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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.