October 15, 2006

an especially tricky people

What a difference a decade makes.

On the train from Ulaan Baatar, after we finally escaped the vast, blasted gravel-and-sand plain of the Gobi Desert, after bogies were changed and passports were stamped and we finally entered the Middle Kingdom - in my case, for the first time since March 1997 - we rolled to a 10-minute halt at some nameless station in Inner Mongolia, and I laced my boots up and wandered out onto the platform to stretch my legs -

- and I stopped dead. Because I knew that smell, I remembered it in my bones, in my deep cortex, smell is the sense most strongly linked to memory. The platform smelled like China.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. And maybe it was just jasmine and cheap cigarettes. But for just a second I froze in my steps, remembering.

You'll forgive me if I wax nostalgic a moment. (Heck, it's not like you have a choice.) The very first time I went seriously travelling, nine and a half years ago, I backpacked solo across China for a month. In 1997 that was a pretty major feat. There was no Internet. Nobody, but nobody, spoke English; I spent a week without speaking a word of my mother tongue. Instead I had to get by with exceedingly broken Mandarin Chinese I'd picked up from a single book and language tape I read/listened to in the couple of months before I left San Francisco.

In retrospect I don't really know why I decided to go solo through China in '97. I wanted to see the Three Gorges before the dam went up, and I did, but I could have waited a few years yet. God knows it wasn't the easiest of destinations; quite the opposite; it was diving in at the deep end. I guess that was part of its appeal. Maybe most of its appeal.

I remember very well my first night there back then, lying in the back of a bumpy sleeper bus travelling between Guangzhou and Yangshuo, in the company of two Europeans I'd met just hours before, stopping at an inn halfway and looking around at the dark landscape and having a piercing revelation of just how far I'd come, just how far away I was from anyone or anything I knew, just how alien a place I had brought myself to without hardly knowing why.

I got by, even after I left Yangshuo and went way off the backpacker trail. (Why? See above.) I communicated, navigated, coped, bought tickets, took trains, found hotels. During that week I spoke no English I was the only white guy on a boat that took three days to coast down the Yangtze from Chongqing to Wuhan, through the Three Gorges. To this day I can count to ten and order beer in Chinese.

Not that I've needed either skill since arriving here this time. The language wars are over, and we won: English is now more widely spoken in Beijing than in Moscow. The city's once-shambling main streets are now wide boulevards lined by trees, fountains, flower gardens, massive government edifices, colossal shopping malls, five-star hotels. Wangfujing Dajie is like Fifth Avenue as a pedestrian walkway. There are McDonald's, Starbucken, Sizzlers, Pizza Hut, Haagen-Dazs, etc. etc., everywhere. One thing about a totalitarian state, it sure makes for speedy urban renewal.

It is kind of fascinating watching development in action. Ten years ago China was First World only in very isolated pockets and islands; now it's whole strips and zones, and not just downtown; gargantuan fields of brand-new apartment buildings (and, to the government's credit, stands of newly planted pine trees) were visible as the train rolled into Beijing. Poke a little further, one block behind, and you'll still find narrow alleys, ancient courtyards, jerry-rigged wires hanging low over the roads, crowds of bicycle rickshaws and street vendors, teeming throbbing masses haggling for cheaper dumplings; but these hutongs are being destroyed as I speak - literally - just around the corner from where I type, the demolition crews work 24 hours a day.

Sometimes Beijing smells like China. Mostly it smells like a smokestack. The pollution, construction/destruction dust, and windblown Gobi sand add up to an incredible, constant, clinging, oozing smog. Today I went for a run around Tiananmen Square, and barely got 25 minutes before my breath got ragged. Maybe I'm out of shape. Maybe not. Tonight we walked back along the square, and could barely see through the dust and smog to the other side, and it's big enough that it's served by three separate subway stations, but it's not that big. My friend in the British Embassy says he's heard claims that breathing in Beijing is like smoking 70 cigarettes a day.

It's very pleasant, modern Beijing, very easy, very nice to visit, still very colourful, lots of stuff to do, I recommend it - the smog won't affect (most of) you if you're only here a week or two. China has gotten rich and is getting richer, and that's good for China, and it's not like it's being culturally colonized by the West, its own culture is much too strong and vibrant for that, soon it'll start throwing its own snowballs back into the global cultural mix like Japan does. But it's no longer even remotely alien, and that's what China was for me ten years ago when for whatever reason I needed alien, and I miss that.

There are other alien places still. But one day, maybe one day not too far from now, there won't be any left at all, and that will be a shame.

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