Thursday, April 29, 2010

China Rising, Part 1: The Wild West

We’re sitting in a restaurant in a village outside of LiJiang.  It’s our second day in China.  The kids are eating chicken and pork, fighting over a can of Sprite, and playing mini-mysteries:  A man is sitting on a bed.  He makes a phone call, listens for a moment, then hangs up and goes to sleep.  Ellen is feeding Jamie.  And I am watching Haba.

Haba is our guide.  He’s maybe twenty-five, with a high, round nose and slightly spiky hair.   Right now, Haba has his head down.  He’s pulled something out of his pocket and is bent over it.  He’s not moving, which is weird, because Haba is wiry and active, tapping his foot, usually, or his fingers, or twisting in his seat to look around him. 

Now though, he’s simply looking at his hand, at the paper there. 


We love LiJiang.  Driving in from the airport the day before, we climb up the side of a long, green valley surrounded by brown sloping mountains.  It looks like the Shenandoah Valley, actually, but the quality of light is different, softer somehow, more defused with moisture, making the greens greener, the sky bluer, the browns more fecund. 

Haba is our local guide, and we like him almost as much as we like LiJiang.  We’re not in the van ten minutes and already he’s telling us about the various ethnic minorities in the region.  The Na’xi are the dominant group, he says, the oldest group, the ones with all the power, who own the restaurants and the buildings that store owners buy.  There are also the Bai, and the Yi.  The Bai are, according to Haba, “very elegant.”  They make silver and dress well, and are very beautiful.  The Yi are less clean, and have their own religion.  They keep to themselves, don’t marry other ethnic groups.

Haba is a Pumi.  The Pumi, he tells us, are descended from nomadic tribes, maybe even Genghis Kahn.  They came to the valley 800 years ago.  They are very strong, and ruled the region for a long time.  Now, though, they live in the forests, and are so impoverished that the government doesn’t hold them to the 1-child policy, fearing that to do so would mean eradication of the race.  Pumis, Haba tells us, eat mainly potatoes and corn. 

We’re enamored.  Ten minutes outside of LiJiang, the proud crest of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain appearing on the horizon, brushed by plumes of evening clouds, I lean over to Ellen and say, “Let’s cancel the rest of the trip and stay here for two weeks.”

She nods.  “No kidding.”


The next morning, Haba takes us into the “old town” portion of LiJiang.  This part of town is filled with attractive buildings made with dark wood.  Red lanterns hang from many of them, and on some are carved bright red characters.  There are canals in LiJiang, and flower boxes brimming with blossoms.  It’s early April, and we’re in the mountains, so the trees haven’t leaved yet, though you can see a light green tinge at the ends of branches. 

In other words, it’s a nice place.

We walk through the town, glancing at the souvenirs—Tibetan prayer bowls, painted wooden carvings, fans, kites, and hand-woven shawls—then watch some ethnic dancers for a while.  They’re mostly women wearing blue skirts over pants, maroon tops, and intricate patterned leather shawls over their shoulders.  If anyone’s every doubted Asia and North America used to be connected, watching these women dance would erase those thoughts:  the costumes, the shuffling steps, the low singing exactly resembles a pow-wow.  

Eventually talk turns to our itinerary.  Haba mentions that the music show we were supposed to see that night isn’t very good for kids.  “Too boring,” he says, waving a hand.  “Many people tell me this.”  There’s another show, he says, with dancing, much more colorful, much livelier, much better for children. 

This sounds great, of course.  The only thing worse than a show that starts after the kids’ bedtime, is a show that starts after the kids’ bedtime and bores the living crap out of them. 

“What about the cost?” I say.  “Is it the same price?”

No, Haba says.  Ninety more.  About 13 bucks, US. 

I glance at Ellen.  This isn’t much by US standards, but in China, it’s a ton.  Our meal the previous night—all eight courses of it—totaled 150 RMB, and we included Haba.

“90 each?” I say. 

He nods.

“Hmmm,” I say. 

“To tell the truth,” Haba says, “this whole trip, it’s not very good for children.  There are many better things to do.”

Like what? 

He lists a number of things:  horseback riding, boat rides, the dance concert, some big park that everyone likes to go to where there’s a really old fresco.

I look at Ellen again. The company we’re working with is family friendly, we know, but it makes sense that they might have missed something, that after they set up the tour, they went back to Beijing and missed a whole lot of things that came later. Horseback riding sounds like fun, especially if we can go into the mountains that surround the city.

“If you want, I can do a package,” Haba says.  “I’ll set it all up.   Everything for 400.”


After we booked our tour, the company we were working with sent us a bunch of materials to read as we prepared for our trip.  We ignored most of it—we were seasoned Asia veterans after all, having had diarrhea in at least three different countries—but a section called “Safety Tips” caught our attention.  Among other things, it told us, “Passports should be kept with you daily.  Hotel safes are only as safe as the front desk clerk is honest.  That is, the access to the safes is greater than you may realize.  Hotel housekeeping and desk clerks usually have key-entry access.  Therefore, do not leave passports or valuables in the in-room safes unless you have no other options.”

Reading this, Ellen and I looked at each other.  We’d kept our passports in every safe in every room in every hotel we’d been in thus far in Asia.  In addition, we’d left huge wads of money, multiple books of traveler’s checks, three pounds of raw heroine Ellen had stolen from the bullet-riddled corpse of a nun working for a Hong Kong triad, and Ba-wa, Lucy’s stuffed puppy. 

But there was more.

“Pickpockets and slashers (slash your bag/purse) exist at most tourist attractions in Beijing and street markets.  Beware of this.  Carry money in private bag under clothing.  Carry backpacks in the front of you when at crowded markets.  Lock zippered compartments.  Beware of those who wish to have photos taken or sell you things in the Summer Palace as a diversion.  No harm will physically come to you, it just may be that money is stolen or a camera.”

“Wow,” I said, reading this.  “I’ll shave my body.  That way we can duct tape our passports to my chest.”

“Don’t be silly,” said Ellen.  “We’ll use staples.”

The literature went on:  “Watch for fake money at the Summer Palace and throughout China.  It is best not to buy things while at the Summer Palace—there is a switch of the money and your change could be fake.  They will tell you your money is bad and then give you a bad bill back!”

And:  “Be careful at restaurants.  Pay in cash only, as credit cards will be copied and sold to Malaysian drug syndicates.  Waitresses have also been known to follow small children into the bathroom, corner them, and demand candy.  Please remove all Reeses-Pieces from your kids before you come to China.”

And further:  “Wear metal underclothing.  Grandmothers in China tend to hate people like you, and will stick a shiv into your sternum first chance they get.”

“Damn,” I said to Ellen.  “Told you we should have booked those tickets for Iraq.” 


It doesn’t help, of course, that we live in Hong Kong.  Hong Kongers are so honest you can leave your baby holding the keys to your Rolls-Royce sitting in a $40,000 gold-plated stroller next to your laptop and new digital camera, and come back six hours later to find it all still there (except for the baby, who’s likely  crawled off for some curried fish balls). 

Seriously, you can be at an intersection where the sign is flashing “Don’t Walk.”  You look to the left.  No cars.  You look to the right.  No cars.  You look to the let again:  still no cars.  Indeed, now you notice tumbleweeds and a pair of squirrels playing Monopoly in the middle of the road.  You look at your fellow Hong Kongers.  They just stare straight ahead, watching the “Don’t Walk,” sign. 

They don’t walk. 

What’s more, Hong Kongers aren’t quite sure what to make of their cousins to the North. 

Actually, let me rephrase that:  Hong Kongers are afraid of the Mainlanders. 

“Been to Shenzhen yet?” a colleague asked me a few weeks ago.  He was referring to the busy metropolis of 20 million just across the HK border.  Shopping is plentiful and cheap in Shenzhen, and almost everyone we know goes up there regularly to load up on tailor-made suits, designer watches, and household furnishings.

No, I told my friend.  We haven’t had a chance to go there.

“Don’t take the kids,” he said. 

I looked at him. 

“It’s dangerous,” he said.  I raised my eyebrows, and he nodded.  “That’s right:  kidnappers.”

In a way, this made me want to go to Shenzhen all the more, if only to see some kidnapper trying to explain to a childless Chinese couple that, really, their neighbors wouldn’t notice if suddenly there appeared a blonde-haired, blue-eyed six-year-old in their yard. 

To an extent, Hong Kongers’ fear of Mainlanders seems entirely justified.  Mainland China has the feel of the wild west:  crime is higher there, and more violent.  Bing, our guide in Beijing, told us that almost every businessman who’d made a killing since economic reforms started has since been indicted for one thing or another.  Graft is everywhere:  in the government, in sports, even in academics.  Perhaps this is not surprising:  the average yearly income in China hovers around $1,000 US.  I know eighteen-year-olds who get better allowances.

Paradoxically, last year China gained more billionaires than any other nation in the world, and now has more of this breed than any country other than the US.  Ten years ago, when I first visited China, Beijing was thick with bicycles—hundreds would pour past as we strolled along the side-walk, wheels spinning, bells ringing, riders erect in the seat.  Now, almost everyone in the city owns a Volkswagon, a Ford, or an Audi.  You can encounter a traffic jam anywhere, at any time of day.  Bikes are non-existent. 

And then there’s the notice in the room guide at our hotel in Beijing.  Just after the list of phone numbers (Dial *12 for Room Service; Dial *7 for laundry; Dial *8 for the hookers in the barbershop) and just before the hours of the fitness center was a short statement: 

“Please note that guns should be secured in room safes at all times.  Firearms left unsecured will be confiscated by the cleaning service.”

Let me be frank about this:  I’ve been to the Soviet Union.  I’ve been to East Africa.  I’ve been to Texas.  And never—NEVER—have I seen a notice like this. 


Which brings us back to Haba, in that village outside of LiJiang, at the restaurant where we’re eating lunch.  Haba, who is bent over a packet of paper, staring at it silently as Jamie eats mushrooms and Lucy asks me if, maybe, the man on the phone in the room is calling his mother to find out if she can scratch his back. 

“No,” I say to Lucy, though I’m still watching Haba.  Why’s he just standing there? 

After some thought, Ellen and I had declined his offer to add on additional family-oriented pleasures in and around LiJiang.  It all sounded very fun—especially the paragliding with Tibetan monks—but we’d already spent a bucket-load on the trip, and $300 US more just seemed like a lot on top of it all.  This seems silly, I know—we’re from the West, after all, and we make more money than the Chinese—but we live in Hong Kong which isn’t the cheapest city in the world, and we have three kids, and it’s not like I’m a doctor or a lawyer or some rich Tea Party supporter. 

Haba took our rejection well, just shrugging and ambling on through the market.  At lunch, though, he comes over to tell us that, if it’s okay, he’s going to leave us with the driver for the afternoon.

“There’s another group that’s going up the mountain,” he says, referring to Jade Snow Dragon Mountain.  Then he gestures apologetically.  “It’s been slow for four months, and now, all of a sudden . . ..”  He lets it trail off.

No problem, we say.  We understand that he needs to make a living.  We’re just going to spend the afternoon wandering, anyway.  We don’t really need a guide. 

“But what about this park or whatever?” I say.  “The one you mentioned with the frescoes.  Is that worth seeing?”

“Oh yes,” he said.  “It’s beautiful.”

“So what if we wanted to see that?” I said.  “You know, as something extra? Would we be able to get tickets?”

“No problem,” Haba says.  “I can give you some.”

“But we’re not sure,” I tell him.  I’m thinking of the 400 RMB package he mentioned earlier.  This park, these frescoes were part of it.  “Can we just pay you if we use them?”

“No problem,” he says again.  “I’ll leave them with the driver.”

And then he unzips his fanny pack, reaches in, and begins to rummage around.  Eventually he pulls out a few strips of paper, connected at one end, and looks at them. 

And then he freezes. 

I watch him, trying to figure out what the heck is going on.  Lucy has abandoned the 21-questions game, now, is making better use of her time by poking her baby brother with a chopstick.  Ellen is trying to get Jamie to eat a piece of beef covered in tomato juice.  Will is ignoring his food, concentrating on a small brass contraption he bought that works as a crude lock. 

I take all of this in, then reach for a piece of deep-fried yak cheese dusted with sugar.  It tastes a little greasy, but sweet and okay, too, and I chew, glancing back at Haba.  He’s still staring at the packet of paper, the fresco tickets, I assume, the one’s he’s going to sell to us if we decide we want them. 

I stretch my neck, try to raise the angle a little, get a better look at what’s in his hand.  It works.  Up higher, I can tell they are tickets, five of them, stapled together.  Attached to the top, also by staple, is a piece of white paper containing two carefully printed words: 

Ellen Satrom.

I sit back down.  I look at my food.  I can feel my face turning red.  I glance at Ellen, trying to catch her eye, trying to see is she knows what’s going on, if she sees why Haba is standing there, staring at those tickets, frozen in mid-gesture.

They’re our tickets. 

They’ve always been our tickets, included in the price of the trip.

He’s been trying to sell us our own tickets.  

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