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China so far… the good, the bad, and the ugly tower blocks

June 24, 2013

I am sitting in a spacious, plush red seat on the super-duper fast train,

A room with a view a view, indeed, Tianjin.

A room with a view a view, indeed, Tianjin.

waiting for it to hurtle it’s way out of Tianjin. I have spent two days in the God-awful place trying to get out. I came here with the intention of taking a boat to South Korea but have completely failed both to book a passage, so I’m off to Tai’an to climb the holy mountain, Tai Shan, and hopefully realign my positive energy vibes.

You’ve probably never heard of Tianjin but it is the third biggest city in China and one of those boasting the worst air quality. I was staying in the particularly crap area, Tanggu, near the port, though not, I discovered near enough to get to the ferry terminal. From my hotel window I had a view of lines and lines of new, identical tower blocks, shrouded in a fog of pollution.

A carving at Yungang caves

A carving at Yungang caves

My first stop in China was Datong, off the night train from UlaanBaator. Datong is the closest city to the Yungang Caves and the Hanging Temple. It was the first time on my trip I felt like the country I’d arrived in was radically different to the one I’d left. Walking out of the station, the first thing I noticed was all the colour. The buses were pink and the taxis a metallic turquoise and all around were garish signs bearing Chinese characters in red and gold, or blinking as neon lights in the sunshine. Nowhere so far on my trip has been quite as vibrant. The second thing was the food. Even though it was just eight in the morning, people were sitting outside cafés eating huge bowls of what looked like very rich soup and piles of flat, fried dough. Street stalls were already selling their fried and grilled wares and traders were selling vegetables from the back of their parked up rickshaws. The Chinese commitment to eating is something I’ll get back to as it continues to impress me, but first a little on the sights, followed by some politics.

As soon as I stepped outside Datong station I was collared by the man from CITS, the state tourism organisation, who had also roped in two more people for a trip to the caves and the temple. They were two academics called Katy and Emily. We piled into a car and off we went. The caves were amazing. From intricate wall pattens to towering stone buddhas, one of which still retrained his golden skin, they could rival any Roman remains. They were carved between 465 and 525 AD and are a testament to the skill and artisanship of ancient Chinese civilisation.

Our driver took us to a restaurant for lunch where we shared broccoli with garlic, black mushrooms, tofu and some kind of Chinese pasty. It was the best meal I’ve had so far on the trip and cost less than three pounds each. My guidebook suggested vegetarians might struggle here in China, but with options like this, how could we?

The Hanging Temple was not quite as impressive. The Rough Guide describes it DSC_0087as ‘one of the most arresting sights in northern China’, but I was a little underwhelmed. After the long drive, and a steep admission fee I was expecting to be a little more scared by the precarious nature of this temple built into the rock, but either my fear of heights has been cured or it just wasn’t that terrifying. What I found more arresting and terrifying was the sight of the of lines and lines of tower blocks built along the waterside in Datong. As in Tianjin, massive DSC_0096development work is taking place. In Datong a whole new area of town is being created, with old homes being demolished and people being moved into these concrete monoliths, each the same as the one next to and in front of it. It’s one the most soulless things I’ve ever seen and every place I’ve passed through seems to have it’s own plague of them in various stages of construction . China has notoriously set out on a plan of development for short term gain, with seemingly little thought to the consequences, hence the criminal environmental damage and pollution so bad in almost ever big city that there are increased rates of cancer and birth defects. In Datong the air wasn’t so bad, unlike Beijing and Tianjin, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant to walk along the huge streets, amongst the cheap, gawdy skyscrapers, breathing in the fumes from all the cars. What does it take for the human race to realise that ‘progress’ with reckless regard for the world we live in is a disaster in the long run? A spate of truly mutant babies? Starvation? War? By then it will be too late. In my opinion, clean air should be a human right. I guess the issue is, there are too many humans and all of them want the full trappings of the West.


Tianamen Square… the smog is not the thing covering stuff up here.

Talking of human rights… I arrived in Beijing on the night of the 4th June. It was stormy, which was appropriate considering the date. The next day I went to Tiananmen Square. Twenty four years ago they would still be mopping up the blood after the massacre but today it was full of seemingly happy Chinese tourists as far as the eye could see (not very far, from the north side of the square, Mao’s mausoleum was a lost in the smog haze). Of course the uniformed and plain clothes police were out in force too. They can put as many cops out there as they want but they can’t see in people’s heads and I for one was thinking about how China’s modern face – all high speed trains and designer shopping malls jars with the fact that there are still people in prison for taking part in the peaceful protest of 1989 and there are thousands of people who have never been able to get justice for their loved who were brutally murdered that day, nor even express a desire to get justice.

Anyway, that’s what I hate about China, but here is what I love so far: the

Yet another food market, Beijing

Yet another food market, Beijing

friendliness and helpfulness of the people… the only good things about Tianjin were that some people went out of their way to help me even though they didn’t speak English (like the guy in the domestic ferry office who sat me down next to him at his computer and we used a Chinese version of Google Translate to communicate), and that I had a really nice meal there – a huge wok of tofu cooked with celery, lots of chillies and pak choi. Which brings me to the second thing – back to the food. I’ve never been anywhere where people seem so committed to eating, and eating anything. Although, as a vegetarian, I baulk at their animal rights record, I can’t help but admire people

Life going by in the hutong

Life going by in the hutong

who can even make a delicacy out of insects. Do people ever eat at home here? Every street in seems to have a run of restaurants, always busy, and each evening food markets open selling all manner of snacks. I walked down Nan Luo Guo Xiang, my favourite backstreet, at three in the afternoon and it was rammed full of Chinese teenagers walking around eating meat off skewers, ice cream, crispy fried things, choux buns filled with some kind of green tea cream and much else…and this was only mid-afternoon! So far I’ve gorged myself on tofu most evenings, and never had it the same way twice. And what they do with broccoli is amazing. The food is also about ten times cheaper and ten times better than your average Chinese takeaway in the UK.

The best thing I did in Beijing apart from wandering the backstreets, the hutongs, glimpsing local life in all it’s strange and colourful forms, was visit Chairman Mau in his mausoleum. I failed to see Lenin, who wasn’t open when I was in Moscow, so I am glad to have finally seen one dead world leader. He is very small and looks very orange. Bring on Ho Chi Minh… if I can sort the Vietnam visa out.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Richard Fletcher permalink
    June 24, 2013 8:32 pm

    Hey Intrepid!

    It occurs to met that during the Industrial Revolution there were many families who never cooked at home, because of the hours they worked. Hence massive numbers of chippies.

    And in Wigan, pie shops.

    Perhaps a similar dynamic in Beijing?

    I’m happy to hear you are eating, but are you having fun?

    • admin permalink*
      June 25, 2013 4:59 am

      Yes maybe that’s true. I wasn’t that keen on China but now in Vietnam and it’s great so far! Hope al is well with you, Mandy and Ben!

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