China at a glance

We know that we our previews posts on China might have been a bit contradictory, which partly depends on us but mainly on the country. China is a nation full of contradictions. So now we will try to give a more general view and put some structure. First, after refuting so many prejudices about China, it is time to corroborate some of them:

  • Chinese are loud: definitely true, and even worse when on the phone ….
  • Chinese travel in groups: true, but the younger ones start changing that.
  • Chinese follow the rules: true, but in the traffic, there seem to exist some rules we have not figured out yet!
  • Chinese are consumption and status-orientated: true, but it would be an exaggeration to say that advertisement by European companies actively tries to change that. And by the way, this does not prevent Chinese from being curious.
  • Chinese are always gaming: true. Always.
  • Chinese cities are ugly: unfortunately often true, especially the suburbs and the smog. However, some cities have large parks and local neighbourhoods with a nice atmosphere.
  • Chinese officers are terrible: often true, in fact everything in which state is involved seems rather unkind.
  • China is overcrowded: true. For example, if you want to do a day trip to a small town on a weekday, you will travel with two to three thousand other persons in the train.
  • Chinese are organized: true, in good and in bad. Sure there are some exaggerations, especially everything which includes government’s participation becomes cumbersome and people are inflexible. But we have also experienced that often it is necessary, see one point above. For instance, you have to check in at the train station as if it was an airport. At first sight this seems tedious, nonetheless, when seeing the masses, you realize that it is inevitable.

On the other hand, what is definitely wrong is that they always smile. Some do, some do not – just like in Europe. Still, the positive aspects of this country impressed us much more. Whether they smile or not, they are very helpful, at least if they are not working for the government. Even more, when they see we have problems with the language or handling things, they take their time to help us, are really tolerant when we do not behave like expected and are very creative in finding pragmatic or also unconventional solutions. For instance, in a restaurant, if they do not have an English menu, they would take us to the kitchen so we can show them with which ingredients they should cook the meal. In other situations, they phoned a friend who spoke English and many students have a translation app, just in case they lack a word.

Moreover, they were extremely interested and eager to talk with us, no matter whether they could speak English or not. At the beginning, they are often uncertain and shy, which is quite understandable given that after so many years of practising English, this may be one of the first opportunities to talk with a foreigner. Nevertheless, during the conversation, when they see that we appreciate their efforts, they’ll become more confident.
You feel clearly that the nation is open for about 30 years only and that the alien still has a really strong appeal. The country is developing very fast, in some areas they are already competitive or even leading. However, in a certain way it remains surprisingly pristine. You see: China really is contradictory.

Our impression of China also is reflected by the experience of other foreigners living there. Yes, there are many of them who seclude themselves, never learn a word Chinese and are condescending towards the locals. But we have met many other very different people, from the German music professor over the Austrian engineer to the “Wayne Rooney”-like British teacher. They all have in common that despite the disadvantages of the country, they are fond of it and are happy to be there.

To sum it up: although we are not quite sure whether we would like to live in China for several years, we somehow have an idea why so many different persons like it here – it is a pleasure to discover all these many things the country has to offer.

Huang Shan, Huizhou, Shanghai

As promised, we won’t tell you again some stories about the nice Chinese we met (although they keep being friendly, helpful and open-minded). So instead, let’s tell a story about a nice Pakistani we met. After our relaxing cruise we spent a night in Wuhan and headed to “Huang Shan”, another sacred peak in China, also known as “Yellow Mountain”. We were quite happy when we finally arrived there, because our taxi driver – like so many Chinese – seemed to love the risk (actually they drive much worse than in South-America where I was never frightened, whereas honestly in China I am). He overtook the other cars at any place, may it be possible or not. When he tried to do so at a construction site where we had a slow truck in front of us, the road was obviously too narrow, in a bad shape and with limited view. This did not prevent our driver from overtaking and what should happen happened: the stones proved not to be the best underground to drive on and with a terrible noise, they caused some damage in the motor. So the driver had to lay with his designer clothes on the dust under the car to repair it. At least he surprised us with his technical skills. And at the end, the delay turned out to be beneficial because while queueing at the hostel check-in, we met Nabeel.

Nabeel is a Computer Science student from Pakistan, currently terminating his Master’s Degree in Istanbul before hopefully going to the US to do a PhD. More important, he loves travelling and despite the tough visa issues for Pakistanis, he has already seen lots of countries in Europe and Asia. We went out for dinner and did the hike on the “Huang Shan” together. In hours of talking, we learned a lot about reality in Pakistan: the different ethnic groups and everyone speaking at least 5 local languages (REAL languages, not dialects), the problems with the amount of drone attacks and the terrorism induced by that, the remote nomadic tribes susceptible to the Taliban, the pros and cons of the Madrassas, the bad international reputation and the role and consequences of the media reporting false facts (may it be on purpose or not). But we also talked about more positive topics like food, the people and the beautiful and safe areas worth travelling to. Thank to Nabeel we have a new country we definitely still have to visit, and we also know which region better not to got to! Apart from that, “Yellow Mountain” was overcrowded but the landscape is stunning …. we just cannot see stairs anymore and are looking towards trekking on natural trails in Nepal. Continue reading

Chengdu and the Three Gorgeous

We know it might get boring if we talk about every single conversation we had with some friendly Chinese. So, once and for all, we’ll give a summary: we had thought the great contact to Chinese was at least partly due to the company of a native speaker. However, Chengdu was the first station in China where we travelled on our own without Wu Jiqing. Of course, having large conversations is much more difficult and telling a taxi driver where we want to go has become a challenge. Nevertheless, we are maybe even more surprised now about the friendliness, helpfulness and open-mindedness of the Chinese we meet. Those speaking at least a little English are keen on practising their language skills and making friends with us. And the others are also interested in talking with us. Although often “hello” is the only word they know, they do not hesitate starting the communication with exactly that word. And by drawing and using signs and hands it works better than you may think. On the other hand, when we need some help or service from them (for example buying train tickets or ordering meals), they are extremely patient and creative. They will call someone by phone who can speak English, draw some images or search for a map. And if you move just two blocks away from the touristy zone, they are super happy a western citizen visits them – and they laugh at our apparently awful Chinese accent.

The first day in Chengdu (where we were housed at the Mix Hostel) we spent walking around and exploring the every day life. Chengdu is an unspectacular but nice city, there is no smog and it has a rather relaxed atmosphere. We liked the “People’s Park” most, a place where the inhabitants enjoy their weekend with a wide variety of activities: dancing, singing, doing maths with the best professor ever, drawing letters with water, watching shows and colliding with their row-boats on a pleasant lake. We also visited the “Wenshu Monastery” and experienced once more the religious life in China, which seems quite strange to European eyes. There are millions of gods and holy places for different tasks, God of Education, Shrine of Wealth, Buddha of this city, Temple of that Province, …. Even young people and students take the opportunity to worship them once they are there, hoping that this old tradition may give them luck as well. Nonetheless, they would not go to such a place only for praying, but if they are there anyway, it cannot cause damage to give it a try. Apart from that, religion does not seem to play any role in the society, it is not even religion in the sense we would understand it, with a clearer approach to explain the most important things and some moral demands derived from the explanations. Here in China, it appears to us that instead of religion there is rather an accepted form of superstition. Continue reading

There is only one way to Hua Shan

“So, please don’t queue in chaos, but stand in a straight line!” – that’s what the attendant told us when we waited for the train from Pingyao to Xi’an. Having said this, she hurried away without looking back. The funny thing was that there were just the 3 of us plus another German backpacker “queueing in chaos”, and that the train stopped 20 m farther, so we had to walk to the entry anyway. Somehow this situation is typical for China. You will be told to follow the rules – may they make sense or not – but no one controls whether you really do it. Nevertheless, Chinese still tend to comply strictly with how they are supposed to behave. On the other hand, if they are not officers, they find it very cool when you don’t.

Sometimes this obsession with rules is a bit annoying, but fortunately we continue meeting great people here. Same day, same place, when we were walking to the train station, James started talking to us and accompanied us. He is a young student who comes to touristy Pingyao at least once a week to improve his English speaking skills. By discussing with him, showing him our passports and laughing a lot, we soon became the main attraction in the whole station and were surrounded by shy, but interested Chinese persons. We really had the impression that they would love participating in the conversation. Once again we experienced that many Chinese are open-minded. Continue reading

A time to make friends™ – Chinese Edition

Our travel from the capital to the famous “Terracotta Warriors” in Xi’an lead us through the historic heart-land of China, where you can experience the Middle-Kingdom as you would draw it in a postcard. The pictures at the end say it all, but they may be better comprehensible with a few explanations. Our first station were the “Yungang Caves”, a Buddhist holy site built around 500 AD under the rule of Turk speaking Chinese emperors. A lot of the once 51000 statues in 45 caves can still be seen, revealing some Indian, Persian and even Greek influence. Also without this knowledge of history of art they are simply beautiful and astonishingly huge. In the same period the temples in “Heng Shan” were constructed masterly on the mountainside. Standing on the balconies, we really understood why this area is sacred and even one of the “Five Great Mountains of Taoism” – we could imagine how the monks woke up, walked out of the door and were overwhelmed by the view over the valley. Other constructors in China had seen those temples not only as a beauty but also as a challenge. This is probably the reason why 10 km further you can find the “Hanging Monastery”. To be honest, it would have been nice to know in advance that the tiny wooden pillars are NOT for supporting the construction but just for decoration. Actually the bridge is stabilized by beams anchored in the stone. Nevertheless, this way it was not a comfortable feeling realizing that the wood is rotten and the pillars are shaky! At the end of the day, we had a short stop at the oldest and highest (67 m) wooden pagoda in the world, located at Fogong Temple in Muta. Moreover, this temple is supposed to contain some of the surprisingly many bones of Buddha, which may even exceed the amount of fragments of Jesus’ cross ….

The next destination was Pingyao (where we had a great hostel in a beautiful old house), the best preserved medieval town in whole China. Walking through the old streets is really nice but the historic center is a bit too touristy. Fortunately there are some great spots around the city. Two hours by bus away we visited “Wang Family Compound”. Until ~100 years ago a very rich Chinese family lived in this city-like place, which nowadays is a popular location for films. Nearby there is a 1400 years old underground castle with at that time more than 10 km of tunnels. But what was even more fascinating was the Zhangbi village. Here time literally seems to have stopped, or at least to go very slow. People are still living in simple mud-houses of up to 800 years of age. You see bikes, mopeds and donkeys in the streets, and the inhabitants practise agriculture like in the past, even though air and land are heavily polluted. Seeing how hundreds of millions of Chinese are still living was extremely valuable, giving us a big contrast to what we had seen before. Continue reading