July 2010

I don’t know exactly what I was thinking.  Maybe it was the slow pace of life in Liaocheng and the predictably easy-going way of Hangzhou, but for one reason or another I decided to bag my plans and head west, on a forty-three hour train, with three strangers, and a hard seat.  It was perhaps one of the best experiences I’ve had in China.

The original plan was to go from Hangzhou to Huang Shan, and then onto Yichang to get on the boat ride down the Yangtze.  Huang Shan is perhaps the most famous mountain in China, and rightly so.  It’s beauty out parallels perhaps even the Grand Teton, and as a result the horrific beast that is  the Chinese tourist industry has swallowed it whole.  And after the West Lake I was less than excited about going to yet another tourist destination.  I met Sharon, Lion (both Chinese), and Sam, at the hostel in Hangzhou, and decided to join them on a 43 three hour train ride across the country, on a hard seat.

As it turned out, we were among the lucky ones who actually got a seat.  Some passengers were standing or  lying down in the hall ways for the majority of the trip. For the first 24 hours of the trip, it was literally impossible to move down the aisle.

The trip was made bearable by the company I was with.  We drank baiju, we played cards, we played truth or dare.  We shared noodles and peanuts and shoulders to sleep on.

Max was a ten year old kid we met with really good English.  We liked him so every time the food cart went by we bought him more treats and sodas.  He played games on our cell phones and took pictures of us.

The other thing that made the trip as wonderful as it was seeing some of the beautiful scenery, especially as we got closer to Chengdu.  What with the movement of the train and the dirty windows, pictures can’t really do what we saw justice, but at least it gives you a taste.


For the first leg of my journey after Liaocheng I got on a sleeper train and headed south to Hangzhou, widely regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in China, and one of the few places that lives up to it’s touted beauty amongst the guidebooks and travel agencies. (It’s not that China isn’t beautiful, it’s that Chinese people really like to use hyperbole in order to attract people.)

With a history of over 2,000 years, Hangzhou is one of the most culturally relevant cities in the history of Chinese civilization.  Today, Hangzhou is known for three things in particular.  Its silk, its tea, and the West Lake.  The West Lake is without a doubt the most famous lake in China. Poets, philosphers, emperrors, and common people throughout China’s long history have spoken of the West Lake as a place of awe inspiring beauty.

While much of the natural beauty that has attracted people to the West Lake for generations remains, like most places of interest in China, and for that matter world-wide, the tourist industry has spoiled much of that.  Especially now that school is out for the summer, hoards of fanny-pack sporting, visor wearing, picture snapping “tourerists” flood the shores of the lake, distinguishing much of the peaceful beauty that the ancient poets must have experienced.  And along with tourism came the inevitable shift of culture to accommodate the visitors.  Finding a hamburger is just about easy as finding a bowl of noodles in Hangzhou.

That said, I came to Hangzhou expecting all of that, especially the hamburgers.  After four months in the sleepy little town of Liaocheng, it feels refreshing to once again be a place more a kin to my own culture.  While Hangzhou may not be a necasarily ‘genuine’ Chinese city (and I use the word genuine with great hesitance) it offers weary Western travels like yours truly many things that more typical Chinese cities don’t.  The streets are clean, the road signs have both English and Chinese, the bars serve more than crappy Chinese beers and gut-rotting baiju.  Plus, it’s pretty beautiful.  It’s a perfect place for me to recharge, recoup, relax.  Below are a couple pictures from my first day in Hangzhou…hope you enjoy!

Even on rainy days, or maybe especially on rainy days, West Lake is pretty damn beautiful

The West Lake was actually once a series of marshes that were dredged to create what is known today as West Lake. I found the most pleasant and tranquil experiences were found wandering amongst the many gardens that dot the shores and wander throughout the marshlands that remain.

A little surreal, no?

As I write my bags are packed, a train ticket lies between the folds of my wallet, and I can’t sleep in anticipation of tomorrow night, when I will board a train that will carry me away from Liaocheng, perhaps for the last time.  At this time my emotions are less than easy to describe.  Leaving a place has always been hard for me.  In the days and weeks leading up to my departure I become anxious, irritable, restless, and I usually blame it on my stagnant surroundings.  If you’d have asked me a week ago, or perhaps even yesterday, I would have told you that I was ecstatic about leaving Liaocheng, couldn’t wait to get out there and get my hands dirty, couldn’t wait for school to end and for the real adventure to begin.

But something happened last night that I haven’t been able to shake.  I met Patrick and Dean, two English teachers in Liaocheng, for what was to be our last encounter with each other before I set out on my month long trip around China.  Dean recently graduated from college (uni) in England and opted for the opportunity to teach English in China over working a shit job and living in a shit flat in England (his own words).  Dean’s a great guy, a good laugh, and a good conversationalist. We spent an enjoyable weekend in Jinan together and many a nights watching movies in his and Patrick’s apartment.  Patrick is in or nearing his forties, from Georgia, and from everything I’ve gathered about the guy he’s rather dissatisfied with his situation in life.  It seems as though every conversation I’ve had with Patrick has reverted back to his ever increasing age, and how my inexperience puts me at a disadvantage.  Whereas Dean is a conversationalist, Patrick is flat-out argumentative, often times dodging my conversational questions by pointing out their invalidity.

Needless to say, I’m not a big fan of Patrick, so it shouldn’t have really mattered to me when he took a swipe at what he perceived as my negative attitude towards life in Liaocheng.  “Ever since you got you here, you’ve been complaining that Liaocheng is just too small, too boring, too isolated,” he said.  My first reaction was quite simply, fuck off old man (should’a, could’a, would’a, but instead politely refuted him).  I thought it was pretty rude of him, especially on what was the last time we would see each other, to take this deep of a cut into my character.  I tried my best to blow him off, but woke up the next morning with a growing sense of guilt.  While Patrick himself has issues with thinking negatively, it is true that a lot of my time spent here in Liaocheng did not live up to the high expectations I had before arriving, and because Dean and Patrick were the two most readily available and relateable ears, they got to listen to a lot of my complaints about the difficulties of my life in China.  It’s true that in my past I have struggled at times with staying positive, and time and time again it has put a damper on what could have been a better experience.  I came here to learn, not only about Chinese culture and language, but also about myself, and Patrick’s low blow put seriously negative thoughts in my head about whether or not I accomplished this feat in Liaocheng, whether or not I committed enough to making this experience as worthwhile as it could have been.

My bad mood remained throughout the day until I met Nathan, who over the past couple of months has become one of my closest friends, not only in Liaocheng but I would venture to say for the rest of my life.  Nathan is 25, a graduate student studying biology at Liaocheng University, and somebody I have tremendous respect for.  He’s the kind of guy you knows comes from a loving family with supportive parents, the kind of guy you know will end up marrying the most kind-hearted girl you’ve ever met.  He’s part philosopher, part prankster, part drinking buddy.  Nathan’s words and stories have brought me to tears and back from the brink many times, and he always has this way of providing a soft but powerful comfort.  It was in this single relationship that I realized the validity of my experience in Liaocheng, and opened the door to help me realize all the other things I’ve accomplished during my time here.  I’ve learned a good deal of spoken mandarin, and even a little LiaochenghuaI (Liaocheng’s local dialect).  I learned how to write a few paragraphs in Chinese characters, took a few classes in Tai chi, and mastered the art of using chopsticks.  I tried my best to explain why I believe the freedom of speech to be an inalienable human right to groups of eager Chinese students.  I drank baiju and sang karaoke with a communist party official.  I helped my friend Tony get a good job at a new English school.  I spat sunflower seeds and watched the World Cup with my Chinese friends.  I wrote this blog.  I took pictures.  I haggled to good effect.  I drove a rickety old Chinese tractor around a sandlot while the drunken yard workers ran around me with the arms up, cheering me on.  I learned how to read a menu in Chinese.  I learned to never leave my chopsticks sticking up in my bowl of rice because it’s bad luck.  I made lifelong relationships both with Chinese people and with foreigners.  I discovered my true love of steamed jiaozi (dumplings).  I dodged wild taxi drivers and donkeys on a daily basis.  I made friends with the shop owners and waiters at my local restaurants and convenience stores.  I became an integral part of Liaocheng, a living, breathing citizen that changed this “small” town, and allowed it to change me.

So if you had to ask me how I feel right now about leaving Liaocheng…sad, but grateful.  I will miss my friends, my favorite restaurants, my favorite markets, my favorite parks, knowing full well that in a country that’s developing as fast as China is I may never be able to return and see this place in the same light. That breaks my heart, but at the same time I feel so lucky to have been in a place that isn’t Beijing, that isn’t Shanghai, that it isn’t a place that is so huge and so multifaceted that I could have never felt the familiarity of what I now feel towards Liaocheng.  And I guess that’s healthy.  I guess there’s really nothing more you could ask for when you leave a place, perhaps just that my future ventures in life, whether it be this month of travel or any of my other endeavors, will be as fulfilling as this one has been.