By Jamis MacNiven
I never thought I would get to China. I always imagined it to be insanely crowded, overwhelming and just too complicated. I pictured the Chinese airline agents looking at me blankly and informing me that all the flights were full—for the next two years. Of course I knew that everyone strangled on the air and there would be no way to get decent Mexican food. I pictured a people in a continual rush and of course they would all be exceptionally short. I imagined that China would be a curious blend of two steps forward and one back.
At least—the very least—I was right about the Mexican food. All the rest was completely wrong. The people are very cordial, (though if you leave a gap in a line they are inclined to zip into the space) they aren’t short and compared to the average American are certainly far fitter. The cities do have bad air much of the time but we had completely clear days.
And as far as one step back? Well, not so much and we did see some leaps forward that made us step back in wonder. With my out of kilter preconceptions I moved from thinking …oh well—China —to, this is interesting—to, this is a bit amazing—to, did I really just see this?—to, (at our last stop) this is the most amazing and interesting place I have ever been. More on where we were at the end of this article in part 2.
My long time friend Kelly Porter is an investment banker. This is a odd term as he neither invests nor does he run an ATM. An investment banker maximizes the value of a company in transition through IPO or a sale. Kelly is an American who was selling a German company to a Chinese conglomerate. A real international transaction. The deal was mostly done but the Chinese buyer needed to conduct the ritual which included long meetings, sightseeing tours and lavish dinners. So when I met up with Kelly in Shanghai he had been put through the wringer and hung out to dry. That’s quite in keeping with the local tradition of hanging your laundry from your balcony to dry. They do this all over Shanghai even from 50 story high rises. This gives the place a festive air even if looking like a very tall shantytown.
Our first hotel was located next to the Yangtze River. We fronted the new financial district with a legendary view of the constant stream of coal barges and all sorts of tourist river traffic. Right in front they were finishing the 2079 foot Shanghai Tower which twists gracefully 120 degrees as it tapers upwards as if driven by the wind. At night the buildings surrounding it are alight with the world’s largest signs. The windows on many of the skyscrapers have clear video screens so they become billboards hundreds of feet high. On the river, the cruise ships are illuminated like a redneck’s yard on a Texas Christmas and the place positively screams, “Look at us, world!”
We ate at the famed Riviera Restaurant next to the hotel. It had an 80 page menu all illustrated with photos. We ordered some things that we recognized but we also ate some dishes that we were unable to determine were animal, vegetable or other. I was shocked to see shark fin soup and even more so when I read it was $100 a bowl. “I’ll have the Campbell’s cream of mushroom please.”
A guide took us to what is considered to be one of the great treasures of Shanghai and indeed all of China, Yu Garden. Like other parks and historic sites entry isn’t cheap. Attractions are $8-12 which is OK for us but the Chinese pay this too. The park features a 400 year old rock garden and some ancient pavilions. I can say that by any measure, other than a Chinese one, this park looked like a bunch of large chunks of gravel crudely mortared into larger lumps. The guides repeatedly told us that portents, good luck charms and spirits still loom large in China. This certainly seemed true when we found a rock shop selling small lard-colored stones no bigger than Brazil nuts and costing over $2,000. I’m not being dismissive, they really are supposed to be the pure color of lard.
On the streets we saw several old people folding fake money called ‘joss money’ or ‘hell money’ into origami-like shapes. They do this to earn a little real money. The fake cash is burned in sidewalk braziers as an offering to the departed. The money somehow drifts up (or down) to your ancestors so they can have some do-re-mi in the afterlife. This has evolved into burning all sorts of fake things including credit cards, checks and life-sized paper replicas of everyday items like clothing, TV’s, computers, cell phones, iPads and even cars. The government has tried to curb all these small fires but the citizens have objected, claiming that the tradition is thousands of years old.
What is not being burned are the apartments in Shanghai. There are millions of them and many cost over a million dollars.
Kelly suggested we check out the Shanghai contemporary art scene and we found the gallery district. We took in about two dozen art galleries, some charging admission. Every one was full of awful art by any realistic measure. I kept thinking it was just me being a westerner but I know something about technique and artistic passion and we saw little of either. It was entirely drab and you could see it’s not a vital part of the city. In fact the Chinese aren’t into small artistic statements like the Japanese. In Japan you see the tiny rock gardens and great subtlety. In China they really excel at the grand statement.
Building construction is everywhere, much of it stopped in mid-crane swing and China has sucked up a good percentage of the world’s concert, steel and a lot more in recent times as the Chinese are rushing into the future faster than any country ever has. The architecture and urban planning shines and there is nowhere else where the buildings soar with greater whimsy. The top dogs have had enough, and an edict from on high has been issued to knock off the crazy stuff. There are Golden Gate Bridges, London Mayfaires and Eiffel Towers. China is sooo not Russia where most of the communist era buildings seem to be designed by the same unhappy vodka marinated government clerk.
We came across old Shanghai just in front of the wrecking ball which was literally demolishing the neighborhood as we watched. These old time communist 2 and 3 story buildings featured public latrines in each block and kitchens on the street. Our guide told us that the Stonegate neighborhood was the 2nd largest cityscape of art deco buildings after New York. This is a very thin claim as the buildings were bland concrete boxes. This glorification of tenuous details is one of the many aspects of government propaganda left over from a time before you could Google stuff. Wellll, actually you can’t Google it as Google is banned in China…sort of. Everyone has workarounds. In these old neighborhoods we saw dispensers for free condoms but were told that no one took them because it was considered embarrassing. The box was indeed full of desiccated packs of condom. We would have taken them but they were pretty dusty.
In one quiet neighborhood we came across an immense shopping center. One floor had nothing but mattresses being sold by over a hundred different vendors. The next floor had some of the wildest, most fanciful furniture imaginable. Perfect to put in the weird high rises. Picture Pee Wee Herman partnering with Marie Antoinette on an unlimited budget. We saw pink and gold Rococo living room sets, fairytale canopy beds and one store had Chinese versions of old West saloon-bordello furniture. All at spectacularly high prices. Really it was enough to make a Persian blush. This center was probably ½ million sq feet but we never saw any customers.Kelly thought he could use a new pair of glasses so we went to eyeglass heaven, where we found four floors of eyeglass vendors. Several hundred of them. He got 4 pair for $160 with corrective lenses. That was a real deal. A rare fit of decorum came over me and I decided against buying a pair of Helen Keller brand sunglasses.
Finally it was off to the airport on the Maglev. This is a train that does 268 mph hovering smoothly in a magnetic field. It can go over 300 mph but it tends to sway a bit (read a lot) when it passes the return train at 600 mph 10 feet away.
Having exhausted our options in Shanghai we flew to Xi’an (she-an). From the air the city looks to be wrapped in a huge string of red Christmas lights. On the ground they turn out to be giant signs proclaiming the name of the buildings. The Chinese are nuts for the color red for sure.
Xi’an is the site of the first capital of China. It dates back 2,200 years and is home to the tomb of the first emperor Qin Shi Huang and his collection of clay soldiers. We were told that he planned to be buried with his elite guard of real soldiers, 8,000 of them. However his advisors said if you bury your elite guards who will look after your kids? So he ordered life sized effigies made with the individual faces of the real soldiers and since they were all dressed up and ready to go they would need ceramic horses and real chariots with authentic weapons. They were arranged in rows in giant pits and roofed over where they stood silently for thousands of years until a farmer discovered them in the 1970s.
The Chinese have excavated and restored about 1,000 of the soldiers and judging by the 20 or so men we saw working in the pits they should have the project finished in about 750 years. We found a shop outside the park where they tried hard to sell us full sized soldier-men with our faces; $1,200 including delivery to the States. A pretty good deal. Under a manmade mountain a few hundred feet high is Qui’s tomb but they haven’t even started to excavate it. They take the long view in China. Actually when they uncovered the soldiers they were all brightly painted but in just 15 minutes the paint started to flake off so their caution is justified.
Driving through Xi’an at night we went through the auto repair area of the city. There were hundreds of small shops fixing cars. Most were open with the mechanics working away. This at 11 pm on a Friday night while we were home in bed, the Late Show playing in the background.
In Xi’an we were told that the place to see was the Muslim area. This was street after street of shops and restaurants. We found a salon that lets you dangle your feet in cuticle-nibbling minnow tanks while they paint your fingernails. We had the best food of the trip from a noodle vendor there. The streets teem with musicians, men rolling and selling individual cigarettes, and big-armed brutes rhythmically bashing the ubiquitous sesame candy with great cudgels. This is eaten still warm from the pounding. There were trinket vendors and fortunetellers all enthusiastically hawking their wares. Many of the shops were run by demure women with Islamic head covering which has morphed into elaborate polychromatic lampshade affairs. This neighborhood was the most hang loose and lively place we found in China.
Kelly is a very good sport and he engages the locals at every turn. It was pretty rich when he tried to make himself understood to a little old lady asking her whether he could eat a 1,000 year old egg at her stand or did he have to take it home. Myself, I find the key to talking to foreigners, any foreigner, is to speak bad Italian while making frightening eye contact. These eggs aren’t really that old but they certainly appear to be. They have been preserved in what looks like motor oil and are composed of half sulfur and half ammonia. Yum! Kelly bravely ate to eat this black beauty with its yoke of phlegmatic sludge. That man is just crazy for eggs but even he drew the line at one.
The next day we took off on a 4 hour trip by train at 186 mph. Very difficult to open the windows on this ship. We could see the bug splatters on the windshield from our front row seats. They were about a foot across. They must have some pretty darn big bugs out in the country.
Being in car #1 gets you the privilege of being the first passengers to explode into itty bitty bits when a cow steps onto the tracks. Luckily no hamburger came hurtling through the cabin (actually they don’t really have cows) but they did serve lunch and endless cups of tea. We zipped over rice fields and this was dry rice farming. Each field features multiple gravesites and every stand of trees seemed positively stuffed with funeral accoutrements. This is rural China—all dead folks and rice. We were almost never out of sight of huge apartment complexes. Now and then a gigantic city would pop up and we saw countless coal and atomic power plants, many in residential neighborhoods.
The trees in China were mostly cut down centuries ago and there has been a real effort to reforest the country. Unlike us they don’t value wildness so all the trees are in strict rows (not unlike the terra cotta warriors). The trees in city parks are not just in rows but are confined rigidly in iron-fisted harnesses to make sure they all grow with proper communist verticality.
It was along here where we began to get a feeling that not only were we not in Kansas anymore and that China was far more populous that we had ever imagined. China has nearly five times the people of the U.S. but feels a hundred times bigger. And amazingly it works and works pretty well. But all this didn’t prepare us for the stunning spectacle that awaited us in the far north… where our trip went from amazing—to positively unbelievable.
People talk about the endemic corruption on all levels in China. This makes them look shifty to westerners. Of course we have 100s of millions of guns which they find strange. They might have crafty officials but crime is much lower than in the U.S. They have about ¼ the murder rate and far fewer people in prison. If they would simply buy more guns they could raise their pitiful homicide numbers, reduce the population and since most guns are American made it will help with the trade imbalance. Hey—I’m just sayin’!
So here let me tell you about the Chinese use of keyboards. It’s amazing but a Chinese iphone has 4,000 tiny keys which makes it very hard to type (and they don’t have Trump-like teeny little hands). Hummm you ask, can this be true? The fact is their iphones look much like ours and I noticed that the numbers they use are our numbers. Hey, we’ve been hacked! The way the keyboard works is that they have adopted the 26 letter English alphabet and learned the sound of the letters. They then type the phonic equivalent of their words and the screen displays the Chinese characters.
It is true that unlike many places in the world English is not spoken everywhere and we never encountered any cab drivers who knew any English at all. One gets used to leapfrogging with notes written by guides and hotel staff. My translation program was a Google app so it wouldn’t function, though the maps worked. In China the default browser is Bing. Really?—Bing? And it has all been cleaned up. And I mean cleeeaned up. No Sears catalogue nursing bra page and the politics have been scrubbed too. The recent Panama Papers scandal involving Chinese officials and offshore banking is not in the news in China.
China is so very different from the U.S. In China you might be a citizen but you are not free to move freely around the country which is understandable because if everyone was allowed to move to Shanghai the population would not be 24 million but 5 times that.
We arrived in Beijing to great weather, clear air and excellent inexpensive hotels. We saw the typical attractions like Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Kelly asked our government licensed guide where the guy laid down in front of the army tank and he blanched saying he could not talk about it. Finally some cool commie censorship. These sites were, meh. But the Olympic park and swimming pavilions were spectacular. The Bird’s Nest stadium looks delicate in the pictures but is actually made of massive 4’X4’ members of 1.5” steel plate.
We took an hour car ride to the Great Wall and believe me you don’t want to miss this. The pyramids of Egypt, though much older, are far less of an engineering feat. The wall is 20-30 feet high and had a road along its length. There are guard towers every 300 feet or so and in ancient times each was manned by some 20 soldiers. Most of the wall is gone now and the original length has been reported to have been 5,500.3 miles (about the distance from Los Angeles to London) to as much as 13,170.69 miles; an oddly specific set of numbers. The wall was built over a period of hundreds of years from 2,700 years ago (or 2,200 depending on who you ask) and was the biggest structure in the world until the U.S. Interstate freeway system was built. It goes from near sea level to over 5,000 feet high, much of it perched on razor-edged ridges.
In China (as in any country) it’s fun to spot bureaucracy and customs run askew, such as seeing every shop keeper, airline agent, and ticket taker standing next to a large and often expired fire extinguisher or two. It doesn’t matter if the extinguishers are surrounded by a square mile of solid concrete, there is an army of fire extinguishers to protect it. Maybe it’s all that hell money burning everywhere. In the airports we saw several metal boxes the size of dishwashers. Kelly found out that they are bomb disposal containers. The lids were pretty flimsy and couldn’t have contained much more than a cherry bomb but we were comforted knowing where to toss stray bombs we might encounter.
Thank goodness we don’t do dumb stuff in America but though the Chinese do think it strange that our To-Go cups are so big that the bottoms have to shrink comically to fit in car cup holders. Or that we employ the antiquated measuring system of feet and inches used only in America, Liberia and Myanmar. They chuckle that we treat our pets like children and serve them endless varieties of colorful food. Or our aerosol cheese or cheese at all…
When we encountered the antics in the public parks I felt a surge of joy. Imagine thousands, no, millions of people going into the parks in the early evening and forming dance clubs. There’s square dancing, ballroom, swing, cha cha, rhythmic and ballet. Most are women and mostly older but there are young folks too. Some of the troupes are 5 or 6 people, others might be a hundred. All with a boom box. The Chinese joke that these dancing women are the second largest army in the world.
In one rose garden we found not just dancers but we saw Chinese lessons being given to tourists who took up large brushes and copied Chinese characters in water on the sidewalk. Other groups were doing marshal arts and tai chi. There were political and work related discussion groups with 20 or 30 men shaking their fists at the sky for emphasis. In one park a group of 40 or so were reading off large cards and singing karaoke. We were told that they were singing the traditional communist songs of the 60s and 70s. Ahhh the good old days.
Although Uber works nearly everywhere we mainly used the cabs which are clean and cheap. This coupled with the fact that there isn’t any tipping in China makes it an even better deal. We did try to tip people but it was generally met with confusion. Like any places which have a lot of tourists the guides and vendors will start high but a price is quickly reached and we never felt the least bit hustled. And almost all the tourists are, guess what?—Chinese, and at the popular sites there are a lot of them. We found one poor cherry tree in bloom at a temple and I could practically see its essence being drained by a crush of 10 dozen photographers. Selfie sticks are everywhere and many young folks keep their phones locked in the clamp all day. In India there has been a proposal to ‘ban the stick’ in the entire country due to a significant number of accidental deaths from falling into
In China the cheaper the food the better it seems to be. American food has made very little impact. There are McDonalds, Kentucky Fried and Starbucks but not that many. In the cities you do see the Rolls Royce dealer and a few Teslas but most cars are Chinese because there is a 100% duty on imported cars. One popular brand is Buick. They just love the Buick. They are Chinese made but it says Buick on the car. Iphones carry the 100% tariff too even though they are made in China. Go figure.
You can do better if you buy fake. A fake iphone 6 is about $250 and it works, sort of. You can buy a fake Land Rover, a fake half Porsche/half Lamborghini or about two dozen other cars all on display at the fake car auto show they had recently in Shanghai. They aren’t strictly copies as the design (and execution) drifts a bit from the original so none was a complete rip off even if the Audi clone had the familiar ring logo but with one extra ring. I liked the Bugatti clone best though I think the name Dragonfly made it seem like 225 mph was out of reach. We went to one shopping center where everything was fake. They weren’t even making an attempt to fool us. One set of headphones looked like Dr. Dre’s but the words on the box read. “For the energeticly high-fidelity listening to of the musical notes.” Maybe I just don’t get hip-hop.
The following day we went to the inner city airport where gringos are perennially in short supply. We took a brand new 737 to Ordos and Kangiashi. This was where the adventure really lifted off. We were headed ‘up the creek’ and we were not taking a paddle.
Earlier this year I had heard that an American college student was arrested for stealing a poster while on a guided tour in North Korea and for this they gave him 15 years hard labor. So I thought, “I want that guide!” thus we signed up with Young Pioneer Tours to take us to some of the ghost cities of China. The Young Pioneer motto is “budget tours to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.” A more accurate motto might be “Crazyass Englishman takes you to the edge of the earth and encourages you to jump off!” (By the way the kid did much more than steal a poster and will probably do about 6 months.)
In just an hour we landed at a brand new airport. There were about 10 gates but ours held the only plane. We were met by the founder of Young Pioneers, Gareth Johnson, a jovial Brit who has lived in China for many years. He has a great many guides working for him all over the world in places like Turkmenistan and Afghanistan—in fact all the Stans as well as N. Korea. But Kelly and I got the man himself. We hit the ground at a trot. We had a local driver and Gareth speaks very good Chinese so we were set.
As we cruised on the wide, new empty highway we saw block after block of high-rise apartment buildings. Some finished, some half completed with their cranes frozen in mid swing. We were never to be out of sight of these blocks for the next two days. The number of empty apartments, condos really, in China is unknown but picture 1,000 apartments in a development (many seem to be closer to 5,000) then picture a 1,000 of these blocks and multiply that by as much as 50 and that will still not be enough. Incredibly, the developments are all different. They prize the variety.
In Ordos we came upon a sports complex with a brand new stadium complete with TV booths and 80,000 seats. They have no sports team and the sad grass has expired. Outside we found three more indoor stadiums nearly as big. We went to a hospital and coasting in on our imagined credentials as American doctors “just here to inspect the facilities, Miss” the single nurse gave us access. 300 beds, no patients and a pharmacy featuring 50 packaged items optimistically spread out in a thin density across the shelves. The dust swirled through the somnolent hallways. Since the hospital was technically ‘open’ it is counted as such so someone got paid.
The Kangahshi area with the city of Ordos at its center is slated to have over five million people and is maybe 2% occupied. According to one local the population is actually dropping. Yikes! Plopped in the desert outside the city was one pavilion after another—all different, all huge and most for totally unimagined events. They looked like Martian opera houses. We went to several indoor sports complexes of the most original designs. One was 7 stories high with a skin that changed color in waves every few seconds. We took a tour and discovered half a dozen people playing badminton and this at 7pm on a Friday night. It could have held 400 people. They definitely put the ‘commie’ in community center.
In the center of the city we found a sculpture park of bronze figures all celebrating Mongolian weddings. Through the half dead forest we eventually saw over 300 bronzes, some twice life sized in just this one park. All about Mongolian weddings.
And there were countless other parks. One sported 20 foot tall gold lions ,another was devoted to giant unwatched TV sets largely obscured by trees. Is the TV actually on if there is no one to see it?
The regional museum had a decent collection of fossils and the massive library next door was made to look like books falling over on a shelf. We were the only visitors in either building.
In the middle of town there was a gigantic park with a string of 60 or 70 running horses in bronze. Perhaps 20 acres was devoted to huge water jets in this desert region. Behind the park was a dock with cruise ships that looked as if they had not had passengers in quite a while—or ever.
It has been said of Genghis Kahn that he and his hordes killed more people in conquest than any else…ever. Not per capita—in absolute numbers and this 800 years ago. In Ordos they lovvvve the man. Only 10% of the population is Mongolian but the region is heavily influenced by the culture. I think the Chinese just don’t want to rile the Mongolians. This has always turned out badly for the Chinese. Maybe some Mongolians occupy the high rises but I doubt it. We saw many living in yurts at the foot of the tall buildings with their camels, pickup trucks and satellite TVs.
The amazing part about all this is that all the buildings are completely accessible. The doors are unlocked and you just walk in. There are guards but they are so amazed to see you that they just show you around. There is no trash or graffiti and we were told that crime (not counting large scale price fixing, money laundering, clipping the building code and selling pantloads of useless fire extinguishers) is virtually non existent.
Many folks do die of boredom no doubt but the density of residents is so low that I imagine they are just left sitting on the divan with their desiccated eyeballs pointed at other mummies across the vast courtyards.
The locals surely know this place is unusual but they don’t let on and endeavor to act nonchalant. The food in the region is a uniform gray but it won’t kill you and the water is good plus all the hotel rooms are equipped with gas masks (and fire extinguishers) so if you want to cook meth this is a great place to do it.
We found a stylish Mongolian run hotpot restaurant for dinner and were told the warrior’s helmet was used as a cooking pot and our dinner certainly tasted like it had had a sweaty head in it at some point. We could have gone to a BBQ place but when told where that tradition came from (let me just say that when the Mongolian warrior ran out of sheep they didn’t run out of meat) we opted for the pot.
The horse racing park on the edge of town had seats for about 40,000 screaming fans cheering on the non existent horses in a country where there is no gambling. A few miles beyond the track we found Genghis Kahn’s tomb. The place was absolutly packed-—with about -6 visitors. The signs along the broad stairs to the tomb told of The Great Kahn’s exploits in Mongolian, Chinese and Monglish. “The spyrite warrior lives on grand horseback.” Actually pretty accurate.
We stayed in the best hotel in the province ($48) and it was 5 star. It had maybe 400 rooms and about 50 guests. This is considered crazy busy. It’s 3 years old and I might have been the first person to use my room. I punched through the TV and I counted 159 stations, all different. The pillows were a little strange as they were filled with rice. I’m not kidding, rice (so that’s where all the rice goes). I did have a punishing struggle with the shower and the lighting and I could never figure out how the vents could blow frigid air out of one and hot out of another so I just opened a window. There was no traffic noise for sure. I might knock off one of their stars for this but the hotel did have a scriptorium so that’s certainly worth an extra star.
People on the streets and in traffic move very slowly for sure and their eyes certainly look dried out to me. The overall effect is a jaunty air of a zombie apocalypse but missing a critical mass of zombies. We never saw any other westerners and we thought we might stand out but no one seemed to care.
Ordos did have a brief brush with notoriety when they held the Miss World Pageant there a few years back. That sounds like a big deal but this is the not a prime time event and the organizers have been pretty bad at selecting their pageant sites like when they picked Lagos, Nigeria (not generally considered pageant territory). In 2002 some 200 people were killed in riots when the Muslims objected to the bikini competition. No such problem in Ordos where there aren’t any Muslims and they would have trouble rounding up 200 spectators anyway.
You might think the Chinese are tragically poor planners building all these empty places which is sort of true. They pumped and dumped and now here they are with 50-some underutilized cities in a crowded country. But here in America we really know how to burn cash by spending 3 trillion on useless wars. And we send the left over money to China where they put people to work building bullet trains and badminton courts. Damn commies!
Someday soon China is going to ruin these lovely ghost cities by moving people in and it will be all over. This is the strangest place I’ve been to anywhere on earth and I have been around. It’s easy to get there but don’t try to go by yourself because you won’t know where things are. Young Pioneers is the only company running tours and Gareth exceeded all our expectations. Mention my name and you get a free 2oz pitcher of the local enamel-stripping alcohol, a thrill not to be missed.
Next I’m booking a tour with the Pioneers to the unrecognized countries of Asia including: Yerevan, Goris, Stepanokert, and Sukhum. Or I might do El Presidentè Kim Jong Il’s Birthday Party Tour in North Korea in February. It’s the absolutely worst time of year in this most terrible country. These are real tours that you can go on. Or maybe I’ll go back to see my Mongolian friends in Ordos.