Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Ningxia Travels I: Capitalism Run Amok, Pyramids in China

It is time again for the National Day Holiday in China, a time for the Chinese to reflect upon the founding of their socialist republic and the myriad way it has improved their lives. And what would make the dear Chairman prouder on the anniversary of his establishment of Communist China than sales, sales, sales!

I particularly like the man in the gorilla costume, let's see a close-up of that:

I've been in the city of Yinchuan for the start of the holiday and more than the pleasant museum and tranquil pagodas I can't help but notice the capitalist orgy taking place on the streets. Need a Nokia phone? A wedding dress? In the mood for audience participation, games, prizes, karaoke, or just silly dancing? The streets of a Chinese shopping district during a holiday are the place to be. Despite the sarcasm I do actually enjoy the oral assault and chaos you sometimes get in China, especially when I know I have a small, relatively sleepy city to return to. There is something to be said for the sight of adults old enough to have been through the Cultural Revolution giggling and fighting over the chance to thrown plastic rings at cell phones for a prize. Even during normal times Chinese stores know how to open or remodel in a grand way--giant inflatable archways, confetti, firecrackers, and for the really ambitious, cannons. Inevitably there is a also a mammoth stereo system playing upbeat pop or a stage with live karaoke singing.

As much fun as I'm having otherwise (is that a pizza buffet??) one of the main reasons to come to one of China's smallest and most obscure provinces is for a bit of history, in the form of thousand-year old pyramid-like tombs left by the Xixia kingdom. These are the centerpiece of the few remains of this fearsome and somewhat mysterious kingdom which at times rivaled the Chinese dynasties of the day, but was destined to be destroyed by Genghis Khan and the Mongols. In their heyday they controlled a sizeable piece of northwest China, including Zhangye.

In the end the real reason I came to Ningxia province is because no one else wants to. Traveling to and from a popular destination during a Chinese national holiday is between very difficult and a nightmare and only those with extensive experience in China can appreciate the feeling I had when I bought an overnight sleeper ticket for the train in less than four minutes. I also appreciate being simply a novelty rather than a target for harassment by vendors.

It rained heavily at the park today, and a group of us found shelter and entertainment listening to an elderly musician in a pavilion, which I probably enjoyed more than any of the ticketed attractions around town. Many curious locals have come up to talk to me and find out why I'm here; on hearing I was American one woman remarked "but aren't Americans black? Your skin is so white!" For the thousandth time a woman encouraged her shy child to "say hello to the American uncle!" and a woman suggested the violinist "play a song for our foreign friend over there." If willing conversation partners are one of the keys to learning a language, China might well be one of the best countries in the world to do it.

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