Because the world needs more overwrought candour.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Ok, so by popular demand (well, Laura's comment), here is China in two weeks:

Every country evolves its own set of road rules. Traffic flows can tell you a lot about a country. Australia's are rigid - cars keep to their lines and burst into angry flurries of beeping when the rules are flouted. China, on the other hand, with 50 times as many people, has embraced the Tao of Traffic. Scooters flow effortlessly around parping trucks; bikes zip through red lights. The system works so well and so seamlessly that racing another car around a truck on the emergency lane comes to seem natural until you see your first death on the road, an overturned threewheeler with a man crushed beneath it and people gawking openly. White Aussies can often heard saying dismissively that "Asians can't fucken drive" but I'd like to see them try handling Chinese traffic.

There was a recent survey on a Chinese newspaper's online forum that asked whether people would be reborn as Chinese if given the chance. With nationalism swelling and the mad scramble of a frontier economy, the results were surprising - something like 70 per cent said they'd prefer another nationality. Life seems hard in China - the buzz and sound of constant change sits uneasily atop the oldest lasting civilisation.

Chairman Mao looks the same as I'd imagined. Death has not wearied him, but rather given his flesh an unearthly glow. His mausoleum is the most silent place in China and his people lay flowers at the foot of a Mao statue, weeping for their murderer. The CCP has come to reinterpret Mao in the wake of the Great Leap Backwards and the safety of his death and now the official line is he was 30 per cent right and 70 per cent wrong. Three metres from his tomb is his defeat - a squadron of Mao-memorabillia sellers furiously bidding for the tourist buck.

The Great Wall lives up to all the hype and more, a rarity for designated tourist destinations (the Forbidden City was better when Forbidden, I suspect). World-class hawkers can't take away any of the majesty of a stupendous folly.

If it wasn't for the food, I'd be happy to leave Chinese cities for the countryside -mountain paths propped up on cement sticks above an abyss, bamboo forests so densely humid the air aches, corn drying on roofs. The cities are the most polluted creations I've ever been in. We stumbled into a city we later found out had the dubious distinction of the seventh most polluted in Asia, which drove us out the next day in a smogstorm, our eyes, ears and throats savaged. The rivers overflow with the filth of modernity - so much so soon!

Eating at a Chinese restaurant was oddly unsatisfying despite the guidebook recommendation -
like airports and hotels, we could have been anywhere. But the food on the streets was extraordinary - spiced noodles, bean cakes, unparalleled pork buns and the best of all, sticks of lamb salted with Xianjang spices. Clouds of smoke poured from the coals of the lambsellers, economic migrants from the Muslim separatist province seeking their fortunes. We spent nights camped at a Xianjang purveyor of lamb watching the tumble of characters through the seedy district - a sought and bought woman playing up to her date for the night, checking her roll of notes was still securely tucked into her dress, a laughing family, bored sex salesmen nestled amongst their fake plastic vaginas. In Beijing, three Chinese boys dare each other to eat the cicadas and scorpions on sticks, filming reactions as bug legs disappear down gullets.

The Shaolin Temple underwhelmed until testy monks tried to extort money from me not once but twice. I felt twice as manly for resisting a monk able to snap my neck like a twig. After their performances, the boy-monks played basketball in their robes and were surprisingly average at it. I felt still better about myself. In another city, a taxi driver took us for a ride and quintupled the agreed-on price. Ten minutes of shouting later, he pulled over and began a screaming match. It felt great - an acceptable target for all the built up culture shock.

B and I made the fatal mistake of assuming we'd be able to get back to her town on an overnight train the night half of China was trying to return from holidays. We barely managed to secure standing room on a midnight train. Everyone stared and sniggered. Can't foreigners afford sleepers? We tried to sleep. Men tested their mobile ringtones. The first stop came and dozens poured off, replaced by fifty more. Another stop and no-one got on. We began to stretch out and prepare for sleep, when a thumping of feet began and peasants began gushing into our carriage, tossing massive bags of produce ahead of them. A grandmother went flying underneath a sack of what might have been carrots. B clung to a rail on the ceiling and held on for her life as I huddled in a corner. Five intolerable minutes later, the conductor took pity on the foreigners and offered us two newly vacated sleepers. 10 million Chinese are on trains at any one time.

While the Japanese stare discreetly, the Chinese gawp openly and say hello in a way that makes you suspect they want the creature to react. It irritated B and I profoundly until I started thinking of it as payback for tourism, because what do tourists do but look look look? Flash crowds form instantly around any spectacle - a tiff between vendor and buyer, a whitie, a fight at a bar.

I wrote 'Advertising' as my profession on my visa application, but this suburban journo needn't have worried. Where were the troops? It was hard to imagine blood running off Tianamnen. Where was the authoritarian regime? Everyone in the cities is getting wealthier or trying to and the real dissent is in the stagnating countryside, where 800 million are trapped as peasants who know full well the gold rush is somewhere else.