Saturday, July 17, 2010

Anhui: The New Mexico of China

I took the maglev train travelling 301 km/hr (187 mph) from the airport to downtown Shanghai. Maglev is short for magnetic levitation, because the train doesn’t actually touch the tracks. Magnets provide lift and propulsion, so the train hovers just above the tracks, eliminating all but air friction and electro-magnetic drag. Maglev trains are quieter, faster and smoother than wheeled mass transit systems. China’s is the world’s most well-known commercial high-speed maglev. Its top speed is 381 km/hr (268 mph). By bus the trip would take 45 minutes, but we made it in 7 minutes 20 seconds, just slightly slower than an airplane could, and I found myself wondering why we don’t have a better public transportation system in the U.S.

At a youth hostel on East Nanjing Road I dined on take-out pizza and beer. For some reason the multitude of Pizza Huts in Shanghai had caught my eye, and I didn’t yet know that a meal of pizza cost about six times the price of a much tastier Chinese meal.

In the hostel I met backpackers from South Korea, Canada, China and the U.S. A man from Tennessee who had lived in Japan gave me his three-day pass to the Shanghai World Expo, with two days unused. He said that it was disappointing, and one day was enough for him.
In the morning I had spicy sour ramen noodles (8 RMB) while reading the China Daily. Drawn by the sound of drumming, I headed to a little park sandwiched between high rises and glittering shopping malls. A group of women was busily drumming and marching in formations. Further down, the tree-lined pedestrian lane was crowded with small groups of senior citizens doing tai chi and other exercises. One group of particularly energetic middle aged women was performing an aerobic dance to Chinese pop music using pink rubber balls as props.

I had read that because only two percent of Chinese smile at strangers, the government hired professional smilers to encourage smiling among the population before the Expo, so that visitors would feel more welcomed. Either it worked, or the original statistic was wrong, because in the bustling city of Shanghai, strangers greeted me with “ni hao,” smiled at me, waved, and generally tried to communicate with me in a friendly way. Shanghai felt vibrant and warm, brimming with talking and laughing and cheerful activity.

I spent a day at the expo which involved lots of waiting in lines to finally walk through mediocre exhibits consisting mostly of videos and a few products from each country while throngs of Chinese people rushed to get their Expo passports stamped but didn’t seem to look much at the exhibits. I realized that I’m pretty fortunate to be able to collect stamps in my real passport. Below is Britain's Seed Pavilion.

The two highlights of the day were the stuffed grape leaves I ate at a Bulgarian restaurant, and the African Pavilion in which countries which could not afford their own pavilion created smaller exhibits in a shared building. Their lower tech exhibits were actually more interesting, and had fewer lines. But overall I tend to agree with the man from Tennessee who gave me the three-day pass. The Expo is a huge waste of money and resources, and since all the buildings but two are built with temporary building materials and will be torn down in six months, it is an environmental outrage.

When Expos began in the mid 1800s, they were a place to showcase new technology and inventions like the ice cream cone which made its debut at an expo in the early 1900s. But today the expo seems to be a reluctant exercise in foreign relations. The U.S. nearly didn’t participate this year due to a lack of funds, but not participating would have been such an affront to foreign relations with China that the U.S. eventually raised the funds and built a large pavilion.

After a night in the hostel dorm room with four Chinese women who came to Shanghai to see the expo, I got up early to take a morning bus to Tunxi, a small town in the beautiful but impoverished Anhui province.

So far I had not seen the famed Chinese ni hao toilets “hello toilets” where everyone reportedly squats together with no privacy walls. The expo and other places I had been in Shanghai had great toilets, often even with paper. I hoped to see a ni hao toilet at the long distance bus station, but instead I found individual stalls with a shared trough running through. No need to flush, as water automatically flushes through the trough regularly. It’s a pretty good system, but the only strange part is that one can see other people’s business floating by in the trough.

Before the bus took off, the driver handed each passenger a plastic bag. “Bag” he said to me in English, passing me mine. I wondered if it was for vomiting in, as I had done years ago on a mountainous bus ride in Mexico. But I decided hopefully that it must be for garbage. Later I saw a man spitting in his, employing that less than endearing Chinese practice of loudly hacking and spitting, usually done on the street. Apparently people are not able to refrain from doing it during a bus ride.

Chinese people seem to readily talk to strangers on buses and in public places. The man sitting next to me on the bus to Tunxi tried valiantly to have a conversation with me. Unable to understand anything he said, I handed him my phrasebook which gave him and his friends some good chuckles but didn’t help us communicate much.
At my hostel in Tunxi I met a young Russian couple at the beginning of a two-year world traipse. They thought it was funny that I am from Minnesota, since earlier in China they had bought T-shirts that said “Minnesota” and “Iowa,” and people from those places kept approaching them.

To me, Anhui is the New Mexico of China. Frequent floods and mountains keep its agricultural ability marginal, and it has no other industry, but the atmosphere is laid back and the mountains and ancient villages are absolutely stunning. Anhui’s top draw is Huang Shan, a mountain comprised of a collection of granite cliffs laced with trails on the side of sheer cliffs flanked by odd and beautifully shaped trees and shrouded in misty clouds. Huang Shan’s beauty inspired a whole school of ink painting during past centuries, which even extended to Japan, and more recently it inspired the set of the movie Avatar.

I spent a day in Tunxi, absorbing the beauty of the Ming Dynasty (1600s-1800s) architecture that surrounded Ancient Town Youth Hostel, getting a foot reflexology treatment and stocking up on supplies for the two-day trek on Huang Shan. Seeking trail food among the aisles of unfamiliar food at Tunxi’s supermarket left me with a couple of duds (black hard boiled eggs – eeew – and dried fruit meant for cooking, not eating raw) but mostly hits (jerkey of unknown meat, canned tuna, cookies, chocolate) and I found an especially good bonanza at a local bakery (cheese and herb bread - yum!).
On the bus to Huang Shan a collection of solo backpackers from Holland, England, China and Ireland befriended me. Together we took the cable car part way and then hiked up the east slope, through packs of package tourists in matching hats swarming around megaphone-wielding guides. Still we managed to take some pictures of the beautiful Huang Shan pine trees for which Huang Shan is famous.
After 2 ½ hours we left the hordes behind and entered the loop, which consists of cement paths precariously built hanging from the sides of sheer cliffs. I can’t imagine how many people must have died building them. The loop hike took about six hours up and down cement steps, and is not for those afraid of heights or without sturdy knees.
We staggered to our hostel, the Baiyun, located near one of Huang Shan’s summits, where we watched the sunset from a peak and then limped to our beds in an 11-person dorm for 140 RMB per night.
I shared my room with nine Chinese tourists and one Columbian doctor who practices medicine in Miami but is working in Beijing for four months.
After the first day’s strenuous and knee-killing hike, Floor from Holland and I just managed to limp down to the eastern cable car. Back in Tunxi, our new Chinese backpacker friend, a pilot who had studied aviation in Phoenix, guided us to an excellent restaurant where I broadened my regular menu beyond the boiled dumplings on which I had been subsisting.


Mi said...


Thank you, Kimi. This was VERY engaging for me, someone not usually much interested in others' travels (They're usually either dry as dust 3rd-person encyclopedia citings or else me-me-me solipsisms.)

It was close to being there, for me. YES to your pics, so well illustrating what I'd've had a little trouble visualizing otherwise: the black eggs, the toilet trough, and all.

Okay, okay, I'm now a blog follower in spite of myself.

Thanks, Kimi.

Mi said...

Oops. I forgot the period after "others' travels" in my post above. I guess I *do* need to preview first and publish second, instead of vice versa.

K said...

Thank you, MiRobin. I enjoy writing it.