Sunday, December 30, 2007

Weird Things About China

We have seen some pretty spectacular things in China these past few days, namely, the Impressions Sanjie Liu show in Yangshuo, and the Three Pagodas Park here in Dali, but the more beautiful things I see here, the more confused I get about China.

While in Yangshuo, we were told over and over that we really must see the Impressions show, so that's how we spent my birthday! There's a storyline somewhere, apparently; it's based on a 1960s movie involving a beautiful peasant girl that sings, an evil king, and the man that she loves. I didn't quite get that from the show (something to do with a language barrier), but I was still left with my mouth literally half-open in awe. The show is staged right on the river. The karst mountains are lit up as part of the backdrop, and floating barges, docks, and boats are put to work as the stage for the 600-odd performers that sing and dance the story of Sanjie Liu. More memorable moments include watching as the forest is suddenly lit with the fires of hundreds of torches; watching traditional fishermen in pointed straw hats pull themselves across the river on streams of red ribbons stretched across the width of the river; hundreds of sparkling figures spanning the river that become girls in local village dress when fully lit, only to return to their starlit state when again plunged into darkness. The director, Zhang Yimou, worked in close association with local performers and producers to create a truly magical show, one that plays every night, and was so entrancing that I actually forgot that I was sitting on a concrete step in the cold rain. Zhang is famous for directing films such as "Hero", "House of Flying Daggers", and "Raise the Red Lantern". He is also directing the artistic portion of the Opening Ceremonies to be held in Beijing this year: August 8, 2008, at 8:08 pm (the Chinese sure love their lucky number 8.) After seeing Impressions Sanjie Liu, we have decided that we will find a television at that date and time, no matter where we are in the world.

After such a spectacle, we figured the only way we could top it was to take a 19-hour train ride to Kunming and then leapfrog directly to Dali by bus. Here, we were completely blown away by the enormous park of the Three Pagodas -- not only are there three pagodas, but also acres and acres (1000 to be exact) of amazing Buddhist temples surrounded by lush greenery, immaculate walkways and scenic parks -- and the nicest washrooms I've found in China yet, making the park totally worth the relatively hefty entrance fee.

Washrooms are actually one of the things I find so distressingly weird about China. It is always, pardon the pun, a crapshoot when venturing into new toilet territory -- and it's something I can't ever get used to. For some reason, China (and Tibet in particular!) is particularly known for vile waste disposal areas. It's best not to count on toilet paper or running tap water. Our last two hostels have had squatters instead of western thrones, and to have to maneuver one of these first thing in the morning is truly a testament to human cruelty. Sometimes they flush, sometimes they don't. Sometimes, particularly at roadside bus stops and gas stations, there's a trough with a stream of running water. Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to have to use one of these. I had my head down, as I was concentrating on the job at hand; when I glanced up, I found that my face was less than a foot away from a perfect stranger's bare ass -- did I mention the lack of doors or even walls in these places? Many, many times in Tibet I looked around the washroom and smiled back at the others squatting along with me, grinning at the ridiculousness of the situation.

Other things I can't get used to here are the random acts of public expectoration, the slurping of noodles (which causes great trauma to my psyche), and the impossibility of buying dental floss here. One can't get a spool of waxed string to properly clean one's teeth -- and they all know what dental floss is, they just don't buy, use, or sell it -- but one can buy any variety of dried fruit, vegetable, or meat; writing utensil or handbag featuring Hello Kitty, or, most happily, a pair of grey knee socks decorated with skull-and-crossbone motifs.

The juxtaposition of such careful artistic expression and beauty with the lack of any sort of thought with regards to human comfort or dignity completely confounds me. Someone has put such thought and care into building beautiful temples and monuments; they carefully manicure the gardens, and sweep the streets of the slightest bit of detritus; yet the toilets are dank pits of despair and suffering, even though they are used on a daily basis by every human in existence.

However, when I do happen upon a sparkling clean western flush toilet with paper, hot running tap water, a properly locking door, and hand dryers, it makes me happier than I ever thought such a thing could. It truly is the little things in life that count.

Chinese "public protection" prevents me from posting to the blog directly, but you can access our photos here and here.

As an aside, check out this fun clip, which is a ten minute song-and-dance sequence from Om Shanti Om, the Bollywood movie we saw in Mumbai. It's basically an excuse to have 31 Bollywood actors and actresses have cameos in one film. Enjoy the special wind-machine effects and disco dancing, yaar!


Chelle said...

The Impressions show sounds wonderful, and your pics are amazing as usual.

Happy holidays!

Clare said...

I can't remember where I came across your blog (on The Lost Girls, maybe?), but I've been enjoying reading about your globe-trotting adventures. I have to say, I had my first squat-toilet experience a few months ago on a night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, and at the time I couldn't imagine anything more horrible than being forced to figure out the squat toilet while on an unsteady train, but a mass squat toilet? Definitely sounds worse. Should I ever find myself planning a trip to Tibet, I will definitely be practicing some bladder-control techniques before I go.