Sunday, April 29, 2007

A Hedonistic Beginning of the End

Approaching the final leg of this China venture/reality hiatus. Five days until I'm back in sunny Ottawa, and excited = me!

Had quite a bit of fun in the last few days, culminating in a hedonism overdose last night.

The girls at EF were happy to see me when I dragged my scrawny arse into the teachers' room on Thursday, and it made me really glad to see them as well. I'm very much going to miss their boundless enthusiasm and child-like brilliance of spirit. They really do shine, those girls. It's a wonder anyone has ever had a bad day at EF Tangshan. They went through my pictures with such calculation and slowness, often going back and making sure not to miss one. They asked questions about almost everything: "Where did you take this one? How did you get there? Who's that?" It was quite cute.

So I hung out with them for a while on Thursday, and Duncan and I had a beer later on. Possibly last time in Yi Liang You Meng, though might go there tonight with Alistair, if I have time.

On Friday I................... slept in! (remember to breathe, folks) I muddled about til later than I'd planned to, but it was all good: chatted with Angie and sorted out all 1,005 pictures from the trip. I have to say the Enhance feature of Apple iPhoto is like a magic button for good pictures. Hazy and quasi-blegh image? ENHANCE! I use it without shame or hesitation. I then went to the "German Restaurant" for my old usual of a salad and breakfast thinger. Last time there. As if they sensed that, they rounded my bill down. Will wonders never cease!

I faithfully delivered to Andrew from Joe the CD containing resources and such that couldn't be sent any other way. I did it Johnny Mneumonic style. (okay, I wish) Saw Lily and talked to her for a bit as she hadn't been in the day before. Spoke with Andrew about a certain something I can't be but cryptic about as it involves a surprise for a certain someone. (No, Pele... not you.) Andrew called his girlfriend, Lili, in Beijing to ask about it, and she just said that if I'm coming in she will go with me. Appreciative was I, and I don't think Lili said "It's no problem!" more times in a row than she did while I was there.

So yeah. Beijing. Best time I've had in Beijing yet, by the way.

I got in around 13:30, and tried to book a room at the Beijing City Center Hostel, the usual one I stay at since it's right across from the train station and very... well... central as it were. No go. No rooms at all. So I used their phone upstairs and rang up Leo Hostel, getting a tad panicked. They had dorm rooms still available, so I made a reservation there. It wasn't the best-case scenario, but it was better than sleeping in one of the pedestrian underpasses on Chang'an Dajie. Called Lili (and woke her up, as it turned out) and arranged to meet her in Sanlitun where she lives.

We went back to her place to drop my stuff off, and headed out. Can't say where, I'm afraid. Which is irritating because I have some great anecdotes. Grrr...

That trip took us about 3 hours, and was a rather Herculean enterprise, it turned out. So many little details. Lili kept laughing, saying "Most men aren't this exact or patient [with things of this nature]." Lili rocked - she was a great advisor and co-conspirator. I had originally planned to go into Beijing, do the business that needed doin' and head back to Tangshan, but Lili convinced me to stay over since we wouldn't have had time to wrangle up our little conspiracy otherwise. Accepting proved a most wise and excellent decision.

After [doing what needed to be done], she had to pick up some stuff from her office, so off we went. Quite a nice building, and area. Corporate apartments, mostly. That's what her office ended up being - an incredibly nice corporate apartment: 12th storey, two large bedrooms, cherrywood flooring, stainless steel kitchen, bathroom that looked like it was ordered from a Hilton brochure, laundry room (with a real washer and dryer!), oil paintings, digital everything (the lights even came on slowly, like something out of Blade Runner), and floor to ceiling windows looking out over the Chaoyang district. (I just realized I forgot to take pictures of it, but that will be amended, for reasons you shall soon hear, O Constant Reader.)

She made tea, I made coffee (with some of her boss' Bailey's tossed in for good measure) and we lounged on leather sofas. We talked for a good three or four hours. I didn't know Lili very well prior to yesterday beyond saying hi when she visited Tangshan; just idle chit-chat. We got on phenomenally, and I don't think that I've ever turned an acquaintance into a good friend so quickly, with the exception of Aaron. We could even commiserate about Texan management!! What are the odds?

She had gotten in touch with a friend of hers that afternoon while we were out, and it was decided we'd make a night out of it. She hadn't had a break in a while, and I more than felt up for it since my hostel and [That Which Shall Not Be Named] was all sorted out.

In the taxi to drop her laptop and work stuff off, Lili said if I wanted to stay in the corporate apartment while I was in Beijing, I was welcome to. Ummm... hells yes! So I will take pictures while I'm kicking back in the lap of someone else's luxury. Cancelled my hostel reservation this morning. Makes me wish I had a suit or something equally flash just to walk around that apartment. Somehow a Transformers t-shirt and jeans seemed out of place there.

Her friend worked at a pub called Frank's. Not quite sure where that ended up being, but I think it was near Suzie Wong's. Nice place, and packed to the gills with expats. Cricket was on, Sri Lanka vs Australia (Angela, you watched that, I assume?). There were a lot of Australians there. "Get the fuck outta here, ya wankah!" was the general outburst every time a Sri Lankan player or coach was interviewed.

Oh, Lili's friend (on the left). I'm not sure I've met anyone like Molly before. I kept trying to think of who she reminded me of, and I came up blank. I was expecting someone fairly composed and shy-ish, just based on Lili's quiet-and-content personality. Not so. She's like an experiment in concentrated Hell Yeah™, wit and sensuality. Kind of like a merger of Molly Millions from "Neuromancer" and Zenda from "Only Forward"... and Sid Vicious. I mean, no matter where she went, heads turned, people tripped, conversations turned to garbled mumbles. Molly looks like a Chinese Angelina Jolie, and she was raring to kick ass and wear grooves into dance-floors. She also embodies the word "in the scene". She knew everyone, everywhere - waitresses, DJs, bartenders, owners, patrons... it was quite the sight to see her move about like a lightning storm of social'ness.

Being with Lili and Molly was slightly uncomfortable at first, to be honest. I've never gotten rank glares of envious hate from guys before. It made me feel really small and out of my element.

Anyway, since we were positioned near the big projector screen, we moved outside... just in time for a blues band to start up. That simply fucking rocked. They played so many classics and paid highly-laudable tribute to the Blues Brothers. They were just awesome. Lili wasn't too familiar with the music, so I told her a bit about it (not that I know enough about Blues to fill a business card using a magic marker), and sold her on finding a DVD of Blues Brothers on Monday. Drank two pints (YES! PINTS!) of Kilkenny, two bottles of Corona, and got a free bottle of Tsingtao from Molly because we got charged on our bill for the cover even though she just walked us in.

Bar Blue was first on Molly's hit-list. We had a drink, and I chatted with Lili while Molly schmoozed like a presidential hopeful on speed and Red Bull. It didn't have enough energy for Molly, so we moved downstairs to China Doll, which I'd never been to. The feel of the place was a mixture of the Korova Milk Bar from "A Clockwork Orange" and some dimly-lit warehouse artiste industrial dance club. Odd and sometimes eye-raising images were being show on projector screens all over the main room, the dance floor was so strobe-tastic that it made you want to have an epileptic fit, the few booths that I saw looked like they'd been copied from the Mos Eisley Cantina (Star Wars), the seats were comfy sofas and low armchairs, the tabletops were (I think...) underlit in crimson and cerulean which, combined with the projectors, gave the place an amazing and "thick" atmosphere. It was a bit much for simple me, but really cool all the same. It made me wish Suzi, Jamie and Aaron had been there. They'd have loved it.

Around 03:30, Lili and I called it quits, being drunk and yawning in the midst of this Eden of lavish excesses. We wandered out, walking the short distance back to Lili's, she armed with ice-tea, me with water. Hydration I desperately needed at that point.

Woke up around 07:30, and couldn't get back to sleep. They'd started drilling in a downstairs apartment, or knocking down a wall, or were letting frenzied hyenas run rampant. One of those, I'm sure. Hung-over was I. I seriously never learn my lesson when it comes to beer. After eggs, pineapple and coffee, I was on my way back to rejoining the homo sapiens sapiens species. I flitted in and out of napping through the morning while Lili worked. (She has a workaholic Texan boss... I know two or three people who read this who can share a sympathetic smirk.)

Morning irritation: On my way out, I ran into a girl in the elevator. Without preamble, she asks where I'm from and says "Your girlfriend is sexy, man." (Turned out this girl - Chinese - lived in Hawaii for 16 years...) She'd seen Lili, who had to show me the elevator because they have two: one runs Mondays and Thursdays, and the other one the other days of the week. I love China!! "Uhhh... no, she's a friend of mine." "No way. She likes you. I can tell. It's girl-to-girl, man. I know this." Oooookay...

That elevator seemed to move damn slow, let me tell you. She persisted in walking with me down the street to the bus stop. Unfortunately, she was going in the same direction "to get some totally sexy short dress for a crazy party tonight" or something to that effect. Oi. Where's Angie to drive off weirdos when I need her? Apparently she was a professional TV hip-hop dancer, and was looking for work in Beijing. I didn't have anything to say to that, to be honest. However, through her I found out which bus would take me to the subway station, so I guess that settled the debt of crazy she'd incurred, not that I wanted to stick around and work it out. Oh, and when she took off, she went to offer me her cheek!! WTF? I looked at her and for a second or two thought 'Does she want me to slug her or something? Does she have a neck twitch?' Yikes. Thankfully that afore-mentioned dress beckoned ("totally, man") and off she went, but not before shouting in front of hordes of people: "Hey, I don't even know your name!" Three points: 1) She was barely up to code with Beijing regulation 273-B-8f (Regulation Concerning Minimal Clothing Requirements), 2) we were on a major street on Sanlitun, 3) enough people speak functional English to know what she said. To say that people stared at her and then me would be an understatement. I can only imagine what their assumptions about her and I must have been... A few guys standing near me eyed me, and unable to suppress coy smiles, turned away. Argh.

I'm happy to report no further incidents. Jesus H... what a zany 24 hours. On a lighter note, on the bus back to Tangshan, a kid in front of me kept staring at me with what I thought was a possibly-hostile or testing gaze. At first, I thought he was just being an insolent little bastard, but once the bus started moving, he peeked around the side of his chair (window seat, on the window side) and slid a candy along the window edge. "Gei ni," he whispered. ("Give you") Made me smile. He kept slipping candies down the window edge to me. Another conspirator. When he got off the bus, he just watched me. I said "zai jian!" and he smiled and waved. Just a funny incident, I thought.

Tonight, it's supper for the girls, then off to tai ji quan. Not going to do it (I don't think), but I want to give Xiang laoshi and Song laoshi the necklaces I bought for them on Wudang Shan and apologize for having been a lazy student. I may see if Lily can come with me to ensure nothing is lost in translation and that things are cool. I'm sure he'll be fine about it all - he's not exactly judgemental, is Xiang laoshi. I just want to make sure he knows how much I appreciate all his time, and Song laoshi's.

That's the end of the insanity for now. We'll see what Monday - Friday brings... I ought to have internet access at the corporate apartment (I love saying that), so I'll be about. Last things to see are: Temple of Heaven and the Great Wall. Oh, and a few hutong areas... before they're all destroyed to make room for ugly lodgings for Olympic sportspeople. So fucking sad what they're doing, and not just to the buildings. Those people have lived and worked in those areas for generations.

Enough ranting. I leave you with the picture on the left of the Dr. Seuss house (as I call it) near where I live here in Tangshan.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Hui lai le Tangshan!

Back in Tangshan. And I never thought I'd be happy about that, to be honest.

Must shower. Sleep. Laundry. Go into work. Beer. See how people are doing. Beer. Organize supper for my former assistants. Sleep. Etc.

I'm tired, but elated. Glad to be back, and to have had that whole traveling experience. Now to just relax for a wee bit. Well, maybe. Still have to separate all the stuff I've bought so I don't give the wrong things to the wrong people, pack, and get the Beijing stuff rolling.

Okay, that's that. It was a great trip: nothing stolen though I lost my blind-man sunglasses (stupid train), saw monks break things with their foreheads, witnessed enough spitting to last a lifetime with surplus, smelled almost every smell there is to be smelt, contracted no diseases or anything despite a few close calls with harpies and some suspect food (ummm... those two things being unrelated), saw mountain-top sunrises, endangered species, 1800-year-old clay figures in trenches, met lots of strange and cool people, was involved in a police car chase, body-checked (and was body-checked by) old women, and covered (I think) over 8,000 km and saw 13 provinces. It's all good. More pictures coming soon now that I'm back at my computer.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"I'm Tired and I Want to Go to Bed"


(That's a song, right? Or a sing-along thingy?)

Anyway. I'm tired. I have a headache, I've seen my last real traveling sight, and it was a doozy: Shaolin Si. Go go crazy breaking-steel-bars-with-forehead monks. I even saw one ~17-year-old monk throw a sewing needle through half an inch of glass and break a balloon on the other side... without shattering the entire sheet of glass. It just poked a hole through it, he hurled it with such focus. There were three other deep chips that marked his previous attempts. Well, warm-ups. Damn impressive.

Aaron would have been jealous. I saw Frog Gong Fu!! That's right... instead of dragon style, or snake style, or crane style... frog style! Crazy flippy monk. Also saw monkey and... hmmm... I think tiger style. Monkey style looked radically unpredictable. They did some "internal" martial arts (which is what they were doing prior to steel breaking and needle-breaking-glass - focusing qi using very tai ji quan-esque movements and such) and lots of "external" Shaolin quan styles. Very cool.

A lot of the buildings and areas were nice, also, and leaving around 16:30, we saw a bunch of students training, so I took some pictures. They go through a lot those kids.

So this is it, the end of the line. 8 days to go!!! I'm back in Tangshan tomorrow afternoon from Tianjin. I can't wait. I'm going to sleep for 16 hours or something. As long as I possibly can. Then I'm going to get some of my old haunt's take-out food, and watch a DVD. And use my own computer to organize all these pictures. And sleep. Did I say that? Well I'm going to sleep twice. In a row.

... but I have to pack. I hate packing. I'm such a procrastinator. Though this time I am definitely motivated. I also need to go into Beijing to get a few final projects under way. I may put the money out for a room at a hostel just so I can take in one suitcase first, then bring the second and third when I leave Tangshan on Sunday. Carrying the whole mass is a serious pain-in-the-ass and then some. And I feel like a woman having packed and brought as much as I have. Lesson learned.

Anyway, I've had a great trip, but it's time to be heading home. I'm travel'd out, and just plain worn out - body and mind. I'm so very excited to be seeing many of you soon. 8 DAYS!! Okay, I'm off. Bus station ho!

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Aesthetic of Ugly

Okay, I'm officially "beauty'd out". No more.

This may seem like an odd thing to say, but seriously... I'm sick of the nice China, the tourist China, the mainline China. Bring on the grit.

I saw 4 gardens the other day and by the time I got to the nicest, the Humble Administrator's Garden (HAG), I was de-sensitized to it. The only enjoyment I got from it was taking pictures I thought my mom would like. (Suzhou is garden city, by the way... there are like 10 of them here, and tonnes of waterways.)

To this purpose, I've begun to more actively seek out the aesthetic of ugly, as I'm calling it.

Now I'm starting to wander the back alleys and residential lanes, looking at the real China. It's far more interesting, and strangely the people don't stare or what-have-you. They just go about their lives as I go about mine, not really caring that I'm there. The real China seems to exist in between the busy streets and blazing lights, in these lanes and quiet alleys. Ragged laundry hangs above the broken pavement and gravel; children play in the rubble that used to be a part of their home or that of their neighbours; old men sit on small stools by doorways quietly chatting, bent and heavily wrinkled with age; tiny old women shuffle along with the aid of a cane or with hands behind their stooped backs, blinking and squinting as they very slowly meander along; whip-thin workers share smokes, sitting on brick and beam rubble, broken walls, or squatting in the streets in semi-circles; women yell out to people (I assume family members) while they cook in dark rooms or do laundry by hand, rubbing clothes against the stone stairs leading down to small canals or ponds. It just feels authentic.

I'm sick of the glitz-and-glamour China that's steamrolling (or trying to) into modernity. China is really cheating itself, I think, and like a maddened leper is losing parts of itself as it bull-rushes heedlessly forward.

Anyhoo... I indulged in a bit of the old-school China today, in Tongli. It's not exactly ugly, but it has that entropic beauty going for it. It's not "look at how well maintained we can keep things". It just is.

I got there around 13:00 or so, and ended up going the wrong way from the bus station. As it was, I went the right way if one considers the importance of the juxtaposition in seeing what they're doing to Tongli and not just heading into the old district. God I was scared. I mean, here I was in a town that is widely known as being an old, historical water town... and all that I saw initially was suburb development and matching mass-constructed plazas and shopping areas. It was something that many people would have seen and been impressed by, but it scared the shit out of me. I almost turned back to return to Suzhou I was so stunned, my expectations so horribly dashed by the facade of modern shit they were throwing up.

(As it turns out, had I gone right out of the bus station instead of left... in about 20 steps I'd have seen the gate for the old district and been spared the horror.)

However, I decided to carry on and just explore. I figured I was out of Suzhou, don't worry, don't sweat it, just look around. Within 20 minutes of following a side street built exactly like all the others, I noticed something odd. Where there was brand new white paint on three-storey buildings, suddenly across a canal I was seeing ramshackle low houses... mossy, cracked stone and dirty whitewash and underlying brick where it had worn away. Huzzah! Decrepitude!

I moved very quickly to get over there. Crossing the main bridge over, I was surrounded by foreigners, who, from the next three hours' experience, didn't stray too far from that bridge as I never saw them around afterwards. I sped past them, ignored the pedicab drivers (and actually elbowed one who followed me, shoving a map in my face and protesting that he could show me it all) and moved into the actual area I'd been wanting to see.

It was beautifully wretched. The whole placed seemed to be slowly sinking back to Nature - by way of water, encroaching vegetation and the slow mastication of implacable Time. GLEE!

I wandered and wandered. A guard even waved me away from an area saying it was ugly. I asked "Can I still walk down there?" He shrugged and replied that I could. It wasn't the ugliness that turned me back, but that the path disintegrated and any chance of moving on was blocked 50 meters in.

Walking around the main area was nice, and as I said... most tourists stuck to the canal walkways. I criss-crossed the entire place, seeing all that I could of the actual house laneways and people living there. Tongli and Suzhou actually have a kind of Mediterranean look about them (at least I think so).

(Oh and though I didn't pay for a ticket to go in, there's a Museum of Sexual History ("Antiques" was the word they used...) in Tongli. I thought that odd. Should have paid the 20 kuai, though I got some weird looks from the two ladies who were selling tickets. I must have had one of my crooked smiles goin' on or something.)

It was just so nice. It felt like being 500 km away from Suzhou as opposed to simply 30 km. Same architecture and style, but it just had a completely unsullied vibe. Well... away from the suburb development area, anyway. (makes me shudder to think of that.)

No real anecdotes from the day. Only one nutter calligrapher. Man, he was crazy. He reminded me of one of the inventors in the first or second chapter of Ninjai. (Aaron knows what I'm talkin' 'bout.) He kept going on about how I shouldn't be going to Suzhou, regardless of having a room booked there. "Wu Jiang! Ni yinggai qu Wu Jiang!" blah blah. 1 kuai to get there, blah blah. Very short, save distance, etc. Guy was totally eccentric that people were stopping to watch him race around chatting to me while gesticulating wildly.

Anyway, ended up finally getting something for my dad, and grabbed something for Angie. It was a great tour, and a very pleasant place to lurk around in. Now Tongli felt like a Chinese Venice: tonnes of waterways and canals, and most only 7 or 8 meters across. Many many bridges - large, small, new, old. Tonnes of green, and plenty of character. Very character-infused, actually.

It was a very satisfying day. Tomorrow, it's off to Tiger Hill, and maybe one more garden if I can stand it. If not, I will re-roam some of the side streets I found today and yesterday. Just need to wrap the night up with a little surprise...

Friday, April 20, 2007

Wayward Mind - Marketing Consultant

Okay, weird evening/night.

I arrived fine in Suzhou and it's a fairly nice city, though it seems to be struggling to decide whether or not it wants to remain old-school or give way to Chinese "progress" and modernity.

I checked in at the hostel, fairly centrally located, and then wandered a bit. I hit an internet bar since these two computers here were occupied. Got in touch with Nicola here in Suzhou, and it looks like we'll work out a way to get together tomorrow afternoon (just got an email back from her).

Then, having only eaten crackers this morning, I went in search of inexpensive food. It wasn't happening. I hit Guan Qian Lu, what is supposed to be a nice snack/market area, and it's just inflated prices. I'm really starting to get sick of China. Or maybe I'm just a fucking moron visiting the places I've been choosing to visit. Ugh. I made do with some sort of bun cut in half and stuffed with mystery meat for 5 yuan while I searched. Walked past a bar I thought might be alright... til I looked inside and there was a metal detector. Metal detectors in clubs in China - not a good or healthy sign.

So I carried on, and wound back the way I'd come, though didn't go down the side alley I'd wound north on. (I almost wish I'd done a "side alley" tour of China - if only my Chinese was better.) Saw a bar/restaurant with really inviting seats, and decided what the hell. Went in and I was the only one.

Here's where the title of this post becomes relevant. The owner started asking me about regulation height and throwing distance for a dart board. I had no clue, but I seemed to recall from Nick talking about his that it's 1.6 meters high, and 2.4 meters throwing distance. I haven't looked it up, because that's what I said and I'm fairly certain I'm wrong. No use fudging the truth here.

Ended up talking to the guy for a bit. He invited me to try the dart board, saying he'd give me a free beer if I scored over 50. I said fuck it and gave it a whirl. Got 86, so a free Corona came my way. After I had a fantastic if somewhat pricey burger ("That's one tasty burger!"), he sat down with me and we chatted. He said he wanted a few suggestions for his restaurant.

I mean, this place is Western and pretty upscale. I said, "Alright, give me some paper, a pen and your menu." Off we went. Here's what we covered: specials and nights-of-the-week specials (2-for-1s, half-priced this if you buy that), various festivals that he could have special nights for (New Year's Eve, Halloween, St. Patty's Day, etc.), a promo with the dart board involving buy a beer and take a shot at the board to win a free second bottle, music he could buy to maintain the atmosphere (Al Hurt, Pete Fountain, B.B. King, etc.), how to re-vamp his menu to make it more options-friendly, a script for the dart board promo, a training script for his new staff, placement of signage (he wanted to block the windows, I suggested a sidewalk blackboard placard). Tonnes of stuff.

Just crazy. He just kept pumping me with Tiger draft beer, pint after pint, and Corona. I think I paid for the burger and one Corona, and got 2 free Coronas and 4 pints of Tiger out of it. By 10pm, he was deferring to me with everything, as customers were coming in! It was quite funny. A British patron thought I was the owner and was asking me all kinds of questions about where expats hang out in Suzhou. (which I will come to, by the way, but you might not like it........)

It was awesome. I went through everything with him. He wrote it all down, and the look on his face... he was so happy. I mean ecstatic. He thought it was fantastic. All I did was think of Canadian pubs and introduce to him the idea of using specials and deals on nights when he wasn't regularly busy to up the clientelle on those nights. Everything from "buy a Blue Marlin Favorite and choose an appetizer for half price" to "get a free glass of red wine with any 'From the Grill' meal" on Fridays.

It felt awesome to be working - so to speak - again, even if it was totally amateur and on-the-fly. So many marketing things we take for granted, but here they do nothing of the sort. They've heard of "happy hour" but really don't get it. Other than that, they have no kind of any promotions or advertizements. He asked how he could advertize special dates (St. Patty's day, for example) and I said "Make flyers and drop them off at hostels and cheap hotels 2 weeks in advance of the day". He started jumping up and down and wiped his brow. He was so happy he was sweating.

Quite the night. So apparently I'll do a night's worth of marketing consulting for about 3 litres of beer. Think I can put that on my resume? I told him I'd take a few pictures of the Royal Oak and other places in Ottawa to show him how they do it in the West. He said to come back tomorrow (ummm... which is now today) and he'd give me more free beer. May do that since Nicola is coming down this way.

And... on to the rated R portion of this post.

**Disclaimer: lewd anecdotes/descriptions following...**

Coming back, my mind was blown. The hostel where I'm at is on a lane off what I thought was a quaint and quiet market street. Ummm... not so. It must have turned into bar/club central by around 10pm. It was worse than Beijing's Houhai district "lady bar" hawkers. Wow. Now my only concern is whether or not it's possible for my arm to contract a STI from a skanky Chinese girl's chest. They assaulted me. I'd have warded them off if raising my arms wouldn't have put me in contact with worse things than their harpy arms and chest-bucking. I was seriously breast/chest-bucked by a 20-something, who then said if I didn't want to go into the bar, we could go shopping then go for a massage... What - the - fuck?! There were women outside of every bar, and there was a bar every third business. And they attacked - this was no passive advertizing. I can see the marks from where one woman grabbed my arm and tried to pull me inside some "pub". Jesus. I guess I'm just really naive. So much for being on a nice, simple little street. Good thing I didn't have too far to go, and the street itself, conjested though it was, provided some sanctuary. I guess they're afraid of bright lights, like Morlocks. (Started and finished "The Time Machine" today on the train.) It was a "From Dusk til Dawn" experience.

And now I know where all the old, fat expats are: on Shi Qian Lu, with girls sitting on their laps/overlapping bellies. I mean these old men had folding folds. I thought they were levitating - I couldn't see what they were sitting on and they had so much... excess... that they couldn't sit up straight. Gah. Go go power-walking. Thankfully those wenches couldn't stray far from their sources of power, like Tie-Fighters and the Death Star. (Sorry, had to try to geekify this somewhat to dull the weirdness of it.)

So it was a surreal night: impromptu marketing consultant for a posh Western restaurant then an American Gladiators-esque skank-'stacle course. I think I'm safe here in the hostel. They seem to only gravitate to neon, dim lighting and stale cigarette smoke.

I really need to sleep. As I said, my mind is a little thrown by that whole experience. I've never seen anything like it, and I never expected to on this cute little street in this city of all places. Seeing a handful of calm, pleasant gardens and canals tomorrow sounds like a great way to eliminate the foulness of this evening.

Sorry if most of this post came across as "wow, I didn't need to read that" but hey... it was my day. Oh, and my heavy back-pack fell on someone on the train. That was funny. My folding metal stool nailed him right in the head. Mmmwahahaha!! Oh man. Cheap laughs.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Picture's Worth 7 Hours' Delay

(Image courtesy of Steve and Izzy, sent from Kunming. They're Engrish/whacky Chinese sign enthusiasts, also.)

Okay, it was bound to happen. I missed my 14:50 train to Hangzhou by 1m30s, if that. Blast. Got the ticket exchanged for a train tonight at 21:50... but... that will put me into Hangzhou for 04:00. Ummm... ouch? Yee-up. Hard seat, no less, not a sleeper. At least I'll get into the hostel for around 05:00 and just crash out in their lounge. I'm pretty sure they'll let me. Then I'll check in, have breakfast, and meet up with Nick someplace.

What happened? Well, after an early lunch at a Korean restaurant with Joe and Rudy, Rudy and I hit the road to check out Jiang Xin Yu, a little island in the middle of the Yellow River. It was quite nice, but we missed the ferry we wanted to take... just because we went a little overboard with picture taking and weren't paying as much attention to the time as we ought to have been. It was a taxi race through the city after that, then a pedicab... ummm... trundle (god, that guy was slow).

That really sucks. I was looking forward to a beer with Nick tonight. Guess it will have to wait til tomorrow night, after we check out West Lake and Ling Yin Temple. I just hope I'm not a wreck, and able to sleep a bit on the train. If not... it's gonna be a rough day tomorrow. Well... so it goes.

Will write more soon. I've got pictures of Joe and Rudy (some good pictures of Rudy in Jiang Xin Islet), and I'll get some of Nick and Katy.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Day 27 - Wenzhou

Nothing really to talk about. Just wasting 45 minutes til I meet up with Joe and Rudy here in Wenzhou.

The train took 29 hours to get from Guangzhou to Wenzhou, though it didn't seem overly long. I got on at 19:00 on the 16th, and was passed out by 20:30 or so. Woke up the next morning and just sort of lounged, intermittently dozing for most of the day. Had my Train Survival Kit (TSK): instant noodles, apples, bananas, peanuts, water. It was all good. Plus (!!) Linda packed me a lunch/supper. It was awesome: peanut-butter sandwich, two small tomatoes, slice of blueberry pie, a kitkat bar, a hunk o' cheese (mmm... cheese) and a dessert cake thing. It was like the uber grade 4 lunch. All the other 'kids' were jealous, having to eat noodles while I feasted like a primary school king.

As per usual, I chatted with a few people, but their putonghua is totally different from what I'm used to so they had to repeat themselves multiple times, as did I. It sounds almost like what eubonics does to English - a lot of fast-talk, slippery pronounciation: shi is ssi and almost indistinguishable from similar words - 10 sounds like 4, 'am' sounds like 'dead', etc. Anyhoo... I'm moving far enough north now that I should be out of that dialect region.

Amazes me a bit that I was on the south coast of China two nights ago (35-degree weather), and within 20 hours by land am on the east coast, near the East China Sea (today about 16 degrees). Every trip from here on out will be less than 13 hours, with most being 3-7 hours. I already have my tickets for Hangzhou for today, and Suzhou from Hangzhou on the 20th. Didn't get my ticket from Suzhou to Nanjing because I'm still not sure if I can take a boat trek up to Wuxi and farther on to Nanjing. Would love to take the Grand Canal to make that trip vs hopping another train. Regardless, I'll hang out with Nicola in Suzhou (met her in Guilin, she works in Suzhou) and she can show me around a bit, if she has time. Otherwise, she owes me noodles.

I get really excited now thinking about getting back to Angie and being back in Canada. Less than three weeks! 16 days, actually. Woooo! I still have lots of gifts for people to pick up, though. I may have to ditch half my clothes to get it all back. ;)

That reminds me: if anyone wants anything from le Chine, fire me an email. I'm not getting anything big for anyone [else] after this point, but calligraphy prints and little odds and ends (statuettes, bracelets, etc.) are easily done. People I've already bought for: Angie (oodles), Suzi, Aaron, Mom (also oodles), Angela/Ben, Kieran, Emma, Nanna. Dee, a lot of pictures have been taken with you in mind, and hopefully will come out okay in large prints. Got in mind or have wish-lists from: Jamie, Dad (impossible to buy for, it seems), Roger, Kelly, Scott, Sarah. (Andy, I'm not bringing you a Chinese masseuse or wushu halberd, sorry.)

So yeah... that's about it. Looking forward to having brunch/lunch with Joe and Rudy, and heading on to Hangzhou to see Nick and Katy. I'm curious how Nick's doing in Hangzhou, actually. Seems like a nice city, though last I heard the EF school(s) there were a bit... laisse-faire. Hopefully he and I (and Katy if she's not working) will have a chance to take a tour of West Lake and Ling Yin (sp?) temple, one of China's 10 oldest temples, built before the 4th Century.

Okay, I'm off. Will write from Hangzhou or, more likely, from Suzhou.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Day 24 - Zhuhai

I'm here in Zhuhai. It's a bit of a pit-stop, and an absolutely fantastic one at that. It's great to see Linda and John again, after 6 or so years of not having done so. Also fun to meet Audrey. Hilarious to watch her and John verbally abuse one another to no end. It's like watching and listening to little kids fight and argue.

Had no problems arriving in Guangzhou, though I couldn't really form much of an impression of the place. It was a city in China. Nothing special or notable, other than the fact that the road system is reminiscent of Montreal: all above the city on Jettson-ish highways (literal highways, I suppose). The only issue I encountered was having to get an IC phone card there, and realizing I had the wrong number for Linda. So I had to trek about for 20 minutes looking for an internet cafe to get the right number(s) from her email. Finally found one, after asking about five different people and fast-marching with 20 kg of pack in 30-degree weather. (pollution in Guangzhou is horrible) Got the right number and high-tailed it back to the bus station, near the train station.

That was the nicest bus I've ever been on, anywhere. Faux leather seats, seat-belts (!!!), lots of room, flat-screen TVs, AC, and only 4 people on it going to Zhuhai. After the three kilometer internet bar march, I just konked-out for a bit. Once in Zhuhai, I borrowed the cellphone from the guy next to me. Never underestimate a foreigner's ability to shock-and-awe - he was too bambuzzled to say no. Got it all sorted out with Linda and saw her 10 minutes later.

She and John are doing well, and as I said, it's been great to see them and spend time with them, though their incredible hospitality has me a little overwhelmed. I'm a horrible guest, I suppose. I always feel in the way or like I'm putting people out of their way.

Linda and I had a beer in a market just around from the bus station, then headed back to the campus here. I put my stuff across the way in one of the dorms (which was quite spacious even if the beds were made from granite). Then she gave me a tour of the campus itself. Just beautiful here. Very green, and lots of fronds and palm trees this far south. Very green and well-taken-care-of is Zhuhai. Quite beautiful, and far larger than I had expected.

As we went around, tonnes of students were staring. There are only three foreigners here at the school: Linda, John and Chuck. Chuck's in his 70s, so the students weren't used to seeing a foreigner about their age. I got more than my fair share of stares and I felt a little eye-humped. We then went for supper at a great restaurant just here on campus, in a market area. John and I complained about the Canadian consolates's/embassies' unfailing ineptitudes (at least here in China), and we had quite a few beers.

Slept rather well, and today woke up early to get Audrey to the bus station. We went for dim sum (the name for which here I can't remember) and it was great. John headed back home, and Linda and I did some touring around. Mostly the Haibin park and the seaside. I got to climb a tree to help out a Chinese father-and-son duo who'd gotten a toy stuck in a high branch, and then their frisbee as well trying to get the first thing down. I miss tree climbing.

It being hot, I took my shirt off as we walked through the park towards the sea shore. Talk about feeling eye-humped. I felt like some mutant on display. However, I decided not to give a rat's ass since this is the vacation portion of my trip. So I endured the stares and comments they thought I couldn't understand. Prior to that exhibitionism, Linda took a picture of me sitting on a goat statue (there was an area that had all the Chinese animals) and two girls bashfully asked if they could have their pictures taken with me. That's happened all over, and not just teenagers but a lot of elderly people, too: Summer Palace, Bishu Shanzhuang in Chengde, Datong, Chengdu, Lijiang River tour... silly folk.

Then we just came back here, and have been relaxing since. Lovely day out, if a bit humid and hot (~34 with humidity). Going to upload pictures here in a few minutes, so there will be about 100 or so new pictures - ones taken since I left Beijing on the 23rd right up to and including today.

On-the-go edit: 150 or so new pictures up on Flickr. If you have a good connection, use this slideshow link. If you don't, you can check out the China Sojourn set or just go to my main Flickr page. Lots of goodies in there: Xi'an, Hua Shan, people met, pandas, Leshan, lots of fun new signs from all over China, markets, blah blah blah.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Photo Update

Nineteen new pictures up, courtesy of having copied Felix's photos over the last 3 days. I'll have mine up from all parts of the trip in a few weeks, when I get back to Tangshan. (Though how anyone will look through 1200 photos, I have no idea - guess I'll have to pick and choose err sumfin'.)

Talk to you all soon!

(Andy, never fret: I still receive comments via email, so I can track your peanut-gallery'itry*.)

* peanut-gallery'itry copyright Wayward Mind, 2007

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Day 20 - Yangshuo

Land of heaven.

I love this place. Yangshuo is where good boys and girls go when they're reincarnated. I'd upload a picture or two if it wasn't an atrocious pain in the ass. Just google (images) "yangshuo". I need say no more.

Anecdote of the day: I was roaming about, looking for various things for people (gifts almost covered), and was thinking about tai ji quan clothes. In a used-bookstore, I spoke with the owner and he recommended I speak with the master at the Yangshuo Tai Ji Center, pictures of which were behind the counter. I thought "Alright, I'll do that tomorrow." Back at the hostel, gift-sated, jian bing (a wrap that is godlike in deliciousness'ess) in hand, I got to chatting with the owner of this place.

Out of the blue, I asked if she knew where I might be able to find tai ji quan clothes. She goes "Yeah, my uncle does tai ji quan here." (You can see where this is going...) She calls him up, has a discussion with him, and he rings her when he got to the bridge. Met him just 50 meters away, and pulled up short. I'll be damned if it wasn't the man from the pictures in the bookstore. I just shook my head, smiled, greeted him and introduced myself. Off we went on his motorcycle, through the sunset markets of Yangshuo (words just can't describe, I'm sorry).

We arrived at this little retreat, very quiet and apart from the West Street while only being 100 meters removed from it. Took a look around, told him I'd seen his picture in the bookstore and we went into a little office with dao's, jian's and all sorts of things, including 'uniforms'. For 200 kuai, I got a silk shirt and pants. Silk is simply a wonderful thing. I'm a silk neophyte - never had anything silk-made before. A seamstress in Tangshan told me it would cost me 1000 yuan for a silk outfit for tai ji quan. Boo-ya.

Just made my day, which, given where I am and how it was spent, was no mean feat. Love those kinds of "it's a small China" experiences. Just fantastic.

Going to rent scooters and jet around the area (look out, pedestrians...) and then rent mountain bikes and continue our tour of the countryside. Tomorrow will be a nice day, followed by a return to Guilin. I may yet do the Long Ji terrace tour the day after tomorrow, but it will depend on when it returns as my train to Guangzhou is at 22:00.

I'm very much looking forward to this next part of the trip: visits and taking it easy. Not going touristy at all, and money will be saved en-masse (which is needed given my horrendous excesses here and in Guilin over the last 3 days).

A little more than half done my tour-de-force, and it will feel fantastic to begin my slow return north, knowing that it is bringing me closer to coming back to Canada and Angie (and many others). It'll be one helluva summer, I can feel it.

One last note: Felix and I supped on snake soup the other night, and this morning I picked up the triple-CD music pack from the restaurant we ate at. I was talking to the manager when we ate there, and was enquiring about the music playing as it was all very familiar. She sold it to me for a pittance, so back I come with Chinese pop music and a bit of auditory nostalgia.

Now, time for another Sol or other brew, and hanging out with the tour group of Brits who arrived today. Met three of them (Astin, Ruppert and something else) and they're nice folks. Okay, I'm off.

(By the way, I can't go to this blog itself, only post. So I can't comment on comments. Sorry, Andy. ;) )

Monday, April 09, 2007

Cong Guilin, ni hao

Whew. Made it.

Don't have the will or energy to write much tonight. I will say this: April 8th is not April 9th (more on this later), contortionists are nuts but highly admirable, Wudang Shan is awesome-wicked but the summit is a small-space tourist sink-hole, karst landscapes are simply breath-taking, old Chinese women with fewer teeth than I have fingers are hard to understand but very enthusiastic in conversation, the fastest way to a Chinese man's heart is with the words "Wo gei ni wu-shi kuai... xian zi, ting wo." (I'll give you 50 yuan... now listen to me.)

Will write more when I have a spare moment - my mind's a bit scattered and I feel as though I haven't really had a chance to breathe in the last 10 days, since Chengdu. Coffee and sleep beckons... in that order. (Immunity to caffeine has its perks... har har)

Friday, April 06, 2007

Day 15 - Wuhan

I think it's day 15, anyway. Me can't keep track.

So all done the Yangzi River cruise, and Three Gorges Dam tour. The dam was impressive... for a massive wall of concrete. Talk about an enormous project. They're saying it's the second largest undertaking in China, the first having been the Great Wall. Not sure about that, but it is neat. Massive 5-stage lock system for vessels 150 meters long. Regardless, it was a really nice day, weather-wise, so it was good to be out and about.

No problem with the bus from Yichang to Wuhan. Stayed in a somewhat meh hostel here. By night, Wuhan is beautiful. By day... well, it's just a Chinese city. I got my hair cut in a rather iffy part of town, while a few people - mystified - watched the woman shave my head. The Yellow Crane Tower was nice, and I strolled along what is said to be the longest pedestrian market street in China. Whatevah. They drive more slowly here than in any other place in China that I've seen. Now that's a claim to fame.

I've taken 420 pictures so far, with room for another 680, approx. Shouldn't have any issues for space, it looks like, which is a relief. In two hours, I head for Wudang Shan (well, Liu Li Ping... 30 km from Wudang Shan). I'll stay overnight at some little hotel in Wudang Shan town then hike up in the morning. It's only 1600 meters, and is said to take 8 hours to get up. I'll bus down to save time. Hopefully that's without incident... I'm getting a feeling like this could be a real hassle.

Anyway... I'll write from Guilin in two days. So long for now! Gotta go get my train ticket for Guilin.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Day 13 - Yangzi River

Howdy, all.

Okay, got to feeling a whole lot better, but didn't accomplish tonnes more in Chengdu other than seeing Le Shan Dafo (Great Buddha).

Started a Yangzi River cruise 3 days ago, from Chongqing. End point is Maoping, then tour of the Three Gorges Dam itself, then on to Wuhan for a day or 2. From there... I've had to adjust my plans given I clearly can't read map distances. I'll head NW and check out Wudang Shan, then go back to Wuhan and from there go SW to Guilin.

So far, so great. All is rockin', and the sights seen on this cruise have been good. Saw something Suzi, Jamie and Aaron would have loved: a temple dedicated to Hell. Crazy wax-work and clay depictions of really really nasty tortures, and lots of demon and spirit statues and iconography. Really cool. Like a door that is a demon's open mouth and buddhas and such holding skulls, or depicting devils and demons impaling mortals, etc. Loved it.

Went on a side-tour of the Three Gorges today, including a smaller mini-tour through a more narrow area. Saw a Ba coffin (wicked!) and beautiful scenery. Pretty amazing out here on the water. Well... I'm not on the water now. I'm land-side with a Chinese Canadian I've met. We're just catching up on internety thingies before catching a show, then back to the boat around 11pm.

So yeah... all is well. Up to around 300 pictures taken, with 700 more left on my 1gb card. I will be more liberal, though I still have... 11 more major stops. I've added Wenzhou and Hangzhou to the list, having emailed Joe (my former DoS) and Nick (former teacher). I'll be visiting them on my way up. It'll be fun to see Rudy. I have to say I've missed her wackiness around the Tangshan school. I just hope she doesn't cry again, though...

Okay, I'm off. Have fun, all, and I'll be seeing you in 1 month! (exactly 1 month)