Eight cities in six weeks in what turns out to be a very under-rated country...
13.12.2015 - 26.01.2016 13 °C
Within about half an hour of getting off the train in Beijing, I really liked China. After nearly six weeks and eight different cities, I LOVE China! It's completely under-rated.
There are TV screens on the metro, but they aren't showing random channels. It's very much pro-state media. On my first 15-20 minute metro ride they were showing a military parade with crowds of Chinese citizens waving their flags, thousands of marching soldiers and dozens of military vehicles and weapons. Another metro trip I was treated to an overview of their submarine fleet and a dramatised video of a helicopter and fighter jet landing simultaneously on a submarine. I presume the stunt was successful but I had to get off at my stop before I could find out!
I've had my fair share of bizarre taxi moments from officials trying to get me into unofficial taxis at airport taxi ranks, to being left on my own in a taxi (with the engine running) in the middle of a busy intersection while the driver went to the toilet. All pretty standard stuff I found out after a while.
Taking a sleeper train from Beijing to Harbin was an experience. I decided to book the cheapest ticket (which is a seat rather than a bed). I figured that I'd conquered sleeper trains on the Trans-Siberian so it was time to try something else. When I stepped into my carriage, everyone there all stopped and stared like I had seven heads! I don't think they are used to seeing foreigners in that carriage. Thankfully someone helped me get my backpack up on the luggage rack above the seats and I settled in for the night. There are a few habits that are annoyingly China (spitting in the street is one), but watching films and playing games on your phone without headphones is pretty damn annoying on a night train. You get a mix of everything and it's horrible to listen too!
One day I went with another traveller to the red lands, which took about 4 and a half hours on two buses just to get there. On the first one, there was a woman throwing up into a bin, with her partner Holding her hair. Although obviously it was a bit gross, I had sympathy with her... Until I realised that she was talking on the phone at exactly the same time! Seriously?! People in China do just get on with things and don't create a fuss and in that respect we have a lot to learn (I'd draw a line at the above though)!
As for driving... where to start? It's very chaotic, but it seems to work most of the time. Blind overtaking is standard, and on one occasion I witnessed triple overtaking on a single carriage way. And seat belts? Sorry what are those again? Helmets when you hire a scooter? You'll be laughed at. When I was in Lijiang, the hostel owner kindly offered to take me to the post office on his scooter. We went outside and his dog (that's due to give birth in less than two weeks), got on the front. He then got on and I hopped on the back. The other dog that he has then ran alongside us all the way! I only managed to film him on the way back (it's in the video at the end of the blog), but on the way there, he was running in and out of traffic like some trained stunt dog. It was impressive, but terrifying to watch when there's four lanes of traffic and turns at large intersections where no-one follows road rules.
Chinese culture is obviously very different to ours but it's been interesting going to a number of different cities. If I'd only seen Beijing or Shanghai, I wouldn't really have experienced China. The reception from local people varies dramatically, as does the food, scenery, architecture and dialect.
One of the strangest things to get used to was people staring at me all the time, especially in Northern China. Sometimes people (normally teenagers) come and ask you for photos, often when I was looking my worst in a hoodie and jeans with greasy hair and no make up. Sometimes they just take selfies with you in the background or blatantly put their phone in your face and take a photo without saying anything and then walk off. One time in a local restaurant two of us were out eating and parents were lining up their children to have photos with us! It's bizarre, but funny.
I also noticed that there are a number of women who take their children to work. In hostels, you would often see the staff's children there playing or eating. Also, on out of city buses where there is a conductor type of role, there would often be a woman with a pre-school age child and some toys to keep them entertained! I'm assuming this would be different in a more formal environment, but again they just get on with things and don't let much stop them from what they are doing.
Sharing food is something that is also common place. Obviously in restaurants numerous dishes are normally ordered and shared. However in hostels or other places, people often take out their food and offer it round to people close by. On the whole people are very friendly and welcoming and are more than happy to help if you are stuck with anything.
Places worth a mention
An unexpected day trip led me to one of my favourite places in China. Six hours after leaving the hostel, a dorm mate and I arrived at the Dongchaun Red Lands. The area is full of rolling hills, is very rural, where there are few/no tourists. There are many local farmers working the land with traditional farming methods and we met a local woman sat at the side of the road, overlooking the hills and sewing new shoes to presumably sell.
Because we arrived at 4pm (!) and had no idea how we were going to get back again we couldn't stay long. After a hitch hike and a mini bus trip where I had a chicken under my seat, we were back in Kunming. I really wanted to be able to wonder around the red lands, hire a scooter, drive the crazy winding roads and watch local life so it's a shame it was such a brief visits. Another addition to the travel bucket list, but this time in season so it's even more impressive.
Each city I visited had its own selling point, but I was surprised not to be as taken with Shanghai. Beijing has many historical places to look around, Xi'an had the best food, Zhangjaijie had the best mountains, Harbin obviously had incredible ice and snow sculptures, Yunnan Province had lovely parks, people, cafe culture etc. I suppose Shanghai has the best buildings, but the pollution was very bad when I was there which just put a dampener on it.
Harbin Ice and Snow festival is something that you should see in the North of China. But at -23 degrees and the weather app on my phone showing a 'feels like' temperature of -32 degrees, you need to be able to withstand some serious cold weather! It will be unlike anything you ever see, with huge ice palaces, snow sculptures of scenes, people, Disney characters, ice slides, frozen lakes, and rivers to walk across.
If you've seen the film Avatar, you will know that it is set in a place where there are tall, skinny, floating mountains. Zhangjaijie is the place that the film scenery is based on. Walking around them was amazing and whilst It wasn't the right weather for us to see the 'floating mountains', they were incredible to see anyway, especially with wild monkeys around.
It's also round the corner from Tainman Mountain, where we took the worlds longest cable car and walked over a glass walkway that's nearly a mile above the lower mountains below! Thankfully we got from one end to the other in one piece.
Other China experiences
When travelling you have a lot of amazing times and occasionally, a few flat times. I had a day that managed to go from one extreme to the next, all because of the people I happened to meet during the day. For me, this is why travelling is so worthwhile.
I'd woken up in a lot of pain as my back was hurting from falling onto my back off an ice slide the night before at Harbin Ice and Snow Festival (yep it's on film). Walking hurt like hell, but I had the equivalent of 9p left in cash and randomly I hadn't really eaten in 48 hours, so had to get money from an ATM. After trying five banks unsuccessfully I gave up and decided to go back and try and exchange my emergency US dollars. A guy overheard me asking reception where I could do this and offered to exchange it with his Chinese Yuan, as he was American so could use it. Lifesaver! That meant that we got talking about why we'd chosen to travel and I could help with their itinerary for the day as I'd been where they wanted to go. Win win. A bit later the lady from reception came to my room and offered to exchange the money for me if I hadn't already. Very thoughtful, even though I was now sorted. Then I met a guy who was in my dorm from another area of China. I had such a hilarious evening (see photo below of him trying out my backpack) and I got to listen to some songs he had recorded, and see sweater designs he has made, discuss films and other random things!
I didn't see any of China that day. I was in pain, temporarily broke and hungry - but the people I met made it an enjoyable day. This is why I'm so pleased that I went travelling, its a good reminder of how amazing people can be.
To end on a funny note, the English translations for Chinese signs are comedy gold. It's strange that at official public places, the English can be so bad. I don't really understand because there will be a Government officials who can translate, so I'm not sure how these few slipped by...
Hostels in China are interesting to say the least. Most of them don't provide soap and you have to buy your own toilet paper. I've had a shower with a see through glass door onto the dorm room, woken up to find a cat trapped in the room and spent hours battling with near non existent wifi. A lot of young Chinese residents and students live in hostels, so sometimes you are in a room with people who have been there for weeks/months. In Beijing there is a policy that they don't mix Chinese nationals and foreigners, so I was a bit baffled to wake up (after checking in at 2am), to find all of my dorm buddies were in fact Chinese. I know it was dark when I checked in, but surely the combination of my accent, features and UK passport should have given the game away to the person checking me in!
I love China and will be going back to explore more, but in summer next time. I feel like I haven't even started, but it's the size of America so I was never going to cover it all in 6 weeks! I did manage Beijing, Harbin, Shanghai, Zhangjaijie, Xi'an, Kunming, Dali and Lijiang but there's so much more to do. The North and South were very different experiences and I personally prefer the south as its a bit more of a slower pace, people seem friendlier, there were more cafes, beautiful backdrops to cities and less high rises/pollution. I think travelling off peak had its positives, as the touristy areas weren't so busy and there's so much domestic tourism that I think in summer it could completely change your experience as it would be so crowded.
I hardly met any British travellers whilst in China. Those that I did meet were generally travelling whilst in their school holidays as they were teaching there. I think us Brits have written off most of China as somewhere to avoid, and would only go to see the Great Wall and Shanghai. But that's not real China. The culture, scenery, friendly people and places that make you say 'I cannot wait to come here again' are outside of those areas. I would recommend visiting if being immersed in a different culture interests you and if you go to Yunnan Province in the south you can't fail to fall in love with the place ? Just don't expect many people to be speaking English!
It's not the easiest place to travel, but it's fine when you get the hang of it and very rewarding!
Five Facts I Learnt Whilst in China
1) I could easily live there for a year
2) It's nearly the size of the U.S. (hence three internal flights I hadn't planned for)
3) Wechat is the Chinese version of what's app which is so much better. We all need to convert. Right now.
4) Most Chinese people have an English name, they vary from Jonathan to Sugar
5) Had I mentioned it is totally under-rated?
Chinese mash up video: http://youtu.be/2ojH4jj-K2k