22nd Feb 2018
I was rather grumpy when I woke up. Today is the day I have to start cycling again. Of course I don’t have to, I could easily start tomorrow. Kunming is after all an interesting city, surely there was more to see than a few noodle places, a few hours spent strolling around, and the necessary visit to a bicycle shop. But no, a dot to dot needs many dots, and you have to draw the lines to see the picture.
I have a few dots already, though confusing ones. I have been in China, of sorts, for 2 and a half weeks. By this time in India I was in an ashram ‘om-ing’ away and had come to regard the 45 degree Tamil Nadu heat as normal cycling temperature. In India it seemed obvious – start at the bottom, the narrowest point. Cycle. Figure the rest out along the way. Only afterwards did it get tricky as India fanned outwards into so many differing potential routes, states and cultures.
China I approached with more circumspection, taking advantage of a trip with friends to discover some of the island gateways to China.
Hong Kong with its English history and world city cosmopolitanism was an easy landing, a lovely hybrid and a known quantity. I noticed the joggers running in the park, the coffee shops, the food from everywhere, the never ending nightlife, the greenery of the outlying islands. I noticed the Chinese flags on buildings, always a little higher than the Hong Kong flag – these things clearly matter. I noticed the easy land border link to the mainland megaconurbation of Shenzhen-Guangzhou; and the American style border crossings – fingerprints and photos.
It was the same when exiting the mainland, again crossing a border but staying in the same country, this time into Macao – Portuguese welcome signs somewhat easier to figure out than the Chinese characters. Here it is quaint Portuguese history – narrow back streets and pastéis de nata that try to maintain their credibility next to the mega casinos in this the world’s ‘biggest’ gambling destination. Still that same hybrid feeling.
In Taiwan a museum full of the treasures of Chinese history, brought over as the nationalists left the mainland left me with, I think, that common reaction to China: impressed by the long history of technology and art and adrift without a clear framework of the dynasties and contexts that provoked them. Naive to Taiwan’s history, I hadn’t expected another hybrid here, this time a strong Japanese influence – plenty of shoes-off sushi houses to counterbalance the almost hipster night markets.
And what about the mainland itself – unambiguously China? At breakfast the first morning, in Starbucks, a student came up to us and combining commendable but broken English and google translate proceeded to pitch us a cleaning product. I admire the ingenuity, and the bravery! At 248km/h the gleaming train then took us from the city formerly known as Canton now Guangzhou further into the mainland. It was all genuinely impressive. And yet , this hybrid with high modernity too leaves me wondering where am I.
As for much of Chinese history, the language, particularly the characters so ubiquitous and full of visual drama give an unmistakably Chinese feel. I should admit that I find myself absurdly distracted by signage whenever I go abroad they are the most immediately apparent insight into a country: American ‘yield’ signs – English yet different; or India’s road signs, each a rosetta stone of different scripts and languages. Here the enigma is even more distracting. But distracting is good- I should be trying to learn them!
I will no doubt talk a lot about mandarin over the coming months (to make up for not being able to speak it properly!). For now I will just point out the obvious: how similar many characters look at first: 牛午干失夫天太大; and how others, even in ‘simplified form’ on the mainland, are hardly simple: 爱，贵。And yet trying to pull them apart, decipher them, and uncover their own strange logic is quite enjoyable. If only it were mere idle whimsy rather than vital knowhow!
And thinking thus I arrived in Kunming in search of a bicycle, still a little baffled, not quite yet able to distil out the Chinese part from all these hybrids. Perhaps these more provincial cities will help me understand? Yet Kunming is still a big city with boulevards, cycle lanes, high rise buildings and plenty of neon at night. At around 4m people it would comfortably be the UKs second biggest yet doesn’t make China’s top 20. To what extent are such cities now China – just over half the population now live in urban areas according to the world bank – and what changes as the neon lights fade out of sight? With luck the dots of urban life and the lines of cycling between will slowly build a picture.
Or so I tell myself – these arguments competing with my reluctant lethargy – and with the help of a rising, reproachful sun I get up. New, clean, slightly shorter cycling shorts are pulled on with a stoical grunt as I accept the imminence of a new crisp tan line, a new seemingly indelible tidemark, offset from India’s still clear imprint.
Along a cycle lane, under a fly over, and gradually, smoothly, out toward the hills of northern Yunnan, so it begins. Again. But different.