Beijing would be my first destination of unemployment since finishing my contract in Benxi. It's been a place I’ve been looking forward to visiting for weeks. Not because of the world famous tourist attractions in and around the city, but the chance of catching up with old friends.
There are several smells in life that invoke intense feelings of pleasure and fond memories. Freshly cut grass is one. Another is the aroma of a Sunday roast. As I was welcomed in to my friends’ apartment, there was no mistaking this smell, something I haven’t whiffed in years.
Before I could sample home-cooking at its finest, we conversed about our experiences of living and working in China. I might have had a successful time teaching English, but after spending most of my time practising various animals ad fruit with children, my ability to communicate and hold elaborate conversations in my native language has diminished at an alarming rate. As I strung sentences together, I sounded more like a mentally challenged youth living on a council estate, rather than an educated professional.
With plans to meet another friend later in the day, my hosts pushed the levels of generosity to a new high, offering me the use of their electric scooter to maximise the short time I had in China’s capital. I’ve never ridden a motorbike of any kind before, and with the suicidal driving on China’s roads, I doubted here would be a good place to start. Twenty seconds in to my maiden voyage, much to my wife’s relief, I decided taking the subway would be more suitable after almost driving in to a reversing car.
The time soon came around to leave Beijing via the two day train journey to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Losing its independence in 1953 when China spotted the opportunity to invade while the West’s efforts were concentrating on the Korean War, Tibet, along with Taiwan and Tiananmen, are very taboo topics that could land you in hot water if discussing your views with the wrong person. Along with the Great Wall and the Terracotta Army, Tibet had long been on my China wish list.
China loves to build things in a grand, imposing style, and nothing more reiterates this fact than Beijing West Train Station. As if plucked straight from a sci-movie set centuries in the future, its colossal size and grandeur is intimidating. As per usual with arriving in train station departure lounges, it was still another four hours before my train left. I’ve never been one for catching transport at the very last minute and I was happy to see a queue, at least fifty deep had already formed for my Lhasa train.
With Spring Festival coming earlier this year, some people had already started their migration home, carrying with them enough food to survive a nuclear winter. I will forever be amazed by China’s passion for pot noodles, a food source that is eaten at every hour of the day. Around me people had piled boxes so high, I wondered if they were playing ‘build your own fort’.
As I settled on to the train, my wife and I met our travel companions for the next two days. We would be sharing our six-berth sleeper cabin with a family of three and a Chinese Air Force pilot. While this ‘wannabe’ Maverick showed me impressive photos of his new profession, I was reminded of a news article I’d read recently. The main TV company in China, government owned CCTV, had used clips from the movie Top Gun in a news article depicting their own air force carrying out training manoeuvres. I viewed his photos with an air of suspicion. Apparently this isn’t the first time they have been caught using footage from movies for real-life news events. Personally I applaud laziness orientated ingenuity!
While I viewed the photos, the family sat opposite me set about using their time for a more pressing matter; re-piercing their daughter’s ears. While the father held her down, covering her mouth to muffle the wails of pain, her mother stuck a sowing needle through her daughter‘s ear lobes, wiping away the blood with a tissue she‘d just used to blow her nose. Once this arduous task was finished, the father took over sowing needle duty and used it to remove large clunks of marmalade-coloured ear wax, which he carelessly wiped on his trousers.
As a fledgling sun dawned on the second day, the monotonous polluted landscapes of urban China had been replaced with something far more appealing. As the Han (the largest ethnicity in China, making up 91.5% of the total population) influence diminished, mosques became an increasingly common site. Turning south as we reached the Tibetan plateau, a baron, foreboding view, four-thousand metres above sea level appeared. Grazing yaks and tiny settlements broke the monotony. Snow-capped mountains loomed in the distance.
By the time the train passed the highest point on the journey (over five thousand metres above sea level), and indeed, the highest point of any railroad in the world, I’d already been suckered punched with altitude sickness. More debilitating than a triple shot of absinthe, altitude sickness can be compared to having the worst hangover of your life. The slightest movement leaves you with blurred vision, a throbbing head and the need to reach the nearest toilet as quickly as possible. The extra oxygen pumped in to each carriage had little soothing effect. Little did I know that this feeling would last for the duration of my time in Tibet.
After an overdose of Ibuprofen, the affect of my altitude sickness became more bearable and I was able to disembark from the train in Lhasa without feeling the paralysing effects from earlier in the day. Soldiers armed with AK47’s patrolled the train station and its perimeter. They watched each passenger intently, barking sharp words if any tried to loiter. The Tibetan riots happened more than two years ago, and from observing the military presence, both at the train station and as I drove through the city, it could have easily happened the previous week. In Lhasa, China certainly wants local inhabitants to know who is in control. I certainly wasn’t expecting such a formidable welcome.
The Chinese influence in Lhasa is evident in every direction, not only from the visible military presence. New, superior buildings now surround the old part of the city. With the new railroad and improved infrastructure has come a level of wealth and prosperity never before known in the city. It’s hard to imagine that Tibet could have seen such growth without the help of China. Whether these heavy-handed, forced changes should come at a cost of suppression, loss of freedom and a diluted cultural identity is something everybody has an opinion on. I'll leave discussing mine for another time.