Sunday, August 23, 2009

Letter from Chengde, China

Chengde-Tuesday November 27, 2007.

Chengde was definitely a new geographic location for me, closer to Mongolia and North Korea than Shanghai. Chengde has the Summer Palace. It is cool during the hellacious August heat of Bejing, yet in winter, Chengde is a cranky old city huddling in the cold; all greys, browns and dingy reds.

The Yunshan Hotel is considered a 4star hotel in this small town. It is the best they can offer to their foreign guests. But an American breakfast was included(eggs, toast and bacon) with the price of the room and I was happy.

We arrived around noon, checked in and took about 15minutes before we took off again for the factory. I had spotted a glass door leading outside when I was first shown to my room. So on stolen moments alone, I went exploring to the rooftop area that must be a hustling, hot spot when Chengde swings with tourists in the summer. I found the area startling, because it was green and evoked a secret-garden feeling. Having wandered into it alone, I felt like I'd found out a special secret place. Yet when I leaned over the parapet or stared out the view, the winter greys superceded the garden illusion.

I had spent the night comfortably ensconced in the hard Chinese mattress. But there was a sterility to the room thatcomforted me against the stories of bed bugs, smoky rooms and thin walls. The heat was strong against the winter night, I watched the river slowly freeze. I spent some time hanging my head outside the open window in my room. I was forewarned before this trip that I should expect the windows to be lined with moist towels. It provides the humidifying effects that will otherwise cause a winter nosebleed. It is a dry heat that is so strong, it feels like there is a force field of heat that guards the window against the cold mists. I had a silly thrill of waving my hand back and forth, hot, cold, hot, cold.

In the evening, I was taken to a Mongolian restaurant that sat next to the Summer Palace walls. It was an odd looking arrangement. You walk into a building that looks like any other kind of building and you are greeted with a comfortable reception area. But then you walk through a doorway that takes you back outside. It seemed covered, yet there was no heat for my breath steamed before me. Then we walked along a narrow cement pathway that meandered across a pebbled courtyard. We were brought to a rounded room, styled from the Mongolian yurt. We walked in and a large circular table, synonymous with Chinese eating sat with its lazy susan empty and forlorn.

We walked in and an employee immediately scuttled in and increased the fan on the room heater and started to lay out cups and cutlery. It was comfortably warm and I removed my coat and followed my hosts as we settled in for a traditional Mongolian dinner.

I can’t begin to describe the amount of food nor the different types of food I ate, except to note, that I ate venison that was rolled in a tempura-type coating and sat on a bamboo skewer, it looked like milk chocolate and had a slight chocolate taste. But it was firm and had a texture akin to cornmeal. The other prominent feature was the Chinese vodka that was drunk. It was so strong, it smelled like industrial cleaner. So potent; the shot glass was the size of a thimble. Where my hosts tossed it back with gusto, I sipped hesitantly. Where they clanged their glass against the glass lazy susan with appreciation, I tapped with trepidation. I’ve been know to take shots, I know how to drink strong libation, when asked I still order Russian vodka, but the Chinese version is nothing I’ve ever tasted before. When I risked a full blown swallow, after having only sipped previously, my eyes watered and my throat closed up; in seeming revolt for the assault.

My host voiced his concern, he thought I had eaten something that was too spicy, instead I could barely wave my hands and smile blandly while I tried to recover my breath. Before long, I looked around me and my hosts’ faces were cherry bright.

The other fascinating observation I had was the majority of Mongolian cuisine is meat, meat and more meat. Pork, beef, chicken, mutton, venison, duck; if it walks, it’s eaten. I’m not sure of what all the meat dishes were. But in the afternoon as we drove through the countryside on our way to the factory, I noticed a man walking with his donkey. Assuming it was a beast of burden, I turned to my host, Tony, who nonchalantly told me, before I could even ask; “That’s dinner.” Yes, the memory of that moment flashed a few times during dinner, but I pushed it aside, intent on simply experiencing the evening.

When in Rome, do as the Romans, when in China, become Chinese.

But I demurred when my hosts invited me to go dancing and more drinking, Tony was gracious and escorted me back to my room before he went out with the rest of the men for a night of more baizhuo(sp?), it's pronounced BYE-JOE. Instead, I snuck away to the rooftop garden. At night the scene took on an eerie rose-colored glow, my camera couldn't handle the darkness. But I was soothed, when I'm in a strange, unfamiliar land, I'm comforted in my solitude. It allows me to regain my sense of self and I let the inner dork in me escape without fear of seeming odd. I position my camera to take the pictures, I try to blow smoke rings with my breath, I make clicking noises with my tongue to hear the empty night's echo.

The next morning, I pledged to catch the sunrise in Chengde, it wasn't the best sunrise I've ever seen, but at least there was a sunrise. On my previous trip, I never saw the sun, it was filtered by the extremely strong smog that seems to cover all of China and it badly affected my mood and my throat. I spent most of that previous trip with my tonsils feeling like golf balls. It made things difficult to swallow and my throat felt like it was raw with pain. But that's another post.

It started out a crisp cold Mongolian morning. I awoke before sunrise and ran out to the rooftop garden to catch the sunrise. Some odd romantic idea about sunrises permeate my mornings in new geographic locations. It is settled on a the crook of this small river that stretched out about 500 yards across. At this date, the river has already frozen overnight, still and cloudy in the morning light. The air is thick with frost, the traffic is a quiet hum with a light blush of orange peaking behind the mountain in front of me. Yet what took the eye and grabbed it like a mugging, was a tall, dark, foreboding chimney blasting black bilous smoke into that quiet sky. It is the legacy being left to this country, the stereotype of all the horrible pollution stories written about industrial China. Looking at the picture, I tried my best to disguise the chimney, you can barely see it in one side of my picture, but standing on that rooftop, I found that it ruined any shot of the city.

I spent some time taking pictures of the rooftop garden with the sun quickly illuminating the dark corners from last night. The effects were startling, the garden was inviting and cheery. I could easily imagine visitors strolling around and a little section, about one floor down had tables and chairs, so I could see how nice the place would be in the summer with a meal and drinks.

When I left Chengde, I left with fine memories and a new Chinese name, Gao Le Da, it is supposed to mean, achieving more happiness. My hosts gave me the name in appreciation for my affable nature and my winning smile. You know what they say about first impressions, it’s usually right.

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