A few reflections on the things I will remember about my month in China
We arrived in China with the intention of only spending a couple of days there as a means of getting from Hong Kong to our planned destination of Vietnam. However, as soon as we crossed the border the people were so friendly and welcoming, the landscape so unique and captivating and for so many other reasons we eventually got drawn in by China and ended up spending close on a month there.
China has its own distinctive character, certain aspects that, when we reflect back, are what we will remember most:
Let's start with the toilets! They are mainly of the crouch variety other than in your hotel room so as soon as you are a full bladder away from your room, you become filled with anxiety! And you won't find respite in a cafe or restaurant - these too are crouch, even McDonalds! However, they are definitely cleaner than elsewhere. For example public transport travellers, beware! Bus and train station loos are always, without fail, an assault on the senses. Never with toilet paper, often mucky - and pungent too - the guide books advise hyperventilating or lighting a strong cigarette before entering. In one such toilet in a long-distance bus station I heard someone doing just that!
And no room for relaxing on the loo: firstly because of the obvious fact that they are crouch; and secondly because in many public toilets especially in more remote areas, there is no door and a very low dividing wall between yourself and your neighbours - so there's no place for modesty either! Despite this in one bus station we noticed a girl texting as she crouched which was incomprehensible given the odour.
In a very basic facility in rural Nansha, after we gingerly negotiated one of the worst loos we'd come across, a lady outside actually put out her hand for a 5 yuan fee!
Other than the usual hole in the ground, it was in China that we had our first encounter with a type of long canal or sluice passing through all the toilets. In these types of loos, it's not uncommon to see waste from neighbours' loos passing beneath you as it's flushed automatically by the system.
And then there are the trains: I know I've talked about the condition of the trains but the thing I most dreaded on those long, often more than 12-hour journeys, was facing the loo in the morning as these were nothing short of a nightmare after a night of being shared by all - both men and women.
We swopped stories with hilarity with fellow travellers often whooping with laughter at our total inability to cope with crouch loos - but one wonders what Chinese ladies think of the way we handle their toilets and the funny thing is that, when given a choice between a western-style toilet and a crouch, most people in China choose the crouch so obviously they prefer it.
Language: We found communication very difficult in China, to the point that even when gesticulating, we could not make ourselves understood. This was not easy to get around as we seem to have very different frames of reference: hand signals that one would assume were universal did not seem to apply here. So I recommend that if you plan to come to China, it would be a good idea to learn some important phrases and vocabulary. This is not as easy as it sounds: one would have to learn with a cd supported by a book, as the tonal nature of the language makes it very important to learn the subtle distinction between tones; learning by listening would be the only way to do it. For example, one word can have totally different meanings depending on whether you use it with a high tone, a rising tone, a falling-rising tone, or a falling tone (I must say, though, that the other day when I said 'No' to a tout who was bothering me I suddenly ruminated thinking of the difficulties they must have with English, easily getting mixed up with 'no', 'know' or even 'now'!). Our total lack of preparation in the language department was a huge shortcoming: I was in admiration of other travellers, mainly Americans I must say, who had often learned a good deal of Chinese or were even fluent. This must make for a much more interesting journey, even when faced with a menu in a restaurant or just chatting to people on the trains, and of course when asking directions and reading signs.
People: Despite our meagre, nay non-existent, knowledge of the language, we found the people in China very friendly and helpful. Some examples of the people we will remember are:
On the train, a young man in our compartment gave up his more expensive lower bunk for an older passenger and slept in her less comfortable top bunk;
In Kunming, when asked directions to the East and West Pagodas, a young teenager got up from chatting and drinking with his mates to lead us for a good ten minutes to the monuments, giving us a smiling nod and a wave when we thanked him;
At a youth hostel in Yangshuo, the young lady who ran the hostel gave us so much free advice on places to visit around the area and allowed us to use her internet even when we weren't staying there;
In Shenzhen, when we were stranded for hours waiting for an overnight train, laden down with our bags, we wandered into the 5-star Shangri-La Hotel looking for a computer and a place to rest our legs. The concierges there took us under their wings, offering to store our bags free of charge while we went off to the museum for the afternoon, and escorting us to their business centre to use their internet;
In Lijiang, we stumbled across a tiny wisp of a kitten sitting outside a shop, a piece of string tied around its neck. When we questioned the shop owner and suggested he let it go, he shook his head. We were puzzled and a little upset at the seeming cruelty. However, passing by on our numerous sightseeing forays we began to notice his total tenderness towards his little kitten even making a shelter for it out of a shoe box to sleep in when the weather turned chilly. It became clear that the string around its neck, which was very loosely tied let me assure you, was to protect the little thing so that she didn't run under a car. It was very touching.
And in general I found the people of China to be wonderful with their children. Grandparents everywhere played happily with their grandchildren and looked after them dotingly, and family members cooed adoringly round young babies.
Spitting: This bit of our experience of China probably doesn't need much explanation. In the areas we visited which admittedly were more remote, it was done noisily on trains, in the streets, out of bus windows and into bus dustbins. I have read that it is based on a belief that spitting expels bad humours, which may explain why it is so proudly and liberally done. However, I believe that there is a campaign to stamp it out which has been relatively successful in the bigger cities and the middle class already consider it déclassé. Nevertheless, during our travels and in the places we visited, it was definitely part of the soundtrack of China.
Queuing: A peculiarity to China seems to be the inability to queue especially at train stations and when getting on buses. As the time drew closer for boarding a train, people would begin to collect in a great mass around the barriers by the doors. We noticed this our first time catching a train and immediately joined in for fear that there was some kind of allocation system we shouldn't miss out on (bearing in mind that your beds or seats are already assigned). Although we went to the back of the throng and waited in our "place", people regularly quite visibly and forcefully pushed in. When the barriers opened, they pushed through as if about to miss the train (they weren't!). Upon arriving at our compartments we found, as we had thought, that our beds were the same as the numbers on our tickets and maintaining our place in the line had not gained us any noticeable advantage - we were baffled! On chatting to more seasoned travellers, the advice was that on boarding a bus or train it is best to throw aside all pretensions of politeness and develop "sharp elbows" - especially on crowded buses when you are not lucky enough to be allocated a seat - the only way to avoid losing your place on that bus!
Beds: When we lay on our first bed in Hong Kong, it was hard as rock. In the middle of the night, we telephoned the hotel housekeeper and asked for a softer mattress! They said there were no softer mattresses. This was at a fairly posh hotel, mind! (The housekeeper put two fluffy duvets each under our sheets for the night.) It took a lot of getting used to but we now miss those hard beds of China when we encounter a softer bed here in Vietnam - although they also tend to have hard beds here. You get a good night's sleep on them hard beds!