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Thursday, February 09, 2012

China Diaries: Liaoning Province

Winters in North-eastern China are famed for their severity and places at latitude similar to Milan or Nice can experience temperatures of -20 C. But unlike the winters in lands further north, the winter skies in North-Eastern China are a delightful bowl of blue. And given the flat Iowa like landscape characteristic of this part of China, this blue bowl is rather immense. In the cold, the murky water rushing out of a municipal drainage pipe has frozen into a fat elephant trunk. The vegetation in these flat plains and diminutive hills turn into brown fur. The branches of trees, finally free from their showy leaves, get to display their full beauty as they sew the blue sky in abstract embroidered patterns.
We are in Liaoning province, at the town of Diao Bing Shan, and it’s the time of the Chinese New Year when Chinese people compete with wildebeests to get the top crown for animal migrations as they rush back to their hometowns from anywhere in the world. Fire crackers boom all day, some loud enough to raise an alarm in American spy planes. The lights are on inside most cube-like apartments, and from top to bottom, I can see families around the dining table. Some are devouring an impossible number of dishes, some have been playing mahjong since daybreak, and some are just watching TV from daybreak as well. I spot a naked man in one of the houses, watching TV, the windows of his house adorned with psychedelic blinking lights, almost begging for attention. He must have forgotten to put back clothes on while changing, for it’s the best time of the year to watch TV. Who can resist the whole season of China got talent, China Brave, Perfect Match, and the very unique day long comparisons of military arsenals of China and its competing countries, all delivered with gusto?
Out in the streets, an old man takes a big fat confident pig out for a stroll while innocent looking dogs play around right in front of a Korean dog meat restaurant. Friendly dogs are everywhere, a big one is so happy to be out in the open that he leaps on to each and every stranger. His master tells us, “Dog is a man’s best friend.” I felt like answering back, “A friend in need is a friend indeed”. As with most places with a history of communism, the small towns here have giant squares. At nights several groups of old people occupy this space to dance. Every other street has a gilded building housing a KTV. Most have giant idols of fortune gods inside. At such places, stay away from the English song collection which is rather quirky and when you select Pink Floyd’s “Wish you were here”, you are most likely to get some Michael Bolton song. We visit a steamboat restaurant where the food tastes great but the hot plates in the best tables are too far away from the seats; forcing customers to first sit there and then ask the waiters to help them shift all their millions of cutlery to another table. During the day, the main streets are inevitably fragrant from the smells of someone grilling sweet potatoes next to someone grilling kebab meat brushed with delightful spices. Around them are hawkers selling frozen pears and “Tang Hu Lu”, frozen sticks of caramelized plums, dates and grapes.
A few days later, we head for Shenyang, ‘the’ big city of province. At Shenyang city, the economic power of China is in full display with an abundance of gaudy shop fronts. And at every street corner, you can find a shop selling sticks caramelized plums. All of them are inevitable playing the same song round the clock, the one celebrating the glorious “Tang hu lu”, or caramelized plums, “Tang hu lu Hao Che…”
Shenyang is also home to the UNESCO heritage sites, the Palaces and tombs that are in distinct Manchu style, built before the dynasty moved on to Beijing to rule all of China. The most striking aspect of these pleasant compounds is their symmetry. One could jolly well enter these premises, keep walking to left and get out of the back door without bothering to see what was on the right. Just that there is no back door. Now, these historical sites serve as pleasant grounds for leisurely strolls that can be spent watching middle aged men showing off their twirls in the skating ring and older folks walking around with radios blaring out loud music from their pockets. Some attempts have been made to educate a foreign tourist about the site but don’t be shocked if one of the Buddha’s has been named as Wikipedia. Do stop by him to ask for favors when you visit the site. He is the one next to Buddha Mahavairocana.
At a restaurant selling local food, the owner, the cook, and the lady assistant, flood us with all sorts of questions. They bet their lives on the taste of everything they serve us. I don’t find them that delicious but keep quite none the less to save their lives. The owner asks us repeatedly to take picture of a banner he has put up that read “I am for everyone”. He lets us know that it could also be read as “Everyone for me”. We come across Luo Xi, China’s World Famous Soccer Fan. He makes us calligraphy artworks celebrating this chance encounter of people from different cultures. He also gives me a teddy bear like contraption with the hope that China and India will never go to war again.
At Shenyang station, a mute lady helps us with directions with gentle gestures. And a round of applause please for Shenyang airport, for which other airport has a counter only for passengers who have arrived late for their flights?
One day, we head for the nearby villages in the area named rather quirkily as the Chai Hu Tourism and Vocational Region. The villages are a monotone of beige and bricks, all of whose fronts have been painted in blue by some recent government dictates. There is occasional snow on the dusty light brown ground. Fat donkeys keep munching contentedly while wooly cows keep crossing roads every now and then. Chickens are fat and busy, big tailed black birds fly around from one leafless branch to another to keep themselves warm. The Shang Tun reservoir in this area is fully frozen and their broken glass style cracks make simple geometrical patterns. We start remembering our high school trigonometry but soon get distracted by the sight of numerous the air bubbles trapped below, a journey that for them should have taken seconds, now caught in a four month delay owing to technical reasons.
One day, we join a group tour to the ski town of Benxi. I am rather privileged to join one of these China group tours which have intrigued people all over the world. Inside a China group tour, there is impatience everywhere; someone is lost, someone is accusing another person of sitting at a wrong place, someone’s child is crying his heart out, someone is irritated at the song being played in the bus, and leading them from the front, is the man with the utmost courage and patience, the hapless tour guide, who should be profiled on these Chinese military shows, for his heroism, with the tour agency flag held aloft high, present an obvious military advantage.
This being the land with the highest population, the crush of the billion people is evident everywhere. At every place of some interest, a supermarket, a ski rental, or a gaming place, there is always a mad rush. The most menacing are the puffy apple-cheeked toddlers who can push adults triple their size out of the way with mighty ease in their rush for the nearest vacant game spot. Even peeing in public toilets can be a challenge as men can suddenly squeeze in around you if there is an inch of space by the urinal to stick out their wares. A few words must be said about the infamous public toilets of China, whose legendary filth have prevented even the most jaded traveler from considering a trip to this wonderful land. Well, there are the luminaries as there are the rascals, but most of them are suitable enough to provide the right direction to the not so glorious materials that come out of our bodies.
But while the people are constantly rushing and jostling, they are extremely warm towards foreigners. And a billion plus people also mean a billion plus curiosities. Inquisitiveness is everywhere, where do you come from, do you like China, and did you have a good impression of China? Strangers inevitably smile and nod, often wishing me a happy stay. Many address me as the Japanese for to them every foreigner is Japanese. And more often than not, there is a small talk around the great Chinese obsession, the myth and the corresponding TV soap “Journey to the West” and its linkages to India.

P.S. For pictures of Liaoning province, China, please click here

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