Here’s a little more of what’s been going on in China.
Since I last wrote I have had a very busy month. I wish I could draw you a map but I haven’t yet got scanning sorted and things tend to take a very very very long time over here. I’m writing from Xian, which is about a 2 1/2 hour plane flight west, and a little North of Shanghai. Its where the terracotta warriors are.
As you may know, I left Japan early March to begin part two of my adventure – China!
I flew to Hong Kong where I had one night on my own, which was a little shock to the system. I had a perception of Hong Kong as a very Western city – which I believe it is – but just not where I was staying. I had expected the order of Japan, and not the (utterly fascinating) crazy clutter of Fortress Hill.
I had a night here, and then moved into my hotel where I was to begin my tour. Somewhere in December I realised that rocking up in China by myself was a little beyond anything I though I could deal with, so I decided to do an Intrepid tour to give me more of a gentle introduction.
With the tour I went to Yangshuo, Yicheng, up the Yangtze River through Chonqing to Chengdu and spend two days in Hangzhou before arriving in Shanghai. I had a few days in Shanghai by myself before I went to Suzhou, where I spent about a week.
Drawing is essentially impossible. The moment I sit down to draw something ends up happening. Just up the alley from my hostel in Suzhou I came across three men in a corner where the alley widened. Like many people in these back streets in China, the man was operating a small business. He had a small machine in front of him, and an assortment of parts spread out on a sheet beside him. He was a fixit man of some sort, what exactly I wasn’t quite sure. He was sitting on a stool, chatting with two other men, the walls behind his were the beautiful whitewashed walls common throughout this patch of town, and I was hoping to draw them.
I was particularly conspicuous, as I had only alley between us and hoped to sit on the garden bed of a house opposite. I tried to mime and draw that I wanted to sit and draw. This failed rather disastrously, so I ran back to the hostel for a little translation help.
One of the girls wrote down the following for me in Chinese.
I am an architecture student from Australian. I am in China to learn about Chinese buildings and pratice my drawing. Is it ok for me to draw you?”
Now I’m not sure how that translated in Chinese, but I went back to the men, fairly confident that this was all going to go to plan.
Instead one of the men grabbed me, and motioned for me to follow him up the street a little. We walked into a doorway, through a little courtyard, up a tunnel, and into a larger courtyard. The house we were in must have been once the domain of a wealthy family, now used by many poorer families each in a different corner. He motioned for me to turn around the way we had come, and I found I was facing one of the most beautifully intricate gates I had seen, and entirely not what I was expecting. I had no time to draw, but he motioned that I could take a picture.
We left quick quickly, and he took me further up the street and into a second dark and non-descript doorway. I had been wondering for a while what happened up these doorways and perhaps from the delicate roof tiles on the street front, I should have realised there was something special. The laneways are lined by whitewashed buildings with dark tile roofs. The buildings are one or two stories at the street, but the streets widen and narrow, opening up into small squares where there are food stalls, people sitting, cleaning and people fixing all manner of things (where I found these men). Most of the doorways on the street open into a kitchen or a lounge room from which people spill out and give me a little glimmer of life behind, but I have never know at all how any of it works. I think some are single family homes, and others are like the one that I was taken into.
It was obviously once a very grand courtyard complex. Despite the washing hanging, wiring and just stuff, the interior courtyard windows were made from stunningly intricate timberwork. The plan worked in that we would walk between two dwellings/side rooms, and into a large open courtyard, entering through one of the stone gates. I think there were three courtyards in total. I couldn’t figure out where or how everyone lived, but there were rooms built into the courtyard, and from the windows into the courtyard were hanging all manor of things. I’m guessing the complex was shared by a number of different families, or perhaps an extended family? With each living in a corner or makeshift room within the courtyard. I was completely taken aback by the beauty of the buildings, the timberwork and the gates, as well as the way that it was occupied. I had no way of understanding what on earth was going on, and desperately wish that there was some way of asking the most simple questions.
The man gave me about 5 minutes to stare in wonderment at this building, not at all comprehending just how on earth I had managed to be allowed in, before he ushered me out, said dzaijen! And made his way back up the street. Leaving me without a drawing, but completely and utterly dumbstruck and more excited about what I’d seen than anything I ever could have drawn.
Xian made its way onto the Itinerary as I have a very old friend who is studying here and it seemed like an excellent opportunity to explore (what I’m calling) a big dirty city. As we only fleetingly went through Yichang, Chonqing and Chengdu I never had the chance to learn about what makes them up.
From what I’ve seen of Xian it covers everything, from the very wealthy to the very poor. My taxi from the airport was a 50km drive through a barren, grey, flat landscape. This is often punctuated by the ridiculously tall skeletons of new apartment blocks that are being built EVERYWHERE. But seem to be in the middle of no where. China really is one big construction site.
Xian is an ancient capital and the city centre is bounded by a city wall. Within the wall the buildings tend to be a lower height and are this vibrant mix between super modern and slick gucci stores, to streets lined by hole-in-the-wall shops and street vendors.
I stayed at the university for a while, which has a street coming up to it where there are street vendors, mobile phone shops, western cafes, fruit markets. Bikes everywhere. People everywhere. And dirt everywhere. There’s a lot of pollution, so we never get to see the sun, and there’s so much dirt and dust that everything’s covered in a layer of grime. But it just works. And no matter where you go, there’s people all over the street – either selling things from shop fronts, or bicycles, or carts. Or a sheet on the ground. And then there’s people buying and eating and walking and sitting. Su Da Lu (the uni street) is a little most western feeling in that there’s less people sitting on those tiny little stools in front of their shops and houses, and the shops are more internally contained rather than spilling onto the street. Still, the first person you see upon leaving the university gate is Chinese man asleep on the back of his three wheeled cart/pushbike.
From the university you can walk up the road, across a main road, follow that for a few hundred metres and turn up an alley. (its actually more of 20m wide brick/ very dirty road, that narrows as it leaves the main road). From this alley come all sort of young-middle aged people, well dressed and off to work. The alley itself is lined with food outlets selling noodles and steam buns, some have little tables and stools to sit at, others give you your food in a small plastic bag. The buildings are all apartments of some type (old ones) and a few stories tall, varying between 3-5, in a big, growing, jumbled mess. Everything is covered in dirt. As you walk further up, it suddenly opens up into a type of square. There’s tables, and chairs, and maybe 5 vendors selling breads, and buns and other breakfast foods. There’s a roof, made from bits and pieces of everything, somehow supported up in the sky.
This is how I am coming to understand China. Lots of dirt, but brilliant texture and things squeezed in everywhere. And everything happens on the street. Even in the higher density areas (Barring the massive new developments of apartments that I haven’t really looked at) almost everything on ground level is a shop front. And the shop fronts spill onto the road so that the people in them become part of the street. And with the people walking and sitting and drinking tea, there’s just people and stuff everywhere.
I’m in Xian for a couple more days, and then I head to Pingyao, and Beijing. I had hoped to leave earlier, but getting a sleeper train ticket turned out to be somewhat of a debacle and for a 10hr overnight trip I thought I might prefer a sleeper rather than a hard seat. Further, whilst I have only had great experiences of Chinese people, I was a little worried about the safety of my bags in the hard seat class and I would quite desperately like to arrive in Pingyao with all my belongings.
At the moment I’m staying about 1km from the centre of Xian, in hostel that was voted one of the 10 most beautiful in the world. All the rooms open into courtyards, it’s absolutely stunning and must have once been quite a decadent building. And it costs me $7 a night for a bed.
Heading east towards the city wall, it becomes progressively poorer and the buildings more ramshackle. I find these areas more interesting so thought I might bike up this afternoon to do some drawing.
I haven’t been on my own in a while, and I’d forgotten how differently people react. Being western you’re fairly conspicuous, which is made all the worse when with friends, and people seem fairly defensive. On my own I move a lot slower, and make sure to say “Ni Hao’ to anyone that stares at me, which very rarely fails to pull a grin, or at least a bemused smile on the most suspicious and defensive of faces.
I never would have though it, but drawing is perhaps the only way to people watch, and actually engage with what’s going on. But in a way that people seem to appreciate rather than resent. I carry a plastic bag with me so that I can sit in the gutter and start drawing what’s across the road.
I think it took all of 2 minutes before someone was behind me having a look and after that it was a continuous stream of onlookers many who try and talk to be in completely incomprehensible mandarin. (I WISH I could speak the language). Now that I have the translation of what I’m doing written down I show that to people which tends to get some sort of approval and everyone looks around at each other saying “Au da li ya” whilst nodding. When one person comes up, it tends to mean more do and there was a couple of times today where I drew quite a crowd.
Across the road from me was an elderly couple sitting against the building perimeter wall, under an umbrella sorting their fresh produce for sale, behind them was a complex of 5 story buildings, with bits and pieces jutting out everywhere. The buildings were offset to create a triangular courtyard in the front, which was fronted by a row of 3 shops. This being a pattern that was repeated all up the street.
Next to the elderly couple but across the entrance to the apartments were the shops – the nearest a butchers, with a man on the street hacking into animal carcasses with an axe. It’s Saturday, so there were children everywhere, and like anywhere in China there were people sitting and chatting all over the street.
After sitting there about 20minutes I heard a noise, and suddenly realised there was a boy hiding behind the tree just to the left of me. Kids think I’m hilarious and they were playing games seeing who would get closer to me before running off. His sister joined in, and ended up getting pushed into me a number of times before darting back across the road. Mum came over to have a chat and after reading my little blurb wandered back to outside the butchers shop. The kids were getting pretty brave now, so I gave them some pencils and paper and after drawing them a few things (butterflies, dogs, flowers) they sat there and begin drawing. This got mum back, and then pretty much everyone walking down the street huddled around us in a circle, watching me and these kids. All murmuring to each other in Chinese, although again all I could pick up was the Au da li ya. It completely made my day.
The streets where I was are incredible. I think it’s a very poor part of town from the jumbled mess of apartments and the dirt and dust that’s everywhere. I’m guessing the houses are very small. But the streets are wide, the footpaths huge, and so the footpaths just become this huge communal lounge room where people conduct their workings and family lives. There’s kids in the street and people sitting on their tiny stools all over the place. Its brilliant as it means that although I can’t go into people’s homes, there’s this whole aspect of their lives I become privy to. And the drawings (although I don’t ever actually get to do them) give me an excuse to plonk myself down on a random street and start watching/engaging with what’s going on, and no one ever seems to mind!
I’m currently in Pingyao which is a city described as the best preserved Ming dynasty city in China. I’m trying to work up the courage to visit Qikou, which is an English free cave based village a 4 hour bus ride away and a very long way from my comfort zone. Then on Friday I get an overnight train to Beijing for a week after which my China journey ends. As you may have gathered, I am having the most amazing time, so thankyou very much.