China in the Rearview Mirror: Paradise Lost in an Edifice Complex

China’s cities are so large and massively developing that it’s sometimes frightening, and as hard as ever to travel independently.  There’s scarcely a word or destination written in pinyin (Romanized Chinese)—much less English—in the typical Chinese bus or train station, nor counter help equipped to deal with it verbally, something common in most of the world these days, from Mongolia to Madagascar, Botswana to Berlin.  Hotel staff are a little better—but not much.  So a little Chinese language is almost indispensable to independent travel in China, something which many people would consider impossible.   It’s not, of course, but many people probably won’t believe that. 


This is 2012, mind you, not 1984 nor the 1998-99 era when I was last here, and after an Olympics event which logically should have brought China well within the modern era of travel.  I’m here to report that it has not.  As I struggle to learn up to at least the level of language proficiency I attained a decade or so ago—not much—the obstacles to travel only increase.  Cities only get bigger and more intimidating—and less inviting—while transportation hubs are ever harder to find and navigate.  And malls may be pretty much up to international standards, but the typical “supermarket” lags way behind, a throwback to the era in which a typical “Chinese grocery” worldwide consisted of rows of shelves and piles of provisions stacked haphazardly upon them.  Good supermarkets are indispensable to modern “point-and-click” travel.  China is truly a place where a travel-guide can come in handy, and that’s a tough admission to make for someone who typically eschews them.  Here you can actually chew them.


I have a few days to kill before going back to the US, so I decide to go to nearby Chengde, a city typically described as small and bucolic and the point of departure for trips through the countryside to temples and summer retreats of the Manchu Qing emperors.  There’s even a hostel here (if not quite a “real one,” i.e. it’s a hotel with suites converted to dorms and other private rooms devoted to foreign budget travelers—not a bad idea).  The trip has even been reduced to some two and a half hours now, thanks to a new expressway, a trip that used to take up to seven hours by train.  That comes with a price, of course.  My first view of the bucolic “village” includes more skyscrapers than in all of downtown LA, most of them devoted to apartment dwellers, a half-dozen here, and another handful there all going up simultaneously, jib cranes perched on top like ghosts in the machines, robot aliens sent to conquer us all.  It feels that way sometimes, like an alien army sent to dominate, imposing skyscrapers where houses once were, imposing them by force.


I’m constantly on the lookout for “old China,” not Communist China, but Ming China, with the upturned roofs and the arched entranceways to neighborhoods, neighborhoods with traditions going back hundreds, if not thousands, of years.  This is a culture traditionally attached to its past, bloodlines far preferable to Communist bread lines.  While that may be all changing on the surface, I personally don’t believe that it indicates a change of heart.  Interestingly the place that seems least affected by all the modern development is Beijing itself, the monster of them all at some fifteen million mortal souls, depending on when and how you count.  There, Beijing’s hutongs—its narrow alleyways—are a living link to its glorious past and part of its individual character, though I personally find it hard to believe that it wasn’t once similar all over the country.  If so, then that means that there is a developmental doctrine exported to the rest of the country that Beijing feels little need to follow itself, something like an imperial army subduing the provinces, bulldozers instead of tanks, rounding the peasants up into luxury apartments.  Conspiracy theories’ greatest beauty is that they can’t be disproven.


The smog is no better in Chengde than in Beijing, though, maybe even worse.  I’d forgotten how the smog in Mexico City was worse in the hills surrounding.  There I’ve been twice with the highest recorded smog levels ever, though I’m sure those levels have long been exceeded.  This looks worse than that, visibility reduced to a few hundred feet.  I don’t see how planes could land in this pea soup, like the “fog” that made London famous back in the day.  I picked up a cold and a cough back in Mongolia, and while the cold is long gone, the cough is lingering like the foul unvented bathroom odors typical of these parts.  The smog doesn’t help.  The sites around here are mostly temples and grounds favored by the Manchu Qing emperors of a few hundred years ago, including a summer resort and replicas of the Tibetan Potala in Lhasa and the Buddhist bodhisattva and goddess of mercy Kwan Yin.  Some references call it the original Disneyland, something like “Qingland” or “Buddha-land,” with a mixture of styles and influences intended to elevate them all to an enlightened equality—with mixed results. 


Though disappointing, mainly because of the smog, still Chengde is not without its charms, and at some half million people is not a bad “small town” to poke around.  Small towns in China are upwards of a half mil.  Still I’m appalled at the lack of development for tourism in China, especially considering the massive development in other areas.  Tourism is easy money.  I think this is not government policy, just a lack of vision on the part of every individual proprietor who serves noodle soup and can’t take the time to write some names and prices in English to increase his eatership.  It’s not that hard. 


Sure there are plenty of places around Tiananmen and elsewhere with proprietors eager to guide you through the process, but that’s not a transparent process.  Beijing is known for its hundred-dollar tea-tasting scams, too.  This is simply cultural myopia on the part of the Chinese.  This is why China will never rule the world.  Despite the Marx brothers and their theories, the world is not ruled by its factory workers nor its factory owners, but by the buyers of its products.  That’s the difference between a demand economy and a command economy.  But wait a minute.  Aren’t these the same Chinese who populate the world in a far-flung commercial diaspora, the likes of which the world has never seen before?  There they open stores and learn languages where the average Brit wouldn’t stoop to manage a bank, learning to make “jerk” cuisine and quick-curries in Jamaica, in addition to their own cuisine, all while speaking fluent patois.  Why don’t they do that here?  Go figure.  There’s a cause-and-effect relationship here, but I’m not sure where.


Not surprisingly, therefore, I’m one of the few foreigners in town here, and people tend to look at me as if I’d just dropped in from Mars.  That may be because I’m wearing a baseball cap that says “Mars” (the candy bar, not the planet) on it, but I doubt it.   Finally the best part is leaving, to catch my flight without getting stuck in a flood or typhoon somewhere, or getting lost in translation when I’ve taking the wrong bus down the wrong road.  I don’t have time to devote to all this right now, maybe next year.  China is not a casual date… or the cheapest.  It’s a serious undertaking, best accomplished with plenty of time, lots of patience and a choice of venues.  I’m not really a city person, so I’d rate my previous time in Guanxi, Guizhou, and Yunnan as not only my favorites in China, but some of the best times of my entire life.  I’d like to go to Tibet before it changes beyond recognition. 


So I catch the mini-bus out of Chengde railway station, not knowing where it’ll drop me off in Beijing, only knowing it’s certainly easier to get to than the long-distance bus station out on the edge of town.  I could try to ask, but the answer would likely be meaningless to me.  If there’s a subway station nearby, then I’m good.  If not, then I’ll find one.  The driver’s way ahead of me.  He drops us all on the side of the road on the edge of town at the first subway station we come to.  It only requires the leaping of one guard-rail and the free-style navigation of one small slope.  If you’re old and decrepit, then… sorry.  I suppose for the average independent traveler, China then is limited to a few easy cities and a few choice villages and a few simple routes: Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an and environs in the north, and Guilin/Yangshuo, Kunming-Dali-Lijiang, and Lhasa/Tibet in the south and west.  So I spend the rest of my day in the retail Disneyland on Wangfujing Street.  If Chengde was the Qing’s self-caricature, then this is the modern Communist one.


Do I like China?  Definitely.  Do I love it?  Maybe.  After all, you gotta’ love a place where hot steaming corn is sold at almost every newspaper kiosk.  More than that, this is a place that, with a little time and effort and mastery of the language, a laowai like me might find himself amply rewarded.  It’s too late for that in Thailand.  Mostly, though, there’s a human scale to Beijing in the streets that belies the massiveness of its model or its mission.  In the alleys it’s time immemorial on any given day, Islamic pizza and sizzling hot woks, the confluence of cultures on a high northern plain, rice from the south, grilled meats from the north, and flat breads from the west.  Oh, well, two out of three ain’t bad…


It’s interesting sometimes to consider how closely China and the US parallel each other: they’re almost exactly the same size at almost exactly the same latitudes, and almost exactly half a world away from each other.  In this fantasy scenario, New York, D.C., Miami and Atlanta somehow correspond to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong.  And if Kunming’s mile-high doppelganger is Denver and Xi’an’s is Xicago, then Lhasa would fit in nicely as a Chinese Santa Fe, I suppose.  It’s an imperfect model, of course.  The backward southern states of Guanxi and Guizhou could easily pass for… you know. 


So where’s California in this plan?  Maybe that’s the true common ground.  After all California has as many Asians as many Asian cities themselves.  That’s where I’m going.  This trip’s history.  Interestingly, my wife Tang and I will be returning on the same day to the same destination from different origins and (mostly) different routes.  I’m leaving for LA from Beijing with a stopover and a change of planes in Seoul, South Korea, while she’ll be starting in Chiang Rai, Thailand, and after a change of planes in Bangkok, making a brief stopover in Seoul on the way to LA (scuttlebutt is that no one wants to land in Japan anymore for the free radiation therapy).  Theoretically I’ll land in LA an hour and a half before her, and we’ll live happily ever after.  Fingers are appropriately crossed.  There’s only one problem: my flight gets canceled… so I catch an earlier flight.  That’s where experience counts.  I expect snafus, especially with a storm in the neighborhood. 


I have to spend a night in Seoul International either way on this long layover.  Others are stuck from the typhoon, and have been here a couple days already and still waiting for a flight out.  A Thai girl hears me speaking Thai to Tang via Skype and almost goes berserk to hear her language… so I try to help her, without much luck.  The flight to LA leaves on time.  Tang’s doesn’t.  One hour passes, then two.  There she is now.  Then this must be home.  Don’t try this there.

For pictures see author's blog here.

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