The Yin and Yang of China Travel – Asia

China is in a complete tither, on fire for the 2008 Bejing Olympics. With their great engineering prowess, the Chinese are constructing stadiums to rival the planet's best. China's English news channel, CCTV, regularly inundates us with glowing reports.

On fire for the 2008 Bejing Olympics
Bejing will be green, will have clean air, will be spit and snot free, will have clean toilets, will be smoke free, will have civilized queus. It is enticing the entire nation with various programs that involve the country in the games. The young are lining up by the thousands to be volunteers; to do clean up jobs, to assist the walking, the confused. Everyone seems eager to practice their English skills on us. "Hello, caniep – u ?" (Can I help you?)

The slogan of the volunteers is excitedly repeated on television: "Give us five minutes and we will show you 5,000 years of culture." This excites my husband and I so much that we look into the possibility of purchasing tickets for the opening ceremonies – no can do, we are not residents of China although we haven't pursued the flexibility of this rule to the fullest – yet!

As travellers (for the last two months) throughout this magnificent and mystical country, there is no arguement about China's awesome landscapes, architectural masterpieces and historical lineage. We have bussed, taxied, trained, boated, donkey-ed and flown through provinces of captivating beauty. We have done this as independant travellers, oftentimes the only "western" tourists.

What 5,000 years of culture feels like
Being with the Chinese for the last two months, I would like to share what 5,000 years of culture feels like. In Chengdu one of the "must do" items besides seeing the Pandas and the Sichuan Opera, is to enjoy their internationally recognized dish, the Hot Pot. We are sitting in a very popular and overly crowded hot pot restaurant hungry from the day's travels. Beside our table sit six young Chinese. They are drinking, smoking, laughing raucously, and they are also spitting out onto the floor their fish bones and more – harking out huge gobs of bubbly white-greenish phlegm. Using their index fingers, they spray noisily onto the floor the contents of their entire nasal passages.

We sit lost in nauseated disbelief. This cultured behaviour happens in restaurants from Chengdu to Xian. It dumbfounds. No more hot pot for us; it's noodles today. Outside on a patio/sidewalk, we are dining in relatively clean air, away from smokers and spitters. But being outside has its drawbacks, as crowds of people slow down to stare unashamedly at me, the tame gorilla who can use chopsticks. A young mother with her three-year-old stops beside us, pulls down her toddler's underwear; the child squats and urinates. Even the street dogs of China are more discreet. Mother could have pulled the child into the shrubs. But no, this is an ancient culture passed down over five millenia.

The Potala Palace in Lhasa Tibet stands 13 stories tall, against a piercing blue sky and sharp sun; it dazzles everyone with its grandeur. It is considered an architectural wonder of the world, and was once the center of Tibetan government, home to the Dalai Lama. Within are countless chapels, shrines, jewel encrusted tombs. Beside one of these tombs, in dim light, I am closely reading a historical plaque. Suddenly a highly civilized Chinese man pushes his way in front of me, obscuring everything. This kind of rude pushing and shoving is common throughout China, and terribly vexing. Whether its queuing for buses, toilets, ticket booths, banks, buffets and temples, you will be elbowed and shoved aside.

If you are trying to frame an award winning photo, the Chinese will not have the courtesy to stop for you; you will end up with a photo of an umbrella, or worse. What went wrong with this ancient cuture? Where is their civility, not only to us, the foreigner, but also civility to themselves? Our conclusions as discussed with many a fellow frustrated traveller, right or wrong, are as follows: during the Cultural Revolutuion (1966-1970), the regime eliminated the intelligencia; people who could sway the masses ended up in the Chinese Siberian re-education camps. Who was left behind? The children were left behind; the small souled Red Guards who sold their parents into the Gulag, commonplace comrades. From them grew a new China of apathetic boors, a comradeship united in snotting, spitting, pushing, staring, and shoving; a society void of civility.

The Chinese are trying
In defence of this fraternity, I have to stress that the Chinese are trying. I'm certain they do not have a word for "work" because whether it's the Bai farmers of Dali, or the urbanites of Chengdu, life is toil and moil. We see them bent double, as they haul and drag gargantuan weights strapped to their backs with straining head straps, or stooped in their fields nurturing their crops for a lifetime. They work like beasts of burden. As for those rude pushers and shovers, I push them away and they, with a gentle demeanor, comply. We ask smokers to put out their cigarettes and they do (most of the time). I holler out in perfect Chinese "please don't spit", and they shyly shrug their shoulders, little do they know I'm helping out the Bejing government!

In Chendgu, at the city centre bus terminal, a queue of patient Chinese is formed – simply amazing! And as for those horrid vacuous dark stares – one simple word transforms them into toothy smiles and that magic word knee-how, hello. Bejing has a herculean job ahead. My husband and I wish the Chinese people every success, not only for the Olympics, but for many years to come. May you enjoy the fruits of your labors and in spite of all the negatives I've mentioned, there are many more positives. We will definitely be back to this country with 5,000 years of culture, maybe even for the Olympics.