We spent seven weeks in China, the longest stretch in any country since we started traveling two years. Actually, the longest stretch in one country outside the U.S. for Mark since he studied in the Soviet Union in 1988 and since I was stationed in Naples in 1975! Still, we just scratched the surface covering 13 places. Nothing out west, where we thought we were heading (before the earthquake and problems with Mark’s knee), nothing up north where it’s still too cold for us wimps, no village or rural stops, and only one small-ish city. What did we cover? Hong Kong (twice), Macau, Shanghai (again, twice), Hangzhou, Hainan, Chengdu, Langzhong, Chongqing, a
three two gorge Yangtze Cruise, Wuhan, Hefei, Nanjing, and Xian.
What did we learn?
There was amazing transportation infrastructure. The highways are smooth and uncrowded, the trains are fast and punctual, the train stations are sleek and shiny, and the subways are clean, easy to use, and they go everywhere. The downside of travel in China is the pedestrian experience. Simply put, crosswalks have no meaning whatsoever. There was no sense that if I was in a crosswalk drivers would yield. Even in cases where I had a green light and the cars had a red light, they assumed – and took – the right of way. I saw cars blow past frail elderly people, young mothers with strollers, you name it. In China – or at least the part of it we saw – pedestrians must fend for themselves.There were spectacular urban parks and green spaces. This was really the huge surprise for me. Except for Macau, we found beautiful parks and greenery everywhere. An army – and not a small army – of sweepers kept the spaces free of not only litter but stray leaves and anything else. The gardens were colorful and beautiful and just made you want to be outside walking around. By all accounts China has huge pollution problems, but on this swing through China we didn’t really experience it like I have in, say, Mexico City or Beijing. All the parkland made for great running with no bad air side effects. There is a lot of construction. It’s on a massive scale, bridges & high rise buildings dwarf anything imaginable in the U.S. Just one example, Starbucks is everywhere and opening three new sites every day. Still, why do the malls seem strikingly empty? And what happens when the music stops? What happens if they’ve overbuilt and all of a sudden there are no more construction jobs? Or is that a question that has little meaning in a country with 1.4 billion people?
Smoking. Ugh. Apparently the Chinese haven’t gotten the memo that smoking – and second-hand smoke – is dangerous. You get the sense that tobacco companies don’t really worry about losing a little bit of market in the U.S. if hundreds of millions of Chinese are buying their products.
It’s noisy here. Car honking. Loud voices, particularly those shouting into cell phones. We had one taxi driver we thought must have been furious with us he was yelling so loudly. Hacking, coughing, spitting. Kids running around. Tour guides either shouting or using amplification to be heard over other tour guides, also shouting and being amplified. Shop owners putting cheap speakers outside their shops and blaring music, sales pitches, or whatever. Even in the beautiful parks, people – especially older people – would walk around with their radios blaring whatever they wanted to listen to.
It’s still more isolated than any other huge economy. A big part of China’s long history has been about keeping others out; that’s what the 19th century Opium Wars were about. To a surprising degree, the west is still on the outside looking in. Try to find Western liquor in anything but the most westernized cities like Shanghai. For us, we decided to buy something local. We had no idea what it was, but we thought “How bad can it be?” Asking that is a rookie mistake; it tasted like licking a horse. Seriously awful. In many cities people turn and stare, sometimes point. They want their picture taken with you. Mark’s self-taught Chinese was extremely helpful at times.The food is often great, usually challenging. Have I become a Chinese food snob? I came to love good Chinese food with flavors and textures you would never get in the U.S. And ingredients we just never see – chicken heads & beef penis, for instance (true). We usually ordered more than we wanted just in case some of it was inedible and occasionally that was extremely helpful. The highlight was Sichuan, and particularly the Sichuan peppers that left a tingle in your mouth unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
What did we miss? Given stereotypes of the Chinese back in the States, who knew you couldn’t find laundry services there? We never found a single place to do our laundry except for the criminally expensive hotel services that we refuse to use? And for that matter, you’d be surprised at how challenging it was in some places to order tea. In China? True.
The big success in China though? We walked into a store and bought Apple Watches the first day they were available. Before Americans were out of bed yet!