It’s been at least 15 years since I have done any serious travelling in China and it’s been interesting to observe how things have changed over this period. On my first big trip to China, I travelled 6000km from Hong Kong to Kashgar (in the far west of the country) in six weeks and it was one of the hardest journeys I have ever done (**). When I departed China for Pakistan I cheered as we crossed the border (*) and vowed I wouldn’t ever come back. Of course I did come back and on reflection attempting 6000km in six weeks (do I really need to do the maths for you?) was a crazy, crazy thing to do. But the reason for the outburst was simply down to the fact that travelling in China back then was so incredibly frustrating and getting simple things such as a bed for the night, a decent meal and transportation were huge challenges that I had never encountered before and most of this was down to my lack of Mandarin and (what seemed at the time) an unwillingness on behalf of the Chinese to help. I do stand by this later statement to a certain degree (they were right buggers at times and you knew they could help you if they wanted to) but as time went by I started to understand the Chinese logic a bit more and now realise that if a Chinese person doesn’t understand you the barriers go up and that’s it, you won’t get any further. It comes across as being very unhelpful and rude but it isn’t really and the only solution is to learn Mandarin. You also need to remember that China was a closed country for such a long time and their ‘opinion’ of the ‘aliens’ (the official name for westerners) was very much influenced by the Government which made many Chinese, especially the older generation, very suspicious and wary of westerners.
With all the above rambling in mind I have compiled a list of positive things I never thought I would see change/witness in China. Of course some old habits die-hard and so this is promptly followed by a list of things that never change in China!
(*) I hasten to add the bus was about 80% full of westerners and we all cheered in unison. That is until we realised we had walked straight into the worst floods Kashmir and the Indus Valley had seen for a very long time but that’s another story……
(**) to my then 18-year-old sister, who had never been outside Europe (and openly admitted that she would have preferred to have been in Ibiza with her mates) and joined me for part of this trip I unreservedly apologise for potentially being responsible for putting you off this part of the world for good. I am sorry I laughed when that baby peed on your head and you had to throw up out of the train window in the middle of the night and last but not least for killing myself with laughter when you fell of your bike, caused a massive pile up and flashed your knickers to all and sundry in the middle of Chengdu. I do hope you are not too emotionally scarred by your one (and I am sure your only) visit to China?
Things I never thought I would witness in China…..
A willingness to help; China is still a hard place to travel in but nothing like it used to be and much of this is down to the Chinese now offering help and assistance. It is obvious when you think about it, but this willingness to help is definitely much more noticeable in the younger generation who are far more comfortable and confident around westerners. For example we were struggling a bit when buying some train tickets and a young student came up to us and offered to help. She helped us buy three sets of train tickets and also sorted us out with a taxi to get us to our hotel. Fifteen years ago that would never have happened in China and it is fantastic to witness and actually affords an opportunity for non Mandarin speakers such as ourselves to talk a little bit with the Chinese.
The purchasing of train tickets; although you still have to join a very long queue (unless you go to the ticket counter at about 11pm which is worth considering) in order to get tickets but the said queue is now orderly, moves pretty fast and you are now allowed to buy more than just the ticket for the journey you are making from that particular station. In other words if you get your act together and plan a bit of an itinerary you can purchase all the train tickets you need in one hit and go on your merry way. But the best improvement when it comes to buying tickets is the fact that the person behind the counter is now willing to help you. Gone are the days of the miserable woman behind the counter squawking ‘meiyou, meiyou’ to you (which translates exactly as ‘there isn’t/I haven’t’ but for the sake of buying train tickets is much better translated as sod off/no chance sunny Jim/you have to be kidding/there is more chance of the BBC being placed on the Communist Party’s Christmas card list than you getting on this train my lad etc etc) after you have spent the best part of a day waiting in line and pushing your way to the front. In are the days of helpful assistances that speak a bit of English and have the patience to help a dumb westerner sort out his or her train itinerary. They do however still throw the tickets and your change back at you but I can live with that.
Form an orderly queue; leading on from the above, for the best part the Chinese now queue up and it’s great! A jar of Nescafe, a phrase book and a good set of elbows used to be essentials when traveling in China but now it’s only really the Nescafe (*) that is essential and the phrase book that is useful.
(*) unlike many other countries in Asia, China hasn’t picked up the coffee bug and the Chinese remain almost predominantly tea drinkers.
Same prices for all; this one I find very hard to believe as 1) most other countries in Asia have a ‘foreigner’ rate and a ‘local’ rate for such things as entrance fees, transport and even food and guess what, the foreigner always has to pay more and 2) China always used to have this system but now everyone pays the same prices regardless of their nationality. Also as a general rule you don’t get ripped off in China. In fact this could easily go under the ‘Old habits that never die……’ section as the Chinese have never really adopted this crappy habit.
Hostels; last time I did any serious travelling in China you had little choice but to stay in drab, dirty and miserable hotels if you were on a budget but now there are really nice YHA affiliated hostels all over China that are clean, spacious, staffed by young and enthusiastic Chinese and are comparable in price to the crappy hotels. So far we have only had to stay in one ‘Chinese’ hotel where breakfast was inedible and we managed to killed seven cockroaches before bedtime. (*)
(*) they were the small ones as well, I hate those as they are harder to get with your flip-flop!
Spitting; Not gone completely obviously (China wouldn’t be China without that distinctive noise that actually produces very little) but nowhere near as bad as it used to be. I understand a big campaign by the government has help massively in curbing this.
Rubbish; bins are now everywhere and they are being used. It’s not perfect but which country is and they are leaps and bounds compared to India (but I guess they would argue the cow acts as their version of the rubbish bin?).
Where are all the ‘staring squads’? Inevitable I guess as time goes by but sad to say we are no longer as much of a novelty in China and long gone are the days when staring out westerners (much to the annoyance of said westerner) for hours on end was better than watching the TV and very much a family event (*)
(*) I remember once a lady staring at us when we were having dinner and then she disappeared only to return ten minutes later with about eight family members, some chairs and a few bottles of beer!
Hot pants and basketball kits; long gone are the traditional Mao suits and in their place are hot pants and basketball kits. Surely you don’t need me to spell out which sex is wearing what but have to wonder whether the Chairman himself would have approved??? The downside, the Chinese aren’t half as photogenic!
Old habits that never die…..
All Chinese are deaf; it’s a fact, they cannot talk quietly and shout all the time. The only time they are quiet is when they are eating. Of course this excludes slurping, burping, spitting out food and crunching on bones which are mandatory at Chinese meal times.
You should hear them on the phone in a public area, it is very funny!
Huge tour groups; you see Chinese tourists everywhere in China, in fact it is impossible to miss them. They still travel in massive groups, herded around by a tour leader with a megaphone and a large flag whilst all group members are wearing the mandatory tour company baseball cap and carrying their flask of cold tea. The only thing that has changed is the quality of camera equipment – on this score they now rival the Japanese. That said, you are now meeting more and more independent Chinese travellers who get around under their own steam and stay in hostels etc in the same way we do. As I am sure you have already guessed, these are again the younger generation.
The Chinese will eat anything and it all looks horrible; the old saying that the Chinese ‘will eat anything with legs except for a table and anything that flies except for an aeroplane’ is as true now as it was 15 years ago. They eat some terrible things that makes the stomachs of us mere mortals churn like a washing machine.
Still no bloody menus in English; you would have thought what with all the progress that we would at least get a few in the more touristy areas??? It’s still a matter of walking around the restaurant, pointing at something that looks sort of edible (I am reluctant to say something you like the look of) on someone else’s plate and hoping for the best. Come on boys, let’s see some improvement in this one!!!!
Road manners; the Chinese are amongst the worst and most aggressive drivers in Asia with the supreme title as always going to the bus drivers.
Taxi drivers; here we go I hear you all saying, here comes his usual ‘blog rant’ about the lovable taxi driver but quite the contrary in this case. The Chinese taxi driver in my experience had always been pretty helpful and more importantly, willing to use the meter without being asked. This is rare in Asia.
Smoking; the Chinese are still massive smokers even though it has been banned in many places. ‘No smoking’ signs that are now prominent in such places as railway stations seem to act as the general congregating point for those wishing to have a puff. Plus you will never stop the China man having his mandatory fag with his daily visit to the can wherever he is!
The comb-over; the Sir Bobby Charlton 1966 World cup victory look is still well and truly in fashion amongst many males in China.
Natural nappies; I love these and they have been around for ages. Why waste money on expensive nappies when you can buy trousers for your kid that have a slit down the back to allow natural movement so to speak.
Socks and shorts; Chinese men still wear shorts (or rolled up trousers) with nylon socks pulled up as high as possible along with a ‘work’ style shoe – it’s a great look!
Show us your belly; yet another one for the gents. Chinese guys think it is acceptable to walk around, sit having dinner etc with their shirt rolled right up to show off their mid rift. Sure there is a practical reason behind this (staying cool) but frankly it is a terrible look and the fatter the guy, the worse it is. This ‘fashion’ statement isn’t even exclusive to the older generation and looks like it’s here to stay.
Big Chinese cities; every city in China is massive and when I mean massive, I mean really massive. And given the power house it now is, they are getting worse. Get the picture – good! Take my advice (and that of my good friend Mr Bray) and if you ever do come to China try to keep away from these monsters and head into the countryside. Sure, places such as Shanghai are fantastic but the best of what China has to offer is way away from the cities and well worth the effort to get. Just by deviating from the ‘beaten’ track just slightly has meant that we have come across hardly any other westerners and seen some great things.
China is officially grey; yet another fact and I am sure as a result of the point above. You rarely see the sun in China. OK, this is a big of a generalisation but anyone who has been will be nodding in agreement with this. There is no greyer country in Asia!
The Chinese national football team is officially crap; OK so are England but I can never fathom why a nation of a billion people who love football so much cannot produce a decent team. I have asked many Chinese the same question and they don’t know either. Any sensible opinions welcomed??
Public toilets; still amongst the worse in Asia, only losing out to the number one spot to India because at least China have some! Female urinals and communal crappers (where everyone squats in a long line) are still well and truly part of Chinese culture. They make for a good form of natural Imodium.
Chinese train are still bloody slow; I know China is a big bugger bit it always takes for every to get anywhere. The lesson to be learnt: pick a small part of China and focus on that. Whatever you do, don’t attempt 6000km in six weeks!
You still aren’t allowed to travel freely in Tibet; God knows when this is going to change and it only seems to be getting worse. You can get in but everything has to be organised and it’s relatively expensive. Once I have travelled to Mt Kailash I will be actively boycotting a visit to Tibet on moral and political grounds……
So in conclusion, China is a much easier place to travel in now but has lost none of its ‘Chineseness’ (is there such a word – Dad???) and for once I would say it is not too late to visit but in fact quite the perfect time to come. Why? Simple, the Chinese have a hunger to learn (and practice) English at the moment and this combined with their developing personal skills and eagerness to help will make for, dare I say it, an enjoyable stay and not just a fascinating experience. And where is the future for China, with the kids of course!!!
My favourite Confucius saying; man with hole in pocket feel cocky all day.
And finally, a few photos of our latest visit:
Pingyao Old Town
Pingyao Old Town China
Martyrs’ Memorial Yuhuatai Park Nanjing
Taiping Heavenly Kingdom History Museum Nanjing
Baima Si Luoyang
Longmen Caves Luoyang
Longmen Caves Luoyang
Yungang Caves Datong
Yungang Caves Datong