Week 69a - "Stupid English"

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January 26th 2011
Published: May 3rd 2011
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In China there is a famous proverb. It says if you visit Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain), there is no need to visit another Chinese mountain. Many tourist destinations in China come with similar bold statements. ‘He who has never been to the Great Wall is not a true man’ is another. Catching the train from Nanjing, I was intrigued to see if there was any truth in these words.

Sometimes I wish I would re-evaluate my policy of choosing the cheapest options available every time. Instead of travelling to Huang Shan in comfort and style for a few pence more, the penny-pincher mentality saw me purchasing tickets for possibly the slowest train on the entire rail network. Leaving at 5am in freezing conditions and lacking any heating inside, the 340km distance took over nine hours to complete.

The lack of warmth had its benefits. Many commuters congregated in my carriage to share bodily warmth and I soon found myself in the midst of card games and gulping communal bottles of bai jio (rice wine). I had no idea to the rules of the game being played. This was evident from the reactions garnered whenever I discarded, being met with the kind of giggles you‘d expect from a child who’d just farted loudly.

The only person who wasn’t enjoying the journey was the carriage attendant who wore a frown a Russian babushka would be proud of. Facing a losing battle to keep her carriage clean, her mood deteriorated rapidly. With a pout that could turn milk sour, it didn’t take long for her to explode in a ball of rage, bringing the card game and early morning drinking to a hushed, abrupt halt.

From what I could gather, someone with the target skills of an off-colour Emile Heskey had missed the gaping hole in the toilets, leaving a little brown present for the attendant to clean up. Something, I realised from her shouting, she wasn’t prepared to do. Asking who the culprit was, nobody owned up. I don’t blame them. Even with the constant jolts and shakes along the jittery track, such lack of aim would be similar to missing a pig’s ass with a shovel. Everyone remained in silence. She asked the same question again. I looked around. Some commuters peered out of frosted windows. Others stared blankly at their feet.

“ It was him, he told me.” Someone finally spoke up. A man with weathered cheeks and faded flat cap pointed the finger of accusation at the middle-aged man standing next to him. Before he could defend his own innocence, he was nudged by the same man towards the attendant. A look of guilt covered his face. Without uttering a single word he trudged off to the toilet to carry out his sentence. Only upon inspection of his clean-up job did the attendant allow him to return to the carriage. She shook her head as a teacher would do towards a disobedient student. Ashamed of his new found notoriety, the guilty party remained quiet and withdrawn for the rest of the journey. This whole incident amazed me. In a country where, ‘every good businessman has a mistress’, to see a woman gain the immediate respect and attention from a group of strangers was a first, and highly refreshing.

Arriving into Tunxi, the nearest station to Huang Shan and with snow falling thickly, I decided to save the ascent of the mountain for better weather. Instead I chose the UNESCO World Heritage sights of Xidi and Hongcun , two preserved Ming Dynasty villages. With narrow cobbled alleys, waterways and the sounds and smells of rural life, walking through these villages was like getting caught in a time-warp to a China from yesteryear. The falling snow only added to the ambience. Inhabitants that braved the harsh conditions plucked freshly slaughtered chickens or checked on washed clothes, frozen stiff by the low temperature.

In Hongcun, a frail, elderly lady, bent over backwards from decades toiling in rice paddies stood outside a preserved merchant home, beckoning the few tourists inside to look. Watching two Chinese tourists enter, my wife and I followed suit. Having already paid a hefty entrance fee to walk through the village I still enquired, “No money yes?” The lady shook her head and smiled innocently. The timber courtyard, rickety balconies, snow covered pond and colourful altar were near identical to the other homes viewed in the two villages and we left almost immediately, again following the identical rain-jacket wearing Chinese tourists out.

The elderly lady had been watching us like a hawk. Attempting to leave the premises, she blocked the entrance. With her palm outstretched she demanded money. She pointed to a sign inside the doorway claiming it read the admission price of our visit. Even with my level of Chinese reading skills I knew it didn’t.

To save any hassle or conflict, I should have paid. But I didn’t. I decided to stand my ground out of principle. I knew the demand of money was a play on my ignorance. What could a frail, old lady do anyway? At first I politely inquired why she had originally said it was free, and why other tourists walked out unhindered. Refusing to answer my questions, her innocent demeanour quickly evaporated when she realised I wasn’t prepared to give her any money.

Her screeching requests started to attract attention from other inhabitants, who peered from windows and doorways. With a posse of onlookers, this was one argument I had no intention of trying to win. I beat a hasty retreat. Possibly to save face, the old woman turned the air a deep shade of blue. “Bastards, foreign bastards, bastards, BASTARDS,” she croaked. Looking back one last time she had the eyes of a woman possessed.

The following day proved perfect weather for Huang Shan. Waiting in Tangkou for public transport up to the main gate of the mountain, I was informed by a talkative taxi-driver, that due to snow and ice there was no public transport making the 10km trip. With no buses in sight, I had no reason to doubt his story. Accepting his offer of transportation, my wife and I clumsily climbed into his vehicle.

It wasn’t long before we found ourselves travelling in completely the opposite direction to Huang Shan. It was only after all signs of life had vanished and we were the only vehicle on a quiet rural road, that I started to query where the acne-faced driver was taking us. The taxi-driver seemed astonished by my questions. “I said it was closed, too much snow”, he responded, giving me a look as though I’d just asked him how many sides a triangle has. He could have been right. We could have somehow gotten our wires crossed.

Stopping at the side of the road, the taxi-driver pulled out a crumpled map, and pointed to a distant mountain. “Here there is less snow”, he informed us. Knowing that this trip would have led many a man to financial ruin and now not trusting his word, I pointed again to where I wanted to be taken. Looking extremely irritated with my persistence, the driver slammed his hand against the steering wheel, accidentally pressing the horn. Shaking his head as a father would do if his only son chose ballet over football classes, he immediately doubled his original quote and changed direction.

Before you could say, “two spring rolls and a portion of sweet and sour chicken,” we’d stopped again. The driver beckoned across a group of men who were busily clearing snow from a side road. “Is Huang Shan closed?”, he asked them. “Yes,” they replied in unison, pointing to the fresh pile of snow they’d cleared to the reason why this was so.

I can be a very trusting individual. I gave the driver the benefit of the doubt, who had now started pointing out other sights of interest in the local vicinity that could replace the mystical Yellow Mountain. Stupidly, I agreed to a revised itinerary, the first attraction of which, Emerald Valley, was located down the very side road where we had stopped. Once inside Emerald Valley, made famous by director Ang Lee in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I realised I’d been duped. Walking trails were clear of snow. In the distance I could see numerous buses travailing winding mountain roads. Returning to the car, this time I demanded to be taken to Huang Shan. At this point we both knew the score. Unable to hide his smugness, he doubled the price once again, making clear this was non-negotiable. Begrudgingly I agreed. Arriving at Huang Shan three hours later than I’d planned and with a wallet severely depleted of funds, a plethora of public transport options greeted me. I’d been well and truly tricked.

I recently read an interesting article. Not only do the majority of Chinese believe it’s acceptable to lie on their CV’s (not surprising considering the competition for jobs, and bribing to obtain one can cost the equivalent of ten years salary), but if they are conned, they don’t blame the conman. They blame themselves for being so dim-witted to fall for it in the first place. I like this pattern of thought. Blaming myself curbs any feelings of negativity and anger towards others.

Now only having ninety minutes to enjoy the views from the top of Huang Shan, I raced around the mountain trails like a chubby Haile Gebreselassie. Chinglish signs like ‘as the flowers flourish, leave only your virtue’ (don’t litter) and ‘timid footsteps are the sign of a wise man’ (walk slowly) cluttered the routes.

The old Chinese proverb was true. Huang Shan really was breathtaking. I admired what lay before me; a multitude of surrounding peaks poked through the wispy cloud cover; views in every direction I wouldn’t have tired of if I’d spent a month on the summit. Going through the hassles to get there only made it more rewarding.

That evening after returning back to Tunxi I took a taxi to the apartment of my hotel’s owner, who’d invited my wife and I for dinner. I did think it was cheeky he’d asked us to pay more than the cost of restaurant meal for the pleasure, but I expected the ‘cultural experience’ would be worth the outlay.

Reaching his tiny abode, my wife and I spent the majority of the hotpot meal, consisting of lettuce leaves and tofu, by ourselves. The hotel owner’s wife and daughter sat glued to a nearby computer playing Farmville. The hotel owner pottered about in the kitchen.

As we finished our last mouthfuls the owner joined us. Waiting for me to finish eating, he enquired, “why do you sound so stupid when you speak English?” A little shocked by his bluntness I smiled wryly, explaining I slowed down my speech and over-enunciated to be better understood. He laughed and started mimicking everything I said. I could see his point. I did sound slightly foolish. From then onwards I spoke normally. The hotel manager met my words with confused, blank stares. I reverted back to my slowed-down, over-enunciated English so he could understand and he resumed his mocking, adding “unlike you, I will only speak the perfect English, half British accent and half American accent”. I nodded, accepting the constructive criticism.

The hotel owner was very similar to many businessmen I’ve met in China. Uneducated and leaving school at an early age, they’ve made their fortunes from plagiarising the concepts and ideas of previous employers. Intellectual property rights is still very much an alien concept in China. Copying other people and technologies on the other hand is a thriving entrepreneurial skill. China is certainly the place to come if you are an entrepreneur or see a gap in the market. A friend was recently led to the top floor of a posh office block in Beijing, where a fledgling business was located. Here every type of manuscript, document and certificate could be forged to help potential students obtain places in overseas educational systems, predominantly America.

Such methods of generating wealth might be frowned upon in the West. In China it has created many rags to riches tales. Given the choice of remaining poor or copying others to become rich, even I’d be tempted to take the unethical road.

Additional photos below
Photos: 36, Displayed: 30


3rd May 2011

Loved it!
Great blog! Loved the part of seriously reconsidering your penny pinching travel....but as you said, you might have missed the drinking and card game, and the upset car attendant. Lovely pictures too!
4th May 2011

I have travelled through 14 Provences in China on my own tours and usually in winter...have asked many times about Huang Shan but always get put off by "too foggy...no visibility". From your photos visibility is fine...thank you for that. Anhui here we come.
16th May 2011

Yes........although i wish i wasn't as penny-pinching sometimes, you do get more of a local feel to the experiences. Although i'd like to take full credit for the photos, i have to thank my trusted friend Mr. Picasa for some help!
16th May 2011

No problems with visibility........
.........yes we had no problems once on the top of Huang Shan with visibility, and no one mentioned this as a problem when we visited. I could envisage ice and snow being a problem at times though, especially if wanting to hike to the top of the mountain instead of taking the cable car. I hope you go.........the views were unbelievable.......photos can't do it justice.
22nd November 2011
Hongcun - Anhui Province

This photo is beautiful. Makes me wish I had been there in that exact moment. Thanks for sharing.
22nd January 2012
Hongcun - Anhui Province

......reading comments like this makes me miss China even more!
4th December 2011

Really good writing here. Thanks for all the info and the warnings. It\'s very unfortunate you got duped several times though, yet you sounded really calm and don\'t seem to be bitter about it.
22nd January 2012

I think part of travelling is to get duped, conned and taken advantage of......only then will you learn from your errors and have one or two amusing stories to tell!

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