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China – Friend or Foe?

A man cleared his throat loudly, producing sounds not too dissimilar to a radio struggling to find a station through thick static. From over my shoulder I heard another. This time a woman. She audibly cleared what seemed to be half a litre of mucus from her gullet and proceeded to spit the rewards of her laboured efforts down to the floor beside my feet. I’d well and truly arrived in China.

Ever since childhood, I’ve always viewed China as a distant land of mysteries. In my younger days, the thought of warring emperors and their dynastic kingdoms rising and falling captured my imagination. Dreams of myths and legends captivated me; dragons and gods a plenty.

As the years passed, the depictions in my head of the most populous country on earth and its oriental charm altered somewhat. Daily news reports of world affairs soon ground down the romanticised image of China I had come to hold dear and replaced it with one of a country still holding on to its communist ideology – a forbidden land – one that appeared cold, hidden behind a brutal police state with a questionable human rights record. A country where socialism was king, yet bribery and corruption reigned supreme. One that had seemingly allowed modern day post-Cold War politics to shut its doors to the typical traveller and most of the world.

Arriving in China, I hoped to see for myself which was the more realistic portrayal of this vast land. Would it be friend or foe?

I have to admit, passing through immigration at Shanghai airport was one of the few times I actually found myself to be nervous since I left the UK. An unfriendly, soulless, grey building housed a maze of queues, lined by emotionless security staff, police and soldiers. My first impressions of China certainly seemed to align with the angle I’d been fed watching the news.

After queueing for over an hour, I’d been reminded in both Chinese and poorly translated English of the immigration procedures and what I had to show in order to enter the country. Threatening warnings such as “PRODUCING FALSE DOCUMENTS WILL BE PUNISHED UNDER THE FULL FORCE OF THE LAW” did little to reassure my nerves as I stepped up to the counter, despite having nothing to hide.

A cold stare met my gaze as I produced my papers. Forcing a smile and uttering one of the few phrases I’d been practicing, I stepped forward. “Nín hâo” I pleasantly greeted the immaculately uniformed woman as I handed her my passport, landing card and visa forms which I’d applied for 5 days prior during a visit to Hong Kong. My cheerful hello wasn’t returned, nor was my smile – just the continued stone-cold glare which was eventually broken as she glanced down to scan my documents, and so beginning the anxious wait for her system to confirm whether or not I would be allowed to proceed through the barrier and on into China.

After what felt like an eternity, a green light finally appeared. I was free to pass through. A wave of relief poured over me but I was still quietly reserved about what waited for me once I exited the airport doors.

The tour of China my friend and I were due to embark on would take us from Shanghai in the east to Harbin in the north, via a route reaching far into the south and centre of the country. A journey of around 5,000 miles in just under 4 weeks.

Our journey through this oriental giant would turn my misconceptions about the country on their head and leave me with a renewed sense of the childhood wonder I’d lost through growing up and facing the real world. I’d also leave with incredible memories, a handful of unforgettable adventures under my belt, a sense of pride at conquering my fear of heights and most importantly, some incredible friends for life!

As with everywhere I’ve travelled so far, I’ve taken great pleasure getting to know local people from various walks of life. In Lijiang, Yunnan Province, I met a group of people that singlehandedly changed my view of China forever.

Situated in the south of China, just 60 miles east of the border with Myanmar (Burma), Lijiang sits at an altitude of 2,400 metres (7,874 feet). It’s world-famous for its ancient town, as well as being within reaching distance of Tibet’s Shangri-La and the incredible sight of Tiger Leaping Gorge. Another aspect of Lijiang that it really should be famous for, is its utterly unbeatable hospitality.

Our accommodation was right in the heart of Lijiang’s Old Town – originally a traditional town of the Naxi people, it has now become more a commercial tourist attraction, with shops replacing the homes of its former inhabitants. Despite this, the charm of the town still remains, as do most of the original structures.

Note - It seems the indigenous Naxi people who once lived here didn’t lose out completely when the tourism industry took hold. I later learned that many of the town’s original inhabitants still own the properties here, they now just charge extortionate rents to retailers looking to cash in on the influx of tourists. It’s one way this communist country is embracing the idea of capitalism. Whether the financial gains of the Naxi people is compensation enough for their relocation and the commercialisation of their culture, remains to be seen.

Right from the very moment we arrived at Lijiang’s old town (at almost 2am following a delayed flight), we were greeted with a wide smile beaming across the face of Ran Ran; our first encounter with what would be a group of people who I’d like to think will remain friends for life.

Ran Ran worked at the Xilu Inn – a small, traditional inn found hiding down a quiet side alley in the south-western corner of the old town. Wearily we were led through the deserted cobbled streets, past quietly trickling canals and warm, glowing Chinese lanterns to the inn – an ornately decorated majestic gate beckoned us through. An eerie silence filled the air, broken only by the sound of a man’s soft snoring coming from one of the rooms off to the side of the moonlit courtyard.

“Come in, come in!” beckoned another man, whispering. It was Nan Jiang and he was the manager of this charming establishment. “You’re very welcome here!” he exclaimed, as he poured us freshly brewed green tea from a tiny teapot into even tinier porcelain cups. For the next hour we were talked through the intricacies of our miniature Chinese tea ceremony whilst simultaneously giving passport details and signing forms that are mandatory for foreign visitors when staying at accommodation in China. All the while, both Ran Ran and Nan Jiang’s smiles and friendly, welcoming demeanour never faltered.

The following morning, my friend and I woke to the sound of infectious laughter, albeit after an extremely long and well-needed lie in. We emerged from our room to find the two welcoming gentlemen from last night and their colleagues getting themselves acquainted with a litter of new-born puppies. Once again with beaming smiles, Ran Ran and Nan Jiang introduced us to their equally charming colleagues.

Over the week that followed, not only did we explore the beautiful streets and hidden gems of Lijiang, we also got to know these six fantastic individuals, who seemed to break the mould of my impressions of the Chinese people.

I recall one afternoon after returning from exploring the majestically beautiful Black Dragon Pool, my friend and I were sat in the sun trapped courtyard of the inn when Li Chang Feng, a rather eccentric chap with a love for all kinds of western music, came running over frantically; “we’d love for you to join us all for dinner!” he gestured to us. His kind welcome was once again combined with an enormous smile, beaming from ear to ear.

How could we refuse?

Meal times in China are a very social affair. We sat around a large table with all the staff of the Xilu Inn, as well as one or two other guests. Laid out before us was a vast display of colourful vegetables, hotpots, bowls of rice, potatoes, breads, fish, meats…certainly more than what we could all eat combined!

We were introduced by Li Chang Feng to Liu Guo Qiang – a fresh out of university graduate who is still assessing what he wants from life; my understanding was that he simply wants to be happy and that might mean going against his parents’ wishes, something that is not always done in China. Next was Liu Na – fluent in several languages, she dreams of owning an establishment like the Xilu Inn one day and has just secured a working visa for Australia which she plans to take later in the year. Finally, Shi Bo – the workhorse of the inn, he was always running around doing odd jobs but never without a smile on his face!

It turns out that despite very different cultures and upbringings, these people were exactly the same as anyone I’d ever met. They had dreams and aspirations, they rebelled against social norms and shared a longing to better themselves and be happy with life. As I tucked into my food I felt disappointed with myself for expecting the people of China to be any different.

The hotpots were utterly delicious with each one containing a broth of various different sauces and spices, and as we had no clue as to Chinese customs at the dinner table, we received our first tips on Chinese cooking and on how to use these giant cauldrons of tastebud-tantalising delights. It transpires that the countless bowls of veg, meats and other delights were all raw. The correct way to serve up a meal is to first place into the pot whatever food takes your fancy. Once it’s cooked (and considering the contents of each pot were bubbling over, it didn’t take very long), add it to your plate with a sizeable chunk of poultry or fish from the pot and enjoy!

And what did these people want in return for this gigantic banquet that they’d taken so long to prepare? Absolutely nothing. Just our time and an opportunity to talk, get to know one-another and share stories. We talked for hours about music, films, culture and even politics – something I’d somewhat naively expected our hosts to be muted about.

It is these memories that I’ll treasure from my time in China. Yes, a lot of the people we encountered could have a tendency to be rude. Many local people had a sense of arrogance about them – but can you blame them when they live in a country that has so many incredible wonders to share with the world? Nevertheless, it’s the kindness of this small group of friends who will forever epitomise China for me – a giant of a country with a problematic past but with an incredible, friendly beating heart right at its centre.

China is changing. It has well and truly embraced capitalism despite its current and ongoing communist rule (in fact, Beijing is home to the world’s most profitable Rolls Royce dealership!). The current political climate appears to have China ushering in closer ties with the west; something I’d never have imagined when I was growing up. Let’s hope that it’s people like the staff of Xilu Inn who will have a part to play in the years to come in this incredible country’s growth and development.

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