Monthly Archives: August 2015

Umbrellas in Ping Yao

The high-speed train takes three hours to get from Beijing to Tai Yue. The regular train ten. I took the high-speed of course, which doesn’t seem to go that fast and stops fairly often. I can’t imagine how slow the other train can be.
The suburbs of Beijing go on forever, bristling with the closely packed stalagmites of skyscraping apartment buildings. Thirty floors is no rarity.

Suburban Beijing

Suburban Beijing

Then comes a huge green perimeter of agricultural land: Beijing has some 20 millions hungry mouths to feed. Then a grey no-man’s-land, everything will be grey all the way to Ping Yao.

I got the middle seat, nice neighbors but they speak over my head which entails a fair amount of spluttering. Good thing that SARS is a thing of the past. Someone tries to close the blind! Loud protests and I join the chorus. My not speaking Chinese won’t prevent me from trying to express my point of view. Up goes the blind.
The young man on my right speaks a bit of English. He tells me his name is Liu Xiao Meng and that he is a household appliance “engineer”. I didn’t know there were such engineers. Maybe did he mean a repairman. He is traveling to Tai Yuen for a three-month stint.
It’s raining and 18 degrees in Tai Yuen, but it’s not my final destination. A car will take me to Ping Yao, a two-hour drive away. I’m thankful to see a young woman at the station with a sign bearing my name. We walk to the curb under the rain but there is no car waiting. Out goes her cell phone, it will come out a lot in the next 45 minutes or so. There are at least a few strategically placed umbrellas for us to try and keep relatively dry. She doesn’t seem to be able to figure out where the driver is. A barrage of taxi drivers is trying to get our business and I’m tempted, while I’ getting wetter by the minute, to accept their services.
But where is that chauffeur? “Oh, lots and lots of traffic!” I see. “Cannot come in here. We go over there.” And there we go, traipsing through the mud, dragging my suitcase and the two of us huddling under the umbrella. “You stay here, wait!”. At least, she leaves me with the umbrella. A motorcycle practically runs me over, as I try to avoid the splashing cars. I feel a bit lonely there with my umbrella. The girl eventually comes back. “So sorry, station is new. I didn’t know. On the other side, so sorry!” and there we go again.
By the time we got to the car, I was good and soaked. The scenery beyond the window reminds me of a futuristic town having entered some sort of a postnuclear winter. Not too cheerful.
There is a golden statue on the dashboard of the car. “What is that?” “For protection,
it has a knife to cut people’s faces off.” That’s what I understood from Maggie’s explanations. She’s an English major and hopes to become an English teacher. To cut people’s faces off, uh?

We finally made it to Ping Yao. The hotel, like just about everything else in Ping Yao, occupies a lovely old siheyuan, house built around one or several patios.

Siheyuan Courtyard

Siheyuan Courtyard

And, as I will discover later, all siheyuans no matter how opulent, are characteristically dark. I can barely see the tip of my nose in the bathroom’s mirror, which might be a good thing. But what I’ve grown to love is the kang, the platform which might have served as a the main piece of furniture, at the same time dining table, desk and bed at night when you unroll the mattress. They are unbelievably comfortable and I would readily exchange my bed for a kang. It costs me to leave it in the morning.

Kang

Kang

But I was not in an ecstatic mood yet: wet and cold, my morale plummeting as I crossed the courtyard to my room, trying to avoid the puddles -why, I don’t know, there was really no point.
I felt a lot better after putting the heat on, taking  a hot shower and deciding that nothing but the fanciest restaurant in town would do.
After a glass of Chinese Chardonnay (not bad at all) at the Jing’s Residence, the street scene unrolling before my eyes became tinted with exotic romanticism: umbrellas hurrying through the old, prosperous banking town like flowers blooming on ornate facades of carved wood, glazed tiles and fantastic animals preening on the curled edges of cornices. I think I’ll have another glass of that Chardonnay.

Umbrellas in Ping Yao

Umbrellas in Ping Yao

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Trying to understand…

…and ready to give up. All my codes are scrambled and my head is full of whys? why nots? wheres? hows? and what is that? In comparison, Russia felt like home and Mongolia even more so.

Why do questions sound like assertions and assertions like question?
Why do they make a gesture as if slitting their throat with a finger when they mean “no” or “it’s closed”? A vestige of ancient times?
Why are the double sliding doors in the subway (no chance for anybody to throw themselves on the tracks) still try, in spite of that clever security measure, to close up on you and try to sever your top half from your lower half if you don’t push in fast enough?

Double doors: no jumping on the tracks but watch out!

Double doors: no jumping on the tracks but watch out!

How come nobody knows where the metro stations are? They live in this town after all; they must take it once in a while?
Why do most taxis have a look at your face and drive straight by you? And why are those who eventually stop most often refuse to go where you are going?

Why do they, even in luxurious buildings, hang their clothes in what seems to be the living room window? Is that a new trend for curtains?

Convenient clothes-dryer!

             Convenient clothes-dryer!

Why did that young waitress, after I had CLEARLY explained that I wanted soup and dumplings, practically took me by the arm and led me away? Whereto? The street where it was pouring rain? The kitchen? No, just to the elevator and the more upscale restaurant upstairs where the menu was translated in English. I still had soup and dumplings. Very good!

Got the dumplings...

                    Got the dumplings…

What is that building all about that engraved on its cornice “L’amour dans le Paris”? Intriguing.
What are all those things in little packages at “Welmart”? Some look downright threatening.
Why is it that every time I see a person my age, I think Red Brigade?
Why is the Drum Tower closed on Tuesday? I wanted to hear the drums.

Beijing's Drum Tower

                Beijing’s Drum Tower

And why is that rickshaw taking me through the ugliest hutongs? Where are the renovated ancestral homes, the little cafes? He seems to be keeping to what looks like the back alleys of factories… with dripping air-conditioning units, garbage and the smells that go with it.

I have to face it, I’ve become a total illiterate and as good as deaf-mute. And no, speaking slowly, loudly and clearly doesn’t help me understand you at all. We don’t even seem to have the same system when it comes to gestures.
To say it bluntly,  I feel like a complete idiot and I bow very low in front of anybody who has or pretends to have gone through China by themselves.  I suppose I could at the price of great suffering, but suffering is not my thing.  And I’m not in the back country yet…
I can’t do anything about the heat, although the last two days have been bearable, but I can certainly save myself some of the trouble of trying to find my way around, buying train or plane tickets and get myself to and from the station and/or airport. Isn’t that was travel agency are for?
So I went to meet Pierre, sloshing in the pouring rain. Don’t get any idea, Pierre is a French speaking travel agent and I assume that Pierre is not his real name, since he is Chinese. I had a hell of a time finding his office in a posh area of town. No taxi would have me of course, and if they did they weren’t going there at all. Finally, a humble tuk-tuk accepted to give me a ride, dripping umbrella and all. Pierre’s travel agency is located in a luxurious new complex and he will get me where I want to go for an equally luxurious price. I don’t care, I’m no hero and ready to make life easier for myself and stop chasing my Chinese tail around, particularly that I certainly don’t have one.

So, I’m all set: trains, flights, hotels and transfers until Shanghai. As a babe in the woods, I’m joining the brigade of the kindergarten travelers.
First stop Ping Yao tomorrow, then Xi An. Will keep in touch.

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