Chinatown isn’t China

China

China is an incredible destination filled with some of the friendliest people on Earth. It’s a jaw droppingly beautiful country. Before I get into specifics however, I want to say a word on the culture and how China is portrayed in the media. Some Chinese we met felt a little disparaged when it came to their country’s global image and I want to try to do my part to set the record a bit straighter.

This isn’t a political blog and I want to stress that I know bugger all about Chinese politics. I have eyes and ears though and what I saw and heard in China surprised me.

The Bond Villain Effect

In the west we often depict China as a smog riddled, ramshackle collection of sweat-shops churning out plastic gadgets. We paint the people in some kind of evil communist dictatorship without freedoms and perhaps worse, without the two greatest cornerstones of benevolence and virtue, Google and Facebook.

A quick glance at any uniformed official will leave most visitors in no doubt. China are the baddies.

When I arrived in China I was fully expecting to have some internet difficulties and some cultural ones. I thought there’d be some hard travel ahead and perhaps even a little friendly debate with the locals. What I wasn’t prepared for is just how bloody happy everyone was and how little the average person gave a damn about politics or trying to emulate the value systems of the West.

This may sound stupid but I genuinely thought the Chinese people wanted to be like us and the government wanted to stop them. That isn’t true at all. The young Chinese don’t give a damn about Google or Facebook. And why would they.

The Chinese have their own web browsers and their own social apps.

They have better smart phones than us too. Better technology. Better homes. Their transport in every major city is almost all electric.  It’s faster, less busy and it runs on time, every time. The infrastructure is better. There seems to be much less pollution. The rivers run clean. The streets are clean. I didn’t see one drunken brawl or pile of vomit.

I know this might sound like science fiction but everywhere I looked, people were having fun without alcohol.

The modern Chinese people are enfranchised. They have vast amounts of agency over their lives. The overwhelming majority of Chinese that I met were far more content than their counterparts in the west.

The Great Firewall of China

As for Google and Facebook; China is the first country I’ve ever visited with the might to stand up to America. That’s all they are trying to do with the foreign internet ban as far as I can see. China wants to reserve the right to help shape the opinions of its own citizens. They don’t want two private corporations with secretive agendas doing it for them. Why would they. To flip this around for a moment, just imagine how quickly the US would ban Facebook if the company was bought out by the Russians? It’s just sensible governance isn’t it?

America, its all-powerful corporations and the politics of the West are a tiny blip on the Chinese cultural radar, nothing more. China may be a developing nation politically speaking, but they have already out-developed the UK and the US in most other respects. They are forging ahead on their own now. Bye.

Don’t believe the hype about China.  It’s a healthy, clean, free country as far as I can tell.

Chinese Tourists

Due to the enormous population China has had a one child policy since 1979. An unexpected side effect of this however has been the creation of a generation of what Chinese commentators call “Little Emperors”.

Single child policies create narrow family structures with up to six adults per child. As a result, most children born after 1979 have been lavishly spoiled. The top 10% have become ravenous consumers with no regard for their fellow man or the dignity of other cultures. Sound familiar?

These are the wealthy misbehaving Chinese minority that take holidays to places like London. Those vulgar bum bag wearing tour groups that shuffle from place to place like locusts devouring everything in their path.

Working class Chinese couldn’t be more different.

To a man and absolutely without exception the Chinese tourists we met in China were polite, helpful and obliging.

They naturally formed queues without being told. They kept quiet when instructed and obeyed the rules.

Many times during our visit we had to leave the relative security of our hostel and embark on a 100% Chinese excursion. No English signs, No English spoken, often no Wifi. Sometimes for up to 12 hours. On each occasion the first Chinese people that saw us, closed ranks around us and hand-held us through the entire day. Sometimes even separating themselves from their own friends to make sure that we weren’t unaccompanied. Little or no words were ever exchanged but they sensed our vulnerability and acted instinctively for the good.

I don’t like the Little Emperors that I meet in foreign holiday destinations. I adored the Chinese that I met in China.

Chinese Eco-Tourism

Chinese Eco-Tourism is thriving and should be the model for the entire world. National parks and natural areas have been handed over to private companies for management. And manage them they have. They are stunning.

Tourism works differently in China.  Instead of jumping in your car and rocking up at your favourite waterfall or mountain with 100,000 other people, you have to take a special chartered bus.  These buses run super regular and super timely from most major cities. Once you arrive, you then use a series of other well maintained and punctual smaller buses to tour the particular attraction.

The buses stop at regular distance intervals and tourists alight to exquisitely crafted wooden walkways which snake through the natural areas. You cannot leave the walkway but rather than being restrictive this is actually hugely liberating. The walkways are wonderful feats of engineering and they go where no man could. Swing from the edges of sheer cliffs, dive into gaping ravines and glide across impassable swamps. The walkways are spectacular.

Navi and I were able to get up close and personal with every kind of natural environment there is and never once did our shoes get wet.

The moment you’ve had enough you just hop back on the tour bus. Nature never even knows you were there.

The downside to such a great experience is price. Adhering to the government’s strict environmental policies whilst still opening your doors to millions of tourists can’t be cheap. Entrance fees to natural areas are usually around the $50 mark. But hey, if that’s the cost of giving nature a break, I’ll pay it.

Accommodation in China

China has a hostel culture when it comes to cheap accommodation much like Europe. This can often mean a shared bathroom but other than that, quality standards are excellent.

Navi and I experienced some of our finest travel sleeps in China.

Most of the places we stayed looked like something out of a kung-fu movie. Ornately carved, creaking wooden affairs with balconies overlooking manicured courtyards complete with Koi Carp, Chinese bonsai (penjing) and swinging red lanterns.

Prices were a little higher than South East Asia. Around $35 for a private room with bathroom.

Food in China

This is where things started to go from sweet, to sour for us.

Given the number of Chinese restaurants around the globe and the clear identity of their cuisine, we were very excited about the Chinese food. I’m sorry to say though that what we experienced, didn’t deliver.

This is not entirely China’s fault of course. Firstly we didn’t speak any Chinese and we couldn’t read the menus so our choices were limited from the get go. Also, Navi and I have been vegan since beginning our travels. That’s no meat. No milk, no eggs or any animal products whatsoever.

Frankly, if you don’t eat animal products in China you are considered a little crazy. Even the peace loving Buddha ate milk and eggs.

As functioning vegan tourists we thought we were cruising in south East Asia. China is a different planet though.

China was the first time in two years that we’ve been seriously impacted by our food choice. There was almost nothing that we could eat. 99% of Chinese restaurant food contains animals or animal by-products. No help there.

The Chinese supermarkets too are not like the Chinese supermarkets in the UK. Everything comes in plastic single serving neon wrappers and is filled with chemicals. Around 80% of the store is given over to confectionery. The other 20% consisted of weird fishy smelling bottles and packages with unintelligible labels.

Eventually, we settled on a tactic of turning up at Buddhist temples around 11:30 am and 5:30pm. That’s when the monks and local poor get fed. This is really cheeky but we found that if we wore Buddhist wristbands and showed interest in the cooking, usually we would be offered a plate. A small donation at the end of the meal always helped grease the wheels for a return visit the following day.

We felt a bit bad about that but never once did anyone show us any anger. On the contrary, everyone in the temple was usually very interested and amused by us.

Later on in our trip we had a chance to do an 8 day trek into Tibet. Naturally we jumped at the opportunity but our plans were dashed when we asked about food options. In the words of Tashir (our Tibetan friend), “…you can eat yak meat or you can drink yak milk. No vegetables in Tibet.”

So there you have it. Being vegan sucks in China. We were hungry and pissed off far too often and it wore us down.

Communication

The second aspect that got tiresome really quickly was the language barrier.

In the world of backpacking there is an unspoken dictum in every blog and travel article out there that requires the experience to be difficult, otherwise it’s not travel in the true sense.  It’s that clichéd hippy “Hey man… it all went to shit but at least I learned a lot about myself and isn’t that the whole point man.”

No. That’s not the whole point for me. Maybe I’m lazy or perhaps I’m just getting old but I like things easy. I like it when stuff works. I like to enjoy myself.

Not speaking the language may seem like a fun challenge to some but that’s in places where you can have a go at simple phrases like “Please and Thank you” and then fall back to pigeon English if it doesn’t work out.

In China there is no fall back option. You are understood in Chinese or you are not understood.

Like Vietnamese, Mandarin is impossible to learn casually. You can’t just sound out the noises with English letters and throw them together. Tone is everything. I would go as far to say that more often than not the tonal subtleties were imperceptible to my ears.  We spent hours learning Chinese phrases and watching language videos before coming here but in retrospect, we never stood a chance.

We very quickly found the most popular Chinese translation app on our phone but it was very Mandarin biased. We could hand it to a local and they could talk into the microphone for up to 20 seconds and we’d get a perfect translation. Once we switched it to English to respond though it would fail more often than it worked even on single words.

This all added up to huge frustrations on both sides. But perhaps the cruelest aspect of our communication difficulties was that we consciously withdrew from conversations and situations we would normally have embraced.

We spent a lot of time in China not knowing what to do or where to go and being too embarrassed or pissed off to ask.

I sound like Alf Garnet here but “I like my waiters to speak English.”  If that makes me some kind of unauthentic backpacker then I’m OK with that. We are all just tourists really, whatever labels people like to put on things.

Backpacking Cost in China

We averaged £66.05 per day total for the two of us. Accommodation was reasonable and vegetarian food is practically free at the Buddhist Temples (wink wink) but everything else is London price.

Like so many places I suspect that if we were to rent an apartment and stay put we could bring down costs considerably. That’s never going to be an option here though because we’d never want to go back.

Visiting China?

Hunger and frustration were our watchwords in China. It wasn’t China’s fault as I’ve said but nevertheless, we won’t be returning. That’s a real shame as we only visited a very small area in total and what we saw was easily one of the most impressive and diverse countries in the world.  I just wish it was a little less China and a little more Chinatown.

Here’s the deal. I’d highly recommend China but not as a backpacker and certainly not as a vegan. The best way to see China in my opinion is to take a big wad of cash and stay at a nice hotel for a couple of weeks. Take internal flights if you have to rather than buses. Gorge yourself on meat and foreign beer and book yourself some tours with an English speaking guide from the hotel. If you can do that, you’ll enjoy all the fun with none of the hassle and you’ll have a blast.