From the moment we stepped into Beijing, I could sense we were up for an adventure of a place completely unfamiliar to us. The only Chinese cultural references we have been exposed to have been the chinatowns in Vancouver and other North American cities we have visited, movies, and friends of Chinese background. I was aware that there was going to be pollution in Beijing but did not think it was going to be so high. There was a very thick film in the air that made things seem like there was a constant fog. I thought to myself: how hard it must be for people to live in this city. Still, there were trees growing in the side of the road and birds.
Due to our limited time in China, we decided to visit three cities: Beijing, Xian, and Shanghai. We decided that rather than doing it ourselves, we would hire a guide in each city that could help us explore. The language and cultural barriers were such that at the end I was very glad we had a guide. After leaving the airport, my first impression on Beijing was that it was a big city with lots of cars, roads and buildings. I was surprised when we visited the Forbidden City as most of the buildings were vacant and did not have much furniture from the time. The fortress in itself is beautiful, but there was an element missing for me. Having visited several palaces and temples in other countries, I felt this historical place missed a bit of heart. The crowds taking pictures and piling from room to room did not help. The ongoing hacking and spitting also did not help. I felt disgusted at first, but given that it was constant, I quickly adapted. This once highly secluded placed has become an amusement park and somehow I felt it was wrong. It appeared to be overly commercialize like I found most of the sites we visited in China.
The second day was a different story as we went to the Great Wall. Our tour guide took us to the most isolated part very early in the morning, so we were among the few tourist around this. We also had blue skies, which are rare close to the city, but we were so far that we were able to walk and breath clean air. The plus side about walking the wall was that not so many tourist were up for the challenge of walking and we had a big stretch of the wall to ourselves. We could not see the end of this and it was the most magnificent site I saw while in China.
We took an overnight train to Xian, which I thought I was not going to survive. I realize now how childish and spoiled of me for saying this as I have seen such hard realities from people that survive in the most challenging situations with a smile on their faces. I climbed on the upper bunk and left Lorne on the lower one thinking that Lorne is tougher than I am for experiencing discomforting places. The train was clean and pleasant, however, the smoking on the train was bothersome at times due to the recycling ventilation.
Xian was a similar experience for me as Beijing with line ups and crowds. We could not have chosen a busier time than we did as we were in China during national holidays. The food in Xian was great and this made things improved in my head. However, pollution continued to be a problem and the lack of authenticity for me continue to be an issue. At this point, I could not put my finger on it despite it being all around me. But I felt that something was missing and I was not experiencing what I had in my mind about China.
By the time, we arrive to Shanghai in our overnight train, I realize that there were several factors that were bothering me about my experience in China. In my head, I had a preconceived ideas that I would have a very authentic Chinese experience with very minimal western influence. I picture seeing lanterns with people riding bicycles and Chinese style buildings everywhere. However, I found big brand stores everywhere and consumerism. As a consumerist, I need to take responsible for the impact on China, I have consumed “made in China” products ever since I can remember. There is a price to pay: pollution, impact on culture, and overconsumption. China has gone through such a massive change in the last couple of decades that it is hard to imagine that our guide’s parents were eating grass three decades ago to feed themselves. Now, wealth and purchasing power have placed China is a fast moving train to adapt to Western consumerism.