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The night I got lost on the way home from China- Part three

“There’s a place around the corner, where your dead friends meet,

There’s a place around the corner, where your dead friends meet,

…….”- Dead Friends, E.N.

Alan arrived in a hurry and swept me up like a teacher with a laggard child on a school trip. He hardly needed to break his stride to do so, which is an advantage of the kind of short, fast stride that Alan generally employed. He talked as he walked and we headed off to find a cheap place to stay for a couple of nights so that I could see the big city and he could get himself some supplies that couldn’t be gotten where he was living and working- things like DVDs and cheese.

The pace at which we moved forward and the pace at which the city moved against us created a stressful first impression of Beijing. Alan plunged into the city like a confident swimmer into a breaking wave. He broke the resistance and swam free; I struggled behind like a novice but at least I could follow in his wake.

Presently we arrived at a small, half collapsed building that served as a hostel for migrant workers. This is the kind of truly budget accommodation that only opens up to you when someone speaks the native language fluently and you have a little in the way of guts (or no say in the matter.)

There was some difficulty at first. The man in charge tried to make out it was regarding passports but it was in fact just difficult for him to understand the situation. Many Chinese people we met found it difficult to accept the fact that Alan spoke Mandarin. They would stare at him as if they were watching a strange film where the words and picture didn’t match. I saw one situation when Alan was ordering food at a street stall and as he asked for what he wanted in perfect Mandarin the customer beside him repeated exactly what Alan had just said but more slowly to the stall keeper. It was comical but could become frustrating. The man in the worker’s hostel was confronted with a two westerners, one speaking Chinese, in exactly the kind of place you would not expect them to be. In China he might well be personally held responsible for any trouble that was caused if we were say journalists so it would be easier for him just to send us away, not take the chance. There was no incentive for him to give us a room and the fear that if he did he might get into trouble. He was calculating all this as he stalled about passports. I was a little sorry for him but I learned that the thing to do in these situations was to get indignant; raise your voice a little and make a fuss. Alan did and we got a key. We made no trouble.

The room itself was… well, a room. It had two beds, a two hundred year old chair form the 1950s (yes that’s possible) an open toilet and two flasks of warm water. When you travel you do develop a fascination with the toilet, as it’s one of the cultural differences that you are forced to confront repeatedly. In some places, like Laos, people don’t seem to mind if you just find a spot in a field to do what you need to do and in one particular small city in southern China they don’t mind if you just squat over the open drain in the street but in most of China they really do want you to have the courtesy to use the toilets they have provided and the toilets they have provided are like a little piece of existential horror. “I’m just going to take a trip to the Heart of Darkness before we head out” became a fairly common phrase in my vocabulary a bit down the road. This toilet, like many others that would be encountered was a hole in the floor, large enough to beautifully frame all below, without much in the way of a flush to move anything or any of the fauna that lived on that anything, along.

When they say don’t drink the water, they mean don’t drink the water.

We left our bags and headed off into the city.

The Beijing subway system was not very widely developed at that point in time but we rode it a little for fun. It was extremely crowded and pushy, as I would find all public transport to be.  We went to the market and I watched Alan haggle for a new coat for the upcoming cold weather with an aggressiveness that surprised me- but got the job done. We went and bought some cheese. Cheese was very expensive and hard to get, impossible outside the big cities, as Chinese people just didn’t have the habit.  We went for lunch and beers and someone brought about four million DVDs to our table and we bought some. Chinese TV was not very good and Alan was becoming a real expert on the history of cinema in his small amount of spare time.

We had a chance to talk over the beers.

That night we went to a bar where we meet up with other people who were on or had been on the VSO programmes in China. There was the usual mix of people from the perfectly nice to people who use volunteering as an opportunity to compensate for large insecurities and larger egos. We drank too much, had a laugh and rolled home. Pattern established.

A day and a half later we were standing across the road from the main rail station of Beijing. At every entrance, and there were many, there was a group of soldiers and a number of x-ray machines through which all the passengers luggage had to be screened.  At each of those same entrances there were what looked like thousands of people. Everyone was pushing and shoving and struggling. The narrow doorways were utterly clogged with human bodies. Everyone plunged into the mass and fought his or her way forward. As you reached them you throw your bag in the direction of the x-ray machines and stretched out an arm to show your papers. It must have been impossible to match bag to human. To check papers would mean causing their owner’s arm to be ripped off or the person and their ID being permanently parted. The situation simply couldn’t work and yet it went on and on. In a country the size of China with an authoritarian central government it’s impossible to control everyone all the time but you can remind people of your power over them by constantly forcing them to endure ridiculous inconvenience just to prove that you can.

I suggested to Alan that we wait until the station became less busy. He patiently explained to me that the station never got less busy- this was it, all the time.

We beat our way inside. The interior was like a huge grain silo. A group of people in thick blue woollen clothes walked by with a cow’s head emerging from a backpack. There were other people in other types of strange and interesting get-up around. It was the first time I’d seen people from the many ethnic minority groups in China.  The average Han Chinese man tends to wear a very average brown or grey suit. The ‘one suit’ I came to call it.  Like Ireland not so long ago a man had one suit for work and everything else and one suit for best. I thought of the suit for best as the ‘Sunday suit’ and the other as the ‘one suit’, even if we were in an officially atheistic country. It seemed form the wear on them that the members of ethnic minority communities also lived with the ‘one suit’ situation but they were much more colourful ‘one suits’ in general.

I love long train journeys. I love sleeper trains. I love slow trains. There are certain Johnny Cash songs that I could happily live in.  This was to be twenty-three hours on a very slow train moving south out of Beijing to a town called Tai Yang from where we would get a bus onwards to Lishu.

China is a very commercial place, aggressively so. A lot of the interactions that you have, particularly as a foreigner, are mediated through commerce. One of the nicest things about a long train journey is that the chances for commercial gain on any side are very limited so you can get down to dealing with people in a less commercial way. Ok, so I couldn’t speak Mandarin and they couldn’t speak English but we could get along with hand gestures and letting children pull the hairs on your forearm. On another train journey in China I had a great conversation with a train attendant who just pointed to the bedding and did an impression of a flea, then I looked shocked, then he shook his head, then I looked relaxed, then he made the flea face again. His two front teeth were broken so they looked like fangs, which greatly improved the feeling that I was in the presence of a giant flea. We sat and swapped cigarettes while he drank tea from his glass flask, everyone carried one of those, well nearly everyone.. no everyone, and had a great time.

There are parts of China which look like rural Ireland in the 1950s mixed with the early part of the British industrial revolution. We passed huge, golden hay- stacks and moments later a dark satanic mill, or coalmine, or steel factory rose out of the landscape like a scene from a nightmare of William Blake’s. The most striking thing was the way that the earth was marked. I had never before seen and I have not seen since such vast chunks torn out of the earth over such an area.  It was terrifying. Like much of China it was too big to comprehend. I could sit at the open door of the train smoking cigarettes and swinging my legs like a happy child and watch all this go by.

We pulled into Tai Yang early in the morning. It always seems that these long train journeys drop you at your destination just before dawn.  Dawn in this town was concrete grey. As the sun rose the scene didn’t get any brighter. The town was uniform concrete and the concrete was in the air.  Everything was filtered through motes of grey. Once again we were moving fast.  Peering through the mist of concrete particles at the town- grey from the roads to the dull grey sky –it was difficult to decide if it seemed as if the town was disintegrating or being pulled together before your eyes. It was a strange effect, it made you feel like you were always just about to walk head first into a piece of Op-Art.

There were no pavements so following behind Alan I was constantly terrified that we would be hit by one of the many trucks and cars that rushed by in a never-ending chain

We came to a road lined on both sides with small private buses. Two man operations, buses falling apart. I learned at this moment of an unusual Chinese phenomenon- bus operators will try to physically man-handle you onto their bus even if you state quite clearly that you don’t want to go where they are going. The nice way to look at this is as a sort of triumph of optimism.

There are no public buses outside the cities in China. Everything is run by small, one-man and family businesses.  Alan found our bus and we got on. On this journey of about two hours I learned two important things. The first was that when I had been told that this part of China was one of the poorest places on earth people had not been exaggerating. We passed through small towns, shanties that had sprung up along the roadside (sometimes they had begun as camps for the workers who built the road and their families) and saw small children running onto the dangerous roads to pick up one or two pieces of coal that had fallen off the speeding cargo trucks, risking death for a couple of lumps of fuel.

I also learned something about the Chinese attitude towards money. By ‘money’ I mean cash, the physical object not the idea of the stuff. There was an argument between one of the passengers and one of the bus operators. The passenger didn’t want to pay the full fare. The operator wanted the full fare or nothing; he won’t take the amount offered. Things got heated. The busman took the money offered and then crumpled it up dramatically and throw it on the floor of the bus at the passengers feet.  To treat the man’s cash in this way was clearly a huge insult.  The passenger won’t pick the money up now and the thing nearly got physical. You could tell by the reaction of the other passengers that injuring the cash was considered going way too far.

Two hours later we pulled into Lishu, dusty and tired. Lishu was a filthy river, a pair of ferocious roads on both sides, a line of small shops and restaurants opposite both banks of the river, a concrete monster of a university building that made the Motor Tax Office look like a thing of great and enduring beauty, a shanty town of clay and corrugated iron huts, all in a valley created by mountains that had been stripped bare by generations of terraced agriculture. People lived in caves in those mountains. From torn up mountains to dirty river the general feeling was of a destroyed and polluted landscape.

Alan had a small flat that would later kill him about ten minutes walk from the university. When I was there it was very homely, Alan had made it so. I made by bed in a corner. Slightly less homely but comfortable all the same.

The students lived in dormitories and their two national service uniforms so they liked to come pass an evening cooking, eating and drinking in Alan’s which had a much more pleasant and welcoming feel to it. Alan was a bit of a father, and definitely a friend, to all. The ‘kids’ as we called them seemed very young; very enthusiastic and naïve (although one kid was convicted of murder and executed while I was there).

I settled into a routine quickly enough. I helped Alan a little with his teaching, I ate lunch in a one room restaurant down the street that made nothing but fried potato dishes all called ‘TaTa’ and all delicious, dinner with Alan and the kids and walks in the foothills scaring the local farmers to whom I looked like the abdominal snowman and being scared by local dogs that I feared might have rabies.

Alan spent a lot of time practising his Mandarin writing, which was progressing well. I learned and practised some Mandarin speaking, which didn’t go so well.  The unfortunate populace of Lishu were amused and bemused by my attempts to buy things like bread and beer without too much pointing and hand waving. It was winter time and people didn’t drink cold drinks in the winter so the local shop was buying in beer just for Alan, and now me, so one felt an obligation to drink the stuff.