Sunday, October 22, 2006


So here I am in China. It looks like an airport. It is not welcoming but I don’t suppose anywhere is at 12.30 am.

As though to presage hassles ahead, some of the airport ATMs will not take my card, so I have no money.

Taxi drivers want to take me somewhere but I have nowhere to go. I tried hard to get a late arrival at the hostel I’m staying at but we just weren’t on the same wavelength. Seeing a sign on the escalator that says “Do not reach out of elevator” makes it clear why.


Fuzhou Lu, Shanghai

Nothing beats the first ride into a new country. There is a true magic in watching another place unfurl before you.

From the airport, the bus passes through Pudong, a sprawling sister city for Shanghai. But even though it is new, it has been worn in. It doesn’t look like anywhere I’ve ever been before. Shanghai itself is a like a cleaner Chennai. But Chinese.

Nanjing Donglu, Shanghai

I say cleaner but all I mean is that the streets are better kept. From a distance, it is hard even to make Shanghai out in the smog, although, in fairness, the weather is foggy, so it is not all pollution.

The view from my hallway, Captain Hostel, Shanghai


Even the hustlers cannot spoil strolling on the Bund. This is the epitome of the mystic East for me, although of course it is famous for being the centre of Western interests in China. For me, it is the waterfront playground of Fu Manchu and other thugs, doing their dirty deeds in the shadows of the edifices of Western power.

On the Bund, I am picked up by Chong, who says he wants to practise his English. This is more or less feasible and I never have learned how to shrug off a persistent local. How rarely they turn out to be genuine though. I don’t think I should be surprised. Why would anyone be all that interested in befriending a tourist? If they are curious, they have TV.


Chong thinks it is a good idea to go to the Old Town. I was going anyway so I don’t mind so much that he tags along. He suggests taking tea in a teahouse he knows. I’m not keen but I can’t think of a kind way to say no. I like to stroll around, to take in place and people. I don’t need or want a guide. That spoils it for me. The Old Town is extremely commercialised and packed with mostly Chinese tourists. I don’t know how much of it is really old and how much is renovated or simply imagined (more than a little is my guess) but it is impressive and different. The buildings, all flare and frills, are like nothing I’ve seen before.

Teahouse, Old Town, Shanghai

Chong’s “teahouse” seems to be an international pearl exhibition centre. I simply say that it doesn’t look like the kind of place I’d enjoy. He is more upset than you’d expect from someone whose suggestion of a place to stop for a cup of tea has been knocked back. Soon after, he says he must be getting home for lunch. He says something about how very expensive the taxi will be now he has walked all this way with me. Bye, I say.

Old Town, Shanghai


Subtle street sign, Nanjing Donglu, Shanghai

Two of my dormmates are at home in the hostel. One, an Englishman called Dave, has been in China for five months teaching English. I don’t think he has left the building except to buy beer all day. Maybe not all week. He seems utterly defeated by life. He makes desultory conversation but he’s overshadowed by Mark, a young Swiss lad. Who is barking. He cannot keep a single sentence on a straight track, telling endless stories, which veer from drinking with friends to his need to take a shower with a woman — any woman. I begin to understand why Dave is drinking so much.


Jade Buddha temple, Shanghai

Reclining Buddha

The mystery is how China ever became communist. Even the monks at the Jade Buddha temple are turning a pretty penny. The juxtaposition of statues of the Buddha and souvenir stalls is alarming.

Prayers for the dead in Jingan temple


French Concession, Shanghai

On Huaihai Lu, everyone is buying or selling. Mostly watches and bags. Every five paces a friendly voice cries Helloooooo, you want watch? Bag? DVD? My granny? I smile and say no. One of the few phrases I have learned in putonghua is wo bu yao. I don’t want it. The only guy who doesn’t want to sell me anything is the sweet potato baker. He is on the run from the street inspectors. Huaihai Lu is a flash shopping street in the middle of the French Concession. It’s a beautiful district of villas and 1930s tenement blocks, lining shady boulevards. Although the area was never very French, it has a laidback midi feel. It looks rich. Many of the shops are chic boutiques. To support them, someone must have money. Shanghai is more affluent than I had expected. In India, there was a huge gulf between the middle class and the poor majority. Here it seems that rampant capitalism is pulling everyone along. No wonder there are so many people laughing and smiling on the streets. It must be a great time to live here, as the shackles of Maoist austerity are pushed aside.


Shanghai from Jinmao Tower

From the 88th floor of the Jinmao Tower. I have a panoramic view of smog. I could probably see the whole of Shanghai from up here if it weren’t smothered in a brown blanket.

Des res, Shanghai

The chaotic, hornhonking, whirling mass of cars, buses, trucks and scooters is responsible. The streets are insane, much better to be whisked around in a taxi than to try to walk across. The crossings are patrolled by traffic assistants, who try vainly to prevent the Shanghainese from running in front of cars, or the cars from considering the red lights advisory. There seems to be a law that cars have right of way if they are turning through a crossing, although I suspect it is only the law of the jungle.

Fangbang Lu

If you dodge the cars, you must contend with the scooter¬–bike cavalcade, which rushes across the crossing about two seconds before a green light. Bikes often ignore traffic signals altogether, and you’ll only get a mass of them where they think someone in authority might be looking or at busy junctions where even the intrepid Shanghai bicyclist fears to pedal.


"Scenic" West Lake, Hangzhou

It is lonely sometimes to be on your own when you are travelling, particularly in a place where just about no one speaks English. So I was pleased to meet up with Jann, a German student who is in my dorm, in the Captain Hostel’s bar. The bar has a fantastic view of Pudong, whose skyline is ablaze with light at night. One of the skyscrapers becomes a screen for ads. A few drinks become a lot of drinks later in the concourse of our floor. Half the hostel turned up. Inevitably, someone had a guitar.

Tai chi in the park

So I caught the train to Hangzhou with a hangover that would make a whale wince. I talked for an hour with Jian, a Chinese woman who was taking her parents to Hangzhou for the weekend. She is pushing the region because she wants them to move down from Shaanxi province. She said she liked Shanghai because of its clean air. I let her talk about herself and her love of shopping (easily indulged in Shanghai). She had a beautiful smile. A lot of Chinese women are attractive — they run counter to the stereotype, in all sorts of size and shape of face: Westerners’ problem has always been in any case not that we cannot tell one Asian from another but that we cannot easily remember them again. (This is simply because we use eyes and nose as primary distinguishing features but Asians are more readily distinguished — and distinguish each other — by hairline and shape of face.)

Orioles Singing in the Willows Park, Hangzhou


Pagoda in the West Lake, Hangzhou

The Chinese have a belief, it seems, that everything is improved by music, particularly horribly tuneless mushy RnB and pseudoclassical of a Jean Michel Jarre plays Mantovani type. So the view of Hangzhou’s West Lake, a beautifully scenic stretch of water backdropped by mountains, one of Chinese tourists’ favourite destinations, is accompanied by something Vangelis probably knocked up in the bath one Sunday night. Even the train journey is punctuated by music, which is at least a distraction from the symphony of hawking, squawking, mobile phoning, shouting and begging that ensures my head is still throbbing at Hangzhou. The view is pretty, but it is foggy, so I will have to try again in the morning.

Fine weather for boating


A shop, Hangzhou

Wushan is Chinese tourist heaven and something close to hell on Earth for anyone sensitive to loud noises and crowds. Rows of food stalls sell unidentifiable meat on a stick. In some places I know it is chicken because of the many chickens hanging from the stall. I have cause once more to think about why you don’t see many dogs around the place. India is swarming with mangy street dogs but here, bar a few pets, there are no dogs at all. Perhaps they shoot them. Perhaps they do the same to beggars, because I have not seen too many of them either. But China is poor — the flash shops and new developments don’t change that. Take a bus (the Chinese, like the Indians, would consider what we think a full bus luxuriously spacious, with room for at least another 50 people) and you realise that. In rich countries, people do not take public transport because they don’t find it convenient. In poor ones, they don’t have any option.

Off Wushan is an “old street”, a row of restored (or downright fake) Qing houses. Like Yuyuan in Shanghai, this is a tourist trap, but all the same it is fascinating to wander through, to see what is on sale (all sorts of tat but also giant roots in jars, tea of a bewildering variety of types, fake antiques, jewellery and the ubiquitous watches: “hellooooo, Rolex”).


I am taking a boat to Suzhou this evening, which is a curious time, I suppose, for a service that is fundamentally for tourists to leave. I will only have an hour or two to see the scenery. There won’t be much. On the train to Hangzhou, all I could see were endless, very flat fields, some paddy, with lonely farmers (wearing those wide, conical hats, to my delight) and the sprawling towns of northern Zhejiang. These were interesting to look at for two reasons. First, the contrast between the enormous tenement blocks, sometimes in groups of a dozen, two dozen identical blocks of what must have been hundreds of flats, and the cute houses, featuring a central spire sort of thing (I don’t know what they’re called but they look very much like the small spire of a country church in Iceland, except with windows). Second, the glimpses of country life I had from my seat: a bicyclist lugging a huge load of wood, old men playing cards, boats on a canal. It was a countryside oddly bereft of livestock, but I think this is because this is largely a cereals-growing area and has little pasture. Maybe it was just an artefact of where the railway passes: whenever you have only a small glimpse of another place you must try not to read too much into it — if a man strikes a dog, it doesn’t mean all Chinese are cruel to animals; if another shoves his wife along a path, it doesn’t mean all men treat women roughly; and so on. Mind you, the stuff about “face” seems to be just so much bollocks. I’ve seen several raging arguments in the street of a kind you just don’t often see back home. In one case, a man threw a small wooden chair at a woman, enraged for a reason that escaped me. Why he was even carrying it — this was the kind of chair you might sit on at primary school or in church — was a mystery, but then so much is.

Could you all please excuse me, I have a boat to catch


My cabin on the boat to Suzhou

If you could not guess for yourself, Hangzhou downtown is not a good place to be in a hurry on a Saturday afternoon. There are about half as many cabs as people waiting for them, so I walked the length of Yan’an Lu to get to the boat dock. At least I proved an entertainment for the locals, some of whom found me highly amusing, collapsing into giggles. Still, here I am, surrounded by squawking, overexcited Chinese, about to cruise the Grand Canal in a boat just the other side of seaworthy. But it’s the Grand Canal! To me, this is one of the magical parts of China, an enormous project to link the north and south, used since the seventh century to move people and goods through the major population centres of eastern China.

The Grand Canal at Hangzhou


I think the shoeshine man may have cursed my shoes. A ragged but not wholly done-in man approached me near my hostel in Shanghai. He gestured with his shoeshine brush. No, no, I said. I don’t want it (although I had become confused about the words for want — yao — and please — qing — so what I was saying was “I not please”, which I suppose could be interpreted as “I’m not inviting you” (but not by him). He sprayed some gunk on my shoes and I said no, no. So he held up two fingers and I said okay. I couldn’t, surely, deny this man the chance to earn 40¢. So he polished the shoes and even glued them in a couple of places that they were becoming loose. He finished and I fished out the two kuai. He was outraged and wrote on the palm of his hand 2–0–0. I said no, you have to be kidding, you said two. No, two tens, he said, 20, but with the glue… But if the Chinese mean 20, they say 20. I said, no way, you can have the two. He was insistent. Look, he gestured, I used glue. I do not know where he was buying glue that cost 180 kuai for two squirts (although it’s done a good job holding my shoes together). I held out two hands, one with the two kuai, the other making a zero. You can have two or nothing, I said. I made as though to walk away. He was furious, spitting with rage. I was tired of this, because I do have a sense of “face” and I don’t like people shouting at me in the street. So I gave him three and turned away. He muttered something ugly sounding and held up his little finger in a way that made it clear this was the Chinese fuck-you. So I said fuck you too and was gone.

The thing is though, my sturdy, comfortable shoes almost overnight became painful to walk in and I developed a blister, which has been inconvenient given how much walking I’ve been doing. To my horror, I find the sole of my shoe has nearly worn through, a disaster in a country whose biggest shoe size would barely fit the average Westerner. My feet are not average and it’s hard enough finding shoes in Brisbane. So I’m praying to Buddha, the Tao, six types of dragon and my ancestors that my poor shoes hold up.


Suzhou downtown

How best to celebrate one’s national day? Well, I wouldn’t know, the English being so scared of being mistaken for chauvinists that we do not have one, but for the Chinese, the answer is simple: shop. I wish I could join them: a big supermarket would be nice. But I can’t even buy a bag of plums. I try twice but I am weary of haggling and my inner tightwad will not pay more than I would back home.

Even the constant drizzle doesn’t put off the locals. More people than I have ever seen in one place gather in Suzhou’s shopping streets. I plan to see some sights but it’s no use in this fog.

Suzhou downtown

Because it’s a week’s holiday for the Chinese, my travel plans are rooted. There is no train to Yantai until the sixth, and then I can have a standing ticket. Standing for 16 years doesn’t appeal. So I book a flight to Beijing. They’re going cheap because of massive overcapacity so I can get there for a bit more than a hundred bucks. Perhaps I will carry on to the terracotta warriors but in any case, I can’t say I’m dismayed to be taking a short flight rather than a long train journey.

Daoist temple, Suzhou

Scary Daoist god

The Literature God plus two


Canalside, Suzhou

Once the drizzle and fog lift, Suzhou reveals itself as a pretty town, shot through with canals and sleepy back alleys. Here you can sit by the water and listen to the orioles sing. Early in the morning, I went to the Garden of the Master of the Nets. I had been woken up by a small German child, who did not seem to mind that I did not answer all her questions. I understand German quite well if it’s spoken slowly but a small child’s rapid-fire inquisition is too much of a stretch. I was glad to have gone early because the garden is small and was quickly filled by tour groups. Given how few Europeans you see on the street, it’s amazing how many are actually on holiday here.

Views of the Master of the Nets Garden, Suzhou

If by garden you are thinking grass, trees and flowers, by the way, you need to adjust your image. Chinese formal gardens are harmoniously arranged collections of buildings, courtyards, ponds, rockeries and bushes. Still, it was quite attractive, and the big pond in the middle made a stunning view. I will be looking at a couple more, at least.

Couple's Garden, Suzhou

The contrast between the smaller gardens, such as the Master of Nets Garden and the Couple’s Garden, and the Humble Administrator’s Garden is striking. Where the former two feel intimate, showing a careful use of limited space, the latter sprawls. It is a major attraction in Suzhou, with a flash ticket office, and attracted huge holiday crowds. Having plodded through the old city to get to it (about 5 km from my hostel, plus I had walked a fair bit round and about in the morning), I was quite leg-weary, although with travel and hostels for later in the week sorted out, I was in too good spirits to get too annoyed with the Chinese for walking in front of my camera on each occasion I saw a good photo or for barging me aside when they saw one or even for yelling at each other (for people whose major religions centre around the quest for peace, the Chinese sure do like to pump up the volume).

Views of the Humble Administrator's Garden, Suzhou


Sheqian Jie, Suzhou

The best thing about my day was that I found a veggie restaurant with a waitress who spoke some English. She brought me an enormous amount of food for 20 yuan. The way to a man’s heart is without question through his stomach, so I now officially love Suzhou.

Bridge, Suzhou


Pan Men, Suzhou

I had planned to visit Zhouzhuang today but instead I have chosen to do nothing much. I woke up far too early and I feel tired. Why early? It turns out I am sharing with a couple of young Germans, who had a long, loud conversation at sixish. I don’t do sixish.

I had a boring evening. My previous night’s drinking partner, a Pole called Slavko, had been stricken all day with a hangover. Well, with brandy at 15 kuai a bottle, there’s a real temptation to overindulge. Also, his friends, who had been friendly the night before, had obviously tired of my company, because they spent the evening speaking Polish. On TV was pingpong, which is not and never will be a spectator sport.

Ruigang Pagoda, Suzhou

I am trying to get a coffee. I am in a pizza shop that promises espresso and other delights. But I am learning that what is promised and what is delivered are not always the same thing. I ask for a coffee with milk. The waitress asks the cook do they have it (I’m guessing that’s what she asked — she might have been saying “Let’s fuck with the foreign devil”). The cook says no, it seems. But I can have cappuccino. I wait for 15 minutes. The waitress comes back. There is no cappuccino. But I can have coffee with milk.

View of Suzhou from Ruigang Pagoda

Pan Men, Suzhou

At Pan Men, the last remaining city gate, there are performances of pingtian — Suzhou-style ballad singing. A man and a woman play traditional instruments that in effect, if not in looks, are like banjos — deeper, hers higher and more intricate. They duet in the local Wu dialect, incomprehensible to me and, I think, most of the Chinese tourists. It’s oddly affecting, the singers’ voices ache with yearning and sighing longing. Pan Men is superbly packaged — a tourist precinct that encloses several sights in the southwestern corner of town. For those who like a taste of history, it is perfect. In a pavilion in a small garden in the precinct, an old man — perhaps 60 — is talking to two young girls, who are listening attentively. I can’t help wondering what he is telling them.


I am sorry to be leaving Suzhou. If I had more time, I would spend longer here. I am not tired of it. I cannot say it is particularly friendly because I am isolated and insulated by language and wealth. This latter idea started me thinking about the people who live down the muddy back alleys of the old town. Because I thought about the man who had the Couple’s Garden built so that he could live in seclusion in his island right in the middle of old Suzhou. Life looks hard there because, I suppose, I associate dirt and brokenness with hard living. In the West, if a place is falling apart, that is a sure sign that it is rough. What can their lives be like though, these people who live and die in Suzhou? Do they spend all their days playing mah jong or cards in their front rooms or out in the street? They seem happy: I see lots of people laughing. And of course they are in their element. They know how things work, who is who.

Old Town, Suzhou

What kind of people are they? It’s impossible to penetrate the barrier of language and culture to get any idea. I simply cannot imagine. It’s easy enough to resist the temptation to think them lacking in compassion because they have no manners (and there are so many people in the West that have neither). Harder to imagine how they can construct complex thought in their spare, unnuanced language. I was never quite convinced by the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, yet it is hard to imagine what thought even is without words to think it is. Even feelings are strongly mediated by language, in that we must think about them if we are to know what they are.

You wonder what they make of their world. Does it frustrate them that crossing a road requires weaving and bobbing to avoid cars, scooters and bikes, which come from all directions regardless what the signals show? Do they crave peace in their noisy cities? Does the rapid change, which must be ripping, apart their world, making it almost each day harder to interpret, scare them or enliven them? (We have all heard that it is a Chinese curse that one should live in interesting times.) The change seems wild and unevenly applied — some have become rich, others have remained dirt poor. The countryside has moved to fill massive cities (even Suzhou — “the Venice of the East” — has large industrial districts that must have attracted many from the land), but with wages so low, the rural poor have simply become the urban poor.

Canal, Suzhou

Tonight in the vegetarian restaurant, I see an old lady — at least in her 80s — out with a crowd of family members. She is having the time of her life and they are loving it along with her. This time of year is big for families, already central in Chinese people’s life, and on the day of the Moon Festival — a couple of days from now — those who are away from their home feel a deep yearning for it. Today I spoke to my children on the phone. I understand yearning. Whatever I do or don’t know about people, I know what it is to yearn. I am like China, restless and difficult. But I am finding that whenever China seems hard, I turn a corner and it becomes easier.

I do not pretend to understand the people who live in Suzhou. I will not think when I have finished my trip that I know “the Chinese”. I am only seeing the tourist towns, a glimpse of a particular face of China. And after all, I have known Englishpeople all my life and I do not pretend to understand them either. But I see the mother wiping her child’s nose in the street, the father on the bus carefully keeping his daughter from catching herself on the straps of my pack, and I renew my faith that whatever else we are, at base we are human beings, the same mass of fear, confusion and deep reserves of love under the layering of language, colour and way of life that makes us seem different.


Shanghai intersection

I always enjoy coming back to a place. Even a brief acquaintance will have made it familiar. You have figured out the transport and know where some of the roads go. Sights are comforting: ah, you say, there’s good old Jinmao Tower. It is almost as though you have always known the place.


Shanghai is different though. It’s swarming with Chinese. It is nearly impossible to walk along Nanjing Donglu; people are taking up every inch of pavement and spilling into the road. Even in the pedestrianised section, it is a battle to make headway. Every three paces someone shoves a card with pictures of handbags or watches into my face. “Bag?” they yell. “Shoes, watch?” And then more quietly, “Massage?”

The Bund, Shanghai

But does anyone say “Gaffer tape?” Oh no. I have no idea where I’d find it. The Hualian supermarket has a stunning range of dry biscuits — although nothing that looks like you’d feed it to something with fewer than four legs — scissors, pencils (which I buy for C although they are not particularly distinctive, but hey, they are made in China) and a ton of other stuff, but no tape of any kind. I know, I know. Why didn’t I pack gaffer tape?