Saturday 24th March
Xiahe, Gansu. (夏河，甘肃)
Surprise. I see it every day. It is toddlers I like best, young enough to stare with wonder but old enough to have learnt what their normal looks like. Children shout and run, full of energy. Adolescents walking or cycling from school in droves giggle behind embarrassed hands or here too mostly the boys, call out a brazen hello. Adults split into eye-averting, suspicious and engaging kinds though until you say hello it is hard to know which. Normal may bit different here but the responses are very recognisable.
It is more rare that I am surprised. Not because I’ve seen it all but because China is still too unknown, I too naive to have clear expectations. But this week had its fair share of surprises.
I have travelled backwards in time! Around 2000m spring rolls back, and it happens quickly. The trees are again bare and the earth is being newly turned by tractors, or horses. Or by your wife, strapped to the plough, or maybe two boys under the yoke but not under duress. Higher still around 3000m and agriculture dwindles. Wide grasslands, engraved by small streams, some still snow fringed are cropped short by yak; a raptor’s shadow swoops across The aspiring road onwards – can you tell my tired head was looking more down than up?
Little surprises abound: A bible in Mandarin from which I could learn the characters for my name; A mosque next to a stupa. A Bactrian camel tied next to a truck in a village yard. But when did I first realise I had entered a Tibetan Autonomous District? By the time prayer flags spanned the passes and stupas marked the peaks I had already been there for several days.
But when I first arrived what became an obvious pattern began, as patterns often do, with a series of surprising, seemingly unrelated clues: the unknown script on the signs and trapezoid buildings, the colourful patterned dress, worn unselfconsciously by women digging holes at the roadside or carrying children koala style, and of course the glinting golden roofed temples on bare hillsides.
A more prosaic hint: the cheaper accommodation stops accepting you – unwilling or unable to accept foreigners. The larger hotels ask you to wait – what forms do foreigner’s need to fill in? And so it was that I was wearing a dressing gown and drinking a cup of tea when I got a knock at the door.
Chinese police are unexpectedly tall, courteous and entirely unperturbed by a dressing gown -but they certainly come as a surprise! My mind sprang into unhelpful overdrive – should I be British and offer them a cup of tea? Is get ting dressed the priority? Or do I embrace it by adoptong a sort of Noel Coward persona? In the end I defaulted to a semi-ruffled friendliness. In return they opted for a an equally friendly, I’m excited to be practising my English tone.
Photos of my passport of course followed as did selfies and exchanging of phone numbers – ‘call me if you have any trouble’. It couldn’t have been a more friendly experience. Left in peace in my lovely hotel room I finished my tea looking through the large window out onto the towering government building in this small but modern county town watching the car park entry gate whose cameras read out the number plate of each entering car.
I have to say the Chinese police provide the best reception service! It is so full of contingency plans. I stayed an unexpected extra day at this hotel before making my way to the next city. Yet once I left I began receiving a number of unrecognised calls which I didn’t answer – it would turn out to be the chief of police at the next city. But no worries, as I passed into town two policemen standing next to an unmarked car flagged me down. No airport style name board which I could have missed, no risk of misidentification: going that extra mile, they checked my passport in detail. Empathetic too: ‘Relax, you have come a long way; you must be strong. Do you have water?’ . Escorting me to my hotel they even answered my questions: is this area safe I asked in Mandarin. ‘oh yes, very safe, all of China is safe. Xi Jing Ping is very good’ he replied in English.
Later, for the second city in a row I received a knock at the door while barely dressed – this time wearing only a towel (slumming it!)- and made the acquaintance of the plain clothes policeman who had been trying to call me. The personalised service really is second to none ‘you’re going to Labrang? The monastery there is lovely’; ‘have you eaten yet? There is a Sichuan place not far from here with very good food.’ ‘Call if you need any help’. It was quite flattering to see their interest in my journey and travel plans.
As I strolled out around town that evening I genuinely felt, perhaps wrongly, that at any moment if I had needed help a policeman would have known without me even needing to ask and would have popped out unnoticed like an expert waiter. The UK too has camera gantries similar to those I pass on nearly every road here and cctv on many street corners; perhaps the UK too has the wherewithal but they never seem to go that extra mile to provide such thorough service. This is the first time I have ever in my life felt that particular attentiveness.
As I left town, the policemen at another checkpost smiled and waived, and I thought back to a friend I had made several weeks earlier who had just quit the police force, to the many police, relaxed and unconcerned who have smiled or nodded to me over the last couple of months. No hint of impropriety, no spurious fines, diligently doing their duty now I have no doubt that they would do their future duty too.
By the third town, back to the pleasures of an off season tourist trail of sorts at Labrang Monastery the service became more casual – a text message from the chief of police asking where I was staying and telling me what I had already begun to surmise from the crowds: ‘Today and tomorrow there will be Tibetan Buddhist activities. There will be many people. Please take care of your financial affairs and pay attention to your safety’