Remembering China # 1: Where it all began

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I recently entered the World Nomad’s 2013 travel writing scholarship contest, and while I didn’t win – or hell, I didn’t even get shortlisted, god how I wanted to. The prize this year was 2 weeks in Beijing under the mentorship of various travel writers in what would have been something of a dream come true experience. Of course, actually winning a heavily subjective competition like this one is comparable to your chances of winning the lotto – I mean, who the hell really knows what they’re looking for year to year. Anyhow, I didn’t win, and I have moved on – I promise!

While I was spending time on the competition, it had me reminiscing again of my own time spent in China. I went through my old photos, many of which I hadn’t looked at for many years now, and have decided to pull a few out and write about them. While living in China – stupidly – I didn’t recognize the need to have a really good camera, and so while many of our shots reflect our experience, I am still kicking myself today that I didn’t take over a proper digital SLR – the night shots we missed out on – gah!

This first shot is particularly average, but it’s also very meaningful for me. It was one of a handful of shots we took just after arriving, while heading back to the school in a minivan. This shot shows the real China – a China that we did not expect. Deep down we knew that it would be a heavily industrialized, very smoggy environment, but we also were still trying to fool ourselves that we would in fact be driven through bamboo forests, past teahouses and pagodas until at our final destination we were served delicious steaming dumplings by none other than a panda.

The reality? This photo:

Image

 

It was winter and just beyond some unseasonably heavy snowfalls. It does not always snow in Wuxi, but this year it had. In fact in 2008, China experienced such heavy snowfalls that it caused chaos across the country – made all the worse by the fact that half the population was on the move for Chinese New Year. It bordered on disaster.

Anyhow, for us newbies to the country, it meant that the country was freezing cold, both foggy and smoggy, and universally brown. All the foliage was flattened and brown. The grass – brown. The trees – not that there were any real trees – more shrubs, were partially bare and all brown.

It was grey and desolate and a depressing landscape. It was also eye-opening in its sheer size. Everywhere we looked were bamboo scaffold clad buildings such as in the image. On the horizon, random high-rise apartments and factories.

As we travelled across this landscape, through lines of identical blue trucks and flat-bed vehicles laden with yellow helmeted workers, we began to question if we had made a mistake coming here.

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