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Off the beaten track
China - A personal anecdote
all data refer to year 1995

Beijing: the Capital City
Central ChinaEastern China
Traveller's Memories: index

The China I love:
Beijing Language Institute, friends, Chinese People and more.

(Text and photos from: Chinese Memories, diary of a season of my life.)

I landed at ShouDu FeiJiChang the Capital's Airport at 8.30am at the beginning of July and since I showed policemen the official invitation of Beijing Language Institute nobody at the custom asked me anything. I passed through the green line and I started to fight against taxi drivers that asked me a robbery and absurd fare to take me to HaiDian district... I was born in Liguria, a region of Italy where a tale tells about its people who have a morbid attachment to their money, so my Chinese, in matter of bargain, was very fluent and the taxi drivers was so impressed by my irruence that well accepted to take me there at the Chinese fare... (They use to pretend 300 Yuan or more from Japanese or Westerners).
It was my first time in Beijing and during the trip from the airport to Language Institute the taxi driver tried to explain me everything I was pointing at with my eyes... Sigh! That time my Chinese was not so fluent as today and I had to do a very big effort in order to understand his words and many times I lost the meaning of his speech.

Mei banfa - "Nothing to do" - was the sentence the employers in the Building 3 (San Lou) of Beijing Language Institute told me as soon as I showed them the documents in order to be admitted at the university... That is incredible but true: they had simply lost the documents we submitted them six months before from Italy.
I showed them he official invitation and the copy of the documents with the transmission reports but after a long nonsense speech everybody remained on their own position and ideas. I was quite tired after 12 hours of flight so, as I did not succeed in explaining them my point of view, I decided to play my "Jolly Card" and I talked about my situation with professor Zhang, director of the Department of Italian Language, an old friend of my teacher of Chinese grammar in Italy.
The old and kind man nodded several time hearing my story. At the end he offered me a cup of tea and while I was drinking he flammed at the telephone using sharp words.
Yes! I got my student card and the access at the Summer session... A good score for a Laowai.
...Xianzai? Mei You - Now? We don't have any - I did not know it, but during the day I should have heard that sentence many times. We had no room... A good score for Chinese burocracy!!!
We tried to get one but we did not find any, we got always the same answer: "...Xianzai? Mei You". After a week my friend obtained the room 106 in the Building 6 (I still don't know how he did!!!), one of the most comfortable place of the campus, and we moved there from JiMen Hotel.
Life in the campus was a very nice experience. I met severeal Chinese people and we spent many hours to talk about my Country and our life style during the evening.
In the library I met my FuDao Kang JunJie, a very professional and skillfull young woman who tought me the secrets of Chinese language.

Beijing Language Institute (BeiYu)
Main gate Intensive course building
The library Students' dorms
Children (Teachers' sons) Inside the canteen
B3 Class, my classmates (1) B3 Class, my classmates (2)
My FuDao JunJie and me
A strange guy in the library

Ni shi na guo ren? - Where you come from? - Was a question Chinese people addressed me several times during my bicycle rides in downtown. Bicycle, it has been written on a big poster, is the most cheap and fast way to visit Beijing. That is true, and it is also a good way to take a look to Chinese people life style, where a tourist has never been before.
Ni zai nar bu shufu? - Where do you feel pain? - Was the question the Chinese doctor addressed me as I entered into her small study at the campus hospital. I had my trouble but Chinese medicine made the miracle and I fully recovered in a week. I was very happy about the help she gave me! I remember also my fascinating classmate had my same problem and we also share that dark moment of our stay.
A day I met a strange guy who was interested to me; a quite old man whose name was (is) Chen Rui. He was very curious and we spent many time talking eachother. As I saw him do Qi Gong I asked him to teach me something about this kind of Martial Art so, in the early morning, when everybody was still sleeping, I was training Qi Gong. It was a strange picture to see: a young foreigner and an old Chinese train together in the light of down.
Xiaolong can be translated as "Little Dragon" and it has also been the name who was given me by Chen Rui bacause of the irruence which distinguished my behaviour Chinese people was not used to.

This name, that at the beginning was object of veiled mocking towards the stranger with the big nose, later on became the symbol of the free man that I represented with my natural aptitude to disobeyng and continuous innovation. The friendship and affection relationship I had the chance to introduce with my two teachers (Li LaoShi and Ji LaoShi), some classmates and some other locals was useful to change the stand-offish attitude towards me and gain that esteem only few westerners obtain.
I met several time my teachers out of the classroom and we had the chance to know better oneanother. Lonely walk in Beijing dowtown, along the lanes, made me experience a full immersion in Chinese everyday life and cookery.
XiaoLong therefore became the symbol of my integration with language, culture but especially with Korean and Chinese People who let me feel strong emotions and taught me human values that I never found and experienced elsewhere.

Beyond the Language Institute. Beijing and outskirts.
A taxi named MianBao Che Breakfast: deep fried plait (YouTiao)
A lane near LiuLiChang Vegetables vendor in a lane
JiuLongBi, wall of 9 dragons (1) JiuLongBi, wall of 9 dragons (2)
Count down to Hong Kong '97

1997... In China again!
Backpack, trains and GuoLuChe
(Text and photos from: Chinese Memories II, personal annotation about China.)

At last I am in China again. Last time I went here was for study purpose and I had no enought time to move around. I was said: "Fist learn Chinese, than visit China (Xian Ni yao xuexi hanyu, ranhou neng suibian fangwen Zhongguo)". So I did and I am very happy to have followed that advice.
I have only one month to spend in my second Homeland because of my work and this time I really want "to feel China on my skin".
During my stay in China, thanks to the language skill, I had no kind of problem, no headaches, only deep satisfactions and some slight hitch I will talk about.
Travelling for so many kilometers by trains and long distance buses, I had the chance (and the luck) to meet several interesting people that let me understand the real situation of China.
During short distance trip I traveled by train on Hard Seats carriage and using those long distance buses that Chinese name GuoLuChe, sharing the dusty places with the poorest chinese and what I saw touched my heart.
I lived in the Hard Sleep and Soft Sleep carriage, during the long distance trip, with the new emerging middle class, the rich Chinese people, and what I saw did not like me so much, sometimes I was also disgusted.
I spent all my time talking in Chinese and during my trip I met only 5 people whose English language was clear. Most of them was students, businessmen and retired cadres of the Comunist Party and I was surprised to see how they changed their opinions about the Government.

China: Beyond Beijing... An unforgettable travel!
On train (YinWo) Ma-Jong players
DaTong: Suspending Temple The Great Wall (old piece)
Xi'An: food vendors Noodles (La Mian)
Xi'An, the City Walls Markets near Xi'An City Walls
Evening markets Terracotta Army

From human point of view, during the long trip I had the chance to learn many things that helped me to understand the real meaning of life and widen my mind.
May be now I have reached a more high degree of consciounsness.
Chinese people I met on trains, buses, GuoLuChe or along the lanes told me that in the China of the new era there are some rich people whose monthly income is about 10000 Yuan and even more and more poor people whose income is about 200 to 1000 yuan per month. After the economic reforms made by Deng Xiao Pin many people started to have their own small company (GongSe) and the Comunist Era seems to be always more far.
I had long chats with old people, sitting beside them on a bench at noon, and most of them regret the past times, when there was Mao Ze Dong. Now, they told me, young people have everything and forget quikly what we had to suffer to reach this time of peace and prosperity. Time ago we was the memory of this country, now we are only old people...

China: Beijing and beyond... An unforgettable travel!
Dockers at work Poultry transport
Diggers at work Painters waiting for customers
Street food vendor LuoYang: Buddhist Caves
Junk on the Yellow River Two old people
The Great Wall. A classic Confucius Temple

Beggars is going to became a phenomenon and sometime create troubles to foreign people, not used to such a kind of behaviour. The worst thing is not the beggars phenomenon itself (in Europe we have many poor people), the fact is that they use to ask for money only to foreign people exposing them they poorness in a very harsh manner or using children to get money.
When I asked to a Chinese what do people think about beggars and what the Government think to do to help them, she told me she told me that Central Government tried to give them a job but many people refused because their income is more high than an average salary. She also told me to avoid them along the street.
I tried to talk with those poor people but iven if they understood my words, politely refused to answer me.
Iven if China had done many changes, street food seems to be unchanged and it is always very cheap and sometimes more chip than some years ago... Quality seems not decreased and street food vendors seem to do good business. They seemed very pleased to see a LaoWai seat at the desk and ask for food in their language. I always appreciated that delicious food, light years far away form that one we use to eat in Chinese restaurant in Europe.
I've always eaten with simple Chinese people, just to talk with them, and I had no stomach or health trouble (I have lost only 5 kilograms because of the heat and high humidity).
I just had a problem when I visited Shaolin.

Shaolin is not easily reachable by bus and only after a big effort and thank to a kind chinese lady at the booking office I found out that there was a so called Guo Lu Che, a kind of long distance bus, that starting from Luoyang and passing through Shaolin reached Zhengzhou.
As got up the bus the ticket collector forced a poor man to leave me his seat.
Iven if I protested I was obliged to seat down.
Shaolin was not so pretty nice as I aspected but I was curious to see some Wu Shu show and take a look to a mhystic place, from my point of view.
In the early afternoon, as I had to back to Luoyang I did not find nor a ticket seller neither a bus stop so I wandered around the village like a ghost asking for information to many surprised chinese. Most of them was quite kind hearing I was talking using their native language but nobody gave me the infornation I needed.
A driver of a private bus told he was leaving Shaolin in a while but I realized years before that "in a while" means "only when the bus is full". He tried to convince me that he could have left the Village at once, taking me everywhere, and that we could have arranged on the ticket fare once left Shaolin. That sounded me too strange and quite dangerous so I smiled and left. He and a fat woman both forced the matter again and again; meanwhile another man touched me: a taxi driver. He had a short chat with the two guys and made me the same proposal but I denied it again.
I saw a Guo Lu Che-like bus was leaving the center of the village so I started to run untill I reached it. As I asked if the bus was going to Shaolin the driver smiled and answered a strange yes and told me to get up and pay. I just had time to see the sign on the windshield before he covered it with a piece of paper: the real direction was Zhengzhou!!!
At last, very frustrated, I asked to an high uniform dressed policeman that looked at me as I was an alien but drove me up to the main road untill an invisible bus stop.
There I drunk something at a small shop where I shared some quiet moment with the owner and his small and warm family.
While drinking and talking, I was approached by a strange youngster that started to irritate me. He told me that he was the owner of a minibus leaving Shaolin to Luoyang but the fare he asked me was simply ridiculous and a real robbery. He started to provoke me asking about my private life in a way I did not like; he insisted and pressed the matter since becoming a real pain in the neck. Just before I was loosing my patience the shop owner chased away the youngster while my Guo Lu Che was coming from Zhengzhou.
Greeting the family I got up the bus and the youngster made the same, starting to talk fast with the ticket collector, using a strange dialect. I just had the feeling that something was wrong because they both made the mistake to look at me smiling like two serpents and when the ticket collector asked me four times the value of the ticket fare I blowed out and I started to speak Chinese as I never did before. Aloud, furious and with the power of the reason to my side I had the chance to chase away the youngster and shut-up the ticket collector that accepted the right fare without telling a word. I have also been helped by the people seated on the bus and soon I found new friends to share the journey with.
Xiuxi-Xiuxi - we take a rest - was the sentence a traveller told me when I asked why the bus has came to a stop in the middle of the chinese country. It'a typical to have a stop during a long distance tour by Guo Lu Che, also to let the engine to grow cool. We ate a watermelon, here called Xi Gua, drunk some tea and had some chat with the locals before start again and reach, at last, Luoyang.

Beijing, the Capital City, has changed a little since the time I spent at the university, and the traffic, as well as pollution, has increased a lot. Prices are also increased a lot: for example the subway ticket costs now 2 yuan while years ago cost only 0.5 yuan... There still are 2 lines, always very crowded, just like the pubblic buses, sometimes impossible to get on!
During my stay I have find that there still are different tiket fares (for foreigners and oversea chinese) only in Beijing; in other Regions they only have one kind of tikets fare and both foreigners and chinese pay the same amount of money to get in the museum, palaces or park.
As I finished my trip in Beijing, I also had the chance to spend a lot of time with the private teacher I had in BeiYu: Miss Kang Jun Jie, a very nice an kind girl, now married.

China: Beijing and beyond... An unforgettable travel!
My dear friend JunJie Her young students
Hu-Yun my Chinese Grandpa 1 Hu-Yun my Chinese Grandpa 2
The kitchen of a restaurant A butcher
Waiting for the bus Dumplings and YouTiao

The Language Institute (Beijing Yu Yan Xue Yuan, or BeiYu) is changed a little bit since last time I was there.
There they finishd to build the new foreign students building (number 14). It looks very nice and it is totally different from the others... It is a very big, clean and modern palace.
They also painted all the old buildings (dorms and canteen) with a light grey color paint, making them look more new. I wrote "only" because inside nothing is changed, stairs, rooms, corridors and reception always look like they was some years ago.
The big library is always the same, inside many students sleep instead of study, just like they did when I studied there... About toilets.... Mmmmmm, I prefer add no comment. As I said to foreign people (or LaoWai), "This is China, a different place, a different culture... Take it as it is".
Someone put two (not so nice to see) white marble statues in front of the main entrance of the library but from my point of view they clash with the dark floor.
The little park in front of the library and near the auditorium is always the same: no grass, no flowers and a lot of mud when it is rainy... Refectory is similar as I left it... Also food has never changed a bit, only some prices has changed (raised a little bit).
When I was there, there was a lot of bicycle for hire put together near the West Gate, most of them not so good to be used. Well, they disappeared, and the place is strangely clean.
There are some ping-pong tables near the tennis and basketball playground but tennis playground is always the most crowded.
To be there again, for me, was very strange, and I missed very much all my old classmates....
To reach the Capital Airport I took the first taxi and the taxi driver was extremely kind (and honest from the taxi fare point of view) with me. He talked in Chinese with me from the Hotel to the airport.
His speaking was very clear and helped me to find the right words to talk with him... The last positive experience I did before leaving China.

Beijing: the Capital City
Central ChinaEastern China
Traveller's Memories: index
© Paolo Botton