Things that Surprised Me About China

1.  How clean it is, and how much trash there is.  China is not particularly dirty.  In the cities particularly, there are hordes of elderly Chinese people sweeping the streets, picking up trash and cleaning the myriad public toilets.  Out in the countryside, there is rather a lot of trash in some places.  Tiger Leaping Gorge was peppered with empty plastic bottles and food-wrapper trash.  Early on in the trip, I started taking pictures of trash.  It’s  interesting:  if there’s a hole of any kind, from a construction ditch, a missing paving tile, or a crack in a rock in the countryside, it is filled with trash.  All holes seem to be deemed trash bins.
2.  Surveillance, or the lack thereof.  I had expected police on every corner and cameras in every light pole and I expected to be followed around by men in black.  It just didn’t happen.  While I noted cameras in many places, they were in places that Americans would put security cameras anyway.  The notable exception was in Tiananmen Square, where every light pole was a bristling array of cameras and receivers and god-knows what all else.  I took one photo of the security, and the hordes of watchers did  not descend and take my camera away.
3.  Airports and air travel.  Everyone takes pictures in airports!  Pictures of each other in the airports, pictures of the airplanes, pictures of just about everything.  Airline tickets state a boarding time and a departure time.  You better be at the gate and ready to go at that time.  Everyone queues up at about 5 minutes before boarding time.  Boarding is random and gang style even though everyone has assigned seats.  Everyone rushes onto the airplane, puts their stuff away, sits down.  One-two-three.  The flight pushes off as soon as everyone is seated, and wheels up is at or before the departure time on the ticket.  It’s seems counter-intuitive, but the free-for-all boarding seems to get done quicker than the board by rows thing and with a lot less angst.
The only flight delays we had in five intra-China flights were the ones due to bad weather.
4.  Rampant capitalism.  Everywhere, everyone is competing with everyone else to sell some piece of crap made in China.  The strange part is that the pieces of crap they’re selling in China are much higher quality pieces of crap than the similar stuff that gets exported to the USA.  Some of the crap is actually quite nice, and overall, it’s much cheaper than the more cheaply made crap being sold in the US.
I could not, however, believe the amounts of this junk that is being sold EVERYWHERE.  I mean EVERYWHERE.  Street corners, night markets, day markets, organized tourist trap markets, national parks, scenic areas.  The stuff is everyone and EVERYONE is selling something.  We got to understand by about the beginning of the second week that if someone (usually a woman) approached and said a drawled “Hello-a. . .” that we should run away.  They had some piece(s) of crap to sell and would pursue us until they fell down or we gave in and shelled out money.  I cracked up one guide late in the trip by telling him, we had learned a couple of new words and that “hello-a. . .” means “run!”
There is also rampant capitalism outside the junk real.  Tea and silk come to mind.  It seems the businesses are government subsidized, but both also seem to have a supply and demand price structure that every western capitalist would love.
In the cities there are “shopping malls” all over the place.  It seems like far more than we have at home, but then again their small cities have more people than many of our large ones (6-8 million).  In Shanghai and Beijing, there would be three or four 10 story buildings along a block, all of which would house shopping malls, and thy are filled with kinds buying expensive stuff.  Still much less money than home, but it must be expensive for the economy in China.
5.  Glasnost.  For lack of a better word.  Most of guides were younger people in their 20’s.  All of our guides were under 40, so none had lived through the cultural revolution, although their parents or grandparents did.  Every one of them who spoke of the cultural revolution – and it was almost all of them – condemned it as a very bad time for the country, where huge mistakes were made.  They talked about the unnecessary suffering imposed by those changes, which at the same time retaining a real reverence for Chairman Mao, the beloved benevolent leader.  Strange dichotomy.
A couple even talked about how bad they thought internet censorship is.  They look globally and want to be part of the global country and they believe that censorship will not help.  If the few young people we met are typical of Chinese youth, China is going to be a very formidable economic power to deal with in a few years – MAYBE.  They have a political ideology that reminds me of our young ideology growing up in the 1960’s.  They basically think China is a good place, it just needs some tweaking and some modernizing  to be great.
6.  How good the food is.  All over China, the quality of the food has been spectacular, whether in our 3-star hotels, in upscale or chain restaurants or on the street.  In all the places, it seems that most of the food is grown within a few mines of where it is prepared and eaten.
The eggs were the best I have eaten in my life, even with the bird flu scaring everyone off poultry products.  Every morning, fresh eggs, cooked to order.  In the countryside, omelets are standard lunchtime fare.  Eggs cooked soft with veggies, or seared hard with veggies.  Always delicious.
The veggies were fresh, fresh, fresh.  Particularly in Yunnan, we saw many fresh veggie markets.  The small farmers bring in veggies, meat, (live) fish and other creatures, spices, and maybe clothing, and sell it all at the market.  Nothing has travelled very far to market, so the great Chinese breakfasts of congee and pickles and twelve kinds of steamed and sauteed vegetables and bacon – always bacon, various types of cures and sizes of pieces, but always bacon.  In most cities, noodles in broth with things like greens and meat and other good stuff.
And in Beijing almost everything was the Chinese version of meat and potatoes.  They don’t seem to eat the great quantities of fresh veggies there.  Maybe it’s  because it’s so much colder than anywhere else we were. . .
7.  Driving in China.  I will NEVER, repeat NEVER, get behind the wheel of a car in China.  Driving there is a free for all.  Everyone drives everywhere all the time.  Cars, trucks, tuck-tucks, 3-wheelers, bicycles, motorcycles, motorized bicycles,  pedestrians.  Just about everything but skateboards and roller skates.  All going everywhere at once.  No room to pass on the left? Pass on the shoulder.  Making a left turn into traffic?  Just do it!  Two big trucks are in the way?  Slip between them at 140 kph.
The solution is always hire a driver.  The drivers we had were all – with one exception – competent, professional, fearless, assured, certain.  They drove with professional aplomb on the crazy streets of every place.  Either moving through the glut of rush hour traffic in Beijing and Shanghai, the constant rush hour equivalent in Kunming, or the barrier-less twisty curvy mountain roads in Yunnan province.
I finally figured out the rules after we came home.  There is one driving rule in China, and one rule only:  DON’T HIT ANYTHING.
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