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Dali China

Goodbye China

That’s it: I’m done with China! Over a month has passed since we rolled into Beijing at the end of a terrifyingly fun three weeks on the trans-Siberian railway. But its finally at an end. Tonight I’ll board one final sleeper bus taking me to China’s southern border. There I’ll be stamped out of China (stamped in my passport, you understand. Not physically stamped. I hope), and (with a bit of luck) welcomed with open arms into the country I plan to call home for the next year or more: Vietnam.

Its been four utterly remarkable weeks for me in China. This country is the very definition of an overload to the senses. Sights, sounds, smells – your senses take a daily battering, and its often all you can do to just step back and take a deep breath and take it all in. Travelling here is potentially an exhausting experience. I won’t lie, its left me feeling a little jaded.

The spectacular sunset on top of Huangshan.
The spectacular sunset on top of Huangshan.
The Great Wall of China: Hit or miss.
The Great Wall of China: Hit or miss.
The Army of Terracotta Warriors: Tourist heaven.
The Army of Terracotta Warriors: Tourist heaven.
The fields of Yangshuo.
The fields of Yangshuo.

China is a place of extremes. One minute, you’re standing on top of a mountain watching a sunset inject whole prisms of colour into a sky so close you feel you could reach up and touch it with your fingertips; the next you’re lamenting having to elbow your way through frenzied crowds to get where you want to go next. One minute you’re sucking in the herby aromas that ploom from tea shops lining bustling market streets; the next you’re holding your breath from the unimaginable stench of the ubiquitous public toilets.

I’ve enjoyed travelling China. I wouldn’t utterly rave about it, none of this ‘I’ve loved every minute of it’, because I haven’t. There have been a few times when its all got a bit much and I’ve retreated to the hostel bar for a day of drinking tea and reading my book. But I have enjoyed it.

You should come to China too, if you ever get the chance. This is a country with the ability to leave you completely speechless, for all the right reasons as well as the wrong ones, and trust me when I say you’ll have plenty of both. It’s not a relaxing place. China doesn’t do relaxing. Its chaotic, its crowded, and if you’re not careful that can all become a little overwhelming before long. But take a deep breath, take your time, and the rewards are never far away.

There are just a few things you need to understand before coming here, that’s all. I’ve written a few of them down below, in the hope that, in the same way Gandalf’s wisdom once helped Frodo in them films (I’ve heard they’re turning them into a book now as well. It’ll never catch on), mine will also help you, dear hobbit, as you embark on your intrepid journey:

1. Its Crowded

China is a country of 1.3billion people. That’s 1,300,000,000. That could fill Wembley Stadium 14,500 times (the British can only grasp figures if you express them in terms of football pitches, double decker busses or filling Wembley Stadium).

Think that’s big? Well, its getting bigger. By 2050, there will be 1.5billion here. By then, China will have 219 cities of one million people or more. To put that in perspective, Europe currently has 35 such cities. Britain has just two. Liverpool has less than half a million people.

The result is that this is a crowded place. Yes, China is big. But with the population both growing and converging on cities at such a rate, you need to be ready to battle your way through increasingly dense crowds at pretty much every turn. My advice – be patient, use some common sense, and when the inevitable happens and you feel your patience wearing thin as you’re pinballed around a metro platform, just take a deep breath and suck it up (and don’t be afraid to do some shoving yourself…).

2. Expect To Be Stared At

If you come to China, and you’re a Westernern, you’re going to get stared at. This fact endures as surely as that the earth rotates around the sun, that the moon rotates around the earth, and that Germans rotate around sun loungers with beach towels.

Its charming to begin with, but after a few weeks the charming stares lose their shine. You begin to stare back, wondering what all the fuss is really about. And then finally, after about four weeks, it actually becomes really quite irritating.

The thing is, there’s not much you can do other than deal with it, and indeed this is my advice. Just deal with it. Outside the tourist hot spots westerners are still something of a novelty. At bottom, if you’re not comfortable sticking out like a sore thumb and being stared at and pointed at, then this probably isn’t the best place to come.

3. Smiling Helps!

So, you want to book a bus ticket to a small town you’re not sure how to pronounce. The poor girl behind the ticket counter looks at you terrified – she’s not used to having to serve Westerners. You try and say the name of the town, but she returns a blank, confused stare: she clearly hasn’t understood you.

There are two ways this can go. Either, you can get a bit irritated with her, and with furrowed brow and imperial sentiment and talk louder until she relents and somehow absorbs the ability to speak English. Or, you can accept she’s as confused as you are. Smile at her. Have a laugh about it. And try again.

The more I’ve done this, the more I’ve found people are happy to help. You’ll get there in the end, but don’t blame the people you’re asking for help if they don’t understand you the first time. Just smile, laugh, make it a joke you’re having with them, and give it another shot. Works wonders – trust me.

4. Its Noisy

In such a busy country with so many people, you’re going to need to make yourself heard, right? This seems to be the logic of the locals in China, who are yet to grasp the concept that, from time to time, a little peace and quiet can be a blessing. They shout, they yell, they clear their throats loudly and in public. You’ll never get a moments peace once you’re here.

They’re also yet to appreciate that, when you talk into a mobile phone, modern technology has now evolved to the point that you don’t need to bellow and shout into said phone to make yourself heard. Talking at a perfectly normal level will be quite adequate. I can’t begin to tell you how annoying it is to hear a Chinaman on a sleeper train six bunk berths down from you wailing into his mobile phone at 7am, just as you’re trying to grab an extra hours sleep.

5. Don’t Expect Good Breakfasts

At times the last four weeks have turned into a hunt for the perfect breakfast. For all the food here is tremendous, I despair at the complete lack of common sense in the breakfast department. There can’t be a single decent pork sausage in all China. If you ask for your eggs ‘sunny side up’ that essentially means ‘50% raw’. There is no brown sauce, anywhere. One Hong Kong breakfast outlet served coffee that tasted like concentrated dishwater.

There have been the odd moments of triumph. A lone hash brown at a Hong Kong McDonalds. A decent fried egg in Dali. Acceptable bacon in Xi’an. But these have been rare moments of brilliance in an otherwise perpetual blamange of mediocrity, if not downright disappointment. It’s a bit like the early- to mid-90s Southampton team. Sure, every now and then Le Tissier would pop up with an absolute scorcher of a goal. But he was still in the same team as Francis Benali.