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.


 

04.21.09

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.


 

04.09.09

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.
oohhhh…..ahhhhhhh
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.


 

04.03.09

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.


 

03.31.09

Suzhou: Ancient Capital of the Wu

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 1:05 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 1st entry in a series titled From the Delta to the Backwoods about my recent trip to China.

It was a rainy afternoon on March 3.  It had rained every single day since I had arrived in Shanghai on February 17.  Temperatures had been constantly hovering around the high 40’s.  After two and a half weeks of work in Shanghai, there wasn’t anything I wanted more than to get out of the city.  It’s not that I don’t like Shanghai per se, but my consulting work had me shacked up in a district full of ritzy foreign compounds, and constantly commuting across the city area and suburbs.  I was living in a district which had the vibe of an American suburb, only much, much more crowded, and I was spending two hours a day sitting in cabs in standstill traffic.  The work itself was productive and engaging, but from a personal stance, I still didn’t feel as if I had truly entered the Middle Kingdom I knew.  Combine this with the weather, and I was simply ready to get out.

My old buddy Tex (James L. Goode) from Fuzhou had planned to meet up with me on March 13th.  Our destination was to be the backwoods of Anhui.  In the meantime, I had nearly a week to explore some of the sights and sounds that Jiangsu and Zhejiang had to offer.  The first of which was the water town of Suzhou.  Fellow blogger Ryan McLaughlin (The Humanaught) and his wife Maggie, offered to put me up, and I spent two and a half days wandering the streets of the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Wu.

Because of its ancient canals which wind their way through the town, Suzhou is often referred to as the Venice of China.  During my first day of wandering through town, I came across a street called 平江路 (ping2 jiang1 lu4).
平江路 is located in the eastern part of the old city.  Adjacent to the old street flows a small canal, which I am assuming is the 平江.
Without the hustle and bustle, and troops of annoying vendors, 平江路 was one of the quaintest, non-touristy, tourist streets I have ever come upon in China.  Informative inscriptions (Chinese only) about its history are written on wooden posts along the canal.  I really feel that any trip to Suzhou necessitates a walk along 平江路.
What I enjoy most about Suzhou, and 平江路 exemplifies this as well as anywhere, is that Suzhou is one of the few places you travel to in China which actually looks a lot like what most people picture China looking like before they ever arrive there.  It has that warm, fuzzy, old style, Social-Studies-textbook feeling that is noticeably absent in most other “ancient” Chinese cities.
Even the newly constructed areas within the old city retain much of the their charm.
During my visit, I couldn’t detect much functional use for the canals anymore.  No goods being transported, taxi services, or anything of the like.  However there are tourist boats which run, and at several restaurants with their back to the canal, the water functions as the de facto men’s restroom.
Suzhou is probably most famous for its gardens.  I had seen Chinese gardens on several occasions before.  They are all quite scenic, but at the same time very similar (think Chinese temples!).  This particular garden was called the “Lion Grove.”
Of the numerous gardens in Suzhou, Ryan had recommended the Lion Grove because of the concrete maze which surrounds the water.  If you do make the trip to Suzhou, it is definitely worth it to check out one of the gardens, but I do stress the word one.
Going in early March, I had the advantage of the gardens being virtually empty of the usual commotion caused by herds of Chinese tourists with their colored hats, flags, and megaphones.  At the same time, I’d imagine the flora would be considerably more scenic during the summer.
Like any other Chinese city, Suzhou does have its share of white-tile-style architecture…
…as well as the typical cement boxes (right) as seen all over the Middle Kingdom.
This is the “City Safe Sanitary Subdivision.”  It did not appear to be any safer or more sanitary than the rest of Suzhou, which on the whole was both rather safe and sanitary, by my accounts at least.
Here’s a snack which isn’t necessarily endemic to Suzhou, but which I did both encounter and consume on several points throughout my trip.  It’s called a 麻辣饼 (ma2 la2 bing3), which literally means “spicy pastry,” and that is exactly what it is.
Another common snack whose name (both English and Chinese) completely escapes me at the moment.  Any help?
chestnuts (no open fire)
Here are some additional shots I took of less glorious examples of Suzhou architecture.
Throughout my three days in Suzhou I was constantly amazed at how well preserved the older architecture in Suzhou remained, even the more modest dwellings.  In this sense, Suzhou very much reminded me of Pingyao, the old Ming Dynasty banking center built along the road between Beijing and Xi’an.
In addition to the housing stock which dates back to the Qing and Ming Dynasties, Suzhou also has several pagodas which tower over the old city.  Like Beijing, Suzhou has regulations stipulating the maximum height of new constructions within the new city, so as not to over-impose on these historical constructions.
The old city is completely surrounded by a wide moat.
old city gate along the moat
On the Northern outskirts of the old city lies Tiger Hill, also with pagoda and Qing Dynasty housing stock.
Well, you knew it couldn’t all be ancient, right?  Smack dab in the middle of Suzhou, like the middle of most Chinese cities, lies what is known as a 步行街 (bu4 xing2 jie1) or “walking street.”  Suzhou’s walking street is called 观前街 (guan1 qian2 jie1).
观前街 is a great place to graze on street food.  This is where I encountered the famous “Suzhou Octoballs.”
It’s also the main shopping artery for the young and the affluent in this growing Chinese metropolis.
…and home to an entire store which sells nothing, but “Hello Kitty” merchandise.
Another popular attraction is the Suzhou Museum.  Containing much of the same ancient artifacts and calligraphy as most other Chinese museums, the collection itself is nothing out of the ordinary.  However, the building itself, designed by Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei, makes the museum worth a visit, especially since admission was free.
Again, I felt that exploring the common architecture and streetscape of Suzhou was infinitely more worthwhile than most of the designated tourist attractions.
One of Suzhou’s many Buddhist temples.  This would go in the “tourist attraction” category.
As would be expected, China is one of the world’s most pro-birth control countries.  Here’s a condom vending machine attached to the cement wall just outside the temple.  Notice the mother, father, and single (female) child.
On my second day of wandering through the streets of Suzhou, I came across the area which was the site of Suzhou’s former foreign enclave during the early part of the 20th Century.  This is Suzhou’s largest church, which today conducts church services in both Chinese and English, and also holds Christian-themed activities for Chinese and foreigners alike.
As I meandered down the road I inadvertently encountered the campus of Suzhou University.
Originally founded by Methodists in the year 1900, Suzhou University is one of the most aesthetically pleasing campuses in the Middle Kingdom.
In the middle of the campus was a large green space, similar to what you would find in most Western universities.
Grass is always at a premium in the Middle Kingdom, and the campus of Suzhou University contains a pleasing cornicopia of it.
The majority of the campus’ buildings retain the same early 1900’s style.
As one might expect, a canal runs through the university as well.
The mixture of Suzhou and Western styles make the Suzhou University campus a must-see for architectural enthusiasts.
Throughout my visit to Suzhou, and especially during my time spent in this area with its western influenced church and university, I was constantly intrigued with how seemingly unscathed Suzhou’s architecture had been by the Cultural Revolution.
However, a close look at this doorway reveals a small vestige of that turbulent period of Chinese history, during which universities were a major target of attack.
Painted down the right side of the doorway, and apparently intentionally rubbed off years later, remains the faded slogan 毛主席王随 (Long live Chairman Mao).
On the left side, the faded characters read 共产党万岁 (Long live the Communist Party).  During the Cultural Revolution it was common for university buildings to be defaced with such overly-patriotic slogans.  Today, this practice would be unheard of.
Outside the school gates was more buildings and canals, typical of Suzhou architecture.
another canal lined Suzhou thoroughfare
In addition to the canals themselves, Suzhou is also world renowned for its bridges which cross the canals.
Most of the bridges are constructed of cement and are several hundred years old.
In addition to tourists who come from all corners of the globe, Suzhou is also home to several thousand Westerners, many of whom work with the multitude of factories located in the vicinity of Suzhou, and take advantage of Suzhou’s various clubs and bars, including the…uhhh…the Pulp Fiction Aussie Bar.
As picturesque as Suzhou is during the daytime, it is even moreso at night, as thousands of lights illuminate most of the main roads.
平江路 (Pingjiang lu) especially, is worth a stroll both during the daytime and after nightfall.
I spent my last evening in Suzhou wandering around town and exploring the nighttime scenery with longtime Suzhou resident Joe Thong, or as I call him “SuJoe”
the entrance to 观前街 (the walking street) at night
A native of Malaysia, and fellow Chinese snack enthusiast, Joe led me through the various street food stalls in 观前街, where we grazed for over an hour.
One snack we enjoyed, which is not unique to Suzhou, is what I call the “Chinese pizza.”  It’s a flat bread with herbs, spices, and small pieces of pork sprinkled on top.
A new culinary delight which Joe introduced to me is called the 花生糊 (hua1 sheng1 hu2).  It’s a cold drink made of peanut butter and milk, and is completely refreshing after several hours of walking.
After two and a half days in Suzhou, I decided it was time to make a move.  I had a great time with Ryan and Maggie, and during my own exploration of the ancient Wu capital, but I only had less than two weeks of vacation time left, and more of the region to see.  Next stop, Linan, a county-level city an hour outside of Hangzhou.  More to come soon.

 

03.29.09

From the Delta to the Backwoods: Two weeks in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Anhui

Posted in Announcements, Travel Log (Asia) at 10:09 am by Benjamin Ross

Recently I returned from a month-long stint in China during which I was consulting for PacEth for two and a half weeks, and then traveling independently for another two.  At exactly 30 days, it was the shortest duration I have even stayed in the Middle Kingdom, but probably the most efficient in terms of both work, and play.

Nanjing Xinjiekou view from skybridge
Downtown Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu province, one of the more affluent major and modernized cities in the Middle Kingdom

My first two and a half weeks were spent working in Shanghai.  Located at the mouth of the Yangtze River Delta, Shanghai is the center of one of Mainland China’s two most prominent economic regions.  (The other being the Pearl River Delta).  Shanghai, Northern Zhejiang and Southern Jiangsu provinces collectively form a hyper-economic zone which has emerged as one of the wealthiest regions of modern China, representing the benefactors of Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening Up policy.

However, right in the backyard of the Yangtze River Delta lies a province which bares little in common with the glamour and glitz of the Shanghai, Zhejiang and Jiangsu.  With soil and farmland far inferior to the fertile Yangtze River Delta and no port access, Anhui is one of the poorest provinces in China.  Unlike Shanghai with its youngsters touting PSPs and its businessmen chatting on iPhones, its café culture and western markets with organic produce, Anhui remains stuck somewhere between the economic woes of the 60s and 70s, and the economic miracle of the past 30 years.  Public infrastructure is poorly maintained, expendable income is low, and its inhabitants live in constant knowledge that their brothers and sisters, just an overnight train ride away, are sipping lattes and updating their Facebook statuses on mobile wifi.

rural Anhui village street
A city road in Taihe, located in Northwestern Anhui, one of China’s most economically lagging provinces

What Anhui does have though is people.  With a population slightly larger than that of the UK, Anhui is the source of millions of laborers who make the short journey east to Shanghai to work as housekeepers, construction workers, vegetable vendors, and a multitude of other occupations undesirable to Shanghai locals.  Within Shanghai, Anhui people comprise the rapidly expanding urban lower class, needed to support Shanghai’s growing urban elite.  As the dominant element in Shanghai’s working class, Anhui people have developed a reputation as the shysters, sneaks, and beggars which populate the city and draw the ire of its locals.  In the eyes of most Chinese, Anhui is a destitute land from which people come out, but nobody ever (willingly) goes in.

This is exactly why I wanted to spend a week of my vacation exploring Anhui.  Embarking from Shanghai, my two week excursion took me in a clockwise direction through the prosperous Yangtze River Delta, to the backwoods of Anhui, back through the Yangtze River Delta and returning to Shanghai from where I flew back to Chicago on March 19.

The following series explores my recent trip from one of China’s wealthiest regions, through one of its economic backwaters, and back.  In all, my journey took me to eight different cities, and there is a corresponding blog post, with images, for each of them.

Part 1  Suzhou: Ancient Capital of the Wu

Part 2  Linan: Stomping Grounds of the Chinese Small Town Upper-Middle Class

Part 3  Huang Shan: The Famous Yellow Mountain

Part 4: Anhui: Industrial Capital on the Plain

Part 5: Fuyang:  Into the Backwoods

Part 6: Taihe: Rural Anhui in all its Glory and Grit

Part 7: Nanjing:  Cultural Oasis of the South

Part 8:  Yangzhou: Home of the World’s Most Famous Fried Rice…and Jiang Zemin


 

03.18.09

Final Update from the Road

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 9:48 am by Benjamin Ross

Looking down at the clock, I have approximately 31 hours left in this most recent journey into the Middle Kingdom.  It’s been a short, sweet, trip, but like all good things, must come to an end.  Ever since this summer, I’ve been thinking that my ideal situation would be to somehow split my time between China and the US, and after being up North for 3 months this summer, and here around the Yangtze River Delta for the past month, I have a lot to be thankful with how things have been working out. 

Tex and I spent our first week of travel, in hyper-efficiency mode, visiting a new locale every day, waking up at 8, and maximizing each day with full immersion into China and no contact whatsoever with foreigners or the Western world.  As our journey began to wrap up, we decided to relax in Nanjing for a few days, stay at a laowai friendly youth hostel, and enjoy Nanjing for an extended day stay.  On Monday, we took a day trip to Yangzhou where we explored the town (reminded me of a mini-Suzhou), and ate copious quantities of Yangzhou fried rice.

Tex headed back to Yangzhou last night, and I’m going to be flying back to Chicago (via Shanghai) tomorrow afternoon.  I’ll be sure to begin logging our adventure in deeper detail (plus images) when I get back home this weekend.  Thanks to everybody who has been following thus far, and I’ll see you from the other side. 

 


 

03.14.09

Another Brief Update…Anhui -> Nanjing

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 1:29 pm by Benjamin Ross

It’s Saturday afternoon in Nanjing, the pre-Mao capital of China, and here’s another brief, raw, update from the road. 

Tex and I just finished a 2 hour walkthrough of the Nanjing Massacre Museum.  In terms of layout and information, it was probably the best museum I have ever seen in the Middle Kingdom.  It did come with the typical Chinese propaganda to ensure that viewers believed 100% in the facts which were already plainly obvious from all the images and artifacts (not to mention general worldwide historical consensus), but that’s a topic for a later post.

Before arriving in Nanjing this morning, Tex and I spent the past two days wandering around Northwestern Anhui, one of the poorest regions of the PRC.  Our goal for this trip was to experience locales which had nothing extraordinary about them, thus no tourism industry, and very little contact with outsiders. Our first day was spent wandering around Fuyang, the poorest (in terms of per capita GDP) city in Anhui.  Fuyang was surprisingly much larger than we had anticipated, but indeed quite economically disadvantaged.  The locals were quite friendly to us, but absolutely baffled at why we would ever come to Fuyang, with most thinking we were either secret businessmen, journalists, spies or some combination of the three.  One interesting little catch to Fuyang is that it is virtually impossible to find a restaurant with a menu.  Instead, sit-down restaurants consist mostly of ramshackle little abodes where you simply pick foodstuffs out of a refrigerator, tell the cook how to make it, and then get quoted a price.  There was however, an absolute cornicopia of street food, which is mainly what we subsisted upon.  But I’ll save more elaboration for Fuyang until I get back to the US, and have more time to write. 

From Fuyang, we traveled to a small town (县城)called Tianhe, where the locals were equally baffled at these two strange tall (I am 6’1 and Tex is 6’5) white men who had descended on their humble town.  Like Fuyang, Tianhe was much larger than we had anticipated as well, containing by our estimates, at least 100,000 residents.  We spent the day scowering the town on foot, consuming local snacks, and chatting with the locals, many of whom had never before seen a foreigner.  At one point, when we happened to pass by an elementary school gate around lunch time, we were accosted by a mob of eager sixth graders watching us eat street food.  After one of them pulled out his notebook and a pen and asked us to sign it, the others followed suit, and we spent close to half an hour signing autographs.  It was difficult to go anywhere without making a scene. 

I’ve taken several hundred pictures on this trip, and learned a lot about life in the Central Chinese Plain, which I’ll be sure to write up once I get back to the US.  We plan to spend 2 or 3 days here in Nanjing, and time permitting, may head out to a 县城 in Jiangsu (one of China’s richer provinces) to experience the contrast between small town life in Anhui and Jiangsu.  Until then, I’ll try to keep up with the quick updates.              


 

03.11.09

Another brief update, this one coming from Hefei

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 7:17 pm by Benjamin Ross

It’s been a few days since the last short update, and this one is coming to you from another smokey net bar, this time in Hefei, capital city of China’s Anhui province.  Tex and I met up yesterday in Hangzhou (he was coming from Wenzhou, and me from Linan), and from there made the trip out Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain).

Generally as a traveler, I’m not too interested in “scenic spots” of which China has hundreds, but Huang Shan has been recommended to me by enough people (Westerners and Chinese) that I decided we couldn’t come all the way to Anhui without checking it out.

First off, I must say Huang is expensive, very expensive, even during this relatively dead tourism season.  The ticket to the mountain itself was 200 RMB, however women could get in for 100 due to a special Women’s Day week discount.  If my memory serves me correctly, neither the Great Wall nor the Forbidden City in Beijing, both sites of presumably greater tourism magnitude than Huang Shan, eclipsed the 100 RMB mark, let alone 200.  In addition to the fee to enter the park, there was another 80 RMB fee to ride the cable car up (yes, I know we’re both wimps, no need to comment), plus an additional 80 RMB to ride the cable car down.  All said and done, I spent about the same amount of money in an afternoon at Huangshan, than I did in my 3 days in Suzhou and 2 days in Linan combined.

As for the mountain itself, it was nice…I’ll leave it at that.  The scenery was picturesque, but not the best I have ever seen, and not the best I have ever seen in the Middle Kingdom.  Hanging out at the summit is a pleasant experience, but in reality, not all that different from the various other “famous mountains” I have “climbed” in China.  The main attraction at the top seems to be various rocks and peaks which are officially described as resembling a particular animal or object.  Of note was 手机石, which resembles a cell phone, complete with pretruding antenna.  Passing guides could be heard asking the tourists what brand of cell phone the rock resembled.

We we were fortunate in that we were able to go to Huang Shan this time of year, because I imagine that during the summar and holidays, it is absolutely swamped by herds of tourists. As we climbed up to the cable car, we passed a sign which read “From this point 2 hour wait to cable car.”  We had no wait at all.  All in all, Huang Shan is a nice site, but I’m glad I didn’t travel all the way to Anhui just to see it.

So immediately after Huang Shan, Tex and I headed to Hefei to see the capital city of Anhui.  Like much of Anhui (excluding Huang Shan) Hefei is one of the more anonomyous capital cities in China.  It’s one of those cities few people would ever travel to for tourism.  We spent the day meandering through the streets of Hefei, exploring one of China’s more industrial capital cities, and taking in the local sites and sounds.  There is so much dust in the air that I can feel it between my teeth, but overall I like the friendly, innocent vibe of this town.  As soon as I finish this e-mail, we are off to a small alley along the downtown “walking street” where earlier today we found an excellent array of local street food (future blog post to come as well). 

In accordance with our original desire to experience some of Chna’s least fortunate parts, tomorow morning, we are heading off to Fuyang, the city with the lowest per capita GDP in Anhui.  We aren’t really sure to expect, but at least we know we won’t be paying through the wazoo like we did yesterday.  After that our plan (subject to change) is to pass through Bengbu, and then finally Nanjing.  More updates to come, and of course lots of pictures when I get back to the US on the 19th.          


 

03.08.09

Quick Update from Linan, Zhejiang

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 4:28 pm by Benjamin Ross

Well, I had an excellent 3 days in Suzhou, and have now continued on the next leg of my brief Yangtze River Delta excursion.  I’m writing this from a smokey internet bar in Linan, a 县及市 (county-level city) about an hour outside of Hangzhou. An old friend of mine who I met while living in Fuzhou is living here now, and I decided to drop in and pay her a visit for a few days.  On the 10th, my old buddy Tex (also met in Fuzhou) and I are going to meet up for the final leg of the trip, which will go through Nanjing and Anhui province.

Since this trip in China is a relatively short one (I go back home on the 19th), I’ve decided not to spend too much time blogging from the road, and instead will document most of my travels when I get back to Chicago.  I have been taking a lot of pictures, which I will post when I get back home, and also have been Twittering daily (@BenRoss) which can be done much quicker than blogging I am rapidly figuring out.    

So as for Linan, I am actually quite stoked to be here.  Thus far, my entire trip has consisted of 2 weeks in Shanghai (huge city, tons of foreign influence), and 3 days in Suzhou (relatively large city, lots of foreign influence as well).  Linan, on the other hand, is reminding me a lot of Fuqing, where I spent my first year and a half in the Middle Kingdom.  It’s a small city (probably a couple hundred thousand people) easily transversed on foot, or by cab for 5 RMB to virtually any location, I’m able to walk the streets without having watches, handbags, and prostitutes solicited to me, and the locals have a rural innocense to them that is typically lost in big city life. 

I’m going to save most of my elaboration (I could go on for pages about Chinese small towns like this) until I get back to Chicago, but just wanted to give everybody a quick update of the trip so far.  Next post will probably be coming to you from Anhui, home of Yellow Mouintain, excellent tea, and point of origination for most of Shanghai’s migrant labor force.   

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