China...... A Retrospective (Part Two)
Trip Start Jun 01, 2006
124Trip End Ongoing
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"Was that on a beer mat?"
"Yeah, it was Guinness Extra Cold."
-- Shaun of the Dead
The second part of our look at China. If you remember, last week I was lecturing - and it is a lecture - on things like culture and travel. This episode it's the turn of such fascinating topics as politics and food to rear their ugly heads..... enjoy!
Politics: The Chinese political system is, I'm afraid to say, complete rubbish. They have the fastest growing economy in the world, and they happily admit that this is based on capitalism. This is all fine and groovy - they have a billion people, resources, skills, technology. It makes sense that they should make an absolute fortune from world trade. But, here's the rub; it is still the People's Republic of China. The social and cultural side of the government is still run as a communist state.
Now, I know that it's been a while since I was at college, but I seem to remember communism and capitalism are NOT THE SAME THING. The country is currently being run as a capitalist dictatorship. Despite all the money coming in, the people still have little or no rights. As with all good quality communist states, the people are atheists by law. Of course they aren't, and they do recognise freedom of religion, but, hilariously, religious people can't be part of the CCP (China Communist Party).
It was also only a few years ago that they stopped calling homosexuality a 'mental illness'. And don't get me started on Tibet.
Anyway, enough politics - I just fell asleep as I was typing.
Food: Food in China starts with rice and goes from there. If you don't like rice then you're going to have one or two problems. Word around the campfire is that noodles are the staple grub in the north, and rice in the south. This doesn't really seem to be the case, as rice is pretty much mandatory everywhere. Nobody seems to challenge the fact that China is a culture brought up on eating very small grains of food with two wooden sticks, but such is life. The 'shovel' approach is encouraged at mealtimes.
We had some fantastic chinese meals in our time, invariably involving rice and then some meat or vegetables in sauce. We also experienced Yak intestine, Rooster feet, inoffensive soups that turn out to have fish heads in them when you stir the mixture, and a whole variety of dishes centered around the main theme of 'animal fat'. You have to try these things of course - otherwise what's the point?
The Chinese themselves, like a lot of Asians, are obsessed with fast food. Every city that holds more than a few people will have a McDonalds and a KFC, as well as the odd home-grown brand like Dicos. In Beijing there is the largest KFC in the world, and if you were inclined to enter you would see it is constantly packed full of Chinese locals. If I was of a spiteful frame of mind I may make another point regarding McDonalds being the embodiment of capitalism... but I'm not.
Highlights: The best of our trip was certainly the last couple of weeks, where we left Chengdu and went west to the Tibetan border, mixing it up with the locals and showing off our hairy chests, followed by our Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. The whole thing was great - beautiful, great weather, lovely people, and although there were people, there weren't a billion people. It was a great change from the hustle and bustle of everywhere else.
Lowlights: The big cities like Xi'an are rubbish. Hot, sticky, seedy and sweaty affairs that are not worth lingering in. Trouble is, there's so little to do during the day you end up getting pissed at night and staying for ages..... but such is life.
China is a great place. The landscape is barren deserts, rugged mountains and lush greens depending on which way you're looking. The people are by turns oppressed communists and ambitious, affluent entrepreneurs. And when they aren't fitting into those two sweeping generalisations, they're either saying hello to foreigners or running away in terror. The food is great, the Tibetans are funny, the bus journeys are deadly, the old ladies selling weed are charming, the beer is often warm, the weather is better than England, and the government keep their oppression pretty low profile.
I think it's safe to say that we would recommend China as a travel destination, will certainly return, and if I could make one point about it then it's this: Travelling in China is easy, fun, cheap and a pleasure.
Don't let anyone tell you different.