Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Summing it up from Shanghai

Alas, the fun and games of the past two weeks have wound down to a close. I remember thinking back in England, that 14 days was a long time to basically go on holiday. Well if that was the case, it sure went awfully fast. So fast that is hasn’t quite sunken in that I spent a fortnight in China, even as I fly towards Helsinki and London beyond.

Passing through culturally rich cities such as Xi’an, Luoyang and Taiyuan to financially rich ones such as Beijing, Nanjing and Shanghai, there were bound to be limitless highlights, and that remained true. From the Great Wall near Beijing to the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an to Shanghai’s Bund, there was something for everyone, and most people enjoyed everything.

To pick out one highlight for myself would be incredibly difficult, but I loved meeting up with my old classmates in Nanjing and Shanghai. After 7 days basically seeing China solely from a tourist’s perspective, it was refreshing to get down to street-level, as it were, and explore some of my old stomping grounds with friends I had not been able to see in 18 months. It was also interesting to see how Nanjing had changed, and thankfully my sentimental hole-in-the-walls were still around. For instance, Gold and Silver, across the alley from the Nanjing University Foreign Student Dormitory, was thriving like never before, despite the atrocious grub served up from behind a tinted glass screen.

It was also an “experience” to travel on China’s older sleeper trains. Whilst the 11-hour jaunt from Beijing through the loess areas to Taiyuan was a mundane, if bumpy affair, the 13-hour hellride from Pingyao to Xi’an was one for the history books. After arriving at Pingyao Station by golf cart, we made our way to the platform shivering thanks to the 2-degree weather. Relief emanated from the group as the train drew in. And then we stepped into our compartment. And started shivering once more. The thermometer read 2 degrees Celsius and despite 4 people occupying an area of 10m2, the temperature scarcely rose through the night. Hardly a comfortable experience, but it there was an amusing mystique to it, although that may have been the effect of the whiskey.

Still, that was but a minor flaw in what was otherwise a fantastic trip. The hotels were generally fantastic, but the Zhengzhou Crowne Plaza and Salvo Hotel Shanghai exceed description. The food also was excellent. In short, it was a lifestyle I would have little trouble adjusting to.

It was a relief to hear that China’s civilian wealth is still on the up, but press censorship is still a problem, as I experienced last night watching Channel News Asia’s coverage of the Tibet protests along the torch route. Whenever anything vaguely pro-Tibetan came up, the screen went black. Likewise, when I was surfing the BBC News website, I loaded up an article concerning the Tibet unrest and seconds later, “the server timed out.”

Both ethnic suppression and journalistic censorship have to abate before China is accepted as a fully modern country. Given that the CCCP is hell-bent on modernisation, it is difficult to understand this reluctance. Whilst it would be difficult to do so without Tibet and Xinjiang running riot, it is necessary in order for China to save face. Whilst pride will be hurt, it is worth sacrificing Tibet and Xinjiang, or at least granting them greater autonomy in order for China to build up its flagging international respect.

Still, from the relative safety of a foreigner’s perspective, China is a wonderful place. Living is both cheaper and more fun than Western Europe or North America. Cultural relics and modern wonders are both innumerable. Whilst there is trouble in paradise at present, once it recedes China will be as popular ever, and I will be up there saying “I told you so.”

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