Zhaoqing would be my final stop before the Chinese government wanted me out of the country. While there are supposedly nicer areas further inland (I have this on good authority), the weather in all of Eastern China was looking to be gloomy and rainy right up until my visa ran out, so I figured I would pick the warmest place.
There were some decent sights, including a nearby mountain (Dinghu) for hiking where there is a super-high concentration of negative ions in the air (supposedly good for one's health). I wouldn't recommend much more than a weekend here, but that was all I had anyway, and 18C with drizzle was much nicer than 10C with drizzle, so my plan worked. Oh, and if you are interested in one of those places where you don't see any other foreigners out walking around, this is one such place (I didn't see any other tourists . . . but got lots of stares).
I also had the good fortune to meet up for dinner with Diana, also a UBC grad, who as it turns out knows a lot of people I know (Andrew got me her contact info). In fact, she is an antiflux person as well, which I found out right as we were saying goodbye. I was wondering when I would run into somebody like that, but wasn't expecting it to be in China. Anyway, she was much better at picking restaurants than I, and also introduced me to the massage place she likes. As it turns out, I am a poor candidate for massage, as I find any beneficial probing of nerves and tendons to be pretty painful. Maybe I just need more practice?
It turned out to be a fun first weekend in Shanghai. Nicki and Henning both made it down from Beijing, I got in by train from Xian, and we met up with our "locals", notorious antifluxor Andrew and my cousin Rob who is teaching English there. Maoming Lu is a street of bars that attracts foreigners of all stripes. It's a weird crowd; career expats who are very settled in the local scene and its available services (Andrew likes the term "sexpats"), many touristy-looking people like me who don't know what's going on, and the a fair number of young professionals who have found themselves in this city with its tradition of flair and vice.
Rob introduced me to the street food near his house. These are little stalls or just carts where people are cooking various kinds of food, mostly involving a lot of oil and frying. There are some tasty items and you can fill yourself for under a dollar, but something I ate did not go over so well on the second day.
Xian was the capital of China for a couple thousand years, back in the day. It's the location of many historical sites, including the famous army of terra-cotta warriors, a life-sized army of statues buried to protect a former powerful emporer after his death. The nearby mausoleum is buried under a huge hill (the project took some 700,000 workers) and is trapped well enough that it is still sealed as archeologists figure out a way in that won't destroy everything.
While I saw a few other foreigners near where I was staying, this city was basically all Chinese people all the time. Some people would talk about you right in front of your face (you get used to hearing the word "laowai", meaning foreigner, pretty quickly), some will just stare, or others will yell a friendly or a solicitous "hello!" which I had to learn quickly to ignore if I wanted to walk anywhere.
The historical aspects of the city and its environs were pretty interesting, and I'm glad I made this detour. I wouldn't make it a first or absolutely necessary stop if you are going to be in China for a short time (definitely see Beijing, I would say), but if you are going to see a few places this is probably a good one to include.
If you want to see what there is to see, be a bit careful; the local tour guides know the public bus that is supposed to go out of town, and use this buses number on their own private bus. I ended up on such a bus via my hotel (a decision I made a little early in the morning after a long night train). We waited around for over an hour for more people to join the tour, but all that happened was the police came by and seized what was apparently the illegal sign they were using to advertise their tour in front of the bus. I was finally ready to just walk away, and started demanding my money back through my interpreter (one of the drivers who spoke a little bit of English). A small crowd gathered with my continued repeating of "buyao" ("don't want"), but they finally convinced me to get on the bus.
We left right away, and I then discovered that all the people on the bus were just getting a ride across town except for myself and one Chinese lady from Hangzhou. So they put us in a taxi and we got a private car for our adventure. We got along very well - especially considering her English was as good as my Chinese - and with only the two of us we didn't spend much time in the requisite shopping stops.
As a final note, the hotel I stayed in was decent for the money, though it was in the seedy train station area and came complete with a 1am call (Lonely Planet even mentions these) from a local working girl offering services. I missed the call because I thought it was my alarm and was trying to shut it off, but I did hear the ringing in the next room, then the next, and so on down the hall.
Hello again. I have had an excellent week and a half in Beijing. Highlights:
The food. We've gone out to eat every night (not that there is a kitchen available), and all the meals have been very tasty. Various kinds of dumplings, spicy chicken/peanut/chili pepper concoctions, fried rack of lamb, sweet and sour fish (I thought it was more like honey garlic, but anyway this might be my favourite), lots of other fish, it goes on. Probably the most out-of-the-ordinary dish (for me) that I've eaten is pig skin, both in dumplings (a little better) or served cold (sort of pickled?) with vegetables as an appetizer (not so great, even before I knew what it was). Of course, there are things I've eaten where I didn't know what they were, but they were good enough that I didn't want to spoil it by finding out . . .
The Great Wall. The tour I ended up on with Henning, a German friend of Nicki's who also happens to be visiting China at this time, was kind of bogus. We spent most of the 10 hours on detours, including a tour a big jade factory (the largest in Asia, we are told, and it was kind of cool) and a Chinese medicine academy (turns out I need to exercise more and eat fewer fatty foods - thanks, so do 95% of North Americans). But the Wall itself is spectacular, even at the touristy section we visited (it is winter, so not as crowded anyway).
The Forbidden City. It is kind of cool to stroll along the walkways that used to be reserved for emporers. Yes, I feel like a big man now.
The Summer Palace. Huge, though mostly outdoors, which is what all these palaces are like. It made for an interesting walk around, though I hear it is better in spring and (you guessed it) summer. There are buds on the trees, so I guess this is not far off, but it is a bit late for me. Next time, I guess.
Day trip to Tianjin. This port near Beijing is famous for its antique markets. It was formerly under European control, and there is a section of town that is a mishmash of various European styles - it was very weird to drive around there and feel like you'd suddenly dropped out of China.
Pictures to follow from all of these, someday, hopefully in 2004 .. . .
Nicki and I have been getting along famously as roommates. Of course this tends to be easier when only one person is busy with school and the other is, well, sleeping in and lazing around a lot. I even have my own key (the keys are not copy-protected like those of UBC res). She has school every morning during the week, and one morning we discovered an interesting feature of the door to the room. You can set the lock so that it catches when you close the door, or you can close the door and use your key from the outside. One would expect these to have the same results, but the designers of this door had something a little more sinister in mind: Nicki locked the door from the outside on her way to class, and when I finally dragged myself out of bed, I found that there would be no unlocking the door for me. Fortunately she is not gone all day, and I got out a couple hours later (I was imprisoned with food, tv that has a french channel, and books, so it could have been worse). I'm not clear if such locks are university policy, but I am sticking to my plan of not asking questions.
I've got an overnight train ticket for Xian (about 1000km southwest) that leaves tomorrow. I'll have some time there to check out the renowned terracotta army and other sights before heading to Shanghai for next weekend.