Chinese Opera and Sichuan Pepper: a deadly mix

It is National Day, which lasts a week, and I have this week off. All day, massively amplified music has rung out from the main square, far below my 15th-floor window, honouring the State. It started with a patriotic hymn, throatily sung and so out of tune that it set off the car alarms in the area, but then it got mercifully interrupted by pointless daytime fireworks which resembled distant firing squads. For the musically sensitive, I assume, a trauma helicopter circled overhead.

After the Chinese siesta, the folk music got going with trumpets and shawms and nasal mini-cello’s, also fronted by out-of-tune local crooners. This had a certain exotic flair and there were moments of what I could, but won’t, describe as ‘rhythms’. But now, at 9 p.m., the opera can no longer be postponed by the – no doubt – desperate organisers. The citizenry is clinging to any excuse to get away.

I vaguely remember a two-week hiccup after watching ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ in 1990 – a brilliant piece of historical cinema where clever use of earplugs is advisable. This time, however, I am drenched in operatic din, here in the centre of Yueyang.

Chinese Opera

Chinese opera sounds like people breathing in helium and then being forced to jump barefoot into boxes full of meat cleavers, howling in pain and anger, while other people smash light bulbs against large sheets of metal. I cannot take this long at all, and leave my apartment block in the opposite direction, where I run into a young lad who is a little bit taller than myself. He confirms that he is the tallest person in Yueyang and at 1m93 (6ft3) has me beat by almost an inch. His English is good, too; he is still in high school, and introduces himself as Li Shen Chi. We exchange some niceties and then I tell him to get the hell out of town fast, and for good.

It is a lovely warm October day and, 2 km upwind from the stage, I almost manage to block out the racket. Next, I wander curiously into a Chinese pharmacy. I notice parallels to the standard western pharmaceutical mafia outlets, such as the white coats, the many little wooden drawers, the high prices. But unlike Western pill pushers who hide everything in bright little boxes with pretentious but meaningless names, the Chinese medicine sector is brave enough to have the actual products on display. I see fungi, the colour of drought, reminding me of anorexic orangutan arms, and some frighteningly dark mushrooms. A lot of it looks like colourful dried herbs and fruits, some ground into powder.

The typical argument on this global healing rift is that the West treats the symptoms, but the East treats the causes. Looking at how chronic medicine use is more or less the norm for every Caucasian over 60, I might agree. But if the symptom is a fever, and the cause an infection, then penicillin will (still) deal with both effectively. Yes, Chinese medicine has been around for thousands of years, praised and loved by many, but so have soap operas. Still, even some colleagues from Britain and the States have asserted to me personally that they were quickly helped by Chinese medicine after sudden and severe aches, so I am willing to give it the benefit of my massive, massive doubt, provided they cut out the tiger- and rhino-poaching and go easy on the deer penises and squirrel faeces.

I walk to my local market along the stacks of shiny pink fish lungs. Even the school kids that swarm onto it at 4 p.m. every day enjoy these ancient snacks. I sometimes watch them dreamily sucking on a chicken foot. The Chinese like their meat in small bites with bones attached. When I bought chicken legs here, the lady hacked it into slices so I had to use my tongue at every bite to identify, separate, and spit out bone slivers. The same is true for seeds and dried fruits; the Chinese love to eat something and then spit out most of it again. My rugby-playing colleague from South Africa complained that he lost ten kilos of muscle in his eight months here, having to suck on meat morsels while he really craved his daily juicy steak. Even the frog meat I tried contained 50% crunchy bones. All those little animals are bought alive at the market: pigeons, chickens, fish, crabs, frogs, oysters, squids and what ever else they manage to dredge out of Dongting Lake, which is among the top 50 of biggest lakes in the world, and one I can’t wait to steer a kayak over.

On the way home, the cacophonous yelling and clanking envelopes me again, and it is the women’s turn now, bawling and yelping like a pet castration centre that does not do anaesthetics. I need a painkiller myself and venture into the local deli for a Snow Beer, which is, believe it or not, the number 1 beer in the world today. A decent brew.

There has also been this instant noodle in a brown-black box in my corner shop. It has stood there, alone and dusty, on the highest shelf, out of reach of everyone except Li Shen Chi and myself, and I have started to feel sorry for it. These instant noodles are not the usual Vifon waxy shit I know from Europe’s bottom shelves; no, these contain several types of noodle and often up to five little bags with mushroom paste, seasoning, dried peppers and much, much more. Well, I am in an adventurous mood, and slightly loopy after two hours of opera, so I pay the 7 yuan ($1) for it and retreat into my elevator.

Back home, the full blast of the women through my windows, wailing collectively like twenty squeaky wheels on Walmart shopping trolleys, is still deeply painful. I empty the bags in the boiling water, thinking the small dried red peppers are the local mild paprika variety (in Yueyang, it is the green pepper that gives you a thirty-minute deep-throat cough). Annoyed, I take a greedy gulp from the steaming bowl and immediately, my lips tingle, then burn, as it spreads onto my inflamed cheeks, and my chin droops, my eyes sag, blurred vision sets in…

Sichuan Pepper

I have mistakenly ingested the notorious Sichuan pepper, the hottest thing in mainland Asia (well, after Liu Wen of course). I was warned: naive predecessors at my school have already succumbed to this stuff, their charred bodies unceremoniously flown out at night. Sichuan or Szechuan peppers entered the cuisine of landlocked Asian fiefdoms centuries ago, to mask the lapsed sell-by-dates of imported products such as sea fish. With Sichuan pepper, a smart trader could still sell horse meat from the previous Dynasty.

By now I am doing a shamanistic living-room dance in my underwear, trying to spread the pain around. So this is what French-kissing a jellyfish must be like. I read somewhere that singing is a useful strategy to get through Guantanamo torture sessions, but I am unable to articulate with my numb and burning mouth, so I excrete an incoherent, loud growl out of my window that mirrors the music below in sheer madness; I picture the actors looking up, a glint of respect in their bloodshot eyes.

The show has now got stuck in the parlando bit which gives the impression of groups of midget neighbours fighting each other after snorting bath salts. The 16th century was the age when Chinese opera truly began to blossom and I can imagine many people in a great hurry to leave that century. But to everyone’s shock it kept on being played, and the question of why the hell has been buried in the ages. Even Wagner never provoked these heights of irritation and ennui in his audiences, although he came close with ‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’ which can go on for days if you chance on a particularly pedantic orchestra.

I will have music shows like this all week and I’d like a refund on my holiday. At least I do not have to go out and watch the masked idiots on stage. If it didn’t have the prestige of tradition, and the authorities would stumble, culturally unprepared, upon a troupe doing Chinese opera today, they’d assume it was aimed at troubled three-year-olds. But they’d still arrest them and resettle them far away from populated areas.

It is totally unnecessary to put any other ingredients in that soup, I remember thinking right before I lost consciousness. Sichuan peppers can season a Beef Stroganoff or a slice of tractor tyre, and no one would tell the difference. If Putin is looking for something new to knock off dissidents with, this pepper is worth a try.

It is close to midnight now, and I am back to some semblance of human life, though my upper body is red and sweaty like an ageing boxer, and my feet Antarctically chilled, but most of my facial veins have sunk back under my skin. When I throw the cremains of the soup in the bin, the bag starts to smoulder and in my fever dream I fear it will copy ‘The China Syndrome’ (1979), burrowing its way down the floors in my block. But then, logical thinking has not quite resumed yet.

Well, no more brown-black boxes for Mark. The Grand Finale has finally arrived below and everyone is screaming like there’s no tomorrow in this madmen’s LSD trip. It sounds like they are smashing empty soup terrines on the stage and then dancing on it in glass shoes, screaming out in agony. But then, thank the heavens, the fire crackers end the show, and the remaining audience, I guess all three come from the local Institute for the Deaf, are thanked by the organisers for sitting through the ordeal. The actors are quickly escorted out, presumably locked away again in their steel cages for the night, after being fed ethanol and ball bearings.

10 things that will hit you in China (apart from the thousand smells)

1) The Chinese do not look all the same

Of course, if your thing is hair shade of eye colour, you will feel impoverished visually, at least for a while. But very soon it will be easy to distinguish between different Chinese people. They have expressive faces, and especially in central, eastern, and southern China, many people clearly have some elements of Laotian or Vietnamese or other Pacific Coast ethnicities, and are tanned, slender, with expressive, pretty, South Asian features. The north has the moon-shaped Mongolian faces, but also Russian and Turkmen influences. The 55 ethnic minorities within China’s borders have been officially recognised since 1954.

2) Sudden-onset xenophobia is understandable

As every foreigner quickly realises, blatant staring and pointing at strangers is a national pastime.

Especially in areas devoid of foreigners, Chinese people will do a double take and stare. Yesterday as I was teaching in a kindergarten, one 5-year-old screamed in mortal fear, turning her head to avoid the sight of me; she had to be soothed in the hall, and when I walked past her on the way out she started wailing again. This xenophobia affects all ages; old ladies sometimes stare at me with open mouths and a stressed frown for the whole duration of my walking past them; taking intuitive steps back to literally distance themselves from my anomalies.

This is a direct, instinctive reaction, totally devoid of prejudice. And it is prejudice and generalization that make xenophobia such a primitive and unfair mechanism, but honest fear at the sight of someone outside the paradigms of normalcy is nothing to get upset about. The third time I walk into their kindergarten or street, the fear is usually gone, just as you’d expect.

Old Chinese mural

So they stare. Just get used to it. They spit on the street, too. Get used to that as well.

3) The food is gorgeous

It is useless getting worked up about the weird foods you will see sold on the markets, served at restaurants, and recommended by the locals: frog meat, fish lungs, shredded snake soup, chicken feet and chicken testicles, tuna eyeballs, deep fried scorpions, boiled dog. You will never have to eat them if you don’t want to, so just go to that pavement restaurant with the queue and say: “Li Wei, you wicked Wok Wizard, please whip me up a spicy tofu noodle with eggs boiled in soja sauce, and I will marvel at your country’s superb cuisine once again”.

4) Asian toilets are fine, and more hygienic than Western ones

I got used to these Asian toilets quite quickly, squatting on the ribbed ceramic footsteps, not touching anything with my bum that other bums have touched. What I still miss, though, about the Western joys of sitting on that porcelain throne, is that long before, and/or after the Job is done, I could ponder life, read a book, enjoy the quiet of a small safe place. Asian toilets encourage a hurry; you won’t find many Chinese idly philosophizing while hovering over a hole in the floor. I wonder where Confucius came up with his stuff.

5) Internet censorship is weird

The Great Wall of China was there for one reason: to keep the Mongols out. But this Great Firewall of China is more mysterious. It all seems rather arbitrary, as I’m finding out here daily. Deviant Art: available, but Soundcloud: not. Why? What dangerous and subversive stuff do collaborating musical amateurs produce that collaborating amateur graphic artists don’t? Google, no, Bing, yes. BBC and Bloomberg, no, Guardian and CNN, yes. No Facebook, no Pirate bay.

Then Wikipedia is accessible, even on politically sensitive topics, just not in the Mandarin and Cantonese language. Gmail is inaccessible, but my Yahoo works perfectly.

Anyway, the Chinese discuss everything freely at the office, in the restaurants, at home. Their attitude to censorship is like towards an overprotective dad who thinks there are things his kids should not know. There is even a free VPN app (which allows you to access blocked sites) for all Chinese smartphones, but most Chinese do not install it; the interest for what they do not know, is not quite there.

6) The crazy traffic somehow works

…because ultimately, the Chinese drive in the same way as they used to cycle or steer their ox-drawn carts: they go slowly, change lanes without thought, fill spaces up to park just about anywhere, cut off pedestrians whose green light means little. Although it takes some bravery, I find the best strategy for crossing the street is to look left – the other way – which renders drivers powerless so they must slow down and let me pass.

Chinese morning commuteOn the bus or in a taxi, traversing the length of my city, the 60-minute rush-hour commute takes slightly longer than the same distance through Rotterdam, Berlin, or Phoenix, where people stick to sensible traffic rules. The Chinese system does necessitate a great deal of tooting, which accompanies every lane change, every U-turn, every change of speed or direction – I listen to this cacophony as to a massive collective concert of modern improvised music, and I’m fine with it.

7) Conflict avoidance and never saying ‘no’ impedes assertiveness

The biggest cultural paradox is that for their straight-forward, unromantic communication, there is a refined subtlety that emerges once possible negatives or confrontations come into play. As in much of Asia, my ego, outbursts, impatience, and rudeness will make me a pariah quickly, a brute not in control of myself. Linking the prosaic with the deferential has been my greatest challenge here so far.

But some of the West’s hairy alternatives I have personally experienced include the trouble-seeking drunk lads in Manchester on a Saturday night, the bellicose football hooligans ransacking central Ostrava on a Sunday afternoon, the Neo-Nazi march in Warsaw, the massive groups of lycra-clad geriatrics with nordic sticks populating my Regensburg parks, pushing me aside, and the rude queue pirates in Athens’ post offices and fast food lines.

Such things won’t happen in China. China is an amazingly safe country.

8) Wechat is the single most important societal tool

Wechat is Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, Instagram, Apple Pay, Slack and Uber all in one – and more! The app has quickly become essential for modern life in China. It functions as a free texting and phoning system. You can share videos with friends and with friend groups. You can record a video or a voice message and send it so the recipient can listen to it at leisure. Wechat is an electronic wallet used to pay for cinema tickets, or your shopping, or the Didi system (China’s Uber equivalent); a screen shot of your location will suffice and you see in real time which car is on its way, what its licence plate is – you can follow it on the road map as it weaves its way through mad traffic to pick you up, and you pay for it by scanning the taxi’s QR code (those monochrome block pixel images). In this image Bobby is seen speeding south to pick me up on his electric scooter, so I could leave my flat at the last moment and catch him perfectly.


Even the Buddhist shrine in my local park has a QR code to scan and forward a donation, or add the temple to your favourites and recommend it to your friends. Wechat can show the location of your friends, in real time, and of your favourite city haunts, or work places. It is used to make profiles of yourself or your company. Many Chinese firms do not have websites because Wechat is the better option to reach existing or potential clients.

Wechat is of course also used to organise hookers and drugs, or to get a random new friend: with the ‘shake’ function, you shake your phone and then get in touch with someone else who shook theirs at the same time, even many miles, perhaps thousands of miles, away.

The day the servers of Wechat go down, all of China will come to a panicky standstill.

9) Post-lunch naps

In the north of China, siestas are not customary, but elsewhere, an afternoon kip is a normal daily event. In many companies, the workers sleep together in a room full of mattresses. In a small shop with one owner, (s)he will just curl up on a chair or a sofa, and fall asleep with the shop still open. If you must do your shopping right after lunch, the shop keeper will get up for you and serve you. Drowsily.

Sleepy Chemist

10) Weird, repetitive noises are everywhere

When the Chinese sing wordless songs, as they do to kids, it’s not on the Anglo-Germanic lalala, or the Spanish lololo, but, stereotypically, with ting ting ting, tan tan tan, or ting ton ting ton. It’s fascinating how much they adore clanking. Some of the rural folk music resembles switching on a slow tumble dryer full of steak knives. I plan to find out if top composers here do in fact all grow up in scrap yards.

I often wondered why many Chinese products, like toys for instance, have this god-awful, monotonous nasal bleeping built in. Now I know: they positively love that! Every three-wheeled peanut moped has a megaphone on a 4-second loop screeching the Chinese for PEA-NUT PEA-NUT, and every grilled corn push cart has a megaphone blasting GRILLED COOOORN, GRILLED COOOORN…. The cardboard collectors, the street-wash truck, the car alarms, the schools (with different loud melodies every hour till ten at night, amplified far beyond their perimeters); yes, even inside my elevator a tiny loudspeaker bleats ‘Plink plink XinChao XinChao Plink Plink’ in a squealing 8-second infomercial, 24 hours a day. It has already become part of the tapestry of Chinese city life to me, and I take it on the chin together with the smells, the insane traffic, the stares, and the swarms of loud school kids.

China is normal, after all, as I speak into the mirror daily just before I cut myself shaving.

First week: Impressions of China

The USA and the European Union do not have a single city with more than ten million inhabitants, and India has two. China has fourteen. Yueyang, with a metropolitan area population of about a million, would be the 15th biggest city of the European Union, or the 10th of North America. In China, it is number 136. Even Window’s spell checker has not heard of it, even though it is in the size league of Tripoli, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Naples, and Adelaide. So Yueyang is a provincial backwater that most Chinese would not know of, if it weren’t for a legendary tower mentioned by an 11th-century poet – more on this in a later post.

What first hits me walking around here is the warm late summer wind carrying 25 smells in all possible configurations, and perhaps I can name five of them, while the others are exotic mysteries. Especially my street with all the restaurants under the rows of trees is unbelievably ethnic and its scents are dense and rich. When, still in Europe, I first smelled durian, the beautiful, spiky megafruit with its complex stench of rotting pineapple and corpse, it blotted out all other smells, and at least two of my senses, for half a day. But here, whiffs of durian are just one element of the power aromas in South Central China.

Confucius statue, YueyangEvery sign and street name and product label is in Chinese, so it’s the closest to living on another planet you can get. My association with Chinese writing has of course always been: restaurant. And here I was not far off since two out of three facades in my street are, indeed, restaurants.

My first pavement takeaway is superb, right in my street, and I immediately like this guy. He does the faster-than-the-eye wok juggling and noodle-flipping, but when the seasoning and salt needs to be added, he freezes and meticulously adds perfectly dosed knife tips for a precise and perfect blend.

As a Westerner, I cannot go unnoticed. I often walk around smiling anyway and that helps. Sometimes some girl or boy comes up real close to my face and tilts their head; left, right, studying my features closely like an art exhibit. Then they say something unintelligible; a conclusion, a remark, and walk on. Some people in shops or on scooters stop everything they’re doing just to follow me with their eyes, expressionless, mouth open, as if I were walking around in a green dress, toting an Uzi in my tentacles.

There is the odd old person straight from the rice paddies with the conical lampshade hat, traditional garb, gnarly cane. Some slum-like streets veer off the main drags, often downhill, surrounded, like everything in Chinese cities, by the huge new tower block monoliths.

In the subtropical afternoon, scores of people sit on pink plastic chairs on the pavement, or do the Asian squat with their heels on the floor, like they’re taking a dump under a shady tree. Men play Chinese chess (Xiangqi) in groups, women play poker, while grandfathers stroll proudly to and fro with their tiny grandkids.

The downtown area where I live has an area of six-meter-wide streets, six floors high, with laundry and electrical cables strung between the facades, above which you see only a sliver of sky. This brings cool-ish shadow and warm-ish draft winds. Especially women panic when they’re in the sun, and hold newspapers, carrier bags, or parasols over their heads even when they dash the ten yards from the bus stop to the shop. Being as pale as possible is the key to perceived beauty here.

The three-wheeled moped-trucks with flapping parasol sunroofs rattle by every so often amongst the shiny BMWs and Hondas. Many of the Chinese car brands tout fake leather and fake wood inside, like some retro-1970s low-budget movie prop. Traffic involves what the Chinese euphemistically describe as ‘weaving’, but in reality is rude and suicidal vehicle demolition. They cut each other off, block the fast lane for a sudden U-turn, run the red lights to squeeze past crossing pedestrians, and toot like it’s all part of a frenetic musical performance. And when confronted they tell me to check out Shanghai traffic.

The Confucian subtlety often leaves me Confuced. The school tells me I’d have the first day off. I run this by the boss: “I have tomorrow off, right?” And she goes “You know, soon you’ll have three consecutive holidays coming up.” This keeps hitting me: the myriad phrases to avoid saying ‘no’ to people. “Can’t I do it this way?” -“Many have found that challenging.” “Are these students really prepared for this advanced grammar?” -“It was perhaps explained to them in June.” Even official applications, requests or emails with pressing questions are never turned down, just left to be forgotten at the bottom of the pile when the answer is negative.

When the policeman had to turn down my residence registration at the station – to be done within 24 hours of arrival – because the one Yueyang copper who deals with that had gone fishing for the weekend, instead of an apologetic smile and a ‘come back Monday’, he suddenly had the weight of the world on his shoulders, slowed down his movements, became absent-minded, spoke softly in hypotheticals, hoping I’d take the hint, which I did. I was going to break the law but it wasn’t my fault. When I said I’d be back Monday he was suddenly all relieved smiles and handshakes again from behind his 1980s desk full of dead insects.

Of course, this odd interaction model avoids open conflict, and there is a lot less drunken shouting on a Saturday night in the centre here than there is in my Polish and Dutch hometowns.

A similar subtlety occurs when my colleagues want me not to talk to them, because they’re busy or on the phone, and they show very briefly a bent index finger. Blink and you‘ll miss it and then they will not show it again, or tell me to shut up, but sit through what I tell them, boiling inside.

Being a teacher means interacting with the locals every day. I have small classes of four-year-olds, but also an intimidating group of 120 from an all-girls’ college, who show up in their school uniforms, the bottom part of which is a tartan miniskirt, and greet me by yelling in unison: “Mark, Mark, sing us a song!!” Many of the students have never seen a Caucasian in the flesh. Some of the little ones sprint out of the classroom in a panic at the sight of me. When I take out my octave mandolin for a sing-song, two boys break out in tears – and that was even before I started strumming.

Yueyang apartmentWalking to my apartment in the evening, I savour the same mellow yellow street lighting that I’ve grown so fond of in Poland, but topping this, all the shop fronts are lit up in primary colour LEDs displaying the wackiest calligraphy and logos. It seems like a big festival is on all the time, every night, in every street. By contrast, how dull and 19th-century Europe must look to them.

Sensory overload and all-new sights, sounds, and smells have inflated this first week to a mental month. My plan is working: slowing down time was one goal for this emigration. More soon!

Jet lag advice

The funniest announcements I caught during my travel were: “Please do not destroy the smoke detectors”, and a caption before an action movie I watched: “Warning: contains scenes of airborne catastrophe”.

The good news is that unless your airline is ruled by dumb and wasteful morons, you’ll never have to fly more than halfway around the globe. If your destination were further, they’d fly the other way around. In short, my two-step advice is the same for every intercontinental flier: 1) ‘Jet lag’ is just a term, and 2) don’t sleep on the plane.

Flight Beijing-Changsha

If you fly west (=to the left on the globe), you’re following the sun, not allowing it to set on you. Your day never ends, a bit like Sunday dinner with the in-laws. Therefore, make sure you resist the urge to have a nap, so when you finally do touch down on your pillow at your destination, you’ll be sufficiently exhausted to go straight to sleep, too tired to even consider what the combination of air plane beverages and turbulence has done to your trousers. Jet lags are then the stuff of legends and lies, just a concept that affects others, and as your internal eight-hour’s sleep rhythm kicks in, simply forget about the concept straight away; you’ll wake up fine in the morning.

Going east is trickier; it’s the bane of trans-oceanic pilots, who keep tumbling into the next day too quickly; having to get up earlier and earlier until their eyes are too small to see their instruments through. Every so often you’ll enter another time zone where it is later, and you’re forever turning your watch forward, which gives you a good feeling for a while: every six hours on a plane, you can add about two extra hours – it’s bonus travel time that you do not have to live through, speeding up your ordeal with the in-flight announcements that interrupt seventeen times the film you did not really want to watch anyway. But the good feeling – like eating half a birthday cake – won’t last.

Because eastward, you’re going against the sun, and that sounds ominous enough to suspect that there’ll be a price to pay. The solution here is to accept one torturously long, sleepless period. Go easy on the alcohol because this will give you restless sleep and restless legs. Walk around a bit, linger in the aisle, stretch your hamstrings, flirt with the steward(esse)s in the kitchen. You will feel like a student again, skipping the night completely. On arrival, treat what’s left of the day like any day back home, and do not go to sleep but push yourself with the help of those fizz-less Asian energy drinks, or try the local espressos. None of it will alleviate the headaches following cabin decompression and recompression. I had three flights in a row and worried about skull fissures. Eventually, normal bedtime will come around at your location, and you’ve been too zombie-like to even unpack. So you crash onto the unfamiliar bed too knackered to care and the next morning something feels off but you will have had some solid, restful sleep. Then during the following days your sleep might be shorter or interrupted – don’t break a sweat over it, it’ll get better every day!

This leaves the poor bastards who’ve booked a flight that lands at an ungodly hour. Now you know why these deals are cheaper. Yet the principles above still apply: for one horrific mutant day-night, you must push yourself to stay awake (much) longer than you’d care for, drop comatose on your hotel mattress, and then jet lags are simply a thing that happens to older or less evolved humans – not you.

Should you feel that you are suffering despite this advice, you may well be one of those older or less evolved humans. On arrival, try some pills.

I had to run for my life at every airport and made the gates by the skin of my teeth. The leg room was fantastic (but then, I’m only used to Ryanair), and the in-flight entertainment was varied and superb, with a personal touch screen for everyone. The young, bearded man next to me listened the whole Qatar Airlines flight through the free, crappy headphones to the Qur’an, recited. Peace be upon him!

And now I am finally in China.

The China Suitcase

I got my visa today, oh boy. Now I have to deconstruct my whole life into a suitcase the size of a Punto. I will fly ahead of my family, to find out if the ground does not swallow immigrants, if the dragons are truly extinct, if the tilting noodle trucks will not pose lethal threats to pedestrians. My liaison officer reassures me that everything will start feeling fine soon enough, but concedes the grotesque diet changes – no cheese, no butter, no yoghurt, no iced water, no Indian dishes, no salad. Some pretty phenomenal local foods may replace these tastes, and I am ready to be impressed of course.

Those last weeks before emigration are really great, and while I’ve got better at it over the years, it’s been fun every time anyway. There’s a jittery vacuum instead of excited anticipation, because I have no clue what to expect. I can’t prepare for something I don’t know. Watching a dozen youtube videos with advice has produced no more than: pack deodorant since the Chinese, genetically, stink less than I do and don’t use it. And bring shoes for the whole year because while there are Chinese as tall as I (1m 91), so I can get trousers and shirts in my size, no Asians have shoe size 45 (=11 in UK/US). The other tips reflected the bloggers more than they did China, or concerned other parts of the country. It’s really cold in the north and hot in the south. Wet in the east and dry in the west. More expensive along the coast and cheaper inland. More international in the large hubs and more provincial in the second-tier cities.

I could have got all that looking at a map.

There are about 600,000 immigrants living in China (the biggest group among them are the South Koreans). This means that one in every 2,300 people in China is a foreigner. But they’re not spread evenly – in fact, in the few cities where there are many, they tend to live in the same neighbourhood.

The only two certainties I’ve got is an address and 40 kilos of stuff to haul there. Today I sifted through every possession, threw a lot away on the occasion, and filled a third of my suitcase already.


Above: my storage wall cupboard. All this stuff will NOT make it to China, but it also isn’t cluttering my Toruń apartment anymore – the tenant who moves in here next month will find a tidy place to live. During the three-day selection process, every item I own has passed through my hands, much got thrown away, and I am feeling materialistically cleansed.

I’m flying via Doha and Beijing and Changsha on Wednesday. What to expect? China’s particular blend of charms and irritants is unforeseeable; each facet will simply hit me separately and then either resonate, repulse, or leave me cold. Three days till liftoff, then, and I will leave you with a factoid of global importance: ketchup is actually a Chinese invention, originally a pickled fish sauce called ‘ke-tsiap’.

Western China & Yueyang – map

Well, it seems my new hometown is 6 hours by train from everywhere: Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong – all within reach for a weekend trip. Some foreign capitals to fly to directly from Yueyang are Hanoi (2 hours), then Seoul (3) and Tokyo (4).

‘Yue’ is a word denoting ‘mountain’, and ‘Yang’ is the strong and positive power of Eastern philosophy.

It is situated in Hunan province, which means ‘south of the lake’ (‘north of the lake’ is Hubei, the next province up). Dongting Lake is the lake in question, which lies not far south of Yueyang, and is legendary as the birthplace of dragon boat racing.

Europeans Go to China: A Travel Times History

In the third century BC, Greak king Euthydemus I was the first European we know of who went to China, looking for gold. Later, the Romans dispatched embassies to China after a first travelling diplomat, Gan Ying, went west, almost two millennia years ago. Gan wrote about the Romans: “Their kings are not permanent. They select and appoint the most worthy man. If there are unexpected calamities in the kingdom, such as frequent extraordinary winds or rains, he is unceremoniously rejected and replaced. The one who has been dismissed quietly accepts his demotion, and is not angry”.

The Chinese called the Roman Empire ‘Daqin’, which means, confusingly, ‘Great China’. The Romans called the Chinese ‘Seres’, or ‘The Silk People’. They had been way off the mark, believing for centuries that silk grows on mysterious trees in India, until finally two Persian or perhaps Christian spies, dressed up as monks, smuggled silk worm eggs in a hollowed-out walking stick all the way to Constantinople around 550 AD. The whole two-way heist lasted 24 months, so they must have made it to China within one year.

The Pax Mongolica made the Silk Route organised and safe, with guards along the way, and the amazing yam system of fresh horses waiting for you, a day’s travel distance apart, available if you left your exhausted ones behind. Obsessive travellers in a great hurry could travel over 400km per day like this for weeks and weeks; though not many were mad enough to try. To top them all, Italian friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine travelled to China using an icy northern route, keeping the Black and Caspian seas south of him. He was 65 when he started from Lyon in France in April 1245, with a letter from the Pope to the Khan. His companions soon gave up, but, with his Polish interpreter Benedikt, he developed a technique of bandaging the entire body to survive the cold, the bruises, the blisters, and they pushed on together from Kiev and made it after 3,500km in about 100 days. The way back lasted twice that and neither of them lived for much longer after the ordeal.

Also sent by the Pope, but preferring the less insane southern route, Frenchman André de Longjumeau left in the same year as Friar John (1245) and outdid him by going twice. Maybe he forgot something. Each time, the stretch from Syria to Mongolia (=north of China) alone took him a whole year of whipping his oxen eastward at an average 55km per day. 

In the 13th century, the Great Khans invented the passport for such travelling maniacs, who could also use their Yam system and a long sequence of messenger-riders to deliver mail to China from Europe in two weeks. Mail to China in the 1980s went no faster, so three cheers for the Mongols.

My namesake Marco Polo set off for China as a teenager. He took a slow, sight-seeing four years to reach Beijing in 1275, and he must have liked it there because he stayed a quarter of a century and developed a bromance with Kublai Khan. And he should have stayed longer because when he came back after 24,000km in all, his hometown Venice was at war and he chose the wrong side and was put in jail, where at least he got the time to dictate his famous book to a fellow inmate. Polo did not bring pasta to Italy, because they’d already got it from the Arabs, but he is the first Western traveller to highlight the cultural sophistication of his hosts, and he brought back maps with, among others, the coastline of Alaska on them.

Jorge Álvares was the first European to sail to China in 1513, and that took the Portuguese captain only a few weeks since he started out from Myanmar. His countryman Magellan tried the hard way six years later, sailing around the globe the other way, starting at Sevilla, crossing the Atlantic south-westward around Argentina. where the majority of his men organised a mutiny against him and he had to use all his cunning to come on top of the situation. He executed and marooned most of his fleet’s captains and went on across the Pacific, but he got himself bogged down in the Philippines where he was killed by a local bamboo spear. Had he not died in a silly tribal squabble in the jungle, he would have made it to China, sailing around the world, in about 20 months.


(Dutch spy Jan Huyghen van Linschoten (1563 – 1611)

Only 4 of Magelland’s men (less than 2% of his original crew) returned to Europe on the last remaining ship, but the Portuguese just would not give up. Jesuits and traders followed and Portugal enjoyed a greedy monopoly on the route details, closely guarding their nautical info. But then, Dutch spy Jan Huyghen van Linschoten, working for the Portuguese in Goa (India), got hold of the maps and copied them page by page in the evenings. He then did not sell them to the highest bidder, but published the secret information in 1595 – hoping the world would benefit. That is when other Europeans started giving China a serious try.

The Spanish sailed almost immediately but they were chased away twice. It dawned slowly on the sailors that going south, and then east around Africa, might be a lot shorter – though it still meant sailing close to 30,000km, about three times longer than going over the steppes on those Mongol horses, the yam system now a forgotten memory. The Dutch set out next, to see if China could be as lucrative as Indonesia was proving. They invaded Formosa (Taiwan) in 1622 and stayed about 20 years. Their despotic leader Jan Pieterszoon Coen had picked up a few decks of slaves in South Africa whom he used to successfully fight the Chinese with. Then they would all work together on the plantations while Coen’s fellows could venture on to Japan. The first British ship arrived in China 15 years later, when Coen had already died of a tropical disease. In those days, the voyage from Amsterdam or London took about a year.

In 1866, an amazing race was organised from China to Cornwall between sixteen British ships. The top three were all Scottish-built ‘tea clippers’, the fastest ocean sailing ships back then. The three prize winners arrived in Cornwall within 90 minutes of each other, after 99 days at sea. Yes, that is hard to believe, but there were many witnesses and it sold many newspapers. A regular cargo ship would still take almost twice that long, but new travel methods were just beyond the horizon.

The big railway lines through Russia and India were finished by 1880, and now the 8,000km journey over land took about a month, while the Suez Canal allowed ships to get there in about a month as well. Add the two other colossal innovations of the age: steam engines and refrigeration, and it is clear when globalism really started.

Today, the Silk Road Trains run by China Railway Express end in Poland (where I lived from 1995), and now number about ten trains a day arriving in the European Union at the Polish/Belarussian border town of Małaszewicze. These freight trains take about two weeks to get here.

So, a final comparison: 140 years ago I could have got on an Amsterdam train and arrived in China a month later. Today, it’s twice as long: the flights Warsaw-Yueyang will take 24 hours and the visa bureaucracy has lasted 2 months.

But now I have my date: I will arrive in China on the 13th September 2018. It was the cheapest flight available because superstitious travellers do not like to land on the 13th.

First blog Post – about a month before setting out

“By three methods we may learn wisdom:

First, by reflection, which is noblest;

Second, by imitation, which is easiest;

and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”


Confucius’ life probably overlapped a couple of years with those of Buddha, Laozu, and Socrates, 2500 years ago. They could all have met, and their disussions would have been the must-attend event anywhere BC.

Did they suspect what lasting legacies they set in motion?

But… Is China normal? Practically everybody I know has never been to China, and they are much more certain and vocal in their comments than the few people I know that did travel there – as if it’s that important to have an opinion at the ready about why NOT having ever gone there.

As a European, all the views I hear on China – stereotypical, derisive, fearful, but also curious, puzzled, in awe – are the outsiders’ perspective, from which China is strange to the point of leaving most available reference frames altogether. But this is not the right approach at all: the question must be

“Is China normal to the Chinese?”

Of course it is.

My aim is to put the visitor’s boring ballast of comparative judgement aside and treat my life in this huge country, where 1/5 of the world’s people live, as a normal life in a normal country among normal people. If anybody is strange here, it is me.

Of course it is me. And I will use all three of Confucius‘ methods to get my wisdom here.