Admittedly, my initial impression of China was less than enthusiastic. It’s a great country to gripe about. I could go on and on about all the petty annoyances and irritations. About the often insalubrious conditions. The maniacal driving. The lack of common courtesy. The sheer madness of modern day China.
But I won’t. I’ve made a vow (for your sake and mine) to get a grip on all the grumbling.
And although I can’t go so far as claiming I love travel in China, I will say it’s fascinating.
The best part of travel
My favorite part of traveling has always been those unexpected moments. You’re stranded and somebody invites you home to spend the evening with their family. As you sit outside the corner store sipping a cold coke, you strike up a conversation with a local. Or as you wander the backstreets of some unknown town, you stumble across an interesting spot.
That happens all the time in China. You think you’re trapped in a neighborhood of Soviet-inspired tower blocks, and just around the corner there’s ancient China staring you in the face.
And so it was a few days back, when we ambled down a narrow alleyway and suddenly found ourselves transported back to another epoch.
Alright, the tooting of horns and the shiny plastic products crammed into the shops were a constant reminder of 2011, but I let my imagination run a little wild.
We found ourselves wandering through an intricate maze of tightly packed structures. There were steeply gabled roofs, and door gods meant to ward away evil spirits and encourage the flow of good fortune. Homes were all adorned with banners decorated with bold Chinese characters. I can only imagine what they might have read, blessings I suppose.
Doors and windows hung wide open and finally we could get a real glimpse into what Chinese life was all about.
A baby wailed as a grandmother gave it a bath. Teenage girls in short skirts primped in front of a mirror. A young mother sliced vegetables at lightning speed with one eye on the TV and the other on her young son. A group of old women grunted and spat as they played mahjong. A family sat quietly drinking tea. Teenagers hunched over school books, others engrossed in their mobile phones.
Those strange visitors
Two foreigners in that out-of-the-way neighborhood were obviously a novelty. Adults and children alike starred openly. There seemed to be no shame in gawking and locals made no effort to hide their obvious curiosity.
As we wandered further, the sweet smell of burning incense filled the air. We’d come across a Buddhist temple tucked in at the end of one of the lanes.
Offerings of fruit and sweets were set before images of the Buddha and I surmised it was a festival day. An old women dressed in a traditional suit was busy stir-frying vegetable and she motioned for us to wait and eat. An old man—her husband perhaps—gestured for us to sit down.
Talk to me
Our lack of Chinese language skills has been a huge stumbling block towards communication. We pointed to the phrase “What is your religion?” in our guidebook and after that mystery had been cleared up, there wasn’t much else to say.
We smiled a lot. The old man jotted down phrases in Chinese and then shoved them at as and waited eagerly for a response. I pointed in our guidebook to the phrase, “Sorry, I don’t speak Chinese,” but that didn’t deter him.
He tried another phrase and then another until finally we’d drunk our three cups of tea and bade him farewell.
Back to reality
We trudged back to the main road and the frenzy of modern-day China slapped us back to reality. I felt as though I’d had a tiny taste of what China used to be about. My only hope is that I’ll uncover that side of China more often. Perhaps further west, where the factories give way to farmland and life passes at a slower pace.
A pace more suitable for a cyclist.