I’m about to start another one-month journey in China, my third in this country that attracts me, as much as it sickens me. I feel the fascination of the extreme East, all summarised in the unfathomable complexity of a writing system based on characters. Maybe because I have been dabbling at learning the language, it makes me feel even more powerless in front of seemingly inextricable clots of stokes that only differ by details, and still are pronounced in a completely different way and mean completely different things.
I can hardly accept to be still excluded by the meaning, and even the pronunciation of the writings I see around me. True, although I am able to hold a simple conversation, my study has not been too painstaking. I have lacked a real motive and have been rebutted by the difficulties of memorising. And yet, I come back for more of China. I don’t like to drop challenges, so I take tourism as an excuse for reviving the competitive spirit.
As much as the Chinese characters look cryptic, it appears that the people making use of them also obey to typical social conventions, and live in a universe that spins around obeying to its own laws of social order. Besides, the cultural references are not the same. I’ve asked myself this many times: what Weltanschauung can the people have here, at the antipodes of my world? Maybe even their minds work according to unwonted patterns because of the necessity to wield this very writing system.
I have come again to get lost in the organised chaos of Chinese life, where you can find official order, but also the easy way in from the backdoor. I will plunge again into a system of rules that knows exceptions and is run by a political caste that enforces the hard line on the people to reserve the privileges for themselves. I will live in midst of noisy crowds living in ugly towns. I come back to my China.
Once out of the airport I have no time to lose. My train will leave in a few hours from Beijing west station. My mind still obnubilated by a sleepless night, I walk out of the tube station in a sweltering heat towards the railway terminal. A colossal building in the form of a square arch topped by a pagoda structure looms into sight at the end of the avenue. The only reference to the past are the raised eavesdrops of the roof, but apart from this add-on, this structure is totally removed from the line of traditional art. Chinese architecture lacks a basic sense of taste and proportion.
In any case, the Chinese town lacks a sense of history altogether. If it is anywhere to be found, it is relegated to tourist attractions. They take pride in their long-standing civilisation, but very little remains of their long past. Most probably history lives on embedded in popular culture.
It is 17 hours by train from Beijing to Lanzhou. I feared this journey might be the coup de grâce after the intercontinental flight, but it was a real blessing. The air-conditioned sleeper compartment swiftly lulls me into a deep slumber that relieves my jet-lagged mind and body.
I have a walk around the station in Lanzhou, but am not tempted to stay. I am still culture-shocked at the impact of the Chinese town. I feel an unbearable sense of shallowness and boredom. It is only when I gad around the market that I see the interesting things I have come to enjoy. Like the blood-sucking stall where a few people sit on chairs with wooden tumblers applied at the knees. The spots where the cup has already been removed is marked by a reddened cutis, for such was the suction that it nearly made the capillaries burst out with a surge of blood. The patients’ blank looks indicate their blind conviction in the benefits of this treatment, but I am left wondering what great advantages this agony may well lead to.
I reach the southern bus station, determined to leave Lanzhou as soon as possible. Even before tasting a dish of its renowned hand-pulled noodles, the lamian, maybe the only reason why anyone should stay here.