For a small city, Benxi has a decent number of tourist attractions. From national parks, water caves, mountains, lakes to a half-decent zoo, these have proved more than sufficient to keep me entertained during my limited free-time stay here. With three days left of the Chinese National Day holidays to enjoy, there was just the one destination I had yet to venture to; the nearby city of Anshan, home to the world’s largest jade Buddha.
Known as China’s iron capital and an industrial powerhouse, Anshan is a two hour bus ride from Benxi. Attempting to reach the city from Shenyang Airport (after returning to the country from North Korea), it soon dawned upon my wife and I there was no public transport of any kind leaving in the direction we wanted. This left two choices. The first, taking a bus to Shenyang bus station and then fighting the National Day crowds to try and get on another bus to Anshan. Or the easier and more expensive option of catching a taxi for the 70km journey straight from the airport.
With limited time, and against my gut instinct of ever spending more money than is absolutely necessary, a taxi was deemed the most appropriate choice. Imagine my delight when waiting in line for the next available taxi, a woman approached and declared she could take us onwards to Anshan for half the price offered by the legal taxis. She didn’t have to make the offer twice and we were soon following her towards an unmarked car.
It seems that some people take the entrepreneurial skills of undercutting official taxis very seriously, local policemen included, and before we could reach the car, a burly man in blue had caught us up and launched in to a barrage of threats of fines and possible imprisonment. Like a snarling Jack Russell ripping at the leash, our new taxi under-cutter fought back with intimidating ferocity, quickly beating the now timid policeman in to a hasty retreat.
After exhausting our conversational Chinese skills with our woman taxi driver within 10 minutes, it left an awkward silence lingering for the next hour until we reached Anshan. I’ve had the misfortune of witnessing some truly horrendous sights in my life (many of which were endured after one too many shots of Absinthe in my youth), but the apocalyptic, desolate views to be had on the drive from Shenyang to Anshan will take some beating. The sky full of smog and the road lined with mechanics and tire shops blackened by dust and dirt, our taxi driver raced along at speeds well above the legal limit. Roads designed for single lane traffic constantly saw cars driving four abreast. If this is a side effect of China’s never-ending rapid growth, people should hang their heads in shame and re-evaluate their priorities.
Appearing out of the smog like an apparition of the Virgin Mary herself, Anshan came as a welcome relief. Foliage and greenery returned and the landscape looked hospitable once more. After checking in to our hotel, where the room came complete with red lights and a mirrored ceiling, much to my wife’s amusement, the afternoon was free to explore the city.
It was strange to be seen as an oddity again. After being shunned like the plague in North Korea I‘ve realised when the time comes to return home it‘ll take time to adjust to being normal once more. Anshan doesn’t see many foreign visitors, save for a few groups of Russians visiting on day trips from the coastal city of Dalian. With bustling National Day crowds, my wife and I soon found ourselves the top tourist attraction. Parents blocked our paths and forced their children to have photos taken with us. Teenagers were even more obtrusive, thrusting their camera phones in our faces, expecting us to burst into a song or dance at any moment.
As I was starting to wish we were back in the relative safety of North Korea, away from the marauding crowds, we escaped in to the tranquil safety of Anshan’s Jade Buddha Temple. Although home to the world’s largest jade Buddha, temples in China, like churches in England, start to become slightly repetitive the more you see. Even so, the enormity of the 8 metre tall, 260 ton jade statue added a different dimension that kept us amused until daylight failed.
After escaping our boudoir of a bedroom the following morning and realising that the toilet leaked urine and sh*t every time the chain was pulled, it was time to visit the city’s other premiere tourist attraction. Qingshan National Park, located an hour’s bus ride out of the city, is home to the region’s tallest mountain. Unfortunately every other inhabitant of Anshan seemed to have the same idea and after waiting for an eternity for a bus that wasn‘t full, I managed to squeeze myself in to the only available space on the bus; next to the driver. I soon learnt why this space had been left vacant. As the driver hit fourth gear for the first time, the gear-stick was jammed straight into my crotch.
Luckily the pot-holed roads kept the driver from hitting fourth gear and therefore my testicles too often and just when I thought people would start fainting from the lack of room and oxygen on the bus, we had reached Qingshan National Park. With the mountains shrouded in mist and drizzle it seemed half of China had also come to climb the mountain. After watching frenzied mobs of Chinese in the past, pushing, shoving and elbowing to get to anything first, I was remarkably surprised at the peaceful restraint they used to climb the mountain, standing in line like a queue for a theme park ride. It took five hours to climb to the top of the tallest mountain, where a combination of zero-visibility and the sheer number of tourists forced us on our way back down the mountain almost immediately.
The following day, experiencing all that Anshan had to offer, I ventured back to Benxi and onwards to Guan Men Shan National Park. I’d already visited this national park earlier in the year, but famed for the Autumnal colours of its maple trees, I thought it’d be rude not to experience one of the top two Benxi attractions one more time. While visitors to Qingshan National Park queued like respectable British pensioners, at Guan Men Shan they hunted out the red leaves like a zombie wanting human flesh. Upon locating a tree with the symbolic red leaves, they would attack it in hordes, first fighting over each other to take photos, before ripping available leaves from the branches. Like a baby giraffe trying to reach past the baron branches to the succulent leaves, children jumped and grabbed to no avail.
Escaping the red-leaf hungry mobs, I returned back to Benxi to enjoy a dinner of clotted goat’s blood soup. This was my last day of holiday before returning back to work and what better way to spend it than in my favourite bar; Bar in the Ciyt. Bar in the Ciyt (whose spelling is one of the few examples of Chinglish I have had the pleasure of enjoying in Benxi) is as close to an indie bar as you can get in these parts, an indie bar decked in Avril Lavigne and Eminem images. The last time I visited this bar, I was met with two atrociously singing off-duty soldiers who were cavorting in ways I would only expect blinded young lovers to do.
This time though there was no singing. There was no karaoke. Instead, all eyes were fixed on a big screen showing China’s Got Talent. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world, all versions of this show follow the same format. All versions also seem to have the same eclectic mix of performers. There was the ‘chubby singer’ , who during her interview ate and squeezed her fat cheeks constantly. There was the ‘charity vote’, a man who cared for his MS suffering wife, whose performance consisted of little more than flashing his peacock feather covered ass at the watching public. There was the ‘cute vote’, a father-daughter combination whose dance routine was more about the puppy dog eyes of the three year old daughter than about pirouettes and cartwheels. Never a big fan of such shows, I prematurely left before the eventual winner, an armless pianist who plays with his feet, performed. And so my last holiday in China before the completion of my teaching contract came to an end.