China as it is, was, isn't and will be
Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
37Trip End Jun 01, 2010
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Great Walls, city walls, village walls, homestead walls, official walls, cyber walls, firewalls, police barriers, mental walls, language walls ... walls within walls within walls.
In the days of yore, they were meant to keep the marauding hordes at bay.
These days, there are more complex, ironic and even cynical reasons for this grand national heritage.
Pop into an internet cafe: ID please!
This from some little, narrowly post-adolescent poppet slouched behind a cigarette butt-stained and scored vinyl desktop.
No uniform, no badge to flash; just "ID", and that is only in the educated centres. Normally it's a shlurred word, implicitly understood that it is not being understood, and a squarish configuration of the fingers of two hands.
(Aside: the same hand shape, that denotes 'finger number' 7 in Guangdong (Canton / South China), with index finger and thumb splayed, means number 8 in the rest of the United Empire of Mao ... walls of a different maze.)
Enter the passport number, enter the computer number, sit, log in, compulsorily click OK when it says so, naturally in the lingua franca, instructing the user that there is a watchdog application running, and run some kind of risk every time you enter the dreaded "T"-word. (Whisper: Tibet).
It must be so comforting to some that Big Bra' is quietly guarding your life and moral standing from over your shoulder.
Still keeping the barbarians at the gate.
But enter the paradox: while keeping the slurs, lies and innuendos outside, so too do the little darlings remain kept inside. Kept, not inside, being chief operative for the nonce.
For it seems that so much as Beijing's dandies wanted to be acknowledged as 'being out there' with their Olympic globeshow, their citizens are kept mentally in in check just as much as ever.
Except in the rare hotel (fewer than 1%), there are no international television channels. Everything that 99% of the population sees on this constantly watched medium has been carefully filtered to reveal pretty
much mostly the upside of life ... and naturally the flailings of the outside world.
Television is a universal medium, and there are dozens and dozens of programmes to choose from. But not a smidgeon from India, Pakistan, Nepal, any neighbouring state, let alone, and gad forbid, the rest of the "liberal drivel".
Foreign magazines and newspapers are just as rare.
The social conscience, consciousness, is built from within the walls, essentially incestuous.
Does this predicate the downward spiral of the information gene?
No new blood, no outside-info-DNA. No challenge. Just the feed, and leach, off itself and its self spawn. Brother-info begets sister-info. Is baby-info the lesser?
It is a Chinese national past-time to send the brightest out into the learned world to retrieve 'the knowledge', but it's the little guys I wonder about. What chance do they have of discovery?
Easy to say: globally economically oppressed and depressed all suffer the same fate.
But this seems an unfortunate market truth, rather than a predisposed wall.
Ride into Xi'an, and the first thing that strikes one is 'the wall'. In truth, a huge, beautiful, turreted edifice, some 1,500 years old, that surrounds the centre of the city, the end of the Silk Road route, the grand capital of China of old.
The centre of that universe.
The current wall was built into a city that began life 7,000 years ago, hit its stride around 2,000
years ago with the advent of the spice routes, and found immortality not much earlier when the first unifier of
China, Emperor Qin, buried himself in a tomb with an army of 8,000 life-sized terracotta warriors and their
attendant officers, carts and horses.
The wall around the city at the time measured 27km in length.
A dynasty or two later, the main road through the city was 150m wide. Claimed to be the largest city in the
world at the time. Walk down this road, through the gate, hitch up a camel and end up in Rome.
Qin's entombed protectors were stumbled upon by a villager digging a well in 1974.
The awe that fills at the sight of a full, entombed army to protect the emperor against the enemies of his night is only superceded by the amazement that an army or workers of nearly one million camped out on this field for nearly 40 years to construct these silent sentinels.
Row upon row, they gaze forward, with flanks watching out for the east, west and north.
History, ravaging enemies and time have taken their toll, and all of the earthen roofs have collapsed on sunken parade ground. Excavations slowly etch the bodies from their own caked entrapment. Torsos and arms of soldiers, the rear quarters of horses protrude from the old walls of hardened sand and mud, waiting for modern, careful, cotton-gloved archeological hands to free them totally from their own bounds and chapters of history.
It was to this city that the traders of old, out of Europe, ventured too and from.
Gunpowder, printing techniques, spices, silks ...
A city born of commercialism. And learnt. At the terracotta warrior site souvenier shop, I ask the price of a copy of a full-sized general. 25,000 yuan. Close to HK$30,000. I inform the salesman that I already own one, and it was bought in Hong Kong for HK$2,000.
He does not like what he is hearing. How can some foreigner come in, claim to own one, and throw down such a rediculous price. He mutters and mutters. But I only told him the truth.
Embarrassed, he retreats.
I rub it in, and make a big show of photographing the price, shaking my head in amusement.
Into the city, and tread in the footsteps of Marco Polo, Genghis Khan. Should one walk lightly in the shadow of the great Mongol invader - one which none of the walls from Shanghai to Turkey managed to keep out?
A startling rediscovery, or rather confirmation. The busy streets are somewhat silent.
Kashgar, in the extreme west of China offered the first hint, glimpse of a silent revolution.
Something one hears with negative hearing. Cars and motorbikes and bicycles move, yet there is very little sound.
Electric vehicles! The birth of the greening of China?
Arriving from the belching splutter and sound of one and two cylinder India and Pakistan, the streets are
Motorised bicycle after cycle passes. Without even a "whirr". They are spooky in small lanes. No doubt
riders, for bicyles don't have drivers, take some perverse pleasure in ghosting up behind one, and then
tooting the honk.
Word is there are already 12 million on the streets. Vending stores stack them 3,4 high in windows.
Batteries are packed under the seats. Plug in and charge up by night, drive your city by day.
Gasoline glut America should take serious note. The silence of this charge is not being heard.
The road out of Xi'an towards the preserved town of Pingyao carries row upon row of wind-driven turbines.
Long-bladed flimsies that stretch across rolling plains. Odd machines, with unproportionately elongated blades. The inner third is pitched, the wind-catching curve of the blade. The outer two-thirds are rounded, flattish, shapeless. Perhaps weighted tips imbue some kind of flywheel effect.
But again, green. Again, a kernel of effort for the future.
The electric cycles are not Olympic propaganda tools. Some are already a few years old, and clunky in
design. The newer are sleeker, cute, perfectly positioned for the young and desirably mobile.
Hong Kong, in turn, has none, in the dense cloud of its own and Guanzhou's smog. Petrol-driven fashion
status scooters are the black painted name of the game that drives the hip young couples to the weekend
To Pingyao, a perfectly preserved town from the 1400s. The wall stands intact. 12m high, 8m thick, 2km x
2km square. Pure fung shui. The town has square blocks within. Homes and buildings face south, catching the
warmth of the sun that drifts past their noses from left to right. 47 guard turrets are evenly spaced from
corner to corner. Each fields a quote from legendary military tactician Sun Tzu, author of the Art of War.
Homesteads are of the old courtyard model. Hutongs as they are called, and their demise lamented, in
Beijing. Room after separate room, interconnected with outdoor passageways, logically, dimensionally and
directionally oriented in pattern after pattern. All within their own wall, behind huge wooden gates on
extruding stilleto-type hinges. Beds are boxlike, with space for a bed of red embers below.
It's one thing being cute, and ye olde. Another living out history. The slop carts make their routine calls before the tourists, at large, hit the streets around 8am. Plumbing is 500 years old. Buckets and wells in the courtyards for water.
The old horse pulls the much older cart, laden with hand-made and patched drums, yoked to each other and
the cart at every angle possible. The slop man exits a doorway, a bamboo pole balanced over his shoulders by two buckets. He sets them carefully on the ground, lifts one and pours with a gurgling swoosh into one barrel. The next bucket requires jiggling and wrenching to empty its fill.
No breeze to quaff the stilled aroma. The bouquet lingers.
I consider the possible fertilizer used on the salad I ate last night.
Possibility, my ass. Reality.
This is the setting of the movie Raise the Red Lantern. There was no mention of odour around the dozens of
mistresses. An intensely powerful visual movie of man and his maids, concubines, slaves. A sad tale.
Zhang Yimou, director, describes the nature of the feudal-patriarchal living quarters: "Its high walls
formed a rigid square-grid pattern that perfectly expresses the age-old obsession with strict order. We
[Chinese] have a historical legacy of extinguishing human desire."
From Xinjiang the police presence on the roads disappeared.
Now at least two-thirds of China crossed, and on to Pingyao's big sister city, Taiyuan, from which one must
bus to Beijing.
Enter the bus station. X-ray all the bags. Purchase a ticket and pass through the gate to the bus courtyard. X-ray all the bags.
Tootle tootle towards Tiananmen Square, and 50km outside of the capital, at around midnight. All off, show
passports, X-ray bags. Arrive at Beijing bus station. X-ray all the bags on the way through and out. Into post-Olympic Beijing.
The gougers have been seriously at work.
The past fortnight is littered with tight-fisted travellers' fiscal debris. Hotel rates driven up between 500% and
1,000%. Website booking sites reveal the evidence.
Having previously visited Beijing eight years ago, the change, upgrade, is astonishing.
There used to be pride at the new 'ring road' with the shiny new road signs. Now there are five ring roads.
The innards of the city gleam with glass and chrome and wide, wide roadways and highways.
Prior, all taxis were strange, little light blue, rounded claptraps called 'charies', reminiscent of Russia's Trabants. Now all taxis are Hong Kong red, Toyotas, VWs.
Patently Beijing has taken Hong Kong as its model city. Fine, modern architecture, slick public transport.
But already the horse has bolted, and Hong Kong, as a city is being left behind. Even Xi'an has escalators
into its road subways. Not so, Hong Kong. Or has Hong Kong passed me by since my own departure, I
The Olympic stadiums, swimming and the Bird's Nest are astonishing pieces of modern construction. Icons by definition. Gleaming, writhing, bubbling, flanked by buildings sporting monster TVs for the povo
to view. Only's the pity that today, a week after the Olympics proper, you can't get within 200m of any
building. One hopes that at the end of the Paralympics, the heavily camera'd fences will be laid to rest.
The Egg, the new National Theatre has no restriction, except it's moat. The silver and glass gossamer floats, sits, extrudes from the water like some giant alien space ship.
And so the road begins to end its eastward run, and now only to Harbin before entering Russia and on to
The eras of China have revealed themselves, as it was, as it wasn't, as it is, and as it shall be.
As it was in Pingyao, as it is in Xi'an, as it never was in Xinjiang where people have
many more connections to Tajikistan, and as it will be in Beijing, with architecture of the future, and
prices to match.