Shanghai to Kunming: first impressions of China

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April 6th 2009
Published: April 18th 2009
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A stream of highly animated but utterly incoherent nonsense greeted us upon our request to the policeman for directions to the bus stop. Six months in the Philippines had got us into the habit of thinking that everyone everywhere must speak English; this encounter with the police officer was the first of several rude awakenings reminding us that travel in China is a completely different ball game from travel in the Philippines, one in which the rules are not always bent in the traveler's favour.

Ten minutes after the plane had landed we had arrived at a queueless Immigration and been processed in a matter of seconds. On the front of the cheerful immigration officer's booth was a dial of five buttons in a row with faces of decreasing smiliness on each one and "Greatly satisfied," "Quite satisfied," "Not satisfied", etc, written above them. I had pressed the "Greatly Satisfied" one with a lunatic grin on it and headed on to Customs and Baggage Reclaim. I was out of the airport fifteen minutes after touching down. Clearly the Chinese, unlike the Russians, had somehow managed to combine Communism with efficient and friendly service.

Thankfully our guide book had the names of some streets and hotels written in Chinese script. On the night of our arrival, as on countless other occasions over the following weeks, this proved to be utterly invaluable. Being pretty certain, after plenty of idiotic face pulling and hand gesturing, that there were no buses at this time of night and having in mounting panic assaulted several taxi drivers with our maniacal foreigness and neurotic pointing at a few tiny Chinese characters hidden amid a page otherwise written entirely in English, we found one who knew the place we were looking for. After a long drive through the city, infuriatingly obscure in the night, we arrived at a hotel. The lobby was carpeted and walled in red, with huge, golden Chinese characters slung across the wall behind the reception desk. Both of the receptionists, neither of whom spoke a word of English, had been sleeping on red velvet chairs but woke up to book us in, their bleary eyes and wild hair contrasting in the case of one with his neat military uniform and of the other with his suit jacket and trousers.

I woke up early the next day to hunt for the train ticket booking office which we had, with plenty of acting and miming, managed to ascertain existed a few streets away. I set out, my breath visible in the freezing air and the beginnings of a cold already creeping into my system due to climate shock. Walking down a street of tall buildings with a turn of the century feel to them, cyclists appearing to outnumber cars around ten to one, I passed four or five people selling food out of wooden carts or the backs of trailers. For a few pence I picked up a huge, delicious omelet stuffed with fresh herbs and munched it as I continued on my way. Whereas the people in the Philippines dressed in a Western way, many people here had their own very distinct style, ranging from Chairman Mao suits to Communist worker uniforms to simpe Western clothes worn somehow differently, certain items complementing others in a way that would seem unusual in the West. This difference was not limited just to their dress but also their mode of behaviour, facial expressions and conversation. Watching two Chinese people talk to one another in the street could be almost like watching a theatrical display, a throwing back and forth of quips, puns and retorts that, far more often than in the West, seemed to escalate into open, public argument. Whereas much of Manila could easily be mistaken for an American city, here every shop had its name displayed in enormous Chinese characters above it, perhaps one in a hundred providing an English translation. Even from the inside of our hotel and that first walk down the street, I was forming the impression that this was a country that had accepted what it wanted from the West while utterly rejecting a hell of a lot as well, not allowing the essence of its culture or the pride of its people to be affected.

The ticket booking office, with its long queues and grim-faced attendants, reminded me of similar establishments in Moscow. I was however, pleasantly surprised to find myself at the front of the queue in a remarkably short time, and even more so at the discovery that, unlike in Moscow, the seemingly grim-faced woman was actually very helpful, had a smattering of English and was capable of smiling. I was back in the hotel with my tickets fifteen minutes after leaving.

After a lunch of dumplings in an area of the centre consisting largely of modern buildings constructed in traditional Chinese style, complete with curved roofs, plenty of gold colour and the occasional dragon, it was time to head to the train station for our 42-hour ride to Kunming in Yunnan province, South West China. Our occasional requests for directions were invariably met with helpful attempts to cross the language barrier finished off with a genuine smile.

The station was a giant, hyper-modern circular bubble. If humans ever settled Mars, it would be in an artificial environment contained within a structure like this. Upon entering it took us ten minutes to walk round the inner circumference to get to the point where stairs led down to our platform.

The train's carpeted interior had a modern, comfortable, clean feel to it, unlike in Russia. The beds were in doorless compartments alongside which an aisle ran the length of the carriage. We settled in ours, high up on the third bunk, and watched the train fill up, soft Chinese music playing peacefully in the background and evoking a time long before the vehicle in which we found ourselves had been invented.

We did not manage to escape the suburbs of Shanghai during daylight hours. The city appeared to reach out into the surrounding area with high rise apartment blocks, factories and rubbish-clogged canals which together contributed to a bleakness almost unrivalled in any other industrial landscape I have seen. I could not work out whether the uniform drabness of the buildings had been intentional or whether they were just so covered in filth from the factories that their original colours were now indistinguishable. The train traveled at a fairly high speed, but for four whole hours before night fell there was not a single break in the monotony. Watching anonymous people pick their way in between the rubble, I reflected on the fact that a third of China's 1.3 billion reportedly lived in urban centres and wondered how many of that third lived in places like this. Perhaps it was that last 0.3, a number five times the size of the United Kingdom's population which could nevertheless be cut off the original figure without any reduction in its meaningless enormity.

Evidence of China's attempts to halve its population by the year 2050 was abundant in our carriage: every infant traveling with his (or, less often, her) parents was an only child. The law enforcing this has led to increased numbers of female foetus abortions, female infanticides and girls being given away to orphanages. By the year 2020 it is thought that 40 million men - a number equal to two thirds the population of the United Kingdom - will be unable to find a wife.

The next morning I looked out of the window to be greeted by a land marginally less grey than the one we had been passing through when I fell asleep. The colours were slightly brighter and more varied, the canals were no longer blocked with filth, there was the occasional touch of Chinese curved roofing on some of the buildings and there were now areas of greenery interrupting suburbia. It was not until at least midday, however, that we finally escaped into rolling green grasslands populated by small, brick-walled, tile-roofed villages and people working the rice paddies. The people bording the train when we stopped at stations became more rural, redder-faced and more simply-dressed.

Kunming, predominantly made up of Western-style buildings, nevertheless had the occasional Chinese touch to it. As we wondered its streets in search a hostel we passed a park in which old men stood on the grass, rotating their limbs in the slow, elegant movements of tai chi. In another a group of men sang and played instruments, their emotion and devotion to the music flowing across their faces while people danced around them. Nearby a crowded encircled a man singing in a bizarre, whining, high-pitched voice while others listened to someone tell a story. Further down the same street people sat round small square tables on the pavement playing mahjong. Nearby in a shopping mall teenagers plodded from shop to shop examining the latest designer clothes on offer.

In a food market a man gave me a kindly smile before pulling all the skin off a live frog he had bought, the poor animal still clinging to life and kicking its raw, pink, fleshy limbs in his hand. Another pulled the limbs off a turtle and slit its belly open before pulling out its organs, its still beating heart the last to go. Chickens were to be seen in wicker cages so packed together that the space in between them was always filled by another chicken. Two large dogs barked and whined in distress; they were together in a cage so small that neither could even move their heads.

China seemed to me a land of contrasts - modernity and tradition, Communism and efficiency, peaceful people who loved public argument, extreme cleanliness on the city streets but the habit of spitting anywhere, even restaurant floors. I was far from even beginning to develop an understanding of the country or its people, and doing so seemed like it would be a great challenge, but I looked forward to the opportunity to try.

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18th April 2009

hi there!
so you are now in china! just got back from my trip, actually stopped over in shanghai, and reminisced about it reading your blog. looking forward to your future blogs! stay safe.
18th April 2009

another symptom that you're in a non-english speaking country is when you start forgetting about english grammar and starts talking like "how much this?" ... "one this and two that" ... "where this?" ... hahaha ... it's a fun challenge but it's not fun when you're all tired and all you want is to be where you need to be...All luck to you!
21st April 2009

Hi from Moscow!
Hi Edward! Glad to see you in China)) Have a good journey!
26th April 2009

where is the communism?
ok , here is your story in short....u took the flight to SH and then walked around the city and then took a train to KM....and you are telling ppl China is a combination of Communism and efficiency??? I mean , come on, get real. I didn't see anything communism from your superficial observations. The only 'Communism' is from your mind and mouth. You have this biased point of view of China being a state of communism, which is just simply wrong. In the global recession, China is probably the best capitalist in the world.
28th April 2009

I'm guessing from the bitterness of your tone that you're the same person who left a comment on my blog about the Burmese border area. I agree that all my observations in this blog entry are superficial - that is the whole point of the blog - first impressions based on a couple of days and with no ability to speak Chinese. But are you really trying to deny that the government in China calls itself Communist? Or that the Chinese people refer to it as Communist? Or that the rest of the world refers to it as Communist? Get real. Of course it is not ACTUALLY Communist, as in it doesn't attempt to follow Marxist ideals any more and is in fact pretty capitalist, but that's not what I'm talking about in this blog.

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