46. In the land of hammer and sickle. China

 

After 10 months of travelling you naturally ask yourself questions: “What have I learnt? Was it all worth it? What would I do differently if I started the journey from the beginning?”. Did I regret going to China? I don’t think so. Although it definitely didn’t satisfy my expectations or even disappointed me a little, I still think it was an incredibly valuable experience. Living in Europe for most of my life I heard stories about communism only from my parents. I didn’t have any idea what it means. And although China is a “modern” version of communist regime, the life there is really different from what I’ve known. Comparing to the rest of Asia, it’s like a different world. Definitely richer but if better?

I remember the feeling I had when I entered China and that feeling accompanied me till the end. Anxiety. Some kind of tension I couldn’t describe that made me feel like a stranger there. I don’t know if it was only a cultural shock after months of travelling in poor Asian countries or it was the atmosphere of that place- organized, clean and controlled. A typical Chinese town looks completely different than an average Asian one- most of the buildings are new, concrete and high so they can accommodate as many people as possible. Clean, well maintained streets, excellent roads, big supermarkets. Sounds wonderful, right? But it also goes deeper than that. The security system is efficient and can help keeping the country organized but it can also make you feel like you are in some kind of Matrix. The security guards or the police are always around and anywhere you go, especially in the cities, there are security gates that allow you to enter a place or a building. Sometimes it can be really annoying. Even an average train station looks like an airport with security gates here and there. If you’re late for your train don’t think you will catch it at the last moment, before that you have to pass a few check points and finally get to the gate that allows you to enter the platform. I’ve never seen anything like it. But, once again, efficient.

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Typical Chinese town
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Entering the platform at the train station

Tourism in China is a business and it’s definitely not a backpackers’ oasis. It’s an expensive country, at least for Asian standards. The food (especially street food) is still affordable but the accommodation is pretty expensive with the cheapest rooms starting from Y60, if you get lucky. The same goes with the transportation although taking the cheapest seat in a train is worth its price. I’m sure at least once everyone has seen a hordes of Chinese tourists looking at the outside world through their massive camera lenses. Yeah, it’s even worse here. Tourist spots are well secured so it’s sure everyone pays for them. A serious money. By the way, “a tourist spot” doesn’t have to be anything special, it can be a temple, park, or… a street. China charges you for everything. The only good thing there is no discrimination of foreigners, everyone pays the same price. The truth is that most of the tourists ARE Chinese and that can explain the extremely high entrance fees. When you look at the Chinese population you realize that there must be some kind of selection otherwise the national parks offering cheap entrance tickets would be flooded with tourists and even right now they are insanely crowded.

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Local tour in Pingyao
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Chinese never forget…

Most of the people don’t have a time to travel anyway and if they have a weekend free they’re gonna save as much money as they can in order to have te most exclusive weekend of their lifes. Chinese work a way too much. As I was said, from the very young age you don’t really have much time for yourself. Kids go to school that is then followed by other activities arranged by their parents. After that you study or you get a job straight away, working 12 hours a day. When you have kids you hand them over to the grandparents as they surely have more time than you do. Then you get old and as a retired man you finally have some free time that you fill with playing cards in the People’s Park. The fact is that until 2015 every Chinese could have only one child. China has gone through many changes and economical “experiments” for the past decades which current generations must pay for. The rise of the population encouraged by the government made China one of the most populated countries in the world. But no one thought that one day it could become a problem. The rules recently changed and two kids are allowed but the old people who always dreamed of big families will never have a chance to do so, so the only thing they have left is to spoil their only little grandchildren for the rest of their lives.

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One of the paintings on the wall of a local kindergarten
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The People’s Park

Download VPN before you come to China otherwise you can forget about YouTube, Facebook and other websites so carefully hid from the rest of Chinese society. Sometimes VPN can be really slow so I advise downloading Wechat (Chinese Facebook) so that you can contact your family. People not being able to use international webs don’t know much about the West. The system provides adequate Chinese substitutes that I heard are even better than the European ones. China provides you everything so why should you look for other alternatives? The system run by the Party makes many people brainwashed, dumb and closed-minded. The ones who think out of the box, as long as they’re quiet, they’re safe. But definitely not happy. A few open-minded Chinese I’ve met were depressed or didn’t feel accepted by the rest of the society. Most of them wanted to leave the country and look for freedom somewhere else. But it’s not always so easy….

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Time to switch to Wechat 😉

The food. I’ve never been a fan of Chinese cuisine and I was curious if I would ever change my mind. Well, no. Of course, every province has a different food and I tried some delicious dishes, but for me, personally, the food in general is pretty… boring. Rice and noodles in different forms and a rule number 1- always full of oil. I don’t know what exactly made our stomachs go crazy for the whole 2 months but it wasn’t the most pleasant experience. Chinese eat everything, literally. Pig ears, duck’s head, worms, etc. are often a delicacy. The worst “meal” I’ve heard of is a fresh brain of the monkey who is put under the table, her skull is being opened, poured with a hot oil and… voila! Can you imagine that?! I’ve always liked to try new things but China kind of changed it. Chinese don’t care much about the environment. Anywhere you go, there’s some construction going on, kilometres of highways are being build by cutting the hills and creating new tunnels. They don’t fuck around. Even “natural” attractions are often “improved” by adding a bit of concrete touch making it look like a Disneyland. Welcome to an artificial world.

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Yummy!
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meanwhile in Chinese supermarkets…
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delicious Chinese hot pot!

I’ve always wanted to learn Chinese but I abandoned this idea right after I entered China. Learning basic words in Mandarin can help during your trip but not always as locals simply don’t understand your pronunciation. Ok, there’s always a sign language, right? Wrong. Even this is completely different here and honestly it took me a while to understand that its not that Chinese are complete idiots, they simply have a different communication system. People don’t speak English. At all. I think it’s because there are not enough of English teachers in the country and the English skills of the existing ones are comparable to my 12-years old brother’s. That’s why English speakers are so valuable in China. You don’t even have to be a native speaker to earn a fortune as a teacher. In China as a foreigner you’re a star so it’s a perfect place if you wanna increase your self confidence. And many foreigners use it, being a celebrity surrounded by, hungry for a white man, Chinese girls. Sadly most of them become conceited and even arrogant and although in China they don’t need to have an interesting personality, in Europe they would probably be Mr Nobody.

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English teachers meeting

Maybe something positive for a change? Definitely hitchhiking and travelling in general. Chinese people are extremely kind and helpful towards foreigners, especially on the road. It usually takes couple of minutes to get a ride and if you’re smart enough to avoid toll booths you can hitch even in the middle of the highway. China has a really developed technology as well as transportation services so travelling by bus or train is really comfortable. Couchsurfing in major cities is quite popular and there are many options of volunteering as well. I haven’t seen many homeless people in China, it seems like maybe there’s not much of freedom there but the country provides you a good living and all the most important facilities. China is also very safe. You can walk in the middle of the night alone and you can be sure you won’t get mugged or robbed. People are usually very friendly, generous and have a positive attitude towards the foreigners that makes you feel always very welcome. One thing I love about Chinese people is their fashion sense… or maybe lack of it? It seems like there is no specific fashion trends in China and people wear whatever they want, even if it looks ridiculous or not “fashionably”. When you observe the people on the streets you can easily notice that no one wears the same clothes, ever. Everyone looks different and have their own, unique style. I’m aware that it probably comes from their huge population and need of feeling “different” but it doesn’t change the fact that Chinese are very original and I definitely admire them for that.

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street fashion show 😉
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Chinese trains are really comfortable!

China is massive. And although it stole a bit of territory from its neighbours (including Tibet) the beauty of the nature here is unquestionable. The national parks are one of the best I’ve seen in my life. And although they are very expensive, with a bit of creativity you can sneak in anywhere 😉 Most of the places are always filled with Chinese tourists but it’s quite easy to find a sweet spot off-beaten track. There are a few “oasis” for foreigners where you can abandon your Google translator and speak English with your European mates. Yangshuo is definitely a number 1 and although it’s touristy it doesn’t take long to get out of the town and enjoy the beautiful countryside. And of course, Hong Kong, beloved especially by English and Americans, is a Chinese version of NY. I’m not a fan of big metropolis but this one really stole my heart.

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America vs UK. Yangshuo 🙂

China surely isn’t the easiest country to travel (or communicate), neither is the cheapest. It’s not a country for free spirits, hippies or rebels and somewhere there’s always this strange feeling you’ve being watched (I guess reading 1984 in China wasn’t the best idea!). But although my dream of ancient, mystical China (maybe a bit unreal, I must admit) wasn’t fulfilled I’m still very grateful I could see and experience a completely unique culture, so far different from the ones I’ve seen. I understood how big influence on your life the system has, how it can change it. This trip ensured me how hard it’s to understand and get used to Asian culture, sometimes it’s impossible. In the end you will never be like the people out there and be always treated differently, with an invisible wall between you and them. You will miss home. A good bread and a good coffee. Asia is a different world. And although I love it, I’m not sure if I would ever wanna be part of it.

 

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Our route in China 🙂
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