Off to Ji’nan and Back Again

Bookended by 20 hour train rides, the trip in the middle became more than we could have anticipated. While Ji’nan was marketed to us as a holiday excursion, in reality it was where we required to go in order to register with the government and receive our passports. So we made the best of it and met some neat people associated with Aston down there too.

In short, we departed directly after Sunday’s classes and spent the week in the city, arriving back in Hohhot, in the late morning on Friday. Yet it was a week spent in a city that will not allow the short to be representative.

Our departure from Hohhot went without issue. We met up at Aston and then caught a cab to the train station where we picked up tickets, then went out for dinner and promptly returned to the station. Moments later we were at our bunks on the train and had eight beers to drink. Indeed, no issue. Traveling through the night, we arrived into Beijing where we purchased our second round of tickets which would take us further south into Ji’nan and consequentially spent the remainder of the morning enjoying Beijing’s bookstore, McDonnalds, and general pedestrian traffic after which we returned to the train station and boarded for the second leg of travel. Here the day began to deteriorate and everyone became a bit worn.

In general coach for this six-hour stint, we were surprised at the quantity of SRO tickets that were sold. We had to wiggle our way through the length of the train in order to find our purchased seats, thankfully, where upon we ousted twice as many people as there were seats – creating a bit of guilt for my conscience as a sat luxuriously one to a seat. Once the train was underway folks began to settle down and find their leaning spot and the whole of the train cleared up, however as the ride pushed along the air within the car slowly thickened with sweat, heat, and steam and finally the riotous voices of passengers demanding a window be opened. Dan and I, well trained in the art of high heat survival, moved into a forced catatonic-state in order to wait it out, however soon windows were opened and passengers disembarked at their stops clearing both the car and air. Remarkably, at this point the air conditioning (which must have previously NOT been installed) was activated and aside from general strain of sitting, the ride continued without issue. We were quite pleased to step into the Ji’nan air – regardless. Our travels were temporarily over, and our holiday in sunny Ji’nan had started.

Evening now, the sky was dark and we were greeted by an Aston associate who ushered us to a nice Aston van and delivered us to our hotel, whereupon we enjoyed a bit of scuffle regarding passports and checking in as well as a few more beers and then it was up to the room and back down for some dinner with the Ji’nan Aston staff. A short local meal and we put down for the night.

Up early, we called up Becci and picked a direction to walk. Today we’d see the city!

Tuesday was, I think our most depressing impression of the city and yet one of the most rewarding. The sky was grey with smog, the weather was chilly – much colder than the forecasted 16’C and it bit through the light layers I had packed. Today was our day to see the sights and yet through a cold grey hungover lens, the whole scene was shabby and muted. The brightest color of the day came from TV. However, we made a game of it and encouraged ourselves to keep chins high. With three people, someone can always share a positive attitude.

It took a bit of time, but we finally understood that which put Ji’nan on the map. After a good look around it was clear. Ji’nan is the city of rubble. Within 10 minutes of walking it was evident that approximately 60% of sites along the road were piles of brick, concrete, wire, wood, iron, scrap, and garbage. Dirt was piled anywhere and everywhere. Machines were at a continual clip moving brick and stone from vertical to horizontal. Once there, diligent workers busily loaded mule drawn carts with the salvage, leaving behind the sand, garbage, and dust. Later crews would begin moving that particulate into piles, arranged by color, or texture, or party affiliation. Where construction had begun on a new project, rubble piles stood taller, where no work was to be done, massive signs, billboards, and marquees had been erected, protecting the cabbie’s from the unsightly wastelands beyond their path. From atop the people’s labor memorial acres of demolished housing could be seen. Piles stacked larger than the houses that once stood there. This was the epicenter of rubble. They were masters of this art and we were reminded of it along every path we took.

A bit of confusion with direction led us North instead of West, another early left turn helped us avoid the central park we’d been looking for and almost landed all three of us in the hospital or morgue when a 3×3 m pieces of steep was dropped from a roof top onto our path 3 seconds prior to our estimated arrival. This was followed by a brief, yet valuable, pow-wow among the workers on technique. I hope next time they’ll have their timing down. We made the collective decision to cross the street and ducked into a market where we made a stop in the restroom. This absolutely ruined Becci when she (and the rest of the female population) exercised their right to take a break in an open arena of pit toilets. Embarrassment is an understatement for the look that had washed over her face as she stepped back into ‘public.‘ Obviously there are different definitions of the word in England.

We continued toward down town from the market place and the city presented it’s hidden jewl of a river walk. Complete with small play grounds, bridges, and rubble-free walks, we enjoyed the quiet of the pathway which sat 10 m lower than the road ways. Covered in beautiful willow like trees, we all basked in our individual visions of spring along the river. None of us looked to closely at the water or the structures, working to maintain the sense of peace we’d arrived at. The river dropped us down town and we popped back up into the building-filled wasteland of banks and partially destroyed high rises. One such structure maintained to the north an facade-less fire stained window free persona. The exposed reinforcing metal curled and twisted from under shattered concrete walls, floors, and support beams. From the north, this building was clearly the location of a recent explosion, however, from the East, show owners casually maintained the locks on their doors, the lights in their windows, and entertained the customers that kept them afloat and yet, from the South there was the presence of a yellow tractor actively deconstructing. In amazement we pondered this situation, but for fear of unearthing some national secret and compromising our visa we continued along, wiping the scene from our faces. Our eyes shared around our residual amazement.

Ahead of us stood a grand monument, we knew we had arrived at the central square, found a coffee shop and took five. A bit more walking downtown we found the rubble was significantly more difficult to find and after a bit of exploring in the urban center, we hopped a cab back to the apartment where we’d detox and share our day with one another. A bottle of russian vodka helped the process along. Shortly after we were notified of more friends in our lobby. We popped down where we were greeted by several foreigners equipped with a beers for everyone. Now it was getting serious. Into a cab and off to eat.

Dinner was somewhat trivial. Consisting of mostly general introductions and vague conversation, all ten of us sat around a large table in a private room and ordered cases of beer and dozens of plates of food, which was all rendered onto a lazy-susan and passed about, however, with a 4-1 foreign-familiar ratio the requisite conversation skill and willpower is great. Fortunately, the conclusion of dinner delivered us to a bar, where upon foosball was played and our friendships were made true. A significant loss to some unskilled local players seriously deflated my energetic-alcoholic high and I sat down for a bit pouting and rationalizing my anger at the loss, blaming my partner/new found enemy for his shotty defense. I soon returned to reality, forgot the loss, though not completely, and shouted conversational English over the blaring Beatles turned Biggy. While not significant, conversations were a bit more intimate and meaningful and the chairs were certainly more comfortable. Dan was given directions on the back of a bank note for the following day’s activities and we played a short round of darts. Most of our new friends ended the night there as we followed a minority off into the darkness to see the “real” night life of Ji’nan with yet another group of new folks.

Into a taxi and across town we pop out at the cross roads of highways perched hundreds of feet above. The lot is dark and there is the barren doors of an underground market, the blackness inside is overwhelming even in the dead of the night. We find one open door and walk through several more doorways, created to prevent the winds from wrecking the hustle and bustle of this presumably once thriving center. Now, it’s empty. I’m not sure why anyone ever assumed there’d be a bar someplace in this abyss, but around one corner shown a little light and low and behold there – in the depths of a deserted underground market place was a posh, overpriced, Che themed bar where we proceeded to find a gaggle of ex-pats and mojitos priced at 15 US. We had one drink and moved on – again.

I was beginning to get a bit frustrated with the perception of my willingness to be mobile. In this case I was happy to escape the clutches of this remote drink barron who’s prices did not reflect the in drink quality.

Across the lot and a bit backwards we looked up at a sign, illuminated in neon and pink (what is that, hydrogen?) which said “Cinderella’s” A few taxis sat quietly outside and we popped in, this was going to be our last stop and our hosts were excited. My feet were already dragging and my speech was just about to catch up at the last bar.

We paid some nutty cover and checked our coats, passed through a metal detector, and were awarded with one Heineken each for our participation. This did not please me – I attempted to trade in my valuable green bottle for a smaller glass of gin and tonic, but in order to save face, the wait staff would have nothing of my English monkeying. We entered the dance floor.

Dudes. Electronic beats. Dudes. A bouncing dance floor. Dudes. A pole. Two ladies. Dudes. Go-Go dancers. and you guessed it. Dudes.

I pushed out onto the dance floor in an attempt to get kicked out and thus get into bed sooner. Rhythmically I was vertically plussed and minused, and my beer was significantly ruined. I used it to move people out of the way and ventured to the podium. I didn’t feel welcome on the moving floor. Perhaps it was my shoes. The beer spear cleared a path and I set it down on some dude’s table.

Up a couple of steps to where the poll and podium were, I had a bit of dance and spent the remaining few hours trying to convince dudes I didn’t want to dance with them. A few ladies came by to see the foreign circus dancers but wanted nothing to do with the scene or the other dudes. With smoke filled lungs we collected our things and found a cab back to the hotel. A bit of a ruckus in the revolving door prompted a reprimand from the hotel staff. We had enjoyed quite a long day, I didn’t look forward to waking up.

Traffic along the road we were on was quite obnoxious and prompted the arrival of Tuesday in our bedroom. A shower and five independent attempts at cleaning out my mouth with a number of tools and techniques started my day. Wednesday.

A great deal of our previous day’s actives stemmed from the fictitious plot of tracking our passports, which were pre-ported to be here in Ji’nan. Using up all the memory on my camera I had shot nearly 40 videos of scenes throughout the city. Now, we were on our way to actually receiving our passports. We hopped a cab and with a Chinese host, traveled to the police station where we dutifully stood in line, sat before and officer, answered a question, signed our name, took a photo, and then left. The remarkable part was we still had not received our passports back. Confused a bit we attempted to begin a line of questioning with our host, however once the answers became deadened, we decided to wait for Matthew’s highly non-scientific, but greatly-rewarding answers.

A bit of breakfast, and a stop by the room for goods, we slung ourselves at a massive hotel we had seen the night previous. Atop the signage for this was a neon ping-pong paddle and a moving ball. Close… far… close… far… hypnotic. It drew me in. The floor was marble with etching of paddles and balls all about. The walls were covered in photos and paraphernalia and in the center of the lobby stood a beautifully clean and heavy table. What kind of hotel is this!?! I was seriously confused. Dan’s skillful language tricks put us onto an elevator headed for the sixth floor where we, by way of narrow dark hallways arrived at a gymnasium full of tables. Wide eyed we paid our fee and stepped down to play. Initially only one other couple shared the space with us, but by the time our hour was up, the room was filled with the hypnotic sound of dozens of little white balls plinking and ponging about. It was wonderful. We left substantially full and dropped in next door for some expensive coffee and a break from the hustle and rubble of the city.

Back outside we reevaluated the true significance of the city rubble. Believe me, please. This is Ji’nan, rubble. Without it, what would fill the space between? We saw buildings ready for destruction next to clean lots ready for filling. Shovels. Oh shovels. You weren’t anybody unless you wielded a flat-nosed shovel. Carts full of rubble, trucks full of rubble, tractors making lots full of rubble, guards protecting the rubble, workers painting the signs, hanging the flags, adjusting the lights, that protected, celebrated, and enhanced the glory of the rubble. As we gawked at the, now grandiose, rubble we considered what luck we have if Hohhot were to be such a pinnacle of the worker and his value.

We created a goal to find a dumpling snack before returning to the hotel to begin another feared night of heaving drinking. After two hours of walking Dan gave his ultimatum of one more block, upon which a snack shop was spotted and we dinned. After we hailed a cab and refreshed and regrouped at the hotel whereupon we all promptly fell asleep.

Late to dinner we were in for a mess of a night. We caught the group at a western food chain called Jenny’s where they’d gobbled up piles of burgers and fries (chips) and beer and we awkwardly assumed the seats of the three individuals who were out having a smoke. No sooner had we sat we were ushered up and out and onto the next bar.

Wei-Wei’s – noted by some as “shandongs famous bald headed bbq gangster” this fellow was one of the most abusive patrons of the English language. But he, his wife, and mother served beer by the boxes, as well as delicious amounts of stick-meat and stick-bread and regardless of our previous disposition we were now ready to see this night through. Wei-wei’s filled up quickly with ex-pats and a couple of drunk locals and before we knew what was happening the table was full of empty liter bottles and we were paying the bill getting into a cab and heading off to the next place.

Per our previous night, all rational people had since left for bed and we were again one-third the size we started. We popped into a dead bar with a dart-board but no darts, a foosball table, but not balls, and drinks with no quality. Our time there was limited by how fast one could put down an ounce of gin and we were off again. By now I had forsaken direction and control of the night and when we arrived at a hotel I was curious, but I can’t say I was surprised. As I stood by it seemed we were all checking in and were then shown to our room on the first floor. Low and behold we’d come to KTV.

KTV – for those of you playing the home game – is what they call karaoke bars here. Frequently these establishments are where you host private parties and therefore you are presented with a room, your own TV, set of microphones, a door, and a wait staff who is remarkably prompt once the button is pushed.

Within minutes after we had arrived and were shown to our room I had introduced myself to all of the other parties present, received beer from each one, and invited them ALL back to our room, which by the time I arrived back was plenty well stocked it’s self. This night was not going to end quickly – (I learned later we had the room from 12:00 AM until 6:00 AM.)

…….aside from the participants, room size, and the foreign menu, this was no different than any other karaoke event. And thus I ruled at it. Making guest appearances across the establishment, I was asked to sing anything that was on. At points I was astonished at how well my interpretations of Chinese love songs was taken. As I would finish someone would shove the mic back into my face followed by a beer which they had just opened with their teeth and demand I stay. I took to inviting others into the room to distract the group while I slid out to use the rest room or recoup for a bit in our room, which by now was almost no different than the others. Beer, broken glass, odd treats, and familiar snacky foods strewn about.

“Karaoke turns people of all backgrounds and all ages back into 5 year olds. Where in stead of playing king of the hill, they vie for the glory of the microphone. Such bedlam is escalated by copious amounts of alcohol. The inevitable glee of marshaling a gaggle of one’s closest friends into the same room… ” – Dan, in reflection, putters out in exhaustion. We we asleep only after 4:30 turned over.

If I felt as if I’d been eating raw sewage the previous morning, Thursday was as if I’d had the petulance shoved down my throat via my nose and through my clenched teeth. I was not in good spirits, if not for the subtle knock from hotel staff reminding me that check-out time was near, I’d slept another 15 hours.

Dan and I put ourselves together, did a general search for Becci, who’d gone missing earlier in the morning, and then packed our things and headed toward the office. We were leaving today – we were eager to be home, there were classes to plan and digestion to mend. Justifiably disgusted by our clothes, Dan and I opted to dawn shorts for our day and travel home to Hohhot. The time of year was not indicative of short pants.

While walking through the streets in search of a lunch Dan and I reflected on the week and on our current endeavor. We laughed. As is striving to make every local second guess their sanity we significantly stuck-out. Fair skinned, goofy looking, eager to dance and free style walk, these two carried with them a tiny guitar and were wearing shorts in the winter! Perhaps I now know why I came here. Walking about the meanest of men smile and produce a thumbs up, police notify passers of the danger to traffic safety, and women of all ages shriek and swoon as we pass by or dare to enter their store-front. With every giggle, smile, and howl, we walk a little taller.

By the time we arrived into Hohhot, I must have been some eight-feet tall. Dan was in the rhythm of notifying individuals of our Alaskan roots, while I fielded the looks of astonishment with a riff on the Uke and a bit of dance.

Cold, but quite pleased, we opened our apartment door Friday morning at about 11:30 AM and came to a splendid bit of rest on the couch. Home.

In reflection we’d determined that Ji’nan is China’s city. A city of dust, dirt, people, traffic, taxis, pagodas, a lake, a mountain, bars, night life, business, smog, and of course rubble. But it maintained the standard for the national city, we were happy to be off the grid a bit, here in Inner Mongolia’s Hohhot. But really, home is what you make it and who you make it with.. I think we could have done this anywhere.