A TRIP TO THE EMPIRE OF THE MIDDLE

It’s been something like 10 years ago that I began to have an interest in China. I was really curious about that country which seemed to have a really interesting history and very different cultural norms from ours. So 2 years ago, as I had a couple of free months between 2 jobs, I decided to travel to China.

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There are 2 main aspects that motivated this travel. First, discovering the historical aspects of China, especially in the North and the Center of the country. Then, thanks to a good Chinese-speaking mate of mine who left Europe to settle down in Shanghai, enjoying the more modern cultural aspects of China.

I had almost 4 weeks to spend there, so I decided to split my trip in 2 half: First backpacking by myself in the North and the Center, then exploring Shanghai and its area with my friend.

After having read a couple of travel guides and been given some advices, I decided to follow this itinerary:

  1. Beijing : 1 week
  2. Datong, Pingyao, and Xi’an (with the train) : 5 days
  3. Shanghai : 1 week
  4. Hanghzou, Suzhou and Nanjing : 5 days

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It’s important to add that I was there in February, which is clearly not the best period to take a trip to the Empire of the Middle. Because of winter, the weather was really really cold, almost no rain, but there was a lot of freezing wind, especially in the countryside, and when there was no sun. But also because of the week off due to the Chinese New Year, which implied that a lot of monuments or shops were closed for a couple of days. But I had no choice about the period so I had to deal with it.

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Highlights to see and visit

The first half of my trip was designed to follow the main highlights left by the different ancient Chinese dynasties. I was really excited about it.

I started in Beijing. The city is so so so vast. You have to choose quite a central area where to stay, to be sure that it won’t be a pain in the ass to move to the places to visit every day. I stayed in a backpacker hostel in Dongcheng district, which was a good spot.

The historical aspects of Beijing are really impressive: the Forbidden City, the view from the Coal Hill, the Temple of Lamas, the Temple of the sky, the Summer Palace, the National Museum and of course an escape to the Great Wall up in the North. I definitely recommend visiting those incredible places. There are a lot of things to see, and because of the distances, you must have some time there. A minimum of 5 days is a good choice.

The other highly-recommended places to see that I have visited in the North and the Center of the country were the Yungang grottos and the Xuankong hanging monastery accessible from Datong, the city of Pingyao (which is one of the only medieval  town left in China, with pedestrian streets, beautiful houses and temples, and ancient walls still surrounding the city), the Muslim area of Xi’an and of course the Terracotta Army in Xi’an’s countryside. No need to describe it in details (Google is your friend if you want to check pictures), all those places are very impressive and I really enjoyed those 12 days in the North and the Center of China concerning the historical aspects.

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Then, about the second half of my trip, I took a plane to Shanghai to meet my friend, and enjoy the country in another way. A completely different trip started then.

Shanghai is a very modern city, with a lot of modern neighborhoods. An “Old Chinese Town” still exists, but it’s more a touristic area which has been quite recently renovated in an ancient style. Anyway, Shanghai was the opportunity to see another aspect of China.

There are not many places to visit in Shanghai, but I would recommend the following ones: the Propaganda Posters Museum, the Bund, the Old Town and its Yu garden, and People’s Square. And that’s it. But I found that the best aspects of Shanghai are the dynamism and activity in its central areas, and the various places where to hang out in its different neighborhoods: great restaurants with Chinese food (especially the hotpot) or others, dynamic cultural life… and good bars!

 

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Then we escaped 5 days to visit cities close to Shanghai. We visited Hangzhou and its massive lake; Suzhou, with a nice peaceful center full of canals; and Nanjing (the “capital of the South” to oppose to Beijing “capital of the North”), a beautiful old-style and very animated city where the Xiaoling tombstone and the Sun Yat-sen mausoleum can be visited.

And that’s it for the highlights!

Chinese people

I have 2 separated feelings concerning my experience with Chinese people.

The first one is quite negative and concerns the interactions implying a financial transaction I could have had with: taxi drivers, shopkeepers, tourism workers… but the worst was definitely taxi drivers. These guys will try to scam you whenever they can and they’re very good at it (I paid my first ride in taxi 5 times more than the regular price…). Chinese people are also very good at copying and reproducing stuff, and they’ll try to make you buy things (often shitty stuff) that cost them almost nothing.

Anyway, for me, as I don’t speak Chinese, unconsciously I always felt under pressure when I was traveling alone. I had to be careful about what people wanted from me and make sure there was no scam behind. It’s when I arrived in Shanghai, and when I met my Chinese-speaking friend, I realized that I felt no longer that pressure as he could handle all the tricky questions or conversations with Chinese people, and that was a real relief. But except the very first taxi trip when I arrived in Beijing, I had no bad experience for the rest of my journey.

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Because my second feedback about Chinese people is a very good one and it concerns the people in general, the one you meet in public places, in the streets, in public transport… I always tried to handle things by myself, not to do anything with a travel agency. So I always had my French-Chinese pocket dictionary, and I asked some questions to the people I met to get some help or advice. And from the beginning to the end, each and every one of them helped me.

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I took the public transport from Beijing to the Great Wall (which is not very easy and implies connections), people in the bus helped me. A guy in Beijing wrote in Chinese on my notebook all the names of places I would need until the end of my trip.

To go to the Terracotta Army from Xi’an in public transport, people on the bus provided me help. In Datong, a guy in the street took the time to write on my notebook all the sentences I would need to reach the highlights to visit in public transport and my next destinations with the train. Another random guy put me on the right bus in Datong bus station. People were really nice to me. I guess that, because it was winter, there were almost no other occidental tourists, so people were a bit curious about me.

I would just add that if people were very nice individually… the Chinese crowd is awful. There is no respect at all, people give elbow or shoulder hits when they cross each other, they spit everywhere, when there is a queue, if you leave 50cm in front of you, they would sneak in to take your place… in a people mass, they only care about themselves and that’s a bit oppressive. But if it’s shocking in the beginning, you end up getting used to it.

Apart from that, I had as well several funny experiences: on my first day in Beijing, on Tian’anmen square, a couple showed me their camera, so I thought they wanted me to take a picture, but they actually wanted a picture with me.

In the Forbidden City, some pupils from the countryside were taking pictures of me, until their teacher asked them to stop and apologized to me (that was actually funny).

When I took the train from Beijing to Datong, as it was the beginning of the Chinese New Year Holiday, the train was full and I could only get a ticket for a standing place. The train was really crowded, impossible to make a step, so I sat on my backpack (which seemed to be forbidden, considering the way the ticket inspector yelled at me and people were laughing all around). People were stuck everywhere, some of them smoking in the middle of the aisle, others passing their bowl of noodles to the guys close to the boiling water spot… And lots of people were staring at me and talking about me, as I was the only occidental person in the train. At some stage, one lad who could speak English began to talk with me, asking me a couple of questions about where I came from, where I was going, etc. Then the whole carriage stopped talking, and after my answers, the guy translated loudly to everyone in Chinese, so they could all follow the conversation. Then there were lots of “Oh” or “Aha” everywhere… that was a bit crazy but very funny.

The same thing happened in a street of Pingyao, where a Chinese woman asked me a couple of questions in English about what I was doing here. And then people started to gather all around. So in the end, about 20 people were around me, listening to her translating my answers. That was funny as well. To sum up, as soon as a personal contact is established, Chinese people get really nicer and more respectful than they are in the crowd.

Other positive aspects

There are 2 other positive aspects of my trip that I would like to mention.

First, and I talked about it a bit earlier, it’s the historical aspect. There are lots and lots of monuments, temples or museums to visit, and if the history is often orientated according to the current communist government, it’s still interesting to see all of the various places I wrote about previously.

Then, the other good surprise was Chinese food. I didn’t expect a lot from it, but I had great meals in China. I had the best dumplings of my life in Beijing, Hotpots restaurants in Shanghai were delicious, and Uighur food in Xi’an was original and very good as well. I admit that there is also weird stuff (fully fried crabs, fetus chick in eggs, stinky tofu…), but if you chose well, you can have a great experience with Chinese gastronomy.

Negative aspects

I would finish with a negative aspect of the trip, and it’s about politics. I don’t want to make this feedback political, but it has to be said. Chinese people from low social classes suffer of misery, of lack of hygiene and of rough life conditions. Even if there has been a “cosmetic effort” for the Olympics games of 2012 in Beijing, the large majority of Chinese people live in indecent conditions. Pollution is everywhere: in the air (one day in Beijing I couldn’t see beyond 100m), in the water (which is not drinkable on tap) and sometimes even in the food.

There are also a lot of security constraints, especially in Beijing, and you have to be careful about what you do and what you say. Never criticise the political system in public places or online, the internet is controlled and you can’t access to Google or social media not controlled by the government, the metro in Beijing is highly secured (X-ray radar at the entrance of each station, no glass or anything sharp in the bag, security agents on each metro quay whistling and yelling at people to maintain order)… It can be bothering, but that’s how the Chinese communist system is, and if you want to go there, you have to deal with it, no choice, it’s like that. And even if there’s a big difference between Chinese internal communist and international liberal policies, as Deng Xiao Ping justifies it in 1978 “No matter if the cat is black or white, as long as he catches the mouse”.

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Conclusion

To finish and synthesize a bit, I would say that I really enjoyed my trip to China. Despite some negative aspects linked to the current political system (misery in low social classes, pollution, authoritarian political system…) that I will never neglect in a feedback of my trip, there were many great aspects which deserve to be discovered in the country, especially concerning history, culture, food and interactions with local people.

I definitely recommend taking a trip to China, to see it by your own eyes and to make your own mind about it. I actually liked that trip so much that I have already planned to go back there in the years to come, but this time in the South. Maybe the cat will have changed color by then… or maybe not!

Bonus : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dq8_dG5Hmzc

Luc G.

 

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