Riding the Waves to Eternity

Hangin' with the Cosmic Surfer

Skip to: Content | Sidebar | Footer

China 2016

We left the UK on 3 September, and flew Lufthansa Premium Economy this time, a substantial saving on the British Airways price (and we weren’t impressed with BA Premium Economy from Hong Kong on our last visit). The flight was fine, and the PE seats reminiscent of business class a few years ago. My one complaint is I found it very difficult to sleep: the seat reclined just far enough to be uncomfortable and, because they were individual seats, you were effectively constrained in your ability to curl up. We got to Shanghai on 4 September.

Zhujiajao

Zhujiajao

We started the visit gently with a trip to Zhujiajao water-town. This was pleasant, if  touristy, and there has been a settlement there since at least the time of the Three Kingdoms. One of the delights about this return visit is finding the waterways that we were oblivious to last time. There is a long standing network of canals throughout the region, and the town is built around a confluence of several. On the day of our visit the water was a rich algal green. It was nice to wander around, though, and I enjoyed a really good beef noodle soup for breakfast.

It took until the third night to get a decent sleep, the day we ventured into Shanghai itself. It was overcast and muggy, but we had a brief visit to the museum shop and then to the Jing’an Temple. I was enjoying walking around the French Concession, until it started raining and we made our way back out to Qingpu. As the photos show, the temple stands in stark contrast to the modern city that has built up around it.

Jing’an Temple

Jing’an Temple

On 8th September we flew to Xi’an and our hotel, the Grand Soluxe International, which is inside the old city walls. I’d thought of the walls in European terms, but in fact they run 13km north to south and are massive.

On the flight, I finished the first three volumes of Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time”, which I enjoyed once I got into it. I’ve seen criticisms of the cycle because of coincidences of people meeting and re-meeting. These criticisms seem to me to miss the point of the title—the characters are engaged in a long slow dance with each other.

We found a cab out to the Muslim Quarter surrounding the Grand Mosque, and area packed with restaurants and vendors selling street food. It is also tourist central. Of course I loved it. I hate to deploy the “a” word, but, tourist central notwithstanding, it had an authentic feel to it.

Terracotta Horses

Terracotta Horses

We ignored attempts to sell us packaged trips to the Emperor’s Warriors and took a service bus to the site. The bus journey was enjoyable, watching Xi’an go past. Like most Chinese cities, things can go from extremely sophisticated to tired and dilapidated in the space of a few footsteps. From the bus window, I got the impression that 3-wheeled transport was more common in Xi’an than in the Eastern cities.

The Emperor’s Warriors and Horses, or the Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Museum, which is also a working archaeological site, is very well done. It is also huge. Even if the scale of the place doesn’t awe you, the sight of figures still emerging from the clay-like red soil will. I had been advised beforehand that the best sequence to see the pits was 3-2-1 and this was spot on. Nothing quite prepares you for the scale of Pit 1, and that is a good thing. If you think I’m being scanty with the description, all I can say is that words are not enough.

Warriors

Warriors

That evening, disaster struck for me: at some point I contracted a bug and had diarrhoea with that feeling of being battered all over and a 24-hour fever. I hoped it was a 48-hour bug: it wasn’t.

Despite the ill-effects, I managed some visits in the city of Xi’an—to the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower, the Shaanxi History Museum, the City Walls and the Grand Mosque. I really liked the Grand Mosque: a genuine place of peace and calm in a frenetic city.

The welcoming floor

The welcoming floor

After major flight problems, during which I discovered a previously unknown ability to sleep on airport floors when tired enough, we made it to Chengdu in the early hours of 12th September. We were driven by a very enthusiastic and patriotic taxi driver: so enthusiastic, in fact, he dropped us at the wrong hotel and we had to get a second cab to the correct one.

We went to see the pandas on 13 September, our main reason for going to Chengdu. It is hard not to anthropomorphise them because they are undoubtedly cute, especially when not fully grown. Mind you, that is ‘cute’ with sharp teeth, big claws, and a surprising turn of speed if they want to use it.

We chose to go to the formal Giant Panda Breeding Research Base rather than the more overtly touristy places, and I enjoyed it a lot. I have qualms about zoo-based conservation projects, but while we were there it was announced that the status of Giant Pandas had been improved from “Endangered” to “Vulnerable”.

I liked what I saw of Chengdu; not just the pandas, but the city itself. I enjoyed the Manjushri temple complex that nicely combined a worship area with social amenities in a way I haven’t seen before. The whole area was also, in Chinese terms, multi-ethnic. I sensed a genuine pleasure in seeing us there, even though we weren’t buying anything except wanton soup

Manjushri Temple

Manjushri Temple

There were a couple of Muslim street sellers making the usual ‘meat on stick’ affairs. The most fantastic Arabic-Chinese music was playing at their stall (stringed instrument, male voice). Unfortunately, not only did they not speak English (no surprise) they didn’t speak Mandarin either, and couldn’t understand that I wanted to know about the music. I tried Soundhound but got ‘no close matches’.

Like all Chinese cities, there is a constant hustle and bustle of countless small traders making a living. I saw something on Facebook describing Shaanxi province, where we had just been, as one of the most poverty-stricken in China. That may well be so, but, and I hope I’m not using this as an excuse, I think we need to beware of overlaying western economic and social views onto China.

As I wrote in Beijing 3 years ago, I think the main issue of not relative poverty but structural inequality, and I think the former is a symptom of the latter. Of course, it’s easy for me to say that: this was my third trip to China and I can absorb the cost of travel and hotels without much hardship.

I overheard a local guide saying, in English, that one of the effects of the new China has been a mass migration of rural Chinese into the cities in search of better housing, healthcare, and education; and I can hardly blame them for that, it is what I’d do too. It does mean, though, that being in China has the feeling often of being part of a giant construction site, of being caught in constant change.

6-Senses Mountain

6-Senses Mountain

The next day we took a high-speed train out to the 6-Senses mountain. When we got to the top of the cable car, the weather had closed in and I really didn’t feel well (tired, chilled). Had it been a Munro I would have turned back, and I did pretty much that, installing myself with some hot green tea and dumpling soup in a café. Kirstin and Amy went a little further, but we then made our way back to Chengdu by service-bus and taxi.

The high-speed train journey was something of an eye-opener, because trains take routes laid long before planners and developers create the gleaming city they want you to see.

We were just out of the centre of Chengdu when we passed what I can only describe as a shanty-town type encampment set in an area where crops were being grown, possibly at a subsistence level. It was a kind of residential allotments, and looked squalid; goodness knows what sanitary arrangements were in place for the people living there.

Interspersed between brand-new residential blocks were their aging predecessors, the concrete stained, the metal work disintegrating, all looking shabby and blackened by damp mould. We hurtled past a derelict amusement park, no doubt once someone’s shining hope, now become metaphor.

Cheap metaphor if you want it

Cheap metaphor if you want it

Three years ago, in my Hangzhou diary, I referenced Blade Runner and the memory lingers. It didn’t help that it was raining, but it still looked like kipple on a grand scale to me. The off-world colonies look more appealing by the minute.

But then along came a hyper-modern mall plastered with shining advertisements for high-end goods—Tissot watches in this instance. My dad used to say, mainly of St. Luke’s, Derby, that the highest-Anglican parishes were often in poor neighbourhoods; not to show off, but because the golden chasubels and bells and smells represented a form of hope, an aspiration, a vision of glory.

Something unusual (for me) happened in Chengdu: I was reviewing the video footage I shot of the pandas and realised a lot of other, older material was still on the memory card. One clip was of the breakers rolling in at Balnakiel Beach, near Durness in Sutherland: probably my favourite place of any I’ve visited in the world. I was hit by a surge of homesickness that threatened to overwhelm me. It lingered, exacerbated by illness.

18 September and we flew to Huangshan. Although I was concerned about making the journey with continuing health issues, it was somewhere I did not want to miss. It was worth it.

Huangshan

Huangshan

It was a long way to the mountain (by cab driven by friend of the Airbnb owner) and quite a cable-car ride to the top. Again, I could only go so far due to weariness, but at least this time I was properly equipped with hill-walking gear brought specially from Scotland just for that day. But I liked what I did, I got some good photos, and had a grand day out; so that’s all good. Ironically, given that I’m not a big fan of over-development on mountains, I could have done with a dumpling soup and a hot tea while I was up there.

I really liked this whole area, and knew I would when we landed at a small airport that hadn’t been hyper-expanded to international standards. I liked that it was mostly low-rise and air-pollution free, and that there was a small-town feel.

On 20 September we went out to Chengkan Village (China’s Number 1 Feng-Shui Village!) on the recommendation of the landlady. It was very rural and a hark-back to a much older China. The weather was lovely, as were the people and the food.

Ongoing health-issues and a visit to the Shanghai East International Medical Centre meant my last few days petered out, which was a disappointment in one respect, but I reckon I managed to do pretty well in the circumstances.

***

China continues to fascinate. There are aspects of it I do not like much: the continual redevelopment and construction; the air-pollution; and the noise: everywhere there are little loudspeakers pushing sales messages or conveying the words of tour guides, and they are all too loud and all too small a speaker, so the sound is harsh. And it is relentless. I am starting to experience some hearing loss at some frequencies, but one afternoon in a Carrefour there was a point where there were multiple speakers blasting a cacophony of too-loud competing ads against a too-loud soundtrack of schmaltzy pop; and I just had to leave: it was too much for me.

An alternative China is there to be found if you go looking, even in the big cities, especially amongst the more ethnically diverse locations (I really enjoyed visiting Xi’an and Chengdu and the more rural Huangshan). You can see the alt-China also in moments snatched from the highway, as a bridge crosses an old canal being reclaimed by nature. But I am reinforced in the view I wrote a couple of years ago, China is in danger of losing its own spirit, and once it has gone it will be gone for ever.

I know I’m not in a fit state of mind to judge at present due to illness, but, as I write, I am in no hurry to get back to China. Despite my liking for China, well before our time was done, I wanted to get home and go for a walk on Balnakiel Beach and watch the breakers come in off the North Atlantic and feel a salt-wind in my hair and be at peace.

The Bund, Shanghai

The Bund, Shanghai

On our final full day in China, Kirstin and I went into tourist-central Shanghai: to the Yuyuang Garden and then to The Bund. Our previous visit to the area, in February 2013, was cold and coincided with the Lunar New Year, so it was packed and, in my opinion, unpleasant. This time was different: it was warm and sunny, and much less crowded. Although we didn’t do a great deal except wander around sightseeing, I enjoyed the day a lot, as I also enjoyed a hotpot with Kirstin and Amy in the evening.

It didn’t take away my desire to be home, but it did blunt the edge, and I’m thankful for that.