21 11 14

(Image: Girl in Kaifeng. Reproduced kind courtesy of my travelling companion on the trip, Liam Turner]

Friday 21st November

“Only in China…………….”

If you are from the West, there is no need for drill-down investigative journalism here. Instead of straining yourself to find the bizarre and quirky, it comes to find you.

After last night’s dinner Liam (ex-Bristol, photography), Gareth (ex-Cardiff, software engineering) and myself formed a breakaway-group and went to a central bar that was known for sometimes having westerners amongst the clientele.

We were half-way down our first beer when a pretty Chinese woman aged around 25 approached our table. Immediately I’m thinking: bar-girl and/or hooker, but she introduces herself (‘Bonnie’) and asked if we were all foreign teachers. She was on a recruitment-drive for westerners. She is connected to some kind of hybrid between a TV channel and an advertising agency. They need a western man, woman and even a white child to help ‘model’ (advertise) ……………..wait for it…………curtain fabrics.

I think Liam was her first-choice. Liam is handsome-and-hot, and could probably ‘model’ Georgio Armani, never mind curtain fabrics. He is currently doing his best to single-handedly foil the Chinese Governments ‘single child’ policy that was introduced to stem the burgeoning population.

But he explained he was flying back to England on Monday. Bonnie then looked across at Gareth and I, and weighed-up her options………………. Gareth is much younger than I (South Park generation), but he has what they call a good face for radio, so I became the default second-choice.

Phone numbers and QQ addresses were exchanged (QQ is China’s version of Facebook – that’s why Facebook is banned – they don’t want the competition), and I have been told to wait on a call. There’s money in it – and (who knows), I may even get to meet a western woman. Or two. And there’s nothing wrong with selling out my ‘artistic integrity’. After all, P.G. Wodehouse went to Hollywood, didn’t he? Phil Collins did ‘You can’t hurry love’…………and I need to eat.

Gareth has lived in China for five years, speaks the language impressively well, and he said the woman’s offer is genuine. He spent several minutes speaking to her in near-fluent Mandarin. He said her Mandarin is impeccable, and she has the cut-glass accent of a professional announcer or newscaster.
It’s ironic, because as a child aged around ten, I recall having sleepless nights over whether I wanted to be an astronaut, or a train driver, or to appear in curtain-fabric advertisements on some dodgy Chinese cable channel.

On a separate note, tonight we take China’s equivalent of the bullet train to another City. We have been pre-booked into a hotel and tomorrow we go to see the famous Terracotta Army. All on the firm, which is good of them.
It’s been explained to me that the bullet-train goes in a straight line. And they built the track China-style. None of this consultation with environmentalists, lobbyists, conservationists, or the Council for the Protection of Rural England, like we’ve had with HS2. It was more a case of: “You’ve got a house/ factory/ business/school that lies on our straight-line?……………..aw……that’s tough”.

I hope the poor so and so’s got compensation.

5.30pm, Friday 21st November

A quick bulletin from the bullet train. They don’t call it that here, I just thought it would make a snappy first non-sentence. The north of England is getting transport like this in another sixteen years or so, if the planners are to be believed. The train picks-up pace through the inner suburbs of Zhengzhou. It is sleek, and very well-appointed inside. Television screens display advertisements that are hard to avoid, and there is technology everywhere. The driver presses some kind of ‘turbocharge’ button, and we ease into warp-factor-five. Every comfort and need is catered for, except for the fact that you are still cannot put used toilet paper down the lavatory (or so-says the tannoy, in English). Perhaps that’s the final frontier yet-to-be conquered by the Chinese – toilets you can actually flush loo-roll down.

We have not yet left the City limits. It’s nearly dark outside, except that it’s not going to get dark in this City. On snowy nights in England, the glare of the orange street-lights is reflected upwards from the ground. Well, it’s the same here, except that it’s not snow……………………………it’s dust.

A panel at the front of the carriage displays the current speed. 153kph. I can just-about see electricity pylons and fields now. Already 212 kph…………… and it’s less than sixty-seconds since I typed that ‘153’ figure. Once again I do not exaggerate, for there is simply no need. This is now the fastest I’ve ever travelled without leaving the surface of the planet. We are heading for Xi An, permanent residence of the terracotta–regimental-regatta. There are three uniformed train officials in my own carriage-alone. You’re lucky to get three staff on an entire ‘Master Cutler’ from Sheffield to St Pancras. We appear to have stabilised at 300kph (not-far-shy of 200mph). Warp-factor nine………pity I can no longer see anything out of the window, but the return journey on Sunday will be in the daylight. Crikey, my ears have just popped……………….this is one good bit of railway-kit.

We have now stopped in Gong-Yi-Nan station, which is a surprise, only because there was never any sensation of braking or decelerating in our meander down to 0kph. Then just as effortlessly, we are back to 300kph cruise-control.
On the train, exactly as-planned, I meet two other teachers working for the same Institution as myself. Adam (from Tamworth) and Ben (Aberystwyth) are both here to teach Art, but they are based at a campus in Zhu-Ma-Dian, around 400km away from my base (a mere stones- throw in Chinese terms). We are all booked into the Bell Tower Hotel in Xi’An. This City is pretty-much in the geographic centre of China, and with a population of only 2.7 million it’s a bit of a hamlet compared to my teaching base. But I’ve been told it’s well-worth a look, and not just for the pottery-boys.