Chengde: First Night in China
We had been warned that sudden changes to our itinerary could be expected in China, but this was something else entirely. After an early morning start, and a six-hour flight from Malaysia, the last thing we wanted was a six-hour road journey from Beijing to the northern city of Chengde.
Whatever we wanted, there was no going against the wishes of the anonymous official who issued edicts to our guide Chang on his mobile telephone in a way that caused his expression to change from good humour to black despair and back to good humour again in the space of minutes. 'We' were a group of overseas Chinese visiting the homeland, mostly for the first time - and my family and me.
Soon we were on the northern highway, passing through the Great Wall. It was a reminder that, although the Emperor Kangxi built a summer residence in the city, the road to Chengde was taking us outside China proper, into what was the domain of the northern nomads, the Manchus and the Mongols. If anything, though, and despite some spectacular uplands to be seen along the way, the countryside beyond the Wall seemed to be more manicured, less rugged, than it had nearer to Beijing.
Much of China is one vast garden, a taming of nature on a grand scale. To my inexpert eye, this land seemed dark and rich, the fruits and crops abundant. Maybe it was just the impression given by travelling through mile after mile of carefully-tended farmland, but there was a feeling of timelessness about it all. The peasants in the fields, walking behind bullocks, horses and mules, or wielding hand-tools of ancient design, could have walked straight out of a medieval painting. This impression that with the passing of miles we were somehow travelling back to earlier centuries has grown stronger with the passing of time, not least because a few days later we were to experience the sights and sounds of Beijing, a monster of a city hurtling rowdily into the twenty-first century.
We stopped only once on our journey, in a small village indistinguishable from scores of others we had passed along the way - a scatter of sturdy brick buildings clustered around a larger one crowned with a television aerial. We were given the warmest of welcomes. The villagers joined in the amusement at our party's experience with the unusual sanitary facilities - somewhere between an adventure park and a sewage farm - and more or less forced cups of medicinal raisin tea upon us, even though we had no Chinese currency to buy the few wares on offer. If anyone was surprised to see me, a Gwailo, a red-headed devil, among the group of homcoming Han, they didn't show it.
It was dark as we arrived in Chengde. We had been travelling for twelve hours, some of us who had come from other parts of Malaysia for much longer, and we were tired. Almost the first sight to greet us in Chengde was a smoking factory, an ugly, square silhouette against a rainy sky. Impressions weren't improved as the bus forced its way through a succession of narrow streets, every one seemingly housing a local market. There were stalls, bright functional eating houses and everywhere people, people and yet more people. We were wondering how a hotel could possibly be located in the teeming midst of this old city and, if it could, just what sort of a hotel it might be, when all at once our bus emerged into a surprisingly large square. There, right at its centre, was the welcome sight of the Lo Lo Hotel.
Any hopes we'd had of a refreshing bath were quickly dashed. Chang told us that the restaurant was about to close and we'd have to eat straight away. The baggage, our baths, and all the rest of it would have to wait.
The hotel restaurant was large and noisy. We were quickly served with the usual rice and a selection of meat and vegetable dishes. There was also a bony fish and, perhaps as a concession to me as the only westerner in the hotel - and the whole of China, or so it had seemed to me up to now - a plate of darkly fried, wholly inedible potato chips.
'Look, there's a band. Is it for us?' someone naïvely asked and I realised then that, despite their ethnic origin, China was as much a foreign country to my companions as it was to me. They'd have felt more at home in Hong Kong or Piccadilly. Most of them didn't even have the advantage of language, being speakers of Hokkien, Cantonese or other southern languages rather than the Mandarin of the North.
We soon found out what the large brass band was in aid of. A wedding party came in, and gathered around several of the largest tables in the centre of the restaurant. They wore a curious mixture of clothing: modern business suits; dark blue denim; traditional red dresses for most of the women. The bride herself wore a white wedding dress that looked as if it might have been in a shop window in Cardiff or London that morning.
It was all a bit overwhelming. I'd visited many other countries, but never one that had seemed so foreign as this one. It wasn't much, if anything, to do with my unusual status as an ethnic minority of one: most of my travelling companions obviously felt the same way.
Then, quite suddenly, the band struck up a tune: Jingle Bells. The howl of laughter from our party of twenty-five or so people echoed around the restaurant. The wedding party looked up from their feast, and we feared that we'd caused great offence. But no, several of the guests came over to our tables and filled our glasses with a dark, fiery spirit. Then they stood back and applauded us, politely and formally.
We had arrived in China.