When I started travelling alone I was sure that the hardest part was going to be spending all that time by myself. However it has been very much the opposite. Since leaving home I have not spent a day alone, constantly finding new people to enjoy my travels with. Right after landing in Shanghai, I met two guys both named Thomas from Denmark. I would spend one of my most memorable experiences of the trip with these two beauties.
We went to a neighbouring village an hour out of Shanghai by bus, putting full trust in the world to get us on the right one and off at the right stop. Our little trip brought us to a small canal town alive today only by the graces of tourism. In the narrow cobblestone alleyways it was easy to lose enthusiasm while being jostled around by the mobs of tourists, but we persevered by spontaneously ducking into back alleys. We found ourselves in the home life behind the tourist vainer. It was suddenly a very intimate experience, walking through the side lanes of this sleepy little community peering into the windows of residents homes. We saw spaces advertised as “ancient heritage” and “traditional” on the main street, being built behind the scenes. The tourist experience of “real China” only a fabricated face created so that these people could maintain their humble living situation. The feeling was like walking past someones social presence and directly into their personal life.
We walked around through the rubble and trash in silence, taking in the strangeness of this secret world we had just stumbled upon. It seemed like the whole compound was abandoned during work hours until we noticed a doorway where inside sat three well dressed men drinking tea, behind them was a bar. “Well? Should we get a beer?” The men’s eyes raise from discussion to look at the three smiling white boys who just stumbled into the room. We got the impression then that this was not the local neighbourhood pub, and that perhaps we have asked for more than we first anticipated. Before we can retreat however, one of the men introduces himself and gestures towards a table by the window.
It’s within the short walk across the room that we realize what we have just got ourselves into. What looked like a humble structure on the outside was a fully restored, traditional style banquet hall with modern accoutrements on the inside. The open concept space had floor to ceiling windows along the length of the room. Decorative plants in the corners, carved wooden accents on the ceiling beams and a large Buddha statue resting comfortably at the end of the room. The view from our table looks out over the empty canal and a spacious concrete patio. The only sign of the world we just left were the shells of abandoned condominiums lining the opposite side.
The man who introduced himself, now within the walls of the house, appears to be the owner and man of authority. He steps behind the glass counter bar and begins preparing our beers. At this point we realize that cheap beer is probably the most blasphemous thing we could drink in this moment. With a few points and gestures we managed to get order changed to tea. We got our tea and one of his subordinates spoke english. “Where are you from?” I smile, and respond maybe a little too proudly “Canada. Oh and these two are from Denmark.” The man’s boss smiles and quips something to him in Chinese. “Where in Canada?” he asks lifting his tea mug to his mouth. “Vancouver” I say with a little more restrain. The well dressed man smiles and the he translates, “he owns many houses in Vancouver” .
I had to explain to my Denmark friends that one does not simply “own many houses in Vancouver”. Together we rationalized that this man was obviously an international mob boss, and these two men with him, were his goons. Soon mob boss leader guy was consumed in lengthy phone calls and took them mostly standing outside on his river side veranda. We finished one pot of tea, which was soon refilled by one of the henchmen regardless of any objections we would make. We played many games of cards and speculated all of the many scenarios in which our host had likely killed people. Somewhere within the second jug of tea there were plumes of smoke coming from the streets behind the houses across the canal and we decided that it was probably time to go.
We found the english speaking mobster and expressed our thanks probably more than was comfortable. Upon trying to pay for our tea he scoffed and gave us directions to get back to the main road. The whole thing felt surreal. The polluted water below us, the slums around us, and the lavish life we experienced amongst it. It seems that sometimes things in life happen purely to reveal the absurdity of the world we live in.