I think I’m finally beginning to understand this.
This morning I took my coffee back because it was cold. “Umm, I’m sorry,” I began meekly. “My coffee is not very warm.”
The girl behind the counter grabbed my mug, cupped her hands around it, and gave it a bit of consideration. “I think it is warm.” She handed the cup to someone through the window to the kitchen and muttered something in Chinese.
“Umm, could I have another coffee, please?”
She flipped on the espresso machine and checked the temperature of the water. “The water is warm,” she said. “It will be the same.”
“Okay.” I conceded the point. “Could I have my old coffee back?”
She retrieved my mug from the kitchen and without a word, gave it to me, smiling. The coffee was steaming hot.
This sort of thing happens all the time in China. If you, as a customer, point out any sort of problem with a product, or service, no matter how politely you put it, the problem will be strenuously denied. It doesn’t matter how obvious the problem is, or how easy it is to correct, how understandable and innocent the error was, or how transparently absurd the denial is. Sometimes the problem will be fixed, usually it will not be, but of one thing you can be fairly confident – “Oops, sorry, let me take care of that” will probably not be the response.
People wiser than I warned us of this phenomenon before we came to China. They also advised us not to throw tantrums in response. Naturally, I have ignored this advice repeatedly, but I can vouch for its wisdom. At first you may succeed in temporarily embarrassing the counter girl, or hotel clerk, or bank teller, but within seconds a crowd will gather round to watch, they will start smiling, then cracking jokes, then laughing openly, and in the end you will have succeeded only in embarrassing yourself. Believe me. I know these things.
A better approach is to apologise profusely and look pathetic. No one will ever acknowledge the problem, but occasionally, as with my coffee, it will mysteriously, silently be solved.
Though often not.
We were in a town called Wuwei, staying at a hotel for one of our breaks. Doing our washing is always one of our first tasks.
I filled out the sheet of paper with the laundry categories, and in the category marked “Handkerchiefs” I put the number 6. Hankies, pack towels, that sort of thing.
I gave the nice lady our bag of clothes and the sheet of paper. She tried to grab all carbon copies of the form, but I managed to keep one. We have learned to always keep receipts.
When they returned our laundry that afternoon, I counted the clothes while the nice lady waited. Hiking pants, check. T-shirts, check. Six pairs of socks, check. “Handkerchiefs”? Five in all. Only five. Something’s missing.
“One of our towels is missing, lost,” I attempt in Chinese. “A red one.”
The nice lady turns and engages in fierce consultation with another woman outside. “No, there is no red one.”
“I know, it’s lost,” I say. “Can you find it? Maybe look in the laundry?” I put my hand across my eyes, shielding the imaginary sun, and turn my head from side to side. Is this the international symbol for looking?
More consultation. “No, there was no other towel. No red one,” she says assuredly.
“Yes there was. See, the number 6,” I say, brandishing the pink carbon copy. “And here,” I say, pointing at the towels, “only five. Yi, er, san, si, wu.”
“Oh!” she exclaims, finally understanding. “This receipt, it’s wrong. This six, it’s wrong.” She points at each item in turn and counts them off: “One, two, three, four, five.”
How do you argue with that?
Some people might not see much difference between the Chinese Cricket Association and the China Cricket Association – one involves a group of men standing around a field waiting to see which team wins, the other involves a group of men standing around a plastic tub waiting to see which team wins. Easy to confuse the two.
One big difference, though – the game of cricket has only been played in China for about 150 years, while the cultivation of crickets (invertebrates, plural) has been around for about 3000. Hence the China Cricket Association, the country’s peak body in overseeing the trade in crickets and the annual nationwide cricket fighting championships.
In The Book of Songs, China’s most ancient collection of poems, dating from as early as 1000 BC, the keeping of crickets is mentioned – not for the crickets’ fighting skills, but for their singing skills.
The characters for qu qu (below ground chirpers) and guo guo (above ground fighters). The photo at the top of the page shows qu qu, singing crickets.
Pretty soon, Chinese men discovered that there were some crickets that like to fight each other. Seeing a good opportunity for a spot of gambling, oops, I mean social intercourse, they developed the art of cricket fighting. Not knowing anything about cricket fighting, Brendan and I decided to go to a demonstration put on by Beijing’s Chinese Culture Club.
China Cricket Association secretary Mr Zhao Bai Xian getting the crickets ready for a fight
Keeping crickets is a popular and elaborate hobby. Singing crickets are basically happy in bamboo cages, being fed fruit and vegetables. They live for roughly 150 days. Fighting crickets, on the other hand, need all sorts of paraphernalia to be good at their art. Little wooden houses and transporting boxes, bronze shovels to remove their waste, ceramic food and water bowls, and decorated ticklers to get them suitably annoyed enough to fight. And no veggies for these bad boys – it’s all raw meat, all the time.
Official fighting matches are a big deal. Crickets are kept away from their owners for about three hours before a fight to guard against doping. (You heard right – doping. It’s not just spin-bowlers they’re keeping an eye on.) Then, like all fighters, they weigh in and are matched up with a similar sized opponent. (Here, Brendan had a flashback to his teenage years, standing around naked with a group of other teenage boys waiting to be weighed in before a wrestling match.)
The cricket scales
The two male crickets are then put in an arena, otherwise known as a plastic tub, with a little sliding door between them. The door is removed and the males are then supposed to fight. This doesn’t always happen automatically; sometimes the owner needs to “tickle” his fighter to get the aggression flowing.
Checking out the opponent
Fights start like boxing matches – a few spars with the antennae, getting a bit more aggressive with the front legs, then one cricket, sensing his opponent’s weakness, lunges. After a few seconds of frenzied fighting where the two insects roll around in the air, locked together, the loser retreats and the other, chirping madly, is declared the winner.
This part of the fight only lasts for a few seconds
The losing cricket almost never suffers any serious physical harm. Mental health, sadly, is a different matter. The loser is usually so distraught that he refuses to fight another round for about 24 hours. The Chinese handlers have found a way around this by throwing them in the air and making them fly. A study by neurobiologists at Stanford University found that forcing the motor skill of flying onto the crickets helped bring them out of their depression. Implications for human depression are yet to be determined (see “Will fighting crickets unlock the mystery of human depression?”).
If you’ve ever had the misfortune of breathing in Beijing, it would probably never occur to you to take up an activity, like long-distance running, that forces you to really inhale that Beijing brew long and hard for three to five hours. According to The Guardian, Beijing has the world’s worst air (see “Satellite data reveals Beijing as air pollution capital of world” ).
Which is what makes the Beijing marathon such a unique event. Why, in a city with nearly 3 million cars on the road and 1000 more coming in every day, would 25,000 presumably healthy people choose, choose, to run 26 miles? Why hold one of Asia’s premier marathons, and this year the 10th Asian Championship marathon, in a city whose health clubs have taken to installing indoor running tracks?
But you know what they say – 25,000 Chinese can’t be wrong. So, at 8 am sharp on October 15, the starter’s gun fired and the ANA Beijing International Marathon was underway.
Me first! No, me! The starting line at Tiananmen Square
The elite pool of marathoners looked to number about 30 or so, the other many thousands of runners were just ordinary Beijingers and out-of-towners looking for a good time and a fun jog through the city that is to host the next Olympics. Starting at Tiananmen Square, the marathoners made their way through the north part of the city and finished at the future National Olympic Sports Centre. The first man across the line was Kenya’s James Kwambei with a time of 2 hours, 10 minutes and 36 seconds, while the first woman was China’s Sun Weiwei in 2 hours, 34 minutes and 41 seconds.
As in any marathon, the participants came in a variety of shapes and sizes – the young, the old, the insanely fit, the merely insane. But unlike any other marathon, this one had, pardon the stereotyping, a unique Chinese feel to it. In the ultimate loner’s sport, huge groups ran together. Some runners were clad in the highest tech, most outrageously expensive shoes and gear one could imagine; others wore pyjamas. Well after the race had begun, hundreds of runners were dodging through the crowd of spectators trying get to the starting line. The whole event had an atmosphere of happy chaos.
“Now young man, don’t go doing any fancy stuff”
And what Chinese event would be complete without some people dashing about in utterly inexplicable costumes? Meet the running red gum-drops . . .
“My mum said I should wear a face mask. Do you think this will do?”
When our friend and old bandmate Mike asked us about the music scene in China a few months ago, we really didn’t have much to offer beyond a few Kenny G and Carpenters jokes.
The Houhai Sharks
The Houhai Sharks
With the Wallnuts in town and a five-band bill at a popular bar for the bargain price of 20 kuai ($3.50 AUD), we figured we should jump at the chance to see some Beijing rock, so we headed out to D-22 near Peking University.
The impassioned Yang Haisong of PK 14
The scene outside the bar could have been pretty much any club in Newtown or Surry Hills, or an American college town for that matter – university-age hipsters smoking and chatting outside, lots of leather, ripped jeans, Converse, piercings and tats.
International indie-rock footgear
We got there an hour early and grabbed one of the few tables – we may be rugged wallwalkers but we don’t have the endurance anymore to stand in a sweaty moshpit for hours on end.
Shang of Joyside
Guan Zheng of Joyside
None of us knew anything, really, about Chinese rock, but it turns out we saw some of the best bands in Beijing. The headliners, Hang on the Box, were nominated as Best Rock Band at the Annual Pepsi Music Awards in 2004 and 2005. Two of the other bands, Joyside and PK 14, have been the subject of film docos. And it was a great show, at least so far as an oldster like me can judge (without the benefit of being able to understand any lyrics). To have a listen for yourself, click on any of names of the bands in this paragraph to go to their MySpace site.
Wang Yue of Hang on the Box
Hang on the Box
Last week, Brendan and I were invited to dinner with a group of Chinese people belonging to “A small site on the Great Wall,” a society (named for its website) of a few hundred members who seek to protect the wall. We’d been looking at their site, www.thegreatwall.com.cn, for a while, but never actually made contact. When we finally did, only last week, they invited us to one of their regular dinner get-togethers at a restaurant 45 minutes by taxi from our hostel in Beijing. (Nothing unusual about this, most Beijing taxi rides take 45 minutes. At least they’re cheap.)
Founder and webmaster Zhang Jun with Brendan
We’ve written before of the efforts and importance of nonprofit and community groups in protecting the Great Wall (see “A Great Celebration”). These groups, and The Great Wall group is no exception, are made up of enthusiastic, intelligent and passionate people. The Great Wall might be under World Heritage protection, but grandiose labels don’t necessarily mean much without the people of these member-based groups who are out there measuring and scrutinizing every brick and every tower and pushing for effective on-ground protection.
Try scoring some of these stylin’ T-shirts at Badaling
After eating more Chinese food than we probably should have, we were presented with one of the society’s T-shirts each. Then the lights were dimmed and we were treated to a viewing of some footage of a recent four-day trip the group took to some portions of the wall east of Beijing (which I have to say was rather daunting … that wall can be pretty steep in places.)
Emma watching trip footage with Great Wall members
Most of the material on www.thegreatwall.com.cn is in Chinese, but there are several informative pages in English with some great photos. Please drop by for a look, and if you can send an email wishing “The Great Wall” members well.
If someone had told us six months ago we’d spend October in Beijing waiting for a broken foot to heal, we can’t honestly say we’d have been thrilled. Fortunately, there are consolations.
October is absolutely the best time to come to Beijing. There’s only a narrow window of time between Beijing’s stifling, smoggy summers and frigid grey winters, and it’s right now – clear skies (by Beijing standards), warm days and cool nights. We know that 8 is an auspicious number hereabouts, but we can’t help but wish they’d scheduled the Beijing Olympics for October (the opening ceremony is 08/08/2008).
Yesterday we headed out to our favourite spot on the Beijing Tourist Trail, the Summer Palace. We’ve been there before, but like many of Beijing’s most famous spots, there has been a lot of restoration work going on while Beijing dresses up for the Olympics. So for us, this is the first time we’ve seen some of the most famous buildings when they were not covered by scaffolds.
Most of the buildings and landscaping at the Summer Palace date from the reign of Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century. Though British and French troops rampaged through the grounds in the 19th century, many of the buildings have been restored, so it’s possible to get a good feel for the place as it once must have been. It was a beautiful, crisp autumn day when we were out there, great for strolling under the willows, fishing or just taking pictures.
Bridge and canals near the West Palace Gate
Mural from the Long Gallery
The Temple of Buddhist Incense
Courtyard, Temple of Buddhist Incense
Ceramic bull roof decoration
Detail, Temple of Buddhist Incense
Glazed Buddhas on the Hall of the Sea of Wisdom
The temple catching late afternoon sunlight
Strolling along the causeway
Dragon boat on Lake Kunming
Our plane touched down right on time, we were waved through customs with a smile, took a few happy snaps at the Great Wall mural that greets arrivals at Beijing Airport (and it took a few to get one where we both look semi-human), and our luggage came off the conveyor belt safe and sound.
It was all very unChina-like.
Then the doors to the arrivals hall slid open and we caught a whiff of that familiar, homey mixture of cigarette smoke, petrol fumes, rotting vegetables and construction dust that can only mean one thing.
We’re back in Beijing.
The plan now is to head back to the wall in two weeks and pick up where we left off, just outside of Zhongwei in Ningxia Autonomous Region. Brendan’s foot has healed nicely but he still needs a couple of weeks before attempting rough ground.
Thanks to everyone for your messages of support while we’ve been away from China. It helps to know there are people out there keen to see us complete this walk. Keep logging back on to see some photos and stories about Beijing, and before you know it we’ll be back on the Great Wall!
On long-distance walking trails in the US, people who help out hikers are known as “trail angels.” A trail angel might be someone who gives you food, a ride, a place to stay or just a bit of encouragement.
Trail angels always seem to show up just when hikers need them most, and they can be the difference between hikers quitting at a tough moment or pushing on. A few years ago on the John Muir Trail in California, we had given up and were heading out of the mountains after spending a morning trying to make our way over a 3500-meter pass through a blanket of fresh, wet snow, when a Dutch couple in their 60s gave us a Three Musketeers chocolate bar.
That little bit of fuel and a few kind words were enough to get us to turn around and accompany the couple over the pass (well, that and we weren’t going to let a couple of hikers old enough to be our parents show us up).
Here in China we get help on a daily, often an hourly basis. It’s hard to sit down at a corner shop without being offered a cup of tea or a plate of watermelon. People are constantly giving us directions – they’re completely wrong about three-quarters of the time, but hey, it’s the thought that counts.
Wall Angel No. 1 was the wonderful Mr Hou, replenishing us after a rough day in the hot Gobi Desert (see Mr Hou). Since then, Wall Angels have crossed our paths for a matter of minutes or for a whole night. Below are just a few of the people who gave us a boost when we really needed it.
Lily and her family
One evening we had collapsed by the side of a road, watching thick, grey clouds brewing up a thunderstorm in the distance and wondering where we were going to camp. As the first drops started to fall, an elderly married couple trudged out of the corn fields with spades over one shoulder and grass for their goats over another. In rapid-fire, Gansu-afflicted Chinese (of which we understood very little) they asked (in the Chinese way of asking, which is more like ordering) if we would like to stay at their house for the night. It was only up the road and they had room enough for us.
Fan Li Ling and Mrs Fan
The main room of the courtyard house was small, a brick bed (called a kang) running the length of one wall, a table, TV and cabinet making up the other half. The elderly couple had three grandsons and they all seemed to sleep in the same room.
They gave us bread to nibble on and tea to drink, topped up regularly by one of the ultra-polite grandsons. Just as the conversation started to run dry, a pretty 20-year-old girl called Lily came in. Her English was flawless. She lived across the road and seemed to be related, ie. she called all three boys her brothers but a different boy entirely was her actual brother.
Mrs Fan, Lily and Emma
Brendan (what’s up with the cap?), Lily’s brother and Fan Li Ling
After the women of the house had made everyone a bowl of noodles (we got two bowls, despite our protestations) which were eaten on laps, Lily asked if we would like to sleep at her house. We were given a room to ourselves while Lily’s younger sister served us a plate of watermelon and her younger brother brought us a tub of warm water to wash our feet.
After that we were invited to her parents’ living room to “meet the people of the village.” She wasn’t joking. Crammed in one small room were about 50 adults and 20 kids, all talking at once, asking us questions, laughing at us and laughing at images of themselves on our digital cameras.
Friends of the family
Gao Jia and her family
We came across Gao Jia in the town of Tumen, where we arrived one evening by bus in order to spend a night at a hotel. The town’s hotel consisted of three rooms above a row of shops. Word quickly got around that some wai guo ren (foreigners) were in town.
Gao Jia (left of Emma) and family
When we slipped out of our room to find a restaurant, 17-year-old Gao Jia came running up to us, saying her grandmother had cooked us dinner and we were to come over right away. Gao Jia’s English was also extremely good and she wanted to become a teacher. She lined up her three younger siblings and made them introduce themselves to us. Stuck around the main room of the house were bits of paper with English words on them: “mirror,” “television,” “door.” Her first task as budding teacher was to educate her siblings in English.
We sat down with her father and grandfather and ate dinner while Gao Jia, her mother and grandmother served the food. Gao Jia eventually sat with us and acted as translator. We talked about Australia, their life in rural China, and what we had seen on our trip.
Gao Jia; her father, Gao Lan Shan; her grandfather, Guo Sheng Tang; and Brendan
Emma, Gao Lan Shan and Guo Sheng Tang
The meal was bigger and better than anything we would have ordered in a restaurant, and Brendan washed his down with some hard liquor pressed on him by the men of the family. Fortunately, the drinking session wasn’t a test of manliness and ended after only a few cups.
We were asked back for breakfast at 6:30am the next morning. Apparently, grandma had got up much earlier to cook for us. We gave them a gift before we left and took a round of family photos. Gao Jia and her father drove us back to where we had left the wall the day before and waved us off as we headed on our way.
Gao Jia and Gao Lan Shan
Old Man with Watermelons
And we’re not talking manboobs. We mean real watermelons, the sweet, crunchy, juicy kind. Summer in Northern China is hot, so watermelons become a staple part of the diet.
To cut a long story short, we had reached the Yellow River and found its banks too steep to walk over. (We’ve probably already mentioned this, but Chinese maps don’t show trivial things like mountain ranges and canyons.) This meant we had to retrace our steps for, oh, only about 18kms. We had taken lots of water, but not enough for half a day’s detour.
The following day we could see the town we were aiming for but were struggling to get there through all the canyons that kept appearing over every rise. The temperature was rising, we had no water, and Emma, big wuss that she is, was starting to complain. We decided to leave our packs where we were and head for town with nothing more than some money and our empty water bags.
When we got to the nearest road we hitched a ride to a shop, only the shop wasn’t a shop, it was an old guy’s house. It looked like he lived there with his wife and son, who was walking around on a drip. Emma didn’t really care that it wasn’t a shop, so she sat down outside their front door. The old man took pity on her and brought her some tea, half a watermelon and a spoon. Guess what Emma’s new favourite fruit is?
Rambling across the dry bed of a reservoir near Hexibao
One of the first words you learn in a beginner’s Chinese class is guang. Like many Chinese words, guang is often repeated for emphasis in conversation, i.e. guang guang.
Invariably guang is translated in textbooks as “to ramble,” meaning, according to Merriam-Webster Online dictionary, “to move aimlessly.”
Now, we don’t know about you, but in our experience, “ramble,” at least in the walking sense of the word, doesn’t come up a lot in contemporary English usage, allowing for the important exception of 70s rock songs.
Lord, he was born a ramblin’ maaaaaaaan . . . yeah
We’ve never figured out why Chinese English teachers think “ramble” is one of the first words foreigners need to learn (as opposed to learning, for example, how to ask where the toilet is, which has never come up in the months of classes we’ve taken).
But given what we do every day, and this blog, guang guang works well enough for us. As we reach the end of each state, we’ll put up a guang guang post where we can just ramble ramble a bit and stick in the odds and ends that didn’t quite fit anywhere else.
Just before before Brendan broke his foot, we finished Gansu province. Right now, we’re only two days from heading back to China, wondering what’s changed since we’ve been gone, and thinking about all the things that changed while we were there.
Obviously it will be a lot colder, and the corn harvest will probably be long past by the time we’re able to start hiking again. Even in the two months we were on the wall, from the beginning of June to the beginning of August, there were lots of changes.
Our first few weeks of hiking were unbearably hot – usually 35 degrees or warmer – but by mid-July northern China was in the midst of what passes for the rainy season, at the very limit of the influence of the monsoons to the south.
The sun was so intense at the start that Emma wore UV-protective handguards
The wall and a beacon tower through the mid-July mist
She’s only happy when it rains
Just before a late afternoon thundershower
When we started, the fields and pastures around Jiayuguan were brilliant green with ripening wheat and young corn, but by late July, the wheat had turned golden and the corn was high, the highways were filled with convoys of combines and the wheat harvest was well underway.
Wheat and garden plots northeast of Jiayuguan
It’s not all about grain: early season watermelons
Some rare well-watered pasture
Not quite old enough to ramble on his own
By mid-July the wheat had turned golden
An older man harvesting dryland wheat
This irrigated wheat benefits its location at the mouth of a mountain canyon
A combine for hire rolling down the highway
And of course, the character of the wall changed as we wandered east from Jiayuguan. What began as a humble, often fragmentary line of rammed earth had, by the Yellow River, become an impressive rampart of stone in parts.
Brendan walking along wall ruins next to one of the largest steel factories in China
A shepherd’s hut built against wall fragments
Stone wall just east of Jingtai
But one thing never changed, from the first day we were on the wall to the last. The children of China were always a wonderful, zany delight.
Bustin’ a move near Gaotai
Emma gets the rock star treatment
The children of Majinwei