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A massive, battered pot steams on the corner, emitting mouth-watering smells, a group of young people sit beside it on a makeshift table, enjoying a freshly-cooked breakfast, a gaggle of retired men and women sit on sagging easy chairs across the road, with time on their hands. I am out in the early light of a Shanghai morning.

Woven through the interstices of the horizon-wide high-rises of that extraordinary and untried experiment in collective human living known as Shanghai one finds its streets. Never before in human history have so many people – 19 million or so – lived together before. Only Beijing eclipses Shanghai in sheer population, with its 23 million, but that is a recent development, the result of the government’s efforts to give Beijing as much economic clout as its rival.

But I am less interested in the freeways, the commercial high-rises springing up overnight, the biggest port in the world, the massive museums or even the old French concession. Far more fascinating are the streets, or rather the few streets close to my apartment. For hours I stroll slowly along, sitting at times on a makeshift stool to enjoy some freshly steamed bread or a dish of tofu.

As soon as I step out of my apartment I am greeted by chorus of birds, their songs still new to me. Have they gathered in the trees thereabouts, a collective morning ritual to greet the street’s many occupants? No, for I see first one bird, then two, then a score or more in simple bamboo cages, with elaborate and tiny porcelain cups for water and food, a perch and twigs and carved trinkets inside. The brown, black and yellow birds with strong beaks sing in a way that ensures their individual voices are not lost in the chorus. And the cages hang from a tree branch, a hook on a wall, a gate or a lamp post. Their carers flock together beneath the cages, sharing a smoke and a chat that begins a relaxed day. For they are all old men, retired and pursuing a modern version of an ancient Chinese passion, a passion for those who have achieved the respectful age of retirement.

A few steps further on, I pass by the gate to their apartment complex. The uniformed guard at the gatehouse – which you find at the entrance to every such block – barely notices me as I pass. An old woman emerges with her husband, both walking in a way that says they have all the time in the world – with a short, slow step of the aged. Is it not strange that time seems to slow down and approach eternity the closer one draws nigh to death? She is dressed in a way reminiscent not only of the Maoist era but also more traditional Chinese clothing (the two have a curious linkage). So also is another woman, who calls out to the man stretched out in an ancient chair that seems to have been there since before the revolution.

He wears the characteristic light blue uniform, with its yellow stripe down the side, of the ubiquitous street cleaners. He gathers the detritus of the street into a stained metal trolley, which propped up with a broom made of tree branches and leaves, a pincer and a rag. His responsibility is restricted to the couple of streets along which I walk – a phenomenon repeated across Chinese cities and towns. No wonder the streets are so clean. But now he rests, snoozing a little before the long, measured day.

On the next corner is an equally ubiquitous phenomenon: the bicycle repair stand. Nothing fancy here; no bright new parts in a vast shop. Instead, on the footpath is a small on-street cupboard, containing a few ancient tools, a couple of pumps, tyres and tubes that have obviously been used more than once. Should one have a flat tyre, an odd clunk or a squeak or a missing part, then this is the place to pull up. The woman here examines your bicycle on the street corner, tinkers here, patches there and pumps away in order to get you on the road again. No wonder the average Chinese person knows little about bicycle maintenance, for all you need do is walk a few paces to find such a repair stand. Or if you have any other piece of simple machinery that needs repair, she may do that for you as well. For most stands gather spare parts of all manner of machines, simply stacking them on the footpath, should anyone require the services of the corner handy-woman.

Across the intersection, I walk into the midst of the food zone. The sheer richness of this block makes the ‘food courts’ of Western shopping malls seem like anaemic copies. On a simple gas flame a woman boils a pot of dumplings, serving a Chinese ‘queue’ steaming fresh morsels from her pot. Behind the shelf looking out onto the street she stands in her ‘shop’ – a hole-in-the-wall that makes a train toilet seem like a mansion. I step over a stream of curiously coloured liquid that emanates from her alcove. Next to her a man in another spacious abode throws flat pancake-like batter onto a hotplate and crisps them into the delicious breakfast bread for hungry students. Out on the footpath a woman stirs a massively battered pot, regularly pulling out a concoction of noodles, cabbage, rice and pork, served into bowls with ample soup for those who sit nearby on some makeshift stools and a table.

And on they go almost without number, with endless varieties of rice noodle, wheat noodle, dumpling, steamed buns, the griddle-cooked flat cakes, stinky tofu, unidentifiable meats on skewers … food prepared on the spot for a people in which eating orders the day. Rarely do I find a person walking along the street, munching from food in hand or sipping from a paper coffee-cup. Chinese people give food and its eating much more respect, for you always sit down to eat, even on the street. So important are meals that the times of the day have a specific term that turns around meal time: before breakfast; after breakfast; before lunch; after lunch; before dinner; after dinner. And any self-respecting work-place has two hours set aside for lunch, from 11.30 to 1.30.

Competing with the myriad smells of freshly cooked and mouth-watering breakfast food are those of the market. Emitted through an entrance way in between these street and alcove cooks, the market smells speak of fresh and unfrozen fish, crustaceans, eel, and all manner of creatures of the sea that I have never smelt or seen before. Subtler are the smells that come from the orange, red and yellow vegetables scattered about, as well as the collection of greenery that is a mass of grass and stalks and leaves – edible I imagine.

I stop by the tiny fruit and vegetable shop, across the street from its twin. A child plays on the step, his grandmother inside. With the sun-darkened face of peasants and workers who spend all day outdoors, she smiles at my ‘nihau’ and points to my regular items – bananas, fresh oranges, some Chinese green vegetables (I call them all bok choi) and the massive yellow citrus in a net the name of which I cannot remember. As usual I give her too much money and as usual she hands me back a pile of notes and coins, some of which are plastic toy coins mixed in with the real stuff. ‘Sise’, I say as I leave and she smiles.

Today at the other end of the street stands a man in worn clothes and some mesh bags at his feet. At a distance I can see that they move, curiously. Closer by I suddenly realise that he has brought live snakes to sell for whatever soup or noodle dish one might want to make with freshly-killed serpent. I pass on that one. Beyond the snake-seller, a fish leaps out of a plastic bucket outside a ‘restaurant’ (defined by the fact that one may sit at a couple of tables indoors). Desperate to make a break, it soon realises that air is not quite its preferred medium, flapping about on the footpath until a woman deftly grabs it and drops it back into the bucket.

Around the corner, I meander past the street peddlers with their massive carts pulled by those solid, single-gear tricycles. A rack of clothes may have been temporarily installed, or a range of boots and shoes strung out along the side of the road. Women gather around to touch, test and haggle. A cart full of second hand books displays anything from Barack Obama’s biography to a Chinese mathematics textbook. Another is full of notebooks with hand-crafted covers, while next to it is a trolley full of chestnuts and a hotplate for roasting them. Atop a pile of sweet potatoes is a man who looks very much like his produce, and beside him is a cart overflowing with wallets and bags, or perhaps umbrellas and raincoats. At night they string up a single light globe above their wares so that the street looks like the stars have come down to earth. And around the stars are cigarette vendors in their cubby holes, mobile phone shops that sell credit and phone covers but not phones, and places where you can obtain the necessary items for a kitchen, such as woks, bowls, lidded teacups and chop-sticks.

All the while people weave in and out at a leisurely and human pace; beaten up bicycles weave in and out, often with passengers perched precariously on the rack or crossbar; motor scooters of all makes and ages – some kept together by masking tape – skim in and out of the crowd; cars blast their horns for a way through even though it is against the law to thump the horns so; a bus edges ever so slowly through the throng, which gradually makes way for it.

Eventually I find my favoured spot on the corner, with a view down both streets. I buy a bowl of tofu, vegetables and noodles, sit down on a stool and dig in with my chopsticks. Again I ponder: how is it that some people, some cultures are able to make the street their home in such a way? Why do they not retreat into the privacy of their homes, lock the doors and close the curtains? Why is the street not left to be a locus of transport, of getting from one private space to another? Why do they prefer to mix and mingle, meander at a pace that encourages one to stop and talk, to sit and while away the time among friends in the constant interaction of people? Is it merely a cultural and social history that makes it normal to do so? Or is it one of the myriad results of an emphasis on a communal life in which even the streets of Shanghai become common space?

2011 October 057b

 

The foreigner’s moment of transition is upon me: China is becoming familiar. This is a curious time, when much of what struck me on the first few visits starts to seem like normal. What was different is no longer so; what I once noticed I no longer do, since it is becoming part of everyday life. The downside is that I need to work harder to notice what I once did, to create that fiction of seeing for the first time. But the upside is that I am beginning to understand some aspects a little more deeply.

The first is a paradox, at least at first sight. China is at the same time more technologically advanced than any place on the planet and yet more traditional. The examples are multiple, including the highest rate of new technological inventions in the world (outstripping even places like silicon valley) or the development of an anti-aircraft-carrier missile that neutralises the key element of US military supremacy. But let me describe one such item in a little more detail. China has what is already the most comprehensive network of high-speed trains in the world, and the network is expanding rapidly. It may have borrowed the technology from Germany and France, but there only a few short lines operate with trains that run at over 300 kilometres per hour. As China extends its network over thousands and thousands of kilometres, it has developed the technology in its own way, so that now it is the global expert. The network is transforming travel in China in a way other countries can only imagine.

Yet China is deeply traditional. This is most noticeable in the rural villages, even in those close to the cities. Here people cook on wood fires, draw water from wells, use hand labour for farming and animals (mules) for traction. To be sure, they have motorised vehicles – of the ubiquitous three-wheeled type – but they often prefer the animals and their hands. With common rather than private property in land, they practice the age-old reallocation of land shares on a periodic basis. Need and capability are the criteria, depending on family size and capabilities.

I could cite other examples, such as attitudes to relationships, or assumptions regarding food, or the sense of what is important in life (spiritual as well as material), but the underlying paradox is one of the most advanced and yet most traditional societies one can find. However, a widespread sense persists in China that it remains backward, that it still has much catching-up to do to be equal with the ‘West’. I prefer to see it in terms of dialectical possibilities. As past experience shows, the places that feel as though they are still behind the rest usually find new ways to leap ahead. Call it dialectics if you will, but soon enough more and more people realise that backwardness is an advantage. It enables modes of creativity in which one realises that ‘catching up’ is not the path to follow. Instead, such backwardness produces new modes of thinking and acting that solve intractable problems elsewhere. Suddenly, what was once backward is now at the forefront. The fact that China has – as one person put it to me clearly – a very different social framework adds to that potential.

A second feature concerns perceptions of, or rather the production of, the ‘West’. This is a subtle term with many layers of meaning. Of course, the origins of the East-West distinction, as we know it, go back to the struggles between the Greek-speaking (east) and Latin-speaking (west) parts of the Christian Church. Dates for major festivals, doctrinal statements, church structures – these and more were part of the struggle. From this specific, small, and rather insignificant origin it has become a global distinction. But what does ‘West’ mean in China? Sometimes it refers strictly to Western Europe; at other times eastern Europe, the USA, North America as a whole, and even Japan are included; and at others it includes the whole world apart from China (which then embodies the East). Intrigued by these multiple senses, I often ask: what about Russia, is that Western? Some say yes, others say no, but few recognise that Russia is largely an Asian country. How about Eastern Europe – Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Serbia …? They are definitely Western. What about Africa? South America? Australia? Pacific Islands? Mostly people say they are not ‘Western’. Yet, just when I think I am getting close to the meaning of the term, to pinpoint what ‘West’ really means, it slips out of my grasp. So perhaps we need to ask a very different question: why do Chinese people need a subtle and slippery term like ‘the West’. It is crucial for the constant process of defining what China is, especially in the modern world. So the question should really be: what do Chinese people think the ‘West’ thinks about China?

I am often asked a question like this: what does the ‘West’ think of China? I usually point out that I do not come from the ‘West’ but from the ‘South’. But I also indicate what appears in the corporate media from time to time, indeed what general impressions are in the South Land (Terra Australis). China is still viewed with a mix of mystery and fear, both of which are based on ignorance. The mystery still has a good dose of the orientalism about it, which continues to haunt much of the rest of the world. Indeed, the ‘Forbidden City’ stands as a symbol of this mystery, especially in a country run by a ‘secretive’ Communist Party. So mystery folds easily into fear. Whether the ‘yellow peril’ of a bygone age in Australia when European whites were once the most numerous (now they are the minority), or China’s ‘aggressive’ and ‘dangerous’ rise that is on the minds of fading empires – fear is easy to generate, but especially so in the absence of knowledge. It remains true that people in China know more about the rest of the world than the rest knows of China; hence the ease with which the corporate media fills that space with a mix of fear and mystery, along with ignorance and misinformation. Indeed, I recall vividly my first arrival in China. No matter how much I sought to resist the near-universal images of China portrayed, I too was affected by them. Would I be followed by a secret policeman? What topics should I avoid? Would I be escorted carefully around the place so that I could not see ‘sensitive’ places? All of these preconceptions were simply destroyed. I experienced a near 180 degree reversal of my preconceptions. How a little experiential knowledge goes a long way.

Yet, the most significant impression took somewhat longer to build, a result of prolonged periods of living in China: it is the relief of being in a socialist democracy. At first, this experience is not so obvious, except that one begins to enjoy the absence of the inanities of bourgeois democracy – inaction as a result of parties focused on the opinion polls and elections, the to-and-fro of policies instituted only to be undone by the next bunch, the petty squabbles and character assassinations, the corruption that is inseparable from such a system, the absence of real and wide-ranging political debate, and the fact that the ‘parties’ in question are so similar to one another in seeking to gain ‘the middle ground’ that they are really factions of one pro-capitalist party. Far better to have the same party in government year after year – a necessity for the construction of socialism (although it is worth noting that China has more than 25 pro-socialist political parties involved in government).

The first sense of the difference of socialist democracy ‘with Chinese characteristics’ came from a curious angle. I began to notice that political debates were much more wide-ranging than those to which I had become accustomed. Everything was on the table and everyone had a passionate opinion. Was this a paradox of one-party rule, I wondered, which generates wider debate than a bourgeois democratic system? Since then I have realised the situation is more complex. Stability is the norm rather than the exception, which both allows decisions to be made and carried through, and produces the fascinating problem of long-term legitimacy. The government both fosters debate and listens closely, with many channels for gaining a sense of what people think. When it works well, this pattern of listening, processing, reformulating and sending out proposals for further considerations is what socialist democracy, or ‘democratic centralism’, is really about. And it needs to work well – although at times it does not – for a government that has been in power for a long time constantly needs to renew itself. Perhaps Chairman Mao sums it up best: ‘from the masses, to the masses’.

From my correspondence with a comrade in Kiev, during the “time of troubles” in the Ukarine:

You caught me just at the moment when I am thinking about what is happening and how to “tell” you about it, trying again and again to understand what is happening. In place of the period when people could not tear themselves away from the TV, not to “miss” the truth, we have come to the period of non-news (TV, talking to each other). Many have not slept for some time and continue to take tranquilizers. Unfortunately, intolerance increases and therefore it is dangerous to express an opinion different from the one imposed. “Searches” happen, for anyone supporting a separatist-federalist position; nationalism appears even at the household level. …

But nearby is the so-called maidan. It is a terrible sight, along with its inhabitants … Russian speech still prevails everywhere – on the streets, in shops, transport, schools, etc. – but they are trying to implement the Law Tymoshenko first made in 2006-7. According to this law, speaking a language other than Ukrainian even in informal settings (between classes etc.) is forbidden. This law is not for the future, but is already present. I never could have imagined that people could turn into animals so quickly …

Suspicion and fear are gaining momentum, manifested in everyday life. Some of it is still non-systemic and can be perceived as misunderstanding. But wiretapping of telephone conversations now happens, and among the population, even among friends, are many informants. They ask supposedly random questions: “Were you there? And you do not want to leave?” … Many are worried about their relatives who participated in the referenda in the south-east. My aunt [who lives there] said that, despite the threat to life, she had not seen so many people come out for a vote in recent years.

But who is who? Today I witnessed a scene: two young men were talking near a car with its doors and windows open. The driver of the car shouted that they were Muscovites (Russian) and do not speak the language. So one of the young men leapt upon the driver and hit him several times.

It does not surprise me what is happening. This has been “brewing” since the 1990s. Then they “crushed” Crimea and the Donbass, but the problem is by no means solved. What do we have now? Accumulation of Capital; revival of impoverishment; a nation based on Russophobia; an aggressive minority insolent through the support of its foreign backers. The blind worship of everything foreign, kowtowing to the so-called Americans and Europeans has always irritated and annoyed me. I think that this worship has a long history, going back at least to the time of Peter the Great. And so, today’s oligarchs live in Western Europe, and come here only to earn money …

Donbass

 

‘I’m paying for this meal’, I say.

‘No I’ll pay’, says another.

‘Actually, I will pay’, says a third.

‘I am serious’, I say. ‘I insist on paying’.

And so it goes on, through a long ritual dance of protestations, loud assertions, absolute rebuttals. I can never win these arguments, especially when I am accustomed to a situation where the word is final. Indeed, I am used to a quiet statement before the meal begins when one person makes it clear that he or she is paying. That is that, and the meal proceeds.

But not in China, where it would be all too easy for me never to pay for a meal at all – an attractive proposition for one who is ‘careful’ with his money. The fact that I am a foreigner and therefore a guest weighs against me paying even further. No matter how much I assert that I am the one with more money, that it is well overdue for me to pay for a meal, that the person or people in question are guests, my word does not carry much weight. In fact, no one’s word carries much weight.

Instead, the deed is what counts. Protestations at the table may be loud and impassioned, but they signal not so much the desire to pay but the need to assert a complex mix of messages: one’s gratitude for the meal, one’s ability to provide for others, simultaneous respect for the rest at the table and one’s assertion of superiority. Yet, when the actual moment of payment arrives, the real negotiation begins.

The one who has protested most loudly on the need to pay may move over to the counter (for one usually pays at the counter). However, he or she may pause and stand back a little from the counter. Or they may fumble for a while in a handbag or a pocket for the money. The delay may take many forms, but the moment of delay is a crucial signal. Do I stand back even longer, thereby signalling that I seriously expect the other to pay? Or do I step forward quickly with the money already in hand? To be able to do so entails preparation and quick moves. I must admit to being a slow learner, for even at this moment I can be caught off guard.

‘But I said I would pay’, says the other while procuring some cash and handing mine back.

‘No, no’, I say, handing his or her money back and pushing mine into the hand of the cashier.

‘But you are my guest’, she says. ‘I insist that you should not pay’, he says. ‘It’s my honour to pay’, she says.

So the ritual continues, while I quietly ensure that my money actually goes into the till or cash box. Now it is time for a couple of final and fading assertions. But the deed has been accomplished and the act has spoken louder than the word. Or rather, the ritual dance of word and deed is over. Until next time.

2014 March 027a

‘May I have a photo with you?’

Again and again I encounter this request in China. It matters little where I am – walking the street in a town, visiting a Buddhist temple, climbing a mountain, or simply minding my own business in a quiet space. And I have come to know the look that precedes the question. An inquisitive and studied look that is almost a stare – no, more than that, a look with the hint of dreaming, if not the stirring of a strange desire. When I return the gaze, eyes are averted, but only for a moment. Sometimes I utter a ‘nihau’, if not a few further sentences in Chinese, sometimes not.

But the question nearly always follows and then the sidling up for a photo. An older woman with curled hair, much laughter and a willing friend to take the shot; a young woman with a mobile phone and a selfie; a group of two or three or more, each of whom poses in a cute way; an effeminate man who sidles up intimately and utters an affectionate word or two. If I am quick enough, my own camera comes out as well and I ask someone to take a shot. If the person is too short for a good shot, I simply pick her up so that our faces are at the same height. At times it becomes a sequence of photos, with yet another person stepping forward to make the same request.

Obviously, this experience can go to your head, making you believe you are some kind of movie star. Best to avoid that self-impression at all costs. So in order to keep my feet on the ground, I have been trying to figure out the reason. Is it because people still wonder at foreigners (laowai), those strange figures from afar? Is it due to a curious exoticism in a country where everyone has dark eyes and straight, black hair? Is it because of some ‘Asian’ propensity to take photos of oneself before a significant site in a slightly different way? In the end, I simply asked a few people I know.

After much discussion, they agreed that it is mainly due to the fantasy of the foreign man. That fantasy is – as most are – a distinct mixture of contradictory elements. On the one hand, the foreign man can be seen as a rampant beast. With an over-hanging belly, red face, and drooling lips, he is out to get what he can in China (mostly with women). Yet, the foreign man may also embody the dream of an ideal relationship: devotion and sufficient resources for security, along with a window into a very different life from another culture. Even more, the foreigner may provide a desirable aesthetic – height, strong nose, blue eyes, light complexion. Of course, the fantasy also has a distinct sexual dimension. Yet, while many may entertain such a fantasy, few are willing to act on it. Indeed, a fantasy functions as something upon which one does not act. It remains a projection, a desire that cannot be realised, is even destroyed if acted upon. And so a photo can try to capture that fantasy.

2014 April 079a

‘If we are unable to read the script, then we are unable to read’. So it is said concerning the ‘traditional’ Chinese script. The saying is really a lament concerning the most recent process of simplification of the script. Of course, it was Mao Zedong and others who instigated this change, which unfolded over half a century from the 1930s to the script used by the vast majority of Chinese, in the People’s Republic and around the globe.

But why lament the process of simplifying the script? For some, the very nature of the script has become a marker of an intellectual and scriptural tradition of more than three millennia. For others, a script that can be used by so many diverse languages and dialects acts as a potent sense of unity. So to simplify the script is seen by these people as an attack on the tradition and on the unity of China. However, the script has also been a symbol of class, or better, caste. The ability to read and write belonged to the select few in the imperial administration, especially those who had undergone the arduous examination system for entry and promotion into that service. The result was that no more than ten per cent of the population as a whole were able to use this formidable and complex script. The remaining ninety per cent – peasants – had no hope of learning it and were actively prevented from using it. Writing was not only a means of power, as Lévi-Strauss would have it, but also of caste.

Compare, for instance, the traditional character for ‘horse’ (馬) with the simplified version (马), or indeed the second character in ‘university’ (學 versus 学).

The communist challenge to the traditional script was therefore a challenge to the power of that scribal ruling class. It was, of course, not simply a challenge to the script. The primary motivation was to empower the peasants, not merely through a new socio-economic system and army training, but also through the ability to read and write. The simplification of the script was therefore a means to this empowerment. The first steps were taken back in the 1930s, in the Yan’an Soviet (where the Red Army had ended the Long March). In the makeshift schools established in huts, cave-houses, and in the open, peasants were taught to read and write in large numbers. To ease the process, a simplified script along with the pinyin (Romanised) system was developed along the lines proposed by Qian Xuantong. The success of the project ensured that the new and easier script would eventually become national policy, a policy that continues today with the latest List of Commonly Used Standardized Characters published in June, 2013. Needless to say, the initial act of simplifying the script undermined the very claim to superiority by the intellectuals who had preserved the traditional script for themselves.

In this respect, some of these intellectuals have never forgiven Mao for what he did. Their response has been to establish a common assumption that the simplified script was a dumbing down – for peasants – of China’s literary and cultural heritage. They also managed to secure the astonishing assumption that Taiwan is more traditional than the mainland. Any visitor to Taiwan can see that it is deeply Americanised and more pervasively capitalised than the mainland. ‘Traditional’ is certainly not a word that comes to mind easily, if at all. Yet, many on the mainland insist it is more traditional. Why? It is simply because Taiwan has not broken with the traditional script. Forget the fact that the Guomintang kept that script as an explicitly elitist, anti-communist measure once it had escaped to Taiwan. Indeed, forget the fact that the process of simplification has itself gone through waves from the time of the Qin dynasty of the late third century BCE, with perhaps the most significant effort during the May Fourth Movement after 1919.

In light of all this, it becomes a little easier to understand the Cultural Revolution. ‘To the countryside’ was the slogan. The intellectuals accustomed to their caste superiority, to keeping the cogs of bureaucracy running, to keeping the peasants ignorant, were now told to learn from the peasants. The intellectuals were not, of course, to give up being intellectuals, but to learn a new way of being so. And a crucial part of that process was to use the simplified script. It is a useful reminder of the depth of Mao’s challenge to the vested interests of intellectuals that he also pondered whether to abolish the script entirely and simply use the Romanised pinyin system. Perhaps he took to heart Lu Xun’s statement, ‘If Chinese characters are not destroyed, then China will die’.

I, for one, am grateful for the simplification. Given that it is a little more difficult to learn a new language as one gets older, and given that Chinese is a challenge at the best of times, the process of learning is somewhat easier with the new script. That is not to say it easy in itself, but I am thankful indeed that I do not need to learn the traditional script.

‘What a weird pack’, says one of the rural men beside me. He looks it over carefully, its straps and belts and zips and its odd shape. Or at least, that’s what I guess he is saying, since my Chinese is rudimentary at best. His companion joins in and they engage in an animated debate, laughing and examining my pack once again. Not long ago, I had slung the pack on my shoulders – the glorious moment that signals it is time to depart, to take to the road. The feel of the pack’s weight first on one shoulder and then on the other; the tightening of the waist belt to shift the weight to my hips; a small adjustment and I am off.

A few stops on the metro line bring me to Chengdu North Railway Station. Most Chinese cities have more than one station, given the sheer complexity of the railway system which transports millions of people daily across a vast country. At the station, an old man carries an equally ancient bag from which the handles have fallen off sometime before the Cultural Revolution. An old and round woman with a shiny face from the humidity sits and eats and watches me write. A young woman clicks past on high-heeled footwear, attempting to gain some height from a reasonably low point. As is characteristic in the south, her face is rounder, with fuller lips and a matching fuller shape. Meanwhile, the two farmers continue to discuss my pack.

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If I have any lingering doubts as to the press of people, they are dispelled by the check-in. (Already I have gone through two checks, one a full security scan at the gate and the other for entry into the waiting room for my train.) Hundreds of black heads bob and sway as we shuffle forward. The smallest vacant space beside me is immediately filled by yet another person, in a way that speaks of small personal space. And if I have any continuing doubts as to my solitary status as a foreigner here, they are dispensed by my scan over the heads of those around me. The waiting room is overflowing with nothing but Chinese people. Do not foreigners fly, or perhaps take one of the new high-speed G-trains? Needless to say, I am somewhat of a curiosity.

On Board

More than twenty carriages await me on the platform, and more than twenty young women stand at each door to welcome passengers. Uniformed in blue, they hold their hands at the midriff with elbows out in the traditional indication of being there to help.

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The beautiful woman at carriage four smiles and holds my elbow to assist me up the steps. Do I look that old? Does she know in some way that I am a grandfather? Or is it the assumption that a foreigner is not familiar with such a train?

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A T-train it is, with its soft and hard sleepers, soft and hard – seriously hard – seats. The staple of the Chinese long-haul rail system, they trundle along at a comfortable pace for hours and often times days. My journey will take a full day, from the south-western province of Sichuan to Beijing. I must admit that I continue to be amazed by the Chinese rail network, which is surely the most comprehensive and efficient in the world. Some information: five types of train criss-cross the country. The oldest and slowest trains simply have a number, and they are the cheapest, since they specialise in hard seat and no seat tickets. All of the others are called “fast” trains, or rather, variations on fast. The K- and T-trains are “fast” and “faster,” since they were once the most modern trains available. Luxuries include beds, washing rooms, and dining cars. By comparison, most countries in the world with serious long-haul lines use similar trains. In China, the “very fast” trains are prefixed with a “D.” They too have beds and travel at a decent pace of 200 km per hour. Not long ago, they were the sleekest and most modern of all – and they certainly seem so to anyone who has travelled by train elsewhere. But now the “extremely fast” G-trains have arrived, and their network stretches ever further across the country. Belting along at more than 300 km per hour, they have dedicated tracks and brand new stations along lines that run for thousands of kilometres. The only other places with occasional trains like this are Europe and Japan, where they travel the ridiculously short distances characteristic of those curious parts of the globe. But with the G-train network, China has given yet another indication that it now leads the world in terms of technology.

As I wind my way along the corridor, I realise again why I prefer a train like this. Grandparents haul massive bags into compartments while scolding a grandchild. The ever-present attendants slip past in a way that indicates how easy and creative people here are with space. At my cabin door I am met by a waft of body odour. It seems to belong to the bald fossil, with barely a tooth in his mouth, in the bunk across from me. An additional flavour for the journey, I guess. In the bunk above a couple snuggles close in a way that suggests they may engage in the transfer of bodily fluids at some point during the night. But then their young son turns up and clambers into the other bunk.

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I try some rudimentary Chinese – names, place of origin, family, destination. That is about it, until the man from upstairs pulls out his smart phone and starts firing off words that seem like English. With the phone between us, we engage in a conversation of sorts, each searching for words to express what we want to say. Meanwhile, his son starts singing ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ in English. I join in, to scattered applause at the end. He is both dying to try out his English and yet embarrassed to do so. But we speak nevertheless, with me constantly rephrasing what I want to say until he registers the meaning.

Soon enough, food is shared, as one does in these parts. Rockmelon, bananas, cherry tomatoes, and peanuts festoon the small fold-out table by the window. Multi-coloured cups of two-minute noodles follow – including my own. I have learnt quickly enough that relatively few people grace the dining car or even avail themselves of the food trolley. It may come clattering past at regular intervals, with its driver calling out that food is available, but people mostly avoid it. Why? It is simply too expensive. Better to get hold of the universal travel food – noodles and assortments of fruits and nuts – before departure and make your own meals. It helps that even the newest trains have a hot water dispenser at the end of each carriage. Here one may obtain hot water for drinking, or pour it into one’s tea flask, or fill a cup with two-minute noodles and let the boiling water do its job.

Meanwhile the attendants seem to be everywhere, always on an errand, always impossibly smart and always smiling. One comes to our cabin for the routine introduction to the carriage, while another cleans out the cabin bins every 30 minutes or so. Another stops by with a folder, into which she puts our tickets in exchange for a plastic card. To prevent ticket swaps on the way, I assume. The toilets too need a regular wash down, as do the bins where the locals love to put their soiled toilet paper. The carpet needs to be swept before everyone falls asleep, and the emergency mess – from a child – in the third cabin requires urgent attention. A guard stroll by and jokes with one of the attendants, while later be brings their meals from the dining car. The woman pushing the clanking food trolley comes by again, yelling in her mechanical way behind a clear face protector so she doesn’t splutter on the food. Multitudes of people need numerous attendants, but it is a good way to keep high employment.

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At times, I take to the fold-out seat in the corridor. In most other parts of the world, such a seat would seriously block the corridor; it may even be designated a hazard for emergency escape. Here, people simply make their way past the seated person. Even the rattling food trolleys manage to get by without a fuss. In a strange way, that small seat in the midst of the corridor bustle enables one to find some quiet space, as much mental as physical.

Out of the Window

By evening, the potentially randy younger man upstairs is already asleep. But he is doing his best to ensure that no-one in the carriage, if not the train as whole, will not sleep. His apnoeatic snores rattle windows, threaten to tear down curtains, and seem to shake the heavy carriage itself. No wonder his wife has slept long during the afternoon – clearly a survival mechanism in such a marriage. Somehow I manage to drift into sleep too, switching off to the thunderous noise around me and feeling the deeper movements of the train.

By then we have already travelled eastward from the Chengdu plateau. Nestled at the foot of the towering ranges to the west, Chengdu sits in a lush part of the world where rice grows and civilisations have flourished for thousands of years. Eastward are mountains too, a little lower but still toweringly jagged in a way that speaks of recent geological history. No wonder earthquakes happen frequently hereabouts. Through these mountains we pass on our way to Chongqing and then to the river basin of the Chang Jiang (Yangtze) at Wuhan. Here we will turn north and travel along flatter terrain during the night.

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So I make the most of the daylight and soak up the landscape. On the journey to Chengdu, we passed through vast river plains and over never-ending bridges. But on this journey, we travel through the mountains after reaching the end of the Chengdu Plateau. We creep to the top of the range, only to plunge through endless tunnels and yawning gorges as we drop down, down off the plateau and into the river basin below. In between the tunnels, I see houses, with the typical pointed eaves, clustering in villages in folds in the hills. Ripening crops of late spring – cabbages, potatoes, local herbs, and green items I have not seen before – appear in pockets of rich, red earth where one least expects them. Odd corners, flattened rises, twisting valleys, terraces on the slopes, beneath overpasses; a list like this cannot really provide the feel of such a land where every conceivable piece of land is utilised. And there is no mono-cropping here, for in each small field a different crop grows – for mutual protection from pests, for giving off the best odours and signals that encourage their neighbours, for differential use of the soil’s nutrients. Terraced rice paddies follow the lines of creeks and rivers across slightly larger open spaces. On the lower slopes with their gentler inclines, the rice paddies are almost everywhere. Now that the plants are reaching maturity, the paddies are drained and the water pools beside them are full, awaiting the next sowing season when their contents will be needed again. Occasionally, the clothes of scarecrows flutter in the breeze. Unlike other places in the world with their single scarecrow to a field, here one finds many such figures. I ponder why one is not enough. And finally I realise why: since the fields are usually full of many tanned people, an equally great number of scarecrows is needed. The birds are simply used to seeing multiple figures at any one time.

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Chinese cities may be construction zones, particularly in the hinterland now that the eastern coast has had its major phase of rebuilding, but the vast majority of the country is rural. Through the cities and towns we pass, with their cranes and building sites and scaffolding. We stop for a while for the usual passenger exchange, for the eager walkers and smokers who wish for a breath of fresh air, but most of our time is spent ambling through tunnels, across bridges, along ridges and on the sides of mountains. I can look up and down the slopes, but rarely across an open landscape.

Arrival

My sleep is long and deep, and when I wake the snorer is up and about. He reeks of his morning cigarette, which obviously helps his sleep apnoea immensely.  But for me it is time to wash off the night sweat. In the washroom, I am jammed in with children (who stare) and mothers (who try not to stare). I strip down to my waist and soap up using one of the three taps. Rinsing leaves my pants doused with water, but I splash on while washing my hair. For some strange reason, not much is more pleasurable than a travel wash with a trickling tap. Refreshed, I fill my last container of noodles with hot water and await the run into Beijing.

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