Driving up into the mountains of northern Guangdong with a puppy and a broken satnav.

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Curiously, over about seven years living in China, travel has become both more and less interesting at the same time. The ability to chat with people has made special experiences more common, like the time I got invited to dinner at a village blacksmiths house. Or toasting with the CEO at a corporate dinner. At the same time I also feel progressively more and more like I’m at home wherever I go, and people are the same, and therefore what’s the point of going anywhere? Just last week I went up into the mountains in the north of Guangdong province for what was meant to be a great adventure, and it was simultaneously quite special and a bit ordinary.
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A homeless woman (these kids said she was ‘crazy and steals fruit’) saw me feeding char sui pork to my dog, so I gave her a pack of dried squid to assuage my guilt. The boys said I was nice and asked innocently if I had anything for them. I gave them some Thai mango. It seemed to go down well.

In order to break out of my shallow rut of traveling places with ease and seeing the same things, I rented a car and drove myself. Just to add a little fun I also took along Molly, my little dog. The slight sense of danger driving on Chinese roads, coupled with the scenery, the newness of genuine mobility here, and the charm of sweet little Molly made it a nice, fun trip, but there was still that creeping edge of staleness. At one point I was in the village square in ‘Thousand Year Yao Village’ where I stayed: The biggest, oldest, and most authentic Yao minority village in the province. I got talking to a store owner and paid the obligatory compliments to her about how beautiful the village was, and she replied by saying ‘Yeah, but it’s a bit too quiet here’, which is not what ethnic minorities in mountain villages are meant to say. This place was about as undeveloped as you can get in Guangdong. People wore traditional colourful, embroidered clothing to go about their daily business, collected firewood on the mountains and lived in wooden buildings, but I guess people there get bored, too. One guy was trailing half a dozen horses around that were used for carrying building materials into the village, mostly sand for concrete and whole, debarked tree trunks. He looked rustic, scruffily dressed, and what did he want to talk about? How much people earn in the city. Like other people in the countryside he guessed at 10,000rmb a month because it’s a round figure and way more than they earn. He said salaries around there were 2-3000rmb a month. I’ve had that conversation numerous times. Incidentally, Molly took his horses for big dogs, and barked at one that came too close. He advised me to keep her away from them.
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Taking Molly along felt like an inspired choice at the start. She didn’t whine in the car and was fun to have along on walks, scampering around the mountainside, but I also put her in a bit of danger. Twice dogs tried to bite her, and the second time was a close call. Most dogs were scared of me as I expected, but that second one was a mean devil, and went for her when she was off her leash close to me. The dogs were loose on the street all over the place in bigger numbers than I expected. Overall, travelling with a dog in China is fun, but be selective about where you go. Staying in an isolated village like that is unwise, because the dogs are loose. Anywhere slightly more developed and they will be in yards, and you won’t know which it is until you get there. Hiking through a place like that and hanging around it on their turf are two different things in terms of risk for your dog. Also, your dog may regress/ behave strangely if you take it away. Molly peed on the bed, presumably because her usual toilet wasn’t there or she was too damn cold to go looking for somewhere better. She hasn’t done that at home since she was a little fluffball.
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The big news in this post is really about driving for the first time, so let’s close by going back to that. Driving here isn’t as scary as you would think, partly because you won’t drive as aggressively as everyone else. However, there were still risky moments and afternoon rush hour in the city, in the dark, was not fun. I will definitely drive here again, but will continue to avoid busy times and places, and use cars for exploring isolated scenic spots and doing photographic trips. Being able to read the road signs was probably a big help, but people who can’t do that or ask for directions are unlikely to go away alone with a broken satnav.
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So, are Chinese people boring, or what?

The photos are unedited images taken right near where I live in the early evening. The quality is the internet’s fault, not mine. Blame the internet.
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Despite the borderline prosecutable title, this post is addressing a serious point about how Chinese people and westerners interact. This is me using my prodigious lack of tact for the greater good. Quite simply, I used to think Chinese people were boring, then I realised that they aren’t. I’m sure that many Brits have made the first stage and not progressed to the second, so I’m going to stick my oar in and waggle it about.
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Going back to when I first arrived in China, years ago, I was struck by how people didn’t tell many jokes or try to be funny, or tell jokes that were funny, or have involved facial expressions or hobbies. Anyone who wants to argue is cordially invited to tell me why 90% of Chinese students at my university had no local friends and why I had a Chinese guy asked me if it’s true that British people are racist towards Chinese people. Or you can tell me who your favourite Chinese comedian is, or tell me why Chinatowns have always existed. We take it for granted, but Indian migrants have never felt the same compulsion to congregate like that. A bit of shared culture goes a long way, and unlike Chinese, English and Indian languages have a shared origin. My big point here is that Chinese people speaking English were boring. I didn’t understand Chinese at that point, so was in the dark.

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The Chinese language is so different from ours that it has no word for ‘the’ or ‘yes’ or the number ‘one million’ and also has no tenses or varying word endings whatsoever. Could you be funny in Chinese? I can only do it with very simple puns and word play, and more often slapstick. You know how if you need to explain a joke, it’s better just to give up? Translation has a more corrosive effect on a joke than explanation. Sometimes you’ll say “I can imagine that would’ve been very funny if I’d understood” like Dr Spok. Some Chinese jokes depend on words having the same tone, but a different syllable. Is that a pun? I don’t know what you’d call it. They can be very funny, but someone who uses them a lot in conversation is gonna sound sharp talking to Chinese people and be mute when they’re in the middle of some English pub banter.
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I’ve met lots of funny people here more recently as I’m able to communicate better, and people seem to be getting better at having fun as they get wealthier. It’s only just occurred to millionaires here to get yachts, and only ten years ago no one but foreigners was even buying hiking gear. Chinese people were a little mystified as to why you’d want to go and scramble around on rocks and sleep outside. They were too busy working and trying to get further out of the countryside. Supposedly people in Britain fell in love with the countryside off the back of landscape painters like Constable, and before that it was just seen as dirty and backwards. I’d believe that based on what you see here.
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People are doing all sorts of creative and cool stuff now. One guy was a lowly restaurant cook and he’d just ridden his bike (not motorbike) from Shanghai to Guangzhou. It took him a month. Respect! Other people I know have posted their bikes to a tropical island (Hainan) and then driven there and ridden a lap around the island, camping out.
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People also have a lot of humour and spend  lot of time telling jokes and laughing and smiling. The sterotypical po-faced Chinese person does exist, but they are typically people who’ve grown up in a rough place or a harder time, when you couldn’t afford to clown around. People here often carry big weights around on their shoulders. Parents who need financial support, needing to buy a house so they can get married despite ever-increasing prices. It’s not easy. You don’t meet many people here who will make a fuss about not wanting to do something fun with their friends. Someone wants to go swimming? Let’ go. Someone wants to go to a movie? Okay, let’s go, and we’ll have fun. And they do. Put some music on? Okay, let’s do it. And no one will complain about the choice of music. They just have fun. Some of my Chinese friends are always texting jokes to each other and forwarding emails that they think are funny. They often aren’t, but that’s universal, isn’t it?
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Last summer I went rafting out in Guangdong, and it was very good fun. Developers had built a mountain road (blasted out of the mountain side) more than ten miles long, just so that they could put in a visitors’ centre next to a river and charge people to white water raft down it. Boring? No. It was two people to a raft, and some parts of the trip down had almost two metre vertical drops. At a couple of points the stream was chanelled into a very narrow space to make the water faster, and one part even had a twenty metre long slide put in, made of concrete. It looked like the exit ramp from a multi-storey car park, except that it didn’t reach the bottom and you fell off the end. There’s added excitement to this because you don’t entirely trust things to be safe here, and the scenery was rainforest with some creepers and a lot of greenery. What more can you ask for than a potentially deadly raft-ride through a rainforest? We also had thunder and lightening and pouring rain for the later part of the run down, but it was 25c, so we kept warm and could just enjoy the experience. In the end, I thought it was great, and the local that shared the boat told me he hoped it’d be faster.
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Robert McNamara (US defense secretary during the Vietnam war) made a documentary called ‘The fog of war’, where he talked about lessons that he’d learned during his career. Number one was about undersdtanding your enemy. The US US didn’t want a communist Vietnam uniting with a communist China. The Vietnamese had history with China and were primarily concerned with independence from Chinese and French interference. I think he said that they interpreted the US as having the same colonial interest that France had. 58,000 Americans and a lot more Vietnamese died over that misunderstanding, and I think that as China becomes an ever-bigger player in the world, this issues of mutual bafflement is gonna come back. There are more than people are aware going on as we speak. Peace out, people.
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