China: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I crossed into Kyrgyzstan the other day without incident. Before I leave the topic of China here are a few final thoughts.

China was not my favorite place. In fact, of the fifty-three countries I have travelled to, only three get a thumbs down: Venezuela, Equatorial Guinea, and China. But it wasn’t all bad:

 The Good

– It’s cheap. A huge bowl of noodles, veggies and bits of meat and a beer, my standard fare, runs $1-2. Hotels run $10-20. Not the Four Seasons, but most had cable TV (but no English), A/C, and hot water. Massages, especially feet, are a speciality. I could get a two hour foot massage for about $10.

– The food is good. 99% of my meals were delicious. Never got tired of noodles almost every day. Plus, I rarely had stomach problems, unlike in Latin America. I attribute this to my noodle diet. A steaming bowl of noodles doesn’t have many live parasites in it.

– The people are friendly. I had several people buy me meals, like they were proud to do something for me. One kid in a restaurant overheard me tell someone my route out of town. He raced after me on his bike to tell me the road was closed and I should go another way. People were almost always helpful when I stopped for directions or seemed lost.

– Spectacular scenery, especially in the western provinces of Gansu, Qinghai and Xinjiang. In fact, if you go to China you should just limit your stay to these places.

– The roads have big wide shoulders. The designers took into account all the scooters, bicycles, donkeys and pedestrians when they designed the roads, so it was safe riding. Rarely did I have to compete with vehicles for a bit of the pavement.

 The Bad and the Ugly

– The staring. Wherever I went people stared at me. On the bike, off the bike, shopping, eating, or walking around, people would stop and just stare. Often, people would stop their vehicles, get out and watch me ride past. In restaurants when I walked in everyone would stop eating, stop talking and stare at me. Sometimes as many as 20-30 people. The kitchen staff would come out as well to stare. In shops, everyone from the security guard to the cashier to the other customers would stop what they were doing and stare at me. Never got used to that.

-Terrible driving skills. They have no respect for traffic rules or even common sense. Pedestrians are even worse. They just walk out across busy streets, sometimes not even looking. They assume the drivers will either go around, or honk their horns. I usually don’t advocate adherence to rules, being somewhat of an anarchist, but in this case, it only makes sense. You have got know what the other driver is going to do. In China, people just go and whoever gets there first has the right of way. I had several near misses where vehicles pulled out right in front of me or turned into me. I was forced to brake and go off the road. Yes, they got the finger. They also use their horns constantly. A person could be a kilometer up ahead and people will lean on their horns just to make noise. Plus they have supercharged them to make them louder. I had to wear earplugs in busy areas to keep out the noise.

Pedestrians and cyclists, too, were oblivious to others. They would stop suddenly or stand directly in the line of traffic. It is amazing there are not more traffic accidents.

– Chinese people are LOUD. I figure they have a saying: “never do anything quietly if you can do it noisily”. In hotels people would have loud conversations in the hallway, slam doors and shout at each other from different rooms or down the corridor, seemingly unaware that they may be disturbing the other guests.

-The Chinese have a bad habit of spitting everywhere. Not just a polite ptui but a loud HHRRAAACCKKK! PTUI! They dredge up all the phlegm, mucus and saliva in their throats and spit–on the street, in restaurants and internet cafes. You can hear it a block away and it is disgusting. In cities and towns you can hear this revolting sound every few minutes. Never got used to that either.

– The Chinese are curious to a fault. If I stopped my bike anywhere immediately a crowd would gather around and inspect my bike, my gear, me. If I had my map out people would grab it out of my hands and discuss it with other people around.

In internet cafes, people would gather behind me as I checked emails, wrote my blogs or checked out my photos. It was incredibly annoying to have people standing right behind me peering over my shoulder, smelling their awful tobacco breath as I tried to write my blog entries.

In restaurants I would have my guides books, maps, or journal on the table, People would walk over and just pick up stuff and thumb through it. If I was writing in my journal people would peer over my shoulder to see what I was writing. When I set the journal down to eat they would pick it up and flip through it. I just found that behavior incredibly rude.

– The odors, especially in eastern China, were overwhelming. Unbearable smells from polluted rivers and creeks, garbage, and manure almost knocked me off my bike. Add to this the pollution from factories, cars and trucks and the air quality in many places was worse than any other country I have travelled to, including most cicites in South America. I passed an ammonia factory once where the odor of ammonia was so strong I almost could not continue. It was awful, but people lived and worked there.

– Smoking. In restaurants and internet cafes particularly, this was annoying. Everyone smokes. The internet cafes–huge places with hundreds of terminals–are filled with young Chinese people puffing away, causing a huge pall of smoke to hang in the air. I had to limit my time in some places because the smoke was so bad.

– It’s a dirty place, as I have mentioned before. Restaurants and hotel rooms are filthy, with cigarette butts strewn about and bits of food everywhere. But I only saw a few cockroaches. There was a mouse running around one of my hotel rooms though. I also mentioned the dirty toilets and bad plumbing in even the best hotels. They just don’t seem to be aware that a clean bathroom is a good thing. I checked into one hotel and went to the bathroom. Floating in the bowl was someone else’s turd. It just doesn’t make sense. How can you rent a room to someone in such a state?

– I mentioned the public restrooms also. I have never been in such a hellish place as public restroom in China. Maybe that is why so many people go in public. I witnessed more people urinate and defecate in public in three months in China than in the previous 48 years of my life combined. I think they have a saying in China: The world is your toilet.

– Limited TV selection. Since TV is state run all you get is bland repetitive programming and commercials extolling the virtues of the various provinces. A poor selection of channels and all in Chinese. The news is sanitized, approved by the state.

– Warm beer. One of the joys I get is a cold beer at the end of a long hot day of cycling. But except in the very hot parts of the country it can be tough to find one. They have cold juice and coke and water, but for some reason keep the beer on the shelf at room temperature.

– The police. I wrote about my encounters with the cops. Their senseless rules, bureaucracy, and lack of clarity about “off limit” areas was stressful and inconvenient. It really is a police state. No thanks.

 I am not saying China is a bad place. Many foreigners go there and love it. I am just saying many of their habits grated on me for some reason. I am usually pretty open minded about other cultures, but in this case, I can’t get over the annoying behaviors. I can’t imagine going back any time soon.

5 thoughts on “China: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. Capt. Don Kilpela Sr. August 9, 2008 / 2:41 pm

    Your comments were excellent. I will continue to take my China travels in the National Geographic and other travel magazines where the scenery and air are spectacular, where the pictures of the villages have been washed clean of their odors and everything run through Photoshop to clean it up. In short, Kev, you paint a pretty grim picture. I suppose, odors and air aside, the big eastern cities would be interesting and I would still like to take that train to Nepal but at our advanced age, I think we won’t.

    I am really happy that you made it through in one piece Kev without incarceration of one infraction or another. In fact, I am mighty impressed that you would write so openly and freely about China’s ills. I would be reticent to write such incendiary stuff for fear of official retribution. You’ve got guts.

    We of the Copper Country know the “Copper Country Stare” when a stranger walks into a restaurant in town. All the locals stop eating or talking for a second and stare at the newcomer. It’s funny to us but I can only imagine what it was like in China. Katrina gave us a taste of that in her blog as well and I would like to experience that although both she and you gave a very vivid description.

    Can’t wait for your next blog.

    ps Let me be the first to tell you that next March Betty and I will be great grandparents. We found out this morning at breakfast that Miranda and Art will be parents.

  2. Kevin Koski August 10, 2008 / 3:23 am

    Comment from DAD:

    Kev Your experience with the police brought to mind the time I took my van and went to Mexico to buy some stuff for the shop in Copper Harbor. I crossed over the Rio Grande at Brownsville Texas and went about shoppng.
    I bot a bunch of Mexicn blankets, pottery and ceramics and some other
    things I do not recall. I crossed over back into Texas and customs took
    a little look at what had in the back. “Quite a load” they commented and
    like a fool I said yes I have a little tourist shop in Mich. that I operate in
    the summer months.
    Well, they said, if this is for resale you will have to get a customs permit and pay the import taxes.
    “The custom agents are not here for the weekend, you’ll have to come back on Monday. However, we cannot let you stay within the compound here overnight and you can’t leave the compound without the customs import permit. The best thing for you to do is to go back into Mexico and see if you can get your money back. ”
    (Fat chance.)
    They directed me back across the border. I traveled along the Rio Grande to Laredo, Texas/Mexico, and I crossed the border there, hoping that 1 border crossing isn’t communicating with the other/.
    I went thru customs again, and they said “Quite a load!”

    This time, being wiser, I said, these are gifts for friends and relatives. They said “Are you carrying any liquor”?
    I said “3 bottles of Tequila”
    He said “Only 1 free, taxes on the other 2”
    COme with me to the office and we will have a talk and fill out the forms.

    So I sat down at the desk and filled out a form. In the meantime, I noticed numerous customs agents hurrying here and there with sidearms. As I talked with the customs agent at his desk, I had a loaded firearm in my belt under my shirt. Needless to say I was sweating profusely, especially sneaking a firearm across the border without a permit.

    I signed the forms and paid the $6 in tax.

    I was on my way in a cloud of dust. Headed for Las Vegas. Wondering what would of happened if they discovered my firearm.

    I still carry a gun most of the time. However, I have permit.

  3. Martha/Maudie August 12, 2008 / 2:53 am

    Kevin I don’t have to go to China now, your descriptions have been so wonderful and right on. Glad the noodles kept you well, no more greasy fried stuff. The pictures are magnificient, hope you can peddle all of your adventures to National Geo. or some travel mag. The olympics as on now but not as exciting as years past…except for the swimming and sync. diving. Tired of volleyball…. Do you get to see any of the games? Stay safe and (know you aren’t) sound or you wouldn’t be doing this!! I do so admire you and your courage. MM

  4. Capt. Don Kilpela Sr. August 12, 2008 / 5:12 pm

    Steve: I sent a copy of Kevin’s blog to Mr. Pomfrit of the Washington Post for his interest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *