05.28.09

Watch me get mobbed by 3rd graders in Taihe!

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 9:33 pm by Benjamin Ross

This little episode from my recent stop in Taihe was certainly too surreal of an experience not to get on film.  Kudos to Tex for the live narration.


 

05.21.09

Taihe; Rural Anhui in all its Glory and Grit

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 5:04 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 6th entry in a series titled From the Delta to the Backwoods about my recent trip to China.

After spending two days exploring  Hefei and wandering the streets Fuyang, Tex and I still wanted to travel deeper into the backwoods of Anhui.  Our goal had been to see some of the most underdeveloped and isolated (relatively speaking) locales in the Middle Kingdom, and we wanted to dig even further into the thick of it.  There is no better way to do this than head deeper down the administrative ladder of the Chinese map.  But before explaining the next leg of our journey, let me provide a brief explanation of how Chinese administrative divisions are broken up.

The massive political unit we know today as the People’s Republic of China is broken down into a massive Confucian municipal hierarchy, much of which has been in place since ancient times. Modern China is broken into 22 provinces(省) and 5 autonomous regions (自治区) which are essentially the same as provinces, as well as 4 municipalities controlled directly by the central government.  Each province is broken into geographic regions referred to as “cities,“ (市) with the largest city generally designated as the capital (省会).  In addition to housing the provincial government, capital cities are also generally the hub of transport and commerce for each province.  Each “city” region is then broken into various “counties,” (县) with the city center serving as the de facto hub of government, transportation, and commerce.  Within each county, there is a county seat which serves as  the de facto hub of the county.  The pattern continues down several more bureaucratic levels, so that every last smattering of buildings across the Middle Kingdom is relegated to its place within the whole hierarchy.

Fuyang is a city (市) and Tex and I wanted to travel to one of the surrounding counties (县) under the administration of Fuyang, so we consulted the map, and decided to head to Taihe (太和), a county seat which appeared to be roughly an hour away according to the map. The beauty of traveling in unfamiliar parts of China is that transportation patterns are entirely predictable, and based around this municipal hierarchy.  Thus, as Tex and I both accurately predicted, there is a mini bus running from Fuyang to Taihe, which departs roughly every twenty minutes.  There are no set times, and no advance tickets.  The bus simply leaves when it gets full.  There are always enough people wanting to travel from the “county” up to the “city” that there is a constant flow of traffic in either direction.  Likewise, there were also buses from Fuyang to Hefei, which ran every 5-10 minutes, and from Taihe, there were similar shuttles en route to surrounding villages. This same pattern applies virtually everywhere in China when traveling from a city to a county town.
The bus cost 10 RMB (approx $1.30 USD) each way and was ridden mainly by farmers and merchants from Taihe making their regular trips back and forth from Fuyang.  As is common in rural China, the bus made frequent stops along the road to pick up new passengers.
Taihe was like a miniature version of Fuyang, with its drab architecture and modest streetscape.
The reactions we received from most locals was as if we were martians arriving on earth for the first time.  It was as if they had heard of the existence of 6 foot white guys, but didn’t fully comprehend it until they saw them in person.  It was difficult to stop anywhere without making a scene.
Fuyang (where we went in the previous entry), although poor and underdeveloped, is not what I would consider “rural.”  Taihe, on the other hand, was I would say, more rural than urban.  Thus, you encounter numerous sites that aren’t typically seen in cities, such as this veritable corn/rice processor.  It looks like an old truck engine, and has the cacophonous sound of an electrical generator, but in reality, it’s sole function is to produce a rudimentary snack which sells for a mere 1 RMB per bag.

The operator pours a mixture of half rice and half corn into a funnel at the top, and then after much smoke, clanging, and dust a cylindrical tube with the consistency of a cheeto shoots out the end.  The cheetoish mixture of corn and rice is then broken into sticks about a foot in length and bagged for sale.  The pure rice/corn mixture without any artificial additives or flavors, provides a nostalgic reminder of what chips tasted like before the advent of modern food science.

Although Taihe is small, rural, and for lack of better terminology, out in the sticks, this does not mean it was by any means desolate.  I couldn’t find accurate figures, but Tex and I both estimated there must be at least 200,000 or so people in Taihe.  Bear in mind, this is a town which can be traversed on foot in roughly half an hour.
A common street snack we found, especially near schools in Taihe was this concoction made from bean noodles.
The finished product looks like this, and like most street food in Anhui, sells for 1 RMB (approx 15 cents USD).
It isn’t every day that martians descend on Taihe, especially just as school is letting out.  This, accordingly, caused quite the ruckus near the school gate, as a mob of elementary school students watched Tex and me curiously as we payed for our snack and ate.
The timid curiosity quickly morphed into rabid excitement as the children discovered that these two odd creatures could communicate with them in their native language.  The scene which would then ensue was like nothing I have ever experienced in the Middle Kingdom.
While eating our bean noodles, a mob of students began to gather, who along with their parents on the periphery, all wanted to get a glimpse at the two six-foot Chinese-speaking white dudes,  Out of the blue, a little girl handed me her school textbook and asked me to sign my name on the first page.
Figuring it was but a minor request, I complied and signed my name in both English and Chinese on the first page of her textbook.
Seeing how I had agreed to her request, student after student, pulled out their textbooks, all waving them in my face and pleading for an autograph.
Tex, who stands a good 4 inches taller than me, couldn’t escape either.  Soon the both of us had aching hands from all the signatures.  But the excitement on the students’ faces was too much for us not to comply with their small request.  We each signed every last student textbook, plus a few datebooks from parents.Everything was going fine until all the attention attracted a police officer.  The officer shot us a questioning look, and Tex and I, somewhat worried, decided that we weren’t really doing anything wrong, and even if we were, it wasn’t as if we could have escaped anyway since we were surrounded by a veritable wall of children.  The officer approached me, asked where I was from and what I was doing in Taihe.  As kids were still shoving textbooks in my face and pulling on my jacket, I nervously told him that we were from the United States and we had come to Taihe to experience Chinese small town life.  After a brief pause, the officer reached into his pocket, pulled out his police notebook, and politely asked if Tex and I could each autograph it in the margins.
The whole experience lasted 25 minutes. and when it was over, several hundred Chinese children, a handful of parents, and a police officer were all in possession of the autographs of two American tourists.  You can view a video of the fiasco here.
Like most small agricultural towns, Taihe’s development is centered around a permanent market located down the center of its main street.  This is where agricultural middlemen (generally not the farmers themselves) come to sell their goods, and townspeople come to shop for groceries.  While it’s mostly foodstuffs changing hands in the market itself, storefronts along the street sell kitchen supplies, T-shirts and slacks, umbrellas, bicycle parts, remanufactured car altenators, funeral garments, sandals, maternity clothing, toothbrushes, PCV piping, or any other household objects needed to carry on daily life in Taihe.
As we had been noticing throughout Anhui, chicken was definitely the meat of choice in Taihe.
While we did also see a fair share of pork, beef, lamb, and fish, chicken was still king.  I am no expert on agriculture so correct me if I’m wrong, but my best guess was that this was a reflection on space constraints.  Anhui contains some of the most densely populated farmland in the world, and chickens generally have a higher yield per acre than would pigs or cattle.
Another pleasant culinary surprise we found in Taihe was some of the tastiest peanuts Tex and I had ever consumed. While peanuts are common in most parts of China, their taste and texture vary widely by region.  I am no penutologist either, but I would posit this probably has something to do with the soil and climate.  This particular batch, sold at the market, was fried up with hot chilis.  They could also be purchased salted or plain.
Well, I’m not sure exactly what you would call this, but Tex and I both settled on referring to it as the “Chinese Jell-O Mold.”  As we marveled at this strange concoction, passers-by solicited their opinions to us as well, as this is not a common item in most necks of the Middle Kingdom.  One told us, “It’s delicious you should try it.”  Another cautioned, “You wouldn’t like it.  It’s disgusting.  Stay away.”
More street snacks.  These candied fruits on a stick however are no local specialty, and can be bought just about anywhere in China.  Their Chinese name always seems to escape me somehow.
Like major cities, small towns across China have also seen rapid population growth as many agriculturalists (or more accurately the children of agriculturalists) have left the farm to seek jobs in town.  The incipient residential developments often contain wide avenues such as these, which are developed to accommodate rural China’s burgeoning automobile culture.
The older, more central parts of small towns, which were laid out long before automobile traffic became common in the 1990s, generally look more like this.  Enough space between buildings for a person or two to walk through is usually enough.
This of course does not mean the occasional car won’t wiggle its way through streets such as this, but in a town like Taihe, most traffic on such streets is still pedestrian or bicycle.
Another frequent site in small towns, caged barn yard animals on wheels.  Small Chinese towns always have a way of getting me nostalgic about locally based agriculture.  When you eat in a place like Taihe, you can be pretty certain that the vegetables and rice that you are eating were all probably pulled out of the ground within a fifteen mile radius and 48 hour time frame of where you are eating them.  Same goes for meat, which was probably a living, breathing, eating animal less than 24 hours before it made its way to your plate.  This pattern of freshness and local eating remains the norm in areas of the world like Taihe which by in large do not have access to modern refridgeration techniques.
People who follow this blog regularly probably know I have a soft spot for Chinese propaganda slogans.  Not that I necessarily agree with all of them, nor that I even agree with the concept of displaying vague statements in awkward public meeting spots, but nonetheless I find this form of rhetoric worth some examination.  This flavor of sign is extremely common in rural China.  It reads:

Stabilize, lower the birth rate

Accelerate the construction of the New Countryside

The enforcement of China’s Family Planning Policy has always been trickier in rural areas than in cities, mainly because the rural lifestyle favors having additional children, economically speaking.  This, combined with lower levels of education, more traditional thinking, and generally higher levels of corruption, have led many rural families to continue the practice of exceeding statutory birth limits.  The government, in its rhetoric to combat this practice, often takes the angle that a lower birth rate is necessary for the future development of the country.

As is frequent in many Chinese municipalities large and small, the oldest street in Taihe is generally occupied by the lower class, and thus is rather dirty and and not well-kept.  Chinese people can be quite sensitive of this and as Tex and I strolled down this street snapping pictures at sites like these, we had several locals tell us to stop taking pictures.  “You should take pictures of something beautiful, not this.  You are just doing this to show your American friends how poor and dirty our town is,” they would say.  Which I guess, in effect, is true to some extent.At this juncture we also had an extremely difficult time convincing them that we were not journalists on assignment.  “This place is not for tourists.  You are wasting your time here.  There is nothing to see,” we were told multiple times.
Well not all the town was dirty and poor, especially not the government buildings, such as this, the “Taihe People’s Courthouse.”
I’ve always maintained that one major area of city planning where China could really use some work is that of waste management.  Sites such as these were common in Taihe.
school children on their way to class

A homeless man relaxes on the steps of a storefront on 古街 (Ancient Street), the oldest street in Taihe, with most of its buildings dating back to the late Qing Dynasty.
Another shot of “Ancient Street.”  In China, buildings this old (over 100 years) are ironically quite uncommon.  Due to relatively short cycles of architecture, wars, limited construction materials, general turbulence, and razing to make room for new developments, I would maintain there are probably more 100-year-old buildings in Chicago than there are in any city in China.
What I really love about places like Taihe is the feeling of isolation you get.  Sure, they have the internet, and sure people are traveling to and from Fuyang, and to Hefei, and from there to Beijing and Shanghai, but the sense of isolation and consolidation with the small town and the its surrounding agriculture is something I never feel in big cities.

During our walk we even encountered a church.
more private houses
The outskirts of small Chinese towns are typically surrounded by scattered houses such as these, where the inhabitants continue to farm, but are close enough to town center that they can stay active in town life as well.
another one of the main drags of Taihe

Here’s another common site in the countryside: small children wandering around unsupervised, and often playing with sharp, pointy, and/or flammable objects.
For retirees, their days are often passed playing and spectating at card and board games which take place out in the open public.
Games range from regional versions of poker…
…to mah jongg, which is also highly regional, with different parts of the country each playing with a slightly different rule set.  Regardless of any difference in rules, money almost always exchanges hands.
For our last meal in Taihe, Tex and I decided to sample 太和板面 (Taihe board noodles).  And no, that is not a typo, these are 板面 not 拌面, with 板 implying a board or flat surface, which represents the shape of the noodle.  We had seen signs for 太和板面 all over Taihe, and even a few in Fuyang, and without much other choice in dining options (Tiahe like Fuyang, has hardly any restaurants), we decided to check it out. The restaurant consisted of a single room with an open kitchen (see above) and two tables set up for customers.  The noodles cost 4 RMB (about 60 cents USD) a bowl, and the owner warned us that they were “extremely spicy.”
Regardless of the sticky table and the rusty bowls, the meal was magnificent, and concurs with my past experiences that many of my all-time favorite meals in the Middle Kingdom have also been some of the most economical.  The noodles came bathed in a broth, which as the owner had warned, was extremely spicy.  They were surrounded by green veggies, bits of wood ear mushroom, and a few scattered morsels of lamb ribs.  After Tex and I had both cleared our plates, and sat staring at one another for a moment, panting, as our mouths recovered from the inferno of hot pepper. We both agreed that this had been our favorite meal in Anhui thus far.

After three and a half days in Anhui, we were finding ourselves noticeably exhausted by dust in the air, the loogies on the ground, and the cigarette smoke in emenating through poorly-ventilated indoor spaces.  While these are all common nuissances, and easily blocked out by most veterans of the Middle Kingdom, their magnitude throughout Anhui was turned up to a notch which left us longing for the relative peace and tranquility of the coast.  Our clothes and backpacks were covered in dust, our lungs were choking in dust and smoke, and our digestive tracts were longing for a break from street food.  It was time to wrap up the Anhui adventure and head back to the “modern” world.  We took the mini-bus back to Fuyang, and from there boarded the overnight train to Nanjing.  More to come as we wrap up the adventure.


 

05.10.09

The New Face of Sports in China

Posted in Olympics, Pop Culture, Society at 1:46 am by Benjamin Ross

Note: Due to the timeliness of the following post, I’ve taken a short break from “From the Delta to the Backwoods.” Expect another update to the series by the end of the week.

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August 18, 2008

On a scorching evening in Beijing, thousands of fans are pack into Workers Stadium to watch two international soccer powers collide in the semifinals of the Olympic Games.  Although people from around the globe have descended upon Beijing for the Olympics, the crowd arriving to watch Brazil battle Argentina is 90% Chinese.  In a country where soccer is embraced by the masses and visas to visit Western countries are not easily obtained, this is likely the most anticipated soccer match ever to take place on Chinese soil.  Of those lucky enough to get in, many have coughed up sums of up to 3000 RMB to purchase tickets from scalpers.

Beijing Workers Stadium Argentina vs Brazil Olympic Semifinals
The capacity crowd at Beijing Worker’s Stadium eagerly awaits the kickoff of Argentina and Brazil, playing for a spot in the Gold Medal Game.

As the opening kickoff ensues, the crowd fixates on the field, hollering, cheering, and soaking in what may be their only chance ever to watch world class footballers in person.  Halfway through the first half, heads begin to turn in the lower section on the west side of the stadium, and a slow murmur morphs into a barrage of emotion and shouts.  Cheers erupt, cameras flash, and a euphoric mayhem ensues, as from out of the fan concourse emerges an athlete renowned and loved by sports fans across Middle Kingdom.  But ironically, the athlete drawing all the attention at this soccer spectacle not a soccer player himself.  Rather he has earned his fame indoors on the hardwood, as both an Olympian and a perennial NBA All-Star.  I think you know who I am talking about, right?  In a land where ping pong is king but basketball is the latest craze, this star has become the Bruce Lee of a new generation, with his image sprawled across billboards, and his name imprinted on backs of jerseys in the schoolyards of far-flung rural villages.  Yeah, you know exactly who I am talking about, don’t you?  Wanna guess?  I’ll give you one hint…It’s not Yao Ming.

As the newly arrived celebrity and his two acquaintances take their seats, the mob begins chanting in unison, “KE—BI, KE—BI, KE—BI.”  Before long the entire west side of the stadium has joined in the chant.  “KE—BI, KE—BI, KE—BI.”  “Kebi” is of course the Chinese name Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant.  Bryant, a purported fan of the Argentinean soccer squad, had just sat down to enjoy the match, as he was mobbed by a mass of autograph seeking, camera flashing, Chinese soccer fans.  It was as if the match between the two South American powers had been temporarily suspended, so that everyone in attendance could catch a brief glimpse of the NBA superstar.  Throughout the fiasco, which lasted roughly 15 minutes, chants of “KE—BI, KE—BI, KE—BI” continued to roar throughout the stadium.

Over the last decade, the NBA has rapidly been replacing soccer as the premiere spectator sport in China.  NBA fervor rose to a new level in 2002 when 7 foot 5 inch Yao Ming of Shanghai was selected as the first pick in the NBA draft by the Houston Rockets. Since then, Yao has played in 5 All-Star games, given proper lip service to his country and its leaders, and avoided any major off-the-court blemishes to his personal record.  But the main knock on Yao thus far been his failure to deliver a championship caliber team to the 5.7 million people in Houston (and the 1.4 billion in China).  The Rockets Yao-era post-season woes have caused some of the rage over China’s tallest celebrity to taper off of late.  Recent years have seen numerous Chinese fans who were once loyal devotees to the Houston Rockets, switch their allegiance over to the Los Angeles Lakers and Kobe Bryant.  According to Jiang Yuan, a 26 year old NBA fan in Xiamen, “Pretty much everybody in China knows Yao Ming.  But among those people who really pay close attention to the NBA, Kobe is more popular.”

Kobe-mania is indeed spreading throughout the Middle Kingdom.  In addition to the billboards and jerseys, last summer at the Olympics, I ran into a group of college age Chinese boys who were all wearing yellow shirts with purple letters reading “I Love Kobe.”  This was at a beach volleyball event.  I didn’t go to see Kobe play live.  I couldn’t.  Tickets were nearly impossible to find and selling for over ten times their face value.  Even CCTV highlight shows, where were at one time were virtual play-by-play recaps of Yao’s performance, are increasingly focusing more time on China’s adopted favorite son.

Interestingly enough, the NBA’s other dominant figure, LeBron James, has yet to leave as much of a cultural imprint on China as has been done by Kobe in recent years.  Even CCTV announcers can be heard pondering, “Why isn’t LeBron James popular in China?”  One theory, suggested by Jiang, is that Kobe’s game is dependent on “elegance and form” while LeBron’s style is based primarily on raw strength.  “Chinese peoples’ bodies are not as strong as those of Westerners.  Therefore they prefer those players with elegant playing styles like Kobe and Michael Jordan,” Jiang says.  This may also serve to explain why Kobe’s fame is seemingly eclipsing that of Yao, whose game relies heavily on him standing a full head above most other players.

I love Kobe T-shirt in China
A young Chinese fan wears his basketball allegiance on his shirt.

With all this in mind, the current playoff series between the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers may bear more significance for Chinese NBA fans than any other in NBA history.  This is not the first time these two giants of basketball have competed against one another in the post season. Yao and Kobe faced each other in the post-season in the first round of the 2004 playoffs, with LA easily disposing of the Rockets in five games, and most attention focused on the nominal rivalry between Yao and Shaquille O’Neal.  At that juncture, Kobe had yet to completely emerge as the MVP-caliber player he is today, and Yao was still a scrawny second year player, being dominated in the post by a formidable Shaq Diesel in his prime.

Fast forward to 2009 and China’s two favorite NBA stars are both posting career seasons and battling out a best-of-seven series in the second round of NBA Playoffs.  For Yao, a win against to Lakers could regain some of the ground he has already lost to Kobe as China’s foremost NBA superstar.  And for Kobe, a win puts him one small step closer to winning his first post-Shaq championship, and an even more devoted legion of Chinese Laker fans.

Few NBA enthusiasts would assert that the Rockets have much of a chance to win a championship in 2009, let alone take the series from the Lakers.  At the same time, the Lakers, assuming they handle the Rockets, will still presumably have their hands full in the NBA Finals against the red hot Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James.  Nonetheless, this series represents a potential crossroads for China’s two most-beloved NBA stars and could have considerable implications on their standings in the higher order of Chinese basketball deities.  One thing is for certain though.  You don’t need to be Chinese to become the king of basketball in China.  Just ask Chinese soccer fans.

Addendum: Just as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, it was announced that Yao Ming has a broken foot and will be out the rest of the Playoffs.


 

05.05.09

Fuyang; Into the Backwoods

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 11:02 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 5th entry in a series titled From the Delta to the Backwoods about my recent trip to China.

Chinese capital cities are funny. In many ways, they are all exactly the same. The same boxy buildings, with the new ones all being built by the same Sichuan migrant laborers, the same wide streets with bike lanes. Even the names of the streets parks are mostly the same: Wuyi Lu, Zhongshan Lu, Renmin Gong Yuan, etc. etc. At the same time, each Chinese capital city has, as Samuel Jackson elegantly put it in Pulp Fiction, “the little differences.” Ride a cab in Fuzhou, and jasmine flowers will be hanging from the rearview window. Take a bike ride in Chengdu and notice that all the bikes are equipped with a special holder for your umbrella. Visit a private home or restaurant in Changsha and keep an eye out for the Mao Zedong poster on the wall.

In more ways than not, Hefei was the default, generic Chinese capital city. It’s main “little difference” was the numerous signs that its people were less well off than those in other Chinese capital cities. There were some sky scrapers, but they were modest in height. A few fancy restaurants, but they considerably more affordable than those in other capital cities. And there were public parks, however slightly less landscaped and beautified than those out East.

However, Hefei was only a prelude to what Tex and I would encounter as we continued on our journey to the backwoods of the Middle Kingdom. As the goal of our trip was to visit some of the poorest and least developed regions of China, we decided to visit a city called Fuyang (阜阳). Located in the northwestern part of Anhui, and the heart of the Chinese Central Plain, Fuyang is statistically the poorest city in the province, and shares much cultural and economic similarity to neighboring Henan.  Our journey began from the Hefei train station.

This time we rode the 空调快速  (air conditioned high speed train), or as I refer to it, the “moderately air conditioned and somewhat fast” train.  These trains are a big step up from the 普快 trains which run most rural routs but not as fast nor as posh as the 动车组 trains increasingly running the main routes between major Eastern cities.

As an interesting note, some of the “manners training” from the Olympic period last summer seems to have had a lasting effect.  Notice the passengers respectfully waiting in line to enter the train, rather than bum rush the doors, as would have been typical of pre-Olympic China.  This is still the exception, not the rule of how to board a Chinese train, but it is nice to see some headway has been made.

Tex made a new friend on the train with his PSP and some rudimentary Chinese.  I’ve always maintained that there is no better environment to learn Chinese than on a “hard seat” car of a Chinese train.
As we disembarked and wandered around Fuyang, we both realized that we had finally made it to our destination, the backwoods of China.  Fuyang is not the kind of place I would recommend to any casual traveler, Chinese or Western.  The air is stale, trash litters the streets, and the sounds of cheap motors, yelling, and loogie hocking ring through the air…And I mean much more so than would be expected in the typical Chinese locale.
If Shanghai is the most comfortable place for Westerners not “used to China,” than an Anhui town like Fuyang would probably be the absolute worst.  For Tex and me though, this is exactly what we came to see.  During our first conversation after arriving in Fuyang, a young boy in his late teens asked us directly “Why the hell would you ever come here?”
We spent the day wandering the streets of Fuyang, and chatting with locals who invariably assumed we were journalists, spies, American secret agents, or some combination of the three.
Although much of the streetscape resembled that of small towns, in actuality Fuyang has a population of several million people, making it a rather decent-sized Chinese city.  The best modern day analog to Fuyang I could think of would be Kaifeng (minus its historical signifacance), another city of several million, which has seen much of the Deng Xiaoping initiated reforms completely pass it by.  From the rough Mandarin dialect, to the architecture, and the demeanor of the locals, Fuyang increasingly reminded me of my ’05 trip to neighboring Henan province.
With an annual per capita GDP of 3529 RMB (2005 figure) Fuyang is, by this measure, the poorest city in Anhui.  When locals would describe their hometown to us, the most common adjective was 没钱了, “no money.”
In a “no money” environment, examples of public beautification are scarce.  Here was one of such, a mural in an alleyway which reads “Love our China, Love our Great Wall.”  For most people in Fuyang, this was probably the closest they ever could get to China’s most famous landmark.
Still a common sight when I first arrived in China in 2004, the rickshaw is rapidly disappearing from the Chinese transportation landscape.  In the midst of China’s rapid economic development, an increasing number of cities have imposed rickshaw bans within city limits, relegating these vehicles to city outskirts.  However, in Fuyang, while there are automobile taxis, the majority of public transportation is still carried out by the more economical rickshaw.  This is especially impressive when you consider that the standard taxi fare for most destinations is a mere 4 RMB.
Much of Fuyang’s housing stock is constructed out of the infamous white bathroom tiles, ubiquitously used in China in the years directly following the Reform and Opening Up.  There were no high rises nor expensive condo buildings.

Another interesting facet of Fuyang is the local dialect, which is a true dialect in every sense of the word.  Unlike the various native languages spoken in most southern provinces, the Fuyang dialect, although quite different from standard Mandarin, is 90% comprehensible to any Mandarin speaker…assuming they listen closely and pay careful attention.  Unlike most southern provinces, where locals must code-switch into Mandarin when speaking with outsiders, most people in China’s Central Plain continue communicating in their dialect even when speaking to outsiders or foreigners.  Because of this, the Mandarin spoken on the streets in Fuyang is arguably more difficult to comprehend than that spoken in Fujian or Guangdong, the two provinces probably most notorious for Chinese linguistic diversity and poor Mandarin.  Tex and I both had a great time doing our best to adapt our listening skills to the local dialect, an important skill for any student of Mandarin.

As the day wore on, lunch time approached.  Fuyang has a surprisingly high concentration of Hui Muslims, and thus the correspondingly high frequency of Lanzhou La Mian (pulled noodles) restaurants.  We wanted to try something more authentically Anhui-ish, so we decided to bypass the La Mian, and poke our heads into some of the local restaurants, which were few in number and located only on major thoroughfares.  The conversations would all go something like this.

me:  你好,我们要吃饭? 能不能看看你们的菜单?

老板:菜单?哈哈,没有菜单。 你看看那边告诉我你想吃什么,就OK了。

Translation:

me:  Hello.  We would like to eat.  May I have a look at your menu?

restaurant owner:  Menu?  Ha!  We don’t have any menu.  Just look over there (pointing to open cooler of vegetables, meat, and fish) and tell me what you want to eat.  That should be good enough.

We began to notice an annoying trend which would hold true for much of Anhui:  No menus!  Whenever we asked to see a menu, we received a chuckling condescending remark as if we’d just asked for fillet mignon and a bottle of Dom Perignon.

There are two major problems with menuless restaurants.  Firstly, when doing the whole “point and order” dance, you never know exactly how your food is going to be cooked.  Secondly, without a menu as a reference point, prices tend to ascend considerably between the time you order and the time you receive your bill.  As we traversed from restaurant to restaurant, an alarming trend became apparent.  There are no menus in Fuyang!

What we did find, however, is that Fuyang, even more so than Hefei, has a cornicopia of street food.  While street food can be found just about anywhere in China, the sheer quantity in Fuyang was more than any other place I have traveled in the Middle Kingdom.  When I asked a vendor about this, she answered succinctly “People in Fuyang are poor. They don’t have money for restaurants.  If they want to go out to eat, they eat street food.”

After discovering that the local cuisine was, in effect, street food, Tex and I decided to follow the lead of the locals, and sample the local “cuisine.”  It would not disappoint.  One of our best finds was the Anhui chicken corndog, a fried and breaded cylindrical column of chicken goodness.  Upon being ordered, the corndog would be deep fried (again), and then served piping hot.  State Fair anybody?
Even the littl’uns were in on the street snacking.
When it comes to meat, Anhui people* have a preference for chicken.  Here they are serving the 香酥鸡肉饼, a Chinese crispy chicken sandwich, similar to a 肉夹馍.  Look out Wendy’s.  You may have some competition out East.

*Anybody know of a better demonym for Anhui?

With our stomachs full, we set forth to explore the city center, not the typical architecture you’d expect to see in a city of several million.
In the geographic center of Fuyang lies this odd sculpture, surrounded by a field of dirt.
Behind the sculpture and the field is this ominous urban pond, flanked in bathroom tile apartment buildings.
One of the more aesthetically pleasing sites in Fuyang is the Ying River, which runs through the edge of Fuyang.  As we continued our walk to the outskirts of the town, night fell and we became increasingly hungry once again.  After 24 straight hours of eating nothing but street food, Tex and I agreed we’d suck it up and try one of the “point and order” menuless restaurants.
We would be pleasantly surprised.  This first dish we ended up with consisted of tofu, carrots, lima-like beans, mushrooms, and peanuts mixed together in a sauce.  Since there was no menu, I have no idea what you would call this dish, but if I had to describe the flavor, I would say it was 咸 (xian2), a word which doesn’t have an exact English translation, but could loosely mean “salty” or “savory.”  This seemed to be the norm for most of the local cuisine in Anhui, as hot peppers and sugar were used only sparingly.
Next we picked out a popular dish called “lion heads”  (狮子头).  Contrary to what their name implies, these are essentially pork meat balls.  The only reason I knew to order them was that I spied them sitting pre-made out on the counter in the back of the restaurant.  When I’ve eaten lion heads before they’re usually served in a sweet sauce.  In the Fuyang restaurant, I assumed this was how they would be served as well, but instead they were delivered floating in a soup and surrounded with sprouts.  The flavor again was 咸 (salty), with not a hint of sweetness or spice.  Tex and I both overwhelmingly approved.
In terms of the city environment, Fuyang could be accurately described as a very 乱 (disorderly or chaotic) city, even by Chinese standards.  Case in point, this fine example of perpendicular parking.
We spent our only night in Fuyang exploring the bustling Hui Muslim quarter, and yes, eating again.  Other than their traditional head gear and their abstention from pork consumption, the Hui are virtutaly indistinguishable from the majority Han Chinese.  Their native language is Mandarin, and their physical appearance only slightly deviates from that of the Han majority.

Like most other locations in Fuyang, the Hui Quarter was covered with stalls selling street food, on most of which were posted signs such as these indicating that the food was Hallel.
In keeping with Muslim dietary laws, as well as local preference, the majority of the street food in the Hui Quarter was chicken based, such as these “New Orleans Roasted Chicken Wings.”
The woman selling the wings had no idea where or what New Orleans was, but that didn’t matter.  They were delicious.
In typical Chinese street food fashion, Tex and I parked ourselves at an outdoor mini-table, and proceeded to stuff our faces with street food, discarding the refuse on the ground below.  In accordance with Muslim law, no alcohol was sold within the Quarter. (Beer is usually a mainstay in these kinds of Chinese open food markets).  However, when we checked with the locals, they guided us to a convenience store, just outside the Hui Quarter, which sold 3 RMB bottles Qingdao.
We were also informed by multiple locals (both vendors and patrons) that it was ok to drink within the Hui Quarter.  They just didn’t sell it themselves.  As you can see from the picture, we were not the only ones to take this advice to heart.

In Fuyang, Tex and I got our first real taste of Anhui life.  However, Fuyang was still a city.  For a better view of rural life in Anhui, we decided to take a microbus to a 县城 (small town/county) an hour outside of Fuyang the following day.  It would prove to be the highlight of our trip.  More to come.

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