Putuoshan – With Or Without You
As we boarded the crowded bus, I ended up next to a mother
who had a toddler on her lap in the typical Chinese fashion of slit open baby
pants. After a while, the kid started getting excited, bouncing up and down, and
squirming around, when all of a sudden the kid pulled out his puny, miniature
tootsie roll sized weenie and started giggling uncontrollably, thinking, I
guess, this was the greatest organic toy in the world. Lacing one hand around
his new plaything, he repeatedly slapped at it with the other, gleefully having
a grand time, as he pretended to be riding a bucking bronco.
Soon, people took notice and began cautiously smirking, as he
continued to buck wildly, his playful toy pointed directly at my exposed leg, acquiring
length as if it were Pinocchio’s nose. Nervously wriggling about, I realized we
had at least three more stops before exiting. I quickly scanned the bus and tried
to guess who would get off first and create a seating opportunity. Now, more
and more people took notice, and started laughing aloud. I was certain his
little cannon would shamelessly explode all over my leg before I was to alight.
With two bus stops to go, I froze with indecision as he became
more frantic with each passing mile. Should I stay or should I go, I argued to myself,
but in the end sat patiently by. Mercifully, I got to our stop unsoiled, and as
the bus pulled away, I pitied the new victim settling into my old seat, convinced
that the happy fellow guy would get his revenge soon enough.
Unless you are here on business, there’s really no reason to
as a tourist. We came here on a stopover before heading out to the Buddhist island of Putuoshan, a two-hour bus/ferry ride to
the east. Unfortunately, we ended up spending a few more days than we planned,
because I was under the weather with some stomach disorder and ended up on
antibiotics. Nonetheless, Ningbo is a pleasant enough place, a typical middle
class Chinese town of 2 million people, notable for its textile factories
around the perimeter of the town. Heck, the shirt on your back was probably
As with every big city we’ve been in, there’s a lot of
construction going on and the town has a modern feel to it, although definitely
lacking tourist attractions. We stopped at one brand new mall on the way back
to the hotel, four floors crammed full of every designer name store imaginable
– Armani, Rolex, Giorgio. The only people in the mall were the workers and a
handful of Western people, probably on business. We wondered how sustainable this
mall was going to be, since the typical Chinese middle class person probably would
not be spending money here.
Chinese success in the world markets is based on cheap labor
– that drives everything here. It’s also a copycat economy. They copy the Honda
motorcycle and call it a Jonda, they copy a Canon camera and call it a Kanon, and
they copy the Teva sandals and call them Teavas. There are hundreds of examples
of this phenomenon, but you get the idea.
As you walk the streets, you’ll come to a block where a
store sells candles. Immediately next door is the exact same store, while next
door to that store is the same exact store – repeated for ten or twelve shops.
It’s as if the first person made a go of it, others took note, then swiftly
swooped in to copy the business model for a quick buck.
I do not see Chinese innovation or ingenuity. They
manufacture cheap commodity items, as well as inexpensive component parts for
many companies around the world. Parts for cars, faucets, or electronics. So,
why is China
the model for the 21st century? When they run out of things to copy,
or demand for their cheap goods dries up, it appears that their growth model
will grind to a halt. With a healthy balance of trade, they have the money to
invest in education and long-term capital investment. Let’s see how this
develops, but the skeptic in me smells a bubble.
Meanwhile, we looked forward to visiting the Buddhist Sanctuary of Putuoshan, a highly regarded island south of Shanghai. We arrived on the island after a two-hour
ferry ride, were immediately charged $23/each for the ‘privilege’ of visiting, and
boarded a tourist minibus to the center of town to find a place to stay. Most
places are priced accordingly high due to its popularity, but we managed to
find a decent place for $50/night.
We then proceeded to get out the map (Chinese only – no English) to see the sights, which, fortunately, are concentrated within 15-30
minutes of each other. Start with 100-step beach ($2 access fee), a historic
religious site complete with dune buggies, wave runner rentals, a trapeze, and
loud music blasting over the crash of the chocolate surf. Hmmmm, let’s go to the
next site, the apparently new Nanhai Guanyin statue overlooking the sea (that
will be another $2 please), some rocks with Chinese characters carved in them, and
caves that can be explored (for a fee, of course).
We soldiered on to the recently planted Bamboo Forest, past
fake speaker rocks echoing Buddhist chants, through a maze of look alike chintzy
souvenir stands pushing incense sticks, to yet more modern restored temples
(that will be another $2 please). All the while, huge tour groups crowded the
immaculately constructed pathways, with guides blasting commentary over cheap
megaphones. Man, is it happy hour yet – this is so phony and contrived,
although the main temple of Puji – apparently around since the 17th
century – (WHAT – FREE admission, I’m shocked) is worthwhile.
We were disappointed despite such glowing recommendations.
In fact, when we compiled our list of overrated, not worth the price of
admission, do not even bother going places, Putuoshan occupies positions #1
through #10. Actually, it is the ONLY place on our list after 8 months of
travel. Hugely over hyped, it seems to exist solely to suck you out onto the
island and separate you from as much of your money as it can. After one night,
we eagerly took the first ferry back to Ningbo.
When in China,
you do see quite a few police officers walking around, so it appears and feels
to be a completely safe place to visit. And there are workers everywhere that
walk around and sweep up trash so the streets are always clean. Which is a good
thing since the Chinese just drop trash everywhere. On the bus the other day, I
was touched by the endearing sight of a father showing his four year old
daughter how to toss her empty soda can out the window.
As you’re walking about, you’ll see employees lined up
Outside their place of employment (usually a restaurant), before their shift, standing
in rows, all at attention. It appears they are getting a pep talk or some other
instruction for the day. I always try and walk behind the manager and wave and
make them smile, they’re always so serious.
Finally, loud noises. Buses and trucks have very loud air
horns. If you’re in front of one of these and they sound the horn, it’s
actually painful to the ears. All the drivers love to blast their horns – at
pedestrians, at dogs, at – imagine this – another vehicle in front of them, as
if they alone own the rights to the road. Heck, they blow the horns for no
apparent reason, maybe because the leaves are rustling on a tree, it’s
ridiculous. After a while, it’s shut up already, what’s your hurry, and it
continues to befuddle me why they act in such in such an impatient manner.
They’ll get up right behind some poor slob on a motorcycle and relentlessly
sound the horn until he gives way – very poor manners I’d say.
One more thing. There must be a problem with counterfeit
money over here because everyone has these machines where you insert a 100-Yuan
bill (about $8), it is scrutinized, and rejected if fake. We continually see
merchants feeding stacks of 100-Yuan bills into this machine, both to count and
detect fakes, although they do it even for a single bill. In America, I have never seen machines
for detecting fake money outside a bank – maybe I should look to import as a
new business venture.
The next segment of our adventure will lead us down into the
ancient villages around Huang Shan and Wuyuan, where we anticipate an authentic
Chinese experience. I’m not fond of Disneyland
and I did not like Putuoshan. In the grand scheme of things, it gave me
material for an article, but really, Putuoshan, I could live with or without
you. I actually looked forward to returning to Ningbo, it was that disappointing.