Friday, September 7, 2012

Around China in 30 Days--Dusty Communist Butts in Yenan

These are my May/June 2010 Journals, rewritten into a semi-coherent narrative of my trip through China with the UW Madison History group. It was a tremendously fun experience that I want to publicize a little bit, so I'll be posting these here.

Around China in 30 Days
 Dusty Communist Butts in Yenan 

After a week in China, my enthusiasm for the colossal nation was beginning to flag. I felt a tad under the weather, brought low by pollution and dust storms. I wasn't the only one; our evening on the train and the oppressive heat had altered our crew from gentle tour group to Chicago five minutes before the Cubs lose a bid for the World Series. Or something, look, I'm not that good at sports metaphors. Our new tour guide, Grace, fortunately, was understanding and full of empathy for the people of Xi'an and decided to shoulder our intense, laser-like hate on herself. As a way of introduction she explained that we were running late and rather than taking five minutes to shower and sort ourselves into something resembling humans we should hurry so that we could see a museum about Communists. Our rebellion was fast and victorious.

Once we'd been pacified with running hot water, we assented to be lead around Xian. There was an art museum which I thoroughly enjoyed, although it provided little in the way of entertaining stories. There was a pagoda to be enjoyed, although really the only story there was "Grace did not know what she was talking about", something that was cemented for me when she referred to Kwannon as "Shiva" in a Buddhist temple.

Then we were taken to Xian Daxue. It had by this point become simply matter-of-fact that bathrooms were going to be horrible places, but Xian Daxue went the extra mile by assuring you that nearly any building you entered would have a bathroom that could be detected from a hundred yards by scent alone. As if that weren't enough, someone had apparently decided that doors were a luxury students didn't need, and that same perverted sect devoted to ruining every public restroom in China revealed itself to be comprised primarily of anthropomorphic horses. It was at this time that I resolved to hug every janitor cleaning a bathroom that I met. The next three weeks in China would contain exactly zero hugs.

After we'd been allowed to think that we'd have some time to get comfortable in Xian (or I had hallucinated that) we leaped aboard a bus and made a pilgrimage to the Mecca of the CCP, Yenan. A small (China small, anyway), ugly little town arranged amongst a skulking crew of mountains, I liked it immediately. This fondness was immediately rewarded with a torrential downpour and a string of Revolutionary Museums. Originally there was a joke here about how boring revolutionary museums are, especially their fascination with dusty chairs and the famous asses they cradled, but after having been to DC as an adult, it seemed unnecessarily mean spirited.

Tony, Lenin, Sean
We visited a rotating restaurant, which had terrible food and, for some reason, a kitten under one of the tables. We stayed a local hotel, which was very nifty looking, designed to look like the caves where famous Communists had hidden during the Long March. I don't know that anyone got photographs. As we got on the bus after a night spent on the hotel, Helen announced she was sick and would be catching a ride back to Xian. Dreux relented and said we'd simply cancel our next night in Yenan and head back to Xian instead--a good decision, we decided, because there was a Panda Rescue Center/Zoo that, being Americans, we were desperate to visit. So we went to another house full of old chairs that Mao had graced, and several awful shirts and hats that made me look like a Communist. Tony decided from then on that jokes comparing me to Trotsky or Lenin were pure gold (okay, they were pretty funny) and so subjected me to them for the rest of the trip. Considering my high school resemblance to John Lennon, I guess the appellation should stick, and if you want to call me Lennin or Lenon or something I won't stop you. I love nicknames.

The return "home" had very little of interest except the opportunity to see the tallest bridge in Asia. It was very tall, but I'm lacking for other descriptors; perhaps they're unnecessary. Actually, here's a picture:
Now You Say: "Holy Crow That Is A Tall Bridge"
Our return to Xian brought us quite suddenly into the middle of the tourist whirlwind. We were taken to see the Terracotta Soldiers, an official Terracotta soldier museum (where they make the fakes they sell to tourists). The Terracotta Soldiers were surrounded by huge gates, and outside those gates was more evidence of mercenary mercantilism; it was especially depressing because you apparently cannot visit the Terracotta Soldiers without buying the pelt of a domestic animal. I guess you just can't claim to have lived until you've seen the skin of a German shepherd waved around by a Chinese septuagenarian while they yell incomprehensible gibberish. Before you get excited, I have it on good authority that even if you speak Chinese it's incomprehensible gibberish.

Somehow, seeing the Terracotta soldiers failed to impress me so much as seeing the Huaqing Hot Spring where Chiang Kai Shek fled his own generals. You see, back in the 30s Japan was invading Manchuria, but Chiang was so busy killing Communists he wouldn't even consider fighting the invasion until all the Commies were gone. When his generals got sick of their homeland getting colonized, they decided to make him talk about it. But old Generallisimo Chiang would rather climb a mountain, in his jammies, during winter, without his teeth than ever even discuss not killing Communists. In the spirit of the day I raced Sean up the mountain, and then back down, although by then the only way to challenge me to a race was to be in my immediate vicinity near any incline.

Chiang Kai Shek's hiding place was really high on the mountainside, up a cliff face that I could barely climb even with the courtesy chains they'd added to help encourage tourists to climb up there and die. I managed to make it, but I was immediately schooled by an elderly Chinese man who decided to climb the chain behind me while smoking a cigarette. Behind him, a woman in high heels had apparently decided that scaling a rock face shouldn't require her to take off her six inch heels.

Apparently, our tour guide Grace hadn't murdered our good nature thoroughly enough, so the next day we went to Xian's city wall and rode bikes. Riding rental bicycles atop a six hundred year old cobblestone wall (admittedly a cobblestone wall that's nearly 80 feet high) is a sensation similar to getting testicular massage from the Los Angeles Police Department. Every bike (this is true) was constructed by Mao himself in 1944 and everybody's afraid that fixing anything will disrespect his memory.

And lectures! Our alternative to exciting bikerides and mountain climbing was getting lectures, and if they could go until extremely late at night, causing us to miss dinner and eat at an (actually rather delicious) Chinese fast-food joints that was great. I sound facetious but I'm not; it was pretty fun.

Xian's Muslim quarter, our attraction for the next day, was actually a pretty cool place, full of strange and tasty foods, suspicious people selling cheap goods, and delicious tea. However, given the choice between wondering dumbstruck around a district full of gorgeous Ming-dynasty buildings and seeing an American movie for like five dollars, I elected to see the movie. Jake Gyllenhaal was not worth it, even in a movie that had the comedic value of pretending he was even the slightest bit Persian.

After a few hours regretting seeing a movie in place of centuries-old architecture, we hopped on the bus and headed out to a panda... holding place. Zoo? I mean, it filled me with a profound sense of regret, so I'm thinking it was a zoo. Either way, the pandas were sleeping and mooning us, so it was sort of a bust until we saw that three legged monkey. And the ablino  peacocks, I guess, but mostly that monkey. We left deflated in the way American tourists often are after being reminded that zoos fundamentally suck, and that in poorer places than the States they suck even worse.
Of course that makes you a Sad Panda. All Pandas are sad.
I felt better, however, when I saw that Daoist temple. Or rather, the stairs behind it. Sean took off at a mild clip, jogging, really. I kicked my flip-flops off and gave chase. After a few sprints, trying to get ahead, my lungs had had enough and gently suggested that I collapse face down on the ground. We only had an hour to make it to the top, so Sean urged me on and fighting for breath I hopped step after step, pausing only to stammer broken and incomprehensible Chinese at local tourists, trying to inquire the time and distance. Finally, someone said something that made sense: only 50 meters! Sweat dripping-dripping--from my brow, I launched myself up the stairs again, Sean following right behind with his customary one-step-at-a-time gait. I flopped down at the top of the steps, and in one of those perfectly-cinematic cue-crescendo fisheye lens moments, I saw another flight of stairs stretch off. I felt a little light headed, dots flashed before me eyes, and I heard voices.

"Ben!" I spun around, and it was Dreux. Somewhat out of breath, sweating, and visibly gripping an imaginary belt, he explained that he'd been chasing us the whole way. He said we had to go back, but we protested--we'd come from the bottom to the top in less than forty minutes, carrying thirty inch long incense sticks we intended to burn in tribute to Laozi. Dreux assented to allow us to continue our ascent. We flew up the final steps, feet hardly touching the ground, and we arrived at the incense burner. Sticks alight, Dreux appeared behind us "What the hell are you doing, get going?"

I didn't need any more telling. He was serious, and worst of all, we were late! I hate being late. So I began my formal descent, or, as anyone else might call it, falling. At one point I actually lost my balance and slipped down a path, narrowly missing a donkey and flying headfirst over a brief cliff. I missed a turn, though, and for a moment I jogged in place as Chinese tourists pointed in three different directions while each suggested in turn that he knew the way I intended to go. After a moment, I recovered myself and returned to the proper path, jogging gently down the slope at the foot of the mountain. Off in the distance was Dreux's trademark white hair, and with a final burst of speed I sprinted-still barefoot--and caught up to my creux. I'd descended 2 kilometers in about ten minutes--wearing flipflops. I was in a good, good mood. Until we got home to the lecture.

After a long, long stay in Xian, everyone seemed a little revitalized, as though staying in one place, even with a multitude of long bus trips, bicycle rides and the occasional (and under reported) giant squirrel-back tour, we were sorry to leave Xian, especially since our departure was to be by Chinese airplane.

Previously in Chengde
Next in Xiamen

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