Translated by: Pal Capewell
In the previous piece you read about our first impressions, the people, the strange and kind customs, the transportation system and how easy the communication was with locals. In this piece we will look at other aspects, which influenced and impacted us during our three months stay. I know this post is really long, and I apologize in advance - have a break at one point and return with some coffee, tea, or even, mulled wine!
Those who travel in China or spend a longer time living there can’t possibly be bored. Surprises await on a daily basis, which is probably due to the fact that our cultures, and what we consider normal, are so different. You may laugh at these, or get frustrated and angry, but at no point should you take these seriously, as we are the guests in China. We really shouldn’t judge anyone because they spit, smoke in the queue in front of us in the pharmacy, or drops the chewed-off bones under the table in restaurants. These are everyday features of life in China. Let this then be the first topic we pick apart, or shall I say, discuss our observations. We can’t stress this enough: these observations are at no point meant to be generalizations, as these are only our observations and we are certain people act differently at different places. Similarities could show though.
Day to day life...
In the city
China came off as a rather diligent, hardworking country. People work, they earn, they try to survive, they spend according to their own abilities. A lot of Chinese live off of running a small store or restaurant. A lot of them live where they work, and by that we mean at the back of the store, their modest beds and living area hidden away from the public eye. Facades are sometimes clean and tidy, sometimes dirty. No need for sugarcoating - there are plenty messy ones. Perhaps they pay bigger attention to this in the countryside, but even that is just our observation. The average Chinese person wakes up early, sends the kid off to school and the kid picks some food up from a BBQ street vendor. Children generally wear uniforms, which typically consist of some blue, white overalls and jumpers, with a neat red scarf tied around their necks. School starts early and finishes late. They study a lot, the curriculum is tough especially in the more prestigious schools in big cities. We often saw large groups of children walking home as late as seven in the evening.
Adults work till the evening hours then they pour out into the streets. Not to protest, but to join other locals. Chinese streets fill up during evening hours, kids playing, adults chatting and dancing. Yes, dancing. Alone or in pairs, doesn’t matter as long as it’s dance. Locals gather together in larger or smaller groups in different parts of the city and they dance an established choreography. These dancing groups have a “lead” that brings the loudspeakers on a trolley, sets up the music, and off they go. It’s breathtaking to see them give over to the music and forget everything else! Adorable! Age doesn’t matter - from twenty to ninety-nine, you can find all ages there. The youngsters prefer to stay separate, but we did see student groups dancing as well. Perhaps it’s not a big surprise that there is a strong female domination in these groups, but there are always a few men as well. Quite often we spotted dance groups during the day too! We stopped to take it all in which led to conversations and even a dance together. (You can see a video of it HERE.)
All styles are present here, from the traditional Chinese to the current pop and R&B. Locals love spending time with each other, with friends, to chat, to dance. This could possibly be an inherited trait (from the times people had to be happy together, or at least look the part), but today all do it voluntarily and it all looks proper and healthy.
A very old custom still active today is the gambling. Chinese locals don’t shy away from it, don’t try to hide it. Many of them, even during the day, play away with dice, their traditional mahjang, cards and dozens of other games unknown to us. Apparently many of them built up rather large debts and addictions.
Sports are more popular in bigger cities. A lot of locals bike, swim, jog, do tai chi, and I even categorize their evening dances under sport. Despite all these efforts, China is not the healthiest... We can’t say they are overweight, but from what we saw they eat a lot of junk and plastic, and 98% of the men smoke. In an average store about 20 different kinds of Chinese cigarettes (our “wild” guess is it’s more than the number of nicotine patch brands) are carried, from the dirt cheap to the ridiculously expensive. They smoke like chimneys, in all possible venues. In large supermarkets smoking is prohibited, but in restaurants, small stores, and even the pharmacist in the pharmacy was smoking away. I must point out though that for them it’s not just a harmful habit but also a status symbol as well, a necessary tool for all business negotiations. If one goes to a business meeting, one buys expensive cigarettes to offer the partner. Interesting. Their containers, like their prices, range from the budget looking to the carefully designed, further luring buyers. Unfathomable amounts of money travel into cigarette company owners’ pockets, and the highest profiting at the moment is the “Sounds of Heaven” - interesting how they have the word “heaven” in their name...
At the countryside...
Looking for a place to hit up our tent often posed a challenge. Every square inch of land is used for agriculture. In the country, everyone has a piece of land where they grow something: corn, veggies, fruits, etc. Gardens are tidy, it’s obvious locals are skilled and knowledgeable; wisdom is passed from father to son. Even the elderly work on the fields. Those without children, or their children no longer live off of the land, have no one else to harvest for them. Villagers are direct, respectful and kind to each other, freely enter each others’ property. A kind, 80 year old gentleman, named Jin Biz Tian, invited us once to sleep at his place in a rather secluded village. We saw diligence in their work, caring and love in their approach towards one another and evening card game battles with the “neighbor gals”. (You can see a video of it by clicking HERE.)
In China, family life is very important; we saw that in all regions and ethnic groups we visited. The one child policy (which many ignored and just paid the fines afterwards) is now changed two children/family. Kids are with their parents until they reach kindergarten age, or later, if there is no kindergarten in the area (many nomadic groups don’t have, for example).
The nomadic groups
Nomadic life, like we mentioned in our previous post, didn’t change much in the past few generations. Maybe it got a little more comfortable, but nothing major. They also use electricity (mostly from solar panels), vehicles (like motorcycles) and cellphones. The government is trying to lure them to bigger towns with the promise of better life (we are not sure of the other hidden agendas), where they’d get wired electricity, a small apartment and an annual financial support. We are not sure how this program works, we already saw a few of these towns but many still prefer to live out in the cold on their own, albeit more free.
Yaks wake early, and with them do their keepers. Around six in the morning they are already taking the animals out, and the yaks stay out most of the day, just munching away on the lands. There is not much work to do on the lands, animals take care of the grass, they don’t grow plants (what DOES actually grow above 4000m, I wonder...). Yak dump is collected, dried and used for heating purposes and the left is sold - town heating is also “crap-fueled”. They cook food or eat the simple tsampa, handle the milk from the yaks and spend the evenings with their children. When darkness falls they gather the animals, milk them, then go back home and chat, drinking hot tea.
We also witnessed hybrid-nomad families, where the men went to work as teachers in towns and the wives stayed at home to take care of animals. Their standard of life is not too high (measured against our standards), but they are quite well off despite their surroundings. They don’t starve and don’t swamp themselves with “unnecessary” items. TVs and radios are hard to come by, they are more of a town characteristic, but there you can find them on every rooftop. They have a set of nice clothes that they probably wear for celebrations and when they go to town, and they have a set for work. A few toys for the kids, tools and equipment to keep the animals, and a musical instrument occasionally. Nomads don’t go near the city when it reaches minus thirty degrees, they live through the winters in their tents; it’s basically like summer but with more snow. They came off as more decent, quieter people who have been trained by their challenging lifestyles. Locals are happy and welcoming towards foreigners and visitors, they don’t ask for passports, rather, offer you hot yak milk tea and a place to stay. And with that we arrive to the next topic, which you might have anticipated, the one we miss so much since we left China - gastronomy.
Meals, drinks whatever your belly may desire
Their gastronomy is fantastic. Chinese dishes are very delicious, though there are areas where the variety is rather limited (except Sichuan food). For us though, having explored a large portion (and still small!) of the country, we had the fortune to experience the differences. Let’s begin with the general aspects, then go region by region.
It’s not trendy in China to cozy up in a dim-lit, romantic corner and sip wine with a minimal sized dish. No, a lot of them gather around a large table, share the numerous dishes in front of them (that’s why it is strongly recommended that you get Hepatitis A, B vaccinations, even our Lonely Planet dictionary advised us!), they slurp, chew with their mouths open, exchange views loudly from one side of the table to the other, laugh loud, and in the midst of dirt and leftover food on the ground they almost go for a fight who should be allowed to pay the bill. Slurping and burping is not at all indecent behavior, and when you are to finish a noodle-soup just by chopsticks, you understand why. Eating is really much more than just satisfying a need, for Chinese people. It’s a form of interaction, and a very important one at that. Their way of asking how you are depicts this well, “Have you eaten?”. All meals are prepared right on the spot, served hot and fresh, decreasing the waiting time and increasing food safety. Their belief is that freshly prepared food is better for the stomach, is easier to digest. (We await the opinions of specialist gastronomers regarding this.) All sorts and kinds of restaurants are available, but the most frequent ones are the small hole in a wall kinds, and street vendors. Due to our limited finances, we opted for the latter as well.
Tea. Consumed all over China, black, green, with or without milk, in the morning, at noon, in the evening. On the road or at home, in the car, on the motorbike - simply put, tea for them is like water for us, Hungarians. Unbelievable number of varieties are available, because for them “green” is like for us when someone says “red” for wine. All regions have their own customs, what kind of tea they drink and with what. They mostly drink it as it is, without milk and sugar. Teahouses are available everywhere in great numbers. Tea culture looks back on a long and rich history in China, taking the role of western pubs.
Coffee. Simply put: there is none. Chinese drink it as three-in-one, instant, if they drink it at all. We couldn’t find any even in fancy supermarkets, though believe when I say we tried. We found some Lavazza in a 250g portion, but for a ridiculous 17 or 18 Euros. That’s a bit steep. The first time we could buy coffee was in a large supermarket that carried export goods, and that was after six weeks. The coffee originated from Yunnan Province, the country’s largest coffee bean growing region, but we have no idea where all that coffee disappears to. There are cafes in large cities but they are pricey. Once we treated ourselves to one latte each, which took the poor barista around ten minutes to prepare, despite us being the only customers. It was obvious he had zero experience and practice in the arena.
Miantiao is a kind of soup into which they put plenty of noodles, barely boiled veggies, boiled meat, and spices. It’s a bit like a hearty Hungarian meat soup, but with more noodles. Quite filling and cheap as well. One can find it all over the country, however it can change slightly region to region, the basics are the same. This is the dish we had the most frequently during our three months in China. Once in China, we recommend you give it a try. No need to worry, it’s not one of those super spicy kinds, it’s mild, and they leave the spices out of it altogether if requested. (Kindly say “buyao LAHde” and they will understand.) Miantiaos also serve as a nice, filling lunch in the midst of touring around town.
Available all over the country, and there are at least thirty kinds, from different companies. It’ s super cheap. The more expensive ones are rather nice, almost like a miantiao, but not just yet. Finding a not spicy one is definitely a challenge, you will have to ask for assistance at the store (using hands, fingers, whatever you can). We got mildly spicy ones, the real spicy ones though can burn the hair off of you, so make sure you check beforehand.
Used everywhere, but if you can’t use them, no need to panic - spoons are usually available in all restaurants (or at least one is). Higher-end places provide nicer chopsticks that are sterilized by machines each time. Seeing that is always a good sign. In more modest restaurants the cutlery is prepacked/wrapped which you have to open, or they are cleaned in boiling hot water and you have to take it out of the bowl placed in the middle of the table. Not to brag, the three months trained us well, but those of you who are in China for a short time, I’d recommend sticking to prepacked stuff.
In the Uyghur Region:
Muslim customs dominate, bread (eastward from here on it’s hard to find), black tea, samsa, meaty meals. It’s a bit like a mix of Chinese and Central-Asian cuisine. Due to their Muslim nature, pork is hardly ever available, even in the fancier, Chinese dominated restaurants. (Once we were invited to a fancy, famous Uyghur restaurant, that’s how we know.)
The Tibetan Plateau
Understandably, dishes are dominated by the local surroundings and what it can provide. Locals don’t eat vegetables very often, or at least we didn’t find much in their traditional dishes. If meat, then most likely it’s sheep, or even more often it’s yak. Yak meat is like beef, just a bit chewier, and tougher. They don’t go crazy on spices, of the four regions we visited, this was the most modest one.
Baking in ovens is unheard of for them. Wherever we traveled, this concept was totally non-existent. Meat is either cooked or grilled. With the same token, cookies and cakes are not very popular. One may find candies and baked Muslim goods, but they are not very attractive for European tastebuds. Almost all households have a fireplace (which sometimes also serves as a kitchen) in the middle of the room. All day long, water is being boiled on it, and yak milk tea is kept warm. They drink a kind of black tea whose leaves are very tough, and they often mix it with yak milk. Some people add yak butter, some don’t. We tried it with butter and it was heavenly! Creamy, a bit oily, rather nice! Rice is popular here as well, and tsampa is an everyday staple food. There are many Muslim and Chinese restaurants where they serve both vegetable and meaty dishes, noodle and soup meals. Once we ate in a Tibetan restaurant, it was quite similar to a Chinese one. We believe the region’s traditional dishes come from the tent-living nomads, as this was the dominant lifestyle in history; change only started the past 50-60 years.
The real rock’n roll began in Sichuan, though. There aren’t many proper Chinese restaurants abroad, but everyone must have heard of Sichuan cuisine. This isn’t a coincidence. This is where the biggest, and spiciest, culinary experiences awaited us. We read that China has four main culinary regions. The east is sour, the west is spicy, the north is salty, the south is sweet. Most Chinese immigrants who move to Hungary must come from the southern part as beside the “sweet and sour” meals, you can’t find much in their restaurants.
The west, Sichuan, is also spicy. Oh lord, very spicy. Before our departure I wasn’t big on spicy dishes - yeah sure, I had the occasional hot pepper and whatnot, but I simply can’t stand if a meal is so spicy that I can’t taste anything else just the burning hotness, and I can’t see anything because my eyes start to water so bad. And Eni? She is even less fond of spicy food than I am. True, that was the past, now she does eat spicy if she has to. Oftentimes, it was impossible to avoid a dish being spicy (cup-noodles, for example, we often had no choice but to eat that), especially because the locals and us had very different ideas of spicy. Dishes are often made of vegetables, tofu (regular or smoked), meat, eggs. Once we had a meal with some locals, where they served numerous meals, and a big bucket of rice. Everyone was given a smaller bowl to take rice for themselves, and the rest of the dishes was shared among us, everyone digging in with their own chopsticks. When the rice ran out, they refilled. Locals use delicious oils to give particular flavor to many meals. As for spices, they use white pepper, ginger, garlic and some strange combinations that we were not familiar to us. Another speciality is the hot-pot, where you have a an open fire at the center of the table with boiling soup above, and you place the (raw) meat or vegetable you’d like to eat in the soup. We didn’t try to the hotpot because it appears cheap but if you want to get full and have a feast, that price adds up pretty fast. You can choose from meat types, fish, tofu, shrimp (and its sea-world colleagues), vegetables, mushrooms.
Large cities have bakeries but they are nowhere close to the standard and flavor a Hungarian would expect. If someone wants to earn a lot of money, they should open a bakery... just make sure you are ready for all the work...
Picture: One of the greatest luck that can fall on a traveller is to be invited for a family dinner. Laughter and great mood guaranteed with heavenly treats on the tables. The picture is from a lovely family back from Sichuan.
Yunnan meals are quite similar to that of Sichuan’s. As we proceed southward, the cuisine turns more and more tropical. Fruits and vegetables appear that were not common up north, and the citrus flavor gradually takes dominance. French baguettes start to appear (probably because of Laos), and we observed the food to be generally cheaper than elsewhere. A large portion of miantiao only cost us 0.7 Euros. We didn’t notice any significant differences from the Sichuan cuisine.
A huge country, where you can find everything. All climates are present, perhaps with the exception of tundra. There are deserts, mountains, flatlands, different kinds of forests, beaches, etc. We crossed some amazing landscapes. Eni’s favorite was Yunnan Province, for me it was Sichuan. Then for second place we have each others’ first choice, then Qinghai, then the Uyghur Autonomous Region. Unfortunately it is hard to find nature that hasn’t been messed with. Highways cross here, there, everywhere, wherever the eye can see. They move mountains if they believe they can get valuable resources or if it’s in the way of a highway. It’s not the cleanest country in many aspects: they dump the trash wherever they please, and use the typical “roll down the window and onto the road it goes” approach. Fair enough, organized trash collection does not exist in the countryside - people just burn the trash, as you can read in Eni’s article (PASTE LINK HERE!!!!) Large cities pay attention to cleanliness and trash-collection though.
Despite all of that, China has some breathtaking landscapes. The mountains, the Tibetan Plateau, the desert, the large tropical jungles all gift people with amazing views. This is one of the reasons why Sichuan became my number one favorite. There are large cities too, for example in Chengdu we had the opportunity to learn about their city life (and see their pandas of course), then up north towards the mountains, to the Tibetan Plateau. If you had enough of the cold, just roll back down to the warmer areas below Chengdu. Their wild-life is extensive as well. For all those who love taking pictures of nature, go to QingHai! Wolves, bears, wild donkeys, yaks, snow leopard and heaps of other animals live up in the higher regions.
We don’t really want to get into politics because we don’t know and understand much about it and besides, it’s quite a sensitive topic. Some of you might want to read about our experiences though - here goes. China has a people’s republic, led by a communist party. The economy is booming, their GDP is on a constant rise. According to the 2014 data, China is the world’s first and largest economy. At the same time, the average income for one person does not reach the global average. Mao Zi Tung has done a thorough job with the cultural revolution, and though slowly, people in China are starting to admit that not all he has done was correct. His portray hangs in almost all administrative offices and many households. His face is printed on all bills China uses. His spirit is still strongly present in the country and everyday life. We didn’t get into politics with the locals so that our three months long visa doesn’t suddenly get shortened. What we could see was how China is an unprecedented mix of communism and global capitalism. Culture, import goods all pour in from the west and impregnates social life while Facebook, Google, YouTube, and many other sites are blocked. This is a business too, for VPN providers that provide unrestricted internet usage for a monthly fee. During our visit, rumor had it that maybe in 2016 spring the Chinese government will sit with Facebook management, till then, they have their very own Chinese social media site. A very few people that we communicated with had Facebook accounts, and if they did, it was only to keep in touch with foreign travelers who passed by. One thing is for certain - there is order and discipline, and we didn’t feel safer in any other country than in China. There must be thieves like in any other country, I am not saying there aren’t, but not once point were we afraid to leave our bikes outside while we did our shopping. Locals never cheated us, we were given the same price as anyone else. We are not certain what road led to that, but the average Chinese person seems trustworthy and fair. A youngster who finishes high school, perhaps college and university, doesn’t need to worry about landing a job for himself. The authorities don’t meddle in little men’s business, one can open their own shops, restaurants, whatnots. WIn win.
Everyone can practice their own religion, from what we saw. There are a lot of Buddhists, Taoists, and some Christians. We didn’t meet any Confucius followers, though there must be as it is an integral part of ancient Chinese culture.
We won’t hide it, so far this is our favorite country. We’d love to visit China again. The openness and kindness of the people, the diverse nature of the country, the breathtaking views and heavenly cuisines are just too hard to leave behind. It’s a splendid choice for culture adventurers who prefer something more than Hawaii or Ibiza. For us, the visa was cheap and easy to get. The air ticket is not the cheapest, but the country is generally cheap, hotels and restaurants are reasonable and there is plenty of things to do. Do we recommend it? Duuuuuh! We’d even venture as far and say it’s a must at least once in one’s lifetime. Alert! May cause addiction!
Some tips for those traveling to China, or planning to do so: bring a Lonely Planet English-Chinese (or your mother tongue - Chinese) dictionary. Personally, we loved using Lonely Planet, proved to be an excellent choice. The most important thing though is to have both written Chinese (characters) and pinyin (pronunciation guide). There are apps for smartphones, some with character recognizing features as well.