8th June 2018
It’s been a long journey; Not that it’s over yet.
A couple of weeks ago I found myself about half way down the length of China in a city called Qufu. Here about 2500 years ago Confucius was born.
I say about, not that there is much doubt. It may seem remarkable but the dates are known precisely. To put it in context, the Buddha was probably born around the same time…or possibly two centuries later.
But the most remarkable thing isn’t that, or the weed covered tomb mound itself, and certainly not the shop and tour group alongside. What is truly incredible is that you can follow his family tree down every generation to the present day, all 2500 years of it.
Not far from Qufu in the small sprig of hills that punctuate this northern water streaked plain is Tai Shan – ‘The holiest mountain in China’. Roughly 2250 years ago the first emperor came here to climb this sacred hill a couple with umbrellas and a bottle of coke tell me in English, when I meet them climbing the many steps. At the temple on top a man in welly boots and fire proof mitts teaches people how to bow and where to place the burning offertory sticks at a Daoist temple – did the first emperor need instruction too?
I am between the Yellow River and the Yangtze which along with numerous other rivers and waterways score lines down this historic plain. Here the smell of garlic hung fresh in the air. Plot after plot of it, stalks bent scruffily between a regimented plot of wheat or another of solar panels. Groups of farmers in the larger plots, perhaps a lone elderly woman in a smaller plot, all on the same day, all of them make bunches, chopping off the stems, putting the bulbs into that pink netting. The smell wafts for miles, more verdant than culinary; like cut grass it lingers.
My company on the roads are the tuktuk driven by younger guys, with clothes more of the city, buzzing back and forth to parked lorries; a large electric weighing scales behind; A man perches making pencil notes in a folded exercise book. Unrushed activity, like peering into clockwork, each piece so simple and yet the whole…
These are places that neither feel backward nor modern to me; just that vast in between. They seem to be ambling forward in step with time.
It is an area full of history. Unlike so many of the places I have been, here has always been ‘China’ – core China. Nearby the founder of the Han dynasty – China’s Rome – was born, here too is the flat plain where a civilization was born – it is easy to imagine why. Flat, fertile, lots of water and no barriers to help you avoid meeting neighbours.
And yet visiting this area, just as in the rest of China is surprisingly unhistorical. A typical sign: ‘This temple dates from the Song dynasty (960-1279) it has been rebuilt 5 times since then, the most recent in 1995.’ The original build date may change by a thousand years or more but the rebuild date rarely budges by more than 20 giving an odd, new, uniformity to a continent sized nation with a few millennia of history.
As Rome disintegrated into a Europe of separate kingdoms so too did Han China. The recurrent fault lines of north and south, inland and coast reopening.
But by 1500 years ago a new unity of north and south led to the linking up of these various waterways to form the Grand Canal. A route I was now roughly following. This region remains arterial albeit now for high speed rail. Indeed, though barges continue to ply the canal, you would be better imaging rail junction cities rather than canal side idylls: functional but not ‘interesting’. They are oddly insulated places where people literally stop dead in their tracks when they see you in a shopping mall. Insulated from visitors by their very normality perhaps?
Further south the temperature continues to rise. I pass the wheat harvest laid out on kms of road just as in India, although here the hard shoulder of a dual carriageway serves better than a rural road.
Next stop Nanjing; Next stop 700 years ago: the first Ming emperor – of blue porcelain ‘China’ fame – dies here. And still under the Ming, 500 years ago Portugal sets up shop in Macao.
Here in Nanjing too, about 150 years ago, the first of the so called unequal treaties end the first opium war and grants Hong Kong to Britain.
And here about 100 years ago a republic is declared ending an empire, continuous in ideal if not in reality, since those days the first emperor climbed Tai Shan.
Not much further to pedal now, and only a lifetime or so in time. From Nanjing, things become faster, more frantic as the present day approaches.
But from here my journey and China’s diverge. My cycling days get shorter, easier, as I stop in more and more notable places set closer together. Like the events of recent history, the cities too merge, linked by Readings and Sloughs rather than plots and ploughs. More bridges, more channels, more barges. You start to feel the weight of the population. Income per capita visibly increases to European levels. Foreigners appear ever more. Women Vespa around in trouser suits, the odd Ferrari growls by. A child’s school rucksack is more stylish, as are his trainers.
For China the final stretch must have felt like less of a home straight. Lets pick up the trail:
Here in Nanjing I visit a famous museum documenting ‘the Rape of Nanjing’ 80 years ago. Inhuman photos condemn the Japanese with war crimes; angry signs shout the number of victims – 300,000; exhorting exhibits combat a detested Japanese revisionism with the words ‘history is history and facts are facts…facts do not vanish simply because some people glibly insist on denying them’
The arterial routes of the last few weeks will soon lay in ruins, and in Japanese hands. Yet the country will prove big enough to have the communists holding up where I was cycling two months ago and the nationalist where I was four months ago – the vast mountainous interior.
70 years ago. The carnage of ‘the war of Japanese aggression’ has reached its mushroom cloud end. The carnage of the civil war takes its place, but that too ends – Mao is in charge and the nationalists are in Taiwan.
60 years. The carnage of the ‘great leap forward’ a Mao made disaster – 30 million are estimated to die as a result – there are no museums.
50 – The carnage of the cultural revolution: a communist internecine war, a witch hunt, a purge. At least 3 million people are thought to die violent deaths. Mao then dies.
40 – Deng Xiaoping takes the reins and opens the economy.
30 – Deng Xiaoping suppresses Tiananmen democracy protests with tanks. My VPN stops working the day before the anniversary. Otherwise little happens.
But then there’s the sprint finish. China incorporates Hong Kong and Macao into one country, two systems, hosts the Olympics, becomes the second largest economy in the world, uses a lot of iron and cement, brings an estimated 500 million people out of extreme poverty and increases per person incomes to nearly the level of Thailand.
And finally today I have reached Shanghai.
I slipped down a youtube hole while writing. I particularly enjoyed these two.