Paul Kilfoil's World of Travel, Technology & Sport

Posted on  by Paul Kilfoil.
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My wife and I travelled around China, including to some reasonably remote areas, in June and July 2012 (see my China travelogue). We did not undertake this expedition lightly - we researched quite extensively, planned thoroughly and Karen even went on a course to learn Chinese. Both of us had been to Cambodia (see my South-East Asia travelogue), which is primitive and very rough, so we thought we'd adequately prepared ourselves for what was to come.

However, nothing can quite prepare you for the total and complete culture shock that hits you when you arrive in any non-touristed part of China. You cannot read anything written anywhere, bus and train schedules are a total mystery, the language is incomprehensible and even ordering food in a restaurant becomes a bit of a lottery. In big cities and places very popular with tourists you can find people who talk English and many signs are in "Pinyin" (a translation, usually very direct, of Chinese into English) so things are fairly easy. But anywhere else there is no English at all, neither written nor spoken. None whatsoever. To make matters worse, there are many minorities in the country that speak their own language (with their own script as well) but only have a smattering of Chinese, making any form of communication almost impossible. For example, we spent several days in an area where the predominant language was Tibetan, and there we found that the only way to make ourselves understood was in English, not Chinese.

Karen eating noodles in Lanzhou

Actually getting around China is surprizingly difficult. The train system is fast, efficient and goes to almost every corner of the country, but getting tickets for the day (never mind the time) you want to travel is next to impossible. You have to stand in a queue a mile long only to be told when you get to the ticket window that all trains are full. They will not allow people to stand (even for short journeys) - you have to have a specific seat, recorded against your name just like an air ticket. We only ever succeeded in getting train tickets when we booked a week or more in advance ; arriving at the train station the day you want to travel is just a waste of time. Consequently we found ourselves flying between cities far more than we would have liked.

The other thing that gets to you after a while is continually being stared at by locals unused to seeing Westerners. In remote areas people even stopped and did classic double-takes as we walked past, then turned to stare at us. In restaurants we were forever the object of discussion (presumably, although we had no idea what was being said - the other diners talked, laughed and looked at us the whole time). In the little town of Tongren we'd had enough of it and simply bought some cans of fruit, yoghurt and chips, holed up in our hotel room and watched CCTV Asia News (a channel similar to CNN or SkyNews, but aimed at English-speaking people in China) for the rest of the evening.

A hard-seat carriage on a Chinese train

Chinese people were forever taking photographs of us, as if we were freaks, Martians or so completely unexpected and unusual that they had to have a record of what they saw in case their friends didn't believe them. Quite often couples sent their young children to stand with us and then they took photos of us all together! What is that? Have these people never seen Westerners? Surely they watch foreign television on occasion? It got to the point that we jokingly asked for money to be in photographs, and whenever anybody took a picture of me I whipped out my camera and immediately photographed them in return.

All in all, travelling in China is hard work, much tougher than anything either of us had done before. But the people are invariably very friendly and there are none of the scams that you get in Thailand (where touts lie openly and everybody you speak to is on the make, with foreign tourists seen as fair game). We've seen many wonderful sights in China, stayed in some fantastic guest houses and eaten lots of delicious food. The country is huge and incredibly diverse, and we barely scratched the surface during our four weeks there. I guess a return trip sometime in the future is on the cards ...

  © Paul Kilfoil, Cape Town, South Africa