This will not be much of a travelogue, for circumstances have conspired so as to prohibit that option. There really isn't much point in writing a travelogue after all the travelling has been done. An 'in retrospect' view of anything is tempered with subsequent experiences which tend to cast a new light on the original topics, and hence modify them. The thrill of the first time is gone; the emotions of the moment reduced to fragments of memory, or worse still, hastily scribbled jottings and photographs. All is mellowed down, colours made gray by the torpor of everyday life. A memory is but the shell of a moment in time, a filtered down account of one's feelings at that time. And as the days pass, the grayness spreads, the feelings weaken. Like Orpheus' plight, the spell of a moment lies as long as you hold it and move forward with it. Look back, and it is gone. Only the memory remains.
And yet this looking back is in many ways a liberation. The mind, freed from the shackles of time and place, and with a knowledge of how subsequent events unfold, is able to correctly analyze an event, and place it according to its relevance. A moment in one's life is never completely described by itself, but also by the impact it has subsequently. Write about it as it happens, and one is unable to view the slow chain of cause and effect that it triggers off. Step back and let time go by, and the chain unravels to its eventual conclusion, or atleast, if not eventual, to an intermediate conclusion which is by itself of some importance.
On my recent trip to China, I had intended to keep a regular travelogue and post it here, but as this post will eventually indicate, circumstances forced me to adopt the latter strategy. The question naturally arises as to which of the two would have served better, and to this I have no answer. During this trip, there happened to be two books in my bag. One of them, Milan Kundera's 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being', taught me 'Einmal ist keinmal'; that it is impossible to test a decision for anything that happens only once, for there is no basis for comparison. The second, Morris West's 'Summer of the Red Wolf', taught me the word 'Seannachie', Gaelic for storyteller. So, without further ado, I will accept the first view, and proceed to be your Seannachie, taking you on a tour of my recent trip to China.
Like many a travel story, this one starts at an airport. To be very precise, the Indira Gandhi International airport in Delhi. We (my parents and I) turned up there at 12 in the night, only to learn that our flight would not depart till four. As we went through the routine of check-in, customs and all the rest, a number of my father's colleagues turned up along with their families, some of whom I knew, the rest whom I would come to know fairly well over the next few days. There were also a large number of paints dealers, for this entire trip was actually a dealers conference, with us just tagging along.
As is usual during a four hour wait in an airport, not much really happened. The only interesting incident that I can remember was meeting this guy who claimed he was going to Milan to find work. The poor guy had the sketchiest knowledge of english, and was struggling to fill up the various forms thrown at him. I helped him with a few, but soon we had to move on. The last time I saw him, he was trying to ask a policeman for help in filling another form.
The 4 hour vigil in the airport lounge was followed by an equally painful plane journey. China Eastern airlines surprisingly managed to outdo Indian Airlines in its levels of shoddiness. The lowest point was reached when at six in the morning (indian time), I decided to ask for some tea and was met by an expression of incredulity. Not to be daunted, I pulled out my trump card by asking for 'cha', which is surprisingly both the chinese and bengali words for tea. This too was met by an expression of incredulity. To this day I have not figured out what language that air-hostess spoke. The only interesting thing about the flight was that the safety instructions were not given by the cabin crew, but were actually projected on a screen in the form of an anime video! But all the charms of a wide eyed animated figure explaining the nuances of tying seat belts was negated by my tealess state.
The first view of China that I had was Shanghai airport, and I have to admit it was pretty impressive. The entire structure, built in the shape of a bird in flight, is perhaps one of the most aesthetically pleasing airports that I have ever seen. A few days later, I found myself back in the same airport, and was again amazed at the brilliance of the structure. On our first visit, the beauty of the place was however marred by the fact that the chinese officials present there viewed us as a bunch of undesirable aliens, making us sit in a small room for about half an hour without any information whatsoever, and then herding us in a long line across two different terminals before we finally reached our connecting flight. This was the first time I came across the remarkable xenophobia of the Chinese, and their fanatical pride in their language. Shunning conventional wisdom, the chinese had gone so far as to write 'mens' and 'ladies', or something of that sort, on their restroom doors, in chinese characters! Deprived of the comfortingly familiar stick figures, most of us were forced to defer our requirements till we boarded the plane. I had heard of the joke of the kilt wearing scotsman being confused by the drawings on the restroom doors (the ladies toilet showed a stick figure with a skirt), but this was surely taking it too far.
The connecting flight started off on a sad note, as one of the dealers fell seriously ill, and had to be taken away to hospital moments before the flight took off (more on that in a later post). The flight somehow conspired to be even worse than the previous one. After about half an hour, everyone was handed a tray containing a packet of crackers, and a bowl of pickled vegetables. Now I am fairly adventurous in matters of food, as this post should go on to indicate, but everyone draws a line at some point. In my case, the line was drawn at a bowl of foul smelling, sour, unidentifiable pickled vegetables. Everyone else too, unsurprisingly, drew their lines at pickled vegetables, and so, that evening, China Eastern was confronted by a surfeit of uneaten, pickled vegetables. One hopes they had ready access to some powerful purgatives.
Beijing airport, in contrast to Shanghai, was somewhat of a let down, as it consisted of not much more than a big, drab concrete structure with unsmiling customs officials. We were met there by David (that's actually his english name, and till today none of us know his chinese name), who was to be our guide over the next few days. Standing in the midst of a big waiting room, complete with McDonald's, Starbucks and KFC, David managed to get us and the rest of my father's colleagues and families together, and shepherded us to a huge bus. The bus was somewhat of an overkill, considering we were only five families, but we weren't complaining.
As we were driven to our hotel by someone who David claimed was Beijing's second best driver ('the best one's in hospital..hee hee...'), I got my first glimpse of Beijing, and was singularly unimpressed. The city is huge, and imposing, with wide roads, fast cars, big buildings, and a complete absence of any kind of life. The traffic flowed regularly without any mishaps, the pavements were fairly clean, and empty, the shopping malls large, well lit, and again fairly empty. The city is surprisingly devoid of anything traditionally Chinese. All the buildings were remarkably modern, and fairly ugly. The entire city appeared to be a large Potemkin Village, erected to cover up its historic origins. Only the profusion of Chinese road signs gave any indication as to where we were.
After a quick bath, we all went for dinner in the hotel's coffee shop, where I got my first taste of the legendary Beijing duck, and then went on to double the number of animals that I had eaten. Squids, eels, octopii, ox tongues, quail, goose and some other unidentifiable creatures followed in dizzying succession, all eaten with a pair of chopsticks, whose use I had managed to master before coming to China. Yet, even after all this, I wasn't completely satisfied. There was something missing, and I couldn't quite put my finger on it.
Many years ago I had gone to Mumbai for a holiday, and had experienced a very curious sensation. Now Mumbai was the first city, besides Kolkata and Delhi and Hyderabad, which I remember having visited. As we were driving from the airport to our relative's house, I remember looking around and thinking that the roads looked remarkably like Kolkata. It was then that I was suddenly hit by this odd idea that I had never left Kolkata after all, and that all that I was experiencing was actually one big hoax to fool me. Not until I first caught a glimpse of the sea was I fully convinced that I was in Mumbai after all.
Some time later, an english teacher had asked us, during the course of a lesson, at what point in our journey back home do we feel we are home. A friend of mine replied that he felt he had reached when he saw the bus stop prior to the one where he alighted. This reminded me of the Mumbai incident, for in effect they were the same thing. When we set out towards a fixed destination, we are always on the lookout for something to tell us we have reached- a roadsign, a bus stop, a famous monument, the sea, anything. Anything that tells us that our journey is over, and that we have arrived.
Connoisseurs of travel will no doubt scoff at my above statements. They will hurl quotations and arguments at me, trying to convince me that in travel, what really matters is the act of travelling itself, and not the destination. I will readily acquiesce to their views, and hurriedly withdraw from the debate. And yet I must go by what I have said. The only defence I have is that for me the journey consisted of a month of deliberation over going, almost backing out but being somehow coerced to come along, four hours wait in an airport chair, a further six hours on a plane, an hour or so cooped up in a tiny room at an airport, another two hours by plane, and then a bus ride at full speed with a guide cracking bad jokes, all washed down with pickled vegetables and a lack of tea. At the end of it all, I needed
to know that I had actually reached. The duck had made a valiant attempt, as had the chinese road signs, the chopsticks, and a host of other small details. Yet something was still missing.
After dinner, we returned to our room, and I switched on my father's laptop. No sooner had I connected to the net did Keerthi turn up on Yahoo messenger. As I described to him my day, I tried connecting to blogger.com, but was somehow unable to do so. Initially I thought that there was a problem with the connection. But when subsequent blogs refused to open, I realized something was wrong. I mentioned this to Keerthi, and he, ever the omniscient, came up with this
. And all of a sudden everything fell into place.
I had come to China in search of the mystic orient that we have all grown up hearing about, but had found a city full of high speed overpasses and skyscrapers. I had come to China looking for a glimpse of one of the world's oldest, most unique, diverse cultures, and had found Starbucks and Hyundai Elantras. I had come looking for small, smoky restaurants where old women would dish out steaming dumplings, and had instead found a posh hotel with chefs recommending western dishes. I had come in search of Chinese calligraphy, and had found printed signs on restrooms.
I had known before coming that this trip would not be on my terms. I would not be able to do most things I would have wanted to, seeing as I was with my parents, and they in a big group, where everyone had their own plans. I knew I would be bound and forced to do what they did, eat what they did, go where they did. Yet still I had come. I had come to China in search of China, and had somehow conspired to miss her completely.
And then, at that moment when my blog refused to open, something clicked. As I watched Firefox repeatedly fail to find the site, I could feel 'his' eyes upon me, following my every action. I knew then, without a shadow of a doubt, that I was in the world's largest communist country, a red bastion which inspite of its opening up, still kept democracy away at an arms length. I knew I was in the land of the red march, the last emperor, the cultural revolution, Tiananmen Square, and looming above all, the ghost of Chairman Mao.
As Firefox failed for the umpteenth time, I felt Big Brother's eyes on me, and I knew that I was in China after all.