, , , , , ,

HEFEI, ANHUI — I have spent nearly a week in Hefei 合肥, where a friend of mine from JiDa now lives with her husband. They married in June, but because of exams I and her other university friends couldn’t come then. This was in some ways a make-up trip, though I had already posted a wedding gift.

MeiMei is fully bilingual in Chinese and Russian, thanks to several years living in Minsk as a student. Her English (and maybe her Chinese, though I cannot tell) has a Russian accent. In addition, she’s an excellent pianist.

Her job at JiDa was as translator/interpreter for the exchange students and music teachers from Ukraine, but midway through last school year, there was less call for her linguistic abilities. Meanwhile, still unmarried at the age of 30, MeiMei was facing the Chinese cultural pressure to find a husband before she got “too old.” So, she decided to quit her university job, and go back home to Hefei to find a mate, while living with her parents and supporting herself teaching piano and Russian.

About two weeks ago, she and I were chatting on QQ, and she asked about my plans for the future. MeiMei suggested I consider working in Hefei. Then I asked if I could visit her this month to see what Hefei is like. She enthusiastically said yes. So, in short order, I and her other friend and former neighbor, Ailsa, were planning a week’s trip to Hefei.

Hefei is the provincial capital of Anhui, which is northeast of Hunan province. China is building out a high speed rail system at a dizzying pace, starting with the provincial capitals, so Changsha, Hunan, and Hefei are already connected with HSR.

Ailsa had already bought a train ticket to Changsha, where she lives, so rather than taking the bus as I usually do, I agreed to keep her company on the eight-hour (slow) train ride. We booked our tickets to Hefei at the Jishou train station. We were on the D150 train to Wuchang station in Wuhan, and then the D3062 train from Hankou station in Wuhan to Hefei.

The distance between Changsha and Wuhan is about 362 km, and the D150 covers that in three hours, a third of the time the next fastest train (the T98A) takes. That works out to an average speed of 121 km/hr (75 mph). The distance from Wuhan to Hefei is 364 km, but the D3062 covers that in 2:23, also a third of the next fastest time, at an average speed of 156 km/hr (97 mph). The ticket price for each leg was 112 RMB, or about $17.

[Incidentally, you can take the D3062, or one of the other D-class trains, from Wuhan and be in Shanghai 820 km (512 miles) away in six hours. Amazing.]

Our “layover” in Wuhan was about six hours, giving us plenty of time to find our way from Wuchang station to Hankou station across town. We decided to do some sightseeing, since Ailsa had never been to Wuhan. But the heat was oppresive (42 C, or 107 F), so we just hit Yellow Crane Tower (Huanghelou 黄鹤楼), then grabbed an air conditioned cab to the air conditioned train station to recover.

Cities in the USA are lucky to have even one train station, which in a lot of places is now some kind of museum, office building or shopping mall. New York has two train stations, and as far as I know, no city in the States has more than two. By contrast, Wuhan has three railway stations now; the third one, in the northern suburbs, is part of the new G-class HSR trains connecting Wuhan to Changsha South station (also new) and Guangzhou North in Guangdong. The G-class trains zip between Wuhan and Guangzhou North — a distance of 1022 km (639 miles) — in just three and half hours. (That works out to be about 180 mph on average.) Tickets are $76, cheaper than airfares, so the domestic airlines have had to cut their prices to be competitive.

(We rode a G-class train from Wuhan to Changsha (90 minutes) on the way back, because it would allow both of us to grab afternoon buses home. The ticket was $25, only $8 more than the D150 fare.)

Anyway, on to our itinerary. We had dinner first with MeiMei and her husband, went to a KTV, then crashed at a hotel on Changjiang ZhongLu near Suzhou Lu downtown for the night. The next few days were packed with activities, as MeiMei and her parents wanted to show us a lot of sights.

Her dad is partner is a small metal stamping factory in Sanhe. The company supplies parts (brackets and chassis pieces) to JAC, one of China’s domestic auto and truck makers. As a boss, he gets a company car, similar in size and style to a Buick, and a driver, Mr Wang (no relation). So, we were able to tour Anhui in comfort.

We visited ancient cities at Sanhe, She (pronounced “shuh”) county and XiDi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the Bao family gardens; the ancestral home of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin; the boyhood home of physicist Yang Zhenning*; the home of Qing dynasty diplomat Li Hongzhang; Fantawild, an amusement park; and the Golden Peacock Spa Resort. We also did some shopping — I needed a new supply of contact lenses, for one thing.

We ate a lot of great food, and drank of lot of expensive and potent Chinese liquor. Ailsa, who weighs all of 90 pounds soaking wet, held her own liquor very well. (One of the popular sayings in China is that Hunan woman are not only the most beautiful in the country, but also the best drinkers. Then again, they say the same thing about the women of all of the other provinces, too.)

Ailsa has been fretting over my newfound bachelorhood, and MeiMei wants us both to move to Hefei, to each find jobs and significant others. MeiMei was trying to fix Ailsa up with at least two young men during our trip, but I don’t think anything clicked. On Wednesday night, the two of them persuaded me to sign up with a Chinese matchmaking site, jiayuan.com (literally, “family garden”). MeiMei and her husband, a busy journalist, confessed that they found each other on jiayuan.com last year, and were both happy with the results.

So, Ailsa helped me navigate the elaborate questionnaires on the site — it’s all in Chinese naturally — and we’ll see what happens.My little precis of myself is all in English, so it’s going to stand out like a sore thumb. I’m not expecting un coup de foudre, but it can’t hurt to try.

Having taken a whirlwind tour of Anhui, which has many other places worth seeing, my next trek is to Beijing to welcome the new American family coming to JiDa. I’ve been to Beijing now five times, so I am almost an old hand at it. This time, I am going with two students from my college, neither of whom has been to Beijing, so I get to be a tour guide to five people. Holy crap. Wish me luck!

* Yang won the Nobel Prize in 1957 with T.D. Lee, for discovering a key law of the Standard Model of particle physics. Yang and experimental physicist C.S. Wu once gave a symposium at Palmer Labs at Princeton. My freshman year physics classes were in the same building almost four decades later. So maybe there are only a few degrees of separation between Yang and me. Another noteworthy fact about Yang is that, at the age of 82, was engaged to a woman only 28 years old. They married in 2005. Lucky fellow. I suspect they did not use jiayuan.com, though.