To be honest, I never dreamt of going to China like I did of France, Japan or Ireland. It just never occurred to me as a destination I would like to visit. However, my cousin and his fabulous wife moved there last year. I wanted to visit them since I was already making my way to South Korea. As I read more about China, the more I got excited about the country. It sounded like a traveller’s paradise: the historical sites, the rugged beauty, the different ethnicities and cultures. I made plans to spend 38 days in Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an, Sichuan province and Yunnan province. However, Chinese visa restrictions, the Tibet riots, Sichuan earthquake and my own trepidation altered my plans. Still, I had a wonderful yet tumultuous time. All I can say is: I survived China!
My foray into the Chinese world was the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai. It is a modern city of futuristic buildings, towering skyscrapers and remnants of their colonial past. There are areas in which you forget you are in China. The city has a great cafe culture with districts of small alleyways populated with hip cafes, art galleries and shops. I spent most of my 12 days there lazing about my cousin’s wonderful apartment.
My cousin’s wife, her son and I went on a daytrip to Xitang, a small water-town two hours from Shanghai. Its claim to fame is being a set location for Mission Impossible 3.Â Despite the many Tom Cruise posters plastered throughout the city, it stills retains a small-town charm devoid of any tourist frills or modern-life hustle.
Next, I was off to the capital of Beijing. The first thing I noticed on the bus ride to the city from the airport was how clean the roads were. The second thing I noticed were trucks carting street cleaners packed like sardines.
My first exploration day was a Sunday so I intended NOT to spend the day at The Forbidden City because I knew it would be too crowded. So what do I do? I go to the Forbidden city…by accident. I decided to have a quick peek at Tian’anmen squre. While there I saw a sign for The Palace Museum. I did not realize that it was the same thing as The Forbidden City. So, I spent my time on the grounds with loads and loads of people.
My favourite site in Beijing was The Summer Palace. While all the buildings at The Forbidden City started to look the same after hours of perusing, the buildings of The Summer Palace were more varied. I forgot the name of my favourite structure at TSP but it was gorgeous with its long sprawling staircase and its wonderful views over the palace grounds. I also enjoyed the entertainment building where I saw brief show of acrobats, chinese dancers and musicians.
The Great Wall was also a marvellous site. Unfortunately, being there in the summer meant that the sky was smoggy, foggy and grey. The fog did give an aura of mystique to the wall accentuating its history and legend. However, I still wished that the sky was clear and blue to see the how far my eye could actually see the wall.
Frankly, my time in Beijing was quite stressful. The city is extremely crowded and chaotic. One day, I was in a very foul mood due to various factors. As I was walking down the street internalizing my frustration, I heard about 30 honks in a one minute span. I just about lost my mind!!! I got a nasty cold from being stressed out
Xi’an is the former capital of China and hence, the city has many important historical sites and relics. This includes the city walls (the best-preserved in China), the Terracotta Warriors and the Drum & Bell towers.
I was very determined to get away from the craziness of Beijing only to realize that Xi’an is even crazier. There were beggars, homeless people and buskers, something which I did not see in Beijing which I suspect is due to the government â€œcleaning upâ€ the city for the Olympics. I personally did not feel entirely safe in the city and did not venture beyond the city walls after having my camera eyed by a few sketchy people.
I think it is difficult for Westerners to understand how diverse China actually is. This is because most of our interaction is with one ethnic group. In fact, China officially has 56 minority ethnic groups and many different religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Xi’an has a sizeable muslim population dating back to th 7th century. The Muslim Quarter is a delightful area of alleyways filled with kebab takeaways, restaurants, and shops. Men wear skullcaps; women wear headscarves. Its centrepiece is The Great Mosque which is one of the oldest mosques in China, dating back to 7th-8th century The mosque was quite nice mixing traditional Chinese and Islamic architecture. The building had lovely colours of black, grey and turquoise which differed from the red, green, blue and gold found on most Chinese buildings.
I went on a tour of the Terracotta Warriors, a fairly recent discovery by a local farmer in 1974. The man is a mini-celebrity now and he is actually at the site everyday to sign autographs (at a price, of course!). The warriors were indeed an amazing thing to see however the site also gave me the creeps. I can’t believe a person (Emperor Xin) would actually have all these statues built at the expense of so many lives. The man was a total megalomaniac. This is the same person responsible for the construction of The Great Wall!
I spent my last day in Xi’an biking on the city walls with some hostelmates. The ride gave fantastic views of the city and glimpse into the lives of the locals. The ride was difficult, however, due to the intense heat and humidity.
Guangzhou was my final stop in mainland China. This is a modern, rapidly developing city in the Canton region of China, I was not expecting much out of the city but I was pleasantly surprised. There are many sites of interest, the best being White Cloud Mountain where you get spectacular views of the city.
I actually have very few pictures from the city because my camera broke on my second day. I tried to get it serviced but it could not be fixed before my visa expired so I had to wait until I got to Hong Kong. This was extremely disappointing since I missed many great photo opportunities.
I stayed on Shamian Island, a former European concession. I saw at least thirty couples taking their weddings photos with the European-style buildings and green gardens as a backdrop. Wedding photography is a very big business in China. A Canadian woman told me that many women get their weddings photos even though they are not engaged!!
Guangzhou is also a base for Western couples, mostly American, adopting Chinese children. The sight of so many white women and men holding Chinese children was thought-inducing. I know that these couples will love these kids, however, I wonder what the children will feel like growing up. They will always know that they are different and I’m sure will have identity issues growing up. I’m not going to say if I’m for or against this type of adoption because quite frankly I don’t have a clear stance on the issue. It’s extremely complex and I’m sure the couples are aware of the challenges that they face. In a perfect world, adoption wouldn’t exist. But the world isn’t perfect. The one thing, however, that concerns me about foreign adoptions is that it often turns these children of poor backgrounds into commodities.
My final 8 days in China were spent in Hong Kong, a SAR. Hong Kong is an efficient, modern and technologically-advanced city.Â While most of us imagine the soaring skyscrapers and crazy lights, most of Hong Kong is undeveloped beaches and mountains.
The scenery is actually very beautiful and welcoming. However, I did not entirely enjoy my time in Hong Kong for a few reasons. First, I generally found the people to be unfriendly. I even encountered hostility in some of the non-touristy areas since I did not speak any Cantonese and I guess they expected me to!Â Second, I stayed at a really crappy guesthouse. The receptionists and owners were odd. And my first night was spent with a middle-aged man who, on my second night, got into a physical altercation with the owner over the cleanliness of the room. Eventually the police were called and I got moved into another room. But still, the place was so crappy I had a poor sleep every night. Lastly, the hostel was in Tsim Sha Shui which is a touristy but sketchy area. I got bothered by a few creepy men which made me very uncomfortable.
I was starting to feel a bit lonely in Hong Kong but I ran into Rob, an Englishman I befriended in Xi’an. We toured the city centre and had dim sum the next day where we were served by the rudest, most inhospitable man yet. But the food was quite good! I highly recommend dim sum in Hong Kong.
My favourite place in HK was Lantau island where there were gorgeous beaches and lush, green hills. The jewel of the island is The Giant Buddha. You had to walk up a narrow stairway to get to the top where you stood beside the gigantic statue and had gorgeous views of the island.
After a few stressful last days in HK, I was extremely happy to leave China. Frankly, I found the country to be a very lonely place to travel alone. I think there are a few reasons. First, there weren’t many single travellers. Second, the cultural differences were hard to bear. It would have been nice to have a friend to share the frustrations, help in making decisions and even have someone just to talk about the differences. But still, despite all the frustration and stress I experienced, I still want to go back. China is a country that leaves you wanting to explore more, but maybe only in small doses.