Coming from a country famous for its grey skies, dull days and copious amounts of rain, China’s wet season should have been something that, if nothing else, reminded me of home. Although I have experienced wet seasons before, never before have I seen such intensity for so prolonged a period. It’s no surprise that after days and days of virtually continuous torrential precipitation, parts of the province has seen flooding and evacuations.
In Benxi, roads have become raging torrents of water. Even school has been cancelled. Extra days off work is sadly about the only positive from such weather. With sewage and drainage systems unable to cope with the extra volume, it has left the sweet aroma of sh*t in the air and sewage in the streets. Trying to navigate the streets without covering your feet in some kind of excrement is like playing a game of Minesweeper.
Luckily the ‘monsoon’ season is a short one and ended as soon as it started, leaving glorious sunny days free of the extra summer classes I’d become accustomed to over the summer. With the extra free time and perfect weather, I didn’t need any persuasion to use the time to explore more of what Benxi and the surrounding Liaoning countryside had to offer. As well as enjoying cable-car rides up the domineering Ping Ding Mountain that stands proud over Benxi, my wife and I were able to escape out of the city altogether, seeing both Guan Men Shan (Closed-Door Mountain) National Park and Benxi Water Caves.
Guan Men Shan National Park is nationally renowned for it’s population of maple trees that turn the park’s mountains dazzling shades of red during autumn. Crossing the foaming, fit-to-bursting river at the entrance to the park, several men with long fishing nets waited in anticipation. Standing to watch them, I realised they were waiting for lifeless floating fish to pluck out of the water, possibly battered unconscious over the rocks in the raging torrents further upstream. If they failed to catch the fish, they raced to stationary peddle boats, racing out to catch the fish by hand before they disappeared for good. Quite a brave act considering the low rates of Chinese people who are able to swim. I have to say, there’s something rather therapeutic about watching two old Chinese men racing peddle-boats to a dead fish.
With the red leaves of autumn still a couple of months off, it was the teeming wildlife and cartoon style mushrooms that snatched my attention. Impressively large snakes crossed my path at disturbingly regular intervals, setting off a chorus of nervous screams from my wife. It’s hard to imagine that the smog-field concrete jungle I’ve been living in for close to a year is only a short forty-five minute journey away. With the extra volumes of rain witnessed in the preceding weeks, river, streams and waterfalls gargled and splashed in every direction, leaving a refreshingly quiet, picturesque day‘s worth of exploring, plus a nice selection of Chinglish signs.
Beautiful and enthralling as the scenery was, it was actually a bus station in a nearby town that managed to take my breath away the most. Pulling in to the station it’s impossible to miss the twisted, burn-out wreckage of what used to be a car, mounted on a podium, as though advertising first prize in the current raffle competition. It’s only upon a closer inspection that you realise the collage of photos behind the distorted car-shell are photos from the fateful crash. As with any car wreck, morbid curiosity gets the better of many a person, including myself. I wish it hadn’t. The photos were images of the burnt-out torsos of those that perished, their deaths caused by drink-driving.
Call it ‘shock and awe’ tactics or blunt honesty, but reporting on a worthy news event in China is very different to that in the West. Whether it be the aftermath of a drink-driving accident, or the drowning of a man who was swept out to see by a freak wave, virtually nothing is left to the imagination. Probably the most visual horror I’ve had the misfortunate pleasure of seeing was watching a news broadcast showing footage of an argument between a drunk husband and an infuriated wife. Obviously unable to take anymore of his wife’s incessant shouting, he took what I thought was refuge in the driver’s seat of his three-wheeled vehicle. My lack of Chinese made sure I wasn’t ready for what happened next. With his wife still stood in front of his vehicle, he turned the engine on and ran her over, the vehicle visibly banging down as the wheels went over her head. I’m much happier hearing such news stories rather than seeing them.
Benxi Water Caves is probably the only local location near Benxi which attracts a steady stream of foreign visitors year round. Depending on what you read, Benxi Water Caves are said to hold ‘the longest underground river in the world’, ‘the longest underground river in Asia’, or ‘the longest underground river in the world navigable by boat’. Whichever is true the underground river measures an impressive three kilometres in length. Impressive as this may sound, after spending an hour viewing the wide array of stalagmites and stalactites, all lit up in a multitude of fluorescent lighting, the biggest local attraction felt something of an anti-climax.
Every year the local zoo also gets a guest appearance from a more exotic animal shipped in from a neighbouring zoo. With little else to do around the city, I’ve already visited the zoo twice, but upon hearing that a real bona fide panda was gracing Benxi zoo with its celebrity like presence, I thought it would be rude not to grab my hat-trick. Seeing my first ever panda though was very similar to most people’s account of losing their virginity, a disappointing let down. Lying on their backs and doing nothing, I hope to see more energetic pandas when I try and track them down in the wild once my teaching contract finishes.
Apart from these small trips and listening to one student confessing his love for eating cack (mispronouncing the word ‘cake’), the only other highlights have involved dealing with the state of my dilapidated apartment. An apartment that even a homeless junkie would think twice about squatting in. It’s normal to be awoken with the ceiling falling down on your face, or to breathe in the pleasant aroma of cabbage and sewage that protrudes from the apartment’s drains. But having to deal with maggot and termite infestations is a tad more vile than what I would like to contend with. I’d like to see what problems I’d face if I didn’t keep the apartment clean and tidy!