turns out I ran into the wrong building. We quickly apologized and procured instant noodles, soaked our feet in the hot spring and slept before the next morning’s early hike.
Pictures will suffice for most of this part of the journey. Each place was almost a different season, blending into each other after only a few minutes walk. There we cold mountains, eggs cooked in hot springs, lush forest, lakes; everything so beautiful.
We then made our way home, this time without the luxury of a sleeper car. It was fun to teach a university student an old blues song I know, though I didn’t explain the euphemisms. The train was packed with the Monday commute but we made it directly to the office at 9:10am. Finally, to quote a Chinese saying often at the end of stories, 然后就没有然后了 – and then there was no more and then.