(Excerpted from Chapter 14: Chinese Hard Seat Class: The Grateful Unrich…)
When they think they know the answers, people are difficult to guide. When they know they don’t know, people can find their own way -Tao Te Ching
Shanghai to Guilin, China
In all of my travels I have never experienced anything as excruciating as this. The aisles are impassable, packed tight with anxious-looking Chinese peasants. The horde collectively grabs onto the overhead luggage rack then, realizing that the car is so crowded they need not hang on to anything, they let go in unison, swaying into one another like puppets as the train winds its way across badly scarred landscape west of Shanghai. This is “hard-seat class”.
My attempt to reach the bathroom is met by curses. It is impossible. The man seated across from and facing me is clearing his nasal passages, clogged with industrial pollution and low-quality cigarette smoke. He launches huge yellow globs of a revolting nature in my general direction. I shuffle my feet to avoid his wrath. My teeth now floating, I ponder pissing out of window. Just then a man in a green General-looking uniform comes to my rescue, apparently tipped off by an empathetic passenger. He leads me to the kitchen car and points to the sink. I possess neither the Mandarin nor the bladder to question the General’s judgment.
I return to my seat and find Jill turning green. A second man seated across from us, our knees touching his, is busy inhaling several styrofoam bowls of three yuan rice. He holds the bowl at a ninety-degree angle, his face hidden from view. Within seconds he has swept most of the rice into his mouth with chopsticks. The remainder is either on his face or Jill’s pant leg. A third man seated opposite us – there are four in all on a bench seat meant for two – suddenly begins spitting sunflower seeds like a rapid-fire Uzi submachine gun. They carom off my chest and onto the increasingly nasty looking floor.
Jill buries herself quickly in Gone with the Wind. Her color returns. I cannot help but laugh heartily under my breath. This is the most hard-core train ride of my life – a 36-hour torture session that makes the Reynosa-San Luis Potosi Mexican run look like Amtrak and the Bombay-Trivandrum Nevarati Express feel like a commuter train in Tokyo. It is just the tonic we need to break free from Japanese imperial mind control designs.
I can’t help trying to score a free onward ticket to Yang Shuo when we switch trains at Guilin. I feel like breaking every rule in sight. The conductor is instantly onto my dumb foreigner attempt at skipping the turnstiles. He rebukes me with a wry smile, as if cognizant that I have just escaped some forced labor camp and can’t help myself.
Yang Shuo, China
A snappy Chinese melody rings out from the used electronics store across the street. Shu Li – our waitress at the aptly-named Hard Seat Cafe – chimes in with the high-pitched voice of an angel. A steady stream of bicycles flows by the restaurant, clanging their bells. They are loaded down with bamboo baskets full of giant cabbages, grapefruit the size of soccer balls, chickens, ducks and the occasional live hog. Shu Li tells us she makes five yuan – less than $1 – a day waiting tables. She lives in a tiny room just across the street. Her family lives down the Yang Shuo River in the village of Fu Li. “No money, no boyfriend,” she laments, only half joking. “During Wanx people go to Moon Hill to pray. I go once a year.”
The Hard Seat Cafe was named after a lengthy contest held among Western backpackers visiting this magical corner of China, many of whom had taken the same hell-train we had. The place is run by Mike and Charley – a pair of aspiring, if a bit shady, capitalists in this, the new China. Mike, whose real name is Li Ming Qiang, says 80% of Chinese people are still farmers. His father, himself a farmer, is apprehensive about the path down which Premier Deng Xiao Ping is leading this nation of 2 million. Mao Tse Dong had once accused Deng of being a “capitalist roader”.
“Long time ago,” laments Mike, “there were many tigers here and many trees on the hills, but lately everyone thinks they can cut trees to sell firewood. Now the trees are gone. Maybe my father also cut too much wood. But it was very difficult. There are eight children in my family. In 1983”, he continues, “The government privatized the farms. Before people worked together. Now some clever people get too much. Most farmers don’t like the government. Government buys rice very cheap. Farmers sell rice to the state marketing board, which sells rice cheaply to factory workers in the cities. Now farmers are the poorest people in China.”
Charley, whose real name is Li, says the changes started in 1978 after Henry Kissinger met with Zhou En Lai to forge the detente agreement. Suddenly education and health care – considered basic human rights by Mao’s revolutionaries – were no longer free. “People still pay heavy tax to the government,” Charley explains, “only now they get nothing in return”.
This official extortion led Li to become involved in the burgeoning black market. He buys and sells electronics, changes dollars and makes an occasional smuggling trip into Vietnam – where Western goods he buys from tourists fetch an even higher price than in China. We sell him our camera for $100. His brother, a member of the Chinese Army contingent that patrols the Vietnamese border, helps facilitate his crossings. Li says the army frequently steals chickens from Vietnamese farmers, exacerbating tensions between the two nations, who fell out following Chinese support of the Cambodian madman Pol Pot following the American withdrawal from Vietnam. The border between the countries remains closed – much to my chagrin, since I had hoped to cross into Vietnam in a few weeks.
The chocolate drop-like karsts are emerald green behind an eerie blanket of morning mist. The water rushes by us as the boatman steers towards shore. He is a quiet man, donning a Chairman Mao hat and a blue uniform to protect him from the brisk morning air. We have arrived at Fu Li village, a few miles down the mighty Yang Shuo River. We unload our bikes, which we have rented for an overland journey back to Yang Shuo later this afternoon.
Not far from the jetty, we arrive at the home of Mo Dong Fa. His paintings, he tells us, have become world famous. It is easy to see why. They are stunningly beautiful portraits of the waterfalls, mountains and jungle that now enshroud us. He is quick to show us an order that he has just received from Australia. One painting – which portrays Mao Tse Dong, Lord Buddha and Lao Tzu standing together – is particularly intriguing.
“Mao did many things for the people”, says Mo, sensing my interest. “Free food. Free medicine. Free education. These things are good.” Mo grew up here and never ventured far from the village. There are no cars here – only bicycles and an occasional truck. The market here has become a regular attraction for package tourists staying in the expensive hotels of Guilin. Vendors peddle everything from the bamboo cages we’ve seen on the bikes to fresh snake meat. As we walk through the market an old woman holds up a live puppy, hoping to entice us with its well-marbled muscles and plump belly.
We buy some of Mo’s paintings and take his address should they be a big hit back home. The ride back to Yang Shuo is surreal as we join a sea of bikes, maneuvering its way through a maze of rice paddies and dodging the occasional government lorry. We arrive back at the Hard Seat and find most of the foreigners waiting on an expensive meal of snake, which they have been anticipating all week. We opt for chicken and talk to Yohannas, a half-crazy Swede who I feel may have intelligence connections. He tells us how he once tried to save a dog from an inauspicious ending at the Fu Li market. He told a woman he would buy the dog later that afternoon. When he returned to pick it up, it was cut into neat slabs of red meat.
The bus ride to Wuzhou lasts nine hours, traversing badly deforested hills now carved into rice paddies. There are no machines anywhere, only machetes and wooden carts to haul the firewood. The slopes appear sick, red globs of clay with tiny half-burned whiskers protruding from their sullen faces. Our flu-like sickness – derived from either the smoking of extremely low quality cigarettes, the close quarters afforded by the train ride from hell, the industrial pollution around Shanghai, or any combination of these three things – has finally subsided.
At Wuzhou the Li Jiang and the Xian Jiang meet to form the mighty Pearl River, which empties into the South China Sea between Hong Kong and Macau. Upon arriving in Wuzhou we get immediate assistance finding food and our way to the ferry terminal from a woman calling herself Cherry – who claims to be a “government travel consultant”. She shows us the way to a cheap restaurant where we eat greasy chicken with ginger and pepper and even greasier noodle soup. Tea is on the house, as it is in most places in China.
We head for the ferry terminal for the trip to Guangzhou. We sit munching on lychee-cream cookies. A smiling middle-aged man approaches on a bike. “Ni-hau!” he yells out, eager to talk to foreigners. The conversation quickly turns to politics. “The biggest problem in China is corruption”, he states, “The Chinese system is a socialist system based on the Chinese character. But although the theory is socialist, some officials in the government behave like capitalists. Now we have better relations with Vietnam and there is more trade, which is good. We are an ever-changing country in an ever-changing world. Mao was a great man, but I think he went too far. But everyone has their weak points.”
The man holds a great deal of empathy for humanity and its condition. His attitude seems so light-hearted and forgiving, absent the cynicism present in myself and other Westerners. He gives freely of both his cigarettes and his laughter. Is this attitude common in China? Am I witnessing the emergence of “socialist man”? Could an economic and cultural revolution leave such a huge impact on the very nature of mankind? On the other hand, how could it not? It’s all the more reason to worry about Deng’s reversion to capitalism.
The boat ride is enchanting. Bunk beds line both sides of the ship. Slowly the beds fill up with families and merchants headed down the Pearl River to the bustling new free trade zone of Guangzhou. The man running the tiny food kiosk on board begins ranting and raving that he has sold hardly a thing. He whirls coyly, setting out with newspaper in hand to drum up some business. Some cannot resist his charm. Business begins to pick up steam. I fall off to sleep to the low rumbling sound of the engine.
Morning brings a different world. The Pearl has widened and is now a huge waterway known as the Xi – teeming with barges and ocean freighter traffic. Its banks are lined with factories, puffing all manner of noxious fumes into the troubled sky. Small pipes protrude from the shoreline – then bigger pipes – spilling steamy concoctions of toxic compounds into the ailing Xi. The pipes keep getting larger as we near Canton (Guangzhou). There is a thick oily coating on the water now.
Guangzhou is far too busy for rural folk, so we grab a quick morning bus to the Macau border. As we pass through Chinese customs, Jill is suddenly pulled aside for questioning. It quickly dawns on me. The camera we had sold in Yang Shuo had been declared upon entry in Shanghai and the official wanted to know where it was now. We try the calm approach to no avail. They want us to pay a hefty fine. Jill is taken to a room and questioned. When she emerged nothing has changed. I begin yelling and she begins crying, making as big a scene as we can. The increasingly red-faced officials have seen enough and wave us through.
Macau is an old Portuguese colony with beautiful architecture and casinos on every corner. It is also very expensive – quite a shock after China. We decide we will wander around tonight – hopping from one 24-hour casino to the next – and forego an expensive hotel. The neatly swept streets conceal something very messy lurking beneath the surface. These casinos serve as laundry mats for the infamous Hong Kong heroin trade.
The morning is sunny as we board a hydrofoil for the 100mph journey across the bay to Hong Kong. We wander through the neon streets and buy Jill a decent backpack. Tiring quickly of modernity, we take a boat to Hong Kong Island, where we catch a relaxing tram ride to the top of a mountain. We escape onto a hiking trail that circles the peak of the mountain and offers breathtaking views of Kowloon Island and busy Hong Kong harbor – where freighters come and go more frequently than anyplace on earth. From here the harbor traffic looks like a bunch of little ants scrambling about for a last crumb of food. We descend and take the boat back to bustling Kowloon, where we decide that all this place is good for is one Western-style pizza and two $100 one-way tickets to Thailand. On the way to the airport we pass the tallest building in the city – the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank (HSBC) headquarters. Sitting next to it is the largest Freemason Lodge I have ever seen.
Hong Kong Airport
They parade around the departure lounge with their Uzis and their little blue berets pretending to look for bandits and drug smugglers. I feel as though I should inform them that their higher-ups are in fact running these rackets. They should relax and have a coffee. There are more churches, Masonic Lodges and organizations beginning with the word “Saint” in Hong Kong than in anyplace I’ve been. These institutions are either a damn good cover for the corruption that has occurred here since its British Hong inception following the British/Chinese opium wars of the 1800’s, or are necessary as places of repentance for the many sins of this long-time colonial outpost. My best guess is that they serve both purposes.
Hong Kong is where the concept of off-shore banking began. Lead by HSBC – which was founded by the British opium smuggler William Jardine – this shady secretive banking hub is the nexus for the washing of Golden Triangle heroin proceeds. The British old money families that control HSBC – and with it virtually the entire economy of Hong Kong – have names like Jardine, Matheson, Swire, Inchcape and Hutchinson. The Jardine Matheson conglomerate owns the seedy Hong Kong Jockey Club, while the Swire’s control Cathay Pacific – Hong Kong’s airline. The Inchcape’s Peninsular & Orient Steamship Navigation Company – now P&O Ned Lloyd – owns more ports than any company in the world. They are sophisticated drug smugglers. Nowhere are public service announcements condemning drug use more prevalent than in Hong Kong. They are also brutal, despite their white-glove appearances. Anyone who gets close to the truth of what really goes on here is simply snuffed out.
The Qantas Airlines 737 sticks its nose nearly straight towards the sky, pinning us back in our seats as it negotiates the precarious climb over the ring of mountains that surround Hong Kong. A new airport is scheduled to open soon. Too many planes have not made it over the mountains here lately. The sun casts its golden rays upon a pillow of clouds that seem to hold the Aussie plane in place. Our distance from Japan grows greater. We are headed for territory that I know well from my trip three years ago. It’s time to relax.
Dean Henderson is the author of five books: Big Oil & Their Bankers in the Persian Gulf: Four Horsemen, Eight Families & Their Global Intelligence, Narcotics & Terror Network, The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries,Das Kartell der Federal Reserve, Stickin’ it to the Matrix & The Federal Reserve Cartel. You can subscribe free to his weekly Left Hook column @www.hendersonlefthook.wordpress.com