China, Part 1: Enter The Dragon

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Notes from China:

I wondered if there might be some backlash for an American tourist because of the tariff battles going on now.

Nope, not at all. The people are lovely. Warm, welcoming.

Actually, I’ve found this to be true just about everywhere I’ve traveled. People like each other, even as our governments bicker.

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Everything the Great Wall is in your head, it is in real life. I hope you see it one day.

I hope you also get to see the terracotta warriors.

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Well over 2,000 years ago, the first Chinese emperor ordered thousands of life-sized terracotta soldiers to be made and placed in his tomb to guard him in his reincarnation.

If pottery can’t protect you in the afterlife, what can?

It was only in the mid-1970s this discovery was made, so excavation is a work in progress that will continue for many more years. So far, about 6,000 terracotta soldiers and horses have been unearthed.

One of three excavation sites. More to come for many more years.

One of three excavation sites. More to come for many more years.

Amazing. And what a rich history.

China has a bunch of people. Chongqing is China’s largest city by population. I’d never even heard of Chongqing. 33 million people, if you include the metro area around it.

Beijing, China’s capital, only has 25 million people. Only. That’s more people than the population of Florida, all living in one city.

Where do all those people live? Glad you asked.

High-rise apartments.

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Thousands of high-rise apartments are under construction in every major city. Construction cranes are indeed the national bird because there are no other birds.

Seriously. We saw almost no birds of any variety. But then birds don’t like pollution. Those big cities have air quality so poor the sky is perpetually gray and long-range visibility is non-existent.

Lots of people wear surgical masks in public. They look silly, frankly, but it’s hard to blame them.

I was anxious to leave Beijing because nothing there reflects Chinese culture. At least, not as I imagined it. It’s all been torn down and replaced by modern skyscrapers and pavement.

Downtown Beijing looks and feels just like downtown Atlanta. Atlanta with signage in Chinese.

Even the Chinese regret not holding on to some of Beijing’s historical relics.

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We encountered a lot of Chinese tourists. That is, natives out seeing their own country. That’s a fairly recent thing.

Ordinary citizens who before had no means to travel now do have the means. Incomes have been going up and Chinese people are starting to travel a lot.

We had been told that as Americans, Chinese people would want pictures taken with us, mostly due to a fascination with our white hair. That was correct.

One member of our group was rushed by some Chinese tourists, first by a single woman, then by what looked like her whole family, all wanting to be in a photo with him once he demonstrated his willingness to pose with them. His hair isn’t white, but his eyes are blue.

You don’t see blue-eyed Asians.

My wife Beverly, who has a head full of curly white hair, was a pretty popular photo op. In one case, a woman came up and just grabbed her by the arm, smiling as her husband snapped photos.

Beverly was happy to accommodate. The Chinese people are really lovely.

A teenager asked Beverly to join her for a selfie. After that was done, I offered to take another picture of the two of them. Seeing me take the camera, two of her friends quickly gathered.

Which one of these is not like the others?

Which one of these is not like the others?

From a few feet away, I happened to notice a man taking his wife’s picture near Beverly while her back was turned. He repeatedly motioned for his wife to get closer to her.

Seemed obvious that he wanted her snow-white hair in the photo with his dark-haired wife.

I walked over, held up a finger to pause him for a moment, then went and turned Bev around to face the camera. The two ladies wrapped their arms around each other and smiled.

All of this happened with only smiles and happy faces, no words. But most Chinese have as much trouble with English as we do with their Mandarin language.

I spent our full two weeks in China knowing only the Mandarin words for hello, thank you and beer. It worked out well.

The English word ‘toilet’ was everywhere you might need it, and the rest was figured out by pointing and gesturing.

Even if they don’t speak English, but they know our words. In two weeks, I saw exactly one t-shirt that had Chinese characters (letters) on it. Everything else, English.

Not only were all those t-shirts in English, most reflected Western culture in some way. Cute sayings, pop stars, TV shows and movies.

They also know the f-bomb, as it showed up occasionally.

I put a digital band-aid on the English. Sorry I don’t know which Chinese character is offensive.

I put a digital band-aid on the English. Sorry I don’t know which Chinese character is offensive.

How is that not censored?

The Chinese government censors.

Any time we were watching the BBC or CNN, when a story came on talking about the ongoing troubles in Hong Kong, the TV went black. The picture returned as soon as the Hong Kong piece was done.

The internet is censored. Pornography is not allowed. Neither is Google. I learned to use Bing. But not for porn.

Our guide told us Facebook was usually not allowed, but at times it was available to use. Never could figure that out.

The Chinese government spends a lot of time and money playing Sister Mary Sunshine, telling people how good life is, how prosperous they are, how wonderful China is becoming.

Newspapers tout only happy news. Even articles on the tariff issues are always upbeat, talking about progress being made in negotiations. Details are never a part of the story.

A local swim club parading a dragon down the Yangtze River. They enjoy passing by cruise ships.

A local swim club parading a dragon down the Yangtze River. They enjoy passing by cruise ships.

Everything is good, and everything for the people.

The Peoples Republic of China is the formal name. There’s Peoples Square. Peoples Park. Everything belongs to and is for the people.

As long as the people belong to the Communist Party, the ruling party of China.

I expected to see a lot of Buddhist influence in China. I saw virtually none. Chinese people are generally not religious. Whether the figure is correct, we heard that 95% of the population doesn’t practice any religion.

It is fair to say, however, that the ruling Communist party doesn’t want competition for people’s devotion. The Chinese people will tell you that with a wink in their voices.

Indeed, it seems things are going well. Wages are going up. People willing to work more can earn more, so Chinese people work hard, often at multiple jobs.

Chinese citizens now have to pay for health insurance and pay income taxes. And the free-market seems to be taking over the business culture.

Most of this strikes me as exactly what communism isn’t, but what do I know. And all of this is of course purely observational on my part.

While China appears to be prospering, prosperity is for the cities. Country living, revered by us Westerners, is a ticket to poverty in the land of the dragon.

If you want a better life, you move to one of the already-overcrowded cities and hope you can afford a high-rise.

China doesn’t seem to hold the farmer in much regard.

My impression was that farmers are regarded as peasants, which is interesting because several of their cities individually have more mouths to feed than exist in the entire state of Texas.

If you’re a farmer and move to the city because you can’t find labor to help on the farm, the government will provide you a low-level job, like pruning shrubs or planting flowers in the parks.

Or sweeping streets.

Brooms are made from bamboo shoots. Very common is cities of any size.

Brooms are made from bamboo shoots. Very common is cities of any size.

Streets are kept extraordinarily clean. Not only is trash routinely picked up, falling leaves from the trees are routinely swept up and discarded.

In some cities, you cannot buy a car even if you can afford it. Too many cars already and too much pollution.

Those cities have lottery drawings for car tags, which entitles you to own a car.

China is aware it has a big pollution problem. It appears one way they are trying to address it by planting trees. If there is an exposed area of land the size of your living room, it’s gonna have 25 trees planted on it.

The larger cities of China are very modern. Western toilets (like we use) are replacing squatty potties, though squatties are still very common, even in public places, like museums.

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Chinese dress very much like Europeans and Americans. Casual, and pretty much anything goes. Jeans, ripped jeans, t-shirts. Americans do not stand out for what we wear.

Chinese beer is weak and uninteresting. Regardless of brand, all of it seems to be of a similar light-beer style. But did I ever turn one down?

That’s a big no-o-o-o.

The most prevalent liquor I encountered is referred to as Chinese vodka, mostly because of the appearance (clear) and mouth feel. It’s sorghum-based. I like sorghum syrup, so I figured I’d like their baijiu.

Yep.

Big cities in China like to show off their technology, particularly using it to light things up!

Vegas has nothing on some of these displays.

Vegas has nothing on some of these displays.

Lighted buildings with synchronized displays that are spectacular. You can watch images of birds flying or a camel walking seamlessly over buildings for several city blocks.

For all the country’s modernity, however, tap water is not drinkable. Another head-scratcher. All that technology, yet drinking water has to come from a plastic bottle.

If you get a chance to visit this beautiful country, remember that. Or be prepared to spend a lot of time figuring out the squatty potty.

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COMING NEXT: SQUID ON A STICK. EATING MY WAY THROUGH CHINA

China, Pt. 2: Kung Food Fighting

With Apologies To Kip More