Ian and I went back to take a proper look at the Er’qi tower. It’s a memorial to railway strikers who were massacred in 1923 by warlords defending the interests of the companies building the Beijing-Hankou railway. The working conditions, particularly in the long tunnels through the mountainous regions, were appalling, and strikes by the railway workers spread from Beijing to Zhengzhou, where the massacre took place. On each of the nine floors of the tower (which we climbed!) there are eulogies to the bravery of these people who stood up to the ‘rule of law’. This seems ironic in light of the Chinese government’s current curtailment of Trades Unions and the right to strike. But, of course, the ‘rule of law’ in 1923 was designed to protect imperial capitalists and warlords, the enemies of the Communist Party, for whom this massacre was a decisive moment in the revolution!
We are all complicit
Since we came back from China, I’ve been asked about the detention of possibly millions of Uyghur Muslims from Xinjang region in ‘re-education’ camps. I looked at a BBC report which included a statement from a regional leader describing the camps as 'vocational education centres' designed to 'stave off terrorism'. Then I looked at another BBC report, using satellite photography to determine the scale of these internment camps. Remembering that our friend Jiang (see May posting) grew up in Xinjang, and talked of schooldays in which his friendships were forged across religious and ethnic differences, I asked him about these reports. He replied in an uncharacteristically terse message that his Muslim friends in Xinjang said that these reports were exaggerated, and were probably anti-government propaganda. I realised that this is not a conversation to pursue on WeChat. So I dug a little deeper and found a report on the US and UK companies, like JP Morgan, currently profiting from all the security and surveillance equipment which is being used to target and detain Muslims. Meanwhile Britain continues to sell millions of pounds worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia and I think I'd rather be 're-educated' than bombed.
We were visiting this tower on the last weekend of the school holidays. On every floor, and even on the staircase, parents would push their children towards us, saying, "Look! Speak English" and they'd get us to pose with their children who could just about stutter "How are you? Where are you from?" In the whole two weeks we spent in Zhengzhou, going out into the city most days, we were treated like welcome celebrities and we didn't see any other Europeans.
We arrived at the home of Yuzhi and Jianjun (parents of Anqi - see June post) the day before Ian's 87th birthday, so we'd insisted that it was our custom to take everyone out to dinner on our birthdays. This was the only meal we were allowed to pay for during our two week stay with this generous family. Anqi's brother, Liujia (2nd from left in the photo) and his three friends joined us, to celebrate their success in graduating from high school and gaining places at universities. Liujia and one other were going to Wuhan to study engineering, the boy on the right was staying in Zhengzhou to study computer science and the boy next to him, who had done particularly well in the gaokao, was going to Shanghai to embark on a multi-disciplinary foundation course. On the morning of Ian's birthday, Yuzhi, who spoke no more English than I could speak Chinese, took me out for the day. She just beckoned and I grabbed my purse and phone and followed her out of the door, with no idea where we were going nor for how long. We took a bus to the city centre and went round various shops, had coffee in Starbucks, and caused much interest and laughter in a huge supermarket looking for a particular brand of biscuit that Ian had liked in Beijing. Failing to find it, we bought him some chocolates and then spent another half hour, involving more misunderstandings and laughter as I tracked down the ingredients for Ian to make his own oatmeal cookies. We went for a pedalo ride in the People's Park (and I'll write another post about the People's Parks including those in Beijing, Chengdu and Kunming). Yuzhi phoned Liujia so he could tell me about the Er'qi tower, which I shall write about in my next post.
After 5 days in Beijing, we took the high speed train to Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, two hours South of Beijing, where we’d been invited to stay with the family of Anqi (see June posting). When we passed all these clusters of tower blocks, I got a sense of the enormous population of this vast nation as I tried to calculate how many people must be living in each cluster. But then I wondered where all these people went to as there seemed to be no other signs of urban life around them. Later, I read an article which describes this landscape as a symptom of "Two decades of staggering economic growth built on a series of credit bubbles" leaving "... a legacy of “development” defined by wastelands of apartment complexes sitting next to half-empty factory cities, each year filled with fewer workers and more unmanned machines”.
Despite its size (population over 4 million) and long history, Zhengzhou is not known as a tourist destination. I read in the China Morning Post that 80% of the world’s iPhones are manufactured in Zhengzhou, while the New York Times puts the figure at 50% . When I asked our Beijing friends about these notorious Foxconn factories I was told, oh no, China’s industry is all in North and East. When I asked our hosts in Zhengzhou, they said the same. But as we drove out of Zhengzhou to visit their home town across the Yellow River, our hosts pointed out a vast Industrial Zone, but said they didn't know what was there. I guess you might find the iPhone factory there. Both Anqi's parents are engineers (now managers) in the construction industry, but we didn't have the language resources between us to ask about the context of their work.
Pictured above Left to Right: Shirly, Julia, Michael, Carole, Ian, Jiang and Candy.
On arrival in Beijing we checked into our wedding suite at the Double Happiness hotel! What a delight to find every comfort and luxury in a beautiful building around a courtyard with delightful staff to help us. Then we were taken out for dinner by Jiang, Candy and Shirly (see posting from May 2018 for an introduction to Jiang and Shirly). Jiang was living in Shanghai when he stayed with us in February, but was subsequently posted by his IT company to Guangzhou, where he met Candy. Jiang now has a new job in Beijing as Assistant to the CEO of a company that hooks up Chinese tourists around the world with Chinese-speaking drivers and guides. Jiang told us that there were over a million Chinese tourists travelling abroad at any one time. And there were also plenty of Chinese students and migrant workers in the same countries needing a bit of extra cash. So he was hoping this might become a business on the scale of Uber or Tripadvisor.
Candy was in Beijing visiting Jiang while on holiday from her management job (in charge of something like marketing or HR) in Guangzhou, where she had her own apartment. Shirly, a High School English teacher, also owned her own apartment way out to the West of Bejing. Our visit coincided with Shirly’s last week of school holidays, so she volunteered to be our guide in Beijing. While Carole and Michael went off on a trip to the Great Wall, Ian and I sorted out our Chinese SIM cards and then took the subway out to visit Shirly. The subway was packed - today was the somethingth anniversary of the glorious victory of the People’s Republic over the Japanese - and most people got off at the stop for the military museum.
Shirly met us at her stop and took us through her local park, explaining that there had been a big steel works in that area, but these had been moved further out of town and the park had been built so that the former steel workers could enjoy their retirement. We saw groups of happy old people doing just that. Shirly tried to engage some old women in conversation, but they were too intent on their card game, so we chatted with a guy who was smoking a pipe. He told Ian he had a much more valuable pipe at home. We established the fact that they had secure housing and a state pension, and we had the first of numerous conversations about Ian’s great age. When they congratulated him on his evident good health, he responded with praise for the British NHS! I understood that Shirly had bought her apartment cheaply from a former manager of a public housing block. I suspect this may be an example of government officials and bureaucrats profiting from the ‘opening up’ of the Chinese economy to privatisation.
Shirly’s flat, on the 3rd floor with no lift, was light and comfortable, with a window alcove full of plants. She sometimes lets out her bedroom through Airbnb, and sleeps on her living room sofa (like our airbnb host in Helsinki). It seems that the first thing you are offered wherever you go is a cup of hot water, and after drinking that, she set to making the dumplings. I’d asked her to teach me, so I watched and helped a bit, but the kitchen was too small for me to be of much use.
During this school holidays, Shirley had taken a trip to Japan and written a novel – or a series of short stories – about the pressure of the school leaving/university entrance exams, the gaokao (see Guardian article Is China’s gaokao the world’s toughest school exam?) I think each of her stories is about the way this pressure affects a particular young person with different educational needs. I hope she’ll ask me to help her edit an English translation one day.
That night we went to the Peking Opera with Candy, Michael and Carole, and the following day, we’d planned to go to the Forbidden City with a friend of Shirly’s – a history teacher who used to work as a guide there. When we found that all the tickets for that day were sold out, I was more disappointed at missing the opportunity to talk to Shirly’s friend about the content of his history lessons, than I was about missing the chance to join the 80,000 people trooping through each day.
While we were in China, I kept up daily reports on WeChat, and when we got to Australia, I put a summary of these on WhatsApp. So my postings will now be reflections on the stories we can tell as we process them over the next few months. To start with, here's a Youtube video of our journey from London to Beijing. Ian says it's "scrappy" (limited by the erratic quality of my iphone photography) and that the sound track is inappropriate and badly recorded. The latter point is true - I was too lazy to track down a digital copy of Glenn Miller's recording of Chattanooga Choo choo. Inappropriate? The people we met in the dining car and corridors - Dutch, English, American, Italian, German, Swiss and Danish - all spoke to each other in (American) English. There was certainly an American quality to much of the consumer-traveller conversation about the quality of hotels, food and tourist destinations they'd been to or planned to visit. So a Glenn Miller soundtrack is no less appropriate than any other music for this part of our journey. Communication with the Russian, Mongolian and Chinese train staff was limited to getting our needs met (While Ian flirted with the Russian matrons in the dining car, I got very proficient in asking abbreviated versions of 我可以吗 保持 我的 医学 在你的 冰箱 "Can I keep my medicine in your fridge?") So we hung out mainly with our cabin neighbours, Carole and Michael, from Leeds. As well as sharing the bathroom between our two compartments, we shared politics, values and priorities and Carole had a keen eye for spotting and pointing out eagles flying over the desolate Mongolian landscape. We also found we'd booked into the same hotel in Beijing so here we are meeting our Chinese neighbours in Dongsi Si Tiao (4th alley)
The day to day account of our travels was posted on a "Psychedelic travellers" WhatsApp group and a "Julia and Ian in China" WeChat group. So postings after October are summaries and reflections. To follow the story in chronological order, work your way back through the archives from March. Why "Psychedelic Travellers"? Because we read Michael Pollan's 2018 book How to change your mind:the new science of psychedelics, and liked the way Pollan likens an acid trip to travelling in an unfamiliar country.