China: Waking giant boggles the mind

By John Gardner

As China gears up to be a top tourist destination, John Gardner samples its dazzling sights and size.

An elderly man sharpens knives on the roadside in Old Shanghai. Photo / Kenny Rodger
An elderly man sharpens knives on the roadside in Old Shanghai. Photo / Kenny Rodger

The numbers alone unhinge your comprehension. China yields an extravagance of statistics, each one harder to get your head around than the one before, particularly if you come from a tiny nation, and the guides on our tour spouted figures with relentless enthusiasm.

One that was trotted out with some regularity was that China is due to become the world's top tourist destination before 2020 and it's not hard to see why.

It has amazing sights of natural beauty and of a heritage drawn from one of the most ancient civilisations on earth. But for many visitors the real lure is to see this giant of a nation emerging into the light, opening its doors but still mysterious.

We all know it is likely to dominate our futures but we don't know how it works and the world is starting to queue up for a chance to see it.

Even the briefest of visits can be dizzying. We had a mere 12 nights there but still left with a huge haul of impressions, opinions, questions and a wish to see more.

The cities are extraordinary, witnesses to a juggernaut economy. Many of us had hardly ever heard of Chongqing where our Yangtze cruise ended but this boom town metropolis has a population of more than 32 million.

While not wanting to get sucked into the numbers game so beloved by our guides, this can be thought of as the population of Australia and New Zealand put together, plus two more New Zealands. And about half a million more people are forecast to turn up there each year from rural areas seeking work.

It's less than lovely, shrouded in fog, natural and man-made pollution, for much of the year, but its extraordinary growth certainly gives pause for thought.

In Wuhan, another city which doesn't come to the forefront of the average Westerner's mind, there are half a million university students.

All over the country there is evidence of the unleashed energy of the Chinese genius for finding business opportunities.

The headrests on one of our internal flights extolled the glories of a particular blast furnace gas boiler. When I bought some aspirin at the airport in Xi'an the assistant did a strong sell on Viagra as well and I didn't know whether to laugh or be insulted until she tried the same pitch on a much younger traveller.

We all know about the business worlds of Shanghai and Beijing and they proved as dynamic as their reputations.

In Shanghai we stayed in Pudong which less than 20 years ago was farm and marshy wasteland used only by the Chinese Army.

Now it is one of the busiest construction sites on earth with new and ever more ambitious buildings going up everywhere.

The drive along the boulevard passing Tiananmen Square in Beijing is a procession past thunderous expressions of architectural grandeur, of which the Olympic sites such as the ingenious Bird's Nest stadium, are just tips of the iceberg.

Almost every airport we went to including Xian, the pleasant old city that is home to the terracotta warriors, had new terminals, with Beijing's freshly opened Terminal 3 being on an eye wateringly vast scale. It has enough floor space to accommodate all five of Heathrow's terminals.

In Shanghai, the breakfast room in the Shangri-La Hotel called for GPS navigation to get around the acreage of different foods on offer.

Near our Beijing hotel, the Westin on the aptly named Financial St, was a mall full of designer shops with prices way too steep for us but full of chic Chinese with beautifully dressed children, beneficiaries of the concentrated devotion produced by the one-child policy.

This explosion of development is accompanied by unmistakable national pride. The museums are lavishly funded, magnificently housed, the exhibits well displayed and, like the tourist sites, packed with Chinese celebrating their nation's cultural glories with a sense that China is once more taking its rightful place as one of the greatest countries on earth.

But the past has taught the Chinese not to take the future for granted and there is no denial of the reality that not everything in the garden is coming up roses.

The boom has brought with it the curses of industrialisation. The city traffic is horrendous and although they say the pollution is getting better, the coal barges still chug up and down the Yangtze in their thousands and the air makes breathing a chore.

Away from the cities there are the unmistakable hallmarks of Third World poverty and even in the cities within yards of the flash hotels are the barracks for the construction workers in from the country, and the tiny shopfront workshops familiar from all over Asia.

In boom town Chongqing, while lavish Western-style weddings fill the restaurants, thousands still earn a living as stick men, porters carting loads through the hilly city on bamboo poles across their shoulders.

In one weird echo of Ponsonby, people everywhere we went talked about property prices, even in the rural areas where people faced finding new homes after being resettled by the Three Gorges dam project.

The strange world of the free - but not entirely free - market where the state still owns the land and used to house all the people has produced a hard climate. What happens to property rights when leases run out is starting to exercise the mind about where semi-socialism is heading.

For many men, house buying may be the least of their problems. The one-child policy and illegal terminations of girl babies has produced a demographic imbalance and even young, employed men tended to laugh ruefully and shake their heads when we asked if they had girlfriends. These were smart people and they know that political crunches are coming.

Back in Beijing the red flags in Tiananmen Square fluttered in preparation for May Day. The portrait of Chairman Mao stared across the square at a portrait of Sun Yat Sen, now referred to as the father of modern China.

Freed of the drab Mao uniforms, smart young things clutched their iPods. But we had been quietly advised only to take pictures of soldiers in certain spots and could we please not go on too loudly about that regrettable day in June 1989.

China is heading somewhere even if the Chinese are not quite sure where. But they know it will be exciting and getting a taste of that excitement made for a unique trip.

- NZ Herald

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