Thursday, June 02, 2011

China: The Ying Versus the Yang

The ying yang, one of China's most famous graphics, symbolizes that in all good there is a little bit of bad and in all bad there is a little bit of good. The good and the bad are inseparable- intrinsically linked to each other. The good doesn't exist without the bad and visa versa and together, they make a whole. This has been China for us thus far.

It all began on a surprisingly high note. We exited through the fickle Vietnamese Officials and walked across the bridge to China. It was much like a stroll across Rainbow Bridge, as it spanned a mighty river and some decent scenery- only the vehicles were replaced by pedestrians. Pedestrians wheeling massive carts of hay, massive carts of goods dragging pedestrians, elderly people hobbling on canes, donkeys, rusty bicycles and body bag sized backpacks. We were greeted at the Chinese side of the bridge by a couple stern looking officials. In Vietnam, they use the Latin alphabet- so at least words are recognizable in that sense to us. Now that we were in China- it was all characters. Everywhere. It was very overwhelming. Anything could mean anything, for all we knew. We stood there, flabbergasted for a moment. 'We're in China!!' We headed in the direction of a building that the official had waved us towards. This particular border had been singled out in our guide book as being particularly frustrating, slow and bureaucratic. There were even several noted incidents of officials confiscating Lonely Planet China guidebooks, as their map indicates in colours that Taiwan is an independent country - where as China still believes that Taiwan belongs to them. Needless to say, we were nervous about how the day would play out. We walked into the first entrance and we were stumped again. There didn't appear to be anywhere to go. Of course, this is because we had entered the exit. On the other side of the glass wall we spied a more entrance looking entrance and two surprisingly smiley young officials laughing and calling us over. Once we had successfully made it to the front door, it all became super easy. 'Welcome to China!' they said to us. Wow. ok. We got a helpful, private official each who scanned our passports in a machine that looked like the ones you use at the airport to print your boarding cards. These printed our entrance and exit cards for China, which they then helped us fill out. Jonathan was finished first, so he got in line to talk to an officer at the counter. My passport wasn't co-operating with the machine, so it took me considerably longer before I was ready to get into the line. By that time the line (the one and only successful line-forming we have seen in China to date) was long and with Jonathan now standing in front of the official- it was at a stand-still. The officer helping me at the machine led me away from the line to a different counter. I was sure that he thought my passport was fake because it hadn't worked in the machine, or that he was going to yank every single last item out of my bag and discover our stealth guidebook, which I had cleverly made a book cover for out of a large map of Hanoi, take it away and really leave us stranded with no information. Terrible scenarios started running through my head. What if....Ahhhhh! Turns out there was no need to panic, however. My nice little official was just opening another processing line, and bringing me to the front of it!


Soon our bags were wheeling through an x-ray machine that no one was looking at, and we were out the door, into the sunshine and officially, in China!

It took about 60 seconds for the initial excitement to wear off before we realized, in a more practical sense that-we were in China. We couldn't communicate with anyone, we didn't know where anything (namely the bus station) was, and we had no Chinese money. Dumb luck found us stumbling in the right direction. A man behind a counter in a shop that said 'toursitcal world' used Google Translate to tell us where the international ATM and bus station were. If you have never used Google Translate- check it out. You just type what you want to say into one box and your message comes up instantly in the adjacent box! It will even read it out loud for you, if you ask nicely. Google translate can even translate full websites with the click of a button!

We finally got to the bus station, money in hand, ready to go, only to find out that we had missed the bus by half an hour. There was one English speaking guy at the whole station though, and he was nice enough to tell us that we could take the bus a couple hours to the big city north of Hekou (where we were) and from there we could catch a connecting bus to Xinjie in the Yuanyang Rice Terraces. It sounded relatively easy, only one connection, and our guidebook had the Chinese characters written beside the names of the cities so we could just show the characters to the ticket lady- and voila- we would be in Xinjie, enjoying the view for dinner. These Yuanyang Rice Terraces were pretty famous, so, really, how hard could it be? What could go wrong?

Lesson #1- There is more than one town in the one hundred kilometer radius called 'Xinjie.'

So, we get on the bus, with our expensive ticket, all proud that we have managed to get this far avoiding disaster. The highway is smooth and an amazing engineering feat, passing through tunnels that burrow kilometres though mountains, along cliffs and over towering bridges. Along the way we see an exit sign for 'Xinjie.' We pass it. We figure that Xinjie, being way up in the rice terraces, must be in that direction, but this bus is an express bus to the major city and we have to catch a smaller bus from there. Makes sense. The city were we were to change buses was 80km past this 'Xinjie' exit. Oh well, as long as we got there. There was even a nice young boy on the bus that said 'Welcome to China!' It was going well. When we get off the bus, a mere three hours later we show the characters for 'Xinjie' to the bus driver to see if he can point us in the right direction and are met with confused looks, a growing crowd of concerned citizens and a whole lot of distressed sounding conversation. A man is trying to tell us something in Chinese. When we obviously aren't understanding he writes the characters down on his hand for us. Because maybe we don't speak Mandarin, but we can read it. Precious time is passing, so we thank them and head inside to the ticket counter. We show the lady 'Xinjie' and the Chinese characters beside the city. She prints the ticket for the next bus leaving in less than five minutes. We rush to the bathroom and hop on the bus as it is pulling out. Easy peasy. We start heading back over those eighty kilometers we had passed since the exit sign. Jonathan falls asleep. I dose off. A man at the front of the bus is yelling something. It kinda sounds like 'Xinjie' but I'm not really paying attention because he's yelling in Mandarin. And, I don't speak Mandarin. Even if he is saying 'Xinjie' I'm sure the bus will stop there anyways, so I don't think I really need to respond. Jonathan is snoring. We pass the sign for Xinjie. I start to panic. I show my ticket to the lady beside me. She points to the passing sign. Why aren't we stopping? Nope, we definitely aren't stopping. I run to the front of the bus and show my ticket to the driver as the exit gets smaller and smaller behind us. He starts yelling at me in Chinese. I don't know what he's saying exactly, but I get the distinct feeling that we won't be making it to xinjie today. It didn't even really make sense though. How could Xinjie be just a stop off on the way between these two cities? From what I understood, it was up in the mountainous rice terraces- far, far from the city.

Where do we end up? Back in Hekou. We have done a loop. We are now out about $30, we have spent almost six hours on the bus and we have gotten absolutely no where. We are super annoyed, frusterated and exhausted. 'We missed our stop,' I tell the English speaker back at the bus station. He looks at our tickets. 'Wrong Xinjie' he says. What?! We had a ticket to the wrong friggin Xinjie? Yup. And now the bus driver wants us to pay more money because he brought us all the way back to Hekou and didn't drop us at the wrong Xinjie. Er. Not a chance.
Its now evening, so we find a guesthouse for the night and vow to make it to those darn rice terraces on the 'direct' bus the next morning.

Now we just need some food. Easier said than done. First, we try using our Mandarin language book to ask at a few restaurants if they serve vegetarian food. This, apparently, was not the way to go. The very idea that someone would eat a meal without meat seemed to be offensive. We were waved away, shooed, ignored, and if we were lucky enough for someone to actually look at us, it was a glare. No one had a menu at all, let alone one in English. None of the dishes listed on their walls were in our food dictionary. Finally we decided just to pick a place and see what happened. We went to an open air 'restaurant', really a stall surrounded by short tables and stubby stools. 'Menu?' we asked. We were shown to a large fridge with a glass door and a long table covered in numerous bowls of raw meat. This was the menu. You pointed to what you wanted. In the corner was a tiny bowl of tofu. Really, we just wanted some veggies, but the only green on the table were herbs. We pointed at the tofu. But, I didn't just want tofu on a plate. That would be gross. I looked around to the diners tables to scope out what other people were chowing down on. There was a tasty looking dish with onions and chillis and pork. 'That,' I said, pointing to the dish, with 'that' I continued, pointing to the tofu. It seemed perfectly obvious to me. The dish with the smattering of veggies, made with tofu. Easy. I was starving. We hadn't eaten since breakfast. Jonathan, irritatingly, wasn't hungry at all.

First we were each brought a package with a tiny plate, bowl, cup and chopsticks all plastic wrapped together, and sealed- for the environment's sake. I wasted no time ripping mine open- it was a novel idea. A personal set of dishes all wrapped up just for me. Well, it was novel until we got the bill and realized that we were charged for using the dishes! What kind of restaurant is this, where you don't even get to use the dishes for free! How ridiculous! Anyways, next came a bowl of rice. Good. Then, finally, the main course, the exact dish I pointed to, the one heaping with pork was delivered. Sigh. It took about 10 minutes further to get anyone's attention. When the young man who had taken our order finally strolled over we tried to explain to him, in Mandarin, again, that we were vegetarian and submitted to the idea of settling on a plate of tofu. 'Tofu, tofu.' It was agreed on. He was annoyed. Our order was followed by a long interlude of mocking where by the server loudly and obviously complained to the entire restaurant about us. I was so hungry and frustrated that at that point I really didn't care what I ate. If I had been thinking clearly, and not so overwhelmed, I would have just ate the rice and called it a night. The 'tofu' dish came. It was a plate of bacon. Literally. Just bacon. In an inch of oil. I was so, so, so frustrated. I couldn't help it. Tears started to sting the corner of my eyes. We were surrounded by food and couldn't find anything to eat. We couldn't communicate even the simplest thoughts. We couldn't even buy a bus ticket. And it was day one. How were we going to survive the week, let a lone the month, let alone three in this meat-obsessed country!

We paid for our untouched food and left. Across the street was a fast food joint that had big, glossy pictures of the fried dishes it offered. Burgers and fries type food. There was a picture of a rather tasty looking pizza. And a cob of corn. They love their corn. I wasn't picturing my first meal in China to be pizza from a fast food place, but times were desperate. We were pretty sure the pizza was pork free. I ordered it. It took exactly three minutes to cook. I know this because I could see the timer on the microwave they cooked it in. It was soggy and gross. I wasn't hungry anymore anyways. We went back to the guesthouse and fell asleep vowing to give China a fresh shot in the morning.

Everything seemed better in the fresh light of the fresh following day. We bought a pineapple and mango from a stand and they cut them up for us to eat for breakfast. We got on the correct bus to the correct Xinjie and it left right on time. Despite our rocky start we were determined to keep our hopes high for China. Since that first day, we really haven't been disappointed. Sure, the tourist structure for non-Chinese tourists is almost completely lacking, but generally people have been very friendly and helpful- even though communication is a huge barrier. We were originally thinking that Yunnan would be reminiscent of South East Asia. We were 100% completely wrong. China is unique in almost every aspect.

Our nine hour bus ride up to the Xinjie was long. Very long. The scenery was superb, however, and it was a real 'slice of life' type of experience. The bus stopped along the way, loaded up on boxes of mangoes and bananas which were deposited at various stalls along the way, the ticket man/conductor/boss (there is always a driver and a conducter on the bus) kept everyone laughing the whole time. We picked up sassy Chinese women, decked out in heels and silk scarves, despite being 'exactly in the middle of no where,' who teased the men and spent long periods watching themselves in their handy compact mirrors. We stopped to wash the bus no less than three times. We stopped for gas. We stopped at numerous police check points. It was not the express, smooth highway we had been on the day before. It was more of the back, dusty, bumpy, cracked, crumbly variety. We took that as a sign that maybe we were going to end up in the right place this time.

We arrived in 'Xinjie' -the wrong one first, and shook our heads. It was less than a one yak town. It was probably a good thing that we hadn't ended up here for the night anyhow. Speaking of 'Xinjie-the wrong one,' it turns out that we aren't the only travellers who have been led astray by this naming conundrum. We heard from our friends Joel and Sonia that they had paid a significant sum for a taxi to bring them to 'Xinjie- the right one,' but instead had been delivered to 'Xinjie- the wrong one.' Unfortunately for them, being such a confusing ordeal, they realized minutes too late that there weren't in fact in 'Xinjie- the right one,' and the taxi driver made out like a bandit. Makes you wonder if they co-named 'Xinjie' for such purposes.

In wrong Xinjie, there was a police check point. A police checkpoint is most often a little shack on the side of the road manned by incredibly young looking police officers who sit behind a little wooden desk intently writing in a big, thick notebook. A police officer boards the bus and quickly glances at ID cards of the passengers. Foreigners hand over their passports which are taken off the bus and over to the policeman behind the desk who dutifully copies what must be the entire passport worth of information, considering how long the process takes.

In Xinjie an adorably cute young officer with a wide smile and shiny eyes boarded our bus. 'Welcome to China!' he said to us. It was the third time we had been 'welcomed' in 24 hours and the thought didn't go un-appreciated. He took our passports for the regular check. When he brought them back, he was smiling again, and seemed genuinely happy that we were there. 'Have a good China,' he declared proudly. I gazed back at him, batting my eyelashes and smiling dreamily. He was just so cute. Beside me Jonathan sighed loudly and rolled his eyes in my direction as he reached past me to retrieve the passports that Officer Adorable was holding out patiently, waiting for me to claim. 'Don't mind her,' my husband quipped.

As he disembarked the bus my officer's brilliant smile fell from his face. Himself along with two fellow stone faced comrades squared their shoulders and stood perfectly still and straight, saluting our bus. I took advantage of the fact that our ancient bus took a good sixty seconds to gurgle, spurt and lurch back to life. I spent the first thirty seconds smiling widely at them. Then, when that got me no where, I resorted to making funny faces, trying my darnedest to make any one of them crack a smile. Like the guards at Buckingham Palace, their faces remained straight as an arrow. Just as we were pulling away I noticed the smallest twitch in the corner of Officer Adorable's mouth. I considered it a grand success. How utterly charming... uh...I mean serious, professional and authoritative...

We arrived in Xinjie proper, extremely happy with ourselves for finally making it. We were even overjoyed that and over zealous hotel tout was waiting for us upon arrival to whisk us away to her guesthouse in a minivan. It didn't even (really) bother us that she didn't even wait until we had gotten off the bus to 'wow' us with her business card. 'Belinda' cut to the chase and jumped on the bus and ran down the aisle to get to us. All the better. At least we wouldn't get lost. Things were looking up. China was going to be great.

Chinglish Lesson #1-
A sign posted at the base of an escalator in a department store:
'Guardians MUST accompany oldies and children on the lift.'

On our menu this week:
'Fried breast milk'
'Fried Friends'


Anonymous said...

Wow - you certainly have mastered the art of perseverance! How frustrating it must have been at times but hopefully things have got only got better.China does seem a fascinating and complex place - am sure your patience will be tried many times.Jonathan,your beard is a most impressive specimen!
Love to you both
A Eileen and U Trevor

Gina said...

Wow, sounds so frustrating! But at least you have good stories to tell :) Google translate is my second-best friend, right after Google maps.