It’s funny how when you write everything with pen and paper you entirely forget about using a keyboard. Nothing to plug in or turn on, no socket to search for, no concern over how much battery you have left. You just take out your notebook (those under age 40, “notebook” originally meant a paper pad for writing), and get to work. Takes up zero space and weighs nothing, and you can do it during the hotel dinner.
It was the last full day of my trip and it turned into another odyssey, this time to a truly horrible place called the Yunnan Wild Animals Park. Getting there involved a ride to the end of the subway line, and then a couple of miles walking along very busy streets, where I got to appreciate one basic design fact: China knows how to pour concrete.
Critter house of horrors
I found the park, which was an animal abuse area masquerading as a zoo. It was all horrible, but the lone sad orangutan gazing out at us while people shrieked and pointed and banged on the glass was more than I could bear. I had never seen an orangutan before and didn’t realize how large they were and how utterly human. This one lay on his steel display bed, so sad that it made me want to cry, his giant black eyes occasionally blinking, and I wondered how many decades he had left inside that tiny little cell.
I had expected some kind of park where there were paths and wildlife, but instead it was indeed “some kind of park,” the hideous kind. I saw only a handful of wild birds the entire time I was in China, less than twenty, despite countless hours outdoors and travel to some pretty non-urban places. The fact is that most of China has no wildlife of any kind left, not even house sparrows. What can be eaten or caught, which is everything, had been.
I found the main road and walked another couple of miles but my feet hurt so badly from the pavement that I couldn’t walk fast enough to get warm. Walking slowly, cold, is its own special displeasure. Another bus stop, another series of complex ciphers, another freezing wait, another uncertain trip, but 32 cents and heating, so there was nothing to complain about. Since the value of one yuan is about sixteen cents, and since people in the markets and on the street will bargain and haggle over one yuan, it gave me pause that despite its incredible wealth, the poverty in China is so profound that sixteen cents is an amount of money worth working for.
The bus seemed headed for downtown, which was a joyous feeling, until we made a left heading out of the city, which was not. I got off and figured I was close enough to find a subway station, and the plethora of scooter cabbies meant I was never really close to being lost. At the bus stop where I alit a woman was making gyoza, so I ordered fifteen. She was surprised but shrugged. I was starting to learn that when people responded to my perfectly mangled Chinese with surprise, I was usually saying something insane, so pay attention. It was fortunate I did, because instead of reaching for the gyoza tray she lifted the steamed meat bun container, fifteen of which would have amply fed a hungry family of, well, fifteen.
“No, no,” I said, pointing to the gyoza.
“Ah, gyoza! Why didn’t you say so?”
I felt like saying, “Because I am a fucking idiot,” but it was so self-explanatory as to have been redundant.
Her husband steamed the gyoza as I shivered and shook on the plastic stool, but when they came it was well worth the hypothermia, which the gyoza banished. I smothered them in soy sauce and fiery hot peppers, took out the reused wooden chopsticks (“Disinfected!” a sign on the wall promised) and got to work. Yum. As I ate I watched the woman do the meticulous work of rolling each gyoza skin, carefully fill it, pinch it closed, and line it up on the tray. Each one took about two minutes and the cost of each gyoza, retail, was twenty cents each. At the end she had small gob of leftover dough, about the size of a pair of dice, and instead of chunking it she put it back in the dough sack and returned it to the refrigerator. And I remembered, sixteen cents.
What a real small business looks like
I was still northeast of downtown and figured I’d walk until I got cold again. It took a few hours to get back to my hotel, during which time I began trying to keep note of all the different things being sold at the hundreds of tiny shops and stalls and on blankets spread out on the sidewalks.
They included vendors who sold only chickens, toys, shoes, vegetables of every kind, guitars, haircuts, scooter repair services, donuts, games, bread, bikes, gyoza, noodles, used books, posters, printing services, silkscreening, tailors, medicine, beauty products, real estate, cardboard recycling, chicken coops with live chickens sold separately, pineapple carving, noodle dough, rag cleaners, garbage pickers, plumbing supplies, supermarkets, convenience stores, Chinese medicine, medical equipment, hairdresser/barber supplies, bags of every size and material, lottery tickets, internet cafes, roast duck, hot pot cafes, smog masks, thermoses, slippers, slipper liners, pots and pans, toilets, jewelry, diabetic foods, smoothies, wieners, nuts, feng shui furniture, gourds, necklaces and bracelets made from beads, safes, educational software, tracking devices, miscellaneous home goods, Playboy brand menswear, eyeglasses, picture frames, batteries, community health centers, blood banks, cigarettes, surveillance equipment, security guard supplies and clothing, uniforms, electric scooters, urns, wedding services, inns, sake, oranges, flowers, and even an old mendicant lying on the pavement in his underpants, thrashing his leg stumps and rolling on his belly while playing a sad song from a boombox and begging for money.
But what I didn’t see were bookstores or magazines or newspapers. The only bookstore in the entire city that I’d seen, Xinhua, was owned by the Party’s biggest “news” organ, and reminded me of East Germany in the days of the DDR. Nothing is deadlier to a police state than books, so you have to vet them with great care, and predictably there was hardly anything in Xinhua worth reading, especially literature or history or biography, i.e. “things with a different version of the possible than that espoused by the state.”
This is the big tradeoff in China, truth for security, and although people didn’t seem very happy or enthused about the prospects of tomorrow, which promised the same brutal toil of today as they battled for profits in 16-cent increments, the knife fight in the mud of selling useless shit on the street or in a cramped rented space, China also felt incredibly safe. And healthcare was available everywhere at little cost. And hundreds of millions were experiencing a rapidly increasing standard of living which included, for some, 100% carbon that was made fully of all carbon, purely.
China has 1.3 billion people and is incredibly heterogeneous, and heterogeneous nations have the potential for massive unrest. Through surveillance, a total police presence, a consumer economy, a corporatist state, and a continually rising standard of living, it offers stability, safety, growth, and a meaningful chance to participate in the global economy, soon to dominate it.
Is that worse than a corporatist state that openly wars against its racial and ethnic minorities, that humiliates the poor, that reserves healthcare for the rich, and that provides primarily for the profits of the richest? If freedom is so important and such a distinct part of our “special” democracy, why do so few people exercise it even to vote? Why is our “freedom” expressed in moronic captivity to football and professional sports? Why is our freedom of speech mirrored by a fundamentally illiterate and innumerate society?
Most importantly, if you don’t like China’s approach, what steps will you take to make sure it doesn’t happen here?
The fact is that free people die young, whereas properly enslaved people live longer. The older I get, the more I appreciate the extra minutes and hours.
New Year’s Eve hotel dinner
Back at Hotel Unhelpful Clerks I collapsed and it was just barely three o’clock on New Year’s Eve. I watched TV for four hours, enjoying the amazing personality cult of the Great Leader. It was done with none of the heavyhandedness of the DDR, DPRK, or USSR, but cult is cult. And to be fair, Xi Jin Ping is a much better, smarter, more thoughtful, more humane, and a better human being than Trump or anyone in the current U.S. congressional majority, and much of the minority.
China spends billions on education, feeds, clothes, and provides healthcare for its poor children, and is continually struggling with how to raise standards and not simultaneously wreck the earth’s environment completely. Best of all, since all TV is run by the state, there is zero screaming on the news, zero attack-dog politics, and no bad news of really any kind. The repeated messages are:
- Be happy.
- You’re lucky you’re Chinese.
- This is our century, our world.
The surfeit of happiness and good thoughts made me hungry, so I decided to brave the hotel dinner gauntlet one last time. They seated me at a lone table again, but this time in front of the cashier and manager’s business desk, facing the rear of his two computer monitors, and boxed in by a refrigerator.
I felt like the orangutan, as the table sat squarely in the entrance so every patron could analyze my menu choices and my facility with chopsticks prior to being escorted into the free range dining area, which was private.
We hashed out the menu thing and they brought a delicious lamb and vegetable dish. My waitress from the first night had ended her shift and was in street clothes, but nonetheless stayed around until I finished eating to make sure everything went okay, i.e. I didn’t leave hungry. Having conquered the mighty Hotel Dinner Challenge I deemed it time to take on the Hotel Coffee and Tea Lounge Challenge, so I removed downstairs to the cafe.
I had little faith in the barista despite the fancy espresso machine, and she was nowhere to be seen, and I had nothing to do, so I grabbed a tourism guide for Kunming and began thumbing through it.
Kunming and its environs are packed with countless amazing travel experiences, exactly zero of which involved miles of frozen tramping along freeway side paths, zero of which involve seven-hour bus trips, zero of which involve haircuts and tea swindles, and all of which look tailored to show you a great time. If only I had known that things like travel and tourism guides existed, hidden as they were in the hotel lobby that I had passed through every day, given away for free, and spread out on large glass tables!
The barista took my order and brought out a beautiful cappuccino with a milk heart in the middle. It was the best coffee I had had since leaving home, and was $1.66 cheaper than Xingbaka. As the coffee warmed me, I thought of home. I missed my friends. I missed my bicycle. I missed my family, and I really missed my wife. Time to call this a wrap. Time to go home.
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About SouthBayCycling.com: This the all-things-cycling blog about cycling in the South Bay and cycling in Los Angeles, maintained and authored by me, Seth Davidson, Torrance-based bicycle lawyer, bike racer, and personal injury attorney.