Transsiberian Part 16 - China. All the way to (London) New York.
Just as with Russia, I want to write a quick review of China. At the time of writing this, we've returned to the UK and had some time to convalesce. I think it's a good to review China and the trip as a whole as some of the information may be useful for people planning their own trips, on the transsiberian or otherwise. China, like Russia, is a country that arouses certain feelings in the West, so it's worth reflecting on that.
Lets start with the obvious: food! China has some of the best methods for cooking vegetables (and duck!) in the world. Crossing the border, I gorged myself on greens! I have to say though, Chinese food is a double edged sword. Vegetarian food is slightly harder to find. The Chinese don't really do baked goods, diary, confectionery (or anything sweet really), or decent beer! Refined sugar and ovens seem to have passed China by, which is really odd. In many ways, thinking back over the trip, Russia and Mongolia put up a really good fight for the top food spot.
Tourism in China is an odd thing, as there is an awful lot of local tourism. I think it is here where you see the wealth in-equality the most. Many Chinese people live pretty tough lives. I've heard from separate sources that China has a pretty big divide between it's rich and poor. You can spot the elites the Chinese with money quite easily. When the Western banks crashed, China suffered somewhat because it relies chiefly on exports. It's having issues with it's local domestic market. Even in small places like Yangshou, we saw adverts for the latest plasma TV and all the rest, aimed at locals. Clearly China would like to sell to itself.
Driving in China is a scary prospect I think. Generally, on the trip we've walked everywhere but we took a few long cab trips in China and the standard of driving concerned me at some points. I think that'd purely because I'm used to the UK and the USA in the main, where we have high standards. Do be careful on what Taxi you choose though. They do like to take advantage. Get the hotel you are staying at to book all that sort of stuff. It seems to work better.
The language gap seems a bit more pronounced here than in Russia. Not quite sure why but I got the feeling thing's were more variable in China. I guess that makes sense because it's a big place, and the kinds of people you meet may not have the same levels of education as these you meet in the UK or elsewhere. Again, it's a reflection of the disparity and group selection bias that goes on. In the West, we only really see the Chinese people who made it out; with money, education, contacts, raw talent or some combination of these things or more.
In Russia and Mongolia, Cyrillic markings tend to match the names of the places phonetically, so if you learn Cyrillic a bit, navigation via subway, metro, road signs, etc is easy to do. In China, the pictograms are almost impossible to decipher if you haven't spent years learning the language. It's quite tricky to get your head around. Quite often though, in the tourist places we visited, many things are bi-lingual so it's not always such a problem.
Rural China differs quite a bit from the cities, as you might expect. We spent a bit of time out of the cities and was quite glad of it. The way people lived in Yangshuo seemed quite different to city dwellers, but on a larger scale than back home. If, for example, you compare a person living in London, to say, the Lake District the differences will likely be subtle. In China, I felt it was more pronounced. For example, people in London and the Lakes would likely both use a washing machine to wash clothes. In China, I saw people washing clothes in the river. It's only one data-point but it felt like the gap was bigger.
China seems much more traditional than the West I'd say. They aren't quite as church mad as the Russians it seems. I'm somewhat surprised we didn't see more temples though. China prides itself on it's long continuity though, so it's no wonder that things like the lunar calendar, fortune telling and shrines to the gods still survive.
Chinese control is somewhat scary and sinister. I mentioned the cute police characters, the constant bag checking and all the rest. The Great Firewall of China is a big smack in the face for Tim Berners-Lee and everything the Internet stands for really. To actually come up against it was a little surreal, after joking about it for so long. Seeing Tian'aimen square locked down just adds to the effect. China, it seems, is locked down from both the top down and the bottom up. Every place of note has a party HQ. But also, the Chinese mentality sort of wants this. Some sort of belief in a manifest destiny and the collective over the individual is something the ruling party has taken advantage of.
Despite these things, China is perhaps the easiest place to return to. I could spend days in Shenzen alone. It's not hard to find really interesting things to do. That may simply have to do with the size of the place however. The visa is easier to obtain than the Russian one and there are plenty of websites to help you book hotels and similar. Adding on an extra leg to the classic Transsiberian trip was certainly the right move. I'd certainly go back to see what else the country has to offer.
In my final blog-post, I'll put together a list of the all useful links we used and some tips for booking the various elements of the trip, and things to take and not to take.