Asia | China – It’s Chining, It’s Pouring
At 2 in 1.3 billion, the odds were against us from the start. While meandering through the backwaters of Southeast Asia there wasn’t even a hint of the teeming mass of humanity that was hovering above us to the north. Sure we knew it was there, and I had lost myself in the masses several times before, but we were now sliding in the backdoor from Laos and across the border the Xishuangbanna region was to be as laid-back as China gets. If there is indeed a ‘soft’ entry into the Middle Kingdom this remote route would be it, or so we thought.
I made a few rusty attempts at pleasantries at the border but the Chinese immigration officer wasn’t having any of that. He scowled through my passport, making note of the several entries and exits through Zhangmu, the sensitive border between Nepal and Tibet, and after giving me a despicable glare he slammed the stamp beside the visa and in an ominous tone said “Welcome to China”. While we felt far from welcome, we were nonetheless happy to have been admitted and we lost no time in organising transport to the town of Jinghong, the capital of the Xishuangbanna region.
The drive was pleasant and not unlike the scenery that we had been enjoying in Laos though there was no mistaking that we were now in a country that, for better or for worse, was moving leaps and bounds into the 21st century. Despite being on the rural fringes of the massive country, there was a noticeable affluence that we hadn’t seen since leaving Thailand 2 months before. Power lines stretched across the fields to sturdy, albeit ugly, concrete houses and countless crews were busy putting down the final layers of tarmac on the road. We passed more traditional villages of wooden homes clustered tightly around narrow lanes but with the steady flow of trucks to and from the frequent brick factories and cement plants, their days are surely numbered.
We arrived in Jinghong in the night and that was a shock I won’t soon forget. In our guidebook the town was described as being “splendidly torpid” and judging from the little white dot on our map we had no reason not believe it. Now I’m not sure who was responsible for giving the town a small white dot but it’s clear that they haven’t been there in quite some time. We crossed the Mekong on a spectacular suspension bridge and the city that greeted us on the other side was a brisk slap in the face; towering high-rise buildings illuminated in a spectrum of neon, wide avenues full of cars and blaring horns, huge billboards and flashing signs, tight skirts, sharp suits and cellular phones, the only thing “splendidly torpid” about the place was perhaps the two road-weary travellers that had just rolled in and even that wasn’t to last long. Yes, Jinghong must be the biggest thing to happen to the Mekong since it met up with the South China Sea and it certainly took us by surprise.
The next morning we went for a stroll around the town and it was a trying experience. Though there is a steady trickle of travellers that pass through the town, many people stopped in their tracks to gawk at us, and point and laugh, and yell to their friends to do the same. And when they weren’t doing that they were busy practising the national sport of noisily summoning large globs of phlegm and spitting them with a marksman’s precision in an attempt to completely cover the sidewalks or the floors of whichever establishment they happened to be visiting. Even the Chinese script seemed to scream out at us, nothing like the smooth flowing lines and curves of Thai or Lao, the bold characters were sharp and rigid, not words but commands that forcefully entered our vision and then tried to cram themselves down our throats. The spoken words and body language were just as hard to take, as if every conversation was an argument punctuated with insult. Like being caught in a heavy rain, it was ‘chining’ hard and there was little refuge. After the tranquillity of Laos, the initial shock of China was more than enough to send us back down the Mekong.
Fortunately returning to Laos wasn’t an option and after riding out that long first day something snapped and the relative chaos that surrounded us turned into a circus and laughter became the key to swim through the midst of it. You could spend a long time looking for two countries that contrast as sharply as Laos and China but despite the fact that 14 countries share a border with the People’s Republic, there is no ‘soft’ way in; it’s always a steamy dive into icy waters.