Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Another Point of View

It's often nice to get a different viewpoint on something, to see something familiar through other eyes. Paul Merton's TV series on China could scarcely be more familiar. Although he's getting to meet lots of people arranged specifically for him, and staying in decent hotels rather than the tents and downmarket dives that I managed, he's visiting all the same places that I went to last time I visited China and that's giving me the chance to compare my observations with his. Of course there are some differences – I paid for my trip whereas he's was paid for his – then again he's a famous (and very funny) comedian and I'm a bloke from Bilston who has a blog. So how do things stack up?

A few general observations first. He was absolutely spot on target when he talked about the ever-present noise that forms a soundtrack to the Chinese experience – the sound of someone hacking up a mouthful of phlegm and gobbing it into the gutter. On my first trip – way back in 1992 – I wrote down my first impressions and they included this

"the other thing you can't help noticing (is) the amount of coughing and spitting that goes on among the Chinese. To a westerner it is very disconcerting to see everyone from teenage girls to little old men coughing up a mouthful of phlegm and expectorating with gusto into the gutter."

He seems (though I missed an episode, so I could be wrong) to have missed another particular favourite in which someone will lean forward at an improbable angle, place a finger firmly against the nose to close one nostril and empty the other onto the ground by blowing very hard.

Something else that I have to agree with him about is Chinese Opera. After I saw it in Beijing, my local guide commented sadly that it was killing Chinese culture in the eyes of foreign tourists because once they had seen that nothing he could do would persuade them to see anything else "cultural". A group of us who had been to see it struggled for appropriate descriptions and eventually came up with

"It sounds like someone strangling cats in an alley full of dustbins and looks like Max Wall performing Aladdin."

When we saw it, it was enlivened by a faulty computer generated translation of the words which seemed to be omitting all the nouns and thus providing such eccentric possibilities as "I will overcome my and build a mound of their."

Another point of almost complete concord between his experience and mine was his boat trip down the River Li from Guilin. He went on one of the small boats which seem to always be full of backpacking Australians. The scenery is magnificent, far more so than you can possibly appreciate from a television program. It was such a highlight of my trip in '92 that when I returned nine years later I made a point of ensuring it was in my itinerary again.

Although both Guilin and Yangshou had changed greatly in the intervening time, the river had not. It was every bit as lovely as I remembered it. The sun was high in the sky, the water was calm enough to be a mirror reflecting back those remarkable conical mountains that rise from the plain like giant molehills. Here and there, there were groups of children playing at the water's edge and sometimes a long low boat with a fisherman. We floated downstream, watching the birds wheeling overhead and the buffalo cooling off in the shallows. It was idyllic… and just as with Paul Merton's trip every now and then the peaceful tranquillity was completely shattered by the noise from a flotilla of huge boats steaming up-river full of Chinese tourists all sitting inside, eating dinner and ignoring the wonders around them.

I have to differ with him on some things though – specifically on his opinions of Yangshou and Guangshou. In both cases it would be harder to find a more complete disagreement. Oh, the facts of the cities are indisputable but it's the interpretation that you put on them. Paul Merton wasn't to put it mildly, very keen on Yangshou which he thought was too touristy and too commercial and too much like every other touristy and commercial place in the world. I, on the other hand, loved it. I checked myself into a very odd hotel that reminded me of a condemned flat I once occupied in Nottingham. Not only did I have the room to myself, I had the whole building… an annex to the main hotel. Why should somewhere quite so deadbeat have appealed to me? It's hard to say. I wrote several versions of a description while I was there. The best of them was this.

There was something very Chinese about the room: not the Chinese of pagodas and palaces, or rice fields and straw hats but the Chinese of the cultural revolution. As I looked at the streaked and stained whitewash on the walls and the bare floorboards with just the faintest remaining traces of ancient varnish; as I looked at the beds with their thin mattresses and single sheets, I could picture myself as one of the proletarian masses living my life in what was only technically a two roomed apartment. I paced out the larger area – almost eighteen feet square and about the same height. The other "room" connected via a hole in the wall without a door. It contained a tiny cold shower, a cracked and plugless sink and a squat toilet. It was about four feet by three.
I lay down on one of the beds and stared up at the green metal fan, which, even on its highest setting, moved barely fast enough to disturb the humid air. It didn't matter. I hadn't put it on for the comfort but to help dry my washing – underwear, towels, T-shirts – which were strung out across the room on a wire fastened there by some previous occupant. It was a losing battle. The day was so humid they would never dry adequately.
I mentally inventoried the furnishings. It didn't take long. Two beds with mosquito nets. Two armchairs far too dilapidated to be called threadbare. One table with a wobbly leg. A broken television set. An apparently homemade cupboard.
As I lay there trying to relax, I could smell the mustiness of the place. The whole building reeked of it. The room was a perfect match to the building, which was a seedy run-down thing away from the main block of the Xiling Hotel where those on higher budgets were staying. I didn't mind. I actually felt comfortable there. It was – after a fashion – en suite and I did have a room, indeed a whole building, to myself.
Forty yuan per night? For a whole building?
A bargain.

Anyway, back to why I like Yangshou. After months of travelling we were stationary for a few days and I couldn't think of anywhere I had been that I'd rather be stationary in. It's a backpacker town and anyone who has ever been backpacking around the world will need no further description. It's a place that seems to have no reason to its existence beyond the travellers on its streets. It has two main streets joined by various alleys and they are crowded with a fifty-fifty mix of tourist shops and bars. They all have either jokey or mock-classical names : Minnie Mao's, The No-Name café; The Golden Lotus; The Shining Mountain. The shops sell nothing but souvenirs (T-shirts, carvings, lanterns, jewellery) or pirated copies of rock CDs.

I found it all very relaxing and friendly and for three of the four days there I did absolutely nothing except hang around in bars chatting to random strangers – Chinese and otherwise – and generally relaxing more than I had done in the previous five months of travel. It was great. I was very tempted to answer one of the many advertisements around the place for English teachers and stay there.

Guangshou, by comparison, Paul Merton liked, seeing it as the authentic face of modern China. And he's not wrong there. Unfortunately the authentic face of modern China looked to me very much like a grim and dull industrial city with little to recommend it other than the facts that a) my stay was very brief and b) it was a convenient place to get the ferry to Hong Kong. It's the kind of place that is vastly improved by leaving it. The restaurants and hotels were too expensive for someone on a tight budget and all in all, especially coming a mere day after Yangshou, I'd have to say that I found the place thoroughly depressing. This wasn't helped by the fact that I could find absolutely nowhere to eat that wasn't well beyond the money I had to spare and ended up sitting in a hotel room (I'd persuaded a couple of Danish backpackers that what they needed was to rent me six foot of floor space in their room, without mentioning it to the hotel management), drinking a couple of bottles of beer, eating a packet of biscuits and watching a documentary – in Chinese – about tuna fish. It was a new low.

Next week Paul Merton is in Shanghai. I shall make a point of watching to see if we agree or disagree. Either way, it's good to get a second perspective.


Kalleh said...

Bob, what gorgeous pictures! Did you take them?

Bob Hale said...

Almost every picture on the site is mine. It's only scans like the lolly wrapper or pictures that have me in that aren't.

So, yes. I took all those pictures. With a Minolta SLR if I recall correctly. I didn't have a digital back in those days.