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Published: September 20th 2005
Well, today is the day I get kicked out of China! It has been a 'full package' experience in every sense. It is a huge land and full of contrast. From the tropical lowlands in southern Yunnan and Guangxi, to the highest peaks on the planet in the Himalaya and Karakorum ranges, to the enormous sandy Taklamakan desert and the farthest place on earth from the ocean in Xinjiang. There are few places that are left more remote than the Kunlun mountain range, and few places as flash and fast as Guangzhou city.
My personal experiences in China have been extreme:
The most Pungent smells I have ever come across and some of the cleanest air. The highest place I have ever been (4392 m) and the lowest (-145 m). The longest and most grueling experiences with public transport (including a 72 hour train ride in a hard-seat carriage). The driest and most humid conditions I have come across. The most crowded and the most remote places I have ever seen. Some of the most delicious food, and certainly many of the most horrible ‘food’(!?).
Equally, the people are varied across the land: Han Chinese, Tibetans, Naxi, Uyghurs, Kyrgyz, Mongols, Manchus... - the list could go on and on! Each group of people has unique differences, which has inevitably led to conflict.
A small percentage of the people I have met speak more than a handful of English words, and I have even met Chinese people whose Chinese is not as good as mine! This, at times, has made communication close to impossible. But, larger than the language barrier (and I think people who have spent time in China will agree) is a cultural barrier! Sometimes one can get frustrated and feel like Chinese people lack a fundamental ability for logical reasoning. However, it is just that our brains operate on different systems.
Consequently, misunderstandings between Westerners and Chinese are as common as footprints on the toilet seat, and often result in one, or both, of the parties being grossly offended.
With China's rapidly developing economy and its emergence as a true 'Super-Power', we are going to see more and more of Chinese People and Chinese influence on the world. Sometimes this is a scary thought, other times it is an exciting opportunity for change.
Any way I look at it, my time in China has taught me a lot, and will no doubt come in useful in the future.
In China, I have experienced a wealth and opulence that matches anything in the west. I have walked among, worked with and befriended people to whom survival for themselves and their families is the focus of their lives.
Travel in China can be blissful compared with other neighbouring countries, because you are largely left alone, and not continually harassed to buy this, give that or look at these. However, this can make it equally damn near impossible sometimes. I have been fortunate at times to have connections and friends in the loop and been treated to a king’s service, or approached by someone with a heart of gold to help out. I have also been the outsider; an alien unable to obtain even a little information from people and left to sleep outside, fend for myself and survive.
I have been in places where I felt I knew the place well enough to have a competitive advantage over others in the place. I have been in totally unknown, foreign places where each corner was a new challenge, where I had very little understanding of the happenings around me, or where I became “the hunted”.
Chinese people are completely happy to be one big homogeneous race of people: they enjoy singing the same 10 pop songs, dressing the same, and strangely enough, all share the same political views; those of the communist party.
There is one image I have that sums up many experiences in China nicely. It is of two guys squatting next to the road with the front-end loader, which had been hired by the company for US$400/day (in a place where a workers wages are around US$5/day), sitting idle off to the side of the road. They had been sent in several days prior, for a week, to build a road to access the field site. It turns out they had neglected to bring water with them and were waiting for mud to settle in a puddle so they can get a drink. The next development was to get a truck with supplies to look after them. But, instead of taking it with them, they leave it at the road end, spending up to 7 hours a day driving back and forth between the truck and the work area…
After four months here, I have been fairly China-cised! I have started thinking in Chinese! My very limited vocab has dictated a very limited range of thought, and much of it is not coherent (feels a little like I am living a “Simpson’s” episode sometimes). I spend a lot of time just singing songs in my head! I throw rubbish out the train window (something I have never done before and disagree with in principle). I spit (although not inside), I push in lines, and I have developed a short fuse, getting angry at small things around me. It is a function of my surroundings, not my nature.
And what have I learned?
The Important things in life are those around us that feed our enthusiasm and passion and don’t beat us into a corner. For me these include some source of exploration or learning, the sense of being loved or appreciated/supported that we get from friends and family, and the freedom to make my own decisions.
China has been an amazing experience for me and has taught me much about the ways of the world, human nature, and where we are headed. For this, I am grateful. However, it has been very much a love/hate relationship, and I am keen to find some stability, both from a cultural and a motivation point of view.
After a resting and transition period on the beach in southern Thailand, I am expecting some full-on culture shock as I start the next phase of this grand adventure; a totally new challenge, in the west with no money. The aim: to re-establish myself as a climber, to explore the other side of my origins in Switzerland, integrate myself into European society and to have a damn good time in the process!!
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