Travelling overland through China, one encounters an array of bathrooms.
Do not envisage thrones replete with trinkets or sinks with saps, sanitizers and moisturisers. A sink is a luxury; soap, a myth reserved for Western movies. Yet, despite the disdain in having to clench your fists and discard your dignity, there is often no alternative.
This is egregiously acute on long-distance bus journeys. The problem however is that hygiene abruptly becomes subordinated behind other concerns in such circumstances. Bulging bladders are placed on a pedestal of priority, yet, even such discomfort cannot conceal the horror – the sheer moral degradation – which emblazons like a fire of debauchery upon these establishments. As nothing more than mere huts situated on the side of roads and mounts, privacy was incorporated into their design plans when constructed.
Imagine this: A row of squalid squat seats.
Add this: A row of, yes indeed, people squatting.
And finally, to complete the composition, take a deep breath and try to sense the aroma of pungent urine and unfettered faeces.
My discrepancy is not with this per-se. No, rather, this experience – seeing men agonising in the state of nature – came at a cost. Not a personal cost as such (although, my dreams have since been mired with images of men dressed as wolves), but a monetary cost.
Yet life must go. Somehow.
Xishuangbanna lingered with a tropical milieu. Palm trees leafed the streets, the pace of life was placid and it appeared to owe its demeanour as much to neighbouring Laos and Burma than to China. Unfortunately, with the tropics comes rain. In the capital, Jing Hong, this only proved a minor hindrance as the downpours were sequenced and predictable. Thus, in the evening when I indulged in an outdoor massage by the Mekong River (provided, seemingly, by a string of rural migrants), the appeasing summer breeze removed any remnants of rainfall.
Whilst Visiting nearby Menghan however, it was as if the Gods were attempting to extinguish Dante’s inferno as water dropped from the sky as if from a hosepipe. The experience of the ‘Dai Minority Park’ I visited (for academic research) was consequently affected by the weather. What can be noted though is that this ‘park’ exposed Chinese tourism at its crudest. Essentially, a gate has been constructed by the periphery of an area where the local minority Dai people resided. An entrance fee is now charged, and, included in the ticket price is the feat of witnessing a wholesale appropriation of a local culture.
The most remarkable sight was renowned (at least within China) ‘water splashing festival’ which enabled the fleets of Chinese tourists to wallow in pools of water and drench each other in a façade of frivolity.
As the sun sank into the sky that , I remained and resided inside the park with local family. An altruistic family of three treated me to supper, which, like an abundance of Chinese experiences, was a humble yet endearing encounter despite the language barrier. And then, the locusts began to stir, the mosquitoes hovered, and it was just me with the solitude of the surrounding wildlife.
More ‘minority’ masquerades subsequently ensued for my research. The plan was to visit Lijiang, Dali and ‘Shangri-La’, each which had been transformed under the auspices of ‘eco-tourism’ to attract eager crowds of (predominantly Chinese) tourists.
The old-city of Lijiang (that is, the area saturated with mundane tourists shops selling local goods manufactured in monolithic coastal factories), was akin to Disneyland. Indeed, that is not my own observation but that of every tourist I interviewed for research. Lijiang’s old city did possess an essence of serenity, particularly when oberserving the stoned, sloping roofs from afar, walking through the central streets was like swimming against the current of a belligerent ocean.
My most propitious, and possibly memorable experience emerged from Lijiang however. Determined to see the surrounding scenery and even authentic villages, I rented a bicycle early one morning and sought to reach the village of Baisha before continuing onwards elsewhere. Within fifteen minutes of setting off, ostensibly with a bewildered complexion, a Chinese man approached man on his bike asking if I needed assistance. His ‘English’ name was Bear, although, this could only pertain to the Paddington and not the black-bear variety.
First, he guided me to his abode where I interviewed him and we sat around wistfully discussing life and Chinese politics. Bear’s English was flawless; a gift nurtured from his years as a Shenzhen businessman. Three ears ago he decided that he abhorred the corporate lifestyle. Hence, he packed his bags moved to Lijiang where he has since been working on a guidebook for Chinese people hoping to master the English language.
During the evening I met with Bear again, but in the intervening period I continued my
expedition to Baisha, from which I cycled for two more hours, eventually reaching the village of Yufengsi.
The journey was largely uphill, yet, the panoramic view subdued the pain in my calves.
Returning back, I met Bear in the ‘ancient’ town of Shuhe which bore a resemblance of the ‘ancient’ city of Lijiang only that it was quaint, unencumbered with swathes of tourists and bliss. There, he took me a guesthouse owned by an acquaintance, Mr. Lee, who, I was elusively told was the son of a senior People’s Liberation Army commander. Mr. Lee was no daunting figure though; he was a pensive and modest character, unable to speak English, but perpetually smiling and gesticulating.
The setup of his guesthouse was remarkable. He, like Bear, had fled the city life and the guesthouse was his refuge. Situated away from the central core of Shuhe though, he did not attempt to market his rooms and fill the vacancies – he simply found people whenever he felt an urge or desire. And amongst our distinguished guests for that evening was an eccentric American who Mr. Lee found, and became infatuated with, despite his inability to converse with her. Yet this all accumulated towards the feat of the evening.
And now for the rest, before (dare I admit that it is too late), I bore you, oh faithful reader.
From Lijiang I embarked on a day’s journey to the world-renowned ‘Tiger Leaping Gorge’. Despite its fame, the sheer scale and magnitude of the sight entranced me in awe. Juxtaposing the Gorge’s size, I was joined by two affable Brits, Becca and Laura, who knew a friend from Durham. Thus, the cycle was complete: small world, colossal sights.
Hitherto, China had treated me well. Excluding minor ailments, my health had remained prime and proper. This changed when I reached Dali. A minor malaise overcame me the prior night, but it was only once my feet stepped off the bus that a torrent of helplessness plagued my body. Auspiciously, I found an immaculate dormitory connected to a Korean restaurant that was bereft of other guests. Once checked in, I attempted to eat a sandwich at a local restaurant, but the sight and smell of food was nauseating. Thus, I then staggered to a chemist of medicine, purchased coke and Snickers bar for later consumption to maintain my sugar levels and then finally returned to the dorm. IT was 17:00 when I passed out; I awoke at 8am the following morning. The sleep proved an ample antidote for my health, but, with a dissipating timetable, I left for Shangri-La that afternoon.
The name ‘Shangri-La’ is somewhat of a misnomer. Although it refers to an ‘autonomous’ prefecture which annually annexes more and more adjacent towns and cities, the name primarily refers to what used to be known as Zhongdian, the capital. Only, now, Zhondian is Shangri-La.
In 2002 the Chinese government decided to rename the city (and region at large) and package it as the ethereal and mystic paradise depicted in James Hilton’s novel.
Maybe it was the distance, maybe the altitude, or even, possibly, the history, but Zhongdian was different to the places I had hitherto visited. A brisk wind swept through the streets which were straddled by local Tibetan women plying their trade, selling fruits, cheeses and savoury snacks. There was a sense of community. That is, apart from when, as I walked from the bus station to the hostel, I heard a chant echoing behind me.
I turned around.
And then I saw it.
Not a regiment, but a phalanx of soldiers was marching towards a square where locals had gathered for a communal dance, no different to the congregations pervasive throughout China. The gathering was innocuous – I had walked past it moments earlier. Yet the army marched through the square, drowning the music with their vitriolic voices. They gathered and lingered in orderly lines before finally withdrawing thirty minutes hence.
Throughout this, despite hauling my cumbersome rucksack and backpack, I danced around the scene taking photographs. Eventually a stern officer wearing a white helmet and brandishing a truncheon instructed me to stop.
The purpose of this conspicuous display of force still eludes me. One local claimed that it was a celebratory day for the army. I doubt it. With the Olympics approaching and ‘Shangri-La’s’ concentration of people belonging to Tibetan descent, the demonstration was more likely an admonition against form of dissent. Unfortunately I could not clarify either conjecture as somehow, I did not anticipate that an army general would confirm my suspicions.
In Shangri-La (the region, not just Zhongdian), I also visited the Meili Snow Mountain which purportedly proffered mesmeric views. From the lofty heights though, the cloud cover was too viscous to truly witness the spectacle.
And finally, back in Beijing. In case you forgot, the city was hosting an inconsequential event, best known as the Olympics.
I returned specifically for the night of the opening ceremony, hoping to see rampant Chinese nationalism personified through flag waving, anti-Japanese hysteria and cacophonous chanting. Exasperatingly, the Chinese Government’s trepidation of public gatherings affected what ought to have been a ‘harmonious’ occasion. Most ‘public’ screens were conveniently ‘broken’ and hence celebrations were constrained to indoor venues.
At least I managed to obtain tickets for the first round of the tennis, watching Andy Murray lose in the Singles but resurge to win in the Doubles with the aid of his brother. Oh, and I also saw Federer and Nadal compete (unfortunately not against each other) in the Doubles tournament.
Chinese culture, life and society have continued to grapple my attention and admiration. The longer I loitered in the country, the more my zeal accentuated. Despite its disparities with Western customs, the gregarious and sincerely hospitable vagaries of the populace, augments the primacy of shared values. Let’s hope that as it continues to grow, develop and modernise, it retains this charm.
Next up: The Middle East.
Bear & Mr. Lee
Tiger Leaping Gorge
Rank and File
Rebel without a cause?
Tibetan food is delicious
Pepe at Meili