China is a fascinating country, in my opinion. It has a rich cultural history with so many different chapters. All of it still influencing on how the ‘land of the middle’ functions today. The country and its habits seem as intricate as its past. China often seems to be an entity on it’s own, not necessarily in need of the rest of the world. Travelling China is a challenge and an adventure, with difficulties, but also a lot of beauty. This is how I experienced China and the Chinese people.
What about China?
Facts & things I noticed, big & small:
- They have cameras on the highways, not to catch you while speeding, but to document everyone driving by. If you see a flash, you did not make a mistake, but you did get caught on camera.
- China works with a point system. As an inhabitant of the country, if you cause trouble or break a law, this will take points away from your personal amount. This goes for small and big things. These points have a huge impact on your life since it influences your career, your freedom, etc.
- Cameras everywhere, not only on the roads, but in the bus, on the subway, in a cab, in the hotels, in restaurants, in the street.
- Every metro entrance has a security check where you and your bags are scanned.
- There is a lot of police and security everywhere. There are also security ‘volunteers’. Not sure what that entails, but people volunteer to stand guard?
- When you arrive at the airport, to enter the country, you need to give your fingerprints. Fun fact: when we wanted to enter Zhangjiajie NP, our fingers were scanned to see if it matched our passport.
- Every hotel you go, to check in, they need to see your passport and take a picture of it.
- China is a country under construction. Everywhere you go, they are building things… appartment blocks, roads, bridges, etc. It’s impressive because often they are building a lot of things at the same time. On the train I passed a construction site where they were building 10 skyscraper appartment blocks at the same time.
- Fun fact: you find tabs with hot water everywhere (this continues in the next part about the Chinese habits). So you can eat instant noodles or drink tea at any time. In the trains, in public toilets, public places, in every restaurant or hotel, etc…
- There are a lot of scooters in China and what I really loved about that, is that most of them are electrical! So it impacts the air quality but also the noise levels on the streets! Only downside is that they are so silent that you don’t always hear them coming!
- Plastic everywhere! One example so you know how far it goes: if you order a drink to take away, you do not only get a plastic cup with a plastic straw, but also a plastic bag to put your drink in. People actually use this, I don’t grasp the use of it.
- The freedom of the internet is restricted in China – most of you probably know this. No Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, but even Google (and all the Google apps) is not allowed! Most people use the Chinese app WeChat instead.
- You can’t pay by card in China. Why? Because everyone simply pays with their phones! Everyone is on WeChat and that is what they use to pay. They scan a QR-code and it’s done. It’s used for everything, in restaurants, in hotels, on the bus and even beggars use it!
- The love for China is very publicly shown. Videos in the subway about beautiful things to see in China, videos about the pride of the country, videos where people sang the national anthem! National flags are everywhere! This might have been because when we visited, it was the 70th anniversary of The People’s Republic Of China.
There’s so much the same, there are so many differences. China is complicated, mysterious, a little scary sometimes and so busy and beautiful. It’s a people’s Republic, but communism is very much alive, right next to capitalism. They are so proud of their history, but Chinese history has a period of erasing it’s own cultural heritage. They are so proud of their country and some of it’s most beautiful landmarks, but at the same time it feels like they are hurting their most wonderful strengths by wanting to make it available to everyone. For example: Tiger Leaping Gorge is a lovely part of nature that is known for it’s hike. But right now, in the middle of this beautiful scenery, they are building a bridge.
China feels like an entity on it’s own. It isn’t entirely illogical that it feels this way, since it’s one of the biggest countries in the world, with also one of the biggest populations. It feels as if they don’t need anybody. They are good on their own. For me that makes China such a bizarre place to travel around in: you don’t necesarilly feel welcome. It is clear that they do not need foreign tourists; they have enough tourists in their own population. English is sparcely spoken, there are not a lot of English signs, or etc. Which is fine! Because they don’t need to accomodate us! We choose to travel to China!
Don’t understand me wrong! You don’t feel unwelcome! Everywhere we stayed, people were friendly – we had interesting talks with locals and in every accomodation they made sure to attend to our needs! But we also had people not care if we did not understand a thing and very often we had to really search our way because it was so unclear. This makes it such a special experience to travel around here and even though it created challenges, I also kind of liked that a country doesn’t feel the need to accomodate foreign tourists. “You are welcome, but we won’t take you by the hand.”
I hope I communicated this right – and very important: this is subjective! This is my experience! And this does not mean that people aren’t kind or welcoming because they often are! But it’s clear that foreign touristst aren’t that important: they can come if they come, but no issue if they don’t. China is good on its own.
What about the Chinese?
There were a lot of differences I experienced while travelling through China. This is a list of things I noticed, habits or funny experiences or simply what I saw. I’ll let you make up your own mind:
PS: bear in mind that this is only what I saw and experienced, so I’m not trying to tell that everything here is a habit, or typical – it’s just a subjective view of my travels through China and my encounter with the Chinese.
- Almost every Chinese carries a thermos flask with them. It was funny to notice that a security officer in the metro wore a flask at his belt! And as I mentioned above: hot water is everywhere and most Chinese really love tea!
- In every restaurant they gave us a pot of tea to drink. This was always a given and it was always free.
- It’s still perceived as beautiful in China to have a pale skin. So you see a lot of Chinese with masks and hats and umbrellas to avoid sunlight. Even scooters often had umbrellas to offer shade.
- Chinese people are loud. Or that is my experience – as a Belgian – of it. They talk really loud to each other and they are very loud on the telephone (which does not always makes them the loveliest travel compagnons).
- We noticed that really often Chinese watch videos or listen to songs on their phones, without using earbuds. This was often very irritating! And I don’t know about your country, but in Belgium it’s perceived as unrespectful.
- Chinese do not have a ‘rule’ for forming a line or something like that. Boarding a train is hell. Everyone is pushing, trying to pass you by or even running to get somewhere first. I experienced this as rude (even though I know in China it’s not considered to be unpolite), tiring and uncomfortable.
- We experienced it a few times that people cut their nails in public. One time a restaurant owner did it in his restaurant or we saw someone do it on the bus.
- Funny sight: in the Forbidden City, a mom took her kid to a corner and let it pee in a plastic bag she held up for him. When he was finished, she threw it in the trash. I can’t imagine this happening in Belgium, especially because there were toilets around, but maybe it was urgent!
- I don’t know what is up with this, but it seems that Chinese travel in group very often and not only abroad. Every touristic place we went, there were big Chinese groups with matching hats walking around, following the footsteps of their guide.
- Something I love about China is that people come together in public spaces. They play games on the street or in parks. There are dance classes and fitness groups happening in the local parks. I love this togetherness! Every time I saw this happening, I couldn’t help but smile.
We saw and experienced so many new and different things. Things we loved, things that seemed weird, some things a bit gross or uncomfortable… But honestly, this is what I love about travelling! Seeing new ways to handle things, experiencing different things of conduct. Getting out of your bubble: our way is not the only way. And that is ALWAYS a good thing to realise in every aspect of life.
I’ve met many people who don’t really like China and I can understand why. But I’ve met as much people who love this country. I don’t know about you, but many people in Belgium aren’t to keen on visiting. Maybe because it doesn’t feel like a perfect holiday destination. China is definitely intense but even though it was a challenge to travel this vast country, I can’t help but like it. So I hope this post gave you some insights in this beautiful country.