CHINA, july 1999

Dear Sifu and Simo,

I just got back from my trip to China with my wife May and I thought you might be interested in the adventure we had so I'm sending you our story.
See you next week!

Much too my surprise I didn't suffer from culture shock when I arrived in Beijing. China's climate is the same as Australia's, Beijing cyclists are just as suicidal as Amsterdam's, I could speak enough Chinese to talk about the weather and read enough to find the toilet, and living with a Chinese girl for more than two years had toughened me up. The main difference was the abominable air quality - a five minute walk during rush hour coats your lungs with as much muck as a packet of unfiltered Chinese cigarettes.

May had not lost her knack for haggling (unlike the whole of the Western world) and managed to get the price of everything from our hotel room to clothes down substantially. Many things, however, were classified as "label" (mingpai) products, but unlike in the Western world, Chinese "label" products went far beyond clothes so we had the pleasure of eating "designer" icecreams and drinking "famous" bottled water which even the Chinese hadn't heard of. Beijing was a complete mess, and you couldn't be sure if a building was going up or down. Behind the ultra-modern high-rise flats and offices lining the main roads were the derelict hutong suburbs which hadn't been touched for the last two hundred years and smelt like it. For the first time in her life, May, rather than her family, sister or I, had to organize everything, so I forgave her for the fact that it took her three days to organize train tickets to Xi'an when the travel agent in Amsterdam could have done it in five minutes.

We travelled in the soft sleeper from Beijing to Xi'an and what rolled passed was eye-opening - brand-new freeways next to ghetto country towns, a whopping big cathedral in the middle of a non-descript village and a steam train which was still in use. Having been told not to talk about politics with strangers, right next to us a retired university professor was ear-bashing a retired communist about how bad the Communist party was.

Big Brother was waiting for us at the train station as well as half of the city's taxi drivers, and from then on he took over our lives. I saw some HP shops which was kind of funny in the middle of China, and we hired a taxi for a day for only US25 to see the Terracotta Army in sweltering mid-summer heat, while the taxi driver gambled away his day's earnings on the street.

We caught a brand-new coach with TV and toilet from Xi'an to Baoji which was very comfortable apart from the leaking air-conditioning which gave us a shower every time we went around a corner. Baoji means "Precious Chicken" in Chinese and being off the tourist track it was the first place where people started to stare at my blond hair and my hairy legs which is kind of funny because in the West no-one stares at Chinese peoples' pony-tails and squinty eyes.

This is where the fun really began. Big Brother's colleagues had gone to Baoji in a Toyota bus because one person had to work, which gave the rest an excuse to go shopping in what for them was "the big smoke". The trip started with dinner in the most disgusting and dirty restaurant in town because the driver was a Moslem and preferred a place with dirty chickens rather than one with clean pigs. After a few beers he then drove in pitch darkness like a complete lunatic on semi-paved mountain roads, frequently skidding the back wheels of the elongated mini-bus around precipitous corners with his colleagues urging him to overtake trucks going uphill at blind corners. No-one had explained to the driver that arriving in five hours alive is better than arriving in four hours dead, but because the passengers where praying to Mohammed, Boeddha and Jesus, one of the gods heard our plea and we arrived alive but shaking.

Hui Xian, May's home town, is a small country town nestled between terraced hills on a plateau surrounded by breath-taking mountain ranges. It's main industries are agriculture and minerals, the latter which seemed to be booming as the nouveau riche in their expensive Mitsubishi Pajeros and Jeeps and the building spree seemed to suggest. A rice-wine factory nearby seemed to also be doing well, but considering that numerous bottles of the fifty-percent strong alcohol were consumed at every banquet not to mention it's probable use as petrol when far from a gas station, this came as no surprise. In the true Chinese fashion the roads of the town had been dug up in one go and repaired bit by bit making them look like NATO collateral damage. There was a strong Moslem presence in the village, but as in Tibet, Lower Mongolia and most other non-Han regions of China, the Han Chinese were definitely in charge, leaving only the smaller stores and kebab barbecues to Genghis Khan's offspring.

May's mother was very nice although she was suffering from health problems and was being pumped full of dubious Chinese and Western pills every day. May's father was a retired communist at the start of our stay and a converted capitalist by the end, agreeing to move to a new flat and leaving the dirty communist one behind. Probably because he got up early every day to do Tai Chi with his broken plastic sword and they fact that his role in having six chidren was not as demanding as May's mother's, his health was in very good shape, and we had some pleasant moments together painting Chinese characters with the traditional brush techniques. Big Sister was very nice for a Chinese big sister - she had a good sense of humour and bossed everyone around in a nice way. Big Brother was just that - he had been brought up in the die-hard Communist school and was trained as an electrical engineer which meant that he could replace light-bulbs. He was completely stressed out the whole time and drove his wife to a nervous breakdown halfway through our stay by ordering her to cook a meal at ten o'clock at night and then trying to say that it was me who said I wanted to eat. Second Brother was an army office in charge of 300 troops and was looking for an opportunity to start a business as he earned only US100 a month and could see the mass reduction of the Chinese armed forces looming. Little Brother was the most fun to be around as he was the most relaxed and had missed the Communist schooling. He had just successfully started selling minerals and took us on many mountain climbs and fishing expeditions as well as teaching me how to play Chinese chess.

Big Brother had a plan. May was still registered in his electricity work unit, and he wanted to replace May's registration with that of his wife, who was working in the less successful water work unit, which meant that no-one in the village apart from the family could know we were married. The reason why we got married in Holland before going to China was to make it clear to everyone that we were married and avoid any problems with the family or authorities. Thus the only thing that was sure about the whole trip to China, became undone. Of course, like most of Big Brother's plans, it was very stupid and everyone knew we were married because we had a banquet and people even bought us wedding presents, not too mention the fact that we wore our gold wedding rings the whole time and that being only the third foreigner ever to visit the village kind of attracts attention. Walter, Nicky, Patrick and Yen Ping dropped by for a day, but due to a mixture of bad weather, Big Brother, lack of wedding, the Mao Zedong poster in Big Brother's house which scared the Taiwanese Yen Ping, and lack of time, they left in a hurry. May bought herself her wedding dress the day before we left so hopefully she can wear it at our third wedding attempt in Australia at the end of the year.

The Communists first built homes which had no toilet, bathroom, kitchen, heating, gas or water because everyone was equal so everyone had to live as equally badly. May's parents were still living in one of these places, and the public toilets they had been using for twenty years consisted of a row of concrete slopes which everything stuck to and was flushed only once a day if someone remembered. After millions of people starved to death, they also allowed kitchens. They then realized that even though communal toilets encouraged comradeship, they weren't very hygienic so they also allowed private toilets. As far as showers were concerned, you still have to build your own in the toilet, so having a shower meant being careful not to put your foot in the toilet as you spent your time manning the numerous levers and non-waterproof switches of the intricate manual home-made shower and hot water system.

Gansu Province is a dry and hot area so there are very few rice-based dishes and a lot of fascinating wheat-based ones. I never knew you could do so much with food - Chinese ravioli (jiaozi), dumplings (baozi), all sorts of strange pastas - even spaghetti made from potatos! Frogs legs were also common - you would hear the frogs at dawn and eat them at dusk. We made chips for May's family but they weren't very impressed because we had no mayonaise and the nearest supermarket which did was in Hong Kong.

We went by hard sleeper from Hui Xian to Chengdu which was a lot more social than soft sleeper because the compartments were open and I had by that stage abandonned any hope of privacy anyway. We left the high, hot and dry wheat area for the lower, wet rice-fields of Sichuan and it is true that the Sichuan girls are the most beautiful in China (apart from May, of course). We then caught a Chinese domestic flight from Chengdu to Shanghai which was ok apart from the pressurisation problem which made May feel sick and the trainee pilot who took off and landed as if he neeed to go to the toilet in a hurry.

Shanghai made you forget that you were in a totalitarian state which controls the forty odd television stations as well as all newspapers and most companies and hotels to name a few things. The only Communism I could find in Shanghai was a pitiful phallic monument dwarfed by brand-new high-rise symbols of manhood including the Pearl Oriental Television Tower which looked like it had overdosed on Viagra. The grand old European buildings lining the river which the Communists hated so much gave the city a unique charm. Due to a zero tolerance policy of the Shanghai council and police, the roads were clean, traffic flowed smoothly (our taxi driver was even fined for stopping to drop us off in front of the hotel), and the footpaths were in good shape so it didn't seem crowded at all. They even waited until night to repair the road across from our hotel was very good for the traffic but bad for our sleep. Shanghai, like Singapore and Hong Kong, once again proves that the Chinese are cable of public organisation and cleanliness - of course, this takes money, so ironically the Communist system which stressed public organisation and cleanliness was unable to deliver. At times, I could swear I was in Paris. They even played Western card games instead of the traditional Chinese mahjong or chess. We only got two hours sleep before our flight back to Amsterdam because Big Brother kept calling us from the other side of China to see if we had eaten dinner, brushed our teeth, gone to bed and last but not least if we had gone to sleep yet.