Ignore the lack of birds singing in trees and you can appreciate modern China

China (25)

Smog obscures most photos of laudable Chinese achievements.

Compared to the slow-moving, sleepy west, visiting China it is like experiencing another planet. Here they employ engineers to do what our world was thinking of doing. If you ignore the lack of birds singing in trees, you can focus on wide freeways punched through huge mountain ranges, spanning deep valleys with steel bridges that reach the next mountain range.

Years of buying Australian iron ore and coal has been put to good use.

If they need to pipe water from well-irrigated Shanghai, 1,318 km to drier Bejing, then it’s done with style. The fifty metre long concrete pipe sections are made in the field, each weighing more than 50 tonnes, and lifted into place by a purpose-built crane, operated by a pretty 20-year-old uni graduate, who is highly skilled to do “men’s work.”

My enduring memory is of looking out the 38th floor window of the Zhongle Motel in Bejing, and viewing what was advertised a kilometre away. You see I am a lazy coddled westerner from planet Australia and this is easy to do in China because they have television screens that cover the sides of sky scrapers so you don’t have to walk down the street to see what they are selling or the greatness of their products. Huge trendy posters of glamour models jut into the sky in most cities, adorning the sides of many buildings. Just about everything is cheaper to buy back in Australia however the real souvenir is the exhilaration of the history and skill of modern China.  

Examining the “qualities”

of his 70 concubines

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Emperors built lakes and canals to impress the Empress and the many pretty concubines……which might seem odd today.


The dance of the young maidens

who were hoping to attract the Emperor’s attention

and join his concubine collection

is still remembered today

and performed for tourists.




Hall of supreme harmony

Tianamen  was awesome including the Hall of Supreme Harmony where the Emperor kept his 3 favourite concubines and had “discreet” small windows through which he peeped to notice the “qualities” of his 70 concubines. Still he spoiled them with holidays and hobbies and built them lakes and gardens. If he was English or Italian, he would have painted pornographic artwork on the ceilings but no, this was a civilized planet and there was no time to moralise. Thousands of tourists may have been thinking, “why were most emperors huge and fat with a large harem.” But no one said it as we all wanted to respect Chinese history. The chosen concubines considered it a great social honor about which they could brag to their friends. Further they gained many skills and hobbies and ignored the reality that the Emperor was fat and ugly. Some as young as 16 were chosen from across China, giving their families kudos and social significance.


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Today the Chinese may be more fashion conscious than western counterparts.

Meeting the locals

A quiet day could draw 50,000 to a tourist attraction. The attendance for the previous day was displayed, along with the number expected plus the temperature. We hadn’t seen that before. And who could forget little toddler, Yow yow, in his home-made stroller, pushed by his mum in her home-made crocheted dress. Meeting the inventive Chinese can provide richer memories than the history and infrastructure.

Despite the high standard of education,

mythology, superstition and a belief in good luck

underpins the daily lives of most Chinese


The mythology of jade

So what would you think if you were offered a jade artefact by a girl whose name was the same as the local currency? Extraordinary stuff. Yuan yuan offered us a jade bangle worth $2,300 Aus. She tried in vain to sell her bangles to many busloads of cynical foreigners but we didn’t connect the “good luck” exuded by jade, to the price. What’s wrong with silver or gold, we asked? No one likes it here, she said.

With a couple of thousand dollars worth of jade, you got “inner harmony” and a bangle that absorbed your body energy, depending on your skin colour. A pasty skin means you will have a pasty bangle after years of skin contact. Who wouldn’t want a part of that? After ten days, it became clear that no matter how skilled or educated or modernised this planet might be, each day the people rely on millenniums of superstition and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, OCD, to bring them luck. The communist system hadn’t changed the yearning for money or good luck. The types and shapes of the sculptured animals in front of all their public and private buildings, especially in Shanghai’s financial district, were for different types of good luck. A good education, plus luck, gets you where you want to be in China.




china superstition


Each day the skillful  Chinese rely on millenniums

of superstition to bring them luck.

The entrance to Shanghai museum (see sandstone building above)

illustrates the daily yearning for wealth and good luck

Some “good luck” creatures were invented milleniums ago,

to bring the locals money and good fortune,

and they are similar to the animals on the roofs

of all buildings constructed by the emperors,

although separated by hundreds of years

and many generations.

(see images above and below)

Each animal protects the householder from an imagined disaster.


Tianamen low res



Chinese Traditional Medicine claims it can fix almost anything 


With herbs and massage, CTM had a cure for everything.

Let me look into your eyes

A strange experience was CTM, Chinese Traditional Medicine. At one CTM factory, it was promoted to fix everything. To help them illustrate this, we took off our shoes and with our feet soaking in a warm bucket of brown, herb encrusted water, we learnt how CTM might cure every disease known to man. It could fix diabetes and lower cholesterol and blood sugar. Why didn’t the west know about this? Don’t ask, it was another world.

Eat more black mushrooms, fix your kidneys, eat more pumpkin as the yellow colour is significant. The colour of the veges should match the colour of your organs. Was it science, medicine or superstition? We were all open-minded if it didn’t cost too much.

Next thing, a doctor (no less a professor) looked into our eyes and tongues and then a translator looked into our wallets, with an average of $300 being extracted, per transaction, and although lightheaded, some felt much better, which was brilliant as they hadn’t felt crook at the start. 


To visit the Great Wall of China

is to enjoy moments in history 

that almost take your breath away

For some of us, the most thrilling thing 

we had ever done


Great Wall

Three days seemed like three weeks, and included a walk up the Great Wall of China, someone doing a mouthorgan recital where Kubla Kahn once stood. Someone else held up his Lybian flag for a photo. We were in awe of the Great Wall that had kept out the invaders for hundreds of years, preserving Chinese skill and achievement. The coffee shop on the Wall had the second best brew we had tasted. The best drop came from the ancient Hutong village in Bejing.





How to pay $40

for two cups of coffee

without really trying

The business of being conned 

There was nothing cheap in China and apart from small-time sellers near bus stops, most prices were exorbitant. But who could forget my fellow-travellers, Phil and Liz who got conned out of $200 for two coffees in the busy but trendy Fujind Street, Bejing. It all started with a pretty girl taking Phil’s arm and gently purring, “are you tired enough for a good coffee?”

He has a weakness for pretty things, but how would she know that? In his fatigued state his alarm bells did not function. Next thing, he and Liz were wheeled into a dark, musty room, next to an actual coffee shop where the shutters were closed. It was dark and they complained loudly, imagining their elderly organs might be harvested.


Fujind Street is where Phil and Liz were conned into paying $40 for two coffees by a pretty girl.

Elderly folk do appear to worry needlessly and their imagination can run rife. Once Phil parted with the $200 and there wasn’t any change forthcoming, they realised the coffee tasted like dishwater that had washed through a Chinese tradesman’s underpants. This signified that they should escape. Apart from engineering and usage of Australia’s iron ore, we were taught about the process of Ying and Yang. Being conned was the Ying however around the next corner there was Yang. From Bejing to Shanghai and up to Chong Quing. There was always some Yang up ahead.

Yang happened when we asked if we could drink our Grants Whiskey in the bar on the 38th floor of the Zhongle. Standing there with our pockets full of chips, crackers and cheese, the answer was no. But suddenly we were allowed to use the executive boardroom 38 floors above Bejing, complete with its own washroom.

We laughed at the prospect of criminals

recycling the organs of us wrinkly old tourists

laughing until the tears rolled down our cheeks

We listened to each other’s funny stories, sipping our Grants and laughing at the fears of old people. We laughed at being conned by herbal factories, pretty girls and coffee shops. Laughed until the tears rolled down our faces. What a hoot that pensioners perceived that  someone might wish to harvest wrinkly old people’s organs. We soaked in the moment. It was yang time and ying could not touch us. The birds were not perched or singing in nearby trees. They had been killed and eaten. We were high up in clouds of 18 million people’s smog, while outdoors the most modern city on earth played massive video messages on the outside of buildings, so we would buy more stuff tomorrow and not be bored.

Was Hotel Zhongle named after an emperor with a similar name, who sat around a similar board room table? The guide said no, but we thought yes.

How could big Emperor Yongle have ever imagined the progress of China, with a bullet train to take us from Bejing to Shanghai, doing the 1,300 km in four hours.

On the train to Shanghai, four hours of countryside flew past our eyes, full of men who loved their one child and one wife, the inner harmony that Yongle could not have grasped with his 70 squabbling concubines.

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The mighty Yangtze cruise is something not to be missed. 

The mighty Yangtze 

From Yi Chang, 1000 km from Shanghai, the Yangtze cruise was relaxing and glorious. Due to the water shortage the authorities had been syphoning off water from the Yangtze to cities in need. It had reduced the level of the river and our cruise ship could not get to Chong Quing, the planet’s biggest city of 33 million where everyone’s car industry had gone to live.

The talented staff dressed up at night in traditional costumes, singing and dancing and telling us Chinese history. They danced the beautiful dance of the hopeful harem applicant. (I kid you not) That was on top of their day job, cooking and administering for pampered visitors. Everywhere the food was glorious however my favourites were cooked by ethnic minorities, including the Weigas from the Mongolian area. Minorities appeared to have more variety and imagination and some of them sang and danced for us. However I should have avoided the chilli and condiments because some Guardia and faecal coli forms appeared to have crept into the mix, due to a lack of hygiene by tourists or Chinese. It prompted a night of vomiting on that great river.

The three Gorges Dam was unforgettable and the river lochs with huge hydraulically controlled gates, was a technological feat.

Loch gates low res

The three Gorges Dam was unforgettable and the river lochs with huge hydraulically controlled gates, was a technological feat.

We saw a China where Bejing’s millions do not appear to drop one piece of litter and Shanghai’s fashionable 24 million didn’t drop any either, but if you did, someone is employed to pick it up right away. And not to be missed are the acrobats of Shanghai that were spellbinding. The megacity of Chong Quing, high in the south-western hills, has a name that means double happiness. They have 82,000 square kilometres in which to find this happiness whilst juggling most of the world’s car industries. Here was our most entertaining guide, to get us to the Chong Quing airport. She summed up Chinese history, the disgrace of the Quomingtang, the failure of Chang Kai Shek, the glory and success of Mao Tse Tung and the worker’s march, plus the great leap forward leading to today’s modern China. She made us laugh, till the tears rolled down our faces. It was so entertaining that we didn’t realise the Communist Government was sorting out any misunderstandings we might have had.


Despite smog blanketing the scenery and the birds vacating the trees

 today you can’t move to Shanghai unless you have a university degree

Western priorities

We told our national guide, Linda, that speedy service, public holidays and delicious hot coffee were more important to Westerners than high achievement and money. The Chinese laughed out loud at that. Linda almost threw up when we said that many westerners put their parents into retirement homes because it interferes with their plans. Linda lived in Shanghai and worked day and night, seeing her only daughter one and a half days out of each week. Her architect husband had left her but her mum and dad lived separately so they could care for two grandchildren. The old people loved each other and maybe got together and hugged when the kids were at school. Responsibility for family was paramount.

You can’t settle in Shanghai if you don’t have a university degree, said Linda proudly. But what about the smog that prevented a clear picture of the landscapes, and the undrinkable tap water someone else asked? And even myself, being an environmental know-it-all, asked: why were there no birds singing anywhere we’ve been? Linda said it was a strange question but she had noticed the lack of birds also.

I had waited a week to ask my zinger: “Has anyone ever stood up in any Chinese forum and asked if this level of development might one day make the entire country unliveable?” No, no one had ever asked that question, to Linda’s knowledge.

But our guide had one brilliant comment that combined wildlife with construction and the environment. “Look at those cranes on the tops of the sky scrapers. We call those our national birds,” she said with pride.

And all 29 of us believed her.

One of our encyclopedic tour guides



Shanghai by night is a visual roller-coaster

everywhere you look there is exciting architecture

illuminated by some of the most imaginative lighting you will see

the city is determined that you won’t be bored for even a moment


Which country on earth, besides China, 

would signpost the previous day’s tourist volume, 

along with the projected attendance for the new day

as well as the temperature and wind speed






About John
John started out as a cadet in 1970 at Bundaberg News Mail, continuing as a feature writer at Rockhampton Morning Bulletin, then began producing regular freelance articles for the Sunday Mail and New Idea. Later he took up science writing for Qld climate, water and soil scientists. Whimsical stories and humorous bush poetry is his current passion.

1 Comment

  1. “Wo de tai tai meiyou yifu.” (My wife has no clothes)
    For future missing suitcase reference.


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