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.

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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.

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.


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