My day started early. Too early. I woke up at 5 am after about 4 hours of sleep. I sleepily gathered my things together and prepared for the journey ahead. I left for the train station around 6am, stepping out into a ghostly quiet Beijing.
The train journey to Chengde was straightforward. I spent most of the four hour journey playing Mariokart on my DS when the lighting was right or trying to catch up on sleep I missed the night before. At some point I bought some orange juice. Since this required me to actually speak, my rudimentary Chinese aroused the curiosity of some nearby passengers. They asked me questions, some of which I understood. I never found out for sure, but I think they were from the south. I definitely heard some southern-isms when they were talking. Anyhow, this made it that much more difficult for me to understand them, so there wasn't a whole lot communicated in either direction. The train arrived in Chengde around 11am and I went outside to wait for (I thought) Very's boss, who was supposed to be picking me up. I called Very to ask her where I should wait, but I was already in the right place. About five minutes later, CGH (Very's boss) and Very walked up and we struck off for the second leg of the journey.
The second leg required us to find a "taxi" to take us to the nearby town of Pingquan (our final destination). This required a lot of searching by CGH since there were many taxis around that were taking people to Pingquan but few advertising a reasonable price. He eventually bargained a reasonable price for the three of us and we set off for Pingquan. The drive was uneventful. The terrain of this part of China (northeast Hebei province) is mountainous and reminded me of my travels in southwest Colorado (farms and mountains everywhere). One hundred kilometers later, we were in Pingquan.
Pingquan is your typical small rural community of 4.5 million people. There's an urban-esque core surrounded by farms. The people seemed quite a bit nicer than Beijingers. I got quite a few more double-takes but it was obvious that these people were genuinely curious about the foreigner in their midst and not just looking to screw me out of my "riches" like many city dwellers.
We arrived in Pingquan around one in the afternoon and were all a bit hungry. After dropping my stuff off at the teaching center where I would be staying, we headed over to CGH's parent's house for lunch and ate some wonderful home-cooked Chinese food. The rest of the day was spent around the center, I met a few of Very's students. That night CGH took me and Very to buy some fireworks for the festivities. The guy running the store seemed really excited by my presence. He kept taking various pieces out into the street and lighting them to show me what they looked like. I eventually bought a whole mess of one-shot mortars and multi-shot mortar bricks. That night me, Very and CGH went to a little restaurant down the street for dinner. This was to be the only time I would eat at a restaurant in Pingquan. The food wasn't bad but it also wasn't spectacular.
Saturday, Jan. 28th
On Saturday morning, CGH wanted to go back to the fireworks store to buy his own stock of explosives. After that shopping trip, we (me, Very, CGH) and some students and CGH's friend all went to the river that runs through the town to blow some shit up. Our arsenal for the river was all one-shot mortars. Imagine a firecracker about as big as half a stick of dynamite. You light the 3cm fuse and run like hell. A powerful explosion on the lower end of the stick sends the remainder flying in the air. The remainder explodes with a loud bang, possibly throwing colored sparks in all directions. Both explosions are loud enough to set off car alarms for blocks around. This firecracker is apparently very popular in China. In fact, this is what I had been hearing from my apartment for the previous 4 weeks. As a small example of how much punch these suckers pack, we were shooting them off on a partially frozen river. While experimenting with various launch angles, one landed in the water underneath a small ice shelf. When it exploded, it broke off a fairly sizable chunk of ice (maybe half a square meter). Yeah... this is the kind of thing that will blow your hand off. I love China. After exhausting our supply of mortars, CGH and his friend took off to take care of some business. Very and I stuck around and played with the kids on the river for another 45 minutes or so. After that we headed back to the teaching center.
Around two o'clock in the afternoon, we went to CGH's parent's house again for a traditional New Year's eve lunch with CGH's family. Those present were his mom and dad, brother, brother's girlfriend, sister, brother-in-law, nephew, CGH, Very and myself. We sat and ate until we couldn't stand to eat anymore. It was all wonderful.
Later that afternoon, me, Very and CGH went over to Mel's house. Mel is the mother of one of Very/CGH's students and a good friend of both CGH and Very. We spent most of the afternoon at her house. At some point we filled about a hundred jiaozi (Chinese dumplings).
That night we set off fireworks. We'd already moved all our fireworks to CGH's parents house earlier in the day. At about 11:30pm, we biked from Mel's house to CGH's parent's house. People were really going crazy with the fireworks at this point. Everywhere you looked something was exploding. It's really hard to describe actually... Imagine about half a million people spread out over a large metropolitan area all setting off fireworks simultaneously. It was quite possibly the largest fireworks display I've ever seen and we biked through it. When we arrived at our destination we got busy setting up all the fireworks that we had bought. Various mortar bricks and single-fuse display boxes were set up in preparation for a midnight orgy of renao (literally "hot and noisy" but loosely meaning craziness). We set off fireworks for about 15 minutes or so. It was so crazy that bystanders were getting wounded by paper shrapnel (final tally: CGH's dad's ear, Mel's nose, and my hand). I set off a good number of single-shot mortars. The ones that I had bought were seriously powerful. I had to turn my back to them after lighting the fuse in order to avoid the blinding flash and shrapnel that accompanied their launch. After exhausting most of our fireworks and deafening ourselves, we went inside and ate jiaozi as is the tradition.
After eating jiaozi, we hopped on the bikes and headed back to Mel's house to cook up the jiaozi that we had made earlier. We then ate them. I honestly couldn't believe how much food I had consumed over the course of the day. We stayed up until about 2am before Very and I headed back to the teaching center to crash.
Sunday, Jan. 29th through Tuesday Jan. 31st
On Sunday morning fireworks started at about 6am... right outside the window of the room I was sleeping in. We're not talking strips of black cats or bottle rockets or any wussy crap like that. No. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Chinese people do not fuck around when it comes to fireworks. Most of the explosions caused car alarms to go off. A couple were loud enough to feel. Despite all this, I slept in until 9am or so. The day before had been really long, so it wasn't that difficult.
The next couple days were a blur of Chinese hospitality and lame TV specials. We ate countless lunches and dinners over at Mel's house. It was really great. So great that it restored my faith in Chinese people's capacity for, well, not sucking. Beijing really wears on you after a while.
Very and I just barely caught a train back to Beijing on Tuesday. CGH bought us a single hard seat ticket on the train and we bought another on the train. Possibly the most exciting part of that trip was getting on the train and hauling Very's giant suitcase across two train cars in search of our seat. I picked the wrong car the first time and we had to backtrack. Very was so embarrassed by the whole situation that she refused to speak Chinese for the first hour or so of the trip. She really wanted to play the "dumb foreigner" card to save herself some embarrassment (I think). Anyhow, the rest of the trip was fairly uneventful. When we got back to Beijing, people were still setting off fireworks everywhere.
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