The last few stages of travel in China have been fast. Like really fast. Flying along at 294km/h in a surreal, almost motionless blur on the new fast rail network. You only need one trip on a fast train and it’s hard to not see it as the future of long distance travel. Fast, clean, pleasant and interesting. When all the fossil fuel dries up and the planes grind to a halt we can still hopefully whizz along on these magic carpet rides. We just need to get a crack along and build a few back in Australia.
I know some people question the necessity of travel but sometimes you just need to check things out yourself and make up your own mind. What we see in our lounge rooms is not what happens on the ground. I recall watching (and believing) a very earnest ABC news report on the huge concern about Chinas “rushed” and obviously shoddy infrastructure. Their race to modernism was “obviously” not well thought out. The ABC report painted a picture of a country littered with second rate bridges roads and railways. All cheap concrete, flaking paint and fading “Made in China” signs.
Sure there’s a few bad roads around here but when you step into one of the new high speed railway stations your jaw drops. Its more airport than railway and surpasses any train station I have ever seen in my life. Order, space, detail, efficiency, light, ease. Then you step onboard and a pleasant few hours later you alight at another ancient city and get spat out into their brand new subway network. It just makes me acutely aware of the narrowness of the information channels we have back home. “China” does this and “China” does that and “Beijing” said this. A picture gets presented of a lumbering, second rate, monolithic communist force, all executions and corruption and economic clout. Today I stood on a subway and watched a mother lost in blissful play with her excruciatingly cute 18 month old daughter and it was like everything just made complete sense. We are all just these stumbling, imperfect creatures who simply want some love, some companionship and to be surrounded by life as we wander slowly towards our final days. Everything I am told about “China” seemed to drop away and there was nothing but people. Everywhere.
How simple. I’ve found it – I can come home now.
But we are about to leave China. The Great Wall tomorrow, then a few days around Beijing and then West to Mongolia.
I don’t know how to sum up China. I can safely say I am ready for mountains and open space and won’t be sad to see less concrete. The place has an intensity just purely due to the sheer volume of humanity. On top of that the desire to photograph the girls has also remained at an intense level. I have no problem with people coming up, smiling, stammering in English and asking for a photo. It’s a lovely brief interaction with the locals. But the “sneaky photos” annoy the hell out of me. When adults just stop, pretend to look at their phone and aim it towards the girls. Or just stand there and start taking photos like they are animals at the zoo. But I have to remind myself of the differing cultural norms. There is something about China that strips away your feeling of a right to privacy. People barge into trains (or toilet cubicles) before you are out. The public toilets with no doors. The density of housing and then the simple fact that you are never alone. Where ever you turn there is someone else.
But the people! It was summed up the other day as we wandered the freezing streets of Pingyao. This completely walled, ancient city that has been lived in for 700 years before Jesus even walked on this planet. The walls you walk along have stood for 800 years. Somehow it mercifully escaped Mao’s Cultural Revolution which laid waste to thousands of years of Chinese history in some deluded drive to exorcise China from the past and push it towards modernity. So we walked this icy, endlessly fascinating rabbit warren of streets and alleys. Throngs of locals, red lanterns everywhere, noise, bustle and steam jets pouring from mouth watering road side food stalls. On a quieter street I saw this old man behind a closed glass door busily rolling and folding some sort of sweet dough cookie. His shop looked closed so I wandered over just to watch his craft. Rolling, spreading some sort of jam, cooking, stacking. He looked up and smiled warmly, then grabbed a fresh cookie, opened the door slightly and handed me out this warm, steaming, sweet, fragrant parcel of joy. He smiled broadly, waved, sat down and continued on his work.
A few bites later I was back at his door, tapping and pointing to more. He laughed and handed me a few more. Money was exchanged and off we toddled into the icy afternoon. And we have come across this all over the place. Whether it is the Tibetan highlands or the eerie, ordered vastness of Beijing.
Firecrackers are going off almost continuously in the background as I write. A reminder that they do new years properly here. None of this one drunken night and a few resolutions. This is a multi week party of family and constant fire cracker attacks. I must admit we have also partaken. Spending the actual New Years eve in Xian we HAD to do as the locals do and we bought a bag of fire crackers and I reverted to a giggling teenager again after so many years without the joy of pyrotechnics. Boys and blowing things up….I don’t know what it is but it is good.
So we spent New Year in Xian making dumpling with the hostel owners and drinking with other homeless expats. We had the beautiful fortune of stumbling upon another family with three kids our girls age. An artist and a teacher from the UK area who are living in China teaching and painting. Delightful, outgoing kids who within minutes had disappeared with out girls and by the end of the night were our and about climbing walls, hanging from trees and of course letting off fireworks (under dubious adult supervision). The girls played with new friends (doubtless they were happy for fresh energy) and Mel and I had good, interesting conversations about the world, kids, creativity and what the hell to do with life. I suppose Mel and I played with new friends just like the kids (We both appreciated new people – God knows that travelling as a family means we don’t meet half the number of people you do travelling alone.)
We saw the sights of Xian (home of the Terracotta Warriors – one of those tummy flipping places you have seen a million photos of but that catches your breath when you actually see it) before catching the high speed train to Pingyao (where I got my free cookies from). From there we jumped on another train to Beijing where we are now.
A few more days and we will start our final departure from Asia heading towards Europe. That makes my head spin to think about. Asia seems to have consumed our lives for so long now but this journey is moving so fast! And it feels like real journey, not travel right now. The undulations of moods, the group dynamics, everyone going through the motions of working together then needing space. Its fascinating and utterly utterly irreplaceable.