Chinese students will soon be flocking back to the North East, a reflection of the country’s economic boom which has also seen it put big money into an array of British businesses. So as many start life at universities in our region how does China appear to a North East visitor? Pat Hagan went... and was bowled over.
So, here I am on what appears to be a slow plane to China (10 hours) wishing I’d got round to reading the guide and learning the lingo – a little bit, at least.
How embarrassing will it be when I can’t even say please or thank-you? Or order a glass of red wine?
I remind myself that the loss of speech has never prevented me ordering a drink before. I am sure I will manage somehow.
We are here on our son’s advice – nay, insistence. After working for six months in the most exotic-sounding place on the planet, he has persuaded us that this will be the trip of a lifetime.
There will be a lot of travelling though. We’ll be in Beijing for four days before flying to Xi’an to march with the terracotta army. Then it will be on to Guilin to sail down the Li past its magnificent limestone hills before a final flight to Shanghai.
This, you will have gathered, is the sort of trip where all you have to do is turn up with your passport before being scooped up by people who will have hotels, trips and transport on tap.
Also, they will have ordered every morsel of food that will pass my lips for the next two weeks. Chopsticks permitting.
And here is another “also”. Because this is a guided tour, there will be other people there. Other people with whom I will have to socialise for a whole 12 days. Even if I don’t like them. And they don’t like me.
In the event, there are 10 of us on this trip. Ten of us who soon – ridiculously, you might think – become new best friends. We do a lot of laughing, leg-pulling and, mostly, marvelling at sights the like of which I could never have imagined.
I had expected the Great Wall to be great and it is. Of course. But there is so much more. Forget, for a minute, the thrill of stroking silk worms. And the rickshaw ride in the rain. And the Swan Lake son-et-lumiere in the heart of a hollowed-out mountain. Forget also the calligraphy lesson where it takes an hour to write “happiness”. (It’s quite a big word, it turns out). And the tea-tasting ceremony. And the Peking Duck dinner. And the fake designer store where it costs 20 quid for a leather bag that would cost £800 at home.
For all this is, of course, a sideshow to the big set pieces – the Terracotta Army on silent guard at the first Qin emperor’s tomb, gliding through the Summer Palace sunshine on a beautiful Dragon Boat, and the dazzle and sophistication that is the Bund in the heart of Shanghai. We risk life and limb in a taxi that dodges its way along one of the 12-lane highways that cut through swathes of skyscrapers on our way to the Bund. As we do so, we see more Porsches and Mercs per mile than we have ever, ever seen.
This is the most amazing country. But we are under no illusion that China is some kind of Disneyworld. The luxury cars vie for space with rusty rickshaws and pushbikes - pushbikes that, seemingly impossibly, manage to transport three generations, all at once. We marvel at one man weaving his way through traffic with a massive mattress on the back of his bike. Another has two huge bags of squawking hens strung over the crossbar. And look – there is a youngster on a scooter whose backside is securing, sort of, a plate glass window the size of a patio door.
It’s true that China’s tourist hotspots are heaving with awe-inspiring sights that take the breath away. But there is undoubtedly and undeniably plenty of poverty that visa restrictions keep well under wraps. China’s open door policy is not that open, of course. We manage only a glimpse or two.
There are slums a-plenty in the heart of Beijing. In a rice field in the sub-tropical south-east we meet a widow with next to no possessions to her name, so plenty of space for the ornate painted coffin bought for her by her son and proudly stored in the bare, dark shed that is her home.
We meet a couple whose toddler lives with her grandparents 800 miles away, so they can work long hours in the city to support themselves, their two-year-old daughter and both sets of in-laws. It is not so bad, they tell us. Thanks to Skype they speak to see their daughter most evenings. They cannot hug her, but they can watch her grow up.
Back home, I invest in books about China, its politics, its wars, its emperors and its language. I am now engrossed in the story of the grand Empress Dowager Cixi.
I can bore for Britain about this one-time concubine who, at the turn of the 20th Century, ruled over one sixth of the world’s population. She took on Russian, French and British empire builders, opened frontiers for trade, and built a navy - all the while respecting the etiquette of the day that kept her hidden behind a curtain of golden silk thread.
These were the days when death by a thousand cuts meant exactly that.
If the Empress Dowager liked you – but you had to die anyway – she would do you the kindness of sending a white silk scarf, gift-wrapped. You would know, instinctively, what you had to do next. I had expected China to provide a feast of cultural delights.
A feast? Turns out it was simply an appetiser.