Friday, July 21, 2006

Getting out of Chinaland and into China

Note: Sorry for the absurdly long post. A lot happened, and I had a lot of travel time, so it added up.

This may not be the safest thing I have ever typed, but I am getting, for the most part, comfortable with the country. I am in the hard seat section of the train, which is where everyone goes. I feel like I am being far too extravagant getting out my computer in the middle of a group that probably is not carrying Apple computers.
That said, I have a lot to write, its the middle of the day, and I have about eleven hours ahead of me. I am not especially fond of the idea of doing nothing for the next eight hours, so out comes the computer. The population in here is, well mixed. Some of these people clearly don't have much, and its very different than the veritable college dorm of the soft sleepers to Guilin.
So its odd, but the most exciting and interesting thing I have done in China so far - a taxi ride. I was in Lijiang and wanted to go to Chengdu, the original plan was a bus to a town call Panzhihua and then a train to Chengdu. However, when I got off at the bus station a taxi driver approached me.
He had the typical look of a Chinese taxi driver. His teeth were yellow and crooked. His skin tanned like leather. To further complete the picture, he was giving me a mildly sketchy offer.

PTI: There are a lot of police on this train, they have past me three times. The first time the guy checked my ticket, yet did not check any other person on the train. The second time, the person asked me where I was going, and no one else on the train. The third time the guy just stared at me as he went by. This is in counter to the people who will not make consistent eye contact, this is a bit out of the ordinary for China, most people smile broadly (this lack of eye contact started before I brought out my computer).

So the sketchy offer was this: "do you want to go to the train station?"
I replied "Uhh, yes, but Lijiang does not have a train station, I was going to go to Panzhihua and then take a..."
"I know I know, I can take you to the Panzhihua station.."
"Oh, well I want to get there at this time," and I pointed out my guide book where I had written the departing times for the trains from Chengdu.
"Yeah I know, I know, I can get you there. 150 yuan."
"How much is the price from that bus station?"
"I think its like 60 some."
Although 60 or some, I knew the bus would not get to the station in time. I had been lazy and gotten up later than I planned. More to the point, I was tired of rushing around and decided that if I missed my train, whatever, I would just relax at Panzhihua. That said, after reading a bit about it last night, Panzhihua did not seem all that appetizing.
Also I have gotten, I would like to think, somewhat decent at telling who to trust in China, so I signed up.
I was relieved to find out that a thirty-some year old woman was coming along. Furthermore, she was going to Chengdu, so she could help me get tickets onto the train.
First thing of note, they speak almost entirely in their local dialect (Sichuanese), but more importantly, they spoke that dialect to me. They did so with the sureness of someone who was explaining a very simple task that they had mastered. They looked in my eyes, said near gibberish and would wait for a response. When they addressed me, rather than each other, they changed their tone and style a little, but not much of consequence. I understood about as much either way. I would sit their baffled and try to figure out what they said.
In passing I ended up picking up a bit of their dialect, at least enough to catch numbers yelled at me (importantly, 100 is said "ba" rather than "bai"). I would have asked them more questions about their dialect, but talking to them was too awkward and difficult.
The taxi's music was great, switching between such things as techno Chinese KTV classics, and the Eagle's.
This was the first time I really saw China for a long period of time. Not what you are supposed to see, but rather, what there is to see. Before I had been in trains at night, or in terrible places in buses (notably a sleeper bus where I was about five feet about the ground, balanced on a thin bed.
Probably the best thing of all: the weather. I felt a bit cheated in Yangshuo. the views were corrupted from the misty weather. The hills looked great to be fair, but you could not see the incredible vegetation and wild mountains behind the wild mountains. However, for about five hours in the country, it was on.
After a bit of thought, I believe that that taxi ride had the single most beautiful scenery I have seen in my life. The locals made their farms right along mountains. They did so by forming chunks of the hills into stair like things. The stairs held the crops that they were going. Some reinforced the stairs with stones, some just seemed to stand on their own.
The fields, both on mountain and valley were divided up in sweeping curves of different shapes and sizes. The scattered houses were roofed by traditional looking roofs, the kind with big shingles that lead to spikes at the corners.

PTI: The little girl on seat facing me is about as cute as the come.

The patties themselves were deep colors, the crops layer within causing them to be really complex shades of different greens (like a really made shirt where up close it is a set pattern of stripes but afar it looks like a solid color).
They were all staggered along, built into sections of mountains. The mountains varied from a sandy color to white limestone. The road wound between the mountains along the edge, typically looking over hundreds of these little fields.
One thing of shock was that the clothes that peasants nearby Lijiang wore were strikingly similar to the ones that lined the Lijiang town square and danced for tourists. The show in the square seemed so fake that I naturally detahced it from the reality of the area. The clothes were a velvety blue color with a white wrap crossing their chest, and they had cute hats.

PTI: A kid is reading over my shoulder, lets see how good his English is. He is clearly reading what I am typing right now. Trying to not get noticed...still starring. To be fair he has to wait for a cart lady, but he is trying very hard to be subtle and not doing a very good job. Kid, if you understand, say something...nope, well that is unfortunate. Actually, he is sitting behind the cart lady, he was just chilling watching my computer for about three minutes (his mom is another person who earlier spoke her local dialect to me expecting me to understand).

Anyway, the taxi ride itself was as hectic as it was beautiful. We took the winding road with gentle curves about as fast as physically possible. More than once, the driving anime program Inital D came to mind. More than a few times we drifted (the back tires swing out on sharp curves). He would pass people in the left lane (of a two way highway), while leaning on the horn, quickly switching back if an oncoming car flew through.

PTI: I decided to take a writing break to start reading some blogs (I accidently, thankfully, downloaded some four hundred blog entries). Some are in Chinese and some are in English, I was quickly writing out an email to one of the blog writers in Chinese when the same police officer who saw my ticket started reading my computer.

Shocked, he started talking to me. After a quick conversation (where he talked and I just sort of nodded to questions like "you can read Chinese?," "You can write Chinese?," "Your computer does Chinese?" Afterwards, he said to me, "your ticket..."
I started lifting it out of my pocket it again and he said "oh, I know, I know, I saw it before. Just make sure to watch it carefully. Watch it and your stuff carefully. Then he said to all of my neighbors to watch that foreigner and his stuff, make sure that he is okay. It was really rather awkward. That said, it was nice, because I think he totally has my back.
I am not too worried, I am an expert of sleeping while embracing my stuff rather intimately. When I get to Chengdu it will be before seven in the morning.. The sun should be up or rising (I am not sure, the whole country is on Beijing time, so the sun can have weird sun rise times). At that time, there should be enough sunlight but not too many people.
I think few people would out and out assault me that are on this train. and they would have to get me away from everyone first.

PTI: Now that people now I speak Chinese, a few of them have started asking me questions. They almost all do it in the local dialect, and I have to guess from cognates, grammar, prosody and logic what they are asking. I think it would be like studying Spanish and then going to Portugal.

PTI: Also of note, the scenery outside is still very beautiful, but nothing like the taxi ride.

Going back to the taxi ride, we flew down and up the mountains. He passed everyone he could, typically fiercely. At one point a blue truck tried to block our way, requiring my driver to dodge and weave along the road trying to find a way to pass. He eventually got the truck driver on a gravel part of the road.
The whole time that our driver is sliding and flying down the road, I am with the woman going to Chengdu. All she does, the entire time, is stare forward. Outside of some words exchanged

PTI: More in the local dialect. I had no idea what he said at one point and was like "Uhhh...I am sorry, I don't understand."

He said "Oh, you speak Mandarin."
I said, "Yeah, I have been in the Sichuan area for about one day, so I don't exactly have it down."
He then went back to asking me questions in the local dialect and I went back to trying to answer. He asked something which I did not understand, he elaborated by saying US cities. Through this, I explained where I lived, but more to the point discovered how to say American in Sichuanese. It sounds an awful like "pretty ghost" in Mandarin (mei gui).
I don't want to be rude, but I try to end the conversation quick but with a smile (if you asked the people around me right now - I am super shy). Its really super embarrassing to have this thrown at me, because he believe he is speaking Mandarin. I am fine looking stupid, the problem is that he thinks he is speaking Mandarin, or at least he is trying his best.
One thing of note is that no one has tried their English one me, in Taiwan, that would be impossible. The neighbors have been talking about me a lot, as I catch a word or two from the muck, but for the most part, I have no idea.
Back to the woman going to Chengdu. As this taxi is weaving through the mountains, she looked forward, never looking especially tired, sad, excited, or really anything. Now we are on the train, she is doing the same. Every now and then she has loud conversations (they have a loud way of speaking in a lot of these dialects) with people, typically short and often about me.

PTI: There is a downright incident going on behind me. I think it is over the age of the kid with the people back and to the left of me. They got him a kid ticket, but have no proof he is under whatever age. They have to pay something like a hundred more and the family is pulling out individual bills like crazy (paying in basically a stack of little bills). As with any good Chinese argument, it was fast, loud, and passionate.

PTI: And another argument, I would say xity percent of the train is turned around to watch them. And more and more are standing up to see what is going on. There are three or four cops sorronding one seat. The people in the back of the train are standing up for a view of them extracting money from someone. The people standing range from well dressed somewhat affluent looking girls to poor guys without shirts. Things have died down, but there are still tons of people watching what is going on, some with extraordinary intensity.

PTI: I went back to my blogs, and rather unexpectedly, my travel companion leaned over to see my computer. Earlier she had seen what I had been writing in my notebook (which is now forgotten on top of a Chinese mountain, grr), but that was about it. Afterwards we started talking, she did not understand the economics blog I was reading, so I showed her one of the Taiwanese blogs I read. Afterwards I talked to a few of the neighbors, all were nice. The guy who keeps talking to me said the most and we talked about what I was reading (American Economics I said). The little girl, who is deathly cute also wanted to see. She read a little of the Taiwanese blog. It was impressive, I assumed she would not understand (as its traditional Chinese) but she looked very determined and I think she understood. Its probably rare that she sees so much traditional Chinese together (usually its only on titles here).

PTI: Now there is a growing argument on when we should arrive. Like many Chinese arguments, one person says something, another contradicts, neighbors say their opinions, then the original argument splinters throughout the train, so that the one argument becomes five or six little arguments. I actually have the exact time in my book, but declined joining in.

PTI: I put the computer away when a nearby girl moved next to me (catching an opportunity in seat movement) and declared herself to be an English major. She fell in the category of English majors that just memorize long lists of words, but in no way can actually communicate. As such, we spoke mostly Chinese. She was very nice, and a Freshman, so I hope in the next three years she can learn to apply what she has learned.

Now I am at the base of Emishan. This mountain is one of the things I was most looking forward to seeing. However, I got here too early (it is 6:13 and they open at 6:30). Although I could clearly go past the gate and just get in, I am afraid of doing so. I could picture not being allowed into temples (which have their own entry fee) or getting caught by the Communists.

I had a scare getting money, four initial attempts did not work, using both my American Visa and Taiwanese Mastercard. Eventually I got it at an especially pretty ATM that treated me nice.

PTI: I am nearly on top of a mountain (and if you are in Colorado: still read mountain). The trek has been very, very hard. However I need to rest, not for my body, but that is apart of it. Rather, I am resting in order to charge my MP3 player. Why? Because I might die of exhaustion without it. I will try to write a blog entry from the top, and describe why it was so important and what I have been up to, but I might not have enough power or access to a plug.
Chinese gather around my computer like monkies trying to see what I am doing. They are more than a little surprised to see my screen blank (I have nthe monitor all but off . I have three literally staring over my cshoulder right now. Talking about how you can not see the screen. Yeah, I know jack ass, it still works, trust me.
The trip up here was mad grueling, and after about 13 hours of straight hiking (that is a literal number, though there were breaks in there). I get greeted to a f---king parking lot. I now have an hour and a half more (the truly weak SOBs start from here and then pop up to the summit, I on the other hand took the LONG way, from the farthest entrance and taking the simply absurdly hard route option.
So I won't make it in time in order to take a bus down (the original plan), but I am doing this way ahead of most people (this is listed as a two or three day journey). That means I guess I am staying at the top for the night. I just hope i can find a place for less than 100 Yuan. The next PTI hopefully will start describing this crazy day (think monkey fighting, just think about it).

PTI: A very frustrating end of the day. But I made, damn it I made it. Now I somehow ended up in the party dorm paying 140 Yuan for a place that should be 30, but I don't have a choice. It is too dark to walk down to a regular place, and so it was here or the four or five story hotel. Really I think I should have talked the nice hotel down, because this place is terrible. The public bathroom does not have a western toilet and I am not okay with the squatter toilets (I can squat, but they give you no privacy at all, and I am not will to squat and do that in such a public venue).

My clothes are too sweaty to think about wearing them, but my luggage is down at the bottom, as such, I will have a very dirty morning tomorrow.
My consolation is I have no walking to do, virtually whatsoever, to get to the peak tomorrow morning (morning is when you are supposed to see it).
I don't know if I should be frustrated that getting to the top in one day has screwed me over, and I still have to get to the top, or proud that I did it in the first place. When it was becoming clear this might happen I still kept going because my goal had been get to the top in one day and I was unwilling to give up this late in the game.
I hurt all over. At four or something my train hit Emeishan, which I did not know it would do. I had planned on going to Chengdu, and then going to Emishan, so I was excited to go straight there. That said, it caused me to get there incredibly early. I could barely see forward as I tried to find the start of the path. At just before 6:30 I hit the entrance where that PTI before was written.
After that I started hiking like crazy.

PTI: Its the next morning, I am cold but the rising sun is slowly warming me. I am tired, but I won't get to sleep for a bit probably. I smell terrible and I definitely won't fix that for a bit. I am at the foot of a golden temple on the summit.
Last night I planned on writing more

PTI: I am starting to have serious privacy issues with the fact that everyone that passes me stops and reads my computer, leaning over the screen to do so. I know they cannot understand, but it is not blatant as opposed to subtle, it is open and done without intention of subtleness.

PTI: Another thing, Chinese people need a long talk about talking about foreigners when they are right there. Taiwan they at least whispered or talked at a distance. Here they openly talk about you right in front of you, or in the third person. They will say stuff like "Look a foreigner," "I wonder where he is from?" This is a bit annoying, but then when I break in with "America" as a subtle hint for them to stop, sometimes they keep doing it. Also when I am with a Chinese friend they always ask the Chinese friend questions about me (who usually says, "you should probably just ask him."

So the sunrise was very nice and beautiful. It was the first time in a long time I have seen a sunrise, especially one where the clouds were at my feet. It was nice having spent yesterday under and in those clouds to now be over them.
The journey, however, is something I will always remember. I started at six thirty from the lowest point. I only know of one other person that made it to the top yesterday. I had a couple of friends accompanying me for a bit of the trip (on and off at points). I found them this morning and turns out that they did not make it (I assumed they wouldn't since I really flew at one point and I just barely made it).

PTI: The summit here is really nice, I am leaning against a gold temple and behind the temple is a huge Buddha. The tourists are a bit away from me, so that is not a huge problem. When they come to check my computer (every five minutes or so), I guess my look has gotten dirtier, because they leave mighty quick.

So during the journey I ditched most of the tourists quick. There were still people that actually used chairs to be carried up, but they were few (and looked like the laziest thing ever, they were basically hung with their head and feet higher than their back from a carrier held by pairs of very tired Chinese guys.
There was a point where I thought I would not make it. I was climbing very slowly, living off the places that handrails (some did, some didn't) and hitting the steps by basically leaning over them. At one point I decided to try using music, hey, it works in the gym. i must say, I think Wu-Tang saved me on that mountain. I turned on my MP3 player and GZA was making references to strength, fighting, and, as any good Wu-Tang fan should imagine, numerous references to China.
I could feel adrenaline hit my body, realizing the fact that I was doing something so very historical and cultural in China. While being inspired by the confidence of the music I also had a rhythm to keep pace with. At that point I really started flying, I passed a number of people and kept strong for a while.
A little later on, I actually started breaking down a little. Not like going crazy but getting a bit emotional. At that point I had been going for some eight hours with no more than a twenty or so minute rest. I started desperately missing my mom and dad, and thinking about how much they have done for me. I became somewhat weepy (not out and out crying down the road, but I am sure I did not exactly great), and very happy to be going home soon. Not that I want to go leave here, but I do want to go home and see those parents.

PTI: Colorado's tallest mountain is 4,399 meters, and Colorado has 55 over 4,267 meters. This mountain is a just above 3,000. So although I did not conquer the affair offered by my home state, I am still pretty damn proud.

PTI: I am being mad harassed by a huge bee. Its literally getting up in my face and you can almost here it saying "what? what? You want this?"

At the bottom of the mountain I bought a bamboo stick for a hiking cane and a monkey whacker. I heard that the monkeys were fierce and you needed to be prepared, I had no idea. Throughout the journey we ran into monkeys. Not like monkeys in cages, but rather, part of the place itself is a natural reserve, with monkeys roaming around. The first I ran into I took photos of. While I was slowly leaving (taking photos of other monkeys), he ran up and snatched the plastic bag I had in my camera bag (inside has my rag to clean my lens). With the help of a monkey keeper (there were a few keepers at the start of the trip, but you were on your own the rest of the way), we got the bag from him.
Later on we had to take on some big monkeys. Depending on the size, number, or ferocity I used different tactics. For especially monkey ridden places I went with the friends I mentioned before. The guy and I would double team a monkeys eyes with our sticks hovering in front of him and occasionally jabbing forward, usually they would back off.
Later on when I was by myself I ran into some nasty packs. I became good at slamming my cane down and yelling a bit (they said no screaming in the rules with dealing with monkeys but I had for gotten). After that they would back down and I would keep my stick in attack position. Who is the alpha male now bitch?
Towards the very end I was completely exhausted. I made a new rule - walk one hundred steps, stop, breather ten deep breaths, walk a hundred steps. That new strategy was very good for me. It kept me confident and it allowed me to rest without allowing me to rest too long. Each step was easier knowing that I was a certain number away from a break.
I was disappointed about getting trapped up here, but this morning's sunrise was nice. Now I just need to get to Chengdu and get a real shower, and use a real bathroom. Then I am going to eat the spiciest Sichuanese food I can find. I am very excited to be here, the home of my favorite kind of Chinese food (well, most of the west's favorite Chinese food, but whatever).
TI: A little girl is watching my screen, but she is cute and sweet so I can['t produce a dirty look, thus she gets away with it.
After finding a hotel, I will hit some local attractions in Chengdu, that or just die a little in my hotel room. Tomorrow I hope to go to another World Heritage site (Dulujiang? I forgot how to sayl it and I don't want to get out my guide book right now). Then the day after I will go to the bamboo forest (where they throw down in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon - sweeeeetttt) on the way to Chongqing (to get down with those three gorges).
For now, I need to get off of thing damn mountain.

PTI: I guess I never finished the taxi story. Really it was just high speed beauty. Our driver preferred to pass on corners in the left lane while blaring hi horn. At one point we pasted a nice Nissan. After a while, the Sinata was still behind us (a rarity) and then suddenly passed us. Our driver basically rode his tail around corners until it was clear the Nissana could not "hang" and let us pass. Later the Nissan passed us while we stopped for the bathroom and honked, I don't think he liked my driver very much.
I was not sure what to do, the driver clearly seemed to know what he was doing (he made some close but very impressive emergency moves at points, doing things like dodging large oxen or passing a car and then splitting two motorcycles). The other passengers were completely ambivalent, the woman just stared ahead, one boy slept (while I am either fearing for my life or shocked from the view's beauty), and a mom just held her kid like it was a normal Sunday drive.

PTI: I am in the bus station waiting to go to Chengdu so I thought I would type something up. A funny thing about the Chinese - they speak Chinese. I have met a few people who's goal in talking to me was to practice English, but I found that they were willing to abandon that goal if it helped communication. Even English majors might say a few things in English, but when its clear Chinese would make things easier, they switch.
Taiwanese people are simply not that way. There are a good lot that can "deal" with speaking to a foreigner in Chinese, but there are also a lot that have entrained in their head: you speak English to foreigners. As such, in Taiwan I had abysmal conversations which were hampered by the recipients determination to use English with me.
However here, most people can accept that I can speak Chinese, and a few even expect it. That said, they really need to work on that talking about you like you are not in the room thing.
Actually they have a lot to work on, horns need to be banned. My driver from the mountain down was a complete jerk and I thought about telling him as much. I guess he equates "World Heritage Site" or "National Park" with "Pinespeak raceway." He flew down the road as fast as possible, but unlike my taxi, he was not nearly as good of a driver.
Three people ended up getting sick. I had the very pleasant moment of watching the woman in front of me vomit onto (not out of, onto) the window next to her. After that, I switched seats, and the boy in front of my new seat and a woman behind me both ended up following the old woman's suit. This was all going on as my driver was blasting the horn at every corner (he had an especially loud horn) on a mountain road (thus, a lot of corners). If we were in America, I very much would have said something upon disembarking.
One thing to add to the taxi story: I left a notebook I was fond of at an obscure place between Panzhihua and Lijiang. I would be sad but I like the idea that a little of me was left to China as a gift of sorts. That is also how I feel about the Lonely Planet I left in Hong Kong (that and I left it at a foreign bar where they could use it, plus, I was not enjoying that guide much).
Back to the mountain for a moment. At parts, the mountain became a big metaphor for life. I dealt with a lot of nice people, there were hard parts and easy parts, I had a lot of people looking at me, I had a limited amount of time, and I had a lofty goal that most people don't do.
Although I mentioned Wu-Tang clan as my big energy boost there were actually two. Wu-Tang got me up the first stage of "I am about to die" syndrome. the second came from a guy who saw me resting. There are little rest sites along the way, especially during the especially hard parts. Typically most people stop at each rest site unless they were doing especially well. He blew through the rest site with a full head of steam and excited to use his English, in a really smarmy manner, he said "Come on now, stop resting" or something to the affect of "slow-poke."
I was inspired by the moment and after another minute or two of resting (I was resting for a reason, I was tired), I just took off. From there out no one passed me and I really got up that mountain. As I passed him I said the same comment he said to me, he looked exhausted. What had I dealt with? A hater. Another thing Wu-Tang would likely say: Don't let the haters get you.

1 comment:

Smiranda said...

"They did so by forming chunks of the hills into stair like things. The stairs held the crops that they were going. Some reinforced the stairs with stones, some just seemed to stand on their own."

They're called terraces. :)