China - impressions
The initial amazement we felt at how developed the country remained and grew till the very last day of the trip. If you might be thinking that China is still growing to become the next world power and the peasants of rural China is still getting ready to embrace the technology, come to China and wake up – it looks already accomplished. You would hardly see any straw hats, but a lot of iPhones and omnipresent technology and automation (huge screens, TVs in every single type of public transport, all sorts of vendor machines, almost completely automated public infrastructure places and so on). The sparkling clean Shanghai metro would look any single metro in Europe look sadly inferior. CCTV was telling us in its special channels for foreign audience about all the important infrastructure projects that China was sponsoring in Africa to help the poor countries out – a lot of beautiful talk through which you can easily read far-reaching strategic alliances. And the list could go on and on…
One unmistakble symptom of this rising affluence is the booming local tourism market. Unlike in India or Nepal where the local craftsmen, taxi drivers, hotel agents, etc. will fight for their lives to snatch you from competitor, their Chinese counterparts seem to hardly care as the foreign tourist is such a tiny drop in the vast ocean of the cashed-up local tourists. The culture of traveling among the locals is also very distinct and same wherever you go: only with a huge group, only with a guide, with an obligatory umbrella, only to places that are equipped with proper infrastructure (stairs to climb up mountains, elevators to go down), buy all the obligatory souvenirs (don’t leave the Great Wall without the “I climbed the Great Wall” T-shirt), buy the colorful big box of a local delicacy (each piece of it wrapped individually inside another wrapping and another wrapping), eat your instant noodles (btw boiled water is available at every single bus/train station in China and as to noodles, the guy who while on a train had a brilliant idea of producing them in a disposable paper bowl instead of simple cover is now a billionair).
Still a country of contrasts...
The state and local entrepreneurs are responding to all these local tourist’s preferences by equipping all the potential places of interest accordingly so that there is hardly any mountain left in China without granite stairs, you won’t access any single lake without a fee (the most outrageous one was when they charged us for a lake that we had an opportunity to look at from the windows of our van in Tibet). And of course everywhere you go you will find plenty of stuff to buy (both snacks and delicacies to take back home) in those fancy plastic/paper wrappings (the amount of which would make ecology-aware people shudder).
The fees is another notable point of traveling China, and namely – they are very, very, painfully high, and charged as mentioned above for virtually everything, even some historic villages and huge scenic areas (where they get on the bus to charge exclusively tourists while locals are staring with curiosity).
Something else you better do if you plan to extensively travel China (outside the mainstream route Beijing – Shanghai – Guilin – Hong Kong) is learn some basic Chinese. Before we came to China, we heard stories from fellow travellers that China was extremely difficult to travel due to the language and that some people were giving up on it after getting stuck in some villages for the simple inability to get the right bus out. Well, we didn’t experience it like that at all – in fact our impression was that everything was quite smooth, but in many many (in fact the majority) of places we relied on the arsenal of useful vocabulary that I had learnt by that time. “Chinese Easy Peasy” would cover most topics, and the dictionary and daily practice would complete the trick. Word book from LP might be useful for some people but proved quite useless to me as it’s hard to use phrases/sentenses which you have no idea what words/ideas they consist of. As to English, in big cities some people do speak a bit of it (very few - amazingly a lot) and those who speak it usually tend to be very sweet and helpful to foreigners offering help even before you ask.
Transport in China was comfortable and civilized by any standards (except for the most disgusting toilets at the stations you can possibly imagine), but the train reservation system is an archaic nuisance (as illustrated in many examples above).
Food was great although just like in India after some time we got tired quite quickly of multiple but very similar stir-fried dishes. Luckily we developed quite an addiction to the noodle soup and now that we are out of China we really miss its rich flavour and nourishing texture, all this pleasure for the symbolic price of half a euro.
There's usually so much food left after a typical Chinese meal. "Waste-free" is definitely not the approach in this country. It's especially appalling in terms of tons of plastic being thrown away daily.
The most notable and very personal impression from this China journey was how this country set some new thresholds for us. If India had set our lowest thresholds (of tolerance towards dirt, lack of hygiene and basic elements of civilization), China was the opposite - it set “higher” thresholds. (1) Emei Shan has tested our toughness and set a totally new benchmark for it (even the 8-day Annapurna trek in Nepal we recently completed hasn’t come close). From then on “emei shans” is the measure we use for the toughness of a specific experience. (2) Train trips with a hard seat or with no seat have set our threshold for endurance/patience.
As to the general impressions, culture-wise we expected a lot of authentic stuff but there is less and less of it in China as the country is becoming increasingly similar to any developed nation. But we did see a lot of absolutely amazing scenic places so for the nature lovers it’s still a great destination. (Zhangjiajie is definitely the most amazing place we've seen in our whole life so far.) The people are quite nice (most of them quite helpful, except for some women at the transport ticket offices). One last note – every single foreigner we met on this trip had a firm resolution by that stage of their travel in China to learn Chinese… Apparently seeing all this prospect of future grandeur makes people worried, and in our very-very personal experience - quite rightly… If only the Chinese would use less plastic :-(…