Blessed to be a witness

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Tuesday, February 22

Gob on you

China is dirty. I mean absolutely filthy. Every outdoor surface is coated in a layer of filth, a lot of it human. Spitting is completely socially acceptable in many social strata, as is emptying the contents of one's nose onto the ground. Little peasant children don't wear nappies: they just squat in situ and crap or pee everywhere through a hole in their trousers.

The above paragraph is not to denigrate Chinese people per se. Most Chinese people, individually, are pretty clean. And they do what is necessary to avoid the dirt that surrounds them. Food is rarely touched by hand: chopsticks transfer food to the mouth, or if it's finger food, many people use napkins or the bag in which the food is served with which to eat. One should also make an assumption that one's shoes are permanently covered in nasties, so where the shoes go is important. In a hotel, you are meant to wear hotel-provided slippers around the place; in shop changing rooms, slippers are provided too. Chinese toilets are squatters, so the only thing that comes into contact with anything potentially unclean is one's shoes. (As an aside, once in Hong Kong, the company I was working for hired an American actress for a commercial shoot. The toilet in the studio was filthy, but the girl had to use it anyway. After she left, my Chinese colleagues were puzzled that there were no shoe marks on the toilet seat - I had to explain the hover method.) Shoes and the dirt thereon therefore has some significance, which possibly explains the beggar I saw yesterday with a shoe tied to the top of his/her head: "I am the lowest of the low; give me money." Mind you, despite this, there are a few really filthy people around too, like the bloke I saw when we were getting a coffee, who picked a bogey and flicked it over the counter at McDonald's.

This also explains why Chinese toilets are so filthy: it's such a nasty job to clean them that nobody wants to deal with it, because they themselves then might get besmirched. So the toilets fester. The bad plumbing doesn't help either.

All of which is why the Soft Sleeper from Shanghai to Beijing was such a refreshing surprise. The service was less than a year old, and the train was awesome. Covering 600-odd miles in 12 hours (very good indeed for China),we were booked in a 4-berth cabin that mercifully remained nothing but ours for the duration. Orchids in a vase, toothbrush provided - that broke the first time I used it - Chinese magazines, music and information if you wanted it. Turning the music off is a good thing; when I took a Chinese cruise ship in 1994, you got the music and propaganda full blast, whether you wanted it or not, and heaven forbid that you should remain in bed after 6.30am. That would be unproductive, and therefore must be forbidden! By contrast, the train was very plush, very clean - even the toilets - and very comfortable; we could have been travelling through the Swiss Alps.

I didn't sleep amazingly well, but got about 5 hours in total. During my insomnia I stared out of the window at the dark country passing, and was amazed to see that every town was a blaze of streetlights; neon petrol stations shone out over the paddy fields, and cars were everywhere. Quite unlike train journeys 10 years ago, when all you would see would be the odd shed or buffalo. Things are definitely changing, in eastern China at least.

Two things disabused us of the absolute luxury of the new train though. First, the free 'dinner', that comprised chilli-fried spam and mushy peas, and the morning, when the old Commie ways of doing things cut in. Disregarding the cabin lock, a hatchet-faced stewardess forced our door open, turned on the light, and shouted at us to get up. Heaven forbid that we should be responsible enough to get up ourselves.

And so into Beijing. We arrived somewhat blearily at the station to be met by a representative of our hostel. He led us on the local bus to our destination in a hutong (alleyway) just south of Tiananmen Square. On first impressions, Bejing looked a lot more similar to Chinese cities I've been to before than did Shanghai. Wide dusty streets and wide dusty buildings. And the people seem a little less frenetic and more helpful.

The first day we walked to Tiananmen square, which was very slightly smaller than I had imagined, though it is of course still the largest square in the world. I was a little unedified by being there. The thought of those hundreds and then thousands of people crushed by tanks or shot in cold blood on the ground that we walked, just 16 years ago, was horrific. I tried to picture what it must have been like to watch the tanks roll in, and felt very angry.

We then went to supposedly the best Peking Duck restaurant in Beijing, where the waitress conned us into getting a whole duck - a half wouldn't do two people, she said. So we went for it at great expense, and ended up leaving about two thirds of it. It was pretty disappointing. Very greasy and fatty, the pancakes were somewhat doughy, and the accompanying sauce was rather bitter. The duck soup that was allegedly made from the rest of the duck that we hadn't eaten ("everything but the quack"), was insipid white dishwater of which I could only stomach one mouthful. I was, however, amused at the end of the meal to get a 'Peking Duck commemorative card', that informed us that, since the restaurant was inaugurated in 1864, we had been responsible for the execution of duck number 1,536,739. Poor thing, such a waste.

That night we drank beer with our fellow hostel guests in the freezing lobby, met a couple of nice people, and our first travel bore, who had been "living out of a rucksack for eight years", sailed all over the south Pacific, hitched a ride on the back of Mongolian trucks at -30C, and proved that just because you do amazing things doesn't necessarily make you amazing yourself.

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