Every traveller has to start their experience somewhere and for us the traveller bug well and truly made its mark on our first trip to China in 2011. Our first big adventure was a life changing one; opening our eyes to a plethora of Chinese cultures, it’s rich history, unbelievable food and friendly people of this brave new world. China became elevated in our minds as the perfect place to travel. It inspired us to go to South East Asia and South America before quiting our jobs to turn our sights on the big trip we find ourselves on. Having put China on this pedestal, with monumental memories to back it up, we were really excited about returning in 2017. Coming fresh off the train from an already amazing 3 months of travel. China had a lot to live up too, did it deliver?
This is a difficult starting point because China has so many sub cultures, languages and provincial heritage that is bound together by thousands of years of history, it’s incredibly complex. So one provinces custom differ greatly to the next. That said, we think the Chinese, as individuals, are one of the reasons to visit China. They are kind, helpful and joyous people; you will very often hear the laughter of a local before seeing them! On several occasions inquisitive young Chinese folk have approached us and bought us food, some we have connected with via WeChat and later have taken us out for dinner, teaching each other about our cultures from home. We certainly wouldn’t have tried frog broth had a Chinese friend not ordered it for us! The youth of China feel like global citizens, like Europeans, but the older generations seem to be moving in the other direction, a more right wing direction. It’s easy to see why, they live in a highly controlled country where there isn’t freedom of speech, where the media only promotes Chinese news and where only one political party exists and has ruled the country for 70 years! That said, In both 2011 and 2107 we have been thrown into many situations where we’ve met and bonded with locals. Some have been through spoken word, some via Google translate and some via charades, pointing and miming! All of them memorable and they, almost, always end in a smile.
Back in 2011, China was a lot more relaxed, and more modest. Currently, it’s as if China and it’s people have a much clearer and more confident view of who they are and where they are going as country. With this change a brashness has bored through some it’s older folk. Although fewer people spoke English in 2011, when we met locals there was a genuine interest in learning about our culture, as it was for us learning from theirs. That has all but disappeared now as the most of older Chinese we met only seem interested in hearing what we thought of their country; recounting the places we’d been and if we liked them. It’s quite one sided and seems to fall in line with the nationalist streak that has fallen across the world in recent years. It’s saddening, as the Chinese people are often generous and always want to help a traveller in need.
If there’s one thing that has caused a huge shift in Chinese society it’s the ever growing middle classes and the influence of their disposable cash. When we visited tourist attractions in 2011 there were always some locals sharing the spots, but in 2017 tourism has gone crazy. It’s basically impossible to visit sights and expect any serenity. We have been to the Forbidden City, Terracotta Army, Huangshan mt, Haushan mt. and Zhangjiajie National Park and at every site we were packed in like sardines! Chinese tourists invariably, although were not sure why, pick to be part of a tour, so expect groups of 20 led by a guide shouting through a loud speaker, a common sight (and sound). We felt that many of the destinations were ruined by the sheer amount of people and the audible volume that comes from huge tours. It’s actually really difficult to concentrate on enjoying the sites from 8am to 5pm, even in huge national parks with multiple trekking routes.
We were simply not prepared for how different the Chinese tourist model is to what were used to in the West. Because of how ‘closed’ the country is the government has built an impressive tourist infrastructure that it keenly advertises on state media channels. The state runs all transport to the sites, tickets, cable cars etc creating a financial feedback loop of commerce. In short, the middle class Chinese use their spare cash to visit Chinese tourist sites, foreigners are an afterthought. Maps in national parks are neigh on useless, information boards list dull scientific information and rarely divulge anything bordering on interesting. English audio headsets in China are terrible; the Forbidden Cities one was so un-passionately robotic I couldn’t tell you one useful bit of information I heard from it in 2 hours. All these relatively small niggles add together to form quite an off putting experience making recommending China as a place to travel difficult.
As Westerners, we have been through the addictive, slippery slope that are smartphones! Most people we know had a smart phone by 2010 with phones becoming pretty over saturated by time we left for this trip in 2017. Whereas smartphones in China have only just started to kick off and the masses are loving it. It’s not unusual to see everybody around you on a busy street clutching their piece of plastic as they walk past. It really is another level of addiction here and avoiding phombies when you have heavy backpacks can be difficult! Every Chinese person has also become a photographer and this makes visiting tourist attractions all the more frustrating. Western travellers have always got a lot of attention in China but now everyone can photograph you, any time and place, it’s a whole lot more time consuming. People pop up from behind rocks to take a snap of your pretty face, others take sneaky selfies with you in the background. Luckily, but mostly occasionally, some will ask your permission if they can take a photo, but that can be a can of worms for others waiting in line.
We came to China to explore its vast and stunning natural beauty, to this end China is amazing. It truly offers some nature’s most diverse landscapes. But in a running theme, these natural Parks have been so overly controlled, gated and pre routed they often feel more like Disney land. Inside National Parks you should expect pre set routes which have been cast from concrete where only formal steps lead you on. You will never walk on rock, grass or soil. We found this incredibly frustrating because part of getting out into nature is conquering challenging natural paths. We longed for the challenge of a European peak in China!
The park authorities pay very little attention to the visitor experience, loud automated security megaphones play out message all day and they are loud enough to echo up the valleys. This was the case at Huangshan where we had to endure 5 hours of the same message whilst trekking up and down a gorge. Although the views are stunning the trees and bushes are so overgrown that it’s rarely possible to get a good photo! This seems crazy when there are so many people who have come to these parks to take photos. The occasional viewing platform can be found but you’ll need to visit early in the morning to have it for yourself, not considering the visitor at all. The worse part is how expensive they are, averaging around £25 per person. Although most are for just 1 days access, others are 4 days luckily. The National parks are geared to make money, for example they use zoomed in maps to confuse visitors, many don’t include walking routes but instead clearly highlight the more profitable cable cars. In 4 days at Huangshan we were unable to find one of the hiking routes out of the park. We figured this was done on purpose to force you on to the cable car. Even the coaches on the way into the park make the walking paths sound impossible ‘you must be physically fit for the 3 hour hike up, know your fitness’. It’s all big con, but totally lost on the locals as it’s all they know.
Perhaps the saddest change we’ve noticed during our 6 years away is China’s growing shopping culture. In most modern cities the ‘old towns’ and their culture have been destroyed to make way for new malls. Shopping is huge business here, comparing the Western Black Friday event to China’s equivalent, Singles Day, is like comparing David to Goliath, 17.8 billion was spent in just 24 hours, 5 billion more than in 2016. China has gone shopping crazy, where the influx of wealth is best represented through the objects that they own. A Shanghai based news website, Sixth Tone, said this on the impact of Singles Day, “It is by nature founded on a model of frenzied mass consumption that is unsustainable for global ecosystems — a crazed carousel of buying and selling that exploits some of China’s lowest earners while casting materialism as a salve for a lack of psychological fulfillment,”. We couldn’t have put it better.
The world has changed a lot since 2011! We remember rolling up to a station an hour before the train left and being able to book hard sleepers, a 6 berth bedroom on a train. That memory is long gone and has been replaced by automated booking service Ctrips. Of course there are many transport methods to get around China but it’s main arteries are it’s train service and the track builders have been busy in the last 6 years! Every major city is now connected via high speed routes, travelling at around 300kph. some routes are even quicker, using magnets, and travel closer to 500kph. High speed trains are pricey compared to the rest of Asia but well priced compared to Europe. The explosion in train options has meant the trains are far busier, arriving on the day of departure without a train ticket is pure ignorance. Now, everything must be booked days in advanced, which often means making rigid plans or risk loosing 20% of the ticket to refund it, this has to be done 24 hrs before departure. Luckily cheap travel can be found and although the price has gone up £35 for 20 hours on a train with a bed seems like a good price. Travel in China is a catch-22, one hand it’s accessible and affordable to all but the trade off is needing a rigid plan, which most backpackers prefer not to have. It makes travelling around this vast country un-spontaneous.
Maybe we’ve been reading too much 1984, but the Chinese people live a very controlled society. Luckily, the Chinese people seem happy, they are very social and community is inherently present on the streets, trains and attractions. But the Chinese are also very quick to follow, to queue and to fall in line. The authorities ask their citizens to queue for almost everything, tickets, getting the underground or a train. Every citizen is put through security checks, X-raying their bags, ID checks, cameras are widespread, every car is photographed at every junction! The amount of signage showing rules and explaining how citizen should act are widespread and laughable, ‘Don’t jump off mountain’ one read from a precipice!? (Thanks for that nugget of wisdom China!) Some sources say that that education is watered down, is pro Chinese and edited in favour of authoritarian politics. It really feels like a place where being an individual is ill advised, where ignorance is bliss. Perhaps we were too young to notice but the imposing governance of the state was barely noticeable in 2011. Right now, it casts a controlling shadow across it’s lands. This is becoming a place for the average person who won't rock the boat, and so we are finding it very difficult to recommend China as a place for those who lust for adventure. In 2017, adventure in China comes pre packaged and next to a megaphone.
Just when we were starting to lose our patience with China we boarded a train from Zhangjiajie to Kunming, returning to the place where our great adventure of 2011 started. There is something different about Yunnan; perhaps it’s because it’s a melting pot between Chinese people like the Naxi and Bai minorities and further influenced by it’s neighbouring countries; Laos, Myanmar, Tibet (actually part of China) and Vietnam. We found a more relaxed pace here, with fewer tourists and the most travellers we’d seen, and met, anywhere in China. We particularly enjoyed our escape to the mountain villages under the gaze of the Jade Snow Mountains where we relaxed in Baisha, marvelling at the locals world famous embroidery. It’s safe to say Yunnan had the vibe we wanted all along but we found it the hard way, searching the rest of China first! Who knew this province was so special and so hard to find in this huge beast of a country. Not forgetting Tiger Leaping Gorge, China’s most revered hike, is still stunning, raw and undisturbed by rest of China’s tourist driven machinations! For nature lovers it’s a must.
This time round we discovered the mountain sanctuary of Yubeng. A small village split into upper and lower that can only be found via a 15km walk up a valley. Part of it's wonder is that it requires trekking experience and stamina so few people make it there, especially in snowy November! This was our favourite place in China and has restored and elevated Yunnan, yet again, to the must visit province for tourists who want adventure. We stayed in a lodge with an outrageous mountain view and partook several day of trekking on some of the best routes we'd experience since our trip to Chile. Without the crowds and control of the rest of China these walks were stunning, challenging and sparsely populated, miss Yubeng at your peril!
In summary, China has changed an awful lot and those that are seeking experiences that are off the beaten track should seek those in rural areas. Get off the tourist trail, seek out the small villages where only one bus a day passes through, or hop on a bike and go explore the beautiful lands of Yunnan, our favourite place.
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