He's the first person I introduce myself to in Beijing, as I lingered in the sociable lounge area of Leo Hostel, one I chose for its popularity with backpackers - I felt the need to be meeting other travellers again after languishing in Shanghai for so long. He's an American, living in Dalian (in the province Liaoning, in NE China)for the past year to do a masters in photojournalism after a stint of travelling and working in Taiwan. He seems very taken with Chinese culture and is currently going through interviews and hoping to settle in Beijing.
Robin's first lecture in his masters course told him that the course title was actually obsolete. "Photojournalism" in the modern world is really "Multi-Media Journalism", incorporating traditional photography with video capture, website design, brochure and magazine spreads and any other medium which helps to tell the story. I had not considered the difference, or made the distinction, between photography and photojournalism and the latter with journalism (never mind thinking about the other mediums) so it was with great interest that I learned more about his work.
Robin's projects in the last year have taken him to Tibet (where he produced a full-feature website on the repeated strikes crippling the Tibetan economy and further de-stabilising everyday life), Hong Kong (to create a magazine feature on the fascinating stories of immigrants who live on the edge of the otherwise prosperous city) and other places besides. Each journey requires him to befriend and spend time with perfect strangers and capture their lives as best he can while learning about their stories. This idea appeals to me immediately - travelling the country, meeting new people, learning about new lives and recording their stories? Sounds very familiar!
Tibet'sstrikes (called bandhs) capture my interest after what I've seen and learned of Andhra Pradesh's somewhat violent strikes during my stay in Hyderabad. The term strike refers more to protests: ideological, economical, violent-inspired or whatever else. It sounds similar to Andhra, though perhaps on a worse scale - a strike is called, life halts, things are burned, shops are ransacked, vehicles are burned, mobs congregate and cause menace, and ordinary folks are forced to shut themselves away. And the government is powerless to stop such actions. Or at least, makes themselves powerless. As with Andhra Pradesh, it amazes me how much power is ceded to the mobs as everyone raises up their hands in despair and claims that nothing can be done. The acceptance (grudgingly or not) of such actions, including the notion that nothing can be done anyway, perpetuates and exacerbates the ongoing violence. In the case of Tibet, Robin gives me a shocking statistic (which unfortunately I've forgotten) which points to a high ratio of strike to non strike days. The ordinary folks, as always, are left to suffer through it all. What surprises me more is China's ineffectiveness in crushing these uprisings through use of force or otherwise. Robin points out that China is sensitive to Western prying eyes when dealing with issues in Tibet, but still…
Robin and I sit and discuss these issues for a while, making me almost forget about having to go to extend my Chinese visa. I made it out just in time and spent the rest of the day walking around and eating, becoming increasingly numb in Beijing's extreme winter (it's the coldest Beijing has been in nearly half a century. Oh lucky me). I came back to find everyone gathered around a showing of Slumdog Millionaire, and I'm once again transported to my beloved India, missing its sights and sounds yet again.
Jovin and co.
Tian'anmen Square and the Forbidden City are on my sightseeing agenda the next day. The former leaves me rather depressed with its austerity and emptiness. The huge space is sealed off and guarded at every entrance by security guards and x-ray machines, complete with strip searches. What should be a place for the people is so heavily controlled that it loses all sense of purpose. Someone points out to me later that its during massive celebrations on the square that the place really comes to life and it then all makes sense. But what a waste for every other time.
Forbidden City of course has its amazing wonders and awesome architecture, but what was more interesting for me was the stories told in the audio guide, of palace intrigues, scheming queens and princesses (it always seem to be the women!), ascensions to the throne and so on. It brought the place to life. The other dimension was a visualisation of the physical manifestation of all the Chinese series that I've watched in my childhood. There were some truths to them after all.
Artistic talent in pre-Cultural Revolution China was always a prized characteristic in the individual, cultivated by all sections of society who want to aspire to greater things (and who can afford to). I love that to get into any level of government, a written examination was required, testing, among other things, calligraphy skills and knowledge and ability in poetry and literature. The highest ranks theoretically belonged to the most intelligent and culturally refined. In practice of course, the process is wrought with corruption but the idea of it is there. Princes, princesses and even kings were also expected to be highly artistically refined. Walking around the Forbidden City, I learn of the great poetry composed by mighty kings as they relax in the imperial garden, of great works of art hand-sewn, or generally hand-made by talented princesses and concubines, of the hours spent cultivating the mind and so on. Such refinement never ceases to amaze me - I can't think of a parallel in other imperial states.
In the evening, I meet two groups of people. Of the first, I only remember Jovin's name, an Australian living in London and working on the business side of the NHS' specialist care units. He was one of those who came to England for a work/travel lifestyle but became attached to the way of life there, working his way from the bottom up to his present well-paid position. He is well-travelled, but now at the 'ripe age' of 33, he now prefers the shorter holidays counted in days and weeks rather than the months and years he was used to in his earlier, pre-career life. I still can't imagine how I'm going to get used to having a limited 25 days worth of leave as the next phase of my career begins in August. My whole life, educational and working, has been structured around having prescribed breaks to look forward to, and a long summer holiday to rely on. Now what is a holiday for travels if it is not at least a month?
Other members of the group include two girls from England who have just come from a month in Siberia, travelling on the Trans-Siberian railway and living among sub 30 degrees temperatures. And I thought Beijing's -10 was bad enough! The upshot of it all is the decision to join Jovin and some others to go to the Great Wall the next day. Sightseeing companions at last.
Wendy and Elana
The second group of people included two very interesting characters. Wendy is a beautiful, mid-twenties Belgian (dad)/Chinese (mum) writer and photographer living in Belgium with an easy-going temperament and an inquisitive and analytical mind. I meet her while talking to Robin who I think is transfixed by her (I can't blame him!). She is travelling in China for a few weeks and is writing an article for a magazine (?) about her impressions on China while being able to discover a half of her heritage which she has been little exposed to (she's more Flemish than anything else).
Elana, in contrast, is a dominant, confident and highly opinionated individual who has been teaching English for the last few years in the oppressed western province of Xinjiang, and she loves it! How she survives there is beyond me. It seems like another world there - spies/secret police/whoever they are lurk around so that she and her friends have to be careful of what they say; she believes her phone is tapped; some of the emails she's sent have been blocked; the topics she teaches in her classes need to be kept in check…and of course no one really speaks English so she is now, at least conversationally, fluent in Chinese.
The people in the region, she says, live very sheltered lives. It is one thing to be living in a world where information is censored or blocked entirely, but another to be completely unaware of it. People are very loyal to the state. The outside world and its thinking is completely foreign to Xinjiang's inhabitants, something Elana cannot fight with in her lessons but she attempts to in her social activities. She says her words and actions, when in company with young local friends and other western teachers away from prying eyes, are having some effects in opening up their horizons.
The four of us, Robin, Wendy, Elana and I, talk into the early hours about China's development, based on Robin and Elana's experiences of living in this country. Wendy and I, both interested in learning more about a place we're only just scratching the surface of, interject with comments and questions. It was such a stimulating evening! And exactly what I needed - to be presented with the other side of China's seemingly impressive developments.
Wendy started it all off by presenting a collection of postcard photos from esteemed Chinese photographer Lu Guang titled "Requiem for Mountain and Waters", bought at an exhibition that she went to in Shanghai. The photos (photojournalism style) capture the horrors of the offshoot to development - severely polluted air and rivers (way beyond the likes of what is already commonly known of Beijing's air, for example), diseases-ridden people, scarred land… In all the money and glitz of Shanghai and the impressive developments of other cities, the suffering elsewhere is being pushed away. There doesn't seem to be anyone focusing on those issues and they are left to deteriorate.
My experiences so far have only been of clean and orderly cities, of civilised people and efficient systems. I'm told that beyond the major cities, it is an entirely different story. Rubbish and dirt usually collect on the streets and are not seen to. The punctual trains I'm used to are actually more usually delayed, at least away from the starting stations. As is expected for a country bursting at the seams with people, you have to fight for your rights here. The orderly queues seen in Shanghai is not the norm - pushing and shoving is the only way to get ahead. As is elsewhere in Asia, China's fast development, fuelled by business with the west, is creating a confused generation of stuck in-betweeners and the usual corruption of culture… (an interesting aside for me was when we compared this with Latin America which sees little corruption from the west, so Robin says (of Mexico at least), and that the root cause of this is probably lack of business links with the western world, so that it is economic ties with the West that is the root cause of extreme cultural change witnessed in Asia, not the role of the powerful media (bringing films, celebrity culture etc.) as I had always thought, though of course, this still feeds into it. But it's the businesses that bring money, foreigners, goods and a certain lifestyle which people aspire to).
We talked about many other things besides, some of which I clashed with Elana on, but which I should not go into more detail on given the length of this posting already…and it's still not done!
Jovin, Anna, Patrick andOlof
The Great Wall and Summer Palace in the next two days (with Forbidden City the day before) marked Beijing time as the most sightseeing-productive I've been since travelling with Eileen, spurred by frustration of my laziness in the last two months (when I've done nothing but lounged in a number of great apartments).
The Summer Palace was superior to the Forbidden City in architectural and natural beauty in my opinion, while the Great Wall day trip was great fun, spent with good companions. We were that rare group of very different individuals who seem to match in travelling style in that one-off journey. Jovin is older and self-assured but laid back, English Anna is a girly, (intelligently) ditzy, Facebook-loving chatterbox, while Swedish Patrick and Olof are nineteen and more timid, on their first big trip. Yet we were all in sync somehow, patiently waiting for each other and taking our time to enjoy the magnificent views and journey on the wall itself. The wall stretched on as far as the eye could see, curving around and up and down on the edge of mountains and hills. It was simply stunning.
In all of the fun together, remember one conversation involving the energy supplies of China. It is unfortunate that renewable energy resources are not utilised for a country of its potential, with the vast majority of individuals and industries still reliant on heavy-polluting coal. China is moving to develop its own nuclear power sources…all well and good perhaps. But what was surprising for me was hearing about deals made by the Chinese government to allow nuclear waste material from Western countries, a dangerous and toxic cargo, to be buried in remote regions in China. It is unknown where these sites are and I suppose little, if anything, is known about this by locals. I can't help but think cynically that no matter how 'remote' these regions are, at least some people will still affected and that the response from the government could very well be: we've got a billion plus people here… we can afford to lose some.
I am, of course, being far too critical. As Jimmy points out, China is still a developing, poverty-striken country (though hard to believe in the bright lights of the big cities) and needs to focus on lifting its people out of that extreme. Moreover, the sheer size of population and land gives it an enormous job to cater to the energy needs of mass. Pollution must be accepted, sacrifices have to be made. But I can't help thinking that in this time of huge growth for China, and as cities expand at an ever-rapid rate, it is the perfect chance for China to create, within its new infrastructure, that clean, green space for all. Now.