136. China

China: History, mystery, the opportunity to eat a dog – No country on our route carried as much expectation as China. We traveled an astonishing 6,200 miles by rail in this country, an amount of time equivalent to six full days in sleeper cars, hard seats and crowded aisles. We saw some of the best and worst of it and still, it feels like we barely scratched the surface.

Amy: China is a wild place. Overpopulation, massive pollution of the water and the air, (both Sloan and I each caught upper-respiratory infections) and the unrelenting destruction of the old for the new. The PRC is working full speed in Beijing to prepare the city for the logistics of sponsoring the Olympics and prepare the people of Beijing for their homecoming in the world. For example, it’s common now to see billboards teaching locals how to interact with foreigners including explaining that spitting in the subway or on the sidewalk is not polite. Just about everywhere we went in China we would stumble upon an entire neighborhood, several city blocks of housing and business, that had been bulldozed away with banners promising a new luxury high-rise life to come. The clever know that only an elite few are truly benefiting from all this massive wealth and those of us who care worry deeply about the families who’ll be left behind. Modern communist China’s ever-expanding gap between rich and poor and enormous power and corruption its central government wield over the people would make Karl Marx bluster his beard off. The government and business interests do very little looking back, it’s all full speed ahead, make as much money as you can now and we’ll deal with the consequences later. It’s capitalism gone wild. Only when it becomes clear that tourists dollars will increase if they were to restore or not destroy an ancient relic or cultural artifact then suddenly that object becomes precious again. I realize that my own country has set a very bad example on the world stage for China. It’s a little like those old ‘say no to drugs’ commercials back in the late 80′s. “I learned it by watching you.”

In spite of all this, I really enjoyed my time in China. We had experiences and adventures that you can only have in this place at this time in history and I’m very grateful for that. It was great to revisit the larger truth that governments and citizens are very different beings. I am not my government and the Chinese are not either. We met some incredible people in China who are living their lives according to ancient traditions that tell them to care for the elderly and for the earth and to put peace before profit. Looking back maybe I would have opted for that side trip to Barcelona instead of two whole months in China but I gained an insight into a country and it’s people that for better or for worse will play a lead role in our lives for generations to come.

Sloan: In Yangshuo, one of the first and most exceptionally picturesque Chinese towns we visited, we rented bikes one day and took a tour of nearby rural villages. The entire day was a parade, classic vignettes of old China. Then somewhere along the way, on the road, surrounded by the serenity of mature rice paddies and towering peaks enshrouded by mist, we encountered an old woman. Her back was bent at almost a ninety-degree angle, evidence of a lifetime of stooping for rice and carrying loads of the same across her shoulders. Her face was weathered prematurely and severely, in the way that tempts you to guess her age at 105. She was all this and tiny, yet she was in total control of a water buffalo approximately the size of a compact car. She hobbled behind this slobbering, hulking beast, driving him down the middle of the road with a steady stream of confidant whacks from her thick, old bamboo cane. Suddenly, she starts running. This enormous buffalo is running too, galloping, so I assume that she’s chasing the animal, that he’s gotten away from her and she’s trying desperately to regain control. And then, with a wild battle cry and one last whack to his flank, the buffalo shudders to a full stop. The old woman whirls around in front of the buffalo and that’s when I see it for the first time – there’s a small bus full of Chinese tourists that’s stopped, disgorging it’s load on the side of the road, so that people can photograph the landscape. The old woman is now holding up the buffalo’s reins and she is grinning wildly, mugging furiously and toothlessly for the tourists. Flashbulbs are popping like the New Year. And then she’s holding out her hand for tips. Half of the tourists are visibly appalled, the other half are digging into their pockets to pay for snapshots from old China, delivered direct.

It took nine months of traveling, but I finally made peace with the fact that this is authentic. This is China, part of it anyway, and there’s no denying the clash of old and new in this place, no escaping its turbulent wake. We rolled with it, wandering off the path when we could, joining the Chinese tour groups when we couldn’t, reluctantly embracing the reality that the hot, smoggy, alternately glitzy and desolate avenues of the Chinese metropolis are China in 2007. Probably, likely, more so than the postcard pictures of misty karsts and mountain temples. Enormous, crowded, confusing, beautiful, surprisingly kind yet jarringly harried; China was undeniably captivating. Just not in any of the ways I expected.


  1. M~ says:

    My husband and I took a year away from ‘it all’ and took a tour of the world, in 2000. We have visted many of the same places. Soak up every memory, bask in the sights, scents and sounds of all the places you’ve been. Do it before they fade away. Thanks for bring some of my memories back to life through your blog.

    It’s life changing, this journey you are on.

  2. Charles says:

    When it’s hot, do people wear shorts in China? Or is it more like here in New Delhi, where it’s pants pants pants? I swear, in the battle between hot -n- humid versus modesty, modesty wins a surprising amount of the time.

    Great post, as usual. Are you going to celebrate Halloween?

  3. Sloan says:

    It’s remarkable, the Buddhist countries (or the Communist countries formerly cleansed of Buddhism) love the short pants. Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, even China, people are comfortable wearing shorts. There’s still an unlikely amount of denim walking around for the sake of fashion, but there’s nary a trace of that (timeless) Indian polyester.

    We’ll be in Oaxaca City in Mexico for Halloween, which is also my birthday and and the lead-in for Dia de los Muertos. All will be dutifully celebrated. Should be neat.

  4. amyispolish says:

    Here’s a story explaining the connection between China’s massive air pollution problems and mercury in Oregon’s rivers.