So since our last rest stop in Yanshan (硯山縣), we have coursed peacefully through rolling mountains inhabited primarily by Yi in small villages or Han in ugly concrete burgs — no surprises there. However, two days ago, after a climb to 2000 m (1.25 miles) high and subsequent plummet, we were in for a surprise. As we approached the town of Shadian (沙甸鎮), the frequency of halal restaurants (清真飯店) increased sharply, to the extent that the non-halal eateries actually had to announce themselves as just plain old Chinese (漢族飯店). Curious, Alexis and I made our way into town, under the sign in Chinese, English, and Arabic pointing us toward “Moslem Street (穆斯林街).” Immediately after making the turn, we were staring down a kilometer long boulevard straight into the biggest mosque I’ve ever seen — I mean the place gives St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican a run for its money.
We found Andy, who had ridden ahead, in front of the mosque chatting with three old men. Before we arrived, Andy had been told that the mosque will be the largest in Southeast Asia (confirmed on the town’s website — I suggest you watch the video on the home page if you understand Chinese and are curious) once it’s opened for service in August. Its total cost is over 100 million yuan (一億元), or over $14 million USD, all furnished by local businessmen as a part of their obligatory Zakat tithings, and it will be able to accommodate over 10,000 worshipers. A minute after Alexis and I arrived, one of the old men, the one who spoke the most enthusiastically but also in the least understandable dialect, invited us for a dinner of noodles in his house. As usual, we accepted, whereupon our courteous host led us toward the town center. (more…)
*For all our pictures of Hainan, click here.
So, fair readers, allow me to pick up from where I left off last.
We had just experienced Xinglong, and all its various overseas Chinese bounties and made our way to Lingshui (陵水縣, click the link for coordinates), just in time to celebrate simultaneously the halfway point of our trip and coincidentally the point furthest south we will go for the year. It was at this point that we parted from the coastal Han-heavy portions of the island to make a trek through the mountains and go searching for the indigenous Hlai people, who occupy 55% of the island’s territory but comprise only 12% of the population.
Speaking of the Hlai, on the way into Lingshui, we had stopped in a little restaurant for rice noodles and tea, as was our custom on the island, and struck up a conversation with the lethargic owner of the shop. “Those minorities used to paint their faces and be very wild. Now they’re all sinicized. They’ve made progress! (他們少數民族以前都喜歡塗花臉，很亂！可現在漢化得差不多了，他們進步了!)” Immediately we were afraid he’d be right, and that the minorities would just be boring Han replicas, but I figured, what does he know anyway? I bet he never goes into the mountains!
Outside of just the minority culture, we had had enough of “modern China” on the fringes of the island, despite access to intermittently beautiful beaches to be enjoyed there. Lingshui itself boasted a tourism alley that called to mind the atrocities that will be committed upon local culture in the name of the brand new “international tourism island (國際旅游島)” policy. We were ready to enjoy the Hainan, a place the Chinese have nicknamed Qiong (瓊), or fine jade, due to its boundless verdancy, and about which the famous poet Su Dongpo (蘇東坡) wrote the following verses when he was banished to the then-fringe colony:
Though I may die nine (many) deaths in the southern wilderness, I shall not regret;
For in this moment I have reached the apex of my life of exquisite travels. (more…)
Note: This post is written about events before our arrival in Shanghai in early November.
On the road from Suzhou to Shanghai, in the prefecture of Kunshan, on one of the four-lane provincial highways on which goods from inland manufacturing bases are sped toward the ocean, sits a row of restaurants catering to truckers and other passers through the dusty industrial zone. Amid shabby storefronts, we found the familiar blue facade of a Lanzhou Pulled Noodles restaurant, here belonging to Ma Jun (马君), where we lunched on the final leg into Shanghai. After ordering a cheap lunch of noodles and stir-fry over rice, we settled into conversation with the proprietor, who instructed us to call him by his Arabic handle, Saloman (think baby-splitting king).
Hailing from a little village outside of Xining in Qinghai province, the 30 year old member of the Hui Muslim ethnic group of China didn’t exactly do any pioneering work in his trade. There are tens of thousands of Lanzhou Pulled Noodles restaurants throughout China, including hundreds if not thousands of shops just in and around Shanghai. Whereas outside of Shanghai the owners of these restaurants could come from any number of locales of high Hui concentration, in and around China’s most populous city, all the Lanzhou Noodleries seem to be run by Qinghai’ers. (more…)
(note: bien souvent, mes posts sont bourres de fautes d orthographe et manquent de photos. Je sais… J ai rarement le temps de me relire et que les connexions Internet en Chine sont parfois pourries, ce qui me fait perdre beaucoup de temps. Desole… Je fais le maximum!)
Jour 24 (16/10/09)
Province du Shandong(山东省)
Comme notre première nuit en tente, celle-ci a été pour nous synonyme de froid et de bruits bizarres. C’est impressionnant ce que la nature peut faire comme bruit la nuit! Il est facile de croire à des bruits de pas, alors qu’il n’en est rien. Le soleil se couche et c’est toute la nature qui bouge: les arbres, les plantes, les moustiques, les mouches, les insectes, absolument tout réagit, à tel point qu’on a l’impression que des dizaines de personnes et d’animaux circulent autour de nous. Puis deux heures plus tard, dans la profondeur de la nuit, tout dort, plus aucun bruit. Jusqu’à ce que le soleil se lève. Alors la nature se réveille.
Nous aussi nous levons avec le soleil, à 6h. Je mets de l’huile pour graisser ma pédale qui fait des ‘clics’. Résultat concluant: plus de bruits. Nous allons prendre notre petit déjeuner de lbx comme d’habitude: baozi (包子, pains fourrés) œufs-ciboulette et carottes-cheveux d’anges, et pour Andy bien sûr, porc! Des enfants nous entourent, et Evan leur fait toutes sortes de grimaces qui les font rire. Des passants nous demandent évidemment d’où nous venons. Je leur dis que nous sommes Brésiliens et Argentins, et que nous sommes venus en Chine à vélo. Ils nous croient sans se poser la moindre question.
Cette journée de vélo commence difficilement. Les bruits de mon vélo commencent à être plus intenses, et le vent est contre nous. Cela ne m’empêche pas de pédaler à fond. Un petit coup de Johnny et tout va mieux!
Pour déjeuner (l’effort est intense et nous mourrons tous les trois de faim), nous nous arrêtons devant un très bon restaurant spécialisé dans le mouton. La viande de mouton est en effet délicieuse, même si un peu chère, et les bing (饼, galettes), chaudes et farineuses. Seul bémol: nous voyons à moins de 10 mètres des lbx décharger des petites chèvres de leur moto, pour les saigner et les désosser une par une. Le cri de la chèvre égorgée me fait froid dans le dos, surtout quand je pense ce que doivent ressentir les autres survivantes, allongées par terres avec trois pattes attachées, attendant dans un stress intense le coup de grâce de leur bourreau. Evan et Andy, eux, paraissent insensibles au spectacle. Heureusement, des tables et une moto cachent la vision de ce spectacle macabre.
You’ll have trouble finding our Mr. Zhang by name, as 90% of his fellow villagers are also surnamed Zhang (张). A grandfather in his early fifties, Mr. Zhang has spent most of his life in his hometown, the Hui (Muslim) minority village of Zhangguan (长官), Shandong province.
We met Mr. Zhang by coincidence. We had arrived in Zhangguan a day before and had already visited the 600-year-old Mosque twice. On our third run through the compact town, we were greeted by a man in his forties carrying a baby and two women in front of their doorway, who after a brief conversation graciously agreed to my request to see their house. Once inside, the stocky, lush-black-haired Mr. Zhang emerged from his nook of the complex and most dutifully — as preeminent male of the family — showed us to the central dwelling of their courtyard mini-complex.
Tea already served to us on the sofa and formal introductions aside, Mr. Zhang began immediately by describing how much better life is now than before. “Before we could never get full. Now we always have plenty to eat,” he said as he picked up some flatcakes and an uneaten chicken wing from the previous night’s meal. “This is a new house, built only 5 years ago. Everything is better since reform and opening.”
Mr. Zhang’s business, that is to say the family’s business, like most of the town, is the slaughter of sheep and cattle. Now that he’s a grandfather, his son and nephew handle most of the business. Nowadays he prefers to spend most of his time watching over the children of the extended family or helping out at the Mosque, where he goes to pray five times a day. That’s saying a lot since most of the other Hui we talked to in the town were religious equivalents of what my family calls “Christmas and Easter Catholics.” In a way he reminded me of a Hui version of my uncle Jack, minus the Knights of Columbus.
His family had moved to Zhangguan from Nanjing several generations prior, though the town had been Hui for much longer than that. The second of four brothers, Zhang was the only one who stayed during the “bad years.” The rest of his siblings took their families to the predominantly Muslim province of Ningxia, where the family visits every year.
I left off in Zhangguan, Shandong, a little Hui (Muslim Chinese) village just across the border from Hebei. The old town was like something out of a movie, people everywhere moving through tight streets and bunched gorgeous courtyard houses, except with Arabic signs intermingled with the Chinese. The old city is laid out on a simple grid of two interescting streets with alleys running between the houses to other houses deeper inside. There are main roads off the Western and Northern branches full of bigger, far uglier businesses and restaurants. The rivers that run in and around the city are black as tar and smell like last month’s fish left out in black oil cans in the sun.
As we walked into the old town in the morning we witnessed what Alexis called ‘Chicken Auschwitz’, a Muslim meathouse where the patrons slit hundreds of chicken necks in rapid succession before tossing them into a pen to bleed to death, the blood streaming out into the street in big thick streams. Only later did we find out that the town’s main industry is the processing of animals, purchased from Han Chinese farmers, slaughtered in Halal fashion. The meat is sold to other Muslims all over the region, as far away as Beijing, and the skins sold to leather manufacturers. Of course, most of the slaughter of larger animals happens away from the old town.
My overall view of Zhangguan was similar to what’s developing into a pattern: newly developed sections bad (as in I wouldn’t make my childhood bullies live there); old and traditional good (as in I see them as places suited for humans to live in). The difference here is that the inhabitants of this town stick together more cohesively than most places since their bonds are religious as well as regional. How well do they stick together? Over 90% of the city is surnamed Zhang (张). There were also a lot of 40-something grandparents running around carrying babies for their hardworking 20-something kids as most here tend to get married at 20 (still haven’t figured out how that works in light of the new PRC marriage age minimums of 22 for women and 24 for men). Moreover, they were by far the warmest and kindest to us of any group of peopple we’ve encountered so far on this trip. Almost every smile and “nihao” was returned warmly, and one family even took us into their house. The hotelier family we stayed with gave us free breakfast and tried to let us stay for free. Of course, the breakfast included a huge plate of goat liver (local specialty), but nothing worthwhile is easy…
After the myriad obligatory photos with our hotel family, we tardily headed Southeast through some soul-rending industrial sectors and after a relatively short ride of 88 km arrived just shy of a place called Madian (麻店), where we decided to try a new strategy for lodgings. We cut off the highway into some farmland covered by corn, cotton, paper trees, and dates and started trying to ask the locals where we could camp for the night. The general concensus (at least we think it was – we could understand maybe 20% of what was being said) was that nobody gave a shit about us camping in the fields, although everybody tried to persuade us that there were hotels to be found. So with the most stealth we super colorfully dressed white boys on giant bikes full of luggage, we lit off the dirt trail and headed into a paper tree grove right up against a bunch of cotton plants and waited until dark while drinking the last of the Scotch that was given to us in Hebei (thanks again to Victor). Once safe, we threw up the tents in a line behind Andy’s (the most camo), and crashed nervously, not knowing if anybody would actually care.
Thankfully at 5:30 when we got up, we were surrounded by a dense fog that blocked vision past 20 feet and had gotten no bothers from the cops or locals, and after our morning situp/pushup routine were on the road a little after 6:30.
For the route yesterday, I picked a road from the map that ran a long ways along a big river. Once we got to the river, we found only long dusty dirt roads on top of a long levee winding through probably the prettiest farmland we had seen so far. After 10 km or so we arrived at a huge sluice gate upon which was printed “Control the Yellow River Sluice Gate of Lanjia.” Aha! So that’s the big river! Two old men with decent Mandarin explained how the gate is used for flood control (amazing since during the 90′s the Yellow was so tapped for industry that it made it to the ocean only 9 of 10 years) and told us about the pear orchard next door.
Curious and desiring pears, we wandered into the facility adjacent to the orchard and asked if we could buy 3 pears. At first we were met with skepticism as to our desires (frequently the first response), but once we got to a group of men moving boxes and munching pears, the “leader” presented himself and tried to give us more pears than we could fit in our bags. Now when I say that these are Asian pears, freshly picked the day before and just pulled from the fridge facility, understand I mean this was the best pear experience I have ever had. After receiving the pears, we got into lively conversation with the group of middle aged men, and – surprise of surprises – posed for about twenty cell phone pictures. Interestingly one man, after trying to pry median American and French salaries for workers (still haven’t thought of a good ready answer to this yet) also told us they were taking down 3000 yuan a month, which would be great for Beijing, let alone the stix of Shandong.
At lunch we had a feast of Shandong food (good hearty stuff) in a small restaurant next to some chickens (though they told Andy and Alexis there was no chicken on the menu) where I played with a 3 month old rabbit hunting dog (to be trained soon) and we were force treated (they don’t take no lightly) to 2 cigarettes each (smoked a puff and thew out once the coast was clear), and a particularly wasted ex military man picked up our tab on the premise that we always tell our foreign friends that “Binzhou people” are hospitable. So here I go: everybody, people from Binzhou are hospitable! We’re also spending less and less money due to camping and freebies. This may become our new fiscal tactic.
Finally we crossed the Yellow River (after making it a little bit yellower from the top of the bridge). Interestingly, apparently the Yellow River is not navigable. It’s full of pontoon bridges for local roads to cross – not even a toy sailboat could go more than 10 km. From there we headed south to a crappy highway boomtown recently rapid-developed (read: I’d rather stick needles in my eyes than spend another day here) after the discovery of oil in the area called Chunliang (纯梁), where we bedded down. On a comical note, this morning when we tried to buy mooncakes, the saleswoman told us, “a little over 1 yuan each. By the way, I’ve never seen foreigners before.” After we put 9 in a bag, she asked us for 45 yuan. I guess I’d try the old “foreigners don’t know math” trick too if I lived here.
The last few days have been great, but hopfully we can find more villages and less terrible industry on the way to Qingdao. We have heard and witnessed from the side of the highway that central Shandong is China’s biggest steel producing area in addition to being a general industrial hub. To say that the air contains some particulate is like saying Everclear is mildly alcoholic.
Alright, that’s it for now. Wish us luck.
What a difference 39 km can make! After the police hijinks in Wen’an we made southward into deep Hebei determined to stay on the country side of things. The dirty hotel room we found in Liugezhuang (留各庄) for 30 yuan (~$4) was across a dirty courtyard from the hotel’s banquet facility / restaurant (mind you, the best restaurant / banquet facility in town, which isn’t saying much), where during our dinner a terribly drunk middle aged LBX man (they don’t need an excuse to be drunk, but on this particular night there was a wedding party going on) barged in to drink with us. In between strange nonsensical outbursts, he repeatedly told us, “I’m a policeman!; I go for training to Beijing all the time!; My family has connections and are in power!; This is my son! (as his son burst in); My son is in power with the government! This is my son! (he was afraid we might forget)” and so on. Basically you should imagine being in backwoods, Massachusetts and being told by a flamboyant drunken asshole, “I’m a Kennedy! I got put in power because of my family! My son has political pull and a hefty paycheck because of our family connections!” After his son dragged him away embarrassed, and we left the restaurant, we were again forced into drunken conversation with two more elder male members of the family, primarily surnamed Gao, one the head of a local insulation enterprise (more on that later) and the other a government official. They both regaled us with stories of how successful or powerful the other was (a favorite face-giving game) before insisting we meet them at noon for lunch the next day in the courtyard. My point is that in Wen’an the police are terrorizing unsuspecting locals because of connections to us, and in the other they’re sitting us down over beers letting us know how great they are. (more…)