Monday, August 13, 2012

Why China should be on your to-do list

It’s easy to think of reasons why China might not be on your places-to-see list. It’s so big and so foreign, huh? All those vast cities, language you don’t understand, food you might not warm to?
I’ve just done a quick whizz through Shanghai and Beijing and I can tell you those excuses simply don’t stack up. If there was ever a time you should dip a toe into China, it’s now.
We’re talking, after all, of the land that’s pretty much holding the world’s economy together. We need to understand it better and you can only do that by putting feet on the ground.
These are two huge cities – each of them home to more than five times New Zealand’s population. China has more than 160 cities of more than a million people. It is also arguably the country of biggest contrasts.
It’s pulsating and pushy, confronting and confusing, surprising and surreal.
You can see a Ferrari nudging past a man straining to haul a handcart loaded with bricks. Within a block of your hotel there’ll be people buying squalling fighting crickets housed in little grass cages – or choosing the upholstery colour for their Bentley.
You can wander the Forbidden City in Beijing, with its vast squares and pavilions, and be charmed by a moment with a happy modern mum and her son (see picture) all dolled up in Angry Birds T-shirts.
You can feast in an elegant Shanghai restaurant one night and next day see a man with hens in a cage on his push-bike, cutting feathered throats on the spot for customers wanting fresh birds.
But then, in moments, you’re in a beautiful shady park watching someone painting poetry on the ground. He daubs characters in water with a long brush, writing words that will quickly fade and evaporate. It’s called water calligraphy and its contemplative, ephemeral beauty is a lovely thing to see.
Here are some other things I hadn’t expected:
I felt safe. I strolled alone on busy streets at night without any qualms. Crime against westerners is almost zero. In Shanghai, the locals keep taxi receipts because they know if they leave anything in a cab they can call back and have their items returned. That says a lot in a city of 23 million (at last count).
I was charmed. Many locals are quick to give you friendly smiles, even when you’re wandering past them with camera in hand. They’ll also soon let you know if they’d rather not be photographed, but it’s usually just the wave of a hand, not a snarl. The hotels I stayed in had staff who were eager to please and their English skills were humbling.
I was beguiled. Life, at least in summer, is so much lived outside. They come out en masse in the mornings to do tai chi, keep fit, dance, sing and talk. People gather in parks to lustily belt out traditional songs, led by passionate conductors. And they sleep outdoors, everywhere, with open, vulnerable faces, confident of being left alone to dream. Check out this site for proof.
I was delighted. Modern China does city style with pizzazz, using bold graphics and art and smart design. And while its older residential tower blocks may look grim to us, its new major buildings are state-of-the-art and hotels as sassy and eco-savvy as any you’ll find anywhere.
I was impressed. It’s hard to be otherwise when you ride the train between the two cities, ripping through farmland at 300kmh. It does the 1318kms (for $NZ187 in first class) in a little under five hours. That’s further than Auckland to Invercargill – and the run is so smooth it sets up no more than a tremble of fluid in your water bottle.
And the food, oh the food! From upscale Peking Duck to cheap street eating, you’ll find eye-rollingly good tastes to savour.
Then there’s shopping with no limits, except the size of your wallet. And the chance to be naughty in ways now forbidden at home – like smoking in elegant bars or sidecar-biking without a helmet.
China, you’re big and smoggy and crowded and loud. But oh, there’s so much to like.
* Thanks, Air New Zealand, for taking me there. They're now flying direct to Shanghai five times a week, return fares from 1662.

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