The opening up of China is a stirring idea. A foreigner traveling alone today is privileged to see more of China than almost any Chinese has seen in his or her lifetime. I wondered what we could learn-traveling alone. Our images and ideas of China have surely been contradictory and distorted over time.
In the years of the Cultural Revolution after 1966 tens of millions of Chinese had become the instruments of their own terror…a million were killed and some 30 million or more were brutally persecuted and displaced or starved to death. How could so many people be so led? China has a billion and a half people now. And even now cruelty continues…in a book entitled “China’s New Rulers”, the authors recently published some secret Communist Party documents that admitted to 60,000 Chinese killed by police while fleeing between 1998 and 2001…or 15,000 a year. 97% of the world’s executions take place in China, the book says. It is a historic change that China’s people are becoming less and less afraid of the government than it is of them. For example, 54 year old Mrs. Ma wanted her name published when she told about how she was tortured recently in Zhongxjang, near Shanghai, while her son was tortured in the next cell because the Party wanted her to disclose the names of the people in her church or renounce her Christian faith.
China is a big country. In the two months we have left, we have chosen to see Yunnan Province in the southwest…the most varied of China’s provinces ranging from tropical rainforest to snow-capped Tibetan peaks. It is home to nearly a third of all China’s ethnic minorities and nearly 50% of all its people are non-Han Chinese. Historically, Yunnan was always one of the first regions to break with the northern government in Beijing. During China’s countless political purges, fallen officials often found themselves exiled here, which added to the province’s rebellious character…and probably why it has been so attractive to the countless foreign backpackers who blazed the original trails through it.
I wanted to see China for myself…and now that I am here I feel that every individual Chinese I see is harboring a secret I will never know…
Wednesday November 20 Hong Kong
We flew to Hong Kong from Bangkok on China Airways at 3pm…a one hour time change. We noticed the metal spoon and fork that came with our food service but with plastic knife instead of a metal one…
I am always forgetting to fill out departure and arrival cards and you would think I’d have memorized my passport number by now! Difficulty finding information about bus and train to Hong Kong; finally found an ATM after a fashion. On the way out of the airport we saw guy in suit squatting, talking on his cell phone: past and present.
A very plush train took about 15 minutes to travel to Kowloon Hong Kong (vs. the bus that took one hour) but was about $10 each. A young professional woman with a badge walked very slowly through the train carriages casing everyone…watching for what…?
Garden Lee Guesthouse
Cameron Road We had made a reservation via email with Charlie Chan, the manager, for a Y400 (8 Yuan to the dollar) a night triple but when we arrived we were informed the triple was not available so they gave us two doubles for the same price. We were given a handful of keys…key to street enclosure; lift to eighth floor; key to hall door in entry; key to room just a little larger than a double bed; key to valuables drawer; very small W/C, air conditioning, phone.
Applied for a multiple entry 90 day visa through the guesthouse. Then we got something to eat at small noodle shop up the street; were taken to the very back and seated.
Impressed by cleanliness and orderliness of the city; was told that plain clothed police patrol the tourist areas and fine anyone tossing garbage Y600. Little old ladies with brooms and dustpans keep the gutters clean just like the cities of SE Asia.
Bob and I sat on the steps of guesthouse and waited for Jana who came in from the airport on the bus about 11:30pm. Then went across the street to noodle shop so Jana could get something to eat; seated at the very back again…
Thursday November 21
Reading ‘The Coming Collapse of China,’ a book written by a Chinese American economist…a dissenting opinion…
Ate breakfast at small noodle shop up the street; seated at back table again; Wanted to show the waiter what we wanted for breakfast by showing him the bowl of porridge a customer was eating at the next table. He indicated for us to wait so we sat there waiting for the waiter to clean off all the surrounding tables and then he finally came to take our order. When we managed to communicate our order, Jana and I had a huge bowl of rice porridge and Bob had something else I can’t remember.
Arranged for Chinese Visa; Bob told the ladies that he picked Jana and I up off the street; another lady who heard this stuck her head out a door to see who it was that was picked up!
Took the Star Ferry from Kowloon across the bay to Hong Kong Island and took a cable car to the top of Victoria Peak for an incredible view of the city. Rode a double decker bus on it’s route through the city center; got off and tried to find a dim sum restaurant…but Bob was steered to a Japanese sushi restaurant instead so we figured he must be pronouncing dim sum wrong. Finally found dim sum (pronounced din sin) restaurant. Managed to order a few dishes from the waitress but never did get the rice.
By the time we boarded the ferry back to Kowloon it was dark and the buildings were lit…Christmas lights beginning to go up…rivals New York & San Francisco.
To an internet cafe called UFO Station Cyber Cafe…excellent internet cafe with friendly staff; up some stairs just off Haiphong Rd on Lock Rd. Free tea and coffee; Y20 an hour; one hour minimum; on-line games. Three years old. English spoken, at least when we were there, by a young Chinese guy who had lived in Vancouver BC for several years with his family. Wanted to know why he returned to China but his answer was unclear.
Friday November 22
Across the street to noodle shop for breakfast. Sat with woman who worked as a buyer for a British department store & whose English was very good. When Bob tried to get Hong Kong dollars from an ATM the message he received was that his account was empty; went to internet again and, panicky, checked his account through the internet. All was well. These transactions could have taken several days in the old days.
Picked up our passports with Chinese visas from the hotel receptionist and checked out…no messing around…the maid was right there at12:00 sharp asking us to be out. Think these places have been conditioned by unscrupulous backpackers.
Took taxi to train station for new fast two hour train to one of mainland China’s big cities of commerce, Guanzshou in neighboring Guangdong Province.
Three China Travel Service (CTS) guys met us in the Guanzshou train station; Biggest Professional Hustle we’ve seen yet; with great confidence and aggressiveness they took us to a desk where they explained the train route from Guanzshou to Guilin; they took us to CTS office where they ran in and bought our train tickets… on the way telling us they had a cheaper hotel on Shamian Dao Island-the tourist section- but we declined. So they took us to a modest Chinese run hotel near the big international hotels. Probably paid a commission for the train ticket but it would have been a big hassle to try to communicate to the railroad ticket seller which ticket we wanted and the ride to the hotel was free so all in all we felt OK about being touted that day.
The ($30 hotel room had three beds, worn carpet, but had TV with no English programming and a telephone; the bathroom was grimy with mold on the floors and walls. All they had to do, Jana and I told each other, was douse the whole room with bleach! A lady at a desk outside the room kept our key and gave us hot drinking water in a thermos for tea (as they do at all Chinese hotels).
Saturday November 23
Walked across the street for a buffet Breakfast at upscale Garden Hotel; Bob and Jana got money at China Bank in the hotel. I looked for American Press and Cultural Club that was listed on a hotel kiosk but couldn’t find it on third floor where the concierge told me it was; when asked, the guy patrolling the elevators said that he didn’t understand me; we laughed-thinking the club was a cover for the CIA!
Took taxi to the Shamian Dao Island-the tourist area with shops and cafes. Bob made friends with Sherry at Sherry’s Place and bought two T shirts (one saying ‘No Money’ and the other saying ‘Love’ in Chinese) and cap with Chinese lettering saying Macho Man (Hero). What else is there to say? Saw kerchief with marijuana leaves on it…we laughed and told her what it was…she looked it up in her Chinese dictionary and was mortified.
On the street in front of the shop talked to a friendly outgoing older guy with suspenders and pot belly from Indiana and his young Chinese wife he met through a friend living in China; he had written to her for a while and then made the trip to China and brought her over on a fiance visa… married 7 years with a 4 year old boy. The 65 year old guy said he had the easiest job in the world at Chrysler (probably sales) and had no plans to retire. Wife used to have a shop in the upscale White Swan
Hotel on the island where Communist Party heads used to meet.
Went to Lucy’s Cafe and had an orange squash drink and iced coffee; Bob made friends with Paula the waitress. Bob and Jana entertained a group of school girls 17-20 who wanted to practice English. Went to restroom where some girls at the entrance made us little stars made out of colored straws. Walked along promenade along the river to find a dim sum restaurant; watched large group of young kids…some with baggy pants and stocking hats… all waiting to enter an MTV karaoke hall.
Ate great meal at nearby Datong Jinjia Restaurant. Practically everyone was smoking so we asked to be moved to an isolated table .
Sunday November 24
Sunday breakfast on third floor of the hotel; checked out of hotel room; Jana to see Zhenhai Tower also known as the Five Storey Pagoda, which is the only part of the city wall that remains. The present tower was built during the Ming dynesty upon the highest portion of the northern city wall. It was occupied by the French and British during the Opium Wars.
Bob had a travel adventure at Seattle Espresso…ordered iced coffee and fruit thinking he was going to get a coffee and a plate of fruit but the coffee came with the fruit in it. Another adventure: there was a table nearby where guy was taking people’s blood pressure. Bob took blood pressure of guy taking blood pressure…told him his pressure was 250 over 150…guy laughed.
I sat in the lobby of the hotel with my laptop waiting for Bob and Jana. Guy from Holland came into hotel mad at same CTI guys we had who told him they were managers of the hotel. Guy from Holland, lives in Bahamas, goes to Philippines every 2 months…sick of Philippines so came to Hong Kong…hates big cities and is looking for country towns….
We are headed for Yunnan Province so took a train for Guilin in neighboring Guangxi Province that left at 9:00pm. Walked into the waiting hall where there were half a dozen waiting lines. It was impossible to tell which line we were supposed to be in and we couldn’t ask anyone. So we joined the mass of people who were led down some stairs, up some stairs, down some others and up still others-all of us following those ahead with faith and trepidation!
Showed our tickets to a railroad attendant and she pointed us to the right carriage. Seventeen Filipino WWII Vets were wandering around lost in our carriage…several in our compartment. We impatiently waited for them to finally realize they were supposed to be in another compartment. One woman’s baggage had been stowed in our compartment and she wouldn’t budge until she knew where she was supposed to be…caused a little consternation for Bob but Jana and I just laughed. 77 year old Chinese Felix Cu who was a Philippine guerilla who fought the Japanese in WWII was a compartment mate. We listened to a non stop recitation of all family members and where they were living-some in USA and Canada; he seemed concerned about one son studying Mandarin in Beijing who often asked for money. The son won’t write to him in Mandarin…writes in English…So Mr. Cu writes to him in Mandarin so he has to translate in order to read the letters. Mr. Cuhad two brothers with him who smoked and played cards all night in another compartment. The trip was an exchange between the Filipinos and the Chinese in a town south of Guilin. Mr. Cu showed us an expensive certificate the Filipino group had made for their Chinese hosts.
Monday Nov 25
Arrived about 11am and thought we would try and get our tickets at the RR ticket window but learned the hard way that it was easier to get tickets through a tour agency. When Bob and Jana inquired at a station window they were given information about the train from Guilin to Kunming through Guiyang to the north in Guizhou Providence but they didn’t realize it-whole thing just didn’t quite make sense. We wanted the train south through Nanning because it was reputed to be faster and newer. Each window seems to sell tickets for each different route and you have to know which window to approach. Asking for information at the CITS office across the street from the train station didn’t help either as the English was not proficient enough to negotiate a ticket. So we ended up taking a local Chinese bus to Yangshuo a few hours south and bought train tickets to Kunming from there. Even then, we learned later we could have gotten off in Nanning about 11:00pm and transferred to a bullet train to Kunming and saved a couple hours but that information was never made clear…neither by the guidebooks nor by the tour agencies in Guilin or Yangshuo.
We had selected seats in the bus near the rear, but we Big noses were put in the very back of the bus….Bob bristling through the whole maneuver. The bus passed through small villages full of roadside tables displaying mounds of local Pumelos that are much drier and not as sweet as the ones in Thailand.