He Hongbei is a Chinese artist who paints hyper-realistic portraits of beautiful, but pitiful, women who are struggling under societal pressures. While not defining herself as a ‘feminist artist’, her art does involve a lot of commentary about the media portrayal of women, the practice of being a female painter in a heavily patriarchy-saturated art form, and what I feel is this unspoken understanding between many women who feel they simply cannot speak out against any unjustness upon them because it is simply bu neng shuo (not able to be spoken about).
Her first series developed due to seeing a friend go through an intensely emotional break-up. These paintings revolved around the idea of ‘painting out the inner feelings’ that her friend was experiencing, a traumatic, but visually effective construction which used a lot of liquid-like environments (realistic water smudgings and explosive bodies in muted pastel tones) to give a viewer this sense of despair and loss. While the faces of the models were simple, soft, and serene, the mid and backgrounds felt rougher, more textural.
The second series we saw was titled ‘Dumped Garbage-Relax’, showing more hyper-realistic, hyper-beautified women gazing out to corners of the canvas. Most women wore little to no clothing, and all had their hairlines culminate into crumpled paper with various objects (pills, apples, tools, etc) spilling out of the space where their brains should be. The last and most recent painting had a lot of Jeff Coons inspirations and motifs that helped explore the interweaving lines of traditional Eastern upbringing with western thought imports.
While technically I think Hongbei has excellent control over the medium of painting, I find her dialogues to be disheartening. Sure, I won’t deny that many women in China and abroad face huge pressures to be obedient and submissive, which is shown by Hongbei through many of her models faces and body language, but the fact that she finds these aesthetics to be more interesting to paint, rather than searching for stronger women, was a bit of a letdown. It felt like she merely wanted to say ‘look, another woman being subjugated’ rather than taking a pro-active stance of ‘look, here is a woman not giving a fuck and doing her own thing’. For one woman to say that there is beauty in being second feels, quite frankly, like the ultimate betrayal.
What you see above is a migrant worker hut. A frame of bamboo or off-cut metal tubing pieces surrounded by sheets of weathered plastic all held together in the hopes it will stay intact till the next morning. There’s basic electricity running to it through thin lines that enable a couple of string lights to illuminate, and a hot plate or two to heat food with. Bedding takes the form of free-stand cots and people are sleeping two or three heads high. Insulation is whatever blanket you can find. Tonight will be about three degrees Celsius, and temperatures are dropping daily.
I was told about two hundred million citizens fill the lower-class title in China. Many were born in the countryside and traded toiling land for turning concrete in hopes of becoming a part of the high-rise economy China is heavily invested in cultivating. In all honesty, I think most of them become a part of the high-rise economy when their overworked bodies are thrown into the churning mixer and poured back into a new building – an oversized tombstone if you will.
It’s mind blowing seeing the vicious treatment of class here, and how it’s controlled. A co-worker and I walked past the building site you see above and wondered why there isn’t any consideration for unions, for outcry, for riots against this unjustness. With over a hundred million people being worked to the bone, the efforts to change their circumstances appeared to us as nonexistent.
We came to this conclusion – if you price basic rights like education and healthcare outside the financial realm of the lower-class, then what little of a bone they’re thrown is enough to drive production forward. More than that, the tiniest increment in finances is enough to give many of these people something more valuable that an extra .20c in the bank account – it gives them hope by providing security for their child. More money means their kid might have a chance at education, at aiming for a better life. Whether that actually works I cannot comment. But by shifting hope to the future, you certainly guarantee the complete obedience of the present day sufferers.
In the furthest corner of the Feige vintage fair a table filled with cut watermelon slices lay in the sun while a crowd of about a dozen gathered closer to it. One gentleman, a pot-bellied Chinese lad in a white t-shirt, black trackies and dark RayBan-esque sunglasses, approached and lifted from the table one of the larger slices, a crescent that arced the entire length of the now dissected fruit.
He stood back and off to one side of the table, holding his piece close to his chest, and surveyed the crowd. He was looking for a challenger.
I and a small group of friends had also gathered around the other side of the table when seeing such a spread of abandoned fruit, and, sensing this was about to turn into an eating competition, Chris, my software developing British friend, stepped away from us and selected a similar watermelon slice; a nonverbal agreement that he was to be the other competitor.
A judge appeared, stepped between the two men, and counted down.
Gnashing growls filled the air and the juices of eviscerated watermelon sloshed down from the mouths of both men. As the battle quickly drew to a slippery conclusion the steely-faced determination of the Chinese national proved to be too much for Chris, and he slowed down to accept his defeat graciously (and possibly burp up one or two watermelon seeds). The Chinese national accepted his DVD reward, and walked away a champion.
While Chris cleaned himself off with a wet wipe, two new challengers stepped forward. Younger girls, one about 14 years, the other maybe 11 years, chose two smaller pyramidal shaped pieces to duel with. The older girl giggled and held her piece in one loosely gripping hand, smiling and waving at her friends. The younger girl stood in silence, before sliding her legs out to the side in a semi battle stance. Her piece was held with both hands just under her lower lip, and her eyes narrowed.
The judge appeared again and began the countdown.
I have a question to ask now: Have you ever been so excited to win a watermelon eating competition that your eyes rolled to the back of your head and your facials became so intense that you would make a prime candidate for a remake of ‘The Exorcist’?
If I had known the fate that would befall that small, innocent, watermelon slice, I might have asked for a moment of silence. The juices exploding from the ravaging this young competitor was giving to her watermelon was hypnotic to watch, a pink waterfall of carnage falling down. I don’t think she was chewing, merely mashing her face into it with the force of how a woodpecker turns a tree stump into sawdust.
As victory approached for the young girl her final bite into the fruit turned into a victory fist, the skin of the now defeated watermelon held tightly in her right hand as a show of triumph. I imagine she took it home to add to her trophy pelt collection that is stacked up against her DVD winnings.
On a side-note I also rode a penny-farthing at the fair! This was undoubtedly the oddest balancing act I have ever performed. What should have resulted in a dapper moment turned into me being stuck in a left-only rotation to which the bike did not want to relent.
The apartments are stacked how a three-year-old sticks Lego worlds together, all blocked and boxed side by side, with uniform height and outlandish colour clashes, but ultimately leaving little in the way of practical landmark visibility. Alleyways are navigated strictly with right-angled turns – North, South, East, and West are how you get out of the labyrinth. My flat is pretty easy though, enter from the East side, turn South, turn West, and go straight until the 12th building. Enter door number six, walk up four flights of concrete stairs, and done.
Decaying confetti decorates the sidewalks; tossed sunflower shells, shriveled orange peels, shiny plastic pieces of red and blue that will keep their colours long after the rest have shriveled to a burnt brown and smudged into the charcoal asphalt and sidewalk cracks. Forget China’s Communist Party, it’s the newly fashioned consumerism party who litter the streets with trash and unwanted-ness. Leftover smells of grease and waste ebb and flow in the artifical breeze that blows every time a bicycle or car rolls by, barely an inch away from wayward footsteps strolling everywhere but where they should be.
The flanks of the apartment block are antipodal societies. To the East is Galaxy SOHO, a shiny architectural sight of non-conforming buildings showing off their curves and sky-bridges and fancy American branded convenience stores. To the West, compacted collapsing stores filled with pharmaceuticals, sweatshop clothing, and MSG laden rice bowls bunch up and blend into a mash typical of Beijing town.
Morning sun, on days where the blanket of smog has been drawn away, aligns perfectly with the street I walk to get to the subway for work. Warm pink and orange hues reflecting on beige buildings paint the drab high-rises temporarily. The apartments are guarded by three gentlemen (there are probably more, but I have only seen these three), who man the single entry/exit point every hour of every day. One is a seasoned elderly with a gruff exhale for communication; the other two are very young, drowning in oversized jackets with overly pointy shoulders their muscle mass don’t fill. They don’t talk all that much, though I don’t really have much to say to them. We exchange swift dips of the head to acknowledge existence, and leave it to our imaginations to fill in the rest.
Other residents come in and out of my vision at all hours, but I pay more attention to their four-legged friends in tow. Unleashed and often dressed up in gaudy decoration, they sniff and scamper up and down the paths constantly double-checking to see if their human is obediently following. At night however the paths become a war-zone as one tries to avoid little squishy leftovers untrained owners have rudely left behind.
I plan to buy a bicycle soon to widen my wandering boundaries, but for now this is a small extract of Chaoyangmen, the area I call home.
There were two options available, one starting at a low elevation and requiring many hours of upward trekking, one starting with a vehicle-assisted head start near the middle of the hill with a few hours less. Because we were paying for a three-day hike through the Himalayas, a worthy accomplishment for future dinner table discussions, my friend Jenny and I decided that the full experience would require the full amount of trekking, and so opted for the low elevation start point. After an intense six days in the savage belly of Kathmandu, a three-day trek, we figured, would help scrape off the intense hustle and bustle cityscape skin that clung to us.
Waking early to start day one of our trek we were greeted by the not so gentle taptaptap of rain on glass panes. We knew we were travelling through Nepal during the monsoon season, but had been very lucky over the first week and thought that perhaps clear skies would follow us on our next journey. The car ride to the official start point was about forty minutes long, with threats of a real downpour ever looming in the grey horizon. Thankfully the moment we exited the car the grey had lightened to a foggy white haze, and we set off on a gravel road cut raw against the muddy hill.
I had never trekked before this moment, which was evident from the gigantic bag I had strapped across my shoulders. Years of being too scared to travel without every and all medication on my person’s had become my voice of reason inside my head when I chose to bring my massive pack back from Kathmandu, but with every step it was clear that I had made a very bad choice. Thankfully Jenny, a skilled trekker herself, offered to swap her backpack for mine when seeing my hands swell from the combination of high altitude and limited blood flow going to them. I am quite indebt to her for that, as I don’t think I could have survived the following 72 hours without her help. While the initial sense of failure and disappointment did set in, it was quickly disposed of when the fog cleared a triangular patch of sky, and we managed our first glimpse at the Annapurna’s. Ice and rock stood boldly, and the promise of a more majestic view was given to us if we pressed onwards.
It was cooler in the higher altitudes. Our maximum height for the first day was to be about 2,000 metres above sea level, not high enough to give anyone high altitude sickness (you need to be about 3,500m for that to potentially set in), but I definitely felt the effects of being pretty unfit. Waves of nausea and dizziness moved through my head and rested behind my temples, before leaving me to focus on keeping one foot in-front of the other.
As it became cooler, the jungle started to come alive. Squirmy masses of small, dark bodies started to wiggle their way out of the mud and across my boots.
Our guide, Raju, a man who had lived and breathed these mountains for more than 15 years, reminded us that a leech bite is neither dangerous, nor painful, but that didn’t quell our initial panic as they found their ways into our socks, our shirts, and our hair (they live in the trees as well, and when the rain falls, so do they). One settled against my hip bone and promptly bit into my flesh. Their bite feels like the most intensely concentrated itch you could ever feel, but trying to scratch them off was difficult when their bodies stretched to insane lengths while their sucker mouth stayed glued to you. Circular holes punctured my hip and feet as they writhed themselves against me. To combat these vampires of the forest, we tied small cotton bags filled with salt to one end of some scavenged sticks, and wielded our sticks of doom in defense. Salt is a natural deterrent to these slick suckers and they quickly started dropping off and pseudo-cart wheeled away.
We passed through and became part of many ephemeral moments. Cheeky monkeys scampered across grassland with stolen corn from the farm swelling out their cheeks. Sunken rice paddies glinted blue and grey reflections like jagged uncut jewels that had rolled off the table and settled back in the soil. A brilliant flash of white gave away wild deers that retreated into dense bush. We stopped for a quick snack at the home of one farmer, who allowed us to buy water and rest in her outdoor terrace before continuing up.
As we came closer to Dhampus, the first of two camping points we could settle into for the night, we took a vote (more like I complained enough) and decided that after five and a half hours fighting gravity we deserved a lengthy break. Dirt road became stone stairs, and we hauled ourselves over the rocky border and into the small hillside retreat. A few hundred people call this place home we were told, and glimpses of daily life could be seen by the open windows, beaten driveways, roaming chickens, and one watchful black and tan patched dog who kept to my side while we explored further into the town trying to find our resting spot.
A turquoise painted room with two beds and a sparse, dusty bathroom at the bottom of a hacked out area of grassland was our guesthouse. Cracking open its door for the first time in months we dropped our bags and dressed into warmer clothes. I fell into an exhausted sleep, the type where you don’t remember your head hitting the pillow, and awoke a few hours later to Jenny sitting cross-legged on her bed drawing hyper-coloured pastel scenes of different things we had seen in Nepal.
We dressed and went for a more in-depth exploration around the village. My token dog buddy accompanied us for most of it as we caught sights of serene villagers hard at work re-grassing the hill, taming wild chickens, and manning derelict storefronts that kept the necessities of life close at hand for the hillside populace. At the top of a small hill that rose in the centre of our stay area we looked out over Dhampus, and stared begrudgingly at the grey blanket of cloud that covered what we knew to be one of the most beautiful sights on Earth. Turning our backs to this frustration we finished our walk and made our way towards the central guesthouse that also held a kitchen and dining room inside it.
Raju met us for dinner not long after at the dining room/kitchen space. He sat down with a dusty bottle of alcohol filled with a cloudy mixture, which did not match the dark rum description half scratched away on the label. “It’s raksi”, he said, “the unofficial drink of Nepal.” I swirled a little around my mouth, a velvety malt-infused taste reminiscent of watered down baijiu swished through my teeth and over my tongue, before it slid down my throat. We ordered curries and soups and breads to break and share between ourselves, Raju’s friend Prim and Prim’s company – a young twenty-something Chinese girl who had decided to travel around Tibet and Nepal alone on the backs of various motorcycles before settling down to rot behind a nine-to-five desk at a bank she was well overqualified for.
The night dug into our souls as we sat and ate and drank and smoked around the table. The cook came out to join us and spoke remarkable English; living in England and training there will do that to someone. Prim pulled out a tinny set of portable speakers from his backpack and plugged his phone into it. Nepalese pop music became the background noise, which was turned up at an equal rate the Raksi bottles were being drained. It wasn’t too long until we all abandoned our seats for hand twirling and swaying shoulder-to-shoulder and dancing together.
When the music skipped to something a little more relaxed we sat back down to rest, elbows propping our languid heads up while conversations oozing drunken energies and slipping over essential grammar connections washed over the table.
Suddenly Raju, with his back to all the windows, sat straight up and in a moment of clarity whispered to us “the Annapurna’s are out”.
Clambering to the rooftop on stairs that had nothing to hold but the promise of broken bodies should one step wrongly, we threw the door open and made sure to not walk upon any of the rusted metal poking out of their concrete clusters before gazing towards the eastern horizon.
There, lit by the infinity above and a full moon untouched by cloud, shone the Annapurna’s.
Prim and Raju started to holler praise to Shiva, Jenny gazed in sweet, silent happiness, and I swear that time itself stood alongside me and held its breath. Everything from this moment was both too fast and too slow. Dappled moonlight dressed the mountains as ice cut silhouettes of each peak broke the night like glass shards. As forever ticked down to reality I knew that many minutes had passed me by, and I was ready to return to the confines of the dining room. Before turning back I watched the zig-zag of a firefly, a creature I had come to know only from fairytales, dance between electric lines, an artificial brethren of sorts.
With hearts glowing, we bid our company goodnight and settled into our beds, basking in the last of the twilight as we lay down for a deep, deep, sleep.
Things I have been up to/thinking in no particular order, as I do not have faith in my memory allowing me to construct such a narrative.
Without further ado…
– Kede whisked myself, and my two co-workers, away to Tianjin for a nice summery Saturday outing. Tianjin is the largest Northern China coastal city located about 2.5 hours away from Beijing, and is the fourth biggest urban sprawled city in China overall. As we approached Tianjin, we skirted along the edges of its borders, sticking to the desolate wasteland views of grey stone gravel and grass that gave a bleak imitation of natural five o’clock shadow. With no warning (there is never any warning in China) the gravel turned into fluorescently hued plastic trees, and the tip of a sickly sweet pink spire emerged from behind a mound of dirt. We had arrived at the day’s entertainment: Binhai Aircraft Park. Our waiban Kevin procured tickets for us that showed, of all things, a Russian Kiev aircraft carrier printed on it. China is well known for slapping pictures of completely unrelated things onto any merchandisable real estate, and I saw the picture of this large ship as just another gimmicky ploy to guide you into ultimate disappointment.
There was legitimately a de-commissioned Russian aircraft carrier floating near the back of the park. We were allowed to shimmy through the tight internal spaces and go up onto the main deck where some old Hawks, and one helicopter, were parked up, as well as missile launchers and other maritime warfare paraphernalia (the phone booths tacked onto the starboard side I feel were a somewhat more modern addition).
The only problem we encountered on that day was, after arriving to the gates at about 10.30am, Sarah and I wanted to combat the relentless heat with some hydration. Finding the only open supermarket on the main strip, we entered through its doors to be met with enough beer to satisfy Homer Simpson, but not a drop of H2O in sight. Being in an amusement park and only finding beer on the shelves was one of the most traumatically ridiculous world problems I have had to experience. We eventually bought some overpriced water at one of the park shows – an adrenaline pumping faux movie set with racy red RX8’s and stunt bikes galore.
Tianjin also has this black market where you can buy everything, and I mean everything, with almost no questions asked (the only questions you will be hounded with are in due part to the haggling nature of Chinese markets, not the legalities of purchasing said items).
– I FINALLY TRIED VIETNAMESE COFFEE. And I know what you’re thinking, ‘it’s not Vietnamese coffee if you’re in China,’ oh but it certainly was Vietnamese coffee my friends, for everything the light touched had been imported from the original source. The Pho Laboratory has only been open for two weeks, but I dare say they better prepare for an onslaught of hyped up Beijing residents needing their caffeine fix. I ordered my coffee prepared as a hot drink, even though just a mere sliver of window separated me from a blazing 34 degree day, because hot is the traditional method. The black ambrosia dripped slowly into my cup, swirling the creamy condensed milk layer into a luscious Rorschach test I couldn’t wait to consume. Once the last drop had escaped its brewed confines, I sipped on this heavenly brownie-noted liquid for almost an hour (I was in denial over finishing it with every half sip I took). The owner of the Vietnamese place warned me that it was quite a strong drink, and for most of my time I laughed internally at his preposterous sentence. It wasn’t until I finished the last two tiny sips that I became fully aware of my heart racing at a relentless pace. And to think I was going to order another one …
– the Beijinger have said that they will take me back next year which I am hugely excited for. The managing editor has said he will encourage me to expand out of the dining realm and into feature suggestions, which is an amazing step up in regards to learning about the foreign media processes in Beijing. I was asked to attend a Sino-French celebration of diplomatic relations at Yishu8, an art gallery, you can read about that here. Other works I have finished recently are listed here. Oh and the Beijinger held their annual Reader Bar & Club Awards with all-you-can-eat-and-drink on offer for four hours. I acquired a bright blue feather boa over the course of the afternoon, so you can figure out how my night went.
– Oh yeah … I’m back in China another year.
– I’m going to try something different and post photos now.
I read a quote recently that had been slapped onto some motivational garbage picture saying something along the idea of “We are too old to explore new worlds on Earth, and too young to explore new worlds beyond.”
It was meant to be some pity filled quote about how this wave of civilisation lucked out in the exploring race. How we’ll die too young to see anything new, and leave behind the legacy of ashes from our burnt out attempts to try and reach beyond the stars.
Hell no we didn’t luck out in exploring anything.
We could be the most important wave of people yet.
Though we may not have tools to explore new places afar yet; we do have tools to explore something even more unchartered.
Our own fucking mind.
We already have the Internet, a vast digital network of information sharing connecting people to people in a rapidly expanding manner. And this, though it is an impressive start, isn’t our full potential in regards to how we can share and use information from each other.
We don’t even understand the most basic functions of our mind to its entirety (why we sleep, the true depths of consciousness/unconsciousness, the multitude of destructive forces that occur in our final aging stages etcetcetc).
It’s difficult to study a ‘thing’ by using the very thing itself, but we are growing, we are learning. We are feeling the forces of powers combined.
And with it comes a terrifying realisation. This generation is at the forefront of sharing and connecting with each other, yet at every turn we seem to want to capitalise, conceal, corrupt, this development.
We are doing a damn good job at destroying the only thing we have left to explore. Censorship, TPPA, small market domination, all fuel to the end-of-the-world fire we are lighting up.
If we can’t work together on Earth and cultivate our understandings, we may as well just proceed straight to World War III, and end it now. We all forget Earth is a finite resource, and one day we need to get the hell of this rock, but without a combined effort in reaching this goal, we will lose everything.
We cannot allow ourselves to be spectators to our own destruction.
(This is one small line for a (wo)man, one giant writing mess for (wo)mankind)).
I never got involved in the LGBT centre back home. For a long time I was working weeknights, which was when they generally had meetings. And if I’m honest I wasn’t sure how comfortable I’d be immersed in such an environment. Even now I’m not 100% comfortable with my orientation, but I’m more comfortable than uncomfortable at least.
Anyway, in Beijing I have been attending a few events that are sponsored or organised by the LGBT centre here. First was a comic book event that showcased the works of two very unique artists who showed heavy sexualised and gender focussed narratives. Unfortunately I went to this event with a girl who wasn’t exactly open to the nature of the event. We haven’t spoken since. Next I went to a literary festival event where Benjamin Law spoke about his newest book, Gaysia.
I’m still yet to set foot inside the centre though. Partially because I don’t know where it is, or their opening times, and partially because I still feel hesitant in crossing that boundary as it’s something I didn’t do at home.
The weekend just passed contained the most recent event I have attended in support of the Beijing LGBT centre. I happened to learn about it from speaking with the centre manager, James, at the literary Gaysia talk. I asked for my email to be added to the centre’s list, and he said it was good timing of me to ask as their next event was going to be a bar crawl around the centre of Beijing. The date coincided with my birthday, and with Lisa’s farewell from China, so the timing of the event could not have been more perfect.
The following week I received an email with ‘3rd Annual Gaymayzing Poker Race’ in the headlines. It detailed below the nature of the event, a race between six bars in three hours, all on foot, with teams answering gay inspired trivia or completing dares for tokens to enter into the final poker game at the finish line while drinking a beer provided by Great Leap Brewery.
I rallied up the troops (sent a message out to some friends I thought would be interested). A resounding YES echoed back from Kristy, Lisa, Helen, and Sarah (we bent the rules slightly and had a team of five, but James was completely fine with this). We entered our team name as ‘Gay, Woah!’ a linguistic play on the Chinese words gei wo (it means ‘give me’). At 2pm the race commenced, our plan was to run to the furthest bar and make our way back. We legitimately ran most of the way there (causing a lot of mayhem between the severely congested main hutong street) and made it to Mas bar in about 18 minutes, surprising the two volunteers there who were busy making a Skype call on their supposed free time. We egged on the other teams coming up behind us, and in doing so made really good fren-emies with a gay couple (one is a Jack Jones store designer, the other designs women’s shoes for H&M). Over the day our main race was against this team, who proved to be gold value for laughs and conversations.
Poor Helen had to knock back a bottle of Yanjing beer (river water in both flavour and percentage) for us to receive our first token, already a fine start for us, before we made quick pace to the next bar. This is where my memory is a bit fuzzy. I remember we correctly answered three trivia questions, and performed one more dare (ice down our pants, refreshingly weird feeling indeed), before high-tailing it back to the original location. We came back in the top ten, and just under five minutes from the first team back, not a bad effort for five foreign girls who ended up a wee bit more inebriated than they imagined.
We all concurred it was the best afternoon we’d ever had in China. We got to explore the older part of Beijing, and discover new hot-spot bars we can go back to. We also made a bunch of new friends, some I hope to see at an upcoming block party (which I hope to write about as I’ve never been to one before). It’s a weekend like this that reminds me what I enjoy about Beijing, and why I want to stay here a lot longer.
The second half of the semester, actually the second half of living one year in China, is always a much better deal. The first half has too many relaxing entrapments in the form of ridiculously long holidays of which, if you are not financially prepared, can lead to weeks on end with very little structure. I prefer structure. I like knowing I have things to do Monday – Friday, and weekends are my own time to do with as I please.
However a short and sweet holiday is not something to poke fun at, and April 5-7th was indeed a short holiday in China – Tomb Sweeping Festival. Alas, no tombs are actually swept. What I saw happening instead was large cemeteries all ‘dressed up’ with bright red decorations, and people gathering near the burial mounds of their loved ones to let off flash-bang fireworks (the need for fireworks for every single celebration that ever occurs in China is just mind boggling).
As I had Monday off I decided a short trip to somewhere that isn’t Beijing would be a nice adventure. Thoughts of Xian immediately came to my head, but after conversing with another friend who also wanted some holiday plans it changed to a different city: Nanjing. This friend lives in Shanghai, so it was a very easy day trip for her, and for reasons that are still slightly unclear to me the plan ended up like this: I was to go to Shanghai for one night, take the fast train to Nanjing the following morning to spend one night there, and then go back to Beijing the final day of Tomb Sweeping. This was the first mistake I made. I wish I had spent two days in Nanjing to properly see the sights (that I didn’t really research, mistake number two), but nevertheless it was a holiday and it was outside of my city, so it sufficed my needs. However I did eat camel in Shanghai, so that’s something.
Before all this occurred it was left to me to find a place to stay. Hindsight has revealed that when one plans a trip with another person financial aspects should be discussed with. I didn’t want to cause any trouble over money as I find that to be one of, if not the, pettiest of arguments, so my findings were tailored to cheap instead of other vital things like accessibility. I found one for 94 kuai total, and didn’t think much more of it.
Arriving in Nanjing mid-morning I jumped into a taxi and proceeded to tell him the address saved to my email. He said after a brief look at it he definitely knew where it was, and so we drove off.
After asking the fourth random person via yelling out his driver window where ‘such-and-such’ address was, I was feeling very disheartened by the driver’s quite obvious lie. What wasn’t helping my situation was the fact that we had driven right through the city centre, over the Yangtze River, and into a desolate wasteland of broken houses and unrecognisable signs of semi-functioning life. The entire one-way trip had also cost me half an hour, due to the fact that any distance between two points in Nanjing is unbelievably stretched out. Such a sprawl this city is it’s no wonder there haven’t been any massive issues due to their newfound desire to construct a subway system under an already well established city centre. I’d hate to see the traffic made in Nanjing when work finishes for the day.
Arriving at the hotel I had pre-booked, with my friend waiting for me, I was so enraged at my driver (who also tried to steal 50 kuai from me in a half-assed plea of ‘I had to call friends to find this place, you owe me phone money’ (not my problem asshole)) that I immediately dumped my clothes out of my backpack and walked out of the cesspit that was our un-cleaned hotel room (footprints on bed sheets and mysterious piles of crumbs lining the windowsill were our welcome gifts) and set off down the deserted street to find any transportation that would take me away. A black cab took us into the city centre for a sweet price, and to avoid the toll routes he gave us an impromptu back-alley tour of coal stations, suburbia, and other sites we would have missed had I booked a more expensive room in the city centre. For this I am a little happy, I got to see the effects of a city that isn’t the capital and is now playing catch-up to more successful, and bigger cities. Nanjing to me is like an unfinished Wasgij puzzle (those puzzles where upon completion you have a new image that links to the image on the box and tells a story) where parts are close to being a full reveal (the sweet city centre with it’s massive roads, abundance of nature, and great walk-ability) and other parts are still missing a lot of pieces (the lego-like construction/de-construction around every corner).
My research into Nanjing prior to visiting was almost non-existent, bar the few friends I spoke with who had already been. All three of them concurred with one idea: the museum. Now this is where another big mistake happened. Nanjing is home to many museums, and some of these showcase the atrocity known as the Rape of Nanking, but alas, either the keyword ‘massacre’ was muted from these discussions or my brain simple didn’t register it in passing, I was confident that my friends meant the normal museum of Nanjing.
No, no they did not.
I am yet to see any of the locations in Nanjing that were scarred from bloodshed and violence, and will indeed make a solo day trip back there at some point, but for all intents and purposes the normal national museum served well in satiating my need for good architecture and good story-telling environments, even if it was at the slight disappointment of seeing countless more pots and jade objects. The museum really was one of the best I’ve seen in Asia, for the fact that they understood how to correctly light exhibits. Museum etiquette on the other hand is not something you find in most Chinese museums, the amount of smudge marks and rambunctious children disturbing the space was enough to make me squirm in disgust.
Even though I missed the infamous parts of the city it made me semi-reflective as to why people enjoy saying they’ve been to places where absolutely vicious acts have happened. What is it about the nature of genocide and torture that is appealing to everyday folk? Is it the illusion that it could never happen to them, that the types of people who caused it are only found alive in the pages of history? That we always learn from our mistakes?
After the museum our stomachs told us that touring any more on empty tanks would lead to bickering, and an unmemorable evening, so we used what parts of the subway station we had access to to move closer into the city centre, and towards Blue Frog (a restaurant that makes reasonably cheap burgers, found in most major cities). As we dined at Blue Frog we came to the unanimous agreement that the hostel I had booked sucked, and that we should change it. Using the Wi-Fi we found on booking.com another room going at a reasonable rate and promptly put my name to it. We then high-tailed it out of Blue Frog and back to the first hostel to cancel our stay.
The taxi driver we had was a younger guy, and absolutely wonderful for conversing in small chatter, asking all the usual questions a foreigner is asked in China. However my Chinese skills have not really progressed much this year (lack of having a regular teacher) and the majority of the car ride was spent in a pseudo-silence, punctuated by the driver singing a few bars of a song before silencing himself, and after a few minutes of silence starting the process again with a different song. We asked him to stay while we collected our belongings, and then reversed our route to arrive precisely where we started, on the main road near the entrance to our new hotel.
A mere thirty seconds after that we were homeless.
Turns out the new hostel we booked online had absolutely no space for us. We should have rung them to confirm, but both of our phones were dying and we didn’t think it was necessary.
Walking around Nanjing with nowhere to stay felt slightly invigorating. I’d never been somewhere without plans or a place to stay before, so I can tick that feeling off my list. As we walked the main city street we concluded that the worst option would be sleeping in McDonald’s. But a mere five minutes after being kicked out we ended up paying for a room in a luxurious space called Yishiyuan, I intend to stay there again if I ever return. There was a bath in our room, which I almost fell asleep in. I awoke early, but refreshed, and made my way back to Beijing on one of the first fast trains out of the city. Nanjing, you can expect me again.