Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

My Photo
Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Day Trip to Yulin

Before departing Nanning (China) for our day trip to Yulin, we partook of the large breakfast buffet in the luxurious Mingyuan Xindu Hotel which was included in the room rate.  We were disappointed to find that it was geared to Chinese tastes. 

But not to a humble Chinese palate.  The spread of upscale morning food was alien to us.  Having enjoyed the street dumplings and other simple breakfast fare in Beijing and Hanoi, we picked through the selections looking for something familiar.  As an enthusiastic fan of Chinese cuisine, I am pained to report that the native food we did try was not good. 

The kids chose from the limited selection of Western breakfast items.  I tasted some, too; it was all bland, as usual.  Western food doesn't usually make the translation to Asia.  (Chinese folks dining in so-called Chinese restaurants in America probably feel much the same about their food.)  Luckily, our children often consume bland food with gusto, and soon they were sated.

Leaving Nanning, the capital of Guanxi Province (China), at 8:30 AM proved to be difficult.  We found ourselves crawling at walking speed in thick rush hour traffic as bad as any place on earth.  A half hour later we finally put the CBD behind us and began to see the suburbs.  

Not like American suburbs, of course.  In China residential goes vertical and very dense.  We observed endless high-rise apartment developments stretching to the horizon.  And when we reached the horizon, a sea of tall construction cranes were busy putting up even more cookie-cutter residential buildings just like the ones we'd passed.  We did not see any low-rise or mid-rise residential, let alone any developments looking like the single family home one commonly sees in U.S. city suburbs.

Our destination: Yulin, where our daughter was born, with a hired van, driver, and translator.  We wanted our daughter to see her hometown.  It was a three hour freeway drive east of Nanning, and not a bit more pleasant than a similar trek over our own soul-less Interstate highways.  We made one rest stop at a gas station, and I was surprised to find the attached modern convenience store stocked only Chinese beverages.  Not a Coca-Cola in sight.

Knowing that car ownership in China is far from universal even among the growing Middle Class, I asked our translator if urban transit was available for workers living in all those high-rise apartments so far out from downtown Nanning.  She explained that very little Commuter Rail service existed because that depended upon using pre-existing rail corridors, but that Nanning was embarking upon a subway system instead.  Meantime, rubber tires in the way of bicycles, motorbikes, buses, and automobiles transport people where they need to go around Nanning; hence the horrible congestion, which she said was 24/7. 

The snarled traffic leaving Nanning delayed our arrival in Yulin until noon.  After a preliminary bit of sight-seeing, our driver and guide suggested we stop for a fancy lunch at a famous Yulin restaurant that specializes in serving food that Mao Zedong enjoyed.  We thought that a splendid idea.  Here's a photo of me in the restaurant lobby with a bust of Great Leader:

It was said that the only thing more dangerous than standing in the target zone of a Red Chinese nuclear missile was to stand between Chairman Mao and the diner table.  He liked his victuals, and it showed.

I wish I could tell you that we liked his favorite dishes with the zeal he apparently did, but we did enjoy the experience, at least.  We were seated in a private room with a large round table on which was placed an electrically-powered glass lazy Susan.  Soon the chefs were piling steaming pots of this and that onto the slowly circulating device, bringing each to within easy reach of our chopsticks.  I tried every one.  A few were delicious, some boring, and several were insipid. 

My hands-down favorite was a fatty pork, leading me to muse that the good Chairman would have been right at home at an Eastern North Carolina pig-picking.  That is, if he could have looked beyond the fact of gnawing pork with a Running Dog Lackey of the Capitalist Death Machine, as he used to call us Americans.

We washed all that food down with a famous local beverage, corn juice, which tasted exactly like liquid corn-on-the-cob.  Luckily beer was available to in turn wash down the gagging flavor of the corn juice.

The walls of the private room were festooned with large photos of Mao in the glory days of the 1950s when China still enjoyed a warm relationship with the Soviet Union.  I especially enjoyed the photo showing him with Stalin and Krushchev, circa 1950.  Here it is:

Once again I pondered the sweet irony of today's China, full of the kind of Capitalist Roaders that Mao despised and tried hard to snuff out, e.g., the restaurateur of this fine establishment who brilliantly seized upon the idea of capitalizing on Mao's fame to bring in customers.  No one has yet been able to kill Chinese ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit, thank goodness. 

After lunch we tooled around downtown Yulin vainly in search of the quaint small town it used to be.  Now reputed to be over two million in population, it was just a slightly smaller version of Nanning.  We didn't enjoy witnessing the results of rapid urbanization, with all manifestation of modernity in building design, all utterly lacking in charm or in synchronicity.  Nothing seemed to fit; it looked as if it had all just been thrown upo as fast as possible, the frenetic pace still evident all over the city.

Still, the residents seemed happy, and we could still buy raw sugar cane from a vendor on a rickety bicycle on the street, an anachronism from simpler times.  We left to return to Nanning happy that we'd exposed our daughter to her hometown, but sad that Yulin was turning into just another Chinese mega-city.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Nosing Around Nanning

It had been more than six years since we were last in Nanning, capital of China's southern Guanxi Province, and as I said in my last blog post, the place had changed.  Not necessaily for the better as far as I was concerned, either.  In 2004 Nanning seemed like a relatively calm and tranquil largish city; it is truly amazing how fast Chinese metropolitan areas are being transformed.  The CBD now gleams with new buildings and is snarled with traffic night and day. 

But I am getting ahead of myself.  Following a quick shower at Nanning's luxurious (but inexpensive) Mingyuan Xindu Hotel, we headed off to the Museum of Ethnology which focuses on the Guangxi area.  It was well worth the investment in time.  We marvelled at beautiful brass objects several thousand years old and Paleolithic-era stone tools made 10-12,000 years ago.  I could have stayed a long time browsing and learning, but our kids' demands for lunch took us across the wide boulevard to a KFC.

Like most western food chains operating in China, KFC has worked hard to make their places more upscale than in the USA.  They do specialize in chicken, of course, and we ordered some.  The place, though capacious, was so crowded that we had to wait and watch to snag a booth.  It was wall-to-wall with Chinese customers, mainly young people.  We enjoyed both the food and the immersion in the culture, and I smiled at the juxtaposition of the ancient history of past Chinese customs we had just learned so much about across the street in the museum.  Now we were getting a firsthand lesson in today's China.

We Americans could learn from the design of the wide boulevards in Nanning like the one we just crossed.  Car and truck lanes hold the center of the street, with separated, wide outside lanes for bicycles and motorbikes.  Cars and taxis are allowed to pull (slowly) into the outside lanes through gaps in the median for access to the curb to drop and pick up pedestrians.  Bicycles and motorbikes still predominate as means of private transport in China.  Here's a photo of a typical streetside parking area; every street looks like this:

The majority of motorbikes are electric, with removable batteries resembling small automobile batteries.  Owners take the batteries into their homes to recharge them for the next day.  In a pinch most electric-powered motorbikes have a built-in bicycle pedal mechanism in case the battery discharges completely en route.  Here's what one looks like:

At busy intersections like the one we were on in Nanning, the traffic signals cycle for the pedestrians and the bicycle-motorbike lanes first and then for car/truck lanes, as in this photo:

Back to the hotel we went, and then walked through the gorgeous and gigantic nearby People's Park to get some exercise.  That evening the kids begged us to go to a Pizza Hut forWhat else?pizza.  Disembarking from our taxi at the CBD (which was close to the hotel, but just a bit too far to walk to), I counted five McDonald's within view in a two-block area of downtown.  I was pleased to find that taxis in Nanning are still cheap at 7-9 Yuan, or about $1.50 a ride.

Pizza Hut in Nanning's center of downtown had a long queue.  We learned that Pizza Hut is considered very upscale and always crowded, a far cry from the pedestrian Pizza Huts on every seedy corner of American cities, at least in reputation.  Excellent marketing, I thought, to differentiate the Chinese face of Pizza Hut as something so wonderful.

While waiting, I mused on the fact that Nanning is home to six million people, and yet few outside China have ever even heard of it.  A Chinese city under ten million is just another city.  I looked around the CBD through the plateglass windows and noticed an enormous Wal-Mart not far away.

After a 20-minute wait, we were shown to a table.  In due time the very mediocre food arrived, but the kids have simple tastes and enjoyed it.  My wife and I couldn't find much joy in the cardboard-like pizza.  I am no fan of Pizza Hut pizza in the States, but was surprised to find their product even worse in China, especially given the ritzy pizzazz (no pun intended) of the decor.  I expected better.  However, the Chinese patrons surrounding us were eating with gusto and beaming smiles, so what do I know?  Still, I thought it ironic, and a bit sad, that native Chinese cuisine, so rich and varied and imaginative, and with such exquisite flavor reaches, is losing out to the junk food being served up at places like KFC and Pizza Hut.  Not an American export I am proud of.

Exhausted after the long overnight train ride the previous evening from Hanoi and a full day of getting to know Nanning again, we were back at the hotel and asleep not much after 9:00 PM.  The following morning we would experience the hotel's fancy breakfast buffet before setting off on a road trip to visit Yulin, the birth city of our daughter.  More adventures awaited us.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Arriving Nanning After A Six Year Absence

Coming up from the south (from Hanoi, Vietnam) by train to Nanning, Guangxi Province, China in the early morning hours was a feast for the eyes.  Southern Guangxi's undulating hills and verdant fields make for some of the most beautiful scenery on earth.  I stood for a long time in the corridor of my sleeper watching out the window.

Since my family was still sleeping, I made my way to the diner alone.  I was disappointed to find the curtains drawn and the car unheated.  The conductor, sitting at one of the tables doing his paperwork, allowed me to open many of the curtains.  I was amused to observe him chain-smoking directly under a sign that said in several languages, "NO SMOKING!"

I settled in at a table midway down the dining car so as to have the best view out of both sides (and to avoid the cloud of blue smoke the conductor was enveloped in).  The gorgeous countryside flashed by; I noted lots of people working hard in the many banana and sugarcane fields.

A waiter soon came to my table to take my order, but he did not offer a menu.  At first I thought it was because he saw I was a Westerner and assumed I could not read Chinese (right on both counts).  But it became apparent that he offered no menu because he had no menu.  Though he spoke no English, he managed to get across that there was only one food item available: hot noodles.  I ordered the noodles, along with a steaming hot pot of strong green tea.

I had low expectations that the simple noodle soup would be anything more than nourishing.  In China you just never know when you order noodles.  Sometimes they are quite tasty, and other times just boring.  But they are always, at least, good for you.  When I tucked into the huge bowl my waiter placed before me, however, I was delighted to find that the railroad's noodles were extraordinarily good.  Some of the best I have ever had in China, in fact.

So yummy were the noodles that I finished the bowl in no time and rushed back to our sleeper to wake up my family.  Soon they joined me in the diner to enjoy the scenery and food, too.

We arrived on time in Nanning at 10:15 AM. Chinese trains consistently impressed us with their service standards and schedule-keeping. This was not a sleek new high speed train, just a conventional, everyday passenger train, like thousands that ply China. They generally all run on time, and they are clean, safe, and friendly.

Seeing Nanning for the first time in six years was a shock. When my wife and son were last there in 2004 to adopt our daughter, the city's relatively calm, reasonably fluid traffic was a welcome relief from the hectic, congested, polluted, and nerve-wracking stress of getting around Beijing. No more. In just a few years Nanning had evolved into just another snarled and frenetic mega-city in China.

According to the official Chinese 2010 census, Nanning's total population was 6,622,600, of which half were urban residents. It certainly looked and felt much more densely crowded than in 2004.

We had to hire two taxis to transport our family of five plus luggage to the fancy Mingyuan Xindu Hotel near the CBD in Nanning. We had not stayed there before, and we were delighted to find it very luxurious, hospitable, and centrally located for seeing the city. Our rooms were just RMB560 per night ($85) and included a huge breakfast buffet with both Western and Chinese items. It was an excellent value, and we highly recommend the Mingyuan Xindu.

We were all amused by the manifold and magnificent Christmas decorations everywhere in the hotel public spaces. This wasn't the first time that we marveled at the Chinese affinity for observing Christmas in a big way. They seemed to have adopted celebration of the birth of Christ as warmly as if Jesus had been Buddha's brother. Though this was a few days past Christmas, the seasonal decor was in full swing!

The professional displays of Christmas scream "Capitalism!" and "Consumerism!" and "Free Market Economy!" I pondered the irony of present-day rampant capitalism in China contrasted with the giant billboard we passed on the way to the hotel with the smiling visages of the great communist leaders of modern China.

Are they clapping in celebration of modern China's prosperity? What, I wondered, would Mao Zedong think of China if he was alive today?

More to come in future posts of our experience in and around Nanning, and then a fabulous stay in magical Guilin.