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Putuoshan - With or Without You

By Bill Pfeffer

June 20, 2009

As we boarded the crowded bus, I ended up next to a mother who had a toddler on her lap in the typical Chinese fashion of slit open baby pants. After a while, the kid started getting excited, bouncing up and down, and squirming around, when all of a sudden the kid pulled out his puny, miniature tootsie roll sized weenie and started giggling uncontrollably, thinking, I guess, this was the greatest organic toy in the world. Lacing one hand around his new plaything, he repeatedly slapped at it with the other, gleefully having a grand time, as he pretended to be riding a bucking bronco.

Soon, people took notice and began cautiously smirking, as he continued to buck wildly, his playful toy pointed directly at my exposed leg, acquiring length as if it were Pinocchio’s nose. Nervously wriggling about, I realized we had at least three more stops before exiting. I quickly scanned the bus and tried to guess who would get off first and create a seating opportunity. Now, more and more people took notice, and started laughing aloud. I was certain his little cannon would shamelessly explode all over my leg before I was to alight.

With two bus stops to go, I froze with indecision as he became more frantic with each passing mile. Should I stay or should I go, I argued to myself, but in the end sat patiently by. Mercifully, I got to our stop unsoiled, and as the bus pulled away, I pitied the new victim settling into my old seat, convinced that the happy fellow guy would get his revenge soon enough.

Unless you are here on business, there’s really no reason to arrive in Ningbo as a tourist. We came here on a stopover before heading out to the Buddhist island of Putuoshan, a two-hour bus/ferry ride to the east. Unfortunately, we ended up spending a few more days then we planned, because I was under the weather with some stomach disorder and ended up on antibiotics. Nonetheless, Ningbo is a pleasant enough place, a typical middle class Chinese town of 2 million people, notable for it’s textile factories around the perimeter of the town. Heck, the shirt on your back was probably made here.

As with every big city we’ve been in, there’s a lot of construction going on and the town has a modern feel to it, although definitely lacking tourist attractions. We stopped at one brand new mall on the way back to the hotel, four floors crammed full of every designer name store imaginable – Armani, Rolex, Giorgio. The only people in the mall were the workers and a handful of Western people, probably on business. We wondered how sustainable this mall was going to be, since the typical Chinese middle class person probably would not be spending money here.

Chinese success in the world markets is based on cheap labor - that drives everything here. It’s also a copycat economy. They copy the Honda motorcycle and call it a Jonda, they copy a Canon camera and call it a Kanon, and they copy the Teva sandals and call them Teavas. There are hundreds of examples of this phenomenon, but you get the idea.

As you walk the streets, you’ll come to a block where a store sells candles. Immediately next door is the exact same store, while next door to that store is the same exact store – repeated for ten or twelve shops. It’s as if the first person made a go of it, others took note, then swiftly swooped in to copy the business model for a quick buck.

I do not see Chinese innovation or ingenuity. They manufacture cheap commodity items, as well as inexpensive component parts for many companies around the world. Parts for cars, faucets, or electronics. So, why is China the model for the 21st century? When they run out of things to copy, or demand for their cheap goods dries up, it appears that their growth model will grind to a halt. With a healthy balance of trade, they have the money to invest in education and long-term capital investment. Let’s see how this develops, but the skeptic in me smells a bubble.

Meanwhile, we looked forward to visiting the Buddhist sanctuary of Putuoshan, a highly regarded island south of Shanghai. We arrived on the island after a two-hour ferry ride, were immediately charged $23/each for the ‘privilege’ of visiting, and boarded a tourist minibus to the center of town to find a place to stay. Most places are priced accordingly high due to its popularity, but we managed to find a decent place for $50/night.

We then proceeded to get out the map (Chinese only – no English) to see the sights, which, fortunately, are concentrated within 15-30 minutes of each other. Start with 100-step beach ($2 access fee), a historic religious site complete with dune buggies, wave runner rentals, a trapeze, and loud music blasting over the crash of the chocolate surf. Hmmmm, let’s go to the next site, the apparently new Nanhai Guanyin statue overlooking the sea (that will be another $2 please), some rocks with Chinese characters carved in them, and caves that can be explored (for a fee, of course).

We soldiered on to the recently planted Bamboo Forest, past fake speaker rocks echoing Buddhist chants, through a maze of look alike chintzy souvenir stands pushing incense sticks, to yet more modern restored temples (that will be another $2 please). All the while, huge tour groups crowded the immaculately constructed pathways, with guides blasting commentary over cheap megaphones. Man, is it happy hour yet – this is so phony and contrived, although the main temple of Puji - apparently around since the 17th century - (WHAT – FREE admission, I’m shocked) is worthwhile.

We were disappointed despite such glowing recommendations. In fact, when we compiled our list of overrated, not worth the price of admission, do not even bother going places, Putuoshan occupies positions #1 through #10. Actually, it is the ONLY place on our list after eight months of travel. Hugely over hyped, it seems to exist solely to suck you out onto the island and separate you from as much of your money as it can. After one night, we eagerly took the first ferry back to Ningbo.

When in China, you do see quite a few police officers walking around, so it appears and feels to be a completely safe place to visit. And there are workers everywhere that walk around and sweep up trash so the streets are always clean. Which is a good thing since the Chinese just drop trash everywhere. On the bus the other day, I was touched by the endearing sight of a father showing his four year old daughter how to toss her empty soda can out the window.

As you’re walking about, you’ll see employees lined up outside their place of employment (usually a restaurant), before their shift, standing in rows, all at attention. It appears they are getting a pep talk or some other instruction for the day. I always try and walk behind the manager and wave and make them smile, they’re always so serious.

Finally, loud noises. Buses and trucks have very loud air horns. If you’re in front of one of these and they sound the horn, it’s actually painful to the ears. All the drivers love to blast their horns - at pedestrians, at dogs, at - imagine this - another vehicle in front of them, as if they alone own the rights to the road. Heck, they blow the horns for no apparent reason, maybe because the leaves are rustling on a tree, it’s ridiculous. After a while, it’s shut up already, what’s your hurry, and it continues to befuddle me why they act in such in such an impatient manner. They’ll get up right behind some poor soul on a motorcycle and relentlessly sound the horn until he gives way – very poor manners I’d say.

One more thing. There must be a problem with counterfeit money over here because everyone has these machines where you insert a 100-Yuan bill (about $8), it is scrutinized, and rejected if fake. We continually see merchants feeding stacks of 100-Yuan bills into this machine, both to count and detect fakes, although they do it even for a single bill. In America, I have never seen machines for detecting fake money outside a bank – maybe I should look to import as a new business venture.

The next segment of our adventure will lead us down into the ancient villages around Huang Shan and Wuyuan, where we anticipate an authentic Chinese experience. I’m not fond of Disneyland and I did not like Putuoshan. In the grand scheme of things, it gave me material for an article, but really, Putuoshan, I could live with or without you. I actually looked forward to returning to Ningbo, it was that disappointing. 

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