China Spring 2008 Several longer term travelers of China that I met during my journeys in the country described their experiences in sort of "love-hate" terms. The endearing parts might include the high-cheekbone smiles a line of colorfully dressed village ladies give as you bicycle past on a countryside road while they go about their grinding work of hand plowing a field. Or the cheerful and eager helpfulness of young Chinese students as they help you negotiate some simple phrase in their language while you are in a store or restaurant, offered in equally awkward and stumbling English. In general, Chinese people seem to bend over backward to make the foreigner in their country feel welcome and at home.
However, China has some aspects that could be strikingly repellent to the foreigner. One of these might feature you stuck on a 17 hour train ride between Kai Li in Southeast China going toward Kunming in Yunnan, while the security guards and half of the passengers smoke away in the enclosed train cabins gassing you half to death; the security guards puffing away under the sign that says "Smoking Prohibited in Any Part of This Train At All Times". For the Western traveler, even those accustomed to traveling out-of-the-way and non-modern places of the world, China can seem very dirty.
Choking air pollution, dirty taxis, bathrooms that reek monumentally with the stench of seemingly never cleaned sewage, hotel rooms in "decent" hotels where you wonder what the maid does, and beautiful picturesque rivers that you would not want to put your foot in are too common.
Other endearing/repellent experiences might include the hard to resist friendliness of villagers who persistently try to get you to buy their wares contrasted by the petty crimes, rip-offs and cons you must dodge and navigate while traveling in some of the major cities of the country. Or, when the visitor to China looks at many things, one sees much practical ingenuity, but often has absolutely no assurance of authenticity. Fake, as in much of Asia, seems a crowning achievement for the Chinese. From the often censored and stage managed news on television to the designer Eves St Laurent sports jacket in the store, appearance and reality are often not the same.
Love it or hate it, traveling China can be a very interesting and sometimes very frustrating experience.
I was on my second trip in China, one of the most ethnically, culturally, and geographically diverse country in the world. It is also one of the fastest changing countries in the world as almost anybody who hasn't been asleep for the past generation is aware. Modernization and urbanization are proceeding at an unprecedented pace, altering irrevocably most of the colorful cultural entities that make up China, polluting the magnificent nature the country is famous for, and in some cases virtually wiping out regional cultures through the conscious government effort to tame separatist tendencies, such as in Tibet. So for me the rewards of exploring this vast and fascinating country were worth the challenges, exasperations and learning curve in doing so.
One obvious part of that learning curve in traveling China, as anywhere of course, relates to hotels. From what I found outside Beijing or Shanghai, dealing with many moderate priced Chinese-owned hotels (which is often quite distinct from dealing with foreign owned hotels in China), can follow somewhat predictable patterns and may include some or all of the following experiences. You enter the establishment and make your way to the Front Desk, next to which dutifully hangs the sign showing the price list for the various rooms on offer in the building. Never mind though what the sign says, for the prices displayed have very little to do with what you will end up paying.
Capitalism in China is very raw much of the time: those on the selling end just get whatever they can, with little relationship to what they have on offer compared to others or to the actual authenticity or quality of their offering. So, as you tentatively scan your eyes over the price list of the hotel's various rooms, do not feel any trepidation whatsoever that you may have to pay the rather high prices being noted for such a semi-dumpy looking place that has the distinctive hint of stale smoke in the atmosphere. After the initial greeting with the hotel receptionist/front desk person, you go back and forth over the price that the hotel will try to extract from you for your room. This process is done in a sort of pantomime, since often you'll find that little English is spoken outside the showpiece cities of Beijing and Shanghai. The final price may end up being as little as half of the lowest you see on the sign. However, don't feel too smug yet about your bargaining ability, because even if you inspected your proposed room before finally settling on a price, much may not work, or be, as it initially appeared.