TRAVEL DIARY: China – A World of Difference

Posted on August 28, 2011 by


BY MARTIN DICKENS. 

For a first time international traveller, arriving at Beijing International Airport at 1:00 AM in the morning felt like the most daunting experience I would ever encounter.  Braving the long lines through customs to get entry approval felt like an eternity.  Little did I know that the unique cultural experience I would have at the other side of the counter would change my life completely.

I spent my first five nights in China at Beijing.  The capital of the country, Beijing offers total diversity seen through the elaborate floral displays marking respect for ninety years of communist rule to the dilapidated ‘hutongs’ that are home to many lower class citizens.  Whilst Beijing’s efficient system of transportation is impressive, the sheer contrast between the national monuments of the Worker’s Cultural Palace and the Forbidden City to the small, socioeconomically disadvantaged streets of the hutongs behind these relics was astounding.  During my time in the city, I was also fortunate to visit the Silk Markets and the Pearl Markets, where I engaged in tense bargaining with the local stall holders.  Not only was this system of purchasing valuable in understanding the mainstream Chinese culture, but proved invaluable in getting to know the Chinese people.  Through negotiations with many marketers lining the long halls of stalls at these multi-levelled precincts, each person had a different story to tell.  Each stall vendor shared a valid interest in not only what you sought to buy but where you were from and your national culture.

Having contended with the high paced lifestyle of city life, we caught a plane to Xi’an to see the Terracotta Warriors.  Xi’an, a city enclosed by high concrete barricades, was an interesting location with many similarities to Beijing.  Whilst this city possessed hardly any communist relics as were displayed in the country’s capital, many of the stores and transportation were geared solely towards the tourist industry.  With a number of advertisements promoting the Terracotta Warriors, it was evident that the city relied heavily on this draw card for its modernising feats and overall economic prosperity.  Having visited the Warriors, I was left amazed at the level of patriotism and national pride the citizens of Xi’an and indeed the Chinese people had in these ancient relics.  Hidden behind the mask of consumerism evident in the shopping malls greeting visitors on their arrival and their departure was a spirit unlike anything I have experienced in Australia.  As I continued my journey onto Guilin and especially Yangshou, this sense of national pride would constantly strengthen.

On arrival in Guilin, I was welcomed by an array of citizens lining the streets from the airport as they swept and ensured the general maintenance of the garden areas.  This sight is common throughout China, as general cleanliness and maintenance is ensured by primarily elderly citizens.  Once in Guilin, the city itself bore close resemblance to the general outlook of American urban landscapes, such as views of the large buildings which existed in the central business district.  Separating this image was the picturesque parks and native vegetation that existed on the mountains surrounding the actual city.  It was here that I was fortunate to visit the Seven Star Park.  This park featured a number of natural waterfalls, live monkeys and unique natural vegetation.  However, the central attraction of the area was the caves located under the mountain at the centre of the park.  Whilst the caves were an appealing tourist attraction, they featured an ‘interesting’ light show and demonstrated the utter obsession China is developing for consumerism.  The evidence for this was that even in the depths of the cave, vendors opened stalls selling souvenirs and other items.  Sadly this trend would become more noticeable, particularly when visiting Hong Kong.

After the brief stopover in Guilin, our trip continued onto a semi-rural town of Yangshou, which was home to approximately 700,000 people.  Surrounded by a number of steep mountains and the Lijiang River, the eight nights spent here would have to be the highlight of our trip.  The regional city itself provided an excellent mix of city life and rural living.  Yangshou offered tourists the opportunity to experience a bamboo boat ride along the Lijiang River, kayaking, mountain climbing, bike riding as well as experiencing a number of activities associated with rural life.  What I found most interesting however was the great sense of community and the strong links maintained both within and between families.  This was noticeable on passing the numerous market stalls positioned along the Lijiang River front.  The sense of social solidarity surpassed anything I have encountered in Australia and left a sense of happiness and fulfilment when wandering the long cobblestone streets of the town.  On a lighter side however, one of the most thrilling experiences of the trip took place at the Dragon Water Cave at Yangshou, where tourists have the opportunity to enter natural mud caves and hot springs located at the bottom of the cave.  It was an exciting opportunity and one that I would encourage other people who are planning to travel to Yangshou to experience.

The final stretch of our tour to China took place in Hong Kong, a densely populated city that was once held under British occupation.  In comparison to the places we visited in mainland China, I was a little disappointed in the sights of Hong Kong and the general appeal it displayed.  As soon as you enter the region one can automatically depict the European influences left from the region’s time in occupation, illustrated by the high rise sky scrapers and European fashion outlets located across Kowloon.  In addition to these Western links, when walking the streets of Hong Kong, tourists should be prepared for the bombardment of tailors patrolling the streets hoping to sell males and females tailor-made suits.  Throughout my stay in Hong Kong, this would be a constant struggle on the various corners of the city.  Having remarked on the negatives of the Hong Kong experience, a definite positive was the night ferry tour that circulates the harbour.  The main attraction of this ride is the spectacular light show that takes place between the different skyscrapers that line the edges of the water, an event I definitely recommend to visitors of Hong Kong.

In conclusion, the time I spent in China was a life-changing experience.  Being exposed to a different culture and the accompanying lifestyles has left me with an extremely different take on life and the world in which we live.  To tell the truth, I was not ready to leave China and return to Australia.  The vibrancy, sense of community and state of mutual respect each person has for one another differed vastly from my experiences here at home.  From witnessing the deprived lifestyles of citizens in both urban and regional areas, it was their ability to experience happiness from the smallest pleasures in life that truly gave me a sense of enlightenment.  This experience has proven that no measure of material wealth or possession has the ability to determine a person’s sense of worth nor how they are respected within a society.  It is these lessons which I, having now experienced another form of life, wish to convey not only to my children who are the next generation but to youth across our region.  Let not markets or earnings control our livelihood and sense of being for it is truly our sense of social solidarity and respect in ourselves and our nation that will ultimately create peace and prosperity.  Overall, I would encourage all persons considering travel to China to pursue their aspirations and experience this ancient culture.

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Martin Dickens is a Second Year Bachelor of Arts Student studying at La Trobe University’s Albury Wodonga Campus. He is currently a member of the Political Awareness Club and holds a strong interest in both Australian politics and international affairs. He has served as an acting delegate for the United Nations Regional Youth Summits and was recently awarded the Deans Prize First Year for the most outstanding student in the Bachelor of Arts. Martin is also interested in education policy and regional development in terms of infrastructure and service delivery.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

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