The China I Saw


My desire to see China, like India, has waxed and waned over time. However, when the opportunity presented itself, I still jumped at the chance. I decided to embark on “Leg 4” of my RTW trip and heading back to Asia after a brief stint at home seemed just right. I had read and heard a lot about traveling in China and in the end decided to hop on a tour, mostly because I didn’t want to be trampled to death. (I didn’t realize how real a threat this was until I actually got there.)  In seriousness, I had heard that the lack of English and cultural barriers made it very difficult to get around. I think if I had been on Leg 1 of my trip I would have given it a go, but the truth is I was feeling a bit lazy. My trip home had lulled me into a false sense of security that bred a bit of fear about going to a place like China all by my lonesome. Being home made me long for that connection to people, any people, interested in under taking an adventure like me. I was attached to my connections at home and didn’t want to head back out alone, enter “China on a Shoestring," by G Adventures.

Three weeks in China felt like just the right amount of time to get a taste of the country and see some of the Eastern Provinces highlights. I flew into Hong Kong direct from New York, one of the longest flights in the world you can take and was immediately struck by the size and scope of the city.  The sea of high rises is unmatched even in other Asian cities. The desire to reach for the sky is immense, even Dubai has fewer skyscrapers. The best place to get a handle on the scope of the landscape is from “The Peak.” A funicular that slowly drags itself up the side of a hill to a viewing platform which like so many places is part mall, part, coffee shop, part tourist destination. It is a short metro ride and a walk up a hill from most places in Hong Kong.

Foggy morning view from "The Peak" Hong Kong

Hong Kong was a precursor for most of the large cities I saw in China. They are overwhelming in size, especially for an introvert. There are just so many people, everywhere, always. I even found that there were more people in the countryside than I expected. It’s just hard to imagine what that many people look like until you actually see it. The cities in the U.S. seem like towns compared to what I saw in China.

The China I saw looked destined for problems like we had in the US. A  housing bubble, a construction bubble and people being unable to pay for the places they live or the things they own. I heard more than once that people are working themselves to death in order “to buy a box,” meaning an apartment in a high rise. (I was told that couples need to own before they get married.)  All over the countryside there are ghost towns, partially filled towns and towns that are springing up in the middle of nowhere. Yes there are over a billion people there, but even at the rate they are building, those apartment buildings are still ending up empty. Not everyone wants to live in a city. The word that kept coming to mind when I saw this was dystopian.

The very industrial, Yichang

One of the many reasons I like to travel is because I like history. China, you would think, being an ancient civilization, would tick this box nicely, but in reality it doesn’t. Sure you have a few places which retain some historical significance, but the Cultural Revolution was so complete in its destruction of all things ancient and cultural I found myself disinterested in a lot of things we saw. It was also a lot more Western and developed overall than I was expecting.  I saw a condo neighborhood in Xi’an that looked exactly like an American movie set. In my head I kept thinking, I want to see something that is older than 30 or 40 years old. The exceptions (that I saw) were of course The Great Wall, The Terracotta Warriors, The City Wall of Xi’an and the natural landscape. The whole place was a giant paradox to me. It is clearly a controlled place but also a wildly consumerist/capitalist society. I never felt controlled personally while I was there but I was aware of an underlying current of control of the local population. There was a fair amount of Western gawking but also just as much disinterest. I think one of the hardest things I experienced in China was the survival of the fittest attitude that was so outward. No one cares when they bump into you, they just keep walking. People will run you down in order to get onto seat reserved trains. There are just so many people all the time that people are constantly clawing and pushing and pulling each other. It’s just normal. I saw an adult bump into and knock down a child, really laid her out, and never even turned around. This unfortunately was not uncommon. Maybe we’re too cautious and careful of each other’s feelings in the west but to me the entire culture was aggressive. It was physically aggressive, the consumerism was aggressive, the public urination and spitting was aggressive and the lack of personal space was aggressive. In fact if I could use one word to describe my China experienced I would use aggressive. (I know this does not bode well for me wanting to go to India one day.)

Xi'an old city wall surrounded by highrises. 

This may sound a little negative and parts of it were, especially for an introvert, but I also had some wonderful experiences. The overnight train rides were always educational and there was a lot of curiosity about us as a group which led to some interesting questions from our Chinese bunk mates (translated through our guide or our Mandarin speaking tour-mate).  One of my favorite interactions from the trip was a 20 minute conversation I had with a 13 year old girl because I decided not to roll around in a touristy mud pit in a cave. She sought me out with an intention to practice her English. She was by no means fluent but she was very enthusiastic. We asked each other questions about each other’s lives, she told me all about her English teacher and how pretty her Mom is, of course with cell phone photographic evidence, because after all, it’s China. Our conversation culminated with a quintessential 13 year old girl moment when she started to gush about how handsome our very tall, German trip mate was, complete with requisite giggles and hand to the mouth to cover her teeth as she giggled. It was one of the numerous moments during my RTW that reminded me that people are just people, everywhere. 



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