Digital Dave's Ruminations

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...where Digital Dave occasionally shares his thoughts on China, Photography, and other various and random subject-matter.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Back in China

After a very pleasant (and, at barely ten hours with a very strong tailwind, quick) flight to Tokyo and then a short hop to Beijing, I’m back in the People’s Republic of China, circa 2011. Stayed overnight in a reasonably clean, cheap hotel by the Beijing airport, then took a two-hour flight to Luoyang, a large, but very laid-back city in western Henan Province, where I caught up with Katrinka who’s been hard at work on her archaeological project. Spent a day and a night in Luoyang, then took a 45-minute taxi ride to our old haunt, the ancient Shang-Dynasty capital and modern-day small city of Yanshi. A lot has changed in the four years since  were last here and, of course, not much has changed at all.

Luoyang, Henan, P.R.C.

I’m writing this while sitting in a chair in the third-floor hallway of the Yanshi Binguan, the very same hotel in which I’ve spent so many months over the course many visits. There used to be communist-era floor-stations (from where hotel maids or managers would escort hotel guests to their rooms and unlock their doors) right next to where I’m sitting, but they’re all gone now. I got to know and befriend so many fuwuyuans (servicepersons) over the years while hanging out by these floor-stations and writing or editing my photos on my laptop, and now both the floor-stations and sadly, several of my good friends who have moved on from the Yanshi Binguan to other jobs, have vanished. No one here seems to know where those folks are now. The floor-stations succumbed to a major hotel renovation.

 A few of Luoyang’s fine citizens

The hotel has indeed been substantially updated since I was last here, yet the place still has a remarkably half-assed quality about it. The rooms look much nicer than before, but the materials used in the refurbishment are clearly cheap. The shower leaks all over the bathroom floor and only some of the lights work in the room. One step forward and two steps back. There’s sill that famous barely-controlled anarchy among the staff and the guests here that seems to be so deeply embedded in the culture that one has the sense that this will be the case no matter how much they modernize the Yanshi Binguan.

This resident of Luoyang went out of her way to color-coordinate with the local buses 

In fact, the whole city of Yanshi has undergone quite an upgrade since 2007 and it seems there are even bigger plans in the works. There are many conspicuous new high-rises and “green” factories on the edge of town, and the city’s main drag – a classic Chinese two lane boulevard with a divided service lane on either side to accommodate the usual hodgepodge of scooters, bicycles, motorcycles, motorized carts, and other of China’s many strange jury-rigged vehicles - is already already being dismantled to make way for a modern multi-lane divided highway. Many of the stores and restaurants with which we’ve become familiar have either been completely re-done or replaced with altogether new establishments.

 A standard-issue Yanshi apartment house

Still, The little old lady who in years-gone-by has sold us fresh fruit from her street stall is still stationed in the same spot right around the corner from the Yanshi Binguan and the woman who vends bottled water and ice cream from a cart and has become our good friend is thankfully still just across the street. Our favorite driver, Zhr, who has taken us on many a sojourn throughout Henan Province in his aging, black Volkswagen Santana, is still waiting for customers adjacent to the hotel, though now he’s sporting a brand-new, shiny silver SUV.

Yanshi, Henan, P.R.C. 

Despite the changes and improvements here in Yanshi, the loess that blows in from the Gobi Desert and mixes with various and sundry pollutants and other particulate matter still covers the city with a a fine layer of dust. Yanshi is solidly working-class, industrial, and somewhat ramshackle. The town is still a pit. I say that lovingly, in part because Yashi’s very essence is it’s heartland aesthetics, and also because I selfishly want Yanshi to always be the pit that I’ve found to be so compelling and, well, real. I don’t think I need to worry about it too much.

Click to EnlargeA young Yanshi family 

Will spend another couple of days here in Yanshi, then head back to Luoyang for a few more days while Katrinka finishes up her Archaeological research. After that,it appears we’ll have the opportunity to perhaps visit some places in China that we haven’t been to yet over the course of our many visits, or maybe revisit somewhere that we haven’t been in a long time, such as Shanghai. Where to go? Where to go?

Ta Zhuang Village on the outskirts of Yanshi city 

On another note, while in Luoyang, we met a forty-ish woman from Australia who was travelling in China on her own. (Very strange seeing another foreigner in this part of China.) The poor woman was at a total loss for navigating her way around the peculiarities of China. She didn’t speak a word of Chinese, didn’t even have a phrasebook, for that matter. She claimed that she had no idea – no idea! – that people wouldn’t speak a word of English here and thought she’d be able to fake her way through.

Luoyang is under construction just like the rest of China 

The woman was completely discombobulated and clearly at the end of her rope – she was visibly stressed and if it wasn’t for Katrinka writing down some key phrases in Chinese for her, I don’t know where that woman would be right now. She wanted to book a train to Xi’an to see the famous Terracotta Warriors, but booking a train in China during the high-demand summer months is extremely difficult even for the Chinese. It often requires a fair amount of haggling and even bribery. To her credit, she eventually managed to get to the train station and book herself a train and, with our help, a hotel in Luoyang for the night. The moral of the story is, don’t come to China - especially the interior provinces - on your own unless a) you speak some Chinese, or b) you’re certifiably insane, or c) both (like us). Hope she’s ok.

Click to enlarge image.Everyone’s watching the old-timers play cards, arguably one of the most common street-scenes in China 

Finally, you know how some people in America get tattoos with Chinese characters that combine to form a phrase that doesn’t come close to meaning what the wearer thinks it means? The Chinese corollary to that is the T-shirt with a statement or slogan on it written in English, but is unintelligible to the individual wearing it. Today we saw a nice young woman walking down the street in Yanshi wearing a shirt emblazoned with “Experience Alcoholism.”

Look, Mama, they let a laowai into Luoyang!

There’s some more early photos from this trip in my galleries here: Check back often, there’s lots more to come!

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