Journeying across unforgettable China

Staff Writer
My seven-year-old daughter does not think the world about China. To her, China is a huge cauldron where inferior goods are cooked.

"O seka wa re tlela di-Fong-kong tsa Machaena," she blurted out as I clutched my bags ready to embark on thousands of kilometers to China. That was four weeks ago.

The trip to China was not always an easy one. About a week before the departure date, I received a call from the Chinese Embassy inviting me to an all expense paid training course in China for African editors.

The finer print showed that I would have to be away from the office for about three weeks and, oh! Oh, that I would have to pass a comprehensive medical examination including an HIV/Aids test. In my case I was going to miss my daughter's seven year-birthday party while away on the trip and that is a big deal.

The folks in the newsroom felt that the requirement to undergo an HIV/Aids test was insulting.

"We are a newspaper we fight against stigma and discrimination and we cannot be seen to participate in this farce," was the refrain in the newsroom.

The discussion becomes polemical but in the end the storm dies down and I go for my tests.

At the air-strip, curiously misnamed Sir Seretse Khama International Airport, I join Outsa Mokone of the Sunday Standard to catch a 45 minute flight to Johannesburg. After a few hours of wandering around Oliver Tambo International Airport we are on board an Emirates plane for a nine hour voyage to Dubai-in the United Arab Emirates.

Like Doha in Qatar, the two small gulf states have turned themselves into major transit transport hub for passengers going to Asia, Europe, the Americas, Africa and the Pacific. Initially, it was the Emirates who started with their state of the art flying birds and their world famous duty free airport shops in Dubai. The Qataris came along and they have even raised the bar with their five star Qatar Airways and an ambitious multi terminal airport under construction in Doha.

Emirates poured millions of pounds into Chelsea Football Club as the official sponsor before switching sides to fellow Londoners, Arsenal Football Club, where they hold the name rights of Arsenal's Emirates stadium. Qatar Airways splashed millions of dollars getting all the prime advertising slots in major international television stations.

In the economy section of the plane, a passenger does not get leg room and enough space to recline so sleeping in a crammed space can be a huge challenge, particularly when you see the fellows in first class and business section sleeping as if they are in their bedrooms. Even up in the skies there are divisions. My benefactor on this trip is the People's Republic of China where equality counts for something or at least it should.   

                                                                                                                                The entertainment section on the Emirates is packed with movies and all the classic and popular songs that one can ask for. I delve in entertainment over-drive to kill the nine hours to Dubai. The variety of cuisine offered on board is tasty.

Before one could count the number of turbulences that we have had, the pilot's voice interrupts the entertainment service and announces our descent into Dubai. First, you see endless seams of loose soil interspersed with some tufts of vegetation. This view of desolation is soon replaced by huge buildings and even taller sky-scrapers under construction. Money can do everything. The sky-line looks impressive and it seems this city is growing every time you pass through these shores.

The Dubai duty free shop is a magnet, almost everyone who passes through Dubai takes the memories of the Arab Emirates from here. From the world famous jewellery, perfumes, books and even electronics. In fact, many of the shops in our region are said to procure jewellery and perfumes in Dubai, which they, in turn, sell at 300 percent profit to an unsuspecting customer.

After a few hours, Emirates Flight EK 308 is taxing down the Dubai runway and, in a short while, we are back in the skies and this time we are headed to Beijing. Beijing is the city that will host the Olympic games in just under two months. Beijing, the seat of Chinese power. The Same Beijing where Chairman Mao Zedong's grave lies immortalized. Yes, Beijing, where you find the Tian'anmen Square. 

The flight movement screen shows that you are flying closer to Lahore and you think of the slain Benazir Bhutto. Not far from the flight map of Pakistan, you see a flight map of Afghanistan and you think of the Bush wars.

You are many kilometers from home and the mind has a way of drifting into a little game of its own, perhaps out of worry that you have been snatched away from your regular security of family, friends and a familiar environment.

How will China be? Will the water be safe to drink? What about the earthquakes that have been pounding China? What if SARS breaks out while I am here? What if...?

I am only jostled from deep slumber by a pilot's announcement welcoming us into Beijing.
It's 26 hours since we started the journey from Gaborone.

Beijing Airport is a massive structure. One terminal has just been completed with the generous use of granite on the walls and floors; it is dripping with opulence. Could this be communist China?

 Its well after midnight and the subways are still teeming with passengers. The officials at the airport are rigorous; they take a whole two minutes studying your passport. Then scan it. When they are done with the document, the focus falls on your face. They scan your face, eyeball to eyeball, looking at one feature at a time and when they are satisfied the document and the person standing in front of them match, they nod and hand back the passport.

I finish faster than Outsa Mokone, whose passport picture bears a dreadlocked portrait of him but now that he had removed the hair locks, he had some explaining to do. Perhaps sensing he could have been dealing with a case of passport 'espionage', the officials crossed over to the other cubicle where a short conference is held. After some back and forth checks, Mokone was allowed to walk freely into Beijing.

Even in my exhaustion, I could afford a laugh.
The next barrier was a body search.
I managed to carry my exhausted body into the waiting car, which, like the Yellow River, snaked into night silence of Beijing. There were very few cars moving around in the streets of Beijing in the wee hours of the morning. You do not get to see the buildings in the city, most of them are unlit. Even offices are generally unlit and I am wondering whether this is an energy conservation measure. I want to ask the driver but I am tired even to move my lips, I am hungry and we do not share a common lingua franca anyway.

China Foreign Affairs University
After a journey that seemed like eternity, our shuttle car inched its way into China Foreign Affairs University. I take the elevator to room 608, a small world that would be my place of abode for the next two and half weeks.

The room is fitted with two bunker beds on both sides of the room, a shower and a toilet are provided en suite. Flashes of my college life come streaming back.

"At least there is a telephone set and, amongst the over fifty Chinese channels, there is BBC and CNN," I mutter to myself in consolation.

Located in the city center, the China Foreign Affairs University is said to be a premier institution that trains personnel mostly in the foreign service. Its enrolment is very small. Moving around the campus is like you have been thrown into the melting pot of humanity; you see people from all over the world, Africa, including a diplomat from our own ministry of Foreign Affairs, Europe, Asia and the Americas, including those from the United States of America and all of them learning at this Chinese University.

Amongst the many lectures we were all looking forward to was a lecture on Tibet. The Dalai Lama, the monks and the people of Tibet have all been on the news ever since the Olympic relay torch started moving around the world's cities.

In his lecture to a group of 22 journalists from African countries, Professor Zeng Chuanhui, who identified himself as a member of the Communist Party of China, said Tibet has always been a part of China and greater Tibet is a media creation that never existed. China has one China policy.

Amongst the many Chinese professors who lectured the African journalists, the one who impressed the most must surely be Professor Li Xiguang.  Talking of China and western media, he observed that the Chinese government has lost its soft power, the ability to advance its agenda effectively in the media. He said the Western press, which has very little understanding of the Chinese languages, cultures and practices of the Zhong qou, or people that are now known as the Chinese assails China.

In his thesis, he says the attacks of the west have brought the Chinese people together.
"They see all the lies and fabrications of the west," he said, adding that the west tells of the atrocities committed by the Chinese and says nothing when the Monks in Tibet kill and maim people. He brought pictures to show that even pictures are cropped to cover the atrocities committed by the Monks and their supporters.

He made the whole class burst into laughter when he said, with a straight face, that a new entrant into Chinese street lingua for anything that is untrue and fabricated is now called CNN.

"If someone is telling a lie in China, we now say 'you are CNN'", he said.

Shopping in China
China is the factory of the world and anyone who comes here is in for the biggest shopping experience. There are government department stores where the

prices are fixed, quality is assured and you are given a receipt after purchase and if anything is wrong you return the goods. But these are not a hit amongst many visitors, at least those that I saw.

We preferred the vibrant markets where prices are negotiated. The whole bargaining process is a circus. Often there is no intercourse of language even gestures are not very universal. The HongQiao market was our favourite.
"Ni hao," we will cry out in Chinese
"Sir , traveling bags here'
"leather shoes!"
"Shirts, Polo shirts, Boss, Giorgio Armani"
"Levi's Jeans'
"Cashmere material"
It's a cacophony of voices all competing for our attention.

The Hongqiao is a huge market with almost everything that you can ask for. When you have identified what you want the big question is always how much.

"This sir is pure leather," is always the standard answer you get when looking for leather products.

Unsolicited, the shop keeper goes to greater extent to show you that what they sell is genuine leather and not some fake products.  To  demonstrate this, a shopkeeper will strike a cigarette lighter and put the flame on the leather item to show that it does not burn. This invariably does the trick on an unsuspecting customer.
"Okay, what's the price?"

Instead of giving the price you are told how much the item was purchased from the factory often in hundreds or thousands yuans (Chinese currency which is the equivalent of the South African Rand)

"But for you friend I will give you gooder price."
"Okay, how much?"

When you insist on the price, the calculator is pulled out.
A pair of 501 levi's jeans would initially be perched at 600 yuan. When you complain that you are being over-reached, you are given a calculator to key in your price and the negotiations would have started.

"Don't give me kill me price friend, give me gooder price."
"Okay 100 yuan."
"A little more friend."
"No this is my last price."
"A little more."
"No I am going.
As you walk away you are pulled back.
"Okay friende, take it."

"Xie xie!" You bid bye bye to one store owner and trek along for more bargains.
The price is up to four times cheaper than what you pay at Botswana and South African stores and this is in the capital Beijing. Residents say it's even cheaper in the factory provinces like Guangdong.

Chinese People
As an African traveling outside Africa, you generally get sneers and askance looks making you feel completely out of place. It has not been a very long time since Xiao Ping opened up China to the outside in 1978. There are still those Chinese who stop in their tracks when they see an African but not so much in Beijing. In rural areas, you could be cinema and they will want to take a picture with you as a make belief to their families and friends. At one market in Beijing, shoppers and shop keepers  could not believe their eyes to see my generous behind. My compatriot Mokone was home in the company of the Beijing 'thin lizzies'.

Every time they pointed at his non-existent behind and said 'gooder' and laughed their lungs out looking at the 'Serowe wealth' tagged behind me.

"Too big," they all laughed.
Our kinky hair was another source of mystery to some. Some even touched and frolicked with it. The women admired the African plaiting and other fancy hairdos on the African female journalists.

Chinese people are generally trim and keep a body shape that we all long for. Physical fitness seems to be their way of life. Public gym areas are dotted around in the city, the kind that we pay a lot of money to go to. Like Starbucks coffee shops and MacDonalds that are found at the corner of every street  in the United States, public gyms and courts adorn street corners.

Most Chinese are naturally startled to see a pot belly and some of us got disapproving stares. Of all the many favourable impressions that one brings from China, that one that usually stands out is the warmth, their big heart and that they do not make an effort to be friendly. From the cab driver  to the shop-keeper, the professor and the man in the street they are courteous and warm.

Asians, at least, I have seen Indians, Sri Lankans and Chinese in their cities, they spit as they move. If our biggest problem is indiscriminate disposal of litter such as tins and paper for the Chinese the challenge must certainly be indiscriminate spitting even on pavements.
This practice was quite a cultural shock to the entire African group.

Development and the Beijing Olympic craze in China
Beijing is a huge city, which in infrastructural development could compete with any major international city in the world. With the preparation for the upcoming Olympics, the city has a modern feel and it looks new.

Unlike India's New Delhi, Beijing is not crowded. The roads and expressways are wide and well kept by the municipality. I have never seen a single pothole on the roads making me wonder whether there is something wrong with our road construction. 

China is all agog with the Beijing Olympics, hit by natural disasters such as earthquake, floods that have displaced millions and negative publicity over Taiwan, the Chinese still wear the Beijing Olympic scarf as a badge of honour. Cabs around the cities are all draped in Beijing Olympics flags. Perhaps to try and repay the bad publicity surrounding the torch as it went around world capitals. the Chinese have generated a lot of excitement around the torch as it goes around China. Such was the case in Quiyang, a city in the South western China.

The Chinese people believe that the Beijing Olympics will be bigger and it is one event that could transform China's relationship with the rest of the world.

The Olympics have even overshadowed China's 30 years anniversary of Xiao Ping's initiative to open up China to the outside world.

Ancient civilisation and Tourism
in China
A visit to the great wall of China, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, all of which are gigantic man made structures built in the ancient times, will undoubtedly confirm that China has always been a leading nation in technological advancement. Together with the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal and Aggra Fort in India, China's ancient structures are breath-taking.

Although a capital city, Beijing still keeps its metropolitan feel as it does its cultural sites. Populated with minorities and diverse cultural practices, China is a rich milieu of culture and a tourist in China will be spoiled for choice.

Guizhou, the mountainous province that we visited, is a world beater in many respects. The Grand Falls just outside Ashun City will compete with sites such as the Victoria Falls and Niagara Falls. The dragon Palace, in China mythology of the dragon holds a central place, is  one of the most breath-taking wonders. A boat into the caves overlooking the falls takes one through the underground landscapes, past the scenic dragon impressions on the roof caves.

Agriculture is very central to rural Chinese economy. A lot more families are dependent on agriculture as source of food and income. With a population of about 1.4 billion, China is still able to feed itself. In the Guizhou Province, rice production is the center-piece. In very crowded mountainous range, families still plough rice paddies. In a sophisticated irrigation system that involves damming water from mountains and rivers, farmers have perfected the art of irrigation and using excessive water to their advantage. Using just one animal draft power, farmers churn our huge acreage of rice over a year.
Everyday, you see committed farmers in gumboots immersed in water soaked fields ploughing and tending to their farm needs.

In a small village of Lucheba outside Ashun City, farmers have organized themselves into a cooperative to plough land, run a school and even ensure that they electrify their village through the use of biogas.

"We use waste to generate power for cooking and lighting," the chief of about one thousand villagers said.

To ensure that farmers use modern methods of farming farmers meet at the local school and watch videos on the latest methods  and this is done in a language that they understand.

Going back home
After almost three weeks in China, it is time to go back home. The Zimbabweans and Ethiopians  are the lucky ones amongst the lot, they are flying Air Zimbabwe and Ethiopian Airlines back to Harare and Addis. We are the worst among the group as we travel to Dubai and Johannesburg before we could get to Gaborone.
"Do you have an airline?" a colleague asked me once.

With all talk of privatization and stuff, I did not know what to say and he must have tired from waiting as he never bothered to ask again.

I packed all conference material and few items that I had bought for family and friends.
At the Airport, stern faced Emirates officials tell us that we are only allowed 20 kilograms each as baggage and we will have to pay for excess baggage or leave other bags at the airport.

The charge is very steep and we decide to leave the items. Mokone leaves behind two bags and some items and I leave behind a bag and some items.

I bargained hard for some of these items. I look hard at the bag that I left which is now in the hands of Chinese airport scavengers; they are ransacking through it. The bag carries memories of Mumbai in India. It has taken me to my earthly home in Palapye and now this Chinese man and woman, who do not know about the bag's sentimental value, have assumed its ownership. Its ironic that Emirates Airlines can do this to me, in China at a time when China is grappling with the issue of property rights.
My seven-year-old does not think the world of my worries.
O lelela eng Papa ke dilo tsa Machaena." 




The gobling of Covid 19 Funds

Latest Frontpages

Todays Paper Todays Paper Todays Paper Todays Paper Todays Paper Todays Paper