The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Monday, October 19, 2009

'China on the Move'

10 miles offshore in the East China Sea it is apparent that we're approaching somewhere big and busy. As we chug into Tianjin Port our precious eco-conscious minds are gravely disturbed. Vast fishing nets swallow up anything and everything within a mile radius. A 5 mile long queue of rusty ships unburden themselves of sludge and sewage into a brown, scum-covered ocean. Closer to shore dredgers are busy dumping soil on metal flat beds in what looks like an attempt to turn the useless sea to more industry holding land. Finally, a huge port rises up in front of us; miles and miles of industry of every kind, the details of which are masked by a smog that bleaches everything to a dull grey. We must have arrived in China.

Before we can fully take in the extent of the port, we're whisked through immigration and climbing into a taxi to a station that we hope will led us to Beijing. The journey is an instant eyeopener to the scale of things in China. The roads are monster 6 lane affairs. Traffic is managed by death seeking, florescent wand waving cops, who seem to spend more time dodging trucks than directing them. Taking a shortcut by driving down the wrong side of the highway is totally legit' here. On either side of the road huge tower blocks are being built, all at least 15 stories high and no more than 20 feet apart. The development stretchess uninterrupted into the distance. The building work only adds to the grey haze that we now realise is not a feature of the port alone. As if to counteract my negative impressions brand new trees and topiaried bushes line the roadways. Amongst the smog and dust they look painfully unnatural, desperately clinging onto a very precarious life. The combination of spherical plant life, huge red bill boards full of forced smiles and aggressive 'Welcome to China' neon signs, it feels a little bit like entering a Butlins-esq resort. It turns out that that early impressions weren't far off.

In Beijing we quickly suffer from the communication breakdown that would effect our travels for the next 30 days. We are pointed to a bus and promptly seem to go around in circles for 2 hours unsure of quite what is going on. Our jaws drop as we pass huge floodlit squares filled with people, tower blocks garnished in enough neon to relive the 80s 10 times over and boarded up 'undesirable' neighbourhoods. Finally we reach Beijing Central Station and can place ourselves on the map. People flood the area shouting, pushing, shoving, spitting and laughing. Police roam amongst the crowds waving taser ended batons menacingly. We suddenly realise that it is the day when rail tickets for the week long holiday coming up are released. 50 or so ticket kiosks have queues of at least 100m deep. 200 million people are due to travel around China in the next fortnight. But before that can sink in and cause any panic about buying our own rail tickets out of Beijing, we hurry to the safety of our hostel.

At our hostel we are pleasantly surprised to find we had a TV in our room (just as well given that facebook, our blog and flickr are all blocked!). Needing respite after our hectic journey we open a beer and put it on. No break from China here! We flick through the channels and our options are the news, entitled 'China on the Move', a war drama about the communists fighting and being awesome at it, a drama about Mao's private life, a documentary about Mao, a documentary about Hu Jintao, another communist war drama or a showcase of Chinese nukes on the Chinese Military Channel. Wow. Neither of us have ever had such a quick cultural introduction to a country as this, and all within the comfort of our own bed. We opt for China on the Move (given that its the only in English). Highlights of which included:

'American wishes America could be China, even if its just for a day'
'South Korean wives dislike their husbands'
'China leads the way in international climate change'
'60,000 doves to fly over Tianammen Square on 1st October', one man 'just wishes he could give back [to the PRC] more than his 5 doves'
'Mao is trendier than ever'

And the horribly overt display of the brilliance of China didn't stop there. We managed to time our travels with the 60th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the People's Republic of China. Not only was this the busiest traveling week in Chinese history, with an estimated 200m train journeys planned, but it was also a chance for the PRC to demonstrate the glory of their state on a mass scale. The round the clock celebrations were in our faces everywhere we went. From nuke heads being showcased around Beijing, kitsch plastic flower waving parades, thousands of red pot plants lining the streets or huge banners of Han Chinese people dressed up as the 52 different ethnicities of the nation. The Chinese government did everything possible to ensure that celebrations were peacefully watched on TV or seen on banners. Participation on any other level was reserved for VIPS. I don't think you could ever experience a country more polished, scrubbed and painted red (on the surface) than China for this occasion. And so it was in this context we begun our very long journey into the far flung Western desert lands...

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