I’ve been to China twice before. There is one observation about the country from this trip that stands out to me because I just don’t remember thinking it last time: the people are DELIGHTFUL. They are quick to laugh, they pull no airs, they are intensely inquisitive in a good-natured way. I feel safe around them. (Famous last words, etc.)
But what astounds us all the most, given our globalised world, is how unbelievably curious they are about us. Granted, we are pretty interesting, sitting with the big vans pulled in a circle, orange hi-tech tents pitched in the middle, perched on small camp chairs, hair colours ranging from blonde to blue – but does that really justify 10-15 people standing inside of our campsite, silently watching us for minutes and minutes? At one point, at this particular parking lot campsite, some passing people realized they could see through a camper window into where the 5 little children were relaxing. A dozen people crowded around and craned their necks to get closer to the window.
When I was getting ready for bed at the above mentioned campsite, a couple opened my tent flap. They felt the interior lining of my tent, tested the firmness of the mattress with their palms, and watched me swallow my allergy medication. They wouldn’t have said hello if I hadn’t given a friendly Ni hao first. People who stare at us in close quarters like this seem to be surprised when they hear human language coming out of what I believe they must assume are extra-pale, mechanically advanced monkeys. They seem delighted by our sudden humanity. Embarrassment for their actions does not occur to them.
Perhaps I can understand wanting to see the white people’s campsite. But on the supremely touristy section of the Great Wall we visited, or in the world-famous Tiananmen Square, you’d think folks would be used to Westerners. Not so. We take so many photos in a row that it becomes exhausting. Photo after photo after photo. Photos with their children, photos with their grandpa, photos with their group. We take turns, to give each other breaks. As Luke says, 20-30% of people within sight are taking photos with us or waiting in line to do so, and the rest are staring while it happens.
When we see we’re being included in a covert selfie, we smile and flash a peace sign. One time Luke was feeling generous and really posed for a covert selfie, wrapping his arm around the shoulders of the selfie-taker. The whole group got in the photo. They turned out to be a group of people with hearing impairment (they were signing) who seemed to be out on a group excursion to the Forbidden City.
People even take photos of us from their cars. I like to take photos back.
All of this changes from amusing to infuriating – like a buzzing mosquito at night – when you are trying to pack up your tent at 6:30 in the morning. Our travel companion Jenny tried to get some of her morning watchers to help with dishes; they declined.
It can be a bit scary how the old people handle the children. They just break through our protective and/or conversational circles, grab a child, and try to, I don’t know, tickle them? Pick them up? Play with them? It’s certainly not malicious or weird from their standpoint, clearly. They think the kids are delightful (which they are). But from our cultural standpoint, it is awful. The youngest, Felix, who is 3, waves is pointer finger side to side and says “no!”.
All of that said, I still think people are delightful. They mean no harm, and I really appreciate that.
An example. While waiting in line at Badaling, the most touristy section of the Great Wall and a personal hell for many (more later), a middle-aged couple pushed in front of us (Jo, Luke, and I) in line. This is pretty normal, but for some reason it annoyed us. We pushed forward in front of them when we reached a strategic corner-section of line. They tried to get past again, but we put our elbows out and took up the entire physical space, hopping left and right to block them. It occurred to me that we were being asshole tourists, only to find that they were laughing and giving us a thumbs up. We had mastered Chinese line cutting skills. But the joke was on us: they still beat us to the front of the line. We saw them a few times on the wall, and we all smiled, waved, and laughed each time.
Our jolly crew
I suppose I should let you know just who our travel companions are, as they’ll likely be important characters in our stories for the next month. There are five groups total, plus our guide, Jens. There’s a Belgian family with 3 children ranging from 3-7 years old. The mother of the group, Tine, is an anthropology person like me, but she did her masters so actually got to do field work. They all speak Dutch, French, and English, and probably other stuff too. Then we have the French family, with two children, who are 7 and 9. The parents are both psych nurses, so there’s a lot in common with Jo there. Jenny and Arne are German and hilarious; Barbara and Kevan are Dutch and British, respectively, and are sensible experienced travellers. Sometimes Susan and Axel, a German couple, join us with their separate guide, a delightful fellow named Martin. Our guide, Jens, is from Chengdu. He’s 26, and thankfully he’s got an excellent sense of humour and a solid dose of resilience. Important for managing group dynamics. And then there’s us, “the Aussies” (as we’ve been dubbed).
How this thing works
As for our mechanics and movements (not of the bowel variety, we’ll get to that later), things are working pretty smoothly. Each night, we have a group “conference” in which Jens lays out the plans for the next day and we democratically decide upon leaving times and optional extras. We drive each day, though we will have a couple of rest days later on. So far we’ve seen a major sight each day, including one day of taking the subway into Beijing. The rest of the group camps each night, but we’ve only joined them once because it’s a pain to set up tents. Plus, it would be unpleasant to sleep in a tent in an urban parking lot. So we go to a hotel with our guide, and with the other guide, Martin, if he’s around. Sometimes we get dinner with the two of them as well. They are cool guys and we definitely get the local flavour with them. One time, we got so local that we couldn’t find a hotel that would take foreigners at all. We did finally find one, after waiting around and eating street food.
Memories of meals past
Speaking of food, we are in heaven here. It’s a huge change from Mongolia, where mystery meat pastries and oily hot yak milk reign supreme. Our first restaurant in China actually made Luke and I intensely homesick. It looked just like a Chinese restaurant in Sydney, which makes sense, seeing as the Chinese restaurants in Sydney are often run by recent Chinese transplants. The menu, the tables, the decorations, the people, and the delicious food were all the same. The main difference was that people were smoking, despite the “no smoking” sign.
We’ve also been eating whole meals from street food, or rather we just constantly eat as we go. So far we’ve had no life-threatening issues arise from this habit. However, we have, as Jo says, developed “an obsession with plumbing”. The occasion of finding a Western toilet (as opposed to the squat variety) produces jubilation amongst our little travel trio.
We are, of course, enjoying the English here. Even amongst other countries where English is not prominent, China still has the most hilarious translations. Our favorite so far is “Miscellaneous sheep,” seen on a menu. “Don’t drive tiredly” and “Warm suggestion” (aka “hot tip”) aren’t bad either. There was a clothing shop called “Pet Woman” (insert cringe emoji). We thought that “Super long tunnel!” was a funny one too, until we drove in it and realised that, actually, it was quite lengthy, and thus their description was really quite accurate.
I remember that when my sister came back from several months at Beijing University 10 years ago, she had the “Peking cough” for months and months. The smog was oppressive then. The smog now, though, obscures the sun. It reduces road visibility like a thick San Francisco fog. It burns your eyes and your throat. Luke broke down and bought a face mask, and borrowed an inhaler from one of our travel companions.
In Shanxi provence, where we are now, it’s equally bad. Shanxi is known for it’s coal production. A local of Pingyao, in Shanxi, told us that the smog is worse in winter because the poor people burn coal to keep warm. We’re only in October. I would hate to see January, or, rather, I would have difficulty seeing January through the smog.
Daily gratitude: intact chest cavity
We also had the good luck to experience another staple of Beijing local life, the chest-crushing subway system. I understand now how crushes happen, and how they truly do kill people.
The subway stations we saw (4 or 5) were beautiful and new. There were lines on the tile to direct foot traffic, glass panelling between the platform and the tracks, uniformed “public transportation guides”, and lovely shiny new trains.
But none of this stopped the wave of anxious panic that swept over the crowd in the 20 seconds that a new train approached and readied to open its doors. The train arrives already full, so packed that faces are smooshed against the glass doors. The push to enter the train sounds like a swarm of locusts, the frantic shuffling of feet, rustling of people silently shoving their neighbour, and curses muttered under the breath. With 5 children in the group, I was legitimately scared. The parents of the group are, however, incredibly capable, and the children were in no real danger. In the end, one of the “public transportation guides” worked with Jens to find us a route across the subway map that didn’t require us to enter as intense of scrums. But we still pretended to fight our way on, the 15 of us, when we entered our first near-empty train. This was much more amusing than the real thing.
I think that if a communist party leader in the 1970’s was on the fence about whether or not to implement the one-child policy, they needed to have simply visited the Badaling section of the Great Wall, and this would have made up their mind. The place gives the feeling that there really are just too many people in China.
According to Jens, Chairman Mao once said that one is not a real man until he’s seen the Great Wall. Seemingly, every person in China wanting to take his advice does so at the Badaling section, as well as a significant amount of foreign tourist busloads too.
We went there because it was on the itinerary from our tour company, and we were so new to China, and we didn’t do our research in advance. This was stupid, as there were some beautiful sections of “wild wall” – as in, unrestored and less touristed – not far away. This section gave us packed lines, an expensive cable car ride, throngs of people pushing each other on the recently built stairs, and a wall that is actually a Disney-ish reconstruction perched upon a strip of land that once held the crumbled original. There was one part, in which we had to descend, narrow, steep stairs with walls on either side, people pushing from all sides – where Jo and I exchanged looks that said “F*** this, this is the worst place in the world.”
Then, there was beer. We had ascended to the wall with Jenny and Arne, the German couple with a particular fondness for this particular beverage. We all decided that the best course of action was to sit at a little kiosk on the wall and drink overpriced cans of terrible beer until the situation became fun. And it did! We snacked on weird fake pringles and a sweet, bubblegum pink “sausage” while we waited. After a while, the wall emptied out, our other friends arrived, and we had a leisurely stroll. The wall was shrouded mysteriously in a celestial cloud of coal-smog, and we snapped photos. All was well in the world.
China redeems itself with Pingyao
But all of the smog in the world couldn’t ruin Pingyao. The oldest and most authentic walled city surviving in China, Pingyao is delightful. Sure, it’s got tourists, but it’s also got lots and lots of locals. There are bustling markets outside the city walls, and beautiful buildings inside the city walls. The town is 1500 years old, and some of the buildings within are still ancient. I spent hours wandering the town by myself at night – it was alive with lanterns and sizzling street food. If a person had time for only one site in China, we would (thus far) recommend Pingyao.
But wait, there’s more
We’ve packed in a lot more touristing with this tour than we would have on our own. We’ve seen the amazing Hanging Monastary, perched on the side of a cliff (not the edge, the side), and which we are all quite pleased to not have died on, crushed by falling tourists from above. Jo reckons it was engineered to withstand months, not centuries and gajillions of tourists. We’ve gone to Yungang Grottoes, famous for having lots and lots o’ Buddhas. We’ve visited the Forbidden City and the hutongs (traditional neighbourhoods) of Beijing. These two really gave me flashbacks to going there with my family over 10 years ago. It’s much tidier now, but with more smog. I got an intense flashback upon seeing a particular decorative staircase in the Forbidden City – I actually remembered my Dad reading to us about it from a book while we looked at it. I don’t remember what I learned, but I do know where I got my habit from, at least. I’ll leave the rest of the sight descriptions to the photos, below.