We have very mixed feelings about China, both positive (pictures, friendly people) and negative (one of the vilest political regimes to pollute the face of the earth). It is extremely unlikely that we would ever go back there, but if the Chinese Empire falls apart in our lifetime, we will gladly go back to some of the places we have visited; visit new ones; and (no doubt) get a lot more excellent pictures. There is little doubt in our minds that the Empire will fall apart: it is just a question of when, and how.
The gap between rich and poor is immense, and some of the rich are the worst kind of nouveaux riches you can imagine, awash with conspicuous consumption. Medical care and social security are all but non-existent for the poor: understandable in a third-world country, but hard to defend in one that trumpets itself (completely dishonestly) as socialist.
Mah-jongg players, Lijiang
As in many ancient cities, a good deal of life in Lijiang is lived outdoors. This is the capital of the Naxi people, culturally very different from either Chinese (to the east) or Tibetan (to the north and west), with their own religion, script, costume and marriage customs. The last major rebellion, leading to a brief independence, was in the 19th century.
Roger took this picture on Ilford HP5 Plus with a Leica (either M4-P or MP) and 35/1.4 Summilux; Frances printed it on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.
The simple truth is that the current regime is identical to the vast majority of Chinese regimes that have preceded it: nationalist, imperialist, arrogant and selfish. This does not play well with the countries they have occupied, and there have been revolts throughout history -- a history which, of course, the Chinese distort mercilessly. Few if any Chinese realize that (for example) China was once a tributary state of Tibet.
As in most tourist 'honeypots', you have only to go a few yards from the tourist shops and you are almost on your own; the only other people you see are locals, going about their business. Roger shot this with his Leica MP and 75mm f/2 Summicron on Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX, then desaturated it somewhat in Adobe Photoshop as if it were a picture from decades ago -- which it could easily be...
A more meaningful question might be, what isn't there to photograph? Apart, of course, from anything to do with democracy or freedom of expression.
Because of our personal inclinations, we much preferred the historical side of things. Lijiang, a World Heritage Site, was wonderful -- but the intriguing thing was that there while there were a few Disneyfied streets, full to the brim with shops selling tourist tat, the rest of the city was all but devoid of tourists, and indeed, Roger got so lost that he had to enlist the help of some schoolgirls to get within range of anywhere he recognized. He tried schoolboys first, lest his motives be suspected (it was throwing-out time at school), but the girls' English was far better. There's more about this under 'Language', below.
Dali was good too, rather like a smaller and less picturesque version of Lijiang, but of course, neither is China proper. The Naxi realms between China and Tibet were more Tibetan (and indeed specifically Khampa) than Chinese, but maintained a precarious independence from both, most of the time, by taking the side of neither.
Our other favourite place was the old Summer Palace at Chengde (not to be confused with Chengdu), well to the north of Beijing. Although this was very much more Chinese, the Manchurian influence was very strong and it does not do to dwell on the history too much. It is a vast and beautiful pleasure garden, built essentially for the benefit of one man, the emperor, who lived in luxury while the vast majority of his subjects lived in the most miserable and abject poverty. The admission fee is still such that the poor don't get to see it.
Pagoda, trees and lake, early morning, Chengde
The best times to visit Chengde are in the early morning, as soon as it opens, or the late evening, just before it closes. Ideally, stay inside the park: there is an hotel there, rather improbably consisting of concrete imitation Mongolian yurts. It is not especially expensive and it has the great advantage that you can take photographs at any hour of the day or night, without having to worry about opening and closing times. (Roger, Leica MP, Kodak Elite Chrome 100 EBX, lens forgotten).
The Great Wall is fascinating, and something that had not occurred to us is that large parts of it are in a ruinous state. Near Beijing (within a day-trip, though an overnight stay is better) there are other parts that are part-restored but not Disneyfied, and a few parts that have been reduced to a sort of Great Wall Theme Park, with endless concessions and souvenir stalls.
Beijing itself is high on the list of places we dislike intensely, despite the undoubted charm of our hosts (and indeed, the majority of people we met) when we were there.
It's basically a crowded, generic city of the late 20th century -- something like 90 per cent of it has been built or rebuilt since 1948 -- and the Forbidden City is pure Disney, jammed with tour groups, a deeply unpleasant reminder of the power and arrogance of the Chinese emperors. The city itself (not the Forbidden City) is also crawling with deformed and leprous beggars, again a severe indictment of an allegedly socialist country. There's a certain novelty value in seeing the trappings of communism grafted onto a city that is a lot more capitalist than, say, Delhi, and Beijing is kept astonishingly clean; but with wage differentials as big as Beijing's, street sweepers don't cost much.
A bright future awaits you on the colony planets.
This Beijing scene irresistibly reminded Frances of Los Angeles as portrayed in the movie Blade Runner. (Voigtländer Bessa-R, lens forgotten, Kodak Tri-X; print on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone).
Where is it?
China proper (Han China) is the south-eastern third of the area claimed by China, just to the left of Korea and Japan. Clockwise from Tibet (which has borders with Burma, India, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, Kirghistan, Khazakhstan, Uighuristan and Mongolia), China's other major neighbours are Uighuristan (the most hazily defined of the occupied countries), Mongolia, Manchuria, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Burma and India -- though China's acquisitive attitude towards its neighbours, and its tendency to say that occupied areas have always been Chinese, means that this is only a rough guide.
Place names are much confused by haphazard Westernizations, and Chinese renditions in a form of transliteration that bears little resemblance to any normal pronunciation of the Roman alphabet: the letter 'q', for example, is pronounced 'ch'.
As with any authoritarian, closed state, maps are not oustandingly reliable (or encouraged) and tourist maps are probably as good as any. Opportunities for independent travel with your own vehicle are effectively non-existent, and would be somewhat nerve-wracking for most people anyway. The Chinese are not especially dangerous drivers, at least in the sense that (say) the Italians are aggressive, but there is a certain free-for-all element that is probably easiest to stand if you have been schooled in, say, Malta or India.
National tourist information suffers for the most part from the same faults as any other national tourist office -- a tendency to gush and to oversell even the most tedious places -- and independent information tends either to be effusively pro-Chinese or (like this module) distinctly anti-Chinese; it is difficult to be neutral. We found the Guide du Routard to be as good as anything, and rather more carefully researched than Lonely Planet, but it is in French which may put some people off. To their eternal credit, too, the Guide du Routard does not include Tibet in its China guide.
The thing is, though, that the Chinese Empire is so vast and sprawling that asking for a guide 'to China' is like asking for a guide 'to Europe'. If you have specific places in mind to visit, then probably the best idea is to seek out books and web-sites about that specific region. Make an especial effort to find both pro- and anti-Chinese information: the difference, in some cases, may be so great that you wonder if you are reading about the same place.
The usual rules apply: spring/early summer and autumn. Of course there are enormous regional variations, but in most of the country winter is bitterly cold and summers are unpleasantly hot. Up in the mountains, the summers can be a good deal more pleasant, except perhaps at their very height, but of course the season is curtailed at the winter end, in early spring and later autumn. Further south, the winters are milder, but equally, the summers are hotter. The cities are for the most part polluted and hazy: white skies are all too common in Beijing even in early summer and (especially) autumn.
The monsoons are important in China, and the warm, wet summers over much of the country explain why the Chinese staple food is rice, as contrasted with (say) barley in Tibet. Some climatologists even refer to a 'Chinese-type climate' with wide temperature variations, wet summers and dry winters, so if you don't mind the cold, winter can be a better bet than summer.
January 1: New Year
January/February (lunar): Chinese New Year
March 8: Women's Day
March 12: Reforestation Day
May 1: Mayday
May 4: Chinese Youth Day
June 1: Children's Day
July 1: Anniversary of the Foundation of the Chinese Communist Party
August 1: Anniversary of the Popular Liberation Army [sic]
October 1: Anniversary of the foundation of the PRC
Although it is much easier than it used to be to get a Chinese visa, there is still a lot of bureaucracy and it can easily take 10 working days to get the visa, involving horrendous queues both times, effectively writing off the day. Hence the popularity of visa services, who present your passport for you, and pick it up: you cannot get visas by post. Visa fees vary, starting at about 35 euros for most EU citizens (30 for Belgians) for a single-entry visa. Americans pay more, and multi-entry visas cost more too.
The voltage is the international standard of 220V, not the American standard of 110-120V. A degree of anarchy prevails in electrical fittings. Probably the most popular is the English plug with three rectangular pins, but a universal adapter is a good idea.
There are countless enthusiastic photographers in China, and high-end photographic equipment (Alpa, Leica, Linhof...) is very popular among those who can afford it, despite the price in China which is elevated by import duties. Most cameras and accessories including digital equipment are available in China, but prices are quite stiff.
Forget about finding any bargains, especially among vintage cameras -- including those still in production, such as the Great Wall roll-film SLR. Prices on average are 50 to 5000% higher than elsewhere, the 5000% applying to absolute rubbish which market-stall holders will price as venerable antiques.
As with cameras, so with film and memory cards -- though film choices are modest in all but a few specialist shops, and prices are high, about twice what we normally pay from our usual discount merchant in the UK (mailshotsuk.co.uk). Much the same is true, we believe, of memory cards though we used only film on our trip.
Pro-quality film processing, on the other hand, is both good and inexpensive, at least in the major cities: it is well worth getting your film processed before you leave, both to save money and to be sure you don't need to revisit anywhere.
Air is the only option for most people, flying into one of the major international airports: we flew into Beijing. You can go by train, starting out in Moscow, but it's not easy, and you could in theory go via Tibet from India but it surely wouldn't be easy.
As in India, you normally hire a car and driver. There are self-drive hire places in the bigger cities, especially Beijing, but we do not know of any non-Chinese who have successfully rented from them. Besides, as noted above, Chinese driving is marked by the same complete disregard for civility and fairness that characterizes just about everything else in the country.
Internal air fares are cheap, and probably the most practical approach given the huge size of the empire. Devotees of railways may prefer this mode of transport; alas, we had no opportunity to try it.
Inside the cities, taxis are very cheap indeed (they're not that bad by the day, either) but at least in Beijing, the average taxi driver has absolutely no idea of where anywhere is -- even if you hand him the address, written in Chinese, he can easily take half an hour more than is needed to find the place. Carrying the address of your hotel, in writing, is an invaluable precaution.
Half-decent hotels are surprisingly expensive, rather above (say) French prices, and as befits a centrally planned economy, prices bear almost no relationship to what you get: somewhere that is very pleasant indeed, such as Jim's Tibetan Hotel in Dali, can be half the price of a dump with peeling paint, leaking plumbing and uncertain hot water. Unless you have local assistance (which is all but essential if you don't speak flawless Chinese) the only hope is to take a look at what's on offer and see if you feel like taking it. Local guides are available, and the few we met seemed to be pretty straight, but again, by third world standards they are surprisingly expensive.
Camping, unsurprisingly, is illegal, and 'village inns' (cheap lodging houses catering mainly to low-end Chinese tourists and those travelling on poorly-paid business) are very basic indeed: the latrines don't even have running water (as is also the case with most roadside toilets, and many even at tourist attractions. Some don't have doors either).
On the bright side, breakfast is often included in the more expensive hotels, and even if it isn't, it's unlikely to be expensive (see below).
This is of course one of the big problems, the more so as the written language (which is pretty much uniform throughout the empire) can vary enormously in pronunciation from one region to another. In theory, English is widely taught, but an awful lot of Chinese think they speak it better than they do. In the big cities and tourist hubs, there is a good chance of finding people who speak at least comprehensible English, and sometimes very good English; but out in the country, or away from areas frequented by 'foreign friends', forget it.
Chinese itself is a tonal language, with different tones of the same sound conveying different meanings. This is true in all dialects, principal among which are Mandarin and Cantonese. Actually, tones aren't as difficult as most Westerners think. Take the English word 'Yes', for example. With a rising tone it becomes 'Yes?' meaning 'Can I help you' or 'What do you want to know?' Stretched -- 'Y-e-e-s-s' -- it becomes 'Possibly' or 'If I have to' And compressed, on a falling note, it becomes the teenager's 'Yes!': 'I'm only doing this because I have to.'
Even so, few of our readers are likely to speak it -- this site is of course banned in China -- and once again, a local guide is probably the only way to do things.
The Chinese who can afford to do so eat three meals a day, without much to distinguish between them: a Chinese breakfast, which can be very much like any other meal of the day, is one of Roger's favourite breakfasts.
Food is a far better bargain in China than accommodation, provided you can get past the language barrier: at the international restaurants in the big cities, it can cost as much to eat as in France or even the UK. But even quite modest restaurants often have menus in English as well as Chinese. You can eat very well for under a fiver/$10/7 euros a head, beer included (see below). In a cheap, good, Chinese-only restaurant, you can halve that.
For the most part, too, Chinese food is excellent. Do not worry about being served dog, snake, etc., without warning: these are surprisingly expensive luxury foods. Do, however, take the menu literally. For example, stewed sliced pigs' ears and stir-fried yak penis are both exactly as you would expect them to be, in both taste and texture. 'Hundred year old' eggs are unremarkable; we'd already tried them before we realized what they were. If you order anything with chillis, be prepared to push quite a few of them to the side of your plate. The food will be delicious, but if you eat all the chillis, it probably won't do your digestive system any good.
The celebrated 'all-duck' restaurants seem to us to be overrated. We tried a couple, though we decided to give one of the best known (in Beijing) a miss because the queues were impossibly long, and the whole place had the air of a tourist trap rather than an actual restaurant.
Believe it or not, there are lots of McDonald's, KFCs and Pizza Huts, though for obvious reasons we never ate at them. Many Chinese regard them as sophisticated dining spots, and pay accordingly. They also have a better reputation for hygiene than Chinese restaurants, though here, things are not helped by the habit of everyone eating out of the same bowl -- even if they have a cold or other upset...
KFC, McD, Pizza Hut
All three are commonly found in an unholy alliance in many Chinese cities (this is Beijing). We apologize for the quality of a picture but it's a sectional blow-up (about one-quarter of the area) of a hand-held shot with a guessed exposure on ISO 100 film (Kodak EBX). Roger used his Leica MP and 35/1.4 Summilux.
The Chinese are nearly as addicted to stuffing their faces on the street as the English, and are often to be seen walking along eating. A very wide variety of takeaway food is available in small, shops, tiny shops and portable stands and stall. Some are unexpected: deep-fried scorpions on a stick really are served as street food in Beijing.
One thing that is shocking, though, is the waste. Well-to-do Chinese commonly order twice as much as they intend to eat, and leave a lot of it. As we were both brought up not to waste food, with our mothers (thousands of miles apart) saying "Think of all the poor children in China who would be grateful for that," we found it hard to handle. Something that is not shocking, just a bit of a surprise, is the speed (and inelegance) with which the Chinese eat: the normal drill is to rush in, bolt their food, then rush out again: leisurely meals are very much the exception rather than the rule.
Do not drink water out of the tap (faucet). It is unlikely to be safe anywhere in China, and must be boiled first. Most hotels supply boiled water (often in a vacuum flask) on demand at no charge. Bottled waters are safe, but always check that the bottle is sealed and has not been refilled.
Tea is of course drunk everywhere, at all, times, often cold. It is quite normal to carry a vacuum flask or just bottle with tea-leaves in it, and to top this up more or less frequently with boiling water, which is given away free at all sorts of places, including garages when your driver stops to buy petrol. If you have ever fancied yourself a a tea connoisseur, some truly superb teas are available in China at bargain prices, including 'Silver Needles' white tea which is prohibitively expensive in most of the world.
Chinese beer is cheap, and some of it is not too bad, but it is overrated. Americans are often very enthusiastic, and even the French are quite polite, but anyone from a beer-drinking nation such as Britain, Belgium or Germany is likely to be greatly disappointed. A lot of it contains rice or maize in addition to barley, which gives an 'off' taste unless you are accustomed to American beer and makes for a much nastier hangover -- sometimes even before you are drunk.
Chinese wine is surprisingly expensive and definitely not worth the money. The cheap stuff is indifferent (and still overpriced) and the expensive stuff is so expensive we never tried it. Chinese spirits -- the preferred tipple of the average alcohol-drinking Chinese -- vary from palatable to disgusting: the very cheap stuff tastes like the smell of the stuff we use to light barbecues. A lot of Chinese spirits, apparently, are distilled from sorghum. Admittedly we've never tried high-grade maotai but as the stuff costs the same as good brandy in an expensive French restaurant, we didn't feel the urge.
Currency is the Renminbini Yuan, variously abbreviated: sometimes it looks like the sign for yen, sometimes even for the US dollar. For an easy rule of thumb, translate 10 Yuan to the euro, 8 to the dollar, 15 to the pound, though the actual numbers vary by +/- 10% or so. It's a state-run economy with an artificially-controlled currency, of course, so the exchange rate is set by the state, principally with reference to the US dollar.
Even if you don't buy much in China, there are probably a few souvenirs worth having. Silver is good -- we bought spoons and chopsticks -- and so are painting brushes. If we'd had the space we'd have bought some lab glassware for the darkroom, too; it's astonishingly cheap in China. There's lacquer-ware if you like it (we don't, particularly); likewise carvings in jade, jadeite and soapstone (we did buy a 'prosperity pig', symbol of, and attraction to, affluence); and likewise cloisonné. Silks are good but we prefer Indian (and we prefer putting our money into the Indian economy). Real antiques are very expensive indeed: you are competing with increasingly wealthy middle-class Chinese for a slice of their own history. There are plenty of fake antiques, which the vendors will in most cases cheerfully sell you as genuine.
An improbable market is in paintings by art students. As far as we could see, they really were art students, and some of their work was very good indeed. We bought some, and would probably have bought more if we had had the room to carry it back. Prices, for the quality, are excellent.
Tipping has not been stamped out by socialism and is indeed expected. We tended to use one-dollar bills: illegal, but very popular. Doormen, guides, taxi-drivers -- they all expect a modest tip, but it really is pretty modest, and in a restaurant, 10 per cent would be more than most would leave.
You may feel that you are receiving mixed messages from the above. You would be right. Photographically, China is incredible, with welcoming, friendly people and (apart from the hotels) low prices. What put us off was the relentless belief of the Han Chinese that they had every right to invade all the countries on their borders, on the basis of flatly untrue historical grounds. We were assured, for example, that (alphabetic) Tibetan was merely a dialect of (pictigraphic) Chinese, and therefore Tibet was a part of China... Well, yes, Hitler thought Austria, the Czech Sudetenland and parts of Poland were German, and at least they spoke German in those countries. As an aside, Hitler killed roughly 16,000,000 people; Stalin doubled that, at 32,000,000; and Mao Tse-Tung doubled that again, at 64,000,000. Only Mao's regime is still in power...
We went to China at the kind invitation (and expense) of Fred Zhou, the importer of Alpa, Linhof, Roundshot and other top-flight cameras. We are enormously grateful to him, and apologize that we have not been able to repay his hospitality as we had hoped, by writing a book: but the market for film-based photography books outside China is such that no-one outside China is interested.
We would not willingly go back, either at Fred's expense or anyone else's, because what we saw was, to a very large extent, a confirmation of our existing fears and prejudices. It is not so much a question of 'When China is free' as a matter of 'When Tibet (among other places) are free of China'. If you think that political disagreement is no reason not to go to China, then we would urge you in the strongest terms to go there. Indeed, even if you do despise China's politics, as we do, we would still recommend that you go there at least once, to form an opinion for yourself. We are glad we went once, but we have to say we don't want to go back.
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© 2008 Roger W. Hicks