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China: The Centre of the World

The train rocks from side to side as we cross the Chang Jiang (Yangtze) River from Zhejiang Province to Anhui Province. The old man sitting beside me looks in open curiosity at the travel book I am reading.
I show him the title: China "Do you know this word?"
He shakes his head, no.
To Chinese people, the name of their country is Zhong guo - The Middle Country, The Centre of the World.

His finger reaches out, touches my shoulder. "Where are you from?"
"Trinidad and Tobago."
He nods.
"Very near to South America."
Nod, nod.
"Near to America." His face lights up. "You are American?"
"No, no, I am Trinidadian. I am of Chinese descent."
He looks me over. Nod, nod.

Even though I am looking at him his finger again reaches out for my shoulder.
"Your father, he is Chinese?"
"No, he too is of Chinese descent, but one hundred years ago my great grandparents came from Guangdong."
He gives me a thumbs up.
"Guangdong people, very good."
"You too are Guangdong people?"
He nods with pride.

Vendors "How is it you speak Putonghua? Most Guangdong people speak only Guangdonghua."
He was born in Guangdong but now he is a worker in Zhengzhou. He explains how he moved to Zhengzhou but breaks off when he realises that my Chinese is too basic to follow him.
He fishes out a pack of cigarettes and offers me one. I smoothly push his hand away. No, no, you are too polite. He moves my hand away, offers the pack again. The amenities over, I accept one. He lights my cigarette with a match held inside a closely cupped hand. I offer him peanut candy. He pushes my hand away. I shake several out onto his lap. He smiles, "thank you, thank you."

We smoke for a while and look out at factories, typhoon-flooded villages, arguing peasants. There is a fight a few seats ahead over a watermelon. There is a crush as the standing passengers fall back, then there are complaints and quarrels.

He points his cigarette at me.
"Where are you going?"
I indicate my Hong Kong friend sleeping beside me. We are going to Xian. I don't know how to say Terracotta Army so I say: "We are going to see Emperor Qin Shihuang."
Ah, Qin Shihuang. Very famous.

Qin Shihuang was the first emperor to rule over a united China from 246 BC to 210 BC and had a terracotta army made to serve him in his afterlife.

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The structure housing the excavation pits is vast, about the size of three hangars. Despite the Chinese music coming through the speaker system, there is an atmosphere of silent awe. Brightly painted when they were unearthed, the life-sized terracotta army of 6,000 soldiers and horses now stands or kneels in its natural clay colour,frozen in defence of its emperor.

The long lines of mostly Overseas Chinese shuffle on and out to the bright sunlight and the street vendors hawking garish souvenirs: Mao keychains, silk robes, miniature terracottas.

Garden We try to stay in a Zhaodaisuo, a dormitory for Chinese travellers. We are asked for ID. Alee produces a Chinese ID which says he is Chinese. They look at him doubtfully.
"You were born in Fujian?"
"Yes, in Fujian."
They study the ID card again. Maybe you are Chinese but your friend is definitely a foreigner,therefore you must stay at the foreigners' hotel or The Friendship Hotel.

We try three others but it is the same. Finally we check into the Jiefang Hotel close to the railway station, 15 times more expensive than a zhaodaisuo.

In the evening I see a street vendor selling soft drinks. I point to one. "How much money?"
Six mao. I drink and wait for my change. She busies herself with empty bottles.
"How much is this drink?" I ask politely.
"One yuan."
"But you just said six mao."
It is one yuan.

We walk down Heping Road.
A woman calls to us, "You want to eat? We have nice food. Come in, come in."
We have Sichuan food but not as peppery as authentic Sichuan cuisine which can be fiery - the hottest is classified as sweating hot. The bill comes to 80 yuan, almost half a teacher's salary. They point out a charge of 25 yuan for the air-conditioning and show us other bills with the charge.
"But these amounts are 5 yuan. Why is ours 25 yuan?"
"Because you are foreigners.

I pay 5 yuan and we leave. They follow us into the road and demand 20 yuan more. I stubbornly refuse and a crowd gathers. They show us a knife and shove Alee. The throng presses in. I am frightened. I remind them I am a foreigner and shove them back. Everyone is shouting. There is a long moment. Abruptly, the restaurant owner puts away his knife and says, Let them go. Alee and I push through the crowd and walk away into the night, my legs trembling.

In the morning Alee says, "I want to go to Beijing. Do you want to go?"
"But you wanted to go to Xinjiang, to the desert."
"I have changed my mind."


The original Forbidden Palace was built before Columbus sailed from Spain. Damaged, rebuilt and restored countless times, the current version is huge, sprawling. Everything in China seems larger than life, bigger than anything I am accustomed to. By comparison, our Red House is tiny. Walking around the Palace I grow tired. I cannot help thinking that watching the movie The Last Emperor was more comfortable, and instead of seeing thousands of tourists, I try to imagine Pu Yi striding around attending to his amazing collection of clocks.

We walk out of Tiananmen, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, onto Tiananmen Square which is - need I say it? - vast, sprawling. At the Monument to the People's Heroes Alee becomes very quiet as he remembers the Tiananmen Incident of June 4, 1989.

When he wipes his eyes I walk away for it is a private moment. Several families are flying kites, young couples laze in the afternoon sun. Beijing youth are trendy, marginally less than Hong Kong youth, light years ahead of Fujian youth.

I want to try Beijing Roast Duck at the cheap restaurant Paul Theroux wrote about in Riding The Iron Rooster, but after an hour of searching we give up and eat at a traditional restaurant bustling with families. Alee orders cow's tendons and frog's legs which I timidly try. The beer is light but very cold and good.

Chinese gamersThe tables around us are crowded and noisy, everyone eating, laughing and talking at the same time. In the north I noticed an absence of the finger game so popular in the south - two drinkers would rhythmically stick out several fingers and try to guess the combined number of fingers; the loser has to take a drink.

The Great wall begun 2,000 years ago. It is 10,000 li or 5,000 km long. It is said to be the only man-made structure that can be seen with the unaided eye from the moon. The Chinese, Alee tells me, say, Until one walks on the Great Wall one is not a man.

TransportWe take a maxi-taxi in the morning which takes us to the Ming Tombs and we arrive at the Badaling section of the Wall at 4 pm, 70 km from Beijing. Badaling is full of street vendors and shops selling souvenirs, the same as Xian.

We walk uphill along the Wall among hundreds of sight-seers. Workmen are repairing the Wall with mortar. Vendors are selling Wall T-shirts, Mao buttons, swords, jade dragons.

The afternoon is hot, the Wall is long and I am tired and thirsty. Alee is pensive, perhaps it is a significant moment for him. I look for a soft drink vendor and have to haggle the price down to 1 yuan each.

Back to a Trini View of China


North-west China: The road to Tibet - Lugu Lake | The Sichuan-Tibet Highway: The Southern Route

The Sichuan-Tibet Highway: The Northern Route | North-west China : The Silk Road | China : The Centre of the World

Journey to Shangri La: Yunnan | Journey to Shangri La: Dali | Journey to Shangri La: Lijiang

Journey to Shangri La: Zhongdian & Deqin | The Year of the Dragon

All credits to Jiang He Feng - Education 2001