As I mentioned in my last post, we recently had a few days off of school for a holiday. It seems just the right time of year to take a few days for “spring break;” however, this was no spring break. Our short holiday was in honor of the Qing Ming festival, otherwise known as “tomb sweeping.” Everyone gets a few days off of work to honor their deceased relatives and pay a visit to their grave sites, oftentimes sweeping and clearing away any weeds that have gotten in the way. Justin and I were really curious about this holiday, so the entire week leading up to it, we kept asking different Chinese friends, “Are you going to actually sweep a tomb during the holiday?” Many of them said that they would use the time to relax, go shopping, or catch up on their studies. Of course, many of the students here are too far from home to sweep their ancestors’ tombs. Zoe, our favorite office assistant, told me that she did plan on visiting her family, and that her family would make a trip to the graveyard together to sweep their ancestors’ tombs. However, she was very clear about one thing: “This holiday is only for Chinese, I think.” She repeated this to me so many times in the midst of our conversation, I began to wonder if she feared that I would go find a random tomb to sweep just to celebrate the holiday. Never fear–I did no tomb sweeping this past weekend! Instead, Justin and I took a trip to Hengdian Studios to do some sightseeing and catch up with our Chinese friend The Prince.
We left for the bus station bright and early on Sunday morning. However, when we got there and tried to buy our ticket to Dong Yang, the sales clerk informed us that the bus would not be leaving for another three hours. Spending three hours in a Chinese bus station? No, thank you! You’d have to visit a Chinese bus station to really understand, but it’s nothing like having a three-hour layover in a nice airport. There are so many sketchy guys in black jackets who come up to us and try to sell us a ride to wherever we’re headed for half the price of the bus fare (if you don’t mind riding on the back of their motor scooter or in their smelly van). If we stand still for too long in the lobby, it’s guaranteed that we’ll get solicited by someone. These guys will come up to us, giving us their sales pitch in Chinese, and literally grab us by the elbow when we try to walk away. There are also dozens of merchants trying to sell some of the strangest wares I’ve ever seen, like tortoiseshell combs and ram horns and unidentified tea leaves in Ziploc bags. While we stood in the lobby trying to figure out our next move, Justin made a phone call to the Prince to tell him we’d be a little late getting to Dong Yang. An unbathed-looking woman carrying a baby walked past us, and when she caught sight of us, she literally stopped in her tracks about three feet away and stared unblinking (and unsmiling) at me for the duration of Justin’s phone call. We had to get out of there! So where did we go?
The Good: Luckily, there was a giant furniture shopping mall right across the street, so Justin and I headed over there to look around and kill some time. It was a really nice place, filled with almost zero customers (except for Justin and myself), but many very bored, eager salespeople. Justin and I made our way through seven floors of seemingly endless furniture, Justin practicing his Chinese with the salespeople, and me mentally decorating my future house. Before we knew it, it was time to get back to the bus station, and the salespeople were reluctantly waving goodbye to the only customers they would see all day.
The Bad: When we got onto the bus, we found that it was packed to the gills with people that I’d rather not be rubbing elbows with–some who had seemingly never been introduced to a bar of soap (or a toothbrush!), some who were hacking up something from the deep recesses of their throats, or screaming into their cell phones, or pounding down one boiled egg after the next. It almost reminded me of the horrible train ride we took a couple of months ago, except this time, thankfully, we had assigned seats.
The Ugly: Not two minutes into our trip, the lady seated right behind me started vomiting copiously into a plastic grocery bag. Do you know what that sounds like? It sounds like the way I don’t want to start a four-hour bus ride…
Eventually….eventually, we made it to Yi Wu, where we had to take another hour-long bus ride to Dong Yang, with an hour-and-a-half long layover inside the bus station. This time we were forced to stay put, as we’d never been to Yi Wu and we didn’t want to wander too far away. We also noticed that several buses during that hour-and-a-half were leaving for Dong Yang, some with only three or four passengers inside the vehicle. Justin tried to go through the gate and get us on an earlier bus, but the bus driver stopped him, telling him in Chinese that it was impossible, and we would need to wait for the time printed on our ticket. Later on, however, The Prince confirmed that bus tickets from Yi Wu to Dong Yang are “rolling” tickets–because it’s such a short ride, passengers are permitted to get on whatever bus is available. The time printed on the ticket is not the set-in-stone travel time; it’s the deadline for boarding the bus. Then why did that man make us wait for an hour and a half?
We were disappointed that we wasted our entire first day of vacation traveling to a place that is only supposed to be four hours away from Huzhou. Between all the buses and layovers, we left our apartment at 8:15 AM and we arrived in Dong Yang at 6:45 PM. To think, I had been planning on eating lunch in Dong Yang! But we were happy to catch up with the Prince.
I had forgotten about how awkward the Prince can be. He tends to mumble and whisper a lot, and sometimes he takes so long to reply to a question, we would ask it a second (or third!) time in case he didn’t hear. I thought this may just be due to his English getting a little rusty–perhaps the pause before answering a question is him trying to translate everything in his head. However, even speaking his native language to other Chinese people during our trip, he seemed a little awkward and got some strange looks. Justin and I feel a little sorry for him because we know that he doesn’t really have any friends in his new town (Yi Wu) yet–any friends he has are back in Huzhou still in school. We could tell that he was feeling a little lonely. In fact, towards the end of our vacation, we were eating together and talking about what our favorite sights had been. When we asked the Prince about his favorite part of the vacation, we were surprised when he responded that his favorite part had been hanging out with us.
The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Dong Yang:
The Good: Hmmm…it’s hard to think of anything. There must be something good about this little town, but during our brief one-night stay and our frequent bus trips through there, we weren’t able to find anything.
The Bad: Prince booked a really scary hotel for us to stay in. Sure, the price was right (100 Yuan–which is $15 a room), but I got the feeling this was one of those book-by-the-hour hotels. For one thing, the hotel clerk inexplicably demanded that we check out of our rooms by 7 AM. “Why do we have to check out so early, Prince?” we asked. “Prince….?” And he never did answer our question. For another thing, we had this friendly warning sign on our nightstand, translated into two languages:
Also, at about 1:30 in the morning, two scantily-clad girls who may or may not have been prostitutes started pounding on our door and screaming in Chinese. They had to knock several times before I could shake myself out of my deep sleep and go answer the door. For some reason, I kept thinking things like, “There’s a fire! We’ve got to evacuate!” or “The police are here, and they want to see our passports or else we’re in big trouble!” So I was really confused when I opened the door to find two girls about my age dressed in tiny skirts, tall heels, and lots of makeup, looking like they were ready to hit a dance club. They looked really confused to see me too, and one of them said in English, “Oh, sorry.” And they both walked away. I locked the door and tried to get back to sleep, but it took awhile for my heart to stop pounding after being awakened like that!
The Ugly: A few hours later, I was rudely awakened again by Justin sitting bolt upright in the bed, shining his flashlight all around the room. “What are you doing?” I asked groggily, as he shined the flashlight past my head. “I’m looking for rats,” he eerily replied. “Don’t you hear them?” Well, I hadn’t heard them when I was sleeping, but now that I was awake, I listened. Sure enough, I could hear the scratching of little tiny claws, but I couldn’t tell exactly where it was coming from. “I’m not sure if they’re in our room or stuck inside the walls or what,” Justin said, not making me feel any easier. Regardless, he was unable to spot any with his flashlight, so he turned off the lights and I was left to try to fall asleep again in the enveloping darkness, with the sound of little feet pitter-pattering all around me. During those last few hours of sleep before we had to check out at seven, I had nightmares of rats crawling all over my body, clawing and biting at my face.
We were pretty eager to get out of Dong Yang in the morning and head over to Hengdian Studios. For anyone who has ever visited Universal Studios in Florida or the famous movie sets they have out in Hollywood, California, Hengdian Studios is the Chinese version of that. They have several elaborate movie sets made to look like streets in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and ancient cities from the Qing and Ming Dynasties. Justin and I have already visited the real Hong Kong and Guangzhou, so we opted for the ancient movie sets instead. Our tickets cost us a small fortune (350 Yuan for three movie sets–about $112 dollars for Justin and me together), but we soon found that the sets were so large and made to resemble miniature theme parks, that it was well worth the entry price.
Good: We had a lot of fun taking pictures and exploring the ancient movie sets (which I honestly could not tell apart from the real ancient places we have visited, like the Forbidden City. They could have fooled me!), but what I really enjoyed was going to a park called Dream Valley at night time. This park reminded me the most of theme parks at home, with a lot of rides and shows and souvenir shops. We saw a really spectacular show out on the water at nighttime involving glow-in-the-dark costumes on the dancers, black lights, lasers, fireworks, a fire-breathing dragon, and an erupting volcano! The Chinese don’t have near as many safety regulations holding them back from what they can and cannot do, so they really took their stunts and their pyrotechnics to the limit! We had a blast!
Bad: Everyone and their brother wanted to take our picture, or have their picture taken with us. It was cute at the beginning of the day, but it gradually began to wear on our patience. In the morning, we actually passed by a film shoot in progress! We saw people dressed in ancient Chinese clothing, people practicing for their upcoming sword-fighting scenes off to the side of the set, and camera men with bright lights everywhere. A little girl dressed in period garb who was an extra on the set actually came up to me and asked in English if we could take a picture together. I thought it was funny that she was the movie star, but she was treating me as if I was the star–she was so excited to have a picture with me! So I got a copy of the picture as well:
Later on in the day, though, it seemed like we couldn’t go 100 feet without someone snapping our photo (always during the least opportune moment, like when I was biting into some food or blowing my nose) or asking to have a picture taken with us. There were times when we were hurrying to see the next show in time, or hurrying to make the bus to the next movie set, and someone would come up, slow as anything, and want to take a picture. One time someone caught Justin when he was in such a rush, that I thought for sure he was going to refuse. However, he just let out an impatient sigh and said, “Okay, let’s go! Hurry!” Ahh, the life of fame. At times it’s a blessing, but it’s also often a curse.
The Ugly: Everyone was on their worst behavior as far as standing in line to see the shows. At most of the theme parks I’ve ever been to, it’s easy to just casually wander in a few minutes before a show starts or even while it is in progress. However, the Chinese at these parks started lining up for shows forty minutes before they started! And we quickly learned that if we didn’t do the same, we would not be able to see any shows.
We got in line to see a show that promised both time travel and sword fighting (score!), but we were told that the theater occupancy had already been maxed out (twenty minutes before the show), so we should come back later. We came back for the next show forty minutes in advance and got into the line. Many other people came along and lined up behind us, however, when the park staff came and unroped the entry way to the theater, everyone got out of their orderly line and started rioting at the gate. People who were passing by, not even intending to see the show, saw the crowd clamoring to get in, and they ran to join in, probably thinking, “I don’t know what this is, but it must be something good!” I was shoved and elbowed and pulled, but by now I’ve learned my lesson, and I shoved and elbowed and pulled right back, with the best of them! When we finally got through the gate, we turned around and tried to find the Prince. Somehow, the only native Chinese out of the three of us ended up way back at the end of the line, because he wasn’t pushy enough to shove his way through the crowd. When we made eye contact with him, he just shrugged his shoulders in apology.
We were tired out after a full day spent at Hengdian Studios, so on our third and final day of vacation, we decided to take a look around Prince’s new town, Yi Wu. We found out that Yi Wu is the counterfeit capitol of the world, and the manufacturing leader of all those cheap goods printed with “Made in China” and sent throughout the world. In fact, the Prince’s new job since his December college graduation is working at one of these factories. Every time we went to a souvenier shop in Hengdian Studios and I would admire a piece of jewelry or a Chinese collectible item, the Prince was taken aback at the price tag, saying, “We make the same thing in our factory for a fifth of that price!”
The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Yi Wu:
The Good: We found a Papa John’s in Yi Wu, and we were so excited that we ate lunch there even though it was only 10:45 in the morning. Prince seemed to really like it too, though his eyes got as wide as saucers when he looked at the prices. “Don’t worry,” Justin said. “Whatever you want for lunch is on me.” The Prince looked relieved, and confessed to us that with the amount of money they pay him at his new factory job, it would take him an entire month’s salary just to buy one pizza! When we went to take a quick look at his apartment, I believed him. That sketchy hotel we stayed in at Dong Yang was somehow nicer than his apartment (and much bigger!).
The Bad: Even though Yi Wu is the counterfeit capitol of the world, we had no luck finding any souvenirs to take home to family and friends. Justin was on the hunt for sports jerseys, and he found some that looked very realistic, but the owners of the stores were never interested in selling them separately–only in bulk. I was searching for fake purses and wallets–Coach, Gucci, Prada, etc., but I was only able to find some very unconvincing Coach bags made of plastic and stamped with a giant golden “W” on the front. We just didn’t have enough time before I bus departed for Huzhou, so we went home empty-handed.
The Ugly: Due to a planning error on our part, we did not go straight from Yi Wu to Huzhou. We were forced to take a two hour detour back to Dong Yang one last time, and depart for Huzhou from there. Dong Yang is like the nasty black hole that kept sucking us back in! Over the course of three days, we spent over thirteen hours on buses, and much of that was going in and out of Dong Yang.
Our verdict? We had a good time in Hengdian, but we won’t be returning there any time soon (sorry, Prince!). And we also really, really miss having a car.