THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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First impressions of China

Dscn0939 It's not easy to come to China with an open mind. This is the oldest continuous civilisation on our planet (second oldest if you insist on counting the Australian Aborigines) and we all have firm ideas about it. For most of human history it was the leading nation. There were Chinese scientists, poets and businessmen when we were painting ourselves blue. I am told we seem like children to the Chinese. Sometimes we seem like children to me (at election times, for example).

The first thing to say was that it was quicker, easier and more pleasant to pass through immigration than it is for me to go "home" to Britain. At Manchester airport (my usual port of entry to the English Protectorate of the Peoples' Republic of Scotland) surly state employees with faux-FBI badges are determined to give themselves airs to which their attainments do not entitle them. They give every impression of being disappointed not to have cause to arrest you. In contrast, a pleasant young lady from Chinese immigration welcomed me to her country with every impression of sincerity and waved me through in less than 20 seconds.

An old hand in the former Soviet Bloc, I was not going to base any opinions on the pristine condition of the airport, nor on the impressive vistas from the route into town. Every Communist state focussed resources on deceiving visitors arriving by air. Still the Chinese do seem - if that is their game - to play it to Olympic standards. Shanghai's approaches are more impressive than Moscow's or London's.

Let's leave aside the warmth of my reception by hotel employees. Yes, I was greeted by name at the kerbside and shown straight to my room. Yes, I was checked in at my own desk by yet another charming female. You get what you pay for in this department. Even in England, the employees of the right class of hotel can pretend to be pleased to see you.

I wanted to have an open mind. I didn't want to bring prejudices with me, but I didn't want to be duped. I am as anti-Communist as the next man, but I am also well aware that China has changed - economically if not politically - since I waved my "little red book" as a teenage Maoist. I watched the morning scene from my hotel window and determined to plunge in. Pausing only to verify my internet connection and access to my blog, I set out for a walk. It is chilly and overcast today, but the streets were thronged with people taking the air by the river. They talked and laughed animatedly and seemed positively scrutable. My only problem was to pause to take photos without someone trying to sell me a fake watch or a massage. I didn't pause to ascertain if the latter was therapeutic or euphemistic, but the pictures on the proferred cards suggested the latter. My rebuffs were accepted cheerfully enough, although one persistent watch vendor did have to be shown a real Patek Philippe before accepting that I didn't want a fake one, however cheap it might be.

At 3pm I was looking across the river at the Bund and talking to Mrs Paine on my mobile when the Customs House clock chimed. It makes the most beautiful noise; beginning with something that sounds like Westminster Chimes but morphs into a Chinese tune. Mrs Paine adores the sound of bells and we stopped talking so she could listen. Apparently, during the Cultural Revolution, this clock was adapted to play "The East is Red."

Returning to the luxurious cocoon of my hotel, I people-watched in the bar while smoking my favourite Cuban cigar (cut for me by yet another charming Chinese lady - they don't seem to come in any other variety). There is something exhilarating about being in a country where you don't have even one word of the language. I had forgotten what that felt like. I couldn't listen to conversations; only to the music of the language. It's very pleasant indeed but seems to be always at a volume that a softly-spoken Englishman may find uncomfortable to attain. Or maybe the family group nearest to me were just a particularly rowdy bunch. The matriarch of the family had a voice like a foghorn, but she smiled and laughed continuously and what she was bellowing seemed to be humorous.

It's far too soon to form any conclusions, of course, but the only city I liked better on first impression was Venice. To be continued....