Between July 24th and August 7th, my mum and I traveled around China. We started in Shanghai, then took the train over to Hangzhou paroozing around tea villages and the West Lake, before then spending 26 hours on a slow sleeper train taking us up to Tianjin, followed by a last half week in Beijing hiking the Great Wall, visiting art districts and my beloved Tsinghua University, before finally hopping on the bullet train back down to Shanghai. I wanted to show mum both sides of China – the rooftops and the holes-in-the-wall, the rural poor and the urban elite, the slow train and the bullet trains … here’s what she thought.
After spending a fascinating two and a half weeks traveling around China (with a daughter who lives her life at 100 mph), I have taken a moment to jot down some of my thoughts and observations. For anyone intending to visit China, be prepared to:
Talk to the locals
Travelling with someone who speaks the language is a huge advantage and I had the opportunity to speak to many different people from all walks of life. One of those keen to share his perspective on life was a 60-year-old recently retired businessman who we met on a train heading to Beijing. He had worked for many years for a US company – and was now enjoying a hefty pension. He explained that for him and many others, life in China is good. There is plenty to eat, affordable accommodation, free schooling for children, and opportunity to travel on holiday to anywhere in the world. He laughed at the mention of the Sino-US trade war, and said China was so big and produced so many goods … what was there to be afraid of?
Cover a lot of distance
In the UK, we all accept that travelling can be a costly affair even on a budget. In China, there is a way to cut the cost of travelling by making the longer more local (and more sociable) journey on the slow train, a 2 tier system has been created by the vast difference in cost between the fast bullet train (4ish hours from Beijing to Shanghai for £60) and the overnight slow train (26 hours from Beijing to Shanghai for £18 including a hard bed). This neatly divides the haves and have-nots and almost creates a class system in a communist country! The vastness of the cities and the distances between then is hard to grasp even from the window of a train. It takes an hour on the subway just to cross half of Beijing city. Walking across Tiananmen square alone took 30 mins at a brisk pace.
Relax about safety
China felt like one of the safest places I have visited. A harsh penalty for stealing and a (slowly but surely implemented) Social Credit Rating System means that crime is low. The underground stations all have airport style scanners for your bags and there didn’t seem to be groups of youths hanging around late at night. I even managed to leave my phone my daughters laptop in a communal area of the a hostel (accidentally oops) and both items were found safe and untouched at the end of the day.
Be stared at
When I travel on the underground in London, I see a multi-cultural society. In China, often we were the only non-Chinese in sight. The curiosity of the locals is such that they have no qualms about staring unblinkingly at strangers, and often make comments about how blue our eyes are, or how light our skin is. There is usually the assumption that the foreigner doesn’t speak Chinese and it was very funny to see the surprise on their faces when my daughter replied to their comments in Chinese. The staring felt in no way threatening and often I managed to get a return smile with a “ni hao” – in particular from the children and elderly.
Be jostled and pushed
The population density in Shanghai is larger than in London. In my experience, (generally) people in cities have a good awareness of personal space. However the Chinese I encountered seemed to have no awareness of personal space and thought nothing of pushing or jostling you if you were in the way. This was not done in an aggressive way and was simply the absolute need to create a pathway. Similarly, joining a queue was almost a social occasion especially once you got to the front of the queue with people often looking over your shoulder while you made your transaction – no British reserve here!
Observe the young
The Chinese are deeply attached to their technology. Everywhere we went, there was an absence of verbal communication in preference to screen time. We witnessed many young couples in restaurants who didn’t say a single word to each other preferring to look at their screens throughout dinner. It was the same on public transport and in museums etc. Phones are used for maps, purchases, taxis, ordering food and products and it’s almost impossible for someone in Chinese society to function without one, though I am sure as in the UK, there will be a huge swathe of the older generation who manage perfectly well without one! Another notable thing about the young was the waste of food in restaurants. It seemed a regular occurrence for people to order multiple dishes of food and then leave up to 80% of the food.
Look at the art
The art districts in both Shanghai and Beijing are growing rapidly, with Beijing’s 798 being commercialized heavily and promoted as a tourist destination. We were told by a lady in one of the rare shops selling traditional Chinese painting that the Chinese people did not buy the traditional work, it was sold only to the tourists. Chinese people want new modern art for their houses. They want to move away from the past, and at speed. This desire for Western products translates through the whole of the society, including a new found love of yogurt and other dairy products (traditionally, Chinese food has little or no dairy in it).
My two and a half weeks was essentially, a food tour. From noodles to dumplings, to Beijing duck to Northern hot pot, Chinese food was healthy, light and very flavorsome. We ate very little dairy and no deserts although sweet foods are often extremely sweet when you find them. There is an increasingly strong Western influence on the food especially for the young. I found a Starbucks on every corner and in the expensive shopping malls bread and cakes shops. McDonalds seemed to be doing a good trade. Bubble tea – COCO 牛茶 – was a drink on my list of things to try, a cold or warm drink with semi solid bubbles of tapioca with sweetener and flavourings – clearly the wrong way for an English lady to be drinking tea, but an experience nonetheless.