Having been home for a few weeks now, I thought I would share some reflections on our trip.
Before we departed, I had a pretty disjointed mental image of what China would be. On the one hand, I envisioned an agrarian countryside; paddy fields worked by blue-overalled farmers in coolie hats. Simultaneously, I recognised China as a massive, quickly growing economy; almost all of my technology and clothes are marked, “Made In China,” so there has to be some degree of industrialisation. These were two, fairly distinct, mental pictures though, with pretty much no overlap.
In reality there was, of course, lots of overlap. From the windows of the trains we took, the countryside looks much like the UK; lots of fields (not so much of the rice around here), towns and villages and rural housing with regular industrial areas and manufacturing sites, all frequently under the shadow of power station cooling towers, or the many, many sets of apartment blocks under construction everywhere we went.
The cities themselves are not the impersonal hives of London and New York though; there is a much stronger sense of local community. While some areas have been cleared for glitzy shopping malls and high-rises, we also found much low-rise, admittedly pretty run-down, areas; people were out on the street, playing mah-jong, talking with their neighbours, selling their wares. It was good to see this juxtaposition though because, given the scale of construction going on, it’s clear this is an endangered way of life as China races to become a First World economy.
And there is already serious money around; China is a massive market for luxury cars. Bentleys, Porsches and Ferraris litter the city centres. These areas, aside from the Mandarin signage, are thoroughly Internationalised. They could be anywhere; familiar global brands selling to Anglophone consumers.
While I mourn the erosion of a distinct cultural identity, I also appreciate the entirely bi-lingual public transport systems we encountered. It makes a tourist’s life incredibly easy – although the blue-spectrum lights in the metro and adverts projected on the tunnel walls by the trains do give it rather a Bladerunner feel.
Signage was a notable thing here. There were signs everywhere, advising and warning you, but there was no consistency about whether people paid attention: No Smoking signs were obeyed. No Photography signs were roundly ignored. Every tourist site was mobbed with DSLRs and smartphones. Ritan Park, on our first day, was littered with signs warning people not to use mobile phones in thunderstorms. Go figure!?
One place where Chinese signage tends to be lacking though, is inside the tourist venues. In the UK you will typically receive a site map and the option of an on-demand audio guide. Galleries and museums fill the walls and display cases with text explaining context.
This kind of in-depth information was lacking in even the major sights of China. Displayed items are marked quite simply; e.g. “Bronze Ding Tripod. Warring States Period (475-221BC). Excavated from Zijiang Garden, Linzi District.”
The audio guides are similarly brusque. The location-based triggering of the “wafer” style guides we encountered prevents any optional content; you don’t get the chance to, for instance, “Dial 101 to hear more about this style of decoration or dial 102 to hear about how the tripod was used.”
We also found the location awareness a bit hit-and-miss too. Sometimes, one would hear a commentary and the other wouldn’t. You’d be left walking back and forward, trying to locate the spot that would trigger your guide. In the rich and varied sites of Beijing, I feel the government is missing a trick; they could easily give a deeper, more reliable experience to the interested visitor – and certainly charge a higher price for it.
The other thing that really caught my attention in China were the toilets, specifically the public toilets. Unlike most western countries, they are common, free to use and never anyone soliciting tips from you.
On the downside though they almost never provide toilet paper, hand soap or towels –an odd omission in such a crowded country, where you’d want good public hygiene. Cleanliness was also an issue, particularly in the bigger, older public spaces like Shanghai Central Station; outside the toilets, uniformed cleaners scurry to remove every piece of litter from the station concourse, but they never venture inside. There’s a grimy ambiance, augmented by the smell of sewage and cigarette smoke. Toilet cleanliness has to be the strongest negative impression I’ll take from China.
Nevertheless the people were friendly and welcoming, along with some distinct differences to folks in the UK: Spitting is common in the street. Smoking is still prevalent in public spaces. If men get warm, they roll up their shirt and expose their stomach to cool down.
War movies seem to be really popular; there was always one on TV and we passed several khaki-filled posters for Chinese-produced movies. I wondered whether that related to the sense of patriotic embattlement we detected in the English-language news. Is there some Big Brother-esque plan to keep the citizenry slightly paranoid and watchful for external enemies? I didn’t really crystallise that thought until late in my stay, so didn’t get a chance to discuss it with anyone.
Apart from inklings like that though, I found the country far more relaxed about foreign visitors than in the nineties. I don’t doubt that there’s still an iron fist inside the velvet glove, but there is a lot more velvet around. I didn’t see nearly enough of this vast country – nor am I especially qualified – to really assess the pros and cons of modern-day China. However I can report that visiting the major cities and sites is quite doable for the average tourist with a sense of adventure. Going independently to more rural areas would take more preparation, but even out in the countryside, there are tours for those who want a properly foreign adventure packaged for ease of consumption.
It’s a big country; go explore it!