Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Three China: Chongqing’s Rivers, Chongqing’s Hills

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 When I arrive in a new place, I like to try to walk to wherever I’m spending the night. Long hikes from train stations and wharves might not be the most relaxing way to spend my first stretch of time in an unfamiliar locale, but it helps me learn how to get around. (Sometimes, as in Tokyo, I substitute metro trains for my feet. Learning the systems of public transit can often be just as rewarding and interesting as wandering through neighborhoods.)

Chongqing defeated me. After an undetermined amount of time trying to navigate its irregular roads, with thick fog obscuring any landmarks on the horizon, I gave up and hailed a taxi. It promptly turned back the way I had come.

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It was a repetitive theme during my time in Chongqing, which is odd, considering that the area where I stayed was near downtown, somewhat close to a metro station and sandwiched between two rivers. Navigation should have been a snap. But in this city, where a third dimension is very much relevant, flat maps are only loose guides: roads that look like thoroughfares peter out after climbing up (and sometimes into) steep hills, roads wind around like paths in a labyrinth, and staircases shoot into the sky in surprising and (to this flatlander) distressing ways. Once I walked down the Jialing River’s bank, dipped into the interior looking for a nearby park, and after failing to find it, tried to retrace my steps. I ended up, disbelievingly at first, standing on a hill overlooking the Yangtze. I had traversed the Chongqing peninsula and ended up on the southern shore instead of the northern: in other words, I had managed to do everything perfectly, seamlessly wrong.



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Luckily, getting things like this wrong doesn’t bother me much. It was Chongqing’s gridless, rambling quality that gave it more character than any of the other cities I saw in China: a neighborhood parking spot carved out of sheer mountain rock is always going to have more charm than a concrete parking garage. And the vistas were gorgeous, and gorgeously obscured by the constant fog rolling off the rivers. (I met a British traveler in my hostel – the Yangtze River Hostel – who arrived the day I left. I mentioned the beautiful view over the Jialing, and he told me matter-of-factly that he had checked the weather schedule and was waiting for the fog to subside before taking in the valleys. I had a momentary jolt of confusion: when I said the view was beautiful, I meant the fog.)

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The city might be eminently picturesque, but it’s very far from idyllic. I’ve never before seen so much ongoing construction: half the streets remotely close to the city center seemed to support a complex ecosystem of cranes, scaffolding and builders scurrying about like worker ants. The metro system, which during my visit consisted of just one line (a lovely jaunt high above the Jialing’s shore), is being ambitiously expanded, and the empty, half-built tracks look ironically like shattered postapocalyptic remains. All this exists side-by-side with locals lugging huge baskets of goods up the steep grades.

This juxtaposition of the rural and urban was stronger in Chongqing than anywhere else I went. The city has the requisite modern core complete with cafes, upscale clothing boutiques and booksellers (like the Xinhua Bookstore, which organized its tomes into such categories as “Humorous Joke,” “The Foreign Chinese Uses the Book” and “Text Uses the Book Abundantly”), but rusticity is only a reasonable stroll from downtown. One day I took a vertical way up and around to cliffs adorned with huts, where I could see bridges crossing the Yangzte which disappeared into the haze before they reached the opposite shore. On my way down I walked through a market that squeezed through alleys and sprawled out onto sidewalks.

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And my hostel, typically, was a mix as well. I had complimentary wifi in the lobby, but I was also given free “traditional Chinese medicine” by a concerned staff member after she heard my pathetic sniffling from an incipient cold. This was just one gracious act by the hostel staff, who quickly became my favorite hosts during my trip. Partly this was because, immediately upon my arrival, the girl checking me in had the charming audacity to compliment my Chinese intonation (which mostly consisted of the names of cities). As the check-in proceeded another staff member rounded the corner and stopped dead in her tracks, staring at my hair. “Wow, curly,” she said in English. “Is it natural?”

One day I had afternoon tea with the staff and we sipped from teacups the size of half-walnuts; another time I sought help in using a phone card I had purchased in Shanghai. The instructions were entirely in Chinese. The clerk took one look at the card and informed me that it only worked within Shanghai. “Disaster,” she added. I agreed. They took a genuine interest in their guests and had an easy, natural manner that made me a bit sad to leave after only two nights.

But leave I did. Sunday night I pulled on my jacket, grabbed my bags and wound my scarf. (This was gifted to me before I left the Philippines; it is not a “real” scarf, but something Filipinos use as a scarf. I could explain it further, but I think one of the Yangtze River Hostel staff put it most succinctly when, after I unwound it so she could see examine it, she nodded sagely: “Ah,” she said, “Tablecloth.”) I hopped into my second and last taxi – this one necessary due to distance, not navigational uncertainty – and arrived at the train station steeling myself for my longest trip yet.

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It was two nights back to the coast, but fortified with convenience-store snacks (which did not include cucumber-flavored potato chips, which I bought for my first train ride and now consider to be my single greatest error), I settled in for the long haul to Guangzhou.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Two China: Xi’an Shenanigans

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My train is speeding through arid valleys of dry rice paddies and some dilapidated buildings and hardly any people. Industrial haze is settling into pockets on the horizon. (One thing for the pollution: it makes for great sunsets.) Here are the dirt-road villages, the tiny alleys, the never-ending dust – interspersed here and there with the ugly concrete edifices, factory smokestacks, and other blights of a modern kind.

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Xi’an itself is a city seemingly on the edge of nothing, a place thrown up against wind-driven dirt, and yet it was once one of the most grandiose settlements in China. Remnants of the old Xi’an remain in the preserved walls that protect the inner city – walls which kept invaders out but, in another time, welcomed the Golden Arches of a different sort of empire. Broad thoroughfares line the perimeters of historical sites reached via underground pedestrian tunnels which, at the other end, spit tourists into the comforting arms of Starbucks.

To be fair, all of the places I visited during my trip through China – which inadvertently became a Big-City Tour – boasted considerable western trappings, and I did avail of them more frequently than I care to admit. (Especially after I discovered that ordering food in China, which lacks Japan’s ubiquitous picture-menus, is generally a stab in the dark.) And in Xi’an I also indulged in probably the single most touristy act during my travels so far: visiting the terracotta warrior army of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China.

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Actually, the terracotta army itself, which was crafted in order to guard the emperor after his death, was more impressive than I expected. Two of the three publicly-viewable pits at the excavation site are huge, and it’s easy to get a sense of the statues’ considerable antiquity. Thankfully the site organizers have refrained from gumming up the pits with excessive displays. (The excessive displays are instead housed at a nearby museum, with entertaining English explanations like “Each statue is exquisitely and made in life-size” and “The area of the tombs is also considerable large.”)

The pits are worth seeing, but getting there requires navigating through a massive maze of replica-sellers, English guides (all of whom insist that you won’t understand anything at the site without their help) and ongoing construction that heralds even more replica-sellers and English guides. It is a miserable place, wholly devoid of happiness and hope.

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Much more relaxing was the pretty park surrounding the city walls, where elderly men and women stretched and exercised under the sun, practiced traditional fan dances and ballads, and played furious games of table tennis like people possessed. One man offered me his paddle after he saw me observing, and his partner shamed me handily despite being well over twice my age.

My lodging was very close to this park. For sheer atmosphere, Shuyuan Youth Hostel in Xi’an was my favorite place to stay in China or Japan. It was just how I imagine a travelers’ hostel should be, warren-like with posters and signs all over the walls, Elvis playing in the attached café and cheerfully inaccurate international food on the menu. My dorm room was on the third floor of an exposed courtyard, reached by one sturdy staircase and one downright questionable staircase, and the bathroom walls lurked somewhere behind a thick smattering of thoughtful, provocative and obscene graffiti. I appreciate the hostel vibe, although I don’t participate much in it – I’m the quiet guy who, behind a cup of coffee and a book, monopolizes the most comfortable sofa  – but that vibe is finicky. Very often I’ve watched bands of European and American travelers stumble into a hostel café for breakfast, huddle together in their exclusive cliques, and mumble the usual dreary travelogues (about visas, flight schedules, Kathmandu-this and Varanasi-that) into their toast. The world has all types, but I defy anyone to be more marvelously listless or fantastically boring than a determined traveler.

And I’ve never figured out their daily migration habits. Within a few blocks of a hostel-friendly section of town, I might see outsiders everywhere… but once I get a few hundred meters from that nexus, I won’t spot another all day. Where do they go? Perhaps it’s just the laws of diffusion doing their thing, but I prefer to imagine all the foreigners packed together, waiting out the day in some ridiculous place (like a video arcade or perhaps a tanning salon) until the time at which they can respectably troop over to the expat bars.

I was also surprised that I never saw another obvious foreigner on any of my long-distance trains in China. Granted, they aren’t entirely comfortable for larger westerners – my shoulders were too wide for the aisles, my legs too long for the beds – but traveling does imply a certain need to move from one place to another, and the trains seemed the best way to do it. And I did a lot of it. (By the end of roughly two weeks in China the only Chinese characters I could reliably identify, aside from the currency symbol, were the ones denoting the top, middle and lower bunks on the tickets for hard-sleeper cars.)

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The Xi’an railway station, surprisingly, was considerably more frenetic and frantic than the one in Shanghai. The gates opened soon after I arrived for my overnight train and there was a mad rush: belongings were dropped, families separated, and bodies shoved forcefully down the line, moving inexorably but disconnectedly towards the train. People broke into dashes on the platform, jockeying for hard-seat position. Once the dust had settled the train creaked its iron whine, the wheels started their revolutions, and we started our roll towards Chongqing.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

One China: Shivering through Shanghai

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My plan was flawless: secure my China visa, get to Kobe, and settle into my reserved bunk on Tuesday morning for a two-night ferry ride to Shanghai.

But as Monday morning dawned, there was no visa in my passport (and no passport, either) and no boat ticket in my pocket. And I was still in Tokyo, four hundred kilometers from my ferry. Now, if this had been the Philippines, something inevitably would have gone wrong – my ferry would have been delayed, the bus to Kobe would have left from the other side of town and I’d’ve missed it, my passport would have been misplaced in a refrigerator or something. But here’s the thing: I still would have made my boat somehow. For all the lack of organization and the casual attitude towards trifling things like schedules and laws, things always just seem to work out.

In Japan, by contrast, nearly everything travel-related ran smoothly. But in order for things to run smoothly, everything must be planned. And that means, had I missed a step, I could easily have been stuck. I didn’t get the sense that some good-humored cajoling could get me where I was going, whereas that is a surefire way to get things done in the Philippines.

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Of course, everything did work out: the Chinese consulate released my passport back to me with a tender new visa nestled into its leaves and my ferry was booked with the help of a very patient travel agent in Roppongi. I traveled back up to Tokyo Station, bought a seat on an overnight bus to Kobe, lurked at a bank of in-use baggage lockers until I was able to snipe one from a schoolgirl withdrawing a big fluffy pillow, and stashed my stuff away until the evening. I spent the rest of the day immersed in coffee, reading and Yoshinoya.

And then I was off, riding the smooth highways back to Kansai. My ferry was sparsely occupied – there were a few Chinese passengers, a young Japanese couple who spent their time making skateboarding videos on the deck, a French duo looking for new sights after a stint in Africa, and a British lad gap-yearing his way through the East. Two days is a long time on a boat, and since Tokyo Station’s locker #7059 retained my just-finished copy of Into the Wild, I had only William S. Burroughs’ Junky and a Philippine notebook to occupy my time.

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I spent a good amount of that time shivering out on the Xin Jian Zhen’s decks. The suffering (such as it was after the two years of constant Philippine swelter) was worth it for the view of the East China Sea rushing under the hull, and the scarcity of riders made it easy to prowl the decks for provocatively-lighted life preservers.

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But my favorite part of the trip was the crawl up the Yangtze and its tributary, the Huangpu, which swerves through and splits Shanghai. These rivers hummed with activity even in the early hours of our arrival: shoreside cranes, to the symphony of their whining gears, lifted massive containers from flatboats; ferries scurried hither and yon with tugboats following in their wakes like dutiful yayas; the yells of sailors cut tunnels through the thick smog-yellowed air.

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I stayed at Mingtown Hiker Youth Hostel, a for-real international youth hostel – meaning scads of foreigners. Its big draw is that it lies only a few blocks from the Bund, a rash of stately old European buildings lining the west bank of the Huangpu. The Bund is one of the many leftovers of previous European occupation, from the French Concession district to the German bakeries scattered throughout the city. As a legacy, the Bund is certainly a troublesome artifact – back in the heyday of Shanghai’s Little Europe, Chinese were discriminated against matter-of-factly by the rich foreigners hammering out business deals in the best riverside hotels – but I must admit that the elegant buildings provide aesthetic relief from the skyscrapers that have heralded Shanghai’s entry into the clique of Important World Cities.

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The effort to maintain this status is obvious. Many parts of the metropolis are as blankly international as business sections of Tokyo or New York. Signs for the recently concluded Shanghai Expo litter the city – literally, as many of them are decaying and falling off the walls – and the UK’s Seed Palace and other Expo constructions can still be seen hugging the river. And in Pudong, the financial center east of the Huangpu, the futuristic Oriental Pearl TV Tower proudly proclaims Shanghai’s arrival to modernity. It’s a sham: from up close, the spidery legs that from the river’s opposite bank give the skyline its most striking sight are revealed to be just massive cylinders of faceless concrete supporting a gaudy and giant baby’s rattle.

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After spending two weeks in Japan, Shanghai also seemed inordinately loud. This I appreciated, actually, because the deathly quiet in Tokyo got a touch creepy at times. And although I had heard horror stories about Shanghai’s busy streets, they were nothing compared to Manila’s screech-and-rumble roadways. Shanghai’s metro system is also efficient and extensive (it’s now the longest in the world by cumulative track length, or at least nearly so), though not as friendly as Tokyo’s.

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I spent most of my time in Shanghai, like I spend most of my time anywhere, walking and looking. The touristy shopping-oriented East Nanjing Road was unimpressive – and packed with sketchy men offering women and sketchy women offering themselves – but I stumbled across a little artists’ colony, the name of which I never learned, that was packed with galleries of paintings and photography and calligraphy as well as little eateries and shops. I visited many camera stores, including a Lomography gallery and a huge multifloor complex with dozens of independent sellers hawking lenses, studio supplies and everything else.

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I also fulfilled perhaps my dearest ambition for Shanghai, which was to ride the maglev train. It runs from east of Pudong to the Shanghai airport and reaches 431kph, which is about the fastest the average human can travel on land (or very close to land, at least) anywhere in the world. Some of its impact was lost by the fact that the elevated track tended to avoid obstacles instead of zooming under bridges and skimming past skyscrapers (which I felt would have improved the ride immensely), but the surprising wobble and frequent banking injected a mild and pleasant sense of danger. In all, well worth the ride.

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My encounters with locals were unfortunately limited and mostly consisted of poor people asking me for money. In one instance, a man approached me as I ate breakfast outside a bakery, pointed to my bilingual bakery bag and proudly pronounced the word “bread” in English. He continued to show off his language skills with various English words until I gave him a muffin. He thanked me brightly and offered me RMB2 for the transaction, which I politely refused, and he shuffled away after taking also an unused sugar packet.

Another time a young man outside a train station gestured for money, pointing to a sign around his neck that proclaimed him to be deaf and mute. I was writing in my journal at the time and he sat down and admired my writing skills while telling me with signs that he himself couldn’t write. I copied down my name for him and asked for his, which he wrote bashfully on his hand in spidery characters, and soon afterwards he took his leave with a big smile and a wave.

One old man asked me for coins, but not as alms: he was a coin collector, he informed me in rusty but intelligible English, and he was trying to find a set of state quarters from the US. I regretfully told him that I couldn’t obtain a set for him. Instead we exchanged pens, leaving me with a 1mm gel monstrosity that felt thick as a paintbrush while he benefited from my .5mm Dong-A, but I think he appreciated having a foreign souvenir. And I did too.

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After about four nights in Shanghai, it was time to move on. I visited a booking agency and told them I wanted an overnight train going west or south. After a flurry of confusion, one of the clerks asked me clearly: “Anywhere is okay, sir?” I said yes, anywhere west or south. They held a brief conference behind the desk and decided that I was going to Xi’an, one night’s ride to the west. I cheerfully agreed, knowing nothing about Xi’an except that it was the site of the terracotta warriors and was probably quite touristy, and boarded my sleeper train with a pleasantly blank mindset regarding my destination.