Let me start by apologizing. Trying to put my experiences from my trip to China into words is an injustice to both the reader and the experience. That said, I will do my best to share some observations I made while I was there with anyone interested in reading them.
1) China is REALLY far away- For someone with extreme ADHD, spending 20+ hours on planes is serious torture. You can only watch so many movies before the desire to punch a screaming baby borders on overwhelming. That said, There are worse things on a flight than hanging out with my Kung Fu teacher (a bad ass, but incredibly humble man), and watching “Flying Swords of Dragon Gate”, Monkey King cartoons, and Adventure Time (initially in English, then in Chinese when I got bored).
2) Wudang is in the middle of nowhere- After arriving in Wuhan (a city reminiscent of a contemporary version of “Bladerunner”, where the air smelled like burning plastic), we took a five hour chartered bus ride through open plains, past farms and remote factories. I saw lots of simple folk farming, fishing, herding, etc, as I watched through those bus windows, and it was actually quite soothing after the eternity it felt like I’d endured in the air.
3) Swords are big business- when we arrived in Laoying (a small city at the base of the mountain, also referred to as “Wudang City”) I was blown away by how many martial arts supply stores there were. Seriously. Imagine 10+ city size blocks, as busy as Times Square on a holiday weekend, and easily 85% of the retail stores were sword shops. As a Kung Fu nerd and sword practitioner, I was genuinely overwhelmed. While I knew that swords were an integral part of Wudang martial culture, I was surprised (and excited) to be in a city where Chinese martial arts were the primary draw and source of revenue.
4) Motorcycles everywhere!- The second thing I quickly noticed was that the streets were packed with speeding motorcycles, scooters, and mopeds. No one was wearing a helmet, everyone was speeding, and it was not uncommon to see three (or even four) on a single bike. Traffic laws felt like more of a suggestion than actual rules, and people were buzzing around, driving onto sidewalks and into oncoming traffic to avoid getting caught up behind a truck or group of cars. I was also surprised to see that many female motorcycle passengers rode side saddle, often while chatting away on their cell phones while the person driving the bike wove through traffic with the efficiency of a high speed lab rat navigating a familiar maze. That said, I didn’t see a single accident the entire time I was there, though the law of averages as well as natural selection leads me to believe they just weren’t happening while I was watching.
5) A complete absence of Justin Beiber and Taylor Swift – Once we’d landed in China, American pop culture was non-existent. Sure, iconic celebs like Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts adorned ads on the occasional billboard, but American music was nowhere to be heard or found (contrary to what you might imagine, or been led to believe), and American films on television were only available through premium cable channels. This was not a bad thing. The flip side of this, however, is that Chinese pop star endorsements are EVERYWHERE. Jay Chou (Chinese pop star/actor) has his face on everything from potato chips and beverages to soap. And I saw a few billboards with Donnie Yen hawking wares as well. On a humorous note, while the people of Wudang and Laoying had never heard their music, they had heard of Wu Tang Clan (whose name was inspired by the Kung Fu fighters of Wudang Mountain), though some thought they were a rock band.
6) Don’t drink the water- Seriously, don’t! The water in most of China is so unhealthy that even the locals only drink bottled water or water that’s been boiled. In some cases, even a shot glass’ worth could give you diarrhea or leave you sick in bed for days with a stomach infection. Because of this, every hotel room has an electric tea kettle/pot to boil water in. This takes a little getting used to, but I adapted quickly, boiling water before I went to bed, so it’d be cooled off in the morning.
7) No pizza, no burgers- With the exception of a seemingly random lone KFC in Wuhan, warm/slightly chilled Coca Cola, Oreos (with crazy flavors),and Snickers bars, American food was nowhere to be found. This, too, was not a bad thing. A dip down any shady side street would lead one to a variety of delicious food stalls and carts, selling REAL Chinese food, baked goods, and assorted treats. A lot of it looked exotic/scary to the uninitiated, but the vast majority was seriously delicious!
I’ll stop here for now, and pick up on the action in the next installment.