Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Great Firewall of China


The Chinese government has an iron grip on information control in the country. For some reason they deem both Facebook and my blog as potential security risks. Not a football blog called "freedomblogging," however, which kind of makes you hate their system all the more for its illogicality.

Thankfully, I have found a program called "Freegate," which gets you around government blocking. And guess who developed it--the US government! God bless America. Seriously, that is so awesome.

Government censorship aside, China is an awesome country. I've been here for about a week, I think, and am currently in Chengdu. It is the capital of Sichuan Province, and I've had some delicious spicy food.

So, a week-ish (or whatever it's been) ago, I crossed into China from Hanoi. Catching the bus in Vietnam was a classic Vietnam experience, with a rigged-meter-taxi disguised to look like a reliable taxi picking me up for the bus station. The joke was on him, however, because I was only going two minutes away and he barely got anything extra.

The bus "station" was a line of parked buses next to the freeway. Only one had any people in it. I walked up to it and tried to see if there was any way to tell where it was going. There wasn't. The driver and the passengers were staring at me as I walked around the bus looking for signs. When I gave it up as hopeless and approached them to ask, they took my backpack and shoved it under the bus without even looking at my ticket. Not a single person on the bus spoke English. I asked every single person "Nanning?" which is where I was headed, and none of them would look at me or reply. I even got out a map and pointed and said "Nanning?" and got a couple of ever-so-slight nods, but nothing else. What the hell, I decided, and sat down.

Rather than retype a big long message, I'm going to copy part from an email I sent. This explains how nice the people have been since I've been here:

The people here are the nicest I've met anywhere, hands down. I first experienced this on the bus. There were two Chinese men on that barely spoke English, but we managed to communicate that I was trying to catch a train from Nanning to Kunming. They got out their phones and laptops (equipped with edge or 3G) to book me my train ticket onwards. It was full, so they got me one for the next day. When we got to Nanning they took me to an army hotel to stay with them for the night. We went out to dinner so I could try Chinese food, and they bought six courses: soup, veggies, beef, omelette, snails, and fish. The next day they took me around the city, to find medicine for my runny nose, and then to the train station, where they came in with me and waited until the train boarded. The only thing they let me pay for was the train ticket and the medicine. They paid for buses around the city, food, hotel, absolutely refusing to accept any money from me. Wow.

On the train I met a family with one high school girl that spoke English who was translating. Everyone had kind of been eying me and some had been smiling and I'd been enjoying it. As soon as they had a link via the English-speaker they all crowded around and asked me questions. A few stayed back, possibly because they thought all the attention I was getting was rude. They wanted to see pictures of where I had been, but all I had was the pictures I'd brought from home. As soon as those came out EVERYONE, even the stalwart stragglers, jumped up and crowded around to be part of the circuit as the pictures got passed around.

The first person to initiate contact with me had been a Chinese man, and he had called over his niece, who was the one that spoke English. He kept saying how much he liked me, how I had a good laugh and a good smile, and said something at length to the girl. She said he wanted her to come with me to Lijiang and be my guide, but she was sorry, she was waiting to get test results back to see if she could go to a good university, and couldn't guide me. Lijiang was two days travel away, and she seemed genuinely sorry she couldn't come. She wanted to go to a university near the "sea," because she'd never seen it. "Is it true that it is blue?" I had a picture of Puget Sound, and she was thrilled. When she was getting off, at the last second she guiltily asked if she could keep the picture of the sea, and couldn't believe it when I said of course.

She had also never spoken English to an English speaker before; she had taught herself from books. Her pronunciation was good and her command of tense and vocabulary was excellent. I couldn't believe it.

The uncle wanted me to get off the train with them at their stop and come to try their food and to drink with him. After he saw a picture of my dad with a salmon, the deal was sealed in his mind--he loved fishing as well.

If I'd had more time, I would have, but I didn't leave myself enough time and just couldn't do it. They were understanding, gave me a bag of favors from the wedding they had come from, flashed me smiles and said good bye.

Getting in to Lijiang, a group of Chinese students asked me (with about 20 English words) where I was going. I showed them the address and asked if they would call for me, which is what the hostel said to do. Call, and they come pick me up. They had me get in a cab with them, wouldn't let me pay for it, looked for my hotel, couldn't find it, called, and waited with me until the hostel staff came.

All this has been in less than three days in China! Unbelievable. Even if everyone else in the country tries to stab me, these have been standout kindnesses out of the seven months.

--End of quote.

Remarkable? I'd say yes.

Lijiang is famous for an old town that is a maze of cobblestone streets. They built it so that a creek/river enters the old town and is split up into little streams that run down all the streets. I have some pictures that will do it more justice, but I can't post them right now because of a slow connection.

A little town called Baisha is an hour's bike ride from Lijiang. It is known for being home to a famous herbalist named Dr. Ho. I went to see him, and he spent 30 minutes serving tea and regaling me with stories about himself. He had ziplock after ziplock full of clippings, business cards, files from the Mayo clinic proclaiming the validity of his herbal remedies, on and on. Then he gave me a small packet of tea and asked for a donation to support his work. I only had a 100 yuan note and three 10s, so I gave him 30. I think it offended him, because he wouldn't look me in the eyes again and showed me out of his shop. It seemed reasonable to me, but I guess not to Dr. Ho.

A windy, bumpy two hour drive from Lijiang is the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge. Hiking it is a two day affair. There are guest houses along the way. The one I stayed at was surprisingly nice. The toilets were the typical Asian-style squat toilets, but they were on a raised deck with stalls that had one side open to the gorge. Easily the best toilet view I've seen or heard of.

I was sleeping in a dorm. From my porch (as well as the bathrooms) you could look across at a rock that was almost sheer. It plunges straight down to disappear out of view, blocked by the foliage on your side of the gorge. Following the rock face up, the trees begin to disappear as you reach the tree line. Then the rock is mottled gray, cut by dry white rivulets and punctuated by patches of sun breaking through the clouds that shroud the uppermost peaks of the jagged mountains. All while you're taking a squat.

From Lijiang I took a 24 hour sleeping bus to Chengdu. In this case, sleeping bus meant all bunks, no seats. I got to the station a little late, and most people were already aboard when I clambered on to look for my bed. Most of the bunks were individual, but a select few were one big mattress that three people fit onto. Mine was one of these. Chinese culture is very conservative about mingling of the sexes. They even think it's a little scandalous for men and women to be in the same dorm room. It was thus an extremely awkward moment when I climbed up to my bunk and found that I was crammed next to a Chinese woman and her late-teens daughter. She had been talking and laughing with her mom, but stopped the instant she saw me pointing to the bunk and asking the driver "that one?!" I've never seen a face look as disappointed as hers did. I had to climb over her and her mother to get to my spot by the window. My space was so narrow that even crammed against the window my shoulder was encroaching on her space. The carefree laughter that had so recently been pouring out of her was long gone, replaced with what you might expect if I had just killed her pet hamster. She unfolded her comforter, pulled it up to her eyes, glared at me for a second, rolled over and went to sleep. It was 1pm.

Tonight I'm catching a train to Xi'an. There I'm going to see the terracotta warriors and hopefully do a hike on Mt Huashan. Nothing else that I can think of... Off to the shower and then to the train station.

Ah! One more thing. The signs here have been the funniest so far. The post office in Lijiang called itself the "Postcard Monopolist." Signs around the city said "Behave in your outing, also, shopping should be rational." In the city today a sign on a construction site said "SAFETY HELMET MUST BE WURN NTTH N SITE BOVNDARY" (sic a lot).

Alrighty. That's it. More to follow. I don't have time to proofread this, so if you notice anything glaring that isn't taken from an English language Chinese sign, don't judge.

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