2 Weeks in China, Without Being Shanghaied

by Kurt

I applied for and received a visa to travel in China for two weeks, part of the time with family and guides and some on my own as well. Major stops are highlighted below, but alas, notably absent is Shanghai, which I would still very much like to visit in the future. Though it is not a surprise, based on past travel experience: it was not the landmark destinations that make the trip memorable, but surprises found in alleys, on escalators and in other less-traditional locations.

1) China With Companions

Landing in Beijing was the easy part. In fact, most of it was easy – the handy thing about traveling with someone who has connections in the country. It was almost too easy at times, at least as long as a guide was present. We were driven to famous sites, but also taken to local restaurants. I never did quite sort out whether it was genuine helpfulness and concern or some larger prerogative that forced me to, let’s say, circumvent their custody at times when wanting to explore alone.

We were escorted trough the ancient walled city of Xi’an and saw the famous Terracotta Warriors nearby (many still unearthed, waiting for better above-ground preservation techniques to be perfected). One night in Xi’an, we took a self-guided tour of the center, but, to be honest, the real thrill of the evening was a moped-pulled rickshaw ridden through the streets, swerving through traffic (nosing cars out of the way) and cruising the wrong way down one-way streets.

In Wuhan, there were again mostly-present companions who were very helpful on the whole, but utterly refused to write down the characters for me that would allow me to taxi to a part of the city in which I was interested in (though they were willing to send me with someone). I have never been so politely but firmly refused such a simple and straightforward request, and still speculate as to the reason. Spent one night intentionally losing myself in mazes of alleyways.

From Wuhan, I left my last fellow traveler and hopped a high-speed train took me both through depressingly poor areas and past stunning natural landscape. It deposited me in Ghuangzhou, from which (with some trouble, as described below) I made my way to Hong Kong (hard to say, but a strong candidate for the city I most want to visit again, perhaps even live in), my final stop (maybe accidentally bypassing Shenzhen, but more on that in a bit).

2) New Experiences in a Nutshell

Now, let’s get the ‘firsts’ out of the way (or skip ahead if bored by these) – things encountered here that were genuinely new to me, having traveled mostly in the US, Canada, Mexico, Europe, Australia and Japan. Likely not new to anyone who has been, so really, jump ahead if you have, or skim through!

First: not being able to decipher signs because they use a fundamentally different character set – this cripples your ability to navigate if you stray at all from a pre-organized plan. Just imagine: you can’t read the names of places on a subway map, nor on street signs. You have only the very basics to guide your short-term decisions (like lights for crossing streets, but even then: follow the crowd in case of minute differences in law or protocol!).

Second: not having universal access to phones - no one, including pedestrians, staff and security guards, at the Ghuangzhou train station could (or would) either point me to or allow me to use a personal, public, pay or office phone (side note: the universal Western pantomime of punching digits on a flat smartphone surface, invisible in your palm, drew a surprising number of blanks).

Third- the scale, speed and frequency of new developments was astonishing - entire cities being constructed, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, visible in the distance while driving highways. Entire sets of skyscrapers all going up at once, half-finished – so many under construction it was not always clear if progress was being made or if the project was paused. Regardless, it is simply not a scale at which you see development in the United States. It inspired not a little awe.

Fourth: crowds were loud, with was much shoving and bustling – for the first time, I can say I have found a country where people were noisier and in more of a hurry and more openly conversant on public transit than the United States. It was oddly reassuring. I managed to broadly, if thinly, speculate on this as a cultural different between the Chinese and Japanese. But now I digress. Time to wrap back, one more time, to Beijing, that most famous of cities, before jumping forward once more to Hong Kong, the other bookend of the trip.

Fifth – food you can count on – recent studies showed that in LA, when you order one kind of fish, odds are you will get another. In China, they circumvent this problem by preparing meals in such a way that allows you to see what you are eating. Simple example: you order this fish (point to the – thankfully visual! – menu). They bring out that fish, alive, well, and swimming around in a bucket. They then cook the fish, put every part (head, of course, included) into your soup bowl so you can be sure that you are, in fact, eating that lively little bugger they brought out just a few minutes ago.

3) Back to the Beginning: Beijing

Beijing offered the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall – both worthwhile, if very touristy, destinations. I visited both, and will leave it at that. With a long strange history as a factory complex, 798 art district was a fascinating blend of little artist lofts and stores and somewhat high-brow cafes and shops. It is clearly evolving (and gentrifying), but quite worth visiting, regardless. Oh and the CCTV Tower, even in smog, is something to see, as was the Olympic Village.

Far more compelling to me than basically anything else, as a student of urban life, were the Hutongs. Picture something like this: main streets cross huge blocks. In between, alleyways wind in toward the center of the blocks, but branch out into even smaller alleyways, which in turn branch out into small exterior hallways (like an outdoor version of a hotel hall) off of which individual home entries are accessed. These last – now learned from experience (or at least, assumed via shouts) turned out to be off limits to visitors.

Now consider that these alleys had some car traffic, but very little, resulting in them being more like street-interior sidewalks – increasingly small and quiet side streets devoted mainly to local pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Some were mostly residential, with dwellings down the aforementioned hallways, or more prosperous estates connected directly to larger alleys. Others were highly commercial, with all kinds of shops and stalls – some built into the setting, some temporarily sprawling into the alley – selling all kinds of uncooked and cooked nuts, fruits, vegetables, and, less commonly, ready-to-eat combinations (skewers or sandwiches). Essentially, out-of-the-way, semi-self-organized farmers markets serving the local foot traffic on its way to or from work.

Finally, consider this model repeated from large city block to large city block – a whole system of major arterial streets and avenues framing boxes organically carved out like ant colonies, amorphous, organic, unpredictable and delightfully mysterious, and a wide-spread phenomenon to boot. I could have spent days wandering these ways, walking past impromptu playgrounds, odd collections of trash, wonderful wood-carved doors next to recycled wooden-core ones. It is really no surprise that some of these now need protecting, and that many have been used as inspiration for poets and painters of China.

4) On to the End: Hong Kong

There was confusion at the station. I still am not quite sure what I did, nor what I was supposed to do, but I theorize that my instructions were to take a train to Shenzhen, just over the border, and cross there into Hong Kong. Instead, I bought a ticket to Hong Kong, and maybe have slipped onto an earlier train than indicated by the ticket. It was harrowing – the lack of knowing – but it worked out in the end. After more trains to get into the city, and some walking, I arrived late, and tired, but was bedazzled by the above-ground walkways from the very first. When I arrived at the wrong hotel with a name identical to the one I had taken, the kind receptionist give me tissues to wipe the sweat off my brow, a free bottle of water and a push in the right direction.

Hong Kong stretches along a relatively thin strip of waterfront on the inland side of a large island – it is a bit like Manhattan, if New York had a huge green hill (arguably a small mountain) rising up behind it. This juxtaposition of essentially-pure nature and a dense urban development was unique in my experience. As a strip, its public transportation is excellent – it lacks challenge, for the most part, needing mostly to ferry people (in buses and double-decker street cars) along its length and back again. Wonderful, simple, efficient and frequent. And a great view down on the city streets on all sides. It is, to put it too simply, a hybrid of major cities – the professionalism of London, the chaos of New York, the lights of Tokyo and the out-window laundry and air conditioning of Beijing.

But speaking of views from above, town is riddled with second-story walkways connecting buildings above the sidewalk – the closest analogy might be skyways in Minneapolis (or the even-more-extensive networks in Calgary), only without the need for cover due to the lack of extreme cold. Then there is the pedestrian escalator which allows commuters moving perpendicular to the strip (and up the hill away from the water) to go to work and shops, day and night. There is nothing quite like riding a raised set of moving stairs, cobbled together to form a whole, all the way up a rather long hill, and all at an elevation allowing you to see down streets, alleys and (somewhat uncomfortably) right into second-and-third-story flats next to it.

I mused at the time (and still think it a fine idea) that someone should set up an ‘elevated tour’ of the city – between second levels of buses, raised pedestrian thoroughfares and this escalator one would hardly need to set foot on a ground level for a comprehensive tour of the city. I grabbed a flask of sorgum liquor and wandered about one night, never quite deciding I wished to enter the bustle of local clubs, but sipped at my drink while taking the ferry to and from mainland Kowloon (looking back was breathtaking) and then wandering those wonderful upper-level walkways, looking down on the nightlife below.