Exploring the Great Red Dragon (China)
Day 1,990 since October 10th 2013: 176 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross).
Reaching China is the end of the Silk Road. Let’s keep going.
They like to laugh. They smile. Sometimes it’s a shy smile. Two weeks after I first arrived to China I’m still in awe over the infrastructure. It is labeled a “developing country” but it certainly looks developed. It’s a massive landmass. It has a massive population. The diversity is likewise enormous across all measurable spectrums. They spit. They burp. They smoke. They also don’t. It’s China. It’s whatever you want it to be.
China and the USA are roughly the same size in landmass. Could you imagine the USA receive 1 billion immigrants? Just imagine that they did. What would be the first concerns? Space? Where would they all be? Well China has room for them and that is just mind boggling. Over 97 percent of Chinese have access to tap water and over 95 percent of Chinese over the age of 15 can read and write. Additionally, 95 percent of the Chinese population owns a mobile phone. That sounds pretty developed to me? However the China’s classification as a developing country is based off the per capita nominal GDP, and that’s tough with 1,4 billion people. Most experts would lean towards that China is both a developed country as well as a developing country all at the same time. I found this quote which I like from Björn Conrad, Vice President of the Mercator Institute for China Studies:
“It’s a developed country in its shiny cities on the Eastern coast, it’s a developing country in its poor regions in the West. It’s a developed country if you look at number of Starbucks or literacy rate, it’s a developing country if you look at the numbers of doctors per capita or percentage of the workforce that works in agriculture”.
Forbidden City, Beijing, 2019.
It is certainly a different country! Come to China and be amazed! Be disgusted! Be intrigued! Be charmed! Be offended! Be baffled! Be confused! Be delighted! And then press repeat. The culture and along with it some habits are vastly different from what I’m accustomed with. Take spitting for example: in the street, shops, supermarkets, hotel lobbies, hallways, restaurants, on buses and even in malls. Traditionally it has been believed to be unhealthy to swallow phlegm. Another common thing has been staring. In my experience it has been common through most of the country. I’ve been told that the staring usually originates out of sheer curiosity and almost never out of hostility. That corresponds well with my observations. Loud conversations, noise, discussions or public arguments have also been very common but I had a lot of training in India already. It still annoys me though with the relaxed attitude towards noise. Like when the guy in the seat next to me watches a movie or listens to a song on his phone at full volume? Privacy is a big part of culture in Denmark where I’m from. Sure...I haven’t seen my country for many years but I know where I come from. Many Chinese do not cover their mouths when they sneeze or cough. Also, it is not uncommon for small children (2-4 years old) to urinate in public. As recent as nights ago I witnessed a modern family smile and take photos while their toddler urinated into the drainage at a public square. Our Danish national treasure, Hans Christian Andersen, is quoted for saying: “to travel is to live”. You will live and learn as a visitor in China. It is fascinating to say the least.
Kunming: March 6th 2019.
I entered China from Laos on March 6th and my first stop was Kunming which I wrote about in a previous blog (find it HERE). Kunming is a very pleasant city with 10 million people. If you think it’s strange that you’ve never heard of this city with has 10 million people then wait till you hear that Chongqing has nearly 30 million. It’s China. Big numbers. Get used to it. After spending a full day in Kunming I boarded the slow train to Beijing. Two nights onboard what I thought would have been a pleasant and scenic journey. I found it a bit annoying though and certainly expensive. China can be expensive in a lot of regards while you can also have lunch for a mere $1 USD and I stay at dorm rooms for $5 USD. So that too is a mix. I had a hard time dealing with all the disgusting sounds to begin with. Loud sounds while eating, the snorting sounds, the spitting and at night the snoring and farting. And to be honest the grey skies outside along with many tunnels we went through robbed the pleasure of enjoying the view. However I feel like I adjusted to the situation and began enjoying the train ride for the final leg up to Beijing.
They let me keep the small one.
Security is something they seem to take very seriously in China. There are lots of uniformed people of various sorts, police is always nearby, security checks are normal and getting on board the train was a pretty strict affair. At the security check to get on the train in Kunming I lost two knives which I have been traveling with since the beginning of the Saga. The Israelis obviously found those knives during their super thorough check last year but didn’t confiscate them. The Chinese did! I was hoping that they could give them to some trusted train personnel and hand them back to me in Beijing? Nope! Sorry…they went into the bucket. Pretty expensive knives too. Oh well…they also confiscated a rather unique little scissor I was given in San Marino back in 2013. A truly harmless little thing compared to a bundle of keys or my shoelaces. But nonetheless my little scissor was thrown into the bucket. A week later my last knife, a pocketknife which the Swiss Red Cross gave me was confiscated. The Chinese really take it seriously. You will also see the police on the street carrying some fairly interesting equipment! They often have this poll with a large semi-circle at the end which I think can for a circle around a person. This way you can grab someone around the waist or neck without getting into striking distance. The police quite often also stand guard with a long black staff. Sort of like a tip-less spear. I wouldn’t want to mess with the Chinese police.
Since I have a Chinese SIM card I receive all sorts of sms messages with Chinese characters. Usually I wouldn’t bother but while on the train between Kunming and Beijing I translated a few of them and was pleasantly surprised. It turns out that wherever I have gone in China I have received welcome sms’s of various sort or informational sms’s. I thought that was a rather nice service. Here are a few:
“Welcome to the mountain park province, enjoy the colorful Guizhou! Rational consumption, be wary of low-cost tourist traps; safe travel, scientific purchase of travel insurance; legal rights protection, travel complaints and consultation, please call the travel service hotline 96972. Click http://t.gog.cn/JTsv7a to participate in the “Colorful Guizhou Satisfaction Tourists” campaign, and the Million Awards are waiting for you. For more information, please pay attention to the official website, Weibo, WeChat. [Guizhou Tourism Development Committee]”
“Welcome to the beautiful Zhangjiajie! Feng Xiaogang's first folk drama "Charming Xiangxi" wishes you a pleasant trip! Tens of thousands of people witnessed together, the nation is the world! Hotline: 0744-5667777”
I eventually reached Beijing. Beijing is a super cool city!! And I cannot stress enough how fantastic it is to have great subway systems to easily navigate around a city. In Beijing it’s efficient, fast and cheap. I once visited Beijing before so I went out to see if I could recognize any of the sights. The city was preparing for some sort of conference so there was extra security and a few places were blocked off. I tried to make it to the Forbidden City but I guess it was forbidden ;) It was in any case blocked off. Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum also appeared to be blocked off. Instead I walked to the Temple of Heaven which is rumoured to be the most beautiful building in the world. I walked around in the large park long after the sun had set and then headed back towards my hostel while passing all the people doing tai-chi, dancing waltz, doing gymnastics, playing games or in other ways socializing and being active. I really love how parks and public spaces come to life and are being used in China. The first time I came to Beijing was in 2012 together with my good friend Pernille. We flew in (the Saga began in 2013) and did all the sights: Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Olympic City, the Great Wall of China and we had the famous Peking Duck. Good times! I remember that I wasn’t very fond of the food back then and today I cannot imagine why? Now seven years later I find the food to be delicious!
My friend Pernille and I in front of the Forbidden City, Beijing, 2012.
Great company!! Thank you David for connecting us and thank you Di for all your kindness!! :)
While in Beijing I had some extra time on my hands before heading to North Korea. I met up with Di who’s a friend of David (who hosted me in Kyrgyzstan). David and Di used to study together in Kazakhstan. Di did her masters there in Central Asian history and now hopes to go and do her PhD in the USA. Unfortunately that has become harder under the current US administration but she keeps her hopes up. Di has a great personality and we had a great time walking around Qianhai Lake while talking about this and that. Then we went to a cat café which was a first for me. At least a dozen cats were “on duty” running about or sleeping. Very interesting concept. Di told me there are several of them all over Beijing. I have two younger sisters and at least one of them would absolutely love this concept!
Without knowing it I also took this photo of the Drum and Bell Tower back in 2012. I discovered it afterwards. I think my mind is filling up.
AliPay and WeChat are preferred ways to pay in and around China.
China is pretty high tech by the way. They have this program called WeChat which is sort of half WhatsApp / half Facebook. It also hooks up to your bank account so you pay coffee, dinner, public transport, groceries...basically anything with it. I first noticed WeChat in Myanmar and I has been popular ever since. The Chinese are blocking a lot of western sites in what is jokingly referred to as the Great Firewall of China. As such there is no access to Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Google products and a long list of other online apps and websites. You get around that by installing a VPN which is something everyone has. A VPN is a “virtual private network” which makes your phone act as if it is logging on somewhere else. As such I can be in China where all sorts of online activity is blocked by the government. But then I simply switch on my VPN and then my phone acts as if I was in e.g. Canada. As long as the VPN is switched on I can access anything I would normally be able to access in Canada. Given that this technology exists (and is easy to download and use) I really can’t understand why any governments would block anything anymore? Alas…such is life. Anyway, WeChat is Chinese and therefore not blocked…and it is massively popular. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at people on the metro who need to have their phones surgically removed from their hands. And they are all scrolling, scrolling, scrolling down their WeChat feeds.
The world has long ago turned into zombie-land.
The day came when I went to Koryo Tours for my 10:00 North Korea tour briefing. And then I didn’t return to Beijing for another week. You can read the already very popular North Korea blog here. Something I didn’t include in that blog was how I pondered on weather North Koreans would leave their country in huge masses if they could. The Mariel boatlift is a famous Cuban mass immigration where as many as 125,000 Cubans reached the shores of Florida, USA, in 1980. I wonder if North Koreans would really leave their country if they were given the chance? Let’s say the borders opened up for 30 days and anyone could come and go without any form of consequences or punishment. Would millions leave North Korea? I don’t think so. Some would naturally leave however I believe that the vast amount stay. Nobody should underestimate the comfort of home. Knowing the seasons. Having grown up in a neighbourhood. Speaking the language, being familiar with the people, the fauna and the flora. Sure many people wish for better times or easier lives. However there is a very strong will among many to stay put and wait for better times or help create them.
Beijing does have blue skies...sometimes.
We returned to Beijing a lot wiser on what North Korea is or can be. Would I like to live the next ten years in North Korea? Probably not. However it would be interesting to live there for a year. There are a lot of crazy “facts” flying about in relation to North Korea. A persistent one is that there is only one haircut for men. It is absolute rubbish and most people should know that. However we do love a good story and to spread them. A rule of thumb in life is that if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is. Back in Beijing I wasn’t feeling well. Something had gotten to my stomach the day before we left Pyongyang and I wasn’t alone. At least ten outers from the tour were running to and from the toilet. However after getting some sleep, eating some plain rice and drinking lots of water I quickly got better and managed to visit the Red Cross Society China (RCSC) which is something else!!
These talented women are from left to right: Zhang Yuan, Lin Jingyi, Chen Yue and Zhang Han.
I was quickly offered a cup of tea which is a three thousand year tradition in China so I really liked that. Then we sat down and talked for a while before taking a photo and I left. Ordinarily I would spend time on describing a few of the key humanitarian activities a National Society has. Such as ambulance services or first aid trainings. But given that China has 1.4 billion people I thought it would be fun to look at some numbers this time. E.g. the financial revenue for RCSC of 2017 based on membership fees, donations, government grants and movable and immovable property and others was: RMB 1,028,415,200.00 (USD 153,458,019.00)!! More than half of that was used for humanitarian aid such as Integrated Community Resilience Programs, poverty alleviation, medical assistance etc. 11.1% went to disaster relief, 3.9% went to first aid training and health education, 10.1% for stem cell donation, organs donation and blood donation, 2.1% went to the Red Cross international organization membership fee and international humanitarian assistance, 13.7% went to Red Cross dissemination, Red Cross youth and volunteers and to the pension service and the remaining 5.9% (USD 9,053,502,772.00) covered the basic expenditure such as organizational operation and personnel outlay. YEAH!!! The Red Cross is pretty hard core when it comes to its humanitarian impact!! The RCSC also has helicopters and snowmobiles but that’s something completely else to unpack ;)
Ready to board this silver bullet in Beijing!
The next day I left Beijing on the high speed train to Xi’an. A while ago Brittany Li and her husband reached out and wanted to help sponsor the Saga. I’m currently working on getting another crowd funding online for all of you who keep asking. But since it’s not online yet Brittany and her husband sponsored the Beijing - Xi’an train for me!! WOW!! Thanks a lot! On board I reached a top speed of 302 kph (188 mph) and was soon in Xi’an! Xi’an is a former capital of China and holds historical significance. It is also packed with interesting sights which I simply just didn’t have time to see. However for as long as I can remember I have wanted to see the Terracotta Warriors. I rarely treat myself any sights within the Saga. It’s almost all work these days and has been for years. I did however head up to Manchu Picchu in Peru back in 2014.
The star attraction of the Terracotta Warriors excavation in Xi’an is “pit 1”.
Terracotta is a clay-based ceramic and these lifelike soldiers were created and buried more than 2,000 years ago!! However they were only discovered in 1976 when some farmers were drilling for a well. Archaeologists have discovered around 8,000 lifelike, full-size figures including weapons, horses and horse carriages and are far from done excavating. The Terracotta Army is believed to depict the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China and is a form of funerary art buried with the emperor in 210–209 BCE with the purpose of protecting the emperor in his afterlife. It makes me think: if this was hidden underground from our knowledge for more than 2,000 years...then what else can we still discover?
This is not a road. This is the top surface of the greatest city wall in the world!
Xi'an by night. Former capital of China.
On my way back to my hostel I decided to walk on the great city wall of Xi’an which is the largest ancient military defense system in the world! It is ridiculously large and well maintained. The total length of the wall which today only surrounds the inner city is 13.7 km (8.51 mi). The wall is 12 m (40 ft) tall and 14 m (46 ft) wide. It is definitely an engineering accomplishment and a sight to behold. It also costs me 54 yuan ($8 USD) to walk on it. The entrance to the Terracotta Worriers costs 120 yuan ($17 USD) so it was already turning into an expensive day. I still had to eat. Fortunately my hostel was only $5 USD. Up on the wall I kept walking and walking while looking for a way down? All the staircases down lead to closed gates or locked doors. I could have jumped over the fence but given all the security cameras and my lack of desire to upset any Chinese police I kept walking. I ended up walking 7 km (4.35 mi) on the damn thing before I could get off it.
Thanks to these guys I had a great time with Maersk in Shanghai! A definite #MaerskMoment to remember ;)
After a good night’s sleep another high speed train got me from Xi’an to Shanghai where I was scheduled to make a presentation at Maersk. As such I have covered more than 3,314 km (2,059 mi) between Dandong, Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai since leaving North Korea. China is such a massive country and looking at the map I feel like I have hardly seen anything. I’m certainly still missing a large chunk of the northeast of China and the entire half of western China. In Shanghai I was warmly greeted by Dana and Valentin from Romania. We all worked in Bangladesh during the same time in 2011 although for different companies. Dana had been following the Saga since 2013 and told me that there was a bed and a hot meal waiting for me once I reached Shanghai. Good stuff. And that is where the Saga is now. Having visited all these countries with my eyes and ears open for the past many years I truly believe that there is no shortage of well-meaning and often good people on the planet. Take Dana and Valentine for an example. I’m a bit biased because Romania is already one of my favourite European countries. Nonetheless they took so good care of me. I thought I was coming to Shanghai to speak at Maersk but in reality the greatest award was found in their hospitality and kindness towards a tired soul that still has a long way to go while so many of you think we are nearing the end. Yes – we are nearing the end…but on a very long journey and we still have a very long distance ahead of us. Thank goodness for Romanian hospitality in Shanghai.
Thank goodness for people like Dana and Valentin.
We’ve got another week left in China before the ferry goes to South Korea. Stay tuned and remember that if you see a Panda then it belongs to the People’s Republic of China. They all do ;)
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - It was past 02:00am before this got online.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga