China is weird. On the surface China looks fairly normal, but after spending some time there you start noticing how weird and absurd it is. Toddlers, for example, have their trousers slitted in the back for easy defecating anytime and anywhere. Deodorant is virtually unknown and attempts to buy one were met with offers of an insect repellent. People in parks walk backwards while clapping their hands, purposedly for health benefits. Another example is traffic. At first sight it looks organised and neat and definitely less chaotic than in an average Asian country, but after a while you realise that under this veil of order and structure there is a total chaos. Traffic lights are just for reference, as well as road directions. There is no concept of yielding to pedestrians. Drivers rather speed up and overtake a pedestrian, only to stop a traffic jam some meters later. All these little absurdities add up, until it becomes too much to bear. After a week in China, I realised that no matter what I do, I will be poorly understood and people will stare at me anyway. Thus madness ensued. I explained strange things to strangers in Finnish, yelled random things in Russian and just acted weirdly all around. My girlfriend, on her part, turned into an angry bitch periodically getting China rages. Dark stuff.
China is difficult. English is generally not understood at all, even on a very basic level. No basic words, no numbers, not even “yes” or “no”. Just nothing. There is almost zero effort among Chinese to understand you either. After a few unsuccessful communication attempts, locals just give up on you. Having a basic command of Chinese is a must for travelling in China. There are so many domestic tourists in China that there is little effort to tailor tourist services to international clientele. At times I felt unwelcome and wondered what I was doing in China in the first place.
Travelling around China poses its own challenges too. Buses and especially trains are crowded and tickets are often sold out. Booking tickets at least several days in advance is usually a good idea. That goes even more true for the festival season, which seems to be on in some form during the entire spring. On top of that China is surprisingly expensive too. We spent more money in China than anywhere else. Flying out of China on a week notice and enjoying excellent food contributed a lot to the expenses, but apart from that everything else seemed to be more expensive than the last time I travelled to China three years ago.
The last time I visited China I mostly liked it. There were some misunderstandings and problems in communication, but no dramatic experiences. This time the China experience was an emotional roller coaster. At times we hated it all and wanted to just get out of the country as soon as possible. But at other times it was not all that bad and made all the hassle almost worth it. This made me think that you do not really experience China, until you begin to hate it. Sharing my experience with other travellers and expats confirmed my theory. On the last day of our stay in China we went to Sichuan opera. It was a fabulous, well-made show with dance, music, comedy and whatsoever, but it made little sense to us. Just like China – well executed, but made no sense to an outsider.
The world’s largest building in Chengdu.
Inside thew world’s largest building.
Men playing Chinese chess on a street of Chengdu.
A stereotypical Chinese man.
Panda breeding center, Chengdu.
Giant panda’s second favourite activity.
Panda’s most favourite activity.
People queuing for electric carts in Panda research center. Only in China.
Fake mine is apparently a big problem in China.
Puer tea cakes in a tea shop.
Phases of Mao Tse Dun on the streets of Cheng Du.
A woman washing vegetables near Qingcheng
Old town near Qingcheng.
A giant spider and its web, Qingcheng.
Ear cleaning is provided as a service in Sichuan opera.
A kettle with an overlong spout is used for refilling tea cps of patrons during opera.
Restaraunt clients collect hot pot sauce in a plastic bag after the meal. Because China.
There is an illegal logging site in the forest near Arshan. Everybody in the village knows who are responsible for cutting down the trees, but since appropriate parties are paid off, nothing is done about it. What is even worse, only the most valuable part of the tree is collected, with the rest left rotting in the forest. Locals do not dare to pick that wood, because as soon as you touch you will be charged with illegal logging for the whole business. Sigh. Another example, when tax agency inspect grocery stores, they tend to grab things like vodka, fish, bread, sausage and other ingredients making a perfect picnic party to do a “lab analysis”. Business as usual.
It seems like Russia is on the mission to reach the price level of Europe, while quality of service not making any progress. The smallest practical money unit is around 1-5 rubles, but the coinage goes all the way down to 1 kopeika (1/100th of a ruble). Most prices are not rounded making money transactions a complicated business and there is a constant shortage of chanfe. When you purchase something, they tend to ask you for change instead. Sometimes this results in a deadlock, when both parties do not have any change, the cashier is not prepared to make a small discount. You also see coins lying everywhere, especially in tourist spots (even as far as in Mongolia). Shows how useful all these coins really are.
One thing many Russians are not able to do is to take care of their trash. Everywhere you look you see heaps of garbage. When you travel by train, the entire area along the railway is covered with litter people throw out windows. Trash management in villages and small towns is not any better. People just throw out trash outside their property or sometimes even form a landfill in their own backyard or nearby road. National parks have not escaped this fate. Here again trash is everywhere: empty bottles, tin cans and even batteries. What is particularly sad that Russians take pride in their rich nature and holy land, but are unable to keep it clean at the same time. There are signs everywhere reminding to take care of your trash (sponsored by some company), but no trash cans. Go figure. It is almost shame that Russia has such a vast area, making it possible such a care-free policy. If Russia had one tenth of the area, maybe this ill practice would change. So sad.
When I thought Russia was confusing, I did not know what would wait me in Mongolia. Russia is an example of rationality and systematic thinking in comparison to Mongolia. To quote Lonely Planet Mongolia:
Cynics say that the six most widely heard phrases in Mongolia are medehgui (don’t know), baikhgui (don’t have), chadakhui, (can’t do) magadgui (maybe), margaash (to- morrow) and za, which roughly translates to, well, ‘za’. Za is a catch-all phrase, said at the conclusion of a statement, meaning something akin to ‘well …’, ‘so then …’ or ‘ok’, and is a fiendishly addictive word.
Nobody really knows anything here. Streets have no names. Banknotes are confusing and numerous, with Mongolia’s very own numbers on the front. There are days when Visa is not accepted in stores without any reason. They play gangsta hip-hop (♬let’s get high together♬) on the speakers in public buses. Bus schedules do not exist or are not correct (and nobody knows for sure). Traffic is chaotic, traffic lights are rare, green light for pedestrians is even rarer. And not that anybody would even respect that. Getting anything organized here on your own is an exercise in futility. When asking for information, you get either the usual “don’t know” or a different answer every time. This mentality does not apply only to tourists, but locals seem to get the same treatment. Travelling on your own inside the country is less and less appealing due all the logistical complications, so the best option seems be to book an all-included tour. More expensive, but this way you delegate dealing with all the details of local mentality to other people. On the other hand, all these issues are kind of balanced by the goodwill of local people. When all the hope seems to be lost, a local pops out of nowhere to help you. This is the Mongolian way.
At times Russia can be a very confusing place, even if you know Russian (as in my case). I was planning to go from Arshan to Slyudanka, spend a night there, see Baikal and continue to Ulan-Ude the next morning. The bus schedule confirmed a bus to Slyudanka at 8AM. That is as far as the theory goes. The practical experience went like this. I came to the bus stop at 7.40 only to find a bus to Ulan-Ude. The driver did not know about any Slydanka buses and the bus terminal was closed (even though it was supposed to open at 7.30). So assuming that the bus will eventually come, I stayed there waiting. Several minutes later a woman working for the bus company appeared out of the blue and told me that there were no morning buses to Slyudanka, but there was one later in the evening. As an alternative she suggested to go to the place called Karantin (carantine in English, a cheerful name for a village,) and get a mini-van connection from there to Slyudanka. Well, screw that, I’d better go straight to Ulan-Ude. So I bought the ticket to Ulan-Ude and hopped on the bus. The real kicker waited for me several hours later, when we passed through Slyudanka, actually made a stop there and some people got off. I do not know whether that was malice, ignorance or plain misunderstanding, but the whole situation was rather surreal. Does not compute.