Electric scooter diaries

To continue with our chronicle of our travels, when we disembarked from our tour boat, we were in Yangshuo, the tourist capital of rural China. Yangshuo is a horrible town with too many tourists and even more hawkers and crooks, so Jeff and I decided we had better get out of dodge, having spent the morning being ripped off by the boating tour agency.

We had made friends on the boat, bonding over our misfortunes, so the four of us fought our way through various hawkers, “tour guides,” and other undesirables, and decided to get out of town as fast as possible. Anna, one of our new friends, made the suggestion that we rent scooters, and in a matter of minutes had everyone on board.

After a few brushes of death involving large trucks, rain, hand-drawn road maps and unmarked roads, we made it to the “highway” outside of town. There were almost no cars, and wonderfully, no hawkers and people yelling, “hello? HELLO? Pretty lady, you come here! You buy this!” It was the first bit of quiet and peace that we had had in a while, and it was lovely. It started to rain shortly after we left town, but it felt wonderful to have the wind in our faces and an abused umbrella over our heads as we whizzed along. We were finally getting a taste of that wonderful feeling of freedom that comes with having no plans or obligations, floating through a foreign land, enjoying the beauty and mystery of a new place.

We don’t have any pictures of us on our scooter, but here are our friends Anna and Gerry:

From China: Moreventures

We went hiking on a mountain outside of town with a huge natural arch at the top.

From China: Moreventures

It was really beautiful and majestic, and it would have been even better without the dozen or so ladies who climb the mountain to coerce hikers into buying things from them. While we are used to an atmosphere of reverence at natural wonders, the Chinese are more into spectacle. Accordingly, while we founding it rude and annoying that people were constantly trying to sell us things when we were trying to appreciate the amazing scenery, they felt they were just doing their jobs, I suppose. Once we got to the very top of the mountain, we were finally able to shake off the hawkers and properly appreciate the view.

From China: Moreventures

We also tried to understand our hand-drawn, not-to-scale map of the area to figure out where to scooter off to next. It was unproductive, so we decided just to wander about and hopefully not run our of power on our bikes.

From China: Moreventures

Once we climbed down the mountain, we ran the gauntlet of the hawker ladies again, and literally got on our bikes and drove away as they were still trying to sell us things. While about 60 percent 80 percent of me was sure I was going to die on that scooter, the other percentage was loving the peace and freedom the bike afforded. We meandered about, and finally took a random highway toward the middle of nowhere. Once out on the road, which didn’t seem to even be on our map, all we passed were farmers and cattle, and the occasional scooter. We eventually stopped in a tiny village where we decided to look for dinner.

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The village was barely a block long, and once the road left the village it was no longer paved. It seemed to be a market day, with tents set up along the road filled with meats, vegetables and soon-to-be dead animals. We asked around for a restaurant, and were led to a small room the size of a garage. In fact, it probably was a garage. The woman who ran the place woke up from her nap and took us into the kitchen back of the garage where her stoves and supplies were. She asked us what we wanted to eat, and based on our rather hazy requests made an incredible meal despite her humble facilities. We had such a lovely time there, chatting to her a little as she cooked and just enjoying the company of our new friends that we almost didn’t make it back to Yangshuo in time to return our scooters.

Once our scooters were safely returned, we headed to the bus station to find our way back to Guilin. Just as we were getting into a parking lot that appeared to be filled with buses, we were herded into a bus bound for Guilin by a harried Chinese man. A little sketched out, we got seats and made sure all the Chinese people on the bus were going the same way, paid, and promptly fell asleep.

The afternoon cost us only a few kuai, but I think Jeff and I both agree it was the best part of the trip up to that point.

Milking the government censors

With the recent — and most likely partial — disclosure of milk contamination by China’s leading dairy companies, it’s hard not to have deja vu. Reading the articles about the contamination, it’s hard to really convey just how common these brands are. It’d be like learning that Yoplait and Dannon and Nestle sell killer products — I used to eat Yili yogurt every day.

It’s s frustrating how incompetent and secretive the government is about product safety, and I can’t help but feel that it will only take a few more years and a few more incidents like this for there to be a huge outbreak of protest and outrage from the public. Even now, people are starting to post on the Internet and to speak out against the government’s policies. It boggles the mind how the government is so good at regulating entertainment and the Internet, but it seems unable to do things to protect the health and safety of its people. Where was the money and manpower to prevent the school collapses in the earthquake, the unsafe toys, tainted pet foods and widespread HIV contamination of blood banks? And why, if it causes so much embarrassment and international outrage, does the government continue to disregard public safety in favor of bolstering profits and protecting their political monopoly?

It’s so apparent here that things like this will continue to happen, in fact, it feels like the public almost expects this kind of neglect and deceit from the government. I know that I do, and it’s all too easy to sit back and do nothing. People have very little power over officials here, and it’s pretty much expected that they are corrupt. I honestly don’t know sometimes if it will be possible to change things because the public is kept complacent by their own apathy toward domestic politics and a state-controlled media. I guess it gives Americans a taste of the possible future.

At any rate, I’ve now been deprived of my morning yogurt. Great. Oh well, I pretty much assume a lot of the products I use are toxic anyway.

The academic masochism begins

Today I more or less settled my class schedule with seven classes. All the classes I’ve been to so far have fewer than 10 people, and more people are thinking of switching out of the class, so I may have a really good chance of setting the pace for the classes I’m in. I’m taking an advanced conversation class, advanced reading and writing, classical Chinese, modern Chinese literature, classical Chinese poetry, linguistics of Chinese and newspaper reading. It’s a lot, but I decided to stay in a level that might be a little bit below my level so that I could handle more breadth. The reading and writing class seems a little easy, and the classical Chinese class will be relatively easy, but it’s still classical Chinese, which is hard no matter what. I’m almost out of advanced classes to take anyway, so I figured I might as well take these lower level classes this quarter, get the material down really well, and then just take university classes next quarter.

加油!

I also might (very likely) have an English teaching job at the prestigious middle school associated with BNU. It’s nice having everything fall into place, but I’m (as always) going to be a busy bee this semester.

Spoken Engrish

On our way to the large tour bus that would eventually take us to the boat dock in Guilin, we rode in a minibus driven by an eccentric, hilarious yet somewhat misguided driver. From what we can tell, he learned his English from an American idiom phrase book. Every sentence was constructed of several idioms or movie references, including the following:

1. I’m the real McCoy

2. Left in the dust

3. I’ll be back (ala Awnold)

4. Okie dokie

5. Too bad, so sad

6. Between the rock and the hard places

7. Pedal to the metal (yes, from our driver mid-intersection while cutting other cars off)

8. I’m not a kamikaze, but I’m not a Sunday driver

9. I drive by the book

10. That’s one small step for man, one great leap for mankinds

11. Every cloud has a silver lining (in reference to the recent cloudy weather)

12. Make hay while the sun shines (in reference to the literal sunshine outside)

13. No ifs, no ands, no buts

14. Air Force One (his nickname for the large tour bus)

15. Hakuna matada (he actually had no clue what it meant, which he admitted)

16. We’re the king of the road!

17. They’ll eat my dust (I’ll leave it up to your imagination what was happening on the road at this point)

18. The cutting edge

19. It’s A okay

20. Hasta la vista, baby

For your consideration, this all happened in the span of 10 to 15 minutes, and after each idiom he would crane his neck around with a big smile, to make sure we heard how good his English was. It would have been a little sad if it weren’t so funny.

School Dayz

Today was my first day of “real” school at BNU, meaning that it was the first day of fall semester. After a lot of headaches having to do with bureacracy, I more or less figured things out. Let’s save everyone some time and just say that the most important information for international students is posted on a beleaguered bulletin board in one of the dorms, and the student websites are a maze of confusion and gibberish.

Anyway, I was placed much too low, again. But joy of joys! There are higher classes and I can spend this whole week trying classes out. I saw several literature and classical Chinese classes, plus higher levels of speaking/reading etc. classes, so I’m excited. Tomorrow I’m going “class tasting” as they say in China.

Floating down the Li River

The big thing to do in Guilin is to take a boat down the river from Guilin to Yangshuo. The scenery here is incredible and while the town of Yangshuo is the right size for about 15,000 people, 25 million tourists tramp through it each year. Hence, we found the place to be a cesspool of tourist traps and crooked travel agencies.

While the boat trip was a little pricey, Jeff and I decided we should spring for it and see what all the fuss was about. Our hostel offered to book a “Western” boat tour with an English guide for 370 RMB, but the tour agency downstairs from the hostel offered a “Chinese” tour for 240 RMB. Naturally, we wondered why the huge cost difference. The kind people at the agency explained that a Western tour had an English guide and a Western boat. After much vacillating, Jeff and I decided on the Western tour so that we would have better chances of meeting other young, English-speaking travelers.

As soon as we boarded the bus to go to the boat, we knew something was amiss. The bus was half filled with Chinese, half with foreigners. Our tour guide explained in Chinese that the Chinese tourists would have to be patient because he was going to repeat everything in English for the rest of us. It didn’t take long to figure out that the whole “Western” tour was a scam. Our tour guide’s English was not great, and he hardly told us anything. When we got to the dock, we saw several boats. Most were two-story, beat up looking things filled with Chinese tourists, and one was three stories and full of white people. We didn’t get on that boat.

Here’s our “Western” boat, complete with dragon decorations, Chinese crew and Chinese passengers. As we floated down the river, pirates would hook their boats onto ours and sell trinkets and food to passengers on board.

From China: Moreventures

We felt a little better when we found out that everyone else was getting ripped off with us, and I gave the tour guide some grief as well. Most of the other white passengers had paid 400 to 500 RMB, so I guess we got off easy.

At any rate, the scenery was lovely. One of the mountains is featured on the back of the 20 RMB note, as you can see below.

The area has a lot of caves and towering peaks, which were really stunning.

While tourism has certainly “ruined” much of the area, most people still farm for a living and the forests there look virtually untouched. We saw lots of small villages by the river, where people raised water buffalo and fished on bamboo rafts. It’s not hard to imagine that with years of continued tourism, the area won’t look this way much longer. Tour boats seem to leave every few minutes, polluting the water, where I saw lots of fish belly-up. The people have also latched onto the tourist industry as a new way to get by. As a white tourist, you have to be very forceful with fending off peddlers and crooks, and suspicious of pretty much everyone in the area. Despite the natural beauty, the merits of Guilin are diminishing quickly.

From China: Moreventures

Our tour guide was selling an afternoon tour, but we opted to take our own route, ditched the group and started exploring at Yangshuo.

Nag Nag Nag

Jeff and I have gotten a lot of grief lately for not blogging, so here’s an update. We’re quite far behind on the trip updates, but they’ll get here eventually. We were too busy having fun to blog, I guess. In addition, my parents are in town, so there isn’t much time.

Right now, I have to disinfect everything in my apartment to get rid of various parasites left here by a kitten I was babysitting for a few days. We have a busy schedule, obviously.

Guangzhou at Night

Neither Jeff nor I can claim to be night owls or party animals, but Guangzhou really seems to be the most fun at night. Our hostel was located on what was apparently the main bar drag, but it wasn’t too crowded or rowdy, thankfully. Instead, tons of locals were out eating late dinner and shopping all throughout the neighborhood. The weather in Guangzhou is wonderfully warm and pleasant at night, and everyone seems to come out to socialize at about 9 p.m.

One of the nicest most puzzling things about China is that most buildings in large cities have ridiculous arrays of neon lights. While these must cost a fortune in energy, almost every city seems to have a penchant for glowing, colorful and patterned building decor. The side effect, though, is that the lights finish off what the pollution started for star gazing. Of course, the displays are also really quite beautiful sometimes as well.

Since we were living right by the river and on the main bar street, all the buildings nearby were lit up with colorful displays. The trees along the path by the river all had lights strung on them, and the docks were also lit with neon colors.

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.

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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.

Touring in Guangzhou: Don’t do it

While on the long train ride to Guangzhou, we discovered that apparently going there was a mistake. Almost every Chinese person we told we were going there looked confused and asked why. The next thing they said was to watch out for scammers, pickpockets and muggers. Great.

Well, it turned out that Guangzhou wasn’t really as bad as people made it sound, it just wasn’t much of a tourist city compared to Xi’an. It took us about an hour to get to the hostel because our driver got lost. Then the hostel staff had lost our reservation. So basically by the time our accommodation was all settled, we were already hating Guangzhou.

The dinner of pigeon did wonders to cheer us up, although I didn’t partake of it. Southern Chinese food is really amazing and tasty, and we’ve loved pretty much every meal we’ve had here.

The next day we decided to book our tickets out of Guangzhou. Despite having told us the day before that they could help us get tickets, the front desk staff acted like this was a completely crazy request and gave us vague directions to a ticket office somewhere else. It took us a while, but eventually we found it and got our tickets to get out of town.

Then we went touristing.

First we went to a park our Lonely Planet recommended. It wasn’t anything amazing, I mean, it was a park. But we did manage to entertain ourselves by renting a really janky paddle boat and boating around the lake. For the most part it was peaceful and nice, though some people in a motorboat ploughed into us at one point.

The highlight of the day was really amazing museum that I encourage those who end up in Guangzhou to go see.The museum is built around an excavated tomb of an emperor from around 200 BC, and you can actually walk around inside his tomb. I can’t imagine many museums in America letting you walk around inside an artifact like that, so I found it really neat. Each room of the tomb had a little sign telling you what was stored there. In one of the rooms, they found several sacrificial victims.

The museum also has a huge collection of artifacts found inside the tomb, four large rooms of artifacts, in fact. It was a little hard to believe that all the artifacts actually came from inside the tomb, since it’s pretty small, but apparently they did. One of the coolest things was the jade burial suit the dead emperor was wearing. There was also a lot of beautiful jewelery and some very large and impressive musical instruments. You could also see the remains of one of the concubines and the emperor himself. Be warned, it looked like some dirt with bits of rock in it, arranged into a vaguely human shape. Actually, I think they have part of his jaw preserved, which Jeff immediately noted has “the best teeth I’ve seen so far in China.” Like father, like son.

There were also many other rooms of artifacts from elsewhere, but since we came right near closing time, we didn’t see much aside from the dead emperor’s stuff. The museum itself is actually pretty interesting, since you wouldn’t really notice it from the street. It’s built right into a block of apartments but once you’re inside, it’s pretty huge.

After breezing through the museum, we met a friend of a friend for dinner at a vegetarian restaurant. He didn’t really seem to understand the concept of everything having mock meat, but dinner was pretty good nonetheless. The restaurant was right next to a Buddhist temple, and inside it was decorated like a forest.

Notice the mock tree in the background.

The next day we decided to go look around the old colonial section of town. Back during the Qing dynasty, the French and English were allowed to set up a small outpost on an island in the river that runs through Guangzhou. Today, the island has many preserved mansions and parks from that era, and sounded like a nice way to start the day.

Once we found the island, we were a little confused by the signage.

Apparently what our guide book didn’t tell us was that the island is in a parallel universe where you can be five places at once.

Since the island was really small, we just wandered around it without a concrete plan. A long park runs down the middle of the island, so we decided to take a stroll through it. It was quite lovely, if a little obviously English in style. We even saw a couple taking wedding photos there.

We were only charmed for about one minute, because then we saw this:

Then ten minutes later we saw this:

I guess that’s where all the wedding dress catalogs do their shoots. Maybe because it’s the only area in Guangzhou that’s free to get into and doesn’t look like poop.

Afterward, we wandered back to the subway through a Chinese medicine market. I was actually rather upset by it since we saw several very real looking tiger paws and thousands and thousands of needlessly killed animals, many of which are protected species. Jeff found it really interesting and exciting however, since it’s a little taste of “real” China, depending on how you define that.

Later we discovered what Guangzhou does best — being creepy, and shopping. On our way to the pedestrian shopping street, a really creepy and likely crazy man starting stalking us. He was walking about twenty feet in front of us and every few seconds would turn around and wave or beckon at us and say “hello!” or “come on….” Very creeped out, we ducked into a store once when he wasnt looking and managed to shake him. At any rate, shopping in Guangzhou is really good. Everything there is really cheap because there are a lot of clothing factories close by. For example, a pair of shoes that cost 50 kuai in Beijing cost 15 kuai in Guangzhou. After shopping we had to run back to our hostel, grab our things and get the heck out of dodge.

I guess our guidebook’s “sites” section could be revised in this way:

Guangzhou doesn’t have much for tourists to do. You’re best off to just stay one or two days, and spend the day doing two things. Get up in the morning. Eat some Cantonese baked goods. Go shopping. Eat Cantonese seafood. Go shopping. Go to Cantonese dinner. Go shopping. Repeat.