In early 2006 I was sent on a week long business trip to a factory in an industrial city in central China. This is how the non-business side of things went.
Another private dining room, and a pattern seems to be emerging – large round dining table with a “Lazy Susan” on it; opulent décor harshly lit by down-lighters, big fat leather sofa and arm-chairs, TV, hat-stand, miscellaneous clutter in the corners – this time a battery lantern and a dismantled table.
There always seems to be a grand looking picture on the wall, too. Last night it was a classical painting of a naked lady and her hand-maid, with carefully positioned swathes of cloth to hide their modesty. Tasteful enough, but the poster (which is what it was) was heavily creased as if it had been folded into a small square and carried in a trouser pocket for several days, before being unfolded and framed. Today’s poster was flat, but was glazed with cling-film stretched tightly around the outside of the frame. The award for creases went to the once neat and tidy uniforms of the serving staff which looked like they slept in them. Perhaps they do.
All around the hotel, for as far as I can walk in 20 minutes, the edges of the streets are a series of uniform width shops set below multi storey housing blocks – like a continuous row of lock-up garages. The display from these shops spills out onto the pavement, where they merge with the barrows and blankets of the street traders. Hawkers, or continuous loop tape recordings shout or blare from the entrances, advertising the goods and imploring you to come in. The pavements themselves are almost un-made. At one time they had been paved, but now it is more earth than paving, and much of the paving that is left has been forced into an uneven mess.
Women with hand barrows stand peeling water chestnuts with absurdly large cleavers, or slicing pineapples into spirals and impaling them on skewers. You can buy sugar cane, or vegetables, or grain, or second hand paper bags; a man is kneeling down and re-soling shoes using an angle-grinder. The air stinks of burning rubber.
With the pavements occupied, everyone walks in the road. There is something peculiarly Chinese about the way that people walk or drive – everyone just “drifts”. Cars, people, tri-shaws, bicycles, motorcycles, hand-barrows and peculiar hybrid contraptions that look like they’re the result of a Honda moped mating with a tractor all make gentle progress through, past and across each other. Nobody makes any noticeable attempt to avoid anybody else, no matter what, yet there are no collisions. Pedestrians drift along, intent on their “cell-phones” – the Chinese Must Have – and merrily cross 6 lanes of traffic without looking up, stopping or changing direction. Car horns sound pretty much continuously, announcing the driver’s desire to go faster, turn left or right or stop. Tri-shaw drivers rattle their brake handles at pedestrians in front of them, but NOBODY takes any notice. Except that is for me – who is frantically dodging all these things, and trying to get out of the way.
This is bad news. You aren’t supposed to take evasive action, it confuses the locals, and you will probably collide with them, or bring both of you to a halt. Maintain course and speed. I haven’t plucked up the courage to cross the main road, yet, because I know I would hesitate at the traffic, and to do so would probably result in being hit by a car. The drivers expect you to carry on, and aim at where you are standing in the expectation that by the time they get to the same spot, you will have gone.
The lunch party gathers. Greetings, tea and lighting of cigarettes while the table is slowly filled with food. Everyone is called to the table. There are concerned looks, and the serving staff are despatched to fetch knives and forks for the Westerners. I give the stock answer that I am OK with chop-sticks if they can bear to watch.
The Lazy Susan spins, and I am invited through hand gestures to open proceedings. The wheel of fortune has stopped on a plate of baby cucumbers and cherry tomatoes. I think the cucumbers are a bit ambitious for my “first lift of the day”, so grapple with a cherry tomato instead. A few wobbles, and I get one into my mouth. Away we go. The food is well prepared, and tasty. Spicy beef and slices of omelette are easy pickings. There’s a duck that looks like it’s been run over, then diced with a cleaver. I look carefully for a bit that doesn’t contain more bone fragments than meat, and successfully transfer it to my mouth. I note that the flavour is unusual for duck. Later, I also note that it’s got a beak like a crow, not a bill like a duck.
There are three items I’m avoiding on the wheel of fortune – Tofu, because it doesn’t taste of anything, I dislike the texture , and it is the devil’s own job to handle the stuff with chop-sticks; Some sinister dumpling-like things, and a slab of something resembling a large junket, but with several layers. I’ve got memories of a similar dish that turned out to be layers of cooked pig skin, spaced out with pork fat.
The strategy is to always have something on the small saucer in front of me, so that I can choose when to finish off and take something else, and deny the opportunity for one of the other diners to park something in front of me and invite me to take some. Last night I was trapped into taking a 1000 year old egg – a blue/green fossil of a thing embedded in brown jelly. Luckily it looked worse than it tasted, but it had a very peculiar after taste that lingered for a long time.
I’m disturbed from my strategy by a cry of “Andy!” “Campey!” and the head of the table waving his glass at me. Oh shit! He wants me to down my beer. I consider playing dumb, because I’m trying to keep a clear head for the afternoon, but all eyes are on me, and most of them know that I know what is expected. Down it goes. At least today, we haven’t got the dual peril of beer (with ice if you want) being consumed side by side with Chinese red wine (also with ice). It was a wise move to decline the Mautai for lunch.
I pick a few more peanuts off my saucer while my beer is refilled, and the wheel spins again. Suddenly I realise my saucer is empty.
“Andy – You try?”
It’s the dumpling things. Well, it’s the least formidable of the three. I ask what it is:
“It lives in the desert”.
My mind runs riot – The only thing I can think of that lives in a desert is scorpions.
“Shit!” I think, “They want me to eat a scorpion!”
“It is a plant like a hand, that lives in the desert but I don’t know what it is called in English”
A cactus! Hey, compared to a scorpion, that’s nothing! It’s actually prickly pear deep-fried in batter, and although a lurid green, it had a pleasant, delicate taste.
Fish turns out to be another “problem” food. It’s delicious, but any piece that hangs together strongly enough for me to pick it up with chop-sticks only does so because it’s riddled with bones.
The meal ends with noodle soup and fruit. The noodles are large slices of pancake which take a lot of slurping from all concerned (and the resultant un-restrained, un-muffled belching).
Lunch ends abruptly, and we return to the factory. It is a white painted, square, concrete building 3 or 4 storeys high. It’s about 5 degrees outside, and as we enter the open stairwell to the 1st floor, it gets slightly colder. There is no heating – it hasn’t broken, there just isn’t any. We sit in the meeting room with our coats on, as does everyone else. I didn’t realise I habitually took my coat off on going indoors. Nobody does here. I put mine back on again. I asked why the offices weren’t heated, and the question was almost incomprehensible. I may as well have asked ‘why isn’t your house covered in gold?’ such is the reaction I got. “Heating is sometimes used to protect delicate equipment, like computers – Not normal in China”. Snow is forecast.
A full spitoon on its way to be emptied
Were taken for dinner to “Paris Nights” – a “Chinese Pub” near the hotel. As a special treat, we are supplied with steak, pasta, onion rings, chips, ice-cream, coffee, warm beer and cold beer, all of which arrives pretty much at the same time.
When we get back to the hotel, the pile-drivers outside are still active. The hotel is next to Xiangfan railway station which is being extended. The site has been cleared and huge metal piles are being driven into the earth to support the foundations. The pile driving rigs are the most anti-social things imaginable – large lattice towers, stained black with soot, that support a massive steel piston. Every few seconds, the piston lets out a huge bang and leaps into the air above the pile. As it descends, it belches out a jet of blue/black smoke with an asthmatic wheeze and thuds into the metal pile, driving it a few inches further into the ground. Three of these rigs have been working constantly since we arrived, and it is 11pm before they stop.
I have a rule of thumb which says to avoid pubs and hotels with the word “railway” in their name. This knowledge is distilled from many pub-crawls, where the name of the biggest dive always seemed to contain this word. The Xiangfan Railway Grand Hotel has been bucking the trend, but cements its reputation this morning when I find a dead cockroach on the floor of my room. A two inch long, brown, leathery scavenger. I pick it up in a wad of tissue, and find out it’s not dead. I manage to get it down the toilet before it can wriggle its body around enough for its madly flailing legs make contact with my skin. Many gallons of water and half a toilet roll make sure it ends up a long way away. I check back occasionally, in case it was a better swimmer than I thought. I decide not to say anything to anyone else until after we’ve checked out of the hotel.
It’s raining, and still bitingly cold. The drab surroundings give up against the weather, and grey gloom closes in. Outside, there are puddles everywhere, and our Chinese hosts go to great pains to make sure we don’t step in them. At home, I’d walk through a puddle without really worrying – at worst, you might splash your shoes. Here you could drown! – On Thursday, when the rain had stopped and things have dried up a bit, I see several open manholes on a 100 yard walk from the hotel which were innocent looking puddles the day before.
In the factory meeting room, our breath forms steam as we talk. We spend seven hours in this freezer, breaking only briefly for lunch. It is a constant battle to ask questions rather than answer them.
After dinner in a very classy restaurant, we’re invited to a foot massage. My mobile phone rings after my masseuse has massaged my neck and shoulders. She continues down my left arm, but I’m holding the phone with my right, so she moves onto my feet which have been soaking in a wooden tub full of very hot water. After one look at my feet, she decides to call in reinforcements, and leaves the room.
A boy in overalls comes in carrying a small metal tool-box and a spot-lamp. My eyes flick around the room, looking for the gas boiler which he has obviously come to fix. Instead he sets up his spot lamp near my foot-stool, opens his toolbox, takes out a shiny chisel and attacks my toes. I think I’ve been selected as a toe donor, but all he touches are the nails and expertly pares them down with the chisel. (Embarrassingly, they did need cutting.) When he’s finished this, he takes out a huge chisel about an inch wide and I’m sure now that I will be a foot donor, at least. All he was doing before was prettying them up before amputation. I tense up and people start jabbering at me in Chinese. A translator is needed to point out that they’re telling me to relax. Instead of amputation, he starts shaving the dry shin off my heels. As this goes on, I’m increasingly alarmed at the quantity of material he’s removing. I’ll be at least half an inch shorter when he’s finished.
Once all is finished, it feels really good, except for my right arm which is noticeably stiffer and achy. It missed out on its massage, and I can tell.
I’m crossing the pavement to get into the car to go back to the hotel, and pause for a lady on a bicycle to come past. She gently crashes into me.
The weather has cleared, and it is now only overcast. There is a view from the 16th floor revolving restaurant where breakfast is served. The lift goes as far as the 14th floor, then you ascend two flights of curving, windowless stairs, lit only by disco rope-lights, to the revolving restaurant that doesn’t. This is traditional Chinese breakfast. The only concession to Westerners is a toaster and a pot of syrupy-strong black coffee. Fortunately, it is just about enough. The restaurant is still decorated with hearts and pink tinsel from St. Valentine’s day.
Today the temperature difference inside the office is even more noticeable. There is a watery sun which brightens everything up outside, and makes it feel almost warm. As you walk into the factory, the temperature plummets. I’ve put an extra tee-shirt on today to help stave off the cold. That makes four layers of clothing in all.
For lunch, we are driven across town, and I realise that we’ve been missing out. We drive at high speed past designer shops, Mc Donalds and a KFC, only to park behind what looks like a second hand mobile phone shop. On the way, I am fascinated by the countdown timers on the traffic lights – There is a large digital display overhead counting down the time until the lights change. In the UK, this would be the supreme driving challenge – a drag race at every light. It doesn’t seem to provoke the obvious reaction here. We troop into the mobile phone shop and up 4 flights of stairs before emerging into a squeaky clean, and very nice restaurant. Back at the factory, we manage to conclude our business, and there’s private elation at not having to return on Friday.
Then it’s back to Paris Nights for an informal dinner, and with the weather clearer, I can see the three storey high model of the Eiffel Tower opposite the restaurant. On the way there, I quietly point out a suspicious lock-up shop. Two ladies sit in the entrance and shout “hello” (in English) to us as we pass, as they have done every time I have walked past. On the way back we can see inside through the open door. There is a pink curtain strung across inside with a gap at one end. It clicks – yes, it’s a brothel.
The Xiangfan Railway Grand isn’t set up too badly, either. There are “do not disturb” lights operated from beside the bed, and a neat plastic rack in the bathroom holds a packet of condoms, two squares of cotton towel, and several sachets of “Know You Bird – Only For Man” that can “kill various bacterial that lead to male phallic disease …especially before and after sexual intercourse”, although it’s use requires you to “scrub away repeatedly to the area…for about 2 to 3 minutes”. Might not want sexual intercourse after that.
A carnival atmosphere – an hour’s sight-seeing at a 10 year old reconstruction of a 3000 year old city, more lunch then to the airport.
We head out of the city on a dual carriageway. The driver takes a right turn, and after a few minutes decides it’s the wrong way. We re-join the big road, and stop to ask directions from a gang of men looking at the front wheel of a truck with a broken axle.
Their conversation increases the driver’s confidence, if not ours, and he accelerates rapidly up to 100 kph. We see the railway line before he does, but there is no time to say anything (or brake) before we hit it. The Toyota minibus launches over the banked up line like a scene from the “A Team” or the Dukes of Hazzard. As we crash-land on the other side the driver and his accomplice look at each other sheepishly before driving on more slowly.
We’re bowling along the road without any further incidents when the driver brakes sharply and abruptly turns left down a narrow dirt track. On the left are small concrete houses, most with a brown cow tethered to a post by its nose, on the right there are heaps of dung and straw separating the road from fields. There are no signposts or tarmac.
So what will it be? Robbery? Murder? That scene from Deliverance?
Despite my doubts, the rough dirt track ends in a brightly painted red and white striped barrier with its uniformed attendant and the obligatory shiny peaked cap. Once through the barrier, we are in the airport, and the sense of elation increases as we board an internal flight to Guanjhou.
The Volitation Hotel near Guanjhou airport is devoid of English speakers or credit card machines. With the assistance of a passing Japanese business man, we manage to check in – paying for the room cash in advance. The hotel is part of the airport development and in the middle of nowhere. There is a cafe / restaurant serving several stop-over hotels outside, and nothing else other than airport office buildings and wasteland. The menu for the restaurant is posted in the hotel. It is completely in Chinese.
We wander around looking for something – anything- of interest before braving the restaurant. I am resigned to doing cow and chicken impressions to obtain food. As we go in the waitress gestures for us to sit down. A few minutes later, a plate of vegetables arrives. We haven’t ordered. After looking at it for a bit, we decide to start eating, and a plate of sweet & sour beef arrives, and later two bowls of rice and what looks like a bill – a small metal clip-board with a chit on it. I still think this must be somebody else’s order, but the experience far exceeds my most optimistic expectations for the evening, as we are getting fed. We can argue about who ordered it later. There is an altercation between the staff, and the metal clip board disappears, re-appears, disappears and is replaced by a different one.
We finish, and I get up to pay and get out while we can. The waitress rings up 40 RMB on the till and I offer the notes to her. The whole meal has been concluded without one word being spoken between entering the restaurant and leaving.
Check out, and spent 15 minutes clarifying whether we owe the hotel 21 RMB or 3 RMB for items consumed in the room. We settle on 3 RMB – 20 pence.
WE’RE ON OUR WAY HOME!