There are many matters that go largely unseen by tourists such as myself, and I am under no illusion that the Democratic Republic of China is a country whose human and animal rights reputation is one that all other nations aspire to. My reasons for travelling through the country – from North to South, starting in Beijing and finishing in Taipei, Taiwan – were varied: I had visited Japan twice, and my captivation with the Far East was compelling me to explore other countries in the region. I have always challenged myself with my travels, extending destinations further into the unknown with every trip. The first time I travelled alone was to New York when I was twenty-one. Six years later, I loaded up my backpack with the bare-essentials, and set off for just under two months’ travel in one of the world’s most culturally rich, historically influential, and controversial countries.
Japan has become a firm-favourite destination for Westerners in recent years, and has a well-deserved reputation for hospitality towards tourists. Its transport systems are Anglo-friendly, and Japanese language is surprisingly unchallenging for a native English-speaker such as myself. Mandarin, on the other hand, is notoriously difficult (Cantonese, even moreso), since its phonology is so unlike anything found in English. Additionally, for a solo traveller such as myself, it was a comfort to know that Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. Its culture is one that is easily-recognised, but equally alien when experiencing it first-hand. China, on the other hand, was a Great Unknown.
I had some concerns before setting off. Would I see abundant animal cruelty? Dogs killed for meat? Neglected citizens? State tyranny? Would I myself be in any danger whilst there? Indeed, my greatest worries were surrounding communication: since both Google and Facebook are blocked in China, I would have to rely on costly texts or other messaging services to stay in contact with family – not to mention alternative search-engines to gather any information I needed for the duration of my travels.
I remember clearly my feelings whilst in the queue to go through passport control at Beijing Capital International Airport. I could see CCTV everywhere, which is not out of the ordinary; but there were also strange inverted megaphones embedded in all the walls and above our heads. They could have been something to do with air conditioning. Then again, in my somewhat paranoid state-of-mind, I believed them to more likely be listening devices made especially for catching conversations from within large crowds.
Nevertheless, it all went smoothly. I entered the Arrivals hall, and found the prebooked taxi waiting for me. Stepping out of the air-conditioned environment to inhale real air was a shock to my lungs. The drive to my hotel was an entirely new experience, since I had never – not even in Egypt and Jordon – experienced such dry air. I later learnt that Beijing’s climate is heavily influenced by the not-too-distant Gobi Desert and the Mongolian Steppe (Mongolia is surprisingly close to Beijing, which in turn, is located surprisingly north in this vast country). The other surprise was the abundance of ‘snow’ in the air. This was early April.
“It is from the poplar tree,” my driver explained. “You have them in UK, but they don’t do this, yes?” “They don’t,” I conceded, marvelling at the phenomenon. The dry winds blew the cotton seeds into a frenzy across the highway. I was so parched by the dry air that I inadvertantly inhaled some of it as it whipped into the car through the gap in the window.
Once I had settled in my hotel room, I reflected upon my feelings so far, and jotted down thoughts in a notebook.
Strange that I feel uneasy writing honestly here. Despite not thinking that highly of Orwell’s 1984, I still can’t help but feel that I’ve entered into it a little.
The taxi from the airport to my hotel was interesting. There are manicured gardens, and vast urban vistas are aplenty, but there is no life in them. It is the same Uncanny feeling one gets with the realisation that trees are empty of birds, and a place where birdsong ought to be is actually a vacuum of sound. The impression is one of superficial grandeur. Enormous columned buildings with contemporary takes on traditional tiled and gabled roofs fly fifty red flags, circumferenced by security and high gates. Huge office complexes sit back from the chaos of the broad multi-laned roads. But even these seem empty.
Where the grand, modern complexes are not, the buildings shrink and the sterile cleanliness disappears. The air is thick with white fuzz, and the smell of Chinese food (instantly recognisable and intensely appetising) enters the open windows of the car.
As the only other East Asian country I have visited is Japan, it is natural for me to compare. My opinion of Japan is very high for a multitude of reasons, and I hasten to add that, putting all my preconceptions and political views aside, I don’t want to too hastily form a generalised opinion of China – particularly as I am only travelling through the East side of the country (Xi’an being an exception), as well as the fact that I have only been here for less than a day so far.
However, my inital impressions are as such: compared to the ambivalence and extreme politeness of the Japanese, the Chinese (in my limited experience) are entirely unambiguous in demeanour, and I imagine it would be rare to have a misunderstanding. The Chinese are not the type to stay quiet, and are less inhibited than their island neighbour. This disposition can be seen in the Dynamics of the Road, where pedestrians and bicycles cross the street regardless of whether it is safe to do so (usually it isn’t). The result is that they often get stuck between ten lanes (five in each direction) while cars honk and pass dangerously closs. Cars treat other cars in a similar manner. Everyone honks, swerving perilously close around one another, or get themselves and their cars into hazardous positions upon the junctions. While it may seem aggressive, it isn’t. No one is glaring, or passing abuse through open car windows. It is simply the collective mentality. Everyone does what is convenient for themselves, and only give consideration to others when they are coerced into it. I suppose it would be similar to compare the mentality of Italian drivers with Austrians or Germans.
I was jetlagged (and remained so until I managed to rectify it in Xi’an a few days later), and did little beyond exploring China’s multitudinous television channels (this is a ritual I have when first setting foot in new countries). It wasn’t until the next day, and further ahead, that I would experience in more depth the peculiar quirks of the city: the hutongs, the mechanisms of its subway, temples that had survived iconoclasm, and the jarring abundancy of security checks around locations of import.
In retrospect, Beijing was not my favourite place to visit in China. It is a complex city built around six ring-roads, dense in places, but noticeably spread-out. During my time in this country, I would quickly come to find that there are a great number of similarities between the PRC and the USA (something that neither country, I am sure, would be too chuffed to know). Being the capital, Beijing flaunts grandiosity, but with a veil of old Communism and scars from the Cultural Revolution everywhere. The country’s recent economic explosion reveals itself through ostentatious plazas, statues, and government buildings, but in Beijing it seemed to be a superficial flexing of muscles in place of a culture that has, to a degree, been visibly erased. It is China’s intangible culture, meanwhile, which I gradually but surely came to appreciate during my time there.