28th October 2010

I am in Shanghai, trying to find a cheap way to get to Korea. The weather sucks, as it has through most of my stay in China.

What else? Convalescence and customs paperwork. I had lunch at Malone's restaurant today. Good place. Actually, Malone’s is run by a woman called Amy. Malone seems to be out of the picture. A student there told me I look like Harrison Ford. This is an outrage. It is obvious to anyone that I look like a young Mathew McConaughey.

I have nothing to do for a couple of days but sit in the window of this coffee shop and write up my thoughts. I have experienced moments in China so surreal that I can barely believe that they happened.

It has been interesting to see the New China and to make a first hand assessment of its agenda. First off, the Chinese clearly deserve credit for inventing fireworks, prostitution and wire-fu. However, rather than being grateful to us for giving them steam-powered television and whatnot, they seem hell bent on world domination.

I don't want to be alarmist but the leaders of the communist party are, at this very moment, drinking blood out of panda skulls and plotting the overthrow of the free world. With the evil that typifies their nature they engineered the credit crunch and led the conspiracy to rob Chuck Liddell on Dancing with the Stars. Plus, reports prove that the Chinese regularly sacrifice children in satanic rituals.

To call me is biased is missing the point. I'm merely agreeing with the truth. No doubt I'll be first against the wall come the takeover, but in the meantime I'll be reclining on the rolling meadows of the moral high ground, sipping the chilled martini of righteousness.

Hong Kong
First stop was Hong Kong. This is a place where you can really feel the humming of the urban machine. There is a tremendous sense of movement - traffic in the streets, people up and down escalators, water down pipes, sewage into drains and information along wires.

As always, I stayed in Chungking Mansions, the only place with cheap accommodation in the entire city. It's a seething hive of activity and an established haven for backpackers and dodgy Nigerian businessmen. Not much has changed since the last time I was there. The Indians still run the show, selling cheap electronics and blasting Bollywood soundtracks out of little restaurants they operate from storage units on the second floor.

It was good to see Kieran, an old friend from university who now lives in Hong Kong. If you want to live the expat life, this is the place to do it. He has paid a stratospheric amount of money for a respectable apartment in the mid levels, which made me curious about how the property market functions here. From what I can gather, the government owns all the land and leases it sparingly to a cartel of property developers. By keeping supply tight, it can auction the leases at inflated prices, which act as a hidden tax on the population. This system makes huge sums of money for the government and the cartel, and results in massive overdevelopment in certain areas, while large swathes of land sit empty. Good old Asia.

The Real China
Urban China is an ugly place. Tradition has lost the battle with progress. Give up any dreams you might have about the ancient and mysterious East. The China of tea and silk has long since been crushed under the boot heel of rampant development. Traditional wooden architecture and tree lined streets have disappeared and been replaced by high rises and trashy malls stuffed with hideous clothing, plastic jewelry, pirated DVDs, and what they imagine are Western-style baked goods. The new generation drives about in shiny cars and shouts into mobile phones. They spend very little time flying around in bamboo forests or running up walls.

There is little to distinguish one drab city from the next. They are all perpetually engulfed in a thick gray soup of exhaust fumes. The negative side of growth is everywhere - ugly buildings, too many cars and endless garbage. You can see the bones of the urban skeleton and the overwhelming impression is of grey indeterminate concrete. Despite the fact that the cities are incredibly ugly, they are less depressing than you might think because of their buzzing energy.

Where To Go
The ministry responsible for tourism should be dynamited. Steer clear of all villages and towns marketed as "traditional". They have all been face-lifted in the most charmless way imaginable. You see lots of ancient “2000-year old“ temples built out of reinforced concrete (the real ones were invariably torn down during the Cultural Revolution). The wonderfully dilapidated traditional food streets are gone, refurbished and sanitised into a modern walking street experience, with shop after endless shop selling mass-produced “crafts”, caricatures of celebrities and other unnecessary crap at outrageous prices. A new policy is to erect European Chinatown-style gateways everywhere on the assumption that tourists expect to see them. Pathetic.

All the National parks are decked out with unnecessary infrastructure. Concrete paths, bins every five meters, hundreds of signposts, cable cars, chairlifts, huge administrative buildings and endless cement barriers crudely disguised as tree trunks.

It might be worth giving a brief assessment of the top attractions in the country:

  • Terracotta Army - Many find it disappointing but I enjoyed it.
  • Jiuzhaigou – Fantastic, especially in the autumn.
  • Huang Shan – You have to be lucky with the weather.
  • Llasa – Unmissable.
  • Yangshuo – Pretty but overrun.
  • The Expo – Meh.
  • The Great Wall - Meh.
  • Forbidden city - Meh.
  • Pandas – Undeniably cute.

    My advice would be to forget the entire Eastern half of the country and focus on four provinces: Yunnan, Sichuan, Xinjiang and Tibet.

    Chinese Nationalism and the New World Order
    The pounding "China is coming" drumbeat has been sounding for years. The country makes an appearance in every conversation involving politics, economics and the environment, wearing a variety of hats - from emerging economic powerhouse to creepy, brainwashed mega-polluter.

    I would be much less concerned if it weren’t for the fact that the government is using nationalism and xenophobia as the key binding forces to preserve China's precious unity. The press still refers constantly to the 'humiliations' of the colonial period and obsesses about a conspiracy of western nations that is keeping the glorious motherland from assuming its rightful place as hegemon of the earth. In this world view, the Americans are arrogant upstarts, the Japanese are pure evil, and Europeans are immoral and have Aids.

    This has led to a firmly ingrained belief among the population that China is the only rightful superpower and soon everyone will be speaking Mandarin. I even read somewhere that Chinese children are being taught that Japan and Korea will be part of China in twenty years. Scary.

    The Chinese deserve to have the biggest economy in the world for the simple reason that they are the most numerous. The problem is that current predictions of a smooth and uninterrupted rise are unlikely to come about. The country has an enterprising, industrious population and I think there's no doubt it will eventually get there, but it won’t happen in a straight line. The vision of a dominant China is similar to that of a dominant Japan in the mid 80s. Economists were confidently predicting that the mighty 'Japan Inc' would obliterate all western industries and take over the world. Well?

    The irrational overconfidence that permeates the legend of the Chinese economic miracle will lead to significant social upheaval in the event of any setback. A society in which the people have no access to the levers of political power is not stable in any sense I can understand. The whole show could unravel like a knitted sweater caught on the exposed nail of economic realities.

    For the government, the obvious solution would be to deflect the attention of the public onto a foreign conspiracy and away from its own shortcomings. Add a dose of Middle Kingdom paranoia and a vast excess of young men from the one child policy, and you have volatile recipe. Just look at how hysterical the Chinese got about the rumour that the CIA started SARS.

    The communist party will do anything to stay in power, including engineering a war. All political structures are machines that work to expand their sphere of influence. That is their reason for existing. The people within them are not necessarily less ethical than anyone else, but they must work towards that goal or be replaced. A government will never voluntarily give up control of the media, the economy or a geographic region once it has established it. If incumbents in the west felt that they could get away with banning elections and remaining in power forever they would do so in a second.

    Corporations are similar. Their purpose is to increase profits. Expecting them to behave ethically is laughable. No public corporation will ever do anything for ethical reasons. When it appears that they are doing so it is because they feel it will ultimately improve profitability.

    Bottom line is that a superpower with a victim mentality, that feels the world owes it a favour, is a dangerous thing. I have a sneaky feeling that people may look back with nostalgia at a world where the nation with the big stick was a liberal democracy, not matter how flawed. Comments welcome. Usual rules...

    China Gripes
    I may as well address the myriad complaints that travellers have about this country. I will give each an annoyance rating out of ten.

  • Chinese Tour Groups: Huge battalions of Chinese tour groups infest every attraction. A stuffed toy on a stick indicates the source of an uninterrupted squawking commentary. The group itself is mostly made up of elderly couples or groups of young girls chittering and giggling like gremlins. They scurry around after the flag-waving automaton with the megaphone and spend most of their time rummaging through every item at every souvenir stall as though the only purpose of travel was to buy something from somewhere else. Everyone snaps pictures non-stop. Jesus Christ, the Chinese and their love of cameras. I'm not going to get into this issue. Suffice to say, there will be cameras in hell.

    Annoyance Rating 4/10. Ultimately, it's their country and they have a right to see it.

  • Toilets: Many Chinese think western toilets are disgusting because of the number of bottoms that have been wedged onto the seat before you. Fair point. However, it is worth mentioning that western toilets in China are a thousand times worse than elsewhere because of 1) Low standards of cleanliness; and 2) The fact that locals use them as though they were squatters by standing on the seat (and frequently missing the target). Also, I struggle to take lessons in hygiene from people who shit in the washbasins in KFC.

    The locals will often leave the door of the cubicle open while doing their business, which also disconcerts foreigners. It stems from the fact that in most of China a public toilet is merely a line of holes with no partitions. In Tibet you sometimes find a single long trench with everyone squatting in a line, bumping elbows and knees. One side of the trench is slightly higher than the other, so the waste flows like a mountain stream through a hole in the wall, usually into the food trough of a pig pen, I kid you not. It was a landmark travel experience when I first used one of these. There was clearly no room for him, but an old guy just pulled down his trousers and jammed his bare bottom between me and the next man to create space.

    Annoyance Rating 6/10. I wish I could unsee some of what I’ve seen.

  • Spitting: Deep throat hawking and then spitting on the floor is a universal practice in China. I’m told the government has been trying to get rid of it. If so, they have been profoundly unsuccessful. A variation is closing one nostril with a finger and then snorting the contents of your nose on the ground. It is truly disgusting. They do it everywhere. I have seen people spitting on the carpet in five star hotels. The floor of any public area, like a bus station waiting room, is invariably covered with spit, pomelo rinds, sunflower seed husks, egg shells and piss.

    Annoyance Rating 7/10.

  • Rudeness: The Chinese are legendary for their rudeness and I was looking forward to some comedy episodes. I have to say that the locals turned out to be exceptionally friendly and helpful for the most part, even when they spoke not a word of English. I think much of the problem comes from differing ideas of what constitutes rudeness. I remember a Swiss backpacker staring in horrified disbelief at an old Chinese guy in the dorm as he chain-smoked in bed, spat on the floor and turned on the main light at 3am. The point is - he didn't think it was rude.

    Annoyance Rating 2/10.

  • Toddlers: Chinese babies don’t wear nappies, instead they have crotchless jumpsuits, leaving their little bottoms entirely open to the air. They are encouraged to relieve themselves whenever they feel the urge - on a bus, the floor of an international airport or in a supermarket. The parent holds them at arms length while they do their business. Not nice.

    Annoyance Rating 5/10. I guess many locals can’t afford nappies, but for the love of God, at least find a corner.

  • Pushing: Elbowing, crowding, shoving, and jostling are common in supermarkets, banks, train stations and the like. If you leave the tiniest gap between you and the person in front, someone will immediately force their way in. To the novice, raised with the western idea of personal space, the crush at bus stops is almost beyond belief. The key is to wade in yourself. If you see it as a competition it’s actually pretty fun.

    Annoyance Rating 3/10. This habit comes from living in an overcrowded country and is really no big deal.

  • Staring: The smallest incident will draw a crowd in China. They throng together, hands folded behind their backs, all nattering and gawking away at some total non-event. They also constantly gape at foreigners and want to have pictures taken with you.

    Annoyance Rating 1/10. I don’t mind this in the least – China is totally non-multicultural and they are naturally curious.

  • Pollution: The pollution in China is legendary – the rivers are dead, the sky has been blotted out, the air is a toxic soup of deadly chemicals and half the population dies from respiratory illnesses.

    Annoyance Rating 10/10.

  • Table Manners: When I was growing up, I was constantly being told to use the cutlery properly, chew with my mouth closed, keep my elbows off the table and not play with my food. China liberates you from table etiquette. No-one gives a shit what you do. Go ahead – slurp your noodles, spit on the table, throw your napkin on the floor, bring the bowl to your mouth and use the chopsticks as a shovel. That’s what everyone else is doing.

    Annoyance Rating 4/10.

  • Animal Welfare: This is not a sentimental place. In some restaurants you can choose the specific dog you want to eat and give him a gentle pat on the head before he is taken into the kitchen and hacked to bits. There are indescribably filthy pigs roaming the streets in most Chinese villages that look more diseased than the monkey in Outbreak. Also, two words - Chinese medicine. I will reserve my blazing judgement of this nonsense for another time.

    Annoyance Rating 8/10.

  • Chinese Music: Hip-hop is the music of globalisation. I have heard local hip-hop in every country I have been to, barring Iraq and Pakistan. The Chinese version is without doubt the worst of the lot and they play it relentlessly on buses at full volume.

    Annoyance Rating 8/10. Totally unacceptable. Even the tuneless wailing of traditional Chinese music is preferable. I’ll say this: it’s better than Justin Bieber. But then so is the sound of rats eating your legs.

  • Communication: This is a major issue in China. Shopkeepers sneer with deliberate incomprehension at my carefully enunciated Mandarin phrases, so I am reduced to shouting in English. The standard of spoken English is abysmal. The school system requires them to learn verb declinations and vocabulary lists, but everything is decontextualised and they are never required to actually speak. The teachers are products of the same system and most have never met a native speaker, so they are equally bad.

    Annoyance Rating 3/10. English is largely irrelevant to their lives, so it’s hardly a surprise.

    Sichuan to Yunnan
    I was in Chengdu for the first week of October, which marks the anniversary of the Chinese republic. This means there are hordes of domestic tourists everywhere, hotels treble their prices and so forth. The streets were absolutely packed with shoppers for the whole week. I mean PACKED:

    There was all kinds of truly bizarre promotional stuff going on. Salesmen doing synchronized dance routines, fire eaters and parades of hundreds of teenage girls in matching uniforms holding placards.

    There was less in the way of marching soldiers and lines of tanks than I expected. Maybe that stuff was going on in Beijing. After a hellish visit to the Panda Sanctuary I decided to get the hell out.

    The Chengdu to Lijiang bus journey is the best thing I did in China. I did it with two French guys who were taking a break from their studies in Tianjin. The downside is that you will spend several days in buses. Be prepared for breakdowns, terrible hotels, terrible roads and some of the greatest scenery on earth. A view through the front windscreen:

    We had an excellent driver who drove masterfully and made blessed little use of the horn. The bus journey takes you through the heart of the big sky country that covers the far west of Sichuan. Grasslands with contentedly grazing yaks stretch out into the distance to a towering line of mountains, their snowy peaks catching the alpenglow long after the sun has set in the valley. You pass through a number of classic Tibetan border towns on the way, with prayer flags everywhere, shops selling yak heads, and red-robed monks smoking in teahouses.

  • Yading National Park is phenomenal. There is not a single word about it in the Lonely Planet, but I would say that the view down the valley to Chenresig is the finest I have ever seen. I took no pictures, but here is one taken by Mike Anderson a few years ago at the same time of year:

    My advice would be to go soon. They have just started to put in the usual crappy infrastructure, including wooden walkways across the meadows and a concrete road for golf-cart style buggies to carry tourists up the valley.

  • Deqin is another un-missable stop. There is a mountain vista from Fei-Lai to Miacimu that will take your breath away. Joseph Rock, the Austrian explorer who trekked the region for twenty years, described Miacimu - "the most glorious peak my eyes were ever privileged to see... like a castle in a dream, an ice palace of a fairy tale."

  • Zhongdian, now renamed Shangri-La for obvious marketing-related reasons, is tedious but there is a magnificent Tibetan Monastery outside town. The section of road to Zhongdian goes over some high passes. Bring warm clothing. I didn't:

  • Lijiang is a dismally pretty little tourist trap with the usual tiled roofs and blaring music. It is the ultimate example of the kind of over-restored, Disneyfied “traditional” experience that I hated in China. It is stuffed with the same tour group-focused crap that it going up all over the country. Chinese tourists love it, so I guess that's the main thing. Ironically, the chocolate-boxy feel of the place makes it quite good for photos:

    A day in the life - Hot pot dinner in Chongqing
    I somehow got roped into this by a Canadian teacher in my hostel. He had been invited by a local and was nervous about going alone. Our teacher, whom I will call Bertrand, is the kind of ultra-earnest type that I struggle with, but the hotpot is considered a must-do in Chongqing so I agreed to go:

    We were met at the restaurant by a leather-skinned old businessman who introduced himself as Zhou. He looked like you could boil his head to make a pretty decent stock. The hotpot was promised to be "many delicious” by our host, but I saw the holes in that claim immediately. The smell of sewage carried to my nose like a feather on the evening breeze and I could see vats of glue-like red oil on each of the tables. Leftover food spilled out of a garbage can onto the street. “The very dustbin rejects it”, I thought. Realising there was now no escape from several days of terrible gastrointestinal discomfort, I made my way reluctantly inside.

    It was like walking into Bangkwang. Everywhere I looked were bloated bodies, glazed eyes and open mouths trailing strands of saliva. My morale plummeted like a dead partridge. People were throwing food at each other and blowing their noses on the floor with a free hand.

    We sit down. Next to our table, a toilet smells rankly of piss through the open door. I look at the menu. It is a huge list of stuff to put in the pot. I ask about a couple of items and am rewarded with the dubious answer "meat". That's all he says... meat. It's always a worrying word and one that covers alot of ground, especially here. You may have heard about a company in Beijing that was using softened cardboard instead of pork as filling in its buns.

    Bertrand is a vegetarian, an affectation considered ridiculous and childish by the Chinese. He has been struggling with the fact that a “vegetarian” dish in China means that vegetables form the main part of the dish and the meat is minced rather than sliced.

    The hotpot experience is a communal affair with lots of mess and jostling and would actually be quite fun if the food were edible. The hotpot itself is a small cauldron of polluted river water and chili oil, boiling over a gas fire in the middle of the table. To this they add a load of garlic, ginger and an aggressive amount of a local spice called huijao, which causes an unpleasant numbing sensation in the tongue and lips.

    Into the boiling sea of chillis and huijao you throw a selection of not-quite-pork balls, sinister little cocktail sausages, chicken feet, chunks of stomach-lining, pituitary glands, and a selection of vegetables which look like they have been passed through the digestive tract of a cat. You wait a couple of minutes then pull something out at random and dunk it in a bowl of sesame oil before eating it. This practice that has given rise to epidemic levels of acne in the local population. The overall effect is similar to being force-fed the contents of a Mexican spice drawer while being punched repeatedly in the face. At one point a guy at the next table vomits right on the floor, I kid you not. No-one takes the slightest notice, and it takes the staff a good twenty minutes to even get around to cleaning it up.

    Bertrand gets out of most of it due to his vegetarian lameness. I feel I am blending in well, despite the difficulty of balancing slippery bits of intestine between two small sticks and the fact that I am sweating blood and throwing pints of baiju down my throat to put out the flames. When Zhou eats, I eat, when he spits bones out on the floor, I spit bones out on the floor.

    Zhou, a chronic close talker, regales me with tales of the glorious motherland. He is so proud of Chongqing that you'd think he had built it himself. He bombards us with the usual questions they put to foreigners here: Do you like China? How much money do you earn? Why is your nose so big? Is it true that Europeans are born with a tail? How many girlfriends do you have? Do you wash?

    He has never been abroad, but lectures us on a number of issues such as how awful and third rate Western food is and the superiority of Chinese health remedies (usually a bag of twigs and the dried penis of a critically endangered animal). "If you want to start shooting fish in barrels" think I, "you should really learn to hold the gun the right way round". He follows up with a number of foreign policy questions of the "why are you beating your wife?" variety.

    Bertrand makes the mistake of bringing up Tibet. I have no idea what the hell he was thinking. I would have rescued him but he had earlier told me that “MMA looks gay”. "Don't tease me about my hobbies", think I, "I don't tease you about being a self-righteous dick". At one point he uses air quotes and I nearly push his head into the oil. That's the sort of thing that gets you crossed off my Christmas card list.

    Zhou predictably takes it rather badly. He mutters something under his breath - I think I caught "strike down the capitalist dogs wherever they may be found". When Bertrand refuses to back down, Zhou takes refuge in the old multipurpose comeback “you may live here but you will never fully understand China”. This means that whatever issue you have mentioned is in fact your fault for not understanding.

    Another “how dare you disagree” line is that China has 5,000 years of history, as though having been around a long time means you are always right. I'm afraid, China, that you can have Celebrity Big Brother, or you can have the moral high ground, but you can't have both.

    Thankfully, the meal ends before they come to blows. I thank Zhou before chopping him off like a gangrenous leg and heading home to lie on the floor with a damp cloth over my eyes. Of such simple shared pleasures are golden memories forged. This was a real cultural experience, like having your corpse dragged through the streets of Khartoum by a shrieking mob.

    The factoid you hear trotted out every five minutes is that Beijing is the size of Belgium. Technically, Beijing province is the size of Belgium, which makes more sense. Either way, the place is huge, and as ugly, overcrowded, grey and filthy as any city in China. Yawn.

    We did some lightpainting with a mobile phone:

    I arrived in Shanghai by bus along the six-lane highway. Billboards advertising watches, lipstick and instant noodles flickered past in kaleidoscopic succession as we headed down the city's main arteries into its congested heart. The city is impressive, especially around Pudong where the Shanghai World Financial centre rises up like a vast bottle opener. The French concession is nice enough and the National museum is worth visiting. I much preferred it to Beijing. I also went to the expo, which to me is just a colossal waste of $50 billion dollars.

    I went to Jiuzhaigou at the last minute on a whim and man was it worth it. I arrived early, when the upper reaches of the park were still cold. I was the only one there, wandering here and there through the trees and kicking through a drift of yellow leaves that still cupped jewels of hoar-frost.

    I found a pool that reflected the spills of red and yellow foliage like a coral garden and stopped to enjoy the October sunshine. I took a picture of the water caught in an eddy, seemingly not moving:

    The park is a succession of lakes, streams and waterfalls, bounded to the south by a range of mountains. The colours are dazzling. The water slips twinkling over rocky cascades into deep turquoise lakes. The gin clear water reveals a silent world of ancient tree trunks and fallen logs, preserved by the same minerals which colour the water. I have never seen lakes remotely like them. This is unmarketable beauty.

    People come to Xi'an for the terracotta army and seem to be generally disappointed. There is plenty of other stuff to see - tombs, city walls and so on. Important archaeological work has been done here, uncovering several millennia of human misbehaviour. There is a large Muslim quarter, which is famous for its food. It's well worth a visit. Everything seems to come on a stick and is barbecued over hot coals. We were also stuck in Daocheng for a day and found a great little hot spring at a local farm:

    This was another highlight. The park has recently been given a PR boost by Avatar, which used its scenery as the basis for the floating mountains of Pandora.

    It was cold and misty while I was there. Apparently, it’s always cold and misty. The spires lay mostly in the cool shadow of a bank of fog. Very atmospheric. You climb around on walkways cut into the rock high up on the plateau and look out over the forest of pinnacles. Lush jungle fills the gulleys a hundred meters below. This huge area remains totally untouched. Even park employees are forbidden from entering.

    ”The System”
    The first thing to say is that the vast majority of the people I spoke to are happy with the system as it stands. There is a misconception in the West that young people in China are yearning to throw off the shackles of oppression. Not so. The most voiced views are that 1) Human rights are important but should come second to stability and economic growth; and 2) Democracy doesn't work in China.

    The fact that this is (verbatim) the official view propounded by the government is a tribute to the conditioning process. They have an education system with a strong Confucian flavour, an exclusive focus on rote memorization and a total lack of debate and critical thinking. I have read translations of school history texts that were so boring, so full of lists of irrelevant facts and so sparse in incident that you may as well be reading The Silmarillion in Russian.

    Unlike the barbarians from across the big water, the Chinese have no democratic tradition. The country is steeped in rule-by-decree. Confucian values encourage acceptance of social position and respect for authority - "the nail which sticks up will be pounded down".

    Bill Vaughan once said "a real patriot is the fellow who gets a parking ticket and rejoices that the system works". In China such people actually exist. I guess people will go along with almost anything, as long as they see the prospect of better living standards and it doesn't challenge them intellectually.

  • The Media: Their news is full of laughable politically-motivated rhetoric, The editorial slant is deferential and obsequious to the great and the good, and always in favour of government policy. The key subjects to be avoided are the three Ts - Tibet ,Tiananmen and Taiwan.

    You can get an idea of the propaganda ministry's style from the insipid China Daily, the main English-language paper in the country. It is absolute crap. In it, China is the only force for right and good in the world. The shadowy titans of the Central Committee are faultless and benevolent. They work every hour that God sends, their desks virtually collapsing with letters from adoring peasants thanking them for their glorious work.

    You could well argue that we have a media that acts in the interests of its owners and advertisers, but the spirit of investigative journalism is alive and well. This, to me, is the most important issue in China. A national media that doesn't question official policy and keeps the government's secrets encourages an increase in secretive behaviour - secret police, secret trials, secret detention. It’s not all roses in the English garden, but at least the fear of exposure keeps our politicians (mostly) in line. Nothing is worse for a free society than a puppet press.

  • Internet Censorship: The internet is heavily controlled by the "great firewall of China". When you are used to surfing the unfettered version this is incredibly irritating. China also uses several hundred thousand internet spin doctors, who comment on blogs and public forums to influence public opinion in favour of the communist party. The whole thing is sinister in the extreme. I am aware of Said's old argument about orientalism and the construction of the other, but bottom line - freedom is still freedom, no matter where you are.

    The Chinese Economy
    The transformation of the Chinese economy has been remarkable. Twenty years ago, Chinese cities generally looked like Mogadishu, now they look like Chicago. It is worth bearing in mind that the size of the Chinese economy is largely a function of its huge population. GDP per capita remains roughly that of Namibia.

  • Construction: Chinese cities all have an unfinished and temporary feel. Many of them look like they've been subjected to a sustained carpet bombing campaign. There is rubble everywhere. Buildings are going up or coming down. The roads are the same - caught in an endless cycle of ruin and repair. I understand that maintenance is necessary, but the Chinese government has merely found its version of digging holes and filling them back in.

  • China vs India: China is often lumped in with India, but the experience on the ground is vastly different. China feels much wealthier, it’s much cleaner and things actually work. China's central decision making allows it to move quicker on its economic agenda than India. Absolute authority means a higher risk of heading in the wrong direction, but it also means direct and efficient execution. In India, where there are hundreds of political parties, each with virtual veto power, you have tremendous policy gridlock.

  • Brand Obsession: The burgeoning middle-class is massively aspirational. Wealth is the overriding aim of all young people here. Business tycoons are celebrities in China - they are rich and therefore good. China is a country that had a level social playing field but is reordering itself into a stratified class system based on money. The only way to show where you fit into in the new social structure is by your clothes, watch and the car you drive. In China, you are what you wear.

    Chinese Socialism
    It is hard to know what socialism really means these days. The social idealist, aspiring to greater fairness and equality, is a rare animal. North Korea is nominally socialist, with its deluded tyrants drinking cognac and sucking the marrow from the bones of the downtrodden poor. Virtually nothing remains of the old Chinese revolutionary identity. Economic policy is overwhelmingly free market oriented and even social policy has been subtly but pervasively distorted by commercial interests and the idiosyncrasies of Chinese culture. I was amused to learn that the term of address tongzhi (“comrade”) has come to mean homosexual.

    The government in China will occasionally execute a local official for taking bribes, but corruption is endemic here. "The mountains are high and the Emperor is far away". Moreover, it appears that the CCP tolerates a level of corruption in both government and business as part of its overall goal of staying in control. The regime intentionally keeps a kind of flexible grey order in which they officially denounce corruption, while simultaneously rigging the system so that anyone who wants to get rich has to do something corrupt. This gives them the evidence to go after anyone at any time.

    In a country as culturally diverse as China it is easy to see why the government is paranoid about allowing the Tibetans autonomy. Any Chinese you speak to about it are focused on the issue that China has controlled Tibet at various times during most of the last thousand years. They seem to think that foreigners dispute this fact. Actually, I couldn't care less if they had controlled Tibet for every one of the last million years. If the Tibetans are ethnically and culturally distinct and want their own country then they should have it. This is what national self determination means, a founding principle of the UN that has been quietly ignored for years because so many of its members have regions in their own countries with valid claims for nationhood.

    The Tibetan film industry seems to be on the up. I saw this poster in Zhongdian for a movie that looked pretty entertaining.

    The same thing goes for Taiwan. I don't much care whether Taiwan is part of China or not, but it should be decided by the people who live there, not an aggressive neighbour with missile batteries lined up on the coast of Fujian. Here is a propaganda poster promoting closer ties with Taiwan entitled “The feeling of the sisters of the two coasts":

    Now that's a cultural genocide I can get behind.

    Best/Worst Food
    Chinese food is mostly excellent if you have an adventurous attitude and a strong stomach. I had far too many good experiences to list here. Some words of warning though:

  • This country has water quality so low I wouldn’t wash a dog in it. If you drink from the tap you will catch dysentery, which means you will need to install a seatbelt for the toilet. It might be useful if you are on a diet though.

  • Street food, as ever, is the way to go, even if it often looks like a selection of pus-soaked bandages. A safe option is the ubiquitous sweet potato, a mangy-looking brown lump that tastes incredible and must be about the most calorific food on the planet. Steer clear of stinky tofu (chòu dòufu). You can get much the same experience by licking the rim of a urinal at Glastonbury.

  • They eat the whole animal here. No wastage, which is admirable in principle. My objection to eating duck necks, pig tails, chicken feet and the like comes down to the fact that there is no bloody meat on the things.

  • Coffee is the drink of choice for trendy youngsters, which they consume with a heart-stopping amount of sugar. Coffee shops sell a range of god-awful buns, all containing “chicken floss”. Seriously, don’t get me started.

  • Meat: You will often see animal carcasses hanging up by the side of the road, which is the local way of curing meat. The toxic exhaust fumes, acid rain and garbage juice impart a distinctive flavour. Be aware that all meat that you consume in China will have been marinated in this way. Progressive types have recently been embarrassing themselves by suggesting that hanging meat from street signs constitutes some kind of health code violation.

    I had two options to survive the afternoon - coffee or beer. I have gone for coffee. Let's hope I chose wisely. I might round it off with a cardboard-filled bun.

    I have been invited to join a meditation group tonight by a German couple who are here "searching for Nirvana". Truth be told, I have little interest in Nirvana, as I hear it gets terribly crowded during economic downturns. I have decided my reinvention will be limited to a new hoodie from Uniqlo.

    You may think from my report that I didn't like China, but actually when China isn’t poisoning you or trying to run you over, it's a very engaging place. The natural sights are unparalleled and if you ever have enough of the "real" China (and you will) the place is modern enough to have a Pizza Hut for you to hide in.

    What do you mean you don't like Pizza Hut?! Your unharmonious behaviour and splittist tendencies have been noted.

    Many travellers struggle to get past the sensory overload. They stumble around, eardrums dissolving from the din of pneumatic drills, honking horns and incessant shouting, eyes blinded by the barrage of neon lights, nose mugged by the stench of pickle juice, sewage and pollution. I am so used to that kind of third world chaos that it really doesn’t bother me.

    It's still raining outside. The air is a heady mix of choking diesel fumes and the bloated scent of rotting garbage. The Chinese temple opposite is having a festival to celebrate the number of times the moon has gone round the earth or somesuch. No Christian solemnity, just people shouting and taking pictures.

    There is a small patch of grass and a tree at the corner of the street here. Winter is on its way. The bare branches of the tree are reaching claw-like into the sky. What this valuable piece of real estate is doing undeveloped is a mystery. No doubt some enterprising local will soon pave it over and make it useful. Perhaps it will become a KFC.

    In the noodle shop opposite, three laughing red-faced businessmen are drinking Baiju. Hordes of locals scurry past - little old ladies with their hands knotted behind their backs, teenage girls in six-inch hooker boots and toothless construction workers in hardhats, all with their heads down to avoid stepping in puddles or tripping over the post-apocalyptic rubble. A spry octogenarian perches like bony pigeon on the side of the road, undisturbed by the disturbance.

    I lift my eyes to the upturned grey bowl of the sky. The sun is slouching off to the west, scuffing up the clouds. A smartly dressed banker drives past in a Bentley, one hand trailing out of the window with a cigarette and a Starbucks coffee.

    How well it all seems to fit.