One of the first things we noticed in China that endured throughout our stay was how green the cities are. Even in the most metropolitan spaces there are trees and flowers everywhere, and a vast army of public workers spend their days watering, weeding and pruning the plants. We also noticed a lot of urban arable farming; around the outskirts of cities and even in spaces within them were monoculture fields of vegetables. We got the impression that China takes food security very seriously!
In addition to all the gardeners were many more visible public workers: street sweepers, toilet cleaners, plastic bottle collectors. As well as making the environment more pleasant for everyone, there was the sense that part of the objective was providing employment, something we had noticed in India as well, where there were often several people employed to do the work that only one would be expected to do in the UK. It was a starkly different and pleasing thing to witness, in contrast with the brutal stripping back of public employment under austerity politics.
We were also instantly aware of unpleasant smells: meat and cigarettes, which we’ll talk about later!
After our extensive experience of using public transport in all its forms in India, we were curious to see how China would compare. The trains in China are much more modern and comfortable, but there are also some substantial differences from the European rail experience. Firstly, getting on a train in China is no easy feat. The stations were all like airports, and just to get inside you had to queue up to buy a ticket. We would join a queue at random with no idea whether the person at the counter could speak English, sometimes we’d muddle through with a translation app, sometimes we would be directed to a particular window for foreigners (generally unmarked!), and after a few weeks we got more adept at the process by preparing screenshots on our phone of our our desired train times and destination name in Mandarin. To actually buy a ticket, we had to hand over our passports to be scanned and linked to our specific ticket (with Chinese nationals giving over their ID cards). In this way, citizens and visitors alike can be monitored wherever they go if they use public transport.
At the entrance to stations, tickets were checked against our passports and scanned, and then we would be funnelled into the luggage scanning queue. While our bags were inspected we would have to pass through a metal detector and receive a pat-down at the other side (most of which were barely more than a light tap). Once in the stations, it was impossible to leave without having to go through security all over again. In order to actually board the train our passports and tickets were checked each time on the platform, by ticket inspectors during the trip, and before we could leave the station at the other end. For sleeper trains, our tickets were removed and held in a folder by the carriage guard, who would return them to us 20 minutes before we arrived at our station. We think it’s safe to say nobody bunks the train in China.
For our very long-distance bullet train, we were bemused to be sent to a ‘military holding area’ (a roped off bit of station concourse) and had to go through the ticket check and scanner procedure again (with a few more extra ticket checks thrown in).
Once we were finally through the rigamarole of security, it wasn’t a case of just finding the right platform and waiting for the train to arrive. Everyone sits at what can only be termed their ‘departure gate’, and at a precise time just a few minutes before the train arrived queues would form at a small number of ticket gates, where we were funnelled through for yet another ticket and/or ID check. For some of the larger trains, boarding could take 15 minutes because of the bottle-neck. All in all, boarding a train in China – especially in the large stations with dozens of platforms – required a good hour or so to make sure you had time to negotiate all these hurdles.
The trains themselves were very comfortable (and had great storage: our massive backpacks easily fit in the overhead shelf), and a lot cleaner than in India, however the smell of cigarettes pervaded every crevice. Even though the carriages were non-smoking, at the vestiblule ends Chinese men (it was always men, and included train staff) gathered to smoke, and the doors to the carriages were almost always wedged open, so they may as well have been sat inside smoking. On our 48 hour journey, the smoke became particularly problematic, and it made most journeys pretty horrible, requiring us to wash all our clothes at the other end as the only way we could get rid of the stench. On the plus side, the long-distance trains had an actual dining car which was a source of total excitement for us, with the novelty of being able to sit at a table and eat on a train bringing us an inordinate amount of happiness.
Each set of chairs or beds had a small table with a metal tray which was used by passengers for rubbish, usually sunflower seed shells which seemed to be the most common snack. When the tray got too full somene would get up and empty it into the bin at the end of the carriage.
Another difference from UK trains was the music. Whenever there was an announcement music would play over the speakers. On our longest journey before every station an eerie version of “The Sound of Silence” was piped into the carriage, which of course meant it was then stuck in our heads for days.
Surprisingly to us, all toilets were locked whenever the trains were due to enter a station by a staff member with a special key, and they stayed locked for a good 10 minutes after departure. This was particularly frustrating when we were sat at the Vietnam border for over an hour, in dire need!
Something else that really bothered us on the trains and other public transport was people playing music out loud or watching TV on their phones without headphones. It’s something that annoys us in the UK, but that we associate with particularly inconsiderate teenagers. In China it was people of all ages, and it was all the time. We were never able to enjoy the journey without a background of tinny music playing, so we listened to a lot of podcasts and music of our own to block it out.
As well as trains, we used the public buses a couple of times. By and large they were fine, but the bus of doom (see the Lijiang post) will always be etched in our memories as the most uncomfortable 24 hours of transport we’ve had. In some measure that was because it took so much longer than the 14 hours we’d anticipated, but mostly it was because of the general filth and the cockroaches that covered everything as soon as it got dark.
One curiosity about buses, both local and long distance, is that they were used for transporting goods and packages. People would hop on at a stop, leave a package in a footwell, and then disappear again. Some time later at another stop someone else would board to collect the package. It was weirdly efficient, but was incredibly strange to us, since we’re used to being told to be suspicious of unattended baggage on public transport. The watermelons were probably the least worrying though!
While overall bus travel was less security focussed than with trains, we did have our passports scanned when we bought tickets for long-distance travel, and we did have to scan our luggage at large stations. On the Tibetan plateau buses we were travelling on were boarded on two occasions by security personnel who scrutinised our documents, and asked questions about where we were going. They barely acknowledged the local travellers, making straight for us each time. The questioning was pretty minimal though, and compared with stories told to us by Europeans who have travelled in China in recent decades, it seems that foreign travellers are viewed with less suspicion than they used to be.
China is terrible for vegans. We had mixed reviews before we left, with many people saying we’d struggle to find food, but also several vegan blogs and individuals who said they’d found it really easy. Our experience was definitely the former! The concept of vegetarianism is not widely understood, and we were often met with blank stares, or laughter, when we presented our V-card with information about what we don’t eat:
Something that became all too familiar to us in our time in China was the smell of meat. Almost everywhere we went the air was filled with the smell of cooking meat, and that sort of sweetish spicy smell that was vaguely familiar from Chinese restaurants in the UK. At first it was fine, but after a while it got to us and started to make us feel a bit queazy. It was hard to get away from it. We were told at one hostel that meat was so pervasive (it really is in every dish in every meal) because historically meat had been expensive so there was a status associated with having meat in your meals. It’s also linked to virility. Of course, thwarted by cis men’s insecurities wherever we go!
We did not get off to a good start, our first two meals in Guangzhou (after going to sleep the night before with no dinner) both turned out not to be vegan: gross glutinous balls in white wine sauce, and pak choi braised in butter; followed by noodles and rice both with meat broth. It’s so challenging to know what to do in these situations, with such a significant language barrier. For our first unconfident days we paid for the food, ate what seemed to be vegan and sheepishly left. We later became bolder and made sure to check our food before paying!
Day two gave us the most hilarious interpretation of a vegetarian burger from McDonald’s: a slice of lettuce in a bun! (made into a fancy chip butty with fries and some mushrooms)
In Xingping, our international hostel had a pizza oven, so of course we had a few of those without cheese, and with a vast, changing and sometimes bizarre selection of vegetables including cucumber (also the option of fruit, which we avoided!).
Our first meal at an actual restaurant outside of the disappointment of Guangzhou was in a restaurant with a tagline about being good with fish. We were approached by a waitress outside (a common thing with restaurants all over China), who read our v-card and showed us several appropriate items on the menu, so we were confident we could order something. Thankfully the restaurant did not smell of fish as we feared it would. We ended up getting a bit carried away, having several things to choose from for the first time! We ordered four dishes, and discovered that – unlike in India where we’d been gently informed by wait staff on several occasions that we didn’t need to order so much – it is common practice to over-order in China. We regularly saw a table of four people with nearly a dozen dishes in front of them, most of which had lots leftover when they came to leave. The level of food waste is staggering. But there is also a widespread culture of taking leftovers, so thankfully we got a second meal out of our decadent order. It is necessary to specify that you want a plastic tub to take food in, as sometimes the default container is just a plastic bag! In this particular restaurant they brought over the tubs and let us get on with it, but at other places the staff have made a point of carefully dishing items into a tub in front of us on the table, or have taken everything to the kitchen and returned with our food packaged up for us. For this meal, we ordered “stone tofu”, which turned out to be a HUGE slab of silken tofu with various sauces, along with sweet potato noodles that were awful gelatinous things (prob not vegan), and delicious aubergine and green bean dishes.
In Xiahe we had a really nice noodle soup (called “vegetarian hotpot” on the menu) with lovely mushrooms and pakchoi. We went for coffee and asked for a flatbread-type thing but were told that it wasn’t vegan, so we ordered these bread twists instead, that we’d previously avoided because the yellow colour looks like butter, but it definitely isn’t. We got a few weird looks for eating something plain that was obviously supposed to accompany a main dish! We became bolder with asking about bread; there were so many amazing looking breads in the Tibetan Plateau that this really paid off, our favourite was covered in red spices, with a gentle heat and slightly sweet flavour.
Something we were on the lookout for was restaurants attached to monasteries and nunneries, which we’d read were usually vegetarian. Unfortunately, in most of the areas we visited, the monks and nuns are not vegetarian, and so the restaurants around them aren’t either. But when we did find Buddhist vegetarian restaurants, we had some of our favourite meals. In Chengdu, the monastery is famous for its restuarant buffet and hotpot, though we were too late for these when we visited. But we went to the a la carte restaurant and had some of the most delicious, and least oily, dishes we had in China.
Chengdu had a few vegetarian restaurants, and we got to try some very interesting fake meat dishes, which seemed to be designed to as closely replicate meat as possible: including gluten balls that had fake tendons running through in a tougher gluten! We also visited one specifically for dessert on Jay’s birthday (after filling up at a buffet), which proved to be very complicated to negotiate! We ended up with really delicious coconut-based peach yoghurt; deep fried bananas (also delicious); and something which had been described as peaches not made from peach but from flour, which we bit into and discovered they were full of squirty cream. We still don’t know if it was dairy or plant-based cream, there was only one English-speaking waitress who was working on a different floor and had to be summoned every time we approached the counter with a question, even if we had run it through a translator. With our best efforts we couldn’t get a straight answer about where the cream came from, but we’re both very sensitive to dairy so think it’s unlikely we’d have eaten it without knowing.
Also in Chengdu, the nunnery holds a daily “vegetarian lunch ceremony”, which starts, remarkably, at 11:40am (it was obviously brunch when we went!). You take two bowls and a pair of chopsticks from a cupboard and take a seat on long benches in a nondescript room in the nunnery complex. Nuns emerge from the kitchen with huge pans and walk around dishing up different things to everyone. Every time we thought we had everything, another new dish would appear and we would accept it enthusiastically. We had to be very clear that we did also want the spicy chutneys as they were always a bit unsure about giving them to us! After the meal you are expected to wash up your dishes and cutlery and stack them again. Many people also had takeaway containers that were filled for them. We ate more fresh vegetables during the two visits to the nunnery than we’d had for weeks before, and left feeling replenished for nutrients. Most remarkably, it cost £1.25 for both of us.
Another great Buddhist find was the vegetarian buffet at Liajiang. We had travelled there in order to hike Tiger Leaping Gorge, but it was closed due to landslides. So instead we spent 2 1/2 days eating! On the first night we ordered hotpot as an addition to the buffet (for an extra 50p), so we were brought two pans on kerosene stoves filled with different broths (thankfully confirmed as vegan after our first hotpot experience ended up containing beef). You then take a tray to a large fridge and select various vegetables, tofu, seaweed etc. to cook in the broth. It was a good choice on the day as it was cold out and it is really nice to have piping hot broth when you’re feeling cold, and the items in the buffet did get a bit tepid. But the next two times we visited we just went for the buffet: there was so much choice! Although the restaurant doesn’t use dairy, they do have eggs in some dishes, so there were a couple of things we had to avoid (including sponge cake, boo!) but apart from that we had so much to choose from that we managed two plates of almost completely different dishes, and there were new things to discover on each day we went. They start serving dinner at 5:30pm, so we got into a routine of having breakfast, then only light snacks before hitting the buffet nice and early in the evening and gorging ourselves on multiple courses! Again it was very cheap: £2 each for as much as we could eat.
Breakfast is worth a mention. In India, breakfast foods were some of our favourites, we would happily have eaten idly and vada with sambar all day! But wherever we stayed in China, when breakfast has been on offer, whether Chinese or foreign, it was heavy on eggs and meat. Generally our only option would be toast and jam, usually for upwards of £1 for a couple of slices, which we’re too tight to pay! The exception to this was the amazing guest house at stayed at in Shillin; the owner cooked literally everything she could think of that would be vegan for breakfast, and we even had steamed bread rolls to take away for lunch.
Thankfully we found instant porridge early on in a supermarket in Guangzhou: with the addition of some peanut butter / dried fruit / nuts / fresh banana or mango, it makes a really easy and filling meal that meant we could head out on a full stomach and not start each day cranky and struggling to find breakfast! Hot water is available everywhere in China for filling tea flasks and for instant noodles, so even when we woke up on a sleeper train or bus we could make porridge. Instant noodles are of course another go-to, and we always had at least a couple in our backpacks in case we couldn’t find proper food. We scanned DOZENS of packets and pots with our translation app to find the few that didn’t have meat in, and they were a real life-saver on travelling days. We also discovered that the broth is really good to dip bread into as well, for an extra carby meal!
The pots usually contain three packets along with the noodles: freeze dried veg, MSG-filled broth powder, and a really oily sauce. We’ve skipped the sauce a few times when one or other of us is feeling a bit unwell, so we now have a little stash of emergency sauces too, in case we end up in another situation like the time we could only get plain boiled rice for dinner. We also ate a lot of steamed sweetcorn!
One real positive for vegans in China is the ubiquity of tofu (sidenote: apparently that was a mistranslation to Pinyin and it should really be “dofu”). Every grocery store has a wall of prepared and packaged tofu, so we always had a packet or two for an easy snack or meagre meal if needed.
A lowlight for us would have to be Langmusi, which was one of our favourite places to visit, and we would have loved to stay longer but we were seriously in danger of becoming malnurished! Our first night we found a Tibetan restaurant that had vegetarian noodles, so had two huge plates of that, but we both struggled to finish them with the sheer quantity of oil included. The half-butchered carcass sat out on the counter didn’t help either. We also ate at a Sichuan restaurant, who brought us the wrong vegetable dish (shredded potato, not the green nutrients we were after!) so we ended up just having tofu and rice, again it was really oily. Jay was desperate to try potato momos, which were listed on the menu in our hostel, but there and in every other place we tried we were told they also have yak meat in.
We need to give a shout out to the amazing staff in a truly depressing and seedy service station that we stopped at on our epic 24 hour bus journey. They went through the buffet with us to point out what we could have, and one woman came running across when she saw Jay about to spoon some chicken on his plate! The food was expectedly mediocre and very oily, but we hadn’t been expecting anything more than instant noodles, so it was a positive outcome overall.
Something weird that we often encountered was a complete lack of spice in our food, which we initially put down to restaurants assuming that we couldn’t handle chilli as foreigners. But there are a number of monastery-linked restaurants that we visited which, as well as avoiding animal products, also opt not to use garlic, onion or chilli. In some Buddhist traditions these ingredients (along with others such as leeks, asafoetida, shallots etc) are avoided as they “excite the senses” and so can distract from meditation. Other sources suggest the distraction is because they tend to cause intestinal gas! One encounter we had at a train station/shopping mall in Nanning highlighted the Buddhist connection. We’d just got back from Vietnam, where it was easy to get vegan food, but it was almost universally bland and non-spicy. We were desperate for some flavour! We found a fast food place and, using google translate, established that they could offer us fried vegetables and plain rice. Jay then explicitly asked if they could make us some tofu, as we weren’t thrilled at the idea of just rice and veg as our main meal of the day (and thank goodness he asked, as the veg was unseasoned stir-fried Chinese lettuce, which neither of us could finish). They told us they had a spicy tofu dish which we enthusiastically requested. The waiter replied in surprise “can you eat chilli?”. Clearly our attempts to explain that it is only animal products we avoid didn’t quite translate, and he just assumed we were following the local Buddhist diet (our matching shaved heads probably added to the confusion).
The challenge of finding vegan food was made so much harder by the internet restrictions in China. Throughout India (and in Vietnam, Hong Kong and Japan where we’ve been since) we’ve used the Happy Cow app to find vegan, vegetarian and veggie-friendly places to eat. In almost everywhere we went in China, there were few or no listings, and since the app uses google maps, even where there was a listing, we couldn’t be sure if the location marker was in the right place.
Finding somewhere to stay in China was a little more complicated than we anticipated. Some hotels and hostels do not allow foreigners so that was an extra initial barrier. The next big issue for us was that they almost all allowed smoking. Even when places advertised theselves as non-smoking, the other guests invariably ignored this and smoked everywhere anyway, or the AC would circulate the smoke from designated areas throughout the rest of the building.
The accommodation options were more expensive than in India, and within our price bracket were something called ‘business hotels’. As many of these were available to rent on an hourly basis, we steered well clear of them. Thankfully hostels are becoming more popular around the country, and we were always able to find at least a couple of dorm beds, if not a whole room to ourselves. We also had our first experience of staying in capsules in Zhangye, to Jay’s delight.
By and large the places we stayed were comfortable and relatively clean. In China the beds tend to be laid with thin layers of foam and blankets, rather than proper matresses, so we got used to sleeping on rock hard surfaces.
We witnessed animal cruelty almost everywhere we went. Animals were kept alive in tiny cages at restaurants, either to be killed for someone’s meal, or sometimes just for entertainment, as with the songbirds we saw at many places. Many corner shops had cats tied up on a short piece or rope outside the door, or even packed into bird cages with no room to stand up.
Even people who had pets or appeared to like animals didn’t treat them as sentient beings, but essentially as toys. Two women who worked at a hostel we stayed at had a cat that they kept in a backpack and took out to hold, whilst the cat squirmed and cried, clearly wanting to be let down to walk around. There were a couple of exceptions to this; thankfully we did see a few happy cats and dogs, but overall the vast majority of animals we saw were not well treated. It was really hard to know what to do, since we clearly couldn’t affect a whole culture that has this attitude to animals, but on a few occasions we did feel compelled to say something, like at the hostel that had a terrapin in a tiny glass bowl in an inch of filthy water.
China was a bit of an eye opening experience for us. While we have obviously chosen to take a number of long-haul flights to do this trip, we have done so with an awareness of our carbon footprint, and plans to compensate for it (as best we can). We have also come from a country with a general awareness and acceptance of climate change, and social policy that (while nowhere near far reaching enough) seeks in some way to address this. We’ve also come from living in places like ecological co-housing where serious consideration of the climate impact of one’s actions formed part of everyday life and neighbourly discussions, and where our neighbours were involved with green politics actively.
China was an enormous shock. One of the biggest issues we saw was the sheer scale of the problem of single-use plastics. In supermarkets individual vegetables were wrapped in plastic, then those would be bagged in plastic or polystyrene containers. We would buy bags of dried fruit only to find that each piece was in a small plastic tray, individually wrapped within the plastic bag. Everything had multiple plastic layers. When we tried to buy loose vegetables, we were turned away at the til: the only way to pay for veg was to go and have it weighed and bagged in plastic with a price sticker.
Added to this, recycling was pretty much non-existant. All this enormous quantity of plastic was going into general waste, and to who knows where. On a smaller scale we also saw rubbish being burned everywhere, something which seems to be common across all the countries we visited in Asia.
Most surprising to us was the lack of awareness of climate change. To be honest we only spoke to one young woman at a hostel about it, and she may not be representative of Chinese young people in general, but she had never heard of climate change under any of it’s names. She had no concept of why we might want to get a bus for 15 hours rather than fly for 2, and when we discussed it she did not think she would want to change any of her travel habits because everyone else in China flew regularly (flying was often the cheapest mode of transport) so it didn’t matter what she did as an individual. Time and again we noticed that there was no thought given to the environment, in the industrial development we witnessed, and in the way Chinese people’s lives were conducted. And ultimately, while extreme weather phenomena are increasing, China is such an enormous country that it may be more able to tolerate it than others. As the country covers so many climatic zones it does appear to be relatively food secure. And with the Tibetan plateau within its territories, China would have no fears about access to water. We are aware we’re making assumptions based on the small amount of China we saw, and that we also haven’t researched China’s policies or actions around climate change. But from what we witnessed we genuinely came away feeling an awful sense of foreboding about the future of the planet, and about the ability of small countries like the UK to make any dent in greenhouse emissions globally when a behemoth like China was building new coal power stations and burning so much plastic. It was, overall, terrifying.
Society and culture
Throughout China there are a vibrant mix of cultures and traditions, with dozens of individually recognised minority ethnic groups. In many places, these differences have been harnessed for tourism by the Chinese government, which sometimes means that local groups are housed in complexes where tourists come to be served by people in traditional dress. Buddhism is also a huge force for tourism throughout the country, as national and international tourists travel to see ancient monasteries and nunneries (us included!). We visited several sites where there was evidence of significant government investment: transport infrastructure, modern shopping districts, public toilets and tourist information centres. Inside the monasteries, huge tour groups were shepherded around the sites and into individual temples, often at the expense of pilgrims who were trying to pray. In Xiahe this was particularly stark: on the Chinese side of the monastery were wide modern roads and shops selling souvenirs, with new hotels springing up everywhere; on the Tibetan side were traditional unpaved roads and open drains. The stalls on this side sold incense and offerings for Tibetan worshippers to take into the monastery. Within the monastery, the pilgrims often had to prostrate themselves outside the actual temple buildings, as there was no space inside with all the tour groups.
It felt as though there was an intentional erosion of traditional customs, through the forces of tourism. In the short term, many local people are gaining wealth. But it is clear that the larger monasteries that attract the most tourists are also becoming more difficult for the faithful to access. As traditional culture and community are eroded, it becomes harder for individuals to mobilise and oppose the state, creating a cycle leading to further marginalisation.
In Hong Kong the difference in culture from mainland China was less apparent to us, but that was probably because of the relative modernity of the city and population, creating a familiarity that we recognised anywhere we found big cities and modern shopping districts. Despite this the displeasure with Chinese rule was far more apparent, with ongoing protests every weekend for the past five months. We suspect that a significant factor affecting political organisation is simply access to information, with those living in Tibet and mainland China having all of their information controlled.
Something else we noticed in the places we visited in mainland China, was a lack of visible homelessness, or of disabled people. We saw almost no one who was street homeless in any city or area we visited. None of these places were well designed in terms of physical accessibility either, but we also didn’t see anyone with visible learning disabilities or mental health problems. We noticed it most starkly when we arrived in Hong Kong and there were a lot of different people out and about. It was disturbing that this was not the case otherwise and we were deeply concerned about what that might mean.
We VASTLY underestimated what a pain the Great Firewall of China would be. We prepared ourselves with a paid VPN that had good reviews for working in China, but it was still really difficult to get anything done online. Constantly having to use a VPN made everything really slow. We couldn’t download Google maps of the areas we were visiting, and even when we connected via data and VPN, we couldn’t be sure the markers were in the right place.
We asked some friendly young staff in a Starbucks for help with using a Chinese mapping app, which we had been unable to change to English, and they were visibly uncomfortable when we opened our app store and it was branded with Google! Unfortunately there wasn’t an app available that would accurately show location and could be used in English, so we muddled along with Google maps.
On Maeve’s birthday, she gave herself the best present ever by deciding to reformat her phone (it had been running slowly and crashing for a few weeks). What she didn’t consider was that all the default apps on her Android phone were blocked, so we couldn’t even open a web browser. And in order to download any new apps, we needed to connect to Google Play, which required having a VPN, which we could only download from Google Play. That was a fun couple of hours wasted1.
We got used to taking screenshots of the name and address of our hostels in Chinese before we started travelling anywhere. More than once we showed up at the pinpoint provided by booking.com to find no hostel at that location. At this point we’d start asking around and usually take a taxi to the correct location, apart from one memorable occasion when a shopkeeper walked us to the other side of town to the wrong hostel, got accurate directions and then drove us out to the correct place a few km away, and refused to take any money when we got there.
China is a fucking big country. We saw a truly remarkable diversity of landscapes while we were there, and we only visited a miniscule amount of the country. We travelled from the Gobi desert in the North, where vast barren plains reached out to crenellated mountains in the distance, to the karst landscape on the Southern coast. We visited the Rainbow Mountains in a designated national park, but also witnessed similarly vibrant mineral deposits in other landscapes. On the Tibetan Plateau the vast grassy plains meet immense rocky pinnacles where eagles soar against the bright blue sky.
We found it very challenging navigating the Chinese tourism industry, which has packaged up certain areas of outstanding natural beauty (many of the ones we visited were UNESCO World Heritage Sites) and rigidly controls how the public can interact with them. At several sites, the only way we could visit was to pay an extortionate entry fee which included coach transportation, be driven to a viewpoint where everyone piles off the bus to take photos, and then pile back on to go to the next viewpoint. Wherever possible we opted to walk around sites instead, but again this was carefully controlled with approved routes that we couldn’t stray from. Probably our favourite day out was when we walked up a gorge in Amdo Tibet, continuing far beyond the track laid out for tourists and just following the valley as far as we could. It seems that this is a very unusual way to appreciate nature in China.
Something else that made us very uncomfortable about visiting any tourist attractions was having to hand over our passports to buy tickets. Having your ID card scanned wherever you go is clearly a part of normal life for Chinese nationals, but we really disliked having this level of scrutiny of our activities.
Our time in China was incredible. We met some of the most generous people during our time there, and found most folk to be exceptionally friendly and helpful. However, we went with some trepidation, and had debated beforehand whether we should even visit China. We wanted to use this prolonged period away to visit some places which are challenging to get to, either physically or politically; places we wouldn’t visit if we only had a few weeks for example, places which take more effort to get to. China certainly ticked that box. But we also wanted to stay clear, in protest at the continuing treatment of China’s Uyghur Muslim population. As we write, China is continuing a process of ethnic cleansing, whereby people from this minority group are vanishing. China claims that they are being taken to ‘re-education centres’ to be educated to a more Chinese way of life, but they are not allowing international scrutiny of these centres. Moreover, prominent Muslim critics of the Chinese government have been disappearing, and the population is in crisis. Despite international outcry, the government seems to be able to do this with complete impunity, and members of that population (and others targeted for re-education) describe living in continuous fear, sleeping in their clothes in case they are taken in the night. Imagine living somewhere where you have to sleep in your clothes because you don’t know if someone will knock on your door at night and take you forcibly from your home, probably to put you to death, just for being who you are. And the international community is fully aware of that situation, and is turning a blind eye. It was really difficult for us to decide whether to visit China at all, but in the end we decided we would value seeing the country for ourselves, and interacting with the people who live there, to try to see what life is really like under the regime. Of course we only got a glimpse, and cannot truly understand it, but as an example our interaction with the young woman who’d never heard of climate change gave us an idea of how restricted information is. We stayed clear of discussing the government or anything truly contentious, as we know that for individuals it is too dangerous to have these conversations.
More personally in China transgender people don’t have a great time of it, and westerners have been arrested and detained for many years without charge. Jay was genuinely unsure of whether he would be detained on entering the country, as he was carrying enough testosterone to last the whole year trip, highlighting his trans status. When we landed we were uncertain about what might happen, especially as we both had the impression from the media that this could ultimately depend on political relations between China and the UK which at the time were not great. As it was the whole trip passed with no difficulties for us. But that sense of unease at being in a country where people can and do disappear, and being in a minority which is actively ‘discouraged’ in China, meant that it was not easy to relax. There was always a fear of attracting attention from the authorities, especially at border crossings where we were entirely at the mercy of immigration officials (which of course is how many people feel about entering and leaving the UK, so it’s purely privilege that means this is the first time we’ve felt this discomfort). It was with genuine relief that we landed in Japan, despite an incredible trip through Western and Southern China.
But despite this, and the difficulties we had with food, we were both glad and grateful to have visited China. It’s a complex country where in some areas the tactics of the government are eroding cultures and communities, while in others Chinese expansion is absolutely working for the benefit of those communities. In fact its clear that for the vast majority of the country the government works well and people are generally happy. It’s just that as people who belong to marginalised minorities, we are always interested in who it doesn’t work for, whose needs are not being met, and here that includes a lot of vulnerable or specific groups. What cannot be allowed to continue is the impact that China’s domestic policy is having on those in minority groups, and we would urge you to read more about the experience of local Muslim populations, write to your MPs and support organisations that are trying to help those affected. We felt unease in China, largely borne from unfamiliarity, but that is nothing compared to the utter terror that is a part of daily life for some in the country, watching people they love vanish in the darkness, never knowing what happened to them, or when it will be their turn.
China tourism impact links
Links concerning the Uighur muslim plight
1. If you care enough about Maeve’s technical fuck-up to have clicked this footnote, we eventually solved it by using our tablet to go to the VPN provider’s website and download the APK to an SD card, which we then transferred to the phone to install the VPN app directly. Then downloaded everything else with the VPN activated. Phew.↩