Burning dreams at New Year’s end

Living in Beijing, it’s sometimes hard to see the effects of the economic crisis here, but in the past few days I feel there’s been a shift in atmosphere.

As you may have already read, a large part of one of Beijing’s signature architectural complexes burned down on Lantern Festival, the last night of Chinese New Year. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, which was part of the CCTV complex housing the famed Underpants Building, was to open in a month’s time, and the entire complex has been a source of Beijing pride for a good year ahead of its completion.

The circumstances of the fire were a little unclear at first. Although fireworks, which are let off hyperbolically even in dense downtown areas, were an obvious suspect, officials were strangely mum for about a day. CCTV, which owns the complex, later took responsibilty for the fire, claiming their own fireworks show from the roof of the unfinished building caused the fire.

But it all seems a little — I don’t know — convenient. As one of my friends pointed out today, they were unlikely to make money on a luxury hotel in these economic conditions, and insurance money can only be recouped in accidents. It was just too poetic for the building to burn down on the last night of Chinese New Year after 15 uneventful days of fireworks all around it. Regardless of the true cause of the fire, it’s a little uncanny how completely expected and unexpected the destruction of the hotel was — after all, something was bound to burn down with so many fireworks set off in the city by amateurs. But it’s still hard to believe that this iconic building was the one that burned down; imagine the Trans-America building burning to the ground and you’ll see what I mean.

I fear that the fire is a powerful metaphor for the chaotic times China is facing, and unsettling omen of Beijing’s future. Last year we saw a boom for China in many ways. National pride was soaring, construction around Beijing was racing to keep up with Olympic demand for hotels, restaurants and attractions, old buildings were being torn down to make room for luxury condos for the new generation of business owners and expatriats. Although there were concerns about a world economic downturn, many felt as if China was invincible.

Especially during the Olympics, it was impossible to imagine China tumbling down off of its pedestal along with the rest of the world. Beijing was in a dream world, and we, as witnesses to the Olympics, were privy to a view of China’s future. It was modern, clean, polite and above all, luxurious. The Olympic venues were without blemish, and the Olympics had spurred a flurry of new buildings, including one of the world’s few seven-star hotels.

Six months later, I’m wondering if “one world, one dream” was just a lie, and Beijing will soon discover the cruelty of reality after enjoying such a sweet reverie. The Olympic venues, which symbolized so much, have even fallen into disrepair a scant four months after the games’ closing. When I visited the Olympic Green recently, I tried hard to ignore the fact that the Bird’s Nest stadium was covered in dirt, that the water cube bubbles were wrinkled, that lamps were falling off of lampposts. However, recent events have brought the scene of desolation at the Olympic Green to my mind.

Last week Citigroup announced that in order to finance the maintenance of  the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium — a cost of $8.82 million USD annually — it would turn the complex into a shopping plaza in the next few years. It’s sad to see a symbol that really meant something to so many people seemingly get thrown aside by its owners and the Chinese government. Initially, the stadium was to house Beijing’s soccer team, but they have pulled out of the deal. Currently, the Olympic Green is open to tourists, an alleged average of 20,000 to 30,000 per day according to the tourist authorities. Take this figure with a heaping truckload of salt — Beijing authorities release misleading numbers often, and the two separate times I’ve visited the Olympic Green since the Olympics I may have seen 100 tourists, combined.

Strolling through the empty Olympic Green, it was somehow impossible to recapture the feeling of harmony and hope I felt while I was attending the games. Now, bereft of the crowds that it was meant for, the green feels like an empty mockery of China’s hopes. It speaks only to an excess of ambition and a disregard for pragmatism. How could they tear down homes and businesses to build this gigantic park without a fool-proof plan for its preservation and continued usefulness? How could something once so great now be so empty, falling apart and covered in dirt?

I suppose time will tell if this is truly the beginning of the end, if the destruction of these iconic Beijing landmarks really is an omen. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it feels like the paralyzingly fast destruction of the Olympic Green and Mandarin Oriental Hotel buildings are inextricably intertwined the the economic problems China is facing — or not facing, depending on how you look at it.

The government continues to deny and downplay the economic situation here, but there are signs if you look for them. Construction, which was buzzing all about the city before the Olympics has come to a standstill — many buildings stand as empty shells, paralyzed now for months. Estimates put unemployment at about 20 million people nationally right now, but estimates are usually low. In addition, the government puts growth at about 6.8 percent, while independent analysts from other countries put it at zero to 1 percent. I’ve seen a lot of people on the streets recently with “seeking employment” signs, and friends have commented on a distinct tenseness in the atmosphere. One friend has seen several fistfights break out over nothing, and recent shutdowns of stalls at the horrid Silk Market have caused near riots by sellers. In the South, which depends more on exports and manufacturing, riots have become increasingly common.

It’s going to be an interesting year, that’s for sure. As always in China, this could be a time of incredible social unrest, unlike anything China has seen in many years — or, it could be nothing. Only time will tell.

Officially Wise Update

Today I discovered that another wisdom tooth is growing in and starting to poke out. This time it’s the bottom left. So far, my righties aren’t showing any signs. When I told Jeff, all he said was,

Oh, you’re so smug.

I think he’s just jealous his wisdom teeth were removed, and he’ll never get to watch a new body part grow again!

Officially wise

So, yesterday I felt like I had a piece of food stuck on my back gum, and I couldn’t get it off no matter how I tried — kind of like when you get a piece of popcorn kernel suction cupped onto your gum, you know? After obsessing over it for a while, I stuck a finger in to investigate.

Turns out it’s a tooth! I know everyone complains about wisdom teeth, and how they’re a pain and whatnot, but I’m kind of excited. I mean, my body just grew a new part! Isn’t that wicked cool?

I invited Jeff to investigate with his own hands, but I guess my new tooth isn’t as thrilling to him. That, or he doesn’t think sticking his finger in my mouth is worth it.

Last time I went to the dentist, he said there were no signs of wisdom teeth. Then, right after I left for China, I started having awful tooth aches. Well, now we know for sure those little teeth exist, and they’re moving in. I hope this won’t turn out too badly for me. I have over a month until I come back to the land of licensed physicians and safe x-rays. How long does it take for new wisdom teeth to wreck your alignment? Just wondering…

The best day!

Saturday I had the best day. Someone I’m turning 21 on Thursday, and since we don’t see eachother too much, and he hates making decisions, Jeff decided we’d start celebrating my birthday on Saturday. For the day, he responded to every question with “whatever you want,” and I felt spoiled silly.

After teaching (which for the record was not “whatever I wanted” to do Saturday morning) we went out to lunch at a Thai restaurant. Lately I’ve been sick of Chinese food, but since non-Chinese means a hefty price tag, I haven’t stepped out too much. The restaurant was really nice — we even saw another customer take a picture of it with his camera-phone. The food was also really good, mainly because it tasted like non-Chinese food.

After lunch, we continued doing whatever I liked and went to Cold Stone — also a hefty price, both for my wallet and my health. I had a Boston Cream Pie, which is vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, whipped cream and cake. It was delicious, and it really did taste like a Boston Cream pie. I also got it in a waffle bowl, since it was my “birthday” after all.

After ice cream, we went window shopping and watched “Heroes.” Then it was time for dinner, which was again, my choice. We had Xinjiang food, which comes from China’s Xinjiang province. You may have heard of Xinjiang from articles about civil unrest there. You see, the people in Xinjiang are not ethnically Han Chinese, and are mostly Muslim. It’s easy to see how the somewhat xenophobic and anti-religion government could be at odds with this group of outsiders. While the government is bent on keeping the rogue province tightly within grip, the culture and the people’s food is often dismissed as “un-Chinese.” But enough of politics — their food is amazing. It’s sort of a wonderful mixture of Middle Eastern, Indian and Chinese food.

The food has a heavy mixture of spices and often is a touch spicy. Many dishes are stews with a sweet tomato sauce base and lots of yummy veggies. Their staples are thick, handmade noodles and fried, seasoned naan, which are both absolutely wonderful. Jeff’s favorite Xinjiang food is meat skewers, which is one of a handful of characters he knows. On Saturday we also discovered that though the most common meat is lamb, I’ve been incorrectly translating it as “goat” for months now. Jeff was a little miffed about that one, but I maintain that it’s not my fault, since it’s all the same character in Chinese, and my brained sort of merged the two animals into one as a result.

Having eaten our fill, we went and got hair cuts. Neither cut was ideal, but we had a great time at the salon. Jeff started screaming for me several times to come over and translate, and all the stylists thought we were hilarious. Jeff looks a lot more Chinese now. My hair cut was just a trim, but I’m not satisfied with the blockiness of my layers. I’m sure everyone cares about that.

Anyway, it was pretty much the best day I’ve had in a while. I think it mostly had to do with Jeff being really sweet, and the amount of tasty food I had. In other news, Thursday is my real birthday, so he’s still not off the hook for celebrating it.

A lapse in contentment

This week I’ve been in a rather sour mood.

I’m tired from work. I’m tired from school. I have insomnia born from boredom and apathy, which contributes more to my discontent with work and school.

I have a starving feeling, and I just realized what it is.

I haven’t done much intellectual for a few months now.

It’s weird — I came to China to get a better education, but I’m finding that the education here is not up to my standards. It’s all about memorization, there’s no creativity, and most of my teachers expect students to be lazy, so they have no standards. I’m bored already. Back home I was delving into complex literary theory and discussing the intricacies of word placement in classical Chinese texts. Here I’m memorizing vocabulary.

The most valuable learning I’ve done here has been outside the classroom, in markets and on trains and atop mountains.

I think I’ll crack open a English book tonight and take a run tomorrow. Both my mind and body feel sludgey and undefined.

Whining

Today, for the first time in a while I spent a few hours not doing anything. With Jeff in Hong Kong fixing his visa, I find myself feeling like I have a ton of time on my hands. How does that little rhyme go again? Correlation equals causation? Science kids, help me out. Har har.

Anyway, I had some time on my hands, and rather than doing laundry (current status: not quite out of chones, but choosing outfits is a bit difficult), or studying, I decided to stalk Jeff’s blogs of past days. Yes, I’m that pathetic.

But actually, it made me realize that there are a few things I haven’t been able to do in China that I really loved in my Davis life.

1. Bake bread

2. Bake brownies, cookies and chocolatey things to give to friends

3. Cook really tasty dinners

4. Go to farmers market/pick fruit from Impossible Acres

5. Hang out with Davis peeps in Davis

6. Warm country strolls

7. Warm country bikerides

8. Warm country car rides (sorry environment, I just love that stuffy hot car feeling)

9. Dates that don’t involve public transportation or traffic jams

10. Air that smells nice

Looking over the list, most of these things require a country setting, warm weather and an oven. Dang you China! Apparently my life is also a lot more food-centric than I thought, probably due to a certain tape-worm-toting boyfriend. I guess I’d better get that oven I’ve been coveting. [although baking soda, baking powder and yeast are probably the limiting agents in my baking dreams] I’m going to need an oven to comfort me in the coming months of bitter cold, pollution and hours spent riding public transport. It’s currently 4 p.m. and I am sitting in bed, wearing a sweatshirt, fuzzy bathrobe and blankets. Winter is coming…

Of Monkeys and Mosquitoes

Aside from telling us Guangzhou was a wash, most locals advised that Jeff and I travel to Guilin. So we did. Guilin has some of the most beautiful and captivating scenery in China, think The Painted Veil or traditional misty-mountained paintings of China. But it also has more than its fair share of tourists and the accompanying crooks.

Our train got in at around 7:30 a.m. Once outside the train station, we were immediately greeted by several people trying to sell us on their hotels and tours. Even though I vigorously fended them off, they followed us for about a block. Luckily, our hostel was only about a block away, so it really wasn’t a problem.

Once we checked in, we decided to treat ourselves to western breakfast at the hostel. Of course you can guess that I ordered pancakes. After eating pretty much all of it, I discovered a little bug cooked into the pancake, but oddly enough didn’t freak out. I guess I’m just getting used to China.

That afternoon we took a little trek around the city, which as it turns out is pretty small and highly walkable. First we went to a park called Elephant Hill.

It had silly signs:

The park is named after a small mountain shaped like an elephant dipping its trunk into the lake. I guess I could see that.

We took a hike up and all around the mountain, exploring a small cave and secret passageways. This is the view from the “elephant’s trunk.” There were ancient poems inscribed on the walls, which was really neat. Unfortunately this group of possibly drunk officials was really loud and sort of destroyed the mystique of the area.

After visiting the park, we continued on to the supposed highlight of the town, Seven Stars Park. The park has been in existence since the Sui Dynasty and was a tourist attraction even then. The park borders the Li River, which runs through Guilin.

Once inside the gates, you cross over a bridge to the main part of the park, where a large slogan reading “Long live the thoughts of Mao” is carved into a rock wall.

The park has a “forest” of stelae, which are ancient stone carvings of poetry and history. Since I’ve been studying classical Chinese, I was instantly attracted, and dragged Jeff on a hike out to the stone stelae forest.

Along the way, we discovered a pomello tree:

From China: Moreventures

Anyway, the stelae were in a grotto by the river, where a man was playing his erhu. It felt like the place hasn’t changed since people were first captivated by it 1500 years ago, and it was easy to imagine noblemen and women taking strolls through the park and stopping in the grotto for a picnic.

The stalae were really amazing. Some of them seemed to be historical in nature, telling of the families that came to the region. Others were lovely and poetic descriptions of the river. Sadly many were hard to make out, and without hours and a dictionary or two I didn’t make too much out.

From China: Moreventures

The stelae ranged in size greatly. Some of them had only a few two-foot square characters, others had hundreds of characters about 3/4 of an inch tall.

After boring Jeff with the stelae, we wandered around the back side of the park. There was some construction going on, so there weren’t really many tourists and it was shady and quiet. Just as we were coming around the side of the mountain toward the park opening, we began bickering because we hadn’t eaten lunch and both were getting grumpy. In the middle of our grump, I looked up and realized that on the path about 15 feet in front of us sat a strange little brown lump, which took me a good 20 seconds to recognize and believe was real.

So, in the middle of our little grump, I yelled out: “That’s a monkey!” And it was. Both of us froze in our tracks, because frankly we’ve never come across an uncaged colony of monkeys, and you never know when they might bike/scratch/throw feces at you. To add to that, the monkey blocking our path was a 40-pound male, and he seemed capable of doing some damage. Near the path was a little hut where a Chinese caretaker and his family were lounging outside, and once they noticed our uncertainty, the man yelled something at the monkey. Looking a little disgruntled and disdainful, the monkey clambered off the path and sat to the side, watching us pass.

From China: Moreventures

There were also little tiny baby monkeys that could hardly climb branches! Once we felt safe that the monkeys wouldn’t attack, we took some pictures and hung out with the monkeys for a while. I guess our guidebook somehow missed the monkeys, because it didn’t say anything about them. It’s also possible that nobody told the travel writer, because all the Chinese tourists showed no interest in the monkeys. If you ask me, getting to see a colony of monkeys is way better than a mountain that supposedly looks like a camel or whatever. But there’s no accounting for taste.

We had a great time hanging around the monkey colony, watching all the little baby monkeys try to learn to climb, and the adult monkeys foraging for food. But you know who else likes to hang out with monkeys? Mosquitoes. And guess who forgot bug spray? Yeah, that’s us.

So at any rate, stay tuned for our Malaria-infused delirium in about a week, because sources say mosquitoes down here have it, and boy did we ever get bitten.

China is booming, but…

Life in rural areas of China is quite bleak, and Inner Mongolia is a good example. The primary industries there are farming and metal manufacturing. Hohat is a large city, it is relatively unpopulated compared to the booming metropolises of prosperous China.

Even within cities the prosperity can vary wildly within blocks. The below two pictures were taken mere blocks from each other.

Even in the cities of Inner Mongolia donkey-drawn vehicles are not unheard of. Farmers often use donkey-drawn carts to collect brush and move heavy things, and I also saw one selling fruit from the back of his cart.

Once out in the countryside, the poverty of Inner Mongolia is evident. Most buildings you see in the country are empty and abandoned; seemingly all the people have migrated to more prosperous regions. Often even large apartment complexes and farmhouses that look to have been government-built are completely unused or abandoned. It’s common to see complexes of neat, brick-walled homes with small farm plots completely empty.

Most store fronts, even in some smaller cities, are empty. This entire strip of stores in front of our hotel in Baotou was empty.

On our way up to the grasslands, we were privileged enough to have to take a long detour that took us through farmlands and mountain villages that we otherwise would never have seen. All the villages are built with bricks, some are mud brick and others are red brick. Most roofs are made of straw, sheet metal, plastic sheeting or a combination of all ram-shackled together. Many of the villages do have power lines, but don’t have indoor plumbing (toilets are outdoor, open-air squatters). In addition, trash collection does not exist, so villages are littered with trash. Many village buildings are abandoned or barely standing, and the primary source of sustenance is farming. Many people there raise cattle, goats, sheep and other small farm animals, and most seems to be small-scale subsistence farming.

It’s difficult to define poverty after traveling through such desperately poor areas. In America, poverty is drawn with a line, and there is intense discussion of how to “cure” poverty. In China, what we would call poverty is the rule, not an exception to it. People don’t seem to realize that their quality of life is so desperate compared to others in China, and there seems to be little discussion by the rich of how to improve rural life. All of which prompts the question: Is poverty actually defined by the poor’s perception of their own fates? And if so, when are the poor of China going to begin their inevitable revolt?

For more pictures from the entire Inner Mongolia trip, please click here.

Cultural Stuff and Stuff: The Great Wall

The whole point of this three-day adventure was to go see the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall, or as one of our staffers called it, the “real” Great Wall, as opposed to Badaling Great Wall. Everyone was pretty much excited for this above all else.

Most of the students had planned to camp out on the Great Wall, while a few had decided to stay behind at the hotel. Because our hotel was only about 15 minutes’ walk from the wall, everyone could have their choice of accomodations. However, when we rolled up to the hotel on Saturday night, we discovered that the government was having one of its Olympics-induced freak outs, and had closed the wall to overnight campers. After quite a bit of yelling, possible bribing, wheedling and cajoling, our staffers and tour guides managed to pull strings for us. The result was that most of us awoke at 3:30 this morning to hike the wall at dawn. At first I wasn’t really sure that this was much of a consolation, but it turned out to be well worth the hassle.

Because of the mix-up with the camping, our tour guides felt horrible, and threw us a huge party at the hotel. Since our group had rented out the entire hotel, the staff there were incredibly accommodating. The tour agency built a huge bonfire, provided fruit and snacks, and even had techno music and karaoke.

In the morning, the hotel staff was really amazing, and had made us packed breakfasts to bring on the hike. We started at about 4 a.m., and didn’t really get to see the sun come up, but the dawn light on the wall was incredibly beautiful.

This section of the Great Wall is far from being completely restored, so there were many dangerous sections. Many of the stairs were crumbling, and some sections just had no bricks at all. All along the wall the stairs are different heights, and are often unthinkably steep. There was also one place where we had to lower people down a six-foot drop because there was no other way to continue.

I wore my new knee brace, which is ugly but really great for walking. Normally, I’d be in severe pain from this much walking on stairs, but my knee feels great! I actually took it off for a few stairs at the end, and I could really tell a big difference. I’m glad I had it for the 6 km hike.

In the valleys along the wall, there were a few small farms. Other than that there was almost no sign of people. As we walked along in the wee hours of the morning, we could see smoke rising from the chimney of this farm house, and I could hear the sounds of dogs barking and roosters crowing. It reminded me very much of one of my favorite poems by  陶渊明:

少無適俗韻,性本愛丘山。誤落塵網中,一去十三年。羈鳥戀舊林,池魚思故淵。開荒南野際,抱拙歸園田。方宅十餘畝,草屋八九間。榆柳蔭後檐,桃李羅堂前。曖曖遠人村,依依墟里煙。狗吠深巷中,雞鳴桑樹顛。戶庭無塵雜,虛室有餘閒。久在樊籠裡,復得返自然。

Here is my (very) rough and poor translation of it, until I can find one on the Internets:

From youth, I have always loved the mountains and hills. Once I fell into the dusty net, and was trapped for 30 years. But birds will miss the woods, and fish of ponds will miss their deep pools. Out my front gate is wilds, and it encircles my garden and fields. All together I have ten acres, and my grass hut has eight or nine rooms. Willow trees brush my back roof, plum trees are planted in front. I can only hazily see the distant villagers, and dimly see the smoke of the village. Dogs bark in the deep alleyways and roosters crow from the mulberry trees. In my home, there is no dust. Long was I caught in the net, now I return to nature.

Near the end of the hike, we passed over a lake on a long suspension bridge.

And finally, my trust 790s that got me through the long hike!

More pictures can be seen here.