I had two weeks in China this time, more than long enough to get a proper look at the place, and see if the impressions I got from my day trip from Hong Kong a few years before were indicative of the whole place. This time I saw 5 distinct places: Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Hangzhou and the Great Wall of China.
Despite the best efforts of the Chinese, the Great Wall of China experience is indeed great. The easiest way to see this is by day tour from Beijing, as it's only some 90 minutes away by coach. If you have the energy to walk up to the top of the area the tourists congregate, then you will be rewarded with spectacular views. The wall really defies belief, and I'm sure defied the logic of the chief architect when he was told what to build. Quite how anything so big and so long ever came into being at all is incredible. You will not be disappointed, even if you've had to wade through a load of crappy stuff to get there, including the worst selection of tourist tat in China, and the second worst toilets in China. You would think that at the bottom of one of the worlds great wonders and the site of a million tourist feet, someone, somewhere would have thought to put a bit of effort into the public toilets. Instead what they had thoughtfully done was to remove the doors from the cubicles. Since most public toilets in China are like the French squat style, as I set foot into the toilets I was greeted by the sight of 5 Chinamen squatting down taking a dump. Charming. I thought I had truly found the worst toilets in China, but China had saved better ones for later that day.. To get to the mid point of the wall, there is a cable car lift, which is actually nothing like a cable car and everything like an uphill roller coaster, each person with an individual seat. Coming back down is the same, but with a guy at the front with only a rubber brake pad manually controlled by a lever to stop you hurtling down to the bottom. In for a penny, in for a pound.. The queue for the "cable car" also has some last minute sales opportunities to buy a "I climbed the great wall" t-shirt". Apart from the myriad of opportunities you find at the top of course. And back again at the bottom, on the way out.
The day trip leaves you at the wall for about 90 mins, then you are whisked off to a variety of other places, some good and some useless. The best of which is a large Ming temple complex, and the worst of which is some crappy Buddhist temple built into an old missile storage depot in the side of a mountain. This stop lasts for an hour and frankly I'd have rather spent another hour at the great wall, but of course it's not organised that way, with the great wall giving limited spending opportunities, whereas the Buddhist place (asking but not getting, some high priced donation for a candle), and the crispy duck shop, and the other shops... providing better opportunities for the tour company to earn commission. Anyway, the Buddhist place, which has no ancient statues and is by a long way the most useless and least spiritual Buddhist place I've ever been to, also has the honour of having the worst toilets in China. Forget about no doors on the cubicles, these guys have no cubicles. There's just a room that was once white but now looks like an explosion in a gravy factory. 5 once white urinals face 5 open holes in the ground with no flushers, complete with one Chinese guy taking a dump. Not washing your hands after using this room would feel like the healthiest option. And yet... even with all this, the Great Wall of China trip is worth doing, because the wall is just so great and no toilets can spoil that.
Whilst most of my time in China was spent in the three large cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin, I did see one other smaller rural place in the surrounding area of Hangzhou, which is a large town around about one hour's coach ride from Shanghai. Hangzhou is well known in China as a tourist spot and even in low tourist season (November) there were still many people to be found there. The tourist areas are populated with temples, pagodas, lakes, and trees and also further away, a lot of tea plantations. There is also a boat on a large lake that has a giant golden dragon head at the front, which make many people stop, turn and take a picture. If you are staying in Shanghai and are in need of peace and tranquillity, then find a trip to Hangzhou. There might be a lot of tourists around, but the bustle is a lot less than Shanghai. Hangzhou's surrounding area is incredibly neat and tidy, the exact opposite of some of the untidy cities that inhabit China. This represents everything about China, a country of opposites. Look at one place and it's as neat and tidy as Singapore. Look another way and it's as 3rd world as a bad part of India. Lenin would be spinning in his grave at the uneven distribution of wealth in this purportedly "Communist" country. The only reason I can see that China is Communist is because it says it is. There's no evidence of Marxism-Leninism here, and certainly it's no "workers paradise". Apart from a few inspirational "workers looking into the middle distance" statues in Tianenmen Square, and the prolific spread of blue lorries (why only blue?) like in the Czech Republic, there's no evidence of Communism here. And for that matter, why are people in communist propaganda posters and statues always looking into the distance? Can it be the present is so awful that the future is the best place to be looking? I digress. The Hangzhou day trip from Shanghai is a good value trip, with not too many shops en-route. If you love temples, you'll love the trip. If you've been in China a while and are sick of temples, probably less so, although these temples have the benefit of being in the countryside and are a welcome break from the heavy air pollution that hangs over the cities. The other main stop on this tour is an entirely artificial place called Song Dynasty Town. It's like a old Chinese town, recreated, with a few rides for the kiddies and is generally full of kids out on school day trips. The place is no doubt there to both entertain them and educate them about ancient Chinese culture. I'd say it works quite well.
Before I talk about the two great cities of Beijing and Shanghai, a few words about Tianjin. Tianjin is one of those massive cities in China that no-one outside of China has ever heard of. There's a reason for this. There are not many, if any, tourist attractions there. However, if you want to observe normal ordinary Chinese life, then there's plenty of it in Tianjin. There's also plenty of air pollution too. Tianjin is about 2 hours from Beijing, either by coach or train. What Tianjin does have is a very very large open-air market selling massive amounts of clothes, sometimes copies and sometimes obtained from the factories that make them for export to the west. The fakes and the originals can often be found on the same stall, with prices to match the authenticity. It is a little strange to see the opposite end of the garment chain - the point of origin instead of the point of sale in Europe or the USA. Original clothes from Sears, Tommy Hilfiger, Benetton and Adidas line up against their even lower priced copies. It really makes you want to never shop in the west again after you've seen something at less than one tenth of it's western retail price. I could not help but wonder how many people shopping in the Fashion Show Mall in Las Vegas on my earlier trip ever even considered exactly how and where their shopping was made. That contrast and those two trips in the same year (China and the USA) made me stop and think just how big the world still is. China life is not just a world away from the USA; it's a galaxy and probably a universe. The gap between those who make Wal-Mart’s clothes and toys, and those who purchase them could not possibly be bigger. Despite it's lack of tourist attractions, large temples or towers, Tianjin is an interesting place if only to observe these things. I did do some shopping of course. They don't even bullshit you there, as they're so unused to tourists. In 3 days in Tianjin I saw maybe only 1 or 2 other western people. The lack of westerners also makes Tianjin a cheap place to stay and to eat. In the main shopping street there are certainly many things to eat. Some good, some bad. The worst for me, is fried bean curd which smells exactly like shit whilst cooking - and there is no better word for it that that. I am assured it tastes better than it smells.
In many respects, a lot of Tianjin looked like a lot of Bangkok. It is nowhere near as developed as Shanghai or Beijing, and so whilst it has a clean spacious shopping area, you don't have to go far to find people doing what Chinese people do, which is to do everything in the road. It seems the road is the best place to do anything in China. Stand, walk, converse, eat, sell, fix a bicycle, clean a fish, mend a shirt, remove the gearbox from a Suzuki Super Carry van. There's no business these people won't do in the road. The pavement is also an acceptable alternative, therefore forcing everyone else to walk in the road anyway. Heaven forbid they might do their business inside the business premises. I can only assume that they think that road space is provided free by the government, therefore eliminating the expense of buying a business premises large enough to conduct business. Doing things cheaply is a fundamental part of life here. No matter how poor quality the goods, or how inconvenient the service, the price is king. Unless you are one of those Chinese driving around in a brand new 7 series BMW imported from Germany, and in that case it's not quite so important after all. Lenin would love it. It also seems the pavements are also wet a lot of the time, despite the fact I saw no rain for the entire fortnight. This is because the shopkeepers are constantly emptying buckets of water into the street.
As the rest of China, in Tianjin you can observe at first hand three bad parts of Chinese culture - spitting, smoking and compulsive car horn beeping. Spitting is mostly in the street and you cannot stand in a crowded public place for more than a few minutes without hearing someone clearing their sinuses onto the street near you. I actually saw one middle-aged woman hawking phlegm onto the floor inside a train, which just made me go "oh!" in surprise. A charming sight for sure. Smoking is very common, there are not many places you can go to escape it, and it is not uncommon for people to be chain smoking at a restaurant table next to you, and there is nothing you can do about it. The car horn beeping thing is unlike anywhere else I've been. The Italians do it from impatience. The Turks do it because in Istanbul because they're constantly forced to queue. The Chinese.. they do it from habit I think. Using your horn is a habit when: 1) You're passing another car, even though he is in another lane. 2) You see a pedestrian on the pavement somewhere within 100m of your car. 3) Another car appears on the distant horizon, in your lane. 4) Someone gets onto a bicycle in another part of the city.
Despite the apparent chaos of the driving, it all works since everyone behaves the same way. Therefore there seem to be no more accidents than in a city with less apparent chaos.
My first Chinese restaurant was in Tianjin and my first impression was "oh, a pet shop". Inside the entrance hall of the restaurant is a large selection of seafood, swimming happily in tanks. I'm quite sure in Chinese culture this is the total assurance of freshness. The food on your plate was living and swimming not a few minutes before. I passed on the seafood. It's ugly when it's dead. It's even more ugly when it's crawling up a piece of glass and trying to escape a cooked death. But most of the rest of the food.... fabulous. Some of it is like a western Chinese takeaway and therefore great, some of it is unlike a takeaway but also great, and some of it is really a matter of personal taste. I am not a big fan of dumplings, no matter how well they are done. Most of the restaurants I went into in China did not appear to have knives and forks, only chopsticks. Lucky I am well practised with them. I still ate in McDonalds some days however, since I cannot eat Chinese food every day for two weeks, no matter how much I might like it. It has to be said that the McDonalds in China have the best selection of burgers in any McDonalds I have visited. There are at least 4 different types of chicken burger for example, in addition to the usual Big Mac etc.
I did not spot many western restaurants in China. I'm sure they exist, but they are not obvious. I did see and eat at some other Asian restaurant, such as Korean (complete with dog on the menu, which I did not try), but the only western presence I saw was the usual form of McD, KFC and Pizza Hut. I also found a Taco Bell in Shanghai, but sadly I had just eaten and was in no state to eat more. There are many cake shops in China, and those are very good. Like in continental Europe, the cakes are exquisitely presented and served. All in all I would say that if you try food in China, it will vary a great deal. You can find some very good food for not much money, and some very average food for quite a lot of money. I did not find any poor quality food at all. I tried the famous Peking duck, and its special sauce, and I was not disappointed.
If you have visited Hong Kong, then you will certainly recognise Shanghai. They are very similar. They both share a colonial past, which in Shanghai's case is the impressive Bund. This street runs along the waterfront on the west side of the Huangpu river. It is filled with architecture straight out of London or any other European city. Look in certain directions and you'd never know you were on the other side of the world at all. Not only is the street impressive in itself, it also has an impressive view, as the opposite side of the river is the Pudong area, full of massive new skyscrapers and the unusual but attractive Oriental Pearl TV Tower.
Like Nathan Road in Hong Kong, Shanghai has Nanjing Road, the main shopping street full of neon. Like HK, water divides the city where one has a harbour and one has a river. Like HK, there's somewhere high up to go to observe all that has been created below. Whilst in HK this is a mountain, Shanghai has the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. As one of the world's highest towers, this is quite some view. As a paying customer you can visit both the two large spheres and the smaller one near the top. The smaller one is known as the space module and is some 338m high. This is very high. I have taken pictures from aeroplanes when I have been lower than this. Suffice to say the view both in the day and at night is spectacular. The night view makes Shanghai look a lot like the futuristic views of Los Angeles in the Blade Runner movie. The giant boat mounted televisions showing adverts that trawl up and down the Huangpu river do not look quite so big when viewed from the top of the tower. Neither does anything else much, apart from one or two of the skyscrapers that are approaching the height of the tower's space module. The rest of the skyscrapers can easily be looked down up. How often can you go somewhere and do that? There is a "history of Shanghai" museum at the bottom of the tower. This in itself would require a few hours of anyone's time to see properly.
The largest "tourist" area in Shanghai would be the Yuyuan market and Yuyuan garden. This easily found complex of authentic style Chinese gardens and inauthentic but very impressive Chinese buildings is the best place to find peace, chaos, souvenirs, tourists and food. I walked to this area from my hotel on Fuzhou road, and the walk there itself is just as interesting as the Yuyuan area. To get to Yuyuan from Fuzhou, I walked through many streets that unlike Yuyuan are not designed for tourists. There is just genuine Shanghai life happening there, much as it has for many many years. Everyone is doing everything on the pavement or road, of course. There are shops and services for just about everything. One woman might be sitting sewing up garments on the pavement where on the opposite side of the road, an old guy has spread out a blanket on the street and covered it with fruit for sale. Another guy is cleaning and gutting fish, and an assistant is emptying buckets of bloody water into the road right were I am about to walk. Further down a middle aged guy stands in front of his shop astride an upside down bicycle, banging away at the rear axle. Not far away two young guys attempt to break the world record for how many sacks of rubbish they can fit onto the back of a blue truck, comfortably exceeding Nissan's recommended load limit by at least a factor of three. The "ceiling" to all these scenes is a criss cross of electricity cables and filled washing lines. This is quite possibly the most fascinating area in Shanghai. With land values being high in cities, and truck overloading incomes being so low, I wonder how long this place would survive, but I certainly hope that it does. On the other hand, I'm getting tourist entertainment out of someone's ordinary life. Weird.
Yuyuan itself is an area of two parts: the markets and the gardens. The "market" is a large and seemingly unending series of identical Chinese traditional buildings, all with upturned roofs, cherry red fretwork and white walls. Most of the buildings are 3 storey, and what's in the upper floors I have no idea. The lower floor of every building is a shop of some kind, everything from fans, gold, scrolls, Olympic mascots and Mao themed items to Starbucks. Since I was on a short stay in Shanghai, I got most of my souvenir shopping done in this area. Haggling over the price is required, just like everywhere else. In the middle of all the shops is a fabulous indoor buffet with a large variety of Chinese food on sale, all perfectly presented. There is a tea house over a pond/lake nearby to the markets, which is certainly a lot more authentic than the shops themselves. The Tea house neatly leads the way (via a very zigzag shaped bridge) to the gardens. In contrast to the shopping area, the gardens are pretty quiet. Whereas every square cm of the bridge is packed with tourists, the gardens are quite empty, despite the modest entry fee. The gardens are well worth a visit, as they are the quietest and most peaceful place in Shanghai. There are also many good photograph opportunities.
I spent a lot of the rest of the time in Shanghai on or near Nanjing Road. This long, wide neon-lit pedestrianised street contains pretty much all shopping needs that are not covered by the souvenir-led Yuyuan market. There are some colonial buildings on Nanjing road and many more nearby. There's also a giant neon Coca-Cola bottle up the entire corner of one shop, which is quite nice at night. There are countless neon signs everywhere else. KFC and McDonalds is rife. Unlike many Asian cities, Shanghai is not full of 24 hour tailors. I guess this is because unlike Singapore, Bangkok or Hong Kong, Shanghai is an unlikely stopover city for westerners on the Europe-Australia route.
Shanghai is a great place and it offers many comparisons with Hong Kong. In the end I personally find Hong Kong has the edge. Hong Kong's colonial buildings may be fewer, its Chinese garden smaller and it lacks some of the other things that make Shanghai fascinating, but I think its ex-British colony history (being a Brit myself) and something else, something difficult to define, just make it a tiny bit better than Shanghai for me. Perhaps it's only down to the fact that I went to Hong Kong first, I'm just not sure.
Beijing is certainly nothing at all like Shanghai. For the most part, Beijing looks like any other very modern city. It is large, open, clean and well planned. It has wide roads and large buildings, although most of them are not especially high. Tiananmen Square exemplifies this example, both by being immensely wide and by being surrounded by some of the largest buildings I have seen. Two of these look quite communist, especially the one with the big red star on the top. The architectural style is somewhat communist also. That style does favour large and oppressive but not particularly tall buildings. Around the Mao mausoleum in the middle are four communist style statues, each of a group of workers or soldiers looking forward again into the future. The lead figure of each group has his arm outstretched, forever hailing a taxi. There are many real life soldiers in the square also; in fact, it'd be hard to walk more than 50 meters there without seeing someone in a uniform of some sort. At the top end of the square is the most well known feature, the giant Tian'an gate with the picture of Chairman Mao on the outside. Surprisingly tourists are allowed to go up onto the top of the Tian'an gate and look out, as Mao must have done, onto all of Tiananmen square. It is nice to stand in the places where people much richer, more powerful or more famous than I have stood. Now I can stand there for 30 Yuan. Either side of the Tian'an gate are the red painted standing areas, now empty, for the soldiers and military elite to stand as the missiles, tanks and other symbols of military might trundle past. Photos of this are available in the Tian'an gate shop at the top of the gate. As are Mao's little red book, pictures of Mao, busts of Mao, pen holders of Mao and maybe most insultingly of all, a wristwatch of Mao complete with uniformed waving hand that constantly moves waving to an invisible crowd.
I never think of Communist culture and Chinese culture together. They seem an odd mix. As far as I can see, only in Tiananmen square does this happen. Everywhere else in Beijing the capitalism and selling culture of Shanghai are just as prevalent, although done with a lot less shouting about it and a lot less neon.
Beijing also boasts a very impressive railway station, very new, very large and with a giant forecourt. It is a nice example of modern architecture with a Chinese theme. It also boasts the well know Forbidden City, right behind the Tian'an gate. if this is near the start of a long China trip, great. If it's near the end then there is a feeling of "Oh, some more temples". They do all look pretty similar in the end. The only exception to this is the circular Temple of Heaven, another of Beijing's top tourist attractions. Despite having seen about 30 other temples by that point, the Temple of Heaven was still impressive, and its location is quite high up by Beijing's standards. The main three temples within the Forbidden city had scaffolding around them on the day I was there, but I didn't really mind, having had temple overload in the previous week. The rest of the Forbidden city is an endless complex of maze like passageways, more temples, and gardens. The entry fee is low, hurrah.
For tourist shopping in Beijing, head to Silk Street. Not so much a street as a 5 floored shopping mall with rows of stalls inside, you can browse and shop here to your heart's content, providing you don't mind being grabbed by the arm by 1000 girls all saying the same things... "you need tie?", "you need pashmira?", "you need Rolex?" and so on and so on. Copy goods, silk goods, jade goods and pretty much everything else you could want or need to buy is in here. As usual, haggling over the price is necessary, but by doing so there are some great bargains. This shopping area is also the only source of Hard Rock Cafe Beijing t-shirts that I found. Interesting that there are only a few copy items on sale of the 2008 Beijing Olympic mascots. More or less everything Olympic related is sold in official shops, but they are not expensive. If you are not near Silk Street, then there is also another tourist shopping area just off to one side of Beijing's main shopping street of Wangfujing Street. This market are also has a large number of food stalls, some of which offer large beetles kebabed onto a wooden skewer. Charming.
The weather has a great deal of influence on how much enjoyment a place can offer. In November, Shanghai is warm and Beijing is not. For this reason, I preferred Shanghai over Beijing. Apart from that they are both equally great as a place to visit.
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Copyright © M.F.Hughes 2006