I am wondering now if some people know the English words they want to say, but they don't have the confidence to speak them out loud. I noticed this happen in my very first stop back in Kaohsiung. After 6 days of me embarrassing myself with godawful Chinese and using my phone translator app to communicate, the clerk finally brought himself to say a few words in English on my last day there. He spoke the few words he chose just fine, but i could tell it took a lot of courage. I wonder how much the fear of looking dumb influences what people (don't) say.
I sat down this morning for a real working class breakfast - cold noodle with no vegetables at all. It was literally just noodle (a thick, creamy one, like pho), tossed in chili paste, vinegar and sesame oil with about two peanuts and some sprouted soybeans. It's called 凉皮 (liáng pí), which means cold skin. It came with congee and some pickles. Very simple, no frills. It was extremely good.
As i sat down to eat, a well-dressed lady ducked into the hole-in-the-wall, sat opposite me and addressed me in English. She was amazed i could use chopsticks ("most westerners can only use spoons!") and that i had to ask for extra chili, because the store owners had gone easy on me. It's like here in Guangyuan i found a little slice of the "old China" - you know the yarn tourists like to spin about Chinese being completely ignorant of foreigners. Of course they aren't at all, though some stereotypes persist. She surprised me back - she was just home visiting family, but attends law school in Chengdu.
We tried to exchange numbers, but my SIM card does not accept phonecalls, and WeChat is not available on Windows Phone. I explained - as i have explained to a handful of people here now - that i don't really use instant messaging. She was shocked that i only use my phone for internet and that i didn't even know how to add a contact. "How do you speak to your mother?!" I said we email. I didn't say we only email once every few months. I guess that would've blown her mind. It already freaks out people in the west, thinking i am some kind of demon daughter. Not really. I just don't talk to anybody very much. I am much less anxious when i am alone, dealing with family and friends is high-stress work that i can only take in very small doses before i snap.
Going through these mountain passes from Guangyuan to Hanzhong and then Hanzhong to Xi'an has been epic. I am so glad i ended up taking the bus. They weren't epic in the sense of windy roads clinging to sheer cliffs, they were epic because they were a giant middle finger to nature - huge concrete viaducts and expressways zig-zagging across white-water rapids, tunnels bored straight into some of the steepest, most unforgiving peaks i have seen. And, because it's China, tiny wonky rice terraces and corn fields on the very small strips of land that were flat enough to tame. The only trip i've been on that compares is taking the Amtrak through the Rockies, and in particular the section along the Colorado river. Way more trees here, but still spectacular.
Hanzhong was an interesting town. The moment we drove in the adjective that came to mind was "Fresnoic". Not that i am an expert on Fresno, but it had that feeling of being a dusty, spread-out rural town stuck in a valley between two mountain ranges. Although, because it's China, this rural town has 2.5 million people. But oddly it still had an old west main street - a long strip of stores all one storey high. I haven't seen that anywhere else in China; even Guangyuan's sole main street was two storeys. There are the usual markets in the residential areas and a glut of new highrise development in the suburbs, but in general it all felt very sprawling and low.
Fortunately it was also very flat, so i walked a long way and grazed on different street foods.
I had my first "on a stick" experience. In the richer cities, "on a stick" stalls are almost exclusively meat, seafood or (as a machismo thing, i think) insects. In Hanzhong it was mostly vege. I got shiitakes on a stick, enokis on a stick (bundled up with tofu skin so they were like little jellyfish), spongy tofu on a stick, lotus root on a stick, and bread (!) on a stick. All of it was dredged in oil and chili powder, then grilled and slapped on a plate for my enjoyment. It was delicious.
Then i got a 肉夹馍 (ròu jiā mó), which is a Shaanxi speciality that is known to hipsters as "the Chinese hamburger". It's basically pulled pork stuffed inside a naan bread with some toppings (i chose fresh green chilis). The bread was the highlight for me - charred and flaky and oily. So good. Of course the moment i ordered another guy walked up and picked up a vege version, which was half the price. I didn't know i could do that. It had seaweed and tofu inside. Next time.
It seems that in smaller towns the street food is almost all vege. It's like a flashback to the old days when the only people who could afford meat were the rich people. That's probably still the case. People in the west tend to forget that even the working class in developed nations is rich compared to the peasant class that makes up most of the rest of the world. As a tourist you sometimes get "gifted" meat regardless because people want to impress, but i'm glad i've managed to avoid that by eating at more humble joints where it isn't even on the menu. As i mentioned in earlier posts, the Chinese middle class are meating it up fucking hardcore. The government recently issued a recommendation for the middle class to cut back on their meat intake for ecological reasons. I'm not sure if it will take. Unfortunately the middle class here enjoy conspicuous consumption as much as the middle class in the west.
Anywho, i picked up a bowl of grass jelly for dessert. Oh yes, a three-dish meal - i was fully fat by the end of all that. But it still only totalled about 15元, which is like 2€. Eating at a "middle class" restaurant would have been 10€ or more, same as anywhere else in the world. The income gap has got to be pretty nuts here for there to be such a big difference.
On the other hand, one thing i like about this country is that it feels like the poor aren't living in utter misery and despair. Well, the urban poor at least. It's hard to judge. I won't have time to visit rural areas to see how things are there. Going by what i have seen from the bus and the train, it looks like hard-scrabble living but not as completely fucked as some of the places i have seen elsewhere in the world. Factory farming hasn't completely taken over here. The little ramshackle farmhouses all have small, odd-shaped plots with subsistence crops and perhaps enough excess to sell at the market. The plots going up the mountainside are clearly still worked by hand - small-hold farmers can't get vehicles for that. Still, the government is busy building covered roads out to some of these settlements that previously only had dirt tracks and rope bridges. I am quite sure the poor suffer here as they do everywhere in the world, but compared to Namibia, or the south of Italy, or the US, it doesn't look quite as pitiful. But, yanno, maybe that's just what "they" want foreigners to see. Maybe "they" hid all the real poverty away from the roads and the train tracks and the urban back alleys that people like me can get to.
"They" didn't hide the clusterfuck that is suburban Xi'an, though. Coming into town you pass what must be hundreds of near-identical residential tower blocks, many under construction and many complete but empty. This is the sort of place i had been wondering if i would ever come across on my travels through urban China - the real-life "ghost towns" created by the property boom. There are plenty of viral videos in the west about this, but i had dismissed most of them as propaganda. In most of China, they are. All the cities i have visited so far have had insane amounts of construction and sparkling "new areas", but those "new areas" were at least semi-populated, if a little soulless. Here it looks markedly different.
I am still trying to understand "face" as it pertains to alcohol. In the west we have adopted the term "losing face" for certain situations, but drinking isn't really one of them. Here, drinking is a very serious thing. I've read that some job ads specifically include bullet points requiring the applicant to be able to hold their liquor. I don't doubt it. The drinking culture is competitive and intense.
The problem for me is that i will almost always outdrink Chinese. Forget about the fact i am a daily drinker/alcoholic, my body weight is deceptively high because i am very fucking tall. In other countries that just means i might drink a bit faster than my smaller friends. Here, if they start the "gan bei" (dry glass) ritual you are only allowed to drink when you are toasted. And then both parties drink the whole glass. The two men i just met were drinking red wine, and we went through 2 or 3 bottles in about half an hour. They were already drunk before we started. I was writing in my notebook, interrupted in the middle of the section directly above this. One of the two ran off to pee (or vomit) and the other one passed out next to me. I wasn't sure if it would preserve their "face" better if i stayed and let them "outdrink" me or leave. I asked the first guy - via translator app - when he got back, and he suggested i leave.
It's all very confusing and stressful and now i am much drunker than i wanted to be.
I have more scrawling in my notebook from that evening, but it is mostly illegible. Needless to say, i was quite drunk from the "gan bei" but also a bit unsettled. So i stumbled into another bar to clear my head. Or, i got right royally plastered listening to Chinese pop music and Dutch house, which (along with happy hardcore) is very popular over here. I have vague flashes of trying to get home, sadly documented on my phone with blurry photos taken in weird back alleys and residential blocks because why not have a fucking adventure when you are blackout drunk in a foreign country?
Yesterday was a fucking write-off. Like, straight-up canceled. I slept till 4pm and then ventured outside - seedy as all fuck - to find food. I found some weird thing that was like 3 American-style pancakes on top of one another, with the middle hollowed out, and an egg baked in the hole, all dredged in chili powder. Fucking awesome hangover food. I bought bananas too, and a bottle of mineral water because i was sick of waiting for the tapwater to cool down each time i boiled a kettle. And then i passed out again.
Bad fucking day. Today was better. I booked another night at this piece of shit hotel whose internet is so bad i can barely read the G20 news, then promptly had my 4G internet crap out on me too. So the first 2 hours of today consisted of me walking blindly around town trying to find a China Unicom branch to get a data refill. I got a bao and another of those pancake things on the way. Eventually i found a branch, but he spoke not a word of English and couldn't explain the complexity of my SIM card situation. He directed me to one of the "electronics areas" that they have here, where there are several blocks of stores that just sell phones, computers etc. One of the guys there could speak English and sorted out my SIM. I hope i have enough data to get me through to Shanghai now - i only bought 3 gig.
Since i was already halfway out to the suburbs, i decided to explore the "new area". Holy hell is it a ghost town. It is so fucking weird to walk past so many highrises that are still under construction. I walked all the way out to the ring road and took a couple of photos from the overpass of the countless blocks of yet more highrises being built on the outside of the ring. It boggles the mind that the developers think they can sell this stuff when the completed highrises closer to downtown are already only partially occupied.
Walking through the partially-occupied areas i can't even understand why people would have bought there either. Most of the tower blocks are inside walled and gated communities, like a fucking prison. The "commercial" areas outside the gated communities only have real estate agents and convenience stores in them. There are no noodle shops, no bars, no cafés, nothing that would make living in the block enjoyable. Every few "big blocks" there are some fruit vendors on the street. There are some epic parks in the area - really well-maintained and grandly designed - but there aren't greenways to get there, just wide roads and a monorail. I mean... a fucking monorail, are they trying to have the piss taken out of them?
I know in a few years these towers will probably be occupied, but i am unsure what kind of culture will develop there. It's so very different to the older urban areas that are filled with markets and street vendors and alleyways where anyone can go in and out. Having to scan your ID card to get through a turnstile to enter your gated community, or driving fucking SUVs to the nearest shopping mall instead of buying from your neighbors... It's hideous. It feels so far from what i think is great about Chinese urban culture. Perhaps these gated communities - as they become busier and more occupied - will get more relaxed, like the older blocks. The gate will be left permanently open and the guard will snooze or sit on a plastic stool hob-nobbing with the neighbors. It's hard to be optimistic, though, when i just spent 3 years in Berlin watching my own building go from an open-door policy to a buzzer entry, and then next door they put up a building with underground parking and an elevator and CCTV. Soon the whole area will be like that. It would be very sad if Chinese cities ended up as economically segregated as western ones.
Perhaps they already are. I am happily wandering about all areas without a care in the world, because this country is ridiculously safe due to the ever-present police. I guess most middle class Chinese just loop back and forth from work to home to the mall and never pick up that 4 kuai breakfast. God knows the lady who sat down with me in Guangyuan - the lawyer-in-training - didn't seem too impressed with the hole-in-the-wall joint i chose. Then again, perhaps i am mistaking her barely sipping her bowl of congee for distaste when really it was just an excuse to sit down and strike up a conversation.
Goddamnit. I need to speak to more people to be able to understand this place better, but the (vanishingly few) people who speak English are all of a certain class, so i only get half the picture. It's frustrating for me to travel with so little ability to communicate.
I need to start thinking about what i am going to do next. I haven't checked my bank account since leaving Europe, but it must be getting low. I doubt i can afford much more bumming around. I am so fascinated by this place, i love the food and the urban culture - the use of public space, the noise, the chaos - but i am not sure how i can afford to experience more. Fuck going back to Europe because Brexit, but Canada? Cold, suburban, expensive Canada? Sigh. It's all going to seem so boring.