While a tai chi video played over the video screen and spicy beef with rice was being served up for breakfast by the stewardesses, Air China’s in-flight magazine cover caught my eye. “China Beckons”, it read simply, with the short article stating that “this is a land that never ceases to work miracles”. It continued: “What do you think when you see that supermarkets are always jam-packed with enthusiastic buyers…or when you can no longer recognize where you are in your city if you happen to stay away from a place for a few months?”
On a travel assignment to cover the ‘finer’ aspects of the country – such as Guilin’s picturesque limestone landscapes, the thousand-year-old Buddhist statues on the Yi River and the terracotta soldiers of Xi’an – I have not had to look far to see China’s mad race to modernity. Just 12km from the Longmen Caves, where religious relics were carved by hand some 800 years ago (and later partially disfigured during the Cultural Revolution, when religious worship was banned), lies Luoyang, one of China’s most important ancient capitals. Home to a number of dynasties, including the Zhou, who made it their base in 770 BC, it is now a 7-million strong mess of bicycles, cars, industry and development. Skyscrapers housing offices and apartments (most of them built in the past six years) dot the smoggy skyline while four-lane highways bisect each other at right angles, jam-packed with people on the move.
It is difficult to find a building that dates back farther than the 1970s, although I have been told they exist; the North is currently undergoing an economic transformation never before seen, turning the cities’ old hutongs (alleyways) into streets filled with shopping malls and hotels with 360-degree-rotating restaurants (such as my own). It’s a story that can be told all over China, but no one seems to be upset about this. The elderly still quietly practice their tai chi, albeit now in a square in the middle of a major intersection, while the young accept that moving forward in this way is the only way to move forward at all. As my tour guide put it today, “When Chinese government wants to build a building, we just build it, then talk. You, in the West, talk about it then build it. Maybe that is why so many of you are unemployed.”
The Chinese have often been described as “essentially optmistic”, a personality trait that can be denoted in their faces, curiosity towards foreigners and names like Shao Fang (“Morning Scent”) or Lan Hua (“Blue Blossom”, or “Orchid”). And then, of course, there is the ever-glowing glory of translation. The pictures, below, are from Beijing, where I ate scorpion, sea horse, silk worms, snake and crickets, practiced tai chi and water calligraphy in the Temple of Heaven Park, cycled through a hutong where Beijing’s imperial family once lived, and had a wander through the “Realm of Multitudinous Fragrance”. Only in China, only in China.