Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Sichuan Shakedown

I chilled out my first day at the hostel in Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province, just taking advantage of the first free internet in China since I had left Metrozine. The next day I went to the famed panda reserve in Chengdu and took over 100 pictures of pandas in various poses. The best pictures I got were of a few giant pandas lying back and lazily chomping on bamboo stick after bamboo stick, reaching into piles at their side for more, completely unbothered by the pieces that fell on their chests.

I met the two Dutch girls, Cindy and Malou (who I called Moola) during the panda tour and by the time we were back at the hostel it was decided that I’d travel with them for a couple of days. We explored Chengdu for the rest of the day, seeing the famed Mao statue before ducking into a Starbucks to get out of the rain.

The next day we took a bus for 3 hours to go to Leshan, home to “dafo” or big Buddha. Really, really big Buddha. 230 foot tall Buddha carved into a mountain, making it the biggest Buddha in the world.

After seeing the Buddha and the surrounding temples and gardens, we found an internet café to settle a bet. Having heard the old All Day I Dream About Sports/ Soccer tale, I was sure Adidas had American origins. Cindy said it was founded by a German guy named Adi Dassler. Oops. I lost and had to put in 5 yuan (75 cents) for her dinner. As Westerners, we attracted a lot of attention when we entered the internet café. A few minutes after we sat down, a Chinese guy sat down next to me and attempted to converse with me through Google Translator. He was too shy to tell me to look at his screen when he had something to say to me, so I only caught what he was writing when I looked over out of curiosity. A few times I caught him deleting and rewriting a sentence, and at the end after asking for my e-mail he gave me this gem, courtesy once again of Google Translator

Subject- A nickname of your Chinese friends tell Lai Chi

Body- This is a first E-MAIL to confirm E-MAIL address is correct! A small test, hope you reply!

To wish you happy playing in China!
Do not know What's your name then! ~ It has been too intrusive! ~

Something I had to leave! ~ Am glad to see you, wish you happy playing! ~
See you soon!

Strange, overly friendly- pretty typically Chinese.

The next day we took a six hour bus to Chongqing, the biggest city in Sichuan. The municipality has over 30 million people. (Pretty weird to think that there’s a city of 30 million people somewhere in the world that I had never previously heard of). We were in Chongqing to try to book a cruise down the Yangtze River through the Three Gorges.

Once off the bus we whipped out the Lonely Planet to try to find our way to a hotel or hostel. A curious Chinese woman came up to us and in pretty good English asked if we needed help. We gratefully accepted her help when she pointed us in the direction of the bus we needed to take to get to the city center.

A couple hours later, after dropping our bags off at one hotel option in search of a cheaper one, we had the Lonely Planet out again. This time a man came up to us with his girlfriend and asked us if we needed help. We asked him where a particular hotel was and he pointed us in the direction. Malou or Cindy asked for clarification and doomed us for the night. Our Chinese friend took one look at his girlfriend who made a feeble protest to continue in the (opposite) direction they were originally heading- towards home, dinner or whatever the night was supposed to consist of, and turned to lead us towards the hotel.

He immediately appointed himself our travel agent/ caretaker for the night. He negotiated with the first hotel which was far too pricey. We headed to another one and tried to get him to leave. But he couldn’t take a hint. I tried over and over again to thank him and send him on his way with his girlfriend. But he refused.

I tried to tell him more explicitly that we could handle it ourselves. He laughed at that and said he was my Chinese big brother, or "ge ge." He asked me what Chinese I knew, and I replied with “Wo jiao David.” I tried again when I saw his puzzled look, and he replied “Oh your accent is so so bad.” I just barely resisted the urge to pettily insult his English skills.

Undeterred I tried to say something else again later and was met with the equally encouraging; “your pronunciation is awful.” (However let the record show that when I tried to confirm a price in Chinese with his girlfriend, she had no trouble understanding me).

Right as we arrived at the front desk of the Homey Hotel, where we would spend the next two nights our Chinese Savior turned to me and said, “It must be so strange to you. You must think the Chinese are so good-hearted. Why is he doing this? He must have a secret reason. But no, I have no reason!”

(I beg to differ. I personally think he was looking for someone to help him fulfill his hero complex for the night.)

Our Chinese Savior also tried to help us find dinner. Once again we insisted, not out of politeness but annoyance, that we would find a place ourselves. But he just kept making recommendation after recommendation, and if we didn’t have to get our bags from another hotel I’m sure he would’ve insisted on situating us at a dinner table himself.

We finally lost him and ended up at Pizza Hut, a lot classier in China and India than I bet it is back home. And after dinner I introduced the Dutch girls to a Coke float.

We interrupt this post to present a special exposé: Holland- the most racist country you’ve never heard of?

Cindy and Malou told me the story of Sinter Klaas, which they said America stole, commercialized and turned into the more well-known Santa Claus. Sinter Klaas shows up in Holland on December 5th in a steamboat from Spain. A more realistic story than sleighs and reindeer? Maybe. More fun? Definitely not.

My favorite part of the story is Sinter Klaas’ helpers aka the Black Peters. Instead of elves the Dutch dress up all Christmas-y and add a bunch of blackface, the effects of soot having its way coming down the chimney.

A few days later I found out that the Dutch word for people with Down Syndrome is….. Mongolian. My Dutch friends insisted this wasn’t offensive and explained that the little term of endearment originated in similarities in the eyes of the two groups.

And finally there’s a Dutch happy birthday song that goes “Hanky panky Shanghai” accompanied of course by a slanty-eyed face.

Maybe (probably) I’ve grown up in a country that’s just hypersensitive to race. I mean there are still debates that spring up every couple years about the appropriateness of flying the Confederate flag and it’s been almost 150 years since the Civil War. But because of that hypersensitivity I feel like in matters of race the Dutch may be a tad inconsiderate at times.

The Yangtze River Cruise or Ur in(e) for it now!

We spent an extra day in Chongqing trying to plan our river cruise, and stocking up on supplies. Whenever we stopped moving on the pedestrian avenue near our hotel we were approached by another curious Chinese asking for a picture. Late on our second day we headed to the booking day to take a 3 hour bus to Wanzhou where our 2 night, 3 day cruise departed from.

So, how was the cruise? Piss. Urine. Pee pee. Whizz.
How were the sights off the boat? I’m not really sure. I was too relieved to have fresh air to breathe to notice anything else.
How was the food? I stocked up with peanut butter, jelly and a loaf of bread. But all I tasted was the waves of urine I smelled whenever I moved to a different part of the room.

Besides the stench, the rest of the accommodation was nothing I’d recommend to my worst enemy. The bunk beds were hard wood with a barely-there inch think mattress. And the carpet on our floor covered warped metal plates that made a irritating, loud popping noise whenever you stepped in the wrong place. Bad Chinese karaoke from the top deck sounded at random hours. And we had to pay a one-time fee of 40 yuan to reach that top deck because we paid for a second class room.
But we laughed it all off because it was pretty amusing for only a couple of days. And it was the most authentically Chinese way to cruise. Unless you count the Swedish Chinese, my friend Khan and his posse who moved to a Swedish resort town 30 years ago and opened up a Chinese restaurant there, there were only six Westerners onboard out of one to two hundred people.

On my first night I came down from the top deck and heard in German-accented English, “Look! There’s another foreigner.” I was then mobbed by three 14 year-old Chinese kids, with textbook English knowledge and a burning desire to try it out on the first foreigners they had ever seen.

The cruise stopped late on our first night so we could see a Buddhist temple at night, tackily lit with red lights. We also stopped for a 4 hour small boat tour of the little three gorges, which was really picturesque. For our second to last stop we got on a super long motored canoe painted to look like a dragon and had "dragon boat" races, to our next destination... the opera. All of the cruise's guests still in lifejackets, sat in a floating auditorium to watch costumed Chinese dancers lip sync to opera music. All-around pretty absurd. We then went exploring a mountainside, past a sign for the unfortunately named Wintian Crack into the worse Wangou Hole

The cruise finished with a tour of the massive Three Gorges Dam Project near Yichang on Tuesday afternoon. Unfortunately the tour was in Chinese so I just wandered around with my iPod. Yichang is also significantly closer to Shanghai than it is to Chengdu. But with my Friday morning flight from Chengdu to Shanghai, I had no choice but to head back to Chengdu. Pretty maddeningly inefficient, but it’s one of the pitfalls of only partially planning a trip.

What followed might count as the craziest half hour of my trip. The Dutch girls had already left, so I was in my room alone working on this blog post. The sole (barely) English-speaking employee of the cruise knocked on my door to tell me we’d be stopping to let me off in two hours. An hour later I felt the boat stop for a little while and thought nothing of it, as my friend had just told me I had more time. I was watching the clock, so when it came close to two hours, I packed up my stuff and got ready to head out.

After not feeling the boat stop for a half hour after I was supposed to get off, I went into the hallway, only to find it completely deserted. All the other guest rooms were open and there was no one left on the ship. Panicking, I ran down to the main floor. There was one employee still sweeping the deck. I whipped out my Lonely Planet phrase book to try to ask when we'd be stopping to let me off, and she shook me off and told me to sit down. I kept pacing and flipping through my book to try to find the right words to put together, when another employee came up to me and told me something in Chinese. The only word I caught was Ba, which as I understood it could either mean 8 or money or luck. So it could either be "We'll drop you off in 8 minutes/ hours/ days" or "Give me this amount of money for a bribe" or "Good luck getting off this boat. Fat chance."

My mind was still racing when another employee approached me and told me to follow her. Our boat pulled up and stopped next to another boat, and we crossed onto that one. I was handed off to another boat employee I recognized from the night the Dutch girls had broken the door to our bathroom, and one repairman overstayed his welcome trying to learn English. I followed said friendly repairman through an empty scrapyard to a very nice sports car. He popped the trunk and gestured for me to throw my bags down there... right on top of his gun. Still clueless as to what was going on, and now a tad more scared for my life, I jumped in the backseat. The repairman and his friend ignored me while blasting Chinese techno and speeding through some small nameless Chinese town. A few minutes later, we pulled up next to the bus I was meant to be on had I gotten off the boat at the right time. I got out of the car, grabbed my bags and went on the bus and tried to shout a "dui bu qi" (I'm sorry) to all the geriatric Chinese laughing at me.


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