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Last Updated: Sunday, 19 September, 2004, 12:41 GMT 13:41 UK
China diary: Return to Beijing
Former BBC Beijing correspondent Tim Luard is back in China, 25 years after his first visit, to write a series of articles for BBC News Online on how much the country has changed. He is also writing a diary during his trip, and this is his fifth instalment:

I only just made the train in Shanghai last night. Running with three bulky bags through the vast, packed station was no joke.

But I was not the only one almost late. A woman with a large bag over one shoulder and a baby on the other arrived as the whistle went in a state of nervous exhaustion and collapsed inside the train door in tears.

Had a cosy night in my soft-class sleeper, sharing two bunks with a Japanese businessman, his small son and a Chinese woman selling biotechnology equipment.

Beijing railway station
Beijing in September is cool and sunny
Soft and hard classes are one of the more unlikely legacies of Maoism.

On my first visit here in 1979 I took the train all the way up from Hong Kong, sharing my antique-furnished soft-class cabin with a senior Communist Party official.

I had 36 hours of looking out at almost uninterrupted countryside, the fields dotted with batches of blue-clothed peasants and basic but often attractive old village houses.

I awoke this time, near the end of the 12-hour journey, to see smoke-belching factories and semi-urban housing, some but not all of it still very basic.

Then came a long tree-lined road beside the tracks, with familiarly slow-moving cyclists, trucks and tractors pulling trailers.

China may have had a boom in cars, but it had not reached this bit.

Olympic effect?

I walked out feeling surprisingly refreshed into the early morning sunlight at Beijing Railway Station - a bit calmer than Shanghai's but equally vast. No shortage of porters here, though all extremely unofficial.

Brooms
Beijing streets are kept relatively clean
It is the best time of year here - cool, clear and sunny.

Clear is not a word I expected to use about Beijing's air, but maybe the recent anti-pollution campaign is working.

More families are using gas instead of coal. And the winds bringing yellow dust from the Mongolian deserts are not blowing just now.

The main streets are strikingly clean too... after London at any rate. Maybe it is part of the preparations to host the next Olympics, along with English lessons for taxi drivers.

Bargain-hunting

I spent much of the day with a charming but passionately moody artist, who spent some years in Britain but returned because his "blood was Chinese".

In spite of all the evidence around us of a thriving economy and colourful, relaxed-seeming atmosphere - incomparable to the ponderous uniformity of pre-reform days - he maintains that no-one here is content these days.

"Before they said 'I don't have much but I'm happy'. Now they say 'I have too much and I'm unhappy'."

Antique shop
Beijing has a booming market for antiques
One possible reason for his own unhappiness becomes clear when we go to a busy weekend antiques market.

"Today's Chinese are not interested in real, living art," he says. "They buy these antiques just as investments. They don't know what today's art will be worth in the future so they don't buy it."

But that does not stop him from picking up a few bargains himself, and he comes away declaring that he is proud of his country whether it is rich or poor.


Click on the links below to read other excerpts from Tim Luard's diary:




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