But three weeks in southern China? Too damn freaking long. I left the country disenchanted, fatigued, and desperate for home.
For the first time ever, I am defeated, by the People’s Republic of China of all places. I should’ve have expected it, the place is a cacophony of conflict and contrasts, starting with its dogs.
The furbaby trend hasn’t escaped China, I squealed with delight at the sight of well-fed dogs out shopping with their ‘parents’. Chow Chows, Pomeranians, Golden Retrievers; all with a majestic coat of fur that is professionally groomed. They donned adorable little clothes to protect them from the winter cold. Some have tiny boots while others are carried by their owners because the ground is too cold for their delicate paws.
In Yangshuo, dogs get a different treatment. Signs for Gou Rou Mien (Dog Meat Noodles) are boldly displayed at shopfronts. On West Street, pups go for walks with their owners; one street over, pups are caged in rattan baskets next to chickens, just another bunch of livestock destined for the cooking pot. The dogs popped their mangy little heads out of the rattan basket, looking at their lucky friends who proudly walk with their humans toting behind.
China – a dog loving country in more ways than one.
That wasn’t the only thing that was jarring. After all the dirty stories I’ve heard about China, I was expecting it to be riddled with rubbish. Oh, how badly I had stereotyped them.
From the city I arrived in (Guilin) to the city I flew out of (Guangzhou) and the small farming villages in between, China was spotless. No cow dung-stained streets à la Myanmar, no dirty back alleys à la Thailand, no dirty rivers à la Cambodia. The streets were so clean, there wasn’t even a cigarette butt in sight! China was cleaner than any pasar malam in Malaysia.
Just as I was marveling at their civic consciousness, I arrived at a hill-top tea stall in Anxi to see the first sign of litter. But it wasn’t just some litter, the park was a war zone of rubbish. Used tissues, empty water bottles, plastic wrappers, and food bits covered every square inch. I had never seen so much rubbish in such a small area, I had to tip-toe to avoid stepping into any carnage. China was dirtier than any pasar malam in Malaysia.
“It’s okay, they’ll sweep the floors,” my suit-wearing guide for the day, who had so far neatly tucked his litter into bins, explained when he saw the shock on my face. He proceeded to tear the plastic wrapping off a packet of tea and casually flung it to the ground. Behind him, two workers picked up a broomstick with twigs for bristles and started sweeping the night away.
I look back at the clean streets and wonder, was it good civic consciousness or was it just efficient public service?
China – the cleanliness is unbelievable.
All these took place backdropped against amazing infrastructure that is easily the envy of most developing countries. Malaysia has much to be jealous of – taxi drivers use meters without being asked; the super stable high-speed railways shorten the travel time of thousands of kilometers to mere hours; the public buses are frequent and reliable; great WiFi connectivity, 24/7 public libraries, safe streets, well-maintained public parks…
China isn’t shaping up to be a modern country, it is already a very modern country. The most impressive of all is their amazing cashless payment system. The Chinese have fully embraced cashless payments – every hotel owner, bike rental, taxi driver, fruit seller, public bus, convenience store, and illegal street hawker allow you to pay using the WeChat phone app.
Yet along the narrow corridors snaking between fancy skyscrapers, the incessant noise of hawking and spitting of phlegm transports you back to the China that has yet to adapt to its 21st-century facade. I laughed at a “No Spitting” sign posted inside a bus, but it stopped being funny when I saw a man nonchalantly spit a big glob of phlegm on the freshly polished tiled floors of a railway station.
At a bustling tourist market in Xiamen, a hawker sold live animal keychains by the street. I stared at horror at this ‘fashionable’ product where baby fish, terrapins, and salamanders are sealed inside a plastic pouch, waiting for their impending death. Around me, a lady asked her child if he wanted one. I wasn’t sure which was more terrifying – the fact that Chinese businessmen think it’s okay to turn lives into disposable trinkets, or the fact that people were amused by it.
China – first world infrastructure, third world mentality.
The people of China are quite the character. “They will be rude and you have to be rude back to them” was the one advice I was given before my flight. The Chinese are legendary for their loud, abrasive and impolite ways. I knew that going in, but I wasn’t prepared for how draining it would be.
They’ll shout at you if you don’t understand them. They’ll ignore you if they don’t feel like talking to you. They can be very curt and sarcastic. They’ll cut queue and won’t budge even after you’ve confronted them. ‘They’ include shopkeepers, passers-by and even the police.
The police are often seen shouting at pedestrians and taxi drivers to move, the shouts get louder if they don’t move immediately. My breaking point was one policewoman who looked at me with disbelief when I begged for help to find my grandmother who went missing one night. My 86-year-old grandmother with Alzheimers decided to go for a walk at 3AM one day. The policewoman stomped all over my cry for help, blamed me for not taking better care of my grandma, told me to go look for her myself, and stressed very loudly that no one was at work to help.
It’s true, she was the only one stationed at the small tourist police station in Zeng Cuo’an that night. The lady, dressed in full police uniform, was also watching a movie on her phone. After rejecting to help, she proceeded to shut down the police station, with padlock and all. I later called the main police station in the area and they sent two policemen to help us.
Credit where credit is due, the police in Xiamen were helpful. At the jetty to Gulang Yu, one policeman expertly played CSI in going through CCTV recordings to identify the number plate of a taxi who had driven away with my family’s luggage.
In Jinjiang, we went to three police stations to get the contact number of my great grandfather’s long lost relatives. The police who has family records and phone numbers of residents in the area, graciously made some calls and reunited us with the family we had lost contact with.
So the people weren’t ALL bad. As with my first impression of clean China, I started this adventure touched by all the kind people who helped this lost and 3G-less Malaysian backpacker. During my first week, I was grateful to have met a motorbike rental guy who helped me buy a food coupon off a Chinese food app so I could get a huge discount. A few days before I flew home, a couple insisted I take their umbrella so I wouldn’t dissolve while hiking in the freezing mountain rain.
China; the people will make you feel a whole range of emotions.
Despite all the angst, you should go to China.
You have to go to understand the poetic Chinese paintings and ancient architecture.
You have to go to see the extent of people and space.
You have to go and listen to all the different Chinese dialects.
You have to go and laugh at the existence of Apple toilets, Tesla sneakers, and Donimos Pizzam.
Most importantly, you have to go to understand the parts of China the Malaysian Chinese community has retained and left behind, and truly understand how unique the Chinese culture in Malaysia really is.
It’s a curious country to discover, China, but maybe it’s a country best enjoyed in short doses. If there’s too much of a good thing, it’s probably China.
Mei’s Must-Know China Travel Tips:
- It’s not a cheap country, especially if you’re coming from Southeast Asia. High speed railway between states can be very, very expensive as it covers a large distance in a short time.
- Expect to pay lots for entrance tickets; the Chinese government has monetised every damn tourist site. Any landmark/mountain/cave/waterfall/temple that they can fence up and charge a premium for, they will.
- Google, Facebook and YouTube are banned. Figure out how to use VPN before arriving or look for alternative apps. Instead of Google, try Bing or Yahoo search. Maps.Me or iPhone map is a good alternative for Google Maps.
- Passport holders are not allowed to buy a SIM card. Small authorised resellers/service provider who are willing to sell will charge a crazy hiked up price of 150-200 yuan. The real retail price is only 20 yuan or so. If you must get a SIM card, try getting it from the official service centres.
- For train ticket schedules and bookings, download the english version of Ctrip app. However, I don’t recommend booking via the app as they charge a very high booking fee. Try getting your hostel or a kind Chinese friend to book the ticket for you via WeChat or Qunar using their personal account and then pay them back in cash.
- Book your train tickets early or else it’ll get sold out. You can cancel your high-speed railway booking for no charge up to two hours before the train departs so don’t worry about changing your mind.
- It’s an excellent idea to get the Mandarin name and address of your hostel in case you need directions. A lot of them are really difficult to find.
- WeChat app is life in China.
- Don’t take their crassness to heart. Imagine living in a country where you have to compete with 1.357 billion people to get things done…
*Disclaimer: During my three weeks in China, I visited Guilin, Yangshuo, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and toured the Fujian province including Xiamen, Quanzhou, and Wuyi Shan. My family joined me for a week. This story was written based on my experience in this region and does not necessarily depict all of China.