Memories of China

Been back a few days now and realised I better get these memories down whilst they're fresh. Landing back in the UK and getting home seems to make everything that just happened so far away also so distant in time: I wonder if there is a mathematical formula that models it;) The plan was to extend a work trip to Beijing (I'd flown there from Sao Paulo, but that's another story) to stay a further 2 weeks over Christmas to spend time with Sarah's family for the first time, work a few days and also get some time together too in Shanghai. Beijing, then a week in northern, cold (-20°C) Yanji, down to Changzhou, then over to Shanghai before heading back to the UK.

Landing in Beijing raised a bunch of exclamations which turned into chuckles from the Catalans around me on the plane when the captain said it was -9°C on the ground. Having just come from 30°+C in Sao Paulo, I quietly got ready for it. As the plane taxied to our final stop I noticed that in big English characters above each "gate" was a longitude and latitude, similar or identical to other gates in the row. Neat! Forgot to take a picture though. Perhaps it was intended for pilots to use GPS to get to the right gate irrespective of language differences? (Whilst writing this and querying Wikipedia I got all excited when I saw that the funds currently raised from donations was $959,006.41, and talking to Sarah about could we spare the $41 to make it a cool $1m, she said no. After a little while when I saw if someone else edged it closer so increasing my chances of persuading her to release the cash, I noticed someone had just donated €15 and it stayed at around the same number! Laughs all around when I realised $41K was needed and not $41. More evidence that mathematicians can't count;).

BeijingThere was considerable queue-hopping at Beijing immigration (which was impressively staffed compared to any other airport I'd been to) and this jumping around was an indication of the complete anarchy when it came to the concept and practice of queuing in China: in stark contrast to the mass obedience and order with respect to the State. Perhaps it is this very orderliness that forces a people to find outlets not to be. Or maybe it is that the rat-race has never been just limited to capitialist countries and is in fact alive and kicking anywhere where there are lots of people in a confined space. I digress.

Heading to the hotel (ok, just good enough for work, but close to the office) and getting settled I decided to head out to see some sights which I rarely get a chance to do on these work visits. A taxi and walk around a long moat brought me to the Forbidden City, which was notable for it's scale, stark beauty and lots of people wanting to get to know me so they could sell me stuff. Walking away in the bitter coldness it was really hard to find anywhere at all to eat, and a short taxi ride away (stupidly I had only a map in pure Chinese) brought a long line of very tempting food stalls: rice, noodles , dumplings (delicious, which Sarah had introduced me to back home), fresh meat and fish of every imaginable type on skewers ready to be grilled on hot coals or already sizzling in big woks. I'm sure there were skewered things which were insects but my eyes paused only briefly. It was hard to determine the difference between a sea based insect (shellfish, prawns, etc) and a land based one - nothing looked exactly as it does "back home". I settled for some fantastic steamed greens and some "jian zhu rou jiao zi" (shallow fried pork dumplings). My first food in the land of my ancestors (well some of them!) and a more complete warmth than mere sustenance alone can provide. Fast forward a week of work and Sarah and her mother were up and we went to Tian'anmen Square (flat, almost desolate feeling, suprising amount structures within it, sentries still enough that they might not be bored) a few photos but we didn't hang around due to the cold - then to the most famous Peking Duck restaurant in Beijing and the realisation it is duck skin that is revered by the Beijingese and not it's meat. Yes, it felt odd rolling up bits of skin with hoi sin sauce and spring onions in the little flour pancakes: delicious but I couldn't help feeling it was missing something! For the next stage of our journey a long train ride into the north was arranged in a "hard sleeper" carriage...

Piling into the carriage it was interesting to find that the bunks in stacks of 3, 2 stacks facing each other in a compartment (i use that term losely since it is completely open to the walkway which butts on the end of the bunks with their narrow, vertical ladders. Apart from the mild (western) concern about the physical openness it was soon clear that it was expected people would sleep with their clothes on and trying to reconcile Open Source principles of transparency, freedom, accessibility and openness with that of physical privacy, I decided to embrace this very communal kind of living for the next 24 hours. What was immediately impressive was the quiet order, the common activity that you don't find in close conditions in the West. Also they locked the toilets in the stations whilst the doors were open, then reversed this procedure once the train was underway. Plus they had 2 official looking attendants per carriage. Impressive.Beijing-Yanji Train

Also when the train stopped each carriage had an attendant standing outside at the door in a very regimented fashion. Perhaps it takes military precision and hence mentality to provide such a civilian service in a comprehensive and ordered way. The journey was smooth and to be honest a bit of a blur. My major goal on the journey was to avoid goint to the toilet which I achieved, you'll be glad to hear, with disctinction! Dawn rising and Yanji approaching it was clear we were in a completely different type of terrain and environment from Beijing. The Russian and Korean borders not far away, the air was defintely wintry, so dry perhaps the sheer cold dropping turning every bit of moisture into miniscule icedrops falling to the ground...

Yanji Wedding DinnerYanji was a merry-go-round of meeting Sarah's wonderful family, the centrepiece being our first wedding dinner (there would be another in Changzhou later on) where Sarah and I wore traditional Chinese jackets. We all spent a lot of time socialising, eating out and in (seems to be the major sport and activity in China - table tennis must be a distant second!), and drinking....oh my goodness the drinking. It brings the taste alive, Moltai. A spirit to be feared, something like 70° proof and a distant relative (surely) of aviation fuel. I'm not sure whether after many days and nights of toasts I like it more or less than the first sip.

It's just that I'm afraid of it;) The closest I've been to being completely drunk. I could walk. But only just. To water it down I had to drink beer. And that wasn't the "lite" variety either. I'm wondering now if my memory is impaired a little from the experience - but oh what fun we had! Yanji is a hard place to live: bitter coldness as you now know, smog that maybe you don't, the feeling of a tough frontier town (which it is) trying to control the drug business and petty, though profitable, corruption where a policeman earns $50 a week, perhaps 1/6 of Beijing IT workers. But tough places can produce very warm people and I found this to be exceptionally true in Yanji with Sarah's family: her aunts, uncles, cousins all incredibly kind and warm. I shall never forget them and I hope we return soon or we can have them visit us in the UK. One things for sure I need to learn Mandarin fast and with some consitent dedication I should be able to do it with the help of Sarah, the language books I bought in China and the mp3s I just downloaded to my USB audioplayer, the excellent Samsung YP-U1Q 2GB that had to and does play ogg files. Sarah kept telling me how good her mother was at haggling and getting a good price, so after some successes at small stuff it was an amusing achievement to bargain over 2 days and end up paying more for a beautiful deck of cards than I could have bought it one day earlier. My mother-in-law's tactic is to ask the price nonchalantly and reject it and walk away, giving the impression she does not want it. Trouble is she goes back and keeps doing it with the same item, which gives the game away (surely) if more than twice, and specially on different days.
Fast forward to Changzhou in the south which we reached by plane, and meeting Sarah's Dad who is not reknown for his conversation. Changzhou was the place we were going to have our wedding photos done over an entire day, with 6 costume changes of varying types: both traditional western and Chinese. Sarah is considered a big size in China, and for me even more so. Apart from the slight ghoulish makeup they gave me (to make me look whiter), I had to squeeze into clothes and shoes that were 3 or 4 sizes too small, quite often being held together with chains of safety pins. Being assured that non-matching stuff wouldn't show in the pictures was little comfort, when I felt such a right twit. Especially with the photographer's directions to tilt heads, angle hands in a tradionally Chinese way. It all spilled over into a second day outside and it was a relief at least to be outside the restriction of the studio. Sarah looked stunning and is very photogenic thank god, as it means less people will look at me. Mind you I looked alright in the Emporer's clothes;) Some final memories to finish up with are:

  • The incredible amount of construction going on, especially the vast number of residential blocks, which other countries do not have the foresight to provide. Here is a country gearing itself up for _populating_ the booming, world-beating industries it's on track to provide.

  • Driving past what looked like a very large science park in Changzhou, and discover it is accomodation for 5 universities: 100,000 students are housed there.

  • It is common for university students to share a multi-bedded room. Fudan university, one of the best China , where Sarah went to had 8 bunk beds in it with no space for clothes: so they each lived out of a suitcase for 4 years and shared a single table!

  • The soups in China are wonderful, especially from table hotpots you've spent the evening cooking food in

  • Shanghai: The Bund, reminded me of Chicago's lakefront art-deco buildings, behind it an aromatic maze of streets with the odd pungent warren teeming with people buying and selling all sorts of stuff. The heart of the city is brilliant to walk around.

  • Finding out Chinese traders traditionally wore long sleeved garments to secretly agree prices by touch in hidden handshakes.

  • Realizing just how hardworking the average Chinese is: all the time there are people toiling on building sites, farms, cooking on street kitchens, ...

  • Being told that there is zero private land ownership, which explains, from the air, the appearance of groups of factories and accomodation blocks, systematically located all over the place seemingly without restriction .