If I had to sum up my whole trip to China in 2004 with one word it would be WOW! China is unlike anyplace I have ever traveled in the world. Although for the entire time I was there I was totally uncomfortable, overcrowded, altitude sick, and off-center I still had a great time. Why do I travel? I travel to give my brain new experiences, to look at things in a different way. Like a rat running a different maze other than the one he is used to running it stimulates me in a different way and makes me feel alive.
I flew into Hong Kong to start the trip off. For eight days I ended up getting stranded in Hong Kong while I waited to get my Chinese Visa. It turns out that the Hong Kong Visa does not work for China even though Hong Kong is supposed to be a part of China. This whole thing will continue to get more confusing as time went on. I wanted to fly to Tibet but the plane tickets from Hong Kong were obscenely expensive and I could not find anyone to get me a Visa into Tibet. Although Tibet is part of China you need a special permit to get there as well. It would not be until the end of my trip that I would secure a fake Visa to get into Tibet with, but that comes later.
At first being stranded in HK was really getting me down. Even worse than that was the fact I could not seem to get accommodation anywhere I went. After trying about 6 different hostels I ended up sleeping on the floor of a dorm room. It was uncomfortable to say the least, and had I been caught I would have been thrown out on my ear. From what I understand everyone comes into HK on the weekend to party and shop. HK was obscenely expensive on par with NYC and I was hemorrhaging money for the first week. I discovered these ferries that went to outlying islands. It was amazingly enjoyable to spend the day on these islands with nothing but fishing villages. For at least 4 days I did nothing but visit a different island every day. I hiked to the peaks of the island and would spend the day just walking around on footpaths and checking things out. This was by far the most enjoyable part of my trip and I would highly recommend that anyone who goes to HK go and visit. At one of the islands there was even two kiteboarders. I was jonesing to go out on the water and I wished I had brought my kites. It was windy there all the time and HK would actually make a pretty good place for a kite vacation.
I hiked around a lot in Hong Kong, which had big beautiful hills lush with trees right next to the skyscrapers. A Belgian traveler and I hiked to the top of a large hill with a beautiful view then rode this cool tram back down to the bottom. There was an amusement park called Ocean Park that I spent a day at. A huge aquarium was at one side of the park with a large plexiglass tunnel in a tank full of every kind of shark you could imagine. There was a ride called the Abyss that dropped you 20 stories toward the ground. Actually it didn’t really drop you, it accelerated you toward the waiting ground. Every time I rode it I tried not to get an adrenaline rush but even after riding it 10 times it still scared the crap out of me. There was a bunch of other roller coasters that were pretty fun, a movie theater with a seat that tossed you all around, and a great aquarium and marine show where the porpoises worked together to push their trainer 10 feet up out of the water through the air. After Ocean Park I went to a city called Aberdeen, which was very nice and caught a ride on a boat through the fishing village. There was this huge city with all these skyscrapers and then there was hundreds of fishing boats moored in the harbor that people lived in. It was pretty an amazing contrast. After 8 days I caught a 24 hr long train from HK to Shanghai.
The trip to Shanghai was 24 hours, I had the train room all to myself and I made friends with 2 very cool Australians next door named Scott and Diane who I would end up traveling with on and off for the next week or so. Traveling through China you really notice that you’re in China. The people all live in ugly grey and brown housing projects, many of which are abandoned and there is huge superhighways everywhere with no cars on them. We passed countless huge 3 lane overpasses that would shoot up into the air only to end abruptly wherever the funding or political bribes ran out. The Chinese government seems to work very hard at coming up with projects for the people to do and creating work, but does not seem to be terribly practical about what those projects are. The overwhelming feeling that I had in China that never seemed to go away was a feeling that there was just so damn many of these Chinese everywhere you went. Riding the public transportation they would cram 100 people onto a public bus. On the subways it was even worse, so many people packed in such a tight space I often felt like I could not breathe. Many of the Chinese were sick and many wore facemasks to protect themselves from the germs of others.
My first night in Shanghai I got a boat ride in the rain on ‘the Bund’, a channel with lots of skyscrapers with pretty lights. It looked like all the skyscrapers were trying to outdo each other, some of them had full screen TV effects running advertisements the on the side of the skyscraper. Everyone else gathered in the shelter of the boat, I felt content to sit in the rain and watch the light show. The Chinese and the Hong Kong people are very different. The Hong Kong are very proper and clean, the Chinese pick their noses in public, are constantly spitting in the street and litter every chance they get. In HK there was none of that, probably because of the stiff penalties for doing anything improper which were posted everywhere. The coolest thing in Shanghai, hands down was the Science Center. They had dancing industrial car robots and a whole robot show with lots of industrial robots dressed up with funny costumes.
The water in China and HK is no good to drink, even in the airports. Everywhere there is drinking water outlets that disperse superheated water which is scorching hot. That is the Chinese way of saying ‘This water is good to drink because it will burn you badly if you touch it.’ On the trains and in the hotels they also give you pitchers of boiling hot water which I inadvertently drank one of not realizing how hot it was and burned my tongue and lips quite badly.
The state runs all the transportation in China, actually they run just about everything really. On the trains and the public buses the drivers and conductors try to sell you the weirdest things. On the train once this woman spent 30 minutes showing us all these different toys and how they worked. There were no children on the train and yet she managed to sell quite a few toys just with her persistence and her winning smile. From what I understand the Chinese do not make much money from the state so they try to sell things to people to make extra money on the side.
People in china are very conscious about how they appear to others. Even the guy driving the dump truck is wearing a suit. That guy who is in a hole with a pickaxe smashing rocks? He’s in a suit too. It’s the strangest thing to see everyone in suits.
I met a man who works for the Chinese government on a train. He was nice enough to talk to me about the Chinese people. He said that many Chinese people want to have cars but they cannot afford them. When I told him how inexpensive used cars were in the states he was shocked. He did not understand how cars could be so cheap and I explained to him that everyone here wants new cars, not used ones. Only the government has cars and only the people who work for the government get to drive the cars. He also said it was very difficult for Chinese people to leave the country. They would have to be doing government business to be allowed to leave. The more I learned about the Chinese government the less I liked it. It’s really a shame that the Chinese government has been grossly devaluing the Chinese money (Yuan) on the world market just to keep Exports up. It has not served the Chinese people well in my opinion.
All the vehicles in China are horn powered. If the horn is not working, the car or bus or motorcycle simply will not move. In Shanghai the Bund had a crazy sightseeing tunnel that went under the river that was like a disco show with crazy music and lights. I enjoyed riding it late at night when I was the only person in the mono-pod. The Australians and I took several side trips; one of them was to Zough Zhang. It was a zany place with lots of shops with shopkeepers yelling “Looka-looka” at you around every turn. Off the beaten path it was nice though, we spent most of our time wandering around the construction sites and abandoned temples where the tourists were not supposed to go. For fun I’d set my stopwatch to see how long it would take for a tourist to ask to get their picture taken with me. I’m in over 500 Chinese people’s photo albums. Typically I was afforded anywhere from 1-5 minutes between photo shoots.
The Australians and I took the public buses to the Great wall at Simatai. We saw 3 bad accidents on hour-long ride there and were almost involved in a few ourselves. A woman got on near the last stop and said that she was the bus ‘ambassador’. We got caught up in a tourist scam and before we knew it we had agreed to pay $18 to a taxi driver to take us the last 50km to Simatai. The locals have hustling the tourists down to a fine art form. Before you know it you’ve already agreed to their terms. Taxi drivers can never ever be trusted. We did better than another traveling group that refused to pay the taxi and instead tried to catch a public bus. They ended up in a showdown with a tire-iron wielding taxi driver who stood in front of the public bus keeping it from leaving. I guess it’s worth the $18 not to go through that kind of hassle. Simatai was beautiful and was one of my favorite outing on the trip. 4 hours of very scenic hiking on the wall ended by a ¼ mile zip line run over a large reservoir from about 700 ft up that only cost $3.50!
The emperor’s palace was huge and depressing, as was Tiananmen Square, you could just hear the tanks running people over. The summer palace was much nicer than the main palace and it was fun following the construction workers through the areas I was not supposed to be. The Zoo in Beijing was the largest and most depressing I’ve ever been in. All the animals are neurotic and terribly bored and the people just seem to feed them despite the warning signs all over the place. The Bears & Monkeys were particularly good at putting on a show for some food. Their diets are awful with all those Chinese people throwing every manner of junk food and candy.
The rising middle class in China make about $.50 an hour but the lower class make far less, about $.05 an hour. The class discrepancy is huge, and the only people that make much more than $.50 is the foreigners and the government officials. You can ride on a public bus for an hour for about $.10, but chances are you’ll be standing with 50-100 other people. The tourist buses are 100x more than that but at least you’re guaranteed a seat. For my travels in China I opted to ride public transportation, which made the trip far more challenging, and interesting. Most of the best conversations I had were on overcrowded public transportation. Once the Chinese see you’re willing to immerse yourself in their culture they seem to be far more inclined to talk to you.
Everything in China is rough and hard-edged. No padding on the bus seats, the sleeping mattresses are an inch thick. Everyone in China is fighting for their little bit of space in a world overcrowded. Everyone is uncomfortable and has accepted that as part of being alive. A far cry from the US where most excess income is spent on comfort items, nice cars, warm houses and name brand clothes. In China there is lots of name brand clothes, but that are all cheap knockoff that cost about the same as you would pay at Target. That North Face shell that should be $300 is only worth about $10. It says Gore-tex on it and the tags look just like what you’d get from a high end outdoor adventure store, but I assure you its not Gore-tex. There is little truth in advertising in China, let the buyer beware.
The pollution in China was intense and seemed to be everywhere. The water was gross, and the air was always dark and cloudy. Unless a cold front was coming through the sun would never shine except in Tibet where the skies were always clear. People were always clearing their throat and I always felt like I had just smoked a pack of Kools. A lot of the air pollution is caused by the Chinese using poor quality coal and crappy stoves to try to heat their homes. In Tibet they made no attempts to heat their homes or the buses. People just dressed up very warmly everywhere they went.
Beggars in Asia were everywhere. Many of them were grotesque burn victims or quadriplegic. The ones that really broke my heart were the small children who would otherwise be healthy but were forced to push their bodies into grotesque and painful forms and stay there for hours on end to try to get money for their parents. I think that parents like that should be thrown into jail and the key should be lost. There was one child bent over backwards and rolled into a backwards ball and another girl who would bite onto a special device and hoist her body in the air and spin around. It did NOT look comfortable and I’m sure their bodies are going to deform from doing these insane circus tricks all day long. Beggars in Tibet were even more prevalent. One block of walking would often reveal over 20 beggars all asking for money and tugging on your shirt sleeve. At first it really bothered me, then I sat and watched a beggar for a while. Tibetans are very generous and ½ of the people who walked by gave the beggar money. Begging is quite lucrative in Tibet, but not so much in China where the people are far more hardened.
The Beijing amusement park was an interesting experiment in state-run fun. I went on a weekend and at first I thought the park was closed. There were no people and the rides were not running. The park reminded me of a post-apocalyptic amusement park. There were weeds and vines growing on many of the rides, and old tires lying around other rides. There were large fiberglass generic animated animal figures in the lawn with long faded paint and cracked smiles. It only costs $1 to get in and then you have to pay $3-5 for every ride you want to ride. The problem is $5 for a Chinese person that only makes $.05-.50 an hour is a hell of a lot of money. I rode a couple of rides, most of the time I was riding by myself or with one or two other very rich Chinese people. Everyone else just wandered around and ate cotton candy. It was really disturbing. There was a ride that was the opposite of the abyss that shoots you up 20 stories that was fun. Most of the rides they would not let me on because they said I was too tall. Really I think they were just too lazy to sell me a ticket.
The military museum was interesting and I got to climb around in a Chinese tank for $.50. There were lots of American tanks with really bad bondo & paint repairs there. The remains of the American U2 spyplane that caused all that hoopla a few years back was also there. It was funny to see how much China suffered at the hands of Japanese occupation during WWII. Its ironic when you look at the way that China has treated Tibet in the last 40 years. It seems like people never learn and the cycles of abuse continue on and on. I forgot that the US government backed Chang Kai Sheck who fought the Communist party after WWII. No wonder the Chinese hate America, Chang Kai Sheck was no saint and killed a lot of innocent people in his coup.
After 5 days I happily left Bejing and caught a train to Xian. In Xian I found a guy who was able to get me fake paperwork to get into Tibet and 2 plane tickets for a mere $600. Seemed like a good deal until I realized he was pocketing over ½ of that amount. Oh well, it takes balls to forge documents in China, and I’m sure the penalties are steep if he gets caught. Went to see the Terracotta warriors which were several thousand clay sculptures all with different heads and poses. There were also some other sights in Xian to see like the Bell and Drum tower, which had classical Chinese music, played to the sound of car horns in the background. The street cleaning trucks play a digital “Happy Birthday to You” song to warn the cars that they are coming. Took me a while to figure that out, I was wandering around wondering where that happy birthday song was coming from!
The back streets or ‘Hutong’ of China is where the really interesting things are. There are slaughterhouses where the meat hangs on a hook right in the street, and the bucket lady who sells nothing but different sized buckets. The street food is some of the best I’ve ever eaten. Huge racks of steaming wontons and big pots of assorted stews just waiting to be tasted. The restaurants all suck in China, street food is 1/10 the cost and far better. If you don’t count Hong Kong I spent probably a total of $50 for 2 weeks of excellent food and lodging, in America that would only buy one dinner for 2. The massage girls were very aggressive, always grabbing me and dragging me into their little slice of reality. Just the brief glimpse of their dirty and depressing hovels is enough of a warning to stay away. I don’t know what the AIDs statistics are in China, but they certainly can’t be good.
While flying into Tibet I met a Canadian family waiting at the wrong gate for the plane to Lhasa. We were all on the same tour, so when we got to Lhasa after 1½ hour long bus ride from the plane station we all stuck together. The tour guide was not there, which didn’t surprise us too much. There was no one at the airport to check our hard-earned fake documents, which was a terrible disappointment. Once the tour guide showed up after we called him he wanted us to pay for transportation to the hotel, which was supposed to be included in the tour price. I have no idea how much of that $600 was for the tour but the longer things went on this way, the less I thought it was. The altitude sickness hit me very hard. For days I was miserable and nauseous with a splitting headache. My balance was so bad I could barely stand. For the next 3 days I visited temples & monasteries and did as much as I could but I was always out of breath and seeing black spots and feeling like I was going to pass out.
The Monasteries in Tibet were amazing. There was big gold Buddha’s everywhere and many of the tombs that the old Dali Lamas were buried in were made of a heck of a lot of solid gold. Forget robbing Fort Knox, I’m amazed that someone hasn’t taken all the gold out from these tombs, there is no guards and only a couple of monks watching them. The temples were always dark and smelled of burning Yak butter. The Tibetans burn yak butter as an offering and it has a very distinct smell, similar to the distinct smell of the Tibetans themselves. Most Tibetans smell like sour yak milk, which I assure you on long bus rides can test the limits of your nose.
The best day trip I made from Lhasa was one where we left on a public bus for a nearby monastery long before morning. The bus took several hours in the dark and there was no heat. I was freezing with 3 layers of fleece on my body. After 2 hours of climbing back and forth along a high mountain road we finally reached our destination. We had some warm yak milk, which was unbelievably tasty, and then the oldest Canadian son Austin and I spent several hours hiking to the top of the peak. The views from all sides were simply amazing and my camera really did not do them justice. It was my favorite day in Tibet, and one that I’m sure I’ll not forget. The Tibetans were and amazing people, incredibly happy and very tough skinned. I enjoyed their company and sympathized with them and their colonization by the Chinese. Lhasa was much more like China than I expected and more Chinese seem to be moving there every day. In Lhasa the government allows people to take loans from banks to buy cars in an attempt to settle Tibet and a surprising number of people in Tibet have cars, at least when compared to China. Tibet may get separation from China in the next 10 years or so but by then it won’t matter because there will be more Chinese than Tibetans in Tibet. The main reason I think that Chinese are moving to Tibet other than the government incentives and the clean, unpolluted air is the lack of restrictions on breeding. Many Chinese families really don’t like that they can only have one child or they are severely penalized by the government. Seeing how overpopulated China is today, I cannot imagine what it would be like if the government had NOT instituted that policy.
Austin and I rented bikes and headed out to a monastery 8km out of Lhasa which was a great trip, we hiked a little way up the mountain and checked things out and then headed back. I looked very amusing riding this little bicycle around. The flight home was hell, 6 different flights over 2 1/2 days with my lungs filling up with fluid when I descended back to sea level. They lost my luggage, I had to run though detroit and then I missed a flight that I had an hour to make and ended up getting routed through Philadelphia. When I got back to my car it had 2 flat tires. A week later and I’ve finally recovered from the fluid filled lungs and splitting headaches left over from the altitude sickness.
Is China poised to become the next superpower? That is the question I kept asking myself. The Chinese people are ready to have what the rest of the world enjoys. The real question is will the government release enough of their grip to let China become what it needs and wants to become? Given their history I am skeptical. If the Yuan starts being valued on a reasonable level in the world market and the government releases some of their controls on business there is no doubt in my mind that China has the potential to easily surpass the US as the most powerful country in the world.
In this country we have a lot of freedoms that I seem to constantly take for granted. Not the least of which is the freedom to voice my opinion about the government. Whether you are for or against the war in Iraq or support or dislike the current administration you should be thankful that you can at least speak your mind without fear of being thrown in jail for 20 years. If people in China have anything negative to say about the government I sure didn’t hear anything of the sort while I was there and I would be extremely surprised if anyone would talk to a stranger about how they felt about the current government there. Although this is a dark time in American history I still feel that I am a citizen of the best country in the world. I am ashamed of the actions my government has taken in the world recently, but I am proud of this country and of my contributions to this society. I am also very thankful to be an American citizen.