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Monday, 21 November 2011


 David Farnsworth brings us his promised insight into Provincial China today - with this comprehensive account of his recent visit and bike tour there.

Yes. It’s important to write about visits before they fade. It’s been a bit over three weeks since I returned. My Chinese/Australian friend has instructed me not to be negative, but rather positive. I shall try. I guess if she were writing about Australia, I would prefer her impressions of Australia to concentrate on the positive.

And of course, as I mentioned in my last blog, Culture Shock is an issue, as is the health after being on the move for 30 hours getting ‘home’.

Three weeks in another town
My latest escapade involved three weeks in Weifang, which is a large city in Shandong Province, one of the wealthier provinces. Anhui, adjacent, is relatively poor, I believe. The pollution was the worst I have seen it since I started coming here in 2002. Eighteen days of it. Then the winds blew and the pollution disappeared. My Chinese friend, Kathy assured me it had gone to Australia. I keep mentioning the lack of water birds on all the expanses of water I pass. She assures me they are having a holiday in Australia. I went to Lake Wendouree in Ballarat and took some photographs to send her to show her how at home her birds are here.

Views from the train 
On the train to Jinan (Provincial capital) I guessed that three-quarters of the smoke stacks were not working. I assume that the smaller factories have been closed down.
Certainly alternative methods of power generation are visible. In Shandong, almost every apartment has solar power. I would guess they are far cheaper than those sold here. Here in Weifang, they are placed on footpaths for sale, along with things like water melons.
And the tree planting along the freeways is far more ambitious and advanced than our sporadic efforts. One of the student text books referred to these plantations as The Great Green Wall.
A previous mayor of the city undertook an amazing beautification campaign, where flowering fruit trees, forsythias, lilacs and magnolias are everywhere. My friend Kathy assures me that the magnolia was the Mayor’s favourite. Chinese gardens rely heavily on large rocks and water. Trees are cared for. I saw a large tree in the middle of a road, protected by concrete barriers.

How people live and what they earn
In the last nine years there has been a rapid improvement in the wealth / living conditions of the middle class. (I don’t really get to see the poor or the rural people.) Most middle class now have an apartment and a modern car. (German, American, French are being produced for the Chinese market as well as a large variety and number of Chinese designs.) A small electric car is available here for the equivalent of $1,000.
In the ‘old days’ I would see women collecting coal which had fallen from trucks or men rummaging through construction rubbish, collecting wire and bricks. Not anymore.
But for many, I suspect life is still hard. The most common item on the back of a bicycle or in a bike wire basket was a small bunch of celery. (About 20 cents.)
Two of my middle-class friends earn about 2000 RMB a month or about $300. Most of my teacher friends teach or tutor in the weekends to supplement their salaries.
In Weifang, pensioners receive 550 RMB a month. (They were given a recent 50 RMB increase.) but I believe that this pension is determined by the wealth of the province or city... I don’t think it is National. This pension only applies to people who have ‘worked’. Farmers do not qualify, needing to live off what they produce, or rely on gifts from their children. The pension is about 17 RMB a day and for argument’s sake I included a haircut, 10 RMB, a kilo of bananas 6 RMB and the celery! RMB.
Not much to survive on.
I would estimate there are at least 100 twenty-eight storey apartment blocks being erected in the city at this moment. The cost of an apartment is about $50,000 each and buyers borrow money from the bank and from relatives.
If a plot of land in the city (being used to grow vegetables) is needed for the construction of a high rise block, the owner is offered five or six apartments in the block, so he/she goes from being a dirt- poor farmer to being a rich capitalist. The poorest people working are probably the construction workers who are mainly accommodated on site in portable dormitories. They have mostly come from the country. 

Advertisements in Qingdao and Hong Kong airports announce that there is a new Chinese millionaire created every minute and that every day 200,000 people move from the country to the city. In 2004, China was building 47 airports at the same time. Qingdao airport, seven years ago had about 6 flights a day. Now it would have over 100.  Trains, buses and aeroplanes are invariably full. On the fast train to Jinan, people must show identification now for a ticket, and this number is placed on the ticket. People were on-selling this scarce commodity at a profit. (My ticket quoted my passport number.)
Local transport is clean and comfortable, not crowded, with a basic city rate of 1 RMB

Customs, police, health care
People walk around the streets at night, visit the parks and dine out. I always felt very safe... and how many people do you see walking around streets and parks in Australia?  There are many Karaoke bars.
And there is massive police presence in cars and on foot. I saw more police cars outside my hotel in five minutes than I see in a month in Ballarat.
Mobile phones are cheap and the coverage is amazing. On the internet, only Facebook is unavailable, which may not be a bad thing!
My hotel, Xin Jiang (Weifang Reflections Hotel, with a theme of  Old Weifang.) was excellent and only 168RMB with two breakfasts. The room had two beds! My friend joined me for breakfast every morning. Six months ago the hotel hosted forty French Primary School students.
One area which will probably receive more attention in the future is Occupational Health and Safety. But then, fifty years ago in Oz, that was not an issue? Here I worry about the lack of welding glasses, men and women carrying heavy weights, using a spray painting machine without a mask, climbing up trees from ladders to lop branches. There was a case of a doctor in a Military Hospital ending up in Intensive Care after inhaling fumes from an adhesive used to attach boards in a staff room.

 Of course the food here is divine. We are in the north, so we see fewer chillies, which for me is a good thing. The Chinese eat less meat than we do, so that their meals rely heavily on vegetables...all amazingly fresh. Each time I visit, I am served two or three dishes I have never seen before. and my English speaking friends know what I like so that I get to eat my favourites. (In my case, raw jellyfish, cabbage, garlic and vinegar.) In many cases now the restaurants display the fish, meats and vegetables, so that if you are without an interpreter, you can point at what you hope is what it looks like, and wait for the chef to ‘do’ something with it.
There is no such thing as a small serve. The price includes the full amount. Here it is still legal to take away ‘doggy bags’ with uneaten food. Perhaps a journal entry from my trip to Fang’zi, 13 k. away by bicycle will give you a bit of the ‘local’ flavour.

The bike ride
“What a dreadful road Yuan Fei Road has become. The road is not wide enough to deal with the increase in traffic, unlike most of the other roads I travel on which are often four lanes in each direction. The police laughing/talking with the driver of a large black car, which probably disregarded witch’s hats.
The hugely wide load with no warnings. The oncoming fast scooter, which I didn’t notice, braked, skidded to the right and I didn’t fall off. Sometimes I amaze myself. People of all sorts showing identity cards – maybe a blitz? The dead cat in the bushes ... I found it when I went to relieve myself... orange, white, and black and with such sharp teeth. Here cats are kept on leashes! Wind very favourable. 

People try to give me Tsingtao Beer. Is there a conspiracy or is it dearer? I find a bottle of something called Silver Wheat Beer which came all the way from Lin Yi (an hour by air?), and a bottle of wine, the same as last Saturday, 370 ml. Ban Qao  Luy hong, Ganhong, Putaoju a red which had passed its ‘use by date’. The wine in the west of China is eminently drinkable but the Shandong wines are not the greatest... The cook has just grabbed a second 500 ml bottle of rice wine (60% alcohol). Someone has just come down from upstairs (Most Chinese restaurants have rooms where diners can entertain in private, generally with your own waitress/waiter.) with a box of 6 beers. The customers look flushed The bottles are not all empty. Presumably they are walking.
Oh yes. Considering how long Charles had been in China (an ex-pat Australian) I could not believe that he was unaware of the zero tolerance for alcohol and driving. I heard the story of a high official who was enjoying a banquet. Felt so well, he told his driver to take a taxi. He would drive himself home. Picked up by police and given 14 days in jail, which I believe is mandatory. Imagine the uproar if this was introduced in Oz? I attended a wedding party. Most of the men were drinking water. The women were drinking beer!

More on food
Well the meal today was the same as last Saturday. The drunken customers are on bikes... like me.! To start I was given complimentary roasted peanuts and a dish of taro root, sliced, in an orange sauce (Unbelievable!) A new dish followed... a pork terrine ball with radishes, cut into pieces and cooked in a beef stock with bok choy, translucent noodles and mushrooms. Divine! Cockles in a broth with chillies, four  small grilled fish from the local river. (I have seen people catching them)
The staff here is so considerate. On one occasion they offered me cigarettes. Curiously, now, I estimate that the percentage of men smoking has dropped from 80% nine years ago to maybe 10% now. There are health warning signs on the packets, and of course, they are only a tiny fraction of what Australians pay.

Two-wheeled toreador returns
The ride back was idyllic, a light breeze at my back, the setting sun casting long autumnal shadows, leaves falling from trees, caressing my face, the street sweepers battling the strength of the westerly wind. There are still dozens of men and women manually sweeping up leaves in main streets, although I did see a street sweeping truck operating. In the same way, machinery (diggers) are appearing more regularly in fields, but the majority of the work still seems to be done by groups of forty or fifty people working in an area of a couple of acres.
On this road there are wall-to-wall car yards, offering special deals, the car yards going for five kilometres. Cars may be cheaper than in Australia, but petrol is a similar price which makes the petrol very expensive for ‘normal’ people. As well, there are tolls on main freeways between major cities.
I suspect driving in China is a luxury for most people.

A comfortable place... to visit!
I was talking with a friend who had been to China recently and we decided that Australians find China a comfortable place to visit. We wondered whether it was that people in both countries had a similar sense of humour?  Maybe too, there is a love of food and drink.  As I might have said before, the main difference in China is that people respect the elderly. In Australia, we remain mostly invisible.

Be sure to read Davids world-tripping poems 'Middle Kingdom' - available now from Buzzword Books.

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