As I look at my pictures, I realise they show little understanding. Pictures of people who I don’t know and will never know, and who, in general, have much of what I realise is missing from me: company, happiness, comfort, fulfilment, presence, who are needed and have a role in society and other people’s lives. Pictures of gestures, behaviours, places I superficially survey, signs I fetishise as abstract and unreadable. I stand on the outside. The only means I have to avoid disappearing is to take photographs, to intrude in lives. It serves no function, yet keeps me alive. I notice people and immortalise them. Nobody notices me. I have no role in anyone’s life. At the end of all this, I am aware that the more I see, the more it reinforces who I am, and how my life is awkward, problematic, unfulfilling and isolated. Conversation is more rewarding, yet this is fleeting and difficult, with a language barrier, and through the fact that I am a demanding conversationalist. My cynicism of human behaviour must be some kind of envy. Who am I to judge? Who would rather be me? I would rather be someone else, but who? I would rather have another life, but what? Is that what this is all about?
It’s 8 days later and I’ve been on the square where it all happened and mentally tried to reconstruct and place the events of the day. Except this time it was windy, wet and full of tourists desperately pulling on hastily bought translucent pink and yellow ponchos and persisting with selfies. One small boy actually approached me and asked to have his photo taken with me. There are entrepreneurial people with cameras and laminated blow-up posed shots of happy members of the public in front of qiananmen gate, offering their services to take a similar ghastly shot of you. A man offers me a Chairman Mao watch (the hands of the watch are his arms, saluting his people). The set from the show is still there: A topiary Great Wall, enormous yellow 1945 and 2015 cut-outs on either side. A floral bed guarded by a bored miserable looking policeman under an umbrella.
The enormous air brushed portrait of Mao benevolently watches over from the gate that leads to the Forbidden City. The scene couldn’t be any different. Today the government haven’t controlled the weather. My thoughts wander back to June 4th 1989 and the suppressing of the student demonstrations. These are events that the teenager I met on the train to Xian had never heard of, and ones that Eric didn’t know the details of. Apparently the square that can hold half a million people was re-paved in the aftermath of the military actions, whereby the people army started shooting the people, to remove any residue blood stains. I wonder how many people in the square today with me are aware of the history of their country, or indeed were involved in these events. It all seems quite recent to me.
Dutifully I queue to visit the ugly white mausoleum of the great helmsman, the man who is responsible, among other things for destroying temples, imprisoning intellectuals and turning China into a one party state. I have deposited my bag in the bun fight of the left luggage building and the queue snakes in past po-faced green uniformed guards, first into a hall with a vast seated white marble statue of the great man positioned in front of an idealised frieze of a Chinese landscape. He is surrounded by a huge garden of potted ferns. Many of the devotees have bought white flowers, wrapped in cellophane, which they religiously deposit at the altar to this man, having bowed in the style that Buddhists employ at temples. I wonder what happens at the end of the day with these thousands of identical flowers. Binned to make room for the next day’s? The piece-de-resistance is of course the embalmed corpse of this despot. He is draped in a soviet flag and entombed in a glass box. The only part of his body that is visible is a shiny waxy head picked out by a spot light. It looks unreal, and probably is. The moment of solemnity is broken by some stupid woman’s phone ringing. I thought the guards would jump on her, this being totally taboo, but they let it pass.
The Forbidden City is of course no longer forbidden and is teeming with umbrellas and coloured ponchos. The place is of course vast and strikingly grand with courtyard after courtyard of palaces, chambers and gateways. It’s very orderely with uniform brick red walls and yellow and green tiled roofs with curly dragon motifs. You cannot enter any of the chambers and there are crushes to peer through doorways over heads and past iPhones on poles into the state rooms each containing thrones, long fans on poles that would have been waved at the emperor’s behest by some pathetic minion, pithy calligraphic banners proclaiming political thought, and all without any artificial illumination, so they are dim and dusty spaces. It seems to be the visitors duty, no matter how big the crowd, how poor the light and how awful their photographic skills, to make a token recording of each room they come across. I wonder with Eric how many millions of photos will be taken here today, where they will end up and who will see them. I am quite fascinated by photographing this behaviour, and wonder how many other people’s photos I will appear in, whether they will scrutinise my behaviour and invent stories about me as I do with the images I have of them.
This is of course a dead space. The institutions that resided in them, the form of governing they conducted and the draconian power they whealded are history, though not quite ancient history, as the curious anomaly of the Emperor’s telephone switchboard, deemed a necessary concession to modern technology in order to combat the British during the so-called opium wars testifies. Nevertheless these are monuments and relics of a feudalism which in turn was replaced by a new form of absolute power, not at all accidentally symbolised by the austerity and imposing vastness of the opposite-lying tiananamen square, patrolled by uniforms and surveyed by CCTV. It’s an intriguing phenomenon, that this place, once off limits to the public is now swamped with the everyday citizen, and they wallow in the prettiness and majesty of the indulgence and rigidity of an imposed order set out to control and oversee them in a less than benign manner. Yet it would be weird to be here without any tourists. At the end of they day as the glistening courtyards begin to empty the whole place takes on a sad, empty and rather meaningless air. At least as a tourist attraction it has some kind of function.
We are directed out of a west facing gate and are compelled to walk for at least 45 minutes, hemmed in by the wall of the city on one side, and the 50m moat on the other side until we actually have a choice about what direction we can take. After trekking through a shopping district full of oversized western branded stores we are finally able to get a subway to the Lama Temple stop, where I take Eric to the Lucky Lotus vegetarian restaurant, for my 4th visit. It’s not exactly the best restaurant, but has, out of ease to get to, become my default reliable meat-free food provider. They have the rather unconventional habit of making you pay before your food arrives. Over a long dinner of pumpkin soup, fried sprouts, a mushroom dish and a potato and mock pork spicy hotpot I learn a lot about Chinese school from Eric. How class monitors are like spies for the school and report on slack teachers. As head of the discipline section of the school, at age 15, Eric had a role like a prison guard, confiscating food, phones and stopping pupils leaving the premises. I also learn about the Chinese tradition of speech making competitions, which apparently Eric was very good at. What happens there? Students recite prepared and memorised speeches usually on patriotic themes. A good speech should show very positive emotions, and negativity results in a poor grade. One of Eric’s themes was “Why I love China”. This, he tells me, is a very popular topic to choose.
The subway trains all have TV screens and are now playing on an infinite loop the rerun of the 3 September parade, the lines of missiles and mechanical marching plus the endearing image of the premier gazing from his hole in the roof of his black Hong Xi limousine are becoming another piece of wallpaper, along with the advertisements and recorded information about the route the train is taking. Eventually these images will have been subsumed into subconscious of every single Chinese and accepted as normal. On reflection, how disturbing it is to see such blatant and aggressive propaganda wherever you go.
After dinner we head for the lake near the Drum Tower, which is ringed with an assortment of up-market bars, each with some kind of live music, often a dreary singer on a stool accompanied by a loud recorded backing track. Unusually, and perhaps refreshingly there is no recognisible western music, though I’m sure one or two acts were singing in English. So, no Bob Marley, no Beatles covers. Chinese love ballards. Most bars are quite empty and have touts on the street desperately trying to usher you into their premises. We end up In a fancy looking bar with a deafening band that played a disparate mix of styles from an approximation of funk to an emotionless blues. The side acts that appear during the break are 1, a pair of female violinists in slit-legged low-cut tight fitting dresses, standing back-to-back in a cloud of dry ice playing feverishly over the top of some generic loud disco track. Their indifference to their performance is emplified by their behaviour as they finish which is, rather than to acknowledge the crowd, who, by paying through the nose for cocktails made with cheap alcohol, are giving them an income, to pick up their phones and to walk off through the bar texting their boyfriends. The follow-up act is a pair of scantily clad pole dancers, which boils the testosterone of some of the men here, who scramble for space to film these ludicrous women on their phones. The customers in the bar need to be pretty well-off, and this is illustrated by the ridiculous symbols of extravagance available. To the table behind us two trees of fruits are delivered. What do I mean? – well in a dish full of liquid nitrogen (I guess, as it is producing clouds of smoke) stand a tree branch with many twigs shooting off in all directions (a mini tree of about 50 cm height); on the end of each twig prong is a piece of fruit: chunks of star fruit, pear, small bananas. The theatricality of these absurd objects being paraded across the floor of the bar draws all the wanted attention to this group of well off young Chinese. Meanwhile the barman is spinning bottles and tossing cups in a pretend indifferent performance of flairing. A cocktail in a glass the size of a goldfish bowl with an artfully spun candifloss on a stick protruding is sent out to the table the other side of the stage. The menu has prices that I cannot rationalise into sensible pricing; bottles of brandy for hundreds of pounds, beer at 10 times the price of a local bar. Suspended from the ceiling are multiple TVs all screening a woman’s volleyball match. Very tall Chinese women in a tightly contested match against very tall Russians. This bar is so loud that we can only talk when the bands have stopped. This has been an experience and the conclusion I reach is that the place has a rather dubious idea of taste and some Chinese have a peculiar idea of style. Time to go home…
Averaging 270 kph, top speed 306 on the way from Xian to. Beijing on a G-train. It’s smooth spacious, clean, on time and I’ll do an 700 mile journey in 4.5 hours. Kind of puts the uk’s transport system to shame.
The landscape through shaanxi and then shanxi province is pancake flat and is unremarkable; either intensively cultivated or urban sprawls marked by swooping concrete flyovers suspended on pillars, multiple rail lines, worker camps, yards full of concrete pipes, girders and heavy construction materials, and massive pockets of monotonously plain and identikit high rise concrete shells and even higher yellow cranes. On the outskirts of the cities these developments reach off to the horizon. About 70% are unfinished carcasses, and seem to be abandoned projects, presumably as the developers have run out of funds. This is urbanisation and modernisation at a vast almost inhumanising scale: the construction of 30 storey homes that are bought as investments, the creation of an infrastructure of hyper fast communications links. The skies are yellowy-grey, heavy, dense with smog. The life seems to have been sucked out of the land. Concrete jungle is the term. If this is the future I don’t think I like it very much.
It’s quite messy, chaotic, under- developed in many ways but you sense a kind of peacefulness, acceptance, tolerance, rather than a disquiet of various groups of people’s circumstances.
I’m staying on a back street with 3 backpacker type hostel/ hotels amidst a local community of hole in the wall eateries: at night small groups sit on squat stools around little tables eating hotpots, the flames casting a cheery and conspiratorial glow, or trays of skewered meat and bowls of dips. Old men sit on their steps and slowly follow you pass by. At the end of the street is a soya milk bar and a number of open air stalls who dip fry a kind of pitta then let you fill it with your choice of veg, tofu or meat, all mixed up with a chilli paste. On the street corners in the heat of the day, unemployed drivers of 3 wheeler cycle trucks laze and doze in their trailers.
The Muslim quarter is over the main road,and this is a totally different kind of China. Xian being the terminus of the Silk Road has historically been the home for traders and other races. The narrow streets are a riot of noise, hubbub, smells, tastes, sights. You are swept along by the calls of the kebab stands trying to entice you in, the rhythmic hammering of young men pounding sesame paste with wooden mallets. The smells are cumin, coriander, pepper. The men wear little white skulls caps, the women headscarves. I have hand squeezed pomegranate juice, a slice of yellow rose flavoured jelly, some spicy twice fried baby potatoes and some fried tofu. You eat on the go and walk and walk, it’s intoxicating.
The Muslim quarter borders on the Bell Tower which is the central landmark here in the ancient city. It’s a Qing dynasty 4 tiered structure with the characteristic pointed gabled roof. At night it’s lit up and is an incandescent red, yellow, blue and very beautiful. Somehow it’s been absorbed into the modern city and now sits isolated from its sister drum tower as a roundabout where 4 busy roads intersect. This roundabout is 6 lanes wide and has an additional fenced off cycle lane. Watching the traffic is engrossing, and I’m glad I’m neither driving nor a passenger at this place. Buses thunder on to the roundabout, in the full knowledge that they are the biggest and that if anything tries to get in their way they will come off the worst. Then there are the modern cars, with drivers demonstrating a directness that suggests an arrogance and aggression. Pity the two wheeled riders, but somehow they all career on without a thought for mortality. Knackered old push bikes with pillion passengers, scooter riders checking their mobiles, mopeds with dogs in the foot wells, families of three including babies on one bike, woefully under-powered electric scooters with tiny wheels struggle to break across 5 lines of traffic. By the way, not a helmet in sight. A couple clatter across on their 3 wheeler bike towing a trailer that serves as their food stall, the cooker still steaming. An old man with a hand cart laden with boxes pushes his way across the road. A three wheeler taxi drives clockwise, that is against the flow, from one road to the next. A guy parks his car for 5 minutes in the outer lane. A mountain biker storms across with nerves of steel, or no nerves at all. Having lights appears arbitrary. Somehow there are no accidents, nor any hesitations or mis calculations that might lead to one. It works. It’s dangerous, scary, but works. There is absolutely no comparison with the UK. How many traffic laws have been broken here?
All this revolves beneath the bell tower, set in an ocean of neon, and curiously less Chinese signage than western: KFC, McDonald’s, Bell Tower Hotel Xian. The surrounding pavements are full of hawkers with trays of those green plastic hair stalks which seem to be de rigeur right now, slices of watermelon, micro SD. Cards. In the subway underpass below the tower alone legged man is selling plastic flower tiaras. There is a square between the two towers with steep steps at the bottom of which play a busking group with guitar and hand drums. Overhead a remote control plane lit with red and blue lights soars, dives spins and skims the tree tops. Makes me think back to the Shoreham disaster. Even though it is small, I’m sure this stunt flier could cause serious injuries if it hit the crowd at these speeds.The video screen that dominates the square plays the trailer to the Minions film and perfume commercials. It’s all beginning to feel like Blade Runner. There are mobile Police vans, which seem to be merely a place for the policemen to hangout and watch videos on their mobiles, rather than a control centre. For a control state, I have to say the police are virtually invisible, and their is no sense on intimidation. Meanwhile passers-by photograph themselves and the tower. Awful photos. Their best smiles. Smiles to themselves. This is how they want to remember themselves.
These are some themes of China as far as I can see. In so many areas of life I have seen conformity and obedient following. There is little individual culture. You can see this dating back 2200 years with the building of the emperor Qing mausoleum and Terracotta battalions. Built by slaves over 36 years, and the row upon row of impassive warriors somehow echoes the September 3 parade. Visiting this attraction also has its codes and conventions. The Chinese like to go in groups, and follow tour leaders with little coloured flags. The engagement is through smart phone, rather than real time pondering and reflection, ie photographing themselves and each other in front of the excavations, the museum buildings, the trees in the park. I watched a little boy of about 8 in the museum of bronze relics, passing from one splendid vessel to the next snapping ill composed shots of each one. Obviously he had learnt by observing the adults do this, and like them will end up with hundreds of meaningless images cluttering up some device or other.
At the station this morning, in a stressful search for the bus to the Warriors museum I encountered more of this group mentality. Tomorrow is the start of university and the station square was rammed with gangs of newly arrived students pulling along their cases on wheels following leaders, again with little flags, to the bus that would take them to their school.
It’s quite tiring here. The scale of things is immense. It takes a long time to do anything,and due to this, heat, sore feet and reluctance to waste time trying to go places that are further than I thought, I’m scaling back my plans.
It’s all very well going for the authentic local experience, but there is really little point, other than getting first hand experience into how cramped and slow the buses are, how awful the traffic is and what I don’t have to deal with back home. But, I didn’t have much choice as the trains from pingyao to xi’an were fully booked days ago. Hence I had to get a bus for a couple of hours north to taiyuannan then. Across the city by taxi to get to the southern train station which looked and felt like an air terminal. Taiyuan city resembled pretty much what I was expecting from China. Miles and miles of wide multi-carriage ways sweeping past rows and rows of 20 storey concrete blocks, many still under construction. The sky is grey, rather there is no sky, but a blanket of smog, trapping in the heat, as the day warms up, and stinking of sulphur. The roads into the city are gridlocked and we edge in inch by inch. In contrast the southern station is bleak, clean, gleaming, orderly and so vast it feels empty, even though there are hundredsofpassengerswaiting their trains. I’m now on the D-train waiting to be spirited by super high speed to xi’an.
I guess 4 nights there was too much,but it gave me the chance to get familiar with the town and walk almost all of it. My first peaceful evening stroll was an illusion, as the town filled up for the 3 September holiday. Almost entirely Chinese tourists, eating, posing for photo moments, eating, eating, eating…The ubiquitous red lanterns are now supplemented by the red flag. On the main streets you have to keep walking, the crowds are so thick, but if you dart into a side alley, you are alone and find yourself looking into curious courtyards. Walking the wall gave a fantastic high-up vantage point to survey the scale of the city, it’s layout and surreptious views into courtyards you would not have privy to at street level. With the tourists came traffic, and although some of the city is closed to traffic, where there is access, electric carts full of families on tours cause snarl ups and make up for the quieteness of their motors by a continual beeping and reversing warnings. The hope is that by making so much noise they can drive as fast as they like and the crowds wil park. Then there are the electric bikes, electric scooters, boys on bikes weaving through the crowds. Where their are cars, the same horn sounding behaviour is adhered too, only louder and more insistent. It becomes a headache, and I try to avoid the busy streets.
Anyway, I saw a lot and bought some art, which I am afraid will get crumpled and damaged in my bag.
Leaving pingyao this morning I chanced upon a really strange sight. I was first alerted to it by the sound of a howling tearful woman running past me. Ahead through the traffic in the road I saw the rear end of a naked man, in his 40s. He was striding with purpose from the city, another woman scuttling alongside him grasping what I guess we’re his clothes.when the first woman catches up with them a shouting match ensues. The man doing most of the shouting. What was going on? Had he been caught having a bit on the side by his wife and was being paraded back home in shame. Unlikely. I know Chinese don’t like bring attention to themselves, nor would willingly shame themselves. From the manner of the man, it seemed he had literally lost his dignity, and this, if anything was penance. In UK, people, would have stopped to gawp, taken pictures, he would have been arrested. As it was I only saw ages people who visibly registered what was happening,even though this was a busy street full of food stalls. He then walked with the 2 frantic women straight across a busy intersection, cars, three wheeled carts, buses, circulating around them. Weird, and unexpected.