Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Posthumous consideration of China, part one - getting lost amongst a sea of service points

China has the largest population in the world and the fastest growing economy, when the prospect of traveling to China first entered my head I was fearful, almost put off. Yet in my 30th year I had faced no challenges, and had failed to mark the event in any way. This was to be my marathon, my big party, and an acknowledgement to myself that I had reached womanhood. In fact my 30th birthday was such a flop that had I failed to make a go of China, lost all my luggage, been robbed and come home I doubt I would have come close to how I felt on that fateful day. In fact China on the contrary scarcely proved any of my preconceptions, it was much safer than London, even as a tourist. The scams were much more subtle, the tea house ploy, where 'language students' invited you for (ridiculously) overpriced tea in order to become better acquainted with the cultures and accents of our gracious land, only to present you with a rather large bill. Fortunately this scam was only played out in certain hotspots and aimed at the more masculine of the species, one with a penchant for cute Chinese girls, of which there were many. I did however get accosted fresh from the metro station - looking every bit the tired vulnerable tourist, it was when I was asking a guard for directions - two women with quick tongues became rather interested as to where I was headed and wanted to show me where to go. There friendliness baffled me, as it didn't tally with their hardened faces, it wasn't my prejudice but my natural instincts operating effectively. I declined and pressed on, yet still they followed me up the road maintaining their faux friendly manner, proof that they wanted something from me. That was Beijing, in a large population, there will always be an element of people who will try and make money from deception. Two separate guests at the hostel (both male) became victim of the same tea (or one case coffee) plot during my stay.

China on the whole is extremely safe, especially when it comes to theft, no one likely to mug you, although there was a glut of pick pockets in Xi'an. The culture lends itself more to trickery and entrepreneurialism as a means of income, which is fine by me. Service points are useful on occasion, although have a tendency to be overpriced. Arriving fresh off a sleeper train in Leijiang I encountered a sea of 'entreprenuers' all offering the same service at varying prices and language barriers, which was intimidating. Especially when you're the only 'white face' and there are 60 of them, it's 5am and still pitch black, I’m desperate need of a pee, so I carry on walking, straight past the vultures wanting to make bread and look for a different service. A bus perhaps, but there is no station guard and barely anyone speaks English. I have just been to the loo with my backpack still attached, there is no safe place to leave it and the floor is disgusting, struggling to get my jeans back on I realise half the liquid didn't make it into the hole in the ground.

Wanting to get out of here I search for the meanest guy who looks like he may have stepped foot out of the province, and ask him the necessary information. Shocked by my attempts to converse, he delivers his response without hesitation. I’m on the bus, and haven't a clue where I’m going, when to get off, what to look for, who to ask. I merely pull open the book and point with a tired smile to anyone that will entertain. Someone tells me to get off, unsure whether it's a ploy to get you into their brother's bakery for buns, I hesitate, a relaxed hesitation mind, I’m waiting to gauge reaction - the bus grinds to a halt and everyone is waiting for me to exit. I’m now wandering the streets asking school children for directions; there English tends to be more advanced than the average adult. They seem bewildered by my presence and offer a finger, mostly aimed in different directions, it appears they do not know, but want to save face. It is a given that Chinese people out of politeness will offer a solution/answer even when they have none to give. So I found myself wandering round aimlessly 'like the great economy rocket of China, not knowing where I was going'. I came upon a hotel, which was open, eventually the hostel I staying at, sent someone to come and collect me, I was about twelve minutes away, not bad considering. The hostel is a Naxi house near the foot of the Himalayas, I want to sleep and shower, but its daytime and it's too cold/early to face showering outside. I don't change. I eat fruit and head off into the mountains, stepping back in time to a small village where I meet Dr Ho, a famous Chinese herbalist and a wonderful man, warm and welcoming, although less enthusiastic to my Japanese companions. I watch the cows being herded down the street, gaze up at the snow-capped mountains and drink baiju with the local men, they stare at us eating rice noodles. I feel privileged to be at this very point in time and wonder how long this place will remain as it is.

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