I’ve been around a little bit but travelling into the city of China’s Zhengzhou was different to anything i have ever experienced before. The weather was great when I touched down, sun shining, albeit dimly through a haze of dust and pollution. A film of fine dust covers everything inside and out.
The scale of construction has to be seen to be believed. My photos taken awkwardly through a taxi window don’t do it justice at all; it is not so much the size of the buildings as the sheer number of projects. I gave up counting. A skyscraper here and a tower block there is one thing but here groups of skyscrapers of up to thirty towers perhaps, all huge, all identical, are being erected. And not one or two of these projects but literally hundreds.
Mile after mile of huge buildings in various stages of construct, cranes everywhere. Half completed motorways on the right, floating flyovers on the left. It’s like something out of a futuristic dystopian movie. The majority of the buildings look like they’re being built for habitation. Tall and thin. Many older edifices appear to be in the process of being abandoned. Older official buildings look like great menacing hulks of granite. And all this in glorious sunshine, with patches of green in between. I have never seen anything like it in all my puff.
I have since been told a statistic that I would never have believed before my arrival. That is that between 2011 and 2014 China used more concrete than the United States have in the whole of the twentieth century combined. In Zhengzhou, China there are over 600,000 empty apartments already ready for habitation. Where the people will come from to fill them, I do not know. A lot of buildings will be demolished of course. But even so. Are the People’s Party planning a mass migration from the countryside? Or is there simply some government quota that has to be reached? I have no idea and attempted research on the subject has proved fruitless.
I had half expected the Chinese people to be somewhat regimented, a stickler for rules and regulations as a result of Communism or Confucianism or a combination of both. One glance at the traffic in downtown Zhengzhou is enough to assuage such fears. I observed the roads for some time with a mixture of awe and apprehension, waiting for an accident that thankfully never happened.
Traffic lights exist but are largely ignored. Instead a system of involving horn and klaxon is employed, warning anyone and everyone to get out of the way. There is no such thing as courtesy on the roads. No one gives way. If an unfortunate motorist finds himself forced to the curb he has no choice but to stay there and wait for a window of opportunity to reenter the flow. This short sabbatical is ended by said motorist hurtling back into the traffic when there is barely an opportunity to do so, causing a screaming of brakes and a cacophony of horn blowing. Patience does not appear to be a virtue of the Chinese motorist’s psyche.
One thing I’ve never quite got used to is seeing small children and babies being held on motorcycles. This is quite prevalent in Southeast Asia but it is even more alarming when the roads are as crazy as they are here in China. Mothers hold their precious cargo on their lap behind the driver and it makes one’s palms sweaty just to watch; with arms only for the child they can’t hold onto the bike if something unexpected happens. The child has no protection but the mother. It gives me the shivers.
The people in Zhengzhou are less reserved than I expected. Whether this is true of China in general, I am not yet at liberty to say yet. I’ve only been here a couple of weeks and I have seen several bad tempered altercations already. At least I think they were altercations, certainly the one in the bank was because a security guard got involved. I can’t speak Chinese Mandarin and for all I know the people on the bus were exchanging pleasantries about the weather, but I doubt it.
Queuing only happens when it is forced upon the citizens with the use of a number system or an aperture that only facilitates a line. The number of times I have waited patiently for my turn only for someone to bark an order and be served before me is staggering. The Chinese seem to have no concept of the ‘first come first served’ principle. They are a bit like the Norwegians in this respect though at least the Chinese allow you off a bus before they attempt to embark… This is not a criticism, it’s just the way it is. Obviously they prefer it that way.
The majority of Chinese taxi drivers are no different to the majority of the members of that profession in the majority of Asia. That is, they try to rip you off – majorly. I’ve been assured by Chinese people that they do this to everyone, not just a white face. Although all taxis are fitted with meters, they attempt to charge you three times more by ‘negotiating’ a price first. That’s after a ten minute conference with their colleagues about the location of your desired destination. They never seem to know where anything is. Another trick is to get you into the taxi and have you wait while they fill it up with two or three other people. You then get a tour of the city as the taxi drops the other passengers off first. All well and good if you’ve got a spare hour or two to kill…
Almost Like Being in a Foreign Country
Some aspects of China can be nothing short of surreal. One example is the water trucks that are employed to spray water on the roads to keep the dust under some semblance of control. They blast out garish music from early morning. The short discography includes the tunes (but not the words) of Happy Birthday to You, We Wish you a Merry Christmas, a piece of music which I suspect is the National Anthem and Silent Night. There is another hymn as well but I cannot think of the name of it: it will come to me. In Communist China! Very odd indeed.
Then there are my students. I now teach English to Students at Zhengzhou University who show me a level of respect and deference that I have never experienced in my life. It is almost embarrassing. Perhaps this is due to the diffidence of youth, but I suspect they receive quite a strict high school education. They insist on calling me Teacher or Sir when I’ve told them to call me Hugh a dozen times. Some have reached a rather comical compromise of calling me Mr Hugh. They leap to their feet when I them a question and seem terrified of making an error, which is no great thing when learning a language. They are great though – cheerful, optimistic and a little naive. I even get a round of applause occasionally when I finish a class, though sadly I’ve noticed these have dried up a little since I’ve started setting homework… Fickle!
So there you have it. My first impressions of one of the most fascinating countries and cultures on earth. I’m probably wrong about most of them of course. But trust me on the scale of construction in Zhengzhou. It’s crazy!