ZAI JIAN CHINA – WE’RE OFF TO ENGLAND!
We left Beijing behind today aboard a flight bound for Heathrow Airport. As always when traversing the globe we have a big transit day ahead of us, which gives us plenty of time to reflect on the last few weeks of our trip. This was our first trip to China and, after a month there, we leave with a mix of emotions and impressions. Some of the things we saw, experienced and tasted whilst in China were incredible – memories we’ll cherish forever. Other experiences we had were shocking, unpleasant and just plain perplexing. We certainly learned a lot about Chinese history, culture, landscape, food and people during our time in China, which for us is the point of travelling. In that sense our time in mainland China* was great. Overall though we didn’t really enjoy mainland China the way we enjoyed Japan or Hong Kong. Many people who visit China love it, but we just never really connected with the country or (most of) it’s people. It was an interesting place to visit, but it wasn’t FUN for us and in all honesty we’re glad to be moving on!
*We are very intentionally making the distinction between Hong Kong and mainland China. They are NOT the same thing!
Some of the things we DID really enjoy about China include:
• The beauty of its landscapes and natural wonders. We only got to see a tiny portion of China’s great variety of sceneries, but what we saw was often spectacular. The mountains, valleys and gorges of Yunnan were especially memorable for us; as was the karst topography around Guilin and Yangshuo; and the incomparable beauty of the Three Gorges.
• The grandness of Chinese history. China has more than 2,000 years of history as a unified nation, and a civilisation that stretches back 3,000 years. It was fascinating getting a glimpse into China’s complex past and trying to better understand the modern, developing nation in light of its history. In Beijing and Xi’an especially we were awed by achievements of ancient China. Not since visiting Egypt have we seen such incredible ancient sights and felt so small and insignificant.
• China’s unique, ancient culture. Before this trip we very ignorantly viewed China as one nation, homogenous in nature. Now we know better. This is a nation roughly the size of Europe made up of 23 provinces and 56 ethnic groups that are as different from each other as each nationality in Europe. We got to experience some of the cultural differences between ethnic minorities when we visited the terraced mountain villages of Longsheng, outside of Guilin, and in the Bai villages of Yunnan. Some of our favourite moments in China were during these visits to “minority villages”. There we found a slice of REAL life, untainted by pretence and beautiful in its simplicity. We only wish we’d had more opportunities to see more of the various minority cultures that combine to make up China.
• The fresh, delicious food. We’ve always liked Chinese food at home, but we LOVE Chinese food in China. Just like the variety of minority groups and cultures, Chinese cuisine is so much more varied and heterogenous than we realised. Now we better appreciate the differences between Cantonese style cooking, Sichuan food and Wenzhou fare. We learnt to appreciate the subtlety of flavours in different regions, and the value of fresh* produce. It was also interesting to see how the Chinese use every part of every animal, fruit and vegetable – they waste NOTHING, unlike in western, developed countries.
*Like “pick your chicken so they can slaughter it for you” fresh!
• Some of the people. More so than in most other countries we’ve visited, China’s people are extremely diverse. We noticed vast differences in behaviour, ideology and thinking between ethnic groups, regions and generations. There’s also a VERY marked difference between city people and country people in China. Some of the people we met were great – open, friendly, welcoming, quick to laugh, and willing to discuss their thoughts and opinions with us (sometimes filtered through our guides due to the language barrier). These human interactions we hold dear because, unfortunately, they were relatively few and far between.
Unfortunately many of our interactions with Chinese people were unpleasant. We found most of the people we crossed paths with were rude, inconsiderate, and pushy. No doubt the only way to succeed in life in a country this densely populated is to elbow your way forward and get your way at other peoples expense. We quickly learned to detest their inability to follow even the simplest instructions, to behave like civilised human beings in crowds, and their lack of consideration for anyone else. This seems to be a nation populated by a vast mass of selfish, ignorant people who are extraordinarily concerned with “saving face” but are very happy to rip you off and break the rules, as long as they don’t get caught. Most of the Chinese people we met were completely obsessed with superficialities and outward appearances, with a preponderance of what can only be described as ignorant nouveau riche attitudes and behaviours.
Where ever we’ve been in the world it’s always the people that really help make our experiences in a country truly wonderful. A nation’s people are its greatest asset when it comes to welcoming tourists and making us as visitors feel like we want to come back. Unfortunately we did not feel welcome in China and left with a very negative impression of many of its people.
Other things about our trip through China that we didn’t enjoy include:
• The rampant pollution. Lakes, rivers, air – so much of China is so dirty and polluted that it makes us wonder what will be left to see in another 10 years’ time. This disturbing thing for us was that, more than the filth of simple poverty (like we saw in Africa), the pollution in China is chemical, industrial and horrifyingly toxic.
• Unchecked destruction of history, culture and beauty. China is developing at a rate that is almost incomprehensible. We heard a number of people joke about how China’s national bird is the crane – as in construction cranes. No doubt you’ve seen images of all the construction on TV, but to see it in reality is quite overwhelming. It’s also tragic when you see what is being destroyed in people’s mad, desperate rush to modernise and get rich quick. It just seems such pity because once all that history, culture and beauty is gone, they won’t be able to get it back.
• The ridiculous fakeness of things. Many of the places we went to in China were fake – poor copies of the real thing, or “improved” versions of the natural thing. This was, more than anything else, the most disappointing thing about China. There’s just a real lack of authenticity – almost everything is for show, and it seems most Chinese people would rather take a photo of themselves in the “perfect setting”, even if it’s totally fake. They really don’t care if the setting is completely artificial and fabricated to look like what the natural thing would have looked like it hadn’t been ruined. We did have moments of authenticity, mostly in the small, isolated villages that Chinese tourists don’t really visit! We’ve decided that’s the key to finding the “real” China – learn some Mandarin Chinese, visit the villages that aren’t on the main tourist trail, and travel under your own steam.
• The appalling service culture. Service as we know it does not exist in China. We certainly don’t expect to get treated like VIPs, and are generally pretty easy going, so it is actually quite easy to impress us when it comes to service. Like even if you just smile, we’re happy. Most of the time in China, however, hotel staff, waiters and other people in positions of service treated us like an inconvenience at best, or a stinky dog turd at worst. And God forbid anyone smile! Must be against the law or something. Not that there was ever a lack of people available to do the serving (if they could be bothered). Labour is obviously cheap in China and we invariably saw 3 people standing around doing (or not doing) what would ordinarily be 1 person’s job. We also found that often getting anything done (e.g. buying a ticket to a tourist site, getting some laundry done, going through a security check somewhere) was sooooooo complicated and beaurocratic that we were just left feeling perplexed. It’s like people with even the smallest amount of authority felt compelled to exercise their power by making our lives difficult. Seriously, we felt like we were stuck in an angry, cranky version of “Fawlty Towers” most of the time. Would have been funny if it was happening to someone else!
Are we glad we went to China? Absolutely. Would we recommend it for others? Maybe, depending on where you’re going and what you’re going to see. Would we go back? Not in a hurry – there are too many other more interesting, more beautiful, and friendlier places in the world to explore. Still, there’s so much history and natural beauty there that maybe we’ll find our way back one day! For now though our 2 month sojourn in Asia has come to an end and the European leg of our trip is just about to begin. It’s been a great start to our adventure and we’re excited about what’s still to come….