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A Tibetan on tour, like a bull in a China shop

Quick disclaimer: This is not a definitive China travelogue. For that you have the Lonely Planet guide and the hundreds of online travel gurus.

Written by Dawa Lhamu |
August 14, 2015 1:30:05 pm

A Tibetan – albeit a third-generation Indian – on a trip to China, sponsored by the China National Tourist Office, is like, to use a cliché, a bull in a China shop. Or even worse. The name itself is a dead giveaway, as everyone else tiptoes around you, not once mentioning the T-word, perhaps afraid that the bull may see red.

The reactions at home, from aging parents, are along expected lines. “China? Why China?” Why not? Regardless of the nagging feeling that your grandparents would turn in their graves, if Tibetans buried their dead instead of cremating them. Then there is the mother’s guilt of leaving behind an 11-year-old, for the first time, in the middle of her school term.

With all this emotional baggage, which almost out-weighs the “under 30-kg suitcase”, it is with mixed feelings that I land in Beijing. Ignoring a strong pull to travel a few thousand kilometres west, to Kham, the land of my ancestors, I settle to move in the opposite direction, eastwards to Tianjin.

And so begins a week-long “familiarisation” tour of two cities – Tianjin, the commercial hub, and Nanjing, the ancient capital.

Tianjin

China may be known as the factory of the world, but it seems more like the showroom.

Tianjin Eye Tianjin Eye

And so, although Tianjin ranks among the top five cities in China in terms of population, there are no visible signs — no long queues, no overcrowded buses, no jostling for space anywhere you go. The excess numbers seem to be safely hidden from public view. Of course, it helps that they have strict laws to ensure they stay hidden, like the practice of allotting specific days of the week for private vehicles, depending on their registration numbers.

And for what cannot be hidden, there are suitable distractions. So the lack of greenery in the port city – the price of rapid development – is almost camouflaged by the beautiful flowers lining the streets and market squares. It is only upon closer inspection that the flowers reveal their plastic origin.

Five Avenue Street, Tianjin Five Avenue Street, Tianjin

Also on display are the usual “capitalist” signs — modern skyscrapers that house luxury hotels, high-fashion streets that boast of labels like Louis Vuitton, Armani, Bvlgari, and restaurants with opulent private dining rooms. There is even a Five Avenue Street, presumably named after Saks 5th Avenue, and a Tianjin Eye, modelled on the London Eye.

There is something for everyone. For the shopaholics, besides the international brands, there is the Old Culture Street which stores “Made in China” rip-offs of labels like Gucci, Fendi and Versace.

Shoes for more offspring at the shoe museum, Tianjin Shoes for more offspring at the shoe museum, Tianjin

For the art and culture aficionado, there is what used to be the foreign concessions area, with its European style architecture dating back to the colonial period, and the Yangliuqing Woodblock Prints Museum. Ironically, for a country which is famous for its one-child rule, the preoccupation with procreation is showcased with pride, as is the preference for – this will sound familiar –a male child. A common picture
on woodblock prints, in souvenir shops, mugs, wall hangings etc, is of a boy with a carp, the latter a symbol for an “abundance of children”. There are even “shoes for reproduction” displayed at the shoe museum in Tianjin.

Learning wushu, Tianjin Learning wushu, Tianjin

Our guide, Sophie – that’s the name given to her by her English teacher, a common practice we’re told – sets the record straight. She was an only child for 13 years, after which her parents were allowed to have another child since they didn’t have a male heir. She and her fiance, however, will only be allowed one child as they both have siblings. A complex formula for determining the size of each family.

Paradoxically, the women workforce is all too visible – as taxi drivers, bus drivers, bartenders, even wushu teachers. Sophie tells us the city is safe for women, after dark too. Her exact words are, “There are so many CCTVs everywhere, who would be stupid enough to try anything.”

China Squid lollipops, Tianjin

Moving from the reproductive to the gastronomic, the place is a paradise for the adventurous foodie. There are endless options, none of which include the chow mein, fried rice and chilly chicken that are a staple of the Chinese menu here. Instead, there is duck blood soup (not for the faint hearted), different varieties of tofu, purple rice pudding, squid lollipops, sea weeds etc. The almost bland, non-oily food is a detoxifying experience for tastebuds used to strong Indian spices. Of course, if you get tired of the local flavour, there are the ubiquitous McDonalds and Pizza Hut outlets.

Tea House, Tianjin Tea House, Tianjin

A visit to China cannot be complete without a tea ceremony. In a corner of Tianjin, where we finally see some Chinese-style architecture, is an ancient tea house which has hosted the likes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Our elegant hostess performs the elaborate ceremony, before listing the prices of the tea varieties. Let’s just say some varieties seemed worth more than gold – and I come from Darjeeling, which is known for its
expensive tea.

Binhai Aircraft Carrier Theme Park, Tianjin Binhai Aircraft Carrier Theme Park, Tianjin

For those travelling with children, there is a Singapore-style ocean park, complete with a dolphin show, and an artificial beach with sand from South China. If India has the INS Vikrant museum, the Chinese have the Binhai Aircraft Carrier Theme Park where a Soviet-era aircraft carrier is the centrepiece. Sadly, the display boards in the museum area are only in Mandarin. As are the road signs across the multi-lane, multi-level flyovers in the city with which gets two million foreign tourists annually.

Nanjing

A two-hour flight from Beijing, Nanjing used to be the ancient capital of China. It is more scenic than Tianjin, with a lot more greenery. It has a lot more history too – not the least being the 1937 Nanjing massacre by Japanese soldiers. There is a memorial hall dedicated to the victims, but our hosts don’t take us there. It is not something they want us to write about. “We have good relations with the Japanese now,” they explain.

Sun yat-Sen Mausoleum, Nanjing Sun yat-Sen Mausoleum, Nanjing

There is a distinctive old-world feel to the city, accentuated by its many museums and palaces. This despite the modern façade with luxury vehicles on the roads, busy business centres, men and women outfitted in snazzy western wear. The Mao collar is nowhere to be seen. “Even my parents don’t wear it. My grandparents probably did,” says our guide, Anna.

Surprisingly, Mao’s Little Red Book seems to be equally difficult to find. A search of the few foreign publications (read English) shops is fruitless, although you do find all popular books and authors, from the Twilight series to Harry Potter, John Grisham etc, in Mandarin. The Hunger Games seems to be a particular favourite, both at book stores and in movie halls (dubbed in Mandarin).

Women dance in the neighbourhood park, Nanjing Women dance in the neighbourhood park, Nanjing

For the senior citizens, there are different kinds of games, as a morning walk in the neighbourhood park reveals. A group of elderly women, in matching red-and-black outfits, dance to the beat of some Chinese songs on a pendrive. Another group of retirees gather around a microphone, singing songs about their motherland. And here the communist roots are evident. A bus driver, factory worker, professor, top government official are all a part of the park choir.

Then there is the usual bunch of morning joggers and walkers, and the not-so-usual band of old men flying kites and doing wushu. “It keeps them occupied and medically fit, and checks the state’s cost on healthcare,” offers our guide. Talking of parks, it is not unusual to see birds in cages hanging from the branches of trees. The purpose? To ensure that visitors are greeted with their chirping and twittering.

Stone animals guard the Ming tomb, Nanjing Stone animals guard the Ming tomb, Nanjing

From the modern to the ancient. The Xiaoling Mausoleum, tomb of the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty, Zhu Yuanzhang, is a must-visit, despite the somewhat anti-climactic end after the build-up through winding paths guarded by mythological animals in stone. At the end of the trek, the guide points to a hill in the distance, saying the tomb hasn’t been uncovered ever.

The Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum is not so disappointing. The steep steps and many gates lead to an altar hall, which houses a marble statue of the first president of the Republic of China. The Confucius Temple, on the banks of the Qinhuai River, houses a museum dedicated to the philosopher. It is a place for prayer as well. Our guide, Anna, does not believe in religion. “Religion does not give us anything. We believe in the government which provides for us,” she says. She is among the many who light an incense stick outside the temple.

Anna, however, candidly admits that she does not agree with the government on many issues. The mother of a six-year-old, she wants another child, but accepts that it is not possible.

Women dance in the neighbourhood park, Nanjing Women dance in the neighbourhood park, Nanjing

The Confucius Temple is a huge tourist draw, surrounded by colourful shops which offer everything – from tourist souvenirs to rich brocades and silks, electronic items and local candy. The night ride on the river, in pagoda-style boats, with old houses on one bank and modern buildings on the other, adds to the charm.

For those interested in a different kind of nightlife, there is the 1912 Bar Street, home to, as the name suggests, a range of watering holes, with live music, dance floors or whatever else suits the mood.

Escalator to a viewpoint, Nanjing Escalator to a viewpoint, Nanjing

As we raise a toast to the trip, there is a grudging respect for the Chinese – their fierce nationalism and can-do spirit, even if it means constructing an escalator up a hill to ensure a bird’s eye view of the
city.

Postscript: I finally found Mao’s Little Red Book at the most unlikely place, the duty-free in Beijing, just minutes before boarding the flight home.

The writer was in China on the invitation of the China National Tourist Office.

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