“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.
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.
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.
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
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.