I’ve been living in China on and off for almost eight years and sometimes I forget that it can be a beautiful place. Between the pollution, the people, and the government, there’s a lot here that’s just plain awful. The cities are vast and unpleasant, and the countryside is being swallowed up at an alarming speed. Even when you take the train from one city to the next, all you see are mountains being torn down, forests devastated, and rivers that run grey with filth.
Where I live is especially bad. The air is thick with coal dust and the people utterly uncivilized in the truest sense of the word. Most of northern and central Anhui province is like this, unfortunately, and as the giant metropolis of Hefei grows and grows, it simply swallows up more of what was once pleasant land, and turns it into what Chinese people desire most – bland, grey swathes of land covered in huge buildings.
If this all sounds unpleasant, then imagine travelling on a national holiday, when hundreds of millions of people (I’m not exaggerating) take to the roads and rails in pursuit of somewhere to take a selfie. Venturing outside at these times is just foolish, although I have done it on several occasions (Jiuhuashan, Dali, Meilixueshan). Lacking the capacity for creative thought, the Chinese all go more or less to the same places, but even if you find somewhere with fewer of them, you still have to contend with the small matter of getting there on jam-packed roads and train stations crammed with screaming, spitting, shitting morons.
Thankfully, we accidentally purchases tickets for business class and were delighted to find a small cabin with four luxurious reclining seats. It was utterly silent in there, in stark contrast to the rest of the train. What a wonderful beginning to a journey:
We arrived in a small town called Jingxian, and from there took a local bus for an hour and a half up into the mountains to Zhaji. On the way, we saw some incredible birds and I regretted having not brought a longer lens. In packing my camera equipment, I had assumed Zhaji would be as utterly devoid of wildlife as everywhere else in eastern China. Boy, was I wrong. There were eagles and huge colourful birds with long tails. Yet I was never able to shoot any of them with the camera stuff I’d brought.
Oh well, c’est la vie.
Zhaji proved to be scenic enough to get some good photos:
Zhaji is unlike other historic towns in China in several ways. The first and most important is that it’s not at all well-known. Others, like Sanhe, are swarmed with idiot tourists year-round. People move there just to sell souvenirs, and all the buildings are renovated to make it more tourist-friendly. The result is that it becomes very fake and rather gaudy. The beauty of old China was that it revered subtlety – something utterly lost on modern Chinese, who prefer things loud and obvious. Zhaji, by contrast, retains the pleasant charm of old dynasties, and the fact that it has been largely left to fall apart keeps it looking as authentic as it is. The people there seem like good, honest folk who go about normal lives in spite of the small number of tourists that visit, rather than the greedy snakes who inhabit other tourist spots. As a result, Zhaji is a relaxing, pleasant place to visit with no scams or related pitfalls.
We didn’t have much time but we made the most of it, even exploring the town and its surrounding areas at night:
On our second day, we took a taxi further into the mountains to a place called Peach Blossom Lake (Taohuatan) and went rafting on a river there. The national park (or regional forest park, whichever it was) was pretty small and pleasant, with not too many tourists due to its remote location. In fact, aside from rafting it’s best-known for a Li Bai poem. We walked around for a while and admired the surprisingly clean water before renting a raft and drifting peacefully down the river over the course of about an hour.
It was so nice, it felt like being in another country!
After a brief trip, we had to leave little Zhaji and head back through the miserable transport system to Huainan. Unfortunately, I’d made a mistake in buying the train tickets and it took a complicated series of buses and taxis to get home over 14 long hours… Back just in time for a few hours’ sleep before work.
Oh well, at least I have the memories and photos to remind me it’s not all bad here.
And hey, China will always be funny because it’s so damn weird. After all, where else in the world do they teach children fire safety like this:
Ten years ago today, I landed at Incheon airport. It was my first time in Asia and I had no idea what to expect. I knew nobody on this whole continent, but I had found a job online that promised me a somewhat decent salary, something that was impossible for me back in Scotland.
I spent a little less than three years in South Korea. Unfortunately, the job was pretty awful. I actually disliked the country for a lot of the time I was there, although now I look back with a more mature perspective and realize that it wasn’t so bad. In fact, there was a lot of beauty there and I had some amazing experiences.
In Korea, I spent most of my time working but on weekends I’d head out into the mountains to hike. That was the best thing about the country – it was all mountains. After a year or so, I bought a motorbike and I ventured further off to the coasts. It’s not a particularly large country, and by the time I left in 2010, I’d seen most of it.
In 2010, I left South Korea. On the way out of the country, my plane crashed. Thankfully, no one was badly hurt, and after a few days I continued on a journey that took me across the United States, through Europe, to Taiwan, Malaysia, and finally China. The twists and turns that brought me here, to China, were bizarre at best and culminated in me receiving an anonymous phone call to a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur asking, “Can you come to China tomorrow morning?”
China has been my home on and off since 2010, when I first arrived in a relatively unknown city called Hefei. At that time, the president was Hu Jintao, and he was pumping money into Hefei and the surrounding areas. Since then, the city has changed unrecognizably. It is massive, and has often been cited as the fast-growing urban area on earth. In 2010 I was living in the countryside outside the city, and had to take a bus for thirty-five minutes to reach the center. Nowadays the city has spread for miles beyond where I lived, and the center has changed to a completely new location. There’s an international airport, theme parks, and a host of giant hotels, train stations, malls, and whatnot. Most towns change less in a hundred years than Hefei has in eight.
After a few years in China, I took off for Cambodia, where I ran a bar/restaurant/hotel for a year. This was about 2013, and by that time I’d spent a lot of time exploring Southeast Asia, and felt like it would be a great place to live. It was, but in 2014, I returned to China, to a smaller city near Hefei, and resumed teaching. I have remained there ever since.
China is crazy. It’s the weirdest place in the universe. Going anywhere and doing anything can be exhausting and unpleasant. I remember when I invited a friend over here many years ago and he said: “Even the simplest things here are just… different. You want to go buy a carrot and it becomes this huge adventure. Nothing works like you’d expect it to.”
But I guess it’s alright because I’m still here. It certainly gives me opportunities I would have had back home. The same was true of Korea. Since arriving in Asia ten years ago, I’ve visited about thirty countries and had an impossible number of experiences that just would never have happened had I not ventured east. I’ve run marathons in North Korea, hiked Mount Fuji, swum with dozens of sharks, gotten close to blue whales off Sri Lanka, and so much more. What an incredible ten years it has been – full of extreme ups and downs – but never, never boring.
All good things must come to an end, and so after a month wandering India and ten days in Sri Lanka, I returned home to China. China is the land of filth and bad manners, but it is not all bad. There is a level of weirdness here that you just don’t find anywhere else on earth.
Take, for example, the outdoor pop-up dental practices:
Before you ask, yes that the big filthy puddle on the left is an open sewer. The local elderly will at the same time use it as a toilet and a place to wash clothes, dishes, or just about anything else.
And, of course, is there anything funnier than Chinese attempts at translation? No, there isn’t:
(For the record, the Chinese says “oil seed rape festival,” which is still a bit odd.)
Every day brings a new weirdness, even after all these years. Some of it is just exasperating and some is easier to laugh at. Some, like this homemade bench-press set-up is actually quite impressive.
I have been far busier with work than in previous semesters and so have done relatively little of note, but last week I found a spare few hours to go see the cherry blossoms herald the arrival of spring.
Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival as it’s also known) is pretty famous all around the world. If people know one thing about it, though, it’s that the Chinese celebrate New Year in late January… or sometimes even February. That’s because they follow the lunar calendar, whereas most of the world goes by the Gregorian calendar. The Chinese acknowledge the Gregorian calendar through much of their daily life, but when it comes to celebrating New Year, they are understandably traditional and stick the the old ways. As such, New Year’s Eve is a bit of a dull affair in the Middle Kingdom.
Last weekend I travelled with my girlfriend to her father’s house near Hefei. I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of New Year celebrations but when everyone went home at seven o’clock and her dad headed to bed about an hour later, I got the impression that it wasn’t exactly going to be like Hogmanay back in Scotland. Oh well. Who needs late nights and hangovers anyway? I’ve seen enough New Years not to care that much any more.
After a rather boring New Year’s Eve, we took off in the morning for the countryside. Vera had told me many times about where she grew up but I’d never actually seen it before and so I was looking forward to it. We grabbed a black taxi out to a little town and then walked from there to a small village about a mile away. Every few minutes she pointed at something and remarked on how much it had all changed.
Walking through the countryside in China can be quite pleasant, especially compared with the pure chaos of the cities. Unfortunately, on this day (and for the past few weeks, in fact) the air pollution was so bad that we really couldn’t see very far. However, what we did see was quite nice – an old man sitting on a bull, a fertility shrine in a rice field, and more than a few large ponds. Beyond that, we could see cluster of trees but through the smog it had a rather ominous look.
We arrived at her little village and then went looking for her grandfather’s tomb in the nearby forest. She had brought flowers to lay on it, although she never actually knew him. He had fought in the Korean War against the Americans, and apparently was a great man. Supposedly, he had met Mao Zedong and was given some sort of award for his achievements–a sword, I think–but this was stolen from him during the Cultural Revolution. We looked around a few tombs but couldn’t find his name, and then finally found a pile of dirt, almost unnoticeable in the forest. That was his tomb. While all the others had been upgraded to marble, his had simply been forgotten. It probably hadn’t been tended to since Vera’s family left the village more than a decade before.
Next, we ventured back into the village and went around a few houses, speaking with the old people. Vera referred to them all as grandmothers and grandfathers, although none of them were in the strictest sense her actual family. This is quite common in China, where despite the One Child Policy having made siblings somewhat unusual, people claim to have dozens of brothers and sisters, and a ridiculous number of cousins, aunts, and uncles.
We stopped in at the house where she was born and grew up. It was a small brick building with a bedroom where everyone slept and a living room which doubled as a kitchen and everything else. It had fallen into disrepair. After leaving the house, her family had not even bothered trying to sell it, so everything of valuable was taken and the house used mostly for storage by neighbours. It was hard to imagine actually being able to live in such a place for an extended period of time, especially given the harsh climate here. No heating, no air conditioning, no running water or toilet, and just a single lightbulb… It is a world away from what I knew as a child. Yet I suppose this is, for most of the world’s population, actually very normal.
We continued to visit her “grandparents” and met some very interesting characters. One was a tiny woman with leathery skin who lived next door to her. She was barely four feet tall, yet apparently had a ferocious temper and repeatedly fought with other villagers:
Another old woman recognized Vera, despite not having seen her in more than ten years. She loudly shouted, “Well f*** my mother’s c*** I haven’t seen you in f***ing years! How the f*** have you been?” (Old Chinese villagers tend to enjoy swearing.)
We met two old people who Vera seemed to know very well. They were sitting outside their house, cutting radishes with giant knives. They had a small field of cotton plants which they’d picked to make a blanket. As soon as they saw Vera, they immediately gave us the blanket. We were, of course, very touched by this generous gesture. They had planted, tended, and harvested a whole field of cotton for a year and then just given away the resulting blanket.
Clutching the giant homemade duvet, we moved on to another town. This involved a long walk and a very crowded bus ride. In this new town, we met one of Vera’s actual grandmother’s – her father’s mother. She was, like all the others, very friendly and interesting. She had a simple house, but much larger than the others and with indoor plumbing. None of her teeth appeared to be real and I wondered how old she was. She looked about a hundred, but she told me she sometimes would walk ten miles in a day to see her friend.
Despite the old woman’s insistence that we stay for dinner, we had to head off on a long journey back to Huainan. Travelling even short distances in China is exhausting and frustrating, so it took us a long time to get back, but eventually we arrived home. We’d left in 2017 and returned in 2018.
Just two days later, we got our first snow of winter. It seldom snows here, and usually only a light dusting of snow that lasts maybe a day before melting into black slush. Needless to say, we were surprised when it kept on coming down, piling higher and higher until it reached about 15 inches. It was so much snow that almost every tree in our neighbourhood buckled and snapped under its weight. We could hear them all groaning and breaking during that first night, and the next day the devastation was just extraordinary.
Of course, snow is incredibly beautiful when it first arrives. Vera was excited and we went out to look around the morning after the heaviest snow and it really was magical… for about five minutes. After you can no longer feel your fingers and your boots fill up with water it really starts to lose its charm.
I bought a new camera just after Christmas and, although I can still barely use it, I took it tested it out in the snow.
Hopefully I can get this camera figured out before I travel to India this weekend (and then back to Sri Lanka after that). Follow this blog to be notified when I post in future. I’m sure the India trip will offer up many photos and stories.
It’s almost the end of 2017 and this year just seems to have flown by in a blur. People are making New Year resolutions and I’m looking back to those that I made one year ago. I said I wanted to see some more new countries, and I certainly managed that! I also wanted to get some serious work done on a book I’m writing, and two weeks ago I finished the first draft. But one other resolution I had was to get better at photography. It’s a hard one to measure objectively, and honestly I’ve not spent nearly as much time as I should studying or practicing, but I think I have taken some decent photos this year.
Here are a few of my favourites:
First up is a photo I took almost a year ago, shortly after arriving in beautiful Sri Lanka. At Yala National Park, I was incredibly fortunate to see this leopard. It stepped out right in front of my car and stayed in full view for almost a minute.
I really like the challenge of shooting birds. I especially liked this one, of these really colourful little bee-eaters. Again, this was at Yala in Sri Lanka.
This year I have taken many photos underwater but honestly most of them haven’t turned out that well. In 2016 I had much better luck as I swam with mantas and through untouched reefs in Indonesia. This year I saw dozens of sharks and turtles but usually the photos turned out quite poor quality. I really liked this photo, though, of a school of fish in Sri Lanka.
My girlfriend and I went to visit Mt Fuji at the beginning of the year and we were lucky enough to have one day when it wasn’t completely cloaked in cloud. Just after the sun disappeared behind the mountain, I took a photo of her standing in front of it. The sun cast amazing colours on the few clouds that passed by.
I was playing around with black and white photos last winter and shot a few that I liked, including this one outside my school. The sky didn’t turn out well but I really like the harsh contrasts and the loneliness of the tree.
Look at this smile! Back in February, my girlfriend and I moved into a new house and found it had some occupants: a group of lizards lived there. They help us by keeping the mosquitoes under control and generally look quite cute if you can get up close enough.
Back in Scotland for a few weeks, I went out walking around Fife with my family. On one such walk, with my younger brother, we spotted this fox. In all my years, I had never before seen a fox in the daylight, but this one was out chasing rabbits. Thankfully my camera was able to zoom in far enough to get a picture. It did come close but was cautious and hidden in longer grass.
I really enjoy taking photos of wildlife (obviously) and near my parents’ house in Scotland I went out walking and saw this little fawn. I managed to get close enough to shoot a couple of photos before it barked and bounded off into the trees.
This statue of Rubens in Antwerp made for a great photo set against the dark sky and the jagged tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady.
There’s something about ominous skies this I just love, like this one in Bratislava.
This is perhaps my favourite photo of the year. Budapest was an unbelievable city to photograph because everywhere you turn there are beautiful buildings. However, I spent many hours up on this hill trying to catch the perfect light for getting the whole city in one shot. Although I had a few cameras with me, amazingly it was my old iPhone 5 that I used to snap this stunning panorama.
It’s cliched but I do like shooting the sunset over the sea. This one was taken somewhere in Koh Tao, Thailand.
I took dozens of photos around the little town of Shangri-La, high in the mountains of Yunnan. I wanted to capture the big sky and the incredible animals that you just don’t see back in the east of the country.
This photo was taken in Shangri-La a few months ago. I liked the sense of movement in the picture. It’s almost like looking at a video.
Although perhaps not a technically very good photo, I really liked this one from Yubeng, near Meilixueshan, on the Tibetan border of China’s Yunnan province. I took it around midnight with a GoPro.
It’s winter here in Huainan and my semester draws to a close. Pretty soon it will be time for the exams, and shortly after that I will take off for India and Sri Lanka. I resurrected this blog a few years ago to post my notes and photos mostly from my travels, and this year I have made almost forty posts.
It’s been a pretty good year for me in terms of travel. It began with a trip to Jiuhuashan at New Year, and after that I took off for a fortnight in Sri Lanka, where I saw whales and leopards. Next, I headed to Japan with my girlfriend to see Tokyo and Mount Fuji.
After another semester of teaching here in China, I headed home to Scotland for some time with my family, and then toured Europe. Mostly, I spent time in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Bratislava, and Budapest, but in doing so I took a long bus ride through a number of European countries: Holland, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary!
After all that, I got back to China in time to pick up my girlfriend and take her to Thailand for a few weeks on Koh Tao. I’ve been to Thailand many times and even spent a few weeks on Koh Tao back in 2015, but it’s such a pleasant part of the world that I was happy to go again.
In October, during China’s National Week, we headed to the southwest of the country. Last year, we saw Dali, which was mobbed by idiot tourists, and so this year we headed further off the beaten path through Lijiang, Shangri-La, and Yubeng.
What a year! Thirteen countries visited – even if only by bus for a few hours. 😉 I hope my readers have had an equally rewarding 2017 and that 2018 is even better for all of us. I’ll be in India for 4-5 weeks, and then Sri Lanka once again for another week, before I return for one final semester of teaching in Huainan.
Once again, let me know in the comments if you have any recommendations for what to see and do in Southern India.
It’s very nearly December and here in eastern China the weather is finally turning cold. In the middle of the day, it’s still warm but at night it is getting perilously close to zero. The leaves have mostly fallen from the trees now as the autumn winds kick up. Sadly, people don’t view the fallen leaves as beautiful, and sweep them away almost as fast as they can fall. But for the few weeks while the hang on the trees, and for the hours that they lay on the ground, it is actually quite beautiful. Autumn is probably my favourite season in Huainan, although it is exceptionally brief, sandwiched between the excruciatingly hot summer and the biting cold of winter.
I live in a quiet (by Chinese standards) little 小区 (that means “community”) here in Huainan. It’s actually a rather pleasant little enclave in an otherwise quite ugly city. I think at this time of year, it is about as nice a place to live as one would find in China.
I’ve been living in China on-and-off for more than seven years. It’s a place I both love and hate in equal measure, but ultimately one that baffles and fascinates me. People ask me why I stay here and my answer is usually the same: “Because life is never boring.” There’s always something truly weird happening nearby, and if you ever ask why, you’ll get the same answer a Chinese person will always give to such a stupid utterance: “没有为什么” – there’s no reason why.
I thought long and hard about what to call this post. I toyed for a long time with “Things I Don’t Understand About China” but instead went for the more internet-friendly “X Weird Things” title format. Sorry. Besides, some of it I really do understand… it’s just still sort of weird.
You might read some of this and say to yourself, “Hey, I visited Shanghai and it wasn’t like that.” Well, no. Shanghai isn’t real China. Take a bus or train out to the provinces and you’ll get an eyeful of weirdness that will blow your fucking head off.
They poop in public
Visitors to China are usually assaulted quite quickly with a sight that is rather distasteful to Western eyes – that of someone crapping in the street. The further from Shanghai you go, the more you see it. Sometimes they go slightly off the street, but it’s always just there. It’s usually people holding babies out with their legs splayed to the world, but oftentimes it’s adults. The result is that any public walkway is absolutely covered in shit. If you are foolish enough to go hiking, for the love of all that’s holy, please DON’T follow any little paths that lead off the main trail. If you’re lucky you’ll see giant piles of poop and tissue paper. If you’re not, you’ll step right in it.
The public bathrooms are nightmarish places to go, which probably explains why so many people would rather take a dump in public. However, when you do go to the bathroom, many don’t have stalls or any sort of divider. The ones that do tend not to have doors, and the ones that have both doors and dividers… well, people just don’t like closing the doors. They prefer to have strangers watch them go. It is somehow comforting for them.
No one washes their hands
I mentioned above that Chinese bathrooms are awful places. You simply avoid them at all costs while you live here, but sometimes that’s impossible and you just have to go. What you are presented with are holes in the ground and no toilet paper. They don’t believe in bleach or any other cleaning chemicals, so they never actually get cleaned and so they stink to high hell. There’s no soap, either. Why? Mostly because anything that isn’t nailed to the ground will be stolen. Who am I kidding? They’d steal the goddamn nail.
People here are somehow happy just splashing a little cold water on their hands after visiting the bathroom – and that’s only the fancy people. Most wouldn’t go that far. This disturbingly applies to people who work in the food service industry. A few years ago I sat at my favourite restaurant looking out on the burning piles of trash when the chef took her kid out to shit in the street – right in front of the restaurant! – and when he was done she wiped his ass with a tissue and immediately went back to cooking. Needless to say, I was damn near sick.
…even after handling raw meat!
The Chinese just don’t seem to believe in germs. Not only are they happy not washing their hands after literally touching human excrement but they will go to the market and pick up raw meat with their hands and just keep on shopping! It is something that completely sickens me because not only are they spreading germs from the meat to themselves, but also the other way round. I’ve stood and watched old woman pick up all sorts of meat, cough and splutter all over it, and then toss it back on the heap for someone else to eat later. Gee, I wonder why I get sick every few weeks…
Babies on bikes
If you’re reading this and wondering, “How the hell did they get to 1.5 billion people with no awareness of basic health!?” then this will just astonish you: People always drive around with babies on their motorbikes and ebikes. This is, of course, not just limited to China and it’s something that I do understand. For most people, owning a car is out of the question and taxis – though incredibly cheap here – are too expensive to take every day for short journeys. Yet everyone just sticks their baby on the front of their bike and takes off into the most reckless traffic on earth. (Okay, maybe that award goes to Vietnam.)
Remember this scene from Bruno:
Yeah, that’s comedy because it’s something so amazingly hard to believe. Yet in China it’s perfectly normal. Which is especially disturbing considering…
They drive on the wrong side of the street
And by that I don’t mean that they drove on the right instead of the left, which they do. Nope, I’m talking about honest-to-god driving into traffic at high speed! People here drive the way they walk, and that’s with a level of flabbergasting arrogance. If you see a turn, you don’t wait for the oncoming traffic to pass, you just go and hope for the best! It’s truly amazing to witness… and yet terrifying. Countless times I’ve seen people lying dead in the street, or others just slightly hurt, and everyone clusters stupidly around, taking photos but not helping… and it’s always caused by someone driving into traffic on purpose. Yet no one ever thinks of this as wrong. A few years ago I was in a small accident myself. A woman driving down the wrong side of the street while playing on her phone crashed straight into me. She shouted, “You foreigners don’t know how to drive!” and everyone crowded around, tsskking at me and muttering about silly foreigners. No one even thought twice about a person going the wrong way down a street. It’s the most normal thing in the world here.
Walking in the street
As if it weren’t bad enough that people careen the wrong way down almost every street in the Middle Kingdom, people casually and very slowly walk in the middle of the road, too. The rest is pure chaos and more than a few fatal accidents. Yes, the pavements are poor condition almost everywhere. But does that really make it worth your while to walk in the middle of the street? To be fair, the roads are relatively new and people have been walking these pathways for decades without getting hit by cars, but now that everyone and their mother thinks they need a car, sauntering down the middle of a street is no longer really a safe thing to do. Because of this, drivers feel the need to beep their horn almost continuously. Which brings me to my next point.
They love loud repetitive noises
Everyone knows that the Chinese love fireworks. It’s been a part of their culture since way back in history. But for some reason this has lead them to a love of (or at least a tolerance for) all loud repetitive noises. In the paragraph above I mentioned car horns. You simply cannot overstate how common these are. In most cities, there are signs that say “No Car Horns!” but as with all signs, the Chinese will choose to ignore it. Buses are among the worst offenders, followed by construction site workers on motorbikes. They will drive at top speed through residential areas not even looking at the road. In China, the rule is this: if you beep your horn and later hit someone, it’s not your fault. So rather than slow or swerve or check a mirror, they beep loudly and repeatedly and just go.
It’s not just the car horns or fireworks. It’s everything. Every shop attempts to woo customers by blaring monotonous lists of items. At my local market, a man in a blue truck full of small mangoes has been sitting in his cab playing Angry Birds while a recorded message drones: “big mangoes… big mangoes… big mangoes…” It has gone on for more than a year. People don’t care. They actually seem to like this sort of thing, and flock to whoever has the loudest and most monotonous recording. Another common tactic is to play that 小苹果 song over and over. I’ll never understand how people can hear the same part of the same song several thousand times and still think, “Hey, that’s original – I’ll go give that guy my money.”
Staring at foreigners’ feet
I could write a whole book about the weird ways Chinese deal with foreigners. (Hey, that’s actually a good idea…) However, by far and away the most odd and yet predictable of these is that whenever a Chinese person meets a laowai, they will look at our feet. It is astonishing, really. I have no idea why they do it and I didn’t even notice until a few years ago when a friend pointed it out to me. I had noticed that most men look me up and down carefully before asking me an absurd question, but I didn’t realize how long they lingered on the feet. My feet aren’t particularly big, so that’s not it. I don’t wear unusual footwear, either. They just always look at a foreigner’s feet.
Smoking in hospitals… or anywhere else
Across all of Asia, men smoke. Smoking is the coolest fucking thing a person can do, apparently. The smoke from a young age until they mysteriously die around fifty of old age, with their teeth rotten stumps and their fingers completely yellowed. Sure, there are signs up everywhere that tell you not to smoke. But Chinese people know better than to follow namby-pamby signs. Smoking in an elevator is perfectly acceptable, for example, even if there’s a “No Smoking” (or sometimes “No Somking”) sign right there. But in Chinese culture, doing the wrong thing is fine… but calling someone out for doing the wrong thing is bad.
What really amazes me is that if you go to any hospital, you’ll see old men staggering about the halls with cigarettes hanging from their mouths. They’ll even do this around newborn children. Doctors will smoke a cigarette while telling you that you’re sick because of the wind or moon or because you had ice in a drink one time. It is staggering how little people understand cause and effect in this odd corner of the world.
They wear pajamas… outdoors
I was reluctant to put this in here because every other “weird China” list includes it – especially ones written by Chinese. However, it is mid-November now and every time I go outside I see people shuffling around in giant fluffy pajamas. I get that it’s cold and you want to wrap up. That makes sense. But does it really make that much sense to wear your pajamas outside? Don’t they get dirty? Don’t they get all wet and gross? I asked one of my friends and he proudly told me that he has indoor and outdoor pajamas. Why the hell wouldn’t you just wear clothes then?!
Two days I was just leaving the gym with my girlfriend when we heard a small noise. We looked over to a cluster of bins and saw a small cat sitting among them. White with black markings, the little kitten looked at us and meowed again.
I walked slowly over, trying to seem non-threatening. I know cats well, and know almost all the street cats in China would run a mile when approached by a human, so I was very surprised when she stayed put. She seemed scared, but held her ground.
When I put out my hand and petted her on the head, she purred and came closer to me. She rubbed up against my leg and rolled on the ground as I tickled her. I noticed that she was very skinny. In fact, when I put my hand around her, I saw she was the skinniest cat I’d ever seen. She was dangerously thin; just a spine wrapped in fur.
I didn’t know what to do. I contemplated running off to get some food from a nearby shop, but she looked like a single meal wouldn’t help her. She needed much more than that. After a short discussion, Vera and I decided to take her home. We said we wouldn’t keep her, but we’d help her get back to full health.
The little cat had no qualms with me picking her up and wrapping her in my sweatshirt, although she was quite scared as I held her to my chest and drove back home through traffic. She was remarkably well-behaved, though, and we were soon back at the house. I plonked her down in the living room and gave her some chunks of cooked beef, and then shot out to find a petshop where I could pick up supplies – several varieties of kitten food, kitty litter, shampoo, etc.
She had dived straight into the beef chunks but it didn’t occur to me until much later – after I’d gotten home from work – that she may not actually have eaten much, if anything. She didn’t touch her kibble or her tuna, and she seemed to sit next to the water bowl for a long time without drinking. In the evening I began to grow worried. Maybe something was wrong with her mouth or stomach?
She was very affectionate and well-behaved, meowing a little but never getting into trouble. When I left the house she would wait by the door until I came back, then flop at my feet and purr when I got in again. At night she sat quietly in her little bed, not howling like some felines do. She was the perfect cat.
The next morning I went to work but decided that at lunchtime we would go find the nearest vet and get Pearl – as she was now called – checked out. However, when I got home at lunchtime she ran over to me to say hello, but moments later started vomiting. Then she collapsed and just lay in her bed unable to move. I scooped her up and carried her in my arms to the vet, who said she was the skinniest cat he’d ever seen, too. He checked her out, giving her a few shots and some medicine we had to feed her later. He said she’d probably eaten something bad on the street and gotten so sick she was never able to eat again from the damage she’d done herself. He recommended us to use a syringe to get water down her throat. If she survived the night, he said he could put her on an IV drip the next day.
We took her home and did as the vet suggested but within ten minutes she’d thrown it all up again. We tried again and again, with the same results. She deteriorated quickly, unable to keep anything down. By ten o’clock at night it was clear she wouldn’t see the morning. The cat who was so cheerful just twelve hours earlier was now barely able to breathe. Whenever she tried to stand or even move herself about on her bed, she fell back down. She couldn’t even lift the weight of her own head.
Before going upstairs to bed, I sat down next to Pearl to say goodbye. I knew she wouldn’t be there to greet me in the morning this time. I put my hand on her tiny body as her ribs rose and fell ever so slightly. She had long since stopped purring when her petted her. I felt horrible for having not been able to save her. I killed me to watch her suffer and die. I wondered what would have happened if there had been a decent vet anywhere in the city, instead of the tiny backstreet one I’d had to visit that lunchtime. Could a real, qualified vet have saved her life?
Just as I was about to get up, she dragged herself off the little red bed and across the floor to my feet, somehow raised her head, and rested it on my lap. She lay there, unmoving, for ten minutes. Reluctantly, I picked her up and returned her to her bed, then went upstairs to my own, knowing she would be dead in the morning.
When I woke up and went downstairs, I found her lying with her eyes and mouth open. She was cold and stiff, and her face was filled with fear and suffering. She had not just slipped peacefully away in the night. She had died alone from starvation and dehydration – a horrible fate that nothing in this world deserves, not least a baby cat. I tried telling myself that nothing could have saved her, and that I had given her a day of happiness she otherwise would never have experienced. For that first day, she had seemed so delighted to receive attention and to be warm. She purred constantly and was in her element sitting on either of our laps. Yet her short life had been filled with a suffering I thankfully have never known, and I had tried and failed to save her from the awful fate that awaited her.
It should seem inevitable that this was her fate. The life of a cat in a place like China is almost invariably one of prolonged suffering. The cruelty of nature is doubled in such an unfriendly environment. But something tricked me into putting aside my cynicism and having hope for Pearl. A week earlier, I had begun reading a book called The Travelling Cat Chronicles. In it, the protagonist, who is a cat, is badly hurt and seeks out a human to help him. Neither man nor cat expects their relationship to go beyond a trip to the vet and a few weeks of recuperation, but they became the closest of friends.
When Pearl appeared in my life, I immediately felt she had sought out help. As silly as that seems, it is just so abnormal for a cat her in China to allow a person to approach her and pet her. They learn very early that people equal death or worse. But Pearl came to us and came into our life, and immediately she made herself the perfect pet. Both Vera and I, within an hour of Pearl staying in our house, felt that she would be with us for years – even though neither of us had wanted a pet. It just seemed so perfect, like it was all meant to be.
It is odd how much an animal can affect a human’s life. Or perhaps it is not odd at all… Many animals have affected my life, but normally it takes much more than a day to do so. Pearl was a tiny but powerful force that turned my life upside down very quickly and then left, leaving it a whole lot emptier. Her death has caused me more sadness than I could have imagined, and yet I would do it again in a heartbeat. I’m still glad she had at least some happiness and comfort in her life before she passed away. The majority of cats, or any other animal, for that matter, endure their pain without respite.
After spending a little time in Lijiang and Shangri-La, my girlfriend and I took off for a more remote part of China. We were keen to see something different and to get away from the crowds. To use an old cliché, we wanted to get off the beaten path.
From Shangri-La, we took a four hour bus ride up into the mountains. Shangri-La is already at a high altitude. Walking up a flight of stairs there is enough to leave you severely winded unless you’re used to breathing such thin air. But the road north-west leads quickly up into the mountains. It’s slow going on the narrow mountain roads that wind up through the jagged hills. But it’s scenic and the time slips by easily enough. For much of the journey you are following the Jinsha River, which is an early incarnation of the Chiangjiang River (better known in the West as the Yangtze). However, soon this is replaced by the Mekong. I’ve seen the Mekong many, many times in the tropical climate of Southeast Asia, so seeing it here in the high Tibetan Plateau is just bizarre.
Our destination is uncertain at this point. My girlfriend has found a mountain online that seems to hold a peculiar allure, and so we’re going close to it and hoping that there’s something to do in the area. We certainly can’t climb the mountain. Aside from being about 7,000 meters high, it’s actually never been climbed before. Well, not successfully. In 1991, a team of 11 Japanese climbers attempted to summit Meili Xueshan but were all killed by an avalanche. Some Chinese climbers attempted to climb it five years later but failed, too, although they at least escaped with their lives. The mountain has been closed to climbing ever since as it is considered sacred to the local Tibetan Buddhists. This makes it the first and only mountain in China that’s entirely closed to the public for cultural or religious preservation.
Our bus took us to the tiny city of Deqin, embedded in the side of a mountain. It is a remote city and one that looks precariously balanced – in threat of falling thousands of meters down to the river below. The people there look as tough as mountain goats and the buildings suggest that they may indeed have been replaced every few years after falling into the valley. When our bus arrives, we expect to take a car to the nearby town of Feilaisi, but the bus driver tells us he’s going that way and we can just give him 5rmb to stay on.
Soon we arrive in Feilaisi, a tiny tourist town comprised almost entirely of hotels. It’s also built into the side of a mountain, and exists almost entirely because it offers a perfect view of Meili Xueshan. Or rather, it would were it not for the massive cloud bank that engulfs everything around us. Instead, we are stuck in a tiny town with nothing to do, in a grossly overpriced hotel, looking at the inside of clouds.
We take a walk around the nearby hills but the stunning views are entirely hidden. A lonely path takes us on a long walk through a forest. As we get to the farthest points, the winds pick up and the temperature drops suddenly. Then the rain begins to fall hard around us. It is a tough environment here in the mountains. You can’t breathe, can’t see anything, and it’s freezing cold. Yet, as we found out later, despite the cold it’s incredibly easy to get sunburned.
We debated what to do next. Meili Xueshan seemed to have been a waste of time. The stunning mountain views were nowhere to be found. Even the locals told us that it’s very rare to see the mountain. A man in Shangri-La told us he’d taken five spiritual pilgrimages here and never once seen its peak. I decided what we needed was to get closer. Feilaisi was famous as the best place from which to view Meili Xueshan, but if even one of the mountains was enveloped in clouds, there was no view to be had. It made sense that we ought to be closer, even if we ended up viewing the damn things from the bottom.
The next morning we stood with a small gathering of tourists (most of whom had large cameras mounted optimistically on tripods) at 5am, looking out at where the mountain should be. Meili Xueshan’s sunrise is supposedly one of the most beautiful sights in all of China. Alas, we could see almost nothing. We stood around in the freezing morning air until it was apparent that there would be no sunrise of any kind, and then headed for our bus.
The next destination was Yubeng, a tiny village near to Meili Xueshan. I didn’t know where exactly it was, and there wasn’t an abundance of information available, but we had found a man driving a minibus that way for just 20rmb, so we hopped on. They say that Yubeng was closed off to the outside world until a man one day appeared and no one could figure out where he came from. They followed him back through the mountains and found his home under a rock. That story pretty much tells you how easy it is to get to Yubeng.
Our little minibus wound its way down almost 2,000 meters in an hour and a half, along some sickeningly steep mountain roads. At more than a dozen places, the mountain had collapsed and consumed the road, and some of these seemed to have occurred in the last few hours. We came to a bridge that had also been hastily constructed to replace the other, just fifty meters away, that had collapsed into the Mekong. When we finally reached a place called Xidang, and were told it was our final destination, we were glad to be off that death trap bus.
Unfortunately, given the lack of information available, we had failed to realize that Xidang was the final stop on the road to Yubeng, and that the rest of the route was done on foot. This was a 12km hike over a mountain – another few thousand meters up and down. The trek would take some six hours and I did it with two people’s luggage on my back. It would have been a beautiful walk, but in fact it was excruciating.
At about 3,800 meters up we summited our own mountain and began the walk down into the valley where Yubeng was located. At this point, the agonizing journey became entirely worthwhile. The clouds that had covered Meili Xueshan broke and we were in a perfect place to soak up the view. What appeared in front of us was a perfect snow-capped mountain and a lush green valley. It was straight out of a picture book.
We stumbled down the hillside to Upper Yubeng (the village is divided in town, on either side of a river) and tried to check in at our hotel, Lobsang Trekkers. It went something like this:
Me: Hi, I have a reservation…
Owner: Oh, is that from Booking.com?
Owner: Oh, well we don’t accept those bookings.
Me: Yes, you actually did accept it. See, it says here you confirmed the booking.
Owner: We meant to stop using Booking.com a few months ago but we never actually got around to doing it.
Me: I made this reservation yesterday. You confirmed it. You agreed to it. You have to let us stay here. We just walked six fucking hours over a mountain to get here!
Owner: I’m sorry, we’re full.
It went on like that for a while but there was no reasoning with these bastards. They had sold out all their rooms and refused to let us stay. We ended up at a shitty guesthouse a mile down into the valley. Granted, this new place had a stunning view, but it lacked just about every other feature you’d expect from a hotel.
We wandered about the village but by now it was late afternoon and the sun was already going down over the mountains. There wasn’t much to see, but it certainly was quaint. Little mud or wood shacks were tiled with wooden slats for roofs, and people lived together with their horses and pigs. Everything was on a slope going down to a raging river, and walking what would have been 200 meters as the crow flies could take half an hour or more of climbing. We sat and watched the sun go down over the mountain from Lower Yubeng and then called our bus driving friend about how to get out of Yubeng after another day.
There was some bad news: We simply wouldn’t be able to get back to Lijiang in time for our return flight several days later. We had to leave first thing the next morning.
Now this was extremely difficult news to take. We had spent days travelling to get here, not to mention a six hour hike over a mountain with heavy luggage. My legs were dead weight and the thought of climbing back over to Xidang was too much to bear. We weren’t even going to get to explore the valley. There were waterfalls and glaciers to see… but all of that required at least 4-5 hours solid hiking. Yet we had to get out at first light and make a break for the morning buses in Xidang.
The next morning we woke in bad moods anticipating a difficult journey back to Xidang. However, we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise:
After that, we started up the side of the mountain. We got only a short distance before I said, “Fuck it, let’s hire horses.”
That wasn’t as easy as you’d think in a village filled with horses. For some reason it took a good two or more hours to get horses, and they weren’t much faster at going over the mountain than we were. I suppose, in fairness, they were actually more like donkeys than horses. Worse, my horse/donkey was incredibly aggressive and kept making sharp runs towards the edge of the path, threatening to throw me over a thousand meter drop. It took four hours to get back, and it was far more exhausting than walking. And besides, we’d missed our damn bus.
The horses cost me 900rmb and our only option for getting back was a mini-van full of idiots that cost me another 300rmb. Thankfully, though, it drove us all the way back to Shangri-La. After a quiet night there, we got another bus to Lijiang and the following morning headed to the airport for the flight back to Hefei.
The trip was quite exhausting but absolutely worthwhile. It killed me that we didn’t actually get to spend any time exploring the Yubeng valley, especially considering it took us so many hours flying, driving, and walking just to get there… but the views were stunning and most people simply never get to see that when they visit. I’ve done a lot of travelling during my time in China and the lesson I normally come away with is that it’s just not worthwhile… it can be too stressful and crowded and you just come to some disgusting, expensive, polluted shithole in the end. But this time it was different. Meili Xueshan was a real challenge to see, but it was by far the most beautiful place in China I’ve visited.