Posted by: 1of10boyz | January 23, 2012

Hong Kong Part 7 – Kaiping


 It has been quite a week so far. We have been in the Hong Kong area now for a week. We have seen so much. Yet, the list of things to see is still significant. We have spent the night in Macau, at the Golden Dragon. A 4-Star accommodation that reminds me of the many hotel accommodations in Las Vegas that I have stayed in, nothing spectacular, nothing that would make you want to stay in your room. The room is adequate for its intended purpose, a place to sleep so that you can get back down to the real reason that the hotel exists, gambling. We are glad to leave. This accommodation doesn’t provide us with a breakfast as part of the package. I am looking forward to better accommodations already, and it was only one night.

We check out of the hotel. I was quoted a rate for the room in RMB and when I check out the rate is in MOP. In order to get out of the hotel, they have to up-charge me to make the rate work out, an additional 150 MOP. I am quite certain that I just got screwed but I don’t speak, Mandarin, Cantonese, or Portuguese and the clerks have amazingly forgotten how to speak much English. It works out to be something like $20 USD so I won’t make a big deal about it.

We catch a taxi to the border. The border has a very old building façade that is the front for a new immigration building, another reminder that crossing the border here has been happening for many centuries. We move through the process easily, we pass through the duty free area and I find that it is much busier than any that we have experienced so far. So much busier that it is obvious, but I don’t understand why as it looks like the same kinds of stuff that we have seen at the many other duty free areas we have passed here in China.

We exit the building and the hustlers are present everywhere. We are pressed hard to hire one to take us where ever we are going. I tell them where we are going and most are not interested in the trip. One is persistent; we try to negotiate a price, even though he has no idea where we are going to. I realize that the majority of the drivers want to find a trip to Guangzhou. It is apparently a very lucrative trade to drive from the border to there for these people. While we are working on the detail for the drive, I notice that there is a stiff business that is also occurring in the plaza for the liquor and cigarettes that were being purchased at the duty free shops. There are ladies with wads of cash approaching everyone that has duty free items trying to buy them. I will remember that should I pass that way again. I hate to admit it but I would be willing to make a few bucks for buying and immediately reselling items like that. I seem to remember that there was a lucrative trade in the Navy during WestPac for those that had more smokes or tobacco than they could use during an underway. Those that ran out were more than willing to pay unreasonable amounts to feed their nicotine habits.

We are not able to get a price negotiated. The driver wouldn’t consider anything less than $800 RMB for the trip, the hotel tells us that we can catch a bus for about $75 RMB each. Seems like a no brainer for us. We find our way to the bus station; it is only about 2 blocks away. We walk in and ask for 2 tickets to Kaiping. The counter girl speaks enough English for us to complete the transaction and to know that we have about a 20 – 30 minute wait. I had Cindy Li on the cell phone but as I went into the building the reception was very poor. We are happy to have been able to make the purchase, alone! We enter the station and find a seat. I worry that we won’t understand that they have called our bus so I cannot relax. I bother the ticket person frequently and we are finally allowed back to the bus loading area. We finally get on our bus.

As we get on the bus, it dawns on me that the last time I rode a bus was the sometime around January of 1985. I was coming home with a broken heart. The girl that had written to me for 18 months had just broken our engagement. That tragedy of sorts turned in to a very happy time as I was called to serve as in a church calling that allowed me to meet the women I would marry later that same year; again, a story for another day and section of this blog.

We have numbers on our tickets that look like they might be seat numbers. I have to call Cindy Li to ask her if they are seat numbers. We soon realize that it doesn’t matter. The bus is not full and we sit where ever we want. I forget that it wouldn’t matter anyway, the rule of law in this country doesn’t really exist and something like a seat number would really only be considered a suggestion. While the airplanes and airlines might be very good at enforcing seating, the trains would come next with a distinction between first and couch and hard seat or sleepers, while the bus would be the transportation of the masses and seating numbers would probably be irrelevant.

We begin our way out of the city. The roads are under-construction. We don’t drive on a single road that doesn’t have some kind of construction project on it until we reach the toll way. This toll way must be one of the early ones built in China. The toll way in Shandong is very nice, very smooth, and built for speed. This one we are travelling today has sunk or sagged in front of, or after, every single bridge or overpass.

The bus has also seen better days. This route has gotten a bus that has travelled many miles. I have often wondered about the buses that I see travelling the toll way in Shandong between Waihei and Yantai, and Qingdao. I wonder if they are comfortable and safe. I know from the experience on this bus now, that it is a good question. The seats on our tickets do not have the ability to stay erect. When we sit in them they immediately fully recline. Not a bad problem if you are trying to sleep but a problem if you want to see where you are and/or you are concerned for your safety. Every bridge or overpass we cross, the bus groans and creaks. The bumps and dips cause the most terrible noise. It sounds like the front axle is going to come out from under the bus. I fear for my life. It is one of the scariest sounds I have ever heard. The driver presses on the brakes every time we get ready to go over one, not like you would in the US; where you would decelerate before crossing over, but like you would if you were trying to stop before running into a dog or deer on the side of the road. It is almost a panic brake. The ride cannot end soon enough.

We finally arrive in Kaiping. It appears to be a 4th or 5th class city, meaning it probably has about 500,000 residents. As the bus comes into town the driver stops along the side of the road to let passengers off, I wonder if I will have to guess where we are to exit. We finally arrive at the bus depot. It is a dirty little courtyard between a few 4-5 story buildings. We move through what would appear to be the terminal and exit onto the street. There are no official looking taxis. We do, however, have some of the 3-wheel motorcycles with the wooden box with a bench parked in front. Since it appears that we don’t have any other option we hire one to take us to the hotel. It is a 5 star accommodation this time. The driver knows where to take us and we arrive after about 15 minutes. It is about 11:00am. We check in to the hotel and ask if they can arrange for a driver and tour guide to help us for the next 24 hours. The concierge takes the task and we drop off our bags and go to the hotel restaurant for some lunch.

The desire is that we have the driver and guide for a few hours this evening and then a few more hours tomorrow morning. They are able to make the arrangements. The guide is actually one of the people at the front desk that is back from school for the holiday. We secure the arrangement and we are off. The cost of the car and driver with guide is 800 RMB for roughly about 8 hours worth of travel and discussion.

The Kaiping area is known as a World Heritage Site because of the distinctive home design called the Diaolous. The homes were built during the early 20th century. They are really fortified homes that were built to protect the inhabitants from attack by marauding bandits. I still have a hard time comprehending the need to build a home that would protect me from my neighbors. There really is a difference between the people of this continent and the United States of America. I find it hard to imagine a time in the lifetime of my parents and grandparents where such drastic measures would have been required in any part of the United States. Even in Arizona or New Mexico parts of the country that weren’t allowed Statehood until the early 20th century the probability of such lawlessness seems illogical and improbable. It is going to be an interesting tour that I hope will help me understand how it is possible for these kinds of scenarios to exist. It is especially difficult for me to understand how this kind of scenario would have existed in a country in, what I would consider, recent history. We are not talking about the dark ages, or wild west, we are talking about the Roaring 20s and Depression 30s.

The people that built Diaolous typically grew up in the area where they built these homes. They had left the area to work overseas and had made a “fortune” and then returned. The story is that they were coming home to share that wealth with others by building these homes and putting the local people to work. I also think that was a lot of showing off that was occurring, not too different than what we saw in the US during the latest housing boom.

The construction that we see so much of in China today is the same, homes built in Shenzhen look much like those built in Hong Kong and like those being built in Haiyang. The Diaolous are not like anything that I have seen before. It is fascinating to explore these old homes. While the majority of the homes that exist in this area that are considered Diaolous are still being lived in, there are some of them that have been converted into tourist attractions that thrive on the people, like me, that spend their money to see them. We also are fascinated to see the surroundings of south China. The lush vegetation that surrounds this area, the sheer isolation from others, the rugged structures jutting up out of nature, the feeling of being alone; are certainly obvious. I can now begin to understand why someone might feel concerned about safety for their possessions and their family.

We stopped at the first location and purchased a ticket for a number of the locations. It was a group ticket for the standard tour. I doubt that we will make it to all of the locations. The homes are, in most cases, a shadow of their former selves. The colors and paint have faded and all but disappeared. The opulence that would have existed in the 20s, 30s, and 40s with the vivid colors is only seen in patches and glimpses. There is just enough color on the exterior of the building to allow you to guess what they might have looked like when they were new.

These structures also remind us that, the China that we see today is not the China of that day. Many of these homes are built in sets. The families of the owner living in each, the multiple homes were required for the multiple wives, and in some cases concubines. That is not the China of today.

The more elaborate compounds have beautiful gardens and water features. The maintenance and upkeep to maintain one of these setups would have required a small army of workers. The homes with the associated families would have been expenses that would have easily consumed even a large fortune. The money required by today’s standards would be significant. I think we can’t appreciate how cheap labor and materials must have been at the turn of the century. We can’t understand how far a little money must have gone. It can be postulated that the value of a man’s labor in those days only contributed to the unrest that eventually allowed the peasants to consolidate and became the revolutionary forces that split this country’s population between the Communists and the KMT; a civil war that was only prolonged by the Japanese Occupation Force and World War II.

We find the settings of these homes to be tranquil, I am certain that when the head of the family clan was living there, that the situation was bustling with activity. The contrast is obvious; the preservation is very limited in some cases and nearly complete in others. In some cases, the homes were never lived in again after the Japanese Occupation. In some the efforts to make the home more elegant have taken away from its elegance, in my opinion. We saw glimpses of the original splendor as we got to the upper floors and observed the intricate patterns in the concrete floors. The work was especially good and we felt it was much nicer than the worn red rugs that we observed in the rest of the home.

We saw only a fraction of the Diaolous, not even making it to all of the ones that we had purchased tickets for. We purchase a book (coffee table genre) with pictures of the many Diaolous and have it signed by one of the more majestic home owners. It is often believed to be the very first Diaolous. It is the most enjoyable visit that we have, and well worth the extra $20 RMB that it costs each of us. We enjoy getting some of the history of the rooms and house from someone that knows the building so well. He can tell us about the photographs on the walls and the family pictures that we see.

We return to the hotel, it is now dark. We have used every bit of daylight we can to see things today. We were disappointed with the time it took to serve our lunch at the hotel today and I want to see if they have a market similar to what we have seen in Hong Kong, where the activities go late into the night. We get a taxi at the hotel and have the staff give the driver directions to take us to a market, a supermarket. Oh, the challenge of not being able to speak the language, but, it is not a total loss. We are about a block from a very busy corner restaurant.

We realize that we are hungry and head for the door. We are in a very Chinese restaurant. We get seated on the main floor. The menu is in Chinese but it has pictures for the majority of the main categories of dishes and we “point and shoot” our way to a 5 course dinner. The server comes back after we place and communicates that one of the dishes we ordered is not available and makes a recommendation that one of the other Chinese names under the picture be substituted. We agree, since we didn’t really know what we were ordering anyway, will it really make a difference?

We have really enjoyed eating with the “locals” whenever we have had a chance. LaDawna notices a couple of large groups and is now trying to figure out how to discretely take pictures of them without being too obvious. One is a very old man with his family at a table about 2 tables from us. It a happy celebration for a new mother, the baby appears to be about 3-4 weeks old. The other is a large table across the room towards the door, it has a number of small children in attendance. We are surprised because the young children, roughly 3-5 years old are being quite loud which is very unusual in a public environment in China. We begin to see what the problem might be, they are fighting over the “bottles”. The appears to be about a cup of wine left in each, the children are fighting about who’s turn it is; they tip the bottles up and are only quiet while drinking, complaining loudly when it isn’t their turn. Not really shocked but maybe we should be.

The food arrives, the unknown plate is squid. It is served in a sizzling cast iron low walled bowl. It is in a dark semi-sweet sauce that is oh, so delicious. It is by far the best squid we have every tasted and eaten. I have take a picture of the server’s copy of our order in hopes of being able to get one of the girls from the office to help me figure out how to make it. This is a recipe that HAS to be added to our recipe list. Our dinner costs us about $120 RMB. I have to admit that I do like to eat out in this country, food is cheap and it is always an adventure.

We decide that there isn’t much chance of finding any shopping so we go back to the hotel. A taxi is easy and costs just $12 RMB. We find the hotel to be refreshing. The bed is more comfortable than the one we had last night in Macau, but it is still a Chinese bed, much harder than we like.

Morning comes, we make our way down to the breakfast, it is a buffet, and the standard Chinese fare. Not sure that I will every eat rice for breakfast but LaDawna enjoys hers. We meet with the driver and guide at 9:00am and are back out looking at Diaolous. We visit some wonderful locations. The gardens are just amazing. We too soon have to return to the hotel to prepare for our 2:00pm bus departure to Hong Kong.

We have visited just a fraction of these unique houses, but have a better appreciation for these homes. We have also stopped at a tower, a light house of sorts, that had a unique position on the river. It is now a war memorial for the hard fought loss that occurred there during the Japanese Occupation. It still has shell damage and a Plexiglas covered section of the wall that has a slightly pink hue. Obviously it was a difficult situation we look out somberly on the river without a way to imagine what the situation might have been like. The river we see has a boat with an old couple working there fishing nets trying to catch some fish.

We wrap things up with a trip through one of the little markets in the area. We find a man that is painting on rice. We get a kernel with love in English and Chinese written on it. It is a gift for Makaela that we hope she will appreciate someday. We grab a bite of lunch and check out of the hotel. The bus gets here in just 20 minutes.

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