Monday, March 20, 2006

Xian, Shaanxi, China

Back on the mainland. I knew I was really in a different country when I started to notice again what I have come to call the laowai wobble. This is when some poor soul nearly ploughs his bicycle into the ground because he just couldn't resist staring at you. I didn't get it during my day in Shenzen as they have seen foreigners en masse before and they don't really care about you. The locals are on the lookout for HK residents as Shenzen is the SAR's discount shopping mall and brothel. It was a village 30 years ago when the government decided to experiment and see what happens when you let the Chinese do business with a minimum of hassle and made the place a Special Economic Zone. It is now one of the biggest and most prosperous cities in China.

Got out of there but due to weird train connections I had to overnight in Fuzhou, a large but nondescript provincial capital and boomtown. I did get to see an interesting side of modern China due to the kindness of strangers. My guidebook hardly mentioned the place but I chatted with a young chap from Hong Kong on the bus and he sorted us out rooms in a businessmen hotel for the price I expected to pay for a dorm bed. I had my first hot bath in months and the sheer bliss of privacy.

The slight drawback to this is that the besuited local guests were on the piss big time and kind of hauled me along probably for novelty purposes. This was all good except for the curse of gambei. Gambei is the magic word they use on drinking sprees when everyone has to polish off their glass regarless of content or quantity lest you seriously insult whoveer bought the stuff. Mercifully their enthusiasm was not matched by capacity and they decided I was allowed to leave without causing offence once half a dozen of them were snoring on the table.

Fuzhou is also the place were I encountered a new blight in my life as a foreigner in the middle kingdom: the Monkey Man. This is a beggar with an ill-kept monkey on a leash that he promptly releases to climb all over you. I ususally deal with beggars with the customary feeble attempt to be friendly whilst trying to ignore their misery and very presence. This is tricky when you have a mangey ape clambering on your shoulders. I have had had to keep my calm as the guy then hassles you for reward money for siccing his primate on you.

After Fuzhou I find myself in the showcase of Future China that is Shanghai. I wasn't as awestruck as I thought I would be as Shanghai sets itself apart mainly from other Chinese cities but it is still a bit of a yokel in comparison to Hong Kong. The centre is pretty much divided between the Bund on on side of the Huangpu river and the French COncession on the other. The latter is were most of the hyped modern buidings are and they have so many of these it starts to look like a campaign to highlight the problem of drug abuse amongst architects. The Bund is the colonial era strip that presents a postcard contrast.

The Bund area was strangely compact and cramped but then again I suppose the streets were designed for 5 rickshaws and the odd Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. It was weird to walk around narrow Chinese streets with their accompanying raucous bustle and then look up and see Art Deco buildings. You don't spend too much time looking at these though as you have to keep an eye out fo rhe silent but deadly electric bicylces that zoom along the place and of course Monkey Men.

All the tourist areas have decided to push the Ye Olde Coloniale Shanghai thing a lot so you find a lot of nostalgic schlock around. I confess that Shanghai in the 20's and 30's has a certain appeal to me but why the locals are so enthusiastic confuses me (by this I mean that the domestic tourists are really into it). From what I recall, Sanghai had the same glorious birth as Hong Kong but with less guilt for Her Majesty's citizens as loads of other countries got in the act and grabbed a piece of the pie. A few crumbs of said pie went to Chinese nationals (pimps, gangmasters, union breakers and other such pillars of society) but mainly the Chinese were treated like 2nd class citizens in their own country. To add insult to injury it asn't just the big hitters of the day that carved out little hometowns on Sino soil but any country with half decent weaponry could come in and grab some real estate. Things are bad when you get colonised by the Italians.

To cap it all of the departure of most powers resulted in the rule by the one lot who would behave even worse :wartime Japanese. Maybe that's why the 30's were regarded as a sort of heyday. It takes some seriously barbaric behaviour to make a period known for child prostituion, de facto slavery, rampant opium addiction and "No dogs or Chinese" signs look like some sort of Golden Age.

After a very, very strange St Paddy's Day afternoon drinking spree that included finding out that there is a Chinese language version of Danny boy, I put my aching head on the pillow of a sleeper train and got to Xian. Xian is mainly known for its terracotta army but has a few interesting spots within it. I had built myself a strange mental picture of a twee smallish town and soon got a reminder that provincial capitals in China are never small. The great Bell TOwer even reminded me of Paris in the sense that they decided to surround one of their famous monuments wih a huge and cacophonous roundabout.

I made my way to the site of what has been apparently dubbed the 8th wonder of the ancient world. Who came up with this I don't know but I strongly suspect the Chinese Ministry of Tourism. After watching several beautiful Nationial Geographic photo spreads of the place as well as many cleverly edited documentaries with great lighting and dramatic music the real thing was somewhat of a letdown. It's worth seeing and still a must see on the China trail but it just didn't have the Wow factor. It might do in a few years though as it is still an excavation site and they reckon shedloads more of the 2 millenia old stone squaddies are yet to be found.

One thing that struck me is that the whole thing was mildly creepy and must of ben really spectacular when they were all standing (most pits contain freakish jumbles of limbs and heads) and painted. What makes this really weird is that the soldiers all have individual features as far as I could see. When they were entombed they were armed with the latest and therefore valuable weapons of the time. The guys who came up with this mausoleum imperial guard really were building a proper army albeit with the slight drawback of all being lifeless.

Maybe it was a not too subtle dig at the current miltary bigwigs of the time. When you invest shedloads of dosh into an army that will guard you when you are dead it's not exactly giving a show of confidence in the army that is supposed to keep you alive. I'm going with that theory anyway as pissing people off is something that makes sense to me whereas religious beliefs don't.

Setting off soon for some world-famous duck, a forbidden city and many a happu moment laughing at farcical commie propaganda in the capital of this vast and fascinating country. I'll be a backpacker in Beijing.

Take care,



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Monday, March 20, 2006 7:45:00 AM  

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