I’ve left China after a month of roaming its far reaches. Between now and home are long stretches of Laos and Thailand and northern Malaysia.
It’s been tiring, with many days of high altitudes and subzero temperatures, but it’s been exhilarating too.
There are many things uniquely good about China, but let me get the odd one that is not – their public toilets! Let’s just say you would need a very strong bowel and bladder when you travel in the more remote areas of China – and a very weak nose, one that has totally lost its sense of smell.
But let’s focus on the many great things about China. I’ll start with a very simple but common feature – you get hot, often boiling water, everywhere.
All hotel rooms come with an electric kettle. You can ask just about any restaurant or café for hot water. All highway rest areas, and I mean all, have big electric kettles that dispense hot water for free.
This means all the dried or powdered foodstuff you bring along can easily be turned into instant hot nourishment. So, if occasionally the restaurant or hotel food isn’t up to your liking, you won’t starve.
And if you time things right, you would get to be at your hotel when nature calls, and not at some dingy public toilets somewhere.
I brought along as an emergency supply a storm kettle, or Kelley kettle (look it up), an old tech gizmo that can boil water almost anywhere using almost anything that burns. But I never got to use it at all. That’s a bummer because it’s cool to use it, albeit at the price of almost being poisoned by the fumes it emits.
Into the wild, wild west
Having visited the eastern seaboard of the country, where the big cities like Shanghai and Beijing are, my preference is for the wilder, remoter provinces in the west and the north, such as Tibet, Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunan, and (though not this time) Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.
Tibetans are wonderful, hardy people who aren’t just found in Tibet, but also in Qinghai and Sichuan Provinces. While they are Buddhists, they are quite distinct in their practices from the mainstream Han Chinese.
Tibetans are one of the recognised and official minorities in China, though they are also inevitably grappling with the ever-encroaching Sinicisation of their traditional homelands.
The landscapes of the mountainous parts of China are literally breathtaking, and not just because of the low oxygen level in the air. To me they’re more spectacular than the Swiss Alps or the Rockies for sheer size and scale. In Switzerland, you might look up in awe at the Matterhorn, but remember that inTibet we’re driving along Himalayan mountain passes which are higher than the top of that mountain!
It gets such that I’d describe our altitude along the way as “Ahhh, we’re at the same height as Kinabalu’s summit”. Occasionally, it’ll be like “oh, we’re about 1 km higher than Kinabalu’s summit!”. And at times, even much higher than that.
I’m a big fan of deserts and the big skies of the open country. The cold, biting air and the gasping for oxygen are small prices to pay for the privilege of seeing them. Some sights are so spectacular the idea of photographing them seems futile and even disrespectful. Just look and listen and drink it all in.
China’s work ethic
Other than breathtaking granite peaks and canyons and valleys, one aspect of China that I found interesting was the people’s attitude towards work, something certainly shaped by the fact that China is a hard place to live in, on account of the number of people and often hostile natural and even man-made forces.
Over the centuries, many of its sons and daughters emigrated, whether willingly or otherwise, to seek better fortunes elsewhere, with many of them landing on our shores and helping to create the modern Malaysia we see today.
They all take their job extremely seriously, whether as a street-sweeper, a hotel chambermaid, a toll-booth clerk, a policeman or a shop assistant.
You don’t see them shying away from hard work or looking for excuses to do less than what they should. Everybody seems to feel their work is important and worth doing, and it shows.
Onward and upward
This is not to say China is a fully egalitarian society, regardless of its socialist political system and strong “Big Brother” central government presence. The people of modern China worship wealth and power as much as anybody else, if not more. Those who are wealthy, and there are many in modern China, flaunt it through expensive cars or clothing or social media presence without shame.
But nobody takes things for granted, perhaps because of the competition brought about by the sheer number of people fighting to make a living. The old argument was that if one worker goes, there will be 10 waiting to take over. And that was true for the longest time in China, until recently the world’s most populous nation.
While that may no longer be true in the recent days of declining birthrates and population, employers can resort to technology to replace lazy workers. I see this in India too. The sheer weight of competition means you can never take anything for granted.
And as in India, public servants, from the police to members of various government departments, carry themselves with an air of importance. They are truly Little Napoleons, though not in the sense we use in Malaysia of public servants high on arrogance and low on competence and ethics.
And they are loud! Either the entire Chinese people are hard of hearing, or they just speak with gusto and energy regardless of circumstances. You might think they are arguing with each other when they are probably saying good morning to each other.
Even our guides would speak to us, and to policemen or anybody else, at the top of their voices. They don’t just speak – they exclaim! And I’m missing them already!
Over the years I’ve spent months exploring the interior of China by road, and I must say that if landscapes and deserts and mountains are your thing, China is one of the most beautiful countries on earth.
And their culture is not bad either – truly one of the world’s great cultures and civilisations. They still have a few minor kinks they need to work out (the toilets…), but it truly is an amazing place, beyond just the simple description of a crowded, noisy country.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.