China will remain to me a place shrouded in illusions, stereotypes and smog. The stereotypes about a country of such size and great population must contain a grain of truth, even if it’s true only about a small sample of a few million. Yet, instead of falling slave to the media’s portrayal and others’ opinions, why don’t we go there and see for ourselves?
After a month in Beijing I had begun to take everything rather calmly and could even enjoy all the little comedic situations and mishappenings. How had I gotten so far? Well, not without obstacles.
Every capital has its good and bad sides. Beijing’s population consists of many different kinds of people – and time flows differently for its twenty-something million inhabitants. Everyone is in a hurry and chaos is the status quo on the streets. I have to cross a modest crossroad consisting of three lanes in each direction daily. Yet the problem is not the number of lanes but that of the cars, trucks, buses, tricycles, bikes, carts, rickshaws, motors, even skateboarders. Everyone seems to think of their lane and direction differently. And the trajectories – well,if every trajectory of every vehicle were to be traced with paint, that crossroads would be a most astounding abstract masterpiece.
Even though I’ve gained a more poetic perspective on things since then, I can still remember how I felt my lifespan shorten with every crossing. This isn’t an isolated case either – traffic is like this everywhere in Beijing, especially around the second ring road. Why yes, Beijing is surrounded by several concentric ring roads; I’ve seen seven of them, and switching between them can take ages during rush hour.
I don’t know when rush hour begins or ends in Beijing, or Shanghai for that matter.
They say it has a time range, but after that last vitiating traffic jam at 11 P.M., I rather doubt rush hour ever ends. One isn’t sure when or if or where one might arrive with ground transport, and the underground just isn’t good enough, even if you’re willing to walk to finish the adventure that you started. Rush hour is simply a way of life, and the faster one acquaints oneself with its laws and proportionalities, the less one will have to admire it from the interior of a taxi. Speaking of which, there is a lack of taxis in Beijing. During rush hour even recklessly standing in the middle of a street amidst speeding objects, motor-powered and otherwise, and willingly haggling for a price that is actually higher than what the taxi’s meter might show, is not enough to get you one of those fabled rides.
At first we took 34 minutes to catch a cab, then we managed to reduce it to 10, sometimes we even got one immediately but that doesn’t exactly solve the lack of taxis. The drivers, though, need only the address in big enough Chinese letters and a motivating distance (a short one could still work). Rarely will someone try to ignore the taxi meter without some preliminary arrangement. As a bonus this honesty is accompanied by fun radio programs in Chinese or karaoke songs!
Shanghai’s shiny malls entice thousands of shopping maniacs with their even shinier products. We didn’t really go shopping – the shopping came to us. Already while getting on our first subway train, in the big underpass of the Shanghai Railway Station, we beheld a huge bazaar, almost a kilometer long – a kilometer of stalls with products ranging from cheap electronics to cheap underwear. Such an opportunity, given to us by fate – our hotel was not close to any such underground shopping heaven – was not to be ignored. We added a spare battery of a promising brand and several tens of silicon socks to our luggage. Like anyone else, we also sought the perfect proportion of price and quality, and so we found ourselves engaging in negotiation with some vendors, who had been fooled by our Western visages. Still, full shopping bags and not-so-empty wallets feel good. So that is how we shopped a bit in the capital of shopping – Shanghai.
Leaving the big cities, we headed to Yunnan province and Kunming Airport.
It turns out that this small provincial city hides some surprises yet, be it the architectural wonder that was the airport, or our pomelo lunch. Our guide must have been bemused at our foolishness – our lunch cost him relatively little, despite the prices at the airport. We found accommodation next to the Kunming student district, which turned out surprisingly pleasant, full of life and bars, in which one spoke (exclusively) Chinese. We also happened upon the best street barbeque, where we once again stole the show, and where we could not avoid the tons of spice on the food skewers. Supper was a combination of a skewered dish of unknown animals (vegetables?) and cake bread. At least we knew how to buy iced beer. At least we had mastered the art of buying cold beer.
We visited several natural points of interest like the amazing Stone Forest, which slowly transitioned into the rumble of a train headed to Dali.
The night train was clean and even likable; we were almost sorry to only use it once. Alas, on our way both on and off the train we were forced back to reality by our mishaps. We had to fight quite a bit for a spot in the great hall of the Kunming train station, and peeling sunflower seeds couldn’t compensate for the filth and the lack of personal space. Shortly before we got off the train at 6 A.M., thousands of passengers blocked the bathrooms (figuratively and literally) to… brush their teeth. Beautiful aromas wafted around from all kinds of liquids – from water and toothpaste to instant noodles.
In Dali we had the pleasure of visiting an authentic Saturday bazaar in a small village, where – you guessed it – one could buy anything. Apart from being good traders, the people and animals there were good actors – the cormorants at Erhai Lake were playing a game of “catch fish and never eat it”.
Lijiang is another obscure town full of authentic architecture and traditions. The Naxi people are artists of great potential but little fame. On the other hand, we got to try out the local health services and were struck by the speed and professionalism of the doctors, the diagnostics and treatment itself, not to mention that the whole experience cost almost nothing (we paid only for the medicine and a symbolic fee). Apart from the illness itself and the need for an interpreter (for whose quick aid we are thankful) this was a victory in the battle between China and the dabizi (“big-nosed people” in Mandarin).
After a few more excursions into nature to beautiful places and breathtaking scenery we slowly approached the local Shangri-La or rather the Shangri-La of China.
We thought we’d reached a place of endless meditation and monastic calm, but our adventure contrasted with nature and the stereotypes. On the way to the village some old man threw himself in front of our van and we learned from a one hour quarrel involving the driver, our guide, a monk, a girl with an axe, and some other less interesting participants that even in China people purposefully throw themselves in front of cars for some yuan. Once he had his due money (we tried to film this process) the old man suddenly forgot all about his “broken” leg and skipped off along the road to find his next victim.
Our guide tried to make our time with or around him worthwhile and fun. Though he’d often sneak in some innovative compliment or fail brilliantly at being a guide, we somehow managed to accept his personality and after three days of restraining ourselves from harming him physically, we wisely gave him feedback in writing.
Guilin surprised us with its warm, humid weather and calm despite its six million inhabitants. We didn’t even get lost, thanks to a very helpful student who not only gave us directions but even personally took us to our destination. Thus we could enjoy the lively city center and the unique landscapes around – carst hills, the Li river valley, the Longji rice terraced fields. In one of the forgotten little mountain villages we were pleasantly surprised by the local women, who not only grow their hair to up to two meters, but also know how to send you off well. And so, slightly chastised, we left with smiles on our faces, and wishes for good health, we remembered again how to look positively upon the world and treasure traditions. Smiles and positivity are the right attitude towards life and the world. Come to grandma!
These moments are meant to lay bare the many faces of China – a place where everyone can find what they’re looking for. And while even a month or two are not nearly enough time to explore this vast country, it’s clear that you cannot stay bored for a single day, even if you tried.
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