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China 2005

Prelude
“This bread is as dry as a stick,” Sandra said despondently.
It’s strange-the thoughts that go through your head on a holiday. While one should be inspired by new culture, architecture and sheer joy of traveling, it is the hum-drum trivialities that tend to occupy your mind for a disconcertingly large part of the day. The same day-to-day concerns that occupy your mind during the working week tend to rear their ugly heads when you’re away as well.
It was the same from the very beginning of the trip. Even on the flight from Bangkok to Macao, when I should have been salivating at the thought of one month exploring China, I found myself fixated by a group of Arab travelers sitting across the aisle from me. However, it would have been difficult not to notice them, as they were so loud and brash. They spent the flight shouting, waving their arms about and seemed incapable of sitting down, like noisy children in a fairground Once or twice I dozed off in the surprisingly comfortable chair, but I jolted back to consciousness by someone screaming in my ear. At least, it felt like he was bellowing at me, but as I wiped the drool from my chin, I noticed that the man with a moustache as large as a hedge, was, in fact, gesticulating wildly at the at the man in the cheap suit behind him, who also sported a moustache that looked like it was ready for an Olympic challenge in the ‘Thickest Moustache in the World’ competition. If there had been any wind on the plane, I’m sure it would have danced along with it. There were three moustaches altogether, and behind them a group of young Chinese girls, in garish costumes and of questionably virtue, who hung back and waited for their sponsors to throw some idiotic witticism in their direction, and dutifully replied with some forced giggling. Are these girls trained in giggling and fawning, I wondered, or do they just pick it up along the way?
The other Chinese and Thai-Chinese on the flight pretended not to notice these shenanigans, but they only ‘seemed’ not to notice. Asians, in general, do not show emotions as blatantly as westerners do. They consider it uncouth. However, small gestures are permitted to show their displeasure, such as a slight downturning of the mouth, and a tiny arching away of the body and not looking in the direction of the offending behaviour.
The Chinese, I have heard, view the world in terms of a hierarchy of races, much as the old imperialists did, except they see themselves at the summit, rich whites immediately behind them, other Asian groups next, and blacks and Arabs at the bottom. The idea of Arab men openly consorting with Chinese girls was probably a very unpleasant sight to them, especially when you remember that open signs of affection, even between ‘pure race’ Chinese couples, are highly frowned upon.
As China rapidly resumes its historical place as the world’s most powerful country, the citizens of the ‘Middle Kingdom’ will, I suspect, show their hidden contempt for other cultures more clearly, and their body language may become more blatant. It will still be missed, no doubt, by myopic Westerners, who are blind to all but the most blatant gestures. Can you imagine, for example, Eminem or some other rapper, indicating his contempt for modern society by turning the edges of his mouth down slightly and refusing to make eye-contact with the camera?
But to return to my original point, it is the hum-drum, day-to-day concerns that most conscious though on any holiday, however much you’d like to believe you’re on some epic adventure. At this very moment, for example, I’m sitting in the very centre of Macao, Asia’s first colony, on a bright morning. I should be noticing the tiny pebbled paving stones and the centuries old patters that have been laid into them; I should be marveling at the Portuguese architecture and the fascinating history of the place; my attention should be grabbed by the 400-year fusion of European and Asian cultures.
I should be, but I’m not. My mind’s preoccupied by the pain in my hand brought on my writing with a pen. I’ve been using a keyboard for so long that p pen feels like a pickaxe in my paw, an alien stick-like object I can’t control properly. I’ve also got a dodgy stomach brought on by cheap wine and a gorgonzola pizza from last night vying for my attention and clouding my thoughts.
Most of all though, I’m preoccupied by a manager who’s hovering vulture-like around my table, looking nervously at my nearly empty latte and wishing me gone. To add insult to injury, I’m in one of the comfy chairs, the type that don’t induce pain and numbing of the backside after twenty minutes, so she knows I could lounge around here all day if I wanted to. All these chains, from McDonalds upwards, only want you to stay for a limited amount of time, just long enough to shovel their pre-packaged poison into your bleeding stomach, and then they demand you return to whatever box you came from ASAP. They are appalled by the idea of customers loitering in their domain. I’m sure that, at the executive level, there are graphs with the x-axis representing the amount of time a wastrel like me leaves his useless ass parked in a comfy chair, and the y-axis showing the profitability of that said chair during a given time frame.
Of course, they can never openly admit this. After all, Starbucks, as their advertising constantly reminds me, is only in the café business because of their love affair with coffee, and the money aspect doesn’t bother them at all. Indeed, they’re practically a charitable institution. Following the recent tsunami catastrophe, they donated 10 per cent of the profits from their most expensive brand of coffee, a brand I’ve yet to see anyone order, to Tsunami relief efforts. It was just for one day, of course, but you can’t question their golden heart is in the right place. Nevermind that their advertising for this glorious deed probably exceeded the actual money donated. Nevertheless, they can’t ask me to leave, but the manager will keep eyeing me nervously.
Hum… I think I’ll really piss her off by moving to another chair, a smoking chair, and bring my cold and nearly empty cup with me. As long as I don’t actually finish the cold latte, she can’t ask me to leave. Ha Ha, the taste of victory-this is how Chairman Mao must have felt after the Long March. As I began by saying, it’s difficult not to fixate on the irrelevant, so very difficult.
Macao
Macao, or Ao Men in Chinese, is now a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, like Hong Kong. It was the world’s first Asian colony, and for 400 years the Portuguese held sway, but they were always a racial minority, and in the 20th century they rule was nominal and ghost like. The old town still looks remarkably Portuguese, except that 98 per cent of its inhabitants are Chinese.
It still has its own currency, the Pataca, and-nominally at least-its own local government, but in reality, Beijing calls all the shots. It’s also got the highest population density of any city on earth. If all the people who live here, about half a million, tried to leave their tower blocks and stand in what little pavement its 25 km squared offers, they’d kill each other in the resulting squash. Thankfully, it’s never occurred to the Macanese to do this. It would be like this in most cities, I suppose. We’ve all got so used to living in boxes that ‘outside’ is merely a medium to get from one box to another. To succeed in life is to live in a bigger box. We’ve all forgotten that ‘outside’ is where we belong.
Macao’s current ‘raison d’etre’ is tourism and gambling. Casinos are illegal in Hong Kong and China, so the weekend sees ferry loads of Hong Kongers and mainlanders descend on the roulette wheels and black jack tables of Macao’s many casinos to place their bets. I went to one of them once, the Lisboa, one of Macao’s largest, replete with garish lighting and well-worn, but once plush carpets. What I remember most was the air of desperation in the place. It was almost palpable. The gamblers look like drug addicts desperately craving their next fix. I’ve never seen a crack den, of course, but I imagine they have the same atmosphere. Of course, there aren’t any flashing lights, expensive suits or cocktail waitresses to distract you in a crack den, but the psychological cues and triggers are fundamentally the same.
I didn’t do any gambling in the Lisboa. In fact, I have never gambled. I could never see the point of it, as the ‘house’ always wins. The gambler is doomed to failure. The facts are irrefutable, so why anyone gambles, and why the Chinese in particular-surely the world’s most logical and calculating race-are so addicted to gambling is a mystery to me. Psychologists, or rather behavioural psychologists, argue that gambling is addictive because of the power of variable return reinforcement schedules. To oversimplify, the possibility of short term reinforcement (winning one game of cards) outweighs the lack of long-term reinforcement (eventually losing your money, your rings, your car and your house). Other mammals, from rats to republicans, demonstrate this same tendency. We are wired to think short-term, it would appear. This might also explain why we are making our planet uninhabitably polluted so we can drive large pieces of metal from one box to another. A depressing thought really.
But again, I digress. The SAR of Macao is divided into three areas; Macao proper, Taipa and Coloane. Actually, recent extensive land reclamation makes the word ‘islands’ somewhat misleading. Macao proper contains the old town and the historic heart of the city, Placa del Leal Senado. It’s a beautiful old Portuguese square with white and black cobblestones inlaid with ships and other patterns, and over the exquisite square 18th/19th century Latin European buildings have been carefully preserved. At one end of the square, an old church remains open for business, but most of the business these days is not the devout, but the hapless tourist. Now and then, however, an aging Portuguese resident ambles in, kneels and prays in a pew, temporarily oblivious to the end of the world she had known. The old town only extends for a few blocks and is rapidly swallowed up by massive, and massively ugly, tower blocks. During World War 2 and the Chinese civil war, refugee numbers massively swelled the city’s previously tiny population, and the government could either let them die on the street or build high rise monstrosities to house them all. I guess if you’re dying on the street, a high rise monstrosity looks pretty good. Land pressures mean the streets are narrow but somehow not too clogged with traffic, as Macao is small enough to make a car completely unnecessary.
Near the end of the old town, an old fort, Monte Fort, still stands on top of a hill and its cannons and watchtowers appear to guard the city. Beside the fort, the front of St Paul’s Cathedral, Macao’s emblem, somehow remains standing, but the rest of the cathedral was destroyed by a massive earthquake. This is taken by some as miraculous, but I fail to see how 90 per cent of a church collapsing, killing those inside, and a piece of it not falling down, can be seen as divine intervention.
In the distance, an old lighthouse stands on a distant hill, and if you look in another direction, China proper builds itself from farmland to city, skipping the intermediary village and town stages, with cranes and sheer determination. The polluted brown grey waters of the Pear River delta discolour the sea, and are further evidence that the China, the ‘sleeping dragon’ is waking up.
In the afternoon, we headed down to Coloane, Macao’s wooded island park for a small hike. The minibus from central Macao only costs 5 Patacas (50 cent) and if you’re quick, and a little bit childish, you can sit up front next to the driver, in what must be the only bus ride in the world that feels like being in a grand prix. The engine roars, and the minibus swerves to and fro around the narrow streets.
The strange thing is that this park/island is almost always empty. Only about 2000 people live there, and since new construction is prohibited, the rest remains unspoilt, However, on our hike, we only came across a couple of other people there. We finished the trail at Hac Sa beach, but even its black volcanic sand and swimmable beaches couldn’t attract many people. It seemed odd that in the city with the highest population density on earth, the large wooded park remains empty and is left to the birds. People just don’t want to leave their rabbit hutches, I guess. Have humans become a race of agoraphobic bunnies?
Hong Kong
You join me on a ferry from Macao to Hong Kong. It’s a super fast, I think it’s called a catamaran, or something, but whatever it’s called, it’s certainly fast-so fast, they make you wear a seat belt, but that might just be for show. Perhaps they feel they can charge you more if they make you feel like you’re on an airplane. Out of the windown, tinny islets glide past and we zoom past innumerable little fishing bosat, or perhaps their runnish floats. The interminable mist makes it hard to tell. Southern China spends about nine months a year shrouded in cloud and mist, and I’m beginning to remember how dispiriting it is. On a more positive note, the sea has changed from dirty brown to pale blue. This means we must have finally escaped the effects of the pearl River delta. Hong Kong is far enough away from the mainland to be free of it, but Macao and Zhuhai’s waters are permanently muddied by it.
The sea is a very choppy today, and we’re experiencing what a pilot might call major turbulence. As I write, the captain has just announced that “the boat is pitching heavily, and we’re expeienceing a heavy swell and you should please return to your seats and fasten your seat belts.” Just before the captain had finished speaking, the sweet sound of vomiting into paper bags made me question the wisdom of that last glass of wine last night, or rather the bottle of wine that preceded it. The rocking of the boat is also bringing back unpleasant memories of when Sandra and I were thrown off a jet ski two months ago in Thailand. I’m not really worried though. Actually, I’ve never been sea sick, unless you count the sense of nausea brought on by watching Leonaro di Capio’s romantic histronics in ‘Titanic’, but the sound of quadraphonic vomiting is rather unpleasant.
We’re heading into Hong Kong now, I think. The mist means I can’t be sure, but the small fishing vessels are being replaced by massive tankers. Hong Kong has the busiest port in the world, but will soon be replaced by Shanghai. However, we’re not heading to the report, as containers aren’t that interesting at the end of the day, are they. Through the mist, I can now make out the magnificent Victoria harbour, whose skyline must be unmatchable, and the catamaran has slowed to impulse power as we dock at Central, Asia’s answer to Manhattan.
I shouldn’t wax too lyrical about Hong Kong. Whenever you see it as the backdrop to some movie or other-James Bond seems inordinately fond of the place, colony of the crown or not-it’s always swelteringly hot, and beads of perspiration glisten in the scorching sunlight on the heads of wispy young girls in Suzi Wong dresses, while rickshaw drivers avoid the triad gangs using ancient marshal arts to fight each other and Jackie Chan for supremacy.
The reality, of course, is far more mundane. When we docked, everything was enveloped in that omnipresent Chinese mist, and the temperature was a damp 15 degrees. The Cantonese busily and joylessly went about their daily lives in drab clothes, and the place looked about as exotic as Birmingham in the Autumn.
I had never noticed it before, but Hong Kongers don’t look happy-busy and purposeful, certainly, but not happy. Perhaps it’s just because I’ve spent the last nine months in Thailand, ‘the land of smiles’, and those guys are so happy they’d make Santa’s Elves look like a miserable bunch of workaholic dullards. In Thailand, one of the worst insults that can be leveled against you is being ‘serious’. The word only has negative connotations there, so it’s not surprising that Thais who visit China are rarely impressed by the place, or more particularly, the people. Certainly, Hong Kongers don’t have the steely-eyed grimness of Muscovites, but they also don’t go through their day with a smile on their face, a song on their lips, and a magical glint in their eye. On the other hand, neither do I, and if I ever start doing so, I’ve instructed my wife to shoot me, or at least poke me in the eye with a chopstick, which she has agreed to do-all too readily, come to think of it.
But let’s return to our trip. We went through the tedious formalities of customs, and I went through my habitual moan about my passport being filled with stamps for traveling from one part of China to another. The problem, you see, is that for foreigners, traveling between Hong Kong, Macao and China proper are require form filling and passport stamping from their boys in black and blue, the border guards-men trained for years in how to go through their entire working day without ever showing the slightest flicker of human emotion. I wonder how they do it. Perhaps they have to sit through old episodes of Star Trek and study Science Officer Spock until they are brainwashed into believing they are part Vulcan and incapable of emotion. These are the things you think of in the endless border queues.
Anyway, after the border formalities, we brought our slightly quesy stomachs onto dry land, and set about looking for a loo. This is not as straightforward as you might think, as Asian Shopping Centre architectects set out to hide them in the unlikeliest of places, believing that if they make you walk around for long enough, you’ll make an impulse purchase. Personally, I’ve never enjoyed shopping, and I’m even less likely than normal to pop into Benetton to buy a fluffy jumper when what I really want to do is empty my bladder. But after ten minutes that seemed like longer and another ten minutes to find the exit of the shopping centre (those wily architects also hide those, the fiends), we found ourselves in Hong Kong amidst the skyscrapers.
To be more precise, we were on an elevated walkway. The centre of hong Kong is full of them, and to be honest, I think they’re wonderful. I kind of feel like I’m walking on air, removed from the traffic fumes and the eternally red pedestrian traffic lights. It’s all a bit like being an extra from a Star trek episode, a contented automaton in a futuristic metropolis. However, if you’re not careful about where you’re walking, you can easily end up in another Mall, and if you wander too far, you may never find you’re way out of it again.
However, we kept our bearings, and soon descended into the middle of Hong kong’s financial district, where all the best skyscrapers are to be be found. Hong kong has more skyscrapers than any other city on Earth. I’m not talking per capita of population or anything, I’m talking absolute numbers here. It has a whopping 7,417 of them; 2,000 more than its nearest rival, New York. Moreover, their set between the backdrop of Victoria Harbour on one side and a mountain on the other, which only adds to their appeal.
A skyscraper, you might object, is just an ugly building, but I don’t agree. In Central Hong Kong, they look like works of art. They have style and panache. The architects actually seem ed to be trying for once (perhaps they grew tired of hiding toilets in shopping malls) and their financial backers must have locked their eunuch counterparts in a Mall toilet and used their balls for once. The centre of Hong Kong is what all cities should look like, and we should live and work in these gleaming utopias, challenging the sky and aiming upwards, upwards, ever upwards. We could get 10-year-olds to design them before the educational system has robbed them of daring. Even London could be squashed into a fraction of its present size if we tore up the suburbs and let people live in buildings they could be proud of. Not rabbit hutches, not council-built Lego sets, but real buildings. The retreat of the countryside could be halted, and land returned to agricultural production. Children could fight in the school yards about who lived in the coolest skyscraper. All would be perfect, evermore! Or perhaps it’s a terrible idea, but Hong Kong’s skyscrapers can turn a boy’s head.
In the centre of Central, we took a break, a lunch break. We went to some Yuppie place and had a smoothie, or to give it its proper name, a ‘Power Booster’, and ate a ‘Tofu Full-On Energiser’, and forked over a powerful sum of money for the privilege. However, all the staff enthusiastically wished me a good day, and seemed inordinately keen on me enjoying my meal. I don’t know why they were so taken with me…
The other clientele were very well dressed, and spoke with that semi-American accent the ruling elite in Asia seem to cultivate in their children. In the group of four pretty young things next to me, for example, there were four different races speaking with same accent, dressed the same way and displaying the same gestures. Is this the ‘new global society’ I hear so much about, and if so, why did it make me so uneasy?
Perhaps because it’s not quite the egalitarian meritocracy it first appears to be. They might look good in a ‘United Colors of Benetton’ ad, but these future captains of industry are none other than the offspring of the present captains of industry, preened in exclusive private schools, and set to inherit the earth. The positions of power and prestige are not won by hard work and aptitude on a level playing field. They never were. They are passed on from generation to generation. The poor, for the most part, are excluded through lack of opportunity. I wondered if this was the same in mainland China. When the Soviet Union fell from grace, the ‘Communist aristocracy’ scrambled around and grabbed the wealth to preserve their place at the head of the trough. I wondered if the cadres in China were doing the same thing.
My analysis came to an abrupt end when I noticed the group I was studying had realised I was staring at them and taking notes. Even though I am white, which is always a status symbol in Asia, they recognized by my relatively shabby appearance and lack of brand names that I did not belong in their class-not quite ‘white trash’ but certainly not an ‘alpha male’. I stopped writing before they called the police and had me thrown to the dogs, or thrown to the chickens, or whatever animal they throw you to in this part of the world.
In the afternoon, we took a funicular up the side of the mountain, and took in the view from ‘The Peak’, Hong Kong’s park/shopping centre at the summit of one of its mountains. I’d like to say it inspired me, but I’ve already seen it so many times that it did nothing for me, so I spent my time ear-wigging on a telephone conversation between an obese English woman and her family back home. She spoke of nothing else but what she had bought and how little she had paid for it. I earwigged and earwigged, convinced that she would have to change the conversational topic sooner or later, but she didn’t. Eventually, she hung up, and I was forced to seek other entertainment. I looked at the mist for a while, and felt glum.
In the evening, we had a fantastically expensive but mediocre Indian meal in one of Hong Kong’s ridiculously termed ‘budget’ restaurants. Trying to recover from the shock, we went to a bar and paid eight dollars for a beer in one of Hong Kong’s backpacker bars. This particular backpacker was hemorrhaging cash, and decided to head for China proper, where a beer costs a dollar, as God intended.
Zhuhai
Zhuhai is not famous. Marco Polo didn’t bother to visit it, for example, perhaps because it didn’t exist. Indeed, if I had gone there as a teenager, I would have found a sleepy fishing village surrounded by paddy fields. When I first saw it, three years ago, it was my first time in China, propelled there by the mysterious forces that drive EFL teachers to check out the quality of the grass in other fields. It was my first time out of the comfortable paddock of the European Union, and I was surprised by what I found. I stayed for a year, and I had a good time. My students were friendly and the school treated me well. In fact, coming from Spain, where you’re pretty on your own and it’s a case of sink or swim and do it fast, were embarrassingly helpful. However, in spite of the charms of the place, I spend the last third of my contract itching to leave. It’s simply too small and orderly to hold you, but having said that, many westerns did stay here for much longer, and some never leave.
Let’s begin with a quick introduction. Zhuhai is a Special Economic Zone (SEZ-not to be confused with an SAR-Special Administrative Region, like Hong Kong and Macao). The SEZ’s were set up by Deng Zhou Ping in his last days to transform the moribund Chinese economy into something more prosperous and vibrant. “To get rich,” he was later to proclaim, “is glorious.” The SEZ’s are where people come to get rich, and the Capitalist economic model of free competition thrives and free markets reign. As a result, Zhuhai went from a forgotten fishing village in the eighties to a rapidly expanding city of about 1.5 million today. This is still small by Chinese standards, but it’s growing daily.
Those Chinese fortunate to live in this new capitalist utopia must obtain permission to work here. In a way difficult to comprehend to Westerners, the Chinese are not free to move from one part of China to another in search of a better job. The Party is keen to create an orderly urbanization in China, and fears the chaos that would ensue if China’s rural poor, who still make up 60 per cent of the population and often live on less than a dollar a day, were to suddenly up sticks and arrive en mass in the cities and the SEZ’s. While one can bemoan the lack of personal freedom, it should be noted that Chinese cities do not suffer from the slums and shanty towns of other third world nations.
So, the people in Zhuhai and nearby Shenzen, China’s number one SEZ bordering Hong Kong, are the lucky ones, who have arrived at the miracle land where fortunes are there to be taken and the streets are paved with gold. They have opportunities and can afford a lifestyle the average peasant could only dream of. Nevertheless, by Western standards, they still lead a tough life, for the most part. For every rich factory owner in a flash car with tainted windows, there are a thousand factory workers, sleeping 10 to a dorm room, and getting one day off a week. Their real working day is often 12 hours long, and their average salary would not tempt a work shy European dole bird out of bed, but they’re not going to give it up for a life of toil and drudgery in the paddy fields, or a dead end job in some less successful city under the ever watchful eye of their work unit manager. Moreover, with a national growth rate pushing 10 per cent, and themselves at the vanguard of that growth, they know, or at least believe, things can only get better.
Zhuhai is known in China as ‘Zhuhai Piaoliang’ or ‘Beautiful Zhuhai’, because of it’s coastal location, and immaculately manicured parks. It’s one of the greenest cities in China, and people often come here for their honeymoon, or holiday here, if they can afford it. Having said that, Hong Kongers and Japanese often come here for its relatively cheap prostitutes, but unless you go looking for them, you’ll never see them. Moreover, the brochures seem to rely on trick photography when they depict the crystal blue waters of the sea, as they’re invariably a muddy brown from the silt and pollution of the mighty Pearl river delta.
The Party has big plans for Zhuhai and Shenzen, and the Communist Party is quite good at turning grand plans into reality. If they succeed, I might return here in 20 years time to find myself in the biggest city on Earth, a metropolis almost too large to imagine. The idea is to link Guangzhou (China’s third city of 10 million) with Hong Kong, through a massively expanded Zhuhai and Shenzen, and create one massive conurbation-an area the size of France with a 100 million plus population. It sounds crazy, but I think it could happen. The Chinese see nature as something to be controlled and conquered, and the idea of needing a ‘green belt ring’ around a city was an idea my students didn’t really seem to comprehend, much less agree with. The Han see it as their right to rule, and if that means mega cities of 100 million, then so be it. Westerners may bemoan the environmental destruction and inhumanity of such colossal cities, but how many of us would volunteer to return to a life of toil in the fields, or wish such a life on our descendants, to protect something as ephemeral as the environment?
The Party sees its role as one of freeing people, not from dictatorship, but from poverty and want. Indeed, the Party has already freed more people from poverty in the last 20 years than all the NGO’s put together. My only concern is that an increasingly fragile Planet Earth will find itself incapable of supporting a rich China and its inevitable pollution, massive on a scale as yet unknown. Our future, and whether we have one, may be decided in here in the SEZ’s.
My thoughts turned to more mundane matters as we tried to get out of Zhuhai. Travelling is China is rarely easy. Matters are not helped by travel agency’s annoying tendency to hire people with little or no grasp of English, and a complete inability to understand foreigners when they try to speak Chinese. Things are made worse by their consummate lying. We were told by one travel agency, for example, that we had to wait three days for a flight to Guilin, our next destination, but we were told by another that we had to fly that exact day. One travel agency says there are no buses to that destination at that time of year, and another tells you you’ve just missed today’s bus. They are also wont to try to change your holiday plans, which you are obviously incapable of planning for yourself, and always keen to send you to an alternative destination, which coincidentally, they happen to have a tour of, and it has a special discounted price.
The trick is to pigheadedly go from travel agency to travel agency until you get the answer you’re looking for, and then buy the ticket immediately before they change their mind. On no accounts should you believe them if they tell you to come back tomorrow or the next day to pick up or pay for a ticket as this ticket will become mysteriously unavailable.
On our last night in China, we had dinner with our old Chinese teacher. I spoke to her about the possibility of a meag city in Guang Dong, but he seemed doubtful. ‘What,’ she asked, ‘could all these peasants do, except clean, wait on tables, and work on construction?’ Peasants, as I had noted before in China, are not well thought of.
She is principally an English teacher, and as near to fluent as any non-native speaker can get. There’s still an occasional mistake, of courswe, like when she mentioned that the restaurant we were in had been giving out ‘flies’ to passing pedestrians to attract customers. I think she meant ‘fliers’, but with Gunagdong eating habits, you can never be sure.
Shortly after I first arrived in China, I stopped walking when I noticed a really cute Siberian husky in a pet shop window. I very much a ‘dog lover’, I freely admit, and as the sweat dripped from my nose in the height of the humid Chinese summer, I felt sorry for the puppy in his glass cage. I then noticed more puppies, kittens, an array of exotic fish and even a baby kangaroo. ‘What an odd pet shop’, I thought to myself. As I peered through some foggy air-conditioned windows to see what other animals could be seen, I noticed rows and rows of tables, the clinking of ceramic chopsticks and occasional bones being spat out of mouths and onto the floor, a Chinese trait that never fails to make me wince. It seemed like an odd combination to me-a restaurant and a pet shop. It slowly dawned on me that the pets in the window were actually part of the menu. I felt sick to my stomach, but the puppy kept wagging its fluffy white tail, oblivious to all danger.
My vegetarian instincts told me to run into the restaurant and harass the customers into feelings of abject guilt, and harange them into bringing the pets home as a sign of remorse. The only problem with this proposition was my own shyness and the fact that I had about 10 words of Chinese at the time. I could just about say that I didn’t eat me, but the rest of my message would have difficult to convey. In hindsight, I’m not even sure there was a message to convey. The British and Americans do like to get on their high horse about cruelty to animals, and the british, in particular, like to consider themselves ‘top-dogs’ when it comes to the league of animal lovers. However, it is conveniently forgotten that factory farming is most widespread in Britain, and the cruelty of a factory farm greatly exceeds the cruelty of a Chinese one. Perhaps a factory farmed hen would dream of being able to sit outside in a cage in a restaurant while waiting for death. At least that way, when the customer used his finger to point out his desired victim, as they often do in China, the hen could look his assassin the eye, and take the image to eternity.
In much the same way, I believe, the sterile, cold and calculating holocaust of Dacau is somehow more revolting that the torture chambers of the imperial dynasties. It is those who kill by numbers, without emotion, who shall face the worst kind of hell… especially if God turns out to be a chicken!
On our last day in Zhuhai, we paid a visit to the school we used to work in. The non-Chinese teachers we had worked with had long since flown the coop, as TEFL teachers are a migratory bird, and need to keep moving. Occasionally, they take a fancy to one place, or find a partner there, build a nest and drop an egg or two, or they grow old and return home to die, but in general, they can’t resist the call of the wind, and keep moving.
I sometimes think this need to keep moving is the natural human state. We evolved as hunter-gatherers in the African savanna, but quickly spread out to colonise the planet, more thoroughly than any species before us, and home became wherever you laid your spear. Mass migrations continued, even though the world was long since full up. The recent colonization and conquest of the Americas is one example. Today, the third world moves north to claim its share of the pie, and borders, a very modern invention, can only delay rather than stop people moving. It is an innate desire of the species, I maintain, to move on, even though most people in our over-crowded world have to suppress this desire and are born, live and die in one place. Nomadic TEFL teachers are blessed in being able to roam freely and comfortably.
Some of the Chinese staff from the school were still there, however, and they seemed glad to see us again. In fact, much more than I had expected. They said we had left a deep impression in the heads of many of our students, which sounded a bit like we had thumped them in the skull with a hammer, but I’m sure they meant something nicer. I was genuinely sad to say goodbye again, and it takes a lot to make a cynical misanthrope like me feel like that.
Eventually, we had managed to buy a ticket out, but it involved an unwanted three hour bus ride to Guangzhou airport. In the airport, a thunderstorm came out of nowhere, just to remind us we were still in the tropics, and the rain fell so heavily that you couldn’t see out the window, which looked like a car window does in an car wash. If you peered closely enough though, you could see the planes were still taking off, dodging lightning forks in the night sky as they went.
Guangzhou airport is super modern, and makes Heathrow look like a museum piece. So much of China looks ultra modern and high-tech. It’s weird. They were eons behind the west, and then in the blink of an eye, they suddenly seemed to have leap-frogged us and become more modern. If this was a 21st century hare and tortoise fable, we would be the hare, watching as six-million dollar tortoise sprinted towards the finish line.
There is still an enormous amount of poverty and backwardness in China, of course, and I had yet to see the worst of it. However, even on the bus from Zhuhai SEZ to the metropolis of Guangzhou, the eight-lane dual carriageways past peasant farmers in straw hats tilling the land by hand, with the occasional reluctant help of a water buffalo, much as they have done for centuries. Between the belching factories and the dehumanizing tower blocks, greyer than an Irish winter sky, giant oxen plough the fields, and banana plantation trees sway nonchalantly. Bridges so long you can’t see the end of them cross the endless Pearl River delta with ease, as tiny wooden fishing boats try to eek a living by finding what few fish can survive its muddied polluted waters. Any fish that can survive in that deserves a break, I say, and even if they were evil fish which didn’t, I’d rather not eat them. But ‘hunger is a great sauce,’ as my granny used to say.
As always, everything was covered in mist, but the nearer you got to Guangzhou, the more acrid and polluted the air became. It looked like the smog was yellowing the mist. I could almost feel it clogging my lungs, or at least, fighting with the cigarette tar for prime real estate.
The plane, to my surprise, ignored the raging storm, and took off into the worst turbulence I’ve ever encountered. The air hostess said something in appalling English, which I couldn’t really make out, but it sounded something like, “We will be holding a Chinese funeral service shortly,” but I’m sure she meant something else. They left the lights out for the entire flight, not just landing and take off, presumably following Nirvana’s sage advice in ‘Smells Like teen Spirit’
“With the lights out, It’s less dangerous”
None of this seemed to remotely perturb the Chinese on the flight, that is, everyone except Sandra and I, and they all slept like babies.

Guilin/Yangshuo

There are few things in life more depressing than finding yourself in a Chinese bus station early in the morning. The sound of hawking phlegm; the hoards of barking Chinese tourists chaotically milling to and fro, as if war had just been declared and they only had 10 minutes to flee for their lives before the Japanese arrived; the indecipherable Chinese characters on notice boards that you can’t help looking at in the vain hope of finding where the ticket office is hidden, or suddenly and miraculously developing the ability to read them; the unhelpful staff who can’t or won’t understand your pigeon Chinese (“qing-mai piao-na li”/ please-buy ticket-where”); the innumerable dodgy characters who seem to have made a profession of hanging around bus stations eyeing up peoples’ bags, like vultures waiting for a moment of weakness; filthy begging bowls being stuffed in your puss; scheming taxi drivers determined to get that fare of a lifetime by attempting to charge you ten times what they’d charge a Chinese. It’s all made worse by the hunger pangs in your stomach because you just can’t face another bowl of stir-fried vegetables covered in slime. You chain smoke cigarettes for something to do, and to keep yourself alert.
This is one of the down sides of traveling. Some claim the best part of any trip is the journey, but if bus stations were the best part of any trip, I’d never leave home!
Eventually we found ourselves in yangshuo, which my guide book describes as ledgendary. The reason for its mythic status are its karsk rock formations. In other words, it contains those odd jutting sugar loaf type mountains you always associate with China. The entire region was once underwater, and the landscape does look oddly subterranean, except for the lack of fish, of course. In fact, from watching Chinese documentaries, you might be fooled into believing that the whole of China is covered with these formations, which of course, it isn’t. However, they are here, and in abundance-thousands and thousands of them.
Thry looked strangly familiar to me, and it took me a long while to figure out why. Then I suddenly realized that the memories it stirred in me were dim childhood recolations of the TV series ‘Monkey’. You know, the monkey king who was, as the theme song proclaimed:
“Born on an egg on a mountain top
Funkiest monkey there ever was
He knew all the magic under the sun
He decided to defy the Gods
And have some fun
Monkey magic
Monkey magic”
As a kid, I couldn’t get enough of this simian and his magic cloud, which he used to fly from place to place and could summon it by merely blowing through his fingers. Throughout this holiday, I was often to wish I possessed the same cloud. He and his companions, Fishy and Pigsy, not to forget the sage wisdom of Tributaka, the monk entrusted to carry the holy Buddhist scriptures from India to China, were unmissable Thursday afternoon viewing for me. Tributaka’s philosophy of non-violence and the attainment of enlightenment through the elimination of desire left a deep impression of my pre-pubescent mind, and even though the Buddhist message was watered down for kids, it certainly put Scooby Doo to shame.
The programme and its scenery kept me glued to the box, rather than out playing football, or whatever it is kids are meant to do. Every episode might have been filmed here in Yangshuo, and I kept an eye out for King Monkey, but he never showed up. Perhaps Mao had him purged, or he found himself unable to adapt to free market economic reforms. Come to think of it, the show must have been made in Hong Kong or Taiwan, as the communists were busy destroying monasteries at the time, and shows about sacred quests would most certainly have been infra dig at the time. So, I guess Monkey wasn’t here at all, but I kept an eye out for him and his magic cloud nonetheless, especially just before long bus trips.
We were lucky that the mist and cloud cleared for one and we could see the hills in all their undulating glory. We took a short river trip on a small boat and tried to take it all in. CCTV9, the government run English language TV station in China, which I found my self watching a lot through lack of an alternative, often harks on about this place, and shows pretty young westerners being hyponotised by its scenic spiritual beauty, and then deciding to spend the rest of their lives here. Personally, I think three days is enough. Geological features, I’ve always found, lose their appeal quite quickly, and already they were just becoming tall lumps of green rock, sticking up like giant spots, and there was no sign of Monkey anywhere.
Nevertheless, the mountains are certainly beautiful, especially if you get to see them on foot or on a bike. My ever troublesome left foot, Sandra’s stomach pains, and the ever present threat of rain, meant that serious hiking was out of the question. However, we did manage to haul our creaking frames onto a pair of mountain bikes for a few hours. In order to avoid the hassle of having to read a map and trying to choose a good route, we took a local guide with us. It was only 5 dollars for a half day, but I’m sure I could have bargained him down to one third that figure, if only I didn’t hate bargaining so much. I’ve always disliked guides, but it was too ‘fang bien’ (convenient) to resist.
What annoys me about guides is that they always want to milk you for every yuan you’re worth, so despite my patent and grumpy lack of interest, there was a lot of the usual guide stuff, like trying to flog us unwanted tours and providing unwanted information, such as:
“This-rice field”
“This-buffalo”
“This-farmer”
“This-new department store-I have friend there-you want good Chinese silk?-I get you cheap price-big discount-you want?”
Nevertheless, every so often my steely contemptuous looks would make him shut up long enough to take in some of the scenery, which was, as they say, breathtaking. There are about 20,000 of the of these karsk hill things, and they can leave you dizzy, or perhaps that was the lack of oxygen going to by brain, as it had been about five years since I was last on a bike. You had to keep your eyes on the dirt road too, or you could find yourself sliding into a muddy ditch, or crashing into a rock and going head-over-heels off your bike and head butting a mournful water buffalo. What a way to go-trampled to death by an angry buffalo for disturbing his dinner.
The town of Yangshuo is, in itself, an anomaly. I’m writing this in a café in the town’s centre, on Xie Jie, or West Street. It’s a pedestrian zone lined by innumerable cafes, with names like, Minnie Mao, Drifters, Wild West, and my personal favourite, Co-Co, which used to be called Coca Cola, until the long arm of the omnipotent corporation threatened them with a libel suit. They offer not only English menus, but also reasonably authentic Western food, a welcome rest bite from fried vegetables covered in white slime. I’ve just had a Chinese curry, which is unique in my 12 months in China in that it actually tasted like the Chinese curry I used to have in Ireland.
The street also supports a repetitive array of souvenir stalls, in one of which I picked up a copy of Chairman Mao’s ‘Little Red Book.’ In one of his sermons, he warns about the dangers of adapting, even slightly, the centrally planned economy, arguing that even a tiny loosening of the communist controlled system would snowball out of control, and allow the capitalist roaders and rightists to create an economic system based on greed and this would destroy the socialist nature of the state within twenty years. I wonder what he’s make of today’s China, as near as damn it to naked capitalism, red in tooth and claw.
Yangshuo has more than its fair share of touts, and none of them are touting communism, let me tell you. As these karsk rock formations are unfarmable, land here is quite poor, there’s nothing for the locals to live off except tourists, and as this was low season, there were a hell of a lot of locals trying to feed off a very limited number of tourists.
Bloated ‘Foreign Devils’ are especially appealing to the Vampire Touts of Yangshuo, and I only wish ‘Monkey’ was here to protect me from them. The never ending requests to clean my boots are beginning to fray my admittedly limited temper, and the postcard touts, who seem to be genetically incapable of understanding the word “NO!!!”, might just send me into a homicidal rage, worthy of my ‘Monkey’ idol.
The hotel touts are the worst. They are tenacious little devils, and they follow the weary and bewildered travellers from the bus station, and drag them to their hotels and guesthouses, wearing your resistance down like dripping water will wear down a rock.
I shouldn’t complain too much though, as for only 6 dollars a night, we’ve got a really nice room, and the fact that you can’t take a shit without blocking the toilet is only a minor inconvenience. The landlady also agreed, after some negotiation, to let us have the remote control so we could turn on the heating, and I’m hoping she’ll forgive me for the piece of wood that fell off the bathroom door in my strenuous attempts to yank it open.
At this stage, I would like to give a brief description of Chinese bathrooms. They are best described as ‘functional’, in that they just about perform all the functions they were designed for. However, Chinese efficiency has led to the elimination of certain unnecessary features. Why bother with a toilet seat, for example, when you can just squat over a hole in the floor and drop your stool like a bombardier, and enjoy the innocent fun of listening to it come to a squelchy stop from a height? And to take things one step further, why bother separating the toilet from the shower when you can combine the two by simply placing a drain in the floor? In fact, if you really wanted to save time, you could conceivably shit, shave, brush your teeth and shower all at the same time! To think of all the time I’ve wasted in my life by not doing these things simultaneously. I could have saved at least 30 minutes a day. Some quick calculations show me that I’ve wasted about 1500 hours in my life to inefficiency. If only I had spent that time learning Chinese, I could thank them for their insight.
One afternoon, we went to see “Guilin’s Magical Caves-a Natural Wonderland and Heavenly Sight Transposed on Earth.” People come from all over China to see them, and as I hadn’t been in a cave since I was a mere sapling, I was looking forward to it. They were impressive, I admit, but hardly my idea of Heaven. Indeed, if heaven is a stygian cave, then what must hell be like? As so often with Chinese tourist attractions, they had attempted to improve on nature and in doing so, ruined it. The caves had been lit up in a kalidescopic array of colours to make them look more spooky and surreal, but it also had the effect of making them look like something out of Disneyland. However, I seemed to be alone in this opinion, and the Chinese tourists in the flock of sheep we were being shepherded in ‘oohed’ and ‘ahed’ right on cue. There were an awful lot of named rocks, like the ‘1000 Buddha’s Rock,’ the ‘Chicken Rock,’ or the ‘Golden Key Rock’. In the ‘Rocks that Look Like Something Else’ competition, there was some prize specimens here.
It was just after the ‘Golden Key Rock,’ that Sandra started rummaging in my bag, gasping something about a plastic bad. Even though we were at the back of the flock, I didn’t think it was a good idea to try to steal the ‘Golden Key’. For one thing, it was technically theft, and for another, the rock was about a metre long, and wouldn’t fit in the plastic bag. However, she wanted the bag for a different purpose. Just after getting the plastic bag out of my backpack, she projected some multicoloured vomit into it, and if there hadn’t been a bag, she would have had to add some more colours of her own on a nearby green stalactite, which might have become a tourist attraction in its own right to future flocks of tour groups-‘the Lumpy Psychedelic Stalactite of 2005,’ perhaps. We hung back from the rest of our group for the remainder of the tour, and thankfully the tour guides megaphone dampened the occasional retching cries of Sandra and her bag of fried vegetable delights.
Fortunately, Sandra made a full recovery, and that night we went to see another attraction beloved of Chinese tour groups in Guilin, the ‘Light Show.’ It has a cast of hundreds and takes place on a man made lake. The actors use pontoons to move around the lake, but it looks like they’re floating on water. The choreography, lighting and timing are truly amazing, and I made a mental note not to miss the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. When it comes to choreographed spectacles, the Chinese are unbeatable.
A Bus Ride in Haedes
Long bus journeys are always unpleasant. 27-hour bus rides are worse than unpleasant! You join me in hour 22. My backside feels like concrete, and I wouldn’t be surprised if gangrene has set in. My neck is killing me from trying to fall asleep in a series of uncomfortable positions, each one more uncomfortable that the last. The age of the bus and the appalling roads make me feel as if the bus is using my head in the same way a pinball machine uses the speedball. I’m tired, hungry and I want nothing more than to be off this infernal bus. I’d give my right arm to be off it-I may have already permanently most all feeling in my ass and the ability to move my neck.
Let me describe the bus to you, in case you’re ever fooled by a Chinese travel agent into believing that a ‘Super VIP Bus’ is something that might pass its MOT without substantial bribery. Firstly, the bus is very old. In human years, it must be about 15-20 years old, and as with dogs, each bus year is the equivalent of seven human years, so the bus is really well over 100 years old. Many of the windows are cracked and held together with copious amounts of sticky tape. The seats were probably never comfortable, but age has not been kind to them. Everything on the bus is grotty and dirty-it’s the kind of place where you don’t want to touch anything because you’d have to wash your hands afterwards with medical disinfectant. As we went to sit down, we saw a small orange cockroach was on our seat waiting to welcome us to his ancestral home. Sandra deftly crushed him and buried him in a plastic bag, which we kept beside us as a warning to his family and friends. Unperturbed, a few hours later, a roach colleague turned out to bid us welcome, and he was quickly dispatched and buried with his friend. I dread to think how many were crawling over us once it got dark. The darkness, however, could not hide the odour from the passenger beind me, who had feet only a doggy could love.
The VCD player on the bus treated us to an 24 hour-long episodes of a costume drama period piece. I’ve no idea what it was called-something like ‘Kung-Fu Monks and the Magic Mirror,’ I suppose. Each episode was the same-really poor kung-fu fights, cheap costumes and sets that looked like they had been knocked up in a hurry using only egg cartons by a bunch of Blue Peter rejects.
The dialogue was periodically drowned out by the sound of a passenger hawking phlegm at a decibel level loud enough to provoke landslides, and then spitting a disappointingly small amount of phlegm into a bag, or onto the floor if the driver wasn’t looking. With all the noise produced by the hawking, I imagined some kind of mutant alien creature was going to emerge from a gaping mouth and devour all the passengers. By hour 10 of the journey, I would have volunteered to be gobbled first. Anything to end the bus journey.
I changed my mind about that when, at Hour 8, we stopped at a ‘roadside café’, for want of a better term, for a dining experience I’ll never forget. The café-cum-shack looked more like a bright garage than anything else, and it had a post-Armaggedon Mad max kind of bareness to it. There was one wok, a gas cylinder beneath it, and a large bamboo drum of pre-cooked rice. If civilization does collapse, this is where we’ll all be eating… Pass me the handgun-I don’t want to live in such a world. The Chinese, of course, saw nothing strange in the place, and happily munched away, stopping only occasionally to spit out bones they’d sucked dry and engage in copious amounts of hawking phlegm, which they could now spit on the floor, unperturbed by our kill-joy driver.
If I had been starving and on the very cusp of death, I might have been persuaded to nibble some of the rice, but I figured there was more than enough body fat on me to see me through the trip. Have you ever noticed that you never get food poisoning from eating your own body fat? Perhaps that’s why it evolved-to protect you on long Chinese bus journeys.
The toilet was an adjoining shed with four cubicles separated by walls of concrete bricks. The wall, however, was only a couple of bricks high, so when I entered I was met by the grimacing supine figures of other passengers crouching to make deposits. They all smoked cheap Chinese cigarettes to speed up the process, and to add to an already overpowering smell. As I peed into one of the cubicles, or cubiclettes, I noticed that there weren’t any holes to swallow my pee, just a drain, so my small fragrant stream of pee would have to wash away the turds of my neighbours. This wasn’t the meeting of cultures I had hoped from this holiday.
I tried to rise above the discomfort and concentrate on the Sichwan countryside. Western Sichwan is one of the most fertile areas of China, 80 per cent of which is barren and only suitable for light grazing, at best. To be more precise, the soil in Sichwan is fertile, but the hilly landscape makes mechanical farming impossible, and the average irish famer would simply plonk a few sheep there and wait for the EU subsidies to roll in.
The Chinese, however, have altered the landscape to suit their needs. They’ve terraced the hills to allow rice production, using only mud, sweat and an occasional buffalo. I’ve haven’t seen a single tractor yet, and I don’t think they could stop themselves from toppling over in this hilly terrain. There are also innumerable green rivers and streams, and on the higher hills, where even the Chinese can’t farm, trees cling on perilously, wondering what has happened to what was once their sole domain. Every now and then, market gardens appear, as much of China’s fruit is cultivated here, and lest you forget that China is now the industrial workshop of the world, overloaded giant coal trucks clog up the roads. We pass through village after village, whose shops look like garages and are full of old men whose main business seems to be sitting around.
All in all, the trip was the most wretched and uncomfortable in my life, but I suppose I’m glad I did it, in a masochistic way, as it showed me how most people actually travel in China. The mobile phone wielding businessmen you see in the airports are a tiny minority. Even my passengers on the Haedes Express are by no means poor, and they all had mobile phones too, come to think of it. The average Chinese peasant, on a dollar a day, could only dream of holidaying in a different province, and might regard the bus journey I’ve been vilifying as an interesting experience.
Sandra and I, however, spend a large part of the trip in witty banter about whose fault it was that we were on a 27-hour bus journey rather than a 1-hour fight. I remembered it as being a mutual decision, brought about by our desire to see the countryside, a gross misunderstanding of the term ‘Super VIP bus’, and an attempt to stop us hemorrhaging money. Sandra, however, had a very different memory of events, and claimed she had wanted to take the plane and I had insisted, Scrooge-like, on the bus. It’s often like that with us. Reality is subjective, I guess.
Chengdu
The first thing you notice on arriving in Chengdu is a sudden deterioration in air quality. China boasts nine out of ten of the world’s most polluted cities. Chengdu is by no means the worst of them, and there are few cars here, as China’s economic miracle has not really reached this far inland. Nevertheless, after a few days in the country, you do notice that something is very wrong with the air you’re breathing. The pollution must be industrial, but after a few hours, you stop noticing it. It is this adaptability of mankind that may prove our undoing. We can put up with almost any level of pollution, and won’t start to really do something about it until we’re a few hours from choking to death on it, and by then it will be too late. With this happy though in my head, I left the bags in my musty hotel room, guarded by some 1950’s furniture, old world charm, and peeling wallpaper, and set off into Chengdu.
Chengdu, in central China, has a population of about 5 million and a history that spans over a thousand years. As with most Cinese cities, history has been destroyed by war, progress and indifference, and little or nothing of its history survives. The city contains wide boulevards, some faceless communist architecture even Stalin wouldn’t be proud of, and an enormous number of bicycles, which by some perpetual miracle, manage not to collide into one another.
We went to the People’s Park which was full of pensioners doting over chubby grandchildren. We sat in a teahouse, fought off the touts, desperate as always to clean my boots and loath to take ‘no’ for an answer, and watched them play. Sociologists tell us that the extended family has been replaced by the nuclear family, but no-one told China, and people continue to live three generations to a flat in relative harmony. Both parents usually work, and upon retirement, the grandparents settle down to a life of bringing up infants. As they themselves probably had full-time jobs when their own children were growing up, it is often their first experience of full-time parenting, and judging by the happy scenes in the park, they seem to enjoy it. I imagine the one-child policy makes things easier for them.
Indeed, Chinese pensioners seem to be a great deal happier tan their western counterparts, who are left to rot away in old-folks home or die in freezing flats; unwanted, frightened and considered a burden by a society that has moved on. Their Chinese counterparts, on the other hand, are respected and seen to play a vital role.
In the park, it was mainly grandmothers who watched over the toddling ‘little emperors’ while the old men gathered in groups and played cards, mahjong or held impromptu discussions. Some of them still wore blue Mao suits and eyed me suspiciously, and I wondered if things got nasty whether I could outrun them or not. They had the numbers, but I still had my own teeth.
What they were discussing, I have no idea, but they seemed quite animated. It all seems so much better than a semi-circle of pensioners in an old-folks home in England, rotting zombie-like around the inane nothingness that is day time TV.
After the park, we visited an ancient temple, luckily not central enough to have suffered the same fate as an even older temple, whose name I’ve forgotten, which was demolished to make room for an enormous Mao statue during the cultural Revolution. The temple was full of Taoist devotees dutifully leaving incense sticks at various Buddha images. It kind of surprised me, as the Chinese I met had always seemed uninterested in religion, but of course, my knowledge of what Chinese think or don’t think is limited to classroom discussions, and as the PSB (Chinese police) often operate incognito, students were always careful about what they said or didn’t say in class. Expressing a strong religious affiliation still makes your loyalty to the Party questionable, in spite of all the religious freedom propaganda the Party’s been spouting lately, so if you have strong religious convictions in China, you tend to keep them to yourself.
The temple’s monks were a lot less colourful than their saffron-robed Thai counterparts, and held in far less esteem, needless to say. However, the horrors of the Cultural Revolution are long since passed, and monks are no longer forced to attend re-education sessions, take their monasteries apart brick by brick and rebuild them as barracks, factories or even pig sties. Buddhism, under the ever watchful eyes of the Party, does appear to be making a slow comeback in China, but it’s hard to imagine it ever occupying a central role in people’s lives again. Even in Hong Kong and Macao, where Buddhism was never suppressed, it is somehow ephemeral and almost irrelevant to people’s daily concerns.
However, one should always beware of ‘false prophets’ and I could be mistaken in believing that because the Chinese don’t talk about religion much, it is not important to them.
We ate at a vegetarian restaurant in the temple complex. The tofu meat imitations were some of the most impressive I’ve ever had-it tasted so real that Sandra couldn’t eat it. She said it was just so much like real meat that it had to contain some meat. I had no such qualms, and trusted the monks not to slip me a piece of pork on the sly. I must have eaten nearly a whole chicken’s worth of spicy tofu, and paid for it later that night with some terrible stomach pains. Sichwanese food is very hot and spicy, and infinitely preferable to the greasy slime so characteristic of southern Guangdong cuisine.
To distract me from my red hot intestines, we spent the evening at a Sichwa opera, puppet show and shadow dancing ‘extravanganza.’ A purist might object that it was touristic, and to an extent it was, but 90 percent of the audience was Chinese, so I didn’t mind so much. Later, in Beijing, we forked out 25 dollars for an ‘authentic’ Beijing opera, in which 90 of the audience was western, and I couldn’t see any difference.
The costumes were psychedelic and almost other-worldly. The characters in Chinese opera usually represent Gods; such as the Money God, the Pride God, the God of Compassion etc. This explains the bizarre make up, the inhuman grimaces, and the screeching voices. As an ignorant westerners, I was completely lost and hadn’t the foggiest idea what was going on. It felt as though I had been transported to a different planet, where strange bipedal life forms occupied time and space in much the same way as I did, and appeared to be using sound as a means of communication, but what were saying or doing was unknown and unknowable. If astronauts are ever sent as emissaries to study new life forms, they should first be sent to see a Chinese opera to let them know in advance how little they can expect to understand. Captain Kirk had an easy time of it when he went off to meet ‘new life and new civilisations’. I wonder what Bones would have made of the opera characters. “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.” Yes, indeed.
The following day, we dragged ourselves out of bed at 6.30 to see some pandas in Chengdu’s world renowned ‘Panda Breeding and Research Centre.’ You have to get there early in the morning when the pandas like to eat and play. Otherwise, you just get to see them engage in their other favourite pastime-sleeping.
There’s no getting away from the fact that pandas are cute. I read somewhere that we find them so irresistible because the black markings around their eyes exaggerate their eyes’ size. Oversized eyes remind us of babies, which are hard wired to find adorable. Pandas are also fluffy, another admirable characteristic in animals, although less so in babies.
There are only about 1,000 pandas left in the wild, and with the remaining bamboo forest being eaten up by human expansion, their future or lack of it may be determined by the success or failure of breeding centres like this one, and according to the breeding statistics proudly displayed on the wall of the museum, this is by far the most successful breeding centre. It’s the Sex capital of the world, as far as pandas are concerned. There’s probably a Hugh Hefner panda somewhere around, publishing PlayPanda.
Pandas are very fussy animals. They will only eat bamboo, and only certain types of bamboo, in spite of having the digestive tract of a carnivore which is entirely unsuited to digesting it. Indeed, they often die from digestive problems.
They’re also very fussy about when they’ll mate and who they’ll mate with, and so artificial insemination is often used to get around this problem. You can’t help wondering though what goes through the mind of a panda when she realizes she’s pregnant but hasn’t had sex. Does she suspect the miraculous intervention of the Holy Panda Spirit? Does she therefore expect to give birth to a Messiah, a Jesus, a King of the Panda People?
We happily watched the pandas stuff their face on prime bamboo, and panda cubs frolic about for a few hours in the dewy mist, and then headed back into the smoggy pollution of Chengdu.
Pandas are so high profile, and government so keen not to be seen to let their extinction happen, that they’ll probably survive. The fate of other less lovable animals in much more grim. Although the Chinese government is unique in the world for having the balls to face the population problem head on and limit the number of children to one per family, although this policy is far from a success, the economic miracle means that Chinese pollution levels are increasing dramatically, and will increase a lot more, thereby further weakening an already fragile ecosystem. Yet again, I wonder if the planet can afford a rich China. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) may find, in twenty year’s time, that it has saved its emblem from extinction, but little else remains.
Only 1,000 pandas left-enough for a couple of tower blocks, perhaps.
Hum.. I’m thinking now of a potential science-fiction movie in which a great breakthrough is made in panda breeding by splicing the rat genes for reproduction with normal panda genes. Everything goes swimmingly, at first. Panda numbers rocket, and pretty soon, there are enough of them for people to keep them as pets, and the scientist who invented the process (played by Julia Roberts, I think) is universally acclaimed.
However, things take a dramatic turn for the worse when the panda genes mutate in unforeseen ways, and the pandas change from docile vegetarians into aggressive super intelligent carnivores, with a special affinity for human flesh, especially young virgin female flesh. They break out of their breeding centres and spread through the remaining forests of central Asia, increasing their numbers exponentially while preparing for a great assault on Chengdu.
In one scene, General Wee Pee, the panda leader, talks strategy with other panda generals, while Julia Roberts, held hostage in a small cage and taunted by thuggish panda guards, who call her ‘big mouth, baldy monkey face’, looks on helplessly. The Chengdu offensive takes the city in two days, and panic spreads through the world at large, as satellite TV images show humans being torn to shreds by bloodthirsty panda killers, their black and white fur splattered in red blood stains.
At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, the American President (played by somebody black or female, or preferably both) convinces everybody that the only way to retaliate is through a limited nuclear strike on the Sichwan area. The Chinese leader (played by Jackie Chan) at first proposes a kung-fu solution, but admits there isn’t time to train the populace and reluctantly agrees to the American plan, and the USAF drop the big one.
However, catastrophe strikes again when the radioactivity only makes the pandas stronger. New Super Mutant Pandas emerge from the ashes of Chengdu; 50 metres tall, with claws the size of cars, and laser eyes. The pandas look set to take over the world. Chairman Jackie Chan manages to take out a few with some deft martial arts moves outside the UN building, but he’s overpowered and all looks lost.
After a vicious genocidal war, human numbers are reduced to 1,000, and the pandas set up a Human Breeding Centre in London zoo. The humans are pampered and given everything they could need for a happy life; mobile phones, big cages, home entertainment systems and a McDonalds. Most of the humans settle in happily enough to their new lives of ease, and learn to ignore the panda cubs laughing at them and pointing at their antics, but ex-president Bush kind of enjoys all the attention, and performs special tricks to make the cubs throw monkey nuts.
Julia Roberts, however, refuses to accept her prison sentence, and joins a crack band of resistance fighters in a daring bid to escape from London Zoo. Then she breaks into a laboratory, plays around with some test tubes for a few minutes and finds the solution that somehow eluded all the best scientific minds during the Panda War.
She deploys a lethal panda virus into the water table that kills all pandas and leaves mankind (well, pretty westerners anyway) back in control of the planet, and the pandas are sent into extinction, where they belong. The film could be called “Mutant Panda Killers,” and the advertising slogan might be, “They’re not so cute when they’re trying to eat you.” All I need now is a love interest. Perhaps Julia Roberts could hook up with one of the resistance fighters-some kind of tough marine type. You know, the guy-who-breaks-the-rules-but-always-gets-his-man action hero used in all Hollywood films these days. Bruce Willis might be good for the role. Heaven knows, he’s never played any other role.
Yes, I think this will be next year’s summer blockbuster…But there has to be a twist in the tail. Of course, Julia Roberts turns out to have been artificially inseminated with panda general Wee Pee’s baby-and then there can be a Mutant Panda Killers 2. Horrah! I’m gonna be rich!!
Llasa
You join me on a plane from Chengdu to Llasa. Almost all the passengers are Han Chinese, showing who wears the trousers in modern Tibet. The first group of Tibetans I saw were unloading the luggage from the plane.
The ‘roof of the world’ is only an hour away. From the plane window, the scenery looks ‘moon-like’. I know this adjective is often overused, but in Tibet’s case, the description is valid. The mountain tops are occasionally snow covered, but mainly brown and barren. I’d expected mountains like the Alps, with craggy snow covered peaks separated by fertile green valleys and lakes, but I couldn’t see anything green from the plane-just an endless series of brown lumps. This must be what all of the earth looked like before life evolved. As the plane descended into Gongkar airport, I noticed that some of the valleys did manage to support some kind of meager agricultural production, but even these crops looked brown and almost petrified.
We got into Llasa, but very quickly felt dizzy and giddy. The feeling you get from the sudden lack of oxygen at 4,000 metres is a little like being drunk-you laugh for no reason and your co-ordination is shot. When we got into our room, Sandra lay on the bad and didn’t get out of it for two days. We’ve both got altitude sickness, but she’s got it worse.
The symptoms are not pleasant; a screaming headache, fever, disorientation, nausea, and in Sandra’s case, vomiting and diarrhea too, to add to the fun! The strangest effect though, is the permanent shortage of breath. Your instinct is to counter it with long deep breaths, but this only makes things worse. What you need to do is take lots of short, shallow breaths, like a panting dog. The slightest exertion, like getting out of bed to take a pee, leaves you wheezing and your heart pumping.
Even sleeping becomes a skill you have to relearn. When we sleep, our breathing instinctively slows and becomes deeper. This is not a problem at normal altitudes, but at 4,000 metres, there isn’t enough oxygen getting from your lungs into your brain, and your heart beats faster and faster to try and make up the deficit. Soon, you wake up with a start to find your heart is racing, and you’ve got to breath like you never breathed before. This happened to me last night every twenty to thirty minutes, so my sleeping was fitful at best. At about 2.30, I woke up for the last time, and spent the rest of the night staring at the ceiling and listening to my heart pound. It wasn’t very interesting-pretty repetitive actually. Even when lying in bed, my heartbeat was over a hundred beats per minute, and a slow walk, with frequent stops to drink water, as the dry mountain air robs your body of moisture, brought it to well over 120.
Our room was nice enough, but freezing. Well, not freezing really-I suppose it was about 15 degrees during the day and 10 degrees at night, but after Bangkok’s 30 degrees at night, it felt freezing. There was no heater, and the hotel staff said there wasn’t one to give me. I didn’t really believe them, so I tried begging and then bribery, but I guess they were telling the truth. Moreover, none of the other backpackers I met had heaters in their rooms either. This is very odd, when you think about it. Even now, in April, the temperature can fall to zero at night, and in the depths of winter, it can plummet to minus 20. How can these people survive, I asked myself, without heating? How many layers of clothes can you wear? How tough could they be?
I felt sure there had to be heaters somewhere, so tiring of lying under my four blankets, I decided I would need to purchase a small one here in Llasa, or my memories of the place would mostly be hiding under the blankets trying to keep warm and worrying about hyperthermia. I set off into the heart of Llasa to find one. With the naivety that comes from growing up in the shopper’s paradise of Western Europe, I thought it would only take five minutes, but hour after hour went by without success. Night was beginning to fall, and I knew out room was only going to get colder and colder, and I also knew from previous experience in China that restaurants and bars here never have heating, so I trundled on and on, determined not spend the evening eating my dinner, through chattering teeth, in my coat in a freezing restaurant with nothing to look forward to but returning to an even colder room. It took on the feeling of a holy quest-the Search for the Holy Heater. It would have been easier to find the Holy Grail in a meeting of the Central Committee. I was all over the beautiful old town of Tibet, and then I ventured into the ugly Chinese new town, but heaters were not to be found. I looked in more shops in four hours than I’ve looked in in my whole life, but without success. There are no heaters in Tibet! This may not count as spiritual enlightenment, but it sure shocked the Hell out of me. Tibetans have no heaters! They cannot be bought for love, nor money, nor yak’s milk.
Old Llasa was like something out of a medieval museum. The people dress in colourful traditional costumes, layer upon layer, and spin prayer wheels clockwise with upturned wrists, chanting softly but melodically. Many of the young men from outside Llasa carried daggers. The thinness of the Ozone layer and the blue skies leaves their skin deeply tanned and tough. Indeed, tough is the best word to describe them. I can barely survive here in a comfy hotel with all the creature comforts money can buy, except a heater, of course. These guys from outside Llasa eek a living from the most barren and inhospitable land I’ve ever seen.
Before Buddhism gained a hold here, the Tibetans were regarded by their neighbours much as the Huns were regarded by Europeans-fierce savage warrior creatures, intent on pillage, rape and general destruction. And, to be honest, they still give me the willies. If I were some kind of Hemmingway figure, I’d strike up a friendship with some of them over hot Yak milk and whiskey, and head back into the mountains with them to see how real men live, and experience life at its toughest. Of course, I’d probably be dead in a week. Even the Han Chinese, a pretty sturdy bunch themselves, tend to stay within towns, and leave the herding in the Wastelands to the Tibetans.
Even the monks, who I had expected to display a glowing serenity, are a little on the scary side. One of them approached me yesterday, smiled with a touch of menace, and showed me a scabby piece of paper requesting money to rebuild some monastery or other. I took some crumbled notes out of my pocket and went to give him a five yuan one. He grabbed the other notes out of my paw too, and took off smiling, spinning his prayer wheel as he went. “What a naughty monk,” I thought to myself.
This happened several times in Llasa, so that pretty quickly, I learned not to make eye-contact with any red-robed fellow, and to ignore their many “hellos and commands to parley. They were insatiably greedy-an avarice even the Catholic church would balk at.
Ignoring them wasn’t always enough though. A few days later, after staggering down from the Potala palace, and falling into the nearest restaurant, hopelessly out of breath and desperately in need of something cold, liquid and sweet, I looked aghast as my just opened can of coke was lifted from my table by the claws of a middle-aged monk. He gave me a quick nod and scampered off with my coke, the sod. The owner of the restaurant (a Han Chinese) shrugged his shoulders sympathetically, and I was left to wonder how his helping himself to my can of coke was going to bring either of us one step closer to enlightenment.
In the dizzy and disorientated state of my first day, as I walked around the Barkhor temple, Llasa’s holiest shrine, I was accosted by uncountable numbers of beggars, and enthusiastic stall owners who enjoined me to purchase large quantities of prayer wheels, yak’s butter, prayer mats, prayer flags and hand-woven carpets. Everything proffered was accompanied by the mantra “luck-ee luck-ee” and “cheap-ee cheap-ee.” Nobody offered to sell me what my heart desired-a heater. The sounds and smells of the crowded market street were overpowering. As I crawled along, zombie-like in short shuffle steps, I was struck by how alien the place was compared to everything I had seen in my life before. I was also struck by how close to fainting I was, and worried by my inability to remember how to get back to my hotel. Eventually, I found my way back to the freezing hotel room, checked that Sandra had not frozen to death in my absence, and began the roller coaster ride of sleep and heart palpitations.
Slowly the worst effects of altitude sickness subsided, but the racing heart beat and the shortness of breath continued. I also managed to pick up a cold and a TB-like cough. I almost thought about giving up smoking, but luckily sanity prevailed. I’d already given up alcohol, and you shouldn’t overdo it. After morbidly dwelling on the nature of mortality between coughing fits and Chinese cigarettes that went under the ludicrously inappropriate brand name ‘Lights’, I paid a second visit to the clinic. I’d gone on my first day in Llasa for some altitude sickness potions and industrial strength disprin, and to check I wasn’t about to keel over. My earnest attempts to locate a heater dispensary were unsuccessful.
This time the ‘doctor’, if indeed she was a doctor and not a witch doctor, or just a witch, took my heartbeat, but I was worried by the amount of time it took her to find my pulse with her rusty stethoscope. She was a woman of indeterminate age, but certainly over a hundred and eighty, and her long frizzy grey hair gave the impression that it had only had a passing acquaintance with water, and had yet to be introduced to shampoo. Her ‘medical’ apron had once been white, but also showed evidence of having a dim view of cleaning. In fact, everything in the clinic was dirty, and the whole place was in dire need of a good bleaching. I was tempted to do it myself, but I feared this would not fall within acceptable bounds of behaviour, even for ‘big nose’ foreigners, so I tried to forget that if this had even been a café in the west, it would have been closed down by the health inspector on hygiene grounds.
The ‘doctor’, who was beginning to look more and more like one of the three witches from Macbeth, right down to the cackling laughter, had breathing problems as bad as my own, or even worse, and her swaying made me wonder how stable she was on her feet. She had about 50 faintly recognisable words of English, and an unwillingness to speak Mandarin with foreigners, a trait common to every Tibetan I tried to speak to. To make up for these linguistic deficiencies, she affixed ‘ee’ and ‘upa’ to the end of Tibetan words, hoping this would made things clearer. It didn’t. The witchdoctor stuck a thermometer under my armpit, and was then called away by another client at the counter, or maybe she had to add some frog’s legs to her cauldron-I don’t know. I think she forgot about me, as I’m sure a thermometer, whatever its age, doesn’t require 20 minutes to get a reading.
In her absence, we chatted to a young woman from Chengdu, who lay fully clothed, even to the extent of having her chunky coat done up, in the bed beside where we were sitting. There was an enormous rusting oxygen bottle beside her that looked like Captain Nemo had used it on an disastrous underwater dive when trying to find the lost city of Atlantis. Pulled over her, the girl had some blankets that looked like they had last been used to infect the American Indians with TB. The clinic, like everywhere else, had no heating.
She said she was suffering from a cold and had come in to have a drip put in her arm. No, come to think of it, the she said the drip had been placed in her bum. Apparently, that’s where they stick it in these parts. Don’t ask me why. The Chinese often go to a hospital to have a drip inserted when they have nothing more than a cold to worry about. In view of the highly questionably hygiene standards of the establishment, I refused the doctor’s later offer of a drip for me. Indeed, as long as I could maintain consciousness, I was determined not to let the wheezing, grey-haired old doctor insert a needle into any part of my anatomy.
By the time the doctor returned, the thermometer had fallen form my armpit and was resting on my hip, but she said it didn’t matter. She diagnosed a cold, and gave me the same prescription as yesterday, dispirin and altitude sickness potions. I got the impression she sold these to everyone who visited her clinic, regardless of their complaint. You could walk in with your arm in shreds and hanging off the shoulder after a savage attack from a flock of marauding vultures, blood-crazed after a traditional Tibetan funeral service, and you’d probably leave with nothing more than a few past their sell-by-date dispirin . She also advised me not to climb any tall mountains in the next day or two. Ha! I had problems enough climbing the single flight of stairs to my hotel room. Everest was definitely not on my agenda.
After some frantic phone calls from deep under the covers in my hotel room, I managed to find a hotel that promised to provide me with a heater. It cost triple what I was paying for the other hotel, but it was still only 35 Euro a night. This is a fortune in Llasa, and I’m sure I would have been expelled from the Backpacker Republic of Scrimping for paying it, but I couldn’t face the thought of another day shivering under three blankets, a t-shirt, a fleece and a winter coat.
Moreover, the new hotel’s location was nothing short of spectacular. It was right opposite the Barkhor, Tibet’s holiest shrine I mentioned earlier, and smack in the middle of the old town. The Barkhor temple itself, as a building, does not compete with the Potala palace (former home of the Dali Lama-the enormous white and red tower everyone thinks of when you mention Tibet), but the atmosphere of the Barkhor is incredible. Crouched over my beloved electric heater, trying not to burn my fingers by hugging it too much, I could see though the window the pilgrims perambulate over and over in a clockwise direction around the temple (doing koras), spinning ornate prayer wheels and dressed in elaborate regional costumes. The PSB kept a close eye on everything, but the Pilgrims didn’t see to see them, or if they did, they paid them no heed. Even 50 years of Han domination, or what the Dali Lama has labeled ‘cultural genocide’ does not seem to have destroyed their culture, or even dampened their spirit. In spite of the oppression and hardships, they laugh and smile a lot more than the Han, or westerners, for that matter.
I’d like to think this will continue forever, but Beijing is thinking long term, and is not prepared to give this place back to what it considers a bunch of savage primitives, too backward to even appreciate their ‘liberation from feudal servitude’, and all the roads and airports the Chinese have built, the schools they’ve set up, and jobs they’ve provided. There are significant untapped mineral resources here, and Greater Tibet (Tibet itself, Qinghai, and parts of Sichwan and Yunnan) is an enormous area, the size of Western Europe, and it’s grossly underpopulated and ripe for Han expansion. Beijing offers great financial incentives for Han Chinese to resettle here, and as there are only about 5 million Tibetans in Greater Tibet, and there are 1,300 million Han, crowded into Eastern China’s lowlands and costal areas, the Tibetans will soon find themselves a minority in their own ‘autonomous region’. The same is true for other ethnic minorities in China, who make up only 7 per cent of the population, but occupy nearly 40 per cent of the land.
Apart from repopulation, the Han fights the Tibetan campaign on a second from, a cultural front. The pilgrims I mention come from remote mountainous regions. In the urban centres, the young Tibetans seem a great deal less devout. They listen to hip-hop, wear western clothes and watch VCD’s. Western culture, insidious and all-conquering, may achieve what communist propaganda has failed to achieve in 50 years-it may make the Tibetans forget who they are.
Being brought up in the sham, pretense and general irrelevance of the Catholic Church, I was completely unprepared for what awaited me in the inside of the Jokhar temple. (I was also unprepared for the 10-dollar entrance fee a crafty monk made me pay for what is supposed to be free to all. Those guys never miss a trick!) Even in St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, the epicenter of the Catholic world, camera-toting tourists outnumber the faithful three to one. Every Christian church I’ve ever visited feels like a museum; of historical and architectural interest only. In Macao, I remember a pair of young Chinese girls smiling for photos under the more picturesque station of the cross, searching in vain, I presume, for a smiling Christ.
The Jokhar, on the other hand, is most definitely a place of pilgrimage and worship. At the entrance, pilgrims first kneel and then hold their hands in front of their chest as if praying in a Christian way. They then place their hands on the ground and use them to support their body weight as they gently allow their body to touch the ground, touch the sacred ground with their forehead as an act of worship, and slide their hands (covered in some kind of mat) forward in front of their head so that it’s pointing at the temple. They chant something special for each part of the procedure. They do this over and over again. It looked very strenuous, like doing a push up, but the tough Tibetans continued on and on, oblivious to all discomfort, as always. I suppose the more times they can perform this ritual, the more credit is won with the Lord Buddha, like some kind of athletic rosary penance.
As you enter and try to navigate its dark labyrinthine corridors, the smell of incense and yak butter candles mixes with the smell of the unwashed pilgrims and their dirty clothes. The chanting devotees move hurriedly and purposefully past the fading paintings of the Brahayama (one of Buddhism’s most sacred books), spinning enormous silver drum-like prayer wheels as they go, making brief stops at tiny alcoves, each containing a different Buddha statue. I didn’t see any other foreigners in there, but nobody stared at us, as they were all far too busy seeking salvation to bother with a pair of wheezing ‘big noses’. Red-Robed monks are everywhere, and in the central room, a gigantic gold Buddha smiles down, secure in the knowledge that life and existence are nothing but illusions. He’s also probably relieved that the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution have left, as they destroyed about 40 per cent of the temple the last time they paid a visit.
On the roof of the building, the Potala palace, 2 kilometers away, appears even more wondrous and stately, and Llasa itself, surrounded on all sides by freshly snow covered mountains, seems truly locked away from the world at large, and above Earthly concerns.
We had deliberatelt left the Potala Palace until our last day in Llasa, daunted by its many steep steps. Finally, armed with a large breakfast, and an increasingly powerful set of lungs, a set of lungs a 60-year old would be proud of, we felt ready for the climb upto the Potala.
We still took it slowly, stopping frequently to take in the views of Llasa. However, they were a little disappointing. It’s only from the height of the Potala that you realize how much 50 years of Beijing rule have changed the face of the city. While the Jokhar and what remains of the old town around it are still very much Tibetan, the rest of the city is completely new. Of whatever there was before, nothing remains. It’s all been rebuilt in accordance with modern urban planning-all straight lines, wide roads and uniformity. At least they have kept it low rise, and the Potala does not have to compete with skyline with some shimmering steel and glass Bank of China building, but modern Llasa is about as interesting as a small mid-west American town. It’s only the backdrop of snowy mountains that remind you that you’re not just smack bang in the middle of Normallsville, Idaho.
When we had climbed about one third of the way up to the entrance, somebody shouted at us to hurry up, as the Potala would be closing soon. Not for the first time, I cursed my guidebook for trying so hard to be witty and not paying enough attention to essential details, like opening and closing hours. If I’d want to read something witty, I’d have bought a Bill Bryson book, and if I want to know what time the Potala Palace closes, I expect my guide book to know about it. As to the name of my illustrious guide book, let’s just say it has ‘Planet’ in the title, and I wouldn’t shed a tear if the authors were exiled to a different one, preferably a cold one where possession of a heater carries the death penalty!
Determined not to enter the Guinness Book of Records as the only sad prats who had managed to come to Llasa and not managed to see the Potala Palace, we sped up. After climbing 20 steps, my heartbeat reached 140; after another 10 steps, everything was zipping in and out of focus in an alarming fashion; after another 10, there was an odd buzzing sound in my ears, like helicopter blades from a Vietnam war movie. We simply had to stop again and catch our breath-perhaps hyperventilate is a more accurate description. Once the worst of the dizziness and nausea subsided, we clambered up more steps and through a feat of super-human exertion I never thought myself capable of, we made it to the ticket office.
I tried to explain our late arrival, but couldn’t stop gasping long enough to badmouth the guidebook. In fact, I couldn’t emit any comprehensible sounds at all. The assistant did not summon the nearest doctor or monk to administer whatever the Buddhist equivalent of ‘last rights’ is, as I would have done in her place when confronted by two swaying wrecks who looked as if they were about to “shuffle off this mortal coil,” but just punched 100 Yuan into a talking calculator and said, “you must hurry!” I tried to think of a witty retort, but at this stage of oxygen deprivation words were not even forming in my brain, let alone coming out of mouth.
We fell into the Potala only to be confronted by more steps. There are thirteen floors in the place. While geriatric monks seemed to have no problems whatsoever bounding up the tree-like steps, we certainly did, but there was always a monk or caretaker nearby to helpfully ask us to hurry up. One should look on the bright side-the lack of oxygen in my dying brain and the mild visual auditory hallucinations they caused did make the experience more mystical. Also, we had the place to ourselves, and didn’t have to suffer another tour group or guide, praise be to Buddha.
The Potala has 1,300 rooms, but of course, only a few of these are on view. Most of those seem to be under urgent repair. The Potala was built and is still supported using wooden beams, and they are far from eternal. The endless rooms contain Buddha upon Buddha, thousands and thousands of them; some big, some small; some silver, some gold; some with him sitting, some with him lying down. Each one is probably a collector’s piece and I’m sure many are priceless. It’s a wonder they’re still here, as the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution were all set to come in to destroy the ‘Four Olds’, but thankfully Deng Zhou Ping stuck his neck out and sent a contingent of loyal Red Army troops to protect the place.
The walls and roof of each room are painted to depict scenes from the Brahayama, with its freaky assortment of goblins and monsters. Centuries of yak oil candles have darkened and blackened everything, and there’s very little natural light in most of the rooms, but this only heightens the feeling of peace and isolation. Other rooms contain holy scrolls, browned by age and musty beyond belief. Some of them, I was told, had been brought from India by my old friend Tributaka, of ‘Monkey’ fame.
We also passed through tall cavernous rooms, containing hefty golden, jewel-encrusted tombs of the previous Dali Lamas. Near the top of the Palace, we were briefly allowed to see the Dali Lama’s living quarters-where he ate, slept, and looked out on a world that was about to disappear; and the throne room, where he held court. It must have been a very strange world to grow up and live in, believing yourself to be the reincarnation of previous Dali Lamas, universally credited with possessing divine qualities and born with a right to rule. In this fairyland world, it’s hardly surprising he didn’t see the Chinese wolf at the door. But it’s the wolf’s house now, and I can’t see him giving it back.
One Chinese word you pick up very quickly is ‘fang bien’ or ‘convenient’. The Chinese use the word about ten times as frequently as we say ‘convenient’. Perhaps their obcession with the term is because nothing is convenient in China, especially traveling. We had only gor four hours sleep on our last night in Llasa in order to catch the impossibly early flight out of there to Xian. Actually, the flight wasn’t that early (10.00) but in the spirit of making life as inconvenient as possible, the Chinese authorities had decided to place Llasa airport a whopping 100km outside the city. There are only 200,000 people in Llasa-how much do they expect it to grow?
I tried to look on the bright side. The taxi ride gave us a chance to see dawn rise over the Tibetan mountains, as we sped through empty roads hugging the hillside as it followed the slow, green-blue and meandering Llasa river along its lonely path. Thick fog banks flowed over the mountain peaks and slid down the valleys. An occasional serene yak munched away on clumps of yellow semi-frozen grass, and for a while, Tibet seemed like a magical place.
That feeling immediately vanished when we left the warm taxi and entered the brand spanking new, and completely unheated, airport building. At the check-in counter we found that our flight had been cancelled, for reasons unknown, and how dare we have the audacity to demand to know why. We were waved away to the other side of the hall. There, a woman with zero English said she was the Bank of China, and waved us back to where we had come from. This happened over and over. Indeed, it is a feature of travel throughout China, and I can only assume the Chinese Tourist board trains its employees to maintain the highest standards in this regard.
The provision of trolleys by the airport authorities would have made things far too convenient, and my aging back rapidly tired of loading and unloading 20 kilograms onto its creaking frame. This coming and going was made all the more difficult by the abject inability of Chinese people to form a queue. Instead of an orderly line of people, you must enter a kind of scrum, or rather a tightly packed semi-circle of barking fiends, each one shouting at anyone behind or near the counter, stuffing documents under their noses, and nudging each other to and fro, jockeying for position like their life depended on it. In this kind of situation, the meek, as Jesus maintained, may very well inherit the earth, but they’ve absolutely no chance of getting a plane ticket.
Different cultures, sociologists tell us, have different acceptable levels of personal space, into which strangers must never tread. The Anglo Saxons, they say, have one of the greatest distances. The Chinese operate with a personal space threshold of zero. I should be able to accept this as a cultural difference and not expect other cultures to play by my rules, but I can’t. The feeling of a stranger’s breath on my neck, or the feeling of his crotch in my backside, or his falling asleep in a crowded bus on my shoulder, these things never fails to aggravate me. However, I have just to grin and bear it, or rather grind my teeth, mutter abusive remarks in Spanish, and bear it.
After a few more yo-yo perambulations of the airport, just to make sure we left Llasa feeling as dizzy as when we arrived, they informed us that the next flight to Xian was in two day’s time, and we should sort out the details with a travel agent back in Llasa. Standing firm, while swaying firm anyway, we insisted on flying the same day and demanded an indorect route, if no direct one was available. They reluctantly offered to exchange the Llasa-Xian flight for a Llasa-Chengdu flight leaving in a couple of hours.We pointed out that this was only half way thee, and wondered if we were expected to walk the rest of the way, or perhaps grab onto a passing swan. The girl behind the counter was getting angry now, and shooed us away like you would a malevolent ghost or a smelly skunk, and told us to buy another ticket in Chengdu. Sandra was getting pretty angry now too, and was beginning to take on the air of a tigress, with her flight to Xian representing cubs she was going to protect with her life. After a lot of snarling and bearing of teeth, they gave us the connecting flight, but made us pay a 50 dollar surcharge. Somebody in the scrum realized what had happened, and before you could say, “let me out of this fucking place,” everyone was demanding the same thing, much to the attendant’s displeasure. It was not ‘convenient’ for her, as she now had to fill in two pieces of paper for every customer instead of just one.
I had similar experiences in Russia when dealing with officials. I think it’s something to do with communism. The ‘service mentality’ of Western cultures is turned on its head, and officials of every rank believe that they are doing you a favor by serving you. The customer is not always right, as in the west. On the contrary, the customer is nothing more than a petty inconvenience and should be ignored whenever possible, or if they must be dealt with, they should be treated with undisguised contempt.
Eventually, the plane took off and Llasa and Tibet disappeared from view. Forever. It’s customary to say that you’ll return one day, but I know I’ll never go back to Llasa. I’m simply too weak to survive there, but I’ve nothing but admiration for those who can. I do hope the Tibetans and their culture manage to survive up here on ‘the roof of the world.’ There is something unique about them, and the world will be a poorer place for their passing.
However, I can’t help but feel pessimistic about their prospects. History is full of peoples and cultures that have been laid waste by ‘The Mighty Han.’ Even those who appear to have defeated and conquered them, like the Manchus or the Qing, are later assimilated and become indistinguishable from the Han, in language and culture. Originally, they were merely one people among many in central China, but they grew and grew, and reached a ‘critical mass.’ Like the Borg from Star Trek, they conquer, assimilate and grow, growing stronger and stronger with each fresh conquest. However, no Captain Piquard is going to beam down from the Enterprise with an away team to protect the outnumbered and outgunned Tibetans. They must fight alone, and fight passively, without even the threat of violence, in a manner even more subtle than Gandhi’s passive resistance movement in India. Can they succeed? I don’t know. I hope so.
Looking at a group of army cadres on the plane, I softly hummed the tune of an old Morrissey song that had come into my head out of nowhere:
“Shelve you western plans
And understand
That life is hard enough
When you belong here
Life is hard enough
When you belong here”
As acts of defiance go, it was pretty pathetic, and I don’t suppose it will make the Han leave their barracks.
As the plane landed in Chengdu, a group of Tibetans in the central rows of the plane ignored the ‘Fasten your Seat Belt’ sign, and stood up to get a better view out the plane windows. They looked in awe and wonder at the flat, green and lush farmland below them. Perhaps it was the first time they had seen such a landscape. How strange it must have appeared to them.
Xian
I hadn’t expected much from Xian. My students had warned me that it was so polluted that when it rained, the rain was black. One of them had joked that I could return my graying hair to its original colour by merely spending a weekend there. I expected a black, decaying industrial behemoth, like Manchester in the eighties.
In reality, Xian is a much more pleasant metropolis of seven million people. From its central square, the Drum and Bell Tower Square, the cities four main arteries (East, West, North and South Street), spread out into infinity, dividing the city in a logical and coherent way. The square itself, where our hotel was situated, is a pleasant enough grassy place, where kite flying aficionados ride the wind, or rather their kites ‘ride the wind.’ They themselves stay on the ground and try to flog you kites. It contains two typical Ming Dynasty towers; one containing a museum of bells, and another a museum of drums. We went to one of them, but I can’t remember which one, which shows what a great impression it left on me.
The rest of the city centre is all new. This is surprising when you consider that Xian was China’s capital for far longer than any other city, and much longer than the recent upstart, Beijing. Most of the dynasties rose and fell here in Xian, but judging by the downtown area, they left no trace. Once again, war, progress and indifference have destroyed Chinese history. The centre of modern Xian could be any American city; malls, banks, McDonalds and traffic jams.
Xian’s citizens looked prosperous and purposeful. This was a world of business and careers, of mobile phones and factories, and the rough and ready Tibetans of yesterday were world’s away, much to the delight of both parties, I suspect.
Even the weather surprised me. I had expected more of the damp, drizzle and grey mist so characteristic of Southern China, but Xian was dry and dusty. Posters everywhere encouraged people to conserve water-‘each drop means life’-they proclaimed.
Instead of mist, one finds a slight haze. The sky here is cloudless, but not really blue-it’s a kind of grey/blue I haven’t seen before. That’s partly due to pollution, no doubt, but mainly due to the dusty yellow loess soil from North West China being blown east by howling winds from Mongolia. The soil up there is yellow and like powder, and Winter winds lift it from the ground and carry it all the way to Xian and Beijing.
There’s nothing new in this, but the scale and intensity of soil erosion has increased massively in this century. Recent rapid economic progress is bringing things to a crisis point. Drought, over farming and de-forestation, combined with ever increasing demands for water from industry and the cities, are pushing north East China toward the abyss, and some speculate if the whole region, from Xian to Beijing, may soon become a desert.
The Party, not one to let even Mother Nature stand in its way, has a plan. It has begun a massive canal building project to transfer water from the wet south of China (which receives 80-90 per cent of China’s rainfall) to the dry north. Yet again, I am struck by the power of the Party and the Chinese to control, to organize and to build. It contrasts sharply with say, Spain, where the Sahara desert is already moving into the parched Andalusian south. Does Spain, occupying an area smaller than a Chinese province, and in per capita terms massively richer and more economically developed than China, build its own canals from its wet north to irrigate its parched south? No, it does nothing. It merely talks about the possibility of doing something at some indeterminate time in the future.
However, we had not come to Xian to see the grey/blue sky and congradulate the Party on its Public Works’ projects. We had come, like everyone else, I suppose, to see those silly Terra Cotta warrior statues. You know, those life-size replicas built by Emperor Qin to protect him in the afterlife, in place or burying real soldiers alive, standard practice at the time. The soldiers were lucky-his many concubines, servants and all but one of his 22 children did receive the honour of being buried with him, whether they wanted to or not. Emperor Qin was the first emperor to rule a united China, but also a bit of a paranoid megalomaniac tyrant, apparently. It seems to me that paranoid megalomaniacs always do well, historically speaking. Just look at the Bush Dynasty in America.
After uniting China, he set about making sure the whole continent of a country was kept busy glorifying his magnificence, and built the greatest mausoleum the world has ever seen. The terra-cotta warriors were only one small part of the 25 km complex that was to ensure his greatness was never forgotten. The workmen involved in building the most sensitive part of the complex, the emperor’s tomb, were buried alive in it immediately after it was finished. Talk about a bum rap! You spend 25 years-your whole life-slaving away underground on some loony’s tomb, and then as soon as you finish, they bury you alive in it. I guess these guys had pretty weak unions.
The irony is that only a year after his death peasant uprisings destroyed the emperor’s vast monument to himself, looting what they could, demolishing what they couldn’t and burning the rest. Even the Terra Cotta warriors had their metal weapons stolen and were smashed to pieces. The warriors you see today have been put back together again by teams of archaeologist, who are so patient and skilled, they could probably reconstruct Humpty Dumpty.
The Chinese can be a very destructive lot when they set their mind to it. They can build on a massive scale, unthinkable by other cultures, but they can also tear it all down again at frightening speed. I know it’s a crass generalization, and not my first, but so little of China’s long history is still standing I can’t help but make the assertion. Often when it is standing, you find it’s just a replica of something that was destroyed earlier, often several times, and always for no apparent reason. The Cultural Revolution and the vandalism of the Red Guards is just a recent, and comparatively mild, example of the China’s periodic lapses into a destructive insanity.
This is not the same the world over. When the Goths sacked Rome, they left most of it standing; the Egyptians may have stolen anything valuable from the pharos’ tombs, given half a chance, but they left the Pyramids standing; the Burmese, Thai’s and Cambodians never flattened the temples of Angkor Wat; the Spanish conquistadores would do anything for gold, but they saw no need to flatten Aztec and Maya cities, for the most part; Tsar Peter the Great may have hated Moscow, but he didn’t flatten it and start again, he went off to build a new city and left Moscow alone.
However, I’ll stop here, as I really am talking through my nether regions, so to speak, but it seems that to me. Let’s get back to the great Qin.
Fortunately, for the emperor, the peasants couldn’t find the entrance shaft to his tomb, hidden in a mountain, so they never laid their hands on his most valuable loot. We went to a replica of the tomb, which modern archaeologists have seen, and it makes Lenin’s Mausoleum look like a pauper’s grave, but I suppose Lenin would be glad to hear it. His coffin is in the centre of the enormous circular vault-like tomb, and the coffins of his favourite concubines are buried into walls around him. These lucky beauties were allowed to swallow poison rather than being buried alive. Bloody favouritism, eh? There are jewels everywhere and more gold than you could shake a stick at. There are also rivers of toxic lead and mercury, which is why tour groups can’t see the original, or that what they told us.
I’ve always felt cheated by replicas, but the Chinese in the group didn’t seem to mind at all. I’ve noticed this before about Chinese-they seem to see no difference between a replica and the real thing. China is littered by parks where you can see replicas of everything. Near where I used to live in Zhuhai, there’s a park with replicas of famous structures in China (the Great Wall, the Summer Palace etc.), and nearby there’s another park with replicas of famous foreign buildings (the Louvre, Buckingham Palace etc). My students told me once, without a trace of irony or sarcasm, that it’s more convenient this way, as you can see all the places at once without having to travel around a lot, and you only have to pay one entrance fee. As if to prove their point, near the tomb of Emperor Qin, there’s even a replica of a pyramid and a sphinx, so you don’t have to bother going to Egypt!
The nearest you can get to the real tomb is to stand on the hill which it was dug into. From the top of the hill, upon the mausoleum’s completion, you could once see all 25km of the great emperor’s magnificent mausoleum complex; an eternal necropolis, walled in and an eternal reminder of his greatness. Today, you can see absolutely nothing, because nothing survived-just a small dirty factory of two and some pig farming peasants.
It reminded me of a poem by Shelley, one of the few poems I’ve ever really liked. I think Shelley was traveling around Libya, and he came across the stump of a once-great statue with only half a leg left over it. Inscribed on the statue, he read the following:
“ ‘I am Ozymandius
King of Kings
Look on my Works
Ye Mighty
And Despair’
Nothing else remained
On the lone and level
The sand stretched far away”

I suppose I could have spent more time in Xian. There were tombs aplenty left to visit, and temples galore, or perhaps they were just replicas, but I was anxious to get to Beijing. We visited other places in Xian, but as I write this two week’s later, back home in Bangkok, I can’t even remember what they were. I suppose this shows how little impression they made on me.
I do remember my cold was getting worse, and rivers of phlegm were turning my sinuses into volcanoes. The dry and dusty air, and the truly awful Chinese cigarettes and fake Western cigarettes (one Marlboro packet’s health warning read ‘Smiking dimages your hill’) were making me cough like a moose. I wanted to move on, believing for no sane reason, that I’d feel better in Beijing. I felt like a shark, which like all fish, must keep moving to breath.
“If you don’t keep moving, you die,” I said to Sandra out of the blue on the way to the train station, trying to sound enigmatic.
“Don’t forget your bag again,” she replied.
Beijing
Beijing was, I must admit, a disappointment to me. Capital cities are normally where I orefer to be, as they usually contain both the best and the worst that any city has to offer. However, Beijing failed to impressed. If I had to choose one word to describe the place, it would be ‘grey.’ From the weather, to the buildings, to the people, to the ‘sights.’ They’re all grey, or at least, that’s how it appeared to me, but maybe that’s just the mood I was in. A whopping ten million people call Beijing home, and no doubt they would be pretty outraged by my one-word adjective description, but I refuse to wax lyrical about a place that did nothing for me.
The municipality of Beijing covers an area the size of Belgium. I know Belgium’s a pretty small country, and fairly grey too, come to think of it, but having a city the size of a country is no small feat. The train took a long time to get from the suburds to the centre, and passed row after row of tower blocks, each one more faceless than the last. I have read the Beijing used to be a lot grimmer, but the city government have been sprucing it up in preparation for the 2008 olynpics. I don’t want to imagine what it looked like before, but they’ve still a long way to go before I could describe the place as beautiful, or even pleasant.
Even Tiananmen square was a disappointment. From here Mao proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic in 48, and for Mao’s funeral, a million people crammed themselves into this square, and many were crushed to death in the streets around it. It enters the western mind as the place where the democracy protesters were brought to heel in 89, and learned how fragile democracy is when confronted by the power of a tank. “Power,” Mao proclaimed, “grows out of the barrel of a gun.” The barrel gun of a tank, therefore, must be extra powerful.
I had expected something equivalent to Red Square in Moscow, where a sense of history seems to seep from every cobblestone, but Tiananmen was just an enormous slab of concrete, like an enormous empty car park, devoid of any feeling. Troops of Chinese tour groups waddled around it, each group wearing a different colour baseball cap, and led by tour guide leaders waving small rectangular flags, armed with tiny quacking electronic megaphones, leading their pack around the square, like a mother duck leads its chicks, in a V-formation. Near the centre of the sqare, things got too crowded for a classic V-formation, and the tour groups took on the air of penguins; huddled into each other for protection against the cold wind, all looking in this Antarctica of Tiananmen for somewhere to lay their eggs before Winter set in and the snow started to fall.
The grey drizzly sky was the same colour as the paving slabs, and I wondered if you could get ‘concrete blindness’ in the same way you can get ‘snow blindness’. Even the enormous Great Hall of the People, a Stalinist classic and home to the rubber-stamp parliament, failed to arouse my interest.
Being of a morbid disposition, we had wanted to see Mao’s embalmed corpse in his Mausoleum, but he was not receiving visitors that day, so we went back the next day. We got there fairly early, but there was already a queue the length of the great Wall, snaking around the square like a giant Python, and controlled with difficulty by guards armed with those omnipresent electronic megaphones at 10-metre intervals, using them like whips to stop the queue from disintegrating into a heaving mob, which is the natural state of any ‘queue’ in China.
We were about to join the queue, nonetheless, but we were not allowed to bring our backpacks in. I guess Mao had a phobia about backpacks, or something. In the spirit of ‘fang bien’ (convenience), your bags must be checked in at a building off the square. I couldn’t see a queue outside, but it was so far away, I could hardly see it at all, and I was sure there was an queue somewhere, or even worse a heaving scrum of barking dingos, and I just couldn’t face it. We wanted to come back the next day, but ever anxious to please and make things as convenient as possible, the authorities had decided not to put him on view the next day either.
The contrast between the massive lines of devotees for Mao and the couple of hundred tourists and aging die-hard communists who had gone to see Lenin when I visited him was striking. Indeed, I have heard that Lenin may even be removed from Red Square and sent to somewhere anonymous in his native Petersburg. First he lost Leningrad back to its founder, Peter the Great, and now he might even lose his mausoleum. In the league of ex-communist dictators, Mao is streets ahead. Unlike Lenin, Stalin and the other once great communist leaders in Russia, Mao has never been officially discredited and is still a hero of the party and the people in China. His ‘Great Leap Forward’, which was supposed to transform China into a first world almost overnight, but only succeeded in causing a 100-million dead famine, and destroying industry, are rarely mentioned here, and if they are referred to, natural calamities are to blame for the ‘serious food shortages’ (i.e. famine), and obscure references are made to excesses of revolutionary zeal to explain the Cultural Revolution, usually blamed on Mao’s wife and the other Gang of Four. The official party line is the 70 per cent of what Mao did was good, and 30 per cent was bad. The 30 per cent that was bad is never expanded upon. The Party needs to give the people a hero, and Mao is allowed to occupy that role posthumously. Dead, at least, there is a limit to how much harm the middle class son of a money-lending kulak can do. In any case, we didn’t get to see him, and I can’t see him crying over it.
Although mao was playing hard to get, we had no problems entering the Forbidden city, pleasure dome of the Ming and Qing dynasties. The price was 10 dollars, but a century ago, the price would have been decapitation for me, if I was lucky, and prostitution for Sandra. The ‘Son of Heaven’ no longer exists, so I was safe from the chopping block, but I did fear for my life a couple of times, as surging tour groups threatened to squash me as the collided, meshed into one, and later reformed.
The Forbidden City is full of temples, and the ornate Chinese roves, the stone lions guarding the entrance and the courtyards are beautiful, I suppose, but I’d seen so many of them already by this stage that ‘temple fatigue’ was beginning to set in, and I didn’t appreciate them as much as I should have. You can’t enter any of the temples, but you can peer into their dark interiors from a railing at the front entrance, and I think I made out a throne or two. To win this prize, however, you really have to fight like a warrior. Around each front door, a surging mass of Chinese tourists push, elbow and snarl at each other for prime position. They fight first to get to the door, and then they fight to stay there. A weak, weasel-bodied westerner with the instincts of a rabbit, like myself, has little hope, but I was carried on the wave of a tour group or two past some of the doors. I held my camera above the wave and wondered if my health insurance police covered being trod underfoot.
The Forbidden City that stands today isn’t that old-about 150 years, for the most part. The Palace was repeatedly damaged and rebuild, or just destroyed by the emperor so he could refashion it in his image. Often it was burnt to the ground by powerful court eunuchs eager to get rich on kickbacks from awarding the reconstruction contracts.
On the day we visited, scaffolding was everywhere, and there was so much renovation work going on that I wondered if they had decided to rebuild it from scratch again. I suppose they were just making it look newer, as the idea of old historic building actually looking old is anathema to the Chinese. Even renovating (as near as damn it to replacing it, as far as I could tell) an old building is unusual in China. Usually they just rip it down and stick a faceless office block in its place. This is progress. Old=bad; New=Good. If an alien was to do a whistle-stop tour of Chinese cities, he might be forgiven for thinking that the whole place hadn’t existed until 1950, that it had all sprung into existence out of nothing. In a society that boasts the longest uninterrupted history on the planet, I find this saddening.
The following day, we paid a visit to the Great Wall. Surly this, I thought, had to be old. We were determined to avoid another trip to Tour Group Hell, so foolishly believing our sadistic guide book, which I was coming to believe had it in for me, we spend well over an hour getting to a bus station in north Beijing, using Beijing’s run-down metro, where we had hoped to simply hop on a bus and hop off near the wall.
In the event, this proved impossible. The 937 bus drivers simply would not let us get on, and the more we tried, the more vigorously they waved us away to a nearby bus station. Once there, we were quickly ushered into a nearby and almost full coach. It was full of Chinese people, with not a foreigner in sight, so there was still a small hope I hadn’t been abducted into Tour Group Hell. However, my hopes were dashed when the bus pulled away, and the yellow electronic megaphone came out. An over-excited guide began blabbering into it, and kept it up all day, careful not to let a moment’s silence allow any form of conscious thought. My only consolation was that this running commentary was in Chinese only, which somehow make it more bearable, and when the batteries were wearing down on her megaphone, almost ignorable.
The tour went on all day, from 10 to 7, and only about two hours were spend at what we had actually come to see, The Great Wall. The rest of the trip was spend in shopping breaks, restaurant breaks, toilet breaks, and some more shopping breaks for good measure. Many compulsory shopping trips are cleverly disguised as something else, such as the educational visit to the ‘Alternative Chinese Medicine Institute for Well-Being and Inner Harmony,’ which was basically just an excuse to try to flog over-priced old roots to the witless. We managed to escape the lecture/sales pitch on the grounds that we wouldn’t have understood a word of it, and were allowed to go off and play in the courtyard instead. On the way there, we passed a cigarette stand, which made me chuckle- a cigarette shop in a health food store. I smoked a couple under the non-smoking sign in the courtyard while waiting for my flock to finish the lecture. No-smoking signs are where many Chinese men choose to smoke, indicating a healthy disrespect for authority otherwise lacking in the Chinese.
And, of course, there were other ‘attractions’ To be enjoyed. One of these was the Tomb os the 13 Ming emperors. Everything, except for a replica of a coffin, had been removed and was out of sight of prying tourist eyes, so the tomb was about as interesting as a trip to an underground metro station, except there wasn’t a train to get you out of there. We were also shepherded around a wax museum, in which wax figures, as life like as an action man, depicted important historical scenes from the Ming dynasties; such as Emperor Ming the Merciless interrogating and personally beating General Treacherous Bastard, or Emperor Sex Maniac consorting with common prostitutes, or savage barbarians slaughter Emperor hapless and rape his concubines. These were the highlights of the exhibits, and it might have been interesting in a dull sort of way if we had been on our own, but we were just herded like cattle from one room to the next, and our guide repeatedly reminded us to read the English translation at the side of each exhibit, which appeared to have been translated by a machine with the aid of an ill-educated monkey, while she megaphoned the Chinese tour group in an ecstatic frenzy. In the other viewing rooms, immediately behind and in front of us, other megaphones could be heard directing fellow flocks of sheep around the well worn hills of the Ming Wax Works Extravaganza. We had to spend longer than really necessary in each exhibit while we waited for each sheep to have their picture taken with Emperor What’s-His-Name. In an uncharitable moment, I toyed with idea of using my cigarette lighter to torch a couple of minor figures, and hoped the fire alarm would bring the trip to a premature end, but I realized this was the right way to vent my frustration at always being stuck in tour groups against my wishes.
As for the Great Wall, which we eventually reached, I’ll have to disagree with President Nixon, who was escorted here by Mao in his ‘We Hate the Russians too, so Let’s be Friends’ tour of seventy-something, and academically commented that “it sure is a great wall.” It is not, I plainly state, a great wall. It is a mediocre replica of what was once a great wall.The real wall, which you can just about make out when the Disneyland reconstruction ends, is little more than rubble. It’s a complete mystery to me how you can see this structure from space. I could barely make the real thing out with the help of a powerful video camera zoom lens. Like so many other ‘historical’ sights in China, it is a new, tour-group friendly replica and frankly uninteresting.
The scenery around the wall, however, is quite interesting, in a bleak sort of way. I tried to imagine Ghengis Khan and his Mongolian hoerdes sweeping over the hills and attacking the wall, with loyal imperial troops doggedly defending each inch of it tooth and nail, to protect the motherland from the barbarians. In reality, however, it didn’t happen like that. The wily Khan simply send emissaries to different parts of the wall until he found some corrupt official he could bribe to let him over unmolested. “Any wall,” he saw, “is only as good as the men defending it.”
Walls, it seems to me, from the great Wall, to the Maginot Line, to Star Wars, to the walls the American middle class have taken to building around their suburban castles, are not an effective means of defense. The effort required to build, maintain and defend them greatly exceeds the force required to overcome them, and those behind the wall become complacent and inward looking. China itself was to become inward looking, and as the Qing royal court amused itself behind the walls of the Forbidden City, believing it had frozen time, the West progressed and moved through enlightenment and then an industrial revolution. Centuries of self-enforced isolation had left it unprepared for Western and Japanese aggression, and it is only now regaining its position as the world’s number one country.
To return to our trip, it had come to an end. We had intended to finish in Shanghai, but we just couldn’t face it. No doubt this decision will haunt us each time we see Shanghai on the TV, and we remember that we had enough time and money to go there, but didn’t. We were tired, plain and simple, and longed to return home to Thailand.
The three words which most characterize Thai society are ‘sanuk’ (fun) ‘sabai’ (comfortable) and ‘saduak’ (convenient). I wanted to return to this world. If I were to choose three words that characterize Chinese culture, they would be diligence, family and conformity. I had started this trip as a sinophile, and while I had not finished it as a sinophobe, I had definitely seen the darker side of China. I did not want to be part of world in which unstinting hard work and adherence to social norms were values prized above all others. As the plane left Beijing airport, I was filled with a sense of foreboding about what the 21st century, China’s century, had in store, and how I was unlikely to fit into it.
It is tempting to believe that Western cultural dominance in the world is permanent, that history is an evolutionary process and that the western concepts of liberalism and freedom have defeated all others, and are now set in stone, immutable and victorious. This is not the case. In historical terms, the 200 years of Western dominance are just a historical blip. For most of the history of civilization, it has been China who led the way. The centralized state, gunpowder and printing, among many others, are Chinese inventions.
The return of China to global dominance, or Asian hegemony at the very least, is just a matter of time. The Chinese dragon is awake and coming out of its lair.
All hail the Might Han