Dec 162008

This post continues the narrative from here

After finally arriving in Shijiazhuang somewhere around 5am, Andy and I headed straight back to his place and knocked out for a long nights’ morning’s sleep before starting a full day of errands. It was time to set up my temporary life in China.

Never did I expect that he would’ve been so thoughtfully prepared for my visit. What a host!

The first order of business was to catch a cab downtown to 太和, Shijiazhuang’s main shopping area.

Although Andy had a Chinese cellphone ready and waiting for me, we’ve both been longing for the relatively new HTC Touch Pro – in my case, as a replacement for the TyTn II that was stolen in Japan a few months back. And we figured that if we were going to make such a purchase, might as well do it together.

However, the day’s shopping efforts ended up fruitless. Tai He is essentially a chaos of small independent sellers crammed under one roof, all shouting a chorus of “Hallo!” and indicating frantically at their little display cases as we attempt to walk by. The only way to find anything is to zig-zag between the booths carefully examining each and every one. The problem is that when you ask someone if they have the phone you’re looking for, they invariably tell you “Yes,” but bring something different – an older model (which they assure you is “better”) or a Chinese knockoff. And the VERY few booths that did carry the Touch Pro were significantly overpriced. Apparently the technology hasn’t quite made it out there yet. So we opted to wait.

Next we headed over to Bence’s place – one of Andy’s friends and an extremely cool guy from Hungary – to pick up a bicycle he’d agreed to lend me during my stay. We were soon joined by three or four other foreign friends – probably representing a fair percentage of Shijiazhuang’s Western population – with whom we put together a piecemeal dinner from a local food market just down the street from Bence’s University.

Man I love street food. It’s cheap, delicious, and you get to sample a huge variety of flavors all at once. In my ever-continuing quest to try as many new and unique foods as possible, I started off with my first ever Donkey burger. It wasn’t NEARLY as tasty as the Korean dog soup. I also had an Egg Mc. Muffin clone for 0.15 cents, and SIX yakitoris (flame-cooked chicken skewers) for about the same. In Japan, a single stick of Yakitori goes for around $2. These prices are just insane.

You know, I’m actually embarrassed to say that since arriving in China, I’d been surviving almost exclusively on instant ramen and Western fast food. Pretty stupid, right? The problem was that since landing at Qingdao, I was so focused on catching up with work and whatnot that I pretty much completely forewent all tourism related activities – barely even leaving my room. So when I did get outside, a quick and reliable form of sustenance just seemed easier than roaming around, adventuring and experimenting.

Plus I knew I’d shortly be meeting up with a friend who’s fluent in Mandarin and could no doubt do a much better job of steering me in the right direction than I could do on my own.

Basically, up until that night I’d just been surviving. Now it was time to start experiencing.

The next morning, after eating the gourmet homecooked breakfast his maid had ready by the time we got out of bed, we continued my “setup” by picking up a SIM card for the phone Andy had prepared for me.

Oh my God, it was so amazingly easy.

We pulled up outside the China Mobile office on our bikes where a guy was standing on the street with a printed list of available numbers. We pointed to the one we wanted, gave him cash, he scurried off, and a few minutes later returned with a SIM card.

Why they make it so freakin’ difficult in Japan is just beyond me. It probably took a week’s worth of full-time work for me to finally get my phone situation sorted out this last visit – and keep in mind, that’s after having lived in Japan for over two years. Sheesh.

You know, after spending a couple days in Shijiazhuang, I have to say that I don’t mind it here at all. Opportunity and finances permitting, I would really consider spending some time here to learn Chinese – something I’ve been wanting to do for a few years now.

Still, it is very different from most everywhere I’d considered living in the past. Moving to Kyoto felt like a big cultural jump back 2004, but I see now that it was nothing. With no English whatsoever, heavily censored (and painfully slow) Internet, virtually no Western toilets to be found, and not even a supermarket carrying real cheese, this is what I would call foreign.

Not to mention that out of it’s 9 million inhabitants, there are scarcely 200 registered foreigners. And that includes those from Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, etc. The number of Westerners is far less.

Just think about that. 200 non-Chinese in a city that’s as large as Los Angeles.

China is a vast, vast country. It’s pretty mindblowing when you really think about it.

  3 Responses to “Shijiazhuang”

  1. The usual Western sense of “rules” and “order” just don’t seem to apply in China.

    While snacking at the food stalls with Bence and Andy (above), I noticed a man selling pets – small hamsters and mice in cages. We were all in a silly mood, so to get a rise out of my buddies I went up and asked him in a Borat-like voice, “How do you cook this?”

    Taking the joke one step further, Bence translated.

    The man’s answer?

    “Probably in the oven would be best.”

    I was completely joking. But he wasn’t. Those hamsters and mice weren’t to be pets at all. They were to be somebody’s dinner.

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