China: The Last Eastern Frontier

Posted by on Aug 20, 2013 in Asia, China, Travel | 8 Comments
China: The Last Eastern Frontier

“What you play?” says the 26-year-old passenger, eyeing the card game we’re engrossed in with wonder. “Is it higher or lower?” comes the next question, the same broken English accent making the situation feel instantly awkward. We look at her, try to explain it isn’t what she thinks it is, before giving up, exclaiming, “yes!” and watching the whole carriage erupt in laughter.

‘China is weird,’ I think to myself while our bunkmates huddle around a smartphone app thinking of questions to ask us. ‘This 28 hour train journey between Guilin and Xi’an is certainly going to be one journey I’ll never forget,’ as I retire to my cramped bunk.

Open inquisitiveness clashes with suppressive government so often it’s hard to decipher the real China.

DSC 7391 1024x678 China: The Last Eastern Frontier

Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an

What Is China?

The Great Wall, a winding, never-ending snake of ingenious engineering; The Terracotta Army, an imposing clay battalion silent in its duty; Guilin’s endless rain revives the parched trees that litter its prehistoric mountains; Shanghai and its skyscraper fingers clawing at the sky – a genuine vision into the future of humanity. All of these snippets of Chinese life present a nation struggling to identify itself during a period of incredible growth.

China is special, because it’s genuinely difficult to put the experience into words. It is the mature backpackers destination – an explosion of senses, culture and beliefs. There’s no drunken disregard for safety like in South East Asia – instead you have a peek at the world’s next leader, whether the world wants it to be or not.

The country’s vast scale means no part is ever the same. You can visit any city, mountain range, lake, village, restaurant, street or even house and you get a different answer to what China is every time.

DSC 7324 1024x678 China: The Last Eastern Frontier

HSBC Advert, Eat Your Heart Out

So Many People

Lunacy replaces common sense. There are enough seats on the train, but as one person starts running, so do the rest. All of a sudden a 200m sprint is in full swing – old wrinkled women dragging shopping trolleys behind them, young boys barely old enough to walk, prestigious fathers in suits, primadonnas wobbling in heels and at the front, me.

‘The end of the world would be less chaotic than this,’ is all that passes into my mind as I step it up a gear. It’s over as quickly as it began. With everyone having now reached the train, we sit as though nothing happened; the only evidence, the severe lack of breathe by everyone aboard.

China is huge. Its cities are dangerously overpopulated. It is unhealthy. It is stressful. Beijing, the capital, is endlessly shrouded in choking smog that threatens to create a future army of lung cancer patients. Shanghai has 28 million residents and is showing no indication of slowing down. A small city is considered 15 million – a number larger than most countries in the world.

This incredibly sized population is keeping the world economy afloat. It is the land of realistic fakes; a contradiction if there ever was one. China doesn’t do innovation; it merely steals it before choosing to reproduce products on a vast scale at a fraction of the price. Clothing lasts months instead of years, but when it is a fraction of the price (like everything in the land of the lantern), you forgive the throwaway craftsmanship.

DSC 7370 1024x678 China: The Last Eastern Frontier

Chinese Bird Cages

The Great Language Barrier

“[Incoherent Chinese shouting],” is what concludes our taxi journey. Despite apologising for a lack of working Mandarin, it doesn’t seem like the driver is understanding what I’m saying. You cannot blame him – after all, I’m the visitor in his country. He continues to shout (a mere conversation at raised volume rather than one of anger) and all I do is hopelessly smile.

Communication with the outside world is a thing of mystery – the state is the voice of reason and there is little you can do about it

“I really am sorry. Me not understand.” A finite example of my lack of coherence, but one that still doesn’t get through. He glances down at the Chinese-written address again and wanders off for ten minutes, returning with a smile on his face. The hostel is on the other side of the road.

You want China to be difficult. You want it to be Chinese. You want people to stop you in the street for photos. There should be a language barrier. It needs to keep its unique culture. It should be saying nay to Western principles, but instead it’s grabbing at every smartphone, makeup brand and Startbucks it can find.


  • The Great Wall – a not-to-be-missed masterclass in ancient engineering
  • Guilin’s Valleys – prehistoric mountains jut from the ground shrouded in mist
  • Shanghai – futuristic neon-clad urban sprawl at its finest
  • Chinese Marketplaces – busy bartering for everything you could imagine
  • Tea Plantations – see how to grow, harvest, produce and drink the icon 
DSC 7349 1024x678 China: The Last Eastern Frontier

Chinese Plantation Workers

Dragons & Dogma

Perhaps the most peculiar example of China’s obsession with the West is its beautiful women that inhabit its nightclubs. Europeans want to be tanned; Chinese women want to be us. With powdered make-up they try to look at white as possible, pinning back their eyelids with special tape to appear less Asian.

It is by no means an epidemic, but it is a strong example of the change happening in the country. Hopefully it is a mere superficial change rather than one that threatens to destroy an incredible culture everyone should visit.

I travelled to China in May 2013 for two weeks.


  • China requires a paid-for, pre-arranged visa available in single or multiple entry formats
  • Transit visitors to Shanghai and Beijing can get an on-arrival three day visa as an exception
  • Foreign VISA debit cards can be used at ATMs to withdraw money
  • Facebook and foreign websites are still blocked and cannot be accessed without a proxy
  • There is no such thing as personal space on Chinese public transport 


  1. Victor Yuan
    20 August, 2013

    It’s kinda sad to read this.

    “You want China to be difficult. You want it to be Chinese. You want people to stop you in the street for photos. There should be a language barrier. It needs to keep its unique culture. It should be saying nay to Western principles, but instead it’s grabbing at every smartphone, makeup brand and Startbucks it can find.”

    We Chinese are like the kings of paradox, we are genuinely proud of our unique culture and history, but we struggle hard to get into this world, a world that is currently both culturally and economically dominated by Western countries. We try to keep the original way we used to be, but the world won’t allow us to do so. Blind discrimination caused by bare understanding is like a big mouth monster who wants to kill everyone in this country, we have to show the world that we are not what you think we are. How? By being homogenizing by the so-called world trend: Western cultures.

    “You have to learn English so that you can keep up the pace the world is running; you have to learn how Westerners think, that’s the democratic way.” Indeed, we have gained a lot from that. But Western countries and their culture is like a giant Leviathan who tries to swallow everything within the areas it can reach. We can’t hide, we have to get into this. Sometimes, we even have to sacrifice our own cultures to adjust to the Western ones. What makes it worse is that we have to lie to ourselves: this is the way it’s supposed to be.

    I’m not pessimistic about our culture, because I know things won’t change that fast, but this assimilation machine is way stronger than anyone of us might’ve expected. I’m sorry I shouldn’t be this gloomy, but this is getting more and more serious. What can we do?

    • Marco Fiori
      20 August, 2013

      I love your comments Victor, they’re always so informed, subtly poetic and on the money. Obviously the small snippet of China I saw was dominated by urban centres, so obviously the Western influence is going to be more predominant there than out in the rural landscapes that give China its authenticity.

      I really do wish to return and to explore parts of the country with your help that would otherwise be too difficult or inaccessible. Perhaps when we are done forging our 2013 and 2014 journeys I can come see Chengdu.

  2. Jason Daniel
    20 August, 2013

    Reads like a smart documentary piece. Well done Marco.
    It is easy as a “tourist” to expect a romanticized version of a far off culture, especially one as old and prominent as China. An open mind and a conservative attitude can really go a long way in discovering and preserving traditional cultures though. It is impossible to dismiss, however diluting it may seem, western influences and ideals in a place like China as culture, like the rest of the world, is ever changing. Though I can’t help but think at times this change comes too fast and at far too great a cost.

    • Marco Fiori
      20 August, 2013

      Thanks Jason, glad your enjoyed it. I agree – Western advancements have their benefits but they’re also extremely destructive. I actually found that SEA was strong at holding onto its chaos despite its relentless march towards modernisation.

      China’s urban centres are sadly defunct in terms of mass local culture, but hopefully the rest of the country stays true to its roots (as much as possible) long into the future.

  3. Madeline
    21 August, 2013

    Very interesting reading, as always Marco.

  4. Chris
    26 August, 2013

    Love your talent to grasp both the tiny details and the whole picture of a culture at the same time. It seriously is so enriching to read your blog entries – the only way you’re better of is being there and seeing it yourself, I think. It is rather sad how fast western values are spreading all over the world rather than mingling with the rich amount of cultures that are already there. Truly hope the world will stay diverse.

    • Marco Fiori
      27 August, 2013

      Hey Chris,

      Thanks for the comment as per usual and for the insight into my writing. I agree, it is very sad and it’s hard not to be a part of the it, especially when you travel.

      Cheers as always.



Leave a Reply