Archive for July, 2009

70 % of Tibetan traditional literature

July 31, 2009

The printing press in Dege is my favourite building in China. Officially. And we came to Dege specially to see it. Actually I wanted to come here the very first time I came to Sichuan, during a cold January in 2006. Then we were told the road was closed due to ice, and the two-day journey over the highest pass in Sichuan (over 5000m) would be impossibly dangerous.

But now it was a warm, fuggy summer, and the glaciers were dirty and distant. I wouldn’t even have noticed the pass if it hadn’t been scattered with the usual pieces of charm paper the Tibetans throw out of the bus windows as a prayer at the top. At first sight, Dege seemed a bit disappointing. The hills on either side were steep and sort of enclosed the town, the communist banners and military the most visible thing about it. Within ten minutes of arriving, a convoy of at least 20 police and military vehicles had blared past with sirens and lights on, heading southwest towards the Tibetan border. We booked into a slightly scummy guesthouse full of monks and with a hole in the toilet door, and had a well-deserved sleep.

We came to the printing press in the morning. It apprently houses 70% of Tibetan traditional literature, and has been around for several hundred years. It narrowly escaped getting destroyed in the CR (but was converted into a hospital for a while) and is now back to churning out large quantities of Tibetan scriptures with official blessing and a hefty entrance fee of 50 yuan.

The building was slightly smaller than I imagined, on three storeys made of wood, with a red templish feel about it. The entrance area was full of people washing the wooden printing blocks – each block is about 50cm long and 10cm wide, with about 12-15 rows of Tibetan writing. They scrubbed off the red or black ink in huge basins and left them to dry in the sun.

On the next floor up, and the floor above that, they store the blocks. Shelves are jammed from floor to ceiling in dark, winding corridors, and each block is double-sided with a well-worn handle to pull it out. A book might be made up of 50 or so wooden blocks, and this building houses thousands and thousands.

Obviously fire is a huge hazard. There was a ginormous stack of fire extinguishers. We had to squeeze up a narrow, rickety ladder to the next floor, where the printing was taking place. Pairs of workers – all men aged between about 14 and 50 – sat opposite each other with a stack of printing blocks on each side and a block between them.

One would roll the block with ink from a bucket, the other place a strip of paper on it, the first roll the paper to make the imprint, the second remove the now damp strip and place it on his knee. After five strips they turn them over and print on the back, then place them on a wooden plank above and move onto the next block, so they are printing 5 books at once. They moved in a mechanical, nodding way almost like a factory, sweating and gasping, printing one page on average every few seconds. Exhausting but skilled work, in which they obviously take great pride.

One guy grinned at us and printed a page for each of us to keep as a keepsake. I don’t normally keep souvenirs, but I’ll treasure this. On the next floor they were drying the wet pages, as well as storing loads more prints. There was also a room for printing pictures and prayer flags, using a similar but more careful technique. This room was full of stencils of pictures of Buddhas being printed onto homemade paper as well as yellow and white cloth. I wound around a corner and down a half-staircase to find a room the others missed. Here two ancient monks with even older-looking spectacles were checking the bundled pages, linking their fingers to sort them properly, then binding the finished books with white paper and string and packaging them up in brown packages to be taken away.

I felt a real throbbing magic of being at the centre of Tibetan culture. Once again, I desperately wished I could read Tibetan. The only part left to see of the printing press was the roof, where we stood in the sun amongst gleaming gold decorative work, and looked out over the town.

This is slightly higher up, and suddenly Dege seemed a less enclosed and more exciting place, bathed in sunlight with steep wooded slopes rising up towards the mountainous skyline. We spotted some crumbling red-earth watchtowers on a hill above and decided to head for them. This turned into a race-to-the-skyline game, and Nikolai kept walking uphill for almost 4 hours until we reached the top and could see a spectacular view of snowcapped mountains to the east, and distant black speck of Tibet to the west.

It was an exhausting walk up and my shoes broke on the way down so I had to walk in bare feet and avoid the wild dogs. We were very happy to eat a ginormous dinner and rehydrate with gallons of ice tea. At night we went for a walk and lay on the ground looking at the stars by the fresh rushing stream. Locals driving past thought we were insane. We also tried Tibetan sniffing tobacco. It is vile and made my snot black. Not cool.


A town with many faces

July 30, 2009

Ganzi did not get off to a good start. The main road was filthy and full of potholes. We were surrounded by beggars and hawkers as soon as we stepped out of the bus. The hostels in the guidebook were too expensive, we couldn’t find the bus station, and it was pissing down with rain.

The place we eventually found to stay in was a funny sort of hostel, which seemed to be inhabited mostly by relatives of the landlady. They were all Tibetan. We were shown around by the only woman in the place who spoke Mandarin: it later turned out she was not staff but lived in a room with her husband and child. They invited us for tea. Since the landlady still hadn’t shown up we helped ourselves to rooms and keys, tried to ignore people using the only toilet without closing the door, and wished they had a shower or hot water. But food and bai jiu and music later, Ganzi seemed rather a more jolly place.

The next morning we found the public showers and three of us set out for a walk together, across a cleverly constructed rope and wood bridge over the raging river. I had bought a book by a photographer from Shanghai (Zhuang Xueben) who travelled in these regions in the 1930s when there was basically zero Han Chinese presence or control, and many of the structures we saw including the bridge reminded me of these. It was a grey rainy day but the locals waved and shouted “tashe dele” from their huts and motorcycles, and we were chased by excited kids. We had a breathtaking time in a deserted temple, where Nikolai explained to me the 8 symbols of buddhism and how timber is so expensive in parts of Tibet that it is inherited from one generation to the next, and we saw some brilliant carvings of the way to nirvana. The landscape here was a world away from the town, full of fertile fields of wheat, potatoes and vegetables. The river looked silty and a bit of a flood hazard, and the distant hills were draped with corn terraces, like luxurious velvet.

In the afternoon I climbed a hill behind the town and ended up lost in the local graveyard, finally scrambling down into the Tibetan quarter where all the buildings had courtyards and roofs you could walk on. I was really impressed at the quality of houses throughout this region, since in other parts of the Chinese countryside they are often delapidated or hideously ugly. Perhaps the low density of people means resources for building houses are more available, and the culture means more care is taken with decorating… all in all, I don’t why, but Ganzi is the first town in China where I really got the feeling that the new houses are in every way nicer and more tasteful than the old.

I also passed two kids of about 5 with cigarettes in their mouths, an old guy with pants around ankles shitting at the side of the street, and teenagers playing air guitar and chasing each other with knives. Definitely a town of many faces. Some other locals gave us biscuits and fed the fish with us near a brilliant old stupa with a breathtaking view of the river, and some workers tried to teach me a Tibetan song. A monk at the monastery (the biggest in the region and very impressive with a fantastic view of the town and over 400 monks) waived the ticket price and showed us around even though it was really late. The landlady and other ladies at the hostel chatted excitedly and with great interest – one had two children studying abroad, one in India and the other in Switzerland. I feel so frustrated that I speak no Tibetan and really struggle to understand Sichuanese. The majority of Tibetans I came across did not speak Mandarin well enough for a proper conversation. I missed out on so much.

Anyway, despite the unpleasant arrival in Ganzi, I ended up rather sad to leave: as with all the places I’ve visited so far in western Sichuan, I could happily have spent weeks and weeks there. But amidst terrible weather, two people with food poisoning, and three with a deadline to get back to Chengdu (not us three), we headed onwards, towards what is apparently “the most Tibetan cultured” part of China. And this – Dege town – is where I am now 🙂

Ts in the dark

July 28, 2009

Travelling in Western Sichuan Tibetan areas can be complicated for foreigners. We knew this before we set off – many towns were closed to laowai following the Tibetan disturbances last year, and have only just reopened in the last few months. Furthermore, many public buses refuse to take foreigners at all, especially heading west. Theories about the reason for this funny rule range from how lucrative the private minibus business is, through stopping laowai from trying to sneak over the border into the autonomous region, to a punishment for locals in disruptive areas (since the tourism business has radically altered the economies of many towns).

So it was that we spent Thursday morning sitting at the side of the road, trying in vain to get a bus to Ganzi. We had also had this problem in Kangding, where they told us “there are no public buses to Tagong” – a blatant untruth. After 6 passed without stopping and we were told they’d be no more that day, we had no option but to hang about the town, take a soaking wet walk on the pastures, translate signs for locals, and generally hang out. Luckily three other laowai had the same travel problem, and the landlady of our hostel found a guy willing to drive the 6 of us to Ganzi for 1000 yuan the next day. He told us nervously that if we were stopped we musn’t tell anyone that he was taking us for money. Instead, we were “family friends” being taken on an “outing”.

Another irritation is accommodation. Whereas in theory foreigners can only stay in registered “foreigner friendly” hostels anywhere in China, this is the first time I found the rule enforced. One night we got locked out of our hostel, and while the landlady was looking for the key, the police stopped outside. They asked us what we were doing staying in a place like that, it was “not safe” and “inappropriate”. When the landlady came, they told her harshly that “foreigners cannot stay there”, did she not know it was illegal? To my surprise she just grinned, apologised, and said she would record our names. The police demanded to see our passports, but when we explained they were upstairs and we would be leaving the next day anyway, they decided to leave it, and drove off without more ado.

Indeed after leaving Tagong, we found all towns had an astonishingly high police and military presence. I’ve never seen anything like it before. There were police cars cruising up and down, soldiers walking the streets in uniform, garisons training, multiple police stations and related banners. I found it rather disturbing, and worried that they might be considering chucking foreigners out. However they were always very polite and friendly to us, waving and giving directions and generally smiling.
We were not stopped. 8 hours cramped into a tiny minibus later, we arrived on a dirty, lively street full of screeching cab drivers and begging monks. We had left behind the plains, highlands, herders and horses of Tagong  for the fertile agricultural land around Ganzi. Which turned out to be a fascinating place.

The living Buddha

July 26, 2009

It was like the whole village was going for a picnic. Young men with beads and one sleeve, immaculately dressed weather-rouged old women, children with solar-panelled spinning hats, monks on motorbikes and monks by foot all crowded across the stone bridge and down to the ford. Here everyone took their shoes off and paddled through the icy mountain water, to where grass sloped upwards to the golden monastery.

The grass was a festival and everyone seemed to be wearing a white floppy-brimmed sunhat and carrying a delicately patterned umbrella. Kindof incongrous, as if a 19th century Victorian outing had been transplanted to a Tibetan mountain side, with blue and yellow and red flags and flasks of butter tea.

As we approached the monastery the crowds thickened and at the entrance was the most tremendous collection of animals and demons and beasts. A bluefaced monster jumped up and down, a horse neighed (pity the novice who had to be the arse, it must have been stifling in there) and behind them stood a row of top monks in deep crimson robes, with hats like the elongated plumed helmets of Roman centurions, holding horns to the bright blue sky. For while the eclipse brought cold and cloud, now the sun was back and had burnt through to a spectacularly clear day.

The path had been lined with wooden beaconbases piled high with what looked like pine needles, and now the boy monks who warded them lit them one by one. And from the distance there appeared a caravan of gleaming white cars, decorated, driving straight across the ford and approaching. Behind them galloped scores and scores of horses, tacked with streamers of gold and red, mounted by proud men like knights with matching hats and uniforms. As the cars wound their way up the hill, people thronged their way to the front, throwing white and orange scarves over them, which piled so high that monks had to run alongside to stop them getting trapped in the wheels. It was a cake of a car that arrived at the entrance and the throng so thick I only just glimpsed the VIPs being hurried into the monastery, followed by the beasts and top monks and other monks, then followed by everyone else. Grins and waving and tashedele. There seemed no reason not to follow.

Inside the monastery was a great grass courtyard where the masses settled down in the blazing sun. Ahead of us steps rose to the main hall but it seemed this was out of bounds to those not participating in the cermony. As we waited monks distributed paper cups and cooked rice, and everyone picnicked and we burned in the searing sun. Unbelievably, all the locals were wearing layer upon layer of thick tibetan clothes. I felt faint with the heat in my shorts and t-shirt. We must have sat there for over an hour when the ceremony began to spill outside, with waving flags and mesmorising chanting of which I understood not a word. I felt deliciously floating and at sea. Just sitting and listening and sitting and listening. Now people were flooding up to the main building and returning, leaving. Perhaps to get blessed by the living Buddha, to carry their children to him? to say some prayers? We felt it was not our place to intrude, and we waited in the grass until most people had been gone. Then we climbed the steps for a quick peak.

The entrance was crammed full of people. Some kind of jostle fight seemed to be taking place, between those desperate to get into the inner room and monks holding them back. But standing on tiptoes and glimpsing over their heads into the darkness within I caught just a glimpse of him. A soft-skinned, closed-eyed, red-robed, bald-haired gentleman cross-legged on a raised platform. Amidst the chaos and the heat and the cups of rice, he alone was completely silent, meditating. And it seemed that some peace from him was radiating beyond the temple. And it was something deep and complex which felt at once  familiar, and yet far beyond anything I could know or understand.

We left the monastery, and as we climbed down the road towards the village, the horseman were leaving, and galloping off across the river and scattering into the road and into the distance, and in the field behind a herd of glinting motorbikes grazed in modern contrast. Where is the wealth? In the new motorbikes or the old decorated horses, or in their presence side by side? We returned to the village for a hearty supper and a strained discussion about travel plans. And then I lay on my back and watched the brilliant stars in a sky that only mountains can bring, and night-time bronze-amber fireworks that showered from each of the monasteries in the distance. There was even a shooting star as well.

Sun eat

July 26, 2009

It was the longest eclipse in over 160 years, swooping across India and China to end up at 6 minutes somewhere over the Pacific. A once-in-a-lifetime event, and a terribly bad omen. Our landlady chattered excitedly in Sichuanese while waving a Tibetan astronomy book up and down. She was 42 and had never seen a total eclipse in her lifetime. Today was the day.

But it was a grey day, and as we trudged uphill at 7am, our lungs heaved in the thin air. Cold and cloudy. I shivered in my Hong Kong shorts and flipflops. When we reached the top, the village of Tagong stretched below us, with its four glinten-roofed monasteries, and an amazing collection of mountains in the background. This is the edge of the plains. Of nomads and yaks and tents, and of wild western Tibetans with long hair and hats and gold teeth and huge gleaming motorbikes.

We were woefully underprepared in terms of eclipse gear, but the cloud meant it was fine to look with sunglasses. We had barely got to the hilltop with its hundreds-and-thousands-sprinkled prayer flags, when the first chunk was “eaten” from the sun. That’s how they say it in Chinese, it’s a “sun eat” (ri shi). We stood there, closer to the heavens than most in the world, and stared as some greedy invisible monster in the clouds continued to munch away, the cold intensified into our marrow, and the light flickered and darkened like a storm.

And suddenly the most tremendous howling split the heavens. It seemed that every creased valley, every hole in the rock echoed with a crazed hoop and a wail, a bone-chilling song which rose and rose and made minds tremble like small animals. There were dog barks too, but mostly it was people. People screaming from the land below. Out of sight, but shouting and praying, praying for the demons to be gone, and to protect the sun, the giver of life, our eternity.

Sudden silence. A silence that blew through like an eery wind. The sun became a part-moon became a slither became a tip of fingernail, and a black shadow galloped across the land and swallowed it up. Midnight at 9.09. Freezing, maddening darkness which above anything else was utterly silent. We squinted into the clouds for a glimpse of fiery ring like in the pictures, but there was nothing. The sun had been completely swallowed. Perhaps the world and time and everything else had ended, our howling companions vanished into eternity.

We waited and froze, paced up and down rubbing our hands unnaturally. Nothingness ticked onwards. Conversation began and seemed strangely out of place, like chatting about train times during an Easter service. Squinted into the heavens but they gave away nothing. Waited, waiting. And then, there was something – a single piercing beam of light, it forced itself open, powering down from above, splitting the black heavens into two. Dawn rose for the second time that day, from the middle of the sky, it grew and grew, and grew. And there was the most tremendous noise.


From Tagong below and every other settlement in the vicinity, fireworks banged and crackered and rent and shattered and burst into the air, shaking buildings and hills. Delighted screams, more crackles and bangs, a sky of light. The sun is back, life is back, the demons have been vanquished, we have survived! We have survived we have survived we have survived. Let’s celebrate for us and for our children! And quick, today a living Buddha is coming to Ta Gong – the highest rank of all the lamas. What is a high rank? Like your professors! He is a professor of our buddhism, he is of the type of the highest and the goodest. He will be coming to the monastery surrounded by monks and cars and crazed animals and wild horses, coming specially from Tibet, coming with the sun and the light and the life that is returning. And you should come too!

Alright, why not.

A journey to the West

July 25, 2009

It’s been a week on the road and the first time with proper internet access, though as my blog host is blocked here, I’m having to get mum to turn emails into posts for me. So here goes my first post from Karm, the name for the historical region of eastern Tibet. 

Two  nights by train from Guangzhou to Chengdu, 7 hours by bus to Kangding, and we finally arrived hungry and smelly on Monday evening. Kangding lies where the mountains start to rise in western Sichuan, and is one of those large, elongated towns centred on a main road and a river. The valley walls are steep and grey-green, with peaks jutting into a swirling sky, and traffic tooting and shuffling and screeching and rumbling past at all hours on the long drive to Lhasa. The guesthouse mentioned in the guidebook was full for the eclipse, so we were directed down a wee valley and up to the 4th floor flat of some sweet old Tibetan ladies. It was definitely a home not a guesthouse, but they were happy to take our money and give us beds and hot water. In the evening we ate sizzling “iron pan” food which you cook yourself on an oily metal plate, and chatted to the local guys who were keen to brag about their beautiful homeland. One of them says his daughter is studying at Cambridge. Had terrible dreams and wondered if they were inspired by the altitude or the tofu.

The next morning we enjoyed the large and flash selection of high-street shops – looking slightly incongruous with the potholed streets and traditionally clad sun-blackened locals – to stock up on necesseties such as chocolate for the road ahead. And then we got into a minibus and headed up and up and onto the mountainous plains.

The landscape here is stunningly beautiful. A huge variety of shapes and sizes of hills, from grassy pillow-shaped ones, sheer dark-green edges, sculpted palace-like rocks, and snowcovered peaks in the very distance. The road twists and dives round corners and groves, far too bumpy to read, as the driver chainsmokes and pumps electromusic. The grasslands are dotted with shaggy cattle/yak and horses, the sky with birds of prey. And while town business and officals look very Han chinese, everyone in the countryside and most in the settlements are Tibetan. Or other related minorities.

As the hours flowed past, there were more and more stupas, greenpinkyellowblue prayer flags and delicately carved Tibetan slogans on the hills. And finally we turned the corner into Tagong town, and its shining golden-roofed monasteries. We found a guesthouse run by a lovely Tibetan couple and their one-eyed dog. Every inch of wall was beauituflly decorated with intricate wood-carving, multicoloured and fantastical with creatures and flowers and infinite patterns. What a world away from Hong Kong. I had been so excited on the road that I couldn’t stop grinning and singing, and now that we had finally arrived I was just gloriously tired, only my eyes still spinning with curiosity.

The town is pretty small, just one street and no internet access (they said it was cut last year) and many of the shops and restaurants are run by Han chinese. We had auberigine and beef dishes for supper, and then sat in the guesthouses where most foreigners stay called Sally’s. The son of the owner is a monk who has studied in India for three years. They run a clever business which is very popular with tourists, serving hot chocolate and banana panckaes in addition to Tibetan snacks, and organizing horse tours as well as enforced recommendations.

I found myself deep in conversation with two students from Chengdu who had been active in the earthquake relief efforts last year. Although I’ve read and heard a lot about those times, their stories were so harrowing that they reduced the three of us to tears. Particularly moving was their tale of a pregnant woman who was buried to her waist deep under a building and being slowly crushed to ddeath. She pleaded with the people above to cut through her legs to get her out and rescue her unborn child. They couldn’t reach her so she shouted for a knife to be thrown down. Then she cut herself in half at the lower abdomen, and as she bled to death they were able to pull the remains out in time to save the baby.

It was hard to sleep in the thin mountain air with crazy dreams and excitement for tomorrow. Because tomorrow would be Wednesday, the day of the eclipse, and the arrival of a living Buddha in little Tagong.

Garble on Nationalism

July 16, 2009

Chinese nationalism is scary. It’s scary and fiery and uncertain and very very alive. It is also one of the most powerful forces keeping society stable and the government in power, along with economic growth and political control. And since the 90’s it has grown much stronger, to the extent that the authorities at times seem to be working hard to dampen it so as not to damage their foreign interests. Particularly disturbing is the chinese exceptionalism which sees an absolute divide between Chinese and foreign. Chinese are different and foreigners should stay out of their business. Whereas on the flip side Chinese emmigrants and their descendants are actively involved in the politics of all sorts of countries from Thailand to Canada. 

But whereas Chinese nationalism is scary, I don’t find it any more scary than American or British nationalism, not to speak of Israeli or Iraqi nationalism. For every loony who wants to nuke Taiwan, we have a loony across the pacific who wants to nuke Iran. Some go on about China’s glorious long history and need to restore its greatness. Equally some Brits (especially in HK) talk whistfully of the days when Britannia ruled the waves. Following the Xinjiang riots, I have read website comments saying that the only solution to the Uyghur “problem” is to 杀杀杀 - kill kill kill. But these views are not uncommon in countries experiencing ethnic unrest and violence. Which does not in any way serve to excuse them.


The thing is of course, is that China is already the richest non-democracy in history, and will soon be the richest country in the world. Its record of rule of law, freedom of speech and treatment of non-conformists is by 21st century standards very poor, although a huge improvement from the 1970’s. Which is why everyone is so much more afraid of Chinese nationalism than of, say, Vietnamese nationalism. But it does have a positive side too – the desire for China to be respected or even loved as a per capita poor country on the international stage, helping to work with and represent other poor countries in a global community dominated by the rich and the western. Just like American and European nationalism played a role in pushing for democracy and human rights around the world since 1945, right? 

No, not right. We MUST keep clear the distinction between our values, and our nationalism. Democracy and human rights as pushed by the west, and non-interventionalism and poverty reduction, as pushed by the east (massive generalisation there) are all very noble values. But we cannot allow them to be monopolised by any group of countries or peoples. Firstly because it is untrue, secondly because it is impractical. If we are to have constructive interaction between different people, we must keep our values and political goals at a distance from our passport cover and ethnic box-tick. We care about society and people and the environment because we are people, not because we are european or chinese or anything else. 

This sort of nationalism is hard to challenge head-on. Because challenging nationalism is too easily misinterpreted as attacking a country or a people. But loving the land and the people and the history of the piece of earth where you were born is not the same as blind nationalism. Indeed if you really love your country, you should be happy to allow other people and foreigners to share your love. And if you love a country, you will want what provides peace and prosperity in the long term. I love China, although it is not my country, and I wish for whatever provides peace and prosperity in the long-run for all its people. As I wish for Europe and Britain, which is the piece of land where I come from. 

But though nationalism is hard to challenge, it must be. First, it must where possible be channelled in a constructive direction – love pride sharing and setting a good example, rather than muscle flexing, nastiness and war. Secondly, we must delink values which may be universal to humanity, from narrow national identities. Because no nations are eternal. I think the best way to challenge nationalism is gently and persistently, showing time and time again what people have in common, steering away from generalizations and superficially herd mentality.


I read a quote somewhere once that “nationalism is taking pride in achievements you had nothing to do with, in order to differentiate yourself from people you have never met”. I’m not sure I agree 100%, and certainly there is the difficulty over how exactly we define nationalism. But in an age where the nationstate as an institution is at a transition between shifting towards a new power emphasis or becoming further entrenched, we are all involved in shaping what happens. And in overcoming all forms of nationalism, so we can just be different, individual, cultural, historical people. Like everyone else.

My shortest trip to China

July 15, 2009

It’s so easy to forget how lucky (some of us) are to be able to cross (some) borders easily (some) of the time time. Today I had double trouble. First, a very irritating one-day trip to mainland China, in order to cancel a one-month visa I had to pay several hundred HKD for. Since they wouldn’t let me extend or replace it, I had to physically invalidate it by crossing the border and back. Thought at least getting across the Hong Kong side would be easy – but no. Turned out when I re-entered HK from Taiwan on Monday, they stamped me as a student rather than a visitor. Since my student visa then expired yesterday, I had officially “over-stayed” and had to pay 160 HKD and wait 40 minutes for the privilege of getting an extra stamp in my passport. Extremely annoying since I’m allowed to stay 6 months without a visa and I had just got the wrong page stamped, but it was clear arguing was no use and it was all about procedure. I spent the paper-shuffling/stamping time eavesdropping on the cross-interrogation of mainlanders who had overstayed their visas, and feeling I’d got off rather lightly.

Finally I stepped out into the baking sunlight of Shenzhen. I’ve never seen the city look so nice, but today the sky was clear and the mountains along the border with Hong Kong rolled green and invitingly behind the grey buildings. I thought about photos I’ve seen of hapless thousands trying to scramble across during the famine and getting turned back. Seems hard to believe that was within the memory of people my parent’s generation. Now the station square is here and full of shoppers, squatting migrants, HK visitors unloading boxes of cigarettes into plastic bags, and suited hawkers. A young man ran handed me a card offering “warm and tender nights”. A woman tried to invite me to her hotel. I decided to take the train to Dongguan. 

I’ve never been to Dongguan but it’s one of the places I’ve heard a lot about and wanted to see for myself. Forty minutes ride later I took the first bus that stopped outside Dongguan train station, and rattled off into the maze. 

Dongguan is nowadays famous as a mega base for factories, a city that supposedly has under a million local residents and an estimated 5 times that number of migrants. I had expected to be surrounded by super-factory after super-huge factory, but perhaps I was in the wrong part of town. It probably shouldn’t have surprised me how much it looks like any other Chinese city I’ve been to. The same identical cornershops selling the same identical snacks, drinks and cigarettes. The same bright blue nokia and china telecom and china unicom and sony ericsson phone shops. Shining new shops and roads, ruttedy old buildings and roads, stalls of sausages eggs and sweetcorn. Though perhaps it is even more of a hotchpotch than normal, the contrast between new and old constructions more pronounced, though nowhere did I see any structure that looked older than the women who searched the rubbish. 

Then the bus turned into a street where every shop seemed to be a warehouse. One displayed dozens of plastic rocking horses. Another looked like a supermarket full of watermelons, another had trolley after trolley of socks stacked outside. I got off the bus at what looked like a market, and wondered off into a long low street of fluttering pink/limegreen flags, lined with overflowing shops. You could get t-shirts for 5 yuan, english textbooks for 12, or a plastic broom for 3. I bought a bowl of hot tofu pudding from a toothless guy who understood me neither in cantonese nor mandarin, and settled down on a bench by possibly the most polluted river I have ever seen. The stagnant water bubbled black ooze and gurgitated torn plastic and rubber. But the banks were green and chinked with ma jiang tiles from gathered old men, the tinkle of children’s voices, and the whirr of rickshaw wheels. A wonderfully pleasant place to read and watch the clouds. The buildings were only 3 stories high max and I love that – low buildings mean proper sky. Dongguan was much more personable than I had expected. 

Soon I had to get the bus back to Shenzhen. There were factories and warehouses and dormitories in the distance, but I never saw them up close. Waiting in the square again outside the train station, I was approached by a young couple from Anhui with a baby and a hard-luck story. They said they had arrived a few days ago, didn’t know anyone and couldn’t find work. They said they had another kid back home, and had to leave because they were in trouble for breaking the birth policy. They asked for money. 

It is one of the most awkward positions a person can be in I think. Being asked for money so directly by someone who obviously needs it much more than you, but who you don’t know at all. I’m sure their story wasn’t entirely true. Perhaps they stand there every day by the train station, asking rich hong kong people for money to buy milk and rice for the baby. But I know the job situation here is hard at the moment. I gave them the only 10 yuan in my pocket, and explained I didn’t have more with me (which was true). They asked what I was doing and I lied and said waiting to meet a friend in 10 minutes. They said could the friend give them money, I said no. We sat and talked for a while, I told them I was a student and taught english, they told me they were farmers and he was trying to find work on a construction site. They didn’t like Shenzhen but there was no way to earn money at home. For them or hundreds of thousands of others like them. I gave them 20 Hong Kong dollars and went to get my train home. 

I hate the feeling of giving people money. Hate it. I hate the victorian connotations of charity. I hate the combination of guilt and smugness and loss and sadness and comfort at having done something small and discomfort of knowing other people needed the money more and giving someone 3 pounds changes nothing. I hate the fact that I have money which I didn’t work for, and they work and have no money. I hate the unfairness. I hate when human relationships are reduced to money. Beggar and begged. I hate the system that is so unfair. But I love the fact that I and them and their baby have been given the chance to live in this world. To work through it from our own very unequal starting points. Which as we speak are becoming more equal for (some of) the next generation. 

And five hours after I entered, I left China again, and caught the tube back from the border into the centre of Hong Kong, feeling the wind in the tunnels. Just a few days left now, of bank account closing and parcel selling and plane-ticket buying and stuff-storing and friend-meeting and article-writing and essay-backingup and visa acquistion. And hopefully come this weekend I’ll be back on a somewhat longer trip to a country that I love.