15th April 2018

Hohhot, Inner Mongolia (呼和浩特,内蒙古)

‘Hey, how was the trip? Oh yeah, amazing, great weather; and so interesting – but different from what I expected.’

It’s surprising how often people say this, and about so many places. I certainly found myself thinking it of both India and China.

That’s hardly odd you might think, I had never been to either. But I had heard so much about both countries before I went. The news every day, documentaries, books set everywhere and about anything, my job even involved me talking about China and India fairly often. How can the reality always seem to be so at odds with all this presumably true information? China must get more inches and airtime than most; you might think we should have an even higher resolution image? Yet I think for most people the opposite is true.

I am now approaching Beijing, it’s been about 4000km south to north. I haven’t yet been to the ‘developed coast’ rather I have been wandering the deserts of Inner Mongolia, the silk road crossroads, the sub-Tibetan mountains. So what is it really like away from Beijing and Shanghai, when you get away from the tourists – actually  I have seen a few, well nine, westerners since the start of March – and where no one speaks English?

I find drawing difficult. Anyone who has seen me try will attest to my sub-adult incompetence calling my attempted realism ‘illustrative’, politely euphemistic I’m sure. Indeed I was once given a school art homework to draw one of my parents and the teacher’s cutting response scrawled across the top of my masterpiece said only ‘who is this?’

I am told I too quickly get overly caught up in the detail – but drawing the sketch outline is so dull!

News is I think much the same: look there’s a big red communist flag at the top and this surging bright line rising inexorably through the middle of the picture; look at all that coal, cement, steel! Oh don’t forget those rice paddies, what pretty little bamboo hats those people have, and aren’t those drummers incredibly synchronised!

You must have an image in your mind already of, let’s say, Inner Mongolia where I am at the moment, not to mention China itself: it’s vague I guess, confused, but it must give you a meaning, more a feeling than an image perhaps?

Unfortunately, if you haven’t been it is almost certainly wrong.  So let me try to sketch you a quick outline portrait first. Yes it will still need filling in with all the various hues (which keep looking different in light of new information I continue to discover), and the nose won’t quite be right; of course I will leave the eyes till last: too tricky for now – a window on the soul. But still an outline perhaps will start us on the road to a balanced picture.

So what is the best starting sketch of China: Imagine, for a moment…where you are.
Wherever that is.

Think of the the biggest city you know. Think about the roads, the asphalt, the sign posts. Ignore the fact they have odd characters it’s the same banal notices: drive slow, don’t drink and drive, car wash.  Though now too, for the first time, Beijing!

Think of the noise as you pass a playground at break time – ignore for now the detail of its charmless name ‘XYZ city 9th middle school’

Mix in a normal high street, the brands won’t seem too dissimilar, sparkling every day thanks to power hoses, and road sweepers. Pavements. Zebra crossings. Traffic lights.

Add that slightly older, ramshackle part of town where you go to cut keys and repair shoes.

Think of the towns and villages you pass through between big cities. Still similar to the cities, right? A little less variety, a little less busy, a little less showy, more functional: tractor dealers, car repair garages, convenience stores.

Maybe add in a churchyard or rather the odd feeling from a churchyard even though you might not be ardently religious, even though the church roof is new, even though here it might be a different shape.

Get rid of the camels, and tents that might still be badgering you for inclusion; archive Genghis Khan as you have Richard the Lionheart. Instead add a park, trees and people walking their dogs in the early evening. Buses that hiss as the pneumatic doors open, electric displays: ‘number 43 to west street station, next stop north pagoda park’. Ignore that it is written in Mongolian squiggles or square Chinese: cedillas and umlauts hardly define Paris or Berlin.

The most common bird I see: the (Eurasian) magpie, or maybe sparrows, there are plenty of sparrows; swallows too and swifts darting round hip-and-gable temples as happily as steeples.

If you have travelled it’s even easier. Add in American size and space and that pervasive feeling of newness that even the old stuff gives off. Add it’s big cars too but alongside a more Dutch cycling culture.

Add too that communal, lived in air that even concrete tower block estates have in Spain – washing unselfconsciously left here and there to dry.

Add the southern European middle of the day cafe comradery but with noodles rather than spaghetti, perhaps.

Now add in people: again start with those around you, normal families, friends.  Working, thinking about petrol and dinner ingredients more than Revolution. ‘Give me your phone, let’s just order take-out and watch a film’

Can you overhear the conversation at the next table: working hard, not paid enough, looking for a new job; in jokes, basketball on TV – is it  Beijing vs Guangdong today? – and can you hear that the slight envious disdain similar to the one people outside of London sometimes direct its way?

But what if I’m not in Europe, America, the ‘developed world’? Well yes, tellingly it might not seem so familiar.  Many people have been surprised when I have told them China is a lot easier than India but this is part of what developed means and China feels developed.

It seems we find it hard to think of the West and China as being similar so used as we are to being told how different China is. – why is it so uncomfortable? India and Europe no problem, there’s an easy commonality: both democracies even though lifestyle is poles apart. But China…close enough to feel competitive, different enough to feel threatening, similar enough to feel disconcerting?

There are differences of course, plenty. We do need to fill in the detail – but keep an eye on the outline sketch or, so my art teacher would tell me, the portrait will go all skew-whiff.