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October 1st, 2011
I am sitting in a train. Outside a hilly landscape passes. It is less flat than I had expected. If it had been completely flat it would have somewhat resembled my home country, with little villages everywhere and quite green. My fellow travellers in this eastern part of the country are the regular crowd, the common people. On my left there is someone munching on sunflower seeds and at the other side of the aisle someone is cutting a sausage to put into her soup. Somewhere else in the carriage someone is smoking. And a baby is being changed. Two very distinctive aromas, I can assure you.

There is continuous chatter and laughing but it reached a high when I entered. To some of the Chinese I am a curiosity. Their inquisitiveness for me, however, does not reach the mythical proportions like when one travels in India, where someone can stare you in the face for hours, and crowds of up to thirty persons might assemble around you while you wait in a railway station or in a bus station. Anyone with a strong desire to become famous should be sent to India for a month and will return cured from his or her madness.

Dressing Up (Summer Palace, Beijing)

What is similar to India is the desire of the Chinese to be in a picture with you, even in Beijing where people ought to be a bit more used to foreign faces. Photo-sessions can last for several minutes, with not only the whole family opting for a photo-op, but also all its members individually. Let's put it this way, right now I am probably hanging in about thirty living rooms, referred to as 'Our Friend from The Netherlands'.

For the Chinese the curiosity is not so much about my hair or my skin, or the combination of both, but the fact that I travel by myself. To find Chinese people travelling solo is quite rare. I have noticed that travelling in groups is very much an Asian phenomenon. Let alone that ‘they’ backpack the way 'Westerners' tend do. When I asked someone why the Chinese always travel in groups he answered that travelling alone simply is not so joyful because there is no-one to talk to. I could hardly hide my smile while he was talking with me.

The Belltower of Xi'An

The Chinese curiosity had already started when I entered my carriage on a stand-only ticket. As my backpack doubles as an instant sofa, my fellow travellers were quite amused to see me making myself comfortable for the five hour journey. Not that 'stand-only' was my first choice, but there were simply no other tickets left. In China, railway tickets usually need to be bought several days in advance to assure a seat.

For the common man the preferred way of travelling in China is by train. I have read somewhere that on any given day there are about one million travellers that use the extensive Chinese railroad network. You can't blame the Chinese; travelling by train is cheap, fast and quite comfortable. But it also means that one sometimes needs to share the train with quite a lot of others, although the numbers of those others never reach the levels of crowdedness that can be experienced on a Guatemalan chicken bus. And in China you won't find a chicken or pig in your lap either.

Each of the 8,500 terracotta warriors has
different facial characteristics (Xi'An)

The crowdedness is not just a railway phenomenon. Simply everywhere you go there are people. Thinking about taking a picture at a famous site without anyone in it? Forget it, in China you are never by yourself. The only moments that I had to myself were during a long walk through the rice fields of Longji and walking some off-the-beaten-track parts of the Great Wall. Both are too much trouble to the Chinese tourists, who tend to opt for the more luxurious ordeals.

Language can be a problem in China. Not many Chinese speak English, let alone that it is pronounced in such a way that it can be understood. I guess they do not need to. If almost anyone that you meet speaks your language, then what is the need? Most people that do speak English are young, some are really young. It is endearing to see how families sometimes put their youngest members forward to start a chat with me, with pauses in the conversation to do some translating for the crowds.

The other way around, me talking Chinese, or Mandarin to be exact, proved to be more difficult. Mandarin grammar is dead easy, but it is the pronunciation that pitfalls someone with a language nodule the size of an underdeveloped pea. Even when I am thinking that I am exactly pronouncing a street name like I should, taxi drivers usually shake their heads in pity and ask for written down Chinese characters. To make my case (and leverage some guilt off me), I present you the word 'Ma'. Depending on how you pronounce it (as má, mà, mâ or ma), it either means, not in any order, Mother, horse, scolding or intoxicated. Ma-ma-ma-ma sounds repetitive to us, but to a Chinese it might just mean that mom is cursing the horse that has just smoked some pot. Or that mom just did.

The panda is a highly endangered species (Chengdu)

Despite the ubiquitous language difficulties, travelling in China is as easy as it can get. Let's put it this way, 'backpacking in China' is not the kind of adventure that you can have in some of its neighbouring countries. Ho(s)tels are found anywhere and are usually excellent quality; transportation is just as easy and comfortable as in any European country. But what makes travelling in China unworldly easy is the tendency for people to really go out of their way to help you forward on yours. More than once I met people who offered to wait for me in queues so that I could buy the correct ticket or who would walk me to the bus station, and even to the platforms to be assured that I was on the correct bus.

People pass through the train aisles continuously. Usually they carry plastic containers with instant noodles inside. In China hot water is freely available on trains and noodle soup is made in an instant, with a scrumptious choice in flavours. It's filling but I’m more of a fan of the fresh stuff you get in restaurants than of train food.

The Beijing Opera is, with all its costumes,
as candy for the eye

Eating in China is a real treat. Every restaurant has an extensive menu, and food is usually fresh and tasty. It is in China that you realize that the Chinese food in your home country has been adapted to local taste. I searched in vain for typical Dutch-Chinese dishes such as Foe-Yong-Hai and Tjap-Tjoy. Most fun are the restaurants that have a menu in Mandarin only, without any pictures. Those restaurants are a bit like Russian roulette, though I usually let accidently chosen delicacies such as marinated duck head and sautéed pig's hoof, pass my table. As with travelling, eating in China is hardly ever done alone.

I take out my wallet to pay the man that is pushing his fruit cart through the aisle. On the back of the bill is Mao. He is the Founding Father and his portrait still hangs on Tiananmen-square, five minutes’ walk from his mausoleum that draws huge crowds. For me, as a foreigner, there is something weird about all this. During Mao's reign about 70 million people died, partly through dumb decisions and partly through persecution. In most people's terms that would make him one of the largest mass murderers in history, but apparently not in China. Here they carry him in their hands, without apparently too much regard for the Chinese that suffered dearly under the Chairman's rule. From my point of view this blindness has everything to do with the fact that books like "Mao: The Unknown Story" from author Jung Chang, and "The Private Life of Chairman Mao" from author Li Zhisui, that paint the other side of the Mao-story, are simply forbidden in China.

The surreal karst landscape at Yangshuo

Books are not the only thing censored in China. In every discussion that I had with students while on the train, inevitably the topic of the Great Firewall came up. Looking for info on controversial topics like the Dalai Lama or what happened in Tiananmen Square? Forget it, the Chinese simply do not get to see what their people have been doing, and still are doing, to the Tibetans, or to those democracy-lovers that protested for the liberty of their people. Facebook and the alike are also not accessible. The government claims that websites like these can easily be used to orchestrate mass protests. But upon hearing that all these US based websites have popular Chinese equivalents that are not blocked, I could not help thinking to myself that blocking these sites is simply a matter of prevalence towards home-grown companies. Nationalism, cultivated by the ruling party, is rampant when one reads the newspapers. It‘s a dark phenomenon, not strange to other countries either, that will not benefit the country in the long run.

Another national Chinese symbol, one that I do like, is the panda. There are a little over three thousand left and they are thus a highly endangered species. The way to see them is to travel to Chengdu where there is a huge panda park. Forget about seeing them in the real wild; that is near to impossible. In Chengdu the government has been exceptionally successful at breeding panda's. Where most breeding centres rely only on electronic stimulation to collect panda semen to use in breeding programs, in Chengdu they combine it with massage, as the female veterinarian enthusiastically told me. Back in the hostel I cannot help grinning when I see a large sign that asks for volunteers for easy work with panda's. Anyone interested in providing a panda with a Happy End and thus helping their species along?

Shanghai, seen from the World Financial Center

Shanghai is my last stop. Here the power of the rising Chinese economy truly becomes visible. With thirteen million inhabitants and an endless number of high rise buildings it dwarfs other world cities like New York or London. On the front page of the newspaper that I am reading is an article about the conflict between the Republicans and the Democrats that almost meant another financial crisis for the rest of the world. The stupidity of not being able to see beyond partisanship appals the Chinese just as much as the rest of the world. And it does not help them to move towards democracy. While I am reading, the constructional work around me continues. This year China expects an economic growth of almost 9%. This century belongs to the Chinese. And they know it. Hopefully it will equally be the century of the triumph of human rights.

Warm regards,

Next time: Critters!

Last time: The Other Korea

Entrance to the Forbidden City (Beijing) You are never alone in the Forbidden City (Beijing)

Lotus Bridge (Forbidden City, Beijing) Tower on the wall enclosing the Forbidden City
Good ol' Mao is still hanging on Tiananmen Square

Passageway roof in the Summer Palace
Chinese Hippie (Beijing) The Great Wall snaking it's way through
the landscape (Beijing)

The National Grand Theater (Beijing) The Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium (Beijing)

The National Aquatics Center (Beijing) Most plays are about love and betrayal Luckily most theaters have subtitles in English

You cannot leave Beijing without having tasted Beijing Duck The Yungang Buddha Caves Some contain thousands of
small Buddha's (Yungang Caves)

People with fear of heights should not
visit this Hanging Monastery (Datong)
The Terracotta Army of Xi'An is housed
in three large hangars
They look like they could walk away any moment

The rice terraces of Longji Traditional houses are built against
the hills (Longji)
Walking (Longji)

The indigenous Yao are known for their long hair
that they wear in knots on their heads (Longji)
The indigenous Zhuang are known for
their yellow towel hats (Longji)
No slideshow is complete without a few bugs

Up the Ramp Close-up of a Dragon Fly Moon Hill (Yangshuo)

Two Pagodas (Guilin) The Wang Courtyard near Pingyao has been tastefully restored

The theatrically illuminated Reed Flute Cave
There is only about 3,000 panda's left
The red panda is also an endangered species

Walking monk (Chengdu) Waiter, there is a flower
in my Chrysanthemum Tea!
The quintessential Shanghai postcard picture

The World Financial Center in Shanghai
is the world's fourth largest skyscraper
Enough Ming-vases to photograph
in the excellent Shanghai Museum