10th August 2018

Beijing (北京)

It’s time for a little rant don’t you think? Are you ready?

What’s got to him I suppose you’re asking?

As I am English perhaps it’s something about queuing (generally good but for God’s sake let people out of a door before you board!), or the noise (much quieter than India except when talking on mobile phones)

He got annoyed with a tea bag in India, you might be thinking, is it the tea John? No, no, the tea is great – better than all that ‘English’ tea. And no it’s not even my perennial cravings for cheese and wine.

So what is it?

The strokey beard me suggests pompously that perhaps there comes a time like this on every trip, a moment where the learning curve flattens and gets within touching distance of the enthusiasm line (which generally declines over time though is far from monotonic). Emotionless idiot! A better spin might be that China is becoming familiar at last.

Or perhaps it’s the journey home which reminded me just how good life can be in Europe; Maybe after a year and a half I’m simply homesick.

I’m not convinced though. Let me tell you about the last few weeks and we can try to tease it out.

Manchuria: the bulge north of Beijing. In China it is known simply as ‘north east’ – no twang of separatism or identity possible in that name! Over the last couple of centuries it has been Russian and Japanese. North Korea lies a short misty hop across an symbolically rickety bridge, with slow but not long queues of trucks sitting on top. Ethnic Korean communities And ancient Korean ruins sit both sides of the river border. The Manchu invaders who become the last Imperial dynasty, the Qing, hailed from the region. It’s verdant and sticky at this time of year; snow covered later. A region of high-speed tunnel dotted hills leading out on to plains which will eventually become Mongolia steppe and Siberian tundra. Such were my expectations – those pesky snares.

And so I went, leaving the bicycle. A couple of pleasant weeks zipping from city to city: from ID check to baggage scan along the high speed trains that criss-cross the country. I know there are those who think I have just been sitting in Swindon making up blogs for the last couple of years – that explains the lack of selfies among my pictures. Don’t worry though the government here has proof, a complete run down of my trip if needed.

And indeed the North East was fascinating. I could write a list of all the facts that make it different: The Korean signs in yanji and the classy haven of their cafes, A Russian tree shaded avenue or onion dome in Harbin. Announcements in five languages on Dalian’s brand new, already dank metro. The beachside activity of a Chinese seaside. A stunning tomb here and a lively square there. But it didn’t feel different.

The cities still sprawl, the buildings still tower, and the people, generous, loud numerous and social, still colonise these bare urban rocks, bringing them to life like a forest on a barren mountain.

Familiar temple and palace visitor boards still hark back to their aeons of history while the poster paint only just dries on the antique beams. Each golden dragon identical to every other dragon on every other renovated roof in the country. Another dragon with theme park claws reaches out like a papier mâché mask.

Perhaps you remember the exhibition at the British museum exploring how Greek marble statues were painted vibrant colours and the pearly classical marble aesthetic we love was a fiction? Yet that’s not quite the point.

And undoubtedly China has exquisite culture. One of my favourite museums is the Poly Art museum, a corporate museum in Beijing of Chinese treasures ‘saved at auction from abroad for the Chinese people’. A small collection of wonderful bronzes from earlier than ancient Greece. The variety of design and the change through time is clear.

Few places have such a remarkable culture as China and few talk about culture and history more than China yet what is odd is the gap between the words and the reality. Part of this must undoubtedly be the turbulent century China has lived through but it also feels like a homogeneity born of the present.

Quicker than a financier with an unflattering back test, China reinvents, reinterprets, and replaces its history as the present dictates. It is heritage as politics, as entertainment, and it leaves a disconnect, an authenticity gap.

And each province with its unique heritage is forced to explore its identity within the straight jacket of modern China. What is left is a world of marvels smothered by a lacquer of propaganda, a homogenising blanket disturbed only by the regional ripples of food, wealth and opportunity.

Rant over! There is one other thing that’s bugging (appropriately enough) me. But that might have to wait for another time: Mongolia awaits!