Hefei; Industrial Capital on the Plain

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 12:00 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 4th entry in a series titled From the Delta to the Backwoods about my recent trip to China.

Located just west of glitzy Jiangsu province is a land which bares little in common with its affluent neighbors. There are few skyscrapers, no Dairy Queens, and even karaoke clubs can be difficult to find. If there is one thing which characterizes Anhui province, it is a lack of discretionary income. What Anhui does have however is people, over 65 million of them and a per capita GDP of just around $2000, one of the lowest in the Middle Kingdom.

Anhui’s economic status, as well as its landlocked location, have also ensured that during the past three decades of reform, it has remained one of the provinces least touched by outside influence. There is arguably no other municipality in China’s eastern half (where 90% of the population resides) which has been left further behind than Anhui since the Deng Xiaoping reforms were initiated in 1978. While few travelers, Chinese or foreign, would opt to venture into Anhui (excluding Huangshan), the people of Anhui are a common sight all across the Middle Kingdom. In recent decades the economic conditions and slow pace of development in their homeland has triggered a mass migration of much of Anhui’s rural population to neighboring regions in search of work and a better life. Thesedays in many wealthy coastal cities, especially Shanghai, Anhui people form a healthy majority of the working class, partaking in those occupations undesirable to locals. If you’ve ever ridden a peddicab, paid to use a public toilet, bought vegetables in a wet market or received a foot massage anywhere in Eastern China, chances are you’ve been the recipient of Anhui labor.

It was with all this in mind that I decided to make Anhui the focal point of my recent trip to China. From the Great Wall to the Earth Buildings in Fujian, China is chalked full of a plethora of cultural heritage sites and attractions. However, often the most intriguing locales are the ones where there is “nothing to see.” Once Tex and I arrived in Anhui, the most common question we received from locals was, “Why on earth did you come here?” And that’s exactly why we went.

After our first day of travel to Huang Shan, Tex and I wanted nothing more than to get away from the over-commercialization of Huang Shan.  While some travelers find Huang Shan to be a cultural and scenic highlight and others think of it a lackluster tourist trap, one thing that can be agreed upon across the board is that Huang Shan is not an accurate representation of Anhui.  Our first introduction to the real Anhui came as soon as we arrived at the Huang Shan train station.  Our next stop was to be Hefei, the provincial capital of Anhui.  The only tickets available were for “hard seats” (no beds) on the 普快车, literally “regular fast,” or more accurately the “extra slow” train.  Normally this wouldn’t be a huge deal, if only it weren’t an 8-hour overnight train.  In all practicality, the best way to endure these kinds of journeys where one typically ends up sleeping upright on a firm seat in a train car packed like a school bus, is to drink…heavily…both before and during the journey.  The plus side is that riding the 普快 train is usually cheap, dirt cheap.  Tickets cost roughly $5 USD
A reminder to all patrons of the train station not to spit on the floor
This is the interior of the 普快 (extra slow) train.  Back in the day, this is what most Chinese trains looked like.  These days, most routes between major cities are serviced by 特快 or 空调快速 trains, which are faster, more comfortably furnished, and air conditioned.  Over the past year or two, even these trains have been increasingly replaced by the super speedy 动车组 (bullet) trains. Yet in places like Anhui, many routes are still run by the old slow trains.  Fortunately for us, the train was half empty and the outside temperatures were in the fifties.  In peak travel times with a packed train and no air conditioner, the journey on the slow train can be an exercise in sheer human endurance.
In addition to keeping the cabin temperature to a level appropriate for human breathing, the fact that the train was half empty also allowed us to lie out across the seat, thus partially alleviating the discomfort caused by lack of beds.
That being said, you never are going to get truly satisfying sleep on the slow train.
You can either bitch and complain, or suck it up and view the journey for the value of the experience.  For millions of people in China, the slow train isn’t merely an inconvenience, it’s just the way you travel.  And they probably don’t have the extra money to blow on warm 5 RMB cans of beer either.
For any Chinese province, the capital city is the main transit hub and jumping off point.  Our goal was to make it to some of the more remote regions of the region, but since we had to go there anyway, Tex and I decided to take the day to explore Hefei on foot.  We arrived at about 6 am, and our first order of business was breakfast.  One of the first options we encountered was 臭豆腐 (chou4 dou4 fu2) “stinky tofu.”
If you’ve never tasted it, you’ve probably at least smelled it before.  Stinky tofu smells like boiled garbage, and its aroma can travel blocks away.  Yet the taste of stinky tofu, as claimed by most vendors, is actually quite different from its rank smell.  I’ve tried it before and am indifferent. Tex is a big fan.
In many ways, the setup of Hefei is congruous with other stock Chinese capital cities, with tall highrises, wide avenues, “scenic spots,” and public works projects such as this broad lake in the middle of the downtown.  Yet noticeably deficient in Hefei are restaurants, tea shops, massage parlors, brothels, and karaokee bars, all of which are heavily dependent on disposable income.
As one of the more industrial of the Chinese capitals, Hefei is a city where you can feel the dust in the air between your teeth when you breathe.
While exploring Hefei’s city center, Tex and I came across the Anhui Provincial Zoo.  With a 10 RMB admission charge, a campus no larger than half of a football field, and rudimentary bared cages, the zoo was a veritable trip back in time in the history of human treatment of animals.
This was very much exhibited in the “animal show” we watched.  Bears and monkeys who spent the majority of their existence locked in tiny cages with barely enough room to turn around, were dressed up and paraded around the enclosure in a mock Chinese wedding ceremony.
In China, captive animals are still very much treated like novelties, and while it is easy to criticize the Chinese in this regard, it is worth remembering that the favorable treatment of animals we have in the West took many generations to develop as well.  It is also very much confined towards those animals from whom we receive entertainment and companionship rather than purely nourishment.
Interestingly enough, turkey is the only member of the animal kingdom I have ever catalogued which is commonly eaten in the United States but never consumed in the Middle Kingdom. While I have never seen turkey on a Chinese dinner plate, it is actually a fairly common captive animal in Chinese zoos.
We spent the rest of the day exploring downtown and especially the large park in the center.
Like most major Chinese cities, Hefei has a pedestrian street which runs through central downtown.
Here’s another example of a Chinese escalator aka stairs.
A common site in some of the China’s less developed major cities, Hefei has a great deal of street activity which in other locations might be conducted behind a store front, such as this ear cleaning.
The edge of Hefei’s city center are surrounded by more water ways.  As one meanders further from downtown, the streetscape becomes increasingly industrial with rows and rows of machine shops and materials plants (not pictured).
another shot of downtown
In the geographic center of Anhui is this Buddhist Temple.  We took a brief peek inside, and decided it had little to differentiate itself from the other 925,873,895 touristy Buddhist temples in China.
Hefei had by far and away the best public infrastructure we would encounter anywhere in Anhui.
more parks and highrises
surprisingly picturesque Anhui overcast skies
another view
view over downtown
One of the more interesting episodes from our day in Hefei was a public “political meeting” we accidentally bumped into.  Typically in these meetings retirees stand around in a public space and discuss political topics in an open format.  Upon our entrance, myself, Tex, and Barack Obama immediately became the main topics of discourse.  The retirees, led by several outspoken individuals griped to us that Anhui people were not receiving the majority of the benefits which have become available to the rest of China in the three decades following the Reform and Opening Up.
After a few minutes of casual questioing about our backgrounds and personal lives, the topic of discussion became increasingly political.  Tex and I found ourselves stuck in the middle of a sea of bodies genially hurling pro-dem0cracy (and ant1-CCP) slogans our way. For the mob, it was as if for the first time they had encountered outsiders who presumably would share the beliefs and causes they were championing for.  It was at this point, we decided it was probably in best interests to remove ourselves from the situation.
Before leaving the leader of the mob insisted on taking a picture with me.  He wrote down his phone number on a piece of paper and told me to call him later to “discuss more political things.”
While walking through downtown in the afternoon Tex and I had come across 小吃街 (xiao3 chi1 jie1) or as we might say in English a “snack street.”  A snack street is usually an alley off of a main street where vendors set up stalls selling freshly made street snacks.  Some snack streets are officially sanctioned by city governments, however the majority consist of vendors who setup without the proper permits.  Enforcement of street vending regulations in Chinese cities vary, but more often than not there is a mutual understanding between vendors and police that they will be allowed set up their stalls, but only in certain locations. One of the most entertaining Chinese street spectacles is when word travels through the crowd that the police are coming through and checking permits.  A pack of vendors rush to pack up their carts and dash away before the police make it through.  Fifteen minutes later, it’s back to business as usual.
Fortunately in Hefei, street vendors didn’t seem to get pestered too much by police.  As our tour of Anhui continued, Tex and I would come to find that the province has an extremely high concentration of street food vendors relative to typical Chinese standards. This we found was to make up for the dearth of restaurants, as street food is generally more affordable than food served in a bona fide restaurant.
Snack streets also enable patrons to eat entire meals by grazing rather than simply sitting at a table and ordering food.  This gave Tex and I an excellent opportunity to sample some of the local fare, like these deep boiled eggs and sausages.
…as well snacks found all over China such as these squid-kabobs
One pattern in Anhui cuisine which we noticed was a high affinity for chicken.
Large snack streets, such as the one we found in Hefei, often set up mini-tables with small plastic chairs for patrons to snack at.  There are no trashcans.  All skewers, napkins, cigarette buts, and other non-recyclable garbage is thrown directly on the ground.  After the stalls close down at the end of the night, a thorough cleaning is done with all garbage swept up.  The next day the cycle begins again.
Tex and I did most of our eating mobilly, bouncing from stall to stall, and sampling the various culinary delights.  No item on the snack street cost more than 4 RMB (a little more than half a dollar) and most were more in the nighborhood of 1 or 2 RMB.
another parting shot of vendors hard at work
After dinner we took another walk around the pedestrian street.  Like most cities in China, Hefei looks entirely different at night than it does during the day.
One particularly interesting site was this bus station located just near the end of the pedestrian street.  The terminal is in fact a bridge over a busy thoroughfare.  Coming down from the bridge are numbered gates where passengers walk down to street level to board their bus.

Tex and I had spent a full day exploring the largest, most modern, and well-developed city in Anhui.  While it shared many of the same features and amenities of other Chinese capital cities, Hefei also provided us with a glimpse of what we would experience later in our journey as we traveled to the poorer areas of the province.  Our next stop was to be Fuyang, a more anonymous Northern Anhui city, and one of the poorest in the province.  More to come.



Huang Shan: the Famous Yellow Mountain

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 12:54 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 3nd entry in a series titled From the Delta to the Backwoods about my recent trip to China.

After six days of travel by myself, I was met in Hangzhou by my old friend James L. Goode, who is currently working in Wenzhou.  I had taken the one hour bus from Linan to Hangzhou, and he had ridden the overnight train from Wenzhou.  We met up at the bus station in Hangzhou, from where we set out to Tunxi, the nearest city to Huang Shan, our first destination in Anhui.

If you grew up in the West, you’ve probably never heard of Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain), but if you grew up in China, you’ve been hearing stories about it since before you’ve been able to talk.  It’s one of China’s 5 “famous mountains,” and by many accounts, the best of the five.  People who follow this blog are probably quite familiar with my own attitudes towards Chinese tourism and tourist attractions, yet I had heard enough raving about Huang Shan, that I didn’t want to have to take the flack from all my Chinese friends for visiting Anhui, and bypassing the famous Yellow Mountain.

To get to Huangshan, we took a bus from Hangzhou to a town called Tunxi.  From Tunxi, a half hour shuttle bus takes you to Huangshan “village.”  From the village, you take a taxi up to the base of the mountain.  If you are a real mountaineer (or somebody in mildly decent shape) this is where you disembark, and begin the journey up the mountain on foot.  For Tex and me, we chose option 2: the cable car.
Apparently the cable car is quite the popular option, because all of the taxi drivers and vendors at Huangshan, who don’t speak a lick of English still manage to finagle the word “cable car” into Chinese sentences.  I couldn’t tell you how many times I heard the phrase “要不要去cable car.”
Another note about Huang Shan:  March (or any other non-summer, non-holiday time) is the ideal time to go.  While walking up the steps to the cable car, we passed a sign which read “from this point it is a 2 hour wait for the cable car.”  Fortunately for us, there was nobody waiting ahead.  Bottom line:  Don’t go to Huang Shan during peak tourist season, unless you like shoulder to shoulder people traffic.
Riding up the cable car gave us a chance to look down at the scenery, as well as consult our trusty map.
It ain’t too yellow, but it sure does look nice.
Here’s a view from the top of the mountain.  I don’t want to sound like a complete Negative Nancy, but the natural scenery at Huang Shan was pleasant, but certainly not the best I have ever seen in China.
Fortunately for Tex and me, we were going to Anhui, from Zhejiang, anyway so a day at Huang Shan fit perfectly into our route.
Now before I go any further, I should probably outline the cost of our little trip to Huang Shan.  Keep in mind, these are all off-season rates.  The taxi from Huang Shan “village” up to the base was 25 RMB per head.  To actually get into the mountain park, you had to buy a ticket which cost 200 RMB.  Once we were at the base, a main reason we sped up the mountain on the cable car was to avoid having to stay the night and pay for a hotel room at the top of the mountain, which allegedly costs several hundred as well.  Instead, cost of cable car:  80 RMB…each way!  Grand total:  385 RMB.  By leaps and bounds, the most money I have ever spent on a single day of sightseeing in China.

For a handy comparison, visiting the Great Wall at Badaling costs a paltry 45 RMB.  Actually, for the price of a single ticket to Huang Shan (including cable car) one could buy tickets for two people to see the Great Wall, Forbidden City, and Summer Palace, and still have a little bit of money leftover for souvenirs.

One of the err…attractions to Huang Shan is various peaks and rock forms which look like animals and household objects.  Passing tour group leaders, we could often hear their explanations of how various geological features resembled things like…mobile phones.
Here is the famous Mobile Phone Stone (手机石). As we passed it, a tour leader was asking his group, “Who can tell me what brand of cell phone this rock looks like?”  Too bad we didn’t hire a guide.
Once you are at the top of Huanghan, several paths wind through the peaks and vantage points.  Other than rocks which look like cell phones, the main attraction is the view and scenery, which for me was the highlight of Huang Shan.  As you can see, we had the fortune of arriving at Huang Shan on a beautiful spring day.
Ok, this one’s going on the Facebook.
One for Tex as well.
Another thing I should point out is that both geologically, and economically, Huang Shan probably shares much more in common with bordering Zhejiang province, than it does with Anhui, the province within whose boundaries it lies.
Most of the rest of Anhui we would see was not covered by scenic mountain ranges, but rather flat farmland, blanketed by the marks of civilization.  In addition, the flood of tourists who flock to Huang Shan each year has also brought much prosperity to the region, and a booming local economy, dependent almost entirely on tourism revenue.
“A relaxed and happy feeling comes from the harmonious coexistence between human and nature.”
Well, you can probably detect it by the tone of my captions, but by the end of the day, Tex and I both agreed that Huang Shan is not all it is cracked up to be, even if you exclude the exorbitant ticket prices.  As much lore as I had heard, Huang Shan really wasn’t too much different from other “famous mountains” which can be found all over the Middle Kingdom.  This is not to say that Huang Shan is not a pleasant place to visit.  It made for a great day trip along the route to the interior of Anhui, but had planned an entire vacation around Huang Shan, I probably would have walked away disappointed (and broke).  And if I had gone during high tourist season, I’m sure I would have been completely miserable.

Had I grown up hearing stories about the Yellow Mountain since I was a little kid, I probably would have appreciated it more.  But to me, Huang Shan was just an over-commercialized tourist trap, with some good, but not spectacular scenery.

After riding down the cable car, and taking the bus back to Tunxi, Tex and I spent the night exploring what is possibly one of the most affluent cities in Anhui.  Behind the central downtown area (pictured here) is a street (老街) which has more tourist knickknack shops than any single street I have ever seen anywhere in China.  Along the back streets are overpriced restaurants, with decent food.

With Huang Shan offically crossed off our list, and all of our touristy sightseeing behind us. Tex and I decided to officially start our journey to the backwoods of Anhui.  We bought tickets for the overnight slow train to Hefei, the provincial capital, and our jumping off point in Anhui.  This is where things would start to get really interesting (not to mention, ridiculously cost-effective).  More to come.



Linan: Stomping Grounds of the Chinese Small Town Upper-Middle Class

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 1:49 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 2nd entry in a series titled From the Delta to the Backwoods about my recent trip to China.

After two and a half days, I had seen all I had intended see in Suzhou, and decided to head south, to the city of Linan.  Linan is a county-level-city (县级市) located a one-hour bus ride outside Hangzhou, the provincial capital of Zhejiang province.  An old friend of mine from my days in Fuzhou, Yang Yang, had recently relocated there to manage a womens’ spa and had invited me to come visit for a few days.

Most Chinese people from provinces other than Zhejiang probably have never heard of Linan.  As a county-level-city it is considerably smaller than prefecture-level-cities such as Wenzhou and Ningbo, and accordingly gets less press and attention.  And unlike Suzhou, there isn’t much to attract would be tourists to Linan either.  What Linan does have though is money.  Much like Fuqing, where I spent my first 15 months in China, Linan is one of the many anonymous small urban districts dotting China’s coastal provinces which have seen their local economies explode in recent decades, mainly as a result of trade and migration with the West.

This is what much of the streetscape in Linan looks like, very much similar to that of other wealthy small towns in Southeast China.  Street traffic usually reveals a healthy mix of pedestrians, bicycles, rickshaws, minibuses, and German luxury cars.
A good portion of Linan’s housing stock consists of the infamous white-tile-style architectural layer. This is the building style which permeated far and wide throughout the Middle Kingdom in the decades immediately following the Reform and Opening Up.  These days, most coastal cities have stopped using the white tiles for new buildings, in favor of more modern (not to mention stain-resistant) materials.
Since starting my work in Chicago as a medical interpreter, I’ve had to learn a great deal of medical vocabulary which previously had been of little use to me in China.  One benefit I am finding is that I am now able to understand the posters which blanket residential blocks in small towns like Linan. This one is advertising a cure for gonorrhea and syphillis with results promised to show within 4 hours.
Linan is tiny and compact.  It took me just over half an hour to walk from one side of town to the other.
On the edge of town is a river and a little riverwalk if you will.  Along the riverwalk are what appear to be apartment blocks, right?  Wrong!  Most Chinese urbanites live in what we might think of as two or three bedroom condos.  But in cities like Linan with high levels of affluence and relatively modest populations, the 4-story single family dwelling is quite commonplace.  Since most Chinese still live predominantly in multi-generation family units, there is usually a storey for parents, one for grandparents, and another for the single child, often with an extra storey or two for face.
Like most cities in Southeast China, Linan is built in the valley of a surrounding foliage covered mountain range.
By several statistical measures, Zhejiang is currently the wealthiest province in China.  Although it isn’t the exactly fanciest “riverwalk,” this type of public infrastructure would be hard to find in the county-level-cities of poorer provinces.
As their economies are based primarily around light industry and agriculture, and their climates do not necessitate a great deal of coal burning, small towns in Southeastern China also provide for some of the clearest skies in the Middle Kingdom.
Most of the industry that does exist in Zhejiang (and there’s a ton of it) centers around small trinkets, textiles, shoes, and the like.  If you live in the West, chances are a sizable portion of your wardrobe was made in Zhejiang.
Here are a few more of the less scenic pics from my stoll down the Linan riverwalk.
more relatively blue skies
Unbenownced to me before my visit, Linan’s local specialty is one of my own personal all-time favorite foodstuffs, 笋干 (sun2 gan1).  Made of pieces of baby bamboo dried out in the sun, 笋干 is essentially the sausage of bamboo.  Unlike sausage however, 笋干 is not eaten plain, but rather is used as an ingredient in cuisine, often cooked up in a wok with oil, garlic, peppers, meat and/or vegetables.  笋干 can be ordered in many restaurants in Zhejiang, Fujian, and Guangdong, however, I’ve found it a bit difficult to come across in other parts of the country.
Another local specialty I discovered in Linan was 昌化刀切面 (chang4 hua1 dao1 qie1 mian4).  These are long, flat, noodles served in a savory broth along with green veggies, carrots, and mushrooms.  Like most Chinese noodle dishes, a variant meat/protein can be selected as a topping including beef, pork, chicken, tofu, pork lungs, and pork kidneys to name a few.  I chose the 笋干 (bamboo sausage).
In the afternoon of my first day in town, Yang Yang took me on a walk through the central shopping district of Linan.
One of our stops was at a music/book store where we checked out the selection of American “classics” on sale to Chinese consumers.
…as well as new additions to the canon.
Here’s a quirky storefront which caught my eye.  The Chinese characters literally read “clothing, pull (attract), customers.”  However, pronounced aloud they have a pronunciation which sounds like the Chinese word for “Iraq.”
Yang Yang and I decided to settle a long day of shopping and wandering with an evening meal of hot pot.  I’d imagine most people reading this have experienced hot pot before, so no need to go into detail, but one hot pot “accessory” which has recently won my favor is fried mantou with yogurt dipping sauce.  As milk provides the perfect counteraction to spicy food, this snack is an excellent complement to a flaming hot pot.
Alright, I had a little bit of reservation about posting this, but figured it would be of interest to fellow Chinese food enthusiasts.  Most of our hot pot experience consisted of the typical sliced beef and lamb along with a collection of green vegetables.  Yang Yang however, decided she wanted to order pig brain. I had never personally eaten brain before, but figured I would give it a shot.

As the brain is mostly fat, the texture was accordingly quite soft.  I’d liken it to a more coarse, solid form of pudding.  The flavor itself was bland, and did not have the organ-esque aftertaste of other animal innards.  If I hadn’t been cognizant of what I was eating, I probably would have thought it was quite tasty.

One fairly accurate way to gauge the relative wealth of a Chinese city is by the volume of businesses targeted at those with expendable income, including karaoke bars, massage parlors, and specialty tea shops.  Accordingly, Linan has plenty of all three, often with entire streets devoted purely to entertainment.  So after a day of shopping and brain eating, Yang Yang, myself, and several of her friends made our way to the karaoke bar. During my first years in China, I avoided KTV like the plague, but over time I have found that if you actually embrace it, and kick off your “this is so lame” premonitions, it can make for some quality entertainment, provided your blood alcohol content is in double digits.
After KTV, Yang Yang and I went out for another pastime of the affluent China upper middle class, the foot massage.  More than merely a massage, your feet are first bathed in scalding hot water, wrapped in hot towels, throroughly cleaned, rubbed down and then massaged.  Afterwords they feel as clean as the day you were born.  All for the cost of around $5 USD.
Like my job in the barbershop, foot massage parlors provide a glimpse at the class divide in modern Chinese society.  Trained in techniques such as back massage, foot massage, and ba guan, virtually all of the employees in these establishments are from rural areas in lesser developed provinces such as Anhui, whereas all of the clientele are upper-middle class locals and business travelers.
On my final night in Linan, Yang Yang took me out to one of her favorite dive restaurants.  Due to its coastal location, Zhejiang food is often known for its emphasis on seafood, as well as bland and sweet flavorings.  However, Linan with its location away from the ocean, has a cusine more similar to that of inland provinces.  This first dish consists of 笋干 (bamboo sausage) cooked with pork and hot peppers.
Another local specialty of Linan is this blackened dry tofu (豆干 dou4 gan1).  Commonly eaten individually as a snack, it can also be stir-fried with vegetables as pictured here.
And finally…Chinese potato latkes!  Usually 土豆饼 (tu3 dou4 bing3), as Yang Yang ordered it, refers to a snack bearing little in common with those potato pancakes my mother used to cook for Hanukkah.  However, these Linan latkes were absolutely fabulous!  Perfect texture and just the right amount of spice.  Enough to convince me to go back to Linan, if nothing else, just to eat.

After 2 days in Linan, it was now time to meet up with James L. Goode (aka Tex), my travel buddy for the next week.  Destination:  Anhui.  More to come soon.

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