Winter on ‘the’ Wall

This weekend we left damp, chilly Ningbo for the dry cold of Beijing, specifically for an extraordinary complex of Modernist buildings making up the 5 star hotel called Commune by the Wall, about 60 kms north of the city. This was a business trip for Fintan, as he had been asked to be a guest at a gathering of UNNC alumni and to say a few words at their ‘Christmas’ party. Trailing spouse went along for the ride.

Our journey time was somewhat extended due to Friday night Beijing traffic – it was solid on the 5th ring road and it took 2.5 hours to get to our destination. Still, compensation for me was that I could read some of the characters on the road signs – including 5th ring road! Our taxi driver was a woman who seemed to drive in a relatively orderly fashion – not too much lane jumping, no aggression and only talking on her mobile phone about 30% of the time. Lorries are only allowed to travel at night which meant that we met a kind of slow lorry rally on the express way section that climbs up towards the Great Wall – nose to tail HGVs on their way to deliver goods out of the capital.

Calling the complex ‘Commune’ is somewhat ironic. This is the name Mao gave to the huge collective enterprises he forced on the entire rural population in the 1950s in order to modernise agriculture and get rural industry up and running in a policy known as ‘walking with two legs’. The result was famine and 30 million deaths. I wonder why SOHO, the property development company that owns the complex chose it. Post-modern irony? Ignorance? Idealism? The star on the logo seems to be part of the current Mao nostalgia we see around, with reprints of posters and the Little Red Book.

Commune by the Wall is as far away as possible as it is to get from a communist collective farm. It is a group of luxuriously appointed villas in a remote valley at the foot of the Great Wall, designed by various Asian architects. Mies van de Rohe meets Frank Lloyd Wright meets China – especially in terms of the materials used. I thought the most beautiful villas were those covered in screens of giant bamboo stems. Visitors can rent whole houses or just rooms  and the Alumni association rented red-painted Cantilever House 3 for their party. About 40 young people made the journey from  Beijing to meet their fellow grads, generally reminisce and have a good time. Some stayed all night to watch dawn over the Great Wall, which is visible across the valley from the complex. I’m afraid to say we went to bed rather earlier!

We had some interesting conversations with the guests about what they are doing now. Jobs included similtaneous translator, security adviser on terrorism, management consultant and marketing exec. Several were young entrepreneurs, setting up their own companies in Beijing. We chatted to a young man who has set up a travel agency in Ningbo, which specialises in bespoke travel for the newly affluent in China as they get a taste for tourism, but don’t quite know what a tourist does (my description – not his). We hope he’ll be able to help us with trips to Harbin to see the ice sculpture festival and Guilin to visit the limestone gorge.

Commune by the Wall is staffed by a small army of local workers, who are housed in an adjacent village of traditional one storey houses, as we could see when we climbed up on to the wall on Saturday morning. They have been issued with rather fetching full length black duvet coats – very necessary in the bitter cold, but somewhat sinister. It sometimes felt as though we were on a set for a James Bond movie and that we were in danger of being taken in for interrogation. However, a quick ‘Ni hao’ – hello –  and the smiles told a different story, along with the very attentive service.

Outdoor activity does not seem to feature very much in Chinese culture. The young people we met were bemused that we had spent time scrambling up a steep snowy path to walk on a deserted section of the Great Wall. Part of the privilege of staying at the Commune was the private access to the Wall – and one we relished, especially when we could see the hundreds of tourists milling on the public section down in the valley at nearby Badeling.

To stand alone on such a famous monument on a beautiful clear winter’s day felt extremely special – even if it is a reconstruction! ‘Our’ section was rough underfoot, and in the shadowy parts filled with deep drifts of snow. We could explore a sentry tower and then walk out on a windswept open platform and look towards the mountains. Looking back, we could see where the reconstruction simply ended, and the rubble of the original wall climbed up into the hills. In ‘Country Driving’, Peter Hessler describes his hunt for the Wall driving westwards towards the desert, and explains how ‘the’ Wall is in fact many fortifications built at different times, sometimes four or five deep. The idea of one Great Wall is a post-Reform invention to boost its fame and tourist potential.

Our journey home to Ningbo was uneventful – although we found the ‘queuing’ for check-in at Beijing airport 50 minutes of pure frustration. Queuing is not a concept recognised in China. Whenever you imagine you are in one, you see a bunch of people arriving on your flank, focused on getting to the front immediately. Today, these included a large family who wanted to check-in 10 boxes of whatever they had been buying in Beijing to take back home. It is at these times that you ruminate on whether you are in a third world country with first world elements, or a first world country with third world remnants. Our experience at the Commune suggested the latter, while our travel experiences are definitely part of the former.



Today I was driven for the first time since arriving in Ningbo in a private car – not a great distance, just from the front gate of our compound (Metro Gate 1) to the nearest mega-shopping-opolis, Wanda Plaza. The journey was calm and uneventful – very different from the usual experience when you get into a Ningbo taxi – best described as hold on and hope. My driver was a fellow student, an Italian from Sicily, who has lived here for a couple of years, and knows his way around. We had just had lunch with another friend, in a local Korean restaurant, just beside the gate. Over lunch – ordered by our Singaporean friend, who has fluent Mandarin, although a native English speaker – we had an interesting discussion about stereotypes.

This was prompted by my telling them the anecdote about falling off my bicycle, recounted in the last blog. I have just been learning about the horrors of the Cultural Revolution and we calculated that the men who didn’t hasten to my aid were probably the children of parents who had lived through this terrible period. It is highly likely that they had been brought up to never put their head above the parapet and to ‘not get involved’ as far as possible. An interesting explanation?

We had all experienced being the victims of stereotypes one way or another. My Italian friend described being treated with contempt in China by a man from northern Italy, because he came from the ‘poor’ south, while my Singaporean friend described how she is not considered to be Chinese enough by the Chinese. My main experience of what is a kind of racism is just being stared at  – on the bus back from Wanda a group of older people got on and shouted and laughed at the ‘laowai’ – literally the old outsider. Unfortunately, I have enough understanding of the language now to know I was the butt of their jokes. The younger, smartly dressed Ningbo middle classes looked rather embarrassed and moved away up the bus.

We then graduated to a discussion of touching in Chinese society – prompted by my embracing them when we met.They had found this very unBritish. Perhaps another reason why nobody offered to pick me up off the ground is the aversion to public physical contact. It is rare to see public displays of affection here, certainly among people over 35 – 40. When parents and grandparents drop off their children at the local school here they don’t kiss them goodbye. In contrast, Chinese students on campus hold hands and there is surreptitious kissing going on if you know where to look!

Of course, the Chinese students are fully aware of western life styles and many want to move abroad, at least for a few years. They are aware though of the heavy responsibility they face as only children – they know they are expected to return to look after their parents. Recently my fellow MA students and I did a small survey of Chinese people – mostly aged 18-30 – as part of our project on comparing western and Chinese fast food restaurant chains. One person said that the reason she liked KFC (20 outlets in Ningbo) was that although she might never go abroad, sitting in the restaurant allowed her to imagine she was in the west.

Somehow being in such a completely unfamiliar environment seems to make one more aware of stereotypical behaviour. As northern Europeans, bread is an important part of our diet and I was dreading having to live a bread-free life for three years. I need not have worried! Enter the Germans. Not only do they make everything that works effectively on sale in Metro (a German owned supermarket it should be said) – our kitchen knives and highly prized cleaver are German – but Abendbrot bakery is established in Shanghai and brings wonderful bread and cakes every Thursday for sale to the university campus. To my delight I discovered that I could arrange a private delivery to Gate 1. Shanghai is a good two and a half hours drive, but every week the van drives into the compound on the stroke of 9am, as planned. I love to tease the young German girl on an internship with Abendbrot who gives me my bread, about how they always arrive on time! But the sheer orderliness of it is blissful for me in the midst of the chaos  when I set off on my bicycle soon afterwards.

We also like occasionally to eat potatoes – dare I say a touch of an Irish stereotype? The Chinese don’t think much of potatoes or carrots – the latter are known as ‘barbarian radishes’. This means that potatoes are almost given away in the market. Fuchsia Dunlop, our heroine, has an excellent recipe for finely shredded potatoes, swifly stir fried in the wok, and we have eaten this dish in restaurants – but carrots are rarely in evidence, except as occasional decorative features on platters of food. Of course the old, touristy section of Ningbo down by the river, has an Irish pub – but we have steadfastly resisted it so far. I think we are more likely to visit what my Italian friend tells me, is the best Italian restaurant in Ningbo, next door to the pub. Nothing like a recommendation from an Italian about Italian food!

Values and beliefs

I had a minor triumph tonight in my attempt to master some Chinese. For the first time I was able to order two barrels of drinking water in Mandarin. No one drinks the tap water which is considered to be full of chemicals and metals. On previous occasions I have either asked a Chinese person to phone the shop, which is about 200 metres away at Gate 2 of the compound, or I’ve rather sheepishly shown the owner the request written out by Fintan’s PA. The water shop man and his wife now know me – although they looked a bit alarmed as I arrived with my bicycle hat on – and were able to understand my stumbling pronounciation of our address. Numbers are difficult! Our water machine can be set to hot or cold – many Chinese people have their machine on the hot setting and make tea with the luke warm water that results. Drinking cold water is not considered healthy – which can be difficult for westerners seeking refreshing cold (bing) water in a restaurant or cafe.

We visited a rather larger body of water last Sunday, when we cycled some 8 – 10 miles out through the industrial suburbs to our nearest beauty spot – Dongtian Lake. This is a large freshwater lake to the south east of the city (Dong means east, like Dong Gu Hua Yuan – East Lake Garden, where we live).  The local authority is trying hard to make the lake into a tourist resort, perhaps to rival Hangzhou – brown signs on the high way, pleasure grounds on islands, authentic villages to visit, walkways and bikes for hire etc. There are encouraging Chinglish signs assuring visitors that this is a world renowned destination. We rather enjoyed the fact that by Chinese standards it was pretty empty of people – probably not what the powers that be wanted – but then it was November and the weather was unexpectedly sunny and bright.

We walked along one of the newly surfaced (and privatised) causeways to the peaceful Buddhist temple that seemed to be the main attraction. It was in the process of restoration, having been rebuilt in 1989. A couple of rather over fed monks were loitering while Chinese women scurried around selling candles and trinkets to the faithful. Teenage girls outside seemed happy to throw small gold bells and red ribbons into a willow beside the water – prayers or good luck charms? Music drifted out over the lake, as if coming from a large white sculpture of a goddess.

Some religions are now tolerated by the Communist Party – Buddhism, Christianity and Islam among them. Apparently Christianity is growing, with many groups meeting in surviving churches (there are two in Ningbo) or in private houses.

A couple of weeks ago I fell or rather slipped off my bicycle just by the entrance to the university, in front of the doorman and another man who was on his mobile outside his car, parked in the middle of the road (part of the reason I fell off). Neither showed any interest in my plight and didn’t move a muscle to help me. Even as an atheist it made me reflect on whether or not there is less compassion, charity or concern for others in a society with no Judao-Christian tradition. My impression so far is that what matters to Chinese people is China, themselves and their family – probably in that order – and nobody else. Values seem to be based on Confucianism (the family), overlaid with Marx (Communism) overlaid with rampant capitalism. It’s a pretty brutal mix.

The primacy of the family is striking, particularly because of the one child policy which seems to be pretty much adhered to – certainly in a big city like Ningbo. In the context of learning Mandarin this is curiously ironic, as one lesson is spent  mastering all the words for  family members in their hierarchy – father and mother but also elder brother, younger brother, elder sister, younger sister. They have rather beautiful written characters as well.

In China to have two sons  is to be extraordinarily lucky, as my Mandarin teacher, Yolanda, made clear to me – for most people it would only happen if you had twins. In his chapter about living in rural China north of Beijing, Peter Hessler explains how a picture of male twins is put into the bedroom of newly weds – to bring them luck in conception.  My good fortune is doubly evident in that my birthday is the 6th of the 6th month  – revealed when we learned numbers and how to say the date last week. I was just grateful that it made it simpler to say – no need to distinguish between the words for month and date, which confusingly are said in the reverse order. 6 and 8 are very lucky numbers. During our class field trip to Shanghai our teacher showed us a new Mercedez with the number plate 98866 – it happened to be parked on a street with a name which translated as Riches Road. We also learned about the Chinese Zodiac – it seems I belong to the year of the horse – although it took a bit of calculation as I was so many years distant in birth from everyone else. As it happened I shared the same birth year as Yolanda’s mother so she could work it out.

On the debit side, we live in flat 403 – 4 is a very unlucky number as the sound or character (I’m not sure which) is the same as that for death. Maybe that is why the flat was available and the landlady was keen to rent it to us ignorant outsiders. Who knows? Certainly the other fourth floor flat opposite us remains empty. We don’t mind. Unlucky four is not part of our belief system and we are happy to have a bit less noise to add to the cacophany of sound around us. Now if it was flat 13, that might be different……

Keeping up Appearances

On Saturday we ventured to the city centre for the second time since our last visit about a month ago. Our confidence has improved, partly because we now know how to pronounce our address so that taxi drivers can understand it, and partly because we understand a bit more about the layout of the city. We were looking for Toni and Guy’s as I needed a hair cut. We had been warned by friends that local hairdressers are not used to layering hair and as all Chinese people have thick black hair, there are no lighter coloured dyes suitable for feeble, western hair. So we rejoiced in globalisation and set out for the chic Heyi Avenue precinct in downtown Ningbo.

We accomplished our mission and I have to say I enjoyed being pampered, especially lying prone in a darkened room while a young man shampooed and conditioned my hair and gave me a head massage. ‘Alex’ (all Chinese people who deal with westerners have an English name) was able to tell me he’d trained at the Toni and Guy academy in Shanghai, as he did his stuff with the scissors. I now have very short, light brown hair – the only student on campus, which probably just adds to my weirdness among the youff. And quite a big hole in my wallet.

Meanwhile, my patient spouse explored the global clothes brands in the precinct. He was more or less the only customer as no Chinese person would think of shopping there. Ningbo government has clearly ‘persuaded’ Prada, Hugo Boss, Louis Vuitton et al to come to the city to give the impression of wealth and sophistication that they feel is necessary for any self-respecting modern third tier Chinese city. Happily, Fintan resisted the urge to buy a £800 leather jacket.

So what do Chinese people wear? Among the most extrovert styles I’ve seen are the white, pink and red silk pyjamas worn by the Tai-chiers in the parks and other open spaces . These are sometimes complemented with embroidered silk jackets or even swords with tassels. We often come across people in ordinary pyjamas walking around the compound at any time of the day – and we are told that we will soon see padded and quilted pyjamas as winter sets in. I can’t wait to buy some for myself as our flat has no central heating, only some rather flimsy mobile oil-filled radiators.

There is a clear distinction between people who formed their dress sense before or after the reforms of the 1980s. Younger people have more or less completely adopted western styles of dress, although they may buy copies of western brands rather than expensive originals. Women dress more modestly than in the UK and seem to have a taste for frills and lace. On campus I often see students with a kind of tutu effect under or over a long jacket or jumper. This may be part of the taste for kitch cartoon characters such as Hello Kitty which seems to carry on past the tweenie stage. Many students wear glasses. I read that children in East Asia don’t get enough sunlight as they do so much school work, and this has a detrimental effect on their eyesight.

Older women favour black slacks and loose fitting jackets or cardigans – perhaps a slightly more colourful version of Mao suits, which presumably they remember. The many street workers – men and women – who do most of the manual tasks around the suburb are provided by the local authority with a bright blue suit with luminous stripes, and an orange base ball cap. I notice this is often subverted with more personalised head gear, especially in the warmer period, when many wore the traditional straw pyramid hat you see in the rice fields. Many are migrant workers who have come to look for work in Ningbo or who have simply lost their rural living as the city has encroached on the farmland.

Ebikers have their own special fashion – wearing a face mask and a jacket on back-to-front. This is presumably to avoid both dirt and cold. In the rain ebikers and pushbikers wear huge ponchos, that fall from a head covering with a peak to envelop the whole vehicle. I have acquired a bright orange one from Metro, but haven’t worn it yet. I wonder if it will go over my anomalous bicycle helmet? Fintan bought XXL a waterproof jacket and trousers from Metro, but they proved too small even for me! Chinese people are petite. We had to take advantage of globalisation again and venture forth to Decathlon, where European sizes can be found. As well as rain gear, we cast taste to the wind, and bought quilted ski jackets which we hope will keep us warm inside and outside our flat during the winter. Apparently, most Chinese people expect to wear their coat indoors in winter.

Very few Chinese people are over weight. Grand parents who I see collecting their precious grandchild from school appear agile and sprightly. They are certainly old enough to remember the famine of 1960 that killed 30 million people. I am currently engaged on a small project to compare western and Chinese fast food outlets. A glance at the menu suggests why people who stick to Chinese fast food (or Chinese food of any description) don’t get fat. On Sunday, we went back to our local market where we were greeted by ‘our’ vegetable man and his wife. We can understand numbers now, so even know how much we are being asked to pay (very little). Outside the market there were many stalls and racks with clothing for sale – t-shirts, trousers, blouses and skirts. All very western, but a lot cheaper than Heyi Avenue and altogether a lot more fun to purchase.