Squinting into the darkness of Beijing station from the harsh luminosity of street smog. Shuffling sweaty feet from right to left, and considering the least obtrusive route to the towering entrance. People circulate in slow and patient streams, around those who stood in boredom, or sat on newspaper picking their teeth. This open air concrete palladium gives host to countless bodies all with vague intent towards the rail station, and that included us. The day before, we had splashed through puddles, and a lesser crowd into the foreign ticket office, where we were salvaged by the sound of an american answer to David Belamy.
From between his bearded lips came gold dust information if only because it was in English. Then he inflated us to heroine proportions in praise of our adventure. Back home, the idea of not just potential, but certain communicative problems were about as tangible as the cultural revolution, or anything else Chinese but that afternoon there seemed no end of native babbling, as a northern irish baseball cap appeared on the scene, proffering on hand expertise on various topics. At rocket speed from the side of his mouth he relayed where and how to go about in Asia, with additional gems like where we could buy a baseball cap just like his for dirt cheap, a description rarely used by foreigners we had met so far in china. I suppose it was in response to the shock of having spent a quarter of our total money in a single week that we experimentally opted for hard seat to Hohot.
Psychologically, we left Beijing on Wednesday afternoon when we entered the station for departure, but we did not leave in any bodily sense until the following day just before noon. The day we were due to travel had been spent solemnly advancing through Digestives and warm soft Mars bars on sale at the foreigner’s kiosk. We pondered over the plight of those vast and hectic tour groups which swept in and out with soaking backs behind delegator types with lists and itinerary. Their organisation was undoubtedly commendable. At least they would have some accuracy to show for their travels, as they were marginally more than likely to be on that train, and arrive in time not to miss the last acrobatics performance. However after weeks of incompetency and chronic self navigation amidst what seemed initially nothing more than a bedlam of disorder, that control soars above the poorer prospect of mass catered excursive groups with extra worry and irritation. As for us, bathed in the great of luxury of freedom to go, stop, shout, laugh and argue when we wanted, we supposed. The first illustration of this traveling utopia was here when we missed our train.
To begin with, we believed the timetable. The numbers on our ticket resembled a bingo slip of scattered figures punctuated by hasty biro scrawls, apparently in chinese. In short, we missed the connection, standing on the platform and trying to get onto the five thirty when we ought to have been on the five o’clock. Haggling vocabulary at zero level we had little option but to try for the nine o’clock instead and reservations were unnecessary. However the queue for this reached refugee camp proportions, and the prospect of joining this catalytic mob proved too daunting. The foreigners waiting room was not far from luxurious with air conditioning and plastic padded arm chairs.
There were three Swiss girls when we returned to our usual seats and they had gone through just the same scenario. After much ‘Boff’ and eye rolling we all settled down with the intention of sitting the night out. Far too stringently scottish to admit defeat and check into another hotel for an exorbitant charge of 280Y, it was our first chance of something for nothing since we had arrived in asia. Behind me I noticed a squeaky clean american couple who had just flown in from Los Angeles planning on catching a train to Hong Kong in twenty minutes. Opposite was a fifteen foot double door leading onto a vacant platform and when we told them about our own phantom train ride they sped off to the second floor in desertion. Our new swiss au pairs were reassuring to have around, later providing safety in numbers. One of them, in neatly pressed culottes was evidently bred for europe not china in the angled poise of her chin and we sat reading or dozing by our rucksacks. The huge waiting room became unusually quiet when stall had shut and the clock ticked on. My legs stuck to the plastic chairs so I went to wash my feet, returning to three cleaners with mops and keys squawking and pointing angrily at us to get out by midnight that commenced in four or five seconds.
Evicted, homeless, and with nowhere to go, rich kid western babes marooned in the heart of china’s capital in the dead of night. It must have been the down turned mouths and theatrical hopeless expressions of the swiss triplets that brought out the games teacher jollity in me if it wasn’t the effect of my extremely powerful vitamin pills just swallowed. Such proletarians playing Old Maid upon on red blankets from Scandinavian Airlines! People around stared absorbed in our little performance, but the only smile came from a man with no teeth, overwhelmed when we came to sit next to him. After half an hour we had to move to another spot further away from the entrance sitting again in a circle causing a mixture of girlish giggles, talk and calm stares from nearby.
The atmosphere was unlike anything I had experienced, one that prevailed as we made our way around china in the philosophical acceptance of waiting. For the chinese this was not inconvenient but normal as classless and on every side people waited. Rubbish collectors, peasants and officials were similarly resigned. Stadium capacity floodlights shone full capacity from above, which is probably why it felt safe. The only conspicuous undesirable vibes came from the silent creep who was self appointed as our guard, staring without blinking. Part of this study involved him sloping his boney knees against my rucksack as if my luggage belonged to china and not me. At about 4-am I swiped it from under him, jolting him awake as his knees knocked to the ground.
The sky was a deep electric blue though pollution gave it gauze effect turning a fuzzy grey as dawn spilt into the sky, and gradually the peculiar quietness was broken by louder murmuring and scuffing of feet. There was no traffic yet. I sat watching in fascination as two old biddies scoured the dozing human scape for newspaper. In rival competition they preyed for prizes as people stood up and walked away from these overnight mats. Simplicity of the scene was as peaceful as tragic.
The hard seat we boarded that morning didn’t seem so bad, no cause for revolution. Attendants patrolled in white uniforms verging both military and medical images. Passengers boarded in orderly queues while we sat triumphant surveying the scene from our reserved bench. Two school boys in their early teens were beside us, as their mother fussed a great deal over where their bags should go, reiterating a hundred instructions which the boys sulkily feigned to ignore.
Propellor fans from above breezed warm air on our heads in sporadic gusts, and at ten minutes past eleven the whistle blew, and with a gentle shudder the train of thirty carriages drew out of the station bound for inner mongolia. Ten hours later dehydration arrived, the air was heavy and damp as the sun shone hotly. Having taken mild offense to the train’s shit pits, Tor and I resolved not to eat or drink to avoid them and their disease. I soon felt surging prickles of heat rash, later becoming red splurges everywhere. The question was about the least gruesome experience, to go or not to go, but there was a greater preoccupation.
A man in a purple shirt sat opposite, knocking knees for the first hour until he moved one along to sit in the aisle opposite Tor. It could have been the resentment of my foreignly cumbersome limbs which sparked off the inspiration to declare conversation. He spoke chinese and I english, with no alphabet to bridge the gap so we discussed our age in numbers with arm and hand waves. Tor was having more progress with a professor who became our interpreter. Consensus agreed in virtually a quarter of the carriage for us to exchange seats for easier talking in an agonising progress.
‘You’ he smiled ‘You’, he pointed at his cheek and back at Tor in unison agreement with purple shirt who exaggerated. Tor coyly smiled back in acknowledgment that her skin was paler. Eyebrows flying up to his hairline, he gestured towards me, an example of white skin, ha ha! Purple shirt was unusual in his capacity for western facial expression. Western genes also showed in the patchy hairiness of his legs which were bared to the knee by typically hitched up nylon trousers. We looked at one another for a few minutes before his face lit up with another subtle observation. The professor in turn noted how good the food must be in england, by pointing to Tor’s sizable knees, and my sprawling and wobbling thighs. My jaw dropped wide and broke out in incredulous laughter which made us wobble all the more.
Impressive with command of our seats, two of us sat opposite five chinese, two of their legs to one of mine. Purple shirt began to tuck in to a jar of steaming noodles, my waist felt fat. After everybody had recovered from our mirth there was a pause, while purple shirt, emboldened by the truth of his last statement considered the next. Another mouthful of instant noodles and more sweat beads sprouted from his brow. Tor was a ‘hard working student unlike her friend’, alarming an accuracy of assessment.
The reason he gave was that I was wearing a necklace, a truly unaffordable luxury for chinese students so we were great friends by this time, tasting a dose of freedom of speech. Then he asked how rich we were, and how we could afford to travel across china. Skipping over both the first question and any definite sum, I mumbled some reply about government loans. The very idea that the government was paying for me to sweat in a train across mongolia seemed as intangible to me. Paying back in theoretical employment, a sum at a guess they would barely earn in a life time.
With so much familiarity, it would seem logical that we might have asked them about them, what their income was, what it was like in the cultural revolution, something, if they had a pet eel, but my mind was reeling from their questions which effectually minimised differences between me and a western stereotype. Hardly able to answer curiosities, elementary had become huge and awkward when perhaps a western idiom of conduct had been stretched too far for me. Instead of probing and making assumptions, they simply asked and my muted replies harbored doubt as they veered instinctively away from the truth because even that seemed clouded.
Bodily discomforts swiftly distracted the brain to feel a breeze on my cooking flesh, to drink, to take a shower, to sleep between cool sheets, and those were important. Towards eleven o’clock a young girl began plugging a hotel belonging to her cousin, but the more luxuriously she described it, the more dollar signs flew before our eyes that remained resolute on the lonely planet suggestion of a cheap and cheerful note. After much discussion it appeared that the hotel had recently been closed down to tourists. Hesitant to believe, we sat impassive to the multitude of advice, as the pace of my breathing quickened with claustrophobia.DIARY
Chocolate, the chewing gum, the cigarettes, all bought as we go past unpopular boutiques to board the 11.20 Copenhagen flight SK502. Even now there’s not an english man in sight. I have forgotten everything and am fairly unprepared, such is the element of survival. We rely on the Lonely Planet Bible or the lost person’s gambit and six hours into the flight Tor and I confirm we are scared about china. The rational argument is two more people can’t make that much difference. My main pre occupation seems to lie with food, so far eaten a 10-am Upper Crust vanilla crown, yards of chewing gum, the (Lon-Cop) meal, and another (Cop-Bej) just now. The 400g white Nestle bar is now no more than a wrapper. I can already smell breakfast over asia being simmered up in the meal cabin. My stomach shall be enormous and so it might not notice the measly rice rations and constipating Duck Peking which lies ahead, should we be so lucky. We are given a form to sign:
Legislators and Administrators
Professionals and Technical
Rob Roy MacGregor is not particularly apt as a continental bridge. The only barbaric contrasts which could be made are in audience hairdos. Warrior nations turned socialist through western intervention shampoo. Even the enthusiastic spaniards in the row behind have gone quiet after a loud game of chess. I am bored of flying with nothing to do but write, but nothing to write as I have nothing to do. Let’s hope I don’t lose this biro before the week is out. Great writing and all I’ve got is dried up eyes and swollen feet, another meal, extra rolls and purple angelica.
Expectation is the regurgitation of Wild Swans, denunciations, market places, and transportations of the cultural revolution, but to me chinese tourists are just chinese tourists. Now I feel like a chinese tourist its like being a commodity with a back pack a money belt, and wide eyed scrutiny as incriminating as zoom lens on the underground.
The sheen of western modernity is impressive streaking along the highway airbus towards the city. The driver is conditioned to swerve efficiently in and out of the fast lane. Construction is everywhere as cranes tower in congregation beside piles of rubble. The Longtan Hotel turns out to be the very latest in luxury and offers a disinfected loo. For a marble mirrored lobby it is 280Y per night which is three times as much as quoted two years after the last LPG publication. Knackered, we pay although a lone german says its fair as the last place he went to charged 420Y. We have under budgeted massively for this trip, but perhaps if we escape into some countryside poverty our money might recover.
A stroll before sunset took us in a southerly direction, as if anybody would say such a thing, but the compass was all we had to go on because even if we had gone anywhere we wouldn’t have known where it was. The leisurely stream of bicycles is eerie in its continuity and uniformity of silence. The supermarket is a bizarre with Colgate and Ritz biscuits in display cabinets. Pain au chocolate greets the eye, but we venture into the unknown with the daring purchase of a sweetbread in a multi coloured grease proof wrapping for 6Y. In the street we buy a bunch of bananas for 18Y, the same cost as our taxi ride to the hotel, who knows? We laugh and so does the barrow boy.
Always rely on Always even in china. Those fresher than cucumber athletes jogging in designer tracksuits, those sanitary mattresses with wings are a global invention, here as the Whisper variety. Shampoo ads are just like Pantene Pro V Plus but you can grin just that little bit wider as you sink for the stilled frame, every western material and more except the words.
The soap on BCTV just seems to be a mimic of western gestures. The moody beauty stropily gulps her tea and barks angrily at the old fashioned chinese mother figure. The dashing rogue tries to shun his feelings for the western temptress as he loves another a more humble chinese girl who gazes mournfully out of her french windows from a Landmark leather sofa. But the cliff hanger ends when he tears himself away from the tearful embrace of the humble girl. Will he succumb into the arms of the spoilt madonna in jeans? The orchestrated version of ‘Nothing’s gonna change my love for you’ at the end unconvincingly supposes not.
If you ever need a friend, go to Tiananmen Square. As it happened, we were adopted long before we reached there, getting lost to be found by George the fresher, the life saver. Having paced and retraced our footsteps around the same gigantic intersection looking for bicycle hire, we had begun to don the look of exasperation. People and writing everywhere and none to be understood, we were spotted by George as we stared obliquely into a crooked phrase book. He seemed to have nothing better to do than to escort us and learn some english along the way suggesting we took the bus that was the best decision taken all day. It is difficult to decide until you are given a choice. Chattering in spattered pigeon english he felt lucky to have us to practice on, but I dare not imagine our first morning without him.
Tiananmen Gate was a rip of 30Y although we were given a red and gold badge. Beyond that gate was more than I could have imagined, courtyard after courtyard upon terrace upon pagoda upon roof top upon more of the same stretched back into an entirely separate world of lost emperors and tourists. The continuous shoal of t-shirts and hot faces swam through this wonderment like commuters on the tube, with lessening wonder and growing exhaustion. Feeling feint at the sheer scale of the place and strength of the afternoon sun, we sat and recovered, slumped under a 35-ft earthy red canopy of multi coloured beams on classical pillars.
Our last exchange with George was on the square side of Tiananmen Gate. His parting words announced prophetically to go and see the great monument to chairman Mao. Since the rosy portrait of this masochistic murderer smiled genially down on the 500,000 capacity concrete horror pitch of desolation, I could but snort in reply, and with a ‘See ya’ he was off, likely one. By three thirty the satisfactory side to heat and sweat was becoming cooler with the evening and we had begun to sense a feeling of achievement.
After a bleary struggle across the square we arrived in a shop annex adjacent to the chinese museum. As the only people around we were ushered into a delectably cool marble hall. Sofas and green tea awaited us, along with a host of retailers to drink with glee. Besides it was great practice for their english on their contempt or my condescension.
Thinking in reverse order seems to be easier in most cases. We have just come back form Sheila’s Bar in the NW of Beijing where we mixed with westerners, homesick already. At first glance this place’s aggressiveness would make you reluctant to admit democratic association. Western culture is harnessed by the chinese and thrown back in your face as a hard, selfish, passive lot of Levi and white t-shirt wearers with Hollywood attitude. However, feeling that misfit in a foreign culture is acceptable enough, we persevered our own. If that failed we would surely feel peculiar, but we did feel odd. After two days we were fearful of the chaotic chinese oblivion, probably because their distinction was indisputable as the chinese are a race.
We sat at a table and ended up having an unusually good chat about our grannies. I think it was because we were determined to have a good chat in such a sociable atmosphere which had just made us feel more alone. Eventually the coolest band of americans pitched up on our table because they needed to eat. There was a devastating guy who we did talk to but he had a handful of women escorting his movements and thoughts. They went after about forty minutes but did leave us a couple of half touched frankfurters, cold but for once we weren’t hungry.
Today we ate our first delicious square meal, went to Tiantan Park and gawked at the Temple of Heaven. In the morning, we had gone to the friendship store en route to the british embassy. It was somehow typically deserted as the front gate swung lazily open with no one to answer the front door on Saturday at noon, not surprising. Taking advantage of this we sat on wicker chairs on the lawn in front of mini Blenheim. Tor found a genuine granny smith from Pitlochry to indulge while I scribbled a garbled note of self introduction and registration. We ambled off half an hour later, passing through the friendship store to buy a hamburger, and the achievement had been monumental. All morning spent darting across highway intersections to ask at hotels where the embassy was. It was written on card in chinese but obviously seemed too difficult to convey directions.
We kept bumping into an Oz called Patrick who had traveled into Chen Wen Men with us on the No 63. This classic new age middle age bloke couldn’t believe Tor and I were here for ‘SIX WEEKS!’ He wasn’t too wrapped in chinese food either and our suggested staple of bread and bananas, was received with a look of dismay. He spoke out of the very very edge of his face, just as advertised in public relations promos for the olympic games. To cut a long story short, we succeeded because we eventually found an english map that helped us make sense of the moon.
The first experience of a public loo does not deserve much discussion except to confirm most horror stories recounted by others. I trod more clumsily mincing over the puddled floor. I washed my hands gingerly at first unable to decide if the water was making them cleaner then decided not to bother with mental anguish, soak them and bolt out before having to inhale another lung full of noxious gas, pretty average third world stuff, the first of many loos.
It was sweltering, no sun just mug, getting off the bus at the wrong stop, having to walk for ages to reach the right entrance to the park. Shimmering we arrived at the ticket office and Tor paid. We faffed about with maps, wandered towards the entrance. Someone had grabbed our tickets before you could say ‘Bo Diu’. Eventually we realised what happened and wandered back to the guichet. The chinese woman shrieked at us and pointed, stamped her hand on the desk, blew and puffed. She then did the wave at her fellow office clerk and again to somebody on the telephone. Then she and her friend laughed at our stupidly bemused and dripping faces as we waited 45 minutes. Somehow she managed to produce the tickets which had been pinched. All ended well and her friends came to know of our gormlessness and grinned. We experienced a new felt gratitude not towards a collective race, but towards a few individual people.
When traveling about it is easy to box ideas into cliches, not necessarily that those ideas are boxed or conformed, but because they have already been thought by others, it doesn’t seem very original or inspired. The chinese just look all the same. Now there’s a novel idea, us westerners are just so diversely ugly but the chinese are such neat little soldiers. With their expressionless faces it would seem odd to see them fight, and when they did fight, they probably still look unruffled. Well, obviously that’s face value, but then again that’s exactly how they saw me. The same happens all the time in britain, but exaggeration abroad changes the habit into question. Their concept of western is a mirror reflection of our concept of chinese.
What I prefer about their idea of us is the blatancy of decadence and materialism. Neon and shiny the chinese figurative writing is an utter hypocrisy. The very art of calligraphy turned into sickly orange plastic letters on every high rise, hotel and shop front. Like the wide boulevards and magnificent parks and temples lined with beautiful trees which are hemmed in by grotesque and grotty back streets.
They don’t have districts, just outside and an inside, shiny packaging to a rotten core. The packaging is all encompassing, and politics is the religion, so to criticise government would criticise themselves, integral as inseparable. Seeing the product of one child policy in the more affluent chinese tourists of Tiananmen Square is to see people whose whole orientation is politically based. Affluence, material gain, and more for fewer are where feelings seem to run as secondary because they are personal, so common good is all they can see. That cliché is the feeling yet somehow there is a greater sense of strength in this common selfishness. Although chinese western materialism marks a far more selfish aspect to society and individualism…
Western ideals seem so polished and democratic from its own viewpoint when crudeness becomes apparent. I hate being ripped off and treated derogatorily, but all of a sudden it becomes clear that there is a developing nation whose history makes them assume superiority over any other nation through very definition of the word. Its all difference in attitude, not indian, not colonial subservience and the attempt of social betterment through western development, but an exposure of western ways to be used for economic doctrine. It sounds healthier until you realise that empiricism is self imposed. Sadness is the debasement of the world’s greatest lands and people because ideologies are distorted.
Today we visited the great wall and in so many senses between cultures, the unknown is a pile of bricks. Somehow it seemed ridiculous walking along it this afternoon, for what? Absurd, so far away, yet magnificence was admittedly magnificent.
Whilst we did Tiantan park yesterday, we came across not only Dareth from Wales, the one I thought was a lone german but someone else we met on day one. When we ambled along Chen Wen Men with George, a fair haired youth had joined our slip stream and begun talking as we made our way and cutting things short, he turned up again at the Temple of Heaven. Our brain wave was to go to the wall together to save the cost on taxis and even better, Wil met a red haired red faced dutchman called Yan as he stomped around the forbidden city. One Yan, another man, and us in a bus. Yan was on business in Beijing trying to sell lottery tickets so we decided to meet Yan and Wil at 10-am in Tiananmen Square, no coaches, no tours.
So unused to writing a diary I haven’t any sense of chronology or any idea how to write. Returning late at night too tired to write, what is written is incomplete and garbled. Stretching my mind back to Sunday and our wall expedition was faintly hilarious.
By the time we had found the page with the map so we could let the taxi driver know it was Simatai we wanted to get to and not Badaling, we were very nearly at Badaling which was 100km west of Simatai. Our driver had always thought us a joke the moment we stepped into his van wanting to get to the wall and said if we wanted to go we would need to push the van to get it to re start on the return journey. We took a detour across the mountains which seemed too huge for our load in such an old banger, Tor and I sat wedged on the back seat which sprung rhythmically up and down on the bumpy road, and it made everyone a bit embarrassed because of the noise. To accompany the energetic bouncing noise, was Yan and when we asked him about his holiday, he replied with a mixture of desperation and gravity, such is the world of lottery. He had many things to visit before his business trip was over, but didn’t want to go any further than was absolutely necessary.
‘Simitai is not for the chicken hearted’ he read from our LPG.
‘One narrow section of the footpath has a 500 meter drop, it is not a place for the agoraphobic’ and I didn’t know what they were.
The engine whined with increasing agony as it navigated the Z bend road, no buses allowed, and he nervously crossed and uncrossed his pale knees. We all feared for our little tin van and finally arrived, at Mitianyu, a half way compromise much less crowded than Badaling. Relief on the bus driver’s face not to mention Yan’s decided that this was the stop for us. An effortless bubble took us to the top for 65Y, tramp along the wall, and many steps down with water vendors every 25 meters or so. To finalise our tourist trail I bought a t-shirt and a beautiful white and blue china necklace, the wall.
Once you get over the initial shock of armed policemen and guards inspectors and officials, Beijing orderliness soon grows as reassuring as threatening. We’ve just checked out of out hotel with a bill of 2000Y for six nights. Our economic policy must be reviewed now we’re on for a 12-hr, 3 minute train journey to Hohot, Inner Mongolia. It will cost 34Y, a couple of bunches of bananas hard seat. An american David Belamy type was full of praise in our solo decision saying it had changed a friend of his for life to travel hard seat but if we avoided the gob, didn’t mind a million onlookers, intermittent weather and news announcements and a sore bum, we would be alright. Dep 18.57, arr 07.00.
Too expensive to store luggage at 10Y in the station and the lockers are full. We’ll wait for our train in the western waiting room, only four hours till take off. Thinking back to when we bought our tickets yesterday to meet the best people in the ticket office, the Belamy type was with an irish bloke whose brother lives in Limavady and is bound to know Stuart McComb. He barely drew breath and told us of one hundred places to go, especially the Yunnan province. He was on his year abroad form York University.
Last night we went to Chaoyang Theatre to see an acrobatics show, far from enjoyable entertainment. Incredible, but since the performers were aged four to twenty, the child abuse factor seemed pretty tragic. Seven year old girls wriggling in and out of claustrophobic tubes in razz-ma-tazz outfits wearing coochy cute smiles. Maybe it was the pop hit distortion of chinese music that set the tragedy, or just that they looked like a bunch of circus monkeys.
It also rained yesterday, so we had the best of fun buying raincoats opposite the station to look like Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee in red capes, quite convenient to spot in a crowd. We did not achieve much on the touristic bulletin scale apart from the theatre but at least the legs are less flabby apparent only to me.
Peculiar how the chinese suit so well the warrior image, but it must be because I don’t understand their language, their hair is uniform in colour, and they are stockily short. I suppose the strangeness about the city is the newness that decays faster than repair. Whether shiny bank or dilapidated block, for miles nothing is old. The ancient forbidden city is newly painted with no moss or smooth stone, just cracked paving stones and muddy gutters, empty subways and paint chipped railings. The peasant looking people of the modern sixties live in an urban equivalent of dearth and decay. People, not the place embody historical sensibility, people who haven’t caught up with time or time has overwhelmed. Human development and construction do not configure .
The other night we met a canadian in the lift called something like Marie and we had our noodles with her at the hotel restaurant strange to meet such an non spark kind of person who had spent a year in japan teaching english with JET. She recounted her year as if it had been a tiring weekend in the country and now she was back to the states to get a job, didn’t particularly like teaching, and oh well maybe that’s what it is to be worldly wise.
Sitting in a railway station in china and you begin to wonder why you are in another county and why you are alive. With no official purpose of designation, to teach, work, study or live for any length of time, £700 on an airplane and that again to spend on yourself for food, culture, enjoyment, or a sequence of disasters you’d rather not participate all in the name of character building, is all for the self. Maybe the outcome is more disillusioned and negative, or just a reassurance that your own culture is one you can gladly return to, but that cannot lie at the heart of wanderlust. It must be a desire to travel not to be compelled. Is the desire to escape or to discover, redefine ideas or discard old and compile new? The mixture is push and shove.
The best thing about being here is the time to think, and the action around which provokes thought. Whatever outcome, a brain in use is better than a dead one. Somehow I think traveling on your own makes it all worth while. It’s surely easier to lead abroad than at home. In a group I would probably spend more time getting on with everyone before absorbing whatever it is.
Of all ironies, since this last paragraph was written we have missed three trains and spent eighteen hours in and around Beijing railway station for these reasons:
1) Inaccurate timetable
2) Train full up
3) Station more like a stampeding football crowd than an orderly british queue
4) Next train departed eleven am
5) Refuse to spend one more Yuan in Longtan Hotel.
Since the waiting room has such comfortable chairs, a kip over doesn’t seem much more than an inconvenience. Besides, we’ve met three Swiss girls in the same dilemma. What did happen was at 12.30-am we were ousted from the waiting room. Played cards in a heap outside. At 1.30-am surrounded by a few locals, then the police drove us outside the barriers. Well it was a clear as far as you could almost peer through the smog night, a fairly popular night spot from every walk of life. Officials, rubbish collectors, thats communism for you. The girls we were with obliging played Old Maid, then Asshole, a less polite version of Trumps. In response to my irritating good humour well its a novel experience. Karen replied ‘For us especially ‘Bof’ so we could see them as French Deborahs.
Apart from the irritating spectator on my left who kept wedging his viscose knees against my rucksack, I really quite enjoyed my first experience of roughing it on the streets of Beijing. Circulation on the concrete was none too flowing and the grime I’d collected wasn’t great, though certainly authentic. My naivety was gratified even further when as the sun rose, an old woman was carefully snatching sheets of newspaper as people moved off from their kip spots. People got up, combed their hair and were fresher than ever to begin the new day. The three french wore the face I usually wear on tragic mornings when the minimum eight hour sleep has not had its full quota. But for me it was five am and that meant food, 4Y for some sweet buns which I devoured since no one else could face them. A few stretches, and I too felt ready to go and now we are back in the waiting room. Let’s hope we catch the next train and that I don’t fall asleep to miss it.
It was thirty six hours from when we left the hotel at midday till we arrived at our next hotel in Hohot. Hard seats were certainly to live up to their name by 11-pm that day, not to mention hot seats. On the train Tor befriended a professor from north east china in naval architecture. An oil company man in a shimmering purple shirt could not speak english like the blue shirt naval man, but joined in through interpretation. It was the purple man whose excitement was such that he made some fairly astute observations with no need for need interpreting with a point to our skin especially mine, a clasp of his leg, his stare fixed on my thigh, and a gesture of a contorted, bulging head, it became clear that we were white, fat and ugly. He used Tor as a comparison, being less offensive than me, with my blond hair and extra white extra flab. Tor has darker skin, thinner tree stumps and beautiful eyes and blue shirt said that Tor was obviously a hard worker because she did not wear a necklace, a necklace! Virtuous chinese people could not afford to buy a necklace, a pretty sharp witted character assessment of me. At least it gave me the excuse to nod off to sleep since communication in very limited vocab is absolutely knackering.
Tor’s blue shirt professor saved our lives last night. We arrived at eleven pm and I’ve never seen such a desolate railway station with such a gone with the wind gusty feel to it, industry, concrete, desertion. The professor who has such kind eyes was met by his friends and let us go with him to the university residence which was far cheaper than hotels but so exasperating communication is just so slow. Already a physical wreck form our Beijing bugger up, ploughing through politesse was almost more unbearable. I had huge blotches of heat rash on my wrists, elbows, stomach and thighs. I wanted to strip off and wash not just instantly, but faster than … when knock knock, he would very kindly tell us
a) The time of breakfast, away one minute later
2) How to open the window, away, back.
3) Sent someone in with loo roll, away, back.
4) Sent someone with hot water.
5) A final call to show us we were able to use the soap and toothbrushes if we liked.
If ever there was an ungrateful, though I wasn’t, it was me. The most important message came last.
6) There would be no water, hot or cold till six am the next morning.
We got three knocks the next morning,
The first beginning at 7.20 was to tell us once again the time of breakfast.
Another at 7.50 which Tor answered “We know”. Breakfast stopped at 8.
At 8.15 five faces peered in to tell us they were all waiting for our appearance especially. We sat down as scolded children in front of milky tea horse’s milk with salt. Some delicious looking bread which turned out to be wretch inspiring, and conversation of stultifying frustration, exaggerated by annoyance which they never showed of our late arrival. We were in china not britain, thirty six hours full tilt or not and I don’t think they comprehended my bleating excuse. At the table was another professor of metal refinement, the vice president of Hohot polytechnic, and somebody’s son who was to begin university in September, and as a consolatory plus for the chinese professors we agreed to spend the day with the son.
I am shattered, whether bored or elated and couldn’t tell you what the boy was thinking. So kind of him to get us bicycles borrowed from a friend, and he brought along a young girl of fourteen.
When they did utter it was to each other, and when we ventured to question them it always got back to not having understood. I kept wanting to burst into french, spit out anything and we went to Lamasery temples choc a bloc with bhuddas of many varieties, then lost the bike lock keys, so went to a chamber of horrors, a freezing labyrinth of tunnels infested with wax work mutilations in the purpose built nuclear hide outs from the sixties. It was certainly eerie and cold and we did this while a man broke into the bike lock. After lunch we went to the museum guess work interpretation of facts, though visually stimulating stuff about the mongols and a feeling of glossy hue over the politics. Wild life, fauna, mammoths, dinosaurs and a huge exhibit to some communist hero upstairs.
The thing that galls me most about the Chinese is their patience of which I am partly jealous, but partly relieved that I have none. The feeling of fate is there in the dream like initially laid back way they cycle about town all the same speed. Sensibility or suppression of thought? A level continuity of advancement somehow, buddhism with all its garishness couldn’t be farther removed from the Han Chinese and Hohot seems less Mongolian than a Han Chinese outpost in Ireland. It shows even to me, an outsider bugle horn.
Perhaps a quest for independence is simply an affirmation of dependence. This evening for instance, trying to buy a rail ticket, ordering a meal we were only saved by an english speaking foreign student. There’s just no way you can pick up chinese like you can a euro language. We’ve landed on a foreign planet, never mind country, no words or gestures in common except smiles, frowns of confusion and other bodily convulsions. It’s all obvious, but it’s different when it happens to you and foreigner takes on a new definition, there is NO WAY OUT.
Sunday today still cannot buy a bloody ticket, sitting here. Sunday night, a damsel in a white nightie all forlorn in a student bed sit in outer mongolia however, we have quite a following of people who insist the man is coming with the ticket. Wait a minute seems to have lasted three days. Knock knock, I sit listening to a new update the day after tomorrow. Hardly can believe my ears, 350Y plus 80Y for service and who knows whether it will be a hard or soft seat! Its how I imagine a time warp to be like, do anything to get out. I feel like chopping all my hair off and going shopping, naturally outrageous.
Thinking back to yesterday, we took most the morning catching the No 20, No 1 and No 14 to go nine km out of Hohot to see Ahao Jui Tomb. A load of old codger about the beautiful martial alliance between the Han Dynasty and the mongolian Wang Zhou Jui who reveled in heights of concubine status and Mao resurrected a monument there not long ago.
Looks like the chinese are happy with their lot and look out mongolia has past its warning. When we climbed this miserable mound 20Y we chatted to a chinese couple who were from Auckland, Tom and Cherry. They owned a mop factory but as business was flagging, Tom was over for ten months, Cherry only for ten days. Quite small, he stood feet apart with his hands in his pockets and laughed more than he spoke, very western. The funniest thing he came out with was ‘Actually, we are chinese.’ and escorted us around the museum, with his wife in tow who laughed at his jokes. He gave us his number, jumped on his natty motorbike and sped off with his wife on the back like something out of Greece leaving us sitting on the hot dust waiting for the next bus into town.
We bought some pea snacks, the version of Cheesy Wotsits with luminous packaging as highly recommended and are also into noodles, ten p a go for DIY.
When I began writing this diary, it seems I had so many impressions even after a matter of hours. They must have been preconceived in many ways which is natural I suppose yet now I’ve been here two and a half weeks impressions may not be hugely extended, if anything, dimmed. I suppose the very nature of taking an impression has always been an arrogant form of observation. Formed from the western perspective, anything but democracy cowers in contrast or so it seemed. One thing I have understood is feeling of isolated in taking on the part of tourist only as a reflection of a civilisation who hasn’t been colonised. No more likely for a chinese child to coo and smile at every passing westerner, far more likely to throw an unaffected, even derogatory stare at a blotchy faced foreigner. It must be a good sign that I haven’t had time to write my diary.
Thank God we have left Hohot, pit of pits. The only fondness I feel is for the professor and all those genuine people in our student accommodation who we couldn’t communicate with very well. The one white person we did see looked at first instance to be a humorous good looking aussie but he was a camp boring brit. When I saw him first, I elbowed Tor and bellowed ‘White man!’ in surprise. Our last day was spent in the cinema. for the 1.20pm showing of a dubbed austria american looking farce. Later we sat on the steps of the super store munching crunchy biscuits and Cadbury’s in another time warp as china cycled by.
I don’t feel I reached China until we left Lanzhou for the countryside. Our train journey was mind blowingly emotional, especially our embarkation not knowing whether 350Y had got us a hard seat or hard sleeper, the latter Ah! Apart from the manly hoard smoking on my bottom bunk, there was nothing to complain about except the loo and no water in the morning.
Inspired by an Oxford grad called Clare, we took the first bus to Xiahe as soon as we arrived in Lanzhou, too late for a through bus so we stopped off in Lixia. It took ages to find the hotel, compass, map, asking.
Nobody knows anything in china, not where the bank is or where the hotels are. Well they all do, but everybody contradicts the last person, the one safe form of freedom of expression. Each entitled to their own opinion of how best to confuse the back packer. Another hotel room and we deserved our noodles for fifteen p at the end of the street. The barrow man gave me the peach I had for pudding, things looking up.
Smaller place, lovelier people, but chinese small is european metropolis. If it is on the map it has capital potential, city scale. I expected a Crieff sized Lixia and got Glasgow, factories, blocks, the whole caboodle. Still better than Lanzhou, Beijing and Hohot for whom a forty minute drive gets you to the suburbs if you’re lucky.
Xiahe, a drive into the hills and for the first time, the sky is clear of smog, the landscape scottish, the air clean and delicious. Tourists fulfillment of the real china i.e. terraced hillsides and peasants harvesting maize under straw hats. Donkeys and carts, mud houses, ferny banks and aged locals weather beaten through hard toil. All quaint, wholesome, third world stuff back to basic pure physical context of agricultural man. Jostling on the bus over crowded with chickens live and dead, melons, and the odd tibetan for good measure, and we arrive to a mud village? More like back to ancient Rome, these people are greek Gods gowned in pink, not white and better looking than any roman nose.
They are so beautiful and Tor and I are whisked off the Labrang monastery, basic necessities and more monks at close quarters. If I wasn’t a scot, I’d be tibetan. Though I never spoke lengthily to any of them, their whole aura is just incredible and for the first time I click with a small part of china and we caught the last quarter of the festival to see six hundred gorgeously robed Gods humming and chanting in front of the main prayer hall of the monastery, with two deer and a monster in costume. Two children dance in spinning circles while a piercing voice emits over the whole scene from balcony high replied in song below at various intervals.
The show was for them, though we tourists were there, some standing out as they bobbed and dived to get the best shot of authentic looking old women. Anxiety all over their french faces, fresh bus load, click click, then an arrogant stomp around the living quarters of these people. We saw about six of them trooping off down private alleys ‘Oh, la la! Regard!’ Why not just play ‘Maman et Papa’ in a real life tibetan house? Though still the Tibetans continue to crease their rosy cheeks in smiles more welcoming than any stranger deserves I’ve heard a statistic that 20% monks have gone off the rails to gambling and women. I wonder how long the magic can last before the spell of purity is clouded over completely by the balshy capitalism now multiplying with tourists.
Maybe the 45% Han Chinese can claim victory on the smothering of these people if they carry on multiplying at the rate they do. We talked of this and other things to an irish bloke called Brian. He was thirty and claims to have been to every country except four working in Sainsbury’s for six months every two years. Fourteen hour days in London to fund his life of travel. Although a little aggressive, I thought he assumed a traveller of the world title when he actually softened and we had a nice dinner in a tibetan restaurant crammed full of monks all agog to King Kong on TV. That evening we returned through the deserted main and only street to our room to a ten pm shut down round here and even that’s quite excessive.
The air was chilled and almost frosty, a welcome breath of mountain, but as I lay frozen in my bed I could have sworn I felt a million bugs crawl all over me that night. A tibetan lady came in at midnight and shared our dorm all smiles and nods and was out at six thirty am.
We walked about eight km up the glen, past linear villages, gangs of young children demanding money armed with sticks and bottles, and more kindly ones who gave us their bean peas. We thought we were going to end up at the Labrang monastery hotel but since Brian told us it was miles out of town we took him literally and walked way past. The temperature was perfect, but Tor got incredibly burnt and we didn’t have much water, about a quarter of a liter for a four hour expedition. Gasping, we made our way to a small café by the Labrang Hotel.
The proprietor was an ex professor from Sichuan where we met the interior designer from Barcelona, Donny, or was it Johnny. Whether it was his accent or his neck tie, I don’t know, but I found him altogether pretty hysterical. My quaint idea of a spaniard wrapped into one of course, he got all the best deals at the best prices, Pah! Enter an american, pace slow and dramatic, though spaciously cool and deliberate as he folded his umbrella sun shade, drew up a stool, sighed and then waft ordered Pepsi Cola. Unnoticed, a peruvian girl entered this tiny room speaking spanish to Donny while we were enlightened by Mr Pepsi’s extensive experiences with buddhism hanging out with a monk for the past three hours, turning prayer wheels, eating meditating mushrooms and everything was mellow. All those ideas crammed under that oh so traveling bandana tied in a feminine handkerchief way across his wise brow. The yogurt and honey was sensational and we sat drinking muslim tea until two and a half hours of water retention could hold out no longer and we dragged ourselves away, agreeing to meet up for dinner at seven.
The Xiahe bus to Lanzhou was half occupied by a danish tour group, otherwise uneventful to six hours. We directly bought a ticket to Jiguan and spent two hours tramping round looking for somewhere to change money on a Sunday to no avail, so boarded the bus at six thirty penniless and hungry to sit twenty hours bolt upright next to a most hideous creep we nominated as Mr. nameless, with two punctures and a stop for noodles at two thirty am. He stared without interruption for most of the night, unblinkingly and after the first half hour I glared at him to stop staring. He smiled without teeth, not seductive. ‘Look over there’ I said pointing out the window. ‘Yes, you, look there,’ pointing to him and the desert in furious succession so instead he settled for sidelong stares, less confrontational, more infuriating, and I replied by looking so hard past his face that it was impossible to stare back at me, poor nameless.
What a weirdo and there were many more besides without ambition, lost and bored souls. Twenty hours later of this man’s head jogging back and forth between the window and my lap, we arrived. It took two and a half hours to locate a Bank of China. Red, hot and listless we collapsed onto clean white sheets of Junguan Hotel. In discomfort I fell into the men’s and washed my feet in the piss trough by mistake, only realising an hour or so later. In the evening we sauntered outside and I watched a street opera whose rhythmical beat reverberated back to hour hotel room sending us giddily to the best sleep in ages. The bus to Dunhuang had four Oxford graduates on board called Emily, Joss, Charlotte and Hatty, very Oxfordshire.
Though the heat and seat numbering prevented depth discussion, it was a good introduction for we ended up being invited to tag along with them to the caves the following day. In our windowless tropical dorm, we also met a great american called Michelle, a twenty year old teacher who made our trip more dynamic than down to just us brits. That evening a sandstorm whirled eerily through the town’s deserted streets, we ate in the riverside, then showered and slept.
The caves were somewhat less imaginative than I had anticipated, manmade and pretty uniform in style yet still worth writing home about. I shan’t go into detail about history etc as anyone can read up on it. Our guide was sweet, though it took a while to tune the ear to his accent. Our two hour lunch break was spent over noodles.
Hatty delved into anthropology, and as a teacher of kiddies we assumed class role of listening. Joss spurted out very intelligent gems between confidences with his sister Emily and telling us how proud he was of his 150 Qai Ray Bans, the exemplar english man with chinos and specs and an Oxford history grad now embarking upon a law degree. We couldn’t believe his sister was twenty seven. Older and quiet in his shadow, but obviously had stronger mettle than at first you’d assume. Charlotte’s face came alive at any talk of plans, a coordinator english teacher at an all girl’s school where they all love her and show mutual respect. Remarkably this day, we achieved two things hiring cycles upon Michelle’s inspiration, heading out to the dunes. Just before sunset was a little late but we paid 20Y to leg it up to the first dune. At least all the tourists went away as it got dark.
Sheer heaven, the sand was even finer than silk and with the light changing by the second the silhouette of the sand waves soon melted to an ochre fog of silent peace with the odd exception of the built up crescent moon lake, whose shores shone gaily with multicolored disco lights, and whose restaurant occupants jettisoned random shouts which echoed distinctly to where we sat on high.
It was a bugger to find my bike had been pinched when we returned to where we had parked them. The 100 Y deposit was embarrassingly paid for by everyone else and Michelle and I took turns to ride on the back of her bike for about 4 km, and there my jellied legs acknowledged.
The Oxford ones went to bed since their bus left in six hours and they had not yet packed. Michelle, Tor and I went and had a celebratory beer in Shelley’s, an empty roadside table with stools, beer or water and whatever was refreshing. The chaotic alarm set off when we were told we had the earlier train i.e. our bus left in ten minutes. We stumbled on after v. destructive packing of rucksack and of course there was a puncture on the way, after all we were on board. In Leuyan, a pit of non description it took four queues and many helpless smiles to achieve our ticket booking. No hard sleeper to Xian but we got a 42 hour hard seat.
The backside has re-routed some main arteries after long trips on various benches and perches. We were lucky to find a seat and it took a bit of sympathy inducing pouts of dejection, resignation, smiles and book lending to get a transfer from opposite the boiler house in front of the coal store with wet floor, to beside an officials booth wherein starchy inspectors performed their bureaucratic poser missions of ticket interrogations with scrupulous affability. It was the business hot spot and while we sat, about a hundred chinese in smart suits busily set about upgrading their tickets. We were told we could if we waited till Lanzhou in twenty four hours. On the up side the round faced official was so partial that when he caught me by the soft sleeper loo with running water and higher foot treads,
he beamingly exclaimed
‘How do you do?’
The family in our four seat allotment was mainly occupied eating. The only daughter stuffed copious eggs, noodles, rolls and fruit down her gullet. You can tell I was hungry, though at the time food symbolised a continuous representation of dirt. All around, it oozes and seeps from the six hourly sweep and mop ups of cigarette butts and gob to the thickly stickiness of the tables, window ledges and plastic seats, you certainly feel grotty. Cigars and fags are smoked triple time and come eleven pm with the night drawing in, windows fall leadenly shut. People sprawl under the tables and seats to lie on sacking or just on skin. Tor was the first to volunteer, as she lay maiden like in her curiously white sheet, content. I opted for neck crick position in a slumped hunch over my seemingly down soft rucksack, and woke burping after a fitful doze, all the air released from my crooked slump.
For all the spiels of complaint which could flow forever, it wasn’t as bad as can be made out. We read, observed, shut off smell senses and I believed profited from our experience, man. Most condescending oiks rightly point out if you want service and punctuality you stay away from china. I must admit, tacky though it indisputably is, chinese music does strike a favorable chord after it has guided you along many miles of train track, anonymity that far supersedes Kylie or Steve Wright and I wonder who I write these unimaginative witticisms for.
In Xian we felt deservedly victorious and even more glorious finding the number six bus to Renmin Flats Hotel to discover a western haven of back packers. From cycle hire to train tickets, pancakes with honey, laundry servicing and a hot shower, how I saw the goodness in modern china!