Our trip to Tai Shan has turned out to be a story of extremes – of luxury and poverty, ease and difficulty, frustration and success. Above all, it was certainly that, a story, and one well worth telling.
It begins late at night in our room in Guangzhou, with me quickly booking a hotel in Tai Shan before we got on the bus the following morning. Trusting that Beth had carefully vetted our options as usual, I casually booked two nights at the hotel she had found and entered my credit card information. Immediately after confirming our reservation, I thought to ask, “Hey Beth, how much did this place cost?”
It turns out she had not so much picked this hotel as the one we should definitely stay at, as she had bookmarked it as the only hotel in Tai Shan with reviews on Google. Through poor communication, we would be accidentally spending the next two nights in Tai Shan’s only five-star hotel, which was modeled after the Palace of Versailles.
But before we could see our fabulous hotel, we had to get there. Upon arrival at the Tai Shan bus station, we were immediately approached by a man who bombarded us with “Hello, hello, where you go? I take you. Hello! Where you go?” Unfazed by this common Chinese custom of relentlessly accosting foreigners, we pushed past him and got to the front of the station, which was populated by a dozen students in their middle school uniforms and various rural folk lounging on motorbikes.
Every single person dropped what they were doing in order to fully commit to gawking at us. I went to buy bus tickets back to Guangzhou at the ticket counter, which devolved into a shouted conversation in half Mandarin, half English. When I had finally gotten hold of our return tickets, I turned around to find that every single kid at the bus station had moved within a 10-foot radius to watch us, mouths agape.
We skirted around our fan base and stepped out towards the road, expecting to easily hail a cab. After 5 minutes, we discovered that cabs in Tai Shan were about as rare as foreigners. What was more common, it seemed, were dudes with unlicensed cabs who knew the words “Hello,” and “where you going?”
In Beijing, my teachers warned against getting in a car with these guys – they were dangerous drivers, unlicensed and therefore unaccountable, and fully capable of charging whatever they want, or even flat-out robbing you.
After fruitlessly telling this guy, pictured to my right, to go away for another 5 minutes, and not seeing a single cab, Beth and I decided, quite fatefully, to let him take us to our absurdly fancy hotel. Which he did, quite safely, for a completely reasonable price. He gave me his card, and said that if we needed any more driving to give him a call.
After settling into our swank room, we decided to head back out into town to get dinner. As the hotel was nearly a mile from the center of the city, we asked the concierge to direct us to a good restaurant and call us a cab. After waiting on the cab for half an hour, we ended up taking the hotel van to our destination, which turned out to be a fancy sushi/steak restaurant in the middle of Tai Shan.
It was in this restaurant that we had our first encounter with Taishanese, the local Cantonese dialect. I had an even more difficult time than usual ordering food, and eventually muddled my way through by pointing to pictures on the menu.
Our view from this fancy sushi restaurant was reminiscent of our time in Tai Shan – islands of luxury surrounded by the dilapidation of everyday rural Chinese life. We felt frustrated and helpless by our inability to get around or even choose our own meals, and left the restaurant at a low point.
We hit the street searching for a cab, devising backup plans for our inevitable failure. Yet upon rounding the corner, we stumbled upon familiar China - street vendors, hustle and bustle, traffic patterns that knew no lines.
We found a corner store and picked up some beers, instant noodles, and candy, and easily hailed a cab, kicking ourselves for eating our fill of sushi and having no appetite for fried tofu or meat-on-a-stick.
Despite this small shopping victory, we felt discouraged by the day’s events, doubtful that we would find any trace of my grandfather’s village. The concierge had never even heard of Chang An village, and it didn’t show up on Googlemaps or the Chinese equivalent, Baidu Ditu. The seemingly insurmountable language barrier and the great difficulty we had navigating the town only added to our uncertainty.
We decided that the next day we would give our unlicensed driver from the bus station a call and see if he would drive us to the nearest location I knew of, the nearby town of 四九镇, Sijiu township. I wrote out the address of Grampy’s birthplace, 长安村, Chang An village, and his grandfather’s name, 黄傅棟, Huang Chuanpong, and we prepared ourselves for disappointment.