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Pagoda Forest at Shaolin Temple

Pagoda Forest at Shaolin Temple henan china

The Pagoda Forest at Shaolin Temple was one of the highlights of my recent trip to China. One of the people I walked through the pagodas with said it felt like a similar atmosphere to Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

China’s new real estate

China’s real estate market is stranger than Japan’s real estate at the height of its bubble or the U.S. real estate market before the credit melt down. Prices are going up even faster in China than those other places did, yet unlike those other places, few are actually living in the new developments.

The above photo is of a recent complex next to Lvyin Park. It looks nice from the outside. I’m guessing it isn’t as well made as it looks from a distance though. At night, when lights normally go on in occupied apartment buildings, only a small number of the units appear to be occupied. Why? Few Chinese can afford the price.

From my observations, and from hearing what some Chinese people told me, here is one view of how the current Chinese real estate bubble is working. The government owns all the land, which they now view as an investment to make money from. They sell (or lease) the land to a developer at a profit equal to the sales (or lease) price (since the land cost the government nothing, the sale is 100% profit). Since prices are going up at a rapid pace, the developer makes a fortune as well by building a cheaply made building that looks nice. Buyers line up to purchase the units with the hope that prices will continue to increase. The buyers have no intention of ever actually living in the place. A couple years later, assuming prices rise, they dump the apartment to another buyer who won’t live there, and the cycle repeats.

The problem is there are about a million “rich” people in China and about 1.3 billion people who can’t play the real estate game. The million who can play the real estate game aren’t doing much to benefit the other 1.3 billion people, many living in poverty. The million own millions of properties that sit vacant while the vast majority live in cramped and unsanitary conditions. The government and rich grow richer. The masses working for them earn next to nothing.

cbd zhengzhou henan

China’s government has built a new Central Business District (known as the CBD) east of the city center in Zhengzhou. 12 lanes of traffic, 6 in each direction, will someday move cars around the area. The streets (above) were completely empty on the day I visited the place. On the same day I was stuck in several traffic jams just a few kilometers to the west. Those streets were packed with people, bikes, cars, and buses. Why were these empty? They are paved nicely and have fine sidewalks (unlike the other, crowded streets).

At first I thought it was because the buildings must not be finished. True, some were still under construction, but many were completed. I was told that only a few investors have purchased the buildings from the government. No businesses are moving in to the area. Nor are any people. The few investors hope to sell everything (if and) when the prices rise more. But if no one can afford to move in now, how are they going to be able to afford an even higher price later? Someone is going to lose a lot of money when the bubble bursts. It won’t be the Chinese government. It probably won’t be the initial speculators (i.e., those with money and close ties to the government) either.

The sad part isn’t that someone’s investment will drop in value. The disappointing aspect is that the government is making money at the expense of the people rather than doing something to help the people’s standard of living (like invest in the infrastructure where the people actually live).

To stimulate the economy in 2008 and 2009 the Chinese government provided incentives for people to purchase cars. Auto sales jumped, while the roads, which are loaded with potholes and are crowded already, got more congested and the air became filthier still.

Zhengzhou University of Light Industry

Zhengzhou University of Light Industry (郑州轻工业学院) is where I spent a good chunk of my time while in China. There isn’t much about the place on the internet. I was told the buildings are mostly from the 1960s. To be perfectly honest, the place can use some major renovations. The classrooms aren’t heated (or cooled in the summer). The vegetation on the campus that was supposed to be green looked rather gray, matching many of the buildings and the polluted sky. If you ever find yourself here, be sure to check out the copy center and a restroom or two. Just make sure you don’t have to actually use the copy center or a restroom.

The above photo is from a classroom on the third story of one of the buildings from which I was teaching. Notice that the campus is completely devoid of students while classes are in session. This is different from any university I have ever experienced. Students are in class, on time, and none leave early.

Compare that situation to when the bell rings (yes a bell rings to signal the end of class–another thing I’ve never experienced at a university), and all students are moving away from class to go off campus to eat. The campus shuts down for two and half hours for lunch. Very different.

Some of my Chinese students wanted me to see their dorm. All students are required to live in the dorms. Students complain about college dorm life all over the world, but a visit to a Chinese dormitory will make anyone living in any other dorm feel very fortunate.

The above photo is of the shared balconies. Sixteen students share a single, small balcony to try to dry their laundry in the cold, smoggy air.

Eight students share each room, although there is little room outside of the four bunk beds. There is one study table in the middle of the beds shared by all (or more likely used to put things on so students can sit on their bed which is where they normally have to store their things).

In the back corner is a small room with a hole in the floor for a toilet. A shower and sink are also in the back corner room, but I was told the showers aren’t used because the water isn’t heated; in fact, it isn’t even warmed. Plus, all the water (mostly for doing laundry in the little sink) has to be carried up several flights of stairs. Electricity is on a strict quota so if students use up their quota power is cut to their room.

Despite such unfavorable living conditions, these eight (only five are pictured with me) seemed to get along great, and they were usually smiling.

Henan Museum

One of my students was ordered, by a professor, to be my tour guide for a day. I thought this was rather strange as I was standing right there watching the command take place. I would have preferred he ask the class if anyone was willing and able to show me around instead, but that’s not the way he operated. The student was very kind and hopefully had a good time despite the lack of freedom he was granted.

We planned to visit the Yellow River, but the weather was not going to make that worthwhile (as it was raining), so instead we went to the Henan Museum (河南省博物院) in Zhengzhou. The museum is fairly new, and quite nice (compared to everything else I saw in China anyway). Admission was free, and the exhibits were loaded with amazing items. The human history in this area of the world is very ancient. The Yellow River is referred to as the “cradle of Asian civilization.” Many times Zhengzhou was the capital of China, including the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

The top item is made of ivory and is over 2,000 years old.

These bronze bells have not aged much in the past few thousand years.

What do you think the above item is?

Comfy, eh?

Items with early Chinese characters were some of my favorites.

Why does a museum sign say “No spitting” you ask? Thanks to the polluted air, and the Chinese male addiction to cigarettes, Chinese people make strange hacking sounds with great regularity. They also spit those contents regardless of where they are. I can’t even count the number of people I saw spitting on a single day the numbers were so great. The sidewalks, and many other locations, are covered in the stuff. Really gross, I know, especially since no one spits in Japan, and that is what I’m now used to.

The guy on the right in this picture is my aforementioned student (and his roommate is on the left and was also my student). His English was pretty good. Perhaps that is why he was ordered to take me around. We went out for ramen after the museum, and it was quite different from the Japanese version of Chinese ramen. The noodles were wide and flat. The ramen included tofu that was noodle like. I was told that the local ramen is very different from that found elsewhere in China. Maybe the ramen that is more like that found in Japan can be had in other parts of China. Although different, it was still good.

Chinese breakfast

My hotel had a morning, buffet breakfast. The “daily egg special” was the same thing every day—fried eggs. I’m not a big fried egg fan to begin with, and the way the hotel cooked them (super runny yolks and crispy/browned/blackened whites) pushed me towards other choices every morning. But authentic Chinese food, most of the time I didn’t even know what I was eating, three meals a day for two weeks can be a bit much. So I tried explaining to the cook that I would like a scrambled egg. The result was a fried egg. The next day a different cook was doing the fried eggs so I explained to her what I was hoping for. She assured me that scrambled eggs would be coming my way. What did I get? Another fried egg.

Finally, I used Google Translate to look up the Chinese characters for scrambled egg, wrote them down, and handed the paper over to the cook. Perfect scrambled eggs were the result. Yeah!

The Chinese people sitting at my table (and the tables around mine) looked at my scrambled eggs like I was crazy. It was a look I became all too familiar with, but the scrambled eggs were fantastic.

Notice the ash trays (four per table) in the above photo. The buffet went from 7 – 9 a.m. I soon learned that I needed to get there right at 7 and be done eating by 7:15 to avoid much of the smoking. By 8 the room was filled with smoke.

Chinese kids

As I was walking back to my hotel one day in China, this little guy came up to me and started talking. His little lectures always ended with what sounded like a question. Of course I couldn’t understand anything he was saying, and I told him so even though he wouldn’t be able to understand me either. He would make a little “humph?” sound like he misheard me and ask the question again. We went on like this for several rounds until he spotted my camera. I showed him some pictures. He looked amazed, like he’d never seen a camera before or pictures so I took the above photo of him to show him. He was awestruck when I showed him his picture. I don’t think he had ever seen a picture of himself before, maybe not even his own reflection from the look of his reaction.

A man on a scooter then pulled up with this little girl, and they began talking with the boy and his mom. I’m not sure if they were related, friends, or complete strangers, but the boy wanted me to show the girl his picture. So I did, and she smiled from ear to ear. I then took her picture, above, and the boy jumped into the picture at the last second. Another 5 minutes of showing them their pictures (they were both thrilled, as was the man on the scooter), and I finished my walk.

It wasn’t the first, or last, time that taking a Chinese person’s picture caused such excitement on this trip. Things may change over the next few decades, but right now the vast majority don’t own cameras, and many seem to be completely unfamiliar with them.

This little girl was hanging out in Lvyin Park.

And this one was riding one of the lucky turtle statues at Shaolin Temple.