This is an incomplete, work-in-progress description of my travels from 1990-2009 in the China-Tibet borderlands, following in the footsteps of botanist Joseph Rock. Will be adding chapters and pics when they are ready - expected completion date November 2009. Contact me on mutikonka [AT] gmail,com

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Chapter 34: Guilin, Guangzhou and home

The train deposited me in Guilin at 3am, and, not wanting to disturb the Fu family, I wandered the empty streets for an hour looking for somewhere to doss down. Eventually [ returned to doze on the steps of the train station, where I woke suddenly at 6am in the sudden daylight. I was being pestered by hotel touts and black-market ticket sellers, and a catchy tune by Sally Yeh being played by one of the girls setting up a stall was driving me crazy.

This time round. Guilin seemed vulgar and modern. The men were spivvy and pushy, the young women looked sulky and spoiled. Over at Second Sister's apartment Mr Hu was keeping an eye on the place while everyone was away on business in Guangzhou. On the: way over. I picked up a China daily to catch up on all the news I had missed over the last month: President Mandela! Nixon is dead! Air strikes in Bosnia! I passed a day wandering round Guilin's beautiful Western Hills park, were every attraction had an extra price tag (3rmb to see a scruffy temple, 10rmb admission to the tiny museum), and the caves had tacky electronic-spooky sound effects added. I climbed one of the hills and rested from the mounting humidity in one of the pavilions.

A Chinese girl posed in a score of polity gestures for her boyfriend's camera as Mig 17s roared overhead and steam trains chugged past below. There was an odd threshing noise echoing off the hills, which I eventually attributed to machine gun fire coming from a nearby army firing range.

Later in the day 1 went to visit Third Sister's new apartment over looking the Li river. The varnished parquet floor and expensive wallpaper contrasted with its poky kitchen and squat loo. Overall, the flat looked a treat and I was jealous because it was better than our place in Auckland. Third Sister had spent much of her time during my last visit here with her usually spotless features spattered with paint as she decorated the walls. Her training in Architecture and Design had been put to good use in doing up her first home.

Husband Ha-Tong was a matey type, very attached to his new baubles of yuppiedom: the beeper and mobile phone. 'Michael, can I ask you one question?' he said, looking at my scarf and hiking boots. 'Why do you wear such weird clothes?' Third Sister's silence presumably denoted agreement on this issue. I felt like asking him why all Chinese men dressed exactly the same: white shirt, dark slacks, Dunhill-copy belt, slip-on shoes, aviator shades, beeper and copy-watch. But I said nothing. This time, before I left. Third Sister pressed a 2kg bag of oranges on me lur the trip to Guangzhou. 'In case you get hungry.'

I flew with younger brother, Fu-Liang, to Guangzhou on a 757. to meet up with Second Sister and Xiao Qingfor a couple of days. It wasn't a pleasant flight, especially since the hostess sat opposite me spent most of her time struggling with one of the door seals that kept flipping open and making sucking noises. Landing in Guangzhou was like arriving in Hong Kong: it had that same air of freewheeling energy, plus all the trappings of visible wealth such as mobile phones, flouncy dresses and gold jewellery.

Waiting at the airport, I had an amusing half-hour watching a crowd of Chinese watching some black Americans loading their luggage onto a truck. The Chinese were mesmerised by the 'hni's' glistening bare chests. Xiao Qing picked us up in what had been, a year ago, his brand new Toyota Crown. Now it had a few dents, some brown re-painted patches, and no huh caps. It was hard to keep a car nice in China. Inside though, was still pleasantly air-conditioned as we sat in the traffic jams on the way into the city centre.

We were now well within the Hong Kong prosperity sphere: plenty of BMWs and Fairwood Fast Food outlets, and adverts aplenty for Japanese gadgets. We pulled into an underground car park of a new shopping mall. and took a lift up to a swish restaurant for a 'steam-boat' meal. Xiao Qing and Second Sister wanted to impress me. and they certainly succeeded. The restaurant was like its ornate Hong Kong equivalents except it was roomier and the staff more polite. The young waitresses in starched green uniforms had taken Hong Kong-English names on their badges, such as 'Fanny', 'Amly(?)' and 'Bennie'. I felt a bit out of place with my rough shirt and muddy hoots.

The pleasures of a steam-boat meal eluded me. It was too much like hard work, dipping lumps of frozen beef and lamb, or still-wriggling shrimps skewered on sticks, and blobs of shellfish into the boiling cauldron. After an hour I was gorged on meat and we were left wilh a soup that tasted like dishwater. All for l50rmb a head, and I was till left craving some simple rice and vegetables that would have cost a hundred times less in Mull. Lunch was followed by window shopping in the Hong Kong-style complex (aptly named 'GoFukYu'). The only difference was the prices, in renminbi. The goods: wide-screen TVs, rice boilers, laser discs and massage machines, were ail the Hong Kong favourites.

Here in Guangzhou they were as much as twice the price, and I suggested to Second Sister that if they wanted anything I could easily nip across the border and buy it for them. They readily agreed, and started drawing up a shopping list. After an hour of full-on materialism I started to get restless. There was something vaguely disturbing about the head-down acquisitiveness on display in this mall. It wasn't like the shallow show-offyness of Hong Kong: for these people it was all deadly serious. I thought back to the peasant in Xisuanbanna who had sat next to me at a roadside shop and asked for my plastic mineral waier bottle when I had finished with it. And the way he had fingered it with admiration when I handed ir over: it had made his day.

So we went to see Xiao Qing's new 'amusement arcade' in a small town outside Guangzhou. As we drove there. Second Sister asked me about private education for little Fu Bo in Britain. When I told her a boarding school could costs as much as 30,000rmb a term, she said 'Is that all?' She wanted to send Fu Bo straight away, but I told her to wait until he was eight and could speak some English.

The amusement arcades of Yanchang were a revelation. When Xiao Qing said he dealt with electronic games, I had assumed he meant the Space Invaders type. In reality, they were just poker machines: electronic card games for lOrmh a hand. And the amount of money changing hands in the crowded arcades was simply phenomenal: the minimum playing fee for each of the 30 machines was l00rmb a time. Each machine was serviced individually by a young woman assistant who clutched a thick wad of 100 and 50rmb bills. Her role seemed limited to pushing the credit button every five minutes as the eager gamblers bashed the console and slapped down another large denomination note. The players were virtually all young men and gambled with an intense. Chinese abandon. Where did they get all that money from, I wondered? And wasn't gambling supposed to be illegal in China? Yet the arcade had a policeman on duty on the door.

Well, this was Guangdong province, far from Beijing. Xiao Qing had three such gambling places in this town alone. Helped by the rest of the family (Ha-Tong, Fu-Liang), he ran several similar places in Guangzhou, Guilin, Chongqing and Beijing. Each employed 60 assistants in two shifts, since the places were open till 5am. The pay was a generous 600rmb a month ('That's twice what I get at the hotel in Guilin,' said Second Sister ruefully) plus food and accommodation in an upstairs dormitory.

We sat outside the busy games parlour, shovelling rice and vegetables down and chatting to the staff. The boss, his wife and their funny foreign brother-in-law: there were few class divisions, only money. Yancheng was a different kind of Chinese nowhere town. Sal in Xiao Qing's temporary apartment that night as he fiddled with some circuit boards, I looked out of the window into a scene from 'Blade Runner': crackling neon signs, electric cables and adverts for Japanese VCRs. Below, in a murky alley, was the green glow from karaoke parlours and the pinks and purples from beauty parlours. It was almost midnight on a Wednesday and everything was still in full swing: cafes and herbal medicine shops, printers and car repair workshops.

The town had been built quickly and shoddily: it was all concrete and makeshift traffic lanes. The hotels were pools of crude glamour amid construction-site mess, their lobbies and restaurants plush and ill-fitting, while the stair-wells were cluttered with discarded chairs and tables. Meanwhile, I was getting restless again. Xiao Qing and Seconil Sister's idea of a good time was to take me to as many restaurants as possible in one day.

The rest of the time they spent preparing for the Grand Opening of their latest gambling parlour. I was worn out and lying on the bed waiting for them to turn in, when Second Sister announced it was time for 'Midnight Tea'. This turned out to be another round of dim sim at the crowded hotel restaurant. 'You look tired, Michael,' said Second Sister as we tucked in. 'I thought westerners enjoyed staying out late. I've seen it in films where you go to discos.' Yes, I thought, but not every night. The energy of the Chinese economic miracle was too much for me 'Never mind,' said Xiao Qing, 'We'll give you a lift to Shenzhen tomorrow.'

SHENZHEN: Almost Free.

The most enduring image I took away from China was not the Tiger Leaping Gorge or the mountains of Muli. It was the sheer scale of industrial development I saw in Guangilong province. During the 100km drive to the Hong Kong border at Shenzhen, the road was one long procession of new factories. Almost every hundred yards would be the bamboo scaffolding skeleton of a new building going up to make shoes or radios or toys. Whole hillsides had been clawed away to make room for access roads and loading bays, and that morning I saw nothing hut piles of dirt, excavators and the shacks of construction workers.

Occasionally we would pass through a new town of ugly shuttered shop-fronts, with a few restaurants and beauty parlours. The whole landscape was dusty, polluted and under development. Everything was unfinished, as if waiting for some huge army of workers to invade. It was an industrial Olympic Village that went on forever, preparing for a D-Day of production. I found it depressing and intimidating. As we got closer to Hong Kong the emphasis changed slightly: there were condominium developments and golf courses. Some Hong Kong vehicles began to appear in the traffic amongst the Chinese-registered Audis and Mercedes: trucks from Kowloon and Leyland buses un Cityline cross-border routes to the major towns of Guangdong.

And then we reached the restricted area of Shenzhen. The crossing point was like a London Tube station: lines of commuters rushing past the barriers, showing their permits. We hit trouble when Second Sister found her permit had expired: the police at the barrier told her quite bluntly to get lost when she asked for an extension. 'Go back to Guilin and apply for one/ the officer-in-charge said. In the end she slipped through in the car with Xiao Qing. and we entered a landscaped wonderland.

The outskirts of Shenzhen were like a theme park: neat, spacious and green. There were trees and bushes, and the roads were smooth. I could feel the pull of Hong Kong, almost like gravity, We adjourned to a McDonalds. where they ran through the shopping list of things for me to buy in Hong Kong. Then I slipped out of the car at the crowded concourse of Lo Wu and walked to the immigration building. 'See you tonight,' I said. I dipped into Hong Kong for five hours, to buy up the goodies for my in-laws. It was like emerging from the ocean into a clear, sunlit wurid.

Sitting on an air-conditioned KCR train gliding through the New Territories, Hong Kong seemed sleepy, lush and orderly after the frenetic rawness of Shenzhen. There was no dust or mud: even the piles of dirt on the building sites looked tidier than in China. And the people were almost narcotic. No stares, no 'Ailos'. They looked stately and sour. Downtown, I whipped round the MongKok shops, dodging the shuffling crowds on the pavements in my rush to buy cameras and sunglasses. People spoke English of a sort. There were Chinese cub scouts instead of Young Pioneers. Schoolgirls wore English blazers with 'PREFECT' badges on their lapels.

Nobody looked at me, except the western tourists, who looked stupid and fat and unaccustomed to the hot weather. In the shops, I found myself breaking into putonghua when I pointed to things. 'Zheige.-.that one. Xiamiande neige...' And the MongKok shopkeepers understood.

It was only on my return to Shenzhen that I noticed its crudity: the crumbling pavements, the massage girls lolling outside the 'barber' shops strung along the hurder. Ami the wide use of Mandarin instead of Cantonese, and the hawkers selling pineapple sticks, Just like in Lijiang. Second Sister, Xiao Qing and Fu-Liang were sat in their hotel room, admiring the purchases I had smuggled through for them. The sunglasses didn't fit Fu-Liang, they were far too big and looked ridiculous on him. But he didn't mind: they were Ray Bans, and it was the label that mattered. I spent one last night in China, in a hotel room overlooking the empty fields on the Hong Kong side of the border. One last night amid the anarchic energy of Shenzhen.

One last time for all the nudges, stares and 'Allo! Laowai!'.

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Medical writer, user of Rolleiflex and Leica film cameras, China-phile and Brompton bike rider. Editor of  Originally from Yorkshire.