Tuesday, 27 November 2012
Panic, Chaos and Culture Shock: Welcome to China
The bus heading for the chinese boarder swelled with tobacco smoke, half the passengers smoking at any one time, the other half biding their time before tagging in when the air cleared a little. I buried myself under my filtrating face mask with my window wide open, much to the distress of the smokers who insisted often that I close the window due to frigid gale force winds. Refusing to sacrifice the only source of fresh air circulating through the bus I ignored them, to which the man behind me responded to by closing my window himself. It wasn't until Julian took a stand that my request to keep the window open was respected. The bus had left three minutes prior to scheduled departure, a shock to the system when used to 'Laos time'; clearly the Chinese keep to a slightly stricter regime.
My mind swirled with memories and emotion of profoundly enriching moments in Laos and my heart soared, yet tempered as our 20 seater local bus bumped and wound its way up and down the partially paved mountain passes in the northernmost reaches of the country. Laos had managed to get under my skin in such a way that only a few places have and I felt similarly to leaving the rockies of the Canadian west, flying out of New Zealand, or taking the bus through Glen Coe out of the Scottish Highlands for the last time. The smiling hearts and patient ways of the local people had calmed my mind after the chaos of Vietnam and Cambodia and mouth watering selections of local foods and dramatic mountain landscapes have nourished my body and mind; the simplicity of beautiful lives has left its mark on my soul.
Five hours after departure the bus pulled up in front of a large golden archway stretched across the road marking the Laos / China boarder. Upon receiving my passport the Laos boarder official asked me where I was from, slowly and carefully repeated after me, "Can-a-da, Can-a-da". I repeated it again for him, my heart warming with fondness for the laosians as he stamped me out of the country. We soon approached the square, white, very official looking building that marked the chinese border with a passport check so formal and regimented. X-ray machines and lines to stand behind, we may as well have been going through an airport security process rather than crossing a land border. The chinese official hardly said a word as he looked me up on his computer and stamped me into the country. The difference was immediate, a contrast so profound it was stimulating. The roads were seamless, a perfectly manicured flower garden down the central median and modern multi story buildings lined the road. Tunnels have been dug through every mountain, eliminating the nauseating, winding mountain passes but in turn taking away some of the magic of the journey, cutting travel time down considerably but bypassing the contours and topography of the mountains. The Roman alphabet all but disappeared, the artful chinese characters adding to this overwhelming different world leaving us in no doubt we had left SE Asia and entered one of the worlds superpowers.
We arrived in the town of Mengla early, the bus driver waving away our questions about onward travel, unwilling to take make the effort to attempt to overcome language barriers. Our intention was to catch the next bus out towards the Yuanyang rice terraces, considered to be one of Chinas most spectacular examples of mans resourcefulness overcoming natures obstacles; terraced rice paddies scaling the mountainsides, but first and most importantly, we had to get local currency (the Chinese yuan (RMB) impossible to obtain in Laos). A newsagent, noticing our bags, asked if we would change money with him to which we quickly refused, cautious of the low exchange rate offered on the black market. Our Lonely Planet guidebook informed us that buses only left early morning, so we followed its advice by heading north behind the bus station for convenient accommodation. The women took our 100Y, wrote a receipt in mandarin and refused to give us our 50Y change. Language barriers in full effect, she raised her voice until she was almost yelling at us, repeating herself over and over again until she stormed out, refusing to take the time to make herself understood and hoping in vain that if she talked louder and slower we would understand. Her young daughter was more patient with us, using a basic on-line translator until finally she helped us to understand that 50Y would be kept as a deposit and we would receive our change upon checkout.
The following five hours were spent stomping around the city in a desperate attempt to obtain local currency. Residents would often stop dead in the tracks to stare at us as we walked down the street and when we greeted them with smiles and the all purpose 'Ni Hao' their blatant stares turned to shock and were abruptly averted as they continued on their way, turning back every so often for another glance. None of the ATMs would accept our cards and bank upon bank turned us away, simply shaking their heads at our debit card, credit card, travellers checks and american dollars. Early evening was upon us and and we had not eaten since 7am and our water supply had run out hours ago. No attempt was made to explain why they would not change any money for us until finally, after an emotional outburst from me towards a clerk behind the plexiglass (in a room full of onlookers) a security guard took us aside and using numbers, we learned that no foreign exchange was available at weekends. Outraged, hungry and overwhelmed we gave in to the newsagents awful exchange rate and changed over US$50, loosing about US$13 for his commission. Defeated and drained we found a shop off the street with pictures on the wall, the only place with a menu we could decipher. I pointed at a dish which appeared lush with green veggies and Julian selected his own. Our chef was soon stretching freshly rolled dough into long noodles, dropping them into a vat of boiling water and we were shortly presented with our noodle delights. A disappointing lack of actually containing meat of vegetables but with a satisfyingly lush broth which I spiced to taste using the dark mixture of crushed sun dried chill peppers swimming in oil. We were in bed by 2100, though woken often throughout the night by the large german shepherd which was caged in the car-park outside in a space just large enough for him to turn around in.
At the bus station the following morning we were staggered at the high bus prices and somewhat overwhelmed as we began to realize that our $30 per day budget wouldn't even cover the costs of transport around the province. Only cash is an acceptable means of payment and to purchase bus tickets today (being Sunday) would mean exchanging more of our US dollars at the awful exchange rate, increasing the cost considerably. We opted to forgo the rice terraces of Yuanyang, having had an exceptional experience in northern Vietnam, and make our way towards the provincial capital of Kunming in an attempt to conserve funds. At this rate, we would be in and out of China in a quick two weeks! As we went to visit the newsagent to trade more dollars we were stopped by a man who asked "Kunming? 200Y?". A good 105Y ($15US) cheaper than the prices at the terminal. We stopped short and counted our money in hand. We had just enough to cover the cost with about 20Y left over. Knowing we would be able to obtain local currency in Kunming, we decided to go for it, with just enough left over for a bowl of rice with spicy meat and veggies for breakfast before our departure. Our saviour joined us, picked out our meal and treated us to a glass of very carbonated, white chinese beer. As we ate, he sat beside us and lit a cigarette, tearing off the filter and sticking the tobacco into the bowl of a large bamboo water bong. About four minutes and four bong hits later the tobacco had been consumed and we sat in a haze of smoke. I remember the first time I smoked a cigarette, the intense head rush which absolutely floored me and wondered how he could possibly still be in a conscious state. In awe, I watched wide eyes as he insisted Julian try. Initially refusing, our friend was persuasive and soon Julian attempted to get his mouth around the large opening in vain, unable with his thin face to create the seal necessary to smoke from this bong. I wasn't too disappointed.
After our meal we sat on the street with him, engaging in conversation barely understood by either yet which was had in good humour. Passers by would stop on the street and natter at us in mandarin. We would respond with something comical to which they would reply and this sort of interaction went on for a good hour with random characters on the street. eventually one particularly encouragable man was more than enough for our host to take and he escorted us away from the scene into the comfort of his wife's pharmacy, where she and her five year old daughter tended shop. Soon, the young girl had a notepad out and was teaching us mandarin pronunciations. Going to use the squat toilet out back I found a room with five beds in it, three of which contained people hooked up to IV's and I realized that this was not only a pharmacist but also small hospital of sorts. At 1400 we were taken on the back of a motorbike to the side of a highway to await a bus coming up from Vientiane and were soon squashed on the back five seats with six people and broken air conditioning. The seats were in fact fully reclined beds upon which we were suitably uncomfortable for the first nine hours of the journey. When we stopped for dinner our empty wallet forced us to forgo a plate of food and instead, we went to use the conveniences which provided our first experience of 'open concept' squat trough style toilets; two foot high walls providing 'privacy'. As we waited, those with full stomachs came out, smoking cigarettes and hocking phlegm up from deep within their throats and nasal cavities, repeatedly. Babies are dressed in clothing without fabric covering their genitals and whenever nature calls, they are held out to do their business on the streets, diapers non existent here. We were surrounded by about 60 people doing this and I found myself disgusted with this side of Chinese culture. The spitting doesn't even stop whilst on the bus, the woman beside me regularly clearing her throat and spitting into a plastic bag. The four we were sharing the seats with got off at a stop three hours short of Kunming and we were left with a king size bed to sprawl out upon for the rest of the journey. Mercifully, the left a bag of six packaged cream cakes and two sealed bottles of water. Dinner.
As the lights turned on at midnight and the bus came to a halt, a good majority of the passengers got off. Asking the driver "Kunming?" he confirmed and shooed us off the bus. We were met by taxi drivers and hotel owners who offered us a bed for the night. Turning down a hopeful rate of 100Y per night we quickly bargained down 50Y and were soon whisked away in the back of a very plastic, very chinese MPV. With no city in sight, he drove down the dark alleys, an impression of space on either side until, negotiating his way around piles of bricks left at the roadside we wound into a very quiet section of concrete buildings. A man wheeling a cart of pink roses was the only person in the streets as we checked into our room. It appeared we were in the outskirts of the city, and with no definite idea as to where we were and still with no money in our pockets or food in our stomachs, we slept.
Julian left before dawn in search of the nearest ATM. I woke some hours later; outside, transport trucks noisily ground in and out of a factory complex and I concluded that we must be in the industrial part of Kunming. Exceptionally hungry and thirsty I did yoga to try to calm my mind, showered, and still Julian had not returned. Anxious and concerned that he may have gotten lost he finally returned six hours after he had left, still with no money in hand. His wanderings had taken him around modern retail complexes, housing estates, shopping streets and the grounds of a huge athletics stadium. The Bank of China (the only bank in China where our debit cards will work) was prominently represented with a 25 story building and broken ATM's. Eventually he had found a swish hotel with an english speaking concierge who advised him he was still several kilometres off our Lonely Planet map, to the south west of Kunming, our abrupt bus driver had apparently let us off a stop (or two or three) early. Having not eaten in 24 hours now we were both at our wits end as we walked to a bank he had noticed down the street in the hope we might be able to exchange more of our limited US$. To our dismay it had closed 20 minutes prior to our arrival. Tears welled in my eyes and we approached the hoteliers hoping they might take US cash as payment; our final resource. Our proprietor sensing our situation motioned to us to pack our things and took us to the nearest Bank of China. Finally with cash in hand, we handed him 100Y, expecting 50Y change and the situation quickly heated as he demanded 200Y for the room and the transport he provided. Shocked, we spent a good half hour drawing pictures in an attempt to communicate. Our 50Y hotel room had now tripled in price and we were unwilling to give in. Finally, we both compromised and he drove away with 100Y, leaving us at the local bus station. Distressed and exceptionally hungry we found the first buffet style meal we could and finally ate, some 29 hours after our last meal.
Certain that the nearby bus station would provide means of getting us into the city centre of Kunming we were unable to decipher the Chinese writings on the wall. Several local people refused to help us, shaking their heads and turning us away, refusing to attempt to understand what we were asking. Finally, we gave up and got into a taxi and realized on the ride in that we were not even in Kunming to start with. 20km later our driver took a roundabout route into the city. Despite our protests, with our map and compass in evidence and knowing full well he screwed these lost, unknowing tourists, he dropped us off, an hour later, in the centre of Kunming. Our heads clouded with stress from the previous few days all we could do was give in to the nearest Starbucks, a homely comfort we had not seen in months, and use the internet to form our next plan of attack. The prices in Kunming were a shock to the system and upon learning that two beds in a eight bed dorm room would cost us double what we had been used to paying for private, en-suit we decided to catch the overnight train out of Kunming to Dali. The walk towards the train station to buy tickets included my first taste of Chinese architecture in China. Whilst the majority of the city is a modern bustling metropolis we found one road, flanked at either end by the East and West Pagodas. Between these centuries old structures lay a building the purpose for which we never did establish (maybe a hotel) that looked like a medieval Chinese castle and to either side rows of shops with beautiful traditional style curved roofs.
At the railway station we were surprised when we were asked for our passports, which until this point we had never carried around with us. Unable to purchase tickets without them were told it would be no problem to return that evening, buy tickets and board the train. We enjoyed a few hours exploring the city and later that night, loaded with our bags, we hiked the 45 minutes to the station. To our extreme discouragement were told tickets had been sold out. Out of my mind I insisted we give up on China and demanded that Julian book the next train south to Bangkok which he appeared to consider, yet refused, unwilling to give up one of the most anticipated parts of his journey. Exhausted I succumbed to my emotions and tears flowed freely. The first few days in China had been so absolutely overwhelming. In the seven years since I left home I have never been so run down and overwhelmed in a foreign land. It wasn't until the next day that I admitted to having been consumed with culture shock so completely and that it clouded my head so intensely that I felt a similar mental state comparable to that of going through a crumbling relationship. Not only had the situations been overwhelming but the treatment of the local people and their refusal to take a moment to understand us, especially after the relaxed generosity of the laos, was so baffling and discouraging. We considered laying out sleep mats in the station and spending the night with the other waifs and strays on the street but finally gave in to the high prices of a dorm room and I slipped into restless dreams.