Tour Diary: Cypher16 In China

In 2014, as part of our March Of Nations run of dates, we were lucky enough to be offered the chance to head out to China for a number of shows. These included the legendary MIDI Festival in Shanghai, headlined this year by Fear Factory. Having been to India five times, Cypher16 is no stranger to touring in some of the world’s more ‘unusual’ places, and so we jumped at the chance to head further East.

Despite two bags being lost on the journey, we arrived as scheduled in Beijing only to find out that our involvement in the first festival we had been due to play had been effectively shut down by the government. In a country where there is complete state control, these situations can unfortunately arise without warning, and there is very little that can be done about it. Instead we enjoyed October 1st looking around the city, which also happened to be the 65th Birthday of the People’s Republic of China – Chinese National Day. Walking around the vast Tiananmen Square (built to hold up to one million people) really gave us an impression of the scale on which China operates. Heavy security and huge amounts of surveillance also provided us with an insight into the mentality of the State.

The next day we headed down to Shanghai to the MIDI festival. The 1,100km journey from Beijing down to Shanghai would usually be something that we could only achieve in time by flying. However, in 2007, China began to introduce high-speed rail connections with trains that have the capacity to travel at up to 380km/hr. We took the astonishing bullet train (currently the second fastest operating speed train in the world after the Shanghai Maglev) and made the journey in 4.48 minutes.

The MIDI Festival is a huge undertaking, even by European festival standards, with editions held each year around different cities in China. The Shanghai event featured nine stages over a massive area, and drew approximately 30,000 fans from the region. We played on the Zhanguo stage, and despite the very obvious language barrier that existed, had a fantastic reaction from a very large, and very receptive crowd! As a first show on Chinese soil, it couldn’t have gone much better. It was good to catch up with the guys in Fear Factory and swap experiences of the country (it was their first time out in China too), before they played a great set to another hugely enthusiastic audience.

It’s also worth mentioning the excellent logistics – we were extremely well taken care of by the festival team throughout our stay in Shanghai, who executed the event flawlessly and with no stress whatsoever. Being in a touring band is about so much more than the actual time on stage, which is disproportionally small compared to the time travelling, and waiting. Having people around you who are competent, capable, and who make life easy and enjoyable are all the difference to a band on the road.

A day off was spent looking around the enormous city of Shanghai (the population stands at just under 20 million people!). This included eating some of China’s best fried dumplings, seeing the site of the First National Congress Of The Communist Party Of China, wandering around the Bund surrounded by hundreds of patrolling soldiers, and going up to the 100th floor observation deck of the World Financial Centre, glass floors and all.

After the festival, we headed back to Beijing and from there up to the ‘small’ city of Huariou for an excellent show. China has a population of almost 1.4 billion, so even the smaller cities are bigger than most places in Europe, with usually at least a million people residing in them. We did notice, however, that the further out of the main two cities we got, the less people were used to seeing us. China is certainly beginning to creep westward, but clearly some people had never seen anyone from the West before, and so were fascinated! Another thing, which you can’t help but notice when moving around China, are the ‘ghost cities’ – thousands of huge buildings that are being built, which no people move into. They tower over entire areas, yet are completely deserted. Whether this is simply a long-term urbanisation plan for the country or something more sinister remains to be seen, but we found it to be quite unsettling.

Handan was another great show, and was also our tech Julian’s last of the tour. Some of you who have followed the band for a few years might remember Julian as he was the original guitarist. He moved back home to Hong Kong, but flew out to join us on some of the dates on this run. We brought him out onstage at the end of the set to play Lonely Road with us!

Probably the question we get asked most about China is to do with the food. It is certainly different to the Western Chinese food we are accustomed to, but for the most part was delicious! The sheer range of tastes, flavours and textures they have (and with which they work at incredible speed), is stunning, and despite the ingredients always being fresh it is extremely cheap! With regards to the quality of meat used, it was summed up perfectly for me when we were told that essentially the Chinese ‘chop’ the animal up, rather than ‘slicing’ meat off parts of it, as we do. When eating a hot-pot for example (a popular dish in China), you can expect to find absolutely any part of the animal in there (including the head). In the West we squirm at the idea of that, but when you think about it, it leads to less waste, and makes for a more economical way of living. In China, they just ‘get on with it’ – an attitude I think that we could all learn from. Their dining habits are also admirable. Many meals consist of having a boiling pot of broth on a stove in the centre of the table, and then bringing raw ingredients to be communally added. It makes for an incredibly social experience, with people sitting around the food, sharing, shouting, drinking, smoking, and talking together, eating from the same pot. They also don’t mess around when it comes to drinking, with shouts of ‘Ganbei’ ringing out every few minutes – a basic translation being, “drink it all”. This can be particularly dangerous when baijiu is involved. Baijiu is potent Chinese rice wine, which usually clocks in at around 42% proof. Chinese drinkers knock back bottles of the stuff during a meal, and it left a couple of us regretting our involvement several times during the tour…

The shows in Changzhi, Zhenghou and Taiyan were all fantastic and we received great receptions in each city. For much of the tour the travel schedule was intense due to the sheer distance we had to cover to get from one place to another. Often this meant leaving straight for the train station after a show, spending the night on the train (or several), arriving at the next venue in time for sound-check, only to have to then go straight back to the station for another night on the rails.

Our last show took place in the city of Tangshan, historically significant for one reason. On July 28th, 1976, the city was devastated by the worst earthquake to hit the world since 1920 in terms of loss of life. Striking at 3.42am (when everyone was asleep) it completely levelled the city, killing over 240,000 people.

The show itself was once again, awesome. A large crowd turned up to see the band, and helped make our last night one to remember. After the show, an amazing meal of king prawns, crab and a whole chicken in a hot-pot (and I mean ‘whole’) kept us occupied until the early hours.

For me personally, China has much in common with India, but I actually found it to be much less extreme than expected. Many of the stereotypes about the Chinese and their way of life are indeed true – the food is often unusual, but excellent, and their hospitality is fantastic. They do spit, and refuse to queue, (pushing past each other to get to the same place rather than waiting). The pollution is extreme (particularly around Beijing), the traffic and driving is horrendous. There is very little English spoken in the country, yet they are incredibly friendly and courteous. The State is clearly the controlling force, which is not to be tested, and there are huge amounts of security and surveillance in operation. Despite this, there seemed to be degrees of independence and the ability to live quite freely within the country. What struck us most however, was the sheer size of China. On a map, you can see that the country can swallow up Mainland Europe in its entirety. We covered almost 18,000 miles on the tour, and it was awe-inspiring to realise that we probably only touched around 5% of the land-mass whilst travelling around the country. They are truly operating on a different scale to anything we can imagine in the West.

We now head into the studio to record the debut album, which is due out early next year. We’ll definitely be going back to China, along with a few places closer and further away from home in 2015. Thanks a lot for reading this, and we’ll see you somewhere on the road!