<A> Travels within travels

Written by Jul 27, 2005 16:07
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A bus speeds through the moonlit landscape of eastern China, hurtling in a suicidal fashion down crumbling back roads to avoid the highway tolls. Rice paddies and the occasional, dimly-lit farmhouse dot the countryside. Inside, I share a bunk (it’s a sleeper bus) with my girlfriend, surrounded by dozens of snoring migrant workers heading to a new city in search of work. We bought the tickets from a shady-looking scalper at a bus station, since the regular tickets had sold out. Our fellow passengers have told us that the bus is only passing through our destination city and so we will be dropped off by the side of the road.

The interior of the bus is crammed with bags, boxes and packages, which made getting to our bunk a challenge. Once settled in, though, we were immediately engaged in conversation by curious fellow passengers. They seem impressed with our rudimentary Chinese, and ask all sorts of questions. We even share food among each other. It’s the simple friendliness of people thrown together into a temporary community that is half the fun of traveling here. We spend just three hours on that bus, but manage to make some new friends – a phenomenon I’ve found far more prevalent in China, with its language barrier, than back home in Australia.

I’ve been in China for almost a year now, and I’ve pretty much come to terms with it. I guess I’ve passed through the typical stages of an expatriate in China – the honeymoon period, the falling out, the rapprochement. Right now, I’m cruising because it’s finally sunk in that life – for a foreigner anyway – is pretty good here. While the country might be presenting its most modern, sophisticated face to the outside world, the truth is that the vast majority of Chinese continue to live in poverty, meaning that even my modest wage makes for a very comfortable, privileged lifestyle.

My time here has been one long travel experience to the family and friends I left behind in Australia, but the reality is different. I have a job and a home and a routine, and the daily grind is not especially different from that of my home country. What is different, in terms of the day-to-day, is being grateful for things like an apartment with electricity and running water, the ability to eat at nice restaurants regularly and the numerous opportunities to travel. Seeing how the typical Chinese person lives has brought me down to earth in terms of my materialistic outlook on life.

While I’ve managed a re-adjustment in lifestyle expectations, the cultural dimension has been entirely more difficult to get used to. Live abroad for a considerable length of time and you’re bound to find something in your host country to complain about. This holds especially true in the case of China. I won’t generalize, but you will find certain behaviors quite common in the wider community here. People spit freely (inside and outside), shout, push to the front of queues, drive like maniacs with zero regard for anyone else, encourage their children to use the street as a toilet and, if you are a foreigner, shout ‘hellooooo’, point and stare, whisper remarks and giggle at you. Customer service usually ranges from bad to woeful. Lying and cheating in all areas are not only commonplace, but accepted as an inevitable part of life. Big-city syndrome has hit, and hit hard. Urban China seems to lack any code of common courtesy or a civic culture. It’s a ‘me first’ society, where you must fight and step all over others to get what you want.

There are dozens of times I’ve become alienated, bored, angry, frustrated, disgusted and so on by daily life in China. My personal cure to these negative feelings is travel. Not travel outside of China, but within.

Why not outside China, you might ask. Because of something I, and many other foreigners here, have identified as ‘re-entry issues’. That is, the outside world seems so much better in comparison that people returning actually feel worse about China than before. Crossing back over the border from Hong Kong into China, my negative thoughts and feelings about China returned full force. Upon exiting the immigration barrier, I immediately encountered spitting, rudeness from train station staff and pushing and shoving – three of the things that annoy me most here. It was such a sudden, drastic change from the clean, friendly, orderliness of Hong Kong that I immediately wondered why the heck I’d returned.

I can contrast this experience with the times I’ve traveled inside China and returned home feeling refreshed, happy and generally far more positive about the country. It’s not just about a change of scenery; it’s like a restoration of faith in the basic goodness of people. Getting there (and back) really is half the fun. When confined for God-knows how many hours in a bus or train, Chinese people immediately come together and demonstrate their open, garrulous ways, sharing food and conversation and generally behaving as if they’ve known each other for years. The instances of simple kindness shown to me by complete strangers are too numerous to mention, but suffice to say that one good day on a train can wipe out a month’s worth of bad times in my (adopted) city.

Traveling somewhere, seeing the place and coming back – it’s not just the thrill of something new, it’s the break from routine, the knowledge that the China outside your immediate bubble is so endlessly diverse and fascinating that, indeed, visiting another city is almost like visiting another country. There is so much history and natural beauty here that the possibilities of where to go next are endless. And, although China sadly seems to be doing its best to commercialize and pollute what it has, life here is so interesting that even simple pleasures, such as a beer beside Hangzhou’s West Lake, or a chat with a local, are just as worthy of your time.

And returning home? For some reason, people seem to spit less, the beggars aren’t as persistent, and the air looks cleaner. I’m more inclined to see the good nature in people, and smile at what goes on around me. Life goes on, much the same as always, but I’m recharged, more positive and ready to fall back into my routine. Home sweet home and all that. I know my ‘I love China!’ sense of euphoria can’t last. The daily grind and the too-many instances of anti-social behavior around me will send me into a funk eventually. But I also know that, somewhere down the track, I have another trip to look forward to.

And for what it’s worth, take my advice about travel destinations in China. Beijing and Shanghai may be the famous, must-see places, but the lesser-known cities – especially Suzhou and Hangzhou, in the east – admirably combine the traditional and modern, and hence are far more worthy of your time. Scenic spots, ancient gardens, temples and old city walls are literally side-by-side with markets, restaurants and modern department stores in these modern, yet compact cities. Yet, more alluring than these is the almost holiday-like vibe that lends a refreshing change of pace. There’s a reason the Chinese refer to Suzhou and Hangzhou as ‘paradise under heaven’, but why read about it? Get out there and see them for yourself.

 More Hangzhou Travel Reviews
1. <A>Restaurant Karma FLAWITH from AU May 9, 2005 14:05
2. Chun Jie Trip to Hangzhou Suzhou PRVNK from IN Feb 20, 2005 20:02
3. Paradise on Earth DENNIS Jun 14, 2004 20:06
Comments (2)


Dec 20, 2005 08:40 Reply

FISH050606 said:

my E-mail is :fish050606@yahoo.com.cn
I will free after JAN 14th.


Dec 20, 2005 08:38 Reply

FISH050606 said:

Hello everyone:)
I`m a chinese gril living in hangzhou.
Welcome to myhometown.
If you need a local guiad ,you can E-mail me. It`s free.
My spoken English isn`t very well ,I just want to improve it.
I`m 20 years old, short.I will tell you where really worth to go.

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