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Archives for December 2008

What do people in China do with a day off?

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James Reynolds | 11:00 UK time, Monday, 1 December 2008


Many older people do what they've done for years - head to the park (at dawn) to exercise or sing. I once joined a group of people in a Beijing park on a freezing morning as they happily belted their way through a bunch of folk songs.

Women playing ping-pong at a Park in BeijingOthers play badminton and ping-pong in local gyms, where normal barriers tend to come down (I once interviewed a senior Chinese official at his ping-pong club - I'm sure he would never have agreed to speak to me had I applied for an interview through his office).

And, then there's clubbing and dancing. Despite the controversy over the latest Guns N' Roses album Chinese Democracy, I can assure you that - from personal research - Chinese men and women are more than happy to dance to old Guns N' Roses records when the DJ plays them.

More and more people here have money. So, those who can afford it often go for a day trip to the coast. On Saturday, a colleague and I went to the coastal city of Tianjin to join others in looking round a military theme park (more fun than it sounds).

We went by train from Beijing South station. Return tickets cost 116rmb ($17) each. The train left dead on time from a sparkling platform (workers were polishing it right up to the moment the train left).

Our ticket included a free bottle of water - handed out by smartly dressed stewards on board the train (the Chinese man sitting next to me didn't need one - he had a gigantic jam jar full of tea from which he sipped enthusiastically every five seconds during the journey).

The train's speed was displayed on a digital screen in the carriage (nerd that I am, I noted that it reached 330km/h - which makes it faster than the London-Paris Eurostar.) After 30 minutes, we got to Tianjin.

We then took a taxi to the theme park. Many cabs in China are built on the inside like rally cars - with a cage round the driver's seat to protect the driver from rowdy passengers. So, if you're sitting in the back your legs tend to get crushed by the metal bars of the driver's cage.

The central attraction at the Binhai military theme park is an old Soviet aircraft carrier - the Kiev (China doesn't yet have any aircraft carriers of its own). Tickets cost 110rmb ($16) each - a pretty hefty price, which is more than many can afford. I was the only Western visitor - everyone else was Chinese.

On board, there were a number of young guides with megaphones ready to take visitors round the ship. Each of the four decks had an obligatory refreshment stand. Wherever you go in China, all stands seem to sell the same thing - instant noodles, hot dog sausages, packets of dry biscuits.

The aircraft carrier was preserved as an old Soviet relic - it still had pictures of Lenin and even Putin on the walls. On deck, all the tourists were keen to take pictures of each other standing in front of the old warplanes.

Nearby, there was a building which advertised paintballing. Four life-size models of warlike soldiers were posted outside the front door (curiously, the models each had Western faces). Next door there was a restaurant built around what looked like an old tank. Alas, you couldn't take it for a drive.

For the first time, a generation in China has grown up with both money and free time. In a few years time, it's possible that China's middle class will be the largest in the world. How these millions of people spend their time and their money may help to determine how the rest of us live.

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