If Spring Cottage has been a bit quiet in the last 10 days or so, that’s because I’ve been in China. I travelled to Shanghai, Beijing and Xi’an, home of the terracotta warriors, with the Boy.
The Great Wall. Very touristy at this point, Ba Da Ling, but it's hard to get to the remoter spots.
China is a country of tremendous contrasts at this point in its history; of ancient and recent achievements, extreme wealth and great poverty, of great beauty and huge ugliness in the monolithic structures and electricity pylons across the countryside bringing power into the cities.
Global brands are represented in major city centres and Starbucks and McDonalds abound. Obesity is still rare and most Chinese are lean and wiry. They smoke like chimneys though.
Not a very good picture taken hastily from the back of the bus, showing a forest of electricity pylons on the outskirts of Shanghai.
A beggar in Beijing who appears to have come straight from the 16th century.
The sheer size of the place is something you have to see to appreciate properly; Chinese ambitions have clearly always been massive, since the times of the first dynastic rulers who built the imperial palaces of old to today’s vast airports and housing projects.
The Forbidden City, Beijing, home to the emperors of China until 1923, was full of huge Chinese tour groups from elsewhere in the country.
One of Beijing's large intersections. The city has six ring roads, this is No 1, closest to the centre.
Chinese cities are full of massive roads and spaghetti-like flyover convolutions. They are all painted and, in Shanghai, they are lit up at the weekend.
Traffic is chaotic and noisy, with drivers hooting to announce their every move, but we only saw one accident, surprisingly. No-one wears seat belts in cars or helmets on bicycles or motorbikes. Taxis are abundant and cheap.
Thirty years ago, our guide told us, being able to afford a bicycle was top of his wish list. They are still everywhere but electric bikes, mopeds and cars are starting to take over.
Cultural differences were fascinating although not unexpected, from the haggling over purchases everywhere from markets to department stores, to the loud hawking and spitting that is part of Chinese street life.
For me it was a ‘first’ to stand out so much in the crowd, as, although there are tourists everywhere, they are mostly Chinese and westerners are few and far between.
I became fascinated by photographing the different people I saw, especially rural and elderly people.
But there are also sophisticates...
There is a great price for the progress all around as enormous estates of high-rise blocks 20 or 30 storeys high spring up everywhere and the human-scale housing is knocked down. I wonder what will become of the bustling street communities that currently continue to socialise until well into the late evening, isolation in front of the 15 state TV channels, I suspect. The pollution is terrible. In Beijing, you can actually taste it on a bad day and a clear blue sky is rare.
In this street, just a couple of blocks down from Shanghai's trendiest shopping and dining district, Xintiandi, the houses that line the bustling streets are falling into dereliction as they are emptied one by one to make way for yet another shiny shopping plaza.
Coal-fired power stations are often located close to housing, not on the outskirts of cities.
But there are small spots of serenity like the Yu Yuan traditional garden in Shanghai.
And outside the Forbidden City moat in Beijing.
Or here at the Imperial summer palace, 50km outside Beijing, where we found both peace and the most persistent street traders we came across, selling fake designer handbags and watches.
I would highly recommend a visit before China changes completely and the old ways of life are erased totally by the tide of capitalism and growth sweeping the country. I fear this will obliterate the character of the small back streets where ‘real’ life is at its most evident. Of course, one wants poverty to be eradicated and opportunities to increase for everyone but I’m concerned for the loss of individuality and identity that may occur in the process.
The entrance to the Muslim quarter in Xi'an, above. Lively, jostling streets full of street food stalls and small shops, birdcages full of songbirds and the loud hooting of rickshaw horns as they zoom by.
Once everyone is swept off the streets to live in the vast high rise colonies springing up everywhere, I’m not sure how it will be possible to engage with everyday Chinese life and exchange smiles with these surprisingly open, friendly and curious people.
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