“When you’re in China, you’ll see a lot of poo. You’ll see poo everywhere. You will hear people say poo and you will see sooo much poo –and most of the poo will be here in Shanghai!”
I struggle to contain my smile at the enthusiastic first words we hear from our tour guide “Jessica” following her initial greeting. She quickly reveals her real name is Ting Ting which instantly reminds me of the Little Britain character “Ting Tong”. My smile widens; I’ve clearly not matured during this sabbatical.
After two flights and sixteen hours, we’ve arrived in Shanghai, the first city in our itinerary. Jessica, holding her “Wendy Wu” flag, meets all thirteen tour participants and swiftly shepherds us onto our bus.
We eye each other curiously, but there’s no time for introductions as she launches into a well-rehearsed lesson concerning the history of her country. I listen for a minute but tune out for the following hour, a pattern I’ll follow for the duration of the trip.
My anxieties about the Chinese toilets are foremost in my mind so my ears prick up at the mention of poo. I’ve heard the horror stories and I’m nervous. Thankfully it turns out I can squat like a monkey, though that doesn’t compensate for seeing and smelling things in cubicles that I hope time will erase (and no, these sights and smells were not of my doing).
Jessica was of course referring to Pu which means river. Huangpu is the river in Shanghai, and there’s Pudong, and Yangpu and Lu-Pu and Nanpu …. (“so much pu in China!”). Her intense excitement towards the Chinese language and its connection to locations is entirely serious – she clearly has no idea what poo/pu can mean in English and I think about letting her know but stay silent; the group don’t know me yet and I’ve plenty of time to get myself a reputation as the annoying one.
China’s toilets were not the only thing that toyed with my emotions. My ego was frequently flattered and swiftly insulted by the people. I was grabbed, literally, for photos of my “beautiful” eyes – despite them being permanently gritty and red from the incredible pollution. When it rained a layer of dust landed on my jacket and my nose was always blocked with dirt and blood; it was impossible to forget that I was in the world’s factory.
These compliments were balanced by every shopping trip; walking down bazaars, market sellers yelled out, “We have big size for you! Come, you look, we fit you!” Sigh.
Jessica tells us of the “demure and shy local Chinese girls” while next to her a group loudly and aggressively screech at each other about the best price for a dress. With an overwhelming population and a constant fight to make money, modern China isn’t a tactful or polite place. People shout and push through daily life. As with many places, the way to be enchanted by a country is to focus on its past; the history rather than the current reality.
China’s appeal is in the astonishing palaces built by the dynasties and the beautiful art created thousands of years ago. I was fleetingly thrilled at the temples and statues that reminded me so much of the dubbed seventies tv programme, Monkey (Pigsy, Sandy, Tripitaka – you’re not forgotten). Granted it’s not ancient Chinese history, but modern pop culture is not to be sniffed at – see which earns you more points at your next pub quiz.
So I dealt with the toilets, the pollution and the relentless aggression that comes with a giant population. However the biggest obstacle was coping with the intimacy of the tour group, specifically eating lunch, and dinner, every single day with the same people for twenty-one days.
That’s forty-two meals and approximately sixty hours; the equivalent of sitting round a table with the same people for an entire working week. Was I the annoying one in the group? It was difficult to tell, though they say that if you don’t know who it was then it was probably you …
The gruelling lunches and dinners were interspersed with our travels.
China’s a huge country and we covered it, travelling by planes, overnight trains, buses and boats. We journeyed from Shanghai to Beijing, Xian, Guilin, Kunming, and Lijiang.
We saw the natural beauty of the mountains, rivers and gorges. We experienced the cultural differences of the fifty-six ethnic groups in the North, South, East and West. We witnessed the monumental history of Tiananmen Square,the Terracotta Warriors and of course the Great Wall of China (you’re allegedly a man when you’ve walked on the Great Wall of China so I may be growing chest hair soon).
China’s history is impressive, its environment imposing and its population mind-boggling. It kept me interested and intrigued during my time there, but I’m more than happy to be back on Australian soil.