Monday, May 15, 2006

Guizhou column and letters

A Trek Off the Beaten Path
Pays Rich Dividends

May 12, 2006

China has three weeklong holidays when virtually the entire country shuts down. With no school and no caregivers, they are prime times to go exploring, but because 1.3 billion other people have the same idea, many expats prefer to stay put or leave the country. We have largely ignored this line of thinking, most recently setting off for the South Central province of Guizhou during last week's May Day celebration.

It was not an obvious destination. As China's poorest province, with a per capita income of $614, Guizhou lacks many amenities a vacationing family of five might normally seek -- swimming pools, established tourist sites like caves, even established hiking or biking trails. Few people we know have been there.

But lush mountains and ethnic-minority villages dominate the province, which my Chinese teacher called his favorite in the country. The deal was sealed when a colleague of my wife, Rebecca, said that he knew an excellent English-speaking guide. We booked a four-night, five-day visit less than a week before departing. The expat-oriented travel agent in Beijing laughed out loud when I requested five tickets to Guiyang, Guizhou's capital.

We were greeted at the airport by guide Huang Duan ("call me Howard") and his driver, Mr. Li. We checked into adjoining rooms at the four-star Trade Point Hotel before heading out to dinner. Arriving at the little restaurant, we were followed by a pack of curious onlookers. After a delicious, spicy dinner, the entire wait staff crowded around two-and-a-half-year-old Anna, wanting to hold her, kiss her, pose for pictures with her. It's a pattern that would be repeated over and over.

"Many of these people have never seen anyone who looks like Anna, except in pictures," Duan explained. "They think she looks like an angel."

The next morning we piled into Mr. Li's van for the three-hour drive to Kaili, a much smaller, poorer and dirtier city, which is the capital of the "Miao and Dong (minority groups) Autonomous Prefecture." Outside of town, we turned off the main road and headed up a twisty mountain road that soon became so bumpy, rutted and crumbled that I feared we might bust an axle. Huge dump trucks overloaded with coal rumbled downhill. We passed a power plant and then towering heaps of ash and slag. It was not beautiful. Both the trucks and the ruts vanished once we passed a mine, however, and the scenery grew ever more stunning.

We drove through otherworldly vistas that would become familiar over the next few days: deep green mountains, with even the steepest slopes covered in terraced rice paddies. Men plowed the muddy fields with water buffalo. Women chopped tall grass with hand-held scythes, loading the green stuff into wire baskets balanced on either end of a long wooden pole carried across their shoulders.

It was fascinating and beautiful but as the day wore on I watched the kids wilt in the rising heat. I felt a stir of panic by the time we climbed into the van for the bumpy, sweaty ride back from a ramshackle village where women followed us waving batik shirts and purses. We were worn out, the kids were restless and I wondered if we would make it three more days. Our anxiety only deepened during dinner at a soulful local place as the kids decomposed and eight-year-old Jacob seemed on the edge of a complete collapse.

The next morning, the kids ate the Trix and instant oatmeal we brought with us, while Rebecca and I breakfasted on spicy noodles and dumplings, and conferred with Duan. We asked him to slash a third of each day's activities and allow more time for the kids to ramble. It was a suggestion that turned the trip around.

Heading south, it took 15 minutes to get beyond the town's grimy ring of light industry. A wee-hours rainstorm had brought the countryside even more to life. The boiling river and rushing waterfalls, which seemed to appear around every bend, fascinated our boys.

We visited a large Miao village, where we joined Chinese tourists watching a traditional flute and dance show, the women clad in colorful hand-embroidered dresses. We bought the kids wooden swords that would get quite a workout over the next few days. Later we drove further into the boonies and were the lone visitors in a remote Miao outpost, where we viewed traditional houses that feature pigs, chickens and water buffalo on the first, stone floor and several generations on two top, wooden floors. Beautiful but dirty-faced children followed us around and I bought them lollipops. One five-year-old boy appeared with a four-inch bug on a string leash and all three of our kids played with it. We felt millions of miles away from booming Beijing or Shanghai.

The next day we hiked across rice paddies and through two villages. As we neared a bridge that would take us to our van, I stopped into a little store to buy water and cookies. In a back room, a group of village women were eating lunch. One called out, "Chi fan!" "Chi fan!" (Eat, eat!), handed me a bowl of congee -- rice porridge -- and gently pushed me onto a little stool. The congee tasted like glue. Looking at a sea of smiling faces, I smiled and said "Hao chi!" (Tastes good!).

They pulled up another chair and handed Rebecca a bowl. Soon bowls of cooked food came our way, including some spicy meat that could have been anything but made the congee surprisingly good. The kids ate cookies and watched us with amusement.

We lunched at a local barbecue joint hard by the banks of the churning Bala River. It was part of my plan to give the kids more freedom -- the place, which we had passed the day before, had a large, pebbly river beach where I envisioned stone skipping and fisherman watching. Duan was a little uneasy, however, and I soon understood why; the sanitary conditions were less than exemplary.

But as we walked around the outdoor dining area waiting for our food, the kids started playing with a gaggle of children, which included fellow diners and Miaos from a neighboring village. A family offered us beer and insisted we sample the meat and fish they were grilling on a hibachi. Our food arrived and we took over a nearby gazebo and invited our new friends to join us.

Eventually, all the men were drinking beer while the women watched the kids catch crabs and play tag. It is remarkable how wild-eyed boys can find each other and mind meld without being able to speak more than a few words. We lingered for hours.

There are countless motivations for traveling and many people, including us, largely abandon "throwing yourself into the deep end to see if you can swim" once kids arrive. The risks simply feel too high. It's much easier to hit a beach -- even here, where Thailand is just a flight away. But kids too can tap into something deep within themselves when forced to stretch their comfort zones. As we finally said our goodbyes at our long lunch, Jacob gave me a big hug and said, "This was the best lunch ever." I have never been prouder of him.
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Readers Respond

Write to me and I'll post selected comments in a future column. Please let me know if you want to share your thoughts but don't want your letter published. Below are selected, edited responses to my previous Expat Life column, on getting my driver's license in Beijing.
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Thanks for the great columns. One thing, though: I do not know where you got your facts but I had to get new licenses in Brunei, Nigeria and Scotland. Most countries only accept International licenses for tourists -- not for expats!

In all three countries I had to take a written and practical exam. In Brunei the study material had pictures of model-T Fords. In Nigeria were we were stuffed into a car with three drivers and the instructor and one driver almost killed us all when he overtook a vehicle and an oncoming vehicle missed us by inches. Those Nigerians also claimed that a little of beer relaxed them and made them better drivers! In Scotland, they insisted that one drives exactly the speed limit on hairpin Scottish Highland roads, which have stone walls on both side and a speed limit 20 miles faster than seems safe. Taking all these tests was not easy, and I failed a few, but it made me a better driver!
-- Guido Gaeffke

I got my information from the American Automobile Association and stand corrected. Thanks for the support.
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When I lived in Beijing, from 1985-90 the only requirement to obtain a driver's license was to have a blood pressure test. It was so simple then.
-- David Walters

Don't you just hate it when they get organized?

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Thanks for your great story on driving licences. My wife and I took the test two years ago. Though we paid 800 RMB to Fesco, we went to the examination center to take a paper test. Given the questions and the fact that that no book was available in English, I could not possibly pass -- but I did!

Everyone delivering the results to one of the examiners seemed to pass. My wife delivered hers to the other examiner and failed. It seems that the examination center updated its facilities tremendously during the past two years. May be in another two years, we'll have questions in proper English.
-- Denis Fasquelle
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It is truly amusing that after all this preparation and studying, the only real rules of driving in China is there are no rules. I also agree wholeheartedly that working your way through the bureaucracy here makes you radically alter your view of the DMV and other similar American institutions.

I am an US expat living in Shanghai currently. I enjoyed reading "A Road Warrior Fight Just to Get a License." However, in today's China, to hire a driver plus a mini van would cost at least $2,000.
-- George Chen

I stand corrected on the cost of a driver, though $2,000 sounds a little high for Beijing. The price I stated ($1,000) would more accurately reflect a used minivan with no driver, or a driver with no car.

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I received quite a few readers from expats in other countries recounting their tales of getting licensed. Here are a few of my favorites:


I am an expat living in Peru. The Peruvian driver's exam requires a psychological exam. This test was silly but at the end he asked me if I owned a gun or was planning to purchase a gun in the future? I answered "no". He then gave me his business card and said if I ever changed my mind that I would also need another psychological exam and to please call him!

After driving here now for nearly six years, I know why one needs a mental exam -- because you need to be crazy to drive.
-- Jim Bell
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The Italian test is horrendous and Americans must take it if here for more than a year. It is offered only in Italian. You must take the test on a manual transmission car, even if you usually drive an automatic. Questions can cover rules for the other vehicles along with many mechanical issues, including the detailed internal workings of a car engine.

There are 7,500 possible questions, of which you will answer 100. You may take the test orally, but if the examiner chooses, he can add questions in an area about which he feels you are unsure. Most people pay hundreds of Euro to a driving school to coach them.

Even people who have been here for years are in fear of the test. Many drive without a valid license, hoping to claim ignorance in case of an accident or traffic stop.

This was quite an unpleasant surprise when we arrived here. We still have 5 months to prepare for and take the test or become illegal. I'm hoping we figure out another answer before then!
-- Nancy Spady
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When I tried to get a Taiwanese license with my Singapore one, the examiner inexplicably contended the Singapore license was forged, and would not accept my International License either. He insisted I take the written and road tests.

The written test was much easier and more logical than the one you describe in PRC. The road test involved a test car with three other testees on a closed circuit course which includes braking on a hill and restarting, U-turns, numerous traffic and speed signals, and the ultimate challenge, backing through an S-curve with both hands on the wheel. This last task is impossible to pass without training, which cost me two hours and $50. All this for the privilege of driving legally in a country where traffic laws are routinely ignored.

After that experience, the surly and officious attitude of the California DMV clerks on my return to the USA was a minor bump in the road.
--Bill Liesman

It is truly amazing that after all this preparation and studying, the only real rules of driving in China is there are no rules. I also agree wholeheartedly that working your way through the bureaucracy here makes you radically alter your view of the DMV and other similar American institutions.