Saturday, 14 February 2009

Propaganda, smog and high explosives

So in my last blog I made some generalisations about the Chinese. I am surprised there have not been protests from my Chinese fans, because as it turns out most of my generalisations were reasonably inaccurate. I said the Chinese find it near impossible to communicate with the likes of me. I said they stared at Westerners in blank-faced fashion. I said they were poor at driving. I metaphorically pulled my eyelids into slits and bellowed 'HA-ROW!'

What I had done was assumed that as Harbin had a population of four million people, it was probably quite cosmopolitan. Nah. Having been to Beijing, what I can say quite safely is that the people of Harbin are a bunch of peasants and I spit on their stupid peasant ways, the peasant fuckers, fuck them.

Actually it was probably best to get the most provincial place done first, because that way we could go "wow, isn't China different?"in a vaguely patronising way, without yet having had the chance to take a good long look at our mucky Western souls and admit understanding what was going on around us and crossing the road without needing counselling afterwards might be a nice thing. In quick summary: Beijing has an awesome public transport system, people don't gawp at you, you can usually make yourself understood via gesture (which seemed beyond the folks in Harbin), and the traffic rates more like a Nightmare on Elm Street on the scareometer, as opposed to Harbin, which rates a robust The Descent.

In long summary - somebody asked me on my last night in Beijing what I actually thought of the place. Some two hours later I'd burbled out an over-earnest and entirely incoherent reply, which can be boiled down to the following: what I really liked about Beijing was that every time you get off the metro, it felt like you were in a different city, often a different country, and definitely a different time in history, meaning I can't really say what I thought Beijing was like. But it was fun. Here is a list of some things I did.

Slobbed around in a former prison

Our hostel was a place called the P Loft, which was formerly a Japanese run prison. It hadn't been cleaned a lot since, but was awesome in all other respects, mostly because the staff were a bunch of impractical wasters who discounted everything to meaninglessness the moment they decided they didn't hate you. Combined with the gargantuan common area this was all the good, especially when I arrived, as victims of my Twitter feed will have long ago been bored to tears by the epic description of the battle of wills waged by me and my stomach following my arrival in Beijing. In summary: I eventually won, my victory assuaged by a steady diet of sitting on the sofa doing nothing and Will Smith films.

Went to the Olympic site

I hate the Olympics for all sorts of reasons: they used to interrupt the smooth passage of children's' TV when I was a wee 'un; the games are all totally gay; it is shit compared to the comic genius that is the Winter Olympics; it has the temerity to occur at the same time as the Edinburgh festival; some sort of right on blah about ethics/corruption. But the Swedes (from the train, we'd caught up with them) wanted to go see the site and I felt guilty about having spent the day being ill, so I went along and, y'know, it was impressive in a sort of pointless-as-anything-other-than-a-tourist-attraction way. I mean, there's The Bird's Nest, the massive, spectacular, glowing sci-fi hulk of a stadium... in real life the only sports the Chinese are really into are ping pong and kite flying. This leaves it a bit redundant. There's a hotel in the shape of the Olympic flame. This is quite cool, but it is only near brightly lit but disused sports buildings... in ten years' time will this really make anybody happy? Not for me to say, but as a fan of things that require an enormous amount of effort while serving no practical purposes, I was enchanted.

Attempted to see from one side of Tianamen Square to the other.

Difficult, mostly because there is still so much smog in Beijing that the air is on the wrong side of opaque, even on a technically clear day (when you sneeze, black comes out, bit eeew). Went along to watch the flag-lowering ceremony, mostly by accident. What you'd expect really, a little Soviet kitsch, a little overblown, but basically some men with weapons going to elaborate lengths to move a piece of cloth. Kept trying to take surreptitious pictures of toddlers waving China flags. Wonder if this makes me a paedophile on a technicality?

Saw the Great Wall Of China

Yeah, it's good. Part of me assumed that it would maybe be a big con, and that just off shot in every promo photo there was, like, a Woolworths or something. But it is really stunning, and, indeed, just like the pictures - there were quite a few tourists about, but less that one might think, and a lot of them filtered out after the first few hundred metres, as in an admirable piece of bloody-mindedness, the Wall was built over terrain that no invading army was ever going to be stupid enough to march through in the first place. You're walking on slopes that really can't be too far off 45 degrees, and after spending two hours getting there, you do get the rogue thought after about ten minutes that maybe it'd be just nice to get a coffee and admire the thing from afar. A kilometre or so along it was just me, five of the Swedes and one Chinese guy on his own, running along inadvisable slopes at inadvisable speeds, a souvenir medallion around his neck, stopping at ever high point to how out what I can only assume to be the Chinese for "I'm the king of the world".

Lived the expat dream

Sort of. Met up with friend of a friend Jim, a cool (i.e. poor) expat, who broadened my horizons and blew my mind by taking me into a world of bars, English-speaking staff, and beers that cost more than 40p. A different side of the city to our hostel's shack-tastic 'hood, though felt slightly absurd having a stilted conversation about Vegas with an affable American who could probably pound me to death with the weight of money in his back pocket alone.
This was nothing compared to the evening excursion conducted by the three English guys and seven Swedes to a club named Propaganda (as these places tend to be named). Upon arrival in Beijing Louis and Joe had, bless 'em, simply started drinking 'til 7am every day and sleeping until it got dark. This does make me wonder if there's something in the water in Sheffield. Though flagging a little, they were happy to show me and the Swedes the Beijing clubbing ropes when everybody else was ready for a dose of Propaganda. Basically you pay the equivalent of eight quid for an open bar, and try to still be alive and hooker-free by 5am. Whether its a sign of getting old or the fact journalism has taught me a free bar is a marathon, not a sprint, I was relatively lucid by the night's end. This defaulted me to the utterly fraudulent position of offering relationship advice to the Swedes, four of whom are coupled up - very wise when on a nine month backpacking trip. I waffled some shit at them, and somehow everything worked out okay, the night ending with me and one Swede having a mildly xenophobic conversation in really, really, really bad German.

Almost blew myself up

Chinese New Year ended last Monday, which basically meant every single person in Beijing devoted their evening to the detonation of explosives. Chinese fireworks can broadly be divided into three types: stick of dynamite-sized bangers that serve no aesthetic purpose, but if you stand within about ten metres it's like being punched in the ears; long red strings of bangers that sound like somebody going on a lengthy spree with a machine gun; and paintbox-sized tins that you set fire to, causing red rockets to often (if not exclusively) shoot upwards. It's not pretty, but is it kind of captivating, and beckoned down from our balcony by some enthused locals, we were given a handful of bombs each to dispose of as we would. We pulled it off without hurting ourselves, which prompted Joe to launch into a drunken spiel to a bewildered Chinese guy about how he thought letting three years olds chuck about high explosives was a much more prudent and safe system than the rather more repressive approach adopted in the UK. It was at about this time that an ambulance turned up to cart off some shell scarred local. I sort of found this more satisfying than is appropriate.

Other stuff

This could go on indefinitely, really... I liked Beijing. I was sorry to leave. Everybody else is still there. Probably they'll still be there in a month. Maybe even a year. I have succumbed to the number one traveller cliche and gone off travelling someplace. How exciting.

No comments: