Discovering China pt 3

The past few days have been dedicated visiting family, particularly my grandparents on my mother’s side, as well as my father’s side and my uncles, aunt, and cousins. With the advent of high speed rail in China, it became extremely easy getting from one part of the country to the next. In fact, I’m writing this on the high speed rail after departing Xiaogan, which is close to the residence of my father’s family. It is difficult to convey the speed of the train through words, you have to be at the station in person, watching the trains pass and experiencing the sonic booms it generates to truly get a feel of its power. The convenience it brings cannot be understated –  a trip that would have taken an ordinary train upwards of half a day can now be accomplished in an hour or two. Furthermore, I’ve yet to experience a delay either, perhaps because of the impeccable weather or whether the lack of travelers is allowing the trains to stay on schedule, the whole experience has been very pleasant. A transportation system such as this would likely never succeed in North America, where population centers are sparse and spread out, and would unlikely be able to pull enough people from their vehicles to ride it for it to be viable. And even then, the amount of investment towards infrastructure required would most likely never be bankrolled by the government.

After Beijing my first destination was Anyang, in Henan province. As one of the places where traces of early human writing was first discovered and excavated, as well as one of the first stable capitals of China (the Yin dynasty) it has definitely grown and changed in recent years. Taking the high-speed rail from Beijing was a bit over an hour, with the scope of the station was truly a sight to behold. It was a huge transfer point, with tons of platforms, trains, and people alike. If you had agoraphobia it would probably be a place you would want to avoid (but to be honest China as a whole would probably best be avoided, there is no shortage of people here).

Arriving at Anyang, I had to take a taxi to my grandparents’ house. With assistance from my aunt (who was also visiting) to use the Chinese version of Uber, I was able to get there in short order. Along the way, the sight wasn’t that different of that of the areas I walked around in Beijing – with one notable exception, the sheer amount of street vendors and alleyways dedicated to vendors. Furthermore, there were many people on electronic or motorized three-wheeled bikes, none of which I assumed had a license for. It felt a lot like for all the resources dedicated to keeping the law in Beijing, there was an equivalent lack of resources dedicated to places like Anyang. You can make the buildings taller, the roads wider, and increase the material comforts that a home could provide, but to change a way of life – that takes much longer. For most of the people native here, this is what they’re used to – riding their bikes, buying their groceries on a daily basis from these street vendors, this aspect has not changed.

Various street meats
A road dedicated to vendors
Street butcher shop
Example of motorized vehicles

The only large tourism spot at Anyang was the museum dedicated to the Yin dynasty.

Walking towards the museum

Despite that, the staff vastly outnumbered the amount of people visiting at the time, but it was a really relaxing and enjoyable experience as I strolled around the grounds and visited the exhibits.

Very quiet at this time of year

The main attraction of the museum are what can only be translated to as ‘oracle bones’. Essentially, the earliest Chinese characters were grafted onto bones of cows or various other livestock. Designated village oracles used these to predict whether the next harvest would be a good one or not.

Oracle bone inscriptions

Some of the remains that were excavated were on display, and the pits themselves were equal parts spooky and awesome. (According to my aunt my cousin visited multiple times just to see the skeletons.)

May s/he rest forever in peace

There were also displays of ancient weapons, spears, knives, and arrowheads that were used in battles that happened during the Qin dynasty. It’s some pretty cool stuff, but some was definitely difficult for me to understand. However, there were very excellent English translation plaques that helped bridge the gaps.

As the schedule was fairly tight, I only had one day in Anyang. The rest of the day was spent with my grandmother, preparing stuff to bring to my other grandparents in Xiaogan. Although in Anyang we lived next to a school, the family on my father’s side were farmers, and lived in the countryside, where life was slightly simpler.

Speaking of tight schedules, if Anyang was tight, Xiaogan was even more so. Thankfully the trip from Anyang to Xiaogan was just as relaxed as the one from Beijing. The trip was only 2 hours, and I arrived at 1 in the afternoon, with my 3rd uncle picking me up. Along the way I met my aunt and my cousins at their high school. Although I could communicate using standard mandarin, they often spoke in a dialect that was a bit too foreign for me at times and it became difficult to follow their conversations. I tried to answer their questions to the best of my ability.

The car ride was fairly short – the country side was only about 30 minutes away. According to my uncle, a new expressway was also being built with estuary like roads into each village to allow ease of commute. The farther we got from the train station, the sparser the population became, and after arriving at the village, I discovered that it was now mostly empty – many had left towards city centers in search of work or a different way of life, but my grandparents stayed because again, it was what they were used to. The changes to the countryside were definitely visible though, there was running electricity, hot water, and rooms also had heaters and air conditioners installed. These definitely did not exist before. However, because the cost of running electricity into the village is still high, it was important to conserve energy. Thankfully, the weather wasn’t cold at all while the sun was out, but at night it definitely became chilly. Thankfully my grandparents were in good health so they didn’t seem too affected by it, they lived there their whole lives after all.

There were a few familiar sights from when I visited a few years ago though. The chickens were still roaming around, pecking at the ground, with various wild animals milling about the village. The vacation spot for tourism was still there, as well as the various ponds and tea/peanut farms. Many of the plots are now however unkempt, and have been taken over by weeds due to the exodus of farmers I mentioned previously.

You cannot understate the importance of family when it comes to the countryside, everyone gets together and eats at the common table and have overlapping conversations, the kids darting in and out to grab food while all the adults crowd around the small but full table of various dishes. Because it was difficult for me to follow most of the conversations I could only sit back and answer any questions they had for me.

Grandmother (奶奶)
Cousins + (niece? – back’s turned)
Photo credit to my cousin

But alas, my time there was very short, as I had only allotted one night in the schedule to visit. Next time my visit will definitely be longer!

And so here we are, at the end of another blog entry, and it’s about time for me to get off the train, so see you next time, where I’ll be in Xi’an!

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