Shenzhen/Fanjingshan 2013

Monday August 26

Pleasant flight down from Beijing on China Airlines, in a new Boeing 737.   Business class passengers get slippers to change into, which is a nice amenity.  And we get fed well – I chose dim sum and a nice French viognier to sip with it.

Arrived at rush hour so it took poor Liao shifu (my driver from the school, a cute little guy whom I recognized from last trip) nearly an hour to get from the airport to my hotel.

Since I’d been fed on the plane, I wasn’t hungry.   Explored the hotel, skipped dinner, read the paper, and went to bed early.

Tuesday August 27

I’m staying at a different place this time, not the familiar Venice where Sylv and I had lived for six weeks last spring.   This time the school put me in the brand new Langham Hotel which is not only literally next door to where I’ll be teaching but also perhaps the most luxurious hotel I’ve ever stayed in.  The only rival might have been the Grand Hyatt in Istanbul a few years ago and that was only because they put me in the Grand Mufti suite. (The signature color of the hotel is pink, however, which is a bit swish for my taste!)

The staff is more international than Chinese, which is surprising.  A Turkish guy was supervising breakfast, assisted by an extremely pleasant young Mexican woman.  The hotel manager is a Swiss guy with a German name and a French accent.  A pretty and talented pianist, another European whose accent I couldn’t place, plays genteelly during high tea at the Palm Court off the lobby.  (I found out later that she’s from Belarus.)

The newspaper they hang on my door is the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong newspaper, not the usual China Daily.  The SCMP is not the government mouthpiece the CD is.  It’s feistier and covers a lot more international news.   So although we are just a subway ride from HK, it’s still surprising to have that the paper of choice when we’re still in mainland China.   A bittersweet memory came with it.  When we lived in HK the semester I taught at Hong Kong Baptist University, Sylv and I used to compete to outscore each other in a word game the paper carried.  I did pretty well today, but if she were here she still might have beaten me.   She often did.

Another bittersweet memory came Tuesday night when my friend and former CKGSB student Angela took me to dinner at the Venice and a few of the girls we knew were still there.  They hadn’t known about Sylv, whom they all loved, so when I told them, we had a little cry together.  I suppose that’ll keep happening for a while.  Of course today was only the three-month anniversary of her death.  It’s early days yet, I’m afraid.

Wednesday August 28

Lazy morning.  Maybe a bit tired.   Bitched like hell when I was charged an extra 55RMB ($9) for a small bottle of Perrier on top of the breakfast buffet change.  We’ll see what happens.   It’s not even my money – the school takes care of all my expenses – but it’s the principle of the thing.  Ridiculous and even offensive.

I meant to work out this morning, but didn’t quite get around to it.  The scale says I’m a few ounces under my college weight anyway, so I made do with some pushups and my stretching exercises.  I’m being taken to lunch by my “grand student” as she calls herself, the major-domo and jackess-of-all-trades for Angela who’s then treating me to another one of those two-hour-long sybaritic massages at her club.  What a tough life I live!

There are other differences between here and Beijing.  The WiFi is absurdly slow, but more than that I can’t get on Facebook or YouTube, for example (which I could from the hotel in Beijing) nor open any articles at all from foreign newspapers like the NY Times, the Washington Post, or the British Telegraph.   Strange.

My friend Angela has a bright young man who gets all things technical; maybe he can figure it out for me.

Dinner tonight was with the guy Bill Zhao who’s booking me for NIMI, another professor (my Dutch friend Willem Burgers who got me to China in the first place eight years ago), our minder (a lovely young woman named Maray), and Bill’s wife and young son and his driver.   At one point while Willem and I were talking I looked up to see that all five other people were on their cell phones!  It’s just the way it is these days, especially in China.

The venue was a club owned by a CEIBS classmate of Bill’s (CEIBS is the school where I first taught in China, the China/Europe International Business School) and it’s full of art and precious porcelain pieces from Jingdezhen, the classmate’s hometown.  Jingdezhen is where porcelain was invented.   It was called “china” because when Marco Polo brought some samples back to Italy, the Europeans had no word for it – they were still using pottery – so they named it for where it had come from.  It’s obviously a showroom; he must be some kind of a distributor of the stuff.   I remember when we visited Jingdezhen the first time we came to China back in 2005, we watched an old guy down in the muck turning out bowls on a primitive wheel he turned by jabbing it with a stick.  After he’d demonstrated how it was done, the guide laughingly asked if any of us wanted to try it, assuming no one would.  He didn’t reckon on Sylv who hiked up her skirt and climbed down there with the old guy!   Highly amused, he set her up and propelled the wheel for her and she amazed everyone by turning out a perfect little bowl!   They wouldn’t let us keep it, though, because it had to be fired.  Ah, the memories.

At the end of our dinner they gave Willem and me boxed tea sets of porcelain so fine that it’s translucent under light.   Wish me luck getting that home intact.

Thursday August 29

I feel a little blue today; I don’t know why.  Maybe it’s that I’m scheduled for that massage today and I remembered that last time I did that I bought some of their aromatic massage oil to use on Sylv.  Sadly, there’s half-a-bottle left on her bedside table.

I’ve also got a scratchy throat.  Maybe it’s the air conditioning.   We’ll see if it gets any better while I’m out this afternoon.   If not, I may have to get some salt and start gargling.  That’s been the doctor’s prescription when I’ve had sore throats in the past and it’s usually worked.

Sorry about the grumble.  I’m usually much more upbeat than this.

I found a sure cure for the blahs, the upscale massage experience my friend treated me to.  It starts with a half-hour steaming hot soak in a big square spa pool littered with rose petals and foaming with aromatic suds.   Then when you’re nicely softened up, you climb onto the massage table and this incredibly strong-handed Chinese lady kneads you for an hour and a half.   She found places to punish where I didn’t even know I had places.  I was so mellow at the end I felt like my limbs were spaghetti.

Speaking of which, I was also hungry.  My guardian angel Jennifer picked me back up and we went off to a Sichuan restaurant for dinner.  Exactly what I felt like.   Kung pao chicken in China is a tad spicier than it is in the U.S. where ‘Chuan cai’ is dumbed down for American tastes.  We also had garlic string beans, another favorite, and a dish I’d neither had nor heard of before – individual corn kernels battered and apparently deep-fried in some very light oil.  Delicious.  I’ve asked Jennifer to see if she can find and translate the recipe.  That would be a huge hit at home if I can figure out how to make it.

So now I’m back in the hotel having tea before hitting the sack.  Even the tea is international – the “English Breakfast” tea is made by a German company and the back of the tea bag packet is printed in Russian!

Friday August 30

Bad night.  I’ve definitely got some sort of a cold or sinus infection.  Sore throat, swallowing a lot, slept poorly.   I’m supposed to go to Fanjing Mountain today, but I’m tempted to fink out.

Felt better after breakfast; guess I’ll go through with it.  Always want to see somewhere I’ve never been.

Jennifer and Cai shifu picked me up at about 2:30 in a large SUV, full to the roof with boxes of moon cakes!  (No, not Moon Pies, you Southerners!)   I’m not exactly sure what they are, though.  Angela gave me a box, but I haven’t opened it.  It’s a big deal custom connected to the upcoming Autumn Holiday.

It was nearly a three-hour drive to Guanzhou airport from Shenzhen on a dull gray day.  Not much to look at, even if it had been sunny.  It was interesting to note, though, that the Chinese are selling advertising on their toll booths!   That’s enterprising.

I also tumbled to something I hadn’t noticed before.  I’ve commented on how brightly buildings are lit at night in China; the cities almost look bejeweled.  Other lights are bright, too – shop signs, restaurant signs, even traffic signs.  The colors are vivid.  Duh.  I finally realized they’re not neon or incandescent or even sodium, they’re all LED lights.  The downside, though, is that the light indoors in homes is cold, unlike the warm incandescent glow we’re used to.  The lighting in rooms you can see through windows at night looks like warehouse lighting.  Very unwelcoming, I think.

When we got to Guanzhou we still had a nearly three-hour wait because the flight was delayed.  The good news is that they’d booked me first class, so I got to hang out in China Southern’s VIP lounge.  The bad news is that the CS lounge was not exactly elegant to begin with and it was made worse by being overcrowded.   Free beer can only make up for so much.

The flight itself to Tangren Fenghuang was only an hour-and-a-half, but they still served a meal in first class.   Very pretty stewardi, too.  Tanren makes the 21st city I’ve been to in China, more than almost any Chinese people I meet!   But we weren’t done traveling yet.   Next came an hour-and-a-half bus ride climbing up into the mountains.  I couldn’t see much, but it was what seemed to be a brand-new four-lane divided highway that traversed long bridges over valleys and bored through long tunnels through mountains.   It was well after midnight when we to Fanjingshan, ten hours since I’d been picked up in Shenzhen.   I was feeling pretty beat.

Saturday August 31

Next morning I get a look at where we are – the Adirondacks!   Looks for all the world like that – same kind of old, tree-covered mountains, same sort of shallow stream flowing by, burbling over the rocks.  Wouldn’t my fly-fishing father have loved to wade out there early in the morning to catch breakfast!

The resort/conference center Angela’s company has built is spectacular and of course they’ve put me in the master suite.  There’s even a hot tub on the balcony overlooking the stream!

My cold isn’t worse; maybe the mountain air will do it some good.

Breakfast might not be recognizable as such to most of my western world friends – vermicelli in a broth with various veggies in it (including some eye-opening red peppers), peanuts, dim sum, congee, a quarter of an ear of over-boiled mealy corn of the kind we would associate more with animal feed than the sweet corn we eat, and warm soy milk.  I’m the only Caucasian here, of course, so the food is going to be an adventure at every meal.

After breakfast we head off to a huge golden Buddhist temple – a brand new Buddhist temple!  I don’t know why, but that surprised me.  I think all the Buddhist temples we’ve visited in China and India have been very old; at least that was our impression.  Somebody – had to be the provincial government, I suppose – arranged for this spectacular installation to be built, presumably to increase tourism in this area.   Clearly a lot of money has been invested here – new highways lined with newly planted trees, even what appear to be new villages.  There are large billboards advertising the Buddha, whom they were proud to tell us was made from 250 kilos of gold and features an Elizabeth Taylor-size diamond in the middle of his forehead.  The site doesn’t feel particularly religious to me, especially compared with the Buddhist temples we visited in India and even Japan.   It feels much more commercial – there are all sorts of tchotchkes on display and the tour guide feels much more like that, a tour guide, than a religious person.  Everything is for sale – lotus plants, incense sticks, Buddha icons, medallions, you name it — and it is said that the bigger one of whatever it is you buy the more points you will earn in heaven!  Sounds eerily like the pre-Luther RC church where indulgences were openly bought and sold.  In any case, when a proposed new wing is built, the underside of one of the roof tiles will sport something found in no other Buddhist temple in the world – the name “Bob L” painted in gold!   The honor required only a very modest donation.

One of the young temple guides had never seen a foreigner before, except on television.  She was thrilled to have her picture taken with me!

On the way back to the hotel we stopped to wander around what appeared to be the same kind of traveling street market I’d been introduced to fifty years ago when I first visited Sylv’s home country of Wales.  It moves from town to town from day to day; Thursday was market day in Blackwood and the locals from the surrounding countryside would come into town and make sort of a day of it.  Saturday must be market day in whatever little town it is that’s just down the road from here and it too attracted a lot of people who seemed like country folks.  I was the object of a great deal of attention; it’s possible that I was the first foreign devil they’d ever seen in person, as had been the case earlier with a young attendant at the temple who’d been very excited.  Being tall and white haired made be stand out all the more.  Little kids especially gawked, but so did a lot of their elders. There was a lot of produce on offer, of course, and lots of plastic stuff of one kind or another and clothing, mostly for women and children.  Various stands sold stuff to eat and drink and folks stood around them and talked.  One in particular amused me.  One guy was hacking off great hunks of pork from a carcass; another guy was torching it with a gas pipe!   After he’d scorched the big pieces of meat black, it went on a sort of a homemade cement-and-iron griddle to cook through.  One hopes.  Chinese BBQ, huh?!

Lunch back at the resort was again less-than-familiar food to me, but I’ll try anything once.  I’m eating in a separate building from the main dining room with a handful of Angela’s middle-aged lady friends and select others — my minder and translator Jimmy, of course, and today for lunch the vice mayor of Shenzhen and his wife, whom I’d met at the airport.  Angela had a meeting, a constant condition of her life.   Some if it is company business, some of it is relationship building (guanxi is very important in China and she’s a master at it), and some of it is civic-minded because she’s on all sorts of public service committees on the local, provincial and national levels.  In reality, though, I think the lines are indistinguishable among all of her activities.

In the afternoon we visited the local spring water company, also owned by Angela!   (I can’t count the number of enterprises she’s involved in.)  In this case there’s a large covered pool on a small hill where the water rises.   A pipe carries the water down to another building, where a couple of women fill water-cooler jugs with a hose. That’s it.  That’s the water company!  Someplace else regular water bottles are filled and capped from these big jugs and labeled and somehow Angela’s managed to have the Fanjingshan spring water declared the official water of the region.  Amazing.

Dinner was a similar story to lunch, except that Angela was able to join us, along with some political official from Guizhou province, who was also a professor in the forestry school.  This is a poor, rural province about to benefit from an obviously well financed public/private effort to make it a tourist destination.  A concern the official was voicing, however, was about how hordes of tourists might upset the delicate ecosystem of the area, not to mention the people’s traditional way of life.

Re dinner itself, I said I’d try anything once; that got put to the test immediately.  They served a local delicacy – snake!   I did try it, but I didn’t go for seconds.  Too salty and too many tiny bones.   I’ve also learned not to say you like something; people will immediately pile more of it onto your plate.   A very important phrase I learned to say: “Gou le.”  Pronounced “go la”, it means I’ve had enough.  I say it often!

A couple of curious things happened at dinner.  Angela sat next to the official and sitting between Angela and me was the official’s wife.   He was introduced to me.  She wasn’t.  In fact, for the whole dinner I don’t think she uttered a word.   After the main course she sort of pushed her chair back away from the table and quietly sipped her green tea as though she were trying to be invisible.  Her husband, meanwhile, carried forth at great length about all sorts of things, and when it became “gan bei” time and the moutai came around, he engaged in a drinking contest with one of Angela’s friends across the table.  A pretty woman with an obvious sense of humor, she way more than held her own.   At one point I started counting and by the time I was ready to leave she’d thrown down 19 shots of what amounts to “white lightning” and didn’t seem to show it at all.  I drank my one little glass in salute to her and tied the red ribbon from the now-empty bottle around her wrist, pronouncing her the champion!

Sunday September 1

Up early today and while we waited for breakfast, the four ladies engaged in morning calisthenics on the streamside deck, a sort of a cross between yoga stretching and t’ai chi. I joined them for a bit, but they really weren’t working hard enough for me and besides I’d already done my stretching back at the room.

Good thing, too, because after breakfast the ladies, Jimmy and I went off to climb Fanjing Mountain — 2494 meters, which I think works out to about 8200 feet, a couple of thousand feet higher than Mt. Washington the highest peak in the northeastern U.S.   We were driven up part way by a driver who must’ve trained with Joey Chitwood (there’s a memory tester!), then took a 20-minute gondola ride to the next level, still a long hike from the top.  Here’s where it got interesting.   Several teams of two guys had lashed wooden chairs between two thick bamboo poles and they were CARRYING people up the rest of the way for 300 RMB ($50) –round trip!  I couldn’t believe it, but all four ladies took the ride.   Jimmy and I followed on foot and it was an arduous hike.  The “sherpas” went as fast as we did.   Other teams of chair guys hung out about halfway, figuring that they would get some business from people who underestimated how hard the climb was or overestimated their own stamina.  They really zeroed in on me when they saw my white hair, but I just kept saying, “Bu yao, xiexie.”  There was no way I wasn’t hiking the whole way to the top!  And I did.   At the peak level, there was another trail that climbed a higher spur, and we did that too, although that was daunting, very nearly vertical at times.  I have to hand it to the ladies – they hung in there for that part, even the one who’d downed the 19 shots of moutai!  Here’s the sad part, though – we were totally enveloped by clouds; we couldn’t see a thing!  Oh,well.  At least we could say we had done it.

I was declared a hero, of course, for managing it at my age.  They were saying I was the oldest person who’d ever done the whole climb.   I doubt that, but I’m probably the oldest foreigner.  Maybe the only foreigner, for that matter.   I was certainly the only one on the mountain today.  In fact, I haven’t seen a single other foreigner in this whole province.

Something I’ve been curious about:  there are no birds.   I’ve seen maybe two magpies around the resort and I saw not a single bird on the mountain.  I also can’t see any fish in the brook, despite the very clear water.  There aren’t even many bugs.  I leave one French door open at night for the mountain night air and I haven’t been bothered by a single mosquito.  Rachel Carson comes to mind.  Do you suppose she was right after all?

After dinner we went into some nearby town to see a performance by singers and dancers from the Dongzu people, one of China’s many minority groups.   It was colorful.  They had homemade guitars, very primitive instruments, but they could play them.   A young Chinese woman who spoke English seated herself next to me.   Turned out that she’d gotten her MBA at Mississippi State and been taught my 4C’s theory.  She was so excited; she could hardly believe she was meeting me in this remote place!

Dinner that night was quiet, no surprise guests and no mystery food.  Certain foods appear at every meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner: that mealy corn, peanuts (which are produced locally, I’m told), greens of some sort, and dan dan noodles (the vermicelli in a spicy broth), which I quite like.  (Dan dan, I learned, refers to the pole across the shoulders that the street vendors in Sichuan use to carry pots of the stuff for sale.)

And so to bed.  To sleep for sure.  Although nothing hurts, happily, the climb up the mountain was tiring.  A couple of large Tsingtaos at dinner might have contributed to my drooping eyelids as well.

Monday September 2

I was woken up by my minder a bit early this morning and hustled to breakfast.  Turns out that Angela wanted me to meet her overnight guest who was about to leave, the newly appointed Chinese ambassador to New Zealand!   He’s a nice young man, surprisingly young for such a posting I would think – New Zealand is a major trading partner for China.  In fact, China is NZ’s biggest customer for dairy products, that country’s primary export.  I don’t know what the Chinese sell back, presumably manufactured goods.   He and his wife (who speaks very little English – she’s going to have a double problem with the Kiwi accent) and their young son are on their way this week.   Unfortunately in my hurry to breakfast (without knowing why I was being hurried) I didn’t pocket any of my cards.   I have friends in New Zealand who could be helpful to him.  I hope he contacts me through Angela; he told her he would.

It also turns out that we’re about to leave as well to go back to Shenzhen, something else that didn’t quite get communicated!
I packed in a record fifteen minutes and off we went in one of the company cars, a big but hard-riding BMW.  The resort manager himself drove us a half-hour to the thruway toll station, whereupon a professional driver appeared from somewhere and took over.  We arrived in Tongren way ahead of the others, who are coming by coach.   Traveling with Angela is fun, a real lesson in how the other half lives.   As we pulled up to the terminal, the airport manager and his assistant rushed out to greet us!   We were bowed into the terminal, slid quickly through the messy details of ticketing and security and almost taken by the hand to the first class lounge where a beautiful young thing in a very tight-fitting silk uniform is assigned to keep my green tea hot.  I was feeling a little warm myself!

In fact, literally.  My cold or whatever had gotten worse.  However, among Angela’s other guests whom I hadn’t formally met were the director of the Shenzhen hospital, plus another doctor of some sort, and the head of one of China’s biggest pharmaceutical companies.  Angela recruited them all onto my case (I’m described as a very important American professor!) and each dug different pills out of their hand luggage for me.  Most of what they were carrying were herbal remedies of some sort, as were the meds Angela had been feeding me, but the second doctor had some antibiotic capsules with him.  I was really glad to get those, because I’d been thinking that I should get a shot of penicillin when I get back to Shenzhen to prevent whatever this upper respiratory thing is from turning into something serious, like strep throat.   I have to teach this weekend so my only fear is losing my voice.   As long as that doesn’t happen, I’ll be able to perform without any visible problems.

The first class lounge opens directly onto the tarmac; we don’t have to mix with the hoi polloi.  In fact, in contrast to usual airline practice, the peasants are loaded first and the curtain is drawn before we royals are taken to the plane.  The airport manager himself insisted on towing my carry-on case to the bottom of the stairs.  I was almost afraid he was going to come into the cabin to tuck me in!   Angela and her companies, the resort and conference center in particular, are obviously very, very important in this growing region.

The first flight is to Guiyang, a burgeoning very hilly second-tier city and the capital of Guizhou province.   Everywhere I look, construction is going on, roads are being built, buildings are going up.  China still looks like a Boomtown to me, the whole country.   If we could count it, even though I’ve really only been to the airport, Guiyang would be the 22nd China city I’ve visited.  We had time for an excellent meal at an airport restaurant before our last flight to Shenzhen.   I was the only person in the whole first class section; Angela chose to be back in economy with her other guests.   Unfortunately I only dared to drink water and eat a little fruit because of all the meds I’m taking.

We’re met at the airport in Shenzhen by her driver in one of her other cars, her favorite, a Mercedes S-Class.  I have to admit that it is a much more comfortable ride than the BMW that her husband prefers with its stiff suspension.   We went to her home first to drop her off because its on the way to my hotel and she asked me if I’d like to come in.  Yes, please – I was dying to see her house!   My minder Jimmy says it cost 100,000,000 RMB (about $16 million US) and I have no trouble believing that.  It’s a modest sized house with no land, but it’s in a gated community with a golf course right in Shenzhen, a neighborhood enclave walled off from the noise of the city.   You could almost imagine you’re in Scarsdale.  She has lots of artistic treasures and two giant dogs who would scare the pants off (and probably tear the pants off) of any would-be robbers.   One is a St. Bernard and the other is the biggest German shepherd I’ve ever seen, wolf-sized.  Typically, she insists that I eat something before going back to the hotel to sleep and get rid of my cold, so she has her two live-in housekeepers from Sichuan rustle up a meal of soup and dim sum (shu mai, actually, like Sylvia used to make) and a green.   Thus fortified, I go off home.   No wonder she and Sylvia were such instant friends; both of them just can’t do enough for other people.   Angela used to call Sylv her jie jie – her older sister.

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