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.