Thursday, February 4, 2010

Final postcard from Taiyuan, Shanxi, and a photo gallery

It’s 5:46 p.m. and the train I’m on just began its drive towards Beijing. I’m tired and sore as hell, having just hugged, lugged and kicked a box of 20 bottles of Shanxi vinegar to the station, bought for 44 kuai (that's a great deal! 2.20 yuan per bottle...). I would’ve paid 44 kuai for a fifth of that quantity, but thankfully the convenience store attendants had no interest in ripping me off.

By now I guess you've probably figured out I was in Shanxi working for Deadspin, specifically one brilliant editor named Tommy Craggs, who posted my story at 3:35 a.m. Taiyuan time while I sat inside a smoke-filled Internet bar. I'd meant to open a bottle of Fenjiu to celebrate, but fatigue got the better of me.

I'd like to take this time to thank a few people for their help, and though I know there’s zero chance some of the following will ever read this, seeing as how Blogger remains on the wrong side of the Great Firewall, I choose to recognize their efforts all the same.

Wang Jianguang, Shanxi Zhongyu media relations director, for getting me past security on Sunday and Wednesday. He’s a journalist at heart, which is why he seemed more ready to quarrel with this employers than follow their orders.

Jia Binjie, who met me on a street corner on the first day and proceeded to accompany me to Binhe Sports Stadium (I brought him inside as my "assistant"). He provided an insider's understanding of Taiyuan that proved invaluable.

David Zhu and that journalist for the “Beijing-based basketball magazine”: young sports journalists living the good life.

Alicia, for her patience and unconditional support.

All the people I interviewed, including the owner of a small soup diner a block from the stadium, a nice lady from Jiangxi, who gave me a free bowl of soup for no particular reason. (She didn't end up making the cut.)

And finally, everyone who commented and left words of encouragement. I appreciate it.

There's a photo gallery of Marbury in China, so it's only logical that I post a gallery of Taiyuan, as the two are now joined, willy-nilly, until at least March... lest something happens before then. Odds on an early departure: 4-1.

“Smokestacks and construction cranes”

Just as prominent as Taiyuan’s high-rise buildings are these plastered advertisements, which often depict images of leafy villas, mansions with swimming pools, cities of the future where car headlights are blurred in a stream of unstoppable motion, and generally good-looking people. Most of the images could use more pixels, considering their size, but this one here looks just fine. (Can you tell those aren't real trees?) Rubble and dust accumulate behind most of these walls.

Near the railroad station, there’s an ad for “Zhongyin territory office,” with the image of Battlestar Galactica’s Jamie Bamber showing off a watch. On Saturday night I saw that locals using part of this poster as a wall for a lean-to. A tarp was laid over poles, and inside the resulting food tent a group of people huddled inside holding their hands over rusted grills.

Smokestacks dot the skyline, though in China, buildings don’t so much create skylines as poke holes through them.

McDonald’s will take over the world, unless KFC does it first

Marbury asked if there were any McDonald’s in Taiyuan, and sure enough...

The paucity of coffeeshops makes the city unlivable for me, though I should mention I spent a lot of time in UBC, and would thank them except their prices remain too high and their cups too small. At least twice I was also stuck listening to some bigwig cuss and rant, very loudly, about something or other in a very grating dialect, much worse than Cantonese.

Along Yingze Street

Yingze Dajie ("Big Street") is the main east-west thoroughfare leading from the train station to the other side of Yifen Bridge. Driving west, you will pass offices of three phone companies, countless hotels, the provincial and municipal headquarters and at least six banks.

A police academy graduation ceremony is happening in the first picture.

The pride of Shanxi

The Chinese love their baijiu, a devastating yet cheap (bad combination) white grain liquor that has annihilated more than one living thing in its history, myself included. The local Shanxi brand is Fenjiu, which is the official sponsor of Shanxi Zhongyu. “Fenjiu” takes its name from an ancient Chinese poem (I wish I could remember the name), and the statue above is supposedly an artistic rendering of some line from the poem.

While it looks like a tribute to Dionysus / Pan, it’s actually just a random lutist and some half-naked woman.

Binhe Sports Stadium (part of Binhe Sports Complex)

Looks like it could poke out an eye, no?


Shanxi is also famous for its vinegar, which can be taken straight out of the saucer (I tried it, it was good; then I bought a box of 20; was very heavy, not recommended if traveling alone). The cold dish in this picture is “jin vegetables,” a flavorful mix that’s more exciting than any house salad.


That’s what the Chinese say – meaning “eggplant” – when posing for pictures.

Liuxiang Street (popular among street shoppers, no relation to hurdler)

I almost conducted my interview with Roxana at a KFC because we couldn't find a coffeeshop or café for the life of us (eventually we came upon a Best Bite Donuts and Coffee, whatever that is). We did, however, encounter this rock band that I’m convinced could have single-handed killed the rock ‘n’ roll movement had they been playing back then.

Modern Chinese metropolis

The golden colored building in the middle there is a luxury apartment that’s supposed to represent imperial royalty. Personally, I see it as a symbol of money, and urine.

Toughest ticket in town

Guy in foreground is the park administrator quoted in the story.

When I went to the ticket window on Saturday afternoon a tall, beefy guy wearing an oversized CBA coat asked if I was a journalist. He stood uncomfortably close to me. He asked if I was trying to buy tickets. I said no. I asked him how much they were selling for, and whether he thought the prices were going to go up. He said, “You don’t have a recording device on you, do you?” I later learn that his paranoia is probably due to the fact that he’s a ticket scalper, and that he was protecting his turf. I would see him around the ticket booth way too many times over the next four days.


I don’t want to mischaracterize Taiyuan. It's a city with problems, some obvious, others less so, but like any city, it won't reveal its nooks and crannies and charming soft spots to just any passerby. A week was probably too short. (Then again... nah.)

Anyway, sometimes the blue of the sky even shines, as it did on Sunday, momentarily.

Final look

Looking west down Yingze Street, my back to the train station.


I didn’t get to go to Pingyao or Datong, and I never did open the Fenjiu that’s been in my coat pocket since Saturday. For another time, I guess.


Gregor said...

Hey, Anthony. Thanks for your great piece on Marbury in Taiyuan. On the apparent shortage of good coffee houses here, next time check out the Maya Coffee (玛雅咖啡). The main branch is near Liuxiang, the smaller but much cozier one is on the campus of Shanxi University. Nice vibes, nice staff, and great coffee. :)

The Tao said...

Thanks! I will definitely keep that in mind. I'm definitely going to return some time, if for no other reason than because I really want to see Pingyao and Datong.

You know, I thought I walked up and down Liuxiang without encountering anything remotely similar to a coffeeshop. Well, I take that back -- there was some third-floor pool bar that served coffee. Not really what I was after.

And among the things I did not get to do but wanted to was check out the university area. Next time...

Anonymous said...

Fantastic! The old warlord Yan Xishan would be proud...

Much enjoying your blog, looking forward to further exploration of its guts.

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