China Trip 2012
This trip I am summarizing our periods in Beijing and Yan Tai and only recording in any detail our travel outside of Beijing and Yan Tai.
20th August to 6th Sept 2012
The first couple of weeks are dominated by cleaning up, settling in and trying to get everything operational after four years. The first night we are greeted by a real mess as S has left a lot of his stuff in boxes and all over the main room; almost as if it was all thrown in from the door. The next morning I set to tidying it up and stacking it all in the foyer. Most of it fits but at least it is now all in two places and largely out of sight.
The dust and dirt are gradually cleared and it starts to look like home again. None of the taps or toilets operate properly. The hard water has caused everything to rust up. Twice we get plumbers up with limited success. Anything goes with these guys and near enough is good enough.
Real estate agents are hard to avoid as they set up promotion boards outside their offices and there are always two or three young agents wanting a chat. One day we get sucked in to talking to one and before too long the Branch Manager steps out (then entices us back to his office) for a chat. Prices are up again, having languished for a year or so and our property has probably doubled in price for the second time in the six (or is it now 7) years we have had it. The more important issue is where are apartment prices going over the next few years. There are strong opinions either way. Mine is, we are in a bubble and prices will come back significantly (there are a number of major influences on the horizon, not the least, real problems with the economy and a change of leadership in China) before they resume upwards again. We decide we will put the place on the market, in the hands of one agent only but no contract signed and no obligations any which way.
T and P arrive for a couple of days and have to put up with a tummy bug (T), barely operational toilet, intrusive agents and their clients, hard bed, air conditioning on the blink and the noisy clatter of a drill or jack hammer immediately overhead, that goes virtually all day. They spend their days out, are uncomplaining and we wish they could have stayed longer in more propitious circumstances.
The neighbours above us are renovating and when the Chinese renovate they often start from scratch again. They are removing tiles. The drilling goes on for days.
Lilly has real estate agents phoning all the time and trying to persuade her that our price is too high. They advertise details of our apartment in several different places on different floors in the building. They are sharp and old hands at this. We take it all with a grain of salt and stick to our guns. But it reminds me of the wider problems in society.
There is currently a very big, high profile case before the courts. It touches the very top of the Chinese political/social aristocracy. Huge wealth, old family money, corruption and power struggles are all part of it. No sweeping under the carpet this time as a top politician is suddenly there no more, his police chief temporarily defected to the British consulate and the politician’s wife is charged with the murder of a British citizen, previously a family confidant.
Ancient Chinese proverbs consistently embrace the good qualities of justice and benevolence and regard riches as worthless and as dust. But the corruption which was so much a hallmark of the Ming and Qing dynasties (and ultimately a big cause of their downfall) is still pervasive in Chinese business and the psyche.
The underlying cause is personal greed or, as the good book says “the love of money is the root of all evil”. Many here seem to have the attitude that the lack of money is the root of all evil.
Today the sharp practices are glibly passed off as “this is the way business is done in China and the Western mentality can never understand us”. It is all too opaque for the Westerner. We are inexperienced. In fact we are scoffed at for being too simple, not being street smart. We are ridiculed for having our stupid standards and our silly principles.
Gaining an advantage by playing your cards close to your chest, by not keeping your word, by playing fast and loose with the facts and even by ripping up contracts, is clever. Manipulating your opponent, mind games and one-upmanship is smart and sophisticated in this dog-eat-dog environment.
In essence, it is all a conscious practice of taking selfish advantage with little regard for principle or for what the consequences are for others. One of those consequences is that the Chinese distrust their fellow citizens, but trust the Westerner. Most ordinary Chinese appear to be honourable and are probably horrified at the corruption and absence of business integrity.
Anyway we believe that in time we could get our price – including a covered parking space which alone is worth between A$50,000 and A$60,000 – but Lilly is having second thoughts. She thinks we will sell and then miss not being able to come to Beijing which she regards as a second home. Yes prices may come back for a while but they will eventually march on upwards. She starts working on me. Being entirely flexible, I relent. We will and should only take the big moves in our lives if we are in agreement. But she now needs to keep the agents at bay. Our holiday south is around the corner and provides an excuse for that and a break from the overhead clatter.
Our first trip is to Chongqing, the Three Gorges and various mid-west and southern cities including Hong Kong.
Solly takes us to the airport, in one of his fleet, for our flight to Chongqing where we arrive about midday. It is hot and close and grey and smoggy.
This is the world and China’s largest city with a population of about 29 million give a take a million or so. The city is at the junction of the Jia Ling and Yangtze rivers and is about a 1000 years old, relatively young compared with say Beijing and Xian. Twenty years ago Lilly spent some time here. It was a dreadfully scruffy city then. It is better today but there is a long way to go before it can match Beijing and Shanghai. Unlike Beijing which is as flat as a pancake, Chongqing is a hilly city. Construction and development and cranes and noise are pervasive.
We get a cab to our hotel. We enter on the 11th floor which is the top floor. The whole hotel clings to a cliff face below us. Our room is on the 9th floor and we get a great view over the Jia Ling River. We wander around in the complex. An enormous road/rail bridge is under construction on the far side of the river. Within our complex there are corridors and lifts and stairways and everywhere there are vendors. It is easy to get lost.
We are only scheduled to join the boat later in the day. Meantime we decide to visit the Ciqikou Old Town located in a suburb of Chongqing City. This covers an area of 1.18 square kilometers, and is a historic Chinese old town with traditional style buildings and local flavor food. The old town was built in 998 during the Song Dynasty. Legend has it that one emperor of the Ming Dynasty was once compelled to take up a monk’s habit in the Baolun Temple of Chongqing. People called the emperor ‘the dragon’ in ancient times. At the start of the Qing Dynasty, the town was famous for its porcelain making and transportation as a port, hence its name Ciqikou, which means ‘porcelain port’ in Chinese.
It is hot and stuffy and smelly and crowded and overwhelmingly commercial. I am feeling the effects of a couple of days without food and just want to throw up. We look around quickly and head back to the haven of the hotel.
Later in the day we catch a cab to the boat. Lilly wanted to walk but nobody has any idea where the boat is moored (Harbour 10). Even the agent’s girl guesses. This is typical of the Chinese, face prevents them from admitting “I don’t know” so they vaguely point in one direction or another as if they are the authority. We often head off in one direction, only to end up going in a completely different direction as we firm up. In this case the cab driver has “no idea” where Harbour 10 is, but that is strategic, because he hopes you will try to tell him how to get there, yours will be a circuitous route and he can extract maximum fare. Eventually he cuts across country from the Jia Ling river to the Yangtze. It is a long way. Suddenly he wants to drop us off. We have reached the river but have no idea where the vessel is moored. I say take us to the boat but he refuses and there are guys at the doors opening the doors and trying to take out our suitcases. It is like a union picket line. Nobody tells us exactly where the boat is. I am adamant I am not paying these people to wheel our bags down to the boat, even though I am crook. Eventually we establish the cab can’t take us on to the wharf so we are at the mercy of these union thugs. We gather our bags on the roadside in a protective circle and Lilly phones the agent. They say we are practically there, but where? We take off in one direction after much arm-waving by the unionists. Eventually we are told we are going in the wrong direction and someone points to the actual vessel. We re-trace our steps past the picket line and carry our heavy bags down wet concrete steps and across planks to the boat. Lots of staff welcome us on board but it is not an auspicious beginning.
Our cabin is small and a bit smelly but otherwise comfortable and we have our own little balcony. I get straight into bed. A bit later Lilly brings the doctor up. He looks and sounds a professional and speaks quite good English. I still have a fever and cough although my throat is a bit better. Tummy also playing up. He says it has gone to my chest and if I am going to participate in the activities over the next few days, drastic measures are needed. So I go to his surgery and he puts me on a drip for 2 or 3 hours. Four different liquids. He refuses to put a beer drip in via the other hand even though I insist that would be the quickest way to recovery. He says I should feel better in the morning.
We cast off about 6 in the morning. I get up for the event. The river is in flood and is fast flowing. We are facing the wrong direction. We have to turn around and that is quite a maneuver, particularly as we get side-on to the mighty Yangtze; which is not all that wide just here. There is not much room to spare. Not sure how they accomplished it without my involvement. I am feeling a bit better so we go to breakfast. Lilly fusses. I have to eat but am loath to do so. Lilly pushes all manner of stomach-turning delicacies on to my plate. Having been on a drip twice now (at the hospital in Beijing for several hours and last night on this boat), I am now looking at a BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce and toast); and much more if Lilly has her way. DRIP to BRAT and I am also feeling a bit of an idiot for getting in this state. Problem is, what happened?? First time in 5 trips to China I have got sick. We have breakfast with 8 others including Ken and Shuvee. Ken is a Brit (not BRAT) but sounds as if he has been an expatriate engineer most of his life. Now works and lives in Mumbai and they also live in Dalian. Shuvee is Chinese. Lilly establishes a rapport with her having spent 4 years at university in Dalian.
Later we attend a very interesting lecture on the boat by the good Doctor Liu on the subject of acupuncture. Then we moor for a guided walk to the Ghost city. The water has covered a village but the spirits of the residents are still down there. You have to be in peak physical condition for Chinese tours because they put you through your paces, particularly climbing via endless stair ways. Usually Lilly and I have no problem even when most of our fellow travelers are half our age. Today I am in trouble. Having not eaten much for 3 days I am easily out of breath and dizzy. Ken who looks fit but turned 75 yesterday is also struggling. So are others. The uphill is endless. We visit the city of the departed spirits but it is all a bit commercial, boring and hard work to boot. On our way back down there are quite a number of Westerners lining the stairways. They are exhausted and/or have given up on it. Real heart attack stuff if you are unfit.
Later as we go further downstream in the boat, the river widens and slows. We are now entering the reservoir part of the dam scheme. The river has backed upstream by about 660 kms from the dam. They don’t describe it as a lake because it is not wide in the lake sense. The valley was always deep, now we are gradually getting into deeper and deeper water until by the time we reach the dam, the water is about 185 metres deep. Whole cities have been moved and there are several obviously new cities that have been built over the past 20 years to accommodate the citizens from what were previously low-lying areas.
The disruption to millions of lives along this river valley is beyond comprehension. There is anger and resentment and sadness. But life goes on and the broader achievements of power generation, water management and arguably tourism, supposedly outweigh the personal cost to lives. It is not just the Yangtze river valley that has filled up, there are many, many valleys feeding into the Yangtze. Some of them were only streams of a metre or so wide and deep. Some are now hundreds of metres wide and perhaps a 100 metres or more deep. Lakes appear where there was previously nothing. The impact on the ecology of the whole area is also immense. Erosion and landslides are a huge problem and so is the depositing of sediment above the dam rather than along the length of the river.
On the second day of our cruise we change vessels (twice) and enter one of the river valleys. It is hard to imagine what the area looked like 10 or 20 years ago. There are lakes and narrow river valley areas. Some of the valleys are terraced and cropped way, way up into the mist. Most are steep and inaccessible. We see monkeys in one area. We end up in a small motorized skiff as we go upstream in this valley which is described as the three lesser gorges. The gorges are craggy and tower up and ever upwards and the water perhaps here a 100 metres deep gives us a big start upwards.
We are also with an American couple in one of the boats. She is pleasant but he is real arrogant and full of himself. It reminds me that when you meet a Brit or Kiwi the first thing they say is “how are you” sort of thing, the Chinese say “have you eaten”, the Aussies say “G’day mate, wanna beer”, but the Americans say “how did you make ya money, ya got 5 seconds then its my turn”. Not quite like that, but within about a couple of minutes the Yank is giving us all a rundown on his business prowess and how he ran large companies all over the world and made pots of dough and was now retired. Good on him, but do we need all the detail so quickly.
There are actually three main gorges on the Yangtze, two above the dam and one below. Each is spectacular and each gives almost a claustrophobic feeling of being hemmed in by these huge towering cliffs on each side. They must have been even more impressive when the water level was a 100 or more metres lower.
Each day we get breakfast lunch and dinner, buffet style on the boat. There is variety but the food is only average and I am really picky about what I eat now. Lilly makes up for me and some. She has hollow legs.
We reach the dam in the late evening. We can only vaguely see it in the distance as we head for the locks on the left side of the dam. We enter the first lock along with another cruise ship. The doors close. It is impossible to describe the size of these locks. Unseen pumps start up and the water level lowers the boat about 25-30 metres quite quickly. The massive doors at the front of the lock open and we move forward into the second lock. The process is repeated five times and we are now at the water level of the river below the dam. That’s the theory anyway because after the first lock we went to bed. There is a parallel system of locks on our left side that moves vessels from below-dam to above-dam. A huge elevator is being constructed that will, from 2015, facilitate the movement of smaller vessels (up to 3000 tons) up or down in one movement rather than five. The process will take about 30-40 minutes rather than the 3 to 4 hours via the locks.
In the morning we visit the dam. Firstly we view it from the height of a nearby hill. It is massive, but we can effectively only see the top bit of the dam and there is about 20 metres of that to see. The water here is about 160 metres deep so the dam height is apparently about 180 metres. We can’t see the other end because of the mist.
This dam was first thought of by Sun Yat Sen in 1919 and plans were eventually drawn up for it in 1944 by Americans. Nothing much was done until the 1980s when the plans were dusted off. Lilly worked on feasibilities and visited many of the communities in the valley when she was involved in the Chinese bureaucracy in the late 1980s/early 1990s. The project was approved in 1992 and was only fully operational (with all turbines and generators) in 2009.
We then get a closer look at the dam from about the level of the height of the wall. There are thousands of people milling around taking photos. Security prevents us from entering the gates at the top of the dam so we don’t actually get to walk on the dam. Everything but.
We go back to the boat for another 2 or 3 hours downstream. We disembark from the boat after tying up to a barge in the middle of nowhere. We get a typically noisy reception from hawkers and beggars and tour guides and cabbies. Everyone wants our business and is keen to carry our suitcases. Lilly eventually spots a small bus that reads Station so we board it and hope for the best. It is quite a journey to the Yichang railway station where we board a bullet train (max only 200kmh) for a comfortable two hour journey to Wuhan.
We are on the 9th floor of a 5 star hotel overlooking the Yangtze. There are wide walls along the river because Wuhan, a city of 10 million people has for long been lower than the Yangtze (that follows through it) and been the subject of numerous and devastating floods. One of the benefits of the Three Gorges Dam is the control that engineers will have over the release of flood waters.
I am still not all that energetic, so we now decide to skip Guangzhou and instead have two nights in Shenzhen preceded by a night on an overnight train journey from Wuhan to Shenzhen a distance of about 1250kms. Lilly hunches over her computer and comes up with the plans and solutions and bookings.
Buses are the order of the day to the local sights, the Yellow Crane Tower and the famous Wuhan Yangtze River Bridge. Also called the First Bridge, this bridge was built over the Yangtze River in 1957 with the assistance of advisers from the Soviet Union. It is 1680 metres long, and it accommodates both a double-track railway on a lower deck and a four lane roadway above. Massive and impressive.
The Yellow Crane Tower is set in grounds not too far from the bridge. It was first constructed in 223 AD but warfare and fires destroyed it many times. The last time it was built during the Qing dynasty was apparently in 1868 only to be followed by its destruction in 1884. The city decided to re-build it in 1981 and the current tower was completed in 1985. Apparently it bears little resemblance to the historical Yellow Crane Tower. It is a big tower overlooking the bridge. There are two related legends involving a man riding a yellow crane. We ascend, then descend, several floors. It is considered to be up there among the top Chinese towers, but I am a bit cynical about this type of thing now. It is well-built but only 30 odd years old and with a dubious background and tenuous legends I start to wonder, what’s the point if not for the blatant commercialism.
We return to the hotel and then get a cab to the train station for our overnighter to Shenzhen. We have paid for first class travel but it feels like third class. We share a cabin with a respectable young man who is employed by the Shenzhen Tourist Board. Lilly (top bunk) and me on one side, he on the other. Fortunately there is not a fourth as it is very small. Most of the cabins have four people. Lilly and he chat for a while, I try to sleep. The train is noisy and lurches a bit. It is no bullet train; they seem to glide. We don’t get much sleep and it is a long night. 1250 kms.
Our first impressions of Shenzhen are good. It is a garden city. It borders Hong Kong on the south and was the first area to be designated a special economic zone by the Chinese in 1980. We are in the Grand Mercure hotel with a large comfortable room and quick broadband. We have two nights here so we settle in a bit. My travel highlights are too touristy and Lilly (in conjunction with J via SKYPE) decides we are best to avoid them.
We take a train to the centre of the city, population 10 million. Towering skyscrapers prevail. We intend going to the top of the Meridian (69 floors) so we can look over towards Hong Kong which is only 15 to 20 kms away. However, we decide at Y100 each, it is too expensive and the day is hazy so we probably wouldn’t see much anyway.
Thirty years ago, Shenzhen was a village, today it is a huge beautiful city with a transportation system that would be the envy of many Western cities, including Auckland and Sydney. Buses and trains are on time, not over crowded and cool. In fact, too cold: particularly if you are seeking to recover from a fever. Often we encounter outside temperatures of more than 30c only to come inside (transport, shops, hotels) and find them suddenly at less than 20c. It is refreshing but often just too cold for our liking.
We wander about through a Wal Mart store and then visit an art gallery. Later we take a cab to the beach front. Not much of a beach but the waterfront gardens and grounds are beautiful. The beachfront stretches for miles and there are a huge number of people strolling and running and sitting and eating. Not all at the same time.
Shenzhen is a city we could spend more time in.
We get a cab to the Station to cross the border into Hong Kong. We are in a huge herd of people queuing (well not actually a queue) to leave China. Most are on temporary visas. Many are Hong Kong citizens who go back and forth and they are get privileged and quick access. We are with the great unwashed. It takes time. We get to the front eventually and customs tell us we need to complete a form so we go back and find and complete the forms. It is all a bit hard to follow even for my Lilly. Fortunately we have no pressing business appointments.
We get on a bus. The bus goes about 200 metres and stops. We don’t know why. We get off and take our luggage and join the second huge queue. I am puzzled. We get to the front eventually and customs tell us we need to complete a form so we go back and find and complete the forms. This procedure is becoming familiar. Will we eventually get it? The penny drops. The first customs stop was to depart China, the second to enter Hong Kong. We are leaving one country and entering a second. All a bit silly really considering that Hong Kong is now for all intents and purposes, part of China. Even if they have to go through the rigmarole, why not handle it as one function at one location? (Got to remember we come from a developed country to a developing one.) China is streets ahead of where Africa was thirty years ago but it still has a way to go. The Chinese are bright but the bureaucracy, system and the mentality is mired in ages past.
Anyway we travel by bus (about an hour from memory) into the city and get close enough to walk to our hotel, The Mira.
Now the hotel is something to write home about. We are to be here for four nights. It is different. The ceilings are quite low and dark glass. It is all quite dark and mysterious and cool and funky. Leading edge design prevails everywhere, down to the smallest details in the room. Lights and taps and TV and everything you touch is a bit different. Well done Lilly to find this place. Good location too as it transpires.
We get going on broadband quickly and J arrives shortly. He looks fit and well and no longer the skinny lad of 12 months ago; still tall, but now heavier and more confident. He brings a business bag for me, tea and shopping vouchers for Lilly. I am watching, live on my computer, the All Blacks playing South Africa by this time. He and Lilly go down to the garden for a chat. I join them later. We decide to go to the Peak – it is now late afternoon. J organizes a cab. The twelve months on his own give me the impression he has had to do stuff for himself. He knows how to get around the city. He is the authority. He reckons Hong Kong (population about 7m from memory) must be one of the best places to live in the world, if you have money; perhaps not so good, if you don’t. Later we come around to agreeing with him.
Our hotel is in Kowloon which is the mainland part of Hong Kong. We go by cab (via one of three tunnels) to Hong Kong island where J lives and works. It is quite a cab ride up to the Peak on the island. I was here in 1976 and thought it was the most unbelievable sight I had ever seen. I took the cable car and could hardly believe the magical view of the harbour and city and distant airport. It is still the same, except now the skyscrapers are higher and denser. There are less junks plying their trade on the harbour and more container vessels. The air is close and the view a bit hazy. We can’t see the planes coming and going any longer.
We find various locations for viewing and take many photos. At one point an old Indian gentleman who is knee height to a grasshopper asks J how tall he is. J tells him 6ft 3. The old bloke surrounded by sons and family then tells me he fought against the Chinese in a border war in 1963. I ask him should he be telling us that, even though it was 50 years ago? He says yes. I remind him it’s a long way down over the side and we all have a good giggle.
We find a place to eat and I have my first reasonable meal for more than a week. I have lost about 7kgs but reckon I am on the mend. J takes us back to his rented place. It is about 20 floors up, small and untidy and expensive. Two small bedrooms, a small living area and kitchen. He shares with Nick who is from Shanghai, is a futures trader and apparently makes big money. Sounds like they both party a bit. We don’t stay long. Lilly looks like she wants to tidy up. J takes us to the ferry for the crossing back to Kowloon and we meander back to our hotel. This has been a big day for us both, especially so for Lilly, having not seen her boy for more than 12 months.
Today the two of us catch a train then a bus to the island and head for Stanley. It is a winding road, up a fair way then back down, the scenery and outlook through the trees to the little bays is beautiful.
We get off the bus at Repulse Bay. It apparently gets its name from pirates who used to be stationed there and who were using it as a base in the 1840s. They were repulsed by the British. It is also thought it might have been named after the HMS Repulse which was stationed here at one point. It is a beautiful bay with golden sands and a large area (perhaps a kilometre long and 200 metres out to sea) with a shark net. Many people are swimming in the sea. The bay is surrounded by apartment blocks. It is very civilized. You have to be rich to live here. There are many foreigners and it reminds me of the time I was with the American multi-nationals with their expatriate-dominated Asia Pacific headquarters here. Many of British background will also have stayed on, as the Hong Kong lifestyle is close to idyllic if you have the resources and don’t mind the politics.
We walk around a bit taking photos. It is quite hot but we did not bring swimming gear so we just stroll. We hop on the bus for the next stop which is Stanley. This is an equally enchanting and smaller bay but with a market, more shopping and probably a lot more residents. The Brits had their administrative centre here during the 1840s temporarily and at the Stanley fort, the English and Canadians mounted a last-ditch stand against the Japanese in 1941. The survivors surrendered. The Chinese Peoples Liberation Army now uses the fort. (A changing of the guard of course.)
We wander around the market. It is hot outside but cooler under cover. The town has shops along the waterfront and we go McDonalds for lunch as we have been tending to do a bit lately. The whole area is dominated by nice homes and huge apartment blocks. Here too, living is easy and very nice thank-you, if you can afford it. We can’t.
On the way back from Stanley we stop off at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, one of the most famous horse racing venues in Asia, if not the world. There are no races here this afternoon but the place is packed with gamblers who are watching races at two other venues on a huge screen. We eventually work out how to place bets and we collect OK on one race and lose on another. That’s us. We are not gamblers and we move on.
Back at the hotel we swim and spa and collapse. J is off to Europe on a business trip and Lilly texts him with a full account of our day. He usually replies “OK” or if Lilly is lucky she gets a “Good”.
Today we make our way down to the ferry to go to Macau for the day. Should be simple but once again it is like leaving one country and entering another and then at the end of the day reversing the procedure. Each time a form has to be completed but Customs don’t seem to bother with it. To get on the right ferry in the right class without over-paying is a monumental job. Even Lilly struggles with it I think. It all seems opaque to me but Lilly maintains she knows what she is doing. We board in comfortable seats (but without much of an outlook through salted-up windows) for the one-hour journey in a sea-cat ferry. It is smooth sailing.
Macau (population about 600,000) was effectively administered by the Portuguese from about 1550 to 1999. It was a colony of Portugal from 1887 until 1999.
At the terminal ferry after going through Customs we are greeted by a huge fleet of buses. These are freebie buses that are run by the casinos to take you there for free so that the casinos can then, as painlessly as possible, help themselves to the contents of your wallet. We subconsciously tuck our precious little money into the deepest recesses of our purses and pockets and board the bus for the Venetian Macau casino. And after a 30 minute drive we arrive at this massive and splendidly appointed casino that only huge money could have built and decorated: Asian money because the Chinese in particular are gamblers. (It is a strange ambivalence given that so many of them are savers, despite low incomes.)
Along huge corridors masses of people are making their way into the hall that is the casino. And what a hall it is. It seems to stretch in every direction as far as the eye can see. Tables and pokies are everywhere. We wander about watching some of the games. Lilly and I understand blackjack a bit and of course the roulette table but these days those games are in a minority. The bosses have devised quicker ways of taking your cash. We try the pokies but even that we find strange. Lilly loses a little slowly as I watch. We have quite a nice lunch at a reasonable price in one of the casino restaurants. We head off by bus for James Packers Galaxy casino; more modern, as big, also grand but fewer people. I can’t remember if it is making money or not, neither do I care much. Not our scene.
We take a freebie bus back to the centre of the city and wander about a bit. There are some sights we had earmarked but we can’t be all that bothered. It is busy and a very pleasant atmosphere prevails. People are courteous and helpful. We are getting tired and it is late afternoon so we get a bus back to the ferry terminal and arrive back at the hotel about 7pm. I think we had a McDonalds and Lilly went off shopping (with J’s vouchers) and I watched a saved game on my laptop.
Today we take off to one of the big Hong Kong sights, the Space Museum, only to find it closed today. Pity. Instead we go to the nearby Cultural Museum and spend a couple of hours viewing an exhibition of art and the life of Qianlong a long-serving (1735-99) and well respected Qing emperor. He ruled during a reasonably prosperous time in China’s history but presided over a corrupt and extravagant imperial court. He developed a garden in one corner of the Forbidden City, which features in today’s exhibition. It is being restored, a project that involves many foreign and Chinese experts and which is expected to take 20 years. We will go to the Forbidden City again and make a point of visiting it. The whole of the Forbidden City is the subject of a huge restoration program that may never be completed.
In the afternoon we travel by train and an hour long bus ride to visit the Big Buddha, built in 1993 on Lantau Island which also hosts the airport. It is quite a bus ride and quite a heavy climb up stairs to view Big Buddha. The sheer size and scale of the structure is breathtaking but all the commercialism that goes with Buddhism, leaves me cold.
Opposite the statue, the Po Lin Monastery is one of Hong Kong’s most important Buddhist sanctums and has been dubbed ‘the Buddhist World in the South’. Home to many a devout monk, this monastery is rich with colourful manifestations of Buddhist iconography and its pleasant garden is alive with birdsong and flowery scents. (this paragraph bludged from a website – the monastery was being renovated and was not in focus for us)
We boarded the bus for the long trip back and then eventually found another bus because we wanted to view the huge bridge from the mainland to Lantau Island. Then we got off the bus at the wrong place and wandered about in deserted constructions sites before we eventually found a road and a cab.
In the morning at a civilized hour we get a cab back over the huge bridge to the airport. We arrive in good time and I start my diary (only 12 days behind) while I have a McDonalds breakfast. Lilly goes off for a plate of noodles. On the plane back she is crook and on the runway taxing back to the Beijing terminal has to get up and get special permission to go to the toilet in a hurry. Was it the noodles? In the terminal she has an equally long time in an airport toilet and then rushes like crazy to the baggage claim to pick up our one suitcase. We cab back home, sweet home at last free of all Solly’s junk which he removed while we were away. Boy is it good to be home.
We have about a week at home in Beijing. I work mornings and we walk in the Bamboo Park virtually every day. Lilly is constantly tidying and organising all manner of things and people. This is a good peaceful time for the two of us. The agents still phone a bit but she has got them at bay for now.
Our second trip is to YanTai where most of Lilly’s family live. Intend it to be our base for several weeks.
Cab to the airport for the hour and a bit flight to YanTai. The flight is delayed. Dozens of smallish hangars line the runway on both sides. Most of them house a military jet. This airport is quite close to Japan and Korea. As we travel in a bus to the terminal, four jets take off in quick succession. Is China showing some muscle over the Daiyou Islands problem?
Jing, Wei and Chi are there to meet us. Wei has aged a bit, the others not too much. Wei has a new vehicle (a Korean KIA I think). Ma waits at home. She looks fit and well. She lives in this flat that Lilly bought a couple of years ago. It is the first time I have seen the place.
It is quite large with three bedrooms, lounge, small dining, kitchen and bathroom. The latter two are basic but it is a very pleasant spacious apartment with outlook to the north south and east. Ma always uses bedroom 3 and could not be persuaded to do otherwise so we get Bedroom 1 which is large and with a sun room all of its own; very civilized thank you. Bed has a good mattress, augurs well for a good night’s sleep.
We have 3 or 4 days working a bit when the broadband is quickest first thing in the morning, walking a bit and eating and drinking a lot. J arrives for a couple of days. Jing returns home for the National Day. We all go for a drive one day to see the YanTai sights.
We drive to a place called Wendeng about a couple of hours away. I had never heard of the place but it is a very pleasant, bustling city of about 400,000 souls. J’s father has business in the place so we drop J off and all have lunch together before returning to YanTai. All the lunches and drinking are taking their toll and with Jing and J now gone we can settle down and dry out a bit. Need to avoid Wei for a few days for that. Will it be possible?
Not possible to avoid Wei for even a few hours. Midday Tuesday he is phoning Lilly. He wants to take me to lunch with a colleague. That means one thing, drinking all afternoon. I say NO. We have a peaceful day. Lilly and I bus and walk a bit, visit the library and spend time at the beach. It is a beautiful day, not too hot but sunny and clear skies. Later in the afternoon I walk hard for about an hour through the nearby park. Afterwards we are outside and Wei comes along with another colleague. Lilly knows him. He is also a hard drinker. They want me to go with them. I say no. They insist. But I stick to my guns and Lilly supports. It is all in good fun but I need to have at least 2 days alcohol free and I say Thursday is the first day I am prepared to go out again. That’s it, you smooth talking Wei. This younger brother socializes constantly. He has a huge circle of friends, many he went to school with. They are all drinkers. Some are well-off. Wei is not. He exports cherries and his margins are tiny. But he survives somehow even after his alcohol bill. He is now 49, lean, almost skinny and looks fit but suffers from a bad back. He must border on being alcoholic, but I think he has a bit of a binge then lays off it for a while. I can no longer do it at my age.
Bit of drama this morning. When I wake up about 6am, I can’t find my trousers. Neither can I find my watch. I look high and low. And sideways. I eventually report it to the authorities, Lilly and Ma. Initially we reckon someone opened a window in the bedroom and reached in with a long device of some sort and pinched both. Then we find my trousers in an untidy heap on the kitchen floor. There was no wallet in them anyway. I don’t carry one here. I only ever have a small amount of cash in a very small zipped pocket half way down the leg. Then we find a screen window off in the kitchen and in outside barred windows, a bar bent backwards to create a small hole. We also find very clear footprints on the kitchen bench.
We have had a visitor during the night. He came in through the bars (he was small to do it) and kitchen window. He came into our bedroom and knowing foreigners are usually rich, he went first for my trousers and also swiped my watch off the bedside table at the same time. He found nothing in the trousers so discarded them before he exited. He missed Lilly’s watch and significant cash, but the latter would have required a bit of searching for. My watch is not valuable. I have had it for many years. It is a second watch. I am not a rich foreigner and Lilly and I deliberately dress down in China and carry little in the way of accessories so as not to draw attention to ourselves. We rarely carry much cash. So bottom line, no real drama but we need to make this place more secure. In one way it was better he didn’t wake us up because there may have been a confrontation (these guys probably carry knives) and we could have been injured.
Wei is told and comes around and immediately calls the police. He apparently knows the Chief of Police. Not sure necessary, but they come round and ask questions and take photos. Doubt I will see my watch again. I continue working and Lilly and Wei go off to get some window locks.
It is another beautiful day. Later in the afternoon Lilly and I enter this huge park from another direction. We walk through the area where they have the zoo, sideshows for kids and all the fun park rides including a roller coaster. We stop and watch a bit and just relax. Wei has learnt NO means NO and has not bothered us today with lunch or dinner invites but Lilly’s ex is in YanTai and phones wanting us to go to dinner tonight with him and friends. I say no and Lilly agrees with me. We wander around the local market buying all manner of fruit, veg, eggs (including duck) and fish for dinner. It is simple, fresh, plentiful and cheap so going round the market is almost a daily occurrence. Here people stare at us, firstly Lilly is tall and secondly I am some alien from where? You get use to it quickly and look elsewhere. There are very few foreigners here, unlike Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong etc.
After three or four days rest and relaxation Lilly and I are primed for the next round. This morning Wei and wife pick us up at 6:30am for a trip to Jings. Ma is staying but is given massive lectures about how to look after herself while we are away. As if she has never managed by herself. She takes it all in the spirit that Lilly intends it – while I empathise with her plight.
First we pick up large packages of seafood to take to Jings. He is a crab fancier; Wei likes shell fish and only seems to eat anything else when the shell fish run out. Lilly eats anything and everything but does not drink. I am a bit picky these days about both.
The road is superb, a double lane motorway and over the holiday period is toll-free. Speed limit 120 and we travel at 140 where we can. Mainly handles the traffic as we travel west, but once we get on the main Beijing-Qingdao expressway, the volume of traffic causes things to slow a bit.
Apple orchards predominate for about a third of the journey. The trees are laden with fruit. This is the picking season and China exports fresh apples to Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the middle east. Apples give way to corn and then cotton as we get to the Yellow Rover delta. Reminds me of the corn and cotton belts of America. It is very hazy and the air seems filled with dust. Visibility is a kilometre or so. I am told there is definitely no pollution out here in the country. Perhaps not industrial pollution but why is it so smoggy? I belt up and keep my opinions to myself.
We arrive at Jing’s in time for lunch. The table groans under the weight of the dishes and all manner of delicacies. Besides Jing and his wife, there is Jing’s son Chen Chen and his daughter Ting Ting. She is 7 and a bright kid. Chen Chen is 31, is a bit limited mentally (although it is not all that apparent to me) but is a good-natured young man. Daughter-in-law is working and Jing’s daughter Fran is at university. She is about 24 and will be a doctor in a couple of years. Jing’s wife is a very capable and kindly lady, about Lilly’s age. She was the local hospital’s accountant and is now retired; gets a good retirement income. Jing has also been retired for many years. He used to get two life-time pensions from previous jobs, now only one. So they are comfortably off. He has a good car, two apartments and an investment property over in YanTai. This is a four bedroom apartment, up to western standards (bathroom and kitchen apart) and very spacious. Nothing is too much trouble for Lilly’s family. They go to the nth degree to make sure you are comfortable and have everything you need.
We sleep and walk. In the evening Jing, Wei and I go to a dinner in honour of Jing by former students of his. Many years ago he lectured in history at the local university for a few years. Dinner is hosted by the local police chief, also a former student. There are about eight other guys, all in their late 40s and all drinkers. Only Jing gets away with not drinking. There are rituals and it is quite a business learning what you can do and when to drink and when not to. They start with some spirit that is 38% alcohol. I refuse and say beer only. They insist so we compromise on half a glass. It is a good evening, mainly they talk and toast and I eat and toast. Wei tries to translate anything vital but struggles. I miss Lilly at times like this but she was not wanted. This is an evening for the blokes. Nobody apart from me seems to eat much and the food is delicious and plentiful. At the end of the meal most of it still sits there. Everybody wants to toast me individually several times and I struggle to keep up. I am not drunk just bloated by the sheer volume. At one point I wander around outside in the fresh air for a few minutes to recover. At home we entertain the ladies with anecdotes of the evening. Wei wants to keep drinking but Jing takes the remaining beers to bed with him and locks the main exit door. We are eventually pulled into bed by our respective spouses.
The day starts with a post mortem on last night. Wei and I are warned that this is not a safe place at night. A lot of people steal oil and they are chased by the police. (last night police ranks were down by one at least). Oil derricks are everywhere in this area. Oil is now the life blood of the area.
We are in the middle of the Yellow River delta. The Yellow River (Huang He formerly Hwang Ho) is commonly known as the cradle of Chinese civilization. It is really the birthplace of ancient Chinese civilizations and a prosperous area for much of Chinese history. Some of the greatest natural disasters have also occurred here with the flooding of the river. In 1931 it was estimated between 1 million and 4 million lost their lives in a flood. There have been several such over the past 200 years. Rain is not expected while we are here.
Today is Lilly’s birthday. It coincides with her lunar calendar birthday. She does not want it mentioned so I will probably keep quiet about it.
Jing takes us for a drive to the other side of Hekou about an hour away. We are off the main roads now and the secondary roads are not so good at all. Some of them are badly in need of re-sealing and you also have to be constantly alert to the cowboy drivers of oil tankers, tractors, trucks, cars, bikes, motor bikes, in fact everything on wheels or legs.
We stop and pick apples, a small apple that I think we used to call crab apples. There are a lot grown here and they are a favourite of the Chinese. We are given a bucket and an area to pick and in about an hour five of us fill a couple of small sacks. There follows haggling with the owner and his wife over price. When they quote a price I say “tay gweela” (too expensive) and every one has a good laugh, possibly because of my accent and possibly because of the nerve of the cheeky foreigner. Jing spends about Y220 or about A$35 and buys everything they have. We meander back for a liquid lunch. Sleep and walk in the afternoon. Everybody arrives for dinner. Jing breaks into ‘Happy birthday” so they have not forgotten my beloved is 57 today. More and more beers again but eventually I draw a line.
Wei, his wife, Lilly and I bid farewell to Jing (bear-like hugs) and family and leave early for Jinan (population 8m), the capital of Shandong Province. Two hours drive but probably another hour finding the business we are looking for. A lavish lunch, courtesy of them, follows but no drinking as we have more business this afternoon.
Later in the day we start back for YanTai. It is a long drive and we won’t be home until about 11pm. After 2 or 3 hours on the road they discuss stopping for the night in Laizhou, Lilly and Weis old hometown. By the time we arrive there it is about 8 o’clock but somehow about 8 former classmates of Weis have assembled for dinner. A hotel has also been booked for the night. Once again, the table groans with all the food and my belly with the food and beer. Toasts are in order and the drinking rituals are to be adhered to. The foreigner is a ripe target for “drinking under the table” as the Chinese describe someone who is falling over drunk. So I get a lot of toasts. Fortunately the beer is not all that strong and I don’t get too inebriated, just bloated by sheer quantity. The Hotelier joins us. He is inebriated but is very funny and has everyone in stitches. He wants to drink me under the table tomorrow. They are very sociable these Chinese and we joke that Wei has friends in every town (thousands) and city (hundreds) in Shandong Province.
We are booked into what is probably a 3 star hotel which is not too bad, but the beds are very hard. The shower floods the bathroom floor making access to the toilet (a frequent necessity during a night after all the drinking) like negotiating the Yellow River.
After a reasonable buffet style breakfast we meet up with two of the guys from last night. They take us off out into the countryside in two vehicles to a plastics factory. Suddenly in the middle of nowhere there is a road with all these small factories processing old used plastic bags into very small granular plastic for reprocessing back to plastic. The old used plastic arrives from all over the world and from the local market. Much of it is dirty and has to be sorted and cleaned before it can be heated and granularised (if there is such a word). I have never seen anything so filthy and rubbishy as this area. Huge containers of plastic are everywhere. Plastic bags litter the whole area. We wind through heaps of plastic lining each side of the road. It is an environmental disaster and apparently any country exporting this stuff to China has to pay so much a ton to China as compensation for China taking the stuff. But typically the Chinese are innovative and for at least 10 years they have been reprocessing it.
Wei wants to be a plastics importer and they have found a factory owner (and his wife) who are prepared to show us around and describe their operation. Plastic is sorted by about 10 people sitting on the floor with various heaps of plastic around them, depending on the quality. There is what looks like primitive equipment to bathe and wash the plastic, then dry it, heat it and reduce it to the small bits of plastic about the size of a grain of wheat. The whole place stinks. It looks like it has never been tidied up in 10 years. We go back to their office which is relatively civilized and drink tea and discuss. Lilly confuses me with her descriptions of the middlemen and the system of buying, importing and wholesaling. We eventually get it sorted but argue about it on the way back. Fortunately only Wei’s wife is privy to our, at times heated, argument and she only understands a little English. First argument for months.
Lunch is back at the hotel where we were last night and the Hotel owner and his wife join us for lunch. He wants to drink me under the table. We all have a good lunch, lots of photos and I manage to escape relatively unscathed. She has been to NZ and Australia recently and wants to leave her husband (lots of laughing) and marry a New Zealander (more laughing). She cozies up to me a bit for the photos. Lilly is not jealous and I am only interested for appearances sake.
We get home quite late, but Ma has waited for us and the five of us have a good meal of crabs (them), beans (me) and beer (Wei and me) while licking our wounds (Lilly and me).
Quiet day at home mainly. Lilly has what she thinks is an ear infection. Not from any ear-bashing yesterday but she has had it for a couple of months so we go to the hospital for attention. The inside and outside of the hospital is like Central Station at rush hour. All of China has descended on this particular hospital. We eventually get to the Otorhinolaryngology (I kid you not) Department. This department specialises in problems with the head and neck. We have to wait a while. The doctor quickly analyses that Lilly has no problem with the ear, it is an infection of the thyroid gland he reckons and prescribes antibiotics. Lilly does not want to take antibiotics and later gets some anti-inflammatory medicine.
Work most of the day. Late afternoon take the bus to the main library only to find it closed Thursday afternoons. Instead we walk down to the promenade where there are many guys fishing and along the beach. Lilly picks up stones for Ma. I watch several swimmers out in the bay. These are hardy, beefy guys, serious ocean swimmers who don’t seem to feel the cold. We chat to one or two. They swim about 8 months of the year. The sea is now about 22C which is quite cold for swimming.
It is a beautiful day with little breeze and reasonably warm although I am wearing a jacket in the late afternoon. There are two or three wedding groups focused on photo taking and a guy on horse back who gallops up and down the beach a bit on a fairly large white horse.
I miss the daily newspaper, not being able to listen to and watch the news and documentaries on TV and especially the All Black games. On the other hand I have access via the internet (although slow), a fairly decent book on the history of China, plenty of work and the fascination of the city and environs, the markets, the socializing etc. We have decided I will stay on with Lilly and she has changed the ticket this morning so we both return to Australia at the same time on November 17. Will probably stay here until the end of this month then spend a couple of weeks in Beijing.
Lilly is spending quite lot of time with Ma who is teaching her some Tai Chi routines. There are 70 separate moves that Lilly has to learn as part of the routine. Her memory is not as good as it was and the problem is remembering the sequence. The Chinese are big on this and on group tai chi, singing and exercise. Many of them are up at sparrows doing their exercises, some individually but many as part of a group. Ma is almost a fitness fanatic, even doing press ups. Often you see her round the house standing on tip toes trying to reach up to the top of the door. She also reads and writes a lot.
Lilly lectures Ma constantly but she is set in her ways. She complained of tooth ache a few days ago so I said we will take her to the dentist and get it fixed. After that the tooth ache goes away and you are not certain whether it really has or she does not want to go because of the expense. Ma lives on the smell of an oily rag, which rag it is I am not sure. We joke that she has net negative living expenses, meaning she some how recoups more than the little bit she spends so that she saves her whole pension. We exaggerate but it is frugality in the extreme and all Lilly’s hectoring makes no difference in the end. This is China and they are a nation of savers. They have seen tougher times and any opportunity there is, they will put aside just in case. Indeed this is an economic quandary for China because the country desperately needs to shift from an infrastructure development (currently still represents more than 50% of GDP), export-oriented economy to one driven more by domestic consumption. So they want their people to spend and buy their own products to keep the economy ticking over and their people employed. Big problem.
I am up at 5:30. Get most of the critical stuff done before the internet goes down. Not sure whether it is our problem or the ISPs. Lilly phones them. They say it’s our problem. I spend a lot of time trying to fix it to no avail.
In the afternoon we bus to the library. We go to the English section on the 7th floor. The most recent English newspaper we can find is the China Daily, date 26 September. Probably I read it that day. I am also looking for a history of China authored by a Westerner. No such luck. Nothing on Chinese history. Plenty on history of the rest of the world, mainly stuff from 10 years and more ago. Makes sense, why expose your citizens to a balanced account of past events involving China, better keep them in the dark.
Bit of a wild goose chase for me and so I save one yuan (the bus fare) and walk home. Lilly gets the bus. It takes me about an hour I guess, but I have no watch. Can’t get into the flat so I go looking for Lilly, get lost and end up really do the Long March today.
It is immensely frustrating when I can’t access the Net. I feel quite isolated tonight. No English papers, no TV in English and now no internet. Sometimes Lilly feels isolated in Tauranga. I can empathise with that but at least she is hooked up via a daily newspaper, international TV news and the internet and she can speak and understand English. It’s just me having a bit of a whinge.
It is Saturday and Wei and Chin arrive early. We have breakfast and go off to the market. I take my computer because Chin knows someone in the library who knows someone who repairs computers who knows someone that has Ethernet parts. The computer guy is smart and quickly analyses that there is a hardware problem – which Chin and I had also thought possible – and circumvents it with a Ethernet USB converter which he installs and gets it all running for us for Y100, about A$16.
The women go shopping while Wei and I watch the passing parade. It is a very large and busy shopping market. You can buy anything and everything for practically nothing (well at least by our standards). Lilly buys a suitcase, our 143rd or thereabouts. On the way back Wei gets annoyed with a young driver who confronts him. He is mollified by Lilly and Chin, the latter telling him that he should not be so aggressive – with his bad back, how could he even move if he got into a physical fight.
The driving and negotiating in tight spots is like nothing we ever encounter in the West. There are few accidents but it is a miracle there are not more.
The first rule for the Westerner is never step off the pavement until you have checked both ways. Naturally we look to see the road is clear to the right and that is so ingrained. But the traffic here comes at you from the left. And at intersections and almost anywhere it comes at you from everywhere. The road is where angels fear to tread. Where there are lights, there are rules but the pedestrian cannot be pedestrian. He or she must be quick-witted with eyes in the back of the head. Zebra crossings are sacrosanct in the west; here they are death traps if you think like that. Traffic here weaves all over the road. It is a competition to juggle for the best and quickest way forward and look out everyone else. Most drivers are respectful of the rule, thou shalt not kill, not even pedestrians, but there are a lot of cowboys. Roads are no-go zones best left to traffic.
We come back for a delicious lunch (including lamb) and all manner of small and large delicacies. The Cantonese (and by extension the Chinese) will eat anything with legs that is not a chair, anything with wings, that is not an aeroplane and anything that swims, that is not a submarine according to the Duke of Edinburgh. Not a bad policy actually. Finally my computer is back hooked on to the Net. I can catch up with emails and updating. After lunch Wei and I have a chat about plastics and other stuff. This time Lilly translates strictly in accordance with instructions. We clear the air a bit about the way forward. It transpires that Wei and I were on the same wave-length the other day at the plastics factory, in spite of there being no communication between us. A function and middle-man could be omitted from the process. Lilly has good intentions but does not have quite the same business sense and understandably can’t translate the nuances. Wei goes off to a business appointment at 3:30. Lilly and Ma make for the dentist, matters not that it is Saturday afternoon. Ma’s toothache is bad enough now to more than offset her deep-rooted frugality. Must be really painful now. I have peace and quiet, a beer and an Ethernet converter.
Another beautiful day. Wei and Chin arrive late for breakfast just as Lilly and I are off to the market.
Market trips are not to be missed and today’s is one of the best. It is a popular, fairly handy market that today is teeming with people buying fruit, veg and all manner of stuff lining both sides of the road for probably a kilometre and then another bit that is under a roof of sorts. There is heaps of stuff everywhere, always a good sign of a healthy market place. What happens when it rains and snows, I shudder to think. It must be a quagmire. The fish and meat areas are a bit smelly and you have to watch your step. People wind along in single file almost, as there is little room between the rows of produce in many places. The whole experience is fascinating. People occupy almost every square inch and the haggling and noise and general atmosphere is mesmerising. Occasionally some bright trader says “hello”, sometimes I respond with a “nee how”, which often gets a laugh. They also laugh at or with me when I ask “door shower tee anne” (how much) particularly after they give me a price and I say “tay gweela” (too expensive). We buy figs from a little old lady who doesn’t seem to be selling anything, more out of pity than good sense. But the figs are ripe, delicious and not too expensive. Lilly buys a large piece of multi-coloured cotton material for our flat in Beijing. I assume carrier duties and am soon laden with all manner of stuff to lug home including a dish holder, small fish, huge cockles, grapes for Africa, tomatoes, cabbage and everything that flies that is not an aero plane. Part of my exercise routine.
Wei, Lilly and I trip around Fushan a bit, a city about half an hour away. See Ma’s old place where we stayed several times. Home OK but area not pleasant. She and Jing still own it but rent it out. Bit run down now and it reminds me of how glad I was when we were able to find the current place for Ma.
Otherwise mainly working today. Late afternoon Lilly and I bus to the hospital. Not so busy at this time of the day. Lilly’s throat is sore and the gland problem is no better. The doctor says blood tests first, so we go downstairs to the laboratory and Lilly has blood drawn. Five minutes later she goes to this ATM like machine that scans her details and spits out a bit of paper with the results. No hanging around for days waiting for the Pathology Lab to get its act together. Lilly goes back up to the doctor with the results. There are a couple of minor deviations and he prescribes medicine. Costs virtually nothing to see a doctor, but the medicine is expensive. Most of the local Chinese can get most of it back and the elderly don’t pay anything. Lilly does not want to take antibiotics and the doctor has no problem with that, just prescribes equivalent Chinese medicine. Hopefully it will do the trick without the side-effects. We shall see. Trust it works quickly.
Mainly quiet days at home. One afternoon the existing windows in the whole flat are replaced by new thick glass windows that slide easily and are lockable. Hopefully we won’t get anybody coming in at night any longer.
Today we drive with Wei and Chin for about an hour and a half to a little village Xiachu just outside Weihai. It is in the centre of a fruit growing area. One of Wei’s classmates has a small canning factory. Wei finds the business via importers, mainly in Europe and this colleague produces the canned fruit, pears, apples, cherries and strawberries in cans and also bottles. I think Wei also sources some of the fruit. Margins are small and demand from Europe is down this year from 1000 tons of pears last year to only 100 tons this year. It is a tough business. The colleague does not want me to go look at the factory, but Wei insists so we have a quick look. It is pretty basic, almost primitive. In one area a dozen ladies are busy hand skinning pears. Zip, zip, zip and a pear is cored, skinned and halved; unbelievably quick.
There follows the inevitable lunch. Another colleague and the factory manager also join us. The food is plentiful, not always to my liking. It is hard to get the flesh of the large shrimps. I traditionally pass on the big crabs, much to Lilly’s delight. She can get my share. Today I don’t eat the silkworms or the pig’s intestines but otherwise tuck in. Toasts come thick and fast. I drink beer, the three others drink the hard stuff. I have to drink a bottle to every small tumbler of theirs otherwise it’s not a fair contest according to Wei. One of the guys is wasted by the end of the meal. Wei’s colleague comes out of his shell after a few drinks and I have a productive conversation with him about China and the west, via Lilly. He is one of the first people to actually take the time to seek another opinion and to listen to the response. Lilly of course has her own opinions and is not backward in coming forward, so having a one-on-one conversation with anyone is difficult. He is pretty negative about China, business, economy and politics and thinks the country is in for hard times. The other colleague disagrees but he has had too much to drink, has completely lost the plot and the ability to articulate. He breaks into song at one point and is then ushered out by the ladies.
Later after we return home, about 4pm Wei beckons me to accompany him. We go to a restaurant just down the road and he orders a leg/shoulder of lamb and a carton of beer, 12 large bottles. The lamb is taken from the fridge and done on a spit. It takes about an hour and a half, some of it in the middle of the table right in front of us. By the time it is ready, Wei and I have worked our way through a number of family matters and a fair bit of the beer. The conversation is a bit stilted but the beer flows. A couple of Wei’s colleagues arrive for dinner. They take it in turns in carving the lamb off the bone. It is turned often. Nothing else to eat; this is a blokes dinner. No rabbit food. But the roast lamb is tasty. By the end of the meal after a good few toasts and the meat consumed, Wei is feeling it, so we start back for home. But he wants me and one of the guys to go to another colleagues place. I refuse because I don’t think he is fit to go anywhere and so two of us usher him home. Lilly and Chin are not all that pleased with us but the other guy comes in for a chat and so the music is not as loud as it may otherwise have been.
Lilly is feeling better today and we go to the market where she stocks up on bedding and other stuff.
In the afternoon cousins arrive from Laizhou. They are Lilly’s age and they arrive to talk about New Zealand and the plastics industry and to catch up. They come laden with grapes and kumeras and crabs and all manner of gifts. He has been in Oman for about four years and has got involved in importing used plastic to China. He must be among the most likeable men I have ever met. He laughs a lot and has a permanent smile on his face. We have met up with them a couple of times in the past and it is something to look forward to. She is about three of him, larger than life and also a really lovable character. Their son of 22 drives them. She has just been in Auckland and bought 8 container loads (about 280 tons) of used plastic which they are importing to China. They want to know whether they could buy or rent a place permanently in Auckland so they have a base there. I say they could rent, not sure about buy, and we could help them find a place and get them settled into it. The long-term intention is to get the son managing from Auckland. He is busy learning English. After a chat they have to go but will return next week.
Wei and Chin come for lunch. Chin does a special lunch of spaghetti in Italian sauce apparently for me, so I am honoured and it is delicious. Later in the afternoon Lilly and I walk to the park and look for an area where you can walk up a hill to a small pagoda. We find the track and then the stairs, up and up and up, when is it going to end. Each stair is about a metre and a half wide and on the front of the stair it has a date and a Chinese inscription. The dates go back 2000 years and mark such things as the American Civil War, the birth of a famous poet, the beginnings of communism in China etc. Lilly reckons there are about 750 stairs. Anyway it’s a long way up. There are a surprisingly large number of people going up and down. I leave Lilly at one point. She sounds as if she will wait for me when I come down. But a few minutes after I get to the pagoda at the top, she also makes it. It is worth the effort. The view over Yantai is spectacular. We are looking North, East and West, with the sea to the north and east. The hill rises further to the south. We can pick out landmarks of where we have been. We stop frequently going down to read the stairway chronicle of world events.
Not much going on – mainly working and a bit of walking. Drying out. Tomorrow we go to Shahur where the family was born and raised. We are off at 7 am so I have the alarm for 5 to do my early morning computer updating. Ma is coming as well. She is going to be taken to her mother’s graveside while we get a tour of the plastics depot and recyclers. All afternoon Ma has been preparing. It is a big occasion for her even though she apparently goes there from time to time. She has prepared food and containers and other stuff.
I have a shower. Yes occasionally even get to do that. It is quite a performance. We all get used to our creature comforts and take them for granted. Here having a shower is a bit of an ordeal. There is no separate cubicle, hot water is not abundant and the water goes everywhere. There are half a dozen containers for water that occupy most of the spare space in the bathroom; most of the time the tiled floor is wet. Ma recycles water, it seems like several times. Spare water is used for the toilet. Apparently all households do the same. Water was in short supply but there no longer seems to be a problem. Bathrooms and kitchens here are fairly basic, to some primitive might be closer to the mark. Pipes and electricity and water heaters are all out in the open, not buried behind the wall. In the kitchen you will never find butter or milk or cereal. (although lately we have been buying a small quantity for what passes as milk so that I can have a cuppa – it tastes as if the milk has gone off a bit, but I have got used to it) The little deprivations are more than offset by the little fascinations. I suppose when the English aristocracy visit us natives in the Antipodes, they complain about the lack of a Gin and Tonic and canapés before dinner. And where are the stables for our polo ponies? So it’s all relative. And I am glad I have such relatives in this neck of the woods.
Most of today we spend in Shahur about two and a half hours drive from Yantai. It is an experience like no other. This is where the family was raised. Conditions in the late fifties and sixties were dreadful. The time of China’s “Great Leaps Forward” and the Cultural Revolution was a time of starvation, intimidation and brutality in China. During the Cultural Revolution the so-called bourgeois’ were persecuted. Ma was a teacher and was therefore part of the middle class. This was a revolution of the peasant class. Fortunately it was a small place then and Ma did not get beaten up but there was some bullying and pressure. Millions died at the time, many from hunger and undernourishment. One of Ma’s older brothers died from starvation and left a large family. She was instrumental in saving them from a certain death, mainly out of personal sacrifices that she made; giving them food when she had practically none. The other families apparently abandoned them, but she stuck with them. She has told me before that from about 1958 until the early seventies she never ate one decent meal.
Today we meet up with three brothers and a sister from that family. The older brother is now about 70, the second brother is about my age, the third brother is about Lilly’s age and the sister also about that age. The third brother and his wife are the two involved in the plastics. They are relatively well-off and look prosperous. He takes us all along the road to point out a street-front building that he owns and an insurance agency that he and his daughter run for the government. On the way back there is a scruffy little man in working clothes standing by his bike on the other side of the road. Lilly suddenly crosses the road and puts her arms around this bloke and starts crying. It is the second brother. We have not seen him before and it is maybe 30 years since Lilly saw him. It is pretty emotional. They virtually lived and starved together with this family.
Everybody joins us for lunch at the town’s number one restaurant. Third brother and larger-than-life wife are the hosts, Ma is guest of honour. Third brothers daughter and son-in-law and 4 month old child also join us. It is a big table and during the meal everyone gets up and honours Ma with toasts and speeches. Scruffy little second brother makes quite a long speech and articulates well. He is probably poor because he has put his son through university and the son now has a Masters degree. The next generation is the hope and the sacrifices the older generation has made to keep the dream alive are beyond our comprehension. Lilly and some of the others are quite emotional. Ma is stoic as usual. She is modest and shuns all the attention but later on the way home admits to Lilly and Wei that the family of cousins would not have survived without her support at the time.
After lunch we go to her Mother’s graveside. Ma takes the food and other stuff. I don’t see it because I keep a respectful distance. I am not to take photos. The second cousins and Lilly and Wei accompany her. I can hear her crying. Lilly supports her.
Next stop is a depot where imported used plastic is stored. It is dirty and smelly and untidy. There are heaps of plastic two or three metres high in long rows, roughly sorted by grade. There many such depots. Why are they bringing in all this plastic if they are not actually recycling it? Some of it looks to have been there for years. I never get an understandable response to that question. We then visit a recycler. It is all very basic, grimy and polluted. Third brother and wife are importing and have just been to NZ and bought either 5 or 8 containers. Can they sell it and make a profit? Lilly says they are determined to sell it and not leave it lying around in one these depots. Could they consider buying out a recycling operator, or setting up their own recycling plant and both import and recycle? I never get an understandable response to that question. A good policy in that respect is that if you don’t understand something, don’t go near it. Another old saying is that if someone can’t explain something relatively simply, they probably don’t understand it themselves. Part of the problem is cultural and part a reluctance by the locals to say “I don’t know” because that is loss of face. I may be wrong on all counts. Nonetheless Lilly and I will assist where we can with the NZ end.
Mainly work today. Mid-afternoon Lilly and I catch a bus to the sea-side. We spend an hour or so wandering along the sea-front. The weather has been cold but today it is balmy and there is no wind. No jacket needed.
Prime position on the sea-front is occupied by a plush hotel that is apparently owned by the military and where the top brass can stay when they like. Premier Deng Xiaoping (who was mainly instrumental thirty years ago in setting China on a new path to prosperity) used to come to Yantai for the summer holiday and this is where he stayed. The area occupied by the hotel and surrounding gardens is almost of golf course proportions. The dynasties had their summer palaces but the communist elites still live the life of riley as well.
Deng famously proclaimed in the late seventies that “it is glorious to be rich” and that really marked the beginnings of the hybrid system China now has; a relatively benign communist dictatorship with a capitalist economy. The underlying problem remains. Lilly refers to it. The dynasties were corrupt from top to bottom and that is the main reason why they fell. Today little is changed in that respect, despite a good example being set (I think) by President Hu Jintao. Corruption is endemic and the people know it. They see how the rich have got richer and there has been a growing middle class, but probably at least half of all Chinese still live in abject poverty.
We catch another bus back but don’t get it totally right and end up with quite a long walk home through the park. We are getting plenty of exercise.
Take another bus mid-afternoon going a bit further this time to an exhibition of arts and craft. Huge hall, massive exhibits, all manner of furniture, precious stones, paintings, vases and virtually everything to fit your new home out with except appliances. We arrive late and rush around as quickly as possible in about an hour and a half. The place deserves a full day.
A lot of the heavy furniture is not to my taste but some of the paintings are of a high quality. One of the Guilin area with the little mountains is going for Y86,000 about A$13,000. There are three or four other scenery paintings in that collection that we would buy if we had the money. The only other objet d’art that really caught my attention was a room divider with silk panels, different on all sides and finished off beautifully. Great aesthetic appeal and would go very nicely in our Beijing flat. We enquire about price. Y3,000,000 about A$450,000. It was an exquisite piece of artwork but not that exquisite. I argued they had the decimal point in the wrong place, but no definitely three million yuan. We would have to sell the flat to pay for it and then what would we do with it? Lilly says the artist is famous in China and the really wealthy won’t have any difficulty with the price. Good on them.
It is a long way home and getting late. Very few foreigners will catch a bus in China. People say; he’s a foreigner, why isn’t he catching a cab. He can afford it. J even asks incredulously “are you guys still catching buses”? We do, and I am not fazed at all by what others think.
Travelling on a bus gives you a good view of a city, is cheap transport and puts you in touch with people, literally, even if you can’t talk to them.
Tonight we catch two buses back from the exhibition hall. It is quite a long way and by the time we get back into the city, it is dark and after 5pm. This is rush hour and the city is just about in gridlock. We are standing towards the front of the bus, packed in with others like sardines.
The bus driver yells constantly to people to move back and accepts new people on the bus from both entrance and exit. Yuan notes and the little electronic cards are passed forward to him via a chain of hands from the exit door, the cards then back. The doors often can’t close and there is a lot of shoving and shouting. A kid’s school bag gets caught in the door. It is pulled free by a big guy. The driver really lays down the law as to where he can accept no more. It is a point about 20 more than it should be but nobody on the street wants to be left there to take their chance with the next bus.
People may want to avoid contact with a foreigner but here there is no option. It is body to body. Eventually 2 people exit and Lilly and I can sit. Passengers are crammed up against us still. People are jostling and swaying mainly in unison, they have no option. If the bus stops too quickly or lurches, there is mayhem; all fascinating to me, but just an every day occurrence for them. Mostly during the day, it is quite civilized and you can usually get a seat.
Only thing of note today is that I extend my walk up the stairway (third time I have done it and it does not get any easier) and go on climbing for perhaps half an hour to a TV transmission tower on the skyline. It is heavy going.
Most of the local folk doing it are young but I force myself a bit because I need to regain fitness. At the top I take out my map and ask directions if I take a certain track. I want to descend on the other side of the range and get a bus back.
Several young folk take a look at my map but nobody seems to understand what I want to do. A young lady with a little English takes up my cause and asks a number of people if they speak English. Some pore over my map but nobody can explain where the track on my map goes. Many of them anyway head off down what I believe to be the track. I eventually decide to go back the way I came.
Later the first young lady catches up with me on the stairway and asks me where I am from. She says she is at Yantai University and has colleagues in Australia. She is doing Chinese at university but apparently wants to go to Australia. Her very limited English is at least comprehendible. We trot down the remaining stairs mainly in silence as she obviously understands very little of what I tell her about Australia, including warnings about unemployment and disillusionment.
Stairs are a way of life here. There are a huge number of apartment buildings that are 6 stories tall. That is the limit, beyond which lifts have to be installed. Both Wei in Yantai and Jing in Goudour have flats on the 6th floor of buildings that are that height. So they have to climb six flights to get home. It’s OK if you have nothing to carry, but if you have heavy groceries or water or beer or furniture, it becomes a slog. Most of the Chinese therefore keep fit without even being conscious of it. Not to mention the huge number doing Tai Chi and dancing to music every morning and/or every evening in the large local courtyard. Ma’s flat is on the first floor so only one flight of stairs.
Lilly takes Ma off to get her eyes tested. There is a cataract problem in one eye but apparently it has not reached a point of maturity. We need to go to the hospital next week and get a proper medical opinion in my opinion. She hunches over what she reads and does so as if she is half blind. She is quite bent as a result.
Not much to record. Mainly working and a bit of walking in the hills. At least one evening out late with Wei and friends one of whom take us to a really elegant little bar and coffee house, hate to think what the bill was. I am not allowed to pay, just as well as I have no money anyway.
Upon arrival the first meal should be noodles according to Chinese tradition. The feet are thus tied to the host’s home. Upon departure the last meal should be of dumplings which helps you to roll onwards.
Today up early for computer work and a last breakfast of dumplings. I can sense the emotion as Ma is given last minute instructions for looking after herself. Lilly has spent her last hours here yesterday and today, washing, packing, tidying, cleaning, shifting furniture, cooking, arranging, bringing in flour and all manner of supplies and generally organising Ma’s little universe.
We arrive back in Beijing on a cold and wet day. The cabbie tells us that snow is expected. The flat is not too cold.
Six centimeters of snow overnight. It is cold outside but warm in. We trek around a bit, but realise we are going to need better footwear, scarves, gloves etc. The internet ranges from bad to spasmodic. For 48 hours I can’t update or view my emails. The ISP tells us we are not alone. There is an electronic moat around Beijing because of the upcoming National Congress sessions which start on the 8th of November. We decide we may as well return to Sydney. Lilly re-books us for Wednesday 7th arriving in Sydney the 8th.