J and I have always wanted to go to China, but we’ve been hesitant because neither of us can speak or recognize any Mandarin and we really don’t like doing guided tours for an entire trip. Then – opportunity! A Mandarin-speaking friend, JW, moved to Beijing and invited us to come visit. So we bought a couple of very expensive direct tickets from IAD to PEK and ended up spending a week in Beijing and a week in the Shanghai region (also visiting Shuzhou and Hangzhou).
Fortunately JW was kind enough to travel with us to Shanghai and spend a lot of nights in Beijing with us. Fortunate because the language barrier was as bad as we feared. Unlike Iceland, Italy, or Germany, very few people in China outside of touristy stores speak English. Since Mandarin is does not use latin letters, we were entirely unable to read anything that did not have accompanying Pinyin (which was quite often). Not being used to tonal languages we butchered most attempts to say anything beyond “Hello.” In short, China is hard to get around if you don’t speak or recognize any of the language.
Thanks to JW and his speaking/reading skills, we had a lot of interesting experiences that would have been inaccessible to us – we ate at lots of delicious and tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Some so small they didn’t have menus. We got an impromptu three tea-tour in Hangzhou from a taxi driver (cost: less than $15). We had a two hour tea ceremony/lesson with third-party verification of quality and pricing.
An expatriate asked us what surprised us most about China. Two things come to mind.
The first is the pushiness. The cities are huge and insanely crowded. At all hours of the day. You are stuffed like DNA in a nucleus (it’s tight) in the subway cars during rush hour. Unlike Russia, fortunately, the Chinese believe in personal hygiene. On any semi-major street, there are large crowds of people to navigate through. Rickshaws and electric bikes fly through the roads with zero regard to lights or lines. If you aren’t willing to walk directly in front of moving cars, you will never be able to cross a road. Waiting in line requires you to push and claw – otherwise some granny will just step in front of you. Buying anything is a hassle because there’s a lot of yelling (“hey, you want pearls?!!!”) and fervent haggling (we usually paid at least 5x less than the initial offer). It’s initially fun and exciting, but it got tiring by the end. It was weird spending a weekend mid-day in DC after the trip. It felt like a ghost-town, even in a “busy” part of the city.
The second surprising thing was the conspicuous display of wealth. Very nouveau riche. Gold-colored Audi R8’s (yes, there was more than one). Endless lines of somber black Audi A8’s (the choice of the Party). Tricked out Jeep’s with custom paint jobs. Ferrari’s, Aston Martin’s, Bentley’s…….and luxury stores everywhere. I have seen Beverly Hills, NYC, Aspen, San Francisco and I was shocked at the density of luxury stores. In Beijing, it seemed that every other block had a Coach, Gucci, Versace, Prada, Rolex, Vuitton, Burberry, or Cartier store. I have on theory why there are so many luxury stores (besides the immense wealth) – fakes. Not that the stores are fakes (though some might be) – it’s that knock-offs are still a huge issue in China (I saw “Beats” headphones for sale EVERYWHERE on the street). Unlike in the US, Gucci can’t sell their items in a department store in China because no one would believe they would be real. So any retailer of luxury goods has to open up their own stores to provide a means for people to shop with some confidence.
I ended up taking over 1700 photos. I quickly-ish narrowed that down to 400 OK photos and narrowed that down to a little over hundred pictures. I have broken down the trip into five photographic categories: