Six years ago, Kristen and Chris returned from their adventure in China astounded. “It changes the way you see the world!” they said.
They were obviously right; I am still wide-eyed and speechless after a three week whirlwind trip through China.
We all carry cliche images in our heads and our psyches about places, things and people. China was the China of movies, Charlie Chan, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, the Great wall, KungFu and Tai Chi, Mao and the Red Guard, the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the cheap Made-in-China goods that flooded our consumer markets, the recent growing muscularity of China as an international economic powerhouse, the takeover of Hong Kong, the modernization of Chinese Communism; all these hundreds of images filtered through the lens of western, caucasian media jammed into my ill-informed brain.
There is a large, predominantly Cantonese, community in Vancouver profoundly impacting my city’s culture, economy and politics – conditioning my image of China through an immigrant community in my home town.
What was real? Isn’t that why we travel, to find out what is real with our own eyes?
In three weeks, most of my cliche images were demolished. Aldous Huxley nailed it when he said, ” To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” I am among the wrong yet I don’t feel comfortable; I am replacing my wrong images with nothing more than the superficial observations of a three week tourist. Caveat emptor…
China is huge! In a whirlwind journey of three weeks organized by GAdventures, a Canadian travel success story, we barely skimmed the surface of the must-see sites. Fourth in the world in land mass – enough to shock even a Canadian, used to vast distances. But more to the point, the current population of China is estimated at 1.4 billion – four times the size of the United States, 40 times the size of Canada’s meagre 35 million.
Beijing alone has a population of 23 million people – more than all of Australia! Chongqing has 35 million people – more people in one city than the whole of Canada! I could go on but to see is to begin to believe. I am forced to recalibrate my current concept of huge, multiply it manyfold; I am still short of grasping China’s magnitude. Image shattered.
Everything scales up.
Clusters of office and residential towers sprout up like mushrooms after a spring rain – not one 20 storey building but ten to a cluster – in multiple clusters. These clusters sprout where-ever we go. Construction cranes are as prolific as telephone poles. Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing burst with new skylines, energy pulses through their streets; they vibrate! New York and London may be iconic but they are aging vintage villages compared to the cities of China. Image shattered.
Airports are huge, shiny new and efficient. Train stations and subways require confidence, a guide and a map to navigate. Each major transportation hub is a city in its own right. Most transportation is new, efficient, remarkably cheap and bustling. It’s $20 from the Beijing airport, not the $40 it is in Vancouver.
City driving is slow and congested, more funds seem invested in public transportation in cities. The subways are new, huge, efficient, cheap and well used. A subway ride is less than a dollar. Bike sharing is prolific, a generation ahead of anything I have ever seen – efficient, cheap, accessible, convenient – all facilitated by smart phone and location tracking technology that we can only hope to adopt.
Clearly China has had a recent love affair with transportation and mobility. There are many old trains that traverse the country but China has surpassed the world in high speed rail travel. Our trip from Beijing to Shanghai zipped along at 300 km/hour; smooth, quiet, comfortable, affordable. There is more kilometers of high speed rail in China than the rest of the world combined. There is already a 350 km/hour bullet train operating between the cities, the innovation never stops.
Evidence of the Chinese love affair with cement is everywhere. The skylines of cities eclipse all others with new modern buildings of astounding shapes and dimensions. Residential towers commit to density and housing infrastructure efficiency. We see huge highways built to serve the bursting economic growth, designed to efficiently move goods, connecting the huge pods of residential towers to places of work. Roads connect everything everywhere, most outside the cities look overbuilt and underutilized. Bridges span rivers and valleys and rise above cities. It is a transportation surge reminiscent of the interstate highway building program in the US during the 50’s – infrastructure investment that can now only be imagined in the western world. As the west’s infrastructure deteriorates from lack of investment, China’s is all brand spanking new! Image shattered.
China is not, definitely not, a third world country. Since the 1980’s China has promoted a freer market-based economy. Over the past decades average annual growth rates of GDP and PPP have surpassed every other economy in the world. Most years, GDP growth has exceeded 10%, lately the average has exceeded 6-7%. Astounding numbers when we consider Canada’s GDP growth rate is less than 3%. Image shattered.
The move to a market economy has profoundly affected the Chinese citizen. More than 500 million Chinese have been lifted above the poverty line as a result. People have jobs, money, disposable income. There are more billionaires in China than the rest of the world combined. Image shattered.
There is a vibrant feeling of optimism everywhere, entrepreneurship abounds, hard work is evident – as close as the door to my Beijing hotel. On my first morning, I walked out the door of my hotel and found a small hole-in-the-wall place selling baozi – steamed buns. I bought three, for the nominal sum of about $2.50 and sat down on some steps to enjoy them. There was a constant lineup, from 6 am till late in the evening.
The three staff worked hard but they seemed energetic and dedicated entrepreneurs.
Multiplied by millions, these baozi entrepreneurs exemplify the power of the market forces that have been unleashed in China. Whatever preconceptions I had about capitalism, communism and the impermeable screen between the two has been shattered.