I guess the reviews, as the feelings, will be mixed.
The Chinese. Everyone who may have the bright idea to report this blog for racism is kindly advised to pay a visit to mainland China first. Coming from I don’t know how many generations of only children, they are selfish, inconsiderate, unhelpful and rude. And incapable of understanding, among many other things, of how a bloody queue works.
The language. OK, it makes all the difference if you speak Mandarin. If you don’t and if you are not on a package tour, arm yourself with a lot of patience. As far as I could understand about how the language works, the main difficulty (apart from distinguishing between the tones) consists in memorizing everything. There is not much grammar, no conjugations, no gender, no declinations, no tenses, no conjunctive. But unless you know the character, you cannot read it. And blind memorizing has always been against my nature. I’ve been told (with a considerable admiration, too) that if one knows the traditional characters, one can read two thousands years old buddhist texts. Big bloody deal, if one knows latin – alphabet and language – one can read Virgil, Ovid, Catullus and everyone else in original. And even if one doesn’t know latin, one can still read any of the numerous translations, because our scripture, too, hasn’t changed all that much. Point is, English doesn’t really work, except for very few exceptions. Nor does any of the translating apps they all use. And while I enjoy playing Activity and Pictionary very much, it just gets tiring when pantomime and drawing becomes the only possible mean of communication, PROVIDED THE OTHER PERSON ACTUALLY CARES ABOUT UNDERSTANDING WHAT YOU WANT TO SAY, which is rarely the case.
The soundtrack. The constant spitting (and the charging it from the darkest depths of their lungs every single time), the farting, the burping, all this regardless age, sex or position on the social ladder is something I could (or would) never get used to. I’ve always thought that if I ever had to choose between being deaf and blind, I could probably learn to live without seeing things, but I could not imagine life without music. The sweet sounds accompanying expulsion of the rheum (especially when they were clearly coming from the kitchen) made me pray the God to take away my hearing in that very instant.
The annoying habit of constantly taking photos of any westerner, in any situation. When they asked me to take pictures with them, of course I agreed, although it does remain a mystery to me what do Chinese people do with all those random shots of unknown white people. But most times they don’t ask. So be prepared, especially if you are tall, blonde, very athletic, ginger, etc.
The mentality of an enslaved nation who doesn’t realize its own intellectual misery. But then, does a population of well-trained sheep deprived of any intellectual enterprise actually feel the lack of freedom? And if they don’t – which they don’t – does a problem truly exist if it bothers no one? The revolution in China has truly been cultural, yet the Great Leap Forward has only been concluded by the arrival of smartphones. I thought it was bad enough in Europe, but here I don’t think I’ve seen anyone reading a book or a newspaper during the entire month. When I think of it, I don’t actually think I’ve even seen a bookshop or a newsagent’s. Still everyone stares at their smartphone constantly, even when walking, either chatting or playing silly games. Once on a bus, a guy was staring at my Kindle, then asked me what it was, and appeared somewhat puzzled when I told him it was a book. The Party did not need an army of ideologist and indoctrinators to turn the people into a nation of obedient zombies. All they needed was an iPhone. Or as they call the local copy around here, a MyPhone (or also, Oppo, which must be how the Chinese pronounce Apple).
The way they treat their cultural and natural heritage. When it comes to artwork conservation, the European approach aims to preserve the artefact in its current state, prevent any further deterioration, and if there is a need to rebuild or reconstruct, then the new parts must be clearly recognizable. That is not the case in China. The rebuild everything, paint it in the brightest colours, and then say “this temple is X thousands years old”. Yeah, as if. I realise this particular topic can be subject to discussion, and I also gather that an average tourist (Chinese or western) is mostly more concerned with the looks of the artefact than with its historical value, but in my opinion, the Chinese are succeeding in replacing China with a massive Chinatown.
- It is super safe. No one will touch a foreigner, though I have heard about isolate incidents involving drunk Chinese nouveaux-riches. But generally, a tourist in China can do pretty much what he likes.
- Chinese food is great and very diverse. Sichuan is my personal favourite (I you like spicy). I personally eat almost everything, which helps, because more often than not I had no clue what I had ordered and what I would find myself eating, but except for a random chicken foot in my soup a couple of time, I never had a bad experience.
The public transport is amazing. Train system is very comprehensive, the high-speed trains are very high standard, while the hard sleepers are a bit of on an experience. Internal flights work very well, too, and are sometimes cheaper than long distance trains.
When the Chinese are nice, they are really nice. When.
Most importantly, it is a beautiful country. It is also a very big country, and you can see pretty much any kind of landscape, including those you never imagined existed.
Get VPN for your phone and computer BEFORE you get in China. I didn’t and still survived.
What doesn’t work: Facebook, any Google services (including Gmail, Maps and GoogleTranslate, which seems to be the only translator that gives half-sensible results with mandarin). On the other hand, default iPhone Maps work very well, and it also tells you very accurate public transport options (including city buses), which is very useful when you travel alone in a country where you understand no one.
Get Ctrip app for booking internal trains and planes (although you will find planes on normal search engines like Skyscanner, too).
Conclusion: although I’ve bitched about China a fair bit on this blog, I am glad I saw it. You can of course get on a package trip (the Chinese government prefers that, guess why) and will be spared all the hassle of interacting with the locals, ordering food of uncertain provenance, booking bus tickets, or inquiring general information; but for me all this was half the fun. I still cannot get over the spitting though, I really can’t. There are of course many things left I would still love to see in China, but I’d be surprised if after reading this blog the Chinese government granted me the tourist visa again.
For your convenience, 26 days itinerary
D1-4: Beijing (incl. one day for the Great Wall), bullet train to Xi’An on the fourth day.
D5-6: Xi’An: one day for the Terracotta army, half a day for Muslim quarters. Evening flight to Chengdu
D7-10: Chengdu: panda park, Quingcheng Mt., Leshan Buddha. Afternoon flight to Shangri-La on the 10th day
D12-13: Leaping Tiger Gorge trek
D14-15: Lijiang; afternoon train to Dali on day 15
D16-17: Dali; morning flight to Kunming on day 17
D18-22: Kunming: Stone Forest, you will need at least 2 days for the Red Lands.
D23-25: Guilin: Li River and Longsheng rice fields; train to Guangzhou on day 25
Day 26: leave mainland China on a fast train for Hong Kong.