Despite being in China, a treasure-trove of a country in its own right, I find my heart still leaning towards India. I miss its people, I miss its energy, I miss its land, its music, its movies… And so it was with great pleasure that I meet Ali, heralding from Pakistan (close enough for me, though India's natives may be rather appalled at my parallel), on the overnight train journey from Shanghai to Beijing.
Ali has been living in China for the last five years, studying and doing business. He spent the first three years in the South, in Cantonese-speaking Guangdong area, then ventured to Shanghai two years ago where he now speaks what seems to me like fluent Mandarin. Lucky thing. He helped greatly as my translator on that journey, but what was even more valuable and endearing to me was actually our conversation about India, my favourite topic and one I miss having a companion to talk to about. Our conversation covered movies, music, culture and many things besides. We talked about India and Pakistan's frosty relationship - "we are all one people, we are brothers, the same" he says. If only his contemporaries shared his views - and the dangers and violence now in Pakistan which makes it hard to travel back there for him, and to travel around there for me. He advises me to still go - "it's beautiful country" - but to stay away from the city hotspots. His last gift was Urdu and Hindi music which I was able to transfer to my laptop from his MP3 player while it was charging on my laptop. How I love these meetings.
Ali guided me through my first lone Chinese train journey, and what a brilliant ride it was! Unlike in India, there are only two classes of sleepers, "soft sleeper" - the first class, individual TV screen enabled, 2-bunk berths (four in total in a compartment) with lockable doors - and the "hard sleeper" - 3-bunk berths, totaling six in an open compartment with unfortunately no curtains shielding you from the corridor but with beds that are, contrasting with its name, still as soft and comfortable as first class (to me anyway). The so-called hard sleeper/second class beds are still equipped with sheets, pillow and duvets, riding on a comfortable and smooth rail network that puts its contemporary (India) to shame. Each train car seems to come with at least two conductors (though I saw many more, I'm guessing from other compartments) that take care of all the train's business. Conductor seems an inadequate title for them since they are really ticket checkers, meal servers, floor sweepers, bathroom cleaners, rubbish collectors and everything else rolled into one. The sight of these smartly uniformed personnel (resembling army officers in their gear) mopping the floor and cleaning the sinks with plastic gloves was a rather funny sight for me. But it all points to China's seeming respect for cleanliness and its strict adherence to the upkeep of the clean status quo. I was so impressed. Of course, by morning, reality struck and I find that the toilet is blocked with some rather unclean stuff and the sinks are deposited with unsightly waste. Put a big group of people together and it seems that mass filth will always accumulate, no matter how great the system or how clean the individual otherwise is in general.
But that's an aside issue. Impressed and in awe, I still was. After a comfortable night's sleep, I woke to find the sun rising over the snow-covered scenery whizzing by - everything was white, bright and beautiful. I felt so at peace and in awe of where I was right then. In those morning hours before arriving in Beijing, I sat in perfect contentment on my bottom berth, watching the scenery and drafting a long email to a friend I met in India. I seem to be making a habit of writing overly-long emails which precludes me from writing this blog so I thought I should combine the two and paste a chunk of the email I wrote as an end to this chapter:
"…China. How can I describe this land? Comparisons to India are impossible to escape - both are subcontinents unifying a vast mix of people, languages and cultures, both the developing Asian superstars, both major powers in their own right. But after that, the similarities are less evident than I thought. When highways and flyovers here are completed within months rather than the years taken in India, how can there be parallels? The development here is staggering. Nowhere is this more evident than in Shanghai, a cosmopolitan mega-city to rival any in the West. Their skyscrapers, for example, are some of the highest in the world, with more to come, each with its own design-defying structure. One of the things I found most amazing there is that there is never a fully up-to-date metro map because of the rate of new lines being built. It's crazy! They've also built the first commercial Maglev line, connecting main Shanghai to the eastern airport in 7 minutes on the magnet-run train capable of travelling at 430km/h, easily the fastest public-used train on earth. New high speed lines are in development across the country (or maybe more realistically, around the eastern coast) and new projects are in development in major cities. There's an air of confident prosperity that seems to be creeping into the general mindset here that I didn't feel in India. In a decade's time, surely China will pull far ahead of even some Western powers of today. And all this is done admist corruption and poverty in many parts. What I really need now is to spend a good half a year travelling to the more remote parts of China where I will probably get a different view of the development of this country. It's gonna be a while before that opportunity arises however…
…Comparisons to India are not just for observational values but also due to the fact that I can't quite let go of the place. Despite my love for Chinese music and films from a young age, I find myself constantly listen to my Hindi music collection here and obsessing about not being able to see certain new Hindi releases. Yesterday, I met someone on the train who's originally from Pakistan, though he's been living in China for the last 5 years. We eventually got onto the topic of Hindi films which actually made me so excited - finally someone to talk to about it! My dream that night was of meeting Amir Khan and getting a personal showing of his new film 3 Idiots. I do love it out here, but there's something about India that's gotten under my skin and is pulling my heart back.
When staying at Arunima's, she told me about a book, "Eat, Pray, Love", about a divorcee who journeys to Italy to eat, India to pray and Indonesia to love (now that I've started reading this book, I'm finding that it's not quite to that description, but close enough). I've now formed my own version of this. I would live in London (still my favourite city), fall in love in India, eat in Singapore (I ate non-stop there despite feeling rather ill) and retire in China. By then, my views on personal freedom (of speech, life etc.), democratic government and so forth will matter less and I can go on to enjoy the more refined life here. What I love when walking around towns and cities here is people's seeming love and appreciation for the finer things in life - for the arts, for beauty, for company, for fresh air, for food, for parks, for the healthy lifestyle. All this came together for me when I was walking along the city walls in Xi'an and looked down at a group of older women doing t'ai chi to the most beautiful exquisite music. They swayed gently to the rhythm, hands, legs and bodies flowing like water through the air. Something about that scene made me want to cry for seeing something so pure. I can't describe it. Everything I'd seen in China up to then was consolidated in that moment and I realised this was where I wanted to be in my old age. All along the southern end of the wall were outdoor machineries that serve as an outdoor gym (something quite common in China) and people were actually using it. Older folks were also playing table tennis on the outdoor tables. The narrow park was landscaped beautifully, another common thing. In Hangzhou, my first stop in China, the parks were filled with groups of people gathering around musicians and what I assume are karaoke singers. The crowds listened to old classics being belted out accompanied by men playing traditional one-stringed instruments. Men and women gathered around tables for chess and checkers or simply card games. It was lovely.
And despite all this, I'm still thinking of India. Can you believe it?…"