It is now autumn in Huainan, and this is the most tolerable of all seasons here. Winter is brutally cold, summer oppressively hot, and spring usually lasts for about a day and a half. Autumn, in contrast, is wonderful. The weather is cool, the air comparatively clean, and it is even a little colourful as the trees turn yellow and orange, and strange autumnal flowers bloom.
I took the opportunity to shoot some photos in the Quanshan and Shungengshan region – a stretch of hills that divide Old Huainan from the new Shannan area to the south.
With my iPhone, I took this panorama of the city as the sun fell:
This morning I was teaching a lesson when a piercing noise began not far from my class. It quickly rose in volume to the extent that it hurt my ears, and I could see from my students that it pained them, too. I have been in Asia long enough not to panic at incredibly loud, sudden noises, but as the sound got louder and louder, I began to feel rather uncomfortable. Not only was it interrupting my classes, but I wondered if it was also damaging my hearing. My eyes began to water. Could this be some sort of sonic attack? Were we at war? Of course not. No one seemed particularly surprised. Life went on as normal outside my classroom window, except that people were covering their ears as they continued walking about.
Many hours later, I learned that this siren marked the anniversary of the beginning of the Japanese invasion. Apparently it happens every year, so I suppose I must have forgotten that, or maybe it just wasn’t so loud last year. It’s easily done. After all, teaching in China – or in fact just living here – involves a great amount of tolerance for idiotic bullshit like eardrum-destroying sirens. In fact, every day I feel as though I’m subjected to a sonic assault. If it is not a siren, it is surely fireworks or someone drilling into a wall.
China is a place where nothing really happens for a good reason. There is a phrase here – “meiyouweishenme.” It literally means “there is no why”. More idiomatically, it means “just because.” It is a good answer for anything that goes on in China.
“Why are you walking down the middle of a busy road with your child in a stroller?”
“Why are you lighting fireworks outside my window at 5am?”
“Why are you encouraging your child to take a shit in the middle of this supermarket?”
“Why is that large butcher’s knife lying in the middle of a playground?”
And so on.
So, the hell with it: This is China. The Chinese will do as they have always done, which is to act in a way that is utterly baffling to the rest of the world. They will commemorate the Japanese invasion by inflicting more pain and suffering on their own people. Anyone who tries to find reason in this will be driven mad, for there really is none. It’s just China as it always has been and always will be.
I got back to this odd place three weeks ago. When I left in early July, I wasn’t even sure whether I would come back at all. Part of me was so sick of it that I thought I might just wander off into the world and find somewhere new. Could there really be a place as terrible as Chinese Tier 3 city? Surely not, although perhaps certain warzones or malarial swamps might come close. And, no I think about it, Cleveland was pretty unbearable. But the last thing I saw before setting off for Thailand was a woman holding her baby out to defecate on the floor of Hefei International Airport…
…ahe first thing I saw when I arrived back in Hefei was a man lying over two “courtesy seats” that are reserved for disabled people, the elderly, or pregnant women.
I think you could safely hashtag these #onlyinchina. Hell, you could probably study these pictures in a Chinese culture class, as they are utterly representative of the good citizens of the Middle Kingdom, for whom no act is too selfish to commit.
Coming back, then, was a sort of resignation: an admission that I will do literally anything for a paycheque. After all, what is more demeaning than living among a billion and a half chronic public defecators?
Well, whatever. I am back, and like I said last year: “This is my last year.”
And, as I say every year: “This time I mean it.”
When you live someplace, you have to find ways to cope with the unfortunate elements, no matter how overwhelming they seem to be. You can find a hobby, throw yourself into your work, or maybe take up meditating. Different people cope in different ways.
I chose to get out into the countryside on pleasant evenings once the sun began to go down, and practice photography. This forced me to look for something beautiful in an otherwise grey and smoggy landscape:
In addition to that, I hit the gym four days a week and spend most of the rest of my time working. It keeps me sane until the next time I escape…
I’ve been living in China on and off for almost eight years and sometimes I forget that it can be a beautiful place. Between the pollution, the people, and the government, there’s a lot here that’s just plain awful. The cities are vast and unpleasant, and the countryside is being swallowed up at an alarming speed. Even when you take the train from one city to the next, all you see are mountains being torn down, forests devastated, and rivers that run grey with filth.
Where I live is especially bad. The air is thick with coal dust and the people utterly uncivilized in the truest sense of the word. Most of northern and central Anhui province is like this, unfortunately, and as the giant metropolis of Hefei grows and grows, it simply swallows up more of what was once pleasant land, and turns it into what Chinese people desire most – bland, grey swathes of land covered in huge buildings.
If this all sounds unpleasant, then imagine travelling on a national holiday, when hundreds of millions of people (I’m not exaggerating) take to the roads and rails in pursuit of somewhere to take a selfie. Venturing outside at these times is just foolish, although I have done it on several occasions (Jiuhuashan, Dali, Meilixueshan). Lacking the capacity for creative thought, the Chinese all go more or less to the same places, but even if you find somewhere with fewer of them, you still have to contend with the small matter of getting there on jam-packed roads and train stations crammed with screaming, spitting, shitting morons.
Thankfully, we accidentally purchases tickets for business class and were delighted to find a small cabin with four luxurious reclining seats. It was utterly silent in there, in stark contrast to the rest of the train. What a wonderful beginning to a journey:
We arrived in a small town called Jingxian, and from there took a local bus for an hour and a half up into the mountains to Zhaji. On the way, we saw some incredible birds and I regretted having not brought a longer lens. In packing my camera equipment, I had assumed Zhaji would be as utterly devoid of wildlife as everywhere else in eastern China. Boy, was I wrong. There were eagles and huge colourful birds with long tails. Yet I was never able to shoot any of them with the camera stuff I’d brought.
Oh well, c’est la vie.
Zhaji proved to be scenic enough to get some good photos:
Zhaji is unlike other historic towns in China in several ways. The first and most important is that it’s not at all well-known. Others, like Sanhe, are swarmed with idiot tourists year-round. People move there just to sell souvenirs, and all the buildings are renovated to make it more tourist-friendly. The result is that it becomes very fake and rather gaudy. The beauty of old China was that it revered subtlety – something utterly lost on modern Chinese, who prefer things loud and obvious. Zhaji, by contrast, retains the pleasant charm of old dynasties, and the fact that it has been largely left to fall apart keeps it looking as authentic as it is. The people there seem like good, honest folk who go about normal lives in spite of the small number of tourists that visit, rather than the greedy snakes who inhabit other tourist spots. As a result, Zhaji is a relaxing, pleasant place to visit with no scams or related pitfalls.
We didn’t have much time but we made the most of it, even exploring the town and its surrounding areas at night:
On our second day, we took a taxi further into the mountains to a place called Peach Blossom Lake (Taohuatan) and went rafting on a river there. The national park (or regional forest park, whichever it was) was pretty small and pleasant, with not too many tourists due to its remote location. In fact, aside from rafting it’s best-known for a Li Bai poem. We walked around for a while and admired the surprisingly clean water before renting a raft and drifting peacefully down the river over the course of about an hour.
It was so nice, it felt like being in another country!
After a brief trip, we had to leave little Zhaji and head back through the miserable transport system to Huainan. Unfortunately, I’d made a mistake in buying the train tickets and it took a complicated series of buses and taxis to get home over 14 long hours… Back just in time for a few hours’ sleep before work.
Oh well, at least I have the memories and photos to remind me it’s not all bad here.
And hey, China will always be funny because it’s so damn weird. After all, where else in the world do they teach children fire safety like this:
Today is Dragon Boat Festival here in China. It’s an old holiday in celebration of a poet called Quyuan, who allegedly killed himself after seeing his country fall apart. In fact, many people today believe that he was either gay or sleeping with the emperor’s daughter, so perhaps it’s not the patriotic tale that the government tries to present. Or maybe people just like gossip. In any case, it’s revered by most Chinese not as a day to celebrate the past or eat zongzi, but as a few days’ holiday from work.
Unfortunately, in China, the government enjoys the old bait-and-switch of giving you a holiday but then requiring you to work it off later. That means a Monday off work requires you to do a Saturday at work and so on. It’s a cruel ruse. Nevertheless, I finagled Saturday afternoon off work and headed from Huainan down to Hefei for the long weekend. It started, alas, at the dentist, but by Saturday night I was taking in live music and drinking nice whiskey.
On the Sunday I rode the new Hefei subway line out to Binhu, near Chaohu. It is amazing how fast this city has grown. I first came to Hefei in 2010 and it seems to have more than tripled in size. It is, in fact, virtually unrecognizable. The whole area of Binhu was fields when I first arrive, and now it is practically a city center to itself. There are vast shopping malls, theme parks, exorbitant hotels, and every self-respecting franchise has a couple of locations here now.
With a group of friends, I drove around the western end of Chaohu (the suffix -hu means “lake” in Chinese, so this is Chao Lake) to a small village where my friend was participating in an art show. The route was scenic enough, but it was here that I ran my first and only marathon back in 2015, and I felt exhausted just sitting in the back of a car.
At the small village, we soon found the old cluster of buildings that would house a small art show. Inside, modern art clashed strangely with the old walls and doors, and sat out unnaturally against the blue skies and green gardens. Yet somehow it was really very pretty. The art was all rather obvious, but nonetheless interesting. It all seemed to revolve around themes of environmentalism, which was pleasant to see. Someone had framed the door to a bathroom with a sign that said, essentially, “All life is art.” It reminded me of being a student and hearing that sort of thing come from my artsy friends. It sounded marginally less stupid back then.
I was approached by a team of reporters from Anhui TV, who asked to interview me, and then followed me around the grounds of the building as I perused the art work. In the end, I never did get their contact detail and I don’t watch TV so I probably won’t get to see myself wandering awkwardly, pretending not to notice all the people following me.
My favourite exhibit was a bizarre one comprised of two Irishmen playing traditional music with a Chinese piper, while another Chinese man tattooed the piper’s back. Everyone crammed into this tiny room and jostled for the best position to film the spectacle. However, if you looked carefully you would see some odd Chinese characters on the back wall which, when read backwards, make fun of the people in the room. It basically says “People are so stupid these days that they will crowd around and stare at anything.”
After the art show, we all spent the night in Binhu. It’s seemed like an entirely different city from the rest of Hefei. It’s all so new and, with the right light, it was actually quite pretty. Travelling in China on holidays is a nightmare, but it’s nice to know that without going too far, you can still get away from it all and see something new.
Last month, after spending most of my winter in Sri Lanka and Japan, I returned to China. When I had left, in early January, I was sick of the place, yet when I arrived back I was curiously happy to return. So it goes. China can be a frustrating place to live with its pollution and censorship and the constant stupidity and filth everywhere… But it’s of course not all bad. I wouldn’t have spent most of the last seven years here if it was.
This was to be the first extended period of time I’d spent in Huainan without working. I had more than two weeks at home. This was no accident. For two years I have been working on a book about Allen Ginsberg. Well, actually I have been intermittently researching it for two years. Now it was time to finally sit down and write. The words, thankfully, flowed. In two weeks I wrote some 20,000 words.
Aside from the Ginsberg book, I spent my time watching the local stray cats. My university campus is normally home to some 20,000 students, but during the holidays it is all but empty. This was my first time living on campus during the holiday, and I was delighted to see that there were cats everywhere. I spent time photographing them, feeding them, and sometimes even playing with them. In particular, there was one small ginger cat – probably just a few months old – who caught my interest. I was torn about attempting to catch him. It is unfair, though, to take a cat in if you cannot commit to looking after it indefinitely.
It was nice, also, to see the campus minus the hordes of students:
Eventually, the students returned to campus in dribs and drabs, and along with them came the other teachers and an assortment of old people who seem to live there. My peace and quiet dissipated, and the cats went into hiding. Leaving my house meant being stared at by every slack-jawed halfwit around, and there were now many thousands of them. Moreover, from morning to night came the noise of people outside my window. You might not think that’s a terrible thing, but the average Chinese person can make more noise than a doom metal concert just walking to his car.
I came to an important decision: it was time to move house. I’d been living in a tiny apartment on campus for almost three years and it had proven pretty comfortable, albeit basic. But now it was time to move someplace better – to gain more comfort, more space, and more peace.
My girlfriend and I began looking around for places listed online, and after a few days we began to book viewings. It was interesting to me that in China people would never dream of cleaning or fixing up an apartment before trying to rent it out. Every place we saw had potential, but its owners had obviously taken that Chinese philosophy of chabuduo (“close enough”) and not bothered to do anything. The real estate agents, too, made no effort really to sell the properties. It never fails to amaze me how literally everything in this country is done so half-assed.
Another weird quirk was that all the apartments have a windows between the toilet and other rooms, as well as clear glass doors. This is also true in every hotel room in the country. One element of Chinese culture that I will never – to my dying day – understand is their desire to watch each other poop. Public toilets usually have no doors and sometimes no walls, and most people prefer just to go outside anyway. Most apartments we saw had windows from the kitchen looking in on the toilet, which I found deeply unsettling.
We kept looking, hoping for an apartment that wasn’t a pervert’s palace, and eventually found a beautiful big place above a supermarket. However, as we stood talking to the owners, a train careened by the window some thirty floors below, shaking the building and just about deafening us as its horn blared. They do this at night time, too…
We ended up finding a nearly perfect apartment, whose only fault was that it was a little out of the way. It was more than three times my old apartment’s size, quiet at all times of day and night, and had a beautiful big study for me to finish my Ginsberg book – if I ever find the time to do so. It was, of course, filled with crap, but we convinced the owners to move out their stuff. With two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen, study, and big rooftop balcony, it somehow only cost $200 per month. Despite everything, sometimes China is fantastic.
We have been living here for two weeks now, and enjoying it very much. It feels like another part of the world entirely. Downstairs there is a market street, which is lined with little old ladies selling the most amazing collection of crap – but only between 16:00-18:30 for some reason. You can buy fresh fruit and vegetables (more than you could ever carry for $1), decidedly less fresh meat (especially heads, feet, and testicles), all kinds of weird eggs (including those chemically cooked in lime, which I’m told are very dangerous to eat), plants, plates, pants, pots, pans, and a plethora of pickled vegetables. You can get a massage, have your ears dewaxed, get your feet scraped, or have cobra venom used to cure your acne.
Although Chinese New Year is the most important celebration in the lunar calendar, the Gregorian New Year is also important and so January 1st – 2nd is a public holiday in China. As such, I decided to take my girlfriend to Jiuhuashan (Mount Jiuhua, 九华山) for a few days.
Jiuhuashan is one of the best-known mountains in Anhui Province, and is considered one of China’s four sacred mountains because of the number of Buddhist temples dotting the landscape. As China’s transport network has developed and its middle class has grown, Jiuhuashan has gone from being a point of traditional Buddhist pilgrimage to a major holiday destination, although it remains far less visited than its neighboring Huangshan (Yellow Mountain, 黄山).
We left Huainan on Sunday evening and took the bullet train directly from Huainandong to Chizhou – a small city on the banks of the Changjiang River (probably better known in the West as the Yangtze River). Chizhou is the nearest town to Jiuhuashan, and after a night spent in a bizarre hotel, we took a taxi for 80rmb to Jiuhuashan.
When you arrive at Jiuhuashan by taxi or bus, you really arrive at the entrance to the Jiuhuashan National Park, and from there you need to take another long bus up the winding mountain roads to Jiuhuashan Town. Entrance to the park costs 160rmb and the bus is 50rmb return.
Unfortunately, it had become apparent from the taxi that our visit might be spoiled by smog. Most of Eastern China is currently engulfed in yet another “airpocalypse” as a massive bank of thick air pollution blankets large swathes of the country. In Chizhou – which my students had informed me the air is “always fresh” – the air was almost unbreatheably bad and visibility was only about 100 meters. However, as we climbed the mountain roads on the little tourist bus, it failed to improve. It is tempting to thick of these smog banks as low lying, but evidently they stretch up for hundreds of meters as well as going on for hundreds of miles.
Smog over Jiuhuashan
Smog over Jiuhuashan
When we arrived at Jiuhuashan Town, we set out to look for a hotel before doing some hiking. Yet we were immediately hit by another disappointment. The tiny town was crammed with Chinese tourists. Anyone with experience around Chinese tourists knows that they are absolutely the worst, and sadly they behave even worse at home in China than they do abroad. The roads were crammed with honking cars and people shouting and spitting and doing all kinds of unfathomably stupid things.
Our first turn of good luck came when we saw a hotel and inquired about rooms. The sign said all rooms were upwards of 1000rmb, but the manager told us that was just for the holiday, which had ended that morning. Rooms were now just 250rmb.
After a quick lunch, my girlfriend and I set off hiking, and quickly realized that although the it was January and we were way up in the mountains, the temperature was really quite high – sometimes around 12 Celsius. Our winter clothes were not needed, and soon we were just hiking in t-shirts, with sweaters and coats stuffed into our backpacks.
We planned our route to take us as far from the town as possible, and also to avoid the one road that leads through the park. It was a steep climb up into the hills, and thankfully as we climbed the noise from below subsided and we met fewer and fewer people. Alas, the smog didn’t dissipate, and although it was at times possible to catch a glimpse of a mountain top, we were virtually blind to the scenery. All we could see was the path ahead of us. That was bitterly disappointing, having come to such a famously beautiful place, but more worrying was the fact that with every deep breath we took we were breathing in dangerous toxins.
Of course, it wasn’t all bad. Despite the disappointment of the view, it was still nice to be in the forest and away from the city. We could see the trees around us for at least a few hundred meters, and everywhere we went there were cats of all kinds, and even a few beautiful birds. In fact, the higher we went, the more cats we saw! For a cat lover like myself, it was paradise.
The temples, too, were beautiful. We stopped off at many of them on our long trek, and admired the stonework and big metal incense burners. Generally, the monks were pretty friendly, although quite a few of them rudely begged for money. At a small village in a little valley we saw monks taking care of dozens of cats, and realized that’s why the felines had proliferated to such an extent, whereas throughout most of China they aren’t nearly so common. The village also had giant walls of dried meat hanging outside every house, and the cats we so well-fed that they didn’t even seem tempted by the veritable feast hanging above them.
Near Baisui Palace, which is home to a mummified priest whose body supposedly didn’t decompose over the hundreds of years since his death, we saw monkeys. I think they were short-tailed macaques. These were by far the most interesting wildlife I’d seen in China, and I could hardly believe they lived wild in the same dull, lifeless province that I live! At first they were very shy, but as my girlfriend and I stood quietly and watched them for half an hour, they become bolder and walked very near to us. These monkeys are huge, and seem only to live on the highest parts of the mountain, foraging food from the bins and from the scraps that the monks leave out.
As we climbed down the mountain and sought out some dinner, we reflected upon the day and decided that the monkeys had made everything worthwhile. Having grown up in China, on the edge of a city, this was my girlfriend’s first experience with real wildlife. She was absolutely delighted not only to have seen the animals, but to have had them come so close to us. It was a transformative experience her.
The next morning, we set off hiking again, this time with full backpacks as we’d checked out of the hotel. We headed back to Baisui Palace, hoping to trek down into another valley and climb a higher peak. However, our legs at this point were very sore and the extra weight of the bags made it a slow and difficult climb. We were put to shame by the old men and woman carrying giant bags of cement up the steep mountain path for repairs at the temple.
After a few wrong turns that took us on a rather circuitous route up the mountain, we followed a trail heading towards a place called “Tiger Cave” (yes, many places in China are named for tigers and dragons – it’s not just your local Chinese restaurant that follows this custom). We found that along this trail there were absolutely no people, and as it followed the crest between two peaks we were afforded quite impressive views of the valley and mountains beyond. Fortunately, the smog had dissipated a little, and although the view was far from perfect, it was now possible to see the other side of the valley, whereas on the previous day it had been entirely invisible. As we were both very tired, we kept interrupting our walk to stop and take in the view, and soon gave up on the idea of continuing. It seemed that Tiger Cave was actually way down in the valley, and a return up the mountain was a bit unappealing.
We returned to Baisui Palace and nearby we found a troop of monkeys eating from a pile of discarded fruit. There were no people about and we stood in silence, watching the monkeys. A few cats came by, apparently unafraid of the giant simians, and all was peaceful.
After that, we looked around Baisui Palace (really just a temple) and its five hundred gold Buddhas, before descending the mountain and attempting the journey back to Huainan. Alas, as is so often the case in China, the relatively simple trip back was made quite difficult, and it took eight hours on a combination of buses and trains and taxis, arriving home about 11pm. However, after an inauspicious start to the trip, we both agreed that our time at Jiuhuashan had been overall enjoyable – two days very well spent.
It seldom snows in Huainan. I can recall one light snowfall last year, and previously, when I lived in nearby Hefei, I remember a few other slightly snowy days. Yet last night, as I slept, winter arrived and brought with it several inches of thick, white snow which covered everything on campus. I awoke at 6am for work and looked outside to see a very different world – cleaner, crisper, the snow covering all imperfections. I’m not a morning person, yet I quickly ventured out into the dawn and snapped some photos of this rare spectacle, walking around almost knee-deep in powdery snow for a cold but pleasurable half-hour.
I went off to work and taught all day as the snow continued to fall. During my breaks I’d go stand out in the snow as it fell all around, and students would stare at me like I was insane. Yet this is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen the campus, the city, or any part of China. The snow covered everything and made it seem fresh, clean, and new.
By 3pm, when it finally stopped, we’d had almost a foot of snow dumped on the city, and everything was hidden beneath it. Students trudged about and fell wherever the snow vanished and was replaced by ice, and trees buckled and snapped under the weight of this alien powder. The little pocked of bamboo were entirely flattened by the weight of snow on their leaves.
I snapped a few shots in black and white over the day – mostly in the morning – to document this bizarre twist in the weather. I’ve never used black and white before.
It has gotten cold this past week in Huainan and Hefei, in the middle of China’s Anhui Province. Winter has arrived earlier than usual, and it has brought unusually cold temperatures. People are saying that this winter will be one of the coldest on records, and it’s not hard to believe.
Last year we barely even had a winter. It settled in slowly and temperatures never got that low, before a long, pleasant spring set in at the end of February. It is odd that winter sometimes lasts no more than two months, and in other years it seems to drag on for five. I even remember one year when temperatures plummeted to below minus 20, when last year it barely hit freezing point.
Yet winter can be oddly beautiful in Anhui. Summer is oppressively hot, and spring and autumn are all too brief. The flowers and cherry blossoms can be pretty, but winter brings the yellows and oranges, and at this time of year you are almost guaranteed a blue sky. That makes for cold nights, of course, but in the day the ever-present sunshine is very welcome.
It is at this time of year, too, when the old people in the countryside lay out their rice to dry on the roads. It is odd in a country so determined to modernize at the expense of tradition and rural ways, yet in Huainan modernization has met stark resistance. Traffic yields to angry old ladies with pitchforks and the roads are ruled by little old men in homemade tractors.
Last weekend was my birthday and I visited Hefei to see some old friends and spend time at the Shipyard Cafe and Francesco’s Pizzeria. I walked around town in the bright sunlight and explored a park that, in all my years there, I’d somehow never before visited. I also brought friends some of my new beer. Hefei was kind to me, offering up some unusually pleasant sights and two miraculous hangover-free mornings, despite the dozens of beers and whiskeys consumed.
I returned to Huainan on the Sunday for work, and Huainan, too, was blessed with blue skies and sunshine which made the return to work a little easier. This is what my university looks like on a particularly nice day:
Today I took a walk around the campus to see the trees standing strikingly yellow against the bright blue skies:
It helped with my otherwise sour mood following the shock news that the United States had elected the most objectively awful candidate for president. Although my heart goes out to my friends across the Pacific Ocean, and I worry for the future of our planet given their new leader’s determination to wreck the environment, I am at present very glad to be living in China. China is far from perfect, and its government obviously deeply flawed, but this is a country which appears to be bent on improvement, whereas in the West most nations now seem hellbent on setting the clock back several decades with their sickening turn towards far-right groups and fascism.
Today I woke up and saw that the internet had gone done across much of the Western world… or at least that’s how it was presented. Twitter and Reddit were down, and a ton of other sites. It had all happened while I was asleep because I live on the other side of the world, in China.
Where did I see this news? The same place people get most of their news these days – Facebook, Twitter, Reddit. In this hyper-connected world of ours, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the internet, and in particular social media. I wonder what would happen if the attack had been bigger… much bigger. How would people survive? How would they even know what’s going on? Of course, those of us who lived pre-Facebook would adapt pretty quickly, but the others? For them, it would probably feel like the apocalypse.
I don’t need to use much imagination to get inside the minds of those who tried and failed to get online last night. Living in China, not being able to get on the above mentioned websites is pretty common. For me to visit Facebook this morning, or, for that matter, almost any website I regularly use, required me to use a VPN. I pay about $100 per year for this service, which I think is very reasonable. Overall, it’s pretty good. I’m able to check my e-mail and do most basic things I need to. Sometimes, I’m able to watch videos on YouTube – although it can be slow and frustrating.
Without a VPN, the websites that you can visit from China are pretty limited in number, and those which are technically open are usually excruciatingly slow. Sometimes, it can actually be impossible to get any functionality from them whatsoever. To be honest, I don’t even try any more. If my VPN is down, I take a deep breath and then spend my time doing something offline – like going for a run or reading a book. It’s particularly aggravating, however, when I need to do something – like answer an important e-mail, prepare for class, or do some research. It is terribly frustrating to know that I need to do something, yet the rules made by a group of corrupt sociopaths in the government to keep their populace in the dark about their shady practices ensures that my work sometimes needs to be hindered.
But it’s best not to think about it when possible.
The internet in China is not all bad. I live in a small town in the middle of nowhere and yet I get a relatively fast connection at home or via 4G. This place is almost third world, yet even here amidst the poverty and ancient superstitions, we can stream music or movies. Assuming I want to use a Chinese website, it works great. Of course, that severely limits my internet use. If I want to use WeChat to talk to friends, great! If I want to download music from QQ or KuGou, fantastic! Taobao and Alipay are brilliant apps, too. Beyond that, the Chinese internet is sort of like the more vapid parts of the real internet – aka what you can access beyond the Great Firewall. Imagine the idiots you went to school with, for whom the most important thing in the world is who won last night’s celebrity-reality-variety-chat show, or whatever gossip has inexplicably gotten its way onto the front page of the tabloid “news” papers. Imagine the sort of vapid crap that they post on social media, and then tone its intellectual level down even further, translate into Chinese, and add more noise and bright colours. Thanks to censorship, there simply is modern culture in China.
Of course, it goes without saying that being offline is no bad thing. I loved traipsing through Southern Africa or sailing along the Indonesian archipelago, completely disconnected from the internet, with absolutely no way of getting online – no notifications, no pings, no bleeps. It felt great. But that’s not really possible or desirable in day-to-day life, even out in the boondocks of China. Surrounded by the majesty of nature, technology can seem an unpleasant distraction, but in the polluted, grey, backwards wastelands of Anhui Province, it is more like a lifeline. Moreover, I’m a teacher and if I need ideas or resources for class, I need the internet. I’m a writer and editor, so I need the internet to research or publish. I live on the opposite side of the globe from my friends and family, so I need the internet to communicate.
There are innumerable reasons why living in China can be difficult, and the internet may seem like a trivial one, but it really isn’t. I can’t abide censorship, and when that censorship – perpetrated, like all censorships, for spurious reasons – negatively effects my life, my business, my ability to teach using the best available resources… well, that is what I consider intolerable living conditions. If the government announced tomorrow that they were cracking down on VPNs, I’d be on a flight out of here the next day – or at least I’d try, but without access to SkyScanner or eBookers it might be difficult.
So, looking across the world at the turmoil of a temporary disconnection from the internet, I do feel a certain empathy. It’s easy to mock, but being forced offline when you genuinely need to be online can be more than an inconvenience.
You might have heard of China’s “ghost cities” – huge areas of urban development completely devoid of people. South of my little city, Huainan (淮南), in Anhui Province, the government has built a new city – called South Huainan (山南)- which is more or less devoid of people, aside from one small park. It is a bizarre place of new apartment blocks standing empty and already crumbling, homes for tens of thousands of people falling apart before anyone has even moved in, brand new infrastructure unused and yet somehow already deteriorating, and little old villages not yet bulldozed as construction stalls.
Two mayors have gone to prison for the corruption involved in getting this bizarre city built. Despite having no sports teams, nor any tourism industry, they saw fit to build a giant stadium (Huainan Olympic Stadium, 淮南奥林匹克体育场;), which looks like it will be finished soon, and an “Olympic Park” nearby. There is a famous house made to look like a piano, as architects were given free reign prior to Xi Jinping’s crackdown on innovative building design. They also attempted to build a $4 billion RMB theme park called Happy World, featuring the tallest ferris wheel in Asia, but shortly before completion the man in charge of the theme park fled the country, taking all the remaining cash with him and dooming the project to failure. The theme park now lies empty, rusting away, although you can see the ferris wheel for miles around.