The Big Parade At Dragon Lake

The deal was 8am. I’m a just-in-time guy, but here she was knock­ing on the door at 7:15. Jeez. Can I offer you some break­fast? We sat look­ing at each other across a big wooden cof­fee table, the golden drapes suf­fus­ing a soft glow of early sun­shine. She’d never tried any­thing like my spe­cial con­coc­tion of oat­meal mixed in with raisins, sun­flower seeds and yoghurt. For­eign­ers are funny. She picked at it exper­i­men­tally.

So what was this all about any­way? The SMS had been a cryp­tic invi­ta­tion to some place called Xin Zheng. Well, why not? This was the day of the Big Parade, Octo­ber 1 National Day, the 60th birth­day party in Bei­jing where guests were not wel­come. 1.3 bil­lion sta­tis­ti­cal mass clones were sup­posed to stay loy­ally glued to their TV sets, shocked and awed by images of phal­lic bal­lis­tic mis­siles, and some old men wav­ing fee­bly from a bal­cony. At times like this sen­si­ble slobs in Aus­tralia go to the beach, mut­ter­ing Sam Johnson’s well tested epi­thet that patri­o­tism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Less abra­sive Chi­nese folk plant a cau­tious big red flag by the door­post and, well, go to Xin Zheng per­haps.

What was in Xin Zheng? It was near the air­port, she said mys­te­ri­ously. This girl was a bit of a mys­tery her­self. The oth­ers didn’t like her much. Too heavy, they said, always ask­ing hard ques­tions. I didn’t mind. Col­lege life, the cute stuffed teddy bears, Mickey Mouse T-shirts, stick-on face glit­ter and ubiq­ui­tious red hearts of the teenage girl’s world became sort of cloy­ing. Mer­ci­fully, at 64 and safely ugly, I never have to worry about girly crushes.  It is under­stood that I am also poor, and there­fore safe from cal­cu­lated pacts of love-for-a-sugar-daddy type. So there is just the human dimen­sion left, and on this plane I feel for the girls, most bor­der­line poor them­selves from back-county towns, and fac­ing uncer­tain futures.

We set out from the nearly deserted col­lege. The gate keeper leered at us, but then he always leers. Things were qui­eter than usual on Kangfu Qian­jie, a.k.a. Recov­ery Front Street, mean­ing that rather than the stan­dard tor­rent of bod­ies and careen­ing vehi­cles there was just a steady stream. We picked our way briskly down the leafy street. Zhengzhou does autumns nicely, drift­ing leaves, egg-shell blue skies, not too hot and not too cold. My com­pan­ion was clearly no pam­pered princess-com­plex, taxi-addicted type. She expected to walk wherever it was we were going. Slightly scrawny in blue jeans and a green T-shirt, with a pert lit­tle back­pack for sup­plies, she never got a sec­ond glance from the hair­dressers and sharp street toughs drag­ging on cheap cig­a­rettes.

We headed a few blocks north towards a small inter-town bus sta­tion. Round­ing the last cor­ner, pan­de­mo­nium imme­di­ately ensued. This was time for a rapid Plan B. An impos­si­ble pha­lanx of human­ity was lay­ing siege to three small ticket win­dows on the pave­ment edge. Bat­tered suit­cases, bundles tied up with bits of twine, rough hands and tired faces. Clearly here was the migrant work­force made real, poor peo­ple fight­ing to get to their home vil­lages for a day or two of rest, before flood­ing back into the maw of indus­trial China.

My guide hadn’t planned on such chaos. The state does plan­ning in China; nobody else both­ers. Why don’t we come back tomor­row when they’ll all be under the table on bai jiu liquor, I sug­gested. Nope. Tomor­row she’d be work­ing. At what I was too kind to ask. Our period of grace was brief then. We skit­tered across the big road, and she ques­tioned some ran­dom strangers. Other, less fancy buses went in the gen­eral desired direc­tion it seemed. Presently a bat­tered spec­i­men shud­dered to a halt and dis­gorged its pas­sen­gers. This was appar­ently the end of the line. Three yuan apiece, and a choice of red or blue fibre­glass seats. We thun­dered off towards the dusty mar­gins of the city, the ticket lady stud­ied her large gilt encrusted hand­bag, and the dri­ver leaned on his horn.

Every street in Chi­nese cities looks pretty much the same to me. No doubt there are sub­tle dif­fer­ences for expe­ri­enced eyes in the mix of old con­crete, dirty tile walls and clut­tered pave­ments. Maybe locals can focus on the forest of exag­ger­ated street signs above drab door­ways. For me, pick­ing occa­sional hanzi, char­ac­ters, from the mess is a small tri­umph. ‘Old Bei­jing Noodles’, says one; ‘Smokes Drinks’ say thou­sands. But you could drop me any­where from Changchun to Guangzhou and I would be guar­an­teed 100% lost. Grad­u­ally our bus pro­gressed towards the edge of some­where. Traf­fic den­sity dropped off, there were more empty blocks full of trash and weeds, then after a time, some­thing like open fields.  This was rel­a­tive. Build­ings of some kind, and peo­ple, are never out of sight. Some­one has got­ten the mes­sage across though that trees are a Good Thing, so road mar­gins and cul­verts now tend to be woven with a wide band of spindly tim­ber. The land­scape would be piti­less with­out them.

Con­ver­sa­tion was dif­fi­cult above the roar of road noise and clash­ing metal. For whole min­utes even thought came to a stop as the dri­ver held his hand on the horn. This noise aggres­sion had no effect at all on the traf­fic, but seemed to make him feel bet­ter. The girl was busy map­ping out my strange for­eign life pro­file, hope­fully as prac­tice for more eli­gi­ble can­di­dates when they mate­ri­al­ized. Don’t you miss your home coun­try?  Well, not a lot, even though I’m paid to send stu­dents like you there, float­ing gid­dily on images of a promised land. I mostly live inside my own head… This idea took a while for her to digest. Does every­one own their own house in Aus­tralia? … Hmm, about 70% if you count the fan­tasy mil­lion­aires pay­ing off mort­gages. Me, I’m debt free and house free, a sorry prospect for gold-dig­gers and the credit card com­pa­nies… My inter­roga­tor might have known very well that 80% of 250 mil­lion so-called mid­dle class Chi­nese were more or less gifted their own apart­ments on low inter­est loans a decade ago, and now drive an asset bub­ble to rival the Amer­i­can dream. So much for the pro­le­tar­ian rev­o­lu­tion. When are you going to retire? Maybe when you guys decide to ship me out. From some­time next year I’m due for an Aus­tralian sub­sis­tence age pen­sion, but prob­a­bly only if liv­ing in Aus­tralia. Damnit, life has hardly begun. Now why can’t I push a red reset but­ton and get back to being twenty, just like you …

Even­tu­ally the win­dow panorama ran in reverse from our Zhengzhou exit. The occa­sional fac­tory behind long brick walls, with the ubiq­ui­tous guards on the gate flashed by, then sud­denly there was a clut­ter of shop-houses and restau­rants. The bus emp­tied again onto a street cor­ner and I looked around war­ily. I hoped she knew where we were. It seemed likely not. For no rea­son in par­tic­u­lar we were stand­ing next to a kind of bak­ery hand­cart. Its super­struc­ture was a large white box with glass panes behind which we could see flat baked bread. Han Chi­nese gen­er­ally do not bake bread, and some Ara­bic script dec­o­rat­ing the glass con­firmed that the owner was a Hui. Many of the Hui around here seem to be phys­i­cally indis­tin­guish­able from Han, but in the Chi­nese pan­theon, they are an “eth­nic minor­ity”. This guy to me looked unin­ter­ested in every­thing, even sell­ing shaob­ing, but my guide was a con­nois­seur at pick­ing stray infor­ma­tion from unlikely human data­bases. They held a long frag­mented con­ver­sa­tion which she con­stantly restarted with new ques­tions. Presently she returned with the infor­ma­tion that we were going to view Long Hu, or dragon lake.

Drag­ons get a bad wrap in the folk­lore of Olde Eng­land. Maybe they were the exiles, cast out for bad deeds. Back in the Mid­dle King­dom drag­ons are the embod­i­ment of good for­tune, and for Chi­nese, surely the most reli­gious peo­ple on the planet when it comes to appeas­ing the unseen, Luck is an unchal­lenged, uni­ver­sal force. Poor old Karl Marx with his his­tor­i­cal deter­min­ism would have spun in his grave when the supremely cyn­i­cal Mao Zedong put him on a pedestal. Any­way, back on earth, every cor­ner of China is chock full of dragon gates, dragon lakes, dragon sea roads, dragon restau­rants … you name it. The funny thing is, I’ve never seen so much as a sin­gle liv­ing lizard in this coun­try. They must have all been served up in someone’s soup long ago.

Our direc­tions to Dragon Lake seemed prop­erly obscure, like any good test for trav­ellers on a mag­i­cal path. We fol­lowed the main road for a few hun­dred metres, then my com­pan­ion paused, as if wait­ing for a sign from the ether. There was a vacant allot­ment on our right, and she sud­denly swung into the weeds and began to fol­low some deeply rut­ted wheel tracks. Grad­u­ally I noticed that we were in a kind of no-man’s land, with high brick walls topped by secu­rity cam­eras on either side. The weeds mor­phed into a nar­row field of ragged corn, and soon an old peas­ant padded past us. We were watched per­haps, who isn’t watched in this coun­try, but oth­er­wise alone.

In the Aus­tralian bush humans are def­i­nitely vis­i­tors, admit­ted on suf­fer­ance by Nature, and soon taught to respect their own insignif­i­cance in a wilder­ness of native trees, plants and small ani­mals busy with their own impor­tant lives. There is a kind of spare purity about it. In Henan Province, China, noth­ing is like that. Our acci­den­tal path between the brick walls was a neglected human place, a sec­ondary growth of plants strug­gled to sur­vive on human suf­fer­ance, and odd bits of super­mar­ket trash were like care­less surveyor’s pegs claim­ing the earth in per­pe­tu­ity for the mas­ter race. It was scarcely a sur­prise then when the path, as well as the brick walls ended in a sud­den embank­ment, with a four metre drop to a body of water that had obvi­ously also been man-made at some time by damming up a stream. Now it lay turgid in the mid-morn­ing sun­shine, choked with green algae and dying water lilies. Per­haps no more than 75 meters across at the widest points, it wound around the sunken course of the old stream for half a kilo­me­tre or more.

Duti­fully I pulled out my cam­era. You haven’t been any­where in East Asia until posed against a back­drop of what­ever ‘famous place’ you are vis­it­ing. Dragon Lake was clearly famous, at least in the lex­i­con of the bread seller. Tough luck though. In our rush to depart I’d for­got­ten to check the bat­ter­ies. Your phone cam­era? she sug­gested. My phone is prob­a­bly the only mobile in China that doesn’t have a cam­era. So that was it, we would be stuck with mere mem­ory and imag­i­na­tion.

Still giv­ing all the signs of hav­ing a des­ti­na­tion, her pert back­pack bobbed ahead of me as we tracked in sev­eral direc­tions around the muddy shore­line. On one arm of the water­way a fig­ure crouched with a fish­ing pole, ever hope­ful, while his wife fussed with bait. They ignored us, the sure mark of city types bred behind iron bolted apart­ment doors. We crossed an earthen weir to the other side and climbed the embank­ment. Now we were in proper farm­land, rows of sweet potato plants, some crops I didn’t rec­og­nize, but still no farm­ers. She was try­ing to find a way down to the far shore, per­haps just because it was the far shore. Instead, the farmer’s path led to a short rise and a lit­tle gate­way. We were faced with a small and sim­ple brick build­ing, plas­tered and painted white, with a dec­o­ra­tive roof that clearly announced it as a tem­ple. The door was pad­locked, and look­ing through the barred but glass­less win­dow we could see a hand-painted Bud­dha a cou­ple of meters tall, and a clut­ter of smaller bod­hisattvas in the back­ground. An offer­ing had been placed at the feet of the Bud­dha. It was, now guess, sev­eral pack­ets of super­mar­ket bis­cuits.

The small tem­ple allot­ment was pegged off with sev­eral flags of plain blue, yel­low and green. I have come to assoc­iate flags of this kind with China Rail, but some­how that link seemed unlikely. From this ele­vated spot on the Dragon Lake embank­ment we could clearly see what was hap­pen­ing above the shore­line we had come from. It was intrigu­ing. Fac­ing us across the water was a size­able gated hous­ing estate under con­struc­tion. These were not your usual drab Chi­nese con­crete block houses. Nor were they the cloud pierc­ing forests of get-rich-quick apart­ment tow­ers that infest Chi­nese cities nowa­days. No they were abstrac­tions of two storey British man­sions, com­plete with gables and chim­neys, all in taste­ful slate grey. Hey, what was going on here? Cer­tainly not a refuge for the pro­le­tariat. With pam­pered kids grow­ing up in places like this, you have to won­der what their attach­ment will be to the ragged crowds down by the rail­way sta­tion. In pub­lic spaces, this is already one of the most self­ish soci­eties on earth. The dilemma is not spe­cial to China. In var­i­ous dis­guises it wracks almost every soci­ety on earth, but given the scale of every­thing in China, the con­se­quences will be omi­nous.

My leader had run out of foot track, so we retraced to another field of sweet pota­toes, and even­tu­ally nav­i­gated down to the water’s edge below the tem­ple. From there it sat per­ilously atop a huge con­cave ero­sion of brown earth, knit­ted with a few tree roots, and would need divine inter­ven­tion to sur­vive the next del­uge. We crept past and con­tin­ued through a nar­row mar­gin of coarse grass to cir­cum­nav­i­gate the lake. At last this brought us to a rusty bridge across an arm of the water. Not a bridge for humans, but a kind of rick­ety truss struc­ture of old welded water pipes which may once have sup­ported a water or gas main. It spanned per­haps 50 metres. Made­moi­selle took this as a chal­lenge, the type that is end­lessly played on Chi­nese and South Korean TV where con­tes­tants reg­u­larly fall into big plas­tic tubs of water while hero­ically bal­anc­ing on balls, poles or bits of rope to cross the Rubi­con.  Being a mere real­ist, I recalled what hap­pens with crys­tal­lized welds under sud­den stress, and asked dryly if she could swim. Of course not. Nobody in Henan can swim. Per­haps I was fail­ing some crit­i­cal test here, not rush­ing to demon­strate der­ring-do, but unchival­rously stood by as, bent dou­ble, she began to spi­der her way to mid-stream. She got about three metres, looked into the slimy depths, and thought bet­ter of it.

If we had been on a magic quest to some Shangri-la in the long grass on the other side of the lake, then clearly at this point the dream slipped out of reach. We retreated, step by step in the late morn­ing sun­shine, back across the earthen weir, up the embank­ment between the brick walls and sur­veil­lance cam­eras, down the dusty track to the nar­row corn field. This had been invaded by an enor­mous trac­tor drag­ging har­rows. The scent of freshly turned earth brought back old mem­o­ries of child­hood on a farm. At the end of the field squat­ted an ancient peas­ant in a blue tunic, hold­ing a sin­gle hoe. Like us, he was utterly redun­dant to the land­scape.

My idea of lunch is tea with a hand­ful of dried anchovies, some wal­nuts and almonds, maybe a piece of shao bing flat bread with honey. This is def­i­nitely not the Chi­nese style, so we had be in the busi­ness of look­ing for a restau­rant. I’ve never seen a street in a Chi­nese set­tle­ment that doesn’t have a string of eat­ing places, from mar­ble fronted palaces to dingy holes with pots of pre-cooked gunk. For a cul­ture with genet­i­cally implanted mem­o­ries of famine and an obses­sion with food, the mar­vel is that so much Chi­nese cook­ing is lousy. There has been the odd ban­quet dish that wasn’t bad, but most of it I hap­pily pass up. If the menu has to be Asian, I’ll go for Thai or Viet­namese every time. The fresh food selec­tion in Chi­nese mar­kets is great. The crime is in what passes for the cook­ing itself.

Any­way, down by the bus ter­mi­nus, an impres­sive brown masonry build­ing that may once have been civic offices had hung ban­ners from its win­dows to pro­claim an open­ing spe­cial smor­gas­bord. Y10 a head, the ban­ners said. We ven­tured inside to a cav­ernous din­ing area, the sole cus­tomers. Some­where in the ban­ter Y10 mor­phed into Y30, but that was still within rea­son for this kind of deal. The lady ordered what she called a sea-food hot­pot. I think of a hot-pot as a kind of long cook­ing stew in a ceramic pot. This was a large tin dish of boil­ing water, divided into two, with a flame beneath it. The idea was to chuck in bits of hacked river fish, mush­rooms, car­rots, green leafy stuff, and lit­tle balls of fake crab stick until you thought they had turned into some­thing edi­ble. Chi­nese just don’t eat sal­ads. Every­thing green and crisp must be turned into a limp blob of scalded plant food. I reg­u­larly out­rage ban­quet patrons by munch­ing the car­rots and green­ery neat. And so it was today, with a pass­ing prayer that the offer­ing hadn’t been washed in drain water.

In the dimin­ish­ing dis­tance, at the end of the din­ing hall, a small group of fu wu yuan, wait­ers, hung about a TV set. We had missed all the glory of the big tanks and march­ing girls. The screen was full of vapour trails in a cloud­less blue sky, as the People’s Lib­er­a­tion Air Force did their thing. Some­times my skep­ti­cism is toxic, just bad atti­tude. No piety at all. Unwisely I won­dered aloud if the TV cam­eras had blue sky fil­ters clapped over their lenses. After all, for days before, a noi­some mantle of smog had hung over Bei­jing. And, well, they had painted the grass green to con vis­it­ing Olympic selec­tion offi­cials. Not only can you always fool a for­eigner, you can usu­ally fool a Chi­nese, espe­cially if she is not allowed to actu­ally see what is hap­pen­ing on the ground.

In high dud­geon my din­ing com­pan­ion clicked off a text query to her friend in Bei­jing. Why do you always say bad things about China? she demanded.  My doubts are less with China than with that ubiq­ui­tous crea­ture called the politi­cian, but that was too hard to explain. No reply came to the SMS until late the fol­low­ing night, a tri­umphant vin­di­ca­tion that Heaven had indeed blessed the parade with per­fect weather. By then I also knew, alas, that the PLA had fired 400 seeded rock­ets into an oncom­ing cloud bank. At least the sci­ence worked.

Prop­erly fed at last, we set out to find what Xin Zheng was really made of. It seemed to be almost eerily deserted by Chi­nese stan­dards. Our lunch had been across the road from an impres­sive look­ing cam­pus, appar­ently Sheng Da Col­lege. Hmm, I’d heard of this place shortly after arriv­ing in Zhengzhou. It had acquired a kind of infamy in cer­tain cor­ners of the Inter­net, although my own stu­dents at least feigned igno­rance of what had hap­pened. The Sheng Da stu­dents had appar­ently been promised degrees indi­cat­ing an affil­i­a­tion with Zhengzhou Uni­ver­sity. When the diploma doc­u­ments finally appeared they showed no such lin­eage and the stu­dents, in fury, broke up col­lege prop­erty and van­dal­ized sur­round­ing shops. Well, that was the story. Any evi­dence had long since van­ished.

We wan­dered along a main street of non­de­script shops. A wannabe Le Man’s dri­ver raced his cab­less, three wheeled farmer’s truck past in a cloud of dust, his head thrown back in sheer delight. But roar­ing crowds there were none. After per­haps half a kilo­me­ter, the road led to an inter­sec­tion with the high­way. A few deserted fac­tory build­ings petered out into fields. This was a city, even a satel­lite city? We looked around dubi­ously. Ker­nels of corn, grey with dust, were dry­ing in the sun on a wide swath of con­crete in front of a name­less build­ing by high­way. After a cou­ple of min­utes we noticed a bent fig­ure patiently pick­ing more ker­nels off a lit­tle pile of cobs. He was tooth­less, shrunken, and as dusty as his sur­round­ings. There was just no one else to ask. Not for the first time I began to won­der if I had stum­bled into a dream at the end of time. My guide squat­ted down with the cob-picker and inter­ro­gated his men­tal data­base. After a few min­utes of patient inquiry she came back to me, a lit­tle deflated. Uh, this is actu­ally not Xin Zheng, she con­fided. Wherever we were, it was prob­a­bly time to go home.

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