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A trip to volunteer with migrant children in Beijing

Last updated by tprmarshall at 2011/7/9; Destinations:

 It feels at once both terribly adventurous and risibly mundane, this journey which awaits us. Everything about modern travel seems to emphasise how far removed we are from the Phileas Foggs of the world. Online booking, mobile check in, air conditioned hotel rooms and the wonderful sounding 'soft sleepers' on the train. And yet, when contemplating the journey there is still a hint of its essential adventure. We might have been preceded by legions of callow, bespotted backpackers (although their journeys would be much more real, man) but nonetheless, adventure it is. One sees it in the eyes of those who ask our plans for the holiday. To travel thus is not unique: we are blazing no trail; but we are heading for a giant land of great variety and rich history; a land inhabited by those of a different race. So, although we will merely be strolling in the undulating foothills of adventure, we expect the views to be exhilarating and life-changing. We, a family of four, are off to volunteer in a children’s centre in a migrant village in Beijing.

From our hotel the walk in the late evening to the migrant village was a journey to another land. 'Village' is misleading - both in terms of size, and in case anything about the word conjures up quaint countryside images. This is a seedy suburb of unmade roads, uncleared rubbish and questionable sewerage systems, and the array of artisans and tradespeople that are so unusual to us - here a half-dozen cement merchants with their piles of wares, protected only by an umbrella; opposite a glass merchants. And then there is the food. On the evidence of an evening stroll up the road you would think that the Chinese were obsessed by eating out - and by ‘out’ I mean everywhere from the roadside to the restaurant. Many makeshift charcoal grills, with kebabs by the hundred grilling on them. Huge bamboo steamers filled with what we later find out are dumplings.

Here in the migrant 'village' it is pretty much a developing country with the accompanying bewildering array of levels of affluence: migrant workers who make their living hawking fruit from the back of a tricycle, whose children defecate on the streets to have the product scooped up by their parents and plopped into the open sewer, all within feet of pavement restaurants crowded with patrons either oblivious to,  or unconcerned about the frankly startling absence of hygiene standards openly demonstrated by the establishment. Meanwhile the occasional Volvo XC90 or Porsche Cayenne picks its way past the thrombosis of bikes, trikes, rickshaws and log-jam of pedestrians and illegal taxis, and above them, the better-off migrants live in apartments with air conditioning.  The Migrant centre where we are based has shared toilet facilities that literally take the breath away from twenty paces. Today, as for several during our stay, there was no water - it happens, apparently. No water to flush the misdirected ordure away, nor to wash hands.  Ye gods this is the nation with the second biggest economy on the planet, which holds more foreign currency reserves than the Eurozone, Japan and Russia (2,3,4 in the list) put together - 3 trillion USD in its reserves, and its children are forced to behave like yahoos when nature calls.

I know, it has ever been thus, and ever will be thus, and I'm not the first to notice, and this is no new insight. It's just that knowing a toilet is going to stink, that has been used by forty kids for 2 days with no way of flushing it into the already malfunctioning apology of a sewer, is not the same as actually smelling that toilet, of tasting the air as it competes with the gag reflex at the back of your throat. You have to be there.

A journey to the Forbidden City shows us that when China sets its mind to doing something, it can do it very well. Benefitting from the infrastructure investment in the city for the 2008 Olympiad, we travelled from our hotel to a shopping centre near Tiananman Square. Most of the metro carriages we travelled on were air-conditioned, and all were spotlessly clean, as were the stations. Here was the most amazing food court I have ever seen, and the name itself does an injustice to the seething, steaming concentration of cooks offering their food here.  There was traditional Chinese food from different regions, as well as Thai and others. All of the food looked delicious, and all of it was cooked to order in front of your eyes: enormous bowls of soup and stew (sorry for the English terms, but I have no way of knowing what it was), noodles, rice, a cook-your-own area where you sat by a running sushi style conveyor belt with the raw ingredients and simply helped yourself and cooked it. Among the delights on display was a whole, skinned frog (looking a tad cold) and every type of meat imaginable. 

At the Forbidden City itself the sheer number of visitors was staggering. There was such a variety of people on display, that it almost competed with the City and palace itself. But not actually. The scale of the Forbidden City is amazing, but it is a scale that is gradually revealed as you progress from the Meridian Gate north through the successive courtyards. Everywhere you look, beautiful Manchurian roofs sparkle in the sunlight, with a host of detail ready to be seen by the keen and observant eye. And crowds of people, in a wider array of clothes than seems reasonable, and the constant chatter that accompanies daily life in China, and that sounds like argument. It was a heaving, intoxicating mass of humanity moving through the palace, or resting from the heat in the shade, grasping bottles of water sold by hawkers, stalls or the official shops.

What an amazing nation of contrasts.