A Walk on the Wild Side in China
Beijing, Jinan, Suzhou, Shanghai – China
When Marco Polo published his Description of the World in 1298, the Italian adventurer couldn’t have foreseen that his exotic tales would dominate Western perceptions of China for centuries. Silk caravans, the Emperor’s Summer Palace, and the binding of women’s feet left images too colorful to be erased.
Today, Western tourists still expect to have their preconceptions challenged when they travel to this developing modern nation. Is that fair? Just how different is China, anyway?
I recently decided to find out by taking a two-week China tour with Far and Away Adventures of Victoria, Canada. Now, granted, riding first-class trains and buses from Beijing to Shanghai might not have been the quickest route to maximizing culture shock. Our group stayed in comfortable Western-style hotels and devoured three buffet meals a day at state-sponsored tourist restaurants. We were treated like guests of honor at tourist attractions like Beijing’s Forbidden City and Qufu’s Confucius Mansions.
But at times, the learning curve could still be as steep as the Great Wall itself.
“Traditionally, Chinese people pay little attention to the concept of privacy.” – Yvonne Zhang, Shanghai Star
After admiring hand-carved green crocodile statues and Confucius figurines at the Long Di Jade Factory in suburban Beijing, I walked into the men’s washroom along with a fellow tourist who wore leather shoes. As the tourist prepared to use the facilities, an elderly washroom attendant rushed over, knelt down, and began vigorously polishing his shoes.
Protests were to no avail. Eager for a tip, the attendant then plied us with a fistful of paper towels as I washed my hands and exited the most “full service” washroom I could recall visiting. In fairness, this was the only such encounter I witnessed in China.
Later in the tour, I seemed to achieve movie star status in Jinan. The capital of Shandong Province has nearly 6 million inhabitants and is famed for its natural springs, but foreigners are comparatively rare there, since it’s not a big tourist destination.
While strolling through the crowded new city square, replete with billboards for Amway and McDonald’s, I was frequently approached by young locals who wanted their picture taken with me. And no, it wasn’t my Brad Pitt-like looks (ha!) or height (I’m 6-3) that did it. Other tour group members reported the same experience. It was simply the novelty of seeing Westerners, and the chance to meet a person from another culture.
“Driving etiquette in China is developing.” – US State Department Consular Information Sheet on China
After checking out the view from Shanghai’s 1,536-foot TV Tower in the Pudong commercial district, I decided to take a cab to the Peace Hotel on the other side of the Huangpu River. This 20-yuan ($3 CDN) fare turned into Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride from Disneyland, and there were no seatbelts to put on.
Coming out of the tunnel that runs beneath the river, the traffic slowed to a halt. My cab driver seized the initiative, jumping into the left lane and zooming past six other cars. He then merged back into the right lane, nearly sideswiping another vehicle, and accelerated forward. Nobody honked at him. We continued at a heart-stopping rate down back streets, missing bicyclists and pedestrians by inches, and almost never stopping until we reached the hotel.
This experience is not uncommon in China. Our tour guide recommended that no one should even attempt to drive here without taking at least six months to learn the traffic customs. Rules and signs are mostly taken as suggestions. If you want to cross the street, you either go with the pack or just pick your way gingerly through the rush of bicycles and European-made cars.
In Jinan, our bus once encountered a stretch of roadwork, and simply drove over the meridian to proceed headfirst against oncoming traffic for a few blocks. When we were leaving Suzhou, a pedestrian ran right in front of the bus as it was making a left turn. He evaded death by inches. But again, our driver didn’t honk or complain.
Accidents, while more prevalent than in the West, are often averted because everyone is watching out for everyone else, and driving speeds are usually slow enough to stop in time.
“Wherever you find yourself in China, your senses are tested to the extreme whilst enjoying the unusual dishes, often unique for the area you are visiting.” ï¿½â€ TravelChinaGuide.com
One night in Suzhou, the canal-intersected silk capital of China, another delicious dinner served on a Lazy Susan rotating table was coming to an end: rice, sweet and sour fish, lemon chicken, spicy fried beef, and steamed vegetables. Then a waitress rolled out a huge glass jar on a trolley, and announced that rice wine for dessert was available in thimble-sized cups. But this was no ordinary dessert wine. A pickled cobra lay curled up at the bottom of the jar. I decided to pass.
Needless to say, snake wine is an acquired taste, much like the worms in mezcal. You may or may not accept the claims some Chinese manufacturers make about the beverage: “Regularly drinking appropriate quantities of the wine can moisturize your skin, improve your appetite, and strengthen your bones, tendons and muscles.”
Other unusual offerings I encountered included black boiled duck eggs, which were sliced thin and tasted much like chicken eggs apart from their pigmentation, and roast chicken served complete with the severed head on the platter. One of the tastiest treats was a dish of sweet lotus roots from Jinan’s Daming Lake.
As a tourist you are unlikely to encounter the most exotic and potentially hazardous offerings, such as monkeys, badgers, or bats, unless you venture well off the beaten path in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.
“Chinese negotiators are shrewd and use a wide variety of negotiating tactics.” – Golden Hints for Doing Business in China from the British Embassy in Beijing
I had just completed an 1,800-step ascent of the Great Wall near Badaling, the most popular stretch for tourists. Fatigued, I glanced back beyond the square watchtowers through the mountain pass toward Beijing’s skyscrapers. Then a uniformed man wearing a headset greeted me and offered me a small red velvet box.
It contained a bronze plaque with an engraving of the Wall snaking its way through the mountains. On the other side, it read: “I HAVE CLIMBED THE GREAT WALL.” I thanked the man, and he indicated I should write my name down on a notepad so he could personalize the plaque for me.
As soon as he was done, he announced: “Twenty dollars US!”
I had thought this was an official souvenir included with the price of my ticket. Although the plaque was quite handsome, I didn’t think it was worth $20 US, and tried politely declining the transaction. When the man quickly dropped his asking price to $5 US, I realized there was some flexibility here, and I paid up.
A bargaining culture exists throughout China. Even in department stores, you can often beat the sticker price if you speak to the manager. In an open-air market, it’s simply expected that you will haggle to get 30 or 40 percent off.
If you’re a comparatively affluent Westerner, you may feel a tad petty when it comes to negotiating smaller sums. In the central market of Nanjing, I decided to offer 30 yuan for a 45-yuan packet of souvenirs. The merchant refused to budge, so I went around the corner and ended up paying another merchant 45 yuan for the same items.
With the exchange rate, it wasn’t a big expenditure either way for me. But by the same token, the average Chinese worker’s monthly income is 1000 yuan ($150 CDN), so it’s understandable that landing the right deal is deemed important.
“The Chinese students are very eager to learn English.” – ESL teacher Debbie Claasens
Half a century after Marco Polo’s visit, China entered into an isolationist era that would endure in varying forms, under the Ming and Manchu dynasties and right through Mao’s Cultural Revolution, up until recent years.
Today, the youth of China are eager to learn more about the outside world and in turn to introduce visitors to their culture.
A young woman in Suzhou told us of her plans to become a kindergarten teacher and spoke happily of her quiet evenings at home listening to English tapes.
I sat next to a 24-year-old student during a mini-van ride to the cable car that would take us to the summit of the Buddhist holy mountain, Mount Tai. In perfect formal English, he told me about his friend studying photography at the University of Southern California, and described his own plans to major in business administration at Stanford or Harvard.
In Shanghai, the night skyline is a fantastic neon dream that rivals Las Vegas and Times Square. When I walked the jam-packed Nanjing Road, the city’s main shopping street, I felt like I was stepping into the future of Asia, where conducting international business is a way of life.
And it’s a future that would have astonished even Marco Polo.