Luoyang - The China that Doesn't Speak English

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A weekend trip to Luoyang for mountains, temples, and crypts.

It is said there are two Chinas - the eastern island and the western sea. Luoyang lies somewhere in the shallows of that sea. I went to see caves and kung-fu monks but learned more about the second China than I had expected.

Not Quite Clockwork
The second China doesn’t run quite as smoothly as the first. My sleeper train to Luoyang was more of a lie-in-your-prison-cell-and-read-then-fall-asleep-now-repeat train. By the time I arrived in Luoyang, I was ready for a little hospitality. It came in the form of an unassuming man in flip-flops.

“Daniel? Daniel?”

I had wondered how my guesthouse host would find me at the train station. Fortunately, not too many travelers seemed to be accompanying me to Luoyang. This was the first sign that I had left the first China. The second sign was that my guesthouse host’s English did not extend beyond “Hello!” In our next few days together, his vocab would at least quadruple. The third sign was that, rather than a taxi or car, our chauffeur was the local bus.

As we walked to a ticket booth peddling train tickets nearby his home, guesthouse host learned his second word of English and earned the nickname I would mentally use for him the rest of the trip. The word was “handsome”. The nickname was “Awkward Chinese Man”.

Train Ticket MonsterThe news from the ticket booth was bleak. Unlike the parts of China I had visited thus far, Luoyang didn’t play by the rules of the train schedules posted on the internet. Trains left irregularly for Shanghai over the few days and the next one with a bed was not until Monday evening - a day later than I had expected. I begrudgingly bought the ticket and Awkward Chinese Man spent the next twenty minutes of our walk to grab lunch trying to mime to me the meaning of “fanzi” or 贩子, which I have interpreted as something resembling a cookie monster that sustains itself on train tickets.

Not Quite Cosmopolitan
The next sign of second China arose over lunch. In second China, food is whatever costs the least and doesn’t immediately kill you when you put it in your mouth. Awkward Chinese Man and the two young waitresses went slack-jawed when I prefaced my order with “I don’t eat meat and I don’t want rice or noodles.” This roughly equates to telling an American that you don’t like cars or television. All three of them seemed flabbergasted that I had managed to survive given these outrageous culinary preferences. After I declined the inevitable cigarette, the delighted Awkward Chinese Man gestured wildly and after an impromptu game of charades and pictionary, he had a nickname for me too - “Monk.”

So Monk and Awkward Chinese Man now set off for the Longmen Grottoes, a series of caves housing large Buddhist carvings dating from 493AD and honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the gate, we met a guest that had stayed with Awkward Chinese Man the previous evening - a young Chinese woman from Guilin named Peipei. Awkward Chinese Man insisted on upping the awkward ante by repeatedly asking me whether I thought Peipei was beautiful and then stating that I was handsome and encouraging her to agree. When he wasn’t alternating between these questions, he would tell me Chinese jokes in order to get me to laugh, a sound he delightfully told me that he found “musical”. Soon, he also began to praise my boyishly hairy arms and tried stroking them. I couldn’t determine whether this was insincere flattery or genuine fascination with foreigners, but I decided that Peipei and I were going to climb very high up the mountain to look at cave carvings that Awkward Chinese Man had already seen before. I found out Peipei had just graduated from university with a degree in computers and law and was traveling China before she began work in the fall. She spoke fairly good English, wore Western dresses, and wanted to work for a big multinational company. She seemed to me to typify the new Chinese middle class profiled every month in Time or Newsweek. The caves we explored were surprisingly well-preserved but disappointingly far too shallow for any sort of spelunking. Chinese historical captions don’t branch much beyond strict descriptions and dates so we didn’t learn much, soon grew bored, and spent some time hiking through the nearby woods.

Not Quite Luxury
Second China has a very different living standard from that which is found in Shanghai. As Awkward Chinese Man and I returned to his guesthouse, I discovered that it consisted of just 5 ‘rooms’ divided by concrete slabs. Two were guestrooms. They were by far the nicest rooms in the house. By nice, I mean they had beds and desks. The living room had a thin carpet laid to cover the concrete but the fourth and fifth rooms were bare. The fourth room housed the family’s prize possessions - two gleaming desktop computers with broadband internet access. I was initially excited at the educational prospects that this must offer his son but suspected they were used strictly for games - a notion confirmed by the alternating states of gaming and sleep that his son and a fat stranger remained in the entire time I was there (note to OLPC and other initiatives trying to spread computers to the unconnected: they are only an educational resource if you position them that way; do not take it for granted that any kid with a computer is suddenly smarter). The computer room, I would later found out, also doubled as a kitchen, dining room, and bedroom for three. It had no fridge and no beds. The last room was the bathroom. An exposed web of pipes looked to be the shower. A seatless toilet, a sink, and two small appliances that turned out to be a washer & dryer filled the rest of the space.

That night, I discovered a street stand with a buffet-like selection of at least 4 kinds of tofu, 3 types of mushrooms, and a forest of veggies and ordered about a half gallon of goods. The damage was just over 5 kuai (about 80 cents). I wondered whether it had to be subsidized to be so cheap and headed back to the guesthouse. I took a cold, drizzling shower and climbed into bed. What had looked like a mattress turned out to be a wooden plank covered with a sheet. I waited until the others had retired and smuggled 5 couch pillows in to form a makeshift bed. I thought about the way American parents tell their children that they “should be thankful they have dinner on their plate” and noted that they should add seat on their toilet, mattress on their bed frame, and hot water heater on their shower head.

Monk Goes to Temple
I woke up surprisingly well-rested (pillows and planks are relatively comfortable when compared with sleeper train top bunks) and caught the bus for Shaolin Temple, home of the famous Shaolin fighting monks. The temple was disbanded during the Qing Dynasty but had recently been revived by a Chinese government looked to preserve its culture… and make a buck or two. The steep 100RMB ticket equated to roughly 20 generous meals back in Luoyang. I shelled out 20RMB for a plate of eggplant but instead was served a pool of grease. I refrained from excavating the theoretical eggplant from its depths and rushed off for the famed Kungfu show.

Sinewy teenagers threw pins through sheets of glass like darts, shattered various materials on their heads, and flipped back and forth to the delight of a packed theater overflowing into the aisles and lobby. I slipped through the crowd and managed an awkward kneeling position in the midst of a family in one corner. The hour-long show was underwhelming considering Shaolin’s special place in Chinese culture. Plaques depicting visiting world leaders outside (an integral part of any Chinese tourist attraction) prompted me to ponder how this place had drawn anyone from outside Luoyang, let alone the country. It will be a shame if the rest of China’s cultural heritage sites stagnate under the pressure of continuous tourists in the future as well. I wandered around the grounds, discovering the Shaolin monk training playground, massive temple, gallery of 500 Buddhas in various positions and facial expressions, a forest of stupas, and, of course, the camel salesman. Along the way, every few minutes a group of Chinese travelers stopped me to tell me how handsome I was and ask to take a picture with me. I laughed, told them they must not have seen very many foreigners, and complied.

I was generally underwhelmed though until I found the temple’s crown jewel - its brand new bathrooms. It was like Christmas morning in second grade. I unwrapped my automatic sinks, toilet seats, and soap and played with them all afternoon.

Having exhausted my bathroom and temple fun supply, I wandered longingly toward the Song Mountains rising behind the temple, dreaming that I had more than an hour and a half before my bus left in order to summit them. I rounded a corner to find a small group of men promoting a cable car ride up the mountain. I told them I didn’t have time. They showed me a picture of an Indiana Jones bridge high atop the mountain. I folded.

Thank God for Fault Lines
Mountains have the property of never disappointing. Try and remember the last time you climbed a mountain and came down wishing you had just stayed home.

Immediately when I got off the cable car, I knew I had made the right decision. Finding a bus could be done later. Summiting my second of China’s Five Great Mountains must be done now. I pondered the characteristic, vertically segmented Chinese cliffs (how do these form??) and reveled in the people-free paths that had been impossible to find on Yellow Mountain.

I soon met a group of Chinese students who were curious to know what I was doing half way up a mountain by myself. They invited me to join them and, after I mentioned the bus I had abandoned, offered to drive me to a bus station once we reached the other side of the mountain. Remembering all I had learned about accepting invites to get into cars with strangers, I gladly agreed. The group turned out to be a high school principal and his former students (now in college) getting together for an annual climb. Most them spoke English and we discussed American and Chinese history and culture and, inevitably, Taiwan. They reiterated what Awkward Chinese Man and various cab drivers of Shanghai had already told me: “Taiwan is a part of China forever. Separation? Impossible.”

The principal insisted that I call him “Uncle Wang” and repeatedly told us all English “jokes” that more closely resembled mad libs. I shall recount one for you now:

A monkey lived in a tree next to a river. A crocodile and its mom were in the river. The crocodile's mom said, "Eat the monkey". [long pause as we vainly wait for the punchline]

I found them far more entertaining than he expected.

Not Quite Westernized
When I’ve met Europeans and Americans while traveling, we often insincerely exchange e-mails or agree to call each other if we ever end up in each others’ hometowns. When I’ve met Chinese while traveling, every single one has emailed me pictures and invites to visit afterwards. I have pictures from the Shanghai Museum, a train back from Nanjing, and a dozen other places, in addition to a string of invites to visit homes from the coastal city of Guilin to the depths of western inland China. That is why, when the students proposed trading American dollar bills for Chinese 5 yuan bills (a deal not in my favor) as a sign of friendship, I accepted. They proposed signing the bills as well but Uncle Wang told them it was illegal and they’d go to prison. I laughed nervously and put my pen away. Uncle Wang wrote down his address for me and requested a New Year’s card. I’ve never sent one before, but I think this year I will start.

Not Quite Touristy
Uncle Wang and the gang chased down and hailed a regional bus for me that accepted me as a passenger for half the price of my route to Shaolin that morning. I found out why as I entered the bus. It was full of migrant farmers.

I curled up in the back to read a book on Chinese history. I was shaken out the 1912 Revolution as our bus careened off the highway. The migrant farmers and I bounced in and out our seats as we forged across farm after farm. I marveled at the fields of green and wandered how many other lucky foreigners got to witness these immaculate views.

Many. We soon met two other buses heading the opposite direction and, though I expressed my preference for a jousting match, the interaction quickly degraded into a sort of waltz of the buses, as we danced forward and backward for twenty minutes until we were all able to continue.

Not Quite On the Same Page
Back at the guesthouse, new guests had arrived. The first group was a Chinese college grad and his girlfriend looking for work.

“I like Los Angeles. I like basketball. I like the Lakers. Kobe! Kobe! You and I are forever friends.”

A flawless line of logic, my new friend.

The other guests were not so enthusiastic. They were a young Mexican man and Polish woman that had met in Beijing the week before and were, against their will, stranded in Luoyang. Their lack of Chinese left them even more frustrated and confused over the “fanzi” and his ticket-eating ways. Furthermore, they had been given the impression that “Daniel” would explain everything when they got back to the guesthouse. Expecting that I were an agent of Awkward Chinese Man, I quickly explained that I was more prisoner than agent (a situation I was delighted to convey while sitting next to the blissfully, nodding and happy Awkward Chinese Man) and that, sorry, they were stuck here. I pondered how many wars had been started over linguistic and cultural miscommunication and drifted off to sleep.

Not Quite Over
The next morning, my wooden cot caught up with me and I headed off for a run to stretch my broken body. I discovered vast fields of crouched grandmothers picking greens to sell in the market that day and dozens of small industrial projects strewn along a nearby river. The locals’ stares conveyed to me that they weren’t used to seeing joggers, let alone white ones. I hoped they were over the Belgrade bombing and smiled back. That afternoon, I explored a little-known museum of Ancient Han Tombs 6km outside the city. Having experienced the Disney treatment of other locations in China, I expected to find only pictures and flashy plaster models. I was delightfully surprised to find a series of carefully excavated tombs, transported from the surrounding countryside, representing at least three dynasties and a thousand years of emperor-worshiping history. Though the Chinese couldn’t help but draw a happy face skeleton in the corner of one tomb, I was generally impressed with the well-preserved wall paintings, vaulted ceilings, and carved figurines exhibited. Halfway through the museum, I discovered a small, blocked-off room with a woman sitting outside. Being the only closed room in the museum, I asked her what was inside. Skillfully exploiting my curiosity, she told me that, for 5 kuai, she would show me. A small group of Chinese college students joined me as another man working at the museum introduced us to their prized possession - two ancient dragon-ear bowls belonging to one of the entombed emperors. When filled with water, the emperor could rub the “dragon-ears” (handles) of the bowl, creating deafening reverberations that echoed through the small room. We occupied ourselves for over 30 minutes, dipping our hands in the bowls as others would rub, allowing the vibrations in the water to run through our arms and into our bones.

I returned to the guesthouse to take advantage of the bandwidth and catch up on emails for my next project in India. Awkward Chinese Man sat on the couch next to me and told me he liked watching me. I told him I didn’t. He asked me if I’d return. I told him probably not. He told me he would accompany me to the train station. I told him I knew the way.

I never left a hostel more relieved than that Monday evening, but I silently thanked Awkward Chinese Man for all he had taught me about the second China and the culture gap.