The Real China

Before coming to China I was really worried. The stories I’d heard about it from other travellers had not been promising. One girl summed it up to me by saying: “It’s the kind of place you hate when you’re there but when you leave you realise you loved it”.

Everyone agreed that the people are rude and unhelpful, the food is terrible and the country is filthy. Not great recommendations when you’re about to spend two months in a place.

I tired to console myself with the fact that after university I’d spend a month in Japan and, despite only being able to say five words in Japanese, I’d managed to get by thanks to the kind people I’d met along the way. But the bearers of bad news were quick to tell me that wouldn’t be the case in China. “No one will help you”, they assured me.

My first encounter at the airport seemed to confirm that. I arrived late at night, clutching a map to my hostel, with all of the instructions written in Chinese. I couldn’t have been more prepared. As I headed towards the taxi driver he actually rolled his eyes and shouted something to his friends which I’m pretty sure was along the lines of “Why do I get stuck with the foreigner?”

He then drove me to the hutong (the old residential alleyways of Beijing) where my hostel was located before abandoning me at 11pm, because he couldn’t find it and he didn’t want to turn his car around or ask anyone.

Luckily I was quickly saved by someone who pointed me in the right direction and over the next few days China continued to be nothing like I’d expected.

People were kind and helpful when we were lost; they translated for us when we needed to buy train tickets and went out of their way to walk us to museums. They lifted our huge backpacks onto the luggage racks of the overnight trains (without threatening to sue us for doing their backs in) and they ran over to ask us to be in photos with them (I can only imagine them going through their holiday snaps: “Here’s the Great Wall, here’s a white person…”)

A little help with our Chinese.
The food has also been surprisingly good. Obviously I’ve avoided the fried cow tendon and pig’s brains, but the noodle and rice dishes, along with the meat I can actually identify, has been really tasty.
I guess what people mean when they say they don’t like the food is that it’s not the same as Chinese food at home. You don’t really find things swimming in sweet and sour sauce here. So far the only food mishap we’ve had was when the girls ordered what they thought were two plates of potatoes but turned out to be some kind of lumps of fat. Not the best for two vegetarians.
There’ll be no dieting in China.

In terms of being dirty I think, for a country of more than a billion people, that it’s actually very clean. Everywhere you go there’s a band of people cleaning the streets and even on the trains someone will come around every hour or so to sweep up.

I don’t know whether it’s just because I’ve spend a month in Burma where everyone is constantly spitting red bettle-nut juice in the street, so I’ve become immune to it, but I even think the number of people spitting here (which seems to be other travellers’ biggest complaint) is relatively low.

Obeying the sign perhaps?
Of course, we’ve met a couple of miserable people. As rumoured, the staff at the ticket offices in railway stations are not the most patient. But then again, I probably wouldn’t be either if I had a million people trying to buy a ticket at the same time and absolutely nobody understands the concept of queueing.

But we’ve had many, many more lovely moments with people. Times when we’ve had entire conversations in sign language, times when people have come up to us just to say the three English phrases they know and times when they’ve seen us and just laughed and laughed (whether with us, or at us, we’re never quite sure). So to me, this is the real China.