By Jonathan Peyster
I opened the door of my hotel room yesterday to find a uniformed police officer holding a picnic basket. It was 8:30AM and I was expecting my complimentary room service breakfast to be delivered but what was a cop doing there? Actually, a better question is what was I doing there, in Hebei Province’s capital of Shijiazhuang, in the first place. After all, this has to be one of the least likely places in China to choose for a fun excursion during the National Week holiday. Shijiazhuang’s reputation can perhaps best be summed up by the words “dirty” and “industrial”.
This story really starts back in 2006 when I came to China for the first time as an exchange student at Beijing Normal University. I can’t quite recall who it was but I met someone from Shijiazhuang there and, never having heard of the place, I looked it up on Wikipedia and was shocked to learn that it had a population of over 10 million people. How could I, a proud China nerd, never have heard of such a massive city? What did my ignorance say about China and, perhaps more importantly, what did it say about the rest of the world’s understanding of this rising world power? Ever since then, I’ve always wanted to check out Shijiazhuang.
My interest isn’t just about checking off another Chinese city I’ve been to, though. Instead, I’ve become increasingly curious to explore cities like Shijiazhuang and reflect on the roles that they play in China. To some extent, larger cities like Shanghai and Beijing are now more akin to what you see in the developed world than what you see in the developing world. In PPP terms, their GDP per capita is approaching $30k which may not be anything close to New York or London but it still puts them in a class with places like Madrid and Montreal. There is undoubtedly still room for growth in these metropolises, but my sense is that it is going to be the lesser known cities like Shijiazhuang that will have the most to say about China’s rise to global prominence. After all, Beijing and Shanghai may be huge but they are only home to about 3% of China’s population and 7% of its economic productivity. Cities like this Shijiazhuang still have immense room to develop and typically have huge numbers of people migrating from surrounding rural areas to fuel this growth.
There haven’t been any life-changing experiences on this trip but that was never the point. In many ways, I’ve actually felt kind of liberated by the fact that Shijiazhuang has no must-see attractions, as this has allowed me to spend my time the way I enjoy it best. I like to get a feel for a place and there is no better way to do this, in my view, than to just explore on my own and see what happens. This way, I get to enjoy the little things whether it be seeing a man dressed in an Iron Man costume selling socks on the street, slurping down a bowl of Xi’an-style cold noodles with cucumber and sesame sauce served curb-side, or stumbling upon a man selling cellphone accessories from a cart blasting music from a sound system so massive that it would have been a great fit for a 1970s-era block party in The Bronx. Kool DJ Herc would have envied this man.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that I’ve enjoyed how cheap this trip has been. A roundtrip high speed rail ticket (including first class on my return leg) plus two nights in a very comfortable and well-located hotel are costing me about $75. That is quite hard to complain about, particularly given how prices in China have risen over the past decade and the fact that I got an Egg McMuffin, a hot cup of Tang, and a half of a banana delivered by a cop each morning!
And Now This…
I’m writing this from Starbucks as I’ve had to check out of my hotel and have several hours to kill before heading to the train station. The thick smog today makes being outside nearly intolerable so I plan on spending at least a couple hours here. While working on this blog, a woman who appeared to be in her mid-30s sat down next to me and proceeded to curiously lean over my shoulder and stare at what I was writing. She quickly began questioning me about what I was doing and I reluctantly engaged her in conversation. She kept redirecting the conversation to what I was writing about so I couldn’t get much info on her other than that she is from Beijing, likes the coffee at KFC better than at Starbucks, and once travelled to Sanya on Hainan Island.
While speaking to me, the woman began spitting all over the carpeted floor which, understandably, drew the attention of the Starbuck’s staff. One of the baristas soon came over to us, told her to stop, and then asked me if the lady was bothering me. As anyone that knows me is well aware, I’m tolerant to a fault so I said that she wasn’t. This turned out to be a mistake, because her behavior soon became even stranger and more aggressive. She began practically putting her chin on my shoulder to stare at my computer screen and also started fidgeting with stuff I had left on the table (sunglasses, phone etc.) as well as rummaging around her own purse for things, including a tiny mirror that she randomly shoved 6 inches from face. I had had enough at this point, made it clear that I wanted her to leave me alone, and moved away to another part of the cafe. The baristas were clearly monitoring the situation and swooped in to aggressively scold the woman about bothering me and told her that she had to leave immediately and never come back, or else they would call the cops. The woman cursed one of the baristas, called him a fascist, and stomped out the door. I’m still quite confused about what happened but it was clear that she was at least a little bit mentally deranged (or high?) and she may have also been a prostitute based on some of her behavior and some words I caught of the scolding she got from the head barista as he was guiding her out the door. What a thoroughly strange experience. I’ve had plenty of crazy and memorable interactions with people before and I don’t think it is a coincidence that many of them have happened when I’ve been on my own. Traveling alone in China can certainly be a bit sketchy at times but there is little risk of it being dull!