In spring 2013, I travelled by train across China from Guangzhou to Qingdao in the north via Wuhan. Here, the journey resumes with an unintended stopover in the crappy end of Dezhou, an obscure industrial city in western Shandong Province.
I was going to take three days to get from Guangdong in the deep south to Qingdao, and nearly all of it on the bullet train. It was some achievement. Three effing days. People had walked across the Gurbantünggüt Desert in less time. Much later, after a good few laojiu (rice spirit) with grapefruit juice, I reflected, perhaps my biggest mistake was continuing to treat China as country. It is not. You have to deal with it as a continent. The Gurbantünggüt Desert, by the way, is in Xinjiang.
Gawd, but Dezhou was awful. I wandered down its scruffy main street, where filthy cars honked their way among puttering trikes. Fed up with the trains now, I took a taxi to the coach station to explore that option. The taxi driver volunteered to drive me to Qingdao for 1,500 yuan. Just like that. He was willing to drop everything and commit himself to a 14-hour round trip through the night, for 150 quid. That, I had to admit, was China. Where else in the world could you find that hunger? But I didn’t have anything like the cash. At the coach station, they said there was a 7.30 departure the following morning. I booked a place.
Now for digs. It was a Friday night, and the hotels were busy. At the first place, the girl on counter asked for my ID card.
“Use my passport,” I said.
“Passport? I don’t know what to do with it. Haven’t you got an ID card?”
“No. Every other hotel I have ever used in China has accepted my passport. There’s a number and visa and everything …”
She grinned helplessly and looked down at her instruction sheet for dealing with different IDs. Next to it was a checklist, with about 15 boxes she had to fill. There was also an ID card reader, which presumably relayed the data to some government office. I marvelled once more at the fundamental lack of trust that characterises relations between ruler and ruled in China.
“I don’t know what to do with a passport. I can’t even read your name.”
“Am I really your first-ever foreign guest?”
“There aren’t many.”
Her boss came over, looked at my passport and muttered in annoyance, as if he had just found a fake 100 yuan note in his wallet. I could read his thoughts: “Foreigner. Passport. Too much trouble.”
I spared him the trouble. OK, I said, and walked out. The next place was full (man), a word you do not often hear in Chinese hotels, which, unlike trains, exist in gross superfluity. The third place had a room and was prepared to take me as long as I could come up with a Chinese character name for myself, as they couldn’t read roman script either. I used the name they gave me 30 years before, when I first set foot in China. I congratulated myself on remembering it, and also on finding a practical use for it. There weren’t many more hotels to try in the area.
A good few of the ceiling tiles had fallen off and the carpet looked as though somebody had been at it with a lawnmower, but the room was basically OK. Facing the bed was a full-scale wall painting of a willowy woman playing a violin. When I woke up in the night, she looked, in faint outline, horribly like an intruder staring at my head, with an axe at the ready.
At the bus station next morning, the driver handed over his passenger list to a Public Security booth in the middle of the bus bays. The police checked the names. I marvelled once more at the fundamental lack of trust that characterises relations between ruler and ruled in China. Then we set off, via Dezhou East.
And there, I saw I had been foolish to judge the place by the old station area, which is usually the crappiest quarter of any Chinese city. Had I passed through Dezhou differently, I would have seen a boom town, with burgeoning suburbs and wide, busy highways, much of this triggered by the recent opening of Dezhou East bullet train station (which served a different route to mine).
The coach was fairly fast, but it was still a tedious six-hour run to Qingdao, through the same flat, dusty, industrialised countryside. My conveyance, a battered old King Long, looked suspiciously like a backyard conversion of a regular town bus, and had it not been for the Public Security in the coach station, I would have wondered about its licence. It had no information displays, no timetable, no ticketing equipment, no intercom, no uniformed staff, no branding or logo, nor any of the other fixtures you expect on a long-haul coach. Instead, it had a piece of cardboard stuck on the front window with the word “Qingdao” scrawled on it in red characters. Once we got going, I realised it had no scheduled stops either.
Our drivers were a hearty trio of blokes in grimy black jackets, who smoked and snacked at the wheel, gobbed out of the side window, wisecracked with the passengers, stopped whenever somebody stuck a thumb out, and honked like maniacs, with a horn of typically Chinese loudness, at every second vehicle. One honk was never enough. It always had to be full-volume rub-it-in spasms of honking.
When challenged by my neighbour over his smoking at the wheel, the main driver just laughed.
“If the police aren’t there watching, who cares? That’s how the law works here.”
I pondered those words. In the west, people generally followed the rules because they knew life was better that way — their social relations were smoother, their activities more efficient, their safety more assured within organised frameworks of accepted limitations. In China, people followed the rules when they knew cops were watching them.
Otherwise, they felt no need to and often didn’t. They saw nothing wrong with that. Too few of them had experience of a rules-based society to understand how much shittier life in China was because of this universal lack of rigorous, voluntary compliance.
I was seated just behind the main driver. He was actually a bluff, friendly guy, but he drove me up the wall with his honking, and later, when he came off his short shift, with his open-mouthed champing over his lunchbox rice, his stentorian snoring during his postprandial nap, and his damned mobile phone which went off about every five minutes with a tinny ringtone, based on, of all things, a CCTV continuity theme. Another thing I could never get used to in China was the absence of silence. Or perhaps it was the aversion to silence.
It was, as said, a tedious journey. About halfway through, the powered entrance door stopped closing. Now I understood why a three-man crew was needed. The third guy, the repairman, pulled out a tool kit and fixed the mechanism on his back in the nearest layby. We lost half an hour. After we resumed the ride, the radio came on, and I nodded along to Wo zhongguo de xin (My Chinese heart), which was quite catchy, followed by the latest from Wang Feng. Wang Feng is one of the top mainland singers, as gifted a vocalist and songwriter as John Lennon was, an icon to tens of millions, and I would bet my critically acclaimed 1980s record collection that nobody on the NME has even heard of him.
No journey is complete for me without a good natter with a stranger, and this time it was my partner who spoke first. She was a young kindergarten teacher, wanting to practice her very rusty English. On her mobile, she proudly showed me photos of her toddler, taken at a rock garden near her home outside Jinan. Her husband worked in some kind of transportation maintenance. I asked her if they could have another kid if they wanted one. I didn’t get the answer, but she did say that the one-child policy was softening, that two-child families were growing in number in cities, and that the system was being abolished in some areas. She saw evidence of this at the kindergarten she worked at.
“I’d like to ask a political question,” I said, in Chinese now. “Is that OK?”
“Yes,” she said, guardedly. There were several people potentially in earshot.
On one of the bullet trains, I said I had been surprised to see a dining car menu offering an item called Chairman Mao’s Roast Pork and Rice. Was the randy old tyrant — ok, I worded it differently — still that popular?
“Yes,” she said. “Mao was a great man who raised the social status of the Chinese people.”
“And do all people feel that way, or is it just the older generation?”
“The young and the old. Mao created the new China. We respect Mao.”
I know this is not what many GP readers want to read, but this was the response I usually got when I asked this question, and the main driver, who had been eavesdropping our conversation, nodded his agreement. Like it or not, Mao is revered in China, by all generations, including those that experienced the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution. He is not held solely responsible for the famines. Often, you will hear the derided 70-30 formula, 70% good and 30% bad. I don’t want to get sidetracked into this touchy and very complex subject; I will point out only that Chinese people are neither brain-washed or stupid, and that when people who actually experienced life under Mao tell me these things, I am inclined to listen.
Later, the driver wandered up the bus gangway, and I heard him telling passengers, “Yes, he’s British. Travelling around. Speaks very good Chinese, doesn’t he? British, I said. Like James Bond. Yes, just travelling around. For the culture. From London. Cute accent.”
That’s the trouble with coaches. Unlike on trains, there’s no escape.
At last, the place names on the road signs became more familiar. We passed the aftermath of an accident; a dead motorbike lay on the road, unattended—a fairly common sight, as nobody wants to be involved with the authorities. We swerved around it without stopping.
After five hours of travelling through this Shandong plain, it struck me: there were no birds. There were lines of trees and saplings, all evidently planted during the government “greening” campaign of the early 2000s, and there were nests among the bare twigs. But I saw no birds, at rest or a-wing, nor any other sign of wildlife.
In the taxi back to my flat from the coach station in Qingdao, the driver made “forget it” gestures when he saw me trying to put the awkwardly installed seat-belt on. I didn’t need to bother about that, nobody was watching.
Taken from my free travel book about China, Shenzhou, a copy of which can be read or downloaded at this website: https://www.itabibito.com/ (scroll down to the middle of the page)
© text & images Joe Slater 2020