The first time I went to Hefei, the glorious provincial capital of ayi-central Anhui, about 3 or 4 years ago, I stepped off the D-train after four squishy hours onto the platform and was carried along in the swarm (because really, in China, in the train stations, it is inevitably a swarm that carries you out) through clapboard makeshift tunnels that were made breathless with sawdust from construction deep within, past bales of hay (seriously, hay!), then ejected suddenly into the street.
I was met by a half dozen motorized tricycle taxis, which were parked akimbo in the mucky, gravelly, torn up excuse for a road. Everyone was smoking. Everyone was shouting. It was probably raining, too. Or snowing. It was most certainly grey. It was most certainly some time around November.
It wasn’t an auspicious first visit.
I can’t even remember how I got to the university in time for my weekend’s work that first time. I’m pretty sure I bypassed the tricycles as they can’t go on the elevated freeway, especially not in the rain and snow.
Inexplicably, until now, I’d only ever been sent to Hefei in the crappier months. Cold, wet, grey, icy, or some combination thereof. This repetitive habit on my employer’s part has led me to associate Hefei with 1. a desire to be drinking red wine beside a lovely roaring fire somewhere in, say, Ireland, and 2. a feeling that all is ethereal and ephemeral, covered in a mysterious haze and washed away.
The university I work at for these occasional gigs was generally unheated during my crappy-season sojourns. My toes were always numb. Fingers too. The student monitors on each floor were bundled up in parkas and kept bringing me hot water in retro thermoses. Whilst waiting for the next round of exam candidates to be herded up the stairs, I would look out the window opposite my room and watch the snow crystallize on laundry.
Or the rain falling on sad plant life.
Inexplicably, even though 2009 was before I formally started collecting mops, I managed to still include them in a photo of my hallway. When you’re standing around in a cold, empty hallway for 2 days, waiting for 30 or so kids to shuffle through, you end up paying way too much attention to the mundane.
This past weekend I was sent back there for the first time since February or March or thereabouts.
They stopped running the lovely, fast G trains to Hefei so I took the only other viable one, the crack-o-dawn, crappy-class D train that stopped at every freaking station between HongQiao and Hefei.
Unfortunately, there were no breakfast margaritas, only a cat-mug full of lukewarm McDonalds coffee from Hongqiao station in Shanghai, the only thing open at 6:30 freaking a.m..
I had a toddler kicking the back of my seat for 3.5 hours. When he wasn’t kicking me, he was standing on his mother’s lap, paws on my head rest, staring at me and shrieking. The standing-room-only guys in the aisle snuck cigarettes and played loud games on their phones.
Also, it was thunderously raining outside so my window seat had stunning views of bugger all. Well, except the view of that pretty field in the poster on the wall in front of me.
If you’ve ever wondered what Chinese trains tend to look like these days, here is mine, below. They totally whup North American train asses, even when they’re painfully slow and come with shrieking seat kickers (bonus!) and nicotine surrogates.
China is good at being selectively shiny and modern.
Speaking of shiny and modern, here’s the mega screen television blaring epilepsy-inducing ads as you exit.
They’ve also decided to build a brand new metro system in Hefei, in that all-out way China is famed for. Hey, let’s tear everything up for miles around, block off every road and make it actually kind of impossible to get anywhere until all 15 lines have been completed in 2017.
It took me 15 minutes to just walk out of the station and cross the road. Why? See below. Gridlock due to 5 lanes not believing that they are lanes. Add car horns. There are no traffic lights. Add construction barriers. Add pedestrians and bikes with no lanes or sidewalks of their own. I wielded my trusty, pointy umbrella (brought because of the bucketing rain in Shanghai) and growled to make my way through it.
Here is the view of the station from the other side. Insert cacophony of car horns.
And here is a view of the street I needed to walk down to get to my hotel.
I made a small detour through the fine dining district, trying to find a through road. Add more car horn sound effects and drilling for authentic ambiance.
On the plus side, whilst cutting through rubble strewn construction sites and fenced in walking paths with loose, ankle-spraining paving stones, I came across this: Smile Plaza!
It’s deserted. Boarded up. Water stained and peeling.
There was also a replica of a pirate ship right in front of it, but in this morning’s headachy haze I pressed ‘delete’ instead of ‘send’ so you won’t get to see that before it’s demolished too.
I was always fond of Smile Plaza and the pirate ship. Every time I came to Hefei in the past it made me actually happy when I walked past it. I mean, it’s practically an order. Hell, it’s a freaking plaza that insists you smile. Or else.
There will probably be either a 30 storey office block there by next week, or new luxury flats done up in, say, vaguely Parisian style guarded by enormous lions with huge testicles.
Anyway. You probably don’t need lion balls on your Monday morning, do you?
My employers put us up in the Hilton when we stay in Hefei (reportedly either the cheapest or second cheapest Hilton in the whole world, at 500rmb/night), which kind of makes all my grumbling seem petty.
I mean, for goodness sake, they even have glittery bath gel and a complimentary yellow rubber duckie for your bathing delight! The pillows on the bed are bigger and lovelier that most beds I’ve slept in. The bed itself is as big as some rooms I’ve slept in.
The rooms are great if you’re an exhibitionist. Chinese hotels (even fancy ones like the Hilton) like to have see through bathroom walls and doors. Because, you know, you want to see the toilet from your bed.
The view, by the way, was as magnificent and awe inspiring as ever.
Wait, here’s another view!
I think I just found myself passive-aggressively bitching about staying at the Hilton.
I’m starting to wonder if I’m the same person who spent most of her early to mid 20s sleeping in ratty 10 bed dorms and on train station benches and in 50 degree C huts in sub Saharan Africa.
Let’s talk about other things, shall we?
Like the university where I do the speaking tests. It’s now, apparently, a lone survivor in a strip now reduced to rubble. All the little hole in the wall restaurants that I used to go to for lunch were gone. So were the little houses whose laundry I used to watch dry.
As I did my exams all weekend, the sound of jackhammers drowned the poor kids out and there was dust billowing in from every crevice.
Remember that photo I put up, above? The laundry one? This is what it looks like now. And yes, mops were displaced.
Sometimes living here just makes me sad and tired.