travelogue – The Great Leap Homeward – China

May, 1999

The first time entering China I was justified in being paranoid. It is a challenging country for backpackers.

This time, coming from Laos, I was oddly at ease though I had no guidebook and could only remember a few words of Mandarin.

The only bignose at the remote border crossing, I rode a sleeper bus north for 23 hours, never sure of my final destination.

It was, indeed, Kunming, (pronounced “Kunming”) the funky booming capital of Yunnan province. No matter how I pronounced “Kunming”, no one on my bus could understand where I wanted to go.

I had heard glowing reports of Yunnan; “more like Laos than China”, “friendly, honest people”.

I was glad to have returned to civilized China — perhaps “civilized” is misleading. Organized. Structured. Uncompromising.

At the Chinese border, as if on cue, men began spitting on the floor of our open truck taxi. I was back in a land of hawking, gobbing, chain-smoking, shouters. (Lung disease is the leading cause of death in China. High rates of TB directly linked to the habit of spitting in close quarters.) Still, I was happy to be back.

Quickly to Dali, a travellers haven, cool and breezy ‘tween picturesque mountains and lake.

The Chinese are pumping mucho RMB (“people’s money”) into Yunnan to fast-track it into a “famous” tourist destination. Entire blah-nd neglected cities are being Frankensteined into Sino-California — palm tree lined streets, western-style parks, fountains, “modern” statues.

In Dali the “old” city looks brand new, rebuilt to the taste of hordes of Chinese tourists. Much is contrived. And I’m convinced there is no Mandarin equivalent for “tacky” — they’ve highlighted the ancient city walls in green neon, for example.

Everyone loves Dali anyway, forgiving the excesses.

We moved up to Lijiang (Land of Horses), even prettier with 5500 m Jade Dragon Snow Mountain looming.
Lijiang town is “everything China should be, but isn’t”; a delightful maze of twisting, turning, cobbled streets and gushing canals.

In 1996 a Richter 7+ quake struck causing $500 million U.S. damage. They seem well on their way to recouping that investment. Flag-waving guides lead armies of Chinese tourists, each careful not to bend the brim of their identifying yellow tour group baseball cap.

Old Lijiang is run by a species of Tibetan called the Naxi. It’s an interesting matriarchal society where women run the town. They have their own language and fascinating pictographic script.

We had assembled a mini-Commonwealth (Brit, Kiwis, Ausies, Canucklehead) by the time we reached the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek.

You may have guessed that a fantastically talented tiger escaped pursuit here. At least that’s the story the hunters told.

It was a scenic, flat and dusty tramp though, by the time we reached the halfway guesthouse we needed the Chinese recovery medicine provided — a spray to “dispel wind-evil and water-evil”.

A wonderful nightfall looking up 4 km from river to peak. And we didn’t have to sleep alone. A teddy bear was provided for each bed.

So far I had avoided big-city Eastern China, travelling mainly in frontier areas. I reluctantly bought a plane ticket to Beijing where half the attractions of China are still to be found — even though Mao’s minions destroyed much of old Peking. In 1940 you could visit 8000 monuments. By 1960 only 150 remained. The “Temple of the God of Fire” was converted to a lightbulb factory, for example.

I expected Beijing to be another cosmopolitan “world city” like Bangkok, Delhi, or Toronto. Not. It might be Cosmopolis someday — if they ever finish the construction. It’s a city of cranes and girders. There are perhaps a dozen projects on the scale of Canary Wharf in London.

Beijing has been described as “soulless and functional”; “an inhuman vastness”; “an endless sprawl of apartment buildings”.

I’d add “shoddy” and “anonymous”. Even now I can’t “picture” Beijing.

Perhaps the most appropriate adjective for the “Soviet Realist” architecture — “rectalinear”.

Beijing is THE place to make money. It dawned on me here that the Chinese are at an earlier stage of the Cultural Evolution than we. Status symbols are all important.

Even in Beijing, girls are still impressed if you rev the motor of your 100cc motorbike and swagger like James Dean, cigarette dangling from your lips. (Why do smokers always look like posers?)

One in every 3 cigarettes is inhaled in China. Yet none of the women smoke. (Except a few slutty city girls with their tight stretch pants and their padded bras, they MUST be padded … sorry, this is more than a parenthetic digression.)

I yearned for western Canada where smokers are properly reviled and ostracized.

Beijing was not at all a write-off destination, though. I enjoyed my daily STARBUCKS coffee. And the backpacker hotel there is a hit. Recently westernized with a dirty, freezing pool and a 24-hour bar, it’s located out in the middle of desolate urbania, an hour from anywhere, beside a reeking, fetid canal. From the parking lot cafe I watched the welders assemble another apartment.

But the showers are hot; the cold beer the cheapest! in Asia so, on balance, this hotel is a winner.

I reunited with my cadres from the Tiger Leaping Gorge long march. More fun topped-off with a Chinese feast of Beijing Duck, all you can eat and drink. $4!

Rod, a prototype hard-travelling Aussie, reminded me of the ad slogan, “Think like an Australian. Drink like an Australian.”

Some of the sights of Beijing are world class. I loved the “Temple of Heaven” and its marvelous quiet park.

The “Summer Palace” is touristy but well worth the 3 hour bus struggle to get there.

Summer Palace

This Beijing spring, Tianamen Square was a disappointment, closed for a face-lift. Story is that the Chinese wanted it unusable on the anniversary of the Tianamen massacre and the Tibetan Uprising massacre, but ready for the 50th anniversary of the PRC on Oct. 1st.

They’ve planted some grass! This is progressive thinking in a town where, over the years, authorities ordered all dogs killed (eaten), all sparrows, then grass was banned.

Mao’s mausoleum seemed to be closed. That murderer, personally responsible for the deaths of tens of millions, is hip again. Officially he was “70% good, 30% bad”. But Mao memorabilia is 100% cool.

There is even a nostalgia food craze. I tried to find the “Compare Present Happiness with Past Misery” restaurant but, like everything else, it had been torn down.

I was keen to visit the People’s Liberation Army Military Museum, keen to see the doctored photos of the army being fired upon by rioters at Tianamen in 1988.

On arrival I was waved over to a special photo exhibit. Genocide! A bloodbath! An outrage! It was made clear to me that these aggressors were murdering butchers. Still, even though it was discounted on the street, I didn’t buy the t-shirt, “NATO = Nazi-American Terrorist Organization”.

The “Forbidden Palace” is, of course, a must-see. Watch “The Last Emperor” before you go. Huge, impressive, but, for some reason, it left me a little cold.

I dropped in on the Chinese Gymnastics National Team Training Centre. Unfortunately, some of the top gymnasts and coaches had just left for a meet in Korea. The gym was functional but surprisingly run-down. I was also surprised at the relaxed training atmosphere. The coaches were very quiet. The youngest group of boys played — no coach appeared.

Two main stories here:

China will host the World Championships in a few months.
A terrible accident. One of the girls was partly paralyzed in ’98 during a meet in the States. Personable and well-spoken, she’s become something of a national celebrity. I watched an hour long T.V. special on her recovery.

We side-tripped to Datong, home of more huge Buddhas content in their caves.

Nearby is the “Hanging Monastery”, constructed impossibly on a cliff face. Tourists must buy insurance before they scale the rickety plank walkways.

Datong produces 1/3 of China’s coal. The landscape is black, scored, blasted, and desolate. My sandaled feet were coal-stained for days.

I should offer-up filthy coal pollution statistics and report long caravans of coal trucks. I won’t because (I think) some of my own ancestors came to Canada to mine coal.

Don’t worry. When the Chinese are “rich”, then they will clean-up the environment. Surely when the mega-controversial 3 Gorges Dam is completed they will reduce coal consumption.

Lastly, of course we climbed the Very Good Wall (at rugged, remote Simatai).

As that instant Sinophile Tricky Dicky put it, “This is a Great Wall and only a great people with a great past could have a great wall and such a great people with such a great wall will surely have a great future.”

High hopes for Shanghai. For one thing, I had heard they have 1500 Internet cafes, something rarely spotted in the uptight government town Beijing.

The Internet is key to the coming Sino-century. What they desperately need is near instantaneous language translation software.

Yet the Internet may be the Tianamen Square which finally topples this totalitarian house of cards. When intellectuals have access to “free” information they can quickly organize on-line.

The government would love to restrict access to the Web (as in Myanmar) but they are far too greedy to resist the huge profits. China Telecom seems to have a telephone monopoly selling access to me in most cities for 10 “glotneys” / hour. Legal private enterprisers need charge about 30 / hour.

But illegal computers offer access for as little as 4 / hour.

In Shanghai we couldn’t find any of the hidden, mostly illegal services.

This is the kind of efficiency which flourishes under communism.

My guess is that China can persist for about 10 more years before true democratic reforms will be voluntarily introduced. They’ve had no Gorbachev to speed the process. (The only argument left defending one party rule is that STABILITY is the priority. They want to avoid what’s happened to democratic Russia.)

Shanghai is stunning. On one side of the river is “The Bund”, an impressive promenade of solid colonial buildings. You might be in Europe.

Across the water is Padong, the “New Bund”, an outrageous (trillion dollar?) mega-project conceived so Shanghai might recapture its position as East Asia’s leading city, a status it held before WW II.

Rather than pay C$20 to ride the elevator to the top of the space age Oriental Pearl Tower, I wandered the construction sites of Padong. Wow!

Partly built, the New Bund already offers more office space than all of Singapore. Wild sky-scrapers in mirrored yellow, purple, green — you’re going to love or hate Shanghai.
I love it. One of the great cityscapes of the world on par with Manhattan, Chicago, and Hong Kong.

Backpackers stay at the historic Richard’s Hotel, expensive at $12 / dorm bed but almost worth it to experience an ambience described as “Victorian insane asylum” — polished wood floors, echoing corridors, high ceilings, huge rooms. Indifferent employees barge in anytime, day or night.

Shanghai’s rep. is “hip”. The best (whoopee) nightlife in China. The most business savvy. Cutting edge clothing. I did find many broke fashion victims, the ladies worried what to do when their really high shoes come plummeting out of style.

(One bizarre Shanghai fashion trend is to wear your silk PJs out in the street.)

Shanghai was the “Whore of the East”, the Paris of China, the playground of the rich. It was the home of the most infamous mobster, “Big-eared Du”. (No wonder he was so mean.)

The Chinese would have Shanghai vault past Hong Kong as quickly as possible.

Don’t hold your breath, Mr. Zemin.

After China, even after Shanghai, you feel you’ve died and gone to traveller’s Heaven when you arrive in Hong Kong. It’s ultra-modern, compact, beautiful. Public transportation is a dream. There is much to see and do including a side-trip to Portugal. (The colony of Macao. For a few more months anyway, then it reverts to China.)

“Hong Kong is too expensive.” I hear that a lot. You can piss money away here as fast as anywhere in the world. But I always speciously argue that it is POSSIBLE to do Hong Kong on the cheap. Nobody ever does, of course. The temptations are too enticing.

Back to where I started this trip, high on Mount Davis.

I sat up with a bottle of red wine; admiring gorgeous Hong Kong harbour; reflecting on my trip, my life, my fate.

I didn’t get anywhere — just drunk and sleepy. 🙂

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Rick Mc

Career gymnastics coach who loves the outdoors, and the internet.

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