Arriving by boat from Korea, our first real impression of China was to walk out of the port in Qingdao and find ourselves on a dual carriageway. Above our heads was another road on a flyover. The only traffic on the vast expanse of tarmac was a single tiny motorbike powered truck, which despite the abundance of road space did its level best to run us down.
The minimal traffic turned out to be an anomaly, as Beijing’s streets would show us later that day, but the unashamedly homicidal driving was not. Owning a car is a relatively recent opportunity in China, but Chinese drivers already show an impressive mastery of their lethal potential.
Across the road, we were in Qingdao proper, and here there were all sorts of wonderful things to see. And all the more wonderful after a nice refreshing brush with certain death.
China wasn’t all hulking utilitarian modernity and trample-others-at-will hurry!
This China was something like the China of my imagination. Bustling streets were full of people shopping, or sat eating on little plastic stools. At every corner a truck piled high with produce was parked, fruit and vegetables spilling out onto dusty streets, and a brisk trade was done at the tailgate. At one intersection a crowd clamoured for huge leafy cabbages, at another leeks and apples, at the next oranges.
The impression I got walking through old Qingdao was that this was the real China. Ancient and bustling, winding streets, simply dressed people slurping noodles on low stools.
The next six weeks would dismantle this conceit entirely. Not just in its particulars, but in the idea that there’s any such thing as the real China at all. I still can’t make sense of what China is, and isn’t. I’m not sure the Chinese know either.
China is overwhelming…
We weren’t yet ready, after Korea and Japan’s polite orderliness, to dive into the shouting, spitting style of commerce that was occurring at every turn. We should have got some lunch, we were about to get on a three hour train to Beijing. But we had absolutely no idea what anything was, or which buildings might be serving food. There were kitchens open onto the street, all blackened pots and clanging stoves, some with stools out in front. But what was in the pots? The smells were all new. And as I would soon learn, vegetarian isn’t really a thing in China. You need to eat meat for your yang, or possibly your yin. It’s very important anyway.
So we emerged from the smells and sounds of the small streets, and onto the wide station square. This was different again, a bit of gold grim communist grandeur, some tacky souvenir stands, a view of skyscrapers, crowds dressed in dull colours, women in orange skinny jeans and faux fur jackets, families with kids in flashing-lights trainers, old European buildings, construction work, dust.
What is China?!?
Once on the Beijing train I took to staring out of the window. There’s nothing quite as mesmerising as a first journey in a country you’ve never been to before. I found the same thing on our first train ride in Japan. So many questions, so many new people, houses full of lives that I have very little concept of. It gives me a sense of wonder I find hard to come by any other way.
The train seats were so comfy that I kept dozing off (nothing to do with the beer). Every time I woke the view was different. Dusty plains sprouting cranes and half built concrete apartment blocks, then shiny high rise cities, completely disorientating because I’d never heard of these places. How could I have never heard of somewhere so big and heavily developed? But then there were rice paddies divided by scraggly trees, and roads only occupied by tuk tuks and bicycles. The occasional tumbledown single storey house. Then a near empty stretch of wide dusty highway. Row after row of identikit brand new houses. A whole world of different places, but everywhere dust.
I was confused.
Before arriving, my impression of China, as of everywhere I’ve only visited in my imagination, came largely from novels. I’d read enough tales set here to have an idea of it, a landscape and a soundscape, a pace.
The land I was gazing out of the train window at was not that country. Thinking about it, this shouldn’t have come as a surprise.
I had a large China-shaped hole in my general knowledge
On reflection, I had not read any fiction set in a China any more modern than about 1920 (whether from preference or opportunity I don’t know). I certainly hadn’t studied Chinese history at school, and while I had a strongly held but vague idea that the Chinese Government was Very Bad, I tended to use this as a justification for ignoring China, rather than learning more.
In short, I’d taken my head out of its bucket long enough to know roughly what happened in Tiananmen square in June 1989, but I knew absolutely nothing else of China’s modern history.
I’d forgotten, or perhaps never known, about the Cultural Revolution. The phrase Great Leap Forward meant nothing to me but a vague image of kitchy communist posters.
If you’re less ill informed than I was you’ll know that China had an extremely tumultuous 20th Century (to put it mildly). There was plenty of bloodshed, famine, and the deliberate destruction of as much history and culture as possible. And that’s not all. Both the 20th century political regime, and the 21st century economics of China have caused environmental destruction to a degree that is hard to comprehend. I wasn’t prepared for what the long term results of all of this looks like.
Pub quiz man failed me!
Much of my recently gained knowledge about China actually came from pub quiz questions, or more accurately, a pub quiz question: Which country invented ______?
The answer is always China.
So the impression I’d formed was of a rich, mysterious culture, a wealth of creativity, deep tradition, all of that.
In truth, I wasn’t that enthusiastic about actually visiting China, because of the less than positive bits of news I occasionally heard about it. This artist imprisoned, that city blighted by air pollution, and so on.
But it wasn’t a very strongly held lack of enthusiasm, and when it became clear we’d have to cross China if we wanted to complete our round the world trip without flying, I acquiesced to the idea. We pencilled in a quick three week crossing, joining up Korea and Vietnam.
China taught me that Lonely Planet has its shortcomings
As our time in China approached, I started to think I ought to know something about the place, and I began to read. What I read though, was Lonely Planet. Much as I appreciate the Lonely Planet as a practical tool, for finding bus timetables, cash points, and post offices for example, it isn’t always that reliable when it comes to giving a sense of a place. There is a degree of unwavering positivity in their portrayals, which isn’t helpful.
So I began to read Lonely Planet. And I read of the scores of wonderful sights I could see there, majestic mountains, spectacular scenery, ancient towns. And I began to wonder why I hadn’t really considered going there before. How glad I was that circumstance was taking me there.
It was really off the back of this brand new, Lonely Planet induced enthusiasm for China that we let our planned three weeks in China expand to more than six. There were so many things we wanted to see.
Honestly, if I did it again, I’d stick with three weeks. Or I’d give it a year. Travelling China as a tourist is exhausting, and for us, it turned out to be frequently disappointing. It is not a country that rewards the ill prepared.
I can’t really blame Lonely Planet for our quickly formed and equally quickly dashed excitement for China. I should have read more. I should have planned more. But I didn’t.
Many months after we left China I came across Lost on Planet China by Maarten Troost, in a second hand bookshop in Chiang Mai in Thailand. Still baffled by our China experience, I grabbed it, and read it in about a day.
Oh how I wish I had read this before we went. It’s highly informative despite its author’s professed ignorance on Chinese history, hilarious, and resonates very strongly with our experience of travelling in China (though I can’t say we encountered as many women of mysterious intent trying to gain access to our hotel rooms).
If I’d read it before we arrived, I would have been much less disappointed. On the other hand, if I’d read it before we arrived we might not have gone at all. A realistic view of China today is not a very pretty picture.
The moral? Go with no expectations, or go with low expectations. But mainly, go.
I’m so glad we went, shortcomings, foul air, and disappointments aside. China is difficult, but it’s a whole other world to anywhere else. It’s different. Really really different. Basically it makes no sense at all. If anywhere will get you to question everything you think you know about the world, China will.
And isn’t that what travel’s for?
Plenty more on China (warts and all) coming up in the next few weeks…