It has been three weeks since I have been able to really write. I have been suffering from a severe case of writer’s block, despite having plenty to say. It is hard to determine why I went on such a long hiatus, but my exit coincided with when the weather first became hot – and for that matter, my return to writing this afternoon takes place after they installed a working air conditioner in my office. I guess you could say things have finally cooled down (wink, wink).
Though there have been peaks and valleys in last few weeks, I continue to enjoy my time. Last Tuesday, after playing some ping pong with my friend Chan, we went out for dumplings and stewed duck heads. (Yes, it is exactly what you fear it is, and yes, I ate the brains, eyes, nostrils and even scrapped the palette off the top of the duck bill. It all tasted like duck, but was a certifiable texture-adventure.) Last Thursday I spent 4 hours in a tea house playing mahjong and answering cell phone calls for the Chinese people I was playing with. They get a kick out of me answering their cell phones. I don’t mind playing along.
So, as you can see, my personal life is really quite settled here. I would go so far as to say it is relaxing. The food is cheap, my hours are light compared with home, and I have lost about 30 pounds without complaint or struggle. But every now and again I get a hankering for a real marinara sauce, a good cup of coffee, and of course, my loved ones. Imagine my excitement when my girlfriend Amanda found a round trip plane ticket for $700.
I took the fast train to
That evening I walked around our hostel looking for a bite to eat. I walked below one of
To my disappointment, the food road nearest to my hostel was dominated by tourist-friendly restaurants. In other words, there were picture menus and inflated prices. Three months ago I would have seen this as a relief, but now I see it as a hassle. So I just kept walking.
I walked until the bright lights of the big restaurants went dim behind me, and there I finally found a place serving what I was looking for. There was a man cooking with his open coal fire on the sidewalk. His eyes widened as I approached, like a hunter’s eyes watching a buck emerge from the brush. He tried and tried to sell me some barbequed chicken wings on a stick, but I wouldn’t give in. Finally I got a few words in and asked for a plate of tofu stir-fried with some greens, and a small bowl of rice. The man looked at me completely dumbfounded. My Chinese is not so poor that he couldn’t understand, and also not good enough to warrant such surprise. I am assuming that his shock was more a product of my ordering a cheap, nutritious meal and turning down all the options on a street designed to grab my interest. He then asked if I would eat here or go, and I readily replied that I would stay. He smiled a little as I entered under the aluminum roof.
I went inside and sat at a rickety table, the floor was atrociously dirty, the air conditioner broken and the leaking fluid pooled beneath me. Perfect (and I am not being sarcastic). Three months ago I might have been a little worried about the sanitation, but now I recognize such conditions as being suitable for locals. In other words, the food I was about to eat would probably taste better than the big restaurants and cost less than a US dollar. I was right on both accounts.
I walked to the subway the morning of her arrival only to be harassed by one of
Once on the subway I traveled to the Langyang Station, and then transferred to the Meglev. The Meglev is a German engineered monorail that connects
My first mistake, my most serious mistake, and my most frequent mistake during Amanda’s visit was my struggle to be “Western” friendly. I planned our trip with great care, but made a ton of mistakes because I didn’t anticipate some of her basic needs. I am grateful she was such a trooper, because in retrospect I really was out of touch with what someone needs when they first arrive in
First mistake, I love mass transportation and walking. So, from the airport we took the Meglev to the subway. From the subway we walked to our hostel, carrying her monstrous luggage across busy streets and over foot bridges. Welcome to
After a brief rest I recommended that we go take a look at the Bund (
Dog tired, and trying her best not to complain, she walked through smog and construction to see the Bund. I had told Amanda that
Walking along the Bund we looked for a place to sit. A man in a blue polo waved us into a patio seat. We sat. He delivered two drinks neither of us ordered. Amanda was hungry, and since we somehow found ourselves sitting with drinks I thought we should get some food. I asked the vendor if he had any vegetables to cook on his barbeque. He replied no and acted really annoyed by either that I was speaking Chinese, or just because I was speaking to him. He pointed to what was already cooking. I asked to find out what it was. He said nothing. So I asked in Chinese, “Is this chicken.” He said yes. I bought three. I returned to the table bearing three meat kabobs for a hungry Amanda.
I don’t know what the meat was, but it was not chicken. As I munched my way through the first kabob I causally spit the fat onto the table. In
I can eat handsomely in Jinhua for 4 days on 100 RMB, so I was stunned when the grumpy vendor (who all of a sudden could speak both English and Chinese) told me that 100 RMB was my bill. I complained about the price and the man’s colleague became a little angry. I decided I couldn’t put Amanda through a street argument, so I paid 100 RMB for 19 RMB worth of product. We then spent the next twenty minutes walking the Bund and being harassed by more vendors. Travel agent/Tour guide I am not.
The next day we got an early start to our first full day together in
Amanda enjoyed the museum, especially the minority costumes and a miniature furniture display. There are a tremendous number of Tibetan Buddhist relics in the museum: horns, countless statues, and other instruments of religious worship. Despite a 20th century of relative isolation, many of the other artifacts in the museum bear evidence to a history of communication with the outside world. Many vases and sculptures depict animals from the Middle East and
We left the museum and sat for a bit on a bench in the People’s Square, and grabbed lunch in a
Due to the May Holiday, Nanjing Lu was absolutely mobbed and overwhelming. Amanda seemed dazed by all the goods for sale, and was uneasy about negotiating - just as I had been at first. After an hour or so of wandering we found a Starbucks, a retreat we would take many times during her visit. At this point her jetlag was kicking in, so we went back to the hostel. We abandoned plans to see an acrobat show and Amanda went to sleep while I, wide awake, ventured into the common room to read the May copy of National Geographic. It is a special edition dedicated to
Still not tired, I entered a game of billiards with a bloke from
The next morning Amanda woke up hours before me, a product of jetlag. When I finally came around, we ventured out for some dumplings. We walked up and down the far end of the food street until I saw a place completely full of Chinese people. The dumplings here were more bready than any I have had in Jinhua, but they were delicious. After that, however, the day turned sour.
Amanda loves gardens, so the next stop was supposed to be the Yu-an Gardens. But, my errant directions took us far from our destination. We walked in stifling heat for the entire morning only to take a cab back to the hostel for rest three and half hours later. Once at the hostel I received new directions, and we again walked. This time we found the garden, but could not find the entrance. Amanda decided we should accept our fate, and renamed the place the Yu-Don’t-Exist Garden. But, I insisted we continue to look, and I foolishly took us into a strange city temple and then through a local park without luck. Finally, after a brief time being accosted by vendors in the infamous Dragon Market, we left for the hostel.
Maybe all this sounds like disastrous planning to you, but the fact is life here rarely goes as planned. For example, I was told I would start teaching new classes. Three day before my first class and I was still not told how many classes, or when the classes were, or what they hoped me to accomplish with the new classes. When the day finally came I taught the new classes and everything was fine. It is just the way things work here, and one just has to be flexible and relax. So, getting lost in
But, with all the walking and misdirection, the day took its toll on Amanda (as it would have me, back in February). She didn’t complain, but her frustration and fatigue was obvious. That evening she naturally wanted to sleep, so I ventured out to eat Hot-Pot Chicken with the guy from
The train ride was very comfortable, as I had bought first class tickets on a fast train. One memory that lingers with me was my first train ride to Jinhua in February. It was a slow train for 5 hours surrounded by odors that are not fit for description. This time around it was 2 hours in luxury on the D train, and it still cost only $22 US dollars for each ticket.
Upon arrival to Jinhua we waited for Helen to pick us up, as she had planned to take me and Amanda out to dinner. Accompanied by Rosa, an outstanding English teacher who earlier this year taught me to make dumplings, Helen arrived. The first restaurant we visited was quite beautiful; however as we stood trying to get a table it dawned on Amanda and I that we were in the middle of a wedding reception. We stood there with all eyes on us for about three awkward minutes before we were hurried out of the building. Later that evening we would return to my apartment where, unannounced, a new resident was sitting on my couch. The mother of a local student, this new woman had begun to rent one of the vacant bedrooms in the apartment. No one told me ahead of time or introduced us. Over time she became a friend, so no worries – it is just the way it goes in Jinhua. Remember, one must relax and be flexible.
When we entered the next restaurant we were seated in a large room with one other family. Amanda commented later that two boys next to us had brought their pet hamsters and were playing with them in the restaurant, something I hadn’t even noticed. We ate cabbage, chicken, and a number of other staples. Amanda still had a hard time with the “spit on the table” reality of Chinese dining, but she liked most of the dishes. I was most surprised by my own reaction to returning to Jinhua. My three days in
We spent the next few days introducing Amanda to my friends, relaxing, eating at my favorite local spots, and playing
Please realize this sauce had to be from scratch. And I mean scratch. Tomatoes, garlic, onion and many other ingredients are readily available. But there is nothing in a can to shorten the process. So, using a giant pot we borrowed the night before from one of my student’s parents, Amanda boiled and skinned 60 or so tomatoes. Then, without a blender, she hand pressed each tomato through a strainer to mash them down to sauce consistency. My mother had mailed me parmesan cheese, basil, oregano and a few other spices impossible to find in
While in Jinhua we went to see the
Driving in the backseat of my colleague’s car, Amanda and I sat watching the scenery change from urban to rural. My friend and colleague Deborah had invited us to visit her husband’s relatives’ orange farm in the countryside. We drove for about an hour and arrived to a dirt road that meandered through bogs and agriculture, with smoke stacks looming in the distance. We drove past an abandoned cement runway, a relic from the days of the Cultural Revolution. The farm was similar to those I had seen earlier from my train window; meticulously cared for, but surrounded by pollution.
The farmers were self-sufficient, making their own wood crates and living from the sale of their staple crop. After a quick cup of tea we changed buildings to play some Mahjong. On the way we passed a building with a collapsed roof, Deborah said it was a former community hall that was never repaired after a storm decades ago. The narrow cement path eventually gave way to an opening with three buildings. We entered one of them and sat for Mahjong. Mahjong is a game played with tiles where you try to be the first to match groups of three. It is a traditional game whose rules are credited to the “
Deborah’s mother in law then entered bearing snacks she had bought from a person in the alley. It was a homemade delicacy that Deborah remembers as a special treat from when she was a child. It is a pig’s bladder stuffed with seasoned rice. Amanda began to squirm.
I insisted that Amanda and I weren’t too hungry and could share one between us. So I began to sink my teeth into the moist and rubbery bladder skin, revealing the rice inside. I ate as much of the bladder as I could. This allowed Amanda to nibble a bit of the rice to appease our host, who was very insistent that we eat up. I have every once of faith in Deborah and her family, but even me (Mr. Food Adventure) was a little nervous about this one. After all, I was eating a countryside bladder purchased in an alleyway days after the reported outbreak in my area of
Saturday we took the morning train to
Thirty seconds later the plan changed as the American returned, introduced himself as Jeremy. He asked if he and his girlfriend could tag along since they were headed in that direction anyway. As luck, or fate, would have it, it was with Jeremy’s assistance that Amanda and I actually found the once elusive Yu-An Gardens. Amanda took my camera and went on a garden-lover’s-picture-spree. The garden was quite beautiful, a true refuge from the bustle and skyscrapers of
On the way to our train passed by a Subway restaurant and grabbed two sandwiches. When we made it to the station all of the seats were taken in the waiting area, so we sat on the floor. Hungry from all the walking, Amanda began to eat her sub. I had to smile at what travel can do to a person. One week earlier she was decked out in high fashion and cosmetics, and here was Amanda now comfortably eating a sandwich sitting on the floor of a crowded Chinese train station.
The overnight train to
Our first day in
Our second day in
BaDaLing is a microcosm of “progress” in
We climbed for a bit, Starbucks in hand, when a few tourists walked by us and pointing. One said in clearly American-English, “You’ve got to be kidding me, Starbucks?” I nodded, but even as I drank my macchiato, I was thinking the same thing.
Having saved money from the bus ride and the overnight train, I was ready to take Amanda for a nice dinner. Enough of this roughing it, it was time for some class! I asked the front desk clerk for the best Peking Duck in
Amanda and I put on our “nice” clothes and headed out the door excited for an evening with a hint of luxury. We caught a cab and were on our way when the cabby stopped and told us to walk across the intersection. I was baffled; there was nothing that looked like a nice restaurant on the other side. We crossed and found what looked like a slum, an old Hu Tong village with garbage in the streets and sewage stink in the air. A rickshaw driver took one look at us, decked out in dressy clothes, and came for us. He pleaded with us to get in, but I was skeptical. After a few moments of negotiation and his insisting he knew where we were trying to go, I agreed and in the rickshaw we went. Instead of driving around the slum, we drove deeper into it. Amanda began to look nervous, and I was worried I had fallen into some kind of trap. Finally he stopped at a rundown building with a duck painted on it. I sat in disbelief as the driver said in Chinese, “we have arrived.” I looked down at my reservation paper and the phone number matched the number painted on the side of the building. Indeed, we had arrived.
We were hurried in through a door into a small restaurant with four or so rooms, as smoke from the kitchen clouded the air. The floor was covered in filth, and when we arrived at our table, the window we sat next to was broken. A waitress came to deliver the menu. The wine list was 40 pages long, and the multilingual menu displayed duck prepared in every way you could imagine and at a price that would make you blush. I looked up and saw the plates on other tables and realized we had indeed arrived at the best duck restaurant in
Before she had arrived in
The next day we got lost around
That evening on our return trip from
The next day I delivered Amanda to the airport and began my lonely trip back. When my train came to a halt at the Jinhua station I saw that on the outbound track there was a long flatbed cargo train with medical army vehicles and jeeps. They were tied down and ready for departure. Only then did I realize something else serious had happened.