Chance favors the (barely) prepared mind

Trip Start Sep 04, 2007
Trip End Nov 20, 2007

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Saturday, October 6, 2007

Tuesday evening, Wednesday, and Thursday, September 11th through the 13th

I was talking with someone just before I left for China about all of the reading and other preparation I'd done for this trip, and he reminded me of the quotation "Chance favors the prepared mind." Neither of us could remember who said it, and I pretty much forgot about it until my first "what have I gotten myself into?" experience in China.

Pardon me for a moment while I digress to explain how I tried to learn at least some Chinese before I left Seattle. One class that I signed up for was cancelled for want of enrollment. Another dwindled from 22 students to nine by the fourth session, after which I stopped going because the instructor was having us recite in unison, so we were getting no individual feedback on our pronunciation of a language rife with sounds that have no direct correlation in English. The last class I signed up for seemed ideal at first: the instructor was from China, the course materials were quite good, and she had us read aloud individually in class. However, as soon as I'd learned a bit about correct pronunciation from the audio CDs that accompanied the textbook, I realized that many of my cohorts' pronunciation was even worse than mine, yet the instructor greeted every recitation with applause and a "Good job!" I gave up on her class after seven sessions and figured I'd get more out of studying on my own, and I probably would have if I'd been able to find the time. ;-) End of digression.

In our last episode, I was still on the train from Ulaan Baator to Hohhot, which is known to the locals as Huhehaote (pronounced something like hoo-huh-how-tuh); the mismatch caused me a brief heart attack while I was trying to confirm with the conductor that the train was arriving at my stop. I gathered my too-heavy bags, struggled out the door of the station, and was confronted with a large plaza filled with Asian faces and surrounded by buildings ablaze in neon, every last electron of which glowed in Chinese. Not Pinyin, so I could at least pronounce the words and look them up in the phrasebook that was buried somewhere in my bags. No, this was real Chinese.

Hohhot got four pages in my Rough Guide to China, and I'd made mental notes about places to stay. One was supposed to be directly across from the station, but I couldn't pick it out for certain, so I walked up to a place that seemed a likely contender. A hotel employee standing on the front steps spoke no English but somehow identified someone in the crowd who did. After consulting with her, my translator reported that I couldn't stay there. He then tried to guide me to a place he said he'd stayed and liked and that cost only 30 yuan, about $4 US, but the dark alley that he headed for put me off, so I suggested a closer place that was much more well lit. (I've since decided that he was probably an employee of the hotel that he was trying to lead me to. Or a mugger.) After a lengthy discussion with the receptionist in Chinese, my translator reported that they couldn't take foreigners. I'd heard about this quirk in Chinese law, but I didn't expect to encounter it. I figured hotels would only be restricted in places that the Chinese didn't want foreigners at all, like near nuclear power plants or military bases, and maybe in remote locations where foreigners weren't likely to go and the hotels didn't want to bother with the paperwork to be approved. This place was next door to the train station in a city of, I think, about three million people. 

My translator had to catch a train, he said, but he enlisted someone in the lobby, who spoke no English, to help me find another hotel. This second "volunteer" slung one of my bags over his shoulder and, with me at his side with the other bag, crossed the plaza and turned right onto a busy street, also dark and none too promising. A block later, with no hotel in sight, a cabbie pulled up next to us and called out the window. I may not speak Chinese, but I speak cabbie just fine. I took the bag from the shoulder of the chap who was helping me and tried to convey to him, through the tone of my voice, both my appreciation for his help and my desire to find a damned hotel already. I then dumped my bags into the cab, crawled in after them, and immediately discovered that the cabbie didn't know from "Railway Hotel," another of the places I'd read about in the Rough Guide. I held up a finger, the (I hoped) universal sign for "wait a second," dug out the guide, turned to the page that listed Hohhot hotels, and circled the Chinese characters for the place I wanted to go. (Boundless praise and gratitude go to the editor who thought to include Chinese characters for places mentioned in the guide.)

I had another brief heart attack when the cabbie, unlike any cabbie I'd ridden with in my life, did not U-turn and head in what I knew to be the correct direction but instead kept going the way we were facing. And going. Until the next intersection, at the end of a very long block, where he turned left, left again, and then right, and pulled up in front of a place that said "Railway Hotel," in English, over the front door. I grinned. He grinned. I gave him the pittance he asked for and a ridiculous tip in a country that doesn't tip, dragged my bags out of the back seat and up the steps, and checked into the Railway Hotel. Chance favors the prepared mind, indeed. If only I'd prepared better, I wouldn't have had to rely so much on chance.

Hohhot is not, as near as I can tell, one of the major vacation destinations in China. It has a few museums to which the Rough Guide gave luke-warm reviews, a Muslim community in an older area of the city, a mosque that is famous to folks who follow that sort of thing, and a whole lot of big, modern buildings. Were it not for the signs in Chinese and the sheer quantity of neon, which is not nearly as prevalent in America (outside of Times Square), you'd be hard pressed to tell the part of Hohhot around the Railway Hotel from any city center in the world. I spent almost all of my Wednesday exploring (read: wandering), mostly in the older neighborhood, and being amused by assorted discoveries, including a long pedestrian alley of nothing but drapery shops, another alley of nothing but tropical-fish shops, and a guy who was renting out a couple of pool tables that he'd rolled out into a small plaza/parking lot/walkway.

I had lunch in the Muslim neighborhood at a small restaurant where I saw someone on the sidewalk dropping long strands of fresh noodles into a vat over a propane burner. Even from the outside, it looked like a little neighborhood joint that fed mostly folks who'd come from the next block, and I was hesitant to walk in and disrupt the place by my very presence, but this clearly qualified as the sort of adventure I'm looking for, so disrupt I did. It was mid-afternoon, and they weren't busy; the staff was eating at one table while a handful of regulars ate at the next table. I was relieved to see that they'd posted a picture menu on the wall, and, after some comical miming, experiments with our small shared vocabulary (they knew "noodles"), and the participation of the regulars, I ordered something that looked, in the fuzzy picture, like some kind of meat and some vegetables over noodles. What arrived at my table could have been the "don't eat this" picture in a brochure for the University of Washington Travel Medicine Clinic: cooked but cold meat and several kinds of raw vegetables over noodles. (The noodles should be fine.) After the welcoming reception I'd received and the effort they'd already gone to on my behalf, though, I couldn't not eat it or even eat it but without obvious pleasure. I still had plenty of antibiotics, so I dug in. Delicious, vegetables notwithstanding. (Didn't make me sick, either.) I paid and joined the staff (the regulars were now gone) in a round of good byes, and went outside to take a picture, then went back inside when I realized I should have a picture of the staff, too. More miming, more laughing, and a picture, then I headed out the door with the email address of one of the staff members, so I could send him a graphic file. Later in the afternoon, I stopped into a shop that could print the picture for me and took it back to them, much to their glee.

I spent Wednesday evening catching up on some writing before taking the train to Beijing the next day. Or so I thought. Thursday morning I took a cab to the train station with plenty of time to spare, figured out which waiting room I belonged in, and took my place next to the sign that listed my train number. A seat opened near me, and the young lady sitting in the adjacent seat looked at me and motioned toward that seat. I declined at first, but my train didn't leave for a while, so I soon joined her. She almost immediately struck up a conversation in English that would benefit from some practice with a native speaker and in a waiting room that was much too loud for a conversation between two people who only barely have a common tongue. Between having to concentrate to understand her and having fun talking with someone from Hohhot, I lost track of time and missed my train. (I also foolishly assumed that, because the row of seats I was sitting in lined up with the gate I was going through, there'd be some extra action around me when my time came. Wrong.) The remaining trains to Beijing that day were already sold out, so I had to get a ticket for the next day's train, pay for the hotel in Beijing where I had a reservation beginning that night, and pay the princely sum of 68 yuan (about $9 US) for another night at the Railway Hotel. (You get what you pay for. I got the same room for a third night, for which the nearest running water and the toilet were down the hall and the shower was down one flight.)

I'd seen what little I wanted to in Hohhot the day before, so I spent Thursday in two different internet cafes (mostly filled with internet gamers) writing the Ulaan Baator blog entry, had an exceptional dinner of barbecued chicken, and called it a night so I could try again to make it to Beijing the next day.

By the way, out of curiosity, I returned to that dark alley in broad daylight. It turned out to be a dead-end courtyard surrounded by apartments and one place that might have been a hotel, but not one I'd have wanted to stay in.
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