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Why China is the Most Intense Country I Have Traveled To

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?

My best sleep during China travel: on a train!
A 16 Hour Fast Night Train from Beijing to Chongqing
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