Stretched out on a wall in the middle of a vegetable garden, we gaze out on the beautiful landscape in front of us, made up of plump sugarloaf shaped mountains. It’s about 20°C out this February afternoon. We close our eyes, warming ourselves under the sun. Soft music can be heard in the distance, as well as a cock’s cry. The memories of what we have gone through since arriving here in China slowly start to flood our minds.
We picture ourselves five weeks back, in the departure lounge at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport with our neatly packed suitcases, but also some apprehension stemming from hearsay, preconceived ideas and more broadly, the portrait the media constantly draw up of China. We pictured sprawling, polluted, noisy, overcrowded cities, full of boorish people, faraway smoking factories, and omnipresent policemen.
Without denigrating that those things are bound to exist as well, here is what our eyes have seen after travelling for 36 hours by train, 1h30 by plane, 39 hours by coach, 17 hours on bikes, 5 hours on scooters, numerous taxi and bus rides, and who knows how many hours walking across all types of terrain.
First impressions: disproportionate, slightly terrifying buildings. Concertos of horns, and a pretty basic adherence to the rules of the road. Pollution that stings the nose and the back of the throat. Spitting noises. An excessive and unreasonable consumption of anything and everything. Shops selling counterfeit goods. Hanging meats in front of greasy spoons. French luxury boutiques. American fast food chains. Impossible communication with the locals (English is very rarely spoken or understood, even the most basic words). Small tourist towns that look like Disneyland, noisy, swarming with people and packed full of souvenir shops.
But what we really remember is found elsewhere.
Breath-taking landscapes of frozen waterfalls, colourful lakes, plains where horses and yaks live peacefully side by side, immense mountains, faces blackened by the sun, cowboy hats and coloured clothing, Tibetan flags courageously floating, herds of agile goats, clumsy pandas, sumptuous temples with monks singing in the background. The feeling of being on the edge of the world. We immediately felt like we were experiencing something special, maybe because, all of a sudden, we found ourselves cut off from our usual social media accounts, our email inboxes, Google, the usual drugs. In the streets, we are the only Westerners. A feeling of isolation with the outside world overcomes us. We quickly understand the meaning of the expression “to speak Chinese” as no one speaks English. We find ourselves deaf, dumb and blind and even our poor mimes can’t help us. With no means of communication, we rely on our trusty guidebook, rough translations, and awkwardly drawn sketches that nonetheless enable us to be understood (after long periods of solitude and misunderstanding). The Chinese smile, always take the time to help us out without ever objecting, and even invite us to share their (often very spicy) meals with them.
There is something profoundly human, caring, improbable, and wacky in what we witness. A muted excitement where everyone joins in, lives together, exchanges, with no barriers of age or sex, with no hang-ups. A true occupation of public space, real outdoor living. Walking down those (often very clean) streets in the middle of an incalculable amount of electric scooters (their occupants wearing no helmets of course, and often four people piled onto them), we delighted in this spectacle that unfolded before our eyes. People practicing Kung Fu in a square, improvised dancers doing improbable choreographies in a park, elderly people playing cards or board games, men carrying their wives’ handbags and hats, dad’s playing with their kids, fashionable youngsters eating flower-shaped ravioli, blonde women reapplying their lipstick, poodles and such dressed up in jumpers being subjected to their owners’ incessant hugging, cops dozing, cigarettes hanging from the corners of their mouths, smoky bars where we would drink local beers for next to nothing, listening to blues or rock concerts.
This list could go on and on, and we will gladly continue it with you around a bottle of wine one day, but it’s time for us to open our eyes and continue our adventure. In a couple of days we will be leaving this country that so bewildered and touched us, teary-eyed and most certainly full of nostalgia…
P.S.: These towns didn’t sound like much to us before we left, and will probably not mean anything to you (yet), but here is our itinerary: Xi’an, Chengdu – Jiuzhaigou – Leishan (Sichuan), Shangri-la (Tibetan border), Tigre gorges – Dali – Kunming (Yunnan), Guilin – Yangshuo,- Xingping – Nanning