I have been in China for 6 months now, living and working in a small city east of Xi’an in Shaanxi province. Many of my experiences come from breaks from work where I have been able to visit other parts of this fascinating country.
First port of call was Mudanjiang in north-east China, not far from the Russian border, this was a brief stop over from the train that left Vladivostok (RU). This seemed (at the time) at be a magnificent place a busy, bustling city, heavily populated with seemingly everything available that one could want. This view was in part due to have come from Russia where (outside of Moscow & St. Petersburg) there is nothing but abject poverty, people living in tin sheds spending their time drunk (possibly because alcohol and cigarettes are the only things affordable).
One thing that I found really strange was, at night, a well dressed woman (maybe in her thirties) carrying a baby (not with a man or friends) approached us (my girlfriend, a German friend that we made on the train and myself) smiling, making the baby wave at us and wanting us to hold the babies hand (she didn’t speak English and we don’t speak Chinese). A woman with a baby (or otherwise) would never approach a stranger or strangers at night in the UK, it would be deemed too dangerous. In China, here and elsewhere, it feels very safe from other people, no-one wants to harm you, they want to be your friend, shake your hand, see you smile and move on, no strings attached.
We got a taxi from the train station to the city centre (about 5-10 minutes drive) the train attendant paid 5 Yuan (47 UK pence) 47p! I knew I was going to like this place!
Places visited so far:
Mudanjiang – Nice introduction, good food and shops, not much else.
Harbin – Beautiful, European style city, well worth a visit any time of the year.
Guangzhou – Huge city, can be a bit overbearing at times as well as polluted, plenty to see and do.
Guilin/Yangshou – Stunning scenery, a must see for everyone, watch out for ‘tourist prices’
Xi’an – A lot to see and do, easy to get around and reasonably priced, could happily spend a lot of time here.
Some is great, some is crap. Prices range massively, large portion of noodles with egg and beef in a small restaurant can cost from 3.5 Yuan (under 35 pence). Hot pot at a fancy restaurant can cost up to 80 Yuan (just under 8 pound).
China does noodles and rice dishes extremely well along with Chinese dumplings and some other specialities. China is clueless when it comes to chocolate, coffee and bread (that isn’t sweet), which is a real shame as back in the UK they are some of my favourite things!
Some ‘street food’ is delicious and cheap, some will give you (me!) food poisoning.
China’s transport system is generally very good, fast, efficient and cheap. A one-way hard sleeper bed on a 17 hour train journey (not the cheapest ticket available) costs 323 Yuan (under 32 pound). However, one journey (a 37 hour one) where all beds and seats were booked meant our ticket was standing only! Too many people can make some trains a living nightmare, standing for 37 hours is a joke, I slept on newspaper in the gangway between the two isles of seats (I wasn’t the only one either). What is even more bizarre and irritating is the train staff trying to sell you crap every half an hour, from torches to key-rings to cuddly toys.
If you suffer from a nervous disposition it would be wise when taking any form of transport on the roads to keep your eyes closed! They are crazy drivers, traffic lights and green men (safe to cross the road) mean very little, near misses happen on every journey and often we will find yourself staring at oncoming traffic while the driver is smoking and using their mobile phone.
Health & Hygiene:
One of the major drawbacks for living in China is the health and hygiene issues, polluted skies, dusty streets, dirty food preparation leading to food poisoning.
Almost on a daily basis I will see babies shitting in the streets and people throwing up by road side trees. Meat is often not refrigerated and left on benches all day (sometimes in direct sunlight) waiting to be bought either by businesses or individuals. Fish and other animals are at times skinned and/or gutted while it is still alive, both on the streets and in supermarkets!
In this 6 months I have had food poisoning twice, diarrhoea for a month and the flu. Drugs in the pharmacies are generally weak and ineffective.
People & Culture:
There are many great things about China but number one is the people, whether it is in the workplace, in shops/restaurants or just on the streets on China, the Chinese people are amazing. Having been to around 20 different countries and China being the third that I have lived in I can honestly say that the Chinese people are the friendliest, most helpful, genuine, want for nothing people I have ever met. It really does seem, especially in the smaller less touristy places that it makes their day just to see you, to say ‘ni hao’ (hello) and shake your hand.
At times it can feel like the place revolves around you, you walk down a street and everyone either smiles at you, says hello or wants to get your QQ (Chinese version of MSN) number.
For some people there are other issues that can irritate, such as not being able to access certain websites though this doesn’t effect me as all the ones I wish to access I can, Though it would be nice if the broadband services were faster and a little more reliable. All things considered (for a foreigner) this is an awesome place to live short term though long term people will prefer somewhere physically healthier.