8th April 2018
Bayan Nur, Inner Mongolia (巴彦淖尔， 内蒙古)
I have watched the moon, just a crescent when I was up in the hills become bright and full, and then wane. Why do I notice it – you would think it might fade amidst the neon in these desert cities?
I have found the river too – the Yellow River, meeting it at Lanzhou, the heart of China, or the bullseye at least.
Like the changing of the seasons Buddhism’s colours, boisterous against the beige hillsides become the verdant green of Islam, irrigated over a 1000 years by the silk routes that arrive here from the middle west.
Then the river, strangely, led me to the desert. Sometimes it’s farms, vineyards and tree lined roads other times city sprawl and industrial spewage. But mostly flat, more scrubby than majestic, the desert is space without freedom. The roads and railways cluster by the river as surely as if steep valley sides bound them.
It is, I imagine beautiful, the wide river and miles of dunes together but stuck in it with no way to look from above they collapse into two slivers between scrub and sky. And so the desert takes your heart and mind elsewhere to before and after.
There’s a city in clothes three sizes too big – a dust storm rolls in giving an eerie haze. Even here far from the booming coast every village adds a new street, every town a new estate. Build too slow and you have a housing crises too fast and it’s unlovable. Ever changing, always synchronised – what else requires such a feat?
There is an experimentalism, Singapore style tower blocks with markets and carefully planned community amenities; a gated, gardened terrace of flats from London’s new build playbook; a need-a-car neighbourhood 10km out; detached suburbia learnt from America: ‘welcome to Aspiration, Missouri, drive safe!’ It seemed to say, the protective plastic peeling off in the wind.
Some older cities miss – requirements change; quality of life seems to matter now. The parks, cycle ways, flowers, expensive water cannon to rain the smog to the drains. Expectations rise. People have more to lose and more to be jealous of – yes, a middle class is growing! 50 years from perhaps the most deadly famine humanity has ever seen, the bar is getting higher again. Are there cycles to life, the seven year itch, the third generation syndrome?
Like in London, people here leave jobs because they don’t like them or they don’t pay well enough. ‘Do you like your job’ I naively asked a professor in India in the early days, still thinking with my London head; ‘that doesn’t matter – I have a job.’ Here instead: ‘yes, but I have to work very hard – in the UK you relax more, right?
Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is knowing not to put one in a fruit salad’. In Lanzhou after attacking a whole fish with some chopsticks at the night market, I bought a fruit selection. Along with the dragon fruit, pineapple and mulberries, sitting pride of place was a cherry tomato. The Chinese must be wrong! Or do they just have a different wisdom? Damn the exceptions!
How do you describe something complex without a shared language? Worse, how do you know when a shared language is not shared. European languages are full of ‘false friends’ words that are similar but have very different meanings often leaving you embarrassed (or should that be embarazada?). Mandarin is too distinct for that to be a problem, China however is a different matter.
China has Democracy! It is officially emblazoned alongside other slogans in the well kept squares outside imposing government buildings: 民主 -‘people rule’. Hide the difficult bit in the title!
‘We are the people’s party, we represent the people who chose us in the revolution; we have a membership bigger than the population of most countries; we work for the people: see we have pulled more people out of poverty in the last 20 years than any country in the history of the world’ – so they might say. Is this people’s rule? Is that democracy?
What should I tell them? Democracy is: voting? Choice? The rule of law? Checks and balances? Liberal values? If in India I vote but have to bribe a policeman if he finds me on a date am I part of the free world? Space without freedom.
Like the monsoon floods in India, the desert winds I would call ‘challenging’. It arrived unexpectedly. On a map it looks so flat. Perhaps the biggest challenges are invisible but for the effects: spiky tumbleweeds bowling at my wheels – how is something so bouncy so brittle? – the dust and litter tornados, the wind hissing through the branches of Christmas trees planted in the dunes to hold back desertification.
I’m blown haphazardly between traffic and ditch; A cacophany for 8 hours; the cold; I’m a leaf before each oncoming truck and the flying grit that comes with it. Ploughed away then sucked into the slipstream.
But mostly it is quiet; the yellow river and the sandstorm sky both beige. The hard shoulders here are wide and mostly clear. People with brooms work their way down brushing away the debris like leaves from an endless driveway. But there is still the piece of tyre coiled here and there, or some trapped plastic. So many I barely give them any thought. On the second day in the desert one of the tyres moved: all two feet of it slithered away. Every day since I treat each piece of debris as a snake. Some memories linger too long skewing the rest.
What we call the empire and recall as distant history is still alive, felt, in China as a ‘century of humiliation’, and in India as the ‘pillaging of our wealth’. Our memories have faded faster.
But antipathy, both casual and vehement seems saved for the Japanese. Too close for comfort. Yingguo instead is just another western country – I find only warmth, a generosity that has been near continuous, even a pride that I am visiting, wanting to learn about them – Interest is so irresistibly flattering.
Now colour returns to the sky, blue running to an icy green at the low horizon. The thermometer sprouts higher. The river, road and railway all turn 90 degrees – due east.
And life everywhere sends its charming vignettes: teenage girls at a noodle shop on their lunch break – charmingly confident, engaging and well mannered; the surprise of a herd of younger children cycling back from primary school, showboating (no hands!); young monks playing football in the monastery streets; the many mothers helping the many children learn to read between serving customers noodles .
Another 500km of desert before the river meanders away again, needlessly it would seem. Beijing and the ocean is so much closer my way. But just as the dust from the African desert, blown far across the ocean, fertilises south America and makes the Amazon grow, is there a side to it all that I just don’t see?