Pillars to impress
Asia/China

Pillars to impress

When there are blue skies, the water and the mountains give Kunming a peaceful even graceful feel.  Sit beneath the quiet sun and one can, for a moment, forget the cranes that dominate the route to and from the airport, along which endless blocks of flats are being built, their dark little windows staring blankly out at yet another building site.

From my first trip to Kunming I remember the stone pagoda; from my second, just a few of months ago, shaded alleys and picturesque restaurants.  This visit, for a conference at which I was the only Westerner and at which the presentations were perhaps not even meant to be heard by Westerners, was dominated by the modern grandiose. China still builds to impress, not in details or flourishes, but in size.  The building was monumental.  Such was the size of the pillars, they would not have been out of place in Pharaoh’s palace.  The entrance was three four five stories high. Kunming is a city with a message.

But what that message is was softened over dinner by the province’s vice-governor who dwelt in his speech on the flowers and the sun, and one his hopes for our health.  It was a message that was also far overtaken by my dining companion’s own story, for he had been a political prisoner in Burma for eleven years.  And it was a message that was reduced to irrelevance when, after dinner, a door to another room opened and I was enveloped by the welcome of my Yunnanese friends as they smoked and drank and gossiped.

Guangzhou
Asia/China

Guangzhou

Guangzhou. Canton.  It is a name with resonance, but a place I have never been to before.

Today China’s third largest city, it couldn’t be more different from neighbouring Shenzhen despite their similar size.  While Shenzhen was still the little fishing village of Baoan before 1979, Guangzhou’s history stretches back rather further, stretches back before the days of Canton, to a city of Panyu as old as China itself. Yet though I shunned modern Guangzhou, and left Guangzhou Tower and its as-standard modern city centre to another time, it was to Canton that I headed.

Tucked to the side of the Pearl River and bounded by a moat, Shamian is the original foreign concession: a place where the French and British were able to set up their factories and trading posts.  The place still retains its colonial feeling. The buildings are unmistakably European in form; quite different from their Chinese counterparts, and the island is beautiful.  Beautiful and tranquil. Despite the number of people sitting beneath its trees, ambling along its semi-pedestrianised roads, or sipping at its bars, the area retains a quiet, relaxing and welcoming feel.

Leave the island and the European influence begins to fade in intensity, though it is still there in the Customs House and the French Catholic cathedral and much else besides. But China proper, at least my romanticised view of an end-of-Qing-China, seems to reassert itself. There are the narrow streets lined with shops the wares of which spill out over the pavement. There are the bags of the dried and unidentifiable in the medicine market, the cacophony of glazed colour in the pottery shops, and the dark wide flat-seated furniture that would not look out of place in a Qing palace.  There are the tea shops and fruit sellers lining pavements that are themselves shaded by overhanging first floors.  And in the back streets, adventitious roots trail from the branches of fig trees, draping green and brown above the crowds.

Though it is just two hours away by train, this slice of Guangzhou (and I am sure there are others) is a far cry from Hong Kong.  Perhaps not better or worse, but certainly different. Although the railway ticket office in Hong Kong accepted only cash, one bar in Guangzhou placed signs on every table prohibiting the playing of chess while another served almost comically disagreeable drinks. Yet Guangzhou too gave us an impromptu table-side magic show that started with a man pulling a flaming wallet from his pocket and ended with a trick in which rubber bands were made to physically pass through one other. Guangzhou too gave us a dish of pork belly that was so delicious, so tender, so soft, so juicy and so sweet that eating it seemed almost a waste, for how could it be enjoyed once swallowed? Guangzhou too gave us stalls selling scorpions and (what I hope were fake) animal legs covered in red and black striped fur, with curly claws and straggling tendons.

But most of all, it gave a respite and a break. A step into something else, just a step away from Mongkok.

Watering plastic flowers
Asia/China

Watering plastic flowers

It is a glorious day in Beijing.  This is what summer should be.  The sky is blue; the sun is hot.

A mass of slowly-shuffling people chatters quietly as they queue to pass through the security checkpoints and enter the vast concrete wasteland of Tiananmen Square.

A man is watering the plastic plants arranged outside a department store.  The plastic petals are garishly colourful; the plastic leaves, wetly bright.

Later, lunch is delicious, but it is in the wrong restaurant.  My hotel is in between two with the same name.  I turn right and head to the wrong one.  After I get to the restaurant and realise my host is elsewhere, I do the twenty-minute walk to the correct restaurant as a four minute run and make the meeting hot and late, but in time for the first course.  We discuss tea and temples.  He asks me my religion.  I ask him if he is a Buddhist.  ‘No,’ he replies. ‘A Communist.’

Changeless Beijing
Asia/China

Changeless Beijing

Back again.  I barely got home before I flew out again.  This time to Beijing.  The experience borders the surreal.  Everything is the same, and yet I feel as if nothing should be.  The airport is just as I last saw it; the experience at immigration, the little shuttle train, waiting for a taxi: all the same.  I feel nothing but flatness.

For a show of friendliness, I had booked into the same hotel as my colleague.  But the hotel cancelled my booking and said they had no rooms.  So I returned to my usual place in Wangfujing, pitching up near midnight.  Again, the hotel I had stayed in so many times before was just as it always was, right down to the smell in the lobby.

Nothing seems to change.

Asia/China

Back to Kunming

Here I am back in a different world.  The official government car that is waiting for me outside the airport is neither black nor an Audi, but the waiting chauffeur has his obviously-thick woollen jacket turned up at the collar.  The Kunming sky reminds me faintly of sludge.  The air is not good today; sometimes, the driver confides in me, the sky is blue.

I am here for a meeting with the local government, but a more important man (the Governor) has jumped the queue.  My meeting is suddenly bumped.  I check into my hotel, wander out to find some lunch, and wait.

But the wait ends in typical Chinese style.  I am sent a message on WeChat, the Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp, but with rather fewer encryption measures.  Are you ready for dinner?  “What time,” I reply.

In the friendliest terms, official Chinese dinners can be brutal affairs.  The baijiu flows constantly, and attempts to deflect a toast are rarely well received.  The politest I can be about baijiu is to think of it as alcoholic petrol. I can feel it damaging my body with every sip, but if only one were allowed to sip.  The liquid must be knocked back, brimming glass by brimming glass.  With each, my body shudders; however I attempt to train and restrain myself, I simply cannot repress them. But with the toasts and their shudders come other things as well.  The smiles and the hugs; the speeches and the vows of everlasting friendship.  As the evening wears on, the constant cigarette smoking fills the room and the air becomes thicker and thicker. As thick as thieves, the saying goes. Like the air, so the friendships.

I have been here before, of course, in different times with different people in different places.  Such vows never mark the end of the road, but they do at least signal that you have been granted access to the road.  The hard work might still remain, but the gate has been opened.  Now is the time to step through it.

*

The morning replaces haze with a blue sky and a surprisingly bright sun; inside the government officesa chill still pervades. Around the table are the usual pink slips of paper bearing names. On one is marked “LEO”. I guess it is where I am meant to sit.  Slowly the others gather. It ends up with me against eleven. And so we begin.

*

When it is over there is another car, this time black. It is time for lunch (where I must learn on the spot how to fillet a small fried fish with chopsticks) and then the airport.

My time is done.

The Buddhist monk of Mount Jizu
Asia/China

The Buddhist monk of Mount Jizu

It has been almost a year since I last flew over China.  The view from the aeroplane is always unmistakable.  It is the blue roofs, of course, that are the ultimate give away.  The shallow sloping blue metal roofs the Chinese adore so much.  But there are other traits that make China so distinct: the endless blocks of flats; the scarred, brown earth; the endless construction work of roads and buildings.

It has been a while too since I have stood in a wholly domestic Chinese setting, being bustled and shouted across by people who seem to have no volume control, nor any understanding of a queue.  It has been time too since I have been driven along winding Chinese rural roads by a man who at times steered with an elbow.

But if this sounds as if I start with a litany of complaints, it is not my intention at all.  For these things, though they may at first jar, conjure up the many delights of China too.  The energy and enthusiasm, the downright friendliness of people.  My taxi driver recognised me from a picture I had sent him, he sorted out every logistical detail of the (surprisingly complex) journey from the airport, and he finished off by undercharging me (though in this respect he was an uncommon man).

The drive from Dali could not be described as pretty.  For a town famously pretty, the part I saw was dominated by a huge cement works, and pretty much everywhere we passed was in the process of being cemented over.  Where the earth itself still peaked through, it was a bare, damaged land.  I could not call it beautiful.  It simply wasn’t.  Even the farming villages we passed lacked beauty. The vineyards that sprawled in every direction and filled every little space of unbuilt-up land at times seemed to be more concrete post than grape or leaf.

Journeys, of course, are rarely just about the destination, yet rarely too are they just about physical movement or the view along the way.  Journeys in the real world can provide a changing backdrop for an introspective journey.  As I was taken ever further into the Yunnan countryside so I ventured into a kaleidoscope of thoughts.

Perhaps today was not the right day to read Carson McCullers, but I was reading her nonetheless.  Her pages exposed the awkwardness and difficulty of life, and the frailty of our existence.  They left me struggling to keep other thoughts at bay.  Since my last trip to China, so much had changed. Changing jobs; changing countries; changing lives.  The past haunts our choices; the present tires out the mind; the future piles up fresh anxieties.  We solve a problem only by plunging headlong into another.  As someone I am a mentor to rang me up to ask, why had achieving all her ambitions not made her happy?  Why did she feel no better, no more secure, no more content?  What was it she was meant to do?

The light faded quickly as the car climbed the mountain and finally, in the darkness, we stopped.  Two people dressed in black robes met me at the car door. I was whisked from the cold dark outside, to a brightly lit reception room with a golden Buddha, women arranging flowers, a drawer where my passport was lain to rest, and a very welcome cup of pu’er tea.

*

But let me explain what I am doing here, on this journey that has so far gone deeper into my soul than it has into Yunnan’s mountains.  During my trips to Beijing, I used to frequent a tea house across the road from the Confucius Temple at Yonghegong.  The man who served me tea ended up giving up on Beijing and headed south to a monastery and a simple life. After two years in the monastery, he was to formally become a monk.  Convinced that I should give up tickling the plastic of my laptop’s keyboard, convinced that my happiness lay not with the corporate world or with saluting the totems of careers, he had invited me to visit.  My friend, a man who had walked away from a life he did not care for, choosing instead peace and simplicity, was convinced that I too would benefit from such tranquillity.

*

My cot is a lower bunk in a room with four bunkbeds and two little tables.  I am left for a few minutes to gather myself and then shown the washing room.  I am given a small bucket of hot water with which to clean my face and hands.  A monk sits back on an old garden chair in the middle of the room; his feet have disappeared beneath a bowl of now-muddy hot water.  The stench from the loos is such that I know I will not be doing more than a pee.

*

Morning comes very early. At 4am I am up, following my friend on his rounds as he sets out sacred bowls on alters and pours out water.  As I look on, he arranges prayer mats and lights incense.  He tells me to stay where I am, and he is gone.  The sky through the windows is still pitch dark. It will be for hours.  A monk enters the room, but he says nothing to me; muttering under his breath, he stands to the side, eyes shut, fingers on a string of beads.  Then the student who had arrived at the monastery minutes after I had, looking to all the world like some mediaeval magi, enters the room.  Others follow.  At 5am chanting begins.

The main ceremony starts at 9am.  People have come from all around to participate.  Nuns from the nearby sister convent have come up.  Quite a crowd has gathered to watch the initiation of the new monks. The chanting lasts hours and we guests must periodically leave and then re-enter the room.  Even when it finishes, it does not end.  At the signal that everything has finished I get up and walk out of the temple, my frozen feet longing for my shoes.  But though the Master also leaves, it seems most of the monks remain, to pray and chant yet more.  But finally, in their orange or brown or purple cloaks, they flow out, their big metal begging bowls in their hands.

The nuns have cleared a space in front of the main temple hall and have swept the ground of large stones.  Rose petals have been strewn across the area.  A line of tables supports a weight of snack food: sugary rice crackers, fruits, nuts and chocolates. As the monks process along, the nuns and local townspeople pile these sweets into the begging bowls and shower the monks with yet more rose petals.  There is laughter and smiles and a final bout of singing before silence descends as everyone starts eating.  Lunch is dished up soon afterwards, the food markedly worse than it had been at breakfast.  As I manfully chewed on my cold, dry-and-yet-soggy rice, a local townsman came up to me to practice his English.  With a broad smile he told me that in Buddhism there could be no waste.  ‘I am sorry,’ he said. ‘No waste. No waste at all.’  He watched me lift another chopstick-full of rice to my mouth.  Mid-tasteless bite I paused and smiled.

*

On this Jizu Mountain, mine is not the only temple.  They dot the entire mountain, and up at the top a stone pagoda juts up into the sky.  It is a steep walk along mountain paths to get there.  The drops are sheer but the views staggering.  My friend, newly-made monk that he is, swishes in his new robes confidently: he has walked these paths before.  He course is clear.  We stop at a hermit’s hut, gather wood, draw water from a spring, and boil up some local pu’er tea, our backs to stupas covered in swastikas alternately pointing to the right, alternately pointing to the left.  I am a little out of puff as we finally make the summit in time for the last of the evening light.  In the dying light the colours seem more vivid, and the quickly cooling air focuses our minds.

Yet as we make our descent our conversation broadens out.  It is as if we both feel that this is our last chance to speak.  But what it is that we are meant to say?  This is the Buddhist way.  This is the moment for the profound.  For the life, the universe, and for everything.  But reality is somehow more tawdry, even when we manage to step beyond the awkwardness of a Carson McCuller’s tale.  In simple English and Chinese we chat. He tells me of his choices and his path, but he is keen to dissect my life as well.  He wants me to experience the joy he gains through his new found simplicity: a simplicity of life that has shorn him of much, including wife and child.  But the questions are too great and we are out of time.  The darkness now is complete, but there are little dots of light ahead.  We are back at the monastery.  It is time for bed.  Tomorrow I must return to the world.

Asia/China

No news

Today, 16th May, is an important anniversary. It is fifty years to the day since the start of one of the Twentieth Century’s most peculiar and hard to understand episodes. Yet I saw and heard no mention of it Beijing at all.

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Asia/China

Public speaking

I had to give a lecture today to a graduate-only outpost of Beijing University in Shenzhen. Afterwards one of the students stepped forward to thank me. She loved my accent.

Asia/China

Tea in Shanghai

I am here in Shanghai for under 24 hours. This isn’t visit. It is just an instrument of sleep deprivation. I down five mugs of tea just to keep going through breakfast.

Asia/China

Beijing at night

There are definite advantages to seeing Beijing at night. You can’t see the pollution. After all, when it is dark you are not supposed to be able to see the end of the street.