Silk Road adventure

We have a spreadsheet of places we want to visit. Now that we have seen the most famous places, top of the list was two cities on the Silk Road – 敦煌 (Dūnhuáng) and 张掖 (Zhāngyè), the latter being famous for the 丹霞地貌 (Dānxiá landform).

There are no direct flights from 成都 (Chéngdū) to where we wanted to visit in this more remote part of China – you can tell it is remote because there are cities of fewer than 4 million (one New Zealand). So, we flew to Urumqi (English transliteration of its Uyghur Arabic name), spent about five hours there and then boarded an overnight train to 敦煌 (Dūnhuáng).

Urumqi is significantly further north and west than 成都 (Chéngdū). It is half way across the Eurasian continent, so one of its claims to fame is that it is the city furthest from any ocean. Another is that it is the capital of 新疆 (Xīnjiāng), the largest province by area in China, with low population density, and mountains and beautiful scenery. It also is the site of political unrest due to many different ethnicities wishing to be independent of China. When we arrived, we were immediately struck by the number of guards with guns.

As we flew in to Urumqi, we could see why, over the 5,000 years of China’s history, fewer people have chosen to live here. Brown, inhospitable looking plains extended in all directions, and in the distance low mountains rose sharply from the plains with higher snow-capped mountains behind. However, Urumqi, with its proximity to Europe has been important on the Silk Road for centuries. Clusters of apartments rose from the plains, initially looking like small hills with sharp cliffs, until our plane got low enough to see what they really were. We wondered what the four million inhabitants do for a living.

We arrived planning to catch the airport bus into town. I ‘knew’ from the web that it went to the south railway station, stopped in the city and cost 15元. But it turns out that the pace of change here is such that I cannot trust the advice of earlier travelers.

In my best Chinese, I told the person at the airport information desk that we wanted to catch the bus to the city centre. I thought we would need to buy bus tickets there because elsewhere we have been caught out not buying tickets prior to getting on the bus. He connected us with a man who walked us towards the rather obvious bus. I said to Raymond ‘We could have found this ourselves if we knew we did not need to buy tickets beforehand’.

Our new guide introduced us to a man who did not offer us bus tickets, but invited us to pay 150 元 for a private car to the city centre (triple the going rate). I told him that I knew from the web that we could catch a bus for a fifth of that and turned to get on the airport bus instead. It started to move, so I jumped in front of it. I have never risked throwing myself under a bus before, but I was annoyed that we might need to wait 40 minutes for the next one because of locals trying to rip us off. Fortunately, the bus driver stopped. I told him that we wanted to go to the city. In Chinese, he told me they were only going to the station, then repeated ‘station’ in English to be sure I understood. I said ok and we hopped on. I knew Urumqi now has a new train station and thought let’s just go to that one, where we can confirm that it is the one from which we need to catch our train that evening, and then work out how to go into the city.

As we got on, nobody seemed to want us to have a ticket – oh well, let’s not fight it. Then, off we went, until after a few minutes, we stopped at another place, still part of the airport. Here, the ticket man got on and we paid our 20 元. We continue to learn to just go with the flow!

We did go to the new train station, confirmed this was where we needed to come back to and caught a taxi to the new museum. Oh, that’s right, museums are closed on Mondays. Plan B, let’s go to People’s Park. We caught a bus to near this park, and looked for somewhere to eat. It turns out Urumqi is not like 成都 (Chéngdū), where one only has to walk for a few minutes before finding someone selling food. We don’t know, but wonder if this is because Urumqi is less affluent, and because 成都 (Chéngdū) is famous across China for its laid back, enjoy life attitude, and for having been the  food basket of China for thousands of years.

It was so hot we could not face walking to the Park, especially because the route had hoardings up for construction work, so we thought we would be unlikely to find a place to eat.  I had read about the International Bazaar being a good place to visit and having a food court, so we hopped on a bus to go there. When we arrived, we did not find the impressive entrance of the online pictures, but scaffolding everywhere. We got directions from two shop assistants, but never managed to find the fourth floor with all the food places, so headed back out into the sun to continue our hunt for a cool place to sit and eat. Still no luck.

Plan D – let’s hop on another bus to the People’s Park and just buy drinks and street food and sit in the shade people watching. We got to the Park ok, but even there, nobody was selling food. This is so different from 成都 (Chéngdū)! We sat out of the sun in the beautiful surroundings, on the seat a friendly old man had pointed out to us. We ate the few things we had brought with us to empty out the fridge at home – apples and several days old cupcakes. I also found an ice cream seller in the children’s playground area. We sat in the cool talking about whatever we saw – a squirrel, women sweeping the grass, and different faces.

Urumqi has over 40 different ethnicities, one of which is the 汉 (Hàn) who are over 95% of China’s population. As we sat in the Park, and as we walked and bussed around Urumqi, we were fascinated by the different faces we saw. We are very used to 汉(Hàn) faces, even though there is a lot of variety. Urumqi faces looked more European. On the bus, the messages were in three languages – Mandarin, English and the local language, which sounded very different, more clipped. Looking at this third language on the street signs, the script shows its Arabic origins as fits a city that has long been key to China’s connection to the outside world.

 

Back to the new station, which is massive, shiny, modern, and efficiently manages large numbers of passengers. It is one example of the significant investment clearly happening in Urumqi. Everywhere we went we saw construction projects happening. We are used to construction, but it seemed more intensive than in 成都 (Chéngdū). We assume this is part of China’s One Belt, One Road policy.  We had burgers and chips for dinner because, by this time we both felt like Western food, then on to our train.

We shared our four-bunk room with a Chinese woman. Our first interaction was Raymond and I both failing to work out how to open our shared jug for hot water. She worked it out immediately and I said in Chinese ‘clever’. I then told her our names, which began a nearly two-hour conversation in Chinese. She mimed a lot, spoke slowly, repeated things if I didn’t understand them, and we used my translation app. But it was one of my more ‘it really is worth learning Chinese’ experiences. The highlight was when I overheard her on the phone telling her husband that she was with a foreigner who knows lots of Chinese. We learned about the pressure she and her seven year old son feel with the demands of education, and how the pressure is greater than what her older son faced twelve years earlier. We talked about her older son studying sport at university, and how Chinese people, especially her in-laws, tend to not value such learning. We also discussed Chinese people’s obsession with money, and the challenges of being a Hàn married to a husband from a different ethnicity and religion. Very special.

Out the window, as we talked, the scenery was flat and brown with wind farms stretching into the distance. When we woke eight hours later, the scenery was just the same, illustrating China’s commitment to environmentally sustainable methods of power generation. I continue to wonder if a non-democratic socialist government that can insist on adherence to long term changes – such as change to sustainable power, stop using coal for heating, use electric cars – is the only solution to the environmental challenges of our planet. I am not sure what levers democratically elected governments alternating between left and right wing policies can implement to motivate private individuals and companies to make the necessary decisions to get us where we need to be quickly enough.

 

After a good night’s sleep, we arrived at 敦煌 (Dūnhuáng) station. Our friendly sleeping companion helped us get on the bus to the 莫高窟 (Mògāo Grottoes) ticket office, which is out of the city, close to the station. Serendipitously, the young Chinese woman (‘call me YY’) we sat next to in the back seat was going to the same place, and she had just returned from living in New Zealand for eight months, so we had lots to talk about and she had good English. Although, it turns out that even if you speak the local language, you may get off at the wrong place. As suggested by the bus ticket woman we all got off at what turned out to be the show, but not grottoes, ticket office. Once YY had clarified this, we followed her back across to where we had got off the bus, and shared a car to the correct ticket office. The Chinese tickets were all sold out, so it was nice that we were able to help her by asking if ‘our friend’ could join us in the English tour later that afternoon. We then had lunch together, enjoying recommended local dishes, and shared a taxi back to the entrance to the grottoes (by the show tickets office).

Our first activity was to watch a movie dramatisation, with English audio, of the time of the Silk Road and the monk who, about 360AD, had a vision of a thousand Buddhas bathed in golden light at the site, inspiring him to carve the first cave into the long sandstone cliff rising up out of the desert. Second, we watched a digital introduction to the inside of the caves, explaining some of the Buddhist art within them. Finally, we got onto buses, drove to the caves and met our English speaking guide who led us through eight of the 492 caves.

莫高窟 (Mògāo Grottoes), or Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, are situated along the Silk Road, at a point which has long been strategically important for trade, religion and culture. Initially, the caves were simple places for monks to meditate and worship. However, over time, wealthy families, merchants, military officers and women’s groups sponsored more elaborate caves with artwork and statues, giving the legacy we enjoy today. The statues and paintings span 1,000 years of Buddhist art, from the 4th to the 14th centuries. They give insights into life in China over that period of time, and the evolution of Buddhist art. The art integrates influences from Hàn Chinese, Indian, Turkish, ancient Tibetan and other Chinese ethnic minorities.

After the 14th century, Islam grew in influence in the region, sea trade took over as the main trade route, so 敦煌 (Dūnhuáng) became depopulated and forgotten by the Chinese rulers and the outside world, and the caves were abandoned except for an occasional pilgrim. During the early 20th century, while clearing centuries of built up sand from the caves, a Chinese Taoist, 王圆录(Wáng Yuánlù), discovered a large hoard of manuscripts in a walled off cave. At that time, Chinese officials were not very interested. However, since the late 19th century, Western explorers had been interested in the ancient Silk Road. So, between 1907 and 1924, China lost most of the manuscripts, some of the best textiles and paintings, and some statues and sections of murals to Hungarian, French, Japanese, Russian and American explorers. We could tell from the guide’s stories and the show that we later went to, that having these treasures stored in foreign museums is a source of great sorrow to modern China, who has tried, unsuccessfully, to get them returned.

Certainly, I thought it was sad to be in the cave and see a section of a mural gone and a statue missing, so that Harvard University can have them sitting in their museum. It is a sign of how attitudes and the balance of power is continually changing. China had other priorities at that time, like surviving attacks from Japan and stronger western powers, and feeding its people.  However, now China has the strength and resources to try to understand, value and share its rich history, in a way the West had the luxury of doing 100 years earlier. The fact that the Chinese tickets were sold out (visitor numbers are limited to 6,000 per day), shows that growing numbers of Chinese people want to visit the caves and understand their past.

We were not allowed to take photos inside the caves, but when we later visited the museum, were able to photograph replicas of the inside of the caves and these photos below give an idea of the ancient Buddhist art we saw.

We then settled into our hotel and walked to the night market. We bought some street food and a bag of the most delicious tangy, dried apricots. To us, the most notable thing at the market was the large numbers of stalls selling all sorts of dried fruit – showing a greater Middle Eastern influence than we see in 成都 (Chéngdū), away from the Silk Road.

The next day was a relaxed start. We both slept in, suggesting our sleeper train sleep had been more broken than we realised. We planned our day’s events and found a place to eat brunch. We chose noodles, even after clarifying that the meat was donkey. It tasted surprisingly like beef, but the cold sauce and meat and cold plate meant that the noodles quickly became lukewarm – not our favourite meal. Because of the drier, cooler climate in the north of China, it is hard to grow rice, so wheat products dominate. While in the region, we only ate pancakes and noodles.

Then we caught the bus to the edge of the Gobi Desert, where we rode camels, visited 月牙泉(Yuèyáquán) or Crescent Lake and climbed 鸣沙山 (Mīngshā Shān) to join all the other tourists to watch the sun set over the desert. Unfortunately, with the clouds, it was not very spectacular, and we were one of the last to walk back down, still enjoying the slowly approaching darkness then the lights sparkling below.

Our last day, we visited the museum, as always fascinated by such a long, rich history and the rise, fall, and rise again, of this part of the Silk Road. 敦煌 (Dūnhuáng) history began 3,500 years with the first group of people settling and starting farming on the oasis. In 111BC, the then Emperor intentionally established it as a place of trade and military presence, and brought people from other regions to live here. It is where the most western part of the Great Wall was. To guard this remote section of the wall, all 23-56 year old men had to be a soldier for one year. They also had to farm so they could feed themselves. They received training in both skills and were rewarded financially for merit. A key part of their military training was how to operate a signal fire system used along the wall, using different techniques for day and night time signalling.

I found it interesting to learn what was being transported along the Silk Road in the early days. About 200BC, China was exporting silk, spices and paper, and importing woollen and linen fabric, horses, metal, jewellery, coloured glaze, plants, medicines and spices.

Eight hundred to one thousand years later, during the 唐代 (Táng Dynasty), China’s golden age, was the most prosperous time for 敦煌 (Dūnhuáng). It was a cultural centre of language, literature, art, music and dance. However, as sea routes became the preferred method for transporting goods, the city became less important. Another eight hundred to one thousand years later, for a couple of centuries, the 明代 (Mìng Dynasty) didn’t even bother to have administrators based there. The city administration was re-established after the 1700s, but it remains small by Chinese standards. Now, the city’s 200,000 inhabitants mainly keep busy servicing the nine million tourists that visit each year.

Our last activity in 敦煌 (Dūnhuáng) was to return to the Mogao Grottoes site to watch a show. It was powerful, but difficult to follow at times with no or limited Chinese. We love dancing shows, but this was more of a play than the promotional material led us to believe. At the beginning, we were introduced to the key players on the Silk Road in a powerful way that, even without Chinese, we could understand through the costumes and how they acted. Next we saw a powerful dramatisation of the selling of the manuscripts by the monk who found the Library Cave. The stage setting was a whole room in which several hundred theatregoers stood watching different actions at different times happening in different places. We stood at the back to avoid pushing and shoving, but when the next action was behind us, we became the ‘front’ and others moved to be near this front. I struggled with the inconsiderate pushing of a small number to be at the front each time.

The last straw was when staff gave us verbal instructions in Chinese, we both monitored others’ actions to work out what to do and lined up behind others, but were then stopped from going with them into the same room and directed to join another group. To me this second group seemed larger than the one from which we had just been rejected, so I felt that we might face similar treatment. I went up to another usher, saying ‘I don’t understand’ in Chinese and realised I was crying. She was helpful but not particularly so. It turned out that we were allowed into that room with that group, where we were treated to yet another powerful drama. The play began below us, visible through the glass in the floor below us, then changed to be above us, visible through glass above in the ceiling that moved up and down, and then changed to be still above us but on a platform that went right around the small room. The setting and costuming were amazing, but it was hard not really understanding the story.

After that, we walked through the rooms of each of the stories that other groups had been watching and into the main auditorium where we watched the final play – again many powerful items of dancing and special effects, but wasted on us. The show ended up being a mixture of upsetting and enjoyable. I would not recommend it to non-Chinese speakers, but it was definitely an amazing spectacle and we have never seen anything like the physical space created for the show. China seems to be innovating in theatre in a similar way and scale to what we see in architecture and infrastructure.

Then on to the sleeper train and on to 张掖 (Zhāngyè),. This time we shared a cabin with a dad and his 11 year old son, who both had the chance to practise some English before we all feel asleep. We were woken at 1.30am, got off, were picked up by the car I had arranged through the hotel, and travelled for an hour to our Yurk tent accommodation.

The next day we marveled at the 丹霞 (Dānxiá) natural wonder – yet another secret that we only discovered once we lived here. The pictures tell it all.

Back to 张掖 (Zhāngyè),where we caught another train to 兰州 (Lánzhōu). We ‘enjoyed’ another transport drama getting from the train station to the airport, but this blog post is already very long, before arriving safely home.

We are so glad we did this trip – it helped us glimpse what a variety of Chinas exist in this vast, fascinating country.

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Lanterns, dinosaurs and salt

One of the special things about Chinese New Year is the stunning lantern festivals. One of the most famous is in a town about an hour south of us – 自贡 (Zìgòng). We had heard of it as a famous dinosaur site, so decided to go the weekend after Chinese New Year to kill two birds with one stone.

With our new relaxed approach to travel in China, we did not purchase tickets ahead of time. I researched the right station from which to catch the bus and early Saturday morning we set off. We went by metro, then hopped on some shared bikes and cycled to the bus station – except we couldn’t find it. I brought up Dù, the Chinese equivalent of Google maps that I now use, checked, and we cycled back to where the pin was. Oh, it is a public bus stop with a similar name, not the large intercity bus station. Hazards of a novice Chinese reader!

A bit later we arrived at the hard-to-miss-if you-get-anywhere-near-it bus station, bought tickets and got on the bus. The driver agitatedly came down to tell us to put on our seat belts, given that we were obviously ignoring his clear instructions. I heard him ask if there was an English speaker, but to no avail. However miming worked fine, and we were off. A couple of hours later, we arrived at the 自贡 (Zìgòng) bus station. We picked up a Dìdì (Chinese equivalent of Uber) which has become our transport option of choice since they made an English version. It is so convenient. We can make it clear exactly where we want to go without having to say it accurately, and it is automatically paid through our mobile payment app 支付宝 (Alipay).

We checked in to our hotel and caught the bus to the dinosaur museum – a bit later than we planned, but not having a proper lunch caught up the time we lost detouring to public bus stations.

There were lots of families at the museum – interesting for adults and good for children. The museum is on one of the 40 sites in 自贡 (Zìgòng) where dinosaur fossils have been found. It seems that they have so many they can leave a space with untouched fossils to show visitors what it was like.  We learned about (and I have now forgotten) the location of dinosaur fossil discoveries across China and the world, and the reason the region has so many well-preserved fossils in many sites. We also went on the 360 degree virtual tour through ancient dinosaur worlds – scary with a bit of nausea thrown in – amazing given that we were all sitting in an auditorium looking at a screen and hardly moving.

We then went to the lantern festival. It was SO crowded. We are getting used to crowds but this took being crowded to a whole new level. (As an aside, we are becoming Chinese in that if we are the only people somewhere, we think we must be in the wrong place, and we decide routes based on the number of others doing the same thing). But it was stunning – I felt like I was gorging on visual brilliance. With the crowds, we had to walk slowly at everyone else’s pace, and take it all in. The photos do not do it justice.

Something we noticed all around 自贡 (Zìgòng) were leaves out drying wherever it was possible to put them. When we got back to work, Raymond asked his colleague, who is from 自贡 (Zìgòng), what these leaves were and why they were out drying. She said they are dried and then used for local ‘sauerkraut’. Interesting!

Sunday morning, we visited the Salt Museum. This was one of those experiences where the place you had not heard of turns out to be the highlight of the trip. I think Raymond read every single English word there. It is a beautiful old building (built in 1736) used by salt merchants during the hey day of salt production in the region.

It turns out there are three methods of salt extraction. Sea salt accounts for most of China’s salt production (70%), with well salt contributing 20%, and lake salt 10% (estimated at a paltry 1,000 salt lakes!). The first method has been being used for 5,000-6,000 years, but is not so useful for inland regions like 四川 (Sìchuān). A few thousand years ago the other two methods were developed. The 自贡 (Zìgòng) museum focuses on the evolution of well salt production – a fascinating story of technological innovation.

Part of the 自贡 (Zìgòng) geology that means dinosaur fossils last so well, is ‘abundant salt brines’, a legacy from a change of sea level. This seems strange for a part of the country so far inland, but it was 200 million years ago.

Much more recently, during the Warring States Period in China (just over 2,000 years ago), people started drilling wells to get brine, building on other well drilling techniques dating back 4,000 years. 李冰 (Lĭ Bīng), who built the Dūjiāngyàn irrigation project I have already written about, is credited as being the ‘father of well salt production’. He was obviously quite an innovator.

During the 宋代 (Sòng Dynasty) – 960-1279 AD, salt drilling gave the world percussion (cable) drilling, which is now used worldwide in oil drilling. In the 明代 (Míng Dynasty) – 1368-1644 AD, they developed ways to maintain and repair the wells, and fish out fallen objects. Many of the bamboo items on display in the museum were different versions of technologies to achieve these – evolving as each person was able to build on the ideas of those who had gone before them. The local geology means that natural gas, coal, oil and other minerals are often found near the salt deposits. During the 清代 (Qīng Dynasty) – 1644-1911, as technological advances enabled deeper wells, new innovators devised techniques to use the natural gas they found to concentrate and purify the brine. They also applied principles of hydrodynamics to transport the brine using interconnected pipes and pumps.

And, of course, salt was taxed, from as far back as the 唐代 (Táng Dynasty) 618-907 AD. Because the region was so rich in salt, the salt tax, which was much higher than the land tax, made this region quite wealthy.

Even though I am terrible at remembering the details, I am fascinated by the interplay between geology driving innovation and then this driving economics – especially here in China where it has happened over such a long period of time, and I haven’t learned about it in history at school, or while reading Eurocentric books.

 

 

Guìlín (桂林) and Yángshuò (阳朔)

In February, we celebrated our second Chinese New Year. Our first Spring Festival we went to Laos for the two week holiday, but noticed many special things in China before and after our holiday. We experienced many of these again – the red and gold decorations everywhere, the crowds leaving the  exhibition centre near us laden with treasures, Raymond’s work dinner with 红包(hóng bāo) aka red packets, various Lantern Festivals (we plan a visit next weekend), and firecrackers upon firecrackers. However, as when you travel a road for the second time, our second experience of these things was less dramatic and more familiar. ‘Oh, look they are putting up those red decorations everywhere.’ ‘That’s right, I remember it was really crowded at the Exhibition Centre last year.’

Another difference this year is that we ignored the dominant ex-pat thinking that says we need to travel out of China during the world’s largest human migration. Instead we headed to the last major tourist destination in China that we have not yet visited. (For kiwis, this is our last ‘Queenstown’ or ‘Rotorua’. Next we will start exploring the equivalent of the Wairarapa and Marlborough – some of them already in our holidays spreadsheet as we have started asking locals for suggestions.)

We had heard about 桂林 (Guìlín) before we arrived in China, from a German friend who said it was the highlight of his Chinese tour. Also, we knew that it was geologically similar to Halong Bay in Vietnam , but on land rather than sea, and we had loved visiting Halong Bay. And it is only a two hour flight from ‘home’. Raymond also wanted us to blob a bit during this holiday, so on the Wednesday we flew down to 桂林 (Guìlín = Cassia bark tree forest).

After picking up our bags at 桂林 (Guìlín) airport, we went outside to travel into town to our hotel. As at any airport in the world, we were accosted by taxi drivers wanting us to choose them. However, in China, we are now armed with Didi – the Chinese equivalent of Uber (they actually bought out Uber, so have a monopoly here). Its two advantages are that it is cheaper than a taxi, and the technology communincates better than my Chinglish. Didi brought out an English version in the last 12 months so we use it when public transport is not so convenient. In 成都 (Chéngdū), we can click on ‘Pin is accurate’, and the driver does not ring us up to clarify about where to pick us up. Unfortunately, it was less straight forward at the airport, because he couldn’t come to where we were waiting. Once we realised, we went in the direction the Didi software seemed to be directing us, until the blue dot jumped making it clear this was not the right way. He rang, I answered and spoke to him in Chinese. He seemed to understand me, but such understanding was not reciprocated. He tried to speak more slowly, I understood some but not enough to be really helpful. So, plan C, I grabbed a passer-by and asked him to help us. He chatted to our driver and then told us to wait there. Of course, while waiting I spotted the car with the right number plate parked a couple of hundred meters in front of where we had started. But we then had to wait until our driver went into the airport, came back out and saw us. Then we were away.

Each time, my language is a bit better and gets us a bit further. But it is still a long way from giving us anything like a normal experience.

Our first impressions of the city were that is a bit dilapidated. However, after settling into our hotel, we walked over the nearby bridge, along the walkway by the river as it was getting dark. It was beautiful – absolutely beautiful. 桂林 (Guìlín) is famous for the cormorant fishermen, and it turned out they were ‘fishing’ (waiting for tourist boats) right by our hotel.

This traditional form of fishing dates back to 960AD. It is not really a nice story and the birds, while looked stunning resting on each end of a bamboo pole, did not look happy constrained to only limited flapping movements tied to the rod or raft. The cormorants are trained to dive into the river to catch fish. After catching a fish the birds return to the boat where the fisherman removes the fish from the bird. The bird is prevented from swallowing the fish by a ring that is placed around the neck of the bird. The bird is rewarded for its work by its owner. In its day, it must have been a clever, albeit cruel, innovation. Many times in our week away, we saw the rafts and fishermen with cormorants on rods, but never saw one with a fish in its mouth.

The next day, we explored the city, starting with a local bus ride out to Reed Flute Cave. My Chinese was good enough to ask an elderly gentleman waiting at the bus stop which way the bus would go, and find out that we needed to wait on the other side of the road. The bus trip was straight forward and we followed the crowds to buy tickets, catch the monorail up the hill and go into the cave. A young man who was in the queue in front of me kindly asked in English if we understood what the woman had been saying. I had grasped some of it – no wifi, can (or maybe can’t) take photos, and would you like to buy these lovely postcards. He clarified that we were allowed to take photos.

The cave was lovely – because of the lighting and its size – similar to the one we visited in Halong Bay. Our young friend confirmed our suspicion that the bulk of the guide’s words were anthropomorphising the rocks around us, and, more importantly, that Raymond was not missing out on any geological information that he would have been sad to not hear. Our new friend was studying at a university in 深圳 (Shēnzhèn) in south-east China towards a degree awarded by a British university. That was why he had good English. We talked about why he had made that choice. He wants to study and live overseas to ‘be free’. When we talked about differences in approaches to study between his course and Chinese courses, he again used the term ‘freedom’. I asked if part of the plan was that his family would live overseas too – he pointed to his younger sister (about 12 years old) and said that it depended on what she chose.

After the cave, we caught the bus back to town and walked to Elephant Trunk Hill. As with the tourist infrastructure at Reed Flute Cave, it looked tired – like it had been a tourist attraction for a long time and not much maintenance had been done. But it was pleasant to look out over the city and then wander around the lake. We also found the place where our cruise boat left that evening, so that we wouldn’t be stressed looking for it later – which was just as well.

We went back to our hotel for a rest and came down to the lobby with plenty of time to get a taxi to where the cruise boat left, but there were none outside the hotel. The concierge rang the taxi company and said one would be there shortly. After a while, she came over and said – it is Chinese New Years Eve, all the drivers are home with their families. By this time, it was too late for us to walk. She pulled out her phone to order a Didi. I pulled out my phone to use our Didi and fortunately there was one car available – all you need. We got there with a bit of time to spare, but it was not the relaxed journey we had planned. It is the only time in 18 months that we have not felt there is spare capacity galore.

The cruise was beautiful – lights, water and Chinese traditional architecture. The photos speak for themselves.

Our third day we took a tour up to 龙脊 (Lóngjĭ = Dragon backbone) rice terraces. Reminiscent of the rice terraces in Sapa, Vietnam. Our tour included a show about hair washing traditions of the local ethnic tribe.

The next day we headed down the river on a cruise. This is where we saw the karst formations like Halong Bay, including the place shown on China’s 20 kuai note. The cruise was very pleasant – very crowded, but we now have ‘traveling in crowd strategies’ up our sleeves. After the Chinese monologue saying ‘nothing much’ according to the young girl with good English sitting next to us, we joined the throng on the outside deck. From here, we could see we were part of a convoy of boats heading down the river – in front of and behind us. However, we went back up onto the outside deck while everyone else was having lunch and enjoyed the tranquility. We also stayed up on deck after passing the ’20 kuai note’ and ‘horses on the cliff’ more famous places, after which most of our fellow travelers went back downstairs.

We had then booked to stay in 阳朔 (Yángshuò), rather than catch the bus back to 桂林 (Guìlín) like the others in our tour. Our guide said that it would be chaotic where the boats arrive and offered to organise a ride for us. I expressed concern at the proposed cost, not fully trusting her to be accurate about the chaos or the possibility of getting alternative transport. Eventually she said that she had arranged a ride at a reduced rate with some others also staying in 阳朔 (Yángshuò). We followed her through what could accurately be described as chaos. When she met our driver, they began a screaming match, ostensibly about our hotel being so far out of town that he could not possibly drive all the way for such a low fare. Then she turned to us and said we needed to give her more money – how could we say no? We will never know if this theatre was a genuine attempt to save us money, or friends working hard together for another NZD20.

So, we, along with four others, bundled into his small van. Maybe he was worth the extra money – for about ten minutes, he reversed, at speed, all the way along a narrow road with a sheer drop to the river we had just left, before getting to the part where he could turn and drive forwards. He dropped us at, well more accurately near, our hotel and drove away, leaving us looking around hoping we were at the right place – which we were – a beautiful place away from the main hustle and bustle, looking down on the river and town. Another enjoy traveling with the crowds strategy.

The next day, we took our hostess’ advice and walked down to the river, caught the ferry across, walked into town, and rented a couple of bikes to ride on the road where no cars are allowed. When we heard of such a road, we couldn’t help ourselves. We slipped onto a kiwi mindset and imagined a quiet space, even if we were sharing it with a reasonable number of people. When will we learn? ‘No cars’ means ‘not many cars’ and there were so many bicycles, scooters and buses. Raymond and I actually lost sight of each other at one point, and then took a while to reconnect because I went ahead, but he thought I was behind him.

We stood with the crowds watching abseiling, looked at the hole in the rock from afar, enjoyed various snacks from the ever present street food vendors, and then took a side road along by the river away from the main crowds. Because we had spent most of the previous day on the water, we didn’t go rafting but enjoyed sitting by the river watching others. A main reason that we can enjoy traveling with crowds is that we both prefer beauty over fame and most Chinese are the opposite.

We then walked to the centre of this small town. We stopped to watch a free impromptu bamboo stick dance. An older woman and her husband sat next to me watching. She asked her husband to take a photo of us together, and then he insisted that one of the dancers also pose with us. We then spent several hours relaxing at the outside tables of a Western restaurant, sipping drinks and people watching. On our way back to our accommodation, we stopped to buy a small twirly toy that Raymond thought would be good for physics teaching. The young girl manning the stall looked nervously at the older woman at the stall next to her and told us a price. Then an older woman swooped in and told us a price four times that, while glaring at the younger girl (her daughter?). I said firmly 太贵了 (tài guì le = too expensive) and walked away. At the next stall that had these toys, the woman quoted us the same price that the young girl had given us (NZD2). I just paid it, no negotiation, as a reward for not trying to rip us off. So she did well out of the whole drama. Raymond was very amused.

Our last day we traveled the other way to a smaller village – very pleasant and crowded, but to us the noteworthy experience was catching the local bus. We caught it from the side of the road near our accommodation, so the seats were already full when we got on. We perched up the front behind the driver, sharing that non-seat space with an older gentleman. As more and more people got on, we moved our feet to make room for their bags of vegetables, and enjoyed the banter and laughter of these older people traveling with us. They seemed relativley poor, with bodies and wrinkles indicating a tough life,  but happy.

That evening, we went to a light show held in a stunning natural amphitheatre – on the water with the karst hills around. To give an idea of how crowded this region is during Chinese New Year, that evening, they offered four shows instead of one – all fully booked. Reviews online have been mixed. We thought that the choreography using lights, the beauty of the environment, water, and large numbers of performers was stunning – sorry, hard to capture in photos.

But we are easily pleased. We continue to enjoy the beauty, hospitality, fascinating differences and challenges (with associated humour) of our adopted home.

 

 

 

Bĕijīng – a mixed bag

We have just spent a week in Bĕijīng.  It started badly with disempowering and scamming, then improved greatly, to be pleasantly surprising and wowing.

Disempowered

Our first activity in Bĕijīng was to apply for our Russian visas. In my experience, applying for a visa is one of the world’s more disempowering activities, and the Russian visa process took this to a whole new level. Disempowering factor 1 – we live in Chéngdū where there is no visa office, but we have to turn up in person, so we had to arrange our travel to include a week in Bĕijīng – fortunately not too difficult because we wanted to visit anyway. Disempowering factor 2 – we have to have booked flights and accommodation to get the visa, but if they don’t give us the visa, we can’t use any of it. Disempowering factor 3 – we filled in the online form, and turned up with all our documents as outlined on the website, but felt that the rules about what was and was not okay were being made up as we sat there. Our photos were not on shiny photographic paper so we had to have them redone. New Zealanders don’t need insurance so my person wanted me to change my online form to say that I did not have any. But, I do, I said. I don’t want to lie. I do not understand why we cannot leave it there. Eventually her manager noticed the stroppy woman querying her staff member, came over, and said that while it was not mandatory, I could leave it there. The manager also said, when I insisted that my person go and ask her, that I did not have to redo my online form because the system had added a space in the middle of the six digit postcode on the printed version of my application. Disempowering factor 4 – the prices for New Zealanders are higher than for Chinese people – ‘don’t take any notice of those prices, they are defined by country, yours are higher’. Disempowering factor 5 – ‘we only take cash, and because you didn’t know the price for you is greater, you don’t have enough cash on you. So, off we went to find the nearest ATM. Disempowering factor 6 – because of disempowering factor 1, we can only find out a day before we leave whether or not we have the visas.

Fortunately, we got them yay!

Scammed

After the visa office, we headed off to the Forbidden City and Tiānānmén Square. When we got there, a charming man came up to us and let us know that the Forbidden City is closed on Mondays for repairs. He invited us to go and see an art exhibition’ for free’. We followed him and saw some Chinese art – which he invited us to purchase. Raymond was tempted, but I said no, we already have to much. He showed us ones he had drawn as a ‘student of art at the university’. He then picked up a brush and drew my Chinese name on a piece of paper, suggested I could have it hung on a silk background. I declined, but paid him for my hand written name – more than it was worth, but not so much that we really minded.

We then continued walking, thinking we would get a sense of the lie of the land for our visit the next day. A friendly voice called out hello and we started talking to a couple of teachers from Xiān – one teaching English and one teaching Chines literature – who were in Bĕijīng for training. A friend who was studying Chinese medicine was also with them. They suggested we have a cup of tea together, and we walked to a tea house. They ordered a few different sorts of tea and we had a lovely time conversing about China and New Zealand. They then suggested we have a glass of wine together for Christmas so we did that – with me starting to feel a little uncomfortable. They suggested a second, but by this time, I was starting to feel quite uncomfortable. I had mentioned to Raymond as we traveled on the subway about our friend Rachel’s Bĕijīng story that she had told us last year when we were in London. She and her friends had been scammed by a tea house thing. I started to think maybe we had fallen for it as well – but how could I think that – they were so nice and interesting, and interested, and they were teachers, and they weren’t from Beijjing, so how could they be ripping us off – or were they?

I was starting to do sums in my head of what might be reasonable, while Raymond was blissfully chatting away in we are all friends mode. We were in a separate room, just us, and we had never seen a menu. They suggested we pay half each, and asked for the bill. It was five, or maybe ten, times the going rate! I queried the amount. They brought out the menu with the exorbitant prices on. As they presented the bill , one of them, continuing the friends’ ambience that had sucked us in in the first place, even suggested we exchange emails.

I was gearing up to resist, but Raymond’s ‘we pay bills’ and ‘they are so friendly’ attitudes were in full swing, so he had paid by the time I decided it was exactly the scam Rachel had warned us of. They then had the gall to suggest we go to the Square together, I told them they had ripped us off and stomped off down the road – more annoyed at myself for being so gullible and slow thinking. It is hard to describe how we were so slow to react because of the clever way they treated us like friends, throwing in a bit of flattery. I also think we foreigners (well Raymond and me anyway) can be a little arrogant and assume people want to talk to us, especially because we have English. So, they played on that too.

By the time we were half way down the road, we had worked out what we should have done – but it was too late. It took all my self-control not to go over and over it in my mind for the rest of that day, and some of the next. Two things helped me – ‘it is only money’, and ‘between the four of them they were not making that much money each’. I moved to feeling compassion for how hard up they must be to have to earn their money that way. But, it hurt for a while – how could we fall for it when I had been warning Raymond as we traveled in on the subway, and feeling betrayed by ‘friends’.

It was so different to our experience with the art guy. He clearly wanted to take our money, but in exchange for something, and it was clear what was going on the whole time. He was charming, but not pretending to want to be our friend.

As soon as we got back to our hotel, Raymond checked with his Chinese colleague and friend from school whether or not we could cancel the payment. We couldn’t. But Damon made us laugh when he said ‘I have told you to be careful., and not trust any Chinese, not even me’. Actually, we are grateful for the many positive experiences we have had in Chéngdū, and our friends like Damon.

Here is Raymond still innocent, walking across the bridge, through the archway onto the walkway where we met our ‘friends’, and, the next day, outside the fateful tea house.

Pleasantly surprised

We were pleasantly surprised by Bĕijīng’s air quality. The government, in its new five year plan, is determined to deal with the pollution in Chinese cities, starting with the capital. An example of how quickly things can happen once a decision is made to change things, they recently turned off the coal fires warming Bĕijīng, and switched to natural gas. It certainly worked. Every day was beautiful sunshine and clear blue skies. Although, we heard that the natural gas supply did not quite meet the heating needs of the wider population, so some rural people in this region suffered in cold houses to achieve the environmental targets.  Another interesting example of socialism, north of a certain latitude (Chéngdū is south of this, Bĕijīng is north of this), the Chinese government provides heating free of charge for everybody during the winter months.

We also found the city very easy to get around on the subway. And, like Chéngdū, it has many interesting places and buildings. I think we are turning into big city folk – we like crowds who you can follow to tourist spots, and the convenience of restaurants, shops and transport being close to everywhere you go.

Wowed

Finally, we were wowed by experiencing more of China’s amazing history.

The terrain where the Great Wall stands today was first used about 500BC, and further developed a few hundred years later . Its present form was developed about 700 years ago. Iis so impressive seeing it wind up and down over the hills, and to walk on it thinking how long it has been used to defend this empire. And what an engineering feat it was when it was built. Like other great structures from earlier times, I would not want to have been the manual labour, but it is still mind blowing in its achievement.

Then, the history of the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace fascinated us – especially because we both recently read of the Empress Dowager Cixi who influenced China in the second half of the 19th century and the first quarter of the twentieth. She and her sons lived in these two palaces so we walked around the Summer Palace lake picturing her having walked the same path. It was sad to read of how the Europeans destroyed some of the grandeur of both of these buildings in the mid 1800s. Empress Cixi really wanted to restore the grandeur of the Summer Palace – allegedly stealing money from the Chinese navy to do it.

It was moving to stand in Tiānānmén Square. It was quite empty and cold, but we reflected on that moment in history that we westerners remember. The National Museum on the edge of the Square was not so impressive. The building is amazing, but the building’s design seemed to make it hard to find exhibits, and those we did find were not as informative, or national, as others we have seen elsewhere.

We also went to an acrobatic show. It was traditional Chinese acrobatics, such as I remember from circuses coming to Auckland in the early 70s. But, it is always great to see what people can do with their bodies, the total trust these teams have to have of their fellow acrobats – such as when they had seven motorbikes riding around in a relatively small metal sphere, or nine women riding on one bicycle. I was reminded that China is where many of those traditional forms of entertainment began.

So, a mixed experience – a day of humility followed by three days of wonder.

 

Second winter in Chéngdū

This winter is very different to our first one a year ago. Back then, everything was still new and different and we were getting used to winter versus summer Chéngdū. This time around, things seem so much more normal.

We have our regular weekday routine:

  • Raymond wakes early, does a bit of work, showers and breakfasts, then brings me a cup of tea before going to catch the school bus at 7.20am
  • I revise Chinese characters, shower and breakfast, and have my online Chinese lesson at 8.30am, then head to work to start about 10am. I may catch a public bus or bike using one of our two bike sharing options.
  • The school bus brings Raymond home about 5pm. I have tended to catch the bus or bike home from work to meet him at this time. However, as work gets busier, I may not get home til after 6pm.
  • Then our standard evening routine is to cook dinner, watch TV, and head to bed.

Apart from the Chinese learning, this could have described our life in New Zealand. Of course, the work stuff is a little different in its details!

Our weekends are more different – increasingly familiar in their routine – market, friends, shopping – maybe a bit of exploring and still usually something to make us laugh at the unexpected and test our problem solving skills.

However, over the last month a few things, specific to winter here, struck me afresh:

  • Covers on the handles of our apartment doors – we assume these are there so that the metal handles will not be so cold to our touch when we open and shut the doors. It only gets down to about 4 degrees Celsius – not that cold. We even got a tiny one, with our apartment name embroidered on it, surreptitiously put on the handle of the door to our apartment
  • Beautiful reds and yellows of the trees’ leaves changing colours
  • Gardeners in our apartment covering plants with plastic bed covers to protect them from the cold
  • Our morning routine of looking at our air quality indicator (AQI) app to see if we need to wear masks – we don’t if it is green, yellow or orange, but if the AQI gets to red ‘affects everybody’, we put on our masks. We have both had colds, and noticed the air quality affecting us, so decided we should be more risk averse than last year. Chengdu only gets mask-bad air quality for a few months and doesn’t get to brown or purple, so it could be worse.

 

You know China is changing you when …

A little while ago, I read a blog ’50 ways a foreigner becomes more Chinese’. I identified with nearly half of them (I didn’t do so well on the Chinese spouse, son fluent in Chinese, or ones to do with China’s drinking culture). I also had some more of my own to add.

First, those I identified with from his blog are (using italics to show the bits from his blog):

  1. While mystified the first time I was served a glass of hot water, I now like it, especially in winter. I can go a step further and share my work tea habit. I put half a packet of green tea in my cup and add hot water from the shared water stand throughout the day until, at the end of the day, it is almost hot water.
  2. I know the Chinese zodiac sign I was born under – (rat).
  3. Seldom worry about personal safety, even walking in big cities at night.
  4. Have a Chinese keyboard on my phone – now I use this to input place names into the Chinese maps app, to practice ‘spelling’ words on my flashcards, and to write messages in Chinese to my language partner.
  5. Grocery shop using my bicycle – the bike sharing apps that have taken China by storm since we arrived are brilliant for travelling the distance to our nearest big supermarket.
  6. Have to remember to tip when I am traveling abroad – well as a kiwi, I was like that anyway, but I love that we don’t have to tip here either.
  7. Wonder why public spaces there look so empty – this really resonated. On my recent trip to New Zealand, I couldn’t believe how empty Queen St in the centre of Auckland looked
  8. Smile automatically when I see a small child, and may ask a baby’s age or name – I have just started saying hello to children, more for their parents who tend to be so delighted their child can practice English with a native speaker, and it is just nice to connect.
  9. Consider vendor’s prices only a reference point for haggling – at the shops around our food market. But, we are not very good at it, mainly because we feel so wealthy in comparison. We have learned that if we pay full price, they feel obliged to give us a gift or a bit of a discount anyway.
  10. Use the China Union Pay card: I never leave home without it – this is only different because this is the dominant ATM system here, which I had never heard of before. More than that, we have become a couple who hardly ever use a card or cash. Our most common form of payment now is Alipay using our phones and QR codes.
  11. Love tearjerker Chinese history dramas on TV – I started watching my first one to help my language learning. I watch it when Raymond is away and am about 15 episodes in. I don’t understand much of the Chinese, but can pick up enough to become engrossed in the story. I cried when the heroine threw herself into the grave of the hero who died rather suddenly (it is alright, they dragged her back out). I think he was poisoned on the orders of the guy who always looks smugly evil and keeps a falcon in a cage – no idea why he wanted him dead. I love the costumes and the dramatization of ancient China – think Downton Abbey set in China. I recently found out that the kick ass heroine is based on a real person – even better.
  12. Calculate, automatically, yuan equivalents of dollar prices in my head – we now switch between both worlds, earning in yuan and using yuan daily for over a year, but still using NZD as the definitive reference for cheap or expensive, it helps that multiplying and dividing by five is so easy.
  13. Am amazed at how much stuff costs in Western countries – well food anyway. I am sometimes surprised by how cheap other stuff is, and sometimes surprised by how expensive things can be, like that beautiful NZD2,000 dress I tried on when hunting for a dress for Aaron and Sally’s wedding. There is the full range of stuff here, but food is very cheap, except when going to a western restaurant, which we seldom do.
  14. Make fun of western ‘Chinese food’ back home – and wonder what Chinese people make of it – they probably feel how I felt when I couldn’t even eat the burger at Lìjiāng airport.
  15. Keep transit card on me at all times – I am going to miss the public transport so much when I return to New Zealand.
  16. Check air pollution conditions several times a day –as a Bĕijīnger this guy has to do this all year round (although this seems to have changed recently) – in Chéngdū we only do this for the three winter months.
  17. Check Wechat throughout the day, make phone calls on Wechat – my lifeblood here, crucial for work and social connections, used ahead of email by locals. Most days I discipline myself to look at Facebook in the morning in case someone has said something important.
  18. Love candied crabapples – tart on the inside and sweet on the outside
  19. Have no problem with squat toilets, which actually are more natural – in fact, now I choose to use the squat toilet at work because it is a form of regular exercise, and I think being able to squat to rest in your old age would be amazing.
  20. Surprised and dismayed by how little the world knows about China – and how ignorant and wrong I used to be. Somehow I absorbed an image in the 1970s of it as backward, boring and miserable, supported by images of everyone wearing drab blue matching outfits. How wrong can one be!
  21. Stare briefly at anyone who doesn’t appear to be Chinese on buses, subways or aeroplanes – because we are usually the only westerners somewhere, and we can’t see ourselves, so looking at a westerner seems increasingly weird.

My additions are

  1. China is my reference point when travelingduring my recent trips to Vietnam and New Zealand, I observed myself comparing what I was seeing to Chengdu and China. I was fascinated by Vietnam’s link to China through the centuries, including seeing Chinese characters in its temples. As for Europe, it is obvious that there have been changing borders and various invasions and resisting those invasions. But, I was so unaware of it, with my view of Vietnamese history being limited to the Eurocentric French colonising and American meddling, only a tenth of the just under 1,000 years that China ruled Vietnam.
  1. See New Zealand with new eyeseven on my last trip to New Zealand, I viewed Auckland, Rotorua and Palmerston North through Chinese eyes – not so much Wellington because it is so familiar after living there for 30 years that my ‘I feel so at home’ process kicked in. I was surprised how unsophisticated I felt these places were. I was especially struck by Queen St, the centre of our biggest city, having hardly any high buildings, virtually no shops and looking so deserted. So many people were wearing black, and track pants and running shoes were more common than smart casual in the middle of town. I think I was particularly sensitive to this because I am advising potential students and many want to go to Auckland because they like big cities. I will have to work on managing their expectations. If anything, Wellington was more bustling in its city centre. Of course, New Zealand is also stunningly beautiful everywhere, and has clear blue skies, real wind and rain.
  1. Feel defensive on China’s behalfwhen our dear friends from New Zealand visited, I observed another thing about myself. I want people to like our new home and be interested in it – even if they are not as fascinated as we are. But, they weren’t. They were just here to visit us and understand our lives here, which is of course nice in its own way. And, when we were on the bus coming down from Éméi Shān traveling beside the longest traffic jam I have ever seen winding its way up the two lane highway, Lawrie quite reasonably suggested a wider road would be desirable. I found myself feeling quite defensive on China’s behalf. China is actually big enough to look after itself, and like New Zealand is imperfect. But, in the way that I love New Zealand and want people to see how amazing it is, I have similarly become emotionally attached to China as my second home.
  1. Fascinated by ChinaI continue to be an avid student of all things China. Most of my spare time is spent learning the language. I keenly observe everything around me and try to talk to others to find out more and more. It can be exhausting, but is also rewarding.

Dipping my toe into politics

Last month was an interesting time to be a kiwi living in China.

Back in New Zealand, there was an election in which no party had a clear majority. New Zealand First (or was it Winston Peters?) held the balance of power, to decide whether New Zealand would have a centre left or centre right government for the next three years. He/they leaned left and now there are going to be all sorts of policy changes after nine years of centre right government. My heart and mind is more left than right and has a greenish hue, so I support many of the new directions planned by this three party coalition.

But I am left wondering if there isn’t a better way to choose leaders and run a country.

At much the same time, China held its 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China – a five yearly event. More than 2,200 representatives met in Beijing to approve the Party plan for the next five years. These representatives were selected throughout the year before the Congress. Apparently, for this Congress, they worked to increase the number of ethnic minorities, women and peasants attending – laudable, but it suggests under representation of these groups previously.

I am not sure how much the delegates can influence the outcomes. I think their role is more to take it back home and extol its virtues. But, I am impressed by how each plan is developed. A drafting committee works with investigative research teams to develop a ‘report’. The draft report is then reviewed by party groups, government institutions, the Army, various large organisations, retired party elders, various forums, leading specialists and other political parties. (Yes, China actually has nine parties, not just one as I thought. The Communist Party is by far the largest, with 85 million members. The next biggest party has half a million and the smallest has only about 30,000.)

President Xi Jinping’s more than three hours long opening speech for the Congress was titled “Secure a decisive victory in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects and strive for the great success of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era”. TV commentators on our Chinese English-language TV channel unpicked the speech and discussed terms such as ‘moderate prosperity’ and ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. I don’t know exactly what is in it, but the descriptions on our English news channel, and related discussion with Western and Chinese commentators, suggested policies that support what matters to me, and seemed both forward thinking and common sense.

As we watched the news, we were struck by the ability of the Chinese government to plan long term and make things happen. In the last thirty years, they have lifted 800 million people out of poverty – yes, 800 million! Okay, things were pretty dire, and definitions of poverty vary. But it is still 70% of the world’s poverty reduction over that period of time. And they know there are 70 million still to be lifted out – part of the next plan.

Living here, one cannot help but be struck by how rapidly China is moving from being a developing to developed country – in some ways already more developed than New Zealand. China’s long term plans for poverty alleviation, education, health, environment, economic growth, infrastructure building etc are transforming China so quickly. They do not rely on market forces, or individuals making wise choices, and don’t need to convince everyone what a great idea it is, so they can make rapid progress on many fronts. For example, on environmental issues, they are mandating electric vehicles, rapidly moving to use solar and wind power, and reducing deserts at the rate at which they used to be increasing.  Similarly, the government can act quickly to hinder property speculation to ensure affordable housing, and prioritise investment in agricultural innovation to be able to feed its people – 21% of the world’s population, with only 9% of the world’s land. Even in the 15 months, we have lived here, we have seen mind-blowing infrastructure development in our ‘tier 2’ city.

In his speech, the President also positioned China, as a strong, rich nation (now with the world’s second largest economy, on track to become the number one economy) as a responsible global power committed to tackling shared dangers such as climate change.

It is easy, as a westerner to feel nervous of China seeking growing international influence. But our TV commentators – two Westerners and one Chinese – commented that we are nervous of China being like the US or the European countries when they were the most powerful countries in the world. In my lifetime, the US has dominated using a bully model, and insisted on countries being like them. As the ex-Australian ambassador interviewed said, that works well for countries like Australia that already think like the US, but it hasn’t worked so well for others. The Chinese guy interviewed quoted a Malaysian leader saying that Malaysia is not nervous of China. Six hundred years ago, when China was powerful, they forged a relationship with Malaysia ‘based on mutual respect and trust’, unlike Great Britain. They trust them to do the same this time.

 

Of course, I know we do not have the whole story. The news in China is controlled, and tends to catch people being good. So we see examples of policies working, innovation and success. It has made me realise how much New Zealand’s news is trivial or focuses on negative and sensational things – catching people being bad. Neither approach is ideal, whether needing to be ‘interesting’ to sell news and increase ratings, or limiting news to a sanitised selection of things that are going well.

Living here has really challenged my assumption that democracy is best. Democracy now seems so inefficient. Every time a new government comes to power it has to undo some of what the last regime put in place, and return to priorities from the last time it was in power. And, so much time and energy is devoted to convincing the country that one’s ideas are best. I wouldn’t mind if I felt we were all voting based on a solid evidence base, a deep understanding of each party’s policies and selfless consideration for what is best for New Zealand. But, none of us do. Living outside New Zealand for the recent election, I wanted to understand what each party’s policy was. I found a good site that pulled together what each party said about its own policies. But, I confess I found it too much to digest. And I have a relatively high capacity for reading lots of text, and had more time than usual to research because I was not busy looking after children, or parents, or working full time. Instead, most of what people think politically, comes from preconceived ideas and sound bites shared through various media.

During New Zealand’s hiatus waiting to see who would lead the country for the next three years, one commentator suggested that National, the centre right party, and Labour, the centre left party, could consider forming a coalition. I thought, wouldn’t that be amazing? Imagine if they could work together to research what works well and then negotiate solutions that New Zealand could follow for decades and implement really well.

But, they can’t because they have a brand to maintain – what I now think of as the biggest weakness of democracy.

Brand development and maintenance, and the associated marketing, determines the outcomes of elections. Parties cannot afford to agree with other parties even if it makes sense. Next election they will lose support. The Maori Party in New Zealand seems to have been a victim of brand erosion. They opted to work with the centre right party to achieve something, and, in the recent election, lost the support of their traditional voters who saw them as giving up on their ‘brand’.

I have never really understood how the Westminster system, in which an opposition party’s main job seems to be to find fault with everything the other party does, can be a good thing. If we worked like that in families, organisations or business, nothing would ever be agreed or get done. Negotiating until we find win-win solutions makes it possible to work with others. I think select committees are supposed to help achieve this, but I don’t know enough of what really goes on in them to know if this ends up happening. If it does, it is certainly not obvious to the average person voting by brand.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the openness and transparency of New Zealand, and the freedom to say what you think. Those adjectives do not describe China, even with anti-corruption initiatives underway. And China is particularly vulnerable to ‘problems with leaders’.

It seems to me that everyone wants similar things, whether in New Zealand or China, left or right leaning. We want respect and valuing of all human beings, the ability to work and provide for ourselves and those we love, a safety net for whoever who is in need, a healthy economy, an environment that we would want our grandchildren to live in, education that empowers people and prepares us all for the future, a health system that means we are all looked after, affordable housing etc. Our differences are more about how we believe it is possible to achieve them.

In a brand free world, it seems more possible to take the time to work out solutions together that could last. I wonder if, as the pace of change accelerates, it is more or less important to think long term. In one sense, it seems less important because things will change in ways we can’t predict anyway. But in another sense, I suspect we lack the luxury of having time to take cheap shots at others to score political points, and the inefficiency of changing back and forth may matter more.

Now that I am challenging my assumptions, I dream that New Zealand could apply global (or is it western?) social science research about what works well in businesses, organisations and families and replace its 1800s designed Westminster system with a 21st century political environment focused on win-win, evidence-based solutions.

‘Chinese characteristics’ – mutual respect, being fair and balanced, and win-win co-operation – combined with the innovation, pragmatism, openness and transparency on which we New Zealanders pride ourselves, might help us get there – but, alas, probably not in my lifetime.