Travels in China: 2011

Travels in China: Part 5

Finally, more notes about China: Beijing, architecture, infrastructure, and closing notes.


Asides from the massive traffic jams, it’s pretty easy to get around. From city to city, there are trains and airplanes. Just go to the station and buy a ticket. Within cities, there are subways and bus lines. There are also taxi, pedicab, and motorcycle taxi (you sit on back.) The metro is only US$0.30. Pedicabs are about 3 Yuan (US$0.50).

We went into several stores for scooters and motorbikes: a scooter is about US$450 (or US$40 per month on a payment plan.) A new car is 150,000Y (US$23,500). You often see three or four people on a motorbike. Mom drives and dad holds the kids. Maybe one of them has a helmet.

It rains quite a bit, so motorbikes have these long umbrellas that act as a canopy. They also have two-headed poncho for both persons.

A number of cities now offer free city bicycles. There are extensive transportation systems of bus and subways.

Tianamen Square on October 1st

We were in Beijing on October 1st, which is China’s National Day. People come from many cities in China. The center of the celebration is Tianamen Square, the large central plaza that also includes the People’s Congress. It’s 880x500m (960×550 yards). The streets are blocked off to traffic for several very long blocks. We went by metro as close as we could and then joined hundreds of thousands of people. It was decorated with massive floral arrangements. Vendors sold small flags and stickers. Kids posed in front of buildings and statues so parents could take photos. The crowd was very Beijing, which meant everyone was out to walk around and have fun. This included punks, girls in trendy clothes, and girls with pink bunny ears. National Day is a huge street party. If you can, go.

The National History Museum of China

At Tianamen Square, we also went to the National History Museum, which had just opened in May 2011.

It has a modern museum layout, with large spaces and an excellent collection, which makes it one of the major museums of the world. You can stand in front in a long line or go around to the north entrance and pay a small fee to get in.

2,300 year old bronze of a Chinese rhinoceros.

It’s a place where you can spend all day to see treasures of China’s long history. A few remarkable things: a collection of porcelain figures of an all-girl polo team in 1100 AD. OMG! Chinese women were playing polo a thousand years ago? It was only first in 1876 that Americans played polo, and of course, it was only men. A large painting shows the city of Chang’an, which already had a million people in 1,000 AD

A woman playing polo. She is part of a team of 900-year old figurines.

Sculptures from 3,000 and 4,000 years ago already show emotions on their faces. In contrast, most Egyptian sculptures at the time show the same blank expression.

A large room had a collection of several dozen of the terra-cotta warriors (2,300 years ago). Each warrior has a unique face, which means Chinese artists personalized the statues to each of the 8,000 soldiers. Again, to compare, the West lost the ability to draw portraits some time after 600 AD and wasn’t able to draw a portrait until 1300 AD. We don’t even have a painting of Charlemagne, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The Chinese also made excellent, accurate sculptures of animals such as rhinoceros.

What you see is a highly-sophisticated society based on classical literature and poetry with a bureaucracy to manage their empire. In many fields, they were often hundreds (and even thousands) of years ahead of the West. They invented many of the essential tools of science and technology (clocks, steam engines, and explosives). However, science and engineering never developed beyond examples. There has much research into why the Chinese fell behind. The best research on China’s technology is Joseph Needham’s 50-year academic project which has been published in more than 24 volumes. In short, the Chinese gave preference to transmission and annotation of established scholarly and literary knowledge. They downplayed the value (and power) of merchant wealth. Furthermore, labor was cheap, so there was little incentive to develop machines. This of course makes us wonder what aspects of our society are underdeveloped because of tradition.


China has many spectacular skyscrapers and modern buildings. These are in that hypermodern architecture style called “starchitecture” (as in “star architecture”, which means the design was by a star in the architecture world). Most of the major cities have commissioned such buildings to be distinctive. It’s hard to call it a style when none of the buildings look alike.

Shanghai at night

Many of the buildings for the 2010 Shanghai World Expo were designed by star architectures. Look at the pavilions for Spain, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Russia, and the China Aviation Pavilion.

A Few Notes about China’s Infrastructure and Growth

Although China is developing very rapidly, development is uneven. You see very modern infrastructure next to systems that are 20-30 years old. In some cases, things are missing.

China has 6,000 miles of high speed rail. There is not a single mile of high-speed rail in the USA. By 2013, China will have more high-speed rail than the rest of the world combined. Within the next ten years, they will build another 10,000 miles of high-speed rail.

Hospitals are very crowded. The halls are packed with people. Doctors and nurses are overworked. The hospital buildings are in poor condition. People in the countryside can get health insurance for 50 Yuan per year (about US$8 per year).

Nanchong has seven million people, yet there is no museum or large zoo. There are no nightclubs. Any city of one million people in the West would have a broad range of cultural opportunities. Their evening life seems to revolve around restaurants and social dining.

Party boats take you out for a river cruise with dining and music.

Practically nobody speaks English in most parts of Sichuan. A few had studied in the USA, but otherwise, some knew only a few basic phrases. Many young people study English now.

There is construction of vast apartment complexes everywhere. A new apartment is about US$50,000 in a small city and can be US$500,000 or more in Beijing and Shanghai. China expects 400 million people will move from villages to the cities in the next ten years. Those 400 million people will require apartments, houses, schools, restaurants, buses, city administration buildings, and so on. In the next ten years, China will build more infrastructure than the entire existing USA. The people who will build all of that will become very wealthy.

General Thoughts

In general, it’s easy to travel in China. The Chinese move around quite a bit, so they have a strong infrastructure for travel and tourism. There are plenty of airplanes, trains, buses, taxi, plus lots of hotels, restaurants, and cafes. The Chinese like to be tourists in their own country, so there are lots of things for tourists, such as museums, parks, and tourist attractions, plus all sorts of fun stuff. The food is clean (we never got sick). People are friendly and helpful. The streets are pretty safe, even in the large cities.

Mini-Mac? This McDonalds serves only a few items.

The only difficulty is language: outside of Beijing and Shanghai, very few people speak any foreign languages (I tried French, German, English, and Spanish). However, at most hotels for tourists and often at major tourist spots, you can hire government-certified tourist guides at a low cost to show you around.

So why do Chinese go to the West? They look for the latest in education in Western STEM (science, technology, engineering, medicine) and opportunity (set up companies). Many learn and after a few years, return to China to start new companies.

In Nanchong, a chair lift brings you to the top of Xi Le mountain. Helen’s brother-in-law was the engineer who designed the chair lift.

Around the mountain top, there are paths to caves that were used by monks hundreds of years ago. There’s also a large Buddhist monastery with a 7-foot tall sticks of incense in front. Like most things in China, the buildings are open and you can walk around wherever you like, incl. the basement and interior rooms, including the tiny sparse bedrooms for the monks. Buddhist temples were mostly destroyed during Culture Revolution and have been beautifully restored. I couldn’t tell that these were restorations.

This aspect of China bothers Westerners, but the Chinese don’t mind. We want to see the original building, but the Chinese feel that reconstruction is better. The parts of the Great Wall that you visit, for example, are reconstruction. The actual Great Wall is a slag heap of bricks. The Buddhist monasteries are nearly all recent reconstructions.

A Few Final Items

The cost of living in Beijing is about the same as California. It’s very expensive for most Chinese.

Would you like to learn an easy Chinese word? A dragon is a long animal, right? So that’s easy to remember: the Chinese word for dragon is “long.”

Two of the dragons from The Wall of Nine Dragons at Beihai, the imperial park in Beijing.
Pop quiz! What’s the word for “dragon” in Chinese?

Where do Chinese go when they travel? Chinese travel to SE Asia, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and South America. If they go to the West, then they go to Germany or France, because these countries have historical sites. If they go to the USA, they go to see national parks. But the USA also reject many tourist visas. So it’s easier for them to travel to other places. Plus, Western food is bland to Chinese, so they prefer other destinations.

Things to Bring

What should you bring to China? There’s Walmart and European shopping centers. They have everything.

A bookstore in Nanchong. Helen’s brother manages these bookstores. He also took the photograph.

It can be a bit of challenge to get aspirin and common pharmaceuticals, because they use different names. I happen to know the chemical names for common pharmaceuticals, so I could communicate with the pharmacist, but I suggest that you bring your own pills.

Just about everywhere, you can get access to the web. However, some things are blocked. You can’t use Facebook or Twitter. You can use LinkedIn. Google works for a few minutes, then it doesn’t work, and then it works again. If you really want access, then set up a VPN service (US$5-10 per month), which lets you bypass the censors.

Bring lots of presents, and have space in your bags to bring back lots of things. China is quite a place for shopping.

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