I’ve been meaning to wrap up China with one final post for a while now. At the moment I’m sitting on a plane that is taking us to our final destination in Chile. The Andes are blinding in the midday sun outside my window. I’m excited for Atacama, but I’m going to take this opportunity of little distraction to finally get this post written, and will post when we arrive at San Pedro. 🙂
All about expectations
When we started our trip, China was high on Roman’s list, but not on mine. For some reason I didn’t have much emotional connection to the country. All I could picture were mammoth, concrete cities full of faceless, pushy people. I expected it would be intellectually interesting but nothing more.
We loved our time in southeast Asia, and the Buddhism-infused countries we visited and people we met were quick to melt my heart.
Everything changed when we got to Vietnam, a country that (we had read) was heavily influenced by its big neighbor to the north, China. A different religion, a different culture, different values and very different experiences for us after gentle Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. We couldn’t connect to the people or the place, and we left with a bad taste in our mouths, and with apprehension about our next destination – China. If Vietnam, influenced by Chinese culture, was like this, would China be similar? We braced ourselves prior to getting there – for people to be pushy or insensitive, for a higher crime rate than we’d experienced before Vietnam, for being unable to communicate, for massive, characterless cities.
Something I’ve been slowly realizing in my life, and definitely learning more and more during this big trip of ours, is that expectations are pretty ridiculous things. At least for me. Basically, nothing I have ever anticipated has come to pass the way I had pictured it.
When I worry about bad things possibly happening (which is more often I care to admit and definitely more often than is helpful), they consistently never happen.
(On the plus side, I can now comfort myself when my over active imagination comes up with awful scenarios – my projections are always wrong so this terrible thing I am involuntarily worrying about definitely won’t occur. Sometimes this application of logic actually kind of works. I’m viewing this as progress. ;-))
When I have a specific vision of something that I view as positive – birthday parties, life plans, a particular destination in our travels – I’m always wrong about that as well, and my specific expectations get in the way and ruin what could other wise be a lovely experience by me spending all my energy comparing reality to the wish list in my head.
I am getting better at simply banishing – or at least somewhat ignoring – the expectations I build up for myself. But back when we were leaving Vietnam for China, I was too caught up in the fear. Luckily for China, this was a case of negative expectations, and the country could only end up being better than my worst-case-scenario vision. Which is totally what happened.
I am still surprised and delighted by how much I loved China. The two big cities we visited – Beijing and Shanghai – didn’t excite me as much, but they were hardly the soulless, depressing, aggressive megapolises (megapolisi?? what’s the plural???) I had envisioned.
I was amazed at the friendliness and openness of the Chinese people we encountered. Language was not nearly as big of an issue as I expected. The country isn’t as set up for English-language tourists as southeast Asia, but it is certainly manageable to get around – at least to the places we visited. And even when people didn’t speak a word of English, they still were willing to find a way to communicate and help.
Challenges and awe
There were two things I hadn’t anticipated at all that stand out for me when I think back to our time in China.
The first is China’s astoundingly gorgeous nature. Time spent in some of those amazing landscapes was like balm to my soul. The rice terraces of Dazhai, the karst landscape of Yangshuo, the astounding Tiger Leaping Gorge, and don’t even get me started about Xinjiang (province of like a hundred million posts on this blog. :-P).
The second is the incredible variety of the “Chinese” people. The richness and diversity of its “minority” peoples is in my opinion one of the country’s greatest treasures. (I’ve mentioned before I’m not too keen on that word but it’s what is commonly used in China, in the guidebooks, basically everywhere and I’m not sure what a better term would be…)
Unfortunately, it’s a treasure that is being exploited and potentially destroyed. It’s a complex topic that I have no authority to expound on. People rightly have strong feelings about what’s happening to Tibetan, Uyghur and other cultures in China. I can’t speak to the politics and economics, as I don’t know enough. I want to careful not to paint the picture in black and white, casting China as the big, awful bad guy when I don’t know the full situation, and I can say from experience that so many of the Chinese people we met were SO lovely. Like America, there is a distinct difference between the normal people living there and the country’s official policies.
But I do know that it feels wrong and like something amazing is being lost. Whether it’s the old city area of Kashgar in Xinjiang that is literally being torn down, or the “Disneyfication” of places like Lijiang.
Plenty of useless crap to buy in the touristy part of Yangshuo
Mass tourism for locals was something new for us in Asia. There are wealthy Indian tourists in India. But for the most part, the average Indian doesn’t have the opportunity to travel the country like we did. In southeast Asia, the vast majority of tourists are western. China is a whole different thing though.
Have an “authentic” Tibetan experience and make sure you have the photo to prove it!
There is a middle class that is eager to go out and discover its country, and there is a huge industry that is ready to cater to and make money off of these people. Places that are of cultural and historic interest have been or are being transformed into ready-made, pre-packaged experiences that people can achieve a minimum amount of time. Tour buses, packed to the gills, shuttle from point of interest to point of interest, where the standard photos are snapped, cheap trinkets are purchased from people in traditional garb, a local specialty is consumed, and another item on the tourist to-do-list can be checked off before it’s back on the bus for the next stop.
Sun glasses for sale along side prayer beads and sacred thangkas at the ancient Tibetan monastery outside Zhongdian
I can’t hate on people who are eager to explore their own country in a way that makes sense for them. But the plastic-feeling tourist spots we encountered do feel like simultaneous erosion and exploitation of culture and people. And I can’t help but find it tremendously tacky.
No visit to Xi’an is complete without a photo along side authentic looking terra cotta warriors! (I actually got told off for taking this photo 🙂 )
My advice if you are traveling to China is to do your best to get beyond these places. In some cases, it’s as easy as simply walking a few blocks beyond the tourist areas, like in Yangshuo or Zhongdian. Glimpses of local, every-day life were among the most enjoyable and interesting things about our travels through China. Try to avoid places during peak tourist season. Take mass tourism with a grain of salt (at the same time as I disliked it I also marveled at it as an interesting phenomenon of current Chinese culture). And take comfort that some places seem at least to get the balance right. Pingyao, for example, is certainly about tourism but still managed to feel very genuine to me. And try to be an informed and aware visitor when possible.
So, that’s my mini-rant on mass tourism. 🙂
Random nerd stuff
I was still being ambitious and trying to read up about places’ histories when we went to China. I got through some of John Kay’s China: A History and found it accessible but I admit I had a tough time having enough context or willpower to keep track of place and people names. Ultimately, the book was simply too massive for me, at least to read while also traveling. After all, China’s history is massive.
If you are looking for an intro to Chinese history in more bite-sized packages, I can recommend Laszlo Montgomery’s “The China History Podcast”. It does exactly what it says on the box. Montgomery’s tone is delightfully sardonic (not about Chinese history; I suspect he has that attitude about life in general :-)), he seems to really know what he’s talking about and the podcasts are interesting and not overwhelming. And they’re a great way to pass time during long bus/train/plane rides.
Although I have already forgotten most of the Chinese I learned (but look! I can prove that I did learn something!!), especially that I am trying to learn Spanish at the moment, I am really glad we took classes. It wasn’t the most practical thing but it was fun to have at least a few words and some more insight into the language and culture. I would totally recommend taking a crash course, and can also strongly recommend Omeida, where we studied. The podcast “Chinese survival phrases” wasn’t bad for double checking pronunciation on those key sentences like asking for the bill, and I found this website useful when studying at Omeida as well to look up words and check pronunciation.