Coming from Mongolia, China looked much more organised. Taxi’s looked again like taxi’s, the streets were wider, cleaner and there were more traffic lights, or at least, people would use them properly. At the same time, it also looked much more chaotic. I think it is partly the language with all the symbols that makes the shops in the streets look more messy, but the other part is definitely the Chinese preference for colourful and flashy advertisement. It doesn’t matter if it is a toy shop or a police office, there will be a lot of neon-lights in often non-matching colours.
In the train from the border city Erlian to Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia (which is a province of China), I learned my first things about China. I was lucky enough to have a seat in front of a Chinese man who spoke some English and was able to tell me some interesting things about the country and his view on the government. Like why there is no toilet paper in Chinese public toilets and you should always take your own napkins. Or why there are ‘non smoking’ signs in the train, but nobody really cares. He told me how he thinks about the position of the Peoples of China towards the foreigners, how a communist country that should strive for welfare of there peoples, treats there capitalist foreigners like kings. I would later experience one form of this in Shanghai, where party proppers were literally begging us to enter their club and drink for free all night. Rich Chinese want to be surrounded by Western (white) people… it’s a status thing apparently. The smoking laws and alcohol restrictions are not obeyed because of the extra money for the government, he said. The taxes on cigarettes and alcohol are high and the more people smoke and drink, the better. The same for the toilet paper: the public toilets (which are everywhere and free!) are a cost for the government and people would take the toilet paper home. He told me though that he understood why the government did this. He said the Chinese are so numerous, the government cannot even pay a public health system for everyone… so they need all the money they can get.. Later he told me about a leaked scandal where people working for the government spent millions on food (paid by the government) per year because they went to the best restaurants in their lunch breaks. I wondered how he was able to somehow match these two contradictory statements.
I also asked him about the warning signs I saw everywhere. Warnings about how you could hit your head walking through a normal sized door, about pinching your hand at a metal plate without any unexpected projections, or about getting your hands between the (train) doors. He said that this was because people would sue continuously when they were hurt, even if the risk of hurting yourself was an obvious, totally expected risk. When I asked someone else about it later, she said that a lot of people in China are just really stupid. I don’t know what I have to believe, but I think the signs are so funny, so I made a compilation (including hilarious english translations).
From the border city Erlian I had to take a train to Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia (which is province of China). Friends of friends wanted to host me for 3 days and show me around. I was immediately confronted with the language barrier when I was searching for a bank to take out some Yuan. It was the first time I had to use my skills of the game ‘times up’ and use hand gestures to explain a simple word as ‘bank’. Just showing a bank card was not enough (I guess Chinese are not as experienced in this game as I am) and I pretended I was taking out cash from a machine in the air. You get really creative over time when you don’t know a word in Chinese. The funniest thing I heard was a girl who was searching for eggs in the supermarket and pretended she was a chicken laying an egg.
Apart from the language barrier, I also got to experience the Chinese hospitality for the first time. And it was much greater than I’d ever imagined. For 3 days I got to try all the local food of the area and I was taken care of 24/7. Also here the carefull Chinese didn’t want to leave me alone, because I would sure get lost, since I didn’t speak the language. China is called a food empire, and I got to know the meaning of this right away. All the times I got invited to stay with locals, they wanted me to try everything, and mostly, they would pay for it. I’ve eaten so many things I don’t even start listing. Most was really, really good (apart from the pig feet I once had …) Most Chinese food is nothing like we know it from our “Chinese” restaurants. Not the greasy, salty stuff but rich soups with a lot of vegetables and delicious noodle dishes. I think hot-pot is one of my favourites. You can practically create your own soup: There is a large bowl with boiling water in the middle (or everyone has his own small one) where you can put in vegetables, sliced meet and/or noodles. And if you are lucky they will make the fresh noodles in front of you from dough to long noodles, with some spectacular dance moves. Our you will get served by waiters on rollers skates.
And the cliche is (partly) true: A lot of Chinese love to eat and they will let you know how much they enjoy their food by letting you hear and see the chewing process. The gurgling and spitting is also common, but I must say I didn’t notice it that much because I already got used to it along the way… the further you go east from Russia, the more ‘mouth sounds’ people seem to make.
Yes, China is something different…