Welcome to China!
At last, I’m caught up enough on blogging write about the country I’m actually in 🙂
You know what? Being back in China is great. It feels like at last, I’m in another foreign country. Not to say that Korea isn’t foreign – but Korea and Japan are so similar in so many ways that to someone who’s now spent nearly 3 years of his life living there, it never really had that “Everything here is SOOO different” type of effect.
But China. China is freakin’ different.
So before starting off with the narrative, I wanted to mention a few observations I’ve jotted down in my handy little pocket notebook. Apologies again if I’m flat-out repeating myself from last time I was here; quite a bit of time has passed since then, and this time, I’m traveling alone. I’m also looking at everything through the eyes of someone who’s been to significantly more countries during their adult life than last time.
• In Japan and Korea, being a foreigner is a trait that sometimes yields extra attention. But only sometimes. In China on the other hand, people literally look at me like I’m from another planet. They simply can’t believe their eyes. It doesn’t bother me – but it does feel just a LITTLE odd from time to time. As if I’m under constant scrutiny from those around me, so I have to be particularly careful about watching my actions. No picking my nose in public here! 😆
• Last time I came to China was before the Olympics. The number of construction cranes was staggering. It seemed like buildings were being thrown up every second block. Yet shockingly, several years later, here I am again and little has changed – there are STILL wall-to-wall cranes, even in the “lesser-known big cities” like Jinan and Shijiazhuang. To say that China’s economy is booming would be quite an understatement.
• On the other hand, for every new skyscraper that’s being put up there seem to be 20 half-destroyed, abandoned old buildings. Many sidewalks are so torn up or littered with bricks that you can barely even walk – and have no choice but to proceed in the streets. I wonder if this is a side-effect of all the revamping that’s going on, or if it’s simply the “third-world country” look – certainly in Egypt, the situation was similar.
• I’m SOOOO grateful that I can read Kanji. Very much unlike Japan (and most of the Western world), in many places, there’s not a Roman letter in sight. And although the Chinese characters are often different from their Japanese counterparts, there are enough similarities that I can actually understand a pretty good percentage of what I see around me. And even when I can’t understand a character, having a sense for the radicals and how they’re constructed makes it worlds easier to discern one from the next. It’s been endlessly helpful, from reading train timetables to finding places to stay.
• Did you know that there’s no legal smoking OR drinking age in China?? How crazy is that!
• Aside from the first hotel I stayed at, I’ve not yet found a single Western toilet, anywhere. Not one. So far they’ve all been squatters, even in McDonald’s and KFC. I’ve also not yet found a single toilet that provides toilet paper – with the exception of McDonald’s – nor have I been able to locate rolls for purchase in the few little markets I’ve searched. I was left with little recourse but to pilfer the remainder of the roll at Micky D’s…and have been carrying it around ever since.
• I just paid 5 yuan for 5 apples. That’s INSANE. In Japan, a single apple would’ve cost upwards of 20!
• While the culture of hawking massive loogies all over the streets is certainly just as intense as I remember, the “waiting in line” culture seems much, much better. I have memories of lines being nothing less than a mad dash, with people literally trampling each other and throwing elbows to get a spot ahead of those who’d arrived earlier. And although there still are plenty of cutters out there, I have to say that I’m impressed at how relatively orderly things seem to be. Lonely Planet mentioned that the government has been putting forth great efforts to stop the public spitting, horn-honking, and line-cutting habits. With regards to the latter, I have to say they appear to’ve done well.
• Crossing the street in China is chaos. People typically (but not always) respect the red lights, but nobody respects the crosswalks, and many of the streets in major cities appear as a mish-mash of pedestrians and cars rather than the orderly lanes we know in the West. Of course, China is still nothing compared to Cairo. I’ve NEVER seen a street-crossing culture like Cairo. I should really post a video one of these days…
• The Internet in China is horrible! I pretty much expected that there’d be no random WiFi signals, but what I didn’t expect was that even the ‘net in pay-per-use web cafes (which are so filled with smoke I simply cannot function) is painfully slow, and a huge variety of pages banned by the Great Firewall of China (including WordPress and Wikipedia). Thank God for a handy little Firefox plugin called Gladder – Great Ladder – which allows you to “climb” your way over the Firewall and view such pages unobstructed 😉
• Also along the lines of Internet, my Asus WL-530g travel router has been an absolute godsend. Although both of the cheap little guesthouses I’ve stayed at so far didn’t provide access, they did have connections for the computers at the front desk. And with a brief game of creative charades I managed to describe to the clerk my intentions – and hook up the router – effectively creating my own personal WiFi network. I knew this thing would come in handy when I ordered it, but I had no idea just how much…I’d simply thought of eliminating the lines for wired connections in hostels, not of creating networks in hotels that don’t normally even provide them for guests!
Alright…that about wraps up my observations list for now. Next time, I’ll get back to the narrative**