I keep thinking this is my third visit to China but in fact it is the fifth time I have been in the country as I have twice visited Tibet and whether we like it or not after 50 years Tibet is as much part of China as Wales and Scotland are part of the UK. So perhaps I should say this is my third visit to mainland or undisputed China.
My two previous visits were both at the time of significant changes in China’s modern history. In 1978 I made a short visit to Guangzhou (Canton) from Hong Kong when China was beginning to emerge from the chaos and excesses of the Cultural Revolution and at the time of the demise of Mao’s wife and the Gang of Four. I also visited Shanghai for a week to attend a travel conference in 1991 when China under the great survivor Deng’s encouragement was beginning to embrace capitalism – the pragmatic leaders most famous quote being ‘Who cares what colour the cat as long as it catches the mice’ and when the results of the momentous events at Tiananmen Square in 1989 were still firmly embedded in everyone’s mind because the Chinese people learnt very clearly that economic freedom was not going to equate with the introduction of Democracy.
In 1991 no one knew if this was a temporary or permanent shift from the traditional socialist command economy model but 20 years later I did not have to return to China to discover that tremendous changes have taken place since 1991, nor that this is a nation whose economy is going to surpass anything achieved by any nation, nor that prosperity is trickling down to the middle classes and that surely China is more likely to be the most important global power over the next 100 years than any other nation. Move over America – your number has been called in!
I hardly think that a 10 days travelling through China qualifies me to form any profound observations about the country and the Chinese but I am left with the very strong and I think valid impression that the rest of the world needs China as a trading partner more than China needs the rest of the world and I believe the sheer volume of people in China means there is nothing this nation cannot and will not achieve if they so decide. It may take a generation or two or three if there is one and a half billion people to accommodate and I appreciate I have only seen prosperous cities but this country can throw (skilled and educated) people at any problem and solve it by manpower alone. There are people, people, people everywhere and that equates to resources, resources and yet more resources.
So although I knew how this nation had developed in recent years (but nonetheless impressive to see the evidence first hand) what this visit has drilled home to me is that surely China has only revealed the very tip of what it can achieve and is so rich in people that it will surely emerge as the most powerful economic force the world has ever seen and is ever likely to see. To misquote Bill Clinton – ‘It’s a numbers game Stupid’.
Despite my four previous visits I knew very little about China other than the 1949 – 1990 period (my postgraduate degree involved a paper on the ebbs and flows of Soviet Chinese relations) and I was keen to have some background and understanding to things I might see and be told so prior to coming I read Jung Chang’s acclaimed, and perhaps controversial, biography of Mao as well a long Chinese family saga novel since adapted for Chinese TV – Our Town by Lin Zhe .
But nothing prepared me for the sheer volume of people that I would encounter in China. I once spent six weeks in Hong Kong, I have lived in London, travelled in India, attended the Olympics and World Cups but nothing, nothing at all, has come close to the sheer continual presence of people, lots of people and yet more people, around me all the time in immense numbers. Even the Rivers big and small were full of boats!
And to be fair to China I should state the reason I was so tempted to title this piece as China – People, People and more people’ is because my visit coincided with the annual Mid Autumn holiday week which is celebrated around the 15th day of the 8th lunar month. This year’s celebrations have been centred around the nominated date of September 30 neatly coinciding with China’s National day on October 1 and the government waived all tolls on the motorways – for this read Double Trouble or should I say double congestion everywhere!
Depending on which authority is counting and where the metropolitan boundary is drawn Beijing, with a population of between 14 and 20 million inhabitants and another 4 million or so unregistered , is certainly one of the biggest, if not the biggest city in the world. This should immediately flash a warning to anyone planning a visit – not a warning to avoid the city but to be prepared and research what you want to see, to not exhaust yourself by trying to see too much but give yourself plenty of time and plan your days accordingly. And finally try and book yourself into a hotel fairly close to the excellent subway system which will make life so much easier for moving around the city.
Beijing has many world class attractions – the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, The Temple of Heaven and Summer Palace come immediately to mind before we start thinking about Tiananmen Square, Mao’s Mausoleum, the Lama Temple and various museums.
A visit to the Temple of Heaven and Great Wall are both easily undertaken in a day or less. The most frequently visited Great Wall sites are at Badaling and Mutianyu where I chose to walk to each end of the accessible section of the well restored Wall. And even in the crowded holidays once I went up the steeper 600 step sections at both ends I lost the crowds and often saw no one else or just a handful of people between the final towers. This would not be possible on a standard tour which usually just allows a couple of hours to walk the most popular sections with many other day visitors.
However it is impossible to fully explore and appreciate either the Forbidden City or Summer Palace in a day and if you try you will end up exhausted and with nothing more than a superficial view of either attraction so either spend a leisurely day at each with plenty of breaks and still accept you will not see everything or visit over a couple of half days. The Forbidden City is truly impressive in scale with one vast courtyard and surrounding buildings opening up after another and a host of ancillary buildings and temples waiting to be explored whilst the Summer Palace towards the outskirts of Beijing is actually the name for the beautifully landscaped Gardens around the Kunming Lake and replete with classical buildings, Pagodas and Temples. One has little chance of seeing everything so decide how much time you have, wander and enjoy. We were there on National Day – Sharron commente
d there had to be 100,000 visiting but she was wrong – it was just us and 98,000 others so the Visitor’s Notice Board confirmed as we departed and the Lake had been full of ferries and hundreds of rented paddle boats.
If we thought the crowds were huge in Beijing we had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for at Xi’an but the fact that the queue for the Public bus out to xxx to see the Terracotta Warriors snaked for hundreds of metres around the Railway Station Car Park should have been a sufficient warning! We commandeered a taxi for the 50km or so journey to Bingmayong and got out in an hour but the return journey took almost 3 hours as traffic back to Xi’an moved at a snail’s pace. On a normal day up to 40,000 can visit the Terracotta Warriors but when we were there the crowds were the densest we saw in China with groups six or seven deep jostling to get next to the railings to pier down into the archaeological pits. I accept we were there on one of the busiest days of the year so my experience hardly typical or objective but I won’t be returning – there are more accessible and user friendly attractions in China as far as I am concerned.
For most of the world Xi’an is associated with the nearby site where the Terracotta Warriors were discovered but what is less known is that this is one of the world’s biggest cities with a population in excess of 4 million. How many of us had heard of Xi’an before the Terracotta Warriors were discovered and started to attract visitors from around the world? And how many of us have heard of Wuhan, Chongquin and Shenyang? I must confess that as a Geographer I had not and yet all are ranked in the top 60 cities in the world by population and each is bigger than Los Angeles, Cape Town and Madrid which just underlines my comments regarding the size of China and its economic potential.
And as we left Xi’an we passed hundreds ( and I do mean hundreds) of 30 storey apartment blocks lining the highway up to 7 deep on both sides of the highway en route to the three terminal airport. I have seen a new suburb being constructed from scratch at Jumeirah in Dubai which was impressive but I have never seen construction on such scale before and Xi’an is just one city of dozens in China.
We have ended up on the Li River in southern China. As a Geographer I am always attracted to landscapes and this is the region of very distinctive Limestone towers and pinnacles that feature prominently in every poster and travel book about China.. We took a River Boat from Guilin to Yangshou together with maybe another 50 or 60 boats and hundreds of small bamboo rafts ferrying tourists through a never ending series of beautiful vistas including one that adorns the 20 Yuan note! Even though it was misty and hazy it was still very attractive as the haze gave the views an almost mystical or ethereal quality.
By Chinese standards Yangshou is a small town of 300,000 popular with both domestic and overseas visitors alike because of its stunning location in the heart of the spectacular Karst pinnacles and to ascertain how China has adapted to the rapid growth of mass tourism imagine Blackpool or Atlantic City being located in the Loire Valley! However we found a small boutique hotel run by a Belgian Chinese couple on the outskirts of town which was a nice place to stay and we made a couple of two hour raft trips on the nearby Yulong River – very spectacular and very relaxing unless your boatman decides to punt down the river in tandem with his best mate on another raft because as we all know Asian people have a lot of strengths but talking quietly is not and never will be part of their dna!
Yangshou is very much geared for tourists – bars, clubs, hawkers, shops and restaurants but is still a nice enough place for a few days stay due to its spectacular location. Last night we went to see the Impressions Liu Sanjie Sound and Light show and whilst the reader might be tempted to think ‘Ho Hum – another contrived tourist attraction?’ this was far from the case!
For me it was this outstanding production, rather than the Forbidden City or Great Wall that I will remember as the most impressive feature of this visit to China. Designed and choreographed by the acclaimed Film Director Zhang Yimou, who was also responsible for the memorable opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics, the concept and execution could only have taken in place in China and involved a cast of over 600 singers, dancers and boatmen performing on the Li River with the surrounding Karst peaks illuminated as a backdrop. The concept and scale was impressive to start with but the subsequent interaction of people, music and lighting quite extraordinary. And out of sight and in darkness temporary stages and pontoons were quickly assembled on acres of water so that hundreds of performers were revealed one by one as if they were walking on water. In almost 50 years of enjoying live concerts, theatre and performances I had never seen anything like this – the show would sell out for years in Las Vegas! I subsequently learnt that Zhang Yimou (whose acclaimed films include Raise the Red Lantern, House of the Flying Daggers and Hero, all well worth seeing) has choreographed and produced several such production
s at destinations all over China and surely this is fertile ground for an enterprising Tour Operator looking for something different. Imagine going to an Olympic Opening Ceremony every night! (Now when does my non compete expire?)
We were talking to some other travellers before and after last night’s show and I am not unique – everyone comments that the hallmark of a visit to China is that you never really get away from either people or the noise
. Eventually like India the other giant Asian destination China tires everyone out and it is time to move on but we should remember this is a country that does not need to adapt to attract overseas visitors.
Because one thing I have noticed these past 10 days is that wherever I have gone the number of western visitors is always just a small minority. When one visits attractions in London, New York or Paris it is instantly obvious that a significant proportion if not a majority of the visitors are from overseas. China has a large and vibrant domestic tourist industry and whilst of course overseas visitors are welcomed and still a point of interest (‘Can I have my photo taken with you please’ is a daily occurrence in Beijing – I’ve never been asked in Bangkok!) but this is now a country more than capable of earning hard currency by trade and who does not need foreign visitors to return home with word of China’s achievements – anyone who is capable of reading a newspaper or who watched the Beijing Olympics knows that China is a superpower who has made tremendous advances in the last 20 years.
But whilst China does not need foreign tourists to sustain its domestic tourist industry the rest of the world is about to start competing big time for Chinese tourists. Today only 3% of the Chinese population has a passport and yet these 50 million represent the world’s third biggest group of overseas tourist spenders after the Americans and Germans! There is a lesson here for any want to be entrepreneurs – find a Chinese partner you can trust and set up as an outward bound Tour Operator because when 10 or 15% of the population has a passport the world will be awash with high spending Chinese tourists.
China is not without its problems. Apparently the seemingly never ending year on year economic growth is slowing down and is particularly noticeable in a dropping off in demand for high end luxury goods and indeed when wandering around a shopping mall/department store in Beijing I was amazed at the number of high end watch brands each maintaining a separate presence in just one small area of Beijing and how much people would spend an a tea pot or thermos ((£40/US$65). However I also commented that the store was almost empty even allowing that it was a holiday weekend and people had other priorities.
I suspect a Rice Grower in Shaanxi Province is not losing sleep about a fall off in demand for high end luxury goods but he may be concerned if he ponders about the possible end result of China’s controversial one child policy and a highly educated work force – a labour shortage and no one wanting to be a road sweeper, plumber or toilet attendant. Will China develop like the Emirates and become a net importer of unskilled manual labour from Nepal, Bangla Desh, Sri Lanka and the Philippines? I suspect not as there was no obvious evidence that development was currently curtailed from a manpower shortage and if it was we should not forget that although in most aspects it now rules with a light touch this is still a one party state and the government retains firm control of everything including the power to influence (or decide?)where people live and what they do.
Writing an essay on China after a quick 10 day visit is, if not pretentious, for sure laying oneself open to a charges that one’s conclusions are only based on superficial impressions. But sometimes first impressions can be valid.
Any country that provides as many public toilets as one sees in Beijing has its priorities right and is also inherently civilized – well we knew that anyway. China was building cities and civilizations replete with culture when we were running around England as a bunch of Saxon heathens! And today when we are (Ok – maybe this should read when I am) caught short miles from a public lavatory in London or New York we might pee in a dark corner but one does not see this happening in Beijing. There is no need.
But perhaps more importantly any country that can build a modern subway system like Beijing’s to serve circa 20 million people so efficiently has a lot going for it. Live television was broadcast on every platform and in every carriage and ……………….wait for it……………..advertisements are beamed onto the tunnel wall as one sped along underground. So if you were not watching TV or using your mobile phone (of course mobile phones and internet worked underground in Beijing!) then one could stare out of the windows watching a series of high speed images projected on the tunnel wall at the same speed as the train was travelling. Fiendishly clever these Chinese eh?
So if a country can stop people peeing in the streets and move 20 million around efficiently in a confined space with no problem it strikes me that the future is undoubtedly bright for China.
My abiding memory of China will be people and the timing of my visit was unfortunate if I wanted to avoid the crowds. News reports have stated that as many as 50% of the population have been on the move over the last week but that could not be so – it would mean if half of each family was on the move usually to visit family there would often be no one waiting to greet them when they arrive at their destination! I exaggerate but you get my drift!
I would not try and dissuade anyone from visiting China as long as you are aware of what you are getting into – noise, people and long journey times which is why I certainly recommend being near a subway station in Beijing. A 20 -30 minute walk or bus ride to a Metro, a 40 minute ride and the same at the other end can mean journeys take a couple of hours each way.
There is not a lot of signage in English outside Beijing and nor should there be – do we put signs up in French, German or Chinese in London or Sydney? So visitors must be prepared to get lost from time to time and the frustrations of getting around and asking for help when there are not so many English speakers.
I think if I come back it will be for an extended stay in Beijing and perhaps in winter when it is cooler and less crowds. Beijing was a city that surprised me in that it has a reputation for being one of the most polluted cities in the world. But it was clean and unpolluted so have the Chinese fixed that too or were we just lucky?
And Beijing was fairly easy to get around. But nevertheless don’t think of coming if you are not prepared for crowds, noise and long periods on your feet. Indeed you need to be seriously fit to properly explore the Temple of Heaven!
Today we move on to Hong Kong , a city I have visited many times and where I once stayed for 6 weeks. It is one of the most densely populated cities in the world and usually a byword for a busy, crowded and high intensive lifestyle for both the Chinese and expatriates always striving to accumulate more than they have or just survive amidst some of the world’s most expensive real estate. However after 10 days in China during the Holiday season I suspect it might just feel like visiting a backwater Appalachian community rather than one of the most densely populated conurbations in the world. We will see!
As for China I am impressed and full of admiration but in no particular hurry to return!
© Michael Bromfield 2012