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First Impressions Visiting China

Dale Zurawski | 7-14 July 2016

I didn’t want to go to China. Honestly, my assumptions about the place scared me. Our reason for going to China in July, the hottest month of the year, was functional. Recently retired, with the health, wealth, and time to travel, my husband and I were taking a three-month, around-the-world trip beginning with the Trans-Siberian Railroad. The train started in Beijing and ended in Moscow. Being in Beijing and not at least peeking at this Communist super-power seemed like a waste. 


When I faced my apprehensions, I found not many Westerns. Even the tourist attractions had mostly Chinese tourists. But the people in China look diverse. Geoff, my husband, is five feet, nine inches. He was shorter than around 10 percent of the crowd and taller than another 50%. The hairstyles and colors for women range from short with exotic reds and pinks to long and straight. Although I imagined everyone in China thin, I found a large percentage slightly overweight. Nothing compared to American obesity, but many could lose a couple of pounds. 


Also, it was not as crowded as I imagined. There were not masses of Chinese people running around everywhere. The Beijing airport was deserted when we arrived at 7 pm. There was no traffic on our 90-minute drive to our first destination, the Brickyard Retreat, north of Beijing. Their freeways run smoother at 8 am on a Monday morning than the 405  in Los Angeles at 10 pm.    


My biggest concern about China was government control. What was it like to live under the rule of Communism? It is hard to know from a short visit, but I found out China has us beat on surveillance. They not only had fixed cameras but also cameras with roving lenses. They seemed to be proud of their surveillance and had signs to tell you that you are on video. In addition to every temple and monument, the government monitors tollbooths, entry to parking areas, and the roads. I took so many photos of cameras; I was worried the authorities, using face recognition software, would take away my camera when it was time to go.


As far as government control goes, I found the Chinese are not as obedient as I imagined. One morning, our driver, Mr. Yee, was speeding on the eight-lane freeway along with everyone else and even driving on the shoulder to get us through traffic. We drove by a police officer pulling someone over. Mr. Yee moved into the right-hand lane, but then took a look over his shoulder after he passed the officer, and turned onto the shoulder again. 


Along with speeding, Mr. Yee was not intimidated by traffic cameras. I asked about speeding tickets. He reported you get 12 traffic points each year. When you go in to get your yearly license renewed, the officials review your record. You get a fine if you have over 12 points. Speeding is fewer points than an accident where a policeman comes. In addition to visible traffic cameras, there are also hidden cameras. They might have ten cameras in a 5-mile stretch. Mr. Yee had a radar detector with a speaker that called out his speed when a camera recorded it. Since the majority of the cars seem to be speeding, how do the Chinese get around the fines? They developed a black market for traffic points. You can buy a "clean" license plate from someone else.  The driver who likes to speed puts the “clean” plates on his car, and the non-speeder gets the traffic points.. The non-speeder makes money, and the speeder can rack up another 12 points without paying a fine.


You won’t learn about speeding tickets in the guidebooks. You will need a guide to serve as your window into current culture. Our Beijing guide, Connie, told us they do not speak in public about the three “T”s, Tiananmen Square, Taiwan, and Tibet. They have an expression: “T” is for drinking. However, Connie knew about the student massacre in Tiananmen Square from the Internet and answered questions while we were in the car. In Tiananmen Square, she kept to the official history, which did not include the massacre.


Taking us to rural cities outside of Beijing, Miller was our guide. Miller used an Americanized name to help his English speaking visitors. His father worked in a cement factory, so Miller was required to work there for eight years after he graduated from college, long enough to convince him he didn’t want to work in a cement factory. At night Miller studied Chinese history and passed the exam to become a travel guide. After a long day as a guide for Chinese tourists, he taught himself English at night using his computer to qualify as a guide for Westerners. 


Miller told us his wedding cost him roughly 100,000 US$. He was 20,000 US$ short, so his aunt lent him the money to satisfy the bride’s family. He dated his wife for a year before he proposed. Once she accepted, it became a business deal between families. He has one child and his wife’s family babysits during the day. Based on our experience with three guides, the grandparents in China raise the kids while the parents work.      


In addition to a cultural window, the guides will help you decide where to eat. My apprehension about eating in China began 20 years ago.  My friend, Bridgett, told me when she lived in rural China, she had her food flown in monthly. She couldn’t recognize any of the food sold in stores.  


Miller recommended a lunch spot on our way to visit the Hanging Monastery. The small restaurant offered a variety of birds on the lunch menu; turtledove, sparrow, and wild pigeon. We never saw dog on a menu, but you have serious worries if you are a bird in China. And don’t expect soy sauce or rice with your meals. In northern China, they serve noodles with vinegar. The prices were $4-$5 for a family size portion, but you’ll need a guide when it comes to ordering food unless you are fearless. Another cafeteria-style lunch buffet consisted of duck heads, duck kidneys, duck wings, and duck necks. Don't knock it till you try it: I won't say anything other than it looked fresh. 


More important than where to eat, your guides recommend where to go to the bathroom. We took one bathroom break at a rest stop along the freeway between Ping Yao and Datong that had squat toilets. Squat toilets are used in bathrooms without the porcelain toilet bowls we are accustomed to sitting on. Instead, you put your feet on two porcelain pads on both sides of a dark, wet hole. There is a tank of water above you for flushing but nothing to used for hanging a purse while perching in a deep knee bend. Bathrooms required you bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer. There was water for flushing the toilets and pools of clean water on the floor, but none in the sink.  


But problems lie deeper than just a creepy rest stop bathroom. China is a developing country when it comes to their municipal sewer systems. The Hutong neighborhood, where we stayed in Beijing, home to 600,000, is still on septic. And that is in the center of the capital of China! They may have built nine subway lines below Beijing between 2007 and 2015, but their sewer infrastructure is poor.


You can’t write a travel piece on your first visit to northern China without mentioning their famous sights.  You don’t need to worry about seeing ancient, impressive sights. Our guide, Miller, was thoroughly trained in all 10,000 years of Chinese history. Guides drag you through so many ancient Buddhist temples you will want to shoot yourself. And forget knocking off a few sights from your daily itinerary, you may get off for one day, but that means you will leave a little earlier the next day to squeeze in that first, oldest, or largest something, ever built anywhere. 


The most famous sight of all, The Great Wall of China, deserves a word or two. Even in 93-degree heat and 76 percent humidity, it was impressive in its magnitude and steep. It goes up and down the ridge of a mountain range; that means walking the Wall is climbing the Great Wall. 


Having experienced northern China for thirteen days, would I go back? Sure. You can’t judge the United States by seeing New York City and Williamsburg. I’d take another look, talk to more guides, and be a lot less apprehensive. The one thing that stands out in my mind, the government might be into control, but the people have a healthy disregard for the rules.

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