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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Journey to Yan Ji



I can't believe it was a decade ago now. But here is an account of an unexpected journey I took in 2002, when I was the Director of Studies at a language programme at a university in Beijing....


I lurched into the office, ducking under the doorframe, and dumped my teaching gear onto my desk. My butt had barely hit the seat when Shelly, the pretty young Chinese office assistant called to me. 

“Marcus, phone call!”        

I gathered myself and walked briskly over to the phone. Who could possibly be calling me at this time of the day? (11.30am).       

It was Jean, the Chinese director of the Chinese office of the company I worked for. I worked at a Beijing university English foundation program, but my real employer was in fact a Beijing based education group.     

“How would you like to go to Yan Ji this weekend?,” Jean said coolly.

I didn’t have the faintest idea where Yan Ji was.         

“It’s right near the Korean border.” Jean spoke purposefully down the phone. You could really help me out you know. Tom, our usual guy is sick. He had to go back to England. So I’m stuck.”          

Jean also worked for a certain Australian university as their representative for China. She regularly traveled to other cities in China to promote the university. Tom usually went along with her, but not on this occasion, as fate would have it.

So that’s how it all began. Now I’m a spontaneous kind of guy. I immediately said yes. After all, my stint in China, up till that day some six months, had been mostly uneventful, being primarily confined to the vomit colored interior of the office at the university. The job was a demanding one. Including my part-time PhD studies, it was not unusual for me to spend fifteen hours a day in the office. Typically I would get out of bed at around 7.30am. Sometimes my work would finish at 5.00pm, but just as often at 7.00pm. Then it was time to hit the books. Often it would be 11.00 pm before I would leave the office. The office lights would abruptly go off for about five seconds at around 10.55, to warn all those souls foolish enough to still be on campus that the doors would be locked in five minutes. Afterwards I would amble back along the mostly empty streets toward my apartment building. Usually I’d be in bed by 11.30 or twelve, then be up early the following day for the next round. 

Company HQ was situated in a fairly modern high rise downtown, a stark contrast to the bomb shelter of an office I occupied at the university. Jean smiled warmly when she saw me. I accepted her offer to sit down.

Here is what you need to know,” she said handing me a four-page flyer about the university.

I eyed it nervously. “This is it?” I asked incredulously.          

“Oh, your job is easy she said with a wry smile. You just have to bullshit. That’s my job too. It’s all bullshit.” She had spent 16 years in Australia, so she knew the vernacular.

“That’s very reassuring,” I muttered. And there it was. All I needed to know about ……University in Australia. I was to be the spokesperson, the foreign representative of the university in China, imparting fountains of wisdom to the eager young Chinese minds anxious about their future prospects of gaining a place at an Australian university. The fact that I had never set foot in the university nor knew the first thing about it was, of course, irrelevant.  
Yan Ji

The plane landed in Yan Ji just after lunchtime that day, Friday. The journey had been pleasant enough, a mere two hours. I traveled with Jean, and Mindy. Mindy was a quietly spoken young Chinese woman who worked in Jean’s office. Don’t ask me what she was doing on the trip.       

After disembarking and collecting our bags, we headed outside. There were two immediate and simultaneous impressions of Yan Ji. The first was the air - crisply fresh, especially when compared with the carbon monoxide soup I had been used to inhaling in Beijing. The second impression was the instant sense that this place was small. No high rise, at least not around the airport. Just a small car park and a few disheveled buildings.
Our hosts had picked us up, an entourage of three Chinese women all from a certain language school in Yan Ji. The school regularly sponsored students to study abroad. They were happy to receive us in Yan Ji. Only Trish, the principle of the school could speak good English. She greeted me with a somewhat forced smile and said a few friendly words, then proceeded to talk with Jean and Mindy. This was to set the tone for the rest of the trip. I, the lone male, stuck in the middle of a pack of mostly Chinese speaking females.

We were first taken to eat. The selection was small Korean restaurant in the middle of town. Being so close to Korea, much of the food, and indeed culture of Yan Ji is Korean. A large number of Koreans live there.     

I tried to speak with the attractive but quiet young Chinese girl who was at the table with us. My Chinese is not good, but passable.          

“Are you a student at the school” I queried?    

She blushed, and the other woman laughed. I was surrounded by Chinese woman and there was no escaping.       

“How old do you think she is?” Trish asked?   

I mumbled something just a bit less than 20, hoping not to offend her or my guests. Inwardly I estimated about 20. They laughed again. Apparently I was only about a decade off. Just as hint - she wasn’t nine years old.

The food was served, a mostly Korean concoction of garlic mixed with more garlic, something like onion, lots of ground chilies, chili sauce and a bit of pig thrown in for the hell of it. There was beer too, which I supposed was probably to be used as an anesthetic.

“Try it” offered Trish with a smile.         

I took a mouthful and smiled. “Really good” I lied. I drank more beer than usual that afternoon.

After some time Trish announced that there was a special trip for all the guests organised the next day to some place called Tien Chi Hu. Immediately my heart sank. Oh no, not a tourist trip, I thought! Just let me sleep in the hotel, please. Somehow, deep inside me I just knew it would be awful.       

“It’s very famous” said Trish. “Everybody who comes to Yan Ji goes there. Tien Chi Hu means Sky Pool Lake.” I didn’t really listen to the rest of the pitch. I had been hoping for a nice quiet day the next day. We had one day spare on our itinerary. The university presentation was not until 12.00 midday, Sunday. I had planned to stay in the hotel room and study for my PhD, and also prepare for my speech. I had brought along a few study materials and had it all worked out.        

“Come on Marcus, you’ve got to go,” said Jean. Reluctantly I agreed and took another mouthful of Kim Chi to quell the pain.         

For the rest of the day we were shown around Yan Ji. The town consisted of small streets, small people, and absolutely tiny taxis. I couldn’t believe the size of the taxis. An anorexic pigmy dwarf would struggle to get in one.        

“Anyone got a can opener,” I mumbled as I struggled to get my 195cm frame into the rear of the taxi. The humor was lost on my friends and hosts. We were driven to the school. After peeling myself out of the vehicle, we were ushered around the school. It was nice enough and our hosts were friendly.     

After chit-chat and business small-talk we were whisked off to the hotel. Jean and Mindy were in the room next door to me. They said good night and said that they were going to bed. I explained that it was only 8.00pm.   

“We have to get up at 4.00am tomorrow,” Jean said with a grin.    

My face dropped. Apparently there was a four hour bus trip involved and we would be out of town till about 5pm in the afternoon. I closed the door politely.

I turned on the TV in my room, but found the menu consisted totally of Chinese and Korean language programs. So I lay back on the bed and relaxed. My eyes wandered around the room and fixed on a card on the table. Restaurant service, room service… hmm, massage service. I think I mentioned before about my being a spontaneous kind of guy.      

I picked up the telephone and dialed the number.      

“How much is it?…300 Yuan… So expensive!” I grumbled. At last I relented. I figured I was on a holiday, so what the hell.  

There was knock on the door about three minutes later and a young lady entered the room. She wore casual clothes and had a distinctly Korean “look” about her. I don’t know how to describe the difference between the Chinese and the Koreans, but there is something. Maybe it’s just a vibe or something. Something else (perhaps a man’s sixth sense which has developed over thousands of years of evolution) told me that she was also a prostitute. Now I knew why it was 300 Yuan.

“Ni hao,” I said. She echoed the greeting back to me in Korean accent.
I was feeling rather embarrassed at that point. I didn’t want to do the horizontal deed with her, but didn’t want to offend her either. 

“I don’t want to make love with you, but a massage is OK,” I said in Chinese. She looked at me as if I was from the outer moons of Neptune, then told me she couldn’t speak much Chinese.          

Somehow, with a little body language I managed to explain the deal. She looked rather perplexed. So I kept my underpants on and laid down on the bed. She rubbed my back with one hand while she watched TV, totally disinterested. It was truly the worst massage I had ever received. After no more than ten minutes she said “OK” and looked at me.    

“That’s it?” I asked rather disgusted. You want 300yuan for that?” I demanded more massage time. In Beijing you can get a professional massage for one hour for 80 yuan. So she massaged me for a few more minutes, then stopped. By that time I was rather annoyed. I gave her the 300yuan and hurried her towards the door. I was hoping to hell that Jean and Mindy weren’t in the hallway at the time she left.

“Give me 100 yuan tip,” she said as she was leaving.  

“No bloody way!,” I said as I pushed he out the door. Luckily my work colleagues were nowhere to be seen.  

There was already some light at 4.20am when the bus rolled up. We clambered on. Jean and Mindy sat together just I front of me. I crammed my legs into the too-small space that masqueraded as leg-room and tried to get to sleep. But it was just too uncomfortable. I closed my eyes for while and went into a semi-hypnotic state. When I opened my eyes I looked around and saw the sun was fully out. The Chinese man in the seat next to me was staring at me. Now the Chinese are the most annoying starers in the world. For some reason they think they have the right to just look at you – all parts of you – without even trying to disguise it. Somewhere a long time ago their mothers forgot to tell them that staring is rude.        

As I do sometimes when I am being stared at, I stared straight back at him, right into his eyes. He didn’t flinch, but kept right on staring, like I was a gorilla in a zoo or something. I don’t know why some Chinese do this. I suspect because at some level they don’t quite think of foreigners as human. They forget that we feel uncomfortable and annoyed too if people stare at us too much. After about ten seconds he looked away. But he kept looking back regularly. I thought about beating my chest and making some “booga booga!” noises, but didn’t on account of the fact that I didn’t want attention from the other passengers as well.       

The bus made its way along some winding roads, through forests and small villages until we arrived at into a more mountainous area.  

There was no toilet on the bus, as is the norm in China. I find that incredible. How can you have a bus service, where there are trips of several hours between stops and have no toilet? What do the children do when they want to go? Strangely, not one of the Chinese people on that bus had to go in the first three hours before our first stop. But I was absolutely busting.      

There was a small brick hut perched on the side of a small precipice. That was the toilet. The men’s’ consisted of a single room with two holes about a foot in diameter smashed out of the floor. There were no cubicles, so if you wanted to do a squat then everyone would have to good look at you taking squat, I guess. It occurred to me that if the locals found my sitting on a bus so fascinating, just think of the queue if I had to take a squat. I could charge admission for sure.        

Luckily neither I nor anybody else was doing their business at the time I was there.
I looked down into the hole and saw that there was a drop of a few metres. The droppings all fell down onto the ground below the small building.      

It was awful, but the show had to go on. The bus lurched onward until we entered a national park area. I was beginning to feel relieved. We crossed small streams and passed by scenic hills and cliff faces. This would be a nice change from Beijing, I thought, with its endless smog and traffic jams.  

We rounded a bend and there before us was a straight stretch of road leading up to what looked like a waterfall, perhaps a kilometer ahead. But that was not the most prominent thing. For stretched out in front of us, like a prosthetic implant from the suburbs of Beijing was a line of buses, four-wheel drives and other vehicles that stretched on forever. There was no way through. We sat there, on the mountain, in the traffic jam, for about 20 minutes. Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, it began to rain - really heavily. Everybody started to grumble. An enterprising woman entered the bus bearing blue rain-coats. Jean, Mindy and I all purchased one. When the rain eased off a little, we put on the raincoats. Unfortunately anorexic dwarf pygmies must have been common in these parts, because the raincoat barely got below my waist. What’s more the buttons could not be unfastened, probably due to a manufacturer’s fault for that particular batch. None of us could unfasten them, so we just had to wrap them around us.

There was a winding path that crossed several quaint wooden and stone bridges. The three of us ascended a part of the way to the waterfall, but decided that it was too dangerous to go further. There were hundreds if not thousands of people using the slippery, steep paths and bridges, and if anybody slipped, you would be wearing them. So we just took a few photographs, and descended. The entire area around Tien Chi Hu is a volcanic area. So steam was rising from the streams and the mud in some places. That was rather intriguing. It warmed us up a little and made us forget about the rain.

The bus headed off to our next destination. When we arrived it was about 12.00noon. It was a small village, which was really no more than a tourist stop . A few souvenir shops were scattered along the strip. It was revealed that our wheel drives would stop and whisk us up the mountain to see the lake. Unfortunately the demand for four-wheel drives was greater than the supply. There were hundreds of people lined up waiting for the vehicles. After about an hour of waiting, we all became rather annoyed. Jean, a rather strong-minded woman not known to take nonsense from anyone, began to complain bitterly.         

“This is ridiculous.” She wailed. “If they advertise this tourist spot, they should have enough facilities to cater for everyone. But we must wait for hours here!”
Both Mindy and I couldn’t agree more. But I had reached the blissful state of surrender. I had consciously decided not to fight the situation any more. This was China. Whatever services they had, however inadequate, we would just have to accept it.

Two hours passed, and still no four-wheel drive for us. Some of the Chinese people were becoming very angry. Heated words were being exchanged with tour guides and other official looking people, who mostly just looked anxious and helpless. The system was obviously totally inadequate to cater for the demand. Jean walked over to what amounted to an office building. She confronted an official, really letting him have a mouthful. She was no typical Chinese woman, and didn’t care about losing face. She threatened to take legal action against them.  

Just to get away from the chaos I decided to walk across the small road to a drink stall not more than 30 metres away. I picked up a bottle of water. At that moment I thought I heard somebody call my voice and turned around. It was all rather surreal. My eyes fixed on Mindy, calling out to me. She stepped out onto the road.
“Quickly, our car is here!,” she yelled.   

Unfortunately in her haste to inform me, she didn’t look to see if there was any traffic on the road. A four-wheel drive that was coming down the hill from behind her put on the brakes, but not soon enough. I saw it hit Mindy, and send her sprawling onto the road. The drink can she had been holding fell out of her hand and rolled down the road right in front of me. Everything was happening in slow motion. I picked up the drink can and ran over to her. She was conscious and sitting up, sobbing. Luckily, the four-wheel drive was not traveling fast at the time of impact. The man n the four wheel drive got out of his car. He was apologizing frenetically, babbling in Chinese so quickly I couldn’t understand him. Mindy was cursing him between sobs.       

After checking that she was OK, I ran to get Jean. We helped Mindy get up. She had a bruised hip, and a lot of pain in her arm, but she could move it. Jean was furious. We took Mindy into the office area and demanded a first aid kit. Nobody knew where it was. After some time, one did finally arrive. A Chinese woman and Jean attended to Mindy. All the time Jean was cussing and vowing revenge against the organisers of the trip.

“I’ll go to the national TV stations!” she blurted. I just nodded. There was no point trying to pacify her. I was well and truly outgunned. Fortunately, Mindy seemed to be OK. She appeared to be suffering from a bit of shock, and had a few grazes and bruises but nothing was broken or missing.      

Ultimately Jean decided to take Mindy to a local hospital for a check-up. It was decided that I could proceed up to the lake, and meet them later on the bus back to Yan Ji. Thus I found myself clambering into the rear seat of a ridiculously new four wheel drive a short time later. It was already around 3.45pm so it was getting a little late. There was a Chinese middle-aged man in the passenger seat, and a young mother and her daughter sitting beside me. The daughter was cute girl of about nine or ten. Behind us sat another Chinese couple.  

The driver was an early twenties Chinese cowboy (minus ten-gallon hat). He just about pushed the accelerator though the floor. We ascended the steep and winding road up the mountain. The lake is situated in the crater of a dead volcano. The roads were paved in thick solid brick blocks, which is probably why I am still alive to write this story today. The driver swung the vehicle around the hair-pin bends with such speed and force that we passengers were all glued to our seats from the G-force. I had never seen driving like it. The roads traversed treeless grassed slopes. There were no fences or walls to stop us from plummeting the hundreds of meters down the drops that bordered the road throughout most of the journey.          

“Hey driver, slow down!” I screamed in Chinese. “I don’t want to die today!” The little girl giggled excitedly. How sweet is the naivety of the child I thought. Her mother giggled too, but there was no excuse for her. They only encouraged the driver! The manic driving was obviously due to the fact that the drivers were under extreme pressure to get everyone to the top due to the major shortage of vehicles. I also suspect that they were paid by the truckload (of passengers), thus encouraging the recklessly fast driving. Later I found out that a family and a driver had all died the previous week when their four-wheel drive plunged off the road and down one of the steep precipices. I was hardly surprised.     

The trip was about fifteen minutes, which was all I could handle anyway. We were let out. I looked around and saw light green rolling hills as, and a steep short rise in front of us. After saying a prayer to the Creator for the miracle of my surviving the ride up, I left my Chinese companions and clambered up the rise. It was steep, but it took only a minute or two to climb.            

                                                                     Tien Chi Hu

Ascending to the top of the crest, I surveyed the scene before me. Suddenly the frustration and the pain of the long and tortuous day melted before me. There she was: Tien Chi Hu, nestled within the protective arms of the volcanic crater. The actual lake shoreline was perhaps 300 meters below us and another 300 meters before us. In between was a steep rocky decline. The water was deeply blue, and its placidity gave it the shimmer of a giant mirror. Around the lake there were steep long inclines leading up to the crater face. The inclines were covered in grasses (or perhaps mosses) of the deepest green. Above this the pale blue sky was offset with frail threads of white clouds. It was truly beautiful. Indeed, one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen.


Now I knew why all these people came here. How remarkable, I thought, that in this often crazy country of so much chaos and hustle, where nothing seemed simple or convenient, there was this magnificent jewel. I looked around at the handful of hardy Chinese souls who were there with me, and suddenly I saw a different China - more than just buses without toilets, taxis without change, or televisions without decent English programs. I saw more than landlords over-charging westerners, DVD peddlers hassling me on street corners, and Chinese eyes staring at me on buses trains and in supermarkets. Instead I saw something timeless there in that single shining blue eye of Tien Chi Hu. I saw the vast timelessness of China and its people. I saw the futility of complaining about the small things that complicate life when there was something greater than all this. How small I had become, I thought. I thought of my friends sitting in ex-pat bars complaining about all those things that make China what it is, and maybe what it always will be. How many of us had taken the time to really know China and its people, it’s language, culture and History? How many of my friends would return home to Australia, Canada, America, New Zealand or wherever and be no different , no better, no bigger than what they were when they arrived here? How many would be the same - still small? To think, having visited the third biggest country I the world with a quarter of its population, and still be a Small Person.         

I asked some Koreans to help take my photo before the lake. Maybe some of its magnificence and immortality would be imprinted into my soul from the photo. Then I looked round one last time. The amber shades of evening were beginning to descend upon the lake. I knew it was time to go. My vehicle would be leaving. And somehow I knew that I would never go back there. But maybe, just maybe I would take something with me.  

The bus finally arrived back in Yan Ji at about 11.pm.

Mandy was OK – a little sore but other than that she would make it. She and Jean headed off to bed. I was tired. But as I think I said before I’m a spontaneous person…

I showered and put on some fresh clothes. Then I headed out to sample the wares of Yan Ji nightlife.           

“Take me to a disco or bar.” I directed the taxi driver. He took me about 200 metres and I paid him the small fee.      

“Got a can opener, Sir?” I laughed as I extracted by personage from the taxi. There were some steps leading up to a doorway. I walked up and into the bar. It looked more like a restaurant – a few tables scattered around some wooden uprights, with a wooden “fence” fashionably traversing the interior of the room. There were three Chinese guys there talking at a table, and a young couple sitting gin the corner. Other than that, the place was empty. I ordered a beer.       

“Where’s all the fun around here?, I asked the waitress. Eventually she wrote something in Chinese on a piece of paper for me. I quickly finished the beer and left the place before sleep descended upon me. I gave the paper to the cab driver. He drove me about 100 metres down the road, and I paid him the fee.           

The place looked pretty ordinary. I was told by the doorman that the disco was on the fourth floor (not a good omen in China as the number four (si) sounds like the word for death). In the elevator was an old guy sitting on a chair. His eyes flickered up at me for a moment, as I instructed him to take me to the fourth floor. Just as we approached the fourth floor, there was an enormous crashing sound, and the elevator suddenly dropped about thirty centimeters. Something very heavy had smashed into the door of the elevator. I moved toward the doors cautiously, but the old guy raised his hand, a hint of concern crossing his face. We quickly descended to the ground floor again. The old guy told me to wait five minutes, but I didn’t understand the rest of what he said.

I was a bit freaked out, but decided to hang around. I retuned to the lift five minutes later, and the old guy took me to the fourth floor. As we approached the fourth floor once more, there was a mighty racket that could be heard coming from outside. The elevator doors slid open and I was immediately greeted by a sight reminiscent of a Hollywood movie scene from a red-neck bar. There were dozens of policemen and just a few less Chinese young men engaged in a huge brawl. I thought about it for moment, then stepped out of the lift and negotiated my way between the fracas and over to the other side of the room. I looked back rather worried, but eventually the youths were hustled into the lift, and the room fell quiet, except for the rhythms of the techno beat echoing out of the tinny sound system.         

It was only then that I had a chance to survey the crowd. There were three young foreigner guys sitting together at a table in front of me. They looked totally bored, as did everyone else there. In fact the bar was almost empty. There were perhaps a dozen young Chinese or Koreans there, all of whom looked to me to be under 18 years of age. There was no-body there over twenty as far as I could see. I figured that Yan Ji was probably like my home town, Taree, on the mid north coast of New South Wales, Australia. After finishing school, everybody goes to the bigger cities for work and excitement.

I ordered a draught beer from the bar. The young bar tender filled the glass about three-quarters full, and pushed it at me across the bar. I gave him the money but when I surveyed the glass and its contents, I asked him to fill it up. The bar ender sneered at me with a look of such utter hatred and contempt that it was almost comical. I repeated the request, but he just folded his arms and looked away. I gave up and took the beer away – as far away as possible.    

The three foreigners got up and headed for the door. One of them had a flower and handed it to one of the pretty young girls there. She smiled, but he didn’t stay to get her phone number. Not long after I also headed for the lift. I had had enough for one day. I headed home to bed.     

It was about 3.00am so I figured that if I got up at ten, I would still have an hour’s preparation before the university presentation at twelve.   


Unfortunately at 8am I got phone call from Jean.      

“The presentation has been brought forward to 9.00pm,” she informed. I groaned. I had had about four hours sleep, and was totally unprepared for the presentation. There was a last minute scramble, but somehow I managed to pull it of without anybody noticing the true level of my incompetence. Perhaps that was because most of the audience could not understand English and it was all being translated into Chinese by Jean anyway.
Our plane was due out at 8.pm, but was delayed by about five hours. By the time I got back to my apartment in Beijing it was almost 4am Monday morning. The first class was at 8.00am. I managed to get up at seven and get there on time. I had had a total of about 11 hours sleep in three nights. Some of my students turned up late for class. One of the students who was absent from the morning class come to the afternoon class.

“I'm sorry, but I didn’t sleep well last night so I couldn't get up,” he said. 

I was not impressed.

2 comments:

  1. Wow, this is some fascinating story, Marcus! Maybe you should write a travel memoir. Love the details. And that picture is stunningly magnificent.

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