Friday, 14 July 2017

CHINA: A POSTSCRIPT


I have been terrible about writing about places that I have travelled to in recent times – I have a series of blogs that I've started and not finished on places from the Shetlands to Sierra Leone – and perhaps I won’t finish this, but I thought it would be nice to give it a shot.

So I went to China on a press trip the other day, and before I was granted my hilariously high powered (two year! Multiple entries!) Chinese business visa, I looked at some of my old blogs from China in 2009, and ended up correcting a few typos and rephrased a few sentences, which is a genuinely weird thing to do, probably. But it would be nice to add a sort of postscript, on returning.

I think my most acute impression left over from my last trip is that I was pretty jaded: I was on my own, for a long time, and I got fairly ill, twice, then had a very frustrating time attempting to leave the country, and maybe I was a bit negative or whatever.

It’s difficult to totally judge the China of 2009 against the China of 2017 because so much has changed – much of it regarding the internet: there are QR codes on everything and huge swathes of the internet are blocked.

More significant, surely, is that eight years ago was a fairly big chunk of my life and I was taking a lot in on that trip and there are simply things about Beijing I’ve forgotten – I guess I feel kind of sad about that in a way. I’d semi-forgotten what the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square were like, and I have pretty sporadic memories of the Wall. I suppose that is the point of keeping all these blogs, maybe..?


Anyway, I was on a press trip and very well looked after and the sense of feeling a bit excluded from China wasn’t there so much: I wonder if staying in hostels in more traditional neighbourhoods gives you a certain idea of China being a less modern country than it really is, or if things have simply advanced prodigously, but there certainly seemed to be a lot more coffee shops and bars around than I remember (because a lack of coffee shops and bars was one of my 'problems' with the place).

Where I hadn't been before was Jinan, where the show we were seeing was being rehearsed. It is certainly a cool and random addendum to my journeys through China. It’s essentially off the Western tourist trail entirely, but it’s a modern city of 2m people that certainly has enough for a good day of tourism. Its springs are very famous (domestically) and manifest themselves in series of beautiful parks (still no walking on the grass). The second one we went to, the Five Dragon Pools, was incredibly beautiful, with a lovely paddling area and massive blue ponds glittering with orange fish. It was lovely, and though it seems faintly insane to spent what was effectively a long weekend in China, it actually all worked surprisingly well: big wodge of travel, one very very packed day in Jinan, one very very packed day in Beijing, and a few extra hours in each on either side. Perhaps I was isolated from the ‘real’ China in a way that I wasn’t before, but then again I doubt many Chinese people’s experience of China is backpacking around it on a miniscule budget whilst vomiting on sleeper trains. It felt foreign and ‘other’, but it also felt safe, polite (very little staring), and maybe it’s the case that I can just afford a 50 yuan beer or whatever now and I couldn’t then, but the sort of sense of not being able to just sit down for a drink or coffee certainly wasn’t there. 

Conversely, it did bring home the scary authoritarian side of China: we got bollocked by a reasonably terrifying guard in Tiananmen Square for trying to walk across the square at a certain point, not marked as forbidden; and the severance from social media is, at the least, very palpable. Some of our money turned out to be fake, which was kind of gutting. But I suppose in an awful way these things seem like part of the local colour when you’re a tourist.

The best thing that happened, happened on our day in Beijing: after returning to the Forbidden City (massive, impressive, quite repetitive and lacking in much in the way of interiors – I can kind of see why I might have forgotten some of the finer details when it was perhaps slightly light on finer details) and before I returned to Tiananmen Square (massive, militarised, beautiful at dusk when the lights flared and the sunset caught the smog just so) we went to the park opposite the Forbidden City, climbing up to its peak, a wooded pagoda. Down in the trees below us, we heard people singing, accompanied by folky instruments – accordions and whatnot. We went down and there were groups of people – mostly old and middle aged – singing and smiling, seemingly random civilians coming down for a singalong with some musicians who had set up down there. Why were they doing it? I have no idea: one of our party photographed a board in Mandarin that may have had an explanation, but I doubt she’ll ever get round to getting a translation.

There’s probably a couple more memory joggers I could toss in if I come back to this in another eight years: I quite enjoyed both my (Air China) flights and somehow managed to triumph over the hated jetlag totally; I stayed in two hotels, both with batshit mental breakfast buffets (chicken sausages! Baked bacon! A ‘live’ egg chef! Some sort of incredibly strong smelling liquor! Just Chinese stuff we'd order form a takeaway, except it's breakfast!); the show I saw, China Goes Pop!, is something I’ll write about in the future, but it was an interesting experience, not least learning about the country’s acrobatics academies, where people join as children and stay with all their lives; a beautiful walk back down a pedestrianised Jinan market street; finding a massive supermarket underneath the baking public square opposite out hotel; drinking by the waterside at the ‘Belgian’ bar in Jinan; walking back from the bar late at night, riverside, with the lights off, and seeing groups of people sitting drinking in total darkness – then crossing a bridge and seeing night fishermen silently casting in total darkness, only given away by their glowing lures; bumping into Evening Standard writer Nick Curtis in the singing park in Beijing; taking his advice and trying to find the city’s mental night-market, only to spend the rest of the evening trawling around for it, totally failing, at least discovering a pretty cool ‘folk restaurant’ called Lost Heaven, then finally getting back to discover the night market had been shut all year; hatching a ridiculous plan to get up at 5am to go to the Great Wall on the day we flew then sensibly deciding this was a stupid idea.

I think even last time I said I’d like to go back to China and see some the many many touristy bits I missed before. But I suppose even if I never go back, I’m definitely over my slightly weird, awkward ‘break-up’ with the country last time, and though China rightly doesn’t give a shit in any way shape or form, it’s fractionally cheered me up about the world, so there’s that eh.

No comments: