Thoughts on China


Before I went to Beijing I had heard nothing but bad things about China. It’s dirty. It’s crowded. It’s impossible to get around. People told me they hated it and never ever wanted to return.

So far I’ve only been here a week and spent the majority of it in Beijing and to be honest – I’ve loved it. Maybe it’s because we had such a rough start in Russia, we were used to not being able to get around. Maybe its because we left the frigid cold of Mongolia and were greeted by sunny skies and warm weather in China.  Maybe its because you can buy amazing and delicious noodles and dumplings for mere dollars in the Beijing Hutongs. Whatever the reason, after only a few days in the city, we found ourselves extending our stay another three nights.

We visited all the major sites, took a trip to the great wall, and ordered random things off all Chinese menus in tiny alley way restaurants where the owners drank rice wine with us and brought over their new puppies to play. (I assure you they weren’t dinner, the puppies were being treated very much as pets).

But despite my love of Beijing – I have to admit there are certain quirks to the China that I have noticed.

1. Westerners are either celebrities or freaks.

Everywhere we went people seemed to be fascinated by us. They starred at us, they took photos, they even filmed us. I went back and forth between thinking they really liked us and wanted photos of us and thinking that perhaps we were so weird looking that they took photos to prove it to their friends.

Either way, I must have ended up in 1000 people’s photos – and I have brown hair and a similar build and skin color of most people in China. Shannon, Tejal and Marten ended up with a lot more attention than me.

It was strange enough when people would ask to take photos with us or of us.  But the scenarios got even weird:

1. Sometimes we would all pose for a photo and have a friend take the photo. Then some random Chinese person would just get in the photo with us.  Sometimes we didn’t even notice until later when we looked at the photos.

2. Other times, when we were posing for a photo with a friend snapping the shot, a random Chinese person would just stand next to the photographer and start snapping away. On more than one occasion they would follow us to the next photo op and get some more shots.

3. Other times, people would just try and be sneaky and film us on the bus, while we were eating and as we walked around. The interesting thing is that when you catch people filming you, they aren’t at all embarrassed. They usually smile and waver or offer to show you the photo. At the great wall, we caught a women with a giant camera and a tripod snapping photos of us as we watched the sunset. She showed us the photos, and they were so cute that she agreed to take our email addresses and send us the photos.

Most of the time however, they would just politely ask to take a photo with us and we would alternate posing and snapping photos with our new “friends”

2. The kids don’t wear diapers.

You may ask how I know this – after all its rare that I go around checking out the local children’s diaper situation. The answer is simple: instead of wearing diapers, children simply wander around with holes in their pants so that if nature calls they can take that call wherever they happen to be standing.

Luckily, the ground is not covered in child potty breaks so its not as bad as it would seem. The only thing you notice is that the majority of small children are constantly mooning the world. Question still unanswered: what happens in the winter?

3. China is both very clean and very dirty

One of the reasons why I think the no pants situation is not an issue is because China has got to have some of the cleanest cities I have ever seen. There are constantly people cleaning, sweeping, emptying garbage, etc. The place is spotless.

On the other hand – the air is horrible. On certain days, a cloying smog would just hang in the air for hours. Obstructing the sun and blocking the view more than 100 meters away. It was disgusting.


4. They are serious about security

Really, really serious. Ever metro or large tourist site has metal detectors and bag scanners. There are cameras everywhere. Sometimes more than seem strictly necessary. I thought the US was security conscious, but China has us beat hands down.

Check out this picture from Tiananmen Square.

5. It’s a country of contrast

Never have a been to a country where things change so quickly. China is the true definition of east meets west, new meets old. In Shanghai, a 10 minute walk can take your from ritzy shopping and expensive cocktails on the bund to 1 RMB dumplings and street markets.  Glossy high speed trains zip across a landscape dotted with rice patties. Small, hunched over old women sell frogs and live ducks amongst business men in smart suits rushing to work. Its crazy and amazing all at the same time.

 6. The Food is Amazing

Seriously, so good. And for some reason I thought it would be awful. I kept telling myself that I would loose soooo much weight in China. Actually, all I’ve done is eat. Eat. Eat. And eat some more. Dumplings. Noodles. Other things that I have no way to identify.

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6 Responses to Thoughts on China

  1. Wow, I have to say, it sounds like we have had DRAMATICALLY different experiences in China and Beijing. We stayed in Beijing for 4 days and wish we had been there less because we hated it so much. We found it really dirty, the people were really unfriendly (save for the touts, necessarily), and we thought the attractions were overpriced and extremely poorly done (we can literally think of nothing good to say about the Forbidden City). And the hoards of tourists we encountered were not curious about us (though yes, we have had a few stealth pictures taken of us), but were instead more interested in climbing on, spitting on, and basically doing their best to ruin every attraction they were at. We were also pretty disappointed in the food, because save for our splurge meal of Peking duck, the places we ate at were fine, but nothing special. Certainly nothing as good as what we ate in HK or Japan. Honestly, in our 6 weeks of travel, Beijing is easily our least favorite city. We did enjoy our trip to the Great Wall, but man, Beijing is a place I would never go back to, never mind extend a stay!

    We’ve since moved on to two other cities — Datong & Pingyao — and were similarly disappointed as they were sprawling, drab messes that were rundown and polluted. It got so bad that we were seriously considering leaving China after 1 week. Instead we are going to hightail it to South after 2 days here in Xi’an (which, to be fair, is by far our favorite place in China thus far) and try again.

    Maybe it’s just that compared to the other places we have been, China is by far the most challenging, whereas for you guys it has been a bit of a reprieve?

    • ElizabethJ_Bird says:

      Oh I’m so sorry to hear that your experience was so different! I think that maybe you are correct that other parts of our trip have been challenging so this was a bit of a step up. However, I’ve also really loved aspects of China that I think are really unique and wonderful.

      For food, I really recommend eating on the streets. You can see exactly what it is you are ordering and its cheap as dirt so if you hate it just go out and get something new. If you are worried about ordering in restaurants with no English, just look around at what people are eating and point to something that looks good.

      At some point in traveling, culture shock has became like a drug. You keep doing crazier and crazier things and going to weirder places to get a fix. China has been like one long dose and its been great.

      I hope you can give China a longer shot and that you end up liking it. I still have three more weeks here so maybe the tides will turn for me as well and I will end up hating it!

  2. Sylvain says:

    Great post.
    Seems you enjoy your trip so far, that’s the important.
    Good luck for the next steps.

  3. jan says:

    I have read so much bad about China, I am pleased to read your post. I think the fact that it was easier than Russia would place it in a good light. I love your posts. The text and photos are very descriptive.
    We recently went to Morocco and loved it. I was surprised because I had read so many negative reports about it beforehand. It is amazing how different people have totally different experiences and perceptions about exactly the same thing. I think that is what makes travel so interesting.

  4. Jessica says:

    This post confirms my need to visit China next (for the food alone). People really do seem to either love it or hate it, but a place that creates such polar opposite opinions is definitely a place I need to check out for myself.

  5. Great recap of China! We really want to check it out but it doesn’t fit into the timing of our RTW. We’re actually in Kuala Lampur right now and staying at a hostel in Chinatown and I have been stuffing myself silly with all the great Chinese/Malaysian food…. I am now even more upset that we didn’t a chance to travel to China! The food sounds amazing! And through traveling in Asia over the past couple of months, I enjoyed reading the whole part about Westerners being freaks… And no Western girls should EVER go shopping for clothes in Asia! The discrepancies in sizes make you feel like such a giant! Anyways, hope you are enjoying your trip and safe travels… We will be sure to follow along!

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