Guilin was reputed to be one of southern China’s most beautiful scenic areas and so it was time to explore the area, hike amongst the karst formations which make the area famous, cycle through the surrounding villages and bask in the peace and quiet of rural China for a while. In no way was I under any illusion the scenery wouldn’t be completely smoggy, there might be thousands and thousands of people there with me, or that a cycling trip along a Chinese road might be an insanely stupid thing to do. But I wasn’t going to dwell on the negative, and instead strived only for the positive.
Arriving at Guilin railway station was the usual mixture of relief at having completed another long, overnight railway journey and a sense of slight apprehension at having to navigate through a bewildering system of streets in order to reach the next hotel. Guilin is a small city by Chinese standards, and this means a population of around five million people, more than most capital cities in Europe. Whenever there are many people in a single conurbation, there is smog, masses of commuters and, of course, a lot of noise. I only had to walk a few hundred metres through the early morning traffic, but even this short trip was enough to have me checked into a nice, quiet mental asylum, just for the privilege of getting away from the noisy Chinese.
As I walked to the hotel, I attempted to list the sounds assaulting my eardrums at that moment and had a few problems getting them into the right order of magnitude.
China is an extremely loud country. Every action, every reaction, anything and everything is accompanied by excessive noise and the effect is cumulative. There is an ever-present wall of sound which will make your head bleed and there is no way to turn it off. Wearing earplugs whilst walking through a Chinese street would be suicidal. That would be as insanely negligent as walking through a minefield listening to Rammstein at full volume.
If you want to imagine just how loud China is, then add the following ingredients and amplify the lot by a factor of two or three to get a vague sense of what is considered normal in this incredibly noisy country.
Every shop owner in China thinks the best way to attract more customers into the premises is to blast them with loud pop music as they enter. Away from the large departments districts which dominate the centre of most Chinese cities, most shops in China are still the small hole-in-the-way variety, a few metres wide, selling anything from doorbells to dumbbells. Each shop comes with its own stereo, usually a crappy old 80’s model which, when the volume is turned to the maximum, turns music into screeching static. A not uncommon sight in China is the presence of two shop assistants standing to attention either side of the shop’s doorway, ready to greet the honourable customer as he or she enters. Some take to doing this every time anyone walks anywhere near them and others take it a step further and use a megaphone to broadcast the shops particular discount special for the day. So, walk along any number of shops and you will hear a mixture of about a dozen blaring pop songs and megaphones turned up so loud you wouldn’t physically be able to enter them in fear of suffering permanent brain damage.
On any street in China there is the ever-present din of traffic noise. The wide, dusty streets in China are host to thousands of cars, vans, trucks, busses, tractors, over-laden tricycles, swarms of pedestrians and millions of motorcycles. All vehicles blast the horn as soon as they get within a few metres of an obstacle, namely someone who is in their way, and most of the time, the noise emitted from all the vehicles competing for space is a continuous one. Add the total disregard of traffic rules and the result is a seemingly impossible tangle of traffic which seems to weave through itself in a continuous mass, each part emitting as much noise as it possibly can in order to create more space for itself.
The motorcycles in China are relatively quiet, as the Chinese government had taken the very wise step of requiring all city mopeds and motorbikes to be electric. Thus spared the belching exhaust fumes and motor noises, the Chinese made up for this small gap in the frequency spectrum by fitting each vehicle with a noisy alarm system which goes off at the slightest provocation.
Indeed, every Chinese motorbike seems to have its alarm system wired around back the front, since it gives off an almighty screech after the owner has locked it, as if to announce to the world at large that the bike is now unattended and a theft thereof may now be attempted. Later, when the bike is unlocked again, the alarm system suddenly engages and a supersonic system plays all of the annoyingly screeching melodies which exist in such systems in succession until, at last there is silence once more. Since there are an awful lot of people in this country, there is an equally high number of motorbikes in any given space and so the chances of someone locking or unlocking a bike at any given moment is fairly high. And so the air rings with the constant sound of Chinese motorbike alarms. What struck me about this amount of noise was the riders themselves didn’t seem in the least bit phased by the earth-shattering amount of noise they had to put up with every time they use their machines. Personally, I would go completely mad if I had to hear the same stupid car alarm day in, day out, but maybe that’s just me.
It must take a lot of concentration to navigate the roads in China and the average rider simply doesn’t have the time to worry about things like noise. Neither do the drivers have a problem with driving on the wrong side of the road, mounting the pavement to take a shortcut or overtaking an overtaking vehicle. This, irrespective of the type of vehicle in question. If a truck driver feels the need to drive through several hundred pedestrians in a busy shopping district, beeping his horn continuously for everyone to get out of the way and then parking in front of a shop door with total disregard of people who might want to get out should the mood strike them, then this is precisely what he does.
The third and by no means last ingredient to the Sino-sonogram are the Chinese people themselves. Shouting at each other either face to face or into a mobile phone is obviously not a problem here. On the contrary, it’s to be encouraged at every available opportunity. And so not only is there the constant wall of noise from the traffic and pop music polluting the air in China, but also about several hundred vitally important telephone conversations, loud group discussions on a variety of subjects and more shouting just for the hell of it. Since everyone in the city has a mobile phone permanently at hand, there is a constant soundscape of ring tones, text signals and more shouting. The Chinese like to shout anyway, and a heated telephone argument, which seems to be the only reason to use a telephone in China, is the perfect excuse to have a really good yell.
Just when I thought I had finished cataloguing the staggering number of ways the Chinese generate the wall of sound which would have the members of Metallica blush a little, the proprietor of a restaurant lit a large bundle of fireworks and threw them in front of me. The resounding rat-tat-tat of fireworks made me jump about three metres in the air and I had to start my how-the-Chinese-make-noise-list all over again.
I needed some quiet time, and so I dropped my bags off at the hotel, flicked through the pages of my guidebook and went to the Little Italian Cafe, which had lured me with the promise of real, strong Italian coffee. The latte I bought cost me more than twice what I paid for my lunch on the way to get to it, but the coffee was more or less the real thing. Well, as close to the real thing as is possible in China. I also had a piece of Tiramisu, but it didn’t actually even remotely resemble Tiramisu in any way, but I was still trying to be positive about life in general and coffee in particular.
I thought some more about coffee. And then some more. As I was sitting in the cafe with my third cup of coffee, it occurred to me, one of the reasons I like to travel in a country like China is it automatically allows me to exactly identify those everyday things, be they mundane or boring or whatever, I miss when in a prolonged absence from home.
If you travel in a country which closely resembles your own, then this effect doesn’t really come to light because there are always a lot of alternatives available and most of the differences to what you are used to at home are quite charming and interesting, in a oh-well-we-can-do-better-at-home kind of way. You rarely notice the disparity and just get on with having fun.
For me, spending time in China is so profoundly different to any other travel experience in almost all respects. The more time I spend here, the more I adapt to certain ways of doing things that I would not otherwise dream of doing, but a few unexpected aspects of life begin to stand out more and more the longer I am away from home.
I had gone out for a cup of coffee, but what I had in fact really wanted was my perfect coffee world to drink it in.
I didn’t want any old nice coffee. I wanted The Perfect Coffee, the kind made by a native of Italy, from a small basement cafe which has a glass counter with lots of Italian sandwiches and cakes and stuff. Italians know a thing or two about making great coffee and I wouldn’t trust any other race in the world to do it as well as they. If aliens landed on Earth and demanded to sample the best coffee the planet had to offer, I would send them to my all time favourite Italian espresso bar and tell them to order a doppio latte in a glass, with a little sugary biscuit on the side, sit on a hard wooden stool at the back of the cafe and watch the next few customers with their orders and enjoy the caffeinated bliss. This is the best coffee known to man.
The cafe in question is not in Italy either, because that would mean being in Italy and doesn’t fit to my yearning of something from home since I live in Berlin. Don’t get me wrong, I love Italy and enjoy every trip to the country, least of all because of the great coffee which is available on every street corner.
No, what I wanted was to be in my natural habitat and within reach of familiar creature comforts I could get on my own terms, and that simply wasn’t going to happen here in China. I was precisely 8,255 kilometres away from my perfect coffee establishment and the chances of feeling at home were precisely zero. And so my problem. Because I was so hard-wired in my mission about the perfect cup of coffee, a perfect cuppa was exactly what I wasn’t going to get.
The point of travelling in a very far away country, for me, is therefore not only to see new things, meet new people and experience new sensations, but it also brings with it the added bonus of identifying those things which are important domestically. At the same time, the unimportant things, those things which don’t even spring to mind when missed for a prolonged period of time, are all cancelled out. What remains are the important bits and that’s cool.
But this kind of thinking was also getting me into a lot of trouble in China, since my perfect coffee came with such luxuries as a comfortable chair, a quiet corner, clear and breathable air, and piece of mind which comes with being somewhere safe and predictable. I could manage a relatively comfortable chair in the Little Italian Cafe, but the resemblance to my caffeinated fantasy world ended there. Outside the cafe rumbled the normal Chinese chaos. I could hear the muffled sounds of car and motorcycle horns, and people yelling into their phones and at each other. I could see the smog through the window, which covered the spectacular river and karst scenery beyond in a veil of pollution.
I didn’t want real China, I wanted the postcard view in the travel brochures. I wanted a clear blue sky, lush, green mountains poking into a smattering of white fluffy clouds, with a old Cormorant fisherman paddling his small bamboo raft catching a few slimy fish for dinner. I wanted to step out and breath in a lung-full of clean country air, stretch my limbs and wander casually down to the pristine waterway and dip my toe in it.
I stepped out of the cafe, was nearly knocked over by a motorcycle driving on the curb directly in front of it and narrowly avoided breaking my ankles as I tried to avoid the pile of unspeakably foul rubbish accumulated a bit further along the pavement. Taking my life into my own hands, I froggered my way across the almost continuous stream of horn-blasting traffic until I got to the opposite pavement which overlooked the Li river. It was filthy, as most rivers in China are, and I dreaded to think the reckless health risk the few swimmers engaging in a bit of sport a little further downstream were subjecting themselves to. The grey karst mountain shapes were vaguely discernible in the distance, and several local touts began to hassle me in the hopes of selling me a tour as I made my way along the walkway.
I wasn’t in the mood for smoggy scenery or hassling touts, and so I went back to my hotel room. I wanted to order my thoughts and drown out the outside noise, so I got out my laptop, plugged in my headphones and listened to Rammstein at full volume. At least this way I knew what I was getting myself into.