This will be a rather lengthy post about my travels in China. I was planning to blog regularly whilst in China but the internet situation made that difficult (also I was on vacation and being lazy). This first edition is about the first week or so we spent in DongXing before heading down into Vietnam and onward to Shenzhen which will come in the later editions.
Flying to China
Since Xiqun had traveled one month ahead of me with the children I was going alone so imagine my surprise when arriving at the airport I accidentally bumped into a relative of Xiqun who asked med to accompany a teenager who was traveling back home. Rather surprised (as no one had told me about this) I accepted which turned out to be more interesting than I anticipated since he spoke not a single word, English or Swedish meaning we could not speak to each other. To make matters even worse he could not read/write pinyin meaning all my fancy translation tools were all but useless so communication was all but impossible . For instance he spent about five minutes trying to say what I think was that the girls behind us on the plane were pretty (all right hot is probably the word he used) .
But after some initial misunderstandings with the border security I (perhaps it was more luck?) managed to get us both safely to Nanning airport where we were greeted by Xiqun. This was a bit sad, for me, as I had spent hours carefully rehearsing questions about the bus for Dongxing; which was now all for naught. On the upside since the last bus left 5 minutes after we got through security it was rather lucky. Since had I spent an hour trying to use my fancy new language skills we would have missed the last bus. The reason for the short time before the last bus was due to the delay (3 hour or so) our plane had suffered trying to get out of Beijing.
Dong Xing, which I guess is your average small town on the Chinese country side, has a surprisingly large commercial center which was a bit of a surprise to me. The town is small enough to walk through it in under an hour but I guess the population density (which is much higher the Sweden) counts for something as it had for instance several small computer shops and probably ten different shops selling consumer electronic goods.
Another difference from a similar Swedish town is that the urban area is much more alive. This is due to the fact that in pretty much every house the ground floor sports some form of commercial activity, be it car washing, Mahjong parlors, restaurants or a small shops.
The most obvious one is the traffic and the cars. The concept of Seat-belts is unheard of it is not that they don’t use them. They barely even have them and if they do they are consistently broken. The is counter-weighted by the fact that cars drive in 20km/h or so which means the danger of riding in a car is about that of a normal bicycle in Sweden so perhaps it is not needed? On our Road Trip (see below) the car (a real western car) topped out at the highways at maybe 60 or 70km/h. Which is the base speed outside populated areas in Sweden (not the top speed). They also tend to load more in their vehicles: a motorcycle for instance is a bit like a Volvo in Sweden meaning it can carry your entire family.
Another striking difference is the houses it seems that houses in china are a bit like Lego City by this I mean each house is built to attach to a potential next door neighbor to from a city. For this reason there are no windows on the side of buildings and there is no paint because someone might at some point build a house there (so whats the point of painting: right). This includes skyscrapers which are often of the size some 4 meter wide 20 meters long and 100 meters high. These small blocks are then put together to form big housing areas but they are built one by one meaning there can be a gaps between the houses and most houses have a distinctive look to them.
This all looks very very cool since each house is like a tiny tower with its on slight look and feel. The end result is very cartoonish and much more beautiful than our massive slabs of concrete blocks which we put up here. Unfortunately my photos of this are on my phone so I can't show you.
The final big difference is shopping. Here people buy, what looks like, fresh produce from vendors on the street instead of frozen food from a store. This means you get live fish, live roster, and so on and so forth (but no live cows or pigs). But I am not so sure it is all real. Often you could find people poring oranges from paper boxes into the basket to make it look “fresh off the tree” as well as Styrofoam around apples and such.
But the interesting thing here is once we got to Shenzhen (A city of 12 million or so) it was still “the same”. not exactly the street was replaced by a market are with stalls but the content was the same. Even if you went to a modern super market they would have basins with live fish and frogs and what not.
Is this mattress made of wood?
First we did a quick stop at Xiquns parents who live in an apartment maybe 10 minute walk from the city center. It was probably a very nice neighborhood ten years ago but due to what I think is a fatal flaw in the housing system in China it is rather run down now to put it lightly.
The problem, I think, with the Chinese housing system is that they *buy the apartments*. Buy *as in own* which is not at all like Sweden where you own the internals and you communally own the externals, This means in Sweden you still pay rent even if you buy your apartment in china you live "for free" if you buy yours. But the problem is that the rent in Sweden is used for something: namely to keep communal spaces in order fix the roof and maintain the gardens and so on and so forth. Here no one does that since no one pays for it. this means that the communal spaces are slowly turning into what looks like a slum area since everything is broken. For instance behind Xiquns parents house was a once beautiful pond with stepping stones and water falls and... now nothing... no water, no water fall, just broken stones and growl and garbage...
After a quick visit we headed over to our hotel (since it was running late) and set up shop in a very nice looking (and insanely cheep) hotel. This was all nice until I hit the bed which apparently as made of wood. And I don’t mean the frame I mean the actual mattress. It is really odd because it was not an old mattress or a bad mattress just simply a wooden one. It was think and had springs and all that... just a MDF board on top making it a tad hard to sleep on. I also, later, noticed stores who sold wooden sheets you could put on your bed so I think something is fundamentally wrong in China in regards to beds.
Now this is not all that’s wrong with China I noticed a lot of other strange things as well for instance the sink drain never seems to have a trap and the list goes on but I will leave off here or Xiqun will say I am complaining .
Since the hotel we stayed at did not have breakfast (or at least we choose not to have it) we went to a nearby restaurant for our breakfast instead. Breakfast in china is normally much like dim sum but more focus on porridge and bread I guess.
All in all I would say it was one of the breakfasts I have had in a very long time. I felt rather awkward sitting in a restaurant snapping photos so the above shot is the only one I have from the breakfast (so sorry for the rather poor shot).
The next thing on the agenda was getting a new hotel since I just spent the entire night complaining about the terrible bed. So we headed over to the hotel where Xiquns sister stayed last time they where here. This time we went in a checked the bed before deciding to relocate to this hotel.
The hotel was by far even more impressively looking with a nice view as we got a room on the 12:th floor (I cowardly refused the first one the offered on the 13:the floor).
The new hotel had another rather odd feature we noticed after a while: the wall between the bathroom and bedroom was all glass Meaning you could see anyone going to the bathroom. I have since discovered this to be a rather common feature but I must say it is equally puzzling as the MDF bed linen.
Fish for dinner
We spent the next day walking around DongXing a bit exploring. I thoroughly enjoying both myself and the weather which was a pleasant surprise. Xiqun had spent the last few weeks telling me how cold it was so I had braced myself for winter but instead a warm and mild spring greeted me. Apart from the odd day here and there the temperature was around 20 degrees Celsius which is not warm by any vacation terms but I quite enjoy it. It often felt liked Swedish summer. They also had winter/raining season but apart from the odd shower here and there we had very little rain instead the sky has had a constant white thick cloud cover. Perhaps that is what they mean by rain season to be honest I have barely seen the sun during the entire trip. Nothing event full really happened the first day apart from me getting a bit lost here and there. Something Google was less than good at helping with since the maps was "off" by 20-30 meters in various directions meaning Google maps was useless for navigation. I later noticed this might be due to cached maps because the same maps "live" did not seem to suffer from the slight errors.
Later that night we went to have dinner with Xiquns family at a fish restaurant situated beautifully at the riverside next to he Vietnamese border (in other words Vietnam was across the river). Now this was a fish restaurant and this being china meant we first had to pick the live fish before they cooked it for us. We started with fish soup for "starter" (meals in China are a bit different so courses are served at random really but often soap comes first) and then had the fish, some scallops as well as some other things I don’t remember. All very very tasty and freshly cooked and oddly enough very very cheep (we paid around 20 euro for the entire meal for 6 persons.
With the fish I had some beer (a rather bland lager, but that seemed the be the only option all over China) as well as a very good time chatting (well, they chatted and I forced Xiqun to translate since I don really speak Cantonese).
Later we walked back which was rather spectacular since I fund Dong Xing to be a very beautiful city at nights with much colored lighting (Hey I am a sucker for colored lights).
Chinese people don’t drink tea…
The new hotel had breakfast which was pretty ok even though they claimed to have only a small breakfast since they had very few guests due to the ongoing New Years eve celebrations.
But here was yet another massive surprise: every morning when I asked for tea (Wo xiang jao cha) they looked at me with complete incomprehension until I repeated the sentence over and over putting emphasis on tea (cha) when they muttered “hao hao” (right) running away into the kitchen looking for tea. This puzzled me a lot, I had assumed tea was the standard drink for breakfasts in China (I had assumed tea was pretty much standard in china regardless of time place and occasion) but alas it is not. Instead they have soy bean milk (or perhaps more common: rice porridge).
The next hotel did not even have tea when I asked for it. Instead I have discovered Tea is usually not for drinking instead they wash the dishes in it.
So speaking of tea after having lunch at Xiqun parents place (rooster) we spent the rest of the day shopping for tea. Now this might seem like an odd thing to do all day but the way you shop for tea in china is heading over to the tea store in question sitting down around a nice big table sampling various teas till your hearts content a process which takes several hours. Fortunately for us they had children who happily took Evelina out to play outside so we could get down to business.
Making tea is rather time consuming as the process usually involves: First boiling water to make a pot of tea which is subsequently poured out. New water is boiled and added and again poured out. usually after three or four attempts can you sample the tea in ridiculously tiny glasses which are filled to the brim. During this process though the seller chatted about the tea explaining various properties and such which was loosely translated by Xiqun (often into "this is tea").
|DSC01004|The reason for discarding the first few batches is that the flavor is to strong the first few times you use the leaves. Fortunately since the process took a few hours they had children who did not mind playing with Evelina during our tea sampling session.
After we felt we had sampled enough tea I discovered a massive oversight from my side. When we were done and we were ready to purchase tea I discovered it was my job to keep track of which kinds we wanted. Since we had chatted and they explained everything so nicely I assumed they had kept track of the once we had drunk throughout the sampling session but alas not. So I was a bit dumbstruck trying to say “Yeah the 4:th tea was good” and “the one in the red box” which it was apparently meant nothing to them as they expected me to have the names. After some discussion back and forth we managed to identify the teas in question without having to start sampling all over again but next time I will keep a pad and pencil handy to note down the names.
Later at night we went to a park where Evelina set about painting a clay boat as well as watched other children torment fishes. I quite often wondered how people in Sweden would react if our kindergarten started having “fish live fishes from a bowl” as a children's game.
New years eve we spent shopping for some fireworks (apparently Xiquns mother had beaten us and already purchased the rooster) after which we headed home to Xiquns Parents (again) to have traditional new years eve dinner which basically is like any other dinner apart from the rooster. Don't get me wrong here, the rooster is a huge thing down here. HUGE!
Now I don’t mind rooster (tastes like chicken) but seriously eating roster every day all day for 14 days? And to top it of they have one recipe which is boil the rooster in water (make sure you do NOT add any spices or flavors) then kill it dead with a big ass knife by beating it over and over as hard as you can. Not really my cup of tea to be honest I much prefer the chicken filet I make in Sweden. Not only do I actually cook my food (meaning it has some form of flavor) I also used the bone-fragment-free version of chicken making it easier to eat .
But I guess on the upside *more roster for the Chinese locals* and more of the various other delicious dishes for me.
Gong Xi Fa Cai
After dinner we spent the evening (surprisingly) doing absolutely nothing (lets not say boring but…yes it was boring) waiting for midnight when we walked around the local park looking at the fireworks and then we headed home to our hotel.
The fireworks were not as spectacular as I had hoped and the biggest difference was really the emphasis on “bang” (firecrackers) instead of “beauty” (fireworks) which is the norm in Sweden (firecrackers are illegal in Sweden).
But I have to say the firecracker rolls are much more spectacular than anything I ever recall from my childhood in Sweden. They contain thousands of firecrackers going on for sometimes several minutes (the ones from my childhood was more like 5 seconds). The smoke can be seen for miles and if you happen to stand next to one going off you better cover your ears. Also a word of warning don’t think you can “light up a stray one” if you happen to find on in the streets the cm long fuse burned in fractions of a second resulting in a spectacular massive bang almost blowing the fingers of the hand.
As tradition dictates (or quite possibly not I have no idea really) we visited a Buddhist temple the following day. Either it really was a huge thing or we hit the busy hour as it had a lot of people visiting the shrines and praying. The ceremony was extremely confusing and Xiquns refusal to help translate (citing language difficulties) did not help.
I essence I was left on my own with Evelina on my back navigating a labyrinth of shrines, burning things, drums and what not with a bag full of even stranger things without any idea what to do with any of it. Thick incense, thin incense, papers rolls and so on and so forth. Swedish church is child's play in comparison. Fortunately the staff was extremely helpful showing me what to do and where to go so I managed I hope without insulting to many gods.
After visiting the temple we were heading towards a park and an argument arose about which way (everyone ignored my suggestion to follow google) and instead we walked the wrong way and ended up nowhere near the park. Not a big deal really as we were really out to enjoy our selves and instead we ended up eating some pretty cool barbecued birds on a stick which we would have missed had we gone to the park.
Hotel number 3
Inspired by the people we shopped tea from the other day (who thought we were ripped off at our “expensive hotel”) or perhaps more so our lack of clean clothes drove us to make yet another hotel change. This time to a more “western oriented” hotel which had laundry facilities.
It was a very funny hotel because all the signs were in “English” (notice the citation marks). Unfortunately the signs were all shot with my phone which I lost in Vietnam so I don’t have any of the photos any more but they were all rather funny. In essence Google translate is not your friend . For instance the “bread” for breakfast was called “pasta” and a lot of them made no sense at all.
When we switched hotels I also noticed a rather conspicuous sign in the old hotel room which Xiqun could not entirely explain. Now I can't read a word in Chinese so this could be a babysitter for all I know but after some creative googling on the number the results lead me to believe they might be offering other services.
We also managed to find the park we were looking for the day before but alas it was nothing special so I think the barbecued bird on a stick was the better option.
Next it was time to abandon DongXing and tour the country side a bit. So we headed out to FangCheng to visit some friends who lived where Xiqun used to live when she was a child. We headed there by bus and then a “cousin” picked us up and drove us out.
Perhaps I shall explain the term cousin as it is used a lot in china and can mean pretty much anything from actual cousins to someone you just meet and have no relation to at all. For instance I was a “cousin” when we were in London last year visiting and I have no relation to them at all since Xiqun and me are not even married (a fact I think they politely ignored since unmarried with children is not popular at all).
Anyways once I heard about the “cousin” who was going to drive us I was a bit… uhmm… you know we are 8 people right? Are you sure we will all fit in his car? But I spoke to dead ears no one could understand what I meant. And heading home he offered to drive yet another family back which meant we were probably around 20 or so people in the car. Apparently the number of people who fits inside a car is more flexible in China. In Sweden legally you can never have more than 9 passengers or you are required to have a bus as well as a bus license.
But I get ahead of my self. On the way we stopped to pickup a couple of roosters (I did not joke when I said they have rooster all day everyday for 14 days) as that is the customary gift to bring when you plan to have dinner at someone's place. And while we were shopping for rooster we meet the Chinese army who were presumably out shopping for rooster as well (though they seemed far more interested in buying pens and papers).
Finally we arrived in what I guess constitutes a one horse town in the Chinese country-side or maybe one bull town as I could not find any horses. Well there Xiqun showed me around a bit and I got to pick some tea!
Is it me who is poor?
It was a fascination day and I really wish I had spoken more Chinese as it would have been very interesting to get to know these people better. Initially I was chocked at how they lived. It seemed they lived in poverty, and for all I know perhaps they do, but it seemed more to be by choice than by necessity. And this is where it starts to get philosophical.
It struck me: perhaps happiness is really not measured by the number of toys you have, perhaps it is not they who are missing something perhaps it is I? As I said this is rather philosophical but it is rather interesting to make a comparison because the Swedish (Western?) society is measured by how much money you have, which position you have in your job, how many cars you have, etc, etc
*It is always the things we own or have that defines us but do they actually make us happier?*
We usually talk about “money not begetting happiness” but perhaps these people actually understand that and live by it? Perhaps we have lost something fundamental along the way to “perfection” here something they still retain? Something which may actually have been priceless? Something which we need to find again?
Now I am not a philosopher but I can't get rid of the nagging sensation that there is something they have which I don’t… something important… something…
Roosters and Chickens
On the way back to the cousin aka cab driver we stopped at some (other) “cousins” (no idea who they really were) who lived along the way. This time I mainly walked around and the other chatted a bit. I guess the highlight was Evelina getting to cuddle their brand new chickens.
For me it was interesting to (again) see the face of Mao on the wall. I don’t claim to know Chinese history but I thought the common consensus (even in China) was that Mao was perhaps not really all that good for China. But here in the countryside a lot of houses had his face on the wall like some kind of hero or father figure?
I did not dare to question to much as I partly don’t understand the background but more importantly translation difficulties and a political discussion did not seem like the best way to greet these people who were so nice to me. At least they had Xi Yang Yang on the wall as well
Back at the "cousin aka. cab drivers" place we again sat and had tea(?) as well as walked around a bit whilst they prepared the food. This time there was a proper chef in action and by god the gas powered stove/wok he had was impressive to see the flames were bright and the heat massive. My guess is he would have laughed at my electrical “toy stove”. Outside they had chicks running loose as well as various other animals (though I never saw much of them) and Evelina had a great time looking at the ducks though in the pond out back. Then Evelina spent a while sitting bored looking at some plastic chairs before deciding they were like Lego or maybe blocks and off she went.
Now remember the chef making food?
This was probably the best meal yet, very tasty and a massive dinner…with a big bowl of cooked rooster in the center (well at least they had tried to cover the poor thing this time)…
After dinner when we were chatting a bit one of the roosters we did not eat decided to come say good-by to his dear bellowed recently departed (and eaten) friend Presumably someone had told him the future of rooster was grim the coming week. Interestingly enough some 30 minutes later he (or perhaps another one?) decided to come back again.
Then we on the spur of the moment decided to head back so the cousin aka cab driver drove us back to FangChen where we literally, just, managed to catch the last bus. Running to the bus I managed to snap a quick photo of yet another goggle translated sign which promised the toilet(?) to be “water free”! Also running to he bus we almost managed to lose Xiquns father which was more interesting as he ignored his phone when we called him…
New day new rooster
Next day we headed out to shop for rooster and visiting another cousin (one from Shenzhen). This turned out to be a master stroke of pure genius since they helped us immensely when we got to Shenzhen later on the trip.
After shopping some rooster we headed over and Evelina found her new best friend in the form of their Son which meant she had a great time as well. He (the Cousin, not the child) almost spoke English which meant I could almost speak to him. They also had some really cool snacks with them from Shenzhen which we enjoyed (as well as the obligatory rooster dinner).
Add to Evelinas delight they had bought fireworks for their child which he grumpily shared so now Evelina knows how to play with fire.
This also meant I got to see a firecracker roll in action up close (and see Xiquns Cousin almost blow his hand of trying to set off the stray one I found on the ground afterwards). Now this was a “small” firecracker roll so it only took around 45 seconds from start to finish but boy was it impressive to look at. The next time I will have to buy a big one .
Dancing in the dark
Later at night we headed out to the playing area with our combined children to allow them to have some fun as well as enjoy the evening. This And time for yet another Chinese surprise. There were people dancing, in the streets, I mean regular sober people (not some partying students or crazed drug attics or someone wanting money) and later I discovered that this is something very common. Now it was new years holiday so very few people were out. On a normal night there are hundreds of people out dancing. Usually (in this park) here are four or five different people bringing stereos and arrange public dance sessions all in the square. All with different dances and different music.
And again I had that warm fuzzy feeling… why do we never have such things in Sweden? Dancing in Sweden comes after getting drunk, and dancing publicly outdoor comes after getting seriously wasted.
The next day started interesting as always. Since Xiqun was tired I headed by myself to have breakfast with Evelina sitting there quietly happily eating my food a ruckus starts around the corner. Now I don’t speak Chinese so I just heard upset voices and in storms Xiquns mother bearing a basket of food (into the hotel restaurant). now the problem here is she does not speak Mandarin (she speaks Cantonese) this means the few words I know in Chinese she does not understand. *Hence there is NO WAY for us to communicate*. So embarrassed like never before I try to say (in Mandarin Chinese) please be quiet, you have to wait, and you cant bring food (to a restaurant), and… and… eventually I just left and head for our room and tell Xiquns she has to get rid of her mother. Then I head back to the restaurant and continue my breakfast in peace. After a while an older man comes by and gives me the “thumbs up sign” laughing on his way out.
Apparently she felt the restaurant food was not good enough for our kids and had thus brought food for them. And I will give her that her food was tastier then the restaurant food. And in china it is apparently ok to bring your own food to eat in a restaurant but I still feel that maybe that was not the best idea.
Later that day we decided to head over to the beach to allow Evelina to play in real sand. At the local park where children plays does not have a real sandbox for children. Instead they had some strange plastic balls you could dig in but we feel that was a weak copy of the all to common sandbox which are everywhere in Sweden.
So we headed out to the beech where I saw the sun for the first time since I arrived in China. The beach was rather deserted given that it was off-season (winter/rain season) but we had a nice time and the children enjoyed playing a bit.
Cat for lunch? No worms…
Then we headed up to the main street looking for restaurants where we could have some lunch. Amongst the restaurant signs I found this which I guess was the first time I was not 100% sure I could trust the translation. So in addition to beef, chicken and fish they have *cat on the menu*.
We did not go to that restaurant as we opted for seafood (instead of petfood). So we had the “usual pick your fish” idea which started to no longer felt quite as exotic as it once did. In addition to the fish we also had clams and worms. Ohh, they claim it is not worms! But their argument “they live in sand so they can't be worms” sounds about as reasonable as “they live in water so they can't be fish”. They look like worms so I call them worms (until someone can translate the name for me). But I have to say they were rather tasty so I don’t really mind eating worms.
I got the power – not!
After the beach we headed home and for dinner we decided to go out and have huoguo which is the Chinese name for hotpot. After sitting down we discovered that it was a rather strange version of huoguo since they just pored all the meet in for us and cooked it so not much fiddling our self. And if you ask me half the idea with a hotpot is the fiddling.
Still it was very pretty tasty and we had a great time. Something which struck me when I sat there was how they could run all these electrical cookers on a single electrical outlet? My induction stove is 2000W which means it runs pretty close to a 10 amp fuse all by it self right? These guys were running an entire restaurant of stoves from a single outlet. *That’s easily 20-30 x 2000 watt (like 40-60.000W) which on a 200 volts equates to around 200 amps*. Now the wattage listed on a stove is the maximum right so unless you are very unlucky you will never reach that but still it looked insane. Well I figured this is china they have it figured out so we sat down had our dinner and enjoyed ourselves. And halfway through it looked like this (notice the owner with the flashlight in the background).
It feels good to know that all those years spent in school studying for my electronics degree was not entirely wasted: loo and behold the power went and they “never managed to get it back on” ie. most likely they had no fuses (or they had rigged the fuses to not go off) and paid by frying the mains for it. So what does a restaurant who deals only with electrically powered hotpots do when they run out of power? They close down for the night…
Right, I almost forgot… Today was valentines day!
A rose in China costs twice as much as it does in Sweden… But a rather young girl sold it to me and she was immensely proud of her speaking English so most likely I was ripped off for being a tourist but I can live with that.
Last day (before we headed to Vietnam) we spent driving around (in a real car) a bit touring some of the local sights. And given that it is already a very long post and it is late I will keep this very brief. The first place we visited was a border stone which remained from an old Chinese Vietnamese border dispute.
By far the most interesting site we visited was Guaishitan which was some pretty cliffs directed on the edge into the South China Sea so the weather had wreaked havoc over millennia forming various nice looking stone formations.
We also visited another massive beach and resort (Taipingpo) which was cleverly situated on the outskirts of a islet directed straight at the South China Sea. This translates into massive winds meaning I had to carry Evelina who could not walk on account of it. We spoke to a woman having a stand there and she said she was closing shop because this was apparently the normal weather so even during summer few people visited the resort. But the had a rather funny google translated sign. With classics like: “The people who have … fear of cold are forbidden to swim” and “old people … should be accompanied by skilled adults”…
With that I end this extremely length post and you can continue reading about the continued adventures in Vietnam!