It’s a bright sunny morning and I’m in a bit of a rush, having had an uncomfortable stomach over night. A bowl of yoghurt and fruit sorts me out, before my final walk down the mountain and into Dazhai where the hard sunshine casts an atmospheric light on old women cooking corn in open fires or spreading red chilliscro dry on their verandas.
Strangely the bus leaves a few minutes early. The journey to yangshuo is windy, slow and towards the end incredibly bumpy as the bus traverses an unmade road. Even in this pretty rural enclave of China nothing stops progress, as mountains are sliced open and scarred by machinery as it is becoming more accessible to the outside world, which requires speed and direct straight roads, which unfortunately will increase the volume of traffic exponentially. Out bus makes several pit stops, at one, the driver hoses down the bus. The Chinese boy behind me strikes up conversation. I say boy as it is hard to guess his age accurately. He looks about 18 but turns out to be 26. On the bus with his parents and 2 sisters scattered around the bus. He is sitting alone at the back. He is from shangsha and works in Beijing for a small construction firm. His dream is to build a huge bridge that will carry his name and be his legacy. As he says nobody remembers who built a tower block. There is a piece in the news today about a glass bridge in zhangjiajie, iconic and making a statement about Chinese technology, which is having to close after a couple of weeks due to high volumes. I show the guy a photo of Clifton suspension bridge and explain its importance in terms of engineering. He is distinctly unimpressed and insists that although this type of structure may have been invented in uk it is China that has developed and progressed it. There seems to be a lot of symbolism in architecture and a certain sense of status in terms of communicating to the world what a society is capable of. He reveals that in Beijing any new development must be at least 6 storeys high otherwise it will not get planning percent. As he says China has too many people. I know this is a mistranslation but an apt one, as “a lot of” and “too” are both communicated by “tai”. That’s an interesting linguistic proposition. Does this mean that a large number is always neutral in connotation? Or the converse?
Language is certainly an inhibitor in trying to accomplish some of what I’m curious about. I have an idea of what my rather privileged Chinese students believe and value (though avian their language isn’t sophisticated enough to really communicate their thoughts), but what about the average and less well to do Chinese? My friend on the bus makes a good attempt to discuss many issues. He has not been to university and travels by bus, so it is apparent he is less well off, however his family are middle class, with his sister working in advertising, and his father a cook. I want to know what he feels about media control. He trots out a line familiar to me that the Chinese government protects its people from “bad information” by censoring the Internet. My friend fails to understand my argument that these restrictions undermine the intelligence of a people, and I fact present them with a controlled view of the world. This guy is a living paradox, as whilst he had no issue with state controlled media he uses a vpn to access Facebook and sees this as beneficial. I see this as dual standards and hypercritical. But this is China. Having your cake and eating it. Dogmatic conforming yet self-interested. A communist state in name but a burgeoning consumer society. As I’m reading about the endemic struggles that women have in Chinese society I ask him about gender roles, and I’m not surprised to hear him support the line that men and women are not equal in skills or abilities and that it is natural that men dominate society. He refers to ability, I hope he means possibility, but the more I hear the surer I am that he means the former. There is no room for debate. He sees things as black and white, is not aware of a world I change and the needs to address traditions that stigmatise and oppress. If I were to challenge him he would retort with “you don’t understand China”. Of course this is true, but one of the frustrating things about the Chinese is this catch-all escape clause, which basically circumvents any critical discussion. I see this in my students too. It’s kind of depressing that these views are so unquestionably held and that people such as this guy are not keen to look at other cultures and see there is something to be learnt from them.
Arrival in Xingping is disorientating and in a not very convenient location. I walk about 30 mins along the highway I construction, past numerous builders suppliers, through a tunnel that penetrates one of the hundreds of pointed limestone peaks that make this area so unique. A little local bus takes me north up the river li to the small town of Xingping. Popular with Chinese day trippers, or half-day trippers, who come for a bamboo rafting experience, the departure point of which is directly in front of my window. There is a cluster of hutong with bars and tourist shops, which, although geared up for making money do not seem exploitative. The more interesting area is where the locals are. At dusk, a couple play ping pong on a full size outdoor table, elderly people with their wooden doors open play cards or gaze onto the streets, children play on bikes, the bustling market is winding up, but the live poultry area is still active. Some of the sights here are quite unpleasant, birds being plucked, others squeezed into transporting cages, off for someone’s dinner.
Sunset from the roof of the hostel is pretty. Once the day trippers have gone the hostel area settles down to a slow intimate rhythm and after a wood fired oven pizza (really), an odd experience in China, which doesn’t quite work, as this is a dish that is simple and requires the best quality simple ingredients, and China is not known for tomatoes or mozzarella, I have s lengthy talk with Agnes and Christian from Stuttgart. This covers brexit, the meaning of travelling, the changed nature of dreams when we travel, the philosophy and function of photography.
This feels relaxing here. I’m enjoying this trip a lot.