It's often nice to get a different viewpoint on something, to see something familiar through other eyes. Paul Merton's TV series on
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
"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
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
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?
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
Next week Paul Merton is in