A Canadian Vision of Planet China: Part II

Written by Harold McNeill on April 12th, 2014. Posted in Travelogue


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Harold and Lynn in August 2013 waiting to board the Bullet Train for  Shijiazhuang, China. Join us for the continuation of our adventure with nephew Lorin Yochim.

April 12, 2014,  This post is currently under construction. Photos to be added by Sunday, April 13.

Link Here to Part 1 of the China Story

Link Here to Full Photo Story leading to and in Shijiazhuang, China

Introduction to Part II

As a partnership between a senior ‘wannabe’ and one who is well established, Lynn and I are pretty adept at handling ‘free-style’ travelling. China, however, presented a few challenges, not the least of which was the language barrier.

While foreign tourism in China is growing at an exponential rate, most tourism is still domestic; therefore, the need for local English and other language service remains very low.  Even at the main airports and train stations, it can be difficult to find an English-speaking attendant so, for a visit shorter than five years, learning the language is not an option.

Because we had such close contact with Lorin, his family and friends, our trip was turned from one in which we would have been stuck in the usual ‘tourist’ pack to one filled with continuous adventure.  Join us for Part II as we head out from Beijing on a train that will soon touch a third the speed of sound and take us through a countryside filled with the old and new.  In our travels to date, China provides the best example of a country where modernity is extinguishing the past at the breakneck speed of a Bullet Train.

8. Levitating across China

The day begins by catching a train at the main station in Beijing, not just any train but, a state of the art Bullet Train. It seems China has the largest network of HSR (High Speed Rail) in the world with over 10,000 km of line (note, these are not tracks or rails in the traditional form).

Photo (Web): High Speed Trains sitting in the yard at the Beijing. These sleek, modern day giants will soon cover China like a swarm of prairie garter snakes. It is already a system of travel and commerce that is unmatched anywhere in the world.

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This includes the longest single line – 2300 kilometers – connecting Beijing to Guangzhou. Expanding at a breakneck pace, by 2015, the lines will cover 18,000 kilometers and is already the most heavily used rail transport system in the world. It makes the Canadian diesel-electric system seem positively primordial and when people look at photos of our steam powered Royal Hudson huffing and puffing its way out of Vancouver, they immediately think of the Wild-West.

As we quickly gain cruising altitude (about a half-centimeter) we are soon traveling south, southwest at a laid back speed of 300 km/h. All is quiet and soft as a whisper, words that generally do not describe any facet of life in China.

As these trains can travel at well over 400 km/h, it will not be long before the Chinese take a run at the land-speed records set on the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah. It is just another way the Chinese work to make points with the United States. Like their buddies across the Sea of Japan, the Chinese know how to run trains and if Lynn and I didn’t know the difference, we might actually think we were levitating.

Our economy-class seating was impeccable and would challenge first class service in any other part of the world. Our hostesses, 4094251212who looked as if they had just jumped ship from an Air Emirates flight (photo left, from Web, more in attached album), were friendly, but totally averse to having their photo taken. Our wish (except for photos) was their command. We cannot imagine what it must be like to travel first class in China as only the richest members of the CPC (Communist Party of China) and well-healed business community can afford the luxury.

Never the less, we travel in our own form of luxury with a wireless connection at our fingertips, personal service catering and washrooms – well let me tell you about the washrooms.

They were of a size and with fixtures that would challenge anything to be found in a five star hotel in Canada (although no bath facilities as yet – perhaps in first class). They are sized to host a small party if that is your interest.  While many public facilities in China provide for an eye stinging, door laden, public poop, such is not the case on these trains.  As you sit back on the heated seat (a cold weather idea imported from Japan) you can gaze out at the world, take a photo, read a book or work on your iPad or laptop until your legs fall asleep. (Link Here to Washroom Photos).  Now, let’s talk a bit about the internet.

Back in our custom seating we stay connected to the world – well, almost connected. It seems the Chinese government, ‘acting on the wishes of the people’, have blocked access to social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Word Press and other similar systems. Apparently this was done to protect impressionable, young Chinese from the excesses that infect much of the outside world. However, in this tech savvy country ‘The Great Firewall’ as with the other Great Wall, is not as impermeable as the government might wish. With a few keystrokes we are able to change our settings to join another network and are soon back surfing our favourite sites and uploading photos to our hearts content.

Lorin suggests another reason for the firewall – many Chinese think creating the barrier will inspire development of homegrown systems that better serve the diverse interests of the Chinese people. Don’t laugh, we have accomplished similar goals in Canada with our Canadian media content rules and, in another area of censorship, one of our Provinces has gone further by legislating that only one language can be written or spoken in public.  I have FB friends in that Province and often need to use the translating service too understand what they saying…so much for freedom of speech.

9. The Flatlands

As we fly through the countryside at nearly a third the speed of sound, the giant wraparound, tinted windows present a surreal flowing panorama of verdant fields filled with vegetables, grain crops and water filled rice paddies that stretch as far as the eye can see. On this crystal clear day, that is almost forever. By upping the shutter speed and sitting in the washroom (I am an inveterate multi-tasker), I was able too capture several shots of this amazing flatland.Rice Paddies in China

Photo:  With a rice paddy in the foreground, a city takes shape along the distant horizon. For more photos of the ‘flatland’ Link Here.

Only an occasional village or construction site breaks the line of fields along our track and on the distant skyline dozens of crane-topped skyscrapers in new and yet to be populated cities, take shape. In addition to the cushion of air on which we float, a network of freeways is being built to connect the farms, villages and cities in a yet to be defined system of commerce that will soon serve the people of China and the world.

We sense the Chinese truly believe that as more and more foreigners taste the bounty that is China, the country will soon be faced immigration lines that stretch towards infinity. All this is emerging at lightening speed from a silent, secretive part of the world that existed well into the last century, at a time when foreign leaders such as Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon and others began to take notice.  If any of those leaders had anticipated China buying up their countries as they have today, they might well have skipped those visits.

Perhaps a few have read the 1931 best seller, “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck. The book provided many outsiders with their first glimpse of that hidden world. The story traces the fortunes of Wang Lung and his family as they worked from dawn until dusk eking out a living in a harsh and unforgiving land. The family goal was to one-day reach the bounty the cities were believed to offer.

We cannot help but wonder what Wang Lung might have thought about a bullet train whizzing past his farm at 400 km/h while the city he so desperately hoped to reach, materialized on his very doorstep. His farm, suddenly worth millions, would be up for grabs as developers tried to outbid each other.  Rather than moving to the city, Wang Lung and his family could retire to a South Pacific Island of their choosing. Such is the fortune of many in China today. While they continue to toil away their lives much as did Wang Lung, others sop up riches at a speed close to that of the train on which we travel.

In this modern-day China, long standing family farms and well-established communities have fallen prey to developers. Within weeks a new high-rise, freeway or rail line can come crashing through gobbling up everything and everyone that stands in its way.  Land speculation, unrestrained development and rampant consumerism lavishes riches upon a select few in an attempt to build a stronger middle class.  This is no better demonstrated than in Shijiazhuang where a Will Rogers type of economy prevails:  ‘all money (is) being appropriated (to) the top with a certainty it (will) eventually trickle down to the needy.’  One can only hope.

10. Welcome to Shijiazhuang: A Chinese Version of the Lego Movie.

As we levitated into Shijiazhuang, we were welcomed into giant, sparkling new rail station where we again entered the Twilight Entering ShijiazhuangZone.

Photo: Lynn and Lorin lead the way along the concourse in one of the major cities in a country of 1.5 billion people. Eerie, is it not?  For more photos Link Here

In this sprawling complex, it was as if everyone else had suddenly been beamed up to the SS Enterprise.

Remember, this the main entrance to a city of four million (somewhat larger than Metro Vancouver), yet we are completely alone as we walk towards the main exit. Perhaps our awesome nephew has simply forgotten to inform the local authorities and citizens of Shijiazhuang that the Canadian Delegation was paying a visit. FIFA would never make that mistake.

As we walked we walked outside, we were likewise presented with a nearly empty square surrounded by dozens of smaller buildings under construction. We suppose these structures were being erected for vendors who would soon flock to the area just as they have done in other cities. In another area of advance planning there were perhaps a fifty taxi cabs waiting in line, all impeccably outfitted, all licenced by the state and all perfectly empty except for the drivers.

When we inquired of Lorin as to the lack of people to fill these cabs, he assured us the Chinese philosophy as first enunciated by Chairman Mao and later plagiarized by Kevin Costner in his movie Field of Dreams, describes the situation today: “Build it and they will come.”  Again, we shall see.

As most honoured guests, Lynn and I were ushered into the back seat while Lorin grabbed the front. Soon after, LorinTaxi in China was immersed deep in a conversation with the cabbie who seemed happy to spend most of his time staring at his American, Mandarin-speaking passenger than at the road.

Although our seat belts did not work (a slight glitch in the system), Lynn and I felt perfectly safe as we are tucked behind a stainless steal cage  that separated us from the front seat. We were absolutely certain the cage would prevent our being ejected through the windshield should the taxi come to grinding halt.

Photo: Lorin chatting with the cab driver as we narrowly missed the yellow car directly in front of the cab.

Regardless of this, we found the Chinese safety features for transport (e.g. bicycle helmets, seat belts, airbags, no driving while using a cell phone, etc.) to be of the highest standard.

As we circle Ring Road #2, we are presented with a construction wonderland, the likes of which we have never before experienced. It was as if we have been plunged into ground zero of the Lego Movie (Photo below). Everyone in the city of four million (the planning is for eight) must somehow be involved in the construction industry.

While traffic is heavy, it is still no worse than Vancouver on a good day, but, as usual, drivers are routinely honk their horns to keep others moving along in an orderly fashion. As we make our way around the city, the pristine weather continues to enhance our experience. It seems the high-pressure area that covered Beijing for several days has now moved over to Shijiazhuang.  We were tempted to ask Lorin about the lack of apparent pollution, but thought that would be cheeky at best and mean-spirited at worst. Perhaps we have just caught a few wonderfully clear days. This shows how our perceptions can be skewed by having been dropped into a moment in time when things are different (View post and link in Vocations of the Heart).

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Photo: Shijiazhuang as the sun sets. For more photos Link Here

After settling in at his large, airy, well appointed, summer retreat (an eighth floor walkup) we then head out to meet his workmates. On our way down the stairs we understand why Lorin, Jin and Laur have become such fitness buffs. Out back we notice a number of family gardens covering two or three acres of land, but Lorin tells us he has not yet had a chance to plant a garden. It seems likely that if his Grandmother or Mother had spent more time with him in China, he would have soon been propelled towards his plot.

At his workplace, we meet a number of his fellow workers (actually they are mostly young woman as noted in the photo) and find it to be a most congenial place. As Lorin continues doing whatever it is that Lorin does, we mosey around taking pictures and becoming acquainted with others.

As noon approaches, we head out for lunch with a contingent of workmates something we have long since learned involves a very generous portion of sumptuous food and a variety of strange liquors that tickle the palette.  Even Lynn, who seldom partakes, reaches that giggly stage.  Lorin, it seems, has learned to pace himself.

11. Enjoying Shijiazhuang

The next day Lorin arranged for us to be hosted on a tour Lychee Park in central Shijiazhuang. We quickly learned that Harry, one of his long-time buddies and about the same age as me, is a very entertaining guy. He not only speaks half a dozen languages, he knows more about other countries and people around world than anyone I have ever met. I suppose this comes from his having spent several decades jaunting around the world providing translating services for Chinese companies doing business abroad.

A 15-year-old, whose parents had hired Harry to teach the boy English, also accompanied us. As we wandered about we watchedDancing in Park as dozens of pre-school children played with their mothers, fathers or caregivers.  In the playgrounds there were also many older people doing workouts on the apparatus, something seldom seen in Canada. Then we came upon dozens of apparently retired people gathered for a regular morning Dancercise class. The music rotated between jive, tango, waltz and various other dance types. Everyone was clearly have a grand time and it was not long before Lynn and I joined in.

Photo:  There was no end of men seeking to dance with Lynn.  More photos Link Here

Perhaps it is a cultural misapprehension on our part, but these retired workers seemed to be very young and fit. Perhaps part of that could come from climbing the stairs to a tenth floor apartment half dozen times a day.

Although we did not recognize the songs, music is music no matter where you venture in the world and the dance types were ones that Lynn and I easily recognized. It was not long before we were being asked by others.  It was a huge amount of fun and a real learning experience as these seniors were extremely good dancers.

Some time later, Lorin linked to a story about how Chinese officials trying to break up these dance routines as, apparently, the dancers are simply taking over many parks for their own use and other groups are being forced out.  It seems this dancing in public — a form of exercise, boasts roughly 100 million adherents in China, most of them middle-aged and retired women. Hmm….(link here)

Later in the day we joined a Tai Chi class another popular form of exercise and relaxation. As we wandered we found many others involved in other art forms, music and meditation and, more often than not, we were asked to become involved or to have our photo taken with a group.  When wandering around China, I expect that not being part of a large group has its advantages. The residents are perhaps more inclined to seek out contact, for instance the man who man gave me some pointers on playing a two Tenth floor apartment in downtownstringed instrument called an Erhu (Chinese Viollion).

That evening, after rejoining Lorin, we were off to another dinner party with another of the friends of he and Jin. The delightful young couple, along with their two children, her mother and a live-in housekeeper, reside in large, well appointed, tenth floor apartment overlooking Lychee Park in downtown Shijiazhuang (photo left).

While their building is not all that old (perhaps ten years), it certainly shows the signs of aging around the exterior. This markedly contrasts with the upscale nature of their apartment itself. As only one of the two elevators worked we had to wait several minutes while the girls ahead of us took their motorcycles up to their apartment and then sent the rather slow machine back down.

Our waiting time was spent watching large screen television built into the wall across from the elevator, an unusual amenity placed in a rather non-descript building.  We could have taken the stairs but after six hours dancing, Tai Chi and walking, we thought the elevator to be a good option.

In a later conversation over dinner, we learned the broken elevator would never be fixed. Why? Even though the residents own their apartment, no one pays any fee for the upkeep of the common area. Clearly, with time, these buildings will just deteriorate.  So, what would happen if the other elevator broke?  Nothing much, the families who could afford it, would just find a newer building, buy and renovate another apartment, then move in. Someone else, with on a smaller budget, would pick up this apartment at a fraction the cost and as long as they were willing to walk up and down ten flights of stairs, would live very comfortably.  The Chinese, as we understand, are more concerned with what is inside than what is out. In Part III of this series, more will be said on this apparent lack of common interest in a country that is supposedly being built on common interest.

Over the next few days we continue to visit other parks and facilities around Shijiazhuang including a park dedicated to Dr. Henry Norman Bethune (1890-1939), a Canadian who became rather famous in China as a frontline surgeon in the in the second Sino-DemolishedJapanese War. In each case we were treated to a snapshot of Chinese life both at present and over the distant past.

The parks as well as other local and foreign tourists stops were every bit as clean and welcoming as those you might find in Victoria or Vancouver.  While some of the eating establishments displayed a certain lack of attention to detail, it would be not different than going to a small eatery in some of the backwater areas of BC, Alberta or Saskatchewan – great food and friendly, but…..

Photo: A small community was recently razed in preparation for a new high rise development. This was perhaps a 15 acre parcel of land right near the centre of the city.

In Shijiazhuang, Lorin was also able to give us a closer look at the communities being demolished to make way for new apartments and, as well, I have done a fair bit of research on the Internet. Neither Lorin, nor in any my reading, was I able find an explanation of what happened to the hundreds (probably millions) of people displaced from these long-term, well established communities.  Unless they were paid huge sums for their properties, they would clearly be excluded from moving into one of the new apartments.

I am reminded of an area North of Toronto where hundreds a ticky-tacky box apartments have been built over the past twenty years – utilitarian at best.

In China, a whole way of life is being demolished in favour of new high-rise buildings and a city scape without sufficient parks, land to plant gardens or areas in which people can socialize in more traditional ways (e.g. dance routines noted above).  It seems these new buildings and common areas are destined to become ghettos in fifteen or twenty years if nothing is done to help replace fabric of the former cultural and societal connections.

While Canada has escaped some of this challenge as our land mass is so great and population so small, we can see this very thing happening in many cities across the United States as their society stratifies and the poor become relegated to a ghetto existence.

More will be said on these transitions in China in the final part to this three part series, but first I wish to begin a series about our perceptions of life in the Middle East.

Harold

Link Here to Part 1 of the China Story

Link Here to Full Photo Story leading to and in Shijiazhuang, China

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Comments

  • Harold McNeill

    August 16, 2019 |

    Many thanks for reviewing the article Elizabeth. There are so many areas of our society in which populism carries the day, although I think what is happening with the ICBC is that groups having a vested interest in private insurance would dearly love to dislodge ICBC from their preferred position. That being said, I think was a good move to have only portions of the insurance coverage in BC being held by ICBC and other portions being made available through private enterprise.

  • Elizabeth Mary McInnes, CAIB

    August 15, 2019 |

    It’s a breath of fresh air to see a resident of British Columbia look to review all the facts over believing what is reported in the news or just following along with the negative stigma of the masses. Your article truly showcases that with a little reform to ICBC’s provincial system – British Columbia could be a true leader for other provinces in Canada. Very well written article!

  • Harold McNeill

    August 13, 2019 |

    August 13, 2019. The Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC), a private enterprise group not unlike the Fraser Institute, is again on the campaign trail. They state ICBC rates are the highest in Canada, but, thankfully, Global BC inserted a section indicating the Insurance Bureau cherry-picked the highest number in BC and the lowest numbers in AB, ON and other Eastern Provinces. If you take a few minutes to check reliable sources you will find BC rates, are the lowest in Canada.

  • Andrew Dunn

    May 14, 2019 |

    Thank you so much for all your help thus far Harold, aka. Tractor guy! I could not have done without you!

  • Harold McNeill

    April 25, 2019 |

    I find it interesting to contemplate how a small community evolves in general isolation from the rest of the world. We have a similar situation in the northern communities in Canada to which access is limited. The inclusion of the world wide web and mass media has changed things, but these communities are still left pretty much to their own devices when it comes to personal interaction.

  • Harold McNeill

    March 19, 2019 |

    Hi Dave. Not that I am aware and I have a fairly comprehensive family tree for the McNeill side of the family. I will pull it up and scan. Cheers, Harold. Great chatting with you and I will give Ben a nudge.

  • Dave Cassels

    March 16, 2019 |

    Were you related to Guy McNeill who owned the Bruin Inn in St. Albert in the late 40’s or early 50’s? Guy was a close friend of my father-in-law who was the first President of the Royal Glenora Club. My phone number is 780 940 1175. Thank you.

  • Harold McNeill

    March 15, 2019 |

    So glad you found the story and enjoyed. Indeed, they were memorable times. I did a fair amount of searching but never managed to contact any of the Murffit kids. However, it was neat to make contact with the Colony and someone I knew from back in the day. I have enjoyed writing these stories from back in the 1940s and 50s and have made contact with a lot of friends from those early years. I will give you a call over the weekend. Cheers, Harold

  • Yvonne (Couture) Richardson

    March 7, 2019 |

    I enjoyed your story. I too, lived in Pibroch in 1951, as my parents owned the hotel there. I was a very close friend of Bonnie Murfitt at the time. I moved to Edmonton in 1952, however, and have not seen her since. I would like to be in touch with you to talk about your story. My email is listed above and my phone number is 780-475-3873.

  • Laureen Kosch/Patry

    March 5, 2019 |

    I grew up in Pibroch and would not trade those years for anything. “ Kids don’t know how to play anymore” Never was a truer statement made. During the summer we were out the door by 8am, home for lunch, and back when it got dark. For the most part our only toys were our bikes and maybe a baseball mitt. I will never forget the times when all the kids got together in “Finks field” for a game of scrub baseball. Everybody was welcome, kids from 8 to 18. I didn’t know it then but I guess I had a childhood most dream of. Drove thru town last summer. It all looked a lot smaller.