Tag Archive: China


China is communist, right..?

In many discussions or arguments about the merits and flaws of communism, China is dragged into the frame as a classic example of how it doesn’t work (second only to the USSR). Such arguments are not exclusive to the right, but are often found amongst the left, especially from so-called anarchists. While we were not under the same illusions even before we entered the country, experiencing life in China has both confirmed our preconceptions, and also helped us develop more material and tangible examples of how China is not communist.

Before going to China I would try and explain to people through theory how China was at best an example of state capitalism (in that sense similar to the USSR). Such arguments are still crucial, but now I simply want to say “have you been to China?”. More than any theory, the reality in China demonstrates how far from communism it is.

So what would make a country communist? I could bang on about this for hours, but to keep it brief: a classless egalitarian society, where the means of production were in the hands of the workers, where production was run according to need not profit, where people gave according to their ability and received according to their needs. More than that, it would be a sustainable society that did not create and accentuate divisions between society and nature. It would be internationalist and support the right to self-determination whether on an individual (the way people express themselves) or state level (the right to self-governance). This last point is probably the most controversial even amongst socialists – who have been arguing about this for over a 100 years – but from my perspective this is a crucial tenant of communism. China fails from our experience to tick any of these boxes.

Is production in the hands of the workers? No! This in itself undermines any claims to it being a communist society. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to discuss the situation faced by workers with anyone, and this blog is really about our experience of China, so maybe we should simply remind you about the conditions in Foxconn factories (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/27/foxconn-suicide-tenth-iphone-china). One thing this Guardian article doesn’t really draw out is that instead of dealing with the material reasons why people are jumping to their deaths, they have put up “safety nets”. Does this really sounds like workers’ control?

While egalitarianism is clearly intertwined with ownership of production, our experience of the inequalities in China were a lot more banal. Beijing, like many large cities, obviously highlights this inequality. Grand glass structures, built for the rich and for tourists, stand side by side with hutongs (tiny back alleys), where people wash their clothes on the street outside their tiny, corrugated iron-roofed, concrete houses. Such inequality is not unsurprising, and similar though less stark scenes can be seen across the capitalist Western world, but China is meant to be communist and therefore such scenes should not be part of the landscape. Unless, of course, we understand that the similarities between all these countries are far greater than their differences.

Another example of evident class divide is the organisation of the trains. While in the UK there are 2 classes (first and second), China’s trains have a much more nuanced class categorisation, running from  soft sleeper (which is the best of the best) through hard-sleepers to hard seating. The latter can seat people for up to 18 hours and there are never enough seats for everyone, so some people simply sit in the alleys. Even within hard-sleeping class there is a triple-tiered system, where the lower your bed the more space you have and therefore the more you pay. Egalitarianism..?

The train system also highlights the individualistic mentality implanted in people. “If you get there first you win”, explained an English immigrant to China. This is demonstrated in the mad dash for the trains, which serves no obvious purpose other than to get your bags in a better place. But, trains are not the only space in which this occurs. Queuing generally follows this rule, as does driving. While no communist society has ever existed for long enough to test the mentality of the inhabitants, this competitive individualism is generally associated with a society which places such principles at its core, i.e. capitalism.

The rift between nature and society again highlights China’s lack of communist credentials. People might refer to the USSR and claim that they were communist and their environmental policy wasn’t all that great, but all I have room to say is “No soviets, No unions”. The West, especially the USA, obviously uses China as its scapegoat for not cutting its carbon emissions and I in no way wish to support this argument. Per person China pollutes significantly less than the West which is the only fair way to measure emissions. However, China is still incredibly destructive to the environment. If they continue on their current path of development, by the end of the century they will be producing significantly more CO2 per capita than the USA (the largest emitter by far in the world).  For an interesting discussion on Marxism and the environment check out J.B. Foster.

Finally, in terms of what we experienced, The Big One. Tibet. An interesting topic, not least because some members of the left (including the maverick Slavoj Zizek) still seem to support China’s occupation of it – something to do with “development”, one of the core reasons for the split in arguments over self-determination. However, the arguments of development  in relation to Tibet are farcical. Moreover, I challenge anyone to go to Tibet and then argue the Chinese occupation is a positive thing for Tibetans, regardless of what little infrastructure has been put in place.

The Tibetans are an oppressed people economically, practically and culturally.  Since the occupation began, similarly to Israel’s occupation of Palestine, there has been a massive influx of ethnically Chinese people (of course what is meant by Israeli is rather more controversial). This was increased by the construction of the Beijing to Lhasa railway. Now two-thirds of the inhabitants of Lhasa (Tibet’s capital city) are Chinese. Again similarly to Israel, the settlers are given an economic incentive to move and live there. As a result, unlike in British India, where the Indian elite were used as puppets by the British (holding positions in government administration), if you are Tibetan it is extremely difficult to get any sort of well-paid job. A significant cause of this may be that exams at university can only be taken in Chinese. We met people who spoke perfect Chinese, but had been unable to finish their degrees (after several years of expensive tuition [another example of the unequal realities of China – universities are prohibitively expensive for anyone but the rich])  because their written Chinese was not good enough. There is, by the way, a 54% illiteracy rate in the “Tibetan Autonomous Region” which rises to 59% when including the Tibetan regions incorporated into China.

A further consequence of the new railway is the increased militarisation of Tibet, particularly after the unrest of 2008. Armed police officers stand on every street corner in Lhasa holding massive guns (with live ammo) or just big sticks. They patrol up and down in groups, taking up the whole of the pavement and expecting you to move out the way. They oversee the squares both from the ground (where they have “PR” friendly resting spots for pilgrims) and from the rooftops. If anyone was to kick off they would probably simply be shot.

We met one person who told us that if you murder someone, you can buy off the officials (presumably they weren’t talking from experience!), but if you are arrested for “politicals”, your life is over. Moreover, you can look forward to torture which the UN called “widespread and routine” in Tibet in 2008. Not only your life will be affected, in fact, but that of your entire family. Given that you can’t even get a passport if one of your family members lives in India (to which the Dalai Lama fled in 1959), you can imagine the extent of ruin that this would cause. By the way, getting a passport standardly takes 3 years for Tibetans – they could go to China, but of course everything is too expensive for them to do that.

Unsurprisingly, there do not seem to be any political organisations that are not affiliated with the Chinese government. We heard that sometimes “Free Tibet” posters turn up in public toilets, but that seems to be the extent of the resistance. In fact, the main form of resistance against the Chinese comes from the Tibetan monks.

Protests by monks are what sparked the 2008 unrest and this is not the first time the monks have led the resistance. From  the perspective of the Chinese administration therefore, the repression of Tibetan religion was crucial. Obviously, the initial onslaught of violence against Tibetan monks and nuns in particular was prompted by the Cultural Revolution, in which thousands of monasteries were destroyed and thousands of monks and nuns killed or imprisoned. Yet even now, the majority of political prisoners in Tibet are monks. There are police stations either inside or directly next to most monasteries. The Chinese authorities run programmes of “patriotic reeducation” which involve monks being “taught” pro-Chinese lessons at the end of which they have to pass an exam, write a self-critical essay, and denounce the Dalai Lama.

The “cultural genocide”, so called by the Dalai Lama, stretches even to eating implements. Whereas traditionally Tibetans used knives and spoons, now using chop-sticks is the norm, at least in public. During special festival times, people will still use spoons, but otherwise the Chinese influence dominates.

Does any of this sound like an autonomous, or even semi-autonomous region to you? This may be in line with Stalin’s idea of communism, but it certainly isn’t in line with mine, or any true revolutionary socialist. A simple reading of Lenin’s accessible pamphlets should demonstrate this.

So overall, no. China isn’t communist. It may not take the same form of capitalism which the Western world takes, but we know that while capitalism’s form can change its core principles and objectives cannot, and China certainly holds these close to its heart.

******

For more information on Tibet see http://www.freetibet.org, or see http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=457&issue=119 for a decent history of Tibet post-1949

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The Egg Blog

Eggs. Simple yet versatile. They come in many different sizes, but some things remain the same. For instance, they have a shell. It works and it makes sense: it’s natures way of protecting the soft inside with a hard outside. You can scramble, fry or poach eggs. You would not be surprised to see them hard-boiled on a restaurant menu (depending on the type of restaurant). What might surprise you is when your hard-boiled eggs are brought to you with their naturally evolved shells removed and replaced with shiny plastic vacuum packaging for each individual egg. Ahhh…China.

Our experience of China was…mixed. That is not to say there weren’t positives, but there were certainly negatives as well.

While there was no fresh tap water, there was hot water everywhere. As this water had been boiled it meant that you could get free drinking water almost everywhere, including train and bus stations, hotels and shops. In England there are many places where drinking water is not available, but is an alternative usually provided? Also, hot water is much more useful than cold – although we’d thought we would never look at another pot noodle again, they’re pretty handy train food.

Due probably to the fact the people piss everywhere, there are free public toilets everywhere. You can’t go more than 200m without finding one (at least in the big towns – in the small ones there are simply walls that people seem to go behind). The condition of them is another matter, but at least they are there. However, this doesn’t stop children from pissing and shitting everywhere including train stations. Parents put their children on their knees and away they go…

Once you are outside of Beijing the landscape is generally incredible. “From another planet” as Lucie described it in Quiko. There is a lovely combination of mountains, rivers and greenery. It was a bit odd to get used to the fact that Xining sits against a backdrop of stunning mountains (this happened more and more as we entered Tibet). However, the locals don’t seem to appreciate what they have as far too much of it is being used as a landfill – the beautiful hillsides are often scarred by streams of rubbish.

While Beijing would certainly fall into one of the cons in our experience (although many of the people we met thought it was great), the underground there is amazing. Its reliable, fast and cheap. Plus, since the Olympics were held in China’s capital they re-vamped the entire thing. The stops are announced in English, and there is even a light to signify which side of the train you should get off at! ‘Where’s the fun in this?’ Asked a Dutch guy we met at our hostel. After the bonkers Metro in Moscow (this was incredible for different reasons, as we’ve mentioned), this was amazing. On the flip side, everyone else seems to have also realised this and therefore it is always busy, but nonetheless a positive.

Unfortunately, the negatives outweigh the positives and the rest of this blog, will be devoted to the negatives.

Spitting is incredibly prevalent. Everyone spits, everywhere. In the major cities its not that surprising given the amount of pollution, but this does not detract from how disgusting this habit is.

In Xining we were reassured that not only do you have to have a licence, but you have to pass a test to get it in order to drive in China. Before that, we hadn’t been so sure. Lanes don’t seem to mean anything and neither do red lights. Honking seems obligatory.  As we have written previously, pedestrians have no rights.

The generally shared mentality that, as a Londonite who has lived in China for the past eight years put it, ‘if you get there first you win’, makes a lot of everyday experiences more stressful. This covers the driving (and the tendency for people to simply overtake on roads if someone slows down in front of them, which led to complete gridlock one day when four lanes of traffic were all facing in the same direction – the police had to come and encourage the cars onto the right hand side of the road…), the queuing (which does happen as a standard practice, but it is just as standard to find that someone slips in front of you just as you reach your destination) and the dash for the trains at every station (the queue starts half an hour before the gates open, and then people literally run for their seats. The only reason we could fathom as to why this could be rational is to get there when there is still space in luggage racks). Occasionally people were exceedingly friendly – a man went totally out of his way to help us onto our bus, writing things on a clip board as he understood written English better than spoken, and on the sleeper bus to Xi’an the man in front of us kept offering his food, insisting we partake in cakes, gum and bananas, but these were the exceptions to the rule.

Staring and lack of non-verbal communication have already been discussed and certainly form a negative.

The negative consequences of smoking don’t seem to have reached Chinese lands yet – at least not for men. No women smoke, and all the men smoke. Again, they do this everywhere. Buses, trains, restaurants… Makes you become all nostalgic for those days in the past when we went into pubs when the smoking ban had begun!

Neither of us are keen to go back to China in the forseeable future, but we’re both glad we’ve been. We’ve even gained a T-shirt with pandas doing martial arts. Awesome.

The people we met in China

When hearing someone reflect upon their time in a country, you may expect them to say how beautiful a country is, how friendly and helpful the people were and how much they enjoyed themselves. However, apart from the beauty aspect (which is in itself becoming increasingly and needlessly destroyed), I cannot say any of those things about our experience of China.

This may seem like an overly negative statement, even from me, but let me explain myself.

I will start with the people I met. I won’t draw any general conclusions about “the people” as I think at best this is unhelpful and at worst racist.

To start with communication. Of course there is no reason at all why the people we met should speak English and we in no way expected them to. However, not speaking a common language has never previously stopped me communicating on a basic level with people. Through non-verbal communication I find you can generally get directions, find out how much something is, pay for stuff, etc. Hand signals, pointing and face expressions normally do the job. However, with the people we met, this simply was not the case. On the whole, they seemed completely unable to understand anything non-verbal. If we were in Huxleys ‘Brave New World’ these people, would fall into the ‘semi-moron’ category. A couple of examples of this to highlight my point. After buying a bus ticket, we went to the ticket checking place which was in front of all the buses. Of course the bus destinations were in Chinese and so we didn’t no which bus to board. Once the ticket inspector had checked our tickets, we signalled that we didn’t know which bus to catch. However, the ticket inspector looked at us with a totally blank expression and chatted away in Chinese. This is something else. The people we met seemed not to understand that when talking to someone who doesn’t speak your language, that actually means they don’t speak your language. They will simply chat at you. No hand signals or anything else but a mouth moving. Eventually the mouth will stop moving, as if awaiting a reply and when it doesn’t get it, will either start moving again, or the person will simply walk away. Anyway, eventually another ticket inspector came up and we again demonstrated that we didn’t know which us to catch. She clearly understood us – or so we thought – and pointed straight ahead. We pointed to the bus that she was pointing at and she nodded. Brilliant. We boarded this bus and gave our ticket to the driver. “Bushi” (means no) came the reply. So we got off the bus and the ticket inspector who had pointed us to this bus, now pointed in a totally different direction to the bus which was actually ours…
Problems of communicating directions happened a lot. Other typical examples. We went into a hostel lost. Asked for directions and the person behind the counter – who spoke English – pointed in one direction. However, Lucie and I thought she was pointing in different directions. So Lucie pointed left and she said yes that way, and then I pointed right and she said yes that way. In turned out, that whichever way we pointed, she replied, yes that way. In turned out, Lucie was right and it was left. Apart from demonstrating communication difficulties, this also highlights the cultural problem amongst many of not wanting to be negative. In other words, not wanting to disagree or say no – even to the point of absolute ridiculousness.

The most absurd example of lack of non-verbal skills, occurred on a train from Beijing to somewhere else. Upon boarding the train, you get given a piece of card and your ticket gets taken. These pieces of card seem completely useless as they have exactly the same information on them as your ticket, and you get your ticket back at the end of your trip. However, we didn’t realise any of this when we caught our first train, and thought that in fact this piece of card might actually be useful. So we showed our two pieces of card to someone else in our carriage. He of course didn’t speak English. He looked at them and then put them in his pocket. At this point, all the lights went out, which certainly didn’t help the situation. When they came back on, he had given us back one of the two cards. We spend at least the next 45 minutes trying to explain to him that we had given him two cards and he had given us back one card. This isn’t a particularly hard task to communicate non-verbally. However, he seemed completely unable to understand anything we were trying to communicate. This is not, I must add, through being intentionally unhelpful – he phoned several of his friends (“You have missed the train?” “No, we’re on the train”…) and used his phone to translate things, a painstaking task… Eventually we gave up and later found the card on the floor – how it got there we still don’t know.

These examples are not one-offs, but illustrate a pattern which occurred throughout our time in China. What became apparent was this seemed to be an inability to abstract. The only times when this did not occur was when we were with monks. While ultimately I do not know why the people we met showed such a complete inability to understand what we were trying to communicate, while similatanously simply chatting at us, the ability of the monks to communicate provides me with one possible answer. China as we all hopefully know is an incredibly repressive country. Conformity is central, and independent (at least critical and independent) thought is certainly not looked on positively. While I know nothing about the education system, I assume it is similarly oppressive.  Abstracting in a critical way, I would presume, is not taught. On top of this, Chinese language is very specific. Words mean very specific things. This seems to mean you can’t think outside that exact word. However, with the monks this was not the case. Being religious people, they most certainly need an ability to abstract (like all religions, they have to believe in absolute nonsense). Such abstraction is taught from a very early age and the language of the Tibetan Monks (in some of the several Tibetan provinces of China) is different to all Chinese languages.

The other major issue we had was staring and its implicit racism. While I understand that if you see something for the first time, you might stare (not that most Chinese people haven’t seen a white person before – even if its just on TV), this in no way justifies what we (and many other travellers we met) had to go through. People would stop and stare – in fact this was mild. People would come up to us in the street, say hello walk away. In one village, people formed a semi-circle around us while we ate and on another occasion, someone actually took the book that Lucie was writing in out of her hand, flicked through the pages, passed it to his mate and then gave it back to Lucie. Imagine if this happened in the UK. If I was with someone who went up to a Chinese person (or any non-white person) and shouted “Nihao” in their face and then walked off, I would think they were a racist twat. But somehow, these practices seem totally accepted in China.

From Beijing to Xi’an

Pingyao

Our introduction to Pingyao was a little tuk-tuk which picked us up from the train station. Cramming our bags into the front, we were whisked off into the morning air. Almost immediately, our driver was in the middle of the road, honking his little horn. He then proceeded to go the wrong way around the roundabout as we clung to each other behind him. Perhaps this will be like Beijing after all..?

Once we arrived within the old city walls, which are pristinely preserved, we realised that this would be nothing like the hecticness of Beijing. There are even ‘pedestrianised’ (vehicles with two wheels still allowed) areas! It’s a bit of an odd town, although I guess it makes sense from a capitalist perspective – since it’s beautifully preserved, the Old Town comes with a full onslaught of tourist tat and tourist-priced restaurants to match. The biggest downside was that in order to see any ‘historically significant’ buildings you have to buy a twelve quid pass to all of them, so we decided to give that a miss.

Instead, we spent our time wandering the streets, meeting other travellers and making our best investment yet – a flask (with filter to catch the tea leaves). Most of the people we’ve seen seem to carry a flask, since hot water is available almost anywhere – bus and train stations, on buses and trains, in restaurants and tea shops… At first, this seems an obvious way to deal with the fact that there is no safe drinking water here, but in public places in England there are often signs saying that you shouldn’t drink the tap water, but is clean water offered in its place for free? Not normally. So that makes it even better.

From Pingyao we took three buses to Qikou, a tiny little rural town. Here we had properly epic staring experiences… It’s quite standard to get gawped at in the street, but this was next level. When Josh and I sat down to eat some (stupid-Westerner-priced) noodles, a two-deep semicircle of observers gathered around our table. Literally. ‘What do they expect, for us to shove it up our arses or something?!’ demanded Josh, who is becoming ever more intolerant of starers. They gradually lost interest, but then when we stood up again, this was apparently worthy of another gawping session…

A much more pleasant experience of the same ilk was on the bus. The old, toothless man sitting next to us was staring in an amiably curious way, and asked lots of questions (in the local dialect). He compared each of Josh’s layers of clothing to his own, being particularly impressed at the silk thermal trousers, pulled questioningly at Josh’s wristbands asking why he had not thrown them away, and then realised how hairy Josh’s arms are.

‘Bolo! Bolo, bolo!’ he exclaimed. I guess that means ‘fur’. He compared his own hairless arms to Josh’s and laughed. Then he pointed at Josh’s legs.

‘Yep, they’re even hairier,’ Josh said as he lifted his trousers. The man found this completely hilarious. He pointed from his own chest to his feet.

‘?’

‘No, not my entire body! Well, not yet, anyway…’

Lijiashan

From Qikou we headed to Lijiashan, which is pretty incredible. The landscape looks like something from an 80s sci-fi movie, as the hills have been carved into layers to make them more easily cultivable. They’re a bit like a large-scale Gardener’s World wedding cake or something. Beautiful.

We stayed in a traditional cave dwelling, although we’re not sure what the place that we stayed at is called, as we asked our taxi driver to take us to a particular place but instead he just dropped us off at the place to which he was already driving! Either way, it was a fiver for lodging and three meals a day, staying in a room which is carved into the hillside. The only tourists who make their way out there are students from art schools who come out to paint the landscape, so on the first night we were joined by about 20 kids from Inner Mongolia. The next morning they all left, so we had the place to ourselves to wander the sloping paths, pick apples, find dates that had been dropped from the huge harvest baskets, and to stare at the enormous crates of chillies drying in the sun.

Xi’an

Getting from Qikou to Xi’an turned out to be a bit more unpleasant than we had expected. The Lonely Planet guide had told us that it would take 8 hours on the bus. 8 hours after getting on it, we looked out of the window from our beds (on the bus! never had that before…) to see a sign saying that Xi’an was 422km more. 8 hours after that, we arrived. I was so dehydrated that I was wiped out for an entire day, unable to stomach anything more solid than shots of water, sugar and salt…

People only really come to Xi’an, it seems, to see the Terracotta Army. But after weighing up our budget against the mad entry price (the people who run the ticket booths also know that people only come to Xi’an for this), we decided against doing that, instead opting to hang out in the Muslim quarter a lot, surrounded by bustle, kebabs and so much tofu! This was one of the first times we’ve been in a hostel with a big common area, so we finally managed to meet a whole bunch of people, which has definitely been good for my mind. On the Trans-Siberian we met a couple and the woman talked almost constantly. I wasn’t sure whether maybe that’s because she just generally talks all the time, or if it was because she hadn’t really had anyone but her partner to chat to for weeks. Now, given my own babbling behaviour, I am much more inclined to believe it was the latter! Having said that, thanks to everyone for your comments on here, apologies that we don’t manage to reply personally to everyone’s…

‘Friend’s Price’

Josh previously wrote about the incredible gap between starting prices and finishing prices when haggling, but today really took the biscuit. Wandering amongst cashmere scarves, ‘Oba Mao’ T-Shirts (with pictures of Obama wearing traditional Chinese Communist Party garb – the best one in my opinion says ‘I Voted For Obama and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt’) and rip-off North Face rucksacks, we asked how much some cushion covers were.

‘These good quality. Silk. Good design. Good colour,’ said the woman, typing 680 into her calculator. That’s 68 quid!

Josh couldn’t help but let out a guffaw – ‘What are they made out of, solid gold and unicorn hair?’ – and the price quickly dropped, but we thought we’d share what ‘friend’s price’ can really mean. We finally haggled some others down to Y30 – about 1/23, or around 4% (I hope I’ve got my maths right on this one)  of the original suggestion. I don’t think that’s us being mean, either! ‘

One third of the asking price’ definitely doesn’t always work…

So after writing a rather negative blog, I feel I should attempt to portray the other side of Beijing (with help from Lucie). Almost all the people we have spoken to have said how much fun they had there, so clearly there is something good about it, even if I can’t see it. Although when it comes to seeing and our rather damned trip to the Great Wall, I think we were just unlucky with the weather.

There are lots of nice, or to be less bland, impressive temples. You probably don’t need to see more than 2 or 3, as unless you are a temple geek, they all look rather similar – just like churches in Europe. We went to a Buddhist and Taoist temple. While they were different in many ways, I was interested by how far they both placed gods so centrally. This is most likely my ignorance, but I always saw Buddhism as more of a philosophy than a religion, so I was quite surprised by the amount of statues which people were leaving offerings to and praying to.

The Taoist temple was interesting for several other reasons, though. Firstly, it was one of the few places we found peace in the whole of Beijing. I’m not talking spiritual peace, but more the kind of no horns honking, no spitting peace (although there were still little kids taking pees all over the shop…). The most we heard when sat in the main square was chirrupping sparrows. Bliss.

It’s also fascinating for its idiosyncratic almost ‘bureaucracy of morality’ style of seeing the world. As you walk around, there are many different departments. Each is overseen by a massive moustachioed bloke, before whom are gathered various characters, from weeping women to headless men and grimacing demons trying to cut people’s tongues out. To give you a few tasters of department names, you could hang out with the funky dudes at the department for ‘Official Morality’ , look into ‘Implementing 15 Kinds of Violent Death’,  or just chill with the rain gods…

While this is meant to be a positive blog, I can’t help but criticise the Forbidden City. Don’t go there. It’s full of tourists, costs loads and is just one palace after another. Once you’ve seen one you have basically seen all of them and there are over 50 in the Forbidden City…
If you are going to the Great Wall, make sure you look around and maybe think of getting there independently. Most the tours will bump you and some sections of the wall can be reached for Y10 and on one bus. Also don’t get taken in by ‘we will take you to a secret part of the wall’. They aren’t any secret parts, that’s just a secret kept from you.
In Beijing there are lots dingy, but cheap and tasty places to eat. Just look for the places that are covered with spit and cigarette buts on the floor. We found a a place next to the hostel that did 10 dumplings for Y10. This was compared to our hostel which charged 3 times that for a “continental” breakfast. And don’t go paying 20yuan for a beer, either. Instead check out the joints which look like the equivalents of workers’ cafes – there a beer shouldn’t be more than Y4. In one of these we had some incredible hotpot which had initially worried us by the amount of tripe just floating around, but eventually uncovered some tender beef (you just can’t be vegetarian here…). We’d not opted for the lamb’s spine or sheep’s tail versions!

On the subject of food, there is street food market just off Wangfujing Street, which in itself looks like the Beijing Oxford St equivalent. A level of bravery is required to eat here though – knowing what you are putting in your mouth isn’t ever a certainty. We had deep-fried crab – which you eat shell and all. Then there is something called smelly tofu – basically what its called, but also really salty. You could also try snake, eel, or scorpion – these are still alive when they put them on the sticks and you can see them wriggling about for quite a while after being skewed.

After subsequently visiting quite a lot of over-priced and generally not that great places, I now have a much greater appreciation for the National Art Museum of China. Costing only Y20 its a bargin with 3 different floors of art, in a beautiful old building. The upper floors are less interesting, one has an exhibtion on Italian futurism and American print making, but the ground floor had some amazing Chinese art, ranging from the blurry lines just about looking like a human, to paintings which you had to study intensely to realise they weren’t photos. Some even combined the two, with the ‘traditional’-looking broad brushstrokes refined to incredibly detailed faces in the same painting.

The markets in Beijing were also great, though not if confrontation and stubborness aren’t for you (I was in my element!). We went firstly to the Pearl Market – 2 floors of absolute mayhem and then two floors of pearls, which Clinton apparently visited. The rule of thumb when haggling is ‘pay about one third of the price they start at’. No such rule here. At worst or best (depending how you look at it) we paid around a 10th of what they first asked for. Lucie bought a scarf which they claimed cost Y300 for Y30. The techniques they use to try and get you to part with your money are classic. ‘I give you friend price…’, ‘you think I crazy, no way!’, ‘don’t tell anyone but you can have it for ___’, or ‘let me go check with my “manager”‘. I think the only rule when haggling is pay what you feel its worth, taking into consideration the context of where you’re buying it and how much the seller probably originally paid for it. Our best buy though must have been two pairs or leather, fur-lined (goat not panther) gloves for Y90. Putting mine on is like a little orgasm for my hands…

I think that kind of balances out my rant – there were some great places, although the stress of simply existing in Beijing means that I probably won’t ever return. I left with a twitch, which could only be cured by the application of a beer to my lips.

Beijing…the dark side

Where to begin. I think I should start by apologising to the Polish. While at first the Polish car and road system seems rather shabby, compared to the Chinese (or at least Beijing’s) system it’s a pedestrian’s paradise. Apparently tens of thousands of people die on Chinese roads every year, and when you experience them for yourself, you’ll understand why. Trotsky’s theory of uneven and combined development is of clear pertinence when considering the Beijing car system: 15 years ago there were still very few cars in Beijing or China at all, with the majority of people getting around by bike. In the last 15 years there has been a massive boom in car production and use, which is in part directly linked to the growing middle-class. However, while Beijing now has more cars than any other city, they do not seem to have the regulations to go with them. Regardless of the colour of the light, cars speed by. All a green man means is that you might have an extra couple of seconds to get out the way before the car mows you down.

Instead of safety and regulations, they honk their horns – constantly. Not in any meaningful or useful way. They just do it almost out of boredom. No seems seems stressed when they do it, and they are certainly not alerting anyone to danger – in fact more danger is probably created by them honking. Some motorbikes seems to have the horn buttons glued down.

On top of the horns, there is also the pollution. You can see it everywhere. Or to be more precise, the pollution means you can’t see at all. The tops of buildings are hidden by the smog and at night, what appears to be a mist floating around the car headlights is actually smog. Then there’s the effect it has on you. Your eyes and lungs hurt and your skin feels horrible.

At least you can descend to the metro, which is amazing. Unfortunately everyone else seems to have also had this idea, as the two levels of busyness it has is ‘busy’ and ‘very busy’. At first we thought their rush-hour must be at a different time, then we went into the metro at what I would consider rush-hour and we realised that this was also their rush-hour… Apart from this, the metro is amazing though. Oh, other than the adverts on the tube. Not only do they have adverts in the tube, but as you are travelling along there are moving adverts outside of the tube – on the inside of tunnel walls as the tube is moving!

Queuing, or lack of it, is also something i had not realised would be like it is. I know that Britain has the label of somewhere where “everyone loves a queue”, but Beijing isn’t a place where no-one queues, instead you just get people all the time who jump in front of you. You will queue for 30mins and as you get to the front, some bastard will try and get to the ticket desk before you. Most people don’t seem to mind about this, which I find even more odd.

Attempting to communicate with people who don’t speak English is also proving more troublesome than anywhere else. Of course there is no reason why people should speak English and if anything I should speak one of the many Chinese languages, but there are other ways to communicate and there is also common-sense – both of which have been missing from most the people that we have attempting to get directions or information from. One such example. We were at the train station, which similarly to Poland is built in an amazingly stupid way, and we couldn’t find the ticket desk. We followed the signs to the ticket desk and when we got there were moved across the hall to another ticket desk. This wasn’t the place either. Our attempted signs as to where it was proved useless. All the women could say was “Bushi” (means No). So we walked down the stairs and were pointed to waiting room 7, which upon arriving there was simply a waiting room – no ticket desk or anything else other than being a room for waiting in. Eventually we found the ticket office outside of the station where we queued for 30 mins (see above). This was made even more exasperating by the people working in the ticket office all simultaneously going for a 10 minute break when there were several very long queues. Great idea! Another good example demonstrates how inclined many people are simply to say “Yes”. We were asking for directions from someone who worked in a hostel and spoke English. After a long chat we I pointed right and she replied “Yes”, Lucie then thinking it was in the other direction pointed left and she said…”Yes”. We repeated this farcical interaction a few times, before we worked it our for ourselves.

Then of course there are the scams. Locals generally don’t seem that inclined to talk to you or be helpful other than when they are trying to scam you or sell you something massively over-priced. The moment we arrived were greeted by a man asking where we were going and whether we needed a lift. We told him where and asked how much. “Y150,” came the reply. “Y150?!!” I replied, “Y25!”. “No, you joke.” Luckily, I already knew that the trip to the hostel should cost no more than Y30. We ended up getting in an official taxi which cost Y21. This twat not only wanted to scam us, but when I gave him a totally normal price he walked away. He wasn’t going to work unless he was scamming you. Funnier is how the hostels con you. Everywhere in the hostel are signs saying ‘Don’t be scammed’ which then explain how people might try and get extortionate amounts of money out of you. What they miss out, is how they will scam you. There signs ought to read ‘Don’t be scammed otherwise you will have less money for us to do it to you’. Their tours constitute the best way they wring the yuan from your pockets…

Right, I think that is the end of that rant. Beijing is not a place that I want to come back to, but there are many nice things as well as all that is rubbish about it – though right now I can’t think of what those things might be…