We really felt that we had entered another land when we entered China. Although similar to S.E. Asia in some respects, it was also very different in others.
Spitting, smoking, and drinking tea seem to be the national sports in China. Certain stereotypes jumped out at us from our first moments in the country, starting with our first meal in the border town, where men smoked from enormous bongs, drank tea from tiny glasses, played cards, drank heavily, and talked even louder. There was an insane accumulation of bottles at the foot of the last table, and sometimes they rolled off the table, crashing loudly and rolling around on the floor filled with food and trash and napkins and spit. The people talked so loudly that I often thought that they were arguing, until I looked around to see them smiling! People spit bones and nutshells on the floor and on the tables. As the waiters walked past, they too, spit on the floor. Karaoke played on the TV screen. As one group of men got up from a table, they fought red-faced over the bill, each one in turn tearing it away from another.
People spit not only on the ground, but also inside of buses, in hotels, and even in their own homes. And China is one of the smokiest countries on the planet - the Chinese smoke one-third of all cigarettes smoked in the world! In some places in China, over 80% of the men above the age of 13 smoke. And when you see them smoke, it really is a sport. They carry their gigantic bongs with them on buses, into restaurants and homes, and into the fields to work. Otherwise, they chain-smoke normal cigarettes.
We have eaten well in China, where most of the food is good, and usually pretty flavorful. We’ve tried some pretty weird stuff, though - the strangest thing so far being dog. The first time, we didn’t know what we were eating until after the meal, when our hosts told us that the meat was dog and explained that it is an aphrodisiac. I don’t think it worked - I didn’t feel so well after the strong-tasting dog meat and the intestine-filled soup. We knew right away what we were eating the next couple of times; dog has a very particular flavor - one that I distinctly dislike. I sometimes prefer not knowing what I eat in China!
To order at a restaurant, we simply go into the kitchen and choose what we want from a variety of meats and vegetables sitting on trays; the Chinese themselves order in the same manner. Generally, a meat dish costs around $1, while a vegetable dish costs around $0.38. Every meal is served with hot tea or boiling water, and of course, every meal is eaten with only chopsticks – even the soups, the noodles, and the rice! Whew! It’s not always easy! I'm sometimes very proud of myself with the chopsticks, and at other times extremely discouraged. I take even longer to eat here – Stephane has the patience of a hero!!!
The markets in any country are an interesting experience, but sometimes especially so in China. In addition to a wide selection of meats and fruits and vegetables, there are herbs and bark and animals (such as dried lizards or seahorses) used for medicinal purposes. There are all sorts of poultry flapping their wings in cages, and next to these are flattened pigs’ faces that look like Halloween masks. Dead dogs lay frozen-like on tables, and next to these are lines of barking dogs on chains - waiting their turn for the butcher’s knife. The markets in China are sometimes a bit scary, if not nauseating.
As for the language, the pronunciation is certainly more difficult than in Thailand or in Laos. Thank God for our phrase book, because we can usually find someone that reads Mandarin. Sometimes, trying to make people understand us – even with the phrasebook - can take an eternity. It requires a lot of patience – and a lot of time! Even counting numbers is not so straightforward. After the number five, they no longer count to ten with single digits on their fingers, but make funny signs to represent the other numbers. Who can possibly guess?
At least the people are very friendly. We have had a good experience with the locals. We stayed with a couple of families in the mountains, and had a very warm welcome. Aside from some of the food, which can be very difficult to eat (dog, marinated eggs, eggs served with heaps of sugar, strange-tasting tofu), it was a great experience. In each case, we stayed in villages that had fewer than a half-dozen houses. The neighbors of our hosts were always curious, and smiled broadly as they brought over their water bongs and thermoses of tea. In one instance, we had to insist over 50 times that no, we couldn’t stay for a fourth meal or a fifth meal or for another two days! Our host didn’t want us to leave! He gave us all sorts of souveniers, including dogs’ teeth, prayer beads, an old coin from the Qing Dynasty, and an old Chinese manuscript. His neighbors all wanted to cook a meal for us, and the one that we did decide to stay for consisted of TEN different plates! There was so much food that there wasn’t even enough room on the table for our rice bowls! We’ve found the Chinese to be just as friendly in the big cities as in the countryside.
It’s not possible to talk about China without mentioning the public toilets (this is where the faint of heart among you should stop reading and skip to the next journal entry). By public toilets, I mean either those in the cities or those in the countryside that serve an entire village. There is always one side for men and one side for women, but that is where the good part ends. The nightmare starts once inside the building or open structure. I’ve traveled through a lot of countries by now, and considering that we always stay in the cheapest places available, I thought I’d seen some pretty bad things. I was wrong. You haven’t seen bad until you’ve been to China.
First of all, the toilets – if there is more than one – consist of either a line of holes in the ground or a trench over which you squat. Because there are no doors or even walls between the holes, you squat in a line either a couple of feet next to someone or just in front of or behind them. In short, there is absolutely no privacy. But that is far from being the worst part. Even worse is the often unbearable odor and the ungodly mess that is in the trench or on the floor or on the walls. Without going into detail, the women’s toilets are invariably worse than the men’s. Oftentimes, there are millions of white worms that live in the mess and crawl up the sides of the trench. On a few occasions, I really thought that I would vomit from the smell and the sight. Some of the toilets look as if they haven’t been cleaned in the entire 5000-year history of China!
In order to finish on a nice note, I have to say that Yunnan has some of the most breathtaking landscapes on earth. One of my all time favorite are the terraced rice paddies known to be some of the most impressive in the world.