Greetings from Chengdu!  Being the good Jew I am, I decided to head to Chengdu Christmas morning for a long weekend of eating spicy Sichuan food and seeing some pandas.

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Giant panda climbing the IFS Chengdu, yet another luxury shopping mall in China

Okay, not exactly that panda, though the city makes good use of its panda connection by plastering the creatures all over the city.  Upon landing in the airport, many of the information signs were framed by pandas and that theme has been a constant since that point.

It’s my first time here and a city I have wanted to visit for a very long time. The original motivation was my love of Sichuan food (川菜), but lately everything I have been reading about China mentions the relatively newfound prosperity of its inland cities, which would include Chengdu and Chongqing.  Having only been here for 24 hours, I attest that Chengdu definitely appears to be on the up-and-up.  The IFS above is home to Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Zegna, two Starbucks, Muji, Uniqlo, a bookstore where I could buy new English books, a huge Western supermarket that is part of a Hong Kong chain, the requisite ice skating rink, and even a bowling alley.  The inside is your typical white marble, soaring ceilings, and the cleanest floors I have ever seen, probably due to the ever-present crew mopping and sweeping as you’re moving around the mall.  However, IFS is just one of many luxury malls in this area of Chengdu, which also includes the retail-filled pedestrian streets of Chunxi Lu (春熙路) and Imperial Examination Alley (正科甲港), an Isetan department store, a number of other Western luxury brands, and numerous Chinese brands.

I guess it makes sense given that Chengdu has become one of the richest cities in China.  The Milken Institute released a study this fall of the best performing cities in China and chengdu came out number one, beating Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Beijing.  Putting aside studies and government statistics touting GDP growth and per capita incomes, just the feeling I get walking around the city is that it’s one of growth and possibility.  Now one may argue that most of China feels like this and many places do, even in spite of the recent slowdown of the economy, but having spent the past month and a half in Shenzhen, I can sense a different energy here. Shenzhen is right next to Hong Kong and was created to rival its neighbor to the south and serve as a laboratory for economic liberalization on the mainland, so its people are used to being favored and there is also relatively seamless mobility between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, obviating the need to replicate a lot of the shopping in HK north of the border.  I mean, one would think that Shenzhen would have had it’s own Kiehl’s store before Chengdu, but you can only find it at the Shenzhen airport in duty free.  Chengdu has one in the Isetan by the IFC.  Not that Kiehl’s is a barometer for economic development, but the fact that a company like that went to Chengdu after Shanghai and Beijing says something about the city and its place in China’s economic hierarchy.

Chengdu is an inland city and only part of a central government push within the last ten years or so to promote growth inland away from the coasts.  With that promotion, an economic tiger was released as the city promoted its lower labor costs to attract global manufacturers in the aerospace and electronics sectors, including Foxconn, which produces Apple’s iPhone.  Anyway, not to devolve into a boring economics lesson, but the takeaway is that Chengdu has a buzz that is not always as readily apparent in some of China’s larger, more established Tier One cities.

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View of central Chengdu from my hotel

Of course this still being China, I marvel at how well the central government has been able to wall off the country from the rest of the world.  I’ve written a lot about the mystery behind Chinese people becoming more global as they travel the world, but seemingly bringing nothing back from the travels except luxury goods and souvenirs. Forgetting that when you fly domestically in China, you’re not allowed to turn on any electronics, I was left watching some bizarre Korean movie on my flight from Shenzhen to Chengdu.  When I arrived, I thought I would either be given or be able to buy a Financial Times or Economist at the Ritz Carlton or find another hotel with a gift shop at which I could buy one of these publications to read on the way back to Shenzhen, but to no avail.  Even the Page One, where I eventually found English books, had a magazine section with only Monocle and In Style in English, neither of which I was particularly interested in buying.  Putting the availability of Western media aside, I am sitting here in a Starbucks (where else?) in another new luxury mall called The ONE and it’s one of Starbuck’s new Reserve locations with pour-overs and siphoned coffee.  The place is packed with young and old, alike, and many on iPhones or Macs enjoying coffee, pastries, and quiche.  At this particular moment I feel like I could be anywhere.

Yet, with all of that said, there is something about Chengdu that reminds me of the China I knew 15 years ago.  Perhaps it’s the layout of the city with back alleys still filled with little stores and food stalls or the mix of old and new buildings that co-exist side-by-side, though I have the feeling that won’t be the case five years from now since so many look like they’re being readied to be torn down for new construction.  I guess Chengdu is a city that while growing rapidly, still retains elements of what it was.  It has long had the reputation of being one of China’s most laid-back cities and for a city of nearly 8 million people, still moves at a remarkably more languid pace than Shenzhen.  Maybe it’s part of a next wave of growth where people won’t be in such a hurry as they modernize and seek to retain some of what makes a particular place unique?  Or perhaps it’s as simple as the fact that unlike Shenzhen or even some of the other Tier One cities like Shanghai or Guangzhou, Chengdu is a city filled with people who are actually from here or the surrounding areas, which would go a long way to preserving those qualities that make the city special.

As I was leaving my hotel this morning, I was chatting with one of the members of the concierge staff, Roland, asking him for restaurant recommendations while I was here.  He told me that he had just transferred from Beijing two months ago because his wife was pregnant and they wanted to escape the pollution,, traffic, and mayhem of Beijing.  I asked him how he liked Chengdu so far and he remarked that it was more laid-back than Beijing.  He attributed this to the fact that home prices were so much lower than Beijing, so people didn’t have to work so hard, thus they had more time to relax and enjoy life.  Probably the most interesting reason of all for why Chengdu feels so different, yet one that not only makes the most sense, but is very telling as to what is potentially being lost as the country rushes to modernize. As an American, I know all about a country that does not seem to have enough time for leisure as our workweeks get longer and longer and people fear taking holiday because they may fall behind at work.  Let’s just hope that Chengdu doesn’t go the way of the rest of the country and lose what makes it special.

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Eating and Beaching

November 29, 2015

I’ve just returned to my room in Shenzhen after an action-packed weekend excursion courtesy of our Chinese partners.  The weekend began with a 9:10am meeting at school to board buses for what’s known as the Yantian Seafood Street (盐田区盐田海鲜食街) on the other side of Shenzhen. Just to give you a sense of how big Shenzhen is, the city is 50.6 miles across at its widest point.  Shekou, where our school is located, is on one side of the city and Yantian is way on the other end.  The “Seafood Street” is kind of what you’d imagine.  It’s a row of restaurants serving fresh seafood.

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Yantian Seafood Street (盐田区盐田海鲜食街)

All the restaurants generally serve the same things, but I guess the quality of the preparation depends on the chef.   We ate pretty well.

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Yantian Seafood Street (盐田区盐田海鲜食街)

It was one of those Chinese feasts where the dishes just kept coming and there was obviously a heavy emphasis on fresh seafood, including fish, snails, crab, crawfish, shrimp, and clams.

After lunch, we re-boarded the bus and were on our way to the Sheraton Beach Resort in Huizhou.  The whole reason for this trip was a big “thank you” to the teachers and staff for all of their hard work getting the school off the ground.  It was appropriately timed to coincide with what would normally be a long Thanksgiving weekend in the States.  I was just fortunate enough to be invited along since I am out here spending time at the school.  Anyway, back to the weekend.  So we pull up to this hotel after passing all of these new condos being built as vacation homes or investments for people in other cities.

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New condos on the way to the resort

The hotel is a Sheraton, but like most things in China, it’s almost, but not quite what you’d expect from a Sheraton.  The construction of the building is a bit shoddier than you’d expect in the U.S., the AC in my room didn’t quite work to the point where they had to bring a fan up, and the bed was just a tad harder than you’d expect in a hotel.  But with that said, the grounds were really nice, including the scented hot tubs that were dubbed “hot springs” with “restorative properties”.  The view from my oceanfront room was also almost, but not quite.

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Yantian Seafood Street (盐田区盐田海鲜食街)

As you can see, the view is pretty stunning, but then there’s a power plant off in the distance.  It’s just part of a Chinese resort.

We had another feast for dinner, including a lucky draw, which is a Chinese raffle where people were able to win iPod nanos, iPad minis, and an iPhone 6s.  Definitely some great prizes, but alas, I did not win.  The night ended with a dip in one of the restorative hot springs, the jasmine scented one to be exact.

This morning we woke up around 7am and made our way to . . . yes, another massive meal, this time the breakfast buffet.  Breakfast is one of my favorite meals and this buffet had both Western and Chinese options, including a congee and omelette station.  Congee is Chinese rice porridge that you can add meat and vegetables to, as well as various spices and sauces. I like it, but it’s a bit too heavy for morning, especially after a day of feasting.  Instead I opted for the omelette station and cereal with yogurt and fresh fruit.

After checking out, we piled back into the bus and went to check out a new development about 20 minutes away that looked like something out of Hawaii, but with a Chinese flair.

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View of the shoreline from the fishing boat

It was very pretty, but I am left wondering who is going to be living here.  It’s one of those planned Chinese communities where eventually the envision 70,000 people living in the area, but it’s about two hours from Shenzhen and an hour from Huizhou, a city of 500,000 people.  People were being bussed in on a continual basis, presumably to check out the renditions of the development and see model apartments.

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Part of the 3-D model of the planned community

I tried asking about who would be living here and the most I could get out of anyone was that many people would be buying these as investments and then renting them out like timeshares.  Apparently this part of the coast is thought of as a weekend destination for a lot of Shenzheners, but then one person from Shenzhen told that this locale was popular two years ago and many people had moved on to a lake about 40 minutes north of the city.  I am not sure what that means, but it still begs the question as to who will be populating this area.  Might I add that the land is owned by a large Shenzhen company, China Resources (or Haurun (华润)), which is also building a training university on the site.  This same person who told me the site was popular two years ago told me that because China Resources is well-connected to the government in Shenzhen, both parties stand to make a lot of money on this site.  However, these apartments are not being built for the common Chinese person, so even though housing prices are less here than in Shenzhen, the people who need relief from those high prices will not partake in this development.  It does not help that the high speed rail stop is a bit of a distance away and there are no other readily identifiable jobs nearby.  However, I digress.  We spent the afternoon here, including a jaunt out on a fishing boat in the bay and then another gut-busting lunch.

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Leaving the dock

Around 1:00pm, we piled back into the bus and made our way back to Shenzhen.  It took nearly 3.5 hours due to inexplicable Sunday afternoon traffic.  You hear about traffic being bad in China, but it’s not until you’re sitting in it on a packed bus that you really understand how bad it is.  It was not just our road, but as we passed other highways and city streets, they also appeared jam-packed.  It makes you think about global warming and how what we’ve done in the States is being acted out on a massive scale in China as Chinese people embrace the car much like we do as Americans, but there are nearly five times the number of Chinese people as there are Americans.  Just sit with that for a second.

So now I am back in Shenzhen and still taking stock of the weekend.  It was my first time along the Chinese coast and parts of it were quite beautiful, but part of that may be because they’re not completely built up, yet, so remain relatively unspoiled by large crowds.  It was also one of those weekends that would be easy to take from New York in the States, like going out to the Hamptons, up to Cape Cod, or down to the Jersey Shore, but in China, it required the planning by locals who know the ins and outs to make it a memorable experience.  While a whirlwind, I was impressed at how we were pretty much on time everywhere and also had a chance to experience a part of China that most Westerners don’t really get to see, even if it was on the more luxurious end of things.  But now it’s back to reality and another workweek.

 

 

Crossing the Threshold

June 30, 2012

Made it to Hong Kong. After a turbulent flight from Shanghai and sitting next to a Brazilian-Chinese couple making out during the flight, I have arrived in the oasis that is Hong Kong. Having inhaled an iced latte from Starbucks and getting set up with a HK sim card for my phone, I am hurtling toward Central on the Airport Express and should be at my hotel within the half hour. Here’s a view as the train heads into Central.

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And another of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island in the distance.

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Landing and then getting off the plane feels like coming home in a strange way, but in a way that is less strange than China because I lived here for two years right after college and it was my first time living on my own. Whereas most of my friends did it in New York, DC, or San Francisco, I came to Hong Kong to break out into adulthood. Literally the minute you step off the plane, you feel the difference from the mainland. The airport feels like it has been constructed to last a hundred years, there is a relative hush around the place, people queue up in an orderly manner, and it just feels more relaxed, if such a thing can be said about a major world city. Don’t get me wrong. I love China, but coming back to Hong Kong is so nice. And it’s not just me with my history here. I met a guy in Shanghai from Jersey of all places who had just finished two years of teaching English in Beijing and was moving to Hong Kong to do the same because he was over Beijing. I wished him luck when we parted at the baggage carousel and he said he already felt that the city was great and a welcome change from Beijing.

I must now make my way to my hotel, but there will be more later.

I’m back in Linyi after a three day weekend in Shanghai and determined to finish what I started over five hours ago over a coffee at a Wagas in Shanghai and then tried to finish in the airport, but to no avail when my flight actually left ten minutes early.

When I exited the airport in Linyi, there was a row of taxis just sitting there with the engines off and the drivers gathered in a circle talking.  Unlike taxis at airports in the States, these guys were just waiting to screw around with me.  I went to the first taxi in the queue and he offered to take me to my hotel for 80 renminbi.  I knew the trip to the airport last Thursday was only 45 renminbi, so there was no way I was going to pay nearly double for the same trip.  I went down the line and asked if they would use the meter and they said they would, but then would quote me an exorbitant price.  Frustration setting in, I found a cabbie who was honest and willing to take me to my hotel with a meter running.  The cost to get back?  30 renminbi.

I am beginning my final week of teaching tomorrow and it’s not even a full week because Thursday is going to be wrap-up/review and Friday I am giving my final.  Then it’s off to Hong Kong Saturday.  But that’s next weekend, so I am going to focus on sucking up as much of Linyi as possible in the remaining days.

Shanghai was great for a quick weekend getaway.  My time in the city felt so disconnected from the previous two weeks in Linyi and even different than the few days I spent in Beijing at the start of my trip.  Having already seen two of China’s “showcase” cities, I am going to end my time away in Hong Kong, arguably the third such “showcase” city.  What’s interesting is that two of the three have strong historical foreign influences (Shanghai and Hong Kong) and today remain meccas for expats looking to set up shop in Asia, so whenever I am in places like Shanghai or Hong Kong, I am always wondering how Chinese these cities really are.  Having not been back in Hong Kong for nearly two years, I am going to reserve judgment on that locale, but will most certainly weigh in once I am there.

Before I launch into my Shanghai thoughts, I must say I am amazed at how prevalent wifi is in China.  Two years ago Starbucks, hotels, and a few trendy cafes would have offered it.  But now it’s everywhere.  Hotels offer for free, most restaurants and cafes have networks set up, and even in the lobby of my hotel in Linyi, I can get free wifi.  One thing that’s interesting, but not surprising is the arbitrariness of having to register to use the network.  The government has made a big deal about stepping up its efforts to police the internet and monitor its users.  The previous incarnation of this overbearing policy was the crackdown on internet bars, which now seem like a quaint part of the not-so-distant past with the advent of smartphones and the ability to get online wherever and whenever you want.  In public places like airports, Starbucks, and hotels you either need to register with your mobile phone number (airports and Starbucks) or click through policies in a browser window and agree to abide by certain policies (hotels).  However, many cafes and restaurants dispense with identifying who is using their network, which is in violation of the law and makes it impossible to trace back users of those networks.  Just a little musing on the whimsical nature of law enforcement in China, much akin to how mobile phone providers are supposed to take a copy of your ID when buying a sim card, but yet someone like me can wind up with four sim cards and not once having had to show my idea to procure them.

With that said, I have a lot of thoughts running through my head about Shanghai, China, the future of this country, and being a rock star expat and not all of them will make down on this page because I am still processing. I made it clear the other day that I am more of a half-assed expat flying in and out of Chnia, but walking through Xintiandi earlier this afternoon with Amy, we stumbled upon a bunch of white guys screaming on stage as they played their instruments.
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These guys were screaming so loudly that it was impossible to tell if they were singing in Chinese or  English. They also were not very good, yet drew quite a large crowd. If these guys were playing in Sydney, London, or New York, they would have been a nuisance. But in Shanghai expats and locals were bopping along with little kids dancing and everyone enjoying the ruckus.  Shanghai has that feeling of a city where anything is possible. People leaving behind their lives back home to start over. I noticed this in Beijing, too, but Shanghai is a far more comfortable city to live in than even Beijing.  Beijing is more comfortable with being Chinese and could be seen as more provincial when compared to Shanghai, which is open to the world and can come across as seeking to be anything but Chinese. These white guys rocking out in Xintandi, the expats we saw out at the bars and clubs last night, the 外国人 (white guy in Chinese – waiguo ren) with the local girlfriend, or the European or American with a business idea, there are so many people who have converged on this city to try and make their dreams come true.  Such a convergence gives the city a surreal feel because the energy is really unlike anywhere else, even New York with its constant influx of people trying to make it there.

Shanghai feels like it is still on the expressway of development and in the four years since I was last here, new buildings and fads have popped up creating new wants and desires.  I’m sure in four more years, there will be more new buildings and fads, but is this change deeper than just new buildings?  I’m not sure.  The changes I saw this visit are for the most part on the surface, including this massive construction site just south of Nanjing Xi Lu being developed by the same people who did Sanlitun in Beijing.  Seeing a site like this one makes me wonder not only who is going to make use of this planned mix-use development, but what it all means for a city and country that seems to be preoccupied with the next best, brightest, and biggest thing.
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But the deeper question that hangs over all of this development is whether all of this development will be accompanied by something longer-lasting such as a change in mindset.
Last night’s dinner was a fairly international crowd. Five out of six were American, with some of Korean and Chinese/Taiwanese descent, as well as a native Korean and myself. All but two were or are lawyers and four currently live in Shanghai with Amy and myself coming from Tokyo and New York, respectively. With the scene set, I can now discuss one part of the conversation that stuck with me.  I was talking about my students and how they were struggling with the objective theory of contracts and the reasonable person standard that is so common in American law because it leaves room for case by case analysis.  Such analysis creates a gray area, as opposed to the black and white answers I find my students are more comfortable with.  One of my dining companions was talking about providing legal advice to his Chinese clients and how even when he raises the the possibility that something may not go as planned when drafting an agreement, his clients merely respond that it will get done the way they want it to get done because that is how it is going to get done.  There is no room for the possibility of contingencies and caveats, which require thinking hypothetically and creatively about a problem.  The other people at the table generally agreed with the assessment that in China it can be hard to get people to think about this gray area when posed with questions or problems.  It’s like when I ask my students a question and they start to give the wrong answer and I encourage them to explain the logic behind their answer, even if it’s wrong.  I can see that they do not want to continue down this path if they think the answer is wrong and quickly back down rather than try to make a case for their answer.  When I have given short answer questions on tests, my students ask what would be be the right answer and I tell them that there is no right answer.  I swear that you can see the wheels turning in their head as they try to comprehend this reply.  I then try to explain that their grade will depend on their reasoning, not if the answer is right or wrong.  It’s a mindf&$k for them and I know it does not register when I explain.  I am not saying that no one in China thinks this way because that would be an absolute statement and there is no such thing as an absolute when it comes to matters like this one.  However, I will say that such thinking is endemic to Chinese society because it is the way the education system is designed and perpetuated in the workplace, village, and other social settings.  Thinking outside of the box would be anathema to the government’s attempt to control the flow of information and the thoughts formed from such information. I think back to all of my encounters with students and the difficulty they tend to have with critical thinking. It’s what I also hear from U.S. law firms with whom I speak when they are recruiting in Asia – the holy grail when hiring Chinese lawyers is someone raised in China who received their law degree in the States, or even better their undergrad and law degrees in the States. The rationale is that such people are more able to seamlessly go back and forth between Chinese and western clients because they can easily switch their mindset.
Shanghai gives off the impression that it wants to be anything but Chinese with an outlook towards the rest of the world instead of inward towards the rest of China, but is this orientation enough to change what lies beneath – a way of thinking that does not readily tackle problems flexibly and critically?  There is certainly going to be some more unpacking of my action-packed weekend in Shanghai, but now I must get prepare for the week ahead and catch up on my sleep after staying out too late the previous night and dabbling in the city’s rock star expat scene.

Half-Assed Expat

June 22, 2012

Made it to Shanghai in one piece. The actual flight from Linyi to Shanghai is less than an hour, so really easy to get here. In some ways it feels like being released out into civilization. It has been four years since I was last here and the city is even more refined and polished than it was the last time I was here.

This is what I woke up to when I walked into my hotel bathroom this morning.

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The city is definitely China’s best foot forward on the world stage with the potential to rival any other great world city. I don’t think I can use enough superlatives to describe the city. Suffice it to say it’s definitely the center of creativity, commerce, and class in China. Part of it definitely has something to do with the sheer number of expats here.

I’m sitting in a cafe called Sunflour on Anfu Road (安福路) that could be in London, Sydney, or San Francisco and it’s filled with a mix of expats and locals. The menu is salads, sandwiches, and lots of fresh baked goods. I’m listening to two foreign girls talk about their trips to Urumqi and marathons in Thailand, as well as their plans for the night. I forgot how everyone of a certain set knows each other when you live overseas. It was the same thing when I lived in Hong Kong, so it’s nice to know there is some continuity to this whole lifestyle.

But Shanghai is unreal. I’m not sure if it is what the rest of China aspires to, especially given the central governments own bias against Shanghai due to it’s long history of foreign influence. Just to recap – when China was forcibly opened up by the Europeans and Americans in the mid 1800s, Shanghai was carved up among the French, Germans, Americans, and British. The city developed a reputation as the Paris of the East and as a den of sin and iniquity. When the Communists came to power, they sought to stamp out all traces of the old Shanghai. When China opened up on its own terms in the 90s, Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji, who were the president and premier, respectively, hailed from Shanghai and strongly promoted the city’s development. When Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabo came to power in the 2000s, the so called “Shanghai Faction” fell out of favor and the leaders in Beijing sought to promote harmony, not the decadence a city like Shanghai represents. That’s not to say that Shanghai stopped developing and changing, but the city did not receive the same support from Beijing. Having spent time in places like Linyi, I don’t think Shanghai is what these cities want to be. Whether that’s because of government influence or the fact that many Chinese people have at most spent a few days here, I don’t think this is the way forward for the rest of China.

There is something very comfortable and familiar about the city. It’s what happens when the iPhone class infiltrates a place and starts to remake it in its image. The nationality of the iPhone owner does not matter. It’s a mindset. Without being too glib, the iPhone class likes cute boutiques, gourmet coffee, trendy restaurants and bars, and whatever else may be on trend at that moment. These predilections begin to influence the communities in which they live and dictate the patterns of development. I could really be anywhere in the world right now, which is both comforting and unsettling at the same time. When I am in places like Shanghai, I am reminded of being 22 and an expat banker in Hong Kong. Listening to these foreigners who have made their home in Shanghai, it strikes me as part escapist (whether escaping an identity and life or a dire economic climate back home) and this desire to sound worldly. It’s easy to sound worldly when you’re jetting off to Shanghai for the weekend or running a marathon in Thailand. I’m guilty of this, too to some degree, but I’m kind of a half-assed expat. I like to flit into countries like China for a few weeks or a city like London for a long weekend and then flit right back home.

Okay, enough musing for one afternoon. It’s almost time to move on from this cafe and find a place to get my hair cut and then move hotels and meet my friend, Amy.

Linyi to Qufu and Back

June 16, 2012

Today was one of those days where everything good, bad, and somewhere in the middle about China were all packed into a 12-hour period.  The day began in the lobby of my hotel, the Linyi Hotel (临沂宾馆).  I met Lu, one of the other professors from the University of New Haven, to head over to the bus station to get on the road to Qufu (曲阜).  Qufu is Confucius’ birthplace and about 135 kilometers or 84 miles from Linyi, but somehow became nearly a four hour bus ride.  I’ve taken my share of buses in China, but our driver was as crazy, if not crazier than the craziest bus driver I’ve seen.  This guy would barrel down on old ladies riding motor bikes leaning on his horn to the point where it looked like he was going to put his hard through the steering wheel.  There were a few near-death moments where he barely slowed down in time to miss hitting a big rig pulling into traffic on a two lane road.  The other detail that is crucial to this entire day is that it was about 100 degrees today.  The bus was supposed to be air conditioned, but the only time the driver turned the A/C on was when we were pulling into a bus station, which was about only 20 minutes of the 3.5 hour ride.  Finally we arrive at the Qufu bus station.

Qufu is a city of about 60,000 people, but tourists cause the population to swell because it’s Confucius’  hometown.  What this means is that you can visit his temple (孔庙), the family mansion (孔府), and cemetery (孔林) all within a two mile radius.  While many other cities in China have Confucian temples, this is the original and biggest of those temples.  The three sites are together known as san kong (三孔) or the Three Confucian sites.  We intended to first go to the temple, but our taxi driver from the bus station took us first to the Confucian Research Institute, which was a quasi-museum devoted to Confucius.  In addition to laying claim to some sites where he lectured his disciples, it also stood out for me as one of the few places in China where we were practically the only people there.

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Confucian Research Institute

There was nobody here, which led me to believe that our cab driver had hoodwinked us into coming here and spending 40 yuan (approximately $6.50) to look at a few statues and pieces of jade.  To boot, before driving away, the taxi driver got out of his car and squeezed my arm telling Lu that I was so strong.

We spent a total of maybe 20 minutes here before making the move to get to the main attractions.  Given that Qufu is geared to tourists, there were hawkers and all other sorts of people looking to make a quick buck off unsuspecting tourists.  I had made up my mind that I was going to stick to taxis that used meters to minimize being ripped off, but as we left the Institute we realized that taxis were not as readily available and a persistent old man with a bicycle hitched up to a two-seater convinced us to ride with him.  I normally do not take such a form of transportation because it’s dangerous, but I am also uncomfortable with someone pedaling me somewhere and using their energy because I am too lazy to walk. I know that he was being paid for the trip, but I was still not comfortable with this arrangement.  Anyway, we’re being pedaled along and Lu tells him we want to see the temple.  He tells us he is going to take us on a little tour of the walled part of Qufu, so we happily go along for the ride.  After 15 minutes or so, we realize that we’re heading straight for the cemetery, which we wanted to do last.  Lu tells him we want to go to the temple and he begins arguing with her telling us we should go there first because it’s the only place to buy a combined ticket that would get us into all three sites.  That was a blatant lie, which at this point made Lu angry and she insisted he take us to the temple.  He stopped the bike and told us to get out.  Lu stood her ground and he hopped back on his bike, grumbling as he took us to the temple.  We hopped off and ran away hoping he would not follow us.

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A Chinese tour group


Confucius’ Tomb


At this point, we encountered the tour groups for which China is so famous.  Groups of people of all ages wearing matching hats, a guide carrying a big flag and wearing an obnoxiously loud microphone that sounds strangely enough like police screaming into a bullhorn for crowds to disperse.  There were groups from Zhuhai, Beijing, Qingdao, Hangzhou, and many other parts of China.  We joined them in the queue and entered the temple.  It was pretty with some intricate carvings, but the 100 degree heat made it less enjoyable than it would have been at 75-80 degrees.  The more interesting thing was to think that this site has been a temple for over 2000 years.  The temple grounds were also reminiscent of the Forbidden City, which may be because the temple received a major renovation/rebuild during Ming dynasty and shortly after the Forbidden City was built.

After the temple, we moved on the Kong family house, which is located a short walk away from the temple.  Once again, I could not get over the history here.  Confucius’ direct descendants lived here for nearly 900 years until fleeing during WWII, first to Chongqing and then to Taiwan and some on to the U.S.  The Kong family line is now in its 80th generation.  The mansion also had some cool detailing, indicated by this picture of what looked like little horses on the roof of one of the pavilions.  ImageAfter wandering around the pavilions and gardens, we stopped for some lunch to sample the Kong cuisine (孔采), which was no different than dishes you could get at any standard Chinese restaurant, but cost 100-150% more.

Finally we made our way to the cemetery.  At this point it was around 5pm and we decided to take the train back because it was only an hour and 45 minutes from Qufu to Linyi, but the train left at 6:41pm and we had to be there about 45 minutes early to buy a ticket.  So we arrive at the cemetery which is massive because it houses anyone with the surname Kong who wants to be buried there.  Word has it that there are over 100,000 people buried there, including Confucius and one of Mao’s daughters who married a descendant of Confucius. At the gate of the cemetery, you can pay 20 yuan (approximately $3.30) to ride in an electric cart around the grounds.  In China style, we jetted around the grounds and stopped only to see Confucius’ tomb, which was actually a very efficient way to cover a lot of ground.  Lu and I ran to see the tomb, snapped some pictures, and made our way back to the cart.

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After hailing a cab, we were on our way to the train station.  All of the cabbies were pretty friendly and Lu would chat them up while they asked me what country I was from.  Throughout the day, people would come up to Lu and yell “Daliu” (大溜), which means guide because they all thought she was showing me around Qufu.  It’s kind of oddly racist if you think about it.  There was no way a Chinese woman could be sightseeing with a white guy.  It must be that she is my tour guide. Anyway, we get to the train station to find out that there are no seats available on the train.  On the bright side, the ticket was only 14 yuan (approximately $2.00).  The train station, though, left a lot to be desired.  It was definitely not a pretty place.  We were in the “common” train station.  There is also a high-speed train station in Qufu, which I am sure is a lot nicer.

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Once we get on the train, we find two fold-down benches near the window.  I was just happy to be sitting, but it was slightly annoying because anyone walking down the aisle was guaranteed to bump into you.  Thank goodness the ride was only an hour and 45 minutes.  Of course there was no A/C, but at this point I had sweat through my shirt at least three times and all I could think about was getting back to the hotel and taking a hot shower.

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We eventually made it back to Linyi and there was this odd feeling, but not totally unsurprising because I’ve written about it before, but I felt like I was home.  And it’s not like I am staying in Linyi for all that long, but it felt comfortable and good to be back here.  I’ve written about this moment before and anyone who has traveled and spent a chunk of time in a place knows what I am talking about.  My hotel room at the Linyi Hotel feels like a small piece of home right now, down to the one cup coffee filter I have to make my morning cup of coffee and wifi network that I set up with my Airport Express.  I have more to write about including giving my first quiz and some additional thoughts on the idea of the media being controlled and controlling prompted by a comment on my last post, but it’s now getting late, so until tomorrow . . .

Friday morning I woke up Linyi along with the sun as I began my travels south to Hong Kong.  The driver came to meet me at the hotel at 7am and we navigated the Linyi morning rush-hour, which was somewhat lighter than normal because of the National Day holiday.  However, the usual drivers were in my lane heading in the opposite direction with nary a honk or much panic.  I passed tires on horse-drawn carts and when I arrived at the Linyi airport, I actually was one of the first people there.  I’ve never really opened an airport before, but it ensured that there was no delay on my part departing.  When the driver dropped me off, I was in somewhat of a stupor because of the early hour and not having slept well the previous couple of days.  In China when you arrive at a train or bus station or an airport, there are usually people waiting to harass you by offering to help with your bags or asking for money.  When I opened the door to the car, there was this man waiting and I was very confused, so I started saying “不要” or “don’t want”, which is my common refrain to make people go away.  Then I realized it was the dean of the business school who had come to see me off on my journey and to say good-bye.  I momentarily felt like an idiot, but he is such a nice man and probably could not understand my Chinese that it was all good in the end.  He escorted me to the check-in counter, ensured that no one gave me grief for being 21 kilos over the domestic Chinese weight  limit of 20 kilos, and waved as I passed through security.  All in all, a very nice and unexpected send-off.

Then the fun began.  After boarding the plane and being seated next to a mother and her daughter who had never flown before, evidenced by the multiple pictures taken in front of the plane on the tarmac with the hands raised in the air making the famous “V” sign with their fingers that Chinese people are so fond of and their inability to operate the seat belt, I tried to settle in and prepare for take-off.  However, the mother kept speaking to me and asking me about Linyi and my time there, which was initially fine.  But then she began reading aloud random words I was texting on my phone and the names of songs on my iPod, even as I was wearing my headphones.   As our 9am departure time came and went, we were still on the tarmac.  45 minutes into waiting, the crew starts serving snacks and beverages with no explanation for the delay.  Then as quickly as the snacks appeared, the pilot made an announcement that we should prepare for take off.  We were on our way.

Now yesterday, October 1st, was National Day, which is like America’s Independence Day and results in a sort-of week-long holiday for all Chinese people.  It’s the 61st anniversary of the founding of the PRC.  In the middle of the flight I notice the crew blowing up these inflatable jumbo jets with the Shandong Airlines (the carrier I was flying) logo.  Then the stewardess announced that they were going to host a quiz show on board the plane and the prize for correct answers were these inflatable airplanes. How were they going to choose people to answer, you might be wondering?  People had to “buzz in” using their flight attendant call buttons above their seats.   It was not a perfect system because there was no way to really discern who buzzed in first.  But they started asking questions, people came up to announce their answers into the intercom so that the whole plane could here, and another one of the flight attendants was snapping pictures of it all.  Meanwhile, the pilot was also navigating some mild turbulence that precipitated turning on the “Fasten Seatbelt” sign, which was ignored by everyone on board.

We finally arrive at Guangzhou and being in Baiyun airport felt like civilization.  I never felt this way when I was living there, but after three weeks in Linyi, I was looking at everything with different eyes.  I had about an hour and a half to spare, so I checked in and met up with my friend Michael at one of the many Starbucks in Tianhe.  What I noticed on the drive in was how developed the city seemed and also the lower number of Chinese brand automobiles, which were far more common in Linyi because they tend to be cheaper. It answered my question about whether Chinese autos were starter cars and then people would trade up when they made more money.  The city has also undergone a massive development boom in the year plus that I was gone because the city is hosting the 2010 Asia Games this December, which like every other big sporting or cultural event held in China, means that the host city spends billions of dollars on infrastructure and other improvements.  Multiple subway lines were slated to open in the common weeks, new hotels and malls were built, and entire traffic patters were changed, including the introduction of a special bus lane that is supposed to act like a bus-type train unencumbered by auto traffic.  Tianhe is the expat hang-out of GZ and where most of the nice shopping is aggregated.  I did not recognize the neighborhood.  New Marriotts and Sheratons were being built.  Entirely new wings on already large malls were going up and stores like H&M were opening.  It appeared that GZ had “arrived”.  It was also really nice to see my friend Michael, who is American and finishing up his masters in IR at SYSU, the university where I taught.  Then I raced back to the airport and made my 25 minute flight to Hong Kong with minutes to spare.

Arriving in Hong Kong last night was like a homecoming.  I’ve spent so much time here over the years, including two years after college and many visits while living in GZ, that this place is so familiar to me.  I just get off the plane and I know what to do and where to go.  The airport is a joy, the express train into the city is easy and quick, and the city itself is just so well-run.  I went from Linyi to Hong Kong in the course of a day and it was a little bit of culture shock, but not in a bad way.  It was just a study in the different levels of development, crammed into the course of a day.  It also makes me wonder what happens to places like Linyi and do they become Guangzhou one day or even Hong Kong, or are they destined for a certain path because of circumstances.  Hong Kong is going to be a nice transition for returning to New York next Tuesday, but I also have my own complicated feelings about this city.  Perhaps one can extend the metaphor of my own feelings towards Hong Kong to how the mainland may feel about Hong Kong.  There is something alluring about the city, but it’s not necessarily a comfortable relationship because there is also something not quite real about this place, but it’s something I will continue to explore while I am here.  Suffice it to say, I made it safe and sound and now I am looking forward to catching up with some old friends and visit some old haunts.