China isn’t really a country that has been plied to pieces by the never-ending gaggle of western backpackers in this part of the world. One tends to flock instead to the pubs, clubs and beaches of Thailand et al.
This is, perhaps, for a number of reasons.
China is huge: too much to see, too much to do, too little time.
China is expensive: food is dearer, as are drinks and transport is pricey as well.
China is dirty: the greatest Asian power is renowned for its abominable air quality, particularly in its sprawling capital city, Beijing.
China is Chinese: No-one, that being no-one, speaks a word of English.
China is home of the Chinese: they are rude, unhelpful, hostile, and can’t hold a candle to the open arms and generosity of the South-East Asian nations.
China doesn’t have a ‘gringo trail’: there’s no real fixed route that the few backpackers who come here take; this couldn’t be more different to South-East Asia or South America, where you learn very quickly, far too quickly, that everyone goes to the same places, does the same things, and invariably bumps into the same people in different places.
We’re fed many a scare story or theory about the country, its people and the quality of life there.
The above list, while containing some truths, is largely misleading.
This four-month-long journey from Myanmar to Moscow being my first ‘proper’ backpacking trip abroad, I definitely still see myself as a novice backpacker, but nevertheless I will attempt to debunk the Chinese myths listed above in an effort to improve the understanding of this, in my opinion, much maligned country, particularly by western powers who have had their time in the sun, and must now accept and embrace the new kid on the block.
1. China is huge.
A country is only as big as its transport network is inadequate, and, despite being geographically enormous, with 1.3 billion people to ferry from place to place, China must have a world-class transport network in place so that China, and indeed the rest of the world, doesn’t grind to a halt.
The upshot is a spider’s web thousands of kilometres wide and thousands of kilometres long of railway, with train stations as big as airports and potentially handling more people per day than some major European hubs.
They’re good trains as well. The bullet trains (God I could go on and on and on about them – I’m in love with them) are indescribably fantastic, but even the slower trains stopping at the smaller, regional stations, are clean and mostly quiet.
Except for the toilets. They are foul.
And locals answering phone calls by yelling “WEI?!” down the line, and yelling the entire conversation, does get tiresome.
Yes, and sixteen hours on a hard seat with locals coughing and spluttering and hawking up phlegm could only be described as purgatory on steroids, but I arrived in Xi’an from Zhangjiajie in one piece after a hassle-free journey.
Exploit the train network, or indeed the wide choice of domestic flights though I have not done so on this visit, and China’s expanse turns into a simple journey.
2. China is expensive.
Granted, food and alcohol are more expensive, but accommodation costs are similar to that of South-East Asia, at around $6-8 per night, but is considerably cheaper than
Transport is also more expensive, but that comes with the distances involved. However if, like me, you’re as miserly as they come, sixteen hours on a hard seat in a cramped carriage is a small price to pay for only around $20.
It’s a touch more expensive than in South-East Asia, but not hideously so. Make sacrifices, and you can save yourself a lot.
Bullet trains are expensive. But they’re very, very cool. So I didn’t mind paying the money to get from Xi’an to Beijing in 4 and a half hours.
What about seeing things?
University and college-goers, you’re in luck! Many attractions, though not all, have discounts for students, which can save you quite literally a fortune.
Obviously visiting every attraction in every city will cost you, but be selective, and it won’t cost too much more than in Bangkok, and definitely less than the eye-watering $62 three-day ticket to Angkor Wat.
And if you’re happy to just amble around with neither direction nor purpose, then no matter where you are in the world, that is free, until the time comes when you have to refuel.
Food-wise, eating out and drinking at basic eateries is more expensive than other countries I have visited since 1st February. But again, not hideously so.
Street food on the other hand is cheap and full of choice and flavour.
Muslim Quarter in Xi’an, I’m thinking of you.
And if you don’t mind giving bars a miss, get a big bottle of Chinese beer for around 50 cents from a corner shop, and find somewhere to sit down.
Or smuggle it back to the hostel. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone.
Souvenir-wise, this depends entirely on what you buy. Cheap crap will be cheap and crap. Expensive goods will be expensive but good. Simple.
3. China is dirty
This is perhaps what has shocked me the most about coming to China.
I was expecting to see cooling tower after cooling tower, factory after factory belching out enormous plumes of toxic gas.
I was expecting to see piles of rubbish in fields and on streets because no-one can be bothered to take pride in, and clean up the enviroment.
I was expecting to not see blue skies for 23 days.
Only, and only then, once I neared the notoriously polluted Beijing did the power stations and cooling towers start making an appearance. Other than then, I saw perhaps only one or two between landing in Guangzhou and leaving Xi’an some two weeks later.
The only litter on the roads in Guilin was the odd black bin bag filled with rubbish. The centre of Xi’an on the other hand was totally devoid of any rubbish, any dust, any dirt, any imperfection, any noticeable pollution, and this is in one of China’s biggest cities.
Teams of four in high-viz orange overalls would sweep every few minutes down the main road in Xi’an’s famous Muslim Quarter with one at the front holding a megaphone blaring an alarm to get people out the way, and then three others walking behind with makeshift brooms.
Litter bins, with separate compartments for recyclable and non-recyclable, stood every 50m or so down the main roads of the city centre.
Xi’an was cleaner, quieter, more cosmopolitan than Paris, than London, than Stockholm, than Washington DC, than, dare I even say it, Germany?
I enjoyed day after day of glorious sunshine and clear blue sky in Guilin, Zhangjiajie (except for two days of rain), and Xi’an.
Beijing was grey, hazy and polluted, however, but this is well-documented. The morning after I visited Tiananmen Square (amid very high security) and the Forbidden City, I woke up with a headache, sore throat and itchy nose. The air quality in Beijing is appalling. It was particularly bad that day as a dust storm was lingering over the whole city. Cars were coated in fine, sandy particles. And so were my lungs.
To walk around Beijing and see human beings going about their everyday lives with a mask on their face like some post-apocalyptic film, was distressing.
It was above all just plain sad. This is not how we should live.
I have been told under good authority of a South African who has lived in China for nine years that during a red alert in winter, the pollution would be so thick that you couldn’t see more than 10-15m in front of you.
Having said that, if the wind picks up and the sun is shining, Beijing is blessed with clear blue sky. It isn’t always as I describe above.
Blue sky does happen in Beijing. I wonder if my ex-form tutor is reading. He told me the opposite.
Sorry Sir, you’re wrong!
Thankfully the Chinese government is being pro-active in tackling the destruction of the environment, recognising that if remaining unchecked, China may pass the point of no return as far pollution is concerned.
Two-stroke motorcycles, the most polluting of all vehicles, have been banned. 95% of bikes you see on the road are electric and silent. This causes its own problems when you try and cross a road and can’t hear any traffic coming.
More and more electric cars are also taking to the streets. Again, these bloody brilliant bullet trains, are electric, clean and quiet.
And where do they get the electricity from?
Naturally, as with many western nations, this is where the fossil fuels come in. However, even here things are changing.
Wind-turbines are cropping up here and there. The rivers flowing down from way up high on the Tibetan Plateau provide China with awesome hydroelectric potential.
And we wonder why China is so ruthless in making sure Tibet stays Chinese?
That is a big part of the reason why.
The notion espoused back home that everywhere in China east of the Himalayas is choking under the blanket of its own exhaust fumes is simply not true.
But Beijing is bad.
4. China is Chinese
Well obviously it is. But there is a more serious point.
You can still get around China without speaking a word of Chinese; they have bilingual signs in big train stations and airports.
Metro systems also cater for non-Chinese speakers in the same way, as do ATMs.
The problems start to arise when conversing with locals, who more often than not have a very limited grasp of English, if any.
Preempt asking for prices, and get the calculator app ready on your phone so they can type in how much they want; preempt taxi-rides, and get the address of hostels in Chinese; preempt buying train tickets, and ask the receptionist at your hostel to write on a scrap of paper what you need in Chinese to give to the clerk at the station; or do your own research and write your own little note, making sure any person working in any train station in the world could decipher it.
Or, a radical idea, learn Chinese.
This is by no means a serious suggestion. But whatever country I am in I make a point of at the very least learning how to say “Hello”, and “Thank You” in the local tongue.
And the more words you know, the easier communication becomes.
You are visiting their country, their city, their shop, their restaurant. I strongly believe you should have the common courtesy and decency to spend the one minute learning how to say the most basic phrases in the language of the country you are in. To not do so would be ignorant and downright rude.
Communication, especially when the only common language is gesticulation, is a two-way street: the local should not abuse the language barrier by quoting higher prices because the tourist doesn’t understand; and the tourist should be courteous and graceful by showing the slightest effort to adapt to a foreign culture, system and tongue.
If you do that, then the language barrier shouldn’t be much of a barrier at all.
5. China is home to the Chinese.
Again, this should be obvious.
The stereotype is that the Chinese are rude and unhelpful.
As mentioned already, the spitting, phlegm-hawking, coughing, burping, slurping, yelling, pushing and shoving is annoying and unpleasant. And also pretty revolting.
Learn to ignore it, put it in the “experience book” and get over yourself. It’s what they do here. Deal with it.
I should tell myself that more often.
With regards to being unhelpful and hostile, I have experienced this only once: I dropped my money clip in Zhangjiajie train station and couldn’t bend down to pick it up for reasons that aren’t important. I gestured to a man to my left if he could pick it up and hand it to me, despite him having seen I had dropped it and couldn’t pick it up. He kicked it in my rough direction and went back to being a prick.
Thankfully another person then helped instead.
All other locals I have conversed with, be it a Chinese family at the same hostel as I in Hanoi who offered to get me tea or coffee when I still couldn’t walk well after my motorbike crash; students from a language school at a barbecue; hostel receptionists who couldn’t speak a word of English giving me a gadget to help get my walking boots dry; or just an old man in Guangzhou South train station who wanted to practise his English, and in return gave me tea leaves, biscuits and an egg, have been just as warm and open as in South-East Asia, perhaps even more so?
I get the impression that some locals in South-East Asia wish that we’d just go away, and have tired of tourism, particularly those who work in that industry.
Not so in China. Absolutely no way.
6. Backpackers don’t go there.
Why should this stop you?
Have an adventure.
Do something different.
I hope I’ve cleared up some of the stereotypes and preconceptions that I certainly had, perhaps also you had, of China.
I hope I’ve convinced you to consider China as a new, exciting, different and developing backpacker nation.
Go and visit. It’s not what you would expect.