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Greetings from the only foreigner for miles

TIANTAI, Zhejiang — On a Tongbai Mountain hiking trail on Wednesday, three Chinese teenagers were headed in my direction. One smiled with what appeared to be relief when he saw me. He held up a camera and walked toward me.

“Sure,” I thought. “I’ll help them out. I’ll take a picture of the three of them together.”

I took the camera from his hand and motioned for the three of them to stand side by side. But the boy took the camera back, handed it to his friend, and stood next to me with his hand rested on my shoulder. This photo was going to be of us. I should have known.

We both smiled. The camera clicked. And he had his prize: A photo of a foreigner. He can go back home and show his friends:

“You’re never going to guess what I saw near Shiliang Flying Falls the other day.”

“A bobcat? A bear? Thousand-armed Guanyin herself!?!”

“Even better. A foreigner. A white man. With eyes as blue as the sky itself.”

“Oooooh. Did he give you money? A credit card?”

The boy actually got a bargain. On Tuesday, at Guoqing Temple, a huge monastery at the bottom of Tiantai Shan (Heavenly Terrace Mountain), a giggly girl paid RMB 15 — almost $2 — for a Polaroid of her and me with a pagoda in the background. She didn’t pay me, unfortunately. The woman with the Polaroid stand got the money. But it got me thinking of possible money-making ventures I could look into if I happen to run out of cash on this adventure.

“Step right up! It’s the foreigner freak show!”

And that’s what I am here in Tiantai, a city of 540,000 tucked in the mountains three hours southeast of Hangzhou — just five hours from Shanghai. A sideshow oddity. Something to be gawked at and talked about.

“Laowai!” — foreigner — people scream when they see me. Word of my arrival reverberates down the road, a chain reaction of craning necks, pointing fingers and wide, bewildered eyes. There’s no subtlety to this, either. Stares are long and hard. People examine me as if they were examining a piece of modern art, still not sure whether it is insulting, genius or a piece of shit. All of my interactions draw a crowd.

Perhaps tonight on the Tiantai evening newscast, there will be grainy, Sasquatch-style, amateur video images of a what appears to be a white man — pockets full of gadgets — lumbering through the forest. Later, someone will discover footprints in the dirt that read “Merrell.” More proof.

But the locals will undoubtedly pass it off as a hoax. What would a white man be doing in Tiantai?

That mindset is unfortunate, because there are plenty of things to do or see in Tiantai for men or women of any color. After our RMB 49 ($6) bus ride from Hangzhou on Tuesday, we hopped on the back of two motorcycles for a RMB 10 ride to Guoqing Temple. By doing so, we skipped out on the RMB 10 admission fee to the base of the mountain — our drivers sped through the gate so fast no one seemed to notice (or care?). It’s another RMB 5 to enter the temple.

Guoqing Temple is home to the Tiantai Buddhist Sect, which is heavily influenced by Taoism. The large campus is a working monastery, and it’s fun to wander and get lost in all of its nooks and crannies. First, we saw monks chanting. Later, we saw monks using computers, talking on mobile phones and watching television.

There were very few tourists at Guoqing Temple on Tuesday, and very few people telling us where we could and couldn’t go. Around one corner, we ended up inside the temple’s kitchen and watched as the cooks prepared the monks’ meal for the evening. They used the biggest wok I have ever seen.

Living in a big, often drab, city like Shanghai, it is easy to forget how bright and brilliant the world can be. Guoqing Temple reminds you. Radiant reds, oranges, and greens partnered peacefully with the clear blue sky. All were weathered in just the right way — imperfectly perfect.

Near the temple, toiling in the almost fluorescent green rice paddies beyond the towering Sui Pagoda, men wore on their heads tiny pagodas of their own to shade themselves from the sun. Farmers walked oxen down the road where souvenir sales people hawked their wares to tourists who weren’t there.

We took a public bus back to the city. The bus was not so much a bus, but a miniature replica of one. I had to stand with my head sticking out the emergency exit door on the roof. “It is there for you,” Arthur said with a smile. We found a hotel near the bus station that would take the both of us for RMB 30 ($3.75). Arthur signed in with his Chinese ID card. The hotel owner then asked for my passport. I handed it to him and he handed it right back — he had no idea how to sign in a foreigner.

Parts of Tiantai make it look as though the city was constructed yesterday. Streets are wide, with neatly trimmed bushes and pots of flowers. Buildings are modern — or post-modern, I can’t decide — and present a curious contrast to the streets’ omnipresent pedicabs, step No. 2 on the rickshaw evolution chart. Storefronts and signs are bright and colorful. Rolling hills of green surround the city.

Someone told Arthur that the city’s main industries were the production of tires, wooden bracelets and Buddha statues. Not sure how reliable that source was.

Yesterday, after much bargaining, we talked two motorcycle drivers into taking us to Shiliang Feipu (Shiliang Flying Falls) for RMB 60 ($7.50) per round-trip ride. And going with the motorcycles meant we didn’t have to pay the RMB 60 entry fee to the falls. It was a wash.

The ride itself was worth the cost. It lasts about an hour and takes you along a winding road up the Tongbai mountainside. We traveled past evergreen forests and bamboo forests, villages of stone cottages with gray tile roofs. The valley was carved into level after level of rice paddies, giant green staircases leading up to bald peaks of brown rock.

We parked our bikes along the road and the drivers led us on the series of “paths” through forest and farmland — this was how we avoided the entry fee. At times it seemed our drivers got lost, but we eventually found our way. The path spit us out behind the targets for an archery range. The archery range was right next to a miniature hot air balloon, which offered tourists a bird’s-eye view of the falls for RMB 40 ($5) … and ruined what could have been a rather peaceful setting.

There is a small and sparse temple at the top of the falls, which are about 60 feet tall … and not worth a RMB 60 entrance fee. But there are several stone trails that head down the stream’s path. It’s not a bad place to get lost for a couple hours.

Our drivers stayed with us the entire time, hiking down paths and up hills I’m sure they have hiked hundreds of times before. We had their money and they didn’t want us out of their sights, although I’m not sure where they thought we would run off to. We still had to make it back down the mountain.

My driver was a short, squat man with a dark tan, save for the white lines on his face where his helmet strap usually goes. The tan line formed a Y around his ears and a U under his chin. He spoke in a gravely, raspy voice that constantly sounded as if his throat needed to be cleared.

I wonder what he thought about the foreigner on the back of his motorcycle, the white guy whose legs were straddling him, the laowai who people were pointing at on our way back down the mountain. Another motorcyclist ahead of us to our right almost crashed because he turned his neck and stared at me too long.

My driver shook his head and laughed — or maybe he was just clearing his throat.

Click here for photos.

As I type this on the Hu family computer, Arthur is in the next room watching a replay of the men’s Wimbledon final on television. And I just noticed this: On a bookshelf to my right, there is a framed black-and-white photo of a very young Mr. Hu standing in front of West Lake. In front of that photo, are two smaller framed black-and-white photos. The one on the left is Catherine Zeta Jones. The other? Britney Spears. They go well with the large poster of a young Sophia Loren on the wall.

Next stop: Shangrao, Jiangxi Province. Train leaves today at 1:53 pm and arrives at around 9 pm. I know nothing about Shangrao other than that my former student Gerry lives there. Shangrao is not even mentioned in Lonely Planet. Wonder how they’ll react to foreigners there.

07.23.2004, 1:07 PM · The Trip, Zhejiang


  1. hey dan, shangrao is a town with some historical significance.
    it used to have a large concentration camp used by the nationalists to hold communist prisoners in the 30’s. Maybe it’s still there. check it out.

  2. As I’ll be soon going to Shanghai for my undergraduate studies, i started looking for blogs of people living in Shanghai and came across yours. I just wanna learn more about the city where I’ll be spending my next 4 years.
    I’ve read this entry, every word of it. I thought that the chinese people would be used to seeing white people in their country by now. *sigh*

  3. I am reminded of an experience in a friend’s small village in Italy, where I and our two tall, at the time adolescent, sons were the towering talk of the town for days. It’s good to be gawked at at least once in life. A reminder that smiles are truly the international language of friendship.

  4. Wow, you visited Tiantai. I remember visiting Tiantai on a lark over May Holiday in 2002. My fondest memories are the lack of tourists (relatively speaking, this is China of course), misty green tea fields, and that my friend and I were able to find a reasonably clean room to stay in for only 40 RMB a day with private bathroom, warm water, and TV (though no AC).

    Kudos for going off the beaten track.


Shanghai Diaries is a website about Shanghai, China ... and lots of other stuff. Voted Best Mainland China Blog in the 2004 Asia Blog Awards.

Editor: Dan Washburn

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Dan is a freelance writer living in Shanghai. More about Dan.

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