Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Stranger in a strange land

Being an account of the author's first day in the Middle Kingdom,which he visited in spring of this year.

My first impression of China: incredible aridity. My previous experience of great dryness, the heat of a Spanish summer, hard-baked land of scrubby trees and the abstemious cactus, has nothing on this. Approaching Beijing from the direction of Mongolia, it was quite sometime before I saw a riverbed that had could boast an actual flowing river. This impression was reinforced on landing - swirling dust which makes a veil of the dry, dry air, and its myriad collisions with the human body imparts sufficient charge to make one a living battery, constantly being sparked by grounded metal or less-insulated companions - and not in the mild way that happens from time to time at home, but arcs of sizzling power, mini-lightning strikes.

Collected at the airport by Miss C, who is in these parts on business, I begin, on my journey to our hotel in outer Beijing, to grasp the scale of the place. A modern motorway connects the airport to the city,which is vast. Old apartment blocks emerge from the sand-coloured sky, challenged in many places by huge and gleaming upstarts - the banks, corporations, luxury hotels of the New China. All around us, new construction projects are climbing steadily skywards: mirrored glass gleaming, beside the grime and tatter of the old blocks, and both standing immense above the brown one-storey courtyards of the old city (the hutongs, whose layout and construction have changed little in centuries, the body and bulk of the city, home to huge numbers of the poor, some of the rich, and many of the shops and workshops).
I am also becoming familiar with a component of Beijing life which will be my constant companion here: the thick and greasy smog, which addsa tincture of diesel and coal dust to every mouthful of air - the flavour thick and strong, far worse than the filthiest air of my previous experience (L.A., in the grip of an August smog).

Arriving at our hotel, 5 stars, part of a Major International Group, Miss C and I enjoyed a fine lunch - that old Chinese standby, pizza! We are certainly being looked after - real prosciutto, which must have flown nearly as far as I have just done. Post lunch, Miss C returned to business, and so, solitary, I had the magnificently-attired doorman summon me a taxi to bring me to Tianamen Square, which lies at the very heart of Beijing, in more than merely a geographic sense. In fact, it is not a square, but a huge and very elongated rectangle. Even on a weekday afternoon, it is to my European eyes very busy - throngs of people stroll about, fly kites, take pictures, hawk souvenirs. A simple stroll quickly becomes a crash course in local street etiquette - hawkers consider one fair game if given the slightest encouragement. In this context, "encouragement" includes walking slowly enough for the hawker to come alongside and begin to pitch. I soon discover that, in such places, a westerner must be like a shark - ever moving - or sink beneath the weight of postcards, "designer" socks, "authentic copy" DVDs and reproductions of Mao's "Little Red book" which will be pressed upon him. This was also a lesson in economic realities: here, I'm not "comfortably off" or "middle class" - I'm rich. With a monthly income perhaps 40 times that of the average person walking the square, I was, like any other westerner, an irresistable target.

Pursued by the foot-soldiers of capitalism, I moved about the square inspecting monuments to the heroes of Chinese communism,before exiting to the north, into the Forbidden City, where Mao's portrait, appropriately enough, gazes down from the entrance to the home of the emperors - who ruled here more absolutely than him? The bridges over the moat are carrying a heavy traffic - huge numbers of Chinese, many, to judge from their complexions and poorer dress, visiting from rural areas. Unlike other countries that I have visited, sites of major interest here are mostly visited by local people - it isn't that many foreigners do not visit but their numbers are very diluted, among the teeming natives.

My progress through the forbidden city mostly followed its main north-south axis, crossing a succession of courtyards dividedby steps, ramps and large halls, many-bayed throne rooms. These were often un-walled, huge and highly elaborate roofs held up by massive wooden pillars, all thickly plastered and lacquered to become uniformly smooth and red, like party cadres. These rooms were guarded by pairs of lions, some stone, some bronze, which sat patiently before them, always female with cub to the left, male with globe (pearl?) to the right. A fine complex, and very alien to me- not at all like the castles and palaces of Europe. Perhaps the most striking point was the invariance of the detailing, with even minor details of the eaves apparently formed by rigid protocol - repeated in building after building. My stroll through the emperor's home ended with a garden, mostly of pine trees, whose branches twist in extraordinary contortions. The pathways are all pebble-mosaics, and there is a small mountain, made, I think, from pieces of limestone which nature has carved into very unlikely forms - a pocket-sized wilderness, carefully ordered "nature". Once more, a somewhat alien place, but beautiful.

Leaving the forbidden city from the north, I was at a loss as to how I should fill the remaining two hours or so before my dinner engagement with Miss C: a problem solved for me by a peddle-rickshaw driver whose lack of English equalled my own lack of Mandarin. Our communication extended to bargaining over price and time - and then we were off, into the traffic of central Beijing, not an experience for the faint-hearted. My driver had been engaged to take me through the ancient hutongs, and soon we left a broad avenue perilous with motor traffic for a narrow alley used only by foot traffic and the occasional cyclist. This was another world, quite different from the international luxury of my hotel and the totalitarian triumphalism of the square and palace - few walls rising beyong a single storey, modest doorways and grimy windows, some with caged songbirds. Behind each wall lay a courtyard, and in almost every courtyard, magnolia trees stood waiting for spring (which, already begunto the south, was only just approaching Beijing). Some doorways were graced by intricate stone carving, and some framed by slogans on paper banners, gold characters on red - how strange to be suddenly illiterate.

The alleys were quiet, and the atmosphere friendly - smiles of recognition for my driver, smiles of welcome for me. I believe many facilities are quite basic here: for example, a butcher's shop we passed used an open window and a flatboard to display the meats - all open to the air, and refrigerated by nothing cooler than what breeze reaches into those alleys. Most homes seemed quite poor, but there were signs of enterprise- small tailoring businesses, tiny cafes, heaps of junk awaiting sorting and recycling. Instead of lorries or vans, tricycles are the means of transporting goods within the hutongs (and much of the city outside them) - one that I saw was delivering what seemed to be briquettes of low-quality coal. However,behind some walls lie substantial residences - late model Audis wait in some of the broader alleys, black and gleaming.

By means of pidgin Mandarin, pidgin English and a variety of ingenious hand gestures, I was able to communicate with my driver sufficiently well to know that I saw the residences of: a famous eunuch(vigorous sawing motion at groin level), Mao (his very humbleabode during his first stay in Beijing as a young man) and Chiang Kai-Shek (now changed somewhat, but clearly a large and luxurious compound), with the war he lost to Mao and his subsequent flight to Taiwan conveyed by mime.

The China I saw on my first day was a confusion of old and modern,of conflicting ideologies and cultural collisions. A fascinating place.

To be continued...

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