Magazine article The Spectator

China Blues

Magazine article The Spectator

China Blues

Article excerpt

I think you can rate the success of any trip abroad by how relieved and happy you feel to be home as your plane makes its final approach to land you back in Britain.

Flying into Heathrow last month I was pretty much off my head with joy. Gazing down as we circled over a rich tapestry of scruffy fields and housing estates stitched together with arterial roads and gravel pits, I felt a rush of affection for the landscape, coupled with a surge of relief to be home.

It takes a lot to make a person's soul sing out at the sight of Hounslow. In my case, it takes spending the best part of three weeks in China.

This is not to say that China isn't a fascinating place. I spent most of my time on an island off Xiamen, an industrial hotspot at the mouth of the Jiulong (Nine Dragon) River roughly equidistant from Hong Kong and Shanghai. The scene at the end of our garden put me in mind of what the Clyde or Mersey must have been like at the height of the Industrial Revolution.

Some days there was such a multitude of boats, from supertankers and oil rigs to junks, ferries and trawlers passing by through the smog that one worried that there might not be enough water to accommodate them all. My favourite sailor was a particularly eccentric local who rowed himself out into the shipping lane on a plastic garden chair lashed to an old wooden door and proceeded to fish for his supper by casting a hook and line into the churning polluted waters. At night my bedroom shook as the hills at the far side of the estuary were dynamited to make way for yet more electronics factories. The city fair throbs with its inhabitants' urge to work hard and get rich.

But it is important not to fool yourself into thinking that you will have a holiday in China. You won't. You'll have an experience. In my case an experience that deposits you back at Heathrow with a phobia of ever again going to a party where jellied sea worms are being served as canapés and an ankle so swollen with infection that you can't get your shoe on.

The low point came when my doctor looked at my leg, by now a lurid confection of bed-bug bites poisoned from scratching and a drunken fall into an open latrine, and wondered out loud if there might be pupae breeding in my wounds.

You'll also realise that however utopian it might look, actually living in the sort of rural Chinese idyll of bamboo groves and paddy fields conjured up in films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is about as comfortable and stimulating an existence for its inhabitants as being a peasant in merrie old mediaeval England. On a road trip into the tea-growing region in the hills further north in Fujian province, I discovered that the lifestyle which looks so picturesque from an air-conditioned car would be a nightmare to do for real. Living in a hut and spending your days tilling cabbages and picking tea on a terrace in the uppermost reaches of a remote valley with a baby strapped to one's back like a little emperor doesn't enrich one's life or one's pocket.

As a result most peasants are desperate to get to the big smoke. And they don't much mind what they have to do to get there. One Chinese lady I met told me that the most interesting thing she had discovered on her first trip to England was the view from her Birmingham hotel room of ducks swimming on a canal. …

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