As I boarded the plane to China and took my seat, I was a little surprised to hear someone speaking English behind me.
On any other flight this would not have been a cause for surprise. However, this was a 10h flight to Qingdao, (pronounced not how I had imagined), and the plane was staffed by bowing air-hostesses, plastered with red and gold carpet, and had a passenger demographic a little on the Asian side. From the moment I had sat down at the Gate 11 to wait for my flight, I had heard not one word of the Queen’s English.
So I turned and looked over my seat, assuming as I did the innocent persona of a nervous type who checks the exits before takeoff. Sure enough, sitting right behind me, two young English guys were chatting away as only strangers can. I stealthily slid back down in my seat and listened in:
“Yeah mate! Did Europe! Visited all 33 countries, so now I’m off to China… always doing crazy things like that,” said one.
“Oh, that’s interesting” replied the other.
“Yeah! I just lay off work and go for long weekends. So I feel I’ve done Europe. Now I’m doing China. Should be wicked though yeah.”
I overheard a similarly depressive exchange when boarding a flight to Canada, when, two rows behind me, a woman said to her friend:
“Let’s see what the weather is like in Londres tomorrow… get in! Bit shit.”
Her friend piped up, inexplicably, with: “Oh my gad, is that a legit fing?”
In both cases the effect was the same: a desire was felt to jump out the nearest window. This desire was tamed by the realisation that jumping out a plane window wouldn’t have the desired effect – the plane was still on the Queen’s tarmac, and I’d be lucky to come away with broken legs. Mercifully, (considering I had forgotten my headphones and the in-flight entertainment provided by Deer Jet China was in Chinese), the two guys behind me did not talk much after that. I think one sussed the other pretty fast.
Touchdown and transition at Quingdao airport; boarded a 2h30 flight to Hangzhou.
It was late at night by the time we flew over Hangzhou. Hangzhou is a city the size of London that nobody from London has ever heard of. From overhead the city looked ever so muchly dystopian. Endless and enormous blocks of completely dark offices or apartments, illuminated inconsistently by enormous flashing neon billboards – think Blade Runner 2018.
Two things came at me the next day: the heat, and the traffic. Not much to say about the heat. It was hot. As for the traffic, right outside my hotel was a bike with pink oven gloves on the handlebars, and I saw endless streams of bikes, e-bikes, and spluttering petrol bikes with constructs the size of houses on the back of them, made up of a thousand thin layers of cardboard and clenched together by red elastic strips. I’m sure there was a system to it, but I could not tell you what that system was (the rummy type which allows cars to do u-turns in the middle of interchanges). It was only my first day in Hangzhou, and already I’d seen a man pull over his mini-van in the middle of what was essentially a dual carriage-way, get out, piss, shake off, and then drive off again without compunction. And all the while the horns blare for no obvious reason whatsoever.
China has buses too, and I took one of these buses.
The bus did not accommodate very well for a person of my height (and I’m not offensively tall). I had to cock my head, and from across the bus a baby watched me like I was an exotic bird escaped from the zoo. As I got off the bus, a woman next to me spat on the street and narrowly missed the bus’s wheels. Even though she had spat without much animosity, and not exactly in my direction either, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had somehow already made a cultural faux-pas and was paying the price.
I proceeded to walk down the street, where I was enticed by a woman who was labouring over a busy cart. She was selling medium/small baskets of strawberries. I pointed to one and asked for the price using one of three Chinese phrases known to me. After much confusion, she eventually said something to the effect of ‘arrrgggh yuan’ (which translates as two yuan, and exchanges as twenty pence). I knew China was cheap… but this was dirt. I handed her a 50 yuan, expecting 48 yuan back, but her fannypack gobbled the note up and spat back 30 yuan in change. I wondered whether I had been cheated, because I was certain she had said ‘arghhh yuan’ and not ‘arrgggh shur yuan’ (which would have translated as 20 yuan). I thought back to the first meal I had had in China – noodles, vegetables, meat – delicious, and for 20 yuan too… so maybe she was having me on? If I had been cheated, though, I didn’t really mind; it was only my first day in China, and it’s all part of the oriental experience anyway, right… and (but how patronizing of me) the woman does sell strawberries for a living! It was the least I could do really; letting her take advantage of a foreigner like that… if that was indeed what she was doing, which she might not be. And 20 yuan wasn’t unreasonable either way. What’s that? – £2.00.
In my first week in China, I missed my first Chinese festival. It was called Tombsweeping festival; a festival where people remember their dead. I’m not sure whether anything much happens, whether it’s public or private, whether it’s celebratory or morbid, because it rained hard for the whole holiday and so I chose to spend it trying to cook some supermarket pork which had enough salt on it to wilt a snail on steroids.
It was with a stinking Chinese hangover that I clambered into a taxi a few days later to travel across the city to a medical check that was required of me by work.
I stepped outdoors at 9:00am. It was 26 degrees. The taxi was a microwave in motion, and I knew as soon as we stopped at the first obnoxiously red light that I was in trouble. I arrived at the health centre without embarrassing myself though, and met with a woman who was helping me through the day. I then readied myself for what I thought would be a simple check-your-tongue-and-maybe-your-balls-sort-of-thing.
The health-check consisted of: measuring height, measuring weight, measuring BMI, an x-ray, a urine sample, a blood sample, checking blood pressure, an ultrasound(?), and an eye check. Each of these was done in a different room, and I was very grateful for this, because the small commute in between the rooms allowed me to flee, not once but twice, to the toilets, where I proceeded to throw up.
I had been there for almost two hours by the time of the final test: the eye check. By now, I had released enough beer from my body to know that the worst was behind me (or, more appropriately, underneath me). I could, therefore, appreciate with amusement an eye check which involved me trying to identify Chinese characters, when I could not have identified a Chinese character even with a telescope. When the old woman in white rapped her stick against the testing board on the wall, I squinted, and then mumbled a yes, or a no, depending on how clear I thought they might be to somebody who might be able to read them. She was even more confused by my answers than I was, and I found out why only after I had finished the test – because they were not Chinese characters at all. They were in fact fancy horseshoe shapes, and they had been pointing in different directions. All I had needed to do was point correspondingly.
Given that the authorities now think I’m blind, it was fitting that, some days later, I managed to get myself lost within five minutes from my apartment (finding your way at 10:00pm, in a city which has a mono-aesthetic, when you can’t read any of the signs, is tricksome). I was saved by a lovely man with awful teeth who was clearly very high on something. Together, despite my lack of Chinese, despite his inability to operate a touch phone because of his shaking hands, we got me home with the help of Baidu maps.
This has been the start of some blogging from the central kingdom. Doubtless any follow ups with be shorter than this initial burst of enthusiasm.
There is still, even after centuries of poking around, a central mystery to China. It’s the one country which we will admit to knowing nothing about. We understand just how little we understand about it, compared to the lots of other places that we pretend to know lots about. So I will try to throw a porcelain plate through your computer screen and introduce you to my very own (is it invented?) Other.
My small one-and-a-half room apartment is number 908, and my floor is accessible by three lifts, two of which are operational at any one time. The lifts are shiny cuboids, scratched-up and with spotty floors, and they have electric adverts on the walls which shout at you in Chinese in the way that TV adverts used to shout at you in 1980s. Depending on which lift you take, it either tries to sell you an expensive car, an expensive suit, or a fruity yogurt drink for children. Each advert in each lift has a scalable bar code so that the impulsive purchaser can impulsively purchase while traveling between floors.
My block of flats is one of several blocks of flats which exist in a type of gated-community. These gated-off communities are ubiquitous and, at least in my area, not obviously socially-economically stratified. They are also gated-off in name only. Although they all have elderly security guards, these men do nothing but sit in their booths all day and play on their phones, and all the while people exit and enter as they wish, walking freely around the parking barrier. China has a lot of these security personnel; there are three or four of them at the place where I work. None of them do anything. I’ve never seen them stop anybody. It’s just a form of job creation. While my little community of six apartment blocks is pleasant enough, within a week of being given a bike it had become a stolen bike. I was told the CCTV would be checked. I expect that it hasn’t.
I am already used to the noises. An annoying one which is fortunately irregular, is the loudspeaker system. When I first heard it come on outside, I thought it was a police patrol out looking for a criminal, (perhaps they had spotted a devious-looking chap riding a rusty blue bike?), but I was soon told that the blaring announcements were relaying safety information: to close your doors, to be wary, to look for exits, (nothing about bikes, though). Other noises include the daily drone of military jets which fly low overhead. I am not sure where they fly to, or even why they fly at all, and can only assume that if the Chinese feel the need to patrol even over the Yangtze-Delta then the Chinese patrol budget must be hefty. The first time I experienced this noise it was without question the loudest thing I had ever heard. I quickly got used to it though. You do tend to get used to things quickly in China. For example, I can’t remember when the presence of rubbish in my life was novel, although it must have been relatively recently. My apartment complex – which has bins, even if they are overspilling and uncollected – is not as bad as most places, where crumpled pieces of trash lie in shallow piles in the street.
Blue-skys have so far been rare. Smog mostly. But, as somebody from Quebec told me, if you go higher up into the mountains it can pass for mist on Instagram and you don’t even need to use a filter.
From my apartment balcony, I can barely see the mountains most days. It’s only by the mysterious graces of governmental decisions which halt factory production, that I know them to be there at all.
I went to the countryside. I went with work colleagues come let’s-hope friends. Their names are (not): Sunshine, Slarty Bardfast, The White Russian, A Representative Of The Capital Of Culture, and As Somebody From Quebec Told Me.
We went to Longjing village. It’s a tea-picking village that has a noticeable difference in air quality. At its centre were basic houses which were sparsely painted, squat, and often doorless, and the tea fields rose up around this centre on the sides of the surrounding hills. The tea pickers were old and wrinkled women who wore the type of wide hats that you see in BBC documentaries called: ‘China’s Emerging Tea Monopoly’ (or something like that).
This was Slarty’s trip really. He had been hiking around Longjing before, and the following comes entirely from him… Longjing village is not the place you want to buy team from. It has a bad reputation amongst the tea-picking confederation of tea-picking villages of conning people, and of taking advantage of overly green foreigners like myself. The method of their underhand is to pick the big leaves which weigh more – when it’s the new and small leaves which provide the quality taste. Still, they seemed hard enough at work from where I was standing, and indeed they were: the typical working day lasts from 5:00am to 11:00am, then, from 12:00 noon until 4:00pm; and they rinse-and-repeat these hours come boiling heat or torrential rain (these conditions are common, but even a tea-husker villager knows that, big or small, the leaves need to be picked while they’re young). Other interesting insights from Slarty included stories concerning the poor education of Chinese villagers, and the myths which persist in the more rural areas of China. Don’t wash your bellybutton in case water gets inside you. Don’t bother brushing the teeth of children, because they’ll fall out anyway.
On the subject of poorly conceived knowledge, there are a couple misconceptions of my own which I should jot down:
1.) Turns out the blaring of the horns on the roads are actually just darn prudent. Without them, I would have seen many accidents by now (you learn this and other things about traffic from biking through the Chinese mess everyday).
2.) The oven mitts I witnessed on the handlebars of bikes are, so I’ve been told, not for heat, but for cold. Yet they wear them in 26 degree heat, so this doesn’t make any sense.
It’s been a month. Think I’ll have learnt Mandarin soon.
Maybe I should make this a more regular thing, what do you think? Oh, I don’t think anybody cares either way. I know that… but twice in one month is a good start, right? Yeah, but they’re already getting shorter. Maybe that’s a good thing though, maybe they’re meant to be shorter. Why? I don’t know… makes them more bloggy. Doesn’t matter though, does it, if nobody reads it anyway? Oh yeah. Also, you’re talking to yourself. I know, I know.
For my second countryside outing, I went an Outdoor Activity Centre which was by my standards just a village which had diversified to accommodate for corporate groups on day-trips. The village’s activity stations were spread out over a few miles of bamboo forrest and sloping hills, and included: a communal cooking area, equipped with a line of wood-stoked grills; a shop, where you can buy a 2% Chinese beer called ‘Snow’; a lake, where dingies and paddles rested; and a grimy zip line, which, after it had taken its victim successfully over the bamboo forrest, raced back up the hills at metallic speeds before it clanged into its mechanical home with a force of what seemed like too many Newtons.
The one other station was a hill which, cleared of bamboo, laid the foundations for four colourful slides which you went down on with a sledge. The slide was fun for the short while it lasted, but I wouldn’t do it again, and perhaps the locals knew that this wasn’t their most exciting attraction, because at the bottom they had made a fire out of bits of plastic as if that made it a bit more thrilling.
Back in Hangzhou, and someone spits on the street.
It’s getting hot. It’s 37 degrees and not yet the end of May. I’ve been told that while it won’t get much hotter, it will get more humid. Since I can remember, I have tended to wake up on my front in the mornings; with the right side of my face crushed up against the pillow and with my arms cocked underneath it; but here in the Chinese heat I also wake to find that, filling up the canyons that exist in the backs of my knees, I now have two lagoons of sweat in which a mosquito or fly had spent the night skinny-dipping. (Chinese mosquitos and flies have the time for that sort of thing – they’re lazier over here, more complacent, the upside being that they are more easily smudged.)
Everything’s hot. Even the office microwaves, which I’ll grant are meant to be hot, radiate unhealthily as they toil and grind their way through lunch, and I suspect they flirt with an explosive suicide. The very walls of buildings are also suffused with hot veins – if you plug your charger into the sockets for too long, the electrics in the wall begin to cook your wires.
Outside my apartment, a little six year old girl slyly waddles up to me from the street. She asks me a question, and I’m sure I don’t understand.
“Hello, whats your name?” She giggles and runs away from me.
Inside a shop, I ask, in Chinese, “Whats the price of this?” This time it’s an old woman who giggles at me but also gives me no reply.
Near where I work, a man stops me on the street, and I understand some of what he says:
“Do you know where the (and even if I had understood what he said at this point, I wouldn’t have been able to help him, would I?) is?”
Yet to learn Mandarin.
Flying to Ho Chi Mihn was stunningly like something out of Civilisation V, such was the sense of height as combined with the clear-cut clarity of the landscape.
Such a view as this quickly vanished as we flew over the city, and thick grey clouds began to obscure all. Soon enough, the buzzing of the comms system informed our passenger body that we would not be able to land because of, and I quote, “hard rain.” We were diverted an hour outside the Ho Chi Mihn, to Cambodia, where we landed on what was more lone airstrip than recognised airport.
I can tolerate an hour long diversion as long as it takes me via an interesting country, and so I cooly lamented our fate with the nice man who sat next to me and who spoke some English, and he told me that this place was none other than the hub of the Jīn Sān Jião. The Golden Triangle. I looked through the windows at the surrounding fields. “Hard rain.” Suddenly things became a bit more suspicious.
After a three hour delayed arrival to Ho Chi Mihn, I met an old amigo who responds to ‘Efa’ and together we left our hostel and got to getting to know the place.
Some things were good. The food was superb, the drink was far from stinted, anything that had been built by the French was worth looking at, and the Vietnam War Museum, where they used to display stillborn foetuses (the results of deadly wartime chemicals), was almost entirely photographic and perhaps for that reason very educational.
Some things were less good. Western men, wrinkled and tattooed, awkwardly paced the strip in their old age; they were obviously out looking for free pieces of ass but were more than willing to pay for it if it didn’t turn out to be free. Local waiters would outnumber you three-to-one and lunge for your arm or force chairs towards you; they would shove menus under your nose while shouting the name of the drink they wanted you to buy. If they were grossly overbearing though, they were at least confined to their drinking place, and so could be escaped from, unlike the local women who would come by as they pleased and would wave fans and boxes of cigarettes in your face for minutes at a time.
Worst of all, though, were the midnight children – children who looked no more than seven or eight years old on average but who were certainly as young as four or five at times. These children also walked the strip, and held plastic baskets filled with bric-a-brac under their arms. They tugged at your sleeve as you tried to eat or drink. I will remember one example in particular: there was this one girl, whose HQ seemed to be a nearby shop and whose Mother seemed to own that shop, who would target men by running up to them and hugging their legs and hanging dead-weight with her face against their crotch. She would stay like this until they paid for something. It worked – all of the men paid for something, for what else were they meant to do to a girl as young as that? I was forced to wonder this, because she approached me eventually. Perhaps because I was sitting, she used a different tactic on me. She started throwing fistfuls glitter which stuck like a rash on my knee and my neck. At the time it wasn’t funny; after the fact it was a bit funny; but then a few moments later, once she was gone, it wasn’t funny all over again, because then I thought about how she probably did this same thing night after night on this drunk and druggy street – and maybe her parents are that desperate, maybe they would literally starve and be without a roof if it weren’t for the income provided by their child… I am willing to imagine it, although I think it unlikely.
We went on a tour of the Mekong Delta. After a much debated minibus ride far out of the city, we arrived at a place called Sông Cái Bè, where they had one of the oldest floating markets which I’m certain I didn’t see. There was certainly river-based activity, with rusty, grimy, wooden, sand shovelling, wood smuggling, black smoke shuddering boats of the long and slim variety, but there was not much there in the way of a floating market other than a couple of rafted up boats with a single bunch of bananas between them. One would think that a market, especially one subject to the whims of a river, presumably would not stay still, but this place seems to now. The boats were mostly locked to land, and through their windows could be seen clocks and stoves, and there was even a floating school.
If the main selling point of the day trip was very much absent, this was perhaps reflective of the structure of the economy. Tourism such as what I engaged in (apart from the floating market, this was also an exhibition in honey-making, coconut-breaking, and music-shaking), is simply far more profitable than the more traditional alternatives. Tourism keeps the city growing, but the downsides were all too apparent. Not that I complain for myself. You should never complain for yourself… not ever, but especially not in Vietnam, and in particular not about Vietnamese people ripping you off… and now, introducing, for one night only, the person who has best illustrated why this is, Seena Ztarbuck.
On the way to the Mekong, I looked through the minibus window and I saw a man emerge from a thatched rectangular building and, stepping boldly from the shade of the colossal palm leaves which cloaked his house, he began tossing seeds out of his basket onto the surrounding front-door wetlands.
So I felt like I didn’t really see much of Vietnam, but then again I wouldn’t have… I was only there for three nights.
Like me, they didn’t speak any Mandarin.
As the plane taking me to Chengdu raised its beak and whirred off the runway, I looked back over the city of Hangzhou. Because of the city lights and black backdrop, the pollution hanging over the city was illuminated – a disturbing biosphere.
The pollution really is that bad in China. It’s hard to keep reminding yourself of this while your inside it and it you, but the difference in air quality is suddenly all too noticeable if you ever take a train from the city to the countryside – the first breath you take as you exit the train is a shocking one. The reason I am not able to forget the invisible pollutants which surround me in the city is because I wear glasses, and they act as a sort of Geiger Counter as they accumulate the grime and grit and gilt that floats invisibly through the streets. By the end of the day they’ll give me a primitive reading. If I’m not wearing my glasses, the only other thing reminding me of the pollution is, disgustingly, the phlegm which regularly accumulates in the back of my throat. Old Chinese people, long-term smog breathers, can rustle up phlegm seemingly on command, and the noise they make when they do sounds something akin to the revving of an unoiled motor engine.
I was travelling with the Quebecian, who you’ve met before, and we used C-trip to book into the cheapest yet most central accommodation to be found in Chengdu.
The accommodation was in an apartment complex guarded by high walls, on top of which had been placed coils of barbed wire and deadly translucent glass. In truth, the accommodation was just one apartment which called itself into a hostel. Inside, two bellies-out men lay smoking in the living-room-come-lobby. The one shower in the apartment had a squelching green matt on the floor with gunge fully accumulated beneath it. It had soap to wash your hands, and then, to dry them, a filthy rag which would dirty them again. There were only four bedrooms, each kitted-out with four psoriatic pink bunk-beds. But it was only costing us 20 yuan a night – that’s £2.
I loved Chengdu. Chengdu is a city with a GDP the size of Norway. It is the biggest city in Sichuan, and Sichuan is the most populated province in China (100 milllion people). The province is situated westward (east of Tibet), and is home to the Sichuan Basin, said to be the most fertile ground in the world (it is known as “heaven’s storehouse”). The food in Chengdu is spicy, and famous for it. Apart from the laudable food, the reason I loved Chengdu was the general atmosphere, which seemed more relaxed then the East Coast China I had experienced so far. This could be because we were on a short trip and only visited a few areas. But I did notice more openly gay couples in Chengdu then in my entire time working in Hangzhou (if that indeed counts for anything, which I think it does).
We went to a Chinese Opera, which I had read about and wanted to see. The evening performance was very entertaining, telling the tale of a gambling man who returns home to find a wrathful wife. It was a simple enough story, and we could get the gist without speaking the language, and so my first ever opera experience might well have been more comprehensible than if my first ever opera experience had been in English. The music of the opera was interspersed with plenty of spectacle besides, including: finger puppetry, mask shifting, costume vanishing, and firebreathing.
Other than this, we wandered around Chengdu aimlessly. We visited a mostly empty Mosque, and the Quebecean wore a mini-skirt. We visited an Art Museum, which had four floors and about as many pieces of art. And we visited a railway museum, where the introductory information panel had been translated into English:
“After the Opium War, the Chinese nation was captured in numerous heavy chains and trapped in the traumatic abyss of a semi-feudal and semi-colonial society. The corrupting Qing Dynasty tried to please the foreign countries with all Chinese treasures, and naturally became a government of the Westerners. Feeling the crazy and greed occupation of the railways and mines of the western powers and their new method of destroying a state (holding a state without arms and troops), the Szechwan province, situated in Southwest China, created the first commercial railway company in July 1932 and won warm support of the public.”
Naturally there are some issues in translation here, but clearly not all the problems in this come down to that. Chinese museums are not always ardent in this way, although they are always ardent. For example, the Chinese can be very keen on the British. An umbrella museum I ended up in a few weeks ago, had half of its available space dedicated to the London umbrella.
The second day of our three day trip took us to QingCheng Shan, a mountain famous either for T/Daoism or for being the inspiration behind Kung Fu Panda, depending on your cultural taste. On the way up we stopped at Zu Shi Palace, one of the famous T/Daoist sites, as it is one of only ten greater grotto-havens in China. Inside, two priests seemed to be giving serious council to people who had come for advice.
At the top was the Laotse Tower, alt. of 1,260m, which contained within it a giant statue, c. 7.3m tall, which was sat cross-legged on a lotus. Chinese people would kneel on the matts in front of it and give praise, and a sleepy priest would tap on a gong when they did so.
We weren’t allowed to take pictures of the icon, and so the above picture is not a picture from the top of the mountain. This picture was taken at some point on the way up the mountain. Although it was not the hardest hike I’ve ever done, (Mt. Haybrich takes that accolade), this was undoubtedly the best hike I’ve ever done. The route took you up the mountain in such a way that you would one moment be passing through forrest and traversing small canyons, before suddenly you would be hiking through one of many temples, each built into the mountain’s gradient, until you had walked the wide stairs outside and zig zagged through the tiny stairways inside, from bottom to top, where you would then exit through some dilapidated door or other opening, and continue up into more forest.
Someone spat on the ground at some point, but I’ve already said that.
Pretty sure I’ll have cracked Mandarin by tomorrow.
Up until this potentially disastrous turning point, this has been about all about the things I have seen and done in China. But, because the tap is dry and I need to fend off ennui, I’ve decided to blog about the things I didn’t do and didn’t see, and all the things I won’t do and won’t see.
Chengdu is famous for pandas, but I didn’t see them. Sichuan is the home of the panda sanctuary. Relatives of mine, before I left to go to China, all seemed excited for me to go and see the pandas. The idea didn’t really bother me. I can’t say looking at pandas for even a couple of hours sounds like fun. Also, while I’m sure the sanctuaries do good work, (I really don’t know, I haven’t looked into it, but they’re called sanctuaries, so they must do some conservation work, right?), the only piece of evidence of panda care in China that I’ve seen did not fill me with great confidence. I do not have much time for zoos wherever they exist in the world, but the video I saw of the conditions pandas live in Chinese zoos was ghastly squalid. And, anyway, I experienced the only panda that matters – the one that can do Kung Fu.
Another thing I don’t think I’ll be doing in China is eating dog. I see many dogs near where I live, and the culture of eating them does not survives as it once did, although this might be one of those rural/urban, rich/poor divides that people keep talking about. Again, this is a blog post born of listlessness, so I don’t really know/care (which also explains my crippling overuse of the slash). As far as I’m aware, eating dogs is still done the further south you go in China, especially in and around Guangzhou. Apparently, dog theft is more common there than elsewhere. I just can’t see myself eating a dog. I transited through Guangzhou on my way to Vietnam. I’ve been told there isn’t much to see there. Irrespective of whether or not this is the case, I won’t be going. There are already enough places I would like to see but won’t have the time to see.
My next post will be better, and will end with a reference to Mandarin.
I drew up at a red light next to a little girl who was standing on an e-bike in between her mother’s knees. She peered over the handlebars, fidgeting excitedly and looking far into the distance. Then, the lights went green, and her little face contorted into a demon’s and she yelled “jai yo, jai yo”, or “go, go, go”, as if she was leading a charge against the Mongols.
If I thought I’d be here long enough, I might think of investing in an e-bike. Then again, I like the exercise that a normal bike involves. The bicycle was first brought to China in the early 20th century, and in some parts were called “yangma”, or ‘foreign horses’, because they seemed so strange to people. Nowadays, bikes are everywhere in China, and there is nothing strange about them. Women ride sidesaddle on the back of their man’s motorbike, like princesses on cantering grey and orange steeds.
Transport and Tech reveals the disparities of China.
In Hangzhou there is a beautiful large park called West Lake where rich people ride bikes purely for pleasure, where the restaurants are decorated by lit-up trees, and where the pavements are lined with German cars… and then, all of a sudden, you turn a green corner, and you see a poor man on an electric bike which supports a whole house of cardboard tied together with red elastic. He’s collected the cardboard from the bins, and he’s off to sell his structure, piece by piece, at a recycling joint. The same variance is equally visible win technology. A restaurant can have a smart toilet and a squat toilet right next to each other.
China can be a bit of a modern day Wild West. Concerning tech: my toilet clogs, my washing machine breaks, and the wires of my computer once started smoking in between my legs while I was at work. Concerning transport: the roads are potholed disasters that are far worse than they are in America, and although nobody seems to speed in the cities, (for good reason: the traffic, and the epilepsy-inducing cameras that wink at you overhead), the terrible insurance options still seems to engender pockets of lawlessness. I saw a collision in Hangzhou between two bikes. Fortunately, both men were fine, but one man’s bike was badly damaged. Both of the men glowered at each other as if considering a personal altercation, a dusty shootout, but neither said a word, and they both rode off in different directions without settling the matter.
The metro is quite good. Some of the compartments are even colour themed or environment themed. The only minor complaint which could feasibly be made against it is that every time the metro moves off it wretches your arms from your sockets so that at least one person will career off into someone else. That’s about the most exciting bar-brawling event to happen on it though… other than that they are more than punctual, and very quick.
The buses, with their lead throwing exhausts, are driven by bus drivers who spit on the street. They are lazy gunslingers, who load up and unload through their partially open windows without hardly looking to check where the window is. As the buses budge through the CFCs outside, inside a TV plays the repeated soft-propaganda video about how clean the city is. Much like the metro, the buses have no appreciation of gentle acceleration or deceleration, and the most exciting thing about them is that they regularly serve as a test of grip strength.
But if the buses and metro are mostly boring – the taxis are certainly not.
Taxi drivers who, without fail, do not match their identity card picture; taxi drivers who slip a cigarette in the seat next to you; taxi drivers with unimaginable mandibles; taxi drivers who beep the horn more often than they don’t beep the horn; taxi drivers who crack nuts open on their dashboard whenever they stop at the lights; taxi drivers who use their mirror to check their teeth rather than the traffic; taxi divers with nails as long as their fingers; taxi drivers with a maze of wire leading to four standing i-phones, where one is used for maps, one for the price, one for an ongoing Wechat conversation, and one perhaps for general use or backup. These are the people.
My worst time in a taxi was when it crashed. It was early morning, and I was on my way to work. We pulled up alongside a police van at a red light, and I remember looking through my passenger window at the police emblem on the side of the van – a shield inset with a stylised image of the great wall. The lights turned green, and my taxi went one way as the police van went the other. Then, as my taxi rounded a sweeping corner, a big four wheeler drew up alongside us, taking the same line, and, although I saw it coming, I made no sound as I watched the two cars take mismatched arcs and slowly slam into each other’s sides. Our wing mirror crumpled. Their wing mirror shattered, broke off entirely, and bounced off our bonnet. What ensued was an angry but normalised exchange in the middle of the road, with neither the taxi driver or the woman of the big four wheeler wanting to call the police. I paid and left, thinking less of the anti-climatic crash and more of the police van that had been next to us moments before. I did not have my passport on me – a legal requirement for all foreigners.
So it wasn’t actually so bad. My worst time in a taxi was actually when my taxi driver got into an argument with his daughter on speakerphone. I cowered in the passenger seat wishing I’d sat in the back for a whole five minutes of what I imagine was either something ridiculous, like she went out clubbing the night before, or something more major, like she got pregnant. Whichever it was, he was incandescent with rage, and explosive spittle showered his steering wheel as he pointed with an angry finger at the phone as if she could see him.
I have had many best times in a taxi, and they have all been with my Chinese soulmate.
My Chinese soulmate, spirit animal, life companion, best friend, brother even, is a middle aged man whose name I will not share with you lest you track him down and steal him from me.
He is one of the best humans you’ll ever meet. When I flagged him down the first time, he pointed happily throughout the journey at each road sign, as if to reassure me that we were going in the right direction, and we chatted as much as we could, given that his English was about as ready as my Mandarin. With the use of a translator app we made good progress, and by the time our journey ended, I had told him that I was taking a trip the following week to Vietnam, so we swapped numbers so that he could pick me up at 5:30 in the morning the next Monday and take me to the airport. As I left my apartment complex the following week and walked out onto the road to wait for him, I saw that he was already there. He was jogging on the spot and puffing his cheeks out as he did. When he saw me he lurched for his car door with a great grin. Now, whenever I know days in advance that I’ll be needing to use a taxi, I message him, and he picks me up. It’s like I have my own mobile Chinese tutor. With each trip, we struggle to avoid translator app more and more, and we talk about anything we can. Once, when I didn’t really want to talk, he seemed to intuitively understand, and started singing softly instead. We’re really just on the same wavelength. Or he just likes my tips. (It’s not that, really, whenever I tip him he looks almost disappointed in me, as if I’m cheapening our really incredibly deep very real friendship).
I’ve basically grasped Mandarin. I just don’t talk anyone other than him because I’m an introvert.
Hostel Ebi; location: Nishikikoji street, Kyoto; is named after the owners cat, ‘Ebisu’, which is the name of the Japanese god of business (the hostel’s logo is of a large white cat in colourful formals, who sits cross-legged with a fishing-rod over his shoulder and a fish under one arm). The hostel was in a central location, but more crucially it had air-con to do battle against the literally-fatal 38 degree heat. Unlike my air-con unit in China, this air-con unit coughed up from off the street no fluff balls, no rain globules, and no cigarette butts.
Being in Kyoto felt like I was on the set of a Studio Ghilibi movie, – if such a thing were possible. The low skyline surrounds you with the animatedly-distinct slopes of the mountains. The people, like the cars, are softly spoken, and even background employees who shout at you from shop doorways do so quietly so as not to distract from your narrative. The metros are of perfect design, with pleasantly carpeted seating, spotlessly white hoops hung from the ceiling, and a rustic burgundy exterior. And the buses tilt romantically to allow the elderly to step on. The nostalgia of the place was keenly felt by me. On one bus ride I saw a little boy, maybe seven, nicely tanned, with big cheeks shuddering to the good-natured shake of the bus, wearing a white sleeveless shirt, a sad smile, red shorts, and who was playing with a big plastic sphere the inside of which had criss-crossing slides of regurgitated green, vitamin orange, and pale purple. A ball ran around inside on these slides. I suppose that, years from now, when everyone is wearing Google’s goggles and interacting with each other through SIMs, even McDonalds toys will become a valid source of nostalgia. Simpler times. One cannot realise the things that the next generations will fawn over until they’re gone.
My friend, c.Fumhimi Inari, drove us around Biwa, the biggest lake in Japan, in a big-windowed little-box of a Japanese Nissan. Our adventurous two day road trip included: tracking down a watermelon, a couple of castles, shredded ice of many flavours and one, sneaking up on traffic lights, trying to find Dan Carter, smiling at Kim Jun Un, semi-skimmed stones, rice balls, and driving the Hyuga rainbow line, on which we saw three hawks, two roadrunner deer, and one nearly-runover monkey. At the end of the rainbow road; where unsprung plum and cheery trees readied themselves to make the countryside even more beautiful than it already was; I spied a fisherman alone on his boat. Probably he gets up absurdly early, has to do moderately heavy labour, and is smelly… but… he bobs about in a boat all day, off his tits or in his own head, with views around him and crystal below him. The alternative – one manages to forget because society demands it – is waking up at a similar time anyway in order to do the asphalt commute into a noplace city where nobody knows your name.
I might become a Japanese fisherman.
I visited Osaka too, and walked the Termachi street, and stood on the famous Ebisu Bashi bridge. Osaka was big, too big, so maybe I like Kyoto more than I like Japan. The population of Tokyo is in excess of 40,000,000 people. I can’t imagine I’d enjoy that. But Japan does do a good job making its flaws forgivable. For example, the humiliating Japanese fad of up-skirting is offset by the women-only carriages on the metro line. Even the ‘pachinko rooms’, rooms full of smoke bad and noise vomit where old men gamble on pinball machines as if they were children, probably have their own hidden virtues. If nothing else, I can’t help but think that I’d rather that kind of atmosphere was kept in there than out here.
Over my week in Japan I did a lot of touristing. I saw the Fushimi Inari, my friends approximately invented namesake, but not with him, with a Chinese girl I met on the train from the airport who was, although interesting enough, so cloyingly girlish that I had to drop her in the end. I also visited the Golden Temple, with it’s sempiternal landscaping, Kyoto Castle, with its nightingale floorboards, and the Imperial Palace, with its five lines of daikakuji.
Lots of Japanese place-names sneaked into this one. Is my Japanese already better than my Mandarin?
I had a 19 hour stopover on my way back, because my clever plan had been to sleep in the airport for a few hours before going to visit Hong Kong during the day.
I ended up not leaving the airport. Why didn’t I leave the airport? I thought about saying here that I was too hungover to go anywhere, but in truth Japan was an entirely sober experience; I thought about writing down that I ran out of money, and although this was true in a sense, (Japan was expensive), I could have taken money out easily enough; I thought about claiming that I felt too tired, but although Japan was tiring I was not too tired, and so this wasn’t the reason either. Essentially, I thought about lying to myself in my own travel blog. (And now that I have thought about lying once, what else has this truant, this name-forger, this compulsive ego-stroker, lied about? – Did I go to Japan at all?)
The sad truth of it is that I couldn’t be bothered to see Hong Kong. Sounds really bad, really, and I think when I booked it it wouldn’t have entered my mind that I wouldn’t leave the airport. Yet, I wonder if even back then I knew that I might just stay indoors. My best excuse is that it began to rain, but even before then, from the moment I arrived, I knew that I had been assassinated by lassitude and my lower lip had been petulantly split. I just didn’t want to trek. I just didn’t want to sort things out. I just didn’t want to have to find travel options. It turns out that the traveller within me only goes so far, and sometimes that means not even leaving the airport.
I’m sure Hong Kong would have been fascinating. I really should have gone. But I wrote this instead, alone, in the airport, eating junk food, and without once opening my Mandarin study book.
“No noise,” said the woman, who met us on a dimly lit street at 2:00am near her apartment complex. “Foreigners not suppose to be here.”
I had gone, again with the Quebecian, to Beijing.
Beijing was a three-day heist in which I saw the Forbidden City without going inside, the Heavenly Temple by skirting around it, and Tiananmen Square after a slow plod through the airport-like security. I also saw the 798, which is a curiously dissident area of photography, modern art galleries, and street art.
Of course I went to the Great Wall too, of course I did.
If you get up early and make your way to the Beijing subway, which is sprawling, and find line 2 which goes to dongzhimen, and from there locate the well-signed transport hub; if you then take a bus, the 916 from dongzhimen to huairou, after about 1 hour you arrive at a town called beidajie; if, after that, you find a taxi, or the closest available thing, and insist that they take you to the mountainside village of xizazhi, which is a 200 RMB ride away, you will arrive after a couple of hours at the very beginning. You are then left there by your driver, and advised to go east (because if you go west you die), and so you treck upwards for one hour plus until you reach one of the most overgrown and empty parts of the Great Wall. You can from there begin your long slog across the stone serpent, up to where its highest, before continuing until you reach the touristic mutainyu area, where you can catch a series of buses taking you back to Beijing.
Samuel Johnson once said, “there is no Work equal in the known World.”
Daniel Defoe once said, “this mighty Nothing call’d a Wall.”
There is no doubt in my mind as to which Englishman had it right.
The place where we stayed in Beijing was sweltering, and if the white medicine bottles about the place meant what I thought they meant, then our host was quite possibly quite sick. Perhaps the sickness was such a debilitating one that it had made her too ill to work, which would explain why she had reverted to putting up foreigners at a time when the government was in a no-foreigner mood and had banned hostels from putting them up. During our time with her, she told us to make no noise, to never open the curtains, to tell anyone who asked that we were her friends, and to on no account say that we were renting a room.
The apparent reason for this secrecy was that there was some kind of African forum for economic development going on in Beijing at the time. The One Belt One Road initiative invests heavily in Africa, and I have met lots of students from African countries in Hangzhou who now study in China, but the relationship is surely an interesting one given China’s occasionally old-fashioned or perhaps it would be just as well to say racist tendencies. Uncomfortable hints of this can be seen all around one in China. Older people tend to whiten their faces. One of the bars close to where I work has a mural which surely wouldn’t be permitted to stay up in the UK. And there are betraying moments which take you completely aback, such as when parents have to be reassured that there are no black teachers in a school because their kid had once started crying when she had had one, or, another example, when a Chinese teacher told me that the reason one kid was handsome was, precisely, because he had white skin.
Then again and after all, the idea that a white baby is cute is mirrored in our own society – many white people think that asian babies are cute, but I wouldn’t ever say that make us racist. The general backwardness of some Chinese thoughts lend themselves not to racism, per say, but to a general unexamined abundance of clichés about many different groups of people. Women can be causally insulted in many different ways, but Chinese women, or at least some Chinese women, also seem to accept their own gross clichés with good humour: a friend of mine said as she failed to park her car, “terrible, classic female driver”. The problem is not Chinese people, for Chinese people are some of the most generous people you will ever meet, the problem as with most things in China is political in its nature. Unexamined cliches are propped up in society by brutish censorship: the gay drama ‘Guardians’ was recently pulled for content adjustment, along with Peppa Pig (?), as part of the June/July 2018 cleanup of what is supposedly harmful and vulgar content.
But enough of such things. Beijing was devastatingly big, devastatingly populated, devastatingly polluted, and devastatingly good all at the same time.
Mandarin is devastating too.
The Chinese family is vertically very strong. It is strong in an upwards sense, because there is a stressed obligation to ancestors, something visibly expressed in the annual Qingming grave-sweeping festival, (the one I chose not to go to when I first came to China). Apparently, stuff does happen, and people visit the graves of their ancestors, maintain them, and provide offerings. They burn fake paper money and apparently ash accumulates in the streets. The Chinese family is also strong in a downwards sense though, because the One Child Policy has left its mark – and the consequence of having less children is the amplification of parental attention and care. When one kid tends to hold the key to the family’s future, it makes sense to strap a dog lead to his waist, or a smart-watch to her wrist. Chinese children, like children everywhere, are being trained to look down instead of up. I was eating barbecue at a barbecue place one day, when I looked outside and saw a large shrimp-sized lobster-looking thing, moving on the street. He had been spat out of the next door restaurant and was sizzling on the pavement. People were walked by it, over it, looking down at their screens but oblivious to the blurry peripheral living-thing that was squirming beneath their feet.
Once, at 5:00am, on my way to Hangzhou airport in a taxi driven by my special friend, I saw, as we rounded a quiet curving highway, an enormous row of Hangzhou skyscrapers, and I saw them as I hadn’t seen them before. As I watched the sky-obstructing blocks shimmering under the big low sun, which shone dimly through the early bird pollution and the early morning haze; as I watched the sun’s rays filter through the isosceles triangles of the enormous golden cranes; it occurred to me that, in a few hours time, every one of those silent 5:00am monoliths would start to fill up with humans. If a crash were to happen it would be huge – a human calamity.
If the vertical structures fall, what will remain? The unsettling truth might be that while the Chinese family is vertically strong, it is weak horizontally. I dread to think of how much rides on China’s economy continuing to work.
Fluent in Mandarine. Just don’t ask me anything.
Early on, back when I was a glossy-eyed twenty-two year old (a belated happy birthday to me, why thank you), I saw two policemen shouting at a stationary motorist. They were shouting at him with a rigour that was reminiscent of certain rallies, and they spat on the street as they did so. They might have been telling him off, but they could just as easily have been giving him directions, because all Chinese people seem to shout at each other all the time. Even in a foreign language bookshop, I remember that once the silence was broken by two employees who suddenly started screaming at each other while almost sheepishly handling their books.
Mandarin is fascinating though. For those who don’t know, Mandarin is made up of characters, which are comprised of radicals, which can be understood through pinyin (which romanises things), and a whole lot of practice. Mandarin is a tonal language, which means you not only have to remember what to say, but also how to say it. When I was in Chengdu, I had a hotpot, or a 火锅. The first character on its own means ‘fire’, the second, ‘pot’, and they are pronounced ‘huõ guō’ with the first word said with a dip and a rise, and the second word on a steady high note.
If you don’t pronounce Chinese words as they’re supposed to be pronounced, there’s a chance Chinese people won’t understand you. But context is often a foreigner’s saviour. If in a restaurant you ask for a hotpot without paying attention to the tones, Chinese waiters will do the interpreting for you, and you will get the fiery meat soup. I was at a train station once, and I asked for ‘train-ticket’ by saying ‘pião’ (嫖) instead of ‘piào’ (票). Apparently, (although they failed to wheel one out), I asked for a prostitute.
Chinese people are not particularly good at English. A great game enjoyed by many foreigners is ‘Chinglish spotting’, and I have preserved here a few choosy examples…
‘Fitness clud’ – the name of a gym
‘Happy chicken bottom’ – restaurant name
‘There are no ugly woman just lazy one’ – slogan on a clothes shop
‘Flesh’ – a butchers name
‘Black dick’ – a bar name (and something so obviously inappropriate that it surely can’t be racist?)
‘Litter, pick yourself up’ – a sign
‘Fashion the vogue pig’ – on a t-shirt
‘My mum thinks I’m special so luck you’ – on a hat
“Please help elderly end child’ – on an escalator
“No burning” – in an airport
“Don’t slid it’ – in a toilet
“With hand buttons, don’t beat’ – in an elevator
Given the respective strangeness of our alphabets, Chinese people often take English names and English people often take Chinese names. My Chinese name hasn’t really stuck – 夹克 (jía kè) – even though I had wanted it to. Literally translated, it means jacket, which is meaningless, but I like to think it has a sort of rugged mystique about it. I also managed to name a Chinese kid. A co-worker needed an name for her daughter who was about to start English classes, and so I recommended ‘Aoife’ to her, an Irish name which nobody can pronounce not even in England. That is my curse to her; the only Chinese Aoife.
I tried to translate a little book last month which I bought from an old man on an old mountain. The story was called ‘Sha Jia Bang’, and it was a propaganda piece about a local military victory over Japan in the 1940s, where the citizenry all rose up with the army to conquer the invaders. Suffice to say, the stylised and dated Mandarin was impossible to translate. The literal translation of characters was quite misleading when translated via translation apps. For example, ’Xin si jun mou bu’, when literally translated, is: ‘new, four army, some part’; although it actually means ‘a squad’. Likewise, place and people names hid themselves in the long grass of the sentences, so I never quite knew whether a sequence of characters was an essential part of the sentence. It took me three weeks, with help, to translate the first page. Those original Jesuits must have had a terrible time of it.
I did learn a lot of militaristic verbs by giving it a go however, so I can now say “withdraw”, “resist”, “fight”, and “rise for war”. I might not know much Mandarin, but if the Red Army calls, I’ll be ready.
My prophetic inner-I tells me that my trip to Shanghai might well be my last trip in China. It involved an Alice in Wonderland escape room that was empty of any textual relationship, drunken laser quasar which was far more weird and wonderful, and a lack of what I perceive to be ‘Chinese’ culture. I went on this particular day trip with The Quebecian, A Representative of the Capital of Culture, The White Russian, and a new person who, depending on whether an analogy I’m working on holds, may or may not be an agent of Lord Voldermort.
Shanghai was expensive by China’s standards. The cost of living in China is low, and to give people in the UK a sense of it… here are some converted costs of living where I live.
taxis (never spent more than… £15, but the usual fare would be £2).
buses (£0.25, fixed rate per journey)
electric fan (£3)
haircut (£3 including a wash)
flights (somehow £100 cheaper when booked through a Chinese app)
eating out (can be as little as c.£1.50-£2)
rent (£50 a week where I am)
wifi (£30 for the year)
multi-storey car parking (£1)
I once wrote that consumer is King in America. This is almost true, but not quite. In America, consumer is actually Queen, and she get’s fucked in the ass by her multi-millionaire husband called McDonalds. The consumer is King only in China, where, if your money bag is big enough, it seems to be expected that the rules should change for you.
The thing is that most people work for nothing in China – the cleaners, the people who bring me food – and so the workplace leaves a lot to be desired for most people. In my experience, there are plenty of illogical inefficiencies in the Chinese workplace (these I will talk about next time maybe), but there is one thing that the Chinese workplace seems to get right: and that is that you don’t have to pretend to be busy. What do I mean by this? If you have nothing to do in China, it seems like you can just whip out your phone, (I often see supermarket attendants loitering in some aisle or other, and shopkeepers and hairdressers are also on their phones all day), rather than pretending to be busy and accepting the boredom of your 9:00 to 5:00 existence.
Other than Mandarin, one of the best things about China is the street food. I will miss it.