A Visit to the Middle of Nowhere

Trip Start Jun 03, 2006
Trip End Jun 03, 2009

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Flag of China  ,
Thursday, May 3, 2007

I've been in China long enough to know that there will be occasions when the colour of my skin will make me an object of curiosity, and that at times it can feel like you are the star attraction in a freak show.  It's nobody's fault, that's just the way it is, and the best way to handle it is to play along smile a little when you get pushed and poked, take a drink or bite of whatever is offered you and graciously make your excuses with a smile on your face.  It's usually fun for a little while.  There is another variation on this which is rather less entertaining where people try to make money on the back of your presence.  I call it the White Monkey Dance.  If I'm being paid to dance, that's one thing, but if someone thinks they're going to put one over on me without me getting anything in return, my tolerance reduces considerably.  Nonetheless, you still have to find an exit strategy, not least when the charlatan trying to pull the stunt is one of your girlfriend's mother's "friends".  It certainly made for an interesting variation on a holiday.
It started as a short trip out of curiosity to somewhere we'd never heard of to visit some friends with a resort hotel in a country park.  After 4 hours on the train, we learned that there were another 2 hours by bus to follow.  This wasn't really in the script, and the fact that we were passing through mining, heavily industrial and military towns (I've never seen a train full of tanks before) was setting me to wonder where on earth we were being taken.  This type of evolving plan based on economies of information is not uncommon in my experiences of China. Nonetheless it was a bit of the pain in the neck to be looking at 12 hours travelling in 2 days into what appeared to be anything but a natural landscape.  12 hours travelling would have taken me from Jinan to Qingdao and back which was a trip I'd chosen to scrap on the basis that we wouldn't have time.  A cruel irony, but not a touch on what was to follow.  What I didn't know at this point was that Michelle's father had laughingly predicted at dinner 2 days before that we were going on a wild goose chase.  He is obviously a wise man who I will listen to carefully future!  I think it might have been the dawning of the truth of this that set Michelle off at her mother with an exasperated interrogation along the lines of, "where the....we going."  I just smiled bemusedly.  By this point, I'd figured out that the only way to get any control over the situation was to make sure I'd got my hands on the return tickets before we got on any buses going anywhere. At the rate things were changing I was looking like missing my plane in 2 days time! 
Finally, we arrived in this little place in Jiangsu called Pizhou which bore all the worst hallmarks of a communist economy mixed with the loose capitalism of modern China: the straight, grey lines of soviet architecture, limited economic development in 98% of the town, and dirt, grime and pollution at every other turn.  I wouldn't recommend it for a holiday, but it's probably the reality of life for most of China's population.  It has to be said that the bus journey to get there from Suzhou was one of the highlights of the trip as we passed through a landscape of green fields criss-crossed by rivers, and tall ash and beech trees swaying in the breeze.  The guy next to us on the bus was a local and able to explain how the fields were divided into narrow strips with a system of carefully marked white stones, and how many of the owners had found they could make better money from growing saplings.  The tree industry had exploded in Northern Jiangsu.
Anyway, back to our adventures in Pizhou.  It took us about 2 minutes to figure out that something was not quite right about our host, and 5 minutes to completely distrust him.  He tried to impress us by showing some pictures of himself with foreigners and some trees.  In all his pictures he was either hanging on to the other person in the photo whilst they stood there smiling politely or tagged on the end of a line.  Shortly afterwards we were informed that we would be going to dinner with him and 20 people visiting from the Dalian Police Bureau.  I had obviously been delivered to perform a White Monkey Dance for him.  Well, no bloody way pal, you are not going to be seeing me for dust.  Actually, whilst the thought crossed my mind, I was willing to play along for the sake of appearances.  What actually happened was that I was effectively quarantined by my mad as hell girlfriend who nearly jumped straight back on the bus to Jinan.
We were told that the place we'd come to see wasn't actually open, but the next day after some more arguments we were taken to some kind of park where apparently lots of fruit grew on the trees.  It was designed as a theme park and included model dinosaurs.  It really didn't add up.  As far as I can figure out in hindsight, he is using pyramid schemes to prey on retired and probably slightly na´ve government employees and get them to invest in his schemes.  The park is a front, but to help him along with this deception, he also poses as a fortune teller.  It's the kind of thing I've heard about, but never come across.  Even in a foreign language I picked up on something being amiss in 5 minutes, and yet there is a obviously a big market for this kind of business because the money is obviously flowing.
At the end of the day, I'd had an eye-opening trip, seen some very attractive agricultural scenery and seen some sides of China I wouldn't choose to see again.  You take things for what they are and make the best of them, but there's still this little voice jumping up and down on my shoulder wanting to go and see my friends in Qingdao.  Instead I got a dodgy fortune teller cum possibly corrupt salesman in northern Jiangsu.  It will take a while for that disappointment to go away.
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