So, the final write up for my final country. China's been an interesting country that took a while for me to like. Coming from South East Asia I was expecting things to improve and, whilst material things did seem to be of a higher standard, the way the Chinese people conducted themselves was, at times, disgusting. However, once I got to chat to the individual Chinese person I realized that things weren't as bad as they first appeared. Whilst I wouldn't put China up with the likes of Canada, Japan and New Zealand I wouldn't say that I haven't enjoyed it; China, at times, has left me captivated, appalled, amazed and disgusted; it's a very captivating country that, currently, is changing from day to day.
Before I start to divulge details of the different aspects of China, and it's 1.5 billion population, I'll first list my favorite experiences within this vast country:
1) Tiger Leaping Gorge – Equally as stunning as the Rockies of Canada, the glaciers of Alaska and the lakes of New Zealand, this is the world’s deepest gorge. Fast running water, steep vertical mountain sides and beautiful weather all made this place a scene that everyone should witness. The hike to the bottom was uneventful though the views, once down, were great. The gorge made me feel very small.
2) The Great Wall of China – You've seen the photos, but until you're stood on the wall you cannot begin to grasp the sheer size, and the awe, of the place. Not only is the wall a marvel in itself, but the mountainous landscape around is just as attractive. Walking part of the wall is a joy and money should not be spared.
3) The Terracotta Warriors – It doesn't seem to matter how many photos of these warriors you see, viewing 'site one', with your own eyes, with leave you breathless. With the pleasant landscaped site of the tomb of Qin Shi, within a ten minute walk, the whole package makes for a superb day out.
4) Hong Kong – The design of every skyscraper, within Hong Kong's financial district, has been through with intricate detail. Due to the sheer volume of people, walking around maybe a little stressful; however you'll leave with a crick in your neck as you continually look up to the sky. The tram up to a viewing platform, the aviary and Hong Kong's recent history all add to its charm but I doubt any other city looks as beautiful as Hong Kong at night. Be warned, Hong Kong island is a lot bigger than you might think and a good week would be required to see all this place has to offer.
5) The Shanghai Formula One – Okay not strictly a site but I enjoyed myself no less here than visiting any of the above. Due to the track’s design you can see almost all of the action from any seat. Add to this the cheap ticket cost, the easy tube link from the city and the fact that Shanghai has an international airport and you have the recipe for a great weekend. The only negative is that Formula One doesn't seem that popular within China and so the atmosphere isn't as electric as other tracks.
Below I'll delve into the different aspects of traveling within China:
Accommodation is a steal at, on average, £2.50 per night for a dorm room. All hostels are unbelievably clean, have great facilities and most are affiliated to 'Hosteling International' making your stay even cheaper. The best thing about hostels has to be the staff; always helpful, no question seems too much and they will write anything you request within Chinese. Without the staff at the hostels I have no idea how I would have traveled around China.
The train is king. There are many different seats ranging from a hard seat to a soft sleeper. Whereas the hard seat may seem a steal at 1/3 of the price of a soft sleeper it could be seen as a false economy. With a soft sleeper you get a waiting room, within the train station, where it's easy to identify when, and where, your train will be leaving. If you purchase a hard seat then outside of the station is where you'll have to wait and information is rarely communicated. Once on the train, within a soft sleeper birth you have the luxury of sharing with only three other people; if you opt for the hard option the carriage is open and you could be sharing with fifty. Add to this that with cheaper seats comes poorer people and, what should be a pleasant ride, might turn into a nightmare as you worry about your possessions, try to keep out of the way of huge bundles of farm produce and queue for hours at the only toilet.
Buses seem the same as anywhere else within the world; the sleepers are a little more refined that within South East Asia however shoes have to be removed before boarding. The speed is generally good and the leg room seems adequate. Mini-vans are rarely used for long distances and are more confined to day trips.
Flying within China is cheap and, if strapped for time, is a viable option. 'Ctrip' is a good website to book through but be warned, with so many flights some do get canceled.
Overall traveling within China is pleasant though be prepared to leave a lot of time. Even though you hear stories of China building the 'worlds longest bridge', or the 'fastest rail line' most of the network requires patience with many delays and cancellations; days, rather than hours, are needed.
When I'd left the sweat box of South East Asia I'd hoped that, traveling north, meant cooler days. This occurred on the east coast – with Shanghai being very cold at times – but the further west I went the hotter it became. Chengdu seemed hotter than Hanoi and my shorts had to make a reappearance; the south-western province of Yunnan was a little cooler, than its northern neighbour, but that's because of it's high altitude.
China was a lot cheaper than I expected. Accommodation was stupidly cheap and the trains, considering the distances, were good value for money. A flight to anywhere within China always seemed to be around the £100 mark and, considering the size of the country, the price could be justified. Food was mixed depending on what you wanted; forgetting taste a plate of noodles could cost around £1. Want something a little more interesting and you're looking at £3/£4. Attractions were stupidly expensive making me choose carefully what to see and what to avoid. A student card – whether real or fake – would have proved very beneficial as most entrance fees were halved or became free.
My biggest annoyance, and yet once of my favorite aspects of China, the population could seem to be so disgusting and then so friendly within a heartbeat. The sheer size of the Chinese population is the first problem; hit any major city and trying to find a peaceful spot is impossible. Transport, attractions and main shopping streets are packed leaving you unable to move without hitting someone's shoulder. The fact that the Chinese like to travel in huge tour groups means, once the coaches have been sighted, I often calculate whether the attraction is still worth seeing. Like their South East Asian cousins most Chinese seemed to have had their common sense removed from birth; when driving they rarely look in any direction apart from straight, they go through red lights without concern, take up the whole pavement and push until they can push no more. It's mind boggling how a nation who built the Great Wall cannot work out why walking towards oncoming traffic, if there isn't a pavement, might prove beneficial.
Spitting on the streets and spitting within transport stations is disgusting and not needed. I disagree that this is apart of China's culture as the young seem to do it less than the middle aged or the elderly. The children here wear trousers with slits at the back; as they walk you can see their bottoms and not only is it humiliating but the fact that they're designed to allow children to relieve themselves anywhere (and they do relieve themselves anywhere; footpaths, buses, gardens etc) is beyond belief. Both of these aspects have made me leave my 'open-toed' sandals firmly within the bottom of my bag.
English is rarely spoken from somebody older than twenty meaning that getting around, or getting what you want, is a mission. Going into McDonald's and receiving two 'Chicken sandwich meals', rather than a large 'Chicken nugget meal', should show you just how hard communicating is. I tried to avoid doing things that weren't important as the hassle, plus time, would out weigh the benefit gained. Staring, from the elderly in particular, is frustrating and hearing laughing, as you pass people by, always leaves a sour taste within your mouth. Around Yunnan the staring wasn't so bad but in other provinces people almost walked into bins, lampposts and crossed through red lights as all their concentration was firmly focused at me. I don't know why, surely they have seen plenty of white people; if not ... watch TV!
Pushing seems to be another favourite of the old; seeing no problem in gaining a few places, at the expense of their fellow citizens, the old will push through the tiniest gap thinking nothing of pushing people over, even women with children. It's a barbaric act that seems completely the reverse of what communism should stand for. However, go into a park and all the above seems to be left at the gates. The old either join their individual exercise groups, or play cards, or play Chinese chess at a number of tea houses. Their voices seem to lower and spitting rarely occurs; parks are the only location where I've enjoyed their company.
Having said all this the young are China's saving grace; very polite, with a basic understanding of English, they seem to be inquisitive wanting nothing more than to ask a few questions and practice their English. You still have to be on your guard but most seem genuine and the offer of drinks, paying for rides and helping you out with translations makes me hopeful that China, given another thirty years, will become an excellent place to visit.
The only traits both age groups seem to share are, I'm afraid, negative. Eating with their mouth open is horrible and they seem to take pleasure in trying to make as much noise as possible. Speaking of noise the Chinese seem unable to be quiet; either they're shouting to the person next to them, they're shouting down their phone or they're just shouting but parks, hikes and temples are ruined by the constant droning sound. Smoking doesn't seem to be a social taboo and it doesn't even occur to them that smoking in someone’s face, or leaving your ash all over a PC keyboard, might seem inappropriate.
Stories of China building the tallest building, the longest bridge or the biggest theme park consume global newspapers and yet, with all that boasting, most of the countries infrastructure is average at best. The train network seems slow and some roads are unpaved; but on a whole both are adequate if a little time consuming. Plumbing is up to the same standard as the rest of Asia; hostels are well equipped with modern facilities and with free wireless internet access everywhere – though being able to connect is another story – is extremely beneficial.
The government seems determined to block parts of the internet; it would appear that this is a power trip the government is on and some blocked sites seem illogical. It's true that this blog has been blocked, since I crossed the boarder, and yet my blogs have been posted. Many Chinese students have asked to swap Facebook details and so there are ways around the government’s ridiculous attempt at blocking free speech. One way, which I used a lot, was a website called 'remain hidden' (http://www.remainhidden.com/) though I'm sure that there are others.
Signs within China are comical. Signs translated into English are located everywhere but it seems the Chinese have chosen which signs to translate. Sometimes their choices have been beneficial; road names, with a north, south, east or west direction printed on them, have helped me a lot but train station names, attraction names and signs to said attractions all remain in Chinese. I've found no end of 'entrance', 'mind your head' and 'slippy floor' signs all of which I could have worked out for myself; what I really wanted to know is if the train station in front of me is the north, or the south, station.
The food within China has been a huge disappointment. At first it was hard to find Chinese restaurants, let alone communicate with the staff, and once found the food was bland and uninteresting. For a while McDonald's, KFC and Subway became my standard food outlets but as I moved into the province of Yunnan menu's started to be translated into English. I tried the hot pot, noodles and rice dishes expecting the spicy sauces from home but it rarely came; the most tasteful Chinese dish I consumed came from either a pot noodle or from western dishes; the Chinese seem to be able to cook an excellent pizza. I knew that the UK Chinese take-away had been altered to fit English tastes but I never realised just how much; the food within Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia was so much nicer.
Driving is impossible, within China, as a tourist is forbidden to get behind the wheel. This is a good thing as China's ability to drive is similar to South East Asia. Once more notice is rarely given to traffic lights and scooters drive on the road, or on the pavement, depending on which seems faster. There seems to be a culture within China that 'if I don't get caught it's not wrong' and that is no more evident than when watching them drive. There are 'traffic helpers' at every major intersection but they are ignored by pedestrians, and vehicles, a like as both try to weaving their way around the other.
Would I come back?
I'm planning too! However next time I would stay clear of the east and inner parts of China. For me there are too many people to make it worth the effort; if I do come back then I'll visit the province Yunnan – as it's beautiful – before heading into Tibet and then the barren northern provinces of China.
Would I recommend China to others?
Yes but I would recommend spending as little time as possible within Beijing, Shanghai, Xi'an and Chengdu and spending as much time within the province of Yunnan. See the Great Wall, see the Terracotta Warriors but make it quick and then relax within Yunnan where you can actually escape the crowds.
China is a mixed country of the old and the new, the good and the bad. The range of extremes are wide and this can make the country extremely infuriating and brilliant at the same time. Currently it would appear that the Chinese government isn't interested in foreign tourism; with the lack of English signs, the difficulties in traveling around and the uncivilised actions of there older residents China, at first, can seem to have been a bad holiday destination. However, given time and patience, the country will open to you and, with the young seeming so civilised, I have hope that within the next thirty years foreign tourism will be seen as important as internal.