26 November 2007

Where the Great Wall Ends

Jhenn, yes I am using couchsurfing.com, and no, I did not beat up any prostitutes--I simply neutralized them.

En route to Xinjiang, I stopped off after an easy 14 hour rail cruise in Jiayuguan, Gansu. Why did I bother coming to this industrial city with an unpronounceable name perched on the edge of one of the world's vastest desolations? Why did I take a train that required me to spend an entire day and night in transit, to get off at 3:30 am, to sit in the train station until 9 am, and finally to get right back on the train again this evening?

Because this is where China ends. Or begins. Depends which way you're going, really. But for me,

This is where China ends.

This is the beginning (end) of the Great Wall and the traditional gateway into the Middle Kingdom. The Jiayuguan fortress guards the crucial Jiayuguan pass, the only route in/out (before ambitious sea voyages) from/to the West. I came to see the UNESCO-listed fortress (impressive) and some restored sections of Great Wall and also for the sake of visiting this last, lonely outpost that marks the beginning of the next segment of my journey, the beginning of my Silk Road adventure. There truly is an enormity of nothing beyond here. I saw it--Gobi desert on one side, threatening mountains on all others.

At this dramatic juncture, indulge me as I enumerate the various delights of Han China I have been privileged to enjoy:

-air pollution visible from space that makes you ill your entire trip
-hordes of tourists at every attraction no matter how minor
-tour guides who shout in amplified voices above the din of other shouting tour guides
-when no shouting tour guides are present, there is at least loud, tinny music being played from somewhere in even the otherwise most tranquil locations
-hordes of annoying salespeople every 10 feet at every attraction no matter how minor
-hordes of touts and taxi drivers at every bus and train station at all hours of every day (no matter how minor), none of whom speak English or seem to have caught on to the fact that most white people don't speak Chinese
-outrageous entrance fees for absolutely everything
-additional entrance fees after you pay the entrance fees
-loud music and radio broadcasts in trains
-bathrooms more frightening than a Kevin Costner movie
-men defecating into putrid squat toilets in said bathrooms with stall doors open
-sometimes there are no stall doors
-usually there is no toilet paper
-men who hawk loudly, often several times, before launching their gobs of spit and phlegm
-men who hawk and spit while using the toilet; sometimes smoking, too
-women who hawk somewhat less loudly before spitting somewhat more demurely
-this often occurs repeatedly, often by groups of men/women all at the same time
-this also occurs indoors (it just happened at this Internet cafe; guy also smoking)
-men who close one nostril so they can projectile-fire snot out of the other one
-this also occurs indoors (sometimes right in front of me)
-I have not seen women do this... yet
-men who (chain) smoke in places where smoking is not allowed and flick their ashes everywhere
-groups of men on trains who fart freely and audibly in the corridors and snore loudly (sometimes synchronized) while sleeping
-taxi drivers who (sometimes) overcharge you and refuse to use the meter
-taxi drivers who drive 120 km/hr on bad roads or in city traffic
-taxis without functioning seat belts (see above)
-random piles of decrepit, festering garbage
-limbless beggars
-restaurants where the dripping garbage is wheeled out through the dining area
-people constantly taking photos of each other with digital cameras and cell phones in front of the dumbest shit
-coffee that's more expensive than it is in the US
-people who cut in line, shove you out of the way at ticket windows, push you through crowds, and bum rush at every opportunity for no visible reason
-people constantly staring at you
-people constantly yelling "Hello!" at you
-people who yell at you in Chinese and then, when it's clear you don't speak Chinese, yell at you in Chinese
-an overdeveloped, overpolluted, overexploited, overpopulated, ugly countryside
-overdeveloped, overpolluted, overexploited, overpopulated, ugly cities
-fake temples
-fake everything else
-a different $10 permit to visit every town in Tibet
-a ludicrous number of blocked websites (such as this one)
-dirt cheap pirated DVDs (it isn't all bad)

For those who misunderstand my sardonic pleasure in making offensive lists, I have to say that, despite all these things, I sort of like China (especially the Chinese friends I've made here--to my Chinese friends: if you ever manage to read this post, please understand that I am joking). For those who would accuse me of cultural insensitivity, I invite you to come here yourself and enjoy Chinese culture. In fact, China is poised to become the world's leading tourist destination in the near future, so I am clearly exaggerating. Finally, for those who like to argue, smugly or not, that this country is poised to take over the world, please reread the list above, which is not fictitious, and ponder the future you anticipate.

And so, for all these reasons, I once again state that here, not too soon, for me,

This is where China ends.

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