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First Look, China

Yunnan China

I've been to the States five times. Australia five times as well. Some parts of Europe. The usual neighbouring countries like Malaysia, Thailand, Hongkong etc. But I've never been to China. Which kinda surprise many, since I like to travel, and China being near and cheap, would seem like a destination long done. Truth of the matter is, the lure of the Western end of the world seems greater, esp when I'm more comfortable using English than Mandarin. But the lure of China inevitably looms. And when your job leaves you, but not your travel and photo bug, China would seem the ideal place, with both cheap living expenses and beautiful landscapes for photography.

Yunnan seemed hardly the place for someone's first visit to China. Most would go to Beijing or Shanghai for their first taste of China. Well, I had that "taste" when I had to stay One Night in Beijing when on my way back home from Mongolia. Messy and overcrowded airport customs, smog polluted streets, "misplaced" hotel reservation, hardly a good appetiser! So, no, my first real travel experience in China would be in rugged and rural Yunnan! Basket peddler in Kunming

Chinese Hospitality

You get the feeling that the world is out to con you when trying to get out of the airport. Of course, we've heard of horror stories of chinese businessmen executing various unscrupulous means to part you with your money. I've even heard stories on how siblings can turn on each other for money. Here, the taxi drivers, travel agents/guides etc would offer their services with such friendliness, warmth and enthusiasm that they would seem to be your brother or sister..... ;)

Bus helpers tying luggage on top of long distance buses
The touristy places like Dali and Lijiang are even worse. The moment you alight from your bus/train, touts would magically appear from nowhere, pester you, hound you and generally make a nuisance of themselves. Like the time I just stepped off my minibus from Lijiang onto Dali, I had barely taken my backpack luggage off the bus when I find myself surrounded by men, women and horses and shouts of "yiyuan!!", "yiyuan!!" bombarding onto my face. I realised then, that whether I take the horse cart, or the minivan taxi, a trip to my hotel/guesthouse costs me only "yiyuan" or one chinese dollar (and the shouts came from the men and women, not the horses...)... These people are seasoned marketeers, and once they drop you off your hotel/ guesthouse, they will present you their business card and offer you their services at "discount" rates... And in all likelihood, you will see them again first thing the next morning.....

Holy Smokes!

Cigarettes are dirt cheap in China. Maybe they're made from dirt. These foul smelling stuff can cost as little as 5 yuan per packet (that's about S$1). My driver/guide tells me he can smoke up to 4 or 5 packets a day! This seemed the norm as people everywhere seemed like walking chimneys. As I have a sensitive nose and throat which easily gets inflammed, it was a major turn-off for me travelling in China. To make matters worse, the no-smoking sign on long distance buses are invisible to the passengers and exempt for the drivers. It's one thing telling one passenger to observe the sign, but another thing entirely, to tell half the passengers on the bus to stop smoking. And definitely NOT the smartest thing to tell the driver to put out his light. Now imagine a 7-hour journey!.... The Beijing smog suddenly felt like the Swiss Alps...

It is little wonder that China is one of, or the world's largest cigarette producer - and a generous portion consumed locally. According to the World Health Organisation, it is estimated that smoking kills 1.2 million people in China annually! The government will do little to look at these figures as the tobacco industry is state-owned, and the figures they're looking at is the healthy percentage of revenue these cigarettes generate for them. I guess I will not be able to enjoy a smoke-free travel experience...
My driver and guide

Out of the mouth

The art of Spitting could have been the next sport in the Olympics (Mabbe they have that in the 2008 Beijing Olympics). The Chinese spit like they've never spitted before. They spit near, they spit far... they spit everywhere!! And if you are near public places where the common people go, like bus stands, the ground would be riddled with blotches that would make Vietcong landmine layers proud. I am glad I don't use a trolley luggage.....

It doesn't take long for you to learn that like lightning to thunder, you can expect a spit coming when you hear a tremendous clearing of throat that makes you cringe ... I'm sure this has to do with their smoking habits. Worse, this phenomenon is prevalent irregardless of sex, age and social status! Yes, I've seen children as young as 5 years old spitting expertly. And fashionable ladies with fur coats and street stall Ah Ma's doing it nonchalantly and ungraciously. Oh, the contrasts!!

The Great Chinese invention

Paper is one of the great inventions of China. Though they kept it secret for quite some time, it eventually spread to the rest of the world. Thankfully, it did. Now, the cheap paper they produce gives new meaning to the phrase, "paper-thin". Somehow, they have introduced anorexia to paper making, especially those used for receipts. Absolute care must be taken to write on these paper, else the tip of your pen may just tear the paper. Absolutely no way to write on two sides of the paper without obfuscating everything on it. Hmmm... perhaps its intentional that these type of paper are used for receipts..... Thankfully, they did not use the same standards for making their toilet paper.

However, the eco-unfriendly common plastic bags used in our daily life suffers from the same anorexia-thin fate. They are used for carrying quite heavy stuff ranging from food to books. Worse, whether it is hot soup, and freshly fried oily food, these see-through, wraith-like, plastic carriers are commonly used by the hawkers. Oh, the horrors when your plastics are not only see-through but seep-through....!
This is the REVERSE side of a receipt with my Straits Times Classified behind....

It is perhaps this reason that many people scorn made-in-china products. They make cheap stuff, but in order to maximise profits, quality is sacrificed. No, I do not always believe that expensive is the best, and in fact, am always on the lookout for value-for-money good quality stuff. But for these daily used disposable stuff, their quality is so bad, I think most would dispose it before they are used!!

I hope they don't produce condoms.

Ladies and Gents

We see that in Singapore too!

The most common horror complaint from visitors to China has to be the hygiene facilities. Toilets, latrines, lavatory, call it what you may, but refering to them as going to the Ladies or the Gents suddenly seemed so ridiculous. While hotels generally have good toilets, the conditions of the public toilets are astrotious. Formed basically of a drain, of questionable depth, there are stone partitions placed along this drain which forms the basis of your "cubicle". These partitions can be as tall as half human height or as short as squat height. So, while conducting your own business, you could actually turn to your neighbour and have a debate or conversation. I have seen cigarettes been shared too...

As you venture into the countryside and/or the less developed villages and towns, conditions do get worse. Toilets in the budget guesthouses become a hit-and-miss affair (the cleanliness of the toilets ie). Many times, a room check is a toilet inspection check when enquiring for rooms. And in some of the most beautiful mountain regions in China, the public toilet is a hut with a hole dug in the ground and several planks laid across it. I'm sure when they say adventure travel in China, the "adventure" refers to going to these toilets at night. The smell would not only wake you, but the dead as well. The better option would be to do it outside, in the wild, and pray that no yak, sheep, cow or any wild animals would come to sniff you out....
Mountain toilet

The beautiful Meili Snow Mountains

Certainly not the last

My first trip to China is certainly an eye-opener. It is a nation of extremes. The poor are extremely poor and the rich extremely rich. While the economic world looks to this awakening dragon, the traveller and photographer in me looks anxiously at the changes occuring at breakneck speed. I knew that it will not be long before the face of Old China would be completely changed. I just hope I can see some of it with my own eyes before it happens. Especially the beautiful landscapes before they succumb to industrialisation and tourism. And the beautiful and interesting ethnic races of China. So my experiences are by no means a complaint. Instead, it is the mix of the good and the bad that often make the trip extra more memorable.

The New Generation

Photos & Text © Wu Swee Ong