Some final thoughts about our time in China

Our first visit to China took place exactly three years ago and included a trip to Beijing to see my nephew and his partner, by then old China hands. By coincidence, a couple of weeks ago we again travelled to the capital, on business for Fintan and for leisure for me. It was our last journey within China before we leave and it was an opportunity to reflect on our China adventure.

Roses grow in profusion in Beijing, often and counter-intuitively trained along metal fences in the middle of the multi-lane highways, and they were once again at their best in the middle of May. Despite my fears of heavy pollution, the air was clear and blue sky was in evidence. Apparently a few coal-fired power stations have been closed down in response to concerns about the environment, and the effect has been significant.

I had plenty of time to myself, and arranged to meet a fellow student from my MA course, now living in Beijing and taking an intensive Mandarin language course before starting work at the Beijing office of the FT. A simple idea to meet up with someone, but something I could not have contemplated when we first came. Then, I was a passive recipient of our hosts’ kindness and knowledge of the city. I remember the awe I felt when my nephew’s girlfriend spoke Chinese to the driver, and the feeling of helplessness as we gazed at the gigantic monuments and seething crowds in Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City. The idea of being able to navigate comfortably around such a vast place seemed a pipe dream.

Yet there I was, Beijing Metro card in hand, confidently planning a couple of days of sightseeing on my own, looking for a small café in a hutong (small street) to meet my friend, occasionally asking locals for directions and thoroughly at ease.

I focused on a small area north of the city centre which I hadn’t seen on my previous trips. I wanted to see the Tibetan Lama Temple, the Confucius Temple and the Imperial College. Fintan has since been reading about the looting of Tibet for cultural artefacts by British soldiers and colonists in the 19th century. During the Opium Wars the Lama Temple was a convenient base for reaching the Summer Palace, further out of Beijing to the northwest, from whence more stuff was stolen. However, this dark past was not in evidence on a sunny May morning and I simply enjoyed the gold encrusted complex of buildings central to Tibetan Buddhism, and refreshed my visual memory of the distinctive colours of Beijing’s religious and imperial buildings – turquoise, blue, terracotta, amber and gold.

After lunch I found the Confucius Temple and the adjoining Imperial College, a series of buildings set in quiet gardens with fish-filled ponds and big, graceful cypress trees. Rows of about 200 grey, imposing stone tablets listed the names of all the men who had passed the fiendishly difficult imperial exams which allowed them to become administrators – or mandarins. The Hall of Discipline displayed the stocks, handcuffs and ropes used to punish young men who were not studying to the required levels. The entire known works of Confucius were carved on another set of stele – now forming an awe inspiring corridor of stone.

In the middle of its rapacious embrace of capitalism, China seems to be undergoing a revival of reverence for Confucius, as could be seen by the bus loads of tourists in identical orange caps making their way to the statue of the great man. They followed young tour leaders who gave their spiel through amplified loudspeakers, destroying any tranquillity one might have been hoping for.

The most striking element of the whole complex was the late 18th century triple arch that marked the entrance, decorated in imperial colours with ceramic tiles, reliefs of the imperial dragon and inscriptions written in the Emperor Qianlong’s calligraphy. Visitors filmed each other jumping through each arch, leaping and whooping with excitement. The purpose of the arch is to glorify an educational institution – the Imperial College.

It is easy to become disillusioned with China and to focus on its downsides – the crowds, the traffic, the spitting, pollution, not to say the infantilising of the population by the government. But, like those exuberant visitors, somehow my spirit was lifted by the notion of building a triumphal arch, not to celebrate the suppression of other nations in the Roman style, but to champion the importance of learning. And for me the last three years have been about learning, in particular learning a difficult language, but also learning about a new culture. It’s all been voluntary of course – I haven’t faced painful punishments when my grammar has been substandard, and it’s not been about proving myself to a watchful parent as a callow youth, rather I’ve tried to show that even the over 60s can enjoy new intellectual challenges.

Our belongings are pretty much packed and the shipping company’s agent has been to size up our goods. We will soon be gone and our China ‘gap’ years will be over. I think this will probably be my last blog, so thank you for reading it and for the comments you have posted. The interaction has been hugely encouraging and I hope I have been able to share something of our experience here.

Markets and Chinese tourism

I have taken all our visitors to the tailors’ stall in the market in downtown Ningbo. They all seem to have enjoyed the experience, perhaps because it is definitely not on the tourist trail and has its own straightforward authenticity. Inside the shabby, grubby and slightly chaotic old building, local tradespeople cater for Ningboese who don’t want to shop either online or in the expensive shops around Tian Yi Square, just across the road. My last visitors spent over an hour happily rummaging through the brocades and more delicate silks, being measured up behind the flimsy black ‘curtain’ at the counter and showing the two women tailors the styles of dresses, blouses and jackets they would like. At the end of the session the tailors posed for photos with us and we left in high spirits.

The same friends turned out to have a great enthusiasm for markets of all kinds. When we were staying in the south China karst area, one day, en route to our bamboo raft trip, they persuaded me to make a half-mile detour on our bikes along a dusty, partly dug-up road to explore the local market in Baisha, a small town near Yangshou. The bustling market consisted of an open area where farmers and tradesmen showed their wares – vegetables, fruit, clothes, toys, false teeth – from the backs of vans and trucks; from here one progressed to a hangar full of small stalls selling noodles and street food, meat and other raw ingredients and every conceivable kind of useful household item.
We had been on a short cookery course by this time and my friends had been introduced to the quintessentially Chinese skills of cutting and chopping food. Chinese cooks use only one knife – a lethal looking cleaver, with a blade about 3 by 6 inches. Baisha market sported a whole section given over to metal tools, including cast iron cleavers. They proved irresistible – little did the charming bamboo raft men know that the foreign women on their boats were carrying two large and potentially dangerous kitchen knives.

I have always wanted to visit Longsheng (Dragon’s Back), the mountainous region to the north of Guilin, famous for its rice terraces. On our way back from Yangshou, we hired a taxi which drove us the 200 kilometres to Ping’an in Longsheng and then dropped us back at Guilin airport at the end of the day. The rice terraces were indeed picturesque – ancient narrow strips of land cleared for cultivation, winding around seemingly inhospitable mountains. It wasn’t the best time of year to see them, but the landscape was still remarkable.

Longsheng has been heavily marketed as a top tourist destination and has all the hallmarks of Chinese organised tourism. Cars and buses are stopped at a grand gate where money is extracted for each visitor. Finally, tourists are dropped off and must go through yet another barrier and run the gauntlet of a relentless series of retail opportunities – tourist tat as I cynically told my friends. After several visits to such places, I recognised the ‘local products’, all clearly made in the same Zhejiang factories. My heart sank.

Ping’an also has a ‘local’ ethnic minority population who are part of the visitor attraction. These people – mostly older women – sit in distinctive costume to sell the tourist tat and be looked at by the visiting Han Chinese. The village is made up of multi-storey wooden houses, clinging to the hillside and it is possible that the women live in them, although my suspicion was that they, like us, were bussed in everyday to add local colour, but perhaps this is unfair and they really live there.

As usual, the huge crowds of visiting Han Chinese enjoyed themselves immensely. A popular experience was to hire a Qing dynasty imperial costume and pose for a photograph in front of the best views of the terraces. I despaired of ever getting off the main drag and getting nearer to the landscape itself. We eventually got to a higher viewing point and suddenly saw a deserted path going off to one side of a restaurant. Although chased by a be-costumed woman stallholder, we made our escape and in a few minutes were on our own, enjoying the views and the atmosphere in relative isolation. It didn’t last long; a group of western students also found the path and over took us, but our mood had lifted.

On the way down the mountains, our taxi driver came across another essential Chinese experience – the traffic jam. Road works on a hairpin bend had caused mayhem. There were no traffic lights to control the traffic flow and a harassed work man walked up and down begging drivers not to overtake, get stuck on the wrong side of the road and prevent cars and lorries from coming up the mountain – a hopeless task. Our driver was skilful – he seemed instinctively to know when to dodge and weave, and when to get back in line. He probably saved us a couple of hours and we did finally get through. I’d read of traffic jams lasting 11 hours in Beijing and I feared that we would be spending the night on the mountain, rather than catching our flight to Shanghai.

Our slow progress allowed us to see ‘real’ ethnic minority villages on the banks of the river that cut through the valley descending from Longsheng. These rural settlements with their big, hall-like wooden houses seemed untroubled and, as yet, had not become gated communities, parcelled up for tourist consumption, but it may just be a matter of time.

Using Chinese in different situations: from rivers to roads

Although our stay in China is rapidly coming to a conclusion – less than three months to go – I find myself still wanting to learn as much Chinese as possible. Part of my motivation comes from the satisfaction of being able to take visitors around without too much stress and from the sheer enjoyment of being able to engage with Chinese people and find out a bit more about their lives and opinions.

For example, on a burning hot day out in the countryside near Yangshou/Guilin, an elderly man kindly invited us into his very bare and poverty stricken house to shelter from the sun. Probably he didn’t speak a lot more Putonghua (Mandarin) than me, but we managed to converse a little. He talked about his sons and proudly showed us studio portraits of himself and his wife, and they agreed to pose for us to take more photos. His wife grimly kept her mouth shut, so as not to display her broken and missing teeth.

Another day on a bamboo raft, floating down the Yulong river in the glorious karst landscape, I talked to my boatman. He and the older man propelling my friends’ raft chatted in the local dialect and then called out to other passing boatman. ‘This foreign woman can talk Putonghua and she lives in Ningbo’, I heard a few times. Chinese tourists on rafts were manoeuvred closer to me, so that they could observe such an extraordinary phenomenon. More opportunities to pass the time of day and ask them where they were from and if they were having a good time – ‘hao wan’ – having fun, as the Chinese say. Many of our visitors have remarked on the jollity of Chinese people – unremittingly negative press about China back in the West has meant people are surprised to see the very public displays of sociability and relaxation amongst Chinese crowds and tourists.

All the work I put into studying the local menu in our local restaurant back in Ningbo had not been in vain. One night my friends and I chose a small Sichuan restaurant just down the street from our hotel in Suzhou. On the menu there were very limited pictures and no English. It was one of those menus where you have to tick what you want to order – very daunting. I could recognise the characters for black fish (recommended by Yona), spice (chilli), potatoes and cabbage and ticked these. Back came the waitress with a host of questions which I didn’t understand. ‘You decide’, I said. This wasn’t good enough and she showed me on another table what the fish might look like. Light dawned slowly – it was all about presenting the fish in one shallow metal dish with the vegetables, and a small flame underneath. Would we like it like that? I assured her we would.

Sure enough, when the fish came it was delicious – fleshy, with few bones and floating in a sea of spicy sauce with potato and cabbage. My English friends showed impressive chopstick skills and we polished it all off with aplomb, washed down with weak Chinese beer. The meal was such as a success that we all agreed to return to the restaurant on our last evening in Suzhou and eschew the rather formal restaurant in the hotel.

This time I was better prepared. I realized that one question had been about the weight of the fish – how big a fish did we want? (This has been confirmed in a recent conversation class). I agreed to the weight that was suggested. We attempted to choose a different sauce but were firmly told by the waitress that this would be too spicy for us – so once again we did as we were told. We didn’t regret it – a second heavenly meal followed, this time with a sauce of preserved or ‘sour’ vegetables.

Sadly, my improved language skills were only partially successful when dealing with a taxi driver in Shanghai on the final part of our travels. Our plane took off late from Guilin and we arrived in Pudong airport at 11.30pm. ‘No underground’, an official told me firmly. We muttered about the aspiration of Shanghai to be a world city if its major transport link closed down so early, but resigned ourselves to queuing for a taxi.

Unusually, the queue moved quickly and we were ushered into a Shanghai cab. From the first rev of the engine we knew what we were in for. Joining the highway, the driver put his foot down. ‘There is no hurry, please drive slowly’, I said. The driver looked at me for a second. ‘Mei wen ti’, he said scornfully. ‘No problem.’ No way was a foreign woman going to tell him how to drive his taxi. I shut my eyes. Sweat dripped down my face. The journey on a good day takes about 40 minutes. We drew up at our hotel in the centre of the city after 20 minutes. The dial showed 140 kph most of the way. The speed limit was mostly 80 kph.

The fare was 201 yuan and I offered 210, waiting for my change. You don’t tip in China but the driver expected me to give him the extra 9, because he had got us there so fast. For the first time in three years I lost my temper – in Chinese. Words poured out. Forgotten vocabulary jumped into my head. ‘I asked you to go slower. You should have listened to me. We were terrified. You are a terrible driver. No, I won’t give you extra money.’ And so on. My friends stood outside the car looking on in amazement. The driver of course had no idea why I was so cross, took his 200 yuan, slammed the door and drove off. Foreigners!