Monday, November 14, 2016

A taste of China

The Keyuan gardens in Dongguan, China are almost entirely preserved in their original state from the mid-19th century. As I walked around the gardens in my last afternoon in China, I could imagine seeing a beautiful, sequestered noblewoman admiring the carp alongside of me, or a man in flowing robes furrowing his brow over his calligraphy in the courtyard. On the far side of the picturesque lake however, this illusion of history was marred by grey, high-rise apartments.

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The Keyan Gardens in Donguan. 

This was the moment that completely epitomized my week in China. China is like a teen with growing pains; it is a country that has grown so fast that new has split the seams of the old.

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Scooters and neon lights in Shanghai.

Two weeks ago, I was went to China for six days on business. It was my first time in China, and unlikely to be my last. My colleagues and I spent two days in Shanghai, half a day in Xiamen, and two days in Dongguan, a city between Guangzhou and Hong Kong. As is often the case on business trips, I didn’t have time to take in many sights. We spent one afternoon in a beautiful old town of Suzhou outside of Shanghai, and toured Dongguan on the last day. 

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A charming old town of Suzhou. There was a clear divide in the ‘tourist area’ that was well-kept and prospering in this town, and the ‘locals’ area where more stuff was falling apart, there was trash on the streets, etc. Just one of the many incongruities of China.

One thing we did do was eat a lot. The Chinese take their food seriously. Tables are most often round, with a glass plate mounted in the center. A wide variety of dishes are ordered at every meal and placed on the glass plate, which can be spun so that everyone at the table can take pieces of the dish of their choosing. Whereas in the West we would often either eat fish or meat, in China there’s a hodgepodge of everything at every meal. 

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A typical lunch spread in China.

The most surprising thing was how little rice and noodles I actually ate. We mostly ate fish, meat and vegetables. It may be that these dishes are considered better or fancier, and that we were being treated as honoured guests. Still, I think I only rice once on the entire trip, in a fried rice dish! 

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A waiter desperately tries to find more space for food on our full dinner table. 

And all parts of the animal are consumed in China. I’m a ‘try everything once’ kind of gal, and the short list of things I tried on this trip includes snails (much smaller than the ones they serve in France), two types of stomach (sheep and cow), black pickled eggs, raw crab claws, stinky tofu (tastes similar to brie, but spongier texture) and spicy crayfish. 

Then there was the tea. I’m usually a big coffee drinker, but you don’t go to China without drinking tea. At the companies where we had meetings, there was often a special tea set with an integrated water boiler. The one pictured below was particularly clever, as the was a sensor that detected when the hot water was empty. The faucet would swivel around and automatically refill the water boiler. Traditionally, these tea sets have a frog that you ‘feed’ by pouring tea on it. Over time, the frog, which is made out of a special type of ceramic, changes color or ‘grows’. The tea is served in minuscule cups that are refilled ad nauseam.

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A typical Chinese tea set, complete with a frog to feed.

Although the old ways of China remain in their tea cultures, in other aspects it is clear they are striving hard to modernize. Many of the restaurants had a glitzy, look-a-me feel that is very different from the Scandinavian (and for that matter Japanese) design that I am used to. Chandeliers, marble and lavish furniture all gave the impression that the Chinese are trying to put their new-found wealth on display. Sometimes this went to almost ridiculous lengths, as was the case with this lunch table for 12 that our group of 5 was given...

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Fancy enough lunch room much.

…Or our hotel in Dongguan, a 39-story monolith where you could order green tea pillows, chandeliers in all of the elevators, and a man who pressed the elevator button for me after breakfast. I swear the hotel room was larger than my apartment here in Kyoto.

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Our hotel in Dongguan. Yes, the huge one.

I ran a little while I was in China, although not much since I’m feeling a little burned out these days. My last morning in Dongguan I made it to Qifeng park. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and truth be told I was feeling a little nervous before the run. Dongguan has not always been a safe city, although the recent prosperity that comes from factories mass-producing goods have certainly remedied that to a certain degree. However, I could tell that Qifeng park was a popular jogging spot from the Strava Heatmap, and decided to go for it.

There were literally hundreds of people walking, jogging and running the paved path that encircles Qifeng park. I felt very safe due to the shear number of people who were out. I only saw a handful of other foreigners; this was mostly locals, out enjoying the morning. It was a smoggy morning, and the sun rose in a spectacular show of deep, polluted orange. I definitely felt like the air I was breathing was heavier than usual. 

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Smoggy light in Qifeng park.

I should also mention the restricted internet access in China. As many people are aware, websites such as Facebook, Instagram, Blogspot, Twitter, the New York Times and Google are all blocked in China. I forgot about this and neglected to download local Google Maps for the areas I was travelling to. I felt kind of lost for most of the trip, as I usually use Google Maps to orient myself. Much to my surprise, many blocked websites were locally available on the hotel in Dongguan. Apparently a large concentration of tourists merits holes in China’s Great Firewall!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

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