Monday, June 23, 2014

Kicking off the Travel Season

The semester is over and grades have long since been turned in. I am limited in my travels just now because my visa is up for renewal. Sam has custody of my passport to get that all important stamp in, so I can't go far – no hotels possible without proper identification. But I can certainly go visit Gary in Hangzhou.

I've already written about Hangzhou (see 'Hang Zhou' entry posted August 2012) and there is not much more to talk about with regard to the city but I will tell you that I did something I've longed to do: square dance.

This is not square dancing as it is known in the States. I'm referring to women who gather at dusk to dance in public squares (See Women, Dancing by the Pond entry posted May 2013).  Lately there has been controversy over this timeless practice: people are now claiming that these women disturb the peace with their loud music. It even went so far as to ban this dancing during Gao Kao weekend, when students prepare for their rigorous college entrance exam.

Personally, I don't see why this dancing is vilified: it is only for an hour or two every evening. It is a social event, and not just for women. Children run about and men watch their ladies. Afterwards, everyone walks home content and ready for bed. By 9PM the neighborhood is quiet again. Of course, it is maddening to hear the same songs every night, but then I think: I'm a guest in this country and privileged to be treated to such an intimate slice of life.

Gary and I were walking around the first evening I got to Hang Zhou and I was immediately drawn to the dancing women. I spouted off to him about how much I admire them, with their delicate moves and waving fans and how I was so angry that people are suddenly put off by this age-old practice. He urged me into the square. Even though I want to I would never dare participate! Their moves are so gracious, their steps so precise. I would seem a hulking, bumbling mass next to these dainty dancers. Between him pushing me and the women's welcome, glad a foreigner would join them I had no choice but to trip the light less fantastic. I didn't do well but my fellow dancers were proud of my efforts, urging me to stay when I wanted to leave, and then welcoming me back for the next night.

I didn't do any sightseeing besides evening walks because I was working. Gary works for an international trading company whose sales are only modest, mostly because the staff has no idea of the nuances of international business culture and only a rudimentary grasp of English. With no foreknowledge I conducted seminars, first in Business English and then in Sales. I'm not complaining: it was an easy task and I walked away 400Yuan richer. 

On Saturday morning we took off. One thing I have to get used to when around Gary is getting up early, and that day was no exception. I was up by 4:30, unable to sleep for fear of oversleeping. Our plan was to hit the road by 6AM and drive his car back to Wuhan, with a stop in Jiangxi. We've done the road trip thing before but I had never been to Jiangxi province. I was excited to see something new.

Jiangxi is located east of Wuhan, bordering Anhui province. That's not good news. I had never been to Anhui province and planned a trip to Wuhu, a major city there. Why Wuhu? Because it sounds like 'woohoo!' I wanted that to be my first destination this summer. That way I could say I saw Anhui province with special glee. My plan was foiled because, to get to Jiangxi we drove through Anhui. Don't worry, my fellow vagabonds: I'm still going to Wuhu, it just won't be the first time I will have been in Anhui province.  Stay tuned for that one.

Our specific destination was Jingdezhen (pronounced 'jing duh jen), known as the porcelain capital of China. It is barely more than a town and rather on the mean side, I'd say. Just because of its lowly status as a sub-prefecture doesn't mean people there don't partake of all the trappings city dwellers do, specifically: driving.

The roads were choked! You would think I would be used to traffic nightmares but, compared to Jingdezhen traffic, Wuhan's is civilized. Here the roads are only 2-lane. Everyone fights for position. Nobody is afraid to veer into the oncoming lane to get ahead. 2-wheeled vehicles commandeer the sidewalk. They imperiously sound their horns, demanding pedestrians to get out of their way. One would think that pedestrians could safely claim one half of the walkway, leaving scooters the other half but it seems that scooter traffic is also  2-way and pedestrians have no choice but to inch along, hugging the walls.

We stayed in a nice hotel, a chain that has houses all over China. There was a bit of trouble because I was carrying my expired passport for identification purposes. The clerk could not register me as a guest without proper documentation. We explained that my current passport was with the authorities for visa renewal. Could we not simply register using Gary's name? After admonishing me for traveling without proper documentation, the clerk assigned our room.

Chain hotels are not so unusual over here, but this one will get my business from now on because of its comfortable beds. I felt a little bit like Baby Bear, sleeping in this bed that was neither too hard nor too soft. Traditionally, beds in China are not much more than a thin pad over a board. Even my bed, if not for the 2 foam pads I bought for it would be too rigid. But this bed! I could have stayed in that town, in that hotel just for the bed. Even Gary exclaimed how comfortable the beds were.

Lounging around was not our purpose, and neither was sightseeing. That's a good thing: there wasn't much to see. Our room faced a canal, its level low, water dispiritedly flowing westward. Across the canal was a pagoda. Later we found that pagoda had just been built and was not yet complete: no tours possible. The walking street leading to the pagoda sold mostly clothes. No eclectic little shops or funky restaurants. No street food. Rather dismaying, all in all.

We did walk through Old Town. It should have been called 'decrepit town'. Again I sensed an air of malaise bordering on malevolence. In spite of my overall feeling of safety in China I would not want to walk these streets alone.

It is said that this city gave China its name. Not for the fine china it produced, as one might suspect but because  it's original name was Changnan. That name was synonymous with ceramics and through various mispronunciations by western traders, it evolved into the word 'china'. That name came to mean not just the fine porcelain but also the country where it originated.  

What really caught our eyes was the pottery kiln historical site. The famous Ming vases originated here, as did the record holding vase that commanded an impressive 230 million Yuan at auction, the highest price ever fetched for pottery. As museums go it was nice but not impressive... until we got all the way to the end, where there was a dig going on. I went nuts: walking all around the pit, snapping pictures, trying to get as close as possible. Gary held back because, unlike the museum buildings this site was not air conditioned. A bit pampered is our Gary, and obviously not that much into archeology. But he indulged me, waiting outside the enclosure, in the shade.

These days pottery is produced en masse in a factory, but some of it is still hand-painted. Gary's aim was to visit the shop of one of his trading clients and stock up on 'guang xi' gifts. So, we ended up at Pottery Row, courtesy of his client, via air conditioned SUV. We wiled 2 hours away in their little shop. Gary spent more than 1,400Yuan, a part of that being gifts for my family and friends. Afterward that business owner took us to a local restaurant to sample indigenous fare: sour noodles. I didn't much care for the  taste. It seemed to underscore the disposition of this burg.

Crossing the street to our hotel we had to hold our hand up to stop traffic. Even though there are zebra stripes there are no traffic lights and everyone rushes across, literally bumper to bumper. One has to demand access to the crosswalk. We made it back in one piece, wound down from the day and sank into those heavenly beds.

While it was fun to travel with Gary again, this excursion left little impression on me. I'll be glad for my passport so I can hit the rails again and visit enticing cities.              

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