Breakfast in China: Life behind the Great Firewall…

20180607_092124.jpgSo what’s the attraction with China, anyway? Chinese tourists in other countries don’t have a very good reputation, e.g. in Thailand, where they are often characterized as loud, boorish, rude, crude and obnoxious, so what’s the deal? Oh, I get it; they’re just like us. They’re the new ugly Americans! Just like we were Chomsky’s ‘New Mandarins’ half a century ago, the old mandarins have returned as the new mandarins, and we have returned to our rightful place as the white barbarians…

The simple fact is that they no longer need us—if they ever did—and they probably like it that way: just like Americans! To Hell with the rest of the world!! And maybe that’s the attraction, if there is one, that this is a place not homogenized for mass consumption, reduced—or elevated—to the world’s common denominators of English language, French kisses and what else? Chinese fast food, of course. But seriously, though, much is lacking in the way of offerings to foreign travelers, especially if they speak no Chinese…

20180605_215027.jpgSo for all the modernizing that has occurred in China during the economic miracle of the last quarter century, in a very real way, little or nothing has changed, for the traveler, at least. Very little in the way of language assistance is offered, anywhere at all. The average hotel desk clerk speaks little or no English, much less any other language, and that’s where you would expect it the most, as they have the most to gain—or lose—and are little hampered by the slow wheels of unforgiving bureaucracy…

The addresses are cryptic, the rooms are cramped, the holidays are crowded, social media is taboo, and the prices are no longer as low as they once were. And upon further glance, it seems the rest of the world knows that already, for after subtracting tourist arrivals from dependencies such as Macau, Hong Kong and (gulp) Taiwan, China’s robust sixty million tourist stays (of more than one night) are reduced by more than half, or less than tiny Thailand’s thirty mil, one-third of which are Chinese, lol…

But the people are pretty nice on an individual basis, even if as a group they can be noisy as a baseball game at Fenway. And that’s my strategy, to approach them individually, on a personal basis, to the limits of my linguistic capabilities. Because if you want to be in China long-term, you better learn the language, or else you’re limited to fancy tours or hostel hang-outs, and even those are mostly locals now. So don’t get excited about all the foreign-travel facilities by counting hostels, because the locals are way hip to that for a long time now…

20180607_104642Before I forget, though, there is one thing at which China beats most of the others: the taxi drivers actually use the meter, so a three-to-five mile ride around town may only cost you two or three bucks, depending on the flag-fall rate, and the need to negotiate, in a city that you probably don’t even know, is largely unnecessary. So taxi drivers are the saving grace for all the hassles to be incurred from traveling in China, during which every city, every trip, every hotel and every mouthful will be a challenge unless and until you become proficient in Mandarin, or die trying, lol…

Because when you find one available enough to actually try out your Western shenanigans, you will likely be rewarded by his or her perseverance at bringing your episode to a successful conclusion, and all at reasonable prices! Did I mention that they actually use the meter? So this is my first real trip to China in twenty years, unless you count the quickie to Taiwan and a series of stopovers in Beijing five years ago as a connection point to Mongolia and North Korea, nice enough but hardly significant…

It’s changed, in many many ways, mostly in the nature of material progress, specifically the high-speed trains and thousands of high-rise apartments, the hardware of progress, but also the ubiquitous smartphones, e.g. translation apps and digital pay-schemes which are standard procedure in every 7-11, this in a country where everything Google is forbidden, and Facebook and Twitter, too (along with many others). China is not scared of Trump, it seems, but Google is another matter…

20180607_101732Unfortunately the price of progress is that cities are rather boring now, with the traditional alley hutong culture largely erased or diminished. So my hub city Chengdu generally gets high marks for tourism, but is in fact rather boring, like Denver without the new downtown get-down. Still it IS the gateway to Tibet, and with plenty of Tibetan culture close by in Sichuan province itself, so I’ll get back to that later, satisfying myself for now with the historical town of Langzhong, on the way to Xi’an…

Langzhong is a pleasant small town (less than a million pop.) a few hours out of Chengdu by bus, and one of the four or five best preserved traditional towns in the country. I like small towns, especially if they rate high for intelligence, since aesthetics are generally nicer and people are friendlier. And Langzhong is no exception there, once I actually found my place, non-descript digs above a massage parlor in the old town, reasonably priced and lovingly managed even if cramped to the gills and new meaning given to the term ‘water closet’…

Did I mention that to get a room for less than twenty bucks, you’re probably going to have to share a bathroom, either that or learn how to poop standing up, and might as well shower while you’re at it, since you’re already there anyway (and don’t drop that expensive bar of beauty soap down the hole!). But the big news is that the exit to elsewhere is not a rather circuitous bus ride and dubious connection as planned, but a straight shot on the new train from the new station, straight to Xi’an like a bullet. Oh, boy! Stay tuned for part deux

To be continued…

(Note to Facebook friends: if you read this far and want to comment, please realize that not only can I not respond there, I probably won’t even see it. If you comment right here on the blog itself, I will, hint hint)…

 

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