Study with us
The first impression I got of China was through meeting the people. Mind you, we were not in China then, but at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. Queuing for our flight was a cheerful crowd, churning with happiness at purchases made and anticipation of returning to China. I had heard plenty of Mandarin before, my travel companion Ashley being the daughter of two Chinese immigrants to the United States. However it had never been at such volume, spoken by dozens of different voices. That is where my journey and immersion into this country on the other side of the world started.
Travelling took us from Beijing through Xi'an and Chengdu to Ashley's grandmother in Neijiang, Sichuan, with whom we stayed for several days at the end of the trip. In Beijing we were picked up by a professor who had once taught Ashley's father and was overjoyed at discovering that I study at Churchill College, having recently stayed in Fitzwilliam for a conference. Within hours I was happy to have fluent speakers of Mandarin with me, as we made our rather complicated way to the Summer Palace, a retreat of the emperor outside historic Beijing. On the way we stopped at a street stall for breakfast in the form of wonton soup and baozi, balls of dough filled with meat. Tired as we were it was a nice breakfast and China first felt exotic here, sitting outside and enjoying food prepared more or less under the open sky.
The summer palace was primarily full and secondly also a pretty display of rebuilt medieval China. A sort of Chinese equivalent of Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, which may explain why Chinese tourists flock there. Here I first noticed a genuine difference between the way Western and Chinese tourists behave in crowds, which was also evident in the Forbidden City or even Jiuzhaiguo. As horrid as Western tourists can surely be, the difficulty with them is making them keep to assigned paths and away from experiencing things themselves, while casually damaging natural or historic sites. Chinese tourists on the other hand show themselves willing to condense into tight crowds even when there is plenty of space, in order to have the tour of a place exactly as it is set out.
Over the next two days we made obligatory visits to the Forbidden City and a section of the Great Wall far from the crowds, outside Beijing. As historic monuments these were interesting, particularly the Great Wall is truly formidable to behold. Standing on it as it snakes off into the distance with watchtowers visible on hills buried in mist is astonishingly impressive. The more engaging aspect of these days was just the immensity of having arrived in China, a country halfway across the world with an age-old culture that developed largely independently of ours. Big words considering what I mean by them is largely an assortment of excellent, varied and interesting food.
On our first day we got Peking duck from a famous restaurant that apparently employs one hundred chefs to keep things moving, where I also tried the duck's feet (unimpressive) and fried spiky fish. Another day we went to a restaurant, where dumplings and their filling have become high cuisine, lauded by international food critics. Unsurprisingly quick snacks at takeout restaurants provided an equally fruitful but radically different view of the people, the mood, the colours and the life in Beijing.
One of the less fascinating aspects of our stay was the noticeable and constant police presence. This ranges from police at the hotel over men with shotguns (crowd control) at public spaces to metal detectors and x-ray machines at all metro stations and other public buildings. Perhaps similar developments have taken place in a less obvious fashion in Europe too, but this assertion of state authority in the face of a supposed outside threat felt decidedly oppressive. This was particularly because there was no obvious improvement of security, guards were sleeping or playing on their phones rather than watching their screens – rather things seemed set up for intimidation.
Before leaving Beijing we made our way to the 798 Art Zone, an old factory district that has been converted into a complex with galleries and shops. The area around it felt refreshingly real, travelling by bus there were normal people going about their daily business and really apart from the language, little differed from the equivalent in Germany. The Art Zone itself was strangely reminiscent of Germany, as the factory block had been designed by architects and engineers from the GDR, the Bauhaus elements they included are still very much noticeable. That night we made our way to Xi'an by train.
Xi'an as a city feels wildly different from Beijing, despite the two being the old and new capitals of China and both landlocked. We go to our hotel and visit the “Muslim quarter”, most of which is a tourists heaven of street food, souvenirs and fake retail goods. Some of the food is very good and unlike anything that we have had in China before, such as spicy noodles in sesame oil on a base of ground walnuts. In its heart, visited by very few people lies Xian's oldest mosque. As we approach the mosque the call of a muezzin (or the Chinese equivalent) comes from speakers and men with white caps appear from adjoining streets and go to prayer. We walk into the mosque, set out like a Chinese palace with multiple buildings each other to walk through before reaching the actual hall of prayer. The men are dressed differently from the omnipresent Western look seen around the streets. They wear wide trousers and shirts and a worried look on lined faces.
One of the apparent great attractions around Xi'an are numerous less famous emperor's graves, among them that of Empress Wu. As these are rather far outside the city we decide to take a bus trip with a Chinese tour group to see these, combined with a visit to the ancient Buddhist Funan temple, which claims to hold the remains of one of the Buddha's fingers. The tombs are kitschy, fully modernised and full, with so many people stuffed into underground passages that my claustrophobia turns me from mild-mannered to rather aggressive. Visiting the temple however is a grand experience, it is a dutiful fusion of Socialist realist architecture with grandeur and tradition of Buddhism. Since the Buddha's finger was rediscovered in the old temple in the 1980's this place of worship has been upgraded significantly, with giant pagodas and an impressive parade lined by humongous statues of holy men. On the bus back to Xi'an we glance a first impression of life in China away from the growing glamorous metropolis, it is the time of apple harvest and up and down the country trucks are being loaded with tons of apples.
On the morning before leaving Xi'an we still have the very touristy but still enjoyable experience of cycling around the city on its ancient wall, which provides a vivid contrast between renovated but somewhat old buildings within the centre and high office and apartment towers immediately outside of it.
That afternoon we take a flight further south-west into Sichuan to Chengdu. As this had been easy to arrange with family friends we live in a hotel on the campus of a local university and go out to have hotpot with a variety of fresh mushrooms that evening. The restaurant is outside, in fact it is on the pavement. Shirtless male students are sitting around wooden boards with a hole in them to hold the propane gas flame to heat the simmering pot. The night is warm and everyone is drinking cold beer while eating the delicious food and chatting loudly against the noise of passing cars. It seems like a China that could be great to grow up and live in.
Over the next days we explore various facets to the commercial side of Chengdu. Then we make our way to the next, completely different, important station of the trip, Jiuzhaiguo National Park. This is a renowned natural heritage site buried deep in Sichuanese Tibet, a region with ethnically Tibetan population that is not part of the Autonomous Region. It is a fascinating set-up, a stark contrast between sparsely settled hills and a single town outside the gates of Juizhaiguo consisting of hundreds of hotels.
The park and Huanglong mountain provide as much natural beauty in two days as I had seen in a week of travelling through the Canadian wilderness, although the pleasant feeling of emptiness was not quite the same. Just this region of Sichuan might be worth a far longer stay, even more than the natural beauty I was fascinated by what we saw through the windows of our bus passing through. Lonely motorcycles standing, alone, next to the highway, their owner having gone off on a trail away from the main valley. Occasional groups of people wearing colourful clothes and leather hats, mounted on horses and riding into the mountains away from the road. Small villages, settlements of modernity impressed onto a still somewhat untouched landscape.
Upon our return to Chengdu it is time to begin the last leg of our journey, the stay with my friends grandmother in Neijiang. It may have been the best part of the trip, though not laden with experiences of wonder and grandeur to remember for a lifetime. If anything then this provided me with a real sense for what life might be like for a lot of Chinese people.
On the way we visit Leshan and see the giant Buddha watching over the river here. That afternoon we arrive in Neijiang and moved into Ashley's grandmothers apartment. She is a very nice lady and accepts me into her house amicably. The fact that I am wearing leather shoes without any socks causes considerable confusion, but it can be explained away as an example of Western customs. Surprisingly she also puts Ashley and me into the same room, the nicest room in her flat actually. We spend a few very nice days in Neijiang doing the most regular things.
Walking into the farmer's market it looks rather similar to a market I go to sometimes in Hannover, apart from the people, the houses and some of the fruit offered. As we walk further inside we spot the things that set it apart from Germany. The market is set up along a road that slowly winds upward, the left reserved mostly for vendors of vegetables while the right side is the domain of butchers and fish mongers.
A thin stream of blood runs downhill along the butcher's stands, from one of which we purchase a warm, fresh chicken. Well, we think it was fresh anyways. There is also a dentist in a stained doctor's overall offering real teeth to use as implants. We walk once around the market, past the group of men betting on two rats fighting, actively encouraged by a man with a stick and a microphone. On our way to a stand with more varieties of tofu than there are varieties of meat available, a fish mongers cut sprays Ashley with goo and slime. On the whole a great day of seeing things that in this form have disappeared in many places and will keep on doing so.
Back at home we have a meal made by Ashley's mother and grandmother, who both seem to enjoy the experience of relying on each other immensely. The food is amazing, soft tofu melting on the tongue like mozzarella in a sauce and with vegetables as well as chicken soup and a variety of other dishes.
The days in Neijiang are exciting as we thoroughly explore the city. It was a great ending to a wonderful trip that provided many experiences and showed me different aspects of a country that is very different but occasionally surprisingly similar to Europe.