So what’s been happening this week? Improper questions, girl trouble, Ben going missing, a trip to the mountains and a Chinese train driver, all of which will be dealt with in order (which is not chronological).
The improper questions came from Ma Jun’s girlfriend. As a documentary maker, you’d expect her to be inquisitive, but she looks like such a sweet girl, and most Chinese girls seem fairly proper in their behaviour. It may have been our fault for buying her beer, which she apparently doesn’t usually drink, but her questions on western sexual behaviour were rather blunt. I’ve realised that I can’t actually carry on the description of events as with my family reading I’ll get far too embarrassed, but safe to say the problem wasn’t as much what she was asking as the lack of tact in the way it was put. It will probably work better as an oral recollection anyway, ask me about it next month.
It was at the end of this night that Ben went missing. We said goodbye to him about 1:30 in the morning as he went to buy cigarettes. He didn’t arrive at work the next day, and a phone call to his mum revealed that he had gone missing. After some rather optimistic speculation that he may have met a girl, we were getting a little concerned. He eventually turned up at work 3 hours late, to tell us that he’d picked up the wrong keys when he had left the house and so had to sleep at some distant relations. Not quite as exciting as it could have been, but it kept us entertained on Friday morning.
The girl trouble started when Carry spotted me on the street and started talking to me. Far more cheerful than a girl in England would be if you took her out for a meal, let her pay for it, and then didn’t phone for the next 7 weeks, she only made polite enquiries about my lack of contact. She made me feel really bad by saying that she had tried to phone at least once a week since our meal, and so I did the gentlemanly thing and invited her to come to the mountains with us for the weekend. I was quite surprised that she accepted, she doesn’t really look like the outdoor type (I’ll try and get some photos), but thought it would be fun as it evened up the number of boys and girls.
As an aside the second bit of girl trouble (and not really that much trouble)came later the same evening while I was eating dinner in KFC. A girl who introduced herself as Vivien (named after Julia Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman, I would have thought that even in China naming yourself after a prostitute was a bit much) asked me to help her with her English. I have agreed, and was meant to phone her about it last night. I’m just a bit weary of having one to one meetings with too many girls, as I know there is a good chance that one of them is going to see me with another, and even though nothing is happening. Well you can see where it’s going. Anyway back to the story of the weekend.
Unsurprisingly as the weekend drew closer people started dropping out. Ma Jun’s girlfriend wouldn’t let him come, she felt that after 3 months of separation while she made a documentary in Beijing , he should spend some time alone with her. Obviously this led to much hilarity as we joked about him being under the thumb etc. Seems that blokes have the same problems all over the world (For the girls: Only joking, For the men: You know it’s true). Ben’s cousin also dropped out because she had to go travelling (widely felt to be an excuse). The one advantage of reduced numbers was that it made it easier to make plans.
Planning, or more accurately decision making, is not a strong point of Chinese culture. Earlier in the week we had made a decision to have a kitty for the weekend, as this would make paying for everything far simpler. Everybody would put in 300Rmb, and this would cover hotels, food, bus fares, entry tickets etc etc. All well and good, until you realise that this straightforward plan required discussion. You don’t want to hear the details, but it peaked with discussion of the number of rolls of film that would be required over the weekend (obviously buying them as needed was out of the question). This should have given me a taste of what was to come over the weekend, with every bus journey requiring at least ten minutes discussion at high volume while the merits of various buses was measured. Flo (who is French) and I pretty quickly stopped paying attention, as our attempts to point out that it really wasn’t that hard to make a decision were considered nonsensical.
In spite of these minor issues, which were best dealt with by viewing them as time to relax, the trip to the mountains was fantastic. The Chinese seem to have a highly developed tourist industry, and there don’t seem to be many spots worth visiting that don’t attract flocks of people. Although engaged on every travellers quest of finding the ‘real’ China , I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the real China , and what most people are looking for is the ‘real’ China of 150 years ago. The tourists don’t spoil the views, and you only have to walk a little way off the made up paths to find some seclusion. The other thing is that the tourist spots here aren’t quite so sanitised and safe as in the UK . Paths disappear off the edge of huge cliffs, and where the steep concrete steps haven’t collapsed they are covered in slime. Got quite exciting at times.
The park we visited, Jindaoxia, is apparently quite well known in the area, but doesn’t feature in any guide books. The weekend of our visit saw the opening of two new attractions (although we only found one of them), an occasion marked by a festival of sorts. It was quite good fun, the torrential rain of the afternoon had thinned the crowds a bit, and the continuing, but now distant, lightning would occasionally silhouette the mountains that surrounded the festival area. This provided an impressive backdrop to the festivities on stage, with dancers in traditional dress and contemporary singers providing entertainment. The star turn was a comedian who did an hour of jokes and impressions. This was all a bit over the head of me and Flo, although Ben did his best to translate. The most interesting part was his version of a famous speech given by Mao on the liberation of China . The words weren’t up to much, but the reaction of the crowd was fascinating. They looked semi-reverential, but at the same time their eyes were laughing, kind of like kids who know they shouldn’t be naughty in church, but still think the stuff that’s going on is funny. This actually says a lot about the Chinese peoples general behaviour at these kind of events. Everybody clearly enjoys themselves, but where in England people would be standing and dancing, the Chinese stay seated and stare at the stage. When prompted to join in they will, but it’s a strange mixture of regimented and free behaviour, almost like they’re experimenting with what’s appropriate. I also heard the first open criticism of the government this week. Apparently Chairman Jiang Zemin is widely disliked, although this seems to be more to do with the fact that he is from Shanghai , than anything he does politically. I also hadn’t realised that one of the reasons that Chongqing is now so highly developed is that Deng Xiaoping grew up nearby, and was very fond of the city, using some of his time in power to grant it more money and freedom.
A visit to the food stalls between the concert and our hotel gave the chance to try snake. To be frank I don’t see the point in it. Barbecued on a stick, there was very little meat and a huge amount of bones to negotiate, not bad, just a bit indifferent for a delicacy.
Sunday saw us up early for the trek down through the park. There were a lot of people with the same idea, although the lazier of them took advantage of the porters. These guys (and ladies) were absolutely incredible. The chairs they carried were similar to stretchers, with two bamboo poles supporting a seat in the middle. For 50 Rmb (4quid) they would run you down a huge flight of fairly perilous stairs, and hardly even break into a sweat. The most impressive thing was that some of the bearers were petite women who must have been nearly 50. I was well impressed and will never complain about the weight of a rucksack again.
The path led us to a small waterfall, and then to a cave filled with the obligatory carvings. It was quite fun getting pushed round the cave in a little boat, although the lighting arrangement of an extension lead with bulbs spliced onto it at various intervals didn’t exactly inspire confidence, especially where water was running from the roof and over the bare wiring. A little thrilling.
Safely out of the cave, Ben and I took a little detour through the undergrowth, stamping our feet hard in case any snakes took offence at us eating their friend last night. No snakes appeared, but we did manage to dislodge a chunky rock which went shooting off towards the unwitting tourists on the path below. Good climbing sense came in and I shouted ‘below’, which wasn’t very helpful for the Chinese people. Fortunately no injuries resulted, and we carried on our merry way.
After rejoining the main path, and a bit of to-ing and fro-ing to find Flo and Joy, the path came to the first of the new attractions, a walkway that traversed the face of an unevenly shaped cliff. Designed for Chinese people, the rocks jutting out at head height meant leaning over the railings at times, and I really wouldn’t fancy making it down if you were ‘solidly’ built (the term Ben was taught as preferable to the ‘fat’ which he used to call people of larger size). At the bottom of this walkway were loads of schoolkids with bits of polystyrene masquerading as lifejackets strapped to their chest, and builders helmets on their head. Apparently a race down the gorge had been arranged as further celebration of the new attractions. It looked like a lot of fun, with teams having to negotiate some fairly exciting obstacles on the way down. All their helmets seemed to disintegrate within the first 50m, and a flash flood later in the afternoon must have kept things lively for them (I assume that they called the race off after the rain started, but can’t be too sure).
Further down the trail a famous waterfall poured off the top of a cliff. It was spectacular as the overhanging face allowed the water to freefall all the way to the ground, landing a good 20ft clear of the cliff at the bottom. The locals had carved/blasted a walkway of sorts into the cliff behind the waterfall, providing spectacular views up and down the valley. Further up this path was another attraction fairly typical of optimistic villagers. A cave full of rocks was sold as the site of ‘natural stone sculptures’. Possibly psychedelic drugs may have aided the illusion that those two stones were dragons, but they weren’t looking like a lot to me. Unfortunately they missed the opportunity to point out the obviously phallic nature of many of the stalagmites, instead preferring to describe them as like buildings.
As the day pushed on the weather closed in. I’m embarrassed to say that I now own an umbrella. They always seemed quite pointless to me before, but in tropical rain they are wicked. The dramatic increase in the water level gave us some beautiful views as the river spewed through gaps in the rock below, the curtains of water pouring off the moss covered cliffs only adding to it’s fury. Very impressive, but it did put the damper on our plans to go swimming. Maybe next time.
While on the subject of rain, the unusually wet weather is starting to cause quite a few problems. I’m not sure if it’s featured on the news over there, but 250 people have been killed by landslides in Yunnan province, not far southwest of here. The Yangtze is now impassable by boat, as the section by the dam has been shut to shipping to try and avoid the dykes that protect the surrounding area from overflowing. Last time this happened 4000 people died, and it is partly to avoid this situation that the dam is being built. It’s chucking it down at the moment, so it looks like the situation could get worse, we’ll have to wait and see.
I think that covers everything I promised except the train driver. Basically all there is to say is that Ben’s cousin’s husband is a train driver. This probably won’t appeal to anybody else (apart from Dan), and even to me it sounds a little sad, but I really want to sit in the cabin of his train. I’ve got my fingers crossed!