Insights into a place come unexpectedly, chance moments that may either pass unnoticed or give the traveller glimpses into everyday life. I was in China … again, drawn back for reasons not entirely clear to me. In that time, four inexplicable moments stayed with me.
Snack Street in Xi’an
Battered pots steaming away, balls of flour flattened on a hot plate, skewers with all manner of body parts grilling over coals, curious bundles wrapped in fig leaves, piles of tofu waiting to be tossed in hot oil … the smoke of cooking filled the air, women in head scarves and men with caps sweated over their tasks, and a sea of people, pedicabs, motor-scooters and bicycles somehow wound their way among the stalls on the narrow street.
I was in a – if not the – ‘Snack Street’ in the old imperial city of Xi’an. Less a street, it felt like a whole quarter of the city. In part it was, for I was in the old Muslim quarter, first established under the great Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) – hence the head scarves and caps. Every single apartment, dwelling and corner of the city seemed to have emptied its inhabitants onto Snack Street on this evening. On a hot spring night, women gave their hips that tiny twitch in the way Chinese women do, while men bared their bellies in the heat and somehow managed to walk while not moving their upper bodies.
But I was worried, for the only food available was street food. Faithfully heeding the dire warnings one reads about such food – typhoid, hepatitis A, food poisoning, traveller’s diarrhoea – I had until now studiously avoided it. My hosts teased me, commenting on weak Western stomachs, how this kind of food is pretty much the only food they eat outside home, how one really can’t taste local food in any other way.
Then I saw my stall: skewers with fresh mushrooms, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, capsicum, onion, tofu … Choose a pile and the woman would throw them into a wok full of oil. A brush with some local spices and my mouth watered. I was hooked: scrolls of flavoured tofu rind followed, as did delicate rice noodles, or the local speciality wheat buns with varieties of fillings boiled, chopped and … delicious.
No wonder most Chinese eat this way. A few stools and a rough table on the street is the best place for a bowl of noodles, vegies and chicken, or perhaps a flat, freshly cooked pancake with plenty of filling.
What about my stomach? Did it gurgle and rumble? Did it wish to expel whatever strange substances I had dared to send its way? Yes, it did. But not from these Snack Street foods. That happened only after I returned home and grabbed some vegie rolls and spinach-and-cheese triangles from Central Station in Sydney. I’ll never eat there again.
Floors and Chop-Sticks on the Train to Jinan
Without thinking I put my bags on the floor. No matter how many warnings my hosts had offered, concerned as they were about the soft tastes of coddled non-Chinese, I had boarded an old train with the infamous ‘hard’ seats. Actually, they were soft enough, although they did not recline and three had to fit in the space of what on newer trains is given over to two.
But as is my wont, my bags found a cosy place on the floor beside my seat. I thought nothing of it until the conductor came through with a mop (on a train! I had never seen that before). She mopped under seats and small tables, people lifted their feet … but not their bags. Not a suitcase, backpack, or even a simple paper bag was on the floor.
The secret, as I eventually found, lies with chopsticks – 筷子 (kuàizi). Or rather, the insight came via those two simple but most versatile eating implements. With a complex dexterity learned from childhood, all manner of foods are deftly moved from plate to mouth, often via another plate. Occasionally a small spoon may be used for soups and the like (I like to use it for the more slippery items). Even shellfish are placed in the mouth, before the various pieces of the exoskeleton appear on the lips, to be spat onto the plate.
Rarely does a finger touch the food. And if one must eat a Shaanxi bun, or perhaps a Shandong roll, or a spring festival rice cake, one does so with a piece of paper between hand and food.
That is, hygiene is simply and effectively observed. Given that hands come into contact with all manner of germ carrying objects, given that soap is not always readily available, one simply avoids touching food with one’s hands.
So also with floors. Given that feet may step where one knows not, given that squat toilets have all manner of sprays and curious objects around them, given that the earth on which we walk is alive with the bacteria of animal and plant, one keeps bags off the floor where myriad feet have trodden. Instead they go on your lap or on the seat beside you. For eventually they will be placed in a bench or a seat or a bed at home.
Crossing the Road in Jining
The Chinese symbols for intersection is 路口, literally a road crossing. But take a step back and look at the lines themselves. With its jumble of strokes, all at cross purposes and running hither and thither, the first sign is what the intersection is actually like: pedestrians, bicycles, motor scooters, cars, buses and trucks all intent on a catastrophic collision and the ensuing carnage. The second sign represents the ideal, the calm, orderly and harmonious passage of all and sundry.
But why does carnage not ensue? Why are there rarely collisions, altercations, piles of wreckage? I would suggest that the second sign indicates the secret to the first: what looks like a mad jumble is actually a deeper expression of a very subtle balance, of yin and yang.
In Australia, I am used to zealous road warriors behind wheels, grimly asserting their rights to their space on the road, acting like impromptu traffic police. Should one dare to meander out in the thick of traffic, or push one’s bicycle wheel into an incoming rush, they would literally run me down, shouting abuse …
Crossing a Chinese intersection, I assumed (yet again) that all on the road would behave in a similar fashion. But no, the drivers watch carefully, dabbing brake and accelerator; the riders dodge and weave; pedestrians know just when to stop and when to step out. The balance is all too delicate, a sense of what is just right and what not.
As for me, I hop and skip and scoot, dashing here and there, confusing all and sundry, and making the situation far more dangerous. My Chinese friends laugh themselves hoarse. So I stick close, shielding myself with their bodies, desperately trying to learn the art. But I am afraid that will take me many a long year.
C-Train in Qufu
A dull roar rose rapidly to a crescendo. Is there an airport nearby? I wondered. I just had time to turn and see a C-train blur through the station at well over 300 kmh. Five minutes later, another roared past at the same speed. But it was the first one, those few seconds, that made me realise that the rest of the world has got no hope in relation to China.
I was at Qufu East, not a large station by Chinese standards, but larger than any you will find elsewhere in the world – outside China, of course. Qufu is a middling town, near where Confucius was born (Jining). The line through here is quite standard for China, high-tech and finely constructed so that one barely feels a bump when on board. Of the five levels of trains, the C-train is but the second fastest, behind the new high-speed trains. Nor is the C-train an exception, a model route or two, for they criss-cross a country where the prime means of long-distance travel is by train.
And they do at over 300 kmh. France, Germany, Spain and Belgium might have a few select routes along which TGV, AVE, Thalys and top-end ICE trains run. The Japanese may have a growing network of Shikansen trains, but these typically limit speed at 300kmh. One may forget about the USA, where states refuse money for political reason, or Australia, where people are content to talk – as they have done for over 20 years – about the possibility of a short run of less than 200 km. By contrast, the Chinese network dwarfs them all – in terms of population size, distance and passengers carried.
So, standing on the station and seeing the blur of that C-train I realised that China is not about to overtake the rest of the world. In many respects, it already has.