China can be a strange place to visit and there are plenty of things that depending on our mood made us either smile, frown or shake our heads in utter incomprehension…
- There is no such thing as personal space, people will shove and jostle and stand ridiculously close. Our assumption is that this comes from living in a place with so many others. This ignoring of others extends to stepping in front of someone’s camera, and watching films or playing games on the train with no headphones.
Crowds in The Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou
- You might see something that looks like a queue but it’s just a facade. For example, station staff are very keen to get passengers waiting to embark into an orderly line on the platform, but as soon as the train arrives it turns into a scrum which we stand back and watch. Seats are numbered and allocated so it’s not as if you need to fight for somewhere to sit…
‘Queue’ to get out of Beijing West station
- All bags need to go through an X-ray scanner at every railway and subway station. There are never enough scanners which can lead to massive pile ups and plenty of jostling, and we’ve seen people walk through without putting their bag in (completely ignoring the protestations of the operating staff). Apart from the obvious guns etc it’s unclear what they’re scanning for as there are no explanatory notices. We’ve seen aerosol cans confiscated but they don’t get them all as my hair mousse is always in my rucksack when moving between cities; we’ve sometimes been asked to take a sip of our water but most times carry through several bottles without comment; and once I had a penknife in my handbag which they noticed and asked to see before giving it back. Although people are scanned as well as luggage at railway stations they’re not on the subway so I don’t think it’s a very effective form of control if someone really wanted to get around it.
- Babies and toddlers are often dressed in trousers with a large hole around the crotch (and no nappy). To make matters worse, they are allowed to use the street as a toilet. An army of street cleaners do a pretty good job of cleaning up after this as well as the annoyingly prevalent habit of litter dropping.
- People, especially teenagers, are usually very nervous if required to talk to us. It makes it hard to ask for directions as we don’t know if we’re saying the name of where we want to go so badly that it’s unintelligible or whether the person we’re speaking to is so consumed by embarrassment that they’re not trying to make out our dreadful Chinese.
- Foreigners are an object of extreme curiosity and we routinely notice kids pointing us out to their parents, adults doing it a little more subtly and legions of cameraphones pointed in our general direction. Andrew likes to call them on it and if he notices someone trying to take a sneaky picture of us he’ll wave at them and then call them over and make them pose with us for the shot – we often heard them burst into fits of giggles as they walked away!
Clockwise from top left: this girl’s T-shirt says “I’ll be shy” and she was until we made her come to say hello; papped while eating our dinner; I’m not sure why this girl felt she could drape herself over my shoulder; waiting in a queue we had nowhere to hide
- Chinese railway stations are more like airports – the waiting area is a huge open space with numbered gates to the platforms. These are usually opened about 10-15 minutes before the train is scheduled to leave which leads to a scrum (see point 2) to get through the ticket check.
Waiting area at Hangzhou East station
- Spitting and hawking up phlegm can be heard everywhere on the streets. To be honest the only time it makes us smile is when we remember Mum’s look of disgust which got progressively stronger throughout her two week stay with us last year!
- Beer is unbelievably cheap – often less than £0.40 for a 600ml bottle (just over a pint) even in restaurants.
- In South Korea we noticed that young couples often dress in matching outfits (same T-shirts, matching coloured shorts or jeans) which seemed strange enough. In China we’ve noticed families often have matching outfits, for example a mother and daughter will be in exactly the same dress, or even both parents and their child.
- Whilst in Asia we’ve learnt the fine balance of caution and assertiveness that is necessary to cross the road safely but we have been constantly bemused in China by the prevalence of zebra crossings with green man lights where cars and motorbikes either just whizz through or park across the black and white lines!
- Much to my surprise, vinegar is a more commonly offered condiment than soy sauce.
- We really appreciate when an effort has been made to translate things into English but there are times when the translated text is not so helpful. Menus often feature literal translations of the very poetic sounding names of dishes but give no clue as to the contents. And occasionally the translation leads to more questions than answers as with this sign which we saw in Zhangjiajie National Park:
- Stairwell lights in apartment blocks are controlled by noise sensors. We first noticed this when we stayed in Wuhan but it was also true of the block we stayed in Beijing. When the external door swung shut as we left it would bang and turn the lights on so we learnt to stamp our feet if we were in the dark fumbling with the apartment door – so much for not disturbing your neighbours!