Saturday, November 30, 2013

Final thoughts on China (China Trip part 6 of 6)

In this last post on our adventures in China (our first post is here) we will mention some of the interesting similarities and differences that we observed. This contrast may be a bit weird as this is from the eyes of two South Africans who have been living in Sweden for 4 years traveling with two Swedes (one native the other from Latvia with Russian ancestry) and one Chinese person. As South Africans we pride ourselves on cultural diversity. This said, China is quite different from any place we have visited thus far.

The biggest difference is probably the language. We are not good at learning new languages and between Carina and I we can probably communicate in 2.8 languages. All of these are in the Germanic language group. Both the written and spoken Chinese language is thus completely unintelligible to us while less than 1% of the Chinese population speaks English (we assume that a smaller proportion of people speak either Swedish or Afrikaans but we did meet some Dutch speaking Chinese). Without a Chinese guide we would have struggled quite a lot. We also saw places where few westerners are able to travel, mostly due to the language barrier. This said, the people are very friendly and the international language of smiling and pointing does work. Also, spoken and written language are not at all important when you want to negotiate the purchase of anything. We however recommend that people who can only speak Germanic type languages travel in China with a Chinese friend since the experience becomes much richer (thanks Zheya).
hen in China it is important to remember that (with or without a guide), almost everything is negotiable and almost everything is for sale. The prices are of course a bit higher for people looking like us but even we could, at some places, get a “discount” of up to 70% on the printed price. With Zheya and sometimes the drivers negotiating we paid less for many souvenirs, tour guides, travel, river expeditions, various items of clothing, luggage and even room rates at the hotels. The price on food items were mostly not negotiated, but food is, in any case, extremely cheap in China.
Buying drinks from friendly shop owner
Throughout the previous 5 posts we have often referred to what we ate. One constant however, was that no meal was really small. It was often decided that we would have only a few bites to eat at some or other restaurant but these “few bites” turned into at least one dish for each member of the group +1 more dish to make sure it is enough. In addition we often had a bowl of rice or noodles in addition to these. All the dishes are shared, usually traveling past you on a lazy Susan. We struggled to finish the large amounts of food. In contrast, most of the Chinese in our group struggle to eat the same amount of western food here in Sweden. We thus speculate that the food in the west is much more rich in calories and thus make Chinese people uncomfortable to eat as much while the food in China is less rich but you need to eat a larger volume. Whatever the difference we ate a lot of different and interesting kinds of food. Some quite common in Sweden and South Africa others less so.

Eating was of course not straightforward. Every time we wanted to move a tasty morsel from the plate in front of us (we had a few seconds before it rotated away again), we needed to use chopsticks to do so. This is not a skill that we were born with and often we had a few onlookers in the distance giggling at our progress. Carina did bring a couple of plastic forks in case we started to starve but we rarely used them. More common were the use of our hands to pick up foodstuffs, we are from Africa after all.
2nd day with chopsticks

Another interesting difference is the unexpected temperature of accompanying drinks. We knew that breakfast is predominantly savory and were prepared for a range of unexpected flavors but we were often surprised by the temperature. The first incident that stood out was our first meal in China. We went to a restaurant to have porridge for lunch (both savory and sweet LINK). This was just after we walked in 30°+ temperatures and high humidity. Both Mats and Carina asked for water and both got steaming cups of boiled water. This is very common and all restaurants serve warm water. We also had a number of cold milk based teas, warm corn juice and once warm orange juice.
Warm corn juice

It is common practice to always boil tap water before drinking. This makes the water somewhat safer to drink, although it does not deal with the heavy metal pollutants. Bottled water is thus also extremely common (and quite cheap). Drinking water from the tap is however something that we take for granted. This was one of the issues in China that we found affecting how we go about our day much more than expected. Before traveling anywhere you need to either fill your bottles with boiled water or specifically stop somewhere to buy water. Also before you go to bed you need to boil water if you are used to have a sip during the night. Brushing your teeth is another conundrum. Most Chinese we spoke to say it is OK if you do not swallow the water. But if the problem is bacteria and other organic substances, having these in your mouth is disconcerting. Brushing using a cup of boiled water is also not as easy if you are used to flowing water from a tap. It is strange that we are so used to the luxury of clean tap water that when we need to boil it, it has such a big impact on our planning. When we came back we appreciated this luxury a lot more but unfortunately you quickly forget how nice and easy some things are when you are use to it…
Nongfu Spring Water - our favorite brand

Unfortunately we found that littering is OK in China. Sweden is extremely clean in this regard and I think they place a lot of emphasis on recycling and dealing with trash. South Africa is a bit more like China in this respect but not as bad. The huge number of people in the cities could be one reason for all the litter. If the same proportion of people litter in China as in South Africa the absolute amount of trash will be much higher. But we also found that it is quite common in the countryside areas to find a lot of litter all around. A small group of Chinese people who we polled indicated that people do not see littering as a problem and it may remain so for a while yet.

There are a number of negative effects of a large population such as in China. However, it is also incredibly awesome that a country is able to run reasonably efficiently with 1.35 billion people. The contrast in the density of people in Sweden and China is big. Walking on the street any time of day there are people. In some areas the noise is incredible just from the amount of people. We were often swept along in a crowd of people moving from one area to another without too much say in which direction we were going. This was especially true in some areas in the Forbidden city and even more so in the subway. Our slightly taller stature did help to keep the group together although we often lost sight of Zheya (she was however always able to see us and came to get us again). In spite of this it was reasonably easy to use public transport. This is just one point in case that the Chinese government is able to cope with the large population. Of course there are many things that are not perfect in China (not that there is any perfect country), but just thinking about the numbers of people it is an incredible feat that it actually functions as one country.
Crowds visiting the summer palace
Lively shopping street at night

It is also clear that people are moving into the cities. There are multiple high rise buildings constructed everywhere. There is also a lot of construction of roads. In most of the tourist areas many hotels are currently being built.

During our time in China, road construction had some effect on our travel and caused a bit of emotional stress for some members in our group. The traffic in China is heavy on finished roads. On roads under construction it is worse. The people bend the rules when driving (never speeding as in South Africa) and a lot of weaving through traffic occurs. This caused great upset for the law abiding Swedish member in our group who would still be in the traffic jam if it was up to him to drive. We also had problems when crossing the road on foot. Here big groups of people cross, not always at pedestrian crossings, and the slow moving traffic comes to a halt until the group has passed. One member of our group usually remained on the other side until someone went to collect him and calmly talking him through the traffic.
After a few hours in traffic - new bridge in distance
Very light traffic

Apart from these small problems we were able to go to most places. We were only denied to stay at one hotel. Apparently no foreigners were allowed. We however suspect that this is more about regulations for hotels than any dislike towards us. Most hotels were quite nice. One difference between hotels in Sweden and in China is that people are allowed to smoke in most buildings. Many rooms therefore had a slight odour of old smoke. A larger difference is however the window from the bedroom into the bathroom. Many hotel rooms had these (some opaque some clear) and you could therefore see whatever someone was doing in the bathroom.
Room with a view

All hotel rooms where we stayed had western style toilets (some visible from the bed as mentioned). More common is however squat toilets. As South Africans we have experience with western style toilets, pit toilets, outhouses and the veldtie. The last one, at least to some extent, helped us prepare for the squat toilets. Just to make sure we had the correct technique, Carina and I looked at a number of youtube videos with helpful instructions (e.g. it is important not to lift your heels when squatting also remember to always take your own paper).
All in all we enjoyed the vacation very much. 

We clearly stood out from the crowd and were often stared at, laughed at and photographed. There is no problem with this since we did the same and have way more photos of random Chinese people. It is definitely one of the best experiences we have had and highly recommended that everyone find a Chinese friend and visit this lovely country.

We hope to return and experience more.


p.s. Thanks again to all our travel companions, we had a lovely time with you guys.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Demons in the mountains... (China Trip part 5 of 6)

The final part of our journey in China was a “spiritual” leg (see map). We started off from Taiyuan and drove through the Wutai mountains to to the sacred temples of Wutai Shan. The Wutai mountains are one of the Four Sacred Mountains in Chinese Buddhism. Each of the four sacred mountains are viewed as the home of one of the four great Bodhisattvas; Wutai is the home of the Bodhisattva of wisdom. Buddhist monks from all over the world journey here to become enlightened. There is also a local population of monks who capitalise on the tourists (us) that visit the temples. The whole experience in the mountains did feel a bit like the Las Vegas of Buddhism with many gold plated hotels and neon lights promising the chance to become spiritual. We visited quite a number of different temples and saw many many buddha statues, prayer wheels, incense burners, prayer flags, etc.

The second day in the mountains we attempted to squash over a 1000 demons by climbing the 1052 (Carina’s count) steps to the Luohou temple. This was quite a grueling task. However, we passed a number of people much more committed than us, who knelt down on each step and kissed it while proceeding up the mountain. At the top of the mountain we were rewarded with a beautiful view and yet another temple.

We went down with a open cable car enjoying the view and light rain.

On our way to Datong city (our next destination), we passed the hanging temples of Xuankong. This was unfortunately closed due to the heavy rains and we thus need to go back to visit. Below is a picture of the temple in the background (the temple is actually built on the side of the mountain!).

Our next overnight stop was a town in Ying County, close to Datong city of which the main attraction was a wooden tower. This tower, called the Fogong Temple Pagoda, was built without the use of any nails, screws or metal. Each wooden piece fitted into each other like a large wooden puzzle. The tower is unfortunately aging (built in 1056) and its intricate structure makes it impossible to repair without destroying the whole structure.

We had some nice food in this town. This area is famous for their ribbon like noodles. We also had a memorable and, spicy fish, dish with tofu and a interesting “salad” - aloe. The aloe is not bitter at and has a slightly sweet and fresh taste.

The next day we visited the Yungang Grottoes. This is a world heritage site and has some of the oldest evidence (5th century AD) of buddhism establishing in China. There are 252 grottoes with more than 51,000 Buddha statues and statuettes cut into the sandstone. We were also entertained by a story performed in the traditional shadow play style.

Also at the grottoes is a bronze replica of the Ficus Sycomorus tree under which the Buddha sat when he became enlightened. Below is a picture for Jaco who would appreciate this relic.

After the visit to the grottoes we went to Datong city to catch the overnight train back to Beijing. We slept in a very nice comfortable compartment but were rudely awakened at 4 in the morning to exit the train on arrival in Beijing, to start yet another hard day of touristing (at the Forbidden city - see the conclusion of our China trip here)

The next and last post will be on our general impressions as foreign demons in the land of ancient wisdom...