Wednesday, January 09, 2008

China Syndrome

Darlings: You surely know I tried to blog from China. Well, I couldn't. I could access my email account but I could not, no matter how hard I pushed the enter button, access blogspot (the Great Firewall of China, indeed).
O, where to begin? I would love to be able to say that I was stuck in a tour group full of high maintenance morons. But as the Magnificent Arepa remarked with her usual acuity, high maintenance morons don't tend to be interested in tours of Historic China.
So sadly for you and luckily for me, my tour companions were very nice, interesting, smart, respectful, discreet, well behaved people. Everybody was on time, everybody was unfailingly polite. Most were older than me but there were also three college kids all super smart and super mature. So we all rocked. What a bummer, right? Well, not so much if you consider you have to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with the same people for 12 days. More on the meals later.
I must say I had not been in a tour in ages. I do not particularly like traveling en masse. However, since China seemed challenging, it seemed a good idea to be introduced to it with the minimum of stress. Tour groups, whatever else they may be, are truly a way to see a country without having to lift one finger or figure out anything. They baby you. The downside is, you don't get to experience the country. Just having to take one cab ride is an experience and if you emerge unscathed and where you intended to go to, it gives you a sense of triumph that is one of the beauties of traveling.
We did manage to explore a bit on our own and I would say that those times were the best part of the trip.

We went to Beijing (why can't we call it Peking anymore?), to the Great Wall, to Qufu, birthplace of Confucius; Jinan, Taian, and Shanghai, all places that are around northeast China. I can't speak about the other parts of China, but I can tell you that what I saw was a very sobering picture of unbridled overdevelopment. I come from Mexico City, and before my trip to China I could proudly boast I came from a city where birds fell off the trees, the pollution was so bad. Well, China leaves Mexico literally in the dust. The pollution is absolutely appalling. We drove to the provincial cities and there was no end to the construction, the urbanization or the pollution. If you have a mental picture of peaceful rice paddies and silk robed sages admiring the lily ponds, erase it from your head. China is the many headed dragon of modernity. This would not be at all interesting if it didn't contrast with a couple of major incongruences, to wit: it's supposed to be a communist country and the modernization has not totally erased the ancient ways of this ancient culture, which makes China a very fascinating place.
The cities are enormous. Beijing has about 15 million people but it is huge in size, big, sober, slightly intimidating. The streets are wide, the new buildings are quite interesting architecturally, and everywhere you look there are construction cranes, like an infestation. So you see little old neighborhoods razed to the ground to make way for high rises that beg the question: who's going to live there? What Chinese person that lives in a hutong (sort of a Chinese tenement) without indoor plumbing is going to be able to afford an apartment? They certainly seem to be building them for the 1.3 billion people who live there.

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