Politics & Policy

Between the Middle Kingdom and the Land of Snows: Part IV

Cities without souls, Shanghai with sleaze.

Editor’s Note: This is Part IV of a five-part series relating the author’s travels in China and Tibet. For Parts I, II, and III, go here, here, and here.)

‐ My last installment left us at Dege, a Tibetan town in the extreme west of Sichuan Province. Getting to Dege was among my least pleasant travel experiences in China.

(Clearly worse: a 30-hour car ride from Karghilik, Xinjiang, to Senge Khabab, Tibet. On that occasion, seven of us were packed into a vehicle for five; I spent hours leaning against a box of peaches, whose contents ruptured and oozed through my clothing late at night, when it was cold enough in the car for me to see my breath; a single-day elevation gain of more than 12,000 feet elicited copious vomiting from one and all; and I had no guarantee that I would not be turned back at any of several police checkpoints along the way, since foreigners were forbidden on that route.)

Why is getting to Dege so unpleasant? Because it lies at least three days by bus from Chengdu. These bus rides constitute, if I am not mistaken, a Buddhist sub-hell. First, they are long: eight to twelve hours long. Second, they shake your bones like the call of the last trump, for none of the roads are paved, and many are not roads. Third, everyone around you is smoking. This odor is commingled with other scents, products of the relatively low importance rural Chinese and Tibetans assign to bathing. Fourth, the driver will blast Tibetan music videos (or, if your bus has no TV, Tibetan music) at decibel levels otherwise achieved only by the launching of space shuttles. I can describe Tibetan singing best by suggesting that the Pentagon refine it for use as a sonic weapon. Fifth, the combination of high altitude, insufficient food, blinding sunlight, and dust from the roads will give you a migraine fully curable only with an injection of heroin. Sixth, your driver will haul commercial goods in the bus’s luggage compartment, meaning that he must stack luggage in the aisle to height of three or four feet. This is fine until you need to stop for what the Chinese call a “convenience,” which brings me to: Seven, you will have only one or two bathroom breaks per day (by “bathroom,” I mean “open field”); and if you are not fast, the bus may leave you. Eighth . . . but you get the idea.

These journeys have their rewards, however, particularly if you can speak to your fellow passengers. If not, you have the scenery. Sometimes the driver brings along his personal hooker, and occasionally she has a heart of gold (one spots me some change at a lunch stop, prior to disappearing with our captain and hers). Finally, if the driver is in a hurry, you will get a taste of life on the edge.

‐ This time, though, I taste the edge most powerfully in a private car. My friend and I have hired it to take us from Dege to Ganzi (also in Sichuan). The route’s chief characteristics are hairpin turns and sheer cliffs where, in civilized lands, a shoulder and guardrail would be. Our driver, at the top of an especially dangerous pass, decides to start taking large swigs from his bottle of baijiu (white ale; a super strong Chinese liquor distilled from sorghum). At first this is cute. On about the tenth swig I give him a quizzical look, and he explains that the baijiu is for his headache. On roughly the 20th swig, my traveling companion confiscates his bottle, and I supply him with two aspirin. Now I know how those Peace Corps doctors feel. Helping people is its own reward.

‐ Let us leave Tibet for a moment and return to China. I cannot overstate the ugliness of most big Chinese cities. It is ugliness of a special kind, different from that which marks so much of the third world, where pollution, open sewers, and neo-Stalinist architecture contrast with traditional buildings and neighborhoods that are often quite beautiful. Such places never had the misfortune of a Mao, encouraging the masses to “smash the old.” Urban China contains easily the most soulless landscapes I have ever seen.

There are of course exceptions — Hangzhou, Suzhou, Kunming; parts of Xi’an and Canton and Nanking; even a few neighborhoods in Shanghai. This last is mostly hideous. Office towers and municipal complexes sprout like jungle weeds, in an architecture appropriate for a Soviet version of The Jetsons. But the 19th-century buildings of the Bund and the French Quarter are a blessed relief to suffering eyes.

Go imperialism!

‐ Shanghai is sleazy, sleazy, sleazy. If you are a single white man walking along the Bund or Canton Road by night, you will be propositioned roughly every ten steps. (I offer this as a literal truth.) Most often you are approached by a pimp, who offers “beautiful girl sexy massage.” (They say this in English, of a sort.) Sometimes the aforementioned beauty makes the approach herself. Not infrequently, you will receive phone calls late at night from your hotel’s “massage center.” (This is true all over China, not just in Shanghai.)

I am reminded of the story an American couple told me several years ago, while I was studying in Nanking. They decided to spend a romantic weekend in Xi’an, but she, alack and alas, developed a severe tension headache. He, being both chivalrous and naïve, solicited the talents of a local “masseuse,” who accompanied him back to the hotel. When he pointed to his stricken ladyfriend, now taken to her bed, the “masseuse” gave a start — and then, comprehending, performed a very expensive and very incompetent massage.

‐ Shanghai sleaze, redux: A tunnel connecting Pudong and Puxi (the two halves of Shanghai, divided by the Huangpu River) houses, at its Puxi terminus, a sex museum. Oh yes. And the tunnel itself is a light show reminiscent of the dearly departed Tron ride at Disneyland. Here we have mass taste in modern China at its finest.

‐ Every time I visit China, I find myself thinking that, in its modern guise, it is a marriage of the worst in Western and Eastern cultures. From the East, it retains structures of political and moral thought in which the individual plays no part, his welfare being entirely subordinated to that of society. The concept of a right has no place in Chinese history, and little place in China today. Moreover, the agnosticism of Chinese philosophy (including Confucianism, which is called a religion only by abusing that word) has left a great many modern Chinese with no belief in, or even longing for, transcendent meaning.

At the same time, China has partaken of the West’s most bitter fruits. Marxism is Exhibit A, but today the West manifests itself mainly in capitalistic flavor. Though I am a devoted free-marketeer, it seems obvious to me that the highest ends in life are not material. I do not even mean this claim religiously: I say only that such things as love, beauty, intellectual inquiry, and breadth of experience matter more to me (and to most people I know) than does wealth. I suspect most young, urban Chinese would say they agree; and yet such ends seem to exert little influence on their actions. I have probably never encountered a more materialistic group of people than Chinese middle-class youths; and I have never seen a place where the pursuit of wealth was less mitigated by nonmaterial values than in urban China.

You have, in short, the moneychangers but no temple.

‐ Having thus buried China, I shall, in my final installment, praise it. Return tomorrow for: what I owe China, One Fine Day, and the tastiest baked goods in Lhasa.

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