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CX1 Recap

Started: 2016-04-16 22:26:33

Submitted: 2016-04-17 17:42:02

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator recaps his first major expedition to China

At some point in my past, I ran across a dating-icebreaker question in the form of "Have you even traveled alone in a foreign country?" While I've never actually needed to answer this question in its original context, the question stuck with me because I was never quite sure how to answer it. Does it count if I flew by myself but met a host who was expecting me? Did it matter if I'd never actually met the host in person before? What if I ended up by myself for two days at the tail end of a weeks-long trip? What if I only spent a day in the country? What if the person I'm traveling with is my six-year-old son? What if the point of the question is not to be taken literally as a boolean yes/no but is designed instead to start a more interesting conversation about travel and shared values?

However one parses the original question, my trip to China in January 2016 was the longest I've traveled alone anywhere, including in a foreign country. (Not to mention in a country where I didn't speak very much of the local language.)

Jaeger and Pudong, Shanghai
Jaeger and Pudong, Shanghai

I returned from China with more than a thousand pictures on my camera, and by the time I managed to slog through all of them to pick the good ones and discard the duplicates, I ended up with 324 pictures. (This is still a lot of pictures, but I hope you'll agree that it's better than before.) They're all here: China 2016.

Pudong lit up at night
Pudong lit up at night

I wrote extensively on the daily details of my trip, on the order of twenty thousand words. If you're starting here, or you've missed some of the entries, here they are:

After my most recent trip to India, it seems obvious that I would want to compare China and India, since both are giant countries with more than a billion people each, and both are cited as rising Asian superpowers. Here are my thoughts directly comparing my experiences and observations on the ground in India and China:

  • China has a strong central government, which is beholden not to the people, but to its own internal party apparatus. This lets it do some things very well -- like building a country-spanning high-speed rail network -- but makes the local government officials fairly unresponsive to the concerns of the local people. The Communist Party will need to figure out how to make its local governments responsive to the needs of the people. This is in contrast to India, where the central government is fairly weak and the power is held at the local and state level.
  • On the surface, China appears much more orderly and clean than India. The streets and sidewalks and parks and public spaces and alleys in China are clean, without needing an army of sweepers to try to tidy things up.
  • I did not experience Beijing's legendary air pollution, even in the middle of the winter. The air was obviously hazy, and occasionally cloudy, but it lacked the lung-assaulting large-particulate pollution of Delhi's cooking fires or India's unfiltered diesel trucks and buses.
  • China's public toilets are much cleaner than India's. I did run across the occasional fetid toilet in China, but they were few and far between. In Beijing I found a few neighborhood toilets on the hutongs; in one I entered to find a couple of older Chinese guys squatting next to each other.
  • The security forces are focused on totally different threats. In India, the threat is mostly extremist organizations or separatist groups plotting terrorist attacks on soft civilian targets, and the security response reflects that: hotels and shopping malls have security checks. In China, while there have been the occasional separatist attack, the primary threat is political speech that threatens the status quo, and as a result public spaces are heavily policed (and, in the case of Tiananmen Square, fenced with an aggressive security check). No hotel or other business I visited had any sort of security check.
  • I found it easier to eat vegetarian in India, probably because of the language barrier. In India it was easy to find a 'veg lunch' thali plate at practically any hole-in-the-wall restaurant. In China I could find dedicated vegetarian restaurants, and those were quite good, but it was somewhat harder to actually locate them.
  • India had noticeably more beggars than China. I'm not sure if that's representative of economic conditions (China's socialist safety net seems to exist in name only now), or has more to do with the Chinese system of local residence permits trying to prevent mass migration into the cities.
  • China's high-speed rail system is huge, impressive, brand-new, and world-class. I did not personally experience China's legacy passenger rail system. India's legacy passenger rail system is also massive and impressive, but it's a good deal slower.
Lion column outside Jing'an Temple
Lion column outside Jing'an Temple

Here are the rest of my stray observations from two weeks in China:

  • The Great Firewall of China is a pain.
  • As long as I can route around the firewall, Google Maps is surprisingly comprehensive for a service that's officially blocked in the country.
  • Though there are still some gaps in Google Maps' coverage, especially in English. Some subway lines and extensions are missing. English-language coverage of the long tail of restaurants is basically non-existent. In Nanjing I did eventually try to search for "素食" ("vegetarian" in Chinese) and got a few leads, but I didn't try following them up.
  • Google Maps wouldn't let me download the maps for offline use (and wouldn't really tell me why; it appeared to be either a licensing or regulatory issue), which increased my smartphone's data usage.
  • I still want a DSDS (dual-SIM, dual-standby) mobile phone, so I could get a local SIM card while still roaming on my US-based mobile phone. It appeared that SIM cards were easy for foreigners to acquire -- I saw a kiosk offering SIM cards in the airport baggage claim in Shanghai.
  • A local mobile number would have made it easier to get onto cafe wifi -- many cafes and coffee shops I visited required a local mobile number to log into the network.
  • Everywhere I went I found polyglot outlets that would accept my Type A US-style power plugs. I did bring my Australian power adaptor, and since that's the official standard in China, it let me use more outlets than I would have otherwise been able to, which occasionally came in handy.
  • The security presence in Tiananmen Square was creepy. It was the only place in China where I felt like I was in a totalitarian Communist police state.
  • China has become a nation of shopkeepers -- almost every street was lined with shops of some sort. Everyone seemed to be selling something.
  • Beijing was cold. But I'm glad I went -- I would have missed out on some amazing sites had I let the cold (or the pollution) scare me away.
  • I was able to use my travel days on the train as downtime in the middle of my trip: I could sit back and relax without feeling like I was missing out on seeing something. I could have taken overnight sleeper trains, which would have let me spend more of my time awake seeing things, but I don't think that would have worked as well for me.
  • Pudong's building boom is amazing -- there are some world-class buildings here. But I wonder: is it speculative? Will it crash, like the building booms elsewhere in China?
  • I would have liked to know more Chinese before I visited the country. I knew roughly enough to be dangerous -- I could have a very simple conversation, and occasionally order food or ask for an admission ticket ("一个人", though I think "个" is the wrong measure word for "人") -- but I lacked the vocabulary to read most of a menu, or to read bus stop signs. I clearly have a goal for the future.
Shanghai Tower and Jin Mao Tower
Shanghai Tower and Jin Mao Tower

I have a ten-year, multiple-entry tourist visa, so I'm going to be back. I'd like to visit the interior of China, including the terracotta warriors in Xian and the mountains of Sichuan. I now live a thirty-minute subway ride from a major international gateway airport with direct flights to most of East Asia. San Francisco, it turns out, has direct flights to Xian and Chengdu. Not that I've looked that up specifically or anything.