OK, not quite as many pictures here, just a quick overview of what I did in Xiamen, and a few shots of some goofy signs I found. When we last left our hero, he was hob-nobing with movie stars in Hong Kong, but felt the call of the road, so he packed up his North Face Expedition Pack (btw, much thanks to Manuel for the deal!) and headed north into the Great Unknown... (aka China).
To get out of HK, I took the train to the border and crossed on foot at Shenzhen. I've crossed a number of borders by foot or by car in the past, and the closest thing I can think of is Tijuana - tons of people, lots of barbed wire and fences, really, really long lines and pretty strict document checking.
This is where things changed noticibly. Things weren't quite as neat and tidy as in HK, and suddenly my Mandarin became very useful and my english almost useless. I changed some money and tried to figure out how to get my ass to the airport in time for the next flight to Xiamen. Luckily I found a travel agent at the border crossing station who gave me a better price for the plane ticket than I would have gotten if I had prepurchased it in HK (which is why I didn't). And tried to get them to explain how to get to the airport. I got some complex instructions involving switching buses at the bus terminal and got a little nervous. But if it was easy, anyone could do it right? Well I went out the main gate of the station, looking for the bus stop and was immediately attacked by about 50 guys offering to drive me where ever I wanted to go. I asked one guy (out of curiousity) how much to the airport, he told me $50... thats US $50! That was almost as much as the plane ticket! I then proceeded to impress this man with my ability to curse in Chinese. ;)
|Me with my old class mate Jimmy. We were roommates back in undergrad back when we were all doing wushu together. He decided to become a big businessman and return to his hometown of Xiamen. This is as close as I ever got to Taiwan on this trip. Some of the islands visible from the shoreline are actually controlled by the government in Taiwan. Some of them have big signs on them that say something along the lines of 'Don't come near or we will shoot at you!'
Unfortunately we also ended up sitting next to eachother on the bus to the airport, so I got the whole life story of this guy... (and no thank you once we got to the airport damn it!) But Shen Zhen was pretty interesting, what I saw of it. Very modern, as it practically didn't even exist more than like 20 years ago.
Once I got to the airport and got settled in, I tried to call to Xiamen to figure things out... and let me tell you, despite two and a half years of Chinese and a Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering, I could NOT figure out the damn pay phones... (something with the area codes or something), I had like 5 numbers I was trying, and even with the help of the two snack bar girls, we couldn't get through to any of them!
Well my pal Jimmy knew I was going to show up sometime that day, so I guess I'd surprise him when I showed up. The flight on Fujian Airlines to Xiamen was pretty nice, it was my first time on a Chinese domestic flight, and I was very impressed, a brand new plane, video screens, good service, etc. (a lot of businessmen go through Shenzhen to the rest of China apparently).
Actually, while on the plane they were showing a commercial for some bank or something, and they flashed up an image of the Golden Gate bridge... at that point I realized I had been away from home for about a week and a half and suddenly became very homesick (I get to see the Golden Gate everyday on my way home from campus). But I still had a good two weeks left of my trip and still very little in the way of plans on what I'd be doing that whole time. The Beijing team was /supposed/ to be in Xiamen by this time, so I figured I'd see them for a few days, maybe go some other places (Shanghai?) and eventually make my way to Beijing, since thats where my flight was departing from... Well that was the plan.
Once I got on the ground in Xiamen, I was really impressed, the airport was brand new. Again I had problems with the pay phones, finally a nice security guard let me use his cell phone and I got through to Jimmy. I have to say, all the people I encountered in the Mainland were super helpful to me as a lost tourist type. Having a basic grasp of Chinese and a clueless look on your face is all it takes I guess. :P
Let me explain a little about Xiamen. First of all, where is it? Its about 2 hours from HK by air, in the province of Fujian, but the best description is - 'right across from Taiwan' - on the Mainland. Xiamen itself is actually an island, connected by several bridges to the rest of Fujian. Its also a 'Special Economic Zone' in China, so there are a lot of foreign companies and domestic industries centered there. One thing that struck me most about it is the great disparities within the city. You have people driving around Mercedes Benz, BMWs and Volvos, driving right next to the poorest of the poor. This exists in every society, but the gap between the rich and the average working class person seemed much wider here then I've seen elsewhere. But Xiamen is a bit like Shenzhen, most of it has been developed in the past 10 years or so, so lots of very tall buildings and wide avenues. But it also has an older part of the city, with the narrow curvy streets too.
But back to that 'right across from Taiwan' part. As you may know, this was (and still is I suppose) the front line in the battle between the KMT and the Communists in the not-quite-finished-yet Chinese Civil War. If the KMT was going to retake the mainland, this would be the first stop, and if the Communists were going to invade Taiwan, this would be the port they would leave from. This bellicose past (and present) is visible to the keen observer. A drive around the side of the island will reveal many old bunkers and gun emplacements along the shoreline, all pointed towards the Straits. Furthermore you can see a good number of PRC Naval vessels at the waterfront. And one day I even heard someone firing off some canons, not too far from the old part of the city, at first I was afraid Taiwan was finally making true on Chiang Kai Shek's promise to retake the Mainland, but actually I think it was just target practice by one of the ships. Still, an interesting thing to subject your own populus to, don't you think?
My friend Jimmy, now runs a successful internet company in Xiamen, so I got a peek into the life of a businessman in China. Everything you heard about Japanese businessmen taking eachother out to fancy restaurants and Karaoke bars also applies in China. I've never had such fancy (superfluously fancy) meals anywhere before. In order to purge my stomach of all the upscale cuisine I was getting for dinner, I restricted myself to a McDonalds/KFC only diet for breakfast and lunch!
So where were the Beijing team? Well, once I got situated, I called up the Team leader, expecting them to be in Xiamen already. Opps... well turns out that they postponed their arrival date. I was going to have to wait 4 more days for them to get there. So what was I to do? Leave and come back later? Wait for them? What to do for the next four days? Xiamen isn't /that/ big of a place, will there be enough to see?
Well, luckily, since I had friends in the area, I could stay for cheap, and get to know a place pretty well. (Which is something that I actually like, staying in one place and getting to know it kind of well, rather than doing a whirlwind tour of 50 different places and never scratching the surface of any of them). Plus I found out one important thing... Xiamen is a Chinese (and American) movie buff's paradise. From what I understand, Fujian is the center of the VCD/DVD producing industry for China, so inexpensive movies are available all over the place - much cheaper than HK, who has seriously curbed their pirate movie problem. I'm talking $1.00-$1.25 for a new movie, and as cheap as $0.25 each for older movies. Even DVDs were less than $2.00.
|This is another funny sign I found. This is at the park on Gu Liang Island honoring Koxinga, also known as Guo Xing Ye or Zheng Chenggong, a famous figure in 17th Century Chinese history.
|Koxinga is perhaps best known for kicking the Dutch out of Taiwan as part of his campaign rebelling against the Qing Empire.
So I spent my days exploring Xiamen and Xiamen's video and book stores, becoming familiar with all the local McDonalds and KFCs while my friends were working, and at night we'd go out and eat and have fun... All in all a pretty interesting time. Got a lot of practice with my Chinese, since Jimmy was the only person I knew within a 1000 miles who could speak English. At first the local Fujian accent was grating to my ears (we stick to 'proper' Beijing Mandarin in my classes), but after a week or two, I had adapted and found that now it was the harsh Northern accent that sounded like finger nails on the chalkboard...
|This has to be the single best sign I saw the whole trip!
Finally, after my bag was nearly overflowing with VCDs, the Beijing Team arrived. It turns out that they were staying at the Jimei sports university, part of Jimei University, located right across the bridge on the 'Mainland.' Finding it the first time was a bit of an adventure... a bus ride to the wrong place, followed by some good simaritan football players, a ride in a tiny, unsafe Miandi (now I know why they're illegal in Beijing), then wandering through the sports school til I found some swimmers who were nice enough to find the right dormitory...
I'll save my Beijing team pictures for the third chapter, but let me briefly discuss what I observed on my trips to Jimei... The road that the sports school was on was on the main highway into Xiamen from the rest of Fujian, so you'd get a lot of big trucks and buses carrying people and materials in from across China. But you also got a peek into how the rest of China is, outside of a big city and/or special economic zone. You also see (and I had the pleasure of riding in) some vehicles that look like they're straight out of Mad Max... Buses with big holes in the floor, you get to sit on top of the engine, cause all the seats are full, etc. Makes my Sherpamobile 2000 look like its new of the showroom floor! I also saw livestock, etc that reminded me of the differences.
If you haven't read Neal Stephenson's book The Diamond Age, I encourage you to check out it - in addition to lots of cool stuff about nano technology (that coincides a lot with my PhD field), he also paints a picture of a possible future of China, where it is divided into two countries, one the 'Coastal Republic' which is an ultra modern city, will all the good and bad that entails and the other is the 'Middle Kingdom', the remnants of the broken down infrastructure of the Chinese country side.
It was one night that it really hit me. As I flagged down one of these buses and was riding across the bridge between Xiamen and the rest of Fujian, leaving the dark 'mainland' and heading into the bright and modern city of Xiamen, lit up skyscrapers in the distance, and you pass this gigantic red and blue neon sign that says in English and Chinese 'Welcome to the Xiamen Special Economic Zone.' That's when I figured it out, Stephenson's warped view of the future is almost a reality here. One side has computers, the internet, cable TV, fancy cars, billboards, night clubs, giant office buildings being constructed all over the place, and the other side most certainly does not...
An interesting place indeed. My first Christmas away from home was definitely unique. I can't wait to go back and see all my friends in Xiamen again and buy all those movies I didn't have a chance to buy the first time!
The next chapter will focus on my visit to the Beijing team and some shots I took of a demo they did while I was there.
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