Democracy and the future of major sporting events.

Will major sporting events soon be held only in non-democratic countries?

International sporting events such as the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup may take place only in countries without genuine democracy as governments in democratic countries struggle to justify to their populations the exorbitant cost of hosting these events. Authorities in non-democratic countries, on the other hand, do not need to justify anything to their subjects.

The citizens of democratic nations are increasingly aware of the enormous financial costs and disruption required to host international competitions. The same people are also aware of the lack of funding directed towards more immediate needs in their countries such as schools, universities, hospitals and other infrastructure.

Do major sporting events make a profit?

The question is not so much whether major sporting events make a profit, or if they benefit countries in other ways. The question is whether governments can persuade their populations that the events make a profit or benefit the nation.

Can governments continue to justify the construction of enormous sporting stadia when government schools are underfunded?

Can governments continue to justify accommodating the world’s athletes when hospitals are underfunded?

Can governments justify spending $118 million on opening or closing ceremonies when public transport is insufficient or non-existant?

Brazil highlighted this contradiction recently. The country hosted both the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016 despite a struggling economy, a broken public health system, grossly underfunded public schools and crumbling infrastructure. Many educated Brazilians are still waiting for the promised economic and social benefits of these two events. Many South Africans have undoubtedly been asking the same questions since 2010.

Volunteers

Have you ever volunteered at a major sporting event?

Would you volunteer at a major sporting event?

As everyday people learn more about the corruption and lavish lifestyles of the officials at major sporting organisations, surely they will be less inclined to jump into a garish uniform and stand for hours outside a train station directing fans to venues – for no pay.

Many volunteers have thankless jobs. They never see a moment of sport. The never see their sporting heroes in person. In return, they get to keep their uniform and receive a generic thankyou letter from a random politician. Major sporting events cannot go ahead without an army of volunteers. Could FIFA or the IOC afford to pay every volunteer at one of their international events?

Rulers of non-democratic nations, meanwhile, are better able to persuade citizens to volunteer.

Patriotism

Patriotism drives many volunteers to offer their vital services, but will it be enough in the future?

Patriotism drove young people to volunteer for the army in World War I for example, but many of today’s youth do not share this patriotic fervour. Can the same shift in attitude be applied to the sporting sphere, and would young people choose to volunteer for a sporting event?

Volunteers at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games spoke of their national pride, and continue to reference this as a motivation and reward for volunteering at the games. I myself experienced some of this patriotism when I volunteered. That said, I volunteered in the media, with the best seats in the house, at the Athletics, and spent the games interviewing athletes. I also sat on the finish line, a few rows back, when Cathy Freeman won gold. Most volunteers were not so lucky.

Patriotism also persuaded many Brazilians to eventually support, or at least stop criticising, the hosting of the 2014 World Cup. The government was canny enough to know that the country’s obsession with the world game would eventually silence many of its critics. This enthusiasm surely waned when they lost 7 – 1 to Germany on home soil.

The public is also much more likely to congratulate or tolerate a government’s decision to host a major event in that country wins. Winning elite sporting competitions also costs a lot of money.

Patriotism will still persuade many citizens to support international competitions in the future. Australians were elated to hear that their country will share the FIFA Women’s World Cup with New Zealand in 2023, but by that time will Australia still be a democracy?

A quick internet search reveals that many major events scheduled for the next five years will be held in countries such as Japan, Switzerland, France and Italy, which are universally accepted as democratic. Other events will be held in the USA, but as long as Trump is in office can the USA claim to be democratic?

It’s worth noting that all of these counties were awarded the competitions before the COVID-19 pandemic. When the total financial and social cost of the virus is calculated, will citizens support any future bids for major sporting events?

Authority

Non-democratic countries don’t need to justify anything to their subjects. China, Russia and the Gulf States are now hosting many of the world’s major sporting events and their governments operate unencumbered by public sentiment.

China has hosted many major sporting events and will do so in the near future. They entered this space by hosting the 2008 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and have hosted various forms of Asian Games. The Winter Olympics are set to be held in Beijing in 2022 and the country has been the venue for prestigious events in Basketball, Swimming and Athletics in recent years.

China is not a democratic nation.

Russia is an interesting conundrum. Russian athletes were prohibited from competing under the national flag at many recent major events due to widespread state-supported doping, but the country still hosted events such as the Winter Olympic Games, the FIFA World Cup and the 2015 World Aquatics Championships in Kazan.

Russia is not a democratic nation.

The Gulf states

The Gulf states are attracting sports administrators to their nations. Their geographical location and air transport hubs make them enticing locations for staging international events, and their oil wealth allows them to cover the costs. The oil money also affords their people a very high standard of living and a subsequent tolerance of government policies.

Qatar is determined to become a sporting nation. They have invested heavily in sporting academies and sporting infrastructure. They host major events and hire foreign experts to train their homegrown talent. They are set to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup and have promised to keep players, officials, fans and the media comfortable despite the stifling desert heat. The air conditioned World Cup is bound to cost an absolute fortune, but the oil rich states should have little trouble convincing their subjects to bear this burden.

Having worked at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, which was the first major event of any kind held in that country, I can attest to the enthusiasm, pride and excitement Qataris will feel towards football’s greatest tournament in two year’s time.

The United Arab Emirates has attempted to position itself as a favourable tourism destination through hosting international competitions in sports such as Rugby Sevens, Tennis, Golf, Sailing, Equestrian and Road Running.

The flow-on effect

Financial costs and benefits are not the only factors for governments to consider when deciding to host a major event. Flow-on effects must also be taken into account.

One flow-on effect is the increase in sports participation after a major event such as the Olympic Games. This is not true. Many first-world countries which have recently hosted major events are seeing an increase in childhood obesity every year.

Major events lead to an increase in sports participation immediately after the games, or an increase in participation in particular sports. If a national hockey team or basketball team wins gold, those two sports will most likely attract more members. But many of these sports were probably mass participation sports in that country anyway. Norway wins Cross -Country skiing gold because of the popularity of that sport. The same can be said of Speed Skating in The Netherlands, Rugby Sevens in Fiji and Table Tennis in China.

Facilities

Sporting infrastructure is touted as a positive legacy for a host city or country. Many venues are reused as specialist or multipurpose sporting facilities. However, A quick google search reveals a multitude of facilities in many countries left to crumble after world’s best athletes have departed. Some of these abandoned facilities were used as recently as the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 and the Rio Olympic Games in 2016.

Evidence of this wastage, and the tactics used by governments to justify the initial construction, will surely make citizens of democratic nations more cynical and less inclined to support bids for major events in the future.

E- Sports

Is it cheaper to host E-Sports events?

Competitions still often take place inside sports stadiums but there are fewer competitors at fewer venues who seem to require less equipment. Competitions consist of a few ‘gamers’, their elaborate computer game equipment, copious energy drinks and some broadcast equipment to display the action on a big screen and to livestream to audiences around the world. The fact that E-Sports competitions take place electronically means that they can be enjoyed online. Does this make them easier and cheaper to host?

E-Sports must be an enticing options for governments in the future because they are enormously popular. The most watched Youtube videos are those featuring computer games and gamers.

Are we looking at this the wrong way?

Instead of asking whether only authoritarian regimes will host major events in the future, can we cite the hosting of an international sporting competition as evidence that a country is not democratic?

Persuading the powerful

Finally, how many countries will be able to afford to ‘persuade’ the sports officials who decide which country hosts the upcoming sporting extravaganza?

Nigga, why did you lose?

“Nigga, why did you lose?”

The athlete stared in disbelief.

His hulking, dark-skinned frame slumped on the barriers separating the journalists from the media. Muscles bulged from every limb under his USA team kit and sweat dripped from his face, down his neck and over the sinews and protruding veins of his finely-tuned physique.

Did he just say that, read the expression on his face. The sprinter glanced from right to left to scan the reaction on the faces of other media in attendance and confirm what he had just heard.

Maybe he’d misheard. Maybe the physical and emotional exhaustion of an Olympic semi-final had caught up with him. Maybe the disappointment of failing to qualify for a final that he was good enough to win, and the realisation that years and years of training and sacrifice had amounted to nothing, caused him to misinterpret the question from the Chinese journalist.

But no. He had not misunderstood the question. The American (whose name I don’t remember) would leave the Beijing Olympic Games with bad memories, and this would be one of them.

The local reporter hadn’t meant to use the N word. He hadn’t intended to question a black athlete by using the word which has accompanied years of racism, oppression and discrimination throughout the world, especially in the country whose flag sat emblazoned on the athlete’s singlet.

The N word he had used was “NaGe” or “nage”. This Chinese word translates as ‘that one’ into English, and is used to connect sentences or phrases, or to fill a pause in conversation in everyday Chinese communication. It serves the same function as ‘um’ or ‘like’ in English. It is used a million times a day by Chinese speakers and has absolutely no racial or offensive meaning in English, because it has no meaning in English.

Unfortunately, when it is pronounced in connected speech, it sounds exactly like the N word, and that is what the athlete heard from the reporter. It was simply a very unfortunate example of a word being lost in translation.

It's hard to be subtle in a second language.

The second mistake the reporter made was asking a blunt and direct question to a visibly upset Olympian.

The meaning of the question was appropriate, the wording was not. The journalist was tasked with gauging the athlete’s response to his poor performance. The reporter was supposed to find out how and why the athlete performed below his usual standard and thus failed to qualify for the final.

The reporter could have asked:

“Tell us what happened out there”

“You would have expected a better result, can you explain what happened?”

“Obviously that’s not what you hoped for, is there a reason for your performance?”

Maybe the athlete was ill or carrying an undisclosed injury into the race. Maybe he was excessively nervous or had over trained in the days leading up to the event. We might have found out why, but not by using the words the local reporter used.

To be fair to the local journalist, he was not actually a journalist. By his own admission, he also didn’t know much about sport, let alone Athletics, which is the most prominent sport at multi-sport events such as the Olympic Games. The local reporter was a university lecturer, in a subject far removed from sport (Engineering from memory) and had somehow landed the role of mixed zone reporter in the Bird’s Nest.

After the incident, I tried to explain to my colleague how that word is problematic, but a lifelong habit is hard to break in a day, and he was not the most receptive of the local staff.

I couldn’t help thinking, how can a country of more than one billion people not find a handful of reporters who understand sport, understand the media and have a firm grasp of English or other languages?

Other reporters eventually leapt in and steered the interview towards an explanation for the unexpected performance, then the athlete slumped off to the changerooms to commiserate.

What did the athlete say in response to the unfortunate question?

Nothing

Image: Chau Cedric

Pizza…with garlic bread and a heart check.

I was starving. I wasn’t very happy either. I’d just hopped off my second crammed, smelly, humid bus ride after returning to Chengyang from Qingdao where I’d tried to renew some paperwork.

Hours and hours of sitting and waiting in noisy government offices, being herded from one counter to the next and trying to understand the officials with my rudimentary grasp of Mandarin had taken its toll on me.

All I wanted now was some food.

I walked towards a local restaurant bursting with noise, locals and cigarette smoke, then past another and another offering the same menu and the same atmosphere. After my battle with officialdom and my lengthy, arduous bus rides, I couldn’t quite face a noisy, smoke-filled restaurant and more exposure of my linguistic shortcomings.

Pizza

I saw the sign and settled on this venue for lunch. China might not be known for pizza, and Chengyang is more famous for Korean BBQ than for Italian fine dining, but my mood demanded something familiar and filling.

I poked my head through the door and was welcomed by the friendly owner and the sight of some locals enjoying a hearty meal.

This’ll do, I thought

I gestured and pointed my way through my order and had communicated to the owner that I desired garlic bread and a supreme pizza. Exactly what constitutes a supreme pizza in China I wasn’t quite sure, and I didn’t care. I was hungry.

The garlic bread arrived and disappeared simultaneously. I didn’t register its taste or texture, just its journey to my rumbling stomach.

With my appetite partially sated, I surveyed the small restaurant and observed a primary school child struggling through her homework, a young couple exchanging loving glances and another young couple glued to their phones. The remainder of the patrons were locals happily devouring their pizza and chatting to the amiable owners.

Just before my pizza arrived, I noticed something odd. Something I’d never seen at a pizza restaurant, or any restaurant. One of the owners, and a middle-aged couple, were locked in a serious but amicable conversation, which ended when the couple appeared to give their consent.

I was intrigued.

The owner moved toward the kitchen with a determined posture, and disappeared. He emerged a few minutes later with a contraption of some sort. Obscured by the comings and goings of the restaurant I couldn’t quite make out what he was carrying, and only noticed the diners roll up their sleeves.

I then saw the owner attach his contraption to the arm of the husband. It was a blood pressure monitor. Exactly the same as the ones used in doctor’s surgeries. The owner was measuring the couple’s blood pressure.

Why?

I wasn’t expecting gourmet pizza and I wasn’t expecting a Michelin hat at a local restaurant on the outskirts of Chengyang, which is on the outskirts of Qingdao. Still, I didn’t expect this couple, and subsequent diners, to be having their blood pressure checked, AFTER they had finished their meals.

What was it about this pizza?

Before I could contemplate this conundrum any longer, my pizza arrived.

It looked OK, but should I eat it?

Does it induce heart flutters, high blood pressure, a stroke?

Why were the owners testing the blood pressure of people in a restaurant. Do they do this every day, is it part of the service?

My mind was racing so fast that it made me hungry. It seemed I had no choice.

I took a bite and it was…edible. Very greasy and cheesy, but edible.

I managed to fit in mouthfuls of pizza between moments of doubt, and I clearly lived to tell the tale.

I wasn’t, however, offered a blood pressure check.

And I didn’t order desert.

Image: Chad Montano

Famished in Gulangyu.

I nearly went hungry in Gulangyu.

I was feeling rather peckish so I wandered into a local restaurant. It was full so I assumed it must be good.

I took a seat and perused the menu and thanked my lucky stars that the menu contained pinyin and I could read the letters, instead of having to just guess at the meaning of the Chinese characters.

By this stage of my journey through China I had learned to point at a menu and say

“Wo yao Zhege”

“I want this”.

When I did this with menus comprised entirely of characters, I had no idea what I’d ordered and I was served some interesting dishes. To this day I still don’t know what I ate.

It’s one reason I sought out the Uighur restaurants in China. No, not out of political motives. It was because these restaurants served heaped plates of cheap, tasty food, and because they had numbered pictures on the wall which I could point to and say,

“Wo yao Zhege”

At one of these restaurants, the friendly young son showed me his homeland on a world map, and I showed him where I had travelled from. Then he explained that he didn’t actually speak much mandarin, as it was not his first language.

“Tha’s ok,” I replied, “neither do I”

At this particular restaurant in Gulangyu, however, I was confident that I would know what I had ordered and was about to consume.

Would I opt for jirou or nuirou?

It was normally a choice between chicken or beef, much like meals on a plane. At least, it was for someone as linguistically hampered as I.

Having decided on the chicken, I now had to get the attention of the waitress. I’ve never been very good at this and still feel a little uncomfortable doing it, no matter where in the world I find myself. But, my stomach was calling, so it had to be done.

I knew that it was uncommon to signal with the hand or a raised arm in China. I thus tried to meet her eye. This was hard in a restaurant full of hungry visitors who had her running this way and that, taking multiple orders at a time – and not writing them down. She raced between tables and to and from the kitchen and appeared to be the only staff member on duty. Most likely, she was the only family member on duty.

I tried to politely and subtly catch her attention and order my lunch, but it wasn’t working, and with every passing minute my stomach rumbled more impatiently.

Then it occurred to me. The only way to complete my order was to do what everyone else was doing – just yell it at her. Shout your order across the room, over the din of a busy restaurant, even with a mouth full of food. There is little time for niceties in a country of one billion people.

But how was I to do this?

How could I make myself understood with my rudimentary vocabulary and stunted pronunciation? How would she even hear me?

I was devising a strategy when she approached my table to take my order. I think she either felt sorry for the ‘weiguoren’ who had been sitting dumbfounded for at least ten minutes without ordering – or she wanted the table for someone else. After all, if I wasn’t eating, I was costing the owners money.

Thus she approached my table and frantically asked me what I wanted, while three other tables were demanding more food and ‘pijou’ – beer. I stuttered and stumbled through a few words of mandarin but she didn’t understand. She asked again and I couldn’t make myself understood any more clearly.

Then she walked away.

My third attempt was no better than the first two and she simply couldn’t wait. It wasn’t her job to guide me through my Chinese language learning journey with patience and understanding. It was her job to serve the surrounding patrons who were yelling orders at her with growing frequency and impatience.

Now what do I do?

Will I go hungry?

If I can’t order a meal, how do I eat?

Do I go to another restaurant and risk the same outcome?

Do I got to a corner store and buy a packet of biscuits or two-minute noodles? If I bought noodles, how would I heat them?

My mind was racing and my stomach rumbling.

Just then, my saviour arrived. A young Korean woman arrived at the table and observed my plight.

“Do you speak English?” she asked

“Do you need some help?”

Yes, clearly

So, a young Korean woman took my order in English then translated it into Chinese, and I did manage to eat. I also had some company for my meal.

I felt inadequate and embarrassed. Not just because I’d failed to order a simple meal, but also because I had to be saved by a Korean who used her second and third languages to order for me.

I enjoyed my meal because my new found friend had managed to order a particular sauce as well as the ‘ji rou’ and ‘fan’ – chicken and rice. On a previous occasion, I had ordered beef and rice, and had received just that – strips of beef and white rice. It was bland to say the least.

I didn’t go hungry and enjoyed a tasty meal in good company.

Without the language of the host country or region, it is possible to travel, but it does detract from the experience. If I hadn’t been saved by a friendly Korean, I think I would have found some way to eat – I hope so.

It did make me wonder, without a mastery of mandarin, what is one to do in Gulangyu?

One would most likely wander the pedestrian only island and admire the mix of Chinese and European architecture which distinguishes this small island from other cities in China.

Gulangyu was actually an international settlement and became a busy, open port in 1842 when the Treaty of Nanjing ended the Opium Wars. Today it is more heavily populated with interntational tourists and locals, who pop across for a day trip or a weekend on the ferry from Xiamen.

The warm weather and salty air also lend the island a distinct atmosphere, and it is pleasant to wander around the island and watch the fisherman at work, and appreciate the role of the sea in supporting the people who have lived here for thousands of years.

An ascent to one of the lookout points affords a view of the island back to the skyscrapers of Xiamen.

The Great Wall of China.

The Great Wall of China is steep. Surprisingly steep. We all know the wall for its length, its historical significance and the fact that it can be seen from space, but its difficult to appreciate its steepness until you actually visit.

The winding fortification snakes its way over hills and mountains along China’s northern border and is traversed via paths and steps connecting each of its guard posts.

Walking up and down the paths and steps at the Badaling section of the wall is hard work, especially when northern China’s summer heat combines with Beijing’s famous air pollution to constrict the lungs. However, a leg and lung busting mini-hike is worth the effort because it allows the visitor to separate themselves from the hordes of tourists who descend upon one of the world’s most famous landmarks every day.

In actual fact, you don’t have to venture too far from the main entrance at Badaling to escape the crowds, and on a good day you may find you have the wall to yourself for a moment.

At this point you can contemplate the construction, appearance, history and significance of the wall.

Struggling up along the sections between the guard posts prompts visitors to wonder what it must have been like to have been stationed on the wall as a guard hundreds of years ago.

Would guards have lived in a constant state of fear of attack from enemy invaders? Somehow I don’t think this would have been the case at many sections of the wall. The topography alone would have thwarted any genuine attempt at invasion, and the height of the wall would have allowed the guards to see the enemy from miles away. The scale of the wall surely removed the element of surprise from most enemy combatants and this must have been a deliberate feature of its design.

It seems that boredom would have been a major threat to the guards. Staring into vast nothingness for hours and hours, day after day, and having nothing to do even when their shift ended – if it ever did.

I also wondered how they ate. If they were stationed on a remote part of the wall, were they provided with a set amount of rations sufficient to sustain them for the duration of their ‘shift’? Where and how did they cook? Where and how did they go to the toilet?

Actually, I know the answer to the last question. They did it in the guard towers, just as certain visitors are still doing today. Tourists left little reminders of their visit in most of the guard towers, which might explain the presence of this sign.

Regardless of how the guards fed and entertained themselves, or stayed sane, a posting to a remote section of the Great Wall was probably not a highly-prized assignment.

The guards fared better than the builders of the wall,, however. It is a well-documented fact that the workers who died during the construction of the wall were buried inside the wall.

The views are impressive and expansive, at least they would be if the haze of pollution cleared long enough to enjoy them. One has to wonder whether visiting in winter would afford better views as the summer haze would have dissipated. Either this or making the effort to visit other sections of the wall which a re further away from big cities and their choking pollution.

Other sections of the wall can be visited from Beijing. They are said to be in various states of disrepair, but are less crowded than Badaling. There are of course hundreds of section of the wall still standing along China’s northern border, and these could in theory be visited with time, money, a strong grasp of mandarin and a sense of adventure. Walking the entire wall required all of that and seemingly a solid grasp of logistics, because the wall is made up of many unconnected sections.

Would you do it?

All this for one family?

The Summer Palace in Beijing is a grand conundrum. It is an enormous private residence built for one family, in the capital city of the world’s most populous nation.

Various emperors and royal families have occupied the site since construction began on the palace in 1153, and each ruler added their own personal touches to the area. The result is a tourist attraction that is large and interesting enough to occupy an entire day of exploration.

The lake itself, Kunming Lake, occupies 2.2 square kilometres and dominates the palace. These days, of course, it is not reserved solely for the royal family and visitors can enjoy the lake and the grand historical buildings.

Locals gather at the palace for recreation, relaxation, eating, drinking, socialising and challenging each other to games of chance and intellect.

Chasing the sun

A palace named in honour of summer should rightly be bathed in sun, but the severity of the air pollution in modern day Beijing means that the sun is rarely spotted in all its glory. A constant haze hangs over the imperial palace and makes rare appearances to remind locals and visitors that the earth’s life source does in fact exist.

The photo below indicates the first glimpse of the sun in Beijing since the Ming dynasty.

The palace is said to be the best preserved imperial garden in the world and it certainly invites contemplation and a picnic. It is a dream location for photographers who could spend, days, weeks or months capturing its natural, architectural and historical beauty.

Closer inspection reveals amazingly intricate detail and craftsmanship on every edifice which is painstakingly preserved.

Boating is a great way to experience the lake. Being so vast, the lake takes a long time to circumvent on foot, so numerous waterborne craft are available. Boat tours in elaborate boats with dragon motif are available, and tourists can hire small pedal-powered craft to carry them from shore to shore. Be advised that the lake is quite large, and if the wind picks up it can be hard work to get back to your starting point.

The famous marble boat is not going to set sail anytime soon.

History

A visit to the Summer Palace is a journey through history. Many rulers and their families have taken ownership of the site, including Kublai Khan, and their influence on the palace is documented in the archival displays found throughout the palace.

Winter wonderland

Somewhat ironically, the Summer Palace looks spectacular in winter, when the lake and the buildings are blanketed in snow and locals take to the lake with ice skates.

The Summer Palace, a fine day out in Beijing.

The Forbidden City.

The Forbidden city in Beijing evokes thoughts of ancient Chinese dynasties and powerful rulers who reigned over vast swathes of East Asia. It conjures up images of an amry of servants and layer upon layer of restricted dwellings which were guarded like few other buildings in history.

Much of the original structure remains to this day and makes for a fascinating walking tour through various eras in China’s history.

The architectural beauty of the buildings is undeniable and is the first impression upon entering the gates. Every building is grand and ornate and the craftsmanship and sheer ambition of their creators is clearly evident. A closer examination and a study of the building methods reveals a mastery of construction which matches their beauty.

Upon closer inspection, the casual visitor can admire the intricacy of the design and decoration in hidden corners, rendered all the more impressive when considering that this intricacy is replicated throughout the enormous city.

Of course, The Forbidden City is more than an architectural masterpiece, it is a window into Chinese history. For this reason, a guided tour or a self-guided audio tour is essential, to save the visitor from simply wandering aimlessly through an endless assemblage of impressively-restored buildings.

The incongruous image of Chairman Mao looms large over the entrance to the city. Incongruous because the city was the masterpiece of ancient emperors and the ruling class of China, the very same people Mao and his communist party revolted in order to overthrow.

The Forbidden City is vast. Visitors are advised to set aside at least half a day to enjoy a complete appreciation of the site, and to allow for the inevitable crowds and the extreme weather which characterises Beijing – sultry, hot summers and freezing cold winters.

Allocating a few hours to the inspection of this historic and architectural wonder enables the visitors to snake their way through a deliberately constructed grid of servants and masters quarters all dedicated to the service, protection and exaltation of the ancient emperors.

Getting Around in China.

How do you get where you need to be in China? How do you negotiate your way around a country of more than one billion people?

You can cram yourself into an overcrowded bus. You can squeeze your way into the back door and feel it close on you as you are sandwiched between the door and your fellow passengers. Be sure to pass your 1 or 2 yuan bill to the front of the bus via the rest of the passengers. You never know which day of the year an inspector will board the bus, and if you’re found to have ridden without paying, the penalty is severe.

You could avoid paying altogether if you copy Tim. Tim, nice but dim, was a friendly but hapless ‘Gap’ student working at a private school in China, who discovered a novel way to travel for free. He ‘scanned’ his 1 yuan note on the ticket machine. He didn’t have a transport card to scan, and he knew that money sufficed in lieu of a card, so he scanned his money. It worked, until someone pointed out that waving a note over the scanner does not constitute payment.

The standard issue communist-era utility vehicle is a reliable option. Functional, easy to park, no-frills transport which was once ubiquitous on the streets of China. If you painted it blue, the three-wheeled mobile would look a lot like Mr. Bean’s nemesis.

Another mode of transport which was even more ubiquitous on the streets of China is the bicycle. Sturdy, heavy cumbersome bikes that carried citizens and their possessions from one place to another and formed a sea of two-wheeled humanity. The car has largely replaced the bicycle as Capitalist-Communism replaced Socialism, but the humble bicycle is still serving its purpose for many citizens.

You could drive a private car. If you can afford one, and if you’re willing to negotiate the notoriously dangerous traffic and ‘creative’ driving which always seems to find its way onto ‘World’s Craziest Drivers’

In Harbin, northern China, walking is not always an option in winter. The daytime temperature drops below zero and after the snow melts, then snaps cold again, the footpaths turn into ice rinks. Its better to take a taxi, and to take whatever taxi you can find. Even if that taxi is fuelled by coal. Not refined coal transformed into fuel and dispensed at a bowser of some description, but pure coal. Coal that is shovelled into the engine by the driver while he is driving. Coal that is inserted straight into a furnace sitting by the driver’s feet, and which exits the vehicle via a chimney running along the side of the vehicle.

Sorry I don’t have a photo. I was afraid my fingers would fall off if I’d removed my gloves to extract the camera from my pocket.

If you’re averse to suffocating on the fumes of coal-powered taxi, you could progress a few decades into a gas-powered taxi. You’ll have to get out of the taxi, though, when it fills up at the gas station. Sitting in the taxi while it fills up is too big a risk, in case the taxi blows up, but apparently standing one metre away from the taxi, while the driver smokes a cigarette and plays on his phone, is perfectly safe.

Advance a few more decades and you can travel in comfort and style in a far more sustainable vehicle. Hop on one of the tourist buses in Hangzhou and admire the impossibly beautifully lakes and gardens of this popular city.

Sun protection is vital. Protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays and prevent skin cancer. As you’re in China, it’s also imperative that you avoid a tan because you will never land yourself a wealthy husband unless you have fair skin. Also, it is considered chivalrous to provide comfortable seating for your female passengers.

A visor at the front of the vehicle doesn’t just look great, it also protects your eyes from the dust, and keeps your perm in place.

If you have a few goats to transfer from one place to another, why walk them through the busy streets of Xiamen? After all, if you can hire an Uber for your pet dog, why can’t you carry goats in a minivan?

What if you find yourself in a canal city? If you need to traverse a canal city such as Suzhou, which formed part of the enormous canal system that stretched from northern to southern China, how would you best get around? Driving could prove slow and frustrating in a city of narrow crowded streets, so why not take to the water, for a faster and more peaceful trip, perhaps in the company of some cormorants.

At times, speed is of the essence, and a water-borne craft with an outboard motor is the only vehicle which will suffice. Especially if you’re chasing the catch of the day or nipping between Gulangyu and the mainland.

Here, take my child.

Parents in China tried to give me their children.

They approached me in supermarkets, on the street, in the park, and they thrust their young children into my arms.

I didn’t know these people. I didn’t know their children, and many of their children were mere babies. I didn’t ask to hold their child and I didn’t feel comfortable doing so.

Furthermore, the parents didn’t warn me or provide any explanation as to why they were handing their beloved offspring over to a random person. Well, they may have tried to explain but I didn’t speak more than a few words of Mandarin, and they didn’t speak any English.

The shock of being entrusted with someone else’s child left me dumbstruck, rooted to the spot. I just tried not to drop the poor thing. I also wondered why anyone would surrender their prized possession to a person they’d never met, in a country still operating under the remnants of the one child policy. Surely, in China of all places, a baby is a valuable commodity.

Despite this, the parents carried on unperturbed. They placed the child into my arms, smiled nervously and excitedly, then retreated. And retreated a little further, and further. Don’t go too far, I thought, I could easily run away with this baby.

Then I realised. Then I would discover why a bewildered Chinese baby was being cradled in my arms. A phone was produced and pointed at us and the parents would prance around in a frenzy, attempting to force a smile…out of the child or out of me? Probably both, I was as shocked as the child and my first reaction was certainly not to smile.

The parents would then snap away. Photo after photo while the baby became heavier and heavier in my arms. A conference would ensue, during which the parents would judge the quality of the photos.

Then, finally, one of the parents would approach. Great, I thought, now this bizarre experience is over. No, wait, the parent is not coming to take their child back, they’re just coming to straighten the clothes and fix their hair – or wipe the tears away – before retreating to take more photos.

Eventually, once the perfect photo had been taken, the child would be returned to its parents and they would walk away, many times without even a Xie Xie or a “Ni jiao shenme mingzi? (what is your name?).

It was a truly bizarre experience, which happened quite a few times. I can only explain it by pointing to the fact that I lived, and worked, on the outskirts or Chengyang, which is on the outskirts of Qingdao. Qingdao is quite a nice city, but Chengyang is not Qingdao. There’s nothing particularly bad about Chengyang, it’s just that it’s a fairly bland Chinese city, and one which sees very few foreigners. I was not a novelty, I was a freak show. Thus, when the Chinese saw a foreigner with blonde hair and blue eyes, they felt compelled to take my photo, which, in itself I din’t really mind. I just found it very odd to have my photo taken with their children.

There was another odd experience in Chengyang in which I had my photo taken.

I was heading to karaoke with some local friends, and we were in something of a hurry. We’d purchased some snacks and refreshments to smuggle into the KTV, and as we were leaving the supermarket, 3 young local women approached us and asked my friends if they could take a photo with me. Sure, as long as it doesn’t take long, we were hell bent on murdering some musical classics.

The photos were taken, the women appraised them and decided that they were acceptable. A conversation took place the whole time, entirely in Mandarin.

After the photo session concluded, I asked my friends why the young women were so determined to have their photo taken with me.

“They’re studying at university, and they wanted to show their lecturer.”

Why would they want to show a photo of me to their lecturer, I wondered, so I asked my friends,

“What are they studying?”

“English”

Getting around in China.

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The streets of China are bursting with vehicles. Cities and towns of every dimension are clogged with an array of transportation.

The country’s population explosion has led to the emergence of small vehicles which serve as personal transport, taxi services and delivery vehicles.

In the cities surrounding Xiamen, in southern China, there too existed a proliferation of small vehicles, and most of them carried one prominent appendage; sun protection.

The vehicles hurtled down the streets furnished with some form of shade, be it permanently attached or loosely fixed. A number of passengers were clutching umbrellas, and one guy was just wearing a hat. Almost everyone seemed determined to avoid sun exposure.

Why?

I can only surmise that they wished to remain as fair as possible, because in China fair skin is a sign of high status, as its bearer is said to be of sufficient wealth to avoid toiling in the sun day after day.

They can’t have been concerned about skin cancer, because most of them were destined for lung cancer due to their chain smoking. Maybe lung cancer is a more glorious way to die.

In Harbin, northern China, I caught a ride in a very unique taxi. It was coal powered. Not coal powered in the sense that the earth’s minerals had at some point been extracted and converted, through a complex scientific process, into liquid form that was fed into the tiny taxi through the convenience of a petrol bowser. No, it was literally coal powered.

The driver negotiated the crowded streets of the icy city with one hand on the steering wheel and the other on a spade, which he regularly thrust into a bucket of coal beside him, and fed directly into the boiling furnace which kept the ramshackle piece of tin putting along the road.

A makeshift pipe extracted the fumes from the taxi and straight into the atmosphere. This driver was certainly doing his bit for global warming. Maybe he was just sick of the bitter cold winters in Harbin. I know I was, after only three days of traipsing around the sculptures during the famous snow and ice festival. They are spectacular, by the way. It’s just so damn cold. Too cold for me to remove my gloves and take a photo of the coal taxi. Sorry, but I wasn’t willing to risk frostbite to bring you a photo of the unique contraption.

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Speaking of fuel sources, myself and some friends caught a taxi in Qingdao, China, which was powered by gas. This in itself is not unusual. What was memorable on this occasion was being told by the driver to step out of the taxi while he filled up. For safety, he said. Thus, if we’d remained seated in the taxi, we were in mortal danger, but if we stood only one metre away while he filled up, we were perfectly safe – even as other motorists and nearby pedestrians puffed on cigarettes.

Back in Xiamen, meanwhile, vehicles were also being used for other purposes. It’s not only humans who need to get from A to B.