Postcard from China, 1

13th July 2013

I’m a little uncertain about whether to contribute this post. After all, I’m off on a family holiday and not travelling for Illuminations. Mostly when I have done Postcards from foreign climes before I have been filming or researching or at a festival. But the present trip is simply and solely for pleasure. My eldest son Nick has been studying for the past year at the University of Nottingham at Ningbo, and before his time here comes to an end my wife Clare, my daughter Kate and I decided we should visit the country where he has spent the last year. So we are here for three weeks, the first of which is drawing to a close – and I’m going to offer some what-I’m-doing-on-my-hols notes from time to time. Normal service will be resumed here after 28 July.

Talking of normal service, I am posting from my iPad and I am finding it impossible to add images. So I will need to depend on the assistance of my colleagues back at the office to get a header image – I hope that can come on Monday.

We have been in China for a week now. We flew to Beijing last weekend, arriving on Sunday morning. Our tourist itinerary included Tian’anmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven and the 798 Art District. The queue shut us out of Chairman Mao’s mausoleum and we just didn’t have time or energy to get to the Summer Palace. (It rained almost incessantly and the heat was pretty intense too.)

On Wednesday afternoon we went out to the Great Wall at Metianyu and were then driven on to stay overnight at a very basic agricultural guest house in a village. On Thursday morning early we walked up to another part of the Wall which has yet to be restored, and then drove back into Beijing.

Our next adventure was a 6 hour-plus train journey to Datong, in a carriage jam-packed with Chinese travellers. On Friday we drove out of Datong to the so-called Hanging Temple, which is a remarkable sight but which, frustratingly was closed because of the recent rains having increased the chance of rockfalls. But the afternoon’s visit to the great Buddhist statues of the Yungang Caves more than made up for that.

This morning we were driven to Pingyao which is an almost perfectly preserved walled town, entirely out of the nineteen century (as is the glorious courtyard hotel in which we are staying). There are hundreds of tourist shops and ten times as many tourists, almost all of them Chinese, but even this doesn’t spoil the extraordinary effect. Yet it also feels in a particular kind of way authentic and not in any sense ‘Disney-fied’. The weather yesterday and today has been kinder too.

Have we reached any conclusions not thought of by millions of tourists and travellers before us? Of course not. There are an extraordinary number of people here. Many of them are, to our eyes, extraordinarily rude to each other, especially on the Beijing subway. In the capital there is a very strong sense of being watched all the time, both by the security services and by Chinese people astonished especially at how tall Kate is.

Almost everywhere we go we are asked if we mind being photographed, usually with a son or daughter, sometimes a baby, often a whole family. Everyone who is in any way prosperous has a mobile phone and takes photos all the time, and yet at the tourist sites there are dozens of photographers with digital cameras and printers who will provide an image of you standing in front of, say, the Forbidden City or the image of Mao that dominates Tian’anmen Square.

The contradictions of China, and especially of the attitudes to Mao, have defeated many, many more qualified to deal with them than us. But it is bizarre to see him venerated in so many places, and to talk to people who see him as the father of the country – even if he did make some mistakes later in his life. On the way out to the Hanging Temple our driver stopped for us to meet an old man who lived in a cave dug in a cliff face. His living space was lined with posters, some with vaguely religious imagery, some with Pop culture, Hello Kitty-type pictures, but in pride of place was a large image of Mao.

(I’ll continue to add some touts to this over the next day or so, and perhaps write a more detailed piece about Yungang as a separate post.)

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