We traveled the 30 days our visa permitted throughout China’s southwestern provinces in Mai 2008: Guangxi (Guilin, Yangshuo), Sichuan (Chengdu, Leshan, Emei Shan), Yunnan (Lijiang, Dali, Kunming, Yuanyang) & Xishuangbanna (Jingling). This was definitely not enough! Nevertheless, we now know it can be easily done without a common language. This introduction to China also was an immense eye opener and some of the negative concepts we had of this country we corrected or simply vanished!
What was so different from the image we had and from what we actually expected? When thinking about China, which aspects will stay in our memories?
- Chinese people are very friendly, helpful and mostly open towards Westerners.
- Communication was always possible, even though we do not speak a word of Chinese (ok, “Thank you”, “Hello”, “Rice”…). No matter where, we always found people eager to communicate, making great efforts to understand us and getting out of their ways to help us. We would almost always find someone who knew the few words of English necessary to help us.
- Southwest China is definitely off the beaten tracks, for Westerners. Mostly, we would be the only non-Chinese on a bus, on a plane or on a train and only very few could be seen even in touristy areas. The only exceptions were the few backpacker hostels we stayed in.
- On the other hand, every tourist attraction is now overrun by Chinese tourists, who with a few exceptions travel in bigger groups. The number of Chinese tourists is sometimes simply overwhelming. A small paths leading to rice terraces can be as busy as Grand Central Station or the Champs Elysees at rush hour.
- Do environmental concerns only exist in Western, developed countries? Not really! In several cities in China, all scooters and motorbikes are run on electric engines. No noise, no pollution. Is Europe ready for this? Also all taxis are powered by liquid gas. So this shows environmental concerns exist in China, and they act!
- Food is simply great even in the most simple food stall. Often we had very little idea of what we ordered, but we usually enjoyed delicious dishes. True, we sometimes found delicacies that surprised us…
- People, to be precise men, are chain-smokers! On a bus, in the restaurant while eating, always a lit cigarette in one hand and chopsticks in the other…
- And last but not least, the unforgettable experience of the disastrous earthquake: Monday, May 12th at 14:28. Those were the longest two minutes in our lives. But we were so lucky, Chengdu, only 90 kilometers from the epicenter, was hardly damaged. People in the region of Wenchuen were the hardest hit. The death toll of 71.000 is only an estimate, since 25.000 people are still missing.
The highlights of this trip were:
- Traveling in China is simply overwhelming: at every street corner, you discover something new; every bus ride offers something unexpected; in every restaurant, you find dishes you do not know.
- Traveling through the Southwest of China is mostly Off The Beaten Track: we met extremely few Westerners. Due to language barriers traveling can be challenging, but that is what we came here for!
- The landscapes are simply breathtaking:
- The Giant Panda Breeding Research Base in Chengdu! If you do not go gaga watching the Great Pandas having their bamboo breakfast, you will definitely do so when seeing the younger ones, between 8 and 18 months. They play all kind of games that only a baby panda can imagine…
- The beautiful and crazy alike city of Lijiang – there we watched Chinese tourists party hard, but on the other hand enjoyed the serene Wenbi monastery and its surroundings.
Would we do something differently the next time? Yes, actually!
- Take more time! Each province offers so much. One month would hardly be enough to discover Yunnan alone. This is especially true if you do not want to hurry from one touristy place to the other and stray a little off the beaten tracks where there are no Chinese tourists groups.
- Avoid some of the so-called “highlights” of Southwest China and go to more remote places. Dali, for instance, is not worth the trip, but the bad weather probably prevented us from enjoying the scenic surroundings.
- Did we have bad luck with the weather? Yes, except in Xishuangbanna, we never saw the sun! In Yunnan it rained us in completely. So May is maybe not such a great month to visit Southwest China after all…
Last but not least, what about politics?
Yes, China is very far from being a model democracy! The excessive use of capital punishment is one issue; the press is tightly controlled; repression in Tibet is intolerable and corruption is common at a local level. These issues are frequently discussed in the western media and rightly criticized. Nevertheless, we now think that there is a different side of China that is not covered by the mainstream media. To name a few:
- The country is served by an infrastructure that can easily compete with European standards, paved roads and telecommunication reaches a most remote village.
- People are very well educated and enterprising, but also compassionate as we were able to witness after the earthquake, when thousands took off from work and went to the disaster area to volunteer.
- China’s immense economic growth has created a wide prosperous middle class and not just some millionaires. The fact that no other Asian country, except Japan, has so many domestic tourists is the very proof.
- Most important, the country develops and learns at an unbelievable pace. This might very well also change the political environment.