Since i'm on the topic of the internet, let's talk about the Great Firewall. Honestly, it's not a big deal for me. What is blocked? Google - don't care, i use Bing. Instagram - don't care, never used it. Twitter - don't care, anything important hits the real news. YouTube - okay, it sucks not to be able to watch Colbert and Trevor Noah, but they were blocked in Canada so i am used to it. Facebook - i don't care, but my family and friends do. So i have basically just activated my VPN for brief 20 minute periods to make Facebook updates, upload photos, and watch some monologs that the Guardian is recapping anyways. Because the Graun isn't blocked, not even their critical articles during the Hong Kong handover anniversary, or their stories about the jailed democracy activist who is dying of cancer. All of the media sites i follow are available, both mainstream media and quirky/indie sites. LJ is available. Steam is available. Wikipedia is available in all languages except Chinese. Life goes on.
It seems to me like most of the Great Firewall is just aimed at blocking American-owned social media and the entire Taiwan top-level domain. Since American-owned social media is in the pocket of the NSA i can't really blame them. After living in Australia where porn sites and torrent sites are blocked, and Canada where pretty much all American media websites are blocked, and Germany where half of YouTube is blocked and you can't buy violent video games or anything with Nazi imagery, i think the English-language internet censorship here has been blown out of proportion by whiny American expats. The Chinese-language censorship (of both news media and the entirety of Taiwan) is far more problematic. But imo the biggest problem here right now is the criminal justice system. Xi and the party must be feeling the pressure because just a couple weeks ago - while i was in the country - they officially banned torture and forced confessions. Baby steps.
So, how was Kaifeng? It was fast. I realized that my online booking for the train had not gone through, and when i tried to re-book only one train was available, and only traveling first class. First class is twice the price for a tiny amount of extra legroom and a small bag of snacks. Basically the only real perk is no children running around screaming. Instead i had to put up with hungover businessmen snoring, which was far more annoying. I arrived with only a 15 hour overnight layover.
The trip made me realize i have to adjust my assessment of Xi'an (see previous travelogue entry). Although there are highrises going up there as far as the eye can see, taking the train to Kaifeng i saw cities that were like Xi'an new area squared. In particular Zhengzhou had hundreds - literally, hundreds - of highrises going up. New highways being built, new train lines, new everything. I wish i could have spent a couple days there with an electric scooter to explore - there was way too much to get to on foot.
I've never heard of Zhengzhou before, but apparently its province (Henan) is the heart of historic China and has 100 million people living in it. Traveling across Shaanxi, Shanxi and Henan is completely different to Guangxi, Guizhou and Sichaun/Chongqing, all of which are basically pointy mountains, rainforests, bamboo, corn stalks and rice paddies. Immediately around Xi'an is a Dakota-like arid plain with badlands heading out to the silk road, but going east is hundreds of miles of factories, farms and cities.
Kaifeng is one of those cities, just 20 minutes from Zhengzhou by bullet train. It's one that has created its own quirky character. I guess the town planners at some point wanted to make it into a "water town", so they have put in ponds and canals and bridges and pagodas and a fake oldtown and everything. It is tremendously tacky. I mean, i've visited Vegas and Niagara, but the Chinese take it to another level. They are the fucking masters. Literally everywhere you go you are going to find fake oldtowns, fake caves, fake temples, monorails, Ferris wheels, carnival rides, musical fountains, "ethnic" ambient music being piped out of speakers, "ye olde worlde" buildings lit up with fairy lights and neon... it's ridiculously awesome. Kaifeng, so far, is my highlight - it's even tackier than Guilin!
It also had an incredibly busy night market. Much like the Taiwanese night markets, i didn't really get what was so exciting. It's cool to see 101 food stands, but most of them sell the same stuff, and that stuff isn't much different to what you get at street vendors, food courts and mom'n'pop noodle joints during the day anyways. But i got caught up in the vibe of the crowd. I tried two different versions of the local stinky tofu; their unique spin was adding peanuts. I also got a 蓮子粥 (lián zĭ zhōu) or lotus nut congee, which was congee with all kinds of dried nuts and fruits in it. Apparently it is also called "eight treasure congee", and i'd highly recommend it for anyone who thinks a cross between porridge, bubble tea and trail mix sounds like a good idea. Oh, and some kind of mashed lychee bubble tea. And some fruity marshmallow-like glutinous rice cake things. Good eating? Well, yes, it was all delicious. But they are serious sweet-tooths in Kaifeng, and there wasn't much in the way of the simple, spicy peasant food i have come to love in the south and west of the country.
I am just finishing up my second day in Shanghai. The bullet train took about 5 hours, but i didn't see much because the guy in the window seat had the shade down. I think it was just more factories, farms and cities. I'll write about Shanghai in a future instalment, but a quick preview... Shanghai is a city i very much wanted to hate because it is full of douchebag laowei bloggers and douchebag Chinese nouveau riche, but so far i have really dug the nature and the industry and the new areas and the hustle. There are lots of photo ops. It feels like Shenzhen, but bigger.
More later, right now i want to post this while the hotel internet is working again.