Sunday, May 3, 2009


Hong Kong was Super. And beautiful, and innovative, and vibrant; "Asia's World City," as they like to put it, on buses and signs.

But we are in China for real now, in a coastal town named Xiamen. Getting across the border was a breeze, our faces weren't even laser beamed for swine flu fevers, but our first bus ride in China was eventful. As we stepped out of the Shenzhen local train station at the border with Hong Kong, we were intercepted by some kind of police, who asked us where we were going (John was confused and said Shenzhen, but they did not believe him), I said Xiamen and without another word, they escorted us to a ticket counter in the middle of an outdoor strip mall down the enormous plaza. We purchased our tickets, then we were told sit on plastic chairs to wait to be ecorted to the bus even though we could see the bus station across the plaza. Not knowing whether Chinese buses stop for food, I went on a food acquisition mission and only came back with a box of garlic chicken crackers that were about to expire... so John went to go try his luck at getting us some food and while he was gone, our guide decided we should leave ten minutes early and proceeded to yell at me in Chinese, hitting me in the shoulder, gesturing at her watch, her cell phone, and the bathroom and John's bags. I just shook my head and said things in English; my one semester of Mandarin is not paying off here in China. When John came back at the appointed time, she rushed us and some others around to the road behind the bus station where a minivan was waiting by the curb. We looked in and every seat was taken. They gave John half a seat to share, and put a very small stool between the seats intended for my behind, which made John say, NO!, and I blurted out, I WANT MY MONEY BACK! I thought I was being told to ride on a mini stool for eight hours after paying $20 (I would pay $5 to ride on a stool but not $20!), but our escort just waved goodbye and some people who spoke english told us this minibus was taking us to a bigger bus. We relaxed as we rode for about an hour through crazy traffic and pedestrians and construction to a random point on the side of the highway where a large bus was waiting. As we boarded a man waited with plastic bags, expecting you to put your shoes in one. Turns out all the seats were beds, like real "lay down with a pillow and comforter" beds. So we rode out the afternoon lying down, watching the rice paddies and highrises and temple ruins fly by.

When we finally arrived in Xiamen, we caught a taxi, only to find out the hostel was full because May 1 is labor day in China and people like to travel on holidays. Our next choice was a dorm on the local university campus where foreigners could reportedly stay. While on campus, we asked a guy we heard speaking english if he knew the way. Turns out he was from Ukraine and was studying Chinese there at the university for the year and his name was Eugene. He led us all the way to the dorm, translated for us, and found out it was full too. Then he kindly led us to another hotel off campus, which he found out was also full. Then seeing as how it was already midnight and every hotel was probably full, he really kindly said we could stay at his apartment because his two Ukrainian roommates were out of town for the holiday weekend. We protested, but he said he hadn't spoken to anyone in anything but Chinese for a week because his roommates had been gone and he would appreciate the company. So we swung by his favorite neighborhood restaurant where he picked his favorites off the chinese menu. Then we went back to his place and ate variously delicious Chinese dishes as he talked about how he thought Soviet communism was different from Chinese communism (Slavics' proclivity for being miserable vs. Chinese complacency with being given food and shelter), what things he missed about slavic culture (drinking wodka with friends!) and what things were like and are now like in Ukraine. All in all an eventful first day in China!

Today was more ordinary: we explored downtown, which is a mixture of buildings from the 20's and huge highrises covered in neon lights, we went to a restaurant famous for its peanut soup where John had to write down the chinese characters based on pictures of foods we recognized (xiu mai we could handle verbally) and then we rode a ferry to the nearby island, Gulangyu, to check out the villas left behind by weathly Japanese and British in the 1920's. On our way back to the hostel we encountered a large street market downtown, whether it was for the holiday or Sunday or everyday we do not know, but whatever the occasion, we ate a wide variety of street foods: fried egg sandwiches cooked in streetside egg poachers, chinese lamb gyros served by chinese youth with "the poofy hair" as John has named it, tibetan pies served by men dancing bollywood style (video to come soon, hopefully!), japanese blueberry cream puffs, and house-shaped waffles stuffed with vanilla, chocolate or red bean.

Tomorrow we are going to ride a train for 26 hours to Hangzhou, which is about an hour away from Shanghai. CHINA! is so BIG.

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