Comfortably Numb

Sheila Kumar's Storehouse

Published on: 11/28/15 4:14 PM

Travel: Chinese Checkers

Chinese checkers

All the literature I had read, which, admittedly, was of China of the old, not the modern glitzy country I saw, had led me to believe that it was not the cleanest of places. Not true. Not true at all. The streets were speckless, the neighbourhoods were spotless, the hutongs (residential alleyways), too. Some keen observation revealed that people were spitting; on Eat Streets, people were chucking skewer sticks, packets and bottles with abandon on to the ground. But, in the blink of an eye, cleaners materialised in their blue uniforms, wielding outsized brooms and mops and cleaned up quietly, efficiently.

Now, for some of my other observations about this beautiful country:

Safe for women

This safety manifested itself so subtly, you almost missed it. There were women everywhere, at all times of the day and night, truly a visual manifestation of Mao’s quote that women hold up half the sky. We went to nightclubs and danced in a crush of people but there wasn’t one instance of groping or any such misbehaviour. And when we were out late, we would see women vendors happily selling snacks and fruits from their stalls well past midnight.

The Forbidden City

It is just a cluster of regal buildings. There is something missing in the former abode of as many as 24 Ming and Qing Emperors. Now, all one can see is a beautifully-crafted series of palaces, a pleasure garden or two, the mandatory giant urns and stone Foo dogs, the magnificent guardian lions. It is a shell sans soul. What was in there has long gone. If you want a good idea of just what the place used to be like, watch that 1980s classic The Last Emperor again.

Amazing food

Peking Duck. The soupy Malatang. Beef with cumin and coriander, the flat Biangbiang noodles, pork cooked in a dozen different ways, each one more delicious than the other. Bouza dumplings, the delectable jianbing, rice pancakes with vegetarian as well as meat fillings, all washed down with frequent sips of hot water lightly infused with tea, or the popular yoghurt drinks. I have never liked the Chinese food served in India. Now I know why. The simple truth is, if you have eaten Chinese food in China, you will never touch a chowmein or gobi Manchurian again.

Swanky cities

First, the roads. They are smooth and they cut a wide swathe through the cities. They are superb roads, all uniformly of international standards though the traffic choking them were essentially Asian in character. I looked hither and thither for a pothole, there was nary one to be found. Then, the buildings. The lights of the tall buildings blaze bright after sunset and twinkle late into the night. You gaze across at the incredible buildings of the financial district from the Shanghai Bund, gaze down at the skyscrapers of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak, look at the opulent copycat casino hotels of Macau and you realise Chinese cities could well have you believe you were somewhere in the better developed parts of Europe. If anyone is mourning the demise of the old Middle Kingdom look and feel of the cities, well, they are mourning very discreetly indeed.

Comfortable standard of living

It is a matter of perception, of course, a tourist’s perception at that, but the overall standard of living seems to be superior to that in China’s neighbourhood. The people are well-dressed, carrying the latest iPhones, talking excitedly about acquiring the next iPad or Macbook Air, driving the sleekest of luxury cars. The Middle Kingdom continues to be largely opaque but on the surface the overarching impression is of a country where everyone lives to live the good life. Yes, one does spot the odd beggar in trains and on the streets but they are few and far between.

Appalling air quality

Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai, all have frequent grey days but in the Chinese capital, some days one could literally reach out and grab fistfuls of smog. Levels of pollution keep soaring way past the levels considered hazardous by the WHO. The reasons for this perpetual noxious haze have been variously attributed to an over-dependence on coal power, a dearth of green lungs in the cities, vehicular pollution, a couldn’t-care-less-till-I-fall-ill attitude. It leaves the tourist wondering just how people live there. And those surgical masks? They don’t help a bit!

The Great Wall is the gold standard

You stand on a section of this wonder made from rammed earth, stones, wood, brick and mortar and gaze at the wall spinning away into the far distance away from you and you mentally doff a hat to a civilisation that set up something like this, something that served as a transportation corridor as well as barrier to marauding armies. The largest portions of the existing wall is from the Ming Dynasty but earlier segments date as far back as the 7th century BC. But no, it cannot be seen from outer space, that’s just an urban legend!

Closely following this amazing feat is the 7,000-strong Terracotta Army in Xi’an (these date back to the 3rd century BC), the Big Buddha statue in Lantau, the Leshan rock-cut Buddha, the Giant Wild Goose Pagoda and, oh, so many more spectacular monuments.

Yes, they are spitters

Alas, there are quite a few of the aam Chinese who like to spit. Like cabbies. Like food 
stall vendors. Like florists. And some passersby. Woe betide you if you are downwind 
of these spitters.

They don’t smile much

Brusque, reserved to the point of distant… oh what the hell, they are distant! Maybe it is their culture. Maybe they think life is too serious to take frivolously. If you smile at them, they look away embarrassed.

They don’t speak the Queen’s language

Which makes a traveller in China a truly intrepid soul if she/ he doesn’t know anyone there. Census reports say 48 per cent of Chinese don’t speak English; I suspect the figure is actually much higher. I have tried asking for direction from the young, the studious-looking, the academic types, the stylishly dressed. Mostly they look baffled. One lot that can speak passable English, though? The vendors who are forever thrusting handbags and watches at the unwary, insisting it is the real McCoy Prada, Louis Vuitton, Cartier or Piaget. Believe them at your peril. And if you want to ward them off, forget English and switch to Mandarin: Bu-yao (pronounced ‘boo-yauw’) literally means ‘no want’ and pronounced firmly, works. Sometimes.

They don’t speak English but they speak a lot, and loudly at that. To the untrained ear, rapid-fire Chinese spoken by two people sounds a lot like they are quarrelling spiritedly and bitterly. Turns out they are merely exchanging the latest gossip. Ah, well.

There are a lot of Chinese in China

The advisories were right. You need to visit public monuments early in the morning or late in the evening or you run the risk of running into hordes of Chinese everywhere. What’s more, the crowds surge and push quite like they do in India… but like I mentioned before, no pawing, no groping, thanks be. The problem is, such a lot of people invariably translates to impossible traffic bottlenecks and cacophony. As for Chinese holidays? Stay home, stay in your hotel room. Just don’t venture out.

They are like us

Their in-flight behaviour puts them at par with us Indians. You know what I mean: kids squalling non-stop while their parents look on fondly; people clicking open their seat belts even as the plane is readying for descent, springing up to open the overhead lockers even as the plane is taxiing, switching on cellphones before they are advised that it is okay to do so, and yes, rushing to the head of the row blocking the aisle way, in case the flight takes off again without letting them deplane. All behaviour dreadfully familiar to Indians.

This ran in THE WEEK dated 28 Nov 2015.

Links to other  China stories:

Travel: China Diary

Photo Feature: Eating Chinese food in China

Photo Feature: China Chronicles


Photo Feature: Signs in China: Lost in translation?






ChinaChinese cuisineForbidden CityThe Great WallThe Week Travel

Sheila Kumar • November 28, 2015

Previous Post

Next Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published / Required fields are marked *