(Changsha and Shaoshan, Hunan Province)
One of many Chinese cities where the streets are not designed for pedestrians- to walk downtown from the “downtown” Sheraton, there is no actual pavement- you have to walk first into the car park, and then out again through a side entrance. You aren’t expected to walk from A to A, let alone from A to B.
Some intersections have zebra crossings (on which mopeds aim straight at you as soon as you have right of way), others have dingy subways, others bright fashion arcades that appear to be a destination in themselves, still others have over-bridges (often with lifts) which at least help you (and your phone’s GPS) keep your bearings as you traverse.
But there are chaotic side-streets too, that feel much safer, where motor vehicles, bikes, pedestrians and animals share the space as best they can. On one that’s packed with food stalls, I witness complete gridlock at nightfall as cars arriving from opposite directions, and trying to park, create a logjam. Cyclists dismount and carry their bicycles around the obstacles, as pedestrians queue to follow.
Others are on the verge of destruction, the small shops and traditional houses evacuated and boarded up, the street squeezed into a central channel ringed by panels, the empty shops clearly visible beyond. A policeman sits watch on a motorised rickshaw, blue and red lights flashing, with a recorded message repeatedly blaring out.
Then I turn a corner into the future- an entire block has been crushed to rubble, dwarfed by the old buildings either side, themselves only reaching the ankles of the skyscraper banks and hotels beyond. An old lady pushes a cart of rags through the narrow opening between two huge piles of demolition débris: bricks, rubble, carpets, broken kitchen fittings.
A huge park full of people, a Martyrs’ Memorial, a boating lake and fairground rides. Everything is suddenly familiar. Well, there is a 32-metre statue of a young Mao looking down on the town in which he converted to communism, and a dizzying proliferation of extremely upmarket fashion and jewellery shops, but no real culture shock- until I decide to “go for a drink”. At 29 degrees, some people sit in the shade drinking their own warm beer, but there is no real concept of a “bar”. After a long walk past people shopping and eating, I spot a plush red exterior, with the words “Coco Bar” hinting at hedonism beyond.
After repeatedly shoving the door marked “Entrance- Push”, I try pulling the one with no label and am admitted onto a narrow spiral staircase with twirling red ropes. Upstairs a solitary waiter is watching a football match. He offers me a menu of spirits by the full-size bottle- clearly there’s no such thing as a half-hearted drinker. A bottle of whisky alone, and then back down those precarious stairs? Right. Eventually he relents, and after 5 minutes a waitress appears from nowhere with a can of lager and a plate of crisps. She is very welcoming, and starts to pour for me, but just as I try to make small talk (“quiet tonight, isn’t it?”) my warm beer, which she has just agitated in its can, froths up out of the glass and floods the entire counter. She looks on, aghast, paralysed with uncertainty as to what to do next, avoiding eye contact entirely and studying the trickle as it makes its way down from the table edge to the floor. Finally, she mops the counter, and disappears with the half-full can, leaving me with a glass full of foam.
Bullet train to Shaoshan
I always enjoy the privilege of observing without trying to comprehend- it’s such a treat if you make your living in international communication. (A decade ago I was in a car with some visiting delegates, speeding through an African rainforest full of armed guerrillas on election day, when a bystander, spotting the armed escort which preceded us, stood in our path and made frantic gestures. “What does he want?” my companions asked me, nervously. “Is that a threat?” It was my job to be the English “voice” of local politicians, soldiers, citizens and voters. But I specialised in speech in their official national language, not in Bakongo hand gestures. We turned a corner and our smooth Chinese-built road turned, with no warning, into a dirt track. Nothing more sinister than that- we had been driving a little too fast for the bump that awaited us. In retrospect, the gesture had been quite literal and universal. But I had failed in my role as omniscient advisor.)
So on leaving Changsha, I relish the fact nobody is asking me what anything means. As a westerner it is not always easy to travel with an open mind, when you have read phrases like “On one day in 1966, a procession of 120,000 people thronged the village and paid their respects to the Little Red Book” (New York Times, 1982).
Simon Leys, a Belgian Sinologist, saw a personality cult on a huge scale: millions of Red Guards marching the 80km from Changsha to Shaoshan over 4 days in the late 1960s, and then the new railway and huge hotels for “pilgrims” being built. He describes ardent Red Guards and revolutionaries walking even after the advent of the railway (they should “Forge Good Iron Footsoles”, to be prepared for war with a foreign enemy).
Paul Theroux saw abandonment in 1986 (the one train a day, taking 3 hours, “just an old puffer on a forgotten branch line”); a giant, empty, theme park. A souvenir shop waiting for customers.
My trip by taxi to the out-of-town bullet train station takes 3 times longer than the inter-city train journey itself, and costs less than half the espresso I order once I reach the futuristic hub. I go to a typical café called “Coffee o’Clock” that offers fluorescent pink cakes and triangular mayonnaisey sandwiches. After Shanghai’s, the station seems spacious- there are rows of unoccupied benches, and no queues in shops or cafés. “Build it and they will come”, perhaps? I suffer none of my habitual claustrophobia in a Chinese station, until I board the train, which is packed.
From the window, a Maglev train to the airport, field after field of rubble, partially hidden behind barricades covered with pictures of smiling people and the English slogan “A Glamorous City”, a Spaghetti Junction of elevated high speed rail routes, new smooth tunnels, some traditional farm land, and then a huge expanse of churned red earth followed by a completely empty motorway.
An even quieter station. No sign of the Great Helmsman, just an advert for the railway and for Spanish wine. I take pictures of them, thinking they are incongruous- and then realise they are both a deep red.
There is a huge map outside the station, labelling various scenic attractions and administrative offices. These include, with no special prominence, Mao’s Former Residence, Memorial Hall and Ancestral Temple, together with statues of his 6 “relatives as martyrs”, and the fabulously-named Exhibition Hall of the History of the Shaoshan Branch of the Communist Party of China. There is also, of course, the Mao family restaurant. (If you have a few yuan in your pocket, you will never go hungry on a Chinese day trip). I notice he is systematically referred to by the name Mao Zhe Dong, never (former) Chairman, nor any other epithet. It’s almost as though that pre-pinyin fellow we used to call Mao Tse Tung was a different being.
I see a couple of people milling around, but no identifiable group has arrived on my train. A couple of minibuses wait at stands, but there is a decent footpath too, and my phone’s GPS says it’s 8km, so I set off on foot. If my 1960s predecessors could march for 4 days from Changsha, surely I can manage a couple of hours across country?
I start on what is called a “road under construction”, in reality two completed carriageways devoid of traffic, a lovely wide footpath stretching to the horizon, and another carriageway-sized belt of red earth with lorries plying to and fro with materials.
For an hour I walk along this quiet valley, bullet trains passing me at 300kph on a viaduct, the occasional motorbike and lorry, and one car inexplicably parked in the middle of nowhere with its driver sprawled across two seats, smoking and listening to music.
Then the footpath abruptly ends, and there are piles of red earth to navigate before I meet a narrower, old-fashioned road. I round the corner and there is some sort of commotion. Three young women are flagging down a car and running after it. One runs in front of it, forcing it to stop, and a lively conversation ensues. The other two run back to their previous position and try to stop the next cars arriving. I have the awful thought that there must have been an accident, and remember the story of the 3-year-old killed by a hit & run driver in a rural village, lack of insurance meaning it was too expensive to stop. My imagination and lack of Chinese lead me to hearing all sorts of legal terminology in their harangues: “You are liable for the hospital bill! For the funeral expenses!” or, to the second vehicle: “You were a witness and are legally obliged to stop!”
But, when the cars drive on, the trio seem to show a good-humoured resignation. The next driver doesn’t even slow down, sounding his horn continuously, jaw set in grim determination, forcing them to leap out of his way. I walk very close to the car-botherers, and am completely ignored.
After a dozen family restaurants, I see my first sign of the Great Leader- photographs of him in his prime, and as a strapping youth, fill the foyer. I take this as a good omen and take a seat. With many smiles I am sent on my way- they’re closed.
There is an inflatable rubber dragon, a banging drum, a procession observed by no-one but me, and some fireworks. My incomprehension of my surroundings is matched only by everyone else’s bafflement at my own antics. I do what I always do after walking for a few miles on a hot day- find a table to sit, and write, and have a cold drink. I sweat, which attracts attention to me as a foreigner. I write, but in a horizontal sprawl rather than neat ideograms, and I use the wrong hand to do it. Above all, I insist on my drink being from the fridge, and fail to immediately order lunch, despite it being 11:20am. All this causes not only comment, but the need to call various family members to come and politely witness the spectacle.
I buy a Mao t-shirt in a deserted souvenir shop, and spend another pleasant hour walking along the access road, which is being prettified (there are huge holes at regular intervals, ready for trees to be transplanted into them), and has numerous signs with slogans (though not quite the “sayings of Mao every 250m” of 50 years ago). I checked the forecast, and thought suncream unnecessary, but am aware I am now turning red (“The sun rises in Shaoshan”).
At the entrance to the village is a checkpoint and a traffic jam. A bucolic footpath surrounded by ponds diverges from the main road, so on an impulse, I take it. (I also have an irrational fear of being asked questions at the checkpoint). Despite my layer of sweat, sore feet, and sore shoulder from my bag strap, I am happy when I get completely lost. The literal now matches the figurative, and I can add Mother Nature to my observations.
A few passers-by, in lampshade hats, shout “Taxi” or “Food” at me (or just “Hello”, or long streams of Chinese I do not catch), but otherwise, it’s just me, the rolling hills, huge ponds, a few loose chickens, a neat concrete slab of road, a smart new town hall and an ancient schoolyard. A man with a scythe stops hacking at a cabbage patch to stare at me in silence until I am out of sight.
Eventually, I manage to retrace my footsteps and a boyish policeman waves me through with a smile. I fancy I learn to recognise this smile over the next few hours. It is an appreciation of my presence, tinged with national pride. It says “Why would a foreign friend be interested in our communist history? What a sweet man to come all the way here, on his own, abandoning his natural habitat of skyscraper banks and hotels for a day to come to a simple village! What a mark of respect!”
The sign at the Former Residence gives me the potted history:
Born 1893, left to study 1910, returned 1921 “to teach his family the spirit of selfless devotion to others and to the people of China in a bid to turn them on to the path of revolution”
1925: “Established Shaoshan Special Branch of the CPC in the attic of his former home”
1927: “Inspected the peasant movement in Hunan and held meetings”
“After the founding of the People’s Republic”: “the people’s government rebuilt the Former Residence and opened it to the public. Some furniture and agricultural machinery are originals kept by local people, some are replicas.”
That is the complete timeline, without omissions.
In 1982, room 18 of the house (the last room, covering the entire post-1949 period), was indefinitely closed, according to the New York Times, for a “rethink”. By the time Paul Theroux visited in 1986, it had reopened, and “the years 1949-76 are presented with lightning speed.”
A huge memorial square, named after the “comrade” and dedicated to “public education”, was created in 1993 and enlarged in 2008.
The infrastructure seems slightly larger than the needs on this random off-season Monday- most of the shuttle buses whooshing past me are completely empty, the queue for security checks to enter the house itself is only a few minutes long, and the public areas are not claustrophobic, one just has to watch out not to bump into oblivious selfie-takers, or to stand too close to a smoker. But it is far from abandoned- an occasional full bus arrives, and there are school groups, young adults in uniforms of all colours, couples of all ages who stop and gape at me, and numerous guided groups led by sharp-elbowed youngsters in microphone-headsets.
In the station waiting room the only shops sell themed souvenirs, mainly teas. I have an hour to inspect them all thoroughly, and am frequently asked to pose for pictures with visitors, and with the shopkeepers themselves. The only restaurant is a franchise with a big yellow M on a huge red background- and, yes, it serves burgers to the people.
As my sleek bullet train slides away towards Shanghai, a well-dressed teenager enters my compartment. I end my journey feeling as out of place as ever: an exhausted walker next to an immaculate millennial in designer clothes and jewellery. But the slogan on her hoodie is in my mother tongue: it reads “Working Class Hero.”