China – A rough place for the solo traveller

30 12 2010

(Just like China and its population, this post clocks in at a massive 9500 words, plus 279 photos, so I would suggest *not* attempting to read it all in one sitting!)

I had no doubt in my mind, when I crossed the border from Northern Vietnam into South-Western China’s Yunnan Province, that one ‘phase’ of my journey was over and that China would be a different world entirely. However, even with this attitude, I was not at all prepared for the culture shock that cold, stern China had in store for me after coming from the warm and inviting lands of Southeast Asia.

I spent 1 month in China, covering huge distances (going basically from one corner of the country to the other), learning lots, and having great times and bad times, so I feel at least moderately qualified to give the recommendation that China is most certainly not for everyone and that you should think carefully about your travel desires before launching into it.

At the end of the day, I rather disliked my time in China, for a large number of reasons I’ll highlight, and I’d predict that those travelling similarly to myself (i.e. on the cheap, solo, and not fluent in Mandarin) would, by and large, emerge with a similar view of the place.

As rooted into the culture by their ancient dynasties and their Confucianistic beliefs, China is not a particularly ‘welcoming’ place for strangers (consider the Great Wall, as an historical example). Though I’ve since realized that my stranger interactions weren’t too much different from those I’d have in North America (which is why I don’t particularly like this aspect of North America either!), at the time it was like being plunged from a warm and wonderful sauna (i.e. the people of Southeast Asia) into sub-zero arctic waters (i.e. the people of China). While this inward-looking attitude has preserved the wonderfully rich historical culture of arts, music, etc. in China (which I won’t dispute – Chinese history, calligraphy, ceramics, music, architecture, martial arts, etc. are all rich and exciting), it certainly hasn’t created a place that is easily accessible to the casual traveller.

All of a sudden, I went from a world of being smiled at on the street, being able to laugh with and strike up broken English/whichever SE Asian language conversations with random people along your way (without any fear of judgement), being able to comport myself with the innocence of one who knows that, at worst, he’s seen as a walking wallet, and, at best, seen as an immediate friend (both of which will get you people to talk to!), to China, where I can probably count the number of spontaneous smiles I got from passing strangers in the entire month on my hands and toes, where the blank-faced and incredibly open stares – and open gossip – that were directed at me frequently gave me serious self-consciousness and frustration over why said stares never revealed their intentions or became greetings or smiles! (I’ll describe particularly frustrating examples below), and where I could spend an entire day without conversation of any sort (or, if there was conversation, it was impatient/humourless/spoken rapidly in Mandarin and met with utter confusion when I could not understand it and asked for it to be said another way or drawn in a picture/and entirely unimpressed with any and all attempts I made to learn and speak Mandarin {I did pretty well at it, too, though, at one point, for the first time ever, it got openly criticized by a Chinese man who basically said ”your Chinese is as bad as my English!”}).

(A side note on language: Chinese people, on the whole, speak less English than anywhere else I’ve been, including now here in Japan. Even major tourist sites often lack the most basic English signage, including in Olympic/Expo-host cities Beijing and Shanghai, and, unlike other Southeast Asians, they really have a lot of trouble cross-culturally communicating – they generally won’t rephrase things / simplify their words / speak more slowly / mimic or draw the concept or item they’re trying to communicate / just laugh and be content in the lack of understanding, etc., nor do they understand your requests for them to do so and view as strange your attempts to communicate your ideas using these methods! So in this way it really is like entering a different world, where all the ways you’ve learned to communicate are null and void! The only nice thing about it was that, because their English is so lacking, I was able to save a tonne of money on tourist site entrance fees by asking for the ‘student price’ [usually like 50-60% of the normal rate] and giving them my driver’s license [which, quite clearly, says ‘DRIVERS LICENSE’ in big letters on the front!] – no one ever batted an eyelash, even in Beijing and Shanghai!! As well, as I mentioned above, they really don’t stroke your ego at all when it comes to your Chinese language ability [and, for me, praise at my progress serves as a big incentive to want to learn more]. An example of this was a Pakistani guy I met on a train from Beijing to Tai Shan. He was totally fluent in Mandarin, came on the train, sat down, and started chatting with his neighbours. Normally, if someone pulled this off anywhere else in Southeast Asia, the locals would be nearly pissing themselves from excitement over how well the foreigner has learned their language, but here, no one even batted an eyelash! In the couple hours or so I shared the train with them, I heard one person say to another, casually, something along the lines of ‘he’s good, eh?’, but that was it. Maybe some people would like this ‘you’re nothing special’ type of doing things, but for me, if I go to the huge effort of learning a language, I want my reward to be the surprise and smiles [and therefore friendships/discounts/etc.] from the locals, or else why did I even bother? One other, jarring, note: in the Northeastern regions [didn’t hear it in the South], one of the most common words in Mandarin [the word for ‘that’ or ‘that one’] is pronounced exactly as ‘niggah’. It must be pretty shocking for someone who’s black to come to Beijing or something, get on a subway, and hear nothing but niggah this, niggah that, niggah niggah niggah! Its bizarre!).

Anyways, I know, of course, why all this is the way it is, though it doesn’t mean I like it. The Chinese are a highly family and friend-oriented people, relying heavily on family status/face-saving and the ‘guanxi’ principle, where friends and family help each other out reciprocally and whenever in need, probably having evolved from the country’s tumultuous history and huge population. This principle hit me hardest when I had my few experiences of getting into a ‘group’ (i.e. not being a labelled stranger), during which times I was suddenly hit with incredible waves of genuine friendliness and generosity that totally blew me away (and made the subsequent ‘low’ of travelling on and becoming a stranger again all the more punishing). When not in any sort of group though – as is the case during solo travel – you’re in for a rough time. For example, the majority of Chinese meals are taken in, and designed for, banquet-style group form, meaning that street food is rare and that most of the ‘local specialties you have to try’ (or even just most of the normal dishes – are you really going to go in a restaurant and order a group-sized/meant-for-sharing plate of nothing but steamed bak choy?) can’t really be tried unless you want to embarrass yourself or waste a lot of food while spending a lot of money (e.g. hot pot – socially, NO ONE goes to hot pot alone, nevermind that, even if you did, you’d still have to deal with its massive size and price by yourself), and therefore you’re stuck eating noodle soup or fried rice or other ‘solo foods’ (there aren’t many more than that!) in a shitty canteen, or eating a bowl of ubiquitous instant noodles.

Speaking of ‘shitty’ canteens, you’ve probably heard your share of tales of the infamous Chinese uncleanliness and street spitting and such. They are, entirely, true. Spitting is indeed rampant and practiced by everyone from the old woman right down to the hottest teen girl on her way to the club, though it didn’t bother me as much as I thought (it just meant you couldn’t ever put anything you valued down on the ground!). What did bother me though was the often horrendous air pollution (I often couldn’t see further than 3 or 4 blocks in a city, not to mention that a full one third of the entire world’s daily consumption of cigarettes is consumed by Chinese people in every single indoor and outdoor place in the country!) as well as the utterly, utterly foul bathroom habits that the majority of the Chinese keep. Unlike SE Asia, where the majority of toilets at least have water to wash yourself (a far more hygienic option than toilet paper anyways!), the vast majority of Chinese toilets lack any sort of water or paper, and while you’d hope folks who proceed to make use of these facilities would bring their own cleaning devices, there is nothing more disconcerting than arriving into a toilet and seeing an unflushed deposit in the bowl without any trace of wiping paper on or near it (very common)! So… what, are you just getting right back up, no cleaning whatsoever?? To make matters worse, children – who, as predominantly only children in ”one child policy” China, are absolutely doled upon and are swaddling, spoiled rotten little things that can get away with murder – are, as part of this doling upon, basically allowed to shit and piss anywhere they want at anytime they want. In fact, it is so ingrained and widespread that all children’s pants are made with a hole in the bottom, allowing the permanently bare-assed child to just squat and go without a second’s hesitation or fussing. I saw a child shitting in the dead center of a busy sidewalk in Kunming, I saw a mother holding her child in half squat on her knees while sitting on a chair in the street in Dali with a pile of shit lying on the asphalt underneath, I saw children pissing down the cracks of a manhole cover in Tiananmen Square (while a girl I met in Chengdu told me she saw a grown man shitting in front of an army guard in Tiananmen, and I believe her), and I even saw a child just start to piss in the lobby of the Shanghai Museum (mother only managed to get a plastic bag under his dick after he was halfway through, while she left the poor staff attendant to wipe up the mess). Sorry to be blunt, but what the FUCK??!? Is there a ban on diapers or something? It certainly can’t be an affordability thing, given that even poor SE Asians were wrapping up their babies in diapers! I remain convinced that this adult and child culture of filthy shitting is the reason why I suffered two horrendous bouts of food poisoning during my month in China, both lasting around 4 days and knocking me out of my socks more substantially than anything I had suffered in SE Asia up to that point (in 8 months, I had basically only had 2 minor, 1 day cases of food poisoning, yet in China – I essentially had 8 full days of it!). While I’m sure each country I’ve been in has taken a few days off my life, China’s probably taken months of it off!!

Some other observations:

– For the self-proclaimed ‘country of bicycles’, I barely saw any! Motorbikes were common and cars are everywhere, so I guess the formerly ubiquitous bike is on the decline – I’ve actually seen far more here in Japan than anywhere in China!

– No offense, but basically every city and town in the country stinks. I suppose its just generally poor sewer systems, but the strange thing is that no other country in Southeast Asia smelled this way – they certainly had their fare share of sewage stink, but it was a different, less common, and less putrid stench than the one fully permeating China from the lowliest village right up to the doorstep of Shanghai’s ultra-expensive Park Hyatt hotel! If the food poisoning wasn’t enough to make you lose your appetite, this certainly was!

– The ‘Great Firewall’ is still ubiquitous and makes your life pretty shitty. No Facebook, no youtube, no blog (which explains these delayed posts!), and sometimes not even gmail/Google!

– Two aspects of Chinese culture I loathe: 1) incredible focus on materialism (big cars, big homes, big spending is the ideal life, so much so that it’s ingrained in their writing – take a walk around any Chinatown in the world, for example, and see how many times you see words like ‘luck’, ‘prosperity’, and ‘fortune’ in the name of like every restaurant or shop!) and, 2) an unwritten rule that food must be left behind at any meal, or else your host will think you’re still hungry. I absolutely hate wasting food – there’s no environmental crime that can be more easily avoided than unnecessary waste, so it totally infuriated me to see, for example, two young women come into a restaurant, order like 10 dishes, gingerly pick at a couple of them for awhile, then leave the rest behind! Arrghh, why!?

– Three other strange traits of Chinese that I observed frequently enough to have confidence in ascribing them to the general population: 1) they often talk incredibly loudly – basically yelling – no matter the location or circumstances, 2) they take forever to take a photograph (quite literally! I think perhaps this is due to the fact that many ‘new middle class’ in China probably just got their first digital camera and aren’t quite sure how to use them yet!), and 3) they often walk as though completely unaware of the trajectories of others. That is, for example, if you’re walking one way beside a wall and a couple is walking towards you in the other direction, it would normally be on their onus to move slightly to allow you to proceed along the wall, since you can’t exactly move slightly due to the presence of said wall! However, they won’t. So you’ll just collide and have to push past each other! Sometimes there doesn’t even have to be a wall – I was walking through an empty gravel field one time in a perfectly straight and predictable trajectory while a couple was coming towards me at a diagonal angle (the only 2 people nearby). I was set to pass slightly in front of them, though it was gonna be close. I kept my trajectory, figuring they’d just angle slightly to avoid me, but instead the girl basically just walked straight into my backpack and got smacked by it pretty hard! (I certainly didn’t turn to apologize for such idiocy, though I think they were expecting it!). Absolutely bizarre!

– BUT, in counter to all this: the scenery is unbeatable, as you might expect for a country as large as Canada. Huge mountains (Himalayas, for that matter), vast rivers, bamboo forests, huge numbers of ancient temples/carvings/walls/statues, deserts, ocean, and much more. And, for most of these places, just literally stepping off the tour-group trail will immerse you in silence and raw nature that can be incredibly powerful!

All right, enough introductions, let’s talk about where I actually went now! From Northern Vietnam, I crossed the border by foot into a Chinese town called Hekou, where I spent the afternoon exploring all the new and exciting things for sale in convenience stores, had a crazy old Chinese ‘army guy’ (he claimed) attempt to talk to me for a long time about how he was in the town to get laid (I think that’s what he meant with his furious humping motions!), and eating one of my few delicious Chinese meals (fresh handmade dumplings and claypot casserole). I then caught a night bus to my first big city, Kunming, which I arrived at in the dark and freezing cold morning and proceeded to get talked into an expensive taxi ride that I thought was a hotel service vehicle! After finding a hostel (I mainly relied on hostels in China, as much as I dislike the concept of being around other foreigners, due to their being the only places with reliable internet access and easy-to-find signs!), I spent 2 days in Kunming, which surprised me (as did other Chinese cities) with its oddly quiet (even though its got a massive population) and clean streets (due to China’s huge employment of street sweepers). I didn’t intend to spend 2 days there, as it didn’t have any major sites to see, but I started getting my first bout of food poisoning on the 2nd day and there was only 1 train per day to my next destination, Dali – a pretty, though massively touristy (with Chinese), heritage town. The train ride and first day in Dali were pretty horrendous, filled with me being sick from both ends and not seeing much, though I had recovered enough on the morning of the second day to take a cablecar trip up a big local mountain range, which had stunning cliff trails you could walk along and was basically deserted. I started feeling sick on the descent, but pushed it aside and walked across town to check out the huge nearby lake. It was a mixed blessing, as I met my first bunch of very friendly young Chinese students who wanted to chat, though, simultaneously, my urge to vomit reached boiling point. I held it in until the girls said goodbye and walked away, at which point I immediately vomited over the side of the dock we were on, after which point the remaining boys (who hadn’t talked to me yet) expressed their sympathies and we talked a bit more before I had to excuse myself again and go running to find a toilet for my oncoming diarrhea. It was incredibly frustrating to have to so hastily leave new friends (an incredibly rare thing to have happen in the first place in China) because of illness and it definitely lowered my mood!

With my ambitious travel schedule looming though, I couldn’t afford any more recovery time in Dali, so the next day I caught a bus for a short journey to Lijiang City, another super touristy, but very pretty, UNESCO heritage town. The weather was glorious, the start of the Himalayas were visible in the distance and I was feeling a bit better, though still didn’t find any of the kind-of-gross-looking Southern Chinese cuisine appealing (this coming from a guy who ate balut in the Phils!). I spent the day wandering the town and finding out information for my highly anticipated next step – a hike through the world’s narrowest gorge – the Tiger Leaping Gorge of the Yangtze River. While an established thing to do, I was questioning whether my weakened body could handle the climbs involved and what the status of the area actually was, as it was ‘officially closed’ due to landslides, though I discovered that this only applied to the low road, not the high hiking path, and simply meant that there would be fewer tourists and no entry fee! So, the next day I stocked up on water and food, left the majority of my luggage in storage at my hotel in Lijiang, and proceeded to catch the bus to the Gorge, where I had planned to start the ”8 to 10 hour” hike in to the small village at the other side of the Gorge around 3pm, spend the night at a guesthouse that was supposed to be an hour or two along the way, then finish the rest the next day and taxi back to the entrance. However, things didn’t go quite as planned. With lots of energy, I began walking down the road from the bus, looking for the high trail entrance, which was supposed to be beside a school. I never saw a school though and walked for like 30 minutes along the low road, practically into the mouth of the Gorge before finally giving up on my search for said entrance and asking for directions from some road workers, who didn’t give any useful information, and then from a roadside restaurant, whose owner pointed up a tiny path behind her house that basically rose almost vertically. I rapidly gave up on that ascent, not wanting to get lost, and emerged back onto the road just as a car passed that happened to be owned by the manager of one of the guesthouses in the village at the end of the Gorge. Seeing a lone white guy where he wasn’t supposed to be, she stopped and offered me a ride into the village (at a price, albeit not too high of one), telling me that the high trail entrance was way back at the start and I had missed it. At this point, it was nearly 4pm and I wouldn’t have been able to backtrack and get up the trail far enough to reach the first guesthouse before dark, so I accepted the ride, which took us along the ‘officially closed’ low road and that consisted of almost entirely driving over rocky soil from landslides, rather than the asphalt which presumably lay somewhere underneath, though it was perfectly safe and lots of road crews were at work in what is probably their never-ending struggle against the Gorge. I spent a peaceful night in the tiny village, with glorious views of the stars and deep silence all around, though now I was faced with having to do the entire ”8 to 10 hour” hike back the next day, instead of having it punctuated over 2 days, if I wanted to stick to my itinerary. So I was up early and out at the crack of dawn, this time having more luck in finding the start of the high trail in the reverse direction! It was a tough climb up for the first hour or so, but after that point the trail flattened out somewhat and basically became a high version of the road, albeit narrower! There were plenty of arrows along the way to mark the path and I only got lost once for 30 mins or so by taking a wrong path when crossing through one of the handful of small villages along the way. The weather was great, the views were astounding, and I only passed a few other folks on the trail. And I didn’t have to worry about time either, as the hike only took me around 6 hours, with the whole day taking 8 hours due to stopping for meals, getting lost, and chatting with an American guy for awhile, so I was comfortably able to finish and get back to Lijiang for the evening. Considering that not 2 days prior I was a food-poisoned mess, I was impressed with my recovery ability and totally blown away by how amazing of an experience the hike was – truly one of China’s best!

Unfortunately, the high was short-lived, as the next day I had to suffer a 12 hour bus ride along terrible roads across Southern Yunnan province, in order to reach a train station in the city of Panzhihua that could take me to Chengdu, my next destination. The bus was full enough that I was relegated to the ticket taker’s seat (and had to get up and fold up the seat any time someone got on or off), beside the driver, though it was actually neat, as I had the best views through the forward windows of the incredible mountains and valleys that we passed through in the morning, as well as the horrendous and totally uncalled for traffic jams in the middle of nowhere that resulted from truck drivers lining up for gas at stations that didn’t seem to have any and parking their trucks all over the road, totally uncaring about where other drivers were supposed to go! As the day progressed, the landscape got shittier and shittier, as we entered a seriously industrial area of nuclear plants, coal plants, and various other heavy industry whose trucks left the road in absolute tatters and the air so thick with smog that you could barely see across the street! As well, lunch, taken at a roadside canteen the bus pulled up to, was one of the nastiest meals I’ve eaten, consisting of some intestine that literally tasted like shit and other not-too-pleasant tasting dishes. Needless to say, I was growing pretty despondent about Chinese cuisine! Upon finally arriving into Panzhihua, a foully polluted river city, I caught a minibus to the train station, only to discover that there were apparently no trains that night for Chengdu, so had to take an expensive night bus instead, which I arrived at to find a full bus waiting for me alone (the train guy had called ahead and told the bus to wait) and I hadn’t eaten in hours, though luckily the bus was waiting at another roadside canteen whose tastier food I had to swallow down in seconds before taking off again! Once on the bus, I had the humorously ironic experience of taking off my shoes, only to have the Chinese woman in the bed next to me absolutely freak out about the smell of my feet (admittedly pretty horrendous) and move herself to a different bed. I just laughed at her, saying loudly in English (not caring if she understood), ”THIS IS CHINA!”, basically implying that the filth of the place should justify my smelly feet, haha!

I arrived in Chengdu the next morning, a city uncomfortably similar to Kunming, and spent 2 days there, the first of which was spent wandering the town and checking out its couple historic areas. On the second, I caught a tourist bus out to the nearby world famous panda sanctuary (which just made news again recently upon discovering a reliable remedy to the panda’s terrible reproductive success, which will make successfully raising cubs for reintroduction much easier). On the way, I met a friendly lady from the Netherlands and we toured the panda site together, which had lots of pandas, indeed, including the cute red pandas (which look more like racoons/huge squirrels than bears), and was surprisingly quiet from tourists. Our bus ride back to town was classic though – we, and a bunch of Chinese, had waited a while for the bus to arrive, and when we saw it approaching, all the Chinese who had been milling about started to get anxious and crowd around the bus stop sign – fair enough – though when the bus pulled up, and pulled up slightly past the sign, there was a literal stampede of people to get into the door first. I’ve never seen anything quite so ridiculous. Here we all are, a number of people far fewer than would take to actually fill up the bus (so there was no need to worry about getting on), in the middle of the countryside, and yet little old Chinese women were elbowing each other and almost physically pushing each other over just to get into the bus!! Its completely insane, and yet it happens like this everywhere! Meanwhile, the Dutch lady and I waited and laughed until everyone else had boarded, then calmly walked on and sat down, no fuss needed! I had told the Dutch lady earlier that, since Chengdu is in Sichuan province and is famous for hot pot, I wanted to try it, though wanted a companion in doing so, due to the social implications I mentioned above! She agreed happily, so when we arrived back in town, we went for some delicious hot pot and beers that capped off a fairly decent day!

Before my next big destination, Chongqing for a Yangtze Three Gorges cruise, I decided to take a couple day trips to other parts of Sichuan province. The first day I headed down from Chengdu to Leshan, home to the world’s largest carved Buddha, which I spent the afternoon exploring. It was, indeed, massive and was coupled with some pretty temples, though it was of course incredibly touristy and my mood was pretty low due to my receiving of a tonne of the aforementioned blank stares while I wandered around here! After seeing the sights, I caught an evening bus to the town of Yibin, a long and bumpy ride, so that I could visit the Shunan Bamboo Sea (aka Forest) the next day. This was one of those places that had sounded really cool to me in the guidebook but didn’t have a lot of information associated with it. I wasn’t sure about the bus situation to the forest from Yibin nor about what I’d do once actually there, but I nevertheless headed to the bus station the next morning hoping for the best. At first, a taxi driver outside nearly convinced to take his overpriced trip, claiming that there weren’t any buses and no transportation within the site itself, but luckily I checked with the station anyways and found that there was indeed a bus out there, so I bought a ticket and got on, only to discover during the journey from the friendly guy beside me that every other person on the bus was part of a tour group heading to the site (so I guess the taxi driver was kind of right). There were a couple other girls on the bus who could speak some English and they convinced me that I should pay a bit more and come on the tour too, since I would otherwise be unceremoniously dumped at the entry gate and would have to walk around the park (a big place). My acceptance was definitely one of the smarter decisions I’ve made, as I got to experience a Chinese tour from the inside. While I certainly didn’t understand a word the guide said at each site, the area needed no explanations. It was absolutely gorgeous – a thin fog hung over the area, in which thousands of acres of nothing but bamboo swayed silently in the breeze. We toured a bamboo museum, walked a few lovely trails through the forest and along a cliff that was covered in old carvings and Buddhas, and shared quite possibly one of the best meals I ate in China – a huge banquet of bamboo and local mushroom dishes that was absolutely exquisite and, of course, made better by the friendly company around me. For once, I saw Chinese people open up, I was part of ‘the group’, as I mentioned before, and everyone was smiling at me, we were laughing together and sharing the beauty together. As an outsider, Chinese tour groups are a dreaded thing you might encounter anywhere else in the world that will surely ruin the peace and quiet you had been enjoying, but actually being in one is a totally different experience – things are made easy for you, you’re whisked effortlessly to all the sites, served wonderful food, and make lovely friends! This experience, and a similar one I’ll relate shortly with my Yangtze River cruise, are why I’d recommend you travel China in a Chinese tour group as much as possible, if you plan on going! Yes, everyone wants to ‘get off the trail’ and have personal, unique experiences, but there really is something to be said about touring China the Chinese way – if only for the people for you meet (which won’t otherwise happen)!

Once we got back to Yibin, my new friends helped me find a hotel and helped me get a morning train ticket to Chongqing, though the only tickets remaining were the infamous ”wuzou”, or standing class. Since the ride was due to take 8.5 hours or so, I wasn’t looking forward to the idea of standing that long, needless to say! Luckily though, almost as soon as I boarded the grubby third class carriage the next morning (at which point the entire carriage stopped what they were doing and stared!) I was offered a seat by a guy who was getting off soon, and my ‘high’ from the previous day continued fairly well, as my neighbouring seat mates attempted some conversation and this crazy guy a few rows back kept coming up to my area and entertaining us all with singing and jokes and general strange extrovertedness! He even gave me peanuts, an apple, and some beers for no reason! He eventually got off and said goodbye, only to be replaced by some curious students whose English was terrible but who wanted to try nonetheless, so I had a couple exhausting hours with them trying to understand each other! When we finally arrived in Chongqing, one of them brought me to the bus I needed to take and even paid my fare before sending me on my way! Again, needless to say, I was feeling good about this sudden hospitality from all these Chinese people!

I didn’t stay long in Chongqing – the world’s largest metropolitan area (though, again, the streets seemed fairly quiet downtown and pollution wasn’t as horrendous as I’d expected) – only 1 night in a hostel, where I booked my Three Gorges cruise on an all-Chinese boat (the lady, of course, tried to talk me out of that and take the foreigner boat for 10 times the price! yeah right!). I walked around the riverfront and stocked up on cheap food for the boat ride, then joined the tour on the next day. Because it was only a 2 night tour, we were first shuttled by bus a few hours down the river to the town of Wanzhou, where we boarded our boat in the evening, a decent 4 story thing with maybe 150 – 200 people, a nice viewing deck and with my third class cabin consisting of 6 bunks, which I shared with a very friendly family of 5. We then proceeded to cruise to our first stop, an old and famous temple that had actually been relocated brick by brick to a new site because of the Three Gorges Dam flooding. Bizarrely enough, this tour was scheduled for like 11:30pm! It was quite surreal to be piling off a boat, past active souvenir vendors, with 150 other people to walk around a dark temple at midnight! We were then awoken early the next morning for a tour around another historic temple town area, though I didn’t pay for that optional tour, so I just wandered around the town we had docked at while everyone else was off touring. When they returned a couple hours later, we set sail for the first gorge, which was glorious. Again, as has been my luck through most of this trip, the weather was wonderful and everyone spilled out onto the viewing deck to snap photos. Although the Gorge apparently wasn’t as narrow or pretty as it used to be, due to the rise in water levels, it still packed a punch! It was around this time that the people of the boat started warming up to me and it wasn’t long before I was experiencing more classic ‘in-group’ hospitality! After the first gorge, the boat docked again and we all piled off to get on a smaller boat for a cruise up and down the ‘mini Three Gorges’, which I didn’t even know existed, but which were even more beautiful than the first main gorge – they were incredibly narrow and tall and covered with brilliant reds and oranges of autumn colours as the sun shone on. It really was majestic! We cruised up to a small temple, then to an area where we got onto little motorboats and a guide narrated the scenery in story form, though I unfortunately couldn’t understand a word they said, but everyone else seemed to enjoy it! Once we got back to the boat, it was reaching evening and while we were then to sail through the 2nd and 3rd gorges, I didn’t end up seeing much of it, as I met a friendly doctor guy from Northern China who could speak some French and who invited me to dinner in his room with his two female friends, whereupon we had fun communicating in broken French/Chinese/English all mixed up together! He fed well too, with crabs, meats, and fish (and a tonne of spirits! – China’s favourite version of alcohol) being pretty much all there was (not even any rice! But this is the sign of opulence – rice and noodles and such are considered fillers and aren’t usually served in formal banquets, so they say). The next day, we were up early again to board motorized dragon boats and get whipped along the river to this floating stage and walkway thing in the middle of nowhere, where we walked on this floating bridge down a small fork of the river and proceeded to be entertained by this half hour play with a whole bunch of actors that was likely about some historical figure from the area or something, I couldn’t really understand it! Back on the boat, I spent the final cruising hours on the deck playing with a cute little girl whose family I had made friends with and who proceeded to give me a huge pile of snacks as we played! It was then time to say goodbye to the boat as we pulled up at the Three Gorges Dam and proceeded to get on buses that shuttled us around to three different viewing areas, which gave a cool insight on the dam, though there wasn’t a lot written in English, nor any ‘before and after’ comparison shots, which I had been hoping for – probably too politically sensitive. With this wonderful trip over, it was back to reality as I faced another brutal journey for Xi’an, my next stop, which involved a late night bus ride for 4 hours to the city of Wuhan, where we arrived at midnight, so that I could catch a 3am train to Xi’an, which then took 13 hours! There’s no denying that China’s a big place! Unfortunately, the emotional high I had from these few days of great tours and friendly people soon returned to its prior low state and stayed that way until my departure, as my remaining destinations unfortunately didn’t offer me many more opportunities for personal interactions.

I arrived, finally, to Xi’an after those 13 hours to an absolutely seething train station – the busiest I’ve seen anywhere, crammed inside and outside with some of the roughest looking peasants I’ve seen anywhere too! Even though I went immediately to buy my ticket to Beijing for 2 days later, apparently every train was already sold out except the first class of the most expensive express train! (Cost me 80 bucks! Probably could’ve flown for less!). After that pandemonium, I spent the next day exploring around Xi’an city, which has a wonderful Muslim Quarter with abundant street food and some great canteens where I proceeded to stuff my face with ‘lamian’ (those famous pulled, handmade noodles). I also was the object of attention to 3 incredibly persistent young teen girls who followed me for awhile as I was walking before working up the nerve to talk to me, and then proceeded to follow me up to the Xi’an city wall (a huge old wall surrounding the downtown), where we rented bikes and rode around it, and then followed me halfway across the city to a big pagoda where we looked around and I bought them some candied fruits on sticks to reward their persistence, haha! Finally I had to beg them off, as I had arranged to meet a guy I had met in the hostel, who teaches English in the city, for dinner in the Muslim Quarter, where he was going to show me a nice dumpling restaurant. In truth, it was a bit overpriced and nothing special, but we had a good chat regardless! The next day I did the ubiquitous tour out to the Terracotta Warriors site, which surprised me in its unfinished-ness! There’s a reason you only ever really see the warriors in a couple of angles in photographs, because while there are indeed thousands of them, most are still unexcavated! The punch was also diminished somewhat by learning that the excavated ones were, by and large, not excavated in their current form (I figured they’d just chipped away and unearthed these great statues), but were mainly found in broken pieces and then put back together!

That evening I took my unwanted first-class train to Beijing, though I didn’t get to enjoy the experience, as I started feeling ill again during the ride and had a feverish night. I arrived to a bitingly cold Beijing, with a rough wind making things worse. After finding a hostel, I headed to a nearby mall to watch the newly released Harry Potter and then headed up to the Olympic Park area to check out the Birds Nest Stadium and Water Cube. There was no food anywhere around the area though and it was incredibly cold and I was feeling increasingly worse, so I left as quickly as I arrived to head down to Tiananmen Square. Surprisingly for me though, I arrived too late (at just after 5pm) and the square was closed! I had no idea it closed, and was surprised by the major amount of military presence all around the area – I always thought it was just a big open area, but I guess in China, even big open areas get controlled if they have a history of protests! The annoyance about the closure too was that I had to take a massive detour (we’re talking kilometers here) to get around to the other side of the square so that I could go check out the Beijing concert hall, to which I arrived just in time to get a ticket for an incredibly enjoyable classical concert by the Beijing symphony (though the program was all in Mandarin, so I’m still not sure of some of the pieces they played!). During intermission I met some friendly English-speaking Beijing ladies who were (for once!) impressed at my Mandarin ability (or at least they made it seem that way!). The illness was getting worse though and I struggled to stay awake from utter exhaustion, which didn’t abate after another fitful night’s sleep. I nevertheless spent an appetite-less morning touring around the Summer Palace, a pleasant former Imperial retreat outside the city, followed by walking around a pleasant ‘hutong’ area of the city (i.e old neighbourhoods with a distinctive style of traditional home, more and more of which are being torn down in favour of new development). After basically not eating all day, illness started hitting my bowels in the evening while I was on a hilltop getting views of the city. I still felt the need to find some food though, so, after a couple failed searches, decided to head for a tourist street that supposedly had a nice nightly food market. By this point, I was utterly exhausted (both from the illness and the huge distances I covered on foot that day – Beijing is a BIG place), depressed about finding myself without any socializing again (after my highs of the aforementioned tours), and generally down on life, so, of course, this was just the start to possibility the worst few hours of my trip to date.

It started fine enough. On the way to the tourist street, I took a rest for a minute on a bus bench and was sitting there despondently when I heard a pleasant female voice behind me say something like, ”Do you need some help?”. I turned to see a friendly-looking young Chinese guy and girl and proceeded to exchange friendly banter with them for a few minutes, saying how I was just resting, talking about Beijing, and having them say they were ‘headed to a bar for some drinks, would you like to come with us?’. I politely declined, saying I wanted to head to the night market for some food, to which they responded favourably by offering to come along. Alright, no problems there, the ball’s in my court, right? I had no reason to be concerned, so we headed together to the night market, which wasn’t actually that impressive – just a few stalls mainly selling things a tourist might want to eat (e.g. scorpions on sticks and other exotic stuff like that), but I nonetheless got some dumplings and noodles and was going to start eating them when the girl said, ”Oh you can’t eat standing up, its cold out here! Come on, there’s a place across the street here we can sit down and have some drinks and they’ll let you eat your food, no problem!”. Alright, fair enough, makes sense. So I followed them across the street, and (this is where my senses should have kicked in, though they unfortunately didn’t) through a jewelery store and up a flight of stairs at the back of the store up to a second floor teahouse, where we were led to a windowless private room (!!). I thought this a bit strange at the time, but not malicious. We then took a look at the drink menus – and the prices were ludicrous! Basically everything was its normal price multiplied by 10 (i.e. a cup of tea was not 5 RMB but 50, etc.). Even this didn’t really perturb me though, I just thought, ‘Damn, pricey place, I guess I’ll just get one beer and nurse it all night’, nor was I perturbed when they ordered a whole pot (which is expensive even in normal places) of tea, along with a plate of oranges and crackers, and later, a glass of wine for her. All the while, we were having wonderful conversation, my food poisoning was momentarily forgotten, and I was just happy to have new friends again. We talked innocently, without anything said ever tipping me off to anything darker about these two nice young people, for at least an hour and a half before they said that they had to go, as they were getting up early to visit the Great Wall the next day (their original story was that they were visiting from Harbin, in the north). So then the bill came, and it suddenly hit me like a 10 tonne truck that I just got big time scammed. The bill was for 1,100 RMB (almost 200 bucks for one pot of tea, one beer, 6 tiny mandarins, 6 packages of crackers, and one glass of wine). And before I got any ideas about suggesting that we ‘go Dutch’ on the bill, the girl immediately stated with a smirk on her face that ‘in China, girls don’t pay! Thanks!’. But their act was so solid that, to counter any opposition I may have had to that, the guy slapped down 400RMB, saying, ‘Sorry man that’s all I have left, can you pay the rest’? I didn’t exactly have many options, being in a windowless upstairs room, alone, and having memory of the fact that there was a decent-sized dude who was manning the desk when we walked in, not to mention having painful memory of the huge warning note posted in my hostel saying BE WARY OF TEAHOUSE SCAMMERS!, so I paid up, after which the couple immediately began making consoling noises about ‘yeah that was pricey wasn’t it?’ and ‘here, take the rest of these oranges!’ and other such shit. Nevertheless, I kept the conversation going as though nothing happened and we took our leave of each other just as pleasantly as we had met. To say that I was beating myself up after that experience would be an understatement, though I suppose my depressed and ill state, coupled with the fact that I was sitting down, is what made me vulnerable, as, immediately after I said goodbye to the scammers and started walking down the street again, a couple more young ladies came up to me and tried the same innocent conversation and invitation, though this time, because I was walking, their pleas had an air of desperation and so I could immediately detect the scam. The shitty-ness of the evening didn’t end there though, as once I returned back to the hostel I was hit with the full wave of the food poisoning that had been festering in me since the Xi’an train ride and I proceeded to have a basically sleepless night spent on the toilet, followed by a morning of apologizing to my dorm mates! To say my mood was ‘rock bottom’ that evening/night would be an understatement!

Regardless of my physical state, I headed out the next morning to tour Tiananmen Square, Mao’s Mausoleum, and the Forbidden City, followed later by the Temple of Heaven, all of which were impressive and pleasant, though obviously hampered somewhat by my weak physical state and low mood! I felt a bit better the next day though, when I took the bus out to the Badaling Great Wall, the touristy section, though it was quiet that day, due to the absolutely freezing wind that was ripping across the area (coldest place I’ve been to date). I had wanted to do a strenuous hike in one of the other, quieter areas of the wall, but obviously my weakened body precluded that. Nevertheless, even this restored and ‘safe’ wall section was exciting and gave some great views, so I wasn’t too saddened by the loss! That evening, I went and tried the famous Beijing roast duck at a huge famous restaurant for it that can seat something like 2000 people, though, honestly, I didn’t much care for it – too dry!

I took it easy the next day until the evening, when I caught a train to my most anticipated destination in China – Tai Shan Mountain – China’s holiest mountain, that I had an intense excitement to climb. It was on this train ride that I met that aforementioned Pakistani guy whose Chinese fluency impressed no one but me and also illustrated an example of the bizarre way a Chinese person might relate to you. When it was nearing time for me to get off the train, I asked the Pakistani guy to ask the people in the seat beside me (who hadn’t looked at me the whole ride, even though they had asked him questions about me, which he subsequently related to me and which I subsequently answered directly to the people asking and answered in Mandarin [though still didn’t receive any looks or smiles]) if they knew of any hotels in Tai Shan city, as they were disembarking there as well. After some protracted discussion among themselves and the Pakistani guy, and a few phone calls to hotels, the Pakistani guy finally translated for me that yes, they knew, and they would take me there and show me and help me out. Oh… really? Wow, that’s nice of you, considering you’ve never looked or smiled at me this whole time!! I don’t understand!?! And so we proceeded to get off the train and I followed them to the hotel, where they bargained me down a discount and left with finally a smile to me. I really couldn’t understand it, like, they were clearly friendly people who were curious about me, and yet never initiated any real contact with me nor responded positively when I had made initial overtures early on in the train ride by smiling and answering their indirect questions to the Pakistani guy directly back at them!?

And I guess that’s the thing, I just don’t like it. I don’ t like this way of interacting! Screw face-saving, guanxi, or whatever it is, just smile at me, dammit!

Luckily, my next day of conquering Tai Shan fully lived up to my expectations and put me in a good mood, regardless of how strange my relations with other Chinese people might be. It was a tough but pretty hike up an estimated 6000 stairs (so says the book, I certainly wasn’t counting!), past vendors selling energy drinks, little temples, and not that many tourists, especially in the lower half, since there’s a ‘cheat’ route where you can take a bus up to the halfway point and start the hike from there instead, which the vast majority of Chinese tourists were doing – wussys! (The truly sedentary can take a cable car all the way to the top!) The last bit was the toughest, as the wind picked up, the temperature dropped rapidly, and the stairs grew incredibly steep, but the feeling of accomplishment upon getting up them was wonderful, though it was sobering to find an entire town at the top! (I can’t imagine the rough time those poor guys must’ve had carrying it all up!) The descent was even tougher, as it turned my legs to jelly from all the stairs, though at the halfway point, I carried on down via a different, deserted path that led through pleasant autumn forest down to a couple other attractions at the base, including some nice pools along the river. And as fast as it started, it was over and I was back on a train to Shanghai, my final stop before I was to catch a 2 night passenger ferry on Nov. 30 for Japan, though not before I experienced another sterling example of messed-up Chinese social relations. While waiting for the train in Tai Shan terminal, I had bought a pomelo (like a big grapefruit) and was proceeding to open it up and eat it when I started hearing progressively rising laughter from a young couple sitting in the row of seats across from me and slightly down the row. I had seen them glancing in my direction for awhile, but once I pulled out the fruit, they basically just went into suppressed hysterics. Any move I made with the fruit saw a spike in laughter volume – peeled a section, hysterics, took a bite, hysterics, spit out a seed, hysterics! At first I was glancing in their direction and smiling, hoping we could all share a few laughs at my expense (which I’m cool with, but at least engage me first before laughing at me!), but every time I looked their way they looked the other way and suppressed their incredibly obvious laughter, so I went back to the fruit only to feel their eyes and laughter on me again. This continued for basically the 20 or more minutes it took me to eat the thing, by the end of which I was incredibly frustrated by the whole affair. Bah! I was happy to leave them behind when my train pulled up, needless to say!

While I unfortunately missed the end of the World Expo by a month, Shanghai was still a pleasant place with a very different feel than the rest of China. By that I mean a much more ‘developed world’ feel, for both the infrastructure and the people. Shanghai architecture was incredible – nearly every new skyscraper had something interesting and eye-catching about it, not to mention the uber-iconic Oriental Pearl Tower, now paired with two more iconic super skyscrapers resembling a pen and a bottle opener and home to Shanghai’s fanciest hotels and world’s highest observation deck (100 stories), which I paid the hefty fee to go up, but which was well worth it. I spent 3 nights in Shanghai, during which time I wandered the Bund – the city’s iconic waterfront featuring a tonne of historic, Western-style architecture – as well as most of the rest of downtown. I toured the city’s interesting urban planning center, the famous Yu classical Chinese garden, and the incredibly impressive Shanghai museum, which contained tens of thousands of priceless bronzes, ceramics, sculptures, etc. with free admission! It was, I suppose, a decent way to leave China behind, which I was certainly anxious to do!

I guess my final thought on China is just that its interesting how, even though I was raised in ‘Hongcouver’, as I once heard it dubbed, and practically grew up in Chinese restaurants, I could still be thrown so off-guard by the real China and so displeased by it all. I suppose that could be because, a) the majority of Vancouver Chinese are Cantonese, whose delicious food exists only in the area around Hong Kong, which I didn’t get a chance to visit, and b) I would never have noticed the Chinese mannerisms in Vancouver, since all strangers in Vancouver are cold to you and I always just thought that that was how it was everywhere! Perhaps if I had visited China before visiting anywhere else or before living in the Philippines I would have emerged with a more favourable view of it, but, of course, once I’ve had a metaphorical taste of something amazing (Southeast Asia), all the rest will seem sub-par in comparison. Probably why I’m heading back to the Philippines after I’m done here in Japan! 🙂

Enough talk now, here’s a whole tonne of photos!

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