At the front desk, I ask for ‘Devian.’ The staff looks at me quizzically. I repeat the name. Then someone asks if I mean Vivienne. Yes, that makes sense. I must have heard the name wrong.
“Yes, Vivienne,” I reply. A woman comes out a door from a room behind the desk.
“I am Vivienne. How may I help you?”
“My name is Tyson. Allen told me you would assist me.”
“Yes, he just called. We will take care of you.” As with everyone else at the hotel, Vivienne is extremely gracious and helpful as if I am the most important person in the world. She takes me to a desk that is not the front desk but by the front door - the desk where packages are dropped, I suppose – and she pulls out a train schedule. She shows me that one is leaving at 4 pm. I tell her I would like to take that one and I want to be booked in first class. She tells me I should by my ticket in advance just to be safe. I tell her there should be no problem getting a first class ticket when I get there but she is very persuasive. A porter appears out of nowhere. Vivienne tells me he will take a taxi to the station to get my ticket. The porter tells me: the taxi roundtrip will be 12 RMB, and a first class ticket should be 72 RMB. I tell them that is fine. Vivienne then says in the politest possible way that I should give him the money so he can take care of it sooner than later.
“Oh, yes, of course,” I say. I hand him a 100 RMB note. The Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” plays in my head. He goes to hail a cab. Vivienne tells me I should be back at the hotel by 3:00 and a car will take me to the train station. She takes my guitar and bag and put it behind the desk where we are standing. She tells me it will be safe. I tell her thank you and head off to explore Yuyao a suburb of Ningbo in the wonderful upside down world of the People’s Republic of China.
As I walk out into the light rain, I wonder if the Chinese people have a song culturally equivalent to ‘Penny Lane.’ Why does China make me think of the Beatles I ask myself as I walk?
I did not think to ask Vivienne which way I should walk to explore downtown Yuyao. I walk along the canal and then dart down the first street that dead ends into the canal. I follow it up to a busy street. China is full of all sorts of shops that would compare to the Dollar General in the USA. The street I walk down is full of these shops, peppered with a few women’s clothing stores with names like ‘Easy Fashion,’ and ‘Fashion for You.’ I then think of the Alice Cooper Group’s first tow records ‘Easy Action’ and ‘Pretties for You.’
The street I am walking dead ends into a main street. The main street to which it leads does not look appealing. I see office buildings and a few restaurants. I turn around and go back and walk along the canal back to the direction of the hotel.
Past the hotel, I walk toward the Pizza Hut, KFC, and McDonalds. There will surely be signs of life this way. The rain has stopped.
The time is 1:15. I am starting to get hungry. This city is known for the seafood. The McDonands is beside a four story mall. I go in to the mall. Here I must explain what I have discovered about Chinese malls or what look to be Chinese malls. On the first floor is usually the cosmetics area with Maybeline, Clinique, Avon, Loreal all vying for attention. Beyond the cosmetics are always escalators that promise mall stores on the upper floors. However, as in this instance, this is usually not the case. On the second floor is menswear; on the third floor is women’s wear, on the top floor is miscellaneous – bedding, towels, baby clothes, various household items. These department stores are like an over the top Sears, not quite cutting edge, actually not even close. They tend to depress me. I leave quickly.
I am disappointed. I knew there would not be, but I had hoped for the seafood restaurant to end all seafood restaurants. Disappointed, I make my way back down to the street. I am tempted to go to McDonalds but I do not.
I walk past McDonalds and come upon an intersecting street that looks promising with small stores lining both sides. I turn right. Immediately, I stop at a stereo/CD/DVD/ karaoke supply store (many of the stereo stores sell karaoke supplies). I browse the CDs and DVDs but I see nothing tempting.
I move on down the street. I pass food stalls but I am wary of them. I can see the headlines ‘Caucasian Performer Auditioning at Five Star Hotel Slowly Succumbs to Death at Yuyao’s Notorious Ptomaine Fish Stand.’
I keep walking. I hit more CD/DVD stores but I find nothing interesting. I head back to the main drag.
Near the drag, I wander into a Knick Knack store. Near the entrance, I spot a cart with sale items. Among the sale items, I find a set of coasters which I like, light and dark blue polka dots on clear square glass. The set is 8 RMB ($1). Never, ever, did I ever think, I would ever buy coasters. I have just bought a set of coasters. I have fretted some about my new red lacquer coffee table. I buy the coasters and continue my food search.
I see nothing tempting. I do not go into restaurants because if they do not have a picture of the food on the menu, I do not know what to order. I need to have someone write a list of what I like in Chinese characters to show restaurants. This would make eating out easier. I wander around until after 2 pm. I finally decide to suck it up and go to KFC.
I would like a burger and KFC has a burger on their menu. I go to the counter. The cashier looks nervous. I point to the sign behind her where there is a burger. She disappears. She is looking for something under the counter. She finds what she is looking for, the paper placemat which shows the food choices that KFC offers. You can not get a chicken breast at KFC in China because no one likes the breast. I would love to have a chicken breast but that is not to be in this country of dark meat.. I point to a burger and mashed potatoes on the place matt menu and I say ‘Cola’ which is pronounced more like ‘Coola’ in Chinese.
The cashier starts to put my food on the tray. She puts an order of fries on the tray. I shake my head no and point again to the mashed potatoes with gravy. She takes the fries away and puts a small container - that is in something that resembles a Styrofoam shooter - on my tray which I assume houses my mashed potatoes and gravy. She rings me up. I pay her and find a seat. Everyone is staring because of course I am the only Caucasian in the place.
When I pull it out of the package, the meat in between the buns looks charbroiled which is a very good sign. This is very exciting. I am very interested by this oblong burger that I am about to eat. Yes, I prefer for my burgers to be disc shaped but I am in China so I will not complain. I take a bite. This does not taste like a burger; or rather this does not taste like a Western burger. This may be the embodiment of a Chinese burger but I am thrown off by the flakiness of it. The meat is white. This is not beef. Maybe this is heifer of the sea. This is not what I was expecting. This hamburger is made of codfish. However, it actually is not too bad. I will never order it again as long as I live, but it is not too bad.
The time is edging toward me to be back at the hotel. I walk back, looking for a place to buy tea and snacks for the three and a half hour train trip. I dart down another side street and come upon fruit and vegetable stands. Waxberries are in season. This weekend - I was told by Allen - is the beginning of the waxberry festival. People come from all over the region to pick waxberries and take them home. The hotel was full because of all of the waxberry fanatics. People are serious about their waxberries here. I mull over getting some fruit but I decide I do not want to deal with bartering so I keep walking.
I make it back to the hotel. Along the way, I looked for a market to buy tea and snacks for my trip but I did not see anything. When I get back to the hotel, I ask Vivienne if there is a place close. She sends the porter with me. But before we do this, I am given my change from the 100 RMB for the ticket and the taxi to get the ticket. I am given 50 kuai back. The train ticket was only 42 RMB.
The time is 3:05. The porter says we must hurry. He tells me there is a place at the end of the street. We walk quickly. We walk into the other sort of mall that is common in China which is basically a multi-level flea market. In these malls, you can buy everything from garden tools, to rugs, to DVDs, to socks, to snacks for the train. At the back of the first floor is a small dusty grocery store. These stores always have a post-apocalyptic air to them. They are perpetually dusty and have boxes strewn everywhere. The cashier usually sits at a card table with a cigar box for a cash register. Yes, these shops are always low rent.
My escort asks me if this is what I was looking for. I tell him yes thank you it is. I look for the Suntory tea that I have fallen in love with. I do not see it. I see some sort of bottled Lipton tea with a lemon and a mountain of ice on the label. This seems like a safe bet. I grab it. I then peruse the cookie aisle. I pick up some lemon cookies, the kind that I had on the Yangtze River cruise, the kind that are actually club crackers with lemon filling. I then see a pack of Chips Ahoy. I put the lemon cookies down and grab the Chips Ahoy. Then, I see the king of the cookie, the universal dominator of all cookies, which of course is the OREO! I pick them up. In my hands, I have my tea and a pack of Oreos. I am set. We walk back to the hotel.
Back at the hotel, my escort puts my snacks with my bags and looks for a place for me to wait until the car arrives to take me to the station. The lounge areas are all occupied. He guides me to the travel agency waiting room. He tells me he will tell me when the car is here. I thank him. My bags are still at the front desk which means I am just sitting staring into space thinking about ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ for no apparent reason.
One of the women that work the front desk at the travel agency brings me a newspaper - the China Daily. I peruse it. There is absolutely nothing interesting in it. Time crawls in a waiting room of a travel agency within the confines of a five star hotel in Yuyao a suburb of Yinbo in the People’s Republic of China.