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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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THE HARSH REALITY

I used to study on my own using the sequence of Flavio’s books, there were two books per semester, I was finishing the third book.

The Chinese take English language very seriously, they know the importance and strive to learn it; well, at least the young college students. Today in the “English Corner” I met Henry (or Adiekber his name in Uighur), he was Uighur and was working on summer holidays as a guide at the tour agency in Kashgar, he was tall and looked like mixed-race like most of the Uighurs. Henry was studying English at Xian.  We meet by chance 3500km away from Kashgar, China is really small!

All the colleges in China were paid, there is nothing free in this communist country. So, life for many Chinese were not easy at all, many have to work to get to pay for their college around USD 800 per year plus dormitory accommodation, almost USD 2000 per year, few for some and a fortune for others. The young people take their studies in this country very seriously.

Many parents kill themselves working to put their children in a college, peasants want to see their children in better condition in the future, and guarantee their livelihood when they are elderly. Putting a child in college represents for some a lifetime of work, savings and sacrifice. And the labor market is extremely crowded, China has an excess of labor, which throws wages down. The pressure on the individual ends up being very strong, it is very stressful for the young student, some can not stand the pressure and end up committing suicide. The government doesn’t bring it up.

College students must live in college dormitory, even if they have a place next to the college they have to pay for the accommodation, even if they go to sleep at home every day!

Being a foreigner here in China was an attraction, even though I looked like an Han Chinese, although everyone found me looking Japanese or Korean, when they knew I was from outside, they soon wanted to talk to me. In fact, I seemed like a foreigner by the way I walk, dress, appearance and behavior, and when I opened my mouth then, I left no doubt, my accent and poor vocabulary denounced me.

The flustered Chinese asked everything, like: what was my age, if I had a girlfriend, what I was doing here, how long it would stay, how was Brazil, what I thought of China, what I studied, if I was a Christian, if I played football, etc. For the foreigner that was in the center of the circle, always answering the same questions it became very tiring, besides having to talk non-stop for hours.

Many were curious about Christianity, after all it is a novelty, it was the “religion of the West”, even being Atheists, Materialists or Buddhists, for some of them their philosophies and religion did not fill the emptiness of their souls.

As life is not easy here, many want to leave China and envy the American standard of living seen in the movies. The Chinese are super patriotic, even with all the defects and corruptions of the party and government, they were taught to watch over the homeland.

Xian is also known not only for the historical side, for having been the capital of several dynasties in the past, but also for having dozens of colleges here, more than forty. So there were many young people in the city, many were from other provinces.

Today a guy knocked on my door, it was the collector of the water bill. It was not like in Brazil, everything electronic/automatic. The collector came with a “paper” notebook containing the history of payments and consumption, he read the “clock” (hydrometer) and already made the charge. It was supposed to pass every three months, but it took six months since the last time to show up and charge, according to what Flavio told me, he seemed honest, without charging any extra, made the receipt in the exact amount to be paid and handed me.

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DONKEY DAY

Today I met Teresa, she was short and studied English at uni, she would give me Cantonese classes during my afternoons. Teresa helped me buy a study book with Cantonese phonemes that comes with a CD. She wasn’t pretty, but she was a sweet person, extremely sweet. I tried earlier to buy the book same book at Xian’s Uni bookstore, but the bookstore lady told me it didn’t exist. I almost believed her!

Lesson: never believe anything a stranger in China tells you!

At night, Kang took me to a dinner to have dog meat, I was eager to try this delicacy, much consumed in Asia at the time, but there was not in the restaurants yet. As it was not cold enough yet, this meat did not arrive for consumption. Dog meat is consumed on cold days, I can not explain exactly why, but it has to do with the flow of internal energy from the body, called “Chi” (pronounced “tchi”). And such meat, it is said to heat up. We ended up eating donkey meat, I didn’t find anything extraordinary, it looked like beef.

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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 COLD WAS COMING…

In the afternoon I went out with Kang to help me buy Flavio’s birthday gift that would be the next month in October, I bought a simple gas heater, tomorrow someone will come to install it. After all the autumn was coming and in the winter it would snow and I would also enjoy the hot water, the shower water was heated by solar energy and during the winter the sunlight was not enough to heat the water. We went shopping in a commercial and busy area, called “Xiao Zai”, there were stores of everything, from appliances, books, clothes, CDs and DVDs, food, mobile phones, etc.

The next day the guy who would install the gas heater came, as agreed, he had to drill the wall to pass the pipe. The installation came out more expensive than I expected. Although, in the whole in the wall wasn’t need and just seemed to serve as a whole in my wallet. Now we didn’t have to bathe at friends’ homes anymore.

In the afternoon I had class with Kang Li and met Steven, the Chinese who was going to teach me Cantonese on Sundays. He had a degree in English and worked in an office. Cantonese is the second most spoken Chinese language in China after Mandarin, it is also widely spoken in Chinatowns around the world.

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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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