According to Lonely Planet China, the Han Chinese especially love their children. Me, I’m not so hot on them. At least not while one of them is kicking the back of my chair while his mother looks on adoringly and his grandmother pats his head.
At this very moment I am on a train from Hangzhou (pop: 6.16 million) to Xiamen (pop: 671,000) on China’s east coast. The boy’s family is passing plastic bags full of thick noodles or thin tripe right by my head to his grandparents in the seat behind. A man in front plays and replays a video on his phone, with the volume up full and an old man is battling to dislodge a something from his throat which, by the sounds of it, must have the dimensions of a billiard ball. Nearly two hours in and I’m not sure who will win but I’d say the smart money is on the billiard ball.
The boy who was kicking my chair has now come to squirm all over his meat dispensing family sitting over the aisle. This kid probably has no idea that he is one of the most recent progenies of the most numerically successful people on the face of the Earth — the Han Chinese. It’s a cliché, but it’s impossible not to equate what’s going on in here with what’s going on out there. China’s population of 1.34 billion has increased in the last decade by the size of Brazil. Watching how the people cope and deal with this ever-present fact is one of the most fascinating parts of travelling through it.
Take yesterday for example: Marty and I were buying a train ticket from the city of Ningbo (pop: 7.6 million) to Hangzhou. It was midday on a Friday and the darkened ticket hall was jam packed with a university crowd. All but half a dozen of the twenty-four ticket windows were open and the lines ran almost to the back. One of the closed ticket windows opened right next to me and the two adjacent queues split and coalesced, turning into three even ones. There were no gasps or yells at this new opportunity, just the silence of water filling an open space and reaching equilibrium. Here were a large bunch of people clearly well versed in being around a large bunch of people.
Of course it’s not just isolated to buying train tickets. Nearly everything in China is conducted amongst seething, surging multitudes. Consider driving for instance: I would challenge anyone to find a city with more chaotic roads than Shanghai (pop: 12.9 million). Almost every conceivable vehicle will clamour for any gap, no matter how small or on which side of the read. We’ve dubbed electrical scooters “silent killers” on account of their silence and the fact they freely mount the footpath. Lanes, lights and directions are rules, all frequently violated, sometimes simultaneously. Yet there is some kind of logic there, hidden to my Western eyes. Take the horns for instance. I am accustomed to using the horn for one use and one use only, the transmission of a message signalling extreme frustration and anger to another driver. Perhaps I occasionally do the double tap too, for a “hello” or “goodbye”. Travelling in a bus the other day, Marty and I registered no fewer than a dozen different messages ranging from “excuse me, please let me past” to “look out — I’m right behind you”.
The display in the train now reads 196 km/h. Freeway overpasses swing by overhead, their pylons pinning down fields all the way to the horizon. Huge identical blocks of units built in a hodgepodge of Tudor and Victorian styles repeat for miles and miles, joining one city to another. The vast majority of them are empty. How many people could they hold? Two hundred thousand all up, maybe? Talking to a local at the hostel last night, Marty had heard they had all been sold to investors, people were just holding onto them, empty. It’s possible the parents next to me had already bought a place for their squirming kid.
A large population needs a large infrastructure and as such the engineering feats are awe inspiring. A few days ago we crossed a suspension bridge that looked just like the Golden Gate Bridge, with orange towers, but in the middle of nowhere, as if it was no big deal. But all this development and population does not come for free. We visited the Island of Zhoushan (pop: nearly one million) and the last ten kilometres before we crossed the bridge from the mainland we passed a series industrial leviathans, all cranking out smoke. When we finally got to the bridge the sea and sky never met, they were lost in the smog.
It’s not all smog and traffic, though. There’s the kid and the parents, behind me, the grandparents, and so on. Chinese civilisation is the oldest one still on Earth. From Zhoushan, once we actually reached the island of Putuoshan, a small and verdant dot on the map, I realised that antiquities could provide peace and quiet, even in the face of the swarming multitudes. With three Buddhist temples, beaches and tropical forest, it dissolved the city grit underneath my fingernails. Better yet was Huangshan, a 1,500 meter vertical ascent almost entirely up stairs. The hard-as-nails mountain workers do it with a crate of water hanging from either end of bamboo poles. When we approached the top the mist slowly cleared.
Now, I’m not really one to embrace transcendent experiences, I prefer to keep my feet on the ground. But witnessing the sandy rockface, occasionally encrusted with tiny pines, clutching on to any crevice, plunging up through the clouds, and me atop of it, was something powerful that I’d repeat. Once the feeling returned to my legs anyway.
We’re running two hours late on account of trackwork but we’re rocketing past towns and rice fields, bamboo forests and grey communist worker blocks. The kid still won’t sleep but at least, he’s slowed down a bit. He’s restless and so am I.
Originally written for Crikey on May 29 2012, link is here