The most populated land in the world. The land of communism, of high-speed trains, of emperors, of tea, of tradition. The land where stuff is made. The land that is fast-developing, fast-acquiring power, fast-causing the world to wonder, “What’s next?”
After nearly two years living and traveling in Asia, China proved to be an altogether different experience from any of the other countries I had visited and on many different levels.
I originally did not have much interest in visiting China. In my mind I pictured one massive, overpopulated gray city after another, but after spending three months in India, another living ancient civilization, I figured that China must offer a more colorful culture to visit than I had given it credit for. At the very least, I decided I could not finish a trip throughout Asia without experiencing the world’s supposed next super power.
So off I went. Gritting my teeth, I dropped the $150, one-month, single-entry visa fee required only for Americans (other countries pay significantly less) and made a basic plan to hit China’s most significant destinations. Starting with the Special Administrative Regions (SARs), I decided to fly to Macau then travel the country in a counter-clockwise manner, hitting Hong Kong, Guangzhou (Canton), Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an and Chengdu, before traveling through Tibet on way to Nepal. As always, this was a rough plan, subject to changing circumstances and interests. Sure enough, I found myself half-way dropping another $150 to extend my visa for a second month to accommodate the new destinations of Yangshuo, Wuhan, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Pingyao and Western Sichuan.
To be fair, China wasn’t entirely unlike my original expectations. I was a bit disappointed to find that China really was, in fact, often one massive, overpopulated gray city after another. While bits of the country’s glorious culture still survived (no thanks to Mao’s Cultural Revolution), I began to notice themes that repeated themselves throughout. For instance, Chinese people LOVE gardens, especially old Chinese people. It seems no matter where you find yourselves in the country, you will always come across groups of women dancing in the park, old men playing cards and mahjong, and people throughout practicing Chinese opera or musical instruments. The traditional architecture of Chinese temples, walls and buildings also repeated itself throughout the country, though I imagine to a lesser extent than what you would have found 60 years ago.
To my surprise, China was much more modern than I suspected. After months of dealing with frequent power outages, disorganization and dirty, garbage-lined streets, China was like visiting a developed country. Streets were clean, trains ran on time and modern chains like McDonalds, Starbucks and H&M popped up everywhere. Even the toilets, which though nearly all squatters, were the cleanest I’d found anywhere in Asia. That is, however, until I visited Western China, but I digress…
While these “luxuries” certainly made travel easier, there was one aspect that made China by far one of the most difficult countries through which to travel: the language barrier. Chinese people do not speak English.
No really. Chinese people do not speak English.
Furthermore, most signs and menus are written exclusively in Cantonese or Mandarin (or another Chinese dialect), making any attempt at figuring things out on your own nearly impossible. I knew going in that language would be an issue, but what surprised me the most was not that the Chinese could not speak any English but that they could barely communicate outside of their own language at all. So many times I found my efforts at speaking their language or using simple hand gestures completely in vain, even using the most seemingly-universal methods of communication. If my pronunciation did not sound exactly the way it does when they speak, the Chinese had no idea what I was saying. Simple gestures, like indicating locations on maps, mimicking the action of rolling on deodorant or pointing to an actual tissue in request for more left me only with a series of blank looks. I remember having a 10-minute “discussion” with a cab driver once in the beginning of my trip where he tried to tell me I needed to pay an additional 2 RMB for my cab fare. Instead of writing down the number two or indicating two with his fingers or a variety of other creative methods of communication, he simply said the word for “two” louder using the Chinese hand gesture repeatedly. I found this method of repetition, volume and fervor frequently throughout my travels in China (except near Tibet), like there was a total incomprehension that people could actually not understand their language.
All I can say is thank goodness for the bilingual friends I made throughout my travels and the Lonely Planet. I soon gave up any attempts at speaking and learned simply to point to the phrase I wanted in guidebook and hope for the best.
In addition to development, my method of traveling throughout China also made for an entirely different experience than the rest of my travels. After months of staying in cheap guest houses in both Southeast Asia and India, I decided instead to CouchSurf my way throughout China and save some money.
CouchSurfing is the greatest idea ever.
Basically, CouchSurfing is an international travelers’ network where people from different countries open up their homes to host travelers free of cost. While the network is ideal for those who have little money to spend on accommodation, the main idea of CouchSurfing is to break down cultural barriers to allow people of different backgrounds to share each other’s experiences on a more intimate level. While it may sound dangerous, the website’s highly-detailed profile system requires all members to fill out thorough information about themselves and what they’re offering and also contains a very comprehensive reference system where people can leave positive or negative reviews about the other CouchSurfers they meet to hold them accountable.
I joined the system when I moved to Malaysia in order to take part in the social events and meet new people. It wasn’t until my travel budget began to dwindle that I decided to CouchSurf properly and find local hosts, which proved to provide a completely different experience for my travels.
Unlike staying in a guest house, staying with a local resident is much more like being at home, and often times you find yourself with your own room and comforts and a more authentic living situation than you’d find elsewhere.
I was fortunate to find some amazing hosts. Whether it be Suraj, my first host in Macau who picked me up from the airport when I first arrived in China and made sure I didn’t gamble away my savings or Althea in Hong Kong who spent three days showing me around her city and inviting me to a home-cooked Chinese meal with her family, or Stephen, my witty American host in Beijing with whom I spent a week discussing American politics and singing 60s music, I made some amazing new friends in China, many of whom I expect to remain friends with for a long time.
Enjoying a home-cooked meal with Althea and her mother
On the other hand, CouchSurfing purely also posed its own set of difficulties. When traveling alone, it’s usually in guest houses where you make travel buddies and exchange ideas on where to go next or where to avoid. While my hosts were amazing, they also had real lives and jobs, and I often found myself alone during the day to experience the sites by myself, which can get a bit lonely, especially in a country where people do not speak English.
After nearly two years living in Asia, China also reunited me with two people from my past who also happened to be in the country. Josh, my former childhood neighbor who moved to Beijing over 10 years ago, brought a welcome taste from home as we discussed our lives, our families and our changes since being in Asia. I was also fortunate to meet up with my college friend Marja who was on a dance tour throughout China. After losing touch after college, it was wonderful staying up until 5 a.m. chatting together and catching up on our lives from the past six years.
Among all these people, new and old, was a common theme: the real world, something I had successfully and delightfully avoided the previous eight months. Unlike other wandering, carefree backpackers, these people had real jobs, real lives, real aspirations and for the first time in months, I found a real pressure to “be productive” and do something important with my life. Instead of dreaming of future travel destinations, I found myself fantasizing about returning to the young professional life back in the U.S. and really developing some kick-ass career. Thank God I went back to hippie-land in India afterward ;).
While I wasn’t always in love with the country, the new relationships I made in China and the modernity of the land itself reminded me much of the world I had left behind and caused me to question what I really wanted out of life. Though I’m still sorting all that out, I am grateful to the new experiences and challenges China presented to me.
The following are largely photo essays and a collection of the most beautiful, entertaining or interesting things I discovered in China.