This is my sixth visit to China, if you include Taiwan as part of China. Oh, also, you’ll have to include Hong Kong as part of China. I am assuming you concede Shanghai as part of China. And Beijing? Surely, Beijing is part of China.
Wherever you draw the political borders, ten minutes in Taiwan leaves one sure the place is Chinese. Mandarin is the language, and a traditional form of it at that, like a Bostonian’s version of English or a Montrealer’s version of French. The food is undoubtedly Chinese, albeit on the noodley side, rather than the ricey or dumplingey side. The commerce is aggressively capitalist with an overlay of familial dysfunction: more American than the Americans, a trait I have often attributed to the Chinese.
The Taiwanese are most Chinese, though, when speaking to each other in exchanges that sound like a New York taxi driver discussing politics with the French Ambassador to the United Nations. Or a Parisian taxi driver discussing economics with the President of the World Bank. That is to say their conversational tone of voice is harsh, almost violent. If you don’t speak the language, what sounds like an accusation of murder may be a compliment on the quality of the fish intestines served. Continue reading 02. Traincatching→
It was a morning of despites. Despite a forecast for rain and fog, we awoke to stunning sunshine and, most remarkably, clear air. Despite fighting off a head cold and having consumed a surfeit of Spanish tempranillo in the Executive Lounge the night before, I felt great and was eager to go for a jog. Despite having had hernia surgery only three weeks earlier, Frank Lee wanted to join me. Despite having no familiarity with the city, no map, and a directional orientation that would later prove to be off by 90 degrees, we headed out.
This part of Qingdao’s foreshore on the Yellow Sea presented a series of working piers between which there are dramatic cliffs of public parkland footed here and there by swimming beaches with a ten foot tide. It was easy to see why the city was chosen to host the sailing competition during the 2008 Olympics, as it showed us a dedicated sailing culture with all the world class facilities and accommodation one could expect.
The courtyard was deserted before breakfast, so I was doing my morning stretches there as there was insufficient floor space in our room. Flat on my back, legs locked and twisted in bizarre fashion, my quiet time was interrupted when I became aware of feet straddling my ears.
“Can I get some coffee?” an American accent demanded, her bellow echoing off the glass walls.
“Breakfast is served at eight.” I responded in low voice.
“Can I get some coffee?” she repeated, her face now leaning over into my roof-ward view. Did she think I worked here?
“Breakfast is served at eight.” I repeated, slightly louder.
She came to her knees her face now inches above mine. “What? What’s on the plate?”
Deaf as a doornail, I thought. “Breakfast is served at eight.” I repeated, now loud enough to wake our slumbering fellow guests.
“Oh.” she acknowledged, her face contorted in disappointment, lip curled. She stomped off into a room, slamming the door behind her. I heard her snarl “He won’t serve us until eight.” at some unfortunate companion. Sheesh. And I thought I was bad before morning coffee. Continue reading 05. A Breath of Fresh Air→
As we finished breakfast, host Mark approached our table. We had booked to have a car and driver take us to The Great Wall at Mu Tian Yu, which was supposed to be far less crowded and more spectacular than the nearer sight Badaling because, well, it takes a car and driver to get to Mu Tian Yu.
“You like to share car today?” he asked, sheepishly.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Two American ladies want to go but don’t want to pay so much. You share with them, you pay half.”
“Yeah, sure, happy to…” we agreed, nodding enthusiastically. Certainly I was happy to save the dough, but also I get a bit uncomfortable with private tours, so was delighted to have some company. I promise to talk that through with my counsellor next month and report back as appropriate, but there it is. Continue reading 04. Great Walls of Ire→
It would be difficult to survive five days in Beijing without eating duck, which is both omnipresent and excellent, so it is a mystery to me why anyone would want to. Saturday evening our host suggested a local restaurant named Hui Feng which specialised in roast duckling. We ordered up a storm, about six dishes, one being an entire duck’s worth of Peking Duck. Marvellous! The ducks are big, here, too, so we had enough food for a family of ten.
In preparation for dining in Beijing, I had learned two important Chinese phrases phonetically: “May I have some hot chili sauce?” and “Where’s the toilet?” The staff was puzzled, and perhaps a bit offended, when, confusing the two phrases, I pointed to a plate of dumplings while demanding to know the locale of the toilet. Some of the other diners were entertained by our enormous appetites and creative chopstick techniques. We were entertained by the bug zapper over the door from the kitchen which intermittently sent insects to a cracking, fiery demise; very American. The whole banquet came in under $50.
Early to bed and early to rise, Sunday morning we headed out before breakfast, dangerously coffeeless, to see Chairman Mao arisen from his wintry tomb. It had rained overnight, which oddly enough did not clear the smog, but added mist and fog to the haze. Continue reading 03. Great Men and Spoilt Brats→
In the morning, over the simple breakfast on offer, Frank Lee had the same question. “Ah, how ever DID you find this place?”
“You said you wanted to stay in a hutong, and this is a hutong, and it was cheap.”
“I said I wanted to SEE a hutong, not STAY in one.”
“Oh.” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hutong)
There was no questioning the authenticity of the place. It was an ancient home of eight rooms, each with ornate wooden carved windows and doors nestled around a covered courtyard, with a grand tree thrusting out of its tiled floor and exploding through the glass ceiling. Our room was small, but clean, with a decently firm bed. Our host Mark, with whom we had corresponded by email, spoke English well. He and the two other staff were friendly, responsive and helpful. How much could one expect for $95 a night?
There was free wifi, but neither of could get on Facebook or Google. After much cursing we surmised that this was not a failure of the hotel, but the intention of the wary government. I was shocked to discover that without Google and Facebook I was an antisocial imbecile. Most problematic, Google Maps was unavailable, as was any site that USED Google Maps – which is just about every site there is. We would spend much time in the next few days relying on “maps” (colourful folding pieces of paper with diagrams, remember them?), and even worse, Yahoo!, which I’m quite certain nobody remembers. Did they get bought by the Party? Continue reading 02. Authentic Beijing→
Getting a Chinese visa can be something of a bureaucratic nightmare, although in recent years they have streamlined the process considerably. Their application is one of the few government forms on which I hesitate to lie, given that particular government’s propensity to use bullets now and send the bill later. Anywhere else I enter my occupation with the highly innocuous descriptor “accountant”, even though I couldn’t be called an accountant with any accuracy since, well, ever. But on my China visa application I honestly and not without irony entered “public servant”, and where required, checked the “government official” box, too.
Departing Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport, I was unprepared for the Aussie Customs and Immigration official to quiz me on this, especially at six in the morning, before I had had my second cuppa. “What agency are you with?” he asked with some jocularity.