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china Travel

SPAGHETTI BOLOGNESE, BANANA AND RAINS

Today the weather was rainy, as it would be during the next five days. And the heater got too hot!

The lunch was spaghetti bolognese in the apartment of Regiane, it was a long time since I had last seen this dish! Afterward, I took a class with Kang.

Eating in China is very cheap, especially in small towns. I’ve paid up to RMB 2 in small meals, which is about R $ 0.58 (less than USD 0.50). But this is an extreme, on average spent from RMB 8 to RMB 12 per meal, which is between R$ 2 to R$ 3 (between USD 1 and USD 2). Things in Xian were a little more expensive than in Kashgar, but still much cheaper compared to Beijing or Hong Kong.

I caught a cold. I had lunch at a Uighur restaurant and in the afternoon I had Cantonese class with Steven, then we talked about random subjects to spend time since it was drizzling. He was a Christian, rare to find in this country.

Some Chinese locals compared me to a banana, that is, yellow on the outside and white on the inside, because I have the physiognomy of an Asian and inside I think like a Westerner.

I slept about 12 hours in a row, because of the cold I was very tired. I took a Cantonese class with Teresa and went out to have a dinner with Flavio, Regiane, Aaron and Steven. I almost didn’t study today.

In this country I’ve seen funny things, such as:

•            Seeing Chinese going out simply in their pajamas. The women in colorful pajamas, vermilion or pink, I came to see a man in ceroula! In Brazil I also go out in pajamas, since I sleep in sweatshirt or shorts and T-shirt, but I think it’s different, isn’t it?

•            Watching restaurant staff dancing and do stretching exercises in the morning in front of the restaurants, as if it were a military order, they probably thought it was weird for me to photograph them.

•            Dance in the parks in large groups, mostly women, especially ladies. Someone took the speakers and the crowd dance synchronized to the rhythm of the music, in the late afternoon and evening. On other occasions I have observed social dance for couples.

•            People bought takeout food and took their food in plastic bags, rather than styrofoam or aluminum packaging or lunch boxes.

•            They also bought juices, soft drinks, teas and ice coffees in plastic bags and drank with straw while they walked. Later I would realize that it was something common in Southeast Asia.

….

Today was the fourth day of unrelenting rain and cold, unlike other days when there was no cold. Today I got all wet, just walked with the raincoat, did not like to wear umbrellas, from the thigh down I was soaked. All I had left was a long pair of pants and a pair of dry boots, these pants I used to sleep too!

The Mandarin class with Kang was at her college where she was doing grad school. I went on foot and came back by bus.

I did a little cleaning at home. Then I had dinner with Flavio, Seal, a Chinese and a beautiful and friendly Korean in a Cantonese restaurant, whose food is typical of the South.

I had to buy an umbrella for RMB 10 (USD 1.30), you could find for this price in Japan too, the only thing in Japan that is cheaper than in Brazil.

….

On the fifth day of rain the cold was more intense! According to the weather channel forecast there would be ten more days of rain ahead, after that there was no forecast, but it should be rain. Today the rain was a little weaker.

Here in China one should be very careful with the goods, after all I was in the “Land of Pirates” and I had bought a fake iPod, flash drive and backpack in Beijing, only the backpack was still functioning. Here things are made not to last, all of the lowest quality, it is included in this list even home plumbing, Flavio says so. It is very rare to find original DVD, in relation to the quality of pirated DVDs, they are very good being difficult to visibly differentiate between copies and originals, sometimes the recording was in the cinema theater with subtitles of any another movie. The government has stepped up actions against DVD piracy only. Here you can also have a sandwich at KFC or KLC, and have coffee at Starbuck’s or Starduck’s. Even cars and airplanes are cloned.

I took a class with Teresa. Cantonese is funny and I’m finding it a bit difficult, but not as much as Japanese, since it bears some resemblance to Mandarin and Taiwanese, due to phonemes, whose languages I already have familiarity, but it is totally incomprehensible among people who speak only one of these three languages.

At lunch I ordered a dish of noodle with meat, the woman got it wrong and brought me rice with meat.

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VOLUNTEER WORK

Day of mild fog, weak sun and pleasant temperature. I had lunch with several foreigners (Australian, American, French, Colombian and Brazilian). I don’t know why foreigners had a habit of ordering a plate of corn only! They were all Chinese students and knew how to order various Chinese dishes, which I didn’t know, but they never dispised a dish of corn.

There are foreigners and backpackers who do voluntary social work outside their country of origin, regardless of the creed or religion they follow or practice. There are those who live in the country doing permanent work, and there are also those who do temporary work (in the case of backpackers).

Lok (already mentioned in Kashgar) was going to do a work in Africa. Laetitia, quoted in Xining, was in Vientiane (Lao’s capital) for work. Oriane was in Cambodia. And here in China I met some foreigners doing social work.

Today I accompanied a group (English and Chinese) to distribute soup and bread to beggars on the street, it is a rewarding job in personal terms. Helping others, poor and needy people, unfortunately is something that a few do, even less practiced by the Chinese, after all most have no religion and many only think of themselves. For security reasons, I didn’t take any picture. We went “hunting” the beggars in the city center of Xian to offer food, a few refused but others accepted with a smile on their faces. Those in need lay on the ground, both in public streets and in dark alleys. With the cold coming we took a couple of socks too, it was not uncommon for some beggars to die of cold during the harsh winter. As we distributed, some Chinese simply watched and surprised the rare scene of helping others, even more performed by foreigners. Some said: “They are Christians!”. The foreigners had made friends with some of the poor in the region, who were always happy to see them.

Here in China you don’t see street children, because they’re either kidnapped to be sold or enslaved, or they stay in orphanages that are far from the center, strategically away from the eyes of tourists. And the orphanages here are sad!

Right after the food distribution, I stopped by the English Corner to see my friends.

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THE “ENGLISH CORNER”

The weather was bad and I had no hot water. Flavio and I went to take a shower at Jade’s house. And at night I went to the English Corner with Regiane. The “English Corner” takes place every Thursday night in the square of XISU (Xian International Study University). Hundreds of Chinese students gather there to practice English or simply to have a contact with some foreigner, others wanted to show off before colleagues. I was glad that Regiane was with me, so she attracted a lot of Chinese, although I wanted to practice my Chinese not English, it was fun. It is was possible to contact a Chinese who worked in the auto parts industry and wanted to expand operations to Brazil.

When the Chinese saw Regiane, a foreign women, they soon began to coalesce around her, like moths vying for their space around a lighted lamp. So, Regiane had attracted enough people not to be able to answer the hundreds of questions and they saw that I was next to her not facing her, and every now and then I talked to her in Portuguese. Then they started talking to me, because I also answered the questions addressed to her to realize that I was from the outside. Then another circle was formed around me, which expanded a little more, like cells in division during mitosis, I no longer could see Regiane in the crowd.

The students were mostly girls, students of foreign language or simply people graduated from another course who wanted to learn English. Sometimes even a child would show up to practice or just to see a foreigner. We arrived between seven and eight o’clock at night, Regiane was tired and left before, I stayed until about 11pm. Next Thursday I would go again to have fun!

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NO LIGHT AND NO WATER

Today I had no electricity. Since the water heater was solar, all I had to do was hope for the sun to shine, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to shower or would have to take a cold bath or go to someone’s house with a gas heater.

In the afternoon I went to the post office downtown to send some postcards.

Since it was dark, we suspended the private class at night and went for a walk on Kang’s campus, I hitchhiked on her bike. Kang and I always had good conversations about religion and politics, but because my Chinese vocabulary was limited, we always talked in English. I loved provoking her by criticizing communism, Chinese habits and the controversial issue of Taiwan. She had a friend who wanted to play soccer with me, just because I was Brazilian, but I didn’t play football. The Chinese think that all Brazilians play soccer, just as Brazilians think all Chinese practice kung-fu. I didn’t practice either, much to everyone’s frustration.

The next day it had no water! So in the morning I went to the KFC’s toilet, about fifteen minutes walk from home, it was very clean but it had to squat. I took the opportunity to study right there, at the KFC table (not in the toilet). In the afternoon I slept at home and then studied, now I knew a hundred Chinese ideograms. I had class last night. I remember when I was a child and in São Paulo sometimes lacked either water or electricity.

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THE IMMORTALS

I went to Ba Xian An Si or Taoist Temple of the Eight Immortals, by the way they were all dead, it was at east of the East Gate (of the City Wall). Being the only Taoist temple of Xian, it was built in the Song dynasty (960AD–1279AD), but restored several times in successive subsequent dynasties, the main structures today were built in the Qing dynasty (1644AD–1911AD). There was no attraction in this temple, I’d say the visit was a waste of time. Outside there was a market with shops and stalls selling antiques or common objects in ancient eras, such as fans, bronze mirrors, porcelain, coins, brushes for Chinese calligraphy. I also passed through a park, the Yingqing Park, equally monotonous.

I had dinner with Linda and Susan (English), Regiane and Flavio, at Susan’s house, the owner of the pizzeria where we ate on August 2. Linda’s food was good, pasta in funghi sauce, but the English don’t seem to have the habit of repeating the dish.

The next day I took a Mandarin conversation class for the first time with Kang Li. I asked her to buy Lonely Planet from Southeast Asia over the Internet because I couldn’t find it in major import bookstores and it was getting worried about my next part of the trip.

The dinner was at a Japanese restaurant with Alexandre in a mall in Xian, who wanted to import Brazilian coffee. It also dined with us Daniela, the girlfriend of the soccer player Vicente (I can not remember which Brazilian team) and Flávio. Alexandre was annoyed when the waitresses held the beer bottle by the body, instead of holding it by the neck of the bottle, and I got angry when there was no cold soda. The Chinese didn’t mind drinking hot beer or soda.

The next day was beautiful, I took more pictures of Tang Paradise Park where I went to study. In relation to my studies I used the Flavio’s books, I was self-taught. I went to the TV tower near Flavio’s house but unfortunately it was not open to visitation.

I slept late every day. I kept updating my late blog day and night. On Vicente’s birthday, the Brazilians went to his flat. There was coxinha, pastel, chicken and meat pie, “brigadeiros” and “beijinhos”, all made by Daniela. Among the guests, in addition to the Brazilians, the were a Croatian blond soccer player and his family, and another black player from some country in Africa, all of them playing in teams from China.

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THE PAGODAS

Today I have updated my blog, it was another beautiful day. I met Kang Li, a graduate student in automation engineering, she was 26 years old and smart, a bit plump and wore glasses. She was going to give me some private Chinese lessons, just conversational. It was Flavio who introduced me, she taught him too. I was looking forward to starting studying right away.

I had lunch at the cafeteria of the college where Flavio was studying with him and Aaron, an Australian guy. I found it a little messy, like any cafeteria of any college, there was only Chinese food as expected and had to eat with chopsticks, the food was good as well as Flavio’s dinner, the fried noodles.

The next day would be the independence holiday in Brazil (September 7th). I had lunch with Flavio, Regiane, Jade (the chubby Korean-English), Jeff (the obese American) and Caroline (the beautiful Sino-Filipino-Canadian), all of which were studying Chinese here.

I went to visit the Dayan Ta (the Great Wild Goose Pagoda), the area was very beautiful and well maintained, I almost felt in Japan. The pagoda was built in 652 AD, in the Tang dynasty, no one knows why it has that name. Pagoda is a type of Buddhist or Taoist tower, and this was 64m high, you could get a good view of the city from the top.

In the huge block north of the pagoda there was the show at the water fountain, the largest in the world, which took place every day, day and night and it was crowded with many local Chinese. The show synchronized music and splashes of water, while some people had fun running and trying to escape the water jets, it was occupying a block divided into four or five blocks. Next to the Dayan Ta, there were two well-wooded parks, the eastern one attracting attention for being themed, possessing giant theater masks, sculptures and artistic statues.

Xiaoyan Ta (the Little Wild Goose Pagoda) was built in 709 AD, with 45m high, it was 2km from the big pagoda, also south of the city wall south gate, but I was not interested in visiting this one.

Later in the afternoon I went to Tang Paradise Park, a theme park and very beautiful. Opened in April 2005, the park was intended to showcase culture during the Tang dynasty (617 AD to 907 AD). It has several pavilions and buildings in the style of that time and a large lake with thousands of colorful and hungry carps, as well as statues, music, dance, souvenirs, food and smell of incense, all to convey to our five senses the essence of the grandeur and prosperity of the Tang dynasty.

I bought the annual pass for 150yuan (USD 20), since the entry was 50Y (very expensive!). I stayed until the evening, at 20:30 there was the exhibition of the water film, but before it began with a parade, a staging with the costumes dressed the old-fashioned way. The aquatic film was fantastic, it was projected in the waters of the fountain, giving the impression of holographic or three-dimensional projection. It was a story with the legendary monkey Sun Wu Kong as a hero, there was the dance of the waters, laser beams, fireworks and music.

Here in Xian the student card is well accepted, unlike other cities, I used my graduate student card to get into the pagoda and the wall with discount.

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THE HISTORIC CENTER OF XIAN

Xian (Shaanxi Province) is a very old and planned city with more than 3,100 years of history and culture. It is also one of the ancient capitals of China.

The center is surrounded by a huge wall, forming a rectangle of 12km of perimeter surrounded by a moat, is the most preserved wall in China, with its proper repairs. In the center is located the “Bell Tower” and the “Drum Tower”. The city wall separating the center of the suburb was originally built in 1370 in the Ming Dynasty, but only took the current form with bricks in 1568. It has 12m high and its base 18m wide, as well as several watchtowers.

The “Bell Tower” is the heart of the city although it is not at the epicenter of the wall, it was built in 1384, rebuilt in 1582 and restored in 1739, obviously has a large bell, made of bronze. The architecture is typical Chinese and its green roof forms the largest and best preserved “Bell Tower” of all China.

The “Drum Tower”, a few meters from the Bell Tower, is a larger building and contains dozens of huge drums. Behind the Drum Tower was the famous Muslim Quarter of Hui minority. They are said to be descendants of 8th-century Arab soldiers. The streets were narrow and the grocery stores, restaurants and stalls sold typical Muslim things, such as sheep’s head to eat the brain.

I walked from the south gate of the wall (it is the main entrance) to the west gate and then to the north gate. The day was cloudy, better than fog, because visibility is better without that opaque sky that was bad for photos.

Xian also have its department stores with the famous brands in the center.

The next day, despite being Tuesday, I went to do a biking, for me it was a “Sunday”. And the day was sunny and clear skies, good for photos! The biking was on the top of the city wall, from the south gate I followed clockwise to the west and then to the north, where the railway is, passing through several watchtowers. I paid an expensive bike renting, considering local standards, $2.50 for a hundred minutes. From the north gate I walked to the “Bell Tower”, I would still pass dozens of times through the center.

Biking on the wall.

Xian soldiers in the city center. Bell Tower in the background.

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BACK TO XIAN

My trip from Lanzhou to Xian was a string of delays, the bus delayed an hour, stopped to be repaired for another hour, had a detour on the way and a lot of traffic, and the road was stopped because of works, there were many trucks on the single narrow lane between the mountains. In the middle of the road appeared a lady selling food in styrofoam marmites brought in an aluminum tray, I do not know where it came from, but I ended up buying one and it was warm.

The forecast to arrive at 7pm was totally wrong and I arrived at 1:30 am at Flávio’s house, without remembering which condominium or floor it was. I was lucky to find a resident coming in and borrowed his cell phone to call. I was obviously fooled as to the length of the route, Chinese likes to cheat!

In the next two months I would devote myself to the studies of Mandarin and Cantonese in Xian. It was September 1st. 2006, my day of gravy, rest day and lots of rain. At least it was fresh, Xian is usually very hot, but the season was over. It was also the day to do my accounting, edit photos and update my blog.

The next day I met Regiane, a Brazilian from Ceará who was studying Chinese in Xian, she lived in the same condominium as Flávio. We had lunch all together.

The dinner was with American students at a supposed to be a Brazilian steakhouse. I was anxious, but it was a mistake, only the way of preparation was Brazilian, but the meats and other things had nothing to do with it. No picanha, fraldinha, contrafilé or filet mignon. I’d have to wait until the next year to kill the longing.

On Sunday I went to a Sunday service with the foreigners at Anita’s house, an American who grew up in Brazil, she loved Brazil and had a northeastern accent. The whole day was “smog”, glad it does not exist in Brazil, it was a sunny day but the sky was covered by a fog, taking all the liveliness of a clear sky.

I noticed that in China there is no squeegee and it is difficult to find beverage machines as in Japan or Taiwan.

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CLIMBING TO LANSHAN

Today the weather was good and I have walked a lot! I hiked from the hotel to the top of Lan Shan mountain here in Lanzhou, at an altitude of 500m, the mountain was behind the train station as in Xining. I was going to take the cable car to the top but it was packed and the hike didn’t seem to difficult so I have decided to climb the mountain – it must have taken about 2 hs. I expected it to be more difficul, but it was a lot easier than Grouse Mountain in Canada or Villarrica Volcano in Chile, perhaps because I was already in better physical shape compared to my first few weeks of travel. From below, the mountain looked very high, and from the top it looked even higher! The buildings seemed low and small, the city looked like a mock-up and the tiny cars and trains seemed like toys.

At the top there was an amusement playground and restaurants, all empty. It also had a nine-hole golf course and a drive range to practice the shots, where I played fifty balls.

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china Travel

THE GIANT BUDDHA OF BINGLING SI

Today was a rainy and cold day in Xiahe. I was going to Lanzhou and then to Bingling Si, but as Bingling Si was before Lanzhou I decided to change my route. I actually had to go to the city of Linxia, I was hoping to sleep there or in Bingling Si, or even in Liujiaxia.

The bus left early, I was talking to Vanessa on the bus, she was going to Lanzhou, after spending 8 months in India and now she was at the end of her trip. She was in doubt whether she was going to Xinjiang or Beijing with the little time she had left. The big bus was empty, had only five people and no one else went up, rare thing in China, I thought it could be full on the way, but it didn’t happen. The trip lasted about 5 hours.

The driver dropped me off in the middle of the road in Linxia, about 2:30hs from Xiahe, glad there were taxi and bus. I took a bus to the old bus station, but it was disabled, I then went to a terminal where I took another bus to Lianhwa. The bus was climbing a mountain passing through inland villages, dirt road, something unusual around here, the streets and roads are almost all paved, there were more beautiful landscapes such as canyon, mountains and finally the Yellow River, which this time was green.

In Lianhwa, I negotiated a motorized boat for USD 14.80 one way to Bingling Si and back to Matou, where there was nowhere to stay, so only Liujiaxia or Lanzhou left to sleep.

Typical landscape on the way to Bingling Si.

Bingling Si is where there is a statue of giant sitting buddha of 27m carved on the slope of the mountain, it means “Ten Thousand Buddhas” in Tibetan. The boat ride along the Yellow River to the buddha is fantastic, the formation of the mountains was beautiful and unique. The place with the big buddha also had hundreds of other smaller buddhas, carved or painted on the walls of the mountain, was impressive for its beauty, it has 183 caves. The place located in a canyon has access only by boat during the months of June to October, when the river allows navigation. It was built over dynasties for over 1000 years, having begun around 420 AD in the Jin dynasty. In the region there were also some temples, I entered one that there was a buddha lying down.

The driver of Matou van, which was on the other side of the river, wanted to extort me charging RMB 4 to take me to Liujiaxia, it was about R$ 1 (USD 0.50), it was not expensive for me, but also it was not fair, because the other passengers were paying only RMB 1, after the discussion and another passenger intermediary in my favor, he charged me the fair price. When he left me in Liujiaxia, I was going to give an extra RMB 1, but the driver refused, we will never understand!

In Liujiaxia there was a hydroelectric power plant, after a half hour ride I was in doubt if I would sleep here but I decided to go to Lanzhou 2 hours drive away. On the bus to Lanzhou, the guy next to me was a high or middle school English teacher and he had a poor English, but at least he spoke some and wanted to practice, he was so excited. He praised me for the physical aspect. The first time I was praised by a man I found it strange then I got used to it, the Chinese had no intention or malice, it was part of their culture. It was also common to see heterosexual men walking down the street hugging, this would be inadmissible to Latin people. In that sense I was Latino, I don’t really like masculine touches or physical approximations.

The itinerary of the day was like this: bus in Xiahe, bus in Linxia, boat in Lianhwa, boat in Bingling Si, bus in Matou and bus in Liujiaxia to Lanzhou. Later I came to find out that “matou” means “pier” in Chinese, it was not a town’s name. The weather was good in Lianhwa, Bingling Si and Liujiaxia, unlike Xiahe. At night in Lanzhou looking for a hotel to stay I ve found that foreigner could not stay at anyone, I was turned down in some. The chinese-only hotels are pretty dirty. But what I stayed in, I don’t think they could have hosted me either. Since I was disguised as a Chinese man, I think they let me stay. Perhaps these hotels are of such low class that in order not to make a bad impression on foreigners, they were simply forbidden to non-Chinese.