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A Glimpse of China by Denise McCluggage

A Glimpse of China by Denise McCluggage

China is a giant dragon stirring after a long sleep, spewing a foul breath of chemical plants and steel mills and coal-fired and nuclear power installations over a dimmed and wearied countryside.

It is not a charming place.

China Cityscape
China Cityscape

A country rushing to catch up with an energy-hungry, technology-driven world after slumbering through much of the 20th Century apparently demands generating sun-masking, throat-searing, eye-watering crud that’s released into a paled sky. Pile up a few old Pittsburghs, throw in Dickens-era industrialization, add LA at its smoggiest then, as you must with a giant like China , multiply by a factor of X. That can give you an idea how burdened the atmosphere is with industrial waste.

No, it is not a charming place. Better to see its magical movies and stake out a wondrous dim sum palace near where you live. Read the label in your new jeans or on your new TV. That’s China enough for now.

Of course proclaiming this after a few days driving through a mid-sectional slice of the country is like a blind man declaring an elephant to be a ropey, wiggly thing while holding tightly to its tail. Even the small part I saw was no one thing; China is as contrasting as a yin-yang symbol and as totally one. No, China is not charming but it is, even my small glimpse of it, fascinating.

Marvelously, China ’s hotels even in provincial cities can be as be-marbled and grand chandeliered as those in any western capital. Indeed, one could say that where the Chinese have caught up with the West they have equaled, even exceeded it. Where they trail they are still far behind. Judging from the ugly village facades, oddly plastered with oblong white tile, that front many highways much is yet to be done. And some larger towns are cursed with evidence of the one-time closeness to the USSR which exported helpful technical assistance and Early Communist Architecture to China . The result is grand boulevard entrances to awkward, squared provincial towns with grim blocks of apartments and would-be grand official buildings.

The 21st may indeed be the century of China but probably only those born right now or later are likely to see it in their life span. As Chinese legend has it a mountain can be moved bucketful by bucketful, but that takes, besides a lot of willing hands, a lot of time as well.

China has both.

China is still a country that moves on two and three wheels for the most part. Or on foot. Indefatigable walkers and pedal pushers. Trucks of all sizes, many massive, most obviously overloaded, are still most common vehicles on the highways but private cars, the aching desire of the fledgling affluent, are growing rapidly as if they were amoeba dividing and dividing.

The auto show in Beijing , of which I saw a tiny section, lays claim to being the largest in the world. And China has now surpassed Japan as the second (to the US ) largest consumer of cars.

And such cars. Oh yes, the small economy car is still most in demand but Cadillac has lengthened the space in the rear seat to appeal to the chauffeur-driven owner. Mercedes introduced a new Maybach, its ultra high level car, at the Beijing show. And I saw on the highway and in town so many A6 Audis, all black, I thought of school children in uniforms running hither and yon after class.

My, my but money is a powerful incentive. Companies are clambering all over each other trying to strengthen their handholds on the slippery rocks of Chinese commerce. Tch, tch the posturing, the pretense, the elbowing. Nonetheless, many of them will be sent sliding into the abyss as the market keeps growing and matures. And you can bet Chinese companies, already showing evidence of learning quickly, will be common among the stayers.

And a cloud of question marks must be rising from Mao’s grave.

Biking in Downtown Beijing

As for the car market, a cartoon-like image pops to mind: American car makers looking over their shoulders as the Japanese gain and catch them; the Japanese now looking over their shoulders at the Koreans' rapid improvement, and then everybody turning to gape at the Chinese. Have they increased the rhythm, ceremonial drummers picking up the pace?  

We pass in Beijing row on row of parked bicycles; that line segueing into heftier rows of motor scooters and then motorcycles. Most of the owners of those two-wheelers crave to add two more wheels. A car, a car! And many of them will in the next year or two get one. And when you say "many" referring to Chinese, you mean many, many, many.

Then I look from the parked two-wheelers to the streets of Beijing chockablock with cars and busses and trucks and shake my head. The two-wheelers and the two-footed. Pedestrians just walk into traffic to cross wherever they please, wending calmly though alertly through the stop and start traffic. At least the young ones do. I see an older woman, ess-shaped in trepidation, being towed along between trucks and taxis by her hair-swinging, blue-jeaned, knee-booted daughter. Or granddaughter. Confident, chic, on her way and hauling granny behind. The metaphor makes me smile - keep up or get run over.

The city streets already have no room for any more cars, either moving or parked. Particularly given the enterprising, free-form way the Chinese drive. If there is a gap large enough for one fender to fit someone will put one there. And then someone else will put their fender in right next to it. It is a culture used to cheek-by-jowling and being in a car does not change that. There’s no sense of prior right to a space, of queuing to wait for an orderly crack at a turn; if a driver sees a square foot of momentary emptiness he puts a wheel there – or moves to. Oddly the short admonishment of a horn, declaring an earlier claim, will halt the move instantly. And with no rancor.

Another oddly: there seemed to be little tension in all this close vying for room. Impatience is rare. I saw no rude gesturing ala Italy , heard no loud vocal exchange. Even when a shuttle bus in which we were passengers pulled sharply in front of girl on a bicycle clearing endangering her well-being she merely looked more annoyed than enraged and she saved herself. The westerners on the bus were far more expressive of disapproval.

And when on the highway we were caught in what our inter-car communications said was a 20-kilometer-long traffic jam caused by "a strike of lorry drivers," a singularly dubious explanation that was never explained further, the drivers around us – all caught like grapes in aspic - seemed more bemused than angry at the situation. A cop in a marked car was found who would lead our group of E-320 CDI Mercedes-Benz sedans through back roads, some roughly unpaved and some narrow and newly surfaced, to by-pass the jammed highway.

Someone spotted on this back-road excursion on a new housing array, simple, one-storied and rather attractive compared to the giant Russian-type blocks, the name "Jacksonhole."

Our cars, many brightly painted, bore crews from many different countries. The cars had come all the way from Paris crossing two continents and covering nearly 8000 miles, though few of the people involved had made the entire trip. Our group had taken over our Bluetec diesel in Lanzhou , a city of three million on the banks of the Yellow River , for the fifth and final leg of what was called "The E-Class Experience."

This stretch of truck-blocked impassible route was on our third day. We had stopped overnight in Wuhai and then in Hohhot , the capitol of Inner Mongolia . (And in Mongolia we dined grandly on Mongolian Hot Pot.) We were headed for Badaling near the Great Wall and only 80 kilometers from Beijing . Having driven individually between stops, only occasionally spotting the other cars, we would be lead in a convoy by police into Beijing .

A China highway

The highways were like aquatic swim ways with varied species of sea life, or so I thought at one moment as our Mercedes, shark-like, flicked through the wide spaces left by the trucks with appropriate superiority. The assorted other cars on the road did as we did but at a slower pace. We passed with a twinge of guilt some of our fellow trekkers moving relatively sedately; they were mindful of an award for the best fuel mileage and here we were slurping up the fine imported Aral diesel and most certainly lowering the fleet average. Never mind: it was over 30 mpg anyway.

Sharing the driving with me in the Number 11 Bluetec was Joe DeMatio of Automobile magazine. Besides being an amiable guy his driving habits and mine were compatible. As we motored smoothly at speeds I would not dare consider for interstates in the US we were truly co-drivers, alerting each other to matters of interest and possible concern.

Chief among those concerns were what I thought of as the "gleaners and cleaners." The gleaners picked up after the overloaded coal trucks, which - though covered - still dropped occasional small black chunks along the way. From somewhere out of the seemingly-empty stark landscape appeared people to claim these pieces for their home grates.

The cleaners were officially attired in orange coveralls or vests and armed with witch-length brooms they used in a slow scything motion to sweep clean the shoulders of the toll roads. Oh, how slowly did they sweep! You might see these lone sweepers every mile or so. Maybe a bicycle nearby.

Whichever one of us was riding shotgun as the driver edged toward the shoulder to pass a truck would call out "Sweeper" or "No sweeper." Or maybe "Take him." Reminded me of my rally days.

We swept along on our third day with a well-driven Nissan Fuga, equivalent to an Infiniti M35, and when the jam-up of trucks caught us we were near the car with its single occupant. When we all got out to peer along the roadside or clamber to a truck top for a long view of the blocked road I made a steering motion with my hands to the obviously prosperous driver of the Fuga. “Hen hoa”, I said meaning I thought he drove well.

He was pleased but thought I referred to his car and beamed broadly. All the time we were stopped, armed with a soft cloth, he wiped down his Fuga. As car-proud as any American on cruise night. Clearly he could afford a driver but preferred to do it himself – not the norm for newly-rich Chinese.

Before leaving Santa Fe for China I had bought a half-dozen Walgreen T-shirts with New Mexico maps on them. When the occasion seemed appropriate I handed one to a deserving person. One went to the rider of a motorized bike who was nearby when traffic stopped us. His smile revealed teeth like a sparse picket fence, one near a coal-fired power plant. He knew the word “T-shirt” and he spread the gift across his chest. Unfortunately my picture of it the scene was more the back of Joe’s head.

Several young women toll takers were other recipients. Dour and business-like in their uniforms when I thrust a shirt at them, their puzzlement burst into a broad smile when they understood it was a T-shirt meant for them.

It amuses me to think that scattered across the route from Lanzhou to Beijing are a half-dozen bright T-shirts emblazoned with Rte. 66 and a New Mexico state map. It amuses me even more to think some of those shirts were made in China and at least one in, heavens, Taiwan . Thus somewhere near where the Yellow River crosses the Silk Road Mao Tse-tung meets Chiang Kai-shek with a map of New Mexico .

And they got there in a German car.