A First Taste

Trip Start Feb 20, 2012
Trip End Oct 22, 2012

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Flag of China  , Yunnan,
Saturday, June 2, 2012

The way from Hekou to Jianshui was a series of surprises. First of all, it was a highway and by this I mean an actual paved highway, with toll gate, 4 lanes, and with a series of cars and bus and truck following some kind of driving rule. The karaoke was substitute by movies (of course with a lot of martial arts!). Big boards, cars that I was not seeing since a while (Volkswagen, Ford, Fiat ... BMW, Mercedes, Bentley!!!). All around me curious eyes and smiles. If the change across Cambodia and Vietnam was sharp, this one wasn't any smoother.
Huge buildings were lining along the highway in a series of soviet-looking residential area. Despite the fact each of them would be more than sufficient to put up all the population of my hometown in Trentino, all were vacant. Mengzi, the bus changing city, was the more outstanding example of this grandeur filled with emptiness. Cross traffics with 6 lanes departing in each direction, huge neoclassical buildings, residential skyscrapers, very few human beings. All around this delirium cementi the magnificent landscape of Yunnan slowly rising from the 76.4 m at the border to the 6740 m of the northern region. Keeping looking out of the window as often than to my fellow-traveler I arrived in Jianshui.

I can not fully explain how pleasant was to discover this town. Just laying out of all the main touristic routes, it can may be described by saying that I enjoyed a lot looking at a real city (Sapa can not honestly be described as a real), with real people taking care of their daily business and being surprised somehow by my presence. No touts waiting for you at the bus station or in any other corner of the city, I saw just other two foreigners during my stay. Few seconds after checking in the hotel (the most hardcore common bath I've seen during this trip), I run out into the streets. No specific temple, or museum, just the streets, the smell of the foods, the type of shops, the way people were talking to each other, the type of traffic, all the small details that make our daily life.

Hanging around, my excitement for this new endless country was growing at each step. Basically each single thing I was looking at was somehow triggering random consideration in my brain. The electrical scooters were running from one spot to the other in a surreal silence (especially after the Vietnamese decibels) representing basically 80% of the transportation (are the Chinese going to be more green than EU or USA?). On the other side, sidewalks, parks and squares were a continuum expression of social life. The type of social life that us, the Westerners, are simply forgetting that exist. Here a series of pool tables (15/20?) with all sorts of people playing, there some dozens of women trying a choreography, two step further some ancient couples stepping into some kind of traditional dance. Again series of kids playing with Rollerblade, just close to a series of men (releasing their stress?) spinning tops with energetic lash cracking. Seriously how many times it happens in our lives that we participate in or even simply see something like this in one single of our squares on a random day? How often does happen that we go in the morning to a park to practice with other people Tai Chi (or something culturally more close to us). In this city (and i was assuiming in entire China) the people used the common space to meet and perform recreational activities together, in a way that impressed me and triggered my curiosity. Is it this one of the pillars of what we all know as Chinese community feeling? Sharing a common space, no matter if a park in Yunnan, the table of the cafeteria at the Stata Center, or the basement of a shirt industry in Italy? I seated in the square for a while looking at this or that group. Asking myself a series of questions that in the best scenario would found a partial answer at the end of my two Chinese entry visa. In the evening, in the attempt of gaining access to my mails, I faced for the first time another of the China characteristics, I was refused to join an Internet point, cause I didn't have a Chinese ID (every person accessing Internet needs to be registered, does it reminds you something?).

The day after, I started my research of culinary experiences, sniffing the air and following random passers like a dog. Finally I found my place. I maintained my choice of low profile (really low profile) restaurants, the language barrier was evident (and would have become more and more evident over time) but by looking in the other people dish and pointing my finger at the chosen one I managed to get my bowl. It was really really good. Kind of tortelloni (but not really) in a spicy soup. Around me local customers were at first wavering between their interest for the bowl in front of them and the stranger at the other table. Soon or later all of them chose the bowl, me too.

The rest of the day was spent getting a taste of the Chinese arts and culture. I started from a Confucian temple (the third biggest in the entire China), that I had partially visited the evening before, and then continued enjoying the outstanding beauty of the Zhu Family Garden (actually an rather big complex of buildings that served as the the house of a rich family till the beginning of the 20th century). The Test Hall, were hundreds of students were going through one of the first and more sophisticated civil servant selection systems ever used: the Imperial examination system. It is interesting to see that in a time were Europe was basing most of its power relations, and bureaucratic structures on blood, somebody on the other side of the world was already talking about transparency and merit (even if it is always difficult to understand how much in words and how much in facts).

I was done with the sightseeing by noon, but the idea of leaving Jianshui didn´t really pleased me. I liked the city, the people and the continuous stream of thoughts triggered in my mind. Nonetheless, the idea of the dimensions of this country, and the need of crossing it pushed me on a city bus that took me back to the long distance bus station. A young couple, took me till the counter and explained were i was heading, then, handed me over to another person that took me to the actual bus. Always smiling, always happy to help. Always curious to know where I was from.
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