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November 4th 2005
Published: November 5th 2005
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In all the other countries we've visited, one or other of us has known roughly what to expect. However my knowledge of China before arriving here was restricted to two, twenty year-old books, the obligatory "White Swans" ("Communist China - a decent idea sent haywire by bonkers Chairman Mao and friends") and "Riding the Iron Rooster" by Paul Theroux ("US writer explores China by train hassling unfortunate locals "). Add to this my totally unjustified assumption that "China is probably a bit like India" and you begin to understand that our 5 weeks in China have always been a bit of a mystery and got subtly ignored during planning sessions.

Still, when you know nothing you learn fast, and 10 days in China has given us things to think about.

If I wasn't looking for unspecified 'communist' stuff all around, all the time, I don't know if I'd keep spotting it. Some of it is most likely me just reading far too much into simple differences in culture. However we haven't been able to access the bbc news website from any computer in China so far, which I think really is a little bit wierd. In train stations passengers wait in vast, bright, waiting rooms well away from the platforms and are called at the correct time. Gates are unlocked and the entire passenger list marches dutifully away. Is this strange , or just efficient? TV is all state run and the one English language channel has a couple of good world news and business programs, but the rest of the English programing is a variety of extremely positive reports on Chinese culture, trade and especially foreign affairs. Chinese officials seem to be in every Asian country at the moment making very exciting but very vague statements about promoting cooperation, decreasing trade barriers, strengthening relationships blah blah blah....There are ominous chinese language channels that show stern officials, shiny new factories and military parades, but much of the other TV is recognisable - news, soaps and chinese Pop Idol.

As ever the sport channel has no problem with any language barrier, and it's hilarious here at the moment. The 4th East Asian Games have just started on the island of Macau. This event has to be the most unfair sporting spectacle ever witnessed as 'East Asian' is defined as massive, organised, victory-mad China plus a desperate selection of 8 other countries, territories, and islands, none of whom has the slightest hope of competing in any but a tiny handful of events. After 3 days of competition, China had 55 gold medals, compared with Macau doing marvellously in 2nd with 7 golds. South Korea were in 3rd place simply because they won all the 10-pin bowling medals after nobody else took the event seriously. However with swimming, athletics, field sports, weightlifting - basically anything high profile and glamorous, it's chinese victory all the way.

So what have we actually been doing? Well for the very first time we've started to follow a true backpacking trail - in fact it's the first of the China Lonely Planet suggested routes, across south and south west China from Hong Kong towards Tibet, vistiting the engineered mountain rice terraces and unreal rock formations that rank as some of China's most scenic spots. This is a true tourist area and it's funny to see the 'backpacking world' for the first time. Goa is the closest we've been but it was 90% shut and we were the only backpackers there. Now we're seeing banana pancake and muesli breakfasts, book exchanges and movie nights trendy cafe's, western chillout CD's, even a Aussie bar. We're seeing the same people in places far apart, just because that's the well trodden 'route'.

A few times we've been reminded that Chinese rural tourism is not even 10 years old. We had great fun watching a chinese barman make a martini for an elderly US tourist - she explained the glass, the recipe, the olive, everything, but instead got a massive tumbler full of neat gin, a slice of lemon slotted onto the glass and a equally massive measure of vermouth on the side. Minutes later the same barman delivered a trayful of brightly coloured cocktails with all the straws, sparklers, bells and whistles you can imagine served in unhappy looking martini glasses. We've also had people try to polish our shoes while we ate dinner and a apple crumble made with salt instead of sugar, so you can see there's a way to go yet before you see 'Sandals China'.


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