I’ve been on a bit of a ‘zhou bender in the past month, flitting around the Eastern seaboard of China with two 4-day stints in Hangzhou and one down in Fuzhou. Given this, I should be writing a top ten list of places to visit, delightful things to see, local delicacies to sample, cultural curiosities worth noting. This, however, would be impossible because I’m on a totally different Tour de Chine.
Yes, I’m on the other tour. The Work Tour. My super-secret part-time job is one of those theoretically coveted types that both pays well and lets you stay in exotic locations like, say, Hefei or Nanjing or Dalian, put up in places like the cushy Hefei Hilton (reportedly, the cheapest Hilton in the world, folks, but the bubble bath still has glitter in it and the bath tub comes with your very own yellow rubber duckie, gratis!) or the Huhhot Shangri-la (I’m still waiting for that assignment). It’s not the CIA but it’s close.
Yes, dear readers, I’m not the brave backpacking globe trotter you might have mistaken me for. When in Nanjing, I sleep at the Sheraton and I get there by way of the soft-seat class on the posh G-trains. Work pays for it all. I’d probably go hard-seat class and sleep on a park bench if left to my own devices (though these days, I’m sure Doug would have a flight booked and adorable boutique hotel reserved before I got a chance to cave in to my old, painful habits).
Having just spent a cumulative week in both ‘Zhous in the past fortnight, what can I tell you about their delights? Which scenic points can I point you toward? Which culinary treasures can I enlighten you on?
Er, none. I was working. I was locked in a room for hours at a time, grilling people, cop-style. The only thing missing was the spotlight, which would have actually been really nice because our venues aren’t well heated.
My itinerary was generally thus: taxi-train (or plane)-taxi-university-taxi-hotel-bed-taxi-uni-taxi-train (or plane)-taxi-home.
Let me give you a few highlights of my whirlwind Tour de Zhou.
36 Pointless Hours in Fuzhou
- If you fly Xiamen Airlines, keep your ears open for the utterly swoony safety announcements given by the dude with the smooth as silk bedroom voice, enhanced by a slight lisp. He sounded a Chinese Michael Palin trying too hard to be sexy. It was strangely addictive.
- Watch those taxis. My two colleagues and I grabbed a taxi from the queue at the Fuzhou airport and, distracted by how late we were due to our delayed flight, failed to notice that, um, the driver hadn’t cleared the meter from his ride in. The fapiao was conveniently draped over the number displayed, which was most certainly not zero. When we were barely three minutes into the drive, we noticed that we were already at 70 rmb. When the rate is 5rmb for the first 3km and then 1.5rmb thereafter, we had either surpassed the speed of light or the driver was a jackass. Luckily, since we work for the linguistic equivalent of the CIA, we sent them the fapiao. Other colleagues flying in from around Guangdong were gouged for even more.
- The highway in from the airport looks a lot like the road into HongKong (water, bridges, hills, etc), but not so nice. Dark, satanic mills spewing dark clouds of awfulness line the sides at intervals, interrupted by abandoned warehousey-type buildings. After a while there were generic strips of shops, shops and blocks of flats, all concrete and tile, dirty from age and pollution. There were plenty of pleasant green, rolling hills, which were a lovely surprise after Shanghai’s impossible, interminable flatness. It was grimly raining, but I don’t hold that against Fuzhou, as it was doing the same in Shanghai.
- The ride in to where we had to go was an hour, mainly because the airport isn’t actually in Fuzhou but rather, um, somewhere else. When we pulled up at the gates of our HQ, we had only minutes to spare.
- They speak funny down there. Really. I had finally wrapped my head around the Shanghai-Anhui-Zhejiang-Jiangsu pronunciations, especially of people’s names (because, well, I sure do have to say a lot of people’s names aloud in my line of work) and was feeling fairly confident when I greeted people by name during interviews. In Fuzhou, I mispronounced quite a few in wildly divergent ways, names I had been pretty comfortable with until then. The ‘e’ sounds were especially off, and not just in tone, like the difference between ‘hee’ and ‘hey’ and ‘huh’. I was probably incomprehensible to 99% of people. Either that or hilarious.
- Scenic spots? Cultural traditions? Festivals and quaint local art? I couldn’t tell you. Remember, I was locked in a room for two days, grilling people.
Useless Fuzhou Food Tips
Outside the Fujian Teacher’s College there was a lot of street food that looked really good. There were also a number of really good looking little restaurants in the area. Did I try any? No. I was locked in a room for two days, with lukewarm watery green beans and sauteed greens and rice brought in by the supervisor for a hasty lunch. Did I try them for dinner? No, because our hotel was half an hour away, in the pouring rain, in a neighbourhood completely devoid of places where a lone female could grab a bite to eat. A banquet for 12, sure. A bite? No. I had the hotel’s version of Singapore noodles and a beer for an absurdly inflated price that could have bought me half a dozen of the same elsewhere. It was really good, for the record. I was tired and not fussy.
Place(s) to Stay in Fuzhou
I ended up at the Shangri-la, courtesy of my CIA overlords. It’s nice (and free!) but not as nice as, say, the Hefei Hilton or the Oakwood in Hangzhou. My inner backpacker is becoming a spoiled brat, it seems.
I should note that there was no rubber duckie, no free tea or coffee and no fresh fruit. The bath gel was not glittery. Devastating!
Coming and Going
Our flight back to Shanghai, barely 36 hours after flying in, was inexplicably delayed a few hours so we were stuck in the over- crowded, overpriced waiting area near the gate. It was pretty standard airport tedium. There was theoretically wifi but it didn’t work. When we finally boarded the plane hours later, I was so happy to hear Mr Seductive Lispy Safety Dude again. It was like coming home.
4 Even More Pointless Days in Hangzhou
Now, this one will be even more useless than my Fuzhou guide because I was there twice as long and saw even less of Hangzhou this time than I did of Fuzhou (mainly because there was no extended taxi ride to and from the airport where I could look out the window at the spewing smokestacks and abandoned buildings).
Given that Hangzhou is a renowned cultural and culinary capital of China, one of Marco Polo’s bucket list faves, and is written up in all sorts of poetry and painted on millions of scrolls, I probably should have ventured further afield than the two block path between my hotel and where I was working. But I didn’t. I was tired. I didn’t even get anywhere near the lake this time because it was dark by the time I finished work each day.
Also, I’m sent to Hangzhou on a monthly basis these days so my inner traveller just can’t get worked up over it after a long day in the linguistic salt mines. This is what they call ‘working for a living’. It’s unfortunate but true.
When I finished work most days, I trudged back to my room, ate crackers and cheese brought from Shanghai, poured a bubble bath and slept, absolutely exhausted. Occasionally I stopped for noodles or baozi en route. I had coffee with some of my temporary colleagues once or twice, as there’s a Starbucks next to the hotel. Mostly I was just locked up in one room or another for four long days. I went for a half-hearted swim in the deserted hotel pool on the Saturday morning before work. I also took a few pictures of mops. It rained the whole time I was there. I didn’t have an umbrella so I was frequently soaking wet and chilled in my unheated exam room. On the whole, I experienced absolutely nothing worth noting.
Coming and Going
I went second class on one of the super fast G-trains. From Shanghai Hongqiao train station to Hangzhou in less than an hour for 78rmb each way. The scenery outside is generally flat and bleak. I read my Kindle. Nothing to see here. The taxis from the train stations at either end are generally manic, reasonably priced and brief.
I don’t even know why I’m bothering to write this.
Here, have a look at the lovely park near the hotel that I occasionally walk in. It’s totally authentic, totally culturally enriching! Yay!