Patriotism is displayed in Tiananmen Square where hundreds of cameras and undercover officers watch every move.
By the end of our one month journey through China we were ready to leave Asia. This is partly to blame for our long stay in this part of the world where most cultures are very different than ours. China, though, is where we experienced the most culture shock.
On one hand China is very modern. We were surprised to see how much capitalism has taken root. In many cities there are luxury malls filled with stores like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Addidas. People drive nice cars and those on motorbikes prefer high-tech electric bikes to save on gas and lessen pollution. Roads are paved in much of the country, and road rules are followed more regularly than the rest of southeast Asia. Beijing even had a new, clean and timely subway system.
The typical electric motorbike.
On the other hand, with the culture changing so rapidly for China's population of 1.2 billion people there are some obvious struggles. The country is under constant construction. Pollution is horrendous with a cloud hanging over most cities. Recent clashes between the minority Uighurin people and Han Chinese in the Xinjiang province showcase how some minority groups feel they're being left behind while others prosper. But the most apparent dichotomy to us was how the new materialistic culture is clashing with many aspects of traditional Chinese culture.
People in China have adopted the concept of an inner and outer circle. Those in the inner circle include family members, friends and colleagues, and they treat each other with respect and warmth. Those in the outer circle, strangers and tourists, are treated much differently. The Chinese find it odd that people in western cultures are kind to people they don't know.
As visitors, it was immediately clear we were in the outer circle. We were rarely greeted with a smile from a stranger. We had very little conversation with locals. We got pushed often as there is no such thing as a line, and when shoved there was no "excuse me", as that concept does not exist. A local told us there are too many people in China so in order to get anywhere you have to push. Never-the-less, this is an aspect of the culture we had trouble adapting to.
China instated the one child policy in 1978, with an exception to farmers. The main objective was to keep control on the population growth, but it resulted in what is being called the "emperor and empress syndrome." Many only children, excluding Elizabeth of course, don't play well with others, nor do they learn how to share from a young age.
In contrast, when we visited the villages of the Bai and Naxi minority people we were greeted with smiles and fun curiosity. A volunteer we met from the US told us most of his work is with the minority villages, because there is little interest in philanthropy from other Chinese people regardless of their need and the fact that those in need may be strangers in the outer circle.
A Chinese man stands over our friend Niamh in a train station. Yup....she's white and she has red hair....a freak of nature! It was common for locals to stare at us while intensely observing our visual differences. In fact, many times we were asked to be a part of family pictures since we were so unusual!
The biggest culture clash for us was related to personal hygiene and sanitation. Guttural snorting and spitting is common place. Peeing and pooping on the street is not a surprise. Young children are often spotted with slitted pants so they can easily pee or poop in any location, which we saw in restaurants, at the airport and curbside. The narrow canals that run through most villages are used for everything from washing dishes to doing laundry to brushing teeth and yes, as a toilet. It is no surprise that diseases like the swine flu and sars spread so quickly through China. The government should really start a grassroots effort to change the hygiene culture and better inform people that their sanitation practices contribute to transmitting illness, instead of blaming other countries like Mexico, which they later issued an apology.
Tushies are on display everywhere.
Men often walk around with their shirts up over their belly to cool off.
For three weeks we were on a tour with Gap Adventures as China is a pretty difficult country to travel around independently. We traveled with a great group of fifteen people including Dave's cousins Pat and Ellen and Dave's mom Edie.
Now for some trip high and low lights:
To our surprise, Beijing seemed to have a lot of order. We were expecting another Hanoi, Vietnam, but Beijing is very modern, less chaotic and thankfully no honking.
We visited a section of the Great Wall of China a couple of hours outside of Beijing. We climbed thousands of steps and experienced the Wall's girth and power, originally used to ward off Mongols.
Pat and Ellen take on the Great Wall.
Tianamen square is best known for the pro-democracy protests in 1989 that resulted in many deaths. It was interesting to hear the government's stance on the incident, that it was a necessary step (i.e. suppression of pro-democratic forces) to achieve the economic progress many citizens enjoy today. We were warned before visiting not to talk about anything sensitive since there are hundreds of cameras and microphones visible throughout and many plain clothed government agents monitoring the square.
Tiananmen Square is surrounded by government buildings and full of tourist groups.
A boy and his father smile for the camera as they enter the Forbidden City.
The Forbidden City, at one end of the square, was constructed from 1406 to 1420. It served as a home for many Chinese emperors. It was forbidden for commoners to enter the area until the emperor system crumbled. We don't think the commoners were missing much.
The main square of the Forbidden City.
A bridge over the first moat in the Forbidden City.
I (Elizabeth) am obsessed with watching the Olympics. I can tell you every fact about every gymnast, diver and archist, so we had to check out where Michael Phelps won more than a pound of gold.
Team USA on the way to the Olympic Stadiums in Beijing.
The Bird's Nest used for the opening and closing ceremonies was much more exquisite from the outside. Inside prep work was being done for a summer concert.
Aquatic Water Cube.
All diving and swimming events took place here.
The Summer Palace was once occupied by Chinese emperors as a place to vacation. Now it is a place for everyone to picnic, take a stroll or boat ride.
A Summer Palace transport boat with the main palace in the background.
Some other things we saw in Beijing...
Beijing's night market is popular since outside temperatures are more bearable in the evening.
Meat on a stick is the food of choice.
How about some live scorpians? You'll find everything from bugs to rats to dog and starfish on a stick. Yuck!
NBA star Yao Ming is everywhere. The Chinese love NBA!
Forget rugby, futbol and cricket, the Chinese like to play basketball. Chinese men and women are generally much taller and heavier than people from other Asian countries.
Elizabeth enjoys this shoe statue until someone on our trip told us they saw a kid peeing in it.
We took three overnight trains in China. The amenities leave something to be desired with bunk beds three stories high and some rather slippery squat toilets.
En route to Xi'an. It was a first time experience for Edie who lessened the pain with shots of rice wine!
An army of terracotta warriors, chariots and horses was discovered below the ground in 1974 by a farmer digging a well. A major excavation, which continues today, uncovered thousands of statues that had been buried for more than 2000 years after being destroyed by invaders. The statues were created to protect the tomb of Emperor Shi Huang Di and provide him an army to rule his empire in the afterlife. The terracotta army is actually only a small part of the whole tomb which covers many square kilometers. We don't understand how an army made of clay was supposed to help the emperor, but who are we to judge?
This is one of three massive buildings filled with Terracotta Warriors that have been unveiled and pieced together.
Broken Terracotta Warriors are recreated by archeologists.
Like many cities in China, the new and old city of Xi'an is divided by a wall. Some of what we saw inside and out ...
Used in early times to keep danger out, Xi'an's wall now divides the new and old city. Bikers and walkers can go on top, or there is a path around the outside.
Morning Ti Chi in Xi'an.
Cha Cha in Xi'an.
Xi'an has an active Muslim quarter with restaurants and nick knack shops.
Xi'an's ancient bell tower and drum tower light up nicely at night, especially against the uber new neon mall signs and McD's. Ah, the signs of progress.
Scientists at the Giant Panda Breeding Research Center are studying and nurturing the endangered Giant and Red Panda Bears. They are studying the animals, helping them reproduce and training them to be reintroduced back into the wild.
Giant Panda Bears are very gentle animals. They spend most of their day eating bamboo and resting.
Chengdu, a city with nearly 12 million people, is home to the People's Park, which was the most engaging place we encountered in China. Every afternoon, senior citizens and local artists and athletes take their talents to the park. There is group dance, singing and badminton. It was fun to see the local men and women reach out to us foreigners to participate. With that said, it was a little creepy with all of the music circa 1950 war time and all of the video cameras hidden (not so well) in the trees.
Edie gets her groove on at the People's Park in Chengdu.
A locally made flute sold at a Chengdu market.
It is common to see women holding hands in China. It is a sign of comfort.
We were told that the Chinese were masters in foot reflexology, so we went to a clinic only to be faced with a menu written entirely in Chinese. In typical Chernack/Greenstein form we selected the cheapest item on the menu, luckily resulting in an hour and a half foot and body massage, plus foot exfoliation, for a grand total of $15. There was only one touch and go moment when the ladies came into the room with a foot scraper that looked like a foot long knife and put a blow torch to it to sterilize it. Yikes!
Our feet get the royal treatment.
Chengdu has a large population from Tibet, so we tried some Tibetan food, which was extremely filling. Elizabeth enjoyed the potato pie and Dave liked the Yak pie and tea. We were curious about their take on the Dali Lama and Tibet situation, but were afraid to bring up any sensitive questions. The Chinese take on the situation, which we eventually got the courage to discuss with some locals in private, is very different from information we have acquired from the western media, books and interviews.
Dafo the Grand Buddha in Leshan, China, was constructed more than 1200 years ago to look over the safety of boaters in the dangerous waters below where three rivers merge together. People flock to see him like it is Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. The long line and man with a bullhorn screaming at us to move faster did not fair well for the Big Daddy.
Dafo Grand Buddha, Leshan
Look at the line. It was a circus!
To regain some serenity and peace we spent two nights at a monastery, but this house of worship wasn't the sanctuary we were looking for. We were constantly awoken by the echos of snorting and spitting as well as prayer gongs starting at 4 a.m. Since we were up, we observed the two hour morning religious session, which was quite interesting.
Early morning prayers.
Monk with his gong.
We climbed to the top of Mt. Emei, via hundreds of steep steps to reach a Buddha shrine overlooking the mountains which are famous for having a sea of clouds hanging over the top.
View from the top of Mt. Emei.
Buddha at top of Mt. Emei.
Lazy people take a short cut to the the top.
Local lovers put love locks on the railing at the top of Mt. Emei and then throw the key over the mountain to showcase their love for each other. We'll lock our love in other ways as the locks were way overpriced. We're so cheap!
It is common to see livestock outside of restaurants. Before our meal there were two rabbits in this cage. Who ordered that?!
The ancient town of Dali, which is surrounded by walls and gates, was the most pleasurable town we visited. The downtown is full of fun bars and restaurants, as well as the usual cheesy souvenir shops.
Along with Ellen, Pat and our GAP tour mate Lenore, we rented bikes to explore the outlying areas, which are home to people from the Bai minority group. They smiled, waved to us and giggled when we rolled by trying to correctly say 'ni-hao' - hello in Mandarin.
A minority woman works in Dali.
Chickens to dogs are sold at the morning meat market.
Dali is known for its Three Pagodas, which are supposed to have a phallic resemblance.
Ellen makes friends with others on the street.
Marble workers on the side of the road.
A Bai village gate.
We no longer feel bad about our big travel backpacks.
A local farmer transports his wife. Who needs a Civic?
Happy bikers taking a drink break.
The old town of Lijiang is a World Heritage Site and home to the Naxi minority. It is also a maze of small cobblestone alleys lined with shops. At night the streets light up with neon lights and are filled shoulder to shoulder with tourists, primarily from China. Every five stores either sold dried meat, combs, canvas sandals, junk jewelry or tea. We should mention that all of the quality products we buy at home that are 'Made in China' are not sold in China for discounted prices. In fact you either can't find them at all, or they are much higher in price due to strict exporting laws and agreements set in place between the government and companies.
Water wheels mark the entry into Lijiang's ancient city.
Lijiang is situated in a valley with many stores and homes built along the surrounding hills. The architecture and rooftops are amazing.
Women often carry the heavy loads.
Lijiang has the right idea but the rule is seldom followed by locals.
Lijiang lights up at night.
TIGER LEAPING GORGE
The Yangtse River rushes powerfully through the Tiger Leaping Gorge. It is believed that in its narrowest section a tiger jumped across the gorge escaping capture by local hunters.
A tiger statue marks the area of the alleged jump.
The gorge is one of the deepest in the world. We did a two day hike along the ridge of one of the mountains. When the clouds cleared the mountain views were extraordinarily lush and green.
One of our trip mates Alex of England hiked with his guitar. Dave took some nice shots of the young Paul McCartney for his CD cover.
A mule helped Edie up 28 bends on the first day of the hike. She powered through challenging day number two by foot.
We spent a couple of days exploring by bike the beautiful town of Yangshuo. The city is known for it's limestone karst mountains and the peaceful Li Rivers that run through them. Biking was a phenomenal way to see the picturesque farming villages and meet some of the locals.
Cycling through the back roads of Yangshuo is fabulous!
Edie opts for a motor scooter ride to lead the way.
Buffalo road block.
The karsts reflecting in a rice paddy.
Bamboo rafts are another popular way to see the river.
Children swim in the murky river to cool off.
Dinner. China just passed it's first animal rights law while we were visiting. Sadly, a little late for these geese.
We stopped at a farmer's house to eat some fresh watermelon. It was the juiciest and sweetest watermelon we'd ever tasted!
Hangin' in the farmhouse.
A clothes line outside the farm house.
Our bike group.
Real bikers get dirty!
On a rainy day in Yangshuo we took a Chinese calligraphy class and created some artwork to bring home. We learned how to write three important words: LOVE, HAPPINESS and TRAVEL!
Elizabeth at work.
Throughout China we would see menu items that didn't bode well with most, especially vegetarian and animal lover Pat.
Fried dog, snake and rat don't make our mouths water.
Instead, we ate more boxed noodles than we ate in college.
While our time in China was extremely eye opening we likely won't return anytime soon. Maybe one day the wall between the inner and outer circles will be torn down, but unless that happens there is little incentive for us to visit China again as we tend to embrace cultures that embrace us.
Oddly, we didn't find one fortune cookie in China, but if we had, it would likely say something like this, "DON'T TAKE FOR GRANTED THE FREEDOMS YOU HAVE BEEN GIVEN."
Fortunately, we had a great group of people to travel with, especially Pat, Ellen and Edie. Pat and Ellen had more energy than the twenty year olds on our trip! We didn't quite brace Edie (mom) for the rugged adventure, but we're proud of her many travel accomplishments from climbing a mountain to mastering an open viewing squat trough toilet.
And as a tribute to Pat, a funny story. Her pink underwear and a shirt went missing in the laundry. The shirt showed up in Alex's laundry, so she assumed he stole her undies too. For three weeks we kept a careful eye on young Alex, and at the end he helped us play a good practical joke on Pat. He wore nice satin pink panties on the last overnight train and did a stretch to the third tier bunk Pat will never forget!
Alex looks good in pink!
- Elizabeth and Dave