February 9, 2019 § 9 Comments
I was sitting at dinner last night with my friends from Sacramento bemoaning the fact that I still had pages and pages in my notebook about my trip to China.
“Why don’t you write it up?” Drew said. “We really enjoy the non-racing blog posts, especially the ones about China.”
“It takes too long to transcribe the notes.”
Darrel looked at me as if he were speaking to an extremely feeble-minded person. “Why don’t you use talk to text?”
“I travel without my phone,” I explained imperiously.
Darrel paused, trying to think of a way to politely call me a dumbfuck. “You know Seth, once you get back home you can use your phone to transcribe those notes that you wrote in China. I’m pretty sure your phone won’t care.”
So the next morning, with a little experimentation, it turns out that Darrel was right. The phone didn’t care.
Snipping the cord
And so I will pick up where I left off, which is the point at which my camera died, severing my last electronic link to the digital age. I quickly realized that as far as as cameras are concerned they are just one more piece of junk to lug around, things you use to badly chronicle that which 1 billion iPhotos have already uploaded to the Internet.
No camera also meant no eye candy for the blog, making the pages look long, hard, daunting, and filled with nails, which is exactly how I like them. Candy is for kids.
As I got ready for the day I realized that I had fully acclimated to the hotel service. They didn’t replace the mini shampoo and conditioner bottles in the shower, they actually topped them off by hand. I suppose that over the course of several hundred changes, they saved a few dollars. And dollars add up.
Other little details were that Hotel H Riverside isn’t really by the river, the phones in the room don’t work, there is no clock in the room, they forget wake up calls, they forget to refill the tea and wash the chipped cups, but how can you really get upset when the shower is the very best you have ever had anywhere?
And how can you really get upset when the staff are friendly and helpful, the breakfast buffet heavenly, the pillows lush and plump, the bed soft, the comforter cozy and thick, the towels luxurious, and the noodle shop next-door… damn good?
As I sat in the lobby waiting for the panda tour that was never going to materialize, I went back to my last trip to China and checked my notes regarding untethering. Here’s what I said then and it’s all true.
- We do better with less information.
- We have limited processing speed.
- We don’t process in real time. Our brains require after-the-fact cogitation that takes time and requires empty mental space.
- We are not digital or sequential thinkers. Our brains freely associate at random, and don’t function well when they are forced into endless sequential tasks.
- We require but dislike human friction that comes from personal interaction. Untethering forces us to do what we would rather avoid but what we must do.
Day eight was a total a.m. flail. The giant panda tour operator was a no-show. The hotel staff called at my insistence when it became clear that the tour bus wasn’t coming, as the hotel was the one that had made the alleged reservation, even though they denied knowing anything about it despite telling me to be ready to go out the door at 7 o’clock.
The new clerk typed her explanation of the problem into her phone translator, which is still working on a few bugs as it advised “no reservation request your menstrual cycle.”
I was so pissed I refused to give them my menstrual cycle and instead hit Plan B, whose main deficiency was that there was no Plan B. I recalled all the tour hawkers near the station the year before in Kunming, and took the subway to the north station, which turned out to be the mother lode for cheap watches after I’d splurged the rather astounding sum of $75 on a Swatch.
Tour hawkers in Chengdu were nonexistent and I stopped into a couple of travel agencies requesting a personal guide for Chengdu but I might as well have been requesting a portable atom smasher or a satire about the chairman.
One lady directed me to the Chengdu Grand Hotel but they told me they had never heard of such a thing as a personal tour guide, but if I wanted a great panda tour I should call the panda tour operator. I glanced at the brochure and it was the same folks who had done such a stellar job of not picking me up earlier that morning.
However, the confusion it caused requesting a personal guide encouraged me so much that I decided to stop into every hotel I could find and ask the same question. It wouldn’t get me a guide, of that I was confident, but it would pass the time and let me practice my Chinese as I made my way back to the tea shop at People’s Park.
Cold and rainy Monday mornings in winter are pretty awesome. They have a not too busy, kind of good feeling because you realize it’s not only you, but everyone is flat fucking cold, they just deal with it, which is a pretty awesome outlook on the minor or even a major discomforts of life.
The amazing manly joy of spitting
Despite the Party’s dedicated spit eradication program, hundreds of millions of Chinese men have not yet successfully completed the SEP course. The pleasure with which meant spit can scarcely be imagined, a pleasure limited only by the infinite variety of hawking and expectoration techniques. There is the casual spirit, a simple emptying of the mouth, barely conscious and never premeditated.
There is the deep-throated, rumbling rev that collects errant fluid and mixed solids before firing them out, thick projectiles with fierce velocity to spatter hard against the pavement. Each sticky glob, upon observation, is as unique as a Rorschach test, distinct in color, consistency, and angle as the most considered painting.
Spitting is surely linked to horrible air quality, lingering catarrhs and even more sinister diseases of the throat and lungs, but that only explains part of it. The rest? Male privilege, of course. Spitting is the mark of the man, denied it to women with the same finality of scratching one’s crotch in public.
I made it to the park fine and had a cup of tea. It wasn’t as exciting as a great panda tour but it was certainly cheaper.
Maybe I’d have better luck next day.
I thought about that.
Maybe I wouldn’t.
January 25, 2019 § 8 Comments
When you are afoot you run into people and have to interact with them, which is why people avoid it at all costs.
I got into Santa Rosa around ten p.m. and figured I would take a taxi to my shabby hotel. I stood outside the Snoopy Airport and there were no taxis. The smart people, all young, hung out at the curb for a couple of minutes before Lyft scooped them up. Uber doesn’t have a permit in Santa Rosa, I was told.
All of the people shivering on the curb in the taxi zone waiting for the non-taxis were either foreigners or old or both. A rental car dude took pity and gave us a list of taxi companies. None of them answered except for Super Taxi and Best Taxi.
“Be right out,” they said.
After twenty minutes the airport was shuttered. Super Taxi came up and the old people started arguing over whose cab it was. The cabbie didn’t care. “You all cram in there or you gonna walk ten miles,” he snarled. They shut up and squeezed in, gloating at me as they lumbered away in their K-Car.
Best Taxi came up in a rickety, rusted out Dodge van. “Where the other people?” he asked, bummed that it was just me.
“They all went off with your competitor,” I said.
“Dat bastard, he know he can’t do dat.” The cabbie looked for some luggage to fling into his trunk, but it was just me and my tiny knapsack and I was too big to fling.
We didn’t go far but it cost $25 bucks, more than a rental car. The young woman at Extended Stay America had a shaved head. “You the guy who called asking if we had a shuttle?” she said.
She rolled her eyes. “Here’s your key.”
“Is there anywhere around here to eat?”
“Vending machines. Next to the laundry room.”
“I mean like a restaurant?”
This was an even crazier request than the shuttle bus, apparently. “How would I know?” she snapped. “I don’t live around here.”
I let myself into my non-smoking room, which I hadn’t requested because all that “non-smoking” means at my price point is “room where smokers think they can smoke in a room that hasn’t been smoked in as much as a smoking room.”
I never pay any attention to hotels when I book. If it’s cheap I take it, but even I was unprepared for this joint. It stank, which was fine, and the place was rattier than anything I’d seen in China, which was fine, and the room was bone cold, which was fine. What wasn’t fine is that it was now eleven, I hadn’t eaten, and I didn’t have a car.
So like bad boys everywhere I went to bed without any supper, figuring I’d rise early and walk to breakfast, wherever that was.
I forgot to bring pajamas so I slept in my jeans and sweater and sport coat. The heating didn’t work even though I had cranked it to 75, and the blankets were thinner than a cyclist’s excuse as to why he got dropped. I awoke at six-thirty, ran my hand through my hair, put on my shoes, and left.
As I left the room I realized why it was so cold. The heater vents were pointed directly into the open window.
Outside it was in the 30s and my breath made huge white puffs. I walked over a long overpass in the dark. The tips of my fingers tingled from the cold. My phone had died and I’d forgotten to bring a charger, so before leaving I had checked out a map on my laptop, memorized the general area, and decided to make for the Piner Cafe. I was pining, all right. For some food.
I’d found a McDonald’s on the map before I left and figured I would use it as a landmark to get to the Piner diner, but there was no McDonald’s. I walked for a long way. A guy in warm clothing and a backpack passed me, then looked back suspiciously. He was obviously going to work, but his look said, “What’s your excuse?”
He was kind of right. It was still dark, cold. I was walking. Normal people don’t walk, especially in car-land. If you are walking you are poor. Period.
I saw a 24-Hour Fitness and figured they could direct me to the McDonald’s and from there I’d find the Piner diner. As I crossed the parking lot a guy was leaving, having wrapped up his early morning sesh of staring at himself in the mirror.
“Excuse me,” I said.
He put his head down and kept walking.
“Hey, excuse me,” I said.
He walked faster.
Then I realized, of course, emaciated man trawling the parking lot at dawn begging for spare change. Right.
I pushed the doors to the fitness club, which was rocking. A greasy and nice young man who looked about as fit as my grandfather’s droopy testicle eyed me. “Yes?” he said.
“Where’s the McDonald’s?” I asked.
“You realize you just walked into a fitness club asking where to find junk food, right?”
“Who’d know better? I’m on foot, and lost, and hungry.”
He laughed, then ignored the “I’m on foot” part and gave me the longest, most complicated directions imaginable. It sounded like it was east of Calcutta somewhere. “Thanks,” I said, and left.
Now I was frozen and I found myself in an area of warehouses and business parks. A man on the other side of the street was walking a giant Husky, whose back was doubled as it pressed out a giant Husky dump of such proportions that I could see the steam from across the street, in the dark. “Excuse me,” I hollered.
The guy jerked towards me and the dog growled. Then the man pulled out his phone and began talking. “Ahhh, fuck you,” I thought. But I wasn’t brave enough to say it because, Husky. And how could I argue? I was walking, and if you are walking you are poor.
I walked along and froze some more. Pretty soon I figured I’d need to give up and try to retrace my steps, as the Piner diner wasn’t in my immediate future. Then I got to the next intersection, which was, miraculously, Piner Street.
I guessed left and after walking forever I found the diner. Now until you have been wandering strange streets in the pre-dawn, frozen to the core, scorned by all living things, stomach so empty it hurts, you will never know the joy of a lit-up family diner with a little signboard that says “Coffee” and “Come on in!” My body started warming at the mere sight of it.
I pushed open the door and it was so warm, the warmest I’d been in 24 hours. A nice waitress was bustling around, a handful of tables were taken by regulars, and of course, of course, of course, she called me “hon.” “Have a seat, hon!”
I sat at the bar wordlessly as she poured me the coffee she knew I wanted without asking. “Cream, hon?”
“Yes, please.” The hot thin coffee, as many cups as you want for $1.50, warmed my throat and my guts and my hands as I cradled the cup. Funny how you aren’t real fucking picky about your coffee when you are frozen to the bone, exhausted, hungry, and lost.
I ordered a Denver omelette and looked around. There were all kinds of homey signs posted on the walls. “Before you quit, think about why you started,” and “Craziness isn’t a requirement to work here; we’ll train you.”
I chatted with the waitress and told her about my peregrinations. She didn’t look surprised, as if she’d known people before who didn’t have cars, or money, or who weren’t always geared up with the latest Italian carbon frame made in Taiwan. “Warm yourself up, hon,” she said, refilling my cup.
The omelette came and proved the adage, “Hunger is the best sauce.” I ate it with the attack mode that good waitresses and cooks like to see. The owner came over and the waitress told her my story again. She nodded.
“You’d never find that McDonald’s; it burned down in the fire. Surprised they didn’t tell you. Where you staying?” I told her. “Oh, goodness. Everything around that burned. Right up to your hotel. You’ll see it in the daylight. Don’t you have a coat or a hat, hon? You are going to freeze once you leave here.”
I paid and headed back to Hotel Meth, but wasn’t cold at all.
January 1, 2019 § 10 Comments
I was at a party last night ringing in the New Year, which means I was struggling valiantly every minute past 9:00 PM then giving up and going home around ten, sound asleep by 10:30. I ran into my friend Scott at the party. “How come you quit blogging about China?” he asked.
“I didn’t really quit, but the remaining posts are so unbearably long that simply copying them from my notebook will take forever. And no one wants to read about China anyway.”
Scott, who has traveled there extensively, shook his head. “I do.”
That was the shot in the arm I needed. Most of the time, one reader is more than enough! So here we go, cycling in the South Bay be damned.
By Day 7, Chengdu had finally run out of tours. The Sea of Bamboo Tour, a 2-day trip, was closed in winter, as were all the trips into the high mountains and up onto the Tibetan Plateau. The Panda Research Center tours were all booked and I was starting to think that meant “We have enough Chinese guests and don’t need the clumsy American one.”
So I asked for a private guide but apparently that’s not a thing, unlike in Taiwan. I figured I would go back to Chunxilu shopping district, find the fake Rolex huckster and ask him for a guide. Or maybe ask a cabby or a moto-cabby. I couldn’t imagine that someone wouldn’t be willing to take my money, even if it just meant driving me down an alley to knife me in the back.
“Why don’t you take a day off?” the hotel clerk wanted to know. She meant “Why don’t you quit giving me all these tour operators to call?”
“Because it’s my vacation. Who wants to rest on a vacation?”
So I began the AM with language study featuring Peppa the Pig in Chinese, bear cartoons, news shorts, then simul-read, in depth #propanews. As I readied for the day I realized that my shopping had gotten out of control. For souvenirs I’d already bought ass-hot Sichuan soup stock, ass-hot Sichuan sausages, and ass-hot Sichuan tofu sauce. I’d bought books, tea, bookmarks, knick-knacks, leather gloves, a jaunty cap, a 20-meter scarf … so much for light travel.
I asked the desk clerk to please find me anyone, a student, retiree, recluse, ex-military, IDGAF, just someone to tromp across the city who I could assault with my Chinese for seven or eight hours. She said they would ring me so I sat in my room impatiently, all scarfed and jauntied up with nowhere to go.
The call never came so I went out on my own again, and passed a giant building called Tour Bus Center, and stepped inside. Surely this was the answer to my tour dreams. It was jammed with people and had a huge electronic timetable for buses going everywhere from one hour to two days’ distance. I picked the nearest destination to a place I’d never heard of, Huanglongxi, an hour away.
All the seats were sold, and at $1.40 a pop I wondered how they were making money. It was a horrible bouncy trip stuck over the rear axle again, which seemed to be the preferred seating for Americans. We got there and I wisely bought my return ticket rather than waiting until it was time to return and then having to fight the bus scrum. Next, my camera died. I’d forgotten to bring a charger and didn’t really care. Cameras are simply one more burden and they don’t add anything to your trip, though they do add a lot for others who wonder if you actually went to China.
Huanglongxi was a massive, endless, riverside warren of souvenir shops masquerading as a historical site, and this is the problem with modern China: There are no ideas or beliefs here besides commerce and consumption. And it made me wonder, again, if any society has ever long survived without the constant under-fermentation of dissent, i.e. art? It struck me again that there was no art anywhere, only pretty things, or in many instances extraordinarily beautiful things, but nothing that criticized or that could act as a vehicle for new ideas, for anger, or for change. Thus no novels, no paintings, no sculptures, no murals, only officially approved pretty things, many of which were not pretty at all.
What happens to a nation starved of ideas and debate, where the only outlet for creativity and thought is commerce and consumption? Like North Korea, it must become even more repressive in order to stamp out and tightly regulate the inflow of thoughts created by the domestic vacuum of art, literature, and journalism. It’s no coincidence that the surliest people I’d run across worked at the government run Xinhua Bookstore, whose primary aim appears to be to discourage reading at all costs.
The lovely old #faketown
I walked quickly through the old #faketown. It was early in the day and the masses of tourists hadn’t hit full swing. Moreover, it was the off season and many of the shops were shuttered, so instead of getting to choose between a thousand varieties of souvenir combs, you could only choose between about nine hundred.
The nicest place was down on the river, polluted and ugly and lined with endless tents and upside-down chairs indicating the cafes were closed. There were few people, and it stank. I liked it.
I returned to the bus station, not sure that this was any worse than Disneyland, and ultimately convinced it was quite a bit better. The entry fee was zero, you didn’t have to buy anything, and it was at least based on a historically real place more than 1,700 years old, with a good many authentic buildings from the Qing Dynasty still standing. And, I hate Mickey.
For all the yammer about a nation whose only values are commerce and consumption, how does it differ from the U.S., where bare-fanged corporatist capitalism cloaked in the phrases of democracy hasn’t worked out well at all for African-Americans, most minorities, or the poor? At least here there are 1.4 billion people and zero homeless; no miles and miles of tent cities, no overpasses crowded with tarps, no Skid Row welcoming you to one of the biggest cities in the world. And perhaps it’s an illusion, but it sure looks like anyone who wants to work, can, and that food and education and healthcare are available to most.
The big “C”
I got back to Chengdu craving coffee. Chengdu has a paucity of coffee shops, by which I mean there isn’t one every ten feet. I didn’t want Xingbake, and I had had a killer coffee and donut the day before, but instead of returning there I decided to chase down a coffee shop with a sign that, but for the substitution of the letter “f” would have been the best-named coffee shop in the history of coffee shops.
Unfortunately, “Luckin’ Coffee” was a stand-up bar and I wanted to sit as the bus had dumped us all off on a random street and I had walked a solid hour to get back to Chunxilu and “Luckin’ Coffee.” Then I recalled a place named “Ms. Coffee” on the 11th floor of the Nine Dragons Clothing Emporium, and so I made for it. It is a fact that things taste better the harder you have to work for them, and this was no exception, AND the coffee came in a ceramic mug AND had a pretty foam design AND it was super smooth AND despite the millions of shoppers the coffee shop’s tables were all but empty, so I easily got a seat AND although there was no indoor heating, hot air rises and the 11th floor was toasty and cozy AND all I really needed to make it perfect was a pair of eyes to gaze into AND although you can’t have everything, sometimes your imagination, if properly fed, will do the trick.
Sipping coffee in the giant emporium it made sense that if China is ever convicted of a crime it will be for raising generations who have never seen the sky. It’s crazy how you forget about clouds, sun, sky, moon, stars, and you accept the gray lowering pollution as that with which we were born, like living on Neptune or at the bottom of the sea or in a mine shaft, our inheritance.
The beautiful English language, or, Panky Boy Hot Style
On January 15, 1987, or immediately thereafter, I came to be thunderwhacked by the legendary Japlish that adorned, well, everything in Japan from caps to underwear to magazines to companies. In my youth and my arrogance (redundant), I laughed a these misbegotten abortions of the English language, even doing what tourists before and after have done far better than I, which is cataloging the screechers.
Here in Chengdu, 31 years later, it’s deja vu all over again, made most magnificent by the teen clothing brand called Acne Studio, and punctuated by the knee-length yellow jacket with “Lazy Motha Fuckers” emblazoned on the back. An amazing catalog of Chinglish is right here for the asking, more various and amusing and thought-provoking than anything I ever saw in Japan, with the winner of all time being a runner charging the street, his t-shirt saying only this, profoundly and beautifully, co-opting everything Strava, Nike, or life ever imagined: “Beat Yesterday.”
I can say, gratefully and shamelessly, that the intervening decades have whittled me the fuck down, especially the iceberg of arrogance regarding English that I used to tow behind me everywhere I went. The whittling began when my wife’s cousin’s ex-husband laughingly interrupted my efforts to minimize and ridicule Japlish on a signboard in Utsunomiya, circa 1992. “But Seth,” he said, “It’s not being written for you.”
This opened my eyes to the beauty and malleability of English in other cultures, not as I would use it, but as someone would first think a thing in Japanese, find an English analogue that sounded cool or pretty or interesting, then translate it back to Japanese, all the while comparing it to other options, some better, some worse, all beyond my ken because I had never thought the Japanese to begin with.
China’s love affair with designer English is vivid and fresh and stimulating, a tool that experts are using to carefully craft a message that their targets will understand in the millions, or tens of millions, far better than I.
Acne Studio, indeed!
No more history
It occurred to me as I was walking home to stop and read the inscription next to a giant sculpture commemorating the February 16 uprising, an inscription piously and emptily advising me that this “great” sculpture had “great” implications for understanding modern Sichuanese history, presumably more so than Sichuanese spicy hot pots, Huawei, and Acne Studio.
Of course it begged the question, “What modern history?” and even more desperately, “And where would one find it?”
Because in all my wanderings and in all the informational plaques and guide discourses I had heard, I could determine that China only had three periods of history:
- Ancient civilization marked by emperors and archaeology.
- The war for independence.
- What Xi Jinping said or did today.
There was no history that I could see of Mao, Deng, or any other post-war anything, a fact easily explained by the fact that after 1949 there was no journalism, literature, history, or art to record it, and by record of course I mean criticize, as art without criticism is just a pretty picture, if you’re lucky, and literature without searing critique is simply a bedtime story, #propanews, or Hemingway.
It also explains the frenzy associated with extolling the narrative of ancient China, as it takes the eye off the sick absence of any modern history at all. In that sense America and Europe are incomparably richer, as their literature and art have faithfully assassinated the corporate creed that profit and wealth make right. China is left without a past, unable to point to a single meaningful modern work of art or body of literary thought, as all such endeavors must by definition crucify the official religion that relentlessly stamps out free speech and critical thought of any kind.
So the tourist is left with either an artistic vacuum or shopping, or worse, is sent home with a copy of Du Fu’s 1st Century poetry to spend the rest of his life trying to unpuzzle, that he may never ask the question, “Yes, but what about today?”
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December 31, 2018 § 8 Comments
The snow in Emeishan was part of a cold front that smashed Chengdu into the low 30’s. I forewent another tour and instead concentrated on one of the best things about China: The hotel breakfast. Let’s just say it wasn’t toast and a mini-box of corn flakes.
Fresh noodles, spicy vegetables, fried eggs, various delicious pickles, and made-to-order wonton soup were all on order, along with a rich buffet of western breakfast foods. Modesty and fear of getting fat on vacation kept me from having seconds of everything.
I decided to go to the Panda Preserve and maybe return to the tourist shopping alleys. After all, I hadn’t explored the shop whose sign read, in English, “The Smell of a Woman.” However, the cumulative effort of endless walking was starting to wear me out. It was also raining outside,and the warm hotel room, finally sort of almost partially somewhat rid of the stale cigarette smoke here on Day 6, was feeling pretty cozy.
On the other hand, when would I next get to see some pandas? And this led to the next question: If I were going to see pandas, shouldn’t I dress for the occasion? So my first stop was to the Shunxilu shopping district for a jaunty cap and a scarf. I’d had to confess that I had been miserably cold except when in the shower or in bed, and it was time to get warmer clothes.
However, I was hijacked by a donut and coffee shop. The latte was badass and I scarfed the donut bomb while the loudspeakers spoke, loudly, Debbie Harry’s “Call Me.”
My Chinese love affair was almost complete, all I needed was a clean public toilet of which there were three or four every couple hundred yards. The only thing about the public toilets that took a bit of getting used to was the fact that you can’t put your toilet paper in them, and have to drop it into a waste can next to the toilet. Kind of weird sitting on the can with a trash receptacle topped off with white tissues that have seen better, whiter days.
My jaunty cap and thick wool scarf that would have doubled as a blanket for a king-size bed set me back $65. I never made it to Pandaland, either, detoured as I was by the Shunxilu shopping district. All I can tell you is that if you ever had any doubt, the business of China is business. You look sideways and they are closing.
I walked by a row of noodle shops and every single one hit on me. A guy selling Rolexes and Nike tennis shoes followed me to the official Swatch shop, where I was surrounded by five salespeople, but not before the Rolex sales guy followed me into the store and argued with me for five minutes about his watches.
“I don’t want a Rolex,” I said.
“Why? They are perfect.”
“I can’t afford one.”
“How much can you afford?”
“You’re in the Swatch shop, though. Everything here is at least $75.”
“But they are the kind of watch I want, not a Rolex.”
“Rolex is for successful, handsome Americans.”
“Then you should be in New York. Because I don’t see any of them here.”
He left and the sales team sold me a watch but my card wouldn’t run. They didn’t care. “We will make it run,” the lady said.
She called someone from the back and suddenly I had six people working a $75 sale. And you know what? Even though the card was declined seven times, on the eighth time it worked. They closed the sale.
I spent the day in the shopping district getting my mind blown about China’s consumer economy, then went back to the hotel and on the way stopped at a noodle shop for dinner. I ordered a bowl of noodles and then saw a picture of some wontons. “How many wontons?” I asked the lady, but I couldn’t understand. The small bowl was either four or ten, and the large bowl was either six or sixteen.
It was going to be way too much food either way. When the wontons came, they were also in a bowl of noodles, so I had two giant bowls of noodles and everyone looking at me like I was crazy, and they were loaded with asshole-incinerating Sichuan peppers, too fucking hot to even swallow, but I did.
It occurred to me on the way to the hotel that I was going to burn a hole in my stomach, just as it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen a single newspaper, magazine, or newspaper stand of any kind. This made sense, because everything in China is digital so that the government can track what people read, and more importantly, can go back and delete things they wrote in the past that conflict with the present, just like in 1984.
Then I realized that I had seen no art, no books, or even a hint of literature anywhere. The only thing on display about China was its ancient civilization and its ancient literary tradition, for example the poet Du Fu. And I wondered how you can have a country without modern art or literature? More to the point, I realized that you can’t have art or literature in a totalitarian state because if it doesn’t criticize then it cannot, by definition, be art.
China’s narrative is that “We are the oldest civilization on earth. We invented everything. The last couple of hundred years we’ve been in a spot of bother, but don’t worry. We are back.”
Freedom of speech isn’t free, but at $2.99 a month it’s not exactly overpriced … Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!
December 18, 2018 § 6 Comments
I glared at the bottom of the stairs, colder than any words, my feet frozen into agony blocks, snow falling, and I wondered not simply how I’d get up, but what in the world was going to happen if I slipped going down?
Then I had my answer as two stretcher bearers lugged a groaning man by, his right foot twisted at an abnormal angle. Suddenly the miserable 5:30 AM start in Chengdu looked good, though at the time, crammed into another undersized minivan, I had thought it was hell, legs folded then refolded, ass athwart the rear bench and rear axle, catching every bump in the road with impressive violence to my butt, neck, spine, jaw, and teeth.
Where were we going? No idea.
How long would it take? No idea.
What would the weather be like? No clue except this: It had been cold from Day 1 and one of the characters in our destination, Emei Shan, means “mountain.”
After two hours on the freeway we got off, pissed, were given our tour lanyards, handed over to our new guide, and were bundled into a larger van that seated twenty and amazingly only had twenty passengers.
Pretty in white
Our guide’s Chinese was so thickly accented that I immediately gave up on him, and he on me after I forked over $95 for the tour plus $30 for lift tickets. “Lift tickets?” I wondered.
We ascended an endless, spectacular climb for about an hour, going alongside a huge gorge on the right with a river whose bottom was strewn with boulders that were mythically huge. The bamboo forest, the thick mist, and the driver’s penchant for passing around blind curves left me feeling that I should imprint the memory in the unlikely event I survived.
We stopped and filed into a shop renting massive coats, earmuffs, gloves, and crampons. I was already so chilled beneath my wool overcoat, California hoodie, thin wool sweater, t-shirt and jeans that I could only chatter.
Cheaply, foolishly, I refused to spend $10 while all others snapped up the rental clothing. I had been entrusted to the care of two ladies from Inner Mongolia who pooh-poohed the rental clothing. Only later did I realize, too late, that for them this was balmy spring weather, and only later did I realize that their parkas and hats were Himalayan-rated, and that they had gloves and long underwear beneath their jeans … they said.
We changed buses again and ascended until the relentless snow and icy road forced us to stop and put on chains. After half an hour we reached the destination, which was the bottom of a 2-mile staircase covered in ice. At the bottom, old women were handing out free crampons but my Mongolian friends scoffed and, too embarrassed to strap on the life saving steel claws, I scoffed too.
Thousands of people were on the stairs which led to the summit temple, and it drove home this: Travel in China is for the hard.
No liability concerns in an environment where one slip would shatter your hip or back, and the thought of the average fat American making it ten steps was laughable, as Chinese of every age and degree of unfitness tackled the steps, cigarettes dangling from their lips.
I warmed a bit on the ascent from terror and exertion, each step a careful calculation. It occurred to me to wonder, isn’t this why we have brains? To measure and take risk? The fear built because however treacherous the climb, the downhill would be a thousand times worse. Had it not been for crews salting the steps it would have been undoable, yet no one fell.
On top of Old Smoking
At the top we got a brief lecture about the history of the site, but all I could think was, “We sat in a bus for basically two hours and then walked a manicured staircase for two hours. When this place was founded 2,000 years ago I’m not sure it was that easy.”
After the lecture we were turned loose for an hour to walk the grounds, freeze, and die. This is Sichuan–it is never heated anywhere for any reason except in your hotel room, and there it is only warm between the sheets courtesy of your own body. Everywhere else, you had better wear clothes and accept that you will be cold. I had an hour that I didn’t think I would survive and have never been so cold in my life.
My feet were stone, as my core alone had stayed warm, sacrificing everything else for survival. Incredibly I found a giant trash fire where offerings, candles, plastic, and paper were being burned. I huddled so close it burned the hair off my wrists and singed my brows and lashes even as my face and body were covered in smelly, plastic soot.
One single fuck I did not give.
We reconvened and headed down but the rising temperatures had quickly melted the steps, even at 11,000 feet, aided by the salt and the foot traffic. The remaining ice patches made it even more treacherous as you had to pay attention and not be lulled; many of the patches were almost invisible and lethally slick.
I got to the bottom. Four hours of solid walking and shivering, completely kaput.
Almost not even close to being finished
Did I mention it had been 24 hours since I had last eaten? We descended a while then offloaded for a late lunch, which was dreadful but ample, and included buckets of instant ramen. The restaurant, unheated, didn’t warm me anymore than the lukewarm food, but starving people are never choosy, and the proprietors knew it.
At 2:30 we filed out and I assumed that the tour was done. “Next we were dong a hike to see some more temples,” our guide said, pointing to a giant map and sketching out the course that looked as complex and covered more topography than the Odyssey.
“How long is this gonna take?” I asked my Mongolian caretakers, who spoke very clear Mandarin.
“Four hours. Maybe five.”
Though out of the snow, it was still bitterly cold and off we went. After the tour of the icy staircase these other several thousand stairs were easy, and my days of following tour groups had really gotten me into walking shape. I also learned not to assume anything from seeing a guy chain smoke. Our guide was one of those guys but climbed like a goat. Over the day I got to talk with all my fellow tourists. Some I understood quite well, others not at all. They came from all over China and brought their accents with them. As with every group, people were so exceedingly helpful and kind and solicitous that it was humbling.
Would they have been treated this warmly had they been touring in America?
I couldn’t have gotten lost or separated if I had tried, so carefully did my fellow travelers look after me. People were astonished that I traveled without a cell phone. It was easily the most remarkable thing anyone had ever heard of, so daring, reckless, devil-may care.
“What if you get lost?” they asked.
“I will ask directions.”
“What if you don’t understand?”
“I’ll ask some more.”
“What if you run out of money?”
“I’ll be in trouble.”
“How do you stay in touch with their family? Aren’t they worried?”
Interspersed with these comments, most took time to praise my Chinese. Although much of it was obligatory and fake, some of it was sincere.
Our guide and his assistant said that in ten years they’d never seen a Western tourist speak as well as I. Of course that set the bar pretty low … and there were many times when I made an ass of myself over the simplest things, like understanding the amount of a fee, but the constant repetition of many things was great.
“Are you cold?”
“Are you tired?”
“Are you hungry?”
We transferred to our original van and this time I got to ride shotgun. It took another 2.5 hours to reach Tianfu Square in Chengdu, and a bit more subway riding to get to my street. Stomach rumbling, I stepped into a small shop, pointed at a picture on the wall, confirmed that “hot” was okay, and $1.40 later had eaten a steaming bowl of noodles with Sichuan red peppers. At a convenience store I stepped in, got a sleeve of Oreos, and at the hotel made some green tea, ate the cookies, and collapsed, dead, at ten o’clock.
Sometime long after that, I thawed out.
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December 17, 2018 § 1 Comment
On Day 4 it made sense to take a break from the breakneck pace of touring, especially since my neck wasn’t broken and I hadn’t yet had a proper hotel breakfast, which is indisputably the best part of any trip to China. After that I figured I’d find a dry cleaner, as my short supply of underwear and t-shirts wasabout to go gamey, but like the fake Rolexes that were in such short supply, I was finding a similar dearth of Chinese laundries in, of all places, China.
Other items on my shopping list included dental floss, which didn’t appear to have been discovered yet, aside from those little bow-shaped flossers that you use once and toss. Though not averse to filth, I haven’t gotten to the point yet where I’m willing to retrieve discarded flossers. Yet. I don’t know if it’s related to dental floss, but public spitting is for sure still a thing despite all of the posters and public exhortations to QUIT SPITTING!
Dr. Google, Ph.D., has several articles on spitting in China, and they all boil down to this: People spit because they like to spit.
What the good doctor doesn’t go into much detail about is the Chinese government’s side of things, which is that spitting is a major no-no and people should stop doing it RIGHT NOW. The genesis of it seems to be an awareness that you can’t be considered the leader of the unfree world if everyone is always hawking a loogie whenever they get the urge.
It’s also an attempt to counter the unrestrained racism directed against Chinese tour groups, whose money everyone welcomes, but whose physical presence everyone holds in the lowest regard. As with Japanese tour groups from the 70’s and 80’s, the same old prejudices have been dug up and trotted out:
- They are obnoxious!
- Always taking PIKCHERZZZZZ!
- Can’t talk well English goodly!
- Big groups!
- No presheeyahshun of our KULCHURRRR!
- And for the Chinese … YUKKY SPITTING!
Of my countless, most excellent spitting experiences, by far the best was observing a young buck and his spicy date at the hot pot restaurant. Every couple of minutes he’d look up from his cell phone as she looked up from hers, exchange a word or two, take a bite of food, and then hock a big, greasy loogie into a trash bucket next to the table. The loogie had to clear about three feet of open air, and even though the mouth of the bucket was capacious, I couldn’t help but watch with impressed horror as it somersaulted in the air into the bin.
Then of course they went right back to their phones.
The amazing hotel breakfast buffet more than made up for the full-on lover’s screaming match that happened outside my door at 3:00 AM. They were both drunk and really hollered it up. It went on for a solid hour, and although I thought about calling the front desk to complain, after a few minutes I realized that it was an awesome free Chinese cursing and insult lesson, so I snuggled into my comforter and tried to parse the “you sorry bastard” and “you worthless bitch” that are common in every language.
But first a word about breakfast. My hotel was a cheap-o, yet it really put any other U.S. hotel breakfast to shame. There were about ten Chinese items to choose from, including fried eggs and fresh wonton soup made to order by the cook, and a similar number of Western items. So much variety, with vegetables, pickles, noodles, and tea, got you off to either a great start or a gut bomb that sent you back to bed for a couple of hours if you dared a second trip down the line.
Later, I headed out for People’s Park. It was around freezing and I was still in my hoodie. Although I’d brought a knee-length wool coat, I hadn’t bothered to start wearing it, and remained cold always. There is no heating in Sichuan because the temperature there is mostly warm and mild, and because people can’t afford it, and because rather than waste money on staying warm they nut up and stay ass-fucking-cold.
I know they were cold because, bundled up, they had their hands jammed between their thighs. I know it was cold because they looked cold. I know it was cold because it WAS cold. By the time I got to the park, a hot cup of tea was badly called for. People at the park were dancing, playing hacky-sack and badminton, but mostly they were hanging out smoking and drinking tea and being cold.
My eyes and throat had been punished by the air pollution for four days now. Finally frozen, I decided to have tea in the park. Chinese is hard but at least tea I could drink. First I watched how it was ordered. Then I ordered the top yellow shoot special tea #5, which came in a paper packet and wouldn’t settle to the bottom of the cup no matter how long I waited, which meant that every time I tried to take a sip I wound up with tea in my teeth.
I tried every manner of sucking the tea to strain out the leaves but since I don’t have a baleen the only thing that resulted was scalded lips.
Let’s get those ears checked
Amidst all this scalding and sucking, a handful of guys were working the area clacking what looked like giant barbecue tongs. Around their skulls they had belted doctor’s headlamps, and in the other, non-tong hand, they were holding a variety of long steel implements with feathery and other ends.
I observed a nearby table where people sat around cheerfully conversing as one of the party had an ear cleaner laboriously boring away into his head with the various long steel tools, any one of which could have easily “slipped” and gone straight out the other side. Apparently some folks liked to have a cup of tea, chat with friends, and get their skulls bored out.
After the guy finished, in a fit of hygiene, he wiped the implements on his pant leg and meandered over to me. “Clean your ears?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“I will make them very, very clean.”
“My ears are so dirty that you will be here all day. And break your tools.”
This excited him. “Can I have a look?”
“Sure,” I said.
He switched on his light and peered into my ear. “Those are the dirtiest ears I have ever seen.”
“I’m impressed considering your line of work.”
“We would need to use the irrigation tubes and the extra-extender with the double brush tips.”
“I’m going to pass today. I have a meeting to make at noon.”
He nodded. It was the best refusal I could have picked.
Moving on …
While I was sucking tea leaves into my teeth and scalding my face an old man came over and sat down. What am I saying? I’m an old man, too …
This fellow made a valiant stab at getting some free English lessons but each time he tried, my own Chinese parried, then thrust, then slashed with superior vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and interrogatories until he collapsed, bleeding, and spoke only in thickly Sichuan-flavored Mandarin that I could mostly misunderstand fairly well. We chatted for an hour, until the sixth cup was only the faintest suggestion of tea, then I left for the Sichuan Museum. Why there? It was free.
I was frozen from sitting outside drinking warm water, and most crucially, and for which I’d have paid up to $15, the museum was one of the only places in Chengdu that was heated. I thawed among the treasures of the porcelain gallery, which began with pieces made 5,000 years ago. It shamed every collection I’ve ever seen, containing pieces, pristine, from every period in Chinese history. Any pot they had would have been the centerpiece of the Smithsonian. Looking at so many pots, however beautiful, was completely draining, so I left for a lunch of fried and glazed chicken … nuggets.
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December 16, 2018 § 4 Comments
On Day 2 I was told to be ready at 6:00 AM for my tour but it was wholly fake. By 6:30 no one had appeared. Without a watch it had been dicey waking up on time; I’d requested a wake-up call, they’d said “Sure!” but none had ever come. Instead I’d had to roust myself every hour or so to check the time on the TV, which was a real challenge.
First, you had to turn it on, but it wasn’t a regular TV that switched on and showed the time somewhere on the screen. Instead, it had to boot up, which took about a minute. Then it switched to an automatic Lancome commercial, which lasted about 30 seconds. Then a complicated menu appeared and you had to select the right program, wait another few seconds, and then get the briefest of time signals in the right-hand corner.
By this time I’d be wide awake, and it took the TV another minute or so to power down. The easiest solution would have been to buy a watch, because what on earth could be easier to procure in China than a fake Rolex or twelve, but on Day 1 there had been no watches for sale anywhere. I’d kept an eagle eye out.
As I waited for the non-bus to take me to the non-tour the hotel staff gave me an early breakfast bag. Solo travel is so good, even when you’re waiting for Godot and munching on a cold orange shivering in the unheated lobby. A fellow traveler waiting for his taxi wondered why I was alone and assured me solo travel was bad, that traveling without a phone was inviting catastrophe, and that there was no reason to be in Chengdu for ten whole days “Its so boring! There’s nothing here!” he exclaimed. “You want a real travel destination? Try Chongching. It’s the best.”
“Where are you from?” I asked.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I liked Chengdu just fine and that I planned to do more day trips if the bus ever came, then wander around the city on public transport if it didn’t.
There were two women in the hotel lobby glued to their phones like the great majority of people I saw in Chengdu. The phone is the key to social control. It locks people onto the tiny screen and distracts them from minor details around them such as they haven’t seen the sun in the last ten years. There was absolute individuation of the populace courtesy of constant cell phone access, outdoor wi-fi everywhere, and full time TV internet programming. They, like we, are only fed snippets digested as instantaneously as a Twinkie, with no intellectual sustenance at all, then on to the next snippet, never remembering or understanding what went before.
It is the absence of “what went before” that has such profound implications for China and for the U.S., this ability to erase the past while also having the means to ensure that no one even tries to create one. More about that later …
The phone also provides a continual diet of shopping and celebrity “news,” so no one has to pay attention to open air concentration camps in Xinjiang or ask questions about what’s going on in the world outside. It occurred to me that most people don’t want or deserve freedom, but they do want and deserve a home, food, and medical care. There were no homeless people either.
Better never than late
The shuttle van arrived and the driver dashed in. “Hurry up!” he shouted, as if he’d been waiting on me since Thursday when it had been I, not he, who had been cooling my jets for the past hour.
I and ten others were crammed into a van with a max capacity of ten and we crossed Chengdu, adding a couple more members at various hotels. Every few minutes we’d pass a particularly inviting street food vendor, and a passenger would holler at the driver to stop at the breakfast cart. Everyone got a killer breakfast except me, as I was afraid to dash out and order something, afraid that by the time I decided, paid, and was served, they’d leave me behind.
It took an hour to reach the Du Fu Cottage, an immense compound and literary shrine in Chengdu erected in honor of the great Tang Dynasty poet and father of Chinese literature, Du Fu. Every major figure since Mao has visited it, and among people who care about this kind of thing, he is generally regarded as one of the greatest poets of all time, from any land.
Like the tour of the prior day there was no interactive anything, no modern interpretation, no connection to anything, simply a sprawling grounds for you to decipher if you could, which even the Chinese couldn’t, as they agglomerated onto our tour and listened with fascination as our 20-something guide recited for two solid hours, read poetry, gave background about Du Fu’s life, and occasionally glanced at my blank face to confirm I’d grasped little or nothing. It was the latter.
I made friends with an older woman who was also solo, a grandmother, and we took turns snapping each other’s photos. She was from somewhere I’d never heard of and spoke with such a heavy accent that I could understand little or nothing, mostly the latter, and only enough of the former to snap photos. Our guide, unlike the one from the day before, spoke clear, beautiful Mandarin, but alas it wasn’t the fault of the speaker that I understood so little.
My Starbucks or your small snacks?
Our next stop was a 1-hour break at the famous Chengdu alleys of Kuan Xiangzi and Zhai Xiangzi, massive and charming tourist traps. My friend had never had a Starbucks latte, so for $5 I treated her to the finest of U.S. culinary exports. She drank it with exceeding politeness and after we walked around a bit more in the cold she suggested we try a Sichuan specialty “small snack” restaurant.
It was a set menu for $5 and was some of the best food I’d ever eaten anywhere. The comparison was obvious. U.S. overpriced, unhealthy, high-cal milk with a dash of stale espresso vs. tiny, delicious, art-like food that I won’t soon forget. We next went to another compound, a kind of religious-historical series of buildings and artifacts commemorating and celebrating Liu Bei, his two warrior brothers, and the story of the Three Kingdoms.
One of the exhibits, a 2,000-year-old stele considered the finest example of calligraphy and poetry in all of China, was simply placed in a shed behind a glass, a thousand times more impressive than the Mona Lisa, and no crowd at all. The Wu Hou lecture of our guide was even more amazing, to judge by the people who glommed on. I understood perfectly the exhibit captions in English but my appreciation was otherwise limited to the guide’s cute beret, fur-lined hood, and clear pronunciation of words I couldn’t understand.
At one point, before we had to enter the Wu Hou museum and she was buying our tickets, she asked me, “How old are you?”
I was nonplussed as it was the first thing she had said to me all day and I didn’t understand her at first. “I don’t know,” I said.
She turned to the group and said sardonically, “He doesn’t know how old he is,” which got no end of laughter. “Are you sixty?” she asked.
I had recovered from the shock of being addressed, only to be re-assaulted with whether or not I was — gasp — sixty years old. “No, I’m 54.97.”
“Okay, so no senior discount for you.”
Back to the ranch
At the end of the tour we were released like baby salmon into the massive shopping arcade of Wu Hou, every food, every drink, every shopping item ever. My legs were numb from standing in the cold and I couldn’t feel my feet as I set out to find a subway, which I did after even more walking.
Like Kunming, Chengdu is quite walkable if you have a map, which is surprising for a city of 14M. But it is walkable because the development is all vertical; there is no suburban sprawl commensurate with the population, or at least not the endless horizontal sprawl created by single-family dwellings. Everything goes up.
Although I had seen two of the major attractions of Chengdu, three if you count the shopping alleys, I made a note to return to the Du Fu Cottage. And I wondered … “Why do we not enshrine our great writers? Do we even have any?”
I had reluctantly begun to start seeing the Chinese point of view that freedom is a luxury, whereas food, clothing, lodging, and health care are not. Most people only want things. The spiritual travails of freedom and education and enlightenment are for the few. The grubby, greedy, possessiveness for more THINGS is for everyone else.
This was reinforced again by taking a deeper dive into news and cell phone individuation and their ultimate target, fostering consumerism. It’s the same in the U.S., only here we have a more ignorant, unhealthy, chauvinistic cohort, and one that is far lazier.
One great unburdening effect of taking a stroll through so much real and ancient history is this: You are freed of the obligation to say something new, as you realize you have nothing say or think that the Chinese haven’t already written a thousand books about, a thousand years ago.
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