Jishou; Hunan Province: "It All Sounds So Good."
Golden Leader International Hotel
People's Republic of China
July 2, 2010
My Dear Comrades,
Yesterday, July 1, was the 89th Anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party in China. That must explain why, after more than twenty four hours, my laundry has not yet been returned to my room. Maybe the washers and driers took the day off to celebrate.
In response to my recent mailing from China, my friend Gail in Miami wrote: "Jan, you make it all sound so good. I wish I was with you." Well, Gail, be careful what you wish for.
Before I return to my normally optimistic-positive-sightseeing writing style, I need to make a few observations:
No matter how you travel, either as an independent traveler, or with a group, or on a tour, or on a cruise, let me say this, "Do not! Do Not! And if you didn't hear me the first time, Do not travel to China in the summer!" Schools are closed and the Chinese are on holiday. Millions of Chinese are on holiday.
Small groups, tour groups, car loads, van loads, bus loads, crowds, throngs, hordes, hosts and tsunamis of people swarm over all the popular sites. Each group is led by a young woman with a red or yellow or green flag. They speak, if that's the correct word, into a portable microphone that is attached to a battery-operated speaker. At most locations, there are dozens of such groups, all in the same place at the same time. By comparison, a hotly-contested ice hockey match with the usually shrieking fans at Madison Square Garden in New York would seem comfortable and tranquil.
The noise does not abate on the roadways. On the contrary, it increases. Taxicab drivers and bus drivers never let up on the horn. Starting at about 6:30 in the morning, I can hear them from my hotel room. They beep at everything and nothing. So it's not surprising that no one pays the slightest attention. Beep or honk all you like. Cars and buses ahead do not move or change lanes and pedestrians pay no heed as they continue on their path.
Inter-city buses are a real treat. The horns are shrill and incessant. And if the driver is impatient with the traffic ahead, on a four lane highway, he crosses the double yellow line in the middle of the road and drives into the lanes of the oncoming traffic. Even in the cities!
(9:15....Two smiling and apologetic managers just arrived with my laundry.)
Among men, smoking is universal for the young and the old, and for the very young and the very old. Restaurants, hotel lobbies, waiting rooms, and occasionally on a bus or a train or in an elevator. "No Smoking" signs must only be posted as a suggestion. One fellow had a cigarette lit as he entered the elevator here, then thought better of it and simply tossed the lit butt onto the landing before the door closed.
On the street, if a wad of mucus or phlegm is bothersome, just gather it up and dispatch it to the sidewalk. Ach-tooey!
If the weather is hot, why just roll up your shirt and bare your belly and your chest. (Men only on this one.)
The Chinese have devised an elegant solution to the problem of infant clothing and the need to "go" outside the home. Bottomless! Infant clothing is bottomless. Little bare "behinds" rest on the arm of mom or dad. If the kid needs to "go," mom simply holds her in a squat position over the pavement. The position changes slightly for boys.
Boys swim naked in the rivers. Girls, a bit of modesty.
When the guidebook says little or no English is spoken in many areas, little or no English is spoken in many areas. Thank heavens for my guidebook with Chinese characters and my picture book and my world-class charade technique. Yet, there were moments when nothing worked. The laundry situation is an example of utter frustration for both me and the hotel staff. I needed to make two mobile telephone calls to a friend in another city to translate for me and sort out the problem.
The notion of a queue or a line is totally absent. On a taxi queue at the airport or the boarding line at the train station, the guiding principle is: "If there is an empty space ahead, it's OK to fill it." Mr. Jan does not tolerate this intrusion on civility.
At a taxi queue a young man tried to push ahead of me so I held out my arm and said firmly, "You weren't thinking about passing me, were you?" Then I gave him a polite gesture with my arm. He probably didn't understand my words, but he surely understood my attitude.
While on line at the ticket office at a train station, a young man came up from behind and passed me and a young girl just ahead of me. I turned to him and motioned that he retreat to the back of the line. Then I indicated to the passive young girl that it was now her turn to buy a ticket. Then I said out loud, "OK!" All this was observed by the ticket seller and a few loitering bystanders. They all smiled at me and in a chorus echoed, "OK!!"
On a street corner I waited more than several minutes for a taxi. Just to my left, a taxi stopped and a small group of students jumped in. I turned and yelled, "No! I have been waiting! Get out!" They got out. Once again, my firm tone and my unwavering insistence carried me through. And I thought that in this country, one's elders should get some respect.
Does everyone have a mobile telephone? Didn't anyone tell them how to speak on one? On a couple of occasions, in confined spaces, I made a clear gesture and my neighbors decreased their volume to a low College roar.
My friends who live in the coastal cities of Beijing (No Spitting!) and Shanghai (No Beeping!) will take exception to my observations. After all, for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, the government sponsored "queue classes" for the locals. And I am sure my friends would point out that all of the above is common behavior in Asia. On the tarmac in Nukus, dozens of Uzbeks crushed each other into a mob to shove their boarding pass into the face of the airline agent. Men (and cows) pee on the streets of New Delhi. India is also a horn-blowing nation. Most men smoke in Indonesia. Everyone chews betel nuts and spits on the street in Myanmar. And there are bare-chested men aplenty in Thailand.
To travel in Asia, two personal characteristics are required: Patience and a Sense of Humor. Although I admit I did lose my my cool on a few occasions, I did have an enjoyable and successful trip. The mountains! The rivers! The ancient holy places! Efficient public transportation. Good quality lodgings. Enormous cities are kept clean and butt-free by legions of street sweepers.
Finally, the Chinese men, women and children I have met are even-tempered, disciplined, cheerful, enthusiastic, helpful, trustworthy, traditional, stylish and hospitable.
In Shanghai, I met Leon who emailed me photos he took of me at an outdoor tea shop. In Chengdu, I met Harley, an American Peace Corps Volunteer and his Chinese girlfriend Helen. Helen is a travel agent and she helped me book the Yangtze cruise. I met Tina, a tour guide from Zhangjiajie. I expect to hire her for my next trip to China to visit the minority villages. I met Tomato, a graduate student at Hunan University. On the last day, I met Daisy, a guide at the Ohel Moshe Synagogue and Museum in Shanghai. Daisy and I will collaborate on an essay for the forthcoming book, To Shanghai With Love.
Yes, Gail, it is good here. And since China has almost the same land mass as the United States, there's so much to see.
I'll just have to make the best of it - even in the summer.
PS I got spoiled on my first trip to China in the winter of 2008. Aside from the large crowds at the Great Wall and the Forbidden City in Beijing, the other major sites were almost empty of tourists. Sure it was cold, but much more comfortable for me and for travelers who prefer to stroll and linger and chat and absorb the tranquility of the moment.