Our trip to SW Shandong – Day 1

This week we went on another field trip, though this one was longer than the one we had a couple week ago. We had class mon-wed and then left early thursday morning, coming back saturday evening. We visited the towns of Taian, Qufu the hometown of Confucius, Zoucheng the hometown of Mencius, and another town which I believe is called Weifang (famous for its traditional arts especially kite making). Because I am sure I’m going to write enough to count as a senior thesis paper, I’m going to split this up into days, days one two and three. Here’s day one:

Our fist adventure started before we even got anywhere. For the trip, we had our usual bus and bus driver. Our bus is very large and very pink, with two rear-view mirrors that look for all the world like drooping bunny ears. Our driver is good at getting a bus through spaces that no bus has any right squeezing through, and he is rather horn happy (a more common occurrence in China than America). Our tour-guides, though full of good intentions, were…..interesting. There were two of them, Liu Zuzhang and Chen Jianlei, and from what I understood they werenewly graduated, newly employed, and this was their first tour-guide. I will be completely honest and say that by American standards, they were complete failures. By Chinese standards and as far as I am concerned, they were great. We got lost twice, were very late a few times, and most of the places we went the bus driver had to stop several times to ask directions. I didn’t mind at all. After all, this was China, not America, and the streets signs are…half-hearted. I get the impression that China is much like Mexico in that you plan one thing, and when things turn out completely different nobody even bats an eyelid, they just go with the flow and play it by ear. Certainly not what I’m used to, but a nice skill to have.

So, I found our tour guides to be interesting, helpful, and genuinely trying to get things right, though I’m sure they could have tried harder. During the long hours in transit between cities I had nice naps and daydreamed about my home back in Kentucky.

Speaking of home, I just want to say that China is in some ways alarmingly like Kentucky and in some ways so totally different that the overall effect leaves me in limbo. I feel at home, but I am so far from home that it is quite contradictory. For example, the weather. Minus the fog and haze every now and then, the weather is just like home. Actually it is much less humid here in Qingdao, owing to the sea breezes. The places we visited this weekend were much more like good old Kentucky in that it was so disgustingly humid that the air could be felt as an oppressive weight, and you are always wet. It was almost comforting. I grew up in that. I have also found some plants from home. There are some weeds and flowers that I have spent hours pulling up in our garden at the house, and it is very comforting to see their weedy visages poking out from street corners and on mountainsides. And the insects are mostly the same. There are stupid cabbage butterflies, even here. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, it seems cabbage butterflies are like the european house sparrows of the insect world.

But I was expecting to come to China and EVERYTHING be different. I was expecting it to be some strange exotic country. And it is, and it isn’t. Even the people are just that, people. The thought comes to me constantly that we are really all one world, one people. Yes, there are differences, but they are only on the surface, we, deep down, are really all the same. It sort of goes in the face of everything I’ve thought, not on purpose but things I’ve just assumed. I’m American, America is supposed to be different, special. We are different from everyone else, somehow other people just aren’t…us. But that is just it, America isn’t “us”, its everyone. America is made up of the world, and growing up in America I grew up in the world. China is strangely familiar because it is familiar. And it is different the same way each individual is different, not because the people are “different”, somehow not human, but because they are human. I don’t know if I’m making any sense at all, but maybe you’ll feel the same way if you every go abroad for a long period of time and become immersed in another culture. Everything is so similar and so different at the same time. Very weird.

So, where were we. Right, Thursday we went first to the city of Taian, in southwestern Shandong province. But before we got there, we got lost. I have absolutely no idea how they did it, but we got off the interstate (or the Chinese equivalent), which immediately turned into a dirt road. Ever come across that before? Anyway, I think that they got off the wrong exit and didn’t know it, but in any case the dirt road soon turned into a very muddy road. A very muddy road with very large holes in it, with a few very large, sharp rocks hiding in the very large holes. We managed to get through a particularly disgusting stretch of road and continued on for maybe half a mile on relatively smooth dirt, when we came upon another muddy stretch. The vehicles traversing this road were of three kinds: 1) motor bikes, the lower half of which were covered in mud (the drivers didn’t seem to mind) from going through the very deep, muddy puddles 2) small vans/cars, these swerved wildly on a snakelike path that wound between the holes of water, mud, and rocks, these people obviously knew the road well because they swerved over all the right dry spots with surprising speed 3) giant dump trucks loaded up with tons of rock from some sort of construction site, the trucks crashed straight on through whatever, apparently heedless of the mud or the holes or the rocks. Several times when one was passing us I swear it was ready to tip over and crush us under its load of rocks, but they all managed to stay upright.

Our bus, unfortunately, was too large and long to go winding between the holes and rocks, and not sturdy enough or possessing of big enough wheels to just go careening through the mess. As a result the bus got its front end scratched on a very large rock and the driver finally stopped (I’m guessing they had figured out that the road was not the right one and was not taking us where we were trying to go), and executed a very daring 3 point turn (while causing a traffic jam) in the middle of the mud and mess. The turn was made at this strategic point because we had come upon a wayside hotel that sported a concrete parking lot. Despite the fact that it was small, and already full of cars, our driver managed to use its outer boundary to execute a turn that otherwise might have gotten us permanently stuck. At this point we stopped, first for the driver to confer with the locals and for some people to go to the bathroom. The local population all poured out of the hotel/local diner to stare and laugh at our huge pink bus and our foreign faces. The driver and our tour guides, after confirming that no, this was definitely not the right way, proceeded to collect small rocks (by small think head size) to throw in the holes so that when we drove back through the we would not be as scratched and stuck as we previously were. Watching people trying to get back on the bus was funny. I am so serious when I say that there was mud EVERYWHERE and that it was about an inch deep where they were trying to walk (I, in a moment of rare wisdom, did not get off the bus, and was therefore spared this trial).

Adventure took one last swipe at us as we tried to navigate the final bad patch before reaching good road. The driver stopped again, twice actually, to throw more rocks into more holes, and this consequently caused a traffic jam. I swear sometimes Chinese people act like idiots. Americans act like idiots too, but at this particular moment we were surrounded by impatient Chinese men driving HUGE dump trucks who were trying to squeeze around us and getting stuck/getting in the way of other dump trucks coming the opposite way. I was very much afraid that we would get cut off and stuck there for hours. But by God’s grace we managed to squeeze through and drove away with only a bus full of irritated Americans (I was not one of them, I actually found it extremely amusing and interesting) to show for our hour and a half escapade down the dirt road.

So finally we were back on the interstate again. Why we had ever left it I still have no idea, it was another hour before we reached our destination: Taian city. If I may, I would like to point out that we had left at 7 am and did not reach Taian until 2:30 pm (we should have arrived at noon). We had not stopped a single time along the way. This made for a bus full of irritated AND hungry Americans (again, I was not one of them, I wasn’t really hungry), and when we finally stopped at a KFC in Taian, our tour-guides had the sense to pay for our lunch. This, however, was quite a trial because there were so many of us. Because they tried to put it all on one tab, our orders were rather badly mixed up and we just ended up eating whatever we found before us. I did manage, though, to get an ice cream cone which cheered me up considerably.

Next we tried to go to Tai Shan (shan meaning mountain). It was, however, too late and we were told we could not go up that day. Therefore, we went instead to visit the temple we had been planning to visit the next day. It took another hour’s driving to get to the temple, up in the mountains. These mountains were very large and covered in woods of evergreen and some other trees I didn’t recognize. It was not extremely hot, but so humid it felt like a blanket was over us (but no mist, so it wasn’t like a cold blanket of fog, but a hot blanket of stickiness). Sweat dripped from my face and I didn’t even bother to wipe it away. The temple was a Shaolin temple (a Buddhist sect) and at present is a tourist attraction. In other words, there were no monks living there doing religious things, it was a historical site with information plaques and tour-guides. We got there near closing time, so there were very few other tourists and our tour-guide tried to hurry us through the tour. The temple complex was kindof built into the mountainside, but not the kind of “hanging off the cliff face” kind of temple that comes to mind when you think of Tibet. We were also surrounded by woods, beautiful, green, and old. The temple consisted of several main buildings (temples) dedicated to various people and containing statues of gods (Buddha being one of them), as well as a cemetery, random small buildings, and a large tower.

None of the buildings had lights inside of them (save one that had a few candles) and thus my pictures do not look very good. There was mostly enough light to see, dimly, but not enough to take a picture w/out a flash and you know pictures in the dark with just a flash for light are never very good. But I tried anyway. One interesting thing was that there were lots of evergreen trees growing in various places, sometimes right in the middle of the paved path or coming out of stone walls. Most of them were large, old, and beautifully majestic. I loved the trees. Having lived in a city for the past year and a few months I definitely miss the wild and beauty of undeveloped land.

The tower was very tall and very ancient chinese looking (I’ll be posting pictures). It was evening and the swifts were darting around having a meal. I think they might nest in the tower. Their twittering and flitting around also reminded me of home since we have lots of swallows and swifts around the farm and the swifts are especially active in the evening, actually mingling with the bats as they come out to feast together on insects. After seeing the temple buildings and the tower we went off along a stone pathway through the woods to see the cemetery a little way off. In this particular cemetery (where I believe monks were buried) over every grave was raised a stuppa (see the pictures). The stuppas are like gravestones and are a sign of respect and reverence for the buried person. The cemetery was called the “forest of stuppas” and it certainly looked that way!

After finishing our tour we were ushered out as they closed up the temple for the night and we climbed back down to the bus. At the bus we were accosted by a hoard of pitiful looking old chinese ladies trying to sell us fruit and, get this, a plastic bottle full of live scorpions (they fry them and eat them, I asked). I tried to buy the bottle of scorpions (not for eating I can tell you) but my classmates threatened to throw me off the bus if I tried to bring the scorpions on the bus. Sigh…..sissies.

We finally headed back to Taian city where our hotel was and had a late supper at the hotel restaurant. I found the hotel restaurant’s decor extremely amusing. The lower half of the walls were “stone” (actually wallpaper that was supposed to look like stone), and the upper half contained several plaster greek style reliefs. The ceiling was painted with scenes that would have looked at home in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. The overall affect was hilarious, not only because it was China, but also because the paintings and reliefs were so obviously done by people who didn’t really understand greek art (probably because they were chinese). The only reason I can figure is that they thought foreigners might feel at home amid such obvious western decor, or that they wanted the chinese to feel impressive dining in a room that looked western instead of Chinese. I found this quite a shame, since I would have loved to dine in a room decorated in a traditional Chinese fashion, and since the “western” decorations made me want to laugh, not make me feel at home. I don’t mean any slight or insult to the Chinese by saying this, I am just being truthful as well as expressing my opinion that the Chinese would do much better to stick to their own cultural decor (which is far prettier than western decor) than trying, and failing, to imitate western decor. If you have any comments to add, please feel free to disagree with or criticize my opinions, I would welcome the discussion.

That, finally, was the extent of my adventures on Day 1.

One Response to “Our trip to SW Shandong – Day 1”

  1. Dad says:

    Great post! I loved the descriptions… you are becoming an accomplished storyteller.

    Here’s what I want: a video of all your classmates lined up, with you going down the line shaking hands with them while holding, in your other hand, that bottle of live scorpions…

    Ha!

    Love, Da 🙂

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