Saturday, September 17, 2011

China -- Day 9

Subtitled: No rooster, wedding crashers, turbulence abounds

Today was the latest we have been able to sleep so far. The wake-up call was at 7:30 but I really didn’t have to be up until well after 8:00. It felt good to stay put and lounge a bit before breakfast. I finally managed to have a really good night’s sleep which I attribute both to finally adjusting to the time difference as well as shutting my window. That may seem strange, but after the big cities, it was nice to be up on a hill away from city noise, so I’d been sleeping with my window open. No window, no rooster, so I made it through to nearly 7 before I started to want to wake up. Take that, rooster buddy.

Breakfast at the hotel was better once we managed to actually let the buffet open before we invaded it before we jetted off to Bifengxia the first two mornings here. There wasn’t too much more on offer, but the OJ went from steaming hot to actually cold. The coffee here was interesting, already milked and sugared for us on the hot plate. It was good, but I like my coffee sweetened. The only other add to the buffet this morning were fried dough type bits, which could have used some cinnamon and sugar but I made do with the bright red jelly meant for toast.

We have nearly three hours to get to Chengdu to catch our flight to Shanghai at 3:20. On the way to the airport we stopped at a large banquet restaurant (with many rooms to serve large parties as well as smaller groups of diners like ours). This was the closest to Chinese food in America I have seen, with something like chicken fingers available. I had probably my last of the Ma Po Tofu only instead of tofu it was veggies. There was also a slightly spicy beef dish that tasted good. But again it was an exercise in more than 15 dishes all being spun about on the lazy susan and was way more food than all of us combined can eat.

The fun part of the meal though was when we crashed a traditional Chinese wedding being held near us in the restaurant. It was gorgeous, with all the bright red and gold decorations. There was a very loud officiant using a microphone who sounded to me a lot like the host of Iron Chef. The bride was dressed in traditional dress and headpiece and stood at the back of the room covering her face with a fan until she arrived at the side of her groom. There was a whole lot of bowing to each other, offering of tassels and sharing of food, all prompted by the bellowing officiant (remember, here louder is better) and very ceremonious, thundering piped-in music. It was interesting to see and cheap entertainment for the last half of our lunch hour.

On the way to the airport, David told us he enjoyed our time with him and gave us each a small panda pin as a gift. “It is cheap but it comes from the heart,” he said. Then, like he did when he picked us up, he sang again. He chose John Denver’s “Country Roads Take Me Home” and also “Leaving On a Jet Plane”. I don’t know what got into me other than fatigue and homesickness, but I will admit to shedding more than a couple tears.

Our flight out of Chengdu left an hour late, so the impromptu river cruise Stanley suggested earlier was nixed in favor of more sleep. We had a hellaciously turbulent half hour during the flight and I think all of us were hot, tired and in need of alone time. Stanley made the call to cancel the river cruise on his own, so maybe even he is feeling fatigued.

Once the plane landed, I noticed the crew all lined up in the center aisle and bowed to us. I hadn’t noticed that on any of the other domestic flights (all on Chinese carriers) here, so maybe it’s only done after near death experiences like the one we had cruising through that turbulence.

We were talking amongst ourselves and I think what is tiring about this trip is not just the physical moving about but also the constant overload of our senses. Everything we see, we hear, we taste is new and needs to be processed. I think that interrupts our normal rest and sleep patterns, as there’s been no “off” switch since we got here. I just need to make it through one more day…

So while I killed time on a bus, I thought of more random things that I’ve forgotten about in all that I’ve already written:

In Xi’an, I bought a book and had it signed by one of the farmers who discovered the Terra Cotta Warriors. When he discovered them while he dug a well on his land back in the 70s, the government gave him some obscene amount of money, like $30, to get him off the land so it could be excavated further and, as we know now, convert it into a tourist destination. Now though, he is sitting in the gift shop signing books and I’m sure reaping some reward for it.

At the start of the trip, Stanley asked us to give him the US equivalent of $8 per person per day to cover tips during the course of the trip. My first response was that everything I had read to prepare for China indicated that tipping is illegal. But as the week wore on and I saw these guides bending over backwards to accommodate us, it felt criminal that that was all we gave them.

Along that same vein, when four of us told David yesterday that we wanted to do the play with pandas photo opportunity again, he was surprised. “1000 yuan, you know?” he said. That is $150 which for them is about what they get paid in a month. And the four of us did it four times in a week. I felt almost gluttonous at that point, if that makes sense. It made me wonder what they think of Americans like us who seem to come here and cavalierly throw our money around like that. To me, it was part of the experience and a memory I would never want to forget, so if I have the wherewithal to do it, I will. But part of me did feel almost guilty when David was so incredulous that we would pay for that again.

As he gave us the itinerary for Shanghai tomorrow, Stanley just uttered the understatement of the tour: “This tour is not for your relax (sic), this tour is for you to see as much as you could.” I mean really, I like to jam-pack my days when I travel, but even I am starting to be run down from this schedule.

When checking in at Chengdu, I noted my luggage is 23.2 kilos, which is about 51 pounds. I think I need to shed 6 pounds before I head home on United. Gulp.

All along the roadsides in rural Sichuan province, I started to notice in the driveways in front of homes on which the residents would spread grain or rice or corn out and leave it to dry in the sun. That, and they would hang hundreds of ears of corn from their homes to dry. I asked David and he said they do that to preserve it for the winter, usually for farm animal but sometimes for themselves. I found it hard to believe that many will strip the corn kernels from the cob by hand one painstaking kernel at a time; if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I would not have believed it.

While I’m in no race to get home, I will say that I eagerly await the time when I enter a bathroom and don’t wonder if it’s Western or squatty and whether I need to bring my own toilet paper or not and whether I can flush it or throw it in the waste basket when I’m done. I’ve adapted well, but see, these are the sorts of things we take for granted and don’t need to mentally process at home. Here, even going to the bathroom or brushing your teeth (DON’T use the water!) can have serious consequences.

All of us have been trying Chinese ice cream wherever we see a freezer case full of it. In Bifengxia, Dan found the best ice cream bar ever: some sort of chocolate covered heath ice cream with little chocolate balls embedded in it and a marshmallow center. At the Chendgu airport, Paula found an oatmeal ice cream covered in dark chocolate. It is good to travel with people with such excellent taste in the finer things!

That’s it for Saturday….full day in Shanghai tomorrow!

No comments: