Aug 282011
Crowded Nanjing Road in Shanghai.

Crowded Nanjing Road in Shanghai, plus gray sky.

You’ve read my account of the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, and other China tourist attractions, but now let’s get into the darker side of my 17 days in the most populous country on Earth.

The reality is that China is the most intense country that I have ever traveled to, and I have traveled to over 30 countries across the globe!

Now, the intensity of China travel is actually good news, because it means that the Boston students I am taking there in February will truly get the experience of seeing another world. That said, it is worth knowing up-front what some of the challenges of China travel are.

1. Censorship. Here is a partial list of websites that are blocked in China: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, The New York Times, Blogger, most U.S. bank websites, Google Documents, Picassa Photo Sharing, and web searches for phrases like: “Democracy,” “Martin Luther King,” “Human Rights,” and “Dictatorship.” The level of censorship varies depending on your particular location in China and current events, but for the most part, you will encounter a lot of mysterious “This Website Could Not Be Loaded” error screens while traveling in China.

Interlocking highways in Shanghai. What a pace!

Interlocking highways in Shanghai. What a construction pace!

Further, though G-mail will usually work, it is documented that the Chinese government frequently tampers with it, making it crash or not work. For this reason, I was very careful while traveling to not email or G-chat particularly inflammatory words, fearing that my account would be blocked.

As you can imagine, for a woman who runs two websites, this “Great Firewall of China” was infuriating. Yes, you can use a VPN to log in to blocked sites remotely via non-censored countries, but this can cause problems with your email, Facebook, and bank accounts, because you will be flagged as a hacker since it looks to these sites like you started browsing the web in China, and then teleported thousands of miles away. Believe it or not, I went all 17 days without using Facebook or Twitter, because I didn’t want to deal with that hassle. What an intense adjustment for this freedom-accustomed American to experience a taste of censorship!

Trash bins below a fancy restaurant in Chongqing.

Trash bins below a fancy restaurant in Chongqing.

2. Pollution. You don’t know how much you love and crave blue sky until it’s gone for days on end! Because of a combination of pollution plus the general geographical mist and fog that’s been around for centuries, China’s sky is almost always a thick, gray porridge color.

Moreover, turning your eyes downward, bodily fluids are more common in public in China than in other regions. People spit (loudly), babies publicly urinate and defecate, there are intermittent pools of foul-smelling mystery liquids on the ground, and soap is startlingly absent. All this takes some serious adjustment.

3. The Language barrier. What a strange feeling to be unable to read again! We encountered some English translations, but many, many times, all there was to order by in a restaurant, or to communicate to a taxi driver with was… those beautiful Chinese characters that I can’t pronounce! It is highly recommended to plan ahead with a bilingual friend or guide, and/or always have a copy of the Chinese character for your destination or hotel. Even with our dear local friend, however, every endeavor took us ten times longer than we thought it would, due to miscommunications and confusions.

Smog, high-rises, and 30 million people in Chongqing.

Smog, high-rises, and 30 million people in Chongqing.

4. The Breakneck Pace of Development. I had heard stories of China’s unprecedented construction, modernization, and growth, but seeing it in person was jaw-dropping. Nearly every five minutes, we passed by another crane erecting a high-rise, or subway train project, or construction pit. This is simultaneously impressive, dizzying, and disturbing, as you hear stories of the human and environmental impact of this growth.

5. History. China has an astounding and frequently heart-wrenching history. It brought tears to my eyes to re-learn about the Cultural Revolution in the country where it actually took place, rather than in a textbook.

A Beijing street scene. Can you read the sign?

A Beijing street scene. Can you read the sign?

6. Volume of people and distances. I knew China has over 1.3 billion people, and that it’s the third largest country in area, but experiencing being pushed by several hundred of those people in person, and chugging along in a fast train for 16 hours to just get a third of the way through the country… well, wow.

And thus I admit to you, experienced traveler though I am, China was no cakewalk! And that’s a good thing. What’s the point of being in this amazing world without exploring the many other ways that people live in it?


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  18 Responses to “Why China is the Most Intense Country I Have Traveled To”

  1. We were surprised by many of the same things you were when we visited China. Then we went to India… You mention that toddlers defecate in public in China, well 2/3 of all people in Inda, 625 million people, poop in public as it’s their only option (see The pollution of China seems quaint in retrospect because it’s from factories and development, India is carelessly polluted (i.e. 90% of cities do no sewage treatment before dumping it into rivers).

    After spending four months in each China and India we look back on China as amazing for what they’re doing.
    I’d love to see your experiences in both, especially if you make it to the uncrowded, natural parts of each such as Sichuan and Yunnan in China vs Leh and Sikkam in India. (here is our China vs India take

    • Matt, thanks for this heads-up and for the article. We’ve heard similar warnings, and so are bracing ourselves for sensory overload, given how intense China was for us!

  2. I think it is disgusting that there are trash everywhere in China. I think that people should clean up that mess. It could cost many diseases and it could attract many unwanted pests. I think the cause of this is that China is just overpopulated with people.

  3. China has so much people. When are they going to decrease their population? If I ever go to china it will be impossible for me to walk through all the people.

  4. The sign on the business is a house for families (usually for about four families) and the bottom line is about there are 30 rooms for traveling families. It is a tradition found only in Beijing and is like a union between four families. That is the translation of the sign.

  5. I know exactly how it feels when you were in China! About 5 years ago, I went to
    China. It was so hectic because there were so many people there! Well, it is the most
    populated place on this earth. Even though I am Chinese and was born there, I still have
    no clue to what people were trying to tell me when I was roaming the streets.
    There are so many different things about China than the United Sates. First of all, there are
    different bathrooms (which were very awkward by the way!), food, utensils to eat with (chopsticks), etc, but it was a great experience!
    It was cool how you went to the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City. I went there too!
    The Great Wall was so steep. You kept on going up and down. The hardest part was the number of people.
    It was jam packed!!! My adventure to the Forbidden City, well this is a funny story. When they were
    giving a tour, they said “And right over there is China Town!” My mom whispered to me saying “Wow,
    we are really close to Boston, if over there is China Town.” She was joking about our China Town in Boston.
    I thought it was really funny how China has a China Town too!
    There was so much I did in China for three weeks, but I do not want to bore you. I went horse back riding, made shadow puppets, I had a foot massage, and so many other things. One cool thing I did in China was make pictures from crushed glass It was so much fun!!! I Hope you had fun in China like I did!

    -Abby Murphy:)

  6. I definitely agree that China is a really intense place especially with the increasing population and the pollution. I think that the pollution is mostly due to the population in China because the more people living there the more resources they would need in order for them to survive. There is also a lot of factories that create most of the daily materials that we use like computers, tables,chairs, electronics, plastic and etc.

  7. China is definitely a crazy place. Nothing else quite like it. There’s the rest of the world, then there’s China.

  8. nice observation… although when you travel to the remote areas of china…it’s not polluted … i went to yangshuo and travelled from kunming to chengdu via the backdoor route (shangrila-xiangcheng-kangding) and the scene was breathtaking… there’s a lot of tibetan villages too on the way… 🙂 kudos for sharing your passion of travel and learning to your students 🙂 travelling is indeed a very effective way to learn a lot of things…

    sad thing though, development is creeping now to the “pristine” areas and destroying a lot of beautiful places not only in china but in almost all countries…

  9. It’s sometimes good to stop and take a more critical look at the places we’re in, lest we read like paid tour guides :-p I can definitely relate to being overwhelmed by some of what I encountered in Korea. The language barrier, fast lifestyle, constant development, and littering were pretty intense there as well – albeit on a smaller scale.

    Thank God I didn’t have to deal with censorship too!

  10. I know that our trip was 1000% different because we had the help of a native Chinese grad student throughout most of our time there. As a non-Chinese reader, I think it would have been quite difficult to venture out beyond the most traveled sights and the subway!

    Having young Caucasian children along did endear us to people. So many people wanted their photos that they began to feel (and act) like celebrities.

    We should compare notes sometime soon . . .

    • Absolutely!!! Indeed, when I go with the student group in February, we will have full-time guides, so I know it will be a different type of trip. Can’t wait to hear about your adventures!

  11. Ah, you saw a lot of what I saw (and then some). I experience some of the internet censorship while I was there, but not near as much to the extent that you did. I actually had no issues with Google & Yahoo news, but definitely could not get into Facebook. Based on my own experiences, I found Iran to be worse than China. It kind of makes you realize how good you have it back home, doesn’t it?

    As for the language barrier, when I ate out, I always had to point to pictures and pull out the phrase book, but I was able to find a couple places which provided menus with english subtitles. My biggest challenge was going out without a bilingual guide and trying to communicate with some of the waitresses who spoke no english (or any western language). Again, lots of pointing and charades. I had a lot of fun with it, as did the locals.

    All in all, I found China an intriguing country and would like to go back to see other parts of it sometime. Glad you are enjoying yourself over there!

    • Ahh– I forgot you have Iran experience to compare it to. Fascinating!
      And I love the image of you playing Charades-ordering-dinner repeatedly 🙂

  12. You have such a positive attitude–can I borrow it? 😉

    And what a great description for your students to read before their trip. You are one fantastic teacher!!!

    Also–it is important to note that while I thought this post might discourage me from wanting to visit China…it didn’t. Yay! Some day…

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