My first real “culture shock” on the trip occured when I crossed the border from Vietnam to China. Suddenly, all signs became totally unreadable, and communication a whole lot harder. Nobody speaks English at the border town of Hekou, just as in most other parts of China!
In all honnesty, I had feared entering this huge country before starting my trip. The image given in Western media isn’t very reassuring most of the time, many things there seemed to be very far away from my principles and ideals. Luckily, I was going to be surprised!
The first surprise came in Jianshui at one of my first meals in the country. When I finished my dinner and was preparing to pay the bill, the guy next to me stepped in and paid for me before I could even understand what was going on. “No, No”, I naively protested. “Yes, yes I invite you” insisted my mysterious neighbour. “You are our guest here in China, I’m paying!”… And this went on until I finally gave up and accepted the gift. And this was only the first of a never-ending series of acts of hospitality and generosity displayed by the Chinese.
Not everything was that easy in China though. I soon discovered that the usual “Yes!” answer I always received in South East Asia disappeared in favour of a firm “Meio!” (=No!) in China. “Hello! I’d like to extend my Visa here in Kangding”. “Meio! You should go back to Chengdu (8 hours by bus in the mountains)”. Whatever! “Hello. I’d like to go online in your internet cafe”. “Meio! You need a card”. “Ok, I’ll buy the card”. “Meio!”. Go figure. Or even: “Can I buy some credit for my sim card?”. “Meio!” “Uh, this is a China Unicom shop, my card is China Unicom, why not?” “Meio!!”, and same answer even after three attempts in different shops! And I could go on with hotels, bus and train tickets and so on!
I did however really enjoy the whole experience, that obviously wasn’t as easy as it was in South East Asia sipping banana milk shakes in hammocks, but definitely adventurous and enriching.
China surprised me in many ways. First of all the economic development is something to be witnessed, cities have great infrastructure and are much more modern that I imagined. The growth of the Chinese middle class is certainly no fantasy.
On the darker side, the disrespect shown by the government towards China’s ethnic minorities is even more brutal than I had envisioned. The situation for Tibetan and Uighur people is not one to be envied. They are treated as second class citizens. Their traditions are being heavily repressed, getting a passport is nearly impossible, making them prisoners in their own country. Witnessing the absolute desperation of these people was heart-braking and is a real shame.
I will certainly remember my time in China, a complex country capable of the best and the worst. A country that fuels endless debates and on which everybody has its own opinion.
A few more pictures are in the Photo Gallery!