With all the neon, money and sky scrapers, China beyond the cliches is becoming hard to find.
Sour-faced, the stocky waitress leans across and peers between the near-empty bread slices. Shrugging her shoulders, clearly offended at the mere suggestion this tuna sandwich is lacking the key ingredient of tuna, she declares, “We don’t do things like they do in America.” I beg to differ… on so many levels. This inappropriate, and utterly inaccurate, statement was to resonate with me throughout my three weeks in China. As I came to realise, she couldn’t be further from the truth.
Much has been written about China over the past couple of years. It’s emergence as the planet’s superpower without a conscience has seemingly upset everyone; cue bitching about the Dragon Empire’s human rights abuses, environmental crimes and just plain balls at challenging the world order. In many circles, a backpacker visiting China, stoking the communist regimes coffers, might as well just beat a Tibetan monk to death. But I didn’t care much for the criticisms, because beyond the political crimes of any nation lies the country’s heart and soul, its culture and people.
Nothing symbolises the goals of 21st century China more than its shining star, Hong Kong. And there’s no doubting how impressive the ex-British protectorate is; an urban jungle with cloud-piercing structures of glass and steel gripped by neon signs and wrapped in vine-like piping, all stretching skyward or overhanging the pavements like an Amazon canopy.
By night the bright neon glow disillusions like the perpetual noon of a cheap Vegas casino, while during the day light struggles to pierce through to ground level making streets grey and faded, a far cry from their nocturnal excitement. And down here, in this sprawl, people etch out a living, old men squat in squalid side streets mending shoes while ex-pat Aussies, Yanks and Brits swarm from the phallic status-symbol buildings of international banks into the bars of Soho.
Hong Kong is awe-inspiring but I’ve got to escape. This isn’t why I visited China. I wanted incense-filled temples, sparse paddy field landscapes tended by ink-dot farmers in the distance. I want peace, tranquillity, ying yang, pandas and early morning Tai Chi. So after the brief indulgence of Hong Kong I begin my quest, starting first in Guangzhou.
Only 90 minutes by train, Guangzhou is like Hong Kong’s work-in-progress younger brother where dirty steel and concrete advances relentlessly. Welding sparks dance long into the night behind green construction sheets and bamboo scaffolding.
Shamian Island is a welcome change boasting not only old colonial buildings, evidence of a by-gone time, but also an island community seemingly unaware of the stresses elsewhere in the city. Here, underneath flyovers as armies of trucks and cars rumble overhead, residents play shuttlecock, hackeysack, sing and fan dance.
It’s a vast change from the rest of the city where the streets burst with rainwater and activity as people try to etch out a living with pushbikes and trolleys piled high with produce and animals. Later mingling through food markets I begin to get some sense of China, and start to appreciate the struggles of the people in this behemoth land, ignored as the country thrusts itself forwards globally.
But still nothing spiritual or traditional, nothing that makes me reminisce of reading about an once-great ancient civilisation steeped in rich culture.
On the overnight bus to Guilin in the Guangxi I’m stirred from my sleep by potholes the size of bomb craters province and my heart skips as I finally witness its famous picture perfect scenery dotted with goliath limestone towers. I consider that perhaps nestled within this romantic setting on the banks of the Li River, away from the coastal special economic zones, there will be pockets of an untouched, unspoiled China.
But on arrival I’m instantly greeted by some familiar sights, further evidence of Western culture saturating everything in China even deep in towards its heartland. Buses pass with images of grinning soccer stars advertising everything from throat lozenges to Pepsi. The latter featuring the world’s favourite soccer playing media whore David Beckham beaming at the prospect of another corporate handout. The influence is immediately evident as a cyclist passes in a full English club soccer kit.
Guilin is instantly welcoming. The lack of skyscrapers and flyovers means sunlight actually hits the ground – creating an atmosphere more clean and airy than Hong Kong and Guangzhou. And fortunately the unappealing buildings are lifted visually by the surreal peaks which seemingly thrusting out from between them. Escape is possible and visitors can transport themselves away by wandering within the walls of the serene 14th century Wang Cheng Palace and climbing the incredible Solitary Beauty Peak.
Late one evening, while enjoying some well-needed food to supplement my disappointing tuna sandwich, I sit and admire the locals. This is China’s changing image up close and personal. Older generations desperately cling to tradition and history, desperate not to let them slip from their grasp as they rub shoulders with today’s trendy youth, strutting around like Vidal Sassoon models. Every teenager is ultra cool without actually being unique, as if somewhere a production line chugs away pumping out extras for Gwen Stefani videos. It seems I came here to experience an eastern ideal China’s youth are abandoning to embrace western attitudes.
I succumb and follow this social elite into a local nightclub. Inside the same tactile and fashionable kids order beer by the bucket load and spirits like Scotch and J&D by the bottle. Young boys, previously holding hands and cuddling on the street, are now dancing arm in arm at their tables. One group stops only to catch vomit pouring from their companion’s mouth, then return to throwing him around soon afterwards.
I join some locals for a game of Liar’s Dice. My host’s enthusiasm is matched only by his drunkenness. He bursts with energy as he struggles to explain the game, which I somehow manage to comprehend only as a game which involves convincing other players you have more matching numbers than you actually have. How you then determine who wins and has to down a shot is a little more confusing, and beyond the teaching capacity of my new friend.
Defeated, I resort to just taking pictures of my beer buddies, but after the initial snap I’m mortified when my subject’s cheery character disappears and grimly he flashes a communist police badge before my eyes, “I’m a policeman,” he testifies, chest suddenly thrust forward. Your not supposed to take pictures of these guys, in fact it’s positively frowned upon. Time stands still for an eternity before he laughs and slugs back his Bud without a care. Now that the ice is broken he finds immense pleasure in repeatedly reminding me of his official status. It seems everyone is unashamedly embracing this new China.
Onwards to Kunming and I find myself immediately back in the nightclubs and more of the same. Huge flashing screens backlighting half-naked bored and ignored girls dancing to thumping, thumping Dutch-style house music. I’m finding these nightclubs more commonplace than chopsticks.
Hungover with beer and modernity I restart my spiritual search afresh by visiting the expansive and tranquil Golden Temple hidden in the pine forest hills on the edge of Yunnan’s capital. Originally constructed in 1671 this complex is a welcoming escape from the city streets. Sadly, and somewhat bizarrely, this Taoist temple now boasts a cable car and track sledge ride down the hill. Now, as much fun as it was, it sits uncomfortably given the history and surroundings. It seems nothing is untouchable in this country.
Sadly it seems, Kunming, a city whose remote presence meant it historically had a separatist nature from the rest of the country, is also following trends and retains little evidence of the ancient and mysterious Burmese silk route city it once was.
Yet hope still springs eternal and I head towards remoter regions still. In lofty Dali, where judging by the public toilet arrangements shitting is a social event, life is more spiritual, slow and considered. Well that’s if the other travelers are anything to go by; with the dreadlocked and unwashed selling beads at the side of the road and smoking dope to Bob Marley in town centre bars.
But what of the consequences; whereas in Guilin the tourists flocked to the sites and the locals peddled to their needs with tacky souvenirs and umbrellas, so to in Dali, where local Bai women, part of a localised civilisation who to this day after 3,000 years of history still retain much of their original culture, architecture and stone-carvings, are reduced to selling weed in the street.
But sections of this town offer moments of serenity and a real sense of true everyday life in this region. Escaping down the side streets, away from the rather appropriately titled foreigners street, you will find traditional food stalls selling the country’s best noodles yet and amazing baba bread, so thick and heavy you won’t have to visit any of the Dali’s many restaurants any time soon. The town’s market thrives with life; sitting at the side I observe everyone at lunch, circles of OAPs in traditional family hierarchal clothes drinking cha. At night everything slows to a standstill as locals gather in the ancient city centre to watch films projected onto a brick wall building and reflected below onto a stream flowing beneath the feet of raptured children.
Compared to the earlier cities in the East, Dali has buildings so short you feel you could almost step over them and the result is invigorating fresh air and an epic panorama with mountain peaks rising from one side and Erhai Hu Lake stretching far into the distance on the other. Rejuvenated I bound onwards and upwards.
With cobbled streets, ancient buildings, (a mixture of Han, Tibetan and Bai architectural styles), streams and canals, Lijiang, one of the last stops before entering the realms of Tibet, looks and to an extent feels like a Disneyland China. Wandering through the old town it’s hard not to get swept away in the beauty, despite sharing it with hordes of Chinese tour groups. Everywhere there are hints of an older, more traditional and resilient way of life. For the first time I see Daili Lama car decorations hanging from rear view mirrors.
But again tradition is clawing for survival. Lijiang’s Xinhua Street is lined with nightclubs each boasting local Naxi girls sleeve dancing in traditional ethnic clothing to yet more thumping house music, it’s demeaning to the point of a spectacle. Similarly old Naxi ladies dance in the city’s Square Street, pandering to the photographing crowds. It all smacks of desperation, like some Disneyland parade of fancy dress characters.
While watching this spectacle I realise that China is at its most genuine in cheese and spectacle. This, not temples or Tai Chi is now China proper. Progression is finishing what the Cultural Revolution started, steamrolling history and tradition for a western lifestyle, leaving freeways and skyscrapers in its wake. The sad fact is, real China is becoming hard to find. Perhaps I should have been more adventurous or perhaps it just doesn’t exist. With this in mind I head back to Hong Kong, defeated.
Sitting on the train surrounded by revelling weekenders travelling to Hong Kong I watch the scrolling flood ravaged landscape and I’m hit by a sober reminder of the poverty still endemic in China. All the neon and money in the world can’t hide the fact this country is still incredibly poor. And it’s for this reason, this internal conflict, that China remains a fascinating place to visit.