Saturday, January 26, 2008
My visit to Zhang Ziyi's hometown.
I spent parts of 13 days in China, dividing my time between the cities of Beijing and Xi'an. Looks like there were a few big news stories in the Hermit Kingdom, and from a blogging perspective, it was an inopportune time to be away. When I got back to the City of Beautiful People last night, I was surprised to find my plants thriving, and relieved that they were the only living creatures in my apartment (until I found a roach in my bathroom this morning). All in all I was quite glad to get on that Incheon-bound plane yesterday.
Overall the trip was pretty disappointing and frustrating. I know that CNN, Discovery, and National Geographic all rant and rave about Beijing and its glory in its run up to the 2008 Olympic Games, but I found it a fairly dull city. In spite of its large population, the city is relatively lifeless, and although it has some notable historical sites within its borders, its not a terribly interesting place. But the image of Beijing we get from the media represents a new sort of Orientalism. You really can't describe an Asian city these days without using "vibrant," "lively," "hopeful," and "mixture of tradition and technology." You could pretty much take any overview of Beijing and substitute in Seoul, Bangkok, Tokyo, Singapore, and Taipei without missing a beat. Investors squeal with delight at the thought of untapped Asian markets (not a euphamism), while tourists marvel at the pockets of branded traditional culture mixed in with rapid urban development. Its a new exoticism that is mirrored in the way Chinese view their tourist market, in my opinon at least.
I wonder whether I made a mistake travelling by myself. On the one hand I was free, in theory, to do whatever I pleased and visit whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. On the other hand, though, I wasted so much time and energy (and probably money) getting from place to place that perhaps I should have sacrificed some freedom in order to have someone else deal with the aggravation.
There's a surprising lack of English in the two cities I visited. I had higher expectations for Beijing, seeing as the Games are some 200 days away, and as we can read about Beijing's supposed rush to improve the English by this summer. However, I found it extremely difficult to get around and to make myself understood. Taxis, restaurants, police, clerks, and the young people (my age) I approached were all incapable of any sort of English. I'm not talking about conversation, I'm talking about basic things like numbers, directions, and requests. And so I don't sound like a British imperialist or a snobby professional tourist, I did come equipped with a smattering of Chinese phrases, a comprehension of some written characters, and a bilingual guidebook. Even more irritating than the absence of English in the general public was the complete lack of English marking the major tourist attractions. For example, I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to visit the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, which is the second-most popular section of the wall outside Beijing. There are lots of buses running to Badaling, the most touristy part, but armed with my guidebook, bilingual instructions, and internet advice, I hoped to get to Mutianyu. It took trips to two bus terminals and five ticket windows before I got on the bus, and there was no English signage or English help along the way. I wasn't trying to get to some backalley noodle shop, I was trying to visit the most recognizable site in the entire country. Nowhere near the terminal or the nearby subway station was it indicated where to catch the bus to Mutianyu. Moreover, the maps in the subway were entirely in Chinese, so when I didn't recognize the characters I had to match them up with the ones written in my guidebook and hope I was on the right track.
Life's like that sometimes. At the Little Goose Pagoda, Xi'an.
The first bus terminal I visited on my way to Mutianyu had no idea what I was on about, even when I showed them the directions I had written in Chinese from the hotel. They put me on a bus back into town that dropped me off at a depot for tourist buses to Badaling, and getting off the bus I was swarmed with people clucking "Badaling Badaling Badaling." Turns out I went to the wrong bus terminal, as there are two outside that subway station and I made a wrong turn somewhere. I finally got to Mutianyu the next day, after finding the right bus and paying the special foreigner price for a taxi from Huairou to the wall, and for most of my hike along it I had the wall completely to myself. It was the only time in China that it was completely silent. But in hindsight I wonder if I should have just paid a little more and gone to Badaling, and avoided all the aggravation that came with trying to travel alone.
All alone. Except for the guy who took the picture.
There were similar difficulties in getting to the Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi'an, probably the second-most recognizable feature in the country. My guidebook, the guy at my hotel, and the internet all said that I could catch a bus from in front of Xi'an Railway Station, although to this day I have no idea where to find bus # 306. There are scores of buses that stop in the several blocks in front of the massive train station, and none of the shopkeepers or ticket takers I asked could tell me where to catch the bus to the Terra Cotta Warriors. There was no English anywhere, of course, which was infuriating as most visitors to that city are likely going to visit the warriors. I did eventually find a cluster of minibuses to the exhibit, although they were tucked away and their parking lot was not marked in English.
I shouldn't say there was no English at all. But most of the English I did hear was shouted at me by hawkers. Hawking is the national pastime. I'm not using hawking as another word for spitting, but even if I were I'd still be right. Anytime I was anywhere near anything at all of note---from a tourist site to a temple to a store to an intersection---I was approached by hawkers. Approaching the Great Wall at Mutianyu, you first have to go through a ten-minute gauntlet of hawkers shouting at you, and there are even vendors on the wall itself. The majesty of the view was diminished a good bit by hearing "Haro, wanna beer? wanna coke?" after each tower. There were vendors at a number of points inside the Forbidden City, and there were even vendors inside shrines at the temples I visited. I didn't see the notorious Starbucks in the Forbidden City, but I don't think anybody can seriously make the argument that it would detract from the sanctity of the site. I quickly avoided anything resembling a market street because that meant having to deal with screams of "haro habbarooka" (Hello, have a look) and I thought I was walking through a pet shop filled with mentally-challenged parrots. Likewise, stopping at a busy intersection or pausing anywhere near a tourist attraction was an invitation for rickshaw rides, post cards, or other wares.
I know some people consider that a charm, and will interpret the catcalls as evidence of English in Beijing. And I know that souvineers and tourism go together like peas and carrots, and that it's not necessarily a Chinese thing. But I found the harassment pretty unwelcome, especially since it was so methodical. After making the 90-minute trip to the Terra Cotta Warrior exhibit, for example, you have to walk twenty minutes through a garden, dodging tour guides who block your path, grab your arm, and follow you down the sidewalk. You wander around the exhibition for thirty minutes, and then exit into another garden staffed aggressive hawkers. After evading them for ten minutes you then spend another fiftenn minutes moving through an outdoor mall as vendors crowd around you shoving their wares in your face and shouting at you to buy whatever they are selling. You spend more time dodging vendors than you do at the actual site, and the same holds true for a number of other locations I visited. It really saps the strength and, even if I were in the market for souvineers---for which I'd still pay four times what a Chinese would---any interest was shooed away by their aggression.
Even more annoying was the prevalance of the "Beijing Tea House" scam and its variants. Based on internet recommendations, I decided to stay at a nice hotel for the first leg of my trip. It was a couple of blocks from the Forbidden City, and next to the most fashionable shopping area in the city. Literally after walking out the door, though, I'd be approached by pairs of women interested in "practicing their English." The first time I chatted for a few minutes, but when they wanted to go have a drink I knew what was up. This would happen several times a day in the two blocks between my hotel and the nearest subway station. Women would approach with some line---"Hello," "Excuse me," or "student here?"----pretty routinely. One time they even tried it with another guy with them. As I do in Korea, I ignore any English thrown at me, and it was interesting to watch that, after ignoring their advances, they'd quickly disappear into a store or among the crowd. A few times I got asked if I "wanted a lady" or a massage. Again, this wasn't at a red light district. It was outside a five-star hotel in Beijing's equivalent of Apgujeong.
I hit those women with their own pimp.
I grew to feel that everything was a scam. Restaurants, taxis, buses, hotels, and vendors all charge foreigners much more than they do their Chinese customers, and my guidebook talked about the two-tier pricing system present at many places in China. I even got ripped off at the Confucius Temple in Beijing, where the woman at the ticket window short-changed me. I was an idiot for not noticing a pretty routine scam at the time, and I guess it's pretty telling that I got cheated at the Confucius Temple, of all places, but I didn't appreciate the irony at the time. It felt like not a day went by when somebody wasn't stealing from me. That was reinforced in Xi'an when, after a pretty decent day, I was walking through the underpass at the heart of the city. I felt a tug on my chest and turned around to find all three pockets of my bookbag open and a guy pulling his hand out of it. There was nothing of value to him, and he didn't take my notebook or my Korean textbook, but I was still pretty pissed off about it, and I felt like an ass for not feeling him poking around back there earlier.
The price-gouging, the scammers, the hawkers, and the lack of English all led me to conclude there is a very distorted version of white people held in Beijing. Granted, I make more money in a month than many Chinese people earn in a year, and I do represent a walking wallet to them. The widespread belief that foreigners exist solely to be scammed, though, did not endear me to the country or its people. You can talk all you want about their past encounters with imperialists and drug pushers, but I'm really not interested in that. But what I at first thought was asshattery later seemed to me to be a way to control the China foreigners see. Even in recent memory, only select portions of the country were open to outsiders, and by making it so unworth one's while to go it alone, tourists are implicitly encouraged to join tours or tour groups that present a carefully chosen itinerary. Likewise, the lack of English around town and especially with relation to the tourist sites kind of pushes the average tourist into going along with the bus trips you'll see advertised around town. In retrospect, though, and because Beijing itself isn't terribly interesting, I wonder if I shouldn't have just done a small package tour like the one offered around the holidays by Kangsan Travel. Actually, had I realized they had a tour this Seollal, I would have just signed up for it, especially since I got my plane tickets and visa through them anyway.
Though it was a pretty rotten two weeks, I should add a little disclaimer. International travel is a privledge, and one I didn't expect for myself 3, 5, or 10 years ago. Hell, I never thought I'd get out of a dead-end job back home, and shitty time or not, it's nice to see first hand how other people live. Visiting the Great Wall, the Terra Cotta Warriors, the Summer Palace, and other sites is something few Pittsburghers will ever experience, and few Western Pennsylvanians will ever have the opportunity to visit Korea, China, or anywhere in East Asia. China is an experience that any resident of Asia ought to . . . experience, and I'm a little wiser after having been a dumbass.
Central China got a fair bit of snow. It was the first significant snowfall I'd seen since early 2005 in Western Pennsylvania. This is at the Little Goose Pagoda in Xi'an. It was damn cold, but the snow was a very nice touch.
That said, I don't have a very favorable opinion of that country right about now. I was turned off by their treatment of foreign guests, and I'm not basing that on one or two isolated incidents. When back home I will probably think twice about helping the confused Chinese tourist or the lonely Chinese exchange student. Well, it'd be cool if some of these issues were addressed in time for the Games, but China seems more interested in upping its propaganda rather than addressing the root issues. And the one person who can effect change in China, Zhang Ziyi, is unable to read my wisdom and soothe my sorrow because my blog, like all blogspot blogs, is blocked in China.