‘If you speak English here, maybe 2 in 100 people will understand,’ a young worker in a Xuzhou noodle shop told me. That young man was originally from Xi’an, and he didn’t ask me if I understood the Xuzhou dialect.
But ‘do you understand Xuzhou dialect?’ was a very common question in Xuzhou, just after, ‘whatever made you think of travelling to Xuzhou?’.
I travelled to Xuzhou to see the slightly less travelled side of China.
I say slightly less travelled, because Xuzhou is not a remote village, only reachable by weeks of strenuous mountain trekking. In history, from the Han-Chu Contention
of 206-202 BC, to the Huaihai Campaign
of 1948-1949 AD, Xuzhou has played a decisive role. Today the city serves as a transportation hub, and is served daily by the fast train that belts between Beijing and Shanghai.
Though I can’t speak Xuzhou dialect, I thought I’d be OK in Xuzhou because I speak intermediate level Mandarin. Or I thought I did.
One of several stretches of water in Yunlong Park
‘Your Chinese is OK,’ the female taxi driver said, ‘...if you were Chinese I’d speak much faster...I’ve taken so many foreigners in my taxi, but I haven’t been able to speak to them. You’re the first foreigner I’ve spoken to.’
The driver who took me from the train station to downtown Xuzhou wore a loose floral shirt and short black gloves on her hands. Her curly hair fell short of her shoulders. She’d been born in 1970, before the one child policy took effect. She had two older sisters, a younger sister, and an older brother. Despite the introduction of the one-child-policy
in 1978, she had managed to have two kids of her own. Her questions had the slightly random, curious quality of a person who has heard pieces of information about the world outside China, and wants to verify them from an official source.
‘I’ve heard the high speed roads abroad are better. Is it true?’
‘How did you feel the first time you came to China?’
‘It must be hard for you to meet a girlfriend, because you are abroad all the time.’
Back in the noodle shop, the young man from Xi’an and the girl he worked with were trying to work out why I was in Xuzhou.
‘Isn’t Shanghai better? Isn’t England better?’ asked the girl. ‘Isn’t England richer?’
‘Which place do you prefer?’ asked the guy. I nodded across Wangling Road at Yunlong Park.
‘The park opposite, don’t you think it’s beautiful?’ I asked.
‘Beautiful,’ they agreed.
‘Well, England doesn’t have any places like that. It has many beautiful places, but they’re not beautiful in the way that park is beautiful.’
‘Oh,’ they smiled. The guy added, ‘if you like that you should go to the south of China, they have more mountains and water there.’
In Xuzhou, Yunlong Mountain (Yúnlóng Shān; 云龙山) stands near Yunlong Park (Yúnlóng Gōngyuán; 云龙公园). I found the mountain easily enough, but getting up it was a little trickier; many paths started going up, but then took a downward turn. It was enough to make any aspiring hiker feel low.
‘How do you get up the mountain?’ I asked another lone walker.
‘I’ll show you,’ the young man said, falling in stride with me.
‘Are you walking to the top too?’
‘No, but I walk to the top around once a week.’
‘Once a week? Why so often?’
‘China has mountains, rivers and lakes. To be among them is good luck.’
I thanked him and followed the direction he pointed me in, stopping at the first viewpoint I came across. Only 100-150 meters above Xuzhou level, you could take in bamboo groves, stone-tiled roofs, and the smoky visage of the city. Butterflies danced between the bamboo plants.
Curved roofs and cranes: the Xuzhou skyline
It was no surprise that the view from the top stretch even further. From one mountain to another, the views reach to Taishan (泰山) and Hutoushan (虎头山). Cable cars stretch up the neighboring hills, each topped by a classically shaped temple.
It’s not only the views which make this place alive, but the scents carried by the breeze. Whatever the AQI was on that day, the air seemed imbued with peaches and mangoes, underlaid with a woody roundness. Just to make sure at least some smoke particles found their way into our lungs, an afterthought of incense made its way over from Yunlong’s mountaintop temple.
Entrance to the Xinghua Temple (Xìnghuà Chánsì; 兴化禅寺) was 5 RMB. Included in the price were several sticks of incense, and an introduction to the temple from the friendly doormen, who told me it had a history of more than 1,000 years. The public area of the temple was a courtyard, with an incense stand from which waves of worshipping smoke billowed upwards before a Buddha statue.
You also weren’t allowed to take photos, but I didn’t realize that until two monks, both with shaven heads, grey clothing, and the type of cotton shoes that are attached by a cord that winds around the pant legs, stopping just below knee level, started discussing my behavior.
‘He’s taking pictures of everything.’
‘How can we get him to stop?’
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t realize,’ I said.
‘You can speak Chinese,’ said the younger monk, who soon told me he was 40 years old. He had a robust, laughing demeanor. After pointing at a ‘no photography’ sign, which was largely concealed behind a shrub, he seemed to forget the issue of photos.
‘You’re young,’ he said, when I told him I was 31. He pointed to his companion, who stood a couple of steps up from him. ‘He’s more than 60.’
‘In China we have an old saying,’ laughed the younger monk. He said the old saying, but my Chinese reached its limit and I shook my head in confusion. ‘That means after 60, his yang will decline and he’ll have less energy,’ chuckled the younger monk. The older monk declined to comment.
The view from the top
On Pengcheng Lu, I was surrounded by three security guards. Two were dressed in normal uniform, but the tallest wore sneakers, sunglasses, and his jet black hair was slicked into a side parting.
‘Can you speak Chinese,’ they asked me.
‘My Chinese isn’t very good.’
‘It is very good,’ announced a new arrival to the conversation. This young man drove a thin, purple and black scooter with a passenger seat just behind the main seat. He wore a striped top. I hadn’t seen him arrive. ‘Really very good,’ he insisted.
‘Do you go to University here?’ the guards asked.
‘No I don’t… does Xuzhou have a lot of foreign students?’
‘What do they study?’
‘Too many things,’ said the guard in sunglasses. ‘Technology...’
‘If you want to stay in Xuzhou, you can teach at the university here,’ the young man on the scooter told me. Soon after that, he said bye and rode off.
‘I’m trying to get to the Xuzhou Han Culture Tourism Zone,’ I told the guards.
Terracotta warriors at the Xuzhou Han Culture Tourism Zone
‘Go that way, take the number 49 bus,’ said the guard in sunglasses. But he had a thick accent and I couldn’t understand his directions to the bus stop.
We were all looking at each other in confusion when the young man on the scooter appeared suddenly for the second time.
‘I’ll take you,’ he offered.
Sitting on the back of his scooter, I found out he had his own company which he had established just after graduating from university. The company offered courses that taught people how to deal with business problems they might come across in today’s world.
The last day before I checked out of my hotel ended with several conversations in one noodle shop.
I stayed at the Home Inn on 68 Wangling Road （如家快捷酒店，王陵路68号）
‘What do you want?’ asked the woman in English when I entered.
‘I’ll take a look,’ I said.
‘Can you speak Chinese?’
‘Yes,’ I said, perhaps a bit too confidently.
‘You are the ________ of English,’ the woman said. I furrowed my eyebrows at the word I hadn’t understood.
‘It means representative,’ said a clear American accent suddenly. It was the man sitting opposite me. He had grey hair and a relaxed smile. I soon found out he was Cantonese and lived in Singapore. He was in Xuzhou on business; his company bought parts in China and he often visited the mainland to consult with the factories. He was called Tay.
A young Chinese guy in a sports top was listening to me and Tay chatting. As soon as Tay left, he started talking to me. He lived in Shenzhen, though he wasn’t from there originally, and had a quick, energetic, naturally likeable way of speaking. He was also on a business trip.
‘Shenzhen is a very young city,’ he told me. ‘It’s an economic zone, like Shanghai.’
‘I know Southampton has a university, because of football...because of the football I understand that city a bit...for young Chinese people, definitely the thing they know about England the most is the Premiership.’
‘Does the Queen still hold power or is she just a symbol?’
‘Which Chinese companies have influence in the UK?’ As I tried to answer his last question, the woman behind the counter smiled cheekily and said, ‘Maybe later the UK prime minister will be Chinese.’
Last of all, a group of four burly men rolled in, laughing and ordering alcohol from behind the counter. They sat on the table opposite me.
‘Can he speak Chinese?’ one asked.
‘He speaks Chinese, and he can use chopsticks,’ they were told.
‘He can use chopsticks?’ the first man exclaimed, turning around to verify this claim for himself. I put the chopsticks down.
‘Who can’t use chopsticks?’ I asked.
‘But in your country...’ the host woman began apologetically.
‘I know,’ I said, ‘but I’ve been in Asia a long time. If I couldn’t use chopsticks I’d be hungry.’
Before I could leave, the four burly men invited me to drink with them. I told them I had an early train to catch. Given how astonished they’d been at my using chopsticks, I didn’t want to see their reaction when they found out I could also hold a beer glass.
Top Xuzhou Attractions:
Underground in the Chu King’s Mausoleum
Xuzhou Han Culture Tourism Zone （Xúzhōu Hàn Wénhuà Jǐngqū; 徐州汉文化景区）: This all-in-one destination is worth at least several hours of your time, if not a full day. The site includes the Chu King’s Mausoleum, where you can head underground and walk beside the chambers of a Han Dynasty tomb. There’s also a mountaintop temple, stone carving exhibition, and terracotta warriors (not quite on the same scale as in Xi’an, but still fascinating). The grounds themselves are a scenic pleasure.
Ticket price: 90 RMB
Address: 1 Han Bingmayong Road, Xuzhou (徐州汉兵马俑路1号)
Xiang Yu’s Horse Training Grounds (Xiàngyǔ Xìmǎ Tái; 项羽戏马台): After the collapse of the Qin Dynasty, the kingdoms of Chu and Han vied for mastery over China. This is where Chu leader Xiang Yu (项羽) trained his horses. Today, it’s a good place to enjoy some quiet time; the only person I spoke to was a gardener, who told me it was always quiet, even at weekends.
Ticket price: 30 RMB (for 50 RMB you can also gain entrance to the adjacent museum).
Address: 1 Xiangwang Road, Hubushan, Xuzhou (徐州市户部山项王路1号)
Yunlong Park (云龙公园): This beautiful park makes for an excellent morning jogging spot. It also houses the free China Museum of Huqin Art (Zhōngguó Húqín Yìshù Bówùguǎn; 中国胡琴艺术博物馆).
Find it: Bus 49 W to Yunlong Park South Entrance (云龙公园南门) or take a taxi to the Zhongshan South Road and Wangling Road intersection ( 中山南路, 近王陵路）and walk west on Wangling Road, you’ll see the park on your left after around 150 meters.
Yunlong Mountain (云龙山) : As described above. Climb this mountain for unbeatable views, and possible encounters with friendly monks/ fellow walkers.
Entrance: FREE (entering the temple on top of Yunlong Mountain will set you back 5 RMB)
Find it: Take a taxi to Zhongshan South Road and Heping Road ( 中山南路, 近和平路). As you head south on Zhongshan South Road, the entrance to Yunlong Mountain is on your left.