We traveled close to the North Korean border (my SVES social students would be familiar with this territory since they lived off the fear, which I had to continually allay, that the Xianjuren-North Koreans-are directing their missiles at Guam) to catch the sight and scent of lavenders reportedly flourishing on the slopes of Huangyi Shan in Quandian. The city is south of the famed Changbai Shan that separates Dong Bei from the Chao Xian (NoKor). The mountain towns along the way turned out to be picturesque and rustic.
When we first came to China as a tourist in 1989, shortly after the Tiananmen incident, we were on the tail end of what was a double tier currency system. Foreigners spent ¥uan (along with the Japanese "yen" and the Korean "won," the term simply means, "round money" in Hanja of the Ming Dynasty), while the locals used renminbi (people’s money). We shopped in Friendship Stores where Champs-Élysées brands of decadent but luxuriant products and real local silk clothes were available, though off-limits to the Spartan and gray proletariat. Deng Xiao Ping abolished the practice.
The trip to Quandian came as a shocking confrontation of what is evidently a return to old policy. Checking in to one of the local Chinese hotels, the proprietor stammered in his rarely used English his refusal to accommodate, that proximity to North Korea and the presence of backpacking foreigners now free to roam in China, the security forces gathered all the hoteliers the week before to tell them that not only are all customers to be checked for their identification papers, foreigners were also to be directed to designated hotels.
We had no objections to the practice. After all, gouging Japanese tourists in the Philippines in the '80s, and the visiting golfers on Saipan the last two decades, I am only too familiar to practices that give preferential treatment to locals while charging visitors captive rates. Still, with China leading the harmonious symphony in foreign policy when the rest of the West is belligerent, we were surprised by this turn of events.
What would have been an easy $10-20 hotel accommodation became $50-75 upon moving to the prescribed lodges. To visiting foreigners, this rate is par for the course, if not actually inexpensive compared to the bills at four/five-star hotels. For those of us resident workers getting just slightly better remuneration than the local labor force, the rate was exorbitant.
Looking like a suntanned farmer from Nanning, I have no problem blending with the local population, but that was not the case when we had to negotiate for transport to the forest reserve (taxis might have smelled a foreign rat for they were reluctant to be flagged down!). Nevertheless, Mother Nature in this not-quite-developed part of the country is nothing but astounding. The verdant late spring and early summer was resplendent with abundant sun and surprisingly fresh air.
Benxi, not too far west of Quandian, was a sleepy coal-mining town in the '50s until it started making steel and iron bars for the whole country. It manufactures the steel frames of the tanks that China exports to counter the U.S. Sherman, as well as China’s version of the Humvee. Smoke stacks are as plentiful as the trees. I was told that all the street sewer covers in the country are railed from this city, which now boasts new northern and southern high-rise communities. Urban growth in China expands to the outlying farms and suburbs, or, as in the case of Beijing and the other major cities, built satellite cities.
This area’s coal mines reminded us of Appalachia and Pittsburg in the '60s and '70s. The chimneys spewing burnt carbon fossil residue made dark skies out of the blue in the winter when we last came to the region, even with all the trees churning out enough oxygen to counter the carbon overload. Not this time.
Railway travel is still the mainstay of domestic transport even as the country rapidly builds its interprovincial highway. But the rail from Shenyang to Quandian is a milk train that occasionally waits on the side for the freight line to pass before proceeding. Passengers take a back seat to industrial and commercial inventory.
While the rapid line only took four hours the last time I went directly to Dandong, this time it took eight. The route, however, took me through scenic mountains, and being a Meiguoren (American) without the elongated nose who only spoke Yingwen (English), I was a distinct foreign novelty. The common folks in the train were hospitable and friendly, though communication by body language lasted no more than 10 minutes.
I have since learned to pay the additional cost of a berth when traveling by rail, which allows one to go horizontal, and with a book or a laptop, one can be solitary for the whole duration of the trip.
This time, I was neighbor to two precocious 10-year-olds eager to practice their English. I had my laptop handy with my own "flash cards" and it did not take long before I had a class of six expanding their vocabulary. With the relieved Mamas beaming appreciative smiles, I did not mind at all.
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Jaime R. Vergara (email@example.com) previously taught at San Vicente Elementary School on Saipan and is currently a guest lecturer at Shenyang Aerospace University in China.