Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Past and present

Walking through Xi'an brings me out in a mild gloom. Twenty years ago it looked like this. Dismal with dusty grey buildings. I think the street trees may be new.

I console myself. The trunks - competing with China's national telephone network, the four lane highway and the thick soupy smog - are still upright. Maybe the way they are cantilevered into place is helping.

But then there's that same absence of colour in the cityscape. (Except for red.)

This has barely changed in twenty years. I put it down to the lack of advertising in China to jolly up the barren concrete, which is another numbingly depressing thought. That the inhabitants of a city can fill their eyes with multicolour only if there are competing commercial interests blasting out advertisements to better procure the yuan in their pockets. That's started, anyway, and maybe the Chinese authorities will invite some more.

So I look to the people instead, and how they're dressed. I recall more worker uniform blue and grey about the streets, whereas now it's utilitarian black, brown and grey padded jackets and trainers. I wonder if it's yet an unthinkable, inexplicable act to dress wildly, flamboyantly. I see one Asian teenage head, bobbing away from us down the escalator, bleached spiky blonde, but he is the exception. Maybe with him, the elders of the Xi'an City Collective imagine they are wrestling with the social problem of urban discontent.

In looking for the Museum of Steles which we found twenty years ago (but this time lost), we stumble across what looks like a craft or an artisan street. Highly organised with regimented stalls it reminds me of Camden after the clean up. Except for the noodle stall, which is a fantastic reminder that street life can be inviting and lethal all at once.

It's not all doom and gloom though. This time it's Chinese New Year, so the inhabitants are blowing the place up, without any ceremony at all. Nothing like, Excuse me, I'm about to create a sound which will make you think you're under artillery fire. None of that. Someone strolls up to a shop front, sets fire to a magazine of 50 firecrackers, then walks away. The pedestrians barely register the smoke. Eventually, their lack of remark transfers itself to me. After a couple of hours of smoke, silver flares and crack-crack-crack, I mostly tune it out and walk on by.

I thought firecrackers had been banned on account of the cost to life and limb, and the way that these rogue incendiary devices have a habit of burning down new hotels and thousand year old temples. Maybe I'm confused, and they were banned once but not now, or banned elsewhere and not here. Anyway, they're sold openly on the streets: I watch one elderly woman teach a toddler how to throw them to the ground for best effect.

But here's a relief. The grocery shops are not as I recall. Twenty years ago I couldn't find any, and ate mostly a pack of peanuts with my own body fat. How different from today! The convenience shops seem to be filled not with live animals, dessicated fish and tree bark, but with soap, alcohol and dried salt biscuits, so that's a relief. To me, anyway.

We find a Vanguard Supermarket, and I wander around there with my eyes popping out, lost in wonder, resolving that I'm living here until my visa expires, so I can learn enough language to shop confidently, play with all the foods, and cook Chinese vegetarian.

I suppose I should add in my educational notebook blog thingy that it wasn't all wandering about the streets in observation and reminiscence. We visited the Shaanxi History Museum and I lectured the little Grits on changes in China over twenty years and six thousand. We revisit what we learned about the Silk Road, because Xi'an is at the beginning of it. Or the end, depending which way you start.

I feel a little sad, because twenty years ago I would have worked out the postal system and posted a letter home to Suffolk where I could let my mother know where I was, and that I wasn't dead yet. She's dead now, so there's no-one to write home to.

But on reflection I think she thought it hilarious that at the age of 30 I declared I might like to stop going to work and go to China instead where I had a mind to bicycle. So I did that, yes I did.

Maybe in twenty years time my daughter might come to Xi'an and write to me back home in Suffolk. I'll open her letter in my papery hands and hear it say, 'Mother, you'll never guess where we are. It looks just the same, all dusty and grey without any colours. But tomorrow we're heading south. We're going to find some bikes and see some mountains.'

1 comment:

MadameSmokinGun said...

That was beautiful.... (feel like I ought to add 'man'... but I won't).