From the perspective of one month zipping around the People’s Republic of China, here’s my take on this vast, mysterious, chaotic and wonderful country: all of China is on the move, and it does nothing slowly and nothing on a small scale.
China is perpetual motion. Cars, buses, trains, people, motorbikes, bicycles, animals…everything and everyone moves at fast pace, forward and in directed pursuit. Heads down, pressing ahead and onward, furiously sucking at cigarettes and loudly spitting onto the streets, floors and subway stations, the Chinese are clearly on a mission. And woe to the forces that stand between them and their objectives. Like a small-framed, stationary woman negotiating a Shanghai metro, any and all impediments are certain to be bowled over by the Chinese’s inexorable march.
The scale of it all is humbling. China’s urban centers are showcases of contemporary architecture, progress and incalculable commitment of financial and human resources. Buildings, highways, apartment complexes, agricultural fields – they all spring from the earth in a manic yet well-organized proliferation of development unlike anywhere else on earth.
In Shanghai, the intersection of major highway overpasses crates a 3D maze worthy of MC Escher’s best, providing access to the city for the 24 million people buzzing about in a constant beehive of activity. The fast, inexpensive and easily navigable subway systems in Shanghai and Beijing are best of class. I shudder to think of an 18-year-old student from Chengdu scratching his head at the Government Center MBTA station in Boston. This is the hub of American technology? This is the best the US can do?
A ride from downtown Shanghai to one of two airports on the Magnetic Levitation train is a step into the future. It takes seven minutes to cover 30 kilometers. Mass rail transportation is even better, as the spacious seats on the Shanghai to Beijing bullet train provide a gentle ride that spins past the Chinese countryside at a dizzying pace.
All along the 303-kmh bullet train route are examples of the demands placed upon this country by its 1.3 billion inhabitants.
Most impressive are the immense housing complexes – vast concrete warehouses which, owing to their impressive vertical orientations, are capable of storing tens of thousands of people in a few square acres.
Vast, too, are the agricultural fields that stretch from rail to horizon in incongruous harmony with the rest of China’s busy, whirlwind life. At one point along the journey, 20-30 apartment buildings, each 40 stories or more, were under construction a few hundred yards from the edge of a nuclear power facility with four enormous cooling towers. Always a skeptic of nuclear power, I shudder thinking of the agony that would be discharged if a Chernobyl-level “mishap” were to occur in these parts. As we continue, the landscape shifts into a series of hot houses that stretch into the distance – ostensibly providing the start of another growing season to feed China’s hungry masses.
China does nothing on small scale. But what struck me most – other than the sheer enormity of the growth and development, most of which has occurred in the past 25 years or so – is the artistic flair and aesthetic quality of it all.
Bushes planted between the rails entering train stations. Public sculpture, mosaics and elaborately tiled floors are the norm. We listened to a free symphony program in the Nanjing Pedestrian Walkway and to a cellist perform in the Peoples Park Metro station.
Then there’s the quirky side of Chinese culture. If hawking and spitting were ever to become Olympic events, the Chinese would dominate the competition without having to train. Men and women young and old mewl and spew along the streets, in the subway stations, and even indoors. We increased our pace of eating at a Shanghai restaurant owing to a guy with three teeth at the table next to us who alternated between quaffing Tsingtao beer and spitting on the floor.
They shovel food down their gullets as if the bus were leaving the station and there were only 30 seats for 40 ticket holders. After we blasted through a 30 minute seating-through eating experience at a Shanghai restaurant, the hostess stopped by and commented, “You eat so slow!”
Pushing is as acceptable as waiting in line is unheard of. It’s either push back or roll with the tidal flow of humanity that tends to carry a westerner along for the ride. Purely for the sake of experimentation, I resisted a stream of fellow travelers while entering a subway in Shanghai and was quickly overcome by the masses’ greater interest in climbing aboard. I now know how Gulliver felt.
China is everything and a lot of it all: Stunningly beautiful, horrifyingly ugly; unpopulated and raw, crawling with humanity and stressed by overdevelopment. We saw crystal clear blue skies and dense smog that made it hard to see across a city street.
Among it all – amid the frantic pace of development sparked by a cultural and economic revolution of unprecedented enormity – the wonderful, kind, generous and genuinely friendly Chinese spirit somehow retains a certain gentleness that embraces a pair of intrepid western visitors.
And that is what I will take with me when I leave in a few days.
Along with some really cool memories of a couple of incredibly fast train rides.