Traveling in China, especially alone, sounds very challenging. In reality, it is a little challenging, but for the most part, and pleasantly surprising, things went quite well. China is a relatively safe country to travel in, even safer than other countries that on paper might have higher levels of GDP per capita (like Brazil, South Africa etc). About the language issues, at least, I know the modest level of Mandarin I’ve picked up from my years in Taiwan is useful when needed.
However, it’s getting around and dealing with people that’s the challenging part. There’s always a lot of negative accounts of people in China. Tales of public rudeness, pushing and shoving, and public spitting are legendary, as well as hustling and potential trickery. There’s also a prevailing notion that people often don’t help strangers. I encountered very, very little of this. Mind you, I was in Shaanxi and Henan provinces, not exactly two of the most prosperous provinces in China. I did see a lot of hawking and spitting, and I saw babies with split pants for defecation, which I saw the actual process of one time in Henan,. And I walked past or used quite a few stinky washrooms.
However, the headline of this post is not ironic. What I also encountered was a lot of decent interactions and acts of kindness. When I got off in the middle of Xian from the airport bus, things got off to a good start when I, being lost, approached a traffic warden and asked him directions to get to my hotel. Not being sure where I was, I asked which direction was a certain street and even after several minutes, to be honest, I still didn’t quite understand which way I should go. Nevertheless after all that, including me taking out my printed map, he patiently managed to suggest a way I should take. I did, and ended up getting to my hotel without any incident.
I also took the subway a lot in Xian and the behavior was just like in Taipei. People didn’t push or shove to get on or off, though people did stand in close to the doors when they were about to open. The platforms were shielded by safety doors that only opened when the subway trains approached, and I noticed it did seem to take a long time to open. I wonder if this was a tactic to prevent people from being impatient and rushing the subway doors. I specifically remember I saw a young guy get off his seat and eagerly offered it to an older person. I saw the same behavior repeated on the subway and on the bus. What I especially remember is seeing on the high-speed train to Luoyang, an old man shuffling into the passenger compartment carrying a huge burlap sack on his back. And by sack, it was like something you’d see a farmer carry full of vegetables or produce. The bag was so big it could barely fit into the overhead baggage rack and I half-expected the train stewardess to ask him to put it in the space between the train carriages. Not only did nobody laugh at him or give him any strange stares, but the person next to him helped him put his giant sack onto the overhead rack.
Unfortunately for myself, I somewhat failed to replicate helpful behavior. I generally try to be polite and considerate, but because I was in China, I was a bit more on my guard. I was lining up to buy a subway ticket an an automated booth when an old guy came up to me just as I was selecting my ticket. I ignored him because I thought maybe he was hassling me or begging me. Right after I finished buying my ticket, I saw he was with an old woman, maybe his wife, and they seemed like they didn’t know how to buy the tickets. The guy behind me showed the old guy how to select the ticket, while I did explain to the woman the ticket prices (the prices varied depending on the distance). Coincidentally the first time I went to a ticket booth to buy a subway ticket, a young guy standing nearby came up to me and showed me how to use it. From the way he was standing around and how helpful he was, I think he was a volunteer. This wasn’t the first time I did not help somebody due to being suspicious.
I often asked people, both strangers on the street and staff at places, for directions, mostly to make sure I was on the right path and to get my bearings right. And most of the time, people were kind enough to help. Even when people weren’t so polite, they still replied to my queries, like when I was walking through the Islamic Quarter trying to get to my hotel and asked a vendor what street was ahead. Xiaopueer! she snarled. Sorry, what street? I repeated. Xiaopueeer!! she replied again with some disgust. Right after I looked at my map and realized she had indeed told me the street. It was indeed Xiaopier. People always say Taiwan people are kind and helpful to strangers, and I find that mostly true, but I also found this true in Xian and Huashan and Luoyang.
I was struck by little acts of kindness such as on the small bus leaving Huashan to the tourist center. I sat by the window and placed my small luggage in the leg space of the seat next to me, since there was no way I could squeeze it into my leg space. Soon the bus filled up and a guy sat on the seat next to me. I had to move my luggage but as I was lifting it to place on my lap, the guy said it was alright and he sat crooked for the whole trip with his legs facing the aisle. At Huashan, I asked people to take my picture several times and I also helped take pictures for people; and I had numerous short discussions with people asking me or vice versa about the paths.
China has a reputation for lining up in public being rare as supposedly people never do that. That’s absolutely bs because from lining up to buy tickets to waiting to enter the train or subway to entering places, people lined up. Especially every night in Xian when I entered the subway station to return to my hotel, there were long lines in front of each ticket booth but there were never any incidents. Sure there were one or two linejumpers and the lines may not have been perfectly straight, but for the most past, it was not a problem.
I took taxi several times and I had some decent conversations. My driver in Huayi (the city below Huashan) talked to me about how much he admired the politics in Taiwan and how he would “scale” the Great Firewall to read Taiwanese news and other news about the world. I had a driver in Luoyang who spoke about how Luoyang was better than Zhengzhou, the nearby provincial capital – not as much history, not as much culture, and it took the Shaolin Temple away from the jurisdiction of Luoyang so that it could boast a historical landmark of its own (Shaolin Temple , which is actually in Dengfeng city, is almost in between Luoyang and Zhengzhou but many tourist websites state that it is near Zhengzhou). Another Luoyang driver spoke with pride about his city and its history, though my poor Mandarin prevented me from understanding most of what he said. I did remember what he said about how though Henan people had a bad reputation outside of their province, Luoyang people were exempt from this.
At Luoyang, I stayed at a hostel which had the most striking contrast between its exterior and interior. The staff were nice and helpful, especially in giving me directions. Though it was at Luoyang I would face my biggest problems, but that will be in a later post. The manager was so kind, she and her husband even cooked for me a free meal one evening when I came back late.
Ironically Luoyang was to be where I experienced the handful of really callous behavior, ranging from having to almost jump off a bus that hadn’t completely stopped to having a girl slam a door shut while exiting a taxi even though I had been standing at the side waiting while she paid the driver. Still, right before that happened, I had been asking two folks selling stuff where I could take a taxi, and not only did they answer my questions, but they pointed out this taxi to me when it stopped. Another problem was with overeager hustlers and sellers. However most times, just ignoring them or declining politely and walking off would ward them off. Sometimes not. At Xian, a map vendor approached me when I got off the airport bus and I took a glance at her maps.However when I politely declined to buy a map and walked off, she followed me for a short distance while shouting at me that it was a good price. On two more occasions, while looking through a vendor’s items and then walking off, they kept shouting the prices at me, in ever decreasing amounts – RMB8, alright alright, RMB5 etc. Yet they didn’t sound violent or angry, but more like desperate. When I was leaving Xian and boarding the airport bus, there were a bunch of guys right at the bus entrance asking me when was my flight, obviously looking to get me to go with them inside.
Ironically my Huayi taxi driver, who approached me as I was leaving the Huashan North train station, was probably unlicensed, since his car was unmarked, and I knew about the warnings about taking these cars. The fact he was cleancut and polite and quoted me a decent price helped convince me to take a chance. Also, he gave me a helpful reminder to go buy my return ticket for the next day. So if you’re hustling, it helps to be polite and to be helpful.
On the one hand, I know traveling for one week is nowhere near enough to judge the character and charms of a country of over one billion. But it is enough to come away with some experiences that tear away preexisting fears and misconceptions, and allow me to express this to others too.