Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Back to ...China

Freedom is a perception. It is different for different people. I grew up in a communist country. As a child I thought I had freedom and I felt safe. The same militia that guarded my returning home from a concert at two o’clock in the morning in 1981, was preventing other people gathering to protest the communist rule in December 1989. In the following years I would change drastically my view of freedom and what it means for me.

As the sign for seat-belts is turned off I am relieved: I am out of China’s territory. Why this reaction? Personal protest. Leaving China last time was not a pleasant experience. They opened our bags looking for books (Lonely Planet guides are forbidden, as are Dalai Lama’s pictures). I would understand looking for them when we entered the country, but leaving? This would have been a forgettable incident if it would have come before Tibet. But not after seeing so many soldiers and SEAL troops like the Tibetans would live in a military fort and the way they treated them, less then human, watching them like an unpredictable animal. I wish that I could not judge. I reason: these are politics, the Chinese need the metals from Tibetan soil. But I can’t. History was one of my favorite subjects in school and I believe that many people died for my country to be free, to have the right to speak my language, to have the religion that I have. So it cost me a great effort to reason and not to react to the Tibetan cause.

In Romania we say that the weather is taking after one’s soul. Given what I just told you, Guangzhou gave us a cold shoulder that followed us in Hong Kong and Macau. In Beijing and Xian we saw many things, true monuments to human endeavor. Now we wanted to see the countryside, and also, to experience the colonies before becoming completely Chinese.

Fairytale background

We arrive in Guilin after a sleepless night. The taxi driver has to wait for us to layer almost all our clothing. He is taking us to Yangshuo, in the middle of gum drops country.

It use to be a sea bed, and then a plateau, but after many acid rains, the lime just melted away, making caves, complete with stalactites and stalagmites. In time the caves opened, their ceiling collapsed, and there you have them: gum drops.

As we arrive at out hotel Village Inn we have a pleasant surprise. While we wait for the formalities of checking in to be finished we are served tea in front of a pine wood fire, real fireplace.

Then we are taken to our apartment, where everything is explained: we have a thermos for hot water, aluminum bottles to be freely refiled with potable water, these are the buttons for the heat (you don’t know how frustrating is to try to understand which buttons are for what when everything is written in Chinese) and, the real treat, we had an electric blanket over the mattress that transformed our life in bliss. This, and the view.

Close to our hotel is Moon Palace, a gumdrop that has a round hole close to the top and we chose to climb it, just to have a better view and to move our cramped legs.
Moon Palace is right above the corner of the terrace.

We have to buy tickets. Right at the entrance some old women talk, but they stop and greet us profusely. They talk all at once and at some point I realize that they want to sell us something. We say no thank you, and after they insist and ask us if later, we refuse them in Indian style, yes, maybe later (which means never). Promptly one of them will follow us almost half the hill, periodically asking and answering “Do you want to buy now? Maybe later.” Wake up moment: we’re in China, not India anymore, we have to refuse Chinese style “No, we are not buying, not now, not later.” She understands and goes downhill mumbling. When we arrive at the “moon”, another woman wants to sell us postcards, with a plaintive voice “Buy pos-car, poor farmer” but laughing next second. We climb to the top and we are rewarded by the vista.

It was too cold, we had too little time, so we chose to be tourists, to take two cruises on two rivers. The first one, after recommendations from the hotel’s personal, it was from Yuangdi to Xingping. Our experience was cushioned, beside paying, all we had to do was enjoy it. The boats were solid sewer white pipes, covered with some plank wood, with two benches with a pillow. Until we reached the middle of the river they paddled, but then started the engines. There goes the peace!

It was foggy, at some point it was close to rain, did I tell you it was cold? We were just passing through that landscape that you can see better in a photographic album and I was enjoying much more the conversation with my oldest daughter. We were all happy when it was done.

Next day it wasn’t better.

We were dropped by taxi at the farthest point of interest for us that day: the Butterfly Cave. Looking at the map it was more than just a cave. It was a circuit through nature.
The entrance price was a steep 45 yuan ($8).

I had the feeling that everything was a controlled experience. From the railed pathway to the “cave” that consisted of man-made tunnels, the photo studio reeking of cold smoke and one real grotto, to the singing and dancing show. Add to this an obnoxious loud group of seven Chinese with their loud-speaker talking guide and you have an idea.
Posing for a fee....

Things didn’t get better later on. To see the largest banyan tree you have to pay, and weave on alleys that are never straight (feng-shui at work) until you finally find it fenced in. This is a good thing, because the Chinese would trample it’s roots to death, in their quest to have a picture with it.

Next to the tree there are other things to see and do, built there so you will have something else to do, and not feel cheated by the price or the fact that there is nothing else to see, beside gumdrops. Yes, we had to pay dearly in Kyoto to see the temples and the gardens, but here it has a feeling of mass construction, a nature entertainment park, where you can’t enjoy the birds’ song because of music on loudspeakers!

As we return home, we cross a bridge. On the river bank is a truck on which a team of ten men load real bamboo boats, the kind that are pushed with a pole, no engines to drown the sound of the water, the ones that transport you in the middle of the river and enhance your interaction with the surroundings. I wished that I could have had my ride in one of them... I am frustrated by the touristic prices that we have to pay, the budget that we have to follow, the fact that I am constrained by language and I can’t plan the day the way I wanted... I look at the river, the mist that links all the small mountains,

I take it all in..... and I cross my bridge: it’s only in my head. I really don’t want to go on another trip on the river, real bamboo or not, we always have ways to adjust the budget, it is so good to have someone else presenting your options. So this is how it comes that we don’t take another cruise on the Yulong river or do something else.

As they are snuggled in beds and working on the computers, I step outside with my camera. It’s raining on and off. I’m trying to find a little reality, a normal occurrence. A tiny old woman follows me and signs me to take her picture. She was all smiles while talking in her language, but she posed like this.

After that she took me by the hand, her bony grip very strong for someone that frail. We went under a stair, where an old man was feeding a fire. She pulled some minuscule chairs and seated me. She kept talking and gesticulating. She opened one door and showed me proudly her son’s motorcycle. But then continued with a plaintive voice. From what I understood was that her son was living in the big house, but she and her husband had to live under that stair and that they were hungry (she kept bringing her gathered fingers toward her mouth and then shaking her hand in a no sign). In that moment a young man came with 2 live chickens hanged by their feet. He looked without acknowledging me. I guessed I wasn’t the first tourist seated there. Everything changed in her, the posture became straight, her voice became reassuring instead of com-plaintive. The moment he disappeared, she changed back. The old man had no spark in his eyes, and his attitude was the same... I took my leave.

It is early in the morning and we are ready to go. The taxi is outside, waiting for us. As we pass through the hotel’s hallway we say goodbye to the person who is sleeping there. It is still dark and foggy. Behind Moon Palace there is some light that transports me in a fairytale: the gumdrops are giant men who gathered around the fire and tell stories. And I am happy: for a split second, I have seen the true face of Yangshuo!

Mist and skyscrapers

We fly Guilin to Guangzhou/ Canton. Still foggy and cold. We take the metro and then walk around 3 km to our hotel. It turns out that it is not a hotel per se, but some rooms with a kitchenette (and no utensils!). Here the air conditioner doesn’t have heat so we sleep in a 15 C/ 59 F temperature, with all our clothes on. I have no interest to explore the city, it is enough what I have seen while walking around. The buildings are modern, the pace is relaxed, the language is Cantonese and not Mandarin, so it doesn’t feel like China. This is not true for the people. I feel like everything is my fault. Why am I asking which is the button for the heat? There is no need for heat! Why do I have to ask for extra blankets? Or to have an Apple? Their wi-fi doesn’t work with that (not true, just they didn’t know how to make it work).
It doesn’t matter, we just stay put and do school. We will get out eventually to visit the Nanyue museum, created for the tomb of the emperor. They stumbled upon it when they where building the metro and decided to make it a museum. When that emperor died he was buried in jade, literally: he was dressed in a costume made of small plates of jade sewed together with red silk, and he had different sizes of discs of jade on his front and back, on his inner coffin, outside coffin and so on.
The picture on the wall shows the jade the way they found it.

They were finely carved with twirling bumps and I joked that these were probably the first CDs (since the Chinese were the first in everything that Europeans discovered later).

His head was resting on a pillow filled with pearls and they found another bag in his mouth! It makes you wonder how was their life?

There were other things like his ring, his belt and hook, all having a long explanation about what it means and the symbolistic of their design. It was a good museum.
In the inner circle there is a dragon and on it's front paws there is a phoenix, their tails forming cloud patterns on the outside circle. This is the crest of the emperor.

One thing that we were supposed to do, and we didn’t, was to eat Cantonese food. So we don’t know how original dim-sum tastes. But whatever else we ate, it was good.

There is one event that made me smile at the effort to change people (they change only if they want it). It is middle of the night. There are lights in the street, but no car is passing. The high-rise buildings are dark. Behind them the river flows. It is quiet. And suddenly, a rooster cries the hour loud and clear: cock-a-doodle dooooooo.  Yes Government, you have the power to move people because it pleases you, make them live in match-box apartments, work jobs that robs them of their health for a little more pay, but they still long for their country-side house and the freedom that it meant. You can’t stop them growing chickens in the balcony!

To get to Hong-Kong we take the train. It is weird to have to go through customs formalities when on the other side it is the same China. I have the feeling that they’re going through the motions, they waited so many years to have the island back, what are  thirty-eight more?

Subway, double-deck buses, skyscrapers. There are people everywhere, shopping for red things and carrying fresh flowers for New Lunar Year. At the entrance of hotels or banks or any public building are round-shaped mandarin trees with glued fruits in their branches.

 The streets are transformed in markets: fruits, vegetables, meat, clothes, objects, shoes, scarves, a mumble-jumble, cut from time to time by a tramway.

We’re shopping for food, because we read that everything is going to be closed.

Our studio is so tiny, it’s like a hotel room, but we fit in. Everything is so stream lined and integrated that it sparks Maria’s interest in small houses. We have a washing machine, a balcony and despite high humidity, our clothes will be dry in the morning. We don’t have much time here, so with Mihai as our guide we start visiting. We catch a bus for half an hour, then we walk beside this bank,

 and that bank, here is a church (a proper English one)

 and then an hour long line for the Peak tram. In the beginning it was an ordered line, until it entered the building, and then it was not. As Westerners like to keep their distance from their fellows, the Chinese ones were pressing their way from behind, and entered a car before me.

The track climbs the mountain and you have wonderful, if short, views from your right side. And then you descend in a towering mall that has on it’s roof a viewing terrace (you have to buy a ticket). Again I have the feeling that I am controlled, from the trinkets that are offered on the side to the landing from the stairs. You can see the view if you are riding the stairs, but not from the landing, where huge translucent commercial stickers cover the view. One being able to see the golf from the mall would defeat the purpose of the terrace and the price of its ticket.

Outside is drizzling, but the clouds are not that low, so we can see, partially, what’s all the fuss about. And if you lean on the balustrade you can feel warm air (heated by the building) rushing up your face...

It was nicer going down, through classy neighborhoods, winding alleys, meeting the tram and watching wild white parakeets feeding themselves.

In the evening we go see the parade. There is a fence and a two-three deep people crowd lining it. Our children will take turns in standing on a 5 inch diameter pole, their daddy’s shoulders, tippy-toes and then settle to squeeze in.

 In front of us will demonstrate their skills people from different countries: the St.Louis Rams Cheerleaders, a group of dancers from Moldova, jump-ropers and stilt-walkers, floats and dragon walkers.

 Getting back home in a timely fashion and without being mobbed requires skill. We had to hold hands tight to avoid being separated.

We will watch the fireworks from the top of our building. We have a partial view of them, but the whole vista of boats watching.

Though we like fireworks, they fail to impress us. It’s a lot of bang and smoke that drifts toward the mountain, and you don’t have time to enjoy one because another one explodes.

Before leaving we visit the Space Center, where Ioan, and not only him, had a good time reading about and playing with stuff that he learned in school and much more. We walked around a little bit more, taking in the view and then ferryboat time. Exiting Hong Kong we have to go again through customs.

Macao was a nice surprise with its writing in Portuguese. Another stamp in our passports and we’re in line for the taxi. But then we saw the bus that will take us closer to our hotel and decide to save some money. Riding a bus is one way to visit a city and we saw the highlights of it for sure, considering that it was dusk time and they were turning on the lights. It seemed like a larger and more beautiful Strip from Las Vegas.

 We didn’t know when the station where we had to change the buses was coming up, so we were paying attention to the announcements read and written: Portuguese, Cantonese, English and Mandarin. (It’s not all the time: our second day in, when we knew where we were and where we were going, the driver put just the Mandarin ones, driving me crazy).

Our hotel was hidden between the foliage with a view of a little gulf. The hallways and the rooms were tiled with hand painted square tiles. But the rooms were not much warmer then the outside.

Visiting Macao I felt transported to Europe. The buildings, the layout of the streets.

 But the crowds were Asian, as the decorations for the New Year.

We visited the Leal Senate (it’s name comes from a time when Portugal was under Spain’s ruling, and Macao continued to fly the Portuguese flag),

 some churches, a house built for a magnate of old times with a mixture of architectonic styles,

 and the museum. The last one was presenting the history of the two civilizations, Asian and European, how they met, grew separate in the presence of each other, and, from my point of view, very little mixed. The exhibition was very well presented.

If you step outside the touristic areas you will see apartment buildings looking old and decrepit, with peeling paint and rusted grates. They are built on a very valuable land, still (or maybe that’s why) they are not being taken care off.
View from a canon hole from the fort of Macao.

Cultural thing aside, we immersed once more in the crowded street

 and tasted samples of the Macanese cuisine: chrysanthemum drink (for me it was like honey-water lemonade), little quiche with vanilla creme, burgers with deep fried pork chops and jerky made of minced pork/beef mixed with honey or spices.

Sooo.... China is more than meets the eye. If I had to choose one word to characterize its people, it would be Duty. Combine this with the communist way of behaving, that they are always right and they own the place, and I am already scared to think that there is a growing Chinese population in every major city in the world. Do I have to mention that I didn’t see ONE military uniform in all these cities?
This is scary and worrisome!

There are huge differences between rural China, where rice is still hand-cultivated, and modern parts where you can buy anything pre-packaged.
Going to the market.

 As the income is growing, so it’s middle class and the business catering to it. They are traveling in huge numbers, first in their own country and then outside of it. If the world would be only China, I have no doubt that in few years Hong-Kong and Macao would have the right to speak only Mandarin. But seeing that the world is made of many countries, I think they will continue to have more languages...
Solid honey with honey-comb.

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