Traveling in Exotic China
In as much as China may be an 'exotic' country in the Far East, those of us who live here, as opposed to those of you who fly in and out in tour groups, know first hand that there is nothing exotic about travelling around China when it comes to all the pushing and shoving that goes on, whether it be in the queues to buy tickets, the headlong rush to enter trains and buses, or the scramble for seats, even when your ticket assigns you a particular numbered one.
|That is the question.|
I am the first to admit that when possible, I fly, because firstly I can afford to, and secondly it is the least of all hassles, even though just like taking buses and trains, things do not always run smoothly.
The first thing to know about travelling in China, is that even on airplanes (sometimes), unless attendants hold a firm reign on the wild horses, people pretty much sit where they please. I was recently in Macao/Macau, and I found the western type mentality a bit of a culture shock. Cars stopping on pedestrian crossings as soon as I walked onto them was one such shock. The extent to which I found myself in a 'foreign' environment however, was only really brought home to me clearly, when upon leaving Macao, I arrived at Shenzhen airport to take a flight to Chengdu. The moment we began to board, I was reminded that I was once again in a different culture.
|Moshan Park Wuhan|
You know that rule that you can only take one piece of personal luggage onto the plane? Well forget it! Not only do the Chinese carry more than one piece of hand luggage, but on that trip, I witnessed one lady entering the plane carrying 6 bags and dragging one suitcase. The poor attendants were running up and down the aisle trying to find places to put everyone's extra luggage, which included shoving them into the amenities cupboards, and stashing them under seats.
Then there were all those people who found that their seats were occupied by others, and had to try and get them back.
|Chibi Villiage Museum landing|
As they engaged in that activity, they of course blocked the aisle. Most fellow passengers finding their way blocked, did not bother to just wait until the situation was sorted out, but began pushing, shoving and climbing over luggage in the aisle, as though the plane was going to take off before they could get to their own particular seat. The attendants of course put on their best smiles and valiantly tried to keep their cool while they got everyone organised.
I have to admit that it has been a while since I have seen that on an airplane, but that trip really brought home to me the cultural difference that can sometimes be observed in China. Although not perhaps so common today, when I first came to China I witnessed it every time I traveled on a plane. Buses and trains were even worse.
|Banks of the Yangtze river Hong Hu|
The hardest thing about buying train tickets in China, is the long queues, especially in the golden weeks - those special holidays in May and October for Labour day and National holiday, as well as Spring Festival Time and the beginning and end of the Summer holidays. While prior to leaving Wuhan I did notice a great improvement in passenger behaviour on my trips to Hong Hu, the fact remains that there is nothing worse for the foreigner than finding himself being forced to sit in an unallocated seat, and then have someone complain about it. I have at times felt that all the resulting fuss and bother was my fault.
I have witnessed foreigners who stand up to Chinese people and firmly inform them in an 'unknown tongue' that the local has to abide by the seating allocation and move to suit the foreigner, but it is my impression that the average Chinese person does not appreciate being ordered around by Western Imperialists. The thing that all Chinese know and that all foreigners must learn, is that in China, he who is timid will probably get walked on. Take taxis for instance.
|Muslim food in Wuhan|
As a general rule, I never take a taxi from any local bus or train station. I always walk a block or two before hailing a taxi. The reason is that the drivers at the train and bus stations are counting on the fact that either you are ignorant of distances and fares in that part of China, or on the Chinese custom of pushing ahead of those in front of you. By accepting the driver's quoted price to your destination, you demonstrate that you like to be able to jump ahead of everyone else, or that you are ignorant of the true fare.
If you must take a taxi, there are some things that you must not do. Firstly you must not agree to any 'special price'. You insist on the meter. Secondly, unless absolutely necessary 'for you', do not put luggage in the boot/trunk of the taxi. Thirdly, you should already know roughly both the time and the cost of the journey. The reason for these warnings is that taxi drivers who quote a special price are cheating. Firstly they cheat you. Secondly they cheat the owner of the taxi (should they merely be the driver), and thirdly, they cheat the government. If you must take 'a' taxi from a place where every driver is quoting prices, cut his quote to 40% and work your way up as is necessary.
A few years ago at Beijing airport, I was grabbed by several drivers while still in the terminal. The drivers were all speaking broken English and offering me deals. One finally said that he would give me an extra special price of only 200rmb to take me to my hotel. It was then that I stopped just shaking my head 'No!' and spoke. I said: Thank you for the special fare. I know it is a special fare, because the fare to Tian an'men is only 75 rmb, and I am only travelling a little way past that. I will give you 100rmb. Finally we settled on 120 rmb.
|Behind the Forbidden City|
Recently at Shanghai Train terminus, while I was looking for the terminus for the No 5 airport shuttle, a female taxi driver approached me. I told her I wasn't interested, and began to walk away. She then told me that I should give her a price, so I told her I would pay 100 rmb to the airport. She immediately said yes. This scared me! For a minute I thought I had misread an article on the internet, and that the price was not 160-200 rmb but 60-100 rmb. Once we go going though, she asked me if 120 rmb would be OK. So I said yes. We got talking and she told me that she gave me this good price because I was the first foreigner to get in her cab during her 15 years of driving. Later I asked her what the real price was, and she said it was approximately 160 rmb. She was a lovely lady - but she was still cheating the boss and the government.
As I wrote in Chapter nine, buying an airplane ticket can be a hassle, but as long as you don't suffer any lengthy delays caused by weather, it is certainly an easy way to get around China, except of course that it usually involves catching a taxi to and from the airport. If you are booked into a hotel of course, that hotel will be able to give you advice on either taking their shuttle bus or catching public shuttles. As long as you don't have a lot of luggage, it is cheap and convenient.
|Climbing bridges in Puqi|
As I have already written, Summer of 2003 saw me headed back to Australia because it appeared that because of SARS, I would not be free to travel. It was on that trip home that I bought a laptop computer and a camera. It was a good trip home and with my new camera I took lots of videos and photographs of my home town, and my family. Unfortunately, one of the boys living in my house later accidentally deleted the first 700 photographs I had taken, and by the time I discovered it, they were long gone from the computer trash bin. All those family shots are now lost to me. That's life! What an easy thing for me to say now. When I discovered what had happened, I was actually so angry that I could barely speak or move, for fear that I might actually kill the guy. I remember sitting at the computer reciting those wonderful Chinese sayings: 'It doesn't matter! It's not important! Do not worry about it!'
After I returned from my impromptu trip home during that Summer, my eldest son paid me a surprise visit. Although he only planned to stay one month, he was actually offered a teaching position in Huangshi, and so ended up staying a total of 3 months. I remember that before he returned to Australia, he made a confession to me. He told me that prior to experiencing China for himself, he had begun to wonder if, given all the things I had written home about, I had turned into a racist. Having experienced life in China for himself however, he was reassured that I was not racist - just honest.
Unfortunately for many people in the West, when expats relate daily life as it is in their new country, 'our western' psychological conditioning causes us to recoil with politically correct abhorrence. When it is you experiencing that life for yourself however, the lens through which you look is not that false 'rose coloured' politically conditioned one worn back home, but rather a lens that is polished by reality itself. It does gives you a whole new perspective on life, and the meaning of 'politically correct' words. In fact, I would have to say that it is only because I was living in China, that I was able to appreciate the power of propaganda and the power of carefully crafted language; and from that I came to be able to see straight through the utter B.S. that is 'political correctness' in the West.
I read recently that John Laws the radio announcer, caused a furore because he said that Chinese drivers were the worst. He stands accused of perpetuating "an unfair stereotype of Chinese people". Living in China as I do, I would like to say that as far as his comments apply to traffic conditions in China, Mr. Laws is quite right. The claim that his statement perpetuates some stereotype, is pure politically correct B.S. To call a liar, a liar, might not be polite, but it is true. Unfortunately, as one can see by studying 'hate speech law' proposals, 'Truth' is no longer considered an acceptable defense in a court of law, to accusations of racism and 'hate speech'.
|Young People Wuhan|
Given all the garbage that one reads in the press about the Chinese government, I for one fail to see how making a comment about Chinese drivers can be worse than the inherent racism involved when various activists assert that Chinese politicians are murderers, fascists and criminals. As Chinese politics and politicians originate at village level, western public railings and accusations against the character of Chinese people in politics; individuals who represent Chinese society; are totally racist. Anyway as this chapter is not about political correctness, let me get back on track.
Apart from my initial arrival in Beijing, and a couple of visits to Wuhan to buy various goods not available in HongHu, the only place I visited in China before SARS broke out, was Chibi town, which lay across the Yangtse River from Hong Hu. My Brother and I visited the Museum there in May of 2003.
After I returned from my summer trip home and before my scheduled return trip to Australia in January 2004, I only visited two places. One was Chibi Town/Village to which I took the three boys who were living with me, and the other place was Huangshi where my son taught English for two months.
When you put it all together, that first year in China resulted in seeing very little of China, and certainly could not be considered to have been a touring holiday. As far as exotic goes however, both back then (2003) and now (2010), I actually find the everyday 'ordinary' sights and life of China far more appealing than the big cities, and certainly far more appealing than the official tourist sites. Seeing, visiting, and wandering in an 'out of the way', tiny, shabby, but regularly patronised Buddhist temple on the banks of the Yangtse, is far more interesting to me, that the beautifully decorated, neon lit, 'gilt leaf' temples found at so many 'tourist sites'. And wandering down back streets and seeing life as it is; and more than that, meeting and talking with the people who live in such places, is much more memorable than sanitized tours.
That's not to say that the official tours are not special. I loved visiting the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace, and have done so twice. Everyone should go to there, but let me give you a tip though. Before visiting either place, go to the internet and find and read: 'Two Years in the Forbidden City' by Princess Der Ling. Honestly, with those stories in mind, it really makes those places come alive.
|Handsome face in Chibi village|
Just recently I visited Emei Shan - Mt. Emei in Sichuan . At 3500 meters it is spectacular. Some things in China are exotic and some are just plain breathtaking. For the most part however, what you see in China, is normal life - for the Chinese.
In January of 2004 in accordance with the original schedule, I returned to Australia on annual holidays. I once again flew out of China from Beijing bound for Brisbane, via Tokyo. Flying home to Australia has always been a bit of a pain. My flights from Beijing required me to spend about 11 hours in Tokyo before the last leg to Australia, and my flights from Wuhan required me to spend an equivalent amount of time in Hong Kong before the final leg home. Although less troublesome, arriving in China has still required an overnight stopover in either Hong Kong or Beijing before flying to Wuhan the next day. Flying may be exotic, but the waiting is a killer.
|Judy at a shrine on the banks of the Yangtze river|
[For the last year I have been living in Baotou in Inner Mongolia and learned first hand not to trust flight schedules. For me, the wisest option is to organise my international flights from Beijing, whilst organising a separate trip the day before to Beijing. No chance of missing the flight that way.]
|Temple on banks of Yangtze River|
It was during that outbound trip in 2004 that I did my second tour of Beijing's Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Great Wall, and the Ming Tombs. It was also the occasion that I met a young man who told me that he had not improved his English even though he had lived in Australia for 4 years. We spent the day together walking around Tokyo while waiting for our flights. We had met because we were both late for the plane to Tokyo, and had to be given the VIP treatment to get us through security and onto the plane in time for departure. I don't know what his reasons for being late were, but mine were a combination of early morning reception staff not understanding what it means when an in house guest arrives at the front desk with his baggage and credit card and says, "I want to check out!" on the very day that the records state that he will check out.
That in itself was not the reason for my tardiness. No! That was thanks to a taxi driver who thought that the foreigner could not figure out that taking a right turn followed by another right turn followed by two left turns followed by two right turns followed by two left turns - repeat repeat repeat - was the normal way to travel to the airport. He was nevertheless an honest driver. He didn't try to cheat the boss or the Government. The extra charge for the trip of course merely came out of his tip. [A Question: Why is it that foreigners stress that one should not 'tip' in China, whilst at the same time complaining about how little Chinese workers are paid?]
|Moshan Park Wuhan|
My return flight to China in January of 2004 was via Hong Kong, where I had to remain overnight before catching a 90 minute flight to Wuhan next day. I know that Hong Kong is a famous place and is also the pride of China, but personally, give me HongHu or SuZhou any day.
My next trip was in April while taking time off in Wuhan. My friends Eunice and Tobias took me to see MoShan Park. To date I've been there three times. The second occasion was with a friend while I was teaching in Wuhan, and during that visit, I met the tourism officer who invited me to return (free of charge) on a 'better day' to take better photos so that I could help promote the park. She also later invited me to visit the 'MoShan Mei Yuan' which I wrote about under the title: Australian Terrorist at DongHu MoShan Mei Yuan.
In May of that year I visited Shenzhen with Zhan Yan, the youngest of my house mates. His mother had invited me to go with the both of them to stay with relatives in Shenzhen, but the week before we left, something came up and she couldn't go.
Eunice and Tobias had invited me to Xi'an, and I had had to refuse their invitation. When Zhan Yan's mother told me that she wasn't going with us, I asked Zhan Yan if he especially wanted me to go with him to his relatives home. I explained that I was not upset by the turn of events, but that I could still go to Xi'an, but that if he particularly wanted me to go with him to Shenzhen, then that's what I would do.
After telling me that he really wanted me to go with him, and given that the train journey would take time; given that I would not be paying hotel or food costs because I would be living in a relatives home; and that we only had a few days, I decided to pay for both of us to fly down. As we were about to set off on our journey, and having made all the travelling arrangements, I got word that his relatives didn't want a foreigner in their house, so I ended up paying for hotel accommodation as well. To add insult to injury, for the 4 days or so that we were in Shenzhen, we didn't even see his relatives. That's life in China!
I was to go through a similar experience a few months later, when QC's mother invited me to travel with him to Tianjin in Summer, and stay with family there. Being a little wiser, I told QC to phone his uncle and see if it was indeed acceptable for me to stay in his home. When word came back that it was not acceptable, I decided not to go to Tianjin, but circumstances arose which caused me to change my mind.
My school had informed that I was required to teach in an on site Summer camp, and given how 'organised' such things are in China, I decided that I needed to 'get away'. I informed the school that I would only come back once I had received exact notice about all the details. So on July 3rd QC and I flew to Tianjin (in TangGu), and despite numerous events which you can read about for yourself , I do have some nice memories of that trip.
Leaving QC to spend the summer with his family, I checked out of my hotel and returned to HongHu to discover that the foreign teachers who had been employed for the summer camps in HongHu, had arrived on time, but that turned out to be a week earlier than the final starting date for the camp at my school, and during this time, they had all been confined to their hotel. I doubt that they thought being couped up in a hotel for a week was very exotic.
During that camp I met a young university student who turned out to be the son of my dry cleaner. After the camp was over it was my great pleasure to dine in their home, and to be invited to the local swimming hole to swim with the family, and it transpired during this time that I mentioned that I intended going to visit the Catholic priests in PuQi - now called Chibi City, and that later in the holidays, I wanted to go to YiChang to visit the three gorges dam.
The outcome of such discussions was that on August 11th 2004 Chen Yang, Tobias, and myself went off to PuQi to visit the Catholic Priests (I wanted to talk to them about abandoned babies); and on August 16th, Chen Yang and I went on a Chinese boat trip up to SanXia (3 gorges).
|Countryside Puqi - Chibi City|
These two trips stand out in my mind as the extreme ends of what might be termed 'exotic'. PuQi - the old name for the City, is an ordinary Chinese town about 2 hours drive from Xindi (HongHu), provided you don't get held up too long at the Ferry Crossing to Chibi town/village. I have some photographs of the bridge we walked over, and of the boys climbing the pylons underneath the bridge. Those photographs, like the ones of the River in YiChang, conjure up images for me of 'old China'. Those are the images which for me are 'exotic'.
|Inside Chu tower Moshan Park Wuhan|
Another exotic experience was attending early morning mass in PuQi. Of course attending a church in China does, if you have a conscience, stir up a lot of guilt. I mean to say, how could a 'rich western foreigner' be cheap come collection time. On the other hand, how can one be ostentatious in giving at collection time. Certainly an awkward position. My conversations with the priests (thanks to the interpreting skills of my friends) were certainly a marvel, although I surprised everyone at one point. I can't right now remember what it was that I wanted to convey to the Priest, but my interpreters were having a very hard time of it. Finally I had a thought. Given that he was an old man and had been in ministry before hardliner communism took hold, I figured that he would probably understand either Greek or Latin. So at one point I used one or other of these languages to convey my meaning; and he understood. That was a laugh!
It is the many conversations that I have had with ordinary Chinese, under ordinary circumstances, that provide me with the fondest memories of China. It's great to be able to describe 'things' that you seen, but it is altogether a different feeling to be able to relate meaningful conversations that one has had.
A few days after our trip to PuQi, Chen Yang and I set off for the Three Gorges. I wish I had seen the place before they flooded it, but not to worry though, living in China means that I get to see all the normal everyday TV programs about the various places in China, and I have had the privilege of watching a documentary on all that happened before the dam really got underway. If you ever have the chance to go there, please do. I took a Chinese tour, which means that I paid about 20% of what you will pay, but then again, you will probably be provided with spacious cabins, western food, and English commentary.
I currently have 1000's of photographs, but of them all, there are three that just take my breath away. One was taken from bank of the creek that is opposite MingXing's home. Taken as the sun was coming up, it is a photograph of a natural 'red coloured' sky. One photograph which I took on Mt. Emei in Sichuan, is surreal because the place just 'sits in the clouds'. The other one, which was taken on my trip to the three gorges, is of the most beautiful blue coloured sky that you could imagine. Mountains on the left and right ran down into the river, and the blue sky beyond was just so blue that everyone thinks that I 'adjusted' the colour. Sometimes nature's beauty is just too unbelievable.
In addition to the wonderful sights I saw that Summer, and the conversations I had with people like the priests from PuQi, the friendship and comraderie of my Chinese traveling companions was what really made my trip.
|Windsor castle in the Hong Hu Countryside|
Everyone needs someone close or at least someone close by to help them get through the drudgery of life. Since my brother was teaching in another province in 2004, and with both MingXing and QC finishing high school that summer, and given that additionally Zhan Yan was about to enter his final year at Junior Middle school and wouldn't be staying with me, I prepared to return to the new semester without having anyone really close to keep me on an even keel. I was about to find myself very much alone. Or so I thought!
Hardcover Publishing inquiries welcomed!
R.P. BenDedek is the pseudonym of an Australian who has been teaching in China since 2003. He currently lives in Baotou in Inner Mongolia. In addition to contributing to Magic City Morning Star News as a columnist, he also is an assisting Editor for the Newspaper.
Additionally, BenDedek is the author of 'The King's Calendar: The Secret of Qumran' at www.kingscalendar.com