Last night we watched Years of Living Dangerously, an intelligent Nat Geo series that showcases the ugly mug of climate change. Guest host Sigourney Weaver chatted with notorious bigwigs in Hong Kong about China and its irrevocable reputation as “the dirty factory of the world.” With over a thousand coal plants, the juxtaposition is this: China was the world’s biggest investor in clean, renewable energy last year.
But in that same (gasping) breath, a tiny blurb in today’s Toronto Star: SMOG FORCES SCHOOLS, FACTORIES TO CLOSE. A national “red alert” forced 700 companies to stop production in Beijing, dozens of cities closed schools from Friday night until today (Wednesday) to reduce air pollution.
Truth: If Beijing were a disease, landing at their airport is like touching down in jaundice. You feel your lungs collapse a little. Everything has a sepia tone—though the visibility of the smog blister surrounding the city is limited. We could barely see the incoming planes on the runway.
China was never on our wish list for two giant reasons: pollution and populace. But, somehow a dynamic deal ($3460 bucks each—15 nights in China and a 7 night extension in Phuket, Thailand) sucked us in like turkey stuffing-flavoured potato chips (yes, there is such a thing! And this is where you should funnel your money).
Kim and I agreed to group travel even! Surely we were drugged, hypothermic (we booked in February) or we had a weak seat sale moment. The notion of future group travel was quickly cemented early on: we would NEVER do group travel again, or China. Or, Chinese food—which we didn’t even partake in before. Not even a single pineapple chicken ball in day-glo sweet and sour sauce in our seven years together.
Earlier in the year, in dutiful preparation, I read Lost on Planet China: One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation (J. Maarten Troost). I dictated most of it aloud to Kim, kinda in that wavering voice you get when you tell a ghost story by a bonfire. Lost on Planet China was like a Stephen King ripper. What had we done?
Our local guide, Cathy, said two things (on day one) that set the tone:
“You need to wear your name tags, people. Because, you all look the same to me.”
“And, Mr. Hu is our second best bus driver. Our first is in the hospital.”
Kim and I learned these two things immediately:
“Bu Yao”—which means “I don’t want it.” But, with the wrong inflection, it can also mean “Don’t bite me” or, worse, “Stay with me!”
“You can’t drink the food good here.” (Quote: Kim Kenny, after round 12 of bok choy and fish oil-slicked pork and slimy oyster mushrooms). Despite serious caution from Cathy about the thousand Chinese that went blind from drinking fake booze, we had to test the waters. There are startling legit numbers suggesting that 30% of alcohol in China is fake, thanks to bathtub booze productions that fill hooch in brand name bottles (with cocktails of antifreeze and methanol). Of the two group members we found genuine kinship with, one was a retired pharmacist. And, he was buying blended whiskey, so, we rationally thought, if the pharmacist is buying potential bathtub whiskey, then this Absolut vodka must be fine for us. (*Note: I did awake a few times the first night to train my eye on the only light in the hotel room—the green dot on the flat screen TV, to ensure that I wasn’t blind from booze). Also, March 1, Consumption Day in China, commemorates China’s changes to food inspection and booze legislation. Cheers to that.
We’re not picky or snobby Western eaters (disclaimer: I’ve voluntarily eaten goat testicles and grasshoppers). We weren’t expecting the Mandarin or Canadianized Chinese food. But—where’s that great Peking duck? Those spicy sticky pork buns that I buy in Toronto’s Chinatown?
I was sharply reminded of my brother’s comment years ago, about Tim Horton’s French Cruller donuts. He said, “I’m surprised you like those. Don’t you find they leave an oil slick on the roof of your mouth?”
This was our experience with the daily Chinese buffet of duck clavicle and gluey congee (porridge’s weird Chinese cousin) and limp veg. After I tried the Sichuan numb & spicy pork dish in Wuhan my adventures in eating skidded to a halt. My tongue tingled and then went into a terrifying numbed state for a solid 20 minutes. This dish was like party drugs for your mouth. We bellied up to so many disappointing My Big Fat Chinese Wedding (*not a real movie. I don’t think.) white-riced lazy Susan meals that by day three, Kim and I looked at each other with that knowing face, “Clif bar?”
Our guide (hands on hips) was disappointed that we didn’t try the “boiling pork with charlies.” (*’Charlies’ are chilies, it took a while to figure this one out). Soundtrack: if it wasn’t Celine Dion it was Zamfir: Scarborough Fair, Chariots of Fire—all were given the pan flute treatment.
Despite all that (and because we found great international Lays potato chips with flavours like grilled squid, buttery scallops with garlic, finger-lickin’ braised pork and Italian red meat sauce) we still agree. It’s important to travel to places that challenge your palate and patience.
Asthma-inducing particulate aside…if you could helicopter into the Great Wall (and not the Badaling portion 80km northwest of Beijing where all the tourist buses barf out passengers like ourselves), that would be the highlight. It’s a true marvel—over 6,000 km of actual wall remains (though archaeologists will champion the wall to be nearly 22,000km with all its branches. The great snake is built of brick, stone, branches, rice and possibly even human remains. On the day we were dumped off it was a shocking -10 C. Worming our way through all the selfie sticks was a feat of its own—another was remaining upright on the black ice and preventing a domino effect of taking out 100 people with a wipeout on the sketchy stairs.
*Parts I’m skipping over but places that we responsibly visited: Tiananmen Square (where student-led protests in 1989 ended in the death of several hundreds, possibly thousands.
The Forbidden City and Summer Palace. Fact: The Last Emperor is the only Hollywood film that has been granted access to the City. It’s also the first film I remember that had an intermission at the theatre. The Imperial Palace consists of over 9,900 rooms. Two only seemed to be open and it was unbearably cold, windswept and not a highlight due to frozen _______(insert any body part here).
Oh, and the panda sanctuary in Chongqing which ended up being a zoo–but, if we had to be zoo animals, this would be the one we would choose. It’s lovely, in zoo-speak. But, being on a group tour meant we had to rush to our grandma-hour 4pm dinner and only had 20 minutes to see the pandas.
*Other parts glossed over: an agonizing stop for far too long at the pearl factory AND jade factory despite our guide’s unbridled enthusiasm: “And now we stop for two hours and help the Chinese economy!”
Fast forward to the Yangtze (and if you could, hop back in that helicopter and skip the dreary endless apartment-stacked skyline of Beijing. It’s like a never-ending Scarborough. Laundry flaps off every balcony like prayer flags. Mopeds with entire families squeezed in like club sandwiches putt along.) Finally, the glut of housing gives way to some green—sycamores! Gingko and camphor trees! Lotus fields! Chinese line dancers (yes, there is such a thing—and they do it in broad daylight in the parks) and legions of Tai Chi ambassadors jockey for green space, most wearing face masks and parkas.
The Yangtze is the third largest river in the world. China sunk $45B US into the Three Gorges Project. Of that price tag, 45% was funneled into relocation efforts for the 1.3 million ‘migrants’ whose villages are now submerged. It seems privileged and snotty to float over the lives and ancestry of so many. The relics are witnessed in the hanging tombs—wooden coffins that are suspended high in the crevasses of the gorges. Few remain, and as the river opens up from the dam to the main channel, the industrial marine highway creates exhibit #35 for Chinese juxtapositions.
We had reveled in a full day of hot November sun, lounging on the upper deck of the river boat, necks craned back as we passed through the verdant gorges. All was right with the world. We were floating through a postcard and thinking, “wish you were here.”
But on the very next day—we wished we weren’t there. We couldn’t even step outside. The sulphur was in choking amounts. Steamers and barges (over 200 of them) queued up with coal, sulphur and hundreds of shiny new white cars. Smoke stacks lining the river burped up effluent. Nuclear reactors sent their plumes skyward too. It was gross. And then? Oddly, a woman standing on the banks in a long ivory wool coat, waving slowly, her arm extended above her head. As though to warn about sharks in the water. She sang gospel into a microphone, with a little amp at her side. Waving and singing to no particular audience.
We found a few markets to walk through (childhood flashback of always wanting to go poke the shrink-wrapped cow tongue’s at Calbecks’ grocery store). Skinned ducks, live eels, pig knuckles, still-flipping fish, pickled chicken’s feet and all sorts of organs were on gruesome display. On the flip side, massive melons and neatly lined up greens and spices were presented like fine art.
Fast forward to the high speed train to Shanghai (again, insert endless landscape of utilitarian high rise apartments and condos). And by high speed, we’re talking upwards of 250km/hour. The train is efficient and the menu is a curious one. We were torn between “smell strictosidine” (they were out of this anyway), drunk fish, grinding corn beverage, crispy duck wing root, squid silk and “alcoholic peanuts.” Massive solar fields were a blur as we whizzed through the rural areas, rice paddies, haphazard graveyards and bony-backed cattle.
I think this is where Kim and I designed our own group tour and left the group. We navigated the spaghetti lines of the Shanghai metro system as our group hotel was an hour from the action, Nanjing Road, the bund and all the glittery fracas. It would be like booking a room in Ajax, thinking you were going to be ‘close’ to Toronto. (Though the hotel did have a heated toilet seat and a TV screen embedded in the bathroom mirror).
We supported the fake market industry (North Face jackets! Superdry! Salomon shoes! Mammut!) until we couldn’t handle the aggression. “LADY! WATCHES! Hello! Belts! LADY! COME. BUY JACKET.” Many vendors would latch on with python grips and pull you into their stores. Simply looking at a hoodie you’d hear, “WHAT SIZE? HOW MUCH?” Walking away was like leaving a 10-year relationship. “Why you leave? Come on special friend. Special price!”
We happened upon a German ice bar (over 120 kinds of vodka and a -3C room to drink them in. Parka provided.) called Kafer but opted for a Shangri La hotel happy hour.
It was a civilized moment of calm after the hyper retail gong show of the AP Market. We sat in the Treasury Room eating salty mixed nuts, snootily drinking Australian craft beer, listening to David Bowie while watching snooker. Juxtapositions in Shanghai, yes.
We pass trees with i.v. bags. In a place that pumps out the pollutants to the demise of the human population, trees get loving attention to help conquer disease processes. We make our way to Cloud 9, the tallest bar in the world with a sky-high view and equally sky-high prices.
I get the expat love affair with Shanghai. It’s cosmo. It’s metro. All the big hotel chains are there and you can smoke cigars and drink cognac at the Fairmont Peace Hotel as though you are in Chicago. Shanghai is touted to be “the Chicago of the Orient” with a river winding along the Bund and all the Mink Mile stores. It’s immaculate. It’s pedestrian-centric. Kim felt like we’d walked onto a Jetsons set at dusk.
The entire city pulsates and vibrates. The skyline dances with neon. Outdoor escalators whisk starry-eyed couples to pedestrian causeways, KFC, Dairy Queen, Subway and the like.
China. It’s backwards. Its forwards. We endured it with Phuket dangling like a GMO-enhanced carrot at the end. But that’s another blog.
Lesson learned: When we say “never” (and despite other people saying “never say never”), we now mean it. So, this means: We will never go on a cruise, go to China (again), Cuba (again), Vegas, India or Scarborough for that matter. Also, we will never do group travel again.