(From my 2005 diary)
Despite being the country with the largest population in the world, China ranks very low among the most densely populated ones.
If the thirteen hundred million citizens were uniformly distributed over the vast national territory the living conditions in China would be much better than they actually are. Unfortunately this is not the case.
The Tibetan plateau and the deserts of Xingjian in the west, the steppe of Inner Mongolia and the sub-arctic areas of Heilongjiang northward are all very sparsely or not inhabited at all. Most of the Chinese are amassed in a S-shaped strip, not very thick, that runs along the eastern and southern coasts.
It was not hard to understand why a few years ago the SARS virus spread so easily in the Beijing and Guandong provinces, populated by dozens of millions of people whose care for hygiene is best represented by their irresistible passion for spitting. The foreign visitor gets quickly familiar with a rough throaty sound followed by a sharp pop and, after a moment of suspense, by the thud of a viscous grenade that usually falls a few centimeters from his feet.
Moving around in this region can be both an exhilarating and frustrating experience. The Chinese are able to stand in a queue for an hour, waiting to be served a few ravioli in a plastic tray. But you can't really say that you know something about China's overpopulation unless you've tried to travel like its citizens do, possibly in the weekend.
A short train ride from Shanghai to Suzhou, to visit its renowned classical gardens, can become a somehow unforgettable adventure. Everything starts with the complicated system that from the elbowing at the ticket counters takes the passengers to the tracks: you must queue up at the entrance, place your luggage on the X-ray belt and find the waiting room that has been assigned to your train, show your ticket and search on the board the number of the gate where you're supposed to check-in. Only after your ticket has been controlled for a second time you'll be able to understand what the right platform is.
Once on-board one is likely to find out that the seat whose number is hidden among the maze of ideograms is already occupied by someone else and that dozens of passengers are squeezed along the corridor. A curious situation considering the fact that only who has reserved a seat is supposed to be allowed on the train. But it's just a short ride, like traveling from London to Reading: the best thing to do is relax, lean on the door and enjoy the scenery inside and outside the car.
The few Chinese who dare talk in English with the wai guo ren love to inform them that “China is a very crowded place”. A self-evidence that is confirmed by the guidebook: Suzhou, the Reading of Shanghai, the would-be village out of town, has population of about six million.
After the sun has set on the cypresses, the pavilions, the stones and the water elements of the gardens, it's possible to board one of the numerous free-seat trains bound for Shanghai. First come, first served: the Chinese are doing all they can to get a seat on one of the cars. They run on the benches and jump the fences. When the doors open an uproar breaks loose: an elder woman loses her balance but who is behind her keeps on pushing. Other passengers from the end of the “queue” throw their bags over the others' heads.
Out of the Central station of Shanghai, after having turned into the tunnel of the subway, most of the times one comes across the same scene: all the vending machines are out of order and at one of the counters, the only one open, a worn-out woman is grazing her fingertips on tickets and banknotes, in front of a swaying bubble of noisy Chinese.
At the edge of the group an American old man, leaning on a cane, cries out his frustration. “Great! I've been here for seven years. Seven years! And I'm still amazed at the stupidity with which the government manages all this!”
The best thing to do is shake one's bewilderment off, turn around and look for a cab. Provided there is one available. One needs to remember that it's Saturday night and that this is Shanghai, the pulsing heart of eastern China, in the middle of the most crowded S in the world.
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