Sunday, August 28, 2005

pollution that falls on my nose and eyelashes

these are the last of my favourite Chinese things:

Who doesn't love the wilderness? With all the mountains, rivers and such you'd have to be some kind of misanthrope or my friend Jon to be in China and not appreciate the outdoors. Problem is, nature can be messy. For example, what if you go to a desert, only to find that it's covered in sand (sand can get everywhere)? You could always rent gaiters...

tennis on a rope
Ah China, mother of so many great inventions but so careless with them. Take football. It's more than 2000 years since the Chinese first toed around leather balls for the emperor's amusement. The British at this time were collecting tribute for the Romans and having their sewerage practices reworked against their will. And then, as with their navy, the Chinese threw it all away. So now a country of 1.3 billion is left with nothing to do on the weekend but ping pong, badminton, a badminton/tai chi hybrid with fabric bats and heavy balls, and hackysack. Oh, and tennis on a rope. You play this by yourself in an empty carpark. Hit the ball away from you, wait for its elasticised rope to send it hurtling back at entirely unpredictable angles, then duck, retrieve and repeat. When the British cotton on, they can call.

electric pushbikes
We've said enough about crossing the road in China. But electric pushbikes (silent, fast, heavy enough to maim you)? Not so welcome a development.

enigmas on legs
They're big, they don't know how to cross the road and they don't always wear gaiters. They're surprised when Nescafe costs more than brewed coffee. They carry big bags all the time. Not many of them seem to want to buy whitening cream, although they are always looking for something mysterious called 'deodorant'. They don't take the cable car. Sometimes, they aren't even thrilled when you shout after them, "Hello! Hellooo!". They like things like personal space and a free press and dairy products. Foreigners. Who's to fathom them?

Saturday, August 27, 2005

whiskers on kittens

some more of my favourite Chinese things:

megaphone tourism
In China there is a lot of noise. There are a lot of people so in many ways this goes without saying. Also, of course, for the Olympics in 2008 the entire country is being rebuilt. Also, there is full-level employment so many needless 'jobs' are given to people with whistles. Also, everybody shouts. It follows then that when you are leading a tour group (of perhaps 6 to 12 people) through an art gallery or Confucian temple, you'll need a megaphone. And you'll need to bellow into it. If you didn't, someone who had gone to the toilet could miss a bit. And then what would happen?

There are dumplings, and dumplings are fine. But then there are baozi, a cousin of the dumpling which doesn't get nearly as much attention. Baozi are small balls of mince and chives wrapped in a light dough. They are cooked on the streetside in bamboo steamers and dipped in a sauce of soy, vinegar, chilli and garlic. For breakfast you can have them with porridge.

After your evening meal there are a number of things you can do in Beijing. You can pop into your pyjamas and take a stroll. You could join your neighbours and compare silly dogs. You might queue by the park to read the day's newspapers on noticeboards. Or if you're old enough and one of your friends has a tape player, you and your partner can join a bunch of other old couples and waltz into the night.

squeaky shoes
"Hi Zheng Ting." squeak. "You look good. Morning exercises go all right?" squeak. "And how's your little one?" squeak squeak. "He looks feisty, just like little Ruifeng was at his age." squeak squeak squeak. "You know, that's the thing about kids like ours. They're a nightmare to keep track of." squeak. "Lord knows what we did before you could get these shoes with the squeak in each heel." squeak squeak squeak squeak squeak. "Oh, listen, the little tyke's off towards the subway. The sweetheart."

Friday, August 26, 2005

brown paper packages tied up with string

Now that we're almost done in the country, these are a few of my favourite Chinese things:

crotchless pants for kids
Foreigners, bless their inscrutable hearts. They have this thing about putting kids in nappies. Why would you do this? Why, when at every clothes shop you can pick up pants with a gaping hole in place of the seat? "Need to go, little feller? Pull up a paving stone." See? You've cut out the middle man.

full-face visors
When you're cycling in traffic, sunglasses can be a problem, all slipping around your ears and so on. Of course, a hat doesn't always shade your eyes. But what if there was a foot-long tinted visor you could pull down over your face, making you look only a little like a bike-riding welder? Oh, it's been done?

crop tops for him
Isn't your stomach the one body part that really swelters in summer? No? It is for me. That's why I roll up my t-shirt of an evening. Around nipple height does the trick, I find. Then I roll up my trousers, step out in my shiny pointy shoes and let the night's cooling breeze work its magic.

fish-fragrant sauce
I don't know quite what this is, except that it isn't fish and doesn't taste like fish and doesn't smell like fish. What I do know is it's healed the rift between me and eggplant.


Travel plans have been a little fluid* lately. Finally - we got a scheme. We leave China on Monday morning. There will be a pit stop in Mongolia (mutton, anyone?). Then on Wednesday night we take the 36-hour train to Irkutsk. Soon, with luck, there shall be a phone number, an address and some slightly more static adventures.

*Obviously, this is code. What it means is, we've spent days trudging Beijing competing for train tickets against 25 million university students.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Xi'an (I like to think the ' indicates a clucking sound)

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

bring on the revolution

By now Kathy and I have eating in China worked out. If there is someone else eating in our restaurant and that someone is eating something which isn't obviously offal or pig fat, then we point. If there's nobody we pore through the menu looking for characters we recognise like 'meat', 'noodles' and 'magic salt'.
At dinner last night in Xi'an there were meals at which to point but our waiter was having none of it. He dug into the backroom for a 22-year-old English-Chinese dictionary. The meal was fine (shredded pork, spinach and garlic, since you ask) but the dictionary has done wonders for my Chinese.
Now I can say, for example, "We should combine our study of the scientific works of Comrade Mao Zedong with that of the scientific writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin." Which should get things going at parties.
And if at those parties I fancy a chat I'm again well equipped. I can say, "Let's hold talks on a reciprocal basis," while remaining evasive about what exactly I do for a living. "I... engage in various economic undertakings."
Later in the evening, were someone to say, "Matt, you seem like a top sort of bloke. Why don't we measure you up for a giant gold statue and pop it on top of the railway station?" (it's amazing how often this exact idea gets proposed. Does this happen to everyone?) I can say, "The party forbids all form of personality cult".
And finally, as the night winds down and conversation turns to hopes and ambitions, I can now express my own in a single Chinese sentence - "The successful launching of three satellites with one carrier rocket".
It hasn't happened yet but I'm also looking forward to the moment I'm asked for my views on the revolution and who to put up first against the wall. Then I will be able to reply, "Take small and medium cities and extensive rural areas first, take big cities later. Or does this go without saying? Now, getting back to your statue idea. Perhaps we could come up with something smaller..."

some traditional Chinese sayings (from a dictionary we might have mentioned in a restaurant in Xi'an)

  • the stairs creak but no one comes down (perhaps this man is unintelligent)
  • to burn the beanstalk to cook beans (to act without a great deal of forethought)
  • when the city gate catches fire, the fish in the moat come to grief (it's always the innocent who suffer. Also, the fish)
  • no one goes to the temple for no reason (everybody wants something)
  • when a wall is about to collapse, everyone gives it a shove (now everybody's a hero)
  • the Guizhou donkey has exhausted its tricks (you, my friend, have got nothing)
  • let he who put the bell on the tiger take it off (it's Li Feng's fault, let Li Feng sort it out)
  • plant melons and you get melons
  • when the tree falls, the monkeys scatter (when someone powerful is brought down, the hangers-on disappear)
  • like a dog's tail joined to sable (a poor end to a fine thing; for example, the last few seasons of Red Dwarf)
  • a centipede does not fall over even when dead (this has just to do with centipedes, I think)

Sunday, August 14, 2005


Saturday, August 13, 2005

abandon $3.20, all ye who enter here

Ever wondered where bad Buddhists go when they die? No, not the self-help industry. I thought that too. In fact Buddhist hell is a fearsome place where the cries of the damned echo around dark and airless corridors. I know, because I've been there.
Buddhist hell is underneath a temple in Zhongwei, Ningxia province, in tunnels built as bomb shelters during the Cultural Revolution. At least a version of it is.
Buddhist hell starts with a hall of mirrors. This I imagine is to disorientate the condemned, luring them into Buddhist Hades in the belief they are queuing for a carnival. You know what they say about the devil: great deceiver. And good with mirrors. Step on up, it's carny time. Try the popcorn. Hey, your legs look great in that mirror. This man? No, he's just the gatekeeper. Ignore the bull's head and mace.
On entering Buddhist hell bad Buddhists are set to in a variety of ways.
They might be thrown onto a bed of nails then roasted from beneath. Or skewered with tridents. Or have their tongues sawn out by demons in glow-in-the-dark body paint.
They could be held by the feet and drowned in boiling blood while wails and groans swirl around them like dying machinery. What with the blood I don't imagine they'd hear much.
Others may be sawn lengthways in half, decapitated, have their eyeballs gouged out or be given over to donkeys for unspeakable purposes. Whatever's available, I guess.
In Zhongwei Buddhist hell is 20 yuan and there is no discount, not even for good Buddhists or the elderly. Nobody said Buddhist hell would be fair.

Friday, August 12, 2005


Sunday, August 07, 2005

one day in the life

Out of Songpan, in northern Sichuan province, we rented horses and set off for four days in the hills. Each day went a little like this:

The ride begins: just us, the wilderness, five Chinese, two Frenchmen, eight kilograms of potatoes, and a Tibetan guide per head.
Kathy's horse is named Freckles, due to its pleasing colouring. Mine is named Arse, after which end of the line he prefers. Arse has strong opinions on the issues of hills and water. He is against them. He spends most of his time trying to eat and considers trotting something that other horses get up to. The exception is when he finds himself blocked by a horse in front. Then he leaps blindly and spastically forwards, as if running were a favourite pasttime he was being cruelly denied. When the other horse trots on, Arse forgets his love of speed and returns to contemplating the hill ahead with malice.

Hungry, thirsty and chafing in new and unusual places, we alight (what? It's a horse-riding term) by a riverside. The largest of our guides disappears into the woods with an axe and a grin. In minutes tents are made from tarpaulins and chopped-down pine trees.
A fire is stoked with the help of a former goat, outlasting its mortal existence in the form of a bellows.

There are walks and conversation. Several of the guides' wives have two or more husbands - usually brothers - so it's not such a big deal that they are away for 4-5 days on the trot. Convenient, polygamy. Lily, one of the Chinese women, has an irrational fear of animal fur. One of the French chaps speaks a dialect in which the syllables of many words are reversed.
Shoes are dried on sticks by the fire. The horses are fed kidney beans from old basketballs.

Chat among the guides quickly disintegrates into throwing berries at each other. Soon they are poking each other with sticks, pouring water on each other's hats or in each other's crotches, and wrestling. It is just like school camp.

Tea is cabbage, potatoes and a home-cooked bread. In traditional Tibetan style everything is ever so slightly undercooked.

It's a clear night so a fire is built outside. T-shirts are swapped for sheepskin tunics. Beanies for the foreigners, Mao hats for the guides.
Out comes the baijou, a Chinese rice spirit brewed in the mouth of hell. It is 10 minutes before one of the guides decides it would be an excellent idea to hurdle the fire, which is already of bonfire proportions.
He falls in, then somersaults on down the hill, trailing burning pine branches behind him. Against the odds, no damage is done. The other guides view this as a challenge. A line is formed. Kathy's guide goes first:

Trousers are extinguished and we settle around the fire for a sing-song.
Everyone contributes either a song or a poem. We are treated to Snow, by Mao, which is about snow and how nice he thinks it is. Kathy attempts The Owl and the Pussycat, which causes great hilarity due to French and Tibetan recognition of the word 'pussy'. A Tibetan song gets high rotation, based almost entirely around the greeting 'tashi dele' (there is nothing that phrase can't do).
When my turn comes, the lobe of my brain set aside for music whirs for a moment, panics, then packs up and goes home. These are the only singable songs I could think of:

  • Mud, glorious mud
  • The quartermaster's stores
  • that Tiddas song with no actual English words
  • Molly Malone
  • What shall we do with the drunken sailor?
  • Waltzing Matilda

It could have been worse. Once at the tail end of a Russian feast I was called upon for a national song, and all my vodka-addled brain could come up with was the theme song to Neighbours. With a bottle of homebrew inside them many people found it quite moving.


Thursday, August 04, 2005

here, Microsoft

To Chengdu's panda keepers it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. For $5000 or so, wealthy panda-loving folk can adopt their own panda and have naming rights. It worked fine to begin with: pandas named Feng Feng, Mei Mei and so forth. Of course, now you have pandas called Kimberley Clark (who comes with his own convenient dispenser), Microsoft (who has never reproduced due to incompatibility with all other pandas) and Enron (jokes on the back of a postcard, please, to 'What were you thinking?' c/o Panda Research Breeding Centre, Chengdu, People's Republic).

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

bamboo killers, Chengdu